As part of The Conversation‘s ‘Life’s Big Questions’ series, Tom Oliver, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and author of ‘the Self Delusion’ explains why humans, although fundamentally cooperative, need to work collaboratively across borders to address racism and bigotry and overcome the global challenges of the 21st century. The article was first published in The Conversation in April 2020.
Is bigotry in our DNA, a remnant of our fear of “the other” way back when that was necessary? If so, why do some battle with their instincts while others embrace them? Peter, 71, Darlington
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe … if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolise, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.
Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this Earth knows how to make me.
Humans are the most cooperative species on the planet – all part of a huge interconnected ecosystem. We have built vast cities, connected by a global nervous system of roads, shipping lanes and optical fibres. We have sent thousands of satellites spinning around the planet. Even seemingly simple objects like a graphite pencil are the work of thousands of hands from around the world, as the wonderful essay I-Pencil, quoted above, by Leonard Read describes.
Yet we can also be surprisingly intolerant of each other. If we are completely honest, there is perhaps a little bit of xenophobia, racism, sexism and bigotry deep within all of us, if we would only allow it. Luckily, we can choose to control and suppress such tendencies for our own wellbeing and the good of society.
Most human attitudes and behaviour have both a genetic and an environmental component. This is also true for our fear of others who are different to us — xenophobia — and intolerance of their viewpoints — bigotry. Hardwired into the brain’s amygdala region is a fear reflex that is primed by encounters with the unfamiliar.
In premodern times, it made sense to be fearful of other groups. They might be violent, steal our resources, or introduce new diseases we are not adapted to. Conversely, it was beneficial to trust those who look similar to us — they are more likely to be related. And when we help these kin, our own genes are more likely to be passed to future generations. What’s more, if the other person reciprocates the good deed, we benefit even more.
Beyond such genetic influences, our human culture strongly influences our attitudes and behaviour, modifying innate human drives – either suppressing them or encouraging them further. Whether we tolerate and trust someone or fear and reject them depends a lot on this culture.
Modern civilisation in general encourages the extension of attitudes such as respect and tolerance beyond those who look similar to us, to those who we have no relation to. We reinforce and codify these values, teaching them to our children, while religious and secular spiritual leaders promote them in their teachings. That’s because they generally lead to a more harmonious, mutually-beneficial society.
The trouble with tribalism
This is exactly what has made us such a cooperative species. But sometimes our cultures can be less progressive. What people around us say and do subconsciously influences the way we think. We soak up this cultural context like a sponge, and it subtly shapes our attitudes and behaviours. If we are surrounded by people that stigmatise those different to themselves, this also encourages distrust or aggression in us.
It presses the buttons of certain deep-seated xenophobic attitudes within us. In fact, it discourages hard-learned inhibitory responses in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that get built up under more progressive contexts.
Movements such as Nazism have openly promoted xenophobia and bigotry. They encourage a strong tribal loyalty to the “in-group” (one’s own group), while stigmatising (and in the case of Nazism, executing) others. Taken too far, a healthy pride in one’s country can easily tip into unhealthy nationalism, where we identify with our own nation at the exclusion of others.
Things seem to be moving in this direction today. Leaders such as US president, Donald Trump, Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro and Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, are more frequently taking centre stage. In the UK, figures such as Nigel Farage, a key architect of Brexit, uses media platforms to promote naive and bigoted views – an example being this tweet about the 2020 coronavirus outbreak: “It really is about time we all said it. China caused this nightmare. Period.”
When the media, and especially people we trust, talk in such a way, it has a profound effect on our receiving minds. It can even shape our beliefs in what we might think are purely rational issues. For example, the belief in whether humans are causing climate change is strongly associated with US political party membership.
This is because we tend to adopt a common position on a topic to signal we are part of a group, just like football fans wear certain colours or have tattoos to show their tribal loyalty. Even strong individuals who stand up to oppressive regimes typically have shared ideals and norms with other members of a resistance movement.
This tribalism can all feel very visceral and natural because, well, in a way, it is. It fires up the primal parts of our brain designed for such responses. Yet, there are other natural attitudes, such as compassion and consideration for others, that can be suppressed in such circumstances. Imbalanced cultures produce imbalanced brains.
This combination of nature and nurture shaping our attitudes and behaviour is apparent in many human characteristics, and unpicking some of these examples can help us see opportunities to steer the process.
Consider the tendency to become overweight in modern society. In premodern times, sugary and fatty foods were rare and valuable for humans. Now, they are everywhere. A biological trait – the craving for sugary or fatty foods – which was adaptive in premodern times, has become detrimental and maladaptive.
Surely our modern cultures can protect us from these innate drives when they are unhealthy for ourselves and society? After all, we effectively suppress violent behaviour in society through the way we bring up children, policing and the prison system.
Instead of acknowledging and protecting us from the innate drive to binge on unhealthy food, however, our modern cultures (in many countries at least) actually exacerbate that particular problem. The result is 2 billion people – over a quarter of the world’s population – overweight or obese, while another 2 billion suffer some kind of micronutrient deficiency.
When we understand how our hardwired urges interact with an unhelpful cultural context, we can begin to design positive interventions. In the case of obesity, this might mean less junk food marketing and altering the composition of manufactured food. We can also change our own behaviour, for example laying down new routines and healthier eating habits.
Climate change could boost bigotry
But what about bigotry and xenophobia? Can’t we simply design the right fixes for them? That may depend on how big the problems we face in future are. For example, growing ecological crises – climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss – may actually lead to more bigoted and xenophobic attitudes.
Cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has shown how environmental shocks cause societies to become “tighter” – meaning the tendency to be loyal to the “in-group” gets stronger. Such societies are more likely to elect authoritarian leaders and to show prejudice towards outsiders.
This has been observed under past ecological threats such as resource scarcity and disease outbreaks, and under climate change scenarios we expect these threats, in particular extreme weather events and food insecurity, to only get worse. The same goes for the coronavirus pandemic. While many hope such outbreaks can lead to a better world, they could do exactly the opposite.
This enhanced loyalty to our local tribe is a defence mechanism that helped past human groups pull together and overcome hardship. But it is not beneficial in a globalised world, where ecological issues and our economies transcend national boundaries. In response to global issues, becoming bigoted, xenophobic and reducing cooperation with other countries will only make the impacts on own nations worse.
Back in 2001, a United Nations initiative called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment sought to take stock of global environmental trends and, crucially, to explore how these trends might unfold in future. One of the scenarios was called “Order from Strength” and represented “a regionalised and fragmented world that is concerned with security and protection … Nations see looking after their own interests as the best defence against economic insecurity, and the movement of goods, people, and information is strongly regulated and policed”.
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 is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and is author of a book about human interconnectedness and how this influences global environmental issues (THE SELF DELUSION) published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. He has received past research funding from UK research councils (NERC, BBSRC) and Natural England. Tom is currently on secondment with the UK government leading the design of their Defra Systems Research Programme.