Olduvai, Evolution, and Darwin - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Olduvai, Evolution, and Darwin February 17, 2009
by Suzan Mazur

A conversation with philanthropist David H. Koch


David Koch (Koch Industries, Inc.)

It was an exquisitely warm, sunny February day and New York's groundhog had just bit the mayor, grabbing the headlines too. I made my way to the East Side, cutting through Barneys to the Madison Avenue offices of Koch Industries, Inc., the Kansas-based oil company. I had an appointment to talk about evolution with David H. Koch, a humanitarian with one of the world's great fortunes.

Not many people I've ever met have been to Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge--a place I had the thrill of visiting in 1980--where Mary Leakey found Zinjanthropus (later renamed Australopithecus), and along with her team, the Hominin footprints at nearby Laetoli. So I was particularly delighted when David Koch opened our conversation by telling me of his expedition there in 1986 and shared some of his favorite things, such as a swatch of fossilized raindrops from Laetoli, which he held in his hands as if those drops were Faberge. Of all the possessions Koch might consider precious, who would have thought they'd be fossilized raindrops? But David Koch is committed to the investigation of human origins. And his philanthropy is serious.

Next year, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins opens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where evidence of 6 million years of human evolution will be part of an interactive display that includes the Laetoli footprints and a reconstruction of Lucy. Visitors will be able to pass through a time tunnel to view early humans "floating in and out of focus," touch models of ancient human fossils as well as watch their own faces morph into those of extinct species. The Smithsonian display follows the creation of the American Museum of Natural History's David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.


Rendering of proposed "Human Characteristics" display at the Smithsonian's David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, now in development. (Courtesy David Koch)

Richard Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, explained about the new exhibition, "David's commitment to science and the study of human evolution will enable the Smithsonian to bring the latest discoveries in this field to the broadest audiences. The exhibition, still in the planning stages, encourages the public to explore the lengthy process of change in human characteristics over time. It also presents one of the new research themes in this field--the dramatic changes in environment that set the stage for human evolution. Although the subject can be controversial, the unearthed discoveries that bear on the question of human origins are a source of deep interest and significance for everyone to contemplate."

David Koch is Executive Vice President of $110 billion Koch Industries (he owns 42%) and CEO of its subsidiary, Koch Chemical Technology Group. He is often described as Manhattan's wealthiest resident, and contributes to Lincoln Center, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the fertility clinic at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, to name a few. He is also is the principal private funder of PBS's Nova series.

Koch's BS and MS degrees are from MIT in chemical engineering. At 6'5" he also found some perspective away from the lab--shooting hoops. His MIT basketball plaque is displayed on his office trophy wall along with other treasures, including a framed replica of Lucy's hand.

I asked him about Olduvai, human origins, changes in evolutionary thinking, and more.

David Koch: It [Olduvai] is unbelievable. As far as you can see there are animal bones like this everywhere! When you were there I'm surprised they didn't show that to you.

Suzan Mazur: There were regional tensions at the time I flew into the Gorge from Nairobi. It was 1980. In fact, the border was officially shut down between Kenya and Tanzania. Authorities in Dar es Salaam gave me permission to land for a few hours, and only to interview Mary Leakey for Omni magazine. The pilot of a single engine Cessna flew me in. We couldn't find the Gorge. It was the dry season and our maps were from the wet season. Had to circle three times before locating it. I was getting sick. Then we found an opening in the terrain, Olduvai, and dove in. Mary Leakey drove out to meet us. Introduced us to her four dalmatians. Made us some lunch--macaroni and cheese casserole, and we talked.

David Koch: My friend Don Johanson organized our expedition in 1986.

Suzan Mazur: He did a two-part documentary for PBS.

David Koch: Three-part. It was on human evolution. Don was the host of it.

Suzan Mazur: You also supported his institute.

David Koch: I still am supporting it, I'm on the board there.

Suzan Mazur: He found Lucy.

David Koch: Yes. When I got there they had discovered a Hominin's bones. They left them in the earth, waiting for me to arrive. And then when I arrived, they let me pull them out of the ground, which was kind of fun.

Suzan Mazur: Well there's a conference coming up at the Vatican in March Click here.

David Koch: On why creationism is real?

Suzan Mazur: The premise is that "issues surrounding evolutionary biology merit a careful and serious reconsideration."

David Koch: Oh, so they're opposed to it.

Suzan Mazur: No, they're moving deeper into a discussion of evolutionary science. They're going beyond. . .

David Koch: I've always felt devout religious advocates believe human evolution and evolution in general are incompatible with the concept of a divine God.

