2 genetic studies and a bit of poetry

One study demonstrates how an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics, and the other demonstrates, gee, I don’t know, the value of humility in scientific reasoning? For the first see NYT:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/science/skin-color-race.html.  These researchers studied which genes influenced skin color across several populations. The details are interesting so please read the article for more. Basically they found that we, including Neandertals, all have many of the same genes for lighter and darker skin, but they express differently in different populations because of other genetic factors. The gene promoting the lightest skin tones are actually very recent, appearing, they think, roughly 30,000 years ago primarily in northern European peoples and have spread because of the advantage conferred by the ability to absorb more ultraviolet light that is more limited in northern latitudes.

Their search for understanding also leads them to an important conclusion about ethics. Skin color is not a good indicator of racial differences; I don’t know what is but it is not our skins because we all share so many of the same genes influencing this particular trait. The scientists here have contributed importantly to the growing understanding that our definitions of race are based more on our proclivity for defining in-group/out-group in a discriminatory, defensive manner and not on any significant biological facts. To paraphrase Te-Nehisi Coates: the concept of race is an invention of racists, i.e., one group of people wants to define another artificially in order to rationalize their own greed for power and exploitation. (See post here on race 5/17/17). As Monod hoped, an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics. I wonder when our ancestors first used skin color to define in/out-groups—I bet it was relatively recently. Remember Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neandertals some 35,000 years ago so that speaks to some inclusion.

The second study is a bit more puzzling to me. I have seen it reported a couple of places such as earthsky.com: http://earthsky.org/human-world/aging-breakthrough-mainz-genes-autophagy.   These researchers studied the aging process. Why is it that our molecular mechanisms begin to break down after a relatively predictable amount of time? They found some genes, studying a worm, that promote autophagy, the process whereby the body eliminates damaged or malfunctioning cells and allows new ones to regenerate the systems. This functions very well in young organisms but falls off after reproductive age and even more with older age. It is important to note here, I think, that we humans have a relatively long juvenile pattern before our reproductive age and we do seem to live long after that age has passed. This research is an important contribution towards understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases and such.

But I have a quibble here. Aging and death are described as a “quirk” of evolution because according to their rendition of Darwin’s theory, living longer would enable more of one’s genes to be replicated and passed on: “In theory, this should give rise to individuals with traits which prevent aging as their genes could be passed on nearly continuously. Thus, despite the obvious facts to the contrary, from the point of evolution aging should never have happened”. Ah, now, if this is orthodox, let me put forward the heterodox. From the point of view of evolution, longer lived individuals would slow down the evolving adaptability, so that as conditions changed but the genomes remained the same, the organism would be left high and dry, so to speak, and less well adapted. There is no “point of evolution” except to hold off entropy and continue the genetic line into the future. To do this the soma must ameliorate exigencies and exploit chance. Nothing here speaks to long life as a necessarily positive trait and everything else speaks to evolutionary change as an important facet to life passing by on Gaia. Consider what the longer life spans and increasing survival rates of humans mean for our increasingly overpopulated planet. Consider the dysfunction of monoculture in agriculture. Consider the lack of genetic change over 50 million years in cockroaches with their prolonged adaptability. This is what the ‘quirk’ saves us from.

Clearly a limited life span is an integral part of evolutionary mechanics and not a quirk. With the rise of human consciousness and the realization that our life is but one act with a beginning and end, some humans have sought to escape those bounds. Consider the idiotic superstition of Ponce de Leon, then the dignity of an Inuit elder who, in times of famine, wanders off into the snowy land so that younger ones have a better chance of survival. Consider the death with dignity movement nowadays. We are better when grounded in the knowledge that death is natural even as we promote health. And while an ethic of knowledge can lead to knowledge of ethics, that can also go astray. The vital impulse to live is strong but limited. The spark of life shines and burns to an end; that is life and that is the universe. Best we remember that.

I remember a statement by Charles Sanders Pierce around 1900 that should we live forever, everything that we know would pass, that institutions and groups would break down, and we would be left with an ongoing and growing sense of loss. Instead, said Pierce, we have death. Finally remember the bears and then travel on while we may:

 

I am some bears,

One at a time per occasion, if you catch my drift,

But still I am some bears,

Like polar or black or panda or grizzly or teddy

Or Kodiak brown or koala;

Oh yes, I am.

 

On occasions of white and my world harsh with cold,

I pad about on grainy sharp ice,

Protected by fur and fat from the fury of a young arctic storm,

Mindful ever that the possibilities and necessities of life

Crystallize briefly on earth.

 

When beneath the gloriously coloured forest,

I splash and swim to feast on fish and plant,

When tickled by the warm bright sunlight near summer’s solstice,

I roll on my back and bare my belly

To the world’s richness.

 

After such occasions, slowed by the sweet tastes

of berries and nuts

I amble through thickets and savour the lushness

of plant and fruit

Until I sleep in the heat of the season,

Sweetly complacent about winter’s approach,

Dreaming of life’s possibilities and necessities.

Oh yes, I do.

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.