Max Weisbuch
Department of Psychology
Tuft University
490 Boston Avenue
Medford, MA 02155

Dear Max Weisbuch:
I read The Subtle Transmission of Race Bias Via Televised Non Verbal Behavior (Max Weisbuch, Kristin Pauker and Nalini Ambady, SCIENCE, vol. 326. no. 5960 December 18, 2009 page 1711).  Your thesis is that there are non-verbal clues to racial prejudice on television shows and that people pick them up so that it reinforces their prejudices.  Your evidence appears to be above reproach.

The problem I have is with the concept of “race.”  I don’t think it exists as the word is popularly used.  I don’t know quite what the word means.  And I don’t think people who use the word know what they mean.  I am sure you have heard that before and have tested people finding emotions they deny, and I dare say I would flunk such a test.  Everybody else does after all. 

But differences are real enough.  Some, like height, can be measured.  Some, like generosity, are hard to quantitate.  Let me introduce a couple words I am easier with.  Xenophobia is an aversion to that which is foreign; xenophilia is the opposite.  Now putting numbers on the qualities gets really hard.  If you were to somehow put numbers to the differences between people and compared that with the hostility that those differences evoked, I doubt you would find a simple relationship.  The greatest hostility is usually against people who are not all that different.  When I was in high school, the greatest hostility was against a neighboring town.  It was far more of an emotion than our hostility toward Yankees, who were in turn far less well tolerated than Blacks, who were in turn less well tolerated than foreigners, whom we actually kind of liked.  So for simplicity let us just say that people are simply xenophilous or not. 

I do not know whether xenophilia is nature or nurture.  You seem content with the nurture side.  But there are some problems with it.  For one, decades of indoctrination have not purged us of it.  When I was at Harvard Medical School (There.  You are at Tufts.  You probably hate Harvard men worse than you hate Southerners.) the initiation ritual for the Boylston Society was to present an original research paper.  I did mine on indoctrination.  Many years have passed but I doubt the basics have changed.  Simply put, if you have control over a person’s environment and know what you are doing you can get that person to believe just about anything.  It only takes a month or two.  If the person is really tough, you may need to beat the daylights out of him or give him a soul altering case of diarrhea, but these are common things in the rough and tumble of life.  If his input is at your mercy, his mind is at your mercy.  What is also true, and alas is regularly forgotten, is that as he begins to change his mind he begins to lose respect for what he was or what he is becoming resulting in loss of self esteem resulting in clinical depression resulting quite commonly in suicide.  You need to watch him like a hawk.

Now that your well intended work is public property I assume we will shortly get gesture police just as we have word police.  Thankfully you did not list the gestures.  How many suicides have been due to our indoctrination to be xenophilous is beyond reckoning.  How many more the gesture police will induce I have no idea.  Don’t get depressed on me now.  I am about to place in your hands the power to do so much good your self esteem will never waver again. 

Anyway the fact that saturation indoctrination has not worked weighs against a nurture cause of xenophobia. 

Another problem with the nature argument of xenophobia is that somebody (at Harvard I think) did a study of racial phobia.  (Is everybody in Massachusetts obsessed?)  They found that the dynamics of racial phobia was similar to the dynamics of the fear of snakes, both in the ease in which it could be created and in the difficulty in extinguishing it.  And fear of snakes is said probably to be instinctive.  Evolution had good reason to have us avoid these small, tasty, easily captured animals.  They often have poison that can kill you. 

But nature or nurture really makes little difference.  You pick up most things from your parents, and that is enough to explain the existence, persistence and the way to the cure for xenophobia.

You see, there is a perfectly good evolutionary explanation.  There is a selective disadvantage to xenophilia.  Mind you, I am not talking “race.”  Xenophobia is at best distance neutral and probably is stronger at shorter distance.  Race only gets dragged in because that is the window people like to look through, at least in my opinion.

The fact is that if you marry a person who is related to you between say second and fifth cousins (We Southerners think of a second cousin once removed as a kissin’ cousin.) you can expect many babies.  If you marry more distantly you have none or few.  Race, if it exists, is utterly beside the point.  Once you are past seventh cousin it doesn’t much matter whom you marry – from the far side of town or the far side of the world.  None or few babies is a demographic disaster now visiting the developed world and the reason ought to be obvious.  We have been indoctrinated into being xenophilous.

Xenophilous people have fewer babies, so you are not going to eradicate xenophobia by indoctrination unless you eradicate all humans, and we are well on the way to doing just that. 

I have oversimplified things and offered no evidence.  Evidence and references are on the enclosed DVD.  There is more on the website where I also post correspondence. 

The way to promote xenophilia, then, is not to engage in ever more intense indoctrination.  That only kills off the babies of your best friends.  The way to do it is for everybody to understand the relationship between relationship and fertility.  Then those who care about their children will make prudent mating choice.  Those who don’t will make poor choices and die out.  Xenophilia, now no longer burdened with a selective disadvantage, will blossom because of its many obvious benefits.  And the world will become a place where a reasonable person might actually want to live.

That is my task.  If you think you can help or if you want clarification or if I can help in any way, do let me know.


M. Linton Herbert MD HMS’68 and

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