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.


Feminism is a status game

I’ve posted before about my theory that feminism is about high-status people vs. low-status men.

I was thinking today a bit more about status.

Now, there exist feminist concerns that are not status-oriented, such as rape and assault. Feminism is vast; it contains multitudes. We will lay these aside for the moment to focus on status.

One of the things that makes me distrustful of feminism is the way extended family members attempt to use it to create marital discord between my husband and myself in order to get their way during disputes. Advertising does this, too, so I’ll use an example from advertising.

Family harmony and functioning require that husbands and wives agree on how the family’s money is spent, and that neither spouse spends recklessly or excessively. It is often simplest if one spouse has primary responsibility for setting the budget, paying the bills, etc. Sometimes, as in Japan, this is primarily the women; sometimes it is primarily the men. These arrangements are pure necessity: budgetary disorganization or reckless spending lead to financial problems like the electricity bill not getting paid.

Feminism promotes the idea that women should be in control of their own finances, which has been picked up by the advertising industry and promoted as the idea that spending money on whatever the hell you want is an act of female empowerment because you are defying your evil, patriarchal husband’s demands that you stick to a reasonable budget. You deserve it! (whatever “it” is.)

To be fair, advertisers do the exact same thing to men, albeit with slightly different language. You deserve a break today! A Big Mac! Cigarettes! Cars! Whatever it is, it isn’t some unneeded luxury advertisers for which are trying to convince you to fork over your hard-won budget dollars, but something you fundamentally deserve to have.

I get this a lot. “You deserve new clothes!” No, my current clothes are just fine; I am not dressed in rags. I buy new clothes when I need them and spend discretionary budget money on books, games, and other things for the children.

“You deserve a night out! Let’s go downtown and socialize with strangers!” No, I have no particular desire to act like a 20-something singleton cruising the bars. I certainly do not “deserve” to have someone else watch over my kids for me. Nor do I “deserve” to go to a restaurant; food is food. There is no sense in paying extra just so I can eat it outside my house.

“You deserve a vacation!” Fuck no. I hate travel.

“You deserve to sit in the front of the car instead of the back!” I sit in the back so I can supervise the distribution of ketchup packets when we get french fries. This is not a goddam status competition; I just want to make sure ketchup doesn’t go everywhere.

“You are not doing X that I want you to do! It must be because of your husband! He is poisoning you against me! You need to stop letting him boss you around! Stand up to him and let him know you are doing X because you deserve it, girl!”

At this point, I’m like OMFG, let’s just bring back patriarchy and then I can just redirect all of this bullshit at my husband and be like, “Sorry, I don’t make those decisions, that’s his department, so sorry, can’t help you at all! Bye-bye!” Okay, maybe that would be cruel to him, but it would at least spare me.

But none of these decisions were made because of political or patriarchal leanings. They’re all things we decided because they made practical sense for us to do them that way, or because I happen to have a personal preference in that department. The attempt to use feminist arguments a a wedge to make me spend more money or otherwise do things I dislike is, ultimately, an attempt to poison marital harmony by setting me against my husband.

But let’s get back to status.

Status is a shitty game. Chances are, you’ll lose; for 99.999% or so of people, there’s always someone higher status than themselves. Sure, you might have been good at sports in highschool, but in college you discovered that you suck and hundreds of people are much better than you. You might have been good at math in middle school, but come college, you discover that you do not have what it takes to get a degree in math. Or maybe you were skilled enough to get a degree in art, only to discover that people like you are a dime a gross and eating beans out of cans.

It is extremely hard in our modern world to be tops in any industry. It is hard to be tops in your neighborhood. It is hard to be tops in your church. It is hard to be top anything, anywhere, period.

Now rewind your clock to 1900 or so. Most people lived in small, rural farming communities, in which most people had the exact same occupation: farmer. “Status” in your community was directly tied to your ability to be a good farmer, or if you were a woman, a good farm wife. Do you plow your fields well? Work hard? Get the harvest in on time? Treat your neighbors decently and not stumble home drunk in the evenings? Then you were probably regarded as a “good” farmer and had reasonable status in your community. Did you keep the house clean, tend the garden, mend the clothe, watch the children, cook good meals, and preserve food for the winter? Then you were a “good” farm wife.

It’s a hard life, but they were tasks that mere mortals could aspire to do well, and whatever your status, it was obviously derived from the physical execution of your duties. You can’t fake getting in the harvest or cooking a good meal.

I reject–based on lack of evidence–the theory that 1800s farming societies viewed women derrogatorily. Farmsteads could not function without their female members (just as they could not function without men), and farm families spent long hours with no one but each other for company. Under these circumstances, I suspect that people generally valued and appreciated each other’s contributions, rather than engage in dumb fights over whether or not women were good at plowing.

Then came industrialization. People moved off the farms and into cities. Factory work replaced plowing.

While there are bad factory workers, there are no great ones. Working harder or faster than your fellows on the factory line does not result in better widgets or superior performance reviews, because the entire factory is designed to work at the exact same pace. Working faster or slower simply doesn’t work.

Factory work is, in many respects, more pleasant than farm work. It is less labor-intensive, you don’t have to shovel manure, you don’t have to work in inclement weather, and you’re less likely to starve to death due to inclement weather.

But there are many critiques arguing that factory work is inhuman (in the literal sense) and soul-deadening. The factory worker is little more than a flesh-and-blood robot, repeatedly performing a single function.

The farmer may look upon a stack of hay or newborn calf and feel pride in the work of his hands; the farm wife may look likewise on the food stacked in her cellar or her healthy children. But the factory worker has nothing he can point to and say, “I made this.” Factory work levels everyone into one great big undifferentiated mass.

War is perhaps the exception to this rule; those who band together to build tanks and planes to save their homelands do seem to feel great pride in their work. But merely making flip-flops or cellphones does not carry this kind of noble sentiment.

Outside of war, the factory worker has little status, and that he has is determined almost entirely by what others wish to pay him. There are therefore two ways for the factory worker to gain status: the country can go to war, or the worker can get a better-paying job.

Women have generally opted for “better jobs” over “more wars.”

Questions like “Why aren’t there more women in STEM?” or more generally, “Why aren’t there more women in profession X?” along with all the questions about equal pay all seem predicated on a quest for higher status, or at least on the idea that if women aren’t equal in any field, it’s a sign of people devaluing women (rather than, say, women just not being particularly interested in that field.)