Revolution #156, February 15, 2009
Evolution, Racist? No Way!
The Creationist Big Lie
One form that creationists are increasingly using to attack evolution is by spreading the lie that evolution (or “Darwinism” as they call it) is racist. This is especially aimed at turning Black people against evolution.
One example is a book by Ken Ham and Charles Ware titled Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots. Ham is the founder of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky and head of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. Ware is a Black reverend who is president of the Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis. In the following Q and A, we refute the main arguments of Ham, Ware, and others who are pushing this.
Q. Does evolutionary science argue—as Ham and Ware claim it does—that there are “inferior” and “superior” human races, and that non-white races are “less evolved” and “closer to the apes”?
A. No. In fact, scientific evolutionary theory has proven that whites are not “more evolved” than, or in any other way superior to, non-white peoples.
In fact, evolutionary science has repeatedly proven that humans (Homo sapiens) are one single species.
Scientists have analyzed the DNA from people living in different regions of the world today. DNA is the basic genetic material found in the cells of all species of plants and animals; it contains chemical information which can be passed on to descendants. By analyzing differences in this genetic information, scientists can determine the “distance,” or relatedness, between different species—that is, approximately when they diverged from a common ancestor and became a separate species. This analysis also enables them to determine much of the biological history of different populations, or groups, within a species. Other scientists, like archaeologists who study the ruins of earlier civilizations, have discovered facts about the history and lives of ancient human cultures. From all this, scientists have pieced together a basic history of human migration patterns.
Based on this evidence, we now know that the first Homo sapiens (or human beings) originated in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Some of these humans migrated out of Africa around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and spread around the world. Human populations have continued to mix through migration, and there have not been major biological modifications separating humans into different sub-species.
Q. Does that mean that there are no separate races?
A. As Ardea Skybreak writes in her book The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, “The main thing that evolution teaches us about race is that there is no such thing as truly distinct biological races of human beings!”1 What are called races are socially and culturally defined categories, with meaning in that sense, but not natural divisions of the human species. Throughout recent history, and down to the present day, oppressive forces have seized on what are actually fairly minor secondary characteristics of appearance like skin color, or the shape of the eyes, to create social categories of “races”—and on that basis to justify, and carry out, terrible oppression of whole peoples.
Genetics studies have shown that among humans, “there is always more overall genetic variation between individuals in a given local population than there is between any two geographical populations, or between any two socially defined ‘racial groups,’ anywhere on earth.” (Skybreak, p 167). Though there are some patterns of genetic variation between regional populations of human beings, these patterns don’t really correspond to any of the social categories we define as the major human “races.”
A recent essay in the science journal Nature by Aravinda Chakravarti, a geneticist from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, summarizes what recent DNA sequencing findings show about race. Chakravarti says that “the striking implication… is that all living humans are mosaics with ancestry from the many parts of the globe through which our ancestors trekked. In other words, each of us has around 6.7 billion relatives.”2
Q. If there really aren’t separate biological “races” of people, does that mean that the concept of race is unimportant?
A. Far from it. In her discussion of this question (see pages 166-169, “What Does the Science of Evolution Tells Us About Human ‘Races’?”), Ardea Skybreak immediately goes on to point out that “the social concept of ‘race’ can (and does) still have important social meaning for people’s lives.” And she emphasizes the importance of the continued need to fight racism and the oppression of whole peoples.
Ham and Ware falsely claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution says non-white peoples are “less evolved.” This is a big lie. In doing this, they aim to use the justified hatred that Black people have for racism in order to turn them away from learning about evolution. And this is part of a larger objective to turn Black people toward fundamentalist religion and away from an understanding of how the world actually works.
Throughout the history of brutal oppression of Black people in this country, the most painful racist slurs have been used to justify this oppression and dehumanize Black people, including calling them “monkeys,” and claiming that they are a “lower species” than white people. But this is pseudo-science (phony science), NOT evolution. Later, after slavery was abolished but the oppression of African Americans continued, these slurs continued to be adapted to “suit the needs of the time”—in other words, to justify the particular forms that this oppression took.
But 1) these comparisons began long before Darwin was even born, in order to justify slavery, and 2) Darwin himself never made such comparisons. So this is a distortion of Darwin’s theory, twisting it from an explanation of how life forms have evolved into an apology for the oppression of African Americans generated by the relations of capitalist society, first in the form of slavery and later as an oppressed nation within the U.S. (We’ll come back to this history of twisting Darwin for oppressive purposes a little later.)
Q. So where did the human species come from, and what does evolution really show about the relationship of our species with apes?
A. All living species on earth are related. They all use the same basic genetic code—DNA—and all have “descended with modification” from earlier species, as Darwin explained.
