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On Xenophobia

September 11, 2010

Massimo Pigliucci in Philosophy Now:

I am still new at this business of being a philosopher, and some of my new colleagues still look at me and see a bit more of a scientist than they can stomach. This of course makes for stimulating conversations, like one I had a few days ago with two colleagues and a number of undergraduate students during our ‘Let’s Talk Philosophy’ lunch hour at the cafeteria.

The discussion touched on the concept of race – ever a sensitive one, especially in the Bronx borough of New York where I teach, which is predominantly black and hispanic, even though most of the teaching faculty are of the caucasian flavor. 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. [More]

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