Universities are some of the most conformist places on earth. The diversity on which they pride themselves applies only to skin color, not ideas. And yet, on many campuses, academics are quietly doing work that completely undermines some of America’s most cherished orthodoxies about human nature.
There is now a large body of research that completely undercuts the view that diversity of race, religion, or ethnicity is a strength. Studies on individuals have found unconscious processes deep in the brain that reflect an instinctive suspicion of people unlike ourselves. Studies of groups show that these instincts invariably lead to conflict at the societal level.
These findings are seldom publicized, and almost never drawn together into a coherent critique of government policy. However, taken as a whole, they are a devastating indictment of some of the most important choices our country has made over the last 50 years. Virtually every common assumption about race, integration, and the attempt to build a multi-racial society is at complete variance with the findings of modern social science.
This article will begin with a summary of what science tells us about the nature of individuals, and will conclude next month with findings at the group level.
Genetic Similarity Theory
There is a theoretical framework that explains ethnocentrism. As the Belgian authority on ethnic relations Pierre L. van den Berghe put it more than 25 years ago, “The degree of cooperation between organisms can be expected to be a direct function of the proportion of the genes they share; conversely, the degree of conflict between them is an inverse function of the proportion of shared genes.” (Emphasis in the original.) Prof. van den Bergh used the word “organisms” because he found this principle true in animals as well as people; there is cooperation between relatives and conflict between strangers. When there is great genetic distance between strangers—in the case of humans, when they are of different races—conflicts are sharper.
It is easy to understand the first part of Prof. van den Bergh’s proposition. People everywhere make great sacrifices for their families and close relatives. They do this instinctively, and the evolutionary explanation is that close relatives share many genes. Parents devote themselves to their children because children contain more copies of their distinctive genes than strangers do. So do brothers, cousins, and nieces. All forms of life can be viewed as striving to pass along their genes to future generations. Each individual therefore has a “genetic interest” in close relatives, which helps explain solidarity and cooperation.
The British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said jokingly in the 1930s, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” A sacrifice of this kind would be genetically neutral, because each brother would share half his distinctive genes while each cousin would share one eighth.
What about hostility to strangers? Much of our evolution as a distinct species took place before the invention of agriculture, during the millions of years our human and proto-human ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer bands. The members of small bands were usually related to each other, and it was important for them to cooperate and even sacrifice for each other. At the same time, strangers were potentially dangerous competitors for food and shelter. As Edward O. Wilson of Harvard has explained:
“The strongest evoker of aggressive response in animals is the sight of a stranger, especially a territorial intruder. This xenophobic principle has been documented in virtually every group of animals displaying higher forms of social organization.”
Groups that did not defend their territory against intruders were less likely to survive. “Our behavioral predisposition to ethnic nepotism evolved in the struggle for existence because it was rational and useful,” explains Finnish scholar Tatu Vanhanen. Today our lives are vastly different from those of hunter-gatherers, but research on human behavior suggests that the instincts we developed over millennia of small-band evolution have remained with us.
Many kinds of animal behavior can be explained by genetic similarity theory. It has been well established that animals have a preference for close kin, and study after study has shown that they have a remarkable ability to tell kin from strangers. Frogs lay eggs in bunches, but they can be separated and left to hatch individually. When tadpoles are then put into a tank, brothers and sisters cluster together rather than mix with tadpoles from different mothers. Even though they were hatched in isolation, the tadpoles can tell who their family members are.
Female Belding’s ground squirrels may mate with more than one male before they give birth, so a litter can be a mix of full siblings and half siblings. Somehow, they can tell each other apart. Full siblings cooperate more with each other than half-siblings, fight less, and are less likely to run each other out of the territory when they grow up.
Even bees know who their relatives are. In one experiment, bees were bred for 14 different degrees of relatedness—sisters, cousins, second cousins, etc.—to bees in a particular hive. When these bees were released near the hive, guard bees had to decide whom to let in. They distinguished between degrees of kinship with almost perfect accuracy, letting in the closest relatives and chasing away more distant kin. The correlation between relatedness and likelihood of being admitted was 0.93.
