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The Pan Narrans Approach to Science 
15th-May-2009 03:05 pm
anthropology
The reasons I haven't said much about the discussions of race in science fiction and fantasy that have been ricocheting around the relevant sections of the internet this year can be summed up by two points; I've been reading and listening more than having anything to say, and most of my friends have had better things to say than I have.

And then I discovered that there was something I could talk about, but I began to feel doubt about whether I could.

The Chapter of Racefail09 we're calling MammothFail

The latest chapter is about The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede; a speculative fiction novel set in an America which:
  1. has magic
  2. has extant megafauna
  3. was void of human life until the 15th century.
There's a hell of a lot to read on this if you're interested. I might suggest you start with fiction_theory, elynross and FeministSF

The racial issues are clear enough to me ; in the construction of her world, she decided to completely erase, not just one, but several civilisations of people from history. Peoples that have in the last century been subject to genocide, marginalisation and systematic oppression that has led to near extinction for some and complete extinction for others.

I apologise, I don't know more than the absolute basics of American History; I can't name nations and I don't know the exact details of this genocide. Still, I'm not writing novels that deal with the European colonisation of the continents; I think I'm allowed to acknowledge my ignorance on that front. The point is - well, I'm going to quote holychrist:
Basically, to imagine an America (perhaps a world) without genocide and slavery, she erased the victims.
So, if everyone's talking and I don't feel I have anything to contribute to the discussion of this problematic treatment of race, why am I thinking of writing about it - and why am I worried about writing about it? Because people are conflating points 2 and 3 on the above list and the side-effect of that is this, in which people decide that the overkill model of megafaunal extinction is racist and therefore, factually inaccurate.

Scientists Tell Stories Too

I wanted to write one of my big science posts, laying out the facts and supporting the overkill model in North America - because it's my opinion based on what I know (more than most people, less than actual quaternary palaeontologists) that the patchy evidence suggests that the advance of Clovis culture probably had a significant impact on the population at the time on that continent. (In English: I think a group of Native Americans did probably help the extinction process). But I was worried that my motivations for writing such a post would be defensiveness, trying to prove that science isn't racist, dammit! Stop pissing on science just 'cause you don't like the facts!

Which, I remind myself, is bullshit, because of two things I know to be true:
  1. Scientists are storytellers, same as everyone
  2. The institution of scientific academia is a white patriarchy, like every structured institution rooted in European Civilisation, is a white patriarchy.
Science has goals I consider noble: to examine the world, make sense of it, and to see things how they really are. It's a common misconception to assume that just because objectivity is the goal of science, that it automatically achieves it. This misconception actively hinders the pursuit of that goal, just as insisting 'I'm not a racist!' hinders my pursuit of being less racist. (More on that in a later post, maybe.)

It's long been an opinion of mine (supported by Messrs Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen) that the most common way we as humans can understand the world is by telling stories about it. Constantly, all the time. There's a whole other post with examples about that, but the point I want to bring into this post is: when offered two stories about the evidence, people go for the one they like best. Do I need to explain the fallacies in this approach? And yet we always do it.

An example from my area of expertise is summed up in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: Calvin decides to do a paper on the "Tyrannosaurus rex: predator or scavenger" 'debate' and pre-emptively decides on predator  because They're so much cooler that way. It's funny either because of, or if you don't know that it's true; I have honest-to-god had that discussion with people who think that T. rex is too "awesome" to scavenge. Never kind that no extant animal is fully committed to either strategy; if you eat meat, you eat what you can get, and in my opinion it's a particularly irrelevant discussion, fuelled only by both sides who have an attachment to their stories for whichever reason

I'm not immune to this; I am a MASSIVE fan of a model of Early Modern Human society that incorporates kin selection; the Grandmother Hypothesis for the origin of the menopause; the idea that the primary source of nutrition in H-G societies comes from tuber gathering rather than meat; and the rituals around big game hunting to tell a story which fits my ideas about gender and sexuality. This story provides me with a nice antidote to the usual 'men are hard-wired to rape and kill and women hard-wired to be whores' evolutionary psychology bullshit I see around the internet and mainstream media far too often,  because the people saying these things have a distinctly different story about how the world is than I do.

It's a story; but so is the 'men kill and provide nutrients; women seduce and provide compassion' story. It's just that the people telling this story tend (in my experience) to insist that their story is factual, because it's not tainted my clearly political feminist views, and because some other white men like telling this story.

Scientific academia is a white patriarchy; the stories that favour the white male ideal tend to gain more momentum. This is why eugenics is still popular among some circles. It's why, even as recently as the 1990s, schools such as mine in the UK were using nonsensical ideas such as 'Intelligence Quotient' (*hack ptooey*) to enforce a segregated schools system. It's why countless stories gain popularity and others are dismissed. It's not that scientists ourselves are all racists, it's that there's privilege in place and stories that enforce this privilege are favoured.

OK, maybe it is that we're all racist. It depends on how liberally you like to apply the word.

So, that's the problem; the popularity of a story doesn't necessarily reflect exactly how likely it is to be true, but the reverse is also true: a popular story is not untrue by default. And something to bear in mind when discussing anything about human history ('prehistory', in the case of anything I'm going to talk about);

Just because a story has a FedEx Arrow doesn't mean it isn't true.

(One day I'm going to assume you all know what one is and stop self-linking)

You know, I feel dirty typing that out, because it feels like racism-apologetics. But I spent so long in the comments to that post and since trying to explain that authorial-intent doesn't matter in terms of discussing arrows in fictional stories, and talking about 'true stories' provides an extension to that.

Stories don't exist. They're ways of describing the world so humans can understand them, but they don't exist beyond the minds of the people telling the stories to themselves. Letters exist on paper or a screen, sounds exist on the airwaves, but they're just an imperfect way of communicating stories from one mind to another. Things happen in the world, causes have effects, but they don't become stories until a narrative mind processes the evidence of those things and tries to link them together. When I say a story is 'true', I mean it comes closer to objective fact than alternatives, but I don't mean it is factual. And just as, as I said when talking about fictional stories, liking a story with an arrow in it doesn't make you a bigot, believing in a story with an arrow in it doesn't make you a bigot either.

Acting in a bigoted way because you believe in a particular story is still acting in a bigoted way; the motivation for hate doesn't stop it being any less hateful.

So, About Those Mammoths...

I considered writing up a post in my best science-communicator 'these are the facts' story-telling voice, but instead I decided to examine my motivation behind doing that post, and asking myself why I felt awkward doing so. Part of that was that the people arguing otherwise were on 'my side' (the anti-racist side), and if I talked about the evidence for a human-linked extinction, I'd be adding to the conflation mentioned above and derailing the conversation with all my white-scientist privilege, effectively helping to silence the voices of the people who have a problem with Wrede's treatment of the native human populations.

This is my journal, my space, and I can talk about what I want. I choose to talk about, not how I think humans caused extinctions in North America, but how belief in that story interacts with my work on unpacking my knapsack, and whether I feel that favouring that story is a symptom of white privilege, and whether doing so means the story isn't true.

I've decided not to use the space laying out the facts; the palaeontological record is sparse enough to be interpreted in a number of ways, although no where near as sparse as the equivalent record in Australia, and is enough to have persuaded me. But it wouldn't matter if the evidence was laid on thick and obvious; if I chose to believe it for racist means I'd want to know.

I've rambled and skirted the point a lot; so I'll lay it out: I don't think that believing humans caused mass extinctions in North America is a racist or Euro-centric thing to think. I don't think it betrays ignorance about culture (although I'll admit that I am ignorant about Native American culture), and I don't think that it's accusing any culture of being savage or inferior to my own. I think it's an acknowledgement of 'humans sometimes cause extinction' combined with an acknowledgement of 'the biogeographical pattern of Clovis invasion and mass extinctions in North America is different from that in Europe'.

