ASA: Race and Inheritance

The new issue of God and Nature by ASA is out.

It includes an important article by @Sy_Garte on the genetics of race, and a deeply felt article by myself on the segregation of science.

I’d be curious your thoughts on this issue. How can we better serve the whole Church? What are the distinct questions minorities come to faith science conversations with?

@JeffSchloss and @TedDavis and @Christy and @agauger very interested in your thoughts.


Enjoyed both essays, and will try to read the rest of the issue later. Garte’s article was enlightening as to the genetics of what we call race. Indeed, it is simplistic in medicine to limit testing for cystic fibrosis to those with blond hair or sickle cell to those of dark skin, yet medical decision making is driven by possibilities and probabilities, which are often dependent on genetic grouping. Certainly, the evil that arises when value is attached to this group or that is real, and to be condemned.
I enjoyed your essay also @Swamidass, and agree with your observations. It is a complex issue in the USA, with economic and cultural barriers that must be overcome to get a scientific community the looks more like the general population. It will probably take time, and things like this are prime examples of how the sins of the fathers are visited on later generations. It is important to assist and encourage starting at an early age.

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In terms of overcoming segregation in science, Jordan Peterson points out the drastic difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. At the risk of oversimplification, would you be willing (or should others be willing) to give up their places in the world of science to “make room” for those under-represented?

As for the church, that’s a different story. Although we should accommodate natural preference and taste, at some level the local church should at the very least represent the diversity of the community in which it is situated. I do understand that my context is a little different than others (in Canada), but the most diverse churches in my area have a certain intentionality to be diverse and the services are in English. Immigrants, like birds of a feather, flock together, and congregate in church services in the language of their homeland. But in our communities, high school is the “great leveller,” and second generation immigrants prefer English to the language of their parents, and some churches have had huge success in growing very diverse congregations.

The Body of Christ should be diverse and united.

I agree. However, differences in outcome can be a symptom of differences in opportunity. Moreover, in this case, we know much of the answer. There is a long history of exclusion and racism in science that excluded african americans, and other voices (women too). Now, there are efforts to improve representation at the end of the pipeline, but economic factors end up preventing many from entering the sciences too.

It is important to keep in mind that we are not talking about differences in outcomes generically, but specifically in this case. While your point is generically true, it’s not true specifically here. It can become a factually false way of turning from what the an honest look at the situation calls us to: honest lament of the effects of sin on this world. The world as we find it is not as it is supposed to be.

If that is how it worked, I would consider it. That is not, however, how it works. So I am not sure your point.

I think science also is a different story too.

Some say that science is a grand cathedral, where we enter to worship God in a special place. If science is a cathedral, then this cathedral is segregated. Large portions of the Church are excluded from worship here.

Let’s start with something more basic, rooted in empathy instead of trying to straighten what has been made crooked.

What are the specific questions that the black church brings to faith/science? Is there any reason we shouldn’t be sensitive to these questions?


I think there might be specific questions that black people bring to faith/science.

I think there is a problem with the phrase “black church.” There are churches. And there is the Church. The Church is diverse.

As you do, I make a distinction between the “Church” (capitalized) and any specific “church” (lowercase). By “black church,” I’m talking about a recognizable branch of the invisible Church, which is largely absent from our conversation. If you want to talk about the patterns of questions we see in black Christians, it would be relevant to the question, as “black church” is just a shorthand reference to them.

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Once again, I think my context might be different. In my current church there are a number of black people (including one on staff). When I was growing up, the church that had the largest impact on me was about 30% black when I started attending and probably about 90% by the time I moved away. I have met quite a few African pastors leading African churches of various specific cultural backgrounds (e.g., Ghanian, Nigerian, etc.). But in this area, I’m not sure there is a monolithic “black church,” just as there are Korean churches and Chinese churches, but not a monolithic “asian church.”

I will try to take a look at it this sometime soon, but I have a hectic couple weeks ahead of me and may not get to it right away. Looks interesting though, thanks for the heads up.

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Perhaps Joshua might clarify by saying the “historic black church in the US.” Because that is a recognizable and definable bloc. These are whole denominations that arose specifically in the context of racist segregation, like the A.M.E. church (African Methodist Episcopal). From Wikipedia:

The AME Church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS), which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other free blacks established in Philadelphia in 1787. They left St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church because of discrimination. Although Allen and Jones were both accepted as preachers, they were limited to black congregations. In addition, the blacks were made to sit in a separate gallery built in the church when their portion of the congregation increased.

And actually, even better, there is a whole article on the term “black church,” which certainly did not originate with Joshua.

But as you said, the situation is different in Canada. There’s a reason why they talk about racism as the US’s original sin. I haven’t heard the same metaphor used of Canada, where there seems to be a lot more talk centered around the legacy of crimes against the First Nations.

In answer to Joshua, I’d just say that I love the bolded open question above,

I don’t have any idea.

It seems to me that the conversation in the historic black churches has, of necessity, had to focus on the vital issue that black lives matter, and that by contrast, the creationism debate may have seemed somewhat trifling, as sort of not their battle to fight. After all, the first punches in this debate were swung by white creationists, in an anti-science direction. Otherwise the church had been largely cozy with science — indeed, Christians birthed the modern scientific enterprise! — until this largely white counter-movement emerged. So it strikes me that if YEC creationists, birthed in white churches, haven’t made a concerted effort to penetrate black churches with their anti-science ideology (have they? I doubt it), I would imagine the default setting would be somewhat more favorable to science.

But in general I confess and lament my complete ignorance on this subject and hope that in time it might be corrected.


I’ve felt deeply about this issue myself, Josh, and for a very long time. I don’t pretend to have any easy solutions for increasing the numbers of African-Americans and other population groups who are woefully underrepresented both in ASA and in the American scientific community more broadly. As a culture we seem to have made very little (if any) progress on this for decades.

I have a lot of half-baked ideas about how to address the fundamental problems, and many of them start with elementary schools, which usually reflect social problems and situations that go well beyond the physical and electronic walls of the schools themselves. I don’t pretend to have any expertise on this, and I don’t want to insult anyone by sounding like I know it all. I know nearly nothing, and I’d love to see ideas that are both realistic (i.e., they can actually be implemented) and potentially fruitful. Having grown up and mostly lived in a white-dominated culture, apart from admitting the reality of “white privilege” and keeping that in the front of my mind, I personally despair of being able to bring about significant changes through my own individual actions. Most of the solutions proposed by politicians seem not to have had much positive effect.

As a young adult, I taught science & math at a Christian high school in North Philadelphia, partly b/c I wanted to teach students who weren’t all white (though a majority were). Some of those students went on to do important things in science. Here’s a concrete example: (I’m hardly taking credit for her diligence or intelligence, or even for giving her the large part of her education. None of that would be true.) However, I would have been wholly unwilling to teach (at literally twice the salary) in a public school in the same part of Philadelphia, where I would probably not have been given the same level of respect and support that I received in a small school with far fewer funds to spend per student than the public schools in Philly. And, that was forty years ago. For reasons such as this, I don’t think that money alone will produce the results that you and I would like to see.

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As I implied above, the specific problem Josh is writing about has been with us for generations. I say that not to increase frustration or despair, but to say as an historian that a great deal of ink and money has been devoted to it, and yet here we still are in a similar situation–despite the fact that today’s African-American students simply do not face the same overall societal situation (to a significant degree) that African-American students in my mother’s generation faced. She was the valedictorian at West Philadelphia HS just before World War Two. I still have her yearbook. It was and still is a very famous HS.

Her class included a significant number (for that period) of African-American graduates. Graduates–students who received HS diplomas b/c they earned them, actually receiving a genuine basic education. Yet, had she lived 100 miles further south, in the nation’s capitol, my mother would have had zero black classmates, b/c schools there were racially segregated. Ditto if she’s lived anywhere further south of DC. And, the students who graduated from her HS simply did not have anything like equality in job opportunities, whether by law or just by unwritten laws, including so-called “gentlemen’s agreements.” Those black students with real talent in my mother’s class couldn’t be admitted to hundreds of college and universities across the nation, not just in the South. They would have given arms or legs to have the kinds of educational and employment opportunities that really, truly are wide open to similar students today. That circumstances has truly changed–and thank God is has–so, what else is going on, such that the overall situation in science persists so dramatically?

I certainly don’t know.

My late father-in-law earned a PhD in Organic Chemistry from Penn right after WW2. A fellow student was a black woman who earned an M.S. in the same field. He told me that she was advised that she simply had no realistic chance to get the kind of job that her talent would have suited her perfectly for today, both because she was a woman and also because she was black. A person like her today would probably have a terrific job in industry, or else would be encouraged to complete the PhD and qualify herself for a university faculty job (where she would be in very high demand). Again, where are those students today, now that those barriers have truly been mostly dismantled?


As a final historical comment, I suggest a couple of essays by Ken Manning, an African-American historian of science who wrote an excellent book about the great black developmental biologist Ernest Everett Just.

Manning wrote those pieces many years ago. Here’s another one of his pieces from the same period, with links to formal conversations about this going on then:

If you look for more information about Walter Massey, the former head of the NSF who was heavily involved in trying to alleviate this problem, you will find much of interest–but also much to scratch one’s head over, asking why none of the efforts seem to have made a permanent change in the situation. .


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Sorry, it took me a while to get back to this thread. (Good thing I have special powers to open it again.)

As a non-minority, I don’t know the answer to the second question.

