Divine Variations
How Christian Thought Became Racial Science
Terence Keel



The so-called universal ideas that Europeans produced in the period from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and that have since influenced projects of modernity and modernization all over the world, could never be completely universal and pure concepts. . . . For the very language and the circumstance of their formulation must have imported into them intimations of preexisting histories that were singular and unique, histories that belonged to the multiple pasts of Europe. Irreducible elements of those parochial histories must have lingered into concepts that otherwise seemed to be meant for all.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe

In 2002 the American geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells published The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.1 Therein Wells detailed an account of the origin and dispersal of the first humans out of Africa and into Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas. He made his case based on the then-recent technological innovations that allowed geneticists to analyze thirteen genetic markers on the Y chromosome and in the process recover the hidden history of early humans.2 The Y chromosome is passed on from father to son, so it does not become diffuse during the genetic recombination process when each parent contributes 50 percent of a child’s DNA. What makes DNA on the Y chromosome useful for reconstructing the ancient past is that it remains relatively stable while being inherited through successive generations. When changes occur, most often through random mutations, they leave a trail of genetic markers that biologists can use to retrace the steps of human evolution. Using this method of genetic analysis, Wells claimed that all humans can trace their ancestry back to a few courageous humans who took advantage of changing climate conditions and migrated out of Africa in two major waves. The earliest wave, according to Wells, happened sixty thousand years ago as our ancestors moved along the shores of the Indian Ocean through the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and India and eventually arrived in Australia. In the second wave, humans left Africa roughly forty-five thousand years ago, settling in the Middle East and eventually branching off into smaller groups with an eastward migration into India, central Asia, and Europe. Wells believes that cold temperatures and geographic isolation made these populations significantly paler and shorter than the humans they left behind in Africa. Eventually, some twenty thousand years ago, a small number of central Asians migrated north into Siberia and the Arctic Circle. After about five thousand years, a group of these central Asians followed reindeer across the Bering Strait land bridge into North America, thus setting the course for the rise of indigenous populations of North and South America.

The Journey of Man was turned into a widely popular PBS documentary film in 2003. It features Wells—strawberry-red complexion and blue eyed—committed to sharing the good word of his genetic discovery, explaining that despite our physical differences we are all essentially African. The film captures the steady conscription of indigenous people into a biogenetic narrative about the evolutionary steps taken by our assumed collective ancestors. The Journey of Man is as much a scientific documentary as it is an artifact of missionary conversion.3 Indeed, the film puts on display a set of inherited conceptual problems that inform the core argument of this book: Universal narratives of human becoming created by modern science are derived from Christian European traditions of thought and belief that conceal their parochial foundations.

One of these patrimonial dilemmas reveals itself during Wells’s visit to western New South Wales with the Mungo people, descendants of the first Australians who arrived approximately forty-five thousand years ago. With no evidence of a land journey Wells has a difficult time convincing Greg Inibia Goobye Singh, an aboriginal artist from Queensland, that genetic evidence places the beginning of all human life in Africa. In their exchange Greg says,

If our stories aren’t correct, you know, if they are a myth—the way that you guys might believe they are and we know they’re not—why isn’t it possible that the Africans actually come from us, you know?4

In a remarkable moment of candor Wells responds:

In a way, what I’d like you to think about the DNA stories we’re telling is that they are that; they are DNA stories. That’s our version, as Europeans, of how the world was populated and where we all trace back to. That’s our song line. We use science to tell us about [our origins] because we don’t have this sense of direct continuity. Our ancestors didn’t pass down our stories. We’ve lost them, and we have to go out and find them, and we use science, which is a European way of looking at the world, to do that. You guys don’t need that. You’ve got your own stories.5

By “song line” Wells was referring to the oral tradition of the Mungo, who have transmitted a creation narrative that places the beginning of humanity in Australia. Greg replies, “We know where we come from. We know about creation. We know we come from here. We didn’t come from nowhere else.” The challenge of Greg’s aborigine creation story is removed almost seamlessly as Wells, who serves as both subject and narrator in the documentary, explains with detached confidence:

