Africa, Evolution, and Representations of Lucy/Dinknesh
“Did God create mankind, or did we evolve from apes? Some particularly religious Africans find it difficult to reconcile the theory of evolution with their faith. But what do theologians think? From “Africa – Lucy vs. Adam and Eve: The theory of evolution in Africa.” http://www.dw.com/en/african-roots-tracing-africas-historical-figures/a-42094183
A few weeks ago, @gridflay [https://twitter.com/gridflay] posted and MU-Peter Shimon [ @MU-Peter https://twitter.com/MU_Peter] forwarded to me an interesting article from the broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) regarding reactions to the first episode of its series African Roots: Tracing Africa's historical figures in which “DW digs into African history to shed light on influential Africans who left a legacy” using partially animated documentary pieces on “25 notable African figures.”
I admit that at first glance the article seemed rather frivolous but my impression quickly changed as the complexity of its subject matter became clearer. The public reaction to the DW episode reveals contradictions and conflicts with implications for understanding a range of social conflicts, such as wildlife conservation, secular education, protection and/or emancipation of other primates and mammals, the parameters of economic/technological transformation, and how everyday life is set within a landscape littered with the wreckage of past social relations. The simple fact that I originally thought that I would write a short post about this, and now offer this overly long, yet still superficial, post speak either to the depth of the topic, or at the very least to my having over-thought it, but I think it more the former than the latter.
One source of viewer concern and even outrage was the decision to devote the initial episode to the importance of the fossilized remains of Lucy/Dinknesh, and not to the life of a modern African leader. I have only watched excerpts available to viewers in the US. Thus, I will not really be commenting on the content of the series, but on the reaction to it. From all appearances, the series jumps 3.5 million years from Lucy/Dinknesh to the contemporary era. This genealogy, along with the visual representation/reconstruction of Lucy/Dinknesh seems to have prompted much of the negative commentary by viewers, but so did the proposition that Lucy/Dinknesh is either “an” or “the” ancestor – DW is inconsistent when describing her – of modern humans prompted other criticisms. Sheha Ibrahim, writing on the DW Kiswahili page was one of many viewers who were “particularly troubled by the artistic representation of Lucy in the web comic, where she looks more like a monkey than a hominid.” Other commentators on the episode left similar messages (from the DW Kiswahili page https://www.facebook.com/dw.kiswahili/ and translated by Facebook). Despite the inadequacy of the translation, the meaning comes through quite clearly:
Mkenda Paul: The Picture is of a puppet, right on the back picture is a gorilla's face, what it shows is propaganda propaganda that African was once a gorilla, shame on DW.
Khamisi Salum: Let's write a white man's origin without forgetting to put a sketch with white gorillas.
Malima Christopher: Why is there a monkey's face?
White people are really despising you. You are not safe, you will answer before God who created us.
Three depictions of Lucy/Dinknesh from DW’s African Roots
These representations of Lucy/Dinknesh were taken from an animation by ComicRepublic, a studio based in Nigeria whose comics explicitly avoid stereotypical characters and depictions, and simplistic notions of culture and diaspora. So there is some irony that their depictions should be the focus of many objections to the episode. It may be nothing more than a case of the best of intentions easily coinciding with unintended consequences and unanticipated interpretations. One can imagine DW’s error as akin to what Trevor Noah recently described (“How Woke Is Too Woke? - Between the Scenes: The Daily Show.” The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Jan 31, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA-sXi8v8Ns ).
ComicRepublic seems to have based its depiction of Lucy/Dinknesh on a reconstruction at the Houston Science Museum, which also appears in a Getty stock photo in roughly the same pose.
A sculptor's rendering of Lucy displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas
The depiction of Lucy/Dinknesh serves as a nice reminder of the fluidity of interpretations and representations, as well as the impossibility of guaranteeing that positive representations will be understood as intended, and not just as easily be understood as profoundly negative (Stuart Hall, Representation and the Media). Produced in Africa, it has the best of intentions in seeking to feature a wide range of historical figures who might otherwise be simply names from the past. However, in the context of a “European” project, even the best of intentions are often problematic. The depictions of Lucy/Dinknesh reveal a complex assemblage of social facts that constantly undermine and yet reproduce each other. If a Nigerian animator decides to make Lucy/Dinknesh’s skin color the same as the contemporary human beside her, was this decision one of pride in the darker skin color, or a matter of acceding to the exceptions of European clients, or was it something else entirely? Was it discussed or naively assumed, and was it a choice based upon any empirical evidence? Perhaps, for sake of argument, the range of skin, eye, and hair color in Lucy/Dinknesh’s contemporaries was broader than we assume, were these questions considered by the animators and producers? It could very well be that they did take such questions into consideration, but their intention does not, again, fix the range of meanings that emerge from our interaction with an object.
Of course, it was in the midst of considering these questions of representation that the Roseanne Barr scandal emerged with it assumptions in full view. There is no need to repeat her posts here as their content is well known and still a topic of discussion. Brent Staples wrote a piece on it just today in the New York Times. One might group it, along with the reaction to Google’s Lucy Doodle https://www.google.com/doodles/41st-anniversary-of-the-discovery-of-lucy and
“The 'Who is Lucy' Google Doodle angered a lot of creationists: The offending Doodle honoured the 41st anniversary of the discovery of 'Lucy'” https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/lucy-australopithecus-evolution-creationism-google-doodle-a6748081.html
Some users threatened to boycott Google over the Doodle and the DW series sets comfortably within the same cluster of discourses. “The toxically racist ape characterization has been pushed to the margins of the public square. Nevertheless, a growing body of research shows that it has maintained a pernicious grip on the American imagination. It is especially problematic in the criminal justice system, where subhuman treatment of African-Americans remains strikingly visible” (Brent Staples. “The Racist Trope That Won’t Die.” New York Times. June 17, 2018. https://nyti.ms/2MAanZ1 ). Of course, the most notorious use of the trope was also the most popular, Nott and Gliddon’s illustrations from their Types of Mankind.
It should be noted that the current BBC series Civilizations does not feel compelled to begin its story with Lucy/Dinknesh but with 80,000 year old markings and 40,000 year old hand stencils (which may have been, in fact, created by Neanderthals (Marris, Emma. 2018. Nature. “Neanderthal artists made oldest-known cave paintings. Designs at three Spanish sites are thought to predate human arrival in Europe by at least 20,000 years.” 22 February. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02357-8 See also: Paul Rincon. 2018. “Neanderthals were capable of making art.” http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43115488 ; Science Friday (SciFri). 22018. “Were Neanderthals Artists?” https://soundcloud/sciencefriday/caveart ; Jonathan Jones. “So Neanderthals made abstract art? This astounding discovery humbles every human.” https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/23/neanderthals-cave-art-spain-astounding-discovery-humbles-every-human?CMP=share_btn_tw . We can not help but be reminded, too, of Freud’s refusal to make any distinction between civilization and culture, see Future of an Illusion, pages 5-6).
But an important difference between the documentaries is that Civilizations begins with something our hands produced, rather than with how our bodies were once shaped:
Simon Schama explores the remote origins of human creativity with the first known marks made some 80,000 years ago in South African caves - marks which were not dictated merely by humanity's physical needs. He marvels at the later cave works - shapes of hands, in red stencils on the walls of caves, and at the paintings of bison and bulls, and Stone Age carvings. (Second Moment of Creation, Civilisations, Series 1 Episode 1 of 9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05xxsmp )
One can get a bit of background on the Civilizations series by watching this discussion: “In conversation with... Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga on BBC Two's Civilisations series” https://youtu.be/258l4h5HbF0 )
Of course the contributors to Civilizations tell an expansive story all the while still maintaining a certain individual viewpoint. In contrast, while DW’s African Roots is more concerned with “Significant Biographies,” or “influential Africans who left a legacy” as the producers write on the program site:
From Ghana's pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah and Hausa legend Bayajida to Angola's Queen Njinga Mbande, DW digs into African history to shed light on influential Africans who left a legacy. http://www.dw.com/en/african-roots-tracing-africas-historical-figures/a-42094183
It seems that the meanings of “influence” and “legacy” are fairly fluid and ambiguous. Accordingly, the historical figures chosen to mark this line of influence range from Lucy/Dinknesh to political leaders of modern nations, liberators of peoples, defenders against colonialism, and legendary heroes. In this and other senses, African Roots stands closer to Kenneth Clark’s original – and European centered – Civilization: A Personal View series (1969) than it does to Schema, Beard, and Olusogu’s Civilizations. However, Clarke’s series hardly ends on a note of the triumph of progress: after reading from Yeats “Things fall apart, the center can not hold,” Clarke concludes with “The trouble is that there is still no center, the moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough” https://youtu.be/waoEyjE_dtU?t=46m12s A further tangent that th reader might explore is the genealogical relation implied by the title African Roots as a reference to the Alex Haley book and TV series, making it something of a “Roots for Africans,” but that question we will have to leave aside for now.
Many of the negative responses to the episode emerged from three religious groups – Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims. The DW article emphasizes the view that African’s reject evolution because of inadequate education systems and a lack of general knowledge.
Evolution not taught in schools
Pentecostal churches from Kenya to Mozambique openly oppose the evolution theory. In religious schools, evolution is often not taught at all. In state-run schools, it is not always included in the syllabus. In South Africa, for example, the teaching of evolution was only introduced in 2008. The limited amount of resources and training available also means that youngsters often do not get the chance to engage with the subject. During the apartheid era in South Africa, training opportunities for aspiring black teachers were severely restricted in comparison to white teachers. A survey carried out at the time showed that many of the teachers who did receive training did not have sufficient knowledge of the theory of evolution. Other studies have ranked the education systems of other African countries at even lower standards. http://www.dw.com/en/african-roots-tracing-africas-historical-figures/a-42094183
To have more of a context for evaluating such claims, let’s pause to consider some data on the acceptance of evolutionary theory in the United States:
“Belief in creationism is inversely correlated to education; only 22% of those with post-graduate degrees believe in strict creationism.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution#United_States citing to Pew Research. 2009-07-09. “Evolution, Climate Change and Other Issues.” http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/
Twenty-two percent seems odd, unless Divinity and profession/business degrees are being included. Otherwise, this number seems extraordinary. If it is accurate, then we may find that Africans and Americans have much in common.
The American public believes scientists are more divided on evolution than they actually are:
When it comes to climate change and evolution, a majority of adults see scientists as generally in agreement that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity (57%) or that humans have evolved over time (66%), though a sizable minority see scientists as divided over each. Perceptions of where the scientific community stands on both climate change and evolution tend to be associated with individual views on the issue. (Cary Funk and Lee Rainie. January 29, 2015. Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2015/01/PI_ScienceandSociety_Report_012915.pdf )
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of AAAS members revealed a general consensus among scientists regarding evolution: 98% of AAAS members held the view that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time” and 90% affirmed that “Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection.” Only 8% believed in the guiding hand of “a supreme being” in the process of evolution (i. e., intelligent design), and only 2 % believe that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (Pew Research Center’s 2014 Survey of AAAS Members. http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2016/09/2014-survey-of-AAAS-members-full-survey-questionnaire-and-topline.pdf). It is rather more interesting that the idea of life as fixed in its forms and variation is held by 2% of the members of the AAAS. It is a statement about pluralism but also a mark of just how heavy the nightmares of the past still weigh down upon on us.
