#39 Dr. Donald Johanson

Lucy, AL288 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lucy_blackbg.jpg)Two days ago I saw a post from the Reno Skeptics about a talk at the Truckee Meadows Community college.  The post referred to the Distinguished Speaker Series that they have every year.  This year’s speaker: Dr. Donald Johanson (think Lucy).  How could I not go?

My fiancé wife (just married!) and I got there about 40 minutes early so we could get good seats.  As always, I expect these events to take place in a 10,000 seat auditorium and have standing room only.  Of course there were very few people there and seating for only a few hundred.  All of those seats were full, though.

Johanson’s talk was titled, “Lucy’s Legacy: Our African Heritage”.  At first I was shocked and a bit disappointed that he is still just talking about Lucy.  Researchers are still learning from her but she was discovered almost 37 years ago!  I was pleased to find that most of the lecture was more broadly based.

Early on, Dr. Johanson talked about doing paleoanthropology and why he loves it so much.  He said what every successful scientist says which is to find your passion.  I firmly believe that the road to success was paved by people that found their passion and pursued it.  I’ve heard people say that what they want to do is too hard, too expensive, or requires too much education.  If you have that attitude then you haven’t found your passion.  That’s it.  No more discussion.  Having a passion for something means being blind to the road blocks and pushing through anyway.  You’ll know when you’ve found it.

Most of the lecture was about how great Ethiopia is and a discussion of the finds and geology of the Afar Region of Ethiopia, where Lucy, among others, was found.  It was a good paleoanthropological primer for the region.  He also discussed some of the more recent finds including the fossils of A. sediba.  The discoverers of A. sediba are saying that the fossils are ancestors of Homo.  Not only are they ancestors but they are the FIRST ancestors of Homo.  They are dated at about 1.9 mya.  Johanson say that the 2.2 mya jaw found in Ethiopia is ancestor to Homo, and therefore, so is Lucy.  The jaw is more Homo like rather than ape like so I tend to agree with him.  However, it makes me wonder whether there is a piece of evidence that would make him question the ancestral nature of Lucy.  I’m not saying that I question Lucy...I just want to know if he has an open mind and is open to changing it.

During the course of the lecture Johanson mentioned God.  It was in jest, somewhat, but still made me wonder whether he is a believer.  It may be that he made the mention simply because we do it without thinking.  Even I, a crazy atheist, say “god” sometimes.  He can’t seriously be a believer, though.  He is partially responsible for evolution being so prevalent in the world, after all.

I’m glad I went to the lecture.  Even thought I don’t always agree with Johanson, he is still a powerful figure in the world of paleoanthropology and is a great ambassador for the field.  His books are fun to read and teach you at the same time.  I even scored an autograph for is first book, “Lucy”.  I’m an autograph whore, though.  Only for scientists, though.

If you have a chance to see Dr. Johanson in person I highly recommend that you go.  You won’t forget it.


Written while listening to hour 9 (11:30pm PST) of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe 24 hour podcast, in Sparks, NV!


From the Dictionary of Archaeology, Peguin Reference, 2004, an entry chosen using a random number generator Pg 389, entry 9:

Pontian is a site in peninsular Malaysia of a boat burial of the early centuries AD associated with pottery similar to that from Kaula Selinsing, with decorative motifs also noticed at Oc Èo.  The boat is of Southeast Asian type.