I have just spent the last week at a field station in Kenya run by the Turkana Basin Institute, an organization founded and inspired by Richard Leakey, the famous human-fossil-hunting son of Louis and Mary Leakey. I was there for a workshop on human evolution and, although I have been an academic (student and professor) now for more than 50 years, it was one of the most exciting weeks of my life.
Charles Darwin, when he wrote his "Descent of Man," published back in 1871, could little have dreamed how much fruit his little plant would now be bearing. We now know beyond all reasonable doubt that the human line first emerged in East Africa about 6 or 7 million years ago, when we split off from the apes. We were up on our hind legs, bipedal, before 4 million years ago; our brains exploded up in size about 2 million years ago; and modern humans emerged a mere hundred thousand or so years ago.
We also know how biologically trivial are some of the things that socially seem to matter most of all. Take, for instance, skin color. Anyone who thinks this now no longer relevant has never visited Tallahassee, in Northern Florida, where I live. Simply compare the two universities, Florida State (mainly white) and Florida A&M (almost exclusively black), and look at the relative physical conditions and much else. Yet, apparently, skin color is something that differentiated humans only about 15,000 years ago. A mere flash in the eye of evolution, a process that has now been going on for nearly 4 billion years. It just isn't that important!
There were two basic messages that I came away with this week. First, just how incredibly exciting is science in general and the study of human origins in particular. Our group included paleontologists, geneticists, anthropologists, climatologists, and more. Even a historian and philosopher of science like me! New discoveries and new theories are appearing almost daily as we explore our history, showing just how it was that a bunch of African apes exploded upwards into being, producing the incredible culture that we find here today on this earth.
Second, how this isn't just a matter of knowledge but a moral quest in a way. Even for the non-religious, learning about our nature, surely forces upon us new understandings and attitudes. I have just made mention of skin color and its triviality. For the religious it is even more a moral quest, as we make use of our God-given talents to explore and marvel at the world He created for our abode. If being made in the image of God means anything, it means looking fearlessly at our own nature and our past, understanding why we are as we are and how we might move forward.
And yet, my time in Kenya was tinged with a certain sadness. Just as I was leaving for Africa, it was brought home vividly how the country in which I live is filled with prejudice and ignorance. Apparently, in state after state, particularly in the South, people have found ways to get around the constitutional separation of Church and State and to use public funds (or funds destined for the public use) to support private schools, especially private schools that teach an evangelical Christianity that excludes evolution:
Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist -- a world ruler predicted in the New Testament -- will one day control what is bought and sold.