There is a certain irony to the DW article’s emphasis on the failure of the various educational systems in Africa while avoiding evidence that there might well be similar flaws in our own understanding of science, Darwin, the scientific status of evolutionary theory, and the scientific ideologies of Creationism and Intelligent Design. For example:
The US has one of the highest levels of public belief in biblical or other religious accounts of the origins of life on earth among industrialized countries.
A 2017 Gallup creationism survey found that 38% of adults in the United States inclined to the view that "God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" when asked for their views on the origin and development of human beings, which was noted as being at the lowest level in 35 years. 19% believed that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process", despite 49% of respondents indicating they believed in evolution. Belief in creationism is inversely correlated to education; only 22% of those with post-graduate degrees believe in strict creationism.[ A 2000 poll for People for the American Way found 70% of the American public felt that evolution was compatible with a belief in God. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution#United_States
Contrary to impressions left by some journalistic accounts, a quick search found very little polling of public opinion in Africa regarding evolution, and what polling had occurred seemed to be in either South Africa or the countries North of the Sahara. However, there are some sources available, though we do so keeping in mind all of the usual caveats about using public opinion polling to understand sociological questions.
To get some grasp on issue of education and the toleration of scientific inquiry, I turned to the World Values Survey, which has been “conducted in almost 100 countries which contain almost 90 percent of the world’s population.... including interviews with almost 400,000 respondents” since 1981 (Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. “World Values Survey: Round Six - Country-Pooled Datafile Version” http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV6.jsp. Madrid: JD Systems Institute. See also http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp )
The five WVS questions that seemed relevant for contextualizing the reaction to African Roots are:
148. Do you believe in God?
153. Whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right.
194. We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.
195. One of the bad effects of science is that it breaks down people’s ideas of right and wrong.
197. The world is better off, or worse off, because of science and technology.
All responses were taken from “Wave 6” of the World Values Survey, 2010-2014. Totals for each variable are given for comparison, but at the country level there are significant differences both between African countries (Algeria, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Zimbabwe), and between them and the countries outside of continental Africa (Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Turkey, United States). While I will only mention the aggregate totals, it is worthwhile to spend time looking at the individual country responses, so I have included screen-shots of the search results.
Those in continental Africa are much more likely to believe in a Divinity, as opposed to those in our non-African sample, though at 87.7%, Americans are closer to Africans than to other non-African countries.
V148. Believe in God. “Do you believe in God?”
Non-continental Africa Average
Continental Africa Average
In general, the two groups also differ in the degree to which they believe that deference should be given to religious teachings when they conflict with scientific knowledge. It is here that we find a more obvious divergence of opinion:
|V153. “Whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right.”|
|Non-continental Africa Average||10.30%||17.60%||34.70%||23.80%|
|Continental Africa Average||49.40%||30.30%||9.40%||2.90%|
However, in responses to the other questions, Africans and non-Africans are not so different in their views of the role of science in everyday life and of the contribution of science and technology to a notion of social progress. While Africans may believe more strongly in the supremacy of religion over science, they generally do not agree that we depend too much on science for our well being:
|V194. “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.”|
|Non-continental Africa Average||10.20%||14.80%|
|Continental Africa Average||9.30%||11.80%|
Africans were slightly more likely to believe that science undermines social norms and morality, but relatively few endorse the view that science promotes any “breakdown” of morality, values, or the social order.
|V195. “One of the bad effects of science is that it breaks down people’s ideas of right and wrong.”|
|Completely Agree||Completely Disagree|
|Non-continental Africa Average||
|Continental Africa Average||
And when it comes to a broad question regarding the general benefits of science and technology, Africans are more conscious of the the positive aspects of scientific research and technological innovation.
|V197. “All things considered, would you say that the world is better off, or worse off, because of science and technology?”|
|A lot better off.||A lot worse off.|
|Non-continental Africa Average||17.70%||4.20%|
|Continental Africa Average||22.60%||4.00%|
So it seems that the relation of religious belief to the acceptance of scientific knowledge can not be measured solely on the basis of the acceptance of the theory of evolution, for the rejection of evolution on religious grounds does not necessarily translate into a rejection of science in general. We already know this from the fact that many great naturalists opposed any notion of evolution, e.g., Georges Cuvier, Louis Agassiz, Samuel G. Morton, immediately come to mind. And even self-avowed Darwinists have propagated metaphysical concepts such as germ-plasm, genius, and selfish genes; A. R. Wallace’s acceptance of an ideological constellation of evolution, socialism, supremacy, and spiritualism is another instance worth considering (See, for example, Wallace, A. R. 1864. Discussion [on the extinction of races]. Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2: cx-cxi. http://wallace-online.org/converted/pdf/1864_Bendyshe_S087.pdf ).
If it is true that the public is deeply skeptical of evolutionary theory, then it is important to note that the DW article itself manifests an uncertain level of discomfort with “the theory of evolution” – which it never defines and leaves it to the reader to assume that we are thinking about the same thing and in the same way. This discomfort can be found in the two different descriptions of the significance of Lucy/Dinknesh’s fossilized remains.
In the opening three paragraphs of the DW article, Lucy/Dinknesh is described in two ways:
“Lucy is approximately 3.2 million years old and has been identified by researchers as one of the earliest ancestors of modern-day humans, lending weight to the theory of evolution….
