Science & Technology

The biology behind us: Xenophobia in 2016

Spread the love

2016 has, thus far, been a truly historic year in politics. In each momentous vote, there were passionate losers as well as joyous victors. And, to each side, the choices of the ‘other’ voters appear stupefying.

Last week, on the back of the president-Elect’s victory, controversial politician, Jeremy Corbyn, drew attention to the fact that:

“It would be wrong of us not to remember that Donald Trump and his campaign did tap into real problems.”


“Instead of offering real solutions … he offered only someone to blame – everyone, that is, apart from those who are actually responsible.”

Are our political campaigns breeding a culture of xenophobic suspicion?

One of the common grounds often cited for why the UK voted to leave the EU and why Americans voted for Trump, is an underlying feeling of fear and disquiet about immigration.

Trump has pushed a hard line against immigration to the American public and has been attributed to xenophobic proposals; including the notorious Mexican wall and the suspension of “immigration from areas with “a proven history of terrorism”. The leave campaign for the EU referendum had similar anti-immigration ‘promises’ such as implying that leaving the EU would reduce immigration. Both political movements have instigated xenophobic hate crimes.

Prejudice. Defined as “an attitude towards a person on the basis of his or her group membership. Prejudice may reflect preference towards ingroup members or dislike of outgroup members, and it is typically imbued with affect, with emotions ranging from love and pride to fear, disgust and hatred.”

It is worth noting here that xenophobia can affect anyone – everyone is part of someone’s ‘outgroup’.


What are we afraid of?

So, what makes us fearful of our neighbours? Even when said neighbour is unduly suffering extreme violence, poverty and even warfare, we still seem to be rooted to the notion that there isn’t enough room for all of us. Where does this xenophobia stem from biologically?

However far back you look, preference for familiarity (and prejudice against anyone else) is prevalent in the majority of species. Even microbes have methods of propagating the survival of their own species to the sacrifice of ‘foreign bodies’. Chimps, one of our closest ancestors, are renowned for their lethal combat with chimps from neighbouring territories. Is this an indicator that xenophobia is inbuilt?

No. Because bonobos, with whom we share a larger percentage of DNA than with chimps (and arguably our closest common ancestor) are a very peaceful species who favour resolution and ‘love over war’.


Heightened threat perception

Xenophobia is arguably a feature of our adaptive threat perception seeing smoke when there is no fire. Our ability to perceive and respond to threats is imperative for our survival. When we feel threatened our alarms go off triggering our nervous system to initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response.

However, threats (or non-threats) are not always obvious. Largely, there are three main sources that initiate the foundings for prejudice: fear (protection from physical harm), disgust (protection from disease) and anger (protection of resources).

Our brains look for cues as to what, and who, we need to be wary of. We are hardwired to see our ‘ingroup’ as favourable for our survival. The ‘outgroup’ is more likely to be seen as a potential threat that could hurt us, make us ill or take our food. The brain picks up on cues such as foreign language/ accent, different appearances or displaying different customs.

A key point worth noting here is that, in spite of our brain’s design to seek out potential threats, humans are uniquely adaptable and capable of extending (or reducing) their ‘ingroup’ – this ingroup never needs to be fixed demographic.

There is evidence to support, in animal and human studies alike, that an increased value on a relationship – one which is mutually beneficial – minimises conflict and increases speed of resolution. The EU is a great example of an economically symbiotic relationship which forces interdependence between countries – thus broadening the ‘in-group’.

So, there we have an intrinsic propensity toward xenophobic behaviour – but this doesn’t mean that it is fixed… or good.

With an understanding of our biological evolution, we can make conscious and evolved choices for the better.

The great interbreeding

Now, our brains may seek out differences as a protection mechanism, but as a species, we have long been diverse and open to others differences. So much so, that around 60,000 years ago we interbred with  Homo neanderthalensis – neanderthals. Modern day humans share between 1 – 4% neanderthal DNA. Further archaeological evidence has shown that we then lived peacefully side by side for long after that.

Modern day humans can thank their neanderthal DNA for their hardy immune systems.  Homo sapiens originated from Africa – their combination with Northern neaderthals, who had developed a good immune system from living in harsh climates, created an even stronger immune system for us as a result of this inter-species breeding.

Diversity increases intellect, creativity and makes us work better

Research in various scientific disciplines has revealed a surprising fact – diversity actually makes us work harder, think more creatively and ultimately, makes us smarter (not to mention the knock-on effect of greater profits for businesses). Katherine W. Phillips, Professor of Leadership and Ethics, at Columbia Business School imparts:

“Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

A paper published in 2014 by the journal, Nature, details how neuroscience research on the how the brain controls intergroup responses and the influence of social factors. For example, we are motivated to control any racial bias that may arise from our own internal cues (i.e. our personal rejection of prejudice) or external cues (i.e. social pressure to respond without prejudice).

“[This] engagement in control is frequently associated with social emotions such as social anxiety or guilt.”

They found that strategies that focus on a specific part of the brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – in relation to mediated conflict-monitoring processes such as:

“Interventions that increase people’s awareness of the potential for bias [can] increase attention to specific cues indicating that control may be needed … and increase the sensitivity of conflict monitoring systems.”

The theories of Greeks and Greats

Social contact theory was first postulated by Socrates around 400BC and Modern Social Contract Theory developed by the greats: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In essence, this is the basic premise upon which all societies function.

Socrates, Rousseau, Locke & Hobbes

Social contract is the agreement of individuals to give up certain liberties (i.e. obey the law or be punished) and contribute to the wealth of the community in order to gain personal protection and security. This founding notion of society stems from the psychology of social trust; by increased dependence on one-another, and the unspoken agreement to social contract, we feel safe within the communities who share our own values. In order to extend this community to include all, we simply, need to understand one another’s cultures and motives; communication and education.

The current fear of ‘outgroups’ has been greatly exacerbated by ‘the War on Terror’ and (arguably) scapegoating of immigrants for economic stresses. We are living in an era of heightened feeling of threat. It keys into our brain’s cue-searching. We can, unfortunately, attribute a feeling of threat to people unjustly.

The nature of migration

Migration itself is a natural process. The earliest records of human (Homo sapien) existence stem from Africa 200,000 years ago. We then began to venture up and out approximately 65,000 years ago. Although motives behind this initial migration are uncertain, it is believed that we were close to extinction towards the end of the last Ice Age. After surviving this, humans started to branch out across the world. From Africa, Homo sapiens headed up through the middle East, on to Europe and Asia and finally Australia and the Americas.

We need immigration

A report by the international labour office, Geneva highlights that fact that we need immigrants. With the current decline in birthrate and ageing population across Europe, the population is set to drop by up to 50% in some European countries by 2050:

“Between 2000 and 2050 the population of Italy, for example, is projected to drop by 22 per cent – and by 52 per cent in Estonia… Low fertility and rising life expectancy mean that, for Europe as a whole, the proportion of the population older than 65 years of age will rise from 15 to 28 per cent.”

Aging Population

In order to sustain Western Europe’s workforce in the midst of an ageing population, the United Nations Population Division concluded that:

“If immigration were the only means of maintaining current labour forces, it would need to be much higher. [If] the big four EU countries – France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom … were to remain constant, given current fertility rates, immigration levels would have to triple, from 237,000 to 677,000 a year.”

And this is only population maintenance.

Immigration benefits the economy

The report goes on to clarify that immigration is beneficial for the economy:

“For every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population through immigration there was an increase in GDP of 1.25 to 1.5 per cent.”

The majority of migrants to the UK only intend to stay for less that 4 years (logical given that the majority if migrants coming into the UK are students). Only 30% intend to stay longer. This equates to approximately 189,000. UK citizens emigrating out of the UK each year is approximately 300,000 (including non-British). In fact, the UK is the 10th largest source of migrants to the rest of the world. Although the general trend means that net migration increases the UK population, it is not as unbalanced as many believe.

“The number of non-EEA nationals granted permission to stay permanently in the UK fell by 36% to 67,414 in YE June 2016.”

Biology is a base, but we have brainpower

There is a biological basis for our suspicion of those we don’t know or understand: our brains prefer familiarity. However, crucially, we are an evolved species who is capable of using our brain to understand our biological failings and proactively understand the world around us.

We need immigration to sustain life as we know it and diversity makes us physically stronger and mentally more adept – so let’s remember to open our eyes (and arms) to our neighbours: it is mutually beneficial.


subscribe to the scisco weekly dispatches

Keep up with the #MediaRevolution, subscribe to our weekly email newsletter. You’ll get one email per week and we’ll never share your email address with anybody. It’s free.