David Brat, Religion and Redskins: How the Fringe Continues to Dominate the Conversation

As Americans Google ‘David Brat’ to find out how this unknown college professor came to unseat one of the most prominent (on the right) and loathed (on the left) members of the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, an intense battle of cultural ownership continues to simmer at a national scale. 

I’ve read over a dozen analyses of yesterday’s primary election and it does seem that the ‘perfect storm’ hypothesis is most fitting: Cantor’s flip-flopping on immigration reform; his disappearance in local politics while lusting for national power; the questioning of his conservative street cred; his perceived role in bailing out bankers. Brat chipped away, piece by piece, and defeated him handily with nearly no financing, befitting of his namesake when toppling the Goliath of Virginia politics. 

Everyone loves an underdog, and we can’t make too much of the ‘celebratory aspect’ comment while evading his position on Syria on MSNBC. The headline was bigger than the actual conversation, par for the course on click-hungry websites. That said, his politics is troubling, especially concerning religion and immigration, two things not always clear-cut in evangelical land. As with most primaries, only hardcore voters showed up, and they wore the Tea Party badge proudly.

Brat called his victory a ‘miracle from God,’ because, as we are all aware, God’s had it out for Cantor for some time. No mind. That’s not an uncommon sentiment from someone who was outspent 40-1 and still pulled off a win. But Brat’s fundamentalism goes much deeper. The professor is certain that national economics and Christianity are synonymous, and that faith in the latter leads to prosperity in the former. 

Somehow, in Brat’s mind, Adam Smith’s theory that individuals maximizing gains with no benevolent intentions still benefit society is somehow a metaphor for Christian morality. To the invisible hand that Smith invoked Brat added ‘of God.’ More precisely, a Protestant one.

Because Smith lived in a Protestant state, and because what he wrote has been defined in the eyes of Brat as revealing a divine hand—the faithful have a habit of filling in blanks that never existed—the most influential economic theorist in history has been transformed into a God-fearing man. And the man that believes this might soon have a vote in Congress.

Is a hardcore believer with an agenda in politics surprising? Hardly. But the timing of this upset is too important to miss.

The National Congress of American Indians might have been upset when its two-minute ad did not run during the Super Bowl, although the press they received online did drive many viewers to find it online. The organization was vindicated this week when a one-minute version was aired during the NBA Finals. The group’s message is simple: change the name of the Washington Redskins. It's racist, whether or not you want to acknowledge that fact.

This particular sore spot in American history has been derided by some sports fans, including team owner Dan Snyder, who has refused to back down to any external pressures, including Senator Harry Reid. The Redskins itself tried to initiate what became a failed hashtag bomb on Reid, as many critics used the opportunity to tell Snyder and crew what they really felt about the issue. 

This is where genetics and history clash with short-term memory. The utopic ideology of manifest destiny is predominantly held by citizens whose own ancestors had a role in the little-discussed genocide on American soil. Most scoff at the idea that the Protestant myth men like Brat hold dear is a falsified account of one of the bloodiest episodes in our short time as a union. The more distant an event, the easier it is to write off. Regardless, 'we' were promised this land by anyone, divine or human.

Now Brat is one election away from perpetuating his fantasy of Christian economics, one in which our (read: white) right to economic prosperity is equal to our faith in a particular form of deity. The man spends his time writing about Ayn Rand’s morals; the idea that he’s ever picked up a Howard Zinn book is probably ludicrous.

Friends sometimes tell me that these are just fringe candidates, pay them no attention. Considering how long immigration reform has been stalled, I cannot agree. The fringe might be small, but it’s loud and has the ears of policy makers. Polls show that most Republicans do support reform—that is, affording foreigners similar rights to the ones our forebears stole and invented for themselves. Yet momentum on this issue is hard to spot.

Is yesterday’s election indicative of a larger trend of fringe candidates gaining power? Probably not. But it will put more fear in the heart of those whose names are on upcoming ballots, which translates into more kicking of the proverbial can. And while they punt the issue, more families are being torn apart by deportations.

Brat might not ever be accused of being a witch, but if Virginia voters hope to avoid the delusional musings of a far right religious theorist, this district better turn blue in a hurry. Perhaps that's one facet of history that needs to be repeated: keeping the crazier of the crazy out of Washington.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.