Well, this was a fun read for sure, no doubt about it. A book filled with big emotions, big opinions, and many technical details and facts.
In Fossil Men by Kermit Pattison, we hear the story of Tim White, a professor of Paleoanthropology, and his work in the field over the last five decades.
A massive personality in the field, and arbiter of strict science and technical absoluteness. Most known for his work on the skeleton known as Ardi, an Ardipithecus ramidus that he named, he is a very controversial figure. And for many reasons. This book delves into not only the science behind Ardi, as so she is nicknamed, as well as the very powerfully compelling and controversial behaviors and personalities of those involved in the field.
From a different perspective than we usually get (that of the scientist), we get the view of Mr. Pattison, a friend, and colleague of Dr. White.
To understand the place this book has, we must understand some of the dynamics in Paleoanthropology.
Traditionally, when a scientist makes a discovery, based on the country of origins laws, they are allowed exclusive access to the specimen, such as when Tim White and his team discovered Ardi in the Middle Awash in Ethiopia.
However, lately with recent discoveries, Open Access (which we fully support) is occurring where data and the fossils are being shared so scientists from all over the world can work on them, vs. a small team.
The book goes over how Prof. White and his team explored this amazing skeleton, the challenges they had to go through, both from within the team and from the fossils themselves, to the pressures from the outside world to publish and to share what they had.
Who is to say which model is right? For so long we have done one thing, but perhaps it is time for a change.
In this book, bitter rivalries are highlighted, such as the one between renowned Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who was the head of the Sediba, Naledi, and 105 site teams, and Tim, as well as many other conflicts between Tim and Don Johansson, the Leakey Clan, and pretty much everyone else.
It seems the book is always trying to defend Tim White from his behavior. Tim burns bridges, he does not build them and this book makes that abundantly clear while at the same time trying to make him appear like the sociable one.
Tim White is an amazing scientist, and no one would doubt that he has strong opinions, some of which have good backing while others are more of his own forced opinions on the field.
As a senior in the field, he is looked up to, revered, but also loathed, and sometimes even hated by his colleagues and students.
While his contributions and the work he has done on Ardi, Lucy, and the First Family, Laetoli, and so much more cannot be doubted, it is, in the opinion of this student and anthropologist, that this book does nothing but highlight the fact that Tim White and the anthropologist that are on his side of the aisle represent and old, and dying version of anthropology. One that cannot work in this world, and one that stops the spread and speed of science.
We cannot hoard our discoveries, free and open science is the best way to do our science and answer the questions we have come to ask.
To this day most anthropologists, even seniors in the field have not seen Ardi, and probably never will. This is wrong and is not how science should be done. But this is the current state of affairs.
Some call this “cut-throat anthropology” and maybe it is, there are a lot of big personalities working together and against each other here, but either way and wherever you find yourself on the isle, this books is a great look into Tim White’s world, and a look at Ardi like you probably will not get anywhere else.
I highly recommend this book, and suggest you add it to your reading list!