The question of race

2014-08-12 00:00

IS the “race question” in South Africa just a black and white thing? When someone is accused of “playing the race card”, are they contrasting blacks and whites only? Is someone accused of being “racist” always white? Is race a social construct, or a side-effect of humanity’s continuous evolution? Is it, as Steven Friedman suggests, our ticking time bomb? This is a tricky and contentious issue. The contributions of various authors differ. Below are some views.

Differing Departure Points

The answers depend on whether you have a sociological, historical or bio-geographical departure point.

Nicholas Wade, in “The genome of history” (Spectator, May 17), contrasts social scientists’ views, that race is a social, not a biological construct, with that of historians, that races differ culturally only, with that of biological scientists, that studies of the human genome prove that human evolution has been extensive, recent and regional.

Research reveals that at least 14% of the human genome has changed under recent evolutionary pressure. Most of these signals of natural selection date from 30 000 to 5 000 years ago, a second in evolution’s time scale of three billion years. “Evolution does not stop. Is there no reason to suppose human evolution ground to a halt at some decent interval before the present?”

Is there an argument suggesting that Africans, East Asians and Caucasians, evolving independently, adapted to individual regional challenges?

It is hard to see anything in the human genome supporting racism, says Wade, but our growing knowledge of genetics allows us to identify biological differences as a result of natural selection. “Edward Wilson was pilloried for suggesting in his 1975 book Sociobiology, that many human social behaviours might have an evolutionary basis. But research has proved him correct.”

Different Trajectories?

“Humans are still a single species, but at least three evolutionary changes in social structure seem evident: the transition from foraging to settled life, from tribalism to modern states, and from agrarian to modern economies.

China first replaced tribalism, unifying in 221 BC to become the first modern state. Europeans caught up 1 000 years later. Other populations, particularly Middle Eastern and African, are achieving this transition. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution, starting in England, transformed the peasant population of the 1200s into the work force of 1800s.

“In many respects, the evolution of the different population groups has largely been in parallel, but on slightly different time scales, probably because of demographic and bio-geographical factors. Clearly, no society is intrinsically superior to any other, but inevitably each has periods of greater relative success.

Geography AND Institutions

“So,” asks Wade, “why are some countries rich and others persistently poor?” Capital and information flow fairly freely, so what prevents poor countries from emulating rich countries?

Perhaps human social nature has been shaped by evolution and groups therefore differ slightly in social behaviour, which can lead to different societies.

Significant human differences lie at this level, not at an individual level. This explains why people, unlike institutions, migrate easily from society to society.

Jared Dymond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, concurs: “Europe’s colonisation of Africa has nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as racists will have it. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography — in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.

“People are not different; the environments in which they have evolved are different.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, agrees, describing cultural legacies as powerful forces without which we cannot make sense of our world. So, can we conclude that we do not differ as individuals because we are of different races, and that expression of individual differences cannot be blamed on race or racism?

I think we can  — differing with each other, and from each other, is not racist.

As Wade concludes: “Race may be a troublesome inheritance, but it is better to explore and understand its bearing on human nature and history than to pretend for reasons of political convenience that it has no evolutionary basis.”

What does that mean for us? It means we should understand whether we are debating race in sociological, historical or bio-geographical contexts. Therefore we should explore ways of understanding:

• the environments within which we, of different races, have evolved;

• what the collision of these environments mean for our cultural legacy and trajectory as a society; and

• what institutions we should develop to ensure our joint trajectory becomes shared and sustainable.

These are the ingredients of reconciliation instead of racial debate or divide. Reconciliation is about understanding why we collide and then building an institutional framework. We started well with our Constitution, in which we understand, trust and co-habit with a shared vision of building a country. We will never do that if we play the race card.

• Steuart Pennington is CEO of and author of SOUTH AFRICA @ 20: For Better or for Worse? (2013).

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