And Then, We All Became White Men: Casual Racism in Evolutionary Diagrams

For the fifty-some percent of Americans who know evolution is a thing, there’s still a little confusion on the left side of that oft-illustrated evolutionary march from ape to man. Did humans start out as gorillas, or as chimpanzees? Fortunately, the modern side of the diagram is much more consistent: after a few million years, we all became tall, muscular Caucasian men.

At least that’s what the majority of these diagrams would have you believe.

Look for a few moments at one of those handy textbook pictures, which show a hairy, crouching ape becoming a striding, pale, naked huntsman (usually with a luxuriant Brad Pitt-worthy ‘do) in about five easy steps, and there’s so much wrong with it you don’t even know where to start.

Some people scoff at the pastors who exclaim a gorilla could not possibly be your Grampa, and that therefore evolution is a load of Godless hooey. But those same people might not realize that a diagram showing humans evolving from gorillas is nearly as fallacious as the angry pastor.

Visual simplifications of human evolution might make us mistakenly believe that the last five million years have been an intentional linear march to modern humans. The truth is a lot more complicated. Over the millennia, many primate species who preceded Homo Sapiens evolved and died out in an evolutionary tree as complex as your capillaries.

Another thing that many people don’t understand, which popular diagrams of evolution tend to confuse, is that we did not, in fact, evolve from macaques, chimpanzees or gorillas as we know them today. Yes, all these species, including us, have a common primate ancestor way, way down the family tree. But the primate clubs including those modern monkeys and apes split off to form their own evolutionary branches a long time before humans’ more recent (and now defunct) relatives— Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Neanderthals— bloomed.

To put it another way, one thing those diagrams wrongly, perhaps accidentally imply is that chimpanzees and other apes like them are more primitive than humans are. Thought your big ol’ brain made you specialer than the bonobo, in evolutionary terms? Sorry, modern apes are just as “evolved” as you are. An orangutan is not an older, more orange-y version of a human being. It’s your genetic cousin, but it’s not some primordial version of you that somehow made it to the present day. It has had its own evolutionary path, distinct from Homo Sapiens, for millions of years.

I wonder if fixing these problems of faulty scientific understanding could help us tackle the bigger social and cultural pitfalls of the human evolution diagram. It’s a touchy subject, because too many Darwin deniers try to undermine evolutionary science with false claims that it’s a racist worldview.

Why do the vast majority of the human evolution illustrations I can find (even the jokey ones) show a white man on the far right? Constantly putting a white man at the head of the walking monkey pack is silently, terribly problematic. It’s like we were brown for millennia, and then, at the very end, we all suddenly turned white.

It looks to me like one more attempt to make everyone but the Caucasian man invisible. Why can’t more of these diagrams finish by showing an Asian person, or a black person? You get the point. They’re all modern humans. Since when should they be ignored in favor of white guys on the evolutionary diagram? Oh, right, since always, pretty much.

I also feel as if female Homo Sapiens could have a stronger showing. Perhaps they’re rarer than men on the diagram because of those darn breasts. It’s easy to draw a walking man so that you hide his crotch and offend nobody. On the other hand, you can’t exactly put Little Mermaid seashells on a scientific diagram, and those breasts are so titillating that they’ll totally derail our studies. Right? It’s either that, or most scientists are men who naturally, unconsciously use themselves as the evolutionary paradigm.

For me, delving a little deeper into that paradigm leads way too smoothly to the poison of white supremacy. I would dearly hope that most white people know that it’s hard to stoop lower than the KKK, but when we constantly set a white person as the template for modern man and don’t bat an eye, I think it’s the same syndrome.

And when you consider the possible impact of this on our scientific understanding, the effect is much more sinister than the mistake of believing man evolved from chimps. When a white person always tops off the evolutionary diagram, especially when all the primates who came before him are various shades of brown, the treacherous unspoken message could be that Caucasian people are genetically and culturally more advanced than those with darker skin. But from Alaskan villages to the Amazon jungle to the Kalahari, no-one is at the head of the human pack. We are all equally evolved. We are all equally marvelous and deserving of that most advanced human stage of the diagram. But when we look at popular evolutionary drawings, that simple fact is too easy to forget.

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17 Comments

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  1. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    AND YOU THOUGHT SCIENCE WAS TOTALLY UNBIASED!!!

    • I think science gets it right, most of the time, given enough time. The problem here, I believe, is not so much one of science as how science is represented/communicated to the general public. Of course racism affects all layers of society, though. All the white homo sapiens on the diagrams are probably crying out for a more diverse body of people to become evolutionary scientists and to interpret evolutionary science for the public with the diverse approaches it needs, not just the white man lens. Thanks for reading!

      • The only counter to this presentation bias I’ve seen was in Anthropology Class…where one of our textbooks had full frontal male/female views of the six then-recognized racial types. Definitely NOT really an improvement in presentation.!!!! Nor necessarilly the dressing of a Neanderthal reconstruction with orangy-red hair. 🙂

      • Yeah, the futility of categorizing us all by recognizable racial groups is growing by the minute, if you look at the science. There’s no such thing as a clear genetic boundary between one race and another and there really never has been. I’d love to see a redhead Neanderthal though.

  2. the pictures are saying “well this is pretty much it”

  3. Thank you! It’s such a common misconception that we’ve descended from apes, not just shared a common ancestor. It’s up there with people thinking dinosaurs were around with early humans, but I guess we have Fred Flintstone to thank for that?

    • I wonder if the evolution deniers would be less strident if they knew that nobody is claiming their great-uncle is a gorilla, but rather that they and a gorilla have a cousin in common, millions of years ago? Hell, probably not. I think even people who acknowledge evolution is true and who have studied it in school have some major misconceptions about it – probably as with any major branch of science. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

      • More updated science will correct ignorance of many on so called race when there is no such thing when there is one human race. Believe or NOT that human just evolved just 200K years and Europeans just 60K and I read blue eyes is somewhat 10K only. Knowledge and Science will set your mind free from the misconception of human race.

      • I agree the science is leaning toward the fact that race is not a viable genetic designation; however, that doesn’t stop it from being a powerful social construct that affects billions of people. And our evolution goes back a lot further than 200,000 years — it seems like as soon as we think we know something about the origins of homo sapiens and their early cousins, we learn more.

  4. There is in fact no fossil record which provides definitive evidence of modern apes sharing a common ancestor with modern man. Anyone who claims such a thing to be more than mere speculation is a liar!

  5. Reblogged this on Cecilia Hennessy and commented:
    My thoughts exactly!

  6. I “fixed” the diagram for a lecture in my freshman evolution course by pasting a photograph of a handsome black model in a tailored suit over the perpetually white Homo sapiens. It hardly makes up for the other issues of the diagram, but I had to do something (I tried pasting it here for y’all; no luck). I also found one (ONE YES JUST ONE IS THIS ACTUALLY 2017?) diagram that depicted all females via The Googles.

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