Humans (Homo sapiens) are descended from a long series of non-human species. Many fossils of extinct human-related species have been found, showing that the evolution of humans was not a straight line or a “ladder” from lower to higher, but more like a bush with branches going off in various directions.
Our closest “evolutionary cousins,” the chimpanzees and gorillas of today, evolved out of the same ancestor species as we did. In fact, our blood proteins and DNA molecules are almost identical to those of chimps. Most scientists agree that there is only about a 3% to 5% difference between the sequence of genes in human DNA and the gene sequence in chimp DNA. But humans, on one hand, and chimpanzees and gorillas, on the other, followed different evolutionary paths. To take one extremely important example of the difference, over time our species developed a much larger brain, which gives us an ability to understand and transform our environment qualitatively greater than that of any other species. And all humans (unless their brain has been damaged in some way) share this fundamental characteristic.
Based on fossil evidence of extinct species of the human lineage and genetic evidence, evolutionary science has shown how the human species shared a common ancestor with the great apes. Scientists can even make a very good estimate of the time of this divergence—around 5-7 million years ago. This is done by comparing the similarities and differences between ape and human DNA, and calculating the rates at which changes in DNA, or mutations, tend to occur. (Scientists have even developed a much more detailed picture of key changes that occurred through evolution that led us today to being a single human species.)
The fact that human beings share a common ancestor with apes is different from the common misconception (spread by creationists) that evolution says humans “developed from a monkey”—and that evolution argues for linear and immediate change in form, for example, “a fish grew legs and crawled up on land.” This is not how evolution actually happens. Evolutionary science explains that genetic variation (differences and changes in DNA) can give rise to changes in structure and function in individual organisms. And if these changes are beneficial (by giving the individuals with these new traits a better chance of surviving in the natural world, including in changing environments), more of the individuals with these traits will tend to survive and reproduce. So these new traits can be “selected for” and will tend to be more passed on to the next generation (as happened with the development of the human brain). And this, along with other processes, can give rise to new things and, in an ongoing sense, can lead to evolution of new species over blocks of time (generally tens of thousands or even millions of years).
Q. What about Darwin’s personal views on race? And is Ken Ham right when he says, “Although racism did not begin with Darwinism, Darwin did more than any person to popularize it”?
A. You can find quotes from Darwin that reflect the view that people living in more modern capitalist societies are “civilized” and those living in pre-modern societies are “savages.” Darwin lived in imperial England in the 1800s. This was a society infused with ideas justifying inequality and oppression, and he was affected by those predominant (and wrong) views of his time.
Even so, Darwin’s personal views were more progressive and ahead of his time than most. In fact, Darwin argued against slavery and for the recognition of humanity as one species—at the very time when the enslavement of Black people was still legal in the United States.
Moreover, at the very time that Darwin favored the abolition of slavery, both worldwide and in the United States, some of the same Christian fundamentalist religions which now attack Darwin were upholding and defending slavery. In fact, the biggest and most influential fundamentalist sect—the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845. These slavery-loving fundamentalists created their own group specifically after northern Baptists said that they could “never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation [approval] of slavery.” And these same forefathers of Jerry Falwell and the like went on to flood the slavery-defending Confederate Army during the Civil War with religious tracts designed to keep up the morale of these troops and sanctify their oppressive war. As for “popularization,” these Bible-believing fundamentalist Christians published over 100 separate pamphlets for the Confederate soldiers, with the most popular one being distributed in 250,000 copies.3
Or we can go further back in history, to the Founding Fathers—indeed, to Thomas Jefferson, the so-called father of American democracy, who actually (and disgustingly) compared Black people to apes in his Notes on the State of Virginia4 ! Jefferson did this a full generation before Darwin was even born—and such pseudo-scientific poison was quite popular among the southern slave owners all through this period.
Even today, the Ku Klux Klan opposes the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools—and was the very first national organization to argue for “equal time for creationism” (back in 1925). (Skybreak, p. 171. See also “Racism and the Public’s Perception of Evolution” by Randy Moore at ncseweb.org. Moore points out that the Klan’s opposition to Darwin’s theory ironically goes along with crude “Social Darwinism.” This site contains very valuable resources on the links between creationism and racism.)
So Ham’s claim that Darwin “did more than any person to popularize” racism is dishonest, outrageous—and totally false. It lets the real racists off the hook—and it covers over the link between outright racism and Christian fundamentalism, as it has developed in America.
