“Ethnic Species” and the Dangerous, Evolutionary Heart of Implicit Bias

Illustrated by Shubhanjali Minhas

I want to clarify at the outset that this article is not about any actual differences among ethnic groups. Instead, the theory I will be discussing, from Francisco J. Gil-White’s paper, “Are Ethnic Groups Biological “Species” to the Human Brain?”, addresses why our brains fixate on the perceived differences among groups to the point of dehumanizing others (1). My aim in writing this article is to spread awareness of how deeply rooted our prejudice is in the hopes that we can check this instinct and treat everyone with the respect they deserve.

Gil-White’s theory begins with the premise that ethnicities are not “natural kinds” (categories like the Periodic Table of Elements with clear divisions and members belonging to one and only one type) and examines why people incorrectly believe and behave as if they are. Across the world and throughout history, various groups are targeted as the “Other.” This label implies that group members have a corrupt nature inherent to them and their descendants, and either no amount of assimilation or only several generations of assimilation and intermarriage can fix their supposedly tainted blood. Referencing his questionnaires and conversations with the Torguud ethnic group in Mongolia, Gil-White claims that this “otherization” resulting in mistrust is instinctual. He suggests that it occurs because, on some level, the human brain processes ethnicities the same way it processes animal species (1).

It is commonly known that language learning is innate to humans; we have a cognitive mechanism for rapidly acquiring vocabulary and grammar, similar to learning to walk and completely unlike the deliberate way we learn math. A founding tenet of evolutionary psychology is that we have many more “mental modules” like this, which each take in specific inputs (patterns like seeing movement or hearing human speech) and make inferences about corresponding aspects of our surroundings, rather than the brain processing everything in the same manner. Importantly, in the modern world, all of these systems can mistakenly take in information other than what they were designed for (1). The clearest example of this is how our face-recognition module can make out an expression from the three holes in an electrical outlet surprisingly more easily than an upside-down picture of an actual face.

Previous researchers have discussed the existence of a “living kinds” mental module. If you run into one bear, and survive, it is immensely helpful to make extensive inductive generalizations about how all bears will act, so that you can prepare for future encounters and are not stuck blindly guessing the second time. Our modern taxonomy is the extension of an instinct to categorize animals and plants, a system that comes with several intuitions installed: 1) All bears look and behave like this; 2) They behave like this because they are bears, because of their inherent “bear-ness;” 3) They have this bear essence because their parents were bears. It is also vital to remember here that we rarely ascribe individual identities to bears; it is not Winnie, just a bear. Gil-White summarizes these intuitions in the story of The Ugly Duckling: early adoption and separation from its birth culture will not make a swan anything other than a swan (1).

One can already recognize the parallels between judgements of animals and historical rhetoric toward oppressed groups. Assimilated Jews in Germany were still targeted for being “contaminated,” and the mixed-race children of slaves and slave owners in the US were considered “impure.” Still, Gil-White illustrates why ethnic groups might so quickly activate our species mental module.

For early humans, encountering other human groups was extremely risky. With different norms for interaction on both sides, foreigners appeared disrespectful and threatening, and avoidance became a more common strategy than the costly investment of learning another language and culture (1). In addition, particular groups tend to develop distinct visual signals for their membership—notably clothing styles and scarification (1). Consequently, it was clear when two people meeting were not of the same background. Style and cultural norms are taught to children, making them functionally inherited traits. Ultimately, a person encountering a person of another ethnic group would find that it was evolutionarily advantageous to be wary of them and to make the generalization that other members of that group behaved identically (1). It was therefore also less relevant to know that individual’s identity than to recognize that “they are an X.” The subsequent intuitions that the other person’s traits were a consequence of their ethnicity and their parentage are not necessarily wrong, and they were adaptive, so they stayed in genes responsible for our brains (1).

Now, ethnicity and race are not actually equivalent. However, once ethnicity had become a part of the species mental module, it could easily lead to processing traits like skin color and hair texture in the same way as the intentional differences in appearance among ethnic groups, creating broader generalizations among groups of people (1). Moreover, once a discriminatory mindset has already begun to affect the hierarchy in a society, the intuition that a person’s behavior and life circumstances are a consequence of their race only becomes more ingrained. This same pattern affects religious groups.

If Gil-White is correct, then we think very differently about other groups, classifying individuals by their ethnic, religious, or other identity before (or without) considering their unique identity or the diversity of character in any group. It is nearly as easy for us to immediately say “all X people are like that” than it is to see a face in these symbols (._.), making discrimination almost automatic. That is not to say any prejudice is excused, just that it may be extremely entrenched and difficult to overcome.

Earlier research on implicit bias encouraged practices such as removing names from resumes, in order to look at someone’s accomplishments without judgements of their background. It is considerably more challenging to heal an instinctual bias than a learned one, but awareness is a vital first step. From there, the best solution may be to get to know members of other groups. Besides the fact that negative stereotypes are unlikely to hold up in the face of real people, humans also have at least one social mental module, meaning that making an individual relevant in one’s life will override the brain’s other program to make them the Other. The better we can understand and discuss the roots of discrimination, the more empowered we are to eliminate it and protect each other.

Edited by: Julia Bulova
Illustrated by: Shubhanjali Minhas

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