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Racist and sexist representations of human evolution still permeate science, education and popular culture


Systemic racism and sexism do pervaded civilization since the advent of agriculture, when people started living in one place for a long time. Early Western scientists, such as Aristotle in ancient Greece, were indoctrinated with the ethnocentric And misogynistic stories that permeated their society. More than 2,000 years after Aristotle’s writings, English naturalist Charles Darwin also extrapolated the sexist and racist stories he heard and read in his youth to the natural world.

Darwin presented his preconceived notions as scientific facts, as in his 1871 book “The descent of man”, where he described his belief that men are evolutionarily superior to women, Europeans superior to non-Europeans, and hierarchical civilizations superior to petty egalitarian societies. In that book, which one is still being studied in schools and natural history museums, he regarded “the hideous ornaments and equally hideous music admired by most savages” as “not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance in birds”, and compared the appearance of Africans to that of the New World monkey Pithecia satanas.

Science is not immune to sexism and racism.

“The Descent of Man” was published during a moment of civil unrest in continental Europe. In France, the working class Paris Commune took to the streets demanding radical social change, including the overthrow of social hierarchies. Darwin’s claims that the subjugation of the poor, non-Europeans and women was the natural result of evolutionary progress sounded like music to the ears of the elites and those in power in academia. Science historian Janet Browne wrote that Darwin’s rapid rise within Victorian society happened not in spite of his racist and sexist writings, but in large part because of them.

It is no coincidence that Darwin was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, an honor symbolic of English power, and was publicly commemorated as a symbol of “English success in conquering nature and civilizing the world during Victoria’s long reign.”

Despite the profound social changes that have taken place over the past 150 years, sexist and racist narratives are still prevalent in science, medicine and education. Like a teacher and researcher at Howard University, I am interested in combining my main areas of study, biology and anthropology, to discuss wider societal issues. In research that I recently published together with my colleague Fatima Jackson and three medical students at Howard University, we show how racist and sexist stories are not a thing of the past: they are still present in scientific articles, textbooks, museums and educational materials.

From museums to scientific articles

An example of how biased narratives are still present in science today are the numerous depictions of human evolution as a linear trend from darker and more “primitive” humans to more “evolved” lighter-skinned humans. Natural History museums, websites And UNESCO heritage sites all have shown this trend.

The fact that such images are not scientifically accurate does not discourage their continued proliferation. About 11% of the people alive today are “white” or European descendants. Images that show a linear gradient to whiteness do not accurately represent human evolution or what living people look like today as a whole. In addition, there is no scientific evidence for progressive skin whitening. Lighter skin pigmentation evolved primarily within only a few groups that migrated to non-African regions of high or low latitudes, such as the northern regions of the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Illustrations of human evolution tend to depict progressive skin whitening.

Sexist stories also still permeate academia. For example, in a 2021 paper on a famous early human fossil found in the Sierra de Atapuerca archaeological site in Spain, researchers examined the canine teeth of the remains and found that it was actually that of a girl between 9 and 11 years old. The fossil was previously believed to be a boy due to a popular 2002 book by one of the authors of that paper, paleoanthropologist Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro. What’s especially telling is that the study’s authors acknowledged that there was no scientific reason to label the fossil remains as male in the first place. The decision, they wrote, “arise randomly.”

But these choices are not really ‘arbitrary’. Images of human evolution often shows only men. In the few instances where women are depicted, they are often portrayed as passive mothers, not active inventors, cave painters, or food gatherers, despite available anthropological data showing that prehistoric women were all those things.

Another example of sexist narratives in science is the way researchers use the ‘enigmatic’ evolution of the female orgasm. Darwin constructed stories about how females were evolutionarily “reluctant” and sexually passive, even though he recognized that females actively select their sexual partners in most mammalian species. As a Victorian, he found it difficult to accept that women could take an active role in choosing a mate, so he argued that such roles only applied to women in early human evolution. According to Darwin, men later began to select women sexually.

Sexist narratives about women being more “reticent” and “less sexual”, including the idea of ​​the female orgasm as an evolutionary puzzle, are contradicted by a wide range of evidence. For example, women are the ones who experience it more often multiple orgasms as well as more complex, extensive and intense orgasms average compared to men. Women are not biologically less sexual, but sexist stereotypes were accepted as scientific fact.

The vicious circle of systemic racism and sexism

Educational materials, including textbooks and anatomical atlases used by science and medical students, play a vital role in perpetuating biased narratives. For example, the 2017 edition of “Netter Atlas of Human Anatomy”, commonly used by medical students and clinical professionals, features approximately 180 figures depicting skin color. Of those, the vast majority show male individuals with fair skin, and only two show individuals with “darker” skin. This perpetuates the depiction of white males as the anatomical prototype of the human species and does not show the full anatomical diversity of humans.

Textbooks and educational materials can perpetuate their creators’ prejudices in science and society.

Authors of children’s educational materials also replicate the biases in scientific publications, museums, and textbooks. For example, the cover of a 2016 coloring book titled “The Evolution of Living Things”shows human evolution as a linear trend from dark “primitive” creatures to “civilized” western man. Indoctrination comes around when the children who use such books become scientists, journalists, museum curators, politicians, authors or illustrators.

One of the main characteristics of systemic racism and sexism is that it is subconsciously perpetuated by people who often do not realize that the stories and choices they make are biased. Academics can address long-standing racist, sexist, and Western biases by being both more alert and proactive in detecting and correcting these influences in their work. Allowing inaccurate stories to circulate in science, medicine, education and the media not only perpetuates these stories in future generations, but also the discrimination, oppression and atrocities that justified by them in the past.

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