Unnatural SelectionHow Racism Warps Scientific Truths

This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

My great-grandmother was a Blackfeet botanist. She taught us that ostsipiis (willow bark) is an analgesic pain reliever and that áípahtsíkaimo (valerian root) helps to calm anxiety and treat insomnia. I grew up picking these root and plant medicines with my aunts, grandmothers, and cousins. Making root medicine is a much more involved process than picking up Tylenol at a grocery store: You have to know what time of year and time of day to pick; how to clean, dry, and process the plant; and how long it can be used as a tea or rub before its potency starts to fade. My family has used these plants as medicine for thousands of years because they work. So why are traditional Native American ecologists, botanists, geneticists, and more cast aside as “mystics”?

Science has been studied by people around the world for millennia. When we talk of science today, we often discuss peer-reviewed research conducted by university professors or scientists at huge national agencies. There is an assumption that scientific truths are not only strongly supported by evidence, but also largely unbiased, nonpartisan, and universal. As with all aspects of Western society, however, science is deeply tainted with the legacies of colonialism and racism. Despite its contributions, Western science has viciously exploited marginalized communities through forced experimentation and worked to discredit non-Western scientific thought. Its truth comes with an asterisk.

The “Science” of Race

Social Darwinism, which applies a scientific theory to a nonscientific realm, was developed in the 1850s by British scientist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. The idea posits that, similar to Darwin’s theory on natural selection, some cultures are inherently weaker than others, and thus “naturally” would be a lower social class and eventually die out, making way for the “naturally” stronger and more prominent cultures. Unsurprisingly, his social theory was predominately used to assert the superiority of Western European culture and society. For hundreds of years, scientific racism and the theory of social Darwinism has justified racism, imperialism, and other violence toward nonwhite, non-Western communities.

Eugenicists took this idea a step further. Eugenics, which came into vogue in the early 20th century, was considered to be mathematical science, taking its cues from biologists and geneticists who crossbred plants to control their height and color, among other characteristics. As with social Darwinism, eugenicists applied a theory related to the natural world to human beings: in this case, on selective breeding; in the case of social Darwinism, on survival of the fittest. The eugenics movement advocated for genetically breeding humans to create perfect people, as well as to extricate traits they deemed undesirable. In order to breed out “undesirable traits,” eugenicists supported forced sterilization in predominately lower-income communities and communities of color. This extreme and overt violence surged in popularity in the 1920s and ’30s as xenophobic and racist fears spread throughout the United States. The movement was also supported by the Supreme Court in 1927 with Buck v. Bell, which ruled that state-sanctioned, forced sterilization was legal. The decision has never been overturned.

While scientific racism is today looked at as a relic of a school of thought that is no longer legitimate or reasonable, it is important to recognize that, for hundreds of years, marking whites as inherently biologically superior was considered unbiased truth, and it deeply influenced policy and social thought. Like the scientific knowledge in communities of color—including the traditional ecological knowledge passed down from my great-grandmother—Western science exists within a cultural context tainted by white supremacist violence. But because that cultural context is viewed as normal, it is seen as absolute, othering and dismissing any other types of scientific knowledge. 

Experimental Exploitation 

During slavery in America, enslaved people were frequently used as test subjects and training for medical students. In addition to selling Black bodies as labor, there was also an economy of trading Black bodies, and even specific body parts, to hospitals and medical colleges. Enslaved people were seen as disposable and therefore never asked for their consent. And because Black people were so dehumanized by the scientific community, this violence was normalized. In a 2015 article titled “How black slaves were routinely sold as ‘specimens’ to ambitious white doctors” on The Conversation, lecturer Stephen Kenny notes: 

All of the key training, networks and power bases of southern medicine—apprenticeships, private practice, colleges, hospitals, journals, and societies—operated through slavery’s ruthless traffic and exploitation of Black bodies. White medical students, as a matter of course, expected education and training based on the observation, dissection and experimental treatment of Black bodies.

The use of Black people for scientific study was also often used to help justify white supremacy and racial hierarchy. Not only were Black people’s bodies violently abused and exploited, but their psyches were demonized as well. In 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright coined the then-accepted word “drapetomania” to pathologize the mental state of slaves who escaped or attempted to escape slavery. Similarly, Cartwright argued that a slave’s disobedience or refusal to work could be explained by a mental disorder called “dysaethesia aethiopica.” That’s right: slavesʼ resistance to bondage and white violence was seen as a legitimate, diagnosable mental disorder. 

At the time, medical experimentation on Black people was legally acceptable because slaves were property and could be sold at the will of their owners. But long after slavery, the U.S. government continued to use communities of color as testing grounds for experimentation. In the 1930s, in collaboration with Tuskegee University, the U.S. government purposefully infected thousands of Black men in Alabama with syphilis and left them untreated for four decades in order to track the course of the disease and explore possible treatments. In the 1940s and ’50s, Johns Hopkins University purposefully infected orphans, mental-health patients, and incarcerated people in Guatemala with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Hundreds of Guatemalans are currently suing Johns Hopkins for having been not only purposefully infected, but also denied medical treatment. 

Such experiments have also been conducted on children of color. In the 1940s and ’50s, six government-run boarding schools in Canada forced their Indigenous students into nutrition experiments. Some students were fed a regular diet, whereas others were fed mere vitamin supplements or nutrient-enhanced flour. The children were also denied dental care, even if it had been previously available to them. One of the disturbing goals of these studies was to observe how the human body reacts to malnutrition. Like the Guatemalans suing Johns Hopkins, many of these children are alive today, and they and their families continue to experience the trauma associated with this abuse. 

Another example of scientific abuse of communities of color is the lack of consent in the use of data. The most well-known example of this is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were used—without her family’s knowledge—for medical research and commercial purposes for decades after her 1951 death. A similar case occurred in the Havasupai Tribe in 1989, when the tribe gave Arizona State University permission to conduct blood tests on tribal members to study diabetes risk. After the study, the researchers continued to use the samples—along with illegally obtained medical records—to study the genetic frequency of inbreeding and schizophrenia in the tribe without the permission of the participants. Beyond the betrayal of trust and confidentiality, the study on inbreeding in the community caused distress because of the complex kinship structures and relational protocol of the Havasupai that have existed for centuries. In 2004, the tribe sued the Arizona Board of Regents (the entity that governs the state university system), and they reached a settlement in 2010. 

These acts of violence are not anomalies, but rather part of a calculated and explicit legacy of medical and scientific exploitation of communities of color born from colonial and white-supremacist ideals. We must recognize that many Western scientific advancements were made because of the exploitation of communities of color. By creating scientific arguments for dehumanizing the minds and bodies of people of color, these experiments not only impacted the exploited individuals themselves, but also had wide-reaching implications for their communities. 

Decolonizing Science

For as long as white people in power have harmed people of color in the name of science, people of color have resisted. In her articles and recent book Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture, University of Massachusetts at Amherst Assistant Professor Britt Rusert examines the role science played in the abolitionist movement. Black activists routinely protested the abuse of Black bodies for scientific research and recognized the validity of Black and Indigenous science. Frederick Douglass and Hosea Easton, among others, spoke out against the abuse of Black people for scientific research, rightly arguing that this “science” was one of obvious racial bias.

Sarah Mapps Douglass, a science and art teacher, was one of the original leaders of the Female Literary Association, a society for Black women educators that was created in 1831 for the express purpose of empowering their students. In the 1850s, Douglass began teaching anatomy, physiology, and reproduction to girls at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. At a time when few Black Americans had access to education, Douglass centered the experiences of Black girls and empowered them through science—a deeply racist space whose false claims were used by those in power justify white supremacy. Rusert calls this movement “abolitionist science,” as it used “the tools of science to inspire new forms of political imagination and transformation.”

