Sunday, February 27, 2022


 “Modern man has conquered distance but not time. In a life span, a man now--as in the past--can establish profound roots only in a small corner of the world."

--Yi Fu Tuan, Geographer, Topophilia


We have not just one command central (in America, home is more an action center than castle) but a far-flung network from neighborhood to local, regional, state, national and international territories.  Based on our body and the personal space that bubbles around it, our own personal territory consists of our web of errands, work, socializing spots (like Starbucks, the archetypal third space), school, church, club, post office, health club.  Culture defines these spaces as well as the weak and strong forces that protect us while we are in them and between them.  Standing in line at the bank or pharmacy on one hand, along with military defense of national borders on the other, show an equal respect for territory.

Even our steady gaze at a museum painting establishes ownership of the space in between, and deters others from walking in front of us as long as that gaze continues. Intensive territories, especially the home, are protection and shelter, relief from stress, and a huge reserve of memory to draw upon that helps to create our identity and maintain continuity over time (Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place).  The ownership, distribution, and applied understanding of the space and place require an entire cultural rulebook that is often just implicitly obeyed, above and beyond legal standards.  “Rather than relying on muscle,” Gallagher says, “we usually depend on law and custom to help us hold our ground” (187).  This cultural enforcement is the reason home invasion, or just a burglary, is so devasting—the entire citadel is transformed by the trauma in memory for all time. 

Establishing the concept of base camp for our early hunter-gatherer ancestors created a stable, safe, protected enclave, which allowed early people to venture out into the unknown and deal with their fears about new environments.  Our expansiveness was possible because the safe circle of the earliest campfire could become a symbol of security and the reassurance of a future anchored in the family and tribe.

Another factor was the basic space required to support human life based on meat as well as fruit, nuts, and roots: ten square miles per individual.  This number equals 300 square miles of range for a band of 30 people.  By contrast, baboons can live in a range of 15 square miles for 40, while howler monkeys need just a half square mile for 17.  Both apes and monkeys stay within their established range for a maximum of around 15 square miles of home range over their lifetimes.  Most animals remain in their home territory; it is nearly impossible to dislodge nonhuman primates from the place they grew up and learned through long experience.  Staying put backed by group defenses is a proven survival technique—until Man began the process of developing the desert, forest, and grasslands. 

This explains that once we ventured out of the African homeland, we quickly colonized the planet; we found a way of creating over and over again a campfire hearth that promoted ceremony, communication, trust, community, self-awareness with mutual support, an inviolable shared space—to build and maintain this “first zone” of cultural evolution. 

Human territorial history is the story of our species’ exploration and domestication of the planet, from cave-dweller to world domination.  We achieved this through cooperative group hunting of large animals, herd-following, tool and weapon-making, language, and division of labor between the sexes based on child-rearing. Exogamy—marriage outside the immediate group—and skill competition expanded the ranges of growing kinship groups as they sought more space and renewed resources. Refugee migration, much in the news, is an example of fleeing oppression as motivator. 

The mentality of belief reflects our wide historical range and personal space.  Belief is a form of territory claiming and defense in the abstract, a form of mental ranging, in a campaign of dominance of our ideas over others and other groups. We can hear it in expressions like digging our heels in, scoring yards, and ceding defensive positions. Our possessions (including land), as well as symbols like badges, flags, and signs marking out ownership and influence, are highly charged with the power of both defense and its naturally attendant aggression. 

M. R. O’Connor, in Wayfinding (2019), correlates our hippocampus health and grey matter volume with our cognitive mapping skills basic to navigating the environment. We have always been acutely aware of our territory: the limits to where we can go without the permission of others and what we are and are not free to do there.  The invisible limits of personal space as we move through our world – walking, in cars, climbing stairways, opening and closing doors, knocking, ringing, or clicking to win entry to old and new places – is a critical part of who we are and how we own or “lease” space shared with others, and negotiate an ongoing peace or conflict with them in the course of every day.  In fact, it is the learned experience of the rules of space—the culture of human geography--that make our social lives possible by avoiding the high costs of ongoing aggression.  Behind every activity (not just sports) is a rich overlay of conventions and contracts that have evolved to let us operate in space and time without violating the limits or ego or sparking group defenses.

