Recently I have taken an interest in neighboring Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren is campaigning to take back the seat Edward Kennedy held in the Senate. For some reason the fact that she claimed minority status because of partial Native American ancestry has come out. Ancestry itself is pretty tenuous as a link between generations. We have 50% of each of our parents’ genes. But only 25% of those of each grandparent, 1/8 of each great grandparent, etc. And of course the logic applies to our children and their descendants. So in a way Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry does not matter very much. In the context of her culture, it also matters little, as she herself implicitly made clear when she said her motivation for listing this ancestry was to make contact with other natives. Still, the impulse to stand with the minority is admirable and generous, for it is a form of risk-taking, although perhaps today less than it would have been a generation ago. It is worth noting that genetic analysis has established beyond question that all living humans are descended from populations living in Africa about 200,000 years ago or a little less. When Steve Colbert learned this, he asked “Does that mean I can be my own black friend?”
Anybody who learns this has somewhat less reason to hate his neighbor. I think of this as an example how scientific knowledge leads to moral progress.