6.19.2005

what i'm reading: richard leakey

It's been a while since my last What I'm Reading post. That's because I read the beginnings of several mediocre novels that I won't name. Good writers worked very hard creating them, and although they didn't do much for me, someone else is sure to love them. No need to trash anyone's work.

I'm about to start Origins Reconsidered - The Search For What Makes Us Human, Richard Leakey's follow-up to his famous Origins. If the author's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the son of the world's most famous paleontologists, Mary and Louis Leakey.

There's cool info about the whole family on their foundation's website. So much of what is known about early humans goes back to the Leakeys' groundbreaking work. Their granddaughter, Louise Leakey, carries on the family tradition. There's a profile of Mary and Louis in Time's "100 Most Important People of the Century".

From the Origins Reconsidered jacket:
... For Richard Leakey the most compelling question is no longer "How did we physically evolve?" It is, instead, "How did we become human?" For this world-renowned paleoanthropologist it is a humbling reminder that no matter how complete the skeleton, how perfect the fossil, there is a gap in our knowledge. Our ancestors evolved from two-legged scavengers into creatures that create. They learned to make stone tools, to communicate, to build shelters, and to hunt for food.

This realization sparked Leakey to return to his earlier work - especially his 1977 book, Origins - to poke holes in his previous beliefs and to reflect anew on what makes us who we are. As he gently admits, considerations like these are usually left to philosophers, not scientists. But again and again, he is faced with his own guiding principle: "The past is the key to our future."

In this seminal work, Leakey incorporates ideas from philosophy, anthropology, molecular biology, and even linguistics, to investigate not only how we evolved anatomically, but how we acquired the qualities that makes us human - consciousness, creativity and culture.
I think this sounds fascinating. These days it's popular to cherry-pick anthropology and paleontology out of context, and use selected (and often disputed) ideas to reinforce stereotypes - the "men are from Mars, women like repetitive tasks" crew. But as Jared Diamond showed us in Guns, Germs and Steel, those disciplines still have a lot to teach us.

I hope I can understand this book enough to enjoy it. Sometimes the science that fascinates me isn't written for my level of knowledge. Leakey's co-author, Roger Lewin, is a famous science writer, so maybe that bodes well.

8 comments:

B. W. Ventril said...

Oh cool... I remember skimming bits of this when it first came out, when I worked in a book store. Leakey was also very active in opposition/reform movements in Kenya, so much so that Danial Arap Moi had him whipped.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1330228.stm

B. W. Ventril said...

Um, make that Daniel, not Danial.

L-girl said...

Hey, we knew who you meant.

I'm glad to have some feedback for this book. I've been on this old reading list kick - I'm now up to the early '90s. It turns out I skipped many of them for good reason, but at least I can cross them off the list.

Yes, I am compulsive, thank you for asking.

dogsled_stacie said...

Ah! A topic near and dear to my heart.... love this stuff! I'm going to have to give that one a read.

L-girl said...

Oh yes? Why is that, if I may ask?

Hey DS, I just realized I never added you to my blogroll. Which of the three is your main blog? (Which should I link to?)

L-girl said...

I just took a peek at all three. Your dogs are so great!

dogsled_stacie said...

My majors in University were anthropology/archaeology, and my first love was early humans. I always wanted to go digging around in Africa... settled for North America instead! Now, I work at a museum that is all about ice age prehistory and the peopling of the Americas. Love that stuff.

As for linking - I guess to the keeponsledding one, since it's current. I may be switching back in the winter, but will have a link to all at some point... still have to add the new pups to the dog pages!

L-girl said...

Very cool!

And please show us the new pups!!