28 January 2013

Race is a Fiction

This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein's theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.

Boas lived to see his ideas inform much of social anthropology, but it wasn't until more than half a century after his death that modern genetics proved his intuitions to be true. Studies of the human genome leave no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and then, on a journey that lasted 40,000 years, some 2,500 generations carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.

It follows, as Boas believed, that all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great historical achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth – a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia – is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilised, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited – indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial notion that it was, as relevant to our lives today as the belief of 19th-century clergymen that the Earth was but 6,000 years old.

--Wade Davis in The Guardian

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