May 2012, Week 5


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Thu, 31 May 2012 00:00:46 -0400
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Richard Leakey: Evolution Debate Soon Will Be History

05/26/12 03:17 PM ET


NEW YORK -- Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over
evolution will soon be history.

Not that the avowed atheist has any doubts himself.

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

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

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

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."


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