The race for Humanity: Thoughts on the marathon

Older it may seem, the discussion about the use of racial categorization in our species is ongoing. Such is, to a great extent, due to the lack of objectivity of race as a concept and the need for a holistic approach to examine it. Even if no definitive answer may be provided on whether its appliance is legitimate or not, an alternative approach can be advanced: seek to better inform about the fascinating diversity existent within our species, and the difficulties our cognitive system faces when processing it. The race for Humanity is a series of articles in which the reader is invited to take this path and formulate an opinion even beyond that expressed by the author. Its second part focuses on race as a biological construct.


Introduction

Before I express my opinion about the subject (this time explicitly), there are three things I wish to alert every reader to have in mind whenever a discussion about racial categorization takes place. First of all, there are cultural biases polluting our perception on the matter, to which surely I am not immune. As pointed in the previous part, the methods chosen to collect genetic data deeply influence how different Human populations will group [1]. In fact, Morning [2] pointed out that we can never be sure on how these clusters are a product of an objective genetic analysis, because even the statistical procedures used to process the data are affected by culturally-acquired assumptions about Human differences and evolutionary history. In fact, it is erroneous to think that the racial categories one uses to are universal. Different cultures produce distinct categorizations, which denounces a certain degree of arbitrariness.

For example, in the United States, before 1790, the socio-political categories present in the census were free White males, free White females, all other free persons, and slaves; changing, after the civil war, to White, Black, Mulatto, Chinese, Indian; adding after, in accordance with successive migration waves, Mexican (1930), plus Hispanics (1980) [3]. Thus, there was a shift from a hierarchy-oriented division, to one based on the main immigrant groups. Contrastingly, in Brazil, the socio-political categories were simply colour-oriented: Brancos (White), Pardos (grizzly, multiracial), Pretos (Black), Caboclos (descendent of Whites and indigenous), Amarelos (yellow, Asians), and Indigenous [3]. Thus, I must state that, despite having made a huge effort to be impartial, I probably somehow failed. Indeed, the articles chosen to base this work, and how they were processed, were partially guided by my personal beliefs, which comprise the desire to reject the existence of Human races.

Second aspect, it is also relevant to think of reasons why to categorize could be useful. Other than our impulse to simplify reality by delineating discrete unites, of course. Well, some argue that admitting the existence of Human races is necessary to respond to racial gaps, providing better educational and economic support for instances [4]. I find this argument worrying, as such response would very probably be embedded in an extremely paternalistic attitude. Another utility could be within the biomedical frame, so to improve treatments and disease prevention. However, Braun [4] alerted that these genetically-oriented procedures are frequently inefficient, referring that the “narratives of diseases thought to be specific to particular racial groups for reasons of inherited predisposition (…) have been subsequently discredited as changed political, economic, and social conditions allowed a reinterpretation of the science (…).” She continues by affirming that the usual approaches consist of studying genetic susceptibility and collateral effects of cultural practices, and very rarely the interaction between social conditions, power relations, and health is examined. Notably, this critic responds to the previous point. Even if there were consistent contrasts between groups from diverse ancestry, endless potential confounding variables could be underlying the racial effect; as it was argued in the first part.

Final aspect, one should reflect on why we tend to approach this theme in such a passionate way. Why are we so sensitive about the possible existence of racial categories in our species? Indeed, it is very difficult to provide an answer to myself! Still, it lies somewhere between the ghosts of past historical traumas, culturally imprinted; the fascination about Human diversity, and the conviction that it is incommensurable, so no better groups can be discriminated; and, my internal need for reciprocity, justice, and equality. Also, the idea that our species can get fragmented, differentiating into several others, is mysteriously unbearable. Just as if it were a loss of identity. Nevertheless, it must be considered that the existence of races established on the basis of external traits does not compromise the possibility that a common Human Nature is shared by all groups.

Why don’t we sum up everything so far?

In The race for Humanity it wasn’t, by any means, denied that there are many between-groups differences within our species. On the contrary, one of the biggest points was that Human diversity is so chaotic, it becomes impossible to establish borders defining rational categories. Interestingly, even the rate at which each group is diverging shows a great variability [5]. Such is not surprising, for not only populations greatly differ in the degree of geographical isolation, as the tolerance for intermarriage is highly changeable from culture to culture. Another paramount aspect discussed, was that psychological contrasts tend to lack consistency and are deeply influenced by socioeconomic aspects [6], not necessarily genetic ones. Moreover, as a species adapted to a wide range of environments, many frequently changing considerably, we have developed an appreciable biological plasticity – which can partially explain some phenotypical distinctions between Human groups without requiring genetic differences [7]. Additionally, the genetic distance between Human populations shows a pattern of serial migration phenomena sharing the same origin, rather than a differentiation by isolation [8]. This was described here as a matryoshka distribution of Human diversity. In conclusion, we have seen that a significant share of Human diversity can be explained by adaptations to environmental conditions, socioeconomic aspects, and cultural influences.

