By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Every time I do an interview on a station with a predominantly black
listenership, someone invariably calls in and asks, ‘Well why should our kids learn evolution? Evolution is just the source of racism.’”
Alas, poor Darwin. Probably no scientist in history has been more hated than this mild-mannered Englishman. Last week saw yet another twist in the war on his theory of evolution when the state of Louisiana decided that this famous theory was racist. “Be it resolved that the Legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and ideologies of racism, and does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others,” reads a resolution approved by the state‘s House Education Committee on May 1.
The bill’s sponsor, Louisiana state Representative Sharon Broome (a Democrat rather than the usual Republican), told the Baton Rouge Advocate that Darwin “teaches that some humans have evolved further than others” and that his theory “holds that people of color are savages.” According to Broome, this means that Darwin has “provided the main rationale for modern racism.” Take on board evolution, says the resolution‘s sponsors, and Nazism, or something like it, will soon follow. The resolution is not a bill of law and has no legislative power over science education in the state, but sponsors are already saying their next step will be to press for evolution disclaimers in textbooks.
There is nothing new about Christian-fundamentalist opposition to evolution, but calling it a racist theory and blaming it for the Nazis is certainly one of the more aggressive strategies to date. Sadly, it is not a claim that can be lightly dismissed. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting creationism in American schools, admits that this association is especially prevalent in America’s black communities. In the online journal Salon, Scott notes that “Every time I do an interview on a station with a predominantly black listenership, someone invariably calls in and asks, ‘Well why should our kids learn evolution? Evolution is just the source of racism.’”
Darwin‘s theory of evolution says nothing per se about the supposed inferiority or superiority of any race. Indeed, evolutionary theory has played a critical role in revealing how all races come from the same origin -- that we are all children of the same mother, the proverbial “African Eve.” If anything, Darwin’s theory should be an argument for racial equality. But like all scientific theories, the ideas of evolution can be used to support particular ideologies. Unfortunately, those concepts have historically been co-opted in support of some extremely racist ones.
It is all well and good to defend evolutionary theory, as champions of science have leapt to do over the past week; and those of us who care about science education must continue to fight creationists -- ad infinitum, it seems. But we who care about science must also admit there is a dark side. Rather than trotting out bombastic babble about the “neutrality” and “purity” of science, we must face up to the ways in which scientific ideas get interwoven into sociopolitical agendas. Moreover, we must acknowledge that scientists often play a role in this process.
The trouble began in the 1870s, when America witnessed the rise of an increasingly virulent eugenics movement, one that aimed to stamp out genetically “inferior” types while simultaneously increasing the proportion of “superior” types. Take the following statement from 1913: “The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with the less valuable or noxious elements in the population . . . The problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity.” This was uttered not by some German proto-fascist but by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who thereby echoed a sentiment held by millions of supposedly “enlightened” American citizens.
Between the 1890s and the 1920s, American society resounded with eugenics dogma, an episode of history that is all too often swept under the carpet. Fact is, the Nazis did not invent the idea; they imported it from the home of the brave and land of the free. Spawned in the wake of the first great wave of nonwhite immigration, the movement was a response to the perceived loss of WASP hegemony and the mushrooming problems of an increasingly urban society -- to wit, crime, poverty and social unrest. Eugenics reformers saw the protection and cleansing of the gene pool as the solution to all these “ills.”
Scientists played a huge role in this movement. In Kenneth Ludmerer‘s seminal history Genetics and American Society, he points out that nearly half of U.S. geneticists at the time were involved. A typical pronouncement came from professor H.S. Jennings of Johns Hopkins University, who declared that “To go to the root of the troubles, a better breed of men must be produced.”
And just what did “better” mean? First and foremost, the eradication of all “criminal” types, as well as those who were mentally “defective.” But for many in the movement it also had racial connotations. The Nordic races were seen as the superior type; Mediterraneans, Slavs, Jews, Asians and, above all, Africans were seen as inferior. Such attitudes served to shape immigration policy, and by 1928 more than three-quarters of American colleges and universities were teaching eugenics courses.
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