sentient beings

The last word on Speciesism

By AC Grayling, The Guardian UK, April 2000

Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. – Henry Beston
 

A striking fact now rendered familiar, even platitudinous, by the triumphs of recent genetic science is how closely all living things are related. Humans share more than half their genes with worms and fruit-flies, and almost all their genes with chimpanzees.

Yet this intimate familyhood of life does not stop people from spearing worms on to fish-hooks, or testing drugs on chimpanzees. Nothing surprising there, you might say, given the way humans treat humans; in the face of gas chambers, racism, war and other avocations, what chance has a monkey or a cow? There are lessons to be learned from the way humans justify their treatment of animals, not least of those evolutionarily closest to them – the apes.

We locate a difference that we find threatening or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within.

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what have you done with your brother?

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It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.

– AC Grayling

The last word on Racism by AC Grayling
Racism is on its deathbed – the question is, how costly will racists make the funeral? – Martin Luther King

Just as a jury in upstate New York acquits four police officers of wrongdoing in the Harlem shooting of Amadou Diallo – they said they thought his wallet was a gun, and fired 41 bullets at him – so a human rights commission in South Africa begins to investigate systematic racism in the country’s media.

Here, meanwhile, the fall-out from the Lawrence tragedy continues, and tensions simmer between British Muslim youth and the surrounding majority society. Everywhere one looks, race and racism make angry welts on the body politic, and deep wounds.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction. It has no genetic or biological basis. All human beings are closely related to one another, and at the same time each human being is unique. Not only is the concept of race entirely artificial, it is new; yet in its short existence it has, like most lies and absurdities current among us, done a mountain of harm.

The first classification of humans into races was mooted by Linnaeus, who recognised it as a mere convenience with no basis in nature. He employed the same criteria as in his botanical classifications, namely, outward appearance, giving rise later to the simplistic typing of all humans into “Caucasoid”, “Negroid” and “Mongoloid”. But advances in genetics have demolished such taxonomies, by taking DNA as the criterion of classification. Linnaeus’s system says that one of Buddhism’s holy plants, the lotus, is related to the water lily; DNA comparison says it is related to London’s familiar and beloved plane tree.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.

 

In human terms, DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. “Race has no basic biological reality,” says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University, “the human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.” Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed.

It was not only Linnaeus who knew that “race” is a fiction. In the mid-19th century EA Freeman famously discredited the whole of idea of “community of blood”, as did Ashley Montagu in the mid-20th century. Even Hitler knew it, despite making the concept central: ” I know perfectly well… that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race… but I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis… And for this purpose the conception of races serves me well…”

All human beings have the same ancestors. Human history is a short one; it is less than a quarter of a million years long, with the first migrations from Africa beginning half that time ago. The physical diversity of human populations today is purely a function of geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands.

The distinctions which have since been drawn between peoples are, accord ingly, arbitrary and superficial, even those relating to skin colour – for, as a moment’s attention shows, there is simply no such thing as “white”, “black” or “yellow” people; there are people with many shades and types of skin, making no difference to any other aspect of their humanity save what the malice of others can construct.

To advance beyond racism one has to advance beyond race. But that goal is not helped by what Sartre called “anti-racist racism”, as with the Black Power movement and its cognates. It is understandable that communities which suffer prejudice and abuse should shelter behind a protective identity; but identities grow rigid and become a source of new pieties, new excuses to repay evil with evil; and they indirectly entrench the very idea that lies at the root of the problem.

Racism will end when individuals see others only in individual terms. “There are no ‘white’ or ‘coloured’ signs on the graveyards of battle,” said John F. Kennedy; and there is a significant moral in that remark.

I concur with Grayling’s view and yet would want to add an emphasis – that while race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real.