People say we’re the storytelling ape. I hear that. Though conjuring fiction is beyond me, and I only remember the worst punchlines, I love trading stories and so do you. Storytelling is a definitively human trait. But if stories make us human, what went wrong with the mother of them all?
Human origins should be universally cherished but it’s not even universally known. It just doesn’t appeal to most people. This goes far beyond religion. Human evolution hasn’t caught on despite it being over 150 years old. Where it has, it’s subversive or offensive. We have a problem. How could my life be subversive or offensive? How could yours?
Whether or not we evolved to tell stories, the one about where we came from should be beloved, near and dear to our hearts, not cold, clinical, and pedantic, not repulsive or embarrassing, not controversial, racist, sexist and anti-theist, not merely “survival of the fittest,” end of story, not something that only pertains to the world’s champions of wealth or babymaking. We deserve so much better. We deserve a sprawling, heart-thumping, face-melting epic, inspiring its routine telling and retelling. It’s time for a human evolution that’s fit for all humankind.
Such a human evolution requires a new narrative, both hyper-sensitive to the power of narrative and rooted in science that is light years ahead of Victorian dogma. This is the antidote to a long history of weaponizing human nature against ourselves. Our 45th president credits the survival-of-the-fittest brand of human evolution for his success over less kick-ass men in business and in bed. Pick-up artists and men’s rights activists, inspired by personalities like Jordan Peterson, use mistaken evolutionary thinking to justify their sexism and misogyny. Genetic and biological determinism have a stranglehold on the popular imagination, where evolution is frequently invoked to excuse inequity, like in the notorious Google Memo. Public intellectuals like David Brooks and Jon Haidt root what seems like every single observation of 2018 in tropes from Descent of Man. And there’s the White House memo that unscientifically defines biological sex. Evolution is all wrapped up in white supremacy and a genetically-destined patriarchy. This is not evolution. And this is not my evolution. I know you’re nodding your head along with me.
Without alternative perspectives, who can blame so many folks for outright avoiding evolutionary thinking? We must lift the undeserved stigma on our species’ origins story and rip it away from those who would perpetuate its abuses.
It took me a while to get to this point, to have this view that I wish I’d had from the very beginning. No one should feel defensive in reaction to my opinion, which is…
Evolution educators—even if sticking to E. coli, fruit flies, or sticklebacks—must confront the ways that evolutionary science has implicitly undergirded and explicitly promoted or has naively inspired so many racist, sexist, and otherwise harmful beliefs and actions. We can no longer arm students with the ideas that have had harmful sociocultural consequences without addressing them explicitly because our failure to do so effectively is the primary reason these horrible consequences exist. The worst of all being a human origins that refuses humanity.
So many of us are still thinking and teaching from the charged tradition of demonstrating that evolution is true. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, it is undeniably true. Now we must go beyond this habit of reacting to creationism and instead react to a problem that is just as old but is far more urgent because it actually affects human well-being.
Bad evolutionary thinking and its siblings, genetic determinism and genetic essentialism, are used to justify civil rights restrictions, human rights violations, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. As a result, evolution is avoided and unclaimed by scholars, students, and their communities who know this all too well.
In “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism, and the Roots of Anthropology,” Jon Marks explains how early anthropologists, in the immediate wake of Darwin’s ideas, faced a dilemma. If they were to continue as if there were a “psychic unity of (hu)mankind” then they felt compelled to reject an evolution which was being championed by some influential scientific racists. Marks writes, “So either you challenge the authority of the speaker to speak for Darwinism or you reject the program of Darwinism.” Anyone who knows someone who’s not a fan of evolution knows that the latter option is a favorite still today. This is not creationism and it is not science denial. It is the rejection of what we know to be an outdated and tainted notion of evolution. No one can update and clean up evolution as powerfully as we can if we do it ourselves, right there, in the classroom.
We are teaching more and more people evolution which may be exciting but only if we are equally as energetic in our confrontation of its sordid past. I can say this without attracting any indignation (right?) because of the fact that evolution has a sordid present.
Let’s put that to an end.
Here I offer some general suggestions for how to do that and I’m speaking to all of us, whether we teach a course dedicated to human origins and evolution, whether we teach a course dedicated to evolution and only cover humans for part of it, whether we teach a course dedicated to evolution but exclude humans entirely… because we all have to actively fix this. Learners will apply evolutionary thinking to humans, whether or not your focal organisms are human. Making rules in one domain and transferring them to new ones is humanity’s jam. Eugenics is proof that our jam can go rancid.
And while we’re actively disassociating the reality of evolution (which is just a synonym for ‘nature’ and for ‘biology’) from all the terrible things humans do in its name, we can help make it more personal as we all deserve our origins story to be. We deserve a human origins we can embrace.
- Be a model for the personal satisfaction that thinking evolutionarily brings to your own life. Don’t be afraid to bring the humanities into your evolution courses.
