The Evolution of Racial Differences in Morality

Michael Levin, American Renaissance, April 1995

Readers of AR will be aware of the well-documented race differences in intelligence and temperament. The mean black score on valid IQ tests is 85, while the white mean is 100 (and some Asian groups outscore whites). Black children adopted into upper-middle class white families fail to attain IQs much above 85, which implicates genes as the cause of this difference. Twin studies and cross-cultural comparisons implicate genes in the greater levels of impulsiveness and aggression also found in blacks.

A less frequently noted point is that these psychological differences suggest race differences in morality. Part of the difference may be due simply to different levels of intelligence. The mean IQ of incarcerated felons is about 90, and Lawrence Kohlberg’s extensive research on children found that IQ is correlated with moral development. It should not be surprising that mental ability is linked to moral character, since the latter requires grasping rules and thinking through the consequences of one’s actions.

However, different levels of intelligence are not likely to be the sole cause of racial differences in morality. Data reported in The Bell Curve (and noted in the February issue of AR) show that black and white populations differ in crime and illegitimacy rates even when IQ is held constant. Thus, in one large-scale study, blacks in general were 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, but when the comparison was restricted to blacks and whites with IQs of 100, blacks were still 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated.

Temperament therefore appears to have an effect on behavior that is independent of intelligence. This is intuitively obvious, as aggression easily becomes heedlessness of the rights of others; we should therefore expect black and white standards of behavior to differ.

Examples of this difference abound. “Trash talk,” the stream of arrogant banter with which black basketball players seek to intimidate and humiliate opponents, is alien to white ideals of sportsmanship. Likewise, Montel Williams, the host of a television talk show, claimed to have discovered racial bias in a question on an IQ test that asked children what they would do if they threw a baseball through a neighbor’s window. The answer scored as correct was offering to pay for the window, but Mr. Williams, who is black, objected that in his old neighborhood a “Sorry, man” would have sufficed. No doubt, Mr. Williams was right that blacks do attach less urgency than whites to compensating damage.

Numerous fights among blacks result from “dissing”-males seeking dominance over each other by shows of disrespect—a practice that indicates disregard for the golden rule. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the golden rule than the constant demand for royalties by Martin Luther King’s estate whenever his speeches are published—especially when his own plagiarism is justified as “voice merging.”

What Morality Is

Evolutionary biology suggests an explanation for race differences in moral values. But first, to begin with a definition: An individual’s “morality” is the rules he wants everyone to follow, and that he wants everyone to want everyone to follow. Honesty is a moral value for him if he tries to be honest, tries to make his children honest, hopes others will be honest, and encourages others to reinforce honesty. A group’s morality is the moral rules its members share.

The clause about “wanting everyone to want everyone” is needed to distinguish moral questions, like honesty, from other “universal” concerns. If you are like most people, you think others ought to be honest. But you may also think everyone should exercise, without considering exercise a “moral” value. The difference between the two is not in their usefulness, since both are useful: jogging is healthful, and honesty facilitates such profitable activities as trade. But honesty, unlike exercise, is advantageous only if everyone else is honest. Jogging strengthens my heart whether or not you jog, whereas being honest helps me only insofar as it induces others to reciprocate, allowing me to rely on their words. This is also why it is smart to be honest even when tempted to lie—if you are found out, others will feel no obligation to be honest with you.

On the other hand, if everyone else is a liar, honesty only lets others take advantage of you. Therefore, since honesty, self-restraint, and other moral virtues are good ideas only when everyone thinks they are good ideas, you not only want everyone else to be honest, you want everyone to encourage others to be honest, and to ensure that honesty is widespread.

The advantages of honesty and other virtues have a biological dimension. Since moral individuals in a moral community do better than scoundrels, they live longer and have more children. Obeying and reinforcing moral rules is adaptive. If there is any genetic tendency to obey and reinforce moral rules, a tendency to obey and reinforce them and to be susceptible to reinforcement will be passed on to offspring.

However, selection for morality need not have been uniform, since honesty, cooperation, and the other virtues need not have been equally important in all environments. Cooperativeness (like intelligence) was probably more adaptive in the colder, harsher, Eurasian environment in which whites and Asians evolved than in sub-Saharan Africa. Food grows year-round in a warm climate. There is little danger of freezing to death, so it is not necessary to work together to build large shelters. Sexual patterns are also influenced by environment: Since a woman abandoned by her mate has a better chance of supporting herself and her children in a benign environment, there is less pressure on women to evolve a demand for male fidelity, or for males to evolve a strong sense of attachment.

The situation was otherwise in Eurasia, where large game was a dietary staple. Bringing down a cornered mastodon takes cooperation, with each man in his assigned position, ready to respond to shouted instructions. There must be jointly acceptable rules for dividing the kill. And, since females depend on male hunters for their own survival and that of their children, an advantage would accrue to females who chose mates likely to support them for a lifetime. Sexual selection would then mold males more inclined to satisfy the female demand for fidelity.

Environment does not consist merely of natural factors like climate. Since morality is advantageous only when others are moral, a major determinant of the fitness of an individual’s “gene for morality” is the character of those with whom he interacts. As Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton put it in their classic study, “The Evolution of Cooperation” (Science 1981), “there is no single best strategy regardless of the behavior of others in the population.” In fact, seemingly irrational levels of mistrust can become locked into a group. Suppose a mild physical environment has selected for weak cooperative tendencies. A worsening of the environment might make greater cooperation in everyone’s interest, but not necessarily more fitness-enhancing, for any honest, helpful mutants who appear will simply be exploited until they die without issue. It is perfectly rational to be indifferent to others when they are indifferent to you.

In short, observed race differences in honesty, sexual self-restraint, and cooperativeness may be due to the fact that these traits did not have the same evolutionary value in Africa that they did in Eurasia. Indeed, since universality and reciprocity are built into the very concept of morals, it is incorrect to talk of “different moralities.” It is more accurate to say that individuals of Eurasian descent tend to be more moral than individuals of African descent.


Nobody can go back in time to verify whether the races really developed in the way outlined. Still, the hypothesis sketched above is plausible enough, and it may be useful to note some of its implications.

1) Black behavior that is unacceptable by white standards—theft, drug use, preoccupation with sex—is not “sick.” It is how traits that were once adaptive in Africa express themselves in Western urban society. This may be part of the reason blacks seem not to experience white laws and standards of personal responsibility as binding, and why black spokesmen are so curiously unapologetic about black crime. They will caution black males that crime is “stupid” (i.e. apt to lead to punishment), and a Jesse Jackson may denounce black-on-black crime as harmful to blacks, but they do not say that crime, particularly black-on-white crime, is intrinsically bad.

In one remarkable incident, Edmund Perry, a Harlem teenager recruited on full scholarship to the prestigious boarding school of Exeter, was killed a few weeks after graduation when he attempted to mug a plainclothes policeman. Angry demonstrations ensued, in which blacks complained of Perry’s alienation at Exeter. Far from expressing regret over Perry’s actions, blacks blamed white society for them. In fact, the difficulties blacks experience in conforming to American society cannot really be blamed on black attitudes or white norms, but on the mismatch between the two.

2) Black children cannot be expected to respond as white children do to externally imposed white socialization. If the races evolved different values, black and white children will be receptive to different sorts of training and exhortation, a point with important practical consequences. It is often suggested, for instance, that black children would do better in school if told, as white and Asian children are, that school is important. But black children will not care about grades and the esteem of teachers, no matter how much they are told to, if valuing knowledge is a more weakly evolved norm among blacks. Since black societies never evolved formal education, it would make no sense for black children to be ready to internalize praise of education.

3) Violence will skyrocket when a group acquires a killing technology it did not develop. Groups that have invented such things as firearms without killing themselves off must also have developed sufficient inhibitions about using them. Groups that acquire weapons from outside sources are less likely to have evolved the same level of self-restraint, just as groups that do not discover fermentation are unlikely to develop a tolerance for alcohol, and often fall prey to drinking problems when alcohol is introduced from outside. Blacks may have been unprepared for access to the firearms developed in Western society.

