Imagine there is a community of highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy people. One of its core, undisputed values is that some people are truly human and some others - just two-legged animals, who don't have any real human rights.

How can that belief form and sustain itself among sane people? Are there any other, better explanations other than the one below?

  1. Starting point: A world with technology level not lower than our current one.
  2. For some reason (e. g. one of the regional conflicts escalates into a major war) a significant portion of world's nuclear bombs is activated. For example, the US drops nukes on Russia, which activates its "guaranteed retaliation" system and makes Russian missiles launch and deliver bombs to the US automatically (even after everyone is dead).
  3. This exchange of nuclear strikes a) kills a large portion of the Earth's population and b) disrupts the DNA of all those, who survived, but were unprotected from radiation during the attack. The survivors and their children turn into animal-like, but human-looking creatures with limited intellectual abilities.
  4. The only people, who survived the attack and were not exposed to the brain-damaging radiation, are the military personnel in protected areas (like officers sitting in the protected NORAD facilities).
  5. Let's assume they are well-meaning and decide to re-build the civilization as we know it (preserve whatever is left of technology and cultural artifacts, make sure that the population of healty people increases).
  6. Let's further assume that if a healthy person interacts with a person exposed to radiation, their child will be animal-like.
  7. The goal of the healthy survivors is to gradually increase the number of healthy people. Therefore they forbid marriages between healthy and radiation-exposed people. They also invent other rules with the goal of protecting the small population of healthy survivors from the larger population of the people with damaged DNA.
  8. These rules are passed from generation to generation over decades/centuries. The healthy population lives in conditions as close to civilized as possible, while the radiation-exposed people go through all stages of evolution (from monkeys to homo sapiens) and their society structure evolves accordingly.
  9. After some time two things happen: 1) The effect of radiation subsides, i. e. the formerly animal-like people (those with damaged DNA) become human again. 2) The healthy survivor elite forgets the purpose, for which the discriminating rules were originally developed. As a result, it continues to treat the other group as animals (and is convinced that it's the right thing to do) despite the fact that now both groups consist of same types of people.

Update 1: How to tell healthy people apart from unhealthy ones?

Unhealthy people can be identified by at least two parameters:

  1. By appearance. An unhealthy person has unusual physical features - fur all over the body (like a monkey), too big/too small arms and all other kinds of deformities caused by exposure to radiation.
  2. By different psychological reactions. An unhealthy person may get more easily depressed than a normal one (for example).

So, if a person from the "elite" meets a healthy descendant of unhealthy parents, and the latter doesn't have any deformities nor abnormal behaviors, the former can assume that he or she is healthy.

Update 2:

In addition to the already presented answers, here's another scenario on how a person can develop discriminatory mindset: Imagine someone, who is treated badly by the environment and can't fight back. It may be easier for her to imagine that her opponents are not humans, but lower creatures. Discrimination (equating offenders with animals) can help cope with the emotional pain.

If a person says something bad to you, you may get upset. But if a dog barks at you, you won't. You just can't feel hurt emotionally by dogs, cats, worms and other lower-level creatures.

Examples of intelligent people acting racist

Some of the commenters said that if group A discriminates group B, then A is just a bunch of bad, racist people. I agree that they are bad and any serious analysis must answer (or attempt to answer) the question How did they racism start?. Saying X is just a racist a...e is equivalent to saying Car Y drives because of the automotive energy. Both statements do not help understand causes (of racism and what makes a car move) and do not help prevent it (which is the ultimate purpose of writing stories involving racism).

To make the statement about the car useful, the wrong concept of automotive energy needs to be broken down into right ones, i. e. phenomena that actually exist in reality (like electric, kinetic and other forms of energy, which are involved in car movement).

There was also at least one statement that if a person is racist, he or she cannot be highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy. I don't agree with that because there are examples in history, when such people were acting and/or talking racist:

  1. John Locke, the great British intellectual, invested into slave trade (see section Constitution of Carolina in the Wikipedia article).
  2. The Nazis.
  3. Margaret Thatcher.

Let's look at the latter two examples in more detail.

The Nazis

The cornerstone of the Nazi ideology was that certain peoples (including Jews, the Slavs, Roma and Sinti) were subhumans. Some of the Nazis developed

  • most advanced rocket of their time (on which both Soviet and American first rocket designs were based),
  • first jet fighter and
  • a cult, which even 70 years after is so appealing to some people (including Nazis victims) that governments need to prohibit it (Hitler's Mein Kampf is officially banned in Russia, Germany and Austria, probably for a reason).

