The first article below is from a creationist website, Creation Evolution Headlines, and its author is a young-earth creationist. Oddly, though, its own headline and its discussion isn’t too far from what some “progressive” evolutionists maintain: evolutionary biology is racist, which explains the paucity of minorities in the field. The first paper, then, is not that different in its theses from the second and third papers below, although both were published in academic journa, Social Psychology in Education and in Evolution: Education and Outreach; and both papers include at least one evolutionary biologist as an author. Click headlines to read any of them.
(The pdf for the article below can be found here.
In both papers religion is mentioned: African Americans are more religious than whites, and that makes them resistant to studying evolution. This may well be true, but I don’t know what to do about it. Here’s one anecdote I’ve told before. I was invited to lecture on evolution to a black “magnet school” (a high school) on Chicago’s South Side. At the end of my talk, a girl stood up and asked me if I was saying that Noah’s Flood and (as I recall) the Garden of Eden didn’t really exist. I had to tell the truth and say, “Yes, that’s what I think.” It caused a ruckus, and I could clearly see that the students became resistant to my message. (After the talk, the principal took me aside and said I really should have mentioned all the innovations that Africans had made, like inventing the airplane.)
But here’s from the paper:
In contrast to scientists, African Americans are significantly more religious than most every other American ethnic group. They also overwhelmingly self-identify as Protestant Christians. Thus, African Americans may be more likely than Whites to experience a major dissatisfaction with their pro-evolution courses and faculty. This perception could well affect their feelings about evolution classes and professors. In effect, African-American undergraduates appear to be more aware than Whites of the foundation of evolutionary theory which is
methodological (and de facto metaphysical) naturalism. Their religious inclinations will therefore be in conflict with the culture within the [evolutionary] community and it will be difficult for them to feel a sense of belonging in that community. The same with their moral objections to evolution, moral objections that are well founded in the African-American experience. The demands of methodological naturalism thus become an impediment to the greater participation of people of color in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Evidence exists that religiosity functions as a challenge to inclusion within evolutionary biology. Religiosity is negatively associated with exposure to evolutionary theory, knowledge about evolution, and acceptance of evolution. In a sample of African-American college students, Bailey found that the more religious the students were, the less knowledge they had about evolution. Moreover, religiosity is also associated with having moral objections to the theory of evolution. Thus, a cultural mismatch exists between the religious beliefs of students, and those of evolutionary faculty who are unable to properly deal with religious differences and moral objections to evolution. This may create a challenge that leads to a lower sense of belonging in fields of study that are entrenched in evolutionary thinking.
But if it’s “methodological naturalism” that religious people object to, they should object not just to evolutionary biology, but to ALL science. For “methodological naturalism” is simply the proposition that the laws of the universe are all that occurs in the sciences: there is no divine intervention. (This, by the way, is not an a priori decision of scientists to exclude God, it’s a method used because invoking God to explain natural phenomena never gets us anywhere. You all know the story of Laplace and Napoleon: “I had no need of that hypothesis”. Nor do we need The God Hypothesis now; it’s only an impediment to understanding.)
It’s not just evolutionary theory that’s founded on methodological naturalism, but all of science. If metaphysical naturalism makes you uncomfortable, then you have no business doing science at all.
More problematic is religiosity, since for some believers evolution poses no problem for their faith, but for others it’s an insuperable problem. Yet most Americans reject the naturalistic view of evolution: in fact, a 2019 Gallup poll (data below), a poll taken every few years, shows, that 40% Americans are young-earth creationists, another 33% are theistic evolutions (who believe that God helped evolution along, especially creating humans), while a mere 22%—a bit more than 1 in 5 of us, accept the naturalistic view of evolution as we teach it in college.
73% of Americans, then, think that God had some hand in evolution. That’s nearly 4 out of 5, and those objections are obviously religious ones. The biggest impediment to accepting evolution, as I wrote about in my Presidential paper in the journal Evolution, is religion. (As you can imagine, I had trouble getting this palpably true thesis published.) I know of no anti-evolution organization that is, at bottom, not based on religion, and there’s a negative correlation among U.S. states and among countries in the world between religiosity and acceptance of evolution.
With respect to minorities in particular, the “solution” that Bergman offers to the inequities in evolutionary biology is for us to learn to talk about religion and evolution:
O’Brien et al. [JAC: the paper below] concluded that
cultural differences in religiosity as well as the moral objections to evolution cannot be ignored in efforts to increase URM’s sense of belonging in EEB educational contexts (or other science fields that are rooted in evolution). A large proportion of the U.S. population is religious and disbelieves in evolution. African Americans and Latinos/as are more religious than the U.S. population as a whole and scientists in particular (Pew Research 2009a, b). One method to improve religious students’ feelings of belonging in EEB contexts might be teach EEB faculty to navigate conversations around religion.
Based on the studies below, and experiences of my colleagues, yes, black students or URMs (underrepresented minorities) are more wary of taking evolution classes because of their greater faith. What do do about that? Well, I have talked to students who had religious objections to evolution, but only in my office, not in class. And really, one has to be a therapist to deal with this issue. I can tell the students that many people find evolution compatible with their faith but, as you see from the figure above, most don’t. And if they ask me my own opinion, I will tell them that I don’t think religion is compatible with evolution, but, fortunately, I rarely got asked that by students.
Finally, the issue of eugenics comes up, as it does even in scientific societies. The mantra goes that evolutionary biology was founded on eugenics (no, it wasn’t), and that the discipline is still deeply imbued with eugenics (no, it isn’t). True, there was a period about ninety years ago when some evolutionists proposed eugenic schemes, but these schemes were not adopted wholesale by governments (and not at all in the UK), and those countries who did adopt them weren’t hugely influenced by evolutionary biology (if you want to blame any field for eugenics, blame genetics, but that’s hyperbole as well).
The quote below, reproduced in the paper above3 comes from the paper of Joseph Graves, Jr. (below):
During the same period in which African Americans were fighting for a legal end to Jim Crow, evolutionary biology became a coherent disciple. This occurred between 1936 and 1947 (Mayr 1982), with the founding of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) occurring in 1946 (Smocovitis 1994). This was right after the end of WWII in which racial theories had been utilized to justify the slaughter of millions of people in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war. What is not as well realized is that these theories had their origin in the West and prominent evolutionary biologists and geneticists contributed to their rise (Graves 2005a).
First of all, evolutionary biology is not the sole source of bigotry (although in the past it has buttressed it), and the claim that evolution had something to do with the mass slaughters of WWII is either gross hyperbole or wrong. In every war, each side dehumanizes the enemy, and that began well before 1859. The slaughter of Americans by the Japanese and vice versa had nothing to do with evolutionary biology. Nor did the mass slaughters of Russians by Germans and vice versa, as well as Hitler’s Holocaust. And if you think evolutionary biology led to the Holocaust, read my colleague Robert Richards’ paper, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?“, free online. The answer is a firm “No!”
To blame past eugenics, or to bring up the Tuskegee experiment (a horrible and unethical study, though not an outgrowth of evolutionary biology) for racial inequities in evolution doesn’t comport with with any data I know of, nor with my own experimence. Has a single student ever said that if evolution had been involved with eugenics in the past, they’d be busy studying evolution now, sometimes with the goal of becoming an evolutionary biologist?
Click below to read the O’Brien et al. paper, and you can find the pdf here;
One of the factors these authors invoke as inhibiting minority participation in evolution is religiosity, and I’ll quote from this paper again:
Thus, challenges to inclusion that are likely the results of access to resources (e.g., knowledge, feeling comfortable outdoors) and challenges that are likely the result of real or perceived cultural mismatches between students and EEB faculty (e.g., religion) were both related to feelings of belonging. Moreover, the relationship between challenges to inclusion and sense of belonging remained after statistically controlling for ethnicity.
In addition, cultural differences in religiosity as well as the moral objections to evolution cannot be ignored in efforts to increase URM’s sense of belonging in EEB educational contexts (or other science fields that are rooted in evolution). A large proportion of the U.S. population is religious and disbelieves in evolution. African-Americans and Latinos/as are more religious than the U.S. population as a whole and scientists in particular (Pew Research 2009a, b). One method to improve religious students’ feelings of belonging in EEB contexts might be teach EEB faculty to navigate conversations around religion (e.g., Graves 2019).
Feelings of belonging are a hard one, for one has to figure out how to rectify that. Mentors would help, though, as Graves points out below, there are very few black evolutionary biologists. If you need a mentor of your own race to succeed, there are two ways to fix that. First, departments could practice affirmative action in hiring faculty (we’re doing that as hard as we can given the restrictions on the practice, though it’s now become illegal). The reason it hasn’t worked that well is that there aren’t many minority evolutionary biologists looking for jobs. (One reason, I think, it that it’s not a very lucrative field, but that’s just my take). The underqualification in STEM that leads to this inequity has only one fix that’s permanent: provide people with equal opportunity from birth. (There are other fixes that aren’t as good, like expanding outreach, and I’m in favor of them, but in the end the problem we need to solve is one that starts at birth, and there is precious little money or will to fix that.) The ultimate goal to me is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes, but the former is a lot harder to ensure. And of course given cultural differences and preferences, equal opportunity need not lead to equal outcomes.
