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James Watson and the four new Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In evolutionary terms, we are all Africans, living in Africa or recently exiled from Africa

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)The Bible tells us about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine and Pestilence. In the light of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Rwanda and the Balkans at the end of the last century and, after September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the conflicts in Darfur in the early 21st century, we must add another four horsemen: Racism, Xenophobia, Ethnic Hate and Religious Intolerance.

In Identity and Violence, Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen emphasizes how the imposition and acceptance of one-dimensional group identities fuel the apocalyptic troops. Thus, we should strive to build a society that celebrates and values the singularity of the individual where there is freedom to embrace, through personal choice, a plurality of identities. This ideal is perfectly attuned to modern genetics, which shows that each one of us has an absolute genomic individuality that interacts with the environment to bring about a unique  path throughout our life.

Let us examine, in particular, the concept of race, which has impregnated our society since the 16th century, at first through economic interests, and as a way of reconciling Christian faith with the crime of African slavery. Ever since, “races” have been used not only to systematize human populations, but also to try to justify the dominance of some groups over others. Thus, the persistence of the notion of race is linked to the atavistic and perverse view that human groups fit within a value scale.

Last month, famous biologist and Noble prize winner James Watson stated that he was worried about Africa’s future, because its inhabitants, being less intelligent that other peoples, were incapable of solving their problems. This inane statement goes totally against everything genetics has shown, namely, that human races are nonexistent from the scientific point of view.

We know that human variability is concentrated “within continental populations” rather than “between continents”. Moreover, there is a genealogical relationship between  the world’s population and Africa. Modern mankind emerged in Africa less than 200,000  years ago and only in the last 60,000 years did it leave Africa to populate other continents. As Svante Paabo, a Swedish evolutionist stated, we are all Africans, whether living in Africa or recently exiled. It may seem easy to  distinguish an African from a European or an Asian phenotypically, but this vanishes as soon as we forget the “skin surface” and look for evidence of  “racial” differences in people’s genomes.

In a recent article, I drew a parallel between the belief in witches, held in the 16th and 17th centuries, and belief in human races. The text closed as follows: “A comforting thought is that mankind in the future certainly will not believe in races any more than we currently believe in witches. And racism will be described as yet one more passing historical abomination, similar to our current view of the folly of persecuting witches.”

Still, one positive element resulted from James Watson’s pathetic racist imbroglio: the prompt and vigorous rejection of his statements by the press and  society as a whole. This shows that the scientific fact that “races” do not exist is finally being absorbed by our culture and incorporated into our convictions and moral attitudes.

To denote an ethical posture that values human variability and each individual’s singularity, I created the expression “poikiloethics” (from “poikilia”, a Greek root meaning diversity). Its fundamental axiom is each person’s unalienable right to be treated as an individual whose genome and life history are unique and singular, and not merely as belonging to a gender, religion, country, ethnicity or color group. My hope is that a generalization of this moral perspective will help fight the new horsemen of the apocalypse.

Sérgio D. J. Pena is the head professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais