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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 10:59 GMT
Study says racism can be reversed
South African schoolchildren, AP
Alliance was more important to ancient humans than skin colour
A new study says racism is not programmed into the brain but is, in fact, a by-product of human evolution that can be altered.

The research suggests that the apparent tendency towards noticing someone's skin colour - which many scientists had thought was inevitable - is actually a changeable feature of brain mechanisms that emerged for another reason: to detect shifting coalitions and alliances.

If you can prevent the categorisation in the first place then that ought to prevent... stereotypes

Robert Kurzban, UCSB
Visual cues that betrayed "whose side" a stranger was on would have been important for survival in hunter-gatherer societies - but the colour of skin was unlikely to have been one of these markers because of the limited range over which ancient human groups moved.

Experiments at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), US, show that we tend not to notice skin colour so much when viewing groups of mixed race.

The researchers say their results indicate that it may be easier than previously thought to diminish racist tendencies.

Survival tactic

Other studies have suggested that human brains note three characteristics of a person on first meeting: sex, age and race.

But the new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that skin colour is less important than initially thought by scientists and psychologists.

The UCSB scientists argue that while instinctive categorisation might exist for sex and age, there would have been no evolutionary benefit to ancient humans in marking out people solely by the colour of their skin.

This is because hunter-gatherers would rarely have strayed far enough to meet humans that were strikingly different from the individuals among whom they moved.

Instead, the researchers propose that our ancestors were wired by evolution to detect coalitions by boosting the saliency of any visual marker that suggested who might have allied with whom. Recognising a friend or foe would have been a valuable survival tactic.

Hope for children

The UCSB scientists developed their new theory after a series of tests in which the methods people used to detect rivalries or allegiances were studied.

These included dressing different races in different groups in similar coloured shirts. This was designed to see if race was a factor in deciding who was considered to be in a coalition and who was not.

The scientists found that when alliances were of mixed race, observers' tendency to notice others' racial identity rapidly diminished. This led the research team to conclude that race was merely substituting the notion of alliance or coalition.

UCSB scientist Robert Kurzban, who headed the research, said the discoveries raised hopes that children could be encouraged not to assume racist opinions.

"Racism has to do with categorising someone as a member of a certain race or group; if you can prevent the categorisation in the first place then that ought to prevent... stereotypes," he told the BBC.

In fact, the scientists found that it took a person's lifetime experience of race only four minutes of exposure to "an alternate social world" to be considerably altered.

See also:

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Ape brains show linguistic promise
09 Sep 01 | Africa
Anti-racism plan hammered out
07 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Early clues to 'modern' humans
30 Aug 01 | Americas
Battling online hate
02 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Another leap in evolution debate
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