Dehumanization of the “Other”

An article in the latest Scientific American presents the case that the success of homo sapiens in dominating the planet and essentially wiping out the Neandertals and Denisovians, if not other yet undiscovered hominid species, resulted from the ability of humans to cooperate on a larger scale than other hominids.

It appears from the fossil and archeological evidence that we’ve so far discovered that Neandertals never congregated in large groups, and yet they were successful in making weapons and hunting rather large game. They were physically stronger than homo sapiens, and their brain size was comparable, possibly even larger. But it’s pretty clear that over time, they never had a chance once homo sapiens moved into the same territory.

The article also postulates that the human tendency toward cooperation is at least partly genetic. If so, this leads to a very interesting corollary – that prejudice indeed “has to be carefully taught.” And, in fact, human history bears this out in large degree. In every war and conflict that there appears to be a record of, and probably in all those without any records, at least one side has gone to great lengths to dehumanize the other side… and in many cases, both sides have attempted to dehumanize their opponents.

The same is true in terms of discrimination. From the beginning of slavery in the United States, blacks/Afro-Americans were considered inferior. Even the vaunted Constitution only counted each of them as three-fifths of a person. The same pattern exists with regard to gender discrimination, particularly of women, with pervasive and long-standing suggestions that women were inferior because they were “emotional” or “weak” or whatever else would make them “lesser” than men.

Yet experience, science, and history all refute such allegations. There have been great “black” civilizations and cultures and some pretty abysmal “white” ones. There has been no shortage of black “geniuses” or white idiots, or vice versa. And whenever women have been given equal opportunity and resources, they’ve done just as well as men in terms of intelligence and achievement… and in innumerable instances far better than the “best” men in almost any given field.

Given all this, it seems apparent that, because humans actually have a tendency to cooperate, dehumanization has become a cultural tool for overriding the cooperative trait and for gaining personal power. We don’t necessarily think of it that way, but even I find myself doing it, for instance, by calling people “idiots” when they do something stupid or thoughtless. Admittedly, individuals can be idiots, as we all know, but idiocy is generally individual, not cultural, and there’s a very fine line between accurately assessing someone’s lack of ability on an individual basis and applying that “lack” to an entire group in order to dehumanize them, yet dehumanization persists,and it’s usually used in pursuit or maintenance of power.

5 thoughts on “Dehumanization of the “Other””

  1. wayne kernochan says:

    As usual, thought-provoking 🙂 I’d like to add a couple of interesting things I heard recently.

    (1) From new genetic testing, it appears that many Europeans contain Neanderthal genetic material and that therefore some or all of the “vanishing” of Neanderthals can be explained as interbreeding between a much larger (Homo sapiens) and much smaller (Neanderthal) population.

    (2) There is apparently a concept in sociology (?) called “altruistic punishment.” In it, one person within the group seeks to topple the person strictly out for personal power. In the process (hence the “punishment”) the altruist suffers far more than he or she gains, but groups with “altruistic punishment” tend to be more successful than groups with no such altruists. (Yes, here altruism is a term of art, not saying that the individual is an altruist in general, just saying the individual is acting that way in this particular case).

  2. Guy says:

    I’ve wondered if prejudice, in the context of a “taught” bias against a sub-group within a larger population is an offshoot of an evolutionary wariness against strangers in general. Strangers in this case meaning those not being of the group or tribe whether of the same species or not. As homo sapiens spread, geographic distances between groups allowed this same sense of otherness to intensify as physical characteristics shifted to adapt to the wide and varied environments we spread to. Oddly, many groups of otherwise physically identical people, like the indigenous peoples of North America if I understand correctly, considered their own tribes as “human” and all others as “sub-human”. Discussions like this really make me wish I had majored in Anthropology.

    1. JakeB says:

      I conjecture it derives from the value of avoiding strange diseases brought by outsiders + the risk of having one’s culture modified by new influences, outweighing the genetic value of exophilia

  3. Joe says:

    The paradox of Slave and Master (Hegel).

    To own a slave, you must dehumanize yourself a little, for naturally you would recognize the slave’s humanity and need to learn to ignore that. And thus masters become less human and less free. Dare I say, Untermenschen.

    The same applies to all other forms of “dehumanization” including treating other sentient beings poorly.

    People may be idiots, in fact most probably are, but they’re never as simple as one’s conception of them is.

    I’m curious to what black geniuses you are referring. Although statistically they must exist, I know of very few of them, and could benefit from learning about more of them.

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