Chapter 1 of US AND THEM
Us and Them
by David Berreby
"THAT'S OUR BIGGEST DIFFERENCE"
All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They.
-Rudyard Kipling, "A Friend of the Family"
Scientists, when they turn their attention to people, usually talk about the entire human race or about the individual human being. Those are two faces of the same idea. Truth about all is truth about each; a theory about the mind or morality applies to everyone who ever lived, as well as to you in particular. Either perspective yields big explanations, which make many predictions to test and suggest many experiments. It's where researchers like to be - working on "the" genome, or "the" brain, or "the" self.
They aren't nearly as comfortable with the categories in between one person and all people - the ones that researchers, like everyone else, use when they're off duty, away from their work. Categories like Americans and Iranians, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, men and women, southerners and northerners, doctors and lawyers, gays and straights, soccer moms and NASCAR dads, outgoing people and shy types, smart ones and lucky ones. Those - and all other labels that define more than one person but fewer than all - are what I (following the philosopher Ian Hacking and the psychological anthropologist Lawrence A. Hirschfeld) call "human kinds."
Human kinds, whose memberships fall between All and One, map a much more variegated world than that one-size-fits-all label Homo sapiens. Some human kinds are types, like cranky old men and plumbers. Others are cultures, like Basques and Thais. Some are old and populous, like the category Japanese or Jain; others are smallscale and recent, like "former graduate students of Steven Pinker."
Some human kinds even include nonhumans. Your family, for example, might include a dog or a cat for which you feel more and do more than you do for faraway people. And human kinds may also enfold nonliving things-like flags, sacred books, and graves-that are revered and protected as if they too had lives to live and lose.
Human kinds are infinitely divisible: examine one, and you find inside it subcategories and, inside those, still more. For example, military veterans are a distinct kind of person from those who did not serve; Navy vets are distinct from other services; those who served in the brown-shoe navy (its aviation-related services) are distinct from the black-shoe navy (other ships), and among the black-shoe vets submariners are their own tribe, and so on and on. Some human kinds, we are told from a very early age, we were born into-families, races, ethnic groups, religions, and nations. Other kinds are based on bodies: male and female, athletic or disabled. There are other kinds that other people put us into, like nerd or jock, Bible-thumper or Godless secular humanist. There are the kinds we join by passing special tests, like doctor or accountant. And the ones we join to make a living, like pizza guy or copyeditor. There are happenstance human kinds, like "women in the ladies' room on the 8:15 ferry." There are others we sign ourselves into by conviction, like the National Rifle Association or the Democratic Party, and some we join because we think we must to survive- like gangs, militias, and secret societies.
Some human kinds make sense only because members see and depend on each other every day, like the soldiers in a combat unit. Others consist of people who never meet, like the millions of fellow citizens those soldiers defend. In other words, human kinds serve so many different needs, there is no single recipe for making one. Parentage makes a person a Brahmin, training makes her a soldier, sending in dues makes her a member of a religious congregation. She can convert to Islam, but not to Chineseness; she can marry into Protestantism, not into liberalism.
Why is all this variety possible? That's not a question that can be answered by looking at the political, economic, or cultural aspects of human kinds, as important as those aspects are. The issue is not what human kinds are in the world, but what they are in the mind - not how we tell Tamils and Seventh-Day Adventists and fans of Manchester United from their fellow human beings, but why we want to.
After all, other creatures get along fine without dividing themselves into such tribes. With one important exception, for instance, humanity's close relative the chimpanzee goes through life quite well solving only problems about Everychimp and problems about My Friend and Cousin, the one with the long face and the limp - chimps in general and individuals. Yet a human who went through life like that would not know what "our kind" of food is, or enjoy "our kind" of music, or know what "we do" when someone dies.
Such a person, lacking any sense of family tradition, religious history, patriotism, or cultural pride, would not live a fully human life. Human-kind thinking is an absolute requirement for being human.
