Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”
Tom Stafford, co-author of the excellent book Mind Hacks, recently wrote a piece for the BBC about one of the most fundamental principles in the brain’s arsenal. This principle is so important that it ought to have a super-excitingly electrifying name; alas, it’s misleadingly boring. The principle is “adaptation,” or otherwise called “tuning out” or “getting used to it.” In an effort to help further communicate the sorts of powers adaptation gives us, it struck me to relate a remarkable “adaptation encounter” I recently had.
In 2011 I had the pleasure of visiting Japan for the first time. In addition to fascinating neuroscience, priceless culture, wonderful food, and world-class skiing, during my week there I had the mind-blowing experience of…turning Japanese.
You don’t think it’s possible for a white person to turn Japanese? Well, you can…perceptually. In fact, although it is I who had turned Japanese during my stay, from my first-person perspective it seemed as if every Japanese person had turned Caucasian!
As Twilight Zone-ish as this may sound, this sort of transformation is well-known and commonplace. What made it so intriguing for me was the extent to which I was, by virtue of my research proclivities, consciously aware of what usually flies below radar.
Razib Khan’s degrees are in biochemistry and biology. He has blogged about genetics since 2002 (see his Discover Blog, Gene Expression), previously worked in software development, is an Unz Foundation Junior Fellow and lives in the western US. He loves habaneros.
…At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Prof. Schaaffhause has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
The above quote is not to vilify Charles Darwin. On the contrary, I believe Darwin was a scientific hero whose work is the foundation of modern biology. Nevertheless, he was a man of his age. Despite the fact that Darwin was a political liberal from a family of liberals, with pristine credentials in progressive social movements of his day, such as the anti-slavery campaigns, it is clear that he had Victorian biases nonetheless; some of the passages in The descent of man clearly come from a fortunately bygone era, when white scholars and adventurers cataloged and surveyed the unexplored corners of our world, and created taxonomies of the “lower races” as if they were just part of the local fauna. The reality is that Charles Darwin’s age was fundamentally one of white supremacy. In the year 1900, one out of three human beings alive was of European extraction. In the four centuries since Christopher Columbus, Europe and its Diaspora had entered into massive demographic expansion—which many Victorians saw as survival of the fittest. Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as H. G. Wells, foresaw a future where the “higher races” would naturally marginalize those peoples who were lesser participants in civilization. Such was taken as the judgment of nature.
How 100 years do change things. And yet just as Darwin could not help but reflect the presuppositions of his era, so we in our day can not help but channel the zeitgeist. Like Charles Darwin, today’s scholars have concluded that humans are fundamentally an African species. But unlike Darwin they conclude from this that there is a biological, essential unity of humankind, such that talk of “civilized” and “savage” is rendered moot and irrelevant. We do look through the mirror of our ages darkly, seeing startlingly different insights from the same shadows of reality. Whereas racist assumptions and beliefs were supported by interpretations of science of the 19th century, today we attempt to harness science in the opposing direction.
The topic of human variation, and more plainly, race, is fraught. The past century has seen a wild swing from the widespread acceptance of the idea that human races are real, with big, important differences, to the opposite position: that race is fundamentally an illusion, a social construction of the human mind. But both of these arguments are mistaken. The established modern consensus about the equality of people, irrespective of race, is morally and ethically justified. But these beliefs we hold to be true do not derive from the natural science, which doesn’t present a clear moral lesson.
Today it is fashionable to contend that ethnic identity is a social construction. That fashion obviously has some genuine basis in reality. Univision host Jorge Ramos, a blue-eyed Mexican American, is considered a “person of color.” If his name was “George Romans” he would be coded as a white American simply on account of his physical appearance. This is due to the social construction of a Hispanic American identity, which has roots in decisions made by the United States government in ethnic classification in the 1960s. But this model of social construction allowing for plasticity is not universal. As outlined in The Cleanest Racist the North Korean national identity is strongly essentialist, to the point where even genetically close populations such as Japanese could never be part of the nation. Similarly, in Japan itself the native-born ethnic Koreans are still viewed as fundamentally guests in the Japanese nation. Both cases illustrate how social construction can impede rather than enable fluidity. Yet social construction as a total explanatory model has limits. Canada has the term “visible minority” to denote those populations which are distinct in origin from Anglophone and Francophone whites by virtue of their appearance. This is in contrast to groups like Ukrainian Canadians, which are minorities due to their chosen cultural distinctiveness.
When it comes to ethnic difference and conflict we can ascribe the divisions to both social and biological distinctions to varying degrees. In the mid-1990s there was a genocide in Rwanda. That genocide had an ethnic dimension, with conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus being one cause. The Hutu regime which implemented the genocide against the Tutsis co-opted theories of biological difference and foreign origin pioneered by European scholars in the 19th century. Whereas these distinctions once justified Tutsi domination of the Hutu, now they served to mark off the Tutsi as an alien infestation. After the takeover of Rwanda by a Tutsi dominated rebel movement in the wake of the genocide there was an attempt to elide these deadly distinctions. The rationale is clear. Remove the ostensible basis for genocide, and you remove the risk of genocide. The argument that the Tutsi-Hutu distinction is a purely socially constructed European invention has now crept into the mainstream discourse, such as in the film Hotel Rwanda.