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Human origins and Africa

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | July 17, 2012

Archaeology has witnessed a number of recent new discoveries that make this an exciting time to be studying human evolution. In this piece, for example, Dr. Chris Stringer discusses how technology is accelerating — even upending — our understanding of human origins. Accordng to Stringer, though, the scientific community remains in consensus about one thing: modern humans originated in Africa, and spread to the rest of the planet from there.

Frankly, I was hoping for different news. I was hoping for a discovery that would somehow reduce the strong mental association people have between “Africa” on the one hand and “earliest human origins” on the other. You see, as professor Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University notes, “I don’t think it’s intentional, but when people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European descent. When people think of a civilized person, a white man comes to mind.”

Professor Eberhardt and her lab group (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, and Jackson, 2008) found direct evidence that people continue to hold strong mental associations between Blacks and apes. As the authors note, “Though explicit representations of Blacks as apes may be relegated to history, the mental association lingers and appears to exert some influence on visual perception (p. 296).” In one study for example, study participants were exposed to pictures of White or Black faces subliminally, or outside of their conscious awareness. Next, the researchers had participants look at degraded images of animals, including alligtaors, fish, squirrels— and apes. Gradually, the pictures of these animals became clearer, and the participants’ task was to call out the animal as soon as they could recognize it. When participants had been subliminally exposed specifically to the Black faces, they were significantly faster at recognizing the degraded image of an ape for what it was. This faciliation did not happen when the subliminal picture was of a White face, and it did not happen for other animals. This suggests a mental association between “Black” and “ape,” occurring at the level of perception.

These types of mental associations have very real implications and consequences. In a follow-up study to the one described above, a different group of study participants was now exposed to words associated with apes, or to words associated with big cats. After having been exposed to these words, all participants watched a video of police officers violently subduing a criminal suspect. The participants were led to believe that the suspect was either Black or White. After viewing the clip, participants were asked how justified the police had been in using violence against the suspect, and how much the suspect’s behavior justifed the violence.

Astoundingly, violence was rated as more justified among those participants who thought the suspect was Black AND who had been exposed to words related to apes. No such facilitation was seen when participants were primed with big cats, or when the suspect was supposedly White. Thus, it seems that the association between Blacks and apes facilitates construals of our fellow human beings as less than human, and thus justifying violence.

As I have covered repeatedly in this blog (see, e.g., here and here), even though most of us disavow prejudice and stereotypes (and would strongly deny that we associate Blacks with apes), research shows that at an automatic level people continue to hold these associations— and that they continue to make a difference for the way we treat and think about others. The fact that these associations influence our perceptions and our behavior OUTSIDE OF OUR AWARENESS makes it all the more difficult to have conversations about and correct these issues, precisely because people do not have conscious access to their prejudices.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Human origins and Africa

  1. I still agree to a point. I’m tired of hearing how we all came black out of Africa. It’s like saying first people on the moon was white….. doesn’t mean anything lol

  2. “I was hoping for a discovery that would somehow reduce the strong mental association people have between “Africa” on the one hand and “earliest human origins” on the other. ”

    Is this a college blog? This person will really be disappointed when they learn about DNA.

  3. So the author is not happy that the Facts didn’t change in order to medicate the mental illness (strong mental association and racial stereotyping) of some people.

    That right there shows the authors discomfort.

  4. Frankly, I’d be more concerned if the experiments decribed were more conclusive. The one with the subjects being subliminally shown pictures of white or black faces and then tested to see how quickly they recognized a distorted image of an ape as an ape sounds is particularly bizarre and anything but conclusive.

    I doubt these results could be independently verified. I suspect if more information about precisely how the experiment was setup were available, an alternative explanation for the results might be immediately apparent. It just sounds very strange, and strikes me as the sort of ‘experiment’ (all too common on the social ‘sciences’) where a researcher knows what they want to ‘find’ in advance and then sets up a (usually very odd ) experiment that will produce the desired results (albeit in a somewhat obscured and convoluted way, such as the experiment described above). I suspect at he very least a good deal of confirmation bias is at play here.

    One question conspicuous in its absence here is the race of the subjects. We’re the same results described (i.e. the supposed subconscious association of blacks with apes) observed with subjects of all races?

    One subtlety overlooked here also is the fact that all humans ARE in fact similar to apes, and people often are more comfortable with and less reluctant to recognize this similarity in people not of their race. This is another reason it is unfortunate that no information was given about the race of the subjects. There are many examples of racist associations of particular races and/or ethnic groups with apes other than blacks. It is not uncommon amongst East Asian populations to associate Caucasians with apes, for example. In one notorious incident in the racially volatile NYC of the early 1990s, a group of black ‘activists’ characterized Korean immigrants as “yellow monkeys”. And recently, the president of Egypt got into hot water when comments he had made in the past comparing Jews to apes were revealed.

