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May 22, 2012
Racism as a Vestigal Remnant of a Security Mechanism
"Roots of Racism," by Elizabeth Culotta in Science:
Our attitudes toward outgroups are part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe, says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat. So outgroup faces alarm us even when there is no danger.
Lots of interesting stuff in the article. Unfortunately, it requires registration to access.
Posted on May 22, 2012 at 1:10 PM
• 35 Comments
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It would appear they opened the paywall for this article. And yes, lots of interesting stuff in it.
You may not have to pay but you do have to register.
I have heard this threat detection as-reason-for-racism theory off and on over my lifetime. My take on it is that bigotry does not have so much to do with security as the distribution of resources. The summary kind of sums up why I come to such conclusions. A system with a large number of false positives, like a smoke detector in the kitchen or car alarms from the 90's, will soon be phased out. Even if true threats are occasionally found, the cost of the security theater is high. So what is the other piece that justifies these costs. It is allocations of resources. For instance, one study based on game theory has indicated that while tit-for-tat is best for maximizing profit in general, if one has a weakened small identifiable group, then cheating them is the most profitable.
I see risk management as the rational, not the cause. For instance, why are we so afraid of immigrant labor from the south? It is because limited resources, i.e. they take 'our' jobs, or because there is a real security issue? When royalty says they are chosen by g-d and everyone else is inferier, it is to keep resources in the family, or to secure the nation?
@ Ralph Cox
I kind of agree with you. I think the answer will be found in group theory, social dynamics, etc. rather than societal security. History supports the notion that people often hate on outsiders or anyone different from the norm for flimsy reasons. History also supports that these kinds of negative views are often used to justify attacks on those groups to steal their resources or use them as a labor class.
I think modern racism is both an ongoing occurrence of and a vestigal remnant of that. The ongoing part is how people continue to promote negative stereotypes of certain things, false positive stereotypes of others, and practice ostracism on those that are very different. I'd illustrate the remnant side with the whites vs minority groups. Slavery, general discrimination and other practices have lead to a long-term reverse racism that will be slow to disappear. There are other vestigal remnants of racism and prejudice, but that's one of the most important.
So, I think the abstract tells me that this paper would be an interesting read, yet distract from the real causes of racism. Namely, continued discrimination, historical conflicts, cultural upbringing, the media, and race-specific rewards in finance or employment. These can all further divide people into an "us" and "them" situation.
Well I would start off with what defines racism. I have been in multiple conversations where people all define it slightly differently enough that none of them actually are talking about the same thing.
There is "my tribe is better than yours". There is "people who don't look like me scare me." [There are others but for this conversation I want to focus on those.] The people who don't look like me would not have been a false alarm up to maybe a couple of hundred years. Many times when people showed up who didn't look like your neighbours/tribe/clan it meant you or they were invading and that would be a life/death. The changes that have mixed up people of different looks peacefully have been a rarity in human history and so genetically would not get weeded out. Hopefully it can be done so now.
The "my race/clan/tribe is better than yours" is more of a rationalization to deal with the fear. It allows them to feel that their fear is justified when it wasn't. It allows them to avoid the fear because they can get angry and it is plainly a stupid reaction that humans have used for also thousands of years. The confrontation of that stupidity is also short in genetic timeframes so hopefully it can be weeded out in a couple hundred generations.
I've thought for a while that the idea of seemingly arbitrary discrimination in general was something of a clan-creating trait, given that "the enemy of your enemy is your friend". Since humans seem desperate to form, and seem to work best in, clans, just about any excuse that could be easily used by many was viable.
Race is usually an easy trait to distinguish on, so it's natural for clans to tighten bonds by hating the "enemy" race together.
"There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved"
- Jesse Jackson, 27 November 1993
Presumably this was not an example of bigotry, nor fear of others/outsiders, and certainly not a justification for discrimination or attack. As a threat-detection system using race as a proxy for culture, it may not yet be obsolete. High false positive rate, yes, but the cost of a false positive is generally low while that of a false negative is much higher. Though that changes if we change perspective from "individual looking to avoid robbers" to "policeman (or vigilante) looking to find them"; there is probably a level of racial stereotyping that is pragmatically useful in the former case but intolerable in the latter.
You can learn a lot about racism and in- and out-groups if you're autistic and you experiment with oxytocin. I have no idea if there's a reverse process for nonautistics.
