Donald C. Johanson

DONALD C. JOHANSON is an internationally known paleoanthropologist who discovered the fossil of a female hominid australopithecine known as “Lucy” in the Afar Triangle region of Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1966 from the University of Chicago, as well as his Master’s and Ph.D. Although he’s served as a professor of anthropology at several distinguished universities, his reputation is based on his archaeological work in the field. Johanson is founding director of the Institute of Human Origins, a human-evolution think tank, at Arizona State University. He has authored and co-authored many books, and will sign copies of “Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins” and “From Lucy to Language.”

This speech was given on October 24, 2014, at FFRF’s 37th annual convention at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

For a long time, FFRF has been offering the “Emperor Has No Clothes” award to prominent people who tell it like it is about religion. It comes from the Hans Christian Andersen story about the naked emperor who pretended he was wearing clothes, and the young boy who was unafraid to say, “He’s got nothing on!”

Today we’re very honored to present this award to an internationally known paleoanthropologist. He’s worked in Ethiopia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. For the past 40 years, he’s conducted field and laboratory research. You might know Donald C. Johanson as the discoverer of the fossil Lucy.

Lucy, the first discovered member of Australopithecus afarensis, thought to be a distant ancestor of modern humans, was dated to 3.2 million years ago. Five years ago, I had what was very close to, or maybe parallels a religious experience, when I was in Times Square at the Discovery Center where Lucy is on display. I was the only one in the room, looking at what I thought was my great-great-great-great-grandma. I got goose bumps.

Donald is now the founding director of the Institute of Human Origins, an evolution think tank at Arizona State University. We’ve been inviting him for many years to our convention to speak, but it always coincided with some expedition he was going on. We have limited copies of his beautiful book called Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins.

He’s an ardent freethinker and nonbeliever. We’re excited to be featuring Donald in an upcoming FFRF educational ad in Scientific American.

[Presenting award]: Thank you for telling it like it is, and saying that the emperor has no clothes.

By Donald C. Johanson

Thank you so much! Wow, we’re really here. What a wonderful introduction. I was sitting over there thinking, “Who’s he talking about?” You know, often I go to a sold-out crowd and they all think that Don Johnson [the actor] is coming to speak. They don’t read very well.

I was thinking that I haven’t read the fine print on what it means to agree with and accept this [award], so I thought I would bring it up at the beginning and ask that if I have a born again experience, do I magically see clothes on this sculpture?

This has been a very important part of my life, the study of who we are and where we come from. It has immense implications, philosophical and otherwise, everything from medicine to how we look at and treat one another.

I truly believe in understanding the deep roots of humanity, and the very simple fact that we now know it is based on an “out of Africa” experience, is vital to knowing who we are.
For so many years, beginning in 1856 with the discovery of the Neanderthal skull in Germany, all these white European males got together and figured out that Europe was the finishing school for humanity. Well, that’s all, as we say, ancient history.

A guiding principle for me throughout my career has not necessarily been discovery-driven, to find a specimen, although I did, on the 24th of November, 40 years ago. Somebody asked me, “What’s the big difference between you and Lucy?” I said, “Well, when I look at Lucy, she doesn’t look a day older.”

As I was saying, it wasn’t necessarily that I was hoping to make this colossal discovery of a creature that has become pretty much an icon in terms of paleontology or paleoanthropology, but it was to understand our place in nature. The book that launched my intrigue about where we’ve come from was a book entitled Man’s Place in Nature by Thomas Henry Huxley, who was a tea-drinking buddy of Charles Darwin.

They often sat and noodled on the question of human evolution. I can see them in Darwin’s garden in Kent while they discussed how they were going to bring this shocker to the Victorian world of Great Britain, that we actually descended from the apes. Darwin, as you well know, was very reluctant to do that because he didn’t want to upset the household, as his wife Emma was very religious.

And he only said that light would be thrown on the origin of man, until 1871 in his Descent of Man, when he articulated a number of scenarios for that. I read Man’s Place in Nature and realized the importance of this subject, for which paleoanthropology wasn’t really a moniker until the late ’50s or so. I realized that we have a remarkable record preserved in Earth’s geological strata that connects us with the past, with each other, and I think very importantly, connects us with the natural world.

