Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You Guilty of "Isms"?

Racism and sexism are just the tip of the iceberg.

unverdorben jr/Shutterstock
Source: unverdorben jr/Shutterstock

I was recently invited to respond to an article that appeared in the journal Animal Sentience. It was about sheep, and it made a strong case that they were a lot smarter and more worthy of our respect than most of us assume. Essentially, the article asked, “If the evidence we present here doesn’t convince you that sheep are more than dim-witted stock animals, then what will?”

My response was, “Nothing will.” Our disrespect for sheep is not evidence-based and more information will not shift our viewpoint. It is rooted in speciesism and good luck shifting that kind of bias with facts. “Isms” run deep and they are often quite toxic. Sometimes they result in violence of some sort. Worse yet, most “isms” come from the natural history of our species, and so they’re difficult to dislodge.

This is not an article about sheep. It’s far more general and more troubling. For better or worse, our species has evolved with a pervasive need to classify and judge. In Caveman Logic (2009), I argue that the mantra, “You are either one of us or you are other” was useful in the Pleistocene age, but it has been over-extended in the modern world to the point of absurdity and danger. What started as “my tribe” (which carried a large genetic component 100,000 years ago) has become “my country” or “my religion” or “my race” or “my gender.” In short, we continue to seek reasons to discriminate and exclude. Whether wearing the cloak of racism, nationalism, sexism, or speciesism, the same circuitry has been humming merrily along since the Pleistocene age. Most of us would like to be a bit more enlightened.

Recently—meaning in the last half-century—we have begun to get the message about the evils of racism and sexism. But other "isms" are a bit slower to change. They don’t yet have the social support to enable change on a large scale. But make no mistake about it: Most "isms" come from the same place in us, and most are problematic.

Many of you probably aren’t sure yet whether to nod your heads in agreement or prepare to dismiss this argument. You can probably get behind what I’m saying about racism and sexism, but what are these other “isms” I’m alluding to? Let’s look at three examples—ageism, nationalism, and speciesism. Can you see any problems with them? Keep in mind that as long as there’s an “us and them," there’s going to be trouble eventually. Being one of the “us” can feel dandy. You’ve got support. A group. A tribe. Somebody’s got your back. But wherever there’s an “us,” there’s a “them.” And being a “them” doesn’t feel so good. It means being excluded, demeaned, ostracized. Put down. Disempowered. It’s just a matter of time before all those “thems” are going to say, ”Enough already!” and rise up. And as we know from our history as a people or a nation, that won’t be a pretty day for anyone.

So here’s the thing. You really don’t get to pick and choose which isms you want. You either recognize them for what they are and avoid their appeal, or you embrace them wholesale. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old expression goes. Nobody with any cred says, “Well, yeah, I’m a racist, but I am not a sexist!” You’re either in or out. You’re either willing to turn control of your mind over to the Pleistocene default settings, or you modern up and bring some wisdom to the party. So let’s have a closer look at some of those other ism’s you may want to reconsider.

Ageism is pretty simple. The target of your discrimination is not an alien being, but it’s somebody you’re eventually going to become yourself (unless you happen to die young). So that’s you (or your own parents or grandparents) you’re aiming your disrespect at. Celebrating youth doesn’t mean disdaining old age.

Unfortunately, the next two ism’s are more difficult. Nationalism is an over-extension of the ancient “my tribe.” It made good sense in the Pleistocene age when tribes (social groups) typically numbered between 50 to 75 people, most of whom, as previously noted, were genetically related to you. Defending them was arguably an instance of what evolutionary psychologists call kin selection; it is barely removed from defending your immediate family, which evolution has hard-wired us to do. But a tribe of 75 related people is quite different from a nation of 327 million who happen to share a flag with you. Yet that same tribal software is being dragged into service whenever nations go to war. Going into battle with a neighboring tribe of 50 and a few wooden clubs is quite different from flying halfway around the globe to battle 1.4 billion Chinese, say.

As Richard Dawkins (1976) has argued, try to think of Darwinian evolution from the gene’s point of view. Genes compete to make it into the next generation. Individual organisms (entire gene pools) are successful when they survive and reproduce. The most direct path a gene can take is when the genome of which it is a part of successfully reproduces itself. But there are other, less direct paths to success. The term “kin selection” is used to describe cases in which contributing to the survival of a sibling or close relative (who carry many of the same genes) can also be a strategy for reproductive success. This is more than a general principle; the exact mathematics of directing altruism toward sisters vs. cousins vs. second cousins, etc is described in Hamilton’s Rule (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004).

The bottom line is that from a Darwinian point of view, fighting to protect yourself makes perfect sense. So does protecting your sister (who shares 50 percent of your genetic material). Defending your cousin and second cousin makes progressively less sense, although from a Darwinian point of view, both make more sense than protecting a stranger (i.e., one who shares none of your genetic material). Thus, defending a Pleistocene social group with contains brothers, sisters, first and second cousins, nieces and nephews, is worth risking life and limb for. A nation-state probably isn’t.

Yet most of us can feel the raw power of this primitive nationalism circuit just by looking at our flag or listening to our national anthem. Nationalism stems from a daunting combination: A Pleistocene predisposition, plus Pavlovian symbols, plus massive social support. It’s all you can do to even consider an argument against it. Look at how the topic has appeared in some vintage pop music, which has reflected both sides of the argument. In 1963 the Beach Boys had a hit called "Be True to Your School" in which they urged a form of tribal loyalty to one’s school, including its colors (i.e. flag). The lyrics explicitly tell us to show our high school the same attachment we would show any boyfriend or girlfriend. On the other hand, eight years later John Lennon, freshly detached from the Beatles, gave us a # 3 hit called "Imagine" in which he called on us to end all tribal loyalties:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too ....

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

“The world will be as one” is probably the biggest challenge in Lennon’s song because it means no “them.” That in itself is an alien concept to many of us, and perhaps not an altogether comfortable one. Nationalism is on the rise, whether in the US or Europe or Asia. When it happens all at once and is seen as a virtue by many people and politicians, it can be quite dangerous.

Finally, consider the sheep that started this discussion. Speciesism is less contentious than nationalism to be sure, but it comes from the same place in us. And speciesism is fueled by some medieval church dogma that many of us still accept uncritically. It’s is sometimes called “The Great Chain of Being” (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004). It is an ignorant but flattering view of life on our planet, and our place in it. It proposes that you can rank order things on the planet from God (who is perfect), down through man, other primates, and simpler and simpler life forms (progressively less perfect and worth less than us) down to bacteria, grass, rocks, and dirt. All further from God and less perfect. It’s an utterly ancient, unenlightened and self-congratulatory view that most of us were exposed to at some point. Some, but not all of us, were able to let it go. Obviously, sheep don’t do so well on this scale. They come off better than spiders and snails, but they’re still inferior to us. Us and them, one more time. A cynic would say, Don’t expect unbiased judgments from humans unless you like betting against Darwin. An optimist would say, The Pleistocene age is over. We are capable of so much more.


Davis, H. (2009). Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in the Modern World. New York: Prometheus Books.

Davis, H. (2019). Our disparaging view of sheep is indeed based on cognitive inadequacy: Unfortunately, it’s ours. Animal Sentience, 4 (25).

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gaulin, S. & McBurney, D. (2004). Evolutionary Psychology (Second Edition). New Jersey: Pearson Education.

More from Hank Davis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today