Is there a gene for racism?

August 3, 2007

The questions of a biological basis for racist behaviour and for religion were key issues in a debate at Durham University's Institute of Advanced Study devoted to the legacy of Charles Darwin. Report by Matthew Reisz

We all know about the political power of classification and categorisation. As soon as individuals are seen as belonging to certain races, religions or cultures they can easily become the focus of fears and then start getting treated with suspicion or regularly stopped at airports. So does today's science offer us means of classifying individuals that are not divisive, harmful or exclusionary? What do we now know about where our core values come from? Are there inborn factors that tend to lead particular individuals to become racist or religious? And do "races", in any meaningful sense, really exist?

Such were the crucial issues that the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University addressed in its inaugural year - devoted to the legacy of Charles Darwin - when it assembled a panel of experts for a conference titled What Makes a Racist? Their task was to explore two related questions at the interface between evolutionary theory and public policy: Are we born racist or do we become racist, and is religion inherited or acquired?

It was high time, argued IAS director Ash Amin, for the British to "get into big ideas" - and the debate offered a snapshot of leading thinking on all the key controversies.

Darwin in his time

Darwin's legacy includes some challenging questions about both religion and race. One is historical. On the issue of race, was Darwin himself on the side of the angels? "He argued humankind had to be treated as one species," Amin said before the conference. "Natural selection shouldn't be used to divide us; we are all cut from one cloth. Darwin was well aware of the assault on weaker members of the human race and abhorred slavery."

John Brooke, an IAS fellow who was until recently professor of science and religion at Oxford University, took a rather different line: "Throughout his travels and reflections, Darwin did regard European white males as superior. In New Zealand, in the decades following the publication of On the Origin of Species , colonial adventurers saw his work as justifying extermination of the Maoris, but I think Darwin himself would have been very unhappy with such conclusions." So if Darwin undoubtedly expressed views that would now be considered racist, the jury is out on whether these are minor blemishes, out of synch with the main thrust of his work, or whether racial scientists, however dangerous and misguided, can legitimately claim to be his heirs.

Religions raise a different set of challenges for Darwinism. They are clearly such a persistent feature of human life that they cry out for evolutionary explanation - yet, in so far as they promote self-sacrifice, they raise in acute form the well-known problem of altruism. How can this arise and thrive in a world dominated by ruthlessly competitive individuals and the survival of the fittest?

Darwin himself was aware of this problem and offered an explanation in terms of group selection - religions can help bind a tribe together and so prevail in conflicts with others - but several participants in the IAS conference felt this was an inadequate theory, requiring modification or elaboration.

Nature v nurture

The conference, which was opened by Durham's recently appointed vice chancellor, world-famous evolutionary geneticist Chris Higgins, took as its starting point the consensus that neither nature nor nurture alone can account for beliefs and behaviour. Most important things about us can only be explained in terms of the interaction between the two. "We keep discovering that nature and nurture are not incompatible," said Amin. "Our genetic make-up gives us propensities, which then unfold in different ways because of cultural factors. Only by occupying a middle ground can we explain the variety in human behaviour."

Yet the wide acceptance of the importance of culture does not alter the fact that, in Amin's words, "we are more and more surprised by how much the genetic imprint is able to explain. So what do genes give us? Do our genetic codes kick in early to shape our beliefs? Could there be a link between genetic inheritance and our intensity of feelings towards strangers and towards God? Might it even make sense to see some people as born religious or racist? And, given the terrible social costs of racism, might we ever consider offering racist gene therapy?"

Questions of faith

The first speaker at the conference, John Brooke, addressed the issue of whether the "religious disposition" is "in some sense preformed" or "the product of nurture". He himself tended to see our religious impulses "as simply an extension of the perfectly normal capacities that make us human. I am thinking of our capacity for fellowship with others, our ability to express a sense of gratitude for the fact that we exist at all and a capacity to empathise with those who suffer."

Brooke was sceptical as to whether the huge variety of religious behaviour can be explained by a single mechanism. He also pointed out that those who seek to explain (or explain away) religion often make quite contradictory claims. Some follow Darwin and stress the evolutionary advantages of religion in terms of something like group solidarity. Others see it as an accidental by-product of otherwise useful traits. A tendency to ask "why" questions and seek causes probably helped early hominids survive through better understanding the weather, or where predators or prey were likely to congregate. Religion could then arise when this valuable mental capacity was extended to far more general questions such as "Why is the sky above us?" or "Why does the world exist?"

When Darwin addressed "the origin of the moral sense", Brooke continued, he did not rely on "reductively biological" explanations but "focused on a social dimension - our need to win the approbation of our fellow human beings".

"Selfish behaviour would induce feelings of discomfort and tend to generate disapproval. Religious belief was not explained away but given a reinforcing role in the emergence of conscience," Brooke explained.

Unlike some of his disciples, Darwin had no desire to devalue our moral and religious sense by stressing the relativity of moral values. Instead, he tried to find a natural explanation for what he saw as the highest ethical principle - that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Brooke concluded by noting that "arguments grounded in religious authority have been used both to justify and to abolish claims for racial segregation. Evolutionary biology has itself been as powerful a resource for the justification of eugenic policies." In the words of David Livingstone, professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen's University Belfast, "the enthusiastic coterie of latter-day Darwinians intent on canonising Darwin and (his most prominent advocate Thomas) Huxley... need to honestly acknowledge the racism and sexism that snake their way through evolution's most sacred texts."

Religion as social control

Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Liverpool University, noted that researchers on evolutionary psychology had ignored religion. Yet it had become clear "in the past five years or so that religion is a core problem in human evolution". He therefore attempted "to sketch out why evolution might have given rise to a capacity for religion" - and particularly the ritual aspects of religion, which "may predate the rise of modern humans".

