October 03, 2004
Where Dawkins Fears To Tread: Ethnic Nepotism And The
Reality Of Race
The Iraqis' fierce resistance to foreigners (us) invading their
country was predictable on any number of grounds. But perhaps the
most interesting is the most fundamental: the theory of "ethnic
nepotism." This explains the tendency of humans to favor
members of their own racial group by postulating that all animals
evolve toward being more altruistic toward kin in order to propagate
more copies of their common genes.
Which doesn't mean that kin
groups always cooperate—they also compete among themselves, in a
sort of sibling rivalry writ large. But nepotistic
solidarity still matters.
Even the notoriously fractious Afghan
Pashtuns think in terms of: "I against my brother. My brother
and I against my cousin. My cousin and we against the world."
(Note that, by maintaining a smaller footprint in Afghanistan
and letting the Afghans go back to being Afghans, we've provoked
much less nationalist backlash there.)
You may not have ever heard of ethnic nepotism before. That's
largely because the most media savvy-explicators of Darwinism—such
Dawkins, recently voted
Britain's top public
intellectual by Prospect magazine—are terrified that
their entire field might be tarred as "racist" if the concept
is given a fair public discussion.
The term "ethnic nepotism" was introduced in the 1981 book
Ethnic Phenomenon by Pierre
L. van den Berghe, a white sociologist born in the old Belgian
colony of the Congo.
Disgusted by white
oppression of Africans, van den Berghe became a fairly
conventional liberal on race. But, as he overcame his Eurocentric
focus on white crimes, he realized that race-based exploitation and
violence are universal human curses. This led him to sociobiology
and its bedrock finding: the late William D.
Hamilton's theory of
kin selection and inclusive fitness—the more genes we share with
another individual, the more altruistic we feel toward him.
There are no clear boundaries between extended family, tribe,
ethnic group, or race. So van den Berghe coined the term "ethnic
nepotism" to describe the human tendency to favor "our
and racism are
the almost inevitable flip sides of ethnic nepotism. (I say
almost because it's important to note that you can be
patriotic and work for the good of your own fellow citizens without
overtly wishing ill toward any other country. Nonetheless, even
patriotism still implies discrimination against noncitizens.)
The Ethnic Phenomenon is the book Karl Marx
should have written. Rather than focusing on the relatively minor phenomenon of
class, he should have explored the global importance of kinship.
Hamilton, the leading
evolutionary theorist of the second half of the 20th Century,
had figured out the mathematics and extraordinary implications of an
explanation for nepotism that had been kicking around half-formed
Hamilton pointed out that it was often useful to think of
"survival of the fittest" from the point of view, as it were,
of individual genes. A gene that encourages you to sacrifice your
life to save two
brothers or eight cousins would tend to spread.
Hamilton used his new perspective to explain a mystery that had
a century before: the extreme degree of nepotistic self-sacrifice
among social insects. Worker ants give up reproducing in order to
help their sister, the queen, reproduce on a vast scale. Hamilton
pointed out that while most species' siblings share 50 percent of
their genes, ant sisters share 75 percent. This makes self-sacrifice
by workers more genetically profitable.
This gene-centric viewpoint was made understandable to the
reading public by Edward O. Wilson's
1975 book Sociobiology
and Richard Dawkins' celebrated 1976 book, The
Selfish Gene . (A better title for Dawkins' book would have
been The Dynastic Gene, since your genes spread by helping
promulgate copies of themselves in one's relatives).
E.O. Wilson's description
in his delightful autobiography Naturalist
of how he wrestled with Hamilton's epochal papers during an 18-hour
train ride in 1965 is a classic:
"Impossible, I thought, this can't
be right. Too simple… By dinnertime, as the train rumbled on into
Virginia, I was growing frustrated and angry… And because I modestly
thought of myself as the world authority on social insects, I also
thought it unlikely that anyone else could explain their origin,
certainly not in one clean stroke… By the time we reached Miami, in
the early afternoon, I gave up. I was a convert and put myself in
Hamilton's hands. I had undergone what historians of science call a
In 1975, Hamilton had extended his theory to humans. In a long
essay entitled Innate
Social Aptitudes of Man: An Approach from Evolutionary
Genetics, (which appears in the first volume of Hamilton's
Roads of Gene Land), Hamilton wrote:
"... I hope to produce evidence
that some things which are often treated as purely cultural in
humans—say racial discrimination—have deep roots in our animal past
and thus are quite likely to rest on direct genetic
Richard Dawkins' tremendous career as a science journalist has
been built on his talent at translating Hamilton's formulas into
engaging prose. But he has long denied the possibility of ethnic
nepotism, even though Hamilton had published an elaborate model of
it the year before Dawkins published The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins' political correctness was all too apparent the 1995 interview
with him conducted by Frank Miele
for The Skeptic magazine:
Miele: Shortly after
publication of The Selfish Gene, you wrote a letter to the
editor of Nature … in which you stated that kin selection
theory in no way provides a basis for understanding ethnocentrism.
