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Evolutionary Origins of Ethnic Identity

Francisco Gil-White sits "Mongol fashion" on the floor of his new apartment in Philadelphia. A guitar in a black case leans against the slightly beat wall, and sunlight glitters on the Delaware River outside his third floor window.

He's on the floor because his furniture has not yet arrived from Los Angeles, where he recently completed a Ph.D. at UCLA. He's sitting like a Mongol--one leg folded under with his butt resting on the foot, the other leg bent up, thigh against his chest--because he's accustomed to the posture. He spent 11 months in the highlands and steppes of western Mongolia studying the ethnic sentiments of nomadic peoples. The data he collected helps support hypotheses about how ethnicity and the beliefs sustaining it may have evolved.

Gil-White, one of the newest faculty members in SAS, is rangy and affable. Although his doctorate is in anthropology, his appointment is in the psychology department. He has a narrow face, dark eyes and hair, a square jaw, and speaks with a mild Latin accent. Loose-fitting jeans and white sneakers amplify his youthful appearance. When he came to Penn in the summer, he was introduced at a party as someone new on campus. "So, have you decided on a major yet?" he was asked.

Ethnic Identity
Born in America of Mexican parents--his father was working on a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago--he grew up in Mexico City. His elementary education took place in American-run schools, where half the day was spent learning in English from American teachers and American textbooks. The remainder of the day was a recapitulation of the earlier lessons but this time in Spanish and with Mexican teachers and books.

As an undergraduate at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music he studied composition and developed a taste for "20th century style avant-garde classical music that nobody likes to listen to"--or buy. With little hope of supporting himself on the musical tastes of the mass market, he turned to anthropology. "It's not because the music I was writing was not good," he remarks, "but because it didn't seem to have an impact either way on anybody. I didn't want to have an irrelevant life."

The study of anthropology hardly seems the most direct route to having, as he puts it, "a social impact." "I grew up in Mexico thinking I was American. At the same time I realized I was also Mexican. Having that double identity whittled down both and gave me some distance from identity."

What most of us take for granted became for him a question. Why do people feel pride in being a member of a group? What is the connection between feeling a sense of pride and the prejudice that often seems to accompany it? "The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that people would get so exercised by an accident of fate. . . . It became something puzzling that I wished I could explain."

Middle of Nowhere
To go after an explanation, Gil-White made another non-obvious choice once he had undertaken graduate study: he went to the Republic of Mongolia. Apart from the romance of travel to a far-off and exotic locale, there were good scientific reasons to go there.

The young scholar perceived that people commonly think of ethnicity as something that's handed down through one's birth lineage--you are a member of the group because your parents are. Group members are believed to possess some inner nature, a unique and hidden essence that imparts the ethnic identity. Psychologists and anthropologists call this way of thinking "essentialism."

To test for this, it was necessary to find a population whose groups looked much the same in their physical attributes, had mostly the same occupations with no marked socio-economic distinctions, and practiced proselytizing religions--belief systems that accepted converts. "Choosing Mongolia had a lot to do with the fact that it was multi-ethnic, and you get all these controls for a study of ethnicity. If these people were making essentializing distinctions, then I could say there's something about ethnicity that makes people think this way."

Traveling mostly on horseback, Gil-White questioned members of two nomadic groups, Mongols and Kazakhs, about how they understood ethnic identity--their own and others.

Essence of Identity
Responses confirmed his suppositions, even for a hypothetical case in which a child was adopted and grew up a member of one group with no contact with the birth group. "You could be dressing, speaking, reacting, have all the cultural habits and mores of a Kazakh," he reports, "and you could even think of yourself as a Kazakh. But people will not classify you as one unless you are biologically descended from a Kazakh." The same held for Mongols.

When questioned further about how a Mongol raised entirely as a Kazakh would differ, the nomads claimed the adopted person would look "Mongol," despite strong similarities in appearance between the groups. A majority also stated that the adopted Mongol would not be quite "Kazakh" in behavior or personality.

Gil-White notes that essentialist assumptions correspond to the distinctions people make when identifying natural living kinds or species categories. He speculates that the brain processes evolved for dealing with the great variety of plants and animals may have been tapped when humans needed to interact with strange groups of humans.

"An ethnic group," he explains, "is a cluster of ways of being a human--a cluster of rules for how to interact with people: how to marry, how to raise a child, how to make a promise, how to tell a good from a bad person, what's too greedy, what's shameful, and so on. Ethnic boundaries are rough and ready markers of where these norm boundaries show relatively sharp changes." When rules for social interaction are not shared, expectations are easily thwarted and a lot of energy gets wasted just trying to understand and coordinate with the other.