Racism is just one vestigal remnant of a security mechanism that at some point got institutionalised by the powers that be and over the years lost all or most of its original purpose and intent.
Another perfect example of this phenomenon is the ban on pork in Islam. In the days of the prophet Muhammad, eating pork for all practical purposes was a potentially lethal mistake in that region of the world. Pigs were known to eat kinda everything and carry all kinds of diseases. Therefor, it was introduced in the Qu'ran as haram, or unlawful to do. Although today in most industrialised countries there is practically no health hazard whatsoever associated with eating pork, the ban still exists.
I've had this discussion with muslim friends more than once, stating that if the prophet would have lived in Japan, fugu (blowfish) would have been outlawed and nothing would have been wrong with eating pork. Needless to say it has never failed to draw me quite some flak.
@Keith A comparable experiment for nonautistics might involve experimentation with both oxytocin and cortisol.
Dirk: I've often seemed it claimed that the Jewish and Muslim taboos against pork are rational food safety, but never any evidence. Given the popularity of pigs in eg. Roman Italy (and someone was eating lots of pork at Masada, although whether the zealots or the Roman conquerers is debated), I suspect its a myth. Do you have any evidence?
Crows show this bias too - treating unfamiliar voices as being more likely to be a threat. Birds are clearly not closely related to us primates, so possibly this effect is widespread
Dirk: I've often seemed it claimed that the Jewish and Muslim taboos against pork are rational food safety, but never any evidence
There is plenty of evidence and most people I know were taught about it in their teens during biology lessons at school.
Look at the life cycle of various parasites such as the tapeworm. There are primary and secondary hosts required for the life cycle to happen and in both cases infestastion has a negative inpact on the host. Likewise both hosts have to ingest the parasit either by eating the feces or flesh of the other host.
Thus there are two ways to break the life cycle,
1, Stop the pigs eating human excrement.
2, Stop the humans eating the pig flesh.
Due to other issues (cross contamination / cooking etc) the safest and quickest solution is (2) to stop humans eating the flesh. However there is also the issue of the availability of food for humans. Pigs grow very quickly and put on very large amounts of muscle and fat quite easily from a diet that is to be blunt "rubbish" and unlike goats they are ommniverous. Further they are also very usefull at turning over the soil of farmland and making it easier to plant crops etc. Thus in colder more northern climbs the pig was essential to life and thus we learnt to live with them and developed better ways of managing human waste so the health issue was eventualy solved by (1) stoping pigs eating human excrement.
Importantly the fact that tapeworms evolved this dual host life cycle tells us just how long humans and pigs have coexisted at close quaters for many thousands of years...
However there is another health issue that has only come to notice in recent times and that is "cannibalism" and it's deleterious effects. One of which is neurological issues like those of "scrapie" in sheep, and more recently BSE in cattle. It is why we now have rules about what can and cannot go into animal feed including "food scraps".
Regarding the eating of pork:
My grandmother who grew up as a country girl in late Victorian England, had a saying:
"Never eat pork unless there's an 'R' in the month." In english this rules out all the summer months. She never owned a refrigerator.
Of course the middle east is a lot hotter than England, and any food that was quick to spoil in the heat would soon get a bad reputation I think.
@Clive - Did you mean "roundworm"/"Trichinella spiralis" ..?
Tape worms are more of a cloven-hoofed thing.
@ Z. Constantine,
No, the pesky little "critter" they taught us when I was oh so young was,
Only I'd forgoton the realy scary bit (Cysticercosis in humans) this is where you take the place of the pig and the eggs hatch in your gut and the larvae burrow through into your flesh and other organs including the brain and effectivly eat you from the inside and form "Cysticerci"...
It is thus possible for both practicing Muslims and Jews to suffer this fate as all it requires is cross contamination to any food during either growing or preperation, so includes vegtables (yup even the Vegies can get hit) that might have been fertilized with human waste that had not been heat treated to kill such parasites or a worm carrier not washing their hands properly after going to the toilet etc...
In the continental US it is mainly "Cysticercosis" that is seen from "symptoms" as carrying the worm is often symptom free, but unlike in pigs where there are few or no symptoms of cysticercosis in humans it can cause all sorts of complications including epilepsy (and presumably untimely death).
However the critters you refrence are also quite nasty in their own little way and yes just another reason to think twice about eating any food you neither know the provinence of or have not prepared and cooked yourself.
Then there are "thread worms" "whip worms" and all sorts of other groovy intestinal parasites who at the very least get "free board and lodgings" out of you...
"A system with a large number of false positives...will soon be phased out."
Think about the difference between false positives that are emotionally rewarding versus those that are purely irritating.
I think this is perfectly reasonable. False positives are cheap, missing a true positive is expensive.
A less subtle example: If my system starts pumping adrenaline through my body whenever I see something move in my peripheral vision, I'm less likely to be eaten by a sabre toothed dormouse. It's only a small waste of energy that 99% of the time the movement is harmless.
Thinking in terms of total profit / total loss usually helps when considering evolutionary type arguments.
Nothing particularly related to pork in your reasoning. Parasites are everywhere: cows, goats, sheeps, deer, dogs, fish, seashells, snakes, birds, insects and every other type of animals, which human could use as food, can host them. Humanity invented a lot of approaches to this problem (let's start from high temperature). There's no evidence that pigs are somewhat different in this regard.
Also, "pigs eating human excrements" sounds for me like myth as well. Anyway, if a significant human populations don't deal with excrements in a systematic way (which makes it unavailable for domesticated animals), things much worse then tapeworms are going to happen.
Btw, birds definitely do eat excrements, why chicken meat is not prohibited then?
This taboo could be just an echo of ancient animosity between nomads, and settled peoples.
Thanks for link, it is very interesting, I was wrong about pigs abilities to digest feces. But, anyway, it sounds more like a compulsory feeding, not typical swine diet of choice, therefore doesn't contribute to the idea of taboo.
@ Alaksiej C-u,
Also, "pigs eating human excrements" sounds for me like myth as well
I can assure first hand it's not a myth, also they do eat it of their own free will, even when there are other food sources around.
I can also assure you that they will eat just about anything including each other and will actually fight to the death and eat the looser.
I'm not sure of the exact translation of the rules prohibiting the eating of pork (and other food stuffs including shell fish) but most times I've seen it written in English it has been translated to "unclean".
The prohibition on eating pork by the way is not just religious it's cultural as well and many people of African or Afro-Caribbean descent don't eat it.
Back in the 1970's when I was both a student and a chef, I once asked one of the Afro-Caribbean customers why, and he said 'it's all got worms" and being some what surprised (in the UK meat is "health inspected") and he said he'ld show me if I got him bears for him and his wife. He went to his car and got a bottle of neat spirit alchol and he poured a little over a cube of pork from the kitchen and sure enough after just a few moments thread like worms came out of the meat. He went on to tell me that is also why they only eat dried or salted cod, because there is a transparent jelly like worm in the muscles of cod...
And yes even in the UK we have an old saying about "months with an R in" and this applies very strictly to shell fish and some other food stuffs.
Sadly a lot of precautionary warnings (green potatoes, potatoes with eyes in, rubbarb leaves and roots, 8hour soaking and then rapid boiling for 10 mins of various beans and pulses, certain fungi need to be fully dried and then rehydrated before being cooked etc) have not made it into the younger generation in the UK and we are starting to see a rise in poisoning because of it.
@Alaksiej - OT
Anyway, if a significant human populations don't deal with excrements in a systematic way (which makes it unavailable for domesticated animals), things much worse then tapeworms are going to happen.
Plenty of examples. One I particularly like is that the troops of Rommel's Africa Corps during WWII suffered much more from dysentery and other diseases because contrary to the British they didn't have strict rules about dealing with excrements. The British, having much more experience with colonial warfare were well-aware of the dangers associated with excrements and poor hygiene. The poor health of the disease stricken Germans was a major contributor to their defeat in Northern Africa.
As to the pork issue in Islam, you really need to consider the historical context in which it was a well-known fact that one was way more likely to contract diseases by eating pork than anything else. Not only did the prophet care about educating his flock, he could also use every man in good health to spread his word and fight their enemies.
Although I'm not a muslim, I can recommend reading Muhammad's biography to anyone. It gives an excellent idea of where Islam came from, what it is based on and most definitely helps in eradicating much of the racist prejudices against muslims that at some point were institutionalised as some form of security mechanism.
@ Dirk Praet ...
“Another perfect example of this phenomenon is the ban on pork in Islam…”
Pigs on a security forum! Amazing …
You are misinformed, my friend.
1- Eating pork is a sin, but not a lethal one. Meaning there is no death punishment associated with that. In fact, there is no punishment enforced (in this life). Alcohol is a different story, there is a punishment for that – several whip lashes
2- “Pigs were known to eat kinda everything and carry all kinds of diseases. Therefor, it was introduced in the Qu'ran as haram, or unlawful to do.” You have made two mistakes here:
a. People then and there did not know that pigs “carry all kinds of diseases”
b. The Quran does not say why Pigs are not suitable for human food consumption. It just says it is prohibited. In another part it says all that is “harmful” is disallowed. Harmful here “maybe” health related either directly or indirectly (bird flu for example)
3-The statement about Fugu is speculation. If you remove the poison form it, it’s ok. Is there a “poison sack” somewhere in the pig you can remove to make it lawful to eat? Your rational there is a bit weak ;)
Hopefully I did not open a can of worms here (some people can eat those too ...
1) I believe you are putting words in my mouth that I didn't say.
2-a) The smarter ones had well established or at least were assuming a causal link, pretty much like having sex causing pregnancy.
2-b) Of course there is no explanation in the Qu'ran as to why it's forbidden. That's the nice thing about religion: dogmas.
3) Speculation may get thrown out in court, but it is the basis for most scientific research and discoveries.
Of course, its wise to have a low confidence in speculation. It still seems to me that if eating domestic pork was obviously a bad idea, there wouldn't have needed to be a taboo against it; and that taboos are usually more about ingroups and a feeling of control than practicality. I'd still be interested in, for example, coprological evidence that some parasites were scarce in populations which had this taboo, or some Iron Age writer commenting on this.
@ Dirk Praet,
1) My appologies
2) No comment
3) True, Agreed ...
@ Dirk Praet
Now I have time to write in detail, I will try not to put words in your mouth. I will also attempt to keep it objective, and a bit sarcastic just for fun ;) - My apologies for the long winded correspondence. I know this is out of the realm of security, but ...
1- "In the days of the prophet Muhammad, eating pork for all practical purposes was a potentially lethal mistake in that region of the world":
This is not true. As I stated before, eating pork does not carry a death penalty, although it is a sin. Otherwise, please cite your source (Quran or Hadith). If you mean that people have potentially died because they ate pork (health reasons) then that is a differnt story. However, I am not aware of recorded historical incidents of that sort. Perhaps you can share this information.
2- "Pigs were known to eat kinda everything and carry all kinds of diseases. Therefor, it was introduced in the Qu'ran as haram, or unlawful to do." From an islamic perspective, it's not the prophet who made up these rules. These rules came from God (the Omniscient, Muslim belief). God is all knowing, so that argument is doomed from the start. But since this is a scientific discussion, I will skip the "belief" part. The argument you are making is "Pigs were known to be desease carring animals, therefore they were prohibited for consumption". One problem with this argument is: Pigs are not the only animals Muslims are not allowed to eat; Muslims cannot eat animals of prey such as lions, cats, dogs, eagles, vultures, crocodiles, Vulcans (checking if you are awake), of course humans are not allowed to eat humans either, etc... Muslims cannot eat a horse, but can eat a camel (go figure). How do you justify the outlaw of these animals, and why is the "pig" picked out of them. Why the racism against the pig? Huh? BLT tastes good ?
3- "Although today in most industrialised countries there is practically no health hazard whatsoever associated with eating pork, the ban still exists." Today you may say that! A hundred years from now, the story maybe different. Ooops! sorry guys, Pigs are no good, our bad! Their DNA is a tad too close to the human DNA, and we found out blah blah blah. May I speculate too?
4- "if the prophet would have lived in Japan, fugu (blowfish) would have been outlawed and nothing would have been wrong with eating pork.". Now this statement is the main reason I responded. So speculation is OK in science, I agree. In Islam, its pretty useless - I will share with you why:
A- In Islam, there is no speculation. There is something called "Fiqh" or understanding of the religion. There are rules derived from the Quran and the Sunna (prophet acts or sayings). One rule states: "Necessities allow the prohibited". Meaning, for example, if a Muslim is stuck in the desert and no food is available except for say a poor "pig" then he / she is allowed to eat it (no sins committed). Should that person choose not to eat the swine, and dies of hunger, he / she has committed a sin by NOT eating the pig! There are a few of those rules (if you are interested, you can search how these rules were formulated). So for your claim to be accepted (by a Muslim), it has to be justified through one of these rules. You can strike out this bullet of course, since it depends on "beliefs" that you may not share with Muslims and the so called "dogma", but I put here for the interested in the subject.
B- What is your basis for claiming the prophet would have disallowed Fugu? And more importantly, lets say your claim holds true, how do you then jump to the conclusion that as a result, the pig would have been allowed as well? I fail to see the logic or the connection! Is Fugu part of the Porcine family? At the very least you ought to identify the cause and the effect - you know, objective, scientific style?
C- Lets play with speculation a bit: If the prophet lived in India, hamburgers would have been "outlawed", Muslims would have been vegetarians. Does that fit your line of reasoning? Wouldn't you ask me about the justification for my claim as well? And what good does this speculation do? Do you think we'll discover something new? I think the only thing we can discover here is that pigs have gills.
5- " Needless to say it has never failed to draw me quite some flak.".
No! You have got to be kidding me! Perhaps they did not follow your logic - that’s all.
I'll let the folks visiting this blog be the judges of the arguments presented, but will refrain from any further comments or rebuttals. I have no interest getting drawn into an endless discussion on a public forum as I am only too well-aware that questioning or rationalising dogmas never fails to strike a particularly sensitive chord with religious folks. Rest assured that I respect your conviction, but since I am not a religious person I tend to go with other rationales than rules and laws issued to mankind by deities.
You can ask Bruce for my email address if you want to continue this thread offline.
@ Dirk Praet
This is actually not about religion. Its about statements we make. Was also trying to help you out when you have future discussions so you don't get a lot of flak next time. "Other rational" was the one actually under question here. I will also refrain ... I do also respect other points of view.
@ O W,
I don't know! It just says it's prohibited, as it was prohibited for the people before you.
The internet is full of these discussions - pro and con. You will have no problem finding them.
@ O W,
I am sorry I made a mistake.
"as it was prohibited for the people before you" is not part of it.
Over and out ...
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I've got the Chrome bugmenot extension and simply clicked it to get a farce login to this website. Clicked login and it worked like a champ.
The sad part is that we really haven't learned anything except that all primates form groups, they have characteristic (whatever the choice) differences, and that in-group is hostile to all out-groups. Furthermore, after achieving growth to a certain population size, the group fissions and the two new groups try there very best to kill the other group in a bid to see who gets driven off a particular niche.
I remember a discussion that my mother and I (she's the Ph. D. in Anthropology) had some forty years ago and it looks like nobody has come up with anything new on the subject, in any field. Later on I found out that Dr. Goodal (primatology) was never quite the same after observing such a fission among some chimpanzees she was studying. Or so the rumor went.
I could go on about my personal revelations about this topic in sociology (capital punishement), microeconomics (game theory), political science (power-conflict theory), hell, it's all over the place in the social sciences if you are willing to go look. It is readily apparent that however successful this strategy it was established very early on in our opportunistic hunter-gatherer-scavenger existence. I would lay good money down that it is an extremely successful trait across the primate line.
Aside: Being the child of an anthropologist, parents both ex-military (as are all my relatives and in-law), well you are already marginalized in American society, neither in-group nor out-group and able to successfully pull a chameleon number with ease. As a result I have a pretty jaundiced eye when it comes to people and their behaviors, close up and personal. I know I'm weird for "judging by the content of their character."
School kids usually seem to congregate in groups of the same ethnicity. Are they are being racist for doing this ?
I have divided racism into two main types.
1. Malicious (stupidity)
Racist on purpose for some stupid reason.
Discrimination based on convenience.
e.g. it's easier to get to know people with a similar background to you. school kids are a good example of this.
Politicians get accused of racism for lots of silly reasons but it's usually not on purpose.
The difference is intent. If you are discriminating on purpose then you are a racist. If accidental, you need to travel more and make friends from different ethnicities.
@ Dirk Praet
racist prejudices against muslims
For you to say this is racist, it means you think all muslims are one race. Muslims can be of any race, so discrimination against them isn't racism.
By your logic discrimination against Buddhists, Christians ... etc is also racism.
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