The fool who fancies he is full of wisdom
While he sits by his hearth at home.
Quickly finds when questioned by others.
That he knows nothing at all.
One of the assignments I have in my Biology II class is a book review. I have a list of about 20 important biology books for them to choose from. My list includes On the Origin of Species, along with more recent books such as Silent Spring and The Selfish Gene. I allow the students to turn in their papers halfway through the semester to be graded and handed back to them, and then if they don’t like their grades, they get one chance for a rewrite.
This semester I received a paper about On the Origin of Species that claimed that most of Darwin’s ideas have been thoroughly discredited since the book was published. The paper had no citations for this, so I counted off points and handed it back with comments saying he needed to cite his sources. When I got the rewrite back, most of his citations were from something called The Journal of Creation. It also still included several claims with no citations, including some classic anti-evolution arguments such as “If humans ascended from apes, then why do apes still exist?” and “How could something as complex as the human eye evolve by chance?” There were several others I hadn’t heard before, like how the existence of tiger-lion hybrids disproves evolution, or how “natural selection can only remove information, not create new information.”
I looked up The Journal of Creation online, and found out it’s a so-called “peer-reviewed scientific journal” published by Creation Ministries International. Looking up CMI, I found out that Answers in Genesis, founded by Ken Ham, split off from it. Ah ha! I’ve had Creationist students try to use AiG as a “scientific source” before. Browsing the AiG website only briefly, I was able to find articles about every single claim the student made in his paper.
The problem with these organizations is that they sound just scientific enough to fool someone ignorant about science. I was first made aware of AiG a few years ago when I was teaching about embryonic development, and how all chordates, including humans, have pharyngeal slits as embryos (which develop into gills in fish). A student (wearing a “Proud to be Homeschooled” t-shirt) raised his hand and said he heard the whole idea was discredited back in the 1990’s. I told him I hadn’t heard about that, and asked him what his source for that information was. He told me couldn’t remember, “some website”. I asked him to find me that website and give me the link later, and I’ll look at it. He never did. But I was curious, so I started searching myself, and that’s when I found Answers in Genesis. There was the article about how human embryos don’t really have pharyngeal slits, never addressing the problem of how, well, you can see them right there!
The Journal of Creation also looks, to the untrained eye, like a legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s enough to make someone who doesn’t know much about the science (like say, someone who was homeschooled and sheltered his whole life) think that evolution by natural selection really is a controversial idea in biology. The fact that there’s still a significant portion of Americans who are Young Earth Creationists doesn’t help either. It’s not that hard for people to find others who agree with their views. But no matter how hard Young Earth Creationists try to make their ideas look scientific, assuming your religious book is true and then trying to twist observations around to fit what it says is not how the scientific method works.
Of course, there are many Christians who aren’t Young Earth Creationists, especially ones outside of the United States. The pope has said it’s totally OK for Catholics to believe in science. Many protestant denominations also don’t believe in YEC. Jews don’t either, even the most conservative Orthodox sects, even though they share the same creation story. All these religious groups who believe in science and God at the same time somehow manage to reconcile the two. It’s only a small minority of believers who have a problem with that.
Unfortunately, Christianity is not the only religion that contains people who use bad science to produce bad religion. There is a faction of American Heathenry that believes that religion has something to do with race, and race has something to do with genetics. The most famous essay on this subject is the misleadingly scientific-sounding “Metagenetics”, written by Stephen McNallen, the founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly, one of the largest Asatru organizations in the United States. He’s written other essays and blog posts about this as well, and he’s certainly not the only Heathen who believes in this. The recent controversy over Irminfolk’s membership criteria shows another example of this kind of thinking. Irminfolk has since taken its bylaws off its website, but I got a chance to read it before it was taken down, and it did say that they will only admit people with “Ethnic European” ancestry, and they will DNA test you if necessary. Just as Young Earth Creationists are an embarrassment to other Christians, racist Heathens are an embarrassment to the rest of us.
Now, I know that it’s not politically correct to call someone a racist who’s not actually out there lynching black people or shooting at Jewish community centers, and Heathen groups like Irminfolk and the AFA prefer to be called “folkish”. I just don’t see the difference between not allowing people who aren’t “European” enough into your religious group and something like refusing the hire non-white staff at your business or refusing to serve non-white customers, which are both considered racist by the general populace and are illegal under the Civil Rights Act. We can debate over whether it should be legally allowed for a private business to have racist policies (at least some Libertarians think it should be allowed), but they’re still racist policies by the dictionary definition of the word. Now, unlike businesses, religious organizations are allowed to have racist policies like this, so Irminfolk is well within their legal rights. It just annoys me that people are trying to redefine the term “racism” to only include the most extreme examples, so that the vast majority of racist actions don’t count. Words have definitions. Don’t try to redefine the word just because it has bad connotations. It would be more accurate if they said something like, “we’re not like those bad racists. We’re the good racists,” but they’re still following the dictionary definition of racism.
