“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
— Stephen Jay Gould
In this book Guy Harrison takes over where Ashley Montagu left off in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Where Harrison has the edge is the science of DNA sequencing has confirmed that there is no biological basis for the idea of race. Homo sapiens is not made up of different “races”; we are one unified species. This isn’t to say that there are cultural differences between various groups but these are as arbitrary as hairstyles and skirt lengths. Again, there is no biological basis for them. Harrison also makes a point of taking anthropologists and biologists to task for not being more vocal about the lack of any empirical evidence for race. He recounts his astonishment of not hearing this until he was in his late teens even though this fact was well known long before that. He makes a strong argument why this fact should be inculcated throughout the entire educational system starting at the earliest grades. This would do much to offset the racial canards that children are exposed to and prevent them from gaining much traction. Concerning the canards and myths about race he systematically takes them apart, chapter by chapter. This book will make you uncomfortable as any good book should but it will give you the empirical evidence and arguments you need to counter the bigotry and racism that runs through society all of which are based on the lie of ‘race’.
“For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.” Hannah Arendt
I’ve read a number of books that dealt with Intelligent Design (ID)/Creationist arguments which outline the various straw arguments that Creationists and ID proponents use and present the overwhelming body of scientific evidence which refutes each and every one one without exception. Rosa Rubicondior’s book goes one step further and goes after the presuppositions that Creationists and ID proponents assume to be the case when crafting their sophistry and systematically shreds them. Ideas such as ‘complexity is indicative of design’, ‘the world in which we find ourselves has been designed for us’, ‘DNA couldn’t possibly have evolved via a natural process’, and ‘mutations can only destroy information, not increase it’ are addressed and refuted. The dissection of these false ideas are presented in a very deliberate and systematic way which prepares the reader to engage in a debate with proponents of Creationism/ID. The author is quite adept at unpacking things in a manner that will make the concepts take residence in the reader’s mind and be available for use whenever and where ever the situation presents itself. Copious footnotes and bibliography give the reader ample resources to pursue specific areas of interest.
One question still unanswered in biology and one that is of special interest to me is what happened to our evolutionary branch that made us so different than our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the chimpanzees and bonobos? Putting aside supernatural explanations as well as wild speculation about aliens doing genetic experiments on our race as something to do while taking a break from construction of the pyramids, the correct explanation will be provided by science.
An excellent article on the Smithsonian’s webpage states that the difference between our DNA and our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree is about 1.5%. It is within this difference that the mutations that make us uniquely human are most likely to found. There are various conjectures at this point but the one that rings the most true to me comes from a talk given by Dr. Brian Thomas Swimme which I was fortunate to stumble across a few years ago. The narrative goes something like this:
When you compare human infants and chimpanzee infants the similarities are striking. As they develop, like most mammals, the young enter a period of play and exploration necessitating a constant eye on them by the mother and the extended family. This period of play by young mammals is observable in all other species of mammals such as dogs, cats, bears lions, and even Orcas. In most mammals this period is short lived compared to humans, even in species that have comparative lifespans to ours. Soon after this phase in most other mammals the genetic programs kick in and the adult forms emerge complete with the physique and skills necessary to be lion, or a chimp or any other adult mammal. Not so with the human. It appears that the genetic programs that are activated in our closest and most distant cousins are not activated in humans. We retain a lot of the physical and mental features we had in childhood and adolescence. How might this be explained and what are the implications for us as humans?
There is a set of genes called the Hox genes which control the rate of development in animals. The conjecture is that there was a mutation or a series of mutations in the Hox genes in humans which resulted in the slowing down of our development. While most species’ young stay in that playful and explorative phase for a brief time, humans in many ways never develop out of it. We retain that wonder and drive to explore our surroundings throughout our entire lives. In other words, compared to other mammals, members of our species never completely ‘grow up’ and the genetic programs that kick in to make a Chimpanzee a Chimpanzee never kick in for the human. As Swimme speculates, there are profound meanings for us if this is the case. We retain that wonder and, as we mature, it changes into a desire to know and understand. We retain that playfulness and our desire to play and enjoy ourselves still fills us with longing. There are also other implications to this. When the genetic programs kick in to transform a tiger cub into an adult tiger all the necessary knowledge and skills are included. No one has to teach a tiger how to be a tiger; the DNA does that. In humans, this is not so. The adult genetic programs, specifically the ones telling us ‘how to adult’ never get turned on. What does this mean? In a very real sense it means that humans don’t know what they should do. Lions and tigers and bears don’t suffer from the search for meaning and purpose, a search that seems to have afflicted humans throughout our history.
It is an interesting conjecture that, on the face of it, seems to point in the direction to where our uniqueness as a species can be found. I’m hopeful that I will still be alive when the conjecture becomes theory.