How both left and right are naturalising ‘racial feelings’

In this extract from his new book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, Kenan Malik says twenty-first century sociobiologists have turned divisive identity politics into a natural feature of the human condition.

Kenan Malik

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Back in the 1970s, one of the charges against sociobiology was that it ‘made group conflict seem inevitable’.

By the 1990s, group conflict did seem to many people to be inevitable. In a fragmented, tribal world, in which ethnic and cultural conflict appeared to be the norm, universal Darwinism became less a threat to liberal values than a reassuring explanation for a world that traditional political and social scientific theories found difficult to comprehend.

Whereas in the nineteenth century Darwinists insisted on the biology of race, in the twenty-first century sociobiologists speak instead of the evolution of racism. They seek to explain the roots, not so much of racial differences, as of racial feelings. And as they do so, they have helped transform cultural diversity – and identity politics – into a natural feature of the human condition.

Sociobiologists argue that there exists a natural tendency among humans to create in-groups and out-groups, to favour members of your own group and to be hostile towards members of other groups. There have been many theories as to why and how this happens but most rely on two principal mechanisms: kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

Both ideas have developed over the past half-century to explain a long-standing conundrum for Darwinism: how can altruistic behaviour arise in the natural world when genes are, in Richard Dawkins’ phrase, inherently ‘selfish’? According to Darwin’s theory, nature selects for traits beneficial to the individual. Individuals that survive and reproduce better – those that are, in Darwinian terms, more ‘fit’ – pass on their genes, and hence some of their physical and behavioural traits, to the next generation. The genes and traits of less able individuals are less likely to be passed on. By definition, altruism – an act whereby you help another at some expense to yourself – reduces your genetic fitness while increasing another’s. How could such a trait have evolved?

Kin selection rests on the insight that it makes evolutionary sense for an individual to be altruistic towards a blood relative because close relatives, unlike strangers, share copies of many of the genes you possess. By helping a relative, even at some cost to yourself, you increase the possibility of these common genes surviving into the next generation. The closer the relative, the higher the proportion of common genes, and the greater the sacrifice that makes evolutionary sense. As the biologist JBS Haldane once jokingly put it, he would lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins.

What about altruism towards non-relatives? Such altruism might evolve in situations in which the altruistic individual can be certain that his generosity will be reciprocated. More than 30 years ago, the American biologist Robert Trivers showed that such reciprocal altruism could arise through natural selection in communities in which individual organisms possess three things: the opportunity to interact often with other individuals, so that they can gauge each other’s characters; the capacity to keep track of how others have behaved; and the cognitive skill to help those, and only those, who reciprocate your favours – in other words to help only those who play by the rules. Many social animals, Trivers pointed out, particularly primates, and most especially humans, possess these requirements.

Kin selection and reciprocal altruism describe how evolution might select for altruistic behaviour. But there is also a darker side to these evolutionary mechanisms. They favour the emergence of altruistic behaviour towards members of closely-knit groups bounded by common genes or reciprocal promises but wariness, even hostility, towards those who do not belong. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism generate, in other words, both group solidarity and group conflict, both altruism and self-sacrifice towards one’s own people and selfishness and antagonism towards others.

Pierre van den Berghe, a sociobiologist who was among the first to view racism as an evolved trait, calls this process ‘ethnic nepotism’. An ethnic group is like a family, not just because its members share some characteristic genes derived from common descent, but because psychologically group members perceive this common descent and feel and act like a family. There are, Berghe suggests, no clear boundaries between nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe, ethnic group, nation and race. Racism and ethnocentrism are just extended forms of love of kin.

More recently, Frank Salter, an Australian political ethologist based at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has extended this argument in a controversial way in On Genetic Interests. Since the wider population to which an individual belongs (which Salter calls an ‘ethny’) is akin to an extended family, so every individual has a ‘genetic interest’ in copies of his own ‘distinctive genes’ that are to be found not only among close relatives but within the ethny, too. Given that we have many more fellow ethnics than we have relatives, ethnies are repositories of far more copies of each of an individual’s genes than is his family. So, for Salter, ethnies have a greater claim than even his immediate family to an individual’s loyalty.

Salter argues for ‘the importance of genetic continuity as an end in itself’. From an ‘evolutionary perspective’, he suggests, ‘genetic continuity is the ultimate interest of all life, since it has priority over other interests’. Genetic continuity appears to mean the preservation of the ethny’s gene pool. A shrinking ethny, for Salter, is like a family whose members are dying off – both conditions represent a loss of genetic interests. ‘Failure to show ethnic loyalty’, he claims, ‘is the genetic equivalent to betraying a child or a grandchild’. For Salter, ethnocentrism is adaptive because it helps preserve genetic continuity.

He has tried to buttress his argument with empirical evidence showing that people prefer their own kind, and discriminate against outsiders, especially when distributing resources. Individuals, he believes, are more likely to give blood, support charities, volunteer for community work and pay high levels of taxes if they know members of their own ethnic group will benefit. ‘Ethnic diversity’, he concludes, ‘seems to inhibit public altruism’.

Salter’s most controversial arguments emerge from his use of the theory of genetic interests to make a case against immigration and mixed marriage. Both, he suggests, undermine genetic continuity and diminish genetic interest. In a particularly inflammatory passage he argues: ‘It would appear to be more adaptive for an Englishman to risk life or property resisting the immigration of two Bantu immigrants to England than taking the same risk to rescue one of his own children from drowning.’ Immigration, for Salter, is not just a genetic problem but a political one, too. Because people are more generous to their own kind than to others, so immigration undermines the welfare state.

‘From an evolutionary perspective’, he argues, ‘welfare systems should be easier to develop and maintain in ethnically homogenous societies than in more heterogeneous ones; mono-ethnic welfare states should be more generous than multi-ethnic ones.’

Evolutionary theory, Salter believes, poses a major threat to the left because ‘the liberal left supports generous welfare but also policies that add to ethnic heterogeneity, such as high levels of immigration. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they must choose between maximising the two.’ The ideal liberal state, he suggests, would not be a multicultural society – a recipe for conflict and illiberalism – but an ethnically homogenous one. In an ethnically homogenous society, there would be minimum conflict over resources, maximum extension of welfare provisions and greatest scope for the establishment of liberal institutions…

Salter’s arguments have, unsurprisingly been championed by the right and by anti-immigration polemicists. But the liberal left, too, is wrestling with contemporary conflicts between diversity and solidarity, immigration and the welfare state. In his influential and much talked-about essay ‘Too Diverse?’, David Goodhart, the liberal editor of the British magazine Prospect, made a case for restricting immigration and the extent of social diversity. Goodhart wrote his essay before being aware of Salter’s arguments. Yet there are common echoes.

‘The diversity, individualism and mobility that characterises developed economies – especially in the era of globalisation – mean that more of our lives is spent among strangers’, Goodhart argued. This is a particular problem because ‘in a developed country like Britain… we not only live among stranger citizens, but we must share with them’. In such a society we need to rethink ‘a question as old as human society itself: who is my brother? With whom do I share mutual obligation?’ The ‘traditional, conservative, Burkean view is that our affinities ripple out from our families and localities, to the nation and not very far beyond’. Against this is pitted a liberal universalist view ‘which sees us in some sense as equally obligated to all human beings – an idea associated with the universalist aspects of Christianity and Islam, with Kantian universalism and with left-wing internationalism’.

While Goodhart suggests that science ‘is neutral in this dispute’, in fact he believes that it provides greatest comfort to the Burkean vision. While evolutionary psychology ‘stresses… the universality of most human traits’, it also stresses ‘the instinct to favour one’s own… through the notion of kin selection and reciprocal altruism’.

Goodhart presents evidence to show that ‘sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity’. This creates an ‘especially acute dilemma for progressives who want plenty of both solidarity – high social cohesion and generous welfare paid out of a progressive tax system – and diversity – equal respect for a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life.’ Goodhart concludes that ‘a generous welfare state is not compatible with open borders and possibly not even with US-style mass immigration’.

The echoes that reverberate between Goodhart’s and Salter’s arguments are not because Goodhart has accepted Salter’s unsavoury claims about the dangers of miscegenation or the need for a ethnically homogenous society. Rather they reveal the ways in which contemporary anxieties about diversity can be reformulated into different political idioms. In part this is because diversity has today become so ambiguous, indeed incoherent, in its meaning that both sides in the debate can simultaneously be for and against it.

