F Rosa Rubicondior: How Xenophobia Evolved

Tuesday 2 May 2017

How Xenophobia Evolved

Overt xenophibia, used during the United Kingdom EU referendum.
Subconscious fear of infection may explain skepticism towards immigrants - ScienceDaily:

Xenophobia, one of the most irrational and destructive of human emotions, may have an evolutionary basis as a defence against infection, so argue scientists from Aarhus University, Upsala, Sweden in a published in American Political Science Review yesterday.

It is readily understandable how an aversion to excrement and putrefaction evolved, even evolving olfactory mechanisms which interpret the scents given off as repulsive. It is maybe not quite so easy to understand why some people at least overreact and are repelled by such signs of difference as physical deformity, birthmarks, skin colour and dress and yet these reactions are strong enough and commonplace enough to prevent successful integration of immigrant and refugee populations. The internal immune system, which attempts to cope with potential pathogens once they have gained access to our bodies, is supplemented by a behavioural immune system which helps prevent infection in the first place. The authors argue that this is an overreaction of a hypersensitive behavioural immune system.

We present, test, and extend a theoretical framework that connects disgust, a powerful basic human emotion, to political attitudes through psychological mechanisms designed to protect humans from disease. These mechanisms work outside of conscious awareness, and in modern environments, they can motivate individuals to avoid intergroup contact by opposing immigration. We report a meta-analysis of previous tests in the psychological sciences and conduct, for the first time, a series of tests in nationally representative samples collected in the United States and Denmark that integrate the role of disgust and the behavioral immune system into established models of emotional processing and political attitude formation. In doing so, we offer an explanation for why peaceful integration and interaction between ethnic majority and minorities is so hard to achieve.

This finding is in line with the argument presented in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In this book Diamond argued that one of the things which gave Europeans the ability to be become successfully expansionist on a global scale from the Late Middle Ages onward was our 'advanced guard' of germs with which we waged a kind of germ warfare on those we first came into contact with. The new diseases we brought with us severely weakened the population making them easier to conquer. The reason we had this large variety of silent, invisible agents was because we had had the great good fortune of having so many animals available for domestication in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and most of our diseases had come from them, living as we did in close proximity to them.

Given that for much of our history humans probably existed as small, scattered and relatively isolated tribes, it is very likely that those with an innate fear of 'others' would have been more likely to survive by avoiding this sort of germ warfare. A very likely outcome of contact with a 'strange' people would be to catch one or more new diseases with which our immune systems couldn't cope. This tendency would have served to increase isolation, inhibit gene flow and so encourage regional varieties and variations to arise, so making 'others' easier to identify and avoid. The advantage of not being killed or severely weakened and conquered outweighed the advantage to be gained from an injection of new genes into the group gene pool. The more 'strange' the others were, the lest likely it would have been that there had been prior contact and so the greater the risk of new infections.

Now though, these retained evolved responses are largely redundant and inappropriate to the modern situation and serve only to spread distrust and division leading to a cultural Balkanisation of multicultural societies. They are the equivalent of the hair rising on the back of our necks to make us look big hairy and powerful to a potential predator or the hair on our arms and legs standing up when we are cold.

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