All of these things could only be achieved by intelligent people. The scientists/engineers behind them probably knew about the implications of the Nazi ideology (unnecessary suffering of beings, who were humans like them), but decided to support it nonetheless.

Margaret Thatcher

I heard from several sources that Margaret Thatcher said in the mid-1980es that the number of Russians should be reduced from approx. 140 million to 14-15 millions:

Margaret Thatcher said once during her term in office that "Russians should be reduced to 15 million, the persons serving chinks and mines". It is open to guesswork why the Kremlin stayed unperturbed after the view surfaced, but when it was expressed the confused interpreter translated the phrase as 50 million and was corrected right away. By all means, this could not have been a slip of the tongue - it attested to the seriousness of the intent voiced by the Iron Lady with a talent for befriending imprudent Russians that Madeleine Albright held almost exactly the same in the mid-1990ies.

This statement was said during the detente after Gorbachev's accession to power, hence it cannot be justified by a Soviet threat to the West (this racist statement was said at a time, when that very threat was being eliminated).

  • $\begingroup$ given your scenario: how can a member of your original healthy group identify an equally healthy member of the formerly amimal-like group? $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki See update 1. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 10:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Burki I think that simplifies the reasons for racism. Being a racist can go together with being intelligent, educated, and mentally healthy. For example, take a look at the wiki about scientific racism (note also the After 1945 section). I don't think you could say that Voltaire or Kant are not intelligent, not educated, or not mentally healthy, and still they held racist opinions. You could also look at eugenicists for intelligent, educated, healthy people supporting irrational discrimination. $\endgroup$
    – tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 14:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Burki I think it's fair to say that proponents of scientific racism did think about it. As for more modern examples, the authors of The Bell Curve and it's defenders (see eg here) would be an example from the 90s. I'm not saying that education can't combat racism (in at least some instances), but that reasons for racism are not as simple as stupidity or insanity. Eg creating and maintaining power structures or increasing ones feeling of self-worth would be reasons for racism separate from health or intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Being russian, you should remember the old soviet classic movie Kin-Dza-Dza, where social discrimination on the faraway planet Pluk is estabilished by the means of small devices ("vizators") that give a different light when directed on a "patzak" (inferior) or on a "chatlanin" (superior), and the devices are technically the only means of telling them apart. You could have a device like that in your world, that could track people with traces of mutations in their genes. That's as good a discrimination trait as any. $\endgroup$
    – Mints97
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 19:49

10 Answers 10


Mnemotechnical Superiority; Engineered Mind.

Along with acknowledging physical - biological identity of the groups, the Supers have developed advanced philosophy; science and engineering of mind constructs. They are trained since childhood in mental discipline, making them able to use their brains as precise, flawless machines that are capable of feats no physical computer could achieve:

  • predicting the future (locally up to a few seconds precisely; on society/country/planet levels - years into the future);
  • creating an utopian society of mutual kindness, with empathy sense preventing all kinds of painful blunders and immense value of feelings of others;
  • performing miracles of science, engineering and art through optimal use of the resources of one's brain;
  • engaging in collective thinking - a shorthand language that's equivalent of very fast network communication allowing to form "clusters of brains" far more efficient at solving problems than our unstructured "brainstorming",
  • learning any new skills or knowledge with efficiency of a computer

...And above all they are able to realize the superiority of structured, self-controlled, well-designed mind (with a drop of individuality which can contribute to variety and wealth but doesn't destroy the order) versus common mind of ancestors where random thoughts, unordered memories, fragmented knowledge, unchecked impulses, selfishness and laziness were the primary motors of the society.

And there are the "dissenters" who reject the process of structuring. Kids that choose to cheat and slack at the mnemotechnic training, and failed to achieve the coherence of mind; societies that choose to reject the advanced learning techniques, be it living under dictatorships, rejecting the advanced culture, too deeply "poisoned" by religious beliefs to accept ideas that contradict their beliefs (and parents "poisoning" their children that way).

The process requires a young, elastic and unbiased mind to take root. An adult has too many preconceptions, too many developed bad habits - things they'd need to unlearn first before they could learn the structured, superior but far more difficult to absorb alternatives. An 8 years old kid who didn't start the training is already lost to the society; it will forever remain a "monkey".

And of course as the "monkeys" still live in their cruel, selfish, brutish "monkey" ways, with wars, inequity, injustice, greed and need for control over others, lacking in empathy and kindness, they are seen just like monkeys, a previous evolutionary stage that choose not to elevate themselves to the new level of society. They can't be trusted, they are inferior at any jobs requiring intelligence, they tend to be violent, they look to minimizing own work and maximizing own profit at cost of others, they resent the ideals of kindness through disciplined mind and find the cost (effort) of learning not to be worthwhile. Oh, and many of them choose to believe - with absolute conviction - in blatant falsehoods like existence of some deities, and take mortal offense in proofs to the contrary, not being able to understand them with their crude patchworks in their heads.

Of course the kind race will offer a chance to the "monkey children" for a better life, to pull them out of their traps and live happy lives in the utopia. And of course the "monkeys" will fight back...

re:update. Recognition would be as easy as exchanging a greeting in Express, the rapid-communication language that allows communication at several kilobytes per second, by combining high-frequency modulation of voice (superior vocal strings control) and additional visual communication channels (gestures, muscle control). Learning the language is obviously out of reach of any unstructured mind.

  • $\begingroup$ ...Somehow, this remembers-me of Protoss and Vulcans, at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Ever read Baxter/Pratchett’s Long Earth series? This is a near exact description of the Next’s opinion of humanity (though they had some genuine neurological differences to back up their superintelligence). $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 9:36

You speak of "a community of highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy people" as though it would automatically mean they weren't bad people, but unfortunately it doesn't. Stupidity, ignorance and emotional instability can fuel and compound bigotry but they aren't the reason for it.

If your basic moral precepts are wrong-- if you don't accept the Golden Rule as absolute, or you define "humanity" to exclude certain groups-- then you can proceed, in a totally rational way, to do terrible things. That's exactly what happened in the fascist societies of 1930s Europe, or Pol Pot's Cambodia, for example.

Many vegetarians would say that if you can empathise with a cow's ability to suffer, and its desire to live, then killing it is no more justifiable than killing a person. There's no logical argument for why cows don't get the same consideration as humans; it's an arbitrary line, and we could just as easily have chosen a line that defines, say, Greek people as food.

If that sounds far-fetched, it's only because of the biological possibility that you could end up with a Greek niece or grandson, which would undermine such a consensus (this is precisely why highly segregated regimes make miscegenation a crime, and it's also why they tend not to be stable over time).

Putting it in these terms sounds disturbing, and it is: if you're looking for a fundamental difference between a "normal" society and Nazi Germany... there isn't one.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. And it seems remarkably easy for intelligent people to convince themselves of all kinds of falsehoods about other people, and tell themselves these things are obvious facts. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 23:51

If your "accepted" members of your society discriminate against the non-accepted part for some outside reason, they are racists. No point in trying to add any nicer name to it.

To have a justifiable form of discrimination, there would need to be a feature (or lack thereof) in each member of the non-accepted group. This would need to be a great deficiency, like for example the inability to learn to speak, very limited intelligence, an inherent and uncontrollable urge to use excess violence (while at the same time failing to qualify for police work...), or anything along those lines.

No other reason for discrimination is justifiable, so it will not go very well with your accepted group being described as highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy people.

  • $\begingroup$ See my update 2 with examples of intelligent people acting/talking in a racist way. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2015 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ @DmitriPisarenko if anybody nis intelligent enough, they should eventually start questioning their racist actions / thoughts. If they don't, and still insist that they were superior to any group of people (as defined by some outside characteristics), there is nothing you could say that would not make them racist a**holes. There may be a lot of very intelligent "justifications", but by now i have not seen one that could not be reduced to an attempt of hiding an attempt to gain a profit, be it monetary, political or whatnot. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 7:00

Suppose scientists discover a gene or a series of genes that determines whether or not a person is capable of murdering another human being. These people, whom would otherwise be normal in all other circumstances, when put in an incredibly stressful situation might resort to murder. These people may be highly intelligent, very rational, and not show any signs of having said gene, however, if the government required that the general population be tested for this gene and publicized the results, you'd find that these people would be alienated.

Although the government wouldn't throw them into encampments, they would be considered second-class citizens in many ways, despite having any legal or moral backing. If you don't think such alienation is possible, then ask yourself how you would act around someone on the sex offenders list. Such a person may be perfectly normal, intelligent, and rational, yet you may find yourself feeling superior to such a person.