I think what got me most in the comments of the post I linked to, was what appeared to be palaeontological ignorance combined with an attachment to the idea that seeing an arrow in a story means the story is untrue. For a start, there's the implication that the people who became Native Americans only invaded the continent once, which is untrue; however it's the invasion of just one culture (memetic, not necessarily gene-linked) that is linked to extinctions.

I remember as an undergraduate, after a lecture on the megafaunal extinctions, I had a brief discussion with another (also white) student, who took a line similar to one seen in the comments  - Native Americans have a subsistence culture and therefore would never hunt any animal to extinction. My take then wasn't to deny the culture, but to wonder whether it took a mass extinction or two to teach humans in that environment that maybe they should respect the environment. It's taking a lot of environmental impact at the moment to suggest to humanity-at-large (not just White Westerners, by any means) that we should keep that level of respect. I'm not sure it's at all realistic to assume that lifestyle has been static over 15 ky, and so - yes, I think I like the 'made a mistake and learn' story better. That's another argument based on comparing stories and picking one.

There was an emotional backlash when I first encountered the implication that this model was racist. My first reaction was to get defensive and claim that 'actually these are the facts'. that reaction invoked one of self-doubt; was I getting defensive over having my privilege challenged or over apparent ignorance of science? And would my talking about this detract from the real issue of the problems in The Thirteenth Child?

I certainly don't think Wrede's decision to remove Native Americans from the equation is made any less problematic by human-linked extinctions. It'd be easy enough just to say "OK, they didn't cause extinction", after all. So I don't think "humans didn't cause mass-extinction!" is an effective argument against the novel even if it were true*. And I don't think the arguments put forward in that post were particularly based in fact. It just took me a lot of reflection into the ways of storytelling to decide that it was alright to believe in the story I do.

Now maybe I'm in the place to actually write about the megafaunal extinctions. Maybe another day. 

*Remember when Colin Powell was talking about the people claiming Obama was a Muslim? It might be factually accurate to say "no he isn't!" but the right argument is "So what if he was?"
Opinions 
15th-May-2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
A fascinating and thought-provoking post.

I take your point about scientists being story-tellers like any others, but that sort of thing makes us poor laypersons a bit nervous! Some of us are fascinated by science, but we rely on scientists to explain their discoveries in terms we can understand. We read what we can, but we don't have time to read everything. So, we only get a part of the picture, and even that is inevitably going to be coloured by the individual bias of whichever scientist wrote it.

Even so, I have faith in the scientific method. It has its own kind of natural selection. Any theory that is inherently flawed will eventually be selected out, and the good, strong theories will survive. But it would be a great shame if those "good" theories came under attack because we found them politically inconvenient. The Universe has no politics. If a theory accurately describes the world around us, then we should accept it as "truth," whether it fits in with our agenda or not.

As to this Mammoth business, it seems to me that ascribing some kind of higher morality to prehistoric cultures is just racism of a different sort. I find it hard to accept that homo sapiens just suddenly started to exploit the environment irresponsibly in the last couple of centuries, it's only just that we've recently developed the technology to do it on a global scale. Why should prehistoric cultures be any less inclined to cause extinctions than we are?

Surely those kind of "noble savage" notions were discredited decades ago? It may be nice to imagine prehistoric humans living some kind of idyllic existence, in perfect harmony with their environment, but to me it just sounds like a fairy tale.
15th-May-2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
I take your point about scientists being story-tellers like any others, but that sort of thing makes us poor laypersons a bit nervous! Some of us are fascinated by science, but we rely on scientists to explain their discoveries in terms we can understand. We read what we can, but we don't have time to read everything. So, we only get a part of the picture, and even that is inevitably going to be coloured by the individual bias of whichever scientist wrote it.
Unfortunately you're just going to have to deal with that. I mean, how do you know anything about the world outside your own limited experience without a) constructing your own stories and b) listening to other people's stories?

