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MPH Program in Health Services
More Black History Month Profiles . . .

Joseph L. Graves Jr. (1955 - )

Presently the Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nano-engineering at North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro, Joseph L. Graves Jr. is the first African American evolutionary biologist in the United States, and a man truly outstanding in his field. 

Childhood poverty and a racist educational system pushed Graves into a scholastic tracking system that declared him mentally disabled as a child, yet by graduation, he had risen to become the highest-ranked student in his high school class. 

Graves went on to earn his B.A in biology from Oberlin College in 1977. After Oberlin, he spent two years at the Institute for Tropical Disease at University of Massachusetts, where he earned numerous awards and grants from agencies such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. He studied the evolution of Drosophila (fruit files), and developed expertise in genomics, race, and the biology of aging. He then earned his PhD from Wayne State in Environmental, Evolutionary and Systematic Biology in 1988.  

In his 2003 best-seller, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, as well as in his 2004 book The Race Myth: Why We Pretend That Race Exists in America, Graves exposes how 19th-century thinking about “race” is still prevalent in the 21st century. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fascinating read, detailing the historical and cultural panorama of “race.” Graves’ analysis moves from the era of biblical bigotry to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and explores the contradictions of “man’s inhumanity to man” in the Age of Enlightenment. He exposes the hypocrisy of the American slave-owning framers of the Declaration of Independence, and the academic institutionalization of “scientific racism.”

Graves reveals how Eurocentric and American scholars throughout history have had archaic, weird, and sexually-obsessed notions about so-called “racial differences.” Throughout his body of work, Graves takes on several Eurocentric ideologies and beliefs, to unravel the threads that weave the myths of hereditary intelligence, IQ, and “race.” 

Graves addresses the ways in which later racist theories, such as the theory of Social Darwinism, coopted the language and concepts of Englishman Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859). Graves points out how these perversions of Darwin’s theory were never espoused by Darwin himself, but were rather put forth by the “Father of Sociology” Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), in an attempt to support social and economic stratification arising from capitalism. He also shows how later, mathematician Francis Galton (1822-1911) proposed the theory of hereditary intelligence, which drove the Eugenics Movement, and fed the nature versus nurture controversy. 

Graves rips apart the illogic “logic” of the 1994 best-seller, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, written by academics Richard J. Herrnstein (1930-1994) and Charles Murray (1943 - ). Instead of simply dismissing their racist premise as “old wine in a new bottle,” Graves methodically disaggregates the authors’ convoluted logic and faulty premises, conclusively destroying their spurious arguments. 

He also dismantles the race-based thinking of aging James Watson, Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist and geneticist, and co-discoverer of DNA. 

In recent years, Graves has called into question the societal obsession with commercial DNA testing, since “race” is a proven social construct, and therefore such testing makes no sense. 

He is, for obvious reasons, an avid supporter of increased science education in schools. 

Author: Dr. Clarence Spigner, Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director

Photo: Joseph L. Graves discusses the legacies of former Harvard professor Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin’s legacies in Northwest Labs, Source: The Harvard Crimson

Further reading:  

Graves explores the modern fascination with at-home DNA testing as it relates to the notion of “race” in this article.