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If you like Donald Johanson's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donald Johanson in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Institute of Human Origins

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Donald Johanson
Donald Johanson
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Donald Johanson Interview (page: 7 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

Did the doubts of your colleagues cause you to have doubts about yourself. Was there ever a time when you wondered, "Have I gotten way off the track here? Am I barking up the wrong tree?"

Donald Johanson: My test to that question came before I announced her. Scientists are very afraid of being proven wrong. Some people who have held onto a particular view, whatever it is, and have had to change that on the basis of new evidence, have been reluctant to do so, because they feel very vulnerable. How could I be proven wrong? When we first made these discoveries in Ethiopia, I interpreted the collection of hundreds of fossil specimens as representing two different kinds of human ancestors: a larger form of human ancestor, which led more to modern humans; and the Australopithecus line, that was a side branch.

I suggested in the first paper I published that there were at least two different kinds of hominids at this site. And I very soon thereafter began an extensive period of research with my colleague Tim White. And I remember the nights of argument in the laboratory in Cleveland, when we would literally be screaming at each other. Because he said: "There is only one species here. The big ones are males, the little ones are females. And if you lay them all out on the table, you have a gradual change from small, to larger, to larger, to largest. And there's no significant anatomical difference between the individuals in this collection. It represents only a single species, and the sooner you recognize that, the better off you are going to be." He was very forceful in his arguments. And I would go home and think about it, and go back the next morning and take out the jaws and see if I could establish a series of features that would vindicate me, and substantiate my view that there were two species. And, slowly this idea was eroded away, and I had to admit that what I had published was wrong. It was incorrect. I had made a mistake.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So after this long period of argumentation, and debate, I was better prepared to face critics who said, "Don, I think there really are two species in the collection, and you've made a mistake. I think the big ones are one species and the little ones are another species. What do you think about that?" I had already prepared my list of answers before that question even came up. We scientists, even though we think that we live in this ivory tower of truth, have to be prepared for the unanticipated. We have to be prepared to alter our views, to change or ideas, to make major changes in the way we view our own discipline. That was an extremely important learning experience for me. To this day, for example, I strongly believe that we have a pretty good idea of what the human family tree looks like. I think that many of my ideas are correct, but I'll bet you, before my death other discoveries will be made that will prompt me to alter various ideas I have about human evolution.

So you not only have to take a lot of risks, but you really have to force yourself to be open-minded, and not be married to any one way of seeing things.

Donald Johanson: Absolutely.

You obviously went through a barrage of criticism and professional jealousy. Looking back at that difficult, turbulent time, do you think any of that criticism was justified?

Donald Johanson: It depends. I was a very forceful young scientist. I really felt that these discoveries were of tremendous significance, would have a profound meaning for changing our whole view of human origins. I was very forceful at scientific meetings. I was sometimes very brash. I wouldn't shout down other people, but I would certainly make an argument in a way that was so forceful that some people refused to argue with me. They didn't want to get involved in it. I think that in some instances I was a little too aggressive. A little too right. If I had to go back, I'd probably soften some of my presentation. People criticized me, and said, "He's really a brash young guy, who is presenting his ideas as if they are the ultimate truth." If I could go back to do that, I would have presented them in a different way.

Was it difficult for you to deal with sudden fame? What were the challenges of that?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: The thing that I found most difficult to contend with was the fact that my life became very public. There was a piece in People magazine. There was a piece in the Style section of the Sunday newspaper. There were people taking pictures of me in my living room, asking me about my lifestyle. There were people following me in my laboratory. There were people who came to the field, and made movies. And I felt, "Gosh, I really would like to be left alone to pursue my own work. I'm really uncomfortable with this. I have to get up in front of an audience, and give a public lecture, something that I was not prepared for as a graduate student. I have to get on camera, and talk to people who are watching on television." I was on the Today show, and Good Morning America, and so on. Yet, as it was happening, there was something in the back of my mind that found this attractive. I had to learn certain sorts of things, but it turned out that I was pretty good as a communicator, to bridge this big gap between the scientists and the non-scientist. I was involved in a scientific pursuit that did captivate people's interests. People were interested in their origins. They weren't going to sit down and read the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and plow through all of that terminology on teeth and jaws and bones. But they wanted to know something about the importance of those discoveries for themselves. I realized that I could bring to these people the results of our scientific inquiries in a way that they could understand.

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
I was on Good Morning America, or one of those shows, with Diane Sawyer, and after the show I received a letter from Carl Sagan. He said "You must have converted hundreds of young people to become anthropologists." That was a wonderful thing for Carl to do. I met him subsequently. And we've talked about this. He too, has been criticized by his peers, astronomers who have criticized him for popularizing science. Carl and I, and other popularizers of science, don't think that science should be a secret. Science should be available to anyone and everyone who wants to study it, or understand it. It's our responsibility to make it understandable to them in a way that they can grasp. While I was, at the beginning, caught between these two horns of the dilemma -- one being a scientist, one being a popularizer -- I realized there was tremendous value in making this material available to people who really were excited about knowing more about where they came from, and how they got here.

How has Lucy changed our perceptions about the evolution of the family tree?

Donald Johanson: The major impact which Lucy has had is on a previous scenario of human origin where people felt that there were a number of events, evolutionary changes, which all went together. That our ancestors stood up to free their hands so that they could make and use stone tools. In order to make and use stone tools, they had to have large brains. This has view has been pretty much a view that's dominated human origin study, ever since it was suggested by Darwin in the middle 1800s. Here comes Lucy, about 3.5 million years old. She has a very small brain, not much bigger than that of a chimpanzee, and we have never found any stone tool, stone artifacts, associated with her species. Yet she is walking upright. So it appears that upright, bipedal posture and gait, walking on two legs, precedes by perhaps as much as a million and a half years, the manufacture of stone tools and the expansion of the brain. That means that there has to be a major new way of looking at what it was that sparked humans to separate from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. What that precipitated was a whole series of changes in the way people understood the relationships between different species of human ancestors.

For example, the Leakeys have held for over half a century now, that there are two parallel lines of evolution. That there is one line of true man, or Homo, the larger-brain form that goes back millions and millions of years, independent of these smaller brain forms. But Lucy draws those two lines together, into a common ancestor, between three and four million years. Now, over a decade since we made that initial announcement of a new species and a new geometry to the family tree, virtually everyone who deals with reconstructing the relationships between the different kinds of fossil ancestors, places Lucy at the trunk of the tree. So she really is the mother of all mankind. She is a mother to all the various branches, some which went extinct, and one which ultimately evolved into ourselves.

So she had a very major impact on how we understand the relationships between the different species, as well as a very major impact on our understanding of the sequence of events that led from an ape-like creature to a more human-like creature.

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