Are Ethnic Groups Biological “Species” to the Human Brain? Essentialism in Our Cognition of Some Social Categories

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If ethnic actors represent ethnic groups as essentialized natural groups despite the fact that ethnic essences do not exist, we must understand why. This article presents a hypothesis and evidence that humans process ethnic groups (and a few other related social categories) as if they were species because their surface similarities to species make them inputs to the living- kinds mental module that initially evolved to process species- level categories. The main similarities responsible are (1) cate- gory-based endogamy and (2) descent-based membership. Evolution encouraged this because processing ethnic groups as speciesat least in the ancestral environmentsolved adaptive problems having to do with interactional discriminations and behavioral prediction. Coethnics (like conspecifics) share many strongly intercorrelated properties that are not obvious on first inspection. Since interaction with out-group members is costly because of coordination failure due to different norms between ethnic groups, thinking of ethnic groups as species adaptively promotes interactional discriminations towards the in-group (in- cluding endogamy). It also promotes inductive generalizations, which allow acquisition of reliable knowledge for behavioral pre- diction without too much costly interaction with out-group members. The relevant cognitive-science literature is reviewed, and cognitive field-experiment and ethnographic evidence from Mongolia is advanced to support the hypothesis.

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  • Francisco J. Gil-White

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