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returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.

References

Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm