by Dave Dentel
To paraphrase Mark Twain, it’s amazing how a trifling bit of science can be exploited for the sake of scoring a political point.
A recent example of this sort of intellectual sleight of hand can be encountered on the webpages of Scientific American.
I refer to an opinion piece by Allison Hopper which asserts that religious people who reject evolution are actually supporting white supremacy.
It’s a neat rhetorical trick, seeing how Hopper manages to co-opt the tradition of using Darwin’s theory to justify policies aimed at keeping brown and black people in their place.
But as our times are marked by their own form of divisiveness, Hopper instead deftly flips the arguments of Victorian imperialists by insisting that people of faith who still believe God created humans in his own image disdain evolution because it teaches our progenitors arose in Africa. She adds that the out-of-Africa evolutionary model further scandalizes religious folk because they imagine themselves descended from a man and woman whom God first fashioned in purity—and as white as the driven snow.
Neither assertion merits high marks for veracity, though each does somehow ring familiar given the proliferation of critical-race-theory critiques that depict nearly every institution of our society as locked in a titanic struggle of black against white.
The claims certainly aren’t scientific.
True, thanks to new findings in the field of genetics, more scientists are apparently leaning toward the theory that modern humans first evolved in Africa. But there is by no means a consensus on the topic.
To even suggest that the matter is settled shows that Hopper doesn’t really know how science—and especially the study of evolution—works.
It is much closer to the truth to say that, aside from a few basic principles such as the fact that organisms change over time and that this change is influenced by something called natural selection, just about every other aspect of evolution is up for debate.
Yes, certain DNA sequences show the most diversity in populations now living in Africa—which suggests to scientists that these populations are the most similar to earliest humans. But human DNA also contains sequences scientists identify as having come from other groups that lived outside of Africa.
Then there’s the question of whether the peoples now living in Africa represent an unbroken lineage of African residents or whether, more recently in human history, their ancestors migrated back to the continent from Europe or Asia.
These are by no means the only conundrums afflicting models of human evolution, but they explain why researchers today argue endlessly about whether humans arose in one particular spot, or independently in several spots, or whether they intermixed with strange quasi-human populations that have long since vanished.
To quote a 2014 paper on human evolution by anthropologist Chris Stringer: “‘Modernity’ was not a package that had a single African origin in one time, place, and population, but was a composite whose elements appeared, and sometimes disappeared, at different times and places and then coalesced to assume the form we see in extant humans.”
What then, of Hopper’s assertion that we all descended, not just genetically, but “also culturally, from dark-skinned ancestors.”
Well, it would seem this claim doesn’t have much scientific basis, either.
The fossils believed to be those of early humans consist mainly of bone fragments, which don’t tell scientists anything about skin color. Ancient DNA apparently is not much help either.
So researchers have turned to alternate paths in hopes of answering this question. Since apes and people supposedly evolved from an as-yet-to-be identified shared ancestor, some researchers have looked to chimpanzees for clues as to what the earliest humans presumably looked like.
One set of scientists compared genes in chimps and humans, and concluded that their imagined common ancestor must have had dark skin.
Not so geneticist Sarah Tishkoff.
“If you shave a chimpanzee, its skin is light,” Science magazine quotes her as saying.
Tishkoff was less dogmatic in discussing a 2017 study she took part in that looked at variations in skin color among African peoples and tried to correlate these to various genes. What they found is that some genes related to light skin in Europeans are also present in some African populations known for having darker skin.
What researchers concluded is the genes that control skin color are as complex as the people in Africa are different in appearance.
“There is so much diversity in Africans,” said Tishkoff, “that there is no such thing as an African race.”
So ultimately, the fact that Hopper feels justified in accusing religious people of racism for rejecting evolution, despite scientists saying there’s no race to despise, actually illustrates one of the main reasons people of faith turn against Darwin’s theory.
Social warriors such as Hopper keep using evolution as a tool for bashing faith—especially Christianity—and belittling the efforts of believers to follow God’s injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
And though it’s true the history of Christianity in America is tainted by racism, this doesn’t mean that all Christians practiced bigotry or that Christ’s church can’t repent and embody what he said was the second greatest commandment—to love our neighbors.
Evolution, the study of why organisms live long enough to produce offspring, certainly has nothing definitive to say about how human beings should treat each other. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is no such thing as racism. There is only adaptation and survival.
Compare this to the vision of the apostle John, who described Christ redeeming “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
There, at the culmination of time, in the presence of God, “they shall hunger no more, the sun shall not strike them.” Christ himself “will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Sounds a lot better than survival of the fittest.