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Scientists' Nightstand: Donald Johanson

Greg Ross

Anthropologist Donald Johanson is the founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Lucy's Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins (Harmony Books, 2009).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Donald JohansonClick to Enlarge ImageI am a paleoanthropologist interested in early human evolution in Africa. I began work in Ethiopia in 1970, when I was a grad student at the University of Chicago under F. Clark Howell. In 1974, at the site of Hadar, I found a 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton, popularly known as Lucy. Until recently this was the oldest and most complete skeleton of an early hominid ancestor. In 1978, based on the large fossil hominid sample from Hadar, as well as hominids of similar geological age from Laetoli, Tanzania, my colleagues and I named a distinct early human ancestor species: Australopithecus afarensis.

In the mid-1980s I directed paleontological explorations at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where a very fragmentary skeleton of Homo habilis was recovered. In 1990 we reinitiated fieldwork at Hadar and have recovered additional A. afarensis fossils, including, most importantly, complete male and female skulls of this ancient hominid species.

In addition to my traditional scientific role, I have dedicated a great deal of my time to sharing and explaining the importance of human origin discoveries to the general public, who have a deep interest in knowing where we have come from and how we have become the most intelligent and most influential species on the planet. I have tried to communcate the importance of human evolution through a number of venues, including television (my NOVA series was nominated for an Emmy), a number of coauthored books and a Webby Award–winning website called Becoming Human.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

This year being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, I have been dabbling in a number of his books: The Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871) and The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). It has been my own private celebration to peruse Darwin and to be reminded of how darn often he was right.

This is especially true of his prescient views expressed in The Descent of Man, where he logically outlined the reasons why Africa would prove to be the crucible for human evolution. This was particularly strong since prevailing views of his time suggested that Europe was the finishing school for humanity.

Darwin’s feedback model of human evolution that favored bigger brains to make better tools, which required bigger brains, was many years ahead of his time. Although he did not have a chronology for the appearance of distinctive human characteristics such as reduction in size of canine teeth, acquisition of upright walking, stone-tool manufacture, brain enlargement and meat eating, he did strike on the essential features that distinguish us in the mammalian order Primates. His emphasis on the importance of climate change for driving human evolution has now become an idea of core importance for the emergence of hominids and the diversity we now see in a species-rich human family tree.

Having been born in Chicago and having gone to university there, I was recently enthralled with Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (Crown, 2003), a book about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Larson manages to weave two stories together—the Fair and the horror of a serial killer—in a narrative that flows with excitement and passion that reveals a reality that is stronger than fiction. Contrasting the macabre with the “Midwestern” ethic, as manifested in the competitive world of architects, Larson created a world that fascinated me and made it hard to put the book aside.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I travel a great deal, so lots of reading is done on airplanes, but at home I read in bed at night before I doze off. I love to have a book in my hands, turning the pages and making comments in the margin, but not long ago I was offered an audiobook, The Odyssey, read by Ian McKellen (Penguin Audiobooks, 1996). This was a revelation! Listening to this in my car while driving to and from work, I was transformed by all the adventure and mystery Homer had intended. Phrases rang in my ears, and I felt as if I were on the voyage. This epic was intended to be narrated, not read, and it was brought to life with a performance by one of England’s leading actors, who celebrated Robert Fagles’s engaging and mesmerizing translation.
Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

The intensely personal and often tragic poetry of Anna Akhmatova reflects the complicated life of a woman who experienced an era in Russia from the final days of the czar through Stalin’s brutal rule and on into the Soviet Union. Personal passion comes through in her writing and offers glimpses into disappointment and sometimes even fantasy.

In college I took three years of German and was introduced to a wide variety of poets—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine and many others—and still today when I read them in the original German I am transported back to happy student days.

The wit, romanticism, imagery and elegance of William Shakespeare’s poetry continues to amaze and reward me.

For pure sumptuousness and titillation, it is hard to find better reading than Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960), a true masterpiece that intertwines exotic people, places and cultures. Durrell’s nonfiction writing is also brilliant. I especially recommend reading Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (Faber and Faber, 1990) while vacationing in Provence; you can almost hear the Romans moving through the countryside that so captivated Vincent van Gogh.

One of the greatest gifts to English literature is Joseph Conrad’s relatively short book Heart of Darkness (1902). Set in darkest Africa, it reminds us of the brutal character of those who colonized Africa and left a legacy that continues to haunt the continent. The opening passage in Heart of Darkness almost makes one perspire with the heat and humidity of the tropical rain forests of central Africa and unconsciously check oneself for leeches. As they say, “a must read.”

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

One of the best books I have ever read is Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). This is an eyewitness account by someone who grew up during the emergence of Nazi Germany and the rise of Adolf Hitler’s perverted view of domination and extermination. Haffner, in incredible detail, reveals to us how a complacent society stood and watched as, step by step, a country was led down a path of unmatchable brutality. It should be read by all those who say, “Oh, that could never happen here.”

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

A first edition of Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1863 book Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature occupies a revered place in my study. When I was roughly 13 I encountered this thin, nicely illustrated book on the bookshelves of my mentor. I had an emerging interest in natural history, and when I opened Huxley’s book and began to read about how closely he believed we were related to the African apes, I was spellbound. The black-and-white illustrations of ape and human skulls and skeletons drew me into a world that launched my interest in human evolution.

I was intrigued by Huxley’s profound suggestion that we were a part of the natural world, just like all other life, but the idea that we had shared a unique origin from a common ancestor with the African apes ignited in me a passion that continues today. Reflecting more and more on the fossil evidence for human evolution, I am constantly reminded that knowing our place in nature is vital for the future of humankind and indeed all life on the planet.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dosteovsky (1880); War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1869); Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

E. O. Wilson’s Naturalist (Island Press, 1994), Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (Morrow, 1994), Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker (Norton, 1986), Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (Random House, 1995), James Watson’s The Double Helix (Norton, 1980), John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) and David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo (Scribner, 1996).

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins, by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman (Knopf, 1996). The discovery of a very complete, 1.8-million-year-old skeleton of a young male assigned to Homo ergaster (for many, the African equivalent of Homo erectus) from the western shores of Lake Turkana offered an amazing opportunity for multidisciplinary research. Professor Alan Walker collaborated with his wife, Pat Shipman, to produce an engaging and remarkably accessible book on the importance of this specimen, from its discovery through its excavation, as well as the insights into this specimen that come from a broad-ranging and illuminating examination by a cadre of specialists.

The Wisdom of the Bones offers the nonspecialist the opportunity to share steps taken by Walker and his assembled team that reveal a mind-boggling breadth of insight into the life of the Turkana Boy. This book offers deep insight into the strategic and rewarding study of paleoanthropology that reflects the maturity of the science as a way of knowing our ancestors and how we have become human.

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