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How science has been abused through the ages to promote racism

Tim Crowe, University of Cape Town

Race in human taxonomy – the science of classifying organisms – has a long, disgraceful history.

Individuals have used race to divide and denigrate certain people while promoting their claims of superiority. Some of these individuals were, and are, respected in their time and their fields. They include philosopher and scientist Robert Boyle and sociologists like Hans Günther. Others who’ve been guilty include biologists like Ernst Haeckel and historians such as Henri de Boulainvilliers.

What is the history of racially based classifications of humans? And does it have any scientific validity?

Starting with Kant

The eminent philosopher Immanuel Kant was arguably the first “scientific racist”. He maintained that dark-skinned Africans were “vain and stupid”. He insisted that they were only capable of trifling feelings and were resistant to any form of education other than learning how to be enslaved.

By contrast, Kant maintained, light-skinned Caucasians were “active, acute, and adventurous”.

Renowned German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach used skull anatomy to divide humans into five races:

  • Caucasians (Europe and western Asia);
  • Mongoloids (eastern Asia);
  • Malays (south-eastern Asia);
  • Negros (sub-Saharan Africa); and
  • Americans (North and South America).

But he disagreed with the common view that humans from sub-Saharan Africa were inferior. Blumenbach’s “benign” racial categorisation persisted well into the 20th century.

Samuel Morton drew on refined, quantitative assessments of skull anatomy to provide further “scientific evidence”. He claimed that interracial intellectual variation is reflected by the interior volume of the skull, and that this justified the use of Blumenbach’s groupings to determine relative racial superiority.

He regarded the Caucasian as:

… distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments

and Africans as

… joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.

“Scientific racism”“ was used to justify the ownership of slaves, as well as colonialism. It reached its pinnacle in eugenics, a “science” espoused by the British statistician and sociologist Francis Galton at the end of the 19th century.

Eugenicists advocate the “improvement” of humanity by promoting reproduction between people with desired traits and reducing reproduction between people with less-desired traits. Eugenics featured in race-related legislation like Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws and apartheid-era South Africa’s edicts.

Genetic evidence

Genetic studies have examined “racial” variation from a molecular perspective. My early mentor Richard Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago, was a pioneer in this. His research suggested that 90% of modern human genetic diversity is found between individuals within populations. The tiny balance is due to variation between populations.

This view was confirmed by subsequent studies based on DNA by, among others, Lynn B. Jorde and Stephen P. Wooding. The DNA among all human populations is 99.5% similar. Populations of the geographically much more restricted chimpanzee exhibit more than four times the genetic variation that’s found between human populations. Chimpanzees are humans’ nearest living evolutionary “relative”.

Their research shows that when humans are studied from genetic or anatomical perspectives, the pattern that’s discovered is not diagnosable geographically discrete clusters. The norm is gradual, geographically uncorrelated variation in traits and genes. This is even true within peoples who are traditionally thought to be racially homogeneous. There is no evidence of evolutionarily significant racial variation in either genes or anatomy.

The exception is skin colour. Around 10% of the variance in skin colour occurs within groups and about 90% between groups. People living near the equator have darker, more melanin-rich skin than those who live at higher latitudes. Darker skin is strongly selected for because it is a natural sunscreen that limits harmful effects of high ultraviolet rays.

Recent genetic studies indicate that skin colour may change radically within 100 generations because of natural selection.

Genetic racism revived

This overwhelming scientific evidence has not prevented recent studies based on DNA allele frequencies from claiming that there are as many as eight races of humans.

British scientific journalist Nicholas Wade used these studies to claim that natural selection between “races” produced differences in IQ, the efficacy of political institutions and countries’ levels of economic development.

