Is Racism an Instinct?

Everyone is a little bit racist–Hillary Clinton

If everyone in the world exhibits a particular behavior, chances are it’s innate. But I have been informed–by Harvard-educated people, no less–that humans do not have instincts. We are so smart, you see, that we don’t need instincts anymore.

This is nonsense, of course.

One amusing and well-documented human instinct is the nesting instinct, experienced by pregnant women shortly before going into labor. (As my father put it, “When shes starts rearranging the furniture, get the ready to head to the hospital.”) Having personally experienced this sudden, overwhelming urge to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS multiple times, I can testify that it is a real phenomenon.

Humans have other instincts–babies will not only pick up and try to eat pretty much anything they run across, to every parent’s consternation, but they will also crawl right up to puddles and attempt to drink out of them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: What, exactly, is an instinct? According to Wikipedia:

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.

Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. …

Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped.

The go-to example of an instinct is the gosling’s imprinting instinct. Typically, goslings imprint on their mothers, but a baby gosling doesn’t actually know what its mother is supposed to look like, and can accidentally imprint on other random objects, provided they are moving slowly around the nest around the time the gosling hatches.

Stray dog nursing kittens
Stray dog nursing kittens

Here we come to something I think may be useful for distinguishing an instinct from other behaviors: an instinct, once triggered, tends to keep going even if it has been accidentally or incorrectly triggered. Goslings look like they have an instinct to follow their mothers, but they actually have an instinct to imprint on the first large, slowly moving object near their nest when they hatch.

So if you find people strangely compelled to do something that makes no sense but which everyone else seems to think makes perfect sense, you may be dealing with an instinct. For example, women enjoy celebrity gossip because humans have an instinct to keep track of social ranks and dynamics within their own tribe; men enjoy watching other men play sports because it conveys the vicarious feeling of defeating a neighboring tribe at war.

So what about racism? Is it an instinct?

Strictly speaking–and I know I have to define racism, just a moment–I don’t see how we could have evolved such an instinct. Races exist because major human groups were geographically separated for thousands of years–prior to 1492, the average person never even met a person of another race in their entire life. So how could we evolve an instinct in response to something our ancestors never encountered?

Unfortunately, “racism” is a chimera, always changing whenever we attempt to pin it down, but the Urban Dictionary gives a reasonable definition:

An irrational bias towards members of a racial background. The bias can be positive (e.g. one race can prefer the company of its own race or even another) or it can be negative (e.g. one race can hate another). To qualify as racism, the bias must be irrational. That is, it cannot have a factual basis for preference.

Of course, instincts exist because they ensured our ancestors’ survival, so if racism is an instinct, it can’t exactly be “irrational.” We might call a gosling who follows a scientist instead of its mother “irrational,” but this is a misunderstanding of the gosling’s motivation. Since “racist” is a term of moral judgment, people are prone to defending their actions/beliefs towards others on the grounds that it can’t possibly be immoral to believe something that is actually true.

The claim that people are “racist” against members of other races implies, in converse, that they exhibit no similar behaviors toward members of their own race. But even the most perfunctory overview of history reveals people acting in extremely “racist” ways toward members of their own race. During the Anglo-Boer wars, the English committed genocide against the Dutch South Africans (Afrikaners.) During WWII, Germans allied with the the Japanese and slaughtered their neighbors, Poles and Jews. (Ashkenazim are genetically Caucasian and half Italian.) If Hitler were really racist, he’d have teamed up with Stalin and Einstein–his fellow whites–and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima. (And for their part, the Japanese would have allied with the Chinese against the Germans.)

picture-2Some quotes from the NewScientist article:

The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community. …

“When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female — that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here,” says Wilson.

Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, who has been studying this group of chimpanzees in south-eastern Senegal since 2001, agrees. She suggests that human influence may have caused this skewed gender ratio that is likely to have been behind this attack. In Senegal, female chimpanzees are poached to provide infants for the pet trade. …

Early one morning, Pruetz and her team heard loud screams and hoots from the chimps’ nearby sleep nest. At dawn, they found Foudouko dead, bleeding profusely from a bite to his right foot. He also had a large gash in his back and a ripped anus. Later he was found to have cracked ribs. Pruetz says Foudouko probably died of internal injuries or bled out from his foot wound.

