Wotan vs. Ignorance

The fool who fancies he is full of wisdom
While he sits by his hearth at home.
Quickly finds when questioned by others.
That he knows nothing at all.

Havamal 26

One of the assignments I have in my Biology II class is a book review. I have a list of about 20 important biology books for them to choose from. My list includes On the Origin of Species, along with more recent books such as Silent Spring and The Selfish Gene. I allow the students to turn in their papers halfway through the semester to be graded and handed back to them, and then if they don’t like their grades, they get one chance for a rewrite.

This semester I received a paper about On the Origin of Species that claimed that most of Darwin’s ideas have been thoroughly discredited since the book was published. The paper had no citations for this, so I counted off points and handed it back with comments saying he needed to cite his sources. When I got the rewrite back, most of his citations were from something called The Journal of Creation. It also still included several claims with no citations, including some classic anti-evolution arguments such as “If humans ascended from apes, then why do apes still exist?” and “How could something as complex as the human eye evolve by chance?” There were several others I hadn’t heard before, like how the existence of tiger-lion hybrids disproves evolution, or how “natural selection can only remove information, not create new information.”

I looked up The Journal of Creation online, and found out it’s a so-called “peer-reviewed scientific journal” published by Creation Ministries International. Looking up CMI, I found out that Answers in Genesis, founded by Ken Ham, split off from it. Ah ha! I’ve had Creationist students try to use AiG as a “scientific source” before. Browsing the AiG website only briefly, I was able to find articles about every single claim the student made in his paper.

The problem with these organizations is that they sound just scientific enough to fool someone ignorant about science. I was first made aware of AiG a few years ago when I was teaching about embryonic development, and how all chordates, including humans, have pharyngeal slits as embryos (which develop into gills in fish). A student (wearing a “Proud to be Homeschooled” t-shirt) raised his hand and said he heard the whole idea was discredited back in the 1990’s. I told him I hadn’t heard about that, and asked him what his source for that information was. He told me couldn’t remember, “some website”. I asked him to find me that website and give me the link later, and I’ll look at it. He never did. But I was curious, so I started searching myself, and that’s when I found Answers in Genesis. There was the article about how human embryos don’t really have pharyngeal slits, never addressing the problem of how, well, you can see them right there!

The Journal of Creation also looks, to the untrained eye, like a legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s enough to make someone who doesn’t know much about the science (like say, someone who was homeschooled and sheltered his whole life) think that evolution by natural selection really is a controversial idea in biology. The fact that there’s still a significant portion of Americans who are Young Earth Creationists doesn’t help either. It’s not that hard for people to find others who agree with their views. But no matter how hard Young Earth Creationists try to make their ideas look scientific, assuming your religious book is true and then trying to twist observations around to fit what it says is not how the scientific method works.

Of course, there are many Christians who aren’t Young Earth Creationists, especially ones outside of the United States. The pope has said it’s totally OK for Catholics to believe in science. Many protestant denominations also don’t believe in YEC. Jews don’t either, even the most conservative Orthodox sects, even though they share the same creation story. All these religious groups who believe in science and God at the same time somehow manage to reconcile the two. It’s only a small minority of believers who have a problem with that.

Unfortunately, Christianity is not the only religion that contains people who use bad science to produce bad religion. There is a faction of American Heathenry that believes that religion has something to do with race, and race has something to do with genetics. The most famous essay on this subject is the misleadingly scientific-sounding “Metagenetics”, written by Stephen McNallen, the founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly, one of the largest Asatru organizations in the United States. He’s written other essays and blog posts about this as well, and he’s certainly not the only Heathen who believes in this. The recent controversy over Irminfolk’s membership criteria shows another example of this kind of thinking. Irminfolk has since taken its bylaws off its website, but I got a chance to read it before it was taken down, and it did say that they will only admit people with “Ethnic European” ancestry, and they will DNA test you if necessary. Just as Young Earth Creationists are an embarrassment to other Christians, racist Heathens are an embarrassment to the rest of us.

Now, I know that it’s not politically correct to call someone a racist who’s not actually out there lynching black people or shooting at Jewish community centers, and Heathen groups like Irminfolk and the AFA prefer to be called “folkish”. I just don’t see the difference between not allowing people who aren’t “European” enough into your religious group and something like refusing the hire non-white staff at your business or refusing to serve non-white customers, which are both considered racist by the general populace and are illegal under the Civil Rights Act. We can debate over whether it should be legally allowed for a private business to have racist policies (at least some Libertarians think it should be allowed), but they’re still racist policies by the dictionary definition of the word. Now, unlike businesses, religious organizations are allowed to have racist policies like this, so Irminfolk is well within their legal rights. It just annoys me that people are trying to redefine the term “racism” to only include the most extreme examples, so that the vast majority of racist actions don’t count. Words have definitions. Don’t try to redefine the word just because it has bad connotations. It would be more accurate if they said something like, “we’re not like those bad racists. We’re the good racists,” but they’re still following the dictionary definition of racism.

Racism, by the dictionary definition, includes not only violence towards other races, but the belief that different races have different innate abilities. For example, the belief that whites and Asians are better at science and math than blacks, or that blacks are better at sports than whites and Asians. What folkish heathens are saying is that whites are better at being heathens than non-whites. To justify this, they say that whites are equally unable to practice African or Asian religions, but that really doesn’t make them any less racist. That’s just saying they’re equally racist against whites, ironically. Others have already written about the theological problems with this, but what stands out to me as a biology professor is that racism is just bad science. Using pseudoscience as a basis for important religious beliefs isn’t working well for the Young Earth Creationists, and I don’t like this sort of thing going on in my religion either.

A Little Genetics Lesson
Part of my graduate school curriculum was two semesters of Population Genetics. We learned a lot about how one determines if a species has genetically distinct populations. It takes some math, but fortunately the math is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. For groups of a species to be distinct populations, there has to be so little gene flow between them that the variation between groups is greater than the variation within each group. Gene flow happens when a member of one group gets together with a member of another group and, you know, mixes their genes. If you are trying classify a species into distinct populations, but you genetically test them and find out that the variation within each group is equal to or greater than the variation between groups, it turns out they really should be treated as the same genetic population.

This works for any species, whether it’s pine trees, salamanders, or humans, and it turns out that humans don’t have a lot of distinct populations. Maybe there are still a few isolated tribes on a Pacific Island somewhere, or in the highlands of New Guinea, but certainly the category known in this country as “white people” is not a genetically isolated population. President Obama is genetically closer to his white mother and grandparents than he is to most black people. That’s gene flow. Now that genetic testing has become cheap and easily available, it’s become clear that gene flow between the “races” is the norm rather than the exception, and it has been the norm for a long time, certainly it has been with “white people.” Just look at the map. Europe is not isolated at all. People have been easily traveling between Europe and Asia, Africa, and North America for hundreds if not thousands of years. And thanks to widespread genetic testing now, we can see how much gene flow that’s resulted in between Europeans and people from these other continents.

“But they look different!” people say. Yes, humans have variation in the genes for skin color (just like cats and dogs come in different colors too), but skin color is not a good way to classify distinct races of humans. Having a certain skin color can be an advantage or disadvantage in certain climates, so over generations, populations of humans living in sub-Saharan Africa and Australia evolved darker skin on average, while humans living in Eurasia evolved lighter skin on average. It’s similar to how wolves that live on the tundra tend to have lighter fur than wolves that live in dark forests.

What makes it even more complicated is that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, which is how you get the range of shades from very dark to very light, rather than only a couple of colors. Very dark people have lots of dark skin genes, while very light people have lots of light genes, with lots of people intermediate between the two. Hair texture, hair color, eye shape, and even eye color are polygenic traits as well, and they’re all separate from skin color, so you can have people with all sorts of combinations. My point is that there is not one gene that designates a person as being a “white person”, or a “black person”, or any other race. All of us have various combinations of various genes, but there are no lines you can draw between the races using genes. Europeans still have some “dark” genes, and Africans still have some “light” genes, they just have them in different proportions. We’ve just culturally decided that people that have certain combinations of traits belong to certain “races”, but that distinction doesn’t map onto the genetics of the people in these groups.

“But what about sickle-cell anemia? Surely diseases that are associated with one race or another prove that races are biologically distinct.” That’s even simpler to explain. Unlike appearance, it’s only caused by one gene. It’s recessive, so if you have two copies of that gene, you have sickle-cell anemia. If you have one copy of that gene, you are resistant to malaria. Most people don’t have any copy of that gene at all. Since having one copy gives you resistance to malaria, it has an evolutionary advantage in areas where malaria is prevalent, such as West Africa, so the gene is more common there. It’s also found in people from Central and South America, and people of Mediterranean descent. In other words, it’s not that much different than dark skin genes. It gives people an advantage in a certain environment, so natural selection makes it more common there. The sickle cell gene is only indirectly related to having dark skin, because in Equatorial environments, there is both more malaria and more sun exposure, so the environment selects for both those traits at the same time.

