The Man Who Found The Missing Link:
Eugène Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right
By Pat Shipman
Simon & Schuster
514 pages, $28
When novelists who write historical fiction and biographers converse
with one another about their crafts, the novelists sometimes express
amazement at how compellingly a biography can read despite nothing
being made up. Biographers sometimes reply they are a bit envious
that novelists are allowed to invent events and dialogue and are
able to include informed speculation to fill gaps in the public
Now a few accomplished biographers are taking their envy one step
further than conversation, by actually including invented information
in their books. These are not the desperate techniques of an Edmund
Morris trying to salvage his Ronald Reagan biography or face repaying
a multimillion-dollar advance from the publisher. Rather, these
are the well-thought-out, unconventional techniques of authors who
think biography can be redefined without losing its audience.
The immediate controversy centers on a biography
of Eugène Dubois written by Pat
Shipman, a Pennsylvania State University adjunct anthropology professor
turned biographer. To set the stage for Shipman's controversial approach,
a bit about why she decided to write the biography is useful. Dubois,
a Dutch anthropologist who lived from 1858 to 1940, is not a household
name. But his discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus, now called
Homo erectus by anthropologists, altered what humans know about
Dubois' general lack of recognition among the world's populace
is precisely why Shipman decided to devote years of her life to
writing his biography. Unlike so many biographers, Shipman's goal
is to celebrate non-celebrities. A decade ago, Shipman quit her
life of field and laboratory research to write about scientific
discoveries for popular audiences.
Shipman also chose Dubois because of his controversial personal
life and argumentative science career. She believed both would resonate
with readers two generations after Dubois' death. Dubois' birth
came 18 months after the discovery, in Germany, of a Neanderthal
skeleton, and a year before Charles Darwin published The Origin
of Species. "The one was the first tangible proof of human evolution,"
Shipman says. "The other was the theory that would make the find
comprehensible by placing it in a context."
At age 10, Dubois read about a lecture by German biologist Karl
Vogt on evolutionary theory, to be presented near his Dutch hometown
in Limburg. A precocious child already deeply interested in scientific
discovery, Dubois read everything he could find about the lecture,
which his father would not allow him to attend in person. From that
day forward, Shipman believes, Dubois' life course was set.
That life course led Dubois to give up a stable academic job in
Amsterdam to join the Dutch East India Company as a surgeon so he
could dig for fossil evidence of the missing evolutionary link.
Sure that what is now Indonesia would yield such fossil evidence,
Dubois relocated his family to be near him while he fed his obsession.
The move pretty much destroyed Dubois' family life, personal friendships
and professional relationships. But he turned out to be correct
about finding fossil remains in the Dutch East Indies. Shipman compellingly
tells the saga of the seemingly hopeless search, explaining along
the way how the force of personality can be more important than
the stereotypical scientific objectivity when it comes to advancing
Much of the book's second half is devoted to Dubois' "ownership"
of the fossil remains, and how he descended into increasing isolation
when critics doubted the authenticity and significance of his field
work. "Tragically, Dubois' strong personality and irascible disposition
harmed his reputation," Shipman concludes. "Whatever Dubois did,
it was with such focused intensity that he drew criticism as a lightning
rod draws electricity. He challenged, argued, insisted, persevered;
he stretched the minds of his friends and enemies alike; he demanded
an ever-higher standard of thinking and performance. No one ever
forgot Dubois; no one who ever knew him was the same afterward.
Though inadvertently, this paranoid, brilliant and stubborn man
truly cast his own fate."
Shipman is a first-rate researcher, so she's entitled to draw conclusions.
Her pride in her accomplishment leads her to close the book like
this: "His story became notorious, told and mistold many times,
until it reached mythic proportions. It is time now for the truth,
and I have told it."
Well, maybe. There is a lot of argument within the craft of biography
about whether the "truth" of a life can ever be known. It is clear
from the opening page of Shipman's book that she is a practitioner
of psychobiography, that she believes she can get inside the mind
of a subject she has never met.
Her opening page includes a scene from 1937, in which Dubois, about
to turn 80, is opening a letter from a long-lost friend. Shipman
writes that when Dubois picks up the letter, "He is momentarily
confused by the two handwritings on the envelope. The hand that
wrote his name is crabbed and somehow familiar, but he cannot place
it immediately; the other, which wrote the address, is completely
unknown to him. When he opens that envelope and sees the tissue-thin
paper inside, something stirs in his memory. As soon as he reads
the salutation, he knows, as if he has been expecting this letter
How does Shipman know all that external and internal detail? She
never says. Although the book contains copious endnotes, they cover
only a tiny bit of how Shipman knows what she says she knows. Nowhere
in the book does Shipman devote space to a detailed, coherent explanation
of her biographical practice and theory. There is a clue in the
Author's Note. After explaining to readers that Dubois' daughter
Eugˇnie destroyed some of the evidence about his life, Shipman says
her endnotes "indicate where I have filled in intriguing omissions
resulting from Eugˇnie's actions." For most readers, the import
of that cryptic sentence is quite likely to be lost.
The explanations in the endnotes do not serve readers well, either.
On page 167, for instance, Shipman quotes from a note she tells
readers Dubois scribbled, then sent by messenger. In that note,
he admits to making a mistake about dating a skullcap. In the endnote,
on page 461, Shipman says, "There is no documentary evidence of
this letter whatsoever," then leaves her invention at that. I wonder
how many readers will even look at the endnote. Of those who do,
I wonder how many will feel as betrayed as I felt.