Within recent years, biomedical research seems to be making leaps and bounds; surgeries are getting more precise, new transplants have been successful, and DNA has been mapped out more accurately than ever before. However, what is often not highlighted is how preconceived notions stemming from Christianity and the concept of race may be hindering this progress. In his lecture at Brown University on November 5, 2019, Dr. Terrence Keel explored the history as well as the connections between Christianity, race, and biomedical science.
Dr. Keel began his lecture by referencing a problematic journal published in March of 2015, where the country’s first biological research organization claimed to have found a single gene variant that would account for the higher rates of cancer within the African-American population in comparison to Whites, Asians, Latinxs, etc. This is problematic because it conveys ideas that genetic differences between races are scientifically backed, even though they are not. Research has shown time and time again that the differences between the DNA of different ethnic groups are so small that they are negligible. In fact, Dr. Keel stated that any two given orangutans will always have more genetic diversity than any two humans, no matter the ethnicity. Then why are people so eager to determine a genetic basis for these disparities rather than focusing on effects environment, poverty, and structural racism have had on health? Keel goes on to explain how the race concept has its origins in the religious cultural assumptions from Christian intellectual history.
In order to back the claim that Christian thought played a large role in establishing race, Dr.Keel cited and analyzed stories directly from the bible. One such story was Noah’s Ark, a story that describes a time where the people on God’s earth were growing wicked and straying from His vision. God, however, saw goodness in Noah and instructed him to build an ark so that Noah, his three sons, and their wives would survive the flood and repopulate the planet. Looking at images from the Weimar Bible 1534, one can clearly see images of Noah and his sons, all of them white with blonde, brunette, and red hair. God, himself, is anglo-saxon as well. This clearly conveys moral beliefs about which people are closest to God, as well as, which people were preferred to repopulate the planet.
Continuing with the story, each son was meant to repopulate one portion of the earth- Asia, Europe, and Africa. Medieval maps of the world, known as T and O maps, section the globe into three parts, each with a continent and the name of one of Noah’s three sons. The thought process that went into making this elementary map has persisted over time. In 1781, German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, concluded that “it is very easy for the white colour to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white…” His “scientific” beliefs were rooted in the Christian idea that whites were the first to populate and then repopulate the earth. Modern research tracing mitochondrial DNA has actually shown that the earliest humans came from East Africa and that all humans have descended from there. Unfortunately, this evidence is often ignored or silenced because it counters traditionally accepted Christian beliefs.
To this day, the Christian view that whites were the first to populate is still circulated within major science journals and mainstream media. For example, Dr. Keel quoted from Nicholas Wade who was also referenced in Professor Lundy Braun’s lecture on December 3rd. In one particular article Wade says “Human evolution has not only been recent and extensive; it has also been regional. The period of 30,000 to 5,000 years ago, from which signals of recent natural selection can be detected, occurred after the splitting of the three major races.” He then clarifies that the three principal races are “Africans, East Asians, and Caucasians.” These three groups that Wade writes about in his book, A Troublesome Inheritance, published in 2014, directly correlate with the three groups in the T and O maps from medieval times. To make matters worse, Wade’s thinking was circulated in major news outlets such as Time Magazine and the Science Times section of The New York Times where he served as the staff writer from 1982 to 2012.
Unfortunately, work such as Wade’s is commonly circulated and seen within various news sources. As Prof. Braun pointed out in her lecture, we get questions to the answers we ask. With only new 44 projects on race/racial discrimination receiving funding in comparison to the 21,956 projects on race/genetics, it is no wonder that people are looking to genetics to explain differences in health as opposed to structural racism. In Lundy Braun’s article, “Race, ethnicity and lung function:a brief history,” she demonstrates how race is deeply ingrained in the healthcare system by examining the history of the spirometer. Braun argues that instead of using race in a fixed way that presumes genetic variance, we should further explore the ways in which the various environments and life experiences of different races may have affected health.
In order to back her argument, Braun first establishes how views on lung capacity, both previously and currently, have been influenced by race. Braun cites Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” in which he describes the “lung differences between slaves and white colonists.” Jefferson was not alone in his work that strove to establish inherent differences between races. Samuel Cartwright, a plantation physician and slavholder, used a spirometer to establish that “the deficiency in the negro” was “20 per cent”. Neither Jefferson nor Cartwright considered any other reasons for the differences in lung capacity beyond race.
Although both Jefferson and Cartwright were alive over 200 years ago, many of the same close-minded ideas about race playing a role, or the only role, in lung capacity still exist. As described by Braun, “the idea of racial and ethnic difference in lung capacity is so widely accepted that correction factors are actually programmed into spirometers.” These “correction factors” are based purely upon race without taking into considering where said person has lived, their occupation, or any other influences.
Braun purposefully mentions Jefferson and Cartwright’s studies, as well as the technology of modern day spirometers to highlight their shocking similarities and to denote that in both cases, race is too quickly accepted the reason for the difference in lung performance and should be challenged further. Both Keel and Lundy agreed that racialized ideas around who can get sick, feel pain, or even “be believed by doctors” are the areas that healthcare professionals need to focus on in order for the health of the country to truly improve.