The Myth of Race

Races, as natural divisions of the human species, are
rather like angles. Many people believe in them, devoutly.
They can even tell you what properties they have.
But the closer you try to examine them to discover their
real nature, the more elusive they become.
—Jonathan Marks, 2006

by Paul George

The issue of race* cannot be ignored, even though it is a term that only exists because society demands it. Many Americans were irritated when the 2010 United States census asked questions about race. Public school districts are required to collect data about the racial makeup of their student body. Employers report race-related data to the government to show compliance with Affirmative Action. Americans are constantly told they must identify themselves with a race.

Stereotypes abound when people discuss race. Some races are considered inherently lazy, dishonest, or greedy because the stereotypes continue to flourish. The concept that races are different genetically appears to be supported when diseases like sickle-cell anemia are labeled as a “black” disease**. Without defining what race is or is not, biologists have been quick to label diseases such as sickle-cell anemia as inherent in a race. In the past, they have been ready to define and label human beings as distinct biological races (Kaszycka 44).

A group of researches demonstrated that this view is still prevalent in Europe. They questioned members of the European Anthropological Association about the issue of race. Out of 125 respondents, 50 percent agreed that human races exist. Of those that agreed, 62 percent support the classification of race as a subset of Homo sapiens (Kaszycka 45).

The American Anthropological Association, however, issued an official statement in 1998 stating that race is not a biologically meaningful concept. According to their statement, race is simply a human cultural behavior and is learned, not inherited. Other research has shown that adopted children, whose adoptive parents are of another race, demonstrate intelligence similar to that of the adoptive parents (Sternberg).

According to anthropologist Audrey Smedley, race is “a recent concept in human history” and it “emerged as a dominant form of identity in those societies where it functions to stratify the social system” (Smedley 691).

Smedley argues that the modern concept of race is not found in most of human history. Race generally referred to where a person was from, not their skin color. Human history is full of tales of trading, travel, war, peace treaties, and inter-marriages between people of different nationalities. Yet the skin color of these people is never talked about. Alexander of Macedonia conquered from Afghanistan to India. He adopted many customs of these locations and told his men to marry Indian women (Smedley 690).

The Bible account of Moses*** states that he married a Cushite, or Ethiopian woman (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Nu 12:1). During the earliest days of Christianity, Philip converted the first non-Jew to Christianity. The convert was an Ethiopian who was a court official for the queen of Ethiopia (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Acts 8:26-39). In neither account is the modern concept of race an issue. Multi-ethnicity is not a new concept. In ages past, it was a normal part of life as travelers from different lands intermingled.  People were judged, not by skin color, but by genealogical identity and the work they performed (Smedley 691).

That viewpoint changed, however, in Europe in the 17th century. England began to view the Irish as savages and maintained the same view when they dealt with the indigenous people of the New World. Very quickly the modern concept of race emerged. English law protected white servants, but African servants had no rights. By viewing blacks as inferior and, therefore, unworthy of legal protection, the concept of race became a part of Anglo-American society. Within a century, citizens of the emerged United States of America were conditioned to this “arbitrary ranking” (Smedley 694,695). The general public in the United States were conditioned to accept race and racial superiority as natural part of human life.

Modern science, however, has developed a much different view of race: it does not exist.  Characteristics like skin color, hair color, and eye shape are all influenced by several alleles in the human genotype. If races were truly discrete species or subspecies of genus Homo, then many different genes should be similar among populations within a race than those of different races (Belk and Maier 298). Data collected, however, falsifies this concept. Various alleles are found throughout the gene pool of humankind and it would appear H. sapiens has never been truly isolated.

Sickle-cell anemia, the so-called “black” disease is a good example of an allele being found throughout the species. About 10 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Africans carry one copy of the sickle-cell alleles. However, many parts of northern and southern Africa have little or no sickle-cell alleles. Furthermore, the allele is found in populations of the Middle East (white) and Indian (Asian) (Belk and Maier 297). While the disease is more common in middle African populations, it is clearly misguided to call it a “black disease.” This represents a cline variation in the species. A cline is “a gradual change in the frequency of genotypes and phenotypes from one geographical region to another” (Jurmain 431). Natural selection is working with H. sapiens in various areas on a micro evolutionary level.  Humans in different regions adapted over time to their environment. However, none have made a genetic adaptation unique only to an isolated population. According to biology professors Belk and Maier, “scientists have not identified a single allele that is found in all (or even most) populations of a commonly described race but not found in other races” (Belk and Maier 297).

“Race” is a concept that humanity needs to evolve out of in order to progress. However, government and society are reluctant to accept the fact that “race” is simply a cultural myth that allows one class to lord over another. Too many interests are involved. On one side, there are those who believe that one race is superior and should, therefore, be considered privileged. On the other side, well-meaning advocates have encouraged the government to regulate hiring, making sure that all races are being treated fairly. While this may help some, it ignores the underlying problem, a three-hundred-year-old concept of race that is archaic and inhumane. Society needs to understand that skin color is simply the way light reflects off an individual and reveals nothing about the person. The concept of race is ignorant at best and, at worst, criminal.

This essay was originally titled: Cline Variation and the Myth of Race in Modern Homo sapiens and written in 2010.

Endnotes

The term “race,” unless noted otherwise in this essay, refers to skin color.

** This essay will use the commonly used terms “black” and “white” for people with dark skin (usually of African descent) and Caucasians (usually people of European descent).

*** The writer is using the Bible for its historic value (whether the stories are true or not, they do say a lot about social attitudes of the time) and references to the Bible are not intended to encourage or promote any theological views.

 


References

American Anthropological Association

“American Anthropological Association Statement on ‘Race’”, 17 May 1998. http://www.aaanet.org.

Kaszycka, Katarzyna A., Strkalj, Goran, Strezalko, Jan.

“Current Views of European Anthropologists on Race: Influence of Educational and Ideological Background”, American Anthropologist, March 2009, Vol 111, Issue 1, pp. 43-56.

New Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1989.

Smedley, Audrey

“’Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity,” American Anthropologist, Sept 1998, Vol. 100, Issue 3, pp. 690-702.

Sternberg, Robert J., Grigorenko, Elena L., Kidd, Kenneth K.

“Intelligence, race, and genetics”, in AccessScience@McGraw-Hill, http://www.accessscience.com, DOI 10.1036/1097-8542.YB071440.

Belk, Colleen and Maier, Virginia

Biology: Science for Life, Third Edition. 2010. Pearson: San Francisco.

Jurmain, Robert, Kilgore, Lynn, Trevathan, Wenda, Ciochon, Russell L.

Introduction to Physical Anthropology, 2009 – 2010 Edition. 2010. Wadsworth: Belmont.

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Alien Abduction Therapy: The High Cost of False Memories

In the film “Total Recall,” adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid pays a company to put false memories into his mind. Research has shown that memories can be falsified, moving the story’s concepts out of the realm of the fantastic. (Photo courtesy Lions Gate Entertainment)

In the 1966 futuristic short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” writer Philip K. Dick introduces Douglas Quail, an unhappy office clerk who dreams of traveling to Mars. Set in the future, the story describes Quail as a man haunted by a dream that cannot be fulfilled. Even though trips to Mars are possible, only important people may travel to the distant red planet. Kirsten, his wife, reminds him of this every day, telling him his obsession is unhealthy. Quail goes to Rekal, a company that specializes in memory implants. One visit to Rekal, says the salesman, will have the customer believing they actually traveled to Mars. Salesman McClane tells Quail the memories will be more convincing than the real thing. Quail undergoes the treatment, only to discover that his memory has already been tampered with. He realizes that all of his memories, including his childhood and marriage, were memory implants.  In the case of Quail, all of his memories were false (2002).

While much of Dick’s story remains in the realm of the fantastic, false memories have frequently arisen when patients undergo Alien Abduction Therapy, an unethical form of psychotherapy that can be emotionally damaging to patients and reflects poorly on the mental health profession.

The Abduction Experience

The accounts of alien abductions, as told by Harvard professor of psychiatry and alien abduction advocate John E. Mack (2003), all have similarities. The subject, alone in bed, feels a presence and hears a low-pitched hum.  Many subjects reported seeing lights and feeling vibrations. The subject report seeing short beings, bald and gray skinned, over him or her. Paralyzed, the subject is unable to move. The person, according to Mack’s report, floats out of the room’s window and enters a large spaceship.

The extraterrestrials examine the paralyzed person. Telepathically, they communicate to him or her that they are performing a series of surgical procedures. In many accounts, these procedures include sexual experiments such as the taking of sperm from males and eggs from females. After the procedures, the subjects are told, again telepathically, that an implant has been put inside of them so the visitors can track him or her.

Frequently, most patients who claimed to have regained memories of being abducted by aliens had no memory of the events until they entered Alien Abduction Therapy (Shermer, 2003, 73). In one case, a woman, who had memories of being sexually abused as a child, entered therapy.  After a few sessions, she believed that she had been abducted by aliens and that her parents were co-conspirators with the extraterrestrials (Eisner, 2000, p. 198).  The subjective methods used by alien abduction therapists demonstrate how fragile human memory can be.

Methods of Recovered Memory Therapy

Alien Abduction Therapy is a concentration of the wider field of Recovered Memory Therapy, which is based on the Freudian belief that physical and mental health issues are the result of forgotten trauma (Eisner, 2000, p. 67). Many patients leave Recovered Memory Therapy believing they were sexually abused as a child, involved in a satanic rite, or the victim of an alien abduction. According to Mack, the memories of alien abduction may not be immediately accessible and “specialized techniques” may be needed to release the experiences (as cited in Eisner, 2000). The techniques commonly used to retrieve these memories are journaling, body work, pharmacologically assisted interviews, hypnosis, and other non-traditional therapy techniques.

Journaling is when a therapist assigns a patient to write down his or her thoughts. However, according to Donald Eisner, alien abduction therapists shape the direction these journals take. According to his book Death of Psychotherapy, therapists have told patients to indicate “any clues regarding the abuse” (2000). Patients are encouraged to write a story about being abused. The therapist offers the patient’s story as proof that he or she has a repressed memory of alien abduction. While journaling is used in traditional therapy, recovery memory therapists shape the content of the patient’s words to support a preconceived idea: the patient was abducted by aliens and harbors repressed memories.

Body work includes massage, Rolfing and Bioenergetics. A therapist specializing in Recovered Memory Therapy will interpret any sign of tension or physical pain as a sign of a forgotten trauma. Even a simple muscle cramp is perceived as proof that the patient is hiding a traumatic memory (Eisner, 2000, p. 72). As with journaling, the therapist has control over the interpretation of the pain.

Some therapists administer sodium amytal, a powerful barbiturate, to patients intravenously, and interview them (Eisner, 2000, p. 75). However, the method used, and praised, by most alien abduction therapists is the use of hypnosis.

Hypnosis

According to David Meyer’s Exploring Psychology, hypnosis is “a social interaction in which one person (the hypnotist) suggests to another (the subject) that certain perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors will spontaneously occur” (2008). The accepted uses of hypnotism, according to A. Weitzenhoffer (“Hypnosis”), are the following: symptom control, motivation tool, treatment of addiction, and pain control. Weitzenhoffer, an expert in the field of hypnotism, remains critical of the validity of hypnotism. Under hypnotic suggestion, claims David Jacobs, subjects reveal hidden experiences involving extraterrestrials (2003).

Marian, the case study mentioned previously, knew she had suffered traumatic events as a child. She did not see a therapist because she believed she was suffering from repressed memories, but because she wanted help dealing with her known past. Soon, however, the therapist initiated hypnosis with the intention of revealing the forgotten trauma caused by alien abductors. After awakening, Marian was informed of her recovered memories and experiences. Still, however, she had no memory of the events the therapist related to her (Eisner, 2000, p. 198).

The news program 20/20 aired a segment about memory retrieval and alien abductions. The program showed clips of a patient under hypnotic suggestion. Critics of hypnosis as a memory retrieval tool point to the program as evidence of unethical behavior. According to one critic (Shermer, 2003, p. 93), it was clear that the therapist was priming the patient and cueing them toward the proper response.  The therapist would, before putting the patient under hypnotic suggestion, inform the subject that there was no question that alien abductions exist.

Cueing during hypnosis is an important part of the process. David Jacobs, a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia, believes that hypnosis is an important tool in retrieving alien abduction trauma (2003). However, he believes that confabulation, the mixing of fact with fiction, is a problem that needs to be addressed. Like most Alien Abduction Therapy advocates, he believes people abducted by aliens have filled in the memory gaps with fabrication. When a patient tells an abduction story that does not agree with the accepted alien abduction story, Jacob believes it is up to the therapist to help the patient discard the fictitious story so that the true alien abduction story can be revealed. The hypnotist guides the subject to the details that are corroborated by patients with similar experiences.

The relationship between patient and therapist in these situations is unhealthy. People seeking a therapist because they are experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, may find themselves dealing with a therapist who is eager to believe in alien abductions. Under hypnotic suggestion, a patient may talk about fantastic images or strange feelings. With no verification available, the patient is led to trust the opinions of the therapist (Eisner, 2000, p. 79). Patients are never told that there are alternative explanations or that they should think critically about their experience. In some cases, as Eisner explains, patients were even told the government was watching them, knowing of the patient’s abduction.

