Damn Dirty Apes! The Evolution of Prejudice as Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys

Posted on April 20, 2011. Filed under: Editorial, Psychology, Social Media |


Posted by Chauncey DeVega on @ 11:12 am

Article printed from speakeasy: http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy
URL to article: http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2011/04/15/damn-dirty-apes-the-evolution-of-prejudice-as-scientists-see-the-beginnings-of-racism-in-monkeys/

Psychologists have long known that many people are prejudiced towards others based on group affiliations, be they racial, ethnic, religious, or even political. However, we know far less about why people are prone to prejudice in the first place. New research, using monkeys, suggests that the roots lie deep in our evolutionary past.

Are we just naked apes?

Social psychologists have apparently taken a large step towards uncovering the origins of human prejudice by administering the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to monkeys. And yes, I did just write that sentence.

I am a fan of the IAT and find myself in agreement with a growing literature which suggests that it is a powerful tool for mapping the subconscious origins of human prejudice. However, I am suspicious of how the IAT applies to our monkey cousins. Moreover, while sociobiology offers some compelling insights into the evolutionary origins of human behavior, I am skeptical that it can richly illuminate the complex–and quite modern–system we have come to describe as “racism.” Ultimately, I am not prepared to call Dr. Grewal’s findings piss poor social science…but this monkey racism business veers damn close to the proverbial open fetid urinal of ideas.

There is a deep tendency to normalize the worst of our species’ behavior. The barbarism of war, the viciousness of pogroms and death camps, and the general capacity for humankind to be quite thoroughly rotten, demands some explanation. It simply cannot be that there is a banality of evil unique to the human psyche which exists as the dark flip side of self-awareness. Rather, there must be some biological explanation, some clue that locates these impulses in the deepest recesses of human evolution. By implication, if one discovers these wellsprings, behavior can be explained. We must be cautious here: the urge to explain is often quite problematic because it is one step away from excuse making and the rationalizing away of responsibility.

A narrative that naturalizes race prejudice is problematic in any number of ways. Primarily, it flattens what is a complicated phenomenon (racism)and conflates it with something all together different but nonetheless related (prejudice). Adding a further complication to this puzzle is how a sense of group position, hierarchy, ethnocentrism, as well as in-group vs. out-group identification are certainly integral for a full understanding the “house that race built,” but in and of themselves only give a partial picture of a complex set of social and political forces.

These variables are necessary and perhaps even sufficient conditions for racism. However, they do no constitute racism in and of themselves. Racism is a recent invention born of the 16 and 17th centuries. In the light of the Colonial and Imperial projects, white supremacy provided a way of rationalizing a project of global usurpation and wealth transfer from the prosperous parts of the world to a resource poor Europe. To make the racial contract real involved the generation of philosophical, scientific, moral, ethical, religious, and political “truths” that normalized European dominance of the world as the natural order of things.

Stated differently, “white” Europeans, those formerly Irish, Italian, British, French, and others had to come to America where they killed indigenous people and enslaved black folks in order to become White. To do so effectively, they had to create regimes of knowledge that made these endeavors both “right” and “necessary” in their eyes.

[Keeping in mind that racism and prejudice are different things, how do we reconcile the following problematics: If “prejudice” and “racism” are so “natural” why did it take so long for Europeans to codify the former and transform it into the latter? Where was this “naturalized” racism in other populations at other times across history?]

Social systems assign values to different types of people(s) and personhood(s). By implication, racism was made by man and can be undone by man. There is nothing natural about it. And while I am sucker for any monkey related news items, the premise that monkeys can tell us anything new or insightful about “racism” leaves me a bit cold.

Some choice excerpts from Scientific American’s, “The Evolution of Prejudice”:

Mahajan and her team also devised a method for figuring out whether the monkeys harbor negative feelings towards outsiders. They created a monkey-friendly version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). For humans, the IAT is a computer-based task that measures unconscious biases by determining how quickly we associate different words (e.g. “good” and “bad”) with specific groups (e.g. faces of either African-Americans or European-Americans). If a person is quicker to associate “bad” with African-American faces compared to European-American faces, this suggests that he or she harbors an implicit bias against African-Americans.

For the rhesus monkeys, the researchers paired the photos of insider andoutsider monkeys with either good things, such as fruits, or bad things, such as spiders. When an insider face was paired with fruit, or an outsider face was paired with a spider, the monkeys quickly lost interest. But when an insider face was paired with a spider, the monkeys looked longer at the photographs. Presumably, the monkeys found it confusing when something good was paired with something bad. This suggests that monkeys not only distinguish between insiders and outsiders, they associate insiders with good things and outsiders with bad things.

Overall, the results support an evolutionary basis for prejudice…the behavior of the rhesus monkeys implies that our basic tendency to see the world in terms of “us” and “them” has ancient origins…

Editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes which has been featured by the NY Times, the Utne Reader, and The Atlantic Monthly. Writing under a pseudonym, Chauncey DeVega’s essays on race, popular culture, and politics have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post’s The Root and Popmatters.

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