Posts Tagged ‘cultural relativity’

Back in ’86 I was invited to spend a month teaching in Guanjou.

China was still licking its wounds from the ”cultural revolution” which was calculated to break the egos of the intellectual class. They had shown their guts by mucking manure in the countryside and they still were afraid of the Beijing bureaucracy.

My companion, who I will call Gwendolyn, raised the issue of who she was when we applied for a visa, so we demoted her from companion to assistant, with the result that we were supplied the only apartment with two bedrooms. They treated Gwendolyn with kid gloves, because they were still thinking the official puritanical doctrine and thought she might get them trouble. But the woman who was in charge of all of us foreigners really liked Gwen; she represented the Western Woman, who was free of all the horrible constraints that still bound Chinese women, and Chinese intellectuals.

It was probably because of our keeper’s preference that  the Department chair and the next in status came one day to call at our apartment to ask me to head up a research project on an ethnic group (National Cultures, they are called) that lived a few hundred kilometers to the west. I protested that I was no Sinologist, did not speak Chinese, too old to learn new tricks; I was not flattered, for I knew they wanted American financing, but finally I said, “Well, lets go look at the place.”

“We can’t do that it is a closed area.”

I shrugged my shoulders, thinking it was the end of this venture, but to my surprise they managed to arrange it and get the fare to cover the costs. It was a great trip, everybody getting on the bandwagon and see parts of forbidden China. It was always great to go into the countryside because you haven’t an idea how delicious Chinese food can be until you have eaten in rural China.

On an earlier trip, Gwen embarrassed us by her lavish praise of the fish served to us at noon, which came again at the second banquet that evening in response – again a treat but a realization of the Chinese way to reciprocate. On this trip to the interior, the final course came in a tureen accompanied by an aroma of exquisite beauty. As honored guest, I took the first bite on my chopsticks. It landed on my tongue just as Gwen asked, “Oh, what is that?”

“Dog,” we were told.

I had two reactions immediately; one was, “this tastes good” and the other was “I’m about to vomit.” One came from the gut, the other from culture.


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It is enigmatic to be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the best-selling, The Selfish Gene since it is not just bad popular science but plain bad science. Though written by an Oxford University graduate and don, it is outmoded genetics, false evolutionary theory, poor social theory, vapid anthropology and, bad moral philosophy.

         “The selfish gene” is a catchy anthropomorphic metaphor for a basic truth about evolution; namely that survival gives priority to genetic continuity over the welfare of whatever beings produced those genes. Metaphors are useful in explaining obscure processes but they are loaded with booby traps. Used as a title, as Dawkins has done, they turn into slogans – those enemies of thought.


         (Full disclosure note: I share Dawkins’ publisher, Oxford University Press, for my book ”The Bridge to Humanity; How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene.” I return to it later.)

 Originally published in Science and Theology news, June 2006 (more…)

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