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If you like Donald Johanson's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donald Johanson in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Institute of Human Origins

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Donald Johanson
Donald Johanson
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Donald Johanson Interview

Discoverer of Lucy

January 25, 1991
Berkeley, California

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  Donald Johanson

I am very struck in reading about your achievements over the last 15 years or so, how early they came, relatively speaking, in your career. When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue anthropology? Did someone in particular help pique that interest?

Donald Johanson: There was one individual who became my mentor very early on.

As a young boy, at about age eight, I met an anthropologist, who was out walking his dog. He was teaching at a theological seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. And, as I often jokingly say, his dog introduced me to him. And I became introduced because of that to anthropology. Something that probably most of us don't even hear about until we are in college and take an introductory anthropology course, or whatever. But Paul Lazer, deceased now, was regularly going to Africa to pursue his area of work. He was a social/cultural anthropologist, in places like Tanzania, and Malawi, and so on. And I was thrilled as a young boy to sit with him, surrounded by his library of knowledge and to talk to him about his adventures in Africa. And I became very interested in Africa. I became very intrigued by the idea of going to a place as foreign and remote as Africa.

Our house was immediately next door to the seminary. My father died when I was two years old, so I had no strong male image or personality in my life and I began a wonderful friendship with this professor of anthropology. At the same time, I was particularly interested in biology. I had a huge butterfly collection. I went out and identified plants and insects, and so on.

When the first fossils began to be found in eastern Africa, in the late 1950s, I thought, what a wonderful marriage this was, biology and anthropology. I was around 16 years old when I made this particular choice of academic pursuit. It was something I wanted to do more than anything else. I had a broad range of interests, biology and astronomy. But this was something that particularly intrigued me because of the personal contact I had with someone who I respected more than anyone else. What he was doing, to me, appeared to be extremely exciting. And I thought, wouldn't it be marvelous if I could grow up to be an anthropologist. So my interest in evolution began in, of all places, a theological seminary.

Did you ever stop to wonder, if that dog hadn't introduced you to the anthropologist, whether you would be doing something else today? Or do you think you would have found this field anyway?

Donald Johanson: No. I suspect that if I had not met Paul Lazer, if I had not had his remarkable influence, I would certainly have been doing something else. I think that, in fact, as I look back there was a very interesting thing which happened when I was a senior in high school. My first two years of high school, I was not a very good student. I was much more interested in what was going on outside of school. I was not stimulated to perform by the regular curriculum of high school. We didn't have astronomy courses. We didn't have courses in natural history, and there were so many other things I was interested in that school work sort of got in the way and I did very poorly my first two years. After my sophomore year, Paul told me, "If you want to go to college, if you want to pursue an advanced degree, in whatever field it is you want, you need to get cracking in your school work." I worked very hard the last two years of high school. In fact, I graduated something like 26 out of 300, did very well, but I did very poorly on examinations, Scholastic Aptitude Tests, for example. The reason I did so poorly was because I had read papers which of course, most students had not read, about the fact that these tests are highly biased. It really depends on one's background. Taking a scholastic aptitude test that's designed for a white Anglo-Saxon group of people and applying that to another group of people, these other people come out scoring very low, and the interpretation is that they're not very bright. There's a sense that they're not terribly good, certainly weren't at that time, very good ways to accurately reflect one's intellectual capabilities, so I didn't take them very seriously. As a result I did very poorly on them. There was a tremendous effort, or emphasis, placed on these examinations for entry to college. And when I went to the high school counselor, Mr. Olson, to discuss my college applications, he said, "Young man, I think you should apply to a trade school." He said, "You're not college material." And Paul, at that point -- I came back with this story. I was practically in tears, as you might imagine. Paul reiterated that these tests are not accurate tests of one's capabilities and intelligence, and that I should apply. And I applied to several colleges and did get in. That sort of influence was terribly important to me because if I had not met him, and didn't have that sort of influence in my life, I might have ended up going to trade school, becoming a plumber, or an electrician, or something else.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Were there particular books you read growing up that led you into this area?

Donald Johanson: I was particularly intrigued with astronomy. So I read a lot of books on astronomy. I read Lowell's book on Mars, for example. I was very intrigued with the "canals" of Mars. But one of the books that played the largest role in my decision to become an anthropologist was a book written by Huxley in the late 1800s. Huxley was, as he is often called, Darwin's bulldog. Charles Darwin formulated one of the most extraordinary ideas of the Western mind, the idea of evolution by means of natural selection. It's interesting that today we have physicists trying to develop what they call the "grand unified theory," something that would unify all aspects of the physical universe. We have spent billions of dollars sending telescopes into outer space, building radio telescopes, designing laboratory experiments to get down to things like the Z particle, and mu mesons, and all of these things that happen in cloud chambers, and so on.

Here was a guy, Charles Darwin, in the middle 1800's who sat in a little home in Kent at Down and because of his five-year experience on the Beagle, traveling around the world as a naturalist, designed an idea of evolutionary change which is the grand unifying theory of biology. Today, even though biology is leaps and bounds beyond Darwin in 1859, when he published The Origin of Species, the basic core of biology is still natural selection. But, Darwin was a very retiring person. He didn't want to go out and defend his theories when he was being attacked by, particularly by the church, but by other scientists. But, Huxley, one of his colleagues, really became the defender of his ideas. He wrote a book with a wonderful title, Man's Place In Nature. Of course, the terrible thing that Darwin did, was he removed humans from the center of the biological universe. He said that humans and human ancestors must have been susceptible to the same forces, the same whims and caprices of climatic change, evolutionary change, as any and all other living organisms. What Huxley tried to do in this book, was to really put man in his place in the natural world. I thought this was a brilliant idea. This was something that intrigued me, to realize that the same sort of plants and animals and insects that I was studying and was interested in -- that we were there for the same reasons that they were. The same process of evolutionary change that brought about the Monarch butterfly, or the rabbits that I was observing in the neighborhood and so on, was the same process that brought us to where we are today.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Were you aware, when you were close to Paul Lazer as a young man, that there could be any kind of dichotomy or conflict between the seminary and the theory of evolution, the work that you were starting to do?

Donald Johanson: I was aware of it, but I grew up in a very a-religious family. My mother never went to church, she never had any religious training or background. It was never a part of our social interaction. I was aware of the conflict, but on the one hand, I felt that religion was pretty much based on an individual's faith. I had colleagues in high school who were devout Catholics, who went to church regularly, who went to confession regularly, who really had religion play a large role in their lives. I felt that was their own personal belief. That was not something that I should necessarily tinker with or tamper with, or challenge. Because that was a personally held belief. But on the other hand, I thought that natural selection made so much sense, from the scientific viewpoint, that this was really something that one should evaluate in an entirely different realm, in the realm of science, which is very different from the realm of religion. So I was aware of it, but it did not cause me a great deal of conflict.

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