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Chapter 2

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. … see more

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