News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

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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