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How persistence paid off

The struggle, delusion and arrogance of the character who found Java Man.

The Man Who Found the Missing Link: Eugene Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right/The Extraordinary Life of Eugene Dubois

Simon & Schuster/Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2001. 514 pp. $28/£25
Object of derision: Dubois' drawing of the skull of his Pithecanthropus erectus. Credit: SPL

In her latest book, science writer and anthropologist Pat Shipman gives us a blow-by-blow account of the life of Eugène Dubois, the Dutch physician and anatomist who in 1892 discovered 'Java Man', Pithecanthropus erectus, now known as Homo erectus. Shipman's account of Dubois' story is fascinating; much of it is set in an exotic location, and it is important for the insights it gives into the development of anthropology and the study of human evolution.

Dubois' long life started in 1858, the year before the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and five years before the first formal recognition of an extinct human species, Homo neanderthalensis, by William King in 1863. Dubois died in December 1940, the year German troops occupied the Netherlands. He was still fighting his corner, protesting about the paper by Ralph von Koenigswald and Franz Weidenreich in Nature (144, 926–929; 1939), which suggested that Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus were two representatives of the same prehominid stage.

The story of why Dubois gave up a promising academic career at the University of Amsterdam, and dragged his family all the way to the Dutch East Indies in search of the so-called 'missing link' certainly has its own attraction. He had been inspired by Alfred Wallace's writings on Java's indigenous animals and plants and by Ernst Haeckel's theory — based on the belief that the Indonesian orang-utan was most closely related to humans — that humankind originated in Southeast Asia. After several fruitless years, Dubois found what he was looking for — the result of astonishing luck and sheer persistence. The years of struggle to get 'his' find acknowledged and recognized by other scientists is also an extraordinary story of struggle, bitter disappointment and delusion, combined with peculiar arrogance.

The ultimate pathos and tragedy of Dubois' story is painfully well portrayed by Shipman. By the time his find was accepted as a valid taxon, the world had moved on and Dubois' Java Man had been overshadowed by the newer and more spectacular finds of Sinanthropus, or 'Peking Man', now also regarded as Homo erectus. Nevertheless, as Shipman demonstrates, Dubois made significant contributions in other areas of anthropology, especially in his studies of cephalization — the evolution of the head and brain — and the morphometrics of brain and body size.

Shipman is at her most successful when quoting from Dubois' surviving letters and journals. There is, however, a certain amount of reconstructed dialogue and inner monologue of the following sort: “There, Dubois thinks as he pens the last lines, I have said it. I have stated my credo, my opinions, and it remains for the world to judge who is right. But it is I who will be remembered as the man who found the missing link.” I found this tedious at times, even if there is good evidence for its validity, but other readers may be more tolerant.

Father J. J. A. Bernsen, a Jesuit priest, was Dubois' assistant in 1930–32, and Shipman has used his diaries, in which “many conversations with Dubois are recorded apparently verbatim”. The hapless Father Bernsen spent two years cataloguing Dubois' collection of more than 10,400 mammal bones from the Trinil site where P. erectus had been found and hoped for some glimmer of recognition from Dubois. Bernsen even found eight more fragments of P. erectus bones that had been overlooked, but he got no thanks from Dubois. Quite the reverse — his find showed that one of Dubois' key points, that all the hominid bones at Trinil came from the same individual, was wrong. Dubois bullied Bernsen and plotted to get him removed. Poor Bernsen was taken ill and died of abdominal bleeding, unthanked and unacknowledged by Dubois, who constantly complained of how poorly others treated him.

Shipman ends Dubois' story thus: “he left behind many enemies ... his story became notorious, told and mistold many times until it reached mythic proportions. It is now time for the truth, and I have told it.” But although Shipman does set the record straight, and the often-prolonged traipsing through daffodil-filled fields of dialogue might well capture the spirit of the moment, can it be 'the truth'? If, however, she means the more problematic 'truth' about Dubois' unpleasant persona, then I agree. It must often have been difficult to write a biography whose hero turns out to have been quite a monster, however fascinating.

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Palmer, D. How persistence paid off. Nature 410, 869–870 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35073696

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