November 2, 2006

Socialized Race and the Return of the Enlightenment

I hit the nerdy jackpot the other day, stumbling over (literally) a box labeled "Free Books" full of recent biology texts on human biology, botany and environmental science. I felt like I was stealing. I took five books, three of which would not fit in my backpack. So thank you to whoever decided to lend a hand to a poor undergrad.

Earlier this year, I found a neat little book called The Story of Science, written around 1930 or so. I love looking through these old books; it shows two seemingly contradictory things: We have come so far in understanding our world since then and yet we still deal with many of the same ethical issues decades later, after many steps forward.

The biology covered in this book takes up barely a fourth of the pages, and much of the material is pure conjecture. For example, they did not know the mechanism of heredity in the 1930's, though the book does allude to the chromosomes holding the key to understanding:
Modern research has revealed that the chromosomes, the little threads of protein in the nuclei of the egg-cell and germ cell which unite to bring the new individual into existence, are the carriers of heredity. Localized in the chromosomes are the factors which cuase the various characteristics of the organism. These factors, whose exact nature is unknown despite the fact that the exact location of many of them in the chromosomes is known, are called the genes. (Emphasis is mine.)
Actually, the cat (DNA) wouldn't be out of the bag for a good 20 years or so. Scientists are pretty comfortable with the human genome by now, concentrating more and more on the translation and transcription of genes into proteins. Find the foundation and work your way up.

Ethically, the science world of 1930 wasn't too much different, though without the social movements of women and people of color, science was white-male dominated and many biologists at the time believed races of humans to be distinct from one another (implying the dominance of, who else, the white male).

Though it was before the time of cladistics, they still produced family trees that Darwin himself had conceived, like this one:

You may have to click to enlarge the picture.

The graphic splits modern man, Homo sapiens, in to four distincts branchings, like four different species or subspecies (they never clarify the particular races cited in the graphic, though I suspect African, North Asian, South Asian and Eurasian are represented).

We know now that Homo sapiens is a species united, with minor phenotypic variations (physical characteristics) between different populations. With the exception of a few, biologists have little use for the word "race." It has no real meaning in genetics, and is therefore a social construct.

I wonder if society would have been more accepting of people of color if the scientists of the 1930's had known that we are all genetically identical [11/3: as far as fundamental intellectual potential is concerned; see comments below]. Somehow I doubt it.

I am surprised that more people have not latched on to this idea to promote the unification of culture, especially in America. We seem to be more interested in segregating ourselves into meaningless factions of nationality, philosophy, subculture and religion.

But to what end? To be respected? Acknowledged? By whom?

I will admit an unpopular position. I think unreigned multiculturalism will destroy us. Some aspects of some cultures are not acceptable in modern society, no matter how they may be framed.

The white male modernists were half right. They saw a culture that thrived on reason and inquiry, devoid of mysticism and cosmic excuses.

Their mistake was, of course, their exclusivity. They bent science to serve their racist/sexist feelings of superiority/insecurity, and the movement itself suffered and was overturned.

Postmodernism took hold and fixed that aspect of modernism. The oppressed fought back, justly demanding a place at the table, where all human beings could come together and truly convene, all under the flag of the burgeoning philosophical movement. It is largely responsible for the relative state of racial acceptance in our country.

But postmodernism has gone too far. It is a super-subjective chasm devoid of creativity and relevance, rooted in the denial of the natural sciences. It has also been a great divider in American society. Now we just quibble over holidays and observances, reclamations and compensations, as if they could ever right historical wrongs.

If we are all indeed genetically identical, then it becomes an issue of how we socialize our children. They will inevitably see differences in color and culture, and should be informed of our societal differences, but if they are properly instructed, they can acknowledge the illusion of race, and be mindful of our inherent unity.

One day I hope we can come to one table as one species, not in different camps of idealism. I'm waiting for neo-modernism - a revamped Enlightenment - to swing around.

3 comments:

  1. With the exception of a few, biologists have little use for the word "race." It has no real meaning in genetics, and is therefore a social construct.

    Race actually has a real meaning in evolutionary biology. Or, at least, as a real a meaning as any other taxonomic classification. It can be thought of a subspecies. The sociological concept of race was co-opted from biology.

    I wonder if society would have been more accepting of people of color if the scientists of the 1930's had known that we are all genetically identical.

    We are not genetically identical. There is intrapopulation variation and differences between populations. The concepts of racial superiority are unwarranted, but the idea that we're all identical is ridiculous as well. There are difference between humans, but it's taboo to explore what those differences mean.

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  2. A gross overstatement on my part in the philosophical zeal of my argument. Thanks for the correction, RPM. I should have made it more clear that race is in fact genetic variation among populations of humans (I only alluded to it briefly, without much emphasis).

    I was speaking more specifically of inter-population intelligence potential.

    There are indeed physiological differences between the populations (races) of human beings, especially when it comes to genetic predispositions to disease, disorders and such, and I am curious as to other differences that could be explored. But is there any consensus as to the classifications of races as subspecies? I was under the impression that that was an arbitrary designation.

    Thanks again for addressing my inaccuracies.

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  3. I think unreigned multiculturalism will destroy us. Some aspects of some cultures are not acceptable in modern society, no matter how they may be framed.

    I would modify that to read "some aspects of ALL cultures should not be acceptable in ANY society."

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