All About Eve: Race, Religion, and Science

All About Eve: Race, Religion, and Science

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“Among the words that can be all things to all men, the word ‘race’ has a fair claim to being the most common, the most ambiguous, and the most explosive.” 

— Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition, 1937


We start with a quiz: what did Eve look like?  Quickly, now!  Sorry, there’s no prize for volunteering the answer I have in mind.  If you’re anything like me, your image of Eve is quite distinct: you shut your eyes and see her, standing innocently nude by the Tree of Knowledge, her long blonde hair framing blue eyes and tumbling down to conceal her milky white breasts.

Yet science tells us quite a different story: Eve, or at least mitochondrial Eve (about whom more later), was a sub-Saharan African, almost certainly short, dark-skinned and dark-eyed.

The interesting question, though, is not who is right. The interesting question, in view of how religion and science have dealt with race in the past, is whether either institution can overcome their legacies of brutal injustice and malicious myth to play a truly constructive role in getting race right.

*    *    *

Writers often strain to draw connections between science and religion.  In the matter of race, however, they come free and easy.  For much of the last two centuries, science and religion have been the pincers that held in place a system of worldwide racism.  Both institutions have deeply shameful records of abuse.  Yet each has also had an important role to serve in righting past wrongs.

Religion, with its far longer history, got a handle on race much earlier than science.  Mind you, it would take a survey course in world religions to capture all of the nuances of race and religion, and frankly I wouldn’t be qualified to teach it.  With the proviso that other religions have sins on their hands too, I will concentrate on Christianity in the New World.

That history begins with the calamitous arrival of the Spanish in the Americas.  Jared Diamond, in his remarkable book Guns, Germs and Steel, recounts the events of a fateful day in November 1532, when the troops of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro met Atahualpa, head of the Inca Empire, “the largest and most advanced state in the New World.”

Although Pizarro at first made friendly overtures, religion soon emerged as an incendiary issue between the two sides.  Diamond quotes at length from eyewitness accounts of the Spanish:

“Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to [Emperor] Atahualpa, and to require Atahualpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahualpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain.  Advancing with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahualpa was, the Friar thus addressed him: ‘I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you [1].’“ 

 It may come as no great shock to modern readers to learn that Atahualpa did not immediately cast off his own status as a god-king and humbly submit to this “Lord Jesus” of whom he had just heard.  Friar de Valverde, however, appears to have been taken aback.

The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out!  Come out, Christians!  Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God … Why remain polite and servile toward this over proud dog when the plains are full of Indians?  March out against him, for I absolve you [2]!’

A massacre of unarmed civilians ensued, and with it began a centuries-long European campaign of slaughter, subjugation, and coerced conversion to Christianity.

In North America, too, race and religion reduced the American Indian to a ‘savage,’ with no more rights than the buffalo of the plains.  Native Americans were massacred, driven off their lands, and even deliberately infected with smallpox.  Eventually, however, a more humane policy of re-education emerged.  “Kill the Indian, save the man,” proclaimed Gen. Richard Pratt, the former commander of an Indian POW camp at the founding of the first off-reservation federal boarding school in 1879.  With that prophetic motto, a campaign of cultural and religious obliteration began.  A hundred years would pass before its tide could be turned.  Christian fervor provided much of the impetus that kept it going.  A 1999 Associated Press reported observed:

“The government bureaucrats and Christian missionaries who molded the boarding school system had the same idea.  Indians must be forced to follow ‘the superior methods of the white man,’ Wellington Rich, the first superintendent of the Phoenix Indian School, said in 1890.  Former students and boarding school historians say the methods were often violent and humiliating — forcing children to eat lye soap for speaking their tribal languages, cropping their long hair, paddling them for having Indian medicine bundles [3].”

 Christianizing the tens of thousands of Indian pupils remained an important goal of the boarding schools within living memory.  A Yakima woman recalls:

“They stripped us of our language.  They stripped us of our religious beliefs.  They stripped us of our family life, our family values.  They stripped us from our culture [4].”

 If missionary work provided the moral cover for this colonial onslaught, Christianity had another card to play when it came to slavery.  According to the Old Testament, Noah, that good man, took umbrage when his son, Ham, saw him drunk and naked.  In retribution, Noah put a curse on Ham’s son and all his descendents:

“Cursed be Canaan!  The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.  He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!  May Canaan be the slave of Shem.  May God extend theterritory ofJapheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem and mayCanaan be his slave [Genesis 9:25-27].’”

