Making Sense of Biology
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973). The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.
How Does Creationism Harm African Americans?
American society has been remarkably consistent concerning its general resistance to evolutionary thinking across the 20th century. The data below illustrate this fact.
|NBC News Poll conducted by the polling organizations of Peter Hart (D) and Bill McInturff (R). March 8-10, 2005. N=800 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.5.
|“Which do you think is more likely to actually be the explanation for the origin of human life on Earth: evolution or the biblical account of creation?” Asked of those who answered “Biblical account”: “And by this do you mean that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh as described in the Book of Genesis, or that God was a divine presence in the formation of the universe?”
|Created in six days
|None of the above (vol.)
The data indicate that the majority of Americans accept a Biblical account of the origin of the human species. Even more striking is the fact, that of those who accept Biblical accounts, 77% of these individuals accept a literalist interpretation of the event occurring over six 24 hour days. As an African American scientist, I had always suspected that the response to this question amongst those of my own ethnicity would be even higher. To address this suspicion I recently contacted the Peter Hart and Bill McInturff polling organization and asked for the response percentages for African Americans. Their data showed the following:
80% Biblical Account
61% God created world in six days
19% God was divine presence
2% None of the above
These data validate what I have always known, African Americans are ½ as likely as the general population to accept evolution as a valid explanation and 1.4 times more likely to accept the Biblical account. Finally within Biblical account, the literalist explanation (6 days) was 76% about the same as the general population (but remember a larger percentage of African Americans reject evolution.) Why does this happen? The majority of African Americans belong to Protestant denominations that are fundamentalist. The National Baptist Convention for example claims that every bit of the Bible is factually true. Ironically, unlike the Southern Baptist Convention (which is predominantly European American and was founded on segregationist principles), the NBC hasn’t invested a great deal of energy in the Evolution/Creation debate. This may be in part, because the NBC has always been more concerned with issues of social justice. Despite its relatively progressive stance compared to the SBC, I argue here that the fundamentalism of the NBC is causing harm to the African American community. Specifically its fundamentalist views make it more difficult to attract talented African American students into careers in science (specifically those disciplines in science that may contradict fundamentalist doctrine, e.g. Archaeology, Anthropology, Human Genetics, or Evolutionary Biology.)
Ironically one of the places in which it is easiest to expose the fallacies of special creationism/fundamentalist doctrine is in regard to the concept of human genetic diversity. The logic of the fundamentalist concept of race fails miserably to explain the genetic diversity that we observe amongst modern humans. If we were to read Genesis literally, as fundamentalists do, it predicts that modern humans are ~10,000 years old and that the original humans had physical characteristics similar to modern day Middle Easterners. In this vein, Biblical fundamentalism is no different from any of the other religious narratives of creation. For example, American Indian creation narratives claim that their great spirit created their people on their ancestral tribal land. Modern American Indian traditionalists vehemently reject the notion that they are derived from or share ancestry with any other human populations (especially Africans.) For example, some American Indians of the Northwest claimed that they should have sovereignty over the remains of the Kennewick man fossil under the assumption that because the bones were found in territory that their tribe once inhabited, that the remains had to be one of their tribal ancestors1. For the American Indians tribes, the anatomical or genetic evidence concerning Kennewick man was irrelevant. They argued that neither of these could be used to determine the cultural identity of the individual in question. They claimed this despite the fact that the Kennewick fossil had anatomical features there were significantly different from modern Amerindians2. Eight prominent anthropologists disputed the claim of the American Indians by arguing that there was no evidence supporting the claim that these remains had cultural continuity with those of modern American Indians. This is a clear example where the methodologies of religious and scientific thinking were in conflict. For the American Indians involved, their rejection of the Bering Strait theory is primarily due to its conflict with their traditional religious beliefs and oral histories. In addition, they are suspicious of how the scientific claims may be used to weaken their land rights under treaty with the United States government (and certainly given the US government history of breaking treaties this is a legitimate concern3. Indeed some of the claims of the Havusupai Tribe against Arizona State University stem from the former’s resistance to their DNA being used to support research that claims a non-North American origin for their people4.
In this instance, the Amerindian religious objections are no different from those of Biblical fundamentalists. Both groups reject the scientific evidence primarily on the grounds that it contradicts their religious story of human origins. This is a common feature of religious creation narratives, all are constructed to explain the origin of the people who believe in the religion or deity. Thus, Kenyan creation narratives speak of how the Gods created them in their home land, as do Japanese narratives speak of how the Gods created humans in Japan. However, the scientific evidence only supports those creation narratives that claim that humans first originated in East Africa.
It may seem that due to the religious/supernatural character of these narratives that they cannot be subjected to scientific test. However, most fundamentalists do not dispute that DNA is the genetic code of life. What they dispute is that DNA as the genetic code can evolve to found new species. Many creationists will accept microevolutionary changes within species as legitimate. The concession that microevolutionary changes occur within species results from the fact that these changes have been observed in historical time. There are also many genetic mechanisms that have been observed and by themselves are not required to have resulted from an evolutionary mechanism. For example, crossing over is consistently observed during meiosis (gametogenesis.) This results because portions of the DNA that have high sequence similarity line up with each other during meiosis and often exchange pieces. Evolutionary biologists argue that crossing over is an important source of new variation for natural selection to operate on, however the fact that crossing over exists is not a requirement for evolution and crossing over could exist without resulting from an evolutionary process.
How does crossing over invalidate creationist claims of origin? One of the results of crossing over is that genetic linkage groups (genes that are inherited together due to close proximity on a chromosome) are disrupted over time. This has been observed in laboratory populations and in domesticated mammals5. It has also been observed that newer populations have larger linkage groups, and that due to crossing over, the average size of these groups gets smaller through time. Thus we can “age” populations by the average size of their linkage groups. This provides us with a way to estimate the age of human populations that is not necessarily linked to a macroevolutionary process. Studies that examine the size of linkage groups have been accomplished in modern humans. They all concur that sub-Saharan Africans have the smallest linkage groups on average, followed by Middle Eastern populations, Europeans = East Asians = Pacific Islanders, followed by American Indians. This result vitiates the fundamentalist Biblical claim that Middle Eastern populations were created first or that modern Africans are descended from Middle Easterners. The evidence shows that it was the other way around (if one is a monogenist.) Monogenists believe that there was one single creation event, and that all humans are descended from an original pair. Polygenists, on the other hand, claim that there were multiple Adams and Eves. Some of them adhere to the idea of pre-Adamite races; they used this notion to assert that superiority of the progeny of Abraham (which includes the Europeans) and to claim that Africans were a separate and inferior species6. Also notice that this result doesn’t invalidate the Amerindian creation narratives. The Amerindians don’t assume that there was only one God. Thus, the African and European Gods could have created populations of humans at different times. Table 1 states a number of Christian fundamentalist claims concerning human origins. It also states claims that follow logically from polygenist as well as evolutionary theory. Table 2 reports what modern genetics and fossil evidence reveals concerning human diversity. Table 2 suggests that all of the monogenist claims concerning human diversity are falsified, in the case of polygeny 2/5 predictions are supported, and finally for evolutionary theory 4/4 are supported with 1 claim not relevant since evolutionary theory makes no specific prediction for the phenomenon. From these results we would have to logically conclude that there is no physical evidence that supports monogenist creationist claims concerning the origin of humans. Thus if one wishes to adhere to special creationism while insisting that there be physical evidence for it, you would have to become a polygenist. Of course, the body of physical evidence also suggests that polygenism is false and supports that modern human evolved with their place origin located in Sub-Saharan Africa.
|Table 1: Predictions of Biblical Literalist Creationist and Evolutionary Scenarios on Human Diversity Claims
|Origin of humans: Location
|Middle East (ME).
|Pre-Adamite races could have originated anywhere, but Adamite races in the Middle East.
|Origin of humans: Timeline
|Within the last 10,000 years.
|Pre-Adamite races could have originated at anytime, but Adamite races within the last 10,000 years.
|Within the last 200,000 – 150,000 ybp.
|More should exist in the ME.
|Pre-Adamite races should have more genetic diversity than the Adamite races.
|Greatest genetic diversity should be in Africa, less as you move away from Africa, small populations should have the least.
|Skin and eye color.
|Lighter skin should have appeared first, darker skin after Noah. All eye colors should have appeared at the same time.
|Darker skins appear first, lighter skins of Adamites should appear later.
|Darker skin appears first since humans evolved in the tropics. Lighter skins evolve after humans migrate to northern climates (~ 70,000 – 55,000 ybp.) Brown before blue eyes.
|Descendents of Ham should have more deleterious genes (Henry Morris).
|Pre-Adamites should have more defective genes.
|No explicit prediction.
|Table 2: Results of Genetic Studies on Human Diversity Claim
|Origin of humans: Location
|No, East Africa.
|No, all humans ancestry traces to Africa.
|Yes, East Africa.
|Origin of humans: timeline.
|No, genomic and individual genes results suggest 200,00 to 150,000 ybp.
|No all humans have genes that fit the 200,000 to 150,000 ybp results.
|Yes, Africa 200,00 – 150,000 ybp., ME, Europe, Asia – 100,000 – 35,000 ybp, Americas ~ 35,000 ybp.
|No, more in Sub-Saharan Africa.
|Yes, Sub-Saharan Africans > ME.
|Yes, greatest genetic diversity in Africa, less in Europe and Asia.
|Skin and eye color
|No, darker color genes more ancient.
|Yes, darker color skins more ancient.
|Yes, darker skin more ancient, light pigmentation recent, e.g. blue eye allele is only ~ 6,000 ybp.
|No, Europeans have more deleterious than Africans**.
|No, Europeans have more deleterious genes.
|No explicit prediction, although this is predicted by genetic drift an evolutionary mechanism.
