The Man Who Loved Lucy

ASU's Donald Johanson redefined our understanding of man's origins. But when he told the world about it in books and on TV, some scientists thought he talked too much.

"Mary didn't like Australopithecines being our ancestors," he says now.
And when Johanson gave his speech at the Nobel symposium, Mary Leakey became enraged because she felt that he had pre-empted her own speech about her Laetoli fossils.

White and Johanson are still incensed about Leakey's pulling out on them. They did little to help the relationship. In 1981, Walter Cronkite invited Richard Leakey and Don Johanson to speak on human origins for his TV series Universe. Leakey was assured that it would not be a debate.

Johanson had brought along a composite afarensis skull that White had helped assemble from various fossil fragments. (White still laughs maniacally at Leakey's accusation that they had fraudulently or stupidly fused pieces of ape and hominid skulls; there were no complete afarensis skulls discovered until 1992). Johanson also brought a poster depicting his evolutionary tree, and he brashly asked Leakey to draw his own version of the tree on a blank space next to his tree.

Instead, an incensed Leakey drew an X over Johanson's chart and then drew a question mark in the blank space. When the cameras stopped rolling, Leakey stormed out of the studio.

That TV performance would help make a name for Johanson. Ironically, another TV performance would indelibly imprint the label of "Hollywood Don."

Johanson and everyone close to him points to the case of Johanson's late friend Carl Sagan, who also suffered from television taint. Although Sagan was an active scientist who participated in the space program (even winning awards from NASA), won a Pulitzer Prize and greatly helped in science's understanding of the universe, he was ridiculed for his excellent television series Cosmos and its companion book. Johnny Carson could milk a laugh by making fun of Sagan's idiosyncratic speech--"beeeee-llions and beeee-llions of stars"--but his scientific equals weren't laughing. Sagan was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

"One is almost hated if he lets the secrets out of the Ivory Tower," Johanson says. "Omigosh, someone else knows, and they're not even a Ph.D."

In 1981, Johanson left Cleveland to establish the IHO so that he could devote his full-time attention to research. Little did he know that soon much of his schedule would be consumed by fund raising. He settled on Berkeley because several of his mentors and collaborators were there, including Tim White. Also in Berkeley was a geology professor named Garniss Curtis, who ran a geochronology lab at the university.

Geochronology is a science of affixing ages to prehistoric objects using laser, atomic, computer and other technologies. Curtis had participated in a much-celebrated case in which the Leakeys, in their search for early Homo, had overestimated the age of a layer of soil and the fossils found beneath it. When Curtis retired from the university in 1985, he brought his lab to IHO, first as a tenant renting space in the basement. Then, when it became apparent that the anthropologists upstairs and the geologists downstairs could lump together their grant monies, they merged under the IHO name. Billionaire philanthropist Gordon Getty was a benefactor of both groups and an IHO board member, and he saw the merger as a way to consolidate his gifts.

Bill Kimbel also came on board in 1985 to lend an administrative hand, because Johanson was splitting his time between the field and fund raising. And increasingly, he was becoming the Carl Sagan of anthropology with his books and his video projects.

Johanson's books are compelling. For example, his 1989 volume Lucy's Child, which he co-authored with James Shreeve, is the account of a 1987 dig in Olduvai Gorge, in which Johanson and White uncovered a Homo habilis skeleton. That Olduvai was sacred Leakey territory only stirred the pot more. Like a retreating army, Mary Leakey and her crew allegedly tore the stoves and tables and beds from the Olduvai camp buildings to keep Johanson from using them. All of which gave Johanson reason to rehash the Leakey debate in his book's narrative--along with every debate that ever came before it in the short history of paleoanthropology.

Though Johanson has been accused of hogging the limelight, one only has to read this book to see that he warmly gives credit to White and the Leakeys for their contributions to the science. And he clearly details the painstaking and backbreaking labor of a dig, sifting each shovelful and then getting down on hands and knees with dental picks and paintbrushes to extract the fossils.

And his descriptions of the furtive afarensis warily venturing down to the water hole, hoping to eat and not be eaten, are profound.

That vision was brought to life in a 1994, three-part Nova series in which Johanson went even further, to show, for example, how afarensis and Homo habilis might have competed with the predators of that era.

Throughout, Johanson handsomely and authoritatively talks into the camera. The result was critically well-received. White admits that he shows it in his own college courses.

It tore IHO apart.

It was always an uneasy marriage," Paul Renne says of the geochronologists' tenure with IHO, "a marriage of convenience, so to speak."

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