The Story of Us

Is racism biological or a nasty genre defining chapter in human history?

“Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befell other folk and may therefrom take warning.” -Arabian Nights

If there’s one generalization I can attest to Homo sapiens without any substantial scientific proof it is this: Homo sapiens is a story-telling species.

Allow me to qualify that assertion.

The study of history at the most basic level is the effort to archive, chronologize, and interpret the human experience across time: stories of peoples making sense of an otherwise nonsensical world. Stories that detail reactions toward the external captured in the Sartrean maxim, “hell is other people”; and stories that describe personal anguish in the Pubertean malady, “hell is another pimple.” This relationship illustrates the nexus in human experience: reflexive to the outside world and expressive of an inner turmoil.

Various cultural mythologies are usually born from a lack of understanding on how the natural world proceeds. This is not an admission of negligence but demonstrative of an effort to find meaning in the gulf created by ignorance with something somewhat allegorical. Ignorance of planetary motions gave birth to the titan Helios who travels around the world in his burning chariot — the sun personified — a mythical explanation of day and night cycles.

But this requires acceptance of the supernatural mode of explanation. And the story of Helios provides a dreadful reminder of the folly to prove the supernatural.

Bullied to establish his kinship with the divine, Helios’ son Phaethon asks that he be allowed to ride with his father in his daily routine. Not content with the privilege afforded to him, Phaethon then demands that he be given the chariot’s reigns. Of course, playing with fire gets you burned, but placing your hands in direct control of the sun can only mean a greater tragedy, and Phaethon was none the wiser, so Zeus was eventually forced to smite him down before he could crash the burning chariot down to earth.

Our modes of story-telling also change along with the times. History tells how we organized societies based on dominant ideologies. The divine right of kings led to narratives of monarchical conquest, of princesses being used as bargaining pawns for diplomacy, and of peasants being economic fodder to keep the system well-oiled. This shift from mythology to ideology may at first glance reflect a kind of secularism devoid of the ancient belief in the supernatural. But underneath the elaborate apparels is the apparent supernatural belief in the myth of the biological basis for nobility. That is, entrenched in our biology is the basis of social rule.

This belief survives in our modern language. We label praiseworthy acts “noble”. The word being a reference to a group of people that were paragons of “excellence” in the past, not by actual achievement, but by the sheer accident of their births to an established noble bloodline. This, upon further inspection, betrays a basic biological tenet — to preserve their “noble” bloodlines, members of the nobility encouraged in-breeding: siblings and cousins marrying each other, decreasing genetic variety, leading to such defects as the Hapsburg jaw and other genetic anomalies. In the larger irony of things it is their biology that affords them privilege, but it is also biology that exposes them as actual genetic gaffes.

But the modern extension of this myth is quite alarming. Not only are certain families privileged by good biology, but entire races. To reinforce this view, believers laid down the blade of mythology and took up science as artillery. The brief summation of this view is that human biology belies racial intrinsic values, i.e. races can be organized into hierarchies of worth. Various methods of quantification were then developed as ammunition. For example, the United States of America’s early immigration laws were informed by findings derived from the Army Mental Tests developed by Harvard psychologist Robert Yerkes. According to psychometrics pioneer Carl Brigham in his book A Study of American Intelligence, the data from the army tests show “beyond any scientific doubt that, like the American Negroes, the Italians and the Jews were genetically ineducable.” Adding that it would be a waste of resources to “try to give these born morons and imbeciles a good Anglo-Saxon education, let alone admit them into our fine medical, law, and engineering graduate schools.”

However, before Brigham could crash his chariot towards academic arson, he reanalyzed the data and methods in the army tests, only to find errors which led to his previous racist conclusions. In his later book Intelligence Tests in Immigrant Groups, he admits that the army mental tests failed to actually gauge what they were aimed to measure and it had nothing to do with actual science, declaring that, “One of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies — the writer’s own — was without foundation.”

Brigham’s case is a classic example of the two modes of scientific story-telling. The first one is exemplified in his earlier writings wherein he used ideology to inform his science. The second is how he later reversed the flow, allowing science to inform his ideology.

The story latent in all of us, our genetic codes, written in four letters — A,C,T,G (denoting the four nucleotides of the DNA) — is a rich treasury of valuable data which can give us insight into what we are. However, the human genetic code is hardly an instruction for human organization, and basing policies around these assumptions are dangerous and unscientific. To cease the conundrum, a team of scientists argue in an article published in Science that, “historical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology.”

Perhaps it is being human, a story-telling species, that makes it difficult to let go of such myths. But isn’t it more intellectually fulfilling if we enrich our collective human story by emphasizing coherence instead of difference? Because for the most part, racism has largely defined the genre of our story, and pop royalty Taylor Swift succinctly but perfectly elaborates this sad affair:

“The story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now.”
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