Affirmative Action: Being torn between heart and reason

My reasoning brain tells me that affirmative action is something against nature. Because if nature would have allowed affirmative action, than the gazelle would have never developed into such a fast running and beautiful animal (intended to escape the predators), but evolution would have stalled at the stage of slow and lethargic goats. Instead, survival of the goats would have to be promoted by arbitrarily punishing a hunting cheetah with electric tasers, in order to fulfill a moral mission of supporting life of a creature in an unsuitable environment .

But one even does not has to go as far as to Darwinian evolution and survival of the fittest to find reasons against affirmative action:  Already on the submicroscopic level of macro molecular structure, the proper folding and hence functionality of proteins is governed by rewards and penalties which follow eternal, naturally given rules. Positively and negatively charged amino acids have a tendency of attraction, hydrophobic groups hide in the the center and hydrophilic groups are more exposed at the periphery of a protein. Affirmative action should encourage us (for the sake of justice) to equally allow also the hydrophobic amino acids to be exposed at the proteins periphery. Wouldn’t it be morally wishful to give any amino acid – independent on its inherent properties- the chance to be “visible to the outer world” ? And indeed this would be possible, at least in a lab environment: Just heat up the proteins, and let them cool down slowly, and they will take any random configuration, with any of its amino acids having the same chance to pair with any other one, and equally likely being located on the outer surface or in the inner space.

Protein Folding

By increasing the thermal energy (i.e. the temperature) the protein first unfolds to a more or less “anarchic” state. And when one reduces the temperature again, it will adopt all sorts of non-native meta-stable configurations (as shown by the local minima in the curve above), at which most of the amino acids occupy positions that are non-canonical but random. Here we might have an endless debate about what is canonical and what is not. Maybe one preferes one of the many metastable protein configurations much more than the native state. In fact you might like or dislike what you want, but fact is that the protein functions only in its native state. So whatever our moral subjectivity tries to tell us, there is only one configuration that works. And at this native configuration, all amino acids occupy their intended position. All the non-native states at which amino-acids are allowed to adopt non-canonical positions will in most cases lead to severe funtional impairment and diseases. In fact, some of the most devastating diseases – and some of the less treatable ones – are known today as being caused by protein misfolding. Alzheimer disease, Parkinson, Morbus Huntington, Cystic Fibrosis or other so-called proteopathies are of cause not the result of affirmative action by a benevolent human being, but of the detrimental interplay between genetic mutation, environmental factors and maybe a slow decline in  cellular check-up machinery. But the result is the same: The distortion of a native state and the formation of random and hence pathogenic states.

As a scientist, I therefore have big objections to a widespread use of affirmative action. I don’t think it serves any good to promote – for good intention – a self-declared suppressed minority by discriminating the rest of the society. The human society is so diverse and complex that one can easily and arbitrarily define sub-groups (“tribes” to use a modern term), which by using questionable surveys can be shown to “suffer” from one or the other form of social discrimination.

Take for instance something very obvious: your home address. When we lived in London, our house was in the nice middleclass neighborhood of Battersea/Wandsworth. Our postal code was SW11 2AZ. A friend at work then asked me how it feels to live in such a wealthy borough.  Wealthy boroug ??? I asked him, after I had been involved in a fight with a drunken neighbor a few days before. It appeared that SW11 is in general considered to be of a good socio-economic background, and indeed just a few hundred meters away lived bankers, layers and folks from the media business. I was told that with my address and the SW11 postcode, I could easily apply for a well paid job in the financial industry. In the UK (and apparently other coutries like the US as well) your address postcode is used as a synonyme for your social status. On the other hand, of course, living at the “wrong” postcode (for instance Bethnal Green E2 6AU or Peckham SE15 5RJ) can be a really obstacle if you want to get a good job or intend to apply for a mortgage (“location, location, location, that’s what counts”). When we believe in the beneficial effects of affirmative action, then we should turn this upside down and provide special quota of job positions or mortgages to be given to applicants from “dodgy postcodes”.  With my SW11 postcode, I would have than been blocked from getting a good job or an affordable mortgage. But wait, our address in Battersea/Wandsworth was Jansen Walk 13, and isn’t number 13 known to be considered also a bid scary ? Maybe I should have tried to promote myself as member of the discriminated tribe of No.13 residents. With some lobby work and some social media activities it should be possible to raise enough attention to fight for my (or OUR) case. At least in the case of getting a negative answer to a job application I could accuse the employer of discrimination because of my house number 13.

Jansen Walk

Janson Walk 13 in London SW11 2AZ: Excellent postcode, but suspicious house number.

Affirmative action is not such a big issue here in Germany, (except for womans quota) and maybe that was the reason that against my own judgement I recently followed my heart and not my mind. It happened at the refugee camp nearby, where I regularily help the school kids of the asylum seekers with their home work. And sometimes the parents of the kids also ask me for help with the language or with some beaurocratic issues. Nilab, a young mother from Afghanistan initially wanted me to help her with the language. She currently attends an integrative school to make her fit for a proper job training. For this, she already applies for apprenticeships as construction draftswoman. After a written application at a technical college she was asked to participate in an online test (obviously, the college forwared all applications to an assesment center).  Nilab was pretty nervous, considering that she is still not 100% familiar with the German language, and the online test requires a really quick understanding and answering.  So I agreed to “assist” her with the online test, which of course is against the rules. And “assisting” did not ment explaining her the question (which would have taken much to long), but I answered about 80% of the questions myself. I knew that this was not right, somehow in violation of my feeling that one should not positively discriminate a person to provide her with an advantage in a competitive situation.  I found the proper term for my doing, “Affirmative Action” only recently in the book “12 rules for life ” by Jordan Peterson. Whereas in many points I can agree with his arguments, in the special situation of Nilab, a war refugee from Afghanistan, who is running her young family, living in a single studio of a refugee camp, learning a difficult new language, and above all is committed to learn a good and ambitious profession I saw no problem of promoting her against many obstacles of a western society.

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