Religion, he suggested, may have arisen in the small groups that form the basis for "primate social life" and are based on "an implicit social contract" whereby people are expected to help each other. (Dunbar has argued elsewhere that ancestral humans tended to live in "clans" of about 150, roughly the same size as modern religious communes and Asian horticultural villages.) The challenge that any such co-operative system faces is "the problem of the free rider - those who take the benefits of the social contract without paying their fair share of the costs. Once you get free riders in systems like that, they very quickly destroy them.

"Effectively you trust that everybody else will pay their way in the system and that all your selfless contributions to the group effort will even out in the end. The moment we undermine that trust, the whole system breaks down; everyone reverts to pure selfishness as the only viable solution - watch out for number one and blow the rest."

Many modern Darwinians do not believe in Darwin's idea of group selection but in what Dunbar called "group-level selection": "For the past 30 or 40 years, evolutionary biology has focused on the individual. In the end, of course, the individual (or, more correctly, the gene) is core to everything evolutionary. But species that are capable of supporting complex co-operative socialities benefit from the efficiencies that these permit. Selection acts at the level of the group..." Yet such group-level co-operation can flourish only in so far as it passes the ultimate Darwinian test of helping the individuals within the group survive and reproduce.

It is within this context, Dunbar argued, that "we seem to have evolved a whole suite of mechanisms for keeping free riders at bay. One of these mechanisms, I suggest, has been religion. If you look at the forms of religion that you find in traditional societies, they are very much built around social bonding. In the classic case of Bushman trance dances, they are very much designed to bond everybody to the common project of the group. They are very experiential, there is no grand theology - it's very much a religion of 'doing' and 'being'. And it's this ecstatic element that I think cues us in to what's going on, because something seems to happen when you engage in these ecstatic activities that makes you feel more part of the community. The rituals of religion seem to be especially good at triggering a cascade of neuro-endocrines, and it is these that are responsible for that 'kapow' effect we get in ecstatic experiences... In my view, this has played an extremely important role in the process of human evolution, by allowing us to create the kinds of integrated communities that work together."

A genetic base for racism?

John Dupre, an IAS fellow and director of Egenis (the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics in Society Centre at Exeter University), spoke about "race in relation to contemporary biology". This, he suggested, boiled down to two basic questions - whether there is some genetic basis for race and whether there is a genetic basis for racism. His responses were unequivocal: "Not really, there's no real genetic basis for race, and as for a genetic basis for racism, there's none at all."

Dupre proceeded to set out why he felt so sure. Rejecting the common notion that we are "a rather genetically homogeneous species", he suggested that we can find a good deal of genetic diversity alongside the obvious "behavioural cultural diversity". We can point, for example, to the kind of "very local adaptive diversity" that may explain why it is Kenyans from high altitudes who win marathons.

Yet despite "all the different levels at which differences can be traced", said Dupre, "race doesn't fit any very interesting or salient one. Within Africa, because African populations include the very oldest human groups, there's a huge diversity in the way people are - physiologically, genetically and culturally - but when you map all these layers of variation, race doesn't pick out any useful ways of thinking about this. One is drawn to the inevitable conclusion that race should be understood as a historical, social and political concept roughly imposed on some fairly arbitrarily selected biological differences." In Latin America, for example, there are continuous gradations on the genetic level based on historic mixing of populations - classifications based on ancestry or skin colour serve a social function rather than recognising biological realities.

Dupre was even more forthright about the idea of any genetic basis for racism: "It is variation in the environment, not variation in biology, that will surely be more useful in explaining why some people rather than others become racists." (Similarly, if one asks why particular people become religious fundamentalists, geography, levels of education and poverty are much more plausible causal factors than their genetic inheritance.) While we are undoubtedly "thoroughly social animals", Dupre added, this "can easily conceal the fact that the ways that sociality can be realised in different contexts are enormously diverse. Of course it can be realised through a common project of racism, unfortunately. But it can equally be realised through various kinds of ritual and religion. And it can be realised in many other ways. Sociality is in fact essential to the enormous behavioural flexibility of the human species, and to suppose that it evolved simply to serve one of these countless possible expressions is, to say the least, unwarranted."

Science and race

In talking about race and genetics, argued Anthony Monaco, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and pro vice-chancellor for planning and resources at Oxford, we need to be very cautious about the ways research is reported. It is simplistic to talk about a "gene for" muscular dystrophy or Huntington's disease, never mind a "gene for talking". The unthinking use of racial terms is even more of a problem.

"Now that the Human Genome Project has been completed," argued Monaco, "we have catalogues of almost every variant in the human genome, and these variants can be used quite effectively to define continental or geographical populations. The human genetics and biomedical communities use the term 'race' in thousands of publications - and only in about a quarter of those do they ever define it." Despite all the theoretical problems with the notion of "race", as set out by Dupre and others, Monaco warned that this casually racial vocabulary was "already entrenched in the literature. So we need to get a handle on what we mean by 'race' and how we interpret the outcome of these types of studies." Science may have largely booted out "race" as a meaningful biological concept, yet even scientists find it difficult to get by without it.

The IAS is committed to bringing humanists and people from other disciplines into dialogue with scientists. Madeleine Bunting, the Guardian columnist, who also took part in the What Makes a Racist? debate, welcomes the decline of racial science but remains interested in what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called "imagined communities" - and the political pressures that sustain them. "Debates about difference, which used to be dominated by race, are now dominated by culture," she told me. Yet the effect can be similarly pernicious. It may now be unusual to hear anyone - even the most bigoted - saying that Arabs are more degenerate than whites. But is it any better if people go around implying that there is a single simple thing called "Islamic culture" that is inherently misogynist, obscurantist or violent?

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