Where Anthropology Went Wrong

Obviously I read a lot of anthropology. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Some anthropological works are really good (these I try to share with you here.) Others are drek. (Sometimes I share these, too–but in the spirit of, “Ew, this tastes really weird… Here, try some!” Goodness only knows why people do that.)

In my opinion, anthropology has two main purposes:

  1. To document human cultures, with priority given to those at greatest risk of disappearing
  2. To make human cultures mutually understandable.

I’m reminded here of the response Napoleon Chagnon gave when asked what the Yanomamo thought he was doing, studying their tribe:

“They arrived at their own conclusion, which I thought was very logical: I’m trying to learn how to become human.” –Napoleon Chagnon

So let’s add #3: Learn what it means to be human.

Some anthropologists specialize in #1. Others are talented at #2. A few can do both. Collectively, the enterprise might get us to #3.

For example, many anthropologists have amassed reams of data on kinship structures, marriage taboos, food/wealth distribution, economic systems (eg hunter-gathering, pastoralism, etc.) If you want to know whether the average milch pastoralist thinks cousin marriage is a good idea, an anthropologist probably has the answer. That’s task #1.

But information doesn’t do much good if it just molders away in some dusty back room of a university library, and the average person doesn’t want to read an anthropologist’s field notes. This is where good writing comes in–crafting an enjoyable, accessible ethnography, like Kabloona, which gives the average reader some insight into another culture. That’s task #2.

Anthropology isn’t supposed to be politicized, but in practice it’s difficult not to get sucked into politics. Anthropologists generally become quite fond of the people they’ve studied and lived with for years. Since they prioritize cultures in danger of disappearing, they end up with both practical and sentimental reasons to side against the more powerful groups in the area–no anthropologist wants to see the people he just spent a decade living with starve to death because a mining company moved into the area and dug up their banana farms.

As a result, the anthropologist often becomes a liaison between the people he studies and the broader world he wants to protect them from.

Additionally, like the quantum physicist, the anthropologist changes the society he studies merely by being present in it. He is an outsider, a person with his own ideas about morality, violence, gender relations, education, money, etc., and moreover, entirely alien to the local economic and social system. He cannot simply slip, unnoticed, into village life without disrupting it in some way–this is the existential problem of anthropology, but since it cannot be solved, (and the wider culture has no qualms about disrupting native life in far larger and more damaging ways, like bulldozing it,) as a practical matter it must simply be laid aside.

One thing anthropologists tend not to do is look very closely at the negatives of the societies they study, such as disease, infant mortality, drug abuse, or violence. After all, who wants to produce a book that boils down to, “I studied these people, and they were brutish, nasty, and unpleasant”?

Let’s compare for a moment two classic works: Elizabeth Thomas’s The Harmless People, whose very title lays out her assertion that the Bushmen are less violent and less capable of killing people than other, more technologically advanced peoples; and Chagnon’s Yanomamo: The Fierce People.

Chagnon actually bothered to calculate how many murders his subjects committed, and discovered that the Yanomamo have murder rates much higher than modern first-world nations. For his efforts he has been thoroughly condemned and attacked by his own profession:

When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization.

Thomas does not bother to offer numerical proof of her claims that Bushmen are more peaceful than other groups, but anyone with a mind for numbers can look at the murders she does report, divide by the number of Bushmen, and conclude that homicide rates are most likely higher in Bushman society than ours.

Of course, Thomas has not been castigated and condemned by the AAA for asserting that first world societies are more homicidal than third-world hunter-gatherers without proof.

It would be simplistic to assert that Marxists and Freudians produce bad anthropology; I am sure they would have equally negative things to say about people like me. Rather, the dominance of anthropology by adherents of any particular political ideology is problematic.

(Anthropologists also tend not to examine very critically the reasons people might want to change their societies.)

The second big problem with anthropology is that most “primitive” societies have disappeared or are mere remnants of their former selves. 100 years ago, we didn’t know there were people living in the middle of Papua New Guinea (and the folks there, I gather, didn’t know about the rest of us.) There were still cannibals, uncontacted tribes of hunter-gatherers, and igloo-dwelling Eskimo. Atlases still had blank spots marked “unexplored.”

By the time Thomas wrote “The Harmless People,” the Bushmen were disappearing. Indeed, the book’s epilogue, in which a private land owner fences off a watering hole where the Bushmen had formerly drunk in the dry season, leading several tribe members to die of thirst, followed by the remaining tribe members’ removal to a settlement, where all of the vices of alcoholism and violence set in, makes for difficult reading.

