There is a quote I like from my animal behavior textbook that reads, “The pervasive effects of our cultures on our behavior obviously make it especially challenging to apply evolutionary theory to the human species. But because human cultures are the product of an evolved brain, it seems highly likely that an understanding of our evolution would cast light on why we do what we do” (Alcock). I like this quotation because I do think a small percentage of why we behave the way we do can actually be traced back to evolution, though I also believe there are many things that are definitely learned behaviors. Nevertheless, I am beginning to think that maybe the issues of race and ethnicity are a tad more instinctive than I had previously thought.
During Neanderthal times, humans had to stick together in order to survive. Our species survival in many cases depended on the hard work of the family group (hunting, gathering, protecting, navigating, etc.) In many cases, these groups would consist of mainly extended family members, so assimilating and forming troops with those that looked similar to you makes sense, because normally they were distantly related. However, I would imagine problems would arise when two groups came into contact with each other for the sole reason that they would be competing for the same resources. The issue then would be making sure that the other group was not related to you as well, before things got violent and one group was forced to fight or flee. But during these times, I would imagine populations were pretty spread out and there was little contact between family groups. However, as time progressed and people of different cultures began coming in contact with each other, I believe a sort of survival-racism came into play. When two groups of people that looked very different from each other stumbled upon each other, there was no longer the question of whether or not they were related. Now, they each were clearly a potential threat to the survival of the other group. Therefore, I do not believe that race or ethnicity are solely socially-constructed terms. Furthermore, I reject the argument some have proposed that people would not judge others based on appearance if the words race or ethnicity were never invented. Instead, I think humans since the beginning of our existence have always judged those that looked and acted differently from them because early on, different people were perceived as a threat to the survival of a group. Now, I am not arguing that racism is absolutely instinctive either or that society cannot overcome it. The beauty of the human species is that we are a species of great intellect and have the ability to combat instinct; the question should really be whether or not we have the will.
In a book I recently finished cleverly titled, I Can Read You Like a Book, authors Gregory Hartley and Maryann Karinch discuss non-verbal behavior and simple cues everyone can read to better interpret the real messages people are sending. An example I find very interesting is one Hartley states as a tactic he uses when interrogating two criminals who claim to not know each other. Therefore, one can infer that even if both criminals recognize each other, they are consciously trying to behave like they do not in order to support their stories. Yet, there is one facial movement that is very difficult to suppress and it revolves around the eye brows.
I encourage you to try this next time you are walking through an area where there is someone you will see and know. The moment you see a familiar face, upon the initial realization, your eyebrows will raise slightly even if just for a split second. Yet, this behavior does not occur with strangers. Therefore, it is a good indicator when bringing together two criminals who claim not to know each other to watch their immediate eyebrow reaction. If no reaction, they are probably telling the truth. If the eyebrows raise, then a red flag should go up because they probably know each other and are lying. But what does this example have to do with race and ethnicity?
This example simply shows that though humans have certain behaviors that are acquired through learning in their environment, there are still some ultimate behaviors that are instinctual and difficult to suppress no matter how hard a person tries. These instinctual behaviors exist in modern humans and cannot be consciously controlled without great effort. I believe a similar deeply ingrained instinctual tendency occurs in humans in regard to racial association: Humans like to associate with other humans of the same race. It’s only when these associations become exclusionary that we have racism.
With that said, there are indeed traits in humans that are not adaptive. An adaptive trait would be something that helps sexual reproduction and ultimately the overall fitness of a species. But for instance, the use of birth control, circumcision, or not eating certain foods (that are perfectly alright when consumed by others) based solely on religious views would not really advance a person’s fitness. Therefore, I would submit that these non-adaptive traits would best be described as “ethnicity”. Your race is not something you can choose to be or not because it is your biological make-up. Ethnic and culturally driven behaviors can be changed at will. For instance, you can learn the customs or language of a certain ethnicity and you can practice their traditions. You can then adapt to whatever ethnicity you would like to be classified in, no matter what race you are.
Therefore, I believe evolution can provide an explanation for race but not for ethnicity, because they are different. Race, to me, is the biological, adaptive composition of the human where as I believe ethnicity is the cultural aspect.
Strangely enough though, race cannot be determined through genetics, even though I am referring to race as a person’s biological composition. You cannot measure someone’s genes and expect to find a certain gene that only African Americans have. Even sickle cell anemia, a major problem for blacks, for example, shows up occasionally outside the black community. An interesting statement I found on the Radford college website said that “there is no genetic basis for mutually exclusive racial categories, simply because features and characteristics are distributed along a continuous distribution.” It further stated that the Human Genome Project found that there is actually more variation within a group than between groups and that seventy five percent of all known genes are present in all people and the remaining twenty five percent differ in forms, but all forms are found in all groups of people. It turns out that the same way our ancestors determined race hundreds of years ago is actually the same way we determine it today, through physical appearance.
Ethnicity, on the other hand, I believe to be different. Since I think people can choose their ethnicity, I think there is a higher sense of comradery for people of the same ethnicity. I read a story in The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States that spoke of a girl from Korean parents who was adopted and raised by an Italian family. The girl was racially categorized as Asian, but she identified her ethnicity as Italian because she spoke Italian, ate Italian food and did not know anything about Korean culture or practices. This choice of where you want to fit in ethnically is why I think people seem more proud of their ethnicity than their race. This choice might also be why the terms ethnicity and race are used so interchangeably in today’s society and why they can be so confusing when addressed.
As I was growing up, we always had house guests from far away countries. At an early age, my brother and I were surrounded by wonderful people who looked different and spoke different languages. In fact, I may have tied race and ethnicity to foods (e.g. Mexicans made great enchiladas, Asians made sushi, Greeks made great hummus, etc…) so I learned to appreciate other cultures and races thanks to the wonderful dinners associated with those visits.
Come to think of it, race was never really a hot issue in our household. As a child, I played with black-skinned dolls because I thought the facial color was prettier. My parents probably said “everyone looks different, we are all the same species, it is just skin color, but more importantly have you seen the new National Geographic issue yet”? Race was not something that needed to be discussed because it just existed. There are dozens of different dog breeds though they are the same species. No one breed is better than the other and a good dog depends on the individual. As well, I learned that species looked different because some of those traits were beneficial to the environment that the animal inhabited. Therefore, it made sense that people looked different for similar reasons. This does not imply that a certain bee species with an elaborate dance for finding food is any more sophisticated than a bee species without a dance. It simply means that different species evolved different traits and behaviors that were beneficial enough to get the individuals and their offspring to where they are today. This may sound like a languid endeavor, but when considering that 99.9 percent of all species have gone extinct on this planet, being alive today is a big deal and all the organisms you see alive today are the surviving .1 percent! Therefore, everything alive today has earned its place on this Earth and it probably has a lot to do with the physical differences of certain species that gave them a benefit over their competitors. As a result, the human species that exists today was spread throughout the land masses of this planet and the people alive today are here because they adapted physical and mental capabilities that allowed them to excel against others in shared environments. Therefore, differences should not only be encouraged, they should be celebrated! Physical attributes should be more like trophies than inhibiting factors because it might have been the specific shade of their skin that protected their pigment from cancerous cells derived from the suns harmful rays. Anyone with that characteristic should be proud to sport it because it may indeed be the sole reason you are here today.
With that kind of mentality, my experience with race and ethnicity has been pretty uneventful. I have never gotten in a big disagreement with someone of another race over racial differences or preconceived notions. Though I am sure I consciously notice the color of someone’s skin upon meeting them and I probably categorize them in some way subconsciously, I really think that is as far as my racial profiling goes. If someone rubs me the wrong way, it is because I disagree with the individual, not the race.
This past summer I had the opportunity to backpack in Belize for a month and a half and study the different ethnicities there. Everyone I met in that country was unbelievably friendly and it was amazing how different native Belizean’s look from each other. There are five cultural groups in Belize (Mayans, Garifuna, Mestizo, Mennonite, and Creole). Mayans look Mexican, Garifunas look Sudanese, Mestizos look Spanish, Mennonites look and dress like white Amish people I’ve seen in Central New York, and Creole’s look like light-skinned African Americans. Yet all of these people are Belizean. Their ethnicity is Mayan, Garifuna, etc…but their race would be very hard to pinpoint. It seems our society has decided you are Latin American, Asian, Native American, white or black and everyone must just squeeze themselves into one of these categories. But, that is not the case and I cannot imagine how frustrating it would be to choose a race you didn’t identify with, but perhaps resembled, so you could fill out some Government paperwork.
After all, it is these physical differences that allowed these different groups of humans to out-compete other groups consuming their resources. People look different because traits evolved throughout our existence that allowed our ancestors with those distinguishing features that are still present today to benefit and survive. These differences bring together the most fit of our species to comprise homosapiens.
As a species, I think we have a lot to be proud of. The latest medical achievement that I am excited about is the successful regeneration of a human thumb! Can you imagine the possibilities if we can regenerate any organ, limb, etc… Our species has even found a way to clone ourselves! We invented cars and planes as a more efficient way to motor around and now that we are finding the problems that these fossil fuel emissions are causing for the environment, we are actually finding alternative methods to not only stop but fix the problems we have caused.
It bothers me that as the human race we have achieved so much, yet when we are broken down into sub-categories, especially categories as simple as skin color, suddenly we have problems accomplishing anything. I cannot believe that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan still exist! Are people really still showing up? I have trouble viewing anyone who would be that concerned with the color of someone else’s skin as being a modern human. If aliens beamed down from space and watched how some races treat other races, they might ask if all people on earth were of the same species. I might tell the space visitors that in spite of the way some races treat others we are all homosapiens, but that some of us are still driven more by primitive instinct than by common sense and intellect.
It is such a set-back when one looks at the beauty of the human species and all that we are capable of. I think of all the achievements that individuals have made through out our existence as a species and the compassion and love we can transmit to others. However, we are still capable of such bitterness and hostility to those who can differ from us in something as simple as skin color. The fact that discrimination still exists today is a sickening stumble on the walk to bettering our race, the human race. Yet, it seems the conception of this “human race” is a revolutionary idea that only one racial sub-group seems to fit…the whites.
I do believe that education is the key to ending the negativity surrounding race and ethnicity in the United States. Henry Steele Commager once said that “change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change. Education is essential to change, for education creates both new wants and the ability to satisfy them.” I hope that by this point, at the very least society has made it not as socially acceptable to be hostile to differences in race and ethnicity, but I believe it is the role of education to provide solutions to fixing the problems. This may sound like an impossible mission for the few that are up to the task in relation to the world as a whole, but there is a quote from Margaret Mead that I try to apply to every aspect of my life for motivation. She said to “never believe that a few, caring individuals cannot change the world. For indeed, that is all who ever have.” Indeed, time will tell.
Alcock, John. Animal Behavior. Eighth Edition. Sinauer Assoc., 2005.
Commager, Henry Steele.
Ferrante, Joan and Brown, Prince Jr., eds. The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2001.
Hartley, Gregory and Karinch, Maryann. I Can Read You Like A Book. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: Career Press, 2007.