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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: 9 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

What advice would you give a student who wanted to become an anthropologist? What are the most important things to be aware of and to follow?

Donald Johanson: For the last six years I've had a professorship at Stanford University. Unfortunately, because of other requirements on my time, I have had to resign this professorship. I was often asked by students who wanted to be anthropologists, "What do I have to do?" In the field of human origins studies, I've strongly emphasized a very substantial background in biology, in the earth sciences, particularly geology. These are the tools which one needs to interpret the evidence. There will always be very little opportunity for people to actually go to the field and find fossils. We have lots of fossils in our vaults at the moment which still need interpretation, evaluation, analysis. In the field of human origins, there are too many folks who don't have a strong enough background, particularly in biology. Lucy, and these other creatures we spoke about, were subjected to the same forces of natural selection and evolutionary change as all the other animals and plants living at that time. The interpretation of these fossils will be based on a better understanding of biology and evolutionary change. I have suggested very strongly to these students that they develop a strong background in zoology, biology, genetics, evolution, and so on. Because there really are very few opportunities to go to the field and actually find fossils.

What personal characteristics do you think are most important for success in any career?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: One of the most important things is to choose something which is emotionally, philosophically satisfying to you, and gratifying to you. I've taught, off and on, for the last ten years. So many of the students I have spoken with after class, have talked about how they want to go out and make a lot of money. They want to have a big car, they want to have a wonderful house, they want to control a lot of money. Yet they don't bring a passion to any particular subject. If you can bring your own passion, your own excitement, your own emotional commitment to something, you will be successful. And success should not be measured in a materialistic way. Because success which is measured in a materialistic way does not have the depth of success that you reach when you really do something you are committed to. I was very fortunate in being successful in an area I gave commitment to very early on. You may choose a particular profession that will produce a lot of material wealth, but the bottom line is that you enjoy doing what you are doing.

You talk about the need for a geology background in your field. Why are the fossils so rich in that particular area of Africa?

Donald Johanson: The area of Africa where I worked since the early 1970s is known as the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley of East Africa has been developing because the horn of Africa has been slowly moving away from the bulk of Africa because of continental drift. As it has been doing so, it's been thinning the earth's crust and allowing volcanoes to emerge. It has had areas of subsidence, where you have had lakes and rivers. This has been an ideal environment for animals to die, fall into these lakes and rivers, and be slowly transformed into fossils. The same processes of earth movements which were going on to create this environment are still going on, and promoting a great deal of erosion. The same processes that brought about their preservation are bringing about their re-exposure on the surface. It's an ideal environment in which to find these fossils.

What was it like for Lucy? Do you have a picture of what the earth looked like when she walked upon it?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: We do. We have done extensive studies to reconstruct the paleo-environment where she and her species lived in Ethiopia. We know that it was dominated by a very large lake, fed by rivers coming off of an escarpment, where there were heavy rains. There was a diversity of environments. There were deltaic environments around the delta of the river, there were environments along the lake margin, there were riverine forests, open grasslands, woodlands, and so on. We can reconstruct much of that environment because we have remains of the fossilized animals that lived alongside of her, the antelopes and gazelles that lived in more open areas, certain kinds of monkeys that lived in more closed areas. We even have the fossil pollen grains of these various plants. So we can say something about the specific kinds of trees and grass and so on that were available. We know what kind of a world she actually lived in.

What would you do, other than anthropology, if you had a next life? Are there other fields that seduce you?

Donald Johanson: I have two major interests. One of them is photography. I do a lot of still photography. I bring my cameras along on these expeditions and make some nice pictures. Whenever I'm out on a photographic safari in East Africa, it's always one of the great moments of tremendous happiness, to be out there at dawn, watch these animals, photograph them, and come back and look at these fantastic pictures. Photography is an area which I have pursued as a hobby, and have also been able to use in my own profession.

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
The other area I have been very interested in is music, particularly opera. I've jokingly said if I ever do come back, I'd like to come back as an Italian tenor who is also a photographer. Many of us in science are dedicated to our work almost 24 hours a day. I think about my work all the time. As I'm driving home, or sitting at dinner with my wife, or going out with friends, I'm talking about my work, talking about recent discoveries, recent ideas about the fossils. It's very important for us to take a deep breath and move away from that. Get involved in something else that is really separate from this world that captivates you all the time. Then you return to your work refreshed. In the United States, there is this terrible urge to become workaholics, to work seven days a week, to not take vacation. "Oh, I haven't taken a vacation in five years." When someone says that to me, that's not a positive remark. It's a negative remark. Last summer, I was in Europe for three weeks with my wife, and I came back totally refreshed, ready to embrace all sorts of new ideas and problems in my own science.

