Wednesday, 29 November 2017

It's Time For A Post-Racial World

It’s time that humanity moved forward with its understanding of how humans define one another. Here’s some practical advice - it certainly works for me. Ditch the term ‘race’ when trying to define individuals according to their skin colour or nationality. The word ‘race’ has too many negative connotations and associative misunderstandings about what humans are and how they treat one another - it's time to wise up!

It’s far better to use the word ‘race’ in terms of our being the human race, although personally I prefer to say the human species. Either way, race or species refers to us humans as a collective, and with that, all the shared genetics, behaviours, evolutionary legacies, hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities and curiosities that bring about a kind of oneness implicit in our species.

After that, we have a breakdown of different types of human, where race used to mean anything from skin colour, to facial features, to wherever on the planet someone comes from. Needless to say, there is a word that adequately covers a breakdown of the human species in terms of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition - and that word is ‘ethnicity’, which includes one’s heritage, and 'nationality' which includes the status of belonging to a particular nation.

People from Germany or Canada or Ethiopia have a different nationality, ethnicity and heritage, but they are all part of the same human race. That’s why, when a child is born from a German father and an Ethiopian mother, they are dual heritage, not mixed race.

Skin colour is also nothing to do with race. Skin colour is to do with a number of genetic factors, which is linked to ethnicity too - but at a genetic level, melanin is the primary determiner of skin colour. If the human race is the only viable definition of race, and if skin colour is genetically determined, then racial discrimination on the basis of skin colour is a foolish, short-sighted misnomer.

I mentioned genetics, and genetics is another way that the human race can be broken down into categories. There are relatively very few differences in the number of genes between organisms. The human genome has 3 billion nucleotides but only somewhere between 20,000-25,0000 genes. A gene is a rather arbitrary designation anyway - it simply means a series of nucleotides that code a protein. Most evolutionary changes are the result of gene duplications, inversions and translocations.

The pretexts that people have used (and sadly still use) to determine a basis of racial discrimination are both arbitrary and ill-conceived. Their definitions bear no relation to similarity or diversity in the genetic populations. For example, generally speaking, there is more genetic diversity between a man in Nigeria and a man in Kenya than there is between a man in Nigeria and a man in Belgium, Holland or Spain.

This is because humans originated in Africa, and there have been longer execution times for mutations to have occurred in Africa than in the shorter time that humans have migrated to Europe. The longer the time for mutations, the greater the genetic diversity - so perceived genetic similarity as a basis for racial discrimination is also absurd, and always has been.

So, let's recap: skin colour is down to genes; ethnicity and heritage is where in the world you come from and the culture(s) with which you identify, and the only way that race should have any meaning is in recognising that human beings are one species, and that what makes us different is miniscule compared with all the things that make us remarkably similar.

Now we have got all that straight, let's all use the appropriate language to help move towards a post-racial world, where our place of birth, our skin colour, our nationality, culture and heritage, and our genetic features are not tools for contention and division - and where someone can get engaged to someone else of a different heritage and no one thinks even the slightest thing of it.  

EDIT TO ADD: There have been a few people (although far in the minority) unhappy with me that I am triviallising 'race' as a valid genetic subspecies description.

Indeed, yes, I am, because even a sketchy understanding of genetics will tell you that race does not easily conform to a genetic subspecies description. If genetics is the way one wants to frame this, then 'race' as a synonym for subspecies is very unsound genetically. A genetic basis for demarcating race is nothing like as pronounced as you may think. Genetic variations among populations that are spuriously called different races are much smaller than is often imagined, and this will continue to narrow more and more as we move forward as a species and become even more globally diversified.

As I hinted in the Blog, the genetic differences between a person from Nigeria and a person from Sweden are frequently fewer on average than the genetic differences between many sets of people who onlookers might say are from the same race based on all kinds of loose descriptive terms. Genetics demonstrates that what you might call race blend seamlessly together through all sorts of genotypic variations - the change is a continuum.  

There is relatively very limited genetic variation in the human species in terms of what people habitually call race with regard to genetic markers. The odds are the genetic difference between you and an equatorial African is not greater than the genetic difference between you and your next door neighbour who you may well call the same race.

Evolution has played a long percentage game in shaping us over hundreds of thousands of years, and compared to all the ways humans are similar, nothing about human beings in any area you'd care to mention is genotypically, phenotypically or psychologically distinct enough to warrant more than a tenuous acknowledgement of fairly trivial differences. Further, most of what humans define as races are a hotchpotch of localities, not even terribly distinct ones. The vast majority of this diversity reflects individual genotypical uniqueness far more than it does the race definition.

Degrees of genetic differentiation are primarily about containing some unique alleles or sometimes different frequencies of alleles. What is actually required is a level of genetic differentiation that is well above the degree of genetic differences that actually exist among what people who observe local populations call a 'race'.

The next time someone tries to tell you that race is an established definition for subdivisions of the human species, ask them the following: using the criterion of genetic differentiation alone, what sufficient delineation would you posit as satisfactory to define a race within the human species? It is very unlikely you'll get an answer, and if you do, it won't be an empirically satisfactory genetically distinctive subdivision of homo sapiens, as there is also no classification of DNA sample that is amenable to a straightforwardly defined racial population or racial phenotype.

And finally, even if we're super-generous to the point of choosing to ignore all of the above, it is still the case that nationality, ancestry, ethnicity, heritage and skin colour perfectly well cover the definitions required, and do so better than the more ambiguous, and sometimes totally incorrect, term race.

Put it this way. If I asked a random selection of people to name an instance when race is used without there being a less ambiguous alternative, people would struggle. On the other hand, if I asked a random selection of people to name cases where race was used to describe something that is better defined by another term, no one would have any trouble naming an example.

This is what I think is going to start to change in the coming decades. Language is always evolving, and many of the terms that get modified are done so because their original appearance came at a time when humans understood a lot less about these things. And this in a world that is becoming ever more connected and genetically diverse.