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.


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