The brief history of African Americans in Evolutionary Biology, and why that is the case.

Over a decade after the first African American scientist received a PhD in Evolutionary Biology only five others would do the same.
Over a decade after the first African American scientist received a PhD in Evolutionary Biology (broadly defined) only five others would do the same. (Left to Right) Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr. in 1988 from Wayne State University, Dr. Scott Edwards in 1992 from the University of California-Berkeley, Dr. Tyrone Hays in 1993 from Harvard University, Dr. Colette St Mary in 1994 from the University of California-Santa Barbara, Dr. Paul Turner in 1995 from Michigan State University, and Dr. Charles Richardson (not pictured) in 1999 from Indiana University.

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. In 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, but 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 carry over 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 biologist 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 have earned a PhD in the field of Evolutionary Biology in 1988, from Wayne State University.  Over a decade after Graves received his degree, only 5 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 century witnessed and participated in some of our history’s greatest 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 founded with money that came directly from the 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 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 slave trade, and in turn many biologist sought to twist their research to reinforce racist ideals. Biological racism, or racism that supports both the existence of biological races and inherent inborn differences between them, takes root during this time. Theories of race science and eugenics in 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 major inspirations. 

Though the field experienced a tipping point in the 1990’s, there are still several factors contributing the underrepresentation of African Americans in evolutionary biology. In a survey of motivated students attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS) in 2013, the presence of role models in a specific discipline was one of the key factors in whether students from underrepresented groups (URGs) had an interest in a specific discipline. Graves points out that there is virtually no way other than by chance for a student from an 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 a film is rarely shown in biology class rooms.

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 American and other scientists from URGs are low, by making the effort to reach out and invite potentially candidates to apply you do a lot more to move the needle forward.  Also, when considering the production of outreach materials, we need need 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 for 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. Wherein people of the dominant socially defined race claim that racism is no longer the central factor detaining the life chances of the subordinated race(s). 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 own racism (subconscious or otherwise) by suggesting an easy alternative, that the society at large or the victims themselves are responsible for their conditions, 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 insists they want to “tell it like it is” as it pertains to researchers from URGs. While it is true the work of combating racism and fostering diversity is extra for any scientist, and often involves taking a stand that can feel political, 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.”

References

Graves JL. African Americans in evolutionary science: where we have been, and what’s next. Evolution: Education and Outreach. 2019 Dec 1;12(1):18.

Manning K. Black apollo of science: the life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press; 1983.

Pearson AR, Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL. The nature of contemporary prejudice: Insights from aversive racism. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2009;3(3):314–38.

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