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Richard Klein, anthropology professor, looks into humanity’s evolution

For many, childhood dreams fade into obscurity over time. For some others, however, those ambitions and aspirations remain as fresh as ever, becoming the compasses guiding their lives.

Richard Klein, professor of anthropology, may fall into the latter category, with an affinity for paleoanthropology– the study of evolution through fossils and artifacts–

SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily

SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily

that began when he was a fifth-grader living in the suburbs of Chicago.

“They would pack kids on the school bus once or twice a year, and take us into the museums in Chicago,” Klein recalled. “One of them was called the Field Museum of Natural History. They had these wonderful diagrams of ancient people sitting around a campfire… and artifacts. I thought it was very interesting.”

Initially, however, Klein believed that the study of fossil forms was something he would outgrow and refrained from taking a related course until later in his undergraduate career at the University of Michigan.

“I didn’t know much about the subject except that it had interested me a long time ago,” he confessed.

During a summer as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Klein embarked upon his first excavation, spending four months in Spain “excavating a 500,000-year-old site with hand axes and elephant bones.“

His stint in Spain was just the start of an archeological career that would span the globe, with experiences ranging from bleak winters and citizen’s arrests in St. Petersburg to beautiful wildlife safaris in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, all in the pursuit of bones and artifacts.

Klein’s proficiency in Russian led to his choice of artifacts from Russia– then the Soviet Union– as the focus of his doctoral degree. He also spent time in France and Yugoslavia and currently spends his summers doing fieldwork in South Africa, where he has worked since 1969.

“I go there every summer and I dig up some old bones and artifacts,” he said. “I’m mostly interested in bones– I would love to find human ones, but that seems to be not my luck.”

Through his research, Klein developed a special interest in different kinds of antelopes, the animals most abundantly represented in the sites he has excavated. His work offers much of the information gathered to date, for example, on the habits and environments of the Blue Antelope, which became extinct in the 1870s.

“It’s not the center of my research, but I find it very interesting… I’m a kind of an antelope specialist, I guess,” Klein said.

In addition to travelling and teaching, Klein has also written several books about his research, producing– among other works– an evolutionary theory grounded in his study of Neanderthal artifacts.

“I’ve been mainly interested in the last 200,000 years, when people who looked and behaved like we do emerged,” Klein said. “We know they emerged in Africa first, and were confined there until perhaps 50,000 years ago when they moved from Africa and replaced other kinds of people elsewhere, like the Neanderthals from Europe… in probably just a few thousand years… I’m interested in trying to find out why that happened.”

Klein disputed the widely accepted rationale for humanity’s spread, which emphasizes the development of sexual divisions of labor and a resultantly different economic system.

“This makes no sense to me– there is no evidence for population increase,” he added. “The major alternative, and the one that I believe, is that there was genetic or genomic change in Africa.”

Klein acknowledged a lack of support for his hypothesis.

“It’s not a popular idea,” he conceded. “To some people it almost seems like some kind of intellectual Nazism– like you’re suggesting people before 50,000 years ago were not human. I’m not. We know that over the course of evolution, there’s been a huge amount of genetic change. We start with people with brains one-third the size of ours, and then we have us. That’s not population increase, that’s genes.”

Klein expressed optimism, however, that modern science’s ability to compare Neanderthal and modern genes might offer a conclusive resolution.

Since he arrived on the Farm in 1993, Klein has taught HUMBIO 2B: Culture, Evolution, and Society every fall. He also teaches specialized courses on human evolution, which used to attract more than 100 students before the rise of more “technical” subjects caused interests to taper out.

“Two or three years ago, the demand dropped precipitously, as it has for all more liberal-arts type classes… The students are more interested now on coursework that will help them in their future life,” he said. “I sometimes think that it would be better if students came to Stanford when they were 30.”

Klein described the listing of his courses under the anthropology department as “awkward,” saying that most interested students have no intention of pursuing the major.

“In anthropology, they think the courses on evolution are too scientific and they’re more into interpretive work,” he said. “Then you go to biology, and they don’t think it’s scientific enough.”

This ambiguity surrounding the classification of evolution classes has not, however, deterred the enthusiasm for the students who do enroll. Tim Weaver M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’02 recalled that “it was fun” to be Klein’s student, emphasizing Klein’s scientific integrity.

“I certainly learned a lot from him, not only about the field of paleoanthropology, but also about how to conduct myself as a scientist,” he said.

Ann Horsburgh Ph.D. ’08 echoed Weaver’s sentiments.

“My favorite thing about Richard as a scientist, is that nothing matters more than the work,” she said. “His integrity is absolute. He takes a real interest in his students and concerns himself with their well-being, as well is with the quality of their work.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Babu-G-Ranganathan/1326164630 Babu G. Ranganathan

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION: Only evolution within “kinds” is
    genetically possible (i.e. varieties of dogs, cats, etc.), but not
    evolution across “kinds” (i.e. from sea sponge to human). How did
    species survive if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems
    were still evolving? Survival of the fittest would actually have
    prevented evolution across kinds! Read my Internet article: WAR AMONG
    EVOLUTIONISTS! (2nd Edition). I discuss: Punctuated Equilibria, “Junk
    DNA,” genetics, mutations, natural selection, fossils, genetic and biological similarities between species.

    Natural
    selection doesn’t produce biological traits or variations. It can only
    “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have
    survival value. The real issue is what biological variations are
    possible, not natural selection. Only limited evolution, variations of
    already existing genes and traits are possible. Nature is mindless and
    has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new
    traits.

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    B.A. Bible/Biology

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I
    have given successful lectures (with question and answer period
    afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and
    students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to
    be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for
    my writings on religion and science.

  • Jerzy Kijewski

    There were no “anatomically modern humans” prior to around 12,700 years ago.
    Professor Richard G. Klein (on photo), supports doubtful “Out of Africa theory of modern humans”: “I’ve
    been mainly interested in the last 200,000 years, when people who looked and behaved like we do emerged,” Klein said. (4-24-2013).

    Well, they were not “people” but hominids-scavengers leaving exclusively on an insinctive level. They didn’t looks like we do, but had elongated “monkey” mid-faces, heavy brow ridges and receding foreheads.

    http://ksiezycowahipoteza.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/00-cro17-copy.jpg