Bones of Contention:
Controversies in the Search for Human Origins

Roger Lewin

The University of Chicago Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Bones of Contention is an account of some of the chief controversies in palaeoanthropology this century. Lewin doesn't try to narrate the history of the discipline as a whole, but instead concentrates on a few key figures and notable events. Many sciences have their high profile personalities and public disputes, but palaeoanthropology has always had more than its share. Lewin begins by exploring why this is so, taking as his starting point a television debate between Richard Leakey and Don Johanson.

He then goes back to the great palaeoanthropologists of the 20s and 30s (people such as Henry Fairfield Osborn and Grafton Elliot Smith), following a study by Misia Landau which analyses their work on human origins as storytelling. Two chapters cover Raymond Dart and the rejection and then acceptance of Australapithecus (the Taung Child); they also cover the Piltdown Man forgery and debates over the relationship of the Neanderthals to modern man. There are two chapters on David Pilbeam and Elwyn Simons and the Ramapithecus affair, which also consider the initial reaction of palaeontologists to the intrusion into their domain of molecular geneticists such as Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson. And chapters describe Louis and Richard Leakey — their contributions to palaeoanthropology, their backgrounds as outsiders, and the connections between these.

There are two chapters on the controversy over the KBS Tuff dating and its eventual resolution: they form a case study in the influence of preconceptions and personal feelings (even with the involvement of so "hard" a science as geochronology). Returning to his starting point, Lewin devotes two chapters to the disputes between Johanson and the Leakeys over the naming and significance of Australapithecus afarensis (Lucy). Finally, this "second edition" (otherwise unchanged from the original 1987 work) contains a fifteen page afterword covering Mitochondrial Eve and the multiregional versus out-of-Africa debate.

Bones of Contention doesn't assume any prior knowledge of palaeoanthropology, but it is only incidentally an introduction to the subject. Lewin is concerned not so much with the scientific details as with the behind-the-scenes workings of the discipline, with its human side and its politics. But the stories he tells about palaeontologists are as exciting as those they tell about human evolution. For students of the history and philosophy of science Bones of Contention will be a practical accompaniment to more theoretical works. And anyone who still holds to a naive belief in the clear-cut objectivity of science and scientists will find it an eye-opener.

October 1997

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%T Bones of Contention
%S Controversies in the Search for Human Origins
%A Lewin, Roger
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1997 [1987]
%O paperback, 2nd edition, references, index
%G ISBN 0226476510
%P 366pp