It’s certainly not a gene that can be used to distinguish black people from white people, because even though more people who have the gene are black than white, most black people don’t have it, and it’s possible for a white person to have it.

This brings me to something I’ve been wondering, as a biologist, reading things by folkish Heathens. Stephen McNallen claims that religion can somehow be inherited by your children, and therefore “white people” have all inherited Asatru from our European ancestors and non-Europeans have not, so that’s why only white people can practice Asatru.  Unfortunately “metagenetics” can be easily confused with epigenetics, a legitimate biological concept, by a layperson. It reminds me of Ken Ham making up the scientific-sounding “baraminology” as Creationist alternative to phylogeny. McNallen is rather vague about how metagenetics works. He does say in a follow-up essay that it’s not something as simple as having a certain DNA sequence. However, Irminfolk says they will go so far as to DNA test people who want to become members to see if they have enough European ancestry. So apparently they do think that the DNA in a person matters.

So what is the Asatru gene?

Since they took their bylaws down, I’m not sure if it says in there anywhere what circumstances a DNA test will be necessary, but I do distinctly remember DNA tests being mentioned. So what genes are they going to test for? As I’ve already explained, “European” and “white” are not genes. There are only genes that may be more common or less common in people of European descent. For any gene they pick, there are going to be people with pale skin who may not have it, and people with dark skin who may have it, as long as you test a large enough sample of people.

I just can’t help but think these people simply don’t understand how genetics works. Just like when I read Answers in Genesis, and it’s so obvious right away that they have no idea how evolution works. And yet you’re going to base an important tenant of your religion on it? If they do genetically test someone, how does that particular gene make a person able to worship the Aesir? We’re learning more and more about how genes work every day, but as far as I know they haven’t yet found a “religion” gene, much less developed a test for it.

Why Bother Explaining This?
One of the complaints Christians have against Young Earth Creationism is that it turns some people away from Christianity entirely. Adhering to YEC requires a willful ignorance of biology, astronomy, geology, and the scientific method in general. Racism also turns people against Heathenry. As people in general become more aware of the non-reality of biological race, “folkish” Heathens are going to look more and more ridiculous, like T-rexes in the Garden of Eden.

Creationism is not the only pseudoscience that has come up in my classroom. I’ve also had to deal with students who think global warming is a hoax, and students who think vaccines cause autism. That second one is becoming common enough now that I had to add a whole extra section to my lecture on vaccines to address the topic directly. Some would tell me that trying to argue with people who believe these things is a futile effort. Bill Nye the Science Guy was strongly criticized by other scientists for debating Ken Ham, because they thought it gave Ken Ham some kind of legitimacy. I agree that hardcore Creationists, global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, and racists are seldom persuaded by scientific arguments. I can cite all the scientific literature I want about any of these topics, and they’ll only say that the scientists are also part of the conspiracy.

One of the most frustrating things about that paper my student turned in this semester is that all of his arguments against evolution were covered either in my class or in Biology I that he should have taken as a prerequisite. In his paper he wrote “evolutionists have never explained” these things, and that’s certainly not true. Explanations for all these things are in the textbook he was supposed to have purchased and read. He just refused to pay attention, I guess.

So it’s true that convincing the hardcore believers is probably hopeless, but there are a lot of people out there who really haven’t taken sides yet. I’ve had students who didn’t know what natural selection is at all, or have never heard of global warming, or had no idea how vaccines work. I’ve had a student ask me, “What’s polio?” Those are the people I want to reach.

The idea that race is biological is a myth that’s been ingrained in our culture for hundreds of years, so I really can’t blame most people for believing it. I didn’t learn about it until I was a junior in college and took an anthropology course as an elective. This was also around when I first started getting curious about Asatru, so it really came just in time. Before that I also thought that there was a biological component to race, and I still catch myself slipping into that mode of thinking every now and then. It can be hard to unlearn these things.

Anthropology and genetics are really not my areas of expertise. I specialized in ecology, even though I’ve found myself teaching general biology now. I’d much rather talk about birds and trees, but I’ve now found myself in a religion with a racism problem. Hopefully this essay will make my position on that issue clear. In the end, I really don’t understand what would be so horrible about someone with no European ancestry practicing Asatru. I think that it’s important that pre-Christian religions are preserved (all of them), but who cares about the DNA of the people who are doing the preserving? Why am I more worthy of the task just because I’m pale? I can imagine the possibility of someone with darker skin than me being a better heathen than me. Why should that person be excluded?

Again, Folkish Heathen kindreds who only want to admit white people are free to do what they want. I have absolutely no power over them. But I do think that I’m the one who’s on the right side of history here. I guess we’ll see.