    Finally, the conclusion drawn by the author here that mental associations that occur outside of our awareness cannot be examined is simply not true. In fact, the have actually been experiments done which test this very notion. In one such experiment, it was found that subjects who were told that we are not morally responsible for our actions because they are determined subconsciously were more likely to be deceitful than subjects who were not. In another experiment, subjects who were made aware of research suggesting that our brains make decisions before we are aware of them subsequently showed a significantly shorter delay between brain activity associated with making a decision and their awareness of deciding than test subjects who were not told this.

    In any event, if the results of the strange ape photo experiment were indeed valid, the awareness that such subconscious bias may exist would very likely have an effect on people. It would be interesting, in light of the other experiments I mentioned, to see how test subjects who were made aware of this “subconscious racism” prior to testing would perform,

  5. I might have been a little too sarcastic for comprehension.
    Allow me.

    “though, the scientific community remains in consensus about one thing: modern humans originated in Africa, and spread to the rest of the planet from there.”

    If anything, the conclusion of African origins demonstrates concensus to anti religious dogma and not science of any kind.

    Even the image study is hardly scientific: “When participants had been subliminally exposed specifically to the Black faces, they were significantly faster at recognizing the degraded image of an ape for what it was.”

    How many other pre focus image types were used to draw this conclusion? Were images of squirrels used and if so would the subject more quickly recognize the squirrel image? Were images not related to the animals used and if so what animal was more readily recognized then?

    And these are Doctors and PHds? It’s pretty sad.

    • You are obviously a young earth creationist with an anti-evolution agenda, and it prevents you from reading the article objectively. There is absolutely nothing even remotely pointing to “anti-religious” dogma here. Certainly there is nothing about the notion of humans originating in Africa that is antithetical to Jewish, Christian, or Muslim dogma.

      The time this is believed to have occurred (based on hard evidence, incidentally) would be incompatible with the YEC notion of a 6000 year old world, but the fact that the evidence points to an old earth can hardly be reasonably construed as an unscientific, anti-religion ‘bias’.

      • Fair conclusion, considering (the debate of creation etc..) but it’ s not what I meant.

        There are other theories about the origins of the corpurus form we call human that do not concur with the ‘consensus’ of the article here.

        My statement of ‘anti-religious’ pertains to the underlying elements of African origins theory which deny those other theories while engaging in practices like naming their’ first man’ Adam and their ‘first woman’ Eve which is a clear demonstration of where these ‘scientists’ minds are at and, as I previously wrote to conclude and make clear, is hardly science of any kind.

        Ironically the ‘concessionists’s’ Adam’s identity and age has since changed as, if this can even come close to making any sense, a family tree trace did not lead back to the previous African Origins Adam and therefore another older Adam of which no evidence of existance was ever discovered yet his geographical origins and physical traits instead ficticiously imagined is THE original Adam.

        Granted, ‘ironic’ might not be the right word, since these conclusions stem from the same ‘consensed’ scientists.

  6. “…discoveries that make this an exciting time to be studying human evolution…”

    To the contrary, what you clearly believe is that this is an exciting time to be frantically refuting all of the well established tenets of evolution which inconveniently support the obvious reality of substantial racial differences. If you believe that 100,000 + years of adaptations to radically different environments resulted in no significant mental differences, you simply don’t believe in evolution. Never mind that the physical differences are immediately obvious…those are just superficial, and therefore any deeper differences are impossible! Yes, forget logic, we have mindless dogma to perpetuate.

    • The author has acquired the infinite knowledge of Freud who was reputed to be omniscient yet known to be ignorant at best.

      The scientific community is known to abash ignorantly and blindly in an infantile retaliatory effort any form of “religious” belief which in many people’s view makes the scientific community’s “knowledge” and “expertise” commical at best.

      The only reason their ignorance is supported is, as the reason religious ignorance was supported, the lesser ignorance of those who force others to perform their labour.

      That is a social reality with apparent emperical evidence that “knowledgeable” scientists refute. A refutal which leads those knowledgeable to see scientists as not only ignorant yet apparently less evolved and certainly less intelligent as they adhere to the quality of deception as opposed to it’s demise calling it “intelligent” or “smart”.

      In fact the entiredness of psychology denies the reality of life and the emperical evidence associated to it.

      At the very least, sad. At most incredibly annoying.

      The bright side is that as people are liberated and liberate themselves from the lesser ignorance the scientific community’s propaganda will no longer be supported.

      This does not mean nor more than it does mean skin color, amount of hair on one’s back or forehead slope makes a man.

      It simply means real evidence will be made more and more abundantly clear as to what does.

  7. Thank your very much for your replies Prof. Mendoza-Denton, it’s a real breakthrough in Berkeley Blog communications with the outside world.

