Quibbling with Cofnas: I
Hereditarianism yes, race realism not so much
This is the first of three pieces addressing ’s arguments, and more widely arguments the folk over at Magazine make. Lorenzo has linked to relevant material from both substacks (and elsewhere) throughout.
Not On Your Team, But Always Fair is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
While I agree with the broad thrust of his arguments, I have some criticisms, quibbles and extensions.
He argues that the Right needs to attract smart people away from the Left. To do this, he suggests, people need to be weaned off the equality thesis. I have re-labelled this the equalitarian thesis—rather than the equality thesis—to make it more specific and to pair it more directly with the hereditarian thesis.
The equalitarian thesis is: there are no inherent differences between human groups. Therefore, absence of equal outcomes between groups in any society implies the persistence of social injustice that correctly applied social action can eliminate.
The hereditarian thesis is: key traits are differently distributed across human groups, including key genetic traits. Therefore, average differences between groups in cultural and social outcomes are inevitable. Policies based on the denial of differences in the distribution of traits between human groups require a level of realism denial in discourse and action that degrades social functioning.
The equalitarian thesis claims that we are cognitive blank slates on which social action operates to produce social outcomes. Human nature is therefore a social construct.
The hereditarian thesis denies that humans are blank slates, in two senses. First, we must have innate tendencies in order to learn—and act—as we do and secondly, that our genetic variation entails cognitive variation. As evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein put it:
Humans are not blank slates, but of all organisms on Earth, we are the blankest (p.146).
Nathan Cofnas holds that (1) the hereditarian thesis is true and the equalitarian thesis is false and (2) this necessitates race realism—that races are real and vary for genetic reasons.
About that word …
My first problem is with the term race realism. An obvious difficulty—as Cofnas himself notes—is that folk who typically call themselves race realists are mired in a whole set of other delusions.
It’s not helpful to start with such a differentiation problem.
I absolutely agree that human populations differ in the distribution of traits. This is obviously true, otherwise we would not be able to tell people’s continental or sub-continental ancestry (or ancestries) by looking at them. This we can do, to quite a high degree of accuracy.
As with so many biological categories, there are fuzzy boundary sets, but they’re still identifiable sets.
Biological races exist in our nearest genetic relative—Pan troglodytes (Chimpanzees)—but not in humans: biologists call them sub-species. We humans simply have not been separate breeding populations for long enough, in part due to back-flows among human populations. There used to be various biological races within the genus Homo—such as Neanderthals and Denisovans—but Homo sapiens sapiens replaced them.1
Although the Sahara experienced desertification about 5,500 years ago, separation between North African and Sub-Saharan African populations is clearly much older, producing different selection pressures.
The notion that selection pressures can generate different physical markers, but somehow have no effect on the multitude of genes that affect our brains—and so our cognitive patterns—is just silly. Different environments with different selection pressures are going to have effects. The question is whether those differences map to continental/sub-continental origin enough to make race a useful concept: the answer is (mostly) not.
That different human populations differ in the distribution of traits, including cognitive traits—such as intelligence—is an identifiable fact. This means precisely what Nathan Cofnas says it means. The equalitarian thesis is false. We cannot expect an even distribution of social outcomes between groups, even in the most fair and prosperous societies.
The African awkwardness
My difficulty is with the notion of race as the correct descriptor of such groups. It is quite clear that, for instance, the descendants of American slaves, Afro-Caribbeans and recent African immigrants have rather different social outcomes in the US. Lumping them together as being “black” is hugely misleading: it’s an obscuring of reality, not an expression of it.—if nothing else illustrates the importance of culture. Clearly Nigerians who immigrate to the US (and elsewhere) come with much healthier parenting and educational norms than those already present in the US. They tumble down the achievement slope towards the black American mean in the second generation.
Given that executive function—cognitive processes necessary for behavioural control —is more heritable than intelligence, populations subject to different selection pressures for executive function are likely to continue to show different patterns, even with regression towards the mean.
Traits differ in their distribution by breeding populations. Race picks up breeding populations among humans quite poorly. It does not even begin to coincide with cultural patterns that—as we can see from the above example—also matter. These also tend to align with breeding patterns. Ethnicity picks up culture2 and breeding patterns imperfectly, but much better than does continental or sub-continental origin.
