Racism May Not Be “Natural” (But Being an Asshole Is)

From "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Brain scans have shown that when people see faces of other races, their amygdalas light up like home security systems.  Some tout this as evidence of hardwired racial bias, evolved to keep the oddly colored “other” out of home territory.  But as Robert Wright points out in this recent article, there would be few opportunities for interracial conflict in our geographically dispersed evolutionary past.  The “other” would primarily be distinguished by different visual cues such as tribal emblems, because hostile neighboring tribes would generally be of the same race.

More recent brain scan experiments done on children show that, like menstrual cramps and unstoppable boners, neurological race rage doesn’t kick in until after puberty.  While the question of “nature vs. nurture” is still open, this suggests that cultural forces are at work.

Wright’s line of reasoning is pretty solid when he says, “[T]hough we’re not naturally racist, we’re naturally ‘groupist.'”

Via The Atlantic:

There’s never been good reason to believe that human beings are naturally racist. After all, in the environment of human evolution–which didn’t feature, for example, jet travel to other continents–there would have been virtually no encounters between groups that had different skin colors or other conspicuous physical differences. So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races.

Nonetheless, people who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: 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.

Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had–which wasn’t much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn’t tell you whether the reaction is innate–it has even less power now. 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.”

There’s a reason the previous sentence says “suggest” and not “prove.” As the authors note, it’s conceivable that “the increasing amygdala response to race [with age] may be driven by intrinsic factors of the child, such as puberty, rather than exposure to cultural messages.” For that matter, the correlation between peer group diversity and dampened amygdala response doesn’t mean the former causes the latter; it could work the other way around: maybe people with a mild response to racial difference wind up with more diverse peers.

Read more here


Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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12 Comments on "Racism May Not Be “Natural” (But Being an Asshole Is)"

  1. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Oct 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm |

    Group hug, everybody! Don’t be shy.

  2. The puberty thing is related to neotony and human domestication. For example, neotonous humans would be better able to exist in mass societies, whereas more primitive humans would be more distrustful of outsiders.

    I always thought of racist groups as being atavistic, hold overs from the days of living in small tribal groups.

    I basically agree with the premise of this article. In New Guinea for example the neighboring tribes of people would be genetically similar in terms of skin tone etc, but they would dress differently, different head dresses, styles of penis gourd etc. and would be mutually hostile an violent.

    • Thanks for the reminder, I need to get my penis gourd from the dry cleaners.

    • Liam_McGonagle | Oct 31, 2012 at 6:17 pm |

      It’s depressing, but evidence is that these type of shoot-from-the-hip judgments are particularly impervious to logical refutation. If you look at it as a specialized instance of the 2-round ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ of game theory, all the participants have a strong incentive to invoke maximum violence against other players as soon as possible.

      The problem, it seems to me, is to get people to stop thinking of it as a 2-round game. Or maybe make the notion of reducing it to such as pathetic, boring and generally unworthy of the participants’ time. Or maybe widen the definition of the constituencies defining ‘players’ in such a game. I think there is evidence that this last phenom is happening, albeit painfully slowly.

      Thing is, it usually seems to happen in the context of a new technology or resource base that makes short-term economic benefits of cooperation among previously independent constituencies tangible. I’m not sure that’s viable in the world today, where we’ve hit a kind of learning curve plateau reinforced by some real overpopulation issues that make that model problematic.

  3. Were hard-wired to look out for our own kin. Outsiders damage our nepotistic society.

  4. IrishPotatoGun | Oct 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm |

    Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks
    also fuck assholes: assholes that just want to shit on everything.
    Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only
    thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem
    with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate –
    and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so
    full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies
    are an inch and half away from ass holes. I don’t know much about this
    crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don’t let us fuck this
    asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit.
    -Team America: World Police

  5. BuzzCoastin | Oct 31, 2012 at 9:42 pm |

    given that it is only recently (the last 200 years or so)
    that humans have stopped mass migrations
    it seems reasonable to wary of strangers
    and race/language is a good way to identify strangers
    hence the universal distrust of strangers
    which often manifests as racism in this new era

  6. Iv known a few myself.

  7. The headline is misleading. Everything is natural, until it’s not. Study supports that fundamental evolutionary truth.

  8. Does everybody think individual selection is still right?

Comments are closed.