Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The origins of xenophobia


Webster’s dictionary defines xenophobia as the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners.”  Unlike other phobias, this malady is not limited to a small clinical population, but is found all around us. Indeed, some experts believe it may be universal. It is certainly easy to find evidence to support this pessimistic view. Every week’s news brings a new set of horrible stories about people killing absolute strangers merely because of their ethnicity, religion, nationality, or skin color.

For the last three days, I sat in a room with a group of experts from several different disciplines, whose goal was to pool their knowledge to understand the roots of xenophobia.  In the room were brilliant researchers in social psychology, anthropology, biology, economics, neuroscience, political science, and even physics.

Here are a few highlights:

Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist from Harvard, and author of the book Demonic Males described how male chimpanzees brutally beat and kill chimps from other groups. According to Wrangham, male groups purposefully patrol the boundaries of their territories searching for isolated males from neighboring groups.  He notes that similar un-neighborly phenomena have been observed in human groups from Eskimos living by the North Pole to the residents of Tierra del Fuego and New Guinea.  The general pattern seems to be that males attack whenever they calculate that they vastly outnumber the enemy, and can kill without much danger to themselves.

Franz de Waal, director of the Yerkes Primate Center, and author of Chimpanzee Politics, showed a film of several chimps viciously beating a solitary male from a neighboring territory who was unfortunate enough to bump into the larger group without his own reinforcements.  de Waal points out, however, that closely related bonobos are very different in their approach to conflict, famously resolving flare-ups with promiscuous sexual orgies.

Jim Sidanius, a social psychologist from Harvard, and author of Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression discussed data from societies around the world suggesting that much of xenophobia is gendered. Males are much more likely to be perpetrators of racial discrimination, and also more likely to be the victims of such discrimination.

Bert Holldoebler, an entomologist from Arizona State University, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Ants (with E.O. Wilson), described the fascinating ways in which colonies of ants conduct warfare with one another, enslave other ants, and use communication networks to make complex decisions about whether to fight with or flee from conflicts with neighboring colonies.

Mark Schaller, an evolutionary social psychologist from University of British Columbia (whose work I’ve discussed in detail earlier) discussed how negative responses to other groups based in fear of disease lead to very different kinds of discrimination than do negative responses based in fear.

Joan Strassmann, a microbiologist from Washington University, and president of the Animal Behavior Society, described how both conflict and cooperation are linked to genetic relatedness in organisms as simple as single-celled amoebas, who lack not only brains, but even single nerves.

Given the ubiquity of intergroup conflict, across human societies, and in organisms from amoebae to chimps, is there any hope of doing something about it? There were some surprising notes of optimism at the conference, to which I returned in greater detail in the post that followed this one (Racism and violence: Are they actually going away?)




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