SCIENCE AND RACISM
by Bob Wheeler
When Sam Harris published his best-selling book The Moral Landscape in 2010, he subtitled the book “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” His basic argument is that science can define human well-being, and therefore can provide a basis for “human values.” But how well does this claim hold up in actual practice? The record suggests something quite different. Science, it turns out, can be held accountable for some of the most egregious human rights abuses of modern times. Science, in fact, is almost directly responsible for racism.
The plain fact of the matter is that “race” originated as a scientific concept. The biblical view is that “He [i.e., God] has made from one blood every nation of men . . .” (Acts 17:26; NKJV). In other words, all human beings share a common ancestry, and thus we are all basically alike. We are all sinners and therefore we all need salvation.
However, as westerners came into contact with different peoples around the world, they could not help but be struck by the differences between peoples, both physical and cultural. And thus some began seriously to question the biblical premise. The physical differences between Europeans, Asians and Africans were so great it was hard to see how they could share a common ancestry. There soon developed a debate among scientists over “monogenism,” the idea that we all descended from the same pair of ancestors, and “polygenism,” the idea that the races each had a different ancestry and thus were not related to each other. Some of the leading figures of the 18th Century “Enlighenment,” such as Voltaire, were convinced polygenists. Soon there were elaborate schemes to classify the different varieties of humans, led by the famous Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus.
However it was the attempt to understand the cultural differences scientifically that led to outright racism. The problem is that science, by its very nature, must understand reality in terms of natural causes. There is no room for such a thing as a human soul, let alone a role for divine providence. The working assumption of science is that there must be an underlying natural cause for human behavior. And the two most common “scientific” explanations for human behavior are biology and economics.
It is the biological explanation that concerns us here. It was almost inevitable that scientists would try to link cultural differences to biological ones. Linnaeus himself identified five different “varieties” of human beings, and associated each with distinct personality traits. He then ranked the varieties in order. Likewise Georges Cuvier tied culture to race. Before long scientists were taking careful measurements of skull capacity in order to determine relative intelligence. In the U.S. Samuel George Morton amassed a huge collection of skulls upon which he took careful measurements, and rated each race according to intelligence, with Caucasians on the top and Negroes on the bottom. By the 1850’s authors such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Josiah C. Nott in America were writing books on race that were used to provide a scientific justification for slavery, among other things.
Charles Darwin added a new twist to the discussion. On the one hand he argued that all human beings share a common ancestry. On the other hand he asserted that the races were all evolving, and he introduced the idea of natural selection. This suggested that some adaptations may have been more successful than others, and that some races might even be doomed to extinction.
Whatever Darwin’s intentions may have been, his theory soon inspired Social Darwinism and Eugenics. One of the leading proponents of the former was Darwin’s contemporary and admirer, Herbert Spencer; while a leading advocate of the latter was Darwin’s own cousin Francis Galton.
By the late 19th Century the “social sciences” such as anthropology, sociology and psychology proliferated. It was also the heyday of western imperialism. A growing number of writers in both Europe and America began asserting that even among Europeans there was an “Aryan race” that had a special gift for government and military conquest. In Germany the prominent naturalist Ernst Haeckel was an ardent Social Darwinist, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman who emigrated to Germany (he married Richard Wagner’s daughter) became an outspoken advocate of Aryan superiority. Thus when the Nazis came to power in 1933 they could look back on a century and a half of “scientific” research to justify their claims to racial superiority.
Paradoxically it was a U.S. Southern Presbyterian theologian and defender of slavery, James H. Thornwell, who saw through all this scientific pretense. Speaking in 1850 at the dedication of a church building in Charleston, SC for the use of black people, Thornwell declared: “It is a public testimony to our faith, that the Negro is of one blood with ourselves, that he has sinned as we have, and that he has an equal interest with us in the great redemption. Science, falsely so called, may attempt to exclude him from the brotherhood of humanity. Men may be seeking eminence and distinction by arguments which link him with the brute; but the instinctive impulses of nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the Word of God, lead us to recognize in his form and lineaments, in his moral, religious and intellectual nature, the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God. We are not ashamed to call him our brother.” (Collected Writings, Vol. IV, p. 403).
What this whole affair demonstrates are the limitations of science. Science is based on observation and experiment, and when it comes to the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, the scientific method works just fine. We are all indebted to science for the many physical comforts we enjoy. But when it comes to the so-called “historical sciences,” historical geology and historical biology, we run into a problem. The scientist cannot go back in time hundreds of millions of years and directly observe what happened. The best he can do is formulate a hypothesis based on the bare physical evidence that exists today. But even if he can demonstrate that a given scenario is hypothetically possible, he can never prove that that is what actually happened. No one has ever observed evolution take place, nor has anyone reduplicated it in a laboratory. Therefore it is hard to see how evolution can be considered “science” in the truest sense of the word.
When we come to the “social sciences” we encounter more problems. Here we are dealing with intangibles. One cannot put human thoughts and emotions under the microscope. Has anyone ever observed an “id” or a “superego”? And as noted earlier, science is compelled to look for naturalistic explanations for phenomena. But when it comes to human behavior the scientist is forced to make a critical assumption, viz., that the human personality is a function of brain activity. But if personality is a function of brain activity then it is inevitably tied to race. And since the races are different from each other, then so must also be the human capabilities of each. This is why science fell into the trap of racism.
Science can only look at what it can see, but it cannot see a human soul. It cannot see the full human potential. It can see what people have been in the past; but it cannot typically see what they might become in the future. Nor can science make moral judgments. Thus the attempt to understand human beings scientifically led to the disastrous results of the 20th Century.
The universe is far greater than what the human intellect can comprehend. We are ultimately dependent upon a source outside of ourselves for information about the meaning and purpose of life, the difference between right and wrong, and whether or not there is life after death. Science is helpless in the face of infinity. After many centuries of scientific endeavor we have barely scratched the surface. Our Creator must tell us who we are, how we got here, and where we are ultimately headed. That is why we have the Bible.