Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation

August 26, 2010

Via @ericmjohnson comes this little essay by evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci of City University of New York, who recounts a lunchtime tête-à-tête between himself, a couple of colleagues and some undergraduates on the subject of racism:

At issue was the question of why it seems to be next to inevitable that regardless of race or ethnicity, a good number of our fellow human beings display a certain degree of xenophobia. I ventured to suggest that part of the answer is probably to be found in our evolutionary past. For most of our history, ‘outsiders’, especially if they looked or behaved differently from our in-group, were far more likely to be a threat to our survival and possessions than interested in cultural exchanges for reciprocal edification. In other words, xenophobia possibly arose as an advantageous instinct that aided our survival.

This, predictably, was not well received by my less scientifically-inclined colleagues, who immediately pointed out the complex cultural dimensions of xenophobia – the manipulative use of the fear of ‘the other’ which has historically marked bigotry in both religious and secular societies. While this is true, and crucial to our understanding of complex human behavior such as xenophobia, it is a category mistake to contrast cultural and biological explanations of behavior.

Professor Pigliucci goes on to distinguish between a behavior’s proximate and ultimate causes. For example, the proximate cause of sex might be lust, but the ultimate cause – the reason why the capacity for lust exists in the first place – is procreation.

You can see where this is going, right?

It seems to me that a similar combination of biological/cultural ultimate/proximate explanations nicely fits the bill as far as xenophobia is concerned. The key point is that, contrary to what both scientists and humanists all too often seem to think, biological and cultural accounts of human behavior are not only not at odds, but in fact complement each other, both being necessary for a more rounded understanding of the human condition.

[I]t is important for students of philosophy to appreciate the biological roots of human problems so that fuzzy notions about human exceptionalism within the animal world can be countered. Yes, modern xenophobia is the product of complex cultural phenomena; but at its roots it is a simple biological survival mechanism, and as such, probably very difficult to eradicate completely

No disrespect to Professor Pigliucci, but if this is the best science can do on racism, then no wonder it gets a bad rap in the humanities. The whole point of cultural theory, as I see it, is to show that patriarchal norms such as male sexual privilege and hatred toward the Other are not irreducible.

My question for Professor Pigliucci and other evolutionary biologists is this: Would it somehow be less scientific to speculate that xenophobia and trust could both be activated by the appropriate metaphors, and that capitalist, racist, misogynistic societies the world over might have a vested interest in promulgating metaphors that activate xenophobia? Say, metaphors of conflict and competition over metaphors of trust and cooperation? And that maybe we science types have internalized these metaphors without realizing it, leading us to believe e.g. that racism is an irreducible fundamental of human life?

Am I on crazy pills? Holla if you’ve got nonhuman primate data that proves I’m wrong. Then we can argue about what constitutes proof…

Or even if you don’t buy any of my rant, what is the value added of claiming that xenophobia has nontrivial biological roots? And is misogyny included in that?

Update [8/28/2010]: The consensus on Twitter is that racism is a side effect of mechanisms for establishing group identity. Eric Michael Johnson says New Guinean hunter-gatherers viewed other groups as less than human and were aggressive toward them, and that chimps and bonobos (out closest nonhuman relatives) are both fearful of neighboring troops.

I’m not sure how convincing I find any of that for the human situation, and either way, I tend to agree with a commenter on Mark Changizi’s blog who said the following:

Racism is in large part based in a societal structure that privileges those people who have what society has deemed the “better” skin color.

When talking about the “root of racism” I think it’s important to listen to the voices of those who are oppressed by it. White (privileged) people talking about a biological root to racism tends to alleviate them of their responsibility as people privileged by the system to help break down the barriers of oppression. The same thing happens with sexism, or ableism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or fatphobia, or really any oppressive system. The best way to combat oppression is to listen to the people who experience the oppression and follow their lead on how to eliminate it.

Or, in other words, instead of discussing theory of how we became racist due to biology (and thus negating our responsibility for it), why not focus on ways to be less racist?

Mark disagrees that he and other researchers are negating responsibility for racism, and see also the comments by Professor Pigliucci below.

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8 Responses to “Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation”


  1. Well, with all due respect, it seems to me that you missed my point spectacularly. The answer to your question is yes, of course some people have vested interests in keeping racism part of human society. That doesn’t negate at all that humans have a hard time dealing with “the other” because of their biological roots. That’s the difference between proximate and ultimate causes. As for why this matters, it’s because it makes it more difficult – buy by no means impossible – to eradicate racism.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Touché! It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed a point :). Whether or not I’m wrong on the ultimate causation at work here, I find it curious that as a representative of science, this is the point you most want to make about racism. Do you think the tendency to view humans as exceptional has serious negative consequences? Why not focus on ways we might expand our in-groups? Also, I’m curious what this means for misogyny. Given that we view women as Other, is it likely that our inherited capacity for Otherization applies to them as well?


  3. The only reason I made that point about racism is because there is too often a dismissal of anything biological about humans, in certain quarters. I think a better understanding of the human condition (and, there I say it? any improvement on it) has to take into account the complex intertwining of culture and biology.

    As for misogyny, yes I do believe similar considerations apply there too, though the biological case is much less clear, because it appears that early human cultures were very egalitarian, and of course there are several examples of matriarchal societies in history.

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    I’m all for using science to improve the human condition. What does your analysis suggest would be a good way to fight racism? Does it all depend on raising children in multicultural environments?


  5. Well, for one we should start by acknowledging that the problem is difficult and not going to go away. Just explaining to people by reasoned argument what is wrong with racism – though necessary – ins’t going to be enough.

    If xenophobia has a partial biological basis, then it needs to be treated as an emotion, which means that approaches similar to cognitive behavioral therapy will be more effective than just rational talk. How do you implement that at the level of a whole society, though, it’s another matter!

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    I agree that wishing racism away and making rational arguments against it won’t work. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an interesting thought. As for implementing anti-racist projects at the societal level, here’s one thought.

  7. Clark Says:

    I think the problem comes down to the history of evolutionary psychology. In the past, many of its proponents seemed to say that humans were (racist, sexist, etc.) because of these x, y, and z in our past and then used that to justify remaining racist, sexist, what have you.

    Now, however, this seems to be changing, with more evolutionary psychologists saying “This is why we are, and now that we know that we can better find a way to end it.” Which of course makes much more sense. When biologists discovered germ theory they didn’t stop and say “Well, now we know why we get sick, that’s how things are, deal with it.”

    A lot of people don’t see this change, and still think of evolutionary psychologists as the asshats that said Africans, women, etc. are stupid because they evolved differently. So, on some level, there is a general distaste for evolutionary psychology in general.

  8. JR Minkel Says:

    You make a fair point. I guess my problem with this argument is that it’s of the “yeah, but” school: Yeah racism has social roots, but what about biology? Well, what about biology? It seems to me we get a lot more bang for our buck by focusing our thinking on social change. If biology can tell us something useful about how to accomplish social change, well good. If not, then I don’t need it.


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