Friday, January 21, 2011

Prey to Pseudoscience

Humans desire to make sense of the world; we have appealed to different explanations with the changes of history. Today we try to explain the world by creating categories, definitions and equations. Before modern science, people appealed to magic and religion to explain phenomena. Most people are trying to find some meaning in their lives and are only satisfied in thinking that “things happen for a reason”. I find this funny because it seems to me as though the world is what it is today because of chance and random occurrences. The reason I bring this up is because in class it seemed as though we were in agreement that these authors were doing something wrong in defining race. I don’t believe they were doing anything right, however I think they were doing what humans do, the way they did it in the time of their texts. These individuals experienced phenomena (maybe for Kant it wasn’t first hand) and were driven to explain them. At the same time, one only needs to skim these texts to notice the condescending manner in which they set out to achieve their goal. They described certain people as being “wretched” or “beautiful”, which are more opinions than measures, and used the white race as the standard to which all others were compared. Today most of us immediately see that as being wrong or “racist”, especially as their writing suggests that whites are “better” in some respects. I want to take a moment to play devil’s advocate here: it could be said that the society of the Europeans was more advanced than others and was the origin of most science and technology of the time. If this is the case, the whites must have seen themselves as somewhat superior, but not based on race. These men must have seen it as their duty to explain the phenomena that surrounded these ideas or questions. My own point of view on the world leads me to discount this explanation. These texts were written in a time before the global community that we know today. Societies seldom overlapped at this time therefore they appealed to different explanations and beliefs. Instead of being superior, the Europeans had merely taken their society in a different direction. They had no real basis for believing they were superior. Everyone thinks they are superior in one way or another, but the Europeans had the resources to travel extensively and the technology to spread their thoughts through text so that their particular explanations became prominent. In my mind, the Europeans beliefs are of no greater importance or relevance than the beliefs of the people they were writing about. This brings me back to the point I opened with: humans desire to find meaning in a world where there may be none, and end up being satisfied with whatever theories they can scrape together. With this in mind, I find our recent readings, in some respects, no more offensive than any religious practices I can think of (besides, like, human sacrifice). There has been a lot of pseudoscience in the past and, on one hand, I think these writers were prey to that.

On the other hand, they were racists.


  1. You say that they didn't have a reason to believe that they were superior. Yet, don't you think that if this had been written by someone of African descent that they would have up-played their strengths and kind of trampled on the Europeans for always viewing themselves as superior? I think that it is more an issue of who has the ability to hold and maintain power. No, during the time that these texts were written, the global community was not the way that it is today; however, they totally had a basis for believing that they were superior. We live in a world where man is better than woman, thin is better than chunky, outgoing is better than reserved, and blue is for boy while pink is for girl. Social construction plays a large part in our perceptions of things around us. That's why we view bright colors as positive, uplifting, and joy-bringing while we view dark colors as saddening, dank, and threatening. Now, imagine what the Europeans must have thought way back then at the first sight of anyone of a mildly DARKer complexion. Of course they thought it strange, out of the "ordinary," and probably even ridiculous. They were being racist...just as we are sometimes biased and sexist.

  2. I agree with you completely; I didn't mean that they didn't have reason to believe they were superior. What I was trying to get at was that each grouping of people can believe they are superior to any other for their own reasons. For example, modern people seem to believe progress is inherently good. Sometimes I find myself asking if North America was actually any better after the Europeans came and the United States was formed because I see the Native Americans' way of life as being more harmonious with nature than the industrialized lifestyle that came to be. Having technology can make our lives seem better off, but they also come at the cost of another way of life. Anyone can think they are superior when there is no superiority, just different ways of life. It is our modern bias that makes us believe the more "advanced" people is better.

  3. I'm not so sure that the categorization of other people into races by these European authors was as much due to them trying to explain the discovery of something new as it was a political, and even religious, tool being used to justify exploitation of other people. You have to keep in mind that Europe is home to many ethnicities and many of the Mediterranean ethnicities had dark-complexions. Many of these authors described Caucasians as including Moroccans and even Persians and persons living in the Eastern Mediterranean regions, all of whom had dark skin. It's also important to realize that there was diversity within the continent of Europe as well since Greek and Roman campaigns from the past had brought persons from distant regions to Europe to serve as laborers and slaves. Seeing an African, Mongol, or any other 'race' would not have necessarily shocked a European traveler who had experienced similar levels of diversity within Europe. Even the experience of any diversity within Europe would cement the idea in travelers that humans are not all the same and differences would be expected. Therefore, it seems more likely that the classification of persons into different races was due to some other goal.
    I believe that purpose was to legitimize the colonization happening around the world. Of course race wasn't the only excuse for the spreading of European civilization - religion was as, or more, important. We see in Hegel's "Anthropology" that he is already distinguishing between Caucasians based on whether they are Muslim or Christian and how their religious beliefs (and the beliefs of other races) make their minds less developed and free. To this day we ascribe characteristics and behaviors to people based on religious cultures, which can be loosely aligned with the racial grouping of authors such as Hegel. Case and point is the idea that Muslims are violent, one in the same as Arabs, hate freedom and America, are terrorists, etc. These generalizations are not necessarily politically voodoo since they aren't 'racist,' yet they achieve the same thing - they legitimize the oppression and subjugation of a group of people and justify the gaining control of resources and territory for a country.
    Of course I've wandered off point, but I would like to pose the question - why is there no sense of discrimination based on religion. Time is spent on sexism and racism, two defining parts of a person's identity, but to my knowledge there is not idea about religious prejudice aside from anti-Semitism. And let's keep in mind, racism was created and spread from Europe, of whom the majority of the populous practices some form of Christianity.

  4. Trent, your points are well taken. In my opinion, your description of darker skin tones as being already present and at least known of in Europe leads to another conception of race not solely based on skin color. It seems clear to me that geography plays the largest role in determining who one is. Sure, a dark person may live in Europe, but guess what? that makes him European. It seems to me that if we are going to speculate about what the world was like during the 17th century, if I were a European I honestly couldn't tell you what I would have made of an indigenous African population who spoke in what to my European ear sounded like clicks and clacks. I would probably turn to writers like Bernier... oh wait, crap.


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