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.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.
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."
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, CLPhotoDesign.com