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Spring 2004 cover

National Observer Home > No. 62 - Spring 2004 > Article

Genetic Interests of Ethnic Groups

Professor Kevin MacDonald

The expatriate Australian political scientist Frank Salter has written a very important - and a brilliant - book1 that deserves the close attention not only of evolutionists and social scientists, but of policy-makers as well. As E.O. Wilson - the Harvard professor who founded the field of sociobiology - states on the book jacket, this is "a fresh and deep contribution to the sociobiology of humans".

Although written in a scholarly, academic style, the basic ideas are not difficult to grasp. Salter's project is to quantify how much genetic overlap people in the same ethnic group or race share compared to people from different ethnic groups or races. Different human ethnic groups and races have been separated for thousands of years and during this period they have evolved some genetic distinctiveness. The basic logic is this: based on the fundamental principles of evolutionary biology, each person has an interest in the genetic uniqueness of his or her ethnic group and race. In other words, people have an interest in their ethnic group in exactly the same way that parents have a genetic interest in raising their children. In raising my children, I ensure that my unique genes are passed on to the next generation. This is the fundamental principle of Darwin's theory of evolution. But in defending my ethnic interests, I am doing the same thing - ensuring that the genetic uniqueness of my ethnic group is passed into the next generation. When I succeed as a parent, my ethnic group also succeeds because the genetic uniqueness of my ethnic group is perpetuated as part of my child's genetic inheritance. But when my ethnic group succeeds in defending its interests, I also succeed because the genetic uniqueness that I share with other members of the ethnic group is passed on. And this is the case even if I do not have children myself: I succeed genetically when my ethnic group as a whole prospers.

The analysis assumes more than one population: ethnic interests only exist in relation to other groups. When world populations are sampled, genetic differences between groups are significant - about the same as the kinship between a grandparent and a grandchild. This is a far from trivial amount, and the result is that humans have an enormous genetic interest in their ethnic groups.

This genetic interest becomes so large because it is tied to the actual number of ethnic group members who, in the modern world, can total in the millions, or, I suppose billions, in the case of the Chinese. Each human thus has a very large genetic interest, but how best to defend those interests? A critical proposal is that ethnic groups have a vital interest in defending territory against immigration from other ethnic groups: "For all of past human experience and still today, control of a territory is a precious resource for maintaining ethnic genetic interests in the long run". Loss of numbers within a territory dominated by one's ethnic group as a result, say, of disease or natural disaster, results in a loss of ethnic fitness, but this loss is not critical because the numbers can eventually be made up.

However, in a world of limited resources and carrying capacity - indeed, a world that, in the view of many experts, has already reached unsustainable human populations - immigration of ethnic outsiders constitutes a permanent loss of fitness. For example, Salter notes that wealthy Western societies with economic opportunities, and a high level of public goods such as medical care, are magnets for immigration from around the world. Because of continued immigration and high fertility among many immigrant ethnic groups, the result is displacement of the founding populations, as in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. If present trends continue, the United States' founding European-derived population is set to become a minority by the middle of this century; in the British Isles the submergence date is just two generations later, around 2100. This represents a catastrophic loss of genetic interest for the natives. The extent of that loss depends, of course, not only on the numbers of immigrants, but also on their genetic distance from the host population. At the extremes, the results are nothing short of astounding: Salter shows that it would be more genetically advantageous for, say, a Bantu to give his life resisting immigration of two members of a genetically distant group like North-East Asians than it would be to rescue one of his own children.

A basic theme of the book is that humans are ill-prepared psychologically to achieve or even perceive their vital genetic interests in the modern world. We did not evolve in societies with a great deal of ethnic heterogeneity, so our psychology is not really geared for what we have now in the modern world of mass migration. (Note that the title of the book refers to genetic interests in an age of mass migration.) For example, displacement migration is common in many areas of the world, most notably in societies with a Western European cultural and ethnic heritage, and occurs without mass displays of ethnic altruism in defence of ethnic interests. Our evolved psychology was designed mainly for a world of small groups separated by tiny genetic differences.

