The racist, the squid and the Ethiopian: the triumph of despair over hope

A grain of rice has more genes than a human being. So does a Daphnia. So does a banana…and a roundworm. Not so surprising these days, what with the revelation of the genome – though these examples carry interesting questions about what we think we mean by evolution. We are, in comparative terms, more evolved than a water flea, in that we are more versatile and complex in (some of) our behaviours and capacities to feed back to our environment – though even the water flea can change their form in response to its environment. Of course, we may be less evolved in linear terms, which is to say that the water flea may be more evolved in adapting to its complex environment than we are to ours (we still need clothes and shelter to survive).

The squid and octopus (the cephalopods) are, perhaps, more interesting. While the simple number of genes clearly doesn’t say enough about how complex we are, the capacity to self-reengineer our genetic make-up, on the other hand, seems to reveal deep mysteries – and here is where we confront the squid. What follows may astound you – it did me.

In the human ape there is a more or less stable transmission of messages from DNA to RNA and thence to proteins, which give our  phenotype – our form. DNA transmits the genetic instructions, RNA carries them and the result are proteins, the building blocks of the cells that make us up. We rely on the integrity of the process – that messages don’t get edited along the way. Where the basic message from the DNA to the RNA does get edited, giving rise to a new protein, this manifests itself as a corruption – often in the form of a disease. In us, such distorted messaging is confined to a small number of RNA possibilities – around 3% – and here we find genetic diseases. However, the squid and the octopus can edit 50% and more of their RNA, leading to sometime fundamental changes in the phenotype. And these changes are not corruptions, but appear to be spontaneous adaptations. The human ape needs many generations to adapt to its changing environment (to evolve) – the cephalopod does it now. Indeed, some of the edits are confined to the brain of the creature, implying the possibility of fundamental spontaneous change to behaviours, intelligence and so on. We cannot minimise this: DNA passes on the historical, genetic determination of just who we are. We do not expect who we are to change within a generation. If so, we might expect the Innuit to develop luxurious hair throughout their body; we might even expect each of us to be responsive, both physically and intellectually, to significant changes in climate – at least, in our children. Squids can do the equivalent of these things.

Well, let’s not get carried away. A squid may be the intellectual equivalent of Aristotle, but here on land we still have no idea how to cope with a Donald Trump phenomenon, or to do what almost everyone (apart from the ‘alt right’) wants to do, which is bring an end to austerity programs and solve the Palestinian issue. Our environment is out of control. But the squid is a powerful reminder that we have a tendency to settle for less understanding than we need to deal with life’s challenges. A pretty fundamental challenge is how we manage difference. We find it easier to wage war on countries whose populations are a darker colour than our own – and we run to the defence of those (Poland and Czechoslovakia in WW2) who are of the same colour. When we express our frustration with our poverty we have a greater tendency to take it out on those we see as visually different (people of colour) than to take it out more rationally on those who have excessive amounts of wealth and who are the more direct source of poverty. When it comes to marrying off our daughters, we….and so on and so on. So what does genetics tell us about these differences – before we come to the social pathology of racism?

Much of this thumb-nail account can be found in Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, a fascinating, authoritative and frequently unsettling account of human genetics. But Google (Scholar), as always, is rich with pickings.

First off, there is no genetic basis for the idea that the human species can be divided into racial groups. None. For instance, as Rutherford takes great pains to explain, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are empty and meaningless terms to a geneticist. Why? There is little if any evidence to suggest anything other than that the human ape (what Rutherford calls the ‘bald ape’, and Richard Rorty calls the ‘non-feathered biped’) came out of the African continent. But of all the genetic variations in Africa, only a small number were among the emigrants, leaving behind the bulk of the diversity. What this means is that there is more variation across the African continent (still) than there is between those who stayed in Africa and those who left. We Europeans/Caucasians/non-Asians/white are more alike Africans in general than a Zulu is, say, to a Senegalese.

Now, just to pause here for a moment. This is a restatement of a stunning insight that we owe to Darwin – who discovered much more than the principle of natural selection: there is more variation within a species than there is across species. We are more consistently like a dog (four limbs, we suckle, shit, vocalise, we have skin and hair, we share 99% genes….etc.) than a chihuahua is like a Great Dane, a Ridgeback, a Peruvian Hairless and Ame’s YorkiePoo. In my work – evaluating social programs – I keep rediscovering this as though it were a natural law of society. There is more variation within a school than there is across schools: two schools share greater consistent similarity than do two classrooms on a single corridor. There is more diversity among poor, rural families than there is between poor, rural families and wealthy, urban families. This, alone, should make us hesitate before making a generalisation about ‘failing’ schools, ‘problem’ families, or ‘incompetent’ teachers.

Back to race.

Another way of putting this, shows Rutherford, is that gross genetic differences that might, at first glance, look like racial variation, are often down to geographical barriers – oceans and mountains. When a migration was stopped by a geographical obstacle, this gave rise, over long periods of time, to evolutionary specifics (thick hair, dry ear wax, lactose tolerance). Beyond that, there seems to be little, if anything, to justify our classification into racial types. At the most fundamental level, reflect on the fact that any human anywhere can have sex with and produce offspring with another: an Innuit with an Australian Aboriginal; a Quechua Andean Indigenous with a Sami reindeer herder or a British aristocrat. We are, at root, all the same in our diversity.

