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Different race and different land...

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cover_2003-12.jpgMany years ago, I stumbled over an issue of the Scientific American with the cover you can see to the right. Curiously, I read through the article (fulltext to subscribers only)  that easily convinced me, that the common concept of race is - excuse me - bullshit:

The color of your skin and all other features of you physiognomy are only slightly related to the rest of your genetic pool. In other words: Because your skin is black doesn't mean, you have all the other genes to become a great basketball player. Also, the variety within one "race" is way bigger than between different "races":

Just a few days ago, I found another article covering the same theme in Intelligent Life, from I which I took the following excerpt, that explains the issue further:

Cavalli-Sforza's "The History and Geography of Human Genes", written with Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza (Princeton University Press, 1994), is still considered the best overview of genetic diversity in humans. Cavalli-Sforza demolished the idea of there being different species of human being. No more Homo afer, asiaticus, europaeus, americanus and monstrous. Race, says Cavalli-Sforza, has hardly any useful biological meaning at all. It is about adaptation. Grain-eaters between the Baltic and Black Sea got pale skin, pale eyes and pale hair because they were under selective pressure to process more Vitamin D from limited sunlight. Lewontin, Wells's other mentor, posited that if a nuclear war struck and only the Kenyan Kikuyu survived, they would still have 85% of the genetic variation of mankind; with a similar history and conditions, they too would turn blond and blue-eyed under the northern sun.

Compared to other kinds of animals - that have vast genetic differences within one species - the human species is mostly the same, because our ancestors spread the world just relatively recently ago. What seems as huge differences in skin color, shape of the skull, nose or eyes, are really - evolutionary speaking - recent variations.

Cavalli-Sforza's book is from 1994, and still any time you fill in a form in the USA, they ask you, whether you are "Hispanic", "Asian", "African-American" or "Caucasian"... (Caucasian - what's that supposed to be anyway?) Now, which box would Barack Obama tick, who was born to a Kenyan father and a british-irish-geman-American mother? I was glad I'm not the only one finding these questions ridiculous, when reading Richard Dawkin's fantastic book on evolution called "The Ancestors Tale", who laments about "Caucasianism" in one of the chapters.

But even researchers are still serious about making some use of human races: Just recently I stumbled over a medical trial discovering that black men are more likely to suffer from a heart attack when entering the emergency room with chest pain. Am I going to look at every patient and try to figure out whether his skin colour is "black", "white" or somewhere in between? Life as a doctor would just be too easy if outer appearance could guide my decision making process that easy... It's most probably a mix of slight genetic differences and social background that explains these results. 

When talking about "differences" among people in the same place, I've always preferred the term "ethnicity", which is described by Wikipedia as:

An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and a tradition of common ancestry (corresponding to a history of endogamy).

With common ancestry comes a common gene pool, so in a way "ethnicity" includes what people understand as "races", but includes culture as well, which makes just so much more sense.

In CISV, I think we should try and get rid of the term "race" altogether, because - I'll be blunt here - simply accepting the concept of "race" is racism: Thinking that there's something to learn about a person's inside values (intelligence, character, culture) from the way he or she looks is nothing but prejudice. And it's not a question of morale, but real science. This fact is something the participants of our programmes should learn, because it seems like it's not common knowledge yet.

There's just the problem that "ethnicity" doesn't fit the metrics in the CISV song. Otherwise, I'd vote to replace the stupid word "race" once and for all.

The Grim Reaper.

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"Death" should be added to the list of themes.

About two years ago a huge exhibition was hosted in Hamburg's biggest art museum, Die Kunsthalle, displaying paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. CDF, like many other Romantic painters has a fascination with death. They loved to paint things such as graveyards, skulls and tombstones.


Working in a hospital makes "death" a common issue in my daily work life, especially in the intensive care unit: How far should we go? How bad a life is worth living? How would the patient have liked to die? On the other hand, I find it shocking how little it is present in our normal life. We all know, our time is limited. We all know that the average life expectancy in the developed world is around 80 years, yet we are surprised, shocked, disturbed when somebody does happen to buy the farm at that age.

In a world dominated by youthfulness, there's a need to look at the other end of the life cycle.

The theme combines personal, political, ideological, religious and philosophic questions. And can be stretched into directions such as:
- Capital punishment - right or wrong?
- Euthanasia - right or wrong?
- How would you like to die? Young, old, fast, slow?
- Suicide - is it a last resort, an act of aggression or simply a lethal psychiatric disorder?


