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January 23, 2005

Ethnic Genetic Interests

I said I would return to the subject of Frank Salter‘s book On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethny and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration (Frankfurt, 2003). [Note 1]

The key idea of the book is that every individual has a genetic interest in copies of his own ‘distinctive genes’ (Salter‘s phrase). Such copies are found not only in the close relatives of the individual, but in the wider population to which he belongs. As a result of genetic drift and different selective pressures, different gene variants (alleles) are found with different frequencies in different populations. Individuals in the same population are therefore more likely to share copies of the same alleles than those in different populations. This increased probability of sharing the same alleles can be quantified by a coefficient of ethnic kinship. Taking any two populations, given the frequency of a given allele in the two populations, we can calculate the higher probability that an individual will share that allele with another individual in the same population, as compared with the probability given by its mean frequency in the two populations. Averaging this higher probability over all genes and alleles, we get an average coefficient of kinship within the group. We can also calculate the negative kinship between individuals in the different populations, which reflects the lower probability that they will share an allele as compared with the probability given by its mean frequency in the two populations. In an Appendix to the book Henry Harpending shows that the kinship within a population can be measured by FST, the usual measure of genetic distance between populations. With the aid of the coefficient of ethnic kinship we can further calculate an individual’s aggregate ethnic genetic interest in a group to which he belongs as contrasted with another group. This is done simply by multiplying the number of individuals in the group by the appropriate coefficient. (Presumably we can also calculate the aggregate negative interest of an individual with respect to the other group, but I don’t recall that Salter discusses this explicitly.)

It is important to realise that ethnic kinship is relative to the populations chosen for comparison. The same individual will have many different coefficients of ethnic kinship, e.g. if the individual is English we could consider the comparisons English v. Danish; English v. French; English v. African; English v. Nigerian; Western European v. Chinese; and so on. But we could also go to a lower level of analysis and consider South English v. North English; London v. Nottingham; etc. The size of the coefficient of kinship will reflect the geographical distance between the populations, the length of time since they shared a common group of ancestors, their degree of inbreeding, and the amount of gene flow between them. Between two populations chosen globally at random, FST is on average around 15%, but between groups that are geographically and historically close, such as English and Danes, it is smaller, while for distant groups it is larger; for example, between North Chinese and Africans it is nearly 20%. The coefficient that is relevant therefore depends on the context. For Salter, the context is primarily that of policy-making on issues such as immigration.

So where does this all lead? Why is ‘genetic interest’ important, and what follows from it? Well, Salter argues for ’the importance of genetic continuity as an end in itself (p.24)…the process of genetic evolution is certainly the ultimate cause of our existence (p.25)… From an evolutionary perspective…genetic continuity is the ultimate interest of all life, since it has priority over other interests (p.26)… The ultimate interest is reproduction, the goal towards which all life is shaped through natural selection. Adaptive information carried in genes is transmitted between generations, and is therefore an ultimate interest (p.341)…’ So, according to Salter, genetic interests are very important. In fact, more important, or at least more ’ultimate’, and therefore deserving ‘priority’, than any others. But Salter believes that most of us are unaware of our full genetic interests, and in particular our ethnic interests: ’changed environments have effectively blinded us to large stores of our genetic interests, or to put it more accurately, for the first time situated us where we need to perceive those interests and be motivated to pursue them (p.31)… ethnic genetic interests are usually very large [in aggregate] compared to familial genetic interests (p.66)’. Salter’s book is aimed at bringing these neglected ethnic genetic interests to our attention and exploring their implications for social and political issues such as immigration, birth rates, and inter-ethnic marriage (which I discussed here).

