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Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective

by Paul Grobstein
Published in Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Spring 1989
Why does oppression exist? What is responsible for it? Perhaps most importantly, what can be done about it? In deal with pressing social and political concerns, it is sometimes helpful to step back at least briefly and look at the problems from a broader perspective. Oppression is not unique to a particular time or to a particular human group. It is instead a longstanding and widespread phenomenon of human history. One can't escape the feeling that oppression somehow relates as much to the biology of the human species (and perhaps to biology more generally) as it does to the characteristics of individual human beings or of particular social groups.

This is not to say that nothing can be done about oppression, but rather that in trying to eliminate it, knowing a bit of biology may be helpful. Biology, unfortunately, has something of a bad reputation in this area. Too frequently, one group of human beings has justified oppression against another group on the grounds of allegedly biological arguments. The essence of such arguments is that it is somehow possible to rank groups of human beings one against another and hence to say which is superior and which inferior. I hope to convey here, first and foremostly, that any argument of this kind reflects a profound misunderstanding of basic principles of biological organization. In fact, I believe that these principles do more than provide a basis for the rejection of specious arguments: they provide as well as useful framework for new efforts to understand and combat oppression.

When someone mentions biology, the first thing that probably comes to most people's minds is "evolution operates through the survival of the fittest" or "oxygen is necessary for life" or some other similar rule taught in biology class. These rules are useful summarizing statements about one of the most characteristic features of living organization: it has a very high degree of order. But if, instead of calling up associations with biology in the classroom, we look around and try to describe life as we actually see it, its most obvious characteristic is not order. It is instead diversity. When you look out the window, what you see is not a predictable distribution of a particular element but an assortment of living things, and assortment which is different in each direction you look. Moreover, if you happen to see six pine trees, you don't see one paradigmatic pine tree replicated six times. You see six pine trees, each different from the others. This is true of any biological system: a cell, an organism, a group of organisms, the entire earth. They are all made up of elements which differ from one another.

Diversity is as fundamental to life as is order. It is neither incidental nor detrimental. It is instead essential to the success of any biological entity. A human being exists only as an assembly of many different kinds of cells: blood cells, skin cells, sex cells, brain cells, lymphocytes, and so on. Not only do cells differ in kind, but in many cases, there are important differences among individual cells of a given kind. Similarly, the earth can exist as a biosphere precisely because of the diversity of organisms it contains. Animals are not capable of photosynthesis and would not survive if there weren't plants to trap the energy of sunlight. The success of biological systems in general is due not to homogeneity but to heterogeneity: they depend critically on the existence of differences in the elements which make them up. The human species is no different, and this alone is enough to raise serious questions about any effort to rank one human or group of humans against another. It is meaningless to ask whether one lymphocyte is better than another, or whether blood cells are better than nerve cells. Each is essential for the success of the others, and for the success of the larger whole.

Diversity is of even greater importance for the origin of successful biological systems. The reason we exist in our current forms is that, over a long period of time, variants of the ancestors of humans, and before that, variants of the ancestors of the ancestors were produced. Natural selection acted on the pool of variationto yield what we now see as human beings, and the same is true of lions, wolves, maples, and piranha. Natural selection isn't interested in producing a perfect lion, maple, piranha or human being. Rather, the biological process aims to produce variants. This is the only way to be prepared for unknown challenges, times when the environment, the reality which selection reflects, changes in unpredictable ways. It is the variants which provide the basis for dealing with such challenges. The odds against the survival of a completely homogeneous species are exceedingly grim. We are the product of those variants, over millions of years, who were able to survive and reproduce in the face of new, sometimes sudden, challenges. Our survival continues to depend on our production and nurturing of variants. There is no way for us to predict which variants of the human species will be able to cope well in an unknown future environment.

Diversity is thus fundamental to successful biological organization for two reasons: a profound mutual interdependence of variants in the here and now, and an even more profound dependence on variants to meet the challenges of the future. Together, these two characteristics make absolute nonsense of any argument which claims that human beings can be biologically ranked one against another. Without the prototype, the paradigm which has never and will never exist, and which would not be in the best interests of life anyhow, there is no biological sense to the words "superior" and "inferior."

I think that this biological perspective has an even wider significance. It suggests that diversity is not only something to be tolerated but something to be encouraged. The best argument against oppression may not be the common characteristics of all human beings but the great, indeed critical, value of their differences. Our political system appropriately acknowledges the common characteristics as a basis for every individual's human rights. But a properly functioning social system may well depend as much on the differences among individuals as it does on their similarities. Biology would seem to tell us that the rights of individuals and of distinctive groups of individuals should be regarded as deriving not only from their common characteristics but also from their differences.

The biological perspective may also help in answering the question of why oppression exists, though what I have to offer here is more an approach for further investigation than a completed explanation. The order evident in biological systems, as I have said, derives from and continues to be dependent on the generation of diversity. Yet too high a degree of deviance may disrupt some minimum level of order on which biological systems also depend. There is a dynamic tension between order and variance. Surely on e of the roots of oppression is a perceived threat on the part of one group that the social system will be disrupted by another group.

What needs to be explored is the human inclinationto equate the disturbance or altering of social systems with biological hazard. In the case of convicted murderers, there is a reasonable basis for equating social and biological threat. But to perceive a particular skin color as biologically hazardous is, very simply, to be wrong.

We need a better understanding of how humans learn to perceive and evaluate threats as individuals and as groups, of what disrupts and what supports group cohesiveness, and of how group identification and success relate to biological success. These questions are complex and extend from the realm of biology into those of psychology, sociology, and political science. At the same time, these questions are approachable, and the understanding gained from investigating them might go a long way toward helping the human species outgrow its oppressive inclincations.

There is hard work to be done, and much time to pass, before oppression will disappear entirely as a characteristic of our species. But the objective, as seen from the biological standpoint, is clear: a social and political system which respects and nurtures differences instead of attempting to eliminate them, and one which assures that community actions reflect the wisdom inherent in the assortment of perspectives made available by those differences and not the relative numbers, wealth, or status of the individuals holding the various perspectives.

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