Critics of diversity view ethnocentrism, and hence the tendency to diversity, as a universal, and often see it as adaptive. Proponents of diversity wish to limit the corrosive character of diversity in the name of cultural authenticity. Pierre van de Berghe describes Salter’s On Genetic Interests as a riposte to the ‘liberal multicultural’ view that ‘we should extend our fraternal embrace to humanity as a whole’. A liberal multiculturalist like Bhikhu Parekh, on the other hand, excoriates liberalism for its abstract universalism and its failure to attend to difference. On the one side, the failures of multiculturalism reveal the limits of universalism. On the other the limits of universalism reveal the need for a multicultural sensibility. Both cannot be right. In fact neither is. Each reflects the incoherent ways in which we talk these days both of universalism and of diversity.

Frank Salter worries about the consequence of diversity on social cohesion and genetic continuity, a view echoed by some sections of the liberal left. But Salter’s is also vision of a world composed of a patchwork of racially and culturally distinct groups, each preserving its own particular authentic brand of genes and lifestyle. Liberal multiculturalists are hostile to Salter’s argument for the creation of ethnically homogenous states, yet they too envision the world as a patchwork of peoples and cultures, each deserving of respect for its uniqueness. Multiculturalists, as we have seen, link culture and biological descent. So do Salter and his supporters. Preserving one’s biological heritage, they argue, is necessary to preserve one’s cultural heritage. An essay on Salter’s work in the far-right magazine American Renaissance puts this very well:

‘It is both in the cultural and broad genetic sense that a person’s ethny can be said to deserve even greater loyalty than his family, whenever the ethny is threatened. If a man’s family is wiped [sic] it is a great personal tragedy. However, if his whole tribe disappears, it takes with it far more copies of his genes than he could ever produce as children. It also takes with it the culture and folkways that make his ethny what it is. In this sense cultural and ethnic extinction is infinitely more terrible than one’s own death or the death of one’s family.’

Diversity has become the bridge between the cultural and the biological and between the liberal left and the reactionary right. Because we now view diversity as a good in itself, so cultural diversity and biological diversity are seen as on a par. In an essay for the New York Times, the developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi argued that one of the reason ‘race matters’ is that ‘it gives us reason… to value and protect some of the world’s most obscure and marginalised people’.

Armand referred to an article in the Times of India published shortly after the terrible tsunami of 2004 that devastated the lands around the Indian Ocean. Headlined ‘Tsunami May Have Rendered Threatened Tribes Extinct’, the article bemoaned the fate of the Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese and Sentinelese, all tribal groups living on the Andaman Islands, and who numbered some 400 people in all. Since several of the islands were low-lying and in the direct path of the wave, so casualties were expected to be high. ‘Some beads may have just gone missing from the Emerald Necklace of India’, wrote the Times colourfully.

Why, in a catastrophe that cost more than 150,000 lives, should the survival of a few hundred tribal people have any special claim on our attention? Partly because, Leroi argued, ‘The people of the Andamans have a unique way of life’. As hunter-gatherers they are ‘a rarity in the modern world’. Linguists, too, find them interesting ‘since they collectively speak three languages seemingly unrelated to any others’. And most importantly, Leroi suggested, because the islanders are racially unique. As the Times of India put it, they are of ‘Negrito racial stocks’, the ‘remnants of the oldest human populations of Asia and Australia’.

It may seem old-fashioned, even Victorian, Leroi observed, to talk of ‘Negrito racial stocks’ but it is also biologically ‘correct’. Negrito is ‘the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia’ and who are ‘very small, very dark… have peppercorn hair’ and ‘look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo’s jungles’. In fact they are the descendants of the first group of migrants to have come out of Africa along the coastal route to Asia. Today they are largely confined to the Malay Peninsula, a few islands in the Philippines and the Andamans. Negrito populations, Leroi warned ‘are so small, isolated and impoverished that it seems certain that they will eventually disappear’. And when they do ‘the unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct and the human species will be the poorer for it.’

Leroi’s biological argument is nonsense. Populations are not fixed and sealed. Genes flow in and out of every population. The Negrito population today is different genetically from what it would have been a thousand or 10,000 years ago. Nor is it distinct because it possesses unique genes. Apart from in rare circumstances, particular gene variants (or alleles) are not confined to any one population. What makes a population different is simply that the proportions of different genes are unique to it. Thirty per cent of population A has gene X, as compared to 50 per cent of population B. Seventy per cent of population A has gene Y, as compared to 40 per cent of population B. And so on. Preserving the Negritos as a race would simply mean preserving a particular combination of alleles each at a particular proportion. Why this would make the world a better place, Leroi does not say.

