The coming floods
Leakey paints chilling picture of global warming
The name Leakey is synonymous with fossil hunting, thanks not only to Louis and Mary Leakey, whose mid-20th-century excavations in Kenya’s Olduvai Gorge located the origins of Homo sapiens, but also to their son Richard, his wife, Maeve, and their daughter Louise, all of whom have made significant contributions. The Leakeys are the first family of paleoanthropology, a discipline they bestride like colossi.
Ironically, Richard Leakey, who is now 63, had no desire as a young man growing up in Kenya to follow his parents into excavation. As he explained while giving the annual President’s Lecture before some 750 people in Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium Friday (Oct. 3), he accompanied them on digs and saw that “they seemed to spend a lot of time in the sun and dust.” He was more interested in wildlife.
In his early years, after dropping out of high school in England, he had a variety of jobs and businesses, including trapping and leading non-hunting wildlife safaris. He taught himself to fly, and that inadvertently led back to fossil hunting. In 1964, when he was 19, he flew over a fossil site that intrigued him, and he decided to lead an expedition.
From that time on his career followed various paths—into politics, as a co-founder of an opposition party and member of the Kenyan Parliament ("fun but boring—listening to people telling lies is not very impressive"); into wildlife protection, particularly on behalf of elephants being slaughtered for their ivory; into museum work as director of the National Museum of Kenya; and, of course, into fossil hunting, which he continued doing for many years, culminating in the 1984 discovery at Lake Turkana of perhaps the most impressive fossil ever found, the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus boy nicknamed Turkana Boy.
He’s also the author of a half-dozen books and more than 100 scientific articles, as well as creator of several television series.
In recent years he’s focused on conservation issues, while his wife and daughter have continued to work on paleoanthropology. There’s one conservation issue, he says, that supersedes all others: global climate change.
Leakey is a big man, easily 6 feet tall and rather beefy, with florid cheeks and thinning gray hair. He walks with a shambling gait, the result of a 1993 plane crash that caused the loss of both legs below the knees and forced him to use prostheses.
The loss of his legs gave him a deep insight into bipedality and its importance in human evolution, he said. He told a story of a rainy night in England when, as he was crossing a road, one of his artificial legs broke, and he fell to the ground. He was able to scuttle out of danger, but his brand-new, $20,000 limb was still in the road. A drunk stumbled by just in time and rescued him and the leg.
“The point I want to make,” he said, “is that when our ancestors became bipedal some 4 million years ago, they spent a large part of their time on the African savannah. … You can’t walk across the savannah for long without injury. Had other individuals not had the capacity to be compassionate, hominids wouldn’t have lasted.” Empathy, a trait humans have in much greater abundance than other animals, “is more important than we realize.”
That compassion may help us avoid the worst effects of climate change—that is, if we understand that “the poorer parts of the world are going to get the thin edge of the wedge” and most need help. But our own self-interest should also lead us to want to avoid the consequences—in terrorism, criminality and refugees—that will result from global warming.
The polar and Greenland ice sheets are melting, he said, and sea levels are rising. When they rise only a meter, “the height of this podium,” he said, more than 65 million people in Bangladesh will be flooded out. And not just Bangladesh, but also the Pacific islands, Micronesia, parts of Europe and parts of the United States.” Imagine the consequences, he said. “Are we recognizing that having 100 million people on the move is going to affect all of us?”
What we need to understand, he said, is that all human beings are closely related to each other. Scientists now know that all of us are descended from a small group of about 2,000 people who, about 65,000 years ago, distinguished themselves from other early humans in some dramatic way than enhanced their survival. Leakey speculates it was by developing speech.
“We have an enormous opportunity in the next decade [to slow the onset of global warming],” he said, “if we begin to understand and accept that we are all from the same place and should all end up in the same place: unity.”