In ancestral societies, strategic alliances were forged by arranging marriages. Over time, he believes, parents discovered that marrying children to families across the norm boundary proved unsuccessful. Because the two groups had different norms, it was hard for partners and families to interpret each other's behavior and to act harmoniously. When that happened, "the endogamy boundary started to coincide with the norm-cluster boundary." As members habitually married within the group, the impression formed that behavior, which reflected group norms, resulted from biological descent. The incipient ethnic groups also developed unique customs for dress, face painting, scarification, and other practices to broadcast group membership, which made it easier for individuals to tell if others shared their assumptions about how to interact.

These features, distinctive behavior and appearance that are passed from one generation to the next, are cues humans use to identify living-kind categories. "If we already had the machinery to think about biological species," Gil-White reasons, "it seems plausible that when ethnic groups acquired all these characteristics, they fired those same mechanisms in the brain."

When the brain learns a new "hidden" property that is true for one member of a species--that a tiger thinks of me as food, for instance--it will generalize that lesson to all members. It is more adaptive--you're less likely to end up as food--to gamble on such guesses than to experiment with a large sample of tigers. The guesses will almost always turn out true, since nature endows members of a species with the same properties. Making comparable judgments about members of ethnic groups likewise tends to be correct, since individual behavior reflects the group's norms.

Ethnic Conflict
If thinking of ethnic groups as species resulted in less contact across ethnic boundaries, it too may have been adaptive, argues Gil-White. "You don't have to suffer the costs of interacting with those whose expectations about how the interaction is supposed to go match up with yours.... Natural selection appears to have given us subjective feelings of built-in distrust tinged with fear towards those who don't share our 'essence.'" Just as hunger pangs send the human organism into the world to forage, distrust prevents it from interacting with others in ways that put it at a disadvantage.

People who violate their own group's norms earn members' distrust; they are the epitome of a "bad person," and members soon learn to avoid that individual. People from other groups, which have different normative rules, also fail to meet expectations about how to interact. "Even when there is no ill will," Gil-White maintains, "you suffer the costs of miscoordinated interactions, which for most situations will be very similar to the costs of interacting with dishonest people in your own group. So natural selection has given us a psychology that treats anybody who violates my group's norms as 'bad,' 'untrustworthy' people. That's why, I think, inter-ethnic relationships become so easily imbued with negative feelings."

Gil-White was a fellow at the 1999 Summer Institute for the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. "The project for me," he says, "has always been to understand better how we think about ethnic groups as a way to begin understanding ethnopolitical conflict."

The states that try to mediate outbreaks of ethnic hostility often come from a liberal-democratic tradition in the West. Typically, what counts as a solution is helping belligerents to practice tolerance in a state structure rebuilt on the ashes of violence. Although a laudable goal, Gil-White suggests that partition may sometimes be the lesser evil and ought to be considered one of several alternatives for intervention. "Right after an ethnic war, people probably cannot get themselves not to fear the people in the other group," he says, "and they may essentialize them so strongly that learning to think of them in other terms is extremely difficult." If they can be made to feel secure in their own political structures without competition from the other group, he suggests, subsequent generations may be freed to find ways of getting along.

"Tolerance may not be one of nature's virtues, but that doesn't mean we can't learn it. If the story I'm telling is true--and I'm very skeptical that I know all the answers--then it may teach policy makers to reconsider interventions that force people to get along in reconstituted, multi-ethnic states. Under some circumstances, a different approach may give tolerance a better chance."


by Dr. Francisco Gil-White

Tsoodol, a Torguud Mongol and my best friend, is honoring me as an ax (elder) of his son Xöxööch (pronounce x as kh). He is giving me milk to drink, or else it is shimiin arxi, a spirit made by distilling a mixture of fermented goat and cow milk. Cold, unadulterated milk is the holiest thing you can offer someone and is used at the most special occasions. Arxi is special too. Both are used in ceremonial settings to honor those present. This particular ceremony is the cutting of Xöxööch's "birth hair." It was the first time in his life that his hair was cut. It is a solemn occasion, and after the birth hair is removed everybody fusses over him and tells him that he is now a "complete" young man. It is a rite of passage and is usually done when the child turns three or five. At this ceremony, each of his male elders must cut a tuft of his hair until it is all gone. Important elder females, such as mom and grandma, do this as well. If one of his main ax cannot attend, then a tuft of hair is left on the child's shaved head so that this person may remove it at a later date, again with some ceremony. Tsoodol honored me greatly by timing the cutting of Xöxööch's hair so that I would be present.

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