Interview with Terence Keel

by Jessica Baron, History of Science Society

Photo courtesy of Terence Keel

Dr. Terence Keel is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) where he serves as Vice Chair to the Department of History and holds an appointment in the Black Studies Department and the Department of Religious Studies. 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 and is an affiliate of the newly formed Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and a senior advisor to the Goldin Institute, a Chicago based non-profit organization that advocates globally for grassroots leadership, conflict resolution, poverty alleviation and environmental justice.

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. Keel’s Plous Lecture, titled “Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science” will take place on Thursday, May 10th in Corwin Pavilion at UC Santa Barbara from 5pm-6:30pm.

JB: You started your training in religious studies and have highly interdisciplinary PhD training. At UCSB your primary appointment is in History, but you also have appointments in Black Studies and Religious Studies. At some point in your training did you move away from Religious Studies to become an historian?

TK: There are many ways to be a historian. Donna Haraway, Hayden White, Peter Harrison, and Ludwik Fleck are all historians even though each carries a different set of intellectual and political commitments, practice varying styles of writing, citation, and operate at different scales of historical analysis. In my case, religion is an important part of my intellectual orientation as a historian. In part, this is a consequence of my training in theology while I was a young student at Xavier University of Louisiana. To study theology, especially in a Catholic setting, involves thinking with and through ancient intellectual traditions, showing their relevance for the present. Theologians really are intellectual historians; it is very difficult to talk about God in Descartes, Hegel, or Martin Luther King Jr. without also having in mind Aquinas, Augustine, William Ockham, or Aristotle. At Xavier, I was shaped by a group of Catholic thinkers who could draw links between Paul’s letters, Augustine, Marx, Paul Ricœur, Fernand Braudel, and James Cone—often within a single lecture! This Catholic orientation—with its tendency to think systematically over large periods of time and to see modernity from the vantage point of a once coherent but now denied past (a position I would later reject)—left a great impression on my understanding of historical scholarship. The irony is that I was raised a Pentecostal, which maintains a quintessentially Protestant worldview on God, biblical interpretation, and material redemption. The Catholic orientation toward intellectual history helped complete a larger picture about the contentious origins of modern Protestantism and the faith tradition in which I was raised.

You started off at Harvard’s Divinity School, but your PhD training is highly interdisciplinary and you’ve worked with some of the finest historians of science in the US. How did this transition towards history of science take place?

When I arrived at Harvard my encounter with feminist biblical scholarship and theology, in particular the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, completed my journey into atheism. It was impossible for me to practice the “faith of the fathers” in any meaningful sense once I took seriously the structures of patriarchy and racism that were integral to the history of Christian thought and practice. I became disinterested in apologetics or redressing the historical missteps of a tradition premised on the subordination of women and people of color. Despite this, I remained interested in the place of religious belief in society but from the vantage point of someone who was aware that I had not emancipated myself from the Catholic orientation toward deep historical reasoning, systematic thought, or the Protestant disposition to use liberationist hermeneutical methods. Whether I liked it or not, it took me some time to realize that these rational practices and intellectual tools—forged initially as a person of faith living under an American culture that was profoundly Christian—had become a part of my intellectual profile as a secular scholar.

How did this influence your approach to the history of science?

I carried these dispositions into my study of the history of science, which at the time was unseating the hold of the Draper-White thesis and reimagining the relationship between science and religion beyond the metaphors of conflict, antagonism, and epistemic incompatibility. In a strange and unexpected way I found my own intellectual journey linking up with the scholarly work of Janet Browne, Peter Harrison, Nicolaas Rupke, John Hedley Brooke, and Ronald Numbers who were documenting the links between Christianity and modern science as performed by historical actors who were secular, rational, and the descendants of the Enlightenment. What was clear from my own journey was that our religious heritage is not so easily cast aside. So I brought what Paul Ricoeur called “a hermeneutics of suspicion” to scholarship on the history of biology and anthropology that claimed the modern architects of racial ideas in science were free from the influence of Christian intellectual history. What I have done in Divine Variations is recast the history of the race concept in science with careful attention to the influence of Christianity over modern ideas about human biodiversity. Making this connection, I have also attempted to provincialize aspects of modern Western sciences, showing how a very specific Euro-American cultural history shapes how race is understood within biological research. Methodologically speaking, this approach to history still strikes me as being shaped by the Catholic and Protestant intellectual practices that influenced my early entry into historical scholarship. I follow Wittgenstein and post-colonial theorists like Ashis Nandy who argue that the critical analysis we make of a historical problem remains shaped by the very issue we are trying to solve; there is no metalanguage freed from culture or social life.

So you feel like you’re still making direct contributions to the field of Religious Studies?

