A Reply to Jobling

Ian Jobling has posted an unfriendly reply to my blog article. It can only be described arrogant, hostile, and condescending — the sort of thing one expects from children who don’t play well with others. The arrogance is especially surprising given that, unlike his adversaries, he has not published even one article related to evolutionary psychology or the theory of kinship in a refereed scientific journal. But worse, it is massively confused on the theory and willfully ignorant of the data.

Here I reiterate and elaborate the main idea: Relationships of friendship and marriage are fundamentally not about altruism but about reciprocity and self-interest. Altruism is a no-go in evolutionary thinking generally because it implies unreciprocated giving. Kin selection is not about altruism because helping relatives at cost is compensated when relatives succeed. So, except in extreme situations like martyrdom or coercion (see below), no one is really talking about altruism.

Jobling’s original article is all about the limits of altruism — that there is a drop off after cousins, and beyond that natural selection could not operate to produce a module for kin altruism. All of his examples — from suicide bombing to giving food — involve giving some resource to kin or others, and then showing that beyond cousins unreciprocated giving can’t evolve.

But that is precisely where I start out —indeed he quotes me as follows: “Because the similarity-detecting mechanisms implied by [Rushton’s genetic similarity theory] assess low levels of genetic relatedness, they would not be expected to produce detectable levels of providing unreciprocated resources to others (altruism).” Exactly. I simply don’t understand how Jobling could disagree with me on this based on his original article. Quite simply, that’s exactly what his article labors to show — without the courtesy of citing me.

We agree on this, but then we draw different conclusions. He decides to completely jettison the evolutionary guts of GST — the data showing that people assort on the basis of genetic similarity and do so for evolutionarily significant reasons. And — most importantly — that preference for genetic similarity in others is heritable.  The finding that there is genetic variation for similarity preference is highly compatible with the proposal that GS mechanisms are an adaptation. Many adaptations show genetic variation, as I have argued in the personality literature (see here and here).

Instead, Jobling proposes a non-evolutionary theory of similarity seeking — Consensual Validation Theory — that your basic anti-evolutionary psychologist (and there are many of them) would love. With evolutionary theorists like Jobling, who needs Boas or Stephen Jay Gould? Minimally, one would have to unpack CVT to propose how this fits with an evolutionary perspective. What are the adaptations? How are they triggered, etc.? How do they relate to fitness in ancestral and contemporary environments?

Fundamentally, Jobling has to show that the heritability data underpinning GST are incorrect — that is, that the degree of preference for genetic similarity is not in fact influenced by genetic variation. (Unlike Jobling’s writing, Rushton published his data in Psychological Science, a top-level mainstream journal in psychology.) Given this growing body of data, it demands a theory of how it fits with evolutionary thinking. I reject the idea that it implies altruism.

Here’s a really simple way to state my argument: Attraction to genetically similar others is no different from any other kind of attraction — e.g., sexual desire, romantic love, or beauty. No one would argue that these attractions imply altruism, and each of them has an obvious evolutionary interpretation and much supporting data that they are indeed adaptations. But when it comes to genetic similarity, the conventional thinking — which is reflected in Jobling’s original article — has always seen genetic similarity as a watered down version of kin selection and then started looking for altruism.

I began from a different perspective — seeing it as a form of attraction to people that must compete with a variety of other attractions in influencing behavior. This view is not bogged down with specious arguments about altruism that Jobling falls into. Jobling writes:

MacDonald’s logic here is plainly invalid: after all, if kin selection can work at the level of the ethny, why shouldn’t it lead to adaptations for altruism among co-ethnics as well as kin? At low levels of relatedness, altruism should be attenuated, but not absent.

First of all, nothing has to evolve — as Jobling notes in his original article. But my reinterpretation was to accept the idea that the genetic relationship is so attenuated that it becomes difficult to image how evolution would be able to engineer genetic benefits when the recipients of unreciprocated benefits are so distantly related. If I make friends with another White person, say, who is slightly more correlated with me genetically than the White average, the amount of altruism toward this person warranted by our genetic overlap would be vanishingly small and it’s difficult to see how natural selection would be able to calibrate this. As Fisher and Hamilton famoulsy wrote, it would make genetic sense to give up having one of my own children in order to help my brother have two. But how much should I give up to a friend who is only slightly more genetically similar to me than the average White person? Maybe buy him a drink? Or decide not to have one of my own  children but help him have 18 more children than he would have otherwise? (Hard to do in a monogamous culture.) Or would 33 be more appropriate? 39?

There is no way that an adaptation would be able to calculate the degree of self-sacrifice warranted by this relationship. And in fact, when you look at these relationships, you see reciprocity. What is the evidence that altruism is involved?

