Why Every Biologist Should Oppose Racism

Literally the only image with both the world (i.e. environment, biology etc.) and an anti-racism message. I’m sorry it’s so cheesy, if you want me to add to the atmosphere I’m sure I could find a MIDI file of “Ebony and Ivory” by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney to play in the background, and I could just put the words “Melting pot” between every paragraph. (Credit: HaticeEROL via Pixabay)

Because they don’t want to behave like dicks?

Okay, obvious answer out of the way let’s get to a little explaining.

I’ve given you fundamentals of life, in my introduction to biology, if you want a recap go over it.

In there I talk about how life has been evolving, constantly, for close to 4 billion years or 50,000,000 FIFTY MILLION human lifetimes with an estimated average age of 80 years.

Might not seem like a lot when there are nearly 8 billion of us on the planet, but the earliest known member of our genus, Homo, did not emerge until around 2.8 million years ago. Modern humans, the species Homo sapiens, likely did not emerge until between 500,000 and 150,000 years ago.

We’re so damn new!

But I’m getting off topic, the point I am trying to make is when talking evolution we’re not dealing with the kinds of timescales where cliffsides fall down, forests retreat and regrow or even species change and speciate, those take thousands into millions of years. We’re talking the kinds of timeframes where continents shift and drift apart. Land becomes sea and sea becomes land. This is geological time, the rate at which rocks move.

Welcome to geological time. As far as we care to know, our Earth and the continents on it are where they are, fixed. But they’re not. They constantly move and change, and in the time life has been evolving this is the change that has happened. The global supercontinent, Pangaea, has broken up into multiple different land masses. (Credit: Gifer)

Now, if the TV shows about DNA and tracing your ancestors were any good (and I’m not suggesting they’re not they just bore me a little because I’m more interested in wildlife that what my great-great-great-great Grandmother got up to) they could trace an unbroken lineage to what is known as the Universal Common Ancestor – that is the organism from which all life on Earth can trace its genetic lineage.

One of the common arguments you hear against evolution is “If we’re descended from monkeys why are there still monkeys?” and it completely misses the point of evolution. Evolution is not striving to ‘improve’, there’s no plan to get ‘better’ and there is no necessity for it to move from less complex to more complex, and it certainly does not have a will to replace what is already working with something which may not.

There are still monkeys because the lineage of that monkey’s ancestors has been successful for around 4 billion years, just like your ancestors, the ancestors of a slug, the ancestors of a fish, the ancestors of your mate Dave’s dog, the ancestors of the coronaviruses. And we’re all related.

A simplified model of the Phylogentic Tree – the model of how all life on Earth is related to each other. There are currently three Domains of life, the bacteria, the archaea and the Eukaryota. Humans are Eukaryotes, along with all animals, as well as plants, funghi, and lots of other things. If we trace ancestry, like they do on that TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” down all generations, we would trace a direct line back from you, through every single previous ancestor, to the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) estimated to have existed around 3.5-3.8 billion years ago. (Credit:
John D. Croft CC-BY-SA 3.0)

“So what are you trying to say?” I hear you ask, “That you can trace a direct line of my ancestors from modern humans, through to ‘primitive’ pre-human members of the Homo genus, into even more primitive apes, into a monkey-like primate ancestor species of those apes, into a pre-primate mammal ancestor of those monkeys, into an early-mammalian ancestor of all mammals, into a pre-mammalian ancestor, into some random leggy-fish, into in a fish, through being a barely functional eukaryotic organism, into some unicellar blob billions of years ago?”

YES!

Yes, that is literally how evolution works. Via an unbroken line of descent, yes, over billions of years, yes. At some point in the distant past two tree shrew like early mammalian ancestors had children of which you are one of their distant future Great to god-knows how many times grandchildren. The line is unbroken. Without their successful mating, without their successful offspring, you wouldn’t exist.

And this has been happening for billions of years.

And people still try to argue that humans are better than slugs, or that dogs are better than cats, or worse, that one specific human with a given trait relating to the proximity of their direct ancestors to the heat and radiation of the equatorial sun is worse than another specific human whose immediate ancestry places them further away from that sun. Racism, in other words.

A preserved cynodont skeleton. These were creatures known as Therapsids, and are believed to have been an acestral group to all mammals. Effectively, without the success of these particular species, we would not be here to argue over who has the superior culture because we wouldn’t exist at all. The next time you think about being a nationalist, remember you only exist because dinosaur-dogs from 260 million years ago fucked and had kids. (Credit: CT Snow CC-BY-2.0)

I can’t abide racism and nationalism for these reasons and I think biologists who disagree should fuck off. A racist biologist is like a technophobic mechanic or a horny priest – they’re literally just in the wrong fucking job. They clearly have a political agenda that interferes with their ability to consider everything in the cool, rational light of biology.

