Friday, November 26, 2010

Life Lines 53


Richard Leaky is an autodidact and high school dropout who is one of the world’s leading anthropologists. He is also a Visiting Professor at Stony Brook University and has been here these past seven years thanks to the efforts of President Kenny and Dean Lawrence Martin, a fellow anthropologist. Leaky was raised in Kenya and learned early from his father how to survive in the bush. He chose to drop out of school and set his own course in human paleontology, sometimes working with his father and sometimes on his own. He is one of the most renowned citizens of Kenya and established a national museum in Mombassa.

Leaky’s vision, when he joined the SBU faculty, was establishing an international center for the study of human origins. He raised several million dollars for this project so that graduate students and postdoctoral students (especially from Africa) could participate in field trips, and in the careful analysis of specimens. He also used the Institute for an annual meeting to bring anthropologists studying human origins from around the world to the Stony Brook campus. A unique feature of this conference is that after the public presentation of their papers, the 100 or so scholars get together for four days on the Stony Brook campus and discuss their work informally and “open old sores and generate new ideas.”

I enjoyed talking with Professor Leaky. He lost his legs in an airplane accident and manages to get around with his artificial ones. He considers himself a Kenyan and spends part of his time at Stony Brook, part in Kenya, and part traveling around the world. As he gets older, travel becomes more difficult but he keeps up his optimism and uses the enthusiasm of his gaining new knowledge as a way to keep going. He is planning a web site (very likely with National Geographic) for human origins that will enable millions of people around the world to see the specimens, follow the analysis, enjoy the debates among anthropologists, and find pleasure in reconstructing their ancestry over the past several millions of years since human-like form and behavior began to emerge. He also hopes his fellow anthropologists will play a leading role in countering the “disrespect for science” shown by those who would offer bad science, dilute the findings of evolution, or pretend to scientific knowledge with a hidden religious agenda substituting supernatural interpretations for scientific ones.

Leaky said this is one of the most exciting times to be an anthropologist. The work on finding new fossil humans and their ancestors is increasing around the world. He cited the findings in Indonesia of the small Homo erectus-like specimens called H. floresiensis. He also found the confirmation of fossil sequences and age through DNA analysis (especially comparative genomics) exhilarating. He felt the United States had more resources and opportunities to learn than any country on earth and he hopes his institute will help foster a greater interest among the public in our ancient ancestry.

No comments: