Human Evolution and Why It Matters: A Conversation with Leakey and Johanson
Last week two of the leading physical anthropologists gathered at the American Museum of Natural History, two luminaries who have had a rocky relationship at times - Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey.
From the AMNH discussion of the event:
Celebrating decades of groundbreaking exploration in East Africa, renowned paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey shared the stage at the American Museum of Natural History on May 5 to discuss the overwhelming evidence for evolution in the hominid fossil record and why understanding our evolutionary history is so important. The discussion, before a sold-out crowd in the Museum’s LeFrak Theater, was moderated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN. The event was also live-streamed on amnh.org to a digital audience of several hundred viewers around the country.
Known for such landmark discoveries as “Lucy” (Johanson) and “Turkana Boy” (Leakey), the work of these two scientists has produced much of the fossil evidence that forms our understanding of human evolution.
Looking back over careers spanning 40-plus years, Dr. Johanson and Dr. Leakey shared the stories behind their monumental finds and offered a look at what’s ahead in human evolutionary research.
As the NY Times article (Tracking Lineage Through a Bramble) on the event summarizes:
“Evolution is a fact,” said Dr. Johanson. [emphasis added; see video below at around :48] “It is the best explanation of what is known from observations. It’s a theory as powerful as the theory of gravity.”
Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum, who was in the audience, noted that the science of human origins has moved well beyond the Leakey-Johanson debate. The discovery of several more extinct species and possible side branches, he said, has changed the shape and complexity of the family tree. It is bushier than the ones Dr. Johanson and Mr. Leakey argued over.
If anything, Dr. Tattersall said, the family tree as conceived today “looks more like Don had it.” He pointed out that Mr. Leakey was “responsible for the recovery of an incredible number of fossils, but extremely cautious in interpreting them, whereas Don was being pretty imaginative.”
Science is a testing of ideas, discarding bad ones, narrowing possibilities, happening on entirely new ideas in the process. The creationists who tend to believe that things only are right or wrong, Dr. Tattersall said, fail to understand this fundamental aspect of science. [emph. added]
“What is really bad in science is if you start being authoritarian,” he concluded. “Then you get in the same narrow territory that creationists occupy.”
Here is the video of the event (HD available). After a lengthy introduction the short lectures get to the meaty anthropology issues: