Based on emerging science and new genetic understanding, a black man from Jamaica can be more closely linked to a white Englishman than to a black Nigerian. That’s because skin color is not a determining biological human factor any more than environment or culture.
That’s one insight from the new book “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes,” by Adam Rutherford.
The notion of meaningfully identifying human beings based on race is a flawed categorization for understanding individuals. The mob that marched through Charlottesville spewing Fascist, white supremacist slogans in August was not just morally abhorrent but was apparently ignorant of basic understanding of science and genetics.
“Nature versus nurture” comes from flawed intellectual rigor, as does the notion of white supremacy.
“Genetics has shown that people are different and these differences cluster according to geography and culture but never in a way that aligns with the traditional concepts of human races,” Rutherford writes, noting human ancestry is a “matted web,” not a simple tree. Because of this complexity, there is no “group of people on Earth that can be defined by their DNA in a scientifically satisfactory way.”
Why does this matter? Because we’ve been looking at a host of human attributes incorrectly. When we are wrong from the earliest assumption, we’ll arrive at a wrong conclusion.
What if alcoholism is not a genetic weakness of Native Americans, Tay-Sachs is not primarily a Jewish disease, obesity, addiction, homosexuality, and compulsiveness are not genetic? What if those characteristics are linked to culture and environment more closely than to genes? Then honest efforts at solutions need to refocus more urgently on creating cultural and societal equality. If prisons are filled disproportionately with African American men, that’s the result of viewing the problem of crime incorrectly and arriving at flawed solutions.
Our genes are not our destiny. In fact, our genes are all co-mingled, and all of us are descendants of one pool of ancestors just a few thousand years ago.
Rutherford notes that Charles Darwin’s study of genetics led him to become an ardent abolitionist. However, his half-cousin Francis Galton studied genetics and developed the concept of “eugenics” and “nature versus nurture.”
Rutherford calls “nature versus nurture” a concept that has plagued genetics ever since.
The more Rutherford dismantles race as a meaningful identifier, the more clearly we see society as the primary creator of inequality.
Failing to accurately understand a problem means attempts at solutions are doomed to failure. It’s hard to grasp the dimensions of institutional racism in this country when we don’t understand it, and we deny it exists.
America has a long and sordid history of racism. Maybe the best way to start becoming a better country is to recognize the problem. We could follow the example of Germany where teaching about the Holocaust and Nazis is mandatory in schools. Students study the Holocaust in classrooms and visit concentration camps and Holocaust memorials. There is little in-depth mandatory teaching in American schools about the brutal atrocities of slavery.
When Donald Trump derides immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador and Africa, he fails to understand those locations are his own genetic origins.