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:
- has magic
- has extant megafauna
- 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
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
group of Native Americans did
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:
- Scientists are storytellers, same as everyone
- 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?"