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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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And so it is with most of the things we care about in life: food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed—by natural selection, if you like—to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state. It is never satisfied. It induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity, and that in some cases, such as bungee-jumping, are completely counter-indicated by biological conditioning. The more defiant something is of the instinctual and the habitual, the more highly civilization prizes it. This is why we have the Guinness Book of World Records, the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm. The composite beautiful face tells us as much about beauty as a dish containing all the flavors people identified as tasty would tell us about cuisine. Darwin’s fundamental insight as a biologist was that among groups of sexually reproducing organisms, the differences are much more important than the similarities. If human beings were identical, a single change in the environment could wipe out the species. Similarity, ultimately, is death. So why do Darwin’s contemporary followers want to make what people have most in common into a social good? The true good is the different, not the same.

That’s what Horace Kallen was trying to say, though, back in 1915, in his article on “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot”; and as we have seen, he made that argument by essentializing race and nationality, making them immutable. Since groups are different, since you can’t do away with difference without bringing down the level of the whole, then we must account difference a social good and preserve it: that is basically what Kallen said. So if we value difference and deviance on Darwinian principles, as well as on principles of fairness and tolerance and even (though it is in short supply today) humility, how do we avoid doing what Kallen did, and root those differences in biology? Rooting them in culture is no better: both explanations, biological and cultural, tend to be deterministic, and determinisms are false not because behavior is not determined, but because it is overdetermined. No single cause accounts for the whole.

Another way was found by a friend of Horace Kallen’s, a fellow Harvard graduate named Alain Locke. Locke’s situation was not exactly parallel to Kallen’s. Locke’s situation was not exactly parallel to anyone’s. He had heart trouble and an unusually slight physique (he was five feet tall and weighed ninety-nine pounds); he was homosexual; and he was black. He had come to Harvard from Philadelphia, where his parents were schoolteachers, and where he had been a brilliant student in mostly white schools. His undergraduate career at Harvard was similarly distinguished. But he was careful not to associate too much with other black students at Harvard because he regarded his life as an experiment in blocking out physical accidents like race. He was the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship, and the fact received considerable attention, but it was not how he wished to be known. “I am not a race problem,” he wrote to his mother after winning the Rhodes. “I am Alain LeRoy Locke.”6

When Locke arrived at Oxford on his Rhodes, though, his race did become a problem. Five Oxford colleges denied him admission, and the Southern Rhodes Scholars in his class, who had already formally appealed to the Rhodes trustees to overturn Locke’s award, shunned him. Locke found himself the personal focus of racial politics, and he was taken up by nonwhite colonial students from India, Natal, Egypt, and Ceylon. The experience was traumatic, and it gave Locke a much richer appreciation of the social salience of race. He left Oxford without taking a degree. By the time he returned to the United States in 1911 and secured a teaching position at Howard University, he had abandoned the notion that racial difference was a fact of life one could ignore.


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