Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Leakey, fully Richard Erskine Frere Leakey

Kenyan Politician, Paleoanthropologist and Conservationalist

"To have arrived on this earth as a product of a biological accident, only to depart through human arrogance, would be the ultimate irony."

"A fossil hunter needs sharp eyes and a keen search image, a mental template that subconsciously evaluates everything he sees in his search for telltale clues. A kind of mental radar works even if he isn't concentrating hard. A fossil mollusk expert has a mollusk search image. A fossil antelope expert has an antelope search image. ... Yet even when one has a good internal radar, the search is incredibly more difficult than it sounds. Not only are fossils often the same color as the rocks among which they are found, so they blend in with the background; they are also usually broken into odd-shaped fragments. ... In our business, we don't expect to find a whole skull lying on the surface staring up at us. The typical find is a small piece of petrified bone. The fossil hunter's search therefore has to have an infinite number of dimensions, matching every conceivable angle of every shape of fragment of every bone on the human body."

"An evolutionary perspective of our place in the history of the earth reminds us that Homo sapiens has occupied the planet for the tiniest fraction of that planet's four and a half thousand million years of existence. In many ways we are a biological accident, the product of countless propitious circumstances. As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long-extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species. There is no law that declares the human animal to be different, as seen in this broad biological perspective, from any other animal. There is no law that declares the human species to be immortal."

"A number of scientists with greatly different backgrounds can come up with completely different assessments. The discussions or controversies are endless. Once a year, we try to bring the most important discoverers together to exchange their experiences and knowledge."

"As we sit today, it is important to remember we are talking about the future of a member of our family, not a strange creature that lives in the jungle."

"Eighty-five percent of recorded species live in the terrestrial realm, and the majority of these, some 850,000, are arthropods (that is, insects, spiders, and crustaceans). Most of the arthropod species are insects, and almost half of these are beetles, a fact that is said to have inspired a famous epigram from the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane. On being asked, one day, by some clerical gentlemen what his study of the natural world had revealed to him about God. Haldane is said to have replied that it indicated that He had an inordinate fondness of beetles."

"For fossils to thrive, certain favorable circumstances are required. First of all, of course, remnants of life have to be there. These then need to be washed over with water as soon as possible, so that the bones are covered with a layer of sediment."

"I, too, am convinced that our ancestors came from Africa."

"Let us devote our minds - the one thing we have more of than other apes - and let's secure their future."

"For three million years we were hunter-gatherers, and it was through the evolutionary pressures of that way of life that a brain so adaptable and so creative eventually emerged. Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty."

"I would hazard a guess that we have found fossilized human remains of at least a thousand different specimens in South and East Africa, more or less complete at that. I think this is where the prelude to human history was primarily played out."

"One should not forget that there are very few surviving items from this period, often just single, small bones, a tooth, a sliver of the skull. Categorizing these pieces can be very difficult."

"Our self-awareness impresses itself on us so cogently, as individuals and as a species, that we cannot imagine ourselves out of existence, even though for hundreds of millions of years humans played no part in the flow of life on the planet. When Teilhard de Chardin wrote, The phenomenon of Man was essentially foreordained from the beginning, he was speaking from the depth of individual experience, which we all share, as much as from religious philosophy. Our inability to imagine a world without Homo sapiens has a profound impact on our view of ourselves; it becomes seductively easy to imagine that our evolution was inevitable. And inevitability gives meaning to life, because there is a deep security in believing that the way things are is the way they were meant to be."

"Paleoanthropology is not a science that ends with the discovery of a bone. One has to have the original to work with. It is a life-long task."

"The elephants were being slaughtered in masses. Some were even killed in the vicinity of big tourist hotels."

"Scientific innovations continually provide us with new means of analyzing the finds."

"Sadly, I am not able to take part in the fieldwork myself so much anymore, as both of my legs were amputated following an airplane crash twelve years ago."

"The land is not in the least bit fertile and yet the cattle herds grow larger and larger. A cow represents capital investment here."

"The problem of the apes is not a shortage of money, it is a shortage of strategy. Let us devote our minds -- the one thing we have more of than other apes -- and let's secure their future."

"The problem is that during the 1980s, a decade of heavy poaching, the elephants retreated to safer areas. And now people have moved into the corridors once used by the elephants."