Given the differences in selection pressures between the region where humans originally evolved and everywhere else, and the existence of out-of-Africa genetic bottlenecks, Sub-Saharan African continental ancestry is likely to matter more for the distribution of traits as a region than elsewhere. So, continental or sub-continental origin (“race”) may have more descriptive power there than elsewhere.
The reason why being from the place where humans originally evolved matters disproportionately is that this is also the region where parasites, pathogens, predators, and large herbivores co-evolved with humans. Elsewhere, we were vermin—an introduced species. Hence the—at times startling—speed with which we spread across and populated new lands. It’s no accident that megafauna survived human impact much better in Africa—where they co-evolved with humans—than elsewhere.
Selection pressures where a local biosphere was primed to resist us are different from selection pressures where the main evolutionary threat—and opportunity—was other humans. One would expect the former to select more for physical robustness but less so for traits beneficial to human interaction. Before the development of modern medicine, the environment of Sub-Saharan Africa was notoriously hostile to Europeans: life-expectancy in tropical Africa was a year or less.
Given the harshness of the landscape, the remarkable number of local venomous species, and even lower population density, Australia’s Aborigines were in a similar situation to Sub-Saharan Africans.
The endemic slavery in Africa—low population density makes labour more valuable than land—created low-trust, so less functional, societies. The lack of navigable rivers and useful harbours were further inhibitory factors. Sub-Saharan Africa persistently lagged in development of social and technological complexity.
The much greater genetic variety—and more random distribution of alleles—one sees in Africa is not only a function of being the ancestral human population, but also broader selection pressures. As a recent study notes:
the genetic variation found outside of Africa is largely a subset of African genetic diversity.
The lower genetic variation outside Africa implies stronger selection pressures to deal with other humans. Notably, the Neolithic y-chromosome bottleneck was minor in Africa but much more intense elsewhere.
So, race becomes mainly about Sub-Saharan African—and perhaps also Aboriginal Australian—ancestry versus, well, everyone else. Unsurprisingly, both Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia have distinctive family and kinship patterns, including some startlingly high levels of polygyny for farming and foraging societies respectively.
… and the social
Nathan Cofnas argues, correctly, that genes make a difference in the distribution of social outcomes. The social is emergent out of the biological. Of course this is true.
But the notion of heritability is not only about genes: it’s about everything you get from your parents. Genes are hugely important—studies of adopted children make that clear. But that is not even close to all you inherit from your parents. Moreover, being the supremely cultural species, humans also pick up all sorts of things from the folk around them, as they (we) are cognitively structured to do.
Nathan Cofnas is pointing to the biological bit of the social being emergent from the biological. In pointing out the differences between the descendants of American slaves, the descendants of Afro-Caribbean slaves, and recent African immigrants I am, in part, pointing to the biological. These represent three groups subject to differing selection pressures.
But I am also pointing to the social. We are, par excellence, the cultural species. We are the products of gene-culture co-evolution. Different ecological and social circumstances also select for different life strategies.
Different cultures bundle together different life strategies. That, most assuredly, makes a difference to social outcomes. Hence you can get quite different outcomes between groups with little genetic difference. Thus, Australia’s experience of Muslim and Catholic (Maronite) Lebanese migrants differs. The latter have used existing Catholic networks to integrate notably more successfully than the former.
Moreover, while those bundles of life strategies we call culture can change—and do so much more readily than genes, a key human advantage—many cultural behaviours are also highly persistent. Since much of the value of culture—and of norms more generally—is to generate stable mutual expectations, persistence has, at least in part, been selected for.
Even when there are identifiable differences in the genetic distribution of traits, race is not a good descriptor. This particularly applies to groups such as the Hakka, who are a classic market-dominant minority—much persecuted but also strikingly successful.
Which life strategies folk pursue makes a difference and life strategies are not evenly shared between groups. One of the most destructive progressive fallacies is the notion that good or at least benign social outcomes can be conferred from above by a benevolent central authority. This is something the equalitarian thesis encourages but the hereditarian thesis undermines.
Eugenics in historic public policy infamously tarnished the hereditarian thesis. Eugenics was a policy of double arrogance: its supporters thought they had enough knowledge to engage in such policies and that the state was sufficiently capable in implementing eugenic policy interventions.
An accurate underlying thesis does not guarantee good or moral policy.