Suzan Mazur: The Vatican is saying the two can co-exist and that religion should in no way be a scientific theory and evolutionary science should not be dogma. The interesting thing is that the Vatican has invited experts on these other evolutionary mechanisms aside from natural selection. People like Stuart Newman [A "pattern language" for evolution and development of animal form], who I've interviewed in ARCHAEOLOGY magazine. Lynn Margulis (symbiosis), who was awarded the President's National Medal of Science. Stuart Kauffman (evolution and complexity)--a big name. Colin Renfrew's going to be there. It's a huge gathering of people. Francisco Ayala.

David Koch: Do they have an equal number of creationists presenting?

Suzan Mazur: At the end of the program they've got philosophers and one or two people talking about intelligent design but no creationist or intelligent design people presenting papers.

David Koch: That's interesting. It's hard to believe the Catholic professionals would support the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.

Suzan Mazur: There's a big shakeup going on, which is what I've been reporting.

David Koch: After all Galileo was imprisoned for years for saying the world was round. Evolution's a hell of a lot more extreme than Galileo's concept.

Suzan Mazur: There's been a huge debate this past year particularly. I'm not referring to evolution vs. creation. What I've been covering involves other mechanisms of evolutionary change aside from Charles Darwin's natural selection. Some of the most savvy scientists would like to see natural selection relegated to a lesser role.

I've written an exposé of the evolution industry.

David Koch: Are you an evolutionist or a creationist?

Suzan Mazur: I'm an evolutionist. I've been talking to scientists who are going deeper into the investigation of evolutionary science. Biology is looking to physics now for answers about evolution. They've discovered as many genes as they're going to find for humans--20,000-25,000.

David Koch: Can I interject a little story? I'm on the board of MIT and one of the main contributors at least in the field of biology and cancer research.

About a year and a half ago I went to a seminar where the speakers were some of MIT's most brilliant and highly acclaimed people. They were talking about the latest and greatest research that's going on there. One speaker after another - these are outstanding, world class scientists, Nobel Prize winners in some cases. On the same faculty they differed enormously in the number of genes that have been discovered. There's no consensus.

Suzan Mazur: There's a range of 20,000 - 25,000.

David Koch: It went down to as little as 15,000 genes and some of them went up to 30,000 genes. Nobody really knows.

Suzan Mazur: And they don't even know what the gene is. That's the discussion now. But since you only have 35 minutes, can we begin with more formal questions?

David Koch: Sure.

Suzan Mazur: You have enormously influenced the public's understanding of science through your support for programs on PBS and Nova. You've given to the Institute for the Study of Human Origins and the Louis B. Leakey Foundation. You've funded a dinosaur wing at the American Museum of Natural History. Next year the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins opens at the Smithsonian Museum. You founded a cancer center at MIT. You're on the board of the Cato Institute and you and George Soros helped to finance the ACLU's successful push to deal with the PATRIOT Act, among many other humanitarian gestures and generosities. You are a major donor to the arts.

What are some of your other community interests and concerns now?

David Koch: I give a great deal of money to sponsor research and facilities for research in the effort to find cures for various types of cancer. I, myself, suffer from prostate cancer which I found I had almost 17 years ago. So it's a great personal interest of mine.

Suzan Mazur: They've come a long way with treatment. Are you okay?

David Koch: I'm doing fine. I still have the cancer.

Suzan Mazur: You have to monitor.

David Koch: Yes. Over the years I've developed strong relationships with quite a number of outstanding cancer research institutes and centers. And during the time I've spent with those organizations and with the funds that I've provided, I've moved the field of cancer research substantially forward. I feel very proud of that.

Suzan Mazur: Are you involved in any way in the editorial content of Nova programs on evolutionary science?

David Koch: No I am not. I've been following the Nova series ever since it first came on the air. I'm a great admirer.

Suzan Mazur: But you stay out of the content.

David Koch: That's right. The quality of the work they do is outstanding. And I think it stands rigorous analysis. It's the latest and greatest. And they present it so beautifully that the average lay person can understand it quite easily.

Suzan Mazur: You ran for U.S. vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, considered the most successful Libertarian presidential ticket ever, getting roughly a million votes. What role do you think politics should play in educating the public about evolution?

David Koch: That's an interesting question. I think politicians should really stay out of it and allow scientists to present the facts and discoveries. I hate to see it politicized.

It's like saying what role should politics play in, for instance, religion? I think it should be up to individuals to decide what they believe. So often politicians are totally uninformed about scientific facts.

Suzan Mazur: And what about the local school boards?

