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.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    You’d probably like the Darwin exhibition we saw recently at the Natural History Museum, we felt it was geared towards children quite a lot (I guess that’s your child with you). Though I remember taking my son there on his fourth birthday and it all being a bit much for him, his six year old brother loved it, in retrospect it was a lot to expect of a four year old, I seem to remember he ended up lying on the floor! We found the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum was much more to our taste, it was really fascinating and later I bought a fairy for the Christmas tree in Selfridges. I was amazed how much we managed to fit in.

    29 Nov 2008, 09:52

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Thanks Sue. We went to the London Natural History Museum recently, but it was just far too busy – almost impossible to get a proper view of the exhibits. One trick that we learned was to avoid the insanely long line of people shuffling along the raised walkway through the dinos. They are in fact just heading towards a rather disapointing animated T-Rex. It’s better to go straight in to the back of the dinos exhibition where you can get a proper look at things.

    Oxford University Museum of Natural History has fewer exhibits, but is actually a much better and more meaningful experience. Lawrence wanders around there on his own, and can visit once a month, so has built up a real knowledge of the exhibits.

    01 Dec 2008, 13:23

  3. Robert O'Toole

    There’s a good display of hominid skulls at the Oxford museum.

    01 Dec 2008, 13:24

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