Can Sociobiology Explain Racism?

How the work of a maligned Canadian psychologist reflects the era of Trump.

by Kastalia Medrano
Flickr / zoomar

Sociobiology is less of a field than it is a series of footpaths through a field. The most well-trod of the bunch is the one that leads toward behavioral ecology, the hypothesis that human behavior is selected over time as part of an evolutionary process. Behavioral ecology research concerns decision making within the context of deep history and explains kin selection, the genetic urge to protect those with similar DNA. This sort of thinking makes sense from a standpoint of biological fitness — all animals are wired to fight for the survival and proliferation of their genes — but it can head in a frightening direction quickly. After all, if people prioritize the protection of their own family members (even the ones they don’t like) doesn’t it make sense that they would also want to protect members of their own race?

This is a question experts, racists, and people fitting both descriptions have been asking for some time. And the answers, though interesting in a political context, often use scientific language to obscure or assuage cultural guilt.

The British-Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton stretched kin selection into the Genetic Similarity Theory, the idea that racialism is a natural evolutionary development. Rushton, widely considered a white nationalist by advocacy groups, believed in correlations between ethnic heritage and not only empathy, but IQ (a whole messy thing in and of itself. Rushton’s science was frequently criticized as racist junk, but it found an audience anyway.

In a 2005 Ottowa Citizen article, Rushton and a colleague stated that it will be impossible for a society to make any progress in race relations as long it believes that one race is to blame for the plight of another. That’s a hard argument to make in North America, where slavery brought forth a powerful economy and a massive indigenous population was all but wiped out. But Rushton didn’t really have a historical point. His argument was, in essence, that the “underachievement” of black communities was being wrongly blamed on white people. For him, the problem was genetics, not three centuries of institutionalized oppression.

Rushton’s central gripe later in his career was that he couldn’t speak about his research without being labeled a racial propagandist. This would no doubt resonate with those who rail against political correctness, but the real problem for Rushton was experimental. His work was choked with inconsistencies and false positives and frequently served solely as a vehicle for the bigotry that funded it.

The 13-year, multinational Human Genome Project has found that humankind is pretty homogenous: We’re made of 99.9 percent the same stuff, regardless of where we come from.

To be clear, there are a lot of questions in sociobiology that don’t have adequate answers. We know there are links between heritable genetics and disease. We also know that there’s a link between genetics and various mental illnesses that affect behavior. Instincts can be hereditary. What about bigotry?

As far as the nature versus nurture aspect of racist behavior goes, it’s one thing to say we might be genetically driven to sacrifice more for immediate family. But to say we’re merely doing our DNA’s bidding in thinking of members of other races as biologically inferior is a distortion of the truth. The truth is that prejudice is extremely complicated and seems to arise from a variety of different life experiences.

“It’s very harmful, this philosophy we currently have, which is that anybody, all of us, we can just reinvent ourselves,” Rushton said in the Ottowa Citizen piece. “We can grow and change and develop into something very different, that somehow we’re not constrained genetically.”

Rushton died in 2012, but his questionable work lives on wherever anyone holds a “White Lives Matter” sign. The truth about sociobiology is that it has never supplied the public with actionable answers or compelling excuses for horrific behavior.

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