If Negritos disappear it will not be because they have been made extinct by some sort of Holocaust. It will be because they have intermarried with members of other populations, or moved away from the land of their birth. Why should this be seen as a disaster? Only because we have developed a Romantic view of human authenticity in which beauty is beheld as the pickling in genetic aspic of populations whose diversity can be displayed to the world in an ethnic zoo. And such a view has been developed primarily not by race realists but by anti-racists and cultural relativists.

Race realists are simply holding on to the coat-tails of anti-racists, refashioning the idea of race in the language of diversity. This is why Frank Salter’s work feels so much more acceptable than that of racial scientists such as JP Rushton and Kevin MacDonald (with both of whom he has considerable intellectual affinity). Rushton’s tripartite racial division of the world, and his hierarchy of intelligence and moral worth, appears repulsive in the post-Holocaust world. MacDonald’s vision of Jewishness as an evolutionary strategy and anti-Semitism as a rational response to Jewish success appears scarcely more acceptable. Frank Salter’s work, however, touches a number of hot political buttons that connect with liberal concerns. The universality of difference; respect for other peoples, but preference for one’s own; race, ethnicity and culture as the roots of personal identity; the conflict between the inevitability of tribalism and the desire for cohesion; the dilemmas of liberalism in the post-ideological world – all these issues, which are at the heart of Salter’s work, have also come to shape contemporary political debate.

Despite the reactionary smell of many of Salter’s arguments, his defence of genetic diversity and ethnic identity, and his call both for the preservation of ethnic differences and for the strengthening of ethnic solidarity, strike a chord in our ever-more Romantic world.

In many ways, the real problem with Salter’s argument lies less in those aspects that many sociobiologists find politically embarrassing than in those aspects that he shares with the wider debate on the evolution of ethnocentrism – and, indeed, with the wider debate on the politics of identity. It is his failure to attend to history. The expression of group differences is, in Salter’s eyes, and in the eyes of most sociobiologists, an ever-present, unchanging phenomenon rooted in the human condition. It is a view that tends to distort the interpretation of the empirical data.

Consider, for instance, a famous study of Moscow beggars conducted by Salter and the Russian physical anthropologist Marina Butovskaya. Most of the beggars were Russian, just like the vast majority of passers-by. Some were Moldovan and few were Roma. The researchers found that Russians preferred to give money to their fellow Russians, were less generous with the Moldovans, and were downright miserly with the Roma. Evidence, Salter suggests, for the naturalness of ethnocentrism. The treatment of the different beggars illustrates how we prefer to share resources with members of the same ethnic group and reveals why in policy terms a generous welfare state is incompatible with high degrees of immigration.

In fact the study simply shows what we already knew: that Russians today tend to be nationalistic and despise the Roma. Beyond that it says nothing about why they are nationalistic or why they despise the Roma. It may be, as Salter assumes, that innate ethnocentrism leads Russians to favour Russian beggars and discriminate against Romany ones. It may also be that the age-old practice of discrimination against the Roma has led many Russians to despise them and hence to ignore their begging.

Group formation is a fluid process and often has little to do with ethnic relatedness. Take the suggestion that Americans are reluctant to fund a more generous welfare system because most of the tax revenue would come from whites and most of the benefits would go to blacks and Hispanics. What constitutes ‘white’ has, however, changed dramatically over the past century. At the beginning of the twentieth century most of those who now constitute white America – Irish, Poles, Italians, and so on – were viewed as being of a darker shade of pale. Only over the past half-century have they joined the white community. Similarly, half a century ago, most white Britons probably thought of Afro-Caribbean immigrants as ‘Not One of Us’. Today most treat Afro-Caribbeans settled in Britain as fellow-countrymen but look upon East European migrants, who in Salter’s terms are ethnically closer, as free loaders and welfare scroungers.

The history of race, as I argue my new book, reveals the mutability of the ways in which we understand ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. Consider, for instance, the infamous ‘Governor Eyre’ incident of 1865. In October of that year a local rising by Jamaican peasantry was put down by the island’s governor, Edward John Eyre, with the utmost ferocity. Eyre’s actions created much debate in England. Many of those who defended his actions did so on the grounds that black peasants were like English workers and required similar treatment. ‘The negro’, the writer Edwin Hood observed, ‘is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child’.

