“I believe one of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome is that in genetic terms all human beings regardless of race are more than 99.9 percent the same.”
These were words then President Bill Clinton used with Francis Collins, the geneticist (and evangelical Christian) who led the Human Genome Project, at his side in 2000 when we celebrated the sequencing of the human genome. In them, I first heard and continue to hear echoes of the Bible.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Or the text I used a few weeks ago: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). It is not just some humans made in God’s image, but all of humankind.
Together, scripture and science, tell a remarkably similar story—despite all the difference and variation we see among humans—we share a common humanity. For science, it is known through our DNA. For faith, it comes from our unity in Christ and the image of God granted to each and every one us.
It is a simple story that binds us together in our common humanity. But do we really believe it?
Biology and Race
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University biologist Joseph L. Graves, Jr. notes that “Americans routinely conflate socially defined and biological conceptions of race. They are not the same thing.” Why? Because race is not a category explained by our biology. We see external variation and extrapolate biological difference. In the past, great effort was made to find these differences and impute biological significance to them. The reality is that there is more genetic variation in a hillside group of chimpanzees than there is between every single member of our species, Homo sapiens.
This idea that race is not explained by our biology is a complicated one. I find two anecdotes instructive. First, consider Brazil’s racial categories in their census data. For a moment, set aside a American framework of what might be considered offensive or appropriate. The categories: white, pardo (what we might call multiracial), black, yellow, and indigenous. Children of parents, one white and one black, we might assume would identify as mixed race. But in Brazil, racial identity and color are not quite the same thing. In fact, in a mixed race family with three children, one may identify as multiracial, one as black, and one as white. Biology does not determine how these categories are devised nor how individuals fill them out.
The second requires some imagination. Pretend brainy aliens come to earth and we ask them to identify the various races of Homo sapiens. If they looked at the myriad ways race is understood socially, seeing differences between the United States, Brazil, and other countries, they would quickly realize they need a more objective standard. Unless they know biological information we have not yet discovered, genetics would likely be where they turn. The result of their genomic analysis would reveal these five “races” of Homo sapiens: West Africans, East Africans, South Africans, North Africans, and then everyone else. If we use biology to define race, these are the biggest differences in the human genome.
Nonetheless, our categories of race and the pernicious impacts of racism do impact our biology. Racism impacts health (as Ed described previously) and it imprints in troubling ways on our minds (a topic I have considered). But it is not rooted in our biology. Our biology—99.9 percent the same—mirrors the teachings of scripture that speak of a human unity found in Christ.
- Our friends at the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) have produced a really helpful 3-minute video on humans and race.
- Joseph L. Graves, Jr. has written several books and spoken extensively on biology and race.
- Learn more about the complex understanding of race in Brazil and see just how different it is from our understanding here in the United States.
- We are working on a curriculum to help your church talk about race and science that builds off a forthcoming second video from DoSER.
- Here is our current collection of resources on science and race for the church.
The Need to Talk
In two of the most urgent issues of our day, I’m hearing the same directive: the best way all of us can address racism and global warming is to talk about these issues. Silence, whether the result of fear or ignorance or indifference, will only allow these great ills to burden future generations.
The church should be a place to house such conversations. We can read, watch, learn and then talk together. White churches can partner with Black churches; multiethnic ones can model dialogue and then share it with their less diverse peers. Our talk can witness to the echoes of scripture found in the 99.9 percent that we do share; our conversations framed by our common humanity, image bearers united in the body of Christ.
I don’t expect that many of our churches will solve the problem. Race and racism have troubled our country since it began. But we stall progress if we can’t talk together. We must realize just how complex and deep-seated race is in America. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you seek resources or guidance.
Decoding the human genome and learning about the 99.9 percent was an incredible triumph for science. It resets the baseline for the kinds of conversations we need to be having inside and outside the church. Maybe, through the Spirit’s guidance, our conversations will be a beacon of progress as we strive for the unity we share in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.