As to this Mammoth business, it seems to me that ascribing some kind of higher morality to prehistoric cultures is just racism of a different sort. I find it hard to accept that homo sapiens just suddenly started to exploit the environment irresponsibly in the last couple of centuries, it's only just that we've recently developed the technology to do it on a global scale. Why should prehistoric cultures be any less inclined to cause extinctions than we are?

It doesn't negate your point, but the impression I get is not that it's not ascirbing this morality to a prehistoric people that lost it, but to an extant (but endangered) people that have always had it.
19th-May-2009 10:00 am (UTC)
It doesn't negate your point, but the impression I get is not that it's not ascirbing this morality to a prehistoric people that lost it, but to an extant (but endangered) people that have always had it.

Again though, I think it's a strangely prejudicial way of thinking. Apart from a bit of cultural variation, I think all people are basically the same.
15th-May-2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
Put it a different way, I'm a political scientist by training if not by paid work.

we rely on scientists[journalists] to explain their discoveries[the scandals] in terms we can understand

What's the difference? How accurately is the media reporting stories to you? For example, what proportion of MPs have a)done nothing wrong, b) made a bookkeeping error or c) actually tried to fleece the system over expenses?

Guarantee most people asked will horribly inflate the last two and underestimate the first one.

Same with science—I love reading science stories, but you have to take everything with a pinch of salt, as there's no such thing as an unbiased reporter.

Anyway, gotta go, SB finishes work.
19th-May-2009 10:08 am (UTC)
Very true of course, but the important difference is that many journalists have an agenda other than reporting the truth - they want to sell papers, or push a certain political message. I'm sure there are plenty of unscrupulous scientists who twist their findings for their own ends too, but I would hope the scientific community would expose them sooner rather than later.

But yeah, you have to keep some objectivity and weigh up the reliability of what you read, and that's true for news and science. The trouble is that I'm not qualified to properly assess what I'm being told about scientific subjects, so I have to take it on trust, for better or worse.
16th-May-2009 06:33 am (UTC)
I take your point about scientists being story-tellers like any others, but that sort of thing makes us poor laypersons a bit nervous!

Some of us :) It makes me happy actually, partly because I have the same respect for "pan narrans" (used to have a quote about this on my LJ) that Debi does; I just love that science is a story, usually presented to us as a list of Great (old, dead, white) Men or their Great Discoveries -- heliocentrism, calculus, structure of the atom, relativity, etc.etc. -- as if it were all simple and obvious.

But really each of those things has its own context to appreciate: competing theories, political or religious rather than scientific motivations for popularity or acceptance, interesting cul-de-sacs in our knowledge base (my favorite is the aether, and I do sentimentally hope dark matter will one day join it there as a speed bump on the road to understanding).

Besides making science a pleasingly human thing -- I wouldn't like it nearly so much if it was just robotic computation, or rules a deity engraved on stone tablets on a mountain top -- this is also the great strength of science, that it is not a list of facts but a process that happens among impossibly many people, all the time, checking and balancing each other, cooperating to do more than any of us could on our own.

Yes it's tricky and yes there's always noise in the signal, even with excellent people ranging from Debi to Marcus du Sautoy, who took over Dawkins' role for the Public Understanding of Science and actually seems able to do that job rather than push his own agenda, to help explain this to us. And the need for science communicators is fine with me because I think humans know best how to explain things to humans; we can make machines work on ones and zeros but people need stories, and only other people are going to be able to make sense of how and why and what kind of stories work best on us.
19th-May-2009 10:17 am (UTC)
Yes, good science communicators are vital. If we had more of them, then we wouldn't have hysterical reactions to things like the Large Hadron Collider!

15th-May-2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Anonymouse
"OK, maybe it is that we're all racist"
We're not all racist, but we are all xenophobic outside our village. Racism is an emotive 'rationalisation' of instinctive xenophobia, driven by the human need to find patterns. The cure is peaceful co-existence, which removes the xenophobia.

