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Walter P. Kistler Lecture Series

 

HOME | DONALD JOHANSON | BRIAN FAGAN | PETER WARD

 

Donald C. Johanson, Ph.D.

Renowned Paleoanthropologist, Discoverer of “Lucy”

Founding Director, Institute of Human Origins

Author of Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins

Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change,
Arizona State University

 

 

 

Title of Lecture: “Darwin and Human Evolution”

When: September 29, 2020, 7:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time

Where: Town Hall, 8th and Seneca, Seattle

Cost: Free to the public

Abstract of Lecture

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his now famous book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In this volume he articulated the theory of evolution as an explanation for all biological life on Earth. His ideas, now 150 years later, continue to form the core of modern biological thought as well as the basis for understanding the diversity of all life, past, present, and future on our planet.

Darwin knew that his ideas ran counter to the prevailing view of his times that special creation was the best explanation for life on our planet. He showed great restraint in The Origin by only briefly making reference to human evolution by writing: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Darwin was hopeful this minor reference to human origins would not precipitate widespread outrage; that turned out to be hopeful thinking.

In 1863 Darwin’s colleague, Thomas Henry Huxley, published: Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. In this momentous book Huxley established beyond question the remarkable anatomical similarities between humans and the African apes, especially the chimpanzee. He concluded that these features could be explained only by descent from a common ancestor shared by humans and the African apes.

Darwin greatly elaborated on this view in his 1871 book: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Here Darwin outlined a scenario for the evolution of humankind and pointed to Africa as the homeland for all humanity. This prescient notion was made in light of the widespread view that Europe is where humans originated and without the benefit of a single human ancestor fossil from Africa.

 In 1924 Raymond Dart published his description of the Taung Child from South Africa and named this “missing link” Australopithecus africanus. This ancient skull with a unique combination of human and ape-like features was a vindication of Darwin and Huxley’s predictions.

Today the storehouse for human origins continues to grow with new discoveries coming at an ever-increasing rate. The record for human evolution stretches back to more than six million years with an ever-increasing number of fossil species on the human family tree.

Donald Johanson's 1974 discovery of a 3.2 million-year-old fossil hominid skeleton, popularly known as "Lucy," has thrown considerable light on human origins. While even more ancient hominid fossils have been found, Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, continues to occupy a pivotal place on the human family tree.

In this presentation Dr. Johanson used Lucy as a touchstone for understanding human origins. He highlighted the importance of her species and considered how she relates to more ancestral species and how her species set the stage for subsequent human evolution and ultimately the emergence of modern humans.