Us and Them: The Sociobiology of Bias, Fear, and Hatred

Us and Them: The Sociobiology of Bias, Fear, and Hatred

David Katz 07/10/2019 5

I concur with the New York Times Editorialists who, among others, declared former President Obama’s speech in Dallas July, 2016 a rhetorical highpoint of a presidency rightly known for oratorical gifts. I could not hope to improve upon Obama’s words of wisdom, solidarity, compassion, and pain- and would not presume to try. But I brave an addendum just the same. Not by aiming higher, but lower; by digging deeper, through the sediment of shadows piled up over the ages. By seeking for bedrock.

Obama spoke of our divisions, and the paths to unity, in the context of our current culture. But that culture is a momentary thing, dating back mere decades to the earlier turmoil of the civil rights movement. Moreover, culture and civilization at large are just veneers, the stuff of only centuries, or at their furthest extent- several millennia. Like all such ephemeral matter, they stand on foundations of more enduring substance. Here, that foundation, the bedrock of who we are, is nothing we ourselves have devised, but rather biology, and what it has devised us to be.

Before ever we were nations and races, states and ideologies, cops and robbers and innocent bystanders - we were a species. We were a species first. And so it is that even what invites us to divide was endowed to us in common measure. Ironically, we seek for differences in all the same ways, and for all the same reasons.

Biology does not invite us to survive by doing what we love; rather, it teaches us to love doing what invites us to survive. We are here only for ancestors who learned just such lessons to the very depths of their transmissible DNA. Resistance to these dictates of brute biology are truly, ineluctably futile; the ultimate futility of obsolescence, impertinence, and extinction.

We are here because we adapted to survive here. We are here because we are programmed to persevere here. What does that imply?

For one, worrisome thing, it implies a certain ruthlessness. It implies that insular tendency to distinguish us from them. It implies the proclivity to guard our territory, and food, and access to mates. It insinuates a defensive xenophobia.

But more encouragingly, it implies our social nature, too. As E.O. Wilson, among others, tells it- we are the dominant species on the planet because we are social. No successful Homo sapien is an island, nor ever was. We have overcome other creatures far better endowed with tooth and claw, strength and speed, because we are better at unity. We are better at it to the depths of our DNA. Surely, roiling from divisions, there is the very essence of hope in that.

In my prior column, I had cause to observe, through the relatively narrow lens of dietary priorities for health, that we Homo sapiens are a species. I have cause to observe that again, through the far wider lens of cultural turmoil. In my world- public health- the great challenge of our time is getting past the adaptations that favored our survival in all times prior. I am inclined to think the same pertains to the social upheaval of these past weeks.

Like you, I have seen a lot of commentary about the shootings of both black men, and then, police, in egregiously misguided retaliation- but thus far, nothing that has asked, and answered: why are human beings prone to this kind of violence in the first place? And if the answer to that is obvious- bias, fear, and hatred- then it merely begs a second question: why are human beings prone to prejudice, and that toxic brew?

I believe the answer is clear, and derives from sociology, anthropology, and ultimately, biology. I believe the answer is survival. I believe the answer is: that’s why we’re here.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, Guns, Germs, and Steel- Jared Diamond describes how white Europeans achieved a degree of dominion over black Africans, and other indigenous populations around the world. The story is a profound indictment of any kind of manifest destiny. Quite the contrary, it invites one to think in terms of trivialities, like those of the children’s game, Rock, Paper, Scissors.

If, for instance, a tribe of paper people were to encounter a tribe of rock people, they would overcome them- and perhaps derive the impression that they were, accordingly, superior. On the other hand, if that same tribe of paper happened to encounter a tribe of scissors, they, in turn, would be overcome. And yet, circuitously- the tribe of rock is natively disposed to overcome the tribe of scissors.

There is, in other words, nothing at all hierarchical in these contests. There is nothing vaguely related to superiority. The outcome is a matter of context, and capricious circumstance. All human interaction is much the same. There is no superiority. There are differing circumstances which accord one group, or the other, the upper hand. Superiority is an illusion, born of little more than serendipity.

But what a portentous illusion it proves to be. All of human history has soaked in the blood, sweat, and tears of that illusion. All of human history is a pockmarked expanse of subjugation by those wielding the upper hand, of all others, propagating just such consequences. It calls us to a common inquiry. Are we, beneath our civilized veneer, willing to be so subjugated by the indiscriminate discriminations of brute biology? For that, at bedrock, beneath layers of sediment and ages of shadow, is just where we find ourselves.  

Across every version of us and them- cops, and citizens; black and white; catholic and protestant; Israeli and Palestinian; Sunni and Shia- we are biologically conjoined. We are members of a single species, and thus, a single extended family. There is no them; there has only, ever, been us.

Paradoxically, this common human experience suffuses the basic biology of bias that blinds us to these family ties. Survival in a natural world propagates xenophobia because, all but inevitably, any group of other animals is apt to want what we have. As a result, we are all programmed to look for differences and be suspicious of them. We are programmed to circle our wagons since long before the invention of the wheel, and define the space within as us, the space without as…them.

Unless we acknowledge this tendency, we remain vulnerable to it. It is by knowing that we look for differences, that they evoke our primitive anxiety, that we acquire the capacity to overcome the inclination.

Our current crisis can readily seem to be about skin pigment, but of course there is really nothing all that special about melanin. Any discernible difference will do: skin tone works well for dividing us, but so does clothing, perhaps especially headwear; so, too, do accents or ethnicities; religion or region; or even, just a name: Capulet, and Montague, for instance. Or, more parochially, Hatfield and McCoy. We have always found a reason to devolve from us, into us, and them.

Skin pigment, in fact, is a singularly poor excuse for it, given the avidity with which those sporting pallor seek to remediate it through the advent of tanning. How can we at once both harbor prejudice against skin pigment, yet seek it so ardently we are willing to risk our health for the sake of it? If ever there was much ado about nothing, this must be its very essence.

But there is something here just the same. A convenient excuse to differentiate. That’s all that is ever required.

There is no meaningful, native difference between “black” and “white,” both just variations on a common interaction with light- until we decide to react as if there is.

But then, contrived differences follow- born of socioeconomics.   If a group is oppressed by another, their circumstances change- and the division between them is considerably deeper than skin. Differences in skin pigment are inconsequential. What comes to matter is differences in daily experiences that widen the gap between the groups, and propagate further misunderstanding. Differences like what to expect at a seemingly trivial traffic stop.

Which leads us directly to the matter of profiling. When we speak about police profiling, it is an objectionable thing, and rightly so. But we Homo sapiens are all profilers. We survive, and have always survived, by looking for patterns in the world around us. Looking for patterns is built into the hard wiring of our brains. To some extent it is our perception of patterns that invites anticipation. We expect things to be as they have been before. That is the value of patterns; but it is also the peril. Because closely allied to patterns, and the perception of them, is the risk of prejudice. Anticipation of what may happen, and prejudicial reaction to it before ever it does happen, are separated by a sliver.

The causal pathway of our current crisis is clear enough. Native xenophobia made skin pigment seem to matter. Circumstance gave pallor the upper hand. The upper hand was used to perpetrate abuses. Abuses begot disadvantage, and resentment. Those, in turn, begot a greater disposition to crime and violence, directed internally and out, born of desperation. The perpetration of violence begot the anticipation of violence. The anticipation of violence begot fear of it. Fear begot preemptive violence. And preemptive violence begot more reactive violence. And here we all are, spattered by separate sources of our common blood.

But there is really little novelty in it. The only novelty is that it is now, and us. We are natively programmed to seek for patterns of comfort and discomfort; inclusion and exclusion; unity, and division. Our modern understanding now goads us to acknowledge how readily we become complicit in creating the very patterns we are primitively programmed to seek.

We cannot hope to change our nature if we do not understand it. We cannot understand the nature of humanity without understanding the origins of humanity in nature. Biology, and the imperatives of survival, set this all in motion. We can take the wheel, but only if we know we are on the bus. In the monumentally influential juxtaposition of memes and genes, biology and culture at the conclusion of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins was saying much the same.

Barack Obama said in Dallas of those who sow hatred and division that they will not drive “us” apart. That is the crucial aspiration, but it is contingent. It is contingent upon the recognition that we are, indeed, just us- and not, already, us and them.

The very biology that defines us as one species first gave us cause to find so many routes to division and discord. The wedge that threatens to drive us apart was driven first by biology and the imperatives of survival before ever it was driven further by racists and bigots of every description. To repudiate and resist the efforts of the latter, we must recognize the former. Being “us” is a choice, a decision, and not necessarily an easy one. It is a decision that supplants those blind, biological imperatives with a modern, civilized vision of how the world might be.

The simple fact is that, by its very character, “us” cannot be driven apart, for “us” is a state of unity. We have an informed decision to make. We have long been both “us,” and “them.” Are we now able, willing, and ready- to be just “us”?

Perhaps it is the ultimate test of the human mind and human character, to move past the looking over of surfaces, to understanding at depth. Perhaps the ultimate test of human nature is to move beyond the survival imperatives nature endowed to us. For now the outcome of the test is uncertain. All we can say for sure is that we are being tested, and all together.

There is hope in the challenge of it. Human nature, and nature itself; the memes of culture and the genes of our ancient ancestry, converge to offer us a rarefied chance. For all of these allow for social cohesion at any level we choose to define as “us.”

But there is, as well, challenge to the hope of it- for only an informed choice will do. To overcome, we must first understand.

We are part of a 21st century culture that has put footprints on the moon and placed a ship in orbit around Jupiter. And yet, more of our population believes in angels than evolution. Ironically, our best destiny has something to do with both. For the better angels of our nature to prevail, we must move past the choices made for us long ago by nature. We must choose to decide for ourselves. We must choose to evolve.

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  • Gary Thompson

    I don't understand why we keep on fighting each other

  • Simon Webb

    It's fair to say we are the worse specie God has ever created

  • Nathan Etheridge

    I prefer to live with animals rather than argue with people over ideologies

  • David Brown

    We live in a fear-driven society.

  • Marc Woodward

    Irrational politicians take a small grain of truth and blow it way out of proportion.

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David Katz

Healthcare Expert

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.

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