Was there ever any doubt about what you would do with your life?
Richard Leakey: Oh, I think there still is. I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to do what my parents did. As I got older, it was very clear that they were very successful, and it’s quite difficult to be successful in the shadow of successful people. That was one part. Two, I had done so badly at school that the options that I hoped were available to me obviously weren’t. I was unemployable. My school leaving certificate, I found many years later, the headmaster had said to my father that he couldn’t think of anything in which I could be usefully directed as a career, and he thought maybe the British Army, entering as a private, might be one option. So, I don’t know. I was pretty glad to leave school and pretty glad when my parents said, “If you leave school and don’t go on with your education, you are on your own.” I thought that was the best I’d heard for a long time and was delighted to have that.
So, I kind of made my way from there, and I did a few odds and ends. I made a little money trapping animals. I eventually realized that you could exploit this family shadow by trading in its name. I started taking tourists on safari using the name Leakey, which was fine until they met this child and thought what on earth had they got into. But I did quite well for a few years and managed to survive, managed to keep myself together. And then I thought I’d try getting back to an academic training and tried to get into a university as an undergraduate and was reminded in very quick order that I didn’t have any of the necessary qualifications, and that it would be extremely difficult to see me as a scholar. So, I sort of went and looked for something else to do. So that’s been my life.
How old were you when you left school?
Richard Leakey: I dropped out of high school at 16. I had two more years to go, chose not to do that, and really have never — apart from a brief flirtation with the idea of getting into a university. In fact, I went to Cambridge. Three or four generations on my parents’ side had been scholars at Cambridge, and I had heard about the old-boy network, the old school tie, and thought they would take a fifth generation just on the name. They made it very clear that that was not an option to me. So Cambridge rejected me. Quite rightly, although at the time I thought it was a little churlish. So, I had to do it without any university training.
What did you do after you dropped out of high school?
Richard Leakey: Well, I did some safaris. I used to take people to look at wildlife. I did some collections. The Smithsonian wanted a collection of African bird skeletons to compare with fossil birds. So, I shot and collected a lot of African birds. I collected some fairly unusual primates that were needed for research at Yale and made some money on those activities, but largely, it was hit and miss. Fortunately, the cost of living in Kenya in the early ’60s was relatively modest, and I could manage, but it was very unsatisfactory. It looked as though I could go into a serious commercial enterprise running tours and safaris, but the problem is you have to take people with you, and most of the people that ended up as clients were not particularly nice people, and so I didn’t like that either. Eventually, I offered to help my parents organize some of their ongoing projects. At that time in the ’60s, Olduvai was just getting underway. My mother had discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus. The National Geographic Society was supporting them. They needed logistics. So, I began to work with them and then found that they were quite willing to let me go off and look into the possibility of other sites and other places.
I knew the fossils. I knew the background. I had a lot of energy, and I was fairly cheap, and so I would be sent off with a vehicle and a couple of men to explore the possibility of A or the possibility of B, and so I got into field work and prehistory that way. Fortunately, my first real venture into looking for fossils in a small group resulted in a very important discovery. That was in late ’63 or early ’64, where we discovered a lower jaw of an Australopithecus that had not been found before. It was in perfect condition. We found it on the first attempt, and so that got me very excited, and I began to realize that there were probably a lot more of these things, and that if you find these things, you get a position in the ladder which you can’t get to unless you have either got an education or something else. So by finding important things, you immediately get into the game, which you’d been excluded from otherwise.
What is the key to finding fossils? Is it clues, persistence, luck?
Richard Leakey: Finding fossils, you’ve got to be looking in the right place, so an understanding of geology is very important. You’ve got to be able to locate areas where there might be fossils, because of the geological evidence or conditions under which fossils are formed, and conditions under which fossils might now be re-exposed through erosion. Then you’ve got to ascertain that there are fossils where you are looking, and then you have got to look mighty hard, and you can look and look and look and not find anything, go back exactly to the same place a year later, and there was something there all the time. It really is a question of persistence and doggedness, but you could look as doggedly as you like in the wrong place and never find it. So there is an element of subliminal knowledge that plays a major part that a lot of people obviously don’t have. I had it because I was raised in it. It was second nature to me.
Can you describe the thrill of discovery, that moment when you know you’ve found something important?
Richard Leakey: In most cases, when you find a fossil — and you don’t always find it yourself, but one of your team finds it — they find something that is very unimpressive. It’s basically a fragment that is sufficiently preserved, that you can say, “Well, this is a fragment of a human ancestor.” It’s a piece of a skull, or it’s a piece of a leg bone, but its anatomy — the anatomical detail — is distinctive from the anatomy of a similar element from another species. So you can say, “It’s not a baboon, it’s not a monkey, it’s not a lion, it’s not an antelope. This is a human ancestor.” But it’s just a scrap. You then look further, and you end up, if you’re lucky, finding other pieces, some of which will fit back onto the original discovery. So you then get a fragment that is a little bigger. In some cases, you are very lucky. You find a fragment, a skull, and in time you pick up — through excavation or a combination of screening and excavation — you pick up enough that you can begin to piece together what the skull looked like.
So you may find something today, and it may be another five or six days, or even a week more, before you have enough pieces — if indeed you find additional pieces — that it all comes together. Then suddenly, you realize that it really is something quite new and quite different and very exciting.
So the excitement, the buzz, usually is gradually developed. It’s not like a jab with an electricity rod. It’s sort of a slow build-up to the full consummation. I guess you could say it’s like very slow sex, building up to the final moment. I guess that’s an analogy for most of it. Sometimes however, it’s not like that at all. You walk around a corner, and there the whole thing is before you because it was washed out complete. Or you find something, and with a very short amount of clearing away of the topsoil, you see what you have. So it can be either way, but it’s generally a very slow process. Ninety percent of the time, these isolated fragments are just that. The other pieces have long since disappeared, through fracture and erosion, or were never deposited. So most pieces that you find don’t lead to a lot more, but sometimes they do. The average is that one in 20 specimens proves to be worthwhile, and knowing that, you keep at it.
If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand what you do as a paleoanthropologist, how would you explain what is important about it? What is important about it to you?
Richard Leakey: Well, there are two aspects to this. I think I’m, like many people, curious. We are an unusual species. We do the strangest things. We are very complicated, and we’re all interested in how we came to be what we are. The vast majority of people are quite happy with an explanation that was offered a couple of thousand years ago, that we were somehow the product of a very wise God who decided that we should be created in his image. Now, as somebody who has grown up in science and been steeped in the concepts of evolution, this never worked for me. But it doesn’t work to say, “Well, I don’t believe God made us,” if I don’t know what did produce us. So, I have had a natural inclination to want to follow the biological explanation of how we came to be what we are. That’s a very complex and prolonged story. The exciting thing about it is it can’t be done in isolation of the origin of life and the whole story of where did the zebra come from and where did the giraffe come from, where did the fruit fly come from and where did the tomato come from. These are all equally interesting parts of our story.
If you approach it from a biological point of view, there is a wealth of stuff that you can find out. So that is what drives me.To me, it really is important that science, which is so much a part of our life, be pursued. As people become better educated, you begin to question.
If you have a deep faith and belief that you were created in God’s image by his decision, fair enough. But if you start having that question by virtue of the development of new scientific technology, issues that are not explained in Genesis, and you begin to look at what humans are really, an awful lot of people begin to have some doubts about that. This is not to say they should have doubts about the purpose of religion, which to me is to control our social ways and to control our ability to live together. I think that is very important, but if it’s based on a faith that is being eroded, you can have a lot of instability, and I think to a certain extent, the instability of the last decade has seen the growth of fundamentalism, which worries me for political reasons. It worries me for social reasons. So, I think offering a real scientific explanation for who I am, why I am the way I am, and why you are the way you are, where we came from — and from that the predictability of where we might go — I think this gives our species, which is remarkably unique in its intelligence, capacities, a far better stance on this planet than if we just leave it to some unknown and call in some supernatural to justify or explain things that perhaps could have been mitigated against or anticipated. So, I think it’s a real legitimate concern that we need to pursue.
Given your extraordinary contributions to our understanding of human evolution, what do you think of the concept of intelligent design?
Richard Leakey: I think “intelligent design” is a rather shallow — and I would say unintelligent — attempt to pull wool over the eyes of the masses. “Intelligent design” is nothing more than a fundamental creationism. It is just dressed up with labels and dressed up with pseudoscience that makes no sense. You don’t need to make something up when there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for life. I think “intelligent design” is totally redundant and unnecessary, and I am more than happy that people simply prefer to believe in the Holy Book’s definition of origin, creation, out of Genesis. If you want to do that, that’s your lot, but if you don’t want us to work on the other side, I think that’s wrong. We certainly don’t want to stop you having total faith in a faith-based system of beliefs. But the faith side shouldn’t prevent intelligent, thinking, curious minds pursuing science to provide an explanation based on science.
I think the two should be compatible, but I don’t think, as has been suggested, that they are going to come together. There is no meeting of the minds. If you satisfy yourself on the basis of there being no need for proof, and if I can only satisfy myself if there is verifiable repeatable proof, then how do we talk? You should tolerate, but not expect to agree.
What are the personal characteristics that are important or necessary to do what you have done with your life?
Richard Leakey: We’ve talked about the work in prehistory, and my life has ventured into other areas: conservation, government and politics, and advocacy. I think it takes a certain self-confidence that you have an experience or a range of experience. You have a position that is legitimate and that lends itself to a better understanding of a particular set of issues. Perhaps your voice, my voice, can change people’s positions on important issues that are more than personal. Perhaps one can stimulate discussion that will lead to solution to a range of problems. I think it takes a degree of self-confidence based on what you have done. I think it requires a willingness to listen and a willingness to give, back off, to postulate, to be remodeled in one’s thinking. I think it’s a flexibility of the mind.
I think it’s important to have a sense of fun and a sense of amusement, to minimize one’s tendency to think of one’s self as somehow important. To make fun of one’s self and to be able to accept that one was totally wrong on some issues and laugh about it, I think it’s a very healthy thing. I think being wrong is never a bad thing, particularly if you can be the first to discover you were wrong. It is a little galling when others tell you you’re wrong and they’re right, but if you can say,” I was wrong,” before they get there, that’s good for you.
I don’t think anyone can come up with a formula, but I do think it’s important to remember that none of us really could do what we have done without a host of other people participating in more than obvious ways. An idea comes to you, but the germ of that idea probably was dropped by somebody else, or a certain circumstance, so you have nothing to do with it. I think one needs to be a little bit humble about recognizing that we are not the real drivers. We are mouthpieces for movements, ideas, thoughts.
Does it take a sense of adventure?
Richard Leakey: Oh, yes. I would hate a day to go by without something that is adventurous in some form or the other. There is so much you can get out of just standing on a street corner and watching interactions between people, and people and cars, and animals and people. There is just so much amusement every day of your life if you open your eyes and watch and listen.
You have been an activist in Kenya with the National Museum, as a conservationist, in politics. What gives you your greatest sense of satisfaction?
Richard Leakey: I think one of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing was doing things that people largely said couldn’t be done. Turning the Kenya Museum into a first-rate world center for the study of human origins, as opposed to a venue where some interesting stuff periodically happened, was a great challenge. Turning it into a big, well-financed scientific institution in a period of 15 years gave me a lot of satisfaction. Going into conservation, took over an extremely corrupt government department, the most corrupt in Kenya. Wildlife in Kenya was total disaster, poaching of elephants rampant, wildlife people being killed. Turning that around into an absolutely clean, fast-moving, well-funded, high-morale wildlife authority in a couple of years was very exciting. It was something nobody thought could be done. I didn’t know it could be done, but tried it, and it worked.
Getting into politics as a white Kenyan, quite late in the day, and doing it by forming an opposition to the incumbent president and demanding that there be constitutional reform and demanding that there be greater sensitivity to human rights and democracy, and leading a movement of young and people of other color — I was a minority — but being part of the fray, being attacked, being whipped and cars burnt, being beaten up, being tear-gassed, being locked up, chained up, this was all tremendously exciting. They said you couldn’t do it, but we did it.
We got a political party in place. We’ve got constitutional reform moving. There is far better democracy today in Kenya than there ever was. And then to move out of being anti the President and getting involved with the President again, having been accused by him of treason and sedition, and a year or two later being invited by him to head the government under him as head of the public service in charge of military, the police, the entire structure — who in their right mind would think you could do that and do it well? So that was great fun, very challenging and hugely exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed that.
So, you know, I’m always looking for things to do. I wanted to grow grapes and start a vineyard, and people said, “You can’t grow a vineyard in your area. It’s six-and-a-half feet above sea level. You’re on the Equator. The days are too short. How are you going to grow grapes that make good wine?” So, I said, “Well, why can’t I?” and they said, “Well, it can’t be done, and you’ll have to think of something else.” Well, we’re producing very good wine today, pinot noir and chardonnay, very drinkable. First time it’s been grown. In fact, a wag friend of mine wrote a book and said, “He’s growing the best wine in a region twice the size of France.” The fact that nobody else is growing any doesn’t matter. It’s a great sense of achievement, and we serve the wine now to all our friends, and they prefer it to a lot of the wine that is available commercially in Kenya. This is the challenge. If you want something done by me, suggest it can’t be done, and then I will engage. I enjoy that very much.
It sounds to me that part of this equation is courage, at least a courage of one’s convictions.
Richard Leakey: I think courage of one’s own convictions is a very important part of it. It sounds like a cliché, but I think it actually does capture a spirit of why a number of women and men are successful, because they grasp onto something, if you like, a belief in themselves and their ability to make an impact. Once you have that as part of you, there really are very few things you can’t attempt to tackle and push through in one way or the other.
For me, and for many others who have reached a position where other people at least think they are successful, you do so knowing full well that you can be successful by failing thoroughly. At least you can prove that something wasn’t possible. It doesn’t always have to end well, provided what you did was done with sincerity and thorough effort. I guess that is in part the essence of science. You have an idea, you set it up, you set out to prove it, and if you work hard enough at it, you either do prove it, or you prove it utterly is wrong. That’s not quite as satisfying, but it’s also satisfying to get to the truth, and the truth doesn’t always have to fit with what your preconceived concept was, and I think that’s important.
In 1969, you were diagnosed with kidney disease and given ten years to live. In 1993, a plane you were flying had a malfunction and crashed, and yet here you are. What does that tell us about Richard Leakey?
Richard Leakey: First of all, I think it tells you that medical predictions should be taken with a grain of salt. Doctors have a tendency to be somewhat pessimistic. I often think that it isn’t necessarily wise to believe everything you are told by any professional, particularly the medical profession or the legal profession. I think one wants to go into this with a slightly more open mind, and a sense that they may be wrong. I think that’s healthy.
My kidney disease in ’69, it wasn’t pleasant. I had a transplant much later. I got 11 years out of my kidney failure. Then I had a transplant. I got 26 years out of that, and I had another transplant last year, and I am fine. I’m getting expert now at kidney disease. It’s a tough disease, and many people don’t survive it, but I am one of the lucky ones, and it’s worked. Even the latest transplant, which — my wife very kindly gave me a kidney. She’s not a blood relative, but the drugs today are very good, and if you’ve got a good attitude, I think you’re fine.
I lost my legs, but the way you look at it is, “What happened if the legs had lost me?” I buried the legs rather than myself, and so that’s a good thing. Walking on artificial legs isn’t the best way to get around, but there are advantages. People go out of their way to help you. You get wheelchairs through long queues, and lines at customs and immigration. If the seat’s too small in an airline, you can take your legs off and fit in very comfortably. So there are a number of positives about this, and I wouldn’t by any means think it was all negative. It taught me a great deal about bipedalism, which is the fundamental of humanity. I had always lectured about the important steps in becoming a human, one of which is bipedalism. It happened six, seven million years ago probably. I never really thought about the implications of being bipedal, and to me, bipedalism is the key to the extraordinary levels of compassion that we seem to be programmed to. People don’t necessarily come to that conclusion.
