All entries for Saturday 29 November 2008

November 29, 2008

Into the Past – the memoirs of Phillip Tobias

5 out of 5 stars

The memoirs of Professor Phillip Tobias are inevitably fascinating. He has excelled in so many fields. Being a great palaeoanthropologist in itself required expertise in many convergent fields: anatomy, evolutionary biology, anthropology and more. Being a great palaeoanthropologist in apartheid South Africa demanded much more: working upon the science of human origins and speciation in Africa while remaining untainted by the National Party's demand for legitimising (corrupt) science. And at the same time, helping to establish a new discipline, an international network of researchers, a new way of thinking about humans and humanity. It all makes for a globally important record.

And yet there's much more to this story: a personal story of commitment to people, regardless of race and culture. As a senior member of Wits, Tobias resisted the evil creep of Apartheid. And once it had become institutionalised, he helped to find loopholes and excuses to keep Wits as open to all as possible -  and most importantly, to resist the use of science for the purpose of racist propaganda.

There's much more to this story that I can recount here: the history of Judaism in South Africa, the workings of a medical school, research projects and a University, discussions of pedagogy and the history of higher education. And there are many more interesting and important characters, including Raymond Dart, Louis and Mary Leakey.

But above all, it's an enjoyable read.

Primitive humans

Primitive Homo sapiens meeting Australopithecus africanus, Botswana National Museum, Gaborone.