A scientific visualization of the importance of race

The image below is a phylogram, illustrating the degree of variation in a sequence of mitochondrial DNA. The concept is fairly simple: if two DNA samples are from individuals that are evolutionarily distant from one another, they’ll have accumulated more differences in their mitochondrial DNA, and will be drawn farther apart from one another. If the two individuals are closely related, their DNA will be more similar, and they’ll be drawn closer together. That’s the key thing you need to know to understand what’s going on.

There are other, more complicated analyses going on in the figure, too: the branching pattern is determined by analyzing subsets of shared sequences, and it takes a fair bit of computing power to put the full picture together. You’ll just have to trust me on that one, but all you need to know is that the branches are objectively calculated, and that the distances between the tips of the branches and their last branching point tell you something about the degree of genetic disparity in the group.

Unrooted phylogram of mitochondrial DNA sequences. Gagneux P1, Wills C, Gerloff U, Tautz D, Morin PA, Boesch C, Fruth B, Hohmann G, Ryder OA, Woodruff DS. (1999) Mitochondrial sequences show diverse evolutionary histories of African hominoids. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96(9):5077-82.

Unrooted phylogram of mitochondrial DNA sequences.

Gagneux P1, Wills C, Gerloff U, Tautz D, Morin PA, Boesch C, Fruth B, Hohmann G, Ryder OA, Woodruff DS. (1999) Mitochondrial sequences show diverse evolutionary histories of African hominoids. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96(9):5077-82.

[Read more...]

We may have had skin color differences before, but America invented being smug about them

I would like everyone to read this wonderful twist in perspective on American history — I think this kind of thing ought to be taught in public schools. The United States of America is exceptional: in the ferment of the 18th century, we invented both an inspiring political document, our constitution, and we invented white people. Not the people themselves, but the abstract distinction that set up “whiteness” as a mark of a privileged class. It was brilliant: it was a strategy that immediately divided those lower class rabble rousers who were screaming for equality, and set them to fighting among themselves, and half of them fighting for the wealthy upper class.

As time went on, the labor needs of the land holders continued to grow, and desperate to cultivate the land, they were loathe to let go of their bond servants and the bondsmen and bondswomen’s children (whom they kept in bondage for a legally defined time as well). In the mean time, a growing American peasantry was proving as difficult to govern as the European peasantry back home, periodically rising up in riot and rebellion, light skinned and dark skinned together. The political leaders of the Virginia colony struck upon an answer to all these problems, an answer which plagues us to this day.

The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.

This plan worked gorgeously. It broke all efforts of the majority of people, African or European, to fight for civil and political rights in America against a landed class that literally ruled everything. It reduced a portion of the people to the status of the negro slave, and gave the poor but now white people a precious and entitled inch to stand above the permanently enslaved on the social ladder. The next thing the politicians did sealed the deal: they paid poor whites a bounty for runaway slaves, and often made them overseers for slaves, turning every poor white in America into a prison guard against the people who had once been their neighbors and allies.

[Read more...]

I wish I could be in LA today

I could learn something. The Black Skeptics are hosting a conference, Moving Social Justice. This is what atheism needs.

Called “Moving Social Justice,” the conference will tackle topics beyond the usual atheist conference fare of confronting religious believers and promoting science education. Instead, organizers hope to examine issues of special interest to nonwhite atheists, especially the ills rooted in economic and social inequality.

“Atheism is not a monolithic, monochromatic movement,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist activist, author and founder of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics, one member of a coalition of black atheist and humanist groups staging the conference.

“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”

I am so tired of running in circles with people who insist that religion is evil and must be crushed, who then also declare that atheism has no implications or consequences and only means that there is no god. I would like to listen to people who actually have a goal of the greater good driving their atheism and secularism, rather than hiding behind evasions and abstractions. I’m also a bit fed up with the hypocrisy of insisting that atheism must reach a wider audience, while obliviously refusing to expand to meet the needs of more diverse communities.

We’re really, really good at making middle class white people with college educations satisfied. We need to learn that pandering to that group of people can lead to choices that make other groups unhappy.

I’m sorry, but I’ve got bad news for you Vikings

You’re all dead. Your culture is basically extinct…or more accurately, has evolved into something that doesn’t involve sea-faring raids and pillaging and slave-taking, all those stereotypical things associated with Vikings. You weren’t even all that a thousand years ago — the Vikings were one aspect of a complicated culture of farmers and merchants and politicians and fishers and city builders.

So I’m afraid that if you are calling yourself a Viking now, you’re just a silly poseur*. If you’re trying to live up to Viking ideals today, you’re mistaken — no one wants to live with Vikings around anymore. Imagine a time a thousand years from now, when people try to claim the revered traditions of Americans by insisting on being called Footballers and running about in pads and cleats and punching their spouses in the head. That’s what I see in modern “Vikings”, and I say that as someone who can also claim Scandinavian descent.

[Read more...]

How not to give an interview

You know, that moment in an interview where suddenly the subject goes wandering off script, and becomes fervent — obsessed even — on a subject that makes your eyebrows rise up and reach for your hairline, and you’re beginning to wonder whether someone will kick the person under the table or make that throat-cutting motion with their hand or something, anything, to get them to shut up because you can’t believe that they’re saying such hateful, stupid stuff? Yeah, that happened.

Mathew Klickstein has a niche: he’s fanatical about old kid shows on Nickelodeon. It’s a weirdly twee sort of thing to care so much about, but I can sort of see it — my kids were big fans of shows like Rugrats and The Adventures of Pete & Pete (that one had Iggy Pop on it, which I thought was awesome) and Clarissa. So he’s doing a show in New York about these old cartoons, he’s written a book about them, and he’s getting interviewed, and yes, he really, really knows a lot of minutiae about Nickelodeon cartoons.

Then they ask him about diversity.

[Read more...]

Reddit: it’s like a delicious bowl of ice cream, with only a few flecks of shit & poison in it

I know that Reddit is immensely popular and has some good qualities, but I’ve never been able to get into it, because it invariably happens that anything I read there will be tainted by some hideous commentary. I don’t just mean comments I disagree with; I read creationist sites for entertainment, you know. I mean comments that cause me to despair for humanity.

[Read more...]