Twisting Darwin

“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.

Repeatedly in eugenics literature one finds the notion of a racial ranking, with Caucasians routinely depicted as “higher” up some scale than non-Caucasians. The implication is that in some vital sense Caucasians are more evolved. In evolutionary theory, strictly speaking, no creature is higher or lower than any other, but this theory has given us the psychologically powerful trope of the tree of life. Here, simple creatures (such as bacteria) are depicted at the bottom, with more complex creatures (such as mammals) depicted at the top. Humans are at the very apex of this tree.

In common discourse we routinely talk about mammals being higher up the evolutionary tree than reptiles, and so on. Even scientists fall into this pattern of speaking. Whether or not the idea of one creature being above another has any empirical validity, it is an idea that has become deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. The eugenics movement played on this belief big time by implying at every turn that nonwhites, and especially blacks, were lower down the evolutionary scale. That view is far from dead, as attested to by the spewings of many white-supremacist groups that continue to flourish in America today.

A corollary to racial ranking is the notion that the proper destiny of humanity is for us to realize our potential by taking evolution into our own hands. Eugenicists of the early 20th century advocated doing that through forced sterilization for criminals and the mentally impaired. Laws to do just that were enacted in many states. No one has enacted a law to sterilize nonwhites, but in the age of genetic engineering, the idea of taking control of human evolution is becoming increasingly common. Newspapers and airwaves buzz with talk about “improving” and “perfecting” our species. Visions of what a “better” or “more evolved” human might amount to generally conform to that of the film Gattaca, which starred two of the most gorgeously white people on Earth -- Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke.

In debates about evolution it is crucial to bear in mind that Darwin’s theory makes no value judgments about any organism, but popular (and even scientific) discourse on the subject is shot through with language that continually implies a ranking. In this sense black Americans have every reason to be suspicious. The solution is not to ban the teaching of this core scientific theory, but to expand science education to include discussion of the social and cultural context of science.

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