Distinct ethnic phenomena – the Boyd circle

Moya, C. and R. Boyd (2015). “Different selection pressures give rise to distinct ethnic phenomena: A functionalist framework with illustrations from the Peruvian Altiplano.” Human Nature 26: 1-27.

Moya and Boyd advance the interesting idea that ethnic behaviour is not a unitary adaptation but consists of several distinct adaptations. Those are: stereotyping, essentialism 1 (belief in the biological transmission of characteristics and stability of identity), essentialism 2 (mutual exclusivity of group identity), intentional ethnic markers, intragroup assortment, and intergroup competition and hostility. By interviewing people from different communities in the Peruvian Altiplano, Moya and Boyd find evidence that these types of ethnic behaviour are not closely correlated. For example, stereotyping by language is weak but stronger by economic function. Even different types of essentialism, the idea that group characteristics are innate, do not covary. Language categories are not considered mutually exclusive but religions generally are.

This is an important addition to ethnicity research, though it raises questions.

The title promised insights into the different selection pressures that shaped how humans think about descent groups (ethnicity is at core a population believed to descend from common ancestors). But it seems that by “selection pressure” Moya and Boyd do not mean biological but cultural selection, because they make scant reference to biological evolution. This will be disappointing to readers who do not accept Boyd and Richerson’s theory of cultural group selection, the idea that cultural innovations can select for genes. They are less happy with the much older Darwinian idea that differences in genes can select for different cultures. That would be an example of essentialism, and like all the other ethnic categories discussed by Boyd and associates, it seems they are all disreputable hangovers from a less enlightened time.

So uncomfortable is the Boyd circle with genetic evolution that the one genetics study cited by Moya and Boyd is from 1997, before the Human Genome Diversity Project database got underway, and before findings based on it began to appear, such as the acceleration of human evolution over the last 10,000 years. Moya and Boyd are careful to distinguish communities from kin groups, as if robust ethnic kinship had not been hypothesised as a basis for intra-group altruism as long ago as 1971 by William Hamilton and confirmed by Henry Harpending in 1979 and again in 2002.[i] The thrust of their work is contained in a book title, by Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (2005). A title that would have more accurately described their agenda is: Not By Genes At All. Like Moya and Boyd, they tend to ignore genetically-loaded ethnic markers, especially race, which they label essentialism. Physiognomy, hair form, colour, and personality differences are overlooked .Their citation lists exclude research on gene-based identity, such as by the late J. Philippe Rushton, who pioneered the application of life history theory to ethnicity, and Kevin MacDonald, who applied implicit processing theory to that subject.[ii] Tatu Vanhanen’s ground-breaking cross-cultural comparison of conflict and ethnic heterogeneity do not figure. Even sociobiological studies that link genetic diversity negatively to social cohesion are bypassed.[iii] But they do cite scholars such as Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides who deny that ethnic kinship is significant.[iv]

Another disappointment with the paper is its apparent American ethnocentrism. The citations largely ignore European researchers who have made large contributions to ethnic studies. The Boyd circle regularly ignores such pioneers of evolutionary approaches as Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Pierre van den Berghe, Tatu Vanhanen, and even the evolutionary psychology of  Ernst Fehr and colleagues in Switzerland. The latter’s groundbreaking work on parochial altruism and morality is surely relevant to the cultural as well as genetic ethnic markers.[v]

The Boyd school produces intricate work that has advanced interesting and useful ideas. However, it is constrained by ideology and parochialism, as well as minority ethnocentrism, which appears to play a gate-keeping role in choice of topics, concepts and even literature review.


[i] Hamilton, W. D. (1971). Selection of selfish and altruistic behavior in some extreme models. Man and beast: Comparative social behavior. J. F. Eisenberg and W. S. Dillon. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Press: 59-91, Appendix B.

Harpending, H. (1979). “The population genetics of interactions.” American Naturalist 113: 622—630.

Harpending, H. (2002). “Kinship and population subdivision.” Population and Environment 24(2): 141-147.

[ii] Salter, F. K. and H. Harpending (2013). “J. P. Rushton’s theory of ethnic nepotism.” Personality and Individual Differences http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886912005569, Vol. 55: 256-260.