Ants are famous for their cooperation and willingness to sacrifice for the colony. This is due to a quirk in ant reproduction that means worker ants are 70 percent genetically identical to their sisters. But even among ants, there can be greater or less genetic diversity, and the most closely related groups of ants appear to cooperate best.
Linepithema humile is a tiny ant that originated in Argentina but has migrated as far north as the United States. Many ants died during the trip, and the species lost much of its genetic diversity. This made the northern branch of Linepithema humile more cooperative than the one left in Argentina, where different colonies quarrel and compete with each other. This new level of cooperation in has helped the invaders link nests into supercolonies and overwhelm local species of ants. American entomologists want to protect American ants, and may try to do so by making the newcomers more quarrelsome. “In the war against invasive species, introducing genetic diversity might sow discord and slow supercolonies,” explained a researcher from the University of California at San Diego.
Surprisingly, even plants cooperate with close kin and compete with strangers. Normally, when two plants are put in the same pot, they grow bigger root systems, trying to crowd each other out and get the most nutrients. Susan Dudley of McMaster University in Ontario found that a wild flower called the Sea Rocket, which grows on beaches, does not do that if the two plants come from the same mother. “Usually it’s a case of each plant for itself,” said Prof. Dudley, “but when plants recognize close kin they grow their roots more normally and do not engage in wasteful competition.” No one knows how plants recognize close kin.
Higher animals show the same tendencies. Chimpanzees are our nearest living relatives, and offer hints as to how our distant ancestors may have behaved. Chimps live in bands within territories, and show a ferocious in-group out-group consciousness of the kind described by Edward O. Wilson. It has long been known that males drive off intruders from other bands and kill their young if they catch them. Psychologists from St. Andrews University in Scotland, watching what is known as the Sonso community of chimps in Uganda, found that even females can be murderously territorial. On three occasions they saw females drive off invaders and kill their children. “We are very interested in keeping a close eye on levels of female aggression in the Sonso community, especially in the instances when new females attempt to immigrate,” said Simon Townsend, who lead the study group.
People often seem to behave according to genetic similarity theory, and the scholar who has probably written most extensively in this field is J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario. “Genetically similar people tend to seek one another out and to provide mutually supportive environments such as marriage, friendship, and social groups,” he has written. For example, spouses tend to resemble each other, not just in age, ethnicity, and education (r = 0.6) but in opinions and attitudes (r = 0.5), intelligence (r = 0.4), and even in such things as personality and physical traits (r = 0.2). Somewhat more surprisingly, they are also like each other in undesirable traits like aggressiveness, criminality, alcoholism, and mental disease. In fact, it is possible to predict how happy a couple is by knowing how similar they are. Best friends are as similar to each other and in the same ways as spouses. Likewise, in mixed families of adopted and natural children, the friends of biological siblings resemble each other more than do the friends of adopted siblings.
One of the classic examples of the extent to which people are attached to their own kin is the risk of violence children run when they live with a man who is not their biological father. A preschool-age child is 40 times more likely to be assaulted by a step parent than by a biological parent.
For people, the most obvious indicator of genetic similarity is appearance. People of the same race are always genetically closer to each other than to people of different races, and even within the same race, greater resemblance usually means genetic similarity. Appearance therefore becomes the most obvious indicator of genetic closeness.
Young children very quickly learn what race they are, and even three-month-old infants seem to prefer faces of their own race. In a joint British-Israeli study, babies sitting on their mothers’ laps were shown side-by-side photographs of white and back faces matched for attractiveness. How long a baby looks at something is considered an indication of preference, and white babies reared in a white environment looked at the white faces an average of 63 percent longer than they looked at the black faces. Black babies reared in Africa looked at the black faces 23 percent longer.
For adults, it is easer to tell people of their own race apart than to distinguish between people of other races. This difference is so well known that psychologists call it “the other-race effect.” In a 2006 confirmation of the effect, researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso showed subjects an equal number of photos of faces from their own race and from a different race. Some time later, they showed the subjects twice as many photos of people of both races—including the faces they had already seen—and asked which ones they had seen before. All subjects, whatever their race, made about 50 percent more mistakes with the faces of the race different from their own.
