Monday, June 1, 2020

It is unethical to teach evolution without confronting racism and sexism (updated, additional resources)

It's been 1.5 years since I posted this:

There were so many ugly comments under its repost at the Evolution Institute.  But what was actually worse than the white supremacist shit on social media was a not insignificant resistance among professors and teachers who teach biology/evolution and who felt strongly that confronting racism was not their job. 

"There's no room in the semester" was common, and there was also plenty of "that's not my problem." 

Maybe recent, intense anti-racist activism in response to a rapid series of horrific, racist violence on top of a racist pandemic on top of a blatantly and shamelessly racist Administration has changed some of those scientists' minds about what is and what is not their problem.  

If so, perhaps these resources I'm sharing below will help others design their approaches to tearing down racism and sexism in their evolution courses, like I try to do. 

In the 2018 post, I suggested that people bring in anthropologists, social scientists, journalists, historians, etc to deal with racism and sexism if they'd rather collaborate or punt on the problem, but I guess that working with colleagues in other departments isn't taken as a serious suggestion. No idea. But it was a serious suggestion. I'm not great at this but I'm always trying to get better and I'm more than willing to help colleagues who are less experienced than I am. I'm experienced enough to get my human evolution course designated to count for "diversity and inclusion" general education credit and so are many anthropologists, some of whom may be working at your very institution! Look around!

I teach a whole unit on race/racism and sexism in my introductory Human Origins and Evolution course (APG 201). It's at the very end. I begin the unit with our first coverage of Neanderthals and we explore how they've been othered throughout history. Students easily see how the history of the scientific treatment of Neanderthals fits with how Linnaeus and his peers and those he influenced (like Darwin) othered and categorized humans, justifying human oppression with bad evolutionary "logic," in an increasingly global political economy through to today.  Darwin's just-so story about how intelligence evolved is just horrid and so are his passages about the "lower races" and how they relate to other primates (as opposed to Europeans who are, you guessed it, the higher races). It's always a struggle to decide whether to read those passages from Descent of Man aloud or not; some semesters I have and others I haven't, but I always share Darwin's b.s. on race (and gender), even if I don't read it out loud.  After that history lesson about the foundations of evolutionary biology, we cover eugenics, Ota Benga, and how race, the system of oppression, has had negative biological consequences on human health.  It's important that students learn that "race" is not a synonym for biological variation, ancestry, or skin color. Despite many of them being so progressive, many still think "race" is just human biological variation. It's clear, for many of them who take APG 201, that there is no race without racism which is why race is not merely about how humans vary in skin color and so talking about skin color variation, for example, is not talking about the complex social-political phenomenon of race. We consider, deeply, how observed physical differences are too easily parlayed into imaginary evidence for imaginary cognitive and behavioral differences. We challenge the old, exclusive, oppressive history of the telling of our shared human origins story in order to tell a new story that can be embraced by us all. 

Not being able to lead those weeks of lecture and discussion in the classroom, and, instead, having to somehow lead 120 students through these issues remotely during the pandemic this semester wasn't ideal.  But the discussion prompts that they worked on, remotely, are prompts that I will be keeping even when we return to face-to-face learning. I'm pasted them here, and at the end of this post, I included the letter I wrote to my students at the end of the semester. 

Wednesday, April 15
Ancestry is not race is not human biological variation

TODAY’S PROMPT: Distinguish all three of the following from one another: ancestry, race, and human biological variation.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·Human Races are not like dog breeds - Norton et al. (EEO)
·         Chapter 15: Ten Facts about human variation – Marks (Human Evolutionary Biology)
       (copy and paste that URL into your  browser because just clicking on it may not work)
·         There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label: It's been used to define and separate people for millennia. But the concept of race is not grounded in genetics—Kolbert (NatGeo)
·         Surprise! Africans are not all the same (or why we need diversity in science) – Lasisi
·         Human Skin Color Variation (NMNH):
·         Skin color is an illusion – Nina Jablonski (14 mins video):
·         Skin Deep. By: KOLBERT, ELIZABETH, National Geographic, 00279358, Apr2018, Vol. 233, Issue 4 (via URI library, and you may have to go in and find it yourself, but here’s the link just in case… )

