Tuesday, November 29, 2005

HSTS415 - Term Paper

Richard E. Leakey:

A Biography, A Comparison to Darwin, and An Evaluation

"To some, it might seem that I have always been accident prone but I do not think that is the case. It is just that I have lived a fairly active life in some quite wild places and misadventures do occur." –Richard Leakey, One Life, 26.

Can someone who has not gone to college to take classes and learn in a formal educational environment be considered an expert? Richard Leakey is a fine example of someone who has done just that. His work on human evolution and anthropology is entirely field-based expertise and expands Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to show how humans evolved over time.

Richard E. Leakey's book, Origins, was published in 1977, eight years after the discovery of 1470, better known as "Lucy." The book was translated into ten languages and sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. An Amazon search brings up approximately 45 titles by or about Leakey. Most of his books concern human evolution, and he is regarded by many as an expert in his field.

Born in 1944, Leakey never intended to become a biologist, let alone a leading expert in evolutionary theory and biology. He was six years old when his parents took him on an excavation and he found his first bone, the jaw of an extinct species of giant pig. Upon seeing their child utterly engrossed in his own silent work (unusual for a six-year-old) not far from them, Leakey's parents investigated and usurped his find. Leakey tells in his autobiography, "Every time I see this specimen in the collection of Kenya's National Museum, I remember the incident. Indeed, I often wonder if it contributed to my original firm decision to avoid at all costs a profession that involved excavation and the search for fossils!" (Leakey, One Life, 29).

But Leakey, through many events, became a sort of archaeologist himself. In 1972, Leakey's team discovered what is often considered the "missing link" in the human evolutionary saga, Lucy. Named for the Beatles song playing in camp at the time of discovery, Lucy was of the species Homo habilis, one of the earliest known varieties of hominid. Most scientists and biologists believe the earliest variety, Ramapithecus, to be more evolved than the Australopithecus genus, but less evolved than the Homo genus. However, scientists are not sure if humans (Homo sapiens sapiens and the Homo genus) evolved from either Ramapithecus or Australopithecus, but evidence suggests Ramapithecus was an intermediary between the other two genera. Leakey bases his evidence for this trend on bone structures, mainly the shape of the skull. He wrote in Origins Reconsidered,

"The cranium that goes by the now famous accession number 1470 was clearly of the large-brain, small-cheek-teeth type of hominid. With a cranial capacity of close to 800 cubic centimeters, 1470 was obviously a good candidate for Homo habilis, as my colleagues repeatedly told me. However, I insisted on publishing it as Homo sp., meaning, yes I agree it is Homo, but I'm not prepared to say what species it is... For my caution, I was roundly criticized… These days I believe that this is probably correct" (Leakey, Origins Reconsidered, 133)

There is still controversy over Lucy's exact taxonomy.

The Leakey Foundation's website recounts more of Richard's life:

"In the 30 years following Leakey's first expedition, he and his team of paleoanthropologists unearthed more than two-hundred fossils. Many of the fossils were of high quality, and the most famous (with Alan Walker in 1984), "Turkana Boy," a Homo erectus roughly 1.6 million years old, is one of the most complete skeletons ever found… Although no longer active in fieldwork, Richard Leakey, as one of the foremost authorities on wildlife and nature conservation, continues to educate others about the dangers of environmental degradation through his many lectures and books" (Leakey Foundation).

Richard Leakey's work on human evolution depends almost entirely upon Charles Darwin's work. Darwin wrote about natural selection and how species change over time. He said in The Descent of Man: "The early male forefathers of man were probably furnished with great canine teeth, but as they gradually acquired the habit of using stones, clubs, and other weapons for fighting their enemies or rivals they would use their jaws and teeth less and less. In this case the jaws, together with the teeth, would become reduced in size" (Leakey, Origins, 74). Darwin could not have known about hominid teeth or how humans possibly evolved: the first hard biological evidence of this was not unearthed until a century later.

Darwin's argument for evolution had a few problems which could not be ignored. First was time: Leakey writes in the introduction to Darwin’s Origin of Species, "He knew that the geological phenomena he would witness would not fit into the 6,000-year timescale calculated on a literal reading of the Bible" (Darwin 13). Darwin could see from the number of fossils collected, and from geologic strata, that the Earth had existed much longer than the Bible permitted. Estimates ranged widely, but Darwin put his Earth at approximately three-hundred-million years old, based on estimated rates of erosion of the North and South Downs area in England. Modern estimates suggest the Earth is about four billion years old (Darwin 21).

Another of Darwin's problems was the lack of a significant fossil record. Scientists of his time could see and classify different species and varieties, but they couldn't establish a pattern relating ancient animals to modern animals because "linking" fossils or remains of intermediary species had not yet been discovered. Darwin explains, "Few transitional fossils seemed to exist, and physiological reasoning suggested that there was no conceivable gradual path from gills to lungs, or from a normal vertebrate fore-limb to a wing" (Darwin 15). This led biologists to believe that evolution, if it occurred at all, was at the hand of God. Darwin always insisted that evolution was gradual, rather than punctuated, but he was faced with a fossil record that seemed to confirm sudden changes (Darwin 15). Some scientists now believe evolution occurred in spurts, according to major changes in climate or habitat for a species.