These genetic studies are fundamentally flawed for three reasons:

  • Taxonomic studies aimed at determining the validity of races should be based on characters. These are features that are invariant within populations. They should not be based on traits like eye colour and gene alleles, which vary within populations.
  • Samples used in the DNA-based studies mentioned above were “cherry picked” geographically to maximise differentiation between human populations, and
  • The DNA-based evolutionary racial “trees” were generated by a statistical technique that is designed to produce tree-like patterns which reflect average, not absolute, differences between sampled items. This technique formed the basis of an approach to the construction of evolutionary trees called “phenetics”. It has been decisively discredited and generally abandoned.

Evolutionary origins

DNA and anatomy-based findings support the “Out of Africa” theory. This holds that modern humans originated in Africa. Archaic African Homo erectus immigrated into Eurasia between 1.4 million to 1.6 million years ago.

About 90,000 to 92,000 years ago, a second form of humanity, modern H. sapiens, also emigrated out of Africa. This species replaced populations of Homo erectus already in the north.

Attempts to justify the scientific reality of human races warrant no further discussion. They cannot be used to assess racial “superiority”. “White” and other non-African people are in fact evolutionary refugees from Africa. After settling in Eurasia, it took only an evolutionary heartbeat for them to lose much of their epidermal melanin.

Dark-skinned humans outside of Africa are descended from migrants who “regained” their “blackness” in equatorial regions elsewhere.

The Conversation

Tim Crowe, Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The problems with Big History and turning science into myth

English: Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane S...

Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at its launch in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lisa Sideris, Indiana University, Bloomington

In 2002, a conservative Christian pastor named Michael Dowd and his science writer wife, Connie Barlow, quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and purchased a van they decorated with symbols of a Jesus fish kissing a Darwin fish. Since that time, these two have lived largely as itinerant preachers whose message is the wondrous revelation of science.

These evolutionary evangelists are part of a growing movement that looks to science for a new sacred story that has more staying power than traditional religions. Its proponents proclaim a grand narrative of what is called cosmogenesis – the unfolding of the universe, from the moment of the Big Bang to the present – as a modern sacred myth for all people.

The new cosmology – a word that here signals both the study of the universe and an overarching religious worldview – defines human beings as the part of the universe that has become conscious of itself. We are the only creatures to have evolved an awareness of our place in the universe. Humans’ dawning cosmological awareness, it is believed, will connect us emotionally to cosmic processes, allowing us to feel more at home in the universe. Sensing our place in cosmic patterns and processes will inspire sustainable practices on Earth.

A new story is urgently needed, the argument goes, because we suffer from a crippling condition of modernity known as amythia: we lack a serviceable myth to orient us to what is real and important. The stories provided by the traditional faiths are no longer plausible or relevant in light of modern science and our global environmental crisis. We need a consecrated science, a new Genesis, according to this line of thinking.

Bill Gates is down with Big History.

The movement has unleashed a deluge of books, films, YouTube videos, websites, podcasts and university course offerings that proclaim the mythopoeic, or myth-making, virtues of science.

This new cosmology displays many of the earmarks of the Anthropocene, a new geologic age of humans. We are the dominant, planetary presence in whom the cosmos has entrusted the next precarious phase of Earth’s evolution. Our task as a species is to guide the planet into a new, hoped-for geological era – the Ecozoic – characterized by mutual enhancement of humans and the planet.

Will this cosmology spark a new wave of environmental consciousness?

‘Epic science’ as religion of reality

It was the late 1970s when Thomas Berry proclaimed the need for a new cosmic story. Berry’s diagnosis was that the old religious narratives had lost much of their power and functionality. Our storylessness was exacerbated by scientists’ seeming reluctance, at that time, to present their knowledge in grand, mythic form. That would soon change, as a wave of science popularizers – Carl Sagan, Edward O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett – stepped in to portray science as an epic quest whose rewards are vastly superior to the charms of religion.

Today, a cluster of Thomas Berry’s devotees remain. Some regard insights from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as foundational to the creation of a new common myth, since evolutionary science both explains our need for religious myth and provides the raw materials from which to craft it.

The universe as a story – the legacy of Thomas Berry.

In 1978, as Berry issued his call for a new story, E O Wilson identified something he called the evolutionary epic, “probably the best myth we will ever have.” Humanity’s “mythopoeic” needs would one day be fulfilled by the epic grandeur of scientific materialism. Science would claim its rightful place as a superior “alternative mythology.” With his subsequent publication of Consilience in 1998, he laid out his vision of scientific knowledge so complete and unified that it would tell us who we are and where we came from. A number of Berry’s followers seized upon Wilson’s prophetic words and set to work constructing a sacred narrative.

In a similar vein to Wilson, Dawkins has long argued for the superiority of scientifically clarified – that is, real – forms of wonder and awe vis-à-vis “fake” wonder at mysteries, puzzles or miracles.

Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality from 2011, is directed at child audiences. Science in hand, Dawkins takes on the true genesis of rainbows, as well as such vexing queries as “When did everything begin?” and “Why do bad things happen?” The book’s message is that science is not one way of experiencing wonder. It is the authentic way. The magic of reality is “wonderful because it’s real.”

Self-styled evangelists Dowd and Barlow promote Dawkins’ Magic of Reality as an important step toward a new “religion of reality,” and hail the so-called new atheists as daring prophets of reality.

Other advocates include religion scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim and Loyal Rue; mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme; “big historiansDavid Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown; astrophysicist and science educator Eric Chaisson; and biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Cosmology and ethics

A subset of Berry’s disciples turn not to the seductive – and reductive – paradigm of consilience, or linking together of different disciplines to form a grand unity of knowledge, but to advances in Big Bang cosmology as evidence of the implicit narrative structure of reality.

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, senior lecturers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, have teamed up with Berry’s protégé Brian Swimme to launch a multimedia phenomenon called Journey of the Universe. Their claim is that the past century of cosmological science has brought forth a coherent, comprehensive account of the universe and our place in it. We now understand ourselves as the “heart and mind” of a deeply anthropic universe in which our species’ emergence was implicit from the very beginning.

Universe Story movements promote cosmology as a source of ethics. They imply we must model our lives after the deep, meaningful patterning of the universe itself which displays impulses of creativity, intimacy and relationality. Yet, as Woody Allen recognized in a memorable scene from Annie Hall, it remains unclear how we are to get any practical ethical guidance from the perspective of an expanding universe that seems to render our earthly concerns meaningless.

What’s the point? The universe is expanding.

How might the inherent creativity of the cosmos – say, the nuclear reactions of stars – point us toward renewable energy sources and away from, say, nuclear reactors or geoengineering? Proponents offer woolly assurances that “wonder will guide us.” Yet, much of the narrative’s wonder seems directed at ourselves. We are the being in whom the universe “shivers in wonder at itself,” the one species complex enough to have pierced the cosmic veil.

A planetary education

The new cosmology has real-world impacts. It seeks to confer unity and a comprehensive context to every stage of the educational process, from childhood to professional training. The idea of E O Wilson’s Consilience similarly insists that unity of knowledge offers the best way to reform university education, to “renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts.”

Disciplines oriented to the study of human culture will eventually cede much of their territory to science, Wilson predicts. The humanities earn their keep as disciplines that serve science by embellishing its authoritative narrative with poetry, art or dance. As Wilson explains, science provides “real” content and the humanities obligingly disseminate it in appealing forms:

“the humanities could in effect continue to do their thing, but they would have vastly richer material to work with – grander themes – because the real world of the universe, from black holes to the origin of consciousness, offers far more complex and grander themes [than the humanities or religion].”

Wilson’s followers call for a consilient college curriculum that introduces students to the Epic as the integrating theme of their entire university experience. A number of universities around the country, including Harvard University and Washington University in St Louis, offer courses on The Epic of Evolution or The Universe Story. These courses introduce students to a grand narrative whose meanings are by definition largely given in advance, whose options for student self-understanding are neatly contained and prescripted.

The new religion of reality may be coming to a classroom or pulpit near you. You will know it by its tagline: “One world calls for one story.”

