Ghost of Scientific Racism Not Busted
A 1920 science project was “preposterous and disgraceful,” but have today’s scientists learned the lesson?
Michael Yudell, a public health chair at Drexel University, has brought to light a case of “scientific racism” from the 1920s on The Conversation. It involved plans to run a controlled experiment on infants by institutionalizing black orphans in one orphanage and whites in another under identical conditions. The goal was to find out if racial differences were innate or environmental. Yudell is appalled at the lack of compassion for the human subjects:
Recruitment proved to be a sticking point. In a chilling exchange, psychologist Knight Dunlap from Johns Hopkins and Clark Wissler, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, discussed “the difficulty of obtaining children.” Dunlap worried about the “difficulty in getting a perfect sampling of children away from their parents.”
Fortunately, the plan was never carried out, but Yudell uses the anecdote to describe scientific racism in broader terms—from eugenics, to classifying populations according to racial hierarchies, to the federally-sponsored Tuskegee experiment in 1932 that studied untreated black men infected with syphilis. Most of these assumed innate racial differences in intelligence or other factors. Have today’s scientists learned from these “unethical” episodes? Yudell is ambivalent:
Though the deeply rooted racism of the proposed racial orphanages experiment is today largely absent from science, science still struggles with the meaning of race. Today mainstream scientists utilize race in studies of human evolutionary history, to study the distribution of health-related traits within and between groups, and to use an individual’s ancestry to help determine the best medical treatments.
But this too is not without controversy. Many scientists argue that race is an imprecise marker of human genetic diversity and a poor proxy for predicting disease risk or drug response. As experiments like the racial orphanage and Tuskegee studies remind us, the scientific and social meanings of race are inseparable. The use of race in scientific study is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.
These days, “racist” is one of the worst epithets that can be leveled at anyone (especially a politician). Scientists still get away with this “imprecise marker” in some studies; others lead to outcries from colleagues (8/.12/14).
Yudell fails to finger Darwinism as one of the worst motivators for scientific racism in history. To get that story, you need to read John West’s Darwin Day in America (newly updated in paperback) that links Darwinism with not only racism but many other social ills. Yudell says “the scientific and social meanings of race are inseparable,” but more broadly, science and morality are inseparable.
Biblical scientists believe all humans are descended from one original human pair, so we are all of one race (Acts 17:16-34). The variations in outward traits that may separate populations are swamped by our common humanity: intelligence, aesthetics, and the capacity to ponder eternity. Humans are not lab rats to be put in cages, but eternal souls to be treated with respect and dignity no matter their skin color, language or ethnicity. People can be evaluated on “the content of their character,” as MLK famously said.