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Ashley Rogers Speaks on Alexander Winchell and Scientific Racism

Posted by on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in featured.

By Andy Flick, Evolutionary Studies scientific coordinator

Ashley Rogers, an undergraduate student in Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology with a minor in African American and Diaspora Studies, recently hosted an ESI journal club session to speak about Alexander Winchell. Winchell was a well renowned geologist of the 19th century working at Syracuse University, the University of Michigan, and a three-year stint at Vanderbilt as co-chair of Natural Sciences and Geology.

According to Rogers, he was highly sought after by Bishop Holland McTyeire, founder and first president of Vanderbilt University. Winchell believed in evolution, but with pretty major variations to Darwinism. She explained that some scientists of the day believed in evolution with varying modifications to reconcile their religious beliefs. Southern Methodists of the time, though, were strict bible interpreters and strictly opposed theories of evolution.

Winchell was fired from the university in 1878, just three years after starting. Rogers pointed out that the biggest reason that Winchell was fired from the university was not that he believed in evolution per se but that he believed black people evolved before white people. This was in direct conflict with the Southern Methodist interpretation that a white Adam walked the Earth first.

After her talk, a great discussion with the community followed. When asked by a faculty member how we might combat some of the triggering practices of today, like rooms named after racists or sexists, Rogers brought up the importance of education.

“Not a lot of people necessarily know the history,” she said. “Unless you’re very intentional about going to the library and sitting for hours to look through material, you won’t know the history. So, the best thing to do is put it in people’s faces in whatever way you can, for example, on a lecture slide in your classes.”

Rogers recently received the Undergraduate Diversity at Evolution award to fund her trip to the Evolution Conference in Montreal this summer. The award will cover her travel costs, hotel stay, food, and registration fees as well as a professional development event. She will speak about scientific racism and her work researching Winchell.

Her work in Larisa DeSantis’ DREAM Lab studying dental microwear patterns of marine mammals has left her well prepared for graduate school. Her current plan is to pursue a Master’s degree in the lab of Vivienne Foroughirad, assistant professor of marine biology at Texas A&M at Galveston.

Rogers learned about Winchell through working with the librarians, specifically Kathy Smith and Teresa Gray. She spent hours digging through board of trust minutes, newspaper articles, and personal letters to and from Winchell. This project was supported by a Sesquicentennial Grant from Vanderbilt University.

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