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The Origin of Human Prejudice

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When you meet someone who is different from you in some way, do you immediately accept that person as if they were part of your closest family and friends or do you tend to have some reserve about welcoming them into your inner sanctum?  What about someone from a different ethnic background from yourself? Do you have a tendency to be prejudiced against them?  Or what about someone with a physical deformity such as cleft lip, severe osteoporosis or arthritis, muscular dystrophy or the loss of a limb?  If you see someone dressed in filthy clothes begging on a street corner, do you have a tendency to form prejudices about them? What about someone that worships differently than you such as a Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hare Krishna or someone who doesn’t worship at all and professes to be an atheist? 

Early in life, we develop prejudices toward others that are not members of our own family or close group of friends.  Sadly, many of us also form prejudices against close family members who have wronged us in some way or another.  The further someone is from our inner group of family and friends, the more we have a tendency to form some type of prejudice against them. 

Have you ever wondered where those prejudices come from? I don’t mean from parents or by the way we are nurtured, but what is it that actually causes us to form prejudices in the first place.  What part of our human nature is truly responsible?

According to a recent study conducted by Yale researchers, forming prejudices is the result of 25 million years of primate evolutionary heritage.  Psychologist Dr. Laurie Santos who led the study said:

One of the more troubling aspects of human nature is that we evaluate people differently depending on whether they’re a member of our ‘ingroup’ or ‘outgroup.’ Pretty much every conflict in human history has involved people making distinctions on the basis of who is a member of their own race, religion, social class, and so on. The question we were interested in is: Where do these types of group distinctions come from?

The study was conducted using rhesus macaque monkeys on a Puerto Rican island.  They presented the macaques with photos of members of their own social group and members from a different social group.  Dr. Santos observed that the monkeys stared longer at the photos of members of other social groups than those of their own group. 

Next, they paired the photos of both ingroup and outgroup monkeys with good things like fruit and bad things like spiders.  Again they observed how long the monkeys stared at the photos.  They found that they stared longer at the photos of outgroup members with the fruit. 

Based on this study, Dr. Santos and her colleagues concluded that the way humans make distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ may go back 25 million years to when we supposedly shared a common ancestor with the macaques.  Dr. Santos concluded:

The bad news is that the tendency to dislike outgroup members appears to be evolutionarily quite old, and therefore may be less simple to eliminate than we’d like to think. The good news, though, is that even monkeys seem to be flexible about who counts as a group member. If we humans can find ways to harness this evolved flexibility, it might allow us to become an even more tolerant species.

From a biblical standpoint we would have to disagree with Dr. Santos and her team as to the origin of human prejudices and say that it all started when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden.  After Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world and with sin came corruption and with corruption came prejudices.  Our first examples of human prejudices are found in Genesis 3:15:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

Enmity creates prejudice in a sinful world that now surrounded Adam and Eve.  Due to the serpent’s deception and the enmity that God placed between them, mankind from here on out would be suspicious and prejudice of the serpent and anyone else that tempted them.

Also linked to prejudices are jealousy, envy and greed.  When we become jealous or envious of what someone else has, whether we realize it or not, we establish a prejudice against that person or persons.  The first recorded case of this type of prejudice can be found in Genesis 4:3-8:

3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  8Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

When God did not regard Cain’s sacrifice as He did Abel’s, Cain became envious and jealous of his brother.  An intense prejudice and hatred for his brother boiled up inside Cain to the point where it drove him to murder. 

Next we have the first example of prejudices from groups of people in Genesis 4:12-16:

12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain’s sins of jealously, anger, hatred, prejudice and murder led him to be banished from his home and sent out into the world.  Cain feared that others would be prejudiced against him for what he did to Abel. 

Before any of our critics start to jump on their keyboards and write in about who Cain was afraid of, please allow me to explain.  Scripture does not tell us how old Cain and Abel were when the murder of Abel took place.  Obviously they were adults and caring for their own flocks and fields.  In Genesis 5:4 we are told that Adam had other sons and daughters.  As those other sons and daughters matured, they married and went out and established their own homes.  Therefore, the people that Cain was afraid of were his own brothers and sisters and their children.  Also note that this was long before the laws forbidding the marrying of siblings and not long enough for a significant number of harmful mutations could build up within a family.

Therefore, as demonstrated, our natural tendency to form prejudices against others is not the result of 25 million years of primate and human evolution but is a result of our sinful nature.  And if you want to find a way to become less prejudicial and more loving of others (note I did not say tolerant as Dr. Santos did), all you need to do is to turn your lives over to Jesus and accept Him as your Savior and Lord.  Not only will your soul be saved from eternal damnation, but you will reap the reward of walking by the Spirit instead of the ways of the world as laid out in Galatians 5:16-26:

16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  25If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Reference

Human Prejudice Has Ancient Evolutionary Roots, Science Daily News, march 18, 2011.

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