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  • Epidemics and Xenophobia, or, Why Xenophilia Matters
  • A. David Napier (bio)


Research on the relationship between self and other is today mediated by new knowledge that forces us to ask questions regarding connections between the biological and social sciences. Such research also demands a reconsideration of the possible effects of answering those questions on age-old forms of discrimination and xenophobia. Indeed, today we stand at a crossroad that demands our rethinking the ancient idea that foreigners (refugees, immigrants) carry diseases and should be feared—that foreigners are, primarily, invasive.

If science is to be taken seriously, not only is this picture incorrect, but also the metaphors that sustain this view may be equally wrong. The old moral divide between those who dislike outsiders and those who behave charitably toward them needs retooling, given what new science suggests about the relevance of others to individual health. The new field of epigenetics has amply shown how social encounters can influence genetic makeup over generations—that is, we do not always revert to the same inherited genetic blank slate with each coming generation. In addition, other, new forms of scientific knowledge have shown how our ability to thrive is as much a function of the way we adjust symbiotically to environmental and social stimuli as it is of evolutionary adaptations that affect our fitness. [End Page 59]

Though it is hard to say what future effect the rethinking of biodeterminism will have on our views of self and other (Napier 1996; 2017), it is also clear that old assumptions die hard. Right-wing nationalism has re-emerged, as have xenophobia and antimigration rhetoric, alongside counterepidemic hysteria that attributes new diseases and their mutations to the behaviors of foreigners and alien cultural practices. If anything, they have grown exponentially as global migration increases alongside a sharp rise in numbers of stateless peoples worldwide.

It is for these reasons that there is today an especially urgent need to rethink the relationship between epidemics and xenophobia, and to ask how new knowledge might dampen, if not completely reverse, the human tendency to take bad meaning over no meaning, as Nietzsche so aptly put it, reverting to scapegoat narratives that should have no place or register in the multicultural settings that world populations increasingly inhabit (

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[End Page 60]

Indeed, the urgent need to rethink basic ideas about self and other is not only reflected in the unacceptable rise in prejudice about purity and pollution that expresses itself through overt biological racism; it is also reflected positively in changes in science that demand a reconsideration of basic notions of self and other. Several areas of science have emerged to examine and rethink the symbiotic relationship between human identity and its boundaries. New research on the microbiome has focused, for example, on the vast diversity of commensal organisms that occupy our bodies and influence and adjust for our interactions with our local environments. These, we now know, are not only critical for organic health, but have significant effects on our susceptibility to allergies, our chances of contracting noncommunicable diseases (such as diabetes), and our ability to adjust to irritants and related toxic stimulants. Moreover, there are many examples of plant, animal, and cross-species dependency that are literally life-giving and without which entire species would disappear (e.g., Margulis 1999).

But there are three areas of contemporary scientific research that are not only symbiotic in focus, but also especially and explicitly xenophilic—in other words, that express a critical need for attraction to or engagement with difference as a means not only of facilitating survival and reproduction but also of reshaping the very concept of selfhood as an Enlightenment construct (Napier 2012b). These areas are the new science of epigenetics, that of stem cells and regenerative medicine, and that of theoretical immunology—an older field now rapidly transforming its foundational assumptions into a wholly new domain of epistemological inquiry.


Epigenetics is, quite simply, the science that studies "the set of modifications to our genetic material that change the ways genes are switched on and...


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pp. 59-81
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