009 Diversity – Part 1

Plato, a Greek Philosopher from around 400 BCE, said that the world was a reflection of forms. Somewhere there is the idea of a perfect chair and that all chairs are imperfect reflections of this, and somewhere there is a perfect table and all tables are imperfect reflections of this. He used it to explain why we could look at a table and know it was a table, and look at a chair and know it is a chair.

A foot stool is a strange thing. You put your feet on it when you are in a chair. Yet you can also sit on it, turning it from a stool for your feet into a chair. You could also put objects on it, which turns it from a stool for your feet or chair for your buttocks into a table for your stuff. Which of these ideal forms does a foot stool imperfectly reflect?

The problem that Plato was trying to grapple with is the problem of categories. We want categories to have hard boundaries – “This is a chair” and “This is a table”. Categories almost never have hard boundaries – they have soft boundaries. A foot stool is neither a chair nor a table. It turns out that our two hard bounded categories are more of a … spectrum.

Video version, with animation!

We humans love to put everything that we can into categories. It is a useful tool to simplify knowledge. This is a fruit, that is a vegetable. Except that it isn’t. Some of you have already guessed that I’m about to talk about tomatoes.

The tomato is technically a fruit, because it has seeds on the inside. But you don’t put it in your fruit salad. Pumpkin and cucumber are also fruits. Fruit is a classification of vegetables. When we look at things that are “not fruit” we don’t get “vegetable”, because fruits are vegetables. 

“Vegetable – a plant or part of a plant used as food”

An item that we often refer to as a vegetable is the potato. While the potato fits in the super category of vegetable, it is in the subcategory of root. If we are going to separate fruit out of vegetables, we should similarly separate roots out of vegetables. Every plant we eat is both a vegetable and in a subcategory like fruit and roots.

We have come across the problem of the edge of the category being fuzzy instead of sharp.

Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin worked very hard to converge scientific knowledge and their own explorations and data into a Theory called Evolution, published in Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” in 1859. It proposed that over time species would diverge and that the divergence that best suited the environment would potentially become a new species. Found in every animal species was a variety of that animal, which would collectively be well suited to an environment. If the environment changes, some of that variety of animal would prosper pushing the direction of the species towards a greater representation of that variety. If there was no variety that could prosper, that species would suffer and potentially die out. This natural push for change was called “natural selection”, that is, the environment would change, so the species would change and the selection for the survivors was natural.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, thought this idea was excellent. He wanted to fix humans and manually select the survivors to choose the direction of humanity. This led to an idea he called Eugenics in 1883, which translates to “well born”. On the surface this seems like quite a smart idea, but when we examine the details, it is not.

Galton’s idea has a fundamental flaw that gave rise to two fundamental errors (there are many more, but we’ll focus on the big two for this talk). This fundamental flaw is the god’s blueprint idea. This idea stems from the belief that humans are created in god’s image (an Abrahamic idea), and as god is perfect, then it follows that there must be perfect humans, and perfect humans means that there are also imperfect humans – the devils work. 

We need to pause at this point and look at some background politics that were going on at the time. The British Empire was trying to justify their subjugation of other peoples around the world, and with that subjugation many atrocities. There was much rhetoric trying to justify that these subjugated people were not, in fact, people as they failed god’s blueprint. 

Wallace and Darwin’s Evolution and natural selection was corrupted into the idea from Herbert Spencer who simplified the complex ideas of Evolution into the trite phrase “Survival of the Fittest”. As the British forces were winning the conquests, it made sense that White was Right because they were the fittest.

The first fundamental error is that diversity is a deviation from god’s blueprint and that deviation is bad. This is almost completely the opposite of what Evolution says is a winning strategy. If there is insufficient variety in a species, then a single disease can kill the entire species. Disease resistance actually relies on diversity. In fact, survival of any local condition relies on diversity to adapt that species to those local conditions. Human diversity has allowed humans to live on every continent and even in space.

The next fundamental error is that we can shape humans to be better. This sounds like an innocuous idea at first, perhaps even a good idea. After all, there are some variations that are not fun. If we could get rid of those bits, it would be awesome.

How do we get rid of those bits? The technology of the time of Wallace, Darwin and Galton was with selective breeding. We humans have been doing this for some time with plants and animals. We allow the specimens that we like to breed, and weed out the ones that we don’t. This kind of genetic engineering has existed for about 10,000 or so years which accounts for most of our modern food and farm animals.

In case you missed it, weeding out is a sanitised way of saying killing. It started with forced sterilisations in the late 1800’s of those deemed “too genetically compromised” and ended with genocide. The most famous mass genocidal act of our recent history was during World War 2, sometimes referred to as The Holocaust. Most famous here means you heard about it. Since this so-called war to end all wars, there have been 22 recorded genocides or attempted genocides of humans. 

Surely, though, there are some negative genetic traits that we could fix? After all, we can now directly manipulate the genes, can’t we?

Yes, yes and it is complicated.

Firstly, we need to be careful to not mistake the negative genetic trait for the person. For example, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often shortened to ALS, is a motor neurone disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles. If we can find the root cause or genes responsible for this, that would be great and perhaps we could prevent it. It is hard to find a reason why this trait might be good for humans. Our ancestors would probably have removed it from the gene pool by killing the person and defining them as “less than human” to justify this action. The most famous person in my circles with ALS was Stephen Hawking. Delete the negative genetic trait by deleting the person and you’ve made a big mistake because you’ve deleted what they give to humanity.

Secondly, how are defining “negative genetic traits”? We know that the human condition called Autism is a genetic trait. It is a heritable trait, much like eye colour, or skin colour, or height, or intelligence. You are likely reading or watching this on a screen, powered by computers. Who do you think created and pushed this technology forwards? Delete the trait, you delete what people with the trait have made. Many people who have the autism genes do not think the trait is “negative”, but most would agree that society has made it feel negative.

Our science and medicine had embraced the idea of eugenics in the late 1800s right through to the mid 1950’s. Eugenics scared us as a species and medicine and science had to adapt. We, as humans, had to grow up.

Unfortunately not all of us grew up and some still harbour this ill informed and unscientific idea.

Those who follow the myth of god’s blueprint, that select humans are better or more perfect than others, strive against diversity – which directly contradicts what we need for humans to be robust in a changing world. We need to embrace diversity, not try to delete or undermine it. We need to discard the myth of inferior genetics or superior humans. We are all people first.

One of the fundamental reasons that humans can be found on every continent and even in space is because we are diverse. No one is better or worse by their genetics than any other person. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped policies from being made that disadvantage some groups or advantage others in a very unbalanced way. These policies need to be addressed so that everyone has similar equity. 

Equality is a great idea, if all peoples were the same. Give all people the same thing, and everything is fair, right? Not so, because not all peoples have the same needs or have been raised in the same environment.

For example, not everyone has diabetes. Many people do not need insulin from the pharmacist to survive. Only those with diabetes need access to additional insulin. Equity would allow those people to access it to gain an even footing to those who do not have diabetes, while equality would dish out insulin to every person.

Equality thinking can form the basis of the “I’ve not experienced it, so it you can’t experience it” error.

In a similar way, history and terrible government policies have significantly disadvantaged certain populations. Policy needs to change to bring equity and justice to these populations, to balance the evils of the past. On the surface this can look unequal, but closer inspection will show that it is just.

Next time, we will look at how Eugenics has created the myth of “we are all the same” and what that has cost us.