Lucy is regarded as the ancestor of all human beings and Africa among researchers today undoubtedly as the cradle of humankind.” (Emphasis added)
As the “earliest ancestor” she gives support to the theory of evolution, and as the Eve-like ancestor of all human beings” she establishes the importance of Africa as the “cradle of humankind,” with all it meanings, including reproduction, direction, development, perhaps even design and teleology. These ambiguities around Lucy/Dinknesh’s significance flow directly from tendencies that challenge the primacy of scientific reason and the legitimacy of the theory of evolution. It asks the question: can science be distinguished from its social context and likewise is scientific theory a matter of cultural appropriateness? There are three interrelated themes recognizable in the criticisms of evolution in the DW article:
First: criticisms of evolution because it was part of the scientific-technical knowledge of domination, the colonial/imperial enterprise, and slavery;
Second: evolution is presented as a scientific theory that promoted and still promotes colonial ideologies, allowing forms of colonial domination to survive in the reproduction of everyday life;
Third: as the foundation of a quasi-theological Hegelian concept that is at the core of the vulgar concept of progress that justified colonialism/imperialism.
Because science is essential to society, science and scientists can and should be critiqued, but not all critiques are equal: a religious opposition to the theory of evolution is not the same as a critique of various scientific ideologies that have claimed to be derived from Darwin’s work.
In considering these criticisms, we should pause to note that in Darwin’s era, evolution often denoted a determined progression of necessary stages of development that generally, though not always, moves from simplicity to greater complexity in a steady unfolding of fixed and unvarying species over the history of Nature. In contrast to this religiously imbued understanding, Darwin’s work transformed evolution into a scientific means for making sense of variation in light of natural selection, the interrelation of species in the struggle for life, and the genealogical connection of all life over time. In other words, the Origin of Species is written as an answer to the “Species Question”: as a scientific, secular, foundation for abolitionism; as an argument for the genealogical and ecological study of Life in which chance plays a crucial role. Nature is not fixed, nor are species and, by implication, nor are the “races” of humans. Darwin famously did not mention evolution until the last word of the Origin, specifically because he wanted to avoid confusing it with meanings meanings of the term “evolution.”
While it is certainly apparent that both scientific inquiry and theological exegesis demand equal amounts of intellectual rigor, what separates evolutionary theory from religious scholarship is that Darwin’s view of Nature rests on evidence of change over time, variation, and chance. Diametrically opposed to this is the assumption of fixity inherent in religious notions of a divinely created and determined nature.
A 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 70% of evangelical Christians believed that living organisms have not changed since their creation, but only 31% of Catholics and 32% of mainline Protestants shared this opinion. A 2005 Harris Poll estimated that 63% of liberals and 37% of conservatives agreed that humans and other primates have a common ancestry.
The acceptance of these religious doctrines as “African” without any mention of their own relation to past structures of domination and ideology suggests that colonial discipline is so burned-in as to now seem natural, as though Christianity is somehow specifically African; as though there is an African Christianity and an African Islam, as opposed to Middle Eastern Christianity or Islam, or to North American versions (so much for the notion of “catholicism”), the variations multiply with the proliferation of geographical designations and claims for geographical/national/racial recognition….. or even worse, that the missionaries were part of the civilizing process, but also spiritual saviors from its effects. The major religions all spread through war, conquest, and disease as much as by peace and some ethics of care.
But beyond the religious dimension, [Tayob] can identify another reason why many Africans reject the theory of evolution: “Many people feel that these theories do not belong to them, that they came from outside of Africa, and so they cannot participate in their development....”
Why does this criticism apply to evolutionary theory but not to religion? Unless we are willing to expand the geographical meaning of Africa by making at least the present Middle East a part of Africa, it is difficult to argue that there is anything particularly African about their origins. Any such idea would no doubt upset those like, for example, the Israeli authorities in Palestine who have been determined to expel Africans from “the Middle East’s only democracy” (“Empire Files: How Black Lives Don’t Matter in Israel” and see also “What is Cultural Studies?” ). Like other geographical constructs, Africa organizes and homogenizes differences.
Clive Finlayson, for one, has considered the meaning of this geographical concept in organizing the interpretation of research into primate origins. He writes in his The Humans Who Went Extinct; Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived (2009) of “the strict political division of continents, a distinction that has never existed other than in our minds, complicating our understanding of how early primates and apes got to where they did. The same simplistic distinction has been widely applied in the human origins debate. I think that this way of carving up the Afro-Eurasian land mass has held back progress in our understanding of what really happened, and how it happened” (2009:45). To quote him at length from an earlier portion of the book:
Orang-utans, gibbons, chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans are the lone survivors of the mid-Miocene ape apogee, around 16 million years ago, when apes of many different shapes and sizes lived from the Iberian peninsula to China and from Kenya south to Namibia. This was a vast region of tropical and subtropical woodlands, difficult for us to imagine today, and the apes spread out right across it. In some cases, they went from Europe into Africa and in others in the opposite direction. The distinction only has meaning when we apply current political boundaries. Only the occasional sea level rises that separated Africa from Eurasia temporarily restricted movement and the apes of the day exploited the opportunities that came and went like the ebb and flow of the tide.... The debate on the relationship between African and Eurasian apes in the Miocene resembles others that we will meet later in this book when looking at their human descendants. Much of the confusion stems from the artificial division of Africa and Eurasia. If instead we consider the Afro-Eurasian land mass as a single environment the the entire perspective changes and we get a much clearer picture, The canvas is made up of vegetation belts and sea barriers and the artist is climate. In the case the actors are the apes.... The story unfolds in the theater that is our planet. It is a theater with several interconnecting stages. The doors between some of the stages are sometimes closed, preventing actors moving between them; some stages are further away from the rest and are harder to reach while some have doors closed for longer than others. At first the acts are restricted to parts of Africa and Eurasia but eventually Australia and then the Americas are brought into the play. The scenes and stage sets change with each act and on each stage. The stage manager is climate, constantly changing and rearranging the scenes.... Chance is everywhere in our story and it has affected it in subtle, as well as dramatic, ways (2009:13).