Which brings up the dark side: people are killed for nothing more than their membership in the "wrong" tribes. Many times in the past few years, young men who were polite and thoughtful to members of their own sort, who loved their mothers and listened to their fathers and cared for their children, set out to kill other people's mothers and fathers and children without a qualm - in New York City on September 11, 2001; in Beslan, Russia, on September 1, 2004; in Nazi-ruled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. More examples could fill every page of this book. Throughout history, killers have worked with zeal because they believed their victims were not of the same kind as the people they cared about, the people who mattered. No wonder people both cherish and fear the power of tribal thinking. No wonder they want to understand it.
Many people today find themselves struggling, again and again, with a difficult question: Who is "our side"? In the days after the September 11 attacks, the prime minister of Italy spoke of the superiority of Christian civilization and was immediately denounced by his allies; two religious leaders in the United States tried to claim that abortionists and civil libertarians did not belong in the new alliance against terror because they made God angry. The president of the United States, though he was a political ally, rebuked the clergymen. The new antiterror coalition of nations could not make war on Islam because they had millions of Muslim citizens. Was it, then, a coalition of democracies? The most important frontline ally in the ensuing war was Pakistan, a dictatorship.Obviously, sides in the current conflict were chosen; they aren't a matter of "natural" or inevitable divisions. Today it is clear as never before that human kinds - those categories we use to explain human acts on every scale, from a morning walk ("Why were those men wearing turbans?") to all of history ("Is war inevitable?") - don't depend on what people are, but on what people believe.
That's the difference between human tribes and the boundaries animals observe. Many creatures, from mice and pigeons to lions and dolphins, know a member of "our group" from a stranger. All these creatures have been well studied in the past few decades, and the pattern is clear: fights within the group are limited and tend not to get out of hand, but fights between groups end in deaths. This in-group restraint, as the psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay has said, gave rise to the widely believed myth that animals don't kill their own kind. In fact many animals - lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, hyenas - are happy to kill their own. The victim just can't be a member of their little band.
Animals, though, don't make decisions about who is "in" and who is "out." A dog guards her puppies because they are kin, and members of her human family because they are friends. But no dog quits her humans because they have converted to Catholicism or put a peace sign on the lawn.
People can and will make that sort of change, because people, unlike animals, make choices based on signs-crosses, uniforms, peace signs, oaths, and other indicators of a particular human kind. Animals have kin and animals have friends, but only human beings trust symbols to tell who is kin and who is a friend.
One August night in New York City in 1997, for example, the crucial symbol was a tiny piece of metal. A white cop beat up a black man he had arrested. Later, both men were in the bathroom of the police station, where the officer spotted a tiny crucifix that his victim wore around his neck. That was enough to make the cop put away one map of human kinds and take up another - instead of police against suspect, or white against black, he now saw two fellow Christians. The officer said he too believed in Jesus, and apologized.
In Sovu, Rwanda, on May ?, ????, the symbol was a bit of cloth. That day, Tutsi refugees sought escape from bands of Hutus in Sovu's convent. The mother superior, Sister Gertrude, called in the Hutu militia. Hundreds of the Tutsi were shot, hacked, or burned to death. But Sister Gertrude did not turn over the convent's Tutsi nuns. Their veils protected them. Seeing this, a nineteen-year-old woman named Aline, the niece of a nun, begged for a veil. Sister Gertrude refused.
Seven years later, she was convicted in Belgium of war crimes. Among the witnesses was the murdered niece's mother. "My daughter was killed because of a little piece of cloth," she said. If humans are, as the neuroscientist Terence Deacon puts it, the "symbolic species," then human kinds are among those features that reveal our uniqueness. A symbolic strip of cloth - its presence saving you from a pack of rampaging killers, its absence marking you as the kind to kill - is something only Homo sapiens creates.
