Tobias: scientist extraordinaire

We note the latest of Philip Tobias’s achievements — marking his 80th birthday with the publishing of a new book, a memoir, eminently accessible to the layperson.

In the public mind in general and the youthful mind in particular, Philip Tobias proceeds ever further into the category of names that are famous for being famous. It would be a pity if he wound up packaged simply as a scientist who advanced mankind’s grasp of bones. He also had a staggering impact on how laypeople see the world and each other.

When Philip began his “love affair with chromosomes”, as he calls it, science and politics took it for granted that human races stood on different rungs of the ladder of evolution. He was in the forefront of those who lit and cupped the candle illuminating the opposite view.

These 20th-century dissidents did not face racks and cells like their intellectual forbears who claimed the world was round, but they did pay prices for their temerity. Conventional wisdom does not appreciate being upturned. Philip & Co needed courage and conviction to stick to what their consciences told them was true.

That’s over now. Humanity adjusts, often unknowingly, to the notion that races are brothers under the skin. We didn’t reach this point by chance. We were brought here by knowledge, created and propagated by the likes of Philip Tobias.

The planet has a distance to go, in its coming together. Contemplate how much wider that distance might have been, and thank the palaeoanthropologists who stuck to their guns.

Separately, at a time it can seem, especially at the movies, that English is diminishing to inflexions of a single all-purpose word, Prof Tobias’s heroic fight-back should not be overlooked. We might doff metaphorical hats to a rare remaining language maven who won’t let the sun go down on an unmastered word, and stoutly demands that the genitive of words like “Tobias” never short-changes that second “s”.