Published in the Sunday Times
Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian (Jacana)
When I studied the history of science at university in the ’80s, I learned that science is often shaped by the context of the time. So when I began research for Darwin’s Hunch, I was curious to find out how the changing times had shaped the search for human origins. For over a century, scientists rejected Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa, but today it is widely accepted.
One of the fascinating things I found was that anthropologist Raymond Dart has a lot in his papers that he did not share with the world. Many of his scientific practices were shaped by colonial thinking. Dart collected human skeletons in an effort to understand what he called “race typology”, which he believed held clues to evolution.
Paging through his documents, I learned the disturbing story of how one of those skeletons came into his collection, a story that remained hidden in the archives for 75 years, and which showed how scientific methods at the time treated human beings as specimens.
Phillip Tobias was Dart’s successor as the head of the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School so it was interesting to learn more about his relationship with Dart. I delved into some of Tobias’s papers as well, and it was surprising to see how his thinking on race and human evolution shifted from his youth in the 1940s through to his death in 2012. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of Tobias’s colleagues, Hertha de Villiers, who helped to shift scientific thinking away from Dart’s race typology. It was fascinating to learn about this accomplished scientist and her work.
Another of Dart’s theories was that humans are naturally violent. He based this idea on the fact that ancient human ancestors were carnivores and he believed that they used certain bones as weapons to kill their prey. This idea was so popular in the 1960s that it spread to millions of people via Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dart’s research inspired another young scientist, Bob Brain, based at the Transvaal Museum. Brain concluded that human ancestors did not choose certain bones as weapons, but that those bones remained in the fossil record because they could not be easily chewed.
By the late ’80s and ’90s, genetics had begun to play a big role in understanding human origins. Research with mitochondrial DNA led to the finding that all living humans had shared a common ancestor in Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. While the changing science is engrossing, it is often the scientists themselves, and the times in which they live, that are most revealing.