Invention, Imagination, Race, and Nation

A Victorian bishop’s wife allegedly reacted to Darwin’s findings as follows: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”1

imagined_DVIn this article, I consider three books which claim races and nations are “constructed”: Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson,2 The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand,3 and The Invention of the White Race, by Theodore Allen.4 The latter work was positively reviewed on Counterpunch.5 However, I aim to show that evolutionary approaches are better at explaining both ethnic and national identity than the methodology used by these authors.

Benedict Anderson’s famous account of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities begins with an extract from a poem by Daniel Defoe:

      Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
      That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
      In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
      Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot…
      From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came, …
      Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane…

Defoe’s intention was to defend the king of England, who was Dutch, against xenophobic criticism: “we don’t belong to one race, so how can we demand that our king belongs to it?”

More recently, John Barnes made a strong case for rejecting the concept of biological race: ‘Racism came from the idea of race, which is a man-made construct. Race is not scientific or genetic. It does not actually exist. Race came about to validate and justify colonialism and slavery.’6

sand_DVShlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People agrees with the idea that race is a “construct” which deceives people into believing they have common interests. Sand’s specific claim is that the majority of the world’s Jews have no ancestors who lived in Palestine, and that therefore the state of Israel is based on a lie. For a few centuries after Christ, he claims, Judaism actively sought converts. He says it’s not true that Jews were thrown out of Palestine and then wandered the world for two thousand years – rather, a few who left voluntarily converted many, including the whole nation of the Khazars, located by the Crimean sea. Many of the Khazars’ descendants ended up in Europe.

Though popular in Palestine solidarity circles, Sand accepts that his work has had no effect on Israeli nationalism nor on Jewish identity worldwide. Why is this so? If you expose a delusion, wouldn’t you expect significant numbers to abandon it, and thank you?

whiterace_DVThe argument of Theodore Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race, is another contribution to the view that racial identity is a cultural construction. He argues that white Americans weren’t originally “racist” toward black ones, but they were taught to be by their rulers, because the latter had an interest in keeping their subjects divided.

Anderson, Sand, and Allen are all left-wing academics. In attempting to show weaknesses in their arguments, I am going to make selective use of the work of two very right-wing scholars, Frank Salter and Kevin MacDonald. This should not be seen as an endorsement of their politics.

aus-immFor example, Frank Salter, the author of Genetic Interests,7 is a white Australian who opposes immigration from the developing world into “his” country. I completely reject this opinion, agreeing instead with left-wing Australian journalist John Pilger on this question.8 Considering how white Australia was founded, it’s unethical to try to stop third world refugees settling there.

American evolutionary historian professor Kevin MacDonald is also a right-winger. His Evolutionary Strategies of Ethnocentric Behavior9 argues that “ethnic affiliations are extraordinarily robust” and that this is because racial identity is biologically beneficial to the genes which cause it.

But the notion that racial identity is adaptive does not imply that it is morally justifiable, any more than accepting the obvious fact that heterosexuality is more adaptive than homosexuality has any consequences whatever for one’s views on gay rights.

To put it another way, lack of empathy with Salter’s and MacDonald’s political views is no reason at all to reject their factual assertions, which they claim are based on science.

Salter’s demonstration that ethnic identity is adaptive,7 and MacDonald’s attempt to use evolutionary psychology to explain ethnic conflict,9 stand independently, and have to be approached like any other theory which claims to be scientific.

And regardless of the views of MacDonald and Salter, a more fundamental influence on my perspective is the work of evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers, who happens to be a leftist. His recent book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life10 provides a solid foundation for understanding the Darwinian approach to human beliefs and behavior. Genes “deceive” us into working to make copies of themselves. This is a key to working out a scientific explanation for the appeal of nationalism.

Benedict Anderson argues that nations are “imagined communities.” But, if you claim that some national identities are completely invented, for example, Indonesian, you concede that some are less so. The fact that nations, unlike tribes, have the characteristic that most of its members will never meet each other – one of Anderson’s central motifs – doesn’t seem to me to be as important as it does to him.

Human beings may feel strong ethnic identity with people whom they’ll never meet. For example, white Britons often feel above-average empathy with white Australians, on the other side of the world. This feeling is conceivably an extension of tribal identity, which might be explained as an adaptive trait which evolved during the Stone Age.

Theodore Allen’s argument is the antithesis of the above speculation; an uncompromising example of class-based leftism. He believes that “whiteness” is an “ideology”. He thinks working-class Americans of European origin have often been victims of a capitalist strategy to divide the poor by making some of them feel they have “white privilege.” He tries to prove his thesis by aggregating facts which he thinks conform to it. On page 215, he claims that because there was a revolt of both African and European laborers against their employers in 1676 this is “supreme proof that the white race did not exist.” It proves nothing of the sort. The fact that the degree of white identity went up and down says nothing about whether it ever corresponded to real interests.

Why did some poor Americans accept that they belong to “the white race” if their only interests were class interests, as Allen argues? How did the ruling class manage to persuade them they have ethnic interests too?

In complete contrast, Kevin MacDonald tries to show that ethnic identity has a biological basis. Among other examples, he cites Pierre van den Berghe to the effect that “many ethnic groupings are remarkably stable; the Flemings and Walloons of Belgium are ‘almost exactly where their ancestors were when Julius Caesar wrote De Bello Gallico.‘”

Frank Salter relocates this argument on scientific grounds, in his book, Genetic Interests.7

Most readers will have no difficulty with the argument that the maternal instinct can be explained by the fact that, since large female mammals have few offspring, it is adaptive for the genes in those mammals to produce caring for each of those offspring, in preference to non-relatives.

Yet we know that we share most of our genes – over ninety-nine percent – with all other human beings, and up to ninety-six percent with other apes.

Salter’s theory says that what makes our genes code for preferring one individual over another is the difference in our relatedness to each of those two individuals.11

It’s only the genes which differ between individuals which count. Of the genes which differ, those in our relatives are more likely to be copies of our own.

This is why we are altruistic to our kin.

Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane worked out that it makes genetic sense to die for two or more brothers or sisters, or eight or more first cousins, but not fewer.

But the percentage genetic advantage in choosing to be altruistic toward an individual from among millions of people somewhat related to you, over someone much more distantly related, is about the same as that in choosing to be altruistic to your relatives over individuals in those millions of somewhat related people. That is one explanation of ethnic identity.

So what about nationalism?

Anderson claims that nationalism arose among the creoles – upper-class colonials like Washington and Bolivar – and describes in great detail the appropriation of ancient buildings by modern nations, the rise of national languages via newspapers and novels, and so on. But this all fails to answer the question with which he begins his book – why are so many people prepared to die for “their” nation?

“This style of imagining did not come out of thin air” he writes (page 189) but he doesn’t explain where it did come from. Anderson argues nationalism evolved in Latin America partly as a result of the way the Spanish Empire was administered. For example, a functionary from Medellin (in Colombia) was able to win promotion to Bogota (also in Colombia), but not to Caracas (in Venezuela). But why would this lead to deep feelings of identity with Colombia and not Venezuela?

Wars between the “liberated” South American states have been among the worst in history. Why would anyone risk their life for Paraguay versus Uruguay? Saying that the poor are victims of “bourgeois ideology” when they line up outside recruiting stations merely says that some people manage to convince others that their interests coincide, when they don’t. It doesn’t say how they manage to achieve this.

In chapter five of his book, Shlomo Sand tries to discredit Zionism and the conception of Jews as a race, by showing how it had much in common with the crude racist theories of its time, including National Socialism. Sand puts “language and culture” before “biology”, and expresses as much instinctive hostility to Darwinism as a bishop’s wife. But where do language and culture come from, if not from our genes? You can’t say cultural artifacts are produced by culture ad infinitum; at some point, you have to explain culture without reference to itself.