- Choose examples and activities focused on the evolution of the human body or focused on the unity of the species. Go there if you don’t already. Here are some awesome lesson plans: http://humanorigins.si.edu/education/teaching-evolution-through-human-examples
- Guide students in composing scientifically sourced and scientifically sound origins stories for their favorite things in life, like their friends or pizza (maybe by tracking down the origins of wheat, lactase persistence, cooking, teeth, or even way back to the first eaters of anything at all).
- Actively dismantle evolution’s racist/etc past and present. I suggest checking out and maybe assigning the following: “Ten Facts About Human Variation” and Is Science Racist? by Jonathan Marks, “Racing Around, Getting Nowhere” by Kenneth Weiss and Stephanie Fullerton, as well as A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics and the American Dream (film).
- Reach out to others. If you are feeling under-prepared or uncomfortable going beyond biology in your course, find a colleague who can help out or do it entirely for you. If they’re on campus, pick their brains about assignments or activities, or ask them for a guest lecture. If they’re not on campus, invite them to campus or connect them to your classroom via Skype. There are all stripes of anthropologists (and there are also historians) who are comfortable and more than happy to help you cover evolution as it should be, which is to explicitly include its sociocultural context and consequences.
Museum of Natural History, “Human Skin Color Variation,” http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color
Ann Gibbons, “There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Pure’ European—Or Anyone Else,” Science, May 15, 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/theres-no-such-thing-pure-european-or-anyone-else
Christopher Ingraham, “A Lot of Southern Whites Are A Little Bit Black,” Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/12/22/a-lot-of-southern-whites-are-a-little-bit-black/
National Public Radio, “From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo,” Sept. 8, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5787947
Adam Mansbach, “A True and Faithful Account of Mr. Ota Benga the Pygmy, Written by M. Berman, Zookeeper,” http://adammansbach.com/other/otabenga.html
Daniel Kevles, “In the Name of Darwin,” Public Broadcasting Station, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/nameof/
Robert Sapolsky, “Are Humans Hard-Wired for Racial Prejudice?” LA Times, July 28, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-oe-sapolsky-brain-and-race-20130728-story.html
Binyavanga Wainaina, “How To Write About Africa,” Granta, 2012, https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/
Sheela Athreya Rebecca Ackermann, “Colonialism and Narratives of Human Origins in Asia and Africa,” AfricArXiv Preprints, https://osf.io/preprints/africarxiv/jtkn2/
Eric Herschthal, “Frederick Douglass’s Fight Against Scientific Racism,” New York Times, Feb. 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/opinion/frederick-douglasss-scientific-racism.html
Gavin Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival of Race Science,” The Guardian, March 2, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/02/the-unwelcome-revival-of-race-science
Tina Lasisi, #WakandanSTEM: Teaching the Evolution of Skin Color,” AnthroGrad, March 2018, https://humanhairdiversity.com/2018/02/28/wakandanstem-teaching-the-evolution-of-skin-color/
Susan Goldberg, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” National Geographic, April 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/
Elizabeth Kolbert, “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label,” National Geographic, April 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/
Linda Villarosa, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” The New York Times, April 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html
Dána-Ain Davis, “The Labor of Racism,” Anthrodendum, May 7, 2018, https://anthrodendum.org/2018/05/07/the-labor-of-racism/
Olga Khazan, “Being Black in America Can Be Hazardous To Your Health,” The Atlantic, July 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/being-black-in-america-can-be-hazardous-to-your-health/561740/
Emily Bazelon, “White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness,” The New York Times, June 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/magazine/white-people-are-noticing-something-new-their-own-whiteness.html
John Terrell, “Ancestry Tests Pose a Threat to Our Social Fabric,” Sapiens, Aug. 22, 2018, https://www.sapiens.org/technology/dna-test-ethnicity/
Tina Lasisi, “Surprise! Africans Are Not All The Same (Or Why We Need Diversity in Science),” AnthroGrad, Oct. 18, 2017, https://anthrograd.com/2017/10/18/surprise-africans-are-not-all-the-same-or-why-we-need-diversity-in-science/
Amy Harmon, “Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (And Why Geneticists Are Alarmed),” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/us/white-supremacists-science-dna.html
Ed Yong, “Everyday Discrimination Raises Womens Blood Pressure,” The Atlantic, October 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/everyday-discrimination-raises-womens-blood-pressure/572518/
Eric Michael Johnson, “On the Origin of White Power,” Scientific American, May 21, 2014, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/on-the-origin-of-white-power/
Aja Romano, “How the Alt-Right’s Sexism Lures Men Into White Supremacy,” Vox, Dec. 14, 2016, https://www.vox.com/culture/2016/12/14/13576192/alt-right-sexism-recruitment
Claire Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined,” Nature, Feb. 18, 2015, https://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943?fbclid=IwAR2QNl_esA0ooF5dfaq0x7_FN7kB6rpi0V0KFfqnq8rdxnMn37xYi6Vm8QU
Robert Sapolsky, “Peace Among Primates,” The Greater Good, Sept. 1, 2007, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/peace_among_primates
Tim Ingold, “Against Human Nature,” https://www.mecon.nomadit.co.uk/pub/conference_epaper_download.php5?PaperID=23652&MIMEType=application/pdf
(Header image from Ernst Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, 2nd edition (Berlin, 1870).