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Upright Walking and African Witch Doctors

witch doctor

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Olufemi Oluniyi, PhD, as a new contributor. He is executive director of the Centre for Values and Social Change in Lagos, Nigeria. In the documentary Human Zoos, Dr. Oluniyi offers his expertise on the history of Social Darwinism in shaping European colonialism.

From the 18th century to today, the image of the African witch doctor has lingered in the Western imagination. Travelers to my continent mocked this weird figure. For phenomena he did not understand, he offered ridiculous explanations and uninformed guesses, addressed to his followers who seemed powerless to tear themselves away from his enchantment.

Does this sound at all familiar? The Western scientist, including the evolutionary scientist, is thought to be light years ahead of such superstition. But sometimes I wonder. Consider an article for The Guardian, “Exploding Stars Led to Humans Walking on Two Legs, Radical Study Suggests.” Ian Sample, the newspaper’s science editor, summarizes research published in the Journal of Geology.

According to Mr. Sample, the scientists report that “a series of stars in our corner of the Milky Way exploded in a cosmic riot that began about 7m years ago.” The explosions, we are told, led to an evolutionary leap that transformed the human species, endowing us with the ability to walk on two legs and differentiating us from other apes that went on all fours. After that, nothing would be the same.

The notion looks to a series of supernovae in the Earth’s neighborhood of the Milky Way, over the course of millions of years: “The surge of radiation triggered a chain of events, the scientists argue. As cosmic rays battered the planet, they ionised the atmosphere and made it more conductive.”

Result: Savannas

The mega-explosions, in this telling, caused extreme lightning and forest-consuming wildfires. The result was today’s savannas, with grass instead of trees. Man, according to the theory, was beckoned to stand upright by the changed environment where distance vision, among other things, became a special asset.

Remember, though, that walking upright is no simple achievement, but instead one requiring a range of coordinated changes. As Evolution News has noted:

Upright walking remains a distinctive characteristic of humans. Many organs and systems are involved. We lack the stability of four feet, and being relatively thin and tall, we are at risk of falling over from gravity more than most animals. Staying upright requires many systems to work together: muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, the balance organs, the brain, and rapid feedback between all of them.

In this context, the nexus between exploding stars and extreme lighting, on one hand, and humans standing on two feet, on the other, can only invite observations and questions. 

Sleight of Hand

First, what appears as an explanation does not actually add any new information. Rather, it is a sleight of hand, an assertion posing as an explanation.

Second, while we hear about wildfires devouring African forests and leaving savannas in their wake, there is no mention of the more immediate impact of the fires on the protohumans living in the vicinity. Such destruction seems more consistent with wiping species out of existence, not transforming and gifting them with complex new functionality. 

Third, why was the anatomy needed for walking upright the only part of the body to be affected — and affected in one particular way, to cause human beings to walk as we do, whereas there are countless other imaginable outcomes? What of the nose, the intestines, the ankles, the thighs, the vocal cords, and the fingers? Did the “cosmic intervention” sculpt any of these? If not, why not? It appears arbitrary. Or perhaps purposeful! But banish that thought. This latest research could just as easily be taken as supporting intelligent design, yet the pseudo-scientists would swear and recoil from such a conclusion. 

Yes, it does all sound familiar. In seeking to explain what makes humans exceptional, current evolutionists convert guesswork into a methodology, as humans did for long ages in the pre-scientific past. The African witch doctors of old would sympathize.

Photo: Savanna landscape, South African, by Gossipguy [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.