We know, every single one of us in this room, who the creator was — Mother Nature. I will have much more to say about that as we get into this discussion.

Dinosaurs ‘left behind’

Someone said, “What was the most surprising thing about discovering Lucy?” I said, “Well, nobody even knew she was missing.”

I’ve also been asked to comment on why I’m an atheist. I’ve always been an atheist. I didn’t have to be converted to atheism. I went to church when I was about 12 years old. I remember it distinctly in Hartford, Conn. Some friends, who were Scandinavians, too, convinced me. They said, “You should come to the Svedish Lutheran Church here on Sunday to see vat they are talking about.”

So I got up unusually early, disturbing my mother, who said, “Ver are you going?” I said, “I’m going to church.” She said, “Vat are you doing that fer?” Anyway, I went to church and came home, and then she said, “Deed they ask you fer money?” I said, “Yeah, they did.”
And she said, this little uneducated housekeeper from Sweden who immigrated when she was 16, deciding the New World was where everything was happening, “The first thing they’ll do is control you, then they will instill fear in you, and then they will take your money.”
So at about 11 or 12, I went to see my mentor, who was a German anthropologist (big surprise) whom I’d met one day, and he gave me a short course in comparative religions, how every society has, does and will have some sort of creation myth. Of course lots of them were much more intriguing than a virgin birth or Noah’s ark — how’d you like the job of cleaning the poop up on that? — or original sin.

The thing that alarmed me most about Noah’s ark was that if this creator and Noah were such wonderful people, why did they leave the dinosaurs behind?

I began to realize that believing in a creator being — someone I couldn’t see, someone who’s keeping track of me, someone I’d be afraid of — was really not my cup of tea. I was much more of a freethinker, as we say, and as I went through high school, I had a very adequate education at a public high school, which we should all bring back.

I lived in Berkeley for years, and my favorite bumper sticker said, “If you think education’s expensive, try ignorance.” During my education, I began to really understand that if I were to believe in this mythical creator — you know we only had one choice, right, since the downsizing? If you lived in Greece, we’d have a whole bunch of gods we could have prayed to, but now, with cutbacks and so on, we’re down to one — that I would have to unfortunately totally reject my objectivity and logic and leap into total fantasy.

I just couldn’t see the benefit of that.

A grand theory

As we all know, if someone in the church doesn’t know, they say, “Therefore, God,” and I say “I don’t know, let’s find out.” Science is such a rewarding, creative and charming way of looking at the universe. So why do people so resist evolution, the grand unifying theory of biology?

Think about this. Bring it up at the next astrophysics talk you go to when they explain the origins of the cosmos and string theory and particles that go faster than the speed of light so that they’re younger when they extinguish than when they were born. You go home and think that it was all very logical and someone goes, “What was the talk about?” You say, “Well, I just, I don’t know exactly.” They’re trying to figure out the grand unifying theory of the universe, right? It’s a pretty big question.

Yet a retiring Englishman who went off on a five-year boat cruise once figured out the grand unifying theory of biology. The robustness of the “theory” of evolution is that: The same tenets that Darwin suggested and proffered in the middle 1800s are still the core ideas of biology. If Darwin were sitting in the back of the room and I mentioned DNA, he wouldn’t have a clue. He didn’t know things were inherited. He observed and interpreted and understood how important that elusive thing natural selection is, and how powerfully explanatory it is.

I suspect most people just don’t think. I don’t want to be too anti-clerical or anti-church; I respect people’s beliefs and I don’t try to destroy them. I understand that if you were born in X culture, you believe in X god, and if you were in Z culture, you believe in Z god, and so on. Before I knew about FFRF, I used to say that we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion in America.

Darwin, if he were alive today, would probably be very happy with this poster [“In Reason We Trust”]. I want you to support science and reason. So take God’s name off our money we all worship and replace it with “In Science We Trust.” I don’t think we’ll do that, but we do need to get God’s name off our money. There’s no question.

The anti-science aspect of religion is what bothers me most intensely. It’s personified in this cartoon: “Welcome to church, you won’t be needing that [your brain] in here.” Just take this brilliant organ out that has evolved over 6 million years of natural selection, that happens to put us at the pinnacle of intelligent life on the planet, in the solar system, and maybe even in the universe, to be so bold.

