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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Xenophobia and Alien Fascination

I am going to indulge myself in some fanciful psychology now. While I often rail against the credulity and imprecision of psychology as a general field, that doesn't mean it isn't a fun way to pass the time. My main problem is its lack of rigour and self-correction, not the fun that can be had in utilizing the field to explore human nature. It is like literature and art - while some may make the argument that those should be taken into the fold of science (I haven't actually read the book and I enjoy Jonah Lehrer's blog, but I disagree with the premise that the book is touted to have. Perhaps reading it will change my mind, and I wouldn't mind giving it a shot at some point), I would rather say that much of psychology should be relegated to the social science and humanities status that encompasses art and literature. It is fascinating and fun to explore our humanity with words and conjectures, but it is rarely done rigorously and powerfully like the work done in most of the other sciences.

Anyway, with that preamble out of the way, I am going to launch into my exploration of one of the aspects of the human psyche. There were two events that got me thinking about the subject today of non-human animals. The first was an experiment on mice that we were performing in my lab course this morning and the enjoyment I got out of watching the adorableness that was the mouse's whisker twitches as he explored the box he was in (I certainly would not want to be a behavioural neuroscientist or psychologist. Giving injections or any of the other things done to animals in a laboratory I would find too difficult. While I recognize the benefit, I am squeamish and soft-hearted and enjoy my cognitive dissonance, thank you very much). The second event was a slide containing information about the variety of different somatosensory representations in different species, notably raccoons (and how they had a very similar proportion of cortical space devoted to finger control as that found in primates). That prompted me to think about how neat I find raccoons and their cleverness and aptitude for mischief, and then a brief internet search into raccoons as pets (apparently they do not make good pets, as they tend to have an intense ornery streak as adults including indignant defecation on owner's belongings and a tendency to bite). From my brief sadness at finding out that, like many of the other creatures I have often wistfully thought of as having as a pet, I was never going to have a raccoon as a pet, I got to thinking about the odd propensity of people for domestication of other species. While much of domestication can be explained by the utility of it (and we are not the only ones who engage in such practices, with fascinating ecological tales of ants and aphids or butterflies (the guy's voice in the video I actually found kind of annoying, but you get the idea) and other such relationships found in nature textbooks), there are clearly indirect psychological benefits as well (not for everyone. Some people genuinely have no enjoyment in interaction with nonhumans. While I find that baffling, it clearly exists).

The thing is, domestication simply facilitates the process. It makes the other organism more prone to like us and accept interaction with humans, but there are many examples of non-domestic animal friendships. Some of my favourites include Jessica the Hippo and Owen and Mzee (odd that they both include hippos). Clearly, there is at least a small propensity for interspecies bonding even without domestication. What makes this such an appealing concept? Before I address that concept, though, I want to bring up another one: xenophobia. Basically, fear of those foreign and different is a powerful psychological motivator at the heart of ingroup-outgroup conflicts. It doesn't have to include humans and humans, but is also at the heart of the general trend to treat non-human animals as less deserving than humans (after all, if the colour of one's skin is enough to inspire contempt and hatred, not even sharing the same form is an even more blatant marker of difference. The main reason it is rarely labelled as xenophobia, though, is people take it as defacto that other animals are so different from us that it doesn't need to be acknowledged). So how can interspecies relationships work and be such a powerfully uplifting thing (for at least some people) when there is an inborn tendency for mistrust of those who are different that sometimes fails to even reach past boundaries within a species, nevermind to another species?

At this point, I began to ramble on in a long-winded analysis of the intricacies of interspecies relationships. However, this post has already gotten longer than I intended, so perhaps I will leave such an analysis to a later time and jump ahead to the conclusion I was intending to reach. It seems to me like there is a competing psychological need for empathic understanding instilled by our social nature and the instinctive mistrust of strangers needed for simple survival. While the mistrust of strangers is necessary without being able to guarantee the trustworthiness of others, it isn't pleasant. Conflict is messy and uncomfortable, and though xenophobia can often be gratifying and exhilerhating, that is only when one is surrounded by likeminded individuals railing belligerently against the out-group that is not present. When one is forced to come face to face with the brutality and hate that was so previously euphoric (especially if one is forced to deal with the outgroup on relatively equal terms, like in a war, rather than in unequal terms like a lynch mob), the rush of happiness inspired by belonging with the ingroup is tempered somewhat by the unpleasantness of conflict. I think most people who are not insanely bigoted understand this and frown upon that aspect of their psyche. Forming a bond with a member of an outgroup, therefore, is a way of throwing off the shackles of xenophobia and searching for a linking trust rather than dwelling on the separating differences. Instead of saying "You walk on four legs and I walk on two, so I look down upon you", it is saying "I like to scratch you behind the ear and you like it when I do, so let's be friends." We can think that if we can set aside our mistrust and fear of the other party in this situation, maybe we can do so again in the future and have a more peaceful life. Or maybe I'm just a dork wrapped up in his own fanciful psychology. Whatever the case may be, I know some day I'd like to rub a tiger's belly, scratch a hippo behind the ear, or play a game with a raccoon. I also know none of those are going to happen, and even if given the opportunity I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go through with it. In a way, that thought makes me very sad.