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Primates shows us what it takes to make it as a scientist

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Whether you're looking for a graphic novel about the early breakthroughs in primate research, an account of the rigors of fieldwork, or just a scientific version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Louis Leakey as a slightly horny Willy Wonka, this is the book for you.

The book is called Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas. Except for Galdikas — who was new to me — these women are big enough names that there's no mistaking what the book is about. It's the how, not the what, that makes the difference. Primates shows how each of these women took an interest, turned it into a vocation, and built that into a scientific legacy.

The three lives the book examines are connected by two threads. The first is Louis Leakey. Leakey was both an accomplished scientist and a fantastic self-promoter. The second talent attracted both money and disciples — some of which benefited from the association more than others. Leakey announced openly that he thought women made better field researchers than men, as he believed they were more patient and more dedicated. The fact that he was attracted to women, not men, may also have played a part in his beliefs. His flirtation with Goodall and Fossey is alluded to in the book, although the women brush it off.


Which isn't to say that anyone succeeded in science by batting their eyes at Louis Leakey. It seems that Leakey was desperate for dedicated researchers, and threw whoever he could find at a problem until someone stuck. In Fossey's section of the book, he reveals that he tested 22 researchers before asking her. Galdikas' section shows him commiserating with a man who went to study orangutans and didn't even see them.


We see each of the women succeed where others failed through a mixture of interest, inventiveness, and the limitless toughness that comes from the fact that it never occurs to them to turn back. Goodall's willingness to sit and observe starts in childhood, when she sits in a chicken coop for hours waiting to see a hen lay an egg. In the wild, with chimpanzees, she's perfectly willing to do the same thing for days. In her downtime, she invents "dung swirling" — twirling chimpanzee dung through a sieve, gold-miner style, to see what they've been eating. Fossey catches Leakey's attention when she goes on a tour to see the gorillas, sprains her ankle spectacularly, and crawls her way into the mountains, commandeering the guides of a famous photographer when her own guides can't help her. Her willingness to go anywhere, and fight anyone, for gorillas is well-documented, both in this book and out of it. Galdikas becomes a 24-hour-a-day foster mother to an orphaned orangutan to prepare to release it back into the wild. When she slices deep into her own thigh with a machete, has to return to camp early, and spots an orangutan walking on the ground, she calls it a stroke of luck.


Fossey and Goodall know exactly what she's talking about. That's the second, and more enduring, thread that connects them. The stories all cover the same ground — making camp, finding ways to observe animals closely, dealing with poachers, trying to accrue academic credit, and the strangeness of human company after so much time spent with apes. As the three women, continents apart, become an exclusive scientific society, Leakey fades out of the picture. What's left is their common passion, their discoveries, and the everyday hassles that bind them together.


Saying a book is "all-ages" makes it sound like a ride on the teacups, but Primates is all-ages in the best sense of the word. Anyone will keep turning the pages. Jim Ottaviani covers the scientist's backstories and their discoveries simply, but without dumbing them down. Maris Wicks' art is expressive, pleasing, and wry. The book is handsomely put together from the dust jacket to the little doodle above the bar code. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

[Via Primates]