On November 19, 2018, Holly Dunsworth wrote the essay below and posted it on her blog, The Mermaid’s Tale. This piece was reposted with her consent by the Evolution Institute (along with an interview, which you can watch here), and again here at PLOS SciComm. In the meantime, Dr. Dunsworth received an overwhelming amount of feedback and we asked her to provide additional commentary and context at the end of her essay as a response to the feedback, both positive and negative.–JMO
By Holly Dunsworth, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Rhode Island
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 educators—even if sticking to E.coli, fruit flies, or sticklebacks—must 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: http://humanorigins.si.edu/education/teaching-evolution-through-human-examples.
Guide students in composing scientifically sourced and scientifically accurate 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
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.
*Articles marked with an asterisk are available open access. If for some reason you cannot access them, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the pdf.
Click here and scroll to the end to “Additional Resources of Relevance” where you’ll find a very long list of links.
To join a community of anthropologists and historians on Twitter who engage with these issues (as practitioners in these disciplines long have), follow @Anthrofuentes @jontheanthroman @robingnelson @tarbosaur @ProfessorHamlin @elmilam @TinaLasisi @NinaJablonski1 @lancegravlee @patrick_clarkin, @APV2600 @Rebecca_M_Dean etc…
Additional Commentary and Context
Folks who believe that science does support sexism, racism, etc and want the world to accept their version of reality (which I do not) did not like my essay. Folks who did not read my essay as an entire thought, jumped to wild conclusions, and thus did not like my essay. Folks who did not value my expertise or my particular lived experience as an evolutionary scientist, scholar, and educator did not like my essay. Folks who thought I was attacking science did not like my essay. Facing the mistakes and the mistaken interpretations of both good and bad science is the best way to go forward excellently in science and education. Claims that I am arguing in favor of biased science and biased interpretations of science (rather than against them) are deeply mistaken.
I was fully aware that my essay would provoke thought and discussion, disagreement, and definitely defensive feelings as well. Unfortunately my prerogative, and perhaps my use of terms like “patriarchy” and “misogyny,” triggered folks into rejecting the ideas outright, apparently by lumping them with certain specific extreme ideologies, including those that are anti-science and anti-intellectual. I wish none of the issues I raised were partisan, but unfortunately these things have become partisan to many spectators and, worse, to many scientists and educators themselves. Fortunately, that has not been the majority reaction so far.
For over 150 years we’ve seen people apply their personal variant of “evolution” toward harmful beliefs and behaviors towards others who are different from them, and it’s unacceptable. Evolutionary scientists, educators, journalists, writers, and everyone they influence are perpetually writing humanity’s shared origins story, so it’s imperative that those with great influence make it worthy of every single person, should folks wish to claim it or even maybe to find meaning in it like so many already do (like I do).
How do we do this? More people need to understand the difference between the facts and the stories we tell about those facts. Evolutionary science is history. One powerful way to facilitate that understanding is by increasing diversity in the fact makers and the storytellers, to demonstrate how different perspectives lead to different questions and different answers, both contributing to new discoveries and different stories. In one fell swoop, then, science is stronger and our origins story is more inclusive. Win win.
There’s a saying, or there used to be, among evolutionary scientists that there’s so much heated debate in the field because the stakes are so low, as compared to among medical researchers, for example. But somewhere along the way I realized that’s just not right. This is our roots we’re talking about. Evolutionary biology is not “just science.”
If fighting against the encroachment of creationism in science classes didn’t clue us all into understanding the significance of origins stories, and that this is more than “just science,” then maybe confronting the bad science, bias, and prejudices that have long alienated folks from their own natural history will.
Holly Dunsworth is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island where she studies human and primate evolution. Her research rules! Read about it here.