Richard Leakey Predicts End of Evolution Debate

Kenyan Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey believes that continuing advancements in science will finally end skepticism about evolution:

Left: A young Richard Leakey. Right: A person Leakey is unlikely to ever convince. (Images via The Daily Mail and The Inverness Courier)

“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,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

Though, admittedly, he puts the time-frame for such a change within the next 15 to 30 years, I believe that the professor is making a crucial mistake:

Skepticism about evolution is not a matter of a greater accumulation of evidence.

If having sufficient evidence were all that were required for denial of evolution to disappear, the last Creationist would have given up 100 years ago.

Obviously, Leakey knows this, especially when you consider that he has led teams that have contributed a few of those transitional fossils Creationists are so fond of pretending don’t exist. It sounds like he believes that removing skepticism about evolution is merely a matter of presenting people with the overwhelming evidence. In some cases, he may be right. The atheist community has a large contingent of people who were kept away from the evidence in favor of evolution in their youth, only to discover it and accept it fully as an adult. But ignorance alone does not account for all Creationists.

I believe Leakey is underestimating the number of people who are nowhere near “the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence.”  Many people have been led to believe by their pastors, priests, and imams that to accept evolution is to deny their faith, that acceptance of evolution is an implicit rejection of God. Faced with this choice, many will reject evolution, not because they find its evidence lacking, but because they believe it is a threat to a religious belief they hold dear. They are making an emotional choice, not an intellectual one — in other words, a choice that is not amenable to persuasion through facts.

Could Creationism be done away with within the next several decades? Possibly, but merely educating people better about the fact of evolution is not enough. People must be educated, not simply to accept any one scientific concept, but to deeply hold the notion that evidence must be the primary reason one does or does not hold something to be true. Until the idea that “faith is a virtue” is banished from our culture, we will have to deal with people choosing what to believe with their hearts and not their heads. I have hope that such a time is in our future, but I think 15-30 years is a tad optimistic.

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Exactly my thoughts on reading about Leakey’s views. People still believe that we didn’t go to the Moon, despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary. They don’t believe that humans are changing global climate, despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary. They believe that the CIA and Israel dropped the Twin Towers, despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary. As you say, people who refuse to believe in the obvious do so for reasons far removed from rational consideration, so why would adding to the already overwhelming evidence change the mind of such people? They are not of a mindset to consider evidence at all.

    In any case, the matter of evolution is already settled. The obvious evidence is already out there. Nothing is going to change in the future that makes it more likely. All that’s going to happen is that the specialists are going to tease out more and more of the subtle mechanisms that enable it- not at all the sort of stuff that engages non-scientists.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Leaky is as out of touch with Fundyism as Fundies are with science.

    • niemzo

      My thoughts exactly.

    • Pseudonym

      Absolutely. But here’s the kicker:

      Creationism is a theological belief, not a scientific belief. I think we all agree with that. So it seems to me that it should primarily be attacked on theological grounds. But every time someone with some scientific credentials tries that, or even worse, an organisation, the atheist blogosphere cries “accommodationism”.

      You can’t win.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    There are too many political interests that ride on the creationist agenda. As long as someone benefits from harping that message, it won’t go away.

  • Coyotenose

    How does one “Believe on the Lord?” Is the Lord a couch?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

      Maybe the “B” was intended to be an “R” instead?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORRVVC5R2QWLTXEM6SX5L6BORE Jay Arrrr

    I know people who would kill themselves before admitting that any of their precious, White DNA came from Africa.

    • jdm8

      I wonder what that really leaves them. The other option, if they’re Christian, is they should believe they’re descended from middle-eastern peoples.

      • I_Claudia

        That assumes that they are aware that virtually the entire Bible is a story about non-white people, and that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, not an aryan hero.

        Since we’re talking about creationists who are racists to boot, I’m guessing such understanding is far above their intellectual capacity.

  • Bholly72

    The people who can be convinced by evidence are already convinced. 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Dr. Leakey doesn’t understand ignorance. There are two kinds, passive ignorance, where a person simply has not encountered correct information, and active ignorance, where a person is working diligently to keep correct information from getting in. Dr. Leakey is talking about the passive kind.  