Zapatistas are continuing that legacy by examining all scientific knowledge, not just Western, as a means of resistance. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) hosted 10-day conferences in December 2016 and January 2017 to discuss the possibility of an anticapitalist, noncolonial science that works with and for marginalized peoples. The conferences featured workshops on topics such as the role of technology in social movements, food production and health, and patriarchy in nature (one talk was titled “What do females sing in environments where males predominate? The case of frogs and toads”); they also provided opportunities for scientists and activists to interact as peers, subverting hierarchical structures typically found at science conferences. The EZLN worked to educate community members and facilitate the creation of community-based scientific research. They strove to imagine Indigenous research efforts that center science as a tool of justice separate from historically elitist and colonial institutions. 

Native American communities and scientists similarly recognize the power of reclaiming science and embracing traditional knowledge. One of the reasons that Indigenous knowledge is delegitimized is that it is often passed down orally, instead of recorded in the same ways as Western scientific data. In a 2002 article titled “Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action,” Potawatomi tribal member and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that precise hawk moth feeding behaviors were recorded and passed down through an O’Odham tribal song—the same behaviors that Western scientists would observe and track centuries later. The knowledge already existed, but not in a format that Western scientists considered to be legitimate or trustworthy. 

Unlike Western scientific knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge does not claim to be unbiased, and it is deeply entwined with cultural and spiritual knowledge of tribes. Kimmerer advocates for the inclusion of such knowledge in biology education because it offers unique insights and potential models for ecological conservation. She also pushes back against the notion that traditional knowledge is less rigorous than Western science, arguing that both derive from “systematic observations of nature” and that: 

The scope of traditional ecological knowledge includes detailed empirical knowledge of population biology, resource assessment and monitoring, successional dynamics, patterns of fluctuation in climate and resources, species interactions, ethnotaxonomy, sustainable harvesting, and adaptive management and manipulation of disturbance regimes.

Throughout the nation, Native American communities are using their tribal knowledge to mitigate climate change, ameliorate community health through revitalizing traditional foods, and address public mental-health issues such as youth suicide. Slowly, government agencies and universities—including the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where Kimmerer is a distinguished teaching professor—have, through partnering with tribes, begun to recognize the significance of traditional knowledge, particularly in the fields of conservation and medicine/pharmaceuticals. As Indigenous scientists recently wrote in a letter endorsing Aprilʼs March for Science (signed by more than 1,800 Indigenous people and allies): 

Our tribal communities need more culturally embedded scientists and at the same time, institutions of Western science need more Indigenous perspectives. The next generation of scientists needs to be well-positioned for growing collaboration with Indigenous science. Thus we call for enhanced support for inclusion of Indigenous science in mainstream education, for the benefit of all.

Western scientific knowledge is significant and powerful, and has no doubt deeply impacted how we view and interact with the world and the universe. But it is wrought with violent, racist histories assumed as truth and presented as for the good of humanity. As Rusert argues, “science is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘real’…. It is often the handmaiden of violence and dispossession.” 

For more than 90 years, my great-grandmother helped others use the anti-inflammatory áíksikkooki (yucca) to relieve arthritis, otohtoksiin (raspberry) tea to regulate menstrual cycles, and hundreds of other plants to heal. Her medicinal and ecological knowledge helped keep our tribe strong for generations, despite the government’s attempts to suppress this knowledge and rob us of our connection to the land. Yet even within progressive circles, non-Western knowledge is often not seen as equal. Valuing Western science over the knowledge of Indigenous or other communities of color maintains the colonial and white-supremacist perspective that, for centuries, deemed people of color biologically inferior and supported using their bodies and communities as literal test subjects. We must embrace alternative paradigms and scientific philosophies so as not to diminish the possibilities we have to fully confront global issues with local implications, such as climate change, resource management, hunger, or disease propagation. Indigenous communities and communities of color have deep scientific knowledge that is too powerful to continue to ignore.  

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Abaki Beck
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Abaki Beck (she/her/hers) is a writer and public health researcher. She comanages a mutual-aid fund for formerly incarcerated people and runs a social justice resource website. You can find her writing in Bitch, Yes! Magazine, Health Affairs, and other outlets. She is Blackfeet and Red River Métis.

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