Xenophobia – can we get rid of it? Can we understand it in Arizona?

Coffee, computer, program, water bottle make a meeting complete!

Coffee, computer, program, water bottle make a meeting complete!

What kind of meeting do you like best, the kind where everyone has the same background you do, or the kind where there are people of different backgrounds? If the meeting is too large, there will be a natural tendency to group with the people you know, people that do the same kind of work you do. It is precisely that tendency that we focused on at the workshop on Xenophobia held 29 March to 1 April 2012, as part of the Origins program at Arizona State University. We seated ourselves haphazardly around the U-shaped table and only one person moved to squeeze in by a friend.

Herb Gintis, Kim Hill, Richard Wrangham, and Bert Hölldobler

Xenophobia is fear of strangers, or of groups of people with identifying characteristics other than our own. There are a lot of different kinds of academics that study things related to xenophobia, many of whom were represented here. I think we learned much more by being diverse than we would have had we been more homogeneous.

There were physicists, including the organizer, Lawrence Krauss, who brought an outside perspective. There were social insect biologists, including Pulitzer prize winning Bert Hölldobler, who understand family and direct benefit in mutualisms, but do not work on organisms with a cooperation or fear boundary past the one delineating kin. There were primatologists who find both inter-group fighting and within-group love that may antedate human attitudes to in-group and out-group. Frans De Waal showed gripping videos of capuchin monkeys protesting getting a cucumber when another got a grape. He tempered it with the bonobo solution, sex on the arrival of food to temper competition. By contrast, the chimps Richard Wrangham showed us killed a lone male encountered by a group. Which are we? All three?

The flamboyant Lawrence Krauss with Freeman Dyson in the dressing room.

Kim Hill was the only one that worked on human hunter-gatherers still living as humans may have lived before agriculture. His perspective grounded us in the kinds of variation likely to have been present then – groups yes, but not of different races, or with different diseases, for example. Other evolutionary anthropologists and economists, particularly Rob Boyd and Herb Gintis had ideas of how we came to be what we are.

Bert Hölldobler deep in conversation.

There were a lot of psychologists, no doubt of different types, social, cognitive, cognitive plus neuroscience, but I do not know that field well enough to properly classify them. Some of them looked at our perceptions of difference, and how early we develop differential empathy within and outside the group. They also looked at correlates of fear or feelings of otherness. Much out-group bias is directed to males as compared to females, particularly young men in adolescence or early adulthood, according to Jim Sidanius. Women are most fearful of out-group males, apparently, at times in their cycle when they are most likely to get pregnant, according to Carlos Navarette, if my notes don’t betray me. People are more likely to remember same-race faces, unless they are angry males, in which case they’ll remember the cross-race face, according to Doug Kenrick, who writes an excellent column for Psychology Today, including an entry on this meeting.

Meals together are important for bridging disciplines.

The psychologists talked about remediation of xenophobia and found that power differences matter. Those without power are more understanding when they have been given a chance to talk, while those with power are more understanding when they have been given a chance to listen, according to Rebecca Saxe. But change in bias is unlikely to come unless it is accompanied by a change in resource distribution.

Interestingly, controversy as to approach came up repeatedly. The psychologists usually, not always, study US college students forced to participate in experiments that involve questionnaires, or grading speeches of other students. What does this tell us about evolved biases, ask the anthropologists. Visible race differences are certainly active dividers for bias in the US currently, but did not exist for our ancestors who probably seldom saw people with visible genetic differences. Some of the psychologists thought bias was rooted, at least partly, in disease avoidance, something the anthropologists were skeptical about.

I was delighted to meet Charles Blow.

The meeting was not long, but we shared enough discussion, coffee breaks, and meals to become an in-group of our own, one whose memory will persist as we run into each other at other meetings. The format was outstanding, with 5 minute talks each followed by 25 minutes of questions and discussion. This let us learn a much more nuanced approach to issues.

There was a public event where people paid money to hear short talks by a subset of us, joined by Charles Blow from the New York Times and Jeffrey Sachs. Clearly there is a lot of interest in Xenophobia in Arizona.

Though we didn’t agree on a number of things, I hope everyone learned from the different perspectives. I bet the anthropologists may try some of the tests the psychologists have done on perception, but in different cultures. Some of the experiments on baby chimps are being done on baby humans. Clearly humans are primed to sort each other into groups, my group, not may group. Understanding this process won’t make it go away, but we may be better able to figure out how to achieve harmony in this complex world of ours. I wondered if academic harmony is more easily achieved in departments that split along different lines for different things, or split into more than two groups.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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