Tag Archives: Evolution

Analysis of Race and Perspectives of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

As police shootings of black men under dubious circumstances continue to make headlines, along with peaceful protests among several professional athletes, opinions on racism and the  #BlackLivesMatter movement abound.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem prior to the 49ers' season opener.(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem prior to the 49ers’ season opener.(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images)

I do not have any affiliation with the group, and being Caucasian, cannot genuinely identify with their specific plight.

But I can apply some pretty basic critical thinking to understand their message, instead of dismissing it outright as divisive.

But before we get into the opinion portion, let’s take a look at the science and psychology of race and racism in general.

Genetics

First we must understand that there is no black or white gene. I think we all understand we’re not literally black and white. But moving past that, the term “black and white” supposes there is a binary system with only two options. But with the multitude of skin colors around the globe, this clearly isn’t the case.

As the Anthropology Department from the University of Alabama explains here, skin gets its color from three different molecules referred to as pigments.

  • Carotene: which is rather uncommon, and is typically only a factor if people overeat things with carotene in it—like carrots. It causes the skin to take on a yellowish shade.

    Carotene
    Carotene
  • Hemoglobin: This molecule is contained in our blood for facilitation of oxygenation of the blood. It takes on a reddish hue, unless you’re oxygen-deficient, in which case it will be purplish.

    hemoglobin
    Hemoglobin
  • Melanin: The component responsible for the “black” and “white” we refer to, is a severely dark brown color typically. The higher the concentration of this molecule in your skin, the darker your skin tone will be.

    Melanin
    Melanin

These three variables to one’s skin color have a default value they would inherit from their parents. But as you might expect, there are environmental factors that can change them such as the aforementioned carrot eating or tanning which increases melanin production. Since we’re talking about genetics, we’ll ignore the environmental factors for this post.

How the differences came about

As with most genetic traits, nature has selected for different skin tones too. This natural selection is almost entirely based on geographical location of our recent ancestors. And I say recent, because we’re all African in decent if we go back far enough.

Because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, seasons are reversed depending on which side of the equator you’re on. For instance, winter in the northern hemisphere coincides with summer in the southern.motionsofsunandmoon2-axistilt1

But also, Earth’s path around the sun is elliptical—not a perfect circle. Therefore, those of us in the northern hemisphere are actually closest to the sun (perihelion) in January, and furthest from the sun (aphelion) in July—the difference being about 3%.

As a result, the Southern hemisphere being tilted towards the sun when they’re closer to it means the southern hemisphere’s summers will receive slightly more solar radiation than their northern counterparts.

In theory, this would mean the climate variation in the northern hemisphere would be less severe than in the southern hemisphere, but the increased water-surface to land-surface ratio of the southern hemisphere mitigates the variance for them, as explained in the video below.

These variances in solar radiation are the reason that skin tones lighten “about 8% per 10° of latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, and about 4% per 10° of latitude in the Southern Hemisphere” as you move further from the equator, because until quite recently in the history of mankind, thanks to the invention of boats, cars, and airplanes, traveling from one climate to another was quite the monumental task, and therefore rarely occurred.

Why nature selected for different skin tones

The excess melanin in one’s skin helps absorb ultraviolet (UV) radiation, protecting the skin from potential harm such as skin cancer. So people living closer to the equator, being exposed to more solar radiation, have better survived due to the protection melanin provides their skin.

However, solar radiation is the only natural way your body gets the vitamin D it needs, and that UV blocking melanin inhibits vitamin D’s production in the process. So those further from the equator would naturally select for lighter skin to maximize the vitamin D production from the lesser amount of solar radiation they receive.

This is why darker skinned people who live further from the equator can have an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency, and lighter skinned people located closer to the equator may suffer increased risk of skin cancer.

The reason this is important when discussing race, is to make the simple point that variances in our skin color, through natural selection from our ancestor’s environments, have dictated how dark our skin tone is based on how far our recent ancestors were from the equator. And any other reasoning one might attribute to our different skin tones is largely ignorant and false.

