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Origin Stories: How Science Invented the Idea of Race

It might seem as though the way we think about race now is how we’ve always thought about it—but it isn’t. Race was born out of the Enlightenment in Europe, along with the invention of modern western science. And it was tied to the politics of the age—imperialism and later slavery. This episode traces the origins of race science to the Enlightenment, examines how the Bible influenced racial theories, and considers how we still have a hard time letting go of the idea of race.


Lisa Berry Drago: We've been taught that race is real, that the color of our skin is an external sign of an internal biological difference, and that that difference says something about how we think, how we act and what we're capable of. But that idea of innate biological difference, it's a story, it's a myth.

Alexis Pedrick: The truth is that human beings are all 99.9% genetically the same. Skin pigmentation, it's actually a very trivial difference between humans, inside we're basically the same. And the differences between us don't fall neatly into racial categories.

Lisa Berry Drago: And this tracks with what we know about human evolution. There's always been a constant movement of people all over the world. It's not as though some people left Africa and then stayed put over there for a hundred thousand years. And then now we just recently started moving again. We've always been moving. Today we're one of the most homogenous species on the planet. Humans are more genetically homogenous than any other primate.

Alexis Pedrick: The myth of innate racial difference was baked into society using science. The same tool that told us truths about the stars in the sky and the air we breathe. We used that science to prop this myth up because it gave it legitimacy. It wasn't a fairytale or hearsay or even just a religious interpretation. It was backed up by rationality, reason and evidence, except that it wasn't really.

Lisa Berry Drago: Now, don't get us wrong, we love science, but it's not some standalone, impartial entity never was. Science is done by people, and people are a species driven by culture, societal pressures, politics, and yes, bias. We want to be moral, we wanna believe things are the way they are because it was meant to be that way because there was a natural order, not because of greed or because of violence. So we made up a story, and when evidence pointed in another direction, we rewrote the story and we did it again and again and again.

Alexis Pedrick: Over the next 10 episodes, we're gonna peel back the layers of history to find out how science became the tool for inventing this myth and how it's still going today, even after science has done so much work to tell us it isn't true.

Read entire article at Distillations