It is essential to understand that Salter is not presenting a biological theory of how people have evolved, how they will evolve in future, or why they behave in the way they do. [Note 2] As Salter puts it himself: ’the present work is not primarily a theory of human behavior, but of interests. Rather than being a work of explanation, this is mainly an exercise in political theory dealing with what people are able to do if they want to behave adaptively (p.85)… my main goal in this chapter is not to describe how people actually behave. Rather, I explore how individuals would behave if they were attempting to preserve their genetic interests (p.257)’. Some of these remarks might suggest that Salter is merely setting out an option that people may wish to follow or not, according to their own values, but it can hardly be doubted that Salter himself positively advocates the pursuit of ethnic genetic interests, principally through the control of immigration. The use of such terms as ’adaptive’, ‘fitness’, and ’ultimate interests’ could in principle have a neutral biological sense, but in practice Salter uses them with an evaluative force: he regards the policies he discusses not just as possible but desirable. Otherwise why say that we ’need to perceive’ our genetic interests and ’be motivated to pursue them’? From time to time he overtly uses the mode of recommendation rather than mere analysis, for example, ’Multiculturalism and other versions of ethnic pluralism... are types of ethnic regime that majorities should certainly avoid (p.188)… Since genetic interests are the most fundamental, liberals [sic] should support social policies that take these vital interests into account (p.250)’. And some of the language and comparisons Salter uses are strongly emotive: ’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 his taking the same risk to rescue one of his own children from drowning’ (p.67)…It is parents’ duty to care for their children. Do we have a similar duty to nurture our ethnies?… when ethnic competition is high, as is the case in competition between members of different races, failure to show ethnic loyalty is the genetic equivalent of betraying a child or a grandchild’ (p302-3)’.

So that’s the theory, in brief outline. What do I think of it? My short view is that, as Bentham famously said of ’natural rights’, the whole idea of ’ethnic genetic interests’ is nonsense on stilts. While reading Salter’s book I kept getting vague reminiscences of something else, but it took me a while to pin down what it was: General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, with his paranoid ramblings about our Precious Bodily Fluids.

But vulgar abuse is no substitute for reasoned argument (or vice versa), so here are some more considered criticisms:

I will begin with a conceptual, quasi-philosophical objection.

As Salter himself recognises, he is using the word ‘interest’ in an unfamiliar and controversial sense. In its primary, everyday sense, we use the word to designate the wants and needs of individual sentient beings (usually humans, but sometimes other animals). These may be either subjective wants (such as a desire for food or sex) or objective needs, such as survival, but in general we value the latter only as preconditions for the former. Survival is usually in our interest, but not if we are in constant pain, or being kept alive as a senseless vegetable.

Our desires have a biological foundation. In most cases they contribute in obvious ways to survival and/or reproduction, and it is easy to see that the desire may have evolved by natural selection as a motive to action. (I’m ignoring the mind-body problem here!) In other cases, such as the desire to listen to music, the biological value, if any, is less obvious. Clearly many of our desires are affected by our experience and culture. For example, there may well be a biological basis for hoarding and collecting, but it is hardly likely that there is a specific biological motive for collecting stamps or cigarette cards. It is also probable that some of our modern desires and values are biologically maladaptive, but this doesn’t make them any the less valid as personal motives. Different desires and interests may conflict with each other, in which case we have to decide between them, based on their relative strength, persistence, etc., and our experience of previous choices and outcomes. I don’t see any basis for assuming that we should choose the interest that is biologically most ‘adaptive‘, in the sense of maximising reproductive fitness. Most women, and many men, have a desire to reproduce, but if they do not, it is strictly their business, and it would be preposterous to tell them that it is in their ‘interest’ to do so if they don‘t want to.

In a metaphorical sense we often extend the concept of interests to entities other than individual sentient beings. For example we might talk about the interests of a corporation or a nation. But these interests are usually derivative, in the sense that they can be reduced to the average or aggregate interests of individuals. More doubtfully, we can extend the concept of interest to entities such as genes or molecules, and say that it is in their ’interest’ to survive or reproduce. This is a risky straining of terminology. It can have some advantages for brevity and vividness of expression, but it also runs the risk of confusing things that ought to be distinguished.

Salter’s concept of 'genetic interests' is an attempt to base individual interests on the metaphorical 'interest' of genes. I am unable to attach any intelligible meaning to most of what he says about it. No doubt he is right to say that 'the process of genetic evolution is certainly the ultimate cause of our existence', but to leap from this (which is a statement of fact) to the claim that 'genetic continuity is the ultimate interest of all life' seems to me mere gibberish. 'Life' doesn’t have an 'interest', any more than water has an 'interest' in flowing downhill. And even if 'life' or 'genes' did have an 'interest', so what? Why should we as individuals put the interest of our genes before our personal wants and needs, or even give it any weight at all? Salter does recognise the 'so what?' objection, but his answer to it is just the same old flapdoodle about genes as 'fundamental' to our existence. Ultimately, Salter's attitude towards the genes is more mystical than scientific.