Now, of course, Finlayson does veer uncomfortably close to the environmental determinism of early 20th century geographers, but he is too much of a Darwinian to be lured into crude determinism: “The key point of my argument is the one that makes, for me, our story such a beautiful one. It is the role of chance. It is how unexpected events and situations altered the course of the story in unpredictable and unforeseen ways” (2009:13). Epicurus and Lucretius’ emphasis on chance as an essential aspect of nature haunts these lines. Against this world of chance, one hears expressions of fixity and design in the voices objecting to the representations of Lucy/Dinknesh and to the descriptions of her place in relation to humans in Africa today.
Is it useless to point out that if evolution is a threat because it originates elsewhere, then what are we to say of the religions of slavers, colonial bureaucrats, functionaries, and tyrants have become “indigenous” to Africa and, presumably, Africans?
In any event, unless we expand our geographical concept of “Africa,” we have no choice but to conclude that the forms of Christianity and Islam described in the DW article are themselves the most prominent ruins and residues of the same colonial disciplines that were essential to the reproduction of imperial authority. As historian and documentary maker Michael Wood once remarked, “Throughout history, the priest and the executioner have walked hand in hand.” It is arguable that despite its origins the theory of evolution has resulted in an understanding of ecological processes make it possible for us to consider preserving landscapes, species, and human societies that a regime of colonialist and post-colonial dogmas would have erased long ago.
Without a doubt imperialism reserved a fundamental role for the sciences of life in the reproduction of power and the domination of nature. The theory itself was “created” during the imperial/colonial/scientific expedition by the HMS Beagle and by A. R. Wallace during his travels in the Amazon and the Pacific The HMS Beagle was at once a ship of peaceful scientific exploration and surveying, but one which also carried 10 cannons, with the two heaviest personally provided by Captain Fitz-Roy, who wanted more firepower than the Admiralty had requisitioned for the voyage. It also carried the Fuegians who Fitz-Roy had kidnapped and brought to Britain in order to educate and reintroduce to their villages as agents of civilization. They would serve as exemplars of the benefits of colonialism and slavery. This experiment was a failure for all concerned, but especially those who he abducted. Here is how Fitz-Roy described the motivations and goals of the expedition:
The best charts of the South American coasts, which had been made by Spain, or by Portugal, were very inadequate to the wants of a rapidly growing intercourse when France and England undertook to explore and survey those shores for the benefit of the world…. In the autumn the Beagle was again prepared for a surveying voyage. Every care and assistance was given in her equipment. She wanted nothing that her size would allow to be taken on board. At the end of that year (1831) she sailed from Plymouth. One particular object being the measurement of meridian distances, by a large number of chronometers, the Beagle was ordered to make her voyages by the shortest steps, touching land frequently, for the purpose of obtaining observations and ascertaining the rates of the chronometers. Until the vessel arrived in the River Plata, her chief occupations were, measuring meridian distances, and slightly adding to our knowledge of the Abrolhos shoals, on the coast of Brazil....
While the officers of the Beagle were employed in their usual duties afloat, Mr. Charles Darwin, a zealous volunteer, examined the shores. He will make known the results of his five years' voluntary seclusion and disinterested exertions in the cause of science. Geology has been his principal pursuit....
VOL. VI. [page] 312
FitzRoy, R. 1836. Sketch of the Surveying Voyages of his Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle, 1825-1836. Commanded by Captains P. P. King, P. Stokes, and R. Fitz-Roy, Royal Navy. Journal of the Geological Society of London. 6: 311-343.
Fitz-Roy pointedly does not mention the Feuagians in his description of them:
The wretched natives of Southern and Western Tierra del Fuego are low in stature, ill-looking, and ill-proportioned. (I speak of them generally in their savage state.)
Their colour is darker than that of cooper; it is like old mahogany, or rusty iron. The trunk of their body is large in proportion to their cramped and rather crooked limbs. Rough, coarse, and extremely dirty black hair, half hides, yet heightens, a villainous expression of ugly features.
Sometimes these outcasts wear a piece of seal, otter, or guanaco skin upon their backs; and perhaps the skin of a penguin, or some such covering, is used in front; but often nothing is worn except a scrap of hide, which is tied to their waist. Even this is only for a pocket in which they may carry pebbles for their slings.
Passing so much time in low wigwams, or cramped in small canoes, injures their limbs and movements. In height they vary from four feet ten to five feet six inches; yet the size of their bodies equals that of our largest men. Of course they look clumsy and ill-proportioned. Women usually wear more covering, perhaps a whole skin of a seal. The women comb their hair with the jaw of a porpoise. Both sexes oil themselves, or rub their bodies with grease. They paint, or rather daub their faces and bodies with red, white, or black.
Perhaps Freycinet, and those with him, saw some of these people painted black, as Bory St. Vincent quotes their authority for the natives of Tierra del Fuego being black, like the natives of Van Diemen's Land.—See article "Homme" in the Dictionnaire Classique.
As a Fuegian is seldom out sight of his canoe, or a wigwam, a slight idea of those, his only constructions, should be given.
