Richard Leakey Reflects On Human Past—And Future

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey talks about what several generations of fossil finds reveal about human origins, and how modern Homo sapiens are threatening the future of life around the globe. Evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson joins to discuss the origins of language, which, like hominids, he's traced to Africa.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIFRI. I'm Ira Flatow. If you've even remotely - if you're ever even remotely interested in anthropology and human origins, chances are you've heard about the name Leakey, a dynasty of fossil-hunters in East Africa of whom my next guest is a member.

His father and his mother, Louis and Mary Leakey, contributed volumes to our understanding of human evolution with the fossils they uncovered at the Olduvai Gorge, along with Mary Leakey's later discovery of a long trail of footprints left by bipedal hominids three and a half million years ago in Tanzania.

My next guest added to the human family tree with many finds of his own, including the nearly complete skeleton of Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus. He also has served as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service in his time there, sparing many elephants and rhinos from being poached for their ivory.

And he's spent a fair amount of time in Kenyan politics too. So he's sort of led three different lives, and he's here with us to talk about it. Richard Leakey is founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, where he lives. He's a professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. And he's here in our New York studios. It's my pleasure to welcome you to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. RICHARD LEAKEY (Stony Brook University): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you for being here. What does it mean to be a Leakey? Is that a name that's been, you know, something you've had to explain over the years, or people know who you are?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, it's a difficult question to answer. I think there's an awful lot of privilege associated with it. But like anyone who is known, it carries a certain weight with it. And one has to be careful what one says and where one goes and what one does once you get that sort of notoriety.

But it does carry a lot of privilege, and it's great fun, particularly earlier on in life, to be recognized.

FLATOW: I'll bet. I have to tell you, share a story with you. Your father was the first brand name, I'll say, big-name scientist I ever interviewed, 40 years ago. I was at a AAAS meeting in Philadelphia, and it's around Christmastime in 1971. And he was giving a talk there.

And I found myself in the press room absolutely alone with him. And I knew who he was. Like we are alone here in a studio. And I'm saying to myself: This is Louis Leakey. I mean, this - I'm going to - he's standing right next to me. What can I ask him that won't make me sound like I'm - I'm 22 years old - won't sound really stupid, you know?

I saw all those National Geographic films and everything else on TV, and I finally said, I said: Dr. Leakey, what is it that sets humans apart from the apes? And his eyes lit up, like one of his favorite subjects to talk about.

He started to talk about precision grip and things like that, and...

Dr. LEAKEY: Yeah, well, he liked young people...

FLATOW: I'm glad he did.

Dr. LEAKY: ...and he loved young people who were interested in what he did. So you were alone with the right person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, I was. And now I'm here with you 40 years - over 40 years later. Tell us what it's like to be out there. And one of the things we try to ask scientists is to describe for our audience what's it like to do what they do. What's it like to be out there looking for fossils?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I think like in any branch of science, much of what you do is drudgery. Much of it isn't exciting. Much of it is based on one's own conviction that with time you're going to get the answer that you're looking for.

And so there are not really very many days when you feel you're wasting your time. You just feel frustrated that you haven't got what you're looking for.

Many of the fossils that I have been associated with finding have been found in very remote parts of Kenya, very desolate, hot, dry desert areas. I've built up a personal love for the desert, and fascination.

But looking for human fossils is only part of the story. They're usually part of an extinct fauna (unintelligible) fossils of other creatures that lived in the same environments.

It's really like visiting a new zoo every day you go out. You find things that you haven't seen before. You're intellectually piqued practically throughout the day. And so there's nothing in a day that doesn't give you some form of satisfaction, even though it may be tough.

But it's an enormously privileged activity to go out and look for things that, if you find them, may change the course of understanding of humanity.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk to Richard Leakey. But it must be - you say it gives you satisfaction, but it must be incredibly frustrating knowing it could take you years. It took your father decades to find what he was looking for. And then your mom found it.

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I think frustration is the wrong word.

FLATOW: Okay.

Dr. LEAKEY: I think I have been very fortunate in my career in that when I went up to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, it turned out to be there were so many fossils that one really had very little of the difficulties that my parents experienced.

Forty years later, there are far fewer fossils to be found because they've largely been collected, but there are very specific questions. And over the last five years, my wife, Meave, and daughter have been focusing on very specific things they're looking for, and they've zeroed on - zeroed into particular time bands represented in the geology.