The Conversation

Lisa Sideris, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Director IU Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society, Indiana University, Bloomington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What your musical taste says about your personality

English: Tenori-on is an electronic musical in...

Tenori-on is an electronic musical instrument. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Greenberg, University of Cambridge

We’re exposed to music for nearly 20% of our waking lives. But much of our musical experience seems to be a mystery. Why does some music bring us to tears while other pieces make us dance? Why is it that the music that we like can make others agitated? And why do some people seem to have a natural ability to play music while others have difficulty carrying a tune? Science is beginning to show that these individual differences are not just random but are, in part, due to people’s personalities.

My colleagues and I have published research showing that people’s musical preferences are linked to three broad thinking styles. Empathisers (Type E) have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions. Systemisers (Type S) have a strong interest in patterns, systems and the rules that govern the world. And those who score relatively equally on empathy and systemising are classified as Type B for “balanced”.

Research from the past decade has shown that 95% of people can be classified into one of these three groups and that they predict a lot of human behaviour. For example, they can predict things such as whether someone studies maths and science, or humanities at university. For the first time, we have shown that they can predict musical behaviour, too.

Matching music with thinking style

To study this phenomenon, we conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants. We took data on these participants’ thinking styles and asked them to listen to and indicate their preferences for up to 50 musical excerpts, representing a wide range of genres. Across these studies, we found that empathisers preferred mellow music that had low energy, sad emotions, and emotional depth, as heard in R&B, soft rock, and singer-songwriter genres. For example, empathising was linked to preferences for “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones and Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”.

On the other hand, systemisers preferred more intense music, as heard in hard rock, punk and heavy metal genres. Systemisers also preferred music with intellectual depth and complexity as heard in avant-garde classical genres. For example, systemizing was linked to preferences for Alexander Scriabin’s “Etude opus 65 no 3”. Importantly, those who are Type B, had a tendency to prefer music that spans more of a range than the other two thinking styles.

In our most recent study, published in the Journal of Research of Personality, we found that people’s personality traits can also predict their musical ability, even if they don’t play an instrument. Our team worked with BBC Lab UK to recruit over 7,000 participants and assess them for five distinct personality dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism/emotionality stability. We also asked them to conduct various tasks that measured their musical ability, including remembering melodies and picking out rhythms.

We found that, next to musical training, the personality trait of openness was the strongest predictor of musical sophistication. People who score highly for openness are imaginative, have a wide range of interests, and are open to new ways of thinking and changes in their environment. Those who score low on openness (or who are “closed”) are more set in their ways, prefer routine and the familiar, and tend to have more conventional values. We also found that extroverts who are often more talkative, assertive, and excitement-seeking had greater singing abilities.

Furthermore, we could apply this even to people who did not currently play a musical instrument, meaning there are people who have a potential for musical talent but are entirely unaware of it.

Music therapy

These new findings tell us that from a person’s musical taste and ability, we can infer a range of information about their personality and the way that they think.

This research shows there are factors beyond our awareness that shape our musical experiences. We hope that these findings can be of help to teachers, parents, and clinicians. Based on information about personality, educators can ensure that children with the potential for musical talent have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Music therapists can use information about thinking style to help tailor their therapies for clients, too.

We are also interested in how knowledge gained from science can help children and adults on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with communication, as we recently wrote in the journal Empirical Musicology Review. This could also help people process emotions after experiencing a psychological trauma and when grieving a loss. In fact, initial findings from our lab suggest that people who experienced a traumatic event in childhood engage with music quite differently in adulthood than those who did not experience a trauma.

If you want to find out how you score on musical ability, preferences, and personality, you can take these tests at

The Conversation

David Greenberg, PhD candidate, psychology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Alien superstructure? Probably not scientists say

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Scientists playing God?

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How Einstein’s general theory of relativity killed off common-sense physics

David Lyth, Lancaster University

Gravity ties our bodies to planet Earth but it does not define the limits of the soaring human mind. In November 1915 – exactly one century ago – this was proven to be true when Albert Einstein, in a series of lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, presented a theory that would revolutionise how we view gravity – and physics itself.

For two centuries, Newton’s remarkably simple and elegant theory of universal gravitation had seemed to explain the matter well. But, as is increasingly true for physics, simple just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Einstein’s starting point for general relativity was his theory of special relativity, published in 1905. This explained how to formulate the laws of physics in the absence of gravity. At the centre of both theories is a description of space and time that is different from the one that common sense would suggest.

The theories explain how to interpret motion between different places that are moving at constant speeds relative to each other – rather than relative to some sort of absolute ether (as Newton had assumed). While the laws of physics are universal, it says, different viewers will see the timing of events differently depending on how fast they are travelling. An event that would seem to take 1000 years when viewed from Earth may seem to take just a second for someone in a spacecraft travelling at great speed.

At the centre of Einstein’s theories is the fact that the speed of light is independent of the motion of the observer who is measuring the speed. This is strange, because common sense suggests that if you sit in your car alongside a railroad track, a train passing by will seem to be moving much faster than if you followed it in the same direction. However, if you instead sit and watch a light beam go by, it would move equally fast regardless of whether you were following it or not – a clear indication that something is wrong with common sense.

Einstein’s special and general relativity.

The implication of this theory is that we need to give up the idea that there is a universal time, and accept that the time registered by a clock depends on its trajectory as it moves through the universe. This also means that time passes more slowly when you’re going fast, meaning a twin going to space will age more slowly than their sibling back on Earth. This “twin paradox” may seem like a mathematical quirk but it was actually experimentally verified in 1971 in an experiment taking atomic clocks on commercial flights.

Special relativity works only for inertial frames moving relative to one another if they are moving at constant speed – it cannot describe what happens if they are accelerating. Einstein wondered how to expand it to include such acceleration and allow for gravity, which causes acceleration and is, after all, everywhere.

He realised that the effect of gravity disappears if one doesn’t try to overcome it. He imagined people in an elevator whose cable had broken in free fall and worked out that since the objects would either float motionless or at constant speed, the people wouldn’t feel gravity. But nowadays we know this is true as we have seen it ourselves in people at the international space station. In both cases there are no forces counteracting the effect of gravity and the people experience no gravity.

Curved space-time.

Einstein also realised that the effect of gravity is the same as the effect of acceleration; driving off at high speed pushes us backward, just as if gravity were pulling us. These two clues led Einstein to general relativity. Whereas Newton had seen gravity as a force propagated between bodies, Einstein described is as pseudo force experienced because the entire interwoven fabric of space and time bends around a massive object.

Einstein himself said his path was far from easy. He wrote that “in all my life I have not laboured nearly so hard, and I have become imbued with great respect for mathematics, the subtler part of which I had in my simple-mindedness regarded as pure luxury until now.”

The evidence

As soon as Einstein discovered general relativity, he realised that it explains the failure of Newton’s theory to account for the orbit of Mercury. The orbit is not quite circular which means that there is a point at which it is closest to the sun. Newton’s theory predicts that this point is fixed, but observation shows that it slowly rotates around the sun and Einstein found that general relativity correctly describes the rotation.

Einstein’s general relativity

“I was beside myself with joyous excitement,” he wrote a few months later. Since then, general relativity has passed many observational tests with flying colours.

You are using general relativity whenever you invoke the GPS system to find out your position on the Earth’s surface. That system emits radio signals from 24 satellites and the GPS receiver in your phone or car analyses three or more of these signals to figure out your position using general relativity. If you had used Newton’s theory, the GPS system would have given the wrong position.

But while general relativity works well to describe the physical world on large scales, quantum mechanics has emerged as the most successful theory for tiny particles such as those making up an atom. Just like the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics is counter intuitive. Whether it is possible to unite the two remains to be seen but it is unlikely to reintroduce common sense into physics.

The Conversation

David Lyth, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Parapsychology: when did science give up on the paranormal?


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