Foudouko also had wounds on his fingers. These were likely to have been caused by chimps clamping them in their teeth to stretch his arms out and hold him down during the attack, says Pruetz.

After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.

“It was striking. The female that cannibalised the body the most, she’s the mother of the top two high-ranking males. Her sons were the only ones that really didn’t attack the body aggressively,” Pruetz says …

Historically, the vast majority of wars and genocides were waged by one group of people against their neighbors–people they were likely to be closely related to in the grand scheme of things–not against distant peoples they’d never met. If you’re a chimp, the chimp most likely to steal your banana is the one standing right in front of you, not some strange chimp you’ve never met before who lives in another forest.

Indeed, in Jane Goodall’s account of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, the combatants were not members of two unrelated communities that had recently encountered each other, but members of a single community that had split in two. Chimps who had formerly lived peacefully together, groomed each other, shared bananas, etc., now bashed each other’s brains out and cannibalized their young. Poor Jane was traumatized.

I think there is an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups. People often have multiple defined in-groups (“I am a progressive, a Christian, a baker, and a Swede,”) but one of these identities generally trumps the others in importance. Ethnicity and gender are major groups most people seem to have, but I don’t see a lot of evidence suggesting that the grouping of “race” is uniquely special, globally, in people’s ideas of in- and out-.

For example, as I am writing today, people are concerned that Donald Trump is enacting racist policies toward Muslims, even though “Muslim” is not a race and most of the countries targeted by Trump’s travel/immigration ban are filled with fellow Caucasians, not Sub-Saharan Africans or Asians.

Race is a largely American obsession, because our nation (like the other North and South American nations,) has always had whites, blacks, and Asians (Native Americans). But many countries don’t have this arrangement. Certainly Ireland didn’t have an historical black community, nor Japan a white one. Irish identity was formed in contrast to English identity; Japanese in contrast to Chinese and Korean.

Only in the context where different races live in close proximity to each other does it seem that people develop strong racial identities; otherwise people don’t think much about race.

Napoleon Chagnon, a white man, has spent years living among the Yanomamo, one of the world’s most murderous tribes, folks who go and slaughter their neighbors and neighbors’ children all the time, and they still haven’t murdered him.

Why do people insist on claiming that Trump’s “Muslim ban” is racist when Muslims aren’t a race? Because Islam is an identity group that appears to function similarly to race, even though Muslims come in white, black, and Asian.

If you’ve read any of the comments on my old post about Turkic DNA, Turkey: Not very Turkic, you’ll have noted that Turks are quite passionate about their Turkic identity, even though “Turkic” clearly doesn’t correspond to any particular ethnic groups. (It’s even more mixed up than Jewish, and that’s a pretty mixed up one after thousands of years of inter-breeding with non-Jews.)

Group identities are fluid. When threatened, groups merged. When resources are abundant and times are good, groups split.

What about evidence that infants identify–stare longer at–faces of people of different races than their parents? This may be true, but all it really tells us is that babies are attuned to novelty. It certainly doesn’t tell us that babies are racist just because they find people interesting who look different from the people they’re used to.

What happens when people encounter others of a different race for the first time?

We have many accounts of “first contacts” between different races during the Age of Exploration. For example, when escaped English convict William Buckley wandered into an uncontacted Aborigine tribe, they assumed he was a ghost, adopted him, taught him to survive, and protected him for 30 years. By contrast, the last guy who landed on North Sentinel Island and tried to chat with the natives there got a spear to the chest and a shallow grave for his efforts. (But I am not certain the North Sentinelese haven’t encountered outsiders at some point.)

But what about the lunchroom seating habits of the wild American teenager?

If people have an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups, then races (or religions?) may represent the furthest bounds of this, at least until we encounter aliens. All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct. But what about people who have a great dislike for one race, but seem just fine with another, eg, a white person who likes Asians but not blacks, or a black who like Asians but not whites? And can we say–per our definition above–that these preferences are irrational, or are they born of some lived experience of positive or negative interactions?

Again, we are only likely to have strong opinions about members of other races if we are in direct conflict or competition with them. Most of the time, people are in competition with their neighbors, not people on the other side of the world. I certainly don’t sit here thinking negative thoughts about Pygmies or Aborigines, even though we are very genetically distant from each other, and I doubt they spend their free time thinking negatively about me.

Just because flamingos prefer to flock with other flamingos doesn’t mean they dislike horses; for the most part, I think people are largely indifferent to folks outside their own lives.

23 thoughts on “Is Racism an Instinct?

  1. I think racism is instinctual (in the sense that the more similar others look to us, the more we like them). The corollary is that we tend to dislike those who look different from us.

    Of course, there often exist other considerations that override race.

    And all this is a subset of the our preference for people who are similar to us in all ways (religion, politics, culture, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Only within gradients. When it comes to very narrow differences in genetic distance, the only kin recognition mechanisms you have at hand are heuristics like geographic proximity and dialect. An example of this is the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Azerbaijanis are genetically closer to Armenians than to Turkic peoples, but they have adopted Turkic customs and have a very strong hostility to Armenians owing to incidents like the communal violence during the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the more recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your arguments seem reasonable. IN addition, I must say that I have noticed in me a instinctive dislike of children who have no blue eyes. Seriously! When being shown babies pictures from my collegues (All white!) sometimes I think “wow, what cute creatures!” (when they have blue or gray eyes) and sometimes I am indifferent. But when I see real children, I feel I am much more tolerant to the blue-eyed, while I am quick to be angered by non-blue eyed children. This is not rational, so it may be instinct – but it is obviously not racism, as all those children are Slavic and ometimes even related!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. >All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct.

    Doesn’t seem like a plausible hypothesis to me. Consider the “narcissism of small differences” (see the classic SSC posts “Post-Partisanship Is Hyper-Partisanship” and “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”): fargroups don’t get hate because they don’t compete with us. Instead they’re exoticized. Tribalism tends to be drawn across the lines most relevant to our success.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think this relates to how, 100 years ago, people in New England were well into romantic near-mythology about American Indians, while people in the Southwest lacked such romanticism, maybe something to do with the final Apache raid occuring in 1924 (according to Wikipedia)…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is pretty much what I try explaining to anyone who will listen.

    I will say, the Internet and broadcast media familiarize people with thedes they would never come into contact with. I suspect the printing press had a similar effect. Red team identified Islam as an enemy (possibly because they considered Israel an ally), so blue team decided to import more Islam to help them fight their common enemy. The split between secular and orthodox Jews plays out this way, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I follow your argument; I think we all exhibit some degree of biases (racism?) towards groups of people or cultures that we are are familiar with and who may be instinctively perceived as threat to our norms. We however, have the ability to remove these biases and appreciate/celebrate our differences when we get know each other better………….

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  7. I remember reading that black slave children and white kids were allowed to play together in the old south but they went their separate ways when they hit a certain age.
    I can remember having no concept of race myself when I was a small child and differences in skin tone didn’t preoccupy me.

    By the time puberty came on, kids became much more racially and socially aware.
    I can remember by middle school “rappers” were all the hispanic and black kids against the “rockers” and “skaters” who were mostly white with a few hispanics.

    As people grow up they assume roles in groups and have investments in social capital. This leads to competition over mates, political power, and jobs.

    Like breeds of animals it becomes hard not to notice that race isn’t just skin deep and each group only wants to hire and have social safety nets for its own kind. Vicious internal competition only underlines that no one has the luxury of giving other peoples much consideration outside of a “token” capacity.
    Blacks like loud music and sports.
    Asians like structure and rules.
    Whites are more willing to try new things but lack common sense.
    These generalizations are true most of the time about groups as a whole.

    What people get wrong about racism is it’s about groups, not individuals.

    People also focus too much on skin color and not on the subtelties of neurotype.
    For example, sense of humor. I’ve always enjoyed the quirky British-Celtic style of subtle wit. But most American humor is obvious, literal slapstick.
    And apparently one of my grandfathers made puns the exact same way I do even though he was dead before I was born.

    Not long ago, I was playing Cards Against Humanity with a room of Indian university students. I learned quickly I had to adjust to what they would find funny as their brains were collectively on a different wavelength.

