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The Evolution of Spite

A new theory detailing why people engage in racist and spiteful behavior highlights how we act most altruistically toward those similar to ourselves. At a time when racial discrimination at the hands of law enforcement is so prevalent, could understanding the scientific underpinnings of such feelings prevent similar conduct in the future?
Hundreds of demonstrators filled New York City's Union Square in support of  Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. Attempts to march resulted in more  than 100 arrests by the NYPD. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Hundreds of demonstrators filled New York City's Union Square in support of Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. Attempts to march resulted in more than 100 arrests by the NYPD. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

America’s prejudice problem has spent almost a year on the world stage. After the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, a spate of white-cop-on-black-kid murders has followed, leaving racial tensions uncomfortably simmering above the surface. From 12-year-old victim Tamir Rice in Cleveland to the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a Baltimore police van, there remains no corner of the country that has gone untouched by violence, uprisings, and yet more violence.

It is hard to understand how a nation so long considered among the paragons of socio-ethnic acceptance (despite many obvious examples to the contrary) has developed an appetite for re-instating the wedge between whites and blacks, but a new evolutionary theory seeks to explain how our predilection for spite against those who differ from ourselves is cultivated.

Research from Queen’s University-Ontario and the One Earth Future Foundation—an organization that seeks to improve systems that can prevent armed conflict—published last month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, explains that individuals evolve to be spiteful in nature toward those unlike themselves, often going to extreme lengths to cause them pain. Psychology professor DB Krupp and math professor Peter Taylor, who authored the paper, define spite as "when behavior causes, over a lifetime and across the population, a net loss to one’s own fitness—reproduction and survival—as well as a net loss to a partner’s fitness." They believe that their findings could be key to understanding why racism and prejudice exist.

"Similar individuals are more likely to share copies of each other’s genes and dissimilar individuals are less likely to," Krupp says. "As a consequence, evolutionary theory predicts that organisms will often discriminate, because helping similar partners and harming dissimilar ones increases the fraction of the discriminating party’s genes in future generations."

The pair’s research confirmed that individuals who identify least with others in a group will develop to be more altruistic to those most similar to them, and slightly spiteful to those who are dissimilar, while this was far more exaggerated among those akin—and presumably more at ease—with their peers.

Their model uses inclusive fitness theory, a biological framework for how the altruism of an individual can affect its neighbors. The results did not come as a surprise to Krupp, but they were “more impressive than I had originally expected,” he says. “The specific results are exciting. The existence (and persistence) of altruism and spite—in which individuals pay a lifetime cost in terms of reproduction and survival to help or to harm others, respectively—remains an interesting problem. We were pleased to discover something new and, hopefully, significant.”

Given the current racial climate—one which has the murders of black men played millions of times on phones and in homes around the world, with protests from coast to coast and a growing disconnect between law enforcement and citizens—understanding and addressing our prejudices has never been more important. Though there is currently no comprehensive national data on the use and effects of lethal force by authorities, statistics from available homicide reports show that black people were almost three times as likely to be killed as a result of “legal intervention” between 1980 and 2012, while that rate was 18 times higher for 15- to 19-year-olds of the same racial demographic from 2010 to 2012. Minorities make up around one-quarter of police forces nationwide, and numerous police departments in the United States have 30 percent more white officers than the communities in which they serve.

“Our model suggests that, even when acting as individuals rather than as groups, people of the more common ethnic group (at least, in their own experience) will be more inclined to hurt minority groups than the other way around,” Krupp says. “Suicide terrorism is an extreme example of this, where someone is willing to kill themselves to kill others. It is a tactic used strategically, to be sure, and it will tend to be used when competition between groups is extreme.”

"Evolutionary theory predicts that organisms will often discriminate; helping similar partners and harming dissimilar ones increases the fraction of the discriminating party’s genes in future generations."

The burgeoning racial disparity we’ve seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson is living proof of this new model, according to Anita Thomas, associate professor and a specialist in race issues among African-American youth at Loyola University in Illinois. “It's easier to make the bridge across feelings, emotions, and experiences among those who are similar to you,” she says. “Much of the divide around police shootings comes from the notion that it's easier to understand the perspective of individuals who are in a similar racial group because they would be most similar to ourselves.”

Given our biological predisposition to wish to inflict harm upon those unlike us, perhaps this sense of spite shouldn’t be considered so surprising. But Krupp and Taylor’s theory also explains that our natural inclinations can be overcome, and that we can evolve to be less spiteful. Humans have, overall, grown to be far nicer to each other over the generations, demonstrating that we are able to adapt our behaviors accordingly. “We found something quite striking: Organisms can evolve to pay costs that far outstrip the ones they spitefully impose on their interacting partners,” Krupp says. “This means that very extreme forms of spite can, in principle, evolve.”

We have the capacity for change, then, but how can we foster it? “The more you can connect people across different roots, so that they experience different characteristics and can build a sense of empathy toward those who seem different, the more likely people then are to be able to consider alternative perspectives,” Thomas says. What we’re seeing now, she says, is “an accumulation of trauma and negative emotional experiences that people have not had an outlet for. With the increase in social media and media attention, people are finding it more cathartic to have an emotional reaction through rioting or picketing, or signing online petitions.”

Perhaps some small shred of hope can be gleaned in the very public manifestation of these prejudices; their playing out in full view ensures they can no longer be relegated to realms of “out of sight, out of mind.” If we are able to acknowledge skewed behaviors and address our adoption of them, perhaps our tendency toward spite against minorities is something we can evolve beyond—for good.