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on April 24, 1999
Bones of Contention is one of the best books I have read pertaining to paleoanthropology. I cannot believe no one has reviewed this book yet, that no one is really interested in this topic; (they're probably all off reading Lucy, which is kinda outdated by now, and so is Origins by Richard Leakey). It is very revealing, clarifying the world of the search for our ancestors. Once you read this book, you'll never think paleoanthropology is a hard and inflexible science.
I have a human evolution site for beginners
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Lewin has undertaken a formidable task in relating the issues, personalities and technologies involved in tracing the path of human evolution. Dealing with such giants in the field of paleoanthropology as Mary and Richard Leakey, Don Johanson and others would be daunting to anyone lacking the confidence in his abilities. His aptitude is clear to the reader as he walks a tightrope in presenting the complex topics involved in this story. Nearly all the persona are still with us, and it's to Lewin's credit that he manages to compose this story without blackening anyone's reputation.
Tracing the line of our ancestors is becoming an increasingly involved process. From skimpy fossil records, scattered over remote locations around the globe, researchers are striving to understand which line depicts the path of our evolution and which branches have split off to expire without further contribution. Once the evidence lay with bones, how they were formed, changed, and contributed to resulting modern humans. Lewin recounts that the fossil record is no longer enough, and advanced technologies can tease out answers from the most subtle clue.
Lewin's account of Misia Landau's study of paleoanthropologists as perpetrators of "hero myths" is a splendid beginning. Because the basic issue is: "how did we become the way we are", then all the stories on human evolution begin at the end - today's human. The "big names" in the field each addressed this question with vigour. Each interpreted the evidence with force, but not always based on what the evidence warranted. It surely follows that "contention" is an inevitable result. There simply weren't enough fossils to realistically trace the human lineage.
Using Landau's ideas as a foundation, Lewin traces the history of thinking on human evolution through paleoanthropology's leading figures. From Raymond Dart's Taung Child through the Ramapithecus, Lewin depicts how many paths have been drawn of the human lineage by able workers. New evidence has forced constant revision. For years, the most notable revisionist was the Leakey family, Louis, Mary and Richard. The Leakey's finds kept urging the origins of humans into a remoter past. A very remote past. A past abruptly truncated by Don Johanson's find of Lucy, and by the introduction of new technologies.
Lewin takes us through the problems of dating fossils and tracing evolutionary paths with superior journalist's skill. Tracing elusive chemicals and microscopic tracks in rock crystals shouldn't make for heady reading. Lewin, following Landau, demonstrates how the science can be clouded by personalities and ambitions. The KBS Tuff chapters don't become mired in technology, but give the research a human, if not always pleasant, aspect. Lewin shows clearly how the controversies must be endured in order to present the clearest picture of how humanity evolved. This is a highly informative book, written from a fervent interest in the topic. You cannot help being drawn into the story.
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on December 26, 2014
Roger Lewin, in "Bones of Contention", has earned for himself the title “Whistleblower of Paleoanthropology.” He gives us an insiders’ view and paints a picture of a “science” given over to wholly subjective interpretations of the evidence, and prima donna egos run amok. Lewin’s book focuses mainly upon the conflict of opinions between the Leakeys and Donald Johanson (the Leakeys asserting a very ancient origin for the genus Homo and Johanson a more recent one). I am personally more interested in the science but it is a very valuable lesson Lewin teaches about the role of subjective interpretation in science. Lewin sums up the world of paleoanthropology on pg. 19 by noting: “The anonymous aphorism ‘I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it’ is a continuing truth in science.” In other words, scientists see what they WANT to see. The actual raw data, unfortunately, cuts an enormously wide path for personalities given over to subjectivism to play around with. Lewin notes on page 23 that there are “a limited number of fossil sites to work, and a still pitifully small inventory of fossils to analyze,” and on page 194 (regarding the famous skull 1470): “At a conference in Nairobi held in September 1973 they presented 41 separate age determinations on the KBS Tuff [where the skull was found] , WHICH VARIED BETWEEN 223 MILLION AND 0.91 MILLION” years of age. What Lewin does NOT tell his readers is that such variation of radiometric dating results are the RULE across ALL of the scientific disciplines which use radiometric dating. The protagonists pick the dates they like and discard the rest of the dates that don’t conform to their pet theories, in this case 40 total other dating results discarded (!) based upon wholly subjective considerations. The trade secret of modern “science” is that radiometric dating is entirely useless and based on layer upon layer of assumptions.
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on May 16, 2000
This is science journalism near to its best, picking up the important themes in a way that educates even professionals in related fields (I'm a psychologist who writes about human evolution). Unlike anthropologists themselves -- probably the most fractious of academics I've ever met -- Lewin at least gives the appearance of trying to be fair to all the different positions. Of course he is politically correct and probably talks too much about the social context and people's motives but the main elements in the intellectual debates do come across. The discovery of Dart's australopithecene and its aftermath (traced forward for decades) was my favorite. A second favorite was the dethroning of ramapithecus when it was found that homanids only went back 5 million years rather than 15 million. Lucy's discovery is always good press and so is mitochondrial Eve. Too bad Lewin won't be treating us to a third edition in the near future for the field surely needs a good updating. Then I'd just love it if he turned his talents to my own area of research, the IQ controversy. But I doubt he would ever do that for that is much too dangerous territory for a liberal who wants to remain honest....
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on February 23, 2011
DATE: 1987 (1989 IN PAPERBACK)

