Is racism part of an evolutionary process?

Posted on April 12, 2011


Last night I was invited to the premiere of a British film, Everywhere and Nowhere in central London. My friend Frankie came with me and being Polish I was interested to hear what her point of view was after the screening. (She was less than impressed, if you’re wondering).

James Floyd plays lead character Ash in Everywhere and Nowhere

The story is about a voyage of self-discovery for a young Asian man (Ash) who feels suffocated by his overbearing, older brother and the expectation to conform to being a traditional Muslim. Ash feels more at ease with his western party-lifestyle and wants to pursue his own dreams and not the vision his family has for him. Needless to say things come to a head.

The clash of two cultures is something I’ve not only witnessed among Asian friends growing up but something I have also experienced as an adolescent, to a lesser degree. Sitting in front of us was Alex Reid (Katie Price‘s secret cross-dressing ex-hubby), not that I’m using his reaction as a benchmark, but judging by a near motionless posture, I doubt he and probably most of the wider audience were able to relate to many of the issues the director tried to bring to the surface. You also can’t have a movie about different cultures – especially in an age where terrorism and identity are all the rage – without an underbelly of racism thrown into the mix.

Are people born racist or is it something they develop because of a personal experience? Difficult question. I’m not convinced there is a hard and fast rule but a Yale University student, together with a team of psychologists led by Laurie Santos, believes many of our prejudices occur naturally, without us even being aware.

Santos said: “One of the more troubling aspects of human nature is that we evaluate people differently depending on whether they’re a member of our ‘ingroup’ or ‘outgroup.

“Pretty much every conflict in human history has involved people making distinctions on the basis of who is a member of their own race, religion, social class, and so on. The question we were interested in is: Where do these types of group distinctions come from? The answer, is that such biases have apparently been shaped by 25 million years of evolution and not just by human culture.”

Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta)

Researchers have been testing whether our tendency to see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has ancient origins and have been looking at the way monkeys reacted when they were shown a photographed face of an insider (part of their group) versus an outsider (non group member). Those from outside the group were stared at longer, suggesting that monkeys were wary of them.

The study was conducted on the uninhabited Puerto Rico island of Cayo Santiago, which has a large rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) population. To ensure that the primates were not just behaving in a curious manner several experiments were run.

Yale researcher, Neha Mahajan and her colleagues also wanted to see if the monkeys had any negative feelings towards those photographs they stared longest at.  They created a monkey-friendly version of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). For people, the IAT is a computer-based task that measures unconscious biases by determining how quickly we associate different words (eg: “good” and “bad”) with specific groups (eg: faces of either African-Americans or European-Americans).

If a person is quicker to associate “bad” with African-American faces compared to European-American faces, this suggests that he or she is likely to have an implicit bias against African-Americans. It’s a pretty revealing test and if you have the time you should click on the link and have a go at the demo it takes about ten minutes in total.

Anyway back to the monkeys, researchers  paired the photos of insider and outsider monkeys with either good things, like fruits, or bad things, like spiders.

When an insider’s face was paired with fruit, or an outsider’s face was paired with a spider, the monkeys quickly lost interest. But when an insider’s face was paired with a spider, the monkeys looked longer at the photographs. It was assumed the monkeys found it confusing when something good was paired with something bad.  The researchers suggested that monkeys can not only distinguish between insiders and outsiders, but they associate insiders with good things and outsiders with bad things.

Thankfully man’s intelligence also has the added bonus of being able to reason. If these results are to be believed and prejudice can happen automatically, I’d like to think that we still have the ability to find ways of overcoming negative attitudes through self-correction and looking at things from a different perspective to become a more tolerant species. Moral of the story, it’s true what they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.