Old stories of who we are

Evolution and the stories we used to tell ourselves.

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
21 min readOct 19, 2022


Re-Assembling Reality #28b, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

You hold an opinion about who you are and what your place is in the world.

Maybe you think that as a human you are superior to all other life on earth. Maybe you think that as a man you are superior to 50% of all other human life. Maybe you think that, even though you are not at the top, you know where the top is: The top is where people wear sharp suits and earn big bucks. And maybe you have your path planned to get to the top.

If this is you then, yes, you have an opinion about your place in the world.

But maybe you say, “No, I am far more egalitarian. I hold no such outmoded views.” Maybe you think that all humans are equal. You are of no more — and no less — worth than a woman or a child, an African or a European, a Jew or an atheist. Maybe you are so egalitarian that you hold you are no more and no less valuable than an orangutan, or a dog.

Maybe you say that money does not place a person at the top. Manners are more important than money. The world needs people who are considerate, caring, grateful, and hopeful, far more than it needs people who are rich. You recognise that you, yourself, fall short of this ideal, and are not as kind as you could be, or should be. But you still recognise that kindness matters.

In that case, you, too, have an opinion about your place in the world.

What is your place in the world? On what basis is that place determined? Can you or should you want to change that? You have opinions about these questions. They are very personal to you, and they are probably strongly held. (Credit: Wellcome Images)

You must have an opinion. You cannot operate without such an opinion. It is what William James (whom we met in Essay #30) would call a forced option.

You cannot be a blank slate. If you refuse to get up in the morning, and refuse to think about it, and drown yourself in alcohol to avoid taking a position on your place in the world, then you have taken a position on your place in the world.

And if you have an opinion about something, it is possible that something else can come and challenge that opinion.

If you think that success is measured with money, and one day you meet a man who has money but who is a miserable, wretched human being, you may be shaken in your beliefs.

If you think that a Nobel prize is the greatest thing in science, and you set your entire career after that, but then you meet people who have won Nobel prizes, and people who have not won them, and you decide that there is more to science than can be measured by a prize, that can shake you.

Critically, your opinion about your place in the world is your opinion about you. It is necessarily a significant belief for you. And if your belief is shaken, this is existentially significant to you. The experience of such shaking may be uncomfortable, traumatic, or terrifying, and we should not be surprised by this.

The trauma is not because the new view is necessarily worse than the old one, but because the old view has been shaken. The drunk who discovers that his life can be meaningful may be no less traumatized by this revelation than the city banker is traumatized by finding that his life is broadly meaningless.

This essay looks at a view of humanity’s place in the world, and the resistance that was faced by people who challenged that view.

Are we a brotherhood?

Not all new scientific developments challenge our understanding of ourselves. The Standard Model of particle physics, which brought order to the proliferation of sub-atomic particles, was framed in a way that didn’t challenge people’s self-understanding. And it was introduced without much push-back from the general public.

By contrast, some scientific theories, directly or indirectly, challenge our view of ourselves. And they often receive significant push-back. This is not necessarily because they are wrong, or because the new vision of humanity is bad, but because the old vision of humanity to which people were accustomed has been shaken. A prime example, obviously, is evolution.

What does this plate tell us? That it is worth distinguishing between Europeans and Chinese, but not between Germans and Italians. That Orangutans have a place on the same image as humans, but dogs do not. And that, if we are classifying things, the shape of your skull is important. (Credit: Raw Pixel.)

It is noteworthy that the battle lines over evolution were originally not drawn along the religious / non-religious divide. There were both Christians and non-Christians on one side arguing for evolution, and Christians and non-Christians on the other side arguing against it.

Consider The Origin of Species or, to give it its full title,

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

It is not about the origin of life. It is about the origin of species. This includes, among others, Homo Sapiens. And it speaks to questions of race.

Darwin did not engage directly with human origins in The Origin of Species, except for the wonderfully understated throwaway remark that, because of his evolutionary theory, “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” [1] He returned to the question of human origins more explicitly in his 1871 Descent of Man.

