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Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History

Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History

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Published by I_AM_Igianluca
Gould: "My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biological knowledge. […] Many people think (or fear) that equality of human races represents a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history. They are wrong. This essay can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will: Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not true by definition; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen"
Gould: "My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biological knowledge. […] Many people think (or fear) that equality of human races represents a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history. They are wrong. This essay can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will: Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not true by definition; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen"

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Published by: I_AM_Igianluca on Aug 06, 2009
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 Nat. Hist, 11, 1984
Human Equality Is aContingent Fact of History
 
 If our brothers, Australopithecus robustus, had survived for another million years, how would wetreat them today?
 by Stephen Jay GouldPretoria, August 5, 1984History's most famous airplane, Lindbergh's
Spirit of St. Louis
, hangs from the ceiling of Washington's Air and Space Museum, imperceptible in its majesty to certain visitors.Several years ago, a delegation of blind men and women met with the museum's director todiscuss problems of limited access. Should we build, he asked, an accurate scale model of Lindbergh's plane, freely available for touch and examination? Would this solve the problem? The delegation reflected together and gave an answer that moved me deeply for itsstriking recognition of universal needs. Yes, they said, such a model would be acceptable, but only on one condition--that it be placed directly beneath the invisible original.Authenticity exerts a strange fascination over us; our world does contain sacred objects and places. Their impact cannot be simply aesthetic, for an ersatz absolutely indistinguishablefrom the real McCoy evokes no comparable awe. The jolt is direct and emotional--as powerful a feeling as anything I know. Yet the impetus is purely intellectual--a visceraldisproof of romantic nonsense that abstract knowledge cannot engender deep emotion.Last night, I watched the sun set over the South African savanna--the original location andhabitat of our australopithecine ancestors. The air became chill; sounds of the night began,the incessant repetition of toad and insect, laced with an occasional and startling mammaliangrowl; the Southern Cross appeared in the sky, with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn ranged in aline above the arms of Scorpio. I sensed the awe, fear, and mystery of the night. I amtempted to say (describing emotions, not making any inferences about realities, higher or lower) that I felt close to the origin of religion as a historical phenomenon of the human psyche. I also felt kinship in that moment with our most distant human past--for an
 Australopithecus africanus
may once have stood, nearly three million years ago, on thesame spot in similar circumstances, juggling (for all I know) that same mixture of awe andfear.I was then rudely extricated from that sublime, if fleeting, sentiment of unity with allhumans past and present. I remembered my immediate location--South Africa, 1984 (duringa respite in Kruger Park from a lecture tour on the history of racism). I also understood, in amore direct way than ever before, the particular tragedy of the history of biological viewsabout human races. That history is largely a tale of division--an account of barriers andranks erected to maintain the power and hegemony of rulers. The greatest irony of all presses upon me: I am a visitor in the nation most committed to such myths of inequality--yet the savannas of this land staged an evolutionary story of opposite import.My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biologicalknowledge. Such union of feeling and fact may be rare indeed, for one offers no guide to theother (more romantic twaddle aside). Many people think (or fear) that equality of human
 
races is a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history.They are wrong.This column can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will:
 Human equality is acontingent fact of history
. Equality is not given a priori; it is neither an ethical principle(though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just workedout that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would haveyielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen.The history of Western views on race is a tale of denial--a long series of progressive retreatsfrom initial claims for strict separation and ranking by intrinsic worth toward an admissionof the trivial differences revealed by this contingent history. In this column, I shall discuss just two main stages of retreat for each of two major themes: genealogy; or the extent of separation between races as a function of their geological age; and geography, or our placeof origin. I shall then summarize the three major arguments from modem biology for thesurprisingly small extent of human racial differences.
Genealogy, the first argument 
. Before evolutionary theory redefined the issue irrevocably,early to mid-nineteenth-century anthropology was split by a debate between the schools of monogeny and polygeny. Monogenists espoused a common origin for all people in the primeval couple, Adam and Eve (lower races, they then argued, had degenerated further from original perfection). Polygenists held that Adam and Eve were ancestors of white folksonly, and that other--and lower--races had been separately created. Either argument couldfuel a social doctrine of inequality, but polygeny surely held the edge as a compelling justification for slavery and domination at home and colonialism abroad. "The benevolentmind," wrote Samuel George Morton (a leading American polygenist) in 1839, "may regretthe inaptitude of the Indian for civilization. . . . The structure of his mind appears to bedifferent from that of the white man. . . .They are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstractsubjects."
Genealogy, the second argument.
Evolutionary theory required a common origin for humanraces, but many post-Darwinian anthropologists found a way to preserve the spirit of  polygeny. They argued, in a minimal retreat from permanent separation, that the division of our lineage into modern races occurred so long ago that differences, accumulating slowlythrough time, have now built unbridgeable chasms. Though once alike in an apish dawn,human races are now separate and unequal.We cannot understand much of the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuryanthropology, with its plethora of taxonomic names proposed for nearly every scrap of fossil bone, unless we appreciate its obsession with the identification and ranking of races. For many schemes of classification sought to tag the various fossils as ancestors of modern racesand to use their relative age and apishness as a criterion for racial superiority. Piltdown, for example, continued to fool generations of professionals partly because it fit so comfortablywith ideas of white superiority. After all, this "ancient" man with a brain as big as ours (the product, we now know, of a hoax constructed with a modern cranium) lived in England--anobvious ancestor for whites--while such apish (and genuine) fossils as
 Homo erectus
inhabited Java and China as putative sources for Orientals and other peoples of color.This theory of ancient separation had its last prominent defense in 1962, when CarletonCoon published his
Origin of Races.
Coon divided humanity into five major races--caucasoids, mongoloids, australoids, and, among African blacks, congoids and capoids. Heclaimed that these five groups were already distinct subspecies during the reign of our ancestor,
 Homo erectus. H. erectus
then evolved toward
 H. sapiens
in five parallel streams,each traversing the same path toward increased consciousness. But whites and yellows, who"occupied the most favorable of the earth's zoological regions," crossed the
 H. sapiens
threshold first, while dark peoples lagged behind and have paid for their sluggishness ever 
 
