The Idiocy of Categoric Purity

I realized yesterday that the Left has an odd idea of “purity” that underlies many of their otherwise inexplicable, reality-rejecting claims.

The left has, perhaps unconsciously, adopted the idea that if groups of things within a particular category exist, the groups must be totally independent and not overlap at all.

In the case of genetics, they think that for a genetic group to “exist” and be “real”, it must hail from a single, pure, founding population with no subsequent mixing with other groups. We see this in a recently headline from the BBC: Is this the last of the Aryans? 

Deep in India’s Ladakh region live the Aryans, perhaps the last generation of pure-blooded people and holders of possibly the only untampered gene pool left in the world.

These actually-called-Aryans might be fabulous, interesting people, but there is no way they are more pure and “untampered” than the rest of us. The entire sub-headline is nonsense, because all non-Africans (and some Africans) have Neanderthal DNA. They aren’t even pure Homo sapiens! Africans btw have their own archaic DNA from interbreeding with another, non-Neanderthal, human species. None of us, so far as I know, is a “pure” Homo sapiens.

Besides that, the proto-Indo-European people whom these Aryans are descended from where themselves a fusion of at least two peoples, European hunter-gatherers and a so far as I know untraced steppe-people from somewhere about Ukraine.

Further, even if the Aryans settled in their little villages 4,000 years ago and have had very little contact with the outside world over that time, it is highly unlikely that they have had none.

Meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, there are plenty of other highly isolated peoples: The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, for example, who will kill you if you try to set foot on their island. There was a pretty famous case just last year of someone earning himself a Darwin award by trying to convert the Sentinelese.

Now let’s look at that word “untampered.” What on earth does that mean? How do you tamper with a genome? Were the rest of us victims of evil alien experiments with CRSPR, tampering with our genomes?

The Chinese might figure out how to produce “tampered” genomes soon, but the rest of us, all of us in the entire world, have “untampered” genomes.

To be honest, I am slightly flabbergasted at this author’s notion that the rest of the people in the world are walking around with “tampered” genomes because our ancestors married some Anatolian farming people 4,000 years ago.

This strange idea pops up in liberal conversations about “race”, too. Take the recent AAPA Statement on Race and Racism:

Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters.

But… no one said they did. At least, not since we stopped using Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth going their separate ways after the Flood as our explanation for why races exist.

“See, human races are’t descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, therefore races don’t exist!”

Two groups of things need not be completely separate, non-overlapping to nonetheless exist. “Pillows” and “cloth” contain many overlapping traits, for example; there are no traits in “cloth” that do not also exist in “pillows.”

Colin Wight on Twitter articulates this beautifully as the “Univariate Fallacy”:

Click the cube. Watch it turn.

This fallacy, when deployed, is commonly done using a single sentence buried within an article or essay couched around a broader narrative on the history of a particular type of oppression, such as sexism. Let me give you some recent examples of this fallacy in action.

You’ll remember this @nature piece arguing that sex is a spectrum and that perhaps there are more then 2 sexes, even though over 99.98% of humans can be classified at birth as being unambiguously male or female. … [Link to piece]

In this piece, they hold off deploying the Univariate Fallacy until the second-to-last sentence of a nearly 3500 word essay.

So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.”

Please read the whole thread. It is very insightful.

For example, if you look at the so called “big five” personality traits, you find only 10% overlap between men and women. This is why it is usually pretty easy to tell if you are talking to a man or a woman. But if you you look at only one trait at a time, there’s a lot more overlap. So the trick is to take a thing with multiple facets–as most things in the real world are–and claim that because it overlaps in any of its facets with any other thing, that it does not exist. It is not pure.

Are our categories, in fact, random and arbitrary? Is there some reality beneath the categories we use to describe groups of people, like “male” and “female,” “young” and “old,” “black” and “white”? Could we just as easily have decided to use different categories, lumping humans by different criteria, like height or eye color or interest in Transformers, and found these equally valid? Should we refer to all short people as “the short race” and everyone who owns a fedora as “untouchables”?

Liberals believe that the categories came first, were decided for arbitrary or outright evil reasons, bear no relation to reality, and our belief in these categories then created them in the world because we enforced them. This is clearly articulated in the AAPA Statement on Race and Racism:

Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It thus does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination. Because of that, over the last five centuries, race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world.

Race exists because evil Europeans made it, for their own evil benefit, out of the completely undifferentiated mass of humanity that existed before 1492.

This statement depends on the Univariate Fallacy discussed above–the claim that biological races don’t actually exist is 100% dependent on the UF–and a misunderstanding of the term “social construct,” a term which gets thrown around a lot despite no one understanding what it means.

I propose a different sequence of events, (with thanks to Steven Pinker in the Blank Slate for pointing it out): Reality exists, and in many cases, comes in lumps. Plants, for existence, have a lot in common with other plants. Animals have a lot in common with other animals. Humans create categories in order to talk about these lumps of things, and will keep using their categories so long as they are useful. If a category does not describe things well, it will be quickly replaced by a more effective category.

Meme theory suggests this directly–useful ideas spread faster than non-useful ideas. Useful categories get used. Useless categories get discarded. If I can’t talk about reality, then I need new words.

