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Richard Leakey

      . . . paleoanthropologist and conservationist. Dr. Leakey is internationally acclaimed for his work both finding our ancient human ancestors and helping to prevent the extinction of African elephants. He is now part of a growing number of people worldwide concerned about the treatment and future of Great Apes -- chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, in addition to humans. As an environmentalist, he also works to relieve human poverty and suffering as a critical first step.


Our descendants deserve at least a rudimentary chance to survive and enjoy this planet as we have, Richard Leakey believes. Will they get it? Dr. Leakey worries about the answer to that question.

Richard Leakey and his family have famously played key roles in understand humanity’s origins. He is internationally acclaimed for his role in saving African elephants from extinction. Now he is working on behalf of other intelligent creatures including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans who, with humans, make up the Great Ape family.  But the current state of the world is far from satisfactory to Richard Leakey, who sees more challenges than solutions.

There’s plenty of money in the world to address all of the many competing demands, he’s convinced, concerned by what he sees as a lack of political will to do so. He deplores isolationist tendencies, deteriorated international relations and what he considers an artificial crisis between Islam and the West, degradation of the environment and large numbers of people falling into a poverty trap. But it is Global climate change that casts its ominous shadow over all of our other very real and present dangers for Dr. Leakey.

Our hope lies on our wonderful brains and our young, Dr. Leakey believes. Young people need parents, not computers, DVDs and television. They need to be listening to and participating in discussions about issues. Creating stories.  Questioning. They need real education that encourages openness and flexibility that lasts a lifetime, not schooling that specializes in multiple choice decisions with little or no understanding of the answers given. Education is a fundamental problem that Dr. Leakey sees around the world. We must give all young people opportunities to use their brains.

And being open to ideas must not stop at the school house door, Dr. Leakey insists, both charmed and frustrated in particular by the United States. The rest of the world may have values that are quite different and equally legitimate to America’s, he points out, eager for Americans to resist a troubling conviction that their way is the only way. Others, he maintains, may prefer both another route and different destinations.

Addressing human misery and suffering is key, Dr. Leakey believes. Trapping vast numbers of human in poverty and despair carries a cruel irony -- billions suffers while all of humanity is denied the abilities of potential problem-solvers. New answers must and can be found. It is clear to him that Marxism and what he calls bald capitalism must yield to a combination of all sorts of ideas and theories that will be different in different places.

The Leakey family was lucky, Richard Leakey concludes. They straddling dramatically different cultures while searching for our ancient ancestors, had opportunities to understand how things work in the natural context, and were forced to accommodate differences. Now it’s our turn. The judges will be our descendants, who must live with the consequences of our actions.

[This Program was recorded February 13, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Richard Leakey describes for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how the strands of his unusually interesting life weave together. He gives a frank assessment of his worries about the current state of the world.

Conversation 2

Young people are the key to addressing all of the issues that trouble him, Dr. Leakey says, focusing on the key role our intelligent minds have played in our evolution. He applauds real education and appropriate parenting, in contrast to disturbing current realities. He integrates his own experience and observations about our species’ deep past with his interest in the ethics and rights of other intelligent animals, including great apes and elephants. Humanity’s struggle to survive is related to caring about each other AND other creatures, he says, and expands.

Conversation 3

The plight of humans directly affects the conservation of other species, Dr. Leakey reminds us, with examples.  There’s enough money for the world to take responsibility for the survival of wildlife in protected areas alongside other pressing needs, he says, pointing out that we cannot inhabit a world without breathing space, forests, clean water and air. “Conservation” and “development” must co-exist, he says, convinced that everyone -- not just moderately wealthy people -- must be offered the opportunity to move forward in life. The challenges of spending money wisely are explored. Dr. Leakey suggests updating the roles of governments and of private enterprise.

Conversation 4

We must educate young people to remain open, to learn long after we leave school, Dr. Leakey declares. He urges people in the United State to look beyond fear-driven responses to “9/11” and to talk about what is really happening in the world, including what America’s actions in Iraq have done to the possibility of a more or less peaceful world.  Noting what delights and frustrates him about America, he points out that others in the world may have quite different and legitimate values. Summarizing his work to save elephants, Dr. Leakey discusses the Great Apes. He addresses ideas about “God’s purpose” and the need to accept the reality of evolution.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10.28

Conversation 5

We are a part of nature, Dr. Leakey reminds us, with a variety of examples, from Great Apes to lions and other animals with a degree of intelligence. Deep-seated religious traditions with long human histories do not have the advantage of what is now known about the real world, he observes. The conversation expands to include morals, ethics, and cultures, across species. People can be led, Dr. Leakey reports, and discusses ways to address corruption in many cultures.

Conversation 6

The global climate clearly is changing, Dr. Leakey says. Yes, it has happened before, he realizes, but the anticipated flooding, droughts and famines ahead did not affect 5 billion people.  He insists that we all have responsibility for making sure our descendants have at least a rudimentary chance of surviving and enjoying the planet we have enjoyed.


Our admiration for the extraordinary work and courage of Richard Leakey and of his remarkable family knows no bounds.
The Great Ape Project coordinated our introduction to Richard Leakey, who is an active supporter of their work. We are immensely grateful, particularly to Doug Cress and Sandra Cress. The Great Ape project is focused on “Equality Beyond Humanity.” They remind us that, “We are human, and we are also great apes.”
The Great Ape Project tells us that, “Dr. Leakey is also closely monitoring attempts to create an International Great Ape Commission, which would centralize all conservation, welfare and preservation strategies in the world, in addition to serving as an ambassador for the UN's Great Apes Survival Commission (GRASP).”


Related Links:
Among almost a dozen books that Richard Leakey has written and/or co-authored, Wildlife Wars is published by Pan Books and St. Martin’s Press.
Learn more about the Great Ape Project in general and particularly about their remarkable current Census of non-human great apes, “Recognition for the Uncounted,” at the Great Ape Project website.

In The Old Way, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has recreated the lifestyle of our earliest ancestors using her experience as the first outsider (along with her family) to live among the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.

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