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National Center for Science Education Whitewashes Scientific Racism

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When I was a medical student, I liked to go to the medical school library in the evening and browse. I loved the old books and journals, some of them from the late 19th and early 20th century. Reading them made me feel a part of the long tradition of medicine. It was heady stuff for a medical student who had wanted to be a doctor since childhood.

What I found in the books struck me as odd. There were the expected chapters and articles on early surgical techniques and on the treatment of infectious diseases (before the era of antibiotics). Yet in many of the books and journals there were bizarre articles on race, "feeblemindedness," skull shape, and rather crude anatomical comparisons between people of different races -- detailed analyses, for example, of the skull dimensions of European Caucasians and Pacific Islanders and Africans and Asians.

And these racial analyses were in the English literature, not merely in German medical literature from the 1930s and '40s. Our library had German journals, and I noticed that there seemed to be at least as many of these papers on racial science in the English (American) literature as there were in the German literature.

These racial analyses were everywhere, in journals of many different specialties, in prestigious journals, written by scientists from prestigious institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins and Stanford. I thought this odd, and chalked it up to the discarded science of an earlier and less enlightened era.

This much was clear: the scientific and medical profession in the late 19th century and early 20th century was obsessed with race, and racial science consisted essentially in drawing biological distinctions between people of different races. It was also clear that the distinctions invariably favored European Caucasians, and denigrated Africans. For any given salutary trait, European Caucasians were on the high end, and Africans were on the low end. Some articles even compared Africans biologically with apes, to emphasize the purported differences between Caucasians and Africans.

The journals told the story: scientific racism was consensus science. It was, as I would learn later, a cornerstone of eugenics. Scientific racism was mainstream science in the United States and in several other countries (including Germany).

I have thought about those articles in the library in the ensuing years, and about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of "consensus science" -- the denigration of entire races of people, the sterilization of tens of thousands of "unfit" people in the United States, and the sterilization and murder of millions of people in Europe.

Scientific racism casts a pall on the medical profession and the biological sciences. We doctors and biologists have done very good things, of course, but we have done ugly things, too, and we rarely speak about the ugly things among ourselves and virtually never speak to the public.

Recently, I read a remarkable essay at the website of the National Center for Science Education, a Darwinist non-profit dedicated to aggressive activism to insulate Darwinism (and global warming) from scrutiny in public schools. The essay, "How Science Students Helped End Segregated Blood Banks," was written by Josh Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director at the NCSE. Rosenau, identified as an evolutionary biologist, tells the story of Charles Drew, an African-American doctor who was a pioneer in blood banking and the science of blood transfusion, and of students in Harlem in New York City who did research in the 1940s to demonstrate that the blood of Caucasians and the blood of African-Americans was indistinguishable and that transfusions between races was safe.

It's a good story, but the lessons Rosenau draws from it are the opposite of the truth. He writes:

There are a few valuable lessons from that struggle. First, it's a reminder how science denial operates. Despite ample evidence from leading medical societies down to middle school students showing that blood was blood, and despite the clear awareness of that science by policymakers from the beginning, the policy persisted. Policymakers who could have relied on science instead kowtowed to ideological fears, risking the lives of injured soldiers and the principles of the society they were fighting to defend, all to shield this vicious policy.

Bizarrely, Rosenau equates the mainstream scientists who taught scientific racism in the early 20th century with people today who challenge scientific authority, and he equates the few courageous scientists and students who challenged the consensus in the 1940s with the purveyors of today's scientific "consensus."

Rosenau has it backwards. In the controversies over scientific racism in the late 19th and early 20th century, mainstream science provided seemingly powerful support for racism. Darwin's theory of evolution proposed that man was merely an evolved animal, the product of a violent struggle for existence that inherently involved the extermination of inferior races.

Darwin famously wrote in The Descent of Man:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, was the father of eugenics, and set about a carefully planned scientific and social program to exterminate and replace the unfit -- the savage races. Charles Davenport, a Harvard biologist, established the Station for Experimental Evolution in Cold Spring Harbor in 1904, and it became the headquarters for the eugenic application of Darwin's theory in the United States. Within a decade, eugenics was mainstream science in the United States, taught routinely in public schools, and in hundreds of colleges and in medical schools.

Emblematic of consensus scientific racism of the early 20th century are Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothorp Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy (1920).

Scientific racism and eugenics were mainstream science -- consensus science -- from the publication of Darwin's theory to the end of World War II. Scientific racism was ended largely by courageous scientists and others (largely religious people who believed in human exceptionalism) who spoke out against the scientific consensus. The Nazi atrocities played a huge role in discrediting scientific racism.

Rosenau whitewashes the real history of scientific racism, implying that mainstream science of the early 20th century was heroically opposed to racism, which is utterly false.

Rosenau writes:

The true story, and the play's plot, both offer powerful examples of how science education leads to political empowerment and, in time, to social change.

True, but in a sense opposite of what Rosenau means. Science education in the century after Darwin was the teaching of scientific racism. Darwin stressed that man is an evolved animal, and that differences between the races had a biological basis and were evidence of the superiority of Europeans and the inferiority of Africans. I saw the textbooks and journals in my medical school library--and it was scientific racism in the textbook Civic Biology that motivated much of the opposition to the teaching of racist Darwinist ideology in public schools in Dayton, Tennessee, in the Scopes Trial.

Segregation and eugenics were inspired and validated by the scientific consensus that blacks were inferior to whites and that integration was scientifically unwise and even catastrophic.

The kids in Harlem that Rosenau cites who fought against discrimination in blood banking, and the scientists who demonstrated that interracial transfusions were safe, were the "science deniers" of their day. They were fighting against a racist scientific consensus taught by mainstream biologists and doctors for almost a century. They were fighting against the racism that was endemic in the science textbooks of the early 20th century.

The courageous folks who took racism out of the science of blood banking stood up to the scientific racism that was taught as fact in the greatest medical centers and research institutions in our country, and by militantly "pro-science" pressure groups such as the American Eugenics Society, who were the ideological predecessors of the National Center for Science Education today.

"Science denial" (what an odious phrase invoked by Rosenau -- inviting as it does an equation between people who challenge "consensus" science with Holocaust deniers) is precisely what demolished the scientific consensus behind scientific racism and eugenics. The "deniers" demanded that the evidence alone be followed, regardless of the Darwinian and racist consensus.

Rosenau's last comment is ironic:

[I]t's a reminder that clever kids with good science teachers can and should raise some hell. When you supply some science and resources, people can do amazing things... if we give them the tools and knowledge they need, and don't let ideology get in their way.

The National Center for Science Education takes a very dim view of kids and teachers who "raise hell" and ask questions in science class. The NCSE opposes schools that permit questions about Darwinian science, and supports costly litigation that threatens the school districts in the NCSE's crosshairs with financial ruin unless they toe the line on the Darwinian view of biology. In the Kitzmiller case, the NCSE's cobelligerents extracted a legal fee of a million dollars from the small Dover Area School District where teachers and kids wanted to ask the kind of questions about Darwinism that the kids in Harlem had asked about scientific racism in 1943. One of the assistant legal directors working in collaboration with the NCSE boasted:

"Any board thinking of trying to do what the Dover board did is going to have to look for a bill in excess of $2 million," and "I think $2 million is a lot to explain to taxpayers for a lawsuit that should never be fought."

The NCSE is no friend of people who challenge established science, and the real story of overcoming scientific racism and eugenics is the story of overcoming science censorship and bullying of the sort that is practiced regularly by the National Center for Science Education.

Image: Medical library, via Wikicommons.