In 1899, Rudyard Kipling, the great apologist of British imperialism, wrote:
“Take up the White Man’s burden — /This poem is often cited as the link between racism and imperialism, but without ever defining either term. We typically define racism as prejudice based on race, color, creed or religion. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, for example, defines racism as “Any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life.” Dr. Helan Enoch Page, a noted anthropologist of race, writes that “Racism is an ideological, structural and historic stratification process...used for enforcing differential resource allocation decisions that contribute to decisive changes in relative racial standing in ways most favoring the populations designated as ‘white.’”
Send forth the best ye breed — /
Go, bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need; / To wait, in heavy harness, / On fluttered folk and wild — / Your new-caught sullen peoples, /
Half devil and half child.”
However, if we listen to what racists actually say and write, we discover that race, religion and the rest are only proximal explanations of racism. Ethnicity and religion are markers of difference, yes, but the ultimate explanation is something more pernicious: epistemological disenfranchisement, we could call it, or, more simply, the privileging of one way of knowing the world over all others. During a war, the standard operating procedure of propagandists is to portray the enemy as a savage, devilish beast, lacking the moral intelligence to either fight fair or, better, to simply surrender to the good cause being propagandized.
What we call “sexism,” in this view, is really racism: women are stupid, women have different ways of knowing the world, and therefore must be kept in line. Likewise, the “darker” races are “ignorant beasts,” and their inability to care for themselves justifies their being conquered and made, if not in fact, de facto slaves. To the Nazis, Jews were a contaminating “race” because their culture threatened the pure intelligence of the “Aryans". This epistemological disenfranchisement extends to all areas of life: Andrew P. Connors, a blogging pundit, writes that “liberals are the stupid ones.” Perhaps most famously in recent history, Hernstein and Murray’s controversial book, The Bell Curve (1994), argued that African-Americans are less intelligent than whites because of innate biological differences.
Which brings us to Guillermo Gonzalez (an astronomer) and Jay W. Richards (a theologian), and their book, The Privileged Planet. The central thesis of this book is that the planet Earth is in a privileged position in the Universe—and that it is so because it is “intelligently designed.” How do they know this? They don’t, but claim they do by what amounts to the insistent repetition of that old real estate mantra, Location, location, location. But endlessly saying something is true doesn’t make it so, and neither does draping the mantra with endless reams of wooden scientific prose.
An ingrained anthropocentrism and a lack of imagination deeply flaw The Privileged Planet. Because of Earth’s position in space, they claim, “Mankind is unusually well positioned to decipher the cosmos” and that “the conditions allowing for intelligent life on Earth also make our planet strangely well suited for viewing and analyzing the universe.” In other words, our place on Earth gives us the ability to judge the rest of the Universe, and Gonzales and Richards find it lacking in the conditions they deem necessary for intelligent life. If there is intelligent out there, they argue, it’ll be just like us: “it will... enjoy a clear vantage point for searching the cosmos, and maybe even for finding us.” Why this assumption that intelligent life will necessarily be looking outwards? Is human intelligence really the only possible measure of intelligence in the Universe? Isn’t it possible that other forms of intelligence could exist out there?
This lack of imagination, and its correlative anthropocentrism, is similar to the idea that pervades histories of science and philosophy in general: forget the ancient Chinese, the ancient Indians, the ancient cultures of the Pacific and the Americas: science and philosophy started with the Greeks. Why? Because their science and philosophy are like “ours". Gonzalez and Richards betray this bias when they write, “a planet in a giant molecular cloud in a spiral arm might be a good place to learn about star formation and interstellar chemistry, but observers there would find the distant universe to be hidden from view. In contrast, Earth offers surprisingly good views of the distant and nearby universe while providing an effective platform for discovering the laws of physics.” No doubt “the laws of physics” are important, but is the discovery of such laws the only criteria for intelligence? A race of beings in a spiral arm might not be scientists at all: they might be poets, endlessly inspired by the spiraling clouds of gas that lit their skies.
This isn’t just a lack of imagination, though: it’s also racism. For if the criteria of “intelligent life” is, as they claim, knowing the laws of physics and being able to make scientific discoveries, then what are we to say about the many cultures here on Earth which have never trod the path of science? Consider the few remaining speakers of Mura, a language family of the rainforest peoples of Amazonia. Consisting of only a few phonemes (a handful of consonants and only three vowels), these indigenes know nothing of “our” physics. Are they not, then, intelligent life forms? By the criteria set forth in The Privileged Planet, the answer has to be no. Yet the indigenes of Amazonia know more about rainforest botany than anyone on Earth. Botanists and pharmacologists from all over the world have gone to great lengths to learn what the Mura know before they are wiped off the face of the planet.
Most of the stars astronomers have observed, Gonzalez and Richards correctly point out, are red dwarfs, cold and inhospitable to life, while the Sun, with its relatively stable light output, is in fact rare, not, as commonly believed, small and average. True enough, but this neglects the fact that most red dwarfs passed through what astronomers call the Main Sequence on their way to their present condition. In other words, at some point in the past, red-dwarf stars would have been, for a period of billions of years, similar to our Sun. The argument of The Privileged Planet hinges on the idea that life in the Universe must all be co-temporal; if it doesn’t exist in the conditions present in the Universe now, then it doesn’t exist.
The hubris of Gonzalez and Richards is in assuming that their minds can wrap around all that is possible. But their minds can’t even wrap around the possibility of the different kinds of intelligence right here on Earth. They don’t mention biology, having left the problem of evolution to other shock troops of the “intelligent design” army (William Dembski’s The Design Inference is the general of that bunch). So how can they be trusted to inform us of “intelligent design” in the Universe?
They can’t. The Privileged Planet is a thinly disguised racist tract. It’s only possible value is to provide ammunition for those who would oppress and exterminate cultures here on Earth with different life ways, different intelligences, and, especially, different ways of knowing the world (such as the Enlightened, scientific way). As such, it’s part of a “Trojan horse” (as Barbara Forrest calls it) movement called “creation science.” Many scientists, including Forrest, have critiques the new creationism on the grounds that it simply isn’t science. True enough, and fine as far as that goes. But such critiques don’t go nearly far enough: it’s time to call the new creationism what it is: racism of a most pernicious sort.