The Kindness of Strangers

Mark Pagel, Prospect (London), June 2008

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate

by Kenan Malik (Oneworld, £18.99)

Trust: Self-interest and the Common Good

by Marek Kohn (OUP, £10.99)

The Great Hall at the University of Reading is a lively piece of Victoriana: a broad neo-Romanesque structure suggestive of a nave, with a concave arched ceiling of gilt-edged rectangular sections painted a pastel green and decorated with rosettes.

The uniformity of its architectural style contrasts with the people I can see under its roof. Perhaps 200 students are at work here, and my guess, from their faces, is that between them they could trace their ancestry to Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the far east and perhaps the Indian subcontinent.

These observations collide with Kenan Malik’s insistence in his new book, Strange Fruit, that there is no such thing as race: that it is nothing more than a social construct, having little to do with biology. It is true that the history of racial thinking is mostly an odious embarrassment. And using the idea of race as an assertion of abrupt or clear genetic boundaries between peoples is wrong. All of humanity shares the same genes, and we can all happily and successfully interbreed. And, contrary to the pronouncements of some well-known public figures, there is no evidence that human groups differ in the genetic factors that cause intelligence or even cognitive abilities in general. But we mustn’t take this to mean that there are no differences among us. Variants of our shared genes do differ among human groups. If my ancestors were from the far east, I would have the epicanthal fold of skin above my eyes so distinctive of peoples from that region. Were I able to trace my ancestry to the Ethiopian highlands, it is likely that I would have a wiry frame and sinewy muscles. And were my ancestors from the Tibetan plateau, it is likely that my body shape would be good at conserving heat. I could go on; and the list could contain far more than morphological characters—just think, for example, of who carries genes to protect against malaria or to digest milk proteins as adults.

These are all genetic differences. In fact, if we measure large numbers of genetic markers from populations around the world and then use them to form clusters, we get back groupings that bear a striking resemblance to what have conventionally been recognised as the major racial groups on the planet: Europeans and western Asians, Africans, people from the Americas, eastern Asians, and Australasians.

Biologists confronted with this kind of clustered genetic variability in other species routinely refer to the groupings as variants, types, gentes, races and even sub-species. These are imprecise terms, but they capture the sense that suites of genetic characters or markers vary or cluster in similar ways among populations. Put another way, give me the suites of characters and I can predict at a better than chance level what group or region the sample comes from. There is no reason to exclude humans from this. It is what I was doing with the faces in the tranquil setting of the Great Hall.

Malik knows these facts about our genetics, but wants to insist that, unless “race” corresponds to absolute boundaries, it is a useless and damaging concept. But to deny what everybody knows and to swap the word race for something less politically charged like “group” is just an act of self-denial and certainly no more accurate than the dreaded “r” word. It is also patronising—I would like to think we are all grown up enough to accept the facts and ready ourselves for the deluge to come. I say deluge because the more we measure, the more genetic differences we find among populations; and no kinds of difference can be absolutely ruled out (to be clear, there is no reason to expect Caucasians will do well out of this). We may in future need a language, and maybe even a new ethics, to discuss the new genetics. But that is another story.

Why go on about these differences? Because they tell us something startling about our species, with an important bearing on the predicament we find ourselves in and which Malik writes about—how to live in a multicultural world.

We are a very young species. At about 100,000 to 150,000 years old, maybe less, we have just flickered into an existence that could go on—if we are an average species—for 8-10m years. We are not yet out of our nappies. Without going into the details, there are only two ways we could have amassed the genetic differences we have while still in this toddlerhood. One is that different races have been good at keeping to themselves since we spread around the world after walking out of Africa 70,000 years ago. Physical separation would have allowed many random differences to accumulate between groups. But this could only have occurred if inter-group migration were very low. It could also reflect active avoidance, something suggested by the growing sense among anthropologists that human history can best be understood as constant attempts by different group to annihilate each other.

