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Joseph L. Graves
 on September 13, 2022

"Black Darwin": Joseph L. Graves' Call to Justice

Dr. Joseph Graves has dedicated his life and career as an evolutionary biologist to advancing justice. Justice may be our only hope for survival as a species.

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Scales of justice surrounded by diverse people

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Dr. Joseph L. Graves has been a guest on three episodes of the Language of God podcast: Race, Racism & the Church and The Genetics of Race Part 1 and Part 2.  He was also a featured speaker at the BioLogos 2022 Conference. He’s written several books including The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millenium, Racism Not Race: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and most recently A Voice in the Wilderness: A Pioneering Biologist Explains How Evolution Can Help Us Solve Our Biggest Problem. In this article Dr. Graves draws on his personal experience and work in evolutionary biology to share his call to justice, and he invites us to do our part in advancing justice. Several quotes and excerpts are taken from his new book “Voice.”

Editor’s Note: This article contains a racial slur, fully spelled out. We’re fully aware of the sensitivities around the use of this word, and acknowledge the historical reality that it represents and how it has been used to harm and demean others, including our author. In the words of Dr. Graves, “We do not advance our society towards justice by hiding its sordid history,” and so we do not sanitize its use here.

The moniker “Black Darwin” was bestowed on me by African American undergraduates when I used to teach at UC Irvine because of my work championing evolutionary thinking in the curriculum, developing and directing programs to benefit minority students, and providing research mentorship for students across racially subordinated groups. This work was part of the reason I was elected a fellow of the council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in biological sciences in 1994. This is one of the highest honors any scientist can earn in America (short of election to the National Academy of Sciences).

Despite my academic success at Irvine, I was still (and still do at times) wrestling with my personal demons. The greatest of these was imposter syndrome. On the one hand, I had established that as “Black Darwin” I could hold my own scientifically with some of the greatest evolutionary thinkers on the planet, people like Francisco Ayala, Michael Rose, Larry Mueller, Steve Frank, Richard Lenski and others. My scholarly work was also gaining respect among the few African American professors on campus. However, I was still a person unmoored from his Black working-class origins and his professional life, which was so completely submerged in European American culture and perspectives.

I struggled between, on the one hand, the values instilled in me by a mother who worked in rich people’s houses during the day, pulled a factory shift as night, and was always in church on Sunday and, on the other hand, my inflated vision of myself as an “evolutionary genius” that would shape the next stage of my career. It was at this time in my career that I began to think more seriously about how my knowledge and skills as an evolutionary biologist might be turned to addressing the issues that were contributing to the oppression of Black people. (A Voice in the Wilderness, Excerpt from Chapter 5)

…I began to think more seriously about how my knowledge and skills as an evolutionary biologist might be turned to addressing the issues that were contributing to the oppression of Black people.

The call: there is work to be done

I was born into a world of social injustice. We all are.  If I had been given the opportunity to speak to God before my birth, I would have asked “do I really have to go down there?” I mean of all the planets and universes in the multiverse couldn’t I have been assigned to one without racial prejudice? To be perfectly honest I might have asked not to be born “black.” In my youth I often found myself wishing I had been given some other fate. (A Voice in the Wilderness, Chapter 1).

Most people, for a variety of reasons, choose to accept that this is how the world must be. From an early age, I chose to reject that notion and devote my life and career to advancing the cause of justice. For me that meant not just learning how the biological world worked but also deploying that knowledge to the causes of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, releasing the prisoners of all forms of oppression, and bringing about true community among all people. Precious few of my colleagues, in my discipline or in the academy as a whole, have opted to engage in this struggle.

Most people, for a variety of reasons, choose to accept [the world as it is]. From an early age, I chose to reject that notion and devote my life and career to advancing the cause of justice.

I wonder how much of this inaction comes from observing the undemocratic and unjust world as it is and thinking that our species and its societies evolved this way (and could have evolved in no other direction). (A Voice in the Wilderness, excerpt from Chapter 14)

Before I was called “Black Darwin,” I was called a bunch of other things, more often than not simply “nigger.”  My parents grew up during violent Jim Crow segregation in Virginia.  I was born in New Jersey in the same year that Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi.  I was raised to have careful deference to white folks.  My parents knew all too well what could become of us without such training.  My family, like so many African Americans, had survived the oppression of American structural racism through their faith.  The house I grew up in was two doors from St. Luke’s African Methodist Episcopal. Paul Robeson’s father had once been the minister there.  I was baptized in Bethel Baptist Church of Westfield, New Jersey.  It was aligned with the progressive Baptists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  I grew up on sermons inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King.

