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It is admittedly difficult to discuss topics such as privilege, marginalization and oppression without reducing them to the equivalent of magicians’ tricks gone awry. All three concepts are taken as mere tokens, to be taken up and played, and to be abandoned when no longer prudent. The social justice movement treats power imbalance and inequality as mere social constructions that people with axes to grind unjustly employ against the hapless and helpless. In order to make an equitable world, privilege and power imbalance must be abandoned, and a raising of consciousness is needed to compel those who have privilege and power to set them aside for good.
Unfortunately, this view ignores the rich history of these concepts and overlooks what history tells us: that they are not arbitrary and cannot merely be picked up and put down at whim. Rather, wealth, poverty, privilege, marginalization and oppression are very much a part of us and are inextricably written into our biology and history, at least for some of us.
It seems that in the recent debates about race, for example, there are really two questions jockeying for the same airspace. Put simply, one question addresses the biology of human difference, and the other concerns the rise of economic and technological inequality.
It seems churlish to even discuss the biology of human difference. We are all different. We are all unique individuals. Our genetic codes, physical features and (to an extent) emotions and behaviors are entities of physics and biology. We evolved differently, with many (ultimately unsuccessful) cousin species. Over time, we spread out into different climates, interbred with each other and with our unique sets of neighbors and evolved light skin, dark skin, flat faces, prognathic jaws, blue eyes, brown eyes, great height, short stature and a host of other physical features.
Yet this really doesn’t matter much on its own. A human with light skin and blue eyes, scraping away at the frozen soil in Siberia, has little immediate advantage over a human with dark skin and dark eyes scraping away at the hot sand in Africa, or over a human scraping away mud in Southeast Asia. Recent scientific inquiries have shown specific traits of hunter-gatherer societies (such as egalitarianism of gender roles, food sharing, slow growth rate and relative nomadism) that have persisted in modern hunter-gatherer communities.
Agriculture sprang up all over the human-inhabited world in different times and places. But the agriculture of the ancient Near East provided some distinct advantages (besides being the first), such as having animals that could be both domesticated and farmed and grains such as wheat, which contain protein and can be stored for long periods of time.
Livestock was the clincher, though. Many advanced civilizations sprang up around agriculture, but all farmed animals (with the exception of the llama) have wild ancestry in Eurasia (as do the vast majority of domesticated animals). Goats and sheep provided meat as well as milk, hair and hides. Horses could be ridden and put to work. Cattle provided meat, hides, milk and draft power. With long-stored, protein-rich grains, as well as livestock, humans could inhabit the first cities and support the first specialists.
Regardless of whether or not fiscal economy actually arose with the advent of agriculture, the jaw-dropping complexity of the early civilizations of the Near East (with their writing, numerical system, codes of law, urban social stratification, royalty and careful records of transactions) must give a modern historian pause. Non-farming specialists began to work with local metals, manufacture weapons (forged ever better under the pressures of social conflict), produce technological elements of science, art and music and sow the seeds of philosophy, organized religion and government. It is amazing what ancient humans could accomplish once they were consistently able to feed themselves energy-rich food.
Where is all this going? It is the strong who trample the weak, the rich who trample the poor. Societies that can produce the most food of the highest quality in the widest variety of situations can logically field a military, support a monarchy or sail around the world. Colonialism simply allows those who come from a history of being well-fed enough to let experimentation happen, conquering those who have not had that luck.
Thus, whenever I see a white college student, reeking of privilege, I recall the coincidence (or causal relationship) between white physical features and animal agriculture. It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals, or whether Eurasian features just happen to be a poor man’s clue to agricultural history.
Cattle, it was recently discovered, were nearly unable to be domesticated. All the cattle alive today descend from a foundation herd of about 80 animals. It does stand as fact that English colonists in Africa were able to tame zebras to be ridden or driven, and there is a long history of elephant use in Southeast Asia. Yet it is also fact that wild animals in Africa and the New World were left untapped, while some wild Eurasian animals were domesticated.
Natural inequality — inequality of history — isn’t something that can be taken up or abandoned at will. Rather, it gives us history and makes us human.
M. Dzhali Maier ’17 studies science and society.