Secular Help for Trafficking Survivors

I've written in the past about the phenomenon of people who think that their religious beliefs excuse them from doing their job. The correct solution, of course, is to not accept a job whose duties you won't perform; but the religious privilege that pervades society often leads people to expect that their employer should accommodate them, rather than vice versa, and that they should be paid for work they refuse to do.


Usually, this happens in service positions: pharmacists who won't fill prescriptions for birth control, town clerks who refuse to certify same-sex marriage licenses (or, even more horrifyingly, Muslim doctors and nurses who refuse to bare their arms to wash their hands).

What makes this even worse is that, not only will these people not provide the service, they take up a spot that could have been filled by someone who will. Of course, that's very much the point: many religious groups would love nothing better than to have a world where technically legal services are completely unavailable. And it's not just on an individual level that religion pursues this strategy. When government money is made available to provide social services, religious organizations inevitably line up to try and displace secular groups by taking the money and then not offering the services that contract was supposed to provide.

That's why I was pleased to read this week that the U.S. government has dropped a Catholic bishops' group from a $19 million program to provide assistance to victims of human trafficking. The contract stated that the applicant was supposed to provide "the full range" of legally permissible obstetric and gynecological care - and contraception and abortion are still legal in the U.S. - but the church refused to offer either.

This is especially revolting because the contract was intended to provide aid and counseling to victims of human trafficking - modern-day slaves, women who were abducted or sold to brothels and forced to work as prostitutes. If they've become pregnant through rape, they have every justification to get an abortion if that's what they choose, but even now, the church wants to deny them the information and the means to control their own bodies. Fortunately, the grant has instead been given to three secular aid groups, which will provide all the help that trafficking survivors need and not just the kind of help that the Roman Catholic church thinks they should be allowed to have.

This story parallels the trend of Catholic adoption agencies closing down because the church would rather see children remain homeless than place them with same-sex couples, and secular groups stepping in to take up the slack. These are positive developments, not just because it means more people can be helped, but also because it helps erode religion's assumption of privilege and moral superiority. As it becomes more obvious that churches are constrained by their own prejudices from helping people in need, more people will stop turning to those churches for aid and start going to secular groups and charities that put a higher value on this life.

Image credit: Steve Rhodes, released under CC BY-ND 2.0 license

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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.