A recent article in Scientific American (“The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists see the beginnings of racism in monkeys“) is less than advertised. The study shows that monkeys are sensitive to group boundaries–they are especially concerned with monkeys from outgroups even if they are former ingroup members with whom they are familiar. But even if true it would not provide a firm evolutionary basis for negative attitudes toward other races because the negative attitudes on occur if those other races are in different groups. The monkeys are keying on the group status of the other monkeys, not on genetic differences.
In fact, evolutionary psychologists have been busy showing that if one sets up two very very clearly marked racially integrated groups (i.e., with different colored uniforms–exactly the situation in most sports), people have negative views toward the outgroup that are independent of race (Cosmides, L., J., Tooby, & R. Kurzban. (2003). Perceptions of race. Trends in Cognitive Science 7:173–179).
This study adds to data social identity processes are an evolutionary adaptation –but we already knew that (see here, p. 33). And we know that chimpanzees have a strong sense of group boundaries. Social identity processes are certainly very important in producing negative attitudes toward outgroups–it is the basis for my theory of historical anti-Semitism (and for the negative attitudes typically held by Jews toward non-Jews) in Separation and Its Discontents. Especially in traditional societies, Jews typically looked very different from non-Jews and had a strong sense of being separate (see here). They were obviously on a different team.
The evidence in support of genetically sensitive psychological mechanisms comes from research on J. Philippe Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory and research on a human kinds module (see here, pp. 32-38). This research is convincing that indeed there is a natural tendency to associate with people like oneself and that race and ethnicity are natural categories of difference. These conclusions therefore go well beyond the implications of the Scientific American study.