*Fossils of anatomically modern humans are first found in sub-Saharan Africa in this time frame, they are not found outside of this region until around 100,000 ybp.
** Lohmueller, K.E., Indap, A.R., Schmidt, S., Boyko, A.R., Hernandez, R.D., Hubisz, M.J., Sninsky, J.J., White, T.J., Sunyaev, S.R., Nielsen, R., Clark, A.G., Bustamante, C., Proportionately more deleterious genetic variation in European than in African populations, Nature Genetics Vol. 451: 994-998, 2008; Barreiro, L.B., Laval, G., Quach, H., Patin, E., and Quintara-Murci, L., Natural selection has driven population differentiation in modern humans, Nature Genetics, 40(3):340 – 345, 2008.
How Does Creationist Thinking Cause Harm?
While the evidence for the African origin of modern humans is overwhelming, with regard to convincing people of the utility of evolutionary biology, it is more important to emphasis evolutionary thinking in action. Thus, the most important test of any worldview is does it explain reality. And if it does, what prescriptions does it suggest for human activity? For example, prior to the germ theory of disease, it was a common belief amongst European Christians that many illnesses were caused by demonic possession. If the former theory is true than disease can be cured by medicine and if the latter were true than you need to consult a priest for an exorcism. In the present day, few religious people subscribe to the demonic possession theory of disease. Yet and still, religious explanations of important social issues still exist and in the United States these have significant traction with regard to influencing public policy. For example, the majority of Christian fundamentalists see homosexuality as a deviant behavior that is a sin against God. They claim that they love the sinners, but despise their sin. Due to the influence of this group on American politics, legal protections against anti-gay discrimination are very weak. The problem with this thinking is that increasing evidence demonstrates the homosexuality is biologically based (resulting from genetic, environmental, developmental, and chance factors7. This evidence has caused at least some Christians to re-evaluate their views on homosexuality. If this behavior is biological/genetic and therefore is not the result of a choice to disobey God’s law, then it cannot be considered sinful. It should be remembered here that the creationist believes that everything that occurs within humans is the result of God’s design. This example graphically illustrates how two different world views describe reality and in turn what those views would prescribe for human social action.
There are several examples of how fundamentalist/creationist belief harms African Americans who adhere to its tenets. Certainly, in the above case, the religious fundamentalism of African Americans had led them to disproportionately shun homosexual members of the African American community8. The harm that has resulted has included higher rates of suicide amongst these homosexuals as well as them engaging in more risky sexual behavior thus infecting non-homosexuals as well. In addition, efforts to stem the tide of HIV infection as well as teen pregnancy rates suffer from fundamentalist ideology. For example, two of the most pressing problems in the African American community today are the HIV epidemic, the increasing percentage of teen pregnancies and the disproportionate rate of underweight babies. The age of mother is an important variable influencing low birth weight (as is poverty.) Evangelical and literalists in African American community argued for and have succeeded in implementing abstinence only programs to deal with teen pregnancy. For example, 78% of African Americans belong to fundamentalist congregations, and this percentage may have been even higher in the past. The abstinence theme is undoubtedly heard by millions of African American teens, far more than heard by European American teens whose churches aren’t as literalist. Yet the data clearly show that HIV and teen pregnancy rates are much higher in African Americans. The African American rate is twice the European American rate. The National Center for Health Statistic reported that the birth rate rose by 3 percent between 2005 and 2006 among 15- to 19-year-old females, after plummeting 34 percent between 1991 and 2005. There is also a nine times higher percentage of Chlamydia and HIV infection in African Americans despite the fact that this group is far more likely to hear abstinence preached in their churches. These increases occurred despite the fact that in this period, abstinence-only sex-education programs, received about $176 million a year in federal funding. Despite their gross failure to stem the tide of teen age pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, the proponents of abstinence education continue to defend the programs, and instead blamed the increases on the rise on the ineffectiveness of conventional sexual education programs that focus on condom use and other contraceptives, as well as the pervasive depiction of sexuality in the culture9.
Evolutionary biologists would approach this problem entirely differently. Under the evolutionary paradigm the core behavioral activity of all species is reproduction and humans are not excluded from this. For this reason, abstinence programs are fool’s errands. Human adolescents face a rush of hormones that are preparing them to engage in reproductive behavior. Abstinence only programs assume that by “will” alone these young people will be able to control the urges to engage in sexual activity. Evolutionary theory would suggest that a significant number of adolescents will engage in sexual activity and for that reason it is best to provide them sex education, safe-sex training, contraceptives, and relationship counseling.
Creationist ideology causes harm by limiting desire to pursue scientific careers
Reason suggests that students who are hostile to the methodologies of science should shun science careers. Several studies have demonstrated a negative relationship between student religiosity and likelihood to choose science as a career. These studies are suggestive however. None of them have really examined enough students to establish a differential impact of African American religiosity, particularly fundamentalism on the choice of specific science careers. For example, North Carolina A&T State University (NCATSU) produces substantial numbers of African American engineers, but virtually none who pursue degrees in biology with an emphasis in evolution. Clearly there is a need for additional studies with substantial sample sizes and conducted in a variety of academic settings to evaluate the influence of creationist ideology with regard to science careers. One way that we will be hoping to make a difference in this trend is through our NSF funded Science and Technology Center: Biocomputational Evolution in Action (BEACON.) BEACON is a consortium that includes Michigan State University, as well as the universities of Idaho, Texas, and Washington, along with NCATSU. This will unite faculty and students interested in both biological and computational evolution and encourage students to pursue careers in these disciplines.
1. Tall Bear, Kimberly, DNA, blood, and racializing the tribe, Wicazo Sa Review, Spring 2003, pp. 81- 107.
2. Svedlund, A. and Anderson, D., Gordon Creek Woman meets Kennewick Man: New interpretations and protocols regarding the peopling of the Americas, American Antiquity 64(4), 569-576, 1999. Chatters, J., The recovery and first analysis of an early Holocene human skeleton from Kennewick, Washington, American Antiquity 65(2), pp. 291-316, 2000.
3. Tall Bear, 2003.
4. Michelle M. Mello, J.D., Ph.D., and Leslie E. Wolf, J.D., M.P.H., The Havasupai Indian Tribe Case — Lessons for Research Involving Stored Biologic Samples, New England Journal of Medicine, June 2010, 10.1056/nejmp1005203.
5. Clegg, M.T., Kidwell, J.F., and Horch, C.R., Dynamics of correlated genetic systems V. Rates of decay of linkage disequilibria in experimental populations of Drosophila melanogaster, Genetics 94: 217-234; Betancourt, A.J., and Presgraves, D.C., Linkage limits the power of natural selection in Drosophila melanogaster, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 99: 13616 – 13620, 2002; Amaral, A.J., Megens, H.J., Crooijmans, R.P., Heuven, H.C., and Groenen, M.A., Linkage disequilbrium decay and haplotype block structure in the pig, Genetics 179 (1): 569-79, 2008.
6. Graves, J.L. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, soft cover edition, 2nd printing with a new preface by the author, Rutgers University Press, 2005a.
7. Hamer, D. and Copeland, P., Science of Desire: The Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior, (New York, NY: Touchstone), 1995. Roughgarden, J., Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 2004; Ciani, A.C., Cermelli, P., Zanzotto, P., Sexually Antagonistic Selection in Human Male Homosexuality, PLoS ONE 3(6): e2282.
8. Stokes, J.P. and Peterson, J.L., Homophobia, self-esteem, and risk for HIV among African American men who have sex with men, AIDS Education and Prevention, 10 (3): . 278-292, 1998; Battle, J. and Bennett, M., Research on Lesbian and Gay Populations in the African American Community: What Have We Learned?, Perspectives pp. 35 – 46., 2000; Fullilove, M.T. and Fullilove, R.E., Stigma as an obstacle to AIDS action: The Case of the African American Community, American Behavioral Scientist, 42(7): 1117-1129, 1999.
9. Brazelton, E.W., Frandsen, J.C., Mckown, D.B., Brown, C.D.; Interaction of Religion and Science: Development of a Questionnaire and the Results of Its Administration to Undergraduates, College Student Journal, Vol. 33, 1999. Mazur, A., Believers and disbelievers in evolution, Politics and the Life Sciences 23(2): 55 -61, 2005. Harrold, F.B. and Eve, R.A., Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs About the Past, (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press), 1995. Graves, J.L. and J. Leigh (1994) Materialist philosophy, Evolutionary Biology, and African-American Students II: Empirical Evidence, in: Race in a Global Society; University of Oklahoma Symposium in African-American Studies, November 1993.