But a symbol, like that nun's veil, is meaningless unless it is understood. If the murderers had thought it was just a bit of cloth, for example, they would have killed all the Tutsi who wore it. Any activity that depends on symbols can't be understood without taking into account the human minds that use those symbols. Imagine trying to get by in Kinyarwanda, the language shared by Hutu and Tutsi, by treating it only as a system of sounds - wavelengths and acoustic properties. You wouldn't get far until you accepted that these sounds meant something, and found someone to explain what those meanings were.
In the same way, human kinds can't be understood objectively, as a collection of facts about blood types, skull shapes, average ages, preferred brands, and so on. Those facts seen from the outside can never tell what the human kind means. That meaning is made inside the heads of people who believe in it.
Scientists who study a pack of macaque monkeys can predict who gets along with whom. Knowing which animals are relatives and which are allies lets an observer explain the fights and frolics very well. But "objective" knowledge of human kinds does not. Sister Gertrude was a Hutu, so you would not be surprised if she had sent all the Tutsi in the convent to death.Yet she was also a nun, so it's not a surprise that she saved fellow nuns even though they were Tutsi. She was also a Christian; it would be admirable and understandable if she had stood, on religious principles, against the killing of any human being.
The important point is that any of these alternatives is possible. Mindless facts - who is a Tutsi, who is a Hutu, who has a veil, who lacks one - cannot predict what people will do. Human beings are unusually alike, compared to most species. We're also, each of us, unique. From those two facts, it follows that measurable, objective differences will always exist between any two groupings of people, and that any two groups, no matter how different, will be the same on many other measures. It will always be possible to find differences between this race and that one, this nation and those, people with this gene versus people without it. But not one of those facts will tell why you divided people into the human kinds you chose to analyze.
People who look at the traits of the kinds themselves, then, are posing the wrong questions. Do American Jews have higher average scores on certain academic tests than other Americans? Do African American marrieds have sex more often than others? Are Hispanics more likely to attend church? Maybe so, maybe not; but people don't start with data and then divide the world into Jews, African Americans, and Hispanics. It's the other way around. First we believe in those human kinds, and then, because we believe, we gather the data. To understand this aspect of ourselves, we don't need any more facts about human kinds.We need facts about human minds.
One way to find those facts is to study human kinds as if they were rules for thinking-methods of sorting out perceptions. You see a woman caring for her child and class her as a mother; you see a white-haired, stooped man and class him as an old person. That's a psychologist's approach. On the other hand, sociologists and anthropologists have looked at human kinds as rules for behavior-methods of knowing what people are supposed to do. In the right circumstances, knowing that someone is in the navy, or a doctor, or a devout Christian, tells you what he's likely to do, and how you should act in your turn. That knowledge serves as a bulwark against the force of ever-changing circumstances. Feeling hurried or stressed makes people less likely to help another person, but a reminder of their duties as members of a human kind can make them turn back. A military uniform, a Hippocratic oath, a bracelet that asks Christians "what would Jesus do?" - such tokens of membership make our actions more consistent than they would otherwise be. They remind us to look beyond the emotions of right here, right now, and act as members should. The navy is supposed to defend the nation, doctors to heal the sick, Christians to be Christlike, no matter what.
So these human kinds offer the joy of belonging to something larger than the little self; they let us thrill to a feeling of existence across centuries and continents, of being alive so long as "we," our kind, endure. The first type of human kind is a category based on traits ("white hair equals old person," for example). The second type is based on obligations ("Soldiers must serve the nation"). An institution of this second sort, we sense, must act consistently, even if individual members fail it. That's what defines human kinds of this second type: the things people do to belong.
That consistency makes it easy to think of this sort of human kind as if it were a person itself - a being with thoughts, plans, and feelings of its own. Nations have moods, schools have spirits, and a congregation can repent. You can say the navy has decided to seek more recruits next year. It's harder to come up with a sentence about how the world's mothers have decided to act.