None of it means anything, we’re all the great-great-great-great-great…continue ad nauseum…grandchildren of self-replicating organic goo!

I’ll go back to an earlier point. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, are somewhere in the region of 500,000-150,000 years old, by our current best estimates based on evidence.

Sharks, as you’ll know if you read my shark articles, are 420,000,000 years old! I mean, there are shark species in our seas today that are probably little evolved from their ancestral species in the cretaceous, 145-65 million years ago.

We’re busy arguing over which group of up-themselves apes has the best flag and culture, while there are sharks swimming in our seas showing us what true survival is!

Yay! I get to use this again! I really like this diagram for making humanity feel small. So, on a scale counting down from 5 – The ignition of the sun, to 0, present day, humans don’t even come along until 0.0002. Basically if you think, for example, protecting ‘British Culture’ is important, consider that what we think of as ‘British Culture’ is so tremendously unimportant it doesn’t even fit on this diagram, it’s too small. (Credit: LadyofHats, Public Domain)

Racism and nationalism make no sense to me in the light of this information. As far as I’m concerned until we’ve lived in our respective habitats, without intermixing, for long enough to speciate, we’re all just African apes. Every single one of us!

My home nation of Great Britain, as a result of a series of increasingly ridiculous fuck-ups, it turning itself into a den of flag-waving nationalists but we’re mongrels. Our island nation has been colonised, mixed, changed, interbred, and multi-nationalised so much over its history that to claim anything as truly ‘British’ is a disgusting error of judgement.

The current cultural climate in America makes much of the notion of ‘immigrants’ – with Americans whose history in the nation dates back mere hundreds of years arguing that people whose history with the nation dates back tens of years have no right to be there. Meanwhile, there is much argument about the genocide of so-called ‘natives’ in the settling of the nation by Europeans between the 15th and well up into the 19th century.

Of course these so-called ‘Native Americans’ are not, truly, native, in fact there is no known native American ape species, never mind a hominid. Most migration theories have a migration from the region of modern Siberia into the Americas by humans around 25,000-15,000 years ago. The natives were immigrants too! This was probably close to the time many areas of Northern Europe were being colonised, at the end of the last glacial period and with the retreat of the large areas of pack-ice and glaciers that would have dominated the landscape.

A map of suggested migrations and ‘gene flow’ into and back from the Americas (right) from Russia and Asia (left) via the landmass of Beringia (centre) that was an isthmus, a land bridge, cut off by the rising of the oceans following the last ice-age. (Credit:
Erika Tamm et al CC-BY-2.5)

15,000 years. It seems like a long time to a human, with our brief-blink life spans.

But that’s 15,000 years out of around 4,000,000,000. If I had £4bn and someone asked me for £15,000 I’d disdainfully throw it at them, it is pocket change. It’s nothing.

Want to take this mongrel theme a little further? We’re not even a genetically ‘pure’ species. There’s sufficient evidence to suggest the species Homo sapiens has arisen as a hybrid species. In Europeans there is definite genetic evidence of mixing with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis, or H. sapiens neanderthalensis) and Denisovans (awaiting consensus on a Latin name, but either Homo denisova, H. altaiensis or H. sapiens denisova).

In fact, to twist the racist narrative on its head, do you know where the genetically most pure Homo sapiens come from?

Sub-Saharan Africa. Those people racists often make out to be less-than-human. Actually, literally, genetically the most human humans.

Sort of makes sense since our species derives from there.

A wall of skulls of hominids. The bottom-right looks like a model of a human skull (Homo sapiens) so just above-and-left of that I image would be a neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) Genetic evidence demonstrates most humans have genetic information shared with known neanderthal genes, implying some cross-breeding between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis). I guess what I’m trying to show you is we’re all just dead bones at the end of the day. (Credit: Jacklee CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Either way my point is not to say any one or other person is inferior or superior. If you are, if you exist, if you live, you are worthy. You have survived on the longest running, most fucked up game show in planet Earth, called ‘Life’. You, along with your brothers and sisters, your mothers and fathers, your nieces and nephews, your dogs and cats, your pet snakes, your lizards, the bacteria breeding in the muck on the bottom of your shoe, that fungus growing on your damp outside-facing wall and that fish that looks like a sad blob. You all made it through to the next round. You’re all equal, at this stage in the competition.