Racism, by the dictionary definition, includes not only violence towards other races, but the belief that different races have different innate abilities. For example, the belief that whites and Asians are better at science and math than blacks, or that blacks are better at sports than whites and Asians. What folkish heathens are saying is that whites are better at being heathens than non-whites. To justify this, they say that whites are equally unable to practice African or Asian religions, but that really doesn’t make them any less racist. That’s just saying they’re equally racist against whites, ironically. Others have already written about the theological problems with this, but what stands out to me as a biology professor is that racism is just bad science. Using pseudoscience as a basis for important religious beliefs isn’t working well for the Young Earth Creationists, and I don’t like this sort of thing going on in my religion either.
A Little Genetics Lesson
Part of my graduate school curriculum was two semesters of Population Genetics. We learned a lot about how one determines if a species has genetically distinct populations. It takes some math, but fortunately the math is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. For groups of a species to be distinct populations, there has to be so little gene flow between them that the variation between groups is greater than the variation within each group. Gene flow happens when a member of one group gets together with a member of another group and, you know, mixes their genes. Through mathematical models, we saw how little this has to happen to erase distinctions between groups. You can only have genetically distinct groups if a population is isolated enough, on an island for example. However, if you are trying classify a species into distinct populations, but you genetically test them and find out that the variation within each group is equal to or greater than the variation between groups, it turns out they really should be treated as the same genetic population.
This works for any species, whether it’s pine trees, salamanders, or humans, and it turns out that humans don’t have a lot of distinct populations. Maybe there are still a few isolated tribes on a Pacific Island somewhere, or in the highlands of New Guinea, but certainly the category known in this country as “white people” is not a genetically isolated population. I’m genetically closer to my Hispanic nephew than I am to most white people, and he’s closer to me than most Hispanics. President Obama is genetically closer to his white mother and grandparents than he is to most black people. That’s gene flow. Now that genetic testing has become cheap and easily available, it’s become clear that gene flow between the “races” is the norm rather than the exception, and it has been the norm for a long time, certainly it has been with “white people.” Just look at the map. Europe is not isolated at all. People have been easily traveling between Europe and Asia, Africa, and North America for hundreds if not thousands of years. And thanks to widespread genetic testing now, we can see how much gene flow that’s resulted in between Europeans and people from these other continents.
“But they look different!” people say. Yes, humans have variation in the genes for skin color (just like cats and dogs come in different colors too), but skin color is not a good way to classify distinct races of humans. Having a certain skin color can be an advantage or disadvantage in certain climates, so over generations, populations of humans living in sub-Saharan Africa and Australia evolved darker skin on average, while humans living in Eurasia evolved lighter skin on average. It’s similar to how wolves that live on the tundra tend to have lighter fur than wolves that live in dark forests.
What makes it even more complicated is that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, which is how you get the range of shades from very dark to very light, rather than only a couple of colors. Very dark people have lots of dark skin genes, while very light people have lots of light genes, with lots of people intermediate between the two. Hair texture, hair color, eye shape, and even eye color are polygenic traits as well, and they’re all separate from skin color, so you can have people with all sorts of combinations. My point is that there is not one gene that designates a person as being a “white person”, or a “black person”, or any other race. All of us have various combinations of various genes, but there are no lines you can draw between the races using genes. Europeans still have some “dark” genes, and Africans still have some “light” genes, they just have them in different proportions. We’ve just culturally decided that people that have certain combinations of traits belong to certain “races”, but that distinction doesn’t map onto the genetics of the people in these groups.
“But what about sickle-cell anemia? Surely diseases that are associated with one race or another prove that races are biologically distinct.” That’s even simpler to explain. Unlike appearance, it’s only caused by one gene. It’s recessive, so if you have two copies of that gene, you have sickle-cell anemia. If you have one copy of that gene, you are resistant to malaria. Most people don’t have any copy of that gene at all. Since having one copy gives you resistance to malaria, it has an evolutionary advantage in areas where malaria is prevalent, such as West Africa, so the gene is more common there. It’s also found in people from Central and South America, and people of Mediterranean descent. In other words, it’s not that much different than dark skin genes. It gives people an advantage in a certain environment, so natural selection makes it more common there. The sickle cell gene is only indirectly related to having dark skin, because in Equatorial environments, there is both more malaria and more sun exposure, so the environment selects for both those traits at the same time.
It’s certainly not a gene that can be used to distinguish black people from white people, because even though more people who have the gene are black than white, most black people don’t have it, and it’s possible for a white person to have it.
This brings me to something I’ve been wondering, as a biologist, reading things by folkish Heathens. Stephen McNallen claims that religion can somehow be inherited by your children, and therefore “white people” have all inherited Asatru from our European ancestors and non-Europeans have not, so that’s why only white people can practice Asatru. Unfortunately “metagenetics” can be easily confused with epigenetics, a legitimate biological concept, by a layperson. It reminds me of Ken Ham making up the scientific-sounding “baraminology” as Creationist alternative to phylogeny. McNallen is rather vague about how metagenetics works. He does say in a follow-up essay that it’s not something as simple as having a certain DNA sequence. However, Irminfolk says they will go so far as to DNA test people who want to become members to see if they have enough European ancestry. So apparently they do think that the DNA in a person matters.
So what is the Asatru gene?
Since they took their bylaws down, I’m not sure if it says in there anywhere what circumstances a DNA test will be necessary, but I do distinctly remember DNA tests being mentioned. So what genes are they going to test for? As I’ve already explained, “European” and “white” are not genes. There are only genes that may be more common or less common in people of European descent. For any gene they pick, there are going to be people with pale skin who may not have it, and people with dark skin who may have it, as long as you test a large enough sample of people.
I just can’t help but think these people simply don’t understand how genetics works. Just like when I read Answers in Genesis, and it’s so obvious right away that they have no idea how evolution works. And yet you’re going to base an important tenant of your religion on it? If they do genetically test someone, how does that particular gene make a person able to worship the Aesir? We’re learning more and more about how genes work every day, but as far as I know they haven’t yet found a “religion” gene, much less developed a test for it.
Why Bother Explaining This?
One of the complaints Christians have against Young Earth Creationism is that it turns some people away from Christianity entirely. Adhering to YEC requires a willful ignorance of biology, astronomy, geology, and the scientific method in general. Racism also turns people against Heathenry. As people in general become more aware of the non-reality of biological race, “folkish” Heathens are going to look more and more ridiculous, like T-rexes in the Garden of Eden.
Creationism is not the only pseudoscience that has come up in my classroom. I’ve also had to deal with students who think global warming is a hoax, and students who think vaccines cause autism. That second one is becoming common enough now that I had to add a whole extra section to my lecture on vaccines to address the topic directly. Some would tell me that trying to argue with people who believe these things is a futile effort. Bill Nye the Science Guy was strongly criticized by other scientists for debating Ken Ham, because they thought it gave Ken Ham some kind of legitimacy. I agree that hardcore Creationists, global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, and racists are seldom persuaded by scientific arguments. I can cite all the scientific literature I want about any of these topics, and they’ll only say that the scientists are also part of the conspiracy.
One of the most frustrating things about that paper my student turned in this semester is that all of his arguments against evolution were covered either in my class or in Biology I that he should have taken as a prerequisite. I went over human evolution and the evolution of the eye, and the scientific method, genetics, phylogeny, speciation, and hybridization should have been covered by his Biology I professor. In his paper he wrote “evolutionists have never explained” these things, and that’s certainly not true. Explanations for all these things are in the textbook he was supposed to have purchased and read. He just refused to pay attention, I guess.
So it’s true that convincing the hardcore believers is probably hopeless, but there are a lot of people out there who really haven’t taken sides yet. I’ve had students who didn’t know what natural selection is at all, or have never heard of global warming, or had no idea how vaccines work. I’ve had a student ask me, “What’s polio?” Those are the people I want to reach.
The idea that race is biological is a myth that’s been ingrained in our culture for hundreds of years, so I really can’t blame most people for believing it. I didn’t learn about it until I was a junior in college and took an anthropology course as an elective. This was also around when I first started getting curious about Asatru, so it really came just in time. Before that I also thought that there was a biological component to race, and I still catch myself slipping into that mode of thinking every now and then. It can be hard to unlearn these things.
Anthropology and genetics are really not my areas of expertise. I specialized in ecology, even though I’ve found myself teaching general biology now. I’d much rather talk about birds and trees, but I’ve now found myself in a religion with a racism problem. Hopefully this essay will make my position on that issue clear. In the end, I really don’t understand what would be so horrible about someone with no European ancestry practicing Asatru. I think that it’s important that pre-Christian religions are preserved (all of them), but who cares about the DNA of the people who are doing the preserving? Why am I more worthy of the task just because I’m pale? I can imagine the possibility of someone with darker skin than me being a better heathen than me. Why should that person be excluded? I don’t get it.