Saturday, December 13, 2014

Celebrating human evolution and religion in Ethiopia

by Salman Hameed

Biological evolution is a subject often at the center of science and religion debates. On the one hand, it seems logical that an idea that removes one aspect of human uniqueness may cause tension amongst some religions. On the other hand, such a tension is not necessary nor has always been the case. Even in late 19th century and early 20th century, biological evolution - including that of humans - was more or less accepted in Europe without much controversy. It might have been the case in the US too if not for specific circumstances linked with the Fundamentalist movement of the 1920's and the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' trial that led to the creation of anti-evolution movement here. Even then, it may not have mattered that much, but the merging of this anti-evolution movement with the new  Christian right in the 1970s brought the topic fully into identity politics. Furthermore, the dominant form of creationism in the US evolved (ha!) from old-earth creationism to the idea of an Earth only a six to ten thousand years old. Since creationism cases in the US have received so much attention - and continue to do so - that we forget that this is not necessarily the default conflict position everywhere else in the world.

It is in this context, it is wonderful to see this article by Amy Maxmen on Ethiopia which highlights the way Ethiopians celebrate religion as well as the story of human evolution as uncovered by archaeologists:
A distinguishing feature of Ethiopia is that both religion and science are bred in its bone,
and the union doesn’t seem to be a matter of either side compromising. A mosaic at the museum’s entrance pictures Lucy, our famous human-like ancestor from over 3 million years ago, and an Orthodox Christian cross. Soon the Ethiopian government will open The Human Origin Museum, devoted to our evolution. 
Generally speaking, Ethiopians are devout Christians or Muslims, and they’re quick to note the holy and historical sites that occur throughout the nation. Both the Old and New Testaments name Ethiopia several times. It is said that the grandson of Noah (of Ark fame) moved to a city in the north of the country, Axum. Today, the Ark of the Covenant—which contains tablets inscribed with Moses’ Ten Commandments—is purportedly locked within Axum’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another name for Ethiopia, Abyssinia, occurs in the Qur’an. It is said that the prophet Muhammad advised his disciples to escape persecution in Mecca by fleeing there, where the Christian ruler of Axum welcomed Muslims with open arms. Ethiopian Jews allegedly descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. And Rastafarians regard Ethiopia as their homeland. 
Ethiopia is also a holy land to paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. In addition to Lucy, 10 other species of hominid (members of our tribe that date back 6 million years) have been discovered in the country. Many of them were found buried west of Axum, in an arid region called the Afar, which rests at the intersection of three enormous tectonic plates that float above the Earth’s molten core. An Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, Zeresenay Alemseged, told me that during celebrations, the leader of the Afar begins ceremonies with a religious prayer, and then welcomes everyone to the cradle of humankind.
I was also asked some questions for the article, and I'm quoted for the US situation:
“More often than not, accepting or rejecting evolution has become a matter of identity,” said Salman Hameed, a professor of integrated science and the humanities at Hampshire College. “If you are a member of the new Christian right, you are often against human evolution, against abortion, against global warming.” In other countries—such as Ethiopia—evolution does not carry the same historical baggage. 
Because evolution is included in a package deal of beliefs in the U.S., conversations for or against it become quickly heated. “If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. Rather than engage in futile debates, Hameed would prefer discussions about why a person feels the way they do. “Otherwise, it just amounts to us-versus-them, to idiot-calling on either side,” he said. That’s a shame because ultimately we’re all united in the same obsession: the tale of our creation.
Read the full article here. But the best part is this short (4 minute) video linked with the article:


P.S. One of the reader's on the article described me in a fascinatingly amusing way - and I have to quote it below: 
“If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. 
And there's the problem. Hameed is a fully rational human walking around with a little burning nugget of insanity carried inside his brain, lovingly wrapped in impervious walls of rationalization.
Love it!

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