I am arguing that although natural selection would be unlikely to be able to finely calibrate levels of unreciprocated helping appropriate for each relationship in my life, it would be able to select for self-interest in situations where there is a choice among alternatives, keeping in mind that other interests besides genetic relatedness (especially the resource value of alternatives) are involved. That is, if all else is equal (and it often is not), people should make alliances with people who are more genetically similar to themselves and they will do so because of a psychological mechanism that makes genetically similar others more attractive than average.

So imagine a choice where a woman can marry a genetically similar person or a very wealthy person from another ethnic group. (Elin Woods and Nicole Brown Simpson come to mind.) From a gene’s eye point of view, genetic similarity is one resource among several. The genes may be better off marrying the person from a different ethnic group, and at the proximal level different psychological attractions pull us in different directions. But there is no giving up of anything — no altruism. It’s completely a matter of perceived self-interest. (Elin Woods and Nicole Brown Simpson may well have behaved maladaptively, but no one can foresee the future.) In the same way, someone might weigh the benefits of allying with one’s ethnic group versus a bribe to act against the interests of one’s ethnic group.

Actually, we see a lot of this among White elites these days: Pretty much all of our White, non-Jewish media personalities and political leaders are massively rewarded for betraying their people. From a rational point of view, these people are behaving maladaptively because they are ignoring their ethnic genetic interests — Frank Salter’s argument (see below); the problem is that the emotional attachment to their people is too weak to prevent them from succumbing to the blandishments of fame and fortune.

Whereas calculating genetically appropriate levels of unreciprocated helping for a particular friendship would be next to impossible for natural selection to act on, natural selection could easily act by calibrating genetic similarity as a general attraction to similar others. In my view, this is what the data show. Rushton’s research shows that this attraction to others is heritable, meaning that partly for genetic reasons, some people are attracted to genetically similar others more than other people are. But even for people who are high on attraction to genetically similar others, within the relationship, self-interest and reciprocity are the rule — there is simply a higher cost of defection (see below). In general, people don’t go around being massively altruistic toward their ethnic group — even Jews give less than 2% of their money to charity and even less to ethnic charities. (Their giving would increase if the Jewish community was under threat — as predicted by Social Identity Theory.) But it does make people feel more comfortable with genetically similar others and trust them more (hence Bernie Madoff).

Relationships based on genetic similarity create a cost for defection — just as a relationship based on sexual attraction creates a cost of defection. Someone who is in a relationship with a sexually attractive person may want to defect — for example, if the person is self-centered or a drug addict. But the cost is the loss of a sexually satisfying relationship. Again, where’s the altruism?

In short, my approach aims to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I want to retain a powerful and important set of data and show how taking account of genetic similarity in others could evolve and be an important psychological component of human behavior.

Jobling’s rejoinder seems to grasp that I reject altruism, but he claims that “When one unpacks MacDonald’s arguments, one finds that altruism is implicit in his theory of ethnicity.” Rather than tell us exactly why this is so — difficult to do, since I explicitly reject altruism — Jobling instead states, “MacDonald is saying that, because of the genetic interest they have in each other’s well-being, co-ethnics go on cooperating even when it is in their self-interest to defect. That is, an individual will forego a benefit to himself in order to grant one to his co-ethnic cooperative partner. This is altruism.”

But that’s ridiculous. That is not at all what I am saying. I am saying that if it is one’s interest to defect (see examples above), then defect. We see it all the time. Genetic similarity is not the only game in town — it’s not the only evolved interest mediated by a psychological attraction that people have.

Actually, it’s sad that it’s not the only game in town. White people would not be in such dire straits if it were a stronger force. Our greatest difficulty right now is that all the rewards for attaining high social status, fame, and fortune for Whites lie with those who turn their backs on their people — a point I elaborate in this article.

Jobling continues:

Also, MacDonald thinks that people prefer to cooperate with co-ethnics rather than allo-ethnics because the former are more inclined to trust each other more than the latter are.

This is correct and based on a great deal of data (e.g., De Bruine’s research discussed in my academic article). This would bias one in favor of hiring a co-ethnic all things being equal. But if the job candidate is completely incompetent (hiring an English major to a computer programmer job) so that the firm would be impacted negatively, this is a bad move. Again, I don’t think that natural selection could calibrate how much loss in performance the Black CEO in Jobling’s example should be willing to incur by hiring a Black person over a more competent White person. (In in this particular case, social identity mechanisms may also be involved — the CEO may see a White person in ingroup-outgroup terms which would bias the decision even more in the direction of ethnic preference.) But I do think that all things being equal in terms of talent, he should prefer the Black person. Then if the prosperity for the company leads to biological success in its employees, the Black CEO would benefit genetically more by hiring the co-ethnic.

Perhaps this is why the most flagrant racial favoritism is typically seen in departments that have little impact on the performance of the company — human resources versus research and development. Companies accept a certain amount load because they are being watched like hawks by the affirmative action industry and shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson.

Jobling writes:

Moreover, many other passages in the article are comprehensible only on the assumption that ethnic altruism exists. For example, in defining ethnocentrism, MacDonald quotes a passage from William Graham Sumner that implies the existence of ethnic altruism.

