Not rocket science


Monkey nuts.  Evolution, racism and science

Sibusiso Biyela

When Penny Sparrow made her break-out performance on Zuckerland early this year, a great number of people were understandably enraged by her comments. I was one of those people severely upset but, as time went on, it became apparent that I was upset for somewhat different reasons than my fellow South Africans.

Months after Sparrow released her racist rant to the interwebs, headlines have continuously accused her of calling beachgoers, specifically black people, a bunch of monkeys. While, in truth she did say that, I am at a loss as to why calling someone a monkey would be considered racist.

Come now, bear with me here for a little while. I don’t know about anyone else but every time I hear of Sparrow and what she said, the odour of shit tickles the ends of my olfactory nerves. This is because she accused black bathers of leaving the beaches with a faecal stench and in a state of filth. As a black person I was offended because she accused a whole group of people, me being a part of it, of being the root cause of filth on Durban’s beaches. I was not offended because what she said hurt, I was enraged because what she said was a lie, that black people are inherently dirty and uncivilised to the point that a lower primate is better at disposing of its excrement than we are.

I am of the opinion that many, if not all of the greatest conflicts of the glorious human race were started and made worse by such lies. Having a person say something so inaccurate about people, and so unnecessarily hurtful, should always be met with the most appropriate justice.

The press, our spotless mirror of society, felt differently however when it was reported that Sparrow is actually most infamous for calling black people monkeys, to which I have repeatedly, vehemently shaken my dread-locked head in disapproval at the television set.

I propose that a history of misunderstanding science has allowed some white people to actively subjugate black people in the false belief that they are beneath them. Conversely, some of the victims of such oppression, never having been taught science, hate science because “the oppressors” have used it to subjugate them by claiming that they are less evolved, less human, than the oppressors.

Because some white people promoted the idea that evolution has made them superior to Africans and that this justified apartheid and all sorts of other racist nonsense, black people reject evolution because it puts them on the wrong side of the supposed evolutionary divide.

So, as long as black people think that evolution says that they are lower primates than white people, they are unlikely to approve of the science of evolution and even distrust science in general.

Science must fall? Another idea from the apartheid era that continues to resonate among black South Africans is the idea that black people have no business studying the sciences and mathematics. Yes, even today in black schools you will find that pupils are discouraged by family members and ill-informed friends who insist that science and mathematics are “too hard”.

The idea is that science, especially technology is izinto zabelungu (belongs to the whites), and that you have to study it only to get a job later on; you don’t really have to grasp it for any deeper reason. And so physics has become a subject where you plug values into equations, maths is simply recalling formulas and evolution is nothing but an anti-religious fib.

My own biology teachers expressed that last point about evolution to me as a student. Evolution is a particularly touchy subject because of the misplaced belief that people “come from present-day monkeys”, when in fact they are our distant evolutionary cousins. Evolution is a touchy subject because historically the ultimate race was seen to be Caucasian and black people were believed to be less evolved than their pale kin.

Because of this history, Abantu overwhelmingly dismiss the idea of evolution with the usual response that, “I am no ape/monkey”. We all saw this sentiment from Zwelinzima Vavi when news of Homo naledi, a new hominid species discovered in South Africa, broke last year.

Vavi had expressed his unhappiness at the discovery in a series of tweets along the lines of, “Should we expect that all blacks in Europe will, due to different weather there, evolve to be whites & whites in Africa evolve to be black?”

My first instinct was to tweet, “You, idiot! Evolution does not work that way”, and then continue to think less of the former secretary-general of Cosatu because of his lack of understanding of evolutionary science. But I didn’t tweet that. I thought it better to try and understand why he and so many others do not trust in evolution and possibly the natural sciences as a whole.

In the course of penning this piece, a video emerged of a “fallist” calling for the complete abolition of “Westernised science”, and that we should start over with an “African perspective”. The woman in the video, I am told, is a philosophy major so her comments on science are those from an observer rather than a science insider.

The video shows part of a meeting organised by “SRC candidates” to start discussions on “decolonising science” at the University of Cape Town, Africa’s highest-ranked tertiary institution. The meeting included students from the Faculty of Science at UCT, and the two-hour meeting was recorded to be uploaded on their Facebook page.

For some or other sinister reason, only the three-minute “African perspective” clip of the video ended up going viral. The video clip itself was uploaded unofficially on YouTube with the title “Science Must Fall?”, with the description, “Aggressive fallist from the ‘Shackville TRC’ claims science must be ‘done away with entirely’ and ‘start over again’”.

My naiveté rendered me ill-prepared for the vast ridicule thrown at this “aggressive fallist” in the plethora of comments on the various platforms where the video was shared. She was belittled, along with the entire Fees Must Fall movement and black students in South Africa in general.

Here’s a comment gem: “These people are retarded and should be treated as such. They need to be in day care not university.” And another: “why are these idiots given the same rights as everyone else? this fucking idiot has a cellphone, wears western clothes, communicates in a western language. she should go back to living in her fucking mudhut, eating insects and contemplating whether the earth is flat or if the tokoloshe is going to get her.” (Verbatim.)

Like Jesus, I drew a line in the sand… and added my own comment: “In her defence, I don’t think she fully understands what science is. If she did, I doubt she would say these things. To her, science is a great antagonist made of white scientists who ridicule African culture in their spare time. The fact that science education is still terrible in former blacks-only schools doesn’t help either.”

Defending her may seem like just “the PC thing to do”, but the alternative, as evident above, is assholery: it ignores the problems apartheid-mandated bad science education has caused, and instead makes parody videos that poke fun at a non-scientist fallist.

What needs to be better taught about science is that it is democratic; pretty much anyone from anywhere can do it and everyone should be aware of it and be persuaded of its power to make our lives better by solving a lot of our problems.

Unfortunately, many of the tools we use in the search for knowledge, and the knowledge itself, live in our universities, in our science faculties, that are not accessible to all for obvious reasons. This current situation has created a citizenry that does not know what science really is – and distrusts it.

But those who do know the true democratic nature of science also know its power to empower, so it is up to those in the know to undo the damage of the past. If that means “decolonising” science – changing  the demographics of scientists in important positions and of those who benefit from it – I say let’s try it.

Frankly, I want to be able to call my “friends” on Facebook monkeys without being jailed and stripped of my life savings for it.

Sibusiso Biyela is a digital science communicator at ScienceLink, South Africa’s first digital science communication start-up, and he volunteers for SciBraai, a proudly South African NPO dedicated to science journalism, communication & outreach.

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