That said, the equalitarian thesis’s history is even worse. Ideologies based on the false blank slate vision of humanity have killed tens of millions of people and tyrannised hundreds of millions more. They did so in the name of creating equalitarian social orders.3
Hitler’s ideology—which generated the only mass killings on a comparable scale—was explicitly hostile to science. He denied that science could lead to food abundance, which would eliminate the need for lebensraum. His ideology arose from a deeply anti-Darwinian, and pre-Darwinian, stream of thought. His taxonomy of races, and their natures and roles, was biological nonsense.
Context does matter
Even with varying distributions of traits between groups, social context makes a huge difference. Crime is a tail and locality phenomenon. Most crime is committed by a small proportion of (mostly) men and most violent crime is committed by tiny minority of (overwhelmingly) men.
African-Americans have much higher violent crime rates than other Americans. Stronger selection for physical robustness and weaker selection for executive function generates a larger tail of highly physically robust, lower executive function (mostly) men. This generates a persistent pattern of higher rates of violent crime among Sub-Saharan African diaspora populations across the globe.
This pattern tends to be particularly intense among the descendants of slaves, as slaves were selected for physical robustness but not executive function. If anything, selection for the latter was negative: better cooperators sold the worse cooperators into slavery. Hence, populations with slave ancestry can be expected to have larger high physical robustness/lower executive function tails, so an elevated propensity for violent crime.
Yet, when we look at differences in African-American and Euro-American homicide rates—the most robust measure of violent crime—we find that:
(1) there is no difference in African-American and Euro-American homicide rates in the rural US;
(2) homicide rate differences are larger the more urbanised the locality; and
(3) the latter effect is almost entirely driven by the proportion of female-headed households in a locality.
These patterns come from trait distributions interacting with social circumstances. They are a manifestation of the social being emergent from the biological—which entails that the social also has causal power.
So yes, there is a greater propensity for violent crime among those with Sub-Saharan African ancestry—particularly if they are a slave diaspora—but this is an almost entirely soluble problem. How do we know? Rural US has solved it.
Because of differences in trait distributions, localities with a high concentration of highly physically robust/lower executive function folk are vulnerable to under-policing. This vulnerability is worsened by a high rate of fatherlessness. This vulnerability is entirely amenable to effective social policy, as imprisoning or executing the violent tail at sufficient rates suppresses crime.
Breeding populations =/= race
There needs to be a way of putting the hereditarian thesis that is not tied to race, because race is not a good general descriptor. It’s not an accurate term when it comes to which groups differ by what distribution of traits and why. Thus, race realism ends up being a somewhat self-contradictory term. It is, quite simply, not realist enough.
Why do we end up using race? Because it is easy and lazy. Relatedly, the American Republic was structured such that folk of different continental origin had different roles, with European origin (“white”) being an encompassing identity across a wide range of national origins. This means race has a specific American history that is often untrue in other countries.
Genes are a large reason why social outcomes will not be equal across social groups. They are reason enough on their own for the equalitarian thesis—that a just society will result in even distribution of social outcomes across groups—to be false.
But they are not the only reason it’s false. That cultures bundle together different life strategy patterns is another, large reason. Cultural patterns are somewhat more tractable than differences in genetic dispensations, but not all that much more tractable, and particularly not when it comes to public policy. Cultures also set up selection processes, both genetic and social. Various cultural traits show considerable persistence.
Moreover, there are selection processes within societies. That executive function is almost entirely heritable is surely a large reason why social mobility is so persistently low across human societies. Given the selection processes involved in being enslaved, it’s likely why social mobility is even lower among slave diasporas.
The (false) claim that the US is a deeply racist country is made in part to express contempt for one’s fellow citizens. It also licences various grifts by an African-American vampire elite.5 It rests on ignoring the success of recent African immigrants while being outraged that the descendants of American slaves—with an average IQ6 around one standard deviation below that for Euro-Americans—do not achieve the same social outcomes as the latter. This includes outrage at even mentioning this deeply confronting fact.
Hence I agree with the hereditarian thesis, but not with race realism as either a useful or accurate term.
Yes, the equalitarian thesis has to be abandoned. It’s both false and destructive. But race realism is not the replacement. The hereditarian thesis is the replacement, one based on a full evolutionary picture.
If, as is clear, the equalitarian thesis is false, how has it maintained itself as a basis for moral judgement and public policy? By falsehoods, censorship—including self-censorship and self-curating of information—and intimidation. This includes the Big Lie that there is no regime of falsehoods, censorship and intimidation.
I discuss these concluding comments further in my next two pieces.
Not On Your Team, But Always Fair is