On this day in 1901, the great scientist Linus Pauling was born. His work spanned a number of fields. He was, at base, a chemist. His first Nobel Prize was for his work on chemical bounds in complex chemical structures. According to Wikipedia, “His discovery of sickle cell anemia as a ‘molecular disease’ opened the way toward examining genetically acquired mutations at a molecular level.” This is why Francis Crick said he was the father of molecular biology. Later in his life, he became a peace activist. His work against nuclear weapons proliferation and testing won him a second Nobel Prize. He also had some controversial beliefs about the effectiveness of vitamins in combating cancer. But no one is right all the time. He was far greater than any man has a right to be.
But I want to talk about sickle-cell anaemia, which is what his important microbiological work was on. It was first discovered in 1910, and since that time, it has been used as a political tool. In the United States, it affected almost exclusively African Americans. Thus, for supporters of eugenics and other racists, they say the disease as a proof that there were “races” — something fundamental that distinguished the white “race” from the lesser “races.” But in truth, it wasn’t the case that sickle-cell anaemia only affected “blacks.”
I discussed this recently, Race as Social Construct. What being prone to sickle-cell anaemia means is that you had recent ancestors who lived in areas where malaria was common. As I wrote, “That includes Africa, but also southern Europe, Persian Gulf, and India.” The whole thing is a good indication of our species greatest challenge and hope for the future. People from a single area tend to have different facial characteristics. But when people mix geographically, minority peoples tend to get lumped all together. There are “negroes” or “orientals” or “indians.” They become “races” when what they really are are “those people” who don’t look like “us.”
I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t like Japanese film because they have a hard time distinguishing the characters. I had the same problem the first time I watched Seven Samurai. It isn’t racism that causes this. It is just lack of familiarity. The solution: more familiarity! (Period movies also make it more difficult because then the costumes are foreign as well.) Ultimately, if we are going to get past this, we need to become more thoroughly mixed geographically. And that will lead to more thorough genetic mixing, which ought to improve the species. And God knows we could use that!
Happy birthday Linus Pauling!