Social Groups and Racism

We are pre-wired to be racist.

That’s why it seems obvious, ‘Look at the differences, there must be differences of . . . quality, too.’ We are hardwired for it, that’s what gives it its truthiness.

I’ll be drawing a distinction soon enough: hardwired, hardcoded – it doesn’t necessarily mean objectively true. It doesn’t mean it’s not true either of course, but the point is, what it does mean is that we think it’s true. That’s what hardwired means, or specifically, that’s what something being an inherited, evolved genetic trait means.

As H. G. Wells said, ‘the past is a deep well.’ To illustrate it, he said that remains had been found to show that Peking Man (Wells was writing a long time ago) was sipping the brains out of the skulls of their enemies around the fire some 350,000 years ago. If I’ve got that wrong, I’ll be short, and I have no idea if the archaeologists have pushed fire back further into our past than that. We have a long existence that is one of nomadic and seasonal hunting and gathering, living in human family-based groups of between sixty and a hundred individuals, and that is the life that selection, ‘Natural’ or otherwise, has created us for. But don’t think about Adam and Eve, the theoretical first humans. That existence went on for millions of years and there have always been many human groups, all sharing the land and competing for its resources.

The normal course of events in that aboriginal and traditional human life, barring drought and famine, is that people breed, and the groups grow in good times, when food and water are plentiful until they reach a point where one or one of the few families in a group is so large that family resemblance begins to disappear, when there are third or fourth cousins in your village, it gets harder to know them all – and there is a split, perhaps a battle or a war, and two groups going forward, in competition, provided both survive. Again, the traditional pattern of human life since time immemorial. Jane Goodall witnessed and described at least one such splitting of the chimp group she monitored.

So the Earth has been occupied with these competing human groups for practically ever, and battles, wars, raids and the abduction of women have not been uncommon, right up to the present day.

These are the social conditions we evolved for, the social conditions we select each other for to this day. It is a normal, evolved trait to be at ease around your family tribe, up to maybe your second cousins, around few enough people that we can know them all, that we can know immediately, friend or foe. Family resemblances help for that. As do language and accent. That’s why we’re always coming up with new words, new jargon, new slang, which must be up to the minute. It differentiates us, our group from the next group, the rival, the enemy, the next village. In the dark, you use the right accent, the hippest slang – you gotta be in my group.

(For the religious: this is what the story of the Tower of Babel is all about, says Joseph Campbell, I think. The point in the Bible I think, is that the Lord cursed us with different languages so we couldn’t coordinate an assault on Him and Heaven. I guess the biologists would say that it’s a curse we put on ourselves, the price for the security it provides from our neighbor groups of humans.)

Other ways of identifying each other, who is friend and who is foe have been famously tried, the Hebrew ‘sign’ of circumcision foremost among them, but mostly it’s accomplished by selection, a group has traits it decides is distinctive and that is what they select for in that group, therefore increasing the incidence of it within their group, again, differentiating one group from another increasingly over time. Now, don’t get me wrong. No shame if you do, we are going to get to racism, and I thought for a minute that’s where this was taking me too, but prehistoric human groups in the frozen north probably didn’t select whiter and whiter partners to differentiate themselves from Africans they may have never been in contact with. Perhaps simple selection by race is a modern problem, a racial smorgasbord of potential mates is possibly an historic phenomenon, but was rarely a prehistoric one. Meaning, it is not in such a simple way that we are hardwired for racism.

Firstly, that is conscious selection, nothing necessarily hardwired about it, and second, races weren’t neighbors in the aboriginal world. With no air travel, it was a smooth transition as you walked the thousands of miles, from race to race. Plus – wife stealing, the necessary genetic shaking up, has made certain that was the case.

This is our evolved selected-for idea of a social group, of our social group: sixty to a hundred people who all share a family resemblance, an accent, an up to the minute vocabulary, and probably diet and body odours as well. Oh – and everyone in our group we see, all the time. Out of sight is out of mind – that’s natural. It’s all natural, it’s why it feels true, plus it’s evolved survival traits we’re talking about, so that’s why it feels not only true, but of life and death importance. This is something:

You pretty much have to go to university to learn this, but this is really true: social groups are what it’s all about for us. For humans, the environmental elements that have been most likely to kill us throughout that deep well of the past, throughout all of our evolution and development, are us. It’s humans that are the most difficult for us to survive, we’re our smartest enemies in the world and we have driven each other and so ourselves to dedicating ever increasing levels of resources to our brains, producing a prodigious machine. Thing is, human intelligence, homo sapiens sapiens’ massive brains evolved to sort out this life, social groups, friend or foe, and it’s what it does best. Again, though: we are a supercomputer designed to track and assess one hundred humans as relatives and all others as enemies.

It’s no wonder we’re having troubles living with one another in the millions and billions, right?

This is something we do not from our traditional, exclusionist and warlike natures. This is something we are attempting consciously, from a vision we have that comes from a different part of our brains.

“Nature,” as Katherine Hepburn’s character said so well in “The African Queen,” “is what we are here to rise above.”


Well that wasn’t nearly divisive enough, so here:

That is the position of the Nurturists, the true liberals, and the modern mind.




July 18, 2016