Hybrid Vigor

For gardening enthusiasts, an event that brightens the bleak winter days is when seed catalogs arrive (in the mail or by the internet) with their colorful pictures, stirring the imagination with the hope of growth and flowering in the months to come.  Curiosity builds as the new introductions are unveiled, with their colors, flower forms, foliage, and other unique characteristics.  Hybridizers never tire of seeking out new and different qualities and sometimes spend several years improving a single variety.  I have watched breeders in greenhouses painstakingly apply pollen grains to flower stamens with tiny brushes.  Their meticulous labor, hour after hour, is a subject of amazement and a testimony to their skill and dedication.  But this post is not primarily about plants, as we shall see.  

What is Hybrid vigor?  Also known as heterosis, it is the increase in beneficial characteristics which occurs in the offspring of diverse parents such that the result, called the F1, is superior to the better of the two parents. In plants, it results in a greater proliferation of cells in some but not all tissues. A good working definition is that a superior variety is produced from a combination of distinct elements from parents of different species, varieties, or breeds.   Plant breeders explain that these hybrids can be more vigorous than their parents because of a type of genetic “noise” caused by a gene activity, even in highly similar traits in closely related species.  It often results in greater fertility than either parent.  For the farmer or horticulturist, this results in greater yields over a crop which pollinates within itself.  Hybrid vigor, as you might imagine, has also played an important role in evolution.  A similar application applies to animals.

In humans, this genetic effect has been occurring during recent centuries as matings between members of genetically distinct subpopulations has been the inevitable result of the breakup of small, relatively isolated communities owing to urbanization and greater population mobility.

Do you remember the Irish Potato Famine? This tragic but important negative example taught (or should have taught) the world about the fatal danger of a monoculture.  Also known as the Great Famine, or the Great Hunger or Great Starvation, it was a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1852 when 25 percent of the population perished.  Potatoes, a staple of the Irish diet, died when late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and tubers, decimated the potato crop.  Few plants possessed characteristics which enabled them to withstand the infection. In other words, without sufficient genetic difference, what kills one organism is going to kill nearly all of them.

Compelled by the prospect that traditionally grown varieties will be forever lost, professional and amateur botanists have lent their efforts to the creation of seed banks.  An informal network of “seed savers” grow, harvest, and trade heirloom varieties of flowers and vegetables between themselves to preserve the plant forms known to their ancestors.  There are also facilities which perform cryogenic storage. The seeds are placed in liquid nitrogen at -196°C, which leads to little detrimental physiological activity and prolongs life of the valuable germplasm.

But, as I said, this post is not about biology.  It is no coincidence that analogies drawn from nature have their application in philosophy.  Diversity is superior to a monoculture, whether biological or cultural.  It may even be projected that a monoculture is doomed to decline with its aging population and declining birth rate.  We can see this happening today in Japan.  Its application to society can readily be observed in the debate regarding “cultural purity” versus “cultural diversity”, which will be examined here.

America, known as the “nation of immigrants”, stands as a beacon of hope to much of the world, or at least it once did.  It may be called both a “melting pot” and a “salad bowl”, depending on your perspective—do immigrants thoroughly “Americanize” and assume a new identity or does a blended cultural identity persist?  The older idea (in fact, Citizenship classes were once known as Americanization classes) has been supplanted, but not eliminated, by the newer one, more in line with the realities of cultural identity, which is important.  No one should be expected to disavow their heritage or traditions.  There is no one correct answer as what happens really depends upon the immigrant himself/herself.  The American Idea cannot be separated from immigration; indeed, immigration is its foundation.  Immigrants create a dynamic which must continue if the American Idea, and the national vigor derived from it, is to persist. 

