Racism creates racial boundaries, not vice versa

While it seems obvious that race is a biologically based concept, I now wonder if it is not even more a culturally derived one, analogous to sex and women confined to home and burka for their protection and reverence. So is race a meme, a cultural unit transmitted across generations? It is more complicated than that, I know given my last post about meme-weary, but consider these meme wannabes for your amusement: burning cross, white robe with pointy hat and mask or Confederate battle flag flown outside of a museum in contrast with the “I have a dream speech” and Black Lives Matter. And what about the photographs from the 60s civil rights work of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses? All of these fit the definition, don’t they?

Going deeper, though, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical book Between the World and Me after seeing so many reviews about the power of its presentation and the passionate beauty of its writing. The reviews are pretty accurate in this regard so I heartily recommend reading this book. Early on he asserts that race (the concept of) is a result of racism (the attitude and belief) and not vice versa, as is often supposed. Wow! To frame it another way, race is more a cultural construct based on faulty biology, one engendered by most probably the sociobiological fear of the other. I think that our kinship feelings for our conspecifics is a powerful factor, one that I hope becomes ever more dominant through the burgeoning interconnectedness of global humanity. However, other factors such as territorial ‘ownership’, competition for mates and resources, and clan/tribal organization are also important features of our conspecific relations even as they constrain a more democratic, i.e., egalitarian and respectful, unification.

Consider the heinous example of King Leopold and the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. Using the age old technique of divide and conquer, the Belgians segregated the Hutu and Tutsis and set the two tribes against each other, building up a wall of ethnic prejudice and misinformation one against the other. Their respective leaders in the independent country of Rwanda played upon those differences to gain political power and that resulted in genocidal warfare around 1990. Ugh, humans! Their views of the other as distinct ethnically from themselves are not based upon their biology: they share their language, religion, and culture, they lived together peacefully enough for centuries before imperial colonization, and recent genetic tests confirm that they are the same population. Race is a tool of racists to gain power. To reinforce this notion, consider that when I lived in Japan I learned that many Japanese do not see any gulf between themselves and black people but they do see Koreans as a lower race, judging by their outspoken prejudices and evident attitude toward inter-marriage. This was, I was told, a remnant from the Japanese imperialism that culminated in WW2.

Another example of how race is a cultural construct used by imperialists can be found in Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born A Crime, another excellent read. His mother was black and his father white and in apartheid South Africa the law prohibited their mating and that left his legal status in limbo. Further, his skin tone clearly showed that he was not black or white, so that walking with his mother or father would be to place them in legal jeopardy for breaking that law. That society had a category for ‘colored’, neither black nor white but he did not fit into that category for some reason. One theme of the book derives from his wandering the racial boundaries, not belonging to any one category yet living with them all. He was bright. His extended family helped him to learn many languages, another manifestation of ethnic categorization, and his mother insisted that he obtain the best education possible, which also marked him as different. While post apartheid laws reduced his legal jeopardy, they did little to solve his dilemmas about how to make his way through a varied and at times difficult racial landscape. It is a great read and helps to appreciate his arrival as host of “The Daily Show” and his distinctiveness as nurtured by his mother who was a force of nature.

The amount of variation among ‘races’ is miniscule when compared with variation among species and even there the variation between simians and us is only a few percent. Any one person in a multi-cultural society, i.e., not geographically isolated or politically segregated, includes genes from other races. Many of us include genes from the Neandertal and Denisovans, who are not even Homo sapiens. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a truth quite succinctly when he said race is a consequence of racism and not vice versa, a cultural construct the biological basis of which is distorted by those who seek power and control. Oh humans!

In my clinical work I learned that each person is a gem, some are rough and some finely cut, but all have different facets, only one (well, maybe two, not sure of quantity here really) of which is race. Our goal, assuming we pursue a just democracy and compassionate, non-exclusive conspecific relations, is to see each person whole, each gem in its totality, taking in as many facets as possible and always mindful that our perspective from without is constrained by what facets life and society have cut and polished for our viewing and that the whole within, as difficult as it might be to apprehend, is one of our own. Travel on.

Meme weary

Memes? I’m tired of ‘em, damned tired. Sure, I like the idea of memes, those cultural bits and bites encapsulating the commonly held cultural meaning that help a society to congeal or the shorthand for analogous experiences, e.g., the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or referring to the Holocaust to convey the horror of some men’s inhumanity. But I grow weary of the indiscriminate use of the term to mean almost any type of human cogitation that spreads (almost unavoidable in today’s electronic age). That lack of a coherent boundary or definition has been a criticism of the term from early on and I read that it also contributed to death of the Journal of Mimetics after a few years as scholars could not agree on anything about the term, surely making any theoretical development impossible. At this point I have to wonder that it took 6 years of journal articles before the academic community recognized its futility, though I am sure some denied their intellectual torpor as they pursued easy publication on a sexy topic. To be fair, Richard Dawkins, who originated the term, only wanted to give a term to cultural transmission, and only that. Perhaps neuroscience will be able to help us more in the future if we show enough integrity not blather away about it so now and work to understand what culture really is.

Why quibble now, you ask. I recently read James Gleick’s interesting book Information. He does a very good job presenting the beginnings of information theory as seen in the genius of Charles Babbage and especially Claude Shannon and an okay job of its subsequent development. I found his rendition of its extension into the biological sciences lacking and I really found his discussion of memes tedious, and, after thinking about culture and how it is biological, I became even more disenchanted with memes.

Consider what Gleick refers to as a meme: ideas that are passed on, i.e., replicate, such as religion (to be fair, Gleick follows Dawkins in this), musical tunes, catchphrases, images, in short any delimited packet of information that catches on to become an invariant form operating between minds, an invariant form of some complexity so that a simple idea is not a meme and a hula hoop is not a meme because it is not information. (Wait a minute, James, I thought one main thesis in this book was that everything was information?)

I did like his book overall and recommend it and I want to give it credit for stimulating me to re-examine this now tiresome concept of the ‘meme.’ The analogy between genetic transmission and cultural transmission is really not that deep; it is actually misleading as I think about it. A meme is generally taken to be a symbolic thing, and that entails a surface and deep structure. The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th is fate knocking on the door, or at least that is the meme. But consider, please, that musical phrase in context, in the rest of the piece and then the incredible melodies in later movements and that memic symbolization of fate shrinks to insignificance; it is only a amusing hook with little purpose. Sure, the opening is much recognized, but then the deep structure of this amputated form is a short-circuited semantic memory obscuring the work’s remarkable artistic import. Just like another popular memic example, ‘jumping the shark’, the deep-surface relationship is at best shallow. We mistake the electronic image, which does indeed spread virally, as standing for culture and I think that is altogether a misconception. The current concept of meme is only conceivable in this age of electronic communication. Even the meme of Beethoven’s 5th opening bars depends upon sound recording.

Consider other views of what may be termed cultural transmission in the examples of emotional and pragmatic expression and social stigma. I am thinking here of cultures where emotional expression is inhibited, making members’ affect hard to read at times, or where expressions of grief are most properly loud keening as opposed to silent suffering. Some cultures find close physical proximity while conversing normal while others stipulate greater distance. Some eat only with the right hand. Some prohibit showing the soles of your shoes unless you want to instigate trouble with our disrespect. I see these as cultural practices with bare symbolic operations, if indeed any.

Consider also our culture’s stigma against those with mental illness, especially how hard it is to displace. For years as a psychologist I worked to disperse that stigma by presenting the data refuting misconceptions (yeah, I know, spitting into the wind), and I continue to admire those who work to mitigate that stigma and so enhance people’s willingness to seek early intervention or to hire without fear. Again, this is cultural but not memic, and this distinction reinforces further my impression that memes are actually all about our amusement, not our understanding of culture.

Genes control the generation of a somatic vehicle for their replication. Good enough. Memes control nothing; they convey vaguely defined notions. Genes spread through two tests, one is their coherence with the rest of the genome and the other is the adaptability of the somatic vehicle in the environment. Ideas and memes have some analogous properties here, but I think, at least as cultural units, memes are more a part of the environmental context as they are cultural vehicles carrying culture forth. Human societies are complex and operate in multiple symbolic and non-symbolic domains. Given this view, memes are wind driven ripples across the waves and tides of human culture; they are noticeable given the white froth of their peaks but dissipate soon enough while the cultural ocean rolls on.

I postpone the discussion of another cultural phenomenon that troubles us, that of race, and so until next time, travel on.



Many ancestors and they were busy

Several stories from recent Science News issues paint a picture of human ancestors 2.8 million years ago shaping stone tools as their brains grew in size, and then around 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens crowded out Neanderthals with the help of dogs (says one author).  The 3/21/15 issues has a story about finding a human gene that promotes larger brains which wrinkle it up to squeeze it all in.  A chimpanzee has a similar gene but it does not promote as much growth.  They found this out by injecting the genes into mouse embryos (remember the movie, Secret of NIMH?).  Further research on our variant indicates that it appeared in our lineage about 5 million years ago around when our stock split off from the chimpanzees.  One researcher points out our brains did not really begin to increase in size until 2 million years ago so this gene was not fully functional, maybe, for 3 million years.

skulls of different hominds

skulls of different hominds

Two articles in the 4/4/15 issue speak to the 3 million year mark.  One is about the controversy on how to classify a newly found fossil from 2.8 million years ago.  Is it part of Homo, which was just emerging from the gene pool, or an ancestor like the Lucy fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, or some transitional species in between?  In that same issue is a story about research into tools, presumably from some hominid line.  Though stone tool industry increased noticeably in the archeological record around 40,000 years ago, some shaped stone tools have been dated back to 2.6 million years ago.  Wow, I had not realized tool making was that old an art.  The story tells of the controversy between those who classify the tools by time/location and those who say that is not very informative and instead classify by the techniques used to form the tool.  Several of this latter group are expert stone ‘knappers’ themselves and that seems a good study.

Tool use in modern humans is supported by the left parietal lobe, the center for praxis.  If I remember my brain evolution correctly, our brain’s early enlargement came in the parietal lobe and then the temporal lobe, then later on frontal areas expanded.

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

Where these two lobes meet is where language abstraction is centered in Wernicke’s area.  So we have a gene which promotes brain growth in the embryo beginning to come on strong around 3 million years ago and shortly thereafter tool making appears.  We do not know how such creatures organized socially nor how they communicated.  We can be sure that empathic connectedness had emerged and that tool making techniques continued to develop over this time suggests cultural transmission and change.  Quite a history a long ways back.

Also in the 4/4/15 issue is a review of a book by anthropologist Pat Shipman who traces the domestication of dogs to 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens left Africa and migrated into Europe.  Shipman finds linkages between modern humans and dogs and the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and large mammals like mammoths and cave bears.  Thus, the “Fido hypothesis” offers some explanation as to Homo sapiens ascendance during that time.  Oh, and other articles in those two issues speak about dogs’ abilities to read our emotions.  Yes, early humans traveled far and wide and met many friends along the way.  Travel on.

Cultural change


Pete Seger died a day or so ago.  Funny how in his choosing to remember some old styles and tunes thereby ensuring the cultural transmission of some old ways, Mr. Seger participated in changing the cultural melody.  I heard part of a relatively recent interview with him on the radio yesterday.  The interviewer (Terri Gross) talked with him about his song, “If I had a hammer,” reporting that it had been recorded many, many times since coming out, when it had been regarded as a dangerous, subversive song.  When asked about what instigated the negative reaction Mr. Seger said he did not exactly know, then he said that the song does talk about justice and freedom, which some people take as an attack on their integrity and culture.  Here he mentioned how some of the white power structure in the country and especially the deep south worried about communism, race mixing, racial equality and those blacks and whites who supported it.  He then reflected that things really had changed some since then.  Thank you Mr. Seger