One of the great nonfiction books of the 20th Century is Pierre L. van den Berghe's The Ethnic Phenomenon of 1981, which showed how much of the conflict in the world is explainable in terms of "ethnic nepotism," a concept based on W.D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection.
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.
As a sociologist, van den Berghe was not particularly concerned about whether co-ethnics were actually related to each other or whether they simply believed they are and thus behaved like they would expect relatives to behave toward each other.
With many nature-nurture questions like this, agnosticism about ultimate causes is often wisest. Without in-depth adoption and twin studies, it is very, very hard to disentangle whether a trait is inherited racially from your biological parents or ethnically from your social parents (since both kinds of parents are typically the same). For many practical and political questions, the more relevant issue is whether this racial and/or ethnic tendency is likely to stay roughly the same for a considerable number of years into the future.
Nonetheless, it's interesting to see if genetic relatedness among members of a racial group is strong enough to trigger the kin altruism that we see in smaller extended families. Frank Salter took the lead in researching this back in the 1990s.
Now, J.P. Rushton writes:
A paper showing a strong genetic contribution to patriotism and in-group loyalty was published in the October issue of Nations and Nationalism, entitled "Ethnic nationalism, evolutionary psychology, and genetic similarity theory."
[Based on Salter's analysis of Cavalli-Sforza's genetic data,] co-ethnics are as similar to each other as half-siblings when compared to all the genetic variation in the world. Two-random English people are the equivalent of 1/32 cousin by comparison with Germans; 3/8 cousin by comparison with people from the Near East; ½ cousin by comparison with people from India; half-siblings by comparison with people from China; and like full-sibs compared with people from Africa.
This is driven by in-breeding, which is routinely overlooked when discussing Hamilton's famous theory. Hamilton agreed with van den Berghe, but Hamilton's more outspoken colleagues such as Richard Dawkins have frequently pooh-poohed the idea of ethnic nepotism without coming to grips with the implications of in-breeding. Rushton writes:
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins (1976) argued that the mathematics of kin selection soon made coefficients of relatedness, even between kin, vanishingly small. One example he offered was that Queen Elizabeth II, while a direct descendant of William the Conqueror (1066), is unlikely to share a single one of her ancestor’s genes... [In reality, however,] Elizabeth II is considerably more genetically similar to William the Conqueror than she is to an average person alive today.
Rushton continues in his summary:
The pull of genetic similarity was also found to be fine-tuned, operating within marriages, within friendships, and among acquaintances--and even within families following bereavement.
Studies of adoptees and also of identical and fraternal twins show the preferences for similarity is substantially heritable.
"Likeness leads to liking," said the study's author, J. Philippe Rushton, professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. "People have a need to identify and be with others like themselves ('their own kind'). It is a powerful force in human affairs."
Rushton anchored the human preference for similarity in the evolutionary psychology of altruism, which suggests that favoritism toward kin and similar others evolved to help replicate shared genes. In-group loyalty is almost always seen as a virtue and extension of family loyalty. This explains why ethnic remarks are so easily taken as "fighting words."
The paper described the group-identification processes as innate--part of the evolved machinery of the human mind. Even very young children make in-group/out-group distinctions about race and ethnicity in the absence of social learning.
"Other than through evolution it is difficult to explain why people group themselves and others using social categories and why these categories assume such powerful emotional and evaluative overtones (including guilt, empathy, self-esteem, relief at securing a group identity, and distress at losing it)."
The politics of ethnic identity are increasingly replacing the politics of class as the major threat to the stability of nations.
Although social scientists and historians have been quick to condemn the extent to which political leaders or would-be leaders have been able to manipulate ethnic identity, the question they never ask, let alone attempt to answer is, "Why is it always so easy?"
The answer lies in the fact that the aggregate of genes people share with their fellow ethnics dwarfs those they share with their extended families. Rather than being a mere poor relation of family nepotism, ethnic nepotism is virtually a proxy for it.
Now, I haven't seen the paper. So, here are a few ill-informed caveats:
- Enthusiasts for this idea, such as mathematical geneticist Henry Harpending (whose conversion to the idea of ethnic nepotism being a genetically driven phenomenon a few years ago provided some of the recent impetus), have a tendency to slightly over-estimate the relatedness levels for a technical reason I'll skip over here.
- Another issue is how genes for this kind of racial altruism could evolve. While not simple, I don't think this is an insuperable problem. It's easy to imagine tendencies evolving like "Feel more altruistic and trusting toward people who speak the same language as you." Or "Be more trusting of people you grew up around, and of people who grew up around the people you grew up around, and so forth." This can create a long chain of cousins and other relatives.
- As the success of infant adoption shows, humans don't seem to have built-in fool-proof mechanisms for identifying genetic kin. What we seem to have built-in are rules of thumb like, if you grew up in the same home as her, don't be attracted to her because she's probably your sister. Or if you grew up with him, feel altruistic toward him because he's probably your brother. It's hardly impossible to hypothesize broader built in rules of thumb, like trust people you can talk to more than people you can't talk to because you don't share a common language.
- Finally, it's crucial to keep in mind that nepotism has its flip side. You can call it "sibling rivalry" or, as one of my readers suggested: "neposchism." While we feel more altruistically toward people more related to us genetically, they also are often our greatest rivals for resources, such as inheritances. Thus, we are more likely to go to war with our racial neighbors, but we are also more likely to team up with them.