Biologist debunks racial misconceptions

Joseph GravesHuman races matter in law, politics, education and other aspects of society but not genetics, says Joseph L. Graves, Jr., who proudly claims the title of the nation’s first African American evolutionary biologist.

Genetically, we’re all Africans, descendants of people who migrated out of Africa 60,000 to 70,000 years ago and populated the earth, said Graves, who spoke Tuesday at the University of Washington Bothell on “Using Science to Talk about Race and Racism.” 

Visible variations in people are adaptions over thousands of years to geographical conditions. An example is lighter skin in higher latitudes to help absorb vitamin D in weaker sunlight, Graves said. Overall, the variations are minor compared to similarities.

“Our species, anatomically modern humans, does not have biological races,” he says.

But there is history of socially defined groups, eugenics, social Darwinism and an “ongoing pathology of racial thinking” that props up social injustice, Graves says.

“It comes down to who’s doing it and what their agenda is,” he says.

Graves is associate dean for research and professor of biological sciences at the Joint School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering, a collaborative project of North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro. He was invited to the University of Washington Bothell for a technical presentation about evolutionary biology at the School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

When UW Bothell Director of Diversity Terryl Ross heard that Graves wanted to meet with campus leaders to talk about race, he set up the lecture.

Graves’ writings include the books “The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium.”

“It’s refreshing to hear a scholar talk about the scientific side of the race discussion,” said Ross. “I found his lecture insightful, thought provoking and accessible.”