January 20, 2007

Ethnic Nepotism

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.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I haven't done the math, because I don't know how to, but I'd think that the problem with your Ruritanian example is that each Ruritanian's efforts don't amount to much, while their efforts cost them something noticeable, so each individual would be better off to try to free ride on everybody else - unless they have a way to punish free-riders, of course. Has anybody done the math?

Back when we lived in small bands/tribes, this wouldn't have been true. Your impact would be noticeable if you were one of, say, 50 able bodied men in your tribe. Maybe we have some leftover altruistic behavior from that era that's now applied to overly large groups. I don't have time to look for a citation right now, but I've read that people from primitive societies tend to display more altruistic behavior; in an experiment where you get $10, offer whatever proportion you like to a "partner" that you can't see, and he either takes the offer or cancels the whole thing, so nobody gets anything, I've read that primitive people make more generous offers.

Steve Sailer said...

"So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, they will be a little people, a silly people." -- Lawrence of Arabia.

Clearly, groups do have ways to punish free-riders -- e.g., hanging military deserters and mutineers, imprisoning draft dodgers, ostracising the anti-social, etc., along with ways to reward the pro-social. Groups that are good at punishing and rewarding tend to grow at the expense of groups that are not.

tggp said...

Hey, Steve, I thought you were only adopted by the Swiss family Sailer. Were your birth parents related to your adoptive ones?

One problem I notice is that in order to come up with a situation in which you can benefit lots of distantly related people you use a large scale modern political example, and then in order to avoid free-riding you bring back small scale hunter-gatherer times. It seems to me that the two conflict and that the larger the numbers of people and the more distant the relation the less important you personally are with regards to their fate.

Anonymous said...

Hey, speaking of Richard Dawkins, did anyone see the recent South Park episode where Cartman woke up 500 years in the future (Buck Rogers style) and everyone was a Dawkins-revering atheist? That was funny.


Anonymous said...

Steve: I've just read the Dawkins interview you've linked to. So this is what leftism does to your brain -- even when it's a very gifted, high-quality brain. He's constantly undercutting himself (though he uses academic style of neutral, calm reasoning to cover it up), and he doesn't even fully notice it, or just brushes it off because to think the alternative is too painful -- and yet despise the religious.

Alex said...

The Dawkins episode of South Park was incredible. "Death to the table eaters!"

Wikipedia dutifully recorded his repsonse:


"Finally, I have repeatedly been asked what I think of South Park and of Ted Haggard’s downfall. I won’t say much about either. Schadenfreude is not an appealing emotion so, on Haggard, I’ll say only that if it wasn’t for people of his religious persuasion, people of his sexual persuasion would be free to do what they like without shame and without fear of exposure. I share neither his religious nor his sexual persuasion (that’s an understatement), and I’m buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite [sic]. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there was a serious point in there I couldn’t discern it.* And then there’s the matter of the accent they gave me. Now, if only I could be offered a cameo role in The Simpsons, I could show that actor how to do a real British accent.**"

(*the point was that tribes, wheter human or otter, kill each other even without religion; but possibly more crudely without.)

(**not bothering to correctly portray celebrity voices is a SP house style)

Also, notice that "sic"--that's the ever conscientious Wikipedia correcting for Dawkins' mistake: the character with whom he has amorious relations is a man-turned-woman through sex change op, not a transvestite. And the act is presented merely as an especially primal episode of intimacy, nothing more specific. That it was buggery is an irrational assumption Dawkins has made without empirical evidence.

meep said...

I wonder if you have thoughts on nepotism not based on genetic bases (such as extended family or the even larger family of ethnicity) to that based on social groups (fraternity, school, church, online community). This often has to do with shared experiences or ideas, and has a very tenuous connection to any genetic affinity.

I'm not denying ethnic nepotism, it's just that I've seen affinity group nepotism far more often in my life. And now in this age of Myspace and Facebook, online social networking seems to have an ever-stronger effect.

Viv said...

Steve, that's two pieces from 1999 served up in one week. Are you running short of new material or could you just not be bothered to re-work them?

I mentioned in an earlier thread that I won't believe in the theory of kin selection until I can make sense of it. I'm still none the wiser.

For any Darwinist sceptics out there (probably the major fault line in Steve's readership) I recommend David Stove's book, Darwinian Fairytales.

Obama Bin Laden said...

There's something very powerful about "Oh, aren't you just the spitting image of Uncle Hebert," or "You laugh just like Grandma used to."

Scorsese has dedicated himself to chronicling some of the old American ethnic history and attitudes in his films, mainly with the Italians and the Irish. (Maybe because he likes Irish girls?)

I'm pretty sure Steve has discussed this before, but there's some class component to all this. The English sure were conscious of their ethnicity back when they were surrounded by Indians and Irish. The way history tends to work, their affluence and security will run out some day and they'll be left with - relatives.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for that info about Dawkins's response to the South Park episode.

Viv: Sailer quite prolific, so I don't hold it against him when he posts older material -- especially when it's something as astute as his Lesbians-versus-Gays piece from the '90's. Like they used to say on NBC-TV, "if you haven't seen it, it's new to you."

Dave P.

Anonymous said...

Factual correction: your third cousin's first cousin is also your third cousin (barring weird inbreeding that makes him an in-law), not your second cousin. Third cousin = shared great-great-grandfather. His first cousin shares the same grandfather as him, so you still have to go back to g-g-g to find his common ancestor with you. Thus, "cousin of my cousin" linkage doesn't work out.

Your cousin's cousins on the other side aren't your second cousins; they're nothing to you. Apparently that's who you were putting up in your house, though.


Anonymous said...

SS wrote: "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."

Gee, your family must be fairly recent arrivals. No way would I have a fourth cousin who doesn't speak English, but then we all have those Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-Norman in my case) surnames that one might adopt if one were on the lam.

And that brings up a question: how much of our limited awareness of our extended kin is a luxury provided by an effective and usually impartial legal system, and how much--in America--is the result of our having left most of our relatives behind when we came over here (especially those of us whose ancestors arrived when travel was more difficult, dangerous, and relatively more costly)? We got here and had no choice but to get into the habit of seeking help when necessary from friends and neighbors, or even casual acquaintances (explaining why Americans make superficial friends so easily), because we had no relatives around. Of course, if Putnam is right, that is going to change in the future. We'll probably retreat into familism.

And speaking of ethnic nepotism vs. the real nepotism of familism, I suppose this is as good a place as any to raise a question about Frank Salter's genetic argument for "universal nationalism" in _On Genetic Interests_. Does not Salter's reasoning also point to familism as a genetic preference over nationalism? After all, it seems to me that mating outside one's circle of relatively close kin hurts one's relative genetic interests just as severely as mating outside one's ethny. Is this correct, or have I missed something?

Okay, one more: on ethnic jokes, the jokes about poles, or blondes, or aggies in Texas always seemed rather pointless since none of these people are less bright than the general population. Most ethnic jokes play on stereotypes with at least a grain of truth behind them. For example, it would make more sense to apply those "Polish" jokes to, say, African Americans. If one did, would that make the jokes funnier, or would people's mouths gape open as all the blood quickly drained from their horrified faces? And if the latter reaction, why? Why would people react differently in that case than they would upon hearing urbanites apply such jokes to rural bumpkins, or northerners to southerners?

rob said...

Steve,you don't explain why Anglo-Saxon laws and political systems have supplanted nepotism and clan loyalty.Unless you do so, your argument seems a circular one.Was there some genetic or environmental factor that forced us to find a substitute for the more intense kin co-operation found within other ethnic groups?

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: Anti-black jokes were once quite common, and indeed a whole sector of the entertainment world was built on them (minstrel shows). Ethnic humor in general seems to have been driven underground; I hardly ever hear Polish jokes anymore, and when I do they are treated as fossilized chestnuts rather than new or daring.
As for Dawkins's quote: "I’ll say only that if it wasn’t for people of his religious persuasion, people of his sexual persuasion would be free to do what they like without shame and without fear of exposure.": This shows a shocking ignorance of worldwide attitudes to homosexuality. Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens (and one can say a lot), I don't think he ever would have said anything that stupid. If Dawkins were not such a hater of God, his naivete would be almost endearing.

Anonymous said...

rob said:
Steve,you don't explain why Anglo-Saxon laws and political systems have supplanted nepotism and clan loyalty.Unless you do so, your argument seems a circular one.Was there some genetic or environmental factor that forced us to find a substitute for the more intense kin co-operation found within other ethnic groups?

I believe that in the Middle Ages that the church prohibited marriage between cousins who were more closely related to each other than fourth cousins. This had the effect of breaking up tribal structures. As a result the probability distribution of kinship distances between two random people who lived in the same area was more uniform and less 'clumpy'. Clan loyalty becomes less of a factor when persons outside the clan are just as much one's kin as persons in the clan.

I believe I read that in one of Kevin MacDonald's pieces, here:
. Kevin MacDonald throws up a lot of ideas. Some are not worth discussing; others may have some value.

Desmond Jones said...

Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man:

As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual
that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the
members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This
point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and

Darwin appears to suggest altruism to co-ethnics is evolved. However, he also logically reasons that once that sentiment is acquired, and is re-enforced through public opinion, it will extend to all sentient beings. If outgroup sympathy to co-ethnics enhances reproductive fitness, then how does this evolved sympathy or humanity enhance survival once it is extended to other tribes and races?

Pat said...

Kevin MacDonald throws up a lot of ideas. Some are not worth discussing...

Which would those be? Just stirring.

charlietrink said...

food for thought:

Anonymous said...

The hypothetical "Ruritanians" example, in regard to political action, was a metaphor for Jews. Give the example a second look.

If anyone doubts that extended relations aka ethnic groups band together to act for the interests of their own, one need merely look all the propaganda pushing the USA into World War II, or into supporting Israel today; that was and is definitely coming from an extended ethnic group! To the poster who set at odds "ethnic groups" and "affinity groups," take a closer look at the people who compose whichever "affinity group" you're looking at; either most of them will be the same ethnicity, or the driving leaders and pace-setters (as opposed to the passive followers) will be.

James Kabala said...

It's interesting how ingrained the prejudice marrying in your kin group has become. Last week's episode of the sitcom "30 Rock" featured a woman who fell for the seemingly perfect man, only to discover they were distantly related. Before they sat down and calculated exactly how they were related, the man said he would willing to continue the relationship if they were no closer than fifth cousins, citing Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as a precedent; the woman, however, said that any kinship at all would make her queasy. As she was leaving, he said "I think we're third cousins;" her reply was "See you at the reunion."
This prejudice is something I heartily share, but I recognize how atypical it is historically; score another one for the Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

Pat said...
Kevin MacDonald throws up a lot of ideas. Some are not worth discussing...

Which would those be? Just stirring.

If you google "culture of critique", it appears KMD took the title of his book from an essay by Deborah Tannen. In the essay, she laments that academia has become about winning arguments rather than finding the truth. She notes that academics who do this make use of selective evidence. They only use evidence which fits their hypothesis and ignore evidence that doesn't. So it is a little ironic to watch KMD only say negative things about Jews in his book "Culture of Critique". He only focuses on the negative and is uninterested in exculpatory evidence.

One big piece of exculpatory evidence in relation to charges of Jewish hostility for their support for third world immigration is that Israel, the Jewish homeland, has multi-ethnic third world immigration. Israel now has about 100,000 Ethiopian Jews. Their IQ is too low to fit into Israeli society. Jewish support for third world immigration into the US should not be looked at as malicious, but rather delusional given that the Israelis allow third world immigration into their own country.

RJ said...

James Kabala said:
"...the woman, however, said that any kinship at all would make her queasy."

Then she can't get married at all, because if you trace it back far enough, everyone is your cousin.

Your dog is your millionth cousin, and the chicken you ate for dinner was your billionth cousin. And the microbes attacking your body are your trillionth cousins.

RJ said...

Anonynous said:

"The hypothetical Ruritanians example, in regard to political action, was a metaphor for Jews. Give the example a second look."

I thought the Ruritanians vs Lower Slobovians were inspired by Albanians vs Serbs, but I guess it could apply to Jews, too. Or Armenians. Or the Irish. Or any ethnic group that brings its old-country conflicts to the U.S.

Anonymous said...

james kabala wrote:

As she was leaving, he said "I think we're third cousins;" her reply was "See you at the reunion."
This prejudice is something I heartily share, but I recognize how atypical it is historically; score another one for the Catholic Church.[end quote]

Not hardly! First, the original prohibition only extended to the 7th degree--equal to second cousin once removed. The Greek pagans generally forbade or strongly discouraged mating between 2nd cousins (6th degree) or closer, and that is where the Church got the prohibition. It was inherited from Hellenism (obviously not from Judaism!). 8th degree/3rd cousin was fine for marriage, but there was disagreement for some time in the early centuries about the 7th degree relations, until finally it was decided to prohibit it. (However, bishops could and sometimes did make exceptions even for first cousins.)

Later, in the West, the Germanic tribes, following their conversion, re-interpreted 7th degree as 7th cousin, a considerable expansion of the original prohibition.

*However*, that was not the source of today's stigma, which far exceeds what is found even in traditionally RC countries. In fact, evangelical Prots generally threw the old "extra-biblical" rules overboard and used the OT as their guidebook on permissible marriages.

Then came Darwin and Galton and the eugenics movement. The state of genetic science was considerably more primitive then, with Mendel's discoveries being little known.

(Related to this, the other commenter mentioned Darwin's appeal to "simple reason" to justify his personal preference for extending kin-like sympathies to all humanity, although he never explains his reasoning. Darwin, who was very much the "bleeding heart" type, was unaware of Mendel's discoveries, and no one had remotely conceived during Darwin's lifetime of inclusive fitness. Thus Darwin's observation is rooted in his liberal, humanitarian sympathies rather than in his biological discoveries, which were unconnected to Mendel's then obscure discoveries until the "Neo-Darwinian synthesis" of Darwin's theory of natural & sexual selection and Mendel's theory of genes in the 1920's.)

But returning from my digression, the growing fear of dysgenics during the "progressive" era, combined with very limited knowledge of genetics, led to an exaggerated fear of inbreeding. It was during that era that all those laws against marrying your cousin were passed, which are still on the books (and still enforced) in many of the United States. That's how Americans developed their uniquely exaggerated stigma toward marrying even rather distant relatives. Religion had nothing to do with it.

As an aside, I never cease to be amazed by the number of things that get blamed on Christianity with no factual basis, and this happens on both the left and the farther reaches of the right. (And by no means is this one of the more egregious examples. At least blaming Americans' super-aversion to cousin marriages on Catholicism is a somewhat logical, if ill-informed, leap.)

James Kabala said...

Yes, rj and anonymous, I am aware that:
a) The Church's prohibitions only extend to "the third degree of cousinship" (as it was called in the old Baltimore Catechism, although anonymous is right that this is more accurately called the eighth degree)
b) That everyone is related to everyone else.
In fact, those were my first two thoughts when I actually saw the episode, but I don't hold TV sitcoms to the same standard as non-fiction books.

RJ said...

By the way, does anyone know why the Church (and the Greeks) wanted to prohibit cousin marriage? Were they motivated by eugenics, or was there another reason?

albatross said...

Were cousin marriages uncommon in England historically? I thought they were pretty common. Which seems like a problem with the explanation of English respect for law being based on prohibition of cousin marriage.

Perhaps England came up with a really good way of making law, and a good history of respecting it. Then, culture evolved around the idea that you could count more and more on law, with the result that nepotism was no longer so valuable.