Another possibility might be that a portion of the population are androids, whose appearance and behavior is indistinguishable from a normal human being. They could even simulate drawing blood. Yet such an android would naturally want the same rights as other humans, and a good many people would treat them like second-class citizens despite this fact, if for no other reason than the fact that they aren't human.

  • $\begingroup$ Being around someone who "might resort to murder" in an "incredibly stressful situation" is not the same thing as being around a person who has been convicted of actually committing a crime. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel For what concerns how people approach them, yes, albeit in a less extreme manner. If your best friend might resort to murder in an incredibly stressful situation, wouldn't you look at him or her in a slightly different way? $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ No, that's more often a good thing. Killing someone in self defence is something quite a lot of people would do and I'd be glad my friend would be willing to do that. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel That's one way of looking at it. I doubt if others would look at it in such a light. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 15:04

Prejudice is just statistical inference applied to human behavior. By observing the behavior of a sample of people that share a common and easily identifiable characteristic (skin color, tatoos, unique cloths) you can predict the behavior the population from where the sample was taken. In your particular example lets say I am a member of elite and I only know one unhealthy person. If that only person I know commit murder, I have no choice (because I don't have any other information) but to assume that all unhealthy people are murderers.

I am aware, as an intelligent person, that my evidence do not prove it but if I have to make a decision (trust or not to trust, allow or not them to stay) I must base my decision on the currently available evidence. That is where discrimination takes place. Based on the available information and also based on the impossibility (even because of lack of interest and also lack of resources, and that includes time) of getting more information (in other words: because knowing the ultimate truth is not possible) I will adopt a discriminatory policy to reduce the likelihood of being hit by the undesirable behavior that I am expecting from the unhealthy people.

Discriminatory actions are very convenient because they normally comes with zero cost to people that applies it. Only the objects of the discriminatory actions are more severely affected so from the elite point of view it makes all sense and not doing so would in fact be irrational.


I like the concept and your question is well thought out and interesting.

That said two of your premises are mutually exclusive.

  • You have a group of people that were, but are no longer genetically inferior

  • The genetically healthy from the start population is completely rational and understand the fact above.

In this scenario you have no valid reason to discriminate against those who have recovered from the damage that was done in the nuclear exchange.

Discrimination is based on a few things.

  • Real, or in most cases, perceived inferiority. Keep in mind we have to talk about potential. I would assume that those born from the healthy lineages have far more education and experience, they have also developed a society that those born outside the system are completely unfamiliar with. So while the newly healthy have the potential to be the same they are behind in education and culture.

  • Dehumanization. This has been tied to every genocide or legally enforced apartheid since the beginning of time, to Rome to modern Jihadists. If you can convince your people that the other people are less human discrimination becomes commonplace and paves the road for systemic violence.

  • Relative Deprivation. My group should not lose ground to those other people even if I worse off than I was before.

Human nature will certainly allow for your healthy folks to discriminate against the newly healthy, but it won't be based in logic or science.


Really all you need to do is look at how racism has, and continues to sustain itself. Structurally, oppressing groups benefit by having people they can exploit (take their land, enslave them or pay them a pittance, deny them societal resources despite equal or greater contributions, abuse/rape as individuals, etc.) - the excuses as to why this is acceptable is a necessary part of making it an institution.

Culturally, the oppressing group works together to reinforce this, mass media is employed (you can look back to minstrel shows and plays as examples of mass media before we had easy transmission of information), and of course, whatever passes for authorities on reality (religious figures, scientists) produce justifications along the way.

We can see in the modern examples politicians making up numbers that aren't true, the ongoing resurgence of eugenics logic, and biased science studies.

The question isn't "How CAN racism/discrimination survive in a society?" but rather "Under what conditions can we reach a society where people don't exploit each other as a societal practice?"

Educated, sane people have managed to not fix it the last few centuries, and hell, even in the last 10-15 years when tons of evidence about the illogical nature of discrimination is literally a short internet search away - why would you imagine a group under dire survival circumstances and drastic isolation to do better?


The healthy-descended people can consider the unhealthy-descended people as being unworthy of better treatment simply by reason of tradition. The fact that they're as human as anybody needn't enter into it.

Nowadays we talk of "human rights," but that hasn't always been that important. For many even now, if someone doesn't share your religion / ethnicity / skin color / football team, it's been fine to treat them like dirt, while still acknowledging them as human.

