A Duke University associate professor on theological and biomedical ethics has said that cultural views of evolution can have important ethical implications.
Amy Laura Hall, associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University, argues that many popularized ideas about evolution assume that some human groups are more evolved than other human groups.
"I believe that evolutionary biology, as depicted in the popular press, too often uncritically reinforces ideas about race that privilege white, Western bodies and cultures. I see this at work today in new arguments for paternalism in Haiti, for example," said Hall.
Hall's current research looks at ways evolutionary biology is conveyed in the popular media.
She cites examples of television documentaries about evolution that portray human evolution commencing in Africa, using images of dark-skinned people "almost as living icons" to represent humanity at our genesis.
"When evolution is depicted as an upward slope, those representing the origin are also often perceived as the nadir," she said.
Hall is looking at how these popular portrayals are reinforced in recent media coverage of the earthquake disaster in Haiti, coverage that she says depicts Haitians as more primal and less developed, and how this may influence relief efforts that are more paternalistic in nature.
"In order to seek more collaborative, less hierarchical models of international engagement or relief work, we need to discuss head-on the racist ways evolutionary biology has become dispersed," she said.
"In order to collaborate, you have to consider your potential collaborators as adults, rather than as people further down a slope of human development, thus assuming a kind of tacit paternalism," said Hall, whose training is as a moral theologian.
Hall's research in this area will be part of her forthcoming book on "muscular Christianity," a movement that crystallized during the Victorian era to reinforce virile Christianity and social Darwinism.