The Racist Inside Us, An Evolutionary Perspective

By Bill Portella

Out of three-billion sequenced DNA codes in the human genome, chimpanzees share 99% of our hieroglyphs letter for letter. Would eyebrows then heighten to consider that we are overwhelmingly chimpanzee-like? Because we are. Biologically. To observe chimpanzees is to travel back in time four-million years to when our ancestors were starting to walk upright but did not yet possess our larger-outer cerebral neocortex. The newest, uppermost portion of our brains expanded two million years ago. Toss an extra bit of neocortex onto a great ape, and you’re perilously close to becoming a Homo genus species—like us. In chimpanzee communities, male war bands patrol the outer reaches of territory, while mothers with young generally cluster within protected, central locations. As Jane Goodall recounts in The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, a community weakened by the loss of protective males can fall prey to neighboring clans and be systematically exterminated. Clans, tribes, peoples, species. Like any other mammal, chimpanzees guard against superior, deadly predators. Yet over eons, their most fearsome challenges come from hostile communities that murder males and absorb desirable females. Lions or hyenas specialize in picking off lone mammals. But warring chimpanzees may chillingly erase or consume an entire community over time. And this is where our story about prejudice and racism begins.
A racist is defined as “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” For that relatively small cadre of people who outwardly identify with extremist organizations, any of us could cast the first stone and declare them racists without a second thought. Many people believe hate must be taught. The “nurture” folks have it that human behaviors spawn from emotional blank canvasses, waiting to be sketched in total, by their environment. Good families, from moral cultures, produce children without hate or prejudice. Bad upbringings or societies foster mistrust and ethnocentrism. We humans are programmed to spot everyone else’s biases, except our own. Aren’t these notions just one more way to discriminate against people from different backgrounds? It’s okay. Millions of years of finely-honed neural networks have designed us to harbor contentious thoughts against people who aren’t precisely… like us. Our default thought patterns are biased and self-centered.
What if we didn’t identify with a racist group, but instead, on average, only associated with people of our own race, religion, or cultural background? If whisked away to an exotic continent and surrounded by throngs of foreigners practicing a different creed or not speaking our language—suppose we were to become uncomfortable or anxious. Would we be racists? Anthropological studies show that people interacting with images depicting other ethnic groups display physiological indicators of fear and anxiety. Important to note, responses to pictures of people in out-groups (people with perceived cultural differences) are often subliminal. And this phenomenon is especially distinctive when cataloging a subject’s reactions to out-group males. In contrast, we tend to have reduced, visceral reactions when encountering out-group women. Regardless of how unbiased we proclaim we are—residual thought patterns (nature), play a significant role in fashioning our interactions with people from outside our established clans.
Of the eight million animal species on our planet, most display an inherent distrust of any creature that is not a mate, offspring, or group member. In some social families such as elephants, cetaceans (whales, dolphins), wolves, and primates (monkeys, apes, humans), kin relationships also receive special accepted status. But why then, should humans act apart from the other eight million animal groups? Some of our three-billion DNA snippets are nearly four billion years old. Layers of instructions build instinctive, thought networks handed down through our previous incarnations. Charles Darwin’s observations on natural selection predict that creatures not protecting both themselves and their offspring become extinct. Evolution is a numbers racket. Increasing populations are better, decreasing communities are worse, and once a species reaches zero individuals, they are kicked off the universal game board forever. 99-percent of earthly species or five-billion unique lifeforms have perished. In the wild, to trust—is to open oneself up for having a bad day, including possible annihilation. Prejudice comes with good evolutionary reasons.
Our lineage Homo sapiens is descendant from three more recent ancestries: mammals, primates, and hominids (great apes). There are several dozen human-like relations whose fossils reside across an epoch spanning between 4-million and 50-thousand years in the past. The Australopithecus families are distinctly intermediate between great apes and the dozen or so Homo species such as Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals), and ourselves. Of all our closer relations to have been discovered thus far, we are the only surviving species. Humans with less recent African ancestry (from European and Asian origins) carry up to 5% of our genes from Neanderthal lines. I sometimes guardedly reveal to the uninitiated, how all humans originated in Africa. Even more startling to people is that there exists more genetic diversity between the several distinct black African peoples than there is between the African, European, Asian, and Island races. Returning to the Neanderthals, did we exterminate them or assimilate them, or both? And as we approached becoming a single, interbreeding species, we may have replaced or consumed tens or hundreds of hominid species, ethnicities, and cultures. Our evolutionary history suggests that if our ancestors were not wary of foreign out-groups, we might have ended up along with the deposed 99-percent. 5,000,000,000 species—gone.