When you have no legs, you are totally dependent. If you have no legs, you can get quite quickly to a stage where you have one leg, as they fit one prothesis before the other. Being one-legged is no better than being no-legged, and again, you are totally dependent on help. Become bipedal again, you become independent again to a very large extent.
What struck me is — if we developed bipedalism six or seven million years ago on the African savannas, rough, thorny country — there can’t have been a single individual who would have lived 20, 30 years who didn’t at some stage have his or her leg — or legs, one or two — incapacitated. If one leg is incapacitated with a sprain or a break or an abscess or a thorn, unless somebody looks after you on the African savanna, brings you water, brings you food, fends off the hyenas and the lions, you won’t make it. Given that everyone was bipedal, there has to have been genetic selection for empathy, for compassion. I believe that is the single strongest characteristic of being human today, and that is our propensity and natural ability to feel empathetic and compassionate and sympathetic. That is the one character that, to me, really sets us apart from other forms of life. That is the one character we really need to rely on to get us through the difficult years and to think globally as opposed to thinking nationally or racially or on the various mini-forms of bonding that we approach. So losing my legs taught me that, too, in a very real sense, and it has become a major part of my public message. Let’s go back to fundamentals. We are compassionate. With compassion, we can solve a lot of the problems that threaten us today.
What do you think are the biggest challenges we face on Earth in the years ahead?
Richard Leakey: I think by far the single biggest challenge we face on this planet for the next 50 years is climate change. There is no question about that. Perhaps 15 years ago, it would have been hard to answer your question. There is nothing in my judgment that measures up to the implications of climate change and our inability at the moment to really think through what this could mean to us as a species. We are beginning to think of what it could do to us in terms of a business. We are beginning to think of what it could do to us as a community within a country, within a state, but we are not thinking in terms of a species. The implications for our species, given the interdependency of the planet today, is the way we should be looking at this.
If a country like Bangladesh goes under water in the next 30 years because of rising sea levels, there are 160-odd million people there, many of them poorly educated, who will be refugees. If it was only the Bangladesh country that went under water, maybe we could deal with it, but we could have a billion people on the run within the next 30 years. Where are we going to put a billion people? The U.S. is having trouble with 11 million illegal refugees, immigrants. What are we going to do when there’s a billion of them? Where are we going to feed those sort of people when much of the rice-growing areas of lowland might disappear? The implications of what is coming are enormous, and most leadership is not addressing it outside the framework of their own elected terms.
If you were making a commencement speech this month, what would you be talking about? What would you be saying?
Richard Leakey: If the commencement speech was in the United States, I would ask them to realize that no matter how powerful and how important civilization and technology of the U.S. and the West has become, it cannot be sustained in isolation from the world, and it cannot be sustained if the world is allowed to degrade itself to the extent that is now projected with climate change. Many of the concerns that we’re addressing may not be immediate to the suburbs of Virginia or the suburbs of New York or the suburbs of London, but in 30 years, if the sea level has risen and we haven’t put in place global steps to address the consequences, the suburbs of London and Virginia will be just as affected in very serious ways.
We talk about new energy, not that the new energy today is going to stop what is already in the pipeline, but it may stop it getting considerably worse in the 50- to 100-year time span.
We’ve got to slow down — and eventually stop — carbon emissions. We’ve got to find alternative fuels. We’ve got to find a way of putting a cap on the mess we have made of it. Young people in the West, young people with access to the education, learning and capital resources that are available here, really have an opportunity not only to do something good for the planet, but to do good for themselves. Alternative energies, alternative strategies, are not necessarily loss-making. They’re huge wealth-making opportunities in doing things differently in the future. If that’s what gives you your buzz, making money, make money for the good of the world this time, as opposed to making money for the bad of the world.
What do you think it’s going to take for us, as a civilization, to come to terms with climate change?