Tradition rarely sits well with cutting-edge science. The aborigine song lines say that mankind originated here in Australia—no stories about journeys. But the blood of aborigines tells me that they’ve inherited a very ancient marker from Africa—it’s around fifty thousand years old—while Africans have no trace of aboriginal markers in their blood. The human traffic was strictly one way, from Africa to Australia.6

There is a second scene in the documentary that lays bare how contemporary genetic science constructs a universal narrative that conceals its parochial European traditions. Near the end of the film, Wells has an encounter with three members of the Navajo tribe in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona as he explains that their direct ancestors came from central Asia. One of them, Phil Bluehouse, insists,

We believe that we were created here in the four sacred mountains area. There is where we came up from the ground. In other words, we were birthed into this place just like we are all birthed by our mother.7

Wells responds,

I also have my own sense of what that story might be, using science. I’m a geneticist, and everybody around the world is very closely related to each other. We’re all part of one big family. In fact, we’re all related to people who lived in Africa as recently as fifty thousand years ago. That’s only about two thousand generations. So you have distant relatives living all over the world who are essentially African. And you yourselves are essentially African. So am I.8

The conversation moves to Wells describing his pursuit of the genetic trail of humankind out of Africa into Australia and then the other continents. A discussion ensues about the diversity of social life in Australia, as Wells explains, “There are lots of different populations in Australia, speaking very different languages. They have different cultures, different myths.” As the other two Navajo grapple with what Wells has said, Phil retorts,

Why do you call something that a people will tell you a myth, as opposed to an experience that they had and they relive it over and over? Rather than calling it a myth, would you be able to call it something else, because I have a real strong feeling about that—that, you know, if you call something a myth, it’s a substandard event that does not have any relevance. . . . Because they are real as we understand them. They’re not myths, you know? That’s important.9

On camera Wells gets the last word: “That’s a very good point. And my bias as a scientist is that I like to see evidence for things.”10

Perhaps more than the text itself the documentary Journey of Man reveals how genetic science produces racial narratives that are assumed to be universally applicable, seek a singular explanation for our beginnings, and disclose primordial truths hidden in our biology. Leaving the workbench and encountering his subjects in the field, Wells goes in search of the signs—inscribed on the bodies of the indigenous—that confirm his evolutionary story. Interviews with natives support Wells’s ideas; their seemingly static creation stories facilitate the belief and perception that genetics supplants superstition and myth. As a scientist Wells contends that his starting point is not prefigured by tradition, cultural knowledge, or religious belief. Instead, his point of departure begins with an intellectual deficit.11 As Wells explains, “Our ancestors didn’t pass down our stories.” Thus, “we use science to tell us about [our origins] because we don’t have this sense of direct continuity.” The “we” implied here is clear, for Wells believes that “science is a European way of looking at the world.” But what makes the scientific study of race European? Were we to accept the preconditions of his evolutionary story, are we also to believe that all of Europe’s ancestors failed to transmit this vital knowledge about human origins? If so, what enabled this catastrophic loss of cultural and social memory? What purpose does this assumption of intellectual deficit serve?

In Divine Variations I show that the ancestors of Europe did in fact pass down stories about the origins of human life that continue to inform modern science. These narratives do not have a pure secular origin. Instead, they draw from Christian patterns of reasoning about the abrupt solemnity of creation, human difference, and the universal applicability of a Christian worldview. Collectively, these concepts enable the belief that human races descend from a common ancestor (monogenism) and that modern science must tell a story about the origin of all people.

Despite the evolutionary concerns that this belief in common ancestry might settle, there remain unresolved questions: Why does a void in European understanding about human origins come to be seen as global ignorance about human creation? What were the conditions under which Euro-American scientists came to be certain that their account of human racial beginnings was universally applicable? How did the modern study of race gain the epistemic authority to adjudicate between scientific and nonscientific human origin narratives? If we can provide an answer to these questions, might we also explain the history of the imagined intellectual deficit in the Western scientific imagination on the question of human origins?

Divine Variations is a provincializing project of sorts and reveals how the formation of the race concept in the minds of Western European and American scientists grew out of Christian intellectual history.12 This was a unique social and religious history that colored European intellectual life and bled into German, British, and North American scientific constructions of race. I challenge prevailing assumptions about the progressive transformation of Western accounts of human origins into a distinctly modern secular activity, freed of all traces of Christian theology. The history of racial science, I argue, does not fit into a tidy narrative of linear secularism as was assumed by a generation of historians and anthropologists who penned seminal works in the field after the Second World War. “Religion” was not subtracted from “science” during the development of modern theories of human biodiversity. Far from being left with an intellectual deficit, Euro-American scientists inherited from their ancestors a series of ideas and reasoning strategies about race that have their origin in Christianity and continue to shape contemporary thought. Wells’s assertion that he has no social or cultural inheritance from which to build his vision of race is a myth that obscures the epistemic privileges modern science enjoys precisely because of the Christian legacy it has subsumed into its own view of human biodiversity. This book makes facets of this religious heritage explicit and, in the process, provincializes the scientific study of human variation.

The Religious Prefiguring of Race and Science

This work reexamines paratheological texts and biblical commentaries from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, writings from early Christian natural philosophy, seminal studies in ethnology and early nineteenth-century social science, debates among twentieth-century public health researchers, and recent genetic analysis of ancient human DNA. The narrative I propose does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the history of modern scientific theories of human origins. Neither are my intentions to retell the entire cultural-religious history of Euro-American ideas about race. Other scholars have done these things well.13 Divine Variations focuses on four different historical moments that reveal how religious and scientific epistemologies have converged on the question of race. Thus, I trace the formation of racial science out of Germany in the eighteenth century, follow its transformation among nineteenth-century American ethnologists, move through the biomedical theories of the Progressive Era, and finally arrive at present-day genetic research on the Neanderthal genome.

For the purposes of this study what is meant by “religion” and its relationship to Christianity, science, and race warrants further reflection. The category “religion” is a precarious heuristic created by scholars in the West to describe a range of human activities that are constantly in flux and not easily separated from other forms of life.14 This book shows how Christian intellectual history produced a series of ideas and beliefs that would have consequences beyond the walls of the church. Therefore, this work is not bound by attention to conventionally defined religious institutions or figures; it focuses instead on ideas drawn from Christian thinking about a creator God, Judaism, nature, time, and human ancestry that influenced scientific ideas about race. By retracing this history, I do not intend to argue that modern scientists are somehow “Christian” by virtue of this intellectual inheritance; I have no stake in demarcating the boundaries of religious membership. This book reveals the ideas that scientists appropriated from Christian intellectual history in their effort to construct theories about human variation that were consistent with the standards of scientific truth presumed for their time.

Recognizing this intellectual history involves coming to terms with Christianity’s investment in discourses and practices that draw divisions between social groups. This religious prehistory is the fertile soil out of which modern scientific views of race emerge. Yet it is widely believed by Christians and those who share its cultural heritage that to be a member of the body of Christ is to transcend racial differences and ascend into a universally inclusive community. There are biblical warrants routinely cited to reinforce this perception: “For [God] has made of one blood all the nations of the world to dwell on the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, male and female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Moreover, the perception of Christianity as a community open to all and therefore beyond race has also been supported by the theological claim—widely defended across the history of Christian thought—that the races share a common ancestor with Adam (monogenism), whose original sin has been passed along to all nations. This inherited sin, therefore, set the stage for the redemptive significance of Christ, believed to be the redeemer of all.

While Christians have long claimed to be universal and inclusive, scholars have recently shown how central race reasoning has been to Christian thought and intellectual history.15 Denise Kimber Buell has noted that the early followers of Jesus understood their community in ways that were consistent with the ethno-social thought of their ancient contemporaries. She notes, “Many Christian texts explicitly guide readers to understand their entrance into these emerging communities as a transformation from one descent group, tribe, people, or citizenship to a new and better one.”16 Buell argues that early Christians possessed an understanding of peoplehood that functioned conceptually like an ethno-racial group and at the same time understood themselves to be superior to other forms of social membership by virtue of their claims to have knowledge about the destiny of all of humanity. Indeed, we will see that this knowledge of salvation, which implicated all people, would leave a lasting impression on future Euro-American notions of universal human species and race.

Claims of Christian truth being superior to other ethno-religious knowledge had specific consequences for the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. We can see this in Jeremiah 31:31–32:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.

