Monday, May 08, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology and Racism

The mental process that led to my thinking about the Placebo Effect and its evolutionary origins stemmed in part from some thinking I have been doing about the origins of racism and genocide. After all, what could be the evolutionary benefit to a species that regularly killed itself off in large numbers via genocide, or which oppressed and impoverished large numbers of its own members?

Evolutionary scientists studying how new species are created talk a lot about the environmental mechanisms that can isolate a breeding population. New mountain ranges, new rivers, new islands are all ways that one group of individuals in a species can be isolated from the rest of their species. Then new mutations arising in that isolated group can build up as the group adapts to a slightly different environment from that which is faced by the remainder of the original species. As time goes by, those mutations can build up to the point that, if the two groups are once more brought together, they may no longer be capable of interbreeding.

As modern humans spread out over the world from africa tens of thousands of years ago, the difficulties of long-distance travel in a pre-technological world led to enough isolation that some adaptations to different environments could arise and not spread beyond those localized environments. For example, the dark melanin-rich skins of humans who stayed in Africa are an adaptation to reduce the amount of sunburn and skin cancer in people who spend a lot of time out in the tropical sun in an environment too hot for heavy clothing. The pale melanin-poor skins of humans who moved to Scandinavia are an adaptation to have more efficient production of Vitamin D in the skin using sunlight in an environment with less sunlight, and in which the climate was cold enough that most skin was usually covered up with clothing. When there's less risk of sunburn and skin cancer, it's more important to be able to make Vitamin D even with very little skin exposed to sunlight. When there's more risk of sunburn and skin cancer, and most skin is usually exposed, it's more important to avoid skin cancer and even an inefficient Vitamin D production system can still produce more than enough for survival.

However, this distance-based isolation was never quite complete enough, and didn't last long enough, for the various human sub-groups to become incapable of interbreeding. Each local sub-group did enough interbreeding with their immediate neighbors for there to be a rough continuity all the way from Siberia and Scandinavia down to the southern tip of Africa, and thus a fairly smooth progression of, for example, skin tones from dark Africans through medium-toned Mideastern, Mediterranean, and Indian peoples, to pale Scandinavians and yellow-skinned Siberians. Even with the relatively isolated inhabitants of the Americas, there was some contact between the Eskimos/Inuits of Alaska and the similar aboriginal cultures of Siberia, enabling some interbreeding between the old and new worlds even before Columbus. So the human "races" are not separate species, just localized variations in the frequencies of certain genes within a larger common genome.

But distance and geographical barriers are not the only ways to reproductively isolate a population. In the animal world, behavioral adaptations like different mating seasons, mating calls, and other mate-selection mechanisms can serve to isolate emerging sub-species from conducting much interbreeding even before mutations build up to the point that interbreeding is physically impossible. And within the human species, behavioral and cultural barriers to interbreeding between racial and ethnic groups did arise.

Early humans, as I mentioned before, tended to live in small bands of individuals who were mostly related by blood. When the groups were small enough, they may have literally been a single extended family of at least distant cousins. But even larger tribes tended to have semi-mythological common ancestors. The Book of Genesis is, in large part, a chronicle of the mythological common ancestors of the Israelite people and their neighboring tribes.

The best-known such tale is probably that of Issac and Ishmael. The Israelites claimed descent from Abraham through his son Issac, which he had with his wife Sarah. The Arabs claim descent from him through his first-born son Ishmael, which he had through his wife Sarah's handmade Haggiah. Although the story as laid out in the Bible probably didn't actually happen quite that way in reality, two important concepts are on display here. The first is that, rightly or wrongly, ancient peoples often claimed descent from a common ancestor as a way of saying, "we in this tribe are really all one big family". The second is that, to justify later political differences between tribes, they would often concoct common-ancestor myths about their neighbors to explain just why an enemy tribe are quite literally bastards.

