Primates have an instinctive fear of snakes.  (A Sense of Snakes SCIENCE vol. 342 no. 6158 November 1, 2013 page 541) In fact primates are particularly good at detecting and avoiding them.  Presumably that’s true of people, too. 

I spent much of my childhood roaming the Florida woods, well populated with snakes.  I almost never saw one to be aware of it.  Perhaps they were avoiding me.  But once I was in a little zoo looking for an anaconda that was supposed to be there.  After asking multiple times and checking multiple times I learned that the big constrictor was in a cage in a hall by itself.  There was a big log visible.  Even though I was looking for the snake every time I passed the hall I would go another way.  The snake was behind the log but a length of about a foot of the back projected maybe a quarter of an inch above the log.  That was enough for my brain to tell my feet to go away but not enough for it to tell my consciousness that I had found it.

Once my big brother and I were hunting for snakes and we found a glass snake.  A glass snake looks kind of glassy and if you are ungentle with it the tail will come off, presumably so the animal can get away.  My brother was not interested.  He said, “It’s not a snake.  It’s a legless lizard.”  When I pointed out that it looked a lot like a snake he said, “It has eyelids.”  I looked, and when the glass snake blinked I could feel the tension melting from my limbs.  I hadn’t been aware that I had tensed up thinking it was a snake.  So it’s instinctive.

There is also a fear of heights.  I’m sure of that one.  I don’t get nightmares much, but when I used to have them precarious heights were a recurrent theme.  By contrast I can think of only one scary dream with snakes.  So I’d have to say that at least for me the fear of heights is greater than the fear of snakes.  And both are instinctive.

People have an unnatural fascination with something we call “race.”  It means people who are very different in appearance from ourselves.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if you take a bunch of people and ask, “Who considers themselves racially prejudiced?” some will answer that they are and others will deny everything. 

Well and good.  Send the self confessed prejudiced ones away and give the rest a questionnaire; show them pictures of faces and ask, “Do you think this person is nice or not?”  Many who denied prejudice will show a preference for their own kind.  Send them away and keep those who were absolutely fair.  Then repeat the study but use a computer to record the results and see how long it takes the people to answer.  It turns out that a large proportion will be fair but it will take them longer to decide to express high regard for those that differ from themselves.  Keep those for whom there is no difference in timing.  Now unmentioned during the previous test all the people of one “race” wore one color of shirt and all the others wore another color.  So show them simply pictures of shirts and ask which ones they like.  Sure enough there are many who will prefer the shirt that has clothed people like themselves.

What’s left must include those who are deliberately messing with the results (such people exist), those who are smarter than the one designing the test and those who are too stupid to get the instructions right.  What’s left is a pretty small proportion.  So I have thought that this “race” aversion was instinct and must be an extension of the biologically helpful preference for members of ones own kindred.  It’s an extreme reaction to an extreme difference where what is called for is a strong reaction to a subtle difference. 

But upon reflection I suspect that isn’t quite it.  You see I have been around American Black people my whole life.  Yet I have never had one feature prominently in a dream until recently.  They may have been present but if so I didn’t notice.  That changed a couple of days ago when I dreamt I was helping a Black man, Morgan Freeman in fact, prepare for a television interview.  He seemed unworried but I was all in a lather to be sure that he would look good, so I was preparing a list of questions I could ask him if the conversation stalled.  He could look over them, strike ones he didn’t like and feel comfortable knowing that he wasn’t going to get a question out of left field, so to speak.  This was no nightmare.  In fact I was feeling proud to be working with the celebrity as I would in real life.  So any instinct against other races must be quite weak indeed according to the Herbert Dream Test.  And yet the subject seems to be a national preoccupation. 

So I have a backup theory.  They have done studies in which a face is slowly modified.  A face that is modified imperceptibly from an ordinary photograph is accepted as being pleasant.  A face that is clearly not a person, say a stylized robot of years gone by, as pleasant also.  But as the appearance approaches the human there is sort of a weird valley in which the face seems to be disturbing.  That’s why zombies are so much scarier than young men with automatic weapons.  The zombies fall into the valley of weirdness.  So, alas, may certain people.  If that is the case it would seem futile to try to break people of their “racism” by constant exposure to social situations in which “race” appears to play a part.  You might only be inducing fatigue, making matters worse.  And of course it has nothing at all to do with kinship.

It’s just a thought.  Don’t buy it if you don’t like it.  It hadn’t occurred to me as I said until the past day or two.  I do notice that when I am channel rolling the TV I find a higher proportion of movies without minority characters on the Spanish language stations than the English language stations.  Maybe Hispanic people to not get foreigner fatigue.  Or maybe they are untroubled because they are secure in the sense that their own culture is unthreatened. 

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