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Thread: Race and Species Confusion

  1. #1 Race and Species Confusion 
    geb
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    I hope it is not in bad form to join a forum and then direct inquiry to a thread somewhere else. It just seemed economical.

    I'm not science educated. I brought a question to another science board and the thread never really went anywhere. Might be well deserved - I don't know.

    Would anyone here care to weigh in?

    http://www.biology-online.org/biolog...bout13001.html


    thanks so much,

    geb


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  3. #2  
    WYSIWYG Moderator marnixR's Avatar
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    i think we had a discussion on the subject not too long ago

    in a nutshell i think the outcome of the discussion was that whilst restricted mobility of prehistoric populations had started a process of producing more pronounced varieties (races if you want to call them that way), the increased mobility of the past few hundred years is turning H.sapiens into a more homogenised species


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    Geb,
    I hope you are kidding and aren't serious. In your sitereferral you ask why a robin doesn't mate with a bluebird but humans mate with eachother.

    hint...they are both birds but not the same species. You are a mammal and so is a dog and a whale. Why don't you mate with a dog or a whale? So why are you puzzled a robin doesn't mate with a bluebird? Are you sexually attracted to a cat or a moose? Why would a robin and a bluebird be attracted to eachother and try and mate?
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    WYSIWYG Moderator marnixR's Avatar
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    sorry, i hadn't actually read the link

    geb, what you just described is exactly what the definition of a species is about : specimens of the same species can mate and have viable offspring - specimens of separate species don't (either don't mate or don't have viable offspring)

    all humans are members of one and the same species (Homo sapiens) and if history has shown one thing, it's that all members of your 4 race groups have mated and produced viable offspring on repeated occasions (and still do)
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    Hi geb. I would just like to elaborate on MarnixR's point.

    One of the best ways to define a species is to determine whether or not there is exists a barrier to gene flow between them. Stopping gene flow between two populations is the key for these populations to eventually become separate species.

    There are many different kinds of reproductive barriers that can achieve this. The easiest one to imagine is of course geographical separation. Let's take your bird example. We have two species of small songbird separated by the atlantic ocean, a barrier they cannot cross (we'll leave possible interruptions by man out of the conversation for now). Genes do not flow between the two species, and over long periods of time they diverge from each other.

    However, what about two small songbirds species that live in the exact same place? The reproductive barrier for them may be anatomical; their genitalia just don't match up right. The barrier may be that any hybrid offspring that they do create are sterile. Or it may even be that the different species mate at different times during the year.

    However, it is possible none of these barriers are in place, and that if the two species did begin to interbreed, they could have viable offspring. But - what if they never interbreed in the first place? This is highly possible and actually thought to be common in birds because of behavioral differences. Different species have hardwired into their genetic code the specific mating behaviors they expect to see from a potential partner before they're willing to mate with them. It could be a specific song, it could be a little dance, it could be preparing the right kind of nest. It could be related to something more physical, such as the females are expecting the males to flap their wings and show off their bright yellow wingspots - but males from the other species don't have those wingspots, and so will always be turned down by the females. These are behavioral barriers that prevent the two species from ever interbreeding and keeps their gene pools separate for long periods of time. If it goes on long enough, it's very likely that those other types of barriers (physical mismatching, sterile offspring) will arise as the two species continue to diverge.

    It's not that the two species just "know" not to mate with each other. For the most part, they're just not getting the right signals from the other individual. There are, of course, isolated events where these barriers might break down. One songbird from each species are trapped on an island together and out of desperation, find a way to mate. But this is not enough. For the species to hybridize, many individuals need to interbreed, have fertile hybrid offspring, and have then begin to breed, etc etc, to allow true mixing.

