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A Consideration of the Sociobiological Dimensions of
Human Xenophobia and Ethnocentrism

© Chad Joseph McEvoy 1995

Sociobiology - Evolution

The Evolution of Emotion, Urge and Behavior

True enough, the plasticity of human behavior is a very important hallmark of the species; one which has facilitated its spread into almost every ecosystem on the planet. Yet, as correct as Gould's reasoning is; he overlooks some important perspectives.

For one; assuming that humans evolved from organisms which had substantially less ability to learn ontogenetically; it is hard to deny that there must be, at least some residue of prior evolutionary history present in modern human behavior. It seems highly unlikely that the behavior of humanity, however malleable, has completely escaped the slow progressive influence of genetic selection.

If human behavior is learned, and is fully controlled by the 'freewill' of the individual, then why is it so well geared to adaptive, gene promoting action? Is it by random chance that humans the world over choose to feel painfully jealous if their mate leaves them for another or anguished at the loss of a child? Did every culture in the world independently just happen to feel aversion to incest and create taboos against it?

Humans don't learn to get hungry when their bodies need sustenance; they get an urge that influences their behavior in an unarguably adaptive manner. People are averse to spoiled food because it smells bad. Rotten food smells bad because it sickened or killed all those who did not mind its odor. There is nothing in the nature of fire or in its affect on human bodies and nervous systems that provides an absolute, over arching reason why burns hurt. Rather, they hurt because humans have been genetically molded to dislike the sensation of burning flesh. These examples of human behaviors are, without a doubt, adaptive and certainly suggest a genetic origin. The same can be said, but in varying degrees, for the fear of darkness, of being alone, and of death as well as the love of children, sex and friendship.

Basic human emotions are the products of evolution but, they are translated into human culture and worked on by individual rationalization to become what van der Dennen (1987) calls 'sentimental structures' which are "...exaggerations or hypertrophications of which the emotion is the raw material, elaborated and superimposed by convetional symbols and abstract concepts." Thus, as van der Dennen writes: It is possible, by this reasoning then, to view xenophobia, ethnocentrism and racism as 'sentimental structures' that are, at least partially, the progeny of adaptive genetic bias.

In doing this it is important to realize that an individual need not be conscious of his or her 'true' motivations for them to be fully functioning adaptive behaviors. Robert Trivers (1985) provided some good insight into this with his studies of deception and self-deception. He showed that individuals can be down right delusional, even schizophrenic with regard to what they perceive as their motivations and proposes that, for the most part, this delusion is irrelevant in the big picture. The exception being, as Trivers points out, the instances in which such delusion may be adaptive in and of its self, serving to better hide an individuals 'true' intentions from others.

Human cultures have likely always tended to invent all manner of moralistic and ontological systems around their feelings and emotions (Reynolds and Tanner, 1983). More often than not what becomes morally wrong or morally right is nicely in tandem with what feels 'right', or at least, what some group of people feels is 'right' (often the people in power). It is important then, when examining possible biological biases of behavior, to think of the proximate effect on individual fitness of a moral system or a complex cultural attitude, and to pretty much disregard any other rationalizations, such as the word of God(s) or mythic tradition, put forth to explain them. In short, stated human motivations, no matter how well reasoned by the individual or culture, can not be trusted; even one's own.


The Semantics of Culture

In animals, culture and genetics work on a gradient of influence and overlap. Human animals in particular have evolved a great capacity for extra-genetic behavioral development which manifests in uncountable cultural and individual variations. But, for the most part, each variation pivots on a theme of biological fitness. Pierre van den Berghe (1981) lucidly wrote: Memetics, the study of the evolution of culture by the process of the natural selection of theoretical units of idea called "memes", was created by British zoologist Richard Dawkins (1976). Of memes Dawkins writes: The cultural evolution analogy has been suggested by many anthropologists as well. Often they describe it as being not so much Darwinian but Lamarkian. The problem with these previous analogies is that often it is never made clear what is being selected for or against and what is the vehicle of reproduction. The meme is the most concise model yet but it is, of course, important to remember that a thing such as a meme does not actually exist.

