Science and Race

The study of race from a scientific perspective has always been controversial.

In the 19th century, studies of skull structure were used to “prove” that different races were at different rungs on the evolutionary ladder – the “inferior” races being more ape-like.

Some scientists believed that Africans were a missing link between apes and “true”  (i.e. European) humans; this resulted in  Africans being placed in zoos.

In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen J. Gould contends that the results of some of these studies were falsified to fit with society’s preconceived notions of white racial superiority.

Today, we know that it is impossible to distinguish physical differences between races because race cannot be defined scientifically. Tens of thousand of years of human migration and interbreeding throughout the world means that it is impossible to divide humanity into a few genetically distinct “races”.   Studies of the human genome prove this.

A recent genetic study has revealed that three hunter-gatherer populations in Africa show evidence of interbreeding with an unknown group of hominin that diverged from humans and Neanderthals between 20,000 and 80,000 years ago, further evidence that when it comes to sex, humans don’t always stick to their own kind.

There are small, genetically isolated human populations in which certain medical conditions and diseases are more prevalent than in the general human population, but these groups are usually thought of as being too small to be considered separate races.

Race is, in fact, a concept that is defined by culture, and racial definitions vary from culture to culture. Definitions of race differ according to culture.

A person who is considered mixed race in one culture may be thought of as black, white or Asian in another.  This can be very important when laws treat people defined as mixed race differently than people defined as being purely of one race.

“Hispanic” is a racial term used in the United States to categorize people with a wide variety of genetic backgrounds whose ancestors spent some time in Latin America.

In America, people of South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) ancestry have sometimes been classified legally as Asian and at other times as white.

Having been born in America myself, I was raised to think of South Asians as white; the Asian race consists of people whose ancestors are from East Asia. (Yes, Americans do realize that the Indian subcontinent is part of Asia.)

When I moved to the UK, I was surprised to find that people from South Asia are considered non-white.

Because today’s scientists realize that race cannot be defined scientifically, they no longer study the differences between races or attempt to create a hierarchy of races.

Now, scientists are examining our attitudes toward race and trying to understand how and why these attitudes develop.

Evolutionary biologists looking at race focus on the human tendency to form large social groups and to divide human beings between members of one’s own group and outsiders (us vs. them).

They look at antecedents to racism in other primates.  A 2011 study shows that macaques spend a longer time looking at photos of unfamiliar macaques than at photos of macaques in their social group.  The researchers who performed this study interpreted the results as meaning that the macaque subjects viewed the strange macaques as more threatening than the macaques that they knew well.

Chimpanzees take the tendency to prefer members of their own group to outsiders to extremes; male chimpanzees within a troop will sometimes form a coalition that works together to attack and kill members of another group.

Nevertheless, even if humans have inherited a tendency toward racism, we are not necessarily destined to be racist.

Studies examining the neurobiological bases for racism in humans have found that when someone looks at a photo of a member of another race, activity increases in the amygdala, which is associated with fear and with learning to be afraid of things. (Racism can be encouraged by social conditioning.)

However, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) are also activated.

The ACC is associated with error detection and dealing with conflicting information; it is activated during the Stroop test.  The ACC may be activated when people are presented with photos of members of other races because they experience conflict between an instinctive or learned fear of people who are different and the knowledge that they should treat all people equally.

The DLPFC is believed to play a part in regulating behavior.  While the amygdala may be signaling someone to behave negatively toward a member of another race, the DLFPC prevents them from acting on that behavior.

Thus, our human brains allow us to overcome our primate racism.

Implicit Association Test

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is supposed to determine whether people have racist feelings, and if they do, how intense these feelings are.

During the IAT, subjects separate words (such as “happy” or “disgusted”) into positive and negative categories by clicking on one of two keys on a computer keyboard.

At the same time, they click on the same two keys to separate photos of human faces into two racial groups.

Test results seem to show that the majority of people are inherently racist, as they are more likely to associate negative words with members of the group that they do not identify with.

Before I took the IAT online myself, I was warned that it was likely that I would discover that I was at least slightly racist, and if I couldn’t deal with it, I shouldn’t take the test.

In fact, my results showed that I have no preference for one race over the other. – Apparently, this is unusual.

