RNCSE 22 (3)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
3
Year: 
2002
Date: 
May–June
Articles available online are listed below.

Racism and the Public's Perception of Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Racism and the Public's Perception of Evolution
Author(s): 
Randy Moore, University of Minnesota
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
3
Year: 
2002
Date: 
May–June
Page(s): 
16–18, 23–25
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Daisy Bates's death in November 1999 reminded many people of one of America's most bitter civil-rights struggles: the struggle to integrate public schools. In 1957, Bates helped 9 black students to enter Little Rock's all-white Central High School. Although a federal court had ordered the integration of the school, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus became a white-supremacist folk-hero when he ordered 1200 armed troops to block the black students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly sent in the 101st Airborne to escort the students to class and protect them from the mobs of angry, spitting, rock-throwing whites that had surrounded the school. The students, who became known as "The Little Rock Nine", received Congressional Gold Medals in 1999 in recognition of their courage (Lawrence 2000).

Although the story underlying the integration of Central High School has been told many times, another pivotal struggle that occurred just 7 years later at Central High is often overlooked. That struggle, led by biology teacher Susan Epperson, was to overturn Arkansas's 1928 ban on teaching evolution in public schools (the only such ban passed by popular vote; see Moore 2002a). During the struggle, Governor Faubus was a vocal critic of Epperson, basing his opposition on the same reasoning that he had used to oppose integration: "It's the will of the people." Although Epperson's legal struggle was not explicitly about race, the many links between the anti-evolution crusade and its underlying racial sentiments later became explicit. Indeed, racism has long been an issue in the creationism/evolution debate.

Evolution, Creationism, and Racism

How could evolution be used to support racism? We know that human geographic variants are recently derived and that genetic differences between them are superficial and trivial; there are, to echo the subtitle of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859), no biologically "favoured races" of humans. Even biological distinctions of races are outmoded, for such distinctions are based not on biology, but on our cultural interpretations of nature (for example, see Gould 1977, 1993). Nevertheless, scientists and others have often used - or, more accurately, misused - evolution to support their racist ideas.

In human phylogeny, for example, some biologists, such as Alexander Winchell (1870, 1880), claimed that whites descended from non-whites, but that whites continued to progress while non-whites did not. As a result of this continued progress, whites became superior to non-whites. Other biologists argued, on the contrary, that non-whites degenerated from whites, and therefore are inferior to whites (see McIver 1994). The constant, of course, was the assumption of white supremacy, which various biologists argued for by considerations of neoteny (see Gould 1977, 1993), cranial capacity (see Stanton 1960), and intelligence (see Gould 1977). None of this supposed evidence for white supremacy has stood up to scientific scrutiny; the state of the art in the evolutionary sciences clearly and overwhelmingly indicates that racism is not scientifically justifiable.

Racist arguments have also been based on creationist beliefs, both scientific (or pseudoscientific) and religious. Before the Civil War, apologists for slavery claimed that the South's "peculiar institution" was sanctioned by the Bible, some adding that the Bible proclaims that blacks and whites do not have a common ancestry. Such claims continued to appear well after Emancipation and into the 20th century (Dickey 1958; Odeneal 1958), bolstered by the flourishing of various individuals and groups that promoted a mix of fundamentalist religious beliefs and racism.

The Ku Klux Klan, perhaps the most influential group to promote racism in the US, also opposes evolution (as the recent movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicted). Ironically, although the Klan wants to ban the teaching of evolution, it embraces the crudest form of Social Darwinism to explain and justify its racist ideology. Specifically, the Klan endorses the ideas of many "scientific" racists who claim that genetic differences between races are biological determinants of human actions and human destiny. Anyone who intervenes to remedy these inequalities is condemned as interfering with natural laws (for example, see Lewis 1962).

The Klan gave powerful support to the anti-evolution movement (de Camp 1968). William Jennings Bryan is a case in point. Although he was not a member of the Klan and disliked some of its views (for example, its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigotry), he was "soft on the Klan" because he was "mindful that a host of his followers were just the sort of people who made up the Klan" (de Camp 1968). Bryan endorsed Klansmen in elections (Feldman 1999) and spoke passionately at the 1924 Democratic National Convention against an amendment denouncing the Klan (Alexander 1965; Ashby 1987; Chalmers 1965; Rice 1962). In turn, he received political support from the Klan (Anonymous 1924; de Camp 1968; Mecklin 1926).

In 1925, the Klan became the first national organization to urge that creationism and evolution be given equal time in public schools (see Wade 1987). In the same year, Bryan's participation in the Scopes trial turned it into a major event of international interest. When Bryan died five days after the Scopes trial, the Klan burned crosses in Bryan's memory, eulogizing him as "the greatest Klansman of our time" (Werner 1929). The Klan vowed to take up Bryan's anti-evolution cause, and a defrocked Klan official formed a short-lived rival group called the Supreme Kingdom, "whose primary purpose was carrying on Bryan's crusade against teaching evolution" (Larson 1997).

Although there was no formal connection between fundamentalism and the Klan, both movements appealed to similar people. According to McIver (1994), perhaps as many as 40,000 fundamentalist preachers joined and were active in the Klan. As Mecklin observed, "a fundamentalist would have found himself thoroughly at home in the atmosphere of Klan ceremonies" (1924: 100). Moreover, many of the leading evangelists of the early 20th century were fervent creationists who supported, and were supported by, the Klan (Moore 2001; Wade 1987). William Bell Riley - who founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association and sent Bryan to Dayton to prosecute Scopes - advocated white supremacy as well as a ban on the teaching of evolution. Similarly, evangelist Billy Sunday endorsed the Klan Kreed of white supremacy and bitterly attacked evolution. Bob Jones Sr's revivals were supported financially by the Klan (de Camp 1968). And J Frank Norris linked his attacks on evolution with assertions of the importance of white supremacy, warning his followers that white children would have to attend schools with and be taught by blacks.

Later in the 20th century, as most religious denominations in the US denounced the Klan, Southern Baptists - whose denomination was organized in 1845 as a haven for pro-slavery Baptists - were "unanimously silent on the question of the Klan" (Moore 2002a; Rosenberg 1989). "[A] silent but powerful accessory to the segregation pattern in the South" ([Anonymous] 1958: 1128; see also Rosenberg 1989), the Southern Baptists opposed not only integration and other antiracist efforts, but also the teaching of evolution (Ammerman 1990), denouncing Darwinism as "a soul-destroying, Bible-destroying, and God-dishonoring theory".

Other relatively mainstream institutions in which creationism and racism are intertwined include Bob Jones University, founded by Bob Jones Sr in 1927, two years after the Scopes trial, as "a college with high academic standards; an emphasis on culture; and a down-to-earth, practical Christian philosophy of self-control that was both orthodox and fervent in its evangelistic spirit" (Anonymous 2002a). " Until a massive public-relations problem forced the university to reconsider its policy in 2000, it prohibited interracial dating, which was viewed as "playing into the hand of the Antichrist" by defying God's will regarding God-made differences among the races (Hebel and Schmidt 2000). Today, Bob Jones University - the largest fundamentalist university in America - sells satellite-delivered anti-evolution academic courses (Carr 2000). And its creed contains the phrase "I believe in the creation of man by the direct act of God", which is glossed in a way to preclude any evolutionary interpretation ([Anonymous] 2002b).

Such disturbing hate groups as the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity have inherited the mantle of the Klan. Writing in the revealingly titled Christian Patriot Crusader, one Christian Identity writer asserts that Jews are satanic, that blacks are not human, and that evolution is a "satanically inspired Jewish fable" (Dowsett 1991). Although these are fringe groups, the results of a survey in which a significant percentage of students agreed that "[t]he color of a person's skin depends on whether God favored or punished their ancestors" (Lawson and Worsnop 1992) suggests that their influence may be felt in society at large.

A more thorough analysis of the many historical links between creationism and racism is provided elsewhere (Moore 2001; Shipman 2002).

