JR'S Free Thought Pages
from A C Grayling (Meditations for the Humanist- 2002)
Racism is on its deathbed - the question is, how costly will racists make the funeral? - Martin Luther King
Almost everywhere one looks among present societies, race and racism make angry welts and deep wounds on the body politic. It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a fiction. The concept of race has no genetic or biological basis. All human beings are closely related to one another, and at the same time each human being is unique. Not only is the concept of race entirely artificial, it is new; yet in its short existence it has, like most lies and absurdities current among us, done a mountain of harm.
The first classification of humans into races was mooted by Linnaeus, who recognized it as a mere convenience with no basis in nature. He employed the same criteria as in his botanical classifications, namely, outward appearance, giving rise later to the simplistic typing of all humans into 'Caucasoid', 'Negroid' and 'Mongoloid'. But advances in genetics have demolished such taxonomies, by taking DNA as the criterion of classification. Linnaeus's system says that one of Buddhism's holy plants, the lotus, is related to the water lily; DNA comparison says it is related to London's familiar and beloved plane tree.
In human terms DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. 'Race has no basic biological reality,' says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University; 'the human species simply doesn't come packaged that way.' Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed.
It was not only Linnaeus who knew that 'race' is a fiction. In the mid-nineteenth century E. A. Freeman famously discredited the whole of idea of 'community of blood', as did Ashley Montague in the mid-twentieth century. Even Hitler knew it, despite making the concept central: 'I know perfectly well ... that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race,' he said, 'but I as a politician need a concept which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis ... And for this purpose the concept of races serves me well... With the concept of race, National Socialism will carry its revolution abroad and recast the world.'
All human beings have the same ancestors. Human history is a short one; it is less than a quarter of a million years long, with the first migrations from Africa beginning half that time ago. The physical diversity of human populations today is purely a function of geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands. The distinctions which have since been drawn between peoples are therefore arbitrary and superficial, even those relating to skin colour - for as a moment's attention shows, there is simply no such thing as 'white', 'black' or 'yellow' people; there are people with many shades and types of skin, making no difference to any other aspect of their humanity save what the malice of others can construct.
To advance beyond racism one has to advance beyond race. But that goal is not helped by what Sartre called 'anti-racist racism', as with the Black Power movement and its cognates. It is understandable that communities which suffer prejudice and abuse should shelter behind a protective assumed identity; but identities grow rigid and become a source of new pieties, new excuses to repay evil with evil - and thereby indirectly entrench the very idea that lies at the root of the problem.
Racism will end when individuals see others only in individual terms. 'There are no "white" or "coloured" signs on the graveyards of battle,' said John F. Kennedy; and there is a significant moral in that remark.
Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. –Henry Beston
A striking fact now rendered familiar, even platitudinous, by the triumphs of recent genetic science is how closely all living things are related. Humans share more than half their genes with worms and fruit-flies, and almost all their genes with chimpanzees. Yet this intimate familyhood of life does not stop people from spearing worms onto fish-hooks, or testing drugs on chimpanzees. Nothing surprising there, you might say, given the way humans treat humans; in the face of gas chambers, racism, war and other avocations, what chance has a monkey or a cow?
There are lessons to be learned from the way humans justify their treatment of animals - not least of those evolutionarily closest to them - namely, the apes. Apes, especially gorillas, have long been demonized in film and literature. Their similarity to us is used not as proof of kindred, but as a means of symbolizing the supposed bestiality within us. Thus when Dr Jekyll drinks his potion he exposes a mythologized savage inheritance; his hands grow hairy, his brow beetles, his teeth enlarge: he becomes a horrifying gorilla-man.
If it is not violence it is stupidity which marks the ape, betokened by tree-swinging, armpit-scratching and gibbering. You insult a person if you call him an ape. Yet apes are intelligent, inquisitive, affectionate and sociable, with capacities for suffering and grief that match our own, and with a grave beauty and dignity which recalls Schopenhauer's remark that 'There is one respect in which brutes show real wisdom when compared to us - I mean their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment.'
There is a parallel between our excuses for maltreating apes and those for maltreating fellow humans. We locate a difference that we find threatening, or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within. Racism and speciesism are thus the same thing - they are myths about who belongs and who is alien.
In their book The Great Ape Project published some years ago, Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer entered a plea for humankind to 'admit our fellow Great Apes - the chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans - to the same moral community as ourselves, thereby according them rights to life, to liberty, and to protection against torture - especially the kind of torture inflicted in the name of scientific research.' In the face of the genetic and behavioural evidence, there is no good reason why the moral respect and consideration that applies between humans should not apply between humans and apes. But note: the moment that the boundaries of morality are extended in this way, there is no obvious place to stop. All animate nature comes within the purview of ethics; and that, arguably, is as it should be.
The world divides into vegetarians and those that eat them. Thoreau wrote, 'I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other.' There are plenty who argue that it is not immoral to eat a cow, especially if it has lived well beforehand. Lovers of cats and dogs would think it cruel to eat their pets, though, and once again the reason is the boundary: cats and dogs, horses and even hamsters, have become quasi-citizens of the human world, and our treatment of them is premised on the same kind of concern for their interests as we show to other humans. We would not crowd dogs into a closed lorry as we do sheep when they are sent on long export journeys; that is a happy fact. But it is an unhappy fact that we crowd sheep into lorries, for sheep can suffer thirst and panic just as dogs - and humans - do.
Humanity's record with animals is poor. 'We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation,' wrote Dean Inge, 'and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.' Some think that sentimental do-goodery over animals is a distraction from more significant moral matters. Perhaps; but a person's integrity is never more fully tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature; and the route from pulling wings off flies to committing crimes against humanity is not a notably circuitous one.
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com)
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