Darwin's Hunch describes the often macabre and ultimately racist history behind the study of human origins, with a special emphasis on the work conducted in South Africa, which led to implementation of its apartheid policies. Inspired by her former mentor Stephen Jay Gould's critique of the racist social views that set back scientific thinking surrounding human origins, Christa Kuljian has written a captivating historical account of the influence of social and political constructs alluded to by Gould. Darwin's Hunch provides a well-documented look at the social and political context surrounding the preconceived racist attitudes and beliefs used to drive over 100 years of scientific research. Early researchers in anthropology and human biology, with a myopic view of the world based on religious and racist doctrine, posited that white humans were the pinnacle of evolutionary processes. This premise helped shape the policies and laws used to dehumanize non-white humans, particularly those of African descent. Kuljian's heartfelt, narrative writing style brings to life the lives of the human “specimens” who were systematically abused and taken advantage of, the personal lives of the major anthropologists of the time, and the societal upheavals that were occurring in South Africa. The interesting personal tidbits about the researchers provide insight behind their work and their society, while the often heart-wrenching descriptions of how they acquired their living and nonliving specimens creates an unexpected emotional investment in the story, which made it hard to put the book down.
The book is divided into three major sections, along with an introduction, an epilogue, and almost 50 pages of endnotes and references. The first section begins with a brief summary of the inception of natural history and anthropology, including the work of Linnaeus and Darwin and ending with an introduction to Raymond Dart's anthropological work in South Africa. A good portion of this chapter describes how Dart advocated the preservation of racial segregation, which he used as an unusual premise to promote the preservation of ancient tribes of Bushmen. Dart argued that just as Africa's great animals were being allocated to preserves because they were considered South Africa's greatest monument, so should the Bushmen be preserved. Interestingly, Kuljian juxtaposes the beginning of South Africa's policies, pushed by Dart's work, with the beginning of the racial and ethnic cleansing occurring in Nazi Germany that led to World War II.
The book's second section begins in 1959 with the retirement of Dart and the beginning of a new era in South Africa's anthropological research under the leadership of Phillip Tobias. The burgeoning field of genetics was combined with ecological and behavioral studies by researchers such as Herta de Villers and Ronald Singer, who did not let race typology theories influence data interpretation. New theories about human origins were solidifying to create a synthesis of evolutionary theory that began in the 1940s, which was described as “bridging the gap between genetics and paleontology” (p. 121). The acceptance of natural selection playing a role in human evolutionary processes was a revelation by Ernst Mayr, who pointed out that hominid fossils were all lumped into one genus, Homo. The field of physical anthropology became contentious during this period as physical anthropologists argued about the categorization of hominid fossils. This section, like the first, juxtaposes the implications of the scientific research with the tumultuous historical and societal ramifications of apartheid, which was in full force in the 1960s at the same time that the “Out of Africa” theory of human origins was gaining traction.
Finally, the third section of the book delves into the results of continued genetic research, including the discovery of mitochondrial DNA that took place during the 1980s and '90s. Genetic research, in combination with the continued anthropological work of the Leakeys and Donald Johanson, paved the way for the scientific agreement that humans originated in Africa, which was the premise for Darwin's hunch. Further, this chapter discusses the venomous objections of the public and religious officials when science was beginning to bring forth the understanding that all humans evolved from a female with black skin. It was finally recognized that all humans were the same species with the same origins; however, identity arises from a combination of culture, history, and politics. Historically, South Africa and the scientific community in general were now entering a postcolonial and post-apartheid period with an understanding that “Africa had been important in the effort to understand human evolution” in multiple ways (p. 255).
I thoroughly enjoyed Darwin's Hunch and, as I mentioned above, I had a hard time putting it down. It is a beautifully written book that describes a difficult and emotionally charged topic. It provides a clarity to historical events that I was familiar with but did not adequately understand. In addition, it provides insight into the interconnectedness of science, culture, and politics. Modern science strives to be impartial; however, historically, culture and politics have always been intertwined with and influenced by each other. In Darwin's Hunch, Kuljian makes a compelling argument that the production and spread of scientific knowledge is social process and that to understand the “truth” of today, we must examine and learn from the past.