|God & Nature Magazine||
Race & Inheritance: Personal reflections and annotations
By Walt Hearn
Anti-evolutionists sometimes accuse Charles Darwin of having been a racist, among many other things. Well, he was a child of his times, just as we are. The term “race” does appear on the title page of his 1859 classic, On the Origin of Species. That short title goes on to read: by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Although “race” roughly meant “species” to biologists in Darwin’s time, the purpose of using “race” in today's parlance is almost always to justify “racism,” the belief that one group of people is morally superior to another group―not merely distinct from it. When the group that believes itself superior is socially dominant, racism leads to all kinds of discrimination and political oppression. Adolph Hitler gained control of the Nazi political party by convincing many Germans that an “Aryan race,” to which he declared them to belong, was the “master race” deserving to be at the top of a racial hierarchy. Terrible crimes were committed by the Nazis, who managed to justify inflicting slave labor or even death on anyone considered “non-Aryan.”
Slavery was practiced widely in the ancient past. Most of it was based on racism, but one could also sell oneself into “indentured servitude.” More than a third of the inhabitants of cities like Athens and Rome may have been slaves. Guess who built all those palaces, temples, and monuments? And for that matter, even the U.S. Capitol? In this country slavery wasn't legally abolished until 1863. White racism has lingered on, as shown by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and today's outrage over the unjust treatment of black citizens by police.
So, the concept of “race” is still with us. A large fraction of white-skinned Americans think they're morally superior to black people. To me, such self-serving bias has always seemed out of place in anyone who belongs to Jesus. Anyway, I've kept trying to wring it out of my psyche.
I was born in largely racist Louisiana in 1926, and grew up in Houston, Texas, a city I think of as on the edge of the Deep South. Houston is about 50 miles from Galveston, an island in the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn't until June 19, 1865, that the slaves on the island learned that they had been freed by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. For two years, nobody had bothered to tell them. That's the origin of “Juneteenth” (June 19), now an official state holiday in Texas.
In the 1930s and early '40s Houston was so thoroughly (and legally) segregated that I hardly saw any African-Americans. The public schools and church I attended, my Scout troop, and our neighbors were all white. I did interact with a sequence of black women who helped my mother cook and clean once or twice a week. It always made me uncomfortable to address those mature women by their first names, when they always addressed me as “Mr. Walter.”
The kind of madness that racial segregation leads to became obvious after laws were passed requiring “separate but equal” educational opportunities for black citizens. A Houston mail carrier named Herman Sweatt wanted to go to law school, so he applied to the University of Texas in Austin. Denied admission because he was black, he sued the university president. The strongly segregationist state legislature responded by spending millions of dollars to establish a “separate but equal” university in Houston. Its law school is now named for Thurgood Marshall, who had taken Sweatt's suit all the way to the Supreme Court.
After I began to teach biochemistry at Baylor Med, I was part of an informal group of biochemists from various Houston institutions. One day I came across a J. Amer. Chem. Soc. paper by an organic chemist at Texas Southern University, a historically black university or “HBCU”.
I called to tell the author I appreciated his paper. After some conversations about chemistry, Christian faith, and other topics, we became friends. When I asked if he would like to present a paper to our little biochemistry group, he was afraid that the situation might be awkward. He shared with me that as a black scientist in the deep south, he had been made to feel decidedly unwelcome at an American Chemical Society national meeting in Houston. Eventually, we set a date. I personally contacted each person in the group to tell them what was in the works, adding that if it bothered them, they should miss that meeting. Bless 'em; they all came. My new friend gave a substantial talk and answered questions. At the end, while thanking everyone profusely for the simple act of listening to him with respect, he wept. That moved me to tears, too.
As Christians, the call to love others can be experienced as a call to be present with other people’s pain, and vulnerable with our own. I am reminded of a favorite story about Jesus, who did not shrink from expressing his full humanity in his relationships with others.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. -John 11:33-35
Walter R. Hearn (1926-2017) grew up in Houston and majored in chemistry at Rice University. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1951. After doing research for a year at Yale Medical School and for three years at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent 17 years on the biochemistry faculty at Iowa State University. His research interests included peptide chemistry, hypothalamic hormones, and bacterial pigment biosynthesis.
For five years he was a Visiting Biologist to Colleges for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow and Life Member of AAAS and an Emeritus member of the American Chemical Society. In 1972 he switched professions and moved to Berkeley to do free-lance editorial work with his wife Virginia. They have edited periodicals and some 200 books, largely for Christian publishers.
Walt joined ASA while he was in grad school and served on the Council in the 1960s. From 1969 to 1993 he edited the ASA newsletter. He was a coauthor of the widely distributed publication, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (ASA, 1986) and author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997).