Thank You, Mr. Darwin. Again.

1:22 pm Nature, Philosophy

tree-of-life.jpgI grew up in Texas. Spent part of my childhood in Alabama. And I grew up among racists.

So I was a racist. When you grow up when and where I did, you can’t not be.

By the time I was in high school in the late 60s, racism was passé. It was no longer okay to hate the people who had progressed from being n*****s – also called, among my own relatives, “Negroes” or, given our accents, “niggrahs” – to being “black” people, or “African-Americans.”

But just because society changes, that doesn’t mean you do. I’m afraid the racism was still there in my head. (I like to think I can admit this not because I’m evil, but because I’m honest.)

One of my greatest personal challenges has been timidity. Not long back, I thought that if I ever wrote my autobiography, it would start with the sentence “I was born afraid.” I’ve struggled all my life with being shy, timid and retiring. As I’ve related elsewhere, I was once offered an award at a casual get-together, and rather than walk out in front of people and accept it, I ran (literally) and hid.

So it wasn’t like I was driving down through a black neighborhood, as one of my cousins did late one night, honking my horn and shouting racial epithets. I never deliberately not-hired a black person, I never expected anyone to give me their seat on a bus. I never so much as deliberately frowned at a black person.

But given the new social atmosphere, I worked at being a not-racist. I worked at giving black people an equal place in line, equal consideration. I drove the racist thoughts and attitudes down deep. I honestly wanted them to not be there.

I mean, I saw the point. Intellectually, I knew racism was stupid. I knew it was counterproductive. I was wholly on board with the ideal of equality.

[To tell you the truth, I’ve felt separate from my fellow man more often because of my height, or my intellect and interests, than because of skin color. When you walk into a restroom and the altitude of the urinal on the wall is set for a guy six feet tall and you’re only a little over five – when you have to stand on your toes to take a piss, and when everyone you know would laugh out loud if you complained about it – you know a teeny bit about unconscious discrimination.]

But in that deep part of me, the racism was still there. Because I was trying to be fair to Them. Those people. Those “black” people. I still separated Them out from Us.

But then again, the point of the public campaign against racism often seemed to be that you had to see that some people were different, but not treat the different people any differently. Not let it make an unfair difference in your actions.

Like I said, I worked at it. But I still avoided Them. Any conversation I initiated with a black person would be casual and superficial. More than once, trying too hard to project my not-racism, I suffered embarrassing gaffes. (It was like I was saying “Hey, ha-ha, I like and accept you black people!”) With no handbook, no intelligent advice, I was like a boy at his first dance, stumbling over my own feet trying to be a not-racist.

It went on like that for a couple more decades. Until the day I started to think deeply about an entirely different subject: Evolution. About what it really meant.

One of the lessons I took from evolution was the lesson of similarity, of relatedness. Casting about for a clearer understanding, I started to compare body parts among animals, thinking about the traits we had in common. We share with various animals things like wrists and eyes, hips and ankles and inner ears. In some cases, the physical structures are so similar there’s no appreciable difference.

Squinting back along the branches of our family tree one day, something flipped in my head and I suddenly understood that, mostly, we humans are not really humans.

My wrist is not a human wrist, it’s a beastly wrist, a structure so common it’s shared, with minor variations of shape and function, by squirrels and bears. My eyes are not human eyes, they’re just the late, local expression of structures a half billion years or so old, so common today that even cheetahs and chickens have them. Watching a squirrel or gerbil sit upright and hold a bit of food to nibble on, I see my own fingers, scaled down but undeniably there.

When you look at our human selves, very little of us is distinctly human. We might be out on our own little twig on that Tree of Life, but that short twig is attached to a larger limb that branches off a common trunk and common roots. The point being not that we and animals are distantly related, but that we’re CLOSELY related.

If you look outward from the trunk and focus on the progressive bifurcation, noticing the difference at each branching point, you’ll see us as totally unique. But if you look inward from our twig and notice the progression of connections, the way similar animals flow into us, and we into them, as you get closer to the trunk, and then more distant animals flow into us and we into them, eventually you see our uniqueness vanish into … sameness.

We’re all part of the trunk, all springing from the same roots, and everything we see around us is related. Everything alive is US.

Rather than some unique creature separated by a distinct wall from everything else alive, we’re a foggy smidgen of a single cloud of life. There is no wall, because you can’t build a wall out of fog. Chimpanzees are US. Dogs are US.

And just as we share toes and elbows and noses, we share feelings. Not just the capacity to have feelings, but some or most of the exact same feelings. I’m not saying it’s likely, based on the available evidence, I’m saying it IS. Because the available evidence of sameness, of physiology and function and genetics and brain structure, implies that there’s no reason to think it can be any different.

