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Philosophy 101 in a Chinese Fortune Cookie


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A review by Rachel Newcomb of Martin Meredith’s Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life appears in the July 14th Washington Post.  The review well presents the contentious nature of many paleoanthropologists who spend their lives digging for fossil treasures in the baked dusty soil of Africa and the book sounds like a nonfiction winner.  (One minor detail of the review is incorrect; Olduvai Gorge is in northern Tanzania, not Kenya.)  Having written The Leakeys: A Biography, I am anxious to read Born in Africa.  Carol Saucier, a friend of mine, has written an excellent companion book to The Leakeys titled The Lucy Man, about Donald Johanson, with whom the Leakeys sparred for many years.

In the introduction to The Leakeys, I referred to Roger Lewin’s book, Bones of Contention (University of Chicago, 1997).  Lewin included this truism: “We do not see things the way they are, We set them the way we are.”  He added that paleoanthropologist David Pilbeam first thought that quote came the Talmud but later discovered it was from a Chinese fortune cookie.  Lewin felt that “its source does not, however, diminish its force (p. 44).  So it is with fossils.  Each fossil is viewed through an individual person’s lens.  Speculation within the general public about human origins is very plentiful, to say the least!  And within the field of paleoanthropology how one views his or her fossil find lead to contention and competition.

If you’ve never thought of fossil-finding as equivalent to a combination circus/boxing event, I recommend you read more about the excitement of finding bones several million years old!  Then visit East Africa and look at where the gaps in our human history are being unearthed.  There will be a change in the view from your lens, I guarantee.

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1 comment to Philosophy 101 in a Chinese Fortune Cookie

  • marybk

    Wow! Thanks for the comment and good to hear from you! Hope you’re doing great. I will definitely post my own review.