Race and racism have been hot topics of late. I began thinking in earnest about it last week, not Thursday when Kaimi posted his thread, nor Tuesday when President Obama was sworn in, nor Monday when we celebrated Dr. King, but Sunday in the well stocked library of my ward here in Ann Arbor. When I walked it, I found an open copy of Mormon Doctrine, face down on the counter. I picked it up and the entry on the open page was “Race.”
I have no idea why the book was open to that entry. It might have been someone mining for a quote for a GD lesson. It might have been an intellectual curiosity on the part of someone who rejects Elder McConkie’s teachings on race. It might have been happenstance. But it did get me thinking.
Racism is a problem in the Church. Whether it is a greater problem for Mormons than for anybody else is an open question (though not the subject of this thread), though I think we can all agree that, despite the fact that we are clearly better than we were in previous generations, it is still a problem. I think that it vexes us Mormons in unique ways, and I’d like to explore some of those in this discussion, paying particular attention to what light contemporary biology, anthropology, and epidemiology can shed on the question. You see, the real problem is race.
Racism — the idea that certain races are inherently superior or inferior to others — depends for its existence on a deeper assumption: that there does, in fact, exist something called race. Clearly, race as a social, political, and even economic phenomenon is real in the sense that it is, in varying ways and degrees, part of the lived reality of virtually every person. But is race a valid biological concept in the way that, say “species” or even “sub-species” is? If not, is it still a useful proxy for other valid biological notions like ancestry, genetic variation/relatedness, or geographical origin? What about disease susceptibility and/or treatment response? Despite the current very vibrant scientific debates on some of these points, there is also widespread agreement on certain answers, and I’d like to explore the implications of those answers for our (LDS) shifting ideas about the social and theological significance of race, relatedness, and lineage.
Modern lay ideas and categories of race developed early and have undergone substantial change over the centuries. Significantly, the idea that humankind was comprised of clearly identifiable, separate races predates the advent of virtually all modern biological theory that might be relevant to such questions. People tended to believe that race comprised a set of discrete, identifiable, natural, and enduring traits that reflected a basic essence. Because these ideas preceded Mendelian genetics, molecular genetics, epigenetics, or the mapping of the Human Genome, it was generally believed that the “essence” of race was carried and transmitted in the blood. Also, within this conceptual framework, race could be viewed as something that not only existed but could exist in purity, with the concomitant belief that its purity could be compromised.
Even when Darwin put forth his theory of evolution by natural selection (nearly a decade before Mendel’s work on pea plants revealed that traits were transmitted in particulate fashion), he did not understand what kind of mechanism could account for how naturally selected traits passed from one fit generation to the next. (It is not a coincidence that Social Darwinism emerged as a popular account of human historical progress at precisely a time when Darwin’s ideas about reproductive success and fitness mixed with errant ideas about the nature of human variation and the actual biological mechanisms by which phenotypic traits were actually transmitted in the process of sexual reproduction.)
Enter modern science. Genetics, Molecular Biology, and Statistics (to name a few of the heavy hitters). As relevant scientific data poured in, the theoretical side of biology changed in dramatic ways. Genetic theory, chromosomal theory, the discovery of how reproductive cells divide, and other important advances fulfilled many of the predictions advanced by Darwin’s theory and filled in many of the holes that he lacked the data to account for, culminating in what biologists today call the Modern Synthesis. In light of the wealth of new data and new understanding, biologists and anthropologists began to dramatically rethink their approach to patterns of human variation. Today, they tend to use terms like “intra-species group” or “ethnoancestral group” to describe phylogenetically distinguishable but reproductively compatible human individuals and groups.
The fact is that humans do vary, both within and between groups. Genes and the environment and the interaction thereof produce the variation, but because we are a comparatively mobile and young species (we can trace a common genetic origin to roughly 200,000 years ago whereas chimps, our closest genetic relatives, go back more than twice as far), and because we interact with our environment differently from other species, parsing our genetic differences is difficult. Lay concepts of race — uniform, discrete, naturally occurring, enduring groups identifiable via externally visible traits (skin complexion, facial bone structure, body hair patterns, etc.) — fail as biological concepts because they so poorly account for how human genetic variation is actually manifested. Human genetic difference, distance, proximity, and relatedness are questions of degree and not kind. “Cline” is a far more useful heuristic tool for dealing with genetic variation than “race” because it doesn’t connote something distinct and confined, something that exist in purity (or impurity). Clinal variation describes a smooth gradient of overall, general patterns of genetic similarity between individuals and groups based upon historiogeographic proximity. There are no discrete lines, no hybrids. As the late anthropologist Frank Livingstone once put it, “there are no races, only clines.” Or, to quote Geneticist Aravinda Chakravarti (just last week), “we are all multiracial, related to each other only to a greater or lesser extent.”
All this means that, while human genetic variation does exist and does produce important consequences, traditional notions of race as a kind of discrete, enduring, essential set of heritable traits that can be preserved (or even exist at all) in purity, simply does not correspond with biological reality. Certain phenotypic traits can be useful for approximating one’s relatedness to other individuals or geographically defined groups, but even genes themselves — even the correspondence of multiple genetic patterns — can only disclose relative relatedness, comparative genetic distance.
So what are we, as LDS, to make of all this? Race has, in the past, been taken seriously because we have associated it with other socially and theologically significant concepts, particularly lineage. We taught, with many other Bible believers, that race was not just a proxy but a literal marker of lineage, with some lineages privileged above others. Current scientific knowledge about human genetic variation militates against such a view. It is further problematized by one of the most significant findings of the Human Genome Project: that human beings have only (approximately) 20,000 genes.
Let’s do some math. You share exactly 1/2 of your genetic material with either of your parents. Move to an individual a generation back, and that person shares only 1/4 of your genetic material with you. You see what’s coming? How many generations back do you think you have to go before you pass the 1/20,000 threshold? The answer is that you share virtually no genetic material with your ancestors who were contemporaries of Christopher Columbus. Let me repeat that in more general terms: you are no more genetically related to your distant ancestors than you are to any randomly selected individual from anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, you do share an astonishingly high (compared to other species) percentage of your genetic material with virtually every person now living or who has ever lived.
Let’s make matters murkier still. One thing most of you have noticed (even if you didn’t take note of it or think anything of it) while dutifully doing your genealogy, is that family trees spread out as you move back by generations. That means that they also gradually converge with the trees of others, and that, depending on your genetic distance, if you go far back enough they all converge and look exactly the same. The magic figure for the entire existing population of the planet is 3000 BCE. If you go back 5000 years and randomly select an individual, if that individual has any surviving descendants today (and there will be many from that period who do not) then all living persons today are that person’s descendants. (In fact, for most people the magic number is more like the time of Jesus, but the 3000 BCE figure takes into account historically isolated populations like aboriginal Australians).
Yippee, shouts the Bible-a-Bible crowd. We are all descendants of Adam. That’s true. If we can assume that Adam really lived when we think he lived and that he has any now-living descendants, then yes — we are all his descendants. But the exact same would be true of any of his contemporaries (or near contemporaries). Take, as a random example, Cain. The mathematic imperatives of genes and genealogy assert that if Cain has any surviving progeny, then every person reading this blog and every other person in the world, regardless of skin complexion, location, or recent ancestral heritage — every one of us is the seed of Cain. That also includes figures from our recent history.
That’s right — Elder McConkie is a descendant of Cain.
This means that being the literal, biological descendants of Abraham, or Noah, or Ham, or Seth, or Cain, or Adam is meaningless. Meaningless in the sense that, well so what — everyone else is too; and meaningless in the sense that you are not any more genetically related to any of them any more than you are to anyone else.
Now it could be argued that these revelations raise serious concerns and problems for LDS ideas about lineage, intergenerational bonds, and family salvation. I think it actually helps us. It does so by demonstrating the insignificance of biological lineage, which foregrounds in the process the significance of Priesthood. And Priesthood transcends and trumps biology. Biological relatedness is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Even Joseph Smith, with his errant understanding of the actual mechanisms of human relatedness, taught that “the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham.” (just one more piece of evidence, incidentally, that the Priesthood Ban and ideas of irredeemably cursed lineages and races constituted departures from rather than continuities with Joseph’s thought). The point of the power of the Priesthood is that it binds us together in ways and to degrees for which biology is simply not adequate. Being the seed of Ephraim or of Israel or of Abraham or of Adam is meaningless in biological or genealogical terms; the power of the Priesthood to bind us together as families and across generations, through time and eternity gives it a meaning and significance that genes could never impart, worlds without end.