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Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man (1871) that “sympathy is directed solely towards members of the same community, and therefore towards known, and more or less loved members, but not to all the individuals of the same species.” Some 20 years later in Principles and Ethics (1892), the British sociologist Herbert Spencer elaborated on this obvious but politically incorrect truth. He coined the terms “in-group amity” for our positive feelings towards members of our own group and “out-group enmity” for the propensity to dislike and often to feel hostility to other groups.
These concepts were developed in America by William Graham Sumner, a professor of sociology at Yale, in his 1906 book Folkways. He introduced the term “ethnocentrism” to describe the fact that people normally support, and prefer to associate with, others of their own ethnic and racial group. At the same time, people normally do not support or associate with others not of their own ethnic and racial group, and frequently dislike them. In the social sciences, the active dislike of other ethnic and racial groups is called prejudice, especially when whites feel it towards minorities, but much less frequently, if at all, when other ethnic and racial groups feel it towards whites.
Sumner’s concept of ethnocentrism was updated and refined by Prof. Phil Rushton of the University of Western Ontario in the 1980s by means of what he called Genetic Similarity Theory. He proposed that people have an inherited tendency to like, seek out, marry, and form mutually supportive relationships with others who are genetically similar to themselves. He suggested that the reason for this is that in the evolutionary past this helped people propagate their genes more effectively, since those who are genetically similar have many genes in common, and these genes are more likely to survive and increase in future generations when the individuals carrying them cooperate. This advantage is further increased if these genetically similar groups discriminate against genetically dissimilar groups and put them at a disadvantage.
These ideas have recently been investigated by Dr. Xiaojing Xu and his colleagues at Peking University. They showed Europeans and Chinese videos of peoples’ cheeks being pricked with a needle, and measured electrical activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the area of the brain that responds when people perceive that others are suffering pain. They found that Europeans experienced activation of the ACC when they saw Europeans having their cheeks pricked, but not when they saw Chinese suffering in the same way. A similar effect was found with the Chinese, who showed the empathic ACC activation only when they saw suffering of their own race.
Professor Alessio Avenanti of the University of Bologna and his colleagues have further elaborated on this phenomenon. They showed Italian whites and immigrant blacks, born in Africa and living in Italy, videos of hands being pricked with a needle. When whites saw white person’s hand being pricked, they registered a “signature empathic brain response” (technically, motor-evoked potentials recorded in the left motor cortex) indicating that they were emotionally disturbed. When they saw a video of a black person’s hand being pricked, they did not register the “signature empathic brain response,” indicating that they were emotionally indifferent to seeing a black suffering pain.
The blacks who viewed the same videos reacted in the opposite way. When they saw a black hand being pricked, they registered the “signature empathic brain response,” again indicating that they were emotionally disturbed, but when they saw a white hand being pricked they were emotionally indifferent.
Subjects were also shown a video in which the hand being pricked was purple. Remarkably, in this case, both blacks and whites registered the “signature empathic brain response,” indicating that they were emotionally disturbed by seeing someone of the “purple” race suffering pain.
Prof. Avenanti and his colleagues interpret the results as showing that people are emotionally disturbed by seeing someone of their own race and also people of a different (“purple”) race suffering pain, except when they have had experience with the different race. It is likely that people have a genetically programmed propensity to learn, probably in childhood, to empathize with members of their own race but to feel indifferent to suffering experienced by members of another race with which they are familiar.
This conclusion makes sense in the light of common observation. Whites make large voluntary donations to alleviate suffering from famine, earthquakes, and other disasters afflicting “purple” people, that is, people they do not know, who live far away in such places as Africa, Haiti, or Pakistan. Whites are less inclined, however, to make voluntary donations to alleviate the suffering of other races they do know. Perhaps this explains why America does not have the generous welfare state characteristic of European countries. When welfare states were established in Europe during the 20th century, the more affluent were willing to support the less affluent because the whole population belonged to the same race, and affluent whites felt sympathy (to use Darwin’s word) for the suffering of the less affluent. People felt they were part of an extended family and the well-off were willing to support the less fortunate. In America a welfare state would require whites to support blacks, and because whites have personal experience of blacks, they are less sympathetic to their suffering and unwilling to pay for its alleviation. At the same time, it is well known that blacks make charitable contributions almost without exception to organizations set up to help blacks.
This tendency to help one’s own race is also called “The Florida Effect.” In Florida, a large population of elderly whites pays only grudgingly for schools that will benefit students who are mostly black and Hispanic. Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia are the most racially homogeneous states, and spend the highest proportion of gross state product on education. Exhortations about the positive value of “diversity,” and the importance of “multiculturalism” appear to be ineffective because they founder on the rock of human nature.
Avenanti, A., Sirigu, A. & Aglioti, S.M. (2010). Empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain. Current Biology, 20, 1-6.
Rushton, J.P. Genetic similarity, human altruism, and group selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1989, 12, 503-559.
Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X. & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 8525–8529.