To make a serious issue of humans causing mass extinctions is to miss the point that maybe they did (and they did - see Rapa Nui aka Easter Island) and maybe they didn't. But either way, they didn't SET OUT to; it just happened that way. They are no more to 'blame' than the dino-killer was to blame for hitting Yucatan. And humans have been highly beneficial to many species (chickens, the 'flu virus, cockroaches, etc). Don't blame humans for being human, but don't defend them, either. Just try and understand them as part of nature. With understanding comes the opportunity for control, if we want to.
15th-May-2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
I love you, but I wish you'd at least sign off your comments.

We're not all racist, but we are all xenophobic outside our village. Racism is an emotive 'rationalisation' of instinctive xenophobia, driven by the human need to find patterns. The cure is peaceful co-existence, which removes the xenophobia.
I don't disagree, but I tend to use 'xenophobia' to imply prejudice based on nationality, which is just as universal. And I don't think it can be removed by peaceful co-existence. I don't think you can remove the instinct to divide the world into 'us and them'.

Apart from that, how does this differ from my point?

They are no more to 'blame' than the dino-killer was to blame for hitting Yucatan.
IDK, humans have the ability to understand consequences and actions, and all that free-will stuff, and so yes, we're to blame for the consequences of our actions, whether the consequence was intended or not.

Does that mean anyone currently living has any karmic consequences for the extinction of any extinct species? Nope. But the nature of being human is to accept responsibility for our own actions.

Just try and understand them as part of nature. With understanding comes the opportunity for control, if we want to.
SELF-control. You mean SELF-control, right?
15th-May-2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
Anonymouse
Sorry about not signing : ID.

Xenophobia means, loosely, fear of strangers. I don't take it to mean prejudice based on anything: it's simply an evolutionary trait in a group- (extended family-, clan-) based species of great ape. You can't remove the "instinct to divide the world into 'us and them'", but, by encouraging co-existence, and enforcing it peaceably, you can remove the "them".

"IDK, humans have the ability to understand consequences and actions, and all that free-will stuff, and so yes, we're to blame for the consequences of our actions, whether the consequence was intended or not."

'blame' implies wrongdoing implies absolute morality. Our actions have consequences, but those actions are also consequences, so how far back do you go before you hit the 'absolute action'? I am not to blame for wiping out the mammoths, and I don't see why I should be expected to feel guilty. And I'm sure their contemporary, the smilodon, would have had no compunction about wiping out us.

As I say, perhaps we now understand enough to be expected to accept responsibility, but we can't be blamed for actions whose consequences we couldn't be expected to foresee.

"SELF-control. You mean SELF-control, right?"
No, I meant 'control'. Humans manipulate nature as a matter of routine and in order to survive. With understanding comes the ability to channel that control more precisely (for good or ill, but especially for good). Without understanding, there is no opportunity.

(signed) ID.
15th-May-2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
We're (unsurprisingly) idealogically aligned on the xenophobia thing, give or take a fews semantics. The thing is, I don't think it's possible to 'remove' the 'them', I just think we should deal with the co-existence.

(Removing the them = loss of diversity or ignoring diversity, and that's not desirable)

'blame' implies wrongdoing implies absolute morality. Our actions have consequences, but those actions are also consequences, so how far back do you go before you hit the 'absolute action'? I am not to blame for wiping out the mammoths, and I don't see why I should be expected to feel guilty. And I'm sure their contemporary, the smilodon, would have had no compunction about wiping out us.
I was using 'blame' and 'responsibility' more or less synonymously, and I wasn't talking about living humans accepting blame or feeling guilty. Humans having caused extinctions in the past confers a responsibility (and yes, blame, because humans are aware of consequences) on those humans, not on their descendants.

I'm not to blame for any of your actions, but you are. Because humans have the responsibility that comes with actions.

we can't be blamed for actions whose consequences we couldn't be expected to foresee.