Nonetheless, these two viewpoints - human kinds as categories and human kinds as entities that happen to be made of people - are looking at one phenomenon. All human kinds have aspects of both, though the proportions can change over time. Half a century ago in North America, "homosexual" was mostly a category for people.Today in many Western nations, gays and lesbians are seen as an entity that wants, hopes, decides, and votes. On the other hand, the Norwegian community of New York City used to be an entity, with neighborhoods, clubs, and churches that helped organize people's lives. "Norwegians" made up a thing made of people. Today New York's Norwegians, despite annual parades, are mostly members of a category for people.
Underlying our myriad human kinds, then, is a fundamental unity. It is reflected in the way people blur distinctions. Most people don't blink at the much-used phrase "moderate Hutus," for example, even though "moderate" and "militant" describe political convictions and the Hutu are an ethnic group. Yes, it's birth that makes you a Brahmin, but it takes training to live as one; yes, you must sign up for army service, but many a son and grandson of military officers has enlisted because he felt "born to it." You become an employee of a corporation to make a living, but you can come to feel a familylike love for the place - like those Apple Computer employees who were said to bleed in the six colors of the company logo.
In fact, people speak about all human kinds with one language; something said about one can be said about any other. For example, when the American political commentator Paul Begala interviewed a prominent congressman, J. C. Watts, for a television program in 2002, he began: "Let me say, I'm a liberal. You're a conservative. That's not our biggest difference. I'm white, you're black, that's not our biggest difference. I'm a Texas Longhorn and you're an Oklahoma Sooner, and . . ."
"That's our biggest difference," Watts said. "That's the biggest," Begala replied. "That's bigger than anything else."
It wasn't, of course. Banter about college football was, in fact, a demonstration that there was a way in which they were not different. They were getting in sync, establishing that there is a human kind to which they both belong: powerful Washington guy. (For men of this tribe, as the journalist Nicholas Lemann noted, sports joshing is a way to signal that "membership in a community of important people trumps the enmity the system forces them to act out.") Notice, though, what made the conversation possible: the way politics, race, and sports fandom can be talked about as if they were the same. Why should these different human kinds, with their different purposes and histories, feel equivalent? One reason is that they share mental processes. Your ability to think of people as "German" partly depends on your general ability to categorize anything- to divide a flood of perceptions into birds and trees, gears and Gummi bears, hip-hop on the radio and grapes in a bowl on the table. Pigeonholes for people get some of their qualities from the mental equipment that makes pigeonholes for everything.
Categories of all sorts help explain what's happened and predict what will come next. Human kinds help predict what people will do, and there too they draw from a general capacity to find causes and patterns. "Today is cloudy and humid" is information that licenses you to predict that it might rain. Similarly, "He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma" is a piece of information that lets you predict a stranger likely will follow the Sooners through football season.
You also use human kinds to understand yourself. That means they must link to the brain's systems for monitoring the body, both inside and outside of your conscious awareness. "I feel tired and achy because I have been working hard" is a statement that combines your mind's reports on your mood and bodily state with memories and thoughts about cause and effect. "I get my self-reliance from my pioneer ancestors" is the same kind of multiprocess report, which relates your sense of yourself to your knowledge of cause and effect.
There are other ways in which thoughts and feelings about human kinds must involve a general-purpose mental machine, applied to the particular problem of understanding others.For example, people tend to treat nonhuman things as if they were human.We say cancer is a cruel disease, as if cancer had a personality; we yell at the crashed computer, as if it decided to ruin our file. Whether or not it can be true, we assume that things happen as the result of thoughts and moods in the minds of other beings. When people do the same thing to a tribe, as when they say, "America is arrogant," or "Buddhists are gentle," they're applying this general-purpose habit to human kinds. The mind also is equipped with a predisposition to understand other people and to get along with them.We attach this ability to team up with others to our sense of human kinds.We decide that someone is trustworthy not because we know him but because "he's a Mormon" or "she's a surgeon." There, too, we're applying a general habit to the special realm of human kinds.
