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Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective Revisited

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by Paul Grobstein
Published in Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Spring 1989; Published on Serendip, 1994-95

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.

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