As for nations? What the fuck even is that? When our ancestors started taking their first walks between Africa and Asia, when they, in the curious pioneering spirit of personhood took their first steps into the unknown, venturing north, south, east and west, I doubt they went with a view to sticking a flag in a patch of land and keeping everyone else from it. They went because they thought they could live better somewhere else, survive better somewhere else and were just curious to know what it was like. The same reasons most people migrate today.

Nations, borders, restrictions, biologically they make no sense. In a world of equality they need not exist and it is my belief that is the world we should be aiming for.

A simple diagram showing the estimate routes taken by humans on their migrations out of Africa and around the rest of the world. This is heavily contested and new evidence springs up every year to put something into question, but for simplicity’s sake this gives you a good idea. Without those African migrants, you’d have no right to call yourself by whatever nationality you are today. Even if you can trace, say, your German lineage back to Pre-Roman times, humans had to leave Africa to walk to Germany and settle there. I mean, really only some Africans are allowed to suggest they’re truly native! The rest of us, offspring of immigrants. (Credit: yourgenome CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So is there a biological basis for racism and nationalism? Well, as far as I am aware there are no innate mechanisms that make people specifically target people of specific races.

What we do know is that we are psychologically cautious of ‘the other’ – and this can be a difference in any sense. Sex, race, skin colour, clothing, the car people drive, abilities or disabilities, big noses, facial tics – Just about anything that can separate you from a consideration of ‘normal’ can be targeted.

Numerous studies have shown how arbitrary this is, with one of the most profound and important being that of Jane Elliot. On April 5th of 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. she ran an experiment in her classroom to help the children she taught understand racism – with full consent from the children, apparently.

She divided them not by skin colour, but by eye-colour. The children thought this would be ludicrous so she came up with some pseudo-scientific nonsense about melanin and intelligence and won the kids around. At first the kids with brown-eyes were superior to the kids with blue eyes.

Jane Elliott discusses her work with Jimmy Fallon (Credit: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon)

In one day these kids had been convinced of their superiority. Apparently those with less academic aptitude improved slightly, shy brown-eyed kids came out of their shells a little – they felt superior.

The next day, though, they swapped roles. The blue-eyed kids were superior to the brown-eyed. Apparently the blue-eyed kids, who had experienced discrimination, were a lot softer on their brown-eyed counterparts, despite having been told they were superior.

The exercise itself is controversial, of course. Not only does it shine a light on some of our worst human behaviours but it exposes presumably innocent children to the pain and discomfort of discrimination, even if only for a day. Is it effective, though? Damn right.

Elliot herself, in an interview with Smithsonian magazine defended the exercise as like an inoculation. After all, that can be a traumatic exercise for children, too, but if it protects them against potentially fatal diseases, what’s the problem? “We give our children shots to inoculate them against polio and smallpox, to protect them against the realities in the future.” She said, “There are risks to those inoculations, too, but we determine that those risks are worth taking.”

Regardless, this psychological exercise by an elementary school teacher has gone down as an historical lesson that actually educated the world. There were likely many psychologists kicking themselves at not having thought of so simple an experiment. You could pick any trait, give any justification, and if it makes a big enough group feel better, feel heard, feel appreciated they will attack that trait, and the group of people with it.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was the inspiration for Jane Elliott’s exercise in her classroom. See the video above for the story of how it affected and inspired her. Regardless, there is not a human being who can analyse the words and action of Martin Luther King Jr. and say he was not trying to unite humans. Regardless of race. He was killed for it. He was killed for trying to make the world and its people see each other equally. A surprisingly biological perspective, for we are all related. (Credit: RV1864 CC-BY-NC ND 2.0)

It’s not purely learning, there is an anachronistic mechanism to it. Time was when humans would have smaller groups, tribes or villages of probably around 150 people at most. Naturally those groups would encounter other groups and whilst there is every chance for co-operation and achieving greatness together, they may also just want to kill you to eliminate competition, or steal whatever resources you may have had. Caution of ‘the others’ was vital to survival at that time.

But we don’t live in that time. Yet it is just as easy to play upon those same mechanisms now as it was when they were vital then. Our minds, our culture, our intelligence, memetically – in terms of memes, the cultural equivalent of genes – we advance rapidly. In terms of genes we evolve just as slowly as every other organism.

Learning is the only protective mechanism we have against those once vital, but now horrific urges to create instant enemies of ‘others’.

Jane Elliot’s exercise demonstrates that in the starkest way possible.

I wish I could say there is no anthropo-psychological reason for racism and discrimination, there are many. There is also one incredibly simple and effective solution and that is education, exposure and experience.