Friday, April 17
There is no race without racism; Racist science

TODAY’S PROMPT: Support the fact that there is no “race” without racism.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·         'National Geographic' Reckons With Its Past: 'For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist'
·         There's no such thing as a 'pure' European—or anyone else – Gibbons (Science)
·         Frederick Douglass’s fight against scientific racism – Herschthal (NYT)
·         The unwelcome revival of race science—Evans  (The Guardian)
·         A lot of Southern whites are a little bit black – Ingraham (Washington Post)
·         Skin Deep. By: KOLBERT, ELIZABETH, National Geographic, 00279358, Apr2018, Vol. 233, Issue 4 (via URI library, and you may have to go in and find it yourself, but here’s the link just in case… )
·         From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo (NPR):
·         [Note! This is a fictional account based on the real history.]  A True and Faithful Account of Mr. Ota Benga the Pygmy, Written by M. Berman, Zookeeper – Mansbach
·         [Note! This is very dark sarcasm and not to be taken literally.] How to write about Africa – Wainaina (Granta):
·         Anthropological genetics: Inferring the history of our species through the analysis of DNA – Hodgson & Disotell (Evolution: Education and Outreach)
·         Paternity Testing: Blood Types and DNA – Adams (Nature Ed)
·         Colonialism and narratives of human origins in Asia and Africa— Athreya and Ackerman
·         #WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color—Lasisi
·         In the Name of Darwin – Kevles (PBS)
·         Why be against Darwin?
·         Human Skin Color Variation (NMNH):
·         On the Origin of White Power – Johnson (SciAm blogs)
·         White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness—Bazelon (The New York Times)
·         Surprise! Africans are not all the same (or why we need diversity in science) – Lasisi
·         Why white supremacists are chugging milk (and why geneticists are alarmed) – Harmon (NYT)
·         Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis - Villarosa (The New York Times)
·         The labor of racism –Davis (Anthrodendum)
·         Human Races are not like dog breeds - Norton et al. (EEO)
·         Against Human Nature—Ingold
·         Skin color is an illusion – Nina Jablonski (14 mins video):
·         Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States (NYTimes)
April 22
Sex, gender, sexism, and science

TODAY’S PROMPT: Consult your friends, family, or the Internet, or all and you’ll find that people associate evolution with sexism (like they also do with racism).  Explain this association with either (a) science’s history of ignoring and misinterpreting the evolution of the human female, and/or (b) the enduring, infuriating misapplication of bad science to justify the evolved “inferiority” of women.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·         Sex Redefined – Ainsworth (Nature)
·         The book that fights sexism with science – review of Saini’s book (Guardian)
 Darwin was sexist and so are many modern scientists – Horgan (Sci Am)
·         Bluebirds, babies, and orgasms: the women scientists who fought Darwinism’s sexist myths – Saini (Prospect)
·         How Donald Trump Got Human Evolution Wrong – Dunsworth (Washington Post – In case this is paywalled for you, I have posted the pdf under Resources on Sakai)
·         Sexual selection – Brennan (Nature Ed)
·         How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy – Romano (Vox)
·         The Clitoris, Uncovered: An Intimate History (scroll down to see 8 mins video)

May 14, 2020

Dear APG 201ers,

This is my last email blast to the class.

Grades are posted. Don’t panic if there is a mistake. Mistakes are possible because of these strange circumstances and because mistakes are in my genome. Just double-check your grades in the gradebook on Sakai and then let me know what’s wrong, ASAP. If you want to take the S/U option, then get cracking immediately with the URI procedures (

Your Books of Origins were the best I’ve ever seen. The sheer volume of awesomeness was overwhelming! I wish you could all bask in this pile of art and ideas as I have—truly wonder-full.

If you plan on returning to campus when it reopens for face-to-face classes (whenever that will be), then please come by my office (Chafee 132A) and pick your book up. Pick your friends’ up too if that helps them out. It will be great to see you in person! I’d love to talk about answers to  any questions you posed directly to me in your book or that you would like to chat about, period. I will hold onto these books through summer 2021.

If you take any more courses with me, which I hope you do (APG 282G Sapiens: The changing nature of human evolution; APG 399 Sex and Reproduction in Our Species; APG 411 Paleoanthropology;  APG 412 Primatology) then you can just get your book then. I hope you do take more anthropology courses even if they’re not biologically-themed (i.e. taught by me) because we have a great program that has lots of general education offerings for people who like to dabble in anthro but don’t wish to add the anthropology major. Though, you should add the anthropology major because it complements everything wonderfully. To find out more about that and/or the minor, just reach out to me! 

If you are not planning to return to campus because you’re graduating, transferring, or for whatever reason, then please email me your address so that I can snail-mail your back to you. I am not extending this offer to those who are returning to campus because the cost will add up and we can just hand it off in person!

Congratulations on getting through this semester. Whether you think it was a success or not, it’s over. Before I wish you a good summer, I want to leave you with two important sentiments that I wish I could have shared with you in the classroom…

  1. Facts are good and all, but…
While it may seem like learning facts is the point of courses like APG 201, they’re not.  You’re in college to learn how to make knowledge, that is, to learn about how knowledge gets made so that you can make knowledge your own and so that you make knowledge yourself. No one goes to culinary school to learn recipes or to learn about cooking.  They go to culinary school to learn how to cook, to learn how to make food. No one joins a sports team to learn the rules of the sport. They do it to play the sport. Going to college is no different. You are not here to learn about something, you’re here to do something.  What is that something? Making knowledge, which is, simply put learning and thinking and learning and thinking, on repeat, forever. Facts are good and all but what good are facts if you can’t think like a professional thinker about them? Thinking like a professional feels especially crucial now in this pandemic and also this time of political disinformation. Thinking is our species’ superpower but for most of us, realizing our potential requires much practice and much training, and that’s what you’re doing in college. Facts came from human thinking. That’s you. Thinking. You. Thinking is active, it’s doing. You’re here to do. There are facts and there are stories we tell about those facts, which are not the facts themselves but are the way all humans make sense of the facts! It’s up to YOU to tell better stories than your ancestors. You will because you’ll have no choice but also because you’ll be trained thinkers. It is your superpower.

