William Donald Hamilton (1936-2000)
Hamilton, who was an English professor and researcher, is perhaps one of the most significant evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. His greatest contribution was to formulate a rigorous genetic theory suggesting that altruism towards relatives and kin selection have a genetic origin. The impact of his theory was huge because it implies that morality has an evolutionary root, contrary to what humanity had always thought: that religion is the source of morality.
Kin selection is the selection of those characteristics that favor the survival of an individual’s close relative, with whom she shares her genome, even though it is costly to the individual. Without kin selection, it is hard to explain why an individual would help another without receiving anything in return, just as parents do for their children. Altruism also helps explain why individuals sacrifice themselves for others, why they help their loved ones, and why they do and return favors.
Lynn Margulis (1938-2011)
Margulis was an evolutionary biologist who became famous for having been the first one to suggest that 3.5 billion years ago when there were only single-celled organisms without any complex internal structures, the symbiosis between creatures of different species accelerated evolution. The result was that eukaryotes were able to acquire their cell structures. Margulis argued that mitochondria, those cellular organelles that supply energy to the eukaryotic cell, were originally prokaryotes that symbiotically joined nucleated cells. She used to comment that 15 journals rejected her original paper before its publication in 1967, and it took more than a decade for her theory to be accepted by the scientific community.
She is also very well known for supporting James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which conceives the Earth’s biosphere as a system in homeostasis: a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant. According to Lovelock, the stability of temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere, among other variables, is what acts to sustain life on the planet.
Biruté Mary Filomena Galdikas (1946-)
Galdikas is an ethologist, anthropologist, primatologist, conservationist, and Full Professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who has devoted her entire life to studying and protecting orangutans in Kalimantan, Borneo. From a young age, she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to the orangutans. She is one of three primatologists, along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who were supported by National Geographic Society and Louis Leakey to study those species that are humans closest relatives: the great apes. Before Galdikas work in Indonesia, nothing was known about orangutans. Now we know they are very solitary creatures, they build nests in trees, they can live more than 40 years, infants remain with their mothers until the age of 7, mothers give birth every eight years and never have twins.
She founded Camp Leakey, located in central Borneo, where she works full time since 1971. The institution’s mission is to prevent the extinction of the orangutans, fighting continuously against the palm oil industry, an industry that is devastating the apes habitat. She also founded another organization where they raise orphaned babies, give them medical and emotional care, in preparation for their release back into the wild.
Valerie Jane Morris Goodall (1932-)
Goodall is the foremost expert on chimpanzees, who has devoted her entire life to studying their behavior and raise awareness about the importance of respect for nature and animal life in general. Since very young, Goodall decided her dream was to go to Africa and live with the chimpanzees. She sought support from Louis Leakey, the British anthropologist who initially hired her as his assistant. She finally managed to go to Gombe, Tanzania, where a significant population of chimpanzees lives. She set up a camp that today is a research center and devoted herself to observe the behavior of the apes and take notes of whatever she saw. Her fame spread throughout the world for being the first one to discover that chimpanzees use and make tools.
No one had ever seen chimpanzees cutting twigs from trees, stripping off the leaves and placing them into termite holes. Once the twigs get covered with clinging termites, the chimps fish and feed on them. Together with Birute Galdikas and Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall is one of the three experts in apes, the closest living relatives of humans.
Dian Fossey (1932-1985)
Fossey was an American zoologist, primatologist, and anthropologist who devoted her life to studying the mountain gorillas. With support from the British archeologist Louis Leakey, she went initially to the Congo and then to Rwanda to study those gorillas that live in the Virunga Mountains. She fought incessantly against poachers and illegal traffickers of gorillas. Unfortunately, she was murdered with a machete in her home in the mountains. No one ever knew for sure what had happened, but it has always suspected that the murderers were the same hunters she was always pursuing. In her memory, there exists a Dian Fossey Foundation, an institution that is dedicated to continuing the study of apes and protect them from possible extinction.
Although she always opposed that type of tourism that travels to observe and photograph wildlife, her foundation promotes eco and animal-friendly tourism and has turned many individuals who were once gorilla poachers into rangers, guards, and tourist guides for those visiting these apes. Along with Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, Fossey is considered one of the three experts who study one of the closest ape species to humans.