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If you like Richard Leakey's story, you might also like:
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Hear Richard Leakey participate in discussion of Global Warming and the Environment in our Audio Recordings area.

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Richard Leakey
Richard Leakey
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Richard Leakey Interview (page: 3 / 7)

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

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  Richard Leakey

What is the key to finding fossils? Is it clues, persistence, luck?

Richard Leakey: Finding fossils, you've got to be looking in the right place, so an understanding of geology is very important. You've got to be able to locate areas where there might be fossils, because of the geological evidence or conditions under which fossils are formed, and conditions under which fossils might now be re-exposed through erosion. Then you've got to ascertain that there are fossils where you are looking, and then you have got to look mighty hard, and you can look and look and look and not find anything, go back exactly to the same place a year later, and there was something there all the time. It really is a question of persistence and doggedness, but you could look as doggedly as you like in the wrong place and never find it. So there is an element of subliminal knowledge that plays a major part that a lot of people obviously don't have. I had it because I was raised in it. It was second nature to me.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Richard Leakey Interview Photo

Can you describe the thrill of discovery, that moment when know you've found something important?

Richard Leakey: In most cases, when you find a fossil -- and you don't always find it yourself, but one of your team finds it -- they find something that is very unimpressive. It's basically a fragment that is sufficiently preserved, that you can say, "Well, this is a fragment of a human ancestor." It's a piece of a skull, or it's a piece of a leg bone, but its anatomy -- the anatomical detail -- is distinctive from the anatomy of a similar element from another species. So you can say, "It's not a baboon, it's not a monkey, it's not a lion, it's not an antelope. This is a human ancestor." But it's just a scrap. You then look further, and you end up, if you're lucky, finding other pieces, some of which will fit back onto the original discovery. So you then get a fragment that is a little bigger. In some cases, you are very lucky. You find a fragment, a skull, and in time you pick up -- through excavation or a combination of screening and excavation -- you pick up enough that you can begin to piece together what the skull looked like.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Richard Leakey Interview Photo

So you may find something today, and it may be another five or six days, or even a week more, before you have enough pieces -- if indeed you find additional pieces -- that it all comes together. Then suddenly, you realize that it really is something quite new and quite different and very exciting.

So the excitement, the buzz, usually is gradually developed. It's not like a jab with an electricity rod. It's sort of a slow build-up to the full consummation. I guess you could say it's like very slow sex, building up to the final moment. I guess that's an analogy for most of it. Sometimes however, it's not like that at all. You walk around a corner, and there the whole thing is before you because it was washed out complete. Or you find something, and with a very short amount of clearing away of the topsoil, you see what you have. So it can be either way, but it's generally a very slow process. Ninety percent of the time, these isolated fragments are just that. The other pieces have long since disappeared, through fracture and erosion, or were never deposited. So most pieces that you find don't lead to a lot more, but sometimes they do. The average is that one in 20 specimens proves to be worthwhile, and knowing that, you keep at it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

If you're talking to someone who doesn't understand what you do as a paleoanthropologist, how would you explain what is important about it? What is important about it to you?

Richard Leakey: Well, there are two aspects to this.

I think I'm, like many people, curious. We are an unusual species. We do the strangest things. We are very complicated, and we're all interested in how we came to be what we are. The vast majority of people are quite happy with an explanation that was offered a couple of thousand years ago, that we were somehow the product of a very wise God who decided that we should be created in his image. Now, as somebody who has grown up in science and been steeped in the concepts of evolution, this never worked for me. But it doesn't work to say, "Well, I don't believe God made us," if I don't know what did produce us. So, I have had a natural inclination to want to follow the biological explanation of how we came to be what we are. That's a very complex and prolonged story. The exciting thing about it is it can't be done in isolation of the origin of life and the whole story of where did the zebra come from and where did the giraffe come from, where did the fruit fly come from and where did the tomato come from. These are all equally interesting parts of our story.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

If you approach it from a biological point of view, there is a wealth of stuff that you can find out. So that is what drives me.To me, it really is important that science, which is so much a part of our life, be pursued. As people become better educated, you begin to question.

If you have a deep faith and belief that you were created in God's image by his decision, fair enough. But if you start having that question by virtue of the development of new scientific technology, issues that are not explained in Genesis, and you begin to look at what humans are really, an awful lot of people begin to have some doubts about that. This is not to say they should have doubts about the purpose of religion, which to me is to control our social ways and to control our ability to live together. I think that is very important, but if it's based on a faith that is being eroded, you can have a lot of instability, and I think to a certain extent, the instability of the last decade has seen the growth of fundamentalism, which worries me for political reasons. It worries me for social reasons. So, I think offering a real scientific explanation for who I am, why I am the way I am, and why you are the way you are, where we came from -- and from that the predictability of where we might go -- I think this gives our species, which is remarkably unique in its intelligence, capacities, a far better stance on this planet than if we just leave it to some unknown and call in some supernatural to justify or explain things that perhaps could have been mitigated against or anticipated. So, I think it's a real legitimate concern that we need to pursue.

Given your extraordinary contributions to our understanding of human evolution, what do you think of the concept of intelligent design?

Richard Leakey: I think "intelligent design" is a rather shallow -- and I would say unintelligent -- attempt to pull wool over the eyes of the masses. "Intelligent design" is nothing more than a fundamental creationism. It is just dressed up with labels and dressed up with pseudoscience that makes no sense. You don't need to make something up when there's a perfectly good scientific explanation for life. I think "intelligent design" is totally redundant and unnecessary, and I am more than happy that people simply prefer to believe in the Holy Book's definition of origin, creation, out of Genesis. If you want to do that, that's your lot, but if you don't want us to work on the other side, I think that's wrong. We certainly don't want to stop you having total faith in a faith-based system of beliefs. But the faith side shouldn't prevent intelligent, thinking, curious minds pursuing science to provide an explanation based on science.

I think the two should be compatible, but I don't think, as has been suggested, that they are going to come together. There is no meeting of the minds. If you satisfy yourself on the basis of there being no need for proof, and if I can only satisfy myself if there is verifiable repeatable proof, then how do we talk? You should tolerate, but not expect to agree.

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This page last revised on Oct 28, 2010 14:41 EDT
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