In Defense of Science

Dr. Daniel Lieberman with students at KIPP NYC.

by H. Gregory

As I helped put together our issue-based fundraising appeal letter last week, I was struck by the sentence at the top of the page. “Science is under attack in the 21st century.” This is not to imply that this is something new. Science was under attack in the last century and the century before as well. The implication is that science is STILL under attack, and that is what’s unsettling to me. I ask, still?

We need not begin to list the statistics that prove this point (and there are plenty of statistics), but I do think that it is helpful to look at the possible reasons as to why this is the case in this day and age. With regards the science of evolution, perhaps it is easy to understand the reasons why there are those who deny its existence. There are belief systems out there that conflict with evolution. Though many of us know that this does not necessarily need to be the case, it is certainly understandable. When it comes to science in general, be it climate science or medical science, the source of such denial may be a little less obvious. However, one reason that does seem to be universal in all attacks on science is that there is a basic misunderstanding of how science works, and those wishing to push an agenda use this to their advantage.

The Leakey Foundation is not a political organization, and so we do not push an agenda nor do we engage in such discussion or debate. Our foundation exists to fund science and share the results of this science with the public. In other words, we fund, and we educate.  So in a sense, The Leakey Foundation IS in the business of defending science, albeit in an indirect manner, and I believe it is worth looking into exactly how our foundation goes about this.

I was lucky to have a sixth grade teacher who helped me to discover my love of science. Through our frequent and informative science-focused walks on our very own nature trail as well as our end of the year program where we shared our newly found science knowledge with younger students, Mr. Roper helped inspire a curiosity in science in me (and I assume many other students), and that same curiosity kept me engaged in science throughout my life. I was a science fair participant (and occasional winner) throughout my junior and high school years. I learned all about the scientific method by getting to actually participate in those same methods. I then majored in science in college, and now I work for a science organization. So I was lucky to have been introduced to science at a young age and thereby was never influenced by those attacks on science that rely on misinformation.

Dr. Daniel Lieberman with students at KIPP NYC.

Dr. Daniel Lieberman with students at KIPP NYC.

As an adjunct to our speaker series The Leakey Foundation conducts a school outreach program. Throughout the year over 1200 students benefit from having a leader in the field visit their classroom to show them what it is to BE a scientist. The hope is to stimulate these young minds and inspire some of them to choose science as a career path or at least keep them scientifically curious throughout their lives. In other words, we send these students their very own Mr. (or Ms.) Roper who shows them precisely what it is like to participate in the scientific method. In addition, I believe these students benefit from having an anthropologist answer questions like, “why if we came from monkeys are there still monkeys?” Who better to explain the truth? These visits combined with robust science programs at these schools provide the foundation for a life of understanding how science works.

Beyond school outreach, it is my humble opinion that The Leakey Foundation has put together a collection of programs that cover many of the bases in the defense of science. Our lecture series is held throughout the United States. We introduce our audience to top scientists in the fields of paleoanthropology and primatology. These are not dumbed-down science lectures. These are experts sharing the results of their important research.

Being Human blog Lombrozo review featuredOur more casual “bar talks,” which will soon be re-branded with a new and exciting name, are aimed at a younger audience and are meant to put a fun spin on, a less “stuffy” feeling about science. And it works. The audience is engaged, the laughs are a plenty, and the crowd keeps coming back. We are making science accessible, and I am convinced that our audience members would never fall for the “because evolution is just a theory, then it can’t be a fact” trick.

As the world of technology has evolved, so has The Leakey Foundation. Many of our programs have gone online, and therefore our audience is growing at a pace unimaginable decades ago. We have our Origin Stories podcast, which provides an up close and personal view into the world of science by telling interesting stories and sharing informative interviews. Science is once again accessible. We are breaking down the stigma that you need to be a nerd to be interested in science, and these podcasts have been listened to over 110,000 times!

Being Human audience sliderWe also video tape our lectures, and we look forward to rolling these out on our web site and social media outlets in the near future. These recordings enable us to reach FAR more audience members than we ever could with our brick and mortar programs. In addition, we also use our blog to share the research we fund, giving our grantees the opportunity to share their projects in their own words.

So as you can see, The Leakey Foundation has become a well-oiled science-defending machine. I am proud of the work we do, and as I reflect on how influential (directly and indirectly) our programs are and can be, I am optimistic that we are winning the fight in the defense of science. I hope you agree and will help make our fundraising a success!

