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Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins [Paperback]

Roger Lewin
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Aug 1997
Bones of Contention is a behind-the-scenes look at the search for human origins. Analyzing how the biases and preconceptions of paleoanthropologists shaped their work, Roger Lewin's detective stories about the discovery of Neanderthal Man, the Taung Child, Lucy, and other major fossils provide insight into this most subjective of scientific endeavors. The new afterword looks at ways in which paleoanthropology, while becoming more scientific in many ways, remains contentious. "[An] un-put-downable book". -John Gribbon, Times Educational Supplement "Not just another 'stones and bones' account of human evolution. It is Lewin's thesis, amply demonstrated, that paleoanthropology is the most subjective of sciences because it engages the emotions of virtually everyone; and since the evidence is scrappy, interpretation is everything. . . . A splendid, stirring, and eye-opening account, to be devoured". -Kirkus Reviews, starred review "[Lewin shows] 'how very unscientific the process of scientific inquiry can be'. . . . Bones of Contention is . . . serious intellectual history". -Edward Dolnick, Wall Street Journal "[Lewin] documents his thesis in persuasive detail. . . . The reader is carried along by the power of Mr. Lewin's reporting". -Robert Wright, New York Times Book Review


Product details

  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Aug 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226476510
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226476513
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 361,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An astounding scientific triumph 24 April 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Bones of Contention is one of the best books I have read pertaining to paleoanthropology. I cannot believe no one has reviewed this book yet, that no one is really interested in this topic; (they're probably all off reading Lucy, which is kinda outdated by now, and so is Origins by Richard Leakey). It is very revealing, clarifying the world of the search for our ancestors. Once you read this book, you'll never think paleoanthropology is a hard and inflexible science.
I have a human evolution site for beginners.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful ... and very very insightful 21 April 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Lewin does a masterful job of exploring the controversy surrounding the evolution of man ... a riveting, candid, delightful, revealing look behind the scenes ... a rare cameo of man's subjectivity in pursuit of objective science ... a page turner and mind opener from cover to cover. And then read it again!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Climbing the family tree 8 Feb 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Lewin has undertaken a formidable task in relating the issues, personalities and technologies involved in tracing the path of human evolution. Dealing with such giants in the field of paleoanthropology as Mary and Richard Leakey, Don Johanson and others would be daunting to anyone lacking the confidence in his abilities. His aptitude is clear to the reader as he walks a tightrope in presenting the complex topics involved in this story. Nearly all the persona are still with us, and it's to Lewin's credit that he manages to compose this story without blackening anyone's reputation.
Tracing the line of our ancestors is becoming an increasingly involved process. From skimpy fossil records, scattered over remote locations around the globe, researchers are striving to understand which line depicts the path of our evolution and which branches have split off to expire without further contribution. Once the evidence lay with bones, how they were formed, changed, and contributed to resulting modern humans. Lewin recounts that the fossil record is no longer enough, and advanced technologies can tease out answers from the most subtle clue.
Lewin's account of Misia Landau's study of paleoanthropologists as perpetrators of "hero myths" is a splendid beginning. Because the basic issue is: "how did we become the way we are", then all the stories on human evolution begin at the end - today's human. The "big names" in the field each addressed this question with vigour. Each interpreted the evidence with force, but not always based on what the evidence warranted. It surely follows that "contention" is an inevitable result. There simply weren't enough fossils to realistically trace the human lineage.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An astounding scientific triumph 24 April 1999
By makapan2000@geocities.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Bones of Contention is one of the best books I have read pertaining to paleoanthropology. I cannot believe no one has reviewed this book yet, that no one is really interested in this topic; (they're probably all off reading Lucy, which is kinda outdated by now, and so is Origins by Richard Leakey). It is very revealing, clarifying the world of the search for our ancestors. Once you read this book, you'll never think paleoanthropology is a hard and inflexible science.
I have a human evolution site for beginners
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tracing your ancestry 15 Mar 2001
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Lewin has undertaken a formidable task in relating the issues, personalities and technologies involved in tracing the path of human evolution. Dealing with such giants in the field of paleoanthropology as Mary and Richard Leakey, Don Johanson and others would be daunting to anyone lacking the confidence in his abilities. His aptitude is clear to the reader as he walks a tightrope in presenting the complex topics involved in this story. Nearly all the persona are still with us, and it's to Lewin's credit that he manages to compose this story without blackening anyone's reputation.
Tracing the line of our ancestors is becoming an increasingly involved process. From skimpy fossil records, scattered over remote locations around the globe, researchers are striving to understand which line depicts the path of our evolution and which branches have split off to expire without further contribution. Once the evidence lay with bones, how they were formed, changed, and contributed to resulting modern humans. Lewin recounts that the fossil record is no longer enough, and advanced technologies can tease out answers from the most subtle clue.
Lewin's account of Misia Landau's study of paleoanthropologists as perpetrators of "hero myths" is a splendid beginning. Because the basic issue is: "how did we become the way we are", then all the stories on human evolution begin at the end - today's human. The "big names" in the field each addressed this question with vigour. Each interpreted the evidence with force, but not always based on what the evidence warranted. It surely follows that "contention" is an inevitable result. There simply weren't enough fossils to realistically trace the human lineage.
Using Landau's ideas as a foundation, Lewin traces the history of thinking on human evolution through paleoanthropology's leading figures. From Raymond Dart's Taung Child through the Ramapithecus, Lewin depicts how many paths have been drawn of the human lineage by able workers. New evidence has forced constant revision. For years, the most notable revisionist was the Leakey family, Louis, Mary and Richard. The Leakey's finds kept urging the origins of humans into a remoter past. A very remote past. A past abruptly truncated by Don Johanson's find of Lucy, and by the introduction of new technologies.
Lewin takes us through the problems of dating fossils and tracing evolutionary paths with superior journalist's skill. Tracing elusive chemicals and microscopic tracks in rock crystals shouldn't make for heady reading. Lewin, following Landau, demonstrates how the science can be clouded by personalities and ambitions. The KBS Tuff chapters don't become mired in technology, but give the research a human, if not always pleasant, aspect. Lewin shows clearly how the controversies must be endured in order to present the clearest picture of how humanity evolved. This is a highly informative book, written from a fervent interest in the topic. You cannot help being drawn into the story.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I've read it twice now! 16 May 2000
By J. P. Rushton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is science journalism near to its best, picking up the important themes in a way that educates even professionals in related fields (I'm a psychologist who writes about human evolution). Unlike anthropologists themselves -- probably the most fractious of academics I've ever met -- Lewin at least gives the appearance of trying to be fair to all the different positions. Of course he is politically correct and probably talks too much about the social context and people's motives but the main elements in the intellectual debates do come across. The discovery of Dart's australopithecene and its aftermath (traced forward for decades) was my favorite. A second favorite was the dethroning of ramapithecus when it was found that homanids only went back 5 million years rather than 15 million. Lucy's discovery is always good press and so is mitochondrial Eve. Too bad Lewin won't be treating us to a third edition in the near future for the field surely needs a good updating. Then I'd just love it if he turned his talents to my own area of research, the IQ controversy. But I doubt he would ever do that for that is much too dangerous territory for a liberal who wants to remain honest....
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enlightening account 26 Sep 2006
By Barbara L. Lemaster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
What I found most interesting about Lewin's accounts of paleoanthropologists and their work is that many of them aren't as objective as they want the public to think they are. Scientists are only human and they are subject to the same range of emotions including anger, jealousy, hatred, as well as love and compassion as any layperson. Given this fact, it's obvious that science is not synonynous with absolute truth, but it does attempt to explain the world we live in.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BONES OF CONTENTION: CONTROVERSIES IN THE SEARCH FOR HUMAN ORIGINS 23 Feb 2011
By William P. Palmer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
BONES OF CONTENTION: CONTROVERSIES IN THE SEARCH FOR HUMAN ORIGINS
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN BOOKS, HARMONDSWORTH, UK.
DATE: 1987 (1989 IN PAPERBACK)
REVIEWED BY: BILL PALMER.