Mislabeling

While race is identified by skin color, it’s typically understood to be more about someone’s ancestry, than the actual color of their skin. But our desire to stick to a binary system of black and white, is entirely unfair to a large group of people who have mixed ancestry.

For instance, someone with a medium skin tone of mixed heritage is often just as closely related to someone referred to as black as they are to someone who is thought of as white, or any other different race. Therefore, referring to them as a light-skinned black person, wrongly puts them in one racial bucket when they really belong to both; or more correctly, a third bucket in between.

ANAHEIM, CA - JANUARY 21: Kultida Woods and Tiger Woods at the dedication of the statue honoring his father Earl Woods at the Tiger Woods Learning Center on January 21, 2008 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
ANAHEIM, CA – JANUARY 21: Kultida Woods and Tiger Woods at the dedication of the statue honoring his father Earl Woods at the Tiger Woods Learning Center on January 21, 2008 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)

Tiger Woods for instance, is often referred to as being black, when his mother Kutilda Woods is actually Asian.

President Obama, also often referred to as black, has a Caucasian mother, Ann Dunham.

Ann Dunham - Barack Obama's mother
Ann Dunham – Barack Obama’s mother

The whole concept of race in general is simply a man-made construct held over from our ignorant past. We used it to differentiate ourselves from one another, long before we understood genetics or biological species.

As this Nature.com report shows, “approximately 85−90% of genetic variation is found within these continental groups,” referring to Africa, Asia, and Europe, “and only an additional 10−15% of variation is found between them.” This illustrates that our fundamental differences lie in things other than our skin color.

The Psychology

As you hopefully already know, humans are typically social in nature, sociopaths, also known as people with Antisocial Personality Disorder, make up a mere 4% of the population. This means the desire to bond with other people is ingrained in about 96% of us as a result.

One way people bond is by finding commonalities with each other.

Imagine the person next to you, talking to a friend, says they just “pahked the kah.” If you’re a Bostonian in Boston, this won’t even get your attention. But if you were a Bostonian in the UK for instance, you’ll almost assuredly at least say, “Hey, I’m from Boston too.”

This is because the two of you have something unique for the location you’re in, that you share, and therefore can bond over.

In that example, you had to overhear the person say it though. With race, you can plainly see that you share that trait with another from across the room, and therefore immediately make an instinctive connection with that person. This is fairly natural, and not an inherently hateful form of racism.

The Good, the Bad, and the UglyNAACP-Logo[1]

Racism can be good if it’s simply a way to bond with others as illustrated above. But also with cases like the NAACP, where segregating by race is simply a way to focus your efforts on helping those who are discriminated against, such as “colored” people (the C in NAACP) certainly were at the time the NAACP was founded.

But while individuals use racism to create strong bonds, it sadly has a more heinous side that’s often rooted in hate. Because just as we bond over our commonalities, an us-against-them mentality can kick in when two or more people are like each other and another party in the area is not.

The heinousness of hateful racism is so well-known and understood, that I really don’t care to go into that any further here. It’s an unpleasant topic, and there’s probably little I can say that would add anything new to the conversation anyway.

But it’s important to understand that some level of racism is instinctual and what an instinct actually is in the first place.ailmentangermanagement1

Instincts are things we do subconsciously and uncontrollably without thinking about them. For instance, imagine someone were yelling hateful and vile insults at you—you will have no control over your instinct to punch them. But because you’re a responsible adult,  and know violence should be avoided if possible, many of you will suppress that instinct.

Racism is not that different, and can only be suppressed through knowledge and understand of why we do it, and then a genuine desire to avoid acting on it maliciously.

Who’s A Racist?

Now moving on to the op-ed portion of this post. While I explained above why we are not in fact black or white, I will use the terms “black” and “white” going forward since the word black is in #BlackLivesMatter, and the terms are for the most part the social norm. It will help make this next part a little easier to read than using “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned.”

Let’s first state unequivocally, that racism isn’t exclusive to any one race. So while the discussion of people being racist is often assumed to be white-on-black, it can just as easily be black-on-white. It can oddly even be white-on-white (when white people attack others like them for their “white privilege” for instance), or black-on-black (when black people assume the worst from other black people but tend to be more trusting of whites).