Right. But notice that that passage where I quote Sumner is in my section on social identity theory — not GST. Jobling is oblivious to the whole point of my article — that we need to posit several different psychological mechanisms related to ethnicity and ethnic conflict. I clearly don’t think that GST provides a psychological basis for the phenomenon of ingroup-outgroup conflict or for martyrdom, but I do argue that social identity theory does provide such a theory. (My original argument is presented in Chapter 1 of Separation and Its Discontents where it forms the basis of my theory of anti-Semitism; a more recent (2008) review of the literature on psychological mechanisms of ethnocentrism was published in a top mainstream journal in psychology, Psychological Review. That article also mentions recent research showing racial imprinting — infants preferring their own race, typically as a result of exposure to parents and other family members. This, of course, has led to anxiety among the righteous about racist babies. It is possible that the preferences found in genetic similarity research are mediated by this imprinting process. I can imagine a future where all Whites would be required to expose their babies to non-Whites during this formative period. Orwell would love it.)

Social identity theory fills an obvious gap — one alluded to by Jobling in his original article: Most ethnic conflict is among closely related groups. (Think Israelis and Palestinians.) In my original article I challenged Jobling to state how my argument for an evolutionary basis of social identity mechanisms is incorrect, but he has not responded. He acknowledges he was incorrect in criticizing my comments on martyrdom. But that means he acknowledges that I am correct that there are psychological mechanisms that could lead to martyrdom and intense identification with an ingroup.


Later, MacDonald writes, “Even if all humans were equally opportunistic and fickle in their group affiliations, so that group interest was always contingent on individual self-interest, groups as vehicles of selection would still be required in order to understand the behavior of coordinated groups.”8 Here MacDonald implies that sometimes people may not be motivated by self-interest, and it seems to me that altruism is the only alternative.

This does not follow at all. My view is that explicit processing mechanisms are critical for understanding how humans are able to form effective groups. (My most recent article on this is in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.) Jobling is simply showing that he is unfamiliar with the literature on cultural group selection. Briefly, because of explicit processing, humans are able to form cohesive groups where, for example, self-sacrificing behavior is coerced via social controls or made psychologically attractive by compelling ideologies. Think of a military unit or a group evolutionary strategy (GES). And in the case of a GES, social controls can provide a selective environment ensuring that people who are most committed to group goals and most embody the group’s cultural ideals (e.g., scholarship and religious fanaticism (hyper-ethnocentrism)  among traditional Jewish groups) prosper by leaving more progeny. And that is evolution.


In another passage, MacDonald writes, “For individuals highly predisposed to collectivism, ingroup norms and the duty to cooperate and subordinate individual goals to group goals are paramount.”9 Subordinating individual goals to the goals of the ethnic group would seem an act of ethnic altruism. MacDonald does nothing to reconcile this sentence with his earlier assertion that ethnic altruism does not exist, despite the apparent contradiction. The same is true of the other passages in which ethnic altruism is implied.

False. This is the argument for martyrdom. Since Jobling accepts that argument (see our comments on my original article), I don’t see the problem. Again, my argument is that individualism/collectivism is an individual differences dimension of social identity processes and that people extreme on collectivism do not have an algorithm that balances the costs of group membership with the benefits of leaving the group. One of my ideas about Jewish society is that the most extreme members of the group — the ones like those in medieval Germany who killed their families rather than convert — are the vanguard. These are the Jews who populate the West Bank settler movement and the forces of the racialist right both in Israel and the US.


MacDonald’s confusion is evident in his blog post as well. If MacDonald does not believe in the existence of ethnic altruism, then he must disagree with Frank Salter’s theory of ethnicity, to which the concept of ethnic altruism is central. Salter plainly believes that natural selection has led to the evolution of instincts for ethnic altruism.

Salter is very clear that rational choice mechanisms are required in order to calculate ethnic genetic interests. Read his book — or my review:

A basic theme of the book is that humans cannot rely on their suite of evolved modules to achieve or even perceive their genetic interests in the modern world. Many individuals do not have the same psychological motivation for their ethnic interests that they have, say, for their family. Salter’s reasoning actually reinforces arguments that there are enormous barriers to the evolution of altruism within local groups, since, as noted above, random coethnics have zero ethnic kinship. Presumably this is because our evolved psychology was designed mainly for a world of small groups separated by tiny genetic differences.

To conclude: For all the political biases and other weaknesses of the academic system, it does give one a certain humility in the face of the daunting complexity of human behavior. Perhaps because he has not subjected himself to the peer review process, Jobling lacks this humility and the result is a demeanor filled with arrogance, hostility, and contempt.

The good news is that Jobling is safely ensconced in his own website where no one need take him seriously — least of all anyone who thinks of himself as developing the groundwork for a scientifically based legitimacy for identifying with White people and their interests.

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