This biblical passage often became the inspiration for a theological position known as Christian supersessionism. According to the logic of supersessionism the truth of Christianity supplants the law given to the ancient Israelites. In the minds of the early church fathers Christians were a unique social-spiritual community who possessed a more perfect understanding of the purpose and destiny of humankind. Justin Martyr (100–163 CE), for example, wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho, “For the true spirit of Israel . . . are we who have been led to God through his crucified Christ.”17 If the early church was established to be God’s new chosen people, what did this mean for God’s previous covenant with the Israelites?

J. Kameron Carter has argued that the effort of Christians to answer this question produced patterns of reasoning about race that would become deeply embedded not merely in Catholic and Protestant theology but also in modern Euro-American beliefs about human diversity. According to Carter, “Modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots.”18 The consequence of this severance, Carter argues, is that Jews were cast as a distinct ethno-spiritual group, and this racialization would later create a wedge between the Euro-American Occident and the assumed Orientalism of the Jews.

During the medieval and early modern period Christian racial thinking regarding Jews had a profound influence over Europe’s own self-understanding as well as its perception of native populations in the New World. Jonathan Boyarin, in his study of the religious and racial diversity that marked Spain before and after Europe’s colonial encounter with the New World, argues that “the troubling instability of Jewish difference shaped both Christian Europeans’ self-image and their reactions to those they encountered in the course of exploration and conquest beyond what became Europe’s borders.”19 Boyarin notes that the persistence of Jewish otherness throughout the medieval period consolidated what it meant to be Christian and European and revealed the limits of Christian universalism and the failed efforts of the Catholic Church to unite all under Christ. Herein lies a paradox as the universal significance of the church could not be realized if the Jews remained Jews. Yet Jewish otherness helped clarify the borders between Christian and non-Christian identity. Boyarin has shown that Europe’s self-understanding as a collective Christian unity did not emerge with the colonial encounter, as is commonly misunderstood, but was an extension of the patterns of racial reasoning constructed in the face of the Jew well before 1492.20 Boyarin, much like Carter, argues that modern Christian European identity is the result of a sustained intellectual rejection of its Jewish origins.

What we must draw from this history is that Christian thought has been sustained by a long tradition of racial reasoning. Recognition of this tradition exposes the fallacy of viewing Christianity as a belief system that transcends race. Instead, we must see Christianity as a tradition equipped with an expansive set of concepts and reasoning strategies forged initially in opposition to Jews, Greeks, and Romans and then subsequently against racial and religious others (e.g., Muslims, Native Americans, Africans, Asians, Catholics). We would be mistaken to assume that the spirit of Christianity is expressed merely in its inclusiveness. Rather, we must see that Christian universalism entails a series of conceptual negotiations with racial difference, negotiations that simultaneously “other” specific populations and shore up the boundaries of Christian European identity.21

Recognizing the deep linkages between Christianity, practices of ethnoracial reasoning, and science, Divine Variations reconfigures our understanding of the modern study of race in the following ways. First, modern racial science is indebted to a religious intellectual history that it has attempted to deny and supersede, which I call the “modern scientific appropriation of Christian supersessionism.” As we saw earlier, this theological idea had antecedent forms in early church attitudes toward Jews. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Christian supersessionism shaped disputes over the antiquity of human history. During this time the Bible was an intellectual authority in European social life. Increased commercial and archeological exchange between Europe, Asia, and the Levant brought to light a wealth of historical records possessed by the Chinese, Egyptians, and Babylonians that described accounts of human history that predated scripture.22 Human history became a contested site where Christianity’s truth was at stake, as was the intellectual superiority of European social life as the paragon of civilization. English, French, and German historians would reject the antiquity of the human-origin narratives of non-European populations, claiming that the history detailed by scripture was sacred and superseded all other “fabulous” historical records.23 For example, the great English scholar Matthew Hale dismissed the records of “primitive” people while leaving intact the historical framework demarcated by the Bible. In The Primitive Origination of Mankind Hale wrote,

Notwithstanding these great pretensions of Antiquity, yet upon a true examination, their great pretended Antiquity is fabulous; and the Origination of their Monarchies began some Ages after the general Deluge; and so the truth of the Holy History concerning the Inception of Mankind, the Inception of all the Monarchies in the World . . . is not at all weakened by those Fabulous Antiquities of the Babylonians, Egyptians, or Grecians.24

The great Sir Isaac Newton expressed similar sentiments: “The Egyptians anciently boasted of a very great and lasting Empire. . . . Out of vanity [they] have made this monarchy some thousands of years older than the world.”25 European historians cast aside the records of non-Europeans on the grounds that the Bible provided a proper representation of human history and accounted for the origin of all humankind—any record beyond the parameters of scripture was nothing more than myth and fantasy.

