Epstein: A Common Ancestor

19 Tamuz 5774

Epstein asks us in chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism:

“What would it mean if we all shared a common ancestor?”

This bothers me, the idea that having a common ancestor should be this important. Of course, religiously, Epstein means Adam and Eve (and, I suppose, Noah and his children, since nobody else survived the Flood). But he also acknowledges genetics in the chapter that precedes this question. Chapter 4 is largely about balancing scientific findings about evolution and natural selection with Biblical teachings about the origin of humankind.

If we all shared a common ancestor in the sense that we all looked alike, we’d still find other ways to separate ourselves out and treat others as less-than. I’m a social scientist; I study this stuff.

However, we do (technically) all share common ancestry, if not a single common ancestor. And as such, we need to talk about things like race, and how we let this social construct separate us in ways we should never have let it separate us from each other.

Race is entirely a social construct. Evolution has a lot to do with it, but there are no separate “races.” There is the human race, and variation within it. The darker you are, the closer your ancestors were to the equator, and the more sun they were exposed to. Our bodies protect us against skin cancer by increasing melanin content. Conversely, the farther away from the equator your ancestors lived, and the more Vitamin D you needed to attract, the paler you’re going to be, to protect yourself from rickets.

But both of these things are just evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. There are no “races.” There are only human variations.

I really wish people could understand this better.

The problem is, humanity is, by its very nature, an ingroup-outgroup kind of creature. We like our groups and our tribes and we often define ourselves by what we’re not (the outgroup). I think, as a social scientist, that ingroup-outgroup is sort of the fundamental problem with humanity today. We can’t seem to see everyone as part of our group.

This applies to race, and it applies to gender, and to religion, and even to occupation. When are we going to get our act together as a species and see that we all share common ancestry?

So, what might it mean, if we all understood that we have a common ancestor? Maybe the end of us-and-themism. Maybe the end of ingroup-and-outgroup. Maybe the end of fighting with each other.

Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

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