Posted by: Dan | March 27, 2008

Darwin and Racism

One thing that keeps popping its head up with creationists and religionists in general is the misunderstanding that natural selection implies racism. Heck, even some evolutionists think that the mention of the word ‘race’ with regards to the human species, even when used in the taxonomic sense, implies ‘racism.’ This betrays a horrible misunderstanding of both natural selection and biological variation.

The premise of such misunderstandings of natural selection appear to me to be related to typological thinking, combined with the notion that selection ‘improves’ a population.

First, the typological thinking, which extrapolates those comparison of the species, subspecies, or races, to conclusions about the individuals within those populations. That’s what racism is afterall – the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples. Yet typological thinking is inconsistent with the population thinking that Darwin founded with his model of evolution by natural selection, as related by Darwin’s observation that “No two individuals of a population are exactly the same.”

Further, the idea of “typical” or “type” emerges from a description of the average – a description of traits that no single individual within the population is likely to possess, and even if there is such an individual, no other individual would be exactly the same. What follows from that is that the typological thinking of discrimination and racism is based on the perception that a person with one characteristic (e.g., skin color) will automatically have other characteristics that are falsely presumed to be uniformly linked (e.g., intelligence, physical ability, etc.).

Second, the notion that natural selection implies ‘improvement’ or ‘progress’ of an organism. In an a posteriori sense, that is by tracing a genealogy in hindsight, evolutionary change is indeed progressive. But it is hubris to say that your ancestor existed for the sake of the outcome (i.e., you). You are here, reading this passage, because of the contingencies of natural history. Where your ancestors lived, and what their environment was like, represented a mix of neither chance nor necessity, or put another way, represents something that was probable but unanticipated.

So what contingencies influence which competing species survive and what species go extinct, or how new species emerge? Two things: geography and ecology. That geography and ecology are related, and more importantly that it goes without saying that they directly impact selection, such that I think they do not need explanation here. What I do wish to remind people of is that the conditions of geography and ecology are complex and cannot be anticipated. This of course results in both the appearance of randomness for future events and the appearance of directed determinism in hindsight.

What do these concepts of variation and contingency mean in the light of racial prejudice? Simply that different populations vary naturally, and that the differential rates of survival and growth in populations are due to unanticipated contingencies. Moreover, while the individuals within populations are loosely determined by their inherited traits from the gene pool, they too vary widely. (Only in the case of the individual, the contingency is determined more by mate preference and sexual recombination, rather than by geography and ecology).

There still remain some areas of confusion however. For instance, some claim that biologists require sharp boundaries or ‘discontinuities’ in order to say that a species has races or ‘subspecies,’ it follows that there are no human races. I would like to disagree with the premise, in the light of what I’ve already said about race and evolution. I.e., the idea of sharp discontinuities between subspecies of populations is in direct contradiction of observations of variation described above, and sharp discontinuities reflect the typological thinking that Ernst Mayr laid to rest in his book, Systematics and the Origin of Species.

This is also referred to as Lewontin’s Fallacy, owing to the suggestion that race is an invalid taxonomic construct because the probability of racial misclassification of an individual based on variation in a single genetic locus is approximately 30%. The key with recognizing the fallacy in Lewontin’s conclusion is that it relies on a single gene, and would be equally invalid for a single physical trait (e.g., intelligence, physical ability, etc.). The genes and traits of human subpopulations are too subtly distributed for classification of that kind to work.

As a result, variation is apparent. It varies more strikingly with geography than anything else (particularly by continent), but this variation is contingent upon contingencies that have nothing to do with “better” or “improved upon.”


Responses

  1. Thank you Dan for this interesting analysis. It sounds like some of the ugly volleys in the culture war induced you to write about this. But it useful for people not engaged in that battle as well.

  2. Yes, I was motivated both by creationist comments on Darwin and Hitler, as well as evolutionist comments misunderstanding diversity as indicated by anger at the mere use of the word ‘race.’ Also on the list are purely racist comments, and also being influenced by reading a lot of Ernst Mayr’s treatises on evolution in recent months. But the creationist comments were indeed the most recent on my mind. ;-)

    In that vein – Allen MacNeill has a VERY relevant post on creationist propaganda and Godwin’s Darwin. Nice post Allen!

  3. Still better:
    John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts explains how Christian antisemitism was “caused” by Darwin, before Darwin.

    Darwinism causes antisemitism.

  4. I shall never forget watching “Shindlers List” many years ago. One of Hitlers Jail gaurds had a Jewish mistress. After beating her up her turned to her and said, “I shouldn’t feel bad for doing this. After all, your not really human”.
    Thank you Charles Darwin for opening everyone’s eyes. May your eternity in hell be more painful than most.

  5. Internet Pastor,
    Christians don’t need Darwin as an excuse for anti-Semitic hate, which they excelled at from the 3rd to 20th centuries.

    In fact, if you actually read my post, you’d realize that Evolution is a strong rationale against racism, which is probably why racism has decreased in the past century, and especially after the “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” of the 1930’s and 40’s.


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