There are many casualties of this analysis, all of which I welcome – and they include the prevalent idea that there is such a thing, genetically, as a jewish identity. Other than an expected and artificial consolidation through historical intramarriage (‘jews’ with ‘jews’), jew-ish people are neither less nor more diverse in their genetic heritage than any other non-feathered bipod. Let’s pause again.

In the early 1980s around 8,000 ‘jews’ (Falashas) were successfully ‘returned’ to Israel from Ethiopia in what was named as Operation Moses. This was staged as a rescue. Similar ‘operations’ (including one heroically named ‘On Eagle’s Wings’) had ‘returned’ people claiming jewish descent from Morocco, Yemen and elsewhere. Later waves brought  tens of thousand more Falashas to Israel. Even without the historical conversion and counter-conversion among diverse Semitic** groups (read Shlomo Sands’ book, The Invention of the Jewish People), this alone shows the genetic range embraced by this religious/cultural group that are the jewish people.

** This is well worth a note. ‘Semitic’ refers to those who speak ‘Semitic’ languages – which includes Hebrew and Arabic, but also Aramaic, Amharic, Tigrinya and others along with Maltese! In fact, Ethiopia has its own form of Semitic language which differs from the others in that it has proto-vowels. Antisemitic, referring to anti-jewish sentiment, is as vacuous and erroneous a concept as any other in this bustling field of misperceptions. You hate jews and arabs? What do you feel about the Maltese?!

Back, once again, to race and racism. Where were we? Right. We were at the point where a Southern white supremacist or a Boston Irish racist share more with so-called ‘African-Americans’ than those African-Americans share with each other. This is a known, insofar as science knows anything. It is evidence-based. Of course, the same goes for the Falashas in Israel. A white, European Israeli might have more in common with an Ethiopian Falasha than that Falasha has with anyone in any other African country. And, in the same vein, a Falasha could have more in common with people in his or her own country than those other people have with Zulus. It’s a kind of genetic fractal which self-replicates at different levels of analysis. But at the heart of Rutherford’s analysis (not just his – he merely reports the current state of genetics research) are these two insights: (i) that there is no racial characteristic underpinning jewish-ness, and (ii) that there is little, if anything, to distinguish a white Israeli from a Falasha – and, because of (i), this is not because they are both putatively ‘jewish’. Because they are both bald apes with massively and equally diverse DNA heritages.

But just as this does not stop the Boston racist from burning the homes of Puerto Ricans (part of research I conducted some while ago) and shooting at school buses carrying Puerto Rican and black children, so it fails to dampen the enthusiasm with which many Israelis discriminate against Falashas. So extreme has this Israeli discrimination become that it led, in 2015, to street riots ( I don’t know, but I suspect that something of this discrimination – quite apart from the usual sad diet of poor whites coming down on poorer blacks – is based on a reluctance to insert the thin end of a dangerous wedge by allowing such a wide range of phenotypes to emanate from this putatively ‘exclusive’ genotype. The fear might be that the sense of ‘jewishness’ dissolves in such a diverse cultural admixture. Needless to say, the very same goes for Palestinians – especially so given the historical frequency of intermarriage.

Perhaps. More mainstream a thought is that such racism is a manifestation of the economics of despair. That, too, is a potent and viable thought. It is intolerable to be poor – but to be at the bottom of the heap is inconceivable. Put someone else there, especially someone else who can carry some of the blame for your poverty: they took your job, and we can see that because of colour difference. There was more than a sliver of pragmatic philosophy in John Cleese’s anguished cry in the movie Clockwise – “it’s not the despair – I can stand the despair – it’s the hope!”.  ( The consequences of hope are, indeed, profound and uncomfortable, for it forces us to act.

The idea of racial difference – much less racial exceptionalism – has no scientific, moral or political validity – but it flies. It is, in this complex way, a celebration of despair and a refusal to embrace hope. A philosophy of hope would lead us to make common cause with those people with whom we share a common humanity, a common DNA and, too often, a common poverty. Anger at excessive wealth has a stronger empirical/rational claim to make, and implies the possibility of poverty relief through fairer distribution of social goods.

In the meantime we are trapped in historical absurdities that determine many of the current threats to our lives and stability. With no genetic claim to jewish exceptionalism, what is the justification of the Israeli State? That question is rhetorical, in that there is no prospect of doing away with it – beside anything, the suffering would be too cataclysmic. We live with it, try to make sense of it. But if Israeli political dinosaurs could reflect for a moment on the genetic basis of Palestinian/jewish similarities we might have a bridgehead for considering the economic and political sense of collaboration between these two highly educated, culturally sophisticated groups. Of course, we would then be left with the question of what to do with all the wealth held in white, European Israeli hands and the relative poverty of the Palestinians. But this, at least, has the merit of being the more authentic – and tractable – issue.

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