An Evolutionary Career

Pete Saucier is living his childhood dreams

Published in 2024 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

By Artika Rangan Casini on December 13, 2023

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Pete Saucier has sipped scotch with Jane Goodall and stood on the site of a famous human fossil. He has sat beside gorillas in Rwanda and within the prehistoric caverns of France. He has witnessed the cradle of civilization in its majesty, sought deeper understanding of humankind’s origin, and rubbed shoulders with creatures most only read about in books or observe in captivity.

Saucier’s love of paleoanthropology, the study of human evolution through fossils and archeologic records, began in childhood. After losing his mother in a car accident at age 6, Saucier found solace in books. When Saucier discovered Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, Ray Ginger’s book about the 1925 case that banned evolution from being taught in public schools, he was enthralled—and not by the law. 

“What I remember most vividly is that it almost didn’t matter who won or lost,” he says. It was the case’s ability to alter the national conversation that seared into Saucier’s memory.

He set out to read every book on human evolution. Famed paleontologist Don Johanson became his hero. His program bio from the 1971 high school production of West Side Story laid out his aspirations: “After high school, Pete plans to study anthropology and other sciences, which he hopes to make a career.”

Things didn’t work out that way. With limited financial means, Saucier entered the Air Force and became a linguist during the Vietnam War, cracking air defense codes for Chinese provinces from 1974 to 1976. After his discharge, he earned a degree in philosophy (science required more time than he could devote), and later, in law.

In 1980, Saucier became an employment lawyer fresh out of law school: “The firm asked, ‘Do you have a moral objection to representing management in employment law?’ I said, ‘Are you still going to give me the $23,500 a year?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Then I don’t have a moral objection because I don’t even understand the question.’”

As he practiced law, he continued to devour books on scientific discovery and archaeological exploration. Then a chance encounter changed his life.

While working on a case in San Francisco in the early 2000s, Saucier’s best friend and law partner, Frank Kollman, happened to meet a close friend of Don Johanson’s. Kollman’s jaw dropped when he heard the paleoanthropologist’s name. “That’s my best friend’s hero,” Kollman said, helping to arrange a surprise meeting between Saucier and the man who discovered the 3.2-million-year-old fossil that came to be called Lucy.

The Sauciers with Jane Goodall (middle).

Saucier and Johanson hit it off immediately. In time, Saucier joined the board of Johanson’s research center, the Institute of Human Origins, and expanded his friendships and circles to include such scientific superstars as orangutan expert Birutė Marija Filomena Galdikas and Jane Goodall, the latter of whom opened her home in Gombe, Tanzania, to Saucier and his wife, Carol.

The Sauciers have since traveled alongside Johanson to Madagascar, Indonesia, and most memorably, the place in Ethiopia where Lucy was found. “I had Don autograph my original, first-edition copy of his book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind,” Saucier recalls.

“When we went to Madagascar last September, we went into all of the rain forests and the deserts. We were in with the lemurs in a way that’s just an amazing experience that you can only have with somebody who has spent his lifetime learning about those things.”

Saucier (left) and Carol (right) with Donald Johanson (middle) at Lucy’s discovery site in Hadar, Ethiopia.

In 2021, Saucier and Carol (who publishes scientific children’s books under the name CAP Saucier), accompanied Johanson to Cape Canaveral for the launch of Lucy, a NASA space probe on a 12-year mission to study the “trojan asteroids” surrounding Jupiter, whose materials could well reveal the “fossils of planet formation.”

For Saucier, such otherworldly adventures have helped illuminate a profound universal truth: “We are connected to the world around us and the world before us,” he says. “We didn’t just drop from the sky like this.”

As Saucier reflects on his life and career, he marvels at the experiences he’s had and the lessons he’s learned, particularly from our primate ancestors. “Animals have taught me that we are part of nature and that we must appreciate how important the world is to us,” he says. “We understand ourselves by understanding these creatures better. I can’t imagine how anyone could do what I’ve done and hold hateful views toward the rest of the world. The more exposure you get, the more you understand that we’re all part of this together.”

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