Tuesday, August 22, 2000

New Book Creates Furor Among Paleoanthropologists in the U.S. and South Africa

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education Tuesday, August 22, 2000

 

By LINDA VERGNANI

 

Cape Town, South Africa

 

Several leading international scientists are considering legal action following allegations made about them in a popular book, In the Footsteps of Eve, by an American paleoanthropologist, Lee R. Berger.

 

Last year a dispute between Mr. Berger and Ron Clarke, a colleague at the University of Witwatersrand, in South Africa, led the institution to split its paleoanthropology-research section into two separate units.

 

In the new book, written with the journalist Brett Hilton-Barber and published by the Adventure Press imprint of National

Geographic, Mr. Berger gives his version of the events that led to the division. His account has angered scholars in the United

States and South Africa who claim the book misrepresents them and is filled with scientific inaccuracies.

 

Mr. Berger, an able fund-raiser, has done controversial research on the limb bones of the ape-man Australopithecus

africanus. In the book he claims his findings support the theory that South Africa, not East Africa, was the cradle of early man.

 

He gives a dramatic account of his debates with leading paleoanthropologists, including Tim White, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley. He says Mr. White was nicknamed the Great White Shark "because of his aggressive intellect and inquisitor's mind". He says Mr. White and other scientists tried to force him to retract the title of a paper that described the Australopithecus africanus tibia as "chimpanzee-like" because that view challenged their past findings.

 

Mr. Berger also gives his version of the events that led to the split in paleoanthropology at Witwatersrand, one of South Africa's leading universities. Mr. Berger writes that Philip Tobias, one of his mentors and a professor emeritus with almost legendary status among South African paleoanthropologists, "engineered a coup" against him. Dr. Tobias, former head of the department of anatomy and human biology at Witwatersrand and founding director of the Paleoanthropology Research Unit, built up the bulk of the institution's collection of about 600 hominid specimens over 32 years.

 

Dr. Tobias commented: "The whole situation is extremely distressing." He said he had not yet seen the whole book but had read a copy of one chapter. He said he would digest the book and would "even take legal counsel on the matter" before commenting further.

 

Mr. White is also considering legal action. He said of the book: "This is tabloid paleoanthropology at its worst -- fictionalized, sensationalized accounts that don't belong in the science and, in fact, do a great disservice to paleoanthropology." He said it was "destructive to the field and I cannot imagine the university would not feel the same thing if it looked into it. "  He suggested that the University of Witwatersrand should hold a "high level international investigation" into Mr. Berger as a scientist, administrator, and researcher.

 

Mr. White said: "On the level of its scientific content, perhaps the easiest way to put it is if I received such comments on geology, paleontology and history from an undergraduate student writing a term paper, I would immediately fail the student."

 

"On the level of its characterization of interactions, it is full of false statements," Mr. White added. Among examples he cited was an allegation by Mr. Berger that Mr. White and his team had not yet published a paper on Australopithecus garhi fossils unearthed near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1997. Mr. White says a paper was published the following year. "It's a mischaracterization of my team's work, and in fact it can be quite harmful to the research effort we are involved in. So from that point of view I think there are serious legal issues with this book that I intend to pursue."

 

Mr. Clarke said Mr. Berger's book is "full of inaccuracies, He cannot get his facts right, he cannot spell people's names correctly. It's an atrocious piece of trash."

 

Colin Bundy, vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, said, "I know the field of paleoanthropology has been a hotly contested one, but if there are serious scientific deficiencies in the book, I'm absolutely sure the normal academic judgments and sanctions will follow in the form of critiques, review and debate." He said that should a special investigation for scientific inaccuracies become necessary, "so be it."

 

An upbeat Mr. Berger said in an interview that he was not worried by the threat of legal action and said he stood by everything he said in the book.