David Koch: There again, the school boards should not have rigorous control over that subject. I think science teachers should be allowed to teach it very openly, without restrictions on what they can say.

Suzan Mazur: As a man committed to the principles and practices of freedom, including scientific freedom, and as a scientist yourself with degrees from MIT in chemical engineering - is it your perspective that we are now witnessing a sea change in evolutionary thinking? That even as the global celebration begins for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, the man who brought us the theory of evolution by natural selection 150 years ago--Darwinian selection, or survival of the fittest, is now being viewed by serious evolutionary scientists as not enough to explain our existence?

To quote from my interview several months ago with NASA astrobiologist Chris Mckay, who was featured in the recent Nova Mars documentary you helped underwrite: "Something had to precede Darwinian natural selection. The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways. First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Second, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level." So the question is: Is it your perspective that we are now witnessing a sea change in evolutionary thinking?

David Koch: No. I don't think it's a sea change. The sea change occurred back when Darwin published his evolutionary theories, backed up by massive, overwhelming evidence. What's happened since is that there's been a rather steady progressive acceptance of the concepts of evolution in the general public. It's amazing to me that in America a large faction of the population still doesn't believe in it.

Suzan Mazur: But the point is that Darwin started with life. He addressed what happens once you have life. He didn't address the origin of life. That's what Chris McKay, the NASA astrobiologist is saying.

David Koch: Scientific knowledge of early life was not something that had been discovered when Darwin was alive. A huge amount of knowledge of how life might have begun has now been determined.

Suzan Mazur: Much of the media and scientific community appear to be stuck in the debate on evolution vs. creationism. A recent Gallup poll in America revealed that two-thirds of Republicans questioned rejected Darwin's theory and a majority of Democrats and political Independents accepted it. What is consistently ignored by pollsters and the media is the evolutionary mechanisms aside from Darwinian natural selection.

More sophisticated evolutionary thinkers are now saying natural selection is not the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. I'm talking about scientists who are funded by the National Science Foundation, not kooks.

What Darwin Got Wrong is a forthcoming book co-authored by Jerry Fodor, one of America's most celebrated philosophers, who argues that at the end of the story "it's not going to be the selectionist story". A Swedish cytogeneticist, Antonio Lima-De-Faria, who's been knighted by the king of Sweden for his scientific accomplishments, has noted that "there has never been a theory of evolution."

In fact, there is a parallel celebration this year of the 200th anniversary of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the scientist who was onto the idea of evolution before Darwin. New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman has said publicly he believes that "over the next couple of decades Lamarck's way of looking at things [the inheritance of acquired characteristics] will be more incorporated into mainstream biology."

Would you comment?

David Koch: Well I'm not an authority on all those details. I have a general working knowledge of evolution. I'm not competent to challenge some of the claims of those folks.

Suzan Mazur: This is a big debate, which the media is not covering. It's reached a crescendo and a lot of people are saying there's a sea change happening. Some of the evolutionary mechanisms being discussed, which relegate natural selection to a less important role, include self-organization--where cells organize themselves into more complex structures. The concept of morphogenetic fields, a developmental grid guiding development, is something Mount Holyoke paleontologist Mark McMenamin and Stuart Pivar have been investigating, identifying the famous Seilacher Namibian fossil that was part of Steve Gould's Scientific American article as a flattened morphogenetic torus, a metazoan creature.

David Koch: I'm not sure what the significance of that discovery is. It seems to me what's amazing is how much Darwin got right 150 years ago. It's staggering what he got right. He got enormously more right on evolution than what he got wrong.

Suzan Mazur: These people aren't questioning the concept of evolution. What they're saying is that there needs to be more, that we need to go beyond Darwin for answers. There's also something called saltational mechanisms which produce abrupt evolutionary change, that is--jumps--where one form rapidly replaces another. Niche construction where organisms invent their habitats rather than being selected.

David Koch: There's been a fine-tuning of Darwin's evolutionary theory, there's no question.

Suzan Mazur: Then there's epigenesis, where a chemical layer is laid down on top of the genes resulting from various stresses on the organism, and the resulting traits (including disease) can be passed on without changes to the DNA. A kind of neo-Lamarckian concept.

What I'm asking is, should the media, and in particular, PBS, focus on these better ideas of how evolution occurred and by enlightening the public, help stop the fighting about "old science"?

David Koch: As more and more knowledge is developed over time as to how evolution at the molecular level is driven, how it works--I think it's a very important responsibility of programs like Nova to continually update the public on the latest findings. I certainly agree with that.

