I’m approaching being 2/3 of the way through residency. *Gulp!*. My opportunities for writing have been fairly minimal for the last two years but, as ever, I am optimistic I’ll have more time in the future. This is something I wrote almost 4 months ago, which remains relevant, and which I’ve finally sat down to publish. I hope you find it thought provoking.
I tend to be a pretty upbeat person. I’m not sure whether I have extra-sensitive serotonin receptors, or higher than average baseline dopamine levels, but I’m definitely someone who tends to be optimistic. Even working 80 hour weeks, I was recently described as “bubbly”.
That being said, it’s hard to stay positive these days when you tune into the news. With terrorist atrocities (international and domestic), attacks on women’s health, disregard for refugees, and stigmatization based on religion, race, or sexuality, it can be hard to stay positive in the face of so much hate.
I struggle to understand the hate that is freely and vitriolically expressed on social media, on some news outlets, and by some political candidates. As someone who finds solace in understanding, and also thinks that natural selection is everywhere, I’ve been trying to understand an evolutionary basis for this general grumpiness.
Before digging into this subject I think it’s necessary to preface the conversation with Hume’s Law aka Naturalistic Fallacy, or in plain English: the is/ought problem. Though we may accept that there is an evolutionary basis to this hatred, we are not saying their ought to be. On the contrary, I would argue that it is important to understand why this hatred exists so that we might better understand each other’s perspectives. I think we can all agree that the current plan of yelling at each other as loudly as possible isn’t moving the conversation forward in any meaningful way.
When I first started to think about this subject I was immediately reminded of Baba Brinkman’s “Rap Guide to Human Nature”. (I’ve written about Baba and his Rap Guides here). One of his songs addressed the differences between conservatives and liberals, touching on xenophobia. True to form, the song is well researched and backed with science. You can hear the song here, or you can watch a live version here (which is worth watching at least for a couple minutes since his preamble nicely summarizes some important research).
Baba’s argument (formed from the work of a number of scientists) is that xenophobia is part of our Behavioral Immune System– an evolved psychological response to things that could threaten disease or illness. This is the mechanism that makes us averse to the smell of food that’s gone bad, people that look infectious, and (in the case of xenophobia) people that look foreign who may be carrying some foreign disease.
This argument is only one of many evolutionary ‘reasons’ that we may have a fear of outsiders. A very simple reason, and one we frequently see cited by those opposing aid to refugees, is the conservation of resources. If you have only limited resources, there is an evolutionary benefit to sharing with those who are related to you, those in your in-group, instead of sharing with outsiders. You can see this theory in action in some of our more distant relatives. Chimps, for example, are very territorial, and are often horribly aggressive to members of outside groups in order to protect their territory and their resources. On the other end of the spectrum are Bonobos, who live in more resource rich environments and who are often friendly to outside groups. There’s a quick public radio piece on this subject here.
This is a very long lecture (or series of mini-lectures), but I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to this one quiet evening on night-float. If you have the time, it’s well worth a watch.
There’s far too much covered in these lectures to distill into a blog post, but I think the closing comments are very powerful.
“We have biology, and we have our brains. And we have this incredible problem of fear which has a real basis. But we need to overcome that to live together. But the only way we can really do that is to understand what it is that makes us afraid of others and how the biology works, and how the psychology works, and to try to answer those questions. And so the only way we can ever, it seems to me, move forward, is try to understand what makes us up as human beings.” -Lawrence Krauss
So how can move forward? I have touched on only a couple of the evolutionary reasons for fear, but even on those subjects there is a lot to be done. Baba brings up the point that for some countries wracked with social issues, the answer may (at least in part) be water sanitation and vaccination- protecting people from the things their behavioral immune system has evolved to fight.
Here in America (and in much of the developed world), I think the bigger issue is resources. A frequent cry one sees on social media is along the lines of “how can we care for refugees when we can’t care for our veterans”. Much as food scarcity in chimps can cause hostility towards outsiders, lack of access to secure housing and healthcare may be a major cause of hostility towards refugees in our society. It seems that many fear that something they pay very dearly for may be given for free (with their tax dollars) to outsiders. It certainly doesn’t help that we currently live in an economic environment where many are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and we are not far gone from the time with economic collapse caused many to lose their homes. I think it is no coincidence that the countries in Europe that are accepting the most refugees have solid national healthcare and safety-nets, where their citizens do not live in fear of paying their next bill, or not being able to care for themselves or their family. Obviously there is no easy fix for the situation we are in, though I think that access to healthcare is an important place to start.
From the lecture series above (it really is great):
“Simple assumptions: that trade or interdependence or interaction will be, by itself, sufficient is unfortunately too easy, but sets for us an important challenge. It seems like often in human society when there is plenty, everything is fine, and then when stress occurs, when there is limited resources, when there is a need to retract, if you take the crystal of human society and somehow hit it, group boundaries is where it breaks. But not always. And so what I think what we want most to know is what are the keys to resilience and resistance. How do you create a society that, when put under stress, doesn’t break along ethnic or descent based lines.” – Rebecca Saxe
And that, dear readers, is a question for another day…