The second way humanity could have achieved its genetic variation would be if natural selection has acted strongly on human populations, promoting different traits in different groups. I say “strongly” because the differences have been produced in a short time, and natural selection has had to work against the homogenising influences of migration and interbreeding. This is why we can be sure that when we see so-called “adaptive” differences, they tell us we are staring at people who have been selected to be very good at some challenge their environment throws at them, be it conserving heat, protecting the eyes from wind-blown sand, fighting off malaria or being able to digest milk proteins. These are not accidental differences.

Moreover, even after the ravages brought by the waves of expanding agriculturalists beginning about 10,000 years ago, followed more recently by the great imperial conquests of the last 800 to 900 years, humans still speak about 7,000 distinct languages. You don’t get that by hanging out with each other.

So we are a species with a short but intense history of living in relatively isolated groups. We are also a species that invented a new and powerful way of life—called co-operation. Or, more to the point, it is what evolutionary biologists call “indirect reciprocity”: the ability to behave co-operatively towards people unrelated to you and with no expectation of immediate “repayment.” We help people in distress, we return items of value, we may even put our wellbeing or lives at risk for others, and we have a sense of fairness that we and others ought to behave this way. Our co-operation allows us to have a division of labour and exchange—someone mends the fishing nets while another collects coconuts—and the specialisation this allows is almost certainly responsible for our rapid spread around the world.

No other species does anything like this. The co-operative hunting seen among male chimpanzees is largely done among bands of (genetic) brothers. Ants co-operate, and they are capable of raising sophisticated armies, and of deploying them in complex ways against other ant armies. But ants are effectively genetic clones of each other and so don’t mind giving aid or even their lives to help the collective.

Co-operation among unrelated humans is a different matter. If you help someone and they don’t help you back, you lose. Co-operative societies can soar to great heights, but they can cost you dearly, as when cheats take the spoils of co-operation without returning the benefits. This means that humans have evolved sensitive mechanisms to discriminate between people likely to share their co-operative values from those that do not.

Trust, the topic of Marek Kohn’s book of the same name, is what arises from this discrimination—and Kohn rightly recognises that trust promotes both self-interest and the common good. As individuals, we toil to build reputations as a way of advertising our trustworthiness and of attracting like-valued people. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the importance of co-operative social systems to our psychology and social behaviour. If trust is the fuel of our co-operation, reputation is the currency with which we buy it. Apes, dolphins and ants don’t feel shame or engage in honour killings.

This view of what makes humans tick also helps us to understand the awkwardness of the public debate about multiculturalism. Malik asserts that there is a tendency for what he calls the liberal left to “resurrect racial concepts” in framing their views on multiculturalism. Thus we grant authenticity, and equal but separate status, to the different desires and practices of some groups on the basis of their deep cultural heritage: consider the recent uproar over sharia law. Malik doesn’t suggest these liberals are racist, just that the language they use—of ethnicity, authenticity and identity—is laden with racial baggage and reminiscent of that used by the old racists when justifying their exclusionary views.

So how is it that race and ethnicity find their way so easily, even if inadvertently, into discussions of multiculturalism? The answer has nothing to do with racism and a lot to do with statistics. Humans, as I have described, evolved to live in small isolated groups and are finely tuned to seek people of common values. Like it or not, common culture (common practices, expectations, and beliefs) correlates, even if imperfectly, with common biological ancestry. This means that markers of race and ethnicity come to be taken as markers of common values.

So does this mean that, deep down, we are all racists? No: we are too clever and self-interested for that. The very social feature that makes us unique—our ability to co-operate with unrelated others—makes us, uniquely among animals, capable of moving beyond the politics of race and ethnicity. Were we as mindless as apes and ants, this would be impossible. Their behaviour is based almost exclusively on common genetic ancestry. Ours is not.

We humans will get along with anyone who wishes to play the co-operative game with us—and that part of our nature will always trump guesswork based on markers of ethnicity or other features. The key is to provide or create stronger signs of trust and common values than are provided by the statistically useful but imprecise markers of ethnicity. Looking around the Great Hall, I couldn’t help but feel that this was already happening among the good students of Reading University.


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