Theories about Human Descent — An Unnatural Selection

By Ina Belderis

Who are we? Where do we come from? How do we know what it means to be human? These are some of the most basic questions we can ask, and the ways we answer them give us our identity. We can define ourselves inwardly, through the unseen levels of our being. Or we can base our identity on our physical perceptions. Sometimes our sense of self is formed by what we have in common, but more often it is in contrast with others. The more different the "other" looks to us, the more sharply we feel our separateness. And in many cases this becomes a habit of mind that people use to feel superior. People can have feelings of superiority based on material things, such as having a better car, a bigger house, or a larger salary. The basis can also be cultural, where some cultures are judged to be better than others. In its most offensive expression, feelings of superiority are based on "racial characteristics" that are supposed to determine character and intelligence.

Theosophy encourages people to find their identity by going inward to discover their spiritual commonality. It is a practical expression of universal brotherhood, the intricate interconnectedness of all that lives. When people express an interest in spirituality, it is often very useful to ask them what they think about universal brotherhood and about what it really means to be human. Responding to these questions, one correspondent wrote:

Universal brotherhood is possible, but it has to be a universal brotherhood of distinct, independent groups. All animal species have subspecies, and humans are no exception. Just as certain breeds of cats, dogs, horses, apes, and monkeys evolved separately to become more intelligent, physically stronger, and more beautiful than other breeds — so it is with humans. We all come from a common ancestor, but we've evolved differently in separate environments, and the differences go deeper than just bone structure and appearance. The mixing of these distinct groups is not in accordance with nature's laws. In fact, the fall of every civilization is caused by people accepting the idea of diversity and multiculturalism. This is unpleasant for some people to look at objectively, but it is a scientific fact.

I had read such comments before, from other correspondents and also on the internet, so I could not help but wonder: Where do these ideas come from? Are they the notions of the uninformed, or can they be traced back to some common sources that claim to be scientific? Pursuing these questions, I was surprised to find that these opinions originally came from scientists and scholars who wrote about human origins and variation. But was their work objective science, or was it distorted by biased preconceptions?

Before the 16th century, Western attitudes about human origins were in line with those of the Christian Church. It taught that humans descend from Adam and Eve — so basically we all have a common ancestor. The idea of common descent from "one origin" would later be called monogenism. This came into question during the Age of Discovery. After Columbus discovered the New World, and others established trade routes to Africa and Asia, more Europeans came into contact with people very different from themselves in appearance and living conditions. These discoveries presented Europeans with new opportunities to acquire riches and land, but also led to a growing awareness of human diversity. Questions arose about these peoples who were so different: How were they related to the people of Europe? Did they have normal human faculties . . . or were they more like feeble-minded ancestors?

To answer these questions, various theories were advanced. The natives were like Adam before the Fall (pre-Adamites). Or they were considered descendants of the pre-Adamites, while Europeans descended from Adam and Eve. Perhaps there were even several Adams — created separately by God. Another view was that white people descended from Seth and non-whites from Cain. The idea of separate origins came to be called polygenism. In many cases these polygenist and monogenist theories also ascribed value judgments to various human groups. White people were "the chosen of God" or were "closer to God." The natives were also thought to have degenerated from the ideal type as created by God — Europeans who believed this invariably considered themselves to be the apex of creation.

As these newly discovered lands were colonized, attitudes about the natives became more opportunistic. If these populations were human, they could be converted to Christianity. If they were not human, then they could be put to work as "beasts of burden" — and in this latter case, the land was there for the taking. Colonialism was developing its own rationale, which had to do with ranking different groups of human beings. The white colonizers formed the uppermost layer of society, and it was their "right" to be in charge. The native people were ranked in ways that allowed the white rulers to segregate them, use them as cheap labor, or totally enslave them — and this kind of ranking has been the basis for the development of every racist culture.

Such behavior was justified with ideas from various ideologies. Theologians explained that God had created races along a scale of perfection: the less perfect were here to serve the more perfect. Philosophers reinterpreted Aristotle's idea that the "scale of nature" was "fixed and unchanging," so each of the races had a rank on this scale. Racial views were also part of early science. Linnaeus described a hierarchy of perfection that distinguished four human varieties: Europeans were at the apex, followed by Asians, Americans, and Africans. The classification of human groups continued throughout the 18th century. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, founder of modern anthropology, identified five main varieties — Caucasian, Mongoloid, Ethiopian, American, and Malay — but did not rank them. Dutch anatomist Peter Camper was the first to analyze human features by measuring facial angles, and this led him to conclude that Negroes were closer to apes than Europeans. There were many differences of opinion among 18th-century naturalists, yet there was a consensus that all races were members of the human species. This began to change in the 19th century with a shift toward polygenism: the races were basically separate and had different origins, and not all races belonged to the same species.

This shift in thinking was a radical departure. Ideas about the "noble savage," depicted in romantic literature as endowed with reason, humanity, and perfectibility, gave way to a new mindset that ascribed humanness only to "civilized races." The new science of anthropology studied and emphasized racial differences, judged to be unchangeable. Polygenism was an attractive way to justify exploitation of native populations, for now the theory was supported by "scientific facts." The subjugation of "savages" was conscionable when seen as part of the "struggle for life" which was essential to the "progress" of civilization.

There were other reasons these attitudes became so popular in the 1800s. Scientists wanted to be independent of religion, and the common ancestor theory had too many associations with Adam and Eve. Polygenism offered a way for scientists to disassociate themselves from the Church by claiming that the differences between human subspecies were deep-seated and essential. Early researchers believed that this could be proved by science, and those who condoned slavery supported this effort. In the United States slave-owners were threatened by a growing abolitionist movement and the ethics of human equality. If science could prove there were separate creations, they could use this to "morally" justify human bondage.

For these reasons there was a strong movement to study and make pronouncements on racial differences, especially in the U.S. and France. For example, anatomist Georges Cuvier believed that the different forms of species were fixed forever, and he strongly opposed the evolutionism of J. B. Larmarck. Lamarck held that all of life evolved from lower to higher forms because nature had an inner drive to transform itself. Biologist-geologist Louis Agassiz, even though he was a monogenist, also supported ideas of racial inequality, for he saw nonwhites as a different species.

Another criterion used at that time was whether or not races had the intelligence to make them capable of civilization. American ethnologist Samuel Morton was convinced that civilization evolved, with "savage cultures" at a lower stage in this evolution and European culture at the apex. He measured the cranial capacity of different races to prove that the brains of white races were larger and that these peoples were therefore more intelligent. The same theory was also promoted by well-known scientists in Europe. The craniometry of leading French anthropologist Paul Broca aimed at establishing the inferiority of non-European races, while British polygenist Robert Knox led those who asserted that some races were not capable of civilization. These ideas were written about at great length by ethnologist J. A. de Gobineau. For the most part, these theories were well received by the scientifically-minded public, who supported them because they were seen as objective science.

In the midst of all these competing ideas, Charles Darwin came out with his evolutionary theory in 1859. He called his book On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and in it he proposed that species developed over time by means of descent through modification. He maintained that species are not fixed but evolve over time through transitional forms. In doing this he basically provided the grounds for accepting monogenism, as a common descent for all species seemed incompatible with the polygenistic doctrine. Yet polygenism did not fall out of favor. It was soon reworked in a way that allowed some Darwinists to make it part of the new theory of evolution.

When Darwin published The Origin of Species, he had not yet applied his theory to humans, for there was no evidence that human fossils existed. Remains had been found in the Neander River Valley in 1856, but they were not yet acknowledged as human ancestors, and information about the find did not appear in English until 1861. Thomas Huxley used the Neandertal find to argue that human antiquity had been demonstrated and that more convincing transitional forms would be found in older geological formations.

German biologist Ernst Haeckel wanted to rectify Darwin's omission of man's ancestors. He believed that humans evolved from ape-like mammals and he invented transitional forms (later called "missing links"). He also came up with a "mystical" theory called monism, in which matter and spirit were the same. Haeckel envisioned life unfolding along a sequence leading to man. He regarded apes as a failed attempt to attain humanness, while various races were different species that he arranged in evolutionary progression. He saw "inferior races" as childlike because they represented the juvenile stages of the advanced species. He also thought of Darwinism as a social theory that explained his own nation's racial superiority. Using concepts such as "the struggle for life" and "survival of the fittest," his writings aimed to unify the German people, give them a common outlook, and prepare them to take their rightful place as the "superior race." He was convinced that an ancient "pure Aryan race" had existed, a superior Nordic people whose descendants were the German nation.

