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

By Shaffer, Ryan | The Humanist, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Shaffer, Ryan, The Humanist


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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 Richard originally made his mark in the late 1960s and '70s with expeditions that discovered Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo erectus skulls as well as the discovery of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, Ore: 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.

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