This review refers to an earlier edition of the book. I have seen this book reviewed favorably elsewhere (THES/2/3/90, p. 20)(ASTJ, 1991), but in case colleagues have not noticed these or other reviews I would like to bring this book to the attention of Northern Territory teachers. Briefly my view of the book is equally positive, and it should certainly have a place in secondary school libraries, but more than that it, should be read by those science teachers who want to develop for themselves a broad overview of science, its philosophy and its method.

The book is about palaeo-anthropology over the last 100 years or so, looking at the main controversies, and showing how new discoveries strengthened or weakened particular theories about human origins. We are introduced early on to the idea of Landau's that much of science theory is "story-telling" and this remains one of the themes throughout the book. The author points out that there always seems to be great passion about our own beginnings, mainly because it is about us, homo sapiens, and it is just not possible to be completely detached. Thus what might have been in other branches of science calm intellectual debate is transformed in palaeo-anthropology to fierce and bloody contests within the public arena, where the protagonists for the various viewpoints make strong "ad hominem" attacks on each other.

This is precisely where the book starts:-it begins right in the middle of an American TV debate hosted in an adversarial manner between two of the most successful public figures in palaeo-anthropology, Don Johanson, the discoverer of the Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia, and Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey, who had made discoveries of his own in the Lake Turkana region of Ethiopia.

Going back in time from this debate, though not necessarily in their historical order, the author weaves the discoveries of Neanderthal man (1856), the Piltdown Skull (1912), the Taung Child (1925), Rama's Ape (1932), the Kanjera Skulls (1934), Zinjanthropus (1959), Kenyapithecus (1961), Sivapithecus (1967), Skull 1470 (1972), the "First Family", Haldar (1975) and a number of other fossils into the story. However it is not really the names and dates of the fossils that make exciting reading; it is the personalities, interactions, and theories of the palaeo-anthropologists themselves that makes the book so fascinating.
I will chose to mention just two further points that have interested me. The first is the way in which the science of chemistry has now been accepted as having a useful role to play in palaeo-anthropology after many years of being considered irrelevant. It is interesting to note that although there were several cases cited where chemistry was of great use in palaeo-anthropology, Richard Leakey relied on chemical evidence to date his find of skull 1470 and this was later shown to have been inaccurate, causing a decade of largely futile argument.

Lastly I tend to collect little stories that illustrate the place of serendipity in science. To my mind this anecdote illustrating the discovery at Laetoli of hominid footprints 3.75 million years old is a winner!

" Andrew Hill, a British palaeo-anthropologist then based in Kenya and now at Yale University, discovered the first (non-hominid) prints on that day, when his eyes came to rest a few inches from the recently exposed ash layer. Although his propitious posture was the result of a rapid evasive maneuver designed to avoid impact by a large lump of elephant dung playfully hurled at him by biologist David Western, rather than an instance of close paleontological prospecting, it was nonetheless effective." (p 278)

Generally the style of writing is excellent with some pleasant dry humor hidden away in places, there are a few "typos" and the photographs, though only in black and white in this edition, do add considerable interest to this work. I thoroughly recommend this book.
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Roger Lewin (born 1944) is a British science writer, who wrote for "Science" magazine for ten years as News Editor; he has written other books such as Principles of Human Evolution, and also co-wrote with Richard Leakey Origins,People of the Lake, and Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human.

