[Paleopsych] Pierre van den Berghe reviews Frank Salter's book On Genetic Interests
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Sun May 15 00:49:33 UTC 2005
Pierre van den Berghe reviews Frank Salter's book _On Genetic Interests_
(Peter Lang, 2003, 388 pp. £23.00). in _Nations and Nationalism_
2005 vol. 11 (1), 163-165.
This is the kind of book which social scientists should read if they ever hope
to become literate about human biology and its implications for our social
behaviour. For many, if not most social scientists, human sociobiology (or
evolutionary psychology, or behavioural ecology, or ethology, or whatever label
you want to give to the biology of behaviour) is simply anathema, on both
theoretical and ideological grounds. However, increasing minorities of
anthropologists, psychologists, economists, political scientists and
sociologists are beginning to absorb the social implications of human evolution
and genetics. All ideological trends, by the way, are represented among these
Salter's book is divided into three parts. First, he expands W. D. Hamilton's
'inclusive kinship' theory to ethnies. Then he draws the policy implications of
ethnic nepotism. Finally, he concludes with the ethics thereof. No summary can
do justice to a work so rich and novel in content, but let me try.
In the first 75 pages, Salter essentially extends Hamiltonian kin selection
from family to ethny, as I suggested should be done a quarter of a century ago.
But he goes an important step beyond my simple formulation of ethnic nepotism
as an extended and attenuated form of family nepotism. Salter persuasively
argues that one should not only take into account genes shared by common
descent, as in the classical Hamiltonian coefficient of relatedness, but all
shared genes, whether by common descent or not, as in R. A. Fisher's
coefficient of kinship. According to H. Harpending's calculations, the average
coefficient of kinship in many ethnies that have practiced a large degree of
endogamy for generations (the very definition of an ethny) is about as high as
between half-siblings, aunt and nephew, or grand-parent and grand-child. Thus,
ethnic nepotism is not a weak form of family nepotism, but virtually a proxy
for it. I was even more right than I knew! Furthermore, as we have many more
co-ethnics than relatives, the aggregate mass of genes shared with the former
dwarfs that shared with the latter.
The liberal, 'multicultural' counter to this is that, since all humans share
something like 99.9 per cent of their genes with one another, we are all
virtually identical twins under the skin, and should extend our fraternal
embrace to humanity as a whole. We are also over 98 per cent chimp, by the way.
Relatedness is always relative to others with whom we compete for scarce
resources. Therefore, it is those extra shared genes within the family or ethny
which increase our fitness compared to our less related competitors, and which
make us uniquely different from them. Vive la différence is the royal road to
inclusive fitness maximisation. Show me a society where parents routinely think
their neighbours' children are 99.9 per cent as good as their own, and allocate
their bounty according to this fine principle. A few tried (Hutterites,
Kibbutzim) but failed.
The second and much longer part of the book (some 190 pages) applies this model
of ethnic nepotism to policies or strategies of allocation of resources within
and between states and ethnies controlling territories with finite carrying
capacities. It is impossible to summarise adequately the countless implications
of this model to immigration policies, citizenship law, affirmative action,
multiculturalism, etc., except to say that Salter sees the universalisation of
the genuine nation-state, i.e. the mono-ethnic one, as the best 'stable
evolutionary strategy' for our species.
Finally, Salter concludes with a shorter section (some 40 pages) on ethics. If
we consider it eminently moral for parents to care preferentially for their
children so long as they do not harm their neighbours' offspring, why should we
stigmatise preference for our own ethnic kind who are, after all, extended kin?
He thus advocates an ethic of 'adaptive utilitarianism' in which 'the ultimate
form of liberty is the freedom to defend one's genetic interests' (p. 283),
restrained only by the equal right of others to do likewise, and a prohibition
to harm others.
No doubt, Salter's position will raise many accusations of fascism or racism,
but let me state here that he is not at all the conventional reactionary! He
advocates a liberal, democratic nation-state; he is acutely aware of the
problem of elite parasitism; he expresses horror at the orgies of genocide and
war provoked by nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; he is
very critical of globalisation, which he sees as another form of elite
parasitism. However, his position also coincides with that of the conventional
right in opposing open immigration, multiculturalism, affirmative action and
other sacred cows of the politically correct left.
As a sociobiologist who is also a political anarchist, I applaud Salter's
extension of inclusive fitness to ethnic nepotism, because it helps us
understand so much of human affairs; but I am sceptical of his faith in the
liberal ethnic state. Salter, to be sure, is well aware of its openness to
elite parasitism, but he is nevertheless overly sanguine about its prospects.
First, his assumption that the nation-state has an affinity for liberal
democracy is contradicted by much historical evidence. Nation-states have come
in all political colours, from genocidal fascism, to 'Herrenvolk democracy', to
parliamentary, bourgeois democracy, to murderous communism. The nineteenth and
twentieth centuries the Golden Age of nation-states have been graveyards of
lethal industrialised warfare and routinised genocides. As for elite
parasitism, it is not simply a danger to which 'liberal democracies' are
exposed: it is the very essence of any state. States are essentially killing
machines run by the few to steal from the many. I, for one, do not mourn the
current passing of the nation-state, nor the devolution of many of its powers.
The track record of the past two centuries does not deserve its eulogy.
Finally, there is the question Salter raises early in the book (pp. 7785): do
contemporary humans living in urbanised mass societies care about their
fitness, and do they continue to behave accordingly? The answer he gives is, I
think, correct: yes, but less so than they did when humans lived in their
environment of evolutionary adaptation, the savannas of Pleistocene Africa. The
real question thus becomes: how much less? I believe our species has recently
(in the last century) taken a maladaptive leap by subverting proximate means of
fitness maximisation to serve purely hedonistic rather than evolutionary ends.
This is blatantly the case with sexual behaviour, which has been almost
entirely de-coupled from reproduction. (To be sure, much like Bonobo chimps, we
have long been 'copulatorily redundant', and exchanged sex for food,
protection, investment in offspring, companionship and fun, but not in the
rational, fail-safe way made possible by modern technology.) The current
epidemics of obesity and drug addictions are other symptoms of this run-away
hedonism rooted in biological predispositions that were once adaptive, but have
become acutely maladaptive.
How long can this go on? Probably not very long, but who cares, compared to the
instant rewards of hedonism? Perhaps we are simply too smart for our own good.
Perhaps, as a by-product of our encephalisation which brought acutely painful
self-consciousness and modern bio-technology, we no longer want to play our
genes' game of reproducing themselves. In a pique of supreme biological hubris,
we proclaim ourselves more important than the sum of our genes. The future
demise of our entire species pales by comparison with our own individual
demise. Après moi le déluge.
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