Category Archives: Science

Rachel Dolezal DOES NOT EQUAL Caitlyn Jenner


Rachel Dolezal DOES NOT EQUAL Caitlyn Jenner.

Here’s why:

The discussion around Rachel Dolezal takes as its starting point the fact that she occupied a job at the NAACP that should have been filled by an African American person. Her appropriation of “blackness” is consequential only in that regard; who cares who she thinks she is? It doesn’t matter until she steps on someone else — in this case, by taking a particular job and making herself the representative of a population of which she may not be part. The question of whether or not she was qualified for the job based upon the sole requirement of her being African American is the legitimate point of concern.

What, then, is the definition of “being African American”? Most people think it’s based on skin color, an incredibly variable and superficial trait. If so, then how dark do you have to be to qualify? At precisely which point in his life did Michael Jackson stop making the cut? He got lighter; Dolezal got darker. If Jackson didn’t make himself into a Caucasian and Dolezal never actually became an African American, then skin color is clearly not the right definition.

I’m an  anthropologist, so let’s talk science: From a biological point of view, “race” is a thoroughly ridiculous idea (see Podcast #13). Don’t let me confuse you; racism is as real as a fist in your face, but “race” has no genetic validity. Despite what you may have seen on Bones, there is no magic combination of genes or skeletal features that instantly reveal an individual as “black” or “white,” in part because these color categories are culturally defined: The line between them moves depending on where you live. Folks who are “black” in America are “white” in Brazil. In America, in fact, there has been so much intermixing between people that many “black” folks have “white” ancestors and there are plenty of “white” folks with “black” great-grandparents.

Being African American is probably best defined as being subjected to racism based on the assumption that you are African American. Think about it. How many “high yellow” celebrities are out there passing as “white” and experiencing no racism at all? The black community is itself conflicted about whether or not these folks are even “black.” That’s because being “black” or “African American” is about your experience, not your genes.

This being the case, the important question becomes: Did Rachel Dolezal have an African American experience of life? Did she grow up black? Does that experience inform her perspective? The obvious answer to this is no; as a light-skinned child, she was not socialized as African American. She was never a black teenager. She never faced any of the challenges that people of color face growing up in America. On these grounds alone then, she was not qualified to hold the job that she occupied.

Okay, that’s fine. There ends the criticism. Because Dolezal’s experience of herself is another matter entirely. I accept that she identifies as African American because her identity is none of my business. Her experience of herself is something I can never understand, me not being her and all.

Perhaps she began passing as African American at a point in her life significant enough to have acculturated and become, for all intents and purposes, “black.” Forgive me a terrible metaphor: Like a young American who moves to France, learns the language, and lives there for the rest of his life; he’s pretty much French. Does anybody care that he was actually born in America? Only if he runs for office.

It’s okay with me if Rachel Dolezal identifies as African American. That’s her life and her experience. What’s not okay is that the she didn’t meet the unspecified, unspoken requirement of the job: she didn’t grow up black.

Lots of people think Dolezal is a faker. A pretender. I think her identity is her own business. I also think we could spend some time questioning the job’s base requirement of her blackness to begin with, but that’s for another time.

The point I’d like to make right now is that THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING TRANSGENDER. Rachel Dolezal has nothing to do with Caitlyn Jenner. I call BULLSHIT! on comparing them.

Being transgender is about recognizing that your gender identity crosses the boundary between the sexes; trans literally means “across.” Trans* people see themselves as some combination of male and female because their physical bodies don’t precisely correspond to their idea of themselves. They struggle to reconcile the incongruities. It’s true that trans* people may pass as the sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth, but this is usually recognized as a matter of survival rather than choice. Trans* people almost always grow up trans*.

Rachel Dolezal didn’t grow up transracial. She was a white child who claimed, as an adult, that she had always been black. That’s called lying.

Can a person even be transracial? I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps we should ask Eminem or Marcus Samuelsson? I bet their answers would be interesting. But the idea that Rachel Donezal’s lies can call transgender identity into question is offensive and ignorant.

Caitlyn Jenner told us who she is with courageous honesty. Rachel Dolezal lied her way into a job. How dare you use her to undermine trans* identity!

if you believe in the flu shot, then you believe in evolution

Bill Nye

Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children

“Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. It’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.  You’re just not going to get the right answer. . . And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it.  Because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” – Bill Nye

Thank you, Bill Nye, for speaking truth to ignorance. I wonder if the folks who believe in creationism typically accept the will of God and allow themselves to die when they get sick? No, I’m betting that the majority of people who call themselves Christians go ahead and get their yearly flu shots. They believe in the efficacy of the vaccine with the same blind faith that causes them to reject the science that produced it in the first place. Irony, party of several million?

The flu vaccine would not exist if scientists did not have a firm grasp on the facts of evolution. It is updated yearly to keep up with the evolution of the virus, which changes so much and so quickly that the previous year’s vaccine is no longer effective.  How do these changes occur? You might think that the answer is mutation, but that’s only a small part of the process.  Mutations are random, but the virus keeps growing more drug-resistant. Clearly there’s something else going on here.

When you get a flu shot, your body gains the ability to produce antibodies to the flu virus; if you are exposed to it afterwards, your body fights it off.  The antibodies kill most, but not all of the virus particles. Some virions have genetic variations that allow them to survive the onslaught of your antibodies. They aren’t any better or stronger than the others; it’s just genetic randomness.

Eventually these survivor virions will be passed onto someone else whose body will perform the same process, helping to weed the virus population down to only those virions that are completely resistant to the vaccine. The following year when their descendants return, they will be immune to it. They will be genetically different from the ancestor virus. They will have evolved from a previous state.

This is evolution, plain and simple. Science has proved it, and you already believe in it. If viruses evolve – and clearly they do – then evolution happens, right? You can choose to believe in science when it works for you and dismiss it when it doesn’t, but don’t expect the rest of us to think that you’re making any sense. Not everyone can handle that kind of cognitive dissonance.

Teaching your kids that evolution is wrong is like teaching them that the world is flat. It’s incorrect, and it does them a disservice. Teaching your kids that creationism stands on equal footing with science cannot be called “educating” them. Is it your goal to inform them, or to keep them in ignorance? Would you like them to invent a cure for your eventual Alzheimer’s, or would you prefer them to simply pray it away?

I’m not knocking your faith; that has its place. Just don’t let it get in the way of your intellect.

Let’s Undo the Time Warp Again

Still from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s hard to believe what’s going on in America.  It’s like the second half of the 20th century never happened.  Did I miss the episode where the plot got shifted to an alternate timeline? I hate it when they fuck with the timeline.

Seriously. I thought that legalized meant settled, as in no longer open for debate.  I thought I could count on an America where abortion would always be safe and women would remain in charge of their own bodies.  I thought that access to and use of birth control would never again be seen as anything other than sensible, especially in light of the now-legal alternative.

I thought that history equaled lessons learned, as in we’ll never make that mistake again.  I thought that after the Great Depression, I could grow old feeling safe in the knowledge that I won’t have to sell apples in the street if I live past seventy – or blood if I lose my job.  I thought that after the Civil Rights  and anti-war movements of the sixties and seventies, after the Children’s March and Kent State, police officers would never again attack peaceful American citizens exercising their legal right to assemble.

I thought that science and rationality had won the battle with magical thinking, as in we don’t believe in ridiculous crap anymore.  I thought that since antibiotics were an accepted thing, so was evolution, since they’re based on exactly the same principles.  I thought that since the melting of polar and alpine ice and the flooding of low-lying lands is patently obvious to anyone looking, let alone living there, people would accept the fact that the climate is changing.  I thought it was pretty clear that there isn’t a giant white man living in the sky somewhere, making all of this happen.

Clearly I was wrong. I encounter ignorance and arrogance on a daily basis, in the news and among my students. Ignorance of history and arrogance of belief.  I’d like to believe that the sequence of history shows a straight line moving from brutality and stupidity toward kindness and enlightenment, but I can’t.

It’s just a jump to the left. . . and then a step to the right.

God made me fittest

It’s not easy teaching evolution to evangelicals.  The internal inconsistencies are mind-boggling.   They enter the classroom secure in the knowledge that God created them, yet they believe in “survival of the fittest.”

I tell them: Darwin’s theory was about biology, specifically reproduction.  Simply put, some individuals have genetic traits that give them advantages in a particular environment, while others have disadvantages.  This is a matter of luck, not superiority.  When sea turtles hatch, all at once by the thousands, the birds are standing there, waiting.  Those who hatch first become dinner, while those who hatch later stand a better chance of making their way past the sated birds to the sea.  This is about luck, not ingenuity.  Individuals who happen to possess the right combination of traits for their moment in time and their place in space will be more successful at passing on those traits; those who don’t, won’t.  Over time, as the traits that work best are passed on and the ones that don’t fit are filtered out, the species adapts to fit its environment.  If the environment changes, the rules change, and different traits are encouraged — and so much for your “fitness.”

They have no problem with any of this.  It doesn’t threaten their belief system in the slightest.

I tell them: “Survival of the fittest” is an incorrect interpretation of Darwin’s theory.  First, it’s not about survival; it’s about reproduction.  You can live forever but if you fail to reproduce, evolution doesn’t give a damn about you.  Second, fitness is relative to the environment, changeable, and largely a matter of luck.  It’s not about how smart or strong you are; it’s about whether or not you have an opportunity to pass on your genes.  Think about the sea turtles.  Third, Darwin may have used the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” but he didn’t coin it; we have the philosopher Herbert Spencer to thank for that.  Spencer never intended it as an alternate explanation for the biological facts of Darwin’s theory.  He meant, from the very beginning, to apply the phrase to his theory of society — which was a bit of predictably racist, imperialist, 19th-century nonsense.  It held that the English were “civilized,” while the Africans were “savages.”  “Survival of the fittest” has been handy ever since as a perfect justification for capitalism and colonialism.  It normalizes white privilege and economic hegemony while relieving us all of the burden of assisting those less fortunate than ourselves.  Let nature take its course.  Only the strong survive. Might makes right.  Every man for himself.

This, they hate.  “I like survival of the fittest,” they protest.  “It’s right.  You shouldn’t change it.”  They never see the irony.