As to the first question, I think we support the Church’s work in urban renewal, in providing safety nets and social support networks for black families, in supporting black businesses, and in education initiatives (charter schools, after-school programs, teen career mentorship programs) with our money, our volunteer time, and for some of us, our vocation.

I taught in two different public schools. The first was in a large city in VA and was 55% black students, 25% white. It was a completely dysfunctional school even though on paper it was a “blue ribbon school.” A large number of the white students were from military families or a middle-class neighborhood. A large percentage of the black students were bused in for an arts and dance magnet program from the lowest socio-economic areas of the city. I won’t get into the details, but teaching there was a traumatic experience for me. It was so stressful and I worked so hard that I developed stomach problems and lost 35 pounds, had chronic migraines, anxiety attacks, and symptoms of depression. When people say “We just need more dedicated teachers in city schools and that will fix everything,” I get hives. Walk a mile in those inner-city school teacher shoes. There are so many systemic issues with our urban education system when students come from poverty, and when drugs, gangs, and sex trafficking are family businesses, and when their peer and adult role models are by and large terrible influences.

The second school was in suburban Chicago and was 70% black, 20% white. In this school many of the black students and white students were children of middle and upper-middle class professionals with college educations. But a good portion of the white students were from a trailer park, and some of the black students were from section 8 housing. But in almost every class, the best student was a black student, most of the student government and team captains and club presidents were black. The black kids from the lower socio-economic homes had very positive peer role models and I wrote lots of recommendation letters for black kids who were going to be the first of their family to go to college and quite a few for black kids who were third generation Ivy League applicants. Although this school did a great job providing opportunities and academic support for kids who did not come from privileged backgrounds, there was a critical mass of minority kids who came to the school predisposed to succeed and they brought the “at risk” kids up with them.

I guess my point in all of this is that I don’t think we can fix a lot of the issues that keep minority kids from academic opportunities from the outside. But we can come alongside black communities and churches where there is momentum and initiative and we can be as supportive as possible.


You will need to ask them. I don’t know, I live in the wrong country, though I’m a minority myself.

No. We should be sensitive to these questions.


Thanks for reopening the thread. Its appropriate because we are contemplating race. I wanted to explain some of how I have been processing on this.

As some people know, my father recently died. It was sudden and unexpected. I’ve become acquainted the work of grief, and part of this work was very public. The week my father died, I did three Veritas Forums.

The thing about funerals and grief is that they are public, and they invite us into the truth of something that is ultimately unfixable. We do not grieve as if the work of grief will undo death. There is something irrevocable and final about death, from our human point of view. Our only hope in it is that Jesus has power to overcome it and promises the same. Still, even with this hope, we grieve the loss of that person’s presence among us.

The fact that we cannot fix death, is all the more reason to enter into grief. The effort to remember and honor the person who died is humanizing. The fact, also, that we will see them again, does not mitigate the loss. Grief is an honest and humanzing response to death. It also changes us, reordering our world and integrating into our identity.

The goal of grief is not get through it as quickly as possible, but to enter into it fully. To live with it as new reality. It is not always sadness, but it a truthfulness and engagement with the reality of loss.

Death is something that thrusts us unwillingly into grief. Injustice, especially racial injustice, might invite us to willingly choose to enter into grief. Yes, we can and should do what we can to mitigate and understand and reverse it. However, there are things that have been lost that cannot be recovered.

An honest account of our moment, it seems, requires us to willing enter the truth of grief. The fact that this crooked reality cannot be made straight is all the more reason to grieve. This is not the world as it is mean to be. The fact that we do not know how to fix it, and we are too late to have fixed it for past generations, is all the more reason to grieve.

So, as I have been engaging this issue, and talking to students, two patterns have emerged, I wanted to put out there.

First, It seems that scientifically talented african american students often face a decision between pursuing a career in medicine or science. That is a major siphon point, where a very large percentage chose to enter medicine. To be clear, black students are underrepresented in medicine. However, the situation is much worse in science because choose medicine over science. Why? They reported a high responsibility to serve directly their communities of origin. There is sense of responsibility; and a recognition of that they do not go back to medically serve the black community, maybe no one will.

I grieve this as an unfair burden placed upon black students in science, which is direct consequence of ongoing segregation. It is an injurious burden, which prevents them from entering the cathedral, because they know that very few non-black physicians will choose to serve the black community. The black community, after all, is not their family.

Second, many mention the anti-religious ethos of science, alongside the absence of role models. Elaine Ecklund has published on this, and did not detect a statistically significant effect for blacks, but did for hispanics (I wonder if that could just be because of low numbers). However, at least some report that there is discomfort in being a double minority: a believer in an anti-belief context, on top of being a ethnic minority. There is much less effort to engage black students on their scientific/theology integration questions too (and they are often similar, and they are often different). So many of their struggles are not as much a culture war (as is in say AIG), but a lonely journey without places or communities or books to process many of the questions that arise.

For me, I think one response is to grieve the neglect we have had for their journey. When ASA and BioLogos (and myself in the past) have discussed engaging the Church on science, we usually imagine some version of white fundamentalism/evangelicalism as the Church. This is just not tenable for me any more. I am ashamed that so thoroughly ignored a large portion of the Church that they became invisible to me. As for me, I had forgotten that they were my family too.

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For those of us in ASA or in BioLogos or any other group like this, I do think that there is something we should do. I am sure there is no easy solution. However, I think we should be unsettled by the neglect of those outside white fundamentalism/evangelicalism. I would that our discontent would grow.

I would hope that we would grieve this publicly, and ask these groups to consider the concerns fo the black church too, to invite them to the table, to hear their stories, and to answer their questions too.

It is legal to integrate. This world, in this sense is desegregated, however we need to engage the more difficult task of integration now. To live as one family, instead of believing that their concerns are not ours. I know, also, that this is not always a product of direct racism. In a way, this is just the world we inherited, from the same generation that assassinated MLK 50 years ago. They created a world shaped by injustice, but so effective from insulating us from seeing the depths of our fall well.

I hope that we could enter into a truthful grief, and find a better way.


I really resonate with this. But an important question for people who are going to make their life work being present in these places where injustice reigns, is how do we deal when we are not just talking about “a season of grief” or a “moment of mourning”?

I currently work with a poor, racially oppressed people group in an area of the world where the level of criminal impunity is one of the highest in the world. There is no justice here. One thing I struggle with personally is how to maintain an attitude of empathy, solidarity, and grief indefinitely. When someone dies we go through our stages of grief and we eventually come to a place of new normal where we come to terms with our loss and move on to some extent. But in these racial injustice and poverty contexts that are so fraught with conflict, prejudice, hatred, and flat out wickedness, how do we ever move on from our grief at what goes on? What does it look like when there is no new life after the death, just death upon death upon death? How do you live perpetually in constant empathetic suffering?

I think there is a part of the Christian calling to take up our crosses that involves taking on other peoples’ pain, just like Jesus did. But Jesus did not stay on the cross, there was eventually a victory. I often wish I saw more victory.

One practical thing we can all do is support black professionals when we have a choice. I intentionally made sure all of my OB-GYNs were black women or all black practices (I had three different ones because my insurance changed and then my favorite one moved back to her community of origin, just like you said) My reasoning was that these women had probably worked much harder than their white male peers to make it through med school. They were all excellent doctors. When we lived near Chicago, I also used to drive an extra ten minutes and do my grocery shopping in an all black neighborhood. That way my money was supporting their community in some small way. I hired a young black woman when I needed a babysitter. My kids went to a racially diverse pre-school. I think there are lots of small ways like this that non-minority people can be proactive in dismantling segregation in their own personal lives, and they aren’t some kind of radical activism.


Thank you for this. People pay lip service to teachers, but the truth is shown by the value that society places upon the job, which is next to nothing. I can’t tell you how many times my own students asked, “Mr. Johnson, why are you here? You could be anywhere doing anything. Why are you here?”

Since we’re talking specifically about gifted students, there are a couple of things you have to take into consideration. Typically, gifted students have an over-developed sense of fairness, and they tend to favor service-oriented careers, such as medicine, teaching, counseling, social work, etc. The way that this often plays out with gifted minority students is anger at the lack of opportunity and discrimination in many career fields, and a desire to make a difference in their community. You are swimming against two strong psychological currents that steer potential scientists in other directions.

Then, you have the problem of academic achievement vs. social acceptance. We all remember middle school and high school. I don’t have to cite statistics that high intelligence is not the route to popularity at that age. Gifted students often hide their “giftedness” to fit in. This is especially true of minority students, where standard English is “talking white” and being a traitor to the “hood,” where being called “friendly” is an insult, and where being “hard” is a much more useful survival skill than being smart.

I pulled this out of another thread because it illustrates one source of the problem in science education at the university level. This isn’t a criticism of you specifically, but of the system. As you point out, teaching at the highest levels is really a system of apprenticeship. The “best and brightest” are singled out and mentored, while the rest must fend for themselves.

This sounds fine on paper, but it causes two problems for minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds. First, it recognizes present achievement, not future potential. Many minority students come from schools that did not prepare them for the academic rigors of university, and even when they do get “up to speed” with everyone else, they still take years to become confident in that environment. Second, in choosing whom to “mentor,” professors will tend to pick those like themselves. This is not overt racism, but it is a fact of life. As long as this is the method used to train our top research scientists, you probably won’t see a lot of change in the make-up of “the academy” anytime soon.


What is a “racial IQ”, and what is the scientific evidence for it?

I feel exactly the same way.


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