A new study finds that racism is a product of human evolution, although it is not programmed into the brain. This means that prejudice towards people of other races can be changed.
The research suggests that the tendency to notice someone?s skin color emerged for one reason: to detect shifting coalitions and alliances. Visual cues let people know which side a stranger was on and would have been important in hunter-gatherer societies.
Earlier studies suggested that human brains notice three main characteristics of a person on the first meeting: sex, age and race. But this new research shows that skin color is less important than scientists and psychologists originally thought.
Scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara say that while instinctive categorization exists for sex and age, there would have been no evolutionary benefit for ancient humans to have singled out people solely by the color of their skin. This is because hunter-gatherers would rarely have traveled far enough to meet humans who were strikingly different from themselves.
Instead, these researchers say that our ancestors were wired by evolution to detect members of their groups by taking note of any available visual marker. Recognizing whether someone was a friend or foe would have been a valuable survival tactic.
The UCSB scientists developed their new theory after a series of tests in which the methods people used to detect rivalries or allegiances were studied. These included dressing different races in different groups in the same colored shirts to see if race was a factor in deciding who was considered to be a group member and who was not. They found that when groups were of mixed race, observers tended to notice racial identity less than other factors. This led them to conclude that race was merely one of many possible traits that could represent inclusiveness.
Researcher Robert Kurzban says the discoveries raise hopes that children can be encouraged not to see race as a major factor in judging others. ?Racism has to do with categorizing someone as a member of a certain race or group; if you can prevent the categorization in the first place then that ought to prevent… stereotypes,? he says.
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