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Race and Science

Dan Gebhardt | Jan 15, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Dan Gebhardt | Jan 15, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Advances in genetics have caused most scientists to question the objective grounds for dividing humanity into several distinct races.

Science increasingly sees race as a socially constructed reality. This means that we are composed of the familiar ‘races’ only as long as we believe we are.

If, overnight, everyone somehow forgot the emotionally- and politically-charged concept of race, nothing in the natural world would remind us. Skin color and other incidental aspects of the human appearance—the conventional markers of race—vary on a smooth gradation, and would not support breaking humanity up into a finite number of hereditary groups; nor would miniscule regional variations in the remarkably uniform human genome.

In fact, researchers have found that the genetic variation within each ‘racial group’ is greater than that between the so-called races themselves! In biological terms, all human beings belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and the same subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. After the subspecies, no more finely-grained taxonomic distinction exists.

Today, science widely accepts this biological reality. But in the years before World War I, when that awareness hadn’t yet dawned on scientists, Abdu’l-Baha uttered these prescient words:

All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race. There can be no multiplicity of races, since all are the descendants of Adam. This signifies that racial assumption and distinction are nothing but superstition. In the estimate of God there are no English, French, Germans, Turkish or Persians. All these in the presence of God are equal; they are of one race and creation; God did not make these divisions. These distinctions have had their origin in man himself. – ibid, p. 299.

When Abdu’l-Baha spoke those words in 1912, a number of more or less racist theories had become fashionable in the highest intellectual and scientific circles. Some scholars, rejecting as outdated the biblical view that all humanity was descended from one man and one woman, even subscribed to a polygenic theory of human origins—that the races of humanity had evolved separately from different species of apes.

Nazi era eugenics had German scientists measuring German noses with callipers to ensure their Aryan lineage

Nazi era eugenics had German scientists measuring German noses with callipers to ensure their Aryan lineage

Many scientists considered the deeply racist pseudoscience of eugenics, which aimed to improve human heredity by controlling who could procreate (and with whom), a respectable avenue of research during the lifetime of Abdu’l-Baha. Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge supported legislation restricting immigration from Asia and Eastern Europe, on the grounds that “Biological laws show…that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Unfortunately, others agreed and the legislation was passed as the Immigration Act of 1924.

Yet, with the increased understanding of human biology in the 20th century, Abdu’l-Baha’s words were vindicated, and racist junk sciences like eugenics took their place alongside phrenology, perpetual motion and flat-Earthism in the dustbin of discredited ideas.

Modern genetic research confirms that all people alive today have a common paternal ancestor, a ‘Y chromosomal Adam’ and a common maternal ancestor, a ‘mitochondrial Eve’. These two individuals probably lived over 100,000 years ago in Africa. They weren’t necessarily contemporaries, nor were they the only human beings alive at their respective times. They are, nevertheless, the father’s father’s father and mother’s mother’s mother of everyone on the planet today.

Genetic science also reveals that the human race nearly suffered extinction around 70,000 years ago. We are all descended from as few as three thousand surviving couples—which helps explain the great self-similarity of the human genome worldwide. Further reinforcing the basic biological unity of the human race, researchers have computed that everyone on Earth 3,400 years ago who had offspring is an ancestor of everyone alive today! The human gene pool is an ocean, its currents continually in motion, and we are its drops.

Despite so much scientific advance over the last century, racial strife and injustice still plagues humanity. Many of us continue to take racial disunity for granted, as if it were an inbuilt feature of the world.

What Abdu’l-Baha said over 100 years ago, and what the best science tells us now, is that race is more social construct than reality. The idea of race has become an outmoded, unscientific and prejudiced mental filter through which we view the world, each other, and even ourselves.

For many people, perceptions about race are closely bound up with their identity. But we can learn to move beyond a notion of our identity that breeds hate and division and is, at best, only skin deep. We can lay hold of our real birthright—the exalted status of human being and creation of God:

O SON OF MAN! Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 4.

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  • Mar 6, 2015
    Dear Dan, As a scientist (trained in medicine) my genetics is not that up to date. It would be nic eto have references to the many genetic science assertions in this article so I can check them for myself. I don't question 'Abdu'l-Baha's statement but wonder just how many geneticists agree with the above assertions?
    • Apr 6, 2015
      Dan Gebhardt Thanks Dan! I'll certainly visit those. Since I asked the question I have been given a copy of the new translation of 'Some Answered Questions'. How wonderful it is and just reading the foreward excites expectations that "The more the book is read with care and patience, the greater are its revelations, and the more complete the understanding of its inner truth and significance." !
    • Mar 31, 2015
      Malcolm, Hi!
      Here are links for further reading on some of the main claims in the article. They are written for a popular audience but do refer to peer-reviewed research. Thank you for asking, btw.
      1. Less diversity within the human genome than in other primates:
      2. More genetic variation within than between races:
      3. Y-chromosomal Adam and mitochondrial Eve:
      4. Near extinction of humanity c. 70,000 years ago:
      5. Everyone on Earth 3,400 years ago is an ancestor of everyone today:
      I don't have any special training in genetics--these claims looked credible to but see what you think. In any future science-heavy articles, I will try to add a bibliography or references, in the interest of independent investigation of truth.
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