Science raises its voice against ignorant racism
Exhibition aims to use education about human origins to destroy myths around superficial physical differences
Many people still cling to the divisive belief that genetic differences in people justify racism, despite 200,000 years of scientific evidence that proves them wrong.
The belief that skin colour and facial features indicate some hierarchy of intelligence, moral fibre, degree of civility or all-round better-quality human is pure bunkum, and scientists in SA are out to debunk it.
Prof Robert Blumenschine, chief scientist at the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (Past), says physical differences among humans evolved purely as an adaptation to environments and are caused by a tiny fraction of genes. Genetically speaking, the molecular sequences comprising the genomes of any two people are 99.9% alike.
"It’s only within the last 1% of the 6-million to 7-million year journey of humankind that racial differences between Africans, Europeans, Asians and people from other regions began to emerge," Blumenschine says.
"Typically, the way racism and xenophobia are combated is through political rhetoric, which is very easy to dismiss, especially if you are not of the same political persuasion....
"The scientific angle has been largely missing from the political discourse that’s going on around the world, and it’s fundamentally important for people to have this basic understanding of our shared origin."
Understanding a few basic scientific facts can make people question long-held assumptions that because someone looks different they have very little in common, when in fact people are almost identical, he says.
To spread the message, Past is mounting an exhibition at The Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng to prove humans are "All From One" by explaining genetics and vast similarities.
It’s only within the last 1% of the 6-million to 7-million year journey of humankind that racial differences between Africans, Europeans, Asians and people from other regions began to emerge
The exhibition is supported by a short piece of physical theatre called Walking Tall, which covers evolution and shows how skin colour is a clever survival tactic. While the target audience is children, the play has been adapted for adults and presented at companies and government offices.
Human DNA contains four different kinds of molecules in a 3.2-billion molecular chain. In every person’s 22,000 genes, the molecular sequence is 99.9% alike.
"Genetic code is like a book for each individual, made up of words made up of letters," Blumenschine explains. "Instead of 26 letters of the alphabet there are only four letters, and the words are very long for each gene, with thousands of those four letters in a particular sequence. So if you compare any two books their stories are extremely similar except for one different letter in 1,000."
Humans’ first upright, walking ancestors appeared between 6-million and 7-million years ago and Homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago. Only in the past 50,000 to 60,000 years did some human ancestors start to expand beyond Africa, triggering the evolution of skin colour and features. It took hundreds of generations and 3,000 to 5,000 years to occur, but it started with individuals.
Lighter skin emerged in the European population as the sunlight there is weaker and it’s difficult for dark skin to produce essential Vitamin D. People with a mutated gene that gave them lighter skin had an advantage, so that gene was more likely to be passed on to the next generation. After hundreds of generations the whole population sported light skin.
Facial features and hair texture also evolved as a direct response to different climates, says Blumenschine. In cold climates a narrow nose is an advantage as it increases the volume of the nasal cavity, so air is warmed and humidified before it reaches the lungs.
Likewise, the coiled hair of Africans allows ventilation across the scalp to cool the brain and aid the evaporation of sweat, which also has a cooling effect. In a cold land, where heat loss is a problem, straight hair acts like a blanket to insulate heads.
"All these physical traits that we use to define races are simple adaptations to different environmental conditions that our species encountered as it expanded around the globe from Africa," says Blumenschine.
"The genes that control those traits have nothing to do with the functioning of the many other genes that determine our other capabilities, like intelligence and athletic abilities."
Despite the widespread misconception that there are biological grounds to support discrimination, race is an invalid biological concept, he says.
"An amazing amount of people think because of their skin colour they are privileged and biologically superior, or they feel their skin colour will always mean they are inferior."
Children who watch Walking Tall learn that skin colour is simply a genetic adaptation, and they feel incredibly liberated to discover there is nothing inherently inferior about it, he says.
These false racial categories continue to cause immense damage, but if more people understood that there was no biological difference they would be more ready to accept non-racial policies, he believes. "We think we are making a difference by providing another argument in favour of nonracialism."
The US-born palaeontologist has conducted research in Africa since 1978 and joined Past when he took early retirement. One of the organisation’s goals is to train and fund more local scientists and researchers so that Africans can become global leaders in the study of human ancestry, which is appropriate given that mankind originated in Africa.
The trust is playing a critical role by giving grants to senior researchers and postgraduate students who are studying palaeontology or similar fields.
To make a long-term difference, however, the education process needs to start at a much earlier level. This is why Walking Tall was developed to be performed at schools.
"There’s a huge need for programmes such as ours to try to get kids in SA interested in science and appreciative of the origins that are so well documented in their country," Blumenschine says.
But it’s difficult, because until 1994 the apartheid government banned the teaching of evolution because even a basic understanding of human origins shows a common ancestry that directly contradicts divisive apartheid policies.
Many teachers who went to school during apartheid never learned about evolution and are ill-equipped to teach it properly. That’s one reason why so many schools ask Past to perform Walking Tall in their classrooms time and again, so teachers and children alike can learn that we are All From One.