After a year of lockdown, museums, libraries and bookstores across America are reopening. This cultural reawakening’s beginning coincided with both the Juneteenth holiday and the one-year anniversary of the one of the largest protests in American history against racial injustice. As bookstores reopen, many are organizing displays of children's books that celebrate Black history. What you won’t find in even the biggest collections of books is the story of the dark-skinned early people who launched human civilization.
The global scientific community overwhelmingly accepts that all living humans are of African descent. Most scientific articles about our African origins focus on genetics. The part of the story that is not widely shared is about the creation of human culture. We are all descended genetically, and also culturally, from dark-skinned ancestors. Early humans from the African continent are the ones who first invented tools; the use of fire; language; and religion. These dark skinned early people laid down the foundation for human culture. Considering the short life span of our early ancestors, these original innovators were probably also very young. No one who follows artistic trends will be surprised to learn that, from the beginning, human culture was essentially invented by teenagers. And by culture I don’t just mean the arts, I mean the whole shebang.
I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies. Under the guise of “religious freedom,” the legalistic wing of creationists loudly insists that their point of view deserves equal time in the classroom. Science education in the U.S. is constantly on the defensive against antievolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as fact. In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Ever since then, entrenched racism and the ban on teaching evolution in the schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece, What We Get Wrong About the Evolution Debate, Adam 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 lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, white skin was created in God's image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story goes, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants' skin. Historically, many congregations in the U.S. pointed to this story of Cain as evidence that Black skin was created as a punishment.
The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal 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 has hijacked children’s education, media and book publishing. Statistics on creationist beliefs in the US vary. Depending on the poll, up to 40 percent of percent of adults believe that humans have always existed in their present form (i.e., they believe in an unbroken human lineage stretching back to Adam and Eve).
We have seen some progress in the classroom. From 2007 to 2019, the percentage of teachers who present evolution without a creationist alternative grew dramatically, from only 51 percent to 67 percent. But it’s still not enough. My hope is that if we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will provide more ammunition to get science into the classroom—and into our culture at large.
It’s common knowledge that some school boards, especially in the South, have fought long and hard to keep evolution out of school textbooks. What you might not know is how the policing of educational content morphs into what might be called “self-censorship” within the children’s book industry as a whole. Scientific findings about human origins have been slow to trickle down into books written for young people. This major omission reflects the outsize effect that science-denying voices have on the books that find their ways not just into classrooms, but also into libraries, bookstores and children's homes. Fear of economic punishment within the publishing industry creates a self-perpetuating lack of teaching materials about evolution.
If you go on Amazon and look up “children’s books on evolution” you will find about 10–15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects such as chemistry, astronomy and other less controversial subjects. I found only one book on evolution for preschoolers, called Grandmother Fish. The author had to self-fund the book through Kickstarter.
On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books available on Amazon that focus on biblical origin stories. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded antievolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own Bible-themed museum and amusement park. What they understand is that to reach young children you need music, colorful characters and celebration.
In the Adam-and-Eve scenario, the Creator bestows both physical and cultural humanity on the first people. From the get-go Adam knows how to name the animals. No one has to invent language or figure out how to make tools. Science, of course, tells us otherwise. The process of natural selection shaped our bodies and capacities. Our humanity emerged over the millennia as creative ancient people figured out the crucial skills—from storytelling to cooking to rope making—that we now take for granted.
And yet, even in the current literature about human origins that we do have, the end point of evolution is often depicted as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage but also erases women and children from the picture. Because evolution is foundational knowledge, we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.
As we move forward to undo systemic racism in every aspect of business, society, academia and life, let’s be sure to do so in science education as well. Embracing humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to changing our relationship to the past, and to creating racial equity in the present. These ancient people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and embracing them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the process of healing from our racist history.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.