Why are bombs falling in Yugoslavia? Why do the Hutu and Tutsi keep slaughtering each other? Why can’t people in Los Angeles take Rodney King’s advice and “just get along”? Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a remarkable upsurge in ethnic, national, racial, and other sectarian conflicts that has baffled liberal policymakers who predicted “the end of history.” To the contrary, a UN study found that if a war were defined as armed conflict that produced more than 1,000 deaths, there have been 82 wars in a recent three-year period, and 79 of them were sectarian bloodlettings that took place within recognized national borders. The current NATO action against Yugoslavia has something of the look of the traditional war that pits belligerent governments against each other, but the real cause, of course, was civil disorder between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
The explanations most commonly given for the persistence of this kind of fighting are almost always implausible. Colonialism does not explain why Hutu and Tutsi hate each other any more than slavery explains why blacks rioted in Los Angeles. Liberal sociologists come up with strained, ad hoc explanations of this kind because they refuse to accept the deeper, biological origins of conflict. In explaining why NATO had decided to kill Serbs, William Clinton did mention “nationalism” as one of the causes, but clearly thinks of it as a primitive, even embarrassing sentiment.
J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario has offered an analysis of conflict of this kind that links it to the basic biological mechanisms that govern how people–and other organisms–choose their associates. His analysis, known as Genetic Similarity Theory, is an extension of the sociobiological work of E.O. Wilson, William Hamilton, and others into the ethnic/national sphere. GST is firmly rooted in evolution, but its perspective and insights can be appreciated by people with other views as well.
Ever since Darwin, the willingness of some individuals to sacrifice themselves for others has been a riddle for evolutionists. If only the fittest survive, the genes for altruistic behavior should have been weeded out long ago. Any man or animal so foolish as to lay down his life for his fellows stops the genes for altruistic behavior dead in their tracks. Self-sacrifice should disappear, and evolution should have bred pure selfishness into people rather than mixing it with a dose of altruism.
Animals show altruism too. When a worker bee stings something trying to get into the hive, the stinger tears out of its abdomen and it dies–to protect other bees. If a small mammal notices a hawk or fox nearby and gives a warning cry so that others of its species can run for cover, it calls attention to itself and is more likely to be attacked. The animal’s own chances of survival would be best if it quietly ran into a hole and left the rest of the pack to the fox. Animals share food, rescue each other, and fight as a group rather than run away as individuals. But the most widespread and important kind of altruism is care of the young–and this suggests the evolutionary explanation for altruism.
For parents, children are packets of their own genes, and evolutionary theory has an obvious explanation for parental altruism: At least among the higher animals, parents that look after their young are much more likely to pass along their genes to succeeding generations than parents that do not. The genes that cause child-rearing and child protection are therefore very firmly built into all higher species. But altruism for close relatives serves the same purpose. Brothers and sisters share 50 percent of their genes and cousins share about 12 percent. Crucial human traits were formed when men operated in small, extended-family bands, and in this context it made good genetic sense for a warrior to fight for the tribe, since he was fighting for his kinfolk. When the famous British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane was asked for whom he would sacrifice his life, he replied only half-facetiously, “for three brothers or nine cousins.” Either combination adds up to more than 100 percent of one’s own genes, and from an evolutionary point of view it makes more sense to die if that means the others can live.
This explanation for altruism is called kin selection theory, and there is evidence for it in the animal kingdom. A female squirrel can mate with several males and give birth to a litter that contains the children of more than one male. This mixture of full- and half-siblings shares the same womb and grows up in the same nest but each can tell the others apart. They are more likely to come to the aid of full siblings and more likely to fight and quarrel with half-siblings. Another squirrel study likewise found that females give food to sisters but not to strangers. Similar relations are found in lion prides, where all the females are likely to be closely related to each other, and therefore cooperate to kill game. Chimpanzees occasionally kill other chimpanzees, but the victims are almost always isolated males from other bands.
It is not known how animals tell they are related, but even insects are capable of amazingly fine distinctions. When guard bees at a hive encountered intruder bees of 14 different degrees of kinship to them, the guardians let in those that were closely related and drove off the others. In another experiment, when frog eggs from several litters were put into a single tank, after they hatched, the tadpoles that were siblings congregated together.
Humans show similar behavior. The immediate family is obviously the focus of intense loyalty and sacrifice, but every family reunion ever held is a tribute to the importance of kinship ties that go well beyond the nuclear family. The very idea of relatedness, the building of family trees, the search for ancestors–all these things reflect the importance of blood ties.