Suzan Mazur: That's good to hear.

David Koch: If there's a difference of opinion between one scientist and another, or a third scientist and that debate can help clarify what's going on in the field of evolution--I think it's important to publish that and discuss it on those kinds of programs.

Suzan Mazur: As I mentioned earlier, next month in Rome the Vatican (Pontifical Gregorian University in collaboration with Notre Dame) will host an international conference open to the public called: "Biological Evolution Fact and Theories: A Critical Appraisal 150 Years After The Origin of Species".

One whole day out of three days will be devoted to a discussion of these evolutionary mechanisms with scientists, some of whom I've already noted, Stuart Kauffman, Lynn Margulis, Robert Ulanowicz, Scott Gilbert and others presenting papers. This comes on the heels of the Altenberg 16 scientists meeting last July outside Vienna to kick off what they now call the "Extended Synthesis" which updates the neo-Darwinian or Modern Synthesis which was last updated 70 years ago.

So far we have not seen these kinds of groundbreaking meetings taking place in America. Speakers at the annual AAAS meetings are organized by Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education, who told me at the Rockefeller Evolution conference in May that her organization does not recommend textbooks for schools if those texts include a discussion of self-organization because it is confused with intelligent design. In effect, NCSE is recommending old middlebrow science for kids. There's a cycle of submission at play here. [NCSE has responded to this article saying that Eugenie Scott has organized symposia, not speakers, at AAAS meetings, and "NCSE does not recommend specific textbooks at all, although we encourage textbook publishers to ensure that their treatment of evolution is extensive, pervasive, and up-to-date, and we oppose the use of textbooks that treat creationism as scientifically credible."]

Do you have any interest in supporting an evolution conference in America along the lines of what the Vatican or the Austrians have done? Also, do you have any interest in creating a foundation specifically for the investigation of these other mechanisms of evolution?

David Koch: It's like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I don't think there's much practical relevance to all this. Life started somehow. The details of how it started I don't think anyone will ever be able to prove.

I think my talents and fortune could be enormously better spent on developing cures for diseases like cancer. For me to worry about these highly theoretical arguments rather than try to cure these horrible diseases? Cancer kills half a million people a year. That's a far better use for my money than this kind of academic theoretical debate.

Suzan Mazur: Stuart Newman was the focus of considerable media attention 10 years ago for his attempt to patent a part human-part animal chimera.

David Koch: A hybrid.

Suzan Mazur: He tried to patent it to show the dangers of the commercialization and industrialization of organisms.

What he's saying now is that because the public does not have an up-to-date understanding of how evolution happens--partly because science is stuck in the Darwinian model--people are less likely to object to genetic engineering experiments because the thinking is that there will just be minor changes. But according to Newman, there's potentially a huge danger because jumps can happen. The evolution may not be so gradual. Genetic engineering seen in that light looks considerably riskier.

David Koch: There's some infinitesimal probability that could happen. But it's hardly worth worrying about it. I'm more worried some strange disease could show up on our shores from Africa like AIDS did and could kill millions of people. The epidemic of another strange disease. That to me is enormously more likely to happen than some of these wild, far out concerns of evolutionary study.

Suzan Mazur: One of the problems is that there's been a big emphasis on genetics at the expense of the physical sciences, even though scientists still don't understand what the origin of the gene is. In fact, scientists don't even agree on what evoluton is.

Big money has been thrown at genetic research since the 1930s, first by the Atomic Energy Commission, over concern for mutation caused by exposure to radiation. Now that we've found all the human genes we're going to find, there's been a kind of U-turn back to embryology to see what else is happening. A shift from the gene-centered perspective of evolution to non-centrality of the gene. A directional shift in biology back to physics and chemistry.

It's a deeper approach to understanding evolution. They're not kooky ideas. The concept of self-assembly, for instance, where you put certain chemicals into a beaker or test tube, shake it up and vesicles form.

David Koch: Natural connections you're saying. Well yes, that's how the human egg grows into an adult.

My wife and I are a major supporter of a fertility clinic in New York and it's incredible what they've done to create normal adults from infertile people. They have an understanding of how eggs develop, that's why they've been so successful.

The head guy over at New York Presbyterian Hospital is responsible for about 15,000 normal healthy babies. I used to think ibn Saud was a hell of a guy. He was the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and he had 700 children. But I told the guy at NYPH, you're up to 15,000 and counting. You've got ibn Saud beat by a mile.


Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, ARCHAEOLOGY, Connoisseur, Omni, Progressive Review, CounterPunch, Scoop Media and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr@aol.com.