Richard Leakey: We’re not going to deal with climate change unless we get over the idea that people are different, that there’s somehow “those people” and “these people” and us. I think we’ve got to get past what used to be called racism. It probably still is racism in a sense. I think we’ve got to think of ourselves in species terms, not nation terms. We have got to think in terms of time frames that are not four- or eight-year terms in office, but are hundreds of years. I think if you look at climate change in terms of the last major climate change, that was 10,000 years ago. Present climate change is almost as dramatic. That climate change, 10,000 years ago, gave rise to agriculture and domestication and civilization. This climate change must have impact of similar magnitude. What it will be, I don’t know. It could be large mass die-offs. It could be a totally new way of looking at the world, and looking at the world on the basis of a single species with a time frame, that it goes beyond what has traditionally been our projected time frame.
If a young person came to you and said, “If I wanted to do what you did, how do I go about it? How do I prepare to do this?” What advice would you have?
Richard Leakey: It’s very hard to give people advice, because you don’t know their personality. Personality is a big part of that. Everybody is faced with passing opportunities. Many people watch the opportunity come and watch it go. I say, if an opportunity comes and you have got the self-confidence, grab it. Ride it for a bit. If it’s not the right opportunity, do something else, but be positive about opportunities. Opportunities are there for the taking. Most people in this life don’t take it. If you want to make a difference, you can make a difference, but you have got to grab the opportunities and then work within that opportunity to achieve things.
People say, “What can an individual do to impact on the future of the planet?” Well, every individual knows another individual. That individual knows another two. You can network. You can create. We talk about energy. We talk about fuel. What about water? We’re not talking about water. Although there is plenty of water perhaps in some parts of the world, the water availability on the planet is under threat with climate change and global warming. We really need to start thinking about our own personal habits with regards to water. I say to people, “It makes a difference whether you shower once a day or twice a day, and whether you soap yourself with the shower running or you soap yourself with the shower off. It’s much more efficient to switch the shower off when you put the soap on and then rinse it off by turning the shower on again. Most people don’t do that. Two-thirds of the water we run through the faucet is wasted. Why are we doing that? Does it improve the standard of your life? Does it make you a more civilized person to send back to the kitchen two-thirds of what’s on your plate at the end of every meal? Why not eat everything that’s there? They say, “Well, there’s too much.” Well, why did you take too much? Why don’t you ask for a small portion? And if you’re still hungry, ask for a little bit more, instead of piling your plate up — cafeteria and restaurants or at home — and sending it all back to be trashed. Every piece of food we eat costs energy. Why are we wasting it? These are the questions I think, as an individual, we can all address.
During the course of anyone’s life, there are obstacles, setbacks, failures. How have you dealt with that?
Richard Leakey: I think there are lots of failures. You enter into a relationship. It fails. I was married before, didn’t work, divorced. You move on. You try not to be bitter. You try not to be acrimonious. You set up an institution that is doing very well. You leave it. You hadn’t thought of some things, and it collapses. Well, you move on. You stop the poaching of elephants and bring the price of ivory down. Fifteen years later, the price of ivory is up, and people are poaching again. If we hadn’t stopped it when we stopped it, maybe there would be nothing left to poach. The fact that there’s something to poach means it worked. Has it worked permanently? No, but it has worked, and other people will make things work. I think you have to take failure. I mean, you lose your legs. Shame.
I’d rather not have lost my legs, but it doesn’t stop you functioning. You can still do things. You can still have fun. You have a lot of fun without legs. It depends on how you spin it, but I think you ought to have the courage of your own convictions. There are a lot of people who want to be popular. I have no interest in being popular. I have an interest in pursuing my own goals, hopefully not selfishly, but if necessary, selfishly, and take the knocks. People say, “But you know, you’ve got a lot of enemies,” and I say, “Well, probably I do. Probably I have a few friends, but my purpose when I left my mother’s womb wasn’t to have a lot of friends. It was to make a dent on this world.”
What haven’t you done in your life that you’ve wanted to do?