The Vilification of Evolution

A favorite strategy of creationists has been to vilify evolution. At the Scopes trial, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan warned that "All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution." More recently, Judge Braswell Dean of the Georgia State Court of Appeals stated in 1981 that "This monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and the proliferation of crimes of all types" (quoted in Toumey 1994: 94) and in 1999, US House of Representatives Republican Whip Tom DeLay claimed that the teaching of evolution is linked to school violence, birth control, and abortion (Anonymous 1999). As part of this vilification, many creationists blame evolution for racism. For example, Henry Morris - the most influential creationist of the late 20th century - claims that "evolutionism" is satanic and responsible for racism, abortion, and a decline in morality (Morris 1989). Today, creationist organizations such as the Creation Research Science Education Foundation sell posters claiming that evolution leads to racism, Nazism, adultery, infanticide, stealing, murder, drunkenness, and homosexuality. Despite this late-20th-century spin associating evolution to racism, the links between creationism and racism have often been explicit in the fight to integrate public schools. Not all anti-evolutionists in the South opposed integration, but many did; for these people, banning the teaching of evolution was part of a heroic campaign to save "The Southern Way of Life" from race-mixers and atheists, who were equally evil in Dixie demonology (Irons 1988). These links were obvious when Susan Epperson challenged the Arkansas anti-evolution statute in the 1960s (Epperson v Arkansas; see Moore 2002a).

The Lessons of Epperson v Arkansas

In 1965, Susan Epperson was a young biology teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was deeply troubled by the fact that it was against the law for her to teach evolution, despite the fact that evolution is biology's unifying principle. Much of the mail that she received regarding her case was supportive; for example, John Roberts wrote to her on December 9, 1965: "I hope you win your case because students should know the truth." Yet despite issuing a statement affirming her Christianity, Epperson was attacked by many people as antireligious. Central High School, the site of racial turmoil in the late 1950s, was still seething with racism when she announced that she would test the state's anti-evolution law (Moore 2002a).

Many of her correspondents misunderstood evolution, as evidenced by a letter, dated January 20, 1966, which argued "Now, if man came from monkey, it seems the monkey would be no more. Or, else monkeys would still be having men and men giving birth to monkeys." Similarly, in a letter dated March 15, 1966, a correspondent claimed:
There is absolutely no foundation whatsoever for the belief in evolution ... People still produce people, cats produce a cat, dogs a dog, birds a bird, monkeys a monkey, etc. ... I beg of you to get down on your knees and cry out to God to give you wisdom and understanding.
Others used personal attacks to express their concerns about what evolution meant for their attractiveness and ego:
... if you want to claim relation to the ugly apes go right ahead ... ( undated letter)
Having seen your picture it is easy to understand why you would want to argue and teach that you evolved from this lineage. (undated letter)
You go right ahead Mrs Epperson and teach the ugly theory of evolution - because from the way you looked on TV, it could be true that man and woman did evolve from apes (letter dated, April 2, 1966, emphasis in original).
No wonder you want Arkansas to let you teach evolution in school; to look at you and your old Dad anyone would think you and he both started from a big old baboon. He looks like one and you look like a tailless monkey. ... America needs Bible teachers, not things like you. I pity your Mother for giving birth to such a girl. (anonymous and undated letter, Wichita Falls TX)
Others, though, apparently fearing that Epperson was an intellectual carpetbagger intent on forcing a new type of academic reconstruction on Arkansas's public schools, connected evolution with antiracism. The link was pointed out explicitly in an editorial entitled "Arkansas begins fight for freedom to teach" that appeared in The Ohio State Lantern on January 21, 1966:
And as for [Governor] Faubus - who used National Guard troops to prevent integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1958 - he probably finds the theory [of evolution] distasteful because, among other reasons, it implies that Negroes and Caucasians came from the same ancestor
The antiracism implications of evolution upset many people. Here's a portion of an anonymous letter to Epperson dated December 9, 1966:
If ... them cocoanut-heads [sic] up there want to believe there [sic] foreFathers [sic] are monkeys, apes, or gorillas, its [sic] OK, but don't let them shove it down our throat like Johnson did the Civil Rights law ... If I was a teacher, the first nigger that walked in my classroom I would walk out ... and don't think I wouldn't.
A similar link between racism and Epperson's lawsuit was made in a letter to Epperson dated May 1, 1966:
I can imagine, you refer to the Negroes ... One of many things [that] makes me mad at the Welfare Department. Pays Negroes to increase their population by leaps and bounds... [If] this actually enters court, it will sure scramble the Civil Rights Bill, I hope.
Others made more subtle, yet equally revealing, statements about the link they assumed between racism and evolution. For example, one letter writer closed his "Easter Sunday 1966" missive attacking Epperson with a telling postscript: "P.S. I'm white, too."