Recent research has uncovered less-well-known examples of the importance of kinship. Children who live in a household with a man who is not their father are many times more likely to be beaten or killed by him than by their biological fathers. Men are violent, but they rarely kill their own children. Identical twins, who have exactly the same genes, are willing to sacrifice more for each other than non-identical twins (who share only about 50 percent of their genes). Identical twins also show greater affection and physical attachment to each other, and suffer greater loss when their identical co-twin dies. Parents grieve more for children who appear to share more of their own traits than those of their spouses.
Prof. Rushton and others have shown that unconscious preferences for genetic similarity appear to be at work in human beings all the time. When people choose mates, colleagues, and close friends, they not only show cultural preferences, but genetic preferences within the same culture. Friends and spouses resemble each other in many ways, from their social attitudes to IQ scores to physical appearance. According to one study that determined similarity according to blood tests, couples who produce a child are 52 percent similar whereas couples chosen at random in a population are only 43 percent similar. In another study, best friends were found to be 54 percent similar, whereas random pairs of people were 48 percent similar.
Prof. Rushton offers even more surprising evidence for the power of genetic similarity to draw people together: Often what people have in common are the most heritable rather than the most obvious traits. For example, biceps size is only about 50 percent heritable because exercise can change it, whereas finger length is 80 percent heritable. People may well look into each other’s exercise habits, but probably no one measures the lengths of a potential mate’s fingers. Still, when spouses and close friends are compared on the basis of such measures, they resemble each other more on the traits that are the most heritable.
Twin and other studies show that some personality traits are under greater genetic control than others, and spouses resemble each other most on those very traits. Likewise, when IQ scores are divided into subtests, spouses have the closest scores on the most heritable subtests.
There seems to be a limit to the attraction of the similar, however; the taboo against incest is a near-universal protection against inbreeding. The most attractive match appears to be someone genetically similar but not a close relative.
Genetic Similarity Theory greatly confounds those who believe in the supreme power of social and economic environment. They would expect people to choose friends and spouses for those traits that are most influenced by environment. Body-builders should seek out body-builders and stamp collectors should fall in love with other stamp collectors. Instead, without even being aware of it, human beings gravitate towards others who resemble them in countless subtle genetic ways. Genetic similarity is the glue that binds individuals together as much as it binds nations together. Like gravity, we have felt it since the beginning of time, but we are only beginning to understand it.
Seeds of Conflict
Genetic Similarity Theory has important implications for the larger questions of peoplehood and nationality, and Prof. Rushton has not been afraid to take them up. If people make frequent, unconscious decisions on the basis of genetics when they choose associates from within their own ethnic group, it is impossible for them to ignore the even greater genetic distance that separates them from other ethnic groups.
In 1997, in the face of persistent late-20th century sectarian bloodlettings, the American and Canadian Psychological Associations undertook an “Initiative on Ethnopolitical Warfare” in the hope of understanding the psychology of these conflicts. This is a step forward compared to the purely historical or political-science approach that has dominated analysis so far, and may yield useful insights. In Prof. Rushton’s view, however, the problem lies in the very nature of man, and his biological inclination to identify with the carriers of his own genes.
During the long period of evolution that took place in nomadic, extended-family bands–and during which altruism was a particularly effective mechanism for group evolution–humans and proto-humans might sometimes come upon unknown groups of potential adversaries. It was important to be able quickly to tell if a stranger were one of “our people,” and humans have developed a great many different outward signs of what is, ultimately, genetic similarity. Evolutionists would argue they were developed for the very purpose of magnifying the underlying biological differences. Customs, dress, language, manners, and religion are therefore not acquired directly through the genes but for most people they might as well be. They are passed on almost exclusively from parent to child; someone who does not speak your language is not likely to be a relative. People who are not relatives are potential enemies.
Young children learn very quickly which groups with which to identify. By age four most Americans know what race they are and know that race continues from parent to child. By kindergarten or first grade, children are aware of many of the less obvious social and ethnic differences. They naturally identify with their own group; they do not have to be taught. Children are also famously cruel to outsiders, but in this they are only a little more unrestrained than their parents.
After all, it was not only because there were wild animals that it was evolutionarily useful for people to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the group. Carnivores might make off with a child or two, but the greatest threat was always bands of strangers who might exterminate the whole tribe. What gave birth to altruism, therefore, were the wars and conflicts that are its very opposites. For this reason all peoples practice a morality of loyalty to their own people and a morality of suspicion or even hostility for outsiders. Prof. Rushton calls this suspicion of outgroups the “dark side” of altruism, and sees in it the roots of ethnic conflict.
