Sunday, February 3, 2008

I Am Not A Scientist

And sometimes I wish I was a scientist. Oh well. I'm not ready to give up on the entertainment business just yet.

Anyway, I was hoping a science-minded person (Ryan? Justin?) could help explain genetics to me.

On the one hand, science eradicates the notion of 'race' with genetic data suggesting human populations are equally diverse. In other words, there's as much genetic variation in Asians as there are in Africans, Anglo-Saxons etc. That makes sense to me.

What I find somewhat incongruous, no doubt a result of my ignorance, is the fact that the dissimilarities between peoples - eyelids, noses, skin color - have a genetic basis which can become isolated in gene pools.

Now, my argument against racism usually amounts to "the gene pools are still accessible, and becoming more accessible, so the differences among populations are small and fluid. The use of 'race' as a categorizing technique is therefore ultimately pointless"

But what I'm trying to ask, is how is it that we can declare there is no such thing as a genetically based "race," yet the small differences we can identify between relatively isolated populations have a genetic basis?

What am I missing?


SuiginChou said...

I don't get it; are you asking "Why is that we insist there is no such thing as race and we do so from genetic arguments" ? If you are, I'm not following you: the poet or the civil rights activist may write that race is a facade, but the geneticist would be the first person to tell you that certain genes determine certain racial traits.

That stated, it is entirely possible for a person of one race to have more in common with a person of another race than with a person of his own race. That's what the author of the essay you linked is trying to push as part of her agenda against race (as a concept). She's correctly saying that a black male and a white male may have more in common with one another than either does with his own racial community. And that's true. But that doesn't change the fact that one is white and the other is black.

Here is the problem with the essay you've linked: it tries to convince readers that there is no merit in creating grouping systems for which the members of a group are only similar to one another by 1 element (e.g. skin color). Let me give you an example of what I mean:

Let's take color words. We could segregate them by hues (e.g. red, scarlet, and crimson are Reds while blue, cerulean, and sapphire are Blues), but this is only one thing they share in common out of many. This woman proposes that we should therefore abandon the notion of hues. Because it is useless to segregate words based on only one commonality. (She argues, "What is to keep us from grouping pink and blue together since they're both 4-letter words? Or crimson and cerulean since they both start with the letter 'c'?) Any child will tell you that she is spouting propoganda-nonsense, though: "Lady!" the kid shouts, "grouping by the colors is just one easy, if arbitrary, way of doing things!"

If she wants to argue that race is arbitrary, I quite agree. If she wants to argue that race has been a damaging view in history so far, I would agree there, too. But if she wants to argue that race is imagined, and that genetics proves it, she is either mistaken or a liar. Race is no more imagined than blood types, nor is it any more disproven by genetics than is gender.

Indeed, that is her very claim: "genetics has proven that Ryan has more in common with Amanda than he does with Jay or Matt, so gender is a lie."

Now do you see?

Jay said...

I think your second paragraph cleared things up for me. My issue is: a lot of intellectuals in debates I've listened to, and in programs I've watched (such as Bill Nye's new show) sort of say something along the lines of "science proves race and racism are defunct world views" but they rarely explain the specifics behind the science that allow for such statements.

In this way, the term "science" becomes a kind of blunt instrument in arguments. "Oh, what, you don't agree with Science?" But the great thing about science is its explanatory power. You don't have to go straight to an argument from authority, you should be able to explain how science has derived a conclusion. And I don't think people do a good job of that.

SuiginChou said...

Proponents against racism (by which we mean "subscribing to an ideology of race") argue that genetic studies have rendered racism defunct because it reveals race for the arbitrary classification scheme it is.

To argue against racism on the grounds that is arbitrary is, in my view, both good and solid. But one has to be careful and not cross the line, calling race "imaginary" or "something the empowered whites made up to suppress the powerless blacks." It's really just how the cards fell, and it makes sense -- the things we ascribe to "race" (i.e. skin color, hair color, shape of facial features) are the most visible parts of the human. It makes sense that our ancestors would create groupings based on what they could see rather than what they couldn't; it's a bit silly of modern civil rights activists to claim that "we might have been segregated by blood type if things had been different." How different!? Different enough that blood would be different colors for different typings? That's what you would have needed for history to play out differently.

More in my next reply.

SuiginChou said...

Before the middle of the 20th century, bacteria were classified according to several factors:
(1) shape
(2) how they stained in histologic preparations (the most famous being the Gram stain)
(3) what disease they caused (where in the body, what it did, how it could be diagnosed)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of the thoroughness and "proper academic feeling" of their method. But I think you can imagine what I'm about to tell you: that there may be (and in fact there are) bacteria which look the same, cause the same problems in humans, even stain the same in culture, and yet are completely unrelated relative to another organizational scheme.

And in this situation, that other scheme happens to be the genetic analysis scheme.

Bacteriology texts from before the mid-20th century are almost useless to a modern physician not because what was said was wrong, but because all of the names have changed. And the names have all changed because scientists the world over agreed that it would be "more correct" to group bacteria based on their genetic closeness than on features like size, shape, staining, and disease caused.

In a very real sense, bacteria were "racially" grouped, and those walls were broken down by genetics and the bacteria reorganized.

But as I mentioned in the previous reply (here we come, full circle!), can we really blame our predecessors for grouping the bacteria as they did? Of course not! You work with what you've got! With what you can see! With what you know! Just as we "know" today that A and B are more similar than B and C, so too did our ancestors "know" differently! And so too will our descendants probably "know" things differently!

In the end, the H. sapiens brain has evolved to put things into groups. We see it in chimpanzees and gorillas, this idea of putting likes together. Be it by color, by shape, by texture, by functional use, primates group things. It has proven to be an evolutionary advantage, but by definition any group is arbitrarily assigned! The Universe doesn't operate in "groups"!!!

I guess I'll end on that thought with another science example: astronomy. We say that Ptolemy got it wrong and Copernicus got it right, but really, it's all relative. You can create a set of (complex!) equations that will treat the Earth as though it is the center of the solar system and make predictions as to the Sun's, Moon's, and other planets' positions. We simply say that Copernicus was right because his model made things simpler. And we're of a mindset that "the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one." So too was it with the bacteria being reclassified. And so too is it when any scheme for organizing data replaces an older one. It's usually not a matter of the old one being wrong or the new one being right -- because "rightness" and "wrongness" are relative. It's usually the case that either:

a) the old model didn't explain things as correctly (e.g. Einstein's more-complex-but-much-more-accurate theory of relativity outdoing Newton's laws of physics)


b) the old model was just as correct as this new one, but the new one makes things simpler (e.g. Ptolemy said the Earth was the center of the universe, Copernicus the Sun, and Copernicus's model made the math a lot simpler ... for the local bodies in the heavens, at least. Turns out he was still "wrong" [or at least wrong relative to modern science ;D] when he claimed the Sun as the center of the Universe.)