In hindsight we can often identify the point at which it was clear that God had a plan for our life (as hindsight is always 20/20).  The moment I remember occurred when I was 6 or 7 years old.  I had been cast in the Easter play as the “magic Easter Bunny.” I was late for practice and ran all the way from my house to church.  There was only one street that had a high volume of traffic to cross on the journey.  When I came to the street, I ran straight across it without looking.  Next thing I heard was the screeching of brakes.  In that moment I saw my very brief life pass before my eyes. When the tape ended, a car bumper had stopped no more than a couple inches away from me.  The driver got out and started screaming at me.  This was more from his relief that he didn’t hit me, than any anger at me.  He told me that I was a very lucky little boy, as he had just come from the auto shop where they fixed his defective brakes!  It could have just been a coincidence, but I now choose to think that God spared me that day because I had work to do.

Here for a reason

When I opened a copy of On the Origin of Species as a student in high school, I had no idea that I would pursue a career as an evolutionary biologist. A series of unforeseen contingencies landed me in the discipline of evolutionary biology. Later, when I began my Ph.D. work, I didn’t know there had never been an African American who had identified primarily as an evolutionary biologist. The personal and psychological cost of being the first in the field was high, not just for me but also those closest to me. Still I feel I was placed here for a reason. Like John the Baptist, I was called on to give voice to the truth. (A Voice in the Wilderness, excerpt from Conclusion)

College was a culture shock, as so many of my classmates were from the top 5% of their high school classes and came from affluent families.  I struggled as an undergraduate, in part because of a lack of advising, and certainly because there were no African American role models in the science departments.  It was at this point in my academic career that the roots of “imposter syndrome” began to sink in.  People rarely said that you shouldn’t be there to my face, but sometimes professors did say it.

The personal and psychological cost of being the first [African American] in the field was high, not just for me but also those closest to me. Still I feel I was placed here for a reason.

Through my struggles in high school and college I had become lost in what felt like a wilderness.  The crushing injustices of my existence (and all those around me) had made me question the existence of God (or if God was good).  King and Malcolm had been murdered; America had dropped thousands of tons of explosives on innocent people in Vietnam, looked the other way while apartheid continued to steal the lives of Africans, prisons swelled with African Americans who never really had a chance to escape the school to prison pipeline, and it was clear that the powers that be really did not want me to succeed in my chosen profession.  Deep down inside I made excuses about all that was aligned against me, but I could never shake the feeling that it was really my own inadequacy that was at the root of my problems.

Social justice is our only hope, not just because it is morally right and long overdue but because without it our species will die. We are now in a race between justice and extinction.

Joseph L. Graves

A voice in the wilderness

It is said that if you take one step towards God, God will take two steps towards you.  You may not realize that it is the voice of God you are hearing.  I certainly didn’t.  My journey back began on the day I decided that I could no longer serve Babylon. This reference to the ancient empire is a metaphor for the role that the United States plays in propping up white supremacy across the globe, and how my failure to stand up to this injustice as the three Hebrew boys stood up to Nebuchadnezzar II, was only helping it achieve its ends.  It was then that I realized there was nothing wrong with me, it was the whole scientific enterprise that was broken.

“Voice” is the story of how I found my way back to this mission that God set before me, what I learned along the way about how nature works, and our role in it.  It was written for a general audience, but there are chapters within it when I am definitely speaking to people of faith.  Specifically, I call upon Christians to ask themselves what our role is in helping to bring forth the “beloved community.” Unfortunately, there are too many within the broad tent of our faith who are entirely comfortable with the status quo, or who simply think that we are in the “end times” and Jesus will soon sort everything out.  I hold no such arrogance and fall into the “no man will know the moment or the hour” camp.

In the final chapter of my book, I outline a path towards social justice that all people of goodwill can get behind, so that like Amos 5:4 we might “…let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  I also emphasize what is at stake if we don’t do anything. Social justice is our only hope, not just because it is morally right and long overdue but because without it our species will die. We are now in a race between justice and extinction. I conclude that we now have a choice to decide to save ourselves, but this is only possible by learning to love our neighbors the way Christ taught us.

…we now have a choice to decide to save ourselves, but that this is only possible by learning to love our neighbors the way Christ taught us.

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About the author

Dr Joseph L Graves

Joseph L. Graves

Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr. is a professor of biological sciences at the Department of Nanoengineering, which is part of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina Greensboro. He received his B.A. in Biology from Oberlin College and his PhD from Wayne State University. His research includes the evolutionary theory of aging and the biological concepts of race. He has published two books, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America and has appeared on several documentaries including the PBS documentary Decoding Watson and the Ken Burns documentary The Gene. Graves is a confirmed Episcopalian and has spent time on the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission of the Diocese of North Carolina.