If your dog acts lonely or bored, it’s because he feels lonely and bored, the same loneliness or boredom you feel. If he acts angry or aggressive or afraid or hungry, it’s because he feels the same anger or aggression or fear or hunger you feel. The maternal love and protectiveness that human mothers lavish on their offspring, that same maternal love exists in chimpanzees, and dogs, and even horses. I’ve seen it. Maybe it’s expressed differently, but it is there.

Yes, yes, yes, there’s difference. Plenty of it. And we focus on it, always, in an attempt to define ourselves, to find within us our own value and individuality.

But there’s even more sameness, vast amounts of it. Like young people at a party, displaying their tattoos and piercings in order to show how unique they are, yet missing the fact that they’re all displaying … well, tattoos and piercings, all applied from identical motivations, we all too often miss the sameness we share with the world of critters that enfolds and includes us.

After the lesson of evolutionary connectedness sank home, I one day discovered that something interesting had happened to my racism. It had apparently drained away while I wasn’t looking.

I had worked hard at outwardly manifesting the intent of anti-racism — of treating people the same. I did the best I could at it, because it was the right thing to do.

But I suffered the murky continuation of racism on deeper levels, because I seemed unable to find a way to dig down and root it out. There were no lessons in how to do it, no handbook you could read, no group therapy you could attend. I was still afraid of Them, still had Them mentally walled off from me as different.

You’d expect – hey, I would expect – that a bright guy like me would be able to wrestle his own mind into shape. But I was just another hapless idiot on the subject, stumbling and fumbling my way through it as best I could.

But one day when I looked at Them, I saw US.

I was standing in line at a grocery store on that day, and there was a “black” man standing next to me. I reached down into myself, as I often do, inspecting my feelings, and I was surprised to notice that the fear was gone. This was just some guy, a neighbor, a fellow human thrown into my company by accident in a supermarket checkout line. His eyes met mine momentarily, brown eyes to blue, human eyes, and we both smiled easily.

Son of a bitch. I don’t know if I can even describe how … different … it felt. It felt comfortable, free, even sort of fun.

But, as I realized later, it was also counterpoint to a deep annoyance, a lament, that I had to have this other stupid, stupid thing in my head for so many years. The thing you’d feel if you were suddenly released from chains after a lifetime of wearing them – you’d rejoice in being free, but you’d also say “Why the hell did I have to be in chains all those years??”

My slow-coming understanding of the relatedness of life had compressed my racial awareness, my sense of racial difference, into nothing. Without my even noticing it. I didn’t have to fight anymore to be a not-racist.

All those “races” we see around us, they’re not Them. They’re Us. I’m them. We’re all the same – all just kids in one small neighborhood of a larger town, a larger world, of life.

There are no such things as races. We humans are humans, upright mammals with a shared ocean of genetic attributes and absolutely identical feelings and senses of self. In the light of an acceptance and understanding that encompasses horses and dogs and bears and rats, the differences between us humans are squashed down to trivial-verging-on-nonexistent.

Man, it feels good to know this. It’s a pisser that it took me almost 50 years to get here, but on the other hand I really look forward to seeing where it leads.

And I hope more of us Southerners, and the rest of us, can make the trip.

14 Responses
  1. toomanytribblesi :

    Date: October 8, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    what a lovely expression of our interconnectedness.

    you might enjoy reading a fin is a limb is a wing at national geographic.

  2. toomanytribbles :

    Date: October 8, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    oops. typo on my id.

  3. toomanytribbles :

    Date: October 8, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    what a lovely expression of our interconnectedness.

    you might enjoy reading a fin is a limb is a wing.

  4. Monado :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    Excellent thoughts & feelings. That works in a lot of lesser ways. I see police officers as people with jobs, not the heat; other drivers as people trying to get somewhere, not race competitors to be out-maneuvered; and so on.

    Heinlein (I think) said, “Greater love hath no man than a mother cat prepared to lay down her life for her kittens.”

    And I still marvel at how ignorant we were Back Then, in large and small ways. It had never occurred to me that a woman might drive a bus, simply because I’d never seen one.

    Best of luck on your journey!

    That was a very interesting tale of the power of evolution or science to produce right attitudes and ethical behavior.

  5. “Thank you, Mr. Darwin” « Science Notes :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 12:27 am

    [...] 2008 October 10, Friday, 00:27 — monado Hank Fox has a heart-warming tale in “Thank you, Mr. Darwin. Again.“ Posted in people. Tags: evolution, [...]

  6. Rog :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 7:26 am

    Hi Hank,

    Just had to say “Wow” – what a fantastic piece of writing. That’s one of the best blog entries I’ve read online. Had to link to it from my blog (http://rogalert.blogspot.com/2008/10/evolution-vs-racism.html) as an inspiration for the handful of people who read my meanderings.

    Thanks and keep up the great work !

    Rog

  7. Irradiatus :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    Wow – beautiful.

    I think you are an absolutely perfect example of what Dawkins talked about in “The God Delusion”: that evolution and darwinism serve as “consciousness raisers.” That once you understand the core implications of what natural selection means, one cannot help but change one’s outlook on nearly all other aspects of our existence.

    It just comes as a natural product of true understanding.

    Kudos to you!

  8. Knowledge of Evolution Cures One Man’s Racism - biochemicalsoul.com :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    [...] a beautiful and inspirational post over at Earthman’s Notebook, Hank Fox recounts how evolution raised his own consciousness not toward a deeper cosmology, but [...]

  9. David Harmon :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    I agree with prior commenters, this is wonderful. Also, you happened to hit a key note relating to my own (completely different) journey:

    The thing you’d feel if you were suddenly released from chains after a lifetime of wearing them – you’d rejoice in being free, but you’d also say “Why the hell did I have to be in chains all those years??”

    A gem… succinct, colorful, and wry!

  10. The Church of All :

    Date: October 10, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    An excellent post. Its a great thing to challenge and educate oneself. The theory of common descent is a profound one once you “get it” and you clearly do get it.

    I have regular debates with a Christian fundamentalist and I am going to point him over here for his edification. . He needs to realize that understanding Evolution and its implications is far from being a cold way of looking at the world actually shows our connection with all other life. This has major implications for the way we deal with life and our planet.

  11. Karen :

    Date: October 13, 2008 @ 1:56 am

    I read one of humorist Sam Levinson’s books some 35 years ago, and still remember some of his messages. Forgive me for paraphrasing, and forgive my memory if this is ‘way off base, but I recall him saying that everyone has prejudices; it is important to shake them out and reconsider them from time to time.

    I’ve tried to take that message to heart, and re-think my assumptions about the various groups of “them” people in my world. Occasionally the “thems” stay “thems”. Gradually, though, as I continue to think about it, most “thems” become part of “us”.

  12. The Carnival of Evolution « Clashing Culture :

    Date: October 15, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    [...] opened his eyes to the mistake of a racial divide among humans. He experienced an awakening. Thank You Mister Darwin. Again. at Earthman’s Notebook. But one day when I looked at Them, I saw [...]

  13. Crudely Wrott :

    Date: October 26, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

    It’s always a great pleasure to hear someone tell the story of how they managed to obtain a mature and equitable view of people, their relationships to each other and their relationships to all the other living things. (Man, that’s not something done before breakfast!)

    Your journey sounds longer and more arduous than mine, but no less challenging and instructive.

    I did have one particular advantage that you appear to have not. A simple thing, really. A comment I remember my mother making years ago. I forget the context except that my younger sibs were there. Maybe we were talking about the different kinds of living things we were familiar with. She said, “Well, people are just another kind of animal.”

    I was eight or nine years old and didn’t understand the import of what she said. Nonetheless it still seemed to me to be so simple and elegant an idea . . .

    I had looked into the eyes of animals and seen them looking back. I “knew” there was somebody there who was like me but different. Simpler but not lesser. Their feelings were easily read and responded to. Which brought a response from them . . .

    Since then I have cobbled together a rough understanding of evolution. This allows me to see all life as a continuum, an unfolding phenomena that is never content, never still and never finished. The astounding diversity of living things, their interrelatedness and their endless changing that we see from looking at the past will surely be echoed in the future.

    Imagine. Descendants that don’t look like us but are made of the same stuff and act in understandable ways. How nice it is not to be bothered by such a notion.

  14. Malcolm Lockridge :

    Date: October 31, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Congratulations, Hank. You are now a born-again pagan. I am not being a smart-ass when I say this. This is what I meant when I told you ages ago, “you are a pagan but you don’t know it”. This is what I meant when I told them “We are Her and She is us and all are One.” This revelation, this realisation of love in life, FOR life, this embracing of Reality, is what sets you free. It’s not about dogma or “religion” at all. It is about a way of BEING. “Love one another as you love yourselves, or you shall surely die.” I love you, brother. I knew it was within you all along — just like “the kingdom of heaven”. What you have found IS “the kingdom of heaven”.(Yeah .. HE wasn’t a Christian either.) Be well, take care.

Leave a Comment

Your comment

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.