Summary of Human Evolution Symposium By John LoGiudice

From a conversation between Dr. Richard Leakey and a Kenyan Bishop on the scheduled display of Australopithecus skeletons at the National Museum in Nairobi;

Bishop : “We cannot allow the children to see these skeletons, these things are dangerous!”
Dr. Leakey: “Why are they dangerous? They have been dead for over a million years.”

This exchange was mentioned by Dr. Leakey at the commencement of the Fourth Annual Stony Brook Human Evolution Symposium on Tuesday, September 25th, and it struck at the underlying theme of the opening day of the week long proceedings, the general public must be made aware of the importance of studying human origins and that the truthful presentation of science can overcome ignorance and superstition. This theme was visited again and again at a symposium that was titled; “Diversity in Australopithecus: Tracking the Earliest Bipeds”.

While many of the lectures were about the above mentioned title, the audience was full of irate laymen-educators who again and again displayed their frustration with a system that placates the “religious right” and their fairytale “Intelligent Design”, the belief that supernatural forces had a hand in the “creation” of life. Since this writer does not prescribe to this, I will refer to “Intelligent Design” as “The Little Deity That Could” theory. But to be honest, though I do agree with the educators in their frustrations, I personally did not feel that a forum on the latest scientific breakthroughs in the field of Physical Anthropology was the place to make political statements. Some of us are studying anthropology and were there to hear people who lead our field and their latest findings. They spend most of their day telling students not to chew gum in their class. I don’t go to their P.T.A. meetings and steal the floor to discuss “Pre-Clovis peoples in the Americas”.

Anyway, after the opening speech by Pres. Kenny about her plans to build 43 new fountains in front of the Admin. building (satire), Dr. Richard Leakey gave his typical humorous and deeply insightful speech to all of us in the audience. To say that Dr. Leakey is the great elder statesman of the field, would be a gross understatement and his praise for the people in the field and his warnings about the perils of “Anthropogenic changes” of the world ( a.k.a. Global Warming) strike a deep sounding chord in even the most lay of laypeople. Dr. Leakey also struck upon another important key note, the fact that today in the field of Anthropology so much is being stressed on classifying Australopithecus and hominids in general, “It is almost like distinguishing between a cup and a mug. What does it matter what it is called, you can still drink from it?”.

The Stony Brook’s own Dr. John Fleagle introduced other speakers, such as Dr. William Kimbel of Arizona State University, who gave a very animated and lively talk about the current attempts to distinguish the “cups and saucers” from each other and how they relate to us.

I could give you a complete run down of every speech and likely put most readers into a six month coma, so I will give you a quick list of the speakers and what they said.

Dr. Kimbel, “What we do know. What we are trying to know. And what it has to do with us
Dr. Ronald Clarke, U. of Witwatersrand, South Africa, “Expanding on Dr. Raymond Dart’s work in South Africa”…How does South Africa’s Paranthropus fit in with our East African origins.
First Panel Discussion, “Did early Australopithecus robustus and Homo habilis have a common ancestor?”

Then came Dr. Meave Leakey, who proved again that without the Leakey family, Anthropology would be decades behind where we are. Dr. Leakey (Richard’s wife) is currently working on a recent find, Kenyanthropus platyops. A strange hominid that lived at the same time as Australopithecus ( 3.5-3.4 million years ago), but had physical features that were similar to H. habilis and to Australopithecines. It is such an odd find that Dr. Leakey and her team put it into its own genus “Kenyanthropus”.

Next was Dr. Matt Spenheimer of the University of Colorado, who in the opinion of this writer, is working on some of the most interesting aspects of the science today. Dr. Spenheimer works on the nutrition and diet of Australopithecus and his personal motto is “You are what you eat”. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Spenheimer at the post symposium reception and is one of the most interesting people I have ever met in the field. his work involves the measuring of carbon isotope levels in remains and determining what was on the menu 3 million years ago. To put it simply, grasses give off a “carbon 4” signature, while fruits and tree matter gives off a more pronounced “carbon 3”. sounds complicated and it is, but it also is a remarkable aspect of the science, if you can wrap your brain around it.

Then S.B. grad and current professor at Arizona State, Kaye Reed spoke about ecology and the role it played with our distant ancestors. She explained how environmental studies can help us study our distant past.

Next to bat, was Dr. Jack Reed Stern, of Stony Brook Anatomy and one of the great leaders of Paleoanthropology. Dr. Stern’s work on the study of limbs and non-human primates has greatly helped us understand our origins and has made Stony Brook synonymous with global leadership in the world of anthropology. Dr. Stern gave one of the most memorable and humorous talks I have ever had the pleasure of sitting in on. Dr. Stern started up with a clip from Godfather 3, Al Picino’s “They keep dragging me back in”, continued with a letter from a person who “time traveled and met the Australopithecine ‘Lucy'” and finished with the statement “They probably will never let me talk here again.”, which in my opinion would be tragic, his talk was a brilliant mix of humour and scientific knowledge that best fit one of S.B.’s most renowned and highest spoken of professors. He left the room rolling with laughter and thinking at the same time. Dr. Stern, excellent work!

After we recovered from “Hurricane Jack”, we got to the second panel discussion which started out well, then turned into the “high school science teacher whining contest”, I do indeed agree with them, but this was not the place.

Then came the reception which was great, I almost accidentally ate a scallop (which could have killed me) while talking to Dr. Sponheimer and drank beer….the end.

Links    (the symposium site)    (the department)   (about the Leakey family and their works) (about the Koobi Fora archaeological site, which was mentioned often at the symposium)