Thursday, December 01, 2005

Blog Against Racism Day

Racial prejudice is an unfortunate reality. Fortunately, like the action of a river on course stone, fair-minded people can wear down and smooth away racist inclinations. But doing so is no mean task. Catchy slogans - I'm reminded of t-shirts that demand, "ERASE HATE!," a command that does little to assuage tension - and awareness campaigns are not enough. Humans are programmed to classify; we segregate our world into a hierarchy of Us and Them. To "Beat Racism" we must overcome a genetic predisposition, thoughtless and unimaginative though it may be, and, as I see it, this can happen in two ways.

The long term solution relies on multi-generational, social evolution, the "wearing down" I already mentioned. Alternatively, increased "interbreeding," or miscegenation, offers some hope. But what of the middle path, the one we will likely walk? And what exactly does "racist" mean in an increasingly plural world? These questions (coupled with my interest in wildlife) led me to the topic of my B.A.R.D. post.

I am a member of many environmental groups, some large (The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council) and others small (The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, American Wildlands, The Wildlands Project). All of these groups rely on and trust in the veracity of wildlife biologists. But because taxonomy, the classification of species, is a hotly debated subject, uncertainty creeps into the equation whenever environmental groups rally to protect a frog, duck or bear that is closely related to a healthy population. Personally, I enjoy the ever increasing complexity of phylogenetic trees, but the furor surrounding such issues can lead to practical disaster.

For example, in the Fall 2005 issue of "On The Wild Side," the quarterly publication of American Wildlands, Lauren Oechsli (AW's GIS Water Specialist) writes the following.
"Two hundred years after Lewis and Clark first encountered the species in Montana, genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout inhabit only 2 to 4 percent of their historic range in the U.S. Northern Rockies. In May 2005, American Wildlands and its conservation partners filed its fourth lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), seeking protection for the westslope cutthroat under the Endangered Species Act.

The FWS contends that the westslope cutthroat is widely distributed and does not warrant listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Included in the assessment were all westslope cutthroat populations that were at least 80 percent genetically pure despite crossbreeding with other trout species. American Wildlands contends that a westslope cutthroat trout is only a westslope cutthroat when it is genetically pure, not hybridized with rainbow trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout or any other trout subspecies."
Understandably, readers unfamiliar with the language of wildlife biology may be surprised by the xenophobic slant of the excerpt. The championing of genetic purity runs counter to things educated liberals hold dear. Unfortunately, such a black-and-white response - "Me moral, xenophobic biologist bad." - is inappropriate.

To address the issue more completely, one needs to understand the current divide within taxonomy. The established system of classification, called the biological species concept (BSC), distinguishes species by their ability, or inability, to breed. As a result, a mute swan (Cygnus olor) is distinct from the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), despite their belonging to the same genus, Cygnus. A rottweiler, on the other hand, belongs to the same species as the chihuahua, both Canis familiaris. A coupling of these two dog breeds might be awkward, but it will usually be successful. The BSC is widely accepted.

The new kid on the block, the phylogenetic species construct (PSC), has fewer cheerleaders, but is rapidly growing in popularity and application. The PSC classifies species not based on reproductive compatibility, but on distinct physical or genetic characteristics. According to the PSC, the mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) and the American black duck (Anas rubripes) are distinct species, even though they regularly interbreed. Furthermore, by PSc standards, their offspring, the mottled duck (Anas fulvigula), represents another species; I've read several papers suggesting the mottled duck should be further subdivided based on genetic and regional variation.

I believe that, in time, the PSC will replace the BSC as the dominant taxonomic system, resulting in innumerable battles between environmentalists and developers, corporations and property owners. Some biologists fear that taxonomy will ultimately become the enemy of conservation, particularly because, as a group of distinguished biologists wrote in their paper, "The Impact of Species Concept on Biodiversity Studies," the PSC is "subjective and possibly inconsistent." (Relativism may be the essential ingredient in postmodern thought, but there is little room for it in scientific methodology.) Moreover, there are worries that the PSC will simply lead to too much diversity.
"The increasing use of the PSC could thus lead to an apparent increase in extant species numbers, producing 'new' groups with more restricted geographic ranges and decreased abundance....[Therefore,] reclassification under the PSC will lead to an apparent rise in the number of endangered species. This is due not only to the detection of 'new' species but also to an increase in the proportion that are endangered due to a reduction in the distributional area of the inferred species range."
But what about the more wide-ranging implications of the PSC? If we're ready to apply it to every other species, shouldn't we turn the lenses round? By PSC standards, humans and domestic dogs would be further divided. Just as the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) is separated from the coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarkii), so too would I be deemed a species distinct from Allen Iverson. More dramatically, I would likely be classified apart from a contemporary Spaniard; we are both Caucasian, but there exists sufficient genetic (and perhaps physiological) difference for us to be divided. At the very least, I would be considered a different subspecies.

