Wednesday, April 20

Every primate's a little bit prejudiced

Scientific American covered a new article out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which asks an interesting question, of a sort that is not asked nearly enough, in my opinion. Are our biases and attitudes towards other social groups, and within our own group, uniquely human? Do our strategies arise from experiences which no other species can match?

The answer provided by Neha Mahajan, Laurie Santos and colleagues is no.
"We found the first evidence that a nonhuman species automatically distinguishes the faces of members of its own social group from those in other groups and displays greater vigilance toward outgroup members . . . macaques spontaneously associate novel objects with specific social groups and display greater vigilance to objects associated with outgroup members . . . and we discovered that macaques, like humans, automatically evaluate ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively."
I won't lie, this is some really intriguing stuff. You can read all this and more on the details in SciAm's article, and I hate to rehash thing that have already been said. Rather, I'd like to switch attention to the spin which SciAm puts on this article in their own report.

Once does the SciAm article mentioned "racism," but its in their subtitle. They shouldn't have done this. This cannot be shown to be racism, not under the current conditions. If some sort of morphological or genetic analysis was performed, then maybe they could make this claim. But all the associations in this research are social, not biological. Unless you believe race is a purely social institution, but people have known for a while that its just not that simple.

The true question is easily found in the abstract, and I've paraphrased it above. Did SciAm have access to the full length article, and I missing something with just the abstract? I assume so, though it is rather odd for their link to take the reader to an abstract with no sign of the full text. Even with my various University sources, I couldn't manage to obtain access to this article. So all I have to go by is the abstract, same as you. Ultimately, even if I wanted to, I couldn't write a critical assessment of the source document.

Thus ends this cautionary tale. I am all in favor of more research like this, and other research which truly investigates the genetic basis for ethnic group biases. However, the story of race, genetics, and scientific inquiry is a troubled one. One SciAm article isn't a huge deal, but it demonstrates how easy it is to make little mistakes, and the pursuit of knowledge in this discipline is a razor thin line which must be carefully walked. Otherwise, unfortunate things can happen.

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