Opinion Editorial Archive February, 2019: Do Not Assume

opinion editorial
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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Do not assume that when I photographed this indigenous Mandinka girl, she was behaving in a way that's in her DNA.

We are not the only species that has the capacity for cognition, cognition or metacognition. That finding, from the fields of evolutionary biology and comparative psychology, is enough to inform us how difficult it is to understand the human brain. Just to begin to understand our brain requires us to understand the distinctions between the capacity for cognition, cognition and metacognition. The capacity for cognition began to evolve hundreds of millions of years ago and accelerated along the mammalian, then the primate and then the hominin lines where, very rapidly (on an evolutionary timescale), it separated us by our capacity for the most complex form of cognition — language. Cognition follows from the capacity for it in any environment that selects it. Metacognition — the cognitive introspection of one's own cognition (for example, asking oneself a question like "how can I learn to become a better chess player?") — is less understood.

Last month in the United States it was Martin Luther King Day — a celebration of the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the month, in the United States, in which Spike Lee was nominated for a best director Oscar for his masterpiece, BlacKKKlansman. It was also the month in which US politician Steve King said that he did not understand why 'white supremacist' and 'white nationalist' were offensive terms. It was also the month in which James Harris Jackson pleaded guilty to a race-motivated killing in New York that he intended to inspire others to emulate. It was also the month in which Michael Ertel, the recently-appointed Florida Secretary of State, resigned after photos emerged of him mocking the African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Everyone on my list has the capacity for cognition, cognition and metacognition. Everyone on my list has been accused of being racist. With the exceptions of Dr. King and Mr. Lee, they are all guilty.

The eminent scientist and Nobel Prize winner James Watson was the subject of a documentary broadcast last month, "Decoding Watson." In his book The Double Helix he accused some scientists of being "narrow-minded" and "stupid." Fifty years after he wrote that book he still views some scientists in the same way. I consider myself, happily, to be among them.

It would not be racist for a biologist to posit that the gene(s) contributing to morphological trait X might also play a role in behavioral observation Y. Indeed, that is one way in which the field is advanced. However, to posit such a connection in the absence of evidence, or to do so without acknowledging environmental factors, would be scientifically invalid.

The indigenous Mandinka girl in this month's photo has gene-based morphological traits (as we all do): among them is that her skin is black. I photographed her while she was imitating adults in her community who were, likewise, dancing and using sticks to drum during a traditional Mandinka ritual. To posit that the genetic basis of a person's skin color might also be a basis of their ability to imitate, behaviorally, what they witness around them would be scientifically preposterous. To posit that people with black skin have been evolutionarily selected to imitate behaviors involving dance or music would be racist. This distinction between preposterousness and racism is critical.

In "Decoding Watson," Dr. Watson said: "If the difference [in intelligence between people having black skin and people having non-black skin] exists... how can we try and make it better?" History is full of 'answers' to his question: we assume it cannot be made better, we therefore genetically cleanse them with our assumedly-supreme white genes or we kill them. Of course, the only true answers are that we educate children like this girl, we do not assume that her evolutionary lineage is inferior because her morphological traits are different from ours and we acknowledge that our measurements of 'intelligence' are in their scientific infancy. But we can do none of these things unless we are educated.

It did not surprise me last month to learn that Steve King, James Harris Jackson and Michael Ertel are uneducated; it did surprise me to learn that one of the greatest scientists of the Twentieth Century is less educated than I: in fact to learn that he is so uneducated in his own field that he is racist. That last statement is irony. I have no doubt that Dr. Watson already knows everything I have written here.

He, Steve King and Michael Ertel had positions of privilege revoked last month; and rightly so.

Do not assume that your education, or your lack of education, allows you to be racist. There are those among us who will call you out. If Dr. Watson is serious about wanting to advance his field, he should consider advancing research in the evolutionary basis of metacognition: why is it that some members of our species can introspectively ask themselves "how can I learn to become a better evaluator of racist claims?" and others cannot? He may find answers in his own DNA and then, perhaps, he would learn not to assume.

Learn more about the Mandinka people.

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