since. Their inferiority, Coon argues, is not their fault, just an accident of their situation inless challenging environments:Caucasoids and Mongoloids . . . did not rise to their present population levels and positionsof cultural dominance by accident. . . . Any other subspecies that had evolved in theseregions would probably have been just as successful.Leading evolutionists throughout the world reacted to Coon's thesis with incredulity. Couldmodern races really be identified at the level of 
 H. erectus?
I shall always be grateful toW.E. Le Gros Clark, England's greatest anatomist at the time. I was spending anundergraduate year in England, an absolute nobody in a strange land. Yet he spent anafternoon with me, patiently answering my questions about race and evolution. Asked aboutCoon's thesis, this splendidly modest man simply replied that he, at least, could not identifya modern race in the bones of an ancient species.More generally, parallel evolution of such precision in so many lines seems a virtualimpossibility on grounds of mathematical probability alone. Could five separate subspeciesundergo such substantial changes and yet remain so similar at the end that all can stillinterbreed freely, as modern races so plainly do? So glaring are the empirical weaknessesand theoretical implausibilities of Coon's thesis that we must view it more as the last gasp of a dying tradition than a credible synthesis of available evidence.
Genealogy, the modern view.
Human races are not separate species (the first argument) or ancient divisions within an evolving plexus (the second argument). They are recent, poorlydifferentiated subpopulations of our modern species, Homo sapiens, products at most of tensor hundreds of thousands of years, and marked by remarkably small genetic separations.
Geography, the first argument.
When Raymond Dart found the first australopithecine inSouth Africa nearly sixty years ago, scientists throughout the world rejected this oldestancestor, this loveliest of intermediate forms, because it hailed from the wrong place.Darwin, without a shred of fossil evidence but with a good criterion for inference, hadcorrectly surmised that humans evolved in Africa. Our closest living relatives, he argued, arechimps and gorillas--and both species live only in Africa, the probable home, therefore, of our common ancestor as well.But few scientists accepted Darwin's cogent inference because hope, tradition, and racismconspired to locate our ancestral abode on the plains of central Asia. Notions of Aryansupremacy led anthropologists to assume that the vast "challenging" reaches of Asia, not thesoporific tropics of Africa, had prompted our ancestors to abandon an apish past and risetoward the roots of Indo-European culture. The diversity of colored people in the world'stropics could only record the secondary migrations and subsequent degenerations of thisoriginal stock. The great Gobi Desert expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of  Natural History in the years just preceding Dart's discovery, was dispatched primarily to findthe ancestry of man in Asia. We remember it for success in discovering dinosaurs and their eggs; we forget that it failed in its major goal because Darwin's simple inference wascorrect.
Geography, the second argument.
By the 1950s, further anatomical study and the sheer magnitude and diversity of continuing discovery forced a general admission that our rootslay with the australopithecines, and that Africa had indeed been our original home. But thesubtle hold of unacknowledged prejudice still conspired (with other, more reasonable basesof uncertainty) to deny Africa its continuing role as the cradle of what really matters to us--the origin of human consciousness. In a stance of intermediate retreat, most scientists nowargued that Africa had kindled our origin but not our mental emergence. Human ancestorsmigrated out, again to mother Asia, and there crossed the threshold to consciousness in theform of 
 Homo erectus
(or so-called Java and Peking man). We emerged from the apes inAfrica; we evolved our intelligence in Asia. Carleton Coon wrote in his 1962 book: "If 

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