The human brain is a pattern-recognizing computer. Categorization is a default skill. And some patterns are hard-wired — we don’t have to learn them, they are instinctual.
Two patterns that show strong evidence of being hard-wired are “Gender” and “Age”. When you meet someone new, without realizing it, you instantly categorize that person by sex and age. This makes sense, when you think about it. It’s very useful to a creature to make assumptions based upon these two criteria. Can I mate with this person? Do I need to fear this person? etc.
Among many mammals, a male of breeding age is by far the most dangerous if you happen to also be a male of breeding age. It’s good to just “know” this information without having to learn it.
However, is “Race” also hardwired? That is, do we have a in-built category for race OR is it something we have to learn? How would that have helped a member of our species survive better than another person who did not have this?
These are the questions Robert Kurzban asks in his paper, “Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization.”
Human’s evolved in small bands that rarely interacted with anyone outside of a relatively small geographical area. Therefore, he argues, it’s pretty unlikely that evolution would favor hard-wiring a category for race given how unlikely any humans were to interact with someone who was a different race than themselves.
Although selection would plausibly have favored neurocomputational machinery that automatically encodes an individual’s sex and age, “race” is a very implausible candidate for a conceptual primitive to have been built into our evolved cognitive machinery. During our evolutionary history, our ancestors would have inhabited a social world in which registering the sex and life-history stage of an individual would have enabled a large variety of useful probabilistic inferences about that individual. In contrast, ancestral hunter-gatherers traveled primarily by foot and, consequently, residential moves of greater than 40 miles would have been rare (16). Given the breeding structure inherent in such a world, the typical individual would almost never have encountered people sampled from populations genetically distant enough to qualify as belonging to a different “race” (even assuming that such a term is applicable to a nonpolytypic species such as humans, in which the overwhelming preponderance of genetic variation is within population and not between population, and at most geographically graded rather than sharply bounded) (17, 18). If individuals typically would not have encountered members of other races, then there could have been no selection for cognitive adaptations designed to preferentially encode such a dimension, much less encode it in an automatic and mandatory fashion.
Accordingly, we propose that no part of the human cognitive architecture is designed specifically to encode race.
Instead, our categorization for race is probably “piggybacking” on top of other cognitive categorizations: “Detecting coalitions and alliances”.
In other words, humans are NOT inherently “racist”… but we are inherently Xenophobic. Race is just a sub-category of xenophobia.
Side Note: “Race” Is A Myth
Another issue is that the term “race” is ill-defined at best — in the way that we use it. When we say “race” we mean — almost exclusively — skin color. That’s amazingly arbitrary and dumb.
Neanderthal’s were close-enough in relation to us that we DID breed with them and the female offspring were fertile — Many people of European ancestry carry Neanderthal DNA.
There is a strong case to be made (controversial!) that Neanderthals were a RACE of Homo Sapiens because it (mostly) fits the biological definition of the term.
The point is that what we call races in our normal sense of the term — almost exclusively based upon the arbitrary color of skin — has NO implications with regard to successful breeding. Not even a little.
Humans of all “colors” can, do, and often have bred with one another throughout our history. And many of our so-called modern “races” came about because of this interbreeding.
In other words, there was no selection bias against breeding between races. There were no negative consequences at all. (Our American President happens to be of “mixed” race — whatever-the-fuck “mixed race” means.)
So why would evolution favor an individual who was hardwired to notice the difference in skin color? What would be the value? How would this person be MORE LIKELY to survive and pass on their genes than a person who didn’t have this?
It makes no sense. As a hypothesis, it is shaky on logical grounds, let alone empirical ones.
Remember the Naturalistic Fallacy?
- Naturalistic Fallacy
- A belief that if something is natural, it is good — Or it’s converse: that if something is NOT natural, then it must be bad
It is quite natural that human beings would be hard-wired for xenophobia. There was damned-good evolutionary reason for it. It helped our ancestors survive in the wild. MOST animals are xenophobic.
While it is interesting to note that “race” is probably not hard-coded, it doesn’t actually solve our problem. The problem is getting us to deal with our broader (ultra-strong) tendencies to be xenophobic assholes.
It ain’t just the racists, the sexists, and the homophobes who are xenophobic by nature — we all are. And you have to fight that tendency every day.
Now go lift something heavy,