Consider the remarkable increase in gunshot homicides among black men in the last half-century. In 1943 there were 44 handgun homicides in New York City; in 1992, 1,500 black males died of gunshot wounds inflicted by other black males. Since 92 percent of the 2,200 murders recorded in New York that year were committed by blacks, black males must have also killed several hundred non-blacks with firearms as well. The parallel increase in gunshot homicides nationally over the same period is essentially an increase among blacks.

Now, the sheer availability of guns does not automatically mean murder. Guns have been available for centuries to the whites who invented and manufacture them. Every adult male Swiss citizen owns a gun, yet the annual homicide rate in Switzerland is one two-hundredth that of Washington, D.C. or Harlem. The immediate cause of the rise in homicide has been the sudden availability of guns to blacks, who seem ready to resort to firearms in disputes that whites would regard as trivial. (Gunfights over calls in pick-up basketball games are not uncommon in New York City.) It may well be that blacks lack the restraints that would have evolved during the march to the invention of firearms—a possibility that should be considered in any discussion of gun control. If the “gun problem” is really the problem of black access to firearms, forbidding whites to have guns is pointless and unjust.

4) Moral signals may become confused when divergent groups interact. To explain the point with a crude example, suppose that blacks, being less empathetic than whites, must use stronger signals to rouse each others’ solicitude. It takes angry shouting to get another black to notice an injury that a white can be induced to attend to by less strident means. Likewise, a white will take an angry shout as expressing a more serious injury. If these signal patterns have themselves become innate in the two populations, whites will interpret the signals of blacks as if they were coming from other whites, and consistently overestimate the seriousness of injuries claimed by blacks.

The tendency of whites to interpret the angrier manner of blacks as if blacks were other whites leads whites to respond to black complaints with inappropriate generosity, thereby reinforcing black anger by teaching blacks that anger is rewarded. The result is intensified demands and further white confusion—a dynamic that may explain the puzzling phenomenon of white guilt, and the indulgence of many whites toward even the most unreasonable black demands.

Neither Is Better

The idea that blacks and whites evolved different systems of values says nothing about which values are “better,” and each group can be expected to think its values best.

Whites will continue to consider blacks “irresponsible” and blacks will, more openly, continue to call whites “up tight.” But the practical decisions of life require the adoption of some standards, and a group can use only those standards evolution has given it.

What by white standards is a black deficiency in morality—defined as conformity to the golden rule—explains the persistent unwillingness of the races to associate with each other. People almost by definition prefer the company of those who share their values, so it is no wonder that whites feel more comfortable with whites. Indeed, while blacks—even including Malcolm X—prefer to send their children to white schools and to use the other amenities of white society, blacks nevertheless prefer the company of blacks. The conventional idea is that these preferences are entirely due to “prejudice” that can and should be extirpated by education (i.e. propaganda). But if preference for one’s own kind is due to deep-seated differences in values, there seems nothing wrong with it, and there certainly seems no reason for it to be illegal.

Moreover, from their own point of view, whites are right to prefer their own company. By white standards, adherence to the golden rule and norms associated with it are the chief criteria of personal merit. Since blacks are on average less likely than whites to adhere to the golden rule—less cooperative, more aggressive, less respectful of property and persons—the average black is, by white standards, not as good a person as the average white. This is perhaps the least politically correct statement it is possible to make, but it is true and must be made. And, put in non-racial terms, it is one that even liberal egalitarians would assent to. Even they would admit to preferring the company of people who are less apt to steal, kill, lie, cheat, and shout them down in a debate.

It is possible to argue on purely philosophical grounds that people should be able to associate with whomever they please. This right, after all, can be enjoyed by everyone, and is itself in conformity with the golden rule. And this right, which implies that whites can “discriminate” in favor of other whites in housing, employment, and the schools to which they send their children, has been contravened by civil rights laws. This was allowed to happen because Americans, who respect freedom but also like to see that freedom is not abused, became convinced by the 1960s that use of the freedom of association to avoid blacks was entirely arbitrary. They became convinced that it could be motivated only by ignorance and hatred, and saw no reason not to forbid actions so maliciously based. Race differences in moral outlook, which people have long sensed, are perfectly good, non-arbitrary reasons for whites to wish to avoid blacks. Perhaps when this is more widely realized whites will once again permit themselves this liberty.


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