Prejudice, discrimination: is racism inborn?Monday, May 07, 2007
The tendency to discriminate against people of a different ethnic origin or skin colour may have a biological origin - there may well be a scientific basis for racism, as a manifestation of "us and them" (New Scientist article by Mark Buchanan, 17 March 2007).
Recent computer modelling by political scientists Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institute in Washington DC and Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan showed that, when interacting with others individually, software agents which act in a "groupist" way - dividing others into groups and acting so as to favour "their group" and discriminate against, or "cheat", outsiders not in "their" group - in fact do best, at the expense of the others.
"Ethnocentric" groupists eventually come to dominate over those who adopt different behavioural strategies (e.g. acting randomly, or always cooperating with others whether in "their" group or not, etc).
In other words, groupism seems the most effective behavioural strategy for the success of an individual and their group, mathematically speaking: groupists and their group survive and even thrive.
(Interestingly, groupism also increased the general total level of cooperation between individuals in that virtual world: "Ethnocentrism is actually a mechanism for generating cooperation, and one that does not demand much in the way of cognitive ability," said Hammond. So it's not necessarily a bad thing for general cooperation in the "world", per se. )
Now, if the rule is "survival of the most groupist", i.e. if the most groupist are those who will flourish, then modern day humans may through natural selection have evolved a genetic predisposition to act groupistly, from an evolutionary biology perspective. Other experiments, e.g. by psychologist Henri Tajfel of the University of Bristol using groups of teenage boys, suggest that "if you put people into different groups, call them red and blue, north and south, or whatever, a bias towards one's own group will automatically emerge".
Obviously the computer model was simplistic, e.g. people often consider themselves to belong to more than one group for different purposes, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive - but a general biological predisposition towards groupism seems to make sense.
If "groupism wins" is the best survival rule, it's no wonder that groupism seems so prevalent in human society, and that we see so many forms of it - racism, nationalism, tribalism (including football supporters, gangbangers), discrimination against those of different religious faiths or creeds or who adopt different fashion or clothing styles or lifestyles (punks, Goths, mods, rockers), high school cliques, etc etc.
What criteria to group by?Now for groupism to work, interestingly it seems not to matter what criteria you group by - as long as others also:
- group by the same criterion, and
- act groupistly.
But if groupism is indeed the best policy, if in-group favouritism is the best strategy, one fundamental question is: how should you assign people, what criteria should you use to determine who's in your group and who isn't?
Now research shows that color, race and ethnicity have no real intrinsic biological significance, as such: "We know that the genetic variation between individuals within one racial or ethnic group is generally much larger than the average difference between such groups. As in the virtual world, race and ethnicity are arbitrary markers that have acquired meaning" (emphasis added). So why is it that there is racial discrimination? Why do people group by race?
Like other New Scientist readers, I take issue with the suggestions that certain studies support the idea that the inclination to be racist, or at least to attribute significance to skin colour as such, is itself inbuilt. I don't think the studies reported in the article support anything of the sort but I'm not going to go into that here, see the aside at the end if you're interested.
What I want to focus on is what I believe is a more plausible explanation for why people tend to group by race. I'm no expert in biology or indeed anthropology or evolutionary psychology, but I think it's possible to look at all this logically, applying Occam's Razor - i.e. the simplest explanation is probably the best one.
Back in the prehistory of the human race (and probably still today), it would be important to decide who's in your group (and who's not) quite quickly, on first encountering them.
So the grouping criteria should allow speedy identification of other group members.
Plus they should be criteria which other potential group members are also likely to use. Including someone in your group won't help you if they don't include you in theirs.
"Looks like me"?Now humans' primary sense is that of vision, so grouping's most likely to be done by visual means: what someone looks like.
I suggest that "looks like me" is the most logical way to work out who is or isn't in "your" group.
"Looks like me / my relatives" has the bonus of being a crude but not ineffective way to group by "is like me genetically" too, of course. Grouping by "is like me in the genetic sense" also has the biological advantage of helping to perpetuate your own gene pool, as the group you're promoting by acting groupistly would then be the one whose members have genes closest to yours. (And I think it's no coincidence that "akin" means "alike").
"Looks like me" would also be a good common criterion to help group members recognise each other clearly and quickly, and so others in the group are likely to group by this principle too.
So there's more than one reason for "looks like me" to become the favored grouping method.
Skin color, ethnicity, raceNext, what are the most obvious features about a person's looks? Skin colour and other ethnic visual features, that's what. So it's no surprise if people have evolved an innate tendency to group by race.
In short, if you're going to mentally allocate someone to a group on meeting them, the quickest way to do that is by how they look, and the most obvious thing about how someone looks is normally their skin colour / ethnicity.
No doubt other factors are relevant, but I wonder if the basic biological origin of racism might be as simple as that. If smell was our most powerful sense, we might well be grouping people instead by how they smell, perhaps.
Within a community where people have the same skin colour and ethnic origin, it's true that people can't usefully group by skin colour or ethnic features. They'd have to use other "markers" for differentiation. But that's not an argument against "looks like me". Where everyone's of the same race I think "looks like me" still works - though in that context it would then generally lead you to favour family members and relatives. And within a society of people of the same race, I think other markers or grouping guides would still be, and are, mainly visual - clothing style, hairstyle, tattoos, scarification etc - so they still enable people to identify group members on "looks like me."
Biological predisposition towards racism?Therefore there seems no need to invoke any separate evolutionary basis or mechanism for racial prejudice. I suggest that as a matter of simple logic we can conclude that the tendency to be racist, to discriminate against others of a different skin colour or ethnicity, has become inborn in human being - just from assuming the following propositions:
A. groupism is the best behavioural strategy for individual social interactions, for both the individual and their group
B. people are affected by "survival of the fittest", i.e. natural selection works, and the "fittest" people will survive the best
C. people are motivated (unconsciously or not) to propagate their own genes, and
D. people's primary means of taking in information is through their sense of sight.
In other words, I don't think racism as such is inherent; it may actually be more general than that. Any in-built tendency towards ethnocentricity could be better explained by a broader evolved in-born tendency to group on the basis of "looks like me". A genetically preprogrammed inclination towards groupism in human beings can be deduced from a few simple givens and a further evolved adaptation to group by "looks like me" seems to me to be the easiest, quickest and simplest explanation.
Groupism as a memeFurthermore, I suspect groupism has evolved as a cultural meme too. In groupist groups, isn't groupism likely to also become a core cultural or even "moral" value of the group as a whole, with groupist parents passing down to their children not just groupist biological tendencies but also groupism as a philosophy or way of life?
The major human social groups today, whether ethnic, cultural, religious, etc simply because they are the ones which survived to be here, are likely to be those whose members were groupist and which maintained groupist behaviour amongst their members.
If our brains are already wired to group by "looks like me", it wouldn't take much for environmental factors - upbringing, socialisation, culture - to influence us even more powerfully to group mainly by skin colour or race, as they happen to be the most obviously identifiable feature of a person.
I think groupism may be a case of nature influencing nurture reinforcing nature, perpetuating groupism both as biological pre-programming and as cultural meme, with group members inculcated or even indoctrinated to "Look after your own, stick to your own kind, don't talk to strangers, don't trust outsiders", and being encouraged to consider other group members as "brethren", "brothers and sisters", "kin". (Sound familiar?)
In short, as so often with nature v nurture issues, I suspect that racism has both biological and environmental components. Groupism has got to be one of the most powerful forces around, through both nature and nurture. No wonder racial prejudice can be so strong and deeply held.
