Monday, November 18, 2013

Isn’t Evolution Racist?

This will probably open a real can of worms, but…

I was listening to a program the other day on which atheist hosts were fielding questions from callers. One such caller was quite insistent that if you believe in evolution, then you must be a racist because you believe white people are more evolved than black people.

I wish I could say that this was the only time I had ever heard that statement, but it’s really only the most recent. And it betrays so much ignorance on so many levels that it’s hard to decide where to start.

I guess first I’ll start by saying, because I don’t think this can be repeated enough, that evolution is not a system of morals. It is a framework for explaining observed facts about how living things change over successive generations. That is all. It doesn’t tell you anything about what you should believe or how you should behave, it merely explains why organisms are the way they are.

That means, by the way, that accepting evolution is not a moral stance. It is an evaluation of evidence about how things are. In that sense, it’s no different than accepting gravitational theory of attraction, or the atomic theory of matter, or the germ theory of disease. So even if evolution somehow showed that one race was demonstrably inferior in every way to another, that would have absolutely nothing to do with whether it is true or not.

But happily, evolution says no such thing.

You see, the thing to realize is that there is no such thing as “more evolved.” In this sense, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we make jokes about people needing to evolve more, because it kind of gives the impression that that’s a real thing.

But the reality is that evolution is not a scale. There is no perfect end goal that evolution is striving for, and therefore no one organism can be said to be further along toward that goal than any other. There is only degree of successful adaptation to the environment – and since environments can change, what constitutes a successful adaptation is in constant flux. The whole idea of “more evolved” is actually kind of nonsense in that respect.

In our “is evolution racist?’ milieu, the translation of that is that “whiteness” is nothing more than an adaptation to a climate with less sun exposure than the relatively sun-drenched African environment where humanity originated. In no sense can it be considered “more evolved,” it’s just adapted to a different set of conditions.

Furthermore, organisms and populations are constantly evolving. In fact, literally everything that has ever lived was part of a transitional species. Just as the various hominid species were transitions between the great apes and us, we are transitions between the hominids and whatever our descendants will become in the future. Humanity is not an end product, it is merely another step. We are evolving right now.

What does this mean in terms of the racism question? It means that black people didn’t stop evolving just because the descendants of a subset of the human species became white people (or Asian people, or Native American people, or whatever distinction you want to throw on the pile). Plenty of studies show that there is tremendous genetic variation in African populations, which suggests that the evolutionary mechanism of genetic variance is quite alive and well among them. It’s just that the forms it has taken have largely been in areas other than the highly visible (yet essentially trivial) realm of skin pigmentation. Evolution is still ongoing among black people, just like it is among white people, Asian people, or whatever other people you care to name.

But these differences only really start to become significant when one part of the population is evolving in isolation from the others. African and Caucasian populations acquired differences in genetic variation because they were living in relative isolation from each other. But it was such a short timeframe (in evolutionary terms) that neither group became fundamentally different from the other (or any of the other racial types). Which means that in an era of increasing global crossover between populations, those variations become potentially part of everyone’s shared genetic legacy. And that is arguably a very good thing, because it means our descendants will have a greater wealth of genetic information to draw on to fuel adaptation to changing conditions.

Have some people used ideas about evolution to fuel racist dogma? Yes, absolutely. But in almost all cases those ideas have been based on very flawed understandings of what evolution actually says. And all such cases have been the result of tacking some other ideology onto the findings of evolutionary science. Evolution itself is not ideological. It provides facts and explanations. It tells you something about how the world operates; it does not tell you what to do about it.

So I hope that my layman’s explanation has helped to show that in no sense can any race be considered to be “more evolved” than any other. In fact, to say so is to be pretty much speaking nonsense in terms of the actual theory of evolution.

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