History's Lessons

Today, the links between evolution, creationism, and racism often remain explicit. A recent example occurred in April 2001, when Louisiana State Representative Sharon Broome introduced a resolution urging the state legislature to "reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology" because the writings of Charles Darwin are "racist" and have been used by Hitler and others to justify mass murder and other heinous crimes (Good 2002). Although the Louisiana House Education Committee passed the resolution by a vote of 9 to 5, the Broome resolution was changed on the floor of the House. All references to Darwin and Darwinist ideology were removed, and the final version was simply a resolution to end racism and other forms of bigotry in Louisiana public schools (see the discussion in Good 2002).

There is a great irony here: creationists originally misused evolution to promote racism, but later vilified evolution as racist. The simple fact remains: there is no "inferior" race; the genetic differences between races are trivial. Neither evolution nor creationism is intrinsically racist, but both have been used to support racist ideas. Many creationists have denounced racism, but others continue to promote racism as part of their ideology.

Why do the links among evolution, creationism, and racism persist? Although the blatant racism of creationists such as Billy Sunday, J Frank Norris, and Bob Jones Sr seems a distant chapter of history, relics of these beliefs persist. Some people link racism with evolution out of ignorance; these misconceptions might be remedied with better teaching about evolution in which we explicitly address "the race question" (See "Why we should teach our students about race", p 25). However, many others have political purposes for vilifying evolution. Indeed, there are few accusations that are as strong and potentially devastating as that of racism, and the branding of evolution (and, by implication, people who support evolution) as "racist" immediately puts advocates of evolution on the defensive. This aspect of the evolution/creationism controversy, like many others, is not about science education; it is about politics and perceptions, and we should not expect this to change. Instead, we should be prepared to address the issue with scientific and historical facts and arguments. By exposing these misconceptions about evolution and racism in our classrooms and elsewhere, we can promote scientific literacy as well as social justice.

Acknowledgment

I thank Susan, Jon, and Elaine Epperson for discussing Epperson v Arkansas with me and for giving me access to their papers.

References

Alexander CC. The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. Lexington (KY): University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

Ammerman NT. Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Church. New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[Anonymous]. Bryan here Saturday. The American Forum, The Klan Paper for Province Number 5, Realm of Texas, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan 1924; 25 (52): 1.

[Anonymous]. Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. Nashville (TN): Broadman Press, 1958.

[Anonymous]. Mr DeLay's power play. The New York Times 1999 Jun 20: 14.

[Anonymous]. Across the USA. Alabama. USA Today 2000 May 22; 15A.

[Anonymous]. About BJU: Philosophy and history. http://www.bju.edu/aboutbju/aboutbju.asp?section=history, accessed June 21, 2002a.

[Anonymous]. I believe in the creation of man by the direct act of God. http://www.bju.edu/aboutbju/creed/02creati.asp, accessed June 21, 2002b.

Ashby L. William Jennings Bryan: Champion for Democracy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987,

Carr S. Bob Jones U offers its controversial curriculum to high school students online. The Chronicle of Higher Education 2000 Mar 10; A47.

Chalmers DM. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Franklin Watts, 1965.

Christensen J. Teachers fight for Darwin's place in US classrooms. The New York Times 1998 Nov 24; B3.

Darwin CR. On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.

de Camp LS. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City (NJ): Doubleday, 1968.

Dickey CR. The Bible and Segregation. Haverhill (MA): Destiny, 1958.

Dowsett FW. Kingdom identity. Christian Patriot Crusader 1991; 7: 3-6.

Feldman G. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949. Tuscaloosa (AL): University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Good R. Evolution and creationism: One long argument. The American Biology Teacher 2002, in press.

Gould SJ. Ever Since Darwin. New York: WW Norton, 1977.

Gould SJ. Eight Little Piggies. New York: WW Norton, 1993.

Hebel S, Schmidt P. Bob Jones U shifts its policies on interracial dating by students. The Chronicle of Higher Education 2000 March 17; A39.

Irons P. The Courage of Their Convictions. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Kaminer W. Sleeping with Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationality and the Perils of Piety. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Larson EJ. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Lawrence J. "Little Rock Nine" leader honored for "real courage". USA Today 2000 April 2: 14A.

Lawson AE, Worsnop WA. Learning about evolution and rejecting a belief in special creation: Effects of reflective reasoning skill, prior knowledge, prior belief and religious commitment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 1992; 29: 143-66.

Lewis J. Man and Evolution. New York: International Publications, 1962.

McIver T. The protocols of creationism. Skeptic 1994; 2: 76-87.

Mecklin JM. The Ku Klux Klan. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1924.

Moore R. Racism, creationism, and the Confederate flag. Negro Educational Review 2001; 52 (1-2): 19-28.

Moore R. Evolution in the Courtroom: A Reference Guide. Denver (CO): ABC-CLIO Publishers, 2002a.

Moore, R. Teaching evolution: Do state standards matter? BioScience 2002b; 52 (4): 378-81.

Morris H. The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict. Grand Rapids (MI): Baker, 1989.

Odeneal WC. Segregation: Sin or Sensible? Haverhill (MA): Destiny, 1958.

Rice AS. The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics. Washington (DC): Public Affairs Press, 1962.

Rosenberg EM. The Southern Baptists. Knoxville (TN): University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Shipman P. The Evolution of Racism. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2002.

Stanton W. The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America 1815-1859. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Toumey CP. God's Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World. New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Wade WC. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Werner MR. Bryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1929.

Winchell A. Sketches of Creation. New York: Harper & Bros, 1870.

Winchell A. Preadamites, or A Demonstration of the Existence of Man Before Adam, second edition. Chicago: SC Griggs, 1880.

About the Author(s): 
Randy Moore
General College
University of Minnesota
128 Pleasant Street SE
Minneapolis MN 55455
rmoore@tc.umn.edu

The Evolution of Racism: An Interview with Pat Shipman

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Evolution of Racism: An Interview with Pat Shipman
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
3
Year: 
2002
Date: 
May–June
Page(s): 
13–15
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Earlier this year, Harvard University Press re-issued Pat Shipman's 1994 book The Evolution of Racism. In recent years, anti-evolutionists have promoted the idea that evolution is a racist theory — even to the extent of introducing legislation that calls for eliminating evolution from public education on the basis of its supposed racist implications (see, for example, the Louisiana paragraph in Updates, RNCSE 2000 Nov/Dec; 20 [6]: 6). We are pleased to present an interview with Pat Shipman about her important book and its account of how evolutionary theory was misappropriated in support of racist political and social policies. The interview was conducted by NCSE member Alan Walker; questions were furnished by Walker, Andrew J Petto, and Alex Wellerstein.

RNCSE: How would you describe the main theme of The Evolution of Racism?

Pat Shipman (PS): I wrote the book trying to explore the ways in which racism and evolution are intertwined and have been closely interconnected since the theory of evolution was first put forward.

RNCSE: Why did you choose to call the book The Evolution of Racism?

PS: The title has two meanings. First, the book speaks of the way racism and eugenics developed as evolutionary theory and its new view of biology became more widely accepted. Second, the book shows evolution as racists have painted it, as they have used and abused it for their own ends. So it is also a story about the special view of evolution created by racism.

RNCSE: What do you think is the relationship between evolution and racism?

PS: Racism, or tribalism, or "us versus them" is an old and ugly frame of mind. As the notion of a rational world — one that works according to discernable laws and rules rather than divine decree — has gained acceptance, many groups have seized upon evolutionary theory as a justification for their underlying beliefs and worldview. If the differences among living races can be explained as the working of a biological rule, then no one has to take the blame for the miserable consequences of treating others according to shorthand stereotypes rather than evaluating them according to their individual qualities. The other side of the coin is that it has been almost impossible to study objective and quantifiable differences and variability among living human groups because racists have so misused incomplete or inexact information to justify their views.

RNCSE: Racists, and more recently anti-evolutionists, have claimed that evolutionary theory has racist implications. How do the examples you use in your book show us how "scientific racism" relates to broader issues of scientific literacy and science education?

PS: Without an adequate understanding of science and the basic principles of gathering and evaluating evidence, you are extremely vulnerable to believing the poorly supported convictions of those with loud or persuasive voices.

RNCSE: To what extent do you think that racists sought evolutionary justifications for their already-held beliefs? Or did they develop these beliefs after looking at the results of scientific study?

PS: Scientists, like everyone else, are irrevocably influenced by their personal backgrounds, social status, family experiences, and cultural beliefs. This is normal and human, and not a bad thing. I hope to give people a greater awareness of their own prejudices and how they influence seemingly objective judgments like "this is a plausible theory" and "this is too outrageous a hypothesis, just impossible to believe." I believe that it is possible to become aware of the way our background influences our judgments and to practice becoming more open-minded. The truth is, in my experience, often surprising and usually uncomfortable. Neither of those is sufficient reason to deny its existence.

RNCSE: What do these examples of the extremes of science tell us about how it does or should function as a whole within our culture as both an intellectual and a social pursuit?

PS: Science has become an ultimate authority, almost on a par with religious writings. There is a tendency to say "it is true because they say so", and "they" can be scientists, religious figures, or any other sort of authority. I would like to replace that blind certainty in authority figures with what I think of as the basic scientific question: how would I know whether that is true?

RNCSE: Let me ask about some specific scientists (or pseudoscientists) you discuss. Madison Grant's book The Passing of the Great Race, which you discuss in chapter 7, seems to presage the "culture wars" of the 1990s. Is Grant's worry about genetic mixing a worry about reversing the evolutionary progress of "higher" races or rather one about who gets to control the social agenda (and politics and economics)?

PS: I believe that Grant's concern was primarily about social agendas, politics, and control over groups, although obviously there was a genuine underlying question about how people differ and what that means.

RNCSE: In the 1960s, Carleton Coon became a controversial figure after the publication of his book The Origin of Races, in which he argued that certain races reached the status of Homo sapiens before others, and that explains why different races reached different levels of civilization. Your treatment of Coon was a good deal more sympathetic than is typical in histories of 20th-century physical anthropology. How much of Coon's misfortune do you think had to do with his typological bent and hearkening back to an era in which the sociopolitical environment was different, and how much to changes in the field of physical anthropology itself — perhaps in reaction to the ways in which its methods and data had been used for evil?

PS: I think Coon was unfairly castigated both because he represented an older way of thinking and because, at the time he was writing and being damned by some of his colleagues, many anthropologists were trying to "clear the name" of the field as a whole by denying any racial variability existed at all. To deny variability among races (by which I mean populations that were once regionally- or geographically-based) is absurd. Anybody watching the Olympics or any other truly international event can see that there are physical resemblances (presumably based in genetic differences) among people of the same geographical race; combination of those traits can be used fairly easily to divide people into broad racial categories. There is no point in denying these commonplace observations, and to do so for political purposes strikes me as foolish. Of course there are differences among people, and it should be possible to study them intelligently and scientifically so that we all know what we are dealing with. It is much too easy to attempt to discredit an academic enemy by accusing him or her of racism; it is a charge that stains indelibly whether or not it is true. It is a cheap way of ducking a greater and more complicated responsibility.

RNCSE: At the end of chapter 9, you introduce the essential theme of 1990s work by J Phillippe Rushton, and Murray and Herrnstein — that since other biological traits vary according to the geographic origin of human subpopulations, we ought to accept that intelligence does too. Are the real scientific issues about the heritability of "intelligence" and its distribution among human geographic variations too complicated to explain to the general public, or too poorly understood, or just really unsettled among scientists?

PS: Biological traits do vary among geographical populations; I think that biological variability is a fact established without a doubt in humans as well as it is in, for example, ferns, seagulls, spiders, or frogs. Intelligence is a far more complex trait or set of traits than eye color or length of forearm, however, and our understanding of the genetics of even purportedly "simple traits" (such as the appearance of a particular bump on a particular tooth, for example) is very primitive. We need to stop ignoring or glossing over genuine genetically-influenced variability for fear of uncovering knowledge of those deadly and violence-inspiring differences in traits such as intelligence, morality, impulsiveness, or sexuality. We need to know what we are dealing with genetically so that we can then address the environmental influences on genetic traits with intelligence, wisdom, and kindness. For example, the main concept I took away from The Bell Curve is how pervasively harmful sheer stupidity is. If you look at an undesirable tendency — say, inability to hold a job, unusual likelihood of injuries, likelihood of having children at a very early age, likelihood of living in dire poverty — just about every one of them is closely correlated with low IQ or low performance on some other measure of intelligence. Never mind who performs badly on intelligence tests, which as we know are neither infallible nor perfect instruments for measuring intelligence. Let us talk about the fact that a small but tragic percentage of people do perform badly on those tests because their intelligence is low and it affects their entire lives and our whole society negatively. What are we going to do about it?

