Many of us feel trapped in a doomsday narrative where our species is defined by hunting, killing, war and destruction. Part of this narrative of violence is rooted in the stories and pictures we hear about our ancient ancestors which often focus on hunting. One of my goals, in designing educational materials around human evolution, is to include a wider array of images of the past. Beyond hunting I also show pictures of people caring for each other, making art, picking flowers, eating fruit, dancing and gathering around the fire. To change our future we need to go back and expand our vision of the past.
Let’s take a minute to look at how pervasive cultural stereotypes are limiting the way we teach evolution to young people. Existing books on evolution tend to adopt one of two methods to portray our ancient ancestors. In the first, authors use the literal “bare bones” approach in which visuals focus on fossils and bones. In the second, “man the hunter” is shown as a progression of awkward apes transforming into a man (typically light skinned) with a spear.
Most scholars in the field of evolutionary sciences are white and male, and unwittingly, they often tell the story of evolution with the focus on characters who resemble themselves. This POV filters down into the way we introduce evolution to young people. The problem of stereotyping is so deeply entrenched that well-meaning art directors, illustrators, and editors may not even note that these images portray the end point of evolution as a white man. Not only do the existing representations expose biases about sex and race, they also reinforce the message that evolution is for and about adults. Of course, there were children in stone-age tribes, but they are largely absent from the page.
Examples of The Bare Bones Approach to Evolution
An emphasis on fossils and skeletons makes evolution seem clinical and impersonal. Readers who crave relatable characters are left out in the cold.
Examples of Man-the-Hunter Approach to Evolution
The underlying message conveyed by “man the hunter” is that human history is the domain of white men and weapons.
I believe that expressing curiosity about our origins is a basic human need. I feel that the current academic literature about evolution is not engaging kids on the level of wonder and curiosity. We risk alienating young learners by force feeding them material that focuses exclusively on scientific details without framing the information within an emotionally engaging story.
My approach to portraying ancient humans aims to do more than teach science; my larger goal is to show the reader how they belong to an extended family that reaches back in time. The information conveyed is intended to provide the reader with an emotional context for relating to their ancestors. This approach respects the pressing human need to feel connected to a family bigger than oneself and to have a story of one’s origins.
Both faith-based and scientifically informed origin stories are designed to communicate a culture’s core wisdom about the nature of life. Because evolution is foundational knowledge we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.