What’s a modern anthropologist to do? Sure, you could write an incredibly depressing ethnography on the ways traditional lifestyles are disappearing, or you could write a dissertation on the intersection of hip-hop culture and queer identity. (And you can do that without spending ten years in some third-world village with malaria and no internet.)

The result of all of this is that anthropologists sometimes stick their noses where they don’t belong, for purely political reasons. Take, for example, the American Anthropological Association (them again!)’s statement on race:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences.

“Conditioned!” Because there is no evidence that pre-verbal infants notice racial or ethnic differences:

Do babies react differently when they are looking intently at the faces of people of different races?

Psychologist Phyllis Katz has cleverly used habituation to try to answer this question. Katz studied looking patterns among 6-month-old infants. She first showed the babies a series of pictures, each of them was shown a person that was of the same race and gender (e.g., four White women). After four pictures, the babies began to habituate to the pictures, and their attention wavered. Next, Katz showed the babies a picture of a person who was of the same gender but of a different race (e.g., a Black woman), or a picture of a person who was of the same race but of a different gender (e.g., a White man). The logic behind the study was that if the infants didn’t register race or gender, they wouldn’t show a different response to these new pictures– that is, they would continue to show habituation. However, if they registered a difference, the babies should dishabituate, and again look with interest at this new stimulus.

The findings clearly showed that the 6-month-olds dishabituated to both race and gender cues—that is, the infants looked longer at new pictures when the pictures were of someone of a different race or gender. But some other interesting findings emerged. Among these was the finding that for both Black and White infants, the infants attended longer to different race faces when they had habitutated to faces that were of their own race.

Back to the AAA:

Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.

This is dumb. This is really, really dumb. Humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA, but that doesn’t make us the same species. Humans and mice share 92% of our DNA.

Put a dog and a wolf together, and if they don’t kill each other, they’ll breed. Dogs, wolves, dingos, and golden jackals can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but we still consider them different species.

I’m not saying human races are actually different species. I’m saying the AAA is full of idiots who parrot popular science articles without understanding the first thing about them. If these are your “scholarly positions,” you don’t fucking deserve your PhDs.

Oh, and by the way, humans don’t always interbreed. Sometimes one group just exterminates the other. Just ask the Dorset–oh wait you can’t. Because they’re all dead.

Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.

The fact that “blue” and “green” shade into each other on the rainbow does not mean that blue and green do not exist.

And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture.

It’s like the EDAR gene doesn’t exist:

A derived G-allele point mutation (SNP) with pleiotropic effects in EDAR, 370A or rs3827760, found in most modern East Asians and Native Americans but not common in African or European populations, is thought to be one of the key genes responsible for a number of differences between these populations, including the thicker hair, more numerous sweat glands, smaller breasts, and dentition characteristic of East Asians.[7] …The 370A mutation arose in humans approximately 30,000 years ago, and now is found in 93% of Han Chinese and in the majority of people in nearby Asian populations. This mutation is also implicated in ear morphology differences and reduced chin protusion.[9]

Back to AAA:

Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective.

Haak et all's full dataset
Haak et all’s full dataset

Picture 2So that’s why it’s so hard to distinguish an African from a Caribbean Indian, said no one ever.

Genetically, of course, the divisions between the Big Three main human clades are quite plain.

 

…indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.

Unless you need a bone marrow or organ transplant. Then suddenly race matters a lot. Or if you’re trying to live in the Himalayas. Then you’d better hope you’ve got some genes Tibetans inherited from an ancient line of Denisovan hominins their ancestors bred with, present AFAIK nowhere else on Earth, that help them breathe up there.

Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.

People in the past did bad things, so all of their conceptual categories for understanding the world must have been made-up. And evil. There’s no way a European who just met an African and a Native American could have accidentally stumbled on a valid observation about human populations that were historically separated for a long time.

Anyway, the article goes on and on, littered with gems like:

During World War II, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler enjoined the expanded ideology of “race” and “racial” differences and took them to a logical end: the extermination of 11 million people of “inferior races” (e.g., Jews, Gypsies, Africans, homosexuals, and so forth) and other unspeakable brutalities of the Holocaust.

Hear that? If you think there are genetic variations between long-separated human groups, you are basically Hitler and the only logical conclusion is genocide. Because no one ever committed genocide before they invented the idea of race, obviously:

A 2010 study suggests that a group of Anasazi in the American Southwest were killed in a genocide that took place circa 800 CE.[15][16]

Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of the term ‘genocide’, referred to the 1209–1220 Albigensian Crusade ordered by Pope Innocent III against the heretical Cathar population of the French Languedoc region as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history”.[17]

Quoting Eric Margolis, Jones observes that in the 13th century the Mongol armies under Genghis Khan were genocidal killers [18] who were known to eradicate whole nations.[19] He ordered the extermination of the Tata Mongols, and all Kankalis males in Bukhara “taller than a wheel”[20] using a technique called measuring against the linchpin. In the end, half of the Mongol tribes were exterminated by Genghis Khan.[21] Rosanne Klass referred to the Mongols’ rule of Afghanistan as “genocide”.[22]

Similarly, the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane was known for his extreme brutality and his conquests were accompanied by genocidal massacres.[23] William Rubinstein wrote: “In Assyria (1393–4) – Tamerlane got around – he killed all the Christians he could find, including everyone in the, then, Christian city of Tikrit, thus virtually destroying Assyrian Church of the East. Impartially, however, Tamerlane also slaughtered Shi’ite Muslims, Jews and heathens.”[24] Christianity in Mesopotamia was hitherto largely confined to those Assyrian communities in the north who had survived the massacres.[25] Tamerlane also conducted large-scale massacres of Georgian and Armenian Christians, as well as of Arabs, Persians and Turks.[26]

Ancient Chinese texts record that General Ran Min ordered the extermination of the Wu Hu, especially the Jie people, during the Wei–Jie war in the fourth century AD. People with racial characteristics such as high-bridged noses and bushy beards were killed; in total, 200,000 were reportedly massacred.[27]

I’m stopping here. This stuff is politicized drek. It obviously is irrelevant to the vast majority of anthropology (what do I really care if the Inuit are part of the greater Asian clade when I’m just trying to record traditional folk songs?) But this drivel gets served up as the “educated opinions of scholars in the field” (notably, not the field of human genetics) to naive students and they don’t even realize how politically-based it is.

I don’t think anthropologists all need to agree with me about politics, but they should cultivate a healthy interest in science.

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17 thoughts on “Where Anthropology Went Wrong

  1. Anthropology is at its best, in my opinion, when it considers the human group in the same way that a biologist might consider any other living thing. How does this group provide its calories? What sort of tool kit has it developed in conjunction with this? How are mates selected? What sort of tool kit has the group developed in conjunction with this? As soon as we get beyond that, we’re into the subjective weeds. I strongly suspect that there is a continuum of calorie procurement methods from something that approximates pure H&G to something approximating pure agriculture, but it seems that larger, more complex societies incorporate elements from everywhere on the spectrum.

    The American underclass is clearly living as hunter-gatherers, and members from genetic populations more recently living under those conditions are thriving while those from more agricultural backgrounds are flailing (I mean this mostly on the TFR level). Nobody seems to be looking at the modern world this way, though. We look at government programs and spontaneously organizing subcultures that flit in and out of existence without considering how things fit in the basic biological picture. How are people getting their food, and (how?) are people finding mates? We’ve got tools for food that have never existed in the entire history of the known universe, and function somewhat similarly to the Torah idea of manna. Every environment is now a gatherer’s environment. Yet, people aren’t mating with the social tools we’ve got. This suggest that whomever comes up with the right tool for that, wins the future. How do we create fonts of status for our men without ramping up the violence to H&G levels? Anthropology should have ideas and answers, but the anthropologists are largely busy trying to scrounge up whatever status they can find in a field threatened and depleted by the greater culture’s thirst for answers to these same questions.

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    • Musicians do really well, reproductive-wise. I’d wager rock stars are on par with sports stars, and the don’t even risk permanent injury in their line of work.

      That’s a really funny thing when you think about it. Glorification of sports makes sense in some sort of evolutionary context, as people presumably like marrying people who are strong and good at hunting and defending the tribe, and sports are a kind of ritualized showcase of athletic prowess.

      But why is music so important that people show just about as much interest in musicians as athletes?

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      • Perhaps music is a useful proxy for intelligence? Or at least, used to be, and still is to a lesser degree. Someone who can master an instrument, and has the mental ability to write a song, must have something up there worth having.

        Or it could just be the wealth they acquire. I don’t know, are struggling musicians also seen as more attractive than non-musicians?

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      • Proxy for intelligence seems very likely to me, though I think it’s deeper than that because chess is also a proxy for intelligence, but women don’t generally throw their panties at chess stars.

        I’m pretty sure struggling musicians are still seen as attractive. I think Elvis wold have been seen as a sex-symbol even if he’d been paid an average wage; I doubt the average woman watching the Sullivan Show, for example, was calculating how much he was getting paid for the performance.

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      • >and the don’t even risk permanent injury in their line of work.

        Given how many of them die young, I’d dispute that.

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      • True, though that seems more an effect of taking lots of drugs rather than of the singing itself, whereas there’s a pretty direct connection between getting tackled and getting hurt.

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      • Music fits in the realm of religion, in my experience. That’s why subcultures tend to form around musical genres with great ease, and why people are passionate about music to a greater degree than most other cultural artifacts (well, normies at least).

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  2. Actually, I am willing to posit that there are 10 to 20, or more, different human species today. Any taxonomists who uses standard taxonomic procedures would certainly separate the Khoisan from the rest of humanity and might even split them. Then there are the pygmies (two species?) etc.

    The Dobzhansky/Maier species definition, which occurs in all textbooks, barely applies to mammals, let alone the rest of the biosphere, and no practicing taxonomists uses it. Hence, dogs, wolves and coyotes are legitimate species.

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  3. No, see, the evidences of genocide before the invention of the category of race (for example, Greeks didn’t distinguish between ‘Greeks’ and ‘everyone else’) are proof of the non-existence of that category. Genghis Khan killed so many people in Central Asia because he couldn’t tell the difference between them, so he killed them all to be safe.

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  4. I agree that race is more than just a social construct, or “mechanism” as the AAA says, but I have a few quibbles with your POV as well.

    1) “The fact that “blue” and “green” shade into each other on the rainbow does not mean that blue and green do not exist.”

    Right, but as someone familiar with anthropology, I’m sure you know that languages vary widely in how they categorize colours, and dividing up the visible electromagnetic spectrum in any way is more or less arbitrary. For example, Vietnamese and many other languages treat blue & green as a single category, and have to use modifiers like dark or light (or apparently ‘sky’ or ‘leaf’) if they want to make finer disctintions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue%E2%80%93green_distinction_in_language#Vietnamese.

    Nonetheless, we humans are seem very happy to make arbitrary divisions where none exist in nature. It happens with languages (e.g. Dutch and German are separate languages, but apparently their bordering regional dialects are mutually intelligible – effectively the same language), with organisms (dogs, wolves, coyotes and other canids can interbreed, as you mentioned, so they don’t, strictly speaking, meet the definition of separate species), with vowels, with colours, and of course with people as well. When scholars say race doesn’t really exist, what they mean is that strict racial categories don’t exist. It’s a bit like saying “Colours don’t really exist, just visible electromagnetic radiation.” While this statement is true in some sense, it’s not particularly helpful without a lot more explanation.

    In other places I think you’ve mentioned “the big three” races (African, Asian & Caucasian), but as I understand it, there is no formal quantitative definition for these, and the number of major clades you get depends on which algorithm and dataset you use. Looking at the different colours in the data you’ve provided here make it appear as if there should be at least 9 or 10 major races. So, if we no want to make divide humanity into three groups, the names should probably be Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans & East Africans. Since Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined, some analyses might end up with these three major divisions of humanity: Khoisan, Pygmy & Everyone Else.

    I think of race as a ‘socio-biological construct’. Just like colours or species, it’s something that is more important for our perception of the natural world than it is to the natural world itself. There really is only one human race (which could include Neanderthals, Denisovans & others, depending on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter). But just because there’s no strict races, doesn’t mean we’re all the same, and we probably should have some terminology to help make distinctions. For now, the most precise terms are haplogroups and clades, which are understandably difficult for the average person to make sense of (including me). Our informal terms like Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, etc. aren’t terrible, we just need to understand that they don’t represent strict categories, since there is so much variation within any of these groups, which will be the topic of my next quibble.

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  5. I also wanted to say that the differences between humans are probably more prominent in the Americas than the rest of the world because this is where the most divergent groups of people met up after encircling the earth from both the east and west. Native Americans and Northern Europeans represent two extreme ends of the human genetic continuum, and the tropical West Africans brought over by the Europeans were yet another extreme. People from these three backgrounds look so different from each other that when they’re brought together, they look like three different types of human beings, but if we were to place people sampled from other parts of Africa and Eurasia in between them, it would suddenly look more like a long line of human variation, and not three separate groups. I’ve traveled through central Asia and met people from all over India, and never heard people talk about race, despite the wide variety of people that live there. I think this is because it’s easy to see the gradual differences as you pass from one region to the next – it’s clear that it’s a continuum and not separate groups (travelling by train rather than by plane make this more obvious).