Richard Leakey: I don’t think I will ever be able to do what I would liked to have done. I think at some point in my life, I would liked to have had the privilege of being an academic and sitting back and having a lot of intellectual time thinking about issues in a very philosophical sense and somehow being able to make a contribution by some mega thoughts. That would have been intriguing. There are a lot of other things that I would like to have done, but none are that important. I’d love to travel. I’d love to go to places I have never been to, but I probably don’t need to do that. You can see them in other media now. No, I’m a very satisfied person. I have no regrets for the past and no regrets for what the future won’t contain. So, I’m happy.
How would you like to be remembered? What would you like your legacy to be?
Richard Leakey: I’m not sure one can guarantee one will have a legacy. The world is moving on so fast, apart from archives that people probably don’t go to.
I would like to have made an impact, first of all, on getting people to understand their biological roots, and looking at us as a biological entity that can be explained on the basis of the fossil record and our understanding of genetics. I would like that, if you like, to lead to what I believe will come, to a point where it’s understood that, in reality, we created God in our image, rather than the other way around. I think that would be constructive. In the process of doing that, I hope we can impact on ensuring that this species, our species and many others, don’t go to extinction simply through arrogance and negligence. At the moment, there is a possibility that could happen in a relatively near-term future.
What do you understand about achievement now, that you didn’t when you were younger and starting out?
Richard Leakey: I suppose for me, achievement falls into two parts. One, what you personally feel you have achieved, which may not necessarily be understood or recognized by the community around you. You may get a lot of personal satisfaction from having done something that you believe will, in time, have an impact on the broader community. There is another form of achievement, where the public perceives you to achieve things which you may or may not have done, but because of the broader appreciation of that achievement, you can have an influence on the public, or get actions taken that will take them in a direction you think they should go. So there is a sense of achievement that is external to one’s self that is very powerful in terms of getting things done, and there is a sense of personal achievement that may or may not lead to a broader group getting things done, but gives you the confidence to go on and try something next. Sometimes the two are the same, but they’re often not.
At present, we understand you’re very concerned about the great apes. Is that right?
Richard Leakey: I have two major concerns at the moment. One is the survival of the great apes. The great apes of the Far East — the orangutans living in forests that are being increasingly cut down for timber, but also for palm oil plantations — these are relatives that have lived for millions of years, very close to us biologically, genetically, tell us a great deal about where we came from. The habitat is just being cut down around them, and animals are being killed, infants sent to zoos and pets. It needn’t be. I think there is a great demand for advocacy. There’s a demand to get corporations to take a more responsible position about seeking oil from biosources. I think, unfortunately, biofuels are leading to an increased demand for biological fuels, which will impact on the great apes. The chimpanzees and the gorillas and the bonobos in Africa are similarly facing habitat loss through timber and plantation, forest mono-cultures. I think there needs to be a voice, and in a sense, this comes back to: I am perceived to have achieved so much, that people will listen to me talking about the future of the great apes. Even though I am not an expert in the future of the great apes, I have a voice that can be used for a good cause.
That’s the level of influence I spoke of, coming from perceptions of achievement that may or may not be valid, but can be turned to good order. An organization under the United Nations called GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Project, is something I give a lot of time to. I am also concerned with corruption at the national level in Kenya.
Corruption has been a huge setback to development in Africa, certainly in Kenya. When I was in public service, heading the government, I did a lot to try to bring that under control and didn’t get very far. I’ve recently taken on the chairmanship of an organization called Transparency International in Kenya, and I believe that it’s perfectly possible to have less corruption. I think there’s mega corruption and micro corruption, but there’s absolutely no need to have a society that runs on corruption. Corruption you’ll never eliminate, but it shouldn’t be necessary to pay extra to get a birth certificate, or pay extra to get your child moved from one school to the other on merit. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to pay something to get your business license renewed, and it certainly shouldn’t be necessary for governments to spend money on civil works projects, in which they normally set aside 20 percent for kickbacks to the ministers and the officials running it. This has to be fought, and this has to be fought by bringing attention to the crisis and bringing education to the young people and saying, “It’s not necessary to do it this way.”
So fighting corruption has been a major preoccupation of mine and one which I am still very much engaged along with the work on the great apes story. These are two public causes that concern me a lot at the moment in Kenya.