And they have spent days and days looking specifically for fossils in that particular time zone. They have been rewarded. They have found them. But that is a much more diligent task than simply the exploration that I was privileged to have fun doing.

FLATOW: And what are they looking for at this moment?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, they were - last few years they've been looking for the origin of Homo and trying to find out what more complete specimens would have looked like that relate to the Homo habilis story that my parents worked on at Olduvai, and maybe looking into the whole question of the ancestry of Homo and whether Homo habilis, which comes before Homo erectus, really is distinctive from some of the things that have been called Homo habilis but are not.

It all gets very technical, but one of the problems with paleo-anthropology is that although there's a remarkable story, much of the story is still represented by frustratingly fragmentary evidence. And so more has to be found to tie up a few loose ends. But it's so much further along than it used to be even 20 years ago.

FLATOW: So when you find a fossil, what do you see in these old bones that can tell you whether or not something was our ancestor?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I guess it's like - it's harder today in America, where you use paper cups and paper plates. But if you think of your grandparents' cutlery and crockery, if you break up a series of plates of different kinds and different sources and you mix it up with the dirt, and you've studied the plates and crockery, when you pick something up, you can say: Ah, this is the edge of a plate that was probably used for soup. And: Ah, this is a plate that was probably used for dessert. And this is a piece of a plate that was probably a serving plate. Just from its shape, thickness and design.

If you're familiar with anatomy, and you're familiar with the anatomy of fossils that have been found previously, it's relatively easy to categorize what you're finding quite quickly into a broad set of characters.

Then clearly you have the problems if you haven't found enough of the specimen, what it actually compares to, but you can look on the specimen and see if it's got any evidence of being recently broken. You then determine whether to excavate, whether to screen the area, and you can gradually build up a picture.

It's like when we found the Turkana Boy. I didn't find it, but Kimoya(ph), one of my assistants, discovered a little piece of skull. And it was clearly a little piece of a hominid skull, but whether it was going to lead to anything, I didn't know.

But in these cases, you always look further, and within a few days we had found enough of the skull to know that the front of the skull was represented with a fragment, the back of the skull was represented with a fragment, and so presumably the middle of the skull was too.

So we had to then start a much more extensive excavation, and we started to find bits of ribs. Well, skull and ribs mean there's probably something connecting them. And then we found that we had an almost complete skeleton. But that took three months to uncover.

FLATOW: Yeah - and you actually, are you down there with a toothbrush and a pick and...

Dr. LEAKEY: I was then, yes. It was enormously exciting because every day, practically, for the first six weeks, we were finding things that had never been seen before by modern humans. And we were the first to see them and realize that we had things in our hands that were going to answer questions that people have been worrying about for years.

FLATOW: So then you must keep these very secret when you find these spots, I would imagine. You dont want somebody else coming by...

Dr. LEAKEY: No, no, no. No, no. One doesn't suffer from that. That's no problem at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No?

Dr. LEAKEY: No, no. People can work anywhere in Kenya if they get the right permits.

FLATOW: But if you've got - you're there all day, are you eager to get back the next day to keep digging up something...

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, these are pretty remote areas. I mean, the worry is sometimes when you preserve a bone with a preservative, in the night a hyena will come along and like the taste of the glue and chew it. So...

FLATOW: You hate it when that happens.

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, worse than hate, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LEAKEY: Much worse than hate.

FLATOW: Does it happen often, that kind of thing?

Dr. LEAKEY: We never lost a human fossil, but we've lost some wonderful other creatures' fossils that have been left overnight to dry from the hardener, and in the morning there's just been a crumpled wreck when a hyena has chewed on it to get what it thought might be good-tasting. Up to three million years, it chews up a skeleton.

FLATOW: You've exposed it for him and he's taken it away.

Dr. LEAKEY: It's very irritating.

FLATOW: Yeah. We're talking with Richard Leakey. I know that you've had a few scientific feuds in your life and notably with Donald Johanson over the discovery - who discovered Lucy. You don't think Lucy was an ancestor. Is that - would I might be - would I be summing that up correctly? You don't think that Lucy was ancestor to Homo.

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, this - we had a big, sort of, discussion, to put it...

FLATOW: Frank exchange of views or the same one.

Dr. LEAKEY: Frank exchange of views, yes - back in the mid '70s. And I felt then that the story was probably a little more complex than was being presented. I confess that I was largely acting on hunch. We had a few fossils but they were not particularly convincing. And we disagreed and chose to disagree over what this represented. But I think, over the last 25, 30 years, so much more material has come in that the picture is much clearer.

