Discover more from A Frayed Mind
How Evolution Explains Bigotry
Where bigotry comes from and why we can't get rid of it.
To be bigoted is to be human. Evolution reveals why.
Evolution can interpret human behaviour at an individual and group level. It is a powerful explanatory force and I think it can help explain bigotry, discrimination and prejudice.
Bigotry is not specific to a race, political persuasion or any single group of people. It’s a problem infecting all humans. Anyone can succumb to this loserish thinking because it’s a central part of our behaviour. Despite this, over the last few decades we have made great strides in acknowledging that discrimination is unacceptable.
There are two main forms of discrimination, at an individual level, and at a systemic level. Systemic racism is when there are rules in place which target a specific group of people. For instance, the Jim Crow laws.
Whereas discrimination at an individual level is when one person targets another due to their identity - hate crimes, for instance. There’s an important distinction between systemic and individual discrimination, and it’s vital you do not let bad faith actors blur the lines between them or outright ignore one.
Systemic bigotry is something that can be removed by changing rules and procedures. Individual bigotry is impossible to overcome because it is a thought process. We can make the cost high enough that nobody would want to take the chance of being openly bigoted, however we will not be able to remove these thoughts and feelings completely.
If we could somehow permanently do this, it would result in us no longer being human and unable to operate in the world.
My background in evolution helps me see the world through an evolutionary filter. I’m constantly asking myself the evolutionary reason for why people do certain things. Are they doing it for social standing? To impress someone of the opposite sex?
Unfortunately, bigotry was an ingredient used when evolution baked us into this buffet of life. It was necessary for our species to survive in our ancestral past. Evolution does not care for the words we speak, the feelings we hurt, or the people we discriminate against. What it cares about is the survival of our genes. This hyper-focus on continuing our lineage comes with significant trade offs in regards to human thinking.
How is bigotry rooted in evolution? Let’s start with…
Around 70,000 years ago the human species once came close to extinction, the human population dwindled to a couple thousand. We’re not the toughest animals. We’re not the best predators. But one thing we have going for us is our extreme ability to recognise patterns in nature.
This comes in handy when thinking about food storage, the migration habits of animals or which berries make us sick. It’s the ability of foresight. This innate pattern recognition helped us survive and flourish across the entire globe, from a couple thousand people to close to 8 billion.
For better or worse, this pattern recognition remains with us today and it’s one of the main factors of how we can naturally become bigoted.
It’s built into us to treat potential risks as threats rather than assume it’s safe. Imagine you’re one of your ancestors. You’re carefully picking berries and hear rustling in the bush. Your chance of survival increases if you assume it’s a predator looking for lunch and react accordingly, compared to thinking it’s the wind. Most of the time it is the wind, but on the small chance it’s a predator, you’ll be glad you moved.
Our brains react the same way to people who bring us negative experiences.
We seek out pleasure, and do our best to avoid pain.
If one were to frequently have negative interactions with people in red vests, our ancient pattern recognition abilities would kick in. Feelings of fear, possibly anger, loathing or indignation would sweep over the body involuntarily each time a red vested individual was spotted. This is how prejudice starts. It’s not everyone who dons a red vest is a bad person, but one’s previous experiences with those is enough to invoke feelings and start to judge this group as a collective.
Even though majority of people with red vests will be harmless, those few interactions will leave a lasting effect. It’s faulty reasoning, but it made sense for our survival.
Now, if you swap out red vests for any group like race, religion, sex, etc… you understand how prejudice begins in the real world.
Of course this is not the only way for bigotry to manifest. This way of thinking can be taught and indoctrinated to the young. It will usually then be confirmed throughout life by confirmation bias.
When we have a theory of how the world works, we look to real life examples to confirm this. Nobody likes to be wrong, so our brains will twist information like a circus contortionist so our predictions make sense.
This is fallacy is called…
Counting the hits and Ignoring the Misses
This is a common fallacy we can fall into when we have an opinion on how the world works. When something happens that confirms what we already believe, we will shout we knew it all along. However, when something happens that goes against our preconceived notions, we’ll shrug it off as an anomaly, or not statistically meaningful.
There are many times I’ve seen an Asian person driving badly. The old stereotype of bad Asian drivers creeps into my mind, fortunately, I see these thoughts with the incredulity they deserve because I’m aware of this fallacy. Yes, that person was a bad driver. But how many Asian drivers have I passed in the last year who were driving just fine? And how many times have I seen accidents that didn’t involve an Asian person? These are the questions bigots do not ask themselves.
Another example would be the women who scream all men are assholes because of the last few guys they’ve dated. It may not occur to them, they just happened to date three assholes consecutively. They count these hits. The tens of thousands of guys whom they interacted with throughout their life who weren’t assholes, are the misses they ignore.
If you believe all Asians are bad drivers, or all men are assholes, you are more likely to see the evidence of this in your day to day life. Because you’re looking for the evidence to confirm this. All evidence that goes against this preconceived notion gets ignored.
It’s easy to fall into this fallacy because we like to have a predictive world view. If you can predict how people will act in the future, it gives us a form of safety. When something happens which shatters this world view, cognitive dissonance sets in and people start to act in seemingly unexplainable ways.
Well if you read my article on cognitive dissonance, it is no longer unexplainable. You’ll understand this is a natural, common human phenomenon.
Bigotry is a stain on the human mind, one that is permanently etched into is and is doomed to stay with us forever. It’s a necessary price to pay for our survival. We have evolution to thank for that.