Finally, Joseph Graves, an African American evolutionist, weighs in with this paper (click to read, pdf here).
His thesis is that current racism (i.e., ongoing “structural racism”) is what keeps minorities out of evolution.
The central premise of this commentary is that racism in America as it is manifested in higher education (specifically evolutionary biology) creates a culturally non-inclusive environment that systematically disadvantages persons of non-European descent. The form of this disadvantage differs by the sociocultural positioning of individuals. Thus to change the patterns of underrepresentation within the discipline requires that the dominant social group (persons of European descent socially-defined as “white”) to address and act on how their position of privilege is subordinating “others.”
I’d agree with him insofar as the qualifications of minority scientists were eroded by the history of slavery and racism, but I can’t agree that racism is pervasive in evolutionary biology right now. There are simply too many efforts to find and recruit minority and faculty students to support the view that the field is riddled with systemic racism.
And then there’s religion, with Graves indicting my own views:
Darwin’s agnosticism on the existence of God is a well-known feature of his life (Desmond and Moore 1991). Jerry Coyne’s position on the incompatibility of evolution and religion is one that I shared earlier in my career (Coyne 2012). However I have since recanted. Such views certainly stand as an impediment to the successful recruitment of greater numbers of African American students to careers in evolutionary biology.
I question whether my position or views like mine have kept students out of evolutionary biology. Can you find one student who says, “I would have become an evolutionary biologist, but Jerry Coyne convinced me that science and religion are incompatible, so I didn’t major in science or take an evolution course”? I doubt there are more than a handful of students in America who have even read Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.” The recruitment of minority students into evolution may be because of religious belief that’s hard to overcome, but I doubt it’s because of the argument I made. That argument was not that religious people couldn’t accept evolution, or that scientists couldn’t be religious. Rather, it was that if you practice both science and religion, you are engaged in contradictory exercises: both fields are based on factual claims (religion, of course, is based on more than that), but only science has a way of determining whether those factual claims are true. This is a more sophisticated argument than simply saying, “Evolution makes a hash out of Christianity.”
I’m not denying, though, that religion is an impediment for black students to enter evolutionary biology; I have had colleagues teaching at various schools who told me they were explicitly told this by minority students. Graves, however, thinks it can be overcome with complex discussion:
However, this [religious belief] need not stand as impediment to the recruitment and retention of African Americans (or other highly religious) individuals into science. I have found that most of my highly religious Christian students have never really discussed the foundation of their theological views. As a confirmed Episcopalian, these are conversations I have learned how to conduct in ways that do not automatically shut down critical reasoning. Indeed, there is variation within Christian denominations with regards to their willingness to accept evolution as compatible with their faith. In general, doctrinally conservative Christians reject evolution (Berkman and Plutzer 2010). For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (formed as the Pro-segregation Baptist Church in the 1920s) and the National Baptist Convention (predominately African American membership) both reject evolution as compatible with their faith; on the other hand, the Catholic Church accepts evolution as compatible with their faith (Martin 2010). Notably there is variation within the individuals who subscribe to major denominations concerning their acceptance of evolution. For example, for Doctrinally Conservative Protestants, surveyed from 1994 to 2004, those who felt that: humans developed from earlier species of animals 76% felt that this statement was definitely false or probably false, while 24% felt it was probably true or true. Similar values were recorded for Black Protestants, 66% and 35% respectively, for mainline Protestant denominations, the values were 45% and 55%; while for Roman Catholics, the values were 42% and 58% (Berkman and Plutzer 2010). Thus while a given church’s official position is to accept or reject evolutionary science, individuals within denominations tend to make up their own minds concerning evolution. I have found that exposing my highly religious students to the fact that that there is variation within Christian thought concerning evolution helps them be able to engage it critically while not feeling that they are abandoning their faith.
Yes, that’s one way to do it, and it’s a lot easier if, like Graves, you’re religious. Another, which a colleague mentioned to me yesterday, is to say, “You don’t have to change your religious beliefs to take an evolution course. All you need to do is study the contents of the course and answer the questions.” (This works for required evolution courses.) Although this may seem callous, to me it involves less dissimulation, for, to be truthful, most Christians do believe something that’s incompatible with the theory of evolution, even if that belief is just that God helped the evolution of only one species along H. sapiens.
All of these authors (save Bergman) are well meaning, and I’m with their goal: everyone deserves a chance to study evolution. But the solutions involving religion, eugenics, affirmative action, and the like seem like Band-Aids on the wound.
There is only one workable solution, and that’s ensuring equal opportunity for all Americans. I won’t go into the problems with that solution, which may be insuperable, but should we be discussing that solution before we get to eugenics and religion?