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(作者为英国雷丁大学应用生态学教授Tom Oliver,《THE SELF DELUSION(自我幻觉)》的作者)

Is bigotry in our DNA, a remnant of our fear of “the other” way back when that was necessary? If so, why do some battle with their instincts while others embrace them? Peter, 71, Darlington


Humans are the most cooperative species on the planet – all part of a huge interconnected ecosystem. We have built vast cities, connected by a global nervous system of roads, shipping lanes and optical fibres. We have sent thousands of satellites spinning around the planet. Even seemingly simple obxts like a graphite pencil are the work of thousands of hands from around the world, as the wonderful essay I-Pencil, quoted above, by Leonard Read describes.


Yet we can also be surprisingly intolerant of each other. If we are completely honest, there is perhaps a little bit of xenophobia, racism, sexism and bigotry deep within all of us, if we would only allow it. Luckily, we can choose to control and suppress such tendencies for our own wellbeing and the good of society.


Modern civilisation in general encourages the extension of attitudes such as respect and tolerance beyond those who look similar to us, to those who we have no relation to. We reinforce and codify these values, teaching them to our children, while religious and secular spiritual leaders promote them in their teachings. That’s because they generally lead to a more harmonious, mutually-beneficial society.


The trouble with tribalism


This is exactly what has made us such a cooperative species. But sometimes our cultures can be less progressive. What people around us say and do subconsciously influences the way we think. We soak up this cultural context like a sponge, and it subtly shapes our attitudes and behaviours. If we are surrounded by people that stigmatise those different to themselves, this also encourages distrust or aggression in us.


It presses the buttons of certain deep-seated xenophobic attitudes within us. In fact, it discourages hard-learned inhibitory responses in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that get built up under more progressive contexts.


Movements such as Nazism have openly promoted xenophobia and bigotry. They encourage a strong tribal loyalty to the “in-group” (one’s own group), while stigmatising (and in the case of Nazism, executing) others. Taken too far, a healthy pride in one’s country can easily tip into unhealthy nationalism, where we identify with our own nation at the exclusion of others.


Things seem to be moving in this direction today. Leaders such as US president, Donald Trump, Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro and Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, are more frequently taking centre stage. In the UK, figures such as Nigel Farage, a key architect of Brexit, uses media platforms to promote naive and bigoted views.


When the media, and especially people we trust, talk in such a way, it has a profound effect on our receiving minds. It can even shape our beliefs in what we might think are purely rational issues. For example, the belief in whether humans are causing climate change is strongly associated with US political party membership.


This is because we tend to adopt a common position on a topic to signal we are part of a group, just like football fans wear certain colours or have tattoos to show their tribal loyalty. Even strong individuals who stand up to oppressive regimes typically have shared ideals and norms with other members of a resistance movement.


This tribalism can all feel very visceral and natural because, well, in a way, it is. It fires up the primal parts of our brain designed for such responses. Yet, there are other natural attitudes, such as compassion and consideration for others, that can be suppressed in such circumstances. Imbalanced cultures produce imbalanced brains.


This combination of nature and nurture shaping our attitudes and behaviour is apparent in many human characteristics, and unpicking some of these examples can help us see opportunities to steer the process.


When we understand how our hardwired urges interact with an unhelpful cultural context, we can begin to design positive interventions. In the case of obesity, this might mean less junk food marketing and altering the composition of manufactured food. We can also change our own behaviour, for example laying down new routines and healthier eating habits.


Climate change could boost bigotry


But what about bigotry and xenophobia? Can’t we simply design the right fixes for them? That may depend on how big the problems we face in future are. For example, growing ecological crises – climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss – may actually lead to more bigoted and xenophobic attitudes.


Cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has shown how environmental shocks cause societies to become “tighter” – meaning the tendency to be loyal to the “in-group” gets stronger. Such societies are more likely to elect authoritarian leaders and to show prejudice towards outsiders.


This has been observed under past ecological threats such as resource scarcity and disease outbreaks, and under climate change scenarios we expect these threats, in particular extreme weather events and food insecurity, to only get worse. The same goes for the coronavirus pandemic. While many hope such outbreaks can lead to a better world, they could do exactly the opposite.


This enhanced loyalty to our local tribe is a defence mechanism that helped past human groups pull together and overcome hardship. But it is not beneficial in a globalised world, where ecological issues and our economies transcend national boundaries. In response to global issues, becoming bigoted, xenophobic and reducing cooperation with other countries will only make the impacts on own nations worse.


Back in 2001, a United Nations initiative called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment sought to take stock of global environmental trends and, crucially, to explore how these trends might unfold in future. One of the scenarios was called “Order from Strength” and represented “a regionalised and fragmented world that is concerned with security and protection … Nations see looking after their own interests as the best defence against economic insecurity, and the movement of goods, people, and information is strongly regulated and policed”.


(译注:千年生态系统评估(The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment )是联合国于2001年6月5日世界环境日由世界卫生组织、联合同环境规划署和世界银行等机构等组织开展的国际合作项目,是首次对全球生态系统进行的多层次综合评估,约有1500名科学家、专家和非政府组织的代表参加)

Later iterations of the scenario have been dubbed “Fortress world” describing a dystopian vision where order is imposed through an authoritarian system of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside.


When you think about how Trump talks about building a wall on the Mexico border, encouraged by chants from the crowd, we have to wonder how close we are to this scenario. On a larger scale, the rich “developed” countries primarily responsible for causing climate change are doing very little to address the plight of poorer countries.


There seems to be a lack of empathy, a disregard and intolerance for others who were not lucky enough to be born in “our” tribe. In response to an ecological catastrophe of their making, rich countries simply argue about how best to prevent the potential influx of migrants.


Rewiring the brain


Thankfully, we can use rational thinking to develop strategies to overcome these attitudes. We can reinforce positive values, building trust and compassion, reducing the distinction between our in-group and the “other”.


An important first step is appreciating our connectedness to other people. We all evolved from the same bacteria-like ancestor, and right now we share over 99% of our DNA with everyone else on the planet. Our minds are closely lixed through social networks, and the things we create are often the inevitable next step in a series of interdependent innovations.


Innovation is part of a great, lixed creative human endeavour with no respect for race or national boundaries. In the face of overwhelming evidence from multiple scientific disciplines (biology, psychology, neuroscience) you can even question whether we exist as discrete individuals, or whether this sense individuality is an illusion (as I argue in my book The Self Delusion).


We evolved to believe we are discrete individuals because it brought survival benefits (such as memory formation and an ability to track complex social interactions). But taken too far, self-centred individualism can prevent us from solving collective problems.


It is possible to steer our cultures and rewire our brains so that xenophobia and bigotry all but disappear. Indeed, working collaboratively across borders to overcome the global challenges of the 21st century relies upon us doing just that.