Dec 11 2023

Cultural Blindness

Not a crow.

One of the core tenets of scientific skepticism is what I call neuropsychological humility – the recognition that while the human brain is a powerful information processing machine, it also has many frailties. One of those frailties is perception – we do not perceive the world in a neutral or objective way. Our perception of the world is constructed from multiple sensory streams processed together and filtered through internal systems that include our memories, expectations, biases, assumptions and (critically) attention. In many ways, we see what we know, what we are looking for, and what we expect to see. Perhaps the most internet-famous example of this is the invisible gorilla, a dramatic example of inattentional blindness.

Far more subtle is what might be called cultural blindness – we can perceive differences that we already know exist or with which we are very familiar, but otherwise may miss differences as a background blur. On my personal intellectual journey, one dramatic example I often refer to is my perception before and after becoming a birder. For most of my life birds were something in the background I paid little attention to. My internal birding map consisted of a few local species and broad groups. I could recognize cardinals, blue jays, crows, pigeons, and mourning doves. Any raptor was a “hawk”. There were ducks and geese, and then there was – everything else. I would probably call any small bird a sparrow, if I thought to call it anything at all. I knew of other birds from nature shows, but they were not part of my world.

The birding learning curve was very steep, and completely changed my perception. What I called “crows” consisted not only of crows but ravens and at least two types of grackle. I can identify the field markings of several hawks and two vultures. I can tell the subtle differences between a downy and hairy woodpecker. At first I had difficulty telling a chickadee from a nuthatch, now the difference is obvious. I can even tell some sparrow species apart. My internal birding map is vastly different, and that affects how I perceive the world.

The same is true culturally for different groups of people. As a child I started out with broad vague categories, and as I matured I realized that these categories contained a lot of diversity. I further realized how much personal experience affects how much detail we perceive. It’s almost embarrassing now to think about how little I knew about certain cultures, but of course we all start with maximal ignorance and can’t be blamed for that. But we can take responsibility for our own education and attempts to grow beyond whatever subculture we grew up in.

One interesting example I remember – one of those profound moments of realization – has to deal with Arab culture. Again, to my younger self, the Middle East was a vast undifferentiated region of the world. I could recognize when someone was from that part of the world, and I knew the names of some of the countries, but little else. One example of this is that I knew that Middle Eastern men wore what I called a “turban”, and that was about all I knew about it. I perceived no further detail. I was later introduced to Arabic culture through my wife’s family. I remember seeing a poster on the wall of one of her relatives, which included pictures of 30 or so different Arabic men, each with a different style of head wrap (keffiyeh is the general term), “turbans” being only one subtype, each from a different part of the Middle East and surrounding areas outside the Middle East. I was struck by how different and specific they were, and was metaphorically slapped in the face with my previous ignorance and cultural blindness.

One of the lessons I also learned as a skeptic is that these specific examples of our intellectual world opening up are not isolated or quirky event. They are ubiquitous. We should take these individual experiences and extrapolate them to the rest of the world. Confronting the depths of our own ignorance – to the point where we literally cannot even perceive the details of reality – should be humbling. We like to think that our “gut instincts” are largely about logic and common sense, and sometimes they may be, but they are also about bias and perception. When our instincts brush up against reality, we should not assume it is the former. That is a time for exploration and humility.

One topic where my instincts proved to be mostly wrong, because of cultural blindness, is the topic of race – more specifically, the notion that race does not really exist. My intuition tells me that I can identify at least the continent of origin or someone without difficulty. Certainly, this must mean something. But, being a science communicator I knew I had to get this right, and I was extremely curious what the experts had to say on the issue. After an extensive deep dive I realized that my initial instinct was, essentially, cultural blindness. You may be having this reaction right now also, and that’s OK. We all perceive the world from our own perspective. The power of science is to give us a new and hopefully more objective persepective.

The point is not that there aren’t genetic differences among subpopulations of humans. There is. The point, rather, is that there is no objective level which we can call race, and the traditional “races” that we speak about are cultural constructs, not genetic reality. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that there is a lot of genetic mixing of the various human subpopulations. They are therefore not that distinct. They have also not been separated very long evolutionarily speaking. The genetic result is that there is much more genetic diversity within any group than there is between groups. So even if various groupings have some reality in terms of genetic clustering, they are much more superficial than you might think.

But even more importantly, if we took a genetic map of humanity, looking at all the branching points, clusterings, and degree of disparity and diversity, there is no objective way to divide them into what people generally think about in terms of race. If you looked at such a map, just of genetic diversity, without looking at what people looked like, you would not divide that map up into existing “races”. Depending on how you analyze it, something like 83% of all genetic diversity is within African populations, with the rest of the world representing only 17%. From this perspective, a geneticist would divide the world into at least four genetic groups of Africans, and one group for all non-Africans. And even then, the genetic diversity between the African groups would be much greater than the non-African group.

But from our perspective, we use the most obvious outward example of genetic diversity (skin) to divide the world, but that is all perception. From an African perspective, I can imagine there are vast differences between different populations, and everyone outside Africa looks roughly similar. The bottom line – there is no objective genetic reality to the current scheme of “races”, which are mostly a cultural construct based mostly on continent of origin. Races are a matter of perception, not genetic reality.

Lumping all Africans into one race is similar to thinking that all small brown birds are “sparrows” or all large predatory birds are “hawks”.

The most important change personally, however, I think is the fact that I now love having my eyes opened to a perception to which I was previously blind. It is no longer disconcerting, it’s expected. It’s welcome. It is the only attitude to have, because we are all starting out as maximally ignorant with a very narrow perception. Our only real choices are to stay stagnant is that narrow perception, or to learn and grow.

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