It is sometimes claimed that racism could be the result of a natural instinct, something we overcame due to civilization.

For example, Charles Miller made that claim in 1999 in the Anomalist.

"But my contention that "racism" may also be a human instinct is the one that usually draws a storm of criticism from all corners--probably because we in 20th Century Western Culture prefer to believe that racism is a bad habit or something that we can extinguish with a little social discipline. If we were to accept that racism is a survival instinct--left over, perhaps, from hundreds of thousands of years ago when several different species of human were competing against one another for survival--then we would also have to accept that racism as an instinct may defy the social engineering of one or two generations (thus lending to the angst of many civil rights activists, I can imagine)."

(Taken from the comments)

Richard Dawkins seems to propose the theory that racism could be the result of an evolutionary adaptation. From The God Delusion:

[racism] could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance

Is there any evidence for racism being a human instinct, as opposed to a learned behaviour.

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    do you have any strong indication otherwise? Racism is a natural extension of favouring your own tribe over others, which is indeed a survival instinct.
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 6:20
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    It's an odd argument (in the Anomalist). In the rest of the article, he ignores the Theory of Evolution, confuses the length of a generation, asserts an anecdote is true without evidence in the face of denials, and most excitingly, claims "reincarnation is a neuro-genetic memory, a survival tool that actually allows us to learn from our collective human past."
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 6:21
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    The main argument suffers from a false dilemma. Couldn't racism (or xenophobia in general), be both natural AND something that can be generally overcome with social conditioning, like murder, rape and spitting in the street?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 6:24
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    I've seen the argument that in evolutionary history, we didn't really get to see much of other races on a daily basis. As a general rule, our enemies were the neighbouring tribes, of the same race as us. As such, the conditions for a racist instinct to arise in the first place weren't really fulfilled.
    – Ana
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 12:50
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    The claim is based on classical trick of using a word which currently has different meaning and taking just narrow particular meaning. What's called "racism" in the claim is actually a racial bias, while word "racism" in modern, common usage meaning implies discrimination and superiority of one race over other.
    – vartec
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 11:22

1 Answer 1


A preference for one's own ethnic group is not present at birth, but learned during the first few months of life.

(Source - Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces)

Newborn and 3-month old babies were shown pairs of photos of faces to see if they preferred faces of people from their own ethnic group or faces of people not from their own ethnic group.

While newborn infants demonstrated no spontaneous preference for faces from either their own- or other-ethnic groups, 3-month-old infants demonstrated a significant preference for faces from their own-ethnic group. These results suggest that preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences is not present in the first days of life, but is learned within the first 3 months of life. The findings imply that adults' perceptions of ethnic differences are learned and derived from differences in exposure to own- versus other-race faces during early development.

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    "The findings imply that adults' perceptions of ethnic differences are learned and derived from differences in exposure to own- versus other-race faces during early development." -- therefore, there is no necessary preference for own-race faces, only for what the babies are used to.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 14:33
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    'Preference' in this study actually means: 'they spent more time looking at'. Even if there was no confound of babies spending more time with their own race, would this really imply racism? Also, it might be the case that babies of other races also prefer to look at Caucasian faces. It hasn't been researched here, so we don't know.
    – Ana
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 15:36
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    This is very good example of pseudo-science. 3 months is about when babies start recognizing faces at all. Until then, newborn recognizes people mainly by voice.
    – vartec
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 16:35
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    @vartec from the introduction of the article I linked to - "In the first few days of life, newborn infants demonstrate a visual preference for faces, a preference for their mother's face over a stranger's face, and the ability to discriminate between faces from their own-ethnic group. Also, newborns demonstrate a preference for attractive over unattractive faces"
    – Tom77
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 16:47
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    babycenter.com/408_when-will-my-baby-recognize-me_1368483.bc "At first a baby's vision is quite blurry, and he can only see things about a foot away — the distance between his eyes and yours when you're feeding him. "By about 3 months you'll notice that your baby is able look directly at you and can even track an object that you move from side to side in front of him," says Reinstein (a pediatrician in Encino, California and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics)
    – vartec
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 9:51

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