3 thoughts on “Wotan vs. Ignorance

  1. Thank you! A biology student friend tried to explain this to me but it was a casual conversation and I’m bad with audio learning. A lot of people got angry with her saying there’s no biological race because they said that meant there was no racism. Sigh. I’ve never been able to explain to people the biology part about race . Obviously we have racism based on what people look like . Families have been divided by whether or not members can pass as white , whether they were African-American or Native American . Oppression against Latinos is really focused on dark skinned Latinos studies are finding , again it’s about if you can pass for white . It’s the same as why you don’t see dark skinned African-American women actresses as much as you see light-skinned ones with more European features .

    I wonder if racism will end up being connected with lookism more, which has proven that people who have the features which a population has deemed beautiful earn 20% more and have a lot of invisible privileges . This also goes for people who are considered overweight or are balding.

    Instead of racism , because there is no biological markers to tell you what race someone is , maybe it will start being called ethnic lookism or something else. Because it is focusing on what genes happen to be dominant in how someone looks , nothing else. I also have Hispanic cousins and I have adopted Chinese sisters who look nothing alike because obviously there are many different populations that have moved throughout China thousands of years .

    I can understand wanting to belong to your ancestral heritage . Especially if you are a rootless American wasp , the most bland of all the ethnicities . I’m still not exactly sure what ethnicity means , but I use it just for your cultural ancestral background . Ancestor work is what led me to being Vanatru . It’s also made me support Brythonic polytheism . Connecting with one’s ancestors however is really pick and choose . I was asking a friend in Ireland if he thought he was Celtic and he said since that was just a culture that had once been in Ireland maybe but he could also say he was Victorian by those standards . He likes the Victorian clothing better .

    If I go back far enough I can get to pagan Franks but more recently it’s Charlemagne who is an ancestor for a very large population of Europeans because his Christianity didn’t have much to say about monogamy . So it would be very easy for me to use my ancestry to become Roman Catholic , probably the first Catholic in my family since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door . With my Scottish heritage it’s really harsh and depressing , Calvinism and Presbyterianism . It takes a really long time to get back to the kingdom of Dal Riada.

    When I had the results of my DNA test, which was actually done for health reasons and found that I had genetic problems with detoxification which made my multiple chemical sensitivity art or to treat , I was surprised to find any Scandinavians . It was the same time that I was finally having success in doing genealogy and found out that all of this Irish and Scottish heritage I have comes directly from Vikings who were of course intermarrying with Irish and Scottish women or raping them as slaves or having them as concubines , which wasn’t unusual for any of my ancestry . In fact I have found that when I tell my ancestors about being raped when I was 14 all of the female ancestors very much understand .

    When I live in Ireland I am always amazed at how different everyone looks. Especially the fact that I’ve only ever seen red hair up north by the Giants Causeway . On the west coast where most of my friends live they have small features and are shorter and have dark hair . I am like an Amazon they tell me because I’m so tall . However there are some very tall people with blond hair . All of them are Irish as are people born with parents from China or most likely Poland right now . The Irish government is trying to get people who look and sound Irish to go into hospitality jobs because tourists do not want to be served by someone from Poland . But being Irish is citizenship . That’s a whole other barrel of monkeys .

    However it helped me to understand why Freya has been there since I was around age 7 or eight . I didn’t understand why I was so attracted to Norse mythology when I was 12 considering I was supposed to be Irish . When I was 13 and became neopagan anything that had to do with Scandinavia was very racist . There was no way that I would have anything to do with that . Also as much as I like learning about my ancestral culture because being a rootless immigrant is very distressing on a lot of levels , I think it’s true for anyone in the United States possibly , almost no one here has any bioregional or family connection to where they live and it’s spiritually disorienting to not have those community connections established . Sometimes I have to explain to Europeans that the United States was almost completely founded by people who have PTSD and this applies to the original indigenous populations to .

    So there is something reassuring in learning about your own ancestral history , which actually was something I was encouraged to do by Native American activists . There are too many people doing cultural misappropriation . And doing my own ancestral work Ifound horrific oppression , crazy beliefs , end a lot of the same values , because all tribal people end up with the value of hospitality being the most important whether you’re in a desert in the Middle East or a blizzard in Sweden , in the end it was all very similar to many nations of indigenous people in the United States . That’s something a lot of people don’t know , there is a lot more diversity with Native Americans . In Europe almost everyone comes from and Indo-European language culture . There are several different language culture groups in North America that are very different . There is probably more diversity in worldviews between Native American tribes than between Indo-European tribes .