RNCSE: A repeated theme in the book — in fact all the most compelling examples of the rise and fall of prominent scientists — seems to be that, especially with the issue of race and in the context of evolutionary biology, someone was trying "to subvert science to their convictions". In what ways do you think that racism has evolved?

PS: Racism, like science (which it is not), has evolved more sophisticated techniques of gathering and presenting evidence. Other than that, the basic urge to protect yourself by gathering a cohesive group of "people like me" around yourself seems unchanged. What we need to think about, though, is that there is no end of misery and wickedness that can be caused by such exclusivity. We are all here, every race or subrace or population, on one world. It is far more useful to try to figure out how we can function as a complex and constantly changing admixture of genetic and social traits than to try to rid the world of whatever group you personally find most obnoxious.

RNCSE: At the end of chapter 14, you write, "The trajectory begun with Darwin has run its course." But later, you call for us to "prepare ourselves for this new level of debate...". Where is the debate going and what is the legitimate contribution of scientists who study human variation to the debate?

PS: I believe that we need to determine the truth of human variability as best we can and decide how to go on from there. But this must be done in full awareness that the truth about genetic distinctions among races is an ever-shifting entity. Every day, with every birth, the old geographically-based races are being transformed into some new admixture or melange. In this specific sense only, I would say that human races do not exist: today's "Caucasoid race" is and will be different from tomorrow's and yesterday's.

RNCSE: What is the proper message for these researchers to carry to the general public about human variation?

PS: I would say (1) that human variability exists; (2) that this variability reflects both genetic inheritance and environmental influences; and (3) that we have as yet no good evidence that the hot-button traits (such as intelligence, morality, impulsivity, sexuality, or predisposition to vote for one or the other political party) are genetically controlled or genetically predetermined. If they are, then I think that it is time for us to find out what the reality is, without fussing and accusing one another of dire agendas so as to block the research. Once we know what is true, then we can start to discuss what we want to do about that truth for the good of all. I would emphasize the last phrase, for I think we must move forward to considering the good of the species and of the world of other species with which we interact and not simply the good of each particular little group.

RNCSE: Of course, the message of the researchers is usually filtered through the press. Every time a new hominin fossil or a new DNA sequence is announced, the public is greeted with headlines that tell us that the entire family tree is being uprooted or that the new theory turns existing ideas on their heads. What do you think about the media's coverage of issues in physical anthropology in general?

PS: Reporters really like those headlines, even if they are inaccurate. Shame on them! It is possible to make people see the importance of a discovery without gross hyperbole. The most recent example is the report in Nature that indicates that Neanderthal DNA may be mixed with that of specimens of more modern appearance. How does this reflect on (a) the antiquity of "races"; (b) our understanding of the potential for genetic admixture in evolving humans; and (c) the meaning of geographical variation among human populations in the modern world? There is contradictory evidence about the role of Neanderthals in our own genetic heritage. One of the problems is that we usually have to work with incomplete and broken fossils, which show physical traits that may or may not reflect genetic differences. Some do, some do not, probably. As long as we cannot tell one (a genetically-controlled trait) from the other (a trait strongly or entirely influenced by environment), there is an element of uncertainty. I am still of the opinion that Neanderthals are too different from modern humans to be part of our direct lineage, but that assessment is subject to change as new fossils are discovered. Another way of putting my view is that Neanderthals are a biologically distinctive group and that I think (based on my personal prejudices) that they are too different to be the same species as me. What a species is and how it is to be recognized is a deep and difficult problem.

RNCSE: At the end of the book, you conclude, "As a species, it is time for us to grow up." What would a "grown-up" species have to say about its evolutionary and genetic heritage that is different from what we know now?

