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The sex of prejudice

15 February 2012

Prejudice against people from other racial groups is never a good thing. The unreasoned debate around “boat people” arriving in Australia is a classic example of this. While this type of unexamined prejudice may be unedifying it might be inevitable to some degree since it may be hard-wired into us as a result of evolutionary processes. Interestingly a new report has suggested that while we all have inherited tendencies toward prejudice, the type and nature of prejudice that you may feel is heavily dependent on your sex.

To arrive at their conclusions researchers from Michigan State University surveyed current academic literature on war and conflict and found that standard anthropological theory does not explain the differences between sexes when it comes to aggressive discriminatory behaviour. What these researchers have come up with is a new understanding of what drives prejudice, interpreting it in the light of how the sexes have evolved.

They base their ideas around the “male warrior hypothesis” and make the point that historically, and prehistorically, men were more likely than women to start wars and defend their own group from other groups. Sometimes to do this they would behave in very risky and self-sacrificial ways. These risks were worthwhile in evolutionary terms though, because attacking others offered the opportunity of mates, territory, resources, and raised social status.

So for men, prejudice is aggression based. For women it is different.

Throughout history women have lived under threat of sexual coercion from aggressors and are likely to display a “tend and befriend” response toward members of their own group as a means of protection, but maintain a fear of strangers as a means of protecting themselves and their children.

So in women the basis of prejudice in evolutionary terms is fear.

The real point of this is that while these aggressive and fearful roots of prejudice have some reasonable basis in primordial evolution, they have no value in modern society. The value of this research is in allowing us to perhaps understand where some otherwise irrational prejudice comes from. It does not however, excuse that prejudice. Millions of years of evolution have allowed human beings to transcend their biological roots; not be a prisoner to them.