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.

The breakup was as ugly as any divorce. From Renne's perspective, the IHO anthropologists were basking in the limelight while the geochronologists did all the work and brought in all the money.

"We were responsible for about 90 percent of the scholarly publications and 70 percent of the funding from the National Science Foundation and other funding organizations," he says. "By the end, it was clear to me and my colleagues that the geochronology center was really the dynamic entity here. We were the ones who were engendering lots of peer acclaim, and we were the ones who were bringing in a lot of visitors."

Indeed, the geochronologists were examining more than just fossils; they were affixing dates to changes in the Earth's magnetic fields, tracking the death of dinosaurs, calculating the age of the Earth itself.

And Garniss Curtis was better friends with Gordon Getty than Don Johanson was.

Getty had made a pledge to match the money the IHO raised, up to $1 million a year, and he sat on the board. But he allegedly thought that Curtis and the other geochronologists were being treated badly by Johanson. (Getty did not respond to inquiries from New Times.) Johanson was turning over his Nova salary to the institute so that Getty would match the amount. To Johanson's mind, this would turn his $50,000-a-year Nova salary into $100,000 for IHO, but the geologists suspected him of double dipping. And Renne thinks he kept book royalties and about $150,000 in speaker's fees, some of which, he says, should have been paid back to the institute.

Johanson was also spending too much time writing books and speaking and doing TV, the story went.

"Not only is that an irony," Bill Kimbel fumes, "it's a direct contradiction. It was his job. He was our communicator, the public face of IHO. I'm not one for labeling noble causes, but, for crying out loud, if scientists who are doing this work at taxpayers' expense, by and large, are not in the position to communicate the results of that research to the public, then something is wrong."

And finally, the geochronologists allege that Johanson's behavior was increasingly mercurial, including one celebrated blowup at the tony Chez Panisse restaurant in which Johanson threw a temper tantrum like a jealous lover because he spied Curtis lunching with representatives of a foundation he was courting himself.

On May 3, 1994, at an IHO board meeting, Getty called for Johanson's resignation as president of IHO, and if that was not acceptable, he wanted the geochronologists to be able to split amicably from the institute.

The board voted down Getty's proposal, and Getty consequently withdrew his financial pledge to the institute.

"It was a horrible time," says Johanson. "To be told you're not a scientist, all you're really interested in is making money and becoming famous. It's sort of like you're walking along and someone hits you in the side of the head."

Still, his reaction seemed vengeful. Before the day was over, he fired the geochronologists and locked them out of their lab.

"By going on with [Getty's] proposal, there could have been a completely amicable parting of the ways, and we could have done it in a logical manner," says Renne.

Instead, it was done in the courts.
The geochronologists had garnered 22 research grants which were earmarked for their projects and their projects alone, and they were in the middle of 18 research projects. The lab contained $800,000 worth of equipment that could not be used by anyone but them, some of it bought by Getty. As if that weren't enough, in less than a month, more than 1,000 geochronologists would be descending on Berkeley for a geochronology conference that was supposed to be sponsored by IHO. The lab doors, however, remained locked.

Renne and Curtis obtained a restraining order to get back into the lab. They called in the California attorney general to investigate the alleged double dipping, and they sued for breach of charitable trust.

IHO backed down. The divorce was final in 1995, the suit settled; IHO, the jilted husband, was forced to move out; the geochronologists kept the house and the property.

Johanson seems remorseful when talking of the split.
"I'm unhappy about a lot of things that have happened," he says. Then he reaches for a classic Johanson metaphor. "When you drop that priceless piece of Dresden China and it's broken, it's broken."

Also broken was his long-term collaboration with Tim White. They parted ways over politics in Ethiopia. A former IHO affiliate and White student named Berhane Asfaw had been removed from his post as director of the national museum in Ethiopia. White protested the removal. Johanson did not.

"What precipitated [the disagreement] had to do with our neutrality with regard to his student who was removed as head of the museum," says Johanson. "And we said it's not our job to interfere in a government's decision. He maintained his loyalty to this student."

The writer James Shreeve sums up that conflict by saying, "I think the style of Don and the substance of Tim finally came to a clash."

White, meanwhile, is pursuing his own research, concentrating on a 4.4-million-year-old fossil skeleton he has named Ardipithecus ramidus.

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