Clearly, such distinctions conflict with politically correct perspectives. Where morality meets science, it is important to consult philosophy and ethics. I've addressed similar issues before, so I won't waste space reiterating my concerns, but Timothy Burke's thoughts on alien/invasive species are equally applicable to the recent taxonomic shifts.
"...its rhetoric and tropes sometimes seem uncannily familiar, reminding me very much of ideas about race, miscegenation and nativism in modern colonialism, in post-colonial nationalism, and in identity politics. There’s some similar desire to stop the forward motion of change, to fix environments (human or natural) in their tracks, the same suspicion of dynamism."
Evolution is a remarkable process. Species change and mix in unexpected ways; flora and fauna are breathing as one, forever reinventing themselves as do the cells of our bodies. My appreciation of contemporary taxonomic craziness is linked to my faith in dynamism and my tolerance for uncertainty. For me, the arguments of waterfowl biologists regarding the relationship of mallards, black ducks and mottled ducks are as volatile as those about the relationship of African American, Native American, and Asian American. BSC simplification gives us one species of duck, one species of human, and one species of dog. Distinction via the PSC would lead to three (or more) species of duck and many species and sub species, maybe hundreds, of humans and dogs.

As I see it, all this confusion proves racial prejudice absurd. Sure, we're all different on some level. Some racial stereotypes are based in fact. It's true that, for example, that white men can't jump (relative to their black counterparts); African Americans and Caucasian Americans have significantly different physiologies, particularly noticeable when comparing bone and muscle structure in the leg.

I see no reason why we can't acknowledge these differences as phylogenetic moments, individual points on the infinite time line. These points are erased when one pans out from the present, electing instead to survey the mess at the geologic or universal level. At such a distance, distinctions between black and white or red and yellow become irrelevant. Even the separation between dog and cat appear insignificant. The whole universe just breathes.

Photo credit: Mottled duck image,


Devo said...

OK, I'm gonna preface my analysis with a simple observation: your more provocative -- and most notably passionate -- posts are often indistinguishable from numerous Buddhist texts I've read, enjoyed and learned from. Only an observation. And one I hope infuriates you as much as it did last time I alleged it!

Now, I shall focus my font of observation to the substance at hand. I find your contention that institution of PSC over BSC will result in an explosion of hybrid-racism very interesting indeed. It's not your everyday conception of openly antagonistic racism, but it is dangerous in its own right. Lending legitimacy to the idea that I'm of a different species than a black man or a Vietnamese man simply because I *look* different seems as if it would inevitably lead some of the less ideologically developed of us down a radical and thoroughly repugnant path... a la Hitler et al.

However, along a similar and simulaneously quite different track, I can also see such an absurd (in my view) method of classification giving rise to an even more absurd concept of the much derided "Political Correctness" impulse we saw in the last decade. Now every single iteration of human needs protection from every type of perceived hatred. More difference gives rise to the potential for more misunderstanding, more hatred and at the same time, much more militant tolerance... if that phrase makes any sense at all. If both of these impulses are given any berth at all, chaos is certain to ensue.

My two cents is that the notion of PSC is absurd... and potentially very dangerous, but in ways perhaps even more complicated than an intensive analysis the likes of yours could explain, HH.

Carl Buell (OGeorge) said...

Wonderful piece of writing and that last paragraph is great HH. "The whole universe just breathes." I expect to see the visual version of that from you soon. What a great title and subject for a painting. I'll have something up soon about the concept of species through time, but I'll have to get myself a ghost writer to come close to the elegant words here.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Firstly, you're a bastard! ;)

Seriously, though, your comment doesn't infuriate me, probably because I understand better what you mean now.

A wide adoption of the PSC could lead to a rebirth of eugenics. At the very least, racist groups will point to the newly canonized distinctions as "proof" that one breed is genetically superior to another. After all, we already rank dog breeds on intelligence without hesitation; how long before we begin doing it with humans again?

You also suggest that the PSC could, in effect, produce the opposite trend. As I see it, such an explosion of protectionism goes hand-in-hand with an explosion of racism. Both will happen at the same time, depending on the motivations of the group or individual. The NRDC and Amnesty International are likely to celebrate the myriad categories, while the Aryan Nation and KKK will embrace them for altogether different reasons.

As for my "intensive analysis"...LOL!

I hardly consider myself capable of explaining much of anything. The writings here are just my chewing on ideas, more observations than solutions or explanations.


Thanks. Actually my new series of paintings could be described as transcendental, or ecstatic, nature paintings, but I also think of them as interpretations of the connections, of the breathing. I'll send you some images when I feel a little more other words, after I have a couple of finished paintings under my belt.

You don't need a ghost writer, by the way. I'm enjoying what you have up so far.

Devo said...

Well, if your posts are simple mastication, I'd be interested to see what you have to offer in the way of "intensive analysis"!

Then again, you ARE a molecular biology nerd... so perhaps I'd be getting a bit more than I'm bargaining for in requesting such a thing!

Hungry Hyaena said...


Oh, come now...mastication is anything but simple. ;)

Michael said...

For those of you that haven't read it, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen 'the Jackhammer' Gould is required reading.
Also Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven.
I am curious where the dividing line is drawn in PSC.
Furhermore, even BSC has problems dealing with things as common as oaks and cattails. Oaks, which exhibit a large amount of lateral gene flow, nevertheless remain taxanomically distinct across the arc of time. Cattails, on the other hand, hybridize readily to produce infertile offspring. Yet despite their inability to reproduce sexually, hybrid cattails proliferate through vegetative reproduction. The hybrid may not be a distinct species officially, but that doesn't seem to stop it.
Plus, seemingly infertile hybrid plants occasionally meet a corresponding plant and are able to reproduce sexually, thus creating a new sexually fertile plant. Suddenly the 'family tree' starts looking pretty wonky.