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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Louis Leakey speaks at UCLA

Okay, I have a confession to make: Despite more than a decade covering human evolution for Science and other publications, it has taken me until this year to get around to reading my colleague Virginia Morell's superb biography of the Leakey family, "Ancestral Passions" (available from Amazon.com.) I always note when and where I buy books, and that note says March 2001. My embarrassment is slightly lessened by the fact that my wife read it almost immediately, usually in bed where she does most of her reading, and would relate interesting and/or amusing episodes to me.

This is all introduction to what I really want to say, which is that today I landed on page 322 of the paperback edition and learned that Louis Leakey (who died in 1972) gave a talk at UCLA in March 1969. I was an undergraduate student at UCLA at that time, but I have no memory of his being there. This is probably because I was completely and totally embroiled in the anti-Vietnam War movement at the time, as a member of the radical, leftwing Students for a Democratic Society.

Looking back on these events, 40 years ago, and given my current nearly all-absorbing passion for understanding human origins, it is hard to believe that I would have passed up this historic chance to see and hear one of the leading pioneers of the field. But it was a different time, with different concerns, and perhaps I was too young to realize or understand that there is an unbroken thread between where humanity came from and where it is going. For reasons still unknown and mysterious, we are the one species on earth that can see far into the future and, within certain constraints, determine its own destiny. It is up to us whether war continues or not, whether the planet survives, and whether we live in poverty or abundance. Scientists like Louis Leakey (despite all of his particular faults, which Virginia catalogues honestly but affectionately in her book) gave us the foundation to make this connection between our past and our future. And much as I wish I had set aside the time those four decades ago to hear him speak, at least he and his accomplishments are speaking to me now.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

3 comments:

Anne Gilbert said...

Michael:

Don't feel bad about this. I was an anthropology student at the time, but, oddly enough, I didn't pay too much attention to Louis Leakey at the time, though I (kind of) knew about his discoveries. I didn't pay much attention to any human prehistory at the time. . . .until, years later, my eyes were opened to a lot that I'd missed, by a TV program. And then I just went in deep, partly making up for lost time.
Anne G

Joanna Bryson said...

There is always the chance that you did see him & get influenced by him but just don't remember it. I found some notes on a talk by Nils Nilsson from the first year of my PhD, and I don't remember the talk (though I'd known who he was since my masters degree), but my thesis work wound up being very like the work Nils was doing at the time.

Michael Balter said...

Joanna, I would like to think you are right!

Thanks too for your comment, Anne.