Wednesday, December 16, 2020

What use is it?

‘Dubois nodded proudly. “Ja, Mama, that is the skull. That is Pithecanthropus Erectus.” His mother looked up at him and he saw how much she had aged in eight years. ‘J, Mama, this is it,” he repeated softly, gently. “But boy” - she sighed heavily, looking bewildered at his treasure - “what use is it?” ’ This is a revealing anecdote about Eugène Dubois, a Dutch paleoanthropologist who died 80 years ago today, sourced from the diaries of an assistant. Dubois is remembered today for discovering Java Man, which he claimed was an intermediate form between apes and man. In 2001, he was the subject of a biography by Pat Shipman who notes in her sources that the assistant recorded, in his diary, many conversations with Dubois ‘apparently verbatim’.

Dubois was born in 1858 and raised in Eijsden, at the very southern tip of The Netherlands, close to the Belgian border, where his father was an apothecary, and later the mayor. As a teenager, he attended school in Roermond, boarding with a family there, and went on to study medicine at the University of Amsterdam, graduating in 1884. He married Anna that same year, and they had three children that survived into adulthood. Appointed lecturer in anatomy at the same university in 1886, Dubois spent several years investigating the comparative anatomy of the larynx in vertebrates. But, influenced by Ernst Haeckel, he became increasingly interested in human evolution. 

In 1887, Dubois went to the East Indies as a military surgeon and, on the island of Sumatra, began to excavate caves in search of remains of early hominins. After several futile years, he moved to Java, where a hominid skull had been found. In 1890, his team found a human-like fossil at Koedoeng Broeboes. Dubois excavated the rest of what came to be known as Java Man. Before his return to the Netherlands in 1895, Dubois published his findings, describing them as neither ape nor human but an intermediate species - a position he would stick to through the rest of his life. On the way back, the ship was caught in a storm, he, his family and his fossils barely survived.

Dubois expected that his discovery would be feted in Europe, but instead he found that many scientists refused to accept his analysis. In 1897, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in botany and zoology from the University of Amsterdam, and in 1899 he was appointed professor. Thereafter, he ceased discussing Java Man and hid the fossils away. He spent the next 20 years researching, especially in the study of proportions of brain and body weight. He was also (1897-1928) keeper of paleontology, geology and mineralogy at Teylers Museum. In 1919, he became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. It was not until 1923, that Dubois again allowed scientists access to the fossils, which re-ignited the debates over Java Man, especially as his fossils were similar to other newly-found fossils which had been dubbed Peking Man. However, by this time Dubois had become set in his ways, stubborn; he lost his wife and friends. He is said (by Shipman, see below) to have died - on 16 December 1940 - ‘alone, bitter and misunderstood’. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Eugène Dubois Foundation, The TalkOrigins Archive, Strange Science, or The New World Encyclopedia.

More than half a century after his death, Dubois’ somewhat tarnished reputation was given a polish by Pat Shipman, an American professor of anthropology, in her biography: The Man Who Found the Missing Link - The extraordinary life of Eugène Dubois (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001). Some pages of an American version (Harvard University Press, 2002) can be read at Googlebooks, and a review can be read at Nature. Although Shipman credits - in the after notes - her sources as Dubois’ ‘pocket agendas (a sort of daily calendar), his journals, diaries and notes; and various drafts of brief autobiographies’, it is the diaries of an assistant - Bernsen - that she quotes most often. She says: ‘I relied as well on the diaries of J. J. A. Bernsen, OFM, Dubois’ assistant from 1930 to 1932, in which many conversations with Dubois are recorded apparently verbatim.’ Here are several extracts from Shipman’s book (i.e. her quoting Bernsen, in his diary, quoting Dubois).

13 February 1931
‘[Much later he articulated these feelings.] I always knew that if I could succeed in concentrating my thoughts well on a problem, then I will my true life. Then I am absorbed by the problem. To achieve great things, one must cast aside the unimportant and the sentimental, one must follow truth.’

March 1931
‘Dubois nodded proudly. “Ja, Mama, that is the skull. That is Pithecanthropus Erectus.” His mother looked up at him and he saw how much she had aged in eight years. ‘J, Mama, this is it,” he repeated softly, gently.

“But boy” - she sighed heavily, looking bewildered at his treasure - “what use is it?” ’

2 March 1932
‘I have not published enough. How little I have done about Pithecanthropus,’ [Dubois mourned miserably one day early in March 1931], [ . . ] I have too little ambition and was satisfied as soon as I knew it for myself. After finding the truth, my interest was gone. [. . .]

Only after 1923 did I start to work on Pithecanthropus in earnest and to publish the results, [Dubois continued morosely.] That will be of little account, that the discoverer says so little and so late about a famous find. And then Osborn was pressuring me through the Royal Academy that I should get the work finished and the publication done, so they will say I would never have done it without him and he will get the credit, not me. It has not been enough, what I have said about it. I should have written thick books, like the others who made famous discoveries. My work will be forgotten, overlooked.’

12 May 1932
‘You know, Bernsen, we must talk once more about our relationship. This is all your fault, from the beginning. There is something hostile in you toward me, I have always noticed it. You have repeatedly humiliated me, corrected me, pointed out every error, criticized and questioned my judgements. Even as a small boy I was always treated with special respect. But no, not you, Father, you cannot respect me. You must humiliate me and bring me down out of jealousy at my high position. In recent months I have gone through so much sorrow. It has aged me. I have even wished for the release of death to end this misery. Oh, not that I would commit suicide [. . .] for suicide is cowardly.’

[Bernsen could not contain himself, he was so indignant at being accused of torturing Dubois with his criticisms. ‘Is not the most important thing that the collection be correct? Have you not said this. Professor? Now I see that you are hard and that everything must give way to your interests. I personally mean nothing to you. although for two years I have done the tedious work for the collection, day in and day out. Now I see you differently and my sympathy for you has cooled.’ . . .]

‘Ja, Father, it is true. I am hard in that respect. I have always felt that everything must give way for the goal, everything must be arranged to serve the ends of science. So perhaps I have driven you too hard and given you only criticism, but it is for the collection, for science. I have driven myself as hard, sacrificed as much. Personally, I have always had compassion for you in this tedious work; I find you a good fellow, vou know. Father.’

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