We are one human family. The Bible proclaims the equal standing of “every tribe and language and people and nation” before God's throne (Rev 7:9). Yet divisions of tribe, culture, and race are fissures, even chasms, in our world today. Sadly, science has been misused to deepen those chasms.
Why talk about race?
This month BioLogos begins a conversation on race and science. We did not choose this theme in response to the latest headline, or to get on a political bandwagon (although we did schedule it to coincide with Black History Month). Rather, this theme is a continuation of thoughts and conversations over several years. When I started as president of BioLogos five years ago, I knew that the mission of BioLogos is relevant for everyone, for “the church and the world” as our mission statement says. All people need to hear that God’s world and God’s Word both speak truthfully, in harmonious counterpoint, to proclaim our Creator. As I talked with people at venues around the country and the world, I also began to realize the value of listening to voices of all cultures on science and faith. We are missing important truths if we are not seeking out and hearing all God’s people.
But the reality of our young organization was far from these goals. In 2009, our founder Francis Collins highlighted the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. on religion and science. Yet, the attendees I helped invite to two major BioLogos conferences in 2013, after much work to ensure an ideal balance of scientists and faith leaders from a range of disciplines and theological traditions… were nearly all white and male. Attendees noticed, and we realized we had a problem. In part, BioLogos reflected the state of the science and faith conversation in academia: the majority of authors and scholars in this area, particularly on our lead topic of evolution, have been white. I also had a personal challenge: my own upbringing was white, suburban, and monocultural. BioLogos and I both had a long way to go.
So, we went to work. We expanded our invitation lists. We sought out pastors and scientists of color, not only to attend events, but to advise, lead, and speak on behalf of BioLogos. We learned about the doctrine of creation from Hispanic theologian Justo Gonzalez. We funded pastor Seung-Hwan Kim to lead conversations about evolution in Korean-American churches. Indian-American geneticist Praveen Sethupathy joined our governing Board. Although we still have a long way to go, we made a start.
And for the first time, we had the opportunity to listen to African American pastors talk about science and faith in their churches and communities. I learned pretty quickly that things were different there. For many white evangelicals, when you say “science” in church, they hear “controversy over evolution.” But for many black Christians, when you say “science”, they hear “danger and injustice.” While I knew of the racially abusive Tuskegee syphilis experiment, it seemed to me a cruel event from the distant past, not relevant to our lives in the 21st century with today’s ethical standards. But I learned that such events are actually not so distant. For many African Americans, episodes of racial oppression in the name of science and medicine are a living memory, shared through the generations and leading to distrust of science. And systemic racism continues today; access to healthcare for Hispanic populations still lags behind other groups.
BioLogos also needs to talk about race because of our acceptance of evolutionary science. Evolution has been tied to racism over and over. One African-American leader pointed out to me the subtitle of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” — horrible language to our ears today. While Darwin used “race” in the book to refer to varieties of cabbages and other species, the concepts of evolution have been tied to many instances of horrendous abuse.
Thus, it is important for BioLogos to begin a conversation on race. This is new for us; we have much to learn and we will keep listening. But we want to share what we’ve learned so far.
We mourn the racial injustices that have been done in the name of science
Science has been misused to justify not only the Tuskegee experiments but the injustice and violence of genocide, the Holocaust, eugenics, and slavery. Too often, those who claim white supremacy have sought to use a version of science as a means of bolstering their claims. Even though most of us did not individually perpetrate the offences, we need to recognize it is our legacy and thus our problem. At BioLogos, we recognize, mourn, and repent of the many terrible racial abuses that have been committed in the name of science in general and of evolution in particular. We join other Christians in condemning the evil of racism and working for reconciliation and justice. We do this not because of politics, but because of the gospel: Christ calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5).
Evolutionary science does not justify racism
Racist ideologies such as social Darwinism, colonialism, and military expansion have been said to arise from evolutionary science. In fact, evolution has been cited in virtually every social agenda in the last 150 years, from eugenics to egalitarianism, from marxism to capitalism. But such ideologies go far beyond what science is capable of claiming. Evolutionary theory is descriptive of the development of species, not prescriptive for how humans ought to treat one another. As Christian biologist Denis Alexander notes, people have long used evolutionary theory for ideological purposes but this abuse is entirely unjustifiable. It is a philosophical add-on, not a necessary entailment of the scientific picture.