So I suppose that means there’s no such thing as racism in biology, then? Oh, poor Curious Idiots™, were it so simple we’d have had an effective campaign of education against racism dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The truth is there are people with an ‘agenda’, whose political motives, or whose cultural ideals are higher up their cognitive hierarchies than rational truths. Beliefs are, unfortunately, another vestige in human psychology intended to protect us currently doing us much harm.

Eugenics – One of the most obnoxiously self-assured racist and ablist scientific-prejudice movements and one that persists to this day. Theoretically one cannot disagree with the notion of ensuring the survival of the fittest examples of species moving forward. We already have a system to take care of that, it’s called ‘natural selection’ and it’s been doing a better job than humanity ever did of keeping the world in genetic balance. Never mind that, though, the arrogance of eugenicists to propose that they know what ‘fitness’ will mean in the future is my single biggest problem with eugenics. YOU DON’T KNOW! In this poster an undesirable weed is being snapped off the tree it is presumably leeching off. The problem is that tree might be subject to a global epidemic of fungal infections of that particular species that wipes out all trees, and perhaps, had they not all been cut down, those vines would have survived, adapted and grown entirely new ecosystems. It’s arrogance. Eugenics is unscientific, supposition and arrogance. Also mostly rich and white. By the way, this is not a movement of the past, eugenicists exist to this day. (Credit: Wellcome Library CC-BY-4.0)

In fact, sadly for the bulk of its life certainly human biological study has been inherently racist. Much of what became the foundation of our knowledge today started as someone’s crackpot eugenics scheme, a means of proving the white-people genetically superior to those swarthy foreigners, the exotic brown and black skinned people. There are some, today, for whom this legacy is important.

Almost all of them inherited white power and/or money, unsurprisingly. It is in their best interests to not have a world that seeks to redress that imbalance. Self-protection will always beat scientific rigour in those without a solid ethical core.

I want to stress, though. I have no problem with people being ‘proud’ of where they are from. I think it is a bit nonsensical. You don’t choose where you are born or raised, so being proud of it, to me, seems a little foolish. So long as it causes no harm, though, I have no problem. I cheer for England in the cricket, the football and the rugby – Sorry Welsh family, but you are my second favourite national football team.

If people want to fly a few union flags about, that’s no problem to me.  But when a national government starts making declarations stating certain people are ‘illegal’ because of where they come from; when they specifically attack lawyers and the rule of law for the law doing as it should and protecting people from harm whether that be from individual criminals or governments who think themselves above legislation; when that same government then insists on flying their own flag from every one of their own buildings every day, I worry.

They become Jane Elliot, telling the children in a massively multicultural class that those who identify themselves as most ‘British’ are most good, and most worthy. The British (particularly those with a tendency towards racism and nationalism) will be similarly emboldened, louder, more ‘in charge’ just as her brown-eyed students were on that first day. Only this time, I doubt the Government are going to change courses for the very next day so we can all understand how it feels.

This alienates and ‘others’ all of the other people we have in Britain with remarkable diverse backgrounds, but who nonetheless share a unique ‘Britishness’ too. I’ve met many of these people, been friends with them, and had long-term relationships with them. I’ve heard the concerns and the worries and told people the British public would never let it get that bad.

The truth is, I am now worried it is going to get that bad, not least because ours is an insipid nationalism, a quiet and passive-aggressive nationalism. It’s stiff-upper-lipped nationalism, drenched in irony that those who are ordering others to tough it out and have a stiff-upper-lip, are themselves very un-stoically moaning and bitching about being victimised by PC-culture, moaning about having their past erased to a group of people who have never had their pasts heard, moaning about having to accept change when the very notion of a stiff-upper-lip is to deal with life as it comes.

This particular pattern of shapes and colours is causing a big stir right now, because some people think that patterns of shapes and colours define them as people. They don’t, but unfortunately it is easy to make people artifically psychologically attached to a pattern of shapes and colours. (Credit: Public Domain)

Four billion years this little genome of ours has been fighting for its little slice of survival, and in that time it has come up with many co-operative species, parasitism, mutualisms and all sorts of wonderful interconnected relationships. Never before has it come up with a species that has achieved so much through coming together, through co-operation, through helping each other. We have the potential to make a world in the image of what we want, a peaceful world, an equal world, a world where the flag under which you are born is of no more consequence than the colour of your eyes. Yet, around the world, nation fights against nation, nations fight for themselves and their own interest, to the detriment of the global harmony. The UK, in particular, is taking backward steps in very dangerous directions.

I always thought we were better than that.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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