Even as a kid Donald C. Johanson, who is now among the supernovas of science and the golden boy of paleoanthropology, wanted no more from life than to grow up digging fossils, and now, at 37, he still conceives of no life more rewarding than "grubbing about in Africa on all fours."
In 1937 he discovered a fossil knee joint that showed pre-human creatures walked upright, not on all fours like bears or on knuckles like gorillas and chimpanzees.
It has been generally guessed that bipedal walking developed right along with an increase in the size of the brain pan, but Johanson's fossils -- more than 3 million years old -- showed ape-like skulls and brains but with upright posture already developed.
A sensational find was Lucy, a huminid about 42 inches tall, who walked upright three million years ago but whose skull was distinctly pre-human. If the human line branched off from the ape line in the remote past, you would not expect to find such ape-like aspects in a hominid skeleton only 3 million years old. You would expect Lucy to have been far more human. oOne conclusion (and there's argument among anthropologists here) is that our own line did not veer away from apes nearly so long ago as had been expected.
The fossil hominid was called Lucy because the song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was blaring on every radio of Africa, just as here, at the time, and "we were all sky high" with excitement at the find.
Johanson has written a nontechnical book, "Lucy," and is in the middle of a nationwide tour promoting it, and had breakfast with a reporter at the Four Seasons Hotel in an effort to wake up:
"You like to sleep late?" he said incredulously. "So do I. It's all I can do on this tour to get up in the morning. I'm in great shape at 2 a.m., though.Tell me, why are we meeting here at dawn when both of us hate to get up early? Why weren't we talking last midnight?"
"Because there are evil spirits in the world who like nothing better than to torture paleoanthropologists and reporters," he was authoritatively informer.
But into the nitty-gritty:
"Ever swipe a fossil from a classroom laboratory?" the inquisitor demanded.
"No," said Johanson.
Not even a gastropod? So beautiful, and they have hundreds of them in any geo lab."
"It was trilobites," Johanson said. Trilobites that seemed to him most wonderful, but he never swiped one of them, either.
A youth smitten with geology is bound to be tempted the first -- or hundredth -- time he sees a truly beautiful and perfect fossile of a creature that lived millions of years ago, and holds the stone in his hand. And yet there are scientists all over the world who never stole a trilobite, no matter how keenly they wished to possess one as a kid.
Scientists are not devoid, necessarily, of a moral sense. It's a theory, an argument, a debating point that Johanson had not thought he needed to argue.
"But the so-called 'creationist' movement is unbelievable. Not unbelievable, but anti-intellectual and anti-educational. Do they think evolutionists are dead set against religion or something? Do they think we are going to try to put in another pulpit next to the pulpit equal time to answer their views of the Book of Genesis?
"I was reading a book on Zen Buddhism. What of a man who takes 20 years from the world to find something? I do not say that is a total waste of time; I believe he may find great rewards [from religion].
"Once I took a course in psychology that touched on extrasensory perception. I didn't believe one word about extrasensory perception, but that doesn't mean I want everybody who believes in it to shut up.
"I was at Sweetbriar College to lecture. Dr. Falwell's Moral Majority people are right down the road and some of his boys came to the lecture. They kept getting around to the Theory of Evolution," and here Johanson's brow furrowed a bit, perhaps in amazed disbelief: What they evidently wanted him to say was that evolution was a theory.
"Of course it's a theory," he said, when he found that was what they wanted him to say. "Of course it is."
Ha. They had him, they figured:
"You have admitted it's just a theory," they told him.
It finally dawned on Johanson that they believed the theory was nonfactual -- as if it were merely a brainstorm in Darwin's head.
"You mean they thought the theory of evolution you were talking about was merely a fabulous account of how man came to exist, like a fairy tale?"
"Right," said Johanson. "I asked them if they ever heard of music theory, maybe they had studied music theory in school, and of course they had heard of a subject called music theory. And I reminded them we have music all around us, real music. Music theory doesn't mean music does not exist. Any theory is simply an effort to put the facts that are actually known into a system that holds together, not just isolated facts. And I asked them about nuclear theory.At first there were a lot of things we did not know. There still are. But try telling the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki that nuclear theory is just something in somebody's head, that doesn't correspond to anything real in nature."