Sadly, recent years, and especially the last four, have brought with them an atmosphere of closing doors and building walls. Worse still, they have licensed the resurgence of race hatred and a demonization of immigrants the extent of which has not been seen for decades.  It has spread to those who have lived here for a long time—witness the desecration of synagogues and mosques, much as those black churches were burned during the 1960s.  This culture of ignorance and violence made its way to the nation’s Capitol on January 6, with shocking and devastating results that will take much effort to correct.   

All nations have borders, and borders have a purpose.  They are necessary but are also meant to be crossed for valid reasons.  The discussion of issues concerning the border can be made without the vitriol that is all too common in current political discourse. For centuries, people in the southwestern U.S. have worked on one side and lived on the other.  This is not unique to the U.S. and Mexico—consider Palestinians who daily cross the border to work in Israel.  This calls for reasoned judgment.  In a time of increased unsettlement by international instability, a humane response to the plight of refugees is an ethical imperative.  As I write, the policy of making asylum seekers wait “on the other side” for their cases to be considered is under review, as are other punitive and illogical practices such as the heinous separation of parents from their children.

Consider also the “dreamers”.  These immigrants, brought here as children, have a much stronger affinity to the United States than to their country of origin (if at all).  To deport them is not only inhumane; it is counterproductive—on the whole, they are a great asset as potential citizens and painting them with the perjorative term “illegals” is unfair.  This is not smart immigration.  It is only bigotry and ignorance.  There are no other words for it.

Then, there are those on whom we depend to plant and harvest our food supply.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about half of all crop workers in the United States, more than one million are undocumented immigrants,.  Growers and labor contractors estimate that the share is closer to 75 percent.  Who, exactly, is going to do this if all of these workers were to be sent home.  For years, farmers in several states have left crops unplanted rather than deal with the uncertainty of the labor supply.  Experience has shown that even the unemployed do not take these jobs if offered.  Farm work is not only a separate skill set; it requires intense stamina and long work hours. (The work week for agriculture is 60 hours, not 40).  It is what has developed as a unique farmworker culture.  And it is not limited to farm work alone.  Look at those who serve you in restaurants, convenience stores, carwashes, etc.  At least the Bracero program of the 1930’s-50’s, even with its abuses, was a system which worked and did not require dangerous and sometimes fatal border crossings.  As with other issues of immigration and race, we tend to overlook the reality and imagine something to be true which really isn’t.  Securing our food supply is in the national interest and we should be serious about it.  A few years back, a local Republican Women’s group invited  convicted (and pardoned by Trump) criminal Joe Arpaio to spew his bigoted views at their meeting.  They can believe or say what they wish, but I can assure you that none of them are about to plant and pick crops, that’s for sure.

Not only do undocumented immigrants tend to commit fewer crimes, they also pay social security and other taxes that they will never hope to recover.  It may sound impertinent, but we should thank them for propping up the system.  On the whole, they contribute far more than they take.  A workable policy that would get more immigrants into the system would fit the economic reality.

We have a reason to be thankful not only for the contributions made by immigrants from Mexico and Central/South America but for earlier waves from China, Japan, the Philippines, as well as the British Isles, and Europe.  Another earlier immigration was the Jewish diaspora of the 1930’s with its influx of thought: religious, philosophical, cultural, and scientific.  Our society has greatly benefitted from their knowledge, hard work, and skills.  Jewish scientists helped to win World War II.  Yet, once again, the record shows that this was not without resistance.  Many refugees from Europe were turned away, and those who managed to arrive here were met with prejudice. To this day there still exist property deeds, although now invalid, which state that a home cannot be sold to a person of Jewish ethnicity (or black, or Asian, along with others).

Did you ever hear the advertisement for the language learning program which asks you why many Europeans speak more than one language but Americans do not?  For one thing, their culture and commerce depend on multilingualism.  To compare, many Americans are overly obsessed with a xenophobic “English only” complex which, paradoxically, impedes both our social and economic progress.  At least the learning of a second language is a requirement in many districts for high school graduation and hopefully will prevent the future generation from repeating the mistakes of our own. 