Modern scientific ideas about race appropriated this supersessionist view of history—one step removed from its theological expression as an anti-Jewish disposition—by claiming to possess an account of human origins that was intellectually superior to all other creation narratives, was universally applicable, and overcame the errors and partiality of previous religious traditions. By the nineteenth century, we begin to see American ethnologists develop a scientific account of race that explicitly disavows and replaces the Christian account of human origins that preceded it. This represents what I call “Christian supersessionism” turned upon itself. Ethnologists in the nineteenth century helped seed what scientists would harvest in the twentieth century following the spread of Darwinian evolution and the professionalization of modern science: A critique of Christianity that would further remove explicit reference to religion in any scientific study of human variation and lay the groundwork for present-day myths about the intellectual deficit and secularity of modern biological theories of race. This is the unacknowledged intellectual prehistory at work in Spencer Wells’s pursuit of genetic markers in indigenous populations that corroborate an evolutionary narrative believed to be universally applicable and factually antecedent to non-European creation myths.

Second, I argue that despite the decline of the Bible as a cultural authority in the Western Euro-American imagination, the concept of the creator God described in the Genesis narrative would continue to facilitate the formation of scientific ideas about race. Throughout the modern study of human diversity we find what I call “secular creationism” being used by scientists to help explain the origin and dispositions of the human races. In this secular creationism, scientists project onto nature the attributes and power of the creator God described in scripture—a God who gave shape to an earth that “was without form and void” (Genesis 1:2) and “created mankind in his own image” (1:27). In the eighteenth century we find German physicians and early biologists claiming that a teleological force embedded within nature gave rise to and shaped the formation of the human races. American ethnologists in the nineteenth century spoke openly of nature’s capacity to create human types within specific environments and locations. By the twentieth and twenty-first centuries secular creationism manifests itself in the idea that biology or genetics determines the destiny and life chances of the races.

IMAGE 1. God, as architect and creator of the world, with a compass. Mid-thirteenth century, cover colors on parchment. Source: Bible moralisée, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Picture Archive, Cod. 1179, fol. Iv.


My observations about modern science giving nature the attributes of God to explain the origins of race parallels Michael Allen Gillespie’s claim in The Theological Origins of Modernity that Christian commitments continue to inform the structures of modern life. Gillespie argues that the rise of nominalism during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries dealt a devastating blow to the scholastic worldview of the medieval period, which posited that all life was governed by universal axioms. Nominalists believed that human universals were mere fictions, and this called into question the intelligibility of God’s existence. Gillespie explains that in the wake of the revolution of thought provoked by the nominalists, modern thinkers were forced to build a coherent worldview out of the rubble of a collapsed medieval system. However, we were inconsistent in our understanding of whether humans, nature, or God should be given explanatory preference when accounting for phenomena in the world.26 Gillespie explains:

What actually occurs in the course of modernity is thus not simply the erasure or disappearance of God but the transference of his attributes, essential powers, and capacities to other entities or realms of being. . . . To put the matter more starkly, in the face of the long drawn out death of God, science can provide a coherent account of the whole only by making man or nature or both in some sense divine.27

The conclusion Gillespie wants us to draw is that presumably secular modern thinkers in the West continue to create meaning in their world either by assuming that they are God themselves or by implicitly transposing the power of God onto nature, society, or history. In Divine Variations, I argue that modern scientists construct race and explain the origins of human variation by transferring the creative power of God onto nature, biology, and genetics. This means that the modern scientific study of race is not merely shaped by Christian intellectual history but is engaged in a secular form of theology, a secular creationism.

