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Across cultures and throughout history, racism and slavery have long been painful parts of the human experience [1]. Today, many desire to live in a post-racial society, but we face heavy histories, shame and confusion about our own natures [2].

Before we begin decoding racism in the context of genetic engineering, let’s start with a working definition. In the individual human, racism is a snap judgment based on race, leading to fear or violence. In a society, racism can become institutionalized into segregation and in the extreme, race-based slavery, resulting in not only denial of resources, but denial of freedom and life.

The violence against slaves in America grew to the epitome of non-compassion, a deadness to the suffering of others. How did it happen? How did we go from newborns to taking pleasure in brutal punishments and postcard lynchings? [3]

3 Billion Years Ago: Scarcity & Collaboration

Going back to the beginning, 3 billion years ago, life was a collection of unicellular organisms, swarming around seeking energy from sunlight and other energy sources to complete metabolic functions [4]. These organisms are the precursors of our own DNA [5]. Without energy, these organisms would die.

This scarcity has been the backbone of our evolution into an animal and then human species. We compete for survival, against other animals, working both with our fellow man and against him. We love, and we murder. We share, and we steal. We welcome, and we shun.

As humans, we exist on this earth in duality. A mix of yin and yang, dark and light, of hot and cold. Denying the existence of either extreme is a denial of ourselves, a seesaw without the other end. We can’t exist.

The Human Mind Today: Fear & Awareness

Why would a police officer mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man? Police reports sometimes cite “aggressive stance” or “unknown object”, but is there more to the story? In seeking answers, science comes to our aide, showing that racism is deeply rooted in our minds beyond our own awareness.

In a 2004 study, 13 white subjects who were proven to be consciously unprejudiced were subliminally shown black faces, quickly flashed for under 0.3 seconds, underneath conscious awareness. The part of their brains that control fear, the amygdala, was activated. However, when shown the image for 0.525 seconds, just long enough for conscious awareness, the fear response was inhibited [6].

In the case of police actions, where life and death decisions are often made in under a second, the slightest presence of racism may be enough to tip the scales so that an unarmed black man is 5 times more likely to be killed than an unarmed white man [7]. The Harvard study shows, though, that just because we might experience race-based fear initially, does not mean that we are biologically compelled to act on it. We have choice.

It begs the question, where does this fear initially come from?

The Inertia of Memories: Eugenics & Story

Memories become heavy over time with inertia, grooved into our minds like a deep river. Confirmation bias means that once our minds are set they are hard to change [8].

In the early 1900s the popular science of eugenics swept across the nation and world. Seeking to enhance the gene pool, racial biologists measured skulls searching for correlations between race, violence, and other undesirable behaviors [9]. These studies provided justification for forced sterilization of Native and African Americans [10].


(above) A satirical representation of the eugenics movement as shown in “The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”

We form thoughts and biases in two ways: the first from direct experience, the second from storytelling and culture. This means that a fear can spread from generation to generation, with no direct experience, only through stories, advertising, and art - the things that make up culture.

Cultural Genetics and DNA

Through culture, stories propagate themselves like genes do. They mutate and spread from generation to generation, and they feed off of emotion, a social energy, the same way that DNA feeds off of energy for survival and replication.

Where our genes end and our culture begins is an age-old question, one that has not yet been answered by science. As we enter an era of genetic engineering, it’s important to understand our desires and thoughts about what we value as individuals and as a society. Eugenics is a reminder that even scientists are subject to bias and subconscious reasoning.

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