After riding with Spanish speakers, white commuters favored anti-immigration policies

Although initial contact with outsiders is stressful, over time we figure out how to fit them into our lives.


Human beings are easily spooked. We are pattern-making machines, and when something doesn't fit, it's distressing. Our difficulty in integrating unexpected information is such a fundamental part of how we work, its influence pops up everywhere: it's why the new kid in school gets bullied, why we experience culture shock, and its why the debate on immigration burns so hot.

Let's say you ride the train to work every day. Anyone who's done this before can attest to the weird phenomenon of seeing the same strangers on the train, people with similar schedules and lifestyles who you don't really know. One day, somebody new is on the train, but they don't fit: they don't look like, talk like, or act like you or your familiar strangers. What are they doing on your train?

This scenario formed the basis of a 2012 study by Ryan Enos, an assistant professor of government at Harvard University, designed to measure how people respond to the sudden appearance of out-group individuals; new people who don't fit.

As the setting of the experiment, Enos selected a series of commuter rail stations in the Boston metro area. For anybody familiar with area, it won't be a surprise that the study sample consisted mostly of Anglo-white individuals—83 percent of the whole, to be exact. While demographic change is happening to much of the U.S., Boston has received fewer immigrants than, say, Arizona. Despite this, Massachusetts is consistently rated as one of the most democratic and liberal states in the union, ostensibly meaning that immigrants would be more welcome in the state than elsewhere.

This assumption was put to the test when Enos hired pairs of native Spanish speakers and instructed them to simply ride the train at the selected stations. In a previous survey, the Spanish speakers had been rated as appearing to be Hispanic immigrants. They were not told about the purpose of the study, nor were they given instructions to speak Spanish to one another or interact with people on the train, just to ride it and act however they pleased.

After being exposed to the Spanish speakers, Anglo-white respondents were far more likely to support making English the official language. Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Enos distributed surveys to a random set of commuters on the train at three different points: before introducing the Spanish speakers into the commuter environment, three days after, and 10 ays after. This survey asked questions about the respondents' demographics, political opinions, and the following three key questions:

1. Do you think the number of immigrants from Mexico who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased, left the same, or decreased?

2. Would you favor allowing persons that have immigrated to the United States illegally to remain in the country if they are employed and have no criminal history?

3. Some people favor a state law declaring English as the official language. Some other people oppose such a law. Would you favor such a law?

After being exposed to the Spanish speakers, respondents were far more likely to support stricter positions on immigration and to support making English the official language. "People's attitudes moved sharply in this exclusionary direction," Enos said in an interview with the Boston Globe. "I was surprised that the effects were strong." The Spanish speakers were debriefed after the experiment and reported similar impressions. "Because we are chatting in Spanish, they look at us," wrote one of the participants in a report to Enos. "I don't think it is common to hear people speaking Spanish on this route."

Even in one of the most liberal places in the U.S., exposure to a new group of people made the commuters more exclusionary and conservative in their positions on immigration. In the survey, liberals demonstrated the greatest change in opinion, whereas conservatives, who already supported more exclusionary policies to begin with, didn't change their stances as dramatically.

These results might seem like prejudice is baked into the human brain, but digging a little deeper in the data reveals a more optimistic conclusion. Respondents had the strongest support for exclusionary policies three days after they had been exposed to the Spanish speakers. When the survey was administered again 10 days after exposure, the effect had decreased. They still supported exclusionary policies more than they had initially, but not quite so sharply as they did soon after their exposure.

Over time, people got used to the newcomers. The results, published in 2014, suggest that, although initial contact with outsiders is stressful, over time we figure out how to fit them into our lives. The Spanish speakers reported this as well: “People have started to recognize and smile [at] us." They reported that some people would come up to them and strike up friendly conversations. In short, they had become familiar strangers.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.