When it comes to the lives of famous people, the most compelling accounts are to be found in diaries and letters. While their interpretation of events may be misleading, they remain a veridical source of insight into what makes our famous person tick. Autobiographies are trickier since they are retrospective and the author is no longer the subject of his or her commentary. Biographies suffer not only from being retrospective but also from their second-hand experience of the events that are narrated. Compensation for these shortcomings can be found in impartiality and by the provision of context, and it is on these qualities that biographies should be judged.
Ancestral Passions is a chunky number, which it needs to be to do justice to the prodigious Leakey family, and sprawls across 90 years, beginning with Louis Leakey's arrival in Africa, still in utero. It certainly makes a good story and a biographer could hardly hope for more colourful characters. A cool, detached scientist, Louis Leakey was not. Ironically the son of a misssionary, his research into human origins was haphazard, idiosyncratic and often downright sloppy. In his defence, he ran all his operations on a shoestring (plundering his first wife's dowry for early expeditions) but Virginia Morell's portrayal of this venerated figure resembles an overgrown schoolboy on the loose in Africa, deciding what he is going to find before he finds it and forever in search of the paleoanthropologist's holy grail - the earliest direct ancestor of humans. This maverick slowly transforms into the Louis of later life, the patriarchal alpha-male, hurtling through the cycle of over-work, collapse, over-work, fall in love with young female protegee, overwork, collapse, etc. Contrast Mary Leakey, the misanthrope recluse enconced at Olduvai Gorge who actually did most of the hard science and made most of the finds that her husband toured the world with in his biscuit tin.
The chief problem with this book is that it is partly a sourcebook for scholars and partly a swashbuckling epic of origins and egos under the African sun, but does not quite do a proper job of being either. This should suit the publishers since, in sales, it is the size of your market, not the quality of your product that counts for everything, but I am left with reservations about the book's intrinsic value. It is comprehensively sourced but the author often steps beyond these sources in her interpretation. In particular, the rift between Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson is too juicy a story for Morell to resist, treating the reader to a comfortable good guy versus bad guy scenario. Although she claims that the Leakeys exercised no control over the writing of the book, she appears to have been quite intimate with the family, thus eroding our faith in her impartiality. Although he features prominently within it, Johanson, in contrast, did not wish to be interviewed for the book. The reader is thus left to consult Johanson's own autobiographies for the other side of the story.
Furthermore, the narrative does not sit easily with the aims of either a popular or academic work. I found the cheesy chapter headings and the tabloid fixation with ages and hair colours of minor female characters rather irritating. At the same time however, Morell feels bound to report on people and fossils of minor importance simply for the sake of biographical accuracy and once I had resigned myself to simply enjoying a good yarn these seemed a bit pointless. Often the most interesting material is found in the footnotes, which throws into question the value of the overtly narrative style of biography.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Ancestral Passions is to show how a discipline can be shaped by the personalities of a few people in it. Whether the inertia and conservatism of science is robust to the whims of its practitioners is a debatable question but palaeoanthropology suggests this need not be so. Louis Leakey was wrong remarkably often but on the occasions where he was right (for example in asserting that several hominids had coexisted in East Africa) it was often in the face of prevailing dogma and only through tenacity and/or pig-headedness was he proved right. In contrast, Raymond Dart, who had found an Australopithecine skull decades before Louis, would not fight for its recognition as a hominid when rebuffed by the academic community and kept it locked up in his home for years. Whether the Leakeys have been justified in their claims or not is unimportant so long as others have made contrary claims. Science is a dialectic and thrives on the clash of opposing theories and since it is in our natures to be able to hold only one opinion at a time, the best thing that Louis, Mary and Richard could have done was to argue their own particular view as vociferously as they could. Paleontological theory aside, however, what this book amply illustrates is the impact of the sheer size of the haul that the Leakeys brought in. Without Louis's original hunches paleoanthropology might still be looking for human ancestry in Asia and without the Leakeys' toil at Olduvai and Lake Turkana the fossil record would be massively impoverished.
Ancestral Passions is also eminently readable, probably thanks to its subject. Paleoanthropology is a desperately romantic dicipline (at least in the eyes of those who are not actually sieving the dirt): ripe for sensationalism since a single find can overturn all previous theories, and full of uncertainty since funding is conditional on finding. It is also largely carried out in Africa and this biography of three people is also (I think inadvertantly) an account of changes in countries along the Rift Valley. Richard Leakey's wrangles with Kenyan politics and administration at the book's ending seem very far from the wanderlust of Louis Leakey in its opening chapters: the countries in which the fossils are found, like accounts of the fossils themselves, have matured, become more complex, become more difficult.
Thomas Sambrook teaches anthropology at Durham University.
Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings
Author - Virginia Morell
ISBN - 0 684 80192 2
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £20.00
Pages - 638