April 1, 2019

CHRIST LIBERATED US FROM SLAVERY TO BIOLOGY:

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism: The Biology of Us and Them (Robert Sapolsky, March/April 2019, Foreign Affairs)

He never stood a chance. His first mistake was looking for food alone; perhaps things would have turned out differently if he'd been with someone else. The second, bigger mistake was wandering too far up the valley into a dangerous wooded area. This was where he risked running into the Others, the ones from the ridge above the valley. At first, there were two of them, and he tried to fight, but another four crept up behind him and he was surrounded. They left him there to bleed to death and later returned to mutilate his body. Eventually, nearly 20 such killings took place, until there was no one left, and the Others took over the whole valley.

The protagonists in this tale of blood and conquest, first told by the primatologist John Mitani, are not people; they are chimpanzees in a national park in Uganda. Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into "us" and "them" and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind's best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second's neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism--that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias--requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them.

Such an analysis offers little grounds for optimism. Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter. These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages. They are, of course, arbitrary and often fluid. Today's "them" can become tomorrow's "us." But this is only poor consolation. Humans can rein in their instincts and build societies that divert group competition to arenas less destructive than warfare, yet the psychological bases for tribalism persist, even when people understand that their loyalty to their nation, skin color, god, or sports team is as random as the toss of a coin. At the level of the human mind, little prevents new teammates from once again becoming tomorrow's enemies.

The human mind's propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man's face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second. In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: "Don't think that way, that's not who I am." Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

This finding is no outlier. Looking at the face of someone of the same race activates a specialized part of the primate brain called the fusiform cortex, which recognizes faces, but it is activated less so when the face in question is that of someone of another race. Watching the hand of someone of the same race being poked with a needle activates the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in feelings of empathy; being shown the same with the hand of a person of another race produces less activation. Not everyone's face or pain counts equally.

The Right eagerly dons the chains.

Posted by at April 1, 2019 4:00 AM

  

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