It's perhaps fortunately that over last 30 years I have been focusing more on conversation and more on politics. And I haven't kept abreast of some of the discoveries. But certainly at 3 million years, there is more than one candidate for Homo ancestry. And I think that's probably the best way to leave it at the moment.

FLATOW: You know, a lot of people who are creationists and do not believe in human evolution, they like to say that no human has descended from a monkey or an ape or a chimpanzee. And that's exactly correct, isn't it? It's not that we were descendants from them, but there's a common ancestry somewhere.

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, indeed. And I think if we were very fair, which humans aren't, and one did - had the classification of primates done by a non-primate, there would be six great apes, not five, because we are just an ape. We just happened to have been a more intelligent one who did the classification ourselves.

And I think this added to the whole idea that God created us in his image. It makes changing our image very difficult for people intellectually. And I think that's really what it's about.

And I'm quite sure had Charles Darwin not suggested that we, too, had evolved, evolution would have been perfectly acceptable to everybody. But it wasn't thus and all the evidence today, and there's abundant evidence and very clear evidence, is that we have evolved. And if you go back far enough, our ancestors don't look anything like we do today.

But people didn't like the idea that the world wasn't the center of the universe. People didn't like the idea that the world wasn't flat. Given time and evidence, people learn to accept these things if they're true. And I think there's no question of the truth of human evolution. None at all.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Richard Leakey.

Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in here. Let's go to this line. Let's go to Ann(ph) in Adrian, Michigan. Hi, Ann.

ANN (Caller): Hey, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

ANN: Good. I just want to say hello to Richard. Richard, it's Ann Cooksey Sherman(ph).

Dr. LEAKEY: Hi, Ann. How are you? You used to work...

ANN: (Unintelligible).

Dr. LEAKEY: ...with my mother and you worked with me. And you were there when Turkana Boy was found.

ANN: That's right. And I also worked for years with Mary(ph), of course.

Dr. LEAKEY: Indeed. Well, nice to hear from you.

ANN: Yes.

FLATOW: See we bring people together on this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LEAKEY: Yes.

ANN: Thank you, Ira.

Dr. LEAKEY: Send me a note.

ANN: What's that?

Dr. LEAKEY: Send me a note so I know where you are.

ANN: Yes, will do.

FLATOW: Ann, I want to embarrass Richard now. I want you to tell me a really good story about him that no one knows.

ANN: Well, let's see. According to his mother, I saved his life once. I was studying to become a nurse at the time and was working and visiting Turkana. He was very, very ill and couldn't keep anything down. And I had some codeine tablets and I gave him a couple of those. And before too long, you were feeling better, weren't you?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I didn't know my mother told you. I told you that you saved my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: Oh, your mother did.

Dr. LEAKEY: I'm forever grateful, Ann.

ANN: She will never forget me because of that, so she said, I'll never complain again.

Dr. LEAKEY: But maybe we should leave storytelling there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: Well, thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you, Ann.

ANN: Talk to you later.

FLATOW: And thanks for calling.

Dr. LEAKEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: We never know who's going to call in on the show.

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, that's a pleasure.

FLATOW: That is a pleasure. 1-800-989-8255. Before we go to the break, tell us a little bit of your change of career. Why you left the fossil hunting business, if I call that a business, and went on to other things?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I was running a museum, a natural history museum, fossil hunting was a part-time activity. The museum had grown into a bit of a bureaucracy. I had about 600 staff. I was attending meeting after meeting with government officials, spending half of my life raising money for things that were perhaps important but didn't seem that important at that time in this sort of run of important things in Kenya, and I was probably a little bit bored. And I thought it would be more fun to look for something else to do.

And the president of Kenya offered me the chance to train a new wildlife organization and take over the management of wildlife conservation in Kenya, which at that time was in very bad shape. And I thought that would be a good challenge and so I took it on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how long did you do that for?

Dr. LEAKEY: That one, initial four and a half years. And then I sell out with the government and the president over matters concerning corruption and their unwillingness to help me deal with corruption that was affecting what I was doing. And so I decided to go into opposition politics and fight corruption. And I formed a new political party, an opposition to the government...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LEAKEY: ...ended up in parliament and got reasonably bored with that after a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We had - we have a scientist who we follow who started out in science and went into Congress and he said, the difference between science and Congress is that in science facts mean everything and the illusions mean nothing. And in politics, it's just the opposite.