Darwin also had trouble accounting for variation and heredity. Leaky writes, "He was particularly interested in the relative wide variations that can be seen in domesticated plants and animals, not only because of the analogy he drew between artificial and natural selection, but also because domesticated plants and animals seemed to him to offer the greatest hope for understanding the more general phenomena of inheritance" (Darwin 17). Darwin's contemporary, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck discussed a desire for change that caused a change to happen in the organism itself, and then to be passed on to its offspring. This "Lamarckism" as it is known, is a "use or disuse" theory. If an animal does not use a trait, the animal soon loses the trait. Likewise, if an animal possesses a trait that aids in its survival, the trait becomes more pronounced in its offspring. Leakey extends this idea to his own hominid research, using Lamarckism to account for hominid evolution.

Darwin had trouble accounting for human evolution in his first book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. While he never really addressed the issue in this book, he did write a minute amount. He identified what he believed to be a link between African apes and humans, and hypothesized that the human family evolved in Africa. Leakey's work suggests Darwin to have been correct, seeing as how all of the earliest hominid species have been found in Africa alone. "Darwin also formulated the notion that a complex of human-like characteristics—bipedal walking, tool making, and an enlarged brain—evolved in concert" (Leakey, Origins Reconsidered, 74). By the time Darwin published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he had theorized much about the origins of human history. "The hands and arms could hardly have been perfect enough to have manufactured weapons, or to have hurled stones and spears with true aim, as long as they were habitually used for supporting the whole weight of the body… or so long as they were especially fitted for climbing trees" (Leakey, Origins Reconsidered, 74). David Pilbeam, in Leakey's Origins Reconsidered, states, "For Darwin, the first evolutionary step our ancestors took away from the last common ancestry with the apes encompassed everything that came later to be identified—and valued—as 'human,' so plausible was it, so powerful an image, that it persisted until relatively recent times" (75). Darwin, unlike another of his contemporaries, Alfred Wallace, did not consider humans too intelligent, refined, or sophisticated to have natural selection apply to us.

Richard Leakey's work on human evolution greatly expounded Darwin's views. Humans did evolve, and Leakey's team uncovered much evidence to suggest this. Leakey writes in Origins,

"We left Ramapithecus, or rather the meager collection of fossil fragments that we know him by, tentatively exploring the forest fringes some nine to twelve million years ago. There then opens up an enormous fossil void until round about four million years ago. And it is not until the two- to three-million year stage that there is anything like enough hominid fossils for anyone to have a sensible conversation about. This yawning void is particularly frustrating because on one side of it there is just one creature, Ramapithecus, while milling about on the other side is a menagerie of hominids" (81).

The worst of Leakey's problems is, like Darwin's, the lack of a complete fossil record. The discovery of Lucy is special: it represents a nearly complete Homo habilis.

Richard Leakey didn’t disagree with Darwin’s work much at all. He expanded upon Darwin’s work, and due to the difference in time, was able to include some information about hominid genetics. Leakey wrote the introduction to Darwin’s The Illustrated Origin of Species, as well as abridging the edition. He writes at the end of the introduction, “...all aspects of modern evolution biology can be seen as party of a research programme inaugurated by The Origin of Species. It is without doubt the most import biological work ever written” (Darwin 43). The last statement is proof enough that Leakey agreed with Darwin’s work.

In order to evaluate Leakey and his work, we must examine his credibility. Can someone who has not gone to college to take classes and learn in a formal educational environment be considered an expert? Yes, they most definitely can be considered an expert! Leakey comes from a family of anthropologists/archaeologists. Both of his parents were known for great fossil discoveries in Africa; his mother even found one of the best-known examples of a Ramapithecus skull. Leakey, as mentioned above, never intended on following his family line into the sciences. Growing up in the African bush, having parents that took him on excavations, and helping his parents in their work earned Leakey the experience necessary to start out on his own. He never went to college, having never really passed his earlier classes with even mediocre marks. All of his life’s work is all he knows about archaeology and anthropology. Even without degrees and high distinction, Leakey has lectured around the world about his teams’ discoveries, about the need for more exploration, and about evolution. He expanded Darwin’s work, even introducing and abridging an edition of The Origin of Species. He is indeed a foremost expert on Kenya’s natural history and human evolution. Leakey’s field experience and team members who have credible degrees make him that much more valuable. Few people have the real-world experience he possesses. Richard Leakey has made a great name for himself in the subject of human evolution.

Works Cited

Leakey, Richard E. Introduction. The Illustrated Origin of Species. By Charles Darwin. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.

Leakey, Richard E. One Life. Salem, New Hampshire: Salem House, 1983.

Leakey, Richard E. and Roger Lewin. Origins. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977.

Leakey, Richard E. and Roger Lewin. Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes us Human. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

The Leakey Foundation. 10 Sept. 2005. 15 Nov. 2005. .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While googling for info on Ramapithecus I found your blog.
What a cool site.
Montessori Elem. teacher
Albuquerque, NM