Posted by: JDM..... | May 4, 2013

Irony, Part I

“Some things never change.”

I don’t know who coined that phrase, usually delivered with a rolling of the eyes. Well, most things do change in one way or another, except, perhaps, the underlying “laws” of physics or of nature that describe the processes by which change occurs.

For example, to the best of our knowledge, basic biological processes, such as cell division, haven’t changed a whit since “life” first happened, though life itself has progressively become more complex and variant.

So, the things that really “never change” are few indeed. One thing that does change is human perception and understanding of the universe around us, as well as of ourselves. “Understanding” should not be misinterpreted as some state of being correct; it instead refers to how we observe, interpret, and draw conclusions about our environment. That does change, sometimes quickly and sometimes quite slowly.

Take the question of “race” , for instance, a subject as loaded with potential energy today as is has been at just about any point in recent history. I encountered a write up on the matter in an article about one Alan R. Templeton, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University. In a nutshell, he concluded that “race” is essentially a meaningless term. There’s no such thing. Interesting.

In part, the idea is interesting because I first encountered a similar train of thought nearly fifty years ago. Among my early college courses were electives in anthropology, and I recall the professors minimizing the essential physiological differences among human populations and discussing the cultural and behavioral aspects of related human interactions. The sequencing of DNA and the general utilization of that science that are now beginning to be considered “normal” procedure had not yet been developed in the mid nineteen sixties, but even then the assertion that we are far more alike than different was commonly heard, at least in academia.

Advances in the knowledge about DNA, and expanding applications of that knowledge, have enjoyed continuous change. What has yet to change, however, is the concept of “race” and all that it entails among the general population. This is not a process that comes under the microscope, so to speak, of the physical sciences, but one which will be addressed and studied by the social and behavioral sciences. Historically speaking, the word “race” and the concept it conveys today is quite new and grew out of the slave trade of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Prior to that, the term was applied to breeds of horses. By the time of Shakespeare, it had been expanded to describe people, as in the phrase “happy race of kings”. The English, constantly at odds with the Irish, referred to the “Irish race”.

In spite of the changes occurring in our society and culture during the past half century, we still cling doggedly to the archaic meaning of the word “race”. Even those most strongly aligned with the Civil Rights Movement and the changes it has brought about, including those of African heritage, still see “race” as a way of classifying and sorting people into distinctly different groups.

Dr. Templeton’s work brings the assets of the latest in DNA science to the table and, hopefully, will contribute significantly to the elimination of our traditional belief that there exist inherent genetic differences among human populations that justify classification into what amounts to sub-species. Many have proposed over the years that the physical characteristics used to differentiate one group from another are meaningless and arbitrary and not supported by science. Modern DNA science supports that view. The time is now here that notions of “race” can be dispelled as the myth and politics that they really have always been.

There is a potential for great irony here as virtually anybody alive today relates to the term in some manner. Those who have made their living in any way connected to “Civil Rights” and perhaps developed a sense of personal identity accordingly will face changes they may find threatening to some degree. African American activists, fighting for two generation to achieve “equality” may discover that they might have to accept that they are more “equal” than they may like to be. For many people, the elimination of “race” as a reality-based criterion for differentiation may therefore present an ironic and difficult conflict, even though it essentially endorses the very outcomes they have desired.


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