Race is Truly Skin Deep — Out of Africa Origin of Homo Sapiens

The evolution of humanity from the more ape like ancestors may appear to be only a scientific question. However, race and class viewpoints are intimately connected to such questions as they impact the structure of power in today’s world. For 50 years, the dominant scientific view denied an African origin of humanity — the scientists could not accept that humanity had evolved in what they saw as the “dark Continent”. It also denied that human intelligence evolved as a product of labour — that tool making came before the human brain evolved. Whole ideological bias may not be surprising in science, the surprising part was that even a deliberate fraud was committed to propagate such theories. In 1911, a fake fossil was created by using a recent human skull and a gorilla jaw and “discovered” in Sussex, England — the so-called Piltdown Man. This was then used for arguing that each of the human races evolved from the apes separately (the theory of polygeny) and intelligence appeared before tool making.

 While a fraud of this nature is unusual in science, it is the tenacity with which all contrary evidence was denied that points to the deep class and racial biases of the scientists. For nearly 50 years and in spite of mounting evidence of an African origin, no examination was made of the Piltdown fossil. Finally, during routine radio carbon dating of all exhibits in the British Museum, the Piltdown fossil was found to be a fraud, albeit an expert one. Obviously, the people that had perpetrated the fraud knew their trade well to have generated this “authentic” fossil. While the motives of those involved in the fraud can only be a matter of speculation, perhaps they were so convinced of the “correctness” of early origins for the white races that they decided to “create” evidence (if none was available). It is interesting that the possible names of those involved in the Piltdown fake include Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Teilhard De Chardin, the priest-anthropologist and the leading British anthropologists of the day.

Lest we think that racism is an old hangover in anthropology, the same debate, even though in a different form, continues till today on human origins and the evolution of the races. The recent debate centres on the evolution of the homo sapiens (genus homo, species sapiens)– or modern humanity — to which all the current races belong. While the origin of humanity is clearly proven to be African, the “multi-regional” school (or the regional continuity model) propound that the races have evolved in parallel and separately from the early proto human ancestors in different continents, though with some cross-genetic flows. Thus, the ancient human beings — the homo erectus — spread to different continents about 2 million years back and have evolved since then into the current different races. The other view — the “Out of Africa” school — believes that successive waves of hominids — the homo erectus and the homo sapiens being two of them — have radiated out of Africa at different points of time. Thus, the homo sapiens have replaced the earlier human ancestors everywhere and homo sapiens (and therefore all the races) have a single origin. Thus Neanderthals, a hominid population in Europe may have evolved out of homo erectus there, but did not survive the competition with homo sapiens and did not leave their genes in the current European population.

At first sight it may appear that this is a debate strictly for anthropologists. However, the multi-regional school has amongst its propagators, Coon, an American anthropologist, who has this twist to the evolutionary debate. In his view, though humanity had a parallel evolution in different continents, they did not evolve at the same time — the white Europeans got “sapienised” first, while the black Africans, last. While not all those belonging to the “Multi Regional” school are racists, this model undoubtedly lends itself to a racial interpretation more in line with an imperialist ideology. Coon is one of the favourite authors in white supremacists circles and therefore this is by no means an esoteric debate confined to academic circles — it is closely related to race and class oppression.
The “Out of Africa” school has used genetic evidence to date the spread of homo sapiens to different continents. The evidence indicates that homo sapiens left Africa only a 100,000 years back: this is what makes their evidence so dangerous to racist ideology. Even the most die hard racists will find difficult to sustain that there are large evolutionary differences amongst races if the African ancestors are that close in time to white Europeans (or brown Asians). The myth of Aryan race is therefore exposed for what it is — clearly a myth built to justify racial oppression and imperialism.

