Today, we analyze racism. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Stephen Jay Gould revisits
the old arguments for racism -- a subject we've
tried to deal with on moral, not rational grounds,
as if race equity couldn't stand up to logic. Well,
that's a serious miscalculation. Gould deals with
two common threads of argument, one based on
genealogy, one on geography.
Genealogy dominated the arguments as 19th-century
thinkers tried to keep white supremacy intact. One
notion was that, after God created perfect Adam and
Eve, all branches of the human species
deteriorated. Some branches deteriorated more than
others. The other idea was that Biblical creation
produced only the white race. Other races were
produced by separate and lesser creations.
That falls apart as we learn more about genetics.
Races are far less well-defined than we'd thought.
Racial identity is a pitifully small part of
genetic makeup. The fact we're a single human
species means we breed across lines of race
--mixing genes and hopelessly blurring the flimsy
identification of the races.
Those genealogical arguments have died only in
recent times. Hitler, and even Henry Ford, were
still using them a scant sixty years ago.
Meanwhile, the geographic question has lasted just
as long. Where was Eden located -- What was Adam's
Since the Biblical accounts were written by tribes
of the Eastern Mediterranean, that's where
19th-century scholars thought the human species
arose. When the first australopithecine skull
turned up in South Africa, in 1924, scientists,
who'd been looking for human origins in Asia,
rejected the find.
But Asia provided nothing old enough to be first,
and Africa kept yielding very old human remains.
Science finally had to concede the human species
arose in Africa. Still, as late as 1962, a noted
anthropologist wrote, "If Africa was the cradle of
mankind, it was only an indifferent kindergarten.
Europe and Asia were our principal schools." He was
voicing a last-ditch, thinly-veiled claim that it
was the northern races who learned to be fully
That notion has caved in very recently. New
discoveries make it as clear as fine crystal that
our first serious tool-making ancestors also arose
in Africa. We left our African birthplace to spread
across Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas,
only after we'd learned the skills that made us
Gould ends his essay with a curious motto. "Human
equality is a contingent fact of history," he says.
"Say that five times before breakfast." Our
equality is a contingent fact of history. By
contingent, he means things might have worked out
As it happens, our ape ancestors branched off and
survived, while our later hominid ancestors died
out. If those hominids had survived, then our
species, in its many colors, would coexist with
truly less developed hominids. It'd be a different
ball game. But that's not how it worked out. We are
one -- and only one --people.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds