‘Africa deserves respect as it is the origin of mankind,’ said Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Sunday 26th. He made the remark after visiting the skeleton of Lucy and other iconic fossils found in Ethiopia that indicate the origin of mankind which were on display at the Headquarters of the African Union during the OAU/AU 50th founding anniversary celebrations.
The Prime Minister’s remark reminded me the creation–evolution controversy (also termed the origins debate) which is a recurring cultural, political, and theological dispute about the origins of the Earth, humanity, life, and the universe.
This debate is most prevalent in the western world, but to a lesser extent is also present in Africa and elsewhere and often portrayed as part of a culture war. Creationists dispute the evidence of common descent of humans and other animals as demonstrated in modern palaeontology, and those who defend the conclusions of modern evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology, and other related fields. They argue for the Abrahamic religions accounts of creation, attempting to frame it as reputable science (“creation science”). While the controversy has a long history, today it is mainly over what constitutes good science education, with the politics of creationism primarily focusing on the teaching of creation and evolution in public education. The debate also focuses on issues such as the definition of science (and of what constitutes scientific research and evidence), science education, free speech, separation of religion and state, and theology.
It is now commonly accepted in scientific circles in our country that “man has become what he is today as a result of millions of years evolution. Beginning as a one celled animal…” So reads the text book used in biology or anthropology or science classes in all our elementary and high schools as well as in universities and higher institutions.
However, most of the Ethiopian Christians and Muslims with their scriptures as well as majority of Ethiopian people believe and confirm Adam as the first man created by God in Heaven. “When God began creating the heaven and earth, the earth was a shapeless chaotic mass. The time came when the Lord God formed the man’s body from the dust of the ground…’’ So begins the book of Genesis in the holy bible. Also the holy Quran describes how Allah created Adam: “We created man from sounding clay, from mud moulded into shape…” (15:26) and, ‘‘He began the creation of man from clay, and made his progeny from a quintessence of fluid” (32:7-8)’’.
Our children in schools, ourselves including our Prime Minister who is a devout Christian face a conflict over this issue. Who do we and our children believe? Lucy, the evolution point of view or Adam & Eve, the creationist point of view? Probably no other issue has drawn a sharper dividing line or confusion between religious and non-religious thought in our society than that of origin of man for the last forty years.
Were we, as Christian, and Islamic scriptures state, placed here by special divine creation? Or did we as many contemporary educators, anthropologists, philosophers, politicians and others tell us, evolve from nothing into one-celled animals and up the zoological chain of apes like Lucy into Homo sapiens?
Many Ethiopians feel the uneasy tension that exists between these views. Our spiritual authorities be it Christians or Muslims stand firmly in the creationist camp, while the public education system, anthropologist, biology teachers majority of their peers including our Prime Minister, lean heavily towards the evolutionist point of view. Who is right? Is there an answer?
Nevertheless, both the evolutionist and the creationist point of view and position should be intellectually respected and given equal opportunities as alternative theories in our education system, research, public policy debates, political lobbying, museums…etc and we should be very cautious when we deliver speech or take positions on very controversial issues such as this, especially in a country like Ethiopia.