"The slaughter of chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest relatives, is absolutely diabolical. I can't imagine that this can go on much longer before these animals are extinct."

"There should be concern expressed at every possible venue to bring pressure on both the African governments and on the international bodies to do something about this. Unless this is stopped, these species could become extinct, and it would be a terrible loss to humanity."

"To investigate the history of man's development, the most important finds are, of course, hominid fossils."

"We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man."

"We are concerned that, in a few years’ time, this place of discovery, with its wealth of human fossils, the like of which can be found nowhere else in the world, could be completely destroyed."

"When out fossil hunting, it is very easy to forget that rather than telling you how the creatures lived, the remains you find indicate only where they became fossilized."

"Along the borders to Ethiopia and Somalia, anarchy reigns, the police and military have retreated quite some distance."

"Earlier, 100,000 elephants lived in Kenya and we didn't have any noteworthy problem with it. The problem that we have is not that there are now more elephants."

"Elephants can live to an age of up to 70 or 80 years and they have a good memory. It could be they come across an area that is experiencing a drought. Then they continue on their path and run into people."

"As every parent knows, children go through an adolescent growth spurt, during which they put on inches at an alarming rate. Humans are unique in this respect: most mammalian species, including apes, progress almost directly from infancy to adulthood."

"Culture represents a novelty in the world of nature, and it could have added an effective, unifying edge to the forces of natural selection."

"Humans become human through intense learning not just of survival skills but of customs and social mores, kinship and social laws ? that is, culture."

"I simply would not accede to being forced into this, and would frequently be kept out of classes because of irreverent comments and mocking this religious stuff. Frankly, it stayed with me to this day. In fact, don't get me going. I'm almost as bad as Richard Dawkins on this issue."

"If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it's solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges."

"If you don't like the word evolution, I don't care what you call it, but life has changed. You can lay out all the fossils that have been collected and establish lineages that even a fool could work up. So the question is why, how does this happen? It's not covered by Genesis. There's no explanation for this change going back 500 million years in any book I've read from the lips of any God."

"I can't think of any other region in the world which is such a vast source of fossils."

"If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you've got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one."

"It has taken biologists some 230 years to identify and describe three quarters of a million insects; if there are indeed at least thirty million, as Erwin (Terry Erwin, the Smithsonian Institute) estimates, then, working as they have in the past, insect taxonomists have ten thousand years of employment ahead of them. Ghilean Prance, director of the Botanical Gardens in Kew, estimates that a complete list of plants in the Americas would occupy taxonomists for four centuries, again working at historical rates."

"It is virtually impossible to control Northern Kenya, which is populated chiefly by migrant nomads."

"It seems inconceivable that a species of human could possess fully modern language and not be fully modern in all other ways, too. For this reason, the evolution of language is widely judged to be the culminating event in the emergence of humanity as we know it today."

"It was much easier to work with a new university that didn't have a 200-year-old image where it was so set in its ways like some of the Ivy League schools that you couldn't really change what they did and what they thought."

"Natural selection operates according to immediate circumstances and not toward a long-term goal. Homo sapiens did eventually evolve as a descendant of the first humans, but there was nothing inevitable about it."

"Ritual disposal of the dead speaks clearly of an awareness of death, and thus an awareness of self."

"Primates need good nutrition, to begin with. Not only fruits and plants, but insects as well."

"Spoken language clearly differentiates Homo sapiens from all other creatures. None but humankind produces a complex spoken language, a medium for communication and a medium for introspective reflection."

"The language of art is powerful to those who understand it, and puzzling to those who do not. What we do know is that here was the modern human mind at work, spinning symbolism and abstraction in a way that only Homo sapiens is capable of doing."

"We are bipedal apes, and it should not be surprising to see that fact reflected in the way our ancestors lived."

"The world's five thousand extant languages are products of our shared ability, but the five thousand cultures they create are separate from each other."

"We are concerned that, in a few years? time, this place of discovery, with its wealth of human fossils, the like of which can be found nowhere else in the world, could be completely destroyed."

"We may be on the cusp of some very real disasters that have nothing to do with whether the elephant survives, or a cheetah survives, but if we survive."