The Biology Of Bigotry

The House of Commons may have passed draft legislation, but the UK debate surrounding gay marriage continues to rumble on. So why do some people persist in defending opinions that promote the segregation of certain social sectors? Of course, the environment an individual is exposed to, particularly during the early years, is bound to leave a cultural and memetic imprint that will determine how they view certain subjects in later life. But is there a deeper reason, a more intrinsic evolutionary or biological factor to determine why those who are different are often treated with such mistrust? Quite simply, are people pre-programmed to be bigots?

Gay Marriage

Well it seems that the answer is, at least in part, yes. When examined logically there are actually plenty of evolutionarily acceptable reasons for the prevalence of bigotry, or, as it is termed in scientific circles, ‘in-group favoritism’. Psychologist Catherine Cotrell suggests that group living offered ancestral man numerous selective advantages, including an increased ease of mate location and a greater degree of protection. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders, who could potentially bring harm to the group by spreading disease or usurping vital resources. Over time, we therefore developed an incredibly streamlined process to identify those ‘who don’t belong’ that has now become a hard-wired product of unconscious thought.

Rhesus MonkeySupport for such evolutionary theories comes from a recent study at Harvard. Researchers showed that, whilst fighting between groups could increase intra-group solidarity, the formation of group identity was the only pre-requisite required to generate outsider bias. Put simply, once individuals begin to identify themselves as members of a separate and distinct group there is an inherent tendency to develop a mistrust of non-members. And it seems that this biological bigotry is not a feature unique to humans. A team from Yale University have shown that rhesus monkeys, which also live in large highly sociable groups, display similar signs of wariness when presented with unknown individuals.

Still, a cursory examination will reveal that there are various different forms of bigotry. Whilst some have specific prejudices against particular sectors, others show a strong dislike for multiple groups; the latter having been rather cheekily termed ‘equal opportunity bigots’. What’s most interesting is that there is a clear correlation between certain prejudices. So those who don’t approve of the LGBT community are also unlikely to feel positively about women, Jews or the poor. These proclivities are so deep-seated that they are even displayed during reaction time measures where people pair social groups with positively or negatively valenced responses, e.g. words like peace or death.

The BigoTree

These differences are also present in the way that bigotry manifests itself. Ethnocentrists, i.e. those that believe in the superiority of their own ethnic group, can be placed within either the extrinsic or implicit category. Whilst the former would not hesitate to voice their views in public, implicit ethnocentrists are far more likely to perpetuate their beliefs by taking a negative attitude towards affirmative action.

Fortunately, whatever their root cause, it seems that prejudiced perceptions can be modified. Recent discoveries using advanced imaging devices reveal that the brain physically rewires the neuronal connections that dictate our beliefs and behavior based upon information that we deliberately feed ourselves. As a result, even extreme bigots can become tolerant, or, at a minimum, learn to suppress their biases over time. When considered in the context of history this is really rather obvious. Consider the strong relationship that now exists between the US and Japan, or Germany and France, which would have been inconceivable immediately after WWII. A more pertinent example may be found in the prevalence of the anti inter-racial marriage lobby in the 1950’s and 60’s. Of those who then sought to oppose the union of couples drawn from different racial backgrounds, many have since come to accept or even welcome it. Let’s just hope that in 50 years we will be able to say the same about the current debate.

The Brain That Changed Itself

Paul Blakeley

Paul has an MSc in Reproductive Biology, and is currently dabbling in a bit of writing and website design…If someone would like to give him a job, that would be lovely.

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8 Comments

  1. Paul Blakeley

    Thanks. There may well be. There is certainly a disparity between the types of bigotry, which I was trying to get across. Some people are certainly more ‘generally’ bigoted than others. There was also some really interesting new research on a genetic basis for bigotry, which I was itching to include, but unfortunately I couldn’t get access to the article and didn’t want to misinterpret the findings. Worth a look though.

  2. Olly Freeman (@ojfreeman)

    Great article Paul! I’d like to think that bigoted behaviour can be reversed as in your WWII example. I believe it is also interesting to think about how open-mindedness could possibly be ‘taught’ or at least encouraged in schools/university. From my experience of the scientists around me, everyone is so open-minded and willing to engage in discussion and change their views accordingly. When debating topics such as LGBT rights, female equality etc. they are so willing to engage in thoughtful discussion, even if it goes against their original views. This seems to have come about largely from their training as scientists and the acceptance that we try to find the ‘least wrong’ answers, not necessarily the ‘right’ ones.

  3. Toesinthedirt

    Since my cultural bias is toward preventing and combating bigotry, I think it’s useful to balance that with a nod to the evolutionary advantages of bigotry. It often works well for population resilience, and that’s exactly what’s at the core of fear and dislike of outsiders by human groups. Liberals think that’s a primitive, uncivilized, uneducated stance, and think that our species should “rise above” such primal instincts (which we actually see as caused by cultural deprivation rather than biology). But I’m sure that our modern liberal tendency to try to subvert the values of the selfish gene will most likely backfire in the long run, as the genes making us so “liberal” are not very good at replicating themselves. Genetically, maybe it’s the fundamentalists that will inherit the earth and the poorer and more backward the better, as those are the folks who use the fewest resources.

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