Why are we wired to be so suspicious of out-group males? Male animals follow instinctive directives to find mates, mate with many females when possible, and then abruptly leave the family unit forever. While many females also jettison eggs or young quickly, in mammals and birds, mothers often manage mates or social systems to acquire additional resources to raise young successfully. Because males compete with one another for mating privileges, Darwin’s sexual selection sculpts sexual dimorphism or physical and instinctual differences between genders. In mammals—usually, larger, more combative males counterpoint with smaller, nurturing females. No one would bat an eye describing males of virtually any species displaying reckless and contentious behaviors. Males are built and programmed differently. Humans are not unique. Throughout recorded history, tales of savage bands of female brigands roaming, pillaging, and plundering are rare. Sexual dimorphism. There has always been good reason to fear men, especially when they aren’t from our clan (ethnicity or nation)—this is, in effect, our customary mental setting.
As we look back on the last decade: #BlackLivesMatter, the killing of unarmed blacks (usually men) by law enforcement, and the mass incarceration of minorities (again, usually men) for low-level cannabis-related crimes, we notice institutionalized racism—unquestionably. With 14% of the U.S. population, black Americans make up nearly 40% of our prison population. We fear out-group men. But none of this would be surprising to anyone versed in Darwin’s evolution. Did we think that “liberalized” schooling and writing in select localities would erase 4-billion years of DNA engineering? Our core neural patterns are over 250-million years in age. In his groundbreaking treatise The Triune Brain in Evolution, neuroscientist Paul Maclean presented an insightful premise that primate brains such as ours layer upward through two previous incarnations of ancient vertebrate thought-processing. Discrimination is part of our make-up. It comes from very deep in our triune minds. Just above our spinal brainstem lies our reptilian or R-complex. This lowest of three primary brain centers was built as the earliest fish, amphibians, and reptiles hunted for food, found mates, avoided predators, and established power hierarchies. Less so with fish and amphibians, reptiles create rigid pecking orders where subordinates acquiesce to larger, stronger, or more pugnacious members of their same species. Usually, adult males clash with males, while females engage other females for dominance. We notice similar patterns of behavior in every human culture.
Above our R-complex lie the limbic system and newest, outer neocortex. These two processing hubs are decidedly more advanced in mammals. Surprisingly though, many documented cases of genetic or injury-related brain abnormalities show that humans with severe damage to their cerebral cortex (up to 70%), can still maintain functional lives as they hold jobs, marry, and have children. Many of our drives then orchestrate from the two bottom-most areas of our early-mammalian gray matter (neural cells). In social mammals like wolves, horses, whales, elephants, and primates, the enlarged neocortex allowed new reflective patterns to regulate complex interactions between herd mates or clan members (the social brain hypothesis). Our cerebrum is primarily designed to work out issues with our OWN species. But our reptilian R-complexes and limbic systems still function to protect us from challenges arising from any quarter, and importantly, from hierarchal cohorts (family, work, society). The lower the programming level, the more ingrained the neural patterns, the more resistant to alterations. For example, few of us can even slightly alter our breath-rates, heartbeats, or digestive smooth-muscle pulsations. But we also encounter difficulty moderating protective instincts arising from the lower two areas of our triune brains. Our neocortex and environmental experiences (nurture) are indeed capable of modulating impulses from our hind and midbrains—but not always.
Incarceration statistics reveal that men overwhelmingly commit violent crimes at rates ten times those of women. Taking into account racial biases of juries and legal systems, incidences of rape and sexual assault also tilt towards perpetrators being men (even in countries with more homogenous racial populations). We fear men with good reason. Male brains are particular (nature, not nurture). But so are women’s. The newest research clarifies that 250-million-year-old neural disparities shape subtle, yet distinctive inclinations between men and women—just as in the other 6,000 species of mammals. Women show more empathy and enhanced affinities for communication. These tendencies show up not only across behaviors but also in the literal gray and white matter density and distributions in our brains. Male thinking patterns and gray matter are weighted slightly into the lower two areas of the triune brain. At the same time, women often display more processing in the outer neocortex and regions associated with language. How do brain differences between genders affect our preconceptions concerning ethnic out-groups?
Men suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at four times the rate of women. ASD is now broadly defined as behaviors revolving around lack of communicative skills, preoccupation with things instead of people and relationships, behavioral inflexibility, and problems with empathy and socialization. Darwin’s sexual selection acted on males to enhance the combative skills needed to garner mates and father additional offspring. Nurturing, less-bellicose males left behind fewer offspring. Changes to instinctual drives in men (if any) may have only come about with the arrival of humans proper, which accounts for a paltry .08 percent of our reptilian-mammalian, evolutionary history. Men’s minds are overly-occupied with things, processes, and hierarchal power intrigues. Unlike most females, males are prone to solve dilemmas by escalating into physical or confrontational coping strategies. Male emotional programming responds rapidly and significantly to “being bested” in confrontations with other males or within group-dominance echelons.
In contrast, female mammals, including women, are predisposed to care for the offspring they always know are theirs (paternity surety), while thoughtfully considering all potential threats to themselves and their young. In carefully designed tests, women show empathy to other living beings at rates exceeding those found in most men. Females must somehow negotiate care and protection from mates (like the socially monogamous bird matrons) or from social enclaves, as do the matriarchal elephants. With recent world divorce rates doubling, and despite pseudo-appearances to the contrary, humans may not be optimally programmed to exist in long-term, monogamous relationships. Women must systematically consider all potential options to enhance their welfare. Women display memory patterns more vividly shaped by emotional encounters, as throughout time, females ALWAYS need to carefully gauge social interactions to avoid the devastating effects of violence and mayhem on their kin. The evolutionary instincts for performing constant emotional analysis of surrounding circumstances still manifest onto women who suffer from severe depression at twice the rate of men.
Our triune brains know that men are deadlier than women. And both genders harbor core impulses to adhere to a chosen clan’s cultural norms (ethnic, economic class, cultural, etc.) We seek societal validation for lifestyles reinforcing our particular belief systems. Out-group peoples, rituals, or customs present existential threats to our wellbeing. Using simple, but no less powerful Darwinian axioms, we subliminally lump potentially competing tribes into two crucial, evolutionary bins—friends or foes. In the distant past, our ancestors didn’t have the time to carefully winnow allies from adversaries. Concretely, ONLY a single hominin species (human-like) made it out of the Pleistocene epoch 12 thousand years ago. Why then wouldn’t we maintain well-proven sentiments to be watchful of “foreign” peoples and their men?
Racist fears in each of us are predicted by evolutionary causality. And of course, we ALL feel more comfortable amongst our kin, and with people who share our cultural norms. Prejudice is not all about nurture and our upbringing. The instinctual behaviors of the other eight million animal species must be ignored entirely to arrive at such a scientifically indefensible conclusion. Rich people are just as racist as are the working-class folks doing societies’ heavy lifting. We don’t just “teach children how to hate.” Our inherent predispositions lean toward suspicion of outsiders and maintaining our status quo. Emotions in socially advanced mammals evolved to keep us alive. We now realize that many other mammals use emotional algorithms (neural programs) to help process complex survival outcomes with same species cohorts. Our intellect, helps us improvise fewer basic strategies, like those originating from our hind and midbrains. But we all don’t reconcile these complicated thought patterns in the same manner. Humans and our brains are highly variable. And fearful. These crucial aspects allowed us to survive the last few million years, while all our human-like kin perished. But, before we uproot racist behaviors, we must first understand who we are and how we arrived here.

Bill Portella – Author’s statement: “I have engaged students in instruction at every fundamental learning level in Maine to include elementary, middle, high school, and university I am a Maine certified science teacher, wildlife rehabilitator, and breeder of draft horses. The manuscript from which this article derives serves as the basis for evolutionary seminars at the University of Maine.”