Monday, October 01, 2012

A thought about racism.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the integration of the University of Mississippi. One student, James Meredith was admitted to the University, but to overcome the unwillingness of the officials of Mississippi to enforce the federal law and to safeguard Mr. Meredith against the mobs of white racists, President Kennedy had to call out the militia and send regular army troops.

UNESCO published four statements between 1950 and 1967 on the "race question". Each was the product an expert group, and each sought to document the scientific evidence (as then understood) and to help in the fight against racism. In 1967 is published a booklet including all four statements, plus interpretive discussions of race by a biologist and by a sociologist.

Human history is marked by false beliefs. Think of the elaborate set of beliefs of the ancient Greeks, the greatest people of their time who left us a huge intellectual heritage. They believed in Zeus and Poseidon and other Olympian gods, each of whom had an area of influence as well as the power to directly intervene in human history. The Romans who followed the Greeks as the greatest people of their time, who also left us a huge intellectual heritage, expanded on precedents and created an equally complex mythology to explain the operation of the world and history. All of this seems today clearly to be claptrap, useful only for classical allusions and bad movies.

The idea that mankind is divided into separate and exclusive biological entities, each with its own level of ability in different areas, is a similar elaborate theory that is claptrap. In its modern form, the theory of races was elaborated by imperial powers and slave states and not surprisingly rationalized their exploitation of dominated or enslaved peoples.


Science has advanced greatly since the UNESCO booklet was published. Even then it was known that we are all members of a single species -- Homo sapiens. Indeed, as compared with other species, there is very little genetic variation within Homo sapiens. The more that is learned about genetics, the more complex human genetics appears. There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human genes, but most of our DNA seems to be involved in modifying gene expression.

We know that many genetic mutations occur each generation, because we know that many "genetic diseases" are de novo, with the variant not being present in either parent. We know that most of those mutations, at least those known, result in less successful people and assume that they will usually not be passed on into the general population. On the other hand, we assume that every once and  a while a mutation occurs that makes its owner more successful in that time and place, and thus is passed on to descendants and spreads. There also must be mutations that don't confer any advantage or disadvantage and can persist in the population or spread by random processes.

Map of Migrations of Homo sapiens 

As human groups have diverged from common roots, we can assume that genetic differences between those groups accumulate. We can also assume that groups living close to each other are more likely to be descended from a common group than are groups living far apart, and are less likely to inter marry. We know that differences between say Asians, Europeans and indigenous Australians are quite visible. Population geneticists have discovered that within a quite homogeneous human population, some genes are relatively localized. Some few genetic traits seem to have some advantages. (The Massai of Kenya are known for their height and their custom of jumping to considerable height while the Aka of Central Africa are considered pygmies due to their short height; presumably the Massai would be better at basketball than the Aka.)


Much of the theory of races would seem to have been based on visible cultural differences. People in advanced, industrial countries concluded that people living in cultures that could not provide comparable income or life expectancy were from "inferior races" -- confounding observed cultural differences with genetic differences. Moreover, there was the viscous circle in that exploitation of subjected or enslaved people was often managed to maintain the ignorance, poverty and ill health of the underdogs.

A people's culture can change more rapidly than its genetics. Indeed, there is much more cultural variation in the world than genetic variation among people. We may not like the pace of cultural change in the world today, but there is little doubt that cultures are changing very rapidly. We see the economy (a form of culture) of China changing so fast that China is now or is likely soon to have the world's greatest GDP. We see the two largest film industries in the world, in terms of number of feature films produced per year, as Bollywood and Nollywood. People immigrating into new countries assimilate into the culture of the new land within a couple of generations.

So, while it is obvious that there are many different cultures in the world, and that peoples living very far apart are likely to be visibly different from each other because of genetic differences (e.g. black, brown or white skin) and cultural differences (e.g. clothing, housing and food preferences), there seems to be little reason to believe that the cultural differences are due to genetic differences in other than trivial ways (e.g. the homes of Massai may have higher ceilings than those of Aka).

Final Comment

Fortunately, today's young people can scarcely believe the degree of racism that was current in the United States in 1962. Members of my history book club in discussion last week had difficulty comprehending the degree of anti-Semitic prejudice that kept almost all of the countries of the from accepting Jewish refugees from the Nazis, even during the Holocaust. Grad students in the UNESCO seminar have difficulty wrapping their minds around the degree of racism that UNESCO faced in its global program in the 1940s.

Racism seems much reduced in the United States. However, racism seems alive and thriving in many other part of the world. Perhaps UNESCO should have still another expert group and publish still another statement!

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