Phillip Tobias, who died on 7th June 2012 aged 86, was probably South Africa’s most honoured and decorated scientist. He was world renowned for his path-finding work in palaeoanthropology that combined studies of paleontology and physical anthropology.
At a time when ‘race’ has returned to post-apartheid South Africa both officially and in the way most of us continue seeing ourselves, it is appropriate, when paying tribute to him, to recall his contribution to the scientific demolition of race as a biologically meaningless concept in whose name the worst inhumanities have been – and continue to be – committed around the world. With commendable courage and integrity, he dared challenge the corner-stone of Grand Apartheid and he first did so in a public lecture as early as 1961. His words well merit repeating in the 18th year of our supposed liberation from ‘race’.
“In a society in which the question of race has come to loom as largely as it does in South Africa, there is, I believe, a positive duty on a scientist who has made a special study of race to make known the facts and the most highly confirmed hypotheses about race, whenever a suitable opportunity presents itself. I should be failing, therefore, in my academic duty, if I were to hold my peace and say nothing about race, simply because the scientific truth about race runs counter to some or all of the assumptions underlying or influencing the race policies of this country. In no field is the need of guidance from qualified scientists more imperative than in this very subject of race”.
Tobias spent most of his illustrious life demystifying the origins of our species.
He once described retirement as death, which is why he continued working until shortly before his death. He also once described all his thousands of students as his children.
The life of Tobias is well summed up by another quote of his:
“Never lose your sense of wonderment,’ I have repeatedly said [to my students]. On the other side of the coin, how sad I have felt, and how sympathetic, when I have been confronted, happily not often, with a student who is blasé, uninterested, beset with a closed mind. Such people are a challenge to the teacher and to the idealist, and when both are combined, as in myself, when the mentor is brimming with an overwhelming sense of wonder, it is doubly challenging. … The retention of my personal sense of wonderment and of enthusiasm has, I feel sure, played a big part throughout my life.”
Our education system is in desperate need of a person like Phillip Tobias. Whether or not we were fortunately enough to have been taught by Professor Tobias, we have all lost a father.