Prof. Edward Seidensticker, who taught Japanese at Columbia University, once overheard a conversation that hinted amusingly at the other race effect. He was touring one of the southern islands of Japan, where abut 1,000 monkeys live in the wild but are tame enough to be visited and observed by tourists. A guide mentioned that he could tell every one of the monkeys apart by sight. A skeptic in the crowd wanted to know how anyone could tell 1,000 monkeys part. “Oh, it’s very easy,” said the guide. “It’s like telling foreigners apart.”
Three-and-a-half-month-old infants already seem to exhibit the other-race effect. In a study at University of Kentucky, white babies were very good at telling apart faces with 100 percent Caucasian features from faces that had been graphically morphed to include features that were 70 percent white and 30 percent Asian. They couldn’t distinguish the reverse: They could not tell 100 percent Asian faces from those that were morphed to include 30 percent white features. In other words, they could detect small differences between white and not-quite-white faces, but not the same kinds of differences between Asian and not-quite-Asian faces.
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld of the University of Michigan did some of the pioneering work on how early in life children begin to understand race. He showed children of ages three, four, and seven, a picture of “Johnny:” a chubby black boy in a police uniform, complete with whistle and toy gun. He then showed them pictures of adults who shared two of Johnny’s three main traits of race, body build, and uniform. Prof. Hirschfeld prepared all combinations—policemen who were fat but were white, thin black policemen, etc.—and asked the children which was Johnny’s daddy or which was Johnny all grown up. Even the three-year-olds were significantly more likely to choose the black man rather than the fat man or the policeman. “They know, in other words, that weight and occupation can change but race can’t,” explained Prof. Hirschfeld. In 1996, after 15 years of studying children and race, he concluded: “Our minds seem to be organized in a way that makes thinking racially—thinking that the human world can be segmented into discrete racial populations—an almost automatic part of our mental repertoire.”
Pre-school children show racial preferences even when they have not been taught anything about race or had any experience with people of other races. An Australian study of four- and five-year-olds found that white children preferred to play with white dolls. They would not play with an Aboriginal doll; one child even said “It’s yuck, yucky. Put it back.” White children would not accept an Asian doll, either, with one saying it “could not be Australian.” It could be argued that these children simply picked up the unconscious prejudices of their parents, but it is also possible that their reactions reflect innate preferences.
By the time people are adults their perceptions of race are finely tuned. Stanford researchers have found that people can distinguish race from very minimal facial clues. They showed subjects just the front slices of plain, black profiles—the face from forehead to chin, without the hair. Subjects could tell the race of the profile (80 percent of the time) more often than they could tell the sex (70 percent), or the age within 10 years (68 percent). Race is commonly equated with skin color, but all the profiles were black. It is of obvious biological importance for adults to be able to tell the sexes apart, but they were even better at telling races apart.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used to determine that what is called the fusiform region of the brain may be associated with the other-race effect. The fusiform region is involved in expert appraisal. In a bird-watcher’s brain, for example, the region lights up at the sight of a bird. All people have considerable expertise in recognizing human faces, but MRI scans show greater fusiform activity when they are looking at faces of their own race. A test at Stanford University found this to be true for both blacks and whites. Test subjects showed more expert-appraisal brain activity when they looked at faces of their own race.
Genetic similarity theory would suggest that even among people of the same race, there is greater affinity for people who are physically similar. Lisa DeBruine of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has tested this several ways. In one study, she had subjects play a computer game with an unseen opponent whose face was projected on a screen. The players could trust each other and cooperate to win a large prize, or they could compete and win a small prize. When the face on the screen the player saw was a morphed version of his own face—with very similar features—he was more likely to be generous and cooperative. If the face on the screen did not look like him, the player was more likely to be suspicious and ungenerous. Prof. DeBruine interpreted this to mean that players instinctively trust people with traits that suggest they have close genetic ties.