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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Image via Wikipedia

Suggested Theme.

These days, Barack Obama is gathering world leaders in Washington to discuss the future of nuclear security. A good time to consider the topic for CISV! So many things are connected to the topics we deal with:

  • Does the existence of nuclear weapons support or disrupt world peace?
  • Is nuclear energy a solution to global warming?
  • How to solve the issue with Iran's nuclear ambitions?
They're all highly political questions, but CISV could provide the setting to get a clearer picture and discuss different opinions. I remember an activity on this topic during my Seminar Camp, that was quite intense.

I suggest taking the chance that the newspapers are full of great articles these days in order to set up a theme package.

Oh...and wouldn't the title "Nuclear Minicamp" sound sexy?
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Suggested Theme: Organic Food.

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A new category at FTB suggesting themes for CISV activities.

In CISV, sometimes I've often felt frustrated with the depth of discussions on popular themes, such as genetic engineering or nuclear energy. I felt that with the lack of knowledge activities dealing with these topics rarely provided me with much usefulness, and I wonder whether CISV is the right setting to learn about these things. I've had way better experiences withe themes dealing with personal views, morals, ethics, cultural issues. Areas with little scientific background, large cultural and interpersonal differences, and absolutely no clear right or wrong.

Nevertheless, I still believe that within CISV we should be able to deal with more "political" topics, if you preserve a "personal connection" and provide with background literature. So with this post I'm making a first attempt to suggest themes for CISV activities, that fits these criterias pretty well. What you will find below are objectives, a brainstorm of ideas to develop activities, and a few links to more information.


Organic Food

I've chosen "Organic Food", because I think it's an ideal theme for CISV, yet rarely discussed, and one of my personal favourites*. With a bit of adaption, this activity could also work for village kids, but I guess it's mainly for 14+.

Possible objectives:

- To generate a better understanding of the different variants of "Organic Food".
- To exchange personal views on what choices are made concerning food consumption.
- To discuss the concept of "voting with a trolly", and how much impact it can have.


Possible activities:

- Collect pictures or original items from a local supermarket and have participants list things into following categories: "I usualy buy...", "I rarely buy...", "I would never buy". Alternative: Visit a local supermarket in pairs and have them explain each other food they buy, or won't ever buy (make a blacklist!).
- Ask people to sort their priorities when chosing food by "flavour", "health", "price", "moral", "ecological impact".
- Have participants brainstorm, what they consider "organic"-food.
- Split into smaller groups, provide with material and have them present in a creative way the following concepts: Fair trade, "Buy Local", Genetic engineered food, Veganism.
- Brainstorm why these concepts may have their downsides.
- Have an open discussion round on whether "voting with a trolly" works
- Ask participants to look at their shopping list again, and ask whether they would through out certain items, or even add others.



  • Organic Food at Wikipedia: This article was marked to be checked for "neutrality" - which gives an impression, how political this topic is.
  • Local purchasing, explained at Wikipedia
  • What is local - a website explaining the difference between local and sustainable
  • The Buy local myth - an excerpt from the NYT
  • Voting with a trolly - The Economist devoted a whole section to the topic of "food politics in Dec 2006, unfortunately you can only read the first paragraphs without paying - but it still gives a good impression.
  • Veganism - a long and good introduction by Wikipedia, unfortunately a bit uncritical.
  • Another lengthy article on Veganism, includuding criticism regarding health and ethics.


The material list is far from complete, and I apologize for all those Wikipedia links - if you can provide more and better stuff, please post them in the comments section.

*I like the topic, not because I think everybody should buy "organic", but because it's fascinating how easily people are tricked into thinking they are buying something "good". In my eyes there's some "Aufklärungsbedarf" - need for education!

Gaza => Theme package.

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A few weeks ago quite an interesting discussion took place over at the JB community list on the recent war in Gaza. Obviously a hard question to answer, whether this war was right or wrong, or how else the conflict could be solved, but I appreciated the amount of information that was added by all the participants of the discussion - especially all the newspaper sources that were aggregated.

I would like to see somebody create a "theme package" on the Middle East Conflict to be used in CISV camps, just like the WiFight package for youth meetings. Here's what I think the theme package should include:

- a range of newspaper articles featuring the history of the conflict
- a list of activities for various age groups
- questions for possible debriefings and discussions

The discussion thread could be the basis for all this, and the theme package could be assembled in JBPedia. It's all out there, just somebody needs to put it together. The Middle East Conflict is already something participants talk about in almost every camp - let's give it some more substance.

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