Update, 11 June 2020: This post has been edited to clarify attributions.
I remember the first day I met a Black faculty member in evolutionary biology. I had just finished my first year of graduate school and was attending the Workshop in Molecular Evolution at Woods Hole biological station. Dr. Scott Edwards, noted ornithologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, was one of our lecturers for the week. Let me tell you; I had never googled someone faster than when I realized he’d be presenting the lecture on phylogeography. Only a few years out from receiving my B.S. in Botany, I found myself thinking, “I could do birds, birds are cool!” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of amazing mentors who helped foster my interest and practice of science, and by then had shaken off most of the new-grad-student-smell of indecision. At that moment, though, I was struck. Representation, being able to see yourself in someone else and imagine a possible future, has the power to alter the trajectory of any one person’s life. I enjoyed Dr. Edwards’ lecture and got to have a great conversation with him over the workshop’s celebratory lobster dinner. Still, I ultimately decided I was too much of a plant fanatic to jump ship just then.
What I did take away from that experience was that at some point during my education, I had internalized the idea that the demographics of senior scientists who study evolution were decidedly non-Black, and predominantly White. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have made that assumption. Maybe it was carryover from media stereotypes of the White male naturalist, or the parade of dead White researchers that peppers the history section of any intro-biology course. In either case, I had been unknowingly misinformed, but also not far off. In 2017, the NSF’s survey of researchers in biology found that only 3% of researching biologists identified as Black, despite Black people in the United States making up around 10% of the population. For evolutionary biology, this number is assumed to be even less, to as low as 0.3%.
The article “African Americans in evolutionary science: where we have been, and what’s next,” published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach in 2019, discusses the history of this disparity, its potential causes, and the steps necessary as we move toward equity. The article is authored by Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr, known for his pioneering work on the evolutionary theory of aging, as a long-time champion of diversity, and as the first African American to earn a doctoral degree in the field of Evolutionary Biology in 1988, from Wayne State University. Over a decade after Graves received his degree, only five others would do the same: Scott Edwards in 1992, Tyrone Hays in 1993, Colette St Mary in 1994 (Notably the first African American woman), Paul Turner 1995, and Charles Richardson in 1999 (Above Image). African American researchers had received PhDs in other Biological disciplines, with the first being Zoologist and Anthropologist Alfred O. Coffin in 1889 from Illinois Wesleyan University. Ernest Everett Just, a prominent biologist, trained at Dartmouth University, was well known during the synthesis period for his contributions to embryology, with his book published in 1939 “The Biology of the Cell Surface.” There is some evidence that Just was working on questions surrounding evolutionary problems before his death in 1941, but passed before finishing his manuscript (Manning 1983).
Biologists of the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed and participated in some of our history’s most significant discoveries, though often to the direct detriment of Black and other subjugated peoples of the time. In the United States, many of the first historically white universities were funded with money that came directly from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, often built with slave labor, or were built on land appropriated from Native American tribes. Unrestricted access to the bodies of deceased African Americans, Native Americans, and Irish immigrants fueled the medical development of the time. In some cases, living slave women were tortured and experimented on to develop procedures still practiced today. The natural sciences overall benefited greatly from the destructive effects of European colonialism and the slave trade. In turn, many biologists sought to twist their research to reinforce racist ideals. Biological racism, or racism that supports the validity of biological races and a hierarchy of natural differences, takes root during this time. Theories of race science and eugenics in the early 20th century United States would go on to inspire the slaughter of millions during WWII. That said, evolutionary biology has also been instrumental in picking apart these unfound claims informed by societal biases. Researchers like Theodosius Dobzhansky, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin fought against biological racist ideologies in the field, and Graves counts them as among his primary inspirations.
Though the field experienced a tipping point in the 1990s, there are still several factors contributing to the underrepresentation of African Americans in evolutionary biology. In a survey of motivated students attending the 2013 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS), the presence of role models in a specific discipline was one of the critical factors in whether students from underrepresented groups (URGs) had an interest in a particular subject. Graves points out that there is virtually no way other than by chance for a student from a URG to know that there are scientists in evolutionary biology that reflect their own experience. Part of this is that there are few Universities with African American faculty members in ecology and evolutionary biology departments. Also, while there are regularly documentaries that cover concepts of evolution and the natural world, there are few that feature African American scientist or their work. Graves himself appeared in the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” alongside other prominent evolutionary biologists Richard Lewontin, and Stephan Jay Gould. Yet, such films are rarely shown in biology classrooms.
To address this disparity, Graves suggests that as a field, we take an active role. That reliance on “business as usual” will not be enough and that it is necessary to reward faculty who take the extra responsibility of making these goals a reality. Especially as this work often falls to early-career faculty from these groups. Though numbers of African Americans and other scientists from URGs are low, by making an effort to reach out and invite potential candidates to apply, you do a lot more to move the needle forward. Also, when considering the production of outreach materials, we need to make sure to highlight the contributions of scientists from URGs. Yes, this can serve to let students from those groups who are interested in evolution feel represented, but it also affects the overall public image of who does and can do science.
Lastly, Graves emphasizes the importance of evolutionary biology to become an antiracist discipline. While Biological racism isn’t as prominent as it once was, it has since been subverted by Aversive, or colorblind, racism. In this form of racism, the majority race claims that the opportunities and quality of life of the subordinated race(s) are not substantially affected by systemic oppression. This ideology purports the idea that factors, such as the cultural attitudes and practices of racial/ethnic minorities, are the main reasons for their social subordination (Pearson et al. 2009). Aversive racism can be a comfortable place to be. It excuses an individual’s racism (subconscious or otherwise) by suggesting a convenient alternative, like through victim-blaming, despite evidence to the contrary. You don’t have to look very far to have heard of the frustrated anti-diversity statements that are sometimes submitted to search committees. Or to happen across the anonymous twitter accounts of researchers who insist they want to “tell it like it is” as it pertains to researchers from URGs. Combating racism and fostering diversity is extra for any scientist, and often involves taking a stand that can feel political, but I will leave you with some words from Graves that stuck with me: “There is nothing in science that requires that it take a moral stand on any issues, although I would argue that we would be better people and scientists if we did take such stands.”
Graves, J. L. (2019). African Americans in evolutionary science: where we have been, and what’s next. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 12(1), 18.
Manning, K. R. (1985). Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. Oxford University Press.
Pearson, A. R., Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2009). The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(3), 314–338.