In whose image?

I think we have been given the wrong name by the Swede, Linnaeus, who called us Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man.” You read the same newspaper stories I do — people shooting people on high school campuses, etc., etc., going after people with axes in New York. We are wise men? We are still a work in progress, a long way from where we should call ourselves human.

A more appropriate name would be Homo egocentricus. Whom do you think about most of the time? Come on admit it, even as an atheist, it’s yourself. We think about ourselves. We think about our parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, maybe five generations of time. But the Earth is billions of years old; life is 3.5 billion years old on this planet. We believe that we’re the pinnacle of evolution, that everything was designed to make white European males.

There’s something very impersonal to most people about natural selection. It isn’t touchy-feely like a god that creates us in his image. Who’d he look like? You? You? You? We created him in our image, obviously, not in his image.

You often see, and sometimes even television documentaries go at this from the wrong perspective, that Darwin is dead. No argument with that. He is dead, I agree. Evolution is just a theory. Right, you know what? Isaac Newton is dead, too. But gravity ain’t going away, even if his ideas were called the “theory” of gravity.

I regularly lecture at colleges, universities and museums. It’s always interesting to say, “Raise your hand if you believe in evolution.” And you know, there’s a certain percentage that do. I say, “It may all surprise you that I don’t believe in evolution” — there’s this big sigh of relief — “any more than I believe in gravity.” It doesn’t take belief; this is a fact. If you let something go, it’s going to fall to the ground. You don’t have to believe in gravity, it is a fact.

In biology, going back to Darwin, I think it was Dobzhansky, the great geneticist, who said that “In biology, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Evolution is a fact, it’s not good, it’s not bad, it has no moral compass. Just like gravity, it doesn’t care if your grandmother’s favorite Dresden china falls to the floor in the middle of an earthquake (which we could have any minute here).

Evolution doesn’t care if tens of thousands of people die of Ebola. Ebola doesn’t kill you because you’re a bad person or some kind of deviant. It kills you very simply because you don’t have a resistance to Ebola. Those who live through Ebola who had no medical care probably have a resistance to Ebola. I’ve never heard anybody say, like with sickle cell anemia and malaria, let’s go find out why those people didn’t die from Ebola.

From my perspective, I think that a scientific strategy, especially a biological one, with a full understanding of natural selection, gene recombination, mutation, etc., and a more aggressive approach to Ebola, would have gone much further than we have come thus far. But the West, which has the ability to do that, was fiddling away while Ebola was burning its path through western Africa, decimating people and setting its sights on places like Europe and North America.

Human beings care. That’s one of the marvelous exciting things about us. That’s also why I love dogs. They care, too, but we care because of our family values, because of our moral compass, because we are human beings and because we are alive. We so often forget what that means.

Richard Dawkins, my distinguished friend, says essentially, “We are the lucky ones because we’re going to die.” Why are we going to die? Because we were born. If there were two genes’ difference, you would not be you. You would be someone else.

We need to cherish that, and we have to understand that this is an exciting opportunity to be alive and not sit around and worry about some omnipotent being keeping score to decide whether we’re going to end up in eternal ecstasy or unending damnation. As I say, how could he have time to keep score on each one of us? He’s so damn busy helping people sink 6-foot putts in Arizona and get extra points in football games. He doesn’t have time to keep track of us.

The problem is that people’s prayers don’t get answered. Why? Well, here it was in The New Yorker [cartoon]: “God finds all the prayers of mankind in his spam folder.” We now have an explanation.

One of the things about natural selection, which we all grow up learning, is the survival of the fittest. I was taught by my mentor at age 13 that it’s really the elimination of the unfit. If you think about it, that’s a better way to look at it.

The problem with natural selection is you can’t weigh it, you can’t see it, you can’t buy it from Edmond’s Scientific, it doesn’t come in the color blue or in G flat major. It is that fact — one cannot see it, we can only see the results of it — that makes people so reluctant. They have to see a guiding hand or a guiding force that they can imagine or pray to.

Bad rap for atheists

Atheists, and I guess there are a few in this room, get a pretty bad rap, very often. Religious people accuse us of lacking morals, having no family values. Well, unless I’m reading the wrong newspapers, I don’t recall any atheists out there beheading people, stoning women or burning people at the stake.

