Full refund within 30 days if you're not completely satisfied.
“Alarmist and irresponsible” misreader of evolutionary psychology
attitudes because it has suited them all too well as individual human beings to do so—out of naked egotism, the pursuit of economic advantage, the desire to eliminate competitors and so on. So racism, far from being a troublesome invader that people might have wanted to throw off, takes hold because it appeals to rational selfinterest. That’s precisely the problem, and Ferguson’s use of the term “meme,” by hinting at a quite different dynamic for racism, misses the central point (which is actually his own point). Still, the concept of a meme is a slippery one, and some evolutionary theorists would say an unsatisfactory one. So perhaps we should not be too hard on Ferguson for nodding in the direction of a fashionable concept, even if he gets it wrong. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of his ﬂirtation with a body of research he does not understand. For it turns out that Ferguson wants to have it several ways at once about racism. While on the one hand he calls it a meme, he also claims elsewhere in the introduction that it is not a cultural product at all but an instinct that is hardwired into human nature. Human beings, he suggests, have evolved to fear and hate other humans who are physically—and genetically—dissimilar, because this is a way of increasing their own reproductive success. How so? Because, he assures us, breeding with distant strangers is a bad strategy if we want our own genes to prosper. “For there is evidence from the behaviour of both humans and other species that nature does not necessarily favour breeding between genetically very different members of the same species.” The phrase “does not necessarily favour,” is, for Ferguson, uncharacteristically weak. And, as it happens, so it should be. For the evidence that in human beings breeding with distantly related members of the human species has any deleterious biological consequences is almost non-existent. Ferguson cites just one possible example, and gets it back to front. “When a Chinese woman marries a European man, the chances are relatively high that their blood groups may be incompatible, so that only the ﬁrst child they
conceive will be viable.” The problem at issue is the possibility that a rhesus-negative (Rh-) woman will mate with a rhesus-positive (Rh+) man and so—since the Rh+ gene is dominant— have a Rh+ baby with which she is incompatible. But in reality almost no Chinese people are Rh-, so the chance of this happening when a Chinese woman mates with a European man is negligible (less than 1 per cent). Europeans however are 15 per cent Rh-. So when a European woman mates with a Chinese man the risk is certainly important (15 per cent), but hardly greater than when she mates with a European man (13 per cent). Ferguson’s claim here is not just wrong, it is alarmist and irresponsible. The reality is that in general, humans run no signiﬁcant additional biological risks from interracial breeding for the simple reason that, compared to most animal species, human beings are extraordinarily homogeneous genetically. In his bibliography Ferguson cites a paper in support of his ideas that deals with “optimal outbreeding” in quails. But what goes for quails is simply not what goes for homo sapiens. There may have been a time, earlier in human evolution, when distinct biological species of hominins, all descended from the same ape-like stock, were living together in Africa, and interbreeding might have been unproductive. But even then there is no reason to think that some kind of instinctive race or species-hatred was required to limit sexual relations. In general the boundaries between biological species can be, and are, maintained by a combination of positive sexual preferences and historical opportunity. Horses and donkeys don’t have to hate each other, even though mules are a dead-end for their genes: it’s enough that typically—in nature—they prefer their own kind. This is not to deny that human beings have at times seen racial miscegenation as a threat. Ferguson provides chapter and verse that it has often been so. But it is to deny that this has anything to do with an evolved taboo against having sex with people who may have slightly different genes. When Ferguson says, following his discussion of the supposed genetic risks: “We should not lose sight of the basic instincts buried within even the most civilised men. These instincts were to be unleashed time and again after 1900. They were… what made the second world war so ferocious,” he is talking in a way that no scientist would. This is Konrad Lorenz or Robert Ardrey talk, not modern evolutionary psychology. Ferguson then gives his faltering evolutionary thesis a further twist. For it turns out he does not believe that human beings always instinctively recoil from interracial mating. In fact, he admits, sometimes the opposite is true: the exotic is erotic. “The ‘hatred’ so often blamed for ethnic conﬂict is not a straightforward emotion. Rather, we encounter time and again that volatile ambivalence, that mixture of aversion and attraction.”
PROSPECT September 2006 67
© DEVAULD AUKEMA / CHANNEL 4