An Interview with Geologist Jay Quade – Geology, Famine and War

Embarking on a geology expedition might sound exciting or boring, depending on your interests. However, there is more going on behind the scenes than just scientific research. Sometimes scientists find themselves in the middle of suffering and violence, and they begin to question why they are there, even as their heart reaches out to those in need, or as they work while gunfire is heard too close for comfort.

Ethiopia is a country where climate cycles lead to prolonged periods of drought. This and ethnic and religious differences often lead to tribal clashes. The result is human suffering and death. I ask Dr. Quade about how research into ancient hominids is helpful to society and individuals, in the face of such hardship.

“[…] you go to a place like Ethiopia,” he answers, “and I often ask myself this question – surrounded by famine, people are suffering – ‘Why am I doing this? Why are we pouring…this is money from the National Science Foundation of the US and the world.’ What we actually should be doing is feeding these people.”

But there is something about this research that interests a lot of people, even those most at risk of suffering. “It tickles a nerve. It tickles an intellectual nerve. We want to know where we came from. People are fascinated with that question. And I think that’s fair.” Many of the Ethiopians that researchers come into contact with agree. “They are fascinated as well,” says Dr. Quade. “They are caught up in the fever as well. They understand what these things [hominid fossils] are. […] They are getting at the roots of our origins.”

Some members of the Afar Tribe helped the research team search for fossils, but they carried weapons with them, as the Afar Tribesman in the image on the left demonstrates while holding an AK-47 against his shoulder. At one point during an early expedition, the team continued working while military escorts held back rebels making their way through the region. War does not recognize the scientific research site as a separate zone of nonviolence.

In Ethiopia, where the geologic record is tempting scientists with a treasure trove of fossils, the logic of science runs head on into the illogic of famine and war. The best in people is in conflict with the worst. Perhaps the common thread of curiosity about our human origins through people otherwise in conflict might be the foundation on which to build a more accommodating and peaceful future.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).