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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.