Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies to favor members of the same group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsiders distinctions seem to be innate. This is the consequence of the substantial benefits of group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with it today.

Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious. (source)

So, to some extent, our brains are wired for bias. Even the most liberal among us show some level of implicit bias when tested for it. All we can do is try to be aware of our prejudices as much as possible, and then correct for them.

Some want to extrapolate from these relatively uncontroversial findings and argue that racism as well is innate, even though racism is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to early humans who almost never met members of other races.

Those who argue that racism is a natural tendency can appeal to certain findings to back up their claims. Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats (source).

The problem with this sort of argument is that a biological fact doesn’t have to be innate. In fact, in this case, it has been shown that the detected brain reaction – a biological fact – does not occur in young people:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14. What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.” (source)

In a sense, this is good news, because it means that people can be taught not to be racist, even if we can’t be taught to be completely unprejudiced.

More on race as a social construction is here. More posts in this series are here.


2 thoughts on “Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

  1. Interesting that colour prejudice starts at 14. Perhaps it was useful for adults but harmful for children. Personally, I think that colour prejudice and what we call ‘racism’ are a pre-human instinct, now redundant but still active. Like in NLP, a protective but negative behaviour is needed at a time of great threat, and continues its negative influence long after the original danger has passed. The NLP treatment is to end the redundant behaviour under hypnosis. Not so easy with an instinct. Your readers might like to check out my post on the subject:

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