The Red Ape: Orangutans and Human Origins by Jeffrey H. Schwartz (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95)
Jeffrey H. Schwartz has written a complete look at contemporary paleoanthropology, and if that sounds like an inviting description, this book may be for you.
If, on the other hand, that description does not draw you in, go on to something else, for "The Red Ape" is only for readers who are very interested in the topic.
It's too bad, because the subject is both important and significant, and Schwartz makes a novel argument about which animal is man's closest relative. But his presentation and writing are dense, and, frankly, it was a struggle to finish the book.
Schwartz writes for other scientists, not for interested general readers, a perennial problem of scientists trying to describe their work. Here is a representative sample of his prose from this book:
"Since catarrhine primates do not develop functional vomeronasal organs--that is, organs within the nasal cavity close to the anterior palantine fenestrae that intermingle taste and smell--there is the question of what, if anything, takes the place of them. Old World monkeys and gibbons still develop the large anterior palantine fenestrae through which right-to-right and left-to-left nasopalantine and greater palantine nerves must course conjointly. Without a viable vomeronasal organ, it would seem that these sensory loops would be lacking in sensitivity. But if you brought the rights into proximity with the lefts, and then even allowed for the possible contact between the right and left nerve loops, there might be a novel sensory compensation."
Reading It a Chore
Much of the book is like that, which makes reading it a chore. Schwartz, a physical anthropologist at the American and Carnegie Museums of Natural History, would have done well to hook up with somebody who could have presented the material in a better way.
For he has much to tell about the difficulties of determining the course that evolution followed. It is not at all cut and dried, and there is much conflicting data in the way animals look and in their microbiological makeup.
Linking Orangs to Man
His central thesis is that the widely accepted view that man evolved from chimpanzees is wrong and that orangutans are the closest animals to us. He has been making this argument in scholarly journals and at scientific meetings for several years now, and "The Red Ape" is his effort to present the controversy to a wider audience.
I haven't the foggiest idea whether he's right, and I'm not even sure that I understand all of the details that he has amassed. What is interesting is the discovery that in paleontology--as in most areas of science--one doesn't get to ask too many questions before bumping up against the honest answer, "We don't know."
One of Schwartz's most successful themes is how difficult it is to trace evolution's path. As biologists try to classify animals together, it's not even clear what features they should be comparing. "There is not even general agreement among primate systematists about the taxonomic boundaries of the order Primates," Schwartz writes. "In fact, the question, 'What is a primate?' continues to be at the center of much controversy and sometimes downright nasty debate."
Elsewhere he says of evolution, "Given all the difficulties, is it any wonder that the paleontologists may never piece together the whole picture?"
But science exists in the tension between knowing that we cannot know everything and acting as if we can. Scientists gather data and attempt to put it together in an orderly way as if the world were completely knowable.
When there are conflicts between alternate explanations of the same facts, the appropriate questions to be asked are, "Which explanation includes more facts?" and "Which explanation links up better with everything else we know?"
As Schwartz sees it, his orangutan hypothesis satisfies both tests, though adherents of the chimpanzee hypothesis can no doubt make a strong counter-argument in support of their thesis.
A Messy Business
Even if Schwartz's book were better written, many general readers would have difficulty following all of the details of the debate. While some of the material requires no special training to understand, some of it is intrinsically hard. This makes the writer's job more difficult but does not absolve him of the requirement that the material be accessible.
But it is possible to follow the structure of the argument and to note that the structure remains the same from one discipline to another. Science can be a messy business full of wrong turns and blind alleys and tentative conclusions that turn out to be wrong. It is only after the fact--sometimes--that the pattern of nature becomes clear, and even then, it's not always all that clear.