He wrote in the first chapter of this 1987 book, "There are four simple themes in the paleoanthropological debates---themes that sometimes are dominant in scientific discourse, sometimes fading into the background, depending on the flow of the moment; They are the Who? Where? When? and Why? questions, just like the classic opening paragraph to a newspaper story. Who was our ancestor? Where did it first arise? When did we break away from the rest of the animal world? And, Why did it happen? " (Pg. 28)

He notes that Sir Solly Zuckerman ] "believes that apes and humans diverged way back in the Oligocene, some 25 million years and more ago, a view he developed early in his career and clings to still. It is therefore difficult to see what could persuade him to accept as hominid anything that was anatomically primitive and yet lived only a couple of million years ago. To be admitted into the human family, a creature as recent in time as 2 million years must surely be much more humanlike and much less apelike than Australlpituecus obviously was, for in Zuckerman's estimate it would have been separated from the apes for at least 20 million years." (Pg. 82)

He explains problems with the proposed "molecular clock" for human evolution devised by Vincent Sarich and others: "There is in fact no obvious reason why the accumulation of mutations in protein molecules should always be regular through time, no reason why the molecular clock should tick metronomically. Biologists have long observed that evolution is a rather irregular process, with modification of form and function occurring in an unpredictable manner, depending on changes in the environment, for instance. There is nothing uniform or inexorable about natural selection." (Pg. 112)

He details the various controversies between Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson; for instance: "Relations between Leakey and Johanson had deteriorated so much by this time that Johanson's suspicions were stirred by this contact. 'From what I understand from certain sources, Richard has been undermining our efforts in Ethiopia,' Johanson said recently. 'I don't have any documents to show you, copies of letters or anything, but that is what I understand.' There is indeed no evidence that Leakey acted with the Ethiopians in any way other than as a fellow Third World administrator experienced in antiquities policy." (Pg. 172)

He points out, "In suggesting the name Australopithecus afarensis to Mary Leakey, Johanson and [Tim] White knew they might face some resistance. The reason was that... Mary has long been opposed to the idea that Australopithecus might be ancestral to the human line... [She] freely admits limitations when it comes to assessing hominid fossils: 'I'm no anatomist. I've just got a hunch.' So the rationale for the anti-Australopithecus position is not well articulated, but it is nonetheless deeply felt." (Pg. 282)

He notes that Tim White told Mary Leakey about the nomenclature proposed for "Lucy": "There are three choices... You can call it 'Homo,' in which case you are putting a creature that is more primitive than any other hominid in the same genus as ourselves. You can name a new genus, but then you would have to explain why all these other things are so similar and yet are in a different genus. Or you can call it Australopithecus as we suggest, and retain a thread of logic in it. Those are the rules of nomenclature.'... Very simply, Australopithecus was the closest model." (Pg. 287)

Focusing on the personalities involved at least as much as the scientific data, this engagingly-written book will fascinate everyone interested in human evolution.
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on September 25, 2006
What I found most interesting about Lewin's accounts of paleoanthropologists and their work is that many of them aren't as objective as they want the public to think they are. Scientists are only human and they are subject to the same range of emotions including anger, jealousy, hatred, as well as love and compassion as any layperson. Given this fact, it's obvious that science is not synonynous with absolute truth, but it does attempt to explain the world we live in.
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on April 28, 1999
Lewin does a masterful job of exploring the controversy surrounding the evolution of man ... a riveting, candid, delightful, revealing look behind the scenes ... a rare cameo of man's subjectivity in pursuit of objective science ... a page turner and mind opener from cover to cover. And then read it again!
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on April 21, 1999
Lewin does a masterful job of exploring the controversy surrounding the evolution of man ... a riveting, candid, delightful, revealing look behind the scenes ... a rare cameo of man's subjectivity in pursuit of objective science ... a page turner and mind opener from cover to cover. And then read it again!
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on October 29, 2000
A big disappointment! Roger Lewin essentially provides a book report of the most significant controversies in paleoanthropological history with very little original insight. The result is a tedious review (especially the 78 pages discussing the KBS Tuft Controversy) of the seamy side of paleoanthropology. The recurrent theme is that of entrenched preconceptions - both professional and personnal - so dominating the actions of the foremost paleoanthropologists that they ignore the preponderence of evidence in favor of their own agendas. The book is replete with examples of the petty jealosies and egoism of the foremost names in paleoanthropology triumphing over a dedication for the search for the truth. With this book, Mr Lewin escapes the threat of becoming embroilled in the jealosies and controversies of other benchmark works as he provides nothing original to attack.
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