The canoe is made of several large pieces of sewed together. Its shape is nearly that which would be taken by the strong bark of tree (twelve to twenty feet in length, and eighteen inches, or two feet in diameter), separated from the solid wood in one piece, joined at the ends, but kept open by sticks in the middle. It is ballasted by clay, and always carries a small fire.
There are two kinds of wigwams: one is made with a number of small straight trees, whose upper ends are united, while the lower form a circle; and another which is formed by branches stuck in the ground, bent together at the top, and slightly covered by skins, bark, grass, or leafy twigs. A small entrance is left open: smoke goes out as easily as rain enters.
Western Patagonia is like the worst part of Tierra del Fuego. It is the upper part of a great range of mountains, whose bases are immersed in the ocean. The mountain-tops from multitudes of islands, barren to seaward, but impenetrably wooded towards the main-land; and always drenched with the waters of incessant rain, never dried up by evaporation. Every foot of earth, every tree, and shrub, on those island, is always thoroughly wet. Of course the country is uninhabitable, except by savages. [page] 317-8.
The familiar convergence of power, scientific inquiry, domination, disease, technological innovation, and exploration that mark Enlightenment can be found in the first few sentences of Darwin’s own Researches:
AFTER having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to 1830—to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific—and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World. On the 6th of January we reached Teneriffe, but were prevented landing, by fears of our bringing the cholera: the next morning we saw the sun rise behind the rugged outline of the Grand Canary island, and suddenly illumine the Peak of Teneriffe, whilst the lower parts were veiled in fleecy clouds. This was the first of many delightful days never to be forgotten. On the 16th of January, 1832, we anchored at Porto Praya, in St. Jago, the chief island of the Cape de Verd archipelago. (Charles Darwin. 1845. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World. London: Murray. 2d ed.
In contrast to Fitz-Roy, Darwin mentions the Fueagians and his observations of them along with the results of Fitz-Roy’s colonial experiment take up the entirety of Chapter 10 of the Researches or Voyage of the Beagle. (Charles Darwin. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world. London: Murray. 2d ed.)
For his part, Wallace seems grateful for the pacifying effect of traders spreading Christianity and Islam, making exotic locales safe for collectors/travelers like himself. He was mildly dismayed that these leading edges of civilization had not yet made as many inroads into New Guinea as he had been led to believe before his arrival. Still, he manages to establish his own version of Conrad's “Outpost of Progress” in one of the few places where it was “safe to reside among them”
Having been for three months the sole European inhabitant of the vast island of New Guinea, I trust a few notes of my visit may prove interesting, in the absence of much definite information as to that remote and imperfectly known country. Even at Macassar, Amboyna, and Ternate, whence a considerable trade is carried on with the north-western coasts and adjacent islands, I could learn nothing, except about one or two spots which had been visited by my informants; and even as regards them, the points on which I was most interested had seldom been inquired into. I was led to believe there were several places where the natives had been sufficiently in communication with Mahommedan and European traders to render it safe to reside among them. I have now ascertained, however, that there is on the main land only one such place, viz., Dorey; where more than thirty years ago the inhabitants were found by Lesson and Duperrey to be quiet and inoffensive. According to the best information I have been able to obtain, there are at the present time absolutely no other inhabitants than the native Papuans over the whole of this great island. Not a single Malay, or Bugis, or Ceramese settlement exists, though several are scattered over the outlying islands; the principal being at Salwatty, a large island, forming the apparent north-west extremity of New Guinea, from which it is separated by a very narrow strait. The statement often found on maps that New Guinea is ‛inhabited by Papuans and Malays,’ is therefore incorrect....
At the village of Dorey I built a rough jungle-house, in which I resided for three months, occupying myself (in the intervals of fever) with exploring the natural history of the surrounding district.
Wallace, A. R. 1860. Notes of a voyage to New Guinea. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 30: 172-177. Read, June 27, 1859. http://wallace-online.org/content/frameset?pageseq=1&itemID=S051&viewtype=image
Unlike the wealthy Darwin, Wallace’s roots were in the working class and he was a working Naturalist who supported himself and finance his travels through his writing and collecting specimen for collectors, museums, and wealthy amateurs with the cheerful dispassion of any collector of human crania.
Having spent nine months in a district where the Mias is most abundant, and having devoted much time and attention to the subject, I wish to give some account of my observations and collections, and particularly to record their bearing on the question of how many species are yet known from Borneo.
I have altogether examined the bodies of seventeen freshly killed Orangs, all but one shot by myself. Of eleven of these I have preserved the skins, either in spirits or dried. Of seven I have perfect skeletons, and of the remainder the skulls; and of all, the sex, colour and other external peculiarities were accurately noted at the time, as well as all the principal dimensions. I have besides two other skeletons and two skulls, the sex and external characters of which are determined on the authority of Europeans or natives who saw them when freshly killed. Of this extensive series sixteen are fully adult, and their skulls are therefore strictly comparable with each other, nine of them being males and seven females. They were moreover all obtained in a very limited tract of country watered by the same small river and of very uniform physical features. We may therefore assume, unless the contrary can be supported by the very strongest evidence, that the male and female specimens are sexes of the same species, whether they be one or more.
(Wallace, A. R. 1856. On the Orang-utan or Mias of Borneo. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (ser. 2) 17 (102): 471-476. http://wallace-online.org/content/frameset?pageseq=1&itemID=S024&viewtype=text
John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (http://wallace-online.org/)
The Preface of Wallace’s Malay Archipelago describes in more detail the motivations and results of his expeditions:
MY readers will naturally ask why I have delayed writing this book for six years after my return; and I feel bound to give them full satisfaction on this point.