"They say," his visitor reminded Johanson, "there are actually federal officials who honestly believe rocks aren't so old."
"Really?" he said.
"Of course. Do you think it may come about this way: Say you only know how to play tiddlywinks, and you find yourself in a great athletic field with guys roaring all over the place, obviously knowing all these amazing games and handling themselves well. You feel pretty left out, don't you? And what if somebody comes along and tells you the only real athletic thing is tiddlywinks, the one thing you know. Aren't you going to be tempted to believe him, because it's to your great comfort to believe him? No matter what your eyes tell you about the suberb events of the field going on around you?"
Johanson thought it might be something like that.
"There are economic considerations, too," he said. "If they can persuade people to use textbooks in schools that run their creationist theory along with the theory of evolution, they have such texts ready to go. Nobody else does. They would make a lot of money on new textbooks."
"But they're perfectly sincere and serious and thin they're on the side of angels," Johanson's visitor argued."It's not that they are trying to do something wrong or evil. What if their ideas are shaped by their earliest teachers and what if their teachers can barely read or write? Don't you think people's intellectual life depends a good bit, sometimes, on how they were taught when they started out?"
"I certainly do," said Johanson. "And the thing that gets me is not their ideas on religion, but that they are anti-intellectual, anti-education."
Johanson was unspeakably lucky to find first the knee joint, then 40 percent of the Lucy skeleton (never had so nearly a complete skeleton been found of any pre-man), but he was asked if he had never found anything at all sensational, if he would have been equally happy digging about for bones.
"Of course I would. And so I see my future, I cannot see anything else except digging in the African desert -- I come alive there. Grubbing about on all fours for fossils."
He has met opposition, much of it natural, as men try to establish fact through hard questioning, but some of it not so nobly motivated, he suspects.
Though moral scientists may not swipe trilobite fossils, they may resist discoveries or arguments -- however convincing, objectively -- that infringe on their own scientific or emotional turf. Some have had in the back of their minds that Johanson is a brash kid, merely dry behind the ears, without decades of experience and discipline. A flashy discovery or two.
"You have to sympathize with them a little," the visitor said. "Years and years of deep study, and here comes a fellow out of the blue with sensational finds that rise awkward questions. Look at Darwin -- a mere kid, a botonist, and not much of a botanist, either, at the start. And suddenly he is the most distinguished geologist in the world, and he never even studied geology. It wasn't very fair for such genius to break out, it wasn't fair to the great geologists of his day, for this kid to eclipse them all. Life is not fair."
Johanson, who has never dreamed of comparing himself with the great Darwin, chuckled a little, especially as he reflected that Darwin owed all his theory not to men or apes or other animals, but to plants. It was patient observation of plants, not heady speculations about creation, that led him to his inescapable theory.
Johanson weighs a good 30 pounds less than his pictures suggest, and is far handsomer than cameras say. A bit of gray at his temples. Young still to be a little proud (you may guess) of his shirt, probably expensive, and a nice change for grubby shorts in Ethiopia. He appears to be human enough to have a little streak of the populist in him, maybe a little joy in the old observation that in the best kingdoms a little child does the leading.
It was, after all, the lowly sundew, the exotic orchid, the ordinary finches of the Galapagos, the white fantail and the nun pigeon, that led Darwin to truth more upsetting than he had bargained for or even sought. He never meddled with high metaphysics, it was little nothing plants in ordinary meadows that toppled the intellectual world, and it was hardly Darwin's fault that he observed the plants better than those who preceded him, and asked harder questions of the sundew and the pigeon than most men had asked of their astrologers.
You can't talk with Johanson very long without catching a bit of his excitement in fossils. All that long line from little germs bobbing about in a warm sea. The thing about the natural world, pigeongs, rocks and so on, is that if you let yourself learn anything at all about them you can't help a certain enthusiasm and a certain awe that may be denied to those who rumble largely about in their own speculations. You can hardly see a trilobite or an ingenious weed of the meadow grass without revving up a bit. How wonderful. How beautiful.