You said you made this statement, in part at least, to counter
charges that were being made in the UK at that time by Marxist
critics that Selfish Gene Theory was being used by the British
National Front to support their Fascist
ideology. In retrospect, do you think you went too far in trying
to distance yourself from some would-be and very unwanted
enthusiasts, or not far enough?
Dawkins: As to distancing
myself from the National Front, that I did! The National Front was
saying something like this, "kin selection provides the basis for
favoring your own race as distinct from other races, as a kind of
generalization of favoring your own close family as opposed to other
individuals." Kin selection doesn't do that! Kin selection favors
nepotism towards your own immediate close family. It does not favor
a generalization of nepotism towards millions of other people who happen to be
the same color as you. Even if it did, and this is a stronger
point, I would oppose any suggestion from any group such as the
National Front, that whatever occurs in natural selection is
therefore morally good or desirable. We come back to this point over
and over again. I'm definitely not one who thinks that "is" is the
same as "ought."
The purpose of science, however, is not to proclaim better morals
or to distance oneself from the politically unpalatable, but to help
us make better predictions.
Dawkins' ostentatious fear of falling into what David Hume called
fallacy"—assuming "is" implies
"ought"—leads him into what Steven
Pinker calls the "moralistic fallacy"—assuming "ought"
And in fact Miele easily forced Dawkins to admit that his
strident pronouncement against the feasibility of ethnic nepotism
Miele: Could there
be selection for a mechanism that would operate like this--"those
who look like me, talk like me, act like me, are probably
genetically close to me. Therefore, be nice, good, and altruistic to
them. If not avoid them?" And could that mechanism later be
programmed to say, "Be good to someone who wears the same baseball
cap, the same Rugby colors, or whatever?" That is, could evolution
have a produced a hardware mechanism that is software programmable?
Dawkins: I think that's
Hamilton could have been describing Dawkins' political weaseling
when he recounted in 1996 the reception his 1975 paper on ethnic
nepotism had received in a review by
S.L. Washburn, in which, singling my paper out of the whole
volume, he called it 'reductionist,
racist, and ridiculous.' ... I wonder if people who struggle to
extend the frontiers of a discipline against a current of peer
disapproval sometimes need to convince themselves and other that
they are not quite the heretics and outlaws everyone thinks and this
need is expressed through an extra militancy against further
extension in the direction they themselves have been taking… It is a
pity to see scientists struggling to tie each other's hands in
respect of some kinds of understanding and in effect crippling
Interestingly, the distinguished political scientist Robert Axelrod, who
had worked with Hamilton on crucial breakthroughs in the theory of
published a 2003 paper on "The
Evolution of Ethnocentric Behavior" showing that "in-group
favoritism" was likely to evolve.
The main objection that Dawkins raises to ethnic nepotism is that
Hamiltonian kin selection only applies to close kin, presumably
because genetic similarity diffuses so rapidly as you move outward
in your family tree.
To use Hamilton's way of calculating, you are 1/2 related to your
brother, 1/8 to your first cousin, 1/32 to your second cousin, 1/128
to your third cousin, etc.
So, obviously, ethnic nepotism can't work because relatedness
becomes vanishingly small, right?
Wrong! Because, as Hamilton pointed out in 1975, you can't
ignore the effect of inbreeding—not in the "Deliverance"
sense of marrying
your sister, but in the sense that people from, say, Japan usually
marry other people
from Japan, not random mates from around the world.
Thus genetic anthropologist Henry
Harpending long pooh-poohed ethnic nepotism until he finally sat
down to do the math. Then, Harpending discovered that the effect was
twice as strong as had been suggested. (This discovery is recounted
in Frank Salter's important new book
On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethny, and Humanity in an Age of
Take race denier Richard
Lewontin's famous 1972 finding that only 15% of genetic
variation is among population groups. This is always interpreted in
the popular press to mean that, because there is more genetic
diversity within racial groups than between them, therefore (non
sequitur alert!) RACIAL DIFFERENCES DO
Harpending says the variation between groups is even lower, more
like 12.5%, so let's use that.
What Harpending discovered, and anthropologist Vincent
Sarich confirmed, is that Lewontin was using Sewall Wright's way
of calculating relatedness, and you need to about double it to make
it equivalent to Hamilton's way. So, 12.5% times two is 25%, which
is the degree of relatedness between an uncle and his nephew…which,
after all, is where the word "nepotism" comes from!
In other words, on average, people are as closely related to
other members of their subracial "ethnic" group (e.g., Japanese or
Italian) versus the rest of the world as they are related to their
nephew versus the rest of their ethnic group.
(Sarich and Miele have explained the genetics of Harpending's
slightly more aggressive assumptions than I did above).
So, the genetic basis for ethnic nepotism with each racial group
is roughly as strong on average as the etymologically classic case of
nepotism among close kin—the uncle-nephew
Ethnic nepotism isn't a metaphor. It's a reality.
And we'd better accept it—whether Richard Dawkins thinks it would
be good for his career or not.
[Steve Sailer [email him],
is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie
critic for The American Conservative. His website http://www.isteve.com/ features site-exclusive commentaries.]