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Race + Racism

The Origins of Racism


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By 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.


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.


See additional sources at:

The Origins of Racism