Natural selection and prejudice


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I would like to continue my discussion on the biology behind prejudice, bias and xenophobia by expounding on the imperatives of natural selection and how these admittedly base behaviors have in the past been important adaptations giving a selective edge to humans.

Human civilization started as small groupings of people who were genetically related. The smallest of theses were probably mere extended family units which later merged into larger social groups forming clans and tribes.  The sense of one’s uniqueness as part of a clan, tribe or nation is an important human adaptation that helps to reinforce the notion of citizenship, fostering cooperation and interest in the well being of other citizens in one’s group. The collective is always stronger and more efficient than the individual. In a world characterized by limited resources and harsh realities, this translates into a huge advantage for survival. In addition to having an instinct to be part of a community, humans have the instincts to help identify their unique communities. By inventing distinct languages, religious beliefs, art forms and arbitrary social conventions, culture in the aggregate functions as an identifying set of features that distinguishes friend from foe, fellow citizen from alien, help from threat. It is in this context that prejudice, bias and xenophobia were selected as traits that helped ensure a competitive edge and survival. One’s instinct is to help their kin even at the expense (extreme prejudice) of an outsider’s well being. In this way an individual is protected by association with his group and his group is made safe from external threats.

Hypothetical scenario: I am in the wilderness; I am holding a bow with a drawn arrow ready to be released. There is a man to my left and a man to my right, both armed. The man to my left is wearing the same head dress as I and speaks my language. The man to my right wears a different outfit and speaks a language I don’t understand. What do I do? Do I think about it (no, bad idea, since you only have a second to decide)? Instead instinct takes over, I act on a bias.  In an instant the arrow flies and then my kinsman is congratulating me on a good kill.

Nature is cruel. In the raw state, people fight others for limited resources in order to help insure a successful future for themselves and their children. Failure often means death either directly or through lack of offspring. In a highly competitive world it is important to recognize outsiders and those belonging to your group. Humans can’t depend on scent or one-on-one recognition. These cues are useless when social groups become large. So how do you discern a member of your group from an outsider? Answer: cultural conventions such as manner of dress, language, religion, cuisine and phenotypic differences such as stature and skin color. Prejudicial instinct makes it normal for people to look with suspicion at those different from themselves. The old but very true axiom that “birds of a feather flock together” is a truism that affects human behavior as well. To this end, the instincts to create cultural distinctiveness as a means of identifying and keeping distinct groups together and for prejudice against all competing groups have come about.

But why can’t we all get along? When desperate social groups are vying for limited resources, prejudiced thinking plays a crucial role in dictating how those groups interact. Case in point: Israel vs Palestine. Arguably two proud cultures locked in what is a sustained conflict over land that can only accommodate one of them. Since new land cannot be created, the two sides are forced to fight. It is in such a conflict that prejudice, bias and xenophobia are at their peak. While being base and myopic instincts, they serve an important role for both sides for they reinforce the commitment of the citizens of both nations to their ultimate goal of dominating the land and making their enemies flee. It matters not that geopolitical forces from outside the conflict area have stalemated their war, the instinct for dominance and survival, extremely prejudicial to the other side, will guarantee perpetual war. In the past such a conflict would eventually be resolved with the annihilation of one of the two sides. Modern geopolitics will not allow this. Instead, we have two nations brutalizing each other in clash which is leading to the subversion of their cultures by the introduction of conflict driven beliefs and social conventions that warp the thinking of even the most highly educated and sophisticated of their people. Here then, is a prime example of where prejudice, bias and xenophobia are working against the best interests of people under their influence. Unfortunately, human evolution is not always keeping pace with that of human political realities. Its course is to blindly maintain genetic fidelity in the broad sense while selecting for the “strongest genes” in the specific sense with which to gain the best edge for surviving the game of natural selection.

Illustrative story:  Two photographers in the African bush see in the distance a large hungry lion charging at them. The first photographer takes out his Bible while the second puts on his running shoes. The one with the Bible tells the other “You can’t out run a lion” and the second responds “I don’t have to, I just have to out run you”. Now that’s prejudice and bias on a personal level which will lead to a favorable outcome for only one.



Genetic determinism and prejudice

Wikipedia defines genetic determinism as “genes, along with environmental conditions, determine morphological and behavioral phenotypes”.   Human behavior involves a number of aspects.  Important among these is the tendency to develop a cultural identity.  Cultural identities among humans are typically strongly associated with and aggressively defended against influences that can change or replace them. Thus most societies demonstrate prejudice, bias and ethnocentrism as means to safeguard the fidelity of their intrinsic cultures.

So why the big deal in safeguarding the integrity of ones culture?  The clue to this question is in the Wikipedia definition cited above – genes.  When one looks at cultural variation within human populations, genetic variations are also being evaluated. This is true because culture in many respects flags genetic distinctiveness. Especially true in the past, isolated groups of people developed a unique genetic signature and also a unique culture consisting of a unique language, religion and other social conventions.  Tracking where these social traits go with time also tracks where the bundled genetic variation goes as well.  Eventually, interbreeding with people of different cultures leads to genetic dilution and loss of both genetic distinctiveness and cultural traits.  Xenophobic tendencies are focused on procreative fault lines dividing different gene pools.

Books and papers written by such noted scientists such as Richard Dawkins and others have helped to lay out the genetic rational for such base tendencies.  It comes down to two important rules: (1) keep your “alien” genes from our women and (2) our genes are better than yours, so die!  Genes are what they are by their unique sequence and they make their unique sequence known by their expression.  Pairs of genes at a given locus compete for influencing phenotype.  More dangerous to a gene’s dominance of phenotype is the process of chromosomal recombination through which parts of genes may be switched between paternal and maternally inherited chromosomes.  If the recombination point is within the gene, it may loss its genetic distinctiveness forever. So interbreeding between ethnically distinct groups having distinct genetic variation is a threat to a gene pool’s dominance.  This threat is mitigated when interbreeding occurs as a result of conquest.  In this case the conquered males are reduced or eliminated and the women are inseminated with the victors sperm.  Thus the victors’ genetic distinctiveness is preserved at the expense of that of the vanquished.  As Conan the Barbarian answered to the question: what is best in life? “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women!”.   Or put scientifically: Natural selection (the strong will survive to procreate and the weak will die). That’s human genetics at its most crude.   Even in modern times, wars are fought ultimately to secure resources such as land and mineral wealth which always result in better procreative opportunities for the victors as shown by increasing populations.   The enemy is always the baser society and we the better.

While prejudice, bias and ethnocentricity are cultural phenomena, there are strong biological imperatives that drive these behaviors.  It is hoped that our logical minds can counteract these base impulses but it is fight with millions of years of evolution.