Slavers conveniently assumed this passage to refer to Africans.  Why the offspring of Ham should be any darker than Noah is not clear, but perhaps the common superstition about curses leaving marks sufficed.  In any event, this passage became the premiere Biblical justification of American slavery.  Congressman James Henry Hammond of North Carolina argued for the permanence of the “peculiar institution” of black enslavement before the House on Feb. 1, 1836:

“The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants.  The hand of fate has united his color and destiny.  Man cannot separate what God hath joined [5].”

Asians, too, were assaulted by religion on their arrival in the New World. Historian Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, in his book The Chinese Experience in America, notes:

“As soon as the Chinese arrived in America, church workers sought to convert them to Christianity, but the majority of nineteenth century Chinese retained their religious traditions, which were syncretic, tolerant, and nondogmatic … With such a seemingly rational religious tradition in China, it is understandable that American missionaries had difficulty in converting the Chinese to the more exclusive and dogmatic Christianity.  But they quickly seized the opportunities afforded by racial discrimination and social injustice as issues to make their Christian God omnipresent to Chinese immigrants, and to act as liaison between Christian workers and white society [6].”

In truth, conversion to Christianity was held out as a ticket to decent treatment.  But the Chinese immigrant communities were loathe to accept the offer.  Again, Tsai:

“This mentality was reinforced by flagrant anti-Chinese racism.  If the Chinese were encouraged to go to the whit man’s heaven, why could they not freely immigrate to the white man’s country?  In his reasoning, the Chinese immigrant could discern a patent hypocrisy among white Christians whose Bible taught justice and love but whose deeds against the Chinese were a shameful and undeniable record of injustice and violence [7].”

*    *    *

Science got off to at least as bad a start.  In the mid-19th century, new theories of race blossomed within French, German, British and American scientific circles.  Many were influenced by the Comte de Gobineau’s four-volume Essay on the Inequality of Human Races.  Others felt the need for scientific buttresses to support the expansion of European colonialism.  All assumed the white man to be the pinnacle of humanity, and classed and ranked all other races as either separate species or as degenerate spin-offs.

The late Stephen J. Gould tells us, in The Mismeasure of Man, that these competing “scientific” theories of anthropology were known as polygenism and monogenism.  The latter proved more popular, but only because most scientists in those early Darwinian days were Christian creationists, and monogenism fit better with the biblical story of Adam and Eve [8].

Ironically, to explain the wide variation in human appearance, monogenists resorted to a kind of Lamarckian theory of adaptation.  They argued that environmental factors – climate was a leading candidate – had caused permanent changes in people as they strayed farther and farther from the Garden of Eden.  Whites, naturally, had degraded the least.

Not that polygenism necessarily broke with Bible.  Louis Agassiz, the leading American proponent of polygenism in the mid-19th century and a devout creationist, hit on ingenious means of reconciling the two.  Agassiz argued thus:

“The Bible does not speak about parts of the world unknown to the ancients; the tale of Adam refers only to the origin of Caucasians.  Negroes and Caucasians are as distinct in the mummified remains of Egypt as they are today.  If human races were the product of climatic influence, then the passage of three thousand years would have engendered substantial changes [9].”

The “science” of craniology, or the measuring of heads, sprang up to supply data in support of both brands of scientific racism.  Skulls were collected by the thousands; brains were scooped and stored in formaldehyde.  In a 1974 book, Carl Sagan recalls his astonishment at walking through the Museum of Man in Paris and seeing jar after jar of perfectly preserved heads and brains.  Looking at one, he mused, “Perhaps he was a sailor who had jumped ship in the tropics only to be captured and executed, his head involuntarily drafted in the cause of science.  Except that he was not being studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads [10].”

If so, science was just warming up.  Francis Galton, the brilliant and eccentric cousin of Darwin, founded the eugenics movement, aimed at improving the genetic stock of humanity through selective breeding and sterilization.  Naturally, race became an instant criterion for quality.

