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Misunderstandings of Kin Selection and the Delay in Quantifying Ethnic Kinship

Frank Salter


Published: 2008/03/01


This paper discusses likely causes of a thirty-year delay in quantifying the kinship, or relatedness, between random members of ethnic groups. The introduction consists of reporting that quantification (Harpending 2002; Salter 2002), briefly discussing its constituent theoretical steps, and pointing to its theoretical importance. The main goal is to discuss some of the misconceptions that delayed quantification and which are still widespread in the social and evolutionary literature. Recent population-genetic research has quantified the genetic similarity between random members of an ethnic group as up to three orders of magnitude greater than that computed from genealogies. The kinship between random co-ethnics can exceed that between grandparent and grandchild. Quantifying ethnic kinship, whether within bands, tribes or modern ethnies, is theoretically significant because it is essential for developing and testing evolutionary theories of ethnic altruism, just as understanding the evolution of nepotism began with the quantification of kinship within families. Quantifying ethnic kinship is a prerequisite for exploring the applicability of kin selection theory to ethnicity. The theoretical tools for that quantification were provided by W. D. Hamilton by 1971 yet it was achieved in 2002, a delay of three decades. This paper identifies some of the factors that contributed to this extraordinary delay. These include misinterpretations by leading geneticists and evolutionary theorists that continue to be widely accepted as a basis for rejecting ethnic kinship and related theories. Fallacies and oversights that have impeded the realization of ethnic kinship are described. Refutations are usually available in the mainstream scientific literature from the 1970s and 1980s, though the argument based on the distinction between neutral and functional genes has been empirically falsified only since 2000. Examples are chosen from leading scientists who have made important contributions in other areas of genetics, especially L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, C. Venter, R. Lewontin, and R. Dawkins. An appendix by H. Harpending puts in perspective Lewontin’s argument that ethnies (including races) are genetically insubstantial categories due to variation being greater within than among them, by showing that the same is true of nuclear families. It is now clear that ethnies do generally have genetic identities, that despite blurred boundaries they are in fact, not only in myth, descent groups. The significance of ethnic group similarity can only be apprehended through the lens of theory, not through naïve evaluation of data. If the kinship found within extended families is significant, then probably so too is that found between members of ethnic groups.

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