Some are concerned with Darwin’s own racist views, even saying that Darwin promoted genocide and slavery. It is true that Darwin made racist statements that shock our ears today, but so did most white people in the 1800s, including most scientists and most opponents of evolution; Darwin was a child of his time. Darwin’s ideas did not create prejudice; that has been around as long we have records. In fact, Darwin’s writings show his strong opposition to slavery and genocide. As Ted Davis notes, Darwin’s “theory simply enabled racists and cultural imperialists to find a new ‘scientific’ basis for their hatred, justifying actions that Darwin himself abhorred.”
Others worry that scientific evidence supports polygenism, the idea that races originated separately and unequally, and argue that one must reject human evolution in the name of racial equality. However, polygenism was also around before evolutionary theory, and by the late 1800s, polygenism was rejected for both scientific and theological reasons by many U.S. and U.K. scholars. Modern genetics strongly affirms that all humans descended from the same early ancestors and evolved together. The unity of the human race is affirmed as strongly in the evolutionary creation view as in the special creation view of Adam and Eve.
Genetics shows we are one human family
Since the sequencing of the first human genome under the leadership of Francis Collins, many thousands of individuals from around the world have had their full genomes mapped. And this abundant evidence confirms that humanity is one worldwide family. All humans are related to one another. In fact, any two humans are stunningly similar to each other, sharing over 99% of their genes.
Thus, it is true that “there is no genetic basis for race.” Yet that statement can be confusing at first glance. It does not mean that there is no genetic basis for skin and hair color — such traits are clearly passed from parent to child. Nor does it mean that genetics is unrelated to geography — there are many genetically distinct local population groups around the world. In fact, you can order a DNA test for the percentage of your genes tied to each of dozens of human ancestry groups.
“No genetic basis for race” is referring to the way we define “race” in our culture. When the census asks you to identify as “white”, “black”, “asian”, etc., those are cultural categories, not scientific categories. While some aspects of these cultural categories (e.g. skin color) are genetic traits, those traits are a small part of all the genes that differ between any two individuals. Yes, there is a genetic basis for the many local ancestry groups. But as geneticist Alan Templeton points out, “If every genetically distinguishable population were elevated to the status of race, then most species would have hundreds to tens of thousands of races.”
There is no one gene that sorts people into one group versus another. Rather, the DNA tests for ancestry groups rely on many genes and look for statistical patterns, and those statistical patterns are small. The statistical differences between two local ancestry groups are smaller than the amount of variation within each group. Moreover, categories like “white” lump together some local ancestry groups and excludes others in a culturally-defined way. The meaning of “white” has changed over time and around the world (e.g. earlier in American history, “Italian” and “Irish” were not considered “white”). The categories of “black” and “asian” similarly lump together many ancestry groups and ignore the scope of human diversity on the continents of Africa and Asia. Three scientists decided to have their genomes mapped, and discovered that the two white scientists were more genetically different from each other than either was from their asian colleague. Thus, the racial categories used in our culture are at best weakly and imprecisely related to actual measures of genetic similarities and differences between different groups. As Templeton notes, “despite our global distribution, we are one of the most genetically homogeneous species on this planet."
“Race” is a social construct
Though genetics doesn’t lead us to race, the social construct of race is very real. It is a social reality that exists in our minds and communities and drives our thinking and behavior, too often in negative ways. Government and social policies have defined the category “white” and given advantages to that group for centuries. The sins of slavery and segregation were codified into our nation's laws. There remains a system of privilege for whites that I as a white person am not even fully aware of. It is embedded in our culture and will take serious work to repair. At BioLogos, we aim to help in this repair work by dispelling the quasi-scientific arguments that have been used to support racism.
Christianity proclaims that every human life is valuable
At BioLogos, we stand against the evil of racism because we are followers of Jesus. Scripture is clear that all humans are equal in the sight of God, because each person is made in the image of God, regardless of race, gender, intelligence, or physical ability. Science can describe the genetic relationships of humans around the globe, but it cannot prescribe how humans ought to behave. How we treat each other is a moral choice. No scientific finding gives one group the right to assert political superiority or abusive power over others.
A member of our Advisory Council, Bishop Claude Alexander, reflected that our origins, whether genetic or cultural, do not and should not define us. Rather, we are defined by our destiny. Our identity and our destiny is ultimately in Christ. Jesus Christ died to save sinners of every nation and tribe and language and people. This is a destiny we can all share. May the world know we are his disciples by our love for one another.
In the coming days, look for reflections on race from others in our community. We invite your comment and look forward to continuing the conversation.