While genetic research proves that our categorisations are inaccurate, formal and daily discourse remains regressive
I write this commentary a day after attending a party to celebrate the engagement between a good childhood friend of mine, and his now fiancé. He is of Nigerian decent; she is of Sri Lankan decent. Both are very attractive individuals and I cannot help but wonder what their beautiful kids would look like.
Which has sent me down another path of thought, what would this couple’s kids consider to be their heritage? There isn’t the option of selecting Asian/African on ethnic origin related forms. (We all know those forms, the ones we fill out when applying for a job, etc). I often get annoyed at the lack of options when I, too, have to submit such information. While both my parents are of Indian origin, my father is a third generation Kenyan citizen (now British), and considers himself to be African and not Indian or Asian. I consider myself British, then Kenyan, then Indian. Alas, I simply “tick” Indian, when the time comes.
Then another thought (yes, many thoughts), what is the point of declaring our ethnic origin when, for example, applying for a job, anyway? Why do we, as a diverse population, still face questions regarding our heritage? With London’s population now being represented as 55 per cent “ethnic” and 45 per cent “white” British, people from different backgrounds inevitably mingle, get together, maybe fall in love, and make babies. This is the new reality. As comedian Russell Peters eloquently puts it, ‘one day, we are all going to be beige!’
For the purposes of tracking population demographics or epidemiological data, the current methods of ethnic analysis are outdated and need to be upgraded to deliver relevant data. Outside of this, I see no purpose or need for such data. In a world where globalisation overshadows local dialects and languages to extinction, where the last remaining untouched cultures are hidden deep in the Amazon (and are at threat), ethnicity and heritage should be celebrated and utilised for cohesion, not differentiation of any kind. Diversity in the United States has also been a hot topic and is beautifully highlighted by Lise Funderberg in an article she wrote for the National Geographic’s 125th anniversary issue, titled “Changing Faces“, which is supported by an article from Michele Norris, “Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change“.
So why do we continue to segregate ourselves using “race”? It irks me, to the core, that we still use this term. Race, derived from the 16th century Middle French word rasse (itself derived from the Italian word razza, whose origin can possibly be traced to the Arabic word ra’as pertaining to being “the head, beginning, or origin of something or someone”), was initially used to describe breed, lineage, family, or even common occupation, and was adopted by imperialists and colonialists in the late 17th century during the Age of Enlightenment to segregate themselves from the people they oppressed and enslaved. It was a scientific, biological and descriptive term that endowed white Europeans with divine superiority over those who did not look like them, those of alternative dermatological hue, often described as “savages” in literature of that era.
Today, race is considered a real economic, social, political and cultural concept. However, from a biological perspective, it doesn’t actually exist. I find it baffling that we still designate and alienate ourselves into sectors, despite years of genetic knowledge strongly suggesting the opposite.
In 1972, Richard Lewontin of Harvard University published research stating that of the genetic differences that exist between human populations (approximately 0.1 per cent), most of these variations, up to 85 per cent, occur within local geographical groups, while only 15 per cent or less occurs between them. What this means is that you will find more genetic variation from people within your own perceived ethnic group than you would between another.
Now things have moved on significantly since 1972, with many individuals such as Anthony Edwards and (the ever religion-bashing) Richard Dawkins criticising Lewontin on his conclusion that race is an invalid taxonomic construct, or in simpler terms, a corrupt way of segregating people into groups. Edwards does not disagree with Lewontin’s statements on variation. However, as he correctly points out, when one analyses differences in groups of genes between populations, rather than single genes (as Lewontin did), you begin to be able to cluster these differences into certain populations. So in summary, you are more likely to find greater genetic differences in single genes between individuals of the same race than of different ones.
Yet, genetics tells us that if enough genetic data is considered, an individual can be assigned to a specific geographic ancestry. This is the key – geographic ancestry, not race. Genetic differences do not have anything to do with race per say. The things we use to classify populations into a specific race, such as the imperialist favourites, skin colour or cranial shape, does not mean a thing. You are more likely to see genetic similarities between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans, than between sub-Saharan Africans and Melanesians (inhabitants of an island north east of Australia), despite the fact that Africans and Melanesians share more “racial” traits (dark skin, skull shape, blah blah blah).
Genetic analysis of DNA from the sex chromosomes (X and Y people, think back to the GCSE biology lessons you messed around in), suggests that we are, indeed, all African. Using this data, Stephen Oppenheimer, in his book Out of Eden, reveals that we, all 7.2 billion of us, can be traced to a handful of adventurous mavericks, who approximately 80,000 years ago, took the leap from the horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. Those souls, driven by curiosity and the need to survive, migrated around the world, some staying in certain places to form a community, while others continued to move into the expanse of the unknown.
Science has demonstrated that we are one race, one people, one species. Can science also explain our behavioural differences? Yes, yes it can. In the book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond elegantly demonstrates that the differences between people of divergent origins arise purely due to the environment our respective ancestors developed in.
Despite the literature, and despite our supposed advancement as a people, we still segregate ourselves into categories. It is time to reduce “race” to the linguistic history books, and refer to our ethnic origins in a less derogatory and more scientifically-accurate way.
Back at the engagement party, I looked around me, and among the happy faces and laughter, the two-step dance moves and merry banter, all fuelled by good music, vibes and a dash (or maybe deluge) of alcohol, I notice the ethnological diversity on show. I find it rather poetic that after 80,000 years of migrating away from our own, we are at a point where we deliberately come together, a point where me meet again, a point where we have come full circle.
Image from: http://fotoforum.gazeta.pl/photo/0/qe/lg/oi8j/M5uZbWa94vN12oYHaX.jpg
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