One flaw in the test is that it may actually prime people to identify a particular race with good or bad qualities.

When I took the test (which was designed for Americans and identified people as either European-American or African-American),  I first had to click on one key if I either read a “good” word or saw a photo of a European-American and click on another key if I  read a “bad” word or saw a picture of an African-American.

Although the categories are later switched – African-Americans and good words get one key, while  European-Americans and bad words get another – by that time the test may have already primed the subject to associate African-Americans with negative qualities and European-Americans with positive ones.

Some studies have shown that changing the names of the racial categories on the IAT can affect the outcome of the IAT.

Additionally, people who score as very racist on the IAT often show no signs of racist behavior.

On Altruism

Why do people do things that benefit others but disadvantage themselves?

On the surface, altruism seems to be inconsistent with the process of evolution.  If we view evolution as a competition in which the winners survive and reproduce at the expense of the losers, then selfishness should create an evolutionary advantage.

In fact, this interpretation of Darwin’s concept of natural selection has been used to justify social policies that hurt those who are already disadvantaged (because of income, class, nationality or race), with the idea that the laws of nature dictate that those who are less able to survive should not survive.

If altruism were at odds with evolution, then it would be very rare.

But altruism can be found throughout the animal kingdom.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin points out the apparent contradiction of worker bees risking their lives to protect their hive.  He explains this by saying that “selection can be applied to the family, as well as the individual.”

In the Descent of Man, he states that animals that live in social groups have warning systems, in which one member of the group signals to the rest of the group when it discovers a threat, exposing itself to danger in the process, and that sometimes a few animals will risk their own lives fighting to defend their entire group.

Biologists such as Fisher, Haldane and Hamilton further developed the idea of kin selection – that animals will sometimes behave in ways that are harmful to themselves as individuals in order to benefit their relatives.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins states that kin selection makes sense once you understand that, ultimately, evolution is not about the survival of individuals but about the survival of genes. When you help your siblings (or other close relatives with whom you share a large percentage of genetic material) to survive, you increase the chances that your genetic material will continue to be replicated.

Humans and other animals, however, do not confine acts of altruism to their immediate genetic relations, or even their own species. We would not be surprised by a story of a dog risking its life for its owner.

There have been anecdotes, from ancient times to the present day, of dolphins surrounding humans to protect them from sharks and pushing drowning humans to the water’s surface so that they can breathe.

And human beings are known for treating cats, dogs and members of various other species like their own children.

Since it is not always possible to determine who is one’s kin, evolution may have led some animals to develop the predilection to help other animals that are part of its social group (a dog sees itself as part of its owners “pack”) or that are like them in some way (a dolphin identifies humans as well as members of its own species as creatures that need air to survive).  This can make decision-making quicker, which is essential when there is a threat. If it shares your home, shares food with you, plays with you and cuddles you, protect it.  If a shark is swimming toward it, form a circle around it.  If it appears helpless and hungry, feed it.

Altruistic behavior in non-humans has been seen in the laboratory. In, an experiment studying altruism in rats, which was performed in 2011, pairs of rats were placed in pens, with one rat trapped in a cage while the other rat was able to roam free. In the majority of cases, the free rat learned how to open the cage and then liberated the other rat. The free rats did not open empty cages or cages that had toy rats – they specifically chose to help their fellow rats.

When the free rats were given the choice of freeing the trapped rat or opening a cage that was full of chocolate (a favorite rat treat), most rats opened both cages, and then shared their chocolate with the other rat.

Researchers at the University of Zurich have just discovered a connection between altruism in humans and the structure of the brain.  In an experiment, subjects played a game in which they had an opportunity to divide money between themselves and another player.  Subjects who behaved more altruistically had more gray matter in the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) than those who behaved more selfishly.

The right TPJ is associated with the development of theory of mind – the ability to understand the mental state of another.  Understanding another’s mental state can lead you to develop empathy toward them, which can in turn cause you to put their needs above your own.

The natural tendency toward altruism has philosophical and political implications.  The ancient Golden Rule – “Treat others as you wish to be treated” – can be seen as a manifestation of natural altruistic impulses.  When you put someone else’s wellbeing above your own, you help to ensure the survival of genetic material that may be your own.  (This might explain why the Golden Rule is sometimes forgotten when there is an opportunity to make a sacrifice for someone of a different nationality or ethnic background.)

Kant’s dictate that you should only perform acts that could become universal laws – for example, you should not steal because if everybody were allowed to take whatever they wanted when they wanted it, there would be chaos, and therefore stealing could not be allowed universally  – reflect a concern for the well-being of the group above that of the individual.

The Enlightenment theory that human societies were formed by social contracts, in which people gave up some of their individual liberties in order to ensure the protection of the group, is also reflective of natural examples – the vervet monkey who gives an alarm call to warn other monkeys that a predator is near gives up his “right” to protect himself from by danger by hiding quietly.

There are implications regarding how we treat non-human animals. If other animals behave altruistically toward others, do we have a moral obligation to behave altruistically toward them?

If it is possible to identify how altruistic a person is by examining their brain, as the University of Zurich study suggests, then will we someday define people as altruistic or selfish before we have observed their actions?

Will reports of the amount of gray matter in a defendant’s right TPJ be used as evidence in criminal proceedings?  “Your Honor, my client could not have stolen that bracelet.  His fMRI shows that he is not a selfish person.”

As human brains are plastic, perhaps children’s “altruism levels” will be tested in school to ensure that they have the right level of altruism in adulthood.

If the gray matter in a child’s right TPJ is deemed too low, she might be sent to special classes where she learns how to share and get along with others better. Conversely, if a child is thought to be “too altruistic”, based on an examination of his brain, perhaps he will be taught to stand up for himself more and avoid being bullied.

Of course, many factors will be involved in determining how altruistically a person will behave in a given situation, including past experiences, their relationship with the other person, and whether there is a perceived possibility of long-term benefit, and it is extremely unlikely that we will be able to predict whether someone will be generous or selfish by looking at one small part of that person’s brain.

Nevertheless, these are interesting possibilities.

Meat Eating and Animal Intelligence

Remember when cans of tuna used to say they were dolphin friendly? Some wise guy would always say, “They’re not friendly to tuna, though, are they?”

Of course, we all knew what that was about.

Dolphins are intelligent. They form social groups. They communicate with sound. They pass the mirror test.

A dolphin can learn how to do tricks, perform in front of an audience or in front of a camera.

Dolphins have names.

Tuna, on the other hand, are just fish.

But it gets more complicated.

A recent study suggests that an animal’s perceived intelligence is the main factor in determining whether or not we will be disgusted by the thought of eating it.

The key word here, though, is “perceived”.

According to this study, people tend to ascribe lower levels of mental functioning to animals that they are about to eat.

So do we eat tuna because tuna aren’t very intelligent, or do we tell ourselves that tuna aren’t very intelligent so that we can eat them?

What about cultures where eating dogs or horses is considering normal? Would the people who eat these animals ever think about training them to perform in front of an audience?

The thing is, our beliefs about animal intelligence don’t always mesh with scientific observations.

This paper reports on experiments suggesting that chickens might have a primitive form of self-consciousness (an understanding that one is an individual separate from other individuals), have a limited sense of time and delay gratification in exchange for a greater reward.

Some fish seem to be able to recognize other individuals within their shoals, to work together to catch food, to form long term memories, and to use tools.

It seems that the more we learn about animal cognition, the more we are surprised by how intelligent familiar animals can be.

If the thought of eating an intelligent animal is repulsive to you, then the obvious solution is to become a vegetarian.

In fact, vegetarian organizations go out of their way to publicize research suggesting that animals are smarter than most people think.

That’s a simplistic answer, though. Although it is certainly possible to live one’s life as a vegetarian, the health benefits of vegetarianism vs. omnivorism are in dispute – and like any other topic that touches on ethical beliefs and cultural traditions, research on the topic is subject to confirmation bias.

When looking at meat eating from an ethical standpoint, it is important to understand that ethics is never about deciding between absolutes – it is about making tough decisions and understanding the necessity of compromise.

Behaving ethically means considering whether it is better to lie or to hurt someone’s feelings, or whether you should report the poor old woman who has hidden food in her handbag to the store manager or pretend to look the other way.

If you believe that an omnivorous diet is essential for optimum human health, then you have to make some difficult choices.