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And the ambivalence they engender
None of us choose our birth families. We are born of a mother and father, who may have other children—our siblings. Our parents have or had parents, who likely had siblings and perhaps other children, who had still other siblings and children. These relatives form our extended family.
We don't always know the members of this family. Children who are adopted at birth may never know their birth parents and their natural siblings and cousins. They form adoptive relations, which to many of those involved may be indistinguishable from relations among birth families.
The evolutionarily adaptive value of knowing who the members of our family are is straightforward. The mechanism of evolution is the transmission of genes; our family members share some of our genes, so that their survival and success is our survival and success. We tend to care most about those who are most closely related to us. Many parents are willing to die to protect their children, many fewer to protect their third cousins.
Knowledge of kinship is adaptive in another, negative sense. At some point in the past, humans realized that inbreeding caused problems. Nearly all societies developed taboos against incest: sexual relations between parents and offspring, and between siblings. Some societies proscribe relations between first cousins. Honoring the taboos requires identifying those in the forbidden categories.
Over time, families grew into tribes and clans. The same dynamics were at play, on a larger scale. Members of clans looked out for one another, and looked askance at rival clans.
Yet ties between clans developed. Clans traded material goods and marital partners. These exchanges yielded benefits to both parties even as they blurred the boundaries between clans. Trade begat dependence; marriage begat dependents. Whose clan did those children belong to?
Two sentiments—clannishness and openness—competed. Clannishness diminished downside risks, guarding against threats from outsiders. Openness elevated upside opportunities, expanding horizons for growth and diversification. The most successful clans and the societies and nations they grew into struck the best balance between these competing sentiments.
They still do. During its quarter millennium of existence, the United States has interacted with other nations in two realms most consistently. One is trade, the other immigration. American trade policy has always attempted to expand American exports, but until the middle of the 20th century, it sought to diminish or at least cap imports. Protective tariffs were the most common tool for controlling imports. Only after 1945 did the United States adopt a policy of free trade. This policy remained in force until the end of the 2010s, when Donald Trump launched a tariff war against China and various other countries.
American immigration policy followed something of an inverse route. Until the 1920s, the United States allowed entry to almost everyone who wanted to come to America. In 1924 Congress imposed immigration restrictions of the sort that have characterized American immigration policy ever since.
Both trade policy and immigration policy reflected important material interests. American farmers sought foreign markets for their crops, while American manufacturers aimed to protect themselves from foreign competition. Meanwhile, American employers encouraged immigration to keep their labor costs down. Eventually, though, American manufacturers became efficient enough economically to outcompete competitors on the world stage and consented to free trade, while American workers became strong enough politically to limit the entry of foreign competitors for their jobs.
Such material calculations would seem to have little to do with individual sentiments of clannishness and openness. Yet the arguments about trade and immigration were never cast in strictly—or even primarily—material terms. Protectionists on trade conjured specters of invasion by foreign goods and influences that would sap American strength and values. The word "protection" itself brought to mind the clan pulling up the drawbridge against barbarians. Later, free traders spoke glowingly of new opportunities and new horizons for American commerce.
Immigration policy was debated in even more relentlessly emotional language. Restrictionists warned of aliens threatening American culture and the primacy of the native-born. New immigrants were described in explicitly clannish terms: Germans, Irish, Poles. Italians, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mexicans and so on. Supporters of immigration, meanwhile, talked glowingly of the new energy and new ideas new people would bring. "Hybrid vigor," a concept from evolutionary biology, was adduced in favor of immigration.
Trade and immigration policies continue to arouse strong emotions. Given the deep roots of these emotions, it would be naive to expect them to go away. As from the earliest days of our existence as a species, we humans harbor fears of outsiders even as we know we can't do without them.