Tuesday, January 9, 2018
On The Origin Of The Racism Of A Befuddled State Legislator
Of course it was Charles Pierce who led me to the story in the Kansas City Star about the abysmally racist comment from one of the most reliable of sources of idiocy, a state legislature where "The lawmaker, Republican Rep. Steve Alford of Ulysses," said at "a legislative coffee event" :
“What you really need to do is go back in the ’30s when they outlawed all types of drugs in Kansas (and) across the United States, what was the reason they did that?” Alford said at the event. “One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, the African-Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off those drugs just because (of) their character makeup, their genetics, and that.”
which we can be thankful that even though such things can be said by a state legislator they can still be made to feel it's necessary to apologize for having said them. I'm not singling out Kansas because I doubt there's a state legislature in the country where such things don't get said informally and on the floor.
The mention of "their character makeup, their genetics, and that" that kind of scientific racism would normally, in polite company, be called "pseudo-science" but it's a pseudo-science which a lot of the most eminent of scientists have spouted over the years since 1859, though not invoking "genes" to promote their personal racism until the discoveries of Gregor Mendel were rediscovered and applied in ways that I have a strong feeling Fr Mendel may have objected to. I could provide quotes which I've already posted here and a large number of examples in my background research, even from eminent Nobel laureates, Shockley, Crick, Watson, other luminaries as R. A. Fischer and a myriad of lesser known scientists who were quite influential and prominent in their day who say and the same thing in more highfalutin language, though some of it, especially from the likes of James Watson isn't that much different from what the rightly disdained racist legislator said. You can find similar things all down the line since the publication of The Origin of Species. The question is why is it OK when a scientist says it. I know why it isn't when a state legislator says it but science gets a pass.
One of the most interesting things I found out in my researching eugenics and scientific racism and the use of biological determinism to prop up atheist-materialist claims is that much of what I was taught in high school and university about genes and genetics is in deep trouble and a lot of it was never really established in physical evidence. Though I would bet if it were possible to survey the population on their understanding of things, it's that half-century and older faith that is the basis of most peoples thinking on this, certainly of most journalists. Take for example this exchange in an interview between Susan Mazur and Dennis Nobel.
Suzan Mazur: University of Chicago microbiologist Jim Shapiro, whose work you cite, told me in our 2012 interview that he no longer uses the word “gene,” saying:
[I]t’s misleading. There was a time when we were studying the rules of Mendelian heredity when it could be useful, but that time was almost a hundred years ago now. The way I like to think of cells and genomes is that there are no “units”; there are just systems all the way down.
New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman said he thinks the gene is “down but not out.”
But only a week or so ago the science section of The New York Times ran a piece touting “de novo genes” and their appearance and disappearance.
What is the status now of the gene in your view?
Denis Noble: First of all, I go along largely with Jim Shapiro’s view of the difficulty of the definition of a gene. I think it’s actually even more difficult than Jim says. My argument is very simple. Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909 introduced the definition of “gene.” He was the first person to use that word, although he was introducing a concept that existed ever since Mendel. What he was actually referring to was a phenotype trait, not a piece of DNA. He didn’t know about DNA in those days. We now define a gene, when we attempt to define it, as a particular sequence with “start” and “stop” codons, etc., in a strip of DNA. My point is that the first definition of a gene — Johansen’s definition as a trait, as an inheritable phenotype — was necessarily the cause of a phenotype, because that’s how it was defined. It was, if you like, a catch-all definition of a gene. Anything that contributed to that particular trait — inheritable, according to Mendelian laws — would be the gene, whether it is a piece of DNA or some other aspect of the functioning of the cell. That we define “gene” as a sequence of DNA becomes an empirical question, not a conceptual necessity. It becomes an empirical question whether that particular strip of DNA has a function within the phenotype. Some do and some don’t.
It’s interesting that many knockout experiments don’t actually reveal the function of the knocked-out gene. In yeast, for example, there’s a study that 80 percent of knockouts don’t have an obvious phenotypic effect until you stress the organism. What that tells me is that we have progressively moved from a definition of a gene which made it a conceptual necessity that the defined object was the cause of the phenotype — that’s how it was defined — to a matter which is an empirical discovery to be made, which is whether a particular sequence of DNA plays a functional role or not. Those are very, very different definitions of a gene.
So I go further than Jim. Not only is it difficult, as he says in his book, to now define what a gene is; one should be thinking more of networks of interactions than single and fatalistic genes at the DNA level. It’s also true that the concept of a gene has changed in a very subtle way, and in a way that makes a big difference to how the concept of a gene should be used in evolutionary biology.
The reason for that is very simple. It is that many of the definitions used by modern synthesists, including Richard Dawkins, are actually the Johannsen definition of a gene — that is, the trait as the phenotypic characteristic.
And after a short and interesting passage about how the neo-Darwinists aren't really Darwinists (Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, one of the things we learned was verboten in the real, right way to believe these things happen). this is said:
Suzan Mazur: There’s also natural selection, which became a catch-all term. As Richard Lewontin has pointed out, it was intended as a metaphor not to be taken literally by generations of scientists. The range of views about what natural selection is is staggering — a brand, a political term, a political and scientific term, failure to reach biotic potential, physicists are seeing it as part of a larger process now, etc. etc. Things are being majorly redefined.
Denis Noble: You’re putting your finger on a very important point here. And what I just said about the definition of a gene is only one example where I think some philosophical clarity is needed.
I think an excuse could be made for the racism of Mr Alford, certainly the scientific part of it, anyway, because natural selection will inevitably give rise to Just-so stories and scientific excuses for racism, and it will give rise to eugenic claims and proposals that is the way that it has been used since the 1860s up till today. There are people working as scientists in accredited, even world renowned universities that use it in that way and as an excuse for economic, political and social discrimination against women and other groups. That said, it's likely Alford was just looking for an excuse for his already present racism, I think it's pretty clear that's not an isolated use of Darwinist and neo-Darwinist claims of the sort, it's more the rule than the exception.
Much as I admire him in may ways, I disagree with Lewontin on one thing, it's obvious from reading Darwin and his disciples from the earliest days and years after he invented natural selection, that they intended it to be taken literally and they were among the first to propose classifying people according to racial hierarchies of intelligence and "fitness" and to even propose that the extinction of entire races was inevitable as they would be replaced by their superiors. Darwin specifically named the Brits as one of the groups which would supplant "inferior" races around the world. And it was not only used in that way, it was used to support the subjugation of people in lower economic classes, marking them as biologically inferior and their elimination from the human population was held to be a boon for the survivors. Eugenics, which was the direct result of the doctrine of natural selection, with Darwin's approval, did not consider natural selection to be a metaphor, you don't base proposals for policies eliminating people from the future on the basis of metaphors. I think that Mr. Lewontin's laudable habit of speaking uneasy truth failed in on that count.
Update: I erred, R. A. Fischer has had praise and honors heaped on him but he was not a Nobel Laureate, he was, however, a man who dedicated his life to coming up with mathematical excuses for racism and who was entirely opposed to racial equality on the basis of his understanding of natural selection. He is one of the chief architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis which has been biological orthodoxy right through today, though, as such eminent biologists as Margulis, Shapiro, Nobel and a number of others have said, it's time to put it aside because it doesn't really work.
Posted by The Thought Criminal at 5:39 PM