Unmasking the Secularity of Racial Science

To suggest that racial science is a product of Christian intellectual history is of course a claim that sits at odds with the progressive secularism that generally filters how historians have perceived the development of modern racial science after the Enlightenment. Indeed, were one to scan scholarly literature across the history of biology, intellectual history, anthropology, and religious studies, one would find that Max Weber’s account of secularization—understood as a modern disenchantment with the Christian worldview and a division of labor between religious and nonreligious institutions—has implicitly shaped how the history of racial science has been told. John C. Greene’s seminal 1959 study, The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought, figures prominently in this literature. According to Greene the gradual emergence of an evolutionary worldview, beginning around the time of the scientific revolution, marked the declining significance of Christian thought for scientific perceptions of race and human origins. The disenchantment of the natural world precipitated by the Enlightenment resulted in the replacement of Christianity with evolutionary theory as the prominent paradigm for understanding humanity’s place in nature.28

Versions of this account of secularization—as religious decline—are common among historical accounts of evolutionary biology.29 For example, David Hull’s Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science represents scholarly work that endorses what we might call a “strong” secular take on the history of modern science.30 Unlike Greene, Hull provides no connection between Christian intellectual history and modern theories of race and human diversity. Hull posits instead the influence of Platonic essentialism and Aristotelian notions of natural kinds as the driving force behind post-Enlightenment visions of human types that were later overcome by Charles Darwin.31 The “decline thesis” centers on two reinforcing assumptions about secularization: Christian and scientific epistemology are incommensurable, and modernity naturally entails the erosion of religious influence over the structures of knowledge that govern social life. These beliefs foreclose the possibility of recognizing the persistence of Christian rational forms in scientific research on race.

A new story can be told about the relationship between Christianity and modern science if we think of secularization not in terms of a rupture from the past but instead as a transference of religious forms into nonreligious spaces of thought and practice.32 This broadening would involve shifting our attention to the questions that scientific thinkers inherit and the tools used to answer them. We can then assess how biologists interested in race have been either constrained or freed to theorize about human diversity through an elaborate wealth of ideas, beliefs, and questions drawn from the Christian roots of Western intellectual history.

My understanding of secularization being linked to inherited questions borrows from the thought of the late philosopher Hans Blumenberg. In his work The Legitimacy of the Modern Age Blumenberg argues that ideas that appear to be secularized aspects of Christian thought are instead “the reoccupation of answer positions that had become vacant and whose corresponding questions could not be eliminated.”33 By this he means that modern thinkers have fashioned new concepts and ideas to answer questions inherited from Christian intellectual history. Yet, rather than assess if these questions can be answered under the conditions of belief and intelligibility that mark the present, Blumenberg notes the tendency of modern thinkers to overreach and occupy intellectual spaces that ought to be left unresolved. This he calls the inheritance of a “cultural debt.”34 The trouble is that the questions of a previous generation or era can be rendered intelligible, and this legibility often brings with it the misguided sentiment that those questions can be answered. For Blumenberg the inheritance of problems from the past “obliges the heir . . . to know again what was known once before.”35 At the center of Blumenberg’s critique is the hope that we might reevaluate the importance of uncertainty and thus generate more open-ended forms of thought and existence that are freed from pursuing questions that cannot be resolved in our own era.

Blumenberg’s observations are valuable for rethinking the history of the race concept in modern science. In Divine Variations, for example, we will see how concepts like “nature’s formative force,” or biological determinism, have reoccupied the conceptual space once filled by the concept of God that previously resolved the problem of explaining how the organic world was given shape and form. In Divine Variations we will also see that racial science reoccupies the epistemic authority on the question of race and human origins that was once enjoyed explicitly by Christian theology and the biblical tradition. In both these instances, and the many others explored throughout this work, modern scientists use race to produce answers about the origin and meaning of human variation. These explanations, however, are often accompanied by latent beliefs about God/nature that regularly transgress the rational limits that modern science has set for itself and thus reproduce Christian assumptions it claims to have overcome.

If we view the scientific study of race as the reoccupation of Christian intellectual history—rather than assume racial science marks a radical break from the past—the following becomes clear: Our scientific ideas about race are not purely scientific. Modern ideas about human biodiversity in science, then, are a hybrid creation built on what I call a “mongrel epistemology.” By this I mean that the race concept in science is the brainchild of scientific and religious ways of knowing. Yet even this must be understood provisionally. Much like biological mongrels, we can never know in its entirety the complete intellectual heritage found within racial science; we cannot expect to fully resolve the question of where we have inherited our ideas and beliefs about race because whatever religious and scientific progenitors we identify are themselves not pure. “Christianity” is an amalgamation of Greek, Jewish, and other ancient Near Eastern traditions.36 “Science” in the West has an equally mixed intellectual heritage and is the product of political, economic, and nationalist influences whose contributions and effects are multivalent and not fully recoverable in the sense of our ability to disclose permanent ideal substances over time. We must view ideas about race in science as a type of mongrel creation, with only part of its intellectual heritage knowable. This then means that we cannot look to race, or science for that matter, to resolve the existentially troubling question of what this living entity we call the human is in all its apparent variations. Indeed, the desire to resolve this question using race is itself a symptom of our Christian intellectual heritage.

Our desire to know with certainty where we come from has left us unwilling to recognize the Christian epistemology that has shaped modern racial science. Divine Variations reveals intellectual influences hitherto unacknowledged, thereby embracing the fact that we are mongrels in thought as much as we are in ancestry. Modern scientific positions on race did not take shape because of a traumatic rupture with the past, and they are not merely the reappropriation of Greek metaphysics. Contrary to Spencer Wells’s belief, Euro-American scientists have inherited a continuous story about human origins that stems from Christian intellectual history. Indeed, this parochial history is in large part why modern racial science is a “European way of looking at the world.”


1. Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

2. Spencer Wells, Journey of Man: The Story of the Human Species, DVD, dir. Clive Maltby (Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Station, 2005).

3. My use of the term “missionary conversion” to describe Wells’s conscription of the indigenous body into an evolutionary narrative is inspired by Willie Jennings’s account of the theological moves that accompanied European colonial expansion. Jennings notes that the “age of discovery and conquest began a process of transformation of land and identity. And while worlds were being transformed, not every world was changed in the same way. Peoples different in geography, in life, in different worlds of European designation—Africa, the Americas, Europe—will lose the earth only to find it again in a strange new way. The deepest theological distortion taking place is that the earth, the ground, spaces, and places are being removed as living organizers of identity and as facilitators of identity” (Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011], 39). He also notes that linking of European and indigenous bodies within this new enlightened capitalist arrangement “indicated a fundamental transforming of space. Europeans were willingly leaving their homes. Newly discovered natives were unwillingly being taken from their lands” (37). We see this missionary inheritance play out in the telling of Wells’s biogenetic narrative. Wells, the European, willingly leaves his homeland in search of the natives that not only corroborate his new creationism but do so precisely at the moment that they accept the terms of his story and are therefore removed from their indigenous cosmologies (i.e., converted) and given new identities within an alternative biospatial network of ideas and beliefs about geography, migration, inheritance, and the formation of the races.

4. Wells, Journey of Man (DVD), 00:38:41.

5. Ibid., 00:39:03–00:39:34 (emphasis added).

6. Ibid., 00:39:47–00:39:57 (emphasis added).

7. Ibid., 01:42:52–01:42:59.

8. Ibid., 01:43:05–01:43:35.

9. Ibid., 01:44:37–01:45:02.

10. Ibid., 01:44:03–01:45:04 (emphasis added).

11. Kim Tallbear notes that Wells’s understanding of the history of racial science and the possibility that genetics can end racism is remarkably ahistorical and trades in the belief that “there is discontinuity between present and past” (Kimberly Tallbear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013], 149). In my view Wells’s ignorance about the intellectual history of the race concepts in science is not merely political naïveté or ahistoricism among scientist generally. Instead Wells’s ignorance expresses a very specific reverence for the abrupt solemnity of ideas and human bodies, which itself is symptomatic of Christian conceptual commitments that privately animate and orient race thinking in science. There is in fact a parochial social-cultural history that enables Wells’s disregard for the history of racial thinking that predates his own biogenetic story of human development and thus furthers the belief that a proper understanding of human diversity begins with an intellectual deficit and then moves toward truth.

12. Part of my methodology borrows from Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), xiii.

13. In regard to ideas about race within the history of science and history more generally, see John C. Greene, The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1959); George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (1971; repr., Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987); Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Jonathan Marks, Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History (New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 1995); Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999); Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New Press, 2012). For key comprehensive works on the history of race within religious thought, see Colin Kidd, The Forging of the Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); David Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Sylvester Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

14. Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. M. C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 269–84.