Sometimes, new information causes us to update our categories. For example, back before people figured out much about biology, fungi were a bit of a mystery. They clearly act like plants, but they aren’t green and they seem to grow parasitically out of dead things. Fungi were basically classed as “weird, creepy plants,” until we found out that they’re something else. It turns out that fungi are actually more closely related to humans than plants, but no one outside of a molecular biologist has any need for a category that is “humans and fungi, but not plants,” so no one uses such a category. There are, additionally, some weird plants, like venus flytraps, that show animal-like traits like predation and rapid movement, and some animals, like sponges, that look more like plants. You would not think a man crazy if he mistook a sponge for a plant, but no one looks at these examples, throws up their hands, and says, “Well, I guess plants and animals are arbitrary, socially-constructed categories and don’t exist.” No, we are all quite convinced that, despite a few cases that were confusing until modern science cleared them up, plants, animals, and fungi all actually exist–moving sponges from the “plant” category to the “animal” category didn’t discredit the entire notion of “plants” and “animals,” but instead improved our classification scheme.

Updating ideas and classification schemes slightly to make them work more efficiently as we get more information about obscure or edge cases in no way impacts the validity of the classification scheme. It just means that we’re human beings who aren’t always 100% right about everything the first time we behold it.

To summarize: reality exists, and it comes in lumps. We create words to describe it. If a word does not describe reality, it gets replaced by a superior word that does a better job of describing reality. Occasionally, we get lucky and find out more information about reality, and update our categories and words accordingly. Where a category exists and is commonly used, therefore, it most likely reflects an actual, underlying reality that existed before the world and caused it to come into existence–not the other way around.

The belief that words create reality is magical thinking and belongs over in Harry Potter and animist religion, where you can cure Yellow Fever by painting someone yellow and then washing off the paint. It’s the same childish thinking as believing that monsters can’t see you if you have a blanket over your head (because you can’t see them) or that Bloody Mary will appear in the bathroom mirror if you turn out the lights and say her name three times while spinning around.

Of course, “white privilege” is basically the “evil eye” updated for the modern age, so it’s not too surprised to find people engaged in other forms of mystical thinking, like that if you just don’t believe in race, it will cease to exist and no one will ever slaughter their neighbors again, just as no war ever happened before 1492 and Genghis Khan never went on a rampage that left 50 million people dead.

“Purity” as conceived of in these examples isn’t real. It doesn’t exist; it never existed, and outside of the simplistic explanations people thought up a few thousand years ago when they had much less information about the world, no one actually uses such definitions. The existence of different races doesn’t depend on Ham and Shem; rain doesn’t stop existing just because Zeus isn’t peeing through a sieve. In reality, men and women are different in a number of different ways that render categories like “man” and “woman” functional enough for 99.99% of your daily interactions. Racial categories like “black” and “white” reflect real-life differences between actual humans accurately enough that we find them useful terms, and the fact that humans have migrated back and forth across the planet, resulting in very interesting historical stories encoded in DNA, does not change this at all.

I’d like to wrap this up by returning to the BBC’s strange article on the Aryans:

I asked Dolma if she was excited over her daughter participating in the festival. She replied that not many outsiders came to Biama, and that it was fun to meet foreigners. But even more importantly, she couldn’t wait to see friends from neighbouring villages, brought together by each year by the festival, as well as the chance to dress up, dance and celebrate. If the future generations continue to hold traditional ceremonies and celebrations and keep their vibrant culture alive, perhaps then, they won’t be the last of the Aryans.

Source:  The Economist

One wonders what the author–or the BBC in general–thinks of efforts to keep the British pure or preserve British culture, untouched and unchanged through the millennia. Or is preserving one’s culture only for quaint foreigners whose entertaining exoticism would be ruined if they started acting and dressing just like us? What about those of us in America who think the British have a quaint and amusing culture, and would like it to stick around so we can still be entertained by it? And do the British themselves deserve any say in this, or are they eternally tainted with “impure,” “tampered” bloodlines due to the mixing of bronze-age peoples with Anglo Saxon invaders over a millennium and a half ago, and thus have no right to claim a culture or history of their own?

Goodness, what an idiotic way of looking at the world.


6 thoughts on “The Idiocy of Categoric Purity

  1. Plants, for existence, have a lot in common with other plants.

    Typo alert: I suspect this was supposed to say either “for example” or “for instance”, but ended up saying both at once. :D

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Astronomers recently coined the term “dwarf planet”, defined as “an object orbiting the Sun that is not big enough to clear its orbit but big enough to pull itself into a spherical shape”. This category includes hundreds, maybe thousands of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, and Ceres, a world that has almost nothing in common with the other “dwarf planets”.

    Couldn’t we just go back to calling Ceres an asteroid, and make up a new word like “ice-teroids” for Eris, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, Orcus, etc.?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, I wouldn’t say that Liberals are obessssed with “Purity”. Usually “Purity” is linked to Conservatives.
    What you call “obsession Purity” to me is an old fallacy and method of eristic:
    If two things A and B cannot be separated to 100% they are in fact the same (Continuum Fallacy). The “argument” goes like:
    A) Is there anything that women and men have in common?
    B) Yes?
    C) Then men and women are exactly the same in likes or dislikes and talents and capabilities. Or, would be,
    wouldn’t it be for all the discrimination women suffer from the hands of men.
    Same game is played with races.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s