david kerr H&S

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Of all the creatures on Earth, modern humans are the least differentiated species on the planet.  Unlike birds, felines, dogs, amphibians or fish, there is only one model. There are no separate species. Indeed, the difference between one human and another is just about nil.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences in hair color, hair types, bone structures or skin color. But if you take one human from anywhere on the planet and compare their genetic makeup, they are 99.9% the same.  In a sense, we’re decidedly boring.

In days gone by, before the human genome project, this observation was more general than scientific.  “We are all God’s children…” is the phrase I remember learning at an early age. One, that I am glad I took to heart.  It makes life easier. Because, yes, God’s children can be vexing. But, then 30 years ago, in a remarkable bit of big science that in this case dealt with the very small, scientists started delving into every gene and every gene pairing that makes us human.  It was a tremendous investment of money, time and scientific effort. Its benefits to our future, our health and wellbeing are immense. But contained in all that science is a powerful message and it is that there is not a lick of difference between us. Or, to borrow a phrase from a Newsweek report, “The notion of race may be real, but the science is not. We are all the same, with no exceptions.”

Give that notion a little time to sink in and it can be rather sobering, and might I suggest liberating as well.

But, let’s keep this train of thought going.  Not only are our differences insignificant, like it or not, we’re also all related to one another.  Again, I don’t mean in the philosophical or religious sense, I mean, really related to one another. The great human migration, the one that would eventually be dominated exclusively by homo sapiens, began surprisingly recently.  Probably about 200,000 years ago and it all started in Africa from what was, at the time, a tiny, barely sustainable population of homo sapiens.  

So, here is what’s going to bother some people and that’s that we really are related to one another.  Not just in the sense of being one happy planet, or the family of humankind, but in the fact, that your African American neighbor, the Chinese commentator you listened to last night or the Jewish man you work with, as well as your uncle Fred, are all related to you.  Oh, sure, the lineage is nearly impossible to trace, we are talking about ancient antiquity here, but we’re all related. That’s a given.  

Imagine, we’re 99.9% the same, hearts, blood, brain, toes, you name it, all pretty much similar, with comparatively few variations.  So, here is a thought, and the whole purpose for writing this piece, and that’s that after several millennia of trying to create differences between human beings where there weren’t any, maybe we need to wake up and realize that for the most part those supposed differences aren’t real.  

Racism and prejudice seem to be a state of mind that we humans are surprisingly comfortable with.  Thing is, the human genome project all but destroys the whole foundation of that kind of thinking. If 99.9% of the of the genetic material that makes up the 20,000 genes that can be mixed and matched into three billion base pairs that make us human, then science has proven we have a lot more in common than we ever imagined.  In fact, we have everything in common. Also, given the path of human migration, and the intermixing that occurred along the way, it’s also likely we’re even more related than we ever realized.

So, racism, including the very business of classifying people into races, and then talking about “them and us,” is to borrow on an old country phrase my grandmother used a lot, “just a bunch of hooey.”  So, as we begin the New Year, maybe we’d be wise to remember, and its proven now, there is no us and them. Just us.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.


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