Political scientist Walker Connor, who has written frequently on nationalism, defines a nation as “the largest group that commands a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties . . . the fully extended family.” It is no accident that people speak of the “motherland” or “fatherland,” and why patriotism is often seen as an extension of family loyalty. It is ties of blood that make fellow nationals precious and worth dying for. At the same time, it becomes easy to see the aliens who are threatening our precious nationals not just as strangers but as sub-humans. War brings out the best and the worst; when groups set about killing each other they often try to make it as painful, agonizing, and humiliating for the enemy as possible. At the same time, soldiers in combat sacrifice more willingly and more deeply than at any other time in their lives, and the love they may form for comrades-in-arms often lasts a life-time. Nations always promote patriotism because they know how powerful a force it can be.
(The official exceptions to this rule were the Communist countries, which were supposed to be building proletarian loyalties rather than national ties. However, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union the Communists quickly started encouraging deeply nationalist loyalties to Mother Russia, and officially named the conflict the Great Patriotic War.)
Prof. Rushton argues that there are many forms of ethnic competition short of bloodshed. He says that what we call “culture wars” can also be seen as “gene wars,” since different genes find different environments more or less favorable. People seldom see conflicts in these terms, but the United States is a perfect demonstration of what is at stake. A culture that glorifies sex and rewards unwed motherhood with food stamps and welfare benefits is a very favorable environment for certain kinds of genes, and those have proliferated prodigiously over the last 30 years. A culture that views crime as a societal failing for which individuals cannot be held responsible is one that has also made choices about which genes to favor. Likewise, there are very substantial reproductive consequences when America glorifies non-whites, reviles whites, and encourages miscegenation.
The debate over immigration is nothing less than a debate over the genetic future of the country. To let in people who are wholly unlike the natives is to accept the genetic equivalent of defeat in war and occupation by aliens. This is why no one has ever done it before and why, now that white nations are doing it, it arouses such heated opposition.
Genetic change brings an infinite number of other changes. In virtually every multi-ethnic society group membership is the key element of individual identity and cultural interests. In America, the audiences for many cultural events are almost completely segregated. In their leisure time, Americans of different races rarely watch the same television programs. Ethnic newspapers write about political events thousands of miles away from America. Housing patterns and school attendance show a very clear form of clustering by genetic similarity.
Prof. Rushton thinks of cultural markers like language, folkways, etc. as providing a “home” for certain genes that find such an environment favorable. In this sense, virtually all cultural and political decisions have genetic consequences–whose group is being favored and whose is not? Most groups view policies almost exclusively from their own point of view and support or fight them on this basis alone.
If follows from Prof. Rushton’s theory that it is folly for any group to cease to act in its own genetic interests on the assumption that other groups will do the same. All around the world, whites are welcoming non-whites into their countries with the implied understanding that because whites have decided ethnic nationalism is bad and diversity is good, everyone else will soon think so, too. By now it is entirely clear that non-whites support diversity only when it can be used to increase their own numbers and power. Once they are numerous enough to remake a locality or institution in their own image, any interest they once professed for “diversity” disappears.
The post–Cold War period had been a showcase for the renunciation of “diversity.” The constituent parts of the Soviet Union decided to become homogeneous units rather than parts of a diverse empire. The Czechs and the Slovaks decided the same thing. A number of peoples–the Kurds, Chechens, and Tibetans, for example–would certainly break away except that their rulers are prepared to kill tens of thousands of them to prevent it.
Yugoslavia has broken up quite spectacularly into ethnic states, and has even drawn the United States into a war that could produce a few more. The usual American policy of promoting “diversity” at all costs is completely at odds with what is gradually becoming the objective of NATO’s war: establishment of an ethnically pure and essentially independent Kosovo. Having gone to war to stop the removal of Albanians from that province, it now feels it can win only if it removes Serbians.
NATO’s early miscalculations about the ease with which the Serbians could be made to do its bidding showed an unwillingness to accept the importance of genes, nationality, and ethnic loyalty. In Western countries, where patriotism is thought a little passé because it might interfere with the higher demands of diversity, it is easy to forget just how passionately a healthy people clings to its land and its heritage.
John Stuart Mill once wrote: “Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. . . .” Prof. Rushton shows why this has always been true. Unfortunately, most Western politicians act as if it were not.
A Rushton bibliography on genetic similarity theory:
Gene-culture, co-evolution and genetic similarity theory: Implications for ideology, ethnic nepotism, and geopolitics. Politics and the Life Sciences, 4, 1986, 144 148.
Genetic similarity, human altruism, and group selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1989, 503 559.
Genetic similarity in male friendships. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 1989, 361 373.
Race, Evolution, and Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995.
Rushton, J. P., & Nicholson, I. R., Genetic similarity theory, intelligence, and human mate choice. Ethology and Sociobiology, 9, 1988, 45-57.