Tim White Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

On the Trail of our Human Ancestors: Conversation with Tim White, Professor of Integrative Biology; September 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Lessons Learned

Not everybody is privileged to have been born in the San Bernardino Mountains and to become interdisciplinary as a high school student. I'm curious: how does a student prepare for these kind of studies, prepare for becoming a paleoanthropologist? What you're describing for us is a process that draws on all of the sciences in an extraordinary way to put this puzzle together.

The advice that I would have for students who are interested in this kind of a thing is to follow your curiosity, do what you love, do what you're passionate about, which will take you where you want to be, rather than going on some a route that says, "Start here and you will end up there." I mean, I was told that it would be great for me to be a marine biologist, and I end up in the deserts of Ethiopia! We had one small fish that came out of the stream this year! Curiosity is something; children are naturally curious, working in the Afarand that curiosity is maintained all the way through one's life when one is a scientist.

You're saying that curiosity will lead you to a problem and then you have to persevere to find out what it takes to solve that problem.

That's right. But that's a wonderful process in itself, because you get to explore the processes, the techniques, the equipment, the colleagues, the world of knowledge that can be brought to bear on whatever it is that you're curious about. You may start off in one direction and end up somewhere completely different. But if you've maintained the curiosity all the way along, you will eventually get there.

The work you're doing is situated in a time in which the places that you want to go have very fragile settings, where it all could be "gone with the wind," I guess is the way to say it. Talk a little about that. It must be a real worry for the people who do this kind of work, that the sites will be lost, either through carelessness, overuse, abuse, or whatever.

Tourism is a problem as well. Many of these developing countries would like to use their resource base in terms of the paleoanthropology to draw tourists from overseas. What we're doing is to work with the Ethiopian government to establish a sustainable way of doing that, working with the local people, the tour guides, such that people can come in without disturbing these settings, without pocketing an artifact here and there, without looting the sites. That's very much a concern, particularly because the evidence that we seek is so rare. Six million years is an enormous amount of time, and time is the great eraser of human presence. It erases. It erases. It buries. It erodes. It destroys. And if there's been a lot of time, and a million years is a lot of time, most of the past gets destroyed.

So we have these little tiny windows in Africa called the sites themselves, and we have to protect those. Fieldwork in Middle Awash study areaOne of the ways that we've been trying to do that is to bring people from Ethiopia into the research team, and bring them through the Ph.D. level, so that they will become practicing scientists and share the same passions that we have for these resources and the same concern that we have for the resources.

Dr. Berhane Asfaw, who did his Ph.D. here in Cal in the eighties, went back, and at the end of the Ethiopian revolution that got rid of the late dictator, Mengistu, Berhane was in Addis Ababa. The rebels had arrived in the capital. Very similar to stories we've been hearing about Baghdad; different circumstances, of course. But Berhane was the director of the National Museum. He went to the tank commander and said, "Can you please allow my guards to keep their guns? The museum has to be protected." The commander said, "What is a museum?" This is a guy who had been fighting a guerrilla war for years and years. Berhane said, "Come, let me show you." He took this man and showed him, and the story ends with: "nothing happened at the National Museum, because of Berhane's concern." All of those things were preserved. There was no looting because the officer said, "Yes, your police can keep their weapons." They were the only people in the city that kept the weapons, and that protected this resource.

That's just a small story. But if we can reach out to a younger generation of African scholars, bring them up and they become scientists, that's going to not only protect the resources, but also utilize the resources that we have to tell us a lot more about where we came from.

In the end, it seems that in this work you have to protect what you're doing, not only from the abuse that comes from a misuse of the sites, a lack of identification with the site, both at the national and international level, but also the way the news and media distort the meaning of discoveries before they're scientifically validated.

The thing that we face, and it's a curse and a blessing at the same time, I suppose, is that because everyone is interested in where they came from, there's a lot of pressure. Who is going to find the missing link, and what are they going to tell us about the missing link? Now we know that there are a lot of links. Some of them are no longer missing. There are still some missing, there are chains of evolution behind every one of the species on earth today. But it's that human ancestor chain that fascinates people; people really want to know about that. So the pressure comes from this insatiable curiosity on the part of all people. People want to know the real story of where we came from. We have great differences today among the people of the world. An Australian Aboriginal population has a whole series of different cultural and biological characteristics from a Scandinavian population. Where did those come from? How deep are they? These discoveries are bearing on those kinds of important and interesting questions.

So people want to know, but like you say, it's painstaking work. What we've adopted on this project is a policy of no grandstanding until you have the scientific publication finished. We publish in Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science -- top journals. We do that so that the scientific foundation of these discoveries is well established. It's much better to get it right than to do it fast. That's the philosophy we've taken. Not everybody has taken the same philosophy. [Some] people find a fossil and the next week they're on television, before they even have it cleaned the matrix. Well, you know, to each his own.

Tim, on that note, and with the hope that more follow your example and not the "News at 11" way of doing this, I want to thank you very much for coming here and sharing with us your intellectual odyssey and nature of your work. Thank you very much.

It's been a great pleasure, thank you.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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