Why We Must Confront Our Unconscious Biases: Evolution through Symbiosis or Red in Tooth and Claw? Series, Part 2

Before I jump into implicit (unconscious) bias, paying attention to at least the most detrimental of our implicit biases (so that we can actively change our behavior to reduce or eliminate their negative impacts), I want to start here by stating that collectively as a society in the U.S. we have deep soul wounds. Soul wounds that largely go unrecognized consciously by the dominant culture, and therefore continue to fester and manifest as a range of ills.

The wounds are genocide and slavery. The unrecognized holocaust in this country of the First Nations Peoples of this land. Slavery and continued oppression of Black and Brown peoples. These peoples carry the wound as individuals and as cultures. The real truth is that the U.S. has been built out of and upon these deep wounds.

Implicit biases have served as a wall obscuring this wound from those of us that have benefited from genocide and slavery, and that is all of us in the dominant culture. What is the result of ignoring the deep wounds from these historical and ongoing traumas? Sherri Mitchell from the Penobscot Nation writes,

“When we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain—the deep, agonizing soul pain that results from historical trauma—we aren’t able to recognize that we are all carrying some measure of that pain within us. Instead, we allow it to isolate us and keep us cut off from one another. We also fail to recognize that the cause of that pain is not only a violation against us, it is a violation against life itself, and its mournful cries echo through our DNA, and become lodged in our genetic memory”. [1]

We must each ask ourselves, “how can I become fully conscious of the injustices of genocide and slavery?”

I can share a little from my own journey at the beginnings of reaching out to touch these wounds, working to remove the blinders of my own implicit biases, and deciding to move into those spaces. What I know is that it is a journey, and one that isn’t likely to be complete in my lifetime.

Thirty years ago, in the early 1990s on a cross-country road trip to the west coast to present my graduate research at two conferences, I spontaneously detoured to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. To stand there, to be there, to pray there, to acknowledge and touch a part of that deep wound. This was a place of massacre representative of the full-scale genocide of First Nations People by the U.S. government and dominant paradigm of manifest destiny held in high esteem by the immigrants to this land. [2]

Later that day I made my way to a small county park with free camping to set up my tent for the night in view of Bear Butte in the Badlands. At the time, I didn’t know this mountain was a sacred place to the Lakota people. That night I had a dream that felt as real as if it happened awake in broad daylight. In the dream in the place I was sleeping, my body and spirit had melded in with the ground. I could feel and hear a great rumbling. Then I saw a herd of buffalo that stretched wide across the horizon running toward me. The herd enveloped and went over me, and carried me up in the air with them to Bear Butte.

The next morning, my body felt like I had been in a stampede. It took me several hours before I could walk normally without severe pain. That dream was the first of many dreams that followed for years after of reconnecting with a native grandfather spirit and with the Earth. These dreams prompted me to begin unraveling the colonial-settler mindset my culture imparted to me. I began to open to the worldview and understanding of the experience of First Nations People.

It was a part of this journey that led me to live in the Northwoods wilderness and to relearn a native way to see and live on the Earth. I spent time with an Ojibwe elder on Lac de Flambeau Indian reservation in the traditional teaching lodge and sweat lodge ceremonies and learning about seeing the world from his perspective and traditions. I spent time learning from different Ojibwe leaders at Bad River and Red Cliff reservations. I came to understand in a deeper manner their perspective on our U.S. government and how their people have been mistreated and oppressed. How they are persisting in the face of that oppression. Sometimes, one really does need to take the time to walk miles in the other person’s moccasins, so to speak.

Another experience many years later, I was walking along a sidewalk on the university campus when I came to a question that had been written in colored chalk on the concrete, “Where can I be Black?”.

That one question jolted me like I had accidentally grabbed ahold of an electric fence wire. I stood there for some time staring at that question. I realized in that moment, where I had not previously understood, that we as a campus community of mostly white, middle class folks just assume and expect without question that any people not like us must assimilate into our culture of how we think, act, look, and feel. We don’t actively provide very many welcoming, open pathways or spaces for black and brown people to bring their whole selves and cultures to light where we might all learn from and see the world with broader understanding.