Soon after the Piltdown man was “discovered”, Raymond Dart in South Africa discovered the Taung skull in 1924. It showed a skull of approximately two million years that had a more human face but with a brain size similar to that of the chimpanzee. This was the precise opposite of the Piltdown skull — a brain size similar to that of modern man and an ape like face. Dart named his find the Australopithecus Africanus or the southern ape. It was a shocking discovery because it was the oldest proto human fossil found anywhere and showed that intelligence was a later development. Though other finds were reported from South Africa which showed similar features, these were all challenged or disregarded based on the evidence of the Piltdown Man. Raymond Dart was to struggle for decades and even leaving his field of study due to the hostility with which his finding were being received in his peer group.

The interesting issue regarding the Piltdown Man is not why such a fraud was committed, but why the fraud was sustained for 50 years in the face of contrary evidence. That the scientific study of the human evolution was set back by 50 years due to one lone fossil speaks clearly of the ideological underpinnings of science, particularly when it impinges on current structures of power. The evidence for an African origin did not agree with the imperialist vision of superior races. A leisured elite glorifying superior intelligence as their unique hallmark was equally dismissive of the claim of labour in shaping human evolution. Thus Engels, when he propounded the role of labour in transformation of ape to man, was also making the simple point that labour and tool making abilities set humanity apart — and it is this quality that is the driving force of evolution. The brain was the product and not the driving force of evolution. A view that was anathema to a class divided society built on the exploitation of labour. The Piltdown Man was their answer — it “showed” that human intelligence developed before the two legged stance and the races had separated long back –the white races had evolved into superior beings.

The treatment of the Piltdown fraud in the history of science is also interesting. While all concerned books mention the fraud, very few mention even in passing why such a fraud was perpetrated and why was it sustained against all evidence. It was held to be an aberration in the history of science and an isolated incident. The same authors of course will spend reams of paper in decrying the role of Lysenko and ideology in Soviet Science. While Lysenko was undoubtedly a mistake in Soviet science, the even greater role of racist and class ideology in study of human evolution is passed over in silence. It was this anthropological theory of race origins combined with a pseudo Darwinian view of “survival of the fittest” that was used to justify the genocide of indigenous Americans, Africans and the Jews. As Africans and indigenous Americans were “inferior species,”  therefore they could be exterminated. Hitler’s contribution was only extending it to the Jewish population. All other elements were already in place before Hitler, sustained by so-called “scientific evidence”.

After the fall of the Piltdown Man, all anthropologists accepted Africa and Dart’s finds. It is ironic that while Dart was establishing the pre-eminence of Africa in human evolution, South Africa his adopted country, was embarking on the worst form of racial oppression. Dart remained a life long foe of apartheid and an ardent supporter of human rights in South Africa.

The next important fossil discovery was that of the skeleton of “Lucy” in 1974. She was still considered as a part of the ape family and named Australopithecus afarensis as she was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Here finally was the smoking gun evidence that walking preceded the evolution of the brain. Her brain size was similar to that of the chimpanzee but she was fully bipedal — she walked on two legs. Here was the final evidence that laid to rest the ghost of the Piltdown Man. It was clear that intelligence evolved after our proto human ancestors took to walking and using their hands for tool making, much in the same way that Engels had proposed. Engels was wrong only about the mechanism of evolution — he thought that acquired characteristics can be inherited — he was a Lamarckian. The correct Darwinian position is that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited — the process of evolution is much slower as nature does her weeding — the survival of the fittest proceeds with only small genetic mutations or changes.

The fossil record can be open to various interpretations. However, molecular biology and genetic studies has now become a powerful tool in piecing together the evolutionary history of the homo sapiens. We have now evidence that chimpanzees and homo sapiens are closely related, sharing a common ancestor only about 5 to 7 million years ago. In fact, we are closer to the chimpanzees in genetic terms then the chimpanzees are to the gorillas — the genetic difference is only 1.7% between homo sapiens and chimpanzees while that between the gorillas and the chimpanzees are about 3.5%. The degree of separation can be used to plot when the species separated and thus construct a timetable of evolution. From this we can see that we share a kinship with chimpanzees and gorillas that is much closer than their kinship with the other members of the ape family. The earlier view that the human ancestors separated from the apes long back has changed radically in the 80’s with this new genetic evidence.

The interesting development was that the Lucy find confirmed what molecular biology was telling us. Here was a species that was between the apes and humans and was there about three million years back. Clearly, her species had been walking for quite some time to evolve all the features necessary. Thus the break with the apes being only about five million years back was strikingly confirmed with fossil and genetic evidence. It also confirmed Darwin’s prediction that the human ancestor would be found in Africa, as all our closest kin — the higher apes are in Africa.

The cradle of humanity being Africa was too clearly established to be challenged further. First the fossil record of homo habilis, and then homo erectus, clearly the ancestors of the homo sapiens was discovered in Africa. Many of the finds came from Olduvai gorge in Tanzania and were dated to about 2.5 million years. The Leakey’s  — husband and wife and now their son have been excavating the fossil record there. Finally, the genus homo, of which sapiens is one of the species had arrived in the fossil record.

 It was no longer possible to dismiss the African origin of human kind. However, racism did not give up anthropology that easily. Thus, the next debate was to date the homo sapiens and their evolution. It is now established that homo erectus population used stone tools and moved into Asia about a million years back, possibly even earlier. The Neanderthals are an evolution that took place in Europe about 500,000 years back. In the multi regional model, the entire homo population moved in the direction of homo sapiens continuously, with some inter mixing — the Neanderthal genes therefore would still be present in the European population. Thus, the picture that this school presents is one of directed evolution taking place simultaneously in all the continents. In this model, the divergences of the races are not recent but date back at least a million years.

While a number of reputed anthologists hold to this view of human evolution, this would make human population the exception than the rule in evolutionary history. Almost all evolutionary record of other species is different. One species arises and replaces others — rarely do species evolve lock step and in a continuum. The Out of Africa model therefore is more in tune with general evolutionary history of all other species. In this theory, Homo sapiens have evolved 200,000 to 300,000 years back in Africa. They spread to the Eurasian continent only 100,000 years back. There are three bits of genetic evidence that Out of Africa model presents. One is that genetic divergence in African population is much more than any other — this indicates that the other population groups have separated out from a common population much later. The second and third are two separate reconstruction of the time of the origin of the first male and female of the species. This has been done by studying the distinct genetic markers that are inherited from either the mother or the father. There is some genetic material that is exclusively passed on by the mother; similarly there is some genetic material that is inherited exclusively from the father. Both these exercises yield the same order of date — the original “Eve” and the original “Adam” date back to about 200,000 years. They certainly do not go back a million years as required by the “multi regional” model.
As happens in science, the convergence of evidence from diverse fields is a strong confirmation of a theory. In a recent study, the fossils of the Java Man — a set of homo erectus fossils found in Java — were tested for age. The results are remarkable — the earliest fossil was found to be about 1.8 million years old pushing back the date of the homo erectus emigration from Africa by almost a million years.  And the newest was found to be only 30,000 to 50,000 years old — a complete blow to the regional continuity model that the homo erectus continuously evolved into the current human population. The Out of Africa model —  that the homo erectus population did not evolve into homo sapiens but were replaced by them — appears to be again confirmed

The long shadow of scientific racism still haunts anthropology. In other disciplines too, such as psychometrics and evolutionary biology, attempts are made to find racial differences and propose genetic differences as the cause. This was one of Edward Wilson’s theories and important to his socio-biology. If the races have evolved from each other so closely in time, then their physical differences are exactly what they are — physical differences to adapt to climatic variations. Nothing further can be read into them. An Out of Africa theory undermines one of the major tenets of imperialism — the white races are superior and therefore rule the world. The truth, bitterly contested but still the truth, shows that races have little to do with innate human differences: they are just local adaptations to a hot or cold climate. Race is truly skin-deep.