‘Great Debate’ discusses challenges of diversity, others

Xenophobia, the intense or irrational fear of people from other countries, is both innate and misguided, panelists agreed at Saturday’s The Great Debate: Xenophobia at ASU Gammage.

Lawrence Krauss, debate moderator and director of the Origins Project, said xenophobia has been present throughout history.

Xenophobia happens when groups form within the same species, he said.

“Xenophobia is more of a concern of us versus them in the same species,” Krauss said.

Immigration is the very face of the issue, he said.

“Fear of others becomes institutionalized in the case of war and in the case of religion,” Krauss said in his introduction. “What can we do to both control it and modify it?”

Debate participants were experts in the fields of human and animal behavior.

U.N. special advisor and Columbia University public health policy professor Jeffrey Sachs joined the panel remotely. He said xenophobia is an intrinsic aspect of the human species.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” Sachs said. “Diversity is perhaps our greatest human challenge.”

Sachs said when a society becomes diverse, it undergoes a crisis with important consequences.

“More diverse societies do a poorer job at supplying public goods,” he said. “(The) sense of social trust is lower.”

Civic networks across ethnic groups, contact between individuals and economic progress may diminish xenophobia, Sachs said.

Joan Strassmann, a biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said there may be biological reasons for our distrust of others.

Microbes are tiny organisms able to, like humans, recognize relatives and harm non-kin in order to survive, she said. Every bacteria ever studied behaves this way.

“Some of the evolutionary pressures, which have acted on microbes, might also act on us,” Strassmann said.

Life science exchange undergraduate and audience member Xiu Ling Chua said the study of microbes as an explanation for xenophobia is an interesting but difficult concept.

“I don’t know if it will shed light on human behavior, studying (it) at a micro-level,” Chua said.

ASU psychology professor Steven Neuberg said the basis of xenophobia is the brain’s ability to assess threat.

People may perceive a threat when confronted with another group that they view with anger, disgust or fear. While necessary, the prejudices that are sometimes behind this mechanism may not be appropriate, he said.

“We make mistakes,” Neuberg said. “We use cues to assess threats, but we make mistakes.”

Freeman Dyson, a physics professor at Princeton, said rapidly changing genes play an important role in xenophobia.

It is embedded in human nature that a group of people will reject others that have different mating genes than themselves, Dyson said.

“The main driving force of evolution is new species,” Dyson said.

Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, said otherness, race and sexual orientation are some of the main factors in xenophobia.

Immigration should be welcomed but the race factor triggers xenophobia, he said.

“Data shows immigrants work harder and are much more likely to start businesses,” Blow said.


Reach the reporter at dpbaltaz@asu.edu


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