    So for me my religion is based on my ancestry , when I was 13 31 years ago I was Wiccan , in the reclaiming tradition because it fit my politics and still does , because I was lied to and told that that was my ancestral religion . Many of us felt very betrayed when it turned out that Wicca was a made-up modern religion. When people would talk about being Wiccan and following the old religion in Europe it’s interesting that no one really discussed the racism in that assumption . We are following our European old religion . That sounds somewhat folkish .

    However, we live in a very cosmopolitan world and most of our ancestors also were very aware of many different types of people with their differing religions and ways and looks. There’s always been trade and human beings have a love of novelty . Today more than ever you can learn about or be called by a god or goddess that as far as you know has nothing to do with your heritage . When my mother returned from the Haitian Revolution I suddenly began a relationship with a spirit named Simbi although it took me decades to figure out that’s what was happening . I figure he hitched a ride with her . When I lived in New York City there were a few churches dedicated to Saint Michael near me although I didn’t understand anything about Catholicism being raised hippie Hindu with the wasp work ethic and fear of anything divine noticing me , but I began dreaming about these statues and my boyfriend at the time took me to the different churches because I was dreaming of those statues and I formed a relationship with Saint Michael . Actually the arch Angel .

    There are relationships that if you have land empathy you may end up within. Honoring the indigenous people where you are including supporting their legal and political struggles , is a natural thing to do when you want to form good relationships with the land spirits considering that there are thousands of years of DNA in that land from humans who died for that the land understands certain things , it has already developed relationships with human beings , it’s not like Iceland which was uninhabited for the most part .

    If a god or goddess were to call upon anyone no matter what their ancestral background I cannot imagine telling a god or goddess that they are wrong because the person does not have a skin color I approve of or the DNA of a certain time from a place . That’s the other part of DNA results that people forget , they are based on certain time periods . The farther back we go the closer we’re going to get to southeast Africa .

    I’m just really grateful that you been able to explain the biological part because I’ve tried telling people that there is no such thing as a biological race but it’s been hard to follow up after that statement . And while it is helpful when talking to people who believe there are races and that they have some sort of innate spiritual differences , it is very upsetting to people who are doing antiracism work .

    Any inmate spiritual differences , which I assume means that culture develops certain types of relationships and ways of interacting , I think would just come from the bioregion . Similar bioregions tend to create similar mythologies and ways of life and similar deities . Mix that with the linguistic cultural group and you get the variations . Circumpolar Shamanism is very similar around the world . Rituals in agricultural cultures are very similar . Hunting cultures again similar . When people forget about the difference in the landscapes , they miss a giant chunk of what creates a tribal people , the relationship so dependent upon the land . A fishing culture naturally has different ceremonies . They all have a lot of magic about raising winds. Things like that .

    Where I live looks a lot like Scotland or Scandinavia , it is below freezing and very dark right now , glaciers carved out deep cold lakes , and when pagans move here we suddenly start reading runes! I’ve been amazed at how often this happens including with me but there’s a direct understanding . This helps with connecting to northern religions . So I think that the bioregion has a lot more to do with things that people know .

    Plus the book Lapps and labyrinths a recent archaeology book has proven that the SAAMI people have lived all over Scandinavia and religiously as well as culturally and technologically were very intermingled with the new Germanic farmers . The whole design for the boats comes from the SAAMI and the more shamanic aspects in northern paganism come from the SAAMI , the archaeology now proves this. As more things like this are uncovered , and one reason they haven’t been is because the governments that sponsor archaeological dig’s are looking for things that validate racism or more accurately national identity . Sweden has not been very receptive to learning about how the SAAMI are indigenous there . Even though all of this modern archaeology is proving this , it’s hard to get it into a museum .

    We tend to look at the past as if it was like the present , the way that the Victorian historians assumed that everything in England and Ireland had to be due to invasions cause that’s what Victorian culture was doing and now we’ve learned that this is untrue . There were no invasions until there was a real lack of land in Germany because of so many tribes moving out from the east causing the Anglo-Saxon culture to move to England and then the ocean level rising causing the Danes to lose a lot of their best farming land and having to go to Britain . But before that there was no beaker culture that killed off the people there before . Human beings just love novelty . In all the earliest archaeology in Africa we can see that people were trading jewelry like crazy . These things display status as well as who your allies are . It’s just human nature that we like new things , no washing machine culture came in and destroyed everyone before washing machines existed .

    I know this was very long, I’m just really glad that you wrote this . Having a biologist who is heathen is really great and thank you for sharing this knowledge with everyone . From my experience facts really upset people more than opinion. They also ignore them . Thanks for calling out a lot of the ridiculous fake science .

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