The question of how people are able to build inclusive organizations requiring close cooperation while also preserving personal and kinship cohesion is one of the great paradoxes that makes humans unique.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Race and Science


“There is good news here.  The illogical, ever-changing, and contradictory reality of race means that we are not locked into the problem of racism.  We can escape this madness because we are the architects of it.”  -- Guy Harrison, “Science and Race,” 2020, in Skeptic (25:3)


The election of Barak Obama to the US Presidency did not mark the end of racism in America, as many might have hoped.  In fact, incidents such as George Floyd’s death seem to have escalated.  Meanwhile the DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) movement is picking up momentum as a way to create a new set of standards for the way race is handled in groups (especially at work).  Diversity has been officially adopted in an Executive Order signed by Biden in June 2021 (adding the term Accessibility, DEIA) as guideline for the federal workforce.

So it may be time to take a break in the race discussion to simply ask what racism as a motivating force that everyone knows about and feels deeply about, but almost no one can explain factually or scientifically.

This is because there is no scientific basis for race.  There are simply no categories that describe human differences that are consistent across time, geography, and genetics.  Scientific knowledge can point to no fixed descriptions, much less subspecies definitions, that are even useful as heuristic guidelines.  There are simply too many interactions and variations across the gene pool to hold race up as a fixed or even flexible idea. 

Which means that race is a social, political and cultural concepts, “common sense” that flexes across time and place, as in references to the “Italian race” and “Irish race” in the record of 19th-century immigration.  Color coding as the first ranking of people is a very recent development in race history.  And in fact the very first thing we notice about people is not their color but their gender.

Seeking solutions to “the race problem” begins with an understanding of what race is not.  It is not a biological difference between people – there is one, but it isn’t race, it’s gender.  Of which there are just two, male and female (by DNA, XY and XX) not dozens or hundreds, as the recent trend in virtue-citing “gender diversity” implies.  It is not a matter of subspecies identification.  All contemporary humans are homo sapiens sapiens, as we have been since 40,000 years ago. 

In his comprehensive study Race and Reality: What everyone should know about our biological diversity (2010), journalist Guy Harrison lays out the fundamentals of human unity and distinction, showing up the wide differences between the popular concept of race and the scientific view.

  1. All human beings are 99.9 percent genetically identical.
  2.  “Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories.” (American Society of Human Genetics)
  3.  “Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters.” (American Association of Physical Anthropologists)
  4.  The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.” (American Anthropological Association)
  5.   The global population cannot be divided into biological races.  The reason is that observable features including hair type, nose shape, and skin color are spread too inconsistently for use as reliable markers. 
  6. Biological race categories vary across cultures.  The rules for inclusion and exclusion vary so widely that they are often contradictory.  This means that depending on the country, the same person can be assigned completely different racial identities. 
  7.  Not only does race change radically across cultures, but across historical periods.  The same groups assigned to one race category today would have a completely different assignment in the past. 
  8. Anthropologists in all subfields unequivocally reject the idea of race. A 2017 survey across the profession concluded “We observed consensus that there are no human biological races.”
  9. Race-group differences for inherited cognitive abilities (native intelligence) cannot be correlated to race, even in its cultural construction.  Too many environmental and social factors confound the issue of intelligence, even within a single racially constructed identity. 
  10. Neither athletic ability nor medical susceptibility can be assigned to racial identity.  Smaller genetic groups may manifest better sports ability or propensity for specific diseases, but these groups don’t generalize to larger race-sized samples.    

The race question should be translated to questions about cultural difference.  The reason is that culture is more central to human diversity, and seems to explain diversity better, than differences in physical or genetic makeup.  Ethnicity takes culture into account but doesn’t fully explain how the physical and the mental software of culture interact. This is the work of cultural analysis, which proposes the art and science of Cultural Competency as the way to understand and deal with both the causes and effects of racism and race bias.