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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Trigger Warning: Contains discussion of suicide, mentions of methods of suicide, and descriptions of suicidal thought processes.

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A few days ago, news broke of the genome-sequencing of DNA from a 7000-year-old skeleton found in Spain. While information about the ancient (variously described) man-or-boy’s genetic information is of course interesting on all sorts of levels — for instance, his lactose intolerance gives clues to the timing of pastoralism — both of the news sources I encountered focused primarily on his appearance. You see, he was (OMG) dark-skinned, but … get this … he had … BLUE EYES! I know right! Here’s the Guardian: Swarthy, blue-eyed cave man revealed using DNA from ancient tooth and the New Scientist: Ancient European hunter-gatherer was a blue-eyed boy.

The New Scientist also noted that in addition to dark skin, the man/boy had “hair like his African ancestors”. Both they and the Guardian chose to illustrate the story with this image:

Three days later, the Guardian ran this story about how nearly 20% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in modern humans. The article goes on to detail how much of the DNA that’s been retained is in keratin, a protein found in hair, nails, and skin. Now, I’m no geneticist, but to me that certainly implies that it’s at least possible that things like straight hair and relatively light skin — i.e., the traits shared by most non-African human populations, who carry Neanderthal DNA — might have come from Neanderthals. Indeed, the New Scientist’s version of the same story goes into detail specifically about Neanderthals passing on at least one of the genes involved in skin pigmentation, and speculates that Neanderthal keratin might have influenced Eurasians’ straight hair. The Guardian, though, chose to illustrate that story like this:

(The New Scientist, to their credit, used an illustration of a white guy of apparently indeterminate species.)

Now, look. I’m not an archaeologist, or a geneticist, or in any way qualified to comment on the actual science behind these stories. I’m not commenting on the science behind them. And it’s possible (though it seems unlikely) that the two illustrations above are fair representations of something that whatever the actual science behind these stories indicates. If so, though, it got well lost in translation. I try very hard, as a matter of general principle, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to extend maximal argumentative charity. But when one news story says “dark-skinned, blue-eyed man/boy with African-textured hair” and is illustrated with a drawing of a white guy with a tan, while another talks about Neanderthals having imparted skin and hair DNA to Eurasian humans, and is illustrated with a picture of a person with light eyes and Neanderthal brow ridges but who looks otherwise African, it’s hard to see that as anything but the tired, insidious repetition of the old idea that African people are somehow more “primitive” than others, particularly Europeans. The modern human, being human, is made as light as possible given the evidence presented in the story the illustration accompanies, and then a few shades lighter than that, just for good measure. While the Neanderthal, an extinct species whose very name has become synonymous with ‘primitive’, well, they’re well ancient, right? Better make them as brown as possible, no matter what the actual evidence being presented is saying. It is as though whoever makes (or matches) the illustrations for these stories did not even read their contents — they just went with whichever image “felt right”, which of course means “moar primitive = moar darker”. It is not only contributing to the stigmatization of Blackness (a drop in the bucket, maybe, but still); it is quite literally dehumanizing it.

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On Wednesday, 18 February, at high noon, some 60-odd St Andrews students poured into Lower College Hall, the big important reception room on the main quad. We’re occupying in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s (most recent) invasion of Gaza, and in solidarity with the Palestinian people and with students in the other universities who’ve undertaken similar occupations; we are demanding that the university take certain steps to redress its involvement in the Israeli war machine, and to provide medical and educational aid to Palestinians.

I’ve been here, on and off, since the beginning — though I didn’t find out about it until the morning it happened, having missed the previous meeting leading up to it. I found out because I went downstairs for breakfast and found that my housemate had piled most of our dry-goods up on the stove with a note saying ‘for the occupation’. But I didn’t know where and I didn’t know when, so I went off to my lecture. An hour after that finished, I found myself in the quad, gathered with a cluster of friends, tense and expectant in the bright sunlight. Wondering how many of the dozens of students were there for our cause, and not just incidentally. And then we were all pouring inside.

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My body is currently covered in bruises. Well, not covered, but over the past week I’ve definitely added to the usual assortment of random bruises I get being clumsy in the kitchen. On Wednesday night, Neil and Daniel were tickling me and I kneed myself in the nose so hard it bled for about 20 minutes, and has bled again a few times since, when I’ve blown my nose. On Saturday, starting up a bonfire with nothing but found wood, I managed to bounce a big rock off a pallet I was trying to break, which landed on the side of my knee. I dropped a plate on my head clearing up after the Freshers’ Fair yesterday. But the most interesting bruises are from diving onto the floor at said Freshers’ Fair. The army always sends along several recruiters, so some friends and I decided to have a die-in to protest their presence [in Iraq, in the Freshers’ Fair, in general…]. Six of us strapped loosely-sealed bags of ketchup under our clothing and made our way to the army stalls. We cried out in pain and fell, writhing, on the floor, where after a few ketchup-releasing death throes we lay motionless. I’m not entirely sure what happened next; I had my eyes closed, and I couldn’t hear much of anything either, because there was loud music pumping from a nearby stall. Harry, Daniel and Luke were with us, distributing explanatory fliers and talking to people. I could feel people putting things on me, and [other?] people taking them off again. Various feet prodded me; one definitely booted foot prodded me rather firmly on the top of the head. I half-hoped one of them might knock my nose and start it bleeding again. I heard a voice from the direction of my feet threaten to stand on us if we didn’t get up. A creak in the floor by my left ear was quickly followed by the unmistakable sound of someone having jumped and stamped — inches from my skull — so hard the floor shook. After a while, Harry quietly informed each of us that if we didn’t move on our own, the Union would call the police. I opened my eyes to see that we were surrounded by security guards. Apparently we were a fire hazard. We got up and walked out peacefully. The army guys, who had been so hostile moments before, now joked and laughed, thanking us for the free publicity. To make a polite exit, I turned and shook the hand of the nearest one — only I made sure to smear my ketchup-blood on it first. “You’re disgusting,” he told me, and I smiled. I felt beautiful.

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