  1. Being kind to people isn’t going to end racism, sexism, etc… It takes hard work.
Everyone experiences racism and sexism. If you are a man, then you experience it by not being a woman.  If you are white, you experience it by being arbitrarily privileged over people of color merely for being white.  If you have never had a negative racist or sexist thing directed at you, those experiences still affect you personally because someone you know has experienced them, and their lives affect yours. No one is an island; Everyone’s lives affect everyone else’s and that’s never been more palpable or salient for so many people than it is now during this pandemic.

By your writing, I glean that a good majority of you have bought the myth that racism is treating people badly because of their race and that racism is mostly a thing of the past (presumably because you don’t see people treating people badly very often).  I call that racism a “myth” not because it’s not real and harmful, but because believing that is all that racism is, is to obscure the much tougher issues that are harder for white people to know exist, to understand, and to try to help change if/when they do know they exist and understand them. Racism is built into our sociocultural, economic, and political systems which were founded in, and on the backs of, a horrific slave-labor economy that simultaneously drove away and killed indigenous peoples across this continent. Racism is built into how America runs and, in spite of the Statue of Liberty, the United States has historically been terribly anti-immigrant too. Because of history we have present-day systematic oppression that excludes people from equal opportunity, from equal protection, from full participation, and from power.  That’s not freedom!

Not knowing that racism is built into our culture is like not knowing that we’re built from ancient fishes, monkeys, apes, and our parents. Once you know history, you can’t deny how it has shaped our present.  “We are history” was an important quote from Alice Roberts’ book for so many of you.  One important difference between our evolutionary history and our sociocultural-political-economic history, is that while our biology cannot evolve into the future without our parents’, ape, monkey, fish (etc) ancestry encoded in our genomes, our culture CAN evolve into the future in such a way that eradicates the racism that is encoded in our social, political, and economic institutions. Please, do keep being kind. But, white people, we must do more than be kind to be not-racists. Being kind  and having beautiful beliefs about how we’re “all one human race” is not enough; it’s not even close to enough.

Instead of squandering their privilege, white people must disrupt and change our society’s white supremacist culture. Instead of squandering their privilege, men must disrupt and change patriarchal traditions of oppression. It should help a great deal to know, as you do as APG 201ers, that racism and sexism have no legit footing in science, human evolution, or fantasies about “human nature. ” We must continue to learn about race and racism and sex and sexism (and other forms of oppression) above and beyond what we’ve done in this course and you must carry that work forward, far beyond what you do at URI, for as long as you’re capable.  I’ll keep learning and fighting too; I promise.  

Have a great summer, and never stop evolving!

Professor Holly Dunsworth


GM said...

Once again, if completely irrelevant to your scientific work concepts such as the various -isms on the endless list of such concepts rank higher in your list of priorities than objective scientific truth, then you are a complete failure as a scientist and nobody should ever have given you a degree. Plain and simple.

The one and only goal of science is to discover objective truth about the world around us. And it is especially important to confront such truths when we do not like them. Because science is a our most important evolutionary asset, as it enables us to consciously change and adapt our behavior in ways that other species are not capable of. At least in principle. The more we willingly ignore that capability, the more we place our long-term existence in jeopardy.

Which means that you are also a tool for perpetuating social injustice, it is just that, and this is precisely because the concept of objective truth has been eliminated from your thinking, you lack the intellectual capacity to understand it.

And you are also actively threatening the long-term existence of the human species -- in general, zombified pea-brained SJWs tend to go apoplectic when, for example, the subject of overpopulation comes up, because it is a favorite issue of their over which to hurl accusations of "racism" (even though it is a purely biophysical question having nothing to do with any -ism). Well, like it or not, the world is overpopulated by at least an order of magnitude, and if this is not addressed by immediately drastically cutting birth rates, that ensures total global civilizational collapse and an even larger decrease in population but one that is brought by an increase in the death rate instead (there are no other options -- either births go down or deaths will go up). And there will never be another civilization after that because the concentrated resources to build it will have been exhausted by ours. That sort of thing is what obsessing over -isms instead of facing up to the real world as it truly is contributes to.

Anonymous said...

This is a response from named person Holly Dunsworth, despite her "lack of intellectual capacity to understand":

I highly doubt that SJW's cries of "racism" is preventing or could ever prevent people from keeping the population down. I think that's a major overreaction and perhaps you're just wrapped up in some discussions online that are intractable and unhealthy. As a result, I wonder if your obsessing over -isms is clouding your thinking. To see someone get so worked up about objective truth tells me they aren't a scientist. ("Or perhaps you lack the intellectual capacity to understand it.") Scientists know about how science is done by humans in cultural context, and that science has important sociocultural consequences, due to its assumed and perceived authority. The best science isn't blind to human bias. It accounts for that additional complexity in its quest for the truth.