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Howard Researchers: Racist, Sexist Depictions of Human Evolution Still Permeate Science, Medicine, and Education

graphic showing the progression of mans evolution

WASHINGTON – A landmark journal research article resulting from the Howard University College of Medicine and the Department of Biology examines how racist and sexist depictions of human evolution still permeate a broad range of cultural materials in popular media, education, and science.

The multidisciplinary and inter-departmental team of Howard researchers was led by Rui Diogo, PhD, associate professor in the College of Medicine, and Fatimah Jackson, PhD, a biology professor; and included three medical students – Adeyemi Adesomo, Kimberly S.. Farmer, and Rachel J. Kim. The paper, entitled “Not Just in the Past: Racist and Sexist Biases Still Permeate Biology, Anthropology, Medicine and Education,” is being published in the prestigious scientific journal Evolutionary Anthropology’s latest issue.

“While many discussions on this topic are often more theoretical, our paper shows direct, visual evidence of what systemic racism and sexism really look like,” Diogo, the journal article’s main author, said.  “We continue to see, not only in popular culture but also in museums and textbooks, depictions of human evolution as a linear trend from darker and supposedly more ‘primitive’ human beings to more ‘civilized’ ones with a lighter tone of skin, as shown in the paper.”

graphic of evolution, series of images of mans development

Jackson said the persistent, inaccurate representation of demographics and evolution  in the scientific literature distorts the authentic view of human biological variability.”

She continued, “These inaccuracies have been known for some time and, the fact that they persist, generation after generation, suggests racism and sexism are likely serving some other purpose in our society – the retentions of ‘white’ and male supremacy and the exclusion of ‘others’ in many societal areas.”

As an example, the article highlighted a depiction of human fossils by the renowned paleo-artist John Gurche, that were displayed by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. According to researchers, the depiction suggests that human evolution was a linear ‘progression’ from darker to lighter  skin pigmentations. The paper points out the inaccuracy of such imagery, noting that only about 14% of the people living today identify as  ‘white.’Researchers also said the concept of race itself was a part of another inaccurate narrative, as there are no biological races within our species.

“Not only do these images downplay the complexity of our evolution, they also white-wash our recent evolutionary past,” said Kimberly Farmer, a third-year medical student and co-author of the article.

The authors of the paper studied a wide-range of depictions of evolution: images from scientific research articles, museums and cultural heritage sites, documentaries and TV shows, medical textbooks, and even educational materials seen by millions of kids worldwide. The paper noted that systematic racism and sexism have existed since the earliest days of human civilization and are not unique features of Western countries.

For more information, contact Dr. Diogo; rui.diogo@howard.edu


About Howard University 

Founded in 1867, Howard University is a private, research university that is comprised of 14 schools and colleges. Students pursue more than 140 programs of study leading to undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. The University operates with a commitment to Excellence in Truth and Service and has produced two Schwarzman Scholars, four Marshall Scholars, four Rhodes Scholars, 12 Truman Scholars, 25 Pickering Fellows and more than 165 Fulbright recipients. Howard also produces more on-campus African American PhD. recipients than any other university in the United States. For more information on Howard University, visit www.howard.edu

Media contact: Sholnn Freeman; sholnn.freeman@howard.edu