So it's not too surprising that football fandom and race and nationality and religion can be talked about with the same words. These human-kind perceptions have different fates in society, but they come from shared pathways in the mind.
Yet that doesn't explain why people, unlike other creatures, have such elaborate categories for one another. Robins are a kind of bird, and Christians are a kind of person, and so those two concepts must share categorizing processes in the brain. But the category "Christians" also taps emotions and thoughts that don't arise when classing birds. It's likely, then, that there's a second major reason all human kinds feel alike: they draw on a special piece of the mind, which is dedicated only to them.
What might this special human-kind maker be like? One safe bet is this: it is not based on the rules of logic. It works outside of awareness, according to rules of its own. It is not at all like the rigorous study of causes and effects that people call science.
After all, much of what people say about human kinds is, as a matter of measurable fact and logic, meaningless. A soccer fan says, "We have a good chance of getting to the playoffs," but he'll have no effect on the matches, because he isn't on the team. A corporate spokesman says, "We're sorry that our product was defective," though he had nothing to do with making or marketing it. An African American preacher says, "We came to this continent as slaves," yet neither he nor anyone he knows was ever in shackles. A devout Shiite weeps and flagellates himself in grief on the tenth of Muharram for the death of Imam Hussein at Karbala; but that martyrdom took place more than thirteen hundred years ago, in the year 680 C.E., and no one alive today could have seen it.
These nonliteral ways of saying "we" aren't logical, but obviously they aren't meaningless. People understand them, and distinguish them from nonsense. That means people use some set of rules to decide that a sentence like "We Americans fought a war with Spain" is comprehensible, while "We left-handed folk are a generous people" is twaddle. These aren't the rules of science, but so what? They do different work for the mind and heart.
Language, though, has its own rules, which don't respect this dis- tinction. Grammar doesn't reveal when we're speaking logically and when we're speaking - often with the same words - in the special code of human kinds. So we're inclined to think the same word means the same thing all the time. That hunch is wrong. The way it's wrong reminds me of the story of an awkward lunch in 1944 where the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, met Mr. Berlin.
Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian, had been serving as a diplomat in New York and Washington. Churchill had been impressed with his work. He asked: "Berlin, what do you think is your most important piece you've done for us lately?"
A little hesitantly, his guest replied: "'White Christmas.'" He was the wrong Mr. Berlin - Irving, the songwriter, not Isaiah, the polymath. In that instance, one word - Berlin - certainly did not mean one thing. Human-kind words often exhibit this variability. Just as a screwdriver in the toolbox is different from the screwdriver you order from a bartender, so "we" in a sentence like "We Americans beat Spain in a war" is different from the "we" in "We Americans number about 290 million."
One of those two meanings - we the citizens of the United States, as defined by law, who are alive today - fits into the framework of science. It describes physical objects that can be measured. The other idea - we Americans, including people who no longer exist because they died a century ago; we Americans, including people who did not experience the war - comes out of different rules for defining we.
If human kinds have their own rules, separate from those of logic or human institutions, and if those rules operate outside of our awareness, then the scientific study of human-kind beliefs will have some weird implications. For one thing, trivial, meaningless, ephemeral human kinds - if they meet the requirements of the hidden rules - could make and unmake people's lives with the same force as the human kinds we respect, like religions, nations, and ethnicities.
It's a strange idea. Could human kinds like "Star Trek fan" and "Porsche owner" ever weigh as heavy in a human heart as a religious tradition, with all its culture and moral seriousness? If that were so, then history would afford examples of oddball academic ideas that turned into the basis for mass murder; it would include instances of people changing their lives, even killing and dying, for sports teams or handkerchiefs.
Most peculiar. Yet this has happened throughout history. That too is part of the evidence that human kinds have a separate realm in the mind.
