Pat Shipman - The Man Who Found the Missing Link

Pat Shipman is a great writer. Eugene Dubois is a fascinating story. And while I thoroughly enjoyed and learned much from this book, there was one irritating factor that was seldom easy to ignore. If you plan on reading The Man Who Found the Missing Link you may want to skip the rest of this review and not look back to the "Notes" beginning on page 455. Suspend your disbelief and possible skepticism regarding the conversations that take place, and the book will likely be nothing but a joyous ride for you.

I was not able to do so. Before the book begins the author makes a note that Dubois' daughter "spent days burning" source documents related to her father. So I immediately wondered how Shipman came up with a 400+ page biography with that being the case. I soon realized the reader's omniscient view of things, including Dubois' thoughts and conversations, were largely made up by Shipman. Such a style makes things very readable and interesting but certainly isn't the most objective look at history. I prefer my biographies straight up (with holes left in place where there is no evidence). I wonder if the people being portrayed in this account would even recognize themselves at times. I'll provide one example and then lay this criticism to rest. On pages 24 and 25 the reader is provided with a full blow-by-blow account of a conversation that Eugene supposedly has with his sister when she decides to enter a convent. Included are numerous sentences and phrases in quotation marks as if being lifted from someone's personal journal or autobiography. The conversation is a big religion vs. science debate and is about how thinking for yourself rather than relying on obedience is the way to go. Eugene is distraught, or so we are told. However, if you look back to the "Notes" on page 456 you will find that the "impact of" his sister's "decision" to enter the convent "upon Dubois is unknown." In other words, the entire two page scene that was presented as fact in the body of the text was completely fabricated by Shipman! From that early point in the book on I was forced to take every dialogue and thought (far too many paragraphs (see pages 216-7 for examples) end with ", Dubois thinks." with no note of how we know this--indicating that it is really what Shipman thinks Dubois may have thought and not necessarily, or even usually, what "Dubois thinks.") of Dubois with a huge grain of salt.

My only other complaint is that the Epilogue could have done a little more to bring the reader up-to-date with regard to subsequent "missing links" found and the age of the rocks on Java (now that we have radiometric dating for use as a tool).

The above criticisms aside, this is a great book that I'm glad I read and highly recommend to others. The book gets better, and becomes more factual, as it goes along. The adventures in Java and India, the scientific battles, and the human side of things are all engaging and informative. Although it is more of a biography, than a science book on Homo erectus or paleoanthropology, it does have the latter elements too. In fact, one would be hard pressed not to be inspired to go out and read more on the latter subjects after reading The Man Who Found the Missing Link.

Eugene Dubois was an intriguing character. He was always afraid that others would take credit for his own ideas. He grew more dogmatic with age and came to believe in some rather strange theories of his own. His new theory, when he was an old man, regarding evolution jumps by a doubling of brain cells, reminded me of Kepler's thinking that there are some geometric reasons for the six planets being at the particular distances from the sun that they occupy. He came to doubt Darwin's gradual evolution paradigm (for the most part, it seemed to me, in order to lay claim to the only missing link even though other Homo erectus fossils were being discovered) while at the same time bringing forth the first real piece of fossil evidence supporting Darwin's theory with respect to human ancestry.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Dubois' story is that he set out with an unprecedented objective in mind and was able to achieve it. He picked the right place, and even though it took him years, and different places, on Java to find the missing link, there are many, many other places on earth, including on Java, that he could have chosen that would have turned up nothing. With enough money, and standing on the backs of others who have dug before, finding links in paleontology today isn't nearly as daunting a task (not that it's easy). For Dubois to have accomplished what he did, when he did, is simply amazing.

from the publisher:
Born eighteen months after the first Neanderthal skeleton was found and a year before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, Eugene Dubois vowed to discover a powerful truth in Darwin's deceptively simple ideas. There is a link, he declared, a link as yet unknown, between apes and Man.

It takes a brilliant writer to elucidate a brilliant mind, and Pat Shipman shines as never before. The Man Who Found the Missing Link is an irresistible tale of adventure, scientific daring, and a strange and enduring love--and it is true.

Pat Shipman is an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. She has won numerous awards and honors for her writing, including the 1997 Rhône-Poulenc Prize for The Wisdom of the Bones (coauthored with Alan Walker) and the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Science for Taking Wing, which was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and a New York Times notable book of the year (1998).

Shipman, a paleontologist herself, is among the best writers who manage to describe science to popular audiences without sacrificing the complexities of the issues that energize and sometimes divide scientists. --John Noble Wilford, New York Times Book Review

Pat Shipman's latest book gives us two wonderful, beautifully designed books for the price of one. Here you will find the story of the most important human fossil ever discovered, blended with a larger-than-life drama revolving around an unforgettable man. If you haven't already discovered the joys of reading Pat Shipman, do so now. --Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel