/ 19 November 2007

The perils of truthism

In the fevered talk these days about religion and secularism, there is little room for the thing Africans like me most fear: religious or cultural rationalism.

Outside of tiny labs the general ignorance about science, even among people with good educations, is very high. I remember a famous Afrikaans rugby player, a medical doctor, saying in the 1990s that science had determined that black people could not swim — something to do with muscles and heavy bones.

I once overheard a conversation in a coffee shop. A young African-American woman in a gypsy peasant skirt was talking loudly to a Kenyan man twice her age. It was quickly apparent that she was his boss; it was also clear that he had been asking for either some sort of pay raise or leave. She was angry and a kind of stillness hung over the whole place as we all swung one ear in her direction. The man sat still in his immaculate suit, his face completely blank. He said nothing. Only nodding occasionally. At times you could see his eyes weighing things, kind of asking himself: “Does this tirade mean she is about to capitulate and give me the raise?”

She spoke about somebody called Vanessa, and about herself, and the sacrifices she had made leaving good jobs to come and help in Africa. Sometimes I am in there until midnight! Because I care!

A few waiters started sniggering.

Soon enough she tripped: “We are here to help your people, and all you are interested in is money.”

After this she went quiet. She had gone too far. He remained silent. His eyes gleamed for a moment: her transgression was a victory for him. Without saying a word, he had moved from being a greedy African patriarch to a victim of her bigotry. Her voice lowered, and she leaned forward, arms flapping about in retreat.

Poor woman. It was clear she felt that he was “local staff” — and therefore some kind of noble nongovernmental ambassador for the suffering subalterns she cared for.

If you cruised the blogs of the newspapers with the most liberal and educated readerships in the United States and United Kingdom after James Watson announced that black Africans were doomed forever by their genes, a particular idea kept cropping up, especially in blogs in The Guardian.

Somebody would say, “Why is it okay to say blacks are genetically superior on the race track and not okay to talk about their IQs?” Now, the people saying those things are well read people, who know their Kafkas, their Frappuccinos and their Foucault.

In not a single one of all the blogs I cruised was the point made that Africa has more human genetic diversity than the rest of the world put together. In fact, the 500 000 Turkana in the north of Kenya are thought by some to have more genetic diversity than Europe and Asia combined. There is simply no easy case for building any common black African platform of genetic similarities that can answer why black African people are this way or that way. You start to stumble when you cross just one village market.

But — and here is where truthiness in science is more dangerous than all the marauding Osamas (remember Hitler) — the fact that we now have the human genome is only the beginning of a very long search. We still know next to nothing about our brains and how they work; we know very little about who we are and where we came from. People are still arguing about what the human mind is.

Our strong desire to select and highlight things from the slenderest of evidence and to manufacture grand truths from these strands has come to polarise the world in many complicated ways of late. Everybody is an expert. Scientists are too far away from us to clarify things and, when they do, they sound like they are saying nothing. So there is now a language of truthism.

I wonder if having a rational world, without religion, is sort of like having an America without a challenging superpower. We know from history that good scientists are quite capable of building edifices of absolute truths based on their visceral prejudices. If there is anything the 20th century has produced, it is enough evidence to justify just about anything with some scientific authority. We are, however smart, still animals.

In a world where scientists are competing for funding and attention, we often know a lot more about what they say they know, and less about what they do not know. I am all for science, but only in a world filled with irrationals and creatives; for Tibetan Methodists and Gikuyu Hippies, for cappuccino Mullahs and priests who beat themselves on the back, for Buddhist geneticists, for a white witch with a cat and sangoma beads in Woodstock. All I know for sure is that we do better when we are kept in check by competing differences.