    In answer to your last reply yesterday, it has been my experience to live through the 1960s when America achieved civilization’s highest level by passing civil rights legislation. However, as I have noted many times before, we still have a long way to go because, as our current 2012 election rhetoric and actions prove daily, we have returned to the decline of human rights mode here in America, while most of the rest of the world still hasn’t come close to what we had achieved in the 60s.

    As absolute proof of that conclusion, I only need to point out the totally unacceptable cultural and social failures we are experiencing in America and around the world, as reported 24/7 by journalists.

    It is my number one observation after decades of learning, discussing and thinking that the biggest problem we have never overcome is that we have failed to consider and prevent future unacceptable consequences in our in our decision making and action processes. Evolutionary biologists like E. O. Wilson have proven that fact beyond all doubt.

    As far as I have been able to determine, the best solution to our cultural and social problems is that it is time for a great social scientist to lead us on the right course to produce and implement actions that shall perpetuate an acceptable quality of life.

    Prof. Mendoza-Denton, would you like to provide this level of self-actualization leadership, because the posts you make on the Berkeley Blog have clearly demonstrated that you have the right values to provide that leadership?

  8. P.S. Prof. Mendoza-Denton we are fighting the same fight, but we must fight much, much harder. Far too many are watching and doing nothing while our rights are being increasingly overthrown during this 2012 election year.

    The number one problem we have is that our cultural and social institutions have failed to protect humanity, failures that have destroyed too many cultures and civilizations throughout history because human nature is not changing in spite of the fact that millions of heroes and patriots throughout history have sacrificed their lives to pass on a legacy of happiness for their families. Yet we continue to fail to honor their sacrifices by demanding protection for our families today because far too many of us look the other way. Worst of all, we even fail to consider consequences of our actions on future generations.

    You wrote that we have laws to protect us as if that is enough, but how can laws work when SCOTUS overrules the Rule of Law with majority dogma of the day that changes depending on which special interests rule the majority of judges.

    The paramount fact we must realize by now is that there has been no change in human nature since Ancient Athenians produced the first democracy. Technological advances have only continued to achieve old ends such as greed without morality, destructive political corruption without compromise, and wars without end even though climate changes gravely threaten our civilization once again.

    Indeed, you are most correct that we must have “have conversations about and correct these issues.” Newest Internet communications technologies give us the greatest “conversation” tools in history for learning, thinking, analyzing, and sharing alternatives, solutions and calls to action to meet the latest challenges of change and produce a better future together at last to. We have the ability at last to overrule corrupt politicians and judges and special interests they indenture themselves to.

    First, we must overcome destructive Us vs. Them dichotomies that our current cultural and social institutions fail to protect us from.

    The newest generations are empowered with communications technologies that can change the course of history, and it’s up to the newest generations to use these tools to protect their own future like no generation has been able to do before them.

    • I have recommended to you, and will do so again, a Berkeley-based resource that I’m hoping can shift your perspective a little bit away from the evils and failures of humanity to some of its successes. It’s the Greater Good Science Center: I can only hope you find some inspiration — and perhaps a breather from a chronic focus on the negativity of human existence. There is another side.

      • I agree, you have brought up a potentially excellent recommendation Rudolfo. I have previously visited and searched the Greater Good website several times and find it to be of great value for fighting back against overwhelming “evils and failures” we are experiencing today.

        Indeed you, Christine Carter et al. at Greater Good have also been making excellent posts on the Berkeley Blog that must have much more widespread dissemination among the general population at a time when the information you can provide is of extremely important value toward producing happiness around the world which I understand to be your paramount goal.

        However, I have tried to initiate two-way communicats on the Greater Good website several times over the last few months but they don’t have the same imperative for discussion that you do.

        Now that you have emphasized the Greater Good several times, I must also emphasize that your excellent discussion ethic needs to become a common cultural value among all of your colleagues because Berkeley professors and scholars have a lot of extremely valuable information to share with those of us in the real world, critical information that we must have to learn from ASAP in order to make vitally important action producing decisions during the current 2012 election cycle, especially under the political, economic and social conditions of incipient chaos that we must not allow to be marginalized anymore.

        • P.S. Further in regard to your comment “I can only hope you find some inspiration — and perhaps a breather from a chronic focus on the negativity of human existence. There is another side.”

          Yes, there is another side, a side that we are overlooking at increasing peril to humanity. This week the LATimes has been publishing a series on “Beyond 7 Billion: Living on the Edge” which documented that “Nearly 1 billion people are hungry. The are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

  9. Prof. Mendoza-Denton:


    1. There really doesn’t seem to be any solution to our survival problems that our brain and culture can implement successfully.

    2. Our best and brightest can’t find a better way than the failure as usual mode that has destroyed far too many civilizations before ours.

    3. We don’t have any world leaders today with enough intelligence, ability and commitment to protect and improve our future.


    1. How can we survive in, and adjust to, our changing world?

    2 Can social scientists (psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and economists) lead us to overcome economic instability and inequality that increasingly threaten the survival of our civilization today?

    3. What can we implement today to protect and preserve an acceptable long-term quality of life for future generations?

    • Tony, as I have mentioned before, I am less pessimistic than you about our leadership and the state of our society in general. We have a long way to go towards eradicating prejudice– but we have come a long way since the days of, for example, slavery. Social scientists have education and learning as tools, but laws are equally important.

      • With great respect Prof. Mendoza-Denton I thank you for your reply, but must nevertheless disagree with you because my experiences since graduating in 1963 prove that there is rapidly decreasing room for optimism.

        At the top of the list of high points I have experienced was 1964 civil rights legislation, which still excludes ERA for women, but that legislation is being overthrown by an appalling political revolution against voting rights during this election cycle which, for a country that is supposed to be the greatest democracy in history, is a disaster that is especially aimed at degrading human rights for minorities.

        We also had a Free Speech Movement in the 60s when physical attacks were ordered by administrators against students, as documented by your colleague Prof. John Searle in his “A Foolproof Scenario for Student Revolts,” but the lessons from the 60s as documented by Prof. Searle were never learned as physical attacks were again made against Occupy student groups again this year.

        Then there was President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address which included “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.” But this grave warning has been marginalized in spite of the fact that General Eisenhower’s leadership saved the world from dictatorship and unending holocaust by WWII leadership in Europe.

        Putting Ike’s grave warning in historical perspective, a dominant root cause of cultural and social failures throughout the history of civilizations is that money (medium of exchange) overpowers morality.

        I think I shall let it go at this point in our conversation with these additional facts to demonstrate that increasingly immoral uses of the power of money are today creating consequences that shall unacceptably degrade quality of life for future generations, as this year’s climate changes testify even though former CALIFORNIA Magazine Editor Kerry Tremain produced a special “Global Warning” issue in 2006 that we also continue to marginalize at our increasing peril.

  10. Just because people think violence is more justified with blacks doesn’t mean it’s because they think black are more animalistic. It sounds like that’s your own assumption, so maybe you better check your own prejudices and assumptions then. Another reason people may think the violence is justified with blacks is that blacks are treated like crap and more violence is committed against blacks than any other group.

    So check yerself before ya check others..

  11. Prof. Mendoza-Denton, when are psychologists going to figure a way to upgrade our brain to take advantage of new people-to-people global internet conversation technologies to solve our survival problems among ourselves without having to rely on political and other cultural institutions that keep making our problems worse?

    We must begin using our newest worldwide communications technologies for learning, thinking, analyzing, sharing alternative solutions and taking actions to produce a better future ourselves before we run out of time and opportunities to do so.

  12. Never-ending wars, poverty, immorality, Us vs. Them dichotomies, amygdala dominated actions, and racism enabled by all of our institutions keep proving beyond all doubt that we really haven’t evolved since we were barbarians.

    But we have an increasingly good chance of solving our problems because of our refusal to follow the Golden Rule even to save ourselves from global warming, enabling us to commit genocide against our entire human race with no effort at all.

    Our educators are our last resort to provide leadership for our survival, but the overwhelming majority refuse to believe and practice what they teach us anymore.

  13. His blog if anything is only encouraging people to see these stunning discoveries as a bad thing.

    It’s concern trolling: “Oh dear, all these new discoveries might put the idea of BLACKS=MONKEYS! into people’s heads. Because if you keep asking if people think BLACKS=MONKEYS, they’ll get the image of BLACKS=MONKEYS in their heads. And we wouldn’t want anyone thinking that BLACKS=MONKEYS, would we?!”

    How about a blog instead about how the new discoveries mean WE’RE ALL AFRICANS? How about asking people instead how they feel now that they’ve learned WE’RE ALL AFRICANS? How about marveling at how closely related we’re learning we really are, and how it should mean less, not more racism, now that we know WE’RE ALL AFRICANS?

  14. I think that best thing for Black people to do is live their life to fullest and not give a damn if other people associate them with apes.

  15. The discovery that humans first evolved in Africa has actually been a source of wonder and pride for Africans and Black descendents worldwide. To know your ancestral land is home to the birth of humankind is amazing. Nonblack/non-African people notice this, and therefore want to turn it into a bad thing. It’s funny how that works. This reminds me when news came out that all non-Africans have neanderthal DNA. Like clockwork, people started insinuating that this “neanderthal DNA” encoded “superior genes.” Best believe if it was the other way around, with only Africans carrying this DNA, people would claim that earlier assertions that Africans were inferior sub-human were correct afterall.

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