Richard Leakey and Evolution

Richard Leakey predicts evolution debate will soon be history

Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be history. Not that the avowed atheist has any doubts himself.

In this 2008 photo provided by the Turkana Basin Institute, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey discusses the evidence for human evolution over a collection of hominin fossil casts at the Turkana Basin Institute’s Ileret research facility in northern Kenya. Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be history sometime in the next 15 to 30 years. “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,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”  [Credit: AP/Turkana Basin Institute, Bob Campbell]

Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

“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,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

Leakey, a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island, recently spent several weeks in New York promoting the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. The institute, where Leakey spends most of his time, welcomes researchers and scientists from around the world dedicated to unearthing the origins of mankind in an area rich with fossils.

His friend, Paul Simon, performed at a May 2 fundraiser for the institute in Manhattan that collected more than $2 million. A National Geographic documentary on his work at Turkana aired this month on public television.

Now 67, Leakey is the son of the late Louis and Mary Leakey and conducts research with his wife, Meave, and daughter, Louise. The family claims to have unearthed “much of the existing fossil evidence for human evolution.”

On the eve of his return to Africa earlier this week, Leakey spoke to The Associated Press in New York City about the past and the future.

“If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you’ve got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena,” Leakey says. “Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one.”

Any hope for mankind’s future, he insists, rests on accepting existing scientific evidence of its past.

“If we’re spreading out across the world from centers like Europe and America that evolution is nonsense and science is nonsense, how do you combat new pathogens, how do you combat new strains of disease that are evolving in the environment?” he asked.

“If you don’t like the word evolution, I don’t care what you call it, but life has changed. You can lay out all the fossils that have been collected and establish lineages that even a fool could work up. So the question is why, how does this happen? It’s not covered by Genesis. There’s no explanation for this change going back 500 million years in any book I’ve read from the lips of any God.”

Leakey insists he has no animosity toward religion.

“If you tell me, well, people really need a faith … I understand that,” he said.

“I see no reason why you shouldn’t go through your life thinking if you’re a good citizen, you’ll get a better future in the afterlife ….”

Leakey began his work searching for fossils in the mid-1960s. His team unearthed a nearly complete 1.6-million-year-old skeleton in 1984 that became known as “Turkana Boy,” the first known early human with long legs, short arms and a tall stature.

In the late 1980s, Leakey began a career in government service in Kenya, heading the Kenya Wildlife Service. He led the quest to protect elephants from poachers who were killing the animals at an alarming rate in order to harvest their valuable ivory tusks. He gathered 12 tons of confiscated ivory in Nairobi National Park and set it afire in a 1989 demonstration that attracted worldwide headlines.

In 1993, Leakey crashed a small propeller-driven plane; his lower legs were later amputated and he now gets around on artificial limbs. There were suspicions the plane had been sabotaged by his political enemies, but it was never proven.

About a decade ago, he visited Stony Brook University on eastern Long Island, a part of the State University of New York, as a guest lecturer. Then-President Shirley Strum Kenny began lobbying Leakey to join the faculty. It was a process that took about two years; he relented after returning to the campus to accept an honorary degree.

Kenny convinced him that he could remain in Kenya most of the time, where Stony Brook anthropology students could visit and learn about his work. And the college founded in 1957 would benefit from the gravitas of such a noted professor on its faculty.

“It was much easier to work with a new university that didn’t have a 200-year-old image where it was so set in its ways like some of the Ivy League schools that you couldn’t really change what they did and what they thought,” he said.

Earlier this month, Paul Simon performed at a benefit dinner for the Turkana Basin Institute. IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond and his wife, Peggy Bonapace Gelfond, and billionaire hedge fund investor Jim Simons and his wife, Marilyn, were among those attending the exclusive show in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Simon agreed to allow his music to be performed on the National Geographic documentary airing on PBS and donated an autographed guitar at the fundraiser that sold for nearly $20,000.

Leakey, who clearly cherishes investigating the past, is less optimistic about the future.

“We may be on the cusp of some very real disasters that have nothing to do with whether the elephant survives, or a cheetah survives, but if we survive.”

Author: Frank Eltman | Source: Associated Press [May 26, 2012]


Quotation – May 28, 2012

Always trust your fellow man.  And always cut the cards.

Always trust God.  And always build your house on high ground.

Always love they neighbour.  And always pick a good neighbourhood.

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but you better bet that way.

Place your bet somewhere between turning-the-other-cheek and enough-is-enough-already.

Place your bet somewhere between haste-makes-waste and he-who-hesitates-is-lost.

About winning: It isn’t important.  what really counts is how your play the game.
About losing: It isn’t important.  What really counts is how you play the game.
About playing the game:  Play to win!

p. 74  All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten



Ancient Walls of Babylon

A race to shore up the ancient walls of Babylon

The sound of hammers echoes from ancient brick as Iraqi workers battling damage done by wind, water, and modern history race to shore up the crumbing walls of Babylon.

World Monument fund workers erect scaffolding to shore up leaning wall of Babylon, Iraq, in February [Credit: Jane Arraf/Christian Science Monitor]

“If we don’t do something, in the next 10 years it will disappear completely,” says Thierry Grandin, a consultant to the World Monuments Fund overseeing workmen erecting wooden scaffolding to stabilize the 2,600-year-old north wall.

The capitol of the Babylonian empire, one of the wonders of the ancient world, has fallen on hard times.

Only a fraction of the 4,000-year-old site has been excavated but the ruins above ground have been eroded by wind and salt water, and damaged both by sweeping reconstruction ordered by former President Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the more recent US military occupation.

The Iraqi leader’s project to rebuild the walls, literally in his own name, and create an imagined version of the ancient city has done major damage to the remains of the city. It also hampered the ruins’ prospect for preservation. Despite Babylon’s historical and religious significance, UNESCO has twice turned down Iraq’s bid to list the ancient city as a world heritage site.

“The main reason for the rejection was because of the interventions during the Saddam Hussein era,” says Jeffrey Allen, a World Monuments Fund consultant who has headed the conversation project since 2009. “There were large-scale interventions at Babylon that changed the dynamics and the appearance of the site. Those have compromised the integrity of the original remains.”

Crumbling bricks 

Within the boundaries of the ancient city, on a hill above the excavated ruins, Mr. Hussein built a modern palace overlooking the ancient one. Bricks inscribed “in the era of Saddam Hussein” echoed those marking the reign of the biblical King Nebuchadnezzer. Empty spaces in the walls mark where some of the bricks where pried out while US soldiers controlled the area, say Iraqi antiquities officials.

The fragile walls of the old city are now sandwiched between heavier modern bricks pressing down on the original mud brick and a rising water table that has sent salt water seeping into the foundations of the ancient walls. In the 1980s, concrete was poured directly against the original brick. The conversation project is mapping the damage with a three-dimensional scan – brick by brick – to see how to stabilize the site and change the drainage pattern.

“If you taste the water you’ll taste salt in it here in Babylon, and that attacks the brickwork and destroys the brick and turns it to powder,” says Mr. Allen, crumbling some of the salt-coated 2,000-year-old brick in his hands.

The international visitors that local authorities would like to attract are limited mostly to diplomats under armed guard and an occasional French tour group marveling that they are actually in Babylon. It’s a popular spot for Iraqi school groups. On a recent weekend, high school girls giggled as they took photos of each other. A tour guide chased away a group of young men with a tambourine who were climbing on the basalt lion that was a symbol of Ishtar – the goddess of love and war.

“Babylon is a city that belongs to the whole world. It’s a global heritage not just Iraqi heritage … so we’re trying to open the door to tourism,” says Salah Hassan Bihaya, a provincial official in charge of promoting development. His challenges include an almost complete lack of infrastructure, Babylon’s post-war history as a closed military site, and – until recently – uncertain security that has frightened away all but the most determined visitors.

New UNESCO bid: Babylon and its conquerors 

In constructing his own palace in the 1980s, Hussein built a helicopter landing pad and infrastructure that made Babylon an appealing site to US military leaders looking for a military base after the Iraqi leader was toppled. American forces stayed for six months before handing over to Polish troops in charge of the sector.

A British Museum report details what it calls significant damage to the site during the military occupation – including leveling parts of the ancient city that had yet to be excavated.

Not far from the ancient walled city, a military guard post still stands amid coils of barbed wire and piles of sandbags. Dubbed “Warsaw gate,” it’s now eerily deserted. Reeds have overgrown the road used by military vehicles and rare birds on the migration path are now returning to area.

Allen says the next proposal to UNESCO to list Babylon as a protected world heritage site will include the Saddam-era reconstruction and even the US military occupation.

He says along with the overall conservation plan, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities has asked for help in maintaining what’s left of the one-time US and Polish military presence. The new proposal will argue that Babylon should not be considered as the pristine remnants of an ancient city, but as something wider – a city that from the earliest days of civilization was adapted to the whims and desires of its conquerors.

“The narrative has expanded,” says Allen. “From Hamurabi and the Bronze Age period all the way through Saddam and the military occupation of the site. That’s what we’re trying to do – spread the word that this is an evolving cultural landscape not an archaeological monument of a moment in time.”

Author: Jane Arraf | Source: The Christian Science Monitor [May 25, 2012]

Quotation – May 25, 2012

…Each nugget of information was fascinating.  the world was full of newfound marvels and he wanted to share the excitement with everybody.  They all did.  They had a certain sense.  It wasn’t a sense of ennui or cynicism.  It was …
A sense of wonder.
That was it.  A sense of wonder, in the fine old original meaning of the word.  They wondered at their world.  Because when you did that, everything was wonder-full.

Niven, Pournelle, Flynn  Fallen Angels  p. 137

Quotation – May 24, 2012

You cannot solve a porblem with the same mind that created it.

Albert Einstein

Quotation – May 23, 2012

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax.

Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963

Quotation – May 22, 2012

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

Samuel Johnson

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