    It’s things like humor, propensity for pair-bonding, sense of honor and fairness, conscientousness, collectivist/individualistic, future time orientation, clannishness that divide the races.
    Telling a joke and being surrounded by people who understand you. Or being secure your neighbors won’t throw their trash into the street.
    This is priceless social capital that’s invisible for most until it’s gone because it forms their basic definition of proper human behavior. When that definition is challenged people become “racist.”


    • Good point and well put.

      Some on the cultural left have traditionally made this point as well, such as when arguing that a given culture is “male-identified” or exhibits “colorblind racism.”


      It’s things like humor, propensity for pair-bonding, sense of honor and fairness, conscientousness, collectivist/individualistic, future time orientation, clannishness that divide the races….

      This is priceless social capital that’s *invisible for most until it’s gone because it forms their basic definition of proper human behavior*.

      is precisely what is (or, traditionally was) meant by “colorblind racism.”

      IOW, the claim is that cultures reflect the neurotypes and preferences of those creating them. And so if your neurotype is different from that, you’ll have a harder time fitting in and displaying that culture’s idea of “proper human behavior.” And so, at the group level, if you take a culture that grew up among members of one race, and you toss in a small group of members of a different race who are now trying to live and succeed in that culture…you are likely to see differential outcomes by race.

      Affirmative action was intended to ameliorate this problem by sparking the organic growth of cultures out of the neurotypes of the whole American populace, rather than those of just whites or WASPs or etc. That is why the focus on proportional representation.

      (See also: “Migrants start eating some of the foods of the country they move to, but at the same time older residents start trying some foods from immigrant cultures. There’s a mutual exchange, and behavior meets somewhere in the middle. As students of migration repeatedly claim, acculturation is a two-way street: America is different because of Italian and Irish migration, and not just because of the food we eat.” This was the goal of affirmative action.)

      As you can probably infer, there was a background assumption that The Gap was a *result* of the cultural+personality differences. It seems to have turned out that it was actually more of a (huge) confounder. But in fairness, there was really no way to be sure of that at the time, and Americans understandably chose to err on the side of assuming it *could* be “easily” altered by altering the culture.

      Uh so anyway, as you can probably gather from the above, those complaining of “colorblind racism” traditionally did *not* wish simply to remain within the uncongenial culture but just receive “breaks” (as many of today’s HBDers seem to assume). No…they *wanted the culture to change to be more congenial* to them.

      (Why, after all, should one group of citizens get to have that “precious social capital” while another group of citizens of the same country is forced to struggle along without it?)

      In fact, many fair-minded people wanted their society’s culture to become equally congenial to all races (at the group level).

      Of course…there is no way to really know if a society *is* equally congenial to all races. So…they decided a reasonable proxy was…equal outcomes. “When there are equal outcomes by race,” they thought, “that will mean our society finally is an equally good fit for all races.”

      …John Derbyshire has mentioned this history too. :shrug:


  8. Think about our brutal, violent evolutionary past when every stranger you happened across was a serious threat

    Racism is natural and right; it’s one of those things that keep you alive, keeps your shit your shit, your woman your woman and not some other dudes rape toy and your kids your kids instead of having the heads bashed in or sold as slaves


    • Yes, but in the evolutionary past, most “strangers” weren’t members of other races, because other races lived thousands of miles away. Distrust of all strangers could be an instinct, or distrust of people who don’t look like you. But an instinct specifically and *only* limited to people who didn’t interact with each other seems unlikely.


  9. Native Americans are hardly ” Asian”. If that’s the case then Europeans and Middle Easterners are far mor recent Asians than the Native Americans, since ME and EUR. Left Asia 2,500-4,000 years ago, as opposed to NAs 25,000-40,000 years ago.


    • Middle Easterners, Europeans, and Indians (from India) are genetically part of the “Caucasian” clade. East Asians and Native Americans are part of the “Asian” clade. The use of geographic names to refer to groups of people is merely a convenience; merely having been born on a particular continent does not determine genetics.


  10. “Racism” (in quotes because there are, of course, no different human “races”) is a modern extension built by colonialism of a redundant anti-stranger instinct probably evolved to protect against communicable disease. In practise, when indulged by the less aware, it’s a form of bullying, and is a function of power relatiinships: it’s prejudice plus institutional power. If we understand its evolutionary roots, it’s easier to choose not to indulge it.


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