    Actively ignorant people protect themselves and others from challenge and change, because as Claudia says they are emotionally driven to do so.  Often they have a material investment at stake as well. For example, the most vocal global warming deniers usually depend on the fossil fuel industries much more than we all do.  

    Pride is a factor that I’m noticing more often lately. Once people develop a self-image as beleaguered believers who are heroically fighting against mounting evidence all around them, they begin to feel more proud of their ability to keep believing, as if it’s like a contest of physical strength. So the more patently absurd their beliefs, the more pride they have in holding them, and the more convincing the evidence against their beliefs, the more pride they have in resisting and rejecting it. This is an emotional reward for maintaining ignorance. It’s self-perpetuating.

    The individuals, countries and cultures that in large part do not accept evolution cripple their own ability to accept and participate in science in general. Dr. Leakey’s prediction will eventually come about, but not for another century or so. By then, the rest of the world will have moved far, far beyond the individuals, countries and cultures who wanted to stay in the past.

  • articulett

     Yep. The number one people don’t accept evolution is because they’ve been told their loving god will punish them for all eternity if they don’t believe a certain unbelievable creation story. How is evidence supposed to conquer that?

    Don’t miss Jerry Coyne’s talk on the subject:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/a-video-of-my-talk-at-harvard

  • judith sanders

    I don’t agree completely with Leakey, but I do think we could see a big collapse of religious belief in the US within 30 years.  Some of the activities religion is involved in now are so strange and desperate, I can only think of “death throes,” or the way there is a frantic repetition of a behavior be fore it is abandoned.

  • Ken

    While I applaud Leakey’s optimism, I’m afraid the backlash to this statement will delay its acceptance.  He’s given fundies the ammo to attack science again.  It’s the old “where’s science with the missing link” issue once more, and no matter how many missing links are provided, they keep wanting “the one” that hasn’t shown up yet.  For those that “need” the approval of daddy, religion will never be displaced by reason.  That would make them “bad” children.  As if going out and promoting killing people for some mythical deity is a “good” thing.

  • Stev84

    The problem with these hardcore believers is that they see the denial of evidence, science and reason as a good thing. They think that the denial of the obvious shows strength, conviction and character. The more they reject evolution, the more godly they become.

  • just some other guy

    I think it was Jonathan Swift (or was it Voltaire?) that said, “You can’t
    reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into.”

    • Ndonnan

      Wasnt it Voltaire who predicted that Christianity would have disappeared 100 years after he died?Thats why it was so amusing that his printing press and home were used to print and distribute bibles.But really people,keep telling yourselves there is all this compelling evidence out there.Its like you say that children are brain washed to believe in God,one scientist  says something is true and all the others follow like sheep ba ba baing the same thing.Your foundational belief in Darwin is wrong and you keep building on it.Look at this 165mill yo orb spider http://www.wired.com its exactlly the same now,no wings or bigger brain,or the 200myo horseshoe crab or mosquito in amber,all the same.Your only kidding yourself.I understand a lot have invested years in beliving this is all true and so dont want to face reality but do us all a favour and move on.  

      • Ken

        Next time you get sick and need a doctor, or surgery, just pray on it. Don’t depend on anything science has developed — it’s all from Satan.

        • Ndonnan

          Thanks Ken,great idea,got to go now, i have an appointment to donate blood because all the clever sceintists carnt even make something as basic as blood.Science is only discovering how God does things,and you think they are so smart,and they are in their field compared to me but compared to God or even Satan for that matter their 1st graders

          • Pseudonym

            I’m glad you’re donating blood. All of the scientists who will be screening and processing your donation thank you, as do the patients who can be treated with the products which science can make from your donation.

            However, as any scientist will tell you, there’s nothing the slightest bit “basic” about blood.

            Just think about the blood of a fetus, for example. It needs to be slightly more oxygen-attracting than that of an adult, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to acquire oxygen from its mother’s bloodstream. But it can’t be too oxygen-attracting, otherwise its own body couldn’t use the oxygen either. It’s a difficult balancing act, which occasionally goes terribly wrong, hence the existence of diseases such as anaemia.

