Chapter 2. The Evolutionary and Existential Origins of Ableism
The evolutionary and existential origins of ableism are among the more distal explanations for prejudice, less accessible to awareness. They focus on the relatively universal and unconscious tendencies that humans from around the world demonstrate, revealing some of our most basic needs for safety, belonging, and significance. This chapter first describes the basic premises of evolutionary theory, and its implications for disability prejudice. According to an evolutionary theory, one of the root causes of prejudice derives from biological predispositions that were adaptive in early hunter-gatherer societies – where communal living offered safety, and attention to potential threats helped protect the group (Kurzban and Leary 2001). The idea is that human ancestors who inherited the tendency to be watchful and wary of danger were more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on these same traits to their children. This evolved capacity for watchfulness is considered to be threat specific, which may help to explain why prejudice comes in a variety of forms. For example, if a stranger acted in ways that signaled competition, the most adaptive response might be anger (and beliefs that justified retaliation). However, if a stranger or even someone from within the group acted in ways suggestive of illness or disease, the most adaptive response might be avoidance (and beliefs that justified the elimination of this threat)
Some disability prejudice, therefore, might be an evolutionary holdover from those who inherited a disease-avoidance system that became overly sensitive to people whose appearance or behavior signaled poor health – even if they were not infectious. If some people inherited an overactive disease-detection mechanism, they might stare and respond fearfully to others with disease cues like open sores, spasms, or missing limbs, which tend to characterize some of the world’s deadliest infections (Oaten et al. 2011). As a consequence, those who limp, tremor, or have uneven arms or eyes may trigger a false alarm in people who express discomfort and avoid contact even with objects touched by people with certain disabilities (Maguire and Haddad 1990). Some evidence in support of these ideas comes from tests of the disease-avoidance model of disability prejudice. Park et al. (2003) found that some people do overgeneralize their adaptive fear and disgust toward pathogens by avoiding those with disabilities who are not contagious. These evolved tendencies are even more likely when people feel vulnerable to disease, like when pregnant or in hospital settings.
People don’t usually catch disability like the flu despite that fact that around the world disabled people provoke repulsion and are treated as if they are contagious. They are isolated and shunned from public venues. People with cancer, cleft palates, birthmarks, and burns report being treated as if they were contagious, and responded to with gestures of disgust. Such “germaphobic” tendencies have important implications for interventions designed to promote inclusion and physical connection. If some people have a predisposition to avoid those who trigger contagion fears, interventions that put people into close contact to reduce disability prejudice might actually increase anxiety. Alternatively, with increasing exposure, such fears might become obsolete over time. Unfortunately, by assuming prejudice is primarily learned (and therefore can be unlearned), prejudice researchers have focused less on the challenges from evolutionary (Neuberg and Cottrell 2006) and existential psychology (Pyszczynski et al. 2015), which both focus on more deep-seated and unconscious fears.
The second half of Chapter 2 summarizes theory and research on the existential fears associated with disability prejudice, dehumanization, and hate crimes. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), some people are avoided because they remind others of their vulnerability to deterioration and death. Disability prejudice therefore, may be used as a way to escape awareness of our own frailty, which can be threatening to those who would rather not think about the prospect of acquiring a disability (or a disabled family member). Disability reminds people that strength, intellect, and language are neither guaranteed nor permanent. Like all animals, humans break. We all have accidents, and someday we will die. Research in over 25 countries has shown that fears of death are linked to prejudice against Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and disabled people (Pyszczynski et al. 2015). Although many cultures promote the superiority of humankind, evidence shows that viewing humans as superior to animals is another strong predictor of intergroup prejudice. If disabled people serve as unwanted reminders that life is not predictable, they may not only be excluded, they may also become the targets of violent crimes.
Ableism may also stem, in part, from a need to feel distinct from other animals. TMT lays the groundwork to examine how fears of death and the need for a meaningful, uniquely human existence can underlie prejudicial reactions – especially toward those who threaten beliefs about what it means to be human (Goldenberg et al. 2000). People work very hard to keep reminders of their animal natures at bay: we cover up blemishes, perfume body odors, and make private and sanitary the elimination of wastes. Enter people with disabilities who may crawl, shake, and drool. They can be blatant reminders that we, like animals, are made of flesh and blood. Research has yet to test whether making people aware of their animal natures increases ableist attitudes, but evidence shows these reminders do increase thoughts of death. Perhaps this is why birth control regulations are imposed on those whose human status continues to be questioned. People with disabilities are frequently denied personhood, and have a long history of dehumanizing treatments (Braddock and Parish 2001). People whose bodies or bodily fluids signal our essential creatureliness (and vulnerability to disability) may become targets of condescending but taming forms of social control, or animalistic hate crimes involving urination and defecation (Haslam and Loughnan 2012). Others, whose prosthetics and assistive devices appear machine-like, may become the targets of mechanistic forms of dehumanization: disabled residents in institutional settings have been deprived of medication and heat in the winter justified on the basis that they are unfeeling machines that do not feel pain (Bryen et al.2003).
Critiques of both evolutionary and existential approaches, alternative interpretations, and next steps needed to corroborate the evidence to date will also be discussed. As long as disabled people are conceptualized as less than fully human, they will be treated in ways that benefit those whose lives are considered more valuable.