15. See, for example, J. Cameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Jonathan Boyarin, The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

16. Denise Kimber Buell, “Early Christian Universalism and Modern Racism,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 111–12.

17. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 200.

18. Carter, Race: A Theological Account, 4.

19. Boyarin, The Unconverted Self, 1.

20. Ibid., 1–2.

21. Viewing Christianity as a community that supplants ethnic distinctions yet also reinforces the importance of human variation has implications for modern science more generally. This is a connection Peter Harrison has made in The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Harrison documents the social and intellectual history that created present-day conceptions of science and religion. These circumstances have long been in the making, dating back to the early church. Harrison argues that during the first three centuries of the Common Era Christian communities conceived of themselves as possessing a belief system with claims to truth that transcended cultural and ethnic distinction. Early Christians provided a prototypical model for later belief systems that would aspire to achieve universal significance. Tracing the transformations of this belief system, Harrison notes that during the early modern period there emerged a neutral epistemic space in which Christianity was impartially judged to be the true religion in the face of other competing religious truth claims. By the nineteenth century, the notion of Christianity as an impartial and universally applicable truth was fully integrated into the new life sciences (191). At this moment, Western ideas about its superiority, which carried with it racial beliefs about Europeans, shifted from its religious beliefs to an ostensibly secular rationality. Harrison notes, “The epistemic imperialism of science was inherited from the supposedly neutral grounds of eighteenth-century natural theology from which it emerged” (190). Thus, we cannot properly understand the traits and features of modern Euro-American science without recovering the religious antecedents that helped shaped its form and epistemic inclinations.

22. Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 158–68.

23. Ibid.

24. Matthew Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind: Considered and Examined according to the Light of Nature (London: Printed by W. Godbid, for W. Shrowsbery, 1677), 148.

25. Isaac Newton, Opera Quae Extant Omnia (London: Samuel Horsley, 1779–85), 5:142–93, quoted in Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time, 163.

26. Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 16.

27. Ibid., 274.

28. Greene, The Death of Adam, 309–39. Thomas Gossett reproduces Greene’s post-Enlightenment decline narrative in Race: The History of an Idea in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963).

29. Ideas about the declining significance of religion to racial science have not been limited to scholarship within the history of science. The “decline thesis” is also prevalent among scholars of race in America and appears in George H. Frederickson’s widely influential The Black Image in the White Mind, as well as in Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); and more recently in C. Loring Brace, “Race” Is a Four Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Roberts, Fatal Invention. One also finds the narrative of decline in recent works on the history of Christian thought about race, such as Kidd, Forging of the Races; and Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors.

30. David Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

31. See ibid., 75–110. For additional examples of what I call “hard secularism,” see Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Marks, Human Biodiversity, 55.

32. This understanding of secularization differs from Talal Asad’s views in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). The world is not secular because we live in an age of uncertainty. This understanding romanticizes the premodern world as a coherent and predictable worldview. Neither do I think of the secular as merely the result of specific practices that organize and assemble thoughts, behavior, and ideas. In this work, I am arguing that the secular acts as a mask for the religious. By “mask” I mean in the active sense of concealment as verb and action. What I have been arguing up to this point is that our beliefs about science as secular have been configured specifically to prevent our awareness of those Christian forms that continue to animate scientific thought.

33. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 65.

34. Ibid., 64.

35. Ibid., 48.

36. Despite recognizing the impure and hybrid nature of Christian thought, I am claiming that there are key features to this religious tradition found across the many varieties of Christian belief. There are three features particularly relevant for the narrative I am telling about the history of racial science. They involve the belief in a creator God, a rejection of Christianity’s Jewish origins, and relatedly a disposition for making universally applicable claims about the history and ends of all human life. I recognize that of the three the latter does appear in other religious traditions. Unlike Talal Asad, however, I do not believe that a hallmark feature of Christianity is its belief in redemption (Asad, Formations of the Secular, 64–65). Redemption is surely key to this tradition, but I contend creationism, anti-Jewish dispositions, and universalism are more pervasive and enduring features, not simply more pivotal, but have proven to be integral to the modern worldview.