Richard Leakey: Evolution Debate Soon Will Be History
By FRANK ELTMAN 05/27/12 03:17 PM ET AP
NEW YORK -- Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be
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 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
"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
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
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
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
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Received on Sun May 27 2012 - 14:01:04 EDT