By Michael E. Berumen
There are three major forces of our own manufacture that serve to alienate large swaths of people from one another and engender all manner of evil in our species. These are ancient forces; however, they are neither intractable nor ineradicable. One is the extremes of inequality in wealth (and hence, power), with the correlates of absolute, abject poverty in the worst case, as we find in the so-called “third world,” and relative poverty as we observe in more advanced nations, as well as the concomitant sociological and psychological effects of both kinds of poverty. Another is xenophobia (or jingoism) in its various forms, ranging from primitive tribalism to chauvinistic nationalism, phenomena that are usually accompanied by other factors such as ideological and religious differences, or ambitions for territory or suzerainty over others. And then there is bigotry, more broadly described as bias against or even hatred of peoples of the opposite sex, a different sexual orientation, a different religion or creed, or some other classification of people, such as a racial construct or ethnic grouping, which is to say, racism. No virulent disease or natural disaster has caused as much misery and death as the foregoing manmade maladies throughout the relatively brief history of our species.
I would argue that racial hatred has been a particularly debilitating factor, and it is to no small degree often subsumed under the other two major forces of alienation, namely, economic inequality and xenophobia. The disregard, fear, or hatred of others based on superficial differences in their phenotypical characteristics, what is effectively the denial of their humanity, has resulted in more privation through oppression, war, and genocide than any other manmade factor over the course of human history–––even more than our differences in religion and nationality. The genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas over a one hundred year period is estimated to have resulted in the loss of about 100 million lives, roughly 10 times the number lost in the Holocaust genocide of the 20th century. And yet, the differences that obtain among peoples by virtue of so-called racial classifications are quite insignificant from a biological standpoint, which makes the hatred people on the basis of race among of the greatest follies and self-induced tragedies of our species.
The more general term “bigotry” strikes me as superior to racism for describing the antipathy or sense of superiority towards others based on their quotient of melanin, other morphological traits, or their ancestry. This is true because “race,” the root term, is highly ambiguous and possesses virtually no biological or lexical merit. It primarily serves as a clumsy and overly-general description of skin color and other characteristics associated with the geographic distribution (often erstwhile) of various indigenous populations. It is essentially a linguistic or cultural construct used to categorize people into identifiable groups, and often enough in a pejorative way, rather than as a meaningful biological description. With that said, for the last couple of centuries, ideologues have contrived to use science on selective and mistaken bases to bolster a case for a hierarchical taxonomy of race.
In earlier times, race was primarily a term used to designate people into groupings by language and nationality. The idea of classifying peoples by phenotypical types began in the 17th century. In the late 18th century, the German physician and naturalist, Johann Blumenbach, posited five major classifications for humankind in his treatise, The Natural Varieties of Mankind, namely, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Ethiopians (later renamed Negroid), American Indians, and Malayans. Variations on those classifications have continued up to the present time, notwithstanding the fact they are devoid of any scientific sense. Consider, for example, the fact that there is more genetic and phenotypic variation in sub-Saharan Africa then there is in the entirety of the rest of the world, rendering the classification Negroid virtually useless as a descriptor of Africans from a biological perspective. And, notwithstanding the variation either there or elsewhere, the differences among groups within our species as a whole are relatively inconsequential when compared to the similarities.
Detailed studies of human diversity and genetics have shown there is more variation among individuals within standard racial classifications than there is among the classifications themselves. In other words, two people of Anglo-Saxon heritage might be more different from one another in terms of their genetic makeup than they are from someone who is from, say, Thailand. There is no evidence that the racial categories we commonly use have unifying genetic properties. In fact, the contrary has been shown to be true. If there were biologically separate racial or ethnic groups, we would find common alleles and other genetic properties within a group that we would not be able to find in any other groups. However, an exhaustive Stanford study conducted by scientists in 2002 discovered only 7.4% of over 4000 alleles was specific to a geographical region, and even more surprisingly, when such alleles did appear in a particular region, they were found in only 1% of the people from that region.
The customary categories of race are based primarily on our skin color and other visible characteristics such as height, eyes, and hair. There are a number of environmental factors that account for these variations. For example, skin color evolved from natural selection to control the several effects of radiation from the sun based on geographic location, and it occurred over a relatively short time span in geologic terms. In reality, all of these physical differences are exceedingly superficial and not especially telling when one considers what a small part of the human genome they actually represent. Biologists tell us that as a species we share about 99.9% of our DNA, which is to say, there is only a 0.1% difference. In other words, that which separates us is quite trifling. There is no such thing as a human sub-species, and there is not a competing hominid of the genus homo, as once existed thousands of years ago with the Neanderthals and Denisovans. We are one species: Homo sapiens. And as a species, ours has very little genetic variation when compared to other species, even some of our closest primate relatives with smaller populations.
With the advent of global migration and commerce, along with a concomitant decline in bigotry, there has been an increasing admixture of humanity through the mingling and resultant procreation of peoples of different heritages. As this continues, along with increasingly similar requirements for environmental adaptation and similar dietary and health habits, there will be greater resemblance to one another in terms of our several gross morphological characteristics, e.g., skin color, height, eyes, and hair, while, at the same time, the overall gene pool of humankind will improve with greater genetic diversity. Put more simply, we will look more alike and our gene pool will be healthier. With greater intermingling, fewer people who are closely related to one another will intermarry and genetic variation will increase, and, as a consequence, our adaptability to changing conditions on Earth will improve through mutations. The many smaller gene pools throughout the world will merge into larger ones, which ultimately will have significant and positive implications on the evolution of our species.
Admittedly, I sometimes use terms such as race, racism, and racist as colloquial appellations. I do so reluctantly. However, notwithstanding the limitations of their denotations, these terms continue to connote in everyday parlance what I wish to communicate about bigotry. Still, they leave much to be desired, for the words imply more than they deserve, which is the falsehood that there are significant biological distinctions to be made between one group and another. That is simply not based in scientific fact, and I look forward to the day when the very concept of race is obsolete, and the term is used only as an artifact of history, and the sooner the better in my view. Race is essentially a bogus concept from the start.
If we do not blow ourselves to smithereens or get annihilated by an asteroid––––that is, if our species survives––––there someday will be fewer superficial physical traits to divide us. This will not happen in the very near future in terms of human lifespans, but in geological terms, it will happen very quickly. After all, anatomically modern humans migrated from East Africa only about 70,000 years ago (some others of our genus migrated earlier, but did not survive), first spreading along the southern coast of Asia and then on to Europe about 40,000 years ago. Generations from now, the present concept of race will be as distant a notion as alchemy and the Ptolemaic solar system are to us today–––mere historical curiosities. The “end of race” will give us one less reason to fear, misunderstand, and hate one another. In the meantime, our best hope is to continue to make bigotry of all kinds an anathema to what we deem as civilized behavior, to eschew hatred and fear of others based on their place of origin and their physical characteristics, and to educate our children about the scientific facts concerning the things that make us much more alike as human beings than the minor differences that separate us.
Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness on health insurance reform. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, CSUEB and Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He still takes on speaking engagements, but on a limited basis. http://www.michaelberumen.academia.edu/and http://www.michaelberumen.academia.edu/
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