Surely yes. I arrived at the work I am doing as a historian of science through the field of theological and religious studies. I would like to think that I am broadening the scope of what it means to be a scholar of religion, a historian, and a science studies scholar. I am uncovering the living legacy of Christian thought in society yet within spaces assumed to be freed from religious influence. This is an unconventional approach as my actors are often not formal religious figures and the intellectual problems that fascinate me do not appear initially to have any connection to religion (e.g., evolutionary biology, public health research, genetic correlation studies, Neanderthal DNA). I am taking what my colleagues Myrna Perez Sheldon, Ahmed Ragab, and I have called a “critical approach to science and religion.” By shifting to new subjects and using a range of critical methodologies (critical race theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory) we are looking to move conversations about science and religion beyond issues of cosmology and want to instead take up questions with clear political consequences for the lived realities of contemporary communities.

How did you get to the realization that we have and still think about race from a Christian perspective? Was it a particular piece you read? And, if so, was it something historical or religious or both?

As a scholar of religion everyone reads Émile Durkheim who wrote in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life “religion has not merely enriched a human intellect already formed but in fact has helped to form it. Men owe to religion not only the content of their knowledge, in significant part, but also the form in which that knowledge is elaborated.”¹ What would it mean to think about this historically? Could it be possible that modern Euro-American biological sciences emerged out of an “intellect” whose reasoning practices and ideas had been shaped by Christianity? As I thought about this question as a graduate student in religion I was working with Evelynn Hammonds who at the time was convening a race workshop, which was a reading and writing group comprised of social scientists and historians, to evaluate critically the use of race in genetic and scientific research. This was during the early 2000s and was at the height of new genetic correlation studies based on Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) analysis claiming to find meaningful differences between population groups. Despite humans being 99.98% the same genetically, biologists still identified what is believed to be meaningful differences across various “racial” groups that influence health, behavior, and life chances. Heightened attention to racial differences at the molecular level overshadowed and eclipsed notions of shared human ancestry. It was almost as if common human ancestry did not matter at all.

During the time I was involved in the race workshop, Evelyn Higginbotham and Janet Browne introduced me to the work of the 19th century American polygenist, Josiah Nott. Typically, historians and anthropologists think of Nott and the American polygenists as either an example of racist political ideology masquerading as science or an intellectual dead-end along the path toward Darwinian evolution. Polygenists of course denied the plausibility of common human ancestry under the still widely accepted biblical timeline of recent human creation. Key to this position was their ability to measure the racial traits of living racial groups and use inferential reason to reconstruct the biological makeup of each group’s ancestral beginnings. This is what Nott argued in his 1844 lectures on the “natural history of the Caucasian and negro races.” Reading Nott’s writings alongside contemporary genetic correlation studies I began to see clear methodological linkages between present and past constructions of race. Deborah Bolnick’s ethnographic analysis of the STRUCTURE sequencing platform used by geneticists to recreate the racial makeup of our ancient ancestors inspired me to argue that this contemporary scientific innovation was in fact reproducing reasoning practices that dated back to American polygenists and a much older tradition of thinking that emerged out of Christian intellectual history. Deconstructing Durkheim’s universal claims about so-called “primitive religion” helped me document and provincialize the formation of race thinking within Euro-American science.

It was the combination of studying contemporary genetic research alongside the claims of 19th-century thinkers that encouraged me to pursue this work. I would have missed or not looked for these connections between race, science, and religion had I confined my analysis to traditional religious actors and institutions, or simply taken for granted the racist political ideology of the American polygenists and the secularity of contemporary research on human biodiversity.

After all the genetic research that’s gone into showing we have no biomarkers for race, why do you think the Human Genome Project wasn’t that ultimate wake-up call, for other scientists especially?

Race in the modern biological sciences has always been expressions of belief that shape the collection, generation, and meaning of data. These beliefs stem from cultural commitments that lead geneticists to reason in racial terms—commitments that serve larger interests within Euro-American culture. Scientific facts do not unsettle the cultural beliefs upon which they stand. Race thinking did not come to an end following the creation of reference human genome sequence in 2000 for the same reason race thinking did not perish after Darwin or following the modern synthesis: we remain culturally invested in race. To diagnose the effects of these cultural commitments we need to humanize the biological sciences, which is to say we need the interpretative work of the humanities. Bruno Latour in his recent Gifford Lectures on natural religion spoke precisely to this issue when documenting the cultural commitments that impede and facilitate climate science:

“It is impossible to understand what is happening to us without turning to the sciences—the sciences have been the first to sound the alarm. And yet, to understand them, it is impossible to settle for the image offered by the old epistemology; the sciences are now and will remain from now on so intermingled with the entire culture that we need to turn to the humanities to understand how they really function.”²

I believe this is true for the life and health sciences that study/create human biodiversity. The humanities have much to say about how race in science works. To see race one must first hold a set of beliefs about nature and biology that, in the context of Euro-American science, have their origin in Christian intellectual history and specifically the scholastic worldview that gave modern biology its epistemic characteristics. Race in genetic science is an expression of cultured beliefs about the order and divinization of nature, governmental and pharmaceutical priorities, and the privileging of neo-creationism—via correlation studies—in the research designs of scientists.

Until these latent cultural values and priorities shift we will continue to see genetic studies committed to generating data that claims to explain the source of human biodiversity.


¹ Émile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life trans., Karen Fields (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 8.

² Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 4.