Remember, we have a 1:1 matching pledge up to 1 million dollars this year. Let’s make it happen

Name Our New Event Series


The Leakey Foundation is hosting a new series of short science talks from great minds. These events are for ages 21 and up and feature fascinating talks, interactive activities, a full bar, delicious food, and plenty of time for asking questions and discussing science with your fellow attendees.

Please take this one question survey and help us choose the right name for this fun science event series!

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Feeding Transitions in Wild Infant Chimpanzees


Iulia Badescu was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2015 cycle for her project entitled “Investigating the infant nutritional development of wild chimpanzees.” She was recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and she was kind enough to summarize the article for our Leakey Foundation Blog.


Iulia Badescu

Humans vary considerably in our strategies of infant feeding. For example, the optimal ages at which infants ought to be completely weaned or begin consuming solid foods are regularly questioned by researchers and in the media. To better understand the evolutionary contexts under which our diverse strategies of infant feeding evolved, we can look to nonhuman primates. Understanding the diets and feeding patterns of nonhuman primate infants will help us establish early life history parameters in our hominin ancestors, which can shed light on the diversity of contemporary infant feeding practiced between and within human populations.

In wild primates, it is difficult to precisely measure what infants are eating. A major challenge in quantifying infant diets and in identifying the timing of feeding transitions comes from our inability to know from observations alone whether infants are actually drinking maternal milk when they make nipple contacts, and to distinguish between mouthing and ingesting of vegetation. We assessed observational limitations by using a novel fecal stable isotope approach to physiologically determine the timing of age-related feeding transitions and to measure the relative contributions of maternal milk to adult foods in the diets of wild chimpanzee infants at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda.

img_1487We collected several hundred fecal samples from mothers, juvenile siblings, and infants varying in age from birth to seven years old, as some individuals continued to make nipple contacts up to this age. We dehydrated the fecal samples on site using a solar “poop” dehydrator and stored them on silica, in a freezer, until we took them to the University of Calgary’s Isotope Science Laboratory for analyses. We compared the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values of mothers and their offspring and attributed major isotopic differences to the maternal milk ingested by infants. Newborns and mothers initially showed very different isotopic profiles that decreased as infants grew older. We could tell when a weanling became nutritionally independent when her stable isotope profile was nearly identical to that of her mother’s.

We reported several key findings of using fecal stable isotopes to track the diets of chimpanzee infants. First, we discovered the presence of comfort nursing in chimpanzees. Most of our older study subjects (between 4 and 7 years old) were weaned individuals that were observed to continue making nipple contacts regularly, presumably for comfort rather than nutrition. Second, we found that the weaning process for chimpanzees at Ngogo started when infants were around 1 year old, after which there was a gradual decrease in reliance on maternal milk. The weaning process was complete when infants were between 4 and 4.5 years old, which is in line with reports of weaning established through observations at other chimpanzee sites. Due to comfort nursing, however, had we relied solely on our observations of nursing behavior, our estimates of the average age at which infants were weaned would have been a few years higher; this suggests that fecal stable isotopes can be used to provide a more accurate and biologically meaningful assessment of weaning.

img_2336bThird, we found that infants may begin ingesting solid foods as early as a couple of months after birth but this estimate was based on few fecal samples, and more data are needed to confirm this finding. Observations of infant feeding confirm this result, as we observed infants at Ngogo likely ingesting bits of solid food as early as 2 to 3 months after birth. If this age at the start of transitional feeding is confirmed in future studies at Ngogo, it would be considerably earlier than reports of infant feeding at other sites. Lastly, fecal stable isotope comparisons showed no overlap in nursing between infants and their juvenile siblings, and this was confirmed through observations.

There is a lot of research that should be done with infant chimpanzees, and we are grateful to the Leakey Foundation and other agencies for funding our work at Ngogo. While the results of this study allowed us to build a more precise model in the age ranges of key feeding transitions in wild chimpanzees, further studies are needed to measure population level averages. We thus plan to continue assessing infant feeding at Ngogo using a stable isotope method. In addition, we will use this method to evaluate differences in maternal investment strategies across mother-offspring pairs, which can allow us to answer questions about fitness and reproductive success.

Click here to read the full article.


From the Field: Alecia Carter


The Leakey Foundation awarded Alecia Carter a Leakey Foundation research grant in the spring of 2016 for her project entitled “Constraints on the evolution of culture: Social information in Namibian baboons.” To read a summary of her project, please click here. Below she updates us on her 2016 field season. 

