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.
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
You may not have ever heard of ethnic nepotism before.
That`s largely because the most media savvy-explicators
Richard 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
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.
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
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
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 among
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.
used his new perspective to explain a mystery that had
Darwin 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.
gene-centric viewpoint was made understandable to the
reading public by
Edward O. Wilson`s 1975 book
Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins` celebrated
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).
"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 paradigm shift."
Hamilton had extended his theory to humans. In a long
"… 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 foundations."
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.
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
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
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
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
Dawkins` ostentatious fear of falling into what
David Hume called the
"is" implies "ought"—leads him into what
Steven Pinker calls the "moralistic fallacy"—assuming
"ought" implies "is."
And in fact Miele easily forced Dawkins to admit that
his strident pronouncement against the feasibility of
ethnic nepotism was dubious:
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
Dawkins: I think that`s possible.
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
anthropologist, 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 themselves …"
Interestingly, the distinguished political scientist
Robert Axelrod, who had worked with Hamilton on
crucial breakthroughs in the theory of
altruism, 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
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"
marrying your sister, but in the sense that people
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 Mass Migration).
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 NOT EXIST!!!…
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"
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.
and Miele have explained the genetics of Harpending`s
using slightly more aggressive assumptions than I
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