    Even during the prehistoric past, this was not the case with humans; there were not enough significant barriers to gene flow to allow the different "races" of humans to begin to seriously diverge from each other. In modern times with increased ability to travel and there being few truly inaccessible human populations left in the world, gene flow across all the subpopulations of our species is probably higher than ever.
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    birds often recognise possible mates of the same species through distinctive markings that tell them they're not going waste their efforts on a fruitless liaison

    especially instructive in this respect is the fact of 'character displacement' : some separate but still closely related bird species look fairly similar where their distributions don't overlap, but where they do, they exaggerate their distinctive markings so that the possibility of attempts to breed across the species barrier is minimised
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jellyologist
    Geb,
    I hope you are kidding and aren't serious. In your sitereferral you ask why a robin doesn't mate with a bluebird but humans mate with eachother.
    Jelly, have you properly read Geb's linked opening post? He makes very clear that there is a world of difference between comparing different genera, or higher taxanomic groupings (robins and bluebirds) and merely variants within a single species (Norwegians and Peruvians). What he is asking for is a simple primer that would explain this succinctly to the scientifically illiterate. That seems a reasonable (and honourable and serious) request. I hope the varied responses here have provided something of what he needs.
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  9. #8  
    geb
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    Ok,

    I'm digesting some of this. It's still going to be a bit of a battle.

    It's hard to convince the scientifically illiterate (lacking textbooks) that different pigments and body types of humans do not correspond to the varieties of birds (to stay with our example). But would it help to emphasize our astonishing predominance among primates?

    It is as if the Robin, for instance, so completely dominated the bird scene that all other types were either pushed to extinction or existed only in small isolated groups (similar to the situation of other primates today).

    People don't seem intiuitively able get a grasp on this. Like I said, I believe the ignorance of these taxonomic distinctions is much more widespread than is commonly thought. If you asked your "educated" friends, you might be amazed. And this leads to some pretty creepy presumptions.

    There will continue to be highly divisive arguments on this subject even beyond remedying this enormous obstacle (tho it's certainly a great place to start). I might not be able to get much closer to answering the problem I've posed. That is, how to disabuse anyone of the belief that humans instinctively harbor ANY of the disinclinations (that we observe in nature even within species) to mate/commune with others we observe to be unlike us in some way.

    Is there much hard science that deals with this?
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    WYSIWYG Moderator marnixR's Avatar
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    the reason why the human species is so uniform is that :

    a) H.sapiens is a fairly recent species (no more than 200,000 years old)
    b) it is believed that at some point around that time H.sapiens went through what is called a 'population bottleneck' (i.e. a small population with reduced genetic variability for the duration of a few thousand years)

    despite all the appearances, skin colour is, if i may use the pun, only skin deep
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  11. #10  
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    Quote Originally Posted by geb
    Ok,

    I'm digesting some of this. It's still going to be a bit of a battle.

    It's hard to convince the scientifically illiterate (lacking textbooks) that different pigments and body types of humans do not correspond to the varieties of birds (to stay with our example). But would it help to emphasize our astonishing predominance among primates?

    It is as if the Robin, for instance, so completely dominated the bird scene that all other types were either pushed to extinction or existed only in small isolated groups (similar to the situation of other primates today).
    I don't think that saying we have no extant (living) direct sister species does much to illustrate the difference between human "race" and animal species. Maybe that's just me, though.

    People don't seem intiuitively able get a grasp on this. Like I said, I believe the ignorance of these taxonomic distinctions is much more widespread than is commonly thought. If you asked your "educated" friends, you might be amazed. And this leads to some pretty creepy presumptions.
    Well, the truth is that the term species isn't all that intuitive in itself. The reproductive barrier to gene flow is the most consistent and realistic rule for defining a species; almost all other possibilities either (a) don't apply in a significant amount of cases or (b) only represent an arbitrary distinction with no functional correlate, or (c) both. And to add to the mess, human "race" divisions are themselves arbitrary to a large degree; they are not divisions so much as gradations. People native to Africa will look different than people native to China but deciding exactly where to draw the line between the two of them, genetically speaking, is basically arbitrary. A lot of perceptions of race are due much more to cultural differences than to actual biological differences.

    I suppose the simplest way to put this rule to someone unfamiliar with biology would be that, for separate species, either an aspect of their environment or a genetically determined trait of some kind, prevents them from interbreeding. And at no point in human history have any of the major "races" been subject to enough of this kind of separation from each other.

    There will continue to be highly divisive arguments on this subject even beyond remedying this enormous obstacle (tho it's certainly a great place to start). I might not be able to get much closer to answering the problem I've posed. That is, how to disabuse anyone of the belief that humans instinctively harbor ANY of the disinclinations (that we observe in nature even within species) to mate/commune with others we observe to be unlike us in some way.

    Is there much hard science that deals with this?
    Human evolution has created a trend in our behavior that leads to a high degree of cooperation within a group, but with a relatively high degree of competition with other groups. There is an article and a discussion related to human violence here, at another forum. But generally, it has long been a part of our nature to feel antipathy towards outsiders and a strong bond with members of our own group. This results in no end of difficulties in human relations that has plagued civilization for probably as long as it has existed. In our gut it feels as though it is right, and we search for ways to justify the feeling, even though it is not rationally justified. As a culture we need to learn to think differently, and obviously many people have yet to move past this.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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  12. #11  
    geb
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    So... I have this thread going at two boards now. The results have been very interesting to me.

    If there is a common tone to them it seems that among those who have had already digested a good portion of genetics and taxonomy, that being the majority of people who drop in here, there is bewilderment that so much if it isn't just common sense to the great unwashed. I'm not one who gripes about "ivory tower" mentalities. I've spent most of my effort in arguments defending against those perceptions. But where is the perspective here?

    I challenge anyone to ask the next twenty people "on the street" what would happen if a Sparrow mated with a Bluebird and I'm pretty sure that far more than half of them would take a stab at some hybridization of color resulting. For the less educated, it's a simple matter of A is to X what B is to ??? Sparrow and Bluebird. Physically, almost indistinguishable but for color. Norwegian and Peruvian. Similarly so. So these sidewalk respondants are what.. just idiots? Irredeemable? If anyone has even the tiniest interest in how racism infects, wouldn't you wonder the same thing I am? How do I communicate something in any form more digestible than undergraduate coursework in biology?

    I may be back where I started. Maybe there is no way to put this stuff simply. It remains, for a depressingly large number of people around us, a matter of 'you'll have to take my word on this'. And you're suprised when your neighbor's kid wants to know why he can't study creationism in his public school.
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    If nothing else, this particular topic is an example of how important a solid foundation in science is for a modern person's education; what they do and do not understand can have profound effects on how they view and interact with other people on a day to day basis. And without at least a basic understanding of biological concepts, things like the definition of a species are very difficult to explain to someone who may not even want to hear it in the first place.

    And, it should also show how pitiful science education is in the US right now. The vast amount of ignorance in our country never fails to depress me.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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    Quote Originally Posted by paralith
    If nothing else, this particular topic is an example of how important a solid foundation in science is for a modern person's education; what they do and do not understand can have profound effects on how they view and interact with other people on a day to day basis. And without at least a basic understanding of biological concepts, things like the definition of a species are very difficult to explain to someone who may not even want to hear it in the first place.
    Wot she said.

    You can't blame this forum if "the next 20 people on the street" refuse to listen to what we say because they're sure of their incorrect opinions. That's humanity for you - caveat emptor.
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  15. #14  
    geb
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    I apologize for any lack of grace. I really do appreciate the responses.

    I wonder if it really is,after all, a matter of what knowledge is available, right-at-hand, for young people in school. It's all there. Hell, I went to a middling quality public school and still managed to get through with enough skills to steer me through much of this. I was a C+ student. It's really not difficult at all to get a working grasp on basic civics and government, biology, history, etc. The trick seems to be in just walking in with any measurable respect for the importance of such things. How to you impress that?

    The almost willful ignorance toward such basics that I note in my otherwise well fed, well provided for, and otherwise reasonably curious middle class niece and nephew is sometimes astonishing. It's all there in the classes they attend. It just doesn't stick. It's almost an 'attitude' problem. They bring home the grades but there's no synthesis. I would have to have had (I don't) many decades of experience in the compulsory levels of education to know if it is any worse 'today' than 'back then'. I have a hunch that it's essentially the same. But perhaps I'm wrong.

    It may be my middle age coming on, but I observe a lot of young adults in this country to be 'spoiled'. There is a general incoherance of what drives their economy, provides them with jobs, protects their civil liberties, governs their communities, and amazingly, what involves them in an ongoing war.

    If I tried to have this present discussion about race and species confusion with most young adults I'm afraid they'd likely say I 'think too much'.
    Whew!
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    Well, I confess to not be very well versed in the workings of our economy either, but I have a respect for it and the people who do understand it. When it comes to biology, though, especially anything that relates to humans and might have impact on religious beliefs, many people have essentially already made up their minds not to believe it, no matter how well you explain or support your points. If they don't want to be convinced, then they won't be convinced. Doubtless that's how some of them feel about us scientists as well, which doesn't help matters.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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    I think that for race of humans, it's equal to like the breeds of dogs, cats, horses because every human regardless of race is capable of producing fertile hybrids or mixes of races. If races was species, we would not have people like Maggie Q, Mariah Carey.etc
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  18. #17  
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    Quote Originally Posted by geb
    So... I have this thread going at two boards now. The results have been very interesting to me.

    If there is a common tone to them it seems that among those who have had already digested a good portion of genetics and taxonomy, that being the majority of people who drop in here, there is bewilderment that so much if it isn't just common sense to the great unwashed. I'm not one who gripes about "ivory tower" mentalities. I've spent most of my effort in arguments defending against those perceptions. But where is the perspective here?

    I challenge anyone to ask the next twenty people "on the street" what would happen if a Sparrow mated with a Bluebird and I'm pretty sure that far more than half of them would take a stab at some hybridization of color resulting. For the less educated, it's a simple matter of A is to X what B is to ??? Sparrow and Bluebird. Physically, almost indistinguishable but for color. Norwegian and Peruvian. Similarly so. So these sidewalk respondants are what.. just idiots? Irredeemable? If anyone has even the tiniest interest in how racism infects, wouldn't you wonder the same thing I am? How do I communicate something in any form more digestible than undergraduate coursework in biology?

    I may be back where I started. Maybe there is no way to put this stuff simply. It remains, for a depressingly large number of people around us, a matter of 'you'll have to take my word on this'. And you're suprised when your neighbor's kid wants to know why he can't study creationism in his public school.
    taxonomy and genetics will not bring you any closer to identifying the nature of a species. A species is only a transitional phase in the process of evolution, labeled as such for the benefit of the scientist. As such species is not a real entity. Species is a scientific tool that facilitates the process of science. This is also why the definition of species can change frequently without any problem since the tool is adjusted for different sub-disciplines of biological sciences.

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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey
    taxonomy and genetics will not bring you any closer to identifying the nature of a species. A species is only a transitional phase in the process of evolution, labeled as such for the benefit of the scientist. As such species is not a real entity. Species is a scientific tool that facilitates the process of science. This is also why the definition of species can change frequently without any problem since the tool is adjusted for different sub-disciplines of biological sciences.

    Ask a person what he sees on the street he will tell you what he sees. Not what is.
    Superbly well put! Huzzah, and a doff of the hat to you.
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  20. #19  
    geb
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    Ok. This thread has degenerated into self parody.

    What was it again that you'd offer to the non-scientist?

    ... that you might overcome egg headedness for just one moment to get a clear point across?

    (long blinking silence. another smashing ripost from the galleries. another ripping 'huzzah'!!!!!)

    ..never mind.
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  21. #20  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard spuriousmonkey's Avatar
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    I wouldn't offer anything else to the non-scientist then I have offered here.

    I don't see the parody.
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  22. #21  
    geb
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    Of course you wouldn't then would you?
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  23. #22  
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    No. Another answer would be a farce.
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  24. #23  
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    Huzzzah.. Zip and Zinger old boy!

    good lord
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  25. #24  
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    You start your first post by stating that you are not science educated.

    I give you my opinion as a career biologist. Someone who does biological research for a living. Someone who even does 'stuff' in the field of evolution.

    Could it be that you are not accepting the science education that is currently on offer?
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    That was maybe a bit harsh. Let me clarify my point.

    What I am stating in the post on species is not a weird opinion. It is a scientific one.

    There is a difference between scientific views on the term species and the one available in popular science.

    It's not important for me that you accept the scientific one. I merely would like to point out that things aren't all so simple or standard in a higher level of discussion on the definition of species. Higher meaning simply in research circles.

    I formulated a rather standard view. You have been exposed. My job is done. That's all.
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    Quote Originally Posted by geb
    long blinking silence.
    Personally, I haven't responded because I don't understand the question. I'd be happy to try my hand at it, hopefully respectfully to you and your sensibilities, if you would have another go at succinctly phrasing the question?
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    geb, what spurious is pointing out is that the concept of species is confusing for a reason. it's something of a fuzzy issue even for people well educated in science.

    So, when attempting to explain it to someone not well educated in science, you have a choice: (a) be completely accurate and spend the time (which may be a lengthy amount) to explain the entirety of the concept, or (b) be less accurate and thus simplify the explanation.

    In your case, if your main goal is to clarify the difference between human races and species, as well as avoid having to give a mini-lecture on species concepts to a layperson, then go with choice (b) and simplify. Through interbreeding genes criss cross the entirety of the human population, regardless of race, but there are genes that are different between robins and sparrows that will never mix together because they don't interbreed. That's probably the easiest way to do it. Just be aware that you're leaving out big chunks of related issues for the sake of simplicity.
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    Race is even worse than species.

    Nobody agrees on what it is since a large faction of the scientific world doesn't even acknowledge the validity of the concept any more.
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  30. #29  
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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey
    Race is even worse than species.

    Nobody agrees on what it is since a large faction of the scientific world doesn't even acknowledge the validity of the concept any more.
    I know; I said that as well.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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    As for your opening post; defining species as members of a population who can interbreed is merely one of many species definitions.

    I'm not even sure if it is a scientific one, that is a literal scientific definition that is actually used in papers as a method.
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    Previously, I was just trying to offer geb the simplest possible answer to his problem, as long as he kept in mind that it was indeed a simplification and not entirely accurate. My earlier posts elaborated on barriers to gene exchange, though that definition is mostly applicable to sexually reproducing organisms. It's a whole other bucket of worms for other types of reproduction. But I didn't go into it since the OP was focusing on humans and birds.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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    There are many species of bird, but only one of man.
    There were many species of man. There happens to be only one left. Not really an uncommon phenomenon.

    Birds happen to be a rather succesful evolutionary group. And succes in evolution is determined differently than in normal thought. That is they have radiated into many different species.

    We humans went through a great phase of radiation as well but our future is dependent on one lineage.

    And once again it all boils down to the big picture. It is a simple fact that nature couldn't care less about the difference between poodle and buldog, bluebird or seagull.

    They are all part of life. An enormous collection of organisms which constantly changes in character and relationship, with only one thing remaining the same.

    We all share an ancestor.

    And that is never going to change.
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  34. #33  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard spuriousmonkey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by paralith
    Previously, I was just trying to offer geb the simplest possible answer to his problem, as long as he kept in mind that it was indeed a simplification and not entirely accurate. My earlier posts elaborated on barriers to gene exchange, though that definition is mostly applicable to sexually reproducing organisms. It's a whole other bucket of worms for other types of reproduction. But I didn't go into it since the OP was focusing on humans and birds.
    I didn't see this post when I submitted mine, but indeed you touch the essence here, that focusing on the small picture doesn't quite give you any meaningful answer for a big question.
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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey
    Quote Originally Posted by paralith
    Previously, I was just trying to offer geb the simplest possible answer to his problem, as long as he kept in mind that it was indeed a simplification and not entirely accurate. My earlier posts elaborated on barriers to gene exchange, though that definition is mostly applicable to sexually reproducing organisms. It's a whole other bucket of worms for other types of reproduction. But I didn't go into it since the OP was focusing on humans and birds.
    I didn't see this post when I submitted mine, but indeed you touch the essence here, that focusing on the small picture doesn't quite give you any meaningful answer for a big question.
    Exactly so; the problem is, geb is dealing with an issue that isn't quite the same as the scientific issues with species concepts. He's dealing with people who are drawing an incorrect analogy between birds of different species who don't mate with each other and humans of different "races" that shouldn't mate with each other. There's a reason that sparrows and robins don't interbreed, and it's not a reason that different human "races" share.
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  36. #35  
    geb
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    I threw a little something nasty (racism) into the vat. I guess I should know better than to wade into the creative ferment with you guys. I did after all confess to little scientific background. Again, that is an important part of the original topic. I'm not sitting at a breakfast table with any of your caliber. I'm with John and Jane Doe.

    An initial hunch is confirmed by these threads. There really are no succinct arguments at hand. The ideas contained within racism, separation, xenophobia, nativism, (hell, even such a well-intentioned trope as 'cultural diversity') etc, etc, are finally going to be supra categorical, even to the social "scientists". The motivations exist, certainly. We just aren't going to get far using scientific tools to analyze them. We'll be debating categories while the world burns.

    Racism ends up being something of a 'meta-theory' constructed along the lines of natural (scientifically calculable?) orders. Perhaps it only owes it's existence to venality. And if it exists only in the mind with no instinctive basis, does that mean it can't be understood 'scientifically'? And when the conversation really gets candid, is there any less racism underpinning things within the 'acadamy' than in the trailer parks?

    So it may be that this misapprehension of the 'birds and bees' is not as significant as I thought. It's still ignorance that should be wondered about. But Perhaps it doesn't contribute to the problem so much after all.

    See, I'm waaaay out of my element here. I'd be very lucky if much of what I just tried to express there gets beyond my sloppy handling of language. I would like to see more of this play out here. But I'll bow out.

    Thank you particularly paralith for keeping the perspective intact here. And my admiration to spuriousmonkey for maintaining civility when I broke it.
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    Of course the issue of racism can be looked at scientifically. It can be looked from a behavioral perspective, from a psychological perspective.

    But I think the real issue you're dealing with, geb, is using science to justify social policy. This is a common problem, and unfortunately, a favorite of creationists and IDers to use as a way to criticize science. One they never tire of bringing up is Hitler's interpretation of "survival of the fittest" as "only the most superior people, which of course are my people, deserve to live." This is no way means that the theory of evolution is the ultimate guilty party for the Holocaust; it only demonstrates the dangers of misunderstanding scientific theories and what they do and do not tell us.

    This is the general rule: "is" does not equal "ought." Just because a certain phenomenon exists in nature does not necessarily mean that the phenomenon is morally correct for human interactions. Infanticide happens very often in nature. when a new male takes over the kills all the infants previously born to his rival. This is an adaptive behavior that allows the male quicker reproductive access to his new females and removes potential competitors for his future offspring. However, just because this is an evolutionary advantageous behavior does not mean that it is condoned in human society. Stepfathers are not let off the hook if they kill their step children.

    Likewise, whether or not there are genetic differences between humans of different "races" should be a moot point. Even if, by some obscure definition being experimentally used in certain fields of science, different "races" are given the distinction of being different species, that shouldn't change the way we treat each other. That shouldn't make a difference in who marries who.

    Science can be used to understand racism - but in no way can it be used to justify racism.
    Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
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