Are ethnic groups biological "species'' to the human brain? Essentialism in our cognition of some social categories

  • Gil-White F
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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) category-based endogamy and (2) descent-based membership. 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 (including endogamy). It also promotes inductive generalizations, which allow acquisition of reliable knowledge for behavioral prediction 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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  • F J Gil-White

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