Animal behaviour has genetic background and is shaped by natural selection. Human behaviour is also affected by our evolutionary history. So what could be the evolutionary background for intolerance towards refugees?
It could be an unconscious avoidance of meeting remote strangers because of the unknown diseases they might carry that our local community can’t cope with, either genetically or due to insufficient know-how. This results in the repellence and distrust of others.
As the environment changes, the traits evolved through evolution might become irrelevant. Nowadays, intolerance towards strangers does not help to prevent the spread of diseases. In this sense it is no longer adaptive from an evolutionary point of view. Airplanes can carry viruses and bacteria to the other end of the world in mere hours. Hatred does not help to stop them. Medicine provides much more efficient disease prevention measures than isolation does; however, evolution has not taken into account aeroplanes and vaccines while shaping our behaviour yet.
On the contrary, in today’s society, which highly rates humanistic values, an altruistic wish to help others may become beneficial in the evolutionary perspective. Willingness to help also has a straightforward biological background. It is a genetically motivated trait that can improve our breeding success. Thus, it is favoured by natural selection.
Helping refugees is a great way to advertise the good nature and sensibility of an individual or a group that is able to collect resources sufficient also for helping others. In this way a seemingly selfless approach might turn out to be much more beneficial than intolerance towards strangers.
Sven Paulus is the editor of the popular Estonian-language science portal Novaator.