An evolutionary approach to understanding xenophobia and anti-Semitism

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Xenophobia is a widespread phenomenon in all human cultures and manifests itself in a variety of forms: from aversion to strange-looking, foreign neighbours with their unfamiliar behaviour, to a genocide against a group of people, preferably a defenceless minority, which is first state-propagated and then put into action. Such negative feelings, both individual and collective, can be directed against almost “others” or “different ones”, but historically the longest and most consequential variant of xenophobia in human history is antisemitism (or rather judeophobia), whose history stretches over more than two millennia. Starting with the accusations by the Hellenic Alexandrian Apion (3rd century BC) to Julius Streicher and his worthy successors in the present, this anti-Jewish variant of xenophobia, a strange yet familiar phenomenon with many facets and expressions.

Anti-Jewish hatred has been explained by many factors, such as sociology, religion, economics, or inter-ethnic contacts that went sour. These are more or less convincing, but any such explanation is fundamentally incomplete. I suspect that judeophobia is motivated on a deeper level, hidden in the human subconscious and evolving over the ages. In what follows, I would like to discuss the evolutionary-biological fundaments of xenophobia, which to my knowledge is yet to be sufficiently acknowledged and taken into account.

First, we should agree that all living organisms of the same species are more or less related to each other, because share common ancestors. This does not mean some mythical “founding couple” like Adam and Eve, but the biological ancestors who generated common offspring. In the biological sense, it could have been a species, or some other isolated group of individuals sharing the same gene pool (a gene pool is the commonality of all genes of those members of a species who are potentially capable of mating). All humans living today form such a group, and there always is a certain degree of biological relationship between any two individuals, albeit with a variating degree of genetic distance. The closest to each other are identical twins, farther apart are siblings, then cousins and so on. A greater genetic distance could be between two people living, say, in Iceland, and greater still between an Indian and a Pakistani. Possibly the largest genetic distance is between two potentially mating individuals who originate in areas most father apart, e.g. a South African Bushman and an Eskimo woman in Canada. Purely in the biological sense, all these pairs – except for the identical twins – could mate each other. Pairing that is biologically possible ranges from siblings to persons far apart in the ethnic and geographic sense. Nearly every society knows that the incest taboo, which developed evolutionarily, prevents the unhealthy mating of individuals too closely related (with occasional cultural exceptions such as in the pharaonic dynasty), while feelings of xenophobia make the connection of individuals of radically diverse ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds more difficult. On the broad scale from the very close to the very distant, probably most people feel that the ideal area to mate is just beyond the family circle. This presumed “not too near, not too far optimum” lies somewhere inside one’s own clan or tribe (in indigenous peoples, for example, in the neighbouring village) and among the economically, culturally similar and like-minded circle of friends in modern, urban settings. Jewish people usually operated the “tribal” criterion, focusing on similar cultural and religious orientations. Especially in circles practicing nuptial arrangement, this relatively short distance might be important. Worried parents of the candidates willing to mate might wish, consciously or unconsciously, for the ideal conditions for the transmission of their genetic material to their expected grandchildren and further descendants.

The transmission of one’s genes is undoubtedly one of the strongest biological urges. Sometimes this instinct is overpowering. Just think of the sorry fate of the fertilized Black Widow’s male partner, which, although fatal for her weary spouse, still probably makes sense by securing an evolutionary success of the species and its gene pool. This also explains the apparently odd behaviour of male lions. When taking over a pack, the new alpha-male first kills the cubs of the deposed predecessor in order to start producing his own offspring as soon as possible – that is, prioritising the passing of his own genes. For humans, it is only the relatively thin cultural and civilizing stratum, which prevents our inner monster from awakening and behaving similarly. Moreover, of course education and altruism, which differs from person to person, are responsible for our usually “civilized” behaviour. Sometimes such inhibitions are lost, for example with the Nazi and other ethnic cleansers, who advocate or actually perform genocide.

In nature, almost all life energy is invested in the sustainable transfer of one’s own genes. Apart from the eternal hunt for food, the rest of the action is geared to successfully multiply. This is not limited to the animal kingdom only. Every tempting fragrant, colourful flower, every grain flying in the wind serves the ultimate purpose of life, the transmission of heredity. From the bizarre courtship dance of the tropical birds of paradise, through the roaring of the rutting deer to the devoted play of little girls with their Barbie, these are more or less ritualized efforts or exercises for the higher purpose of promoting one’s own reproducibility. To a certain extent, this is a manifestation of the universal claim to eternity (at least of one’s own genome). The famous British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins went step further in his 1976 work “The Selfish Gene”, in which he argued that in essence the genetic material spread throughout the world, the DNA, is the true ruler of all organisms, including us. The living individual creatures are only replication organs of limited usefulness. The DNA, of course, does not possess a real will in the psychological sense. It acts this way simply because it is there and cannot do otherwise (quote: “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is“). It does not replicate because it has to, it replicates because it can. Moreover, for this purpose it requires such resources as substrate and energy, the two ingredients, which the entire biosphere consists of. It is only natural that larger segments of DNA may compete for available resources just as two individuals, groups, families, clans, tribes and ethnicities would do. The available resources tend to be always limited, which triggers competition. The entire biosphere as the sum of all earthly genetic material behaves like a print template that has become self-contained and does nothing else apart from creating new copies of itself. The resulting copies in turn will succumb to the same replicative obsession. I argue that xenophobia is ultimately nothing more than a behavioural manifestation of the competition between different DNA clusters in highly evolved creatures (such as humans), a competition that manifests itself in intricate ways in our subconsciousness and influences our behaviour. Behaviour of entire groups, who have possibly synchronized their intentions, may lead to discriminatory actions against other individuals or groups, perceived as competitors.

However, this alone is not sufficient as an explanation; it needs a second essential component. This is the strong motivation of all living things to combine one’s own genes with those of other carriers. For reasons of obtaining better immune defence, novel combinations of genetic material is one of several benefits that may enhance fitness for survival. Offspring of individuals with mixed genes from genetically more distant parents, may adapt better to changing conditions. So it is not surprising that one of the first thoughts that two encountering individuals of opposite sexes might have is whether the other could be a potential mating candidate (in contrast, two encountering individuals of the same sex tend to compare each other competitiveness). This checking happens both ways, consciously (by talking with each other) as well as unconsciously (by analysing appearance, reading body language, perception of behaviour and even by smelling the other’s odour). One of the functions of traditions, rituals and strict dietary laws is to strengthen the demarcation of the in-group (inside of which mating is promoted) vis-à-vis strangers, with whom possible contact and pairing must be prevented. To use an obvious example, the gentile contender cannot expect to be involved in a combination of his genes with those of his Hasidic neighbour’s daughter, although such events occasionally may happen against the will of their social environment.

In my opinion, this the core explanation for the phenomenon of xenophobia. If these two conditions apply, namely, 1) that resources are limited, and 2) there is no prospect of a gene combination with a certain group. When what remains is competition or conflict. The prevalence of endogamy on the one hand, and “struggle” for resources on the other might invite animosities, which tend to break out if civilizational barriers are lacking. Especially in times of crisis and limited resources, there may be resentment, rejection, population control, persecution, which are nothing but different forms of xenophobia. These become socially relevant when they remain not limited to individuals only. Individuals with similar feelings and views may become organized in xenophobic movements, political parties and militant organisations, who are motivated by a deep-seated, unconscious feeling that the stranger is an obstacle in the struggle for the limited resources needed to cultivate the in-group’s genetic material. When the civilizational inhibition threshold collapses or is lifted by state regulation, xenophobia is on a drastic rampage, whose consequences are well known. This is a possible explanation for the fact that the Holocaust was committed not by some uncultured, warlike barbarian people, but by the highly civilized nation of “poets and thinkers”, who unfortunately possessed the means to perpetrate an industrialized mass murder. The entire Nazi racial ideology was based on the principle of a merciless destruction of everything considered “non-Germanic”, whether through murder or enslavement and starvation. At the same time, the Nazis undertook great efforts to increase their own national body, to bizarre breeding programs for stalwart Germanic youths and physically apt, pure-bred blondes. According to the bizarre beliefs of that period, this was nothing but an attempt to create conditions in which the so-called Aryan gene pool would prevail at the expense of others.

Xenophobia, as well as judeophobia, has apart from the already well-known more or less rational explanatory causes also a subconscious motivation, based on the individual’s instinctive desire to give his genes the best chance of passing them on to the next generation. In doing so, the affected person is convinced that he must compete with those with whom he sees no chance to combine his genes. In this regard, the transition to mass atrocities may be caused by the simultaneous release of this motivation within a large group of people. Thus, an individual’s pathology of few individuals may become a mass hysteria.

In conclusion, and as a small reward for all those who have patiently read the entire essay, here it comes condensed into one phrase: during periods of limited resources, xenophobia results from the subconscious rejection of individuals or groups, with whom genetic mixing is perceived as improbable.

About the Author
As a single child of Shoa survivors, I emigrated from socialist Romania to Germany in 1970. Two decades later I moved to Switzerland, where I work as a Senior Physician and Professor of Anesthesiology.
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