Category Archives: Xenophobia

Evolution is not just for Democrats

Reading the news these days, one might get the impression that evolution is just for Democrats, not Republicans. For example, in a recent (23 August 2011) post for the Washington Post, Richard Dawkins calls Republican Governor of Texas a “fool” and an “ignoramus” for expressing some doubts about evolution, and implies that these labels apply to anyone voting Republican.  The next day (24 August 2011), Ann Coulter published her own post, calling Richard Dawkins “retarded” and trotting out a series of tired old arguments against evolution.

Coulter is just plain wrong on evolution. At the same time, though, Dawkins is wrong to disparage the political opinions of people who happen to vote Republican.

Coulter is wrong about evolution in many ways. For example, she claims that if “Darwin were able to come back today and peer through a modern microscope to see the inner workings of a cell, he would instantly abandon his own theory.” Darwin, however, spent many years peering through microscopes at the inner workings of barnacles, and it was the fascinating complexity of their anatomy that deepened his understanding of evolution. Modern understanding of the inner workings of cells has further deepened scientific appreciation for how evolution works. The patterns of DNA encoded within each living cell have confirmed Darwin’s insight that every living thing on earth is part of one big family, the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life

Comparing the similarity of DNA sequences has revealed some interesting surprises – for example, humans and chimpanzees are closer kin than chimpanzees and gorillas, even though gorillas look basically like giant chimpanzees – but has also generally confirmed the big picture of the tree that would be expected from shared descent with modification: humans and chimps are twigs on the primate branch, sprouting from the mammalian limb, emerging from the great trunk of vertebrate life, which near the roots of the tree joins with other great trunks and side branches: fungi, plants, and a variety of different bacteria.

Similarly, Coulter brings out the old argument from probability theory, that “it is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum – forget the 200 parts of the cilum! – could all arise at once by random mutation.” But as Dawkins clearly explains in The Blind Watchmaker – which Coulter doesn’t seem to have read, or at least not understood – evolution doesn’t throw together everything at once. Evolution works with small gradual changes, building on what exists already. It would indeed be statistically highly improbable to throw even a small number of things together at random and have them work together at all, much less well. But evolution doesn’t do that. Instead, evolution blindly, mindlessly tinkers with what already exists, changing a little bit here and there at random, and then lets these different variants fight it out in the arena of natural selection.

Coulter has made a career of strident political writing, and while the tone of her piece may be more appealing to those who already agree with her than persuasive to her opponents, it is at least consistent with her genre. Richard Dawkins, however, is a scientist. Indeed, he is one of our clearest thinkers and writers on evolution. It is disappointing that he here conflates views on evolution – which he rightly calls a scientific fact – with views on politics – which are, after all, opinions.

We have abundant evidence from fossils, geology, genetics, molecular biology, physiology, development, biogeography, and numerous other fields of study that evolution has occurred and continues to occur all around us. In contrast, while political opinions bear some relation to facts, they nevertheless pertain mainly to matters about which people with intelligence, experience and expertise continue to debate vigorously. Political questions are generally much more complicated and harder to be sure of than questions in the natural sciences, and they often relate to values – what people care about – rather than things that can be objectively determined to be true or false. Many political questions concern economics – which is routinely insulted as “the dismal science” because economists have such a great diversity of opinions. And why is economic opinion diverse? Is it because economists are more stupid or quarrelsome than other academics? Or is it because economies are just incredibly complex and difficult to understand?

Contrary to what readers of Coulter and Dawkins might be led to believe, evolution is not just for Democrats. The scientific truth of evolution doesn’t depend on a person’s political affiliation. People with all sorts of different political views have made important contributions to evolutionary theory. The great population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane was an idealistic Marxist and from 1937 to1950 a member of the Communist Party. Haldane’s colleague Ronald Fisher, described by Dawkins as “the greatest biologist since Darwin,” was politically conservative. Nobody today much cares about Haldane’s or Fisher’s political views. It’s their scientific ideas that have survived the test of time.

Darwin’s own political views might be hard to categorize today, because political views change greatly over time. Darwin shared Lincoln’s exact birthday (February 12, 1809) and Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. Maybe, if Darwin had been American, he would have voted Republican. I don’t know. But we don’t remember Darwin for the stances he took on the pressing political issues of his day. We remember him for his idea of evolution by natural selection, which remains just as powerful today as it was 150 years ago, and will continue to be so 150 years from now, or 150 thousand years from how, when the political issues we care so much about today will long be forgotten.

Indeed, evolution by natural selection will necessarily occur wherever life exists in the universe. If intelligent beings exist on a planet orbiting, say, Alpha Centauri, we can be sure of two things: (i) life on their planet undergoes evolution by natural selection and (ii) the question of whether to vote Republican or Democrat will be entirely, er, alien to them.

Xenophobia and Immigration

A few years back, during a family visit to northern Minnesota, we came across the Hibbing Ethnic Festival. My brother-in-law, who lived in California, thought this was hilarious, as Hibbing is about 97% white.

“What ethic diversity?” he asked. “Swedes AND Norwegians?”

And sure enough, the Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Welsh, Cornish, and other people that immigrated into Hibbing and other Iron Range towns were pretty much all pale-skinned Europeans. But they were not yet White. They were members of mutually hostile tribes. They spoke different languages, had different customs, different churches, and maintained deep suspicions towards one another.

Mom’s maternal grandparents were Swedish and Norwegian. At the time, this was a mixed marriage. Now we have a hard time remembering who was the Swede and who was the Norwegian. But at the time it was a big deal. And their daughter, my Grandma, once told me that in high school there was a boy who was allowed to come visit with her on the porch, but he was not allowed inside the house, because he was a Finn.

Nowadays, I think the Swedes and Norwegians and even the Finns get along just fine up on the Iron Range – and many of them are so intermarried through so many generations that ethnicity is just something to remember at the Ethnic Festival, if they still have it, when they need to decide who bakes the pasties, and who brings the lutefisk.

And we have such a universally favorable opinion now of the Norwegians – with their fjords and nice sweaters – that the news of the recent shooting just seemed unbelievable. We’ve grown used to Americans doing that sort of thing, but Norwegians?

The shooter, Anders Breivik, apparently thought that he was providing a wake-up call to save Norwegians and other Europeans from cultural and demographic suicide. According to his manifesto, he believes that Norway is being overrun with foreigners, many of them Muslim.

As part of an effort to understand why people can have such hostility to outsiders, Rhitu Chatterjee from PRI’s The World interviewed me, Frans de Waal, and Samuel Bowles about the evolutionary roots of xenophobia (fear of strangers). In this story, I get quoted mainly talking about the nasty side of chimpanzees, while the others get quoted talking about how nice bonobos and humans can be. Which I suppose is fine, since much of my work focuses on how and why chimpanzees can be so nasty to each other. But now that I have a blog, I can add a few of my own words about how and why people are different from chimpanzees.

Male chimpanzees spend their whole lives in the same community. They never leave their territory, which may cover 5 to 25 or more square kilometers (something like 2 to 10 square miles). They are perfectly capable of walking further than that, but in a world of chimpanzees, you can only go so far before running into another community’s territory.

Chimpanzees live in a zero-sum world. The only way they can get more stuff is by taking it from others. Their food supply depends on their territory. If they want more food, they have to take more territory from their neighbors. And if a male were to immigrate into another community, he would have nothing to offer the resident males. He would just be another competitor in the mating game – and even worse, he would be an unrelated competitor. If you’re a chimpanzee competing for mates against your father or brother or half-brother or cousin, it’s not so bad if you lose, because you share some of your genes with your kin, and those will get passed on. But losing to a stranger? That’s a total loss.

Humans, in contrast, have created a world that’s not zero-sum. When we meet strangers, we don’t have to knock them over the head and take their stuff to benefit from them. Instead, we can trade with them, to our mutual benefit. Even better, if we trade with someone this year instead of knocking him over the head, he might come back next year with more stuff that we want. We can also benefit from immigrants. When my great-great grandfather Anton came over from Sweden, the resident males in northern Minnesota didn’t gang up on him and kill him. Instead, they hired him to work in the iron mine. There were already lots of people living in the United States when Anton immigrated, but there weren’t enough of them willing to live up north and do the difficult, dangerous work of iron mining. So the mine owners, and the steel workers, and the people who used steel for their farm tools and anything else, all benefited from these immigrants. And it was dangerous – Anton died in the mine a month before his thirty-third birthday, when a block of stone fell on his head, leaving behind a young widow with a baby boy.

In the late 1800s, Norway and Sweden were poor countries with rapidly growing populations, and many people left for the US, where they and their descendents lost their tribal identities and became Americans. Now Norway and Sweden are rich, with slowly growing and rapidly aging populations. These countries need immigrants, and the immigrants are coming in from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States has its share of ethnic conflict and resentment towards immigrants.  But it’s even trickier for the European countries. Being American depends on citizenship, not ethnicity. But in Europe, following the fall of empires and the rise of democracy, national boundaries were drawn around ethno-linguistic groups. It’s going to be a challenge for countries based mainly on old tribal boundaries to absorb these new immigrants. But with an aging, low fertility population, an increasing number of new immigrants will be needed to keep the European economies going. And as long as the countries to the south and east of Europe have growing populations and few job prospects at home, there will be lots of people knocking at the door.

But the amazing thing, from the perspective of a chimpanzee, is that people do this at all.