Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

Are non-Afrikans inherently bad?

On June 8 2013 fellow Thought Leader blogger Malaika wa Azania shared a short opinion piece on her FB wall. In it she raised debate around the apparent Ubuntu in African people, and how the white man has “made of us animals with their capitalism and individualistic ideologies”.

She argued that Africans have been taken for granted and advantage of as a result of this Ubuntu. By “Afrikan” I presumed she meant black African people with kinky hair, who mostly occupy sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps those historically related to them in the diaspora. Her point was buttressed further with the following striking statement: “Afrikans are inherently good”.

I have come across this notion often enough from people, and I think Malaika was raising a good debate that is often treated lightly. While in the main I agree with the broad sentiment that the African’s “goodness” has been used against him, especially historically, the statement “Afrikans are inherently good” perhaps needs a further discussion that is separate to whatever Malaika was arguing on that day.

Generally, could this statement be to say “others” are inherently bad?

All persons, irrespective of their pigmentation, hair type, or culture, are part of the Homo Sapiens species and are very uniform genetically. That is, they are overwhelmingly similar than they are different. I think it was Professor Richard Dawkins who once made a poignant allusion to the fact that a person in the Congo Basin is more genetically similar to a Chinese monk (or even someone of European descent for that matter) than two unrelated chimpanzees playing on the same tree in the Congo. The scientific consensus for why this is so is that the human species once shrunk so much, almost coming to extinction, before finally surviving; and with the Ice Age gone, and the advent of the agricultural revolution starting in the Middle-East, eventually growing to today’s overall global population size. Since then until today, we remain remarkably genetically uniform as the Human Genome Project has shown. Besides, we know genes take geological time to be adjusted significantly anyway.

So the notion that we are “inherently good as Afrikans” must ultimately be measured against this biological fact I have just referenced. Otherwise, such a statement, put to some serious and formal scrutiny, may end up having us required to present empirical evidence showing the “inherence” of our good (or bad). Formally speaking, any reference to “inherence” in biological organisms refers to a genetically innate feature of that organism.

My view is in keeping with the scientific orthodoxy on this one. Historio-geographic factors, as advanced by the likes of Professor Jared Diamond, in his famous work titled Guns, Germs, and Steel are responsible for the different modes of existence, and later (mis)fortunes, of the different groups of human civilisations across the world. As such, Africans may have, after all, “culturally evolved” to embrace and emphasise communal living and camaraderie; while other cultures may have taken other cultural trajectories, whether good or bad, to each survive our respective environments.

Indeed, civilisations of the world do not radically reinvent themselves on a continuous basis – they socially, politically, and economically evolve and it is the interactions between these variables that make these debates so interesting rather than a simple debate of seeing ourselves against the backdrop of inherent goodness or badness. There are no total revolutions where all that has gone before is laid to rest, and new polities being born enjoying completely clean slates. Traditions, customs, institutions and social relationships will survive and adapt from one era to another, and this cuts across Africans and non-Africans.

For example, from a historical perspective, pre-colonial Africa was as varied as the continent itself. Different circumstances produced different societies with different traditions, customs, and politics, and these societies rose, fell and adapted as the centuries passed.

It is from this perspective that we should always call for careful application of the sentence “Afrikans are inherently good”. Indeed they are, but so is the rest of humanity, from a purely biological perspective that is and conversely, we should equally acknowledge some of humanity’s inherent badness.

The dangerous fallacy I seek to address here relates specifically to the “fallacy of ambiguity”. The word “inherent” is ambiguous because to someone it may be understood to mean biologically inherent, or culturally inherent, or otherwise.

Fallacies are not dangerous only because they interfere with our ability to arrive at the truth, but also because, in this specific instance of appealing to “inherence”, it is not difficult to imagine a eugenic notion (or motion) that can fester if the word is not adequately contextualised, in very clear terms, exactly what is meant by “inherent goodness” in a particular people.

I am not saying Malaika was not aware of these dangers, but often other people can absorb rhetoric such as “inherent goodness in Afrikans” from influential people and opinionistas such as Malaika, and then proceed to create their own versions based on their own misunderstandings of what was meant. History is replete with examples of how seeing people as inherently this or that can lead to social horrors. So we must be careful and ensure that context is never compromised.

However, all of this is not to say that there is no observable emphasis of communality amongst Africans – there is and it must be so. It has often been said that the polities of pre-colonial Africa where such that communal living became the best form of existence to survive life in Africa. Pre-colonial Africa is said to have had low population densities, and coupled with the production of relatively small economic surpluses, these factors hindered the formation of fully fleshed states in many parts of the continent. Again, this is not to say Africa was ubiquitously stateless; pre-colonial Africa exhibited both states and stateless societies.

The central point being made here is that the structure of pre-colonial African societies, especially the stateless ones, plausibly has much to do with our Ubuntu-ness as it was quite needed in those conditions. This communality is anyhow observed in other pastoral societies outside of Africa.

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    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      This is a very poignant critique of the Afrikan Laager Mentality. Slavery is endemic to Afrika and Afrikans (apparently proper spelling is not so good here). Of course this doesn’t have any bearing on how good or bad individuals are. Of course capitalism and individualism are also endemic to Afrika and it’s incredibly feeble-minded to view all the world’s problems in these simplistic terms.

    • Grant

      Malaika seems to forget how Shaka impaled his fellow Zulus or had them clubbed to death on a whim, how he attacked neighbouring tribes and perfected his short spear as a killing machine for his fellow Africans. She forgets the cannibalism of the Congo tribes as recently as 150 years ago, she forgets the necklacing an “Afrikan” invention applied to fellow “Afrikans”. I could go on with the horrors in Zim, Sudan, Sierra Leone and endless other lists of disgusting and barbaric behaviour that Africans have applied to their own.

      Ubuntu is a nice notion that is not even close to being uniquely African. Every culture on earth understands it and has another name for it. every culture on earth understands altruism and helping their fellow man out. Every culture on eart5h understands the power of community. If anything this should not be disturbing but comforting for ultimately it upholds what the struggle was all about…equality, be it in good or bad. In this we understand that as humans, all of us are capable of great good or great evil and the measure of a civilisation is which one is in greater supply.

      I would also suggest that it is not capitalism that has soured the “Afrikan”. It is the sudden application of it after a long period when free commerce was not allowed. grabbing of disgusting amounts of material wealth is the reaction of our political elite to the opening of a floodgate previously closed.

    • Zwelethu

      What an interesting article,based on someone else’s FB Wall, you are a genius Mr Setati, and this will surely get you a bonus this year. You seem to be good in biology and I would advise you to read a bit of history,perhaps your questions will be answered. Or better still,go to the nearest farm and ask that question to the black slaves that are there,on your way back you are guaranteed to find a living hell , in the form of a squatter camp,please call me if you find any ‘non-african’ there. Next time you write an article ,please empahsise the contribution of non-whites towards the delay of black emamncipation, I am sure you have direct reference in that score.

    • GrahamJ

      This whole text is based on myth and apocryphal stories that may be ‘feel-good’ but are just not reality.

      There is nearly twice the genetic variation in humans (heterozygosity 0.7) than there is in dogs (0.4). This is interesting as well:

      https://lesacreduprintemps19.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/woodley-2009-is-homo-sapiens-polytypic-human-taxonomic-diversity-and-its-implications.pdf

    • bernpm

      Any attempt to define generalizations about certain groups of people on earth is doomed to fail. Most people are individualists and operate as a group under certain circumstances.

      Debates of this nature (as in this blog) are fruitless.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Mzilikhazi crossed the dreaded tsetse fly belt for a very good reason. Physical barriers were a way to avoid enemies.

      Africa, during those days, was no more civilized than the rest of the world. Kings took their kingdom from the sword (or the assegai) and the law of the jungle ruled.

      Throughout the world there are billions of kind deeds daily, with no strings attached or accolades desired. That has been true since man stated walking this earth. I have seen villages who would take in an accident victim like they are a child of their own and I have seen villagers turn on a woman for the midwife’s mistake of making her child brain damaged.

      Africa is the poster child for manic depressive. You will never, anywhere, see so much kindness or so much unkindness

    • Gareth Setati

      Graham.

      I looked through the paper and just reading through the Abstract and Introduction it is clear that you are calling bluff to a myth that is not perpetuated in this blog post.

      I will apply the popularized, high-level definition of belonging to the same species only if those members are able to mate with one another and produce offspring that in turn can bear progeny. From this, my view is that when it is asserted that there exist biological differences between the human races (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc), it is not to assert that these differences necessarily exert themselves at the level of the socio-psychological habits of the members of that species. If indeed these exertions existed and I stood corrected, then this is the empirical study you should be referencing here, not the one you just did.

      See, that biological differences exist and that there is taxonomical (or even medicinal) value to these differences is not in dispute. In fact, if Professor Richard Lewontin’s famous and apparently decisive 1972 paper, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity”, is accepted as empirically sound, then we should accept that we are quite uniform, even if we have some differences that are not taxonomically trivial. However, the key message here, which it seems you have missed, is that it is these differences that can be said to be scientifically uninteresting in as far explaining the prevalence of Ubuntu or communality in a particular society or race is…

    • Gareth Setati

      However, the key message here, which it seems you have missed, is that it is these differences that can be said to be scientifically uninteresting in as far explaining the prevalence of Ubuntu or communality in a particular society or race is concerned.

    • GrahamJ

      “The scientific consensus for why this is so is that the human species once shrunk so much, almost coming to extinction, before finally surviving;… Since then until today, we remain remarkably genetically uniform as the Human Genome Project has shown. Besides, we know genes take geological time to be adjusted significantly anyway.”

      This is no longer seen to be true. Research in the last two years shows that humanity probably evolved more in Asia than Africa and hence we have extremely diverse DNA and evolutionary differences. See New Scientist May 11 2013 – “OUT OF ASIA The bones that upend our ideas of human evolution.”

    • OneFlew

      In a case such as this forget all the analysis, worry about the manifestations.

      It is a universal and recurring human tendency to think that people like me are good and people unlike me are bad.

      This tendency should be guarded against wherever it appears.

    • http://maravi.blogspot.com/ MrK

      Zwelethu,

      ” What an interesting article,based on someone else’s FB Wall, you are a genius Mr Setati, and this will surely get you a bonus this year. ”

      Did you know that prof. Martin Bernal passed away recently? His Black Athena was pretty crucial in re-directing the consensus on the history of Egypt and Greece, which was created in the 19th century in Germany and Britain.

      I would also recommend prof. Cheikh Anta Diop’s “African Origin of Civilisation – Myth or Reality”. I would say reality. The pharaoh Ramses III and his son had haplogroup E1b1a, usually associated with the Bantu Expansion.

      Google: BMJ 2012;345:e8268 maravi

    • http://maravi.blogspot.com/ MrK

      Gareth Setati,

      ” From this, my view is that when it is asserted that there exist biological differences between the human races (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc), it is not to assert that these differences necessarily exert themselves at the level of the socio-psychological habits of the members of that species. ”

      Except that there are no human races. There is no negroid, mongoloid or caucasoid race. Race is a 19th century construct, created long before genetics. In fact until Lewontin and the Human Genome Project, there were still academics who believed in the multi-regional theory of human evolution.

      However, look at genetic haplogroups, and you will see that there is no ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ vs ‘North Africa’ or even Southeastern Europe. Nearly everyone has a E haplogroup subclade. E1b1a is linked to today’s populations of West Africa and Central and Southern Africa. E1b1b neatly coincides with the Afro-Asiatic languages, and Ethiopia/Somalia/the Maghreb/the Nile Valley/Southeastern Europe – all (mainly) have E1b1b. Both E1b1a and E1b1b come from E1b1, which is usually located in the Ethiopia/Somalia/Sudan region.

      Bluntly put, when Berbers, Greeks and Somalis have the same male haplogroup E1b1b, there are no ‘races’.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      Lewontin is actually not all that empirically sound:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewontin%27s_Fallacy

      Be that as it may, nobody is inherently good or evil based on their spelling of Africa. To nitpick over whether there biological differences between races is missing the point entirely.

    • bernpm

      @Garg Unzola: “To nitpick over whether there biological differences between races is missing the point entirely.”

      Thanks for confirming my earlier comment:
      “Any attempt to define generalizations about certain groups of people on earth is doomed to fail. Most people are individualists and operate as a group under certain circumstances.

      Debates of this nature (as in this blog) are fruitless. comment: “

    • Gareth Setati

      Garg Unzola.

      Lewontin’s fallacy is famous and it has been debunked several times. The fallacy was his thinking that race was a meaningful concept and has no taxonomical relevance. I do not commit Leowntin’s fallacy in this blog post.

      What is notable for the purposes of this specific issue is that his empirical data has been held as near scientific orthodoxy.

      Graham seems to suggest that this is no longer the case, and it shall be interesting to be cited key reads pointing to this new understanding, and while at it he should consider providing the Impact Factor (IF) of his citations.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      @Gareth:
      You do not commit Lewontin’s Fallacy. Quite the opposite. I liked your post and it’s sensible. In fact, to suggest that being part of the class Afrikan implies certain characteristics for each case of Afrikan would be an even more glaring fallacy. You didn’t step into the minefields and the comments are a rather silly detour into ‘is race real?’ – which wasn’t the point of your post.

      Nobody is inherently good or bad purely because they are Afrikan. The opposite also rings true: Nobody is inherently good or bad purely because they are not Afrikan. Our common enemy is the notion that being of a certain culture implies certain characteristics for individuals. It doesn’t.

    • Max Peters

      Writing for reptilian homonids.

      * Take premise from book (verbatim wherever necessary)
      * Apply sterile formal logic.
      * Use self referential language.
      * Enter train of arbitrary inferences in the trajectory of an unknown conclusion.
      * Enter the brush and strike aimlessly for a high value target. Possibly a reptile.
      * Emerge with grandiose and inconsistent generalization.
      * Enter self-dialogue of auto-erotic stimulation embedded in verbose dictum and scatological oblivion.