            Nonetheless, you will be pleased to know that blood substitutes such as HBOCs and PFBOCs are currently undergoing clinical trials. They probably won’t be economical for a while yet, though, so please keep donating.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              Nice of God to design our blood so that some babies can die from 
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ABO_hemolytic_disease_of_the_newborn  I’m sure He had his reasons though.  So I wonder if the scientists who worked out how to mitigate the problem are part of God’s plan or Satan’s plan.

            • Ndonnan

              Good questions Dietrich,personally i think most scientists for years now have learned to accept as fact things that they will never study They also have a pre conceived idea which has been built on,[if that is true therefore this is true]Starting with Darwins theory being false from the start.The arguments for evolution are also well known because secular humanists try very hard to prevent any`thing other than their belief being even discussed.There are thousands of scientists who believe in creation and there is a lot of good  infomation available,but like those who disagree with global warming are ridiculed and shouted down.When you think of anything coming from a giant explosion to the complexity of life as we know it now , evolution really is an absurd theory when degeneration is what is really happening.No i dont think there is a conspiracy going on except in the spiritual realm,but that isnt a topic worth going into here,but subscribe to creation magazine and start your journey to the other side,after all you arnt really rebellious if you are doing what 99% do now are you?  

              • Dietrich

                Thank you for taking the time to reply to my question.  Your response is about what I expected, I suppose, and made me realize I need to ask the question a little differently.

                Clearly a massive conspiracy is absurd; I’m glad you recognize that.

                Obviously you question the scientific knowledge that biologists have produced.  As an aside, you also question global warming science, and seem to have your doubts about the big bang (although that wasn’t as clear).  Here’s the thing though: every one of those scientific theories came about in the same way.  Scientists made observations of the world, generated a hypothosis to explain the observations, and continued to gather data through observation or experiment.  If a hypothesis didn’t stand up to new information, it would be modified or abandoned.  Over time these hypotheses have stood up to all challenges and are now considered scientific theories which provide an explanation of our best understanding of those aspects of our world and universe.

                But this gets to how I should have phrased my question.  The theories of evolution, global warming and the big bang are no different scientifically than the germ theory of disease, the theory of relativity, or quantum theory.  Or for that matter, any other theory you might care to name.  So the first part of my question should have been this: do you think that the scientific process has not been followed for evolution by any scientist worldwide since the time of Charles Darwin?  Why whould scientists abandon the process that has proven so effective in producing useful and accurate knowledge about our world, but only do so in the case of evolution (or global warming, or the big bang)?

          • powerimi

            scientists, not sceintists
            can’t, not carnt
            your = belonging to you
            you’re = you are
            their = belonging to them
            they’re = they are

            • R. Holden

              Bad spelling and grammar are always a dead give away that we’re dealing with stupidity.

              • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                Actually they aren’t.  Having learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dysgraphia don’t indicate a lack of ability in other areas.

                • Ndonnan

                  Thanks Rich,kind of like saying people who are good with words and expressive are self obsessed arrogant pratts.My father in law is a professor and carnt turn a key in a door,but is a good speller im sure.

              • Vixen

                Or, sometimes, from a poster whose first language is not English or a child who hasn’t yet gotten her grammar and spelling down pat, but is nevertheless a whiz bang and able to join this conversation or a very poor typist. 

      • Dietrich

        Recently, I’ve had a question I would like to ask of someone who rejects evolution.  I am genuinely curious about this.

        Over 99% of scientists who study biology accept the theory of evolution (in broad terms; they may disagree on details).  If the theory of evolution is not correct, then I can only think of two explanations: either they are all wrong, or there is a conspiracy to support the theory.

        If the scientists are wrong, you would think that they would have figured it out by now.  After all, the arguments against evolution are well known.  Any scientist who could disprove evolution would be a lock for a Nobel prize, and would ensure that their name would go down as one of the scientific greats for centuries hence.

        The notion of a massive, decades-long, global conspiracy to hide the truth is hard to swallow, particularly given the skeptical, rebellious nature of so many scientists.  The idea of every scientist around the world toeing the line for so many years boggles the mind.

        So, which of these options do you believe?  Or is there some other explanation that I have missed?  If you think that evolution isn’t true, and that it hasn’t been demonstrated to an extremely high degree of scientific certainty, then there has to be a reason for the near-unanimous acceptace by scientists in the field.

        • Ken

          Why is the question always limited to “science right or wrong?”  Why is it inconceivable that science can 
          a) recognize that the Bible’s explanations are not factual
          and, simultaneously
          b) we do not yet have all the correct answers to everything
          A child can know there is no Santa Claus without understanding the inticacies of the capitalist economic system.

          Such a scenario is possible without resorting to supernatural causes.  Religion seems to demand absolute answers, which are simply not available.  The real questions theists should be asking are not about gaps in scientific understanding, but what about the gaps in Biblical inerrancy.  Add those up, instead of creating excuses and you can drive the science truck through the church doors.  The gaps in science have been systematically closing for years, and will continue to do so.  The Bible just keeps getting more gap-filled, unless you choose to ignore them entirely.  

          Funny how the arguments for God always boil down to “Godditit” without ever questioning where God came from.  Did he need his own God to create him?  And no, it’s not a silly question if this is you believe nothing can come from nothing.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I’m just surprised that you accept that some species are more than 10K years old, and yet think that no species has ever changed.  That’s a very strange position.  It means you accept current methods for dating things, but, well, I’m not sure how you’d explain the fact that we don’t have any 200myo horses.  But we do have an extremely complete fossil history of what would certainly appear to be the evolution of what we today call a horse.

        Even the Young Earth Creationists accept evolution within a ‘kind’- a single pair of ‘cats’ into today’s lions and tigers and house cats.

        What you seem to be saying (please do correct me if I’m wrong) is that since a few particular examples have not changed significantly in the last few hundred million years, that NO species have changed.

        I’d love to know exactly what your position is on how we arrived at the current variety of life on this planet.  Did God create every individual species we see today?  Approximately how long ago was that?  And the Ark?  Did Noah put at least two of every current species on that Ark?

        • Ndonnan

          Well Rich,your right i dont believe in long age at all,they were your sides guesses.Your fossils i believe are of other species alltogether as in extinct.Selective breading of cats,dogs or anything else isnt evolution,its selective breeding.I believe the species of plants and animals we have today are only a small part of what was originally created by God.What they find now wasnt a stage of development but a different breed or totally different species altogether.The rest of your questions arnt serious enough to spend my slow typing skills on. 

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            My questions were all very serious- you just had me totally confused with your mixed earth creationism.  As far as I can tell, you’re view is even less scientific than the Answers in Genesis people.  I didn’t think it was possible, but you never know where you’ll learn something.  Thanks for being my lesson of the day.

      • David McNerney

        Why wouldn’t they be the same? If they have adapted to their environment and their environment hasn’t changed, then there is absolutely no reason that they would evolve.

        I think you are trying to suggest the “evolutionary ladder” – i.e. that there is some pinnacle or ultimate goal that every species is trying to evolve towards.  This is simply not the case – nor is it suggested by evolutionary theory.

  • Hibernia86

    While I do know many Christians who believe in evolution, I think that Creationism will only die out when religion dies out. I think there will be a time when the vast majority of people are Atheists (that has already happened in some parts of Western Europe), but even in America it will take probably a 50 or 60 years at the very minimum for this to happen. If you are talking about Saudi Arabia, I could see that taking at least 200 years.

  • Gus Snarp

    I think it depends on two things:

    1.) Education
    2.) How you define “done away with:.

    The guy with the sign will not be convinced by any amount of evidence, and there will always be creationists. True Believers we are stuck with, just as there are still flat earthers, hollow earthers, astrologers, psychics, and moon hoaxers.

    The real question then is whether creationism can be effectively marginalized, and I think that’s quite possible, but I don’t think it will happen without a concerted and continuing effort. There are great books out there laying out the basic arguments and evidence in favor of evolution, but there are too many school shying away from it, thinking it’s easier to avoid controversy and that it can’t be that important. That’s the first thing that has to change. Every teacher who ever touches on biology needs to do so in the context of evolution, and they need to understand what evolution really means to biology, that it is the framework that has made biology a truly productive science, before evolution it was largely a matter of cataloging organisms.

  • JimChristensen

    The Leakeys were jerks.  the took credit for stuff others had done, and fudged their findings.  Some of the “artifacts”  and bones “they” found came from different areas and strata and they claimed they found them all togther.

    They are not great role models.


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