Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of The Search for the Dawn Monkey: Unearthing the Origins of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans

by Chris Beard

(University of California Press, 368 pages, $27.50, January, 2005)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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For readers intrigued with human origins, the new book by Carnegie Museum of Natural History Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Chris Beard begins with great promise. Its title, The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey: Unearthing the Origins of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans suggests that it will be rich in stories of exotic and challenging paleontological expeditions.

Beard, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, is not only a brilliant scientist but also a skilled storyteller. In the opening chapter, he invites the readers to join his team on a dig in rural China, where their mission is to search for evidence of Eosimias ("dawn monkey"), the ancient primate that Beard claims is the common ancestor of monkeys, apes, and humans.

The chapter reaches a high point with a Chinese assistant's startling discovery of a nearly complete dawn monkey jaw. It closes with Beard's interpretation of that finding and a challenge to the accepted orthodoxy of the ancestry of humans and their evolutionary cousins, apes and monkeys.

Knowledge of most ancient vertebrates rests on findings of skeletal fragments from many individuals jumbled together in fossil beds. Interpreting the bones is both aided and complicated by additional evidence of other plants and animals that lived in the same environment, and by geological evidence that enables scientists to place the fossils in time. Combining all that, and accounting for continental drift and the shifting alignment and climate of the continents, allows for a host of competing interpretations of the evolutionary relationships of the species. It is no wonder that academic arguments are a fact, perhaps the essence, of a paleontologist's life.

When those arguments relate to human ancestries, both interest level and intensity of disagreement escalate. Scientific rivalries become personal, and argumentation turns into attack. Beard includes all of that drama in his book while noting that nothing can stoke an argument more than new evidence, such as his dawn monkey jaw.

Such evidence usually leads to scientific resolution, but only after intense controversy over its interpretation. In this case, the argument is currently raging, and Beard seems to be using this book to rally the public to his side.

Unfortunately, to an outsider, the contention seems to be over minutia. In order to explain his position, Beard leaves most of his audience behind. Even as they continue to appreciate his stories of rich history and wonderful characters, they drown in details of taxonomy, nuances of the shapes of teeth and bones, and more competing theories than they can track.

Perhaps that is an inevitable consequence of publishing with a university press. Or perhaps it is the result of publishing a popular synthesis of an evolving theory too soon. In any case, the book will probably not achieve the public impact Beard hopes for, and which his work--both scientific and as a writer--deserves.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children's science books, including To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science.