That day I made a commitment to do something that would begin to build pathways and spaces where unique and diverse students could come together to fully share, learn from each other, and work together on issues and problems of interest to them. With the freedom to do so from their own perspectives and ways of knowing. In other words, a space that honors the creative wisdom of the full intersectionality of each student present.

Along with that, I also made a commitment to begin a journey of coming to grips with my own implicit biases. More on that in a second.

I recognize this is a difficult journey. One that will take a lifetime. I won’t ever directly know what it is like to be African-American, or Native American, living daily out of that deep wound and carrying the heavy generational soul pain, experiencing breath-robbing oppression.

What I can do is choose to take the journey of removing my cultural blinders, making my implicit biases conscious; choose to be anti-racist, choose to touch the soul wound, recognize the divine in each person, choose to teach, write, and talk about it with others. I may get it wrong more than I’ll get it right, but if I choose to keep showing up for myself, for my family, for my country and fellow citizens and travelers, maybe I can make a positive difference.

Part of this work for me has meant digging into implicit bias training. I took the implicit bias “tests” that are curated through the Project Implicit consortium of scholars, organized at Harvard University. [3]

My own story about this experience is that a colleague had recommended the Project Implicit tests, specifically the one relating to women in science. I initially thought to myself, ‘I don’t have any biases against women in science’. I went on to take that test five times within a few days. I did not like the results. They were consistently showing that I did, in fact, have implicit biases against women in science.

This was an uncomfortable learning for me. At that moment I discerned that I had a choice to make. One, I could forget all about the test, dismiss it out of hand, and pretend nothing had happened. Simply go on believing that I’m a good person and that I never act biased against women in science. Or, I could accept the results that I did have a negative unconscious bias that influences my decisions and views, and then start to do something active about that situation. I chose the latter.

Shortly afterwards, I decided to incorporate a diversity workshop and implicit bias testing into a summer training in data and team-based science I’ve organized annually for graduate students from across the country. Something happened as a result that totally broadened my understanding of implicit bias.

I had arranged to have our university’s Director of Diversity to conduct the workshop and tests. After the students had taken the test about bias against women in science, she asked if anyone wanted to share what they had learned. At first everyone was very quiet. Then, slowly, one of the young PhD students raised her hand. She said, “I know that I am privileged in that my grandmother has a PhD, my mother has a PhD, and I only have one year to go to finish my own PhD. And, [pause] I have a bias against women in science.”

This confirmed for many others in the room of their own test results. The fact is, we live in a society where implicit biases against women are many layered and extensive, with a history that stretches back for millennia. We are all to some extent carrying around biases against women as a result. We’ve absorbed these biases from living daily life within a society that has seen women as lesser-than. The same is true of other implicit biases, such as biases about LGBTQ people, about Black people, about White people, about Asian people, about old people, and on and on.

Since that day seven years ago, I’ve improved and made my biases conscious, to where I can actively stop in the moment and be fully aware of my thinking. Actively paying attention that I am not making decisions based on unconscious bias. Although this is real progress, I’m still and always will be working to improve.

I implore each person to enter into this journey for themselves. Our collective soul as a nation requires it, and I believe that our future as a species depends on our ability to make the unconscious, conscious. To become aware of the implicit biases that mitigate against others, and then do the hard work of changing our behavior, denouncing racist and misogynistic policies, while actively supporting policies of equity. To stop being a privileged bystander, and instead to be a voice for those who are oppressed.

We can also start asking ourselves, “How can I become conscious of the injustices of competition and capitalism that mitigates against the poor, minority, and disabled populations, and robs almost all of us in our society from reaching our full potential as human beings?”

In part one of this series I began to point out some of the biases built up around the science of evolution via natural selection and how those biases have severely impacted the poor, minority, and disabled populations. The biases around evolution via natural selection is but one corner of the large roomful of bias and context in our society, but it is one that often gets a free pass, because, well, science and scientists! They, and much of society, see themselves and science as unbiased.

The relevant issue in my train of thought here is that scientists in general often like to present themselves as totally unbiased. This simply isn’t true. I do believe nearly all scientists attempt to embrace an unbiased process, with methods grounded in previous peer-reviewed and verified processes, in how they conduct and present their science. This is actually the best anyone can do. Following the scientific method does a great job in many regards, perhaps better than any other method humans have devised, to figure out how things work and to solve problems.

