Origin tales exist everywhere. In the United States there is the myth of Manifest Destiny, that European settlers were preordained to spread west across America. In China the remains of Homo erectus known as Peking man are used to claim an unbroken Chinese lineage going back at least 700,000 years, with suggestions that this was a direct ancestor and among the first in the world to harness fire.
In India religious nationalists have suggested that fantastical legends as described in old Hindu epics aren’t allegories but actually happened. One prominent Indian scientist has even said that the tale of a woman who gave birth to a hundred children is testament to ancient Indian skill in advanced reproductive technologies that are only now being rediscovered.
One of Donald Trump’s parting shots before leaving the presidency was to create an advisory panel called the 1776 Commission, to promote his vision of a “patriotic education” in the United States. The commission’s report downplayed the realities of discrimination and deliberate human exploitation in the nation’s founding. It took particular aim at scholars and activists who call attention to historical injustice as part of addressing modern-day inequality.
Trump’s effort was short-lived because President Joe Biden disbanded the commission the day he was sworn in. But the culture wars weren’t over—Trump wasn’t the first political leader to try to claim the past for his own ends, and he won’t be the last. Visit national museums or monuments anywhere in the world and you will see triumphalist displays that paint countries in their best light, serving narratives of greatness often wrapped in notions of ethnic or racial superiority. To respond in these times, we must decide what stories we really want to tell about ourselves and who we are.
Biological Differences: Myths Linger
When scientists insisted in one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, in May 2020 that “genetic make-up” could be a possible factor in the varying COVID-19 outcomes seen among ethnic groups at the time, they echoed a strain of thinking that has persisted through medical literature for centuries. In 1793, when a yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, white physicians claimed that Black people were naturally immune. In 2016 a study of around 200 medical students and residents published by researchers at the University of Virginia found that around half held at least one belief about “biological differences between Blacks and whites, many of which are false and fantastical in nature.” They included the myths that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain and have thicker skin.
The belief in deep-rooted population difference is among the most well-worn of political tools. The Nazis in Germany sought to define a Germanic people, building a case for racial exceptionalism. Not just history but biology and archaeology too have long been recruited into efforts to emphasize group difference, selling populations the illusion that they are naturally better than others.
Over time, these stories can become woven into identity in subtle and insidious ways, embedding themselves into our understanding of who we are. They can distort the way even today’s scientists think about human difference.
The history of race is a reminder that science isn’t just about theories and data; it’s also about which facts are recruited into the stories we tell about human variation. European Enlightenment naturalists and scientists once decided that humans might be divided into discrete groups in the same way as some other animal species, before arbitrarily setting the boundaries for these categories. They attached meaning to skin color, using sweeping cultural stereotypes about temperament, intelligence, and behavior. These pseudoscientific ideas went on to inform Western medicine for centuries. They formed the basis for the Nazi eugenics program of racial cleansing and the Holocaust.
Although it has been known for at least 70 years that race is undeniably a social construct and that those 18th-century thinkers were misguided in their assumptions, many scientists still labor under the belief that race is biologically real. The story embedded itself so firmly that even when it became clear that we are one genetically indivisible human species, it remained difficult for many researchers to look beyond it. The old narrative looms too large in their imaginations.
The rise and fall of racial myths during the COVID-19 pandemic have been a case in point. Social media speculation in early 2020 that Black people couldn’t catch the virus morphed just a few months later into the claim that they were more susceptible to it. Scientists themselves fanned these flames of misinformation by wondering out loud whether genetic differences between races might have played a role in mortality rates despite there being next to no data to support that assertion. Social determinants of health, including poverty, geography, and occupation, were woefully overlooked.
That was, until the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020. Suddenly there was a palpable shift in the narrative around race and health.
The scientific facts remained the same: Race was as much a social construct as it ever was. But now there was a global conversation on what race really meant and how the explicit and implicit effects of racism so viscerally impact the body. Physicians, I noticed, began to call for more research on socioeconomic status, diet, toxic environments, and prejudice in health care. I was invited to speak about my work on bias in science at medical schools and scientific institutions across the globe.
These developments prove that the political environment has enormous influence on the questions scientists ask and the answers they give. When the backdrop to our human story is one of natural group difference, researchers inevitably will look to genetics and innate factors first. But when that backdrop has more historical context, showing race to be a product of social factors, the focus instead swings to how groups of people live and how they’re treated. That subtle realignment helps us to diagnose the problem where it is rather than where we might imagine it to be.
We are still in a battle over the story of human difference. Far-right groups and ethnic nationalists scour scientific journals for scraps of evidence they can cherry-pick to support their claims that the course of human history has been decided by genetically stronger races and that social inequality today is simply a product of these innate differences between populations.
Only recently, two papers published in the early 1990s by a controversial Canadian psychologist were retracted from the journal Psychological Reports after editors realized that the work was “unethical, scientifically flawed, and based on racist ideas and agenda.” Similarly deficient papers are under review by that journal and others. But when the errors are this egregious, one has to wonder what has taken scientific publishers quite so long. Equally, we need to ask how they managed to get published in the first place. Perhaps it comes down to the stories that some scientists want to believe, even in the face of undeniable evidence.
Academics often claim that they are led by data, not by politics. But it’s interesting to note just how much politics has shaped how scientists think about human difference. It’s no coincidence, for example, that eugenics as a serious discipline deflated after World War II, thanks to efforts by anti-racists within science and anthropology. Neither is it by chance that some of the most blatant falsehoods about women’s minds and bodies began to be debunked from the 1970s onward, riding a wave of feminist scholarship.
Fund to be reformed
For decades, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health benefited from a research fund originally created to study eugenics. The school says the fund will be repurposed to repudiate its past, perhaps by establishing an anti-racist institute.
Health-care network MSI Reproductive Choices rebranded in 2020 so it’s no longer named for Marie Stopes (1880-1958). Over time, her support for family planning and women’s rights has been eclipsed by her support of eugenics.
A University of Pennsylvania museum apologized for possessing skulls (some from enslaved people) that a 19th-century doctor unethically acquired and used to claim whites’ supremacy. The museum aims to return the skulls to “ancestral communities.”
But of course, there are always those who will want to retain the old stories. In a world in which populism and ethnic nationalism are on the rise, that’s to be expected. Our origin stories, our traditional ways of seeing the world, can feel like security blankets in troubled times. We may cling to them against our better judgment. For those who feel they have the most to lose from racial, class, and gender equality—whose lives have been cushioned by social injustice rather than damaged by it—there’s no incentive to change the narrative.
Scientists need to be careful about which over-arching narrative they serve. Is it one that emphasizes the essential unity of our species? Reminding us, for instance, that we are genetically more alike than any other primate species and that individual difference far outweighs any group difference? Or is it one that searches in the margins of our genomes for the tiny statistical differences between populations, consciously or unconsciously playing to those who seek to divide us in other ways?
The facts may be the same either way, but it’s the story we tell ourselves that matters.
Angela Saini is a British science journalist, broadcaster, and the author of books including Superior: The Return of Race Science.
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.