by Stan Griffin
As the 20th century drew to a close, Time Magazine listed 20 of its "most influential scientists." On that roster were three members of the Louis Leakey family. "Twentieth-century science would have glowed less brightly without Louis Leakey and his dynamic contributions."
The Leakeys have all tried to help us understand how human beings have changed through millions of years. They " ... searched for the beginning of human life, trying to answer important questions ..." such as:
(1) When did our earliest ancestors first appear on Earth? The Leakeys " ... made fossil discoveries proving man was far older than previously believed ..."
(2) Where did our earliest ancestors first appear? The Leakeys convinced scientists that Africa, not Asia, was the most important place to search for evidence of the first human beings, that the "Dark Continent" was the "source of human evolution."
(3) What did these ancestors look like?
(4) How did they survive?
(5) How intelligent were they?
(6) How were they different from the apes they resembled?
The Leakey family traced human history back millions of years but gaps still exist. Not all of the above questions have been answered fully. Thanks to the Leakeys, however, we know much more than we did before they came on the scene.
"Paleoanthropology" is defined as the study of manlike creatures, more primitive than "homo sapiens" (modern man).
Leakey was " ... probably the first paleoanthropologist, the initial scientist to embody all (these) fields of research ... (which are) key to the study of human origin ..." Each is a separate and distinct discipline:
anthropology-- study of human beings
paleontology– study of fossils and ancient life forms
archaeology-- study of ancient cultures
geology-- study of the earth
primatology-- one branch of zoology (study of animals) dealing with examination of primates (animals most closely related to human beings: monkeys, apes, etc.)
animal behavior– study of everything animals (including humans) do
evolutionary biology-- study of the gradual changes in life and life’s processes
The paleoanthropologist needs to be " ... familiar with all aspects ..." or " ... needs to bring together a team of scientists encompassing these disparate subjects ..."
Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903 in Kenya (East Africa). His mother and father were British missionaries. Louis grew up with the Kikuyu people of Kenya and learned their language, skills, and customs. He was educated at Cambridge University in England, studying anthropology, and began hunting fossils in Kenya during the 1920s.
In 1936. Leakey married Mary Douglas Nicol, anthropologist, archaeologist, and future partner in his search for man’s beginnings. Leakey was the inspiration for his family’s accomplishments. He died in 1972. Mary started the Louis Leakey Foundation which supports scientists and students who " ... contribute . . . knowledge about human origins ... "
Mary Douglas Nicol was born on February 6, 1913 in London. After attending lectures in archaeology and geology at the University of London, she did some excavations in England (1934). She published her first scientific papers before meeting Louis Leakey and doing illustrations for his book, "Adam’s Ancestors."
She married Leakey in 1936. Over the next several decades, they " ... undertook detailed archaeological surveys and excavations ... " at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania on the Serengeti Plains, site of the family’s most famous discoveries. She discovered fossils at Laetoli which were over 3.75 million years old. She worked to " ... help the world understand ... the evolution of humans followed a principle rather than a theory ..." Mary Leakey died in 1996 at the age of 83.
Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in Kenya on November 19, 1944, the second son of Louis and Mary. His brothers were Jonathan and Phillip. He was a high school dropout; and, at first, showed little interest in his parents’ work. For a few years, he trapped animals for research projects, supplied skeletons to institutions, and started a safari business where his clients used cameras instead of guns. He also taught himself to fly.
In the early 1960s Richard got interested in fossil hunting and then went to England to get his high school diploma. He spent some time at Cambridge University but returned to Kenya without a degree. For a while he resumed his safari business, then went to work at the National Museum of Kenya. He also managed paleontologic expeditions.
Richard ran his own excavation site at Lake Turkana in Kenya. In the 30 years following his first expedition there, he and his team unearthed more than 200 fossils, many of high quality. The highlight was a skeleton roughly 1.6 million years old and "one of the most complete ... ever found." In 1968 Leakey was appointed director of the National Museum of Kenya; and in 21 years, he built it into one of the most respected in Africa. In 1970 he married Meave Gillian, zoologist and palentologist.
Richard was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1969. Doctors told him he would die without a transplant. His brother Phillip became a donor. After struggles with tissue rejection, during which he almost died of pneumonia and pleurisy, he made a full recovery.
Leakey served from 1989-1994 as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He fought elephant and rhino poachers successfully and overhauled Kenya’s troubled park system. He was forced to resign after five years in that post. In 1993 an airplane he was flying had engine trouble and crashed. Leakey lost both legs below the knees. In spite of this tragedy, he has remained active.