Beyond that, Darwin’s personal views are not the same and should not be lumped together with the theory of evolution which he developed. His theory has been proven and developed further over 150 years by a tremendous amount of actual scientific evidence from many different fields. Evolution is an extremely insightful, powerful, and true explanation of how life has come to be and has changed over billions of years. Moreover, it has been by pursuing Darwin’s great insights that science has more thoroughly debunked racist notions—we have learned more, over the decades since Darwin, about how humans are a single species, what accounts for the superficial differences among us, the ways in which individuals wonderfully vary in their capabilities but how this is not determined by ethnicity, and many other things.
Q. But still doesn’t the theory of evolution somehow justify racism and the current order of society as being due to “survival of the fittest”?
A. No, it does not. Throughout the history of the U.S. (and in other countries), there have been pseudo-scientific arguments made, including by some scientists, that try to justify the conditions and misery that oppressed people suffer due to the prevailing systems of capitalism and imperialism. As Ardea Skybreak explains, “It became fashionable for certain social elites to justify the way they were oppressing and subjugating the dispossessed in their home countries and in far-flung imperial colonies by claiming that this was simply ‘the natural order of things’ and in keeping with the laws of Darwinian evolution. They claimed that a kind of Darwinian natural selection was eliminating the weak and inferior peoples and races, and elevating them (the capitalists) to the top of the heap because they supposedly had naturally superior abilities.” (p. 171)
People advancing this view are sometimes popularly known as “Social Darwinists.” The ugly history of Social Darwinism is a big reason that the “Darwinism=Racism” lie can even get over with so many people.
But “Social Darwinism” is NOT Darwinism—at all. It was 1) never endorsed by Darwin himself, and 2) has no basis whatsoever in real evolutionary science. “Social Darwinism” actually involves a twisting and distortion of Darwin’s actual theories. Though there are differences among these views, what they hold in common is an attempt to falsely give what superficially appears to be “scientific” justification for ideas and policies that entrench racial and gender oppression, and class -exploitation.
Again, Social Darwinism was not developed by Darwin or advocated by him. Even the name was something given to this viewpoint by others, not Darwin. Now the creationists are seeking to dishonestly conflate evolutionary science with the totally unscientific view of Social Darwinism, to confuse people and turn them to fundamentalist religion.
In a further irony—and a further refutation of Christian fundamentalist lies—the foremost opponents of pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism in our time have been eminent evolutionary biologists. Two very important works refuting racist pseudo-science are The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), and Not In Our Genes by Leon Kamin, Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose (Pantheon, 1984). Gould was the most prominent evolutionary biologist of our generation until his untimely death in 2002, and both Lewontin and Rose are very prominent biologists today. While some scientists make headlines by promoting racist claims in the name of evolution, the far more significant—and actually scientific—work of those who refute this poison is all too often ignored.
Q. Why are these lies being pushed on Black people in particular?
A. Here we have to pull back the lens. The actual key to ending the oppression of any group—and to emancipating all of humanity—is a scientific grasp of the source and cause of that oppression. The scientific outlook that enables people to understand how nature works can also enable us to understand how human society works. It enables us to understand how certain ideas arise—how they reflect and reinforce the power relations in a society.
Because of this, the ruling class of any society goes to great lengths to prevent the oppressed from learning about this. In America, this goes back to the way that Black slaves were tortured or executed for learning to read; and it also comes out in the way that the church and religion were built up as “outlets” for African Americans, and the way in which that has been given even more emphasis and force today. It is not enough that the schools are savagely unequal and reinforce ignorance; people like Ham and Ware prey upon this very lack of knowledge to tighten the noose of oppression on African Americans.
Because Black people are such a key potential force for revolution in America, the ruling class puts tremendous emphasis on politically controlling African Americans and on suppressing their critical spirit and depriving them of the tools to thoroughly understand the world, and society. And these Christian fascists like Ham and Ware play a critical—and very ugly—role in that today.
There is already a profound lack of knowledge among the majority of people in the U.S. of the basic facts of evolution and the scientific method overall. It is critical that Black people—and all people—know that the creationists who are spreading the lie about evolution being racist are out to deny people the opportunity to understand the fascinating, and important, truth about how nature works... and the ability to even know what’s real.
As the Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA poetically says, “Without a scientific outlook, people are deprived of an understanding of the means and dynamics of change, of their own potential role in bringing about change—and of the joys and grandeur of discovery.” With science, a world of possibilities for transformation, of nature and of all of human society, opens up.
(To learn more about evolution, see The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why it Matters by Ardea Skybreak. Insight Press, 2006.)
1. Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, Insight Press, 2006, p. 166 [back]
2. Aravinda Chakravati, “Being Human: Kinship: Race Relations,” Nature, January 2009 [back]
3 Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Viking, 2006, pp. 148-159 [back]
4 David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press, USA, 2008, p. 74. [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.