An enthusiast's spark from out of Africa

January 26, 1996

Virginia Morell's book Ancestral Passions: The Leakey family and the quest for humankind's beginning was reviewed on December 29 by Thomas Sambrook. He suggests that Virginia Morell portrays Louis Leakey as having been "an overgrown schoolboy on the loose in Africa".

I would certainly not agree that that is how the book portrays him and it is more unfortunate that the caption writer for the photograph accompanying the review should choose that text. What is clear from Virginia Morell's book is Louis's sustained enthusiasm even in the face of setbacks, admitted mistakes of his own from time to time and criticisms of shortcomings of his scientific methodology. It is that enthusiasm which marks out inspiring teachers as well as leaders in many other spheres of life. Public perception does not expect scientists to be forthcoming let alone enthusiastic which may account to some extent for the gulf that is growing in understanding and sympathy between scientists and the general public.

Many years ago I received a medal from the Geologists Association on Louis's behalf and therefore had to make a short speech about a father whom I did not know well, as readers of the book will discover, but whose enthusiasm and abilities as a teacher I did. I said then, and it appeared to interest rather than shock the learned members present, that I rated my father more highly as an explorer than as a scientist but that without the driving force of explorers science can make much less progress than with it. The energy and persistence of the family's searches for evidence has been extraordinary.

That so many people are now so interested in so many aspects of human evolution, social, cultural, relationships to living primates etc. as well as to old dry bones owes quite a lot, I think, to my father's ability to fire other people with sparks from his own enthusiasm for his multiple interests. There can be no advancement of science if many hypotheses that are advanced are not proved to be wrong as well as a few right. A hypothesis is only that, and not mere speculation, if it is both rationally based and capable of refutation. Virginia Morell correctly points out that Louis did probably confuse guesses with hypotheses and that hungry media would be quick to present opinions as news. Sharing ideas is communication. It needs to happen all the time if science is not to be tucked away in a totally non-comprehensive secret world of esoterics.


Girton College, Cambridge

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