Saturday, June 22, 2013

Taxonomy is the basis of science.

One of the definition of culture is that it is the set of beliefs that you think are self evident, but turn out to be different from the beliefs held in other cultures; people in other cultures sometimes regard your own beliefs as strange and not at all self evident. Last night I watched "Two Spirits", a program from Independent Lens. The program took off from the hate killing of a Navajo kid, born male, who sometimes appeared as a boy and sometimes as a girl during his teen age years. The program pointed out that Native Americans had real problems understanding European American views on sex. The Navajo language for example distinguishes four genders: female, male, born female living as male, and born male living as female. But it is only one of a couple of hundred living tribal languages in the United States, and they too deal with gender differently one from another. It has taken English a long time to come to some kind of acommodation with GLTB as legitimate additions to male and female. Turns out that these may not be self evident concepts at all but deeply culturally determined classifications. Maybe, as the program suggested, it is better just to let people be people and not try to pigeonhole their inherent natures by some predetermined classification. Or at least, lets wait on the classification until we have some credible scientific basis for the one we use.

I have been reading about the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court -; the decision that established the acceptance of "separate but equal". The decision of course only could make sense if "black" and "white" were actually distinguishable conditions. The Supreme Court was undeterred by the fact, recognized in the decision, that different states defined the distinction between black and white differently. (Think of a train crossing a state line, and a whole group of passengers having to move from the "black" car to the "white" car because they were classified as "black" in the first state and "white" in the second state. Of course, the science has changed. We now recognize that every person, were s/he able to trace her/his ancestry back far enough, would find all of the ancestors of a generation to be Africans (or perhaps with one or two Neanderthals). What seemed to eight judges of the Supreme Court in the late 1900s to be a self evident classification (albeit fuzzy at the boundaries) turns out to have no scientific basis.

There are legitimate classifications of people that have significant benefits. For example, we seem to be pretty well able to divide students by the grade for which they are qualified in school, and putting kids into classes for which they are qualified seems likely to improve their educational outcomes. It makes sense to divide the world into doctors and non-doctors, permitting only doctors to perform certain medical tasks; to divide people into professional engineers and people who are not professional engineers, limiting bridge design to the former. Still, our culture is riddled with superstitious classifications and erroneous judgments made on the basis of those classifications.

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