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Think. Discuss. Act. Racism

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Review: The Progress and Evolution of Man in Africa

L.S.B. Leakey. (1961). The Progress and Evolution of Man in Africa. Oxford University Press. (Found also in Nolen. [Ed.]. [1967]. Africa is people. New York City: E.P. Dutton.)


(Download Progress and Evolution of Man in Africa overview as a PDF)

Leakey is best known for his theory that Africa, not Asia, is the cradle of human civilization and for the discovery of Zinjanthropus. His ideas on this sensitive issue may be controversial and misused.


As a social anthropologist [although we remember Leakey primarily as a physical anthropologist], I naturally accept and even stress the fact that there are major differences, both mental and psychological, which separate the races….Such differences…are not a matter of superiority or inferiority.


It is a very great pity that…people try to measure difference in terms of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ using their own particular code as their yardstick for so doing.

On the other side of the picture there are people…who firmly believe that the only differences between an African Negro and a white man are those which can be attributed solely to education and to cultural background….These people apparently believe that an African who is given a European or American education will at once become in all mental, intellectual, and psychological aspects ‘a white man with a black skin,’…that modern Africans…will become so like Europeans and Americans that it will be fair to judge their actions as though they were Europeans….Herein to me lies…the major cause of nearly all the burning problems of racial conflict.

I have spoken earlier of…the period when the greater part of the (African) continent was cut off from the rest of the world at the very time when civilization was dawning there (a period of ‘isolation and stagnation’)…During the last hundred years the greater part of Africa has…got beyond the awakening stages…and is really stirring into action again.

The Argument Against Western Superiority

When we talk so glibly of the ‘superiority’ of the white races at the time when Europeans arrived to introduce Western civilization…we should do well to reflect that in many ways the Africans had already reached a position which we, the so-called civilized races, are only just beginning to comprehend.

Family planning, lately learned in Europe and Asia, was part of traditional African life. Kikuyu elders explained to initiates:

If a woman starts another child before the previous one is more than two years old, then the child that has thus been conceived, the growing child which she is nursing, and the mother herself, will all suffer. Therefore, our law forbids a woman to have a child until three years.

Similarly, the so-called civilized world has just begun to do away with capital punishment for some forms of murder-and until fairly recently so punished people for sheep stealing: “Yet in most Bantu Africa…only a person who was a persistent murderer was put to death.”

While Western nations still gave men strong legal rights over their wives, “most African tribes gave women far greater freedom and greater rights to live their own lives as they chose.”

Leakey adds, “At a time when drunkenness was a major curse in many parts of Europe and America, in Africa the laws of a number of tribes forbade all except the very old to get drunk at all.”

He also notes, “Before the coming of the white man, social organization in many African tribes was such that tragedies such as destitute widows and orphans, unloved lonely spinsters, unmarried mothers, and aged and un-cared-for elderly people were unheard of and indeed could not occur, while prostitution was unknown.”

Further, he claims, “Years before Ross claimed that he had discovered the cause of malaria, a European traveler in Abyssinia wrote the following: ‘The Natives hereabouts say that Malaria is caused by the bite of the mosquito, but, of course, we know better-it is caused by the miasmas of the swamps.’ “

In conclusion, Leakey states:

White men who came to Africa during the past hundred or so years have been imbued with a sense of their own superiority and have consequently treated African as inferiors…It is all too easy to forget that the undoubted intellectual superiority of the white races in certain branches of shall we say science, stems from a long heritage of training and represents only one facet of mental quality.

Africa led the world in matters of progress throughout the early years of man’s development. Africa is again awakening and is destined, I feel sure, to play a major part once more in world progress. A better understanding of the problems is therefore vital.


  1. Leakey wrote this in 1960-61. It must first be asked whether, though trying to be objective as a western social scientist, he himself carries traces of racism or at least ethnocentrism.
  2. To refuse consideration of differences in the races (as in another sensitive area-the differences between the sexes) may drive such analysis into the subconscious, where it can infect personal attitudes and relationships. Young people, particularly, need the freedom and encouragement to discuss such sensitive issues.
  3. Leaders and young people need to understand how global problems demand cooperation. More than ever, nations and cultures need to bring worldwide diversity into a unity of perspectives for attacking global crises. All must join as equals into a world community working on common problems of population, hunger, urban development, war, economics, and politics.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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