Hotwiring the Evolutionary Origins of Discrimination

Why the hell is there so much racism and discrimination in the world?  Why it is such a durable feature of the human experience?  Did we evolve to discriminate?  If so, why?  And what’s to be done about it?

When thinking about racism and discrimination, it’s helpful to think in terms of in-groups and out-groups.  Think of out-groups as those you’re not part of, and who you feel negative emotion toward.  inside-and-outside-groupsIn-groups, by contrast, are those you trust, feel part of, and would be willing to make personal sacrifices for.  Generally, people are not racist or discriminatory toward people that are part of their in-groups.   

Let’s get deep

Whence came in-groups?  Going back 120,000+ years, the very first, most original in-group was…….drum roll………..: KINFOLK! – that is, immediate blood relations (brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins).  These were people you could trust, and who trusted you, because you were all sprinting toward the same goal: propagating your shared genetic lineage.  No formal agreements or bloody handshakes were needed: you instinctively look out for your family and they look out for you.

In those early days of cultural evolution, out-groups consisted of everyone else, i.e., people not related to you by blood.  In-groups were therefore small – bands of around 10-30-ish related individuals.  Unrelated or unknown people were rightly regarded as trouble, because they probably wanted your food (or worse) which would reduce your family’s chances of surviving.  And here lies the origins of hostility toward out-groups:  
Feeling hate for competing kin-groups would have been beneficial, because it made you fight them more ferociously to defend (or expand) your territory and food sources.   This meant that more aggressive, xenophobic groups had the survival advantage in our deep paleolithic past, and so those traits would have spread over time.

So, the basic, knee-jerk negative emotions you experience now toward out-groups are driven by the fact that you don’t recognize those out-groups as part of your family.  Thanks about it:  Have you ever met someone who was racist toward a blood relative?  Didn’t think so.      

Strength in Numbers

But there’s an interesting twist here: While there were definite benefits to being hatefully xenophobic in our deep past, bigger groups had an even bigger advantage when it came to conflicts.  That’s because bigger groups were better able to sweep aside ragey smaller groups, thus securing access to more food.  And so the dictum “there’s strength in numbers” was born!  That meant that whatever mechanism was responsible for producing bigger groups was likely to spread even faster.1-inamazonwars    

What was the mechanism driving the creation of bigger groups?  It wasn’t simply having more babies, because all groups were basically doing that at the same rate — there’s severe limits to how fast family groups can grow in a hunter-gatherer context, since food was scarce, births were infrequent and life-spans short.

So what else would have quickly boosted group size?  It was probably attributable to alliances between family groups.   Those bands who were able to get over their distrust of outsiders just enough to admit some trustworthy non-family members would have had a huge advantage!  By designating some outsiders as “honorary kin”, you could basically double the size of your family in a day!  Because this capacity for granting honorary kinship to select outsiders was so advantageous, it likely became written into our psychology over tens of thousands of years.   BUT: that original impulse to distrust and dislike outsiders remained intact.  It was just possible to short-circuit it, where prudent.

Strength Beyond Strength

Eventually, in-groups started getting larger, since they now included both kin and trusted non-kin. In-groups started to get so large in fact that it became difficult to remember everyone (think Dunbar’s number of 150).  To help keep track of membership, and visually reinforce it, in-groups started we started using symbolic markers like shells, paints, scarring, hairstyles, and other types of body adornment.  

New GuineaSymbolic markers like these have been in play for a LONG, LONG time (100,000+ years).  So long, in fact, that we’ve evolved a partly innate psychological disposition to act in a “prosocial” way toward those displaying the same markers as you.  Call this a “tribal social instinct”.  If you’re having trouble picturing how this works, just think about a Greenbay Packers or Manchester United game, and the camaraderie that comes from wearing the home team’s jersey.  And think of the reaction when people wear the jerseys of the visiting (enemy) team.  It’s not good.  Sometimes riots break out.  Still not convinced?  Think about the dress code of visible sub-groups like hippies, punks, ravers, hipsters, goths, steam-punks, metalheads, etc etc etc.  hippiesNow, imagine you’re a hippie at a hippie party.  Right after you hit the bong, two unknown people walk in – one dressed like a punk rocker and one dressed like a hippie.  Who are you more likely to pass the bong to?  I rest my case.    

And yet, even though distrust of outsiders can be temporarily short-circuited if they display similar symbolic markings or loud acts of loyalty, our default position is still one of distrust and hostility toward outsiders.  Thanks to our tremendous capacity for cultural evolution, it’s simply a part of human nature.  To be clear, this is NOT a “good” thing in our modern context, but it IS exactly what you’d expect, since outsiders were a credible threat for most of our evolutionary past.  


What’s to be done?

Discrimination is a tribal mindset that has outlived its usefulness; in a globalized world that requires massive cooperation to solve major existential issues like climate change, distrust of outsiders is NOT HELPFUL.  

How can we short-circuit those negative, or even hateful, emotions to outsiders?   

Well, at the very top of the list, don’t teach hate or distrust of outsiders to children.  Don’t give children (or adults for that matter)  reason to indulge that dark, easily-roused emotional disposition.   

But what else?  The two major tricks I mentioned are 1) to employ symbolic markings and 2) for outsiders to engage in loud altruistic acts to convince in-group members they are trustworthy.  

But these things only work on a very small scale.  Moreover, no one is going to suggest with a straight face that we all dress the same to diffuse racial tensions (except maybe white cultural hegemonists).  That said, a good rule of thumb to live by is to engage in altruistic acts where possible.  Altruistic acts spur altruistic acts, resulting in a sort of virtuous circle.   

Recall that the trick is to regard people outside of your in-groups as honorary kin – as being part of your family.  Sometimes, this trick doesn’t make sense (no one wants psychopaths, sociopaths, and free riders as honorary kinfolk).  But for the rest of the population (aka, the cooperators and conditional cooperators), it is wise to regard them as part of your family – the human family.



Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes Alone, 2005

Pagel, Wired for Culture, 2013


Categories: Cultural Evolution, Human Evolution, Indigenous Culture, Traditional SocietiesTags: ,


  1. Why in the world would you pretend to have a science and talk about tribalism, an inborn extinct to help you survive, as racism? You politically-correct idiots have lost your brains.


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