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  • Victor C. Bolles

Blame it on Linnaeus

The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was the kind of event that, while it is so utterly boring, it is at the same time so irresistible that you cannot turn away. I did not realize until recently that Ms. Markle (now the Duchess of Sussex) was of mixed race. So it was interesting to see and hear a black choir sing the R&B hit Stand By Me (although Anglicized), black cello player Sheku Kanneh-Mason play Sicilienne and the black head of the US Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, give the homily.

This reminded me that back in April I had received a Special Issue of the National Geographic Magazine, which I had been pondering ever since. The issue is called Black and White and the cover asks us to “rethink everything we know about race.” This issue goes on to say, “What is race. Science tells us there is no genetic or scientific basis for it. Instead it’s largely a made-up label, used to define and separate us.”

I blame it on Linnaeus. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, created the modern system of identifying and naming organisms and is known as the father of taxonomy, the science of classification. The classification of an object (animal, vegetable or mineral) is important tool for the advancement of science. But Linnaeus lacked many of the modern tools that we have to identify things and knew nothing about DNA. He classified objects (and humans) primarily though observation, how they looked and what they had in common and what was different.

Classification, of course, dates back all the way to Aristotle and beyond into pre-history. The people of the earth all look very different and it would have been very easy for 16th and 17th century scientists and explorers to categorize the various people they encountered into groups. Even the primitive peoples they encountered would categorize other primitive people into tribal or ethnic groups. And, as was done for various breeds of domesticated animals such as cattle or dogs, it would have been easy to ascribe certain stereotypical attributes to each of these groups of people.

I am not trying to whitewash some of the horrific acts our ancestors did to others of our ancestors, but I do think it is unfair to judge them with our twenty-first century eyes. If various peoples of the earth were considered different based on their appearance it was because this made sense to them and there was no contrary evidence at that time to disprove their beliefs.

But in the twenty-first century we have sequenced the human genome and can, with much greater definition, determine differences and commonalities among people. The truth is that there is very little genetic difference among humans. In fact there is more genetic variation among Africans than there is among Europeans or Asians. This is because most humans from outside of Africa came from one relatively small group of humans that left Africa about seventy thousand years ago. Modern humans, however, had developed in Africa about 300,000 years ago so there was more time for Africans to diverge from one another than from that small group of emigrants.

These small genetic differences arose when human beings migrated and settled new lands that had different environmental conditions than the lands that they left. Adaption to these new conditions would enhance the people’s ability to survive in the new environment. Thus Nordic herders that had few food alternatives during the harsh northern winters could better survive if they could digest the milk and milk byproducts provided by their herds. The lactose intolerance that most adults have around the world (about 65%) would make having a dairy dependent diet a very unpleasant (and smelly) experience during a long winter. So a genetic mutation that allows adults to tolerate lactose spread among the people of Northern Europe allowing them enjoy some cheese (along with some wine stored from the previous harvest) by the fire. In addition, while the dark skin of our African ancestors protected them the harmful ultraviolet rays it blocked the body’s ability to create vitamin D. In sunny Africa our lightly clad African ancestors got plenty of vitamin D but dark skin was harmful to our fur-wrapped Nordic ancestors who had to spend months inside protected from the elements during glacially cold winters.

So separation from other human beings in the differing environmental zones of the planet created differences in appearance (and also some of their inner workings as well) among the peoples of the earth. The question is; do these small genetic differences create different races among people? If primitive human beings had remained isolated from one another in their different environmental niches the differences between them might have resulted in different species of humans (a not crazy idea if we consider that modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans – all descended from a common ancestor- lived contemporaneously until about 40,000 years ago). But we are not isolated from each other. Not anymore. Whatever isolation of groups of humans that existed in the past began to crumble once European explorers began spreading across the globe in the fifteenth century.

The spread of European conquerors and priests across the globe was not benign but it did mix things up. I do not believe that it was any worse than the spread of other invading armies and mass migrations such as the Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Muslims, Mongols, etc. etc. All of these invaders mixed things up, however, the Europeans were global in nature. And enduring. The Western European culture still dominates much of the world.

The net result is that the various peoples around the world are no longer isolated. We spread DNA back and forth with ease and abandon. And because most people live to a greater or lesser extent in an artificial environment, future adaption of our genome is likely to be to adapt to this artificial environment rather than the external world. With all this blending of DNA the concept of race will pass into history. And so in Britain a little African DNA will join the British royal family along with all the DNA from the Danes, the French, the Germans, the Greeks and others.

It is true that discrimination based on racial stereotypes still exists in the United States and around the world. But that is a long way from saying that all the problems facing the black community are due to racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is much diminished in the twenty-first century (even more so among Millennials) but yet racial tensions appear as high as ever. The National Geographic sees this as to last gasps of a declining “white” culture as multiculturalism spreads across the country. But this so-called “white” culture is not representative of Western culture. It was (and is) Western culture that created civil rights, abolished slavery and established democracy across a great swath of the globe. It is wrong to conflate "white" culture with Western culture as many people do. Perhaps all this disharmony is just a hiccup on the path toward a human culture. And perhaps a new duchess is a small symbol of this march of progress.

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