Evolutionary psychology often seems like a “just so” story and it has the unfortunate quality of not being, unless we discover time travel, falsifiable. But it does have some very useful insights into how we think and act today.

Yet a recent article in Science, “Roots of Racism”, tries to explain racism, fear of outsiders and, by extension, illuminates the huge success of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee campaigns of Howard, Le Pen, Abbott and the US nativists in an evolutionary psychology framework.

Our fears of meeting a tall dark stranger in a dark alley are perhaps explained by what psychologist Steven Neuberg calls a threat-detection system that is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat. The genes of those without the system plausibly never got passed down. However, those who did pass on the genes over tens of thousands of years also passed on a propensity for group living. As Marilynn Brewer, of the University of NSW, said in 1999: “Our central adaptation is group living … [and] it is in a sense universally true that ‘we’ are more peaceful, trustworthy, friendly and honest than ‘they’.”

The research area where much of this work is focused is broadly termed the study of ingroup love and outgroup hate. Basically it provides compelling evidence for why it is politically convenient and effective to promise to “turn the boats back”, restrict immigration and get tough on those who are “un-Australian”. The refugees may not be, but the politicians are, pushing on an open door.

History suggests the validity of this approach as well. As Eric Hobsbawm said in Nations and Nationalism Since 1980: “There is no more effective way of bonding together the disparate sections of restless peoples than to unite them against outsiders.”

But the psychological research also shows that there are alternatives and that our better angels can triumph. First, groups are actually much more fluid than we think, although even in experiments with arbitrarily constructed ones forms of ingroup love and outgroup hate can be found, and prejudices vary over time and culture. Second, prejudicial behaviour is, according to Mark Schaller, “a very quick automatic” response that can be tempered by the more recently evolved parts of our brains “that allow us to engage in slower, more rational thought”.

One way to encourage the slower, more rational thoughts, which also encourage our better angels is very much in the hands of politicians. For instance, if it was left to a vote capital punishment would never have been abolished in many Western countries but politicians took the leap on moral grounds helped by extensive public campaigns. When politicians reverted to pro-capital punishment atavism, such as former Victorian Liberal opposition leader Alan Brown, their leadership came under threat. In contrast one of his successors, Jeff Kennett, was extraordinarily principled on questions such as race and just refused opportunities to add to the fires and the atavistic comments while publicly demonstrating a strong commitment to multiculturalism.

Australians are “restless” after a couple of decades of major change. It is natural, particularly given the way the issues are covered in much of the media, that they can be easily deflected towards outgroup hate.

In the famous Juzo Itami Japanese comedy, The Taxing Woman’s Return, one of the major characters (a thuggish religious leader called Onizawa) says to his even more thuggish followers “you are experienced in creating fear” but “what about love?”. Putting aside the fact that the Onizawa character is s-xually rapacious, and a major subplot is him trying to have his way with a young virgin he has acquired in return for a gambling debt, the character is saying that even he and his thugs have a choice.

In the caves from whence we came, too much choice could be fatal. Those who weren’t suspicious never got to be our ancestors. But is it still necessary in Parliament?

Peter Fray

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