[This extract is taken from a longer article on race.]
Our recent worldwide diaspora out of Africa has taken us to an extraordinarily wide variety of habitats, climates and ways of life. It is plausible that the different conditions have exerted strong selection pressures, particularly on externally visible parts, such as the skin, which bear the brunt of the sun and the cold. It is hard to think of any other species that thrives so well from the tropics to the Arctic, from sea level to the high Andes, from parched deserts to dripping jungles. Such different conditions would be bound to exert different natural selection pressures, and it would be surprising if local populations did not diverge as a result. Hunters in the deep forests of Africa, South America and southeast Asia have all become small, almost certainly because height is a handicap in dense vegetation. Peoples of high latitude, who, it has been surmised, need all the sun they can get to make vitamin D, tend to have lighter skins than those who face the opposite problem—the carcinogenic rays of the tropical sun. It is plausible that such regional selection would especially affect superficial characteristics like skin colour, while leaving most of the genome intact and uniform.
In theory, that could be the full explanation for our superficial and visible variety, covering deep similarity. But it doesn’t seem enough to me. At the very least, I think it might be helped along by an additional suggestion, which I offer tentatively. We are indeed a very uniform species if you count the totality of genes, or if you take a truly random sample of genes, but perhaps there are special reasons for a disproportionate amount of variation in those very genes that make it easy for us to notice variation, and to distinguish our own kind from others. These would include the genes responsible for externally visible “labels” like skin colour. I want to suggest that this heightened discriminability has evolved by sexual selection, specifically in humans because we are such a culture-bound species. Because our mating decisions are so heavily influenced by cultural tradition, and because our cultures, and sometimes our religions, encourage us to discriminate against outsiders, especially in choosing mates, those superficial differences that helped our ancestors to prefer insiders over outsiders have been enhanced out of all proportion to the real genetic differences between us. No less a thinker than Jared Diamond has supported a similar idea in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. And Darwin himself more generally invoked sexual selection in explanation of racial differences.
I want to consider two versions of this theory: a strong and a weak one. The truth could be any combination of the two. The strong theory suggests that skin colour, and other conspicuous genetic badges, evolved actively as discriminators in choosing mates. The weak theory, which can be thought of as leading into the strong version, places cultural differences, such as language and religion, in the same role as geographical separation in the incipient stages of speciation. Once cultural differences have achieved an initial separation the groups would subsequently evolve apart genetically, as if geographically separated. An ancestral population can split into two genetically distinct populations only if given a head start by an initial accidental separation, usually assumed to be geographical. A barrier such as a mountain range reduces gene flow between two populated valleys. So the gene pools in the two valleys are free to drift apart. The separation will normally be abetted by different selection pressures; one valley may be wetter than its neighbour, for instance. But the initial accidental separation, which I have assumed to be geographical, is necessary.
There is controversy here. Some people think the initial separation has to be geographical, while others, especially entomologists, emphasise so-called sympatric speciation, meaning that the initial separation, whatever it is, is not geographical. Many herbivorous insects eat only one species of plant. They meet their mates and lay their eggs on the preferred plants. Their larvae then apparently “imprint” on the plant that they grow up eating, and they choose, when adult, the same species of plant to lay their own eggs. So if an adult female made a mistake and laid her eggs on the wrong plant, her daughter would imprint on that wrong plant and would, when the time came, lay her eggs on plants of the same wrong species. Her larvae then would imprint on the same wrong plant, hang around the wrong plant when adult, mate with others hanging around the wrong plant and eventually lay their eggs on the wrong plant.
In the case of these insects, you can see that, in a single generation, gene flow with the parental type could be abruptly cut off. A new species is theoretically free to come into being without the need for geographical isolation. Or, another way of putting it, the difference between two kinds of food plant is, for these insects, equivalent to a mountain range or a river for other animals. I am suggesting that human culture—with its tendency to distinguish between in-groups and out-groups—also provides a special way in which gene flow can find itself blocked, which is somewhat analogous to the insect scenario I have just outlined above.
In the insect case, plant preferences are handed down from parent to offspring by the twin circumstances of larvae fixating on their food plant, and adults mating and laying eggs on the same food plants. In effect, lineages establish “traditions” that travel longitudinally down generations. Human traditions are similar, if more elaborate. Examples are languages, religions and social manners or conventions. Children usually adopt the language and the religion of their parents although, just as with the insects and the food plants, there are enough “mistakes” to make life interesting. Again, as with the insects mating in the vicinity of their preferred food plants, people tend to mate with others speaking the same language and praying to the same gods. So different languages and religions can play the role of food plants, or of mountain ranges in traditional geographical speciation. Different languages, religions and social customs can serve as barriers to gene flow. From here, according to the weak form of our theory, random genetic differences simply accumulate on opposite sides of a language or religion barrier, just as they might on opposite sides of a mountain range. Subsequently, according to the strong version of the theory, the genetic differences that build up are reinforced as people use conspicuous differences in appearance as additional labels of discrimination in mate choice, supplementing the cultural barriers that provided the original separation.
Learned differences in language, religion and social customs notoriously provide labels for prejudice and discrimination. So, even more obviously, do genetic differences in colour. Could the first category have been implicated in the evolution of the second?