Grieving “Scientific” Racism

The good people at BioLogos are taking a humble, penitent posture regarding African-Americans and the sciences.

With a stated mission to “invite the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith,” BioLogos and its leadership are making a concerted effort to bring more people of color into the fold. It’s not just a nod to Black History Month, though they certainly acknowledge the commemoration.

It’s a genuine movement to be as multi-cultural—and as multi-colorful—as Creation itself.

In a sensitive, vulnerable essay titled “One Human Family,” BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma honestly addresses not only the organization’s past, but also her own personal history and even some heinous chapters from organized science itself. Haarsma, a white woman, says she realized that BioLogos, and the people in its circles, were simply, well, too white—and that they were “missing important truths [by] not seeking out and hearing all God’s people.”

“In 2009,” she writes, “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.”

Haarsma also says she had a problem of her own: “my own upbringing was white, suburban, and monocultural. BioLogos and I both had a long way to go. So, we went to work.”

That meant inviting pastors and scientists of color into the circle—people like Hispanic theologian Justo Gonzalez on the doctrine of creation, pastor Seung-Hwan Kim to lead conversations about evolution in Korean-American churches, and Indian-American geneticist Praveen Sethupathy for their governing Board.

‘Science’ once meant danger

Haarsma was most struck by African-American pastors’ perspective on science.

“For many white evangelicals, when you say ‘science’ in church, they hear ‘controversy over evolution,’” she writes. “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.

“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.”

Is Darwinism racist?

On the topic of racism, BioLogos addresses a controversial topic—whether Darwin’s evolutionary theory fosters racism and genocide. Author Ted Davis observes that even if Darwin had never lived, racist ideas and ideologies still would’ve come about.

“After all,” he writes, “they had been there for centuries alongside the Bible and Christianity, and they had already been given both ‘scientific’ and ‘biblical’ justification long before Darwin was born. His theory simply enabled racists and cultural imperialists to find a new ‘scientific’ basis for their hatred, justifying actions that Darwin himself abhorred.

“When it comes to science,” Davis concludes, “racism is not inherent to either evolution or special creation, although it has all too often been added to both of them. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

‘Outmoded racial categorizations’

In keeping with Black History Month, BioLogos interviews Georgia M. Dunston, who had worked with Francis Collins on mapping the human genome. Dunston answers questions about the significance contemporary genomics for our understanding of the biological sciences, the concept of race, and human identity.

“Popular conceptualizations of human races are derived from 19th and early 20th century scientific formulations that were misinterpreted and still inform thinking on the biology of human differences,” says Dunston. “These outmoded racial categorizations of human populations based on heritable traits–skin color, features of the face, and the shape and size of the head, body, and underlying skeleton–also spawned philosophical traditions which presumed that visible traits can be used to define an individual or a population.

“This thinking has been used to support social conventions that foster institutional discrimination based on human biological races. However, such thinking is discredited today in the light of 21st century scientific data from the Human Genome Project.”

Celebrating black scientists

Dunston is just one of many African-American women to succeed in the sciences. The Atlanta Voice reflects on the career of NASA biomedical engineer Mae Jemison. Black Enterprise remembers Gladys West, an 87-year-old mathematician who helped develop the Geographical Positioning System, or GPS, before retiring. And Biography reports on the works of chemist Alice Ball, social psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark, and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

Previously, Biography had written about the “human computers” featured in the recent film Hidden Figures. If you haven’t seen it, watch this clip and be inspired:

 

Finally, HowStuffWorks highlights “10 Black Scientists You Should Know,” from George Washington Carver to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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