I should also point out that it’s not just skin tone. I’ve met Japanese people who don’t like the Chinese, Brits who hate the French, Colombians who don’t like Mexicans…the list of racial animosity goes on endlessly.

So this problem isn’t uniquely black and white, and it certainly isn’t even uniquely American. It existed long before America did and will likely endure for as long as vastly different skin tones exist.

So when I talk about racism, I’m referring to all of it, not just white-on-black.

#BlackLivesMatter

Now  let’s get back to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Once the #BLM movement started, it launched a lot of counter movements like #PoliceLivesMatter or the more generic #AllLivesMatter. At first, you can understand the opposition’s concern that #BlackLivesMatter seems to be segregating in nature, but I believe that entirely overlooks their underlying point.blm

As troubling as it is, when a news story airs about a police shooting of a suspect, there seems to be an improperly common sentiment among the media and the people. That if the victim is a black man, it is more likely to be justifiable homicide by the police than if the person who was shot were white. They are assuming the black man must have been engaged in criminal activity, where a white shooting victim more often gets the benefit of doubt.

While all people officially have equal rights under the law; these days, this perceptive double-standard on the presumed innocent of two people, solely based on the color of their skin, is the darker side of racism that still remains in the hearts and minds of far too many, despite many of them feeling they’re not racist in any way.

(Credit - Blavity.com)
(Credit – Blavity.com)

While I don’t believe most people, black or white, make a conscious effort to be racist, almost everyone will have some instinctual racial bias based on the psychology aspect mentioned above, and their own life experiences with people of a different race. The better those experience were, the less likely they are to be hatefully racist.

Honest Assessment

The next few times you see a police shooting of black and white civilians, see if your initial reactions to those shootings are the same; regardless of skin color.

Also, do the media portray both incidents equally? Do the public seem to have the same concerns or outrage on social media or around the office? Sadly, if I’m truly being honest with myself, I have to say they’re often not.

Where the #BLM Opposition Goes Wrong

So why do I think people are misguided when they think the #BLM movement are arguing other lives don’t matter? Because they didn’t specifically say that. It’s a straw man argument—one of the most common logical fallacies.

The opposition’s argument is that by saying #BlackLivesMatter, the #BLM people are arguing that white lives, police lives, et al., do not. But the #BLM movement is made up of three simple words and a hashtag. It says nothing about anyone else. So if you assume they’re saying non-black lives don’t matter, that’s a assumption you added yourself.

The predominance of people supporting the #BLM movement acknowledge wholeheartedly that all lives matter. Their argument is that the rest of the public don’t seem to value black lives. If the #BLM movement has any fundamental flaw, it’s poor phrasing. The simple addition of the word “Too” at the end of #BlackLivesMatter could have went a long way.

The Protests

While I don’t like the tactic of lashing out at our country, our flag, or our military as some professional athletes have chosen to do (I think community outreach programs, focusing on positive interaction, would better achieve their goal), we should also recognize that a peaceful and non-violent protest is exactly what most of us encouraged people to do when riots, vandalism, and looting by outraged people have broken out, and this is genuinely what those athlete’s are doing.

It’s easy to be mad at each other, but it’s better to be empathetic, and honest with ourselves that their concerns are often legitimate. Instead of getting angry, and pushing back, it’s not too much to ask to be skeptical of police who shoot someone.

Be A Skeptic, Even Of The Police

While the police by and large do a great job, and should always be given the utmost respect, on some occasions they exercise bad judgement, and in incredibly rare incidents, are would-be-felons willingly committing crimes.

If this weren’t true, there would be no Internal Affairs Bureau. So it is important to remember they’re not perfect, and may actually be the person in the wrong when they use their firearm against a civilian.

Pastor Terence Crutcher
Pastor Terence Crutcher

The shooting of pastor Terence Crutcher is one example of several, where many in the media and on social media initially assumed he had potentially done something to cause the officer to shoot him. That officer has since however been charged with first degree manslaughter, and Pastor Crutcher deserved the respect and outrage he sadly didn’t get from far too many people.