Why do people consider group outsiders inferior or "bad"?That's a separate but different issue, I think. The article said anthropologist Francisco Gil-White "argues that within any group of people sharing social norms, anyone who violates those will attract moral opprobrium - it is considered "bad" to flout the rules and benefit at the expense of the group. This response is then easily transferred to people from other ethnic groups. "We're tempted to treat others, who are conforming to their local norms, as violating our own local norms, and we take offence accordingly," says Gil-White. As a result we may be unconsciously inclined to see people from other ethnic groups not simply as different, but as cheats, morally corrupt, bad people."
It didn't cite any studies to back that up - if there was any, I'd have been interested to know what it was. In the absence of evidence on that, I'd say it was just his opinion. Personally, I wonder if (applying Occam's Razor again) the simpler explanation is that people are beings with (evolved?!) consciences, and some part of us, of which we may not be wholly conscious, wants a "good" reason to justify acting racistly, so that we won't feel so bad about being racially prejudiced. Maybe we sleep better at night, we feel less guilty, if we can at some level rationalise discrimination against people outside "our" group by thinking that they're inferior, bad, or morally corrupt, that it's because we're better than them - rather than because we're subconsciously driven by our heredity to be groupist (we're better than them because we're in our group, and they're not!).
How ingrained is racism? Is there hope?I also believe with Mark Buchanan that although we may be predisposed to racism it doesn't mean we have to be racist, to act racistly. The first step towards combating racial prejudice is acknowledging that we may be biologically primed to be racist. Like Mark Buchanan I come down on the side of those who believe that we need to take account of our "natural" inclinations stemming from our animal origins and evolved instincts, but we also need to remember that as thinking creatures with the ability to reason and (in common with monkeys?) a sense of justice, we can - and in many cases should - act to resist any knee-jerk racist reaction. Most of us can control our natural impulses once we recognise them, especially when we come to realise that, if we have to be groupist, well there are other ways to group by, which may be more helpful to us personally as individuals, namely someone's personality and character.
The article pointed out a related issue. Brain-response wise, research by Susan Fiske's team from Princeton University showed that people tend to view junkies, homeless people, beggars etc as less than human. But fortunately, it doesn't take much to change that - apparently being led to see street people etc as individuals is the trick, e.g. asking "What kind of food do you think this beggar would like?"
Further on the "seeing people as individuals" theme, another New Scientist article by Paul Slovich reported other studies showing that people are more willing to help identified individuals than numbers of unidentified statistics (that simply fail to trigger human emotions and therefore to inspire action). Indeed, showing people figures or statistical summaries seems positively counterproductive as it reduces their initial compassion, according to a recent study by Deborah Small at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburg, and Paul Slovich.
Other studies by Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then Daniel Västfjäll, Ellen Peters and Paul Slovich respectively showed that people will contribute more to one individual than a group of 8, and feel less compassionate and donate less aid towards a pair of victims than to either individuals alone. So "compassion fatigue" may set in for groups as small as two. (This aspect of human psychology may help explain people's general indifference to mass genocide, yet their occasional heroic efforts to save individuals in need.)
I wonder if beyond one or two individuals it's just too much for our minds to take in, and perhaps also too much for us to cope with - I can try to save one person, but there's no way I can save a hundred, there's too many for me to be able to help them all, so why should I even be moved or bother in the first place? A psychological defence or protective mechanism evolved to make us behave more pragmatically and realistically and conserve our personal resources?
In conclusion I'm not saying (nor did the article) that prejudice is a good thing. I'm just saying that I think the mathematical model does suggest people are probably subconsciously predisposed to groupism, as a matter of pure evolutionary logic.
But I'm not so sure that people have a biological inclination to be racist as such; it seems more logical to me that they're inclined to group by the broader "looks like me" principle, and that in turn has made it easier for people to be brought up to be racist. In other words, I think socialisation and the environment and culture both play a part in leading people to be prejudiced on the basis of race. However it's heartening that if we're led to see others as individuals, we're more willing to co-operate with them and help them.