However, from my own career in academia where I’ve worked with and observed many scientists and practitioners involved in researching many different topics, it is clear to me that there is a culture of “we don’t have biases” that is pervasive among scientists. The “purer” (or “harder”) the science is believed to be among disciplines (physics and mathematics on the “purest” end of the spectrum), the more embedded in belief the scientists themselves tend to have about their own sense of ‘not having any biases’.

This largely undiscussed, but deeply held, belief that scientists are pure in thought and interpretation when it comes to carrying out science has a downside. The tragedy of this cultural belief is that it renders scientists who hold such self-belief to be especially vulnerable to their own unconscious biases, without realizing how much their biases influence their thinking, decision making, and behavior.

This isn’t meant to single out scientists as the only people with biases. We all have these unconscious biases. There isn’t a single human being alive beyond the age of two that doesn’t have and isn’t influenced by their unconscious biases. The troubling outcome is that it’s the unconscious biases that tend to be the most dangerous and cause the most harm.

The trick, and really, the very hard and necessarily persistent work, is to train ourselves to become ever-more consciously aware of our biases that can harm ourselves and others. This can be emotionally arduous, uncomfortable work. To become aware of and then work toward altering our heretofore kneejerk behaviors in response to such biases is critical for us to move forward as a people and as a species. That is how individuals change, and a population of such individuals can change their cultures, and eventually an entire society.

Author Brian McLaren has written a book and recorded a podcast series on the nature of bias that is accessible and very helpful at unpacking the kinds of bias we each carry inside us, how vexing it can be to begin to address such bias in individuals, ourselves, and the culture at large, and ways we can actively change and overcome those biases. [4]

“People can’t see what they can’t see. Their biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias.” Brian McLaren

The evolution of our species has something to do with our inherent biases. One the one hand, a reason we evolved as a species and have been so successful is perhaps most due to our ability to collaborate and share with one another. [5] This is what led naturally to the formation of tribes or clans of people. However, the very thing that helped tribes/clans persist – belief systems layered on top of collaboration and sharing – is also the thing that serves to keep our biases ingrained and intact.

Biases can be good. But, they can often be detrimental in todays world. Our biases so often mitigate against anyone or any group of people who don’t look like us, don’t have our backgrounds, don’t share our country of origin, don’t speak our language or talk like we do, don’t have the same religion, don’t hold the same political views, or don’t come from our own community (school, neighborhood, town, county)…this prevents us from extending the sharing and collaborating we do in our “tribe/clan/group” to others outside of our group.

Evolutionarily our biases help us fit in with each other in our group and usually reinforce the collaboration and sharing within-group. This also means we are more likely to go along with or believe false beliefs that originate within our group, rather than believe a factual truth that originates from outside of our group. This phenomenon has become the most dangerous threat to our democracy as large percentages of our U.S. population have reframed an increasing number of false beliefs as “alternative facts”.

Another facet of clans and groups to consider is that they have changed dramatically in the modern age. Throughout nearly all of homo sapiens’ development a group’s collaboration was most often with blood and marital relatives focused on sustaining the basics of survival: food, water, shelter/clothing. A group tended to be only as large as could be sustained within the carrying capacity of the local ecosystems in which the group traveled.

Today’s runaway capitalism and its accompanying biases, as outlined in part one of this series, has hyper-individualized our society where we as individuals do not tend to collaborate or share nearly as much as our ancestors did. Today, as individuals, we are expected to do it all. The groups we identify with today are not so connected with sustenance, but rather tend to be along individual political or topic interests (e.g. political party, non-profit organizations, hobby clubs, church, etc.). Often, the members of today’s large groups mostly don’t know one another personally, and will never meet each other in person. It is also common today to have family groups where members hold conflicting political and religious beliefs.

Some groups are sustained not by positive goals or traits at all, but instead by characteristics such as hatred of other groups (e.g. white supremacy, extreme right or left political groups). Hate of the “other” is the only glue holding them together. This is an example of negative bias manifesting consciously with its ugly intentions right out front: find another group to blame for my own ills and fears.

Yet, African-American scholars like Ibram X. Kendi have stated that it isn’t the men in white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan he worries about most. Instead, the biggest concern is all the rest of us who walk around with ingrained unconscious biases daily influencing our decisions without any conscious understanding that many of our decisions and thoughts are based on and support racist policies. [6]

Kendi has pointed out something extremely penetrating that pulls the rug out from under the legs of those of us who steadfastly believe we are standing in a grey zone of ‘not racist’: The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist”. In reality, there is no land “not racist” on which to stand. There is only anti-racist or racist. Most of us swing back and forth between these two binary poles on a daily basis, often without any conscious understanding or awareness. [6]

Furthermore, most modern human societies have cultivated a bias of humans as the most important life form in the universe, certainly on Earth. Our bias in this way leads us to unconsciously see everything else from the context of ‘humans first’ and ‘we know best’. We anthropomorphize everything from God to the animals in our care, and even inanimate things. Yet, we are making decisions and operating on the illusion that the entirety of creation is here for us to plunder. It was not always this way. There are times and places where human societies have a positive conscious bias that all of life is sacred, and pattern(ed) their lives accordingly.

Today, our society and most of our cultures have become like a carpenter with only a single blunt tool, a hammer. The thing we primarily see and act upon is competition. With a staunch belief in scarcity, we are hyper aware of pounding down the next guy in order to get our individual slice of the pie. That if we are not doing the hammering down, then we’re likely getting pounded down ourselves. In the context of violent capitalism, we tend to rush toward the inevitable conclusion of celebrating a “last man standing” way of working and living, while the inequalities in our society continue to grow unabated. Is it any wonder that we in the U.S. are now collectively the most overworked, underpaid, medicated, depressed, sick, indebted, policed, imprisoned, and militarized people on the Earth?

As outlined in part one of this series, a collection of biases has greatly influenced how the theory of evolution by natural selection is presented and applied. Namely, with a heavy bias towards competition, “survival of the fittest”, with nature as red in tooth and claw.

It’s not that competition and scarcity aren’t present and real in nature. They certainly are present and do have an influence on all organisms. However, instead of a hyper-focus on competition, what is likely going on in nature is that competition is occurring within a much larger framework of cooperation. Cooperation in the form of co-evolved symbioses, such as mutualism and altruistic behaviors, co-existing layers of organismal niches where the outcomes reduce competition and conflict, where the flow of energy in ecosystems is captured, cycled, and shared in a manner that accrues diversity and resilience of life. Life without pollution or constant degradation. Life where groups of cooperative individuals have a distinct evolutionary advantage over groups of inherently selfish individuals. [5]

In the next article of this series, I’ll delve deeper into this phenomena and science of symbiosis as a view of nature and evolution that may be more accurate than selfish-gene, last-man-standing perspectives that have driven our society. The big question is this: “How might we choose to live and develop a human society that improves the wellbeing and equity of all people while allowing the ecosystems we all depend upon to also thrive?” I believe that our future as a species depends upon individuals and groups making this shift in consciousness, understanding, and behavior.

[1] Sherri Mitchell, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change (North Atlantic Books: 2018), 57, 66–67.

[2] Wounded Knee refers to the location where on December 29, 1890 U.S. troops massacred nearly 300 women, children, and men (mostly unarmed) of the Lakota tribes. For a masterpiece of writing and journalism on the history up through the 1970’s of the direct oppression of Lakota peoples by the U.S. government, and their continued perseverance and spirit, I highly recommend Peter Matheson’s unabridged version, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

[3] Get started now with implicit bias testing/analysis (free) at Project Implicit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/, as well as check out the educational aspects to dive in to better understanding the nature of implicit bias and how to address making these biases conscious so that you can begin to alter your decision making and behavior: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

[4] Podcast series, Learning How to See with Brian McLaren and friends, https://cac.org/podcasts/why-cant-we-see/, and his e-book Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and yourself).

[5] For a scientific demonstration of how cooperativity can evolve among groups and have distinct advantages over selfish individualistic groups see Johan H. Koeslag, Sex, The Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, and the Evolutionary Inevitability of Cooperation, Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 189, Issue 1, 1997, Pages 53-61,

ISSN 0022-5193, https://doi.org/10.1006/jtbi.1997.0496. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022519397904963 )

[6] See Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World, 2019.

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