Sometimes commentators went so far as to refer to English workers as ‘negroes’. The Daily Telegraph, on hearing reports that the pro-independence Jamaica Committee was planning a counter-rally at a banquet in Eyre’s honour in Southampton, was moved to comment that ‘there are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is a proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party’. As historian Douglas Lorrimer observes, ‘the Daily Telegraph’s “negroes” were… the very English and very white Southampton mob who thronged the streets outside the banquet hall, while their more respectable working-class colleagues attended the largest popular meeting in the city’s history to protest against the official reception given to Governor Eyre’.

The Southampton incident reveals well the view of the mid-Victorian elite that blacks and English workers belonged to the same tribe. It also demonstrates that, even as late as the 1860s, there remained considerable working-class sympathy for the plight of blacks in the colonies. Indeed, English workers identified so strongly with black slaves, with whom they possessed a political but no racial connection, that during the American Civil War, when the Union blockade of the South starved the Lancashire mills of cotton and left hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed and facing starvation, most nevertheless continued to support the campaign for black emancipation.

On 31 December 1862, Manchester workers held a rally in the city’s Free Trade Hall in support of the fight against slavery. Abraham Lincoln was moved to pen a letter to ‘the working people of Manchester’. ‘I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis’, he wrote on 19 January 1863. ‘Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.’ The support that English workers gave to black Americans was, as Lincoln himself recognised, an act of altruism that required far greater personal sacrifice than paying taxes or giving to charity but was nevertheless determined by class rather than by ethnic interests…

In 2007, the American sociologist Robert Putnam published the finding of a huge research project on the impact of diversity. Putnam and his colleagues interviewed 30,000 people in 41 communities across America. The more diverse a community, the less socially engaged were its members – they voted less, did less community work, gave less to charity, and had fewer friends and spent more time watching television.

Many took this as providing yet more evidence for the Salter/Goodhart argument that ethnic diversity inhibits public altruism because people favour their own kind, and that welfare systems are easier to maintain in more homogenous societies. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that while he has some reservations about Putnam’s data, nevertheless it ‘does provide some backing for Goodhart’s view’. Putnam himself held off from publishing the data for nearly five fears because of its potentially explosive political message. The implications of the data are, however, far from straightforward.

The study showed that in more diverse communities people are more distrustful not just of members of other ethnic groups but of their own, too. It is not the case, then, that people are less altruistic in diverse society because they are drawn towards their own. Diversity, Putnam writes, ‘seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down” – that is, to pull in like a turtle.’

Whatever the political meaning of Putnam’s research – and the debate is only just beginning – it provides little evidence for the claim that there is necessarily a trade-off between immigration and welfare because of an evolved preference to favour one’s own ethnic group. One interpretation of the data may be that diversity weakens social engagement because the narrowing of politics has changed the nature of social affiliation. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who am I?’

It may be that, in a more diverse community, people feel less able than they were even in the recent past to reach out and create social bonds, not because of an evolved desire to be with one’s own kind, but because a historical transformation of politics has also transformed our understanding of what solidarity entails.

Whatever the conceptual problems with the sociobiological view of ethnocentrism, nevertheless, it makes considerable political sense. ‘The political utility of the idea of difference’, Marek Kohn observes, ‘suggests that there might be widespread demand in the contemporary world for scientific theories of ethnocentrism, just as there was a requirement in the colonial era for theories of racial hierarchy’. This is not to suggest that science is just a social construction, buffeted hither and thither by the winds of political fashion. Rather it is to argue that political tendencies often shape the interpretation of scientific data. Just as in the nineteenth century the seeming impossibility of viewing the world except through racial eyes shaped the character of racial science, so today the seeming inevitability of group conflict has created the space for theories of innate ethnocentricity.

A more fragmented, balkanised world gives credibility to the Darwinian idea that ethnocentrism is innate and universal. At the same time, biological theories of in-group and out-group formation transform the contemporary search for identity into an inevitable aspect of human condition.

Kenan Malik is author of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, from which the above essay is an extract.

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, by Kenan Malik is published by Oneworld Publications. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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