Sand’s dismissal of a Darwinist approach relies heavily on selecting the worst of its mistakes from the early 20th century. But evolutionary theory, applied to human beings, has made advances subsequently. On page 266 Sand disagrees with Sandler’s claim that Jews in effect have become a “racial entity”. But strong feelings of Jewish identity exist. Will informing Western Jews they are really Khazars, and have no connection with Palestine, undermine support among many of them for the ongoing ethnic cleansing of that country?

Isn’t it possible that, “in effect”, genes for ethnic identity which arose during the Stone Age because it was adaptive, can “deceive”10 individuals into feeling more related than they really are? And that this is the most economical explanation of the old lie “dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”?

Feelings of ethnic identity can be mistaken. But if there is ethnic solidarity among initially unrelated people, intramarriage will gradually make that solidarity more adaptive.

The fact that races difficult to define and are fuzzy at the edges doesn’t make the concept “race” meaningless, as “anti-racists” often aver. Families are fuzzy too. Do your second cousins, who share two great-grandparents with you, belong to your family? It’s a question of degree.

But one can be more precise. Just as one can calculate exactly how many cousins it is worth (from the point of view of genes) laying down one’s life for, one’s race is the set of people with whom it is adaptive for one to ethnically identify.

Thus, in peaceful times, it might be adaptive for Walloons to distinguish themselves from Flemings. But when the Romans invaded, this may have changed.

This approach would have explanatory power even if the whole of humankind could be arranged in a spectrum in which any two neighboring people were genetically equidistant. By this, I mean that, for any individual, copies of his genes would be as likely to survive, if he died for the person to his left, as for the person to his right. Of course, this is a thought experiment.

When Genghis Khan’s grandsons invaded Europe, alleles in Europe’s inhabitants which coded for European identity would be more likely to cause copies of themselves than alleles which did not.

The reader may doubt that such genes exist. Further research, if the political climate allowed, might be able to find out.

Some leftists have had an uneasy relationship with defenders of an evolutionary approach to human nature.

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s autobiography describes a lifetime of facing up to left-wing hostility to Darwinism in academia.12 In chapter 14, Chagnon gives a detailed account of what he calls “Twilight in Cultural Anthropology: Postmodernism and Radical Anthropology Supplant Science”. He details unscholarly attacks on his findings, which were inconvenient for the dominant trend in anthropology, the school of Franz Boas and his followers, like Margaret Mead and Marshall Sahlins. On pages 386-387, Chagnon describes a particular low point, an organized physical attack on leading Darwinist scholar Edward Wilson. In 2000, a left-wing journalist published a book of outrageous libels against Chagnon. Though the claims of the book were ridiculous, and the American Anthropological Association’s leaders knew they were ridiculous, they nevertheless had to pretend to take them seriously, for political reasons. I witnessed this first-hand at their meeting in San Francisco.

This is unfortunate. A realistic view of race and nation should begin with the observation that human beings are the products of evolution by means of natural selection.

  1. Alleged quotation from the Bishop of Worcester’s wife, 1860. []
  2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983 (new edition 2006). []
  3. Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, Verso, 2010. []
  4. Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, volumes I and II, 1994 and 1997. []
  5. Jeffrey B. Perry, review of The Invention of the White Race, Counterpunch, 2013. []
  6. John Barnes, A Nation of ‘Passive Racists’, Daily Telegraph, 2012. []
  7. Frank Salter, Genetic Interests, Transaction Press, 2007. [] [] []
  8. John Pilger, Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy is cynical and lawless, The Guardian, 2013. []
  9. Kevin MacDonald, Evolutionary Strategies of Ethnocentric Behavior (PDF), Rutgers University, 2002. [] []
  10. Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, 2011. [] []
  11. Answer to the question ‘If I share 98% of my genes with a chimpanzee and 60% with a banana, how come I only share 50% of my genes with my own daughter?‘ []
  12. Napoleon Chagnon, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, Simon & Schuster, 2013. []

Jay Knott wrote The Mass Psychology of Anti-Fascism. Read other articles by Jay.