July 5, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
July 5, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Richard Leakey is a world-renowned paleoanthropologist whose career has been marked by famous scientific finds, political office, and conservation efforts. His family is equally accomplished in the field of anthropology, starting with his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, as well as his wife, Meave, and their daughter, Louise. Richard originally made his mark in the late 1960s and ’70s with expeditions that discovered Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo erectus skulls as well as the discovery of Turkana Boy in 1984. In 1989 he left his duties as director of the National Museums of Kenya upon receiving an appointment from Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi to what would become the Kenya Wildlife Service. In his efforts to protect Kenyan’s national parks and wildlife, Leakey brought global attention to the plight of Africa’s elephants by helping President Moi burn twelve tons of ivory (worth $3 million) in Nairobi National Park. In 1993 a small plane Leakey was piloting crashed and both his legs were amputated, and to this day he walks on artificial limbs. After resigning from the KWS, he served as secretary general of the Kenyan opposition party Safina, and in December 1997, he was elected to the Kenyan parliament. Two years later Moi appointed him head of Kenya’s civil service where he was tasked with combating mismanagement and corruption within the government. Leakey now splits his time between Kenya and New York, where he is chair of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University.
In May, Leakey made headlines with a prediction that in ten to fifteen years the evolution debate will be over. He was in New York City to promote the Turkana Basin Institute and attended a benefit concert given by his friend Paul Simon. Leakey told reporters: “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.” This past fall, I spoke with Leakey about his various activities, and his philosophy regarding science and religion. Besides his academic and conservation work, Leakey is a humanist who has long supported rationalist associations and advocated for teaching evolution in public schools. Typical of Leakey’s reputation, he did not hold back on his opinions and gave insight into current social issues.
The Humanist: In your 1984 autobiography, One Life, you explore the influence your parents had developing your interest in learning and science. At one point you write: “The joy of searching for fossils in remote and difficult places is that there is always a strong possibility that each ‘find’ will tell you something new.” Why are these discoveries important to society?
Richard Leakey: I think increasingly we face a world where there is evidence for dramatic and consequential environmental change. Consequent to that are changes to survivability and the very existence of a number of species. If you look back at the prehistory and ancestry of humans and close relatives—the chimps, the apes, the monkeys—and you go back even to the history of elephants, rhinoceroses and antelopes, it is very clear that although evolution happens because of climate change, the great effect of climate change is in fact the number of species that become extinct.
By understanding the relationship between extinction and climate change in looking at ancient environments and recovering material from them, I think we can get a much better sense that this climate change isn’t merely of interest to the commercial side of oil development, or the government side of keeping the demonstrators off the street on green issues. It is really an issue of long-term strategic planning for how the world is going to feed itself through government and non-government agencies.
The Humanist: Why is it so important for people, not just scientists, to learn about evolution?
Leakey: What makes us different from every other living organism we’re aware of on this planet is that we have the capacity to think. We know that we exist. We know we didn’t exist at one stage. We know we won’t exist after a certain point in time. By understanding and getting answers to questions, I think we can be a much more unified and cohesive group.
While faiths do provide answers for some people, they are rather like fairytales. They are culturally influenced and have very little staying power. Although people would argue that Christianity has been around for a couple thousand years, and Islam and Buddhism for probably an equal amount of time, Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years. So it’s a microscopic amount of time that we’ve been affected by religion.
Two and two making four, or the issue of gravity keeping us on the planet and affecting the way trees grow and get sunlight—these scientific phenomena have been around forever. I think the principles or the processes that have led to us being what we are can be understood in the same terms. It’s not a matter of taste or faith. We should have a scientific explanation for why we are here, how we came about, what led to our ability to walk, to make things with our hands, and to develop technology. We should be able to explain scientifically what gives us our capacity to influence each other and our planet.
I believe that the human mind has always sought answers. Faith-based answers are simply no longer adequate for the majority of our species.
The Humanist: With Richard Dawkins you’ve discussed problems associated with teaching evolution in Kenya. How does opposition to evolution in Kenya compare to the United States?