Ah, I get you. Sorry, I was using 'blame' in a slightly more pragmatic way; without condemnation of actions that had a probably unforeseen action. But if your actions have negative consequences, you accept those consequences, that's what I mean by blame.

No, I meant 'control'. Humans manipulate nature as a matter of routine and in order to survive. With understanding comes the ability to channel that control more precisely (for good or ill, but especially for good). Without understanding, there is no opportunity.

I have moral issues with the idea of controlling other human beings.
15th-May-2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
I want to read this megafauna extinction post of yours. :D

The One thing that puzzles me about the whole thing is, why, if you are writing an AU, does it have to be the American Continent at all? Why can't you have some entirely fictional continent like Lemuria or something that has just somehow managed to not be populated with anything but Cool Megafauna?

(Other puzzlers include, "Why does she think her only options to write aboriginals are 'Savage' or 'Noble Savage'?" and "Does she really think she's covering any kind of new ground here, seriously?!")
15th-May-2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
My major objection to this is:

why are we viewing human-caused extinctions prior to culpable "modern" civilisation as morally good/bad and not just one species proving more successful than another?
15th-May-2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
This is a value of 'we' that doesn't necessarily include me.
15th-May-2009 06:14 pm (UTC)
Sorry, should have been clearer about that.
15th-May-2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
Tudors vs Mammoths sounds an interesting concept for a world, (and I don't understand why you have to remove the Native Americans to do it) but I know exactly how it would really end- the guys with guns will wipe out the mammoths, even faster than the Clovis guys could have IRL. And frankly that isn't really a book I want to read. I'd be much more interested in something with the megafauna in the modern US.

And I'm not even going to go near the guys who think the overkill model is racist. I'm trying to resist the urge to point out the existence of Keystone Species, and how dependant entire ecosystems can be on a single organism, but I know it won't make any difference.
16th-May-2009 12:38 am (UTC)
No clue about Clovis et al. (when I hear Clovis, I think Saki :-) ), but the world in question does have magic.
16th-May-2009 08:05 am (UTC)
Exactly. Another reason why that world's removed form this one, and the causes of extinction in this world shouldn't factor.
16th-May-2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
I was reacting to the list beginning

"The latest chapter is about The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede; a speculative fiction novel set in an America which:

1. has no magic"
16th-May-2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
Ooops, typo. Thanks very much for pointing it out.
18th-May-2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
hah, i have had a week or so to sit back and have a good think about that post you mentioned, and... well. i'm going to leave it as is, because i believe in not eating my words (or in this case, pretending like they didn't exist), but let's just say that opening my proverbial mouth while pissed off is never the greatest idea. upon (multiple) rereadings, there are a whole host of problems with it, archaeological ignorance arguably being the least of them. *headdesk*

i don't believe that "humans caused mass extinctions" is in itself a racist statement, but there are definitely ways in which it can be/has been used to make a racist argument, depending on which specifics people choose to include or omit. the point you make here- namely, the fact that science is a white patriarchic institution- was looming large in my head when i spoke up, and it was one of the things that made me question the likelihood of the overkill theory. (not the main factor- climate change sounded more plausible to me, given my ignorance of the timeline- but one of them.) however, just because academic institutions are what they are, it doesn't mean that the evidence given is necessarily invalid; humans are fallible- Native Americans no less than any others- and like you said, it takes mistakes for people to figure out what they're doing wrong.

i think that somewhere in my initial rant is an argument that ought to be streamlined, or at least detangled from the wordflail, but today is not the day for me to accomplish that. so, instead, thanks for your thoughtful post; i'll keep it in mind if/when i actually do get around to doing so. :)
18th-May-2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for commenting! I'm very glad we were able to make each other think. I shall work on a general "here's an overview" post on the palaeontology/archaeology, that hopefully can be detangled from the discussion about the book.

Your initial anger was wholy justified, and again, thank you very much for commenting.
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