Intelligence and education don't enter into it. Assigning rights to humans because we're all members of the same species is just as arbitrary as any other criteria. Yes, we're far smarter than any other animal on the planet, but so what? Intelligence makes us powerful, but cannot make us objectively more important. Importance is, by its very nature, subjective.

So let them continue to discriminate on the basis of tradition alone. They can be intelligent, educated, and well-meaning. Even if their "well" doesn't coincide with ours. Neither would that of most people a few hundred years ago.


Stereotyped behaviours, perhaps?

Consider culture, for example. If you treat behavioural patterns as organisms, then these patterns use the cultural medium to procreate. So people within one culture tend to behave similarly. Our parents spread their culture onto us by upbringing, so we tend to be just as irritable or kind as our dads and moms. If our culture also has an apparent distinctive characteristic, then our behavioural patterns will get connected with this distinctive characteristic.

For example: wearing a hijab is very apparent and is common among Muslim women, so seeing someone in a hijab we assume they are Muslim (and with this comes the assumption that they will pray on midday, which is a behavioural pattern), but that is not necessarily true, since any non-Muslim person can wear a hijab (even a man).

All you have to do is to create a culture, of, for example, cannibals, who practice a monthly sacrificial feast at which they eat a human being. Otherwise, they are pretty ordinary farmers who… pierce their eyebrows, perhaps. They live in a rather technologically unadvanced society and get on by the sweat of the brow and strength of the back growing them cucumbears (yes, I know there's an “a”) and whatnot, hunting the wild wolf-pig or whatever else. So now you have a reason to believe that a person with pierced eyebrows a) eats another person once a month, b) is unambitious (otherwise the farming culture would have at least perfected farming task automation or something, creating a steady breed of brilliant engineers).

The key is to make a statistical correlation between an antisocial/degrading behaviour and an apparent characteristic (apparent as in one which can be easily identified).

Once you do that, you will have your stupid blondes, slutty nudists or whatever else type of discrimination you wish to create.

Now, with increased complexity of circumstance, your apparent characteristics might become less apparent… such as behaviour as your characteristic. If people who engage in fraud tend to ask significantly more personal material gain questions than others, then you might conclude that a person uncommonly deeply concerned with personal gain is contemplating (or has committed) fraud, so now you are prejudiced towards (or against?) selfish materialists.


There is nothing "insane" about discrimination, it is one of mankind's basic impulses for survival. It's a natural biological response to feeling vulnerable which is no different than withdrawing when you feel sad, or lashing out when you feel angry. The things we "feel" are not based on what help us survive today, but what helped our ancestors survive for the past few million years. During the last couple of ice ages when resources were scarce, we had to determine ways as a species to decide who we want to share our resources with to make ourselves a stronger tribe, and who we need to protect our resources against to keep ourselves from becoming over-stretched and starving to death.

To help us with this problem, our minds evolved to look for differences between us and other people. How big or small those differences are is irrelevant. What matters is that we place others on a spectrum as more or less different than ourselves. This helps us prioritize our genetic lineage above others which is key to the selective fitness of social animals. Even if we were all caucasians with blonde hair and blue eyes, the people with narrow noses would start distrusting the ones with wider noses pretty quickly because that's just how we are wired.

But there is a second factor to discrimination which is scarcity. In times of plenty, discrimination naturally wains which is why when you see a civilization start to flourish, it's often accompanied by an expansion of civil rights, and when a country's economy struggles, you see people respond by becoming more factional and biased. You only see it less in well educated places because that education is often accompanied by wealth, self-sufficiency, and faster recovery from economic crisis.

That said, any civilization that is continuously strained for resources will find ways to rationalize discrimination regardless of intelligence, education, or health. The longer the scarcity lasts, the deeper the policies of discrimination will take root in your society's laws and cultural standards. So, to create the society you are looking for, you just need to solve the problem of creating long lasting scarcity despite good education.

I don't think your idea would necessarily work as is because your well-meaning smart people would become wealthy and wish to help the poor and desperate masses of mutants (thanks to our instinct to grow our tribe). If you want a discriminating intellectual class, they need to themselves experience a real risk from allowing equal rights. To do this, I would suggest having the intellectuals seal themselves off from the radiation and enslave the mutants with their superior technologies. Make the mutants get sick and die working the fields while the intellectuals stay safely in their bunkers. When the radiation is gone, the intellectuals have no resource infrastructure of their own; so, they can not release the mutants from servitude without jeopardizing their own survival.


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