In the nineteenth century, linguists and anthropologists took a Sanskrit word for noble and turned it into a term to describe a family of ancient languages. So the human kind called "Aryans" was born. Languages were all it referred to, wrote the German scholar Max M?ller: "I have declared again and again that if I say Aryas, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair, nor skull." Nonetheless, as M?ller's protest shows, this academic term quickly took on tribal trappings. A few decades later, reinforced by other newly created human kinds, like National Socialist and "expert" on Jewish matters- assigned by law to every government office under Hitler - Aryan was a life-and-death human kind. Nowadays, in the form of gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood in American prisons, it continues to be a category that gets people killed.
In 1969 Honduras and El Salvador went to war over a soccer match. Today gangs of "soccer hooligans" shadow games in Europe, where they maim and occasionally kill each other in the name of their teams. A study of such violence in Holland in the ????s found that these soccer tribes were racially mixed and drew poor, workingclass, and higher-income men. In other words, members' devotion to their teams wasn't a stand-in for some supposedly more serious loyalty to class or race. The human kind for which they risked their lives was the soccer gang.
As sports wars go, these recent instances are unremarkable compared to combat between "fans of the green team in the chariot race" versus "fans of the blue." The fighting over those two kinds of person spanned centuries in the Byzantine Empire, as the opposed groupings grew into political, cultural, and organized-crime institutions. One of these outbreaks of mass violence, at Constantinople in 532 C.E., killed thirty thousand people.
A human kind need not acquire tribal myths, as "Aryan" did, nor gather people under team colors, as sports fans do. Banal, practical human kinds have also been made fatal. One way to be targeted during the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79, for example, was to be the kind of person who wears eyeglasses.
This was not because the country's traditional human kinds were forgotten. The Yale historian Ben Kiernan has documented how the Khmer Rouge's genocidal policies hit-and were intended to hit- Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham people harder than Cambodian Khmers. Nonetheless, more than ? million Khmer perished out of approximately 1.7 million people killed in this atrocity; being Khmer was not in itself enough to protect anyone. To be spared, one had to be the right sort of Khmer. To wear glasses was to show the sign of being the wrong sort - a person who had received an education under the old regime. A happenstance human kind became a means to sort the living from the doomed.
Many don't want to believe people kill, or die, for a mere mental pigeonhole. So they turn to the other levels of explanation: wars over soccer games and chariots must "really" have been about other, respectably economic and political matters.
Certainly soccer wars and chariot races did not blot out Salvadoran thoughts or Byzantine schemes. But people belong to many human kinds at once; he who is proudly Dutch in many circumstances may nonetheless die fighting other Dutchmen, in the name of Rotterdam's team. In that moment, in that place, it is not nation or race that determines who is murdered, but soccer fandom. In that moment, it's the warrior's belief that counts. An economist may find causes for mob violence that the mob never heard of; the fact remains that the people killing and dying in ancient Antioch were talking chariots, not economics.
So kind-mindedness is not "really" something else in disguise. It is itself - the mind's guide for understanding anyone we do not know personally, for seeing our place in the human world, and for judging our actions. This human-kind psychology is a source, not just a consequence, of institutions: national governments, religious authorities, promoters of ethnic, racial, class, or gender pride.We care about today's political tribes only because these entities have learned how to speak to the human-kind faculty in its language.
Speaking the right human-kind language, you can make any happenstance collection of people feel tribal, even one like "women on the 8:15 ferry." In fact, in ???? a documentary filmmaker made a movie about just that group-women who spent their morning commute together chatting, putting on makeup, and relaxing in the ladies' room of the ?:?? Staten Island Ferry. When the film came out, the women told reporters their membership in that particular human kind meant a lot to them. And their earliest response to the filmmaker had been to wonder who this outsider was and why she was hanging out in their territory.
Then, too, even a trivial human kind, defined by nothing more consequential than what people buy, can call up the intense emotions supposedly reserved for the serious tribes. That's what happened to one owner of a Porsche 911 sports car after he learned that the company had started to make sport utility vehicles. "Every SUV I've seen is driven by some soccer mom on her cellphone," he told a reporter. "I hate these people, and that Porsche would throw me into that category made me speechless. Just speechless."