Dr. LEAKEY: I think that's very fair. And I went from that to head the Kenya government's civil service and serve through the Cabinet.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LEAKEY: And there is a good cross between science and politics, in that you're very selective of what you want to believe and what you don't and facts don't play that much value in your judgments.

FLATOW: Do you find more scientists in politics over there in Kenya or...

Dr. LEAKEY: Very few.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LEAKEY: There are very few scientists in Africa. Science education has been sadly neglected for far too long.

FLATOW: Is that your next mission, to help science education, perhaps?

Dr. LEAKEY: Yes, it is. And that's why I have this strong association with Stony Brook and why we developed the Turkana Basin Institute through Stony Brook to try and develop the opportunities for science education, particularly in paleoanthropology and geology and related sciences.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Richard Leakey. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. He is founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, where he lives, and professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

Our number, as I say, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our Facebook site, /scifri, and get in on the discussion going there, and maybe there's some questions and answers for Richard Leakey there too. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking about hominids and human origins this hour with my guest, Richard Leakey, founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya and a professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

And I'd like to bring on another guest now to talk about evolution. And this was the evolution of language, because, just like species, languages evolve, pick up new words and new rules. And, eventually, languages diverge from each other and, well, to the point where they can no longer communicate, people speaking different languages.

Recent count of the world's languages, that number has hit nearly 7,000 - 7,000 different languages. But did language originate only once? Was there an original language before branching off into all of those modern varieties? If so, where did it originate, and when?

These are some of the questions addressed in my next guest's study out in the journal Science this week. Quentin Atkinson is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and he joins us by phone.

Thanks for getting up early this morning, Dr. Atkinson.

Dr. QUENTIN ATKINSON (University of Auckland): You're welcome.

FLATOW: Tell us about this study, the idea that you were able to track the origins of all language to one spot.

Dr. ATKINSON: Yeah. So the background - my background is in evolutionary biology. And so the approach I took was really a similar approach to what population geneticists have done to look at our genetic origins and trace that back to Africa. So one of the key lines of evidence there is that genetic diversity is highest in Africa and decreases as you go out further from Africa.

And that fits with a model called the serial founder effect, where an ancestral population will have a lot of diversity. And then as you go out from that during an expansion, populations will break off and take a subset of the diversity with them. If that happens over and over again, then the further you get from the origin, the less genetic diversity you expect.

FLATOW: Well, in genes we track the, you know, genes backwards. How -what do we track backwards? What are the building blocks in languages that we're looking to track?

Dr. ATKINSON: Right. Well, one of the fundamental - or perhaps the fundamental unit of language is the phoneme, the smallest unit of sound that we use to differentiate meanings. So the word cat and the word bat are differentiated by the k and b sound. So that's a phoneme.

And what I was interested in doing was looking at these phonemes all around the world to see if the geographic distribution could be used in a similar way to the way geneticists have looked at genetic diversity. So I was looking at the number of phonemes in different languages. And there's good reasons, a priori reasons, where we might expect phonemes to show a similar kind of founder effect to what we see in genetics. Smaller populations of speakers are known to have fewer phoneme. And both our theoretical models of language learning and computer simulation predict that smaller populations should lose phoneme.

So, based on that theory and background, I decided to go into the data, to a dataset of over 500 languages around the world where we had information on the number of phonemes in the different languages, and put them on a map and then get a computer algorithm to go through a whole lot of potential origin locations around the world and ask: Where do we see, if anywhere, a gradient of decreasing diversity from some potential origin? And what's the - if you could choose any origin, what would be the best one to fit that pattern?

And it turned out that Africa had the highest diversity and showed the best fit with this model, much better than anywhere else, which, of course, fits with the genetic picture.

FLATOW: Interesting. Let's see if we can give our audience a little taste of how diversity starts being very diverse and then sort of culls down. We have an example of the - first the Nama language from Namibia in Africa. Let's listen to that.

Unidentified Person: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLATOW: And so there are a lot of phonemes in that one.

Dr. ATKINSON: Yeah. Incredibly diverse, and a lot of clicks that you would've heard as well, which is something that's not - they don't really use much outside of Africa.

FLATOW: And let's - so let's go outside of Africa and go to a second example, the Hawaiian language.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLATOW: Any difference there?

Dr. ATKINSON: Yeah. So you might have heard - well, far fewer sounds, but also one of the ways that meaning is encoded when you have fewer sounds, is you tend to repeat the sounds you've got over and over again.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now that you say - you're pointing to Africa as the origin of language. Can you tell, from your study, when the language evolved?

