Live From The Field

*Evolution and Racism*

Ok. So. This is going to press a few buttons at once. Humans are very good
at judging things. Especially when it is unjustified. However, I will not
be defending the neurobiological reason for stereotypes, or racism
(principally because prejudice is a learned thing). I am going to take a
holistic view at the phenomenon known as exophobia: the irrational fear of
or discrimination against dissimilarity.

(Intro music here)

Let me backup. The first thing I wanna talk about is word that many just
don’t get the grasp of.


Every living thing on this planet is here because it evolved to be here.
Let me say it again. Everything evolved. And everything is STILL evolving.
As long as there is life on earth, the process of natural selection will be
the driving force behind it. And, like another misunderstood word,
“science,” it it not an event, a thing, or an organization of people trying
to change your way of life. It is a process. Like falling. Evolution is
like gravity, except not gravity. Don’t tell your physics teacher that you
think evolution is like gravity. Imagine a big cosmic strainer and Earth
based life is the pasta. Yeah. Pasta. I think your physics teacher would
like that one mainly because, well, everybody likes pasta.

But I digress. The most important thing in this moment is to know that
evolution, for all living things, started at the same time here on Earth.
There is no such thing as an animal that is more evolved than another. It
took about just as long for me to come into existence as it did for my dog.
We are on the same clock. Lesser evolution does not exist, only different
evolution. And while you may think of our “unparalleled” ability to
communicate and organize as evidence of human superiority, I would like to
introduce you about 10,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quadrillion) of my very
good friends. Ants.

Ants, even just at a glance, are without a doubt the most organized,
efficient, and successful organisms on this planet. They are found on every
land mass on the planet except antarctica. They’re communication is
basically as efficient as telepathy (but without the bald dudes in
wheelchairs), and ant colonies can get big. In 2009, the three
supercolonies found in Japan, California, and Europe were demonstrated to
be part of a single global “megacolony”. This represents the most populous
recorded single animal society on earth, other than humans, with an
estimated billions of ants being a part of this network. Lesser evolved? I
think not.

But this is not just about the ants and how cool they are (they’re awesome
right?!). The same way that we, forgive the pun, look down on ants because
of their relative size and inability to perform human tasks, we discredit,
disempower, enslave, endanger, invade, and invalidate human cultures that
are dissimilar to our own. Not ever because it needs doing (seriously it’s
super unnecessary) but because we believe that our way is the highway to
the future. That we are the future. But in reality, no way is the highway
because the “highway” is Cultural evolution and ALL of us are merely
scenery. Evolution is a process that every culture goes through. And most
importantly, it is a process that every culture goes through differently.
There is no such thing as a culture that is more evolved than another.
Lesser evolution does not exist, only different evolution.

A key aspect of the theory of evolution and natural selection is that an
organism (or culture) can only go two ways. It can adapt and become best
suited for its environment, or it can die off. Here is where I would like
to draw a line in the sand, however, because, like it or not, we have moral
obligations to consider, not just biological ones. Even though you might
credit natural selection as your reasoning for invading another land and
killing its occupants, that ignores the responsibility that we have to
think morally. We were born with the ability to make judgements and
decisions that may be contradictory to the biological standards that Darwin
proposed, and it is up to us to use it responsibly.

In the study of evolution there is what’s called the cognitive trade-off.
This explains that in exchange for more cognitive processing ability for
organization and speech, we lost the ability to make quick decisions
through memory and data alone, an area in which chimpanzees excel. At most
cognitive tests, a chimpanzee will beat out a human in short term memory,
and speed of data recollection. The concept of the trade-off for what
better suits your environment is an incredibly crucial aspect of animal and
cultural evolution. This is another incredibly important thing. You can
paint any organism or culture as the superior one if you test them all a
certain way. And, like the SAT’s, the solution to measuring success is not
to change the test to fit the dominant culture. It is to stop testing
cultures at all. To put this bluntly and maybe slightly angrily, people of
color and non-western culture are NOT lab rats.

Earlier I mentioned that cognitive trade-off and how things adapt to best
suit the environment. I would like to return to that, and, much like a
person who didn’t feel their phone in their pocket immediately after
standing up, explore a bit further. Culture, as a collective and individual
entity, has a massive influence by its traditions. Traditions, in turn,
often come from a long standing religious belief, survival method ,and
other older ways of doing things that may no longer be as necessary
logistically but are sustained for aesthetic, superstitious, or ideological
reasons. What this means is that cultures are different because of their
history. The history and general context of the european settlers were
incredibly different than the history and context of the natives that they
invaded. Which is why it was an absolute atrocity that the europeans forced
the natives to assimilate or die. What I am discussing is NOT social
darwinism. What I am discussing is the application of scientific principles
used to study the development of life through time to study the development
of cultures.

You may be tempted to say “But the europeans were ‘stronger.’ isn’t that
natural selection?” And here I would like to reaaaalllyyyyy lay this down.
Natural selection is not about species or cultures destroying each other
for domination. Threats against a fly would cause it to develop resistance
against the tactics of the spider, maybe giving it a breeding advantage
over other species of fly. The fly, however (and literally no animal other
than us), does not seek to eradicate all flies with different survival
techniques. Because that’s counter productive and stupid. It’s also
biologically just bad strategy. The fly wants a diverse gene pool. For
improvement of the species.

Ok this is getting really long. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk!

So it goes. -Kurt Vonnegut