Really Sciency

Visit my other blog 'Really Sciency' looking at Climate Science and its portrayal, misrepresentation and denial in the media.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Evolved Prejudice

One of the most interesting things about learning about the natural world and evolution is finding out that many of the things we have assumed to have been specifically human traits are present in some form with other species.

Our moral values are often believed to be distinctly human even divinely inspired but we now know that many animals and birds, especially social species, have a basic moral compass similar to the golden rule; ‘Do unto other as you would have them do unto you’.

But what about our less noble traits? This research on Rhesus monkeys seems to show that social species can also display racism - or at least intolerance to those from outside of the group.

Across several experiments, they found that the monkeys stared longer at the faces of outsiders. This would suggest that monkeys were more wary of outsider faces and they also seem to harbour negative feelings towards them associating them with something bad. Overall, the results support an evolutionary basis for prejudice suggesting that prejudice is not unique to humans as some researchers have thought.

“Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious.”

With prejudice being seen as such a negative trait in the modern world it seems not only good but necessary that we override our evolutionary programming.  But do we have anything to lose by doing this? There are disadvantages to people being too trusting so we may also have to reprogram ourselves to learn to base our distrust and suspicion on something more than just blind prejudice. Could this ever be achieved, not just for individuals but generally across the whole human race?

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