Defying what citizens of a politically correct world have been hearing all of their lives, Pennsylvania State University professor Robert Proctor made a shocking statement Thursday.
“Race is more than just a myth,” Proctor said.
Proctor presented his ideas and research on the origin of the human species and its migration out of Africa in a talk entitled “Out of Africa, Thank God!” to over 50 people at the Hall of Graduate Studies Thursday afternoon.
Proctor said the title for his lecture comes from the idea many historians share that once humans were able to leave Africa, great things started happening to the species. He also discussed the development of thought concerning the evolution of the human species.
“People who are alive today share common ancestors not so far back,” Proctor said. “They’re not from one million years ago, as people though in the 1960s or 1970s, but only 150,000 years ago.”
During his speech, Proctor cited Darwin continuously. Darwin’s key idea, Proctor said, is that of common descent — the idea that all humans evolved from the same species. Proctor said natural selection, which is arguably Darwin’s most famous idea, is only a theory with a great amount of evidence to prove it, while common descent is a fact.
Proctor postulated that people were hesitant to accept the idea of common descent in the past because of racist ideas.
“One of the things we tend to forget is that one reason people were opposed to evolution around 1900 is because they thought it was human miscegenation,” Proctor said.
Because some whites used to consider blacks similar to gorillas, Proctor said, whites were hesitant to accept the fact that they were descendants of gorillas as well.
Growing up in Texas gave him a view on the issue many historians do not have, Proctor said. Members of his family were involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and his maternal grandmother helped their cause by sewing the infamous white hoods. Raised by parents who were proud to espouse liberal ideals, Proctor said he understands what many historians have a hard time seeing: that the reluctance to accept the idea of common descent stems from racism.
Few who attended the lecture were undergraduates. The crowd consisted mainly of professors and graduate students, who received Proctor’s speech with laughter and gave him two rounds of applause.
Uri McMillan GRD ’09, who is working toward a Ph.D. in African American Studies, said he had never heard of Proctor before the talk, but enjoyed listening to his ideas of race.
“His idea of race — what race means and how we use the terms is what affected me the most,” McMillan said.
Proctor opened the Race, Heath and Medicine Lecture Series organized by the Department of African American Studies and co-sponsored by the African Studies Council, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund.
“[Proctor is a] rare figure because every area he has entered as a scholar has been transformed by his contributions,” said Paul Gilroy, chairman of African-American Studies. Gilroy introduced Proctor’s lecture.
Proctor is a professor of the history of science and specializes in 20th century science, technology and medicine. He is working on a book entitled “Darwin in the History of Life” and has written several other books.
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