The nineteenth century in western Europe was an Age of Science. More than that, it was an age of applied science, and inventions that drew people together began to proliferate. The first was the train, which developed from 1825 onward as a new form of transport. It was followed by the motor car from 1885, and then by the aeroplane from 1890. Communications science produced the telephone from 1876, and then the radio from 1896. Closer was good, but perversely, people started looking for ways to distance themselves from each other.
Within the life sciences came the Theory of Evolution, much discussed over the previous 100 years but first precisely formulated by Darwin in 1858, and in a remarkable parallel development, also in the same year by Alfred Russell Wallace. Unlike developments in transport and communications, this development in biology was controversial, and tended to divide people, arousing hostility in particular from religious establishments.
Evolution in turn spawned development of a number of pseudo sciences, promulgated by so called scientists without an ounce of Darwin’s integrity. These pseudo sciences all attempted to analyse and divide people into types, and proliferated for a while, before being dismissed by most people. But they left a legacy we live with today.
Physiognomy was an 18th and 19th century would be science which attempted to draw parallels between the personal appearance of humans, especially their faces, and their characteristics or personalities. It was believed by practitioners that a low brow meant lack of intelligence, a long upper lip meant maturity, a receding chin meant cowardice and so on. It was possible, by examining a person’s skull thoroughly, to determine how they would behave in every given circumstance. Mankind was divided into types, such as the ‘lower’ criminal one, or the ‘higher’ intellectual one. These gross generalisations had no scientific basis, and towards the end of the century physiognomy joined phrenology, palmistry and astrology as pseudo sciences without any justification for their findings.
Eugenics was first developed by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883. It advocates (it still has advocates) the improvement of the human stock by breeding for desirable characteristics, much as breeders of other animals do. It also prohibits breeding of those with ‘undesirable’ characteristics, and advocates compulsory sterilisation of these individuals. What makes it a pseudo science despite the foundation of biological science it employs is the subjective nature of its criteria. What exactly are ‘desirable’ characteristics? In fact it is a gross violation of human rights. The end results of such programs cannot ever be accurately predicted, as is usually the case with any form of genetic engineering.
Racism was another of these 19th century pseudo sciences, an attempt to divide the human species into categories based on physical characteristics referred to geographical locations. This attempt was made despite the acknowledged fact that humans are all of one species, and over the past million years have increased, spread and intermingled with one another so that any traces of distinctive physical characteristics that might have once existed have evaporated long ago. For half a million years cultural characteristics have distinguished various groups of humans, rather than genetic characteristics. A pertinent question to ask anyone who asserts that mankind is divided into races is to ask at what period this occurred.
When people of different ethnic background collide what is often evoked is an ancient hominid hostility from our distant past as a species. Back then tribal groups encountering other groups would need to check if the others were of their group or not, usually by their sense of smell. Their group was the ‘people’, the other group frightening and possibly hostile. This was how homo neanderthalensus was probably destroyed. It is this primitive sense, which we still possess, that is at the heart of racism. It’s an instinct, and is based on lack of similarity. New could be dangerous we once thought. But that was before the development of human culture. That has taught us that new is a way of exploration. We have no reason now to regress to an anthropoid ape stage of development.
Behind racism, the attempt to classify mankind into distinct races, seems to be the authority of that well known textbook on eugenics, the bible. Humans were all one race, according to the book of Genesis, until Noah was born. He had three sons called Shem, Japheth and Ham, who originated the Caucasian, Mongoloid and Negroid ‘races’. Just like that. This is an extrapolation from scripture, for it is nowhere stated in Genesis that god created different races. Genesis merely states what the Hebrews thought of the origin of those Middle Eastern peoples they had come in contact with. Now we can’t expect a primitive people as the Hebrews were then to understand the principles of evolution, and they didn’t. They wrote one of the great books of religion instead. The trouble is that later believers, hooked on the ‘word of god’ concept, try to use the bible to explain everything.
The division into just a few racial types is based on what people look like. There are observable differences in people’s appearance around the world. This appearance is based on their genetic heritage. But it is also based on their diet, age, social standing, state of health, recent history, the climate they experience and many other factors, such as the prejudices of those who observe them and the technology they use to do so. Not just genetic heritage. Look at babies, or very elderly people, and try to determine what ‘race’ they belong to. It’s as fruitless as looking at an anthropoid ape of a million years ago and trying to see the colour of the skin through the body hair. We can typify DNA and mark genetic types in the laboratory, but we cannot observe others except as people different in some way to us, and the marks of that difference are environmental and social, not genetic.
But believers in racism go even further. Not only are there distinct races in the world, they believe, but some of these are better than others. Which is the best one? Those who are ancestors of those making the judgment. “Hey, our ancestors are better than your ones!” That’s the maturity on show with this judgment, backed up with the feeling that both god and science support it. Racists of this type are a bit like advocates of the belief in a flat earth: big on pronouncements, low on evidence. No flat earther has yet found the edge of the world, no racist has shown any form of racial superiority (just the reverse).