    We humans are such great travellers that we managed to encircle the globe and find each other again before we were isolated long enough to become separate species, or even subspecies. Tens of thousands of years are just the blink of an eye in evolutionary time. It’s enough time to adjust to the local ultraviolet light conditions and make a few localized minor morphological changes, but not enough to become even partially sexually incompatible. Along with that, there’s good reason to believe that at least a subset of humans have practiced exogamy for a long time (all primates do it, as I recall), which has ensured that neighbouring groups are related, and thereby slowed down or completely prevented speciation. This, combined with our natural predilection for travelling (and possibly with a predilection for marrying/raping the women of defeated neighbours after a conflict) has ensured that many gene variants have spread far and wide.

    Which brings me to my next quibble:

    2) AAA: “Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them.”

    evolutionistx: “This is dumb. This is really, really dumb. Humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA, but that doesn’t make us the same species. Humans and mice share 92% of our DNA.”

    I’m not a geneticist, but I think you’re comparing apples and oranges here. The AAA is talking about a within-group comparison, and you’re citing between-group comparisons. I’m not sure how they manage to do between-group comparisons when there’s already so much within-group variation, but presumably they come up with some kind of average, or use the highest frequency variants of every gene. Based on the reading I’ve done, I’m very leary of these between-group comparisons, and highly doubt they are meaningful at all. Because there are only four nucleobases in DNA (C, G, A, T), apparently the greatest difference possible between any tow organisms is 75% – which makes percentages even in the mid-90s seem rather low. So there’s a topic for another post for you – please look into it for the rest of us!

    That being said, if we take the numbers you’ve provided at face value, it suggests that humans are as much as 6% different from each other, but at least some of those humans are only 4% different from chimpanzees. I think even the most ardent racist would have to admit that this simply isn’t possible – no human is genetically closer to any chimpanzee than to even the most distantly related human. So clearly the numbers you’ve provided and those quoted from the AAA are referring to different types of measurements.

    Again, I’m not even a competent amateur in this field, but I would still like to try to interpret what the AAA is saying here in my own words, so that others can clarify whether I’ve understood correctly, and explain why if not. If there is greater variation within ‘races’ than between them, I think that means that a person could be more genetically similar to someone from a different race than to someone that is classified as belonging to the same race. This suggests that interracial transplants for at least some types of organs should be possible, and sure enough they are:

    “There was no significant difference in survival when an organ was transplanted between black and white Americans and vice versa.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2954674/

    “Cross-racial donations can, and do, happen with great success when suitable matches are available.” http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,1607,7-127-29843-152055–F,00.html

    While bone marrow transplants do seem to require a higher degree of relatedness, it’s not surprising to learn that despite our external differences, many of our internal parts are very similar, and pretty much completely interchangeable. This is quibble #3, and it is quite minor – of course searching within-race might help with finding a more suitable match for organ transplant – but these sources don’t seem to agree that race “matters a lot”, as you have stated.

    At the same, I heartily agree with you about the AAA’s statement that “…physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.” This is clearly false – for example skin colour does have a meaning – it tells us something about the UV radiation experienced by at least some of a person’s ancestors. Other differences, such as the epicanthic fold found above the eyes of most Asians and Native Americans, and some Europeans and Africans, remain a mystery, but can sometimes still help us determine a person’s rough geographical ancestry based on similar-looking people we’ve seen in the past. In fact, we are so sensitive to minor differences in appearance (even as infants) that any small physical variation is likely to have at least a non-arbitrary meaning to any other human. In the past, it probably played a role in determining whether someone belongs to our family group/tribe/clan or not – and not always for negative reasons, since avoiding inbreeding means finding an out-group mate. In the same vein, similarity in physical appearance could be used as a proxy for determining relatedness, even if it isn’t always reliable (since phenotypes aren’t genotypes).

    To sum up, my understanding of the data is that, when it comes to humans, you truly can’t judge a book by its cover, and two people that look different may actually be more closely related than two people that look more similar. But I might be wrong about this, and I look forward to learning more about it in your future posts.

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