This review refers to an earlier edition of the book. I have seen this book reviewed favorably elsewhere (THES/2/3/90, p. 20)(ASTJ, 1991), but in case colleagues have not noticed these or other reviews I would like to bring this book to the attention of Northern Territory teachers. Briefly my view of the book is equally positive, and it should certainly have a place in secondary school libraries, but more than that it, should be read by those science teachers who want to develop for themselves a broad overview of science, its philosophy and its method.

The book is about palaeo-anthropology over the last 100 years or so, looking at the main controversies, and showing how new discoveries strengthened or weakened particular theories about human origins. We are introduced early on to the idea of Landau's that much of science theory is "story-telling" and this remains one of the themes throughout the book. The author points out that there always seems to be great passion about our own beginnings, mainly because it is about us, homo sapiens, and it is just not possible to be completely detached. Thus what might have been in other branches of science calm intellectual debate is transformed in palaeo-anthropology to fierce and bloody contests within the public arena, where the protagonists for the various viewpoints make strong "ad hominem" attacks on each other.

This is precisely where the book starts:-it begins right in the middle of an American TV debate hosted in an adversarial manner between two of the most successful public figures in palaeo-anthropology, Don Johanson, the discoverer of the Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia, and Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey, who had made discoveries of his own in the Lake Turkana region of Ethiopia.

Going back in time from this debate, though not necessarily in their historical order, the author weaves the discoveries of Neanderthal man (1856), the Piltdown Skull (1912), the Taung Child (1925), Rama's Ape (1932), the Kanjera Skulls (1934), Zinjanthropus (1959), Kenyapithecus (1961), Sivapithecus (1967), Skull 1470 (1972), the "First Family", Haldar (1975) and a number of other fossils into the story. However it is not really the names and dates of the fossils that make exciting reading; it is the personalities, interactions, and theories of the palaeo-anthropologists themselves that makes the book so fascinating.
I will chose to mention just two further points that have interested me. The first is the way in which the science of chemistry has now been accepted as having a useful role to play in palaeo-anthropology after many years of being considered irrelevant. It is interesting to note that although there were several cases cited where chemistry was of great use in palaeo-anthropology, Richard Leakey relied on chemical evidence to date his find of skull 1470 and this was later shown to have been inaccurate, causing a decade of largely futile argument.

Lastly I tend to collect little stories that illustrate the place of serendipity in science. To my mind this anecdote illustrating the discovery at Laetoli of hominid footprints 3.75 million years old is a winner!

" Andrew Hill, a British palaeo-anthropologist then based in Kenya and now at Yale University, discovered the first (non-hominid) prints on that day, when his eyes came to rest a few inches from the recently exposed ash layer. Although his propitious posture was the result of a rapid evasive maneuver designed to avoid impact by a large lump of elephant dung playfully hurled at him by biologist David Western, rather than an instance of close paleontological prospecting, it was nonetheless effective." (p 278)

Generally the style of writing is excellent with some pleasant dry humor hidden away in places, there are a few "typos" and the photographs, though only in black and white in this edition, do add considerable interest to this work. I thoroughly recommend this book.
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