In a different version of the same experiment, Prof. DeBruine asked students to choose from among photos of various faces the person they thought the most trustworthy. Again, unbeknownst to the student, one of the faces was a morphed version of his own face. That was the face the majority picked as most trust-worthy. “This supports the idea that people—perhaps unwittingly—detect facial resemblance,” said Prof. DeBruine. “It means to them, on some level, that this person is ‘family’ and they are more trusting of them.”
Pet owners even choose dogs that look like themselves. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that undergraduates could match photos of purebred dogs with their owners 64 percent of the time. “Like picking a spouse or a friend, you look for dogs who are like you,” said Nicholas Christenfeld, who led the study.
The trust and preference evoked by similar faces seems to be matched by wariness in the presence of strangers. Jennifer Richeson of Northwestern University has conducted experiments in which white subjects had to interact in some way with a white or a black man before taking a mental test. Those who dealt with the black man got lower scores, and their brain scans showed what Prof. Richeson called “heightened activity in areas of the brain associated with regulating our thoughts and emotions.” She interpreted this to mean that white subjects were struggling with the “awkwardness” or “exhaustion” of dealing with a black man, and that this interfered with their ability to take the mental test.
Researchers at Harvard and New York University found similar results. They had white and black subjects look repeatedly at a series of photographs of back and white faces, all with neutral expressions. Every time the subjects looked at one particular black face and one particular white face from the series they got a mild electric shock. Lie detector-type devices showed that subjects would sweat—a typical stress reaction—when they saw the two faces they associated with the shocks. The researchers showed the photo series several times again, but without the shocks. White subjects quickly stopped sweating when they saw the white face formerly associated with the shock, but continued to sweat when they saw the black face. Black subjects had the opposite reaction, continuing to sweat when they saw the white but not the black face. Mahzarin Banaji, the study’s leader, concluded that this was a sign of natural human wariness of unfamiliar groups.
MRI testing again shows what may be the underlying brain mechanism. The amygdalae are two primitive lobes of the brain that are involved in fear, arousal, and emotions. When they are active, it is thought to be a sign of vigilance, meaning that the brain is wary and wants more information. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that when subjects looked at photographs of faces—half were white, half were black—MRI scans found high amygdala activity. This was considered to be a normal reaction to unfamiliar faces. When the subjects looked at the photographs a second time the faces were more familiar; only the other-race faces continued to provoke high amygdala activity. This was true for both blacks and whites, and suggested that encounters with people of different races keep the brain at a higher level of watchfulness.
Such encounters may have other physiological effects. Wendy Berry Mendes at Harvard found that when subjects played a game with someone of another race, they showed physical signs of distress, such as lower cardiac efficiency and constricted arteries. They did not show these signs when they played with someone of their own race.
Reactions of this kind may explain why both black and white patients rate their doctors higher when they are of the same race. A Johns Hopkins study reported that “patient ratings of care and of doctors’ efforts to get the patient to participate in decisions were higher when both the doctor and patient were African American or both were white than when the doctor and patient had different backgrounds.”
A study at the University of Massachusetts found that certain emotions bring out negative stereotypes. Subjects first did a writing exercise designed to leave them feeling angry or sad or with no particular feeling. Then they read case histories of fictional criminal suspects and were asked whether the suspect was innocent or guilty. For some subjects, the name of the suspect was Juan Garcia; for others it was John Garner. Otherwise the case histories were identical. Whites who were left feeling angry by the writing exercise were more likely to think Juan Garcia was guilty. Those who were left sad or with no particular emotion showed no difference in their reaction to the two names. Similar tests have found that people who were feeling happy were more likely to find Juan Garcia guilty than those who were sad or feeling neutral.
