“Upon learning some of the darker history of Arnold Guyot more recently … I have a lot of mixed feelings.” — Christine Chen ’13
Photo: Kai Sheng Tai

Christine Chen ’13 has many fond memories of Guyot Hall from her time as an undergraduate. She majored in geosciences at Princeton and said some of her favorite classes took place under the roof of the building named for Arnold Guyot, the man who began the University’s program. That’s why diving deeper into Guyot’s history and finding scientific racism entwined in his teachings has been difficult, Chen said. 

In 1850, Guyot published The Earth and Man, a book drawn from a series of lectures he gave to teachers and others across New England. In it, he links continent locations, topography, and climate to the superiority of certain races. He later taught these theories at Princeton, joining the faculty in 1854. 

“Upon learning some of the darker history of Arnold Guyot more recently … I have a lot of mixed feelings,” said Chen, a postdoc at Caltech. “I would have preferred to have the whole truth so that I could have the chance to assess for myself whether or not this is the field I want to be in.” 

Chen, fellow Caltech postdoc Tamara Pico ’14, and Wesley Wiggins ’21 are part of a larger group creating college course materials to give context to racism in the origins of geology. Wiggins found the project through the Princeton RISE (Recognizing Inequities and Standing for Equality) program, which partners students with projects related to their interest with a focus on anti-racism. The project has also received funding from RISE. 

The idea came to light after #ShutDownSTEM day in June, which was created in response to and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chen, Pico, and friends discussed the role geology has played in issues of structural inequality and racism. 

They began doing research and created materials that provide background about Guyot’s theories in The Earth and Man. Guyot makes arguments to explain what he sees as the superiority of Europeans by tying geography to intelligence, physical ability, religion, and morality. 

“He says as we move away from Europe, the distribution of the continents [in relation to Europe] is what determines the beauty of these different human races, and we can see beauty fall apart as we move away from Europe,” Pico said. “Reading that, it just made me so mad.” Pico said she suspects many geoscientists at the time developed theories by projecting beliefs about races onto the landscapes themselves. 

It’s difficult to say how lasting Guyot’s influence has been, Pico added, but he was in conversation with geoscientists whose theories continue to be foundational for the field. In addition to Guyot, the free course materials unpack the theories of geologists G.K. Gilbert, Louis Agassiz, and Nathaniel Shaler, among others. 

For Wiggins, this work has reignited his passion for geosciences. As a Black man, he wanted to be part of the racial-justice movement but felt there was no room for it in the sciences. This project has provided the opportunity to meld the two interests. 

The group’s work has just scratched the surface, Wiggins said. The researchers are sharing the course materials they have, and they hope starting this discussion will inspire others to create anti-racism teaching materials for all STEM disciplines. 

The group presented its work at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in December. Pico said there was positive feedback from some interested in incorporating the materials in their teaching and others who would like to collaborate to create similar materials for their own areas of expertise.