Haeckel's views were vigorously opposed by German anatomist Rudolf Virchow. To him the theory of evolution did not make sense because every living thing was made of cells and all cells come from other cells — so any deviation from parent type was a cellular disorder. The so-called transitional forms were not evolutionary changes — they were changes caused by disease. This was his evaluation of the Neandertal remains: they were not evidence of a human ancestor, but a disease-stricken individual. Virchow also doubted the validity of Haeckel's "Aryan myth," so he conducted a massive survey of the German population which showed that the so-called Aryan trait of blond hair and blue eyes could be found only in a small minority of Germans.

The movement to rework Darwinism into a social theory was driven by strong political implications, not only in Germany but also in England and the United States. One of its social applications was eugenics, which became the science of improving the human species by "better breeding." Its goal was to ensure the survival of the "fittest" humans. It influenced many countries to pass laws for the sterilization of those judged mentally and physically "unfit." It also led to more codified marriage prohibitions, and supporters in the United States campaigned for more restrictive immigration laws. They were especially fearful of being overrun by people from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Certain theories were particularly useful to the eugenics movement. For example, German biologist August Weismann theorized the existence of a "germ plasm" — an unchanging hereditary substance passed on from generation to generation. To eugenicists, Weismann's experiments were "proof" that people inherited all their physical and moral traits. There were many in Germany who believed this kind of "heredity" had led to the success of the German race. This attitude was so popular that in 1904 German eugenicists formed the Society for Racial Hygiene, with Haeckel and Weismann as honorary chairmen.*

*When the Nazi party came to power, many of their policies could be traced directly back to these same principles of "racial hygiene." Many Nazi policies were also inspired by U.S. eugenic publications and legislation.

It is interesting to note that Darwin disagreed with many ideas of the social Darwinists. He believed in the unity of races within a human species that originated from the same primal stock. His criterion for a single species was "interfertility," so that as long as different groups of humans could interbreed, they all belonged to the same species. Yet he still believed in the superiority of certain races in the struggle for existence, and was convinced that natural selection would favor Europeans in their interactions with other peoples.

At the turn of the 20th century many scientists did not accept Darwin's theory and questioned the validity of fossil evidence for human descent. There was a growing debate in which very important questions were being asked about "human-like" remains: Did the fossils actually represent prehistoric humans? What was their relationship to modern humans? Were they our ancestors, or extinct side-branches? To formulate answers, anthropologists started using the same rationale that they used to interpret races. Each new discovery of "human-like" remains was placed on a scale of relative inferiority and superiority. Of the anthropologists who did support evolution, many rejected natural selection as the process by which forms evolve. They proposed other mechanisms that would allow for the descent of separate races. In this new version of polygenism, the different races had a very ancient common ancestor from which they diverged and evolved at different rates — until each became human. So polygenists created an evolutionary timeframe for ranking fossils on separate paths of racial lineage.

All of these attempts to rank fossils resulted in a framework that became increasingly complex. Some anthropologists looked for similarities between fossils and found ways to put them in the same species. Others emphasized their differences and were inclined to name each new discovery as a new species. Most thought it was important to rank races, and they ranked the fossils of human ancestors in the same way. But there were also those who considered humans to be unique, as opposed to those who saw humans as part of the animal kingdom.

Another complication was the ranking of living races together with fossil forms. The rankings were seen as steps in human evolution, as links between humans and apes. Some of these schemes showed human ancestors appearing gradually, with one changing into another. Other schemes described the splitting of an ancestral species into two descendants, each with their own separate lineage. The status of "lower" races was explained by placing them in a linear progression, so they would appear at an earlier phase along the evolutionary path of the "highest" race — the Europeans. Some Darwinian monogenists went so far as to ascribe apelike status to certain races.

The debate over polygenism versus monogenism continued into the 20th century. Sir Arthur Keith was a well-known English polygenist with fixed opinions about racial types and the superiority of the northern European. He even claimed that racial aversions were beneficial to the evolution of "favored" races. Keith was convinced that the various races had diverged from different ape species. In his view, the ancestors of the human races were species of higher primates who existed millions of years ago. These ancestral anthropoids evolved into different branches which independently became "ape-men" (later called australopithecines). The different species of ape-men then evolved "in parallel." Following this reasoning, he regarded Peking man as the remote ancestor of the Chinese, and Java man as the ancestor of the Australian Aborigines.

