The racist gene

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of “ethnic nepotism,” the idea that racial/ethnic discrimination is grounded in kinship selection, a.k.a. The Selfish Gene, which posits that organisms seek to maximize the evolutionary fitness of their genes even if this involves a sacrifice of their personal reproductive fitness. This is the standard biological explanation of altruism to which most biology textbooks nowadays adhere. But of course using it to explain racial and ethnic discrimination has proven considerably more controversial, partly for scientific reasons, partly no doubt because it is feared that doing so would in a sense legitimize it. For all that it might still be the case.

This posting gives a good summary of some of the main issues and a decent selection of links. As I understand it, the main objection to the linkage of ethnic nepotism to kin selection is crystallized in the following analogy from The Selfish Gene:

“Kin selection is emphatically not a special case of group selection…If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices being determined by the closeness of relatedness. Indeed this would lead to absurdity since all members of the species, not to mention other species, are at least distant relatives who could each therefore claim a carefully measured crumb! To the contrary, if there is a close relative in the vicinity, there is no reason to give a distant relative any cake at all. Subject to other complications like laws of diminishing returns, the whole cake should be given to the closest relative available.”

But this is not sufficient to rebut the possibility that other forms of “group selection” adhere to the same basic principle, i.e. degree of genetic relatedness. This is because Dawkins seems to overlook the shifting nature of group identification. Sure, if there were only one tribe or one family in the world to divide up its resources, it would probably make sense for individuals to look after only their own offspring or “closest relative available,” to the prejudice of all the others. Perhaps the nearest real counterpart to this are dynasties in despotic states. The more a single family monopolizes power, the greater and more vicious the level of intra-familial competition that usually ensues. But confronted with a rival outside the family the group will tend to cohere to a much greater extent. This is the insight implied in the old saw that the world will only unite in the face of an extra-terrestrial invasion. So maybe within a group kin selection will favor only the nearest relatives, but in the face of competition from outside the group solidarity among all the members will likely increase. In essence, then, Dawkins seems to be attacking the linkage between kin selection and other forms of group selection on the grounds that there is a firm division rather than a gradation between altruistic and competitive favor. However, that is not to say that that division does not vary depending on the situation and the nature of the competition. We see this on a daily basis in, for example, the greater social solidarity in times of war or other (perceived) general emergency. Racial and ethnic variation are not bad proximate indications of genetic difference and, although eluding a rebuttal is certainly not a convincing argument for a theory, given the greater explanatory power and simplicity ethnic nepotism gives to the theory of kin selection I see no reason to dismiss the possibility at this point. And if it should prove to be true it would also seem clear that even avoiding the naturalistic fallacy racial and ethnic differences are not the meaningless or arbitrary distinctions that they are generally portrayed as being, nor, having a biological basis, could they probably be culturally conditioned out any more than can be sexual jealousy.

3 Responses to “The racist gene”

  1. selling waves » Blog Archive » Free-market morals Says:

    […] strange parallel between this conclusion and the mechanism of genetic kin selection that I discussed earlier, and decide that it is then merely a rationalization of the operation o […]

  2. selling waves » Blog Archive » Says:

    […] Almost exactly a year ago I speculated about how ethnocentrism, racism and various other kinds of local identifications in human society might be justified biologically.  Here is what I wrote then, which I mostly still agree with.  In the context of reading The Selfish Gene I would like to add one other point.  The mathematical determination of degree of genetic relatedness between individuals in a group, as described by Dawkins and presumably as enumerated by W.D. Hamilton, shows by implication the minimum number of relatives necessary to sacrifice oneself for in a genetically sustainable way.  For example, since siblings and children share half their genes with a given individual, in order for altruism towards them to be good for the continued survival of one’s genes the altruistic act has to have a benefit for at least two of them that equals or exceeds the loss incurred by the individual. […]

  3. DS Says:

    I suppose the now-countless examples of “miscegenation”, both socially accepted an not, throughout human history are all merely glitches in the binary? Stop using science to justify acting like animals. Despite being a highly dubious notion, even if there is such a “racist/ethnic” tribalist gene, it is certainly is only one of many contradictory ones flowing within our coding – WE STILL HAVE THE WILL TO CHOOSE. I’m sure there might be a gene somewhere telling me to konk a woman over the head and drag her back to my cave and rape her, but I’ve squashed it out quite thoroughly if that’s the case. Have you?

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