New York Times,
The stories of scientists create new scientists. Alexander von Humboldt — the most famous naturalist of the early 19th century — chronicled his epic expeditions, between 1799 and 1804, in his “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.” When a nature-loving student at Cambridge named Charles Darwin read the book, it changed his life. He read passages aloud to his professors and learned Spanish so that he could follow in Humboldt’s footsteps. Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative,” Darwin later wrote, “stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.” At age 22, he embarked on his own voyage around the world, out of which he would develop his theory of evolution.
For a long time, such life-changing stories were mostly the stories of men. Biology has changed since the days of Humboldt and Darwin in that respect: today, the majority of Ph.D.’s awarded in biology in the United States go to women. Women regularly head out to sea or into jungles to make new discoveries. They return with their own stories, which can inspire girls and boys alike. And no women have more gripping stories than Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas and Jane Goodall, who in their respective ways profoundly changed our understanding of the great apes.
The lives of these three women were intertwined, thanks to the patronage they all gained from the Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. To understand the origin of our species, Leakey decided, fossils were not enough. He saw a need for long-term observations of living apes. And women, Leakey was convinced, would be better observers of their behavior than men. When the young Goodall sought out Leakey in 1957, he dispatched her to observe chimpanzees in Tanzania. In later years, Fossey went to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Rwanda to study mountain gorillas, and Galdikas established a camp in Borneo to study orangutans.
They created the first carefully observed pictures of their apes of choice. Goodall discovered that chimpanzees make tools and fight in warlike conflicts with one another. Fossey found that gorillas were a far cry from King Kong, living peacefully for the most part in stable groups. Galdikas explored the solitary lives of orangutans, which often wander through the Borneo canopy alone. All three primatologists became globally famous, and they used this fame to draw attention to the precarious state of their apes.
In “Primates,” Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks present the stories of Fossey, Goodall, and Galdikas in a graphic novel that draws heavily from the scientists’ lives and work. Ottaviani’s most popular book is “Feynman,” his splendid best-selling graphic novel about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. As a three-person biography, “Primates” is inevitably more complex. To help the reader navigate the jump-cuts, Ottaviani and Wicks use different fonts to narrate each woman’s story. Despite the inherent challenges, they succeed in conjuring the feel of extraordinary science. And they do so not by manufacturing fake emotion, but by sticking to the reality of being a scientist — the hard punishments of fieldwork, the strains on marriage, the cocktail-party diplomacy back home and, most important of all, the elation of discovery. Especially in its portrayal of this final element, “Primates” is the kind of book that can produce new scientists.
There are lots of things aspiring primatologists will need to know that they won’t find in “Primates,” however. Primatology is no longer descriptive natural history; it’s about testing hypotheses about ecology and behavior, aided by statistics, mathematical models, genetics and neuroscience. Gone is Leakey’s magic wand, replaced by dwindling research grants and jobs, which are fought over by a growing pool of underemployed Ph.D.’s.
And despite the efforts of Fossey, Galdikas and Goodall, apes are hurtling toward extinction in the wild. Their forests are being logged and converted to plantations. Gorillas are dying from Ebola. Chimpanzees are hunted for food or as illegal pets. To study apes today is not to discover them for the first time, but perhaps to say farewell.
Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company. Reproduced with permission.