One of the least remembered facts of the John Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, often analyzed as a paradigmatic case study in the history of Christian fundamentalist history in North America is the influence of George Hunter’s Civic Biology textbook (1914) upon Scopes’s thought. After the controversy, Hunter removed certain parts on evolution from his book, but kept the details on eugenics, which advocated for the experimenting, confining, and even killing of “inferiors” or “imbeciles.”Douglas O. Linder, “From Francis Galton to George W. Hunter: Breaking Dogmatic Barriers and the Rise of the Eugenics Movement,” 2005, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/eugenics.html. Though claiming to be “scientific,” these pejorative terms were often applied to minoritized and disabled communities.
The history of scientific ideas and theories in the production of alternate non-theological accounts of human origins and human differentiation is complex and often riddled with horrendous socio-political extrapolations. These historical accounts are relevant to how, since the Enlightenment, Christian anthropology and cosmology have been replaced by secularism and evolutionary biology.
On Divine Variations
Stanford University Press, 2018
To what extent are scientific accounts concerning the origin and nature of the humanun built upon a racialized and theological rationality? Has scientific materialism not exorcised itself from the Christian religion’s intellectual slumbers? Terence Keel problematizes these notions. He argues that modern scientific discourse since the eighteenth century operates with racialized accounts of humanity under the influence of Christian theology. Humans were classified, narrated, oppressed, and portrayed as possessing inherent, undesirable characteristics under the influence of specific theological narratives.
For all their current divesting efforts and even hostility to Christian categories, scientific discourses, Keel argues, have functioned as secularized accounts of more ancient Christian claims: common descent (monogenesis), the origination of human variation under sinfulness (race), dehumanization of the religious others (Judaism and supersessionism), justification of human social hierarchies (teleology), and measuring the ontological worth of humans in a given milieu (image of God). Hence, Keel’s claims that “universal narratives of human becoming created by modern science are derived from European Christian traditions of thought and belief that conceal their parochial foundations” (p. 2). More poignantly, Keel seeks to demonstrate a provocative genealogy: “how the formation of the race concept in the minds of Western Europeans and American scientists grew out of Christian intellectual history” and persists in accounts of origins and humans decent in modern biology and anthropology (p. 5).
Divine Variations is an effort in the provincialization of Western-European study of human difference. Paradigmatic stages in modern scientific discourse as resembling a universal history of humanity are decentered. Instead, biological and anthropological discourses are framed as culturally mediated discourses with universalizing pretensions that have served the other, non-white humans’ racialization.
Keel focuses on the historical and scientific analysis of the concept of “race” as a pseudo-anthropological category, considering how it impacts intellectual history in northern Western democracies. Divine Variations helps us understand how scientific discourse is both an empirical and socialized practice of language and a reflection by which theories and truth claims about nature are constructed.The idea of race has been used to racialize societies and establish socially invented boundaries that enforce inclusion and exclusion parameters. The key metaphor in this analysis is the concept of “mongrel epistemology.” If, as Keel avers, the scientific study of race ends up being “the reoccupation of Christian intellectual history,” then modern ideas about human biodiversity in science are a conceptual mixture of scientific and religious schemes of conceiving the world (p. 16).
The reader will soon see that, despite having a long scientific history of biological determination, the idea of “race” is an intellectual and social construction imbued with various meanings throughout history. It has served to functionally establish human differences, segregation, and misrepresentation of the other. Moreover, and even more depressing, the idea of race has been used to racialize societies and establish socially invented boundaries that enforce inclusion and exclusion parameters.
At the same time, racialization and theological reasoning seem to have often been related forms of thinking. Whereas many modern historians and scientists adhere to the narrative of an inherent opposition between religion and science, given the increasing secularization of the disciplines and decline of religiosity in the modern age, Keel’s historiographical genealogy is within the post-secular turn. He argues (following Hans Blumenberg) that Christian logics provided the preconditions for the emergence of modernity and scientific notions that persist to this day. In modernity, we find a response to the cosmological and anthropological problems generated by Medieval Christianity. Modernity, then, can be construed as new discursive wine in the same old skins.
On Historical Genealogies and Genetic inferences
Keel’s historical genealogy focuses on four stages of scientific development that evidence the convergence of theological and scientific epistemologies on the construction of the idea of “race”: the racial science in eighteenth-century Germany, in nineteenth-century American ethnologists, the rise of eugenics in the Progressive Era, and contemporary genetic research exemplified in the Neanderthal genome.
I will focus on the viability of some claims concerning the influence and causal relationships between theological ideas and scientific discourse.For Keel, the epistemic environment for these conceptualities is too analogous to Christian concepts to be coincidental. Keel argues for a series of theological themes with insidious influence and applications that, in my estimation, can at the most be narratively correlated to scientific discourse, but are not shown to be causally determinative. Let us consider the following.
First, consider the notion of the divinization of nature. Keel makes the appealing claim that “concepts like ‘nature’s formative force,’ or biological determinism, have reoccupied the conceptual space once filled by the concept of God” (p. 15). This observation is well taken as an analogous comparison. We can see this in his discussion of the idea of Bildungstrieb and “secular creationism” (p. 86). For Keel, the epistemic environment for these conceptualities is too analogous to Christian concepts to be coincidental. Hence, the mechanism under which these notions are sustained “effectively reoccupies . . . the creative powers of God in the Genesis narrative” (p. 25). There are conceptual similarities in teleological instincts. However, Keel moves quickly toward a stronger epistemic claim. For him, modern non-Darwinian and Darwinian accounts that imply a general a telos for human biology or nature are taken as de facto working under the Christian intellectual tradition’s spell.
