Last year the human genome “Book of Life” project confirmed what every intelligent person already knew, that there is no scientific basis for the concept of race. Only a fraction of the three billion letters in the human genetic code differ among individuals, so biologically we are all 99.99% the same. Persons from different ethnic groups can be more genetically similar than individuals within the same group, and there is more genetic variability within Africa than outside it. Meaning that from a biological perspective all of us are Africans, either residing in Africa or in recent exile.


Scientists now generally agree that all human beings descend from a population of ancestors who migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. Research suggests that Asia was first settled from Africa, while Oceania, Europe and America were settled from Asia. Genetic studies often give results entirely at variance with common assumptions. For instance while black Africans and New Guineans both have dark skin and curly hair, they are at completely opposite ends of the genetic scale, since New Guinea was one of the last places colonized by modern humans.


In fact the only thing skin colour really tells us is the intensity of the sun in which a population evolved over time – the hotter the sun, the darker the skin. Features such as eye shape, hair texture, and nostril size are similarly environmentally determined. As Professor Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza says in his book Genes, People and Languages “The careful genetic study of hidden variations, unrelated to climate, has confirmed that homogeneous races do not exist”.


Yet most of the world still insists on classifying people according to their skin shade or hair type or facial characteristics. So when I told people I was going on a trip to China a few months back, the usual reaction was “Oh, you’re going to trace your roots.” Now however others see me I must admit to never having felt particularly Chinese. Both my grandfathers were from China, but my Jamaican born grandmothers were of mixed non-Chinese stock and neither my parents nor I know ten words of the language. Having been educated in former British colonies my intellectual outlook is unavoidably European, and my emotional habits are inevitably those of the country where I was born and raised. 


In my youth I used to get quite irritated at being automatically pigeonholed by strangers as “Chinese” because of all the stereotypical assumptions this implied. But as we get older we learn not to pay much attention to the personal opinions of those we don’t know and who don’t know us. And anyway being considered Chinese is no better or worse than being thought of as black or white or Indian or Arab. It would be great if my appearance was so mixed that people could have no idea where my forebears came from and had to judge me completely by my behaviour. But as Don Quixote said to Sancho Panza, we are all as God made us, and sometimes a good deal worse.


Still, in both Jamaica and Canada, where I went to school, I have always been a visible minority. So on my way to China I couldn’t help wondering how it would feel to be one of the majority in appearance for the first time in my life.


Well I quickly learnt that that physical appearance doesn’t mean much when most people can’t understand you and vice versa. In places like China which don’t use the Roman alphabet, even translation books are useless to English speakers. And while I definitely resembled most of the people in China to a greater degree than in either Jamaica or Canada, not being able to communicate on simple matters with strangers or even read road signs made it rather difficult to feel “one of them”.


Language is the great divider and unifier. I remember in my backpacking youth ending up at the bus station in the Czechoslovakian town of Brno where none of the inhabitants seemed to speak English. Knowing no Czech myself and unable to read the Cyrillic alphabet signs I started to look around in panic. How was I going to know which bus to take to Prague? My brain started working in a very simplistic fashion. All the white people around me obviously spoke only Czech. I saw a group of Asian looking persons but they probably didn’t speak any English either. Then my eyes alighted on two black men – maybe they could understand me! I went over and was overjoyed to find out they spoke English. They were Ethiopian students and one of them was actually on his way to Prague. I was saved.


I firmly believe that language is a much greater factor in identity than appearance or religion, for customs and beliefs are passed on primarily by words. And while not unknown, wars between people that speak the same language are much rarer than between those with differing tongues. Whatever the other effects, if we all spoke or at least understood one common language there would almost certainly be more peace on earth. And maybe with English on its way to becoming the de facto world language we are heading in that direction.


Now there is a certain irony in this. For before we humans spread all over the earth from Africa we probably all had a similar appearance and spoke the same language. But ever since then, climate and distance have been diversifying our appearances and tongues. So this convergence towards a one world language really is a reversal of the proliferating trend in man’s development since leaving the mother continent.


And we may be coming together in more than just a linguistic sense. For the various peoples of the world are today intermingling and interbreeding in an unprecedented manner, especially in global cities like Toronto, New York and London. In London, the world capital of miscegenation, it is estimated that 90% of young black males have non-black partners. Perhaps this portends a future where the average person will have a mixture of Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian features like “cablinasian” golf star Tiger Woods.


We are still far from having a world where skin colour is irrelevant. But however bad race relationships are now, they were assuredly much worse in the past. Mankind has never in recorded history been as colour blind as it is today, and will likely be even more so tomorrow.


It is a foolish thing to try and predict history. But there are certainly more than a few signs pointing to the possibility of mankind’s journey bringing us back full circle to a time when we all looked the same and spoke one language. Maybe in a spiritual sense the whole world truly is going back to Africa.

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