When I reached England in the spring of 1862, I found myself surrounded by a room full of packing-cases, containing the collections that I had from time to time sent home for my private use. These comprised nearly three thousand bird-skins, of about a thousand species; and at least twenty thousand beetles and butterflies, of about seven thousand species; besides some quadrupeds and land-shells. A large proportion of these I had not seen for years; and in my then weak state of health, the unpacking, sorting, and arranging of such a mass of specimens occupied a long time....
My journeys to the various islands were regulated by the seasons and the means of conveyance. I visited some islands two or three times at distant intervals, and in some cases had to make the same voyage four times over....
As the main object of all my journeys was to obtain specimens of natural history, both for my private collection and to supply duplicates to museums and amateurs, I will give a general statement of the number of specimens I collected, and which reached home in good condition. I must premise that I generally employed one or two, and sometimes three Malay servants to assist me; and for nearly half the time had the services of an English lad, Charles Allen. I was just eight years away from England, but as I travelled about fourteen thousand miles within the Archipelago, and made sixty or seventy separate journeys, each involving some preparation and loss of time, I do not think that more than six years were really occupied in collecting.
I find that my Eastern collections amounted to:
310 specimens of Mammalia.
100 — Reptiles.
8,050 — Birds.
7,500 — Shells.
13,100 — Lepidoptera.
83,200 — Coleoptera.
13,400 — other Insects.
125,660 specimens of natural history.
Wallace, A. R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature. London: Macmillan and Co. Volume 1.
Wallace was able to make his observations and support himself precisely because of a global trade in ‘exotic” animals and plants existed to supply the European market with specimen for Natural History collections. It is certainly true that Darwin’s opportunity to develop his view of Life came as a result of the the British Admiralty’s desire for knowledge of the Earth and a description of the globe. Moreover, Darwin’s participation in A Manual of Scientific Enquiry says as much about his relationship to imperial power as his earlier five year voyage on the HMS Beagle.
Although a number of natural historians had prepared concise instructional booklets for their collectors before 1849, A Manual of Scientific Enquiry marked a unification of science in the service of the British Empire. Eschewing disciplinary specialization, the Royal Navy expected their men to collect anything that might further imperial and scientific expansion. Coral, plants, tidal recordings, meteorological data, “medical statistics,” and even ethnological observations would all make imperial holdings legible and their contents—human or not—more easily fixable into modalities of scientific order centered in growing public museums, gardens, zoos, and libraries. Bringing together the writing of men like William Whewell (1794–1866), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and Richard Owen (1804–1892) and edited by the polymath John Herschel (1792–1871), the instructional book spelled out the objects deemed important to the advancement of imperial science.
(Elaine Ayers. 2018 ‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire. May 26, 2018.
John Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, first edition (London: John Murray, 1849), via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/NHM19639.)
But evolutionary concepts do not owe their existence to Darwin. He was one of a long line of materialists, as was his contemporary, Karl Marx. For example, materialist notions of evolutionary change were described by the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius in Book V of his Rerum natura, long before the era of modern imperialism.
Moreover, one should not forget those whose works offered a deeply radical understanding of Darwin, such as Peter Kropotkin, e. g., Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:
Consequently I thought that a book, written on Mutual Aid as a Law of Nature and a factor of evolution, might fill an important gap. When Huxley issued, in 1888, his ‛Struggle-for-life’ manifesto (Struggle for Existence and its Bearing upon Man), which to my appreciation was a very incorrect representation of the facts of Nature, as one sees them in the bush and in the forest, I communicated with the editor of the Nineteenth Century, asking him whether he would give the hospitality of his review to an elaborate reply to the views of one of the most prominent Darwinists; and Mr. James Knowles received the proposal with fullest sympathy. I also spoke of it to W. Bates. ‛Yes, certainly; that is true Darwinism,’ was his reply. ‛It is horrible what 'they' have made of Darwin. Write these articles, and when they are printed, I will write to you a letter which you may publish.’ Unfortunately, it took me nearly seven years to write these articles, and when the last was published, Bates was no longer living. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1902/mutual-aid/index.htm
And the geographer Elisee Reclus:
During the Siege of Paris (1870–1871) Reclus served in the National Guard. During this period he published articles in support of the Paris Commune. He was arrested on 5th April, 1871. Found guilty of offences against the government, in November he was sentenced to be deported to New Caledonia for life. After international pressure, from scientists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, this was changed in January 1872 to perpetual banishment from France.
and in critical works like Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Max Horkheimer’s essay “The Revolt of Nature.” Moreover, Alfred Russell Wallace’s embrace of socialism is often ignored or treated with a wink and a nod.
More famously and importantly in the history of science, anti-evolutionary naturalists such as Georges Cuvier greatly profited from the expansion of French imperial power. In Cuvier’s case, dispatching his students and surrogates to join Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and later putting the seized relics and specimen to use in defending biblical authority, the fixity of species, the superiority of Europeans, and his theory of catastrophism. It was Cuvier, and not Darwin, who dissected Saartjie Baartman and used the authority granted by his pioneering insights into comparative anatomy – and by the State – to declared her more gorilla than human. And it was Darwin’s polygenist opponents who dissected the first gorilla brought to the United States and declared its’ appearance to be more Negroid than European (Savage, Thomas S. 1847. “Notice of the External Characteristics and Habits of Troglodytes Gorilla, A New Species of Orang from the Gaboon River (Osteology of the Same by Jeffries Wyman).” Boston Journal of Natural History, 5:417–442.) Of course, this has been covered in my Until Darwin and the genealogy of evolutionary theory with its many permutations is not the point of the DW article, nor is there much interest in situating Darwinism within its social context – and so dubious associations and the prejudices of the present era are left unexamined.
