Books: The Feral Sons

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

Books: The Feral Sons
By Miles Harvey

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (Villard, $23). In the January 1993 issue of Outside, in an article that was nominated for a National Magazine Award, contributing editor Krakauer reported on the bizarre life and death of Chris McCandless, an eccentric young idealist who starved to death while attempting the "ultimate adventure" of living off the land in the Alaskan bush. Some readers wrote in, voicing the opinion that McCandless was a modern-day son of Thoreau who was willing to die for his convictions; others charged that he was insane, villainously arrogant, or just plain suicidal.

In this mesmerizing book-length exploration of McCandless's journey, Krakauer wisely avoids trying to find the one "real" reason that drove the 24-year-old to give away more than $24,000 in savings, cut all ties with his family, and drift across America before walking into the wilderness north of Mount McKinley in a pair of Kmart boots. Instead, Krakauer takes off on a complex journey of his own, deeper and deeper into the shadowy wilds of his subject's mind, spotting glimmers of his own younger self in the man who called himself Alex Supertramp. Among the last words Chris McCandless wrote in his journal were "happiness is only real when shared." Thanks to Krakauer's passionate portrait, that deathbed epiphany, however hauntingly it came to be, was not an entirely futile one.

Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, by Virginia Morell (Simon & Schuster, $30), and The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (Doubleday, $24.95). Everything about the Leakeys seems epic, from their monumental impact on our understanding of human origins to their legendary feuds with rival scientists and one another. It's only fitting, then, that Morell's fine biography of the Leakey clan is also epic and epically well written. Nearly 600 pages long, Ancestral Passions is both a great scientific detective story and a Faulknerian family drama, abounding with illicit romances, painful betrayals, dark secrets, and enduring love. Morell offers memorable portraits of the central characters: Louis, the brilliant and ambitious archaeologist, gun-runner, spy, and philanderer, who despite his own scientific gaffes was able to prove that Africa was the birthplace of the human species; his wife, Mary, the reclusive, meticulous, and sometimes cutthroat scientist who discovered Zinjanthropus man in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge; and their contentious and driven sons, Philip, a dilettante of sorts, and the more famous Richard, who made his first important fossil discovery at age six and, though he never went to college, became one of the leading paleoanthropologists of the last three decades.

As Morrell's engrossing account makes clear, the family's success was due in no small part to what rival researchers called the "Leakeys' luck." And a keen awareness of their own good if haphazard fortune is perhaps one reason the Leakeys were ahead of other scientists in understanding the importance of randomness in evolution. As Richard Leakey explains in his persuasive and highly readable The Sixth Extinction, "Luck, not superiority, plays a cogent role in determining which organisms survive, especially through times of mass extinction. We therefore have to accept that humans are in the company of the lucky survivors of cataclysmic convulsions in Earth history, not the manifestations of ancient superiority."

But our luck may be about to go cold--very cold. In convincing detail, Leakey and coauthor Lewin show that there have been five great extinctions in the history of life. Now, they argue, another mass extinction is underway. Our species "might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims." We can only hope that this is one Leakey prediction that will not prove prophetic.

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