Of course it is possible to define ‘interest’ in such a way that it is in our ’interest’ to maximise the number of copies of our genes, but one must then be careful not to draw any inferences which depend on the customary sense of the word, with its connotations of desirability. Whenever a theorist adopts a radical new definition of some word with favourable connotations, such as ’good’, ‘justice’, ‘liberty’, or ‘truth’, it is usually a sign that he wants to sell you some snake-oil.

For whatever reasons, some individuals do feel a desire to promote their own ethnic group. For those individuals, their ‘ethnic genetic interest’ is a genuine personal interest, just as much as a desire to listen to Mahler or to eat toffee. To anyone who doesn’t feel the same desire, it is just as uncompelling. Personally, given a choice between (A) a society of people genetically similar to me who share my own set of values, (B) a society of people genetically different to me who share my own set of values, and (C) a society of people genetically similar to me who adopt a set of values that I find repulsive, I would mildly prefer (A) to (B), but I would strongly prefer (B) to (C). But I don‘t see any basis for telling other people what their preferences should be.

I was going to go on to consider some more technical objections, but this post is already long, so I will save them for another post. I will conclude now with two objections of a more ‘political’ character.

First, much of Salter’s book is concerned with immigration, and especially immigration from third-world countries to the West. In my view there are sound arguments against large-scale, uncontrolled immigration from the third-world, not least the danger of civil strife resulting from the presence of large unassimilated groups holding values and beliefs incompatible with those of the host society. But it would be unwise for people who object to uncontrolled immigration on these grounds to latch onto Salter’s ideas. Whatever Salter’s own motives, his theory is being taken up enthusiastically by racists (as a Google search will confirm), and anyone who follows their lead will be tainted by association. Since even by Salter’s own account his theory is not a scientific thesis, but more of a political manifesto, there can be no compelling reason for non-racists to accept it.

Secondly, Salter’s doctrine is profoundly anti-eugenic. For Salter, it is in the interest of an individual to preserve and promote the gene frequencies of his own ethnic group, whether the existing gene frequency is good, bad or indifferent, as judged by qualitative criteria. So, for example, it is in the interest of American blacks to promote their own gene frequencies against those of American whites, even if in some respects it would be better for blacks themselves to change those gene frequencies. The doctrine of genetic interests is inherently backward-looking and conservative. In contrast, the eugenic position is that we are able to make value judgements about what characteristics are desirable (such as health, intelligence, and beauty) and undesirable (such as stupidity, mental illness, and physical disabilities) and then to take reproductive decisions based on those judgements. Of course eugenics is controversial, but many of those who might feel vaguely sympathetic to Salter’s approach would also feel vaguely sympathetic to eugenics, and they should at least be aware of the conflict between them.

Note 1: Salter uses the new word ‘ethny’ for a ‘population sharing common descent’, in preference to ‘ethnic group‘. The word seems to me ugly and unnecessary, so I will continue to use ’ethnic group’. If it is really necessary to use a single word, I would prefer ’ethnos’ (plural ’ethnoi’), the original Greek word for a tribe or nation.

Note 2: Although Salter frequently refers to W. D. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness, he does not claim that this explains interactions between distant ethnic groups: ’From the point of view of Hamiltonian theory, the adaptiveness of altruism is dependent on local, not global, circumstances (p.149). As I argued here, any attempt to apply Hamilton’s Rule to interactions between distant ethnic groups would be invalid.

Related posts:
Ethnic Genetic Interests: Part 2
Interracial Marriage: Salter's fallacy
Limits to Hamiltons Rule
Dawkins on Kin Selection
On Genetic Interests
Dissin' Dawkins
Green Beard and Ethnic Nepotism

Posted by David B at 02:42 AM