The incendiary question which evolution raised was not so much the (now much touted) “Is a monkey my uncle?” (Because a monkey is a different species, so we really don’t care.) Rather, common descent asks, “Is an African my cousin?” And Darwin answered the question with a firm, “Yes”.

Between the publication of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, T.H. Huxley — often called Darwin’s Bulldog, and lacking Darwin’s concern for not rocking the boat — published a book of essays titled Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature [2]. In case the book’s title is insufficiently clear as to what Huxley is driving at, the second essay begins,

“The question of questions for mankind — the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other is the ascertainment of the place which man occupies in nature, and of his relations to the universe of things.”

Be in no doubt: the concern of evolution at the time of Darwin was not so much to tell us about variations in the shape of a bird’s beak, or the geographic distribution of tortoises, but rather to tell us who we are, and where we fit in the world.

Darwin’s social context was different from ours today, and the positions against which evolution needed to argue were quite different from those it would encounter in a modern context. At the time, there were two prominent sets of thought regarding human origins:

Monogenism, which held that all humans are related: descended from a common stock.

Polygenesim, which held that human races are distinct, and always have been distinct: according to one classification into four races, Caucasian people are descended from Caucasian people; Mongolian people are descended from Mongolian people; Negroes are descended from Negroes; and American Indians are descended from American Indians.

“American Indian, Mongolian, Negro, Caucasian.” Did they descend from a common stock, with the differences arising over time? Or have they always been different?

Who would hold to polygenism?


As a theory, polygenesim had a number of advantages to it, not least of which being that it explained what people saw in the world around them:

— It explained why Chinese people had Chinese babies, and why White people had White babies. There was no way for an African to produce White children, any more than a dog could produce kittens.

— It explained why any right-thinking Caucasian would find an African physically repulsive to behold. [* Please see the disclaimer below.] Just as you would never kiss your dog, you would never be attracted to a person of a different race.

— It explained why Africans apparently found other Africans attractive; at least attractive enough to make new African babies with. Each race was attracted to its own, no matter how repulsive they were to people from a different race.

— It explained inter-racial aggression. A good man would never beat his brother; and yet good men had no pangs of conscience about beating slaves. Evidently slaves were not the brothers of good men.

Disclaimer: Some of the views which are reported in this essay are, by modern standards, offensive to the point of being morally abhorrent. These are views which some people historically held. They are views which some people historically believed to be reasonable, and even self-evident. They are views which some people at the time claimed the science of the time could account for and justify.

We will report these views, and may even trace the logic of these views, as people considered it at the time, without necessarily immediately critiquing them at the moment they arise in the essay. Our recounting of such views and arguments should not in any way be taken as signifying our agreement with them.

The differences between races had been scientifically demonstrated. You could measure people’s heads and noses and ears and demonstrate — scientifically — that Whites and Blacks were different races. They were different species. Science said so. [3]

Religious people

While the major positions within Abrahamic religions tend to be monogenist, there are many religions which hold that different tribes arose from separate creation events. For example, according to the Bambuti Pygmies of Congo, the creator god made Black people from black clay, White people from white clay, and the Pygmies themselves from red clay. [4]

That being said, although European explorers were becoming aware of other people and cultures, those people’s beliefs, where known, were held up as curiosities, rather than being integrated into Western thinking. In this regard then, the Western mind was not ‘teachable’ by these outsiders: the West did not adopt polygenism because they saw it in other cultures. Instead, they needed to find the intellectual resources within their own culture and their own religious traditions that could support polygenism.

Despite the general Christian rejection of polygenism, there were nonetheless Christians who held that polygenist thought was consistent with Christianity, and indeed that it accounted for what otherwise seemed to them as difficulties with the biblical text.

