The history of the argument that we should all treat each other equally because we are all so genetically similar or because we share a common ancestry in Africa dates back at least a dozen years. In an article that appeared in the New York Times, writer Nicholas Wade quoted Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson as saying “We need to create a new epic based on the origins of humanity” (Wade 2000). Dr. Wilson’s comments came from another article in the Wall Street Journal, in which he indicated that the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens could be a new basis for spiritual values that could replace traditional religion. Mr. Wade’s own commentary from his article was that: “Many of the biologists who are reconstructing the human past certainly believe their work has a value that transcends genetics. Although their lineage trees are based on genetic differences, most of these differences lie in the regions of DNA that do not code for genes and have no effect on the body.” He then quoted Dr. Peter Underhill, a geneticist who studies human origins as saying, "We are all Africans at the Y chromosome level and we are really all brothers."
Isn’t it convenient when scientific knowledge of the way the world is seems to justify how we think the world ought to be? In this case people were arguing from evidence of the way biological variation originated in our species (world is) as a reason for why human behavior should be equitable across racial distinctions (world ought to be). Trouble eventually follows though when people start saying the reason we ought to behave a certain way is because the world is a certain way. As the out of Africa model gained more empirical support, even more scientists wanted to jump on the band wagon because they thought they had found a home-run secular reason to justify the equal treatment across race lines that had always been argued on theistic grounds from the time of the Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Searching online can find plenty of comments from anthropologists about how human biological variation is only ‘skin deep’ and we are all very recently diverged – as if racism would be more OK if biological differences went deeper than skin level or they diverged more anciently? By 2010 Richard Dawkins was giving talks to forums for the black community about how “we are all African,” and even selling T-shirts!
It was Christopher diCarlo, however, who laid out the case most explicitly that we all should treat each other well because of the facts of our origins in 2010 in Free Inquiry. Dr. diCarlo does an admirable job of laying out the known science of human evolution. Intriguingly, one of the scientists he covers prominently is Andrea Manica. He summarizes the state of the science with: “We are all African. With these four words, we see a genetic coalescence of the entire human population. We now know that we descended from inhabitants of Africa who began migrating out of Africa around 60,000 years ago. In this way, it is impossible for us to not all be, in some ways, related.” He then continues to draw philosophical lessons from this: “With these four words [we are all African], we see that racism is a human invention. It is a social construct with lingering natural biases—leftover baggage from our mammalian xenophobic tendencies.”
I suppose then the proverbial shoe fell in May 2010 when scientists apparently confirmed that at least all living non-African humans have some Neanderthal ancestry that is not shared by African humans (here I use African in the idiomatic English language meaning rather than the sense of Dr. Dawkin’s linguistic contortion). Yes, the percentage is small. The original Neanderthal genome article put the value at 1-4% Neanderthal genes for non-Africans, but more recent studies indicate that number might rise to 8% summed admixture from Neanderthals and Homo erectus for some of us. So, 8% non-recent African origin is small, but it certainly seems nontrivial. Does that mean Dr. diCarlo now should conclude that racism is less of a ‘human invention’ or that some racism is more functional than ‘leftover baggage’? Should we now start making T-shirts for Africans that say things like “Racially pure, no Neanderthal in here” or the Caucasian version “1-4% Neanderthal and loving it.” If all Dr. Dawkins was doing with his T-shirt was educating the public about science then I suppose these post-neanderthal genome T-shirts are equally valid? I hope he sends me a note when he starts selling them at his online store.
Of course Dr. Dawkins wasn’t just talking about science. He and Dr. diCarlo were trying, poorly, to justify their deeply held ethical belief that equal treatment of people from different human subpopulations is a moral imperative. For hardline atheists like these thinkers, the traditional theistic and metaphysical justifications on which abolition and civil rights were based are off the table. They can’t believe as theists do that we should all treat each other equally because we emulate the God who knows and loves everyone regardless of the particulars of their traits or origins. They don’t buy into the metaphysical claims of many Enlightenment thinkers that people are endowed with inherent rights that do not arise from natural origins. Thus Drs. Dawkins, diCarlo and others predicated moral truth on empirical truth of our natural origins. If they sincerely meant any of what they said, then they have to conclude racial prejudice is now a little more permissible (on the order of at least 1-4% more permissible).
Alternatively, they could admit what I suspect is the case, that they never actually thought these arguments from peoples’ origins being equal were good justifications for people treating each other equally. Admitting that however, would be tantamount to admitting that they don’t have a justification for their moral claims. It would also mean admitting that instead of searching for good justifications for their moral claims, they would rather pass off glib rhetoric as reasons to their audience, apparently confident that their audience wouldn’t see that these are terribly illogical arguments, and therefore dangerous arguments, for equal treatment of human persons.
I suspect the current debate about human origins will land on the conclusion that some living humans exhibit some degree of genetic admixture from Neanderthals. The result of this debate has many important scientific implications, but for those of us who hold to the reasons our culture has always held for equal treatment there are no ethical implications of this research. From the many founding fathers of the United States who objected to slavery at our country’s infancy, to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., our culture has always used some form of metaphysical argument, and usually a theistic one, to justify that people from different ‘races’ should be treated equally. The theistic justification is a strong one precisely because it does not depend on any of the facts of what our origins, similarities, or differences may be.
Wade, N. 2000. The human family tree: 10 Adams and 18 Eves. The New York Times. May 2, 2000, Tuesday, Late Edition – Final. Section F; Page 1; Column 1.