Racism And Rheumatism

It has recently been suggested that what we call racism is a runaway process starting from something that is biologically adaptive but taken way too far, in much the same way as obesity is what happens when the body’s legitimate needs for fats and sugars meet modern refined food. We seem hardwired to be inordinately sensitive to the differences in colouring and facial features that originally signified “hazardous stranger to the tribe”. And strangers can really be hazardous; just ask any survivor of the epidemics that wiped out 90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. Avoidance rules make perfect sense when a group moves into a new ecological niche for which it is not adapted; there are people there who are happily immune to things that will kill you, or the other way round. And some of these things can be transmitted by sharing food, or by sexual relations, or even by close proximity. This is almost certainly the rational basis of all rules of caste pollution, just as trichinellosis is the rational basis for the Jewish and Muslim bans on pork.

What happens next, however, is that the anti-parasitic or anti-infectious precautions are confused with morality and the nebulous concept of the “spiritual”, so that someone who avoids contact with unhealthy foods, or with the remote descendants of an immunologically foreign human group, thereby receives official permission to consider himself morally superior, more spiritual, or closer to a putative God, and to despise anyone who fails to observe the social-avoidance rules. Since this self-admiration is highly satisfying, as is official permission to express one’s aggressions, such a development is in fact inevitable. The mind-set thus created may even fuel itself on minutiae of behaviour or differences in views that were not actually part of the original imperatives of collective hygiene. Just as our brains undoubtedly possess modules for language-processing, fairness-perception and sexual strategising, they may also contain modules for perceiving human differences in terms of dangerous ‘contamination’. And just as the immune system can become overactive and cause rheumatoid arthritis, so too, perhaps, can this “purity module” go into overdrive. People then stigmatise as impurity, sin and heresy an ever-increasing list of ways in which others differ from themselves; it may also turn in upon itself, so that they perceive themselves as “unclean”, a notion that in terms of the original, biological, purpose of the module makes no sense at all.

Posted on April 11, 2009 at 08:43 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault

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