Pathogens and the Origins of Racism
Why viruses might be the hidden link to our tribal minds
This article has a very sensitive topic. My intention is to understand the issue of racism at its deepest level so that we can properly address it. It is not at all my intention to provide any justification for group discrimination.
Moral preaching as wishful thinking
The internet is full of woke advice about how society and people should behave. Climate activists tell us to stop consuming and in extreme cases have no children, because ‘they have a carbon footprint’. Feminists aspire to create equality among men and women. Modern man is a moral preacher. Unlike most people, I do not believe we can transcend our natural dispositions by moralization. Indeed, moral preaching even has the opposite consequences, namely accelerating conflict. Because pressure always creates back pressure
Natural, despite its ideological use, does not necessarily mean good. Yet, natural indicates something innate to man, independent of his geographical location or cultural norms. One such natural thing seems to be racism, or xenophobia to speak scientifically, which is the fear of strangers.
In our archaic past, tribal warfare was quite common default. Trade and peace are the (modern) exceptions. However, based on anthropological insights we can understand what factors might nudge us towards less violent xenophobic behavior and what we might do about it, besides counterproductive moral preaching.
As in our personal life, when we acknowledge something as it is, rather than applying wishful thinking, we might be able to convert certain destructive tendencies into more healthy behaviors.
My intention is to provide an understanding why we have these “tendencies”. Only then I believe we can “do” something about it.
The social revolution
I argue that the cognitive revolution we experienced was actually a social one and our intellectual ability is merely a secondary effect of the cortex evolution. The cortex rather evolved to understand the social environment. Why?
Well, the social environment and alignment of individuals into a collective group was the only solution for the survival of our species.
(A note before continuing: I will not focus on evolutionary details too much. Some thoughts are rather speculative but in general, well documented. I prefer to be “broadly right” rather than “precisely wrong”. I hope the reader will bear with me.)
7 billion years ago a tectonic shift in Africa seemed to cause climate change. (How ironic that the reason why we are here is climate change.) As a consequence, the jungle turned into a savanna. Nature could experiment with adaptations in the new environment. One of these evolutionary tinkerings was bipedalism. Rather than living on trees as primates, our ancestors started to walk on two legs and became nomadic. However, the tree was always the safe space for primates. It protected us from the greatest enemies such as snakes or the big cats. Contrary a savannah does not offer much tree protection – (although some baboons still manage to survive).
How did evolution solve the problem of being deprived of protection?
Nature mutates and keeps what survives. That is the basis of evolution. Random mutation and natural selection. So imagine now two individuals – One with mutations that make him a loner, the other a highly social guy. In the savanna, it becomes clear that the loner guy would be easily chased down by some predators. Thus, genes that went down the solitude pathway went extinct. In contrast, those individuals who stuck to the group were protected by the raw collective power of the group.
We became group animals.
Nature has no intentions a priori– yet I like to give natural selection an active voice here. Nature essentially conspired to make us social. Only within the group, our ancestors were able to survive. How precisely?
Imagine a group being attacked by a bunch of lions. There are two possible solutions to survive:
a) those who escape first from the lion survive – essentially cowardice as a survival mechanism
However, if all in the tribe try to escape according to “every man for himself”, luck would have played a too large role and thus no specific trait could be selected by nature. Such cowardice was even punished by evolution and disappeared from the gene pool because you were then excluded from the group, which is equal to a death sentence.
b) together we stay strong
Alone man is prey – impossible to fight in a one on one against lions or snakes. But together the game changes entirely. Together we are (in hindsight this is obvious) the super-predator, the conqueror of nature. The theory I enjoy the most is the stone-throwing hypothesis, in which our ability to collect and carry stones and then use them collectively, protects us from attacks. Later of course the ability in combination with tool-making turned us into the super predator. But initially throwing stones as a group put us down on the social pathway.
It is thus clear why collaboration within a group was an adaptive trait and preferred by natural selection. Group organization became relevant. But not only was collective behavior rewarded – on top of extreme selfishness was punished with exile.
The punishment of the too selfish gene
To understand why selfishness was punished, assume some individuals would like to abuse the collective power generated by the group. They take the protection and food provided by the tribe, but never contribute to themselves. They don’t take risks. They are free riders, living off others. This is a form of the prisoner's dilemma, known from game theory.
You perfectly know, at least we all act this act, that such a parasitic strategy won’t work for long. Why? Well because man is aware of time and keeps track of others’ behavior. The prisoner's dilemma stops being a dilemma when It is not a single-time play, but a repeated ongoing play. If I figure out, that you help me out, then I can help you out as well. The repetition of games fundamentally develops trust. Trust is special in humans because we can cooperate across genetic boundaries by keeping track of each other. But so is mistrust. Therefore, individuals who did exploit the group were fundamentally banned from the tribe. This is known as Ostracism. ‘If you are not with us, go your own way’. Those free-riders were forced to leave into the savanna – which was essentially a death sentence. Hence, evolution build a profound instinct for fairness into man. The basis of morality is an allergy to unfairness.
(Because of the psychological demand to contribute to the tribe, I believe that guilt is phenomenological ontological and might provide an understanding of the Origin of Sin and the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden. But this is also another article).
What is the greatest threat?
Many people misunderstand evolution as a process of improvement. However, evolution fundamentally cares about survival. Adaption is whatever can survive and propagate more probable. Therefore, it is always good to consider the greatest threats to the survival of individuals (and their relatives) because survival comes first. Propagation second. Cooperation, therefore, makes sense with those who have close genetic proximity. We have literally skin in the game of others – thus we favor our neighbors.
Because the genetic “sameness” diffuses across members of the tribe it explains why we cannot treat everyone in the same manner (for good reason, although communists would like it differently). However, this does not explain why we conflict with many other tribes.
Human history reveals that rivalry and warfare between tribes were common. Many people believe that the main reason for this is materialism. We compete for resources – food, water, shelter all means to survive and get access to mates. There is partial truth in the economic view. However, I cannot stop wondering, that because of our nomadic lifestyle, competition for resources might occur depending on environmental conditions, but may not be the default.
The world was large enough to find a new place. Maybe not one with the same fruitful potential, but who knows. To leave would be probably a better alternative than to die in warfare.
But these are mere speculations, my point is the following – although competition for resources exists, it might not be the main reason for our tribal nature – our Us vs. Them instinct.
Again, let’s focus on survival. What presents the greatest threat to the entire extinction of your genes?
Well, we are currently experiencing a pandemic. And we might be lucky that Covid-19 proves to be highly contagious but not too deadly. (The “ideal” virus is ultra-contagious but not deadly to its host because it too wants to propagate, not to die). In our recent past, where we lacked proper medicine, viruses and bacteria, be it cholera, pest, or whatever, represented a great danger our life, especially in pre-vaccine times. And not just our life - also the life of our beloved ones, with the same genetics, was threatened.
(Remember that gratefully the next time you wash your hands.)
Thus, from a game-theoretical viewpoint interaction with strangers was potentially extremely costly. Your entire tribe and hence your distribution of genes could go extinct in a pandemic when new pathogens were “imported” by contact with strangers. Hence, from a risk perspective, we evolved to be skeptical of other tribes, to say the least. Hyper-liberal genes were less likely to survive. Conservatism is a way of minimizing infection risk. Therefore, fear of illness and xenophobia are tightly linked. At the root of conservative political ideology is a defense against pathogens.
Stories of disgust
With that logic in mind, some biologists suspect that conservatism evolved as a collective behavioral immune system. However, our ancestors were not scientifically aware of germs. Xenophobia hence was not necessarily rational. My intuition rather tells me that conservatism has been encapsulated into stories by highly disgust-sensitive members. Stories, therefore, represent the mechanism of exclusion.
In this case, demonizing the other group served to avoid interaction. This could explain why unconsciously the most genocidal cultures always depicted their enemies as something below humans. For Hitler the Jews were rats and in Rwanda, the enemy was a cockroach. We become mass murderers, only after dehumanizing strangers.
The hypothesis of the collective immune system is rather novel. Is there any empirical data that supports the hypothesis?
A meta-analysis has found a positive correlation between “fear of contamination and disgust sensitivity, is positively related to social conservatism (i.e., right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, religious fundamentalism, ethnocentrism, collectivism, and political conservatism). These findings according to the author provide initial evidence that socially conservative values may function as evolutionarily evoked disease-avoidance strategies.”
However correlation is not causation. Yet recent studies demonstrate increasing discrimination against Asians due to COVID 19. It is as if in times of pandemic, the conservative instinct reawakens and becomes ideological. Another provocative finding is that “women in their initial three months of pregnancy—when the ‘real’ immune system operates less effectively seem to show increased ethnocentrism and xenophobia”
The general tone of these investigations is “that national parasite stress and individual disgust sensitivity relate more strongly to adherence to traditional norms than they relate to support for barriers between social groups.”
If the collective immune system hypothesis has ground, we could expect a correlation between xenophobia and pathogen density. Pathogen variety itself is a function of climate and vegetation. To my knowledge, this was not studied yet. But one example that matches this logic is Papua New Guinea. It is the most tribally fragmented country in the world, with 850 languages are spoken in more than 600 distinct tribes. And it also has a high morbidity rate caused by contagious diseases such as, tuberculosis, diarrhoeal diseases, and acute respiratory disease.
Of course, such a correlation is cherry-picking. I could probably easily find regions in which there is no connection between pathogens and racism. However, since our ingroup vs outgroup tendencies seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon, I intend to look for explanations based on an evolutionary basis. Of course competition for resources is another major factor of tribal violence. Therefore, other scientists argue that in PNG “clans thus increasingly play the role of interest groups. Clans compete for access to resources”
It continues: “Papua New Guinea is increasingly characterized by intense zero-sum competition for a small and dwindling reward base, and life in some parts of the country has reverted to a Hobbesian struggle for scarce resources. The fragmentation of Papua New Guinea society exacerbates this problem by creating a situation of many small clans operating effectively as interest groups, attempting to exploit any available public good for their membership.”
However, I do not think that both arguments exclude one another. Quite the contrary, they complement each other.
More generally seen, the traditionalist tries to conserve life. A healthy argument for conservative attitudes is based on the Lindy argument popularised by Nassim Taleb – That which has worked will work in the future. The conservative’s mind takes this recognition to a logical next step: Everything that has proven to work, should not be changed. In that sense, maintaining tradition and protecting from pathogens intend to increase the probability of surviving.
Ironically our us vs. them minds enter a new phase in which weapons of mass destruction might now be considered the greatest danger. Our group protection bias turned 180 degrees against us. Because for archaic beings the cost of the conflict was locally limited. Since we, however, are now a global interconnected technological species, the potential cost of warfare skyrocketed. Now the nuclear war is possible. Now extinction of the species is possible.
Evolution hasn’t prepared us specifically for this case.
But there might be hope because Evolution has gifted us with adaptability.
The shapeable identity
How is it, that we can go into a sports stadium and befriend with strangers? Isn’t this observation contrary to the point made in the article?
Our group mind is instinctive. Yet, the group itself is selected by arbitrary commonalities. In our archaic past, the local tribe you were born in, was your identity. However, now you identify as American, German or Indian – although you have never met the majority of the people that belong to the same group. But because you believe to share common values, you belong to the same group. Funny enough, it is not just values. Sympathy towards strangers can be created by something irrelevant like a color of a shirt. Fundamentally it is because the group mind evolved to achieve common goals.
Collective behavior toward a shared interest is where the group mind originates. Identification evolved because we can work together to reach the same goal. When we have a common identity, an understanding of us, we cooperate, even across genetic boundaries. At the core of that ability is the recognition of positive-sum games, even among strangers.
Nevertheless, the identification must happen voluntarily. You cannot force someone to accept a certain identity, which is why you cannot convert someone by preaching. Although the body can be forced to do many things, no man’s mind can be forced into a certain belief. Further I doubt, that we can transcend our group thinking entirely. It seems to be absurd to become a hive species. The group is always a mean to the individual not vice versa. We are no ants. I do not believe, that acting like an ant is virtuous. Liking everyone equally is synonymous to liking no one.
However, humans permanently try to convert destructive behaviors and convert them into more productive elements. This is what we call civilization. Our tribal mind might not be eradicated, but when we have a common understanding of fair games, we can use it for something quite entertaining. Fundamentally this is what all team sports are about. Playing games with each other is a form of healthy competition.
The final question truly is where and when to draw the line between friend and foe? What does constitute an ally, and how can we train ourselves to perceive this? We don’t know yet, I suspect. But that is the burden of human consciousness. To not know yet. To go into the unknown and trust, that we will bring in light.
And maybe the answer is already implied in the last paragraph. The idea was created by my digital bro Jeff, who helps me tremendously by editing these articles. Further, the awesome visuals are made by Oseku.
Jeff lives in US. Oseku lives in Ghana. I live in Germany. We have never met, but we play games together, despite that we are strangers.
Maybe something to wonder about.
I am building something. I do not know what.
But if you like the synthesis of ideas in religion, science & evolution,
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