Speechless! Kind-mindedness can be downright embarrassing. It lacks gravitas. It goes its own way. That's a good reason for scientists to shun the whole business. Who wants to be yelled at for supposedly equating race and religion with soccer hooligans and Porsche owners?
And yelling there will be. Aside from being messy conceptually, human kinds are sticky, emotionally. There's no place to stand outside of them, to look on them without feeling. All people are members of human kinds, and so whenever human kinds are the subject, the conversation feels personal. Reading the news in the morning, we're pained to learn that studies show "our people" are fat, or do poorly on math tests, or don't spend enough time with their children.We're proud and pleased when our athletes win at the Olympics, or when we read that our troops acted nobly. We're scared when we learn about a human kind that threatens ours. Presented with any list of human kinds - in a newspaper article, on a Web site, on a restaurant place mat with the Chinese zodiac printed on it - always, inescapably, a part of us wonders: Which one fits me? Am I metro or retro? Gobbler or nibbler? Snake or horse? Human-kind thoughts are impossible to separate from your feelings about yourself.
Some scientists' distaste for human kinds as a research subject may come from a desire to avoid thoughtless, factless passion. They want to stay within the framework of science, confining themselves to matters their methods can address. Outside that realm, many feel, science can't venture, and scientists shouldn't. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said, "A scientist looking at a non-scientific problem is just as dumb as the next guy."
And what could be less like science than talk of race and nation and religion, family and sexual identity and sports - veined as it always is with vague words and strong emotions? Human kinds are gnarly, demanding, and perplexing, like intimate life. If a human kind matters, people will talk of it as if it were a family: the "brothers and sisters" of houses of worship, union halls, and political rallies; the "children of God" of the preachers; the "brothers" who went through war, or college, or prison together; the friendly office with the family atmosphere.
This doesn't mean, of course, that we think of such groupings as literal families, or that we wish they were. If you call your sexual partner "baby," it doesn't indicate you'd rather have sex with an infant. But it is an expression of something everyone learns as groups sort themselves on the playgrounds of early childhood: being part of a human kind, or excluded from one, can alter your life. Such consequential changes, wrought by being in a human kind, can be conscious and deliberate, as it is for Christians who ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" Sometimes, though, the effects of human-kind thinking take place outside awareness. In one experiment, for example, Asian American women students at Harvard who were reminded that they were Asian did better on a math test than Asian American women who were reminded that they were women.
Math may be the most rational of activities, but it's apparently not free of the sort of human-kind thinking that tells you women aren't so good at it, while Asians are. This does not mean that all human kinds make you change; it does mean that they have that potential, and being a human being, you know it.
Professionally, as I've mentioned, many scientists want nothing to do with such an emotional and conceptual swamp.Human-kind categories are fine for life outside the lab - sure, set up a committee to attract more minorities into our field; yes, let us try to make our nation a leader in stem-cell research. But nations, minorities, creeds, professions, as an object of scientific research? Leave that to colleagues with a screw loose or, worse, to cranks and journalists. This is not to say that scientists are less tribal than anyone else. The passions of Us and Them affect them too. In fact, feelings about nation, religion, culture, tradition, and other human kinds have helped to motivate scientific work, as they have helped to motivate almost all organized activities, for good and for ill, from Olympic athletics to mass murder.
For example, modern neuroscience rests on the successes of the great Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who finished publishing his masterpiece on the brain and nervous system in 1904. In another example of the ever-changing character of scientific knowledge, Cajal's work ended a long debate about whether the human brain consisted of distinct cells at all. He championed the neuron doctrine - that the brain, like every other organ, was made up of millions of distinct cells, the neurons. (Nowadays the brain is described as neurons and glial cells, but the central argument, which Cajal won, was that it was not organized differently from the rest of the body.)
When the book was published, Spain had just lost a war to the United States, and that unscientific fact was much on the author's mind.