Fig 1: Sunset over a drought-stricken Tsaobis as J troop heads for the sleeping cliff

Sunset over a drought-stricken Tsaobis as J troop heads for the sleeping cliff

This field season was the toughest I’ve ever had: it’s a drought in Namibia (see Figure 1), and the desert baboons we study are suffering because of this. One troop has split into two—fifteen individuals of our larger, 80+ strong-group attempted to, unsuccessfully, join our other study troop. Three adult males, two older females and a juvenile female are missing; females who were pregnant when we left last year no longer are; several individuals are in terrible condition, rarely able to follow the troop when they range long distances to forage; and everyone is eating bark—there’s little else to eat.

One of the consequences of this extreme year of the natural variation in the baboons’ environment was predictable: the baboons spread very far apart when foraging. Now, for a researcher interested in the transmission of social information among individuals, this presents a bit of a problem. How is one to study social information transmission if the baboons are not being ‘social’ very often?

A juvenile female casually eats a novel food—a dried apricot.

Fig 2: A juvenile female casually eats a novel food—a dried apricot.

My motivation for studying the flow of information in baboons groups is to better understand the constraints on the formation of culture in primates. Baboons are a highly gregarious primate that readily learns from others—so why do they rarely have ‘cultural’ behaviours, which rely on the transmission of information among individuals? This year, I aimed to experimentally establish some new behaviours—eating a novel food (Figure 2)—in the groups to figure out when and where information stops spreading: is it particular individuals that don’t watch others? Or some individuals that do watch others but then don’t use that social information? Or is it something to do with the structure of the group—the social network (see Figure 3)? Perhaps the individuals that use social information associate only with others that also use information, resulting in the ones that need to watch others rarely having opportunities to do so because they don’t associate with them.

Fig 3: : My volunteer Dylan Gomes collected much of the social network data for the project this year. Here, he is following L troop as they leave their sleeping cliff in the morning to head to the ephemeral riverbed to forage.

Fig 3: : My volunteer Dylan Gomes collected much of the social network data for the project this year. Here, he is following L troop as they leave their sleeping cliff in the morning to head to the ephemeral riverbed to forage.

Fig 4: Following baboons in the field. (Photo credit Dr Peter Woodford)

Fig 4: Following baboons in the field. (Photo credit Dr Peter Woodford)

At least, that was the plan. But the drought has made this difficult. I had to scale back my plans (one new behaviour instead of two), and have greater-than-usual patience when doing this experiment (Figure 4). But, eventually, it worked! First, a few individuals ate the novel food. Over the next weeks, I patiently presented the food to the small groups of baboons that I could find (Figure 5), aiming to get individuals who haven’t eaten the food to watch individuals who do eat the food. Slowly, individuals start to learn that the novel food is edible by watching others—but others don’t. Now it’s onto the analyses to find out whether there is something particular about the innovators, learners and non-learners.

Fig 5: A group of baboons.

Fig 5: A group of baboons.

Grantee Spotlight: Thomas Kraft

Kraft next to an old hive of the giant asian honeybee (A. dorsata), which is an important seasonal resource for the Batek.

Thomas Kraft was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant during our spring 2016 cycle for his project entitled “Shifting co-residence and interaction patterns in a transitioning hunter-gatherer society.”

Kraft next to an old hive of the giant asian honeybee (A. dorsata), which is an important seasonal resource for the Batek.

Kraft next to an old hive of the giant asian honeybee (A. dorsata), which is an important seasonal resource for the Batek.

We humans are compelled to live in groups, yet the size and composition of groups varies widely between societies, from the small bands of hunter-gatherers to the massive social networks of modern mega-cities. To understand the origins of this extreme variation, this project will study a small-scale society (the Batek of Malaysia) that is presently shifting from a life of nomadic hunting and gathering to one focused on sedentary agriculture and other economic pursuits. My research will examine changes in co-residence patterns (who lives with who), sharing interactions, and contact networks between individuals. A particular focus will be paid to the effects of reduced mobility and changing economic activities on the composition and connectedness of social networks. This work will be conducted using a combination of intensive “on the ground” ethnographic fieldwork and the use of novel sensor technology to track individuals in high resolution. My study is expected to shed light on the historical importance of living with close relatives and how the rise of agriculture has influenced human social interactions, especially the exchange of resources and information. Social networks also have major implications for health and the spread of disease, and this research aims to identify how the structure of social networks might mitigate disease susceptibility.


Kraft me at a small rainforest camp with two Batek friends, Woh and Mayam

Kraft at a small rainforest camp with two Batek friends, Woh and Mayam

Two Batek women collecting materials to build mats, which they use for sitting and sleeping in their thatch shelters.

Two Batek women collecting materials to build mats, which they use for sitting and sleeping in their thatch shelters.