Black History Month: Blending Science and History to Understand Race

As part of Black History Month, we’re highlighting EHS classes that explore race and bring new perspectives and voices into subjects from English to biology, history to economics. Such coursework is part of the School’s mission and work to ensure that racism in any form is not tolerated and that our students and graduates work to be a force for good in the lives of others.

The class: “Biology and the Human Past,” taught by science teacher Ashley Taylor and history teacher Mike Reynolds.

How the course came about: Several years ago, Reynolds and Taylor were among faculty exploring interdisciplinary teaching. The two joined their biology and history classes for a week to explore the science that underlies outward physical differences between humans and how ideas about race were created and evolved in the United States. They later did a presentation together at the School’s annual MLK Day Symposium, which led to this semester-long elective.

How the class focuses on race: “If you look at genetics, human beings are 99.999% the same,” Reynolds says. “There’s not a lot of scientific difference between human populations.” Yet the color of someone’s skin has been used for hundreds of years to justify slavery, segregation, and other forms of oppression, whether through Spain’s caste system started in the 15th century, slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States, or apartheid in South Africa. Says Reynolds: “Race is a construct humans have often used to categorize each other in order to elevate whites and keep people of color subordinated.”

Opening discovery: Early in the class, students examine the evidence that skin color is the result of evolution. They study research that the first generations of humans, who lived along the equator, produced more melanin, the skin’s dark pigment, over time because it screens the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. As humans moved to latitudes with weaker sunlight, evolution again played out and their skin grew lighter as it lost melanin to allow the sun’s rays to penetrate and generate needed Vitamin D. (Interestingly, the Inuit have dark skin despite the lack of strong sunlight in Northern Canada and Greenland, where they live; their body hasn’t had to adjust to a deficiency of Vitamin D, as their diet of fish and marine mammals is rich in the compound.)

Bringing science and history together: During the course, students examine so-called “race science” that developed in the mid-19th century and was promoted into the 20th century. This included the eugenics movement as well as far-fetched efforts to document physical differences — the size of the brain cavity, for instance —  that purported to explain the superiority of whites. “These people were professors at Harvard and some of the most important schools in the country,” Reynolds says. “Mainstream science was basically looking for ways to try to justify these old racial categories that had been around for hundreds of years.”

“One of the best classes I have taken at Episcopal”: Amy John-Terry ’21 so enjoyed the interdisciplinary approach that she chose a college for next year where such courses are the norm. “I have always been more of a ‘right brain’ person,” she says. “However, this class showed me that there is no need to differentiate between my analytical and creative side, and I am a more empathetic and stalwart student when I can use both synchronously.”

A key lesson for her: the power of language. “We dove deep into how we must be deliberate in the words we use to describe people to stop perpetuating stereotypes and hate through our speech,” she says.