Science and Social Justice

This post is by NCAT faculty Joe Graves

Yes, that’s me holding up the fist, next to the fist in the Science for the People banner stating: “Scientists Against Reagan’s War”. This picture was taken at a national march against US intervention in El Salvador, in Washington, DC on May 3rd 1981. Next to me in the picture are my life-long friends Dr. Brian Schultz, now a biologist and Cruz Phillips, now a rancher and social activist for the Farm Workers movement in California. We were graduate students then in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Michigan.

You didn’t have to be a scientist to march for this cause. Just like those who marched across the bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7 (Bloody Sunday) were not scientists. They were simply good and courageous people demonstrating against social injustice. They were met with police, dogs, horses, tear gas, clubs, and whips. Many were severely beaten, including John Lewis (now Democratic Congressman for the 5th District, Georgia).


However this post is not about social justice in general, but science and social justice. To start a discussion of the relationship between the two it is necessary to define what is meant by the term social justice. One definition of social justice is promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. In this definition diversity refers to various aspects of human identity (socially defined race, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and others) that have been the subjects of social subordination. Accepting this definition suggests that you believe that all people have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources. In addition this definition suggests that individuals should not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and wellbeing constrained or prejudiced on the basis of any of these identity features or any other characteristic of background or group membership1.

With this definition in mind, we might want to ask to what degree historically or currently has science as an enterprise, or the actions of individual scientists been associated with this goal. First, scientists employ a supposedly neutral and objective method (the scientific method) to understand the workings of nature. This method, employed at its highest standards, should allow us to work out how various processes in nature work. A child might run along a field flapping their wings vigorously in an effort to fly, but the principles of physics tell us that this simply cannot happen. However, our ability to unravel the laws or rules of nature begins to diminish as we move from the physical to the biological and social sciences.

This is further complicated by the fact that science as an enterprise has always been more than working out the various principles of nature; it has always been imbedded in a social milieu, and therefore has always been tasked to addressing particular socially defined priorities. Some of these priorities have been neutral to or even in rare cases supported notions of social justice. For example general scientific principles such as the conservation of matter, organic evolution, or ecological food webs in themselves need not have had any specific impact on human society. Yet, on the other hand, Newtonian physics allowed improved methods of producing projectile weapons, thermodynamic principles helped to produce better explosives, the computer made possible better inscription and code breaking, ecological principles have been utilized to conduct biological attacks on crops, and microbiology has been deployed to produce better bacteriological and viral weapons2. Even one of the core principles of natural selection, the struggle of existence, was developed not in attempt to understand population growth in general, but specifically as an attempt by Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766—1834) to explain the poverty of the English poor. The gist of the essay was devoted to his analysis of the English Poor Law and the impact of the transition of the poor from agricultural to industrial labor3. While Malthus correctly reasoned that geometrical sequences increase more rapidly than arithmetic ones, he had no reason to assume that the food resources of human societies necessarily increased only arithmetically.

Science as power

What is clear then is that precisely because science allows us to understand the workings of nature, it has inherent power. Power than can be used for good or evil. Here I will make the controversial statement that for the most part, the scientific enterprise has aided and abetted social injustice. This statement should not be taken to mean that scientists are the only profession that can be tarred with this ugly moniker, as Karl Marx once said:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to in reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers4.”

In this passage, Marx was alluding to two things, first the obvious interpretation that the new economic system had converted occupations that had in the past been held mainly by persons of leisure into wage labor jobs, but also that this new economic system had won the ideological allegiance of these professions. Furthermore he thought that this new economic system was initially a great improvement over feudal relations. For example it had been responsible for the industrial revolution that had greatly improved the living conditions for the majority of Europe’s population. Scientists and engineers had played an important role in this transition, but unfortunately what had been good for Europeans had not been good for the rest of the world’s population. For example, the Guyanese economist Walter Rodney (1942—1980) explained how Europe’s primitive accumulation (the wealth required to drive the industrial revolution) had depended upon both the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa5.

Ironically, the colonization of the tropics by European powers had important impacts of the development of scientific disciplines such as anthropology, agriculture, botany, ecology, and zoology6. It also had important influences on the demography and the development of scientific infrastructure in Africa. It is not accidental that African still lag behind European nations in the production of scientists or the building of scientific facilities. Similarly, persons of African-descent and other socially subordinated ethnic populations living in nations dominated by European populations (e.g. USA, England) still suffer from the hegemony of Eurocentric culture in science. This does not refer to the scientific method, but rather to the choice of research problems that the scientific community is engaged in and the way in which the scientific community repopulates itself7. In the 19th century, the majority of anthropologists were concerned with validating the overall superiority of persons of European descent. This was associated with social and legal programs that denied fundamental human and civil rights to non-Europeans. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford Case (1857) was premised on the scientific consensus that Africans/Negroes were members of a separate and inferior species8. These views dominated the field until the 1960’s. It is important to recognize that evolutionary biologists played a significant role in debunking this myth. This process began with Darwin and culminated with the thinking of evolutionary geneticists like Th. Dobzhansky, Richard C. Lewontin, and their intellectual progeny (of which I am one)9. However at the same time, there were just as many scientists who had played a role in developing the myths of racial superiority and actively worked to help implement racist policy. Examples of such individuals include Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and George R. Gliddon (the four horsemen of American polygeny), John Jeffries, Herbert Spencer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Francis Galton, Charles B. Davenport, Eugen Fischer, Henry Garrett, Arthur Jensen, J. Phillipe Rushton, just to name a few10.

Science and social injustice: An Ongoing Problem

It this point the reader may argue that I have chosen scientific racism as an example of science and social injustice as a “low hanging” fruit. Clearly it was scientifically unfounded and morally reprehensible. My response to that claim would be that the scientists themselves never felt that they were unscientific in their analysis, and all of them felt that their work was morally defensible (and in some cases imperative), particularly from the point of view of improving human society. I would also argue that there are currently groups of scientists working in arenas that they feel adhere to the scientific method and that will ultimately be beneficial to human society. Yet to these individuals I lay down the challenge that a little more thinking is required before anyone can be satisfied with that position. One such example is the modern push for personalized medicine. While the readers of this post may question the degree to which medicine is “scientific” it certainly relies on the principles of biological science to develop its approaches and treatments. So in that regard, let’s briefly examine the scientific ideas behind personalized medicine.

Modern medicine is really only now beginning to fully appreciate the significance of individual and population variation11. With this in mind, physicians are beginning to recognize that there is no such thing as one treatment that is suitable for all patients suffering from a specific disease. Again part of the previous failures in this regard resulted from the past racist/sexist practices of primarily testing drugs in males of European descent. As more populations began to be tested for drug efficacy, it was found that there was significant variation in individuals that influenced the way drugs were metabolized12. In addition, individual variation can now be determined with accuracy not possible before the age of next generation sequencing (NGS). Now, physicians can genotype individuals quickly and cheaply. Furthermore, the use of NGS has revealed hitherto unrealized variation not just in patients, but also in some of their diseases (such as infectious disease and somatic tumors). All of these realizations have come together in a perfect storm, leading inexorably (or it would seem) to the necessity to develop personalized medicine.

Clearly, the scientific questions engaged in this effort are intellectually appealing. However, I would argue that whether something is of intrinsic interest to the scientist, should not be the sole criterion determining whether we pursue it. In the modern world, the vast majority of scientists depend upon public funding to support their work. Given this fact, the priorities of the scientific enterprise should be the subject for public discussion. On the surface of this, everyone should want to see the development of personalized medicine. However, the resources that we have to spend on scientific research are not unlimited. Also the resources that are available to implement societal interventions based upon research programs are not unlimited. So the question becomes, what do we really wish biomedical research to achieve? If one takes the view that biomedical research should improve the overall wellbeing and health of our society, than it turns out that the personalized medicine approach is a poor use of our limited funding. In a recent discussion with a cancer physician at Duke Medical School I learned that the cost of these next generation cancer drugs are well beyond what even well-employed persons can afford via insurance and their personal wealth. Furthermore, at the end of the day, these drugs do not cure cancer; they simply increase the patient’s life by several months. The cost of these drugs means that these treatments will be beyond the reach of the underemployed and poor in US society. This group is disproportionately ethnic minority, meaning that should we succeed with developing personalized medicine, its initial impact will be to widen the health disparity gap that already exists in American society.

On the other hand, we could reduce the health disparity gap by implementing good science that does not rely on NGS and complex drug regimes. The first would be to examine the causes of complex disease (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, cancer) and the causes of the differentials. In fact, this is something that ecologists, environmental scientists, nutritionists, and social scientists have understood for a long time. Poor people shoulder the burden of morbidity and mortality in all societies because they are the ones who are differentially exposed to the causes of disease (infectious, chemical, radiation, poor diet, etc.) For example, one of the most effective approaches to malarial disease in the tropics is not the development of new anti-malarial drugs, but reducing mosquito breeding habitat and provisioning people with sufficient anti-mosquito netting. Similarly with water-borne bacterial disease the most effective treatments are providing people with clean drinking water13. In the United States, ethnic minorities are differentially exposed to chemical toxins (lead, PCBs, organophosphate pesticides, socially-induced stress, and poor diet14.) Thus I have argued repeatedly that if our goal is to reduce morbidity and mortality in the United States our money would be better spent on research that helps us implement programs to reduce toxic waste exposure, racism, and provide people with nutritious food options15.

Again, these are not mutually exclusive options (NGS v. health/nutrition) however we should consider how social justice is served by these two approaches. In the former, high technology treatments may be developed by cutting edge genomic science. Who benefits from this? Clearly, people with sufficient wealth to afford the treatments, but also the genomic/biomedical scientific community, sequencer technology companies, drug companies, and health care companies. We can see the logic of this approach already impacting how government funding agency mechanisms (NSF, NIH, etc.) are already being structured. This is also seen in the new emphasis that universities have for “translational research” and “university-industry collaboration.” To be clear, it is not that these mechanisms are inherently wrong, but tied into an over-arching paradigm of “fixing the patient after the fact” there is much to be concerned about. In addition, at present, the demography of this consortium of interests still favors persons of European descent. This means that should this program achieve its goals it will only reify the social dominance of European Americans, and support the ongoing subordination of racial-ethnic minority groups.

On the other hand, the environmental approach will benefit a wider variety of persons, since the goal is to reduce and prevent complex disease, as opposed to treating it after you acquire it. Also a serious approach to environmental remediation would benefit a different demography of scientists and social scientists. Also to achieve such remediation would empower the communities most impacted by the pollution.   Again, I have argued that repairing the toxic environment experienced by racial/ethnic minorities is absolutely crucial to alleviating the opportunity gap16.

Conclusion: What is to be done?

It has been my experience that most scientists are quite comfortable living with or simply unaware of social injustice17. There are also many who have decried the unfairness of the world, but have simply felt powerless to make any significant impact on the state of affairs. Most scientists do not see how their science careers are connected to greater social issues. This last statement is less true of evolutionary biologists. Our discipline by its very nature has always been engaged in social controversy18.

On the other hand, ethnic minority scientists have always understood the relationship between science and social injustice. Our very existence stood as living example of the fallacies of racist thinking in science. For example, Charles R. Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor said of Ernest Everett Just (an early African American biologist) that he did not display any extraordinary talent19. The Howard University Anthropologist William Montague Cobb (b. 1904) spent much of his career debunking the racist claims of physical anthropology. Similarly I have spent much of my career debunking racist claims in genetics, anthropology, medicine, and psychology.

However, racism, sexism, or anti-gay bigotry are not the only topics in which science impacts social injustice. I would argue that all scientific research has the potential to contribute to or alleviate injustice. Therefore, all science falls within ethical discourse. Here we should always evaluate how our science impacts others (obligations), how it is influenced by our values (moral ideals), and what are the beneficial or detrimental consequences of our work. In addition, as science is a social enterprise, we must always be concerned with which persons have the opportunity to engage in it. All of us to some degree have the power to address injustice within the science community (as Richard Lenski did in my case).

If you choose to walk the path of social justice in science, understand that you are not alone. There have always been networks of individuals who have united to address specific justice issues in science. In the 1980’s I was a member of a group called “Science for the People” which grew out of an earlier iteration called “Scientists against the Vietnam War.” Some of you may have heard of the “Union of Concerned Scientists” whose purpose it was to alert society of the growing danger of nuclear annihilation. I am currently involved on the Race and Genetics List Serve that addresses ongoing racial misconceptions in genomic research and also the Social Justice and Science Think Tank, associated with Kalamazoo College20.

Finally, I end with one precautionary note. The pursuit of social justice can be a rabbit hole. There is so much to do, and it can seem like all you ever do, accomplishes nothing. This can be a real danger for graduate students. So I always caution students that their most important goal during their graduate training is to complete their training and earn their degree. You will have much more ability to accomplish your life and societal goals after you have the title of PhD after your name (as I explain in my “Belly of the Beast” essay). There are also more responsible ways of contributing to social justice initiatives without at least initially placing yourself on the “black list.” Of course I used to say, “…if it’s a black list, than I want my name on the top of it!” All, kidding aside, you cannot engage in this work without consequences, and you should decide if you are willing to accept them. This is the path I chose for my life and career, and quite frankly I don’t think I could have done otherwise.


  1. For a useful definition of social justice consider John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  2. Bousquet, A. The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst and Co), 2009.
  3. Gilbert, G. Economic growth and the poor in Malthus’ Essay on Population, History of Political Economy 12(1): 83—96, 1980.
  4. Marx, K. and Engels, F. Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.
  5. Rodney, W., How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications), 1972.
  6. Tilley, H., Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870—1950, (Chicago and London: U. Chicago Press), 2011.
  7. Mead et al. Mead, L.S., Forcino, F.L., Brown Clarke, J., and Graves J.L., Factors influencing the career pursuit of underrepresented minorities with an interest in biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach 8:6 DOI: 10.1186/s12052-015-0034-7, 2015.
  8. Graves, JL. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U. Press), 2005. See Table 3.2 summarizing 19th century anthropologist’s views on the Negro as an inferior and separate species.
  9. Darwin outlined his views on race in the human species in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871. Desmond and Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston/New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt), 2009 is an excellent read illustrating how social perspectives shaped Darwin’s reasoning. My intellectual descent from Dobzhansky and Lewontin can be seen on the Evolution Tree at .
  10. I spend a great deal of time on these individuals and their work in The Emperor’s New Clothes, 2005.
  11. Hidaka BH, Asghar A, Aktipis CA, Nesse RM, Wolpaw TM, Skursky NK, Bennett KJ, Beyrouty MW, and Schwartz MD. The status of evolutionary medicine education in North American medical schools. BMC Med Educ. 2015 15:38. doi: 10.1186/s12909-015-0322-5.
  12. See excellent discussion of “What is a patient” in Stearns, S. and Medzhitov, R. Evolutionary Medicine, (Sinauer Associates) 2016.
  13. Ntonifor NH, Veyufambom S. Assessing the effective use of mosquito nets in the prevention of malaria in some parts of Mezam division, Northwest Region Cameroon. Malar J. 2016 15(1):390. doi: 10.1186/s12936-016-1419-y.
  14. Bullard, R. et al. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, United Churches of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, 2007.
  15. Graves, L., Evolutionary versus Racial Medicine: Why it Matters? In Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan, Columbia University Press, 2011.
  16. Graves, L, Looking at the World through ‘Race’ Colored Glasses: The Influence of Ascertainment Bias on Biomedical Research and Practice, in Laura Gomez and Nancy Lopez, eds. Mapping “Race”: A Critical Reader on Health Disparities Research, Rutgers University Press, 2013.
  17. Graves, L., Science in the Belly of the Beast: A Look Back at My Career in the Academy, in Voices of Historical and Contemporary Black American Pioneers, V.L. Farmer and E. Shepherd-Wynn Eds., (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), 2012.
  18. Berkman, M and Plutzer, E. Evolution, Creation, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2010.
  19. Manning, K. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just, (New York and London: Oxford University Press), 1985.
  20. The link to the Social Justice and Science Think Tank, inaugural lectures can be found on the Science and Social Justice Praxis site of the ACSJL ( .
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