by Virginia Morell
No family has lorded it over an entire field of science the way the Leakeys have dominated the study of humanity’s earliest ancestors. From the mid-1930s, when a young, Cambridge-educated missionaries’ son named Louis Leakey made his first important fossil discovery, until the literal present (his daughter-in-law Meave announced a major find just last month), the Leakeys, more than anyone, have explained to us how we got here from the planet of the apes.
In some ways, though, the science is the least captivating part of the Leakey saga. As Virginia Morell’s irresistible family biography makes clear, the Leakeys are a cantankerous, egotistical clan. Louis himself was equal parts paleontologist, dilettante, tyrant and womanizer (he abandoned his first wife and two children for young archaeologist Mary Nicol and later fell in love with, among others, his proteges Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey).
He was passionate about science too, sometimes to great effect. His discovery of the early hominid Zinjanthropus was a milestone and instrumental in funding and organizing Goodall’s and Fossey’s primate research. He could also miss big, as when he tried for years to produce evidence of an early human presence in the Americas. In truth, Louis wasn’t much of a scientist, but his ability to find fossils was unrivaled. So was his power to determine which scientists were allowed to excavate in Kenya and neighboring countries—a power he wielded spitefully sometimes.
Louis’s influence was so great, in fact, that only another Leakey, his son Richard, could replace him. Morell describes the coups that brought about Richard’s ascent, along with details of the feuds—professional, personal, political and familial—that have become the rule in human paleontology. Science isn’t always pretty, but it sure can be entertaining. (Simon & Schuster, $30)