What does historic Christian theology have to do with modern racial science? There are good reasons to believe the answer is “nothing.” Since Max Weber advanced his theory of secularization, arguing that modern people are disenchanted with Christian theology and have divided labor into religious and non-religious institutions, influential scholars including John C. Green and David Hull have argued for seeing the relationship between science and historic Christian theology through the metaphor of decline.John C. Greene, The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1959); David Hull, Science as Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
As Terence Keel notes, these scholars assume “Christian and scientific epistemology are incommensurable, and modernity naturally entails the erosion of religious influence over the structures of knowledge that govern social life” (p. 14).
Yet Keel contends that these assumptions are wrong. The questions scientists ask about race and the tools they use to answer them reflect a “transference” and “inheritance” from “the Christian roots of Western intellectual history” (p. 15). Inspired by Hans Blumenberg’s work, Keel’s Divine Variations reveals that scientists’ accounts of race “are often accompanied by latent beliefs about God/nature that regularly transgress the rational limits that modern science has set for itself and thus reproduce Christian assumptions it claims to have overcome” (p. 16).
Excavation Site One: Johann Blumenbach
Keel begins with Blumenbach, the first ethnologist to divide humanity into five races and offer a scientific explanation for the original human beings being white. Though Blumenbach distanced himself from historic Christian theology—“he believed that observable laws and uniform forces, not God governed nature” (p. 23)—he still endorsed a creationist view of human origins, and a teleological vision of nature. For Blumenbach, Keel observes, “the white patriarch of humanity was a spontaneous naturally civilized, and unprecedented creation. Blumenbach’s Caucasian was a secular Adam” (p. 25). Likewise, Keel details how “the explanatory mechanism Blumenbach used to account for species diversity. . . effectively reoccupies (to invoke Hans Blumenberg) the creative powers of the God in the Genesis narrative” (p. 24). Blumenbach does not fully break with Christian theology; he appropriates it for racial science.
Blumenbach in his racial science also appropriates Lutheran-informed views of anti-Semitism, animal-human distinctions, and creation’s age. The anti-Semitism is particularly important, for Blumenbach advocates views of Jewish inferiority that support the growing rumbling about a “Jewish Problem” across German states. This connection harkens back to Keel’s endorsement of J. Kameron Carter’s claim: “Modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots” (p. 8).See J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.
Excavation Site Two: Josiah Clark Nott
Whereas Blumenbach held that human beings share a common ancestral descent (i.e., monogenesis), U.S. ethnologist Josiah Clark Nott argued that human races have different lines of descent, and so are members of different species (i.e., polygenesis). Nott situated his defense of polygenesis within an overarching commitment to the belief that “modern science and the Bible were at odds concerning the study of race” (p. 57). The biblical teaching of human origins, Nott taught, failed to account for the “time needed for humans to develop into different races” and the “fixed nature of racial traits” (p. 66).
But Keel shows that Nott never jettisoned the biblical text. Instead, Nott endorsed the prevailing biblical interpretation of “a condensed time line for human history” (p. 74). Likewise, he accepted views of the stability of racial traits and the inherent order of nature shot through with subtle appropriations of Christian theology. Consequently, Keel concludes, even Nott’s efforts to promote a scientific supersessionism of Christianity positively passed along aspects of historic Christian theology.
Excavation Site Three: Progressive Era Public Health Research
Like Nott, many progressive era public health researchers rejected Charles Darwin’s emphasis on a common human ancestry in favor of polygenesis. Keel unearths these commitments in figures such as Charles Davenport, Frederick Hoffman, and Paul Barringer, the latter two playing a significant role in the promulgation of the racist racialization of venereal disease. For all these researchers, “biodeterminism and polygenism were conceptual tools used to perform the same role once offered by the God concept” (p. 19).
In contrast, Charles V. Roman employed a Christian conception of monogenesis to reject such racist public health research. Keel writes: “For the social hygienist Charles V. Roman, monogenism provided a conceptual anchor for his critique of scientific racism, allowing him to decouple false correlations between black ancestry and communicable disease” (p. 110). Indeed, “diseases like syphilis could be framed as a race-specific trait only when medical thinkers lost sight of the shared biological experience that links all racial groups” (p. 111).
Excavation Site Four: Ancient DNA and Modern Biology
Keel notes that “despite several attempts to discredit race thinking in science, the last decade has witnessed a resurgence of what social scientists have called the return of racial typographical thinking in genetics” (p. 19). This resurgence has included debates about human-Neanderthal relations arising from “the discovery of Neanderthal admixture” in the human genome. These debates mirror their nineteenth-century counterparts; reproduce the vision of human divisions medieval T-in-O maps depicted by deeming Africa, Asia, and Europe the “three most cohesive and ancestral [human] populations” (p. 114); and echo views either Blumenbach or U.S. polygenists championed, “both of which were patterned after Christian intellectual history” (p. 134).
Having discussed this resurgence, Keel offers his own take on the genetic findings. First, he argues that all human beings are biological “mongrels” with mixed heritages and ancestries we will never fully know (p. 135). Second, he claims that “the unexpected discovery of Neanderthal DNA in the human gene pool belies the idea that human identity is unique, stable, and transparent to our inquiring minds” (p. 135). And third, “humans were mixing before they became ‘races.’ At no point in our history has there been a member of our species not mixed with another human and nonhuman group” (pp. 135–36).
Keel concludes arguing for a more thoroughly evolutionary conception of human beings and the human species. For Keel, “races are meaningful only if one reduces the human evolutionary timescale to the present” (p. 142). And when attending to the present, we must remember that human populations are fluid and mixed, not fixed and pure.
Keel’s excellent book raises important questions about anthropology, creation, divine agency, medical practice, scientific racism, reception history, and white supremacy. Hence, we have invited four scholars to weigh in on some of these issues, and trust this symposium will advance the conversation surrounding the historic and ongoing connections between racial science and Christian theology.
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