Here in Colorado we have the perverse pleasure of watching Ward Churchill, a foolish charlatan who claims to “be” an American Indian (whatever that means), use this claim for his personal and professional gain. This claim is based on a supposed sexual encounter between two individuals a couple of hundred years ago.
This is, of course, ridiculous but it does open a larger issue; the whole issue of “who you are”. Ward Churchill claims to “be” an American Indian. Others are told they are Irish or German or Mexican or African… the list is long. What exactly does this mean? If you examine the science of it, there is no meaning. It is simply the continuation of scientifically false ethnic group thinking from our less knowledgeable and more tribal past. The American Medical Association states it rather clearly: “…ethnicity is universally recognized as being socially defined.” Which is just another way of saying it has no factual basis.
Of course we all have ancestors. You did not just appear on the planet one day. And of course your ancestors had to live some place. And of course we are genetically more like our more recent ancestors than our more distant ancestors. We are not talking rocket science here.
But are you defined by your ancestors? Is it they that define who you are? Why does it matter that some of my ancestors can be traced back to countries we now call Ireland and Germany? These countries, as they are now understood, have only existed for a millisecond on the cosmic clock. What is so special about this small piece of time that we use it to define who we are? The honest answer is it does not. It is simply an historical artifact.
Why not move closer in time? I was raised outside a small town in Colorado, am I LaSallite John? Or why not further back in time? Modern science indicates all humans originated in Africa, therefore we are all Africans. Or let’s go even further back in time; am I Pierolapithecus Catalaunicus Conlin, perhaps the last common ancestor of great apes and humans? Or further back, am I Hadrocodium Michael Wui, perhaps a common ancestor to all mammals? Or even further back, am I reptile Johnny (some would say so but that’s another story)? Or further back, Johnster the happy first vertebrate? Or further back, single cell John-boy? Or even further back, to the very beginning, Johnmeister the spark of life? These classifications of “who I am” are just as valid as Irish or German.
The bottom line is that I am an individual with literally thousands of traits. I am not defined by any ancestor. My beliefs and actions determine “who I am”. Where some of my most recent human ancestors lived has absolutely no bearing on who I am. Royalty or thieving, lying cowards; it makes no difference. One can of course have pride in one’s ancestors, but that is a personal issue – for good or for bad it is meaningless in defining who you are.
My human relatives include every person on the planet. My ancestors (and yours too) include every living thing on the planet. In fact my ancestors include every living thing that has EVER lived on the planet. I am John Michael Conlin, part of an unbroken string of life that goes back to the very first spark of life on the planet. I am blessed beyond comprehension just to exist.
Perhaps it is time to cut the past loose and cast aside the old beliefs. Who you are is an individual. Who your human ancestors are and where they happened to live is an entirely different question and one does not influence the other. This requires a significant paradigm shift in our thinking; often accepting the truth does.
John Conlin is CEO and founder of E.I.C. Enterprises, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a science and fact-based education to the poor and disadvantaged here and throughout the world. Among other things, he is also an ex-hard rock exploration geologist.