Black lives matter — and what that means in ecology and evolutionary biology

We at the Molecular Ecologist affirm that Black lives matter. We join with, and ask our readers to join with, calls for an end to police violence and for justice on behalf of its victims, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and too many others. We also want to acknowledge that the injustices at the focus of these ongoing protests have deep historical roots, and can only be addressed with transformative work throughout society — particularly including our own fields of research.

Ecology and evolutionary biology have had, at best, a mixed record with race. Charles Darwin was an abolitionist, and The Origin of Species, with its implication that all human beings shared a common ancestry, was greeted as scientific backing by American anti-slavery activists — but Darwin also unequivocally endorsed racist claims of white superiority. The founders of modern biostatistics and genetics included unapologetic white supremacists such as R.A. Fisher, Karl Pearson, and Francis Galton. Today, racists and white supremacists continue to interpret research on human genetic diversity and evolution as supporting their views. This may occur regardless of the intent or peer-reviewed conclusions of the original researchers, but it is enabled when scientists remain silent, hoping to remain “apolitical” or that their data can “speak for themselves”. 

This context makes it far from surprising that Black ecologists and evolutionary biologists are remarkably rare, even accounting for broader societal barriers such as disparate access to graduate programs and early research experience, or lack of basic safety to pursue interests in the natural world. Black people make up about 13% of the United States population, but from 2008 to 2017 they earned, on average, 1% of the doctorates awarded in evolution and less than 1% of the doctorates awarded in ecology nationwide. 

Science is better when people of all backgrounds and experiences can contribute freely to the global project of understanding the natural world. But even apart from that, simple justice demands that the scientific community should be diverse, equitable, and inclusive. At the same time, science cannot be separated from our biases – who gets to do science safely, what topics we choose to research and to fund, and how we interpret our results are all shaped by the lenses of our personal and societal biases. Remedying the disparities in our fields of study and our communities requires us to reconsider how we plan and present our research, how we describe our science in teaching and outreach — and also how we recruit, support, and retain Black scientists at all career stages. 

The “tri societies” of ecology and evolutionary biology in the United States, the American Society of Naturalists, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the Society for the Study of Evolution, have each issued statements in support of this week’s protests, linking to resources for self-education and recommendations to begin the work of anti-racism in our fields. We recommend these as entry points, and particularly endorse supporting the work of Black AF in STEM, an independent organization of Black biologists showcasing Black scientists, their accomplishments, and experiences.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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