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.

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Anthropology Friday: In the Shadow of Man, (4/5)

jane-van-lawick-goodall-in-the-shadow-of-man-book-coverHello! Today we are continuing with our discussion of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, featuring the adventures of a family (or several families) of chimpanzees from The Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Today’s focus is on social structure.

Social status:

“I began to suspect that Goliath might be the highest-ranking male chimpanzee in the area–and later I found that this was in reality the case. If William and Goliath started to move toward the same banana at the same time, it was William who gave way and Goliath who took the fruit. If Goliath met another adult male along a narrow forest track, he continued–the other stepped aside. Goliath was nearly always the first to be greeted when a newcomer climbed into a fig tree to join a feeding group of chimpanzees. One day I actually saw him driving another chimp from her nest to take it for himself. …

William, with his long scarred upper lip and drooping lower lip, was one of the more subordinate males in his relationships with other chimpanzees. If another adult male made signs of aggression toward him, William was quick to approach with gestures of appeasement and submission, reaching out to lay his hands on the other, crouching with soft panting grunts in front of the higher-ranking individuals. … When I offered him a banana in my hand for the first time, he stared at it for several moments, gently shook a branch in his frustration, and then sat uttering soft whimpering sounds until I relented and put the fruit on the ground. …

Flo the chimpanzee, image from Jane Goodall's website
Flo the chimpanzee, image from Jane Goodall’s website

“Even in those days, Flo looked very old. … We soon found out that her character by no means matched her appearance: she was aggressive, tough as nails, and easily the most dominant of all the females at that time.

“Flo’s personality will become more vivid if I contrast it with that of another old female, Olly … was remarkably different. Flo for the most part was relaxed in her relations with the adult males; often I saw her grooming in a close group with with two or three males out in the forest, and in camp she showed no hesitation in joining David or Goliath to beg for a share of cardboard or bananas. Olly, on the other hand, was tense and nervous in her relations with others of her kind. She was particularly apprehensive when in close proximity to adult males, and her hoarse, frenzied pant-grunts rose to near hysteria if high-ranking Goliath approached her. …

“Olly tended to avoid large groups of chimps and often wandered around with only her two year old daughter Gilka for company.

EvX: Gilka eventually became so lonely and isolated that she made friends with a baboon:

“One day when Gilka was again waiting while Olly fished for termites, I heard a baboon bark further down the valley. At the sound Gilka’s whole attitude underwent and immediate change. [from her previously depresesed state.] …

“A moment later I saw Gilka move out from the trees, and at almost the same time a small baboon detached itself from the troop and cantered toward her. … the two ran up to each other, and for a moment I saw their faces very close together. Each had one arm around the other. The next moment they were playing, wrestling, and patting each other. Goblina went around behind Gilka and, reaching forward, seemed to tickle the chimpanzee in the ribs. Gilka, leaning back, pushed at Goblina’s hands, her mouth open in a wide smile. …

“I watched Gilka and Goblina playing for ten minutes, and all the time they were amazingly gentle. Then the baboon troop started to move on and Goblina scampered after it.”

EvX: Olly may have been avoiding other chimps because she was lower status, and being around people of higher status than oneself is often unpleasant.

“Often, too, Olly and Flo traveled about together in the forests, and all four children were playmates of long standing. For the most part, the relationship between Olly and Flo was peaceful enough, but if there was a single banana lying on the ground between them the relative social status of each was made clear: Flo had only to put a few of her moth-eaten hairs on end for Olly to retreat, pant-grunting and grinning in submission. …

Fifi the chimpanzee, image from Jane Goodall's website
Fifi the chimpanzee, image from Jane Goodall’s website

“The adult females of the chimpanzee community are almost always submissive to the adult males, and and to many of the older adolescent males. But they have their own dominance hierarchy, of which Flo was for many years supreme. … Flo was exceptionally aggressive toward her own sex, and she would tolerate no insubordination from young adolescent males. Much of her confidence no doubt resulted from the fact that he was so often accompanied by her two eldest sons,and with the aggressive Fifi as well, the family was formidable indeed.”

EvX: Flo and Olly once they teamed up and literally beat the shit out of a strange female who had ventured into their territory. Perhaps not coincidentally, Flo was the most sexually popular female in the group.

As Jane observed the chimps over the decades, most of them received names that started with the same letter as their mothers. (It is usually difficult to know which chimp was an infant’s father.) So Flo is the matriarch of the “F-family.” According to Wikipedia:

The F-family has produced at least four alpha males for the community, and the matriarch, Flo, played a particularly important role in acknowledging Dr Goodall’s acceptance as a human observer by the community. The G-family has produced at least one alpha male, and also the birth of several twins, which are rare among chimpanzees. There are other families as well which include the T-family and S-family (which has produced one alpha male).

In other words, Flo’s children and grandchildren did very well for themselves. If you were a male chimp in the Gombe, you would want to mate with Flo.

