Monday, May 07, 2012

The path less trodden (The road not taken).

I was reading an article by Kate Wong in the latest copy of Scientific American. 'First of our Kind' is a piece that starts with an introduction about how the origin of our genus, Homo, is one of the biggest mysteries facing scholars of human evolution.
Based on the meager evidence available, scientists have surmised that Homo arose in East Africa, with Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, giving rise to the founding member of our lineage, Homo habilis.

But, recently discovered fossils from a site northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, could upend that scenario. 
The two million old fossils represent a pre­viously unknown species of human with an amal­gam of australopithecine and Homo traits that suggest to its discoverers that it could be the ancestor of Homo.

What I found equally interesting in the article was how the actual discovery of these 'shit disturbing' fossils was made.

It was Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa who discovered the fossils, the fossils that he and his team believe could revolutionize researchers' understanding of Homo's roots.

Wait. It was Matthew Berger, his son who actually found and recognized the fossil peaking from the earth, while chasing his runaway dog.

How did they come to be at this spot at the right time? They took the path less trodden; 'the road not taken.'
For 17 years, Berger had been taking the dirt road that winds through the John Nash Nature Reserve, NW from Johannesburg, to a cave he was excavating. This was an area that had seen many scientists, since 1948, seeking  fossils of hominins (modern humans and their extinct relatives).

There was another path, explains Wong: "little did Berger or the expeditioners before him know that had they only followed this smaller path -- one of several miners tracks used until the early 1900s to cart the limestone that built Johannesburg from quarries out to the main road- they would have made the discovery of a life time."

Yes. The discovery of a life time.

While surveying the reserve for potential new fossil sites in the area, Berger turned right on the miners track he had passed by for 17 years that fateful day in August 2008.

He returned to the site, weeks later with son Matthew and their dog Tau. When Matthew shouted to his father that he found a fossil, Wong continues, "Berger doubted it was anything important- but in a show of fatherly support, he made his way to inspect the find." (You know what I am thinking here. A subject for another post. Kids contributions should be valued. Kids have valuable contributions to make to society).

Bingo! The discovery of a life time!

So what does this mean to people who are learning by following our passions?

Deviating from the path well trodden brings it's own rewards- it's own trophies. To do the same thing over and over, to always err on the side of the 'known' yields little of importance.

What's more, the discovery suggests that human features did not necessarily evolve as a package deal as we thought. "The extreme mosaicism evident in A. sediba [as it is being called], Berger says, should be a lesson to paleoanthropologists.

Had he found any number of its bones in isolation, he would have classified them differently. ....."And like the blind men studying the individual parts of the elephant, he would have been wrong."

Again, there is another lesson to be learned from Berger's experience. The idea that we study things individually - that is subjects separated from the whole picture, is good until it interferes with us seeing the bigger picture- that is loosing sight of the forest for the trees.

I think that this one of the biggest problems with schools that are hell bent on compartmentalizing every piece of knowledge into little blocks. We end up losing sight of the interconnectedness of things and that leads to the mess we find our selves in - on all fronts.

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