Click-Bait Headlines On A New Evolution Study Is Fodder For White Supremacists
Two popular science stories claim explosive new evidence that humans originated in Europe… That is far from the truth.
Back in 1912, when European scientists were grappling with the theory of evolution and evidence that the earliest humans came from the African savannas, a man named Charles Dawson claimed to have found the bones of a new ancestor. He would go on to call it Piltdown Man, and for more than four decades, experts tried to purge it in vain from the human family tree in textbooks and museums, realizing it was all an elaborate hoax. Far from an early hominid, Piltdown Man was a human skull with an orangutan jaw lined with chimpanzee teeth. But why did it take so long for the truth to win out, and why were the critics sidelined until the 1950s?
Well, partially because a popular early hunch at the time expected our brain to grow in size before a switch in diet, so the modern looking skull wasn’t a big surprise. But the “fossil” held on to its place in the halls of science after that idea was shown to lack merit thanks to good, old-fashioned racism. For all their devotion to the facts, scientists are fallible humans, and no human is immune from prejudices. In the heyday of racial science, the world was ruled by empires who often justified their colonialism by declaring that they were simply helping the less evolved savages with their enlightened rule.
Being able to point to a fossil of an all-European human ancestor, instead of having to acknowledge that humanity came out of the “Dark Continent” and were genetic siblings to the people eugenicists were furiously busy painting as lesser, sub-human species, helped soothe nervous racists of the time. This most certainly played a major part in why various debunkings of the Piltdown Man bones were more or less ignored by the scientists who could make a skeptical investigation into the find a priority. By the 1950s, a preponderance of evidence made keeping the Piltdown discovery on the record look unreasonable.
And this was always the problem with so-called “race science.” It was never about studying the differences in humanity and finding out why they existed. It was created by bigots with an agenda to prove that they were superior to all other ethnic groups and thus fit to rule them, if not own them as property. And it existed for many decades before the theory of evolution was accepted as a valid science. It used and abused everything from lumps thought to be on and inside of skulls, to the shapes of people’s faces to justify their stance on anyone too dark or too foreign for their tastes.
Though we tell ourselves the soothing lie that this kind of pseudoscience is dead and gone, exorcized like the other terrible ghosts of our past, the truth is that it’s far from buried. It lives on through small, low quality studies with obvious cherry-picking, and large analyses which pretend that there are no income or educational inequalities from a long history of discrimination. Or insists that these concerns were perfectly remedied and systemic racism no longer exists for “insert implausible, simplistic reason here.”
Over the decades and through countless experiments, we’ve learned that just about everything that racial supremacists think about genes, intellect, athletic ability, and the best course for human reproduction is pretty much the exact opposite of how the real world works. Far from making us better off as a species, their advice would actually leave us vulnerable and inbred, and make it much easier for the next climate disaster or massive epidemic to send us down the road to extinction.
Basically, listening to someone who supports racial junk science is kind of like listening to an astrologist who thinks he finally figured out how to read the stars after many years of failure, but he’s also sure the stars say he’s a superior celestial being and should be in charge of all you lesser beasts. And the stars never really seem to change their mind about that according to his friends, who also just so happen to be astral ubermensch.
This is one of the reasons why editors of science columns need to be very mindful of how the headlines they write might be perceived. A good example is the case with two stories about fossilized footprints found of what might be an early human ancestor on the Greek island of Crete. Both declare that the finding means humans may have evolved in Europe, not Africa, which is a huge gimme to the racist pseudoscience to which the alt-right subscribes, and also a massive leap to conclusions that wildly overstates the study’s implications.
Considering that we have substantial genetic data to trace our evolution, a few footprints of one of the several species of upright biped leave far too many unanswered questions about where they fit in the family tree. Were they our actual ancestors or just another hominid species? Did they evolve in Europe and stay there? Did they migrate to Africa? Or did they evolve in Africa and migrate to Europe? Can we trace their lineage to see if they fit into the evolutionary story that ended with the earliest modern humans in North Africa some 195,000, and even possibly 300,000 years ago?
To its credit, the study itself makes no such grand claims and bases the idea that the footprints are hominid solely on morphology. It also references an older humanoid species known from one 7.2 million year old mandible also found in Greece, and a subject of similar claims in popular science write-ups. Ultimately, the researchers say they simply don’t have enough proof to make any definitive conclusions and mark it down as curious evidence that needs a lot more study and context, warning against jumping into rewriting human history based on a single jaw and some footprints.
They’re right to urge caution, especially since they rely on morphology, or in science-speak, detailing what things look like. Noting visual similarities is useful, but very limited, especially when we have reams of genetic data we collected over the last few decades. Since sharing genes is a much stronger and more reliable indicator of heredity than visuals from reconstructions of fossil remains, we can use them to help answer the question of how Homo sapiens sapiens, our exact sub-species, came to be and what it should call its home. So far, all evidence points to Africa.
In fact, Africans have far greater genetic variety than Europeans. The farther we get from the continent, the less diversity we see in genetic data, which is a very strong sign of fanning out from a primary population during waves of migration more than likely driven by climate change over the course of some 120,000 years. This doesn’t rule out the various early hominids wandering the Greek islands as their evolutionary relatives roamed from modern day Kenya to Chad, and beyond. But it does indicate that they were probably offshoots, not direct ancestors, otherwise we’d see more genetic variability in Europe, or at least find more fossil evidence of these early bipeds.
And this is why headlines touting revolutionary proof that humans evolved on a different continent than previously thought are so ill-advised. Not only do they add significance to studies that the authors don’t even try to claim, they ignore a large body of scientific work that directly contradicts the bold headlines. They’re going for clicks by claiming controversy because that’s how you turn a curious find into a must-read popular science article. But in the process, they’re sacrificing accuracy, distorting facts, and sabotaging the public’s understanding of scientific discourse on key issues.
Modern humans come from North Africa according to archeological, genetic, and morphological evidence. How our ancestors got there in the first place need not be a tidy story that fits into a straightforward narrative because it’s not like they knew or cared about borders or whether their descendants will care about their migratory paths. But until we have much stronger evidence for our species living in large numbers elsewhere more than 300,000 years ago, we’re not going to be rewriting our textbooks.
In fact, the only place where the curious discoveries in Greece are rewriting history are sloppy headlines by editors who aren’t respecting the science or the history of how such breathless sensationalism was used by some, erm… “very fine people” over the last century and will be used for the foreseeable future to justify more junk science for their malevolent agendas.