Hybrid vigor applies to the language(s) we speak.  The concept of a “pure” language, once preserved by an academies of arbiters who purge their mother tongue from foreign and slang elements, was once a vaunted concept but is now somewhat of a joke as it has been made to bow to reality.  Here is a question: how do you say “internet” in Spanish?  Exactly, “internet”.  It has become a Spanish word simply because there is no better way to say it, like ordering a “burrito” in English.  The adaptability of words to fit practical necessities is a continuing phenomenon.  Along the border and in large cities, a Spanish-English combination called “Spanglish” has overlaid the language that the ancestors of these speakers once spoke.  If you are interested, there are even Spanglish dictionaries to guide you.  No longer do you “estacionar su auto” (park your car)—you “parquear” it.  You don’t go to the “lavanderia” (laundromat)—it is now the “washeteria” where you no longer “lavar su ropa” (wash your clothes)—you “washear su clos”.  As you can see, the result is comprehensibility to speakers of both languages.  I used to joke with my English as a Second Language class that in 50 years these classes would no longer be necessary as we would all speak Spanglish as our common tongue.  Here in California, that is perhaps more truth than humor.

In a case which seems bizarre to most sensible people today, the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia (1967) dealt the death-blow to statutes outlawing “miscegenation”, or mixing of the races. Mildred Jeter married her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving, in Washington, D.C., where they lived with relatives.  When they returned to their home state of Virginia five years later, they were arrested for traveling together and sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other.  Their marriage violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which criminalized marriage between people classified as “white” or “colored.  Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, Mildred wrote to then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  They were referred to the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented them in the court case. On June 12, 1967, the Court issued a unanimous decision in the Lovings’ favor and overturned their convictions under the provisions of the Equal Protection Clause.  Incredibly, Virginia argued that its law was not a violation because the punishment was the same regardless of the offender’s race, and thus it “equally burdened” both whites and non-whites. The Court’s decision countered that “distinctions drawn according to race” and that outlawed conduct (getting married) that citizens were free to do violated the Equal Protection Clause.  Lately, I have been encouraged by the increasing number of interracial couples appearing in television ads.  This is a sign of the times and can be no accident: those marketers have a reason for their presentations and must know something, namely, the increasing diversity of their audience, along with the increasing number of children of interracial parents who identify themselves as “more than one race”.

Here is another example from several decades back.  Jimmy Smith’s 1964 album, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? featured a cover shot of Jimmy holding hands with a white model, except that she was wearing gloves to avoid any flesh-to-flesh contact.  That image spoke volumes.  Would it be photographed the same way today?  Probably not, but I leave it to you as to objectively how far we have come, or how far we have yet to go.

I remember being offended in 2000 when I received my Census form.  It asked me to self-designate my race.  I left the question blank and mailed in my Census form without it.  Coincidentally, that was the year that I began to teach English as a Second Language.  In the eighteen ensuing years, I handed thousands of students a registration form containing one of the required Federal questions which asked exactly that.  I gritted my teeth, convinced as I have been ever since that racial classification is by definition racism, regardless of good intentions, i.e. Federal funding for underprivileged groups, gathering data on health problems related to race such as sickle cell anemia, etc.  In my view, none of them hold water—the practice is destructive and classification according to race is an impediment to a more inclusive society.

I hold within me a beautiful vision of the nation and world in which I live, where races and nationalities seamlessly and intimately relate to one another.  Cultures need not be destroyed—only the removal of the barriers between them.  This, in turn, will result in a renewal and re-energization of the society in which I live.  This outcome is far better than to join the decline of a dying, aging, white race in the land of my birth.  I am at an age where my contributions to the society in which I live are mostly in the past.  Regardless of what I may have done, I do not live and have never lived by my efforts alone.  I  am carried along by the energy and the dreams of those from many backgrounds,  races, and skills who bring their vitality to make my life, and the lives of all who live here, better.

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