Saturday, February 28, 2009

Evolution and the Obama Chimp

Even though they've issued an apology, people are still simmering over the New York Post's Obama-Chimp cartoon.

It's offensive, we're told, because there's a history of people comparing Africans to apes and monkeys. What people may not realize is that it wasn't just random rednecks making this comparison, but legitimate anthropologists as well.

It started with Darwin's theory of evolution. People theorized that African apes evolved into African humans, who evolved into European humans, making African people more closely related to apes than Europeans.

There's two problems with that theory, both arising from a basic misunderstanding of how evolution works. First, evolution never operated with the development of European humans as an ultimate goal, that's just our own vanity pushing its way into the theory.

Secondly, evolution isn't linear. It starts from a pretty identifiable point, but then grows from that point into an ever expanding sphere of chain-reaction consequence. African apes are further into the sphere than humans, but African and European humans are more-or-less on the same level emanating from that point.

In other words, we're equally related to apes. You could say they are our grandparents, but African and European humans are cousins. Examining the three at a genetic level yields basically the same conclusion.

Stephen Jay Gould's most significant scientific work was probably his theory of punctuated equilibrium, but many will remember him most for his later work deconstructing the history of using race in evolutionary studies.

Most people don't spend much time considering the nuances of the evolutionary model and most white people spend very little time considering the influence of race and racism on it and the consequences.

I suspect this is how Sean Delonas came to draw the Obama-chimp cartoon in the first place. He might have had "comparing black people to monkeys is bad" stored somewhere in his brain, but he didn't consider the thought often enough for it to surface when he drew the cartoon, so he stepped in it big time.

There are going to be lots of land mines like this for people criticizing Obama over the next few years, because the experience of racism is so different for white people than it is for black people. I think we're just going to have to get used to it though, because it's unreasonable to expect people to lay off criticizing the current president, just because he's black. If it's any consolation to black people, it'll take an awful lot of racist comments to balance out the fact that the president himself is black, at the end of the day, he's still president.

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