Dr. ATKINSON: That's a good question. The method I've used is looking just at the geographic trends and can't date the origin independently. But looking at that pattern, you obviously want to find an explanation for it, and it seems like - the clearest explanation is that language would have spread with our genes when we expanded from Africa, which we can date through looking at gene trees and human species, and also through the archeological record to 50 to 70,000 years ago, when we started to expand from Africa.

FLATOW: Hmm. And did the evolution of language influence the evolution of our species, do you think?

Dr. ATKINSON: Well, I think it could have been incredibly important. The advantages conferred by being able to communicate complex information I think maybe would have been most useful for allowing groups of humans to coordinate and cooperate, and could have given us a real competitive advantage over other species at the time. So in the paper, I suggest that language could have been one of the catalysts for that expansion from Africa.

FLATOW: I'm going to ask Richard Leaky, who's sitting here with us, to comment. Do you think language is - was important?

Dr. LEAKY: Yes, I do. I think this work that's just been published by Dr. Atkinson is phenomenally important. And one of the big mysteries to me and to many of us has been why the last great expansion to which we can all almost directly relate - and if you look at the unraveling of the genome and you look at the genetics of modern humans, clearly, we have a point of origin between 60 and 70,000 years ago. And yet anatomically and archeologically, there's nothing that really explains any dramatic change.

And I have long postulated, as have others, that it's perhaps language -that you wouldn't find anatomical evidence for - that might have given the advantage to that population of Homo sapiens, that basically out-competed every previous population of Homo sapiens that had already spread over much of the old world. And I think the fact that this correlates, more or less, really is very exciting. And I think we're beginning to see a picture emerge that is consistent and understandable.

What we've now got to do is find a lot more evidence of the fossils themselves and the archeology itself. And the Turkana Basin Institute, which we've set up in Northern Kenya, is probably fairly close. I mean, it would - it could be hundreds of miles from the epicenter, but there's an enormous range of deposits that carry evidence from about 10,000 years back to about 100,000 years. And I think we will find the fossil remains and the archeological remains that cover this period. And if we get enough good material, maybe all this will come together in the next decade, and we'll finally understand where - what we are and when we came.

FLATOW: What do you think, Dr. Atkinson?

Dr. ATKINSON: Well, yeah. I think it would be great if we could synthesize some of that early archeological, paleontological evidence with the kind of echoes of it we see in cultural diversity today, yeah, and really kind of tell the cultural story alongside the genetic story.

FLATOW: You know, we really don't think about linguists handling these language questions, comparing - we usually really think that that's what they do. They compare languages, and so on. But you're now getting picked up by evolutionary biologists, like yourself, with this whole idea. It's interesting to see how this has evolved, so to speak.

Dr. ATKINSON: Yeah. Well, those parallels between the evolution of language and genes and species that you mentioned at the start of the introduction mean, I think, that linguists and evolutionary biologists are often asking the same kind of questions of their data, and so can use similar methods to answer them. And I guess that's how I've ended up with this paper.

FLATOW: Well, we want to thank you - wish you luck, and thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. ATKINSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Quentin Atkinson is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Stay with us here is Richard Leakey, founder of the Turkana Basin Institute and professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.

Let's see if when can go - a lot of people who have lots of interesting questions. Let's go to them right now. Let's go to Larry in Sheridan, Oregon.

Hi, Larry.

LARRY (Caller): Hello. And thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

LARRY: A question I've always wondered is that as you look at a modern population of living beings and you look at the extreme variations, say, in skull size or shape and as well as height and all that, how many specimens do you need to find of the same age to determine that you've indeed found a definitive stage of development? Is it 10? Is it 50, a hundred? I mean - or you just find one skull and say, hey, here's a...

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, let's turn it into a different sort of question on the same issue. If you look at domestic animals - and I think humans are domestic animal, and have been since we got - developed a strong culture and different behavior patterns associated with being a culture animal. But let's leave humans aside from this and go to the plains of Africa, the national parks of Africa, or North America or Europe.

If you get a brown bear skeleton or you pick up a mandible or a lower jaw or a femur of a brown bear, it is going to be a brown bear, and no anatomists is going to tell you it could be anything else. The remarkable uniformity between the anatomy of different species is striking, even for the poorly informed. And so when you find a fossil that's two million years old, the chances of it being abnormal and not characteristic are very, very remote, indeed.