My ability to speak on corruption is because, first of all, I’m not corrupt and never have been, but more importantly, I’m perceived to have never been corrupt. There is a distinction, but in this case, they are the same. I’m expected to be brave enough to speak the truth, and I am known not to be willing to be persuaded not to say something if it needs saying. So much so that I am no longer allowed to really exercise any discretion, because the public will expect me to put my neck on the block, irrespective of any personal considerations. I am now perceived to be fearless of retribution, and that I will speak for the people on issues of this kind, and it’s an interesting role. It is not one that I particularly sought, but I guess it’s very flattering and going back to the Victorian ethos of Britain, which I guess I have some links to. Is there a better cause to die for than one’s country?
How do you see the future of Africa?
Richard Leakey: I think the future of Africa is, in the short term, confused. I think, in the short term, turbulent. Short term, a lot of unnecessary suffering and death and turmoil. In the medium term, I think clearly moving out of that in pockets, and in the long term, it will come together. The populace of Africa, the human resources of Africa, the natural resources, although they’ve been plundered, are still plentiful. I think Africa will come together, but I think it will come together in the longer rather than the shorter time frame. Maybe the next 30 to 50 years, you’ll begin to see real change. The reason I say that is we’ve got an awful lot of Africans now who are getting their education and their training in a way that wasn’t possible before, and an awful lot of Africans are now training abroad. They’re coming home to Africa with skills, not just reading and writing. I think traditional education for Africans in Africa has been a little shallow. It’s been learning by rote. It has not been immersing yourself in an experience and having a self-development capacity in education, which comes with better funded, broader schools.
What makes us human?
Richard Leakey: What makes us human is a question I am often asked. Or to put it another way: “What is a human?” If you take the religious point of view, then you just have to define us, and particularly us that are Christian. That’s the usual definition for human. You have to have a soul. The soul has to be saved. It has to have a pathway to a better afterlife. Alternatively, the consequence of not having a better afterlife would be a terrible afterlife — if that is what it is — purgatory and hell. I think that is giving way now to a broader sense.
To be human, I think, is to simply be a species. We are a species that has characteristics, but we have to add a dimension which Darwin first tried to introduce, which Linnaeus in the 1700s tried to introduce. Any species you see today has a history, and if you take the history back over enough time, what you see today will be different from what you see before today. And the further back you go, the less likelihood there is that you can recognize it. So, when you look at us, we have ancestors that go back 200,000 years that were like us anatomically. Probably like us in terms of being able to adapt through educational processes, and a 200,000-year-old ancestor probably could have been educated to participate in the seminars of the Academy if this had been developed over a long enough period. But if you take their ancestors, which are also our ancestors, but you go back to half-a-million and a million years ago, they are human in lots of ways, but are they quite human? Are they quite like us?
If you go all the way back, are they more like us or more like other apes? And of course, this poses the question, “Is a human a human?” A better definition is that we are the fifth ape. There are gorillas. There are bonobos. There are orangutans. Gorillas are broken into two, lowland and mountain. That’s four, but there are five, and the great worry that the fundamentalist right contains is, “How did we separate from the apes? If you are saying this, the conclusion is that we are an ape.” Well of course we’re an ape, and we’re an ape that drew the definition, so we’re an interested party with a conflict of interest.
If the definition of life on earth had been done by a separate entity off the planet, they would have said, “There are five apes, and one has been remarkable in its technological development, and its ability to come up with myths and mumbo jumbo to explain so many things that clearly are not right. The others get on with life in the forests and do what they were supposed to be doing.” But we are just another ape. So what is a human? Well, it’s an ape. It’s an ape that’s got technology. It’s got a large brain, complex language. It’s got a curious way to move around, two-leggedness — which leads to compassion, empathy — and technology and a brain that don’t always work in concert and could lead to the extinction of lots of other creatures. And it has done, but it may well lead to our own, and that’s the sort of stupid ape we are in reality.
We all feel fortunate to have been part of this conversation.
Richard Leakey: Well, thank you.
Thank you very much. That was wonderful.