I think the whole area is fascinating and I hope these insights will be used to build the more cohesive society that we're going to need worldwide if we are to act together to combat threats that will affect us all, like global warming. The cynical part of me wonders if it may take something as drastic as alien invasion for us humans to redefine how we group... I certainly trust it won't come to that!
So what? To me, that just shows that kids know (whether from instinct or experience) that skin colour is a better way to identify someone than their weight or what they wear, i.e. that someone's skin colour usually doesn't change over time (certain pop stars aside!), whereas their weight or clothes might. But that doesn't mean children's brains are wired to discriminate against people by race. And, as I said above, other New Scientist readers (Tim Jackson and Miles Rzechowicz) share this view, making the same point in different words about skin color being obvious and kids knowing that skin colour is less likely to change than clothing or chubbiness.
And then there's UCLA anthropologist Rob Boyd's argument that the tendency to divide the world along ethnic lines is evolved: that people evolved to differentiate between ethnic groups because it was important for their survival that they could differentiate, and that race got "mistaken for" an ethnic group marker.
This doesn't seem to be backed up by any studies. In fact it seems to me to be the wrong way round. I'd venture to suggest that "looks like me" seems a simpler explanation. Race/skin colour is an ethnic group marker. It's the easiest way to differentiate at first sight. So it's become used as the main way to distinguish between groups. Not vice versa. Plus, I don't think they've defined clearly enough what they mean by "ethnic group" in this context, it seems a bit chicken and egg to me.
And so what if neighbouring Torguud Mongol / Kazakh tribes, when questioned by Gil-White, said they thought ethnic identity was linked more with nature (biological, depending on parents' ethnicity) than nurture (upbringing)? That's just evidence that they think "ethnic identity" (whatever they mean by that) is genetic. Not that it is genetic. Just because they hold that opinion (as no doubt do plenty of people in the developed world), it isn't proof that the opinion is true. Views aren't fact. So I'm not convinced by that research.
And even if ethnic identity is genetic, it doesn't necessarily follow that the tendency to differentiate along ethnic lines is genetic rather than learned.
So, as you can guess, I'm not so sure that the studies described provide evidence that grouping on the basis of ethnicity per se is evolved rather than learned. Personally I think it's much more likely that groupism on the basis of "looks like me" is genetic, and that that's been easily extended to encompass racism because race or skin colour is the most obvious distinguishing factor ("Not my skin color = definitely doesn't look like me!").
What of brain imaging studies in 2000 by a team led by social psychologist Allan Hart of Amherst College in Massachusetts? These found that when white and black subjects were shown faces, their amygdala, the part of the brain "involved in grasping the emotional significance to stimuli", became more active when viewing faces of a different race - whether black or white - even though the subjects weren't even conscious of an emotional response. And again what about findings by neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps' team at New York University that the amygdala is the most active in the most racially prejudiced? Well, to me, all that those experiments show is that adults have an emotional response to those with a different skin colour. It doesn't show why they have that response - is it biologically pre-programmed, is it learned? Couldn't the response be more fundamentally triggered by "looks like me (not)"?
If those tests were done with infants I feel they'd be more persuasive, but even so, a heightened emotional response to a different race doesn't necessarily equate to racism. It could just mean "Clearly this person doesn't look like me". What I'd like to see is more "controls" for proper comparison - do they have the same level of response to objects of the same colour? Pictures of close relatives vs photos of people of the same color who however look very different from the family?
In short, I don't agree that "we have evolved a tendency to divide the world along ethnic lines" nor conversely that "our tendency to classify people by colour might simply be a modern vice, learned early and reinforced throughout our lives - even, paradoxically, by anti-racist messages." I think we have evolved a tendency to be groupist, and an inclination to discriminate against those of a different race or skin colour arises purely because our main sensory organ is our eyes, so what people look like is the first thing we base quick judgements on; plus, culturally, social groups will also tend to program the groupism meme into their members, thus reinforcing the natural inclination towards groupism. And the end result is racial prejudice (and yes religious discrimination too).)