Tuesday, November 14, 2006

100% mongrel

Andrew Graham-Dixon (I’ve always liked him, partly because he’s a good art critic but mainly because his full name differs from mine only by a consonant and a hyphen), had a programme on Channel 4 last night called “100% English”.

He writes an article about it in The Telegraph:

...Take eight people, all of them white, all born and raised in England - and all convinced, some militantly so, that they are 100 per cent English. Persuade each of them to give us a DNA sample and submit it to a series of state-of-the-art tests to uncover where they really come from. The tests would involve comparing their DNA with a global databank that divides the world into four ancient population groups - European, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African and Native American.

….What linked them all was the sincerely held belief that they were English through and through. Their definitions of what it takes to be 'English' varied widely. For one, being born here was enough. For another, it was necessary to be descended directly from the pre-1066 inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England - or, at least, to feel a profound kinship with those peoples. For another, the acid test was simply whether a person supported the England football and cricket teams.

One gentleman, in for a larger surprise than most, was convinced that he was 100 per cent English. His definition of what he meant by that? All of his relatives had been born here, for at least 12 generations. When pressed, he admitted he did not know this for sure, but was certain that it must be the case.

I presented Dr Thomas with this criterion as a measure of Englishness and asked him, using it as a guide, how many 'English' people currently lived in England. The scientist thought about it. 'At a rough guess? Er, zero.' Such a thing would only have been possible if a particular social group, isolated from the rest of society, had inbred for centuries.

When all this was explained to our participant, he took the point and was ultimately rather relieved to learn that he was anything but English, according to his own, original standards. 'I guess we're all mongrels,' was his phlegmatic response to the results of his gene test - which showed, in fact, that much of his genetic make-up pointed to origins in Russia and Eurasia.

Intriguingly, new information about himself began to change his attitude to others, too. When I had met him for the first time, we had talked about immigration and his concern that it was diluting the essential pool of 'Englishness'. I remarked that the process could just as easily be seen as an enhancement and, one way or another, we had got on to the subject of football. I had mentioned Ian Wright, the former England footballer, born in England and patriotic in his passion for England's increasingly forlorn World Cup hopes - and, of course, black.

'Ah yes, but he's not English,' had come back the reply. 'You can't have black skin and call yourself English.' But when confronted with the facts about his own genes, later in the film, he simply changed his mind. 'Yeah, all right then, you can be black and English. I was wrong.'

He actually started to say: “But I still maintain that if a Jamaican couple or a German or an Italian couple come to England and have a child, then the child is not Engli-" and then he interrupted himself: “Oh but hang on, this throws all that out the window, because how far back do you go?”

This moment was a wonderful example of somebody openly and honestly changing his mind and admitting, live on camera, that he was completely wrong about something he’d believed all of his life, when presented with scientific evidence and irrefutable logic. A vanishingly rare thing, to say the least.

As Graham-Dixon says:

It was not until almost the end of the film that the full potential power of these tests was brought home to me, when one of our contributors, Damen Barks, an 18-year-old trainee soldier, made what struck me as a wonderfully precise remark. 'For racists to find out that part of them may be what they have discriminated against for years, well that would certainly throw them off their game,' he said. For Damen, his own test was a real moment of genetic catharsis - he was astonished when he discovered that he had DNA originating from at least a quarter of the globe. You could see his sense of his own global horizons visibly expanding on camera.

These tests should be made compulsory at school age: it would do far more to eliminate racism than any amount of advertising campaigns.

The programme could have done with a bit more context, but it was a fascinating one, with two conclusions to be drawn:

1) nationality is really just about geography and state of mind
2) thanks to science, we now know that race is really illusory, and can only meaningfully be talked about in percentages and tendencies, not in absolutes.


Peter Burnet said...

Aww...this is just so inspiring. Who could remain dry-eyed at the image of all those diffident, humble scientists increasing our knowledge and defeating war and racism at the same time (although, to be fair, you brights did always tell us they went hand-in-hand)? It reminds me of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where they got rid of all that traditional ethnocentric thinking and based their politics on scientific rationalism--killed racism for all time, didn't they? Well, they killed something at least. I think it's that unbeatable combination of scientific evidence and irrefutable logic, which will, of course, send theocrats and tiresome little old ladies scurrying terrified for the hills faster than a crucifix will a vampire.

Hey, I've got a great idea. Let's send Dr. Thomas to Afghanistan to do DNA tests on the Al Qaeda leaders and show them they all originated in Gloucestershire. With luck, we'll have them swilling pints and singing Abide With Me at Wembley in no time.

But tell me, Brit, should we stop the research right there or push on? Do we dare risk submitting perfection to all that self-correcting nonsense?

Brit said...

By thunder, that's a queer old bucket of bile even by your cantankerous standards, Peter.

Peter Burnet said...

Sorry...been reading Dawkins again...forgot myself...please don't tell Mom...promise to do better next time.

Brit said...