Patients like Marian were told to break off all ties with family members (Eisner, 2000, p. 198). Collaboration is missing in Alien Abduction Therapy. Without the opportunity to discuss the retrieved memories with friends or family, it becomes easier for false memories to flourish. A study of the elderly revealed that couples with shared experiences tended to have better memories of events than single people. As collaborators, they could correct each other when one or the other made an error in explaining a past event. Likewise, they could support each other when accurate statements were made (Bower, 2004). By convincing a patient to break off family ties, or discouraging critical thinking, a therapist can create a loyal patient who will co-operate.

False Memories: Real Biology

Hypnosis expert Weitzenhoffer states that “through suggestions given to hypnotized individuals, it is possible to induce alterations to memories” (“Hypnosis”). Recent research has demonstrated that memories can be falsified.

A study conducted by neuroscientists at Northwest University took a group of subjects and showed them various combinations of words and images. In some cases, the word “frog” would be shown, followed by a picture of a frog. In other case, unrelated word and image combinations were shown. For example, the word “cat” was followed by a picture of a raspberry. Afterward, while in an FMRI brain scanner, subjects were shown images and asked whether or not they saw those images during the test. Subjects repeatedly recognized images shown in the second test as being in the original experiment. However, one-third of the images recognized were never part of the original experiment. Test subjects stated they remembered seeing the image of a cat, when all they had actually seen was the word “cat.” The FMRI scans revealed brain activity in the three areas associated with generating visual memories (Luden, 2004).

Researchers at John Hopkins University conducted an experiment and had similar results. Again brain scans noted activity in the left hippocampus tail as well as the perirhinal cortex, which is related to the encoding of memory (Imaging, 2005). In both cases, the evidence led to the conclusion that false memories are encoded in the brain the same way real memories are. A biological basis exists.

Conclusion

Many people suffer from problems related to mental health. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many other conditions are treated by professional and caring therapists every day. Sadly, some of these people fall victim to fringe therapy, which costs patients a lot of money and, at times, alienation from loved ones.

Marian, like many patients who have undergone Alien Abduction Therapy, eventually found another therapist and recanted her false memories. She would eventually reconcile with her family (Eisner, 2000, p. 199). After recanting, many patients have filed lawsuits against unethical psychotherapists (Eisner, 2000, p. 77).

“The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions, and ellipses, not to say distortions—that’s second best,” McClane said to Douglas Quail as part of his sales pitch (Dick, 2002, 331). False memories, in the story, could be better than the real thing. Just like the fictitious Rekal Corporation, alien abduction therapists are motivated by profit. They make money treating patients and selling books directed toward those who believe in alien abduction. Profit margins, not clinical research, are on what they base their success. Sincere, well-educated psychologist and therapists need to be openly critical of this fringe element which only harms its patients.

This essay was original written December 2, 2009 as a term paper for a psychology class. Small adjustments have been from the original for editing purposes.

Copyright  © 2009 Paul George

References

Bower, Bruce (2004), Two-headed memories: Collaboration gives recall lift to elderly, AccessScience@McGraw-Hill,  http://www.accessscience.com.

Dick, Philip K. (2002). We can remember it for you wholesale.  Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick (pp. 328-349). New York: Pantheon.

Eisner, Donald A. (2000). Death of Psychotherapy: From Freud to Alien Abductions. Westport:Greenwood Publishing.

Imaging shows how brain can create ‘false memories’. (2005, February 5). Toronto Star (Canada),Retrieved from Newspaper Source database.

Jacobs, David M. (2003). Hypnosis can reveal the existence of alien abduction. In  Roleff, T.L. (Ed.), Alien  Abduction: Fact or Fiction? (pp. 43-52). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Luden, Jennifer  (2004, October). Analysis:  Preliminary findings on how the brain creates false memories. Weekend All Things Considered (NPR), Retrieved from Newspaper Source database.

Mack, John E. (2003). The principal features of alien abduction. In Roleff, T.L. (Ed.), Alien Abduction: Fact or Fiction? (pp. 21-32). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Myers, David G. (2008). Exploring Psychology (7th ed.). New York: Worth

Shermer, Michael (2003). It is unlikely that humans are abducted by aliens. In T.L. Roleff (Ed.), Alien Abduction: Fact or Fiction? (pp. 67-76). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Weitzenhoffer, André M. “Hypnosis”, in AccessScience@McGraw-Hill, http://www.accessscience.com.