On a recent reporting trip in Ethiopia, I was struck by how evolution and religion coexist peacefully in the nation. Every day on my walk to Ethiopia’s National Museum, which houses the ancient bones of ape-like human predecessors, I passed a throng of women praying outside of St. Georges Cathedral, across the street from the museum. I was moved because the scene stood in contrast to the United States, where grandstanding debates, like the one this year between Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham, seem to be a regular occurrence. In the video (above), you can hear chants from the cathedral bellowing into the museum courtyard.
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.
Alemseged grew up in a devout Christian household in Axum. In primary school, he learned about the descent of humans from apes. “People separate their faith from evolution here,” he explained. “It’s just like having two languages or two systems of counting.” Now that he lives in San Francisco, where he directs the anthropology department at the California Academy of Sciences, he’s pondered why a clash occurs in the U.S. To him it seems disingenuous to reject one or the other completely. Many religious people rely on science to provide them a cancer therapy, and many people of science utter a prayer if a loved one falls dangerously ill.
In the U.S., human evolution stormed into the limelight in the 1920s during the Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution to his public high school class in Tennessee. Those in the plaintiff’s camp described evolution as a threat to conservative values, and soon after, the creationist movement aligned with people who took a conservative stance on a host of social and cultural issues.
“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.