But we humans are able to make rational, adaptive choices in this novel environment. Most importantly, we must make choices about how to allocate ethnic investment - where to draw group boundaries and how to best to mobilise our resources to advance our ethnic interests. Humans are able adaptively to design group ethnic strategies that navigate the "global village" in which ethnic groups that were once separated by insurmountable barriers are now no more than a jet trip away. Much of the book consists of a sort of "handbook" on adaptive strategy construction for ethnic groups. The following are some of the main points of a very rich and provocative discussion.

Successful strategies require internal social controls, especially on free-riding, individualistic elites. As Salter notes, the free rider problem was successfully solved long ago via punishment and monitoring in the small groups in which humans lived and, in principle at least, there is no problem in doing so in the modern world, especially if social controls are maintained by governments. Hence the importance of a territorial ethno-state for defending ethnic interests. Defending ethnic interests in multi-ethnic states is a great deal more difficult because the power of the state itself becomes a potential weapon against the interests of particular ethnic groups. For example, throughout history majority ethnic groups have oppressed minorities. More recently in the liberal West, coalitions of minority groups have attempted to influence immigration policy against the interests of the majority.

Given the massive potential payoff, successful ethnic altruism is always adaptive for every member of an ethnic group; indeed, the quantitative logic implies that for the vast majority, successfully advancing the interests of one's ethnic group has a much greater payoff than investing in one's own genealogical family. The main danger is that individualistic elites who are unaware of or do not subjectively value their ethnic interests will, in effect, sell out their own ethnic groups for personal profit. Because of their wealth and power, elites have much more potential to advance or hinder ethnic interests, but they have at times acted to subvert them, perhaps because they would be the last to suffer personally from ethnic replacement as they "often live in gated neighbourhoods whose pleasantness is assured by immigration control in the form of private security guards".

Adaptive ethnic ideologies act as "fitness portfolios" that advocate and rationalise optimal allocation of investment among family, ethny, and humanity. Adaptive ethnic culture tends to contain "oppositional symbols" of past victories and especially of past defeats. These symbols promote ethnic identification and facilitate ethnic altruism in defence of ethnic interests. By manipulating psychological mechanisms designed for the primordial band and tribe, ethnic culture is able, albeit imperfectly and at times maladaptively, to galvanise mass altruism. In the crowded modern world, adaptive ethnic culture is defensive rather than expansionist because of the high risks of an expansionist strategy yielding outcomes where both sides lose.

Conversely, an aggressive strategy for a minority group in a multiethnic state is to advocate ideologies that confuse the ethnic identity of the majority, de-emphasise ethnicity as a social or biological category, engender chronic shame and guilt for ethnic identity, encourage individualism among members of the ethnic majority, oppose secessionist legis-lation, and sever ties between ethnic culture and the state (for example, by de-legitimising church-state relation-ships or by advocating the ideology of a "concept nation" where the nation has no ethnic connotations). Minor-ities, because they are more mobilised, may often have cultural influence far out of proportion to their numbers, and their influence is magnified if they have elite status. As Salter notes, "culture wars can be deadly serious".

Pro-minority political regimes are unstable because they are prone to changing ethnic proportions in population, control of resources, and social status. A minority that succeeded in making itself the majority by influencing immigration policy, would then face the difficult talk of reversing its traditional leftist ideology; it would need to find a way to portray immigration control and majority patriotism as moral enterprises. Ethnic interests are best optimised, around the world, by ethnic states where citizenship is defined by ethnic criteria - a prescription which Salter terms "universal nationalism." All existing ethno-states are vulnerable to displacement by highly mobilised, rapidly reproducing ethnic minorities. Globalism and multiculturalism legitimate these trends, but in the long run they are a threat to everyone's ethnic interest because both ideologies actually legitimate and necessarily increase competition of the nasty zero-sum kind.