We’re accused of not being spiritual. Look at that earthrise over the moon. Does that move you, does that touch you? Does that excite you? Walking home where I live most of the time now, in San Francisco, feeling the heavy fog caress my face at night, watching nesting birds and chicks born in a window box, these are moments of great inspiration and great spirituality. Our world is filled with endless moments of inspiration, real inspiration, available to each and every human being endowed with a conscious brain created by evolution. We need not rely on creation myths for inspiration.

Atheists are accused of not playing fair since we don’t teach creationism in science class. Well, if you’re going to teach creationism, why don’t we teach astrology with astronomy? In medical school we’d have to teach witchcraft along with medicine, and alchemy with chemistry. Where’s it going to end?

OK, you American Airlines pilots, today we’re going to discuss the flat Earth. You get on a plane in L.A., you’re hoping to see the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the pilot believes in a flat Earth? You’ll never get there.

Our main duty in getting to one of the core issues of what I’m talking about tonight is to reawaken a “reverence” for the natural world and our place in it. [We have a duty] to respect the creativity of the true creator, Mother Nature, to protect her, to take seriously our responsibilities as the most creative, but also the most destructive species that’s ever lived on Earth.

The future is in our hands, and it is time that we stop turning our back on the natural world and start listening to her and working with her.

The Creation Museum [in Petersburg, Ky.] is one of our favorite places. Where else can you witness the science of cavemen cavorting with their favorite pet dinosaur, Skippy, 5,000 years ago?

Is this a time warp and we’re back in the Dark Ages or something? This is lying, cheating, deceiving, warping and perverting people’s knowledge. To make what? Money. How much money does the Creation Museum make at the same time it destroys young peoples’ opportunities to look at the world through an open mind. That’s what upsets me probably more than anything else about the museum.

Of course I thought I’d show you the great breakthroughs in science, from Marie Curie to the great accelerators and how much has been accomplished in religion. Well, part of my mission in life has been to educate people about the fossil evidence for human evolution.
A born-again, Francis Collins, asked me to give the single most important talk that I’ve given in years, on Darwin’s 200th birthday, at the National Institutes of Health. He’s deeply religious and is the head of the National Institutes of Health. What was most interesting about that morning when I was given 20 minutes to talk about 6 billion years of evolution — I spoke very quickly — was the tea time. Collins, whom I knew and had debated, and I had a huge interchange where he said, “Well, there are just some things that science can’t explain.” I said, “Yes, then it’s not science.”

Yet he in his liberated world invited me to give one of the keynote speeches. But the most important part of that exposure was the tea, when a couple of real scientists with white coats and nametags and all that came over. They said, “We just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed your talk. We had no idea there was this much evidence for human origins. Because all we do is peer through these electron microscopes at microscopic things; we don’t look at the big picture. Thank you for coming here and helping us understand who we are, where we come from and why we should be so grateful to be human.”

That was unbelievable satisfaction.

Finding Lucy

This is the first shot [slide projection] of Hadar, Ethiopia, that I saw in 1972. It was a spiritual moment for me, looking out on these vast badlands, heavily dissected, eroding, layer after layer, rich in fossils. I was still at graduate school at the University of Chicago and this to me was — we shouldn’t use that word “epiphany” — but it certainly was for me.

Tonight I was asked to say a few words about it, and it will only be a few words. You see me in the background, much thinner than I am today. My graduate student, in the foreground, is doing all the work. I was walking back to my Land Rover, glanced over my right shoulder and saw a piece of arm bone from an elbow, that little fragment of bone which allows you to flex and extend your arm, was the first piece of Lucy that I recognized.

I knew that because of all the studies in graduate school, anatomy, osteology, the study of bones and all that. And we were rewarded with this 3.2 million-year-old skeleton that picked up the popular moniker of Lucy, after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which came from the Beatles tape that was playing that evening.

