By: Steve Sailer
October 3, 2004
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 there.)
You may not have ever heard of ethnic nepotism before. That’s largely because the most media savvy-explicators of Darwinism—such as 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 discussion.
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 people.”
Ethnocentrism, clannishness, xenophobia, nationalism, 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.)
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 among biologists.
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 perplexed 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.
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).
“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.”
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 autobiographical Narrow 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 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.