Globalism results in increased genetic competition because everyone has potential access to everyone else's territory, and multicultural societies sanction ethnic mobilisation because they inevitably become a cauldron of competing ethnic interests. Therefore, the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which outlaws national legislation to control immigration on the basis of ethnic origins, "is not the sort of product one would expect from an informed and compassionate movement of the Left. Rather, it resembles . . . an instrument of surrender to be imposed on peoples who have been temporarily defeated and are about to be permanently displaced". Instead, Salter proposes that "the right to citizenship in an ethnic state would be a fitting plank in a biologically informed universal declaration of human rights".

Since ethnic issues are basically about conflicts of interest, they raise difficult ethical questions. An ethical system that results in the loss of the genes of those who practise it is necessarily a failure. But unlike the case with individual and family interests, ethnic interests have a fragile or even non-existent status in law, custom, and moral philosophy, at least in Western societies. Salter proposes that universal nationalism in which people are accorded the right to live in an ethno-state would serve ethnic interests and therefore the genetic interests of most humans. It is therefore biologically just according to an ethic Salter calls "adaptive utilitarianism," and this sense of justice would lend it legitimacy. There will, of course, remain conflicts of interest between ethnies in a world of limited resources, and fitness differences between groups are inevitable. Social controls might prevent conflict, but total suppression by a world government would be such an infringement of freedom that it would make us less than human: "For a naturally evolved organism the ultimate form of liberty is the freedom to defend its genetic interests".

Because of the complexity of majority-minority relations in all of their permutations, and because of the difficulty or even impossibility of designing successful ethnic strategies in the constantly changing adaptive landscape, Salter is appropriately humble about his analysis; the case presented is "anything but complete". Nevertheless, this is a highly original and theoretically informed discussion of the fundamental issues that must be addressed in any analysis of a world order that preserves vital interests. In general, there is little discussion of the consequences of the fact that ethnic groups differ on traits that are conducive to success in the modern world.

As Salter notes, Western cultures are more individualistic and less ethnocentric than other culture areas. It is not surprising, then, that a focus of the book is on the displacement of Western ethnies in several parts of the world. Another example is fertility rates. Salter notes that under Western pressure, Macedonia agreed to remove a clause in its constitution declaring itself to be an ethnic Macedonian republic. This was done in the face of the "fierce Albanian birth rate" that would soon result in an Albanian majority.

The reality is that citizens of multicultural states are confronted with conflicts of their most vital interest, a conflict that increases with increasing diversity. This is because ethnic groups differ in intelligence and the ability to develop and control economic resources; they differ in their degree of ethnocentrism, in the extent to which they are mobilised to achieve group interests, and how aggressively they behave toward other groups; they differ in their numbers, fertility, and the extent to which they encourage parenting practices conducive to resource acquisition; they differ in the amount of land and other resources held at any point in time and in their political power. Equality, proportional equity, or even maintaining a status quo in territory and resource control would be difficult to attain or to maintain without extremely intense social controls. Accepting a status quo would not be in the interests of groups that have recently lost land or numbers; nor is a status quo likely to be acceptable to groups with relatively low numbers and control of resources; nor would a status quo be likely to be acceptable to groups prone to high fertility. And yet, the alternative - of all humans renouncing ethnic group loyalties - seems utopian to say the least, for all the reasons that Salter provides.

Given that some ethnic groups (especially ones with high levels of ethnocentrism and mobilisation) will undoubtedly continue to function as groups far into the foreseeable future, unilateral renunciation of ethnic loyalties by some groups means only their surrender and defeat - the Darwinian dead-end of extinction. The future, then, like the past, will inevitably be a Darwinian competition in which ethnicity plays a very large role.


1. Dr. Frank Salter, On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethny and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration, 2003, Peter Lang, Germany, 388 pages.


National Observer No. 62 - Spring 2004