Is There An Anti-Racism Gene?

According to recent research, those afflicted by the rare genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome substantially less prone to develop racist attitudes than those without Williams. Host Michel Martin takes a look at the study with one of its authors, Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lundenberg.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a new book showcases the pride and heritage of multiracial children in America. It's called "Mixed," and we'll tell you more about it in our parenting segment in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about what it means to be of a certain heritage and what, more importantly, it means to others. When most of us tell our children that people of all colors are equal, we hope we're making a lasting impression that it's wrong to judge others on the basis of race. But according to a new study by European researchers, some children are born without the ability to form racial bias.

These children have Williams Syndrome. It's a rare genetic condition that affects about one in 10,000 children. We wanted to know more about this so we've called one of the study's authors, Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg. He's with us now from his office. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Dr. ANDREAS MEYER-LINDENBERG (Director, Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Would you tell us a bit more about Williams Syndrome?

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: Yes. Williams Syndrome is a very interesting genetic syndrome that, as you said, it's fairly rare. It's caused by the deletion of a stretch of genes on one of the chromosomes. And that probably by itself wouldn't be that interesting if it weren't for very interesting consequences that that has on the people who have this and on their behavior.

One of the things that is especially striking is that they're what we call hyper-social. So they're extremely interested in other people. They're extremely empathetic and they will actively seek out and talk to pretty much everyone. As someone has said, for a person with Williams Syndrome, everyone in the world is their friend.

MARTIN: As you describe Williams Syndrome, it doesn't sound like such a bad thing to have. Is there any downside to Williams Syndrome?

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: If you could just take the hyper-sociability, the fact that people with Williams Syndrome do not get those danger signals often get them into trouble. They are quite often victims of crimes because of that. In addition to that, Williams Syndrome has a variety of things that aren't so nice that usually goes along with a certain degree of learning disability and mental retardation.

But they also have, interestingly, strongly increased non-social fears. They're often afraid of the dark or of spiders or what might happen to them in the future. So as a group, they are certainly delightful to be around. But I don't think that as a group they're happier than the normal population.

MARTIN: What made you want to evaluate what the syndrome would mean in the context of racial bias or the development of racial bias? What gave you the idea?

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: We've been working extensively on what underlies the hyper-social ability of William Syndrome, and the conclusion that we reached is that they essentially have no social fears. Their brains don't process social danger signals such as angry faces or any kind of social threats. And we thought, if that is true, we have a unique opportunity to test the hypothesis that racial bias might have to do something with social fear.

The opportunity is unique because usually pretty much everyone has social fear. And Williams Syndrome, we have the situation that these people have never experienced social fear, even from birth.

MARTIN: And what you say in the study is that to our knowledge this is the first indication of the absence of racial stereotyping in a human group, which is quite remarkable.

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: We know that's true. It is amazing how stable racial stereotypes are in a normal human population above three years of age. Pretty much everyone will strongly prefer their own ethnic group.

MARTIN: The other interesting thing about your study is that your study suggests that even though children born with Williams Syndrome are absent any sense of racial bias, they are still prone to gender preference. Now, why is that?

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: Well, you know, we think it might have to do with mechanisms such as over-generalization, imitative learning. For example, you see your mother do the dishes, then you over-generalize that to all females, something like that. But that's speculation. We don't really have data because to our knowledge and including our study, every group has been studied shows these gender stereotypes and we haven't yet found a population that doesn't have them.

MARTIN: How does this study contribute to our understanding of how racial bias is formed? Because as in much of Europe, as in the United States, which have become very multicultural, diverse societies, we're engaged in this question about what is this, the wellspring of racism? So what does this study tell us?

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: Well, there's something that it tells us. And there's a possible misconception. Let me talk about what it tells us. First, we for the first time can now link social fear to the emergence of these stereotypes. We can also now say that different kinds of stereotypes are biologically dissociable in the sense that you can have a condition that gets rid of one, but not the other.

The possible misunderstanding is that experienced people have when they hear about those datas, that they think, okay, because this is a genetic syndrome that biases must be genetic or inborn, as you said. I think that is probably not a conclusion that you should or can draw from our data. It's a little bit, you know, like having a genetic condition that causes you to have no hands. That would mean that you probably can't play the piano very well.

But that doesn't mean that the ability to play the piano in the general population is largely genetic. So the fact that in Williams Syndrome, the social fear system is knocked out through a genetic route, does not mean that the basis of racial bias is genetic.

MARTIN: Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg is director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and he was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office. We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. MEYER-LINDENBERG: Okay, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: If you'd like to learn more about this study that we've been talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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