The history of human evolution has always been deeply tainted by the politics of race. Initially, the reigning anthropologists argued that the races were virtually different species, descended independently from the apes — the thesis of multiple origins of human kind. When this was found to be not tenable, they argued that the races had separated in the distant past and therefore had large differences — the white races therefore could be superior even if it had a common origin with other races. The attempt, of course, is to reflect through so called scientific theories the current structure of racial dominance and provide a legitimisation of imperialism. However, some recent findings in dating of the Java Man, a fossil of human ancestors found in Java, has put another nail in the coffin of such racial theorising.
The Java Man is a well known fossil of a human ancestor. It was thought to be about a million years old and one of the earliest such example found outside Africa. However, a recent attempt to use more precise dating of the Java Man and a group of fossils found near the original Java Man site and thought to be equally old, has come up with completely different dates. The earliest fossil is now thought to be 1.8 million years old, pushing back the emigration of the human ancestors out of Africa at least by another million years. However, the dating of the other fossils indicate that the some variant of the Java Man lived here till about 30,000 to 50,000 years back.
These dates a problem for the model of anthropological theory that believes that the races separated a million years back and have independently evolved into the current races. In this scheme, known as the regional continuity model, though the races have a common African origin — the proto human homo erectus — they have evolved continuously over the last million years into the current races. To explain the large similarities in the genetic makeup of all races, they have argued that there have been some inter mixing and consequent genetic flows between the races. In other words, the regional continuity model accepts that there could be large differences between the races and also suggests that the Java Man would have evolved into the current Javanese population. Obviously, a static Java Man poses a serious problem for this theory.
The other school, known as Out of Africa school, have shown through genetic evidence that modern man or homo sapiens, evolved in Africa about 250,000 years back and have replaced other species such as the Java Man and the Neanderthals in this period. Thus, the Java man did not evolve into the current Javanese population but was replaced by the more advanced homo sapiens. A population of homo erectus that did not evolve for nearly 2 million years is of course another piece of evidence for the Out of Africa School and quite damning for the regional continuity model.
There is a view of science as an objective enterprise divorced from the social realities. While this is largely true for the natural sciences, it is quite different in scientific areas that impact the current structures of power. Colonialism from 16th century onwards committed large scale racial genocide. The original population of America — both north and south — was decimated. Columbus’s landing in the Bahamas is counted as a great human achievement and lauded in the history books. What is not mentioned is that in a scant hundred years, the entire estimated half a million Haitian population living then was brutally slaughtered. A similar fate followed the indigenous people all over the Americas. Similarly, an estimated 80 million were killed or shipped out of Africa as slaves in the 350 years that African slave trade lasted. It was the loot of India and the slave trade from Africa that provided the initial capital for the industrial revolution in Britain. While initially, religion was used to justify such slaughter of the “non believers”, from the 19th century, science was increasingly asked to play the same role. Thus, the 19th century saw the rise of “scientific” racism in which it was argued using “scientific” data that the white races were superior and therefore was the “fittest” in the Darwinian sense. Racial genocide now had the sanction of science.
Lest we think that such racial theories were scientific aberrations, we must note that this was the dominant view of almost all the leading anthropologists and anatomists of the day. Brocca, Huxley, Cuvier, the leading lights of their times, all subscribed to the views that the black races were closer to the chimpanzees than the Caucasians. Even Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution, was not uncomfortable with the extinction of the Negro and the indigenous Australian population. Matt Cartmill, a leading American anthropolgist, in a recent article in the magazine Discover summed this up as “Many scientists (of that period) regarded the native people of Africa, Autralia and the New World as living fossils: leftovers from the earlier stages, doomed by Nature’s iron laws of competition to go down to extinction with the Tasmanian wolf and the Tasminian aborgines.” In other words, racial genocide was simply nature’s law — this was the implicit argument of scientific racism. As Africans and indigenous Americans were “inferior species,” therefore they could be exterminated. Hitler’s contribution was only extending this logic to the Jewish population. All other elements were already in place before Hitler, sustained by so called the “science” of race.
The acceptance of an African origin for humanity was not without a bitter struggle. Raymond Dart, the anthropologist who had discovered the first proto human fossils in Africa, had at one point given up anthropology in the face of bitter hostility from the then reigning anthropological establishment. In an attempt to delay the acceptance of an African origin, an anathema to the prevailing scientific orthodoxy, even a deliberate fraud was committed. The Piltdown Man, a fake fossil “found” in England, was used to deny an African origin. Only after it was exposed as a fake, did the scientists accept the overwhelming evidence for an African origin.
Eve though the opposition to African origin had to be given up, the new argument that came up is that while the human ancestors came from Africa, the races separated about a million years back and have evolved continuously since then from the early human ancestors into modern man everywhere. In the regional continuity model, the entire homo population moved in the direction of homo sapiens or modern humanity continuously, albeit with some inter mixing. In this scheme, therefore, the Neanderthal genes would still be present in the European population even if the Neanderthals did not survive. Thus, the picture that this school presents is one of directed evolution taking place simultaneously in all the continents. While a number of reputed anthologists hold to the regional continuity model 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 as demanded by the regional continuity model.
At first sight it may appear that the debate between the regional continuity school and Out of Africa school is strictly for anthropologists. Certainly, all anthropologists belonging to the regional continuity model are not racists, even though it lends itself more easily to a racist interpretation. For instance, the regional continuity school has amongst its propagators, Carleton 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 “homo sapienised” first, while the black Africans, last. 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.
The Out of Africa model, therefore, is more in tune with general evolutionary history of all other species. In this theory, homo sapiens first evolved 200,000 to 300,000 years back in Africa. They spread to the Eurasian continent only about a 100,000 years back. There are three bits of genetic evidence that Out of Africa model presents. One is that genetic divergence in the African population is much more than in 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 “regional continuity” model.
As happens in science, the convergence of evidence from diverse fields is a strong confirmation of a theory The recent study of the fossils of the Java Man that the earliest fossil is about 1.8 million years old the newest only 30,000 to 50,000 years old is another 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 remained static and did not evolve into homo sapiens but were replaced by them — appears to be again confirmed
It is interesting to note that while scientific racism and the myth of the Aryan race became difficult to justify, at least publicly in the West after Hitler’s gas chambers, it strikes a peculiar resonance in the RSS and their cohorts. Golwalkar’s approving reference to Hitler stemmed also from the similarity of their views on the superiority of the Aryan race. Thus, time after time, attempts are made to appropriate all the of Indian past for the greater glory of the Aryans. The Harappan civilisation is the most obvious target as it is one of the four ancient civilisations. This has a two fold purpose. One is of course that if the Aryans had indeed built the Harappan civilisation, one can argue that the “superior” Aryan race originated from India, pushing India up the racial ladder. The other is that the Hindi-Hindu-Hindu Raj slogan of the RSS instinctively places them in North India. Therefore to find that the Dravidians — identified in their minds with South India — had built a civilisation that the Aryans could not rival for another 1000 years, is a source of acute discomfort. A more reasoned view that there are no Dravidian and Aryan races in India — only Indo-Aryan and Dravidian group of languages — do not appeal to the RSS, conditioned as they are by 19th century racial theories and their instinctive identification with the Aryan race.
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.