Monday, November 19, 2018

It is unethical to teach evolution, no matter the organism, without confronting racism and sexism

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 out-right 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 educatorseven if sticking to E.coli, fruit flies, or sticklebacksmust 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.

Make this history ancient history. We've waited too long.  (image: Marks, 2012)

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. And 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. And it's not  creationism and it's not science denial. It's 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 shitty 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.

Model that personal satisfaction in thinking evolutionarily about 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: 

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).

For actively dismantling evolution's racist/etc past and present, may I suggest checking out and maybe assigning (+ the Marks article linked above):

10 Facts about human variation by Marks

Is Science Racist? by Marks

Racing around, getting nowhere* by Weiss (fellow mermaid) and Fullerton

A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics and the American Dream (film)

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  happily willing to help you cover evolution as it should be, which is to explicitly include its sociocultural context and consequences.

*This article is open access but if for some reason you still cannot access it, just email me at and I will send you the pdf.

Additional Resources of Relevance...

There's no such thing as a 'pure' European—or anyone else – Gibbons (Science)

A lot of Southern whites are a little bit black – Ingraham (Washington Post)

From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo (NPR)

A True and Faithful Account of Mr. Ota Benga the Pygmy, Written by M. Berman, Zookeeper – Mansbach

In the Name of Darwin – Kevles (PBS)

Are humans hard-wired for racial prejudice?  - Sapolsky (LA Times)

How to write about Africa – Wainaina (Granta)
Colonialism and narratives of human origins in Asia and Africa— Athreya and Ackerman
Frederick Douglass’s fight against scientific racism – Herschthal (NYT)
The unwelcome revival of race science—Evans  (The Guardian)
#WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color—Lasisi
For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It: We asked a preeminent historian to investigate our coverage of people of color in the U.S. and abroad. Here’s what he found—Goldberg (NatGeo)
There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label: It's been used to define and separate people for millennia. But the concept of race is not grounded in genetic—Kolbert (NatGeo)
Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis - Villarosa (The New York Times)
The labor of racism –Davis (Anthrodendum)
Being black in America can be hazardous to your health – Khazan (The Atlantic)
White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness—Bazelon (The New York Times)
Ancestry Tests Pose a Threat to Our Social Fabric: Commercial DNA testing isn’t just harmless entertainment. It’s keeping alive ideas that deserve to die – Terrell (Sapiens)
Surprise! Africans are not all the same (or why we need diversity in science) – Lasisi
Why white supremacists are chugging milk (and why geneticists are alarmed) – Harmon (NYT)
Everyday discrimination raises womens blood pressure – Yong (The Atlantic)
How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy – Romano (Vox)
Sex Redefined – Ainsworth (Nature)

Peace Among Primates – Sapolsky (The Greater Good)

Against Human Nature—Ingold


Steven B Kurtz said...

. Evolution existed well before humans, and will exist after we're extinct. Your protest is not consistent with those facts.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I don't see a protest anywhere in my post. Lemme read it again...

Holly Dunsworth said...

Oh, okay. I see. I protest shitty takes on evolution that lead to shitty treatment of people, even if that only means that folks can't claim their own evolutionary history because it's only for the shitty people who apply it shittily. I do protest!

Anonymous said...

This is deeply misguided

"Racism" and "sexism" are trivial human (non)-issues, evolution is much more fundamental than any of that.

And what if a proper scientific understanding of evolution actually leads to views that would be classified as "racist/sexist"

We abandon those conclusions because we don't like them?

It's not even merely a hypothetical, this does in fact happen.

The people obsessed with "racism/sexism/homophobia" are at this point reaching the level of creationists in their denial of well established objectively true scientific facts.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Nature cannot support racism or sexism. Human interpretation of nature does plenty of that though.

No one is denying well-established objective true scientific facts here. But people need to know that it's the most excellent science that's skeptical of anyone claiming that evolutionary knowledge is "objective true scientific fact" when so much of it is narrative built on top of facts. Those narratives aren't necessarily wrong but they are at the very least biased in their limitations.

I published the comment above to show folks one of the problems here. Lots of folks who think like "Anonymous" are in science and education.

Anonymous said...

Nature cannot support racism or sexism

Because no such thing exists in Nature. Individual humans, on the other hand, exhibit a remarkable tendency to find "racism" and "sexism" in everything.

No one is denying well-established objective true scientific facts here.


Then what do you call things like these:

Etc. etc. etc.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Do you realize that you've just linked to a bunch of authors who aren't me? I am the author of this blog post. Really.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm going to turn comments off now.

The response (I received and won't post) to my comment above from Anonymous says that my attitude is "anti-scientific" when in fact it is my enthusiastically pro-science perspective that helped drive me to this perspective. So many people on Twitter have responded similarly; I am anti-science. They do not seem to understand that the science of evolution does not support racism, etc and that instead, its misinterpretation, historically and presently does. They must, instead, believe that scientific evidence does support racism, etc--I can conclude nothing else from this reaction. If that's what they think, they are wrong.

There is a steady stream of replies to my post, on Twitter, suggesting that I am also dumb, narcissistic, diseased, evil, etc for writing what I did. While overwhelmingly neutral or positive, the negative response on Twitter is the main reason I'm closing comments here, where I can control them.

I'm not motivated to respond to people who, by their ignorance and intentional rejection of current science, history, and humanity, are making my point for me so well all on their own.