Race, Biology and Psychology: Under the Skin and in the Mind

Race, Biology and Psychology: Under the Skin and in the Mind August 1, 2020

Russell Lee, “Colored” drinking fountain from mid-20th century with African-American drinking (Original caption: “Negro drinking at “Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma”), 1939; Wikimedia Commons

What do race, biology, and psychology have in common? We address this subject in the following interview. We humans, regardless of our skin color, are not separate biologically, contrary to what many people think. What we take to be genetic or biological differences between whites and blacks as supposed “races” are really social and psychological constructs. I have asked two distinguished scientists to address this subject. You will find the complete interview in the video at the close of this blog post.

Prof. Agustín Fuentes (AF) of Princeton University is an anthropologist whose research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. Two of his works are  Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being (Yale University Press/Templeton Press, 2019) and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Dutton/Penguin, 2017).

Prof. S. Joshua Swamidass (SJS) of Washington University in St. Louis and Founder of Peaceful Science is a computational biologist who operates at the intersection of various disciplines with a concern to bring diverse groups and mindsets together. Recently in an article “The Biological Meaning of Race” at Peaceful Science, he wrote: “At Peaceful Science, we gather around the grand question of what it means to be human. We gather around the questions of ancestry. Continuing a centuries long conversation, alongside many others, we wonder about the meaning of race.” He is the author of The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry (IVP Academic, 2019).

Professors, thank you for joining me at “New Wine Tastings.” As noted at the outset of this blog post, we are discussing race, biology, and psychology. As stated above, we humans, regardless of our skin color, are not separate biologically, contrary to what many people think. What we take to be genetic or biological differences between whites and blacks as supposed “races” are really social and psychological constructs. Prof. Fuentes discusses this theme in an article at Psychology Today titled “Busting Myths About Human Nature.” Here are a few of the points he makes:

In humans today, there are not multiple biological groups called “races.” However, race is real and it impacts us all. What we call “race” are social categories.

There is currently one biological race in our species: Homo sapiens sapiens. However, that does not mean that what we call “races” (our society’s way of dividing people up) don’t exist. Societies, like the U.S., construct racial classifications, not as units of biology, but as ways to lump together groups of people with varying historical, linguistic, ethnic, religious, or other backgrounds. These categories are not static; they change over time as societies grow, diversify, and alter their social, political and historical make-ups. For example, in the U.S., the Irish were not always “white,” and despite our government’s legal definition, most Hispanics/Latinos are not seen as white today (by themselves or by others).

The biologized racial fallacy “influences people to see racism and inequality not as the products of economic, social, and political histories but more as a natural state of affairs.”

Prof. Swamidass also engaged the theme of biology and race in a January 2020 Christianity Today interview. Here are a few of the statements he makes:

One thing I’ve learned is it’s really common for people to bring race into questions about human origins, often to attack those with whom they disagree. We all inherit that legacy of racism. Origins is often approached from a very whitewashed perspective. It doesn’t really engage the concerns of people of color, who are often underrepresented in the conversations. What I found, as a dark Indian, is that these questions of origins are actually very closely tied to our concerns about our worth and dignity in the world.

The important thing to emphasize is that the science of origins is solidly against the idea of a biologically distinct race. This is something that really needs to be said more often. We have a better understanding of how we are all connected in one family. Genealogical science makes that clear.

Polygenesis was a false theory of origins that was often conscripted to provide support for racism. It’s the idea that the humans alive today are divided into biological groups that have been separated in the past and have distinct biological abilities, different theological roles, and varying levels of rights and dignity. That’s just totally false. One of the main reasons people historically rejected evolutionary science is that it seemed to be teaching polygenesis. In fact, for about a century, many scientists would have endorsed that theory. Then, starting in the 1970s, several different lines of evidence cropped up to demonstrate that polygenesis is complete nonsense.

Let’s dig deeper into these various claims. You can find Prof. Fuentes’s and Prof. Swamidass’s answers to these questions in the video at the close of this blog post.

PLM: Why do many people today think that there are many biological races in our species, when in fact there is only one presently?


PLM: What’s the import for thinking that “races” are social rather than biological categories? How might the problematic and erroneous view that race is a natural state of affairs impact such domains as public planning for education, economics, medicine, and politics, among other spheres in society today?


PLM: Where did the biologized racial fallacy set in, and why? Do you think it has much to do with the under-representation of people who are not white in discussions of origins? How often is what is deemed “science” the product of racialized constructs?


PLM: How does genealogical science and science of origins today bear on the faulty idea of polygenesis as well as the idea of distinct human races? It is worth noting that many people rejected evolution in the past because of what they perceived as a connection between evolution and polygenesis. Do you care to comment on their humane concerns, and how they should be embraced regardless of the scientific discoveries being made? (In other words, we should not separate concerns for natural science and ethics, even while accounting for appropriate distinctions between what is the case {natural science} and what ought to be the case {ethics}).


PLM: Earlier, we discussed the need to overcome racism and inequality by way of addressing problematic social and systemic constructs rather than perceiving the divisions as natural states of affairs. Similarly, and from the positive side, how might seeing ourselves as being one race in the species of Homo sapiens sapiens bear upon cultivating a corporate and universal sense of human dignity and worth, including altruistic behavior toward those not of our social groupings?


PLM: What bearing might/would it have in breaking through the socialized dividing walls of hostility and ideological culture wars?


Given what Profs. Fuentes and Swamidass assert in the interview below, what can you and I do to analyze critically the way we group people of various skin colors? How can you and I alter our mental and social constructions of race and move from divisive forms of competition to creative collaboration and equity with people of diverse backgrounds in our daily lives?


About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger is Professor of Christian Theology & Culture, Multnomah University and Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the author of numerous works, including Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives