Here's an email of mine from 1999 on an important topic, perhaps the most overlooked fundamental for understaniding how the world works:
I've noticed that a lot of smart people like Richard Dawkins and Gregory Cochran assume that while Pierre L. van den Berghe's theory of ethnic nepotism --which extends W.D. Hamilton's kin selection theory to the more distant kin of one's ethnic group (see "The Ethnic Phenomenon," 1981) -- may work as a mathematical theory, it can't possibly work in reality. For example, Dawkins wrote, "kin selection theory in no way provides a basis for understanding ethnocentrism" … although under Frank X. Miele's questioning he backed down somewhat from such a dogmatic assertion:
Miele in Skeptic: How do you evaluate the work of Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, J.P. Rushton, and Pierre van den Berghe, all of whom have argued that kin selection theory does help explain nationalism and patriotism?
Dawkins: One could invoke a kind "misfiring" of kin selection if you wanted to in such cases. Misfirings are common enough in evolution. For example, when a cuckoo host feeds a baby cuckoo, that is a misfiring of behavior which is naturally selected to be towards the host's own young…
Skeptic: 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 programmable?
Dawkins: I think that's possible.
Hamilton demonstrated in 1964 that people are nepotistic because their kin share some of their selfish genes. E.g., from your genes' perspective, your life is worth two of your brothers' or eight of your cousins'. It's widely assumed that kin selection applies only to close kin, but of course it also applies to 32 second cousins or 128 3rd cousins, etc. These are increasingly tenuous relationships, but don't forget that you have a lot more 3rd cousins than first cousins.
In fact, if your relations have more kids than the replacement rate, you'll have, in aggregate, more of your polymorphic selfish genes in your second cousins than in your first cousins, and more in your third cousins than your second cousins, etc
Skeptics, however, question whether in reality (1) individuals actually behave nepotistically toward distantly related individuals; and (2) how individuals could actually help large numbers of distant kin.
(1) Altruism toward distantly related individuals. The evolutionary biology community tends to forget how important wide-spread extended families still are to most people in the world today because we're so strikingly Anglo-American. For example, many of the historically-important scientists in contemporary evolutionary biology have the kind of anonymous-sounding WASP names you might pick for your alias if you were on the run from the law: Bill Hamilton, Ed Wilson, Dick Dawkins, George Williams, John Smith.
Darwinism is the child of the British empirical tradition (both Bacons, Hume, Smith, Malthus, etc.), and neo-Darwinism remains highly Anglo-American. Individuals living in the Common Law countries have long enjoyed the rare luxury of not having to keep up with their distant relations because in a tight spot they could count on some form of equal justice under law, and thus not have to rely on, say, their tong or mafia family to protect them.
Nonetheless, altruism toward distant relations still happens.
A reader writes: "... if a long lost sibling appeared at your door, you would probably open your house to him. A 2nd cousin ... maybe a meal ... Anything beyond .. probably tell him "it's a bad time to call." ...
Let's take this example. When I lived in LA, not infrequently 3rd and even 4th cousins that I had never seen before in my life, and who didn't even speak English, would show up at my family's door. We'd immediately invite them in, feed them, give them the spare bedroom for a few days, and take them to Disneyland the next day.
Why were we altruistic to them? Did I have a mysterious capability of recognizing the 1/128th of my polymorphic genes that were floating around in 3rd Cousin Dieter from Zurich?
Of course not. What happened was that Dieter had mentioned to his first cousin Claude in Geneva (my second cousin) that he wanted to go to Disneyland some day (this was before EuroDisney). Claude called his first cousin Bruce in Seattle (who is my first cousin), and my first cousin Bruce called me to tell me that his cousin Claude's cousin Dieter was coming to American and could I take him to Disneyland?
So, I helped Dieter to be nice to my first cousin Bruce, who had called me to be nice to his to his first cousin Claude, who had called Bruce to be nice to his first cousin Dieter.
Ethnic nepotism frequently is operationalized by these chains of close relatives interacting altruistically.
Visiting Disneyland is a trivial example but these kin of kin of kin of kin chains were exactly how many immigrants got their first foothold in America: they showed up on the doorsteps in Chicago or wherever of fairly distant kin clutching letters of introduction from intermediate kin. These distant relations helped the immigrants find a place to live nearby and a job. That's a big reason why immigrant groups in America have been so geographically clustered. This physical concentration of members of one ethnic group in turn generates more ethnic nepotism. With a critical mass of population in one neighborhood, they can have their own church, sports teams, political representatives, and the like. This ethnic social structure in turn encourages inmarriage within the ethnic group.
Gregory Cochran asks: "Historically, how have single individuals been able to affect the fate of whole ethnic groups? Or, more generally, of a large number of people many of whom are distant relatives?"
The short answer is through politics -- through banding with other members of one's ethnic group to achieve ends that will help the ethnic group as a whole.
In some situations ethnic nepotism is a more rational response to a problem than close-kin nepotism. For example, say you are a well-to-do Ruritanian-American (you can insert the names of whatever real ethnic groups you like here). At Thanksgiving dinner your aunt tells you that -- back in the Old Country -- her great-niece's cousin Yuli has been unjustly thrown in jail by the police, who are dominated by the Old Country's other ethnic group, the Lower Slobbovians.
Another relative of yours jumps in to say that he heard from his uncle in the Old Country that his wife's neice's son has been beat up by the Lower Slobbovian police for merely demonstrating for Ruritanian autonomy.
Somebody else says that he heard that a pretty young girl in his distant family was subject to unwanted attentions by the Slobbovian police -- "You know, Slobbovians have . . . strong urges, and can't control themselves around our beautiful Ruritanian maidens."
You are disturbed by these reports, and the next day you talk to some old friends, whom you first met way back at a summer camp run by the Ruritanian Orthodox Church or at the Ruritanian language lessons you took after school. They heard similar stories around their Thanksgiving tables of Ruritanians being abused by Slobbovian security forces. "What can we do?" you ask.
Good question. Engaging in altruism just toward your close kin might help (e.g., trying to get one of your great-nieces out of Ruritania to America), but that's a drop in the bucket. Anyway, should Ruritanians flee their homeland? If you start a trend, it might give the Slobbovians the idea that they can drive all Ruritanians, including the rest of your relatively close kin, out of the Old Country. Far more of your close kin than just your great-niece is in danger, and your close kin are in danger not because they are close relations of you, but because they are members of your ethnic group.
No, your close kin need the same solution as all your distant kin in the Ruritanian ethnic group: a political settlement that will protect Ruritanian civil rights.
The only way to get that is for all Ruritanians, both in the Old Country and in America to set aside petty squabbles between Ruritanian families, and work together for Ruritanian rights. Thus, Ruritanian-Americans must for action committees, petition their Congressmen, raise big bucks for the Ruritanian-American PAC to give to candidates, persuade Christine Amanpour to tell the world about the sufferings of the Ruritanian peoples, raise funds for the Ruritanian Liberation Army, persuade Clinton and Blair to do some humanitarian bombing, who knows? The sky's the limit, as long as us Ruritanians stick together.
In summary, it's hard to read two pages of a newspaper without coming across ethnic nepotism in action. You may find it morally admirable or offensive, but you can't do anything about it without first understanding its pervasiveness.