Diversity and Inclusion: Breaking the Binary

The world is a colorful, diverse place, but we somehow minimize it to black and white. How did we come to divide everything and everyone into polarized opposites?

The world is a colorful, diverse place, but we somehow minimize it to black and white. While it is easy to divide everything and everyone into polarized opposites — Democrat and Republican, homosexual and heterosexual, young and old, black and white, — there is much more to be explored, acknowledged, and appreciated. By recognizing only the dominant binaries in every category, we alienate people by squeezing them out, and stealing their visibility. When people are not visible, it is less likely that they will gain the rights and freedoms they deserve as human beings.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Gender Binary

The gender binary assumes that every person must be feminine or masculine, identifying as woman/girl or man/boy. This construct immediately others intersex people from the moment of birth, often leading to surgery to make a sex assignment possible. Beyond this, the gender binary applies not only to people, but to the things with which they interact. This is where we get the age-old idea that dolls and pink are for girls, and trucks and blue are for boys. It is expected that gender identity and expression matches biological sex, and behavior falls in line. This is a pipeline to gendered roles in relationships that are enforced by the media, education, religion, law, and social systems.

The Political Binary

While there is evidence of people falling outside of the defined binary, there is little room to express a political opinion that is not squarely Democratic or Republican, and we view these options as staunchly liberal or conservative. In a poll on debate.org, 91% of respondents said the two-party system in the USA is flawed. In many countries outside North America, two-party systems do not have such distinctive labelling, but independents and less dominant party options are ignored. This often creates a dynamic where people vote mindlessly, or feel like the best they can do is vote for the lesser evil. More and more, people are voting against a person, ideology, or party rather than for representation reflective of their own values. The ideological extremes don’t serve the people with more diverse views, beliefs, and visions for the future of the country. How could moderate options outside of the Republican-Democratic binary change politics and governance, and impact the way we address global issues?

The Sexual Orientation Binary

The LGBT+ community is large and diverse, but many of the people in it are not recognized by the world at large. For a long time, there was only “gay” and “straight.” In recent years, the lesbian community has become stronger and more visible, but others continue to struggle. In particular, bisexuality carries stigma as people identifying in this way are considered to be confused, indecisive, or between two worlds. It is still not a widely accepted sexual orientation, even relative to homosexuality. They are often envisioned straddling the line between heterosexuality and homosexuality because we fail to see sexual orientation and sexuality as a spectrum as suggested by the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Sexuality Grid. Biphobia is only the tip of the iceberg. People who are pansexual, asexual, questioning, queer, and many others falling outside of the binary struggle to find legitimacy, allies, and a safe way to exist. It can take them a long time to find the language to describe their sexual orientation and inclusive communities because neither of the two are generally visible or a part of mainstream conversations on sexuality.

The Binary Effect

Binaries assume that there are only two options or categories. They are the basis upon which systems are created and maintained, and require everything and everyone to fit into one of the defined categories. These are often determined based on the state of the majority, failing to consider existing moderates, or the possibility that moderates will eventually come to be. Binaries are seen as more than defaults. They ignore, deny, and other any non-compliant people, labeling them as deviants. This is in complete contravention to the values many of us claim to have: diversity, inclusion, and participation. No binary ever ends at the point of classification. This is a simplified version of the effect of binaries:

Binary ---> Normalization ---> Extremism ---> Othering

The gender binary, for example, has a domino effect in several directions. One trajectory, following the model above, can be simply plotted as:

Gender binary ---> Gender norms ---> Hypermasculinity ---> Homophobia

A Brief Explanation

The heavy influence of the gender binary on the performance of gender — dictated by gender norms — leads to hypermasculinty. At a young age, boys are told to be tough, discouraged from crying, and taught that femininity is bad, embarrassing, and synonymous with weakness. For this reason, there is a distinct separation between acceptable and unacceptable emotions. While sadness, especially accompanied by tears, is reprehensible, anger — even accompanied by violence — is commendable. Because masculinity is required and reserved for men and boys, anyone defying these rules is an outcast. Men and boys are expected to dominate women and girls, and exhibit specific behaviors, while girls are expected to be fragile and submissive, thus creating the world of heteronormativity and homophobia.

Binaries are a part of a complex system that is replicated in many areas of our lives, from gender to politics. At what point will our value for diversity and social inclusion outweigh the need to define and categorize people? There is a need for more seats at the table, and space for the people currently marginalized. Do we have more to gain from greater participation that is reflective of the population than we do from ostracizing moderates and nonconformists? It’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ll break the binaries we feed, familiarize ourselves with the spectrums that exist, and get comfortable with the discomfort that may come from making this necessary change.


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
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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.