Another theme that runs through the DW article, is the need for some sort of reconciliation of evolutionary theory and religious faith. The reconciliation is variously presented as:
1] Within the thinking of the believer (non-believers are noticeably absent from this discussion):
“Stenger told DW. ‛The teacher said to me: As a scientist, I know this cannot be true. How can I bring science and religion together?’”
2] Between two fundamentally different modes of producing knowledge and technologies of authority:
….But how can creation and evolution be reconciled in Islam?.... Abdulkader Tayob, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Cape Town, has also thought a lot about how faith and evolution can be reconciled. “The belief of many Muslims, like many Jews and Christians, is that God created everything out of an absolute will and that man is, so to speak, the pinnacle of creation,” he told DW....” “Many people believe that this idea is compromised by evolutionary theory.”
3] Or so that each of us is altered in order allow each to recognize the other:
Individual Islamic scholars have already commented on these issues, but a genuine debate on ways to unite faith and evolution does not yet exist in the Islamic world, says Tayob. “What the story of creation means to tell us is that God is at the beginning of creation,” says Stenger. “Science is able to tell us this in more detail, which is why the theory of evolution is very important.....”
In all three instances, there is a certain faith in the eventual suspension of historical and ideological antagonisms. At no point is there any suggestion that science and religion might be asking different questions in the pursuit of different goals. At the same time, what united the three notions of reconciliation is the implicit demand that science be put to work proving the existence of divinity/design. This was, of course, the very basis of the relation of Theology, Natural History and Natural Philosophy: the systems of knowledge in the colonial/imperial era before Darwin. Religion retains a coercive force in the form of desire and settled meanings. Systems of knowledge can not be entirely erased. Indeed, a recent survey of Scientists in eight countries and regions indicates that the perception of hostility between scientists and religious believers is overstated.
....it is important to acknowledge that at the individual level and from the perspective of scientists’ themselves, science does not appear to have a secularizing effect on scientists…. In the US, for example, where 67 percent of the general population compared to 30 percent of scientists identify as religious, only one-third of scientists view the science-religion relationship as one of conflict.
Elaine Howard Ecklund, David R. Johnson, Christopher P. Scheitle, Kirstin R. W. Matthews, and Steven W. Lewis. September 1, 2016. “Religion among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions.” Socius. https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023116664353
[NOTE: On the notion that religion has hindered the development of science, see “Science and Religion in the Early Middle Ages” (https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/science-and-religion-in-the-early-middle-ages/ ) and other blog posts by Thony Christie ( @RMathematicus https://twitter.com/rmathematicus ]
The question of a reconciliation should include the acknowledgment that for many scientists themselves, there is not real conflict. This is a different light with which to illuminate science in the context of it social relations.
So there is no conclusion to this summary of some critical observations. The questions raised by DW, its viewers/commentators, and in this blog are not closed off, nor are the possible interpretations of the conflicting ideologies that emerge from the DW series and article. Perhaps evolutionary theory can not be reconciled with religion. We do see that attitudes about religion and science in general – and evolutionary theory in particular – vary greatly. Such extensive variation would no doubt have made Darwin smile. The existence of a wide range of attitudes is as true for Africa as it is for the non-African countries that were surveyed: and some African countries have more in common with the United States than with each other. In fact, the dispute over Lucy/Dinknesh highlights the problems that arise when we use these geographical notions to describe and categorize either human origins or modern politics.
The utopian reconciliation of evolution with the doctrines of Christianity and Islam would be the reconciliation of ideologies with genealogies that intersect during the period of colonialism. To the degree that this might be correct, then shouldn’t we ask if such a reconciliation is at all desirable? One wonders how any such reconciliation would advance emancipation from colonialism, or free scientific inquiry from the demands of faith, or promote a general freedom from the confines of dogma.
In the end, the question is not whether Lucy/Dinknesh is human, nor is it a matter of simply measuring the degree to which she can be classified as “African” and what is excluded from this category. Darwin long ago argued that there is no one moment when one can make the division between consciousness and non-consciousness in living organisms:
It has, I think, now been shewn that man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations,—similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude, and magnanimity; they practise deceit and are revengeful; they are sometimes susceptible to ridicule, and even have a sense of humour; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas, and reason, though in very different degrees....
(Darwin, C. R. 1874. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray. 2d ed.; tenth thousand. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F944&viewtype=text&pageseq=1 )
There is no moment when you can say that this is a human and that ancestor is not. Differences are evident, but only become clear by looking back over the long archaeological, linguistic, and genetic past that resulted in the humans that we are, varied and yet deeply the same. To the degree that we accept Lucy/Dinknesh as one of our ancestors, we also tacitly acknowledge that she processed some degree of sentience/consciousness and thus we would have to admit that there is some similarity between us, but is this the only consideration animating the discussion? Is there another that follows from it that makes us even more uncomfortable than the premise that humans have changed over time? This new question arises now: why don’t we extend the same considerations, and legal rights, to primates, mammals, and other animals? We are manifestly nothing special except in terms of the ecological harm we cause, and ironically we do so knowing that we will suffer by our own hand the same end as any of the other species that we continue to drive from the face of the Earth. From the perspective of an Ape, humans no doubt appear arbitrary and savage – an altogether intelligent assessment.
Darwin did not the Fuegians, and they appear at the end of the Descent of Man where he addresses the feelings of those who might be offended by the idea that we have descended from a common ancestor:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly-organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon, who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.