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Study: Racism Not Hard-Wired in Brain

Suggests that ancient alliances, not skin color, drive bias

MONDAY, Dec. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Racial hatreds are the by-product of an ancient instinct for tribal identification, not a "hard-wired" fact of brain biology, so they should be relatively easy to purge from the modern mind, a new study claims.

California scientists say racism is a recent offshoot of an inbred survival mechanism that helped early humans quickly recognize potentially hostile coalitions and alliances. In today's society, however, the lines between coalition and race have become so blurred by social forces that the two are essentially indistinguishable, they note.

But racial bias is rather easily diluted, at least in the short term, by stressing other factors that help people sort others as friend or foe, the researchers argue. A report on the findings appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sex, age and race have long been considered the three most primitive means of categorizing strangers. Yet the researchers hypothesized that, although age and sex are indeed well ingrained, race is an inferior marker and is unlikely to be as important.

"There's a lot of things you can predict by knowing someone is an 18-year-old woman versus knowing they're an 18-month-old boy. But, from an evolutionary perspective, it made no sense for our mind to encode race" because early humans were hunter-gatherers who never traveled more than about 40 miles from home, says study co-author Leda Cosmides, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara. "It had to be a by-product of something else, and we thought the something else was coalition."

To test that theory, Cosmides and her colleagues set up an experiment in which they showed pictures of black and white men and women wearing basketball jerseys to approximately 400 UCSB students. The students were told the people in the photos were members of two rival teams that had fought each other in the previous season.

Each picture was matched with a "verbal allegiance cue," a quotation from the team member meant to identify him or her with one side of the rivalry. Because the players were identically dressed, there was no other obvious way to classify them by team.

In the absence of any coalition indicators other than verbal cues, race proved a more significant factor in how the students remembered the photos and the captions that went with them.

But when the researchers modified the experiment by showing the two teams in different color jerseys, coalition became a stronger force than race. When gender was then varied, it became consistently the strongest associating factor.

"There's nothing in our results to say that you won't pay attention to what somebody looks like," Cosmides says. But, she adds, if you give the coalition a clear visual marker -- like a yellow jersey,for example -- people are more likely to pay attention to the coalition than they are to race.

The researchers note that they could weaken the importance of race as a classifier within a matter of minutes. But, they add, the study doesn't show that race can be eliminated as a factor permanently.

Yet the results may demonstrate that as people cooperate with others of different races and appearances, their impulse to classify by those factors diminishes. Cosmides points to reports of relative racial harmony in this country in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the isolation of groups associated, often without cause, with the attackers.

Joseph Graves, Jr., an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University and the author of "The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium," says the new work supports his argument that racial prejudices are fundamentally cultural constructions.

"Humans evolved in small local groups and wouldn't have seen racial variation," Graves says, so it wouldn't have been a particularly useful means of categorizing people. Only with the advent of chattel slavery in the second half of the last millennium did deep racial divisions surface, Graves adds.

Social conditions in America now reinforce coalitions based on race, but this is the result of prolonged discrimination and mistrust between minorities and the majority. "If we changed the social conditions that those kind of differences would disappear," Graves predicts.

Graves says he'd like to see the experiment repeated in a more "important" context.

"A fight at a basketball thing is a trivial thing. What I'd like to see is an experiment like this replicated on more serious issues -- something like viewing the Rodney King beating," Graves says.

Cosmides says she hopes to conduct a similar study in an area, like the Deep South, that has a long history of racial division.

What To Do

For more on the latest work, try the UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

To learn more about how to combat racism, check out Artists Against Racism or Human Rights Watch.

SOURCES: Interviews with Leda Cosmides, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara; Joseph L. Graves, Jr., Ph.D., professor of evolutionary biology, Arizona State University-West, Phoenix; Dec. 11, 2001 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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