Are We Born Prejudiced?

In the March 17, 2007 edition of New Scientist magazine, Mark Buchanan wrote extensively on Hammond’s bringing to attention that humans have a deeply ingrained tendency to form groups. By better understanding what sorts of situations and environments are conducive to tolerance and empathy, he suggests that we may be able to promote better human nature.

In 1992, during the war between Serbia and Croatia, The Washington Post ran an interview with a Croatian farmer named Adem, who had a horrific story to tell. Over the previous year, Adem said, discourse between local Serbs and Croats had deteriorated, as individual identities dissolved into a menacing fog of “us” versus “them”. Then group animosity turned into something far worse. Serbs from a neighbouring village abruptly rounded up 35 men from Adem’s village and slit their throats. The summer before, the killers had helped their victims harvest their crops.

Earlier this year a small group of Z-list celebrities caused an international incident during the filming of the UK version of the reality TV show, Big Brother. The seemingly racist comments made by Jade Goody and her cronies to Bollywood film star Shilpa Shetty provoked thousands of shocked viewers to write letters of complaint. There was a media frenzy. Questions were asked in Parliament. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who happened to be on a visit to India, felt he had to comment on the affair.

Two very different stories; one common theme. Proof, if it were needed, that the human tendency to judge others in the crudest terms – race, religion, ethnicity, or any arbitrary marker – has not been consigned to the history books, no matter how much we might wish it were so. Somewhat disturbingly, scientists now suggest that this is not really surprising because such prejudice is part of human nature.

If they are correct, then the roots of group animosity and hatred run very deep indeed, which may be depressing news for those trying to make a difference in ethnic or sectarian hotspots from Darfur and Iraq to inner cities and football terraces. Yet researchers also insist that facing up to our authentic nature is the only way to gain real insight into the forces that drive group conflict, and to learn how we might manage and defuse such urges. “We shouldn’t treat prejudice as pathological just because it offends us,” says anthropologist Francisco Gil-White. “If we aim to transcend ethnic …

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