Over on the Hello Kitty of Bloggin, as Morgan puts it, a friend posted:
“The very concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” — Craig Venter, DNA sequencing pioneer.
I guess I don’t see race as a bad or good thing, so I scratch my head when I see stuff like this.
On its face, the statement has an absurdity to it. I’d heard it or something like it before, so I looked it up to see what they were trying to say. And there is SOME truth to it, when you look at it in a purely scientific (read: genetic purity) way. But there is more to the universe than science. And this oversimplification appears to be *trying* to do something good, though the effect comes off more like a poke in the eye, which isn’t helpful. So I took this as an opportunity to stop a few echoes with one stone.
What they’re basically saying is that there isn’t enough genetic difference to call people of different relatively subtle, at some level, yet relatively uniform physical characteristics to call us different subspecies – that we’re all basically the same when it comes to biological makeup and mental capacity. Which is true.
There’s speculation (probably true) that eventually there will be enough intermixing to where a lot of those differences are blended out in most areas of the world. Which will be fine by me, but I’ll have been dead for centuries by that time. Maybe millennia.
Now, we call a set of people of different relatively subtle, at some level, yet relatively uniform physical characteristics from the same basic genetic background a “race”, and this is not a useless distinction no matter what geneticists say.
The problem comes when we start pre-judging people based on those characteristics, say, on sight. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. But biology isn’t fair, and culturally, we’ve developed this idea of fairness as important. Which is a GOOD thing. And this, at the core, is why racism is wrong. It’s fundamentally unfair to the person being judged. Regardless of the race of the person being judged. (There are people trying to define that last bit out of the word “racism”, but in doing so, they lose the moral core of why it is wrong in the first place.)
Different groups of us have evolved (and every one of them in the same way) to view humans who look drastically different with skepticism at a level much deeper than our intellects reside. It’s a defense mechanism. An instinctual reflex. This, like many of our other instincts, is something we have to teach out of our offspring — or to put it more correctly, to overrride this instinct — to be what we have come to know as “civilized”. That’s never going to stop. We will need to do this with each generation going forward. It won’t “evolve out” in a generation or two or five or fifty.
We will have to deal with this as a species.
Now this recognition of differences goes beyond physical appearance — and there are differences that register much more strongly than initial reaction to physical appearance. And this is the realm of culture.
A lot of the reason racial prejudices have persisted is — for essentially the same reason these physical differences evolved (genetic isolation of different populations of people), different cultures evolved along with them. And cultural similarities are very very important to how people get along with each other. It’s how we recognize, “hey, this person has basically the same beliefs I do, so I know what to expect from him. He’s not a danger to me” (mimicking this can also be the way sociopaths, even of the same race, gain people’s trust — but I digress). A population of people needs to be consistent enough so that the people in that population know what to expect from others. When we don’t know what to expect, our brains go into chaos mode and our defenses go up.
Here’s the cool thing. It turns out all of that cultural stuff … is software. And it can run in the brain of anyone from any race.
Therefore — there is no such thing as “White” culture or “Black” culture. THESE are the social constructs, far more than are the minor genetic differences that developed among genetically isolated populations that we call “race”. What we see as “race” is real categorical physical differences. What cultural characteristics we project onto those differences … if they’re calling *that* a social construct I’d agree.
I can pluck a baby from anywhere in the world, and raise him here in America and by the time he’s 8 everyone who actually engages with him will indentify him as an American. He will act in a manner that will reassure the people who interact with him that he is not a threat to them or the order of their lives. Depending on how he dresses and cuts his hair and the amount of hardware he has or doesn’t have sticking through his skin in various places, most people will pick up on that before they ever say a word to each other. Or I can raise him in France or any at least western country… same thing.
Contrary to popular belief in some circles … we have come a very VERY long way, especially in America. The [main] reason we see so much of it in America, and in some other western countries is because it is in these countries that we actually have significant racial diversity. So the issue gets pressed in these countries more than in others. (The other reason is that there are certain political interests that benefit from cultivating cultural division.)
As I was saying earlier, fear of significant difference is an evolved response. I would speculate that … when it comes to race … we will all look much more similar as we intermix before that response evolves out of us — if it ever does — because that response is just a part of a much bigger evolved response — the general fear of the unknown, the uncertain. And at that point … the point will be moot.
Fortunately, we have culture, and if we can come to a point where just about everyone in our country, at least, is culturally similar enough so that we can act as a cohesive group of people. Remember, there is no such thing as white culture or black culture. Culture is not based on skin color. Culture is how we learn to act, and about shared idioms and traditions that glue us together, that help us relate to each other.
In this light, I cannot say I’m on the “diversity is what makes us great” bandwagon. It is not. Diversity is a symptom of greatness, not the cause. The greatness … comes from the culture.
And culture has no color.