Even admitting that people do look different from one generation to the next, African and Chinese features are so markedly different from White features that it seemed unlikely that all different races could have arisen from such variations in the 6,000 years since Adam. Faced with the evidence (that Africans look different from Europeans, and that people don’t look very different from their grandparents) a narrowly literalistic interpretation of Genesis had to be abandoned.

God may have created other races alongside (or even prior to) Adam. The bible does not mention them, but there are many things the bible does not mention, and it is poor exegesis to argue from silence. The Bible, for example, does not mention where Cain’s wife came from. It recounts that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1–2). And then it recounts that Cain had a wife (Gen. 4:17). Either Adam and Eve had many children (which the bible does not mention) or God made other humans separately from Adam (which the bible does not mention).

If God made other humans alongside (or prior to) Adam and Eve, this could account for separate races, and squares observation (that changes occur slowly) with other aspects of the biblical texts (that Adam was created 6,000 years ago). [5]

Converts awakened from dogmatic slumbers

As ideas flow back and forth between religion and science, it may be noted that the empirical evidence was so compelling that even people who had firmly held to monogenism on religious grounds might, on seeing the evidence, be converted to accept polygenism on scientific grounds.

Louis Agassiz, a devout Christian and meticulous collector of evidence, had started out in Switzerland as a monogenist on religious grounds. However, on arrival in America he met Negros. Following careful physiological and anatomical observations, he revised his views and concluded that humans from America and humans from Africa had been created separately from those from Europe. [6]

Louis Agassiz (1807–1873). (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Wanting to reconcile his scientific views with his religious ones, he returned to the scriptures and decided that one could do the text justice, even without adhering to a simplistic literalist interpretation. The biblical conception of the unity of the human race did not necessitate any argument for unity in physical terms (as though we were literally descended from a common stock, and the Negro is the White man’s actual brother) but rather should be seen in spiritual terms: all humans, of whatever race, are a unity because we all came (spiritually speaking) “from God”.

Who would hold to monogenism?

Religious people

The bible, speaking of God creating humanity, says, “From one man He made all the nations.” (Acts 17:26.) That is monogenism. Agassiz may have been willing to bend his interpretation, but many people were not.

Today, Genesis is a go-to text for people who want to argue against scientific accounts of origins, and the 19th Century was no different in that regard. Scientific consensus said that human races were — and always had been — distinct, and the bible said that this was not so. Genesis clearly portrays diverse nations as descending from a common stock. God made mankind once (Genesis 5) without additional acts of special creation being mentioned for yellow, black, or red. Moreover, the bible says that all the nations it lists — be they European, African, or Asian — are all descended from Noah (Genesis 10).

There were some religious people who thought you could take these biblical texts and obtain scientifically relevant information. It did not matter that other people (both religious and non-religious) insisted that the bible was not a science text book, and was never intended as such. They did not care. The bible (they argued) supported monogenism.

There were some religious people who thought that, given the choice between listening to hard, empirical, rigorous, demonstrable science or listening to the bible, they would follow the bible. It did not matter that the scientific case for polygenism was apparently conclusive, water tight, and widely accepted by the scientific community. They did not care.

There were some religious people who interpreted the bible as saying that all humans descended from a common ancestor, and they therefore believed that science (which denied this biblical assertion) had to be wrong. It did not matter that they could not point to exactly where science had gone wrong. It did not matter that there were other ways of reading the bible which let go of naive, narrow, literalistic interpretations, and which reconciled the biblical account with the scientific mainstream. They did not care.

The bible said it, they believed it, that settled it.


It is one thing for a generally religious person to side with the bible against established mainstream science. But there were established and otherwise credible scientists who clung to such apparently un-scientific, anti-scientific, dogmatic, religiously motivated views. Scientists like John Bachman.

John Bachman (1790–1874). (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Bachman was a naturalist — a scientist. He had three species of animal named after him. But he was also an ordained Lutheran Minister. And he allowed his religious prejudices to impinge on his scientific work.

He wrote a book entitled,

“The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race
Examined on the Principles of Science.” [7]

Notice that monogenism is not a scientific conclusion here. It is a religious doctrine.

To understand the regard in which monogenism was held with respect to mainstream science, the preface to Bachman’s book is instructive. Normally the preface of a book provides the author an opportunity to speak proudly and fondly of their work. In this case, it served as a disavowal. Writing in the third person (which already provides some distance) he explains:

The author of this essay submits the following explanation of the circumstances which have finally led to its publication.

The Literary Club of Charleston, aware that his early studies had been directed to Natural History, and that in the pursuit of his profession as a clergyman he had felt himself constrained by a sense of duty to investigate those branches of science that appeared to militate against the truths of Christianity, had during his absence from the city in September last selected “the Unity of the Human Race” as a subject to be discussed at the meeting which would next in turn take place at his house.

“Look,” says Bachman, “let me explain. These guys — the Literary Club of Charleston; not me! — They knew that my scientific training clashed with my religious beliefs. So when I was out of town they set up a meeting for me to talk about monogenism. I was away! They sprang it on me! At my own house! So I couldn’t back out. Please, it’s not my fault.”

Disavowals of your own book don’t get much stronger than that.

On a personal note, still writing in the third person, he continues,

“In discussing a subject the most difficult in the whole range of the sciences, he has often felt himself obliged to differ from the views of other naturalists. These happen to be, in several instances, his co-labourers, members of scientific associations with which he is connected, his correspondents and personal friends… He only refers to it here as an explanation to the public to show them that a difference in opinion can have no influence in weakening the bonds of mutual respect and attachment.”

Which is to say, by way of a plea to friends and colleagues: “Please don’t hate me, guys. I feel alone enough already.”

Some people insist that science and religion don’t ever really disagree. But this sits uncomfortably with the facts of history. Monogenism — humanity’s common descent — provides a clear example of where religious thinking was opposed to the scientific consensus.

And it is uncomfortable.

Social activists

Polygenism, by some accounts, explained the treatment of slaves: If a good man would not beat their brother, and a good man would beat a slave, then a slave cannot be the good man’s brother.

Monogenism can be leveraged to press on us a rather different conclusion: If a good man would not beat their brother, and a slave is my brother, then the ‘good men’ so honoured by society may not be as good as had been previously supposed.

A Christian group called The Quakers took up this religious, anti-scientific, subversive reasoning in their fight to abolish slavery. In 1787 the Quaker Josiah Wedgewood founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The society took as their seal a logo which asks, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” The polygenist knows that the robustly demonstrated answer of science is, “Maybe just about a man; Definitely not my brother.” But to religiously-motivated monogenists who were willing to ignore good science, it was a rallying cry for change.

It may be noted that abolitionist sentiment ran in the Wedgewood family. Josiah’s son, Josiah Wedgewood II was also an ardent abolitionist and monogenist. Monogenism also ran in the family. Josiah Wedgewood II’s nephew, Charles Darwin, was a noted monogenist.

Charles Darwin

We have already seen that the scientist John Bachman was a monogenist. His monogenism sprang from his Christian convictions.

Darwin was also a scientist and also a monogenist. “Common descent” screams monogenism. While his view did not arise from his theology, it was intimately bound up with his views of slavery, and his ideas about humanity’s place in the world [8].

Charles Darwin (1809–1882). (Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron.)

The issue was an exceptionally hot topic in the social milieu in which Darwin worked and published (or, at times, held back from publishing). Consider, what happened in the world while Darwin was writing:

1859 — The Origin of Species is published.
1861 — Start of the American Civil War when the South secedes over slavery.
1865 — 13th Amendment abolishes slavery in the US.
1871 — The Descent of Man is published.

Humanity’s place in nature was a contentious topic. It was contentious enough for people to go to war over. And evolution sat in the middle of that, with its promoters and detractors acutely aware that what it said of humanity’s place in the world would shake civilisation.

Complicated cross currents

Given a topic as contentious as race, a few complicating factors should be noted.

At first glance, and painting with a broad brush, there is a seemingly natural alignment between the abolitionist cause, the monogenist notion of the brotherhood of man, a relatively literalist interpretation of Genesis, embracing biological evolution, and rejecting the then-prevailing scientific view. There is also a seemingly natural alignment between systemic racial inequality, the polygenist notion of separate races, a flexible interpretation of Genesis, rejecting biological evolution, and embracing scientific racism.

This broad-brush-strokes picture is noteworthy because it undermines some typical assumptions that are often bandied around.

One pleasantly ironic subversion is the religious views with which biological evolution was thought to align well, and those against which it jarred. Evolution was thought to fit more closely with views that we would today think of as Young Earth Creationism, while it seemed to jar against more liberal Christian interpretations of the bible that were acceptable to the scientific establishment.

Another point which jars with expectations is the effect of harmony and conflict between science and religion. It may be felt that harmony should be sought between science and religion wherever possible. In the situation considered here, however, a flexible interpretation of scripture which was able to accommodate the accepted facts of science provided an apparent religious justification for slavery. By contrast, holding fast to a religious doctrine that conflicted with the accepted facts of science helped effect a paradigm shift which ended slavery. We should not be too hasty in embracing the idea that religion should avoid conflict with mainstream science at all costs.

That much being said, and while the “seemingly natural alignments” of the broad-brush-strokes picture are illuminating, care must be taken to not over-simplify a complex picture. There are also illuminating nuances and complexities when one scratches the slightest distance below the surface.

Louis Agassiz was a scientist, a polygenist, and sufficiently flexible in his theology to square Genesis with his science. He was an avid opponent of Darwin, and railed passionately against evolutionary theory. He was also opposed to slavery. [9]

By contrast, John Bachman was a scientist, a monogenist, and held his literalist interpretation of Genesis against the views of his peers. He trained and ordained the first three African-American ministers in the Lutheran Church, and yet he strongly opposed the abolition of slavery, holding that black slavery was part of the natural order for mankind.

On the question of slavery, Darwin would have agreed with Agassiz and disagreed with Bachman. On the question of monogenism, Darwin would have agreed with Bachman and disagreed with Agassiz. On the question of divine acts of creation, Darwin would have disagreed with both Agassiz and Bachman.

This complexity underscores the fact that, while religion and science were both invoked in these discussions, this is not a simple face-off of science vs. religion. Nor are there universally applicable alliances between polygenist / monogenist thinking and pro-slavery / abolitionist thinking; or between creationist / non-creationist views and evolution / fixity of species; or any other sets of pairings we might hope to make.

The key message of this essay, then, is not to reach a point where we can group the various factions together to show which ones were the good guys, or which ones were right, or which ones ultimately won. Rather, it is to note that, in all contexts, there are questions regarding which bits of science people are willing to be flexible on, ignore, or reject; and there are questions regarding which bits of religion people are willing to be flexible on, ignore, or reject. As we established in Essay #6, there is no universally-agreed-upon or guaranteed-reliable way to select what to keep and what to jettison.

If we blinker ourselves and look only at our modern situation, it may seem obvious how we decide what to keep and what to jettison: we should choose scientific evidence over religious dogma; we should base social policy on insights supported by science, not on insights supported by a book written thousands of years ago; and so on. But the history of evolution cautions us against believing this will always work out. So let us re-iterate the claim for those who did not believe us last time: there is no universally-agreed-upon or guaranteed-reliable way to select what to keep and what to jettison.

All this being said, and although disagreement was rife, there was one point on which all parties generally seemed to agree: the dispute hinged on different views of who we are, and what our place is in the universe.

Then and now

We argued in Essay #27a that controversies tend to arise over disputes which impact on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the universe.