Then, we have seen that, when interacting with unknown people, race-encoding was not mandatory, likewise sex [9]. Therefore, it was suggested to be a side-effect of our psychological mechanisms designed to search for coalitional cues [10]. As a highly social species, through our evolutionary history there surely was a marked demand for psychological abilities to highlight potential allies. And, once they emerged, it’s not exactly a plot twist the fact they were accompanied by discriminatory behaviours, as byproducts. Ironically, this means that the inclinations leading us to be cooperative (to whom we judge to deserve) may have the same source as those of nepotism. It all depends on the direction our prejudices point us in.  Thus, it is fair to advance that a true philanthropist must face the dark-side of Human Nature, finding a way to break the chains of prejudice and re-accommodate a series of psychological artefacts.

Human Nature – deal with it?

To face our Human Nature is, to a great extent, to re-shape our prejudice machinery. But how? Well, it is probably a matter of education – in which there is no better teacher than ourselves! Hopefully, during these articles I have successfully depictured prejudice as a set of cognitive biases blinding our intelligence. On the other hand, it would be silly not to recognise that our brain, being bombarded with tons of information, once in a while requires the shortcuts prejudice offers. And no, we cannot simply perform a lobotomy and remove them out. Neither should we try to suppress them with infinite doses of political correctness – that, in my modest opinion, can only end up very badly! In fact, I see no difference between political correctness and religious moral oppression. Furthermore, to me, it seems common understanding that religious rules may produce docile individuals, albeit not keeping them from being ethically dubious. Or pricks, if you prefer. Hence, I advocate for an alternative way: Instead of rules-based repression (be them informal or formalized into laws), the emancipation through humour. And this is a very serious joke!

I deeply sympathize with a statement made by Žižek in several of his videos: We should pay the tribute we have to pay to all the bad tasteness we carry inside. To which I add: Avoiding to hurt those around us; nonetheless, in case it happens, I swear it is not the end of the World! No, we can always rely on a very interesting Human capacity called confrontation. Discuss and solve what is to be solved, assuring that both intervenients finish the conversation as better Humans Beings. Although such doesn’t come easy within some cultures (ahm, Anglo-Saxon ones) (or maybe these were just some of my personal prejudices taking over the keyboard), it is worth the effort! Again, rather than norms constraining our prejudices, we need openness to debate them, so we can finally master our less-desired impulses.

Additionally, I would like to propose a re-shaping of prejudice, as represented in Figure 1. In order to do so, I try to channel the prejudice towards social constructs rather than individuals. In other words, I avoid assuming that prejudices act directly into the objective reality. Thus, although I may have a certain set of prejudices for concepts such as masculine and feminine, I start by admitting that every individual has a unique combination of characteristics extracted from both constructs. Then, despite recognizing that, according to the sex, the mixture will tend to one side or the other, I try by all means not to let my cognitive system excessively biasing me when confronting the a priori model with reality – the individual, that unique Cosmos! The same goes for aspects connected with provenance. Because of climate and historical factors, it is possible to create a series of predictions on how a certain society functions. However, it is commonly accepted that all individuals inside a given society do not have the same behavioural patterns – some even deliberately jump off to join another, according to their personal preferences.

The race for Humanity: re-shaping prejudice
Figure 1: Suggested model for a rational use of prejudice. The blue tone decreases with the objectivity associated with each concept. Social constructs are extracted from the reality, as a smaller representation of it made by each society. Prejudices are contained within the individual, who applies them to the social constructs producing a priori ideas about the World, so to simplify the navigation in it. However, these ideas must be confronted with reality, so to be able to assure they are as useful as accurate representations of the real World. The problems arise when the individual assumes the inner prejudices to be acting directly into the objective World; and when the a priori ideas produced stop being empirically challenged, cutting the flow that allows prejudice to be realistic.

Continuing these ideas with another practical case: I may criticize many cultural aspects of the Anglo-Saxonic way of structuring society – still, what is essential is that this doesn’t mean at all that I tend to dislike people from those origins; to be able to keep the two universes apart. Actually, I take pleasure in seeing the model failing, as if it were a hymn to freewill – because nothing is fully predictable! One final point: We must be careful about the variables we choose our prejudices to work on, focusing strictly on those likely to be informative, while seeking to reject the futile ones! In their potential to provide cues, some can be too vague, like skin colour; others too narrow, such as the day and time of birth (by the way, I would like to classify astrology as an ancient model of prejudice).