Another well-known Biblical common-ancestor myth is the story of Lot and his daughters. After the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah and the death of his wife, Lot took his two daughters and went to live in a cave above the Dead Sea. With no nearby tribemates to marry, and no lands or property to serve as a dowry, the daughters despaired of ever finding husbands. Desperate for sons to carry on their lineage, the daughters got their father drunk and had sex with him while in this inebriated state. They became pregnant and had sons. The Bible goes on to list those sons as the founding common-ancestors of two neighboring tribes, the Moabites and Amalekites, whom the Israelites were in a near-perpetual state of war with centuries later when this story was actually written down. To justify later wars with culturally-similar peoples, the Israelites thus concocted a founding-ancestor myth to call their enemies bastard products of an incestuous relationship, a rather effective form of propaganda.

So ancient peoples very consciously thought of themselves as genetically-related extended family groups. This thinking persisted through the centuries, even as tribes became nations and the population of such groups grew too large to realistically be considered single extended families.

When two such groups lived in close proximity but did not interbreed much due to cultural or traditional barriers, racism and genocide became likely. This is because of another consequence of the sort of evolutionary instincts I mentioned in the previous post about Placebo Effect, the sort of instincts best exemplified by a mother cat defending her kittens.

In evolutionary terms, it is the genes that matter, not the individuals. A parent will fight and die to protect their offspring, like that iconic mother cat and her kittens. Siblings will fight and die to defend each other, like ants or bees fighting to defend the hive. And friends will fight and die to protect each other, because your friends are potential relatives. If I die to defend you today, and your son marries my daughter later, someday you may go on to defend your grandchildren who are also MY grandchildren, and thus by defending you, I'm defending my own offspring.

Within the same breeding pool, individuals may compete in a fairly vicious manner for access to mates and resources. But every rival is also a potential ally. I don't mind so much if you get rich if I think someday my grandkids might marry your grandkids and thus stand a chance to inherit your fortune. If our two sons are likely to become business partners, your wealth and resources may also benefit my offspring.

But if two separate breeding pools of humans exist in close proximity without significant interbreeding, the instincts which lead us to help and defend our relatives and potential relatives turn ugly. If two individuals do not share a common ancestor and thus have different genes, and furthermore they are unlikely to ever share common descendants, then what benefits one bloodline will never benefit the other.

For one example, look at pre-Revolutionary France. The nobllity of the 1700's very consciously considered themselves descdended from a narrow group of common ancestors in the medieval nobility. The commoners could not claim descent from the same group of common ancestors. The nobility and commoners rarely intermarried or interbred. Oh, a nobleman may have bastard children by a common mistress, but the offspring either are shunned and remain commoners, or are acknowledged and enter the nobility (and likely subsequently abandon their commoner relatives out of embarassment over their origins). Thus, such offspring effectively simply switch allegiance rather than forming a bridge between the two groups. Nobles drew their wealth from owning land, while commoners got wages for labor, and so the two groups effectively worked in different industries, and so being business partners was rare. When the nobility got richer, the commoners could not comfort themselves with the belief that someday their grandkids would marry into the nobility and inherit that wealth. When commoners grew wealthy, they became rivals for political power and may even try to marry into the nobility, thus competing for mating partners. What benefited one group would not benefit the other. And so when things came to a head in 1789 and after, the nobility was sent to the guillotine or chased out of the country, their assets seized by force. Effectively, it was genocide and ethnic cleansing of one breeding population upon another.

For a second example, take Christians and Jews in pre-WW2 Germany. Religion, Culture, and Tradition together conspired to make interbreeding between the two groups rare. When intermarriage did occur, one or the other spouse usually converted, and thus effectively switched allegiance instead of becoming a bridge between the two groups. Traditions based on previous legal barriers to Jews or Christians working in certain industries also made business partnerships rare: Jews were bankers and jewelers and had once been banned from owning land or working in certain occupations. Christians had once been banned from lending money at interest. So if Jews got rich as economic conditions changed, Christians were unlikely to marry into the Jewish community and stand a chance at inheriting this wealth. When Christians got rich, Jews were unlikely to marry into that community and inherit their wealth. The two groups became rivals for political power and economic resources. And so when things came to a head, either in medieval pogroms or in the Holocaust of the 1940's, the result was genocide.