We have argued in this essay that, when Darwin first published his ideas on evolution, they were controversial exactly because they impacted on the stories people told themselves about who they were and their place in the universe. A key fault-line in the dispute was aligned along the monogenism / polygenism divide. This divide did not overlap neatly with other possible groupings at the time, such as those made along religious, scientific, political, or cultural lines.

Today, as in Darwin’s day, the monogenist / polygenist debate still doesn’t neatly overlap with the dividing lines of societal groupings. Unlike in Darwin’s day, however, no one today cares about disputes over monogenism and polygenism.

Some of the lines around the earlier controversy have blurred: monogenesis is now taken to mean that humanity evolved from a single interbreeding population, rather than from a single pair. We are aware of extinct hominin species, and we are aware that Africans are unique in being “pure” homo sapiens, unlike everyone else whose ancestors interbred with Neanderthals. But no one seems to get upset about that. Theologians still argue about the implications of God creating pre-Adamic and co-Adamic humans. But that discussion is quite independent of the discourse on race.

Darwin would not have been surprised that the topic, so contentious in his time, has slipped into such obscurity that few people now even realise the topic ever existed. He himself anticipated,

“When the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.” [10]

But if no-one cares about polygenism, why is evolution still controversial? It is because it has been dragged into another dispute. And it is another dispute over the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the universe.

We will look at that dispute in the next essay.


[1] The subject matter of The Origin of Species obviously had application to questions of human origins, and Darwin implicitly, if not explicitly, stated as much in the book’s conclusion: “I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator.” A discussion of the reasons for which Darwin held back from making this point more explicitly is given by Ian Tattersall, “Charles Darwin and Human Evolution”, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2 (2009): 28–34.

[2] Thomas Henry Huxley, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863).

[3] It may be easy now to reject the 19th Century science of race as ideologically-driven pseudoscience. However, at the time it was considered a paragon of scientific excellence, as detailed by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man (1996). This alone should instill in us great humility with respect to the beliefs and acts we now hold to be scientifically justified. Who knows how 21st Century science will be seen in the 22nd Century?

[4] John Mbiti, African Religions & Philosophy (1990).

[5] In Essay #6 we discussed under-determination: while in an inconsistent system we can see that something is wrong, we do not know what is wrong. Consider the three statements:
— (1) humanity originated 6,000 years ago,
— (2) all humans share a common ancestor,
— (3) the differences observed today emerged slowly and gradually.
To make this set consistent we need to change something. But we do not know what. We can revise any one statement, or more than one statement. As will be discussed later in this essay, Darwin abandoned (1); Agassiz abandoned (2); and modern Young Earth Creationists abandon (3). For what it is worth, the modern mainstream view of science has, to a greater or lesser degree, abandoned all three. Against (1), it is now held that Homo Sapiens arose as early as 300,000 years ago. Against (2) it is held that Homo Sapiens arose from a single(ish) population, though not from a single pair, and have sometimes subsequently interbred with other hominin species. Against (3), it is believed that the rate at which changes happen over geological time can vary considerably, and can sometimes be quite rapid.

[6] Edward Laurie, “Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man,” Isis 45, no. 3 (1954): 227–242.

[7] John Bachman, The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race Examined on the Principles of Science (1850).

[8] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Evolution (2009). The gentler title for the 2011 edition published in the US is Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins. Under either title, the book is absolutely worth reading, and does far greater justice to the complexities of Darwin’s thought and the surrounding debates of his time than our brief essay could ever hope to achieve.

[6] In The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races (1850), Agassiz strongly argues against using polygenism as a justification for slavery: It is not only Whites and Negros that are separately created, but in like manner Chinese, Indians, and Malays. If polygenism is not an argument to enslave the Chinese, it is not an argument to enslave the Negro. Edward Laurie [“Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man,” Isis 45, no. 3 (1954): 227–242] discusses the complex dynamic in which Agassiz’s work was co-opted by other polygenists to further the cause of slavery. This was done with Agassiz’s knowledge and even complicity, though likely not with his approval.

[10] Charles Darwin, Descent of Man (1871).



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.