After a year of lockdown, museums, libraries, and bookstores across America will reopen. The beginning of this cultural reawakening coincided with both the June 10th holidays and the one-year anniversary of one of the largest protests in American history against racial injustice. While bookstores reopen, many organize exhibitions of children’s books that celebrate black history. What you won’t find in even the greatest book collections is the story of the dark-skinned early humans who started human civilization.
The global scientific community overwhelmingly accepts that all living people are of African descent. Most of the scientific articles on our African origins focus on genetics. The part of the story that isn’t widely circulated is about the creation of human culture. We all descend genetically and culturally from dark-skinned ancestors. Early people from the African continent are the ones who first invented tools; the use of fire; Language; and religion. These dark-skinned early humans laid the foundation for human culture. Given the short lifespan of our early ancestors, these original innovators were likely very young too. No one who follows artistic trends will be surprised to learn that human culture was essentially invented by teenagers from the start. And by culture, I don’t just mean the arts, I mean all that stuff.
I want to debunk the lie that evolutionary denial is about religion and acknowledge that at its core it is a form of white supremacy that upholds segregation and violence against black bodies. Under the guise of “religious freedom,” the legalist wing of creationists loudly insists that their point of view deserves the same amount of time in the classroom. Science education in the United States is constantly on the defensive against anti-evolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as facts. In fact, the first wave of legal battles against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Since then, entrenched racism and the ban on evolutionary education in schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece What we are doing wrong in the evolutionary debateAdam Shapiro argues that “the history of American controversies over evolution has long been entangled with the history of American educational racism.”
At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white line that goes back to a fair-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, the white skin was created in God’s image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story says, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of the skin of his offspring. Historically, many churches in the United States referred to this story of Cain as evidence that black skin was created as a punishment.
The fantasy of a continuous line of white offspring separates the white heritage from the black bodies. In the real world, this mythology results in deadly effects on people who are black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.
For too long a vocal minority of creationists have hijacked children’s education, media and book publishers. Statistics on creationist beliefs vary in the United States. Depending on the survey, up to 40 percent of adults believe that humans have always existed in their current form (that is, they believe in an unbroken human lineage that goes back to Adam and Eve).
We have seen some progress in the classroom. From 2007 to 2019, the percentage of teachers presenting evolution without a creationist alternative increased dramatically, from just 51 percent to 67 percent. But it is still not enough. I hope that as we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will allocate more ammunition to bring science into the classroom – and into our culture as a whole.
It is well known that some school authorities, particularly in the south, have fought long and hard to keep evolution out of textbooks. What you may not know is how educational content surveillance is turning into something called “self-censorship” across the children’s book industry. Scientific knowledge about human origins has been slow to find its way into books written for young people. This major omission reflects the oversized impact that science-denying voices have on the books that find their way not only into classrooms but also into libraries, bookstores, and children’s homes. The fear of economic punishment within the publishing industry leads to a perpetual lack of teaching material on evolution.
If you search for “Children’s Evolutionary Books” on Amazon, you will find around 10-15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects like chemistry, astronomy, and other less controversial subjects. I only found one book on evolution for preschoolers, that is Grandmother fish. The author had to finance the book through Kickstarter himself.
On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books on Amazon that focus on biblical origins. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded anti-evolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own biblical museum and amusement park. What they understand is that it takes music, colorful characters, and partying to reach young children.
In the Adam and Eve scenario, the Creator gives the first humans both physical and cultural humanity. Adam knows how to name animals from the start. Nobody has to invent a language or figure out how to make tools. Science tells us otherwise, of course. The process of natural selection has shaped our bodies and our abilities. Our humanity emerged over the millennia as creative people of antiquity figured out the crucial skills – from storytelling to cooking to rope making – that we take for granted today.
Yet even in the current literature on human origins that we have, the end point of evolution is often portrayed as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage, it also erases women and children from the picture. Since evolution is fundamental knowledge, we have to tell the story in many different ways and by many different voices.
As we evolve to reverse systemic racism in all areas of business, society, science, and life, we should do the same in science education. Hugging humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to transforming our relationship with the past and creating racial justice in the present. These old people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and accepting them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the healing process from our racist history.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.