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Ghost in the Machine: How Christianity Haunts the Biological Sciences

  • La Kretz Garden Pavillion Room 100 707 Tiverton Drive Los Angeles, CA, 90095 United States (map)

The UCLA Institute for Society & Genetics Presents Dr. Terence Keel


The idea that so-called races reflect inherent biological differences between social groups has been a prominent aspect of Western thought since at least the Enlightenment. While there have been moments of refuting this way of thinking—most notably, the social constructionist thesis emerging as a dominant framework in the aftermath of WWII—fixed biological conceptions of race haunt new genetic technologies, where race is thought to be measurable at the molecular level. Yet, the resilience of this naturalized understanding of race may stem less from overtly political or pernicious motives on the part of scientists and more from our inherited theological traditions that continue to shape and direct scientific reasoning. In this talk, Keel argues that the enduring belief that race comes from “Nature” reflects the haunting influence of Christian intellectual history on the development of modern scientific thinking about human ancestry. Keel suggests this unavoidable convergence of science and religion has consequences for our ability to recognize the social factors that produce and maintain human biological differences.

About the Speaker

Dr. Terence Keel is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he serves as Vice Chair to the Department of History and holds an appointment in the Black Studies Department. He earned is PhD from Harvard University. Dr. Keel is an interdisciplinary scholar with training in religious studies, the history of science, African American history, as well as science and technology studies. He has written widely about the history of racism and its connections to the modern biological sciences, religious intellectual history, law, medicine, and public health. His research has explored these issues in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. His first book, Divine Variations (Stanford University Press, January 2018) is a study of how Christian thought facilitated the development of scientific racism and shaped the epistemic commitments of the modern study of human biodiversity. He has received awards for his research from the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Charles Warren Center for American Studies at Harvard University, and the University of California Office of the President. Most recently, he was the 2017 recipient of the Harold J. Plous Award at UC Santa Barbara, the highest honor given by the faculty senate to a junior professor for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.

He is currently working on book project that explores the relationship between science and society by examining how science educators and health care professionals working in historically Black institutions spread ideas from evolutionary biology and the eugenics movement into the public imagination. The book will be centered on the work of the physician Dr. Charles V. Roman of Meharry Medical College, the embryologist Dr. Ernest Everett Just of Howard University, the biologist and Catholic civil rights activist Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner of Howard and Hampton University, and Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, professor of Medicine at Howard University and healthcare advocate for poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. Dr. Keel received a research grant from the UC Consortium for Black Studies hosted by the Department of African American Studies at UCLA to work on this project.

Earlier Event: January 30
Executive Board Meeting
Later Event: January 31
Chat with Dr. Terence Keel