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What to Read, View and Visit in July

The best in books, museums and film this month.

Jul 30, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:52 AM


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The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

A scientist climbs into a four-wheel drive and heads out into the East African desert. Arriving at a likely-looking spot he (or, less often, she) begins scouring the ground. It is really hot. His eye catches something smooth sticking out of the sand. It's a fossilized hominid bone! The researcher's picture appears in Time and National Geographic, alongside an artist's impression of the extinct relative. But many of his colleagues argue with his interpretation of the fossil, how much credit he deserves for finding it, and whether he had any right to be in that spot at all. Bitter arguments ensue, which are resolved to no one's satisfaction. A few years later, another scientist gets into a four-wheel drive. . . .

That's the story of paleoanthropology, at least according to Ann Gibbons's book The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (Doubleday, $26), a deliciously soap-operatic account of efforts to trace human ancestry through the study of fossils. It's a tale filled with exotic locations, flamboyant characters, and buckets of bad blood. These are driven people, doing arduous work in search of buried treasure; small wonder that things sometimes turn piratical.

Luckily, there are other ways to read our past. Each of us carries in our DNA a record of who we are and where we came from. As Nicholas Wade shows in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (Penguin Press, $24.95), measuring genetic differences between populations and species can illuminate quite a number of questions: when and where humans arose, when we evolved dark skin, when we left Africa and where we went, whether we interbred with the Neanderthals or killed them—even when we started wearing clothes and cutting our hair.

Although both of these books deal with human evolution, they have little else in common, beyond each author's ability to skillfully marshal huge quantities of information. Gibbons focuses on the people who hunt and find fossils like the 3.5-million-year-old australopithecine Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, and the hominid skull Toumaï, which was found in Chad in 2001 and dates from 6 million to 7 million years old—close to the time when our lineage split from that of chimpanzees.

Wade concentrates more on what scientists discover and less on their shenanigans. His evidence is mostly genetic and deals largely with the past 200,000 years, reconstructing the birth of the human race, Thomas Jefferson's sex life, and most of what happened in the interim. One standout chapter discusses how scientists might unravel the evolution of language—linguists turn out to be almost as disputatious as paleontologists—and another speculates on how natural selection might have shaped human biology in modern times.

A fusion of the two approaches would have been ideal. In The First Human, the fighting sometimes obscures the science, and Gibbons's prose, while page-turning, can be purple. Wade, on the other hand, tackles controversial subjects—arguing, for example, that studying the biological basis of race is both scientifically valid and medically useful—but says little on the politics of genetics.

But geneticists must understand outsiders' concerns, if only to make their own lives easier. For example, the Human Genome Diversity Project, which aimed to map the genetics of indigenous peoples, was sunk by accusations of racism. An open mind would also make for better science: Confronted with similar issues, Western paleontologists have learned the value of training people from the foreign countries in which they work. As a result, many of the key African fossils—including Toumaï—are now discovered by Africans. —John Whitfield

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them

Ever since people first saw birds, we have thirsted to fly. But gravity will always drag us down at 32 feet per second each second. In Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them (Harmony Books, $23.95), Michael Abrams chronicles mankind's many attempts to defy gravity's grasp—not in airplanes but with wingsuits, parachutes, and a not-insignificant dose of insanity.

As Abrams relates in this witty and well-researched book, the impulse to leap off a cliff or soar into the sky with homemade wings stitched together from feathers, leather, bones, canvas, or wood stretches far back into history. His saga begins with the mythological Icarus, whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun—and who, oddly enough, appears to have inspired many later and real experimenters. These may have included Leonardo da Vinci, who dreamed up several flying contraptions, including a square parachute and a glider that, when reconstructed in 2002, flew for 18 seconds.

The modern story starts with post–World War I barnstormers, among them Clem Sohn, who in the 1930s leaped out of airplanes across the United States wearing a batwing jumpsuit designed to emulate the aerodynamics of bats and flying squirrels. He and other skyflyers based their spectacular stunts on studies of the science of flight, although in Sohn's case it was technology that failed him: His career as a human bat ended in 1937 after a double chute malfunction in France. His exploits inspired a French protégé, Léo Valentin, who improved on Sohn's designs with a pair of wooden wings in which he could glide for miles. Sadly, he too fell to his death in 1956.

Abrams covers the escapades of many other colorful characters. Art Lussier, for example, "flew questionable goods to South America," while Walt Peca "smuggled diamonds out of Sierra Leone." Inevitably, though, the case histories become repetitive: Boy meets sky, develops obsession with flight, thrills many, often dies a horrible death. Pure human-powered flight—a standing start leading to significant height, maneuvering over distance, then a soft landing—may in fact prove impossible without mechanical aids or motorization. Researchers now know that such flight depends primarily on a flyer's arm power to body weight ratio. That power has limits.

Yet the urge to soar skyward persists. What makes people do this? Abrams spots a common thread: early loss of a parent. Trying to meet Mom in heaven? Let psychologists ponder. In the end, it is left to Leonardo to best express the passion to be airborne, in a comment that suggests that he did test his own flying machines: "Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return." Dean Christopher

Ice, Baby, Ice

In an encyclopedic work with surprises on every page, Mariana Gosnell captures all facets of frozen water in Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Alfred A. Knopf, $30). The iceberg that sank the Titanic was most likely formed of snow that fell on Greenland 1,000 years before Jesus. To raise the doomed ship, one wit proposed encasing the hulk in ice, causing it to float. To detect neutrinos, physicists plan to drill an "ice telescope" one cubic kilometer deep in Antarctica and fill it with 5,000 phototubes connected to the Internet. And the 76 Alaskan Inupiat terms for ice include nunagvaq, which refers to brown ice coated in walrus residue, and aluksraq, or "young ice punched by seals forming a seal blowhole." Illustrated with images of ice castles, skaters, and bubble-filled frozen sculpture, Gosnell's book breathes life into the crystals dubbed "glorious spangles" by Henry David Thoreau. Josie Glausiusz

Ramblings of a Dead Reptile

Timothy, a tortoise so famous that its shell is preserved in the Natural History Museum in London, was for 13 years the quiet companion of the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. In Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95), Verlyn Klinkenborg imagines how the pastoral world White immortalized in his classic 1789 work The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne might have looked to this venerable ambler (which, despite its name, was actually female). In slow, staccato tones—sounding at times as portentous as a postmodern French philosopher—Timothy gives a tortoise-eye view of the confines of his owner's garden. "Here I roam at large," he muses. "Salad myself on the grass-walks. . . . Sojourn among the melons and the cardoon trunks. The cabbage-cordons. Meditate in the onions. The carrot ranks. The asparagus forest." As one might expect from a tortoise, Timothy's unhurried observations offer an earthy vision of an ancient landscape and its myriad inhabitants: herons, nightingales, snails, hedgehogs, frogs, beetles, and "tottering, two-legged, stilt-gaited beasts." Sy Montgomery


The Freud Museum The compulsive collection of Dr. Freud reflects the innards of his mind.

As the father of psychoanalysis, surely Sigmund Freud was able to wean himself from his own neuroses. Not so: The explicator of the Oedipus complex was addicted to smoking cigars and was a compulsive collector of antique knickknacks.

A shrine to the latter fixation stands at the Freud Museum at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London, the home where Freud spent his final year after fleeing Vienna following the Nazi takeover in 1938. There in his study, along with his desk, chair, books, and famous rug-covered couch, are some 2,000 amulets, statuettes, seated Buddhas, headless torsos, jade ornaments, clay pots, and wooden mummy masks—crammed into glass cases and covering every available wall, table, and shelf.

This eclectic assortment remains just as it was upon Freud's death in September 1939, respectfully preserved in place by his daughter Anna, the only one of Freud's six children to practice psychoanalysis. A less reverent eye might dub them tchotchkes, the Yiddish expression for trinkets. But Freud being Freud, his assemblage of antiquities held far greater significance and inner meaning. As he said in 1910 to one of his patients, the so-called Wolf Man, "The psychoanalyst like the archaeologist in his excavations must uncover layer after layer of the patient's psyche before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures."

Freud's archaeological treasures likewise seem to reveal much that was buried in his own psyche. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but the hundreds of amulets in his collection—many of them phallic objects from Egypt, Rome, and Japan—reflect Freud's interest in magic and religion. He considered religion a "universal obsessional ritual" designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control unconscious impulses. His interest in Eros figures—he possessed several, including a 2,200-year-old 15-inch-tall winged statuette from Myrina, in Greece—underscores his fascination with the libido, the sexual driving force of animal life.

The import of other artifacts is less obvious: a stuffed porcupine that sits on Freud's desk, beside a solitary pair of round-framed glasses; a wooden Egyptian funerary boat, mounted fore and aft by bird heads and carrying a small wrapped mummy attended by three seated women; a row of stone knives laid upon a table; and a bearded goat head made of clay. Perhaps most poignant is a tiny, triangular Chanukah menorah. Although Freud never practiced Judaism, his religion, it forced him into exile.

Surrounded by these objects, in a dark curtained room suffused with the musty odor of old books, the visitor feels privy not only to the dwelling place but also to the brain of one of the 20th century's most influential thinkers. One hundred and fifty years after Freud's birth, his jumble of curios continue to evoke his ideas about the muddled workings of the mind: its stew of memories and phobias, the power of the unconscious, and its mishmash of rambling, half-forgotten dreams. —Josie Glausiusz


An Inconvenient Truth

Idlers on climate change, watch out! Al Gore is on the warpath

Two years ago, the online environmental magazine Grist ("Doom and gloom with a sense of humor") sponsored a haiku competition on the theme of global warming. The winning entry read:

A frog in water

Doesn't feel it boil in time.

Dude, we are that frog.

Sad-eyed and steaming, the frog now pops up in cartoon form in An Inconvenient Truth (Participant Productions), a chilling new documentary by Davis Guggenheim about the current climate crisis. In the film, the oblivious amphibian is rescued in the nick of time from a nearly frothing beaker by Al Gore (right), the film's impassioned narrator, as if to say, "See, there is a solution!"

Would that it were that easy. As Gore shows with a litany of statistics, maps, and charts—not to mention the film's stark images of drowning polar bears, crumbling ice caps, a Katrina-lashed New Orleans, and drunken trees sliding sideways on melting permafrost—global warming is really happening. It is caused unquestionably by human activity, and it is accelerating at a frightening rate.

The film's biggest surprise is Gore himself. Dramatic, well-informed, fervent, and funny, he presents a brilliant, lucid slide show on the perils of global warming. It forms the hub of the movie and demonstrates how the rise in average global temperatures over the past 50 years correlates directly with the rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas. If global temperatures rise by more than two degrees Celsius, there may be no more Greenland ice. The Netherlands would disappear beneath the rising sea, San Francisco and Manhattan would be inundated, and Bangladesh would drown.

Gore does offer solutions: drive fuel-efficient cars, use renewable energy, and fly less. While much of this movie may be old hat to savvy Discover readers, it is definitely worth watching by skeptics, many of whom occupy the positions of power that enable them to effect the most change. As Gore concludes, "Future generations may ask themselves: 'What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?'" —Josie Glausiusz

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