Leakey: In Kenya we have a much smaller population. Under 20 million of 40 million, or let’s say less than two-thirds, attend school in some form. So a very small number are educated, and in a small country we depend highly on those who are educated to take up positions. If the majority of schools are teaching students that evolution—the change of life forms through time—is purely fictitious, that there is no scientific basis in which we can understand life, how are we going to produce physicians who can look at pathogens? How are we going to produce agriculturalists who understand that the misuse of pesticides can create new strains of disease? How are we going to look at the new diseases and pandemics that result from the misuse of antibiotics? How do we expect young kids to come out and study why tuberculosis is becoming drug-resistant? We cannot afford, as a nation, to have the majority of our young people going forward to college and beyond simply rejecting science.
In Kenya religion is used to suggest that God or gods are so powerful that we don’t need science; that the fate of Kenya and the fate of individuals are in the hands of God. In the United States, with its much larger population, its enormous range of educational opportunities, and its tradition of diversity, the extremes probably have far less influence on the uptake of the young minds in science than you’d see in a small country…
We Think, Therefore We Are: Public forums for the discussion of ideas are flourishing everywhere. But will the popularity of philosophy groups have any lasting impact?
July 5, 2012
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When I graduated from university just over a decade ago, I decided to become a freelance philosopher. I was inspired by the cover of the Penguin edition of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, which showed a solitary thinker deep in rumination in a garret. This, I decided, was the life for me. I announced that I was moving to Denmark, held a leaving party, and then decided not to go. I recollected that I didn’t know anyone in Denmark, couldn’t speak Danish, and realised that the move would be a disaster. It was my first great philosophical insight.
Philosophy today has moved a long way from that stereotype of the lonely thinker. Its practice is becoming ever more communal. As well as attending discussion circles, salons, debating clubs, literary-philosophical societies and events from the likes of TED, 5×15, the School of Life and Intelligence Squared, people are gathering in philosophy clubs, Socrates cafés, Enlightenment cafés, even “death cafés” (for those who want to reflect together on mortality). Music festivals, too, such as Latitude and Bestival have their own “ideas tents” – yes, philosophy is one of the new rock ’n’ rolls. But how can the current wave of philosophical clubs ensure they are more than a fashionable trend?
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The London Philosophy Club, of which I am an organiser, is the biggest in the UK. Our 2,000 members include bankers, lawyers, therapists, advertising people and a few academics looking for a more social form of philosophy. We hold free monthly meetings in pubs, cafés, galleries, parks and restaurants. Sometimes we try to match the topic to the venue: last week a group met to discuss Italian philosophy in a pizza restaurant by the River Thames.
Typically, a speaker is invited to give a 30-minute talk. Lord Maurice Glasman, Ed Miliband’s favourite philosopher, turned up at the Green Man pub in Euston, north London, two minutes before the start of a recent meeting, downed a double espresso and a Red Bull, then launched into a bewitching monologue on the search for the common good. We followed this with a question and answer session where Glasman’s thesis was politely assaulted, before breaking into smaller groups to discuss the main ideas. It’s surprising how quickly people share their beliefs with complete strangers.
When people join, we ask them why they want to become part of a philosophy club. Some have a degree in the subject and miss the practice of philosophising; some want a space to think about the “big questions” of life. Above all, they want to philosophise with others – to listen and to be heard.
Each member has his or her particular interests. I’m fascinated by Socrates’ idea that philosophy can be a “therapy for the soul” (it’s where the word “psychotherapy” comes from), and at a meeting last month we explored the links between philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy. In the breakout groups, one elderly gentleman spoke with quiet dignity about being committed to a mental care facility. A floppy-haired undergraduate discussed how he’d learnt to reason with his temper and to choose wiser reactions to life’s slings and arrows. I was particularly moved by Matthew, a 30-year-old who told us he’d inherited bipolar disorder from his father. He’d learnt to manage it using a combination of CBT and ancient philosophy. “My father killed himself, but I’m hoping I’ve got the better of the condition,” he said. “Philosophy isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise for me. This is life and death stuff.”
Philosophy In Pubs was started just over a decade ago by Rob Lewis: inspired by a course he’d taken at the Workers’ Educational Association, he set up PIPs with his teacher, Paul Doran, to “help spread a thinking culture in the working classes”. There are now 35 PIPs across the UK, where recent discussions have included “the problems with realism” and “bad marriages make philosophers”. It’s an open-endedness that appears to attract participants. Doran says, “I’d like it if you could walk into any pub in the country and ask, ‘What time is your philosophy night?’”
This isn’t, of course, the first outbreak of communal philosophy. In Athens in the fifth century BC, it was very much a social activity – although one mainly confined to the upper classes. Pythagoras, the first person to use the term “philosopher”, lived in a commune with his followers, as did Epicurus. The Stoics gathered in one corner of the Athenian market place, the Cynics in another. The Greeks understood that, if you want to know yourself and change yourself, it’s easier to do it with others…
The Hunter Artist: A new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life
July 5, 2012
A FEW MONTHS after my first visit to Cape Dorset, I had a dream. I was at a crowded gathering in the small Nunavut community on a brilliantly sunny day. But rather than one of the little one-storey prefab buildings scattered across the windswept rock, I was in an apartment building — a very high, somewhat rundown modernist tower with a south-facing view. The apartment was small and jammed with Inuit people, all having a good time. I was the only southern white person there, a recipient of their generosity, as I had so recently been in real life.
The view was extraordinary. Below us lay the entire topography of Hudson Bay, its familiar, lopsided udder shape inverted from its conventional southern orientation. The view was as if seen from the stratosphere, with the water stretching out like hammered silver, shining in the late-afternoon spring light. The bottom of the bay was cloaked in a blanket of clouds, and they, too, were lit up to a satin-sheened brilliance. I was bewitched by the beauty, startled by it, but around me everyone carried on carousing, oblivious. A group of young men were gathering on the balcony — too many, it seemed to me, to be supported by it. I was worried it would break, but as an outsider I was wary of offering advice.
When I awoke, my mood was ambivalent. I was moved by the radiance of what I had seen, but also anxious about the possible calamity. This, I quickly realized, had been the frame through which I had experienced Cape Dorset, a small town that has been the site of a unique intercultural experiment between the Inuit and the white worlds for more than half a century. I had been enchanted by the beauty and the culture of the place, but disturbed about what Inuit had endured, and how much they still stand to lose by adopting the structures and values of the white world. I have now made two visits there to learn about printmaking at the renowned Kinngait Studios, the jewel in the crown of northern artistic production, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary three years ago. In particular, I wanted to meet Tim Pitsiulak, forty-five, a quiet, steady fixture in the community, one of its best hunters, and now one of its most promising artists. A nephew of the celebrated printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak, he leads a new generation of artists redefining Inuit art.
Artmaking in Cape Dorset has prehistoric roots, from nomadic Inuit who expressed their refined aesthetic sensibilities for millennia in tiny carvings, toggles, and amulets in bone and ivory — objects that connected them to the spiritual realm and to the animals they hunted — and in the striking textile appliqués with which the women adorned traditional clothing. These designs inspired adventurer James Houston to persuade the Canadian government to fund a pilot project in Cape Dorset in the 1950s, encouraging carving on a larger scale, and introducing Japanese-style printmaking to a people who were just beginning to move into fixed settlements. By 1960, Houston was moving on, the mantle of leadership was passed to Terry Ryan, and Kinngait was placed under the direction of the newly created West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, one of many such co-ops set up across the North under the direction of Inuit leaders.
For Inuit, the co-ops provided employment and hope, but Ottawa had its own reasons for encouraging permanent settlements. The Cold War had charged the Arctic politically, making it a buffer zone between Communism and democracy. Conscription of the nomadic Inuit into fixed communities enabled the federal government to assert the existence of an Indigenous population in the region, even if that citizenry was to be identified by tracking numbers. In the span of a few decades, the nomadic way of life was lost, and Canada’s claim on the North was secured.
Meanwhile, the country was looking to brand itself at home and abroad, and Inuit art became the iconography. Ookpiks and inukshuks were sold in airports and gift shops from coast to coast. Inuit prints graced our stamps; Kenojuak’s The Enchanted Owl, on the 1970 six-cent stamp, was embraced as a signifier of our identity as an emerging nation, with accents both primeval and modern. Inuit carvings served as the stuff of corporate ritual among Bay Street qallunaat, who swapped bulk-buy soapstone dancing bears and walruses at closing dinners…