By Richard Leakey
World-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey turns to science to explain why the theory of evolution can no longer be denied.
Ever since Darwin first floated the theory of evolution in the mid-19th century, creationists and scientists have argued – often bitterly – over the true origin of the species on Earth. In the next 15-30 years, that debate will cease. The evidence, at that point, will be irrefutable.
It used to be that a few fossils on a card table were enough evidence to convince scientists that humans had evolved. But today, there are hundreds of fossils spanning four million years in Africa. And the consistency of the story in terms of the anatomical evidence that shows change through time is such that to dispute it is simply silly.
What causes things to change in nature? It could be the Darwinian idea of natural selection, or it could be a more complicated process that hasn’t yet been distilled into a single word.
Why it happens hasn’t quite been proven yet. But the evidence on the physical side, the geological side, and the dating side is very, very secure. We can trace this evidence from us back through pre-us and pre-them to first tools and pre-tools to the first upright, two-legged hominid. It’s a continuum. Obviously, there are some gaps in the story at the moment, but they’re being filled.
Since scientists have unraveled the genome, we can look at how genes have changed over time, and we can follow specific traits back through history. We can follow the mitochondrial strain back in terms of modern humans, and trace it all the way back to a population that lived in Africa 65,000 years ago. While that’s not really that long ago, there’s absolutely no question that we’re all descended from a population that existed well before biblical times.
The acceleration of data accumulation is rendering the evolution debate moot. The work of geneticists and molecular biologists, research in early human diet and stable isotopes, and the development of more complex techniques in analyzing fossil deposits – combined with the fact that we’re still finding new fossils – means that the aggregate of information is growing almost exponentially now.
As evidence becomes more certain, it’ll be incorporated in more and more education curricula around the world. There are still jurisdictions in the United States where creationism and evolution are given equal weight in education. But irrespective of what the Unites States requires in terms of curricula, the availability of data on the Web – the whole IT movement – is making it more and more likely that an increasing number of young minds will have their own questions, and find their own answers.
There will always be the fundamentalists, but I think the general sense that we’re a product of a changed organism through time will go down as a tick on a list of things we needed to know.
What people will probably come to realize is that religion and evolution don’t have to be exclusive of each other. My grandfather was a devout Christian missionary, but he managed to reconcile evolution with the simple explanation of creation that’s in the Bible.
The Bible doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain how we can get pictures through fiber-optic cable, or how we walked on the moon. But that doesn’t mean those things aren’t real, or that they are anti-Christian in some way.
So, just because evolution isn’t explained in the Bible doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. You can’t be a cherry picker on this.
My grandfather recognized that people need to have either a very good education or faith, because there are so many questions around us. If you don’t have access to answers to those questions, blind faith can be very helpful.
But with the progress of science and the information that’s now available, I think more and more people are going to say, “Well, I can still believe in God, but I don’t think he has to have created me.”
The fight against evolution has been used to turn new generations against science. And although it doesn’t really matter in a country like the United States or Western Europe, the growing antipathy towards science in countries in Africa and South America is very worrying, because many of the problems that will beset nations around the world, particularly the poorer nations, will require investment in science.
It’s critical, now more than ever, that we embrace the plethora of evidence that points to evolution. We need to accept our past so that we can prepare for our future.
Richard Leakey’s prolific career as a paleoanthropologist, politician, and environmentalist has spanned five decades. His pioneering work in the Turkana Basin region of northern Kenya has unearthed much of the existing fossil evidence for human evolution. Currently, he is the chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. This article is one of a continuing series by world opinion leaders and thinkers, exclusive to Newsroom in Panama. For earlier contributions go to search and type WORLDVIEW.