So I think when you find several skulls that are almost identical to each other at more or less the same point in time, the chances of this not being representative of that species at that time are simply discountable. I don't think you could - you should be diverted by that.

And I think the difficulty is to pick up a Pekingese skull and compare it to the Great Dane and the domestic dogs and say, well, these clearly are different species, yet you know perfectly well they're not different species. They're simple being bred by the human culture. And I think -take modern humans out of the story for the moment and look at wild animals, and you will find that these pre-cultural hominids were behaving just as wild creatures do today. And every fossil you find is going to be distinctive and diagnostic of the species from which it's coming.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Richard Leakey on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

In the few minutes we have left, I want to give you my blank-check question I give to scientists sometimes. And they start drooling early when I mentioned that. And that is: If you had all the money in the world and all the resources, what would you do? What question would you like to answer and how would you go about spending that money to find it?

Dr. LEAKEY: Well, I - funny enough, I think, this conversation has pointed to an area that I think is now absolutely critical. I think for a long time, we in paleoanthropology have tried to persuade people of our evolution. And we've started at the wrong end. We've been looking for the oldest fossils, which are least like us. And people have had an easy time discounting them and saying, no, that's an ape.

I think we need to turn it around and start with us and look at the genetic story, look now at the language story, and then look at the fossil story. And you will find fossils at 30, 40,000 years that are identical to the skeletons of the two of us sitting here and everybody listening to us. You then go back in time. And I think if we'd started that way at the beginning, we would have gone a lot farther with dealing with acceptance of human evolution.

I personally believe that if we could accept human evolution and evolution, science would be much more acceptable. And I think the only way out of the mess this species that's in today is for science to get greater currency value in the world. And I think a lot of biological natural science has been discounted because of the fear of evolution.

Evolution is nothing to be afraid of. And if we could get a lot of money and a lot of attention and look at the last 100,000 years - which I think we can do now - I think we can clear this up once and for all. And it's late, but there is still time.

FLATOW: Are you saying it's a worldwide fear of evolution, or is it mostly in the United States?

Dr. LEAKEY: I think it's growing. I think it's - it is worldwide. I think it's much more of a case in areas where Christianity is - and Islam have a lot of influence. And I think the fundamentalist approach to religion that you're seeing both in those two great religions is making this worse. But you find it in Europe. You find it in England. You find it in Africa. In fact, there are very few African leaders who believe in human evolution and science.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. LEAKEY: And it's very, very worrying, because Africa's problems will only be resolved by African scientists working on those problems. And if we don't teach science from early on, we're not going to get out of this hole, because nobody is going to pull us out of the hole, because they're in one themselves.

FLATOW: Does it make it hard to excavate in these African countries if they don't believe?

Dr. LEAKEY: Funny enough, it doesn't. Because if they don't believe we're looking for human ancestors, they don't care what you're doing.

FLATOW: What an interesting answer.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

FLATOW: You could be digging on the moon for...

Dr. LEAKEY: Exactly. For something else.

FLATOW: ...for - because of - we don't - whatever you find is not going to prove what you think it's going to prove.

Dr. LEAKEY: That's exactly the attitude. And so, thus far, it's been beneficial, if you like.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what about the disruptions in the world that are going on now, the wars and things like that, the famine? Is global warming going to affect anything?

Dr. LEAKEY: I think global warming's going to have a huge impact. Since, like evolution, I think if we could accept that there is evidence for climate change, forget who caused it. Let's not worry about that. But let's look at the prehistoric record and recognize that climate change has happened before. And it's because it's happened before, we know the scale of possibilities. And the change that we're looking at is not unlike changes we've had before. The difference is we're now eight billion people. Before, there were less than a million. This is going to impact. The rising sea levels today will be a very different impact to rise in sea levels 500,000 years ago.

FLATOW: So if you're looking - if you look back in time, you can see what a tremendous influence it will have on human society and appreciate what might happen now even more.

Dr. LEAKEY: Appreciate what'll happen now is very clear if you look at the past record. And when Homo sapiens appeared between 50 and 70,000 years ago, Lake Turkana, where I work, rose 70 meters.

FLATOW: Seventeen?

Dr. LEAKEY: Seven-zero meters.

FLATOW: Seven-zero meters. Wow.

Dr. LEAKEY: In a moment.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. I can't - can't end it in a better place than that. Thank you, Richard Leakey, founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya and professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook. Thank you very much for taking time.

Dr. LEAKEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: I know how difficult it is for you to get here, and thank you very much for being here today.

That's about all the time we have for today.

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