Wednesday February 13, 2013
The myth of race and reality of racists
ALONG THE WATCHTOWER
By VEERA PANDIYAN
The issue of race is being used to win votes as the next general election looms but biologically, ‘races’ of genetically homogenous people have never existed.
THE Year of the Snake slithered in on Sunday but for the second time in 30 years, I wasn’t a part of the Chinese reunion dinner tradition.
My mother-in-law passed away at the age of 82, a few days after last year’s Chinese New Year.
It was a repeat of what happened 20 years ago because my father-in-law departed a year earlier, also after Chinese New Year, at the age of 66.
With both of them now having passed on, the likelihood of future reunions seem unlikely and even if they are held, it won’t be the same.
My late mother-in-law, Lee Swee Laning was a remarkable woman who came to the then Malaya on a steamer from Chenghai (Tenghai) via the port of Shantou (Swatow).
Match-made to my father-in-law at the age of 17, she arrived in the country, knowing only her native Teochew dialect.
She certainly fitted the bill of what some politicians refer to as ‘pendatang’ but after living in and raising a family in this country, died very much a Malaysian.
For one thing, she did not discriminate against anyone based on race or colour of skin.
As someone who had to work very hard during the early years of her marriage, including washing and ironing clothes for richer folk, she always felt for the poor.
According to my better half, she used to jokingly recall how she was ‘tricked’ into coming to Malaya.
Her family had claimed that the man she was to wed was a wealthy businessman but he was actually a stevedoring clerk and petty trader.
She learnt basic Malay while living in a kampung and understood most of what was said in English because her children spoke the language.
But the amazing thing about my late mother-in-law was she could watch movies in languages she did not know and still be able to grasp the stories.
We used to be amused by how she understood what was going on in Tamil and Hindi movies on television, even to the point of crying during the sad scenes.
She taught me something which scientists have proven to be true: our fundamental emotions are either influenced by the environment or are genetically common in all human beings.
Studies have shown that basic emotions like happiness, anger, fear and sadness are shared by all humans who can communicate, understand and express thoughts and feelings because beneath it all, we all are the same.
With the highly divisive issue of racism very much alive in Malaysia and heightening as the next general election looms, here’s something to prick the bubble of those using race to woo votes: biologically, the concept is a myth.
All humans are of the same species – Homo sapiens – and share a common lineage.
Races are mere classifications of people with varying historical, ethnic, religious or other similar backgrounds.
As anthropologists explain it, the only biological differences between human beings are from hereditary factors and influence of natural and social environments.
While there is great genetic diversity within humans, ‘pure races’ of genetically homogenous populations do not exist nor have ever lived in the past.
Physical differences such as colour of skin between those living in diverse areas of the world are based on ancestry linked to distances from the equator while body shapes are influenced by nutrition, way of life, and other aspects of the environment.
Scientifically, there is no link between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups.
Also, there is no national, religious, linguistic or cultural group or economic class that constitutes a race.
Dr Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University who has analysed DNA from global human populations revealing patterns of human evolution over one million years, says humans are one of the most genetically homogenous species.
In his paper, Human Races: A Genetic and Evolutionary Perspective, he wrote that there are more genetic similarities between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans and between Europeans and Melanesians than there are between Africans and Melanesians.
Yet, sub-Saharan Africans and Melanesians share dark skin, hair texture and cranial-facial features – traits commonly used to classify people into races.
The example showed that “racial traits” are grossly mismatched with genetic differences between human populations.
The pattern of overall genetic differences shows that lineages rapidly spread out to all of humanity, indicating that humans had always had a degree of genetic contact with one another.
As Dr Templeton surmised, all of humanity is part of a single long-term evolutionary lineage.
It sounds like a Quixotic thought but wouldn’t life be much more pleasant if people get this through their heads?
Here in Malaysia, there is no escape from the issue of race. It has been too deeply woven into the fabric of our society and more intricately so in our political discourse.
As it appears, one ‘race’ is being persuaded to keep its hold on political power and another seems to have been swayed over to oppose this.
With bigotry getting worse by the day as we approach the polls, we should perhaps pause and look at our biological similarities rather than our inherited ethnical differences.
Race is really a myth but racism is very real.
> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by English novelist E.M. Forster: The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste and belief in the human race.