Keith's ideas influenced many scientists of his time. One of the most notable was Earnest Hooton, whose work at Harvard made it one of the major centers of physical anthropology. Hooton was interested in categorizing humans into different racial types, each with a different lineage. He thought that each lineage was a different experiment in the process of becoming human, and that each race was originally "pure" and unmixed. But he recognized that this was no longer the case. To his credit, he did not rank races, so his polygenism was not overtly racist. And he also thought those who used fossils to bridge the gap in racial history were making precarious assumptions.

Another eminent American anthropologist was Franz Boas, whose work at Columbia University established cultural anthropology as a major school of thought. He was one of the first to stand up against arranging races on an evolutionary scale and linking culture and behavior to biology. His studies showed that biological change was too slow to cause cultural change. Moreover, each culture was created from a diffusion of elements from different groups of people, so no single group could be solely responsible for civilization. His position, known as "cultural relativism," was that people's beliefs and behavior made sense in terms of their own culture, that there was no absolute scale of values that could be used to judge the progress of any ethnic or racial group.

After World War II there was a definite shift in public attitudes toward race, and there were also changes in evolutionary biology. All of this was reflected in the new anthropological theories. First, the entire concept of race was severely criticized. There was also a new understanding of Darwinism and natural selection that thoroughly undermined the validity of previous ideas about polygenism. But for some physical anthropologists, these changes did not alter their views on race, and they continued to interpret fossil specimens according to racial types.

The most notable of these postwar polygenists was Carleton Coon, one of Hooton's students at Harvard. In 1962 he published The Origin of Races, placing different racial origins in separate geographical regions, ranking their progress along a single timeline. It was an evolutionary history of the races in which each had followed its own pathway through time. Each had been molded in a different way to meet the needs of a different environment, and each had reached its own level on the evolutionary scale. He traced the modern races back to five original geographic races: Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Australoids, Congoids, and Capoids. These existed as a prehuman species known as Homo erectus. The basis for his theory was that the five subspecies of Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens at five different times. Those who became human first had evolved the furthest, and in Coon's mind these were the Europeans because of their supposedly larger brain size. In this polygenic model, the length of time a subspecies had been human was linked to its cultural achievement.

Coon's book was widely criticized in the academic community. Too many of his ideas were blatantly racist, and he used these ideas to interpret the fossil evidence. The role that anthropology played in the philosophy of the Third Reich was still fresh in the minds of scientists, and the majority had abandoned the view that there were fixed, inherent racial differences among humans. It is interesting to note that Coon defended himself by saying that he was not a racist, and that he had simply used objective science to arrive at his conclusions.

Coon dedicated his book to German anthropologist Franz Weidenreich, and this gave the impression that Weidenreich's ideas were similar. In fact, many dismissed Weidenreich's theories as polygenist, thinking they were based on the parallel evolution of different racial types. But this is not the case. Weidenreich was an expert on the reconstruction of human remains and had worked on Peking man and Java man. Based on his anatomical studies, he identified "constitutional types" that could be found in all races. Each type was defined by a complex of physical features that could be used to characterize people. His studies also led him to develop a polycentric model of evolution. He did not accept the "monocentric" model, that there was only one central area of evolution and that new types evolved there and spread out over the world. He thought there were four centers of human evolution: Western Europe, Northeast Asia, Australia, and Africa. But these were not areas where different races evolved separately. He never accepted that there were pure races — he saw them all as "hybrids" that constantly changed because of changes in their environment. Even regarding those "races" that were distinctly geographical, Weidenreich saw them not as distinct types but as gradations. His studies showed that all human variations viewed together were considerably less than in many species of animals. His main idea was that all human forms, both living and fossil, were a single species.

Weidenreich's theories complicated the debate over what really defines a human being, and much of this focused on how to classify Neandertals. The earliest defining human trait was the ability to walk upright on two legs. The first to reconstruct a Neandertal skeleton was French anatomist Marcellin Boule. He assumed that Neandertals were an apelike species, so he gave his reconstruction bent knees and a slouch to suggest a stooping gait. Later studies, however, showed that they walked fully upright. Another trait used to define humans was the developed frontal lobes that give humans high foreheads. Early studies of the Neandertal brain case concluded that their brains were "deficient" and "defective," so they did not have the intelligence to make tools, solve complex problems, or use language. But all of these conclusions were later disproved or called into question. There were also attempts to define humanness anatomically, and many of these were aimed at excluding Neandertals. These definitions also managed to exclude some modern populations, such as Australian Aborigines.

The problem was that so many Neandertal remains were found in Western Europe, and many Western scientists had a definite aversion to seeing these "brutish creatures" as their ancestors. So it became popular to view them as an extinct species that did not interbreed with humans, and their extinction came about as they were "replaced" by migrations of Homo sapiens who were better at competing for food and territory. The scientific theory that described this process was called the Replacement theory, also known as the Out of Africa model. It held that the gradual evolution of ape-men into modern-looking humans took place entirely in Africa, and that these modern-looking people then spread into Europe and Asia as the indigenous populations were forced into extinction.

Those who followed Weidenreich's theories proposed that migrations of archaic humans (Homo erectus) came out of Africa before they evolved into modern-looking humans. As they developed in separate areas, there was a tendency to retain their own regional features. But none of these were pure races because there was always a great deal of gene flow as they procreated with neighboring regional groups. This became known as the Multiregional theory (developed by Milford Wolpoff and Alan Thorne), and in this model Neandertals did interbreed with other groups of humans. The key idea is that all human groups were interlinked by gene flow, and these links allowed succeeding generations in every region to develop more and more modern features.

In 1987 the Out of Africa theory received unexpected support from a study of DNA in modern humans. It focused on what is inherited from the mother's egg, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which was thought to accumulate mutations at a measurable rate. It showed that the amount of mtDNA variation between different racial groups was very small. The researchers calculated how long it would take to produce that amount of variation, and concluded that all human mtDNA sprang from the same lineage about 200,000 years ago. The study also showed that there is a wider genetic variation between different groups in Africa than on other continents. From this it was assumed that human mtDNA has been changing in Africa much longer than anywhere else. The conclusion was that modern-looking humans evolved in Africa first, before they started migrating.

These conclusions were criticized because they do not take into account how gene flow can vary within a population. In the center, where it is more densely populated, gene flow would be multi-directional. But at the edges it would be much less. The rate would also be higher if the population were larger, or if more time were involved. So it is precarious to assume a standard mutation rate. A small difference in this rate, multiplied over the millennia, could easily take the original lineage of modern humans back to Homo erectus.

These are currently the two main competing models on human descent: the Out of Africa and the Multiregional theories. Proponents of one are critical of the other. So how do we as nonexperts evaluate all of this "knowledge"? How do we know? Scientific conclusions about human origins are generally based on assumptions — opinions and beliefs which can easily be biased. These assumptions also affect how scientific data are interpreted: researchers can select information that agrees with their own preconceptions. One way to minimize this bias is to form a hypothesis that requires the least number of assumptions. This is exemplified in the idea that despite all the different human forms, we are all part of one biological unity.

Yet there is also a point of view that requires no assumptions — it is an open mind. It is accepting that we do not really know what it means to be human, but we are open to finding out. Looking back through history, we find those rare scientists who opened themselves to other people — without defining them. They were able to put themselves in their place, to sense the humanity of "the other" as their own. Suppose this ability were our heritage — an openness of mind and heart. If we could relate to people without definitions, we could share their experience of life, and ideas about inferiority and superiority would fall away. Perhaps this is what it means to be human — the ability to feel a deep commonality with all our fellow beings.

Selected Reading:

Graves, Joseph L., The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2001.
Shipman, Pat, The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1994.
Stringer, Christopher, and Robin McKie, African Exodus — The Origins of Modern Humanity, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.
Trinkaus, Erik, and Pat Shipman, The Neandertals — Changing the Image of Mankind, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1993.
Wolpoff, Milford, and Rachel Caspari, Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.

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Once we recognize that each man's concept of God is different, but that the quality of Deity is the same and that the Divine essence resides in the core of all that lives, then we have laid the foundation upon which to build a bridge of brotherhood over which man can travel from the darkness of past ages to the light of the future. — James A. Long