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 record.

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 their ancestry.

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 knowledge.

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 for years."

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.



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