The Origins of Racism


24 July 2012, 10.44am AEST

Prof Rob Brooks

A criticism often flung at evolutionary studies of human behaviour is that, in revealing the origins of the human psyche’s darkest aspects, they might substantiate our worst traits.
The hysteria over sociobiology arose from concerns that a biological understanding of human behaviour and society would be used to justify racism, sexism and various other forms of prejudice.

Ideologues will usually grab at anything that suits their world-view and ignore whatever contradicts it. But that should not change the questions scientists ask. In fact modern evolutionary biology is making enormous contributions to our understanding of how our ideas of race, racism, gender and sexism arise.

In this vein, I have enjoyed catching up with some of the most recent research on the evolution and neurobiology of race and racism. Two of the most interesting reads are an article on the Roots of Racism by Elizabeth Culotta, and a Nature Neuroscience review by Jennifer Kubota and colleagues on the Neuroscience of Race.

Abstract of the Culotta article

Racial prejudice apparently stems from deep evolutionary roots and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side. And yet what makes a “group” is mercurial: In experiments, people easily form coalitions based on meaningless traits or preferences—and then favor others in their “group.” Researchers have explored these innate biases and begun to ask why such biases exist. What factors in our evolutionary past have shaped our coalitionary present—and what, if anything, can we do about it now? Several avenues of research are probing the origins of what many psychologists call in-group love and out-group hate. Researchers are testing the implicit biases of young children and even primates, and devising experiments to ratchet bias up and down. Evolutionary researchers are trying to parse the group environments of our ancestors and are debating just how big a selective pressure came from out-group male warriors.

Abstract of the Kubota et al. review

As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

Where does racism come from?

Culotta’s article, part of a special section in Science on Human Conflict, isolates two important themes that are gathering support. First, racism is one of many expressions of our evolved capacity to live and work in groups. The very human tendency to identify with an “us” defines the broader “them”.

Outgroup “hate”, then, is a mirror image of ingroup “love”. Religious bigotry, ethnic mistrust and even an intense dislike of Collingwood supporters arise at first from our tendency to form coalitions and allegiances.

Could the prejudice against Collingwood supporters come from the same evolved tendencies that sometimes give rise to racism and religious bigotry?

Could the prejudice against Collingwood supporters come from the same evolved tendencies that sometimes give rise to racism and religious bigotry?: woowoowoo on Flickr

The other important theme is that antipathy toward members of other groups gains much of its traction through fear, particularly of males. The snap judgments people make about others may be part of a sensitive alarm system that evolved when the people most likely to present a violent threat were strange males.

This idea is part of a simmering discussion about the importance of male aggression in human evolution. According to the “Male Warrior Hypothesis”, men have evolved stronger tendencies to form coalitions to attack other groups and to defend their own groups, families and property against coalitions of other men.
Racism on the brain

There is more to racism, of course, than a fear of strange men. But Kubota et al’s review of the neuroscience evidence for how we respond to race suggests that there is some substance to this idea.

Studies exploring which the parts of the brain are associated with the formation of beliefs about race and how we respond to racial features often implicate the amygdala. This region is also known to be important in fear conditioning, highlighting a mechanistic link between fear and how people respond to race.

Neuroscience studies also show that the machinery of in-group recognition may contribute to the way people are less empathic toward outgroup members. People better identify and remember faces from their own racial group. Areas of the brain involved in face recognition are more active when viewing same-race faces. According to Kubota and her colleagues, this suggests that out-group faces “may not be ‘faces’ with the same intensity as ingroup … faces”.

If you’re a regular reader, you may have picked up that I despise the lazy metaphor of the brain being “wired” – and especially “hardwired” for certain traits. Brains are not computers, and neurons are not wires. We really don’t have an adequate metaphor for how the brain works. In fact our understanding of the brain moves so fast that no metaphor could keep up.

Few media outlets use the idea of “hardwiring” more clunkily than Britain’s Daily Mail (an outlet I’ve had issue with in the past). Their take on the Nature Neuroscience review last month was to report that racism is – you guessed it – ‘hardwired’ into the human brain.

The story ignores a whole section of the review devoted to “the malleability of the circuitry of race”. Over the last century, researchers studying race have found a dramatic drop in racist attitudes and stereotypes. There is strong neuroscience evidence for what we have long known – that becoming familiar with individuals from other races as well as a conscious desire to transcend our prejudices can erode racism and other forms of bigotry.

The brain – far from being hard-wired – is good at learning about race and triggering biases, but is also capable of transcending those biases. And that’s a good thing, in evolutionary terms, because the groups we belong to shift and change over time. Our ability to change is an important facet of our humanity.
How racist are you?

What the Daily Mail did get right is to highlight another point from the review: that racism often operates beneath our conscious awareness. Even people who outwardly abhor racism can make stereotyped or unfair assessments of people, exercising prejudices of which they are not even aware.

This makes the study of racist attitudes difficult. Surveys only measure explicit attitudes that subjects are willing to admit. But we often conceal our attitudes and biases from others – and even from ourselves.

Fortunately, psychologists have developed wonderful tools for measuring implicit attitudes and assumptions – including the Implicit Association Test. These compare the speed and accuracy with which a subject responds when asked to match positive concepts with one group and negative with another against their speed and accuracy when asked to make the opposite associations.

A surprising proportion of people – even those who appear to have no racial preferences when asked explicitly – tend to be quicker when associating negative concepts with other race groups and positive concepts with their own than they are at the reverse.

“How racist are you?” It’s a question we often feel the urge to ask of those who doth protest too much, and one we secretly fear to ask of ourselves. But now there are a number of good online tools you can use to measure your own implicit prejudices and biases, including this one at Understanding Prejudice. Give it a try. The answer might surprise you.
Unravelling racism

Far from justifying racism or driving a new eugenics movement, the emerging understanding of race is likely to lead to a more equitable society.

Certainly, an understanding of the factors that shape people’s unconscious prejudices can be used either cynically or in positive ways. And an understanding of the factors that make people more sensitive to race and outgroup fear can help to disarm potential demagogues.

Writing about the “Roots of Racism” article at earlier this week, Noel Turnbull asked how we might use an improved understanding of the origins of racism to elevate societies like Australia where outgroup fear is shaping the political landscape. His suggestion bears repeating in full:

One way to encourage the slower, more rational thoughts, which also encourage our better angels is very much in the hands of politicians. For instance, if it was left to a vote capital punishment would never have been abolished in many Western countries but politicians took the leap on moral grounds helped by extensive public campaigns. When politicians reverted to pro-capital punishment atavism, such as former Victorian Liberal opposition leader Alan Brown, their leadership came under threat. In contrast one of his successors, Jeff Kennett, was extraordinarily principled on questions such as race and just refused opportunities to add to the fires and the atavistic comments while publicly demonstrating a strong commitment to multiculturalism.

Read more
Come in Spinner: out of caves our opinions come

8 thoughts on “The Origins of Racism

  1. Interesting post MMU. I’m a little surprised Brooks explicitly mentioned the amygdala but not the anterior cingulate cortex which is responsible (from what I’ve read) for conflict resolution, error control and controlling of emotions (hence promoting rational thinking). He possibly alluded to it when he mentioned ‘slower, more rational thoughts’.

    Both parts of the brain help explain how a fear of change/the unknown makes conservatives more ideological, nationalistic, racist, and have a greater proclivity for motivated reasoning and other associated cognitive biases. Social liberals are better able to resolve perceived conflict, embrace change (e.g. diversity in a racial context) and more inclined to use rational thought processes in evaluating issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage.

    I hadn’t heard of the Male Warrior Hypothesis before but it helps paint a more nuanced picture and is in keeping with the stereotypical racist being white, older and male.

    As to whether research of this nature will be used selectively by racists as an biological excuse for their desire to ‘torpedo the boats’, I’m sceptical. To suggest their prejudice is driven by a primal emotional response rather than logic is not something I think they will countenance. And this assumes they would bother to read the research in the first place. Since many of them reject the racist label, they don’t think it applies to them.

  2. “The brain – far from being hard-wired – is good at learning about race and triggering biases, but is also capable of transcending those biases.

    You forgot to tell the viewers ‘only with extreme difficulty if at all even when confronted with ‘Truth’ does bias change once ‘hard-wired’ by foundation text and its societal enforcers.

    Interesting how religious bigotry, racism, etc can be minimalised, excused because Hey ‘There is a cure after all if it gets to bad.’ So what these religions determine Other as ‘Deaf, dumb and blind’, evil; apes etc justifiably destined for ‘grievous harm’ with the bodies every day to prove it. Surely it is s0 easy to ‘transcend’.

    Had a look at the research of transcending from ‘ordinary’ to the ‘terrorist’ there does not appear to be a break in dogma or defined bigotry from one to the next.

    Tell that to the parents of the french school girl chased down and shot in the head whilst her school mates watched in terror.

    You idiot.

      • I believe it is very dangerous to even insinuate changing the nature created by a lifetime of indoctrination and the resultant actions for and against Other can be easily changed – they cannot its a lie.

        The insinuation basically is that ‘truth’ is self evident. That surely those cultures who are taught directly or otherwise from ‘foundation text’ Other is less within our midst will see counter views which say they are not will override – it simply is not true.

        As Plato told us years ago what you teach children on their mothers knee particularly ethics derived from ‘gods’ will have an impact – change the text or change nothing.

        Plato ranting?

        You understand alright.

        Foundation text=ethics=ideas=motivation=action for and against Other.

        The point is why your bias prevents you from accepting it as a ‘truth’.

        Think you may be called a racist by your good friends for what was obvious to Plato?

        • *Yawn*

          Plato was logical and rational. You are neither.

          All those in favour of consigning your rants to the spam bin say ‘aye’

          All those against

          We declare the motion carried.

        • Yawn as much as you like it will not change the past present or future – there will be increased population concentrations physically of opposing dogmas perceived by the hopeful (deluded) majority initially as cultures living in harmony (despite the fact such concentrations clearly underline the inherent racism and building of required critical mass), escalation of societal discord and violence in Australia as it has occurred elsewhere for exactly the same reasons.

          Yes the majority is always right – as it appears you believe yourself to be – shame humanity continues to suffer from such skimmers – you keep each other warm – alas not the first nor the last.

          Do not forget to wipe.

  3. Foundation text=ethics=ideas=motivation=action for and against Other.

    If someone can explain in cogent terms rather than the inane why the above function simply is not true only to pleased to change my view – bias once developed is not at all easy to change as I perceive the above article insinuates.

    Also why recent research ‘the logical and rational’ has little impact on strongly developed illogical and irrational bias of minds made up is false?

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