Frodo the chimpanzee, image also from Jane's website
Frodo the chimpanzee, image also from Jane’s website

The Wikipedia also tells us about the lives of some of the chimps born after the book ends, such as Frodo, Flo’s grandson:

Frodo (June 30, 1976 – November 10, 2013) was Fifi’s second oldest son.[39] His father was the relatively low-ranking male Sherry. Even from a young age, Frodo was large and aggressive. He learned to throw rocks as a juvenile, sometimes throwing them at and hitting and bruising his human observers.[40] As an adult, he was one of the largest chimpanzees ever observed in the community, at about 113 pounds (51 kg) and remained aggressive.[37][39] He also became an excellent hunter of red colobus monkeys, and was also able to intimidate other chimpanzees into sharing their kills with him if he was unsuccessful.[22][41] His large size and aggressive nature allowed him to attain high status…

As alpha male, Frodo maintained his position largely through intimidation.[22][37][41] He rarely groomed other males, and often demanded that other males groom him.[22][37][41] Frodo maintained his alpha position until becoming ill himself in 2002.[22][33][41][42] He was then defeated by a coalition of several males and spent most of the next two years on his own recovering from his wounds and illness.[22][33][41][42]

Frodo’s aggression was not limited to Colobus monkeys and other chimpanzees. In May 2002, he killed a 14-month-old human baby that the niece of a member of the research team had carried into his territory.[43] … In 1988, he attacked cartoonist Gary Larson, leaving him bruised and scratched.[43] In 1989, he attacked Goodall, beating her head to the point of nearly breaking her neck.[43]

Frodo fathered at least eight infants, second most of any group male (Wilkie fathered ten).

Perhaps if Frodo’s father had been high-status, he could have solidified his position via grooming and social coalition rather than violence, and thus perhaps avoided being violently deposed.

The entry on Wilkie notes his very different approach to dominance:

In 1989 Wilkie defeated Goblin and attained the alpha position.[53] Wilkie, attained this position despite being one of the smallest males in the community, at 37 kilograms (82 lb).[85] According to researchers at the University of Minnesota‘s Jane Goodall Institute Center for Primate Studies, Wilkie attained his position primarily by becoming popular by obsessively grooming other males.[79][85] Unlike most males, Wilkie also groomed females.[85] Wilkie also made effective use of charging displays.[79]

Mike’s rise:

“Mike‘s rise to the number-one spot in the chimpanzee hierarchy was both interesting and spectacular. In 1963, Mike had ranked almost bottom in the adult male dominance hierarchy. He… had been threatened and actually attacked by almost every other adult male. …

“A group of five adult males, including to-ranking Goliath, David Graybeard, and the huge Rodolf, were grooming each other. The session had been going on for some twenty minutes. Mike was sitting about thirty yards apart from them, frequently staring toward the group, occasionally idly grooming himself.

“All at once, Mike calmly walked over to our tent and picked up an empty kerosene can by the handle. Then he picked up a second can and, walking upright, returned to the place where he had been sitting. … After a few minutes he began to rock from side to side. … his hair slowly began to stand erect, and then, softly at first, he began a series of pant-hoots. … suddenly he was off, charging toward the group of males, hitting the two cans ahead of him. The cans, along with Mike’s crescendo of hooting, made the most appaling racket: no wonder the erstwhile peaceful males rushed out of the way. …

“Mike set off again, but he made straight for Goliath–and even he hastened out of the way like the others. Then mike stopped and sat, all his hair on end, breathing hard. …

“Rodolf was the first of the males to approach Mike, uttering soft pant-grunts of submission, crouching low and pressing his lips to Mike’s thigh. Next he began to groom Mike. … Finally David Greybeard went over to Mike, laid one hand on his groin, and joined in the grooming. Only Goliath kept away, sitting alone and staring toward Mike.”

EvX: So Mike becomes dominant.

“… it was fully another year before Mike seemed to feel quite secure in his position. He continued to display very frequently and vigorously, and lower-ranking chimps had increasing reason to fear him, since often he would attack a female or youngster viciously at the slightest provocation.”

The observance of human customs:

“Christmas that year at the Gombe Stream was a day to remember. I bought an extra large supply of bananas and put them around a small tree I had decorated with silver paper and absorbent cotton. Goliath and William arrived together on Christmas morning and gave loud screams of excitement when they saw the huge pile of fruit. They flung their arms around one another and Goliath kept patting William on his wide open screaming mouth while William laid one arm over Goliath’s back. Finally they calmed down and began their feast, still uttering small squeaks and grunts of pleasure.”

Friendship:

“Firm friendships, like that between Goliath and David Graybeard, seem to be particularly prevalent among male chimpanzees. Mike and the irascible, testy old J.B. traveled about in the same group very frequently. … The only two adult females we know of who enjoyed this kind of friendship were almost certainly sisters.”

EvX: J.B. uses his relationship with newly ascended Mike to raise his own social status and get more bananas.

Illness and Death:

“Shortly after Christmas, I had to leave the Gombe stream myself for another term at Cambridge. My last two weeks were sad, for William fell ill. … When he climbed down in the morning I saw that every few moments his body shook with violent spasms of shivering. … One morning, two days before I had to leave, William stole a blanket from Dominic’s tent. [Dominic was the camp cook.] He had been sitting chewing on it for a while when David Greybeard arrived and, after eating some bananas, joined William at the blanket. For half an hour or so the two sat peacefully side by side, each sucking noisily and contentedly on different corners. Then William, like the clown he so often appeared to be, put part of the blanket right over his head and made groping movements with his hands as he tried to touch David from within the strange darkness he had created. … Presently the two wandered off into the forest together, leaving me with the echo of a dry, hacking cough and the blanket lying on the ground. I never saw William again. …

To be continued…