The United Statesenthusiastically embraced forced sterilization. Backed by the 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck vs. Bell(in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”), state governments went on to sterilize upwards of 100,000 people.  Statistics on the race of those sterilized seem to be unavailable, but there can be no doubt that racism and eugenics were fraternal twins.  The craze for eugenics laws was accompanied by a surge in antimiscegenation (race mixing) laws, and Congress passed explicitly racist immigration laws, intended to keep out all but the whitest of Europeans.

If anything were needed to reveal the unscientific nature of this movement, the effort to classify Jews meets the case. As scholar Robert Singerman of the University of Florida notes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Racial explanations [in America] for Jewish distinctiveness were abundant, often couched in descriptions of the Jews as a non-Caucasian, oriental people, inherently incapable of absorbing Anglo-Saxon ideals [11].”

It would be easy to dismiss all this social Darwinism as pseudoscience but for two embarrassing facts: first, white supremacist racial theory was mainstream science until quite recently. Second, the scientific enterprise continues to produce claims that a 19th century racist, after boning up on genetics, would find entirely congenial: Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray and other I.Q. determinists have published articles and books in the last few decades that, as Cornell West sums up, “suggest that prevailing evidence leads to the conclusion that blacks are, in some sense, genetically inferior [12].”

*    *   *

So much for a summary of the sins of science and religion.  What of their roles in overcoming the terrible legacy of racism?

Religion, it must be said, made the first moves.  Just as Southerners relied on the Bible to justify slavery, the Abolitionists drew from the same well for their fervent opposition.  However, it must also be said that they drew far less water from that wellspring.  The Bible everywhere approves slavery (though the words are frequently softened in translation), while offering only veiled solace to the Abolitionist.  As an antebellum pamphleteer wrote:  “The practice of human slavery is not condemned in the Scriptures by that name, nor mentioned in any of our common law definitions by the same name.  But it is condemned in the Scriptures under other names, and by descriptions, plainly and severely [13].”  Unfortunately, the condemnation did not appear plain to most.

More than a century later, the civil rights movement coalesced around a religious vision of justice.  No one did more to articulate that vision than the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But in the campaign for equal rights, the unit of organization was the black church and the overarching structure was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In response, mainstream American religion dismantled its official racism.  The American Baptist Convention, in 1964, adopted a resolution that began: “We believe that the moral issues posed by patterns of discrimination and segregation in community life make it imperative that American Baptist agencies, local churches, ministers and laity become actively involved in community efforts to create an open society.”  Some churches found doctrinal change more difficult than others.  It took a special revelation from God to overturn the exclusionary policies of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, widely known as the Mormons.  Why He waited until 1978 is a mystery.

In any event, congregational integration has proceeded even more slowly.  Curiously, change has been most profound in newly formed evangelical “megachurches,” rather than in liberal wing of Protestantism.  Nevertheless, it continues, even as the American people increasingly marry – or at least become parents – across racial lines.

*    *    *

And the other half of the pincers?  Science, unlike religion, does not have a social agenda per se.  Nevertheless, in pursuit of accurate knowledge about humans, it has recently uncovered data that demolishes most if not all of the pseudoscientific racism of the past.

I won’t rehearse the arguments over I.Q., except to note that the whole idea of a single property known as g, or general intelligence, has been deeply undermined.  In an age of increasing specialization, it now seems plain that a person can be a genius in one field and a moron in another.  Pablo Picasso, for instance, reportedly could not so much as balance a checkbook.  Not that the greatest and wealthiest artist of the 20th century had to [14].  Einstein was a regular Einstein when it came to the cosmos, but like your present writer he was no fashion genius.  More important than the I.Q. wars is our new knowledge of humanity’s genetic history.  No informed person can any longer speak of “black” or “African” traits.  Research shows that there is more genetic variety among the peoples of Africa than among any other people on earth.  Apart from the “junk” DNA used to identify individuals only about 1 percent of Europeans or Asians are genetically distinguishable from their group, whereas if you pick 100 modern Africans at random, you can expect that 37 of them will show significant genetic differences [15].

This squares perfectly with modern “out-of-Africa” theory.  Supported by a variety of evidence, it says that our forebears lived for millions of years in Africa, and only emerged to roam the world in the last 100,000 years or so.  It stands to reason, then, that the genetic variation among the emigrants would be far less than that to be found within Africa.  And that is what research verifies.  Indeed, Jared Diamond identifies no less than five “races” in Africa, not counting the whites who emigrated there a few centuries ago [16].

Which brings us back to Eve.  Science has contributed to a shifting perspective on race by introducing us to Mitochondrial Eve.  She was our most recent matrilineal ancestor, the mother who gave us all our mitochondria.  We still have no idea who exactly she was, but we know she must have lived, and we’re fairly certain she lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago.  The Ya-Ya sisterhood of women is real!  As is the brotherhood of man.  Y-chromosome Adam, the most recent common male ancestor of us all also appears to have been African, but his dating is a bit more uncertain.  The likelihood that his life coincided with Mitochondrial Eve’s is very low [17].  But what does it matter if we can no longer take literally the fable of Adam and Eve?  We have gained reliable knowledge of a more important truth: we are all close relatives, kith and kin six billion strong.

In short, race, though in some ways real, fails to be determinative.  Tempting though the stereotypes might be, you cannot wander through a hospital’s neonatal ward and predict by race that this baby will be an NBA star, and that one will be an engineer, and this one a coal miner.  Only the particular genome of the baby coupled with her social and physical environment can do that.  However, since race continues to be part of that social environment, it continues to play a strong role in the shaping individual fates.

*    *    *

So, where do we band of brothers and sisters go from here?  Great race dangers remain, and new ones are on the horizon.  While mainstream religion has shifted its bed, rivulets of racism continue to feed angry, violent sects such as the Identity Christians of Idaho [18].  Dismayingly, hateful religion appears to be on the rise in America.  Mainstream religion can and should do more to redress its racist past and delegitimize present bigotry.

And what of science?  Although the genome era has only just dawned, we may be confident that it has established one fact: the differences in our skins, noses, eyes, and hair are, in the words of one writer, “profoundly incidental [19].”  Racism as a scientific concept is dead.

But science does not just discover; it invents.  In recent years, some major figures, such as Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy, have wrung their hands over the prospect that science may invent a new “race” of artificial intelligent life that will turn around and destroy humanity.  Fortunately, this seems far less likely than the prospect that we will deliberately or carelessly kill ourselves off with our technology.  No need to invent someone else to do the job!

Similarly, Francis Fukuyama, among others, has even suggested that biotechnology could bring about the artificial creation of a “master race,” bred from among those able to afford genetic enhancement.

An immediate fear is that science will draw new “racial” dividing lines among people.  Could genetic discrimination replace our cruder prejudices of the past?  Certainly.  Potential mates might demand a review copy of their intended’s genome.  Who can say what biases would creep in.  Perhaps all the descendents of pharonic mummies would find themselves excluded.  Already, genetic profiling has raised fears that people carrying genes making them liable to, say, breast cancer or Alzheimer’s may be denied employment or health insurance if their “secret” gets out.

By the same token, though, genetic research may help to erase ancient lines that divide.  Controversial research, for example, suggests that Palestinians and Jews are genetically indistinguishable, a fact that may help to undermine some of the dogmas of hate on both sides [20].

Science must always pursue the truth.  Still, as a human institution, it does have obligations to society.  Albert Einstein, whose equations opened the door to nuclear weapons, urged President Roosevelt to develop them as the Nazi war machine threatened Europe.  But he also, near the end of his life, joined Bertrand Russell in calling for nuclear disarmament.  Whether one agrees with either of his stands, Einstein must be credited with a sense of public duty.

Today, few of the scientists engaged in genetic research speak frankly to the public about the ethical issues implicit in them.  Even fewer speak out on race.  Both science and religion, and the people who lead those institutions, have a historical debt that has not been fully discharged.  The time has come to beat the pincers into plowshares.


[1] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 71.

[2] Diamond, 72.

[3] Matt Kelley, “American Indian boarding schools: ‘That hurt never goes away'” (The Associated Press, April 28, 1999)

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: the Great  Battle in the United States Congress. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 139.

[6] Shih-shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese  Experience in America.  (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 1986), 42-44.

[7] Tsai, 44-45.

[8] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981) 39.

[9] Gould, 46.

[10] Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain. (New York: Random House, 1979), 5.

[11] Robert Singerman, “The Jew as Racial Alien,” in Anti-Semitism in American History. Edited by David A. Gerber. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 109.

[12] Cornell West, The Cornell West Reader. (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 253.

[13] George Bourne, A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument; By a Citizen of Virginia. (New York, S.W. Bennett, 1845)