Harvard researchers have designed a computer-based test that is supposed to detect racial prejudice. It begins very simply. When a black face appears on the screen the subject hits a key on the left, and when a white face appears he hits a key on the right. He distinguishes in the same way between a series of positive words like “glorious” and “wonderful,” and negative ones like “nasty” and “awful.” Then the test combines the two categories, and the subject hits the left key for either a white face or a positive word, and the right key for either a black face or a negative word. Finally, the combination is reversed, and the subject must hit one key when black faces or positive words appear, and the other key when white faces and negative words appear. Analysis of tens of thousands of tests shows that 88 percent of whites are better at associating white faces than black faces with positive words. (Interestingly, 48 percent of blacks are, too.) Many whites who believe themselves to be without bias are reportedly crushed by the results.
Steven Neuberg of Arizona State University has also done experiments that suggest instinctive bias, which he, too, attributes to evolution during our long, hunter-gatherer past. “By nature, people are group-living animals—a strategy that enhances individual survival and leads to what we might call a ‘tribal psychology’,” he says. “It was adaptive for our ancestors to be attuned to those outside the group who posed threats such as to physical security, health or economic resources, and to respond to these different kinds of threats in ways tailored to have a good chance of reducing them.”
A preference for one’s own kind runs very deep in human nature, and can assert itself in strong and even heart-breaking ways. Lowri Turner is a British woman whose second marriage was to a man from India. “I am white and I have two sons from my first marriage who are both milky complexioned and golden haired,” she wrote. She then explained how unprepared she was for the feelings she had when she had a mixed-race child with her new husband:
“[W]hen I turn to the mirror in my bedroom to admire us together, I am shocked. She seems so alien. With her long, dark eyelashes and shiny, dark brown hair, she doesn’t look anything like me. . . .
“I didn’t realise how much her looking different would matter and, on a rational level, I know it shouldn’t. But it does.
“Evolution demands that we have children to pass on our genes, hence the sense of pride and validation we get when we see our features reappearing in the next generation.
“With my daughter, I don’t have that. . . .
“I didn’t think of myself as racist and yet my daughter has shown me a side of myself about which I feel deeply uncomfortable.
“Even admitting to having mixed feelings about her not being blonde and blue eyed, I feel disloyal and incredibly guilty.”
An American woman who adopted a baby from India wrote of similar feelings:
“When I was trying to decide who and from where to adopt, I had a lot of questions about transracial adoptions, and most people responded to my curiosity with a subtle discomfort. I felt embarrassed voicing possible concerns to my liberal friends, because all of us were adamant that race made no difference to our choice of friends, lovers, or tiny babies up for adoption.
“I flew to Bombay and became a mother.
“Back home, after a couple of weeks had passed, I stared at Vaishali’s naked bottom—her darkest part—and tried to ignore the insistent whispers of fear. Instead of brimming with pride, I felt like a trespasser, performing ablutions on this private flesh with color so foreign from my own. It was one thing to swoon over her photographs for months, but now she was in my home; she was my family. How could this be my daughter? I looked at her and tried to find similarities between us, relieved that her hair was straight, her lips not too full. Just thinking these thoughts made me feel horribly ashamed. I tried to sort emotion from fact: was it the dark color of her skin that was making me uncomfortable, or just that she did not look like me? I ached to talk to someone about it, but I was too afraid people would disapprove, would doubt my ability to be a loving mother.”
Transracial adoption has long been controversial but not uncommon. By the mid-1970s, some 12,000 black American children were being adopted every year by whites. After 1972, such adoptions dropped sharply when the National Association of Black Social Workers denounced them as “cultural genocide.” Black-white adoptions increased after 1994, when Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act, forbidding agencies that receive federal assistance from denying an adoption for racial reasons. Nevertheless, the unspoken rule is still to try to place children with adoptive parents of the same race.
The urge to see oneself in one’s children is so strong it can take strange turns. At least a few fertility clinics are willing to help deaf people or dwarfs have children who are also deaf or are dwarfs. A technique known as embryo screening involves in vitro fertilization of a number of eggs and then comparison of the genetic characteristics of the resulting embryos before deciding which one to implant. With enough embryos to choose from, a parent can have what amounts to a custom-designed baby, who may be deaf or a dwarf. Cara Reynolds, a dwarf, was outraged by people who criticized deliberate selection for what most people consider a defect. “You cannot tell me that I cannot have a child who’s going to look like me,” Miss Reynolds said. “It’s just unbelievably presumptuous and they’re playing God.”