At the same time, it’s also important that the #BLM supporters wait for all the facts to come out when a black person is shot by police, because he may have indeed been engaged in a crime and was endangering others.

We should all let the facts come out, let the court system do it’s job, and if we’re not on the jury ourselves, try to accept the idea that the jury was given more evidence that’s credible and scientific, and therefore made a more educated decision than we could have.

Where the media often purposefully distort the facts for ratings, our legal system has safeguards to prevent such unfair biases in a court of law by excluding prejudicial evidence, and ensuring all witnesses can be cross-examined.

Synopsis

While you may not agree with the tactics of the #BLM movement and the peaceful protests of several black athletes, no fair person can argue there isn’t occasionally a double standard in TV and print media, social media, and public opinion as to how tragic the death of a black person is compared to anyone else.

If we want this racial divide to stop, we have to understand it, make an effort to change it, and more important than anything, exercise a little empathy and understanding for those on the other side of the issue.

Embrace that which makes us different—it makes us interesting to one another, it helps provide alternate perspectives, and most importantly from a science perspective, our diversity actually preserves our species (think of purebred animals which have much higher incidents of disease and genetic defect).

But know that the difference between any two of us, is basically the same, no matter what color we are, and therefore we should all have equal rights under the law, and equal rights to the presumption of innocence.

 

 

 

Why the “Evolution Is Just a Theory” Statement is both Insulting, Ignorant, and Wrong

Ever heard the expression, “Evolution is just a theory”?

It’s often used by creationists who deem the theory of evolution, an observation initially put forth by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, as an insult to their religion because it isn’t consistent with the accounts of the Bible, Quran, etc.

The notion that all life evolved from a single-celled organism, affectionately known as LUCA (Last Common Universal Ancestor) simply doesn’t jive with being taught that a God created man shortly after the start of time.

Click for more info on LUCA from Georgia Tech Research
Click for more info on LUCA from Georgia Tech Research

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I will explain, albeit quite simplified, why that is a profoundly wrong and insulting statement to make to discredit evolution.

There are generally accepted levels that answers to questions can be given or assigned, from a scientific perspective. Since science is what brought you the theory of evolution, that’s what should be referenced when discussing it.

Because this is a simple blog post and not a thesis, think of this as just a Cliff’s notes version to explain the basic concept. So please no attacks if you think I left something important out. But by all means, feel free to chime in below if you want to add anything.

Charles Darwin: Author of The Origin of Species and impetus for the Theory of Evolution
Charles Darwin: Author of The Origin of Species and impetus for the Theory of Evolution

Anyway, enough babbling, here goes…

GUESS:

The lowest level assigned to the answer to a question would be a guess. A guess is when you have no evidence you are basing your guess on, you’re just picking something that seems to make the most sense to you and going with it. We all do it, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not science.

EDUCATED GUESS:

With an educated guess, you still haven’t actually gathered evidence or done any work you could call science, but now you have some knowledge that leads you to your guess so it’s not just a garden variety random guess as above.

This might also be a situation where you might ask a physicist, for example, about a question that could be answered by physics. If they don’t know the answer, yet based on what they do know, they make a guess, that’s an educated guess.

HYPOTHESIS:

For the first time, we’re talking about actually doing some science. You’ve now gathered evidence, potentially by doing a study of some sort, and this is the conclusion the evidence has taken you to. This is better than a guess because you’ve actually done some work to come to this conclusion, observed the results first hand, and therefore your conclusion is evidence-based, not something conjured up in your imagination alone.

THEORY:

I’ll spend the most time on this one, since it’s the one in question.

Where a hypothesis is something that is based on you doing some science, it is usually on one specific question with one specific answer, like what are the atoms that make up a water molecule? Then you grab a microscope, and determine the answer to be two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. A simple question—a simple answer.

Water Molecule
Water Molecule

A theory however, is typically related to a large collection of hypotheses that all come together to tell a big story, such as the case with evolution.

If I can use a simple analogy; I will compare scientific theory to a jigsaw puzzle depicting Albert Einstein. 

Think of a hypothesis as a single piece of the puzzle you’ve tested and confirmed it’s part Einstein’s likeness.

But a theory is what the puzzle itself depicts, composed of pieces that have all been determined to specifically fit in it. That puzzle still has a few pieces missing from it you haven’t found yet, so you don’t entirely understand what the complete puzzle looks like. For instance, if the pieces depicting Einstein’s hair are missing, you can still reasonably assume it’s a picture of Einstein by the face, you’re just not sure what his hair looked like at the time the picture was taken.

In science, it’s only accepted theory if no single piece has ever been proven wrong or falsified. If one piece turns out to be false, scientists must effectively scrap the whole theory, and remove any assumptions they might have made to that point.

If your goal is to entirely complete the jigsaw puzzle you think is a picture of Albert Einstein (and that is the goal), you get a box with a thousand pieces, and you find that one or more of them is clearly not a representation of Einstein, you know that puzzle can never represent what you thought it should and therefore it cannot be Einstein.

In the case of evolution, there are thousands of independent studies on different aspects of evolution, most of which have been peer-reviewed, never been proven wrong or falsified, and that all consistently support the theory of evolution—each one completing a larger and larger chunk of that particular puzzle.

The part we don’t understand is exactly how Earth went from a lifeless state to a with-life state, because no one has ever been able to create life from no-life in a lab yet. Nor can we go back in time and observe it to study it.

Although, there’s pretty decent understanding as to how it might have happened—that’s a story for another day, and someone much more knowledgeable than I.

LAW:

Something that has also never been falsified, but unlike a theory, leaves no questions to be answered, and is largely deemed to be factual by the entirety of the scientific community. Barring any fringe folks most scientists disavow, anyway.

It’s also more like a hypothesis in that it’s usually very specific in nature, as opposed to complex theory.

Think Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion or Universal Law of Gravitation, etc. as some of the most commonly understood examples.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

We understand them, we know them to be consistently true, and we’re readily able to replicate the results every single time we either test them, or use them to test something else.

ABSOLUTE:

An absolute is something that is indisputable fact. For the most part, science would say you can never know an absolute, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Quite the contrary. Technically, I’d argue everything is essentially an absolute—facts are all around us. Something either is or it isn’t.

But the problem for us unfortunately, is that you can’t know any of them absolutely, because you can never know what you don’t know.

On any subject, there may be something you’re unaware of that changes everything (like Einstein’s thoughts on gravitation waves which forced a rethink of Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation), so you always have to remain open to new information.

Now that we’ve covered those, the reason it’s both wrong and insulting to say the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is due to the fact that thousands of scientists have done hundreds of thousands hours of work over the centuries on thousands of different aspects of evolution.

Work which is really hard to do, requires vast knowledge, is reviewed by their peers, and consistent with what you’d observe in the natural world. And all of it supports the theory of evolution, and is drastically different from creation.

It should also be pointed out that DNA has largely confirmed evolution true via mapping out genealogies of all living things. It’s also interesting to note that DNA wasn’t discovered until long after evolution was theorized. Much like when people thought the Earth was round, but then we went out to space and proved it is round by observing it.

Actual Image of Human DNA through an Electron Microscope. (Click image for more information)
Actual Image of Human DNA through an Electron Microscope.
(Click image for more information)

So back to our “Evolution is JUST a theory” folks, most people who make this argument are people who are religious.

They’ve done no tests to confirm what their religion says is true, they’ve merely read a book that may or may not be true. They may accept it as faith, but this why it is called faith, not science.

While their belief might be right, demeaning thousands of brilliant minds who have done a lot of hard and painstaking work when they’ve done, is profoundly insulting and ignorant when we see all the things around us that science has answered, and answered correctly.

This could be the curing of a myriad of diseases, being able to put a man on the moon, splitting an atom, or simply making a working smart phone. Science has a pretty amazing track record of being right.

Even if you are religious, let me ask you this. If you were feeling chest pains, and afraid you might be about to have a heart attack, are you calling 9/11 to summon a doctor first (a scientist), or would you call your priest and ask them to say a prayer first?

If the answer is option one, you’re already instinctively putting your faith in science over religion, as I’d argue you should.