MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: What is the root cause of racism?

Date: Mon Aug 4 12:37:40 2003
Posted By: Christopher Carlson, Senior Fellow, Dept. of Molecular Biotechnology
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 1059794182.Ge

Hi Forrest,

  That's an interesting question you pose.  Paraphrasing your question, is
xenophobia instinctive?  Ever since Darwin, questions of this nature have
popped up, and are usually grouped under the topic of social Darwinism. 
Just as physical traits can experience selective pressure, so can
behavioral traits.  I will do my best to answer by exploring a few concepts
in behavioral evolution, with regard to the interplay between genetics and
culture in behavior.

  One of the central tenets of evolutionary theory is that heritable traits
which increase fitness will tend to increase in frequency.  That is, traits
in an individual which increase the number of progeny that survive to
adulthood will be postively selected.  Some species produce a large number
of offspring but invest relatively few resources in each individual
offspring (sea urchins, many fish and amphibians).  These species tend to
show few if any caretaking behaviours.  Other species produce a small
number of offspring per generation and invest large amounts of energy in
raising them to adulthood, including many birds and mammals.  Generally,
the longer the period between birth and independence, the more complex the
caretaking behaviors.

  Now, when it comes to humans, we have just about the longest period
between birth and independence on the planet.  So we have developed many
instinctive behaviors to protect our children.  I'm not just talking about
the so-called "maternal instinct", but about the desire to cuddle and
protect babies in all of us.  What's so attractive about babies?  They tend
to have small noses and mouths, and big eyes.  It's not accidental that the
modern teddy bear has a shorter muzzle and bigger eyes than early teddy
bears, and neither is it a surprise that human Disney characters have
bigger eyes and smaller noses in each passing movie.  Both of these trends
show an instinctive human attraction to neotenous traits, and from an
evolutionary perspective it has been critical that we (humans) protect and
nurture our chidren, so there is good reason for some genetic component to
this behavior.

  So what does an attraction to babies have to do with xenophobia?  Well,
just as there are probably some instinctive behaviors, it is obvious that
many of the traits that have been selected for in humans are culturally
transmitted, not genetically.  That is, developing the talent to fashion
knives, axes, and arrowheads from rocks undoubtedly had a large role in the
success of modern humans, but it's not in the genes.  The hunter/getherer's
toolkit was culturally transmitted.  

  Humans have traditionally been a tribal species: a solitary human
probably wouldn't have been able to survive the dangers of the African
savannah.  When resources were plentiful, there would have been little
competition between neighboring tribes, but in times of scarcity there
would have been competition between neighboring tribes.  The weaker members
of the more successful tribes would presumably survive, whereas the weaker
members of losing tribes probably would not.  My point is simply that in
the context of human evolution, competition between groups of humans has
probably been at least as important as selective pressure from predators. 
As such, behaviors which favor one group over another might have been
advantageous.  So I'm sure that xenophobic behaviors have offered an
evolutionary advantage at times.

  However, just because there has been an advantage to xenophobic behavior
at times does not mean that such behavior is so uniformly advantageous as
to become genetically based.  Although it is possible that there is some
modest genetic component, I think cultural transmission is likely much more
important.  Using another example, small behaviors, like anxiety when we
hear a wailing baby, probably have major genetic components, but complex
behaviors, like how we react to the distressed infant (singing, cuddling,
Ferbering), undoubtedly have an overlay of many cultural components.  In
conclusion, I think there may be some genetic components to the simple
behavior of stranger anxiety, but the cultural components of how we behave
in reaction to these feelings are much more important in the context of
modern racism, and these culturally  transmitted behaviors can be
consciously altered.  In the modern world the boundaries between tribes are
fast disappearing; when our tribe is our neighbors and coworkers from
around the world, not our cousins, xenophobic behaviors are simply no
longer advantageous...


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