An Evening That Proves the Power of Participation

One of the most profound experiences I’ve had in the past decade in New York City was witnessing former Mayor Rudy Giuliani accept the first annual Children’s Foundation Hero Award at an intimate gala on Monday. Addressing a room of mostly high ranking leaders in law enforcement—from fire fighters to the NYPD—Giuliani spoke with a camaraderie that was the stuff of history. Witnessing it felt like going back in time through a machine especially built for scholars, to truly understand the deep bond that united people after 9/11. He didn’t give a speech, he talked to his family.


“Al, I'll always come on Thanksgiving. Even if they have to wheel me there, I’ll do it,” said Giuliani to Al Kahn, the C.E.O. and founder of the National Law Enforcement & Firefighters Children’s Foundation, which raises money for the families of first responders killed in the line of duty. (In a time of the sequester and more looming threats of government shutdown, we desperately need organizations like this one.) Giuliani referred to the Thanksgiving tradition that Kahn started in 2001, hosting and bringing together the families of first responders killed in the World Trade Center. That night, his organization raised half a million dollars for scholarships, grants, and family programs for, as Kahn put it in a question, “Who protects the children of the heroes who are protecting us?”

For quickly building needed networks to assist families of missing persons after 9/11, John Chambers, C.E.O. of Cisco Systems, was also honored.  “This city is the most resilient city in the world,” he said. “To me it’s only appropriate we help you.”

Broadway producer Sarahbeth Grossman, the executive director of the organization, invited her friend actress Holland Taylor, the star and writer of Ann, the critically acclaimed one-woman show about Ann Richards, the former Texas Governor. It earned her a Tony nomination. Taylor ran the night’s live auction, citing a friend who recently influenced her to chrome the wheels of her car, which cost a thousand dollars. So Taylor chided the audience, “What have you chromed lately?” to compensate for throwing away money by donating to a worthy cause.

I sat down with Taylor to discuss the five year long run of her show and how it came to be. “It was such a big part of my life, full of mystery. The fact that I did it at all…” she marveled. “The term total immersion comes to mind.”

After the passing of Richards, Taylor, who had met the charming firecracker only once, felt a deep sadness that she couldn’t shake for months. She finally decided to make a film about her. But that didn’t feel right. While driving in Los Angeles to her job as the regal mother on Two and a Half Men, Taylor was struck by creative lightning, she says. She pulled over, and for fifteen minutes, while sitting in her car, she wrote down the structure of a play. “Is there anyone more suitable for theater than that woman?” she beamed. Over six years of hard work, interviewing Richards’ closest friends, and performing in Galveston, San Antonio, and Richards’ hometown of Austin, Texas, as well as in Chicago, and New York, Holland was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Throughout, she says, she was never afraid, because the project immediately took on a life of its own, as though it had chosen her. “It was something that had to be done. You’re very lucky when something like that happens to you.”

Her advice for those hoping to be struck by creative lightning, Holland says she strongly believes in the power of participation. “Participate in something. See where it goes.”

It was clear from the evening that meaningful projects and missions cannot be forced. As a firefighter interviewed by journalist Joan Lunden, a host of the event, said of his work, “It’s a burning desire. You don’t want to do anything else day after day.”

Photo Credit: Barry Doss

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.