Is Racism and Bigotry in Our DNA?

June 13, 2020 Topic: Science Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: PsychologyDNAGeneticsEvolutionRacismBigotry

Is Racism and Bigotry in Our DNA?

Most human attitudes and behaviour have both a genetic and an environmental component. 

Later iterations of the scenario have been dubbed “Fortress world” describing a dystopian vision where order is imposed through an authoritarian system of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside.

When you think about how Trump talks about building a wall on the Mexico border, encouraged by chants from the crowd, we have to wonder how close we are to this scenario. On a larger scale, the rich “developed” countries primarily responsible for causing climate change are doing very little to address the plight of poorer countries.

There seems to be a lack of empathy, a disregard and intolerance for others who were not lucky enough to be born in “our” tribe. In response to an ecological catastrophe of their making, rich countries simply argue about how best to prevent the potential influx of migrants.

Rewiring the brain

Thankfully, we can use rational thinking to develop strategies to overcome these attitudes. We can reinforce positive values, building trust and compassion, reducing the distinction between our in-group and the “other”.

An important first step is appreciating our connectedness to other people. We all evolved from the same bacteria-like ancestor, and right now we share over 99% of our DNA with everyone else on the planet. Our minds are closely linked through social networks, and the things we create are often the inevitable next step in a series of interdependent innovations.

Innovation is part of a great, linked creative human endeavour with no respect for race or national boundaries. In the face of overwhelming evidence from multiple scientific disciplines (biology, psychology, neuroscience) you can even question whether we exist as discrete individuals, or whether this sense individuality is an illusion (as I argue in my book The Self Delusion).

We evolved to believe we are discrete individuals because it brought survival benefits (such as memory formation and an ability to track complex social interactions). But taken too far, self-centred individualism can prevent us from solving collective problems.

Beyond theory, practice is also necessary to literally rewire our brains – reinforcing the neural networks through which compassionate behaviour arises. Outdoor community activities have been shown to increase our psychological connectedness to others. Similarly, meditation approaches alter neural networks in the brain and reduce our sense of isolated self-identity, instead promoting compassion towards others. Even computer games and books can be designed to increase empathy.

Finally, at the societal level, we need frank and open debate about environmental change and its current and future human impacts – crucially, how our attitudes and values can affect other lives and livelihoods. We need public dialogue around climate-driven human migration and how we respond to that as a society, allowing us to mitigate the knee-jerk reaction of devaluing others.

Let’s defuse this ticking ethical timebomb and shame those who stoke flames of bigotry beneath it. Instead, we can open ourselves up to a more expansive attitude of connectedness, empowering us to work together in cooperation with our fellow human kin.

It is possible to steer our cultures and rewire our brains so that xenophobia and bigotry all but disappear. Indeed, working collaboratively across borders to overcome the global challenges of the 21st century relies upon us doing just that.

Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters