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Evolution, Humanism, and Conservation: The Humanist Interview with Richard Leakey

Thanks to James Smithwick for the link

Richard Leakey is a world-renowned paleoanthropologist whose career has been marked by famous scientific finds, political office, and conservation efforts. His family is equally accomplished in the field of anthropology, starting with his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, as well as his wife, Meave, and their daughter, Louise. Richard originally made his mark in the late 1960s and ’70s with expeditions that discovered Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo erectus skulls as well as the discovery of Turkana Boy in 1984. In 1989 he left his duties as director of the National Museums of Kenya upon receiving an appointment from Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi to what would become the Kenya Wildlife Service. In his efforts to protect Kenyan’s national parks and wildlife, Leakey brought global attention to the plight of Africa’s elephants by helping President Moi burn twelve tons of ivory (worth $3 million) in Nairobi National Park. In 1993 a small plane Leakey was piloting crashed and both his legs were amputated, and to this day he walks on artificial limbs. After resigning from the KWS, he served as secretary general of the Kenyan opposition party Safina, and in December 1997, he was elected to the Kenyan parliament. Two years later Moi appointed him head of Kenya’s civil service where he was tasked with combating mismanagement and corruption within the government. Leakey now splits his time between Kenya and New York, where he is chair of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University.

In May, Leakey made headlines with a prediction that in ten to fifteen years the evolution debate will be over. He was in New York City to promote the Turkana Basin Institute and attended a benefit concert given by his friend Paul Simon. Leakey told reporters: “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.” This past fall, I spoke with Leakey about his various activities, and his philosophy regarding science and religion. Besides his academic and conservation work, Leakey is a humanist who has long supported rationalist associations and advocated for teaching evolution in public schools. Typical of Leakey’s reputation, he did not hold back on his opinions and gave insight into current social issues.

The Humanist: In your 1984 autobiography, One Life, you explore the influence your parents had developing your interest in learning and science. At one point you write: “The joy of searching for fossils in remote and difficult places is that there is always a strong possibility that each ‘find’ will tell you something new.” Why are these discoveries important to society?

Richard Leakey: I think increasingly we face a world where there is evidence for dramatic and consequential environmental change. Consequent to that are changes to survivability and the very existence of a number of species. If you look back at the prehistory and ancestry of humans and close relatives—the chimps, the apes, the monkeys—and you go back even to the history of elephants, rhinoceroses and antelopes, it is very clear that although evolution happens because of climate change, the great effect of climate change is in fact the number of species that become extinct.

By understanding the relationship between extinction and climate change in looking at ancient environments and recovering material from them, I think we can get a much better sense that this climate change isn’t merely of interest to the commercial side of oil development, or the government side of keeping the demonstrators off the street on green issues. It is really an issue of long-term strategic planning for how the world is going to feed itself through government and non-government agencies.

The Humanist: Why is it so important for people, not just scientists, to learn about evolution?

Leakey: What makes us different from every other living organism we’re aware of on this planet is that we have the capacity to think. We know that we exist. We know we didn’t exist at one stage. We know we won’t exist after a certain point in time. By understanding and getting answers to questions, I think we can be a much more unified and cohesive group.

While faiths do provide answers for some people, they are rather like fairytales. They are culturally influenced and have very little staying power. Although people would argue that Christianity has been around for a couple thousand years, and Islam and Buddhism for probably an equal amount of time, Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years. So it’s a microscopic amount of time that we’ve been affected by religion.

Two and two making four, or the issue of gravity keeping us on the planet and affecting the way trees grow and get sunlight—these scientific phenomena have been around forever. I think the principles or the processes that have led to us being what we are can be understood in the same terms. It’s not a matter of taste or faith. We should have a scientific explanation for why we are here, how we came about, what led to our ability to walk, to make things with our hands, and to develop technology. We should be able to explain scientifically what gives us our capacity to influence each other and our planet.

I believe that the human mind has always sought answers. Faith-based answers are simply no longer adequate for the majority of our species.

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