For a final example, look at blacks and whites in pre-Civil Rights-era America. Legal barriers and tradition made intermarriage rare. Slavery and Jim Crow laws ensured that blacks and whites did not become business partners. And when interbreeding did occur, the "one drop of blood" tradition ensured that the offspring were considered black, not both black and white, and thus could not form a true bridge between groups. What benefitted one group did not benefit the other. And so when competition came to a head, the result was oppression, slavery, race riots, and other similar problems.

Racism and genocide are the result of a twisting of the ancient evolutionary instincts to protect and defend your relatives and potential relatives, and to bloodily compete with rivals that cannot and never will become allies or relatives. The propaganda of racist groups like the KKK is full of references to blood and ancestors, and fear of miscegenation leading to one group being out-bred by the other and their genes disappearing. Whether we're talking of medieval noblemen refusing to let their blood be "tainted" by intermarriage with mere commoners, or modern racists worried about the fact that "only a white woman can have white children", or Pat Buchanan wringing his hands over higher birthrates among immigrants, racist groups use language that shows that what they really fear is their genes disappearing from the gene pool. They are worried about evolutionary processes.

Thus the real solution to racism is to dissolve the barriers between races. More intermarriage, more interbreeding, more business partnerships between individuals from disparate groups are what will kill racism and end genocide. What doesn't help are things like affirmative action, racial set-asides in government purchasing, and rhetoric like Malcolm X's infamous statement that "before we can have black-white unity, we need black unity". Black Pride and White Pride are both counter-productive as far as the goal of ending racism is concerned. What do work are programs like the integration of the armed forces, striking down laws against miscegenation, and encouraging intermarriage and business partnerships.

Anything that emphasizes the differences and encourages separate traditions between racial and ethnic groups is counter-productive. We don't need separate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hannukkah holidays. We need to strip Christmas of its purely Christian connotations and make it a pan-cultural holiday celebrated by all groups. We don't need to encourage more "black-owned businesses" with government set-aside contracts, we need to encourage existing companies to accept minorities into their management, and encourage blacks and whites to go into partnership together to form companies that are neither black nor white. We need to encourage (so much as is possible) interbreeding between racial groups, and more importantly, we need to acknowledge that the children of such unions are members of both groups, not some separate "mixed-breed" grouping or shoehorning them into one group or the other.

And we need to emphasize our common cultural ancestors. Although these days he's seen as just one more dead white European male, Columbus was one of the original multicultural heroes. As an Italian, he was an alternative to English heroes in a young United States that had just broken away from Britain and was trying to redefine itself as something other than an exclusively Anglo-Saxon nation. When we speak of Western Civilization, we are claiming cultural descent from Greece and Rome, even if our actual genetic ancestors are from Scandinavia or Iberia or the Slavic lands. We need to emphasize cultural ancestors like the ancient Greeks, because it makes an excellent substitute for the mythological common ancestors of the Biblical age, and can be used to turn those vicious evolutionary instincts away from genocide and towards including a wider spectrum of people in our mental map of our tribe, our relatives and potential relatives. Just as anyone can come to the United States and become an American citizen regardless of their racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural background, anyone can adopt Western ways and become just as much an heir of Socrates and Cicero and Petrarch as someone who grew up steeped in the Western tradition.

And the West needs to broaden its concept of its cultural ancestry. We in the West are also the heirs of Saladin and Alhazen, of Confucius and Lao-Tzu, of Shaka and Ibn Battuta, of Montezuma and Atahualpa, not just the heirs of Columbus and Caesar and Custer. Western Civilization has the chance to become the first truly global civilization in every sense of the term. Immigrant societies like America and Australia and Canada and Argentina, and like many European nations are finally becoming, can claim cultural ancestors from every ancient tradition. And they should. The alternative is yet further rounds of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and strife.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Kneel4_Capitalist said...

You are an intellectual Martin.

11:29 PM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger joskip said...

Brilliant. I never looked at it that way before. You really learned me something I will never forget.

6:09 PM, August 25, 2011  

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