I'd have thought that undermining the very basis of racism, along with, say, sanitation, beer refridgeration and the Bach selection on iTunes, would have been among those acheivements of science to which even you afford a cautious welcome.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit, I will quite happily raise a glass to celebrate any raised consciousness about racism or intolerance and anyone who sets out to tackle it. If it takes a science lesson to do the trick, so be it, but surely it is no surprise to you that I question the smug shibboleth that racism and intolerance are born of scientific ignorance and that scientific education and inquiry will inevitably diminish it. You may be right that it is the just the ticket for combatting one relatively modern notion that links racial purity to territorial occupation in a strict historical sense, but I wouldn't really know because there is no such myth in North America except among aboriginals who have been given a doctrinal pass on tolerance. The notion that we all come from the same place if you go back far enough originated in Genesis, not some scientific lab. And it was the Church that combatted the growth of European nationalism that sprung directly from the Enlightenment in the 19th century.

But I invite you to consider whether, like Jim Crow and phrenology, this is really yesterday's battle and whether the looming threat of disaster from intolerance towards Jews and Muslims has much to do with DNA and whether the spirit of modern science is more likely to dimish or exacerbate it.

Anyway, I will leave it there and savour the image of you in a pub watching yet another English loss to Germany and going from table to table telling your pals sternly that their patriotic fervor and agitated insults are scientifically misplaced because they and Fritz and Hans are all family from the same parts.

Brit said...

I didn't say they that racism and intolerance were born of scientific ignorance, but I do believe that a little bit of knowledge - ie. that you're as mixed up as everyone else - could significantly undermine some of the racist's preconceptions, and especially myths about the purity of a 'master race'.

The idea that we all came from the same place may have originated in Genesis, but Adam and Eve are always white.

Brit said...

I will leave it there and savour the image of you in a pub watching yet another English loss to Germany and going from table to table telling your pals sternly that their patriotic fervor and agitated insults are scientifically misplaced because they and Fritz and Hans are all family from the same parts.

No no no. The whole point of this is that science proves that nationality has nothing to do with race.

Duck said...

Peter, I'd say if Judd can't get his blog fixed in 48 hours that you set up your own shop. Brit is right, you're crankier than usual. You've been spending too much time wiht the brights.

So we have the Bible to thank for universal brotherhood, but we can't take the Bible to task when it's used to justify slavery, eh? No fair!

I do think that Brit's idea has merit, but there is no "cure" for racism, tribalism, whatever you call it. People will use racial or genetic notions to define nationhood if it suits them, but it's not the only way to define inclusion and exclusion. You can use ideology or shared social values, or lifestyles, fashion, language, profession, politics, etc. People are clannish by nature, and will always crave to belong to an affinity group. I thnk that as part of that craving, people also crave groups that they can consider the other, because it acts to strengthen the value of their group membership.

In that sense, asking people to look at these matters logically and scientifically is just pouring cold water on what they crave.

Brit said...

I don't think for one moment that this is going to eliminate worldwide racism overnight.

Nonetheless, the kind of casual, unthinking racism that used to be prevalent has declined dramatically in a couple of decades in the UK, specifically the notions like, for example, 'blacks aren't really English.' Sport helps enormously in this regard, but this could help even more.

Peter Burnet said...

I've actually been using the forced holiday from Brosjudd to think about this one a bit more. Guys like Thomas deserve full credit for what they are doing and I would agree that modern science is generally a force for tolerance in the face of irrational and hateful racial prejudice. I'm not sure how, strictly speaking, DNA analysis makes us love our brothers more, but to the extent this is all part of the secular religion, I approve and would gratefully cite his work if one of my kids started spouting racial or ethnic intolerance.

However, what is dicey is this notion of science being the eternal liberator from prejudice. In a sense, this is science self-correcting because the whole notion of biologically based racism stemmed from science. A hundred years ago the Thomas' amongst us were singing a very different tune. No, I am not trying to suggest science invented racism, but it did popularize biological racism, not because people were nicer before, but because generally speaking they didn't think in such material biological terms. The nobility of science in public life depends entirely on the opening proposition that only scientists have access to--they are the modern high priests. What are you going to do when inevitably a scientist comes along to argue that his DNA analysis proves certain races are lacking in intelligence or some other desirable characteristic? Reject it out of hand because you don't like the conclusions that flow? You can do that with religious authority much easier than with science. On what basis would you say what should be said in that case--"bully for science"? What would you guys rely on to trump it other than more inaccessible science? Recall how Darwin fell out of disfavour in the popular mind for two generations and for very good reasons until Dickie-boy rescued it with his sleight-of-hand about genes and memes and made it all sound like part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. You should also read Tom Wolfe on how guys like E. O. Wilson are extremely reluctant to engage in open debate on their work and prefer to take shelter behind a rigid political correctness that has no apparent connection to the absolute biological determinism of their science.

The other issue is that, however much we can applaud the fight against biological racism, I'm not going to cheer too loudly if we are excluding or even killing for other reasons. The Communists did in fact stifle a lot of racial or traditional ethnocentric hostilities, but they sure found lots of other reasons to slaughter. The number of posts on our comments and elsewhere to the effect that Muslims are all irredeemable enemies based on rationally-deduced conclusions from their scripture and the new wave of anti-semitism in academia and the rest of the bright world (based, I believe, on a rising intolerant universalist impulse stemming from the scientific zeitgeist) is not being challenged by science. That is part of the here and now and so you'll forgive me if I give it a higher priority than the remnants of the legacy of Jim Crow.

As to my crankiness, sorry for any offence. I wonder, as my beloved Rumpole would say, if it is because my alcohol level has fallen to a dangerous low. Or I wonder whether perhaps you clever secularists have become the new Victorian maiden aunts and simply can't take the jabs and shots you mete out so confidently and wittily to the lower orders. 'Tis a puzzlement.

Peter Burnet said...

Sorry about that garbled sentence in the second to last paragraph, but I trust you get the drift.

Duck said...

We enjoy your cantankerous mix of sarcasm, hell-in-a-handcart pessimism and Chestertonian wit, it is the special sauce that makes you Peter. We just think that the recipe is off of late, maybe a too-liberal dosing of the bitters? Besides, accusing someone of being angry or cranky is one of the best comeback lines to use in an argument. It's been used on me as of late.

I pretty much agree with most of what you said. I disagree that we are beholden to the high priests of science or to schientism as you imagine us to be. It is a danger, though. Certain scientists do try to leverage their academic credentials to give their social or political ideas the imprimatur of authority. Dawkins is the most glaring example of late, but the CSPI is another example, as well as all the scientists demanding that we all sign onto the Kyoto Protocol. Science imparts knowledge, not values. The scientist's only job description is to add to the store of knowledge. He may participate in policy discussions and decisions, but only as an equal to any other free citizen. It is one thing to know what causes global warming, it is another thing to decide what to do about it, if anything. That decision should be based on the collective values of society, not the values of scientists.

I agree with you that eliminating racism won't eliminate other rationalizations for erecting us-them divisions of society.

Brit said...

Science doesn't kill people...

Maybe there will always be another us-them excuse, but of course that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight the current ones.

Peter Burnet said...

Science doesn't kill people...

Of course it does. So does religion. The scary thing is that almost all religious people know that about religion while scientists doggedly deny it about science.

Hey, isn't this supposed to be the lighthearted, whimsical blog?

Brit said...

...people do.

Hey Skipper said...


The notion that we all come from the same place if you go back far enough originated in Genesis, not some scientific lab.

Perhaps you should read your Genesis a little more closely. According to Genesis, all life came from the same place. However, you make a category mistake in arriving at your conclusion.

Place and kind are two different things. Genesis goes on to say that life is descended from its own kind. This was taken by the Church, long before Darwin, to mean that Africans could not possibly be human, and therefore could not possess souls.

The contrast between Genesis and Darwin could not be more stark. According to Genesis (and Lamarck), Natural History would appear like a comb dragged across sand. In contrast, Darwin correctly determined that all life had a single origin; Natural History according to Darwin is topographically indistinguishable from a tree.

Institutional racism gets a lot harder to sustain when clear DNA evidence shows the astonishing degree of relatedness between "races." Genesis would never reach this conclusion, unless one has a Juddian disregard for meaning and syntax.

What are you going to do when inevitably a scientist comes along to argue that his DNA analysis proves certain races are lacking in intelligence or some other desirable characteristic?

Good question. It seems pretty clear that population groups do differ in heritable ways. Which is where American exceptionalism is important. At it best America treats people as individuals, which means a systemic disinclination to ascribe to individuals the presumed qualities of their apparent group. That most white men cannot jump says nothing about the jumping ability of any particular white man.

This stands in strong contrast to religion, which insists on ascribing, a la the Texas GOP, to individuals the presumed characteristics of their religious affiliation. (Affirmative Action also shares this pernicious quality.)

So let's say some such thing is demonstrated. So what? If I am a company owner making a hiring decision, I am hiring a person, not a "race."

I simply don't see how religion, with its singular inclination to form exclusionary moral groups, would be any help here.

Recall how Darwin fell out of disfavour in the popular mind for two generations and for very good reasons until Dickie-boy rescued it ...

That is simply incorrect. Darwin fell out of favor in the early 1900s because his theory required particular, not blended, inheritance. Scientists were increasingly unable to reconcile this requirement with the presumption, and lack of contradictory evidence, that inheritance is blended.

Then, IIRC, sometime around 1920 Mendel's work was re-discovered (it had lain almost completely unnoticed), which conclusively proved particular inheritance.

Consequently, Naturalistic Evolution was well and truly re-entrenched when Dawkins came along.


Nonetheless, the kind of casual, unthinking racism that used to be prevalent has declined dramatically in a couple of decades in the UK.

I remember, as a teenager in the 60s, casually accepting the common wisdom that blacks were simply inferior, and certainly inclined to criminality.

Over the years, both personally, and apparently also for most of the US, familiarity has made the heart grow more realistic, and, thereby, fonder.

I am reserving judgment with respect to the South though. My recent spell in Memphis TN did not incline towards pollyanish conclusions (although it did reinforce the notion that African Americans seem to possess a certain nobility for which we should all be grateful.)