This woman on the expedition said, “If you think it’s a female, Don, we should call her Lucy.” I said, “Excuse me, I’m a Ph.D. We don’t give cute little names to our fossils.”
Well, you know what happens when the genie is out of the lamp. The next morning: “Are we going back to the Lucy site? Do you think we’ll find more of Lucy’s skeleton? How old do you think Lucy is?” She became an individual and now she is iconic. Some people think she’s the dinosaur in Chicago, Sue [a T. rex discovered in 1990 in South Dakota].
Lucy is really the poster child for paleoanthropology and human origins. When you read about new fossil finds, they’re either younger than Lucy, older than Lucy, more complete than Lucy, not as primitive as Lucy, or whatever. So this was a remarkable discovery for me. It launched an incredible 20-year series of expeditions. We now have over 400 specimens of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis.

It also stimulated scientists, mostly young scientists, as it always is — the silverbacks like myself are more reluctant to change — to develop new methodologies and ways of understanding, examining and studying these specimens. She did play a very important role beginning in 1974.

And if you go to the Creation Museum, there she is. She’s a four-legged, quadrupedal knuckle-walker. This is because of Dr. Ham. I don’t know what he got his doctorate in, may have been one of those things you get at Sears [Dr. of literature, Liberty University].
There ain’t no way that Lucy was walking on her knuckles and forelegs. A child goes in, sees this and is impressed by it. The child doesn’t know one way or another.

My grandchild, Brendan, went to the California Academy of Sciences — he’s 3 years old — with his father. His father says, “Let’s take a picture next to Lucy, the thing your grandfather found.” He refused to get his picture taken until I came and stood next to it. He knows that Lucy walked upright, doesn’t bother him. It doesn’t bother him that she’s very old. He thought it was so neat that she came from apes.

It’s terribly important that we don’t shut these minds down so early. The longer you have a mind that is shut down the more time there is to develop and reinforce bigotry.

Make real sacrifices

Here [in a cartoon] he’s saying, “Look, it’s not personal, it’s religious.” There have been so many sacrifices in religion — burning at the stake, beheading people, stoning people to death or ripping their hearts out and eating a live pumping heart (if you’re an Aztec) — what’s that left us with? A bunch of dead bodies.

It didn’t do much to stop the volcanic eruption, the drought never ended, it didn’t dispel the locust invasion, did it? No, it did nothing. Yet you’re going to be surprised that tonight I’m going to propose that all of us begin to make some real sacrifices.

What might those sacrifices be? Clean up the oceans. Quit throwing everything just because it disappears into oceans. Stop overfishing species that you hope will forever be present and available to you. When was the last time you saw orange roughy on a menu? Twenty years ago, and now it’s gone.

Make some real sacrifices, sacrifices to Mother Nature, who will, unlike the false gods to whom we have made sacrifices, reward you. I guarantee that. Clean up the oceans, and you will live a healthier life. You will reduce the carcinogenic toxins that pollute our fish and poison us. Clean up our air, reduce carbon emissions and make a sacrifice. Buy a car that doesn’t go as fast, that doesn’t look as jazzy. Find alternate sources of power and build more efficient cars.

We will be rewarded with what? Healthy clean air with reduced pulmonary disease, and we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. I could go on and on about this, but I think you all get the gist. We live in a beautiful world.

Here [photograph] I was at Bryce Canyon not long ago. It is stunning to be out with nature. We’re the fortunate ones, as I said. Each and every human being is, because we were born. It’s our primary duty on this planet to be the guardians of its future for our children, grandchildren and many generations beyond that.

We need to stop being Homo egocentricus and start to become a more deeply contemplative species that makes decisions intelligently, not out of fear or self-interest and not because of how much money we’re going to make. Make decisions that will help us regain the balance between ourselves and our creator, Mother Nature.

It’s time, really, that as we look back on 4 million years of evolution, 3 million with Lucy. She is a link, not the missing link but one that reminds us of our link to the natural world.

Lucy didn’t know where she was going; we don’t know where we’re going. She didn’t know that her descendants would end up as Homo sapiens, but it’s an interesting perspective to know that we are united by our past, that we have this commonality of beginning, that we undoubtedly will have a common future, and I think a common destiny globally.

The most important thing from here on forth is to stop acting as if there’s some place else for us to move to. We are destined to be on, as my late friend Carl Sagan said, “this pale blue dot.” Let’s take those responsibilities seriously.

Thank you very much.

Freedom From Religion Foundation