One category of human (not a race), is homo exploitus. Homo sapiens sapiens threw off this variant early in its genetic history. It’s a type of human who gets satisfaction in taking advantage of other humans. Scare them away from the kill and eat all the meat themselves; declare themselves king and demand all the fertile women and precious things available. The concept of race is very attractive to homo exploitus. “This group can be chained and made to go without food so our group (I) can have more”. Why? “Because they are an inferior race. For god’s sake don’t ask them. What would they know. Ask us!”
Sometimes this grading of ‘races’ is based on cultural achievement. When the so called white (actually light brown to dark brown) people of western Europe came in contact with Africans, Polynesians, natives of North America, Australia or South America, they carried lethal microbes that these other peoples had no antibodies for. The native peoples were decimated, their leaders being the first to die. The Europeans found peoples who were experiencing the breakup of traditional cultures they had known for centuries, and were suffering frightening diseases they had never before experienced. ‘Primitive savages’ was the judgment the Europeans made, oblivious to their role in the situation. That justified the use of technologically advanced weapons against the savages, in a most savage manner. Again the Europeans were oblivious of the irony. That justified too the use of treachery and lies to peoples who prided themselves on avoiding these practices as a matter of personal status. And by avoiding seeing the culture they were destroying the Europeans were able to feel sanctimonious about ‘heathens’. Why? Because it was profitable. The ‘colonisation’ of these people gave the Europeans land, gold, minerals, precious stones, artefacts and crops that belonged to others. It enabled them to steal while priests and ministers of religion supposedly bought salvation and enlightenment to the poor savage, so much dust in the eyes of objectors.
Race is often systemised on skin colour. But there is no white skin, no black, no yellow, no brown or red skin. We know that. We just have to look at other people to see there are millions of variants of skin colour. They can change at different times of the year, with age, with diet. As people intermarry more variants are formed. It’s not that people don’t have different colour skin. It’s that there are too many variants of colour to make classification possible by that method (except by racists looking for a target group: the KKK are white). ‘Proof’ from contrasting a very pale skinned individual with a very dark skinned one is not proof of the illusion of race but of the existence of a range of physical types arising from environmental, health, diet and other factors. For the melanin obsessed, the albino must be king.
It goes on. You think Arabs and Jews have hooked noses? What about all the ones with snub noses. You think Danes are tall, blonde headed, blue eyed people (typical Vikings)? Not if they spend their lives in front of a computer eating junk food. You think Africans have bigger penises than other men and are a threat to your women? What about the shy ones, the impotent ones, the ones unable to form relationships. Aren’t we dealing in stereotypes? Race is just another stereotype, usually adopted to exploit a group of people unable to fight back.
Same goes for cultural characteristics. You think Italians wave their hands around while they talk? Not the introverted ones I know. Are the French more sophisticated than other cultures? No, just more sexist. Are the British more inhibited? Not if they came from the West Indies.
What about mixed marriages? Leaving aside the historic rulings on the ‘legality’ of mixed marriages between those of different ethnic or national origin: racist states like South Africa, Germany or North America see it or saw it as a crime, but that’s because they believe in the phantom of ‘race’. Mixed marriages (often discriminated against using the term ‘miscegenation’, Latin for a mixture of races) are on the increase across the world as people more and more reside and work in countries other than that in which they were born. Soon it will be the norm. Homo exploitus will have to think of something else than ‘racism’.
All of human history is a record of people from one part of the world travelling to another, and, in doing so, taking on characteristics of the peoples they conquered or mixed with. Languages develop the same way, as does every aspect of human culture. The rigid, classifiable division into races is a fantasy. It is based on contrasting Western European cultural values of the 19th century with peoples in whom the European observers of that time could mistakenly see no cultural values at all. The ‘races’ of ancient cultures, like the Indo-Europeans, are actually families of languages, not genetically different peoples. The person who believes in race is often just a thug looking for an excuse to loot someone else’s goods.
Discrimination based on race needs a context. In order to apply stereotypes of race to individuals, they need to be in the minority of a general population. Two ethnic groups (the term meaning a geographical origin, not a physical appearance) each fifty percent of the population, can’t discriminate against each other. They can have a civil war, but it’s likely to be one on economic grounds. But one black among many whites (or the reverse) will approximate a racial stereotype. On the other hand the examination of a group of many blacks or many whites will reveal how many differences there are between the appearances of members of each group.
The trouble is that that’s the way the mind works, by forming categories and classifying what we experience into those categories. It’s a quick rule of thumb that gets us by, enables us to deal with events and people in an efficient way while going about our business. We should reflect on these judgments though, because we notice much more about people than we realise. We don’t have to use stereotypes to absorb that information. Just think how often you do it. “He’s not my type”. “They’re the type of person who…”. “You’re lazy/selfish/patriotic/greedy etc” (everyone is, some of the time, nobody is all of the time). Artists and scientists learn to see rather than rely on categories. No good painting a scene that’s not there, you get Christmas card art. No good describing characters in terms of general types, you get stereotypes. No good in describing people in terms of race, you get racism.
There’s no doubt diversity exists among humans, the source of its prosperity as a species. That diversity can be classified reliably by language, environment, diet, state of health, religion and a host of other classifiers. But not by race. To do so is just to revive a relic of the colonial past, and give support to Darwin’s Theory of mankind’s origins.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.