MacDonald, K. B. (2008). “Effortful control, explicit processing and the regulation of human evolved predispositions.” Psychological Review 115(4): 1012-1031.

And see MacDonald’s multi-dimensional theory of ethnicity: MacDonald, K. B. (2001). “An integrative evolutionary perspective on ethnicity.” Politics and the Life Sciences 20(1): 67-79.

[iii] E.g. Vanhanen, T. (2012). Ethnic conflicts: Their biological roots in ethnic nepotism. London, Ulster Institute for Social Research.

Salter, F. K. (2002). “Estimating ethnic genetic interests: Is it adaptive to resist replacement migration?” Population and Environment 24(2): 111-140.

[iv] Kurzban, R., J. Tooby and L. Cosmides (2001). “Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98: 15387-15392.

[v] Bernhard, H., U. Fischbacher and E. Fehr (2006). “Parochial altruism in humans.” Nature 442: 912-915.


Genetic similarity of friends

New research finds that friends share about 1% of their genes, equivalent to the kinship between fourth cousins.[1]  The research has been widely reported, though its full significance for social dynamics has been missed by journalists.[2]  The lead author of the research paper, Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, stated: “One per cent may not sound much to the lay person but to geneticists it is a significant number. . . . Choosing friends wisely improves your chances of survival.”

If 1% is significant, the 6% genetic kinship that is typical among members of the same ethnic group is large.  That is the figure estimated by geneticist Henry Harpending in a recent paper,[3] discussed in a previous post. The researchers must know about ethnic kinship because they controlled for it in their study.  They did so by limiting the study to friends formed within the same ethnic group.  Only by doing so could they have detected the relatively slight similarity between friends, which otherwise would have been swamped by the much greater ethnic differences.

Christakis and Fowler conclude that the phenotypical similarity of friends, on which assortment is based, reflects genetic similarity.

The result is that friends form an intermediate pool of kinship concentration lying between the ethny and the clan. Within the clan the nuclear family is the most intense concentration of kinship , while geographical races and humanity as a whole are the least concentrated. In descending order of concentration, kinship runs thus: Nuclear family, extended family (clan), friends, ethny, race, humanity. The sizes of each of these run in the opposite direction. However, the aggregate kinship within each pool does not correspond in any simple way with concentration. For example, according to Christakis and Fowler’s new data, someone with five close friends has a store of only 5% of his or her genes in them,[4] while just one child carries 25% of a parent’s genome.[5] Also, an ethnic group can hold millions of copies of a member’s genome, though it is more difficult to invest in this large aggregate kinship.[6]

Sharing genes with friends must have paid off in greater fitness in the evolutionary past, the authors argue.  By the same reasoning helping fellow ethnics can also advance fitness in multi-ethnic societies.

These new data add to the growing evidence of the important of genetic kinship as a factor in social ties beyond the family, consistent with sociobiological theory.  The fact that people show persistent assortment along the lines of genetic similarity despite fulsome praise of diversity in schools and the media should strike a cautionary note.  The finding is consistent with evidence that diversity undermines social cohesion and increases conflict.[7]

A disappointing feature of the study is its failure to mention what was, to my knowledge, the first finding of genetic similarity among friends.  That was conducted by the late J. Philippe Rushton, the Canadian evolutionary psychologist and published in a paper titled “Genetic Similarity in Male Friends” in 1989.[8]  Rushton replicated this finding using different methods in 2005.[9]  These groundbreaking studies deserve to be acknowledged.

Frank Salter



[1] Christakis, N. A. and J. H. Fowler (2014). “Friendship and natural selection.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences file:///C:/Users/Frank/Documents/DataFilesHOME/2014conferences+papersHOME/Consultancy2014/HumanNatureNews140330/Posts-drafts1403/PNAS-2014-Christakis-1400825111.pdf.

[2] Hannah Devlin (2014). “Our friends are closer to us than we think”, The Australian, 16 July, p. 9. Reprinted from The Times of London. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/our-friends-are-closer-to-us-than-we-think/story-fnb64oi6-1226990253506.

[3] Salter, F. K. and H. Harpending (2013). “J. P. Rushton’s theory of ethnic nepotism.” Personality and Individual Differences http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886912005569 55: 256-260.

[4] 5 x 1%

[5] Both measures being made against the baseline of the parent’s ethnic population. For technical reasons parental kinship is 25%, half of the more intuitive measure of relatedness.

[6] Salter, F. K. (2007/2003). On genetic interests. Family, ethnicity, and humanity in an age of mass migration. New York, Transaction.

[7] Vanhanen, T. (2012). Ethnic conflicts: Their biological roots in ethnic nepotism. London, Ulster Institute for Social Research.

[8] Rushton, J. P. (1989). “Genetic similarity in male friends.” Ethology and Sociobiology 10: 361-73.

[9] Rushton, J. P. (2005). “Mate choice and friendship in twins: Evidence for genetic similarity.” Psychological Science 16(7): 555-59.


Strong Ethnic Kinship Confirmed

A recent analysis by American geneticist Henry Harpending has confirmed his earlier finding that the genetic similarity of members of ethnic groups is typically that of first cousins.[1] (Genetic similarity is known as “kinship” in genetics.)

The finding has profound implications for understanding ethnic and racial solidarity and conflict. These implications will be discussed in future posts in HNN. The present report summarises the findings and the methods used to derive them.

The first estimation based on Harpending’s genetic model was made in 2002 using old genetic assay data provided by Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues, in their landmark book The History and Geography of Human Genes, published in 1994.[2]

The new estimation is based on a much larger database recently collected by the Human Genome Project. The new data are also much more accurate. Cavalli-Sforza’s gene tests looked at fewer than 100 sites in the genome. With improvements in technology, the new methods look at up to a million sites spread throughout the genome.

The figures show ethnic kinship in a mixed population of French and Japanese. A fellow ethnic has a kinship of around 0.06, which is just below that of first cousins within an ethnic group (0.065). Kinship with members of the other ethnic group is negative, also at 0.06. 

This makes an ethnic group a very large genetic kin group, but only when it interacts with other ethnic groups. Ethnic kinship is zero within homogeneous societies.

In an ethnically mixed society of French and Japanese, an ethnic group numbering one million carries 120,000 copies of each member’s genome. By comparison, a family of three children carries 1.5 copies of each parent’s genome.[3] If children represent parents’ “reproductive interests” or “genetic interests”, ethnic groups represent a much greater interest for their members. Genetically speaking, our ethnic families are 5 or 6 orders of magnitude larger than our nuclear families.

The emotions that so often mark ethnic affairs begin to make sense, even though they evolved in small scale societies with smaller genetic aggregates. Genetic survival is at stake in the welfare of our ethnic groups as it is in the welfare of our children.

This might seem simple, as if ethnic identity can be reduced to counting genes. That is not how the human mind works, a distinction that I will discuss in future posts. Suffice it that descent is what defines and motivates kinship systems. Members of an ethnic group believe that they share common ancestors, as well as sharing culture. This perceived kinship, expressed in folkloric metaphors such as “shared blood”, explains why ethnic motivation can be so strong. Knowledge of genetics might in principle substitute for folklore but has not been necessary for thousands of years. By and large, beliefs about ancestry are accurate, so that folkloric beliefs about ethnicity generally correspond to genetic identity. This contradicts the sociological theory that ethnicity and race are socially constructed with no role for biology.

A fuller explanation of the original findings and their social and political implications can be found in my book On Genetic Interests.[4] I shall discuss ethnic kinship again in Human Nature News.

Frank Salter, 31st March 2014


[1] Salter, F. K. and H. Harpending (2012). “J. P. Rushton’s theory of ethnic nepotism.” Personality and Individual Differences http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886912005569.

Harpending, H. (2002). “Kinship and population subdivision.” Population and Environment 24(2): 141-147.

[2] Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., P. Menozzi and A. Piazza (1994). The history and geography of human genes. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Salter, F. K. (2002). “Estimating ethnic genetic interests: Is it adaptive to resist replacement migration?” Population and Environment 24(2): 111-140.

[3] In an outbred population.

[4] Salter, F. K. (2007/2003). On genetic interests. Family, ethnicity, and humanity in an age of mass migration. New York, Transaction.