Identity is powerful. Humans have a deep-seated urge to be part of a group, and the groups with the greatest pull appear to be ones with which we share physical characteristics.
The Need for Racial Identity
It is common to assume that multi-racialism is inevitable, and that as races mix, racial identity will disappear. This may underestimate the importance of biological grouping. There is evidence that mixed-race people, far from moving freely in two groups, may be uncomfortable in both.
A report from Harvard may be typical. Paloma Zepeda, who is half-Mexican and half-Russian, said that she was not welcome at the campus Mexican-American group La Raza. She said people pointed and said, “Look, white people come to Raza.”
Yalun Tu, also mixed-race, told of going to meetings of Chinese students: “They would talk about how Chinese mothers are overbearing and strict. But my mother is Caucasian and relaxed, so I couldn’t empathize. . . . I just didn’t feel that communal bond that I think often binds these groups.”
Some mixed-race “outcasts,” as they sometimes call themselves, have started their own groups. At Harvard, the multiracial group is called ReMixed, at the University of California at Berkeley there is a Mixed Student Union, Brown has an Organization of Multiracial and Biracial Students, and Bryn Mawr has a club called Half and Half. Some campuses—Columbia, Cornell, and UCLA—use the word hapa, a Hawaiian word meaning “part,” “half,” or “mixed blood,” for clubs that are usually for students who are part Asian.
Even these groups are not always satisfactory. One student complained that the Harvard Hapa group concentrated on East Asian identity whereas she was half South Asian. She did not feel welcome in the regular South Asian group, either, where she had been cast to play a white person in a play. One journalist concluded: “Students do not seem to be learning to be more tolerant of people unlike them. They are demanding that they be surrounded and sheltered by people who are exactly like them.”
Americans prefer to think that the “tragic mulatto,” welcome in neither community, was either a myth or a reflection of outmoded racist thinking. Recent research suggests, however, that a distinct racial identity is valuable for children, and that people of mixed race may suffer because they do not have one.
Yoonsun Choi of the University of Chicago found that in Seattle middle schools, a single racial identity seems to protect against certain problems. Bi-racial children were 47 percent more likely than blacks to smoke and take drugs, 61 percent more likely than whites, and twice as likely as Asians. They were 2.7 times more likely than whites to have been in fights, and 2.9 times more likely to have threatened to stab someone. Mixed-race children held even with blacks in some kinds of violence, but were 64 percent more likely than blacks to have hurt someone badly, and 85 percent more likely to have carried a gun. Prof. Choi believes that mixed-race children suffer because they do not have a social group. In middle school and high school, she said, “some [racial] groups are very exclusive. Other children will push you out if you’re a racial combination. . . . There is some indication that a strong ethnic identity helps protect kids from these [undesirable] behaviors.”
Prof. Choi also argued that a strong immigrant identity keeps children out of trouble. According to her research, foreign-born children of all races—black, white, Asian, Hispanic—get into less trouble than American-born children of the same groups. She said black immigrants adopted the bad habits of native-born blacks most quickly, while Asians took the most generations to reach the levels of misbehavior of American-born Asians. Prof. Choi suggested immigrants should not hurry to assimilate: “Rapid assimilation, which used to be thought of as the answer, may not be. Nowadays there’s a shift in people keeping close connections to their country of origin. And at this point it seems like that’s protection.”
Lisa Kiang of Wake Forest University has also found value in a strong ethnic identity. She asked ninth graders to keep track of worrying events like exams and homework, and to record how they felt emotionally—whether they were happy, sad, nervous, etc. Her findings: “Adolescents with a high ethnic regard maintained a generally positive and happy attitude in the face of daily stressors and despite their anxious feelings. So, having positive feeling about one’s ethnic group appeared to provide an extra boost of positivity in individuals’ daily lives.” Prof. Kiang concluded that society should encourage strong ethnic identity, at least for Chinese and Mexicans, which were the two groups she studied.