The Man who Found the Missing Link


April 15, 2001

Eugene Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right

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Teaser: By Pat Shipman, Simon & Schuster, 2001, Hardcover, 514 pages, 64 photographs, maps, and diagrams, $24.00

Shipman's biography of Eugene Dubois is a welcome addition to the history of science. While his discovery of the Pithcanthropus erectus fossils in Java in 1891-93 is perhaps over documented, Eugene Dubois' later life is basically unknown. It is this almost fifty years of his life after the discovery that makes up the bulk of the book and that makes for a compelling personal and scientific biography.

It must be noted that Shipman's methodology is open to question. The author uses a technique in which she seems to be able to read the thoughts of her subjects. "Maybe it is true, he [Dubois] thinks guiltily," about his wife's accusations of ignoring his family. Or, "He [Dubois] realizes as if he had been struck with a rock that his best days, the days of his youth and courage and great discoveries, are over," after being chastised by his assistant, Antje Schreuder, for improper behavior toward a maid. But it is not only Dubois whose inner thoughts Shipman can read. During his falling out with Dubois, J. J. A. Bernsen, Dubois' assistant at the time, "thinks to himself, a little tartly, that Dubois has changed his mind about the photos [of Sinanthropus] more times than there are specimens."

Even more suspect, are what seem to be verbatim transcriptions of conversations between Dubois and his wife, friends, and fellow scientists. So on the occasion of his discovery of the Pithecanthropus erectus fossils, the following domestic scene with his Javanese houseboy and his wife, Anna:

"Oh, ja, ja," Dubois says with a nod, helping himself to tea and toast. The djongas has seen him come in and will bring his boiled egg and fruit shortly. "It is certain I shall spend today with you and the children. Tomorrow I will finalize my report. But I have it, Anna, I have found the missing link. Everyone will see now; everyone will understand I am not just a crazy man who ran off to the Indies in search of an idea."

The book is filled with what purports to be conversations, some of which are of the most intimate kind between he and Anna. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their insiders look at Watergate and its aftermath, The Final Days, assert "Nothing in this book has been reconstructed without accounts from at least two people." While Shipman meticulously cites the sources for all the letters, journals, diaries excerpted in her narrative, the sources for these internal thoughts and seemingly verbatim dialogues are, except in a few instances, not provided. It is not clear given her traditional scholarship when it comes to the former, how the reader is to understand the novelistic approach used for the latter.

On the other hand, whatever criticisms are lodged against her methodology, Shipman does bring her history to life. By comparison Robin Marantz Henig's succinct and quite excellent biography of Gregor Mendel, The Monk in the Garden (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Shipman's is a more compelling, sympathetic and in the end authentic portrait of her subject. Her account of Dubois' life after Pithecanthropus-his run in with the American Museum's Henry Fairfield Osborn (an irresistible force meets an immovable object); his futile search for an absolute ratio between brain and body size; his pioneering work on developmental and evolutionary biology; the discovery in 1932 of 8 additional femur fragments disproving Dubois' assertion that the original femur had come from the same individual as the skullcap; and his unrelenting defense against all comers of his contention that his fossil represented the true "missing link" up until three days before his death-is compelling history.

In case we need reminding, Shipman's history once again reveals that, like human evolution, science is not a straight line progression from ignorance to enlightenment.

For bibliophiles: Book designers Christopher Kuntze and Claire Van Vliet subtle use a slightly off-colored text paper, which gives the wide assortment of photographs a sepia look, and an elegant typography creates just the right touch for a history of this period. This is an example of how to do good book design without extravagance.


Peter Nevraumont

Peter N. Nevraumont is publisher of Nevraumont Publishing Company where he has produced books by many prominent scientists, including Donald Johanson, Niles Eldredge, Ian Tattersall, Lynn Margulis, and R. McNeill Alexander.

Prior to that he was a reporter for Women's Wear Daily (now W), an editor at Macmillan Publishing, Managing Editor of the Columbia University Forum, an assistant producer at Universal Pictures, National Director of Advertising and Promotion at Films Incorporated, and Vice President at Ruby Street.

Peter lives in the Wall Street area of New York with his wife, Ann Perrini.