Keel reasons that these accounts are filled with metaphysical assumptions even if the scientist explicitly denies Christian accounts of origins and destiny (p. 67). One can agree that metaphysical assumptions abound in cosmological or anthropological accounts. However, the nature of metaphysics is an open question. Divine Variations does not analyze contextual metaphysical schools versus Christian theologies present in any given milieu. It only briefly mentions and dismisses platonic idealism (pp. 14, 30). However, in eighteenth-century Germany we can ask whose metaphysics and which divinity? Deism, emerging panentheism, idealism, or a mix of all the above?For example, see Roberts’s discussion in “The Impact of German Idealism and Romanticism on Biology in the Nineteenth Century” in The Impact of Idealism: The Legacy of Post-Kantian German Thought, Vol. I, Philosophy and Natural Sciences, ed. K. Ameriks, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 105–33. Within the limits of the book, the most that can be established is a genetic conceptual analogy. The question is worth asking, especially when the scientists in question deny intellectual allegiance to Christian creationism and are not making explicit metaphysical claims. Nevertheless, Keel concludes that correlation must be causation:A second challenging area is how Christian doctrines are set as causal links for three centuries of racial science. “emerging from the recesses of Christian thought,” modern racial science is “a type of mongrel creation” (p. 26). One is left with the impression that Keel’s causal linking of theology and racial science depends on a psychological interpretation of discursive intents.
A second challenging area is how Christian doctrines are set as causal links for three centuries of racial science. For example, monogenism informed by a type of original sin doctrine can be used with ideological purposes to sustain all kinds of dehumanizing logics. Nevertheless, is it necessarily so? Do we not have historically different theological accounts from various Christian traditions that posit a more auto-immune resistance to dehumanizing distortion of theological claims?
In other instances, Keel’s provocative analysis of Christian theology’s influence moves too quickly to draw causality. His alternate narration of Johann Blumenbach and the emerging racial science in Germany is informative, mainly as Keel shows that Blumenbach’s anthropological notions, though set in the German Enlightenment context, can be correlated with themes present in Christian creational stories. In Keel’s argument, Blumenbach’s narratives of monogenism not only mirror Martin Luther’s account of creation and fall of humanity in his commentaries (p. 39), but “must be understood as part of a larger effort to solidify the cultural and racial identity of Lutheran Germany” (p. 35, emphasis mine). This inference seems reasonable for Keel because he agrees with “Denise Buell’s claim that Christianity is not a tradition that transcends race but one that defines its borders through racial reasoning . . . ” (p. 35).
So, the author is not only making an argument about one influence amongst many. There are also maximal convergence claims (e.g., since Blumenbach appears to claim so, he must be doing so). In these conceptual convergences, there is an argument for the unconscious ideological use of theology by a major scientist—and Martin Luther does not escape critique either. To wit, from the fact that Luther’s 1534 Bible inserts a paradigmatic illustration of “God the creator along with Adam and Eve as Europeans,” Keel concludes that Luther’s project was ethnocentric. Therefore, “we must conclude that the Europeanization of Adam and Eve was an intentional effort on Luther’s part to center whites as the original humans” (p. 39, emphasis mine). This inference comes across as a hasty generalization. The causal link is quite a stretch. Luther’s aesthetic criteria and his doctrines of creation and fall are not necessarily controversial in Christian historical theology. The context of the reception of ideas in the eighteenth century is another matter. Luther’s discursive antisemitism and anti-Muslim theological and political rhetoric have a long history of ideological appropriation with lamentable results.Dean Bell, “Martin Luther and the Jews: Context and Content,” Theology Today 74 no. 3 (2017): 215–24. Did Luther have a strategy of racialization and centering of German-European whiteness in the world? So far, the evidence is spotty. In this regard, one might remember that Luther’s relationship, admiration, and commendation of the black Ethiopian church’s theology and its black leaders are documented too.
“We are all Mongrel”
The humanizing rhetorical effect, a mongrel epistemology, can be quite appealing. It reminds me of a concept in Latino/a theologies: mestizo epistemology. Being a mongrel or mestizo human being is about biological intermixing, heterogeneity, and the human realities of social movements and ontological mutuality (pp. 135–36). I wish Keel had spent more time distilling the mongrel concept’s analytical content as a critical tool.
I also wish Keel had left us with a more desirable telos than a blind mechanism of Darwinian evolutionary configurations of human existence as an ethical impulse to conjure universal human value. There is both an energy and depression that comes when we acknowledge that “we are the gods” (p. 145). It is energizing to think that there is no immovable destiny that awaits us, except the one created by us. However, this is indeed a depressing reality. For if we are the gods, there are only provisional and provincial narratives that drive our knowing of the humanum. In this case, I wonder if Friedrich Nietzsche might be, after all, our prophet. And his final secular word is: and the übermenschen will live by their chances alone.