/ 14 June 2012

An ability to breathe life into the minutiae

At Wits to the end: Phillip Tobias was appointed as a lecturer in 1951 and remained active in research even after he retired in 1993.
At Wits to the end: Phillip Tobias was appointed as a lecturer in 1951 and remained active in research even after he retired in 1993.

In 2008, when Goran Strkalj and I edited more than 30 recorded interviews with Professor Phillip Tobias, we asked him one question at the start of each interview. This would elicit a stream of reminiscence, sometimes lasting as much as four hours, with a break for tea and biscuits.

At a time when Tobias was overseas, our publisher phoned to ask me for a working title and I suggested “Tobias Talks”. When Tobias returned, he phoned me.

“The title can’t be ‘Tobias Talks’,” he said. “You know what people will say. They’ll say ‘He talks and talks and talks’. They’ll say, ‘Does he ever stop?’” We laughed. And he changed the title.

He earned this reputation because of his public lectures, which inevitably went on for at least double the time allocated. People complained. But they attended in droves.

What was it that made him so charismatic? He undoubtedly had personal magnetism, which is impossible to analyse. And his enthusiasm and confident, clear exposition meant his audience understood him easily. But I think part of his magic was this: set like jewels between the main concepts of each talk were very detailed descriptions, minutiae that breathed life into the subject.

This is how he described the funeral of Sir Arthur Keith, the doyen of British anthropology, in the garden of Charles Darwin’s home in Kent. Black-hatted, black-coated men, the cream of British anthropology, shivered in the icy air.

“Their breath froze as it emerged and they stamped their feet to keep the circulation going on that bitterly cold winter afternoon. I didn’t see the full list of those present, not that I could see through the mist.”

During the interviews, he talked about many colleagues, past and present. Often he would get up from his chair to point out a photograph. The photographs in his office were so crammed together, they looked like wallpaper. When he talked about his late colleague and friend, the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, the supervisor of his PhD thesis, he wept. His memory was remarkable even in his 80s. Only the dates and the names of places sometimes eluded him and we had only two complaints about inaccuracies on his part. One was that Ron Clarke and Lee Berger never saw eye to eye when in fact they got along very well and collaborated on a paper about the Taung fossil. They fell out shortly before Clarke announced his discovery of the oldest and most complete skeleton of an australopithecine ever found in South Africa, the famous “Little Foot”.

I arrived in Johannesburg in 1965, a zoologist with some knowledge of animal evolution. But I knew nothing about human evolution, so I attended a course of public lectures by Tobias on the history of palaeoanthropology. He described Raymond Dart’s banishment to the scientific wilderness for identifying the Taung baby as a human ancestor in 1925 and Dart’s glorious vindication after Robert Broom’s discoveries of adult australopithecines.

Later he gave a course of public lectures on Darwinian history, which included the Huxley-Bishop Wilberforce evolutionary debate, replete with insults, fainting lady and noisy spectators chanting “mawnkey”. He ended his final lecture of the series with the stirring last lines of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. “Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

Fallacies about race
Tobias’s research exposed the fallacies about race on which apartheid was based. He said: “The so-called races of mankind are simply a variety of different sorts of surface anatomy”, and his anti-apartheid activities were premised on this conviction.

He explained how he introduced new ways of teaching anatomy, to add to the dissection of cadavers. One innovation was “living anatomy”. Students came to class once a week wearing bathing costumes and worked in pairs, palpating the body organs of a living person and feeling muscles contracting and relaxing. Teaching, effectively, was the chief focus of his life.

For the final two interviews in the book, on Sarah Baartman’s humiliating life and mutilated dead body and Biko’s dreadful last hours, Strkalj suggested the chapter heading: “On Human Dignity”. Tobias told us about his persistent efforts to have the remains of Baartman returned to this country for respectful burial among her own people, and about how he co-operated with colleagues to force the committee of the medical council to take action against the prison doctors who let Steve Biko die without medical intervention.

He was religious throughout his life, and should be an example to people who think evolution is Godless and immoral. Science and religion, he said, share at least one important attribute, a reverence for the truth, although the conception of the truth varies.

Tobias was twice invited to conferences on evolution at the Vatican, prior to the publication of the papal encyclical letters of 1950 and 1996, which made it possible for Catholics to accept evolution, including the evolution of the human body, provided they believe that God created their immortal souls.

He told us that, in 1955, he spent a year at Cambridge where icy winds sweep across the fens in winter. He asked a friend when the weather would change and she told him where to look for little mounds in the snow and said he must brush off the tops. He found a frozen snowdrop or a little golden aconite under each mound “bringing the spring with it”.
“It was a reawakening, it was a rebirth, it was a renaissance. The atmosphere turned, the spirit turned. It was very, very beautiful.” 

When Phillip Tobias talked, we were spellbound.