The Questions of Race and Evolution

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. ABC News, Channel 7, San Francisco; Associated Press.

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. This day, we remember the courage that was required to engage with racism in our society. The history here is both hopeful and discouraging. For all the progress made, much is left undone.

Some question why we should even address race on The Panda’s Thumb, a blog devoted to defending evolutionary science. Perhaps this will just end into a contentious debate about the scientific particulars about the biological meaning of race.

It is difficult to talk about race. Still, we should find the courage to engage. The questions matter here. There are important things that can and should be said by us.

I want to follow Todd Wood’s example. This summer, this young earth creationist asked, “Is Evolution Racist?” Knowing this genre well, we should expect a diatribe of race-baiting, but that is not what Wood did. Instead, he took an honest look at his camp’s own history of racism, explaining how creationism has been used to justify racism.

Wood’s approach displays obvious integrity. His direct explanation of the history of racism in his own camp, to his own community, was not easy. It was not costless. He demonstrated courage, and in doing so sets an important example for us.

Of course, much of the same reality is true of evolution too. There is a complex and troubled history of racism among evolutionary scientists. Evolution has often been used to justify false understandings of race and the evil of racism. It serves the common good to acknowledge this, to teach its history, and to model how to move past it.

There is difficulty in reckoning our history here. Dr. King has words for us. He was a theologian by training, but he also discussed science. In fact, he said quite a bit about science. In his Nobel Prize lecture, King observes,

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing…We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

There will be disagreements with the particulars of what he said of science and religion. Still, it seems that we should agree with him here.

It has been more than 50 years since MLK was murdered. Over that half century, we certainly have not learned how to live together as a common family. Now, it is legal to integrate; the law does not force us to segregate. In that sense, we are desegregated. Yet we still live apart from one another. We have not managed well what MLK called the ethical demands for integration.

Evolutionary science is important, in part because it brings us to grand questions about who we are and where we came from. Origins, at its best, brings us to the grand question of what it means to be human.

On this front, looking past our disagreements, it seems there is broad consensus among evolutionary scientists on these points.

1. There are many definitions of race, especially if we include folk and historical definitions. For that reason, we have to be careful about equivocation in the term "race." 

2. Evolutionary science certainly does rule out many understandings of biology race, but perhaps not all of them.

3. Some of the versions of "race" ruled out were quite prevalent in the past, including among evolutionary scientists. It is worth understanding why they were wrong.

4. We now know that the human species is far more linked by interbreeding that we realized even just 50 years ago.

5. Even if biological races are real in some sense, that reality would not grant moral legitimacy to racism. Even as we debate the legitimacy of certain understanding of race, recognizing differences would not legitimize dehumanizing people based on those differences.

6. There is, regrettably, a near total absence of African American scientists in evolutionary science, and in the biological sciences as a whole. 

There is much more I could say here, but these points of agreement seem like a good place to start.

Our points of disagreement, also, are important. I want to work through them. A full telling of evolutionary science includes the questions of race. These questions are difficult, in part because they extend beyond evolutionary science. The payoff is worth the trouble. The science here is interesting, and it can serve the common good.

Perhaps, in a conversation among scientists, we can find a better way. The conversation is difficult for obvious reasons. We are faced with questions about our moral worth, dignity, and place in society. How we think about race matters. Scientists can and should be a model community for navigating the complexity here.