"Above all," Cajal wrote in his autobiography, "I wanted my book to be - please excuse the presumption - a trophy to be laid at the feet of our prostrate national science and an offering of fervent devotion by a Spaniard to his scorned country." Clearly, Cajal valued his fervent devotion. Yet he did not study patriotic neurons or Spanish neurons, but all neurons. He saw brain cells as a scientist, but apparently he saw his book about cells as a patriot.
Well, as the cognitive scientist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley has put it, ask different questions, you get different answers. The rules of patriotism and the rules of the lab aren't the same. The best way to live with different systems of rules is not to try to fit them together, because they don't align. It's quite enough work to keep clear about how each system is different from the others.
On the one hand, philosophy and psychology, at least in the West, have largely focused on the individual soul. In these fields there was never as great an interest in how people came to believe in mass entities, like nations, religious communities, and social classes. For instance, Sigmund Freud's interpretation of "group psychology" stresses the fears and frustrations of the unconscious mind, which, he held, is formed in early childhood. By this light, today's experience is far less important than the earliest days of one's life.Armies, churches (Freud's examples) as well as race, religion, nationality, and all the other "groups" are turned into fodder for the psychoanalytic apparatus that explores your dreams and your attitude toward masturbation.
So, for example, a contemporary Freudian, the psychoanalyst and writer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, argues that racism "exemplifies hysterical prejudice, by which I mean a prejudice that a person uses unconsciously to appoint a group to act out in the world forbidden sexual and sexually aggressive desires that the person has repressed."
While psychology shunned the tribal aspect of human kinds, the traditional political and cultural disciplines haven't wanted to address the individual mind. If your work involves comparing Spanish and German culture, you wouldn't want to confuse the issue by looking into what makes a person feel more Spanish or less, in the course of a week, and what made her forget her Spanishness and think of herself instead as a Madrileno last Tuesday night. Ignoring individual psychology and variety, this mass approach yields theories for analyzing collective action, for instance, to explain why France conquered much of Europe in the early nineteenth century.
Yet it was not France that fought wars, literally. It was people who considered themselves French and who considered Frenchness important enough to fight for and die for - or, at least, who considered it a sensible enough concept that they did not rebel when they were organized to fight in its name. If psychology seems to neglect the fact that people see themselves as more than individuals, history seems to ignore the fact that individuality does matter. The mind sciences now offer a way across this chasm - methods for describing how collective human kinds and individual human minds depend on one another.
Today, perhaps for the first time in human history, large masses of people recognize that human kinds are made, not discovered. Globalization is showing people that "our side" is determined by beliefs, not facts. It's now obvious that human-kind violence belongs to no one religion, nation, race, culture, or political ideology; it's equally obvious that a "good man" at home can be a torturer at work and that supposedly ancient hatreds can disappear, even as supposedly peaceful societies can turn genocidal. All of this has led to a hunger for new ways to think about human kinds.
Meanwhile, the politics of science - or rather, the way science is used in politics - creates a different kind of pressure for new ideas. The prestige of science around the world is so great that almost everyone wants to get some on his side. Science has been invoked for claims that melanin makes black people more intelligent. Science has been invoked to support the opposite claim too: that black people have smaller skulls than whites and therefore must be less intelligent. Science has been called in to support the idea that some people are "genetically programmed" to be hostile to Croatia.
If scientists don't come up with a good science of human kinds, it's clear they'll be stuck with a bad one - claims about racial, ethnic, national, and religious superiority supposedly "proven" by biology. Much as mind scientists might have preferred those fine abstractions, Everyone and The Individual, the problem of human kinds is not going to wait.
So the moment for new ideas has arrived. Despite a certain discomfort with the subject, mind science is working on kind-mindedness. The work takes place on a level of explanation above the isolated individual but below the abstract sphere of nations and cultures. It's being made at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy of mind, and anthropology, where kind-mindedness, once a mystery, has become a problem that science can address.
Copyright © 2005 by David Berreby