It is clear that racism, sexism and classism are discriminatory practices that impose harm on specific groups of people. It is less clear how discriminatory mechanisms in society arise and how they change the behavior of certain groups.

Dr. Yanis Varoufakis, visiting professor at the LBJ School, conducted research on discrimination using game theory laboratory experiments. Inspired by past research on the behavior of a population of birds, Varoufakis tested whether people behaved similarly given an analogous game that the birds were observed to play.

In the previous experiment the birds were all of the same species, but some had blue feathers and others had red feathers. The difference in color was an arbitrary trait, and had no effect on the fitness of the bird. The game was based on the control of nests. Either the birds would engage in hostile conflict to control a nest, or peacefully relinquish control.

Over time, one group began to outnumber the other and therefore became the evolutionarily advantaged group.

The advantaged birds were observed to be more hostile, while the disadvantaged birds were more submissive. The arrangement was evolutionarily stable as long as the hostile birds made up at least 33% of the population. Their hostile behavior, based on an arbitrary difference, became “institutionalized” as the population of advantaged birds increased.

Did people behave similarly when playing the same game? Varoufakis found that the same patterns emerged among the human players when they were randomly assigned one of two colors from a deck of cards. Additionally, Varoufakis ran the experiment with an additional option: to cooperate. The disadvantaged group overwhelmingly chose this strategy when they encountered other disadvantaged players.

When the cooperative option was added, the average winnings of the disadvantaged group was much higher than previously. Varoufakis concluded that the real power lies with the disadvantaged, given their ability to recoup the losses incurred by advantaged players who were overwhelmingly hostile with one another.

Is this evidence that discrimination is an inevitable byproduct of evolution? Varoufakis said his research provides “evidence that, however sustainable discriminatory norms and practices may seem, they can crumble and disappear once we expose their reliance on false beliefs resembling a type superstition functional to the interests of a tiny minority.”

I spoke with him about his findings and his thoughts on the struggle of disadvantaged groups against large-scale arbitrary discrimination.

BR: Do you have more to say about the institutionalization process for humans?

YV: Humans have a capacity that animals lack: the capacity to rationalize ex post and to develop moral (or normative) beliefs. Whereas in bird populations discrimination is based just on a Darwinian replicator mechanism which ensures that conflict is minimized through the division of birds between those which are programmed to act as hawks and to those that behave dovishly, human societies are at least one order to magnitude more complex.

The difference is that humans question the conventions around them. They convert the observation “this is what I am getting so this is what I am entitled to”. Predictive beliefs become solidified and the social order is stabilized.

But an opposite force is at work; a subversive one that is akin to mutations in biology. These mutations are acts of rebellion (e.g. a Spartacus or a Malcolm X) that destabilize the social order and the dominant ideology. It is through this tussle between the adaptive, conservative, replicator dynamic and the subversive rebelliousness of political mutations that human history evolves.

BR: Is it your impression that your experimental subjects behaved according to socialization, or is it the result of innate brain-wiring, as in the bird example?

YV: The only innate, hard-wired, aspect of this ‘socialization’ has to do with the need of humans to rationalize, to have reasons for accepting the conventions regulating their behavior. What David Hume describes in his Treatise of Human Nature as the surreptitious conversion of an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. It is this ‘thirst for reasons’ that is the source of the ideology that solidifies behavioral patterns of discrimination and cooperation but also of the ideology of rebellion, subversion and resistance.

BR: What is your opinion on the Civil Rights Movement? Did its members successfully utilize their power as members of the disadvantaged group?

YV: Yes. Broadly speaking, the second great difference between human societies and stratified bird populations is the fact that humans, possibly courtesy of Logos (speech, language and reason), tend to correlate our mutations. If you think of mutations as individual acts of resistance against established discriminatory conventions, politics is what happens when these individuals attempt to correlate their mutations, thus giving them a great deal more power to overturn the current conventions. In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement accomplished this with great success, especially so in view of having recruited into the coalition of subversives members of the advantaged group (whites who rode on the buses with blacks). If the Movement failed in something it was in that it had no answer to the massive loss of blue collar jobs after 1973, a loss that undermined the vast majority of disadvantaged Americans.

BR: Looking ahead, how do you feel about current movements of disadvantaged members exercising their collective power?

YV: It is the historic duty of victims of arbitrary discrimination to contest it tooth and nail. It is also inevitable that they will do, despite the Sirens that strive to keep them on their sofas, glued to the idiot box, or to immerse them in a cloud of mindless, cheap, plastic consumerism against the background of economic insecurity. The bad news is that, since the 1970s, the economic bedrock under the civil rights’ movement has become increasingly brittle. The Crisis of 2008 gave out some hope that the dispossessed would take heart and, through the Occupy Movement, reclaim part of the moral high ground in this never ending struggle.

There is good news: As long as mindless, irrational and multiple patterns of discrimination survive, the human spirit will always produce serious challenges to it and, in so doing, will keep the flame alive.