November 15, 2016

nationalism, protectionism, selection and discrimination

US president Obama warned against "a crude sort of nationalism’ taking root." He, like many other smart and responsible humans, fails to understand human nature. The tendency to prefer small groups and to protect boundaries that separate our group from others is an innate feature of humans and is not going to disappear. Obama stated:“We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an us and a them, and I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is doing to be defined by what we have in common, as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us into conflict.” The beginning of his big mistake is the suggestion that ethnic identity and tribalism are recent constructs, add-ons  that can be changed.  Ethnic identity and tribalism is innate and creates societies rather than the society  creates ethnic identity and tribalism.  I review the basic truths in my book Human Nature:

 Selection, Discrimination

The fantasy of egalitarian democracy is out of step with nature and the reality of human behavior.  We have recognized that group membership is all important to humans. You recognize familiar humans who speak and act like yourself as members of your group. In a crowd you notice humans who display small differences in speech, costume and behavior. Most often these small differences are the basis for shunning or ignoring the “strange” humans. In the most rigid groups, everyone wears the same costume, repeats the same polite language, with the same intonation and behaves in a predictable, ritualistic manner. 

We have recognized that racial and ethnic boundaries exist but obvious boundaries are not required for discrimination. The ideal of an egalitarian society is to recognize the merit of individuals; to allow social mobility based on learning and achievement; and to protect individual expressions by social policy and law, but human nature does not change. Group preferences and boundaries that separate groups can always be identified.

Every group, large or small, invents selection processes to sort humans by age, gender, appearance, ancestry, intelligence, aptitudes, skills, accomplishment and other variables. You can invent rules against sorting, but selection will continue because it is natural and important. In every human life, every day, a selection process is at work. Discrimination refers to noticing differences and making choices based on evaluating differences. One of the trends in neuroscience involves understanding  how decisions are made. You could argue that detecting and responding to differences is a universal strategy in animal brains.  Humans are good at detecting differences and make millisecond decisions that have a lasting influence on their subsequent decision-making procedures. The kind and degree of difference is always in flux and depends on prior learning, context and social status.
Discrimination is a deeply embedded property of the human mind that is expressed in almost every human behavior we might consider. However, discrimination as a popular topic is often a misinterpretation of the normal activity of noticing and acting on differences. In popular debates, discrimination is treated as an aberration. Terms that end in “ism” and “ist” are often used to describe discriminating people in a derogatory manner. Thus anyone with a different ancestry who disagrees with you becomes a racist. This is not to argue that noticing differences is always positive. It is to argue that humans base a lot of their decisions on noticing differences. In a positive mode, the description “a discriminating shopper” identifies human who notices differences in design and quality of manufacture, choosing high-quality products rather than cheap ones.

Every creature who is hatched or born on planet earth faces a series of tough tests to find out if he or she has the right stuff to survive. Nature is not kind to individuals who do not make the grade. Animal populations consist of healthy, smart members because everyone else died or was eaten.
 Humans have an unusual ability to protect their young, sick and disabled members so that strong, healthy members increasingly devote more of their time, money and energy helping the less fortunate. This altruistic option in human groups, however, does not alter the tough and persistent competition among humans for resources, mates, money, prestige and security. In every aspect of human life, there is a selection process operating. The selection of members for special status or privilege involves tests to find out who has the right stuff. Humans are constantly evaluating each other. Humans quickly notice differences in appearance and behavior, automatically sorting the people they meet into convenient categories. Humans respond strongly to physical characteristics and react negatively to others who differ in appearance, size, shape sex or color.

Humans are built to respond differently to different characteristics.  This discriminatory tendency is innate, not a matter of choice or learning. The details may be learned but the tendency is innate and is not going to disappear. There is an odd discrepancy between the realities of rigorous, persistent selection processes in nature and the pretense that everyone has the same ability and should have the same opportunity to succeed at any endeavor they fancy. The Miss America pageant is not egalitarian and only one young beauty is selected from thousands of beautiful young woman who enter beauty contests in their own states. The athletes who compete in Olympic Games are selected from a large population of athletes in the home countries. These highly selected individuals from over 200 countries compete to discover who is best in the world. Only one in each sport will win a gold medal. The selection of one from many is basic to human society. Many-to-one is the rule of hierarchy and every society generates a hierarchal distribution of rights and privileges, even societies based on the principle of equal opportunity for all.

The term Homophily describes the tendency of humans to associate with others similar to themselves. The preference bias is innate but its expression is influenced by many variables such as ethnic origins, age, gender, level of education and by exposures to others with different backgrounds. Currarinia et al found, for example, that in American high schools: "Asians exhibit the least preference bias, valuing friendships with other types as much as friendships with Asians, whereas Blacks and Hispanics value friendships with other types 55% and 65% as much as same-type friendships, respectively, and Whites fall in between, valuing other-type friendships 75% as much as friendships with Whites. Meetings are significantly more biased in large schools (>1,000 students) than in small schools (<1,000 students), and biases in preferences exhibit some significant variation with the median household income levels in the counties surrounding the schools."[i]
An ideal civil society attempts to reduce negative discrimination, struggling against the innate tendency. The idealists who seek a permanent solution for discrimination will be disappointed. Racial and ethnic boundaries, at least in the ideal model, are undesirable and are suppressed by social policy, law and the good will of citizens. All societal constructs are ephemeral and only change local circumstances briefly. We would like to believe that in Canada selection processes employed in business and education are fair and not discriminatory. There is an important distinction between discrimination before the fact of performance and after the fact of performance.
If an individual is judged before he or she has a chance to take the test - that is unfair. If discrimination occurs after the tests based on performance measurements, then that is fair and necessary for a society to operate.

The third possibility is that the test is unfair. Many debates arise when the fairness and appropriateness of tests is questioned. Schools generally have established tests and standards that sort students by intelligence, aptitude and accomplishment. IQ tests sort student by sampling their mental skills, which means sampling aspects of their brain function with specific tests of cognitive ability.
Well-educated humans know about the distribution of qualities, characteristics, goods and privileges in human populations.  Biologists understand that the distribution of observable characteristic follows the distribution of genes in a population.  A "normal distribution” is a bell-shaped curve, with most scores in the middle range and a few at each end, or "tail," of the distribution. A standard deviation is a measure of distance from the mean or average value; one standard deviation below the mean is at the 16th percentile; one standard deviation above the mean is at the 84th percentile-- this is a big difference. Two standard deviations from the mean mark the 2nd and 98th percentiles (a bigger difference). Three standard deviations from the mean mark the bottom and top thousandth of a distribution. In medicine, the distribution concept is valuable and is used in daily practice to evaluate test results and to make prognostications.

The main idea is that all human characteristics are distributed and, no matter what human feature you are considering, you will find some individuals with more and some with less. In medicine, two standard deviations from the mean on a test result is described as "normal" on the assumption that 98% of the population cannot be abnormal.  This assumption is often reasonable, but may be misleading if the distribution of a characteristic is skewed in a given population.


From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason



[i] Sergio Currarinia, Matthew O. Jackson, and Paolo Pind. Identifying the roles of race-based choice and chance in high school friendship network formation. PNAS March 16, 2010 vol. 107 no. 11 4857-4861