In conclusion, if prejudice is a part of Human Nature that we cannot simply cancel, then, the best solution is to apply the scientific method, transforming it into a model of predictions in constant update; accordingly to the empirical experience. As for the hypotheses rejected along the way, or about to be, the best thing to do is to digest them with humorous enzymes.

The race for Humanity?

I will end by doing what I should have done at the very beginning: To explain what is, for me, The race for Humanity. It is something like a marathon, a very long distance to fulfil. The goal is to fit Humanity as a whole in our group psychology. Nurturing the true feeling that, first of all, we belong to football club Humanity. In fact, another thing that worries me about political correctness and identity politics is that, instead of seeking to discard irrelevant criteria through which boundaries are commonly built, they actually make them more salient. In my opinion, this is running in the wrong direction.

A shared sense of belonging, rooted in a deep appreciation for Human diversity, may be a more interesting path. Despite recognizing that it is very hard to bend the dark-side of our group psychology, correct our tendencies for nepotism, rationalize prejudice, and ease the Human need for dominance – I think it is a dream worth pursuing! Whichever are the challenges we have to face, one big hope shall remain: That, in the long run, the best pace one can adopt is to cooperate. Without altruism, Life can easily become a prison of endless scheming. Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, it can be argued that the demand for adaptability to multicultural environments – and, consequently, for tolerance – is increasing.

Science, on the other hand, should keep impartially studying the Human matryoshka, and how in the past we differentiated from other Homo groups. For instance, it would be paramount to better understand our shared evolutionary history with the Neandertals [11] and Denisovans [12]. As in any other race, one should never forget to warm up first; meaning, to try to neutrally read a wide range of opinions, so to be well informed about the steps to come. The truth is that the concept of subspecies, in definition, application, and utility, is not consensual within the scientific community [13]. Furthermore, Kindler and Fritz [14] alerted for its volatility, statting that “(…) subspecies are still fully capable of extensive gene fow and may disappear in the evolutionary process as a consequence of secondary contact.” Hence, we should be extra-careful about its appliance to our species. While not having any taxonomic utility, an artificial racial categorization could still contribute to deepen the boundaries between the Human population. Although, reality tends to be overwhelmingly complex, we shall give our best, producing an accurate representation of it; using all the mental and technological tools at our disposition. After all, society is the sum of each the intelligence of each individual; which the reason why we should never despise our role for the present and future generations. Therefore: Ready, set, go!

References in the final part of The race for Humanity

[1] Serre, D., & Pääbo, S. (2004). Evidence for gradients of human genetic diversity within and among continents. Genome research, 14(9), 1679-1685.

[2] Morning, A. (2014). And you thought we had moved beyond all that: Biological race returns to the social sciences. Ethnic and Racial Studies37(10), 1676-1685.

[3] Nobles, M. (2000). Shades of citizenship: Race and the census in modern politics (pp. 28, 44, 104). Stanford University Press.

[4] Braun, L. (2002). Race, ethnicity, and health: can genetics explain disparities?. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine45(2), 159-174.

[5] Long, J. C., Li, J., & Healy, M. E. (2009). Human DNA sequences: more variation and less race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology139(1), 23-34.

[6] Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology69(5), 797.

[7] Wells, J. C., & Stock, J. T. (2012). The biology of human migration: the ape that won’t commit (pp. 21-44). In Crawford, M. H., & Campbell, B. C. (Eds.) (2012). Causes and consequences of human migration: An evolutionary perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[8] Ramachandran, S., Deshpande, O., Roseman, C. C., Rosenberg, N. A., Feldman, M. W., & Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (2005). Support from the relationship of genetic and geographic distance in human populations for a serial founder effect originating in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(44), 15942-15947.

[9] Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Kurzban, R. (2003). Perceptions of race. Trends in cognitive sciences7(4), 173-179.

[10] Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences98(26), 15387-15392.

[11] Green, R. E., Krause, J., Briggs, A. W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., … & Hansen, N. F. (2010). A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722.

[12] Reich, D., Green, R. E., Kircher, M., Krause, J., Patterson, N., Durand, E. Y., … & Maricic, T. (2010). Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468(7327), 1053.

[13] Braby, M. F., Eastwood, R., & Murray, N. (2012). The subspecies concept in butterflies: has its application in taxonomy and conservation biology outlived its usefulness?. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society106(4), 699-716.

[14] Kindler, C., & Fritz, U. (2018). Phylogeography and taxonomy of the barred grass snake (Natrix helvetica), with a discussion of the subspecies category in zoology. Vertebrate Zoology68(3), 253-267.

Post Author: Bernardo Guerra Machado

It has been 24 years of having dense, made in Portugal eyebrows. Despite not being able to drink from champagne flutes due to his big nose, he has recently concluded a master in Evolution and Human Behaviour. Feels passionate about gathering unexpected stories and understanding the process of learning a new culture.

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