The Man Who Loved Lucy

On July 18, Donald Johanson moved his Institute of Human Origins from Berkeley, California, to the Social Sciences building at Arizona State University. Johanson, 54, and two of his colleagues at the anthropological research institute will join the university as faculty.

Johanson is a paleoanthropologist, an expert on prehistoric man, and he is that rare scientist who manages to become an acclaimed popular author and television personality. During more than 20 years at the forefront--some would say in the limelight--of his science, he's picked a bone or two. His colleagues either accept him as a dedicated researcher or denounce him a poseur.

He is best known for his 1974 discovery of a fossilized human ancestor that he whimsically named Lucy, and with which he redirected our understanding of human origins.

The soul of Lucy resides in a glass case that could easily fit on a bookcase shelf. Judging from her skeleton, she was no bigger than a 4-year-old, even though she was somewhere between 14 and 25 years old when she died more than three million years ago.

The apparent bones wired together in the glass box are plaster casts. The real things are locked in a vault in Ethiopia, where they were found, and they aren't really bones at all, but rather fossils, solid rock that crept into the molecules of bone over the millennia.

Nonetheless, enough of Lucy's essence has been transferred to the plaster casts that she seems to radiate out of the box.

Johanson calls the vibe "a trait of humanity that reaches across eons.
"To realize as I did when I picked up that first bone of Lucy that here was a creature that was in suspended animation for over 3.2 million years, that was a living person, an upright, bipedal walking species. I was 31 years old at the time, still very impressionable, and I picked it up and reanimated it."

Johanson named her Lucy because, on the night of the find, as his expedition crew members drank beer in celebration, they were listening to the Beatles singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" on a tape deck. He named her species Australopithecus afarensis.

Then, with his former collaborator, Tim White, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Johanson used this find to blow the theories of the reigning authorities on human origins at that time, Richard Leakey and his mother, Mary Leakey, back to the Stone Age.

The Leakeys held fast to the egocentric notion that what makes man human is his big brain. Lucy's skull--what's left of it--is as tiny as a baby's, and in many ways resembles an ape's.

But Lucy's species walked upright, so, unlike its ape cousins, it could come down out of the trees and cover greater distances. Since it didn't need to touch its hands to the ground for balance, it could more easily carry food back to its lair.

And because of its tiny size, Johanson and his colleagues realized that man's earliest ancestor was not a noble predator using superior intellect to overpower larger beasts; it was prey, a scavenger who dashed furtively out of the bush to steal what the jackals and the buzzards had left behind while trying not to be eaten itself. Its evolutionary offspring--our forebears--survived and proliferated, not because they were preordained, not because they were superior beings, but because they were adaptable like cockroaches, clever like coyotes.

All of which is an ignoble notion for any dignified, modern human to swallow.

"We're an egocentric species," Johanson says. "Still lingering in textbooks is this view that everything was driving us to bigger brains, that Homo sapiens is the nadir."

And still lingering is the silly thought, as Johanson puts it, that "a chimpanzee steps into the evolutionary tunnel and a white European male steps out the other end."

No less a scientific authority than National Geographic magazine created a face for Lucy that depicted her with warm and wise eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. A human face, in other words, instead of a survival-oriented animal's.

"We're dealing with the origins of ourselves, and there is a magic in that," says Johanson.

"It's a very personal science in the sense that we're not talking about the origin and aberration of the hummingbird," he says. "We're talking about us. And I think probably over the years, I have appreciated more that emotional attachment."

Which is a good thing for Johanson, because in April, when the Arizona Board of Regents voted to approve the IHO's move to Tempe, it set as a condition that the university also assess its course offerings in "alternative theories of human origins and evolution."

The word "creationism" was never uttered, but was on everyone's mind. The anthropology and religion departments voiced their annoyance. Clearly, the theory of evolution is still a controversial and emotional issue, even in 1997, even in a university setting.

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Michael Kiefer