Joseph Graves

Joseph L. Graves Jr. is associate dean for research and professor of biological sciences at North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina Greensboro. (Photo provided)

I was very pleased to have been interviewed for your piece on the role of religion in contributing to the differential acceptance of evolutionary science among African-Americans. However, I was very disappointed in both the title of the piece, “Religion plays prominent role in African-Americans’ strained relationship with evolution,” and the picture above the headline which depicted the long debunked “March of Progress” view of evolution.

First, the way the headline is written, it overplays the role of socially-defined race (African-Americans) and downplays the role of Biblical literalist/fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. What needed to be clear is that the rejection of the evidence supporting evolutionary science is driven by religious fundamentalism, not being an African-American. From 1993-2004, the National Opinion Research Center data recorded responses concerning the question: “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.” Responses differed with Doctrinally Conservative Protestants, 76 percent, Black Protestants, 66 percent, and Mainline Protestants, 45 percent, answering “definitely or probably false” to this item respectively. This of course means that 24 percent, 34 percent, and 55 percent of these groups answered “definitely and probably true” to this question1.

Therefore, a proper title to the Feb. 14 piece would have recognized the diversity within the African-American community as opposed to stereotyping it as having a uniform “strained” relationship with evolutionary science. I would have entitled the piece: “Religion plays a prominent role in the differential acceptance of evolution by African Americans.”

But more troubling than the title of the piece was the picture of the “March of Progress” that ran below it. The March of Progress first appeared in the Early Manvolume of the Life Nature Library published in 19652. The problem with this icon is that it drastically misrepresents evolutionary science. Charles Darwin envisioned evolution by the means of natural selection as resulting in trees of related organisms (see below):

Modern evolutionary biologists call this “cladistic” evolution. Cladistic means “splitting in two.” The diagram above shows that not only does evolution produce new species derived from a common ancestor, but that throughout the history of life that species often go extinct. The cladistic model of evolution has been overwhelmingly supported by the fossil evidence of past life, including that of the great apes, which include the hominids (humans)3,4.

The diagram above shows that the gorilla and chimpanzee share a common ancestor with the hominids. The common ancestor of chimpanzee and the hominids lived between 6-7 million years ago. It also shows that of the hominids only our species, Homo sapiens, still exists. However, there were times in the history of our species anatomically modern Homo sapiens, in which we shared the world with other intelligent hominids, including Homo floresiensisHomo eretus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. Indeed, due to hybridization of early modern humans with some of these groups, some human populations have 2-3 percent of their ancestry originating in other human species including H. neanderthalensis6.

The most common problem caused by the “March of Progress” icon is that it gives the impression that chimpanzees are ancestors of humans. This cannot be true because chimpanzees still exist. Evolutionary science states that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, and that this ancestor had both chimpanzee- and human-like characteristics. However, another problem is associated with the “March of Progress” idea; that is, that the human “races” are part of the march, and that Europeans are the endpoint of this progression. This was the view of the German biologist Ernest Haeckel7. Haeckel’s view of the human species became part of Nazi race science7. It has also been shown by social psychologists that the racial march of progress is particularly harmful to African-Americans8. It is harmful in two ways, first by implying that biological races exist within our species and that they exist in hierarchical relationship to each other. I have shown that both ideas are incorrect6. By supporting both incorrect notions, this icon has contributed to the differential rejection of evolutionary science by African-Americans. Therefore, the Darwin Day piece should have really shown a tree of human evolution, as opposed to the false and distorting “March of Progress” icon.

Joseph L. Graves Jr. is associate dean for research and professor of biological sciences at North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina Greensboro. He can be contacted at gravesjl@ncat.edu.

Notes

  1. Data from Table 3.2 in Berkman M. and Plutzer E. (2010) Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  2. Howell, F. (1965) Early Man, (New York: Time-Life).
  3. McKee JK, Poirer FE, and McGraw WS. (2005) Understanding Human Evolution5thEd., (Upper Saddle River NJ: McGraw Hill).
  4. Strait DS, Grine FE, and Moniz MA. (1997) A reappraisal of early hominid phylogeny. J. Hum. Evol. 32(1): 17-82.
  5. Herron, JC and Freeman SH. (2014) Evolutionary Analysis5thEd. (New York: Pearson).
  6. Wall JD and Hammer MF. 2006. Archaic admixture in the human genome, Curr. Opin. Genet. Dev.16(6): 606-10. 
  7. Graves JL. (2005) The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press).
  8. Goff PA, Eberhardt JL, Williams MJ, Jackson MC. (2008) Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences, J. Personality and Social Psychology94(2): 292—306. 

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