I'm sure. Do you have any athletics that you pursue, any sports?

Donald Johanson: At the moment, tennis. My wife and I play tennis several days a week. She's a better tennis player than I am, but we have a great time. I hate to keep relating it back to Lucy, and the fossils, but think about it. We've been here five million years. Most of that existence was spent in a very physically active world. People think human beings are the pinnacle of evolution. We have to buy video tapes, and watch some person exercising to encourage us to exercise. We have to pay money to go to an exercise club and work out during the day, when, this was part of our natural world for millions and millions of years. It is important to get out there and do something physically strenuous. It's a way of cleansing you of all the emotional baggage that is brought about through culture, for example. Physical activity is very important for our whole functioning, our mental clarity. So I think exercise and sports are very important.

We do seem to have come a long way from Lucy. We live very different lives to day. I gather from some of your writings that you are deeply concerned about man's increasing distance from nature, and from our animal roots.

Donald Johanson: I am. I don't like to take the doomsday perspective, and say, unless we do this for the environment, or this for the world, we are all going to go extinct. I think we still have the ability to make a major impact on the globe, to put something back into the environment other than pollution. We can do something to make the world a better place not only for ourselves, but for all creatures to live in. But I think part of what has happened, is that we have become very dramatically separated from the world which created us. The world of natural selection, the natural world in which Lucy and these other fossils lived is a world we lived in for millions and millions of years. Because of the development of culture, and our dependency on culture for survival, we have been removed from that environment very dramatically. I have a sense that, in our genes, we're still programmed for living on the savannas of East Africa. Those millions of years of evolution are still part of our genetic make up. Yet culturally, we have moved so for beyond that, that there is an imbalance between our natural background, and our artificial world of culture. I think this imbalance is something you need to recognize, to overcome the problems that are associated with it.

Ancestors: In Search of Human Origins I don't believe we are innately destructive animals. When we recognize certain behaviors in human societies which are destructive for the natural world, we can do something about them. We have the most intelligent brain we know of. We can use that brain to do wonderful things for this planet. It is my hope that, by understanding our ancestors, understanding where we came from, we will ourselves leave descendants who will sometimes look back and ponder their ancestors.

You talked about our self-deception, the fact that we humans think ourselves superior to other animals. That's another idea that I think is thrown out of kilter by your research.

Donald Johanson: Evolution, for me, is no longer a theory. It's virtually a law. I think that evolutionary change which was brought about by means of natural selection is, in fact just like gravity, a law. No matter what organism we look at on this planet, we can explain its existence and its origins through this process of natural selection. What this does, what this constantly does for me and what it does I think for many people who read some of the things I've written is be reminded of the fact that it was the natural world that was important for our origins. And we ought to be kind to that natural world, and do what we can to preserve it. Not only for ourselves, but also for all those other creatures in the natural world.

With that comes the fact that we also are vulnerable. There is nothing in the history of this earth, for three and a half billion years that life has been on the earth, that guarantees in any way whatsoever, that we, unlike all of the other species which have gone extinct, will not go extinct. If one looks at the evolutionary record in a broader perspective, the majority of animals, organisms that have lived on this planet are extinct. There are very few that have survived, and those that survived will also go extinct. We have to think about the fact that even though the dinosaurs ruled the earth for tens, hundreds of millions of years, they too went extinct. That it is a way to remind us of our vulnerability.

In photographs of your digs, you are accompanied often by a guide carrying a gun. Why the gun?

Donald Johanson: The area of Ethiopia where we were is occupied by nomadic tribesmen, Afars, who wander from place to place. They have had a long-standing conflict with another tribe, and both sides carry weapons. There often are skirmishes between the groups, so one has to have some protection when we are out there.

So actually, anthropology can be quite dangerous.

Donald Johanson: It can be, but in the field where we work, we have made friends with a number of these Afar tribes. Some of them we have worked with for over 13 years, and they have become close friends to us. I don't think we'd be able to work there if we didn't have their trust and understanding. It's a very special environment for us to work in.

Well, you are a lucky man, and you've given us a lot. It's been great talking to you. Thanks a lot.

Thank you.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 14:25 EDT
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