Monday, 26 April 2010

Evolution of our Preoccupation with Race

Having grown up in a fairly homogeneous “white” area, just hours away from the extraordinarily multicultural Toronto, the idea of race has been on my mind for a long time. More recently, I am once again a “minority race”, living now in the Grenadines, and I find myself thinking of it more.

And not just me, humans are absolutely obsessed with race and racism. But why? The magnitude and cruelty of our preoccupation with race is not at all proportional to the actual genetic differences between people, as Richard Dawkins writes in the Ancestor’s Tale “there is less difference between any two humans living anywhere in the world than there is between two African Chimpanzees.” Homo sapiens went through a population bottleneck perhaps 70 000 years ago, with perhaps only 15 000 individuals founding the entire species. Far from having different subspecies, this means we are remarkably homogeneous, leaving little ground for arguments about differences in aptitudes and attitudes in the genome.

Furthermore, the genetic differences which do exist, sometimes don’t actually fall along our “common sense” ideas of race. For example, comparing 650 000 genetic markers in nearly 20 000 individuals, researchers at Standford, led by Marcus Feldman, shows that the oldest and deepest divides are actually among Africans, with the rest of H. Sapiens rather mixed. According to this lineage, if someone were to make a case based on ancestry for different “classes” of humans, there would be several African “races”, and the rest of us an afterthought.

These and other studies are hammering away at the “common sense” notions of race. A more fruitful endeavour for the natural sciences, instead of looking to bolster racist ideologies, is to shed light on why we are so preoccupied with minor differences among humans. A recent study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany, used children afflicted with a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome to test a hypothesis that racial stereotyping has a genetic component, linked to social fear. The Williams syndrome children, vs. a control group of non-Williams syndrome children, were given tests of racial attitudes, such as being shown pictures of two boys, one dark-skinned and one lighter, then asked which one they thought had might be the naughty culprit who drew crayon pictures all over this walls. The control group gave negative qualities to dark-skinned individuals 83% of the time, while the Williams children did so only 64% of the time. The study suggests that racial stereotyping and a genetically-linked fear of strangers have a causal relationship.

This puts racism in the broader domain of anthropology and evolution. Consider the evolutionary benefit of an innate fear of strangers--not the friendly law-abiding strangers on Young Street, but the capital S variety of Strangers, among Pleistocene hunter/gatherer groups. According to anthropologists, such as Jared Diamond’s study on Papua New Guinea tribes, and similarly Wade Davis’s study of pre-Contact peoples in the Amazon (see One River), hunter/gatherer people live in a state of constant fear and war with Strangers: a neverending cycle of preemptory raids and retaliatory raids. Our closest living relatives, the Chimpazees, behave similarly: stealthily seeking out lone males from neighbouring troops, and bludgeoning them to death.
There is a macabre Evolutionary Stable Strategy to such paranoia. A simple mental experiment shows how: imagine a world of non-paranoid hunter-gatherers who resolve territorial disputes peacefully. The system is vulnerable to a single behavioural mutation, of “cheaters” who always kill their naïve conspecifics. Soon, the peaceful alleles decline in frequency, and the paranoid allele becomes the norm. The reverse is not true: a behavioural mutation in the opposite direction is quickly snuffed out in a world of social fear. Social fear, and hence a propensity to racism, is selected naturally.

But what if so-called Strangers in neighbouring tribes are our relatives? Perhaps the caveat to the perpetual state of fear among hunter/gatherers is the ability to discriminate among a vast spectrum of relatedness in the facial features of Others, opposed to fear of just anyone. It is my conjecture, that the benefits of a Pleistocene “relatedness-radar” led to our ability to recognize and discern nuances in thousands of different faces. And that this ability is overwhelmed when taken out of the context of Pleistocene tribes and we are presented with someone from different continents: perhaps the ur-Stranger.

In another blog, I’ll think of some testable hypotheses for this idea. In the meantime, I hope that an evolutionary perspective, coupled with genetics, will help to challenge “common sense” ideas about evils such as racism.

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