Friday, December 17, 2004

Genetic nationalism

The genetic basis of nationalism is discussed and explored in a review of Frank Salter's new book On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethny, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration:

According to Darwinian theory, the goal towards which all living things strive is to make more copies of their distinctive genes. This is seen most clearly in the devotion of parents to children; as Dr. Salter writes, "The importance of genetic continuity is an end in itself, for humans as well as for other species." From an evolutionary points of view, "propagating one’s genes is life’s raison d’être." This is the ultimate goal of living things, and every other goal is subordinate to it.

One important conceptual breakthrough in On Genetic Interests is to recognize that loyalty to one’s ethny—Dr. Salter prefers this term to race, nation, or ethnic group—is just as valid biologically as loyalty to one's children. This is because each ethny is a storehouse of its members' distinctive genes, just as children are carriers of their parents' genes. A person’s children are very concentrated stores of his genes, but his ethny is a vastly larger, though more dilute, pool of the same genes. Given the size of most ethnies, they are repositories of far more copies of each of its member’s distinctive genes than even a person’s children, and therefore have a theoretical genetic claim to loyalty even greater than that of children.

An ethny is an extended family. The larger one’s ethny, the larger a store it becomes of distinctive genes, so its members have an interest in seeing their numbers rise or at least remain constant. A shrinking ethny is like a family whose members are dying off—either condition represents a loss of genetic interests.

According to the universalist, everyone's-equal model of human relations that is supposed to govern how we think about race, there is no good reason any of us should care more about our children than we do about the children of strangers. We do, of course, and not because they are objectively superior to all other children but because they are ours, that is to say, they carry our distinctive genes. From a genetic point of view, our ethnies deserve similar loyalties for the same reason.

Dr. Salter points out that different ethnies can be so genetically distant that random members of the same ethny are close kin in comparison to members of the other ethny. Ethnic loyalty can thus be a continuation of family loyalty. Australian Aborigines and Mbuti pygmies, for example, are about as genetically distant as two ethnies can be. Two random members of either group are—in comparison to members of the other group—so genetically similar to each other they are almost the equivalent of identical twins. Compared to Australian Aborigines, all Mbuti pygmies are, in fact, so similar to each other that actual identical Mbuti twins are, relatively speaking, not much more closely related to each other than any two random Mbuti.

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