A meme is analogous to a gene and a meme-complex is loosely analogous to a biological organism. One rather virulent memetic complex is Christianity. At its conception (which likely was the integration of prior existing memes) Christianity was made of a set of component concepts. Modern Christianity seems to have developed into a mutant of its original ideas, (a pattern seen in many long lasting religious philosophies). What took place in the interim to warrant such a dramatic change? A memetic perspective would argue that as the meme-complex reproduced by way of transmission from one human mind to another it accrued mutations that, not surprisingly, affected it likelihood of further propagation. And, not surprisingly, those mutations that facilitate the memetic equivalent of fitness will certainly be found to spread from mind to mind at a higher rate. Consider the characteristics seen in the most common forms of Christianity--blind faith, absolute truth, eternal hell for non-believers, the promise of life after death, the practice of having many children, ruthless conversion of heathens, destruction of that which questions faith--is it but coincidence that it has acquired so many amazingly adaptive traits?

Another good meme example is that of a joke. Someone thinks up a funny proto-joke and tells it to someone else. If it is funny enough the second person is likely to tell it to a few other people (reproduction). Some of these people might then consciously or unconsciously alter (mutate) the joke in a manner which causes it to be more or less funny (differential fitness) before birthing a new generation of the joke into other minds (the environment). These mutated progeny then reproduce in frequency in relation to how funny they have become, and the cycle repeats. Thus a joke spreads and evolves.

Memes are relevant because they show that the boundaries which demarcate culture from biology are fuzzy at best. They are interrelated, often indistinguishable entities that work like wave oscillations; often reinforcing each other and often counter acting each others' influence.

Dawkins writes (1982): Memes replicate in a gene molded environment, the brain. But, they also affect the replication of those genes. Ethnocentrism is a cultural meme-complex influencing human behavior, but the ethnocentric memes were forged by essentially the same evolution ary process. The ultimate point here is that the cultural and genetic boundary is little but semantics. This will play into a proposed solution for the problem of ethnocentrism at the end of this paper.


Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia as Biologically Adaptive Traits

For this essay, the working definition of ethnocentrism is the conscious or unconscious belief that ones own culture/community/race is truly superior to all others and the tendency to be unaware of the biases involved (Reynolds et al, 1987). One need not look far in the cultural anthropological literature for examples of delusional self-aggrandizement or what is sometimes called the 'chosen people complex' (Reynolds et al, 1987).

It is very possible that during human phylogenetic development there was an adaptive value to ethnocentric behavior. If so, whether it is still beneficial in today's largely novel environments is open to debate and further research. Nonetheless, it is clear that ethnocentrism is not necessarily, as generations of social scientists have argued, merely social dysfunction or pathology.

To support a hypothesis that ethnocentrism is or was adaptive it is necessary to show that, where it is practiced, ethnocentric individuals are more likely to survive and reproduce than others. A great number of factors are problematic for proving such a theory empirically. It is quite likely that modern human life functions in a situation unlike that in which such behaviors might have been favored in the past (Roberts, 1990). Global communication, health care, massive nations and the welfare state, among countless other influences certainly have shifted the arrows of causation. Also, assuming ethnocentrism was adaptive, selection may very well have been stabilizing, favoring moderately ethnocentric individuals over either extremes of the spectrum (Roberts, 1990).

As Robin Dunbar (1987) wisely points out, it is likely that the expression of ethnocentric tendencies should be expected to be rather context sensitive, varying with regard to such factors as the environment and socio-economics. He writes:
Obviously the issue is quite a complex one, and it is likely to forever retain some element of unprovable speculation. This should not, however, render useless all efforts. When the very nebulous nature of a hypothesis is such that actual direct scientific study is made extremely difficult it is not proved wrong by default, nor is its importance diminished. All attempts should be made to understand the phenomenon of ethnocentrism in the most reasonable light possible.


What could ethnocentrism be "good" for?

  1. It might serve to protect the integrity of the tribal group so as to enhance systems of reciprocal altruism. The concept of reciprocal altruism as extolled by Dawkins (1976) and Trivers (1985), among others, is likely to yield a tenable theory of the evolution of ethnocentrism. The most simple version of such a system is basically the same as the game theorists' classic 'prisoners dilemma' (see Axelrod, 1984). Reciprocal altruism systems have been empirically observed in a number social animals, on e of the best examples being that of the feeding of non-kin conspecifics in vampire bats (Wilkinson, 1984).

    The basic conclusion to be drawn from game theory as applied to sociobiology is that, very often, the selfish economic interests of the organism and its genes are best served by cooperation. But this cooperation creates a new set of problems. In any reciprocal system the actors constantly stand to benefit from cheating, just as they are in constant danger of being taken advantage of by cheaters.

    With regard to human society, altruistic systems are very important and probably essential. An individual that is cooperative and seeks friendly relationships has a lot to gain as well as a lot to lose if they get played off as the sucker. Perhaps an ethnocentric attitude could allow an individual to be more openly reciprocal within the tribe while protecting him or her from giving freebies to non-participating foreigners. It could help to keep the individual from being taken advantage of. Ethnocentrism could also serve to provide protection for entire tribal sharing structures from corruption or dilution.

  2. Ethnocentrism could reserve essential resources for the actor's group and kin (Dunbar, 1987). Hamiltonian kinship theory (1964 ) is a central tenet of the biological study of ethnocentric behavior. The basic idea is that a gene which influences the behavior of an individual towards favoring of a genetic relative over any random person would replicate and spread throughout the population. Assuming the coefficient of relatedness is greater within the in-group the rules of inclusive fitness suggest that an ethnocentric tendency gene should be favored (Silverman, 1987). It is also quite plausible that it would benefit the ethnocentric individual to favor those non-kin with which he or she has invested in reciprocal relationships.

    One interesting study by Johnson, Ratwick and Sawyer (1987) examined the invocation of kin terms in patriotic speeches. The data produced was statistically inconclusive but intriguing enough to warrant additional research. The hypotheses nevertheless b rings up the question of why kin terms such as 'motherland' or 'Uncle Sam' and appeals to the solidarity of brothers or sisters are so common, and presumably so effective, in nationalistic and mass movement speeches.

  3. Perhaps ethnocentric moral systems thwart compassion for the foreign groups, allowing aggression. Ethnocentrism, as van der Dennen (1987) points out, "results in a dualistic, Manichaean morality which evaluates violence within the in-group as negative, and violence against the out-group as positive, even desirable and heroic." This artificial dichotomy of clear-cut friend vs foe social relations is to be suspected of much of social animal nature, "...of which the phenomenon of stereotyping, distortion of the image of the enemy, and dehumanization are sophisticated elaborations (Abraham, 1983)." A simple, clearly demarcated ontology such as ethnocentrism could facilitate might be advantageous to the individual in so far as it would serve to counteract the human ethics that seem to have come along with the evolution of increased intelligence and self-awareness. (similar arguments have been examined with regard to the evolution of religion [C. Lodwig, personal communication].) Simply, if one can dehumanize the 'other' through ethnocentrism and therefore rationalize the killing, raiding, raping and eating of out-group conspecifics, then there a clear evolutionary advantage gained.


The Possible Adaptive Qualities of Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the fear and distrust of all that is foreign is a logical component of ethnocentrism. Perhaps it should be viewed as the active behavioral extension of ethnocentric thinking. But, a major difference between xenophobia and ethnocentrism exists. Although xenophobia may be rationalized by delusional means, it is not so clear that it is a terribly illogical strategy from a survival point of view, regardless of a possible genetic basis. Its likely that human tribal groups have clashed more or less consistently throughout history (Montagu, 1976) and that an individual has (and should still have, in many circumstances) a very real reason to fear that which is foreign.

It would be expected, in a circumstance of on-going tribal warfare, slave-taking and cannibalism that individuals within the group would be favored who where somehow predisposed to fear and be distrustful of strangers and foreigners. Xenophobia--be it genetic or otherwise--could have had its inception in such circumstances.

Conversely xenophobic behavior would be maladaptive in certain circumstances. It might, for example, thwart inter-group trading or cooperation for example. It would also be likely to reduce the variation in a population's gene pool.

The biochemically paranoid human immune system holds a good analogy for xenophobia (Rosenblatt, 1964). "Just as the body is better prepared to avoid destruction by foreign substances as a result of a generalized tendency to resist the impingement of foreign substances," writes van der Dennen (1987), "so an individual or a society may be better prepared to avoid destruction by aliens as a result of a generalized tendency to distrust, avoid, or reject foreign-seeming individuals."

Another explanation for this seeming contradiction could take the form of a flipside of the 'rare-enemy effect'. Dawkins (1982) describes this effect in terms of the small prey fish vs anglerfish relationship. He postulates that prey fish who are completely reckless in their feeding, not bothering to invest time in a careful examination of each potential food item, might be favored in the long run over their cautious counterparts, providing the anglerfishes' deception was rare enough. Conversely, a 'rare-benefit effect' could be postulated to yield a best fit human strategy of outright paranoia with regard to generally dangerous aliens.


Evidence for a Sociobiological View of Xenophobia

Xenophobia has been experimentally documented in many species of social insects, as well as gulls and some rodents. As a behavior it is reasonably predictable in howler monkeys, gibbons, African lions and timber wolves (referenced in Southwick et al, 1974).

A number of studies of non-human primates have shown aggressive intolerance by established groups towards unknown conspecifics. In captive groups xenophobic violence, often deadly, has been documented in baboons (Hall, 1964) and rhesus monkeys (Bernstein, 1964; Bernstein et al, 1974). In the feral situation such behavior has been observed in Japanese macaques (Kawai, 1960) with provisioned populations. Convincingly, Charles Southwick et al (1974) experimentally induced violent xenophobic behavior in unprovisioned wild populations of rhesus in India.

Fear of strangers by human infants has been studied showing xenophobic tendencies in children as young as three months (Freedman, 1961). Other studies such as those by Argle and Cook (1976) found that the response of infants was aggravated by strangers that stare. This response did not depend on prior adverse interaction with the strangers thus suggesting an innate component. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979) proposed that children have an automatic fear response to others in general that is canceled out by familiarity.


Social Recognition of In-group vs Out-group Members

Van den Berghe (1981) suggested that, if the favoring of one's own ethnic group over others is a method for maximizing fitness via extended nepotism then, "...a clever animal like man can be expected to fake a common ethnicity for gain." A counterfeit relationship of some sort might be employed in order to exploit reciprocal and nepotistic social relations. This introduces the problem of detecting cheaters. One defensive method a culture could employ would be the recognition of social markers.

Historically groups that were geographically close enough to develop antagonistic relationships were, due to the clinal nature of much of human variation (Molnar, 1992), probably rather phenotypically similar (van den Berghe, 1981). Considering this likelihood, one would not expect ethnocentric or xenophobic behavior to be specifically tuned to physical or racial characteristics. For the most part, the demarcation of groups would be expected to rely heavily on culture specific cues such as language, mannerisms or ethnic uniform. Certainly though, where a distinct racial difference occurs between neighboring groups, xenophobic tendencies would be expected to discriminate racial differences.

Warnecke, Masters and Kempster (1992) found, by presenting video images without sound, that American adults had negative reactions to foreigners at a significantly higher rate than to other Americans. The fact that the negative emotions and judgments did not occur when the images where displayed with sound (making their nationality obvious) suggests a preconscious monitoring of non-verbal cues.