PS: Growing up, as an individual, is a process of becoming more aware of your strengths and weaknesses and more accepting of those areas in which you are realistically limited and those in which you can excel. Let me give a personal example. I am passionately involved in dressage, an equestrian sport somewhat akin to ballet with horses. I have had to accept that I am not going to the Olympics or even winning a regional championship. Other people are more gifted riders than I, more athletic, better coordinated, stronger, with better reflexes and a better sense of where their body parts are and what they are doing. I wish that this were not true. I wish that I could ride like other people who leave me gasping with their ability; heck, I wish that I could shimmy like my sister Kate. I cannot. I have to live with that, accept the fact, and decide how I am going to go on in the world with my limitations and strengths. That, I think, is an essential part of growing up.

RNCSE: In the epilog, you write, "Ignorance is never a solution." However, in many of the instances that you explored in the book, researchers were earnestly convinced that they were beating back the frontiers of ignorance. What is the proper role for academics and researchers in helping cultural and governmental institutions to interpret and act upon scientific discoveries?

PS: We have to struggle and strive to do better, to consider all the alternative interpretations of the data more rigorously, to dismantle or disable our own prejudices. Ignorance is never a solution. Glossing over or distorting the facts is not a solution either. Deciding that we do not like a particular sort of person and seeking scientific backup for our prejudices is not only "not a solution", it is at the heart of the problem. We must do better than that.

Tracking Those Incredible Creationists

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Tracking Those Incredible Creationists
Author(s): 
William Thwaites
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
3
Year: 
2002
Date: 
May–June
Page(s): 
30
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
I have studied creationists for a quarter of a century, but it still amazes me to read John Morris's recent claims in the newsletter of the Institute for Creation Research ("Cracks are widening in evolution's dam!" Acts and Facts 2002 May; 31 [5]) that evolution "has enjoyed total control" of the public schools for decades; that "students who object [to evolution] are often humiliated before their classmates and persecuted at grade time"; that evolution "gives a low view of human life"; that "naturalistic" evolution should be opposed and that evolution is (necessarily) "a religion".

Perhaps evolution has enjoyed total control in cartoons, movies, park displays, newspapers, National Geographic and other natural history magazines, and museums, but not in the public schools! We know that most public school teachers are very timid about teaching anything substantive about evolution. We know that about 25% of high school science teachers do not even accept the scientific validity of evolution. We know that almost all public high school graduates do not know the first thing about the mechanisms of evolution or the evidence for it, or even that evolution has nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of a deity.

And regarding the "humiliation" of creationist students in the public schools, the instances must be few and far between. What public school teacher would risk his or her job doing that? And what constitutes "humiliation" in Morris's eyes? Does "persecution" mean more than that students who refuse to learn evolution fail their exams in the same way they would if they refused to learn the Pythagorean Theorem?

As for evolution's giving a "low" view of human life, the opposite is generally true. When evolution is presented or implied at all, it is likely to have a distinct ladder-of-life tone - and of course humans are portrayed in that view as being at the very top of that ladder. In the relatively few classrooms in which evolution is taught the way it is understood by the scientific community, the position of humans is presented as neither low nor high, only recent. The popular media may suggest that evolution says that we cannot help being immoral and unethical, but does Morris know of any documented cases of public school teachers - except creationists, of course - who teach that evolution mandates immoral behavior?

Finally, the distinction between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism seems to have gone completely over Morris's head (though he is certainly not alone here). How can a discipline that confines itself to natural material things have anything to say about a deity? Sadly, some of evolution's most noted promoters themselves have not quite come to this understanding yet. As Ken Miller points out in his Finding Darwin's God (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), these promoters contribute to keeping the creation/evolution controversy alive - at the very least by agreeing with Morris that evolution can and does disprove the existence of God. Morris should be arguing against Richard Dawkins and others who claim that evolution disproves God. The Morrises should support the people and organizations who, like NCSE, see that the natural sciences can never prove or disprove the existence of God.

It would be nice if the Morrises were only concerned about Christians' losing their faith in God as a result of overzealous claims made by some influential evolutionists. But such an enlightened quest for mutual respect between science and religion is not in the nature of the ICR. The battle that the ICR is waging is to promote a specific religious point of view that finds moderate and tolerant interpretations of Scripture as objectionable as the inappropriate religious claims made in the name of science. For the ICR, "compromise" is a dirty word.

About the Author(s): 

William Thwaites
2373 NW 185th
Box 264
Hillsboro OR 97124
wthwaite@sunstroke.sdsu.edu