The Haiti earthquake made us wonder: Why do we distance ourselves from others?
There are 6,796,500,000 people on this planet; most can’t see beyond self-imposed communities of politics/nationstates/racial attitudes/sports team combatants … and yet a visitor from another world would think we all look alike. Yes, humans have a few variations in hair and skin color, but outside looking in our race is far more homogeneous than butterflies, cats or dogs. A space alien, flying by on vacation, could only wonder why Homo sapiens, so similar in appearance, fusses and fights given the need for group survival.
Imagine being that alien, trying to puzzle it out. What is going on to make those little hominids below argue so much? Religion? Most humans believe in one god. Territory? An artificial construct, with no nationality lines visible from the sky above. Money? An illusory fiction used to trade goods, most of which start on one side of the world and end up on the other. Very strange, the visitor would think, observing humans who each day wear 10 bits of clothing manufactured from China to India, that we dislike or distrust anyone with a slight alteration in their spoken language. The most comical finding of all would be that when humans do go to war with each other, we often fight the cultures closest to us in similarity — the U.S. North vs. the South, the English vs. the Irish, Croatia vs. Serbia, or perhaps soon FoxNews vs. MSNBC.
Psychologists suggest our bias to liking our own kin while fearing others slightly different is related to genetics. “If a set of genes predisposes an individual toward assisting a closely related other, there is a high probability that these same genes also exist in the bodies of the recipients by virtue of common descent,” wrote Justin Park, Mark Schaller, and Mark Van Vugt in the Review of General Psychology. That is, your body is filled with the instincts of your forebears — to protect kin at the cost of others — because those selfish survival genes were the ones most likely to survive. At the same time, we often dislike people quite similar to us, like the Hatfield and McCoy feud, perhaps due to the instinct shared across species not to have sex with close cousins which can cause genetic aberrations. Thus we distrust those from distant lands but really wage war on neighbors slightly different in culture.
Still, when real disaster strikes, for a moment the artificial walls between human cultures come down. It’s painful to see people trapped and suffering. Perhaps an altruistic instinct for group survival deeper than a selfish urge to fight lies within us all. Find out yourself: The New York Times lists options for donating to Haiti here.
Ongoing updates to the 2010 Haiti earthquake at Wikipedia here. Images: United Nations photostream on Flickr.