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On Dawkins on Race
The readers of Prospect magazine, the fine British center-left journal, recently voted veteran science journalist Richard Dawkins the U.K.'s number one "public intellectual." In turn, Prospect runs in its October edition an excerpt from Dawkins' new book, The Ancestor's Tale, called "Race and Creation."
Dawkins' Prospect essay is not bad. He considers, but does reject (sort of), the "race does not exist" dogma that led the incoming president of the American Anthropological Association, Alan Goodman, memorably to proclaim:
"[Race] doesn't exist biologically, but it does exist socially… Culturally I'm white-ified. People see me as white. That has something to do with how I look, but it has nothing to do with biological variation."
Unfortunately, Dawkins' essay shows that even being Numero Uno doesn't make you a clear thinker about a scientific topic—if you allow your political prejudices to murk things up. And it's easy to get confused about race because of the outright suppression of active scientific debate.
Dawkins' reputation primarily on one great book, 1976's The Selfish Gene, which made comprehensible to the reading public the revolution in the evolutionary theory of social behavior innovated principally by the late British biologist William D. Hamilton from 1964 onwards.
In explaining the mathematical basis of nepotism—the tendency of individuals to favor their kin—Hamilton had discovered a new gene-centric view of evolution that provided a more solid footing for all of biology. As Dawkins rightfully said: "W.D. Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin."
Unfortunately, Dawkins still doesn't want to understand the human implications of what Hamilton was driving at with his theory of kin selection: that humans naturally tend to discriminate in favor of relatives, and a racial group is simply a partly inbred extended family. (See my essay "It's All Relative" for a full explanation.)
Dawkins gets snagged by making the assumption that race, while it exists, is all about surface features:
"Interobserver agreement suggests that racial classification is not totally uninformative, but what does it inform about? About things like eye shape and hair curliness. For some reason it seems to be the superficial, external, trivial characteristics that are correlated with race—perhaps especially facial characteristics."
But Dawkins doesn't offer any persuasive evidence for the cliché that race is just skin deep.
And the plain fact is that racial heritage affects real world performance. For example, coming into the Athens Olympics last month, men of West African descent had earned all eight of the spots in the finals of the 100-meter dash for five Olympics in a row. I suggested in my Olympics preview that this incredible streak might come to an end. But instead blacks won all 16 positions in the semifinals!
A similar level of domination is seen at the position of tailback in the National Football League. Chris Harry and Charles Robinson of the Orlando Sentinel wrote in a brave article entitled "Endangered Species:"
"Since Craig James ran for 1,227 yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1985, 95 running backs have combined for 235 1,000-yard rushing performances over those 18 years. None has been white."
So race isn't just skin deep. At minimum, it's muscle deep.
And the same male hormones that build muscles affect personality. Blogger Andrew Sullivan, for instance, has written at length about how injecting himself with testosterone has made him more confident and aggressive. (Just what he needed!)
Overall, the pieces of this race puzzle are all starting to fit together. Blacks, when in peak shape, tend to have higher muscle-to-fat ratios, higher levels of aggressiveness, and higher rates of prostate cancer—and not coincidentally, higher rates of male hormones and higher-powered male hormone receptors in their bloodstreams.
Race … it's not just skin deep.
But what did Dawkins mean by "interobserver agreement" about racial classifications?
To show that racial categories can be informative at the cosmetic level, he writes:
"Well, suppose we took full-face photographs of 20 randomly chosen natives of each of the following countries: Japan, Uganda, Iceland, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Egypt. If we presented 120 people with all 120 photographs, my guess is that every single one of them would achieve 100 per cent success in sorting them into six different categories… I haven't done the experiment, but I am confident that you will agree with me on what the result would be."
Dawkins' heart is in the right place on this issue—but he should do the experiment. He would be surprised. It's quite likely that outsiders would confuse some of the Ugandans and the Papuans.
The tribes of New Guinea and the nearby Melanesian Islands come in many different looks, but some are very similar in appearance to sub-Saharan Africans. Here, for example are two Papuan boys who, to my untrained eye, look like Africans. And here are some pleasant pictures of nearby Solomon Islanders who belong to an Anglican religious order known as the Melanesian Brotherhood. They look much like these Ugandans, who live 9,000 miles to the west.
I suspect that if you visited the two regions, you would eventually learn to distinguish the two groups with fairly high accuracy. But it would take time.
(There are a few other groups whose appearance can fool observers into misclassifying them. The Nagas of Burma bear a surprising resemblance to American Indians. And even the hyper-acute physical anthropologist Carleton Coon classified the aboriginal Ainu of northern Japan as Caucasians, although subsequent genetic research typically lumps them in with other East Asians. Of course, less sophisticated viewers frequently make classification mistakes, such as the many Iraqis who have tried to speak Arabic to Mexican-American soldiers.)
So, if a Papuan and a Ugandan look similar enough to be mistaken for each other by outside observers, are they the same race?
Genealogically, they are radically different. Their lineages diverged far back in prehistory and they have had virtually no common ancestors for, perhaps, tens of thousands of years. According to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza's landmark 1994 book The History and Geography of Human Genes, the two human groups most genetically dissimilar overall to "Bantus," such as Central Africans, are "New Guineans" and "Melanesians."
Instead, African-looking Papuans are actually more racially similar to other Papuan tribes that don't look much like Africans at all.
Looks are skin deep. Race, in contrast, is who your ancestors were.
Classifying people by their looks is simply a crude way to approximate for what human beings are really interested in: family trees.
Race is who your kin are. For example, when Iraqis discover that Latino-American soldiers merely look kind of like them but aren't related, their feelings of ethnocentric relationship disappear.
Why do people care so much about who is related to whom? Because, as Hamilton's logic showed, that's toward whom they are more nepotistic (i.e., altruistic). In turn, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and racism are essentially the inevitable flip side of nepotism. If people discriminate in favor of their relatives, they are going to discriminate against their non-relatives.
By refusing to think about this because it's politically incorrect, Dawkins is betraying the great Hamilton's legacy.