Leakey started a wildlife consultation agency and became heavily involved in politics. He was Secretary General of the Kenyan reformist party, Safina (which means "Noah’s Ark" in Swahili) and opposed the country’s administration. He also served in the Kenyan parliament. Leakey’s " ... crusade for political justice brought him beatings, death threats, and constant government surveillance .. ."
Richard Leakey is currently involved with his new careers: that of conservationist and environmentalist. "He is no longer active in fieldwork . . . (but) as one of the foremost authorities on wildlife and nature conservation he continues to educate others through his lectures and books about the dangers of environmental degradation."
Richard’s wife Maeve has become the new leader of the family. She was born in London in 1942. In 1965 she was hired by Louis Leakey to study apes and monkeys in Kenya. Four years later she joined a fossil-hunting team led by Richard Leakey; they were married in 1970. "She helped identify some of the oldest known ‘hominids’ (extinct animals similar or closely related to human beings)." In 1994 she and her team found fossils near Lake Turkana, Kenya that had lived about four million years ago. In 2001 she announced her team had discovered pieces of a "hominid" skull that some paleontologists believe may be an "early direct ancestor of human beings."
Richard and Maeve had two daughters. Louise is the third generation of Leakey scientists. She has honor degrees in geology and zoology. In 2001 she was awarded a PhD in paleontology. She has also managed archaeological digs. Both Louise and Maeve are headquartered at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.
The name Leakey will " ... always be associated with humanity’s African past ..." They exhibited " ... persistent determination (that) yielded ... a wealth of fossil material ..." and had a " ... vision of the wide scope of evolution ... " Louis had the "ability to inspire others to continue his works."
"Decades of significant discoveries by Leakey and ... family fueled a public passion for pre-history that has never abated."
An Opposing View
With their many discoveries, the Leakeys have built up a powerful case for the THEORY OF EVOLUTION:
This concept is a scientific idea behind human origin, how "Homo sapiens" (modern man) originated in a lower form and progressed to the more sophisticated form we have become. Tracing the linear descent of Homo sapiens shows a clear relationship to other primates.
The Leakeys have produced a lot of evidence to back claims such as one voiced by Richard Leakey in a 1999 interview: " ... There is no doubt we and everything living today has evolved ..." Nearly all scientists have adopted evolution as a "basic idea of modern biology."
However, a certain portion of the American public decline to join Leakey and others in that camp. This group, mainly Christians believe in CREATIONISM and have been labeled "creationists.". They believe the following:
"The universe and all things in it were created directly by God, not the result of a long evolutionary process; this applies with particular force to forms of life. The belief is based on the account of creation in Genesis which is understood literally as a descriptive account ..."
In the early 1900s, public high schools began teaching evolution in science classes. By 1920, creationists proposed laws in 20 states to ban that practice. Their efforts were successful in several places, including Arkansas and Tennessee.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took action, believing those laws violated a constitutional principle: separation of church and state. In their most famous case, the Tennessee law was challenged. A high school science teacher, William T. Scopes, volunteered to stand trial on a charge of teaching evolution. He was found guilty (1925), and the law remained in force. However, because of unfavorable media coverage, the reputation of creationists suffered. During the 1960s, more public schools began to teach evolution. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled laws against that practice were unconstitutional saying " ... they make religion part of the curriculum ..."
Creationist strategy in the 1970s and 1980s was to propose laws making creationism a required subject in public schools-- where evolution was being taught. Arkansas and Louisiana (1981) passed such laws; but both were declared unconstitutional: Arkansas in 1982 by a U. S. District Court and Louisiana in 1987 by the U.S. Supreme Court. In both cases, similar principles were established: "Evolution is scientific, not religious ... " and "creationism is a religious explanation of life ..."
Since then, the creationists have worked through local school districts and called for the teaching of such theories of life as "abrupt appearances" and "intelligent design." These do not refer to God, but they do say species appeared " ... suddenly rather than evolving from earlier forms of life ..." This approach has been successful in persuading a number of school districts to include discussion of creationism in science curriculums where evolution was being taught.
Richard Leakey was asked in 1999: "What is your opinion of groups such as exist in the U. S. that deny evolution in favor of the biblical theory of creation?" His reply: "I have been raised to believe in freedom of thought and speech. If a minority wishes to accept that position, it’s their right. What I fear is that this minority may seem to be larger than it truly is ... "