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Anthropologists promote understanding of human origins

May 09, 2011

A 2009 Gallup Poll found that only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” and not surprisingly, the poll found a strong relationship between education and belief in Charles Darwin’s theory.

On May 5, famed paleoanthroplogists ASU professor Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey came together at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to discuss human evolution, its overwhelming evidence in the extant hominid fossil record, and why understanding our evolutionary history is of such critical relevance today.

Both scientists have emerged as vocal defenders of evolution, and this evening will offer them an opportunity to discuss human evolutionary theory and the fossil record within the context of their own scientific work. CNN science correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joined the two scientists as moderator on the stage of the LeFrak IMAX Theater. 

Johanson and Leakey have each spent decades hunting for hominid fossils in east Africa, working to unearth the physical record of human evolution and piece together the complex biological narrative that explains – in very real terms – who we are as a species. Their work has led to some of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries of the last half-century, including Johanson's discovery of the "Lucy" specimen in Ethiopia's Awash Valley in 1974 and Leakey's discovery of the 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus youth skeleton known as "Turkana Boy" in 1984.

Johanson and Leakey discussed their experiences as scientists in the field, sharing the stories behind their monumental finds and reflecting upon their work both as eminent leaders in their field and skilled translators of science for a public audience. Having discovered much of the fossil evidence which forms our knowledge of human origins, they also offered a look forward at what we can expect from another decade of human evolutionary research, particularly as fossil finds and genetic data merge to produce a much clearer picture of where we came from and where we are going as a species.

On May 4, Johanson and Louise Leakey, daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey and a paleontologist with experience in Kenya and east Africa, led two special educational sessions at the museum with a group of 125 high school students and over 250 teachers from the New York City area to promote the importance of science education and teaching human evolution.

This historic event was made possible through a joint partnership of Arizona State University Institute of Human Origins, the Turkana Basin Institute headquartered at Stony Brook University, and the American Museum of Natural History.

This event is also part of the Institute of Human Origins’ anniversary celebration during 2011–2012 with the theme of “Becoming Human: 30 Years of Research and Discovery.”

A full year of anniversary events is planned to bring renowned scientists and experts in human origins to the ASU campus, including a lecture series; a fall 2011 exhibition in the ASU Museum of Anthropology; an essay competition – “Letters to Lucy” – for elementary, middle, and high school students; and a final symposium and gala in April 2012.

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