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“A literary dance with science” – the Mail & Guardian reviews Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch

The announcement of the Homo naledi hominid fossils by Professor Lee Berger in September 2015 at Maropeng outside Johannesburg dominated the news and headlines for months internationally. The public reaction to the find indicated a fascination in the search for human origins, and that the concept of race and human evolution are linked in many people’s minds.

Christa Kuljian traces the history of South African palaeoanthropology and genetics research in order to make sense of science and race in the quest to understand human origins. Over time, the nature of the search has shifted and changed. What are we looking for after all?

Darwin’s hunch in 1871 was that humans evolved in Africa, but very few European scientists agreed. Raymond Dart wrote in Nature in February 1925 that the Taung Child Skull supported Darwin’s theory. Dart believed he had found the “missing link” between apes and humans. Again, few scientists agreed.

Over the past century, the search for human origins has been shaped by the changing social and political context. Reflecting colonial thinking, Raymond Dart followed the practice in the US and Europe of collecting human remains and characterising human skeletons into racial types. He thought that there was a Bushman racial type that might provide a clue to human evolution. In 1936, he led a Wits University expedition to the Kalahari to study this imaginary racial type. One of the people he met and measured was a young woman named /Keri-/Keri. She died two years later. Her body was embalmed and taken to Wits University where her skeleton became part of the Raymond Dart Skeleton Collection. The book uncovers the sad story of what happened to her remains. In addition to /Keri-/Keri, Kuljian introduces us to a range of people who were in the shadows of the well-known scientists.

The book shows how Prime Minister Jan Smuts supported the search for human origins in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, how the concept of human evolution was opposed by the apartheid government, and how the post-1994 South African government and President Thabo Mbeki, with encouragement from Phillip Tobias, celebrated the fact that Africa is the Cradle of Humankind. Yet the search continues. In 1987, the publication of ‘Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution’ suggested that all living humans could trace their ancestry back to Africa 200,000 years ago. Many scientists and the general public in the West were slow to accept such a claim. Genetic research continues today, based not on fossils or skeletons, but on DNA samples. Kuljian examines current thinking and approaches to the ongoing search and explains why for much of the past century so many scientists were reluctant to accept Darwin’s Hunch.

Nigel Willis, a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal, recently reviewed Kuljian’s Alan Paton Award 2017 shortlisted book for the Mail & Guardian:

Charles Darwin speculated that the origins of modern human beings may be traced to Africa. It took more than a century of hard research, exploration and scientific endeavour for his hunch to be vindicated.

Written in a gripping account that reads like a detective novel, Christa Kuljian provides a history of this validation of Darwin’s “hunch”. Kuljian is a writing fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. She took her first degree in the history of science at Harvard University, where prominent among her tutors was the world-renowned paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

In addition to a master’s degree at Princeton, she has another from the University of the Witwatersrand in creative writing. Her superb academic training illuminates this book.

Kuljian deals insightfully with the interrelationship between politics and science, especially the science of paleontology. Politics and its kindred spirit, ideology, influenced not only the prevailing assumptions about human origins but also the ability of paleontologists to raise funds to enable them to undertake their research. Political support may result in direct grants from government, but also heightens general consciousness, facilitating generous donations from private foundations and other institutions.

Kuljian draws parallels and distinctions between Jan Smuts, statesman, all round academic and pre-apartheid prime minister, and post-apartheid president Thabo Mbeki. The intellectual curiosity of both was stimulated by the prospect that the origins of modern human beings may have begun in South Africa. Both thought that research in this regard would help to “put South Africa on the map”. Mbeki thought that it would give black South Africans a sense of self-pride. To this idea Smuts was impervious.

Under apartheid, the Nationalist government was indifferent, if not hostile, to the idea that “the cradle of humankind” may lie in South Africa. It was afraid of the effect science may have on the ideology of “difference” between and, correspondingly, the inherent “separateness” of races.

Apartheid prime minister and also an academic, Hendrik Verwoerd was afraid that science may implode his theory that, as the first white person came ashore at the Cape, the first black person crossed the Limpopo. In Verwoerdian ideology, South Africa, apart from a few politically irrelevant San and Khoi-Khoi, was a wilderness, awaiting possession by white people. Thus reasoned, there had been no colonial displacement of blacks.

Continue reading Judge Willis’s review here.
 

Darwin's Hunch

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