Ethnic uniform is the most obvious ethnic distinguisher. It often takes the form of tribal dress, jewelry and body or face painting. Such an ethnic uniform is flawed in that it is potentially open to mimicry and counterfeiting. Tribal body-modifications such as tattoos, pierced and stretched ear lobes or lips, tooth filing and circumcision provide ethnic markers that are not so easily copied (van den Berghe, 1981).


The Tribal Instinct and the Fission of an Urban Subculture

The desire to belong to a group and to define that group in contrast with others by visual and behavioral style has all the hallmarks of a human universal. Examples of this phenomenon are not at all hard to find in modern life, witness: hippies, gangs, lodges, playground politics, the social register, intellectuals, cults, and preppies.

In modern cities people live in unprecedented concentrations on the order of millions. Perhaps this sympatric situation has aggravated the 'tribal instinct' resulting in the very distinct urban tribes observed. Nowhere is this more obvious then in the discrete nuances of western post-punk 'subculture'. A startling variety of distinct sub-subcultural groups have evolved (non-genetically, of course) in America and England from a common cultural ancestor of about only twenty years ago (Wojcik, 1995). Each 'tribe' has very defined styles of dress, adornment, music, dance, jargon and philosophy. Strait-edge and hard-core punks are quite different from the dark macabre glamour of the Goths . The aggressive, clean-cut Rudeboy and Neo-skinhead tribes are very at odds with the crusty or Crass punk anarchists. There are many more, including new wave, industrial, two-tone, grunge (before 1991), riot girrrl, mod and indie; all of which display even greater variation by region.

Importantly members of each of these 'tribes' often have elaborate in-group altruistic ethics and hold disdainful attitudes towards out-groups that can only be defined as ethnocentric in nature. A Neo-skin, for example, would likely view all other punk tribes as degenerate or stupid. It is certainly not insignificant that the more 'underground' variants of the sub-cultural tribes have been self-termed 'modern primitives' due to their adoption of body modifications as markers (Vale and Juno, 1989). Interestingly many individuals rationalize their decorations and modifications in terms of primal urges (Wojcik, 1995, Vale and Juno, 1989).

Another interesting trait of the urban tribes is the initiation rite that is common in many gangs, clubs or lodges. It is possible that this investment requirement constitutes an assurance that the individual will in fact participate in reciprocal systems and reinforces the solidarity of the group.

A systematic study of the cities throughout the world would likely find evidence for such tribalistic tendencies elsewhere. Interesting research potentials abound regarding whether these modern phenomenon are atavistic behaviors and what proportions are truly the product of some sort of instinct.



The often tedious political critiques of human sociobiology (especially Barker, 1981) that force proponents to the constant defensive are largely founded on misunderstandings. The social misuse of science (well documented by Gould, 1981) in the past should serve as a warning of caution, not a blockade to discovery. Ironically, the racist and sexist misuses of sociobiology could just as easily be used to provide further evidence for the sociobiological perspective of this paper--insofar as they further illustrate the deep rooted influence the genes.

It should go with out saying, but sadly often doesn't, that sociobiology is absolutely amoral in its perspective and functions best in an environment of objective nihilism. A sociobiological suggestion for a biological basis for philandering, racism or rape does not expose such actions as moral, it does not expose them as immoral, it does nothing but explain a perspective on how and why such things take place. This cannot be stressed enough.


Freewill and a Mental Vaccine

Memetics exposes ideas as entities that use minds as vehicles. Meme-complexes such as religion, ethnocentrism and xenophobia--whether they work in tandem with genes or not--are basically mental viruses. They twist human behavior to their selfish benefit. But they need not be abided. Furthermore, knowledge of the workings of memes and genes can potentially disable their effect and reproduction. Thus this essay can, if it is at all successful, be viewed as a mental vaccine.

Only if an individual understands the forces and biases at work in determining their attitudes, beliefs and actions can they hope to attain freewill. Only freewill can emancipate the individual, allowing him or her to decide, rationally and independent of all unconscious prejudice, what is 'right'.

© Chad Joseph McEvoy 1995

Literature Cited

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Created September, 1995
Last modified 13th September, 2013