evolution in black and white

Intro: My premise: that evolution is largely responsible for the grandeur and grief of this gift we call life. What insights does evolution offer to our understanding of some of our most vexing cultural problems? ___________________

Go back roughly 100k years, or about 600k overlapping generations, and our ancestors evolved on one continent alone. Evolutionarily each of us here today—we are Africans.

To us, 100k years is a long time. But in planetary time? The barest blink of the eye. Still, it’s long enough to bring superficial changes to our features, depending on where our ancestors landed after exiting Africa.

But now things have speeded up. Culture has, over that time, become our supreme evolutionary strategy—and wildly successful, if seven billion people appropriating every corner of the globe counts as wild success.

Meanwhile, some evolutionary biologists suggest that in 500 years, give or take, we—our descendants, that is—will be mostly the same color. No matter where we live, a richly honeyed latte will be our only natural choice.

I can’t wait. I have a personal interest in this topic. My stepfather was the child of children of slaves. I took his name after both he and my mother died. She and he were born into an era when you could buy penny postcards of draggings, lynchings and burnings and send them to the folks back home.

The era of the Klan. And my mother’s father—he was in the Klan.

The poignant thing? No such thing as “race.” Doesn’t exist. Biologically, we are one race, one subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens. Beneath the veneer we can touch and see—but meaningless so far as innate behavior goes—our so-called races are genetically indistinguishable.

Have we then some hope of healing the horrors of bigotry that have been our lot for lifespans uncounted? I so want to believe. But culture cuts both ways. Warring and cruelty are as deeply woven into our DNA and our cultural traditions as teamwork and mercy are.

Warring. Cruelty. Teamwork. Mercy. A short list, yet long as the ages.

Consider warfare, practiced by virtually every tribe and nation since the dawn of our time in a world whose resources have always been finite. After all, warfare begets slavery, each begetting the other in turn.

But consider also—that every species of bird or beast, wars in some fashion. Yet cooperates in some fashion. Is in some fashion cruel—yet shows mercy, or a sort of metaphoric protomercy.

Join me now in a little wrap-up Q&A. Given time constraints, I’m your proxy. The questions, and my answers:

1. Is the evolutionary deck stacked? Always has been. Geography, plain and simple, is the wild card. Has a huge effect on cultural evolution—right down to who’s dealing the cards when gunpowder meets metallurgy.

2. If by some accident of fate, whites in our land had gotten the losing hand in the slavery game, would it soften their ire that the original perps were dead and gone? Some might graciously forgive. Others—not at all. I think we’d understand.

3. And would they want some compensation—affirmative action, perhaps? Lord, yes.

4. Birth color—it’s the luck of the draw. But if that lovely latte is a gift we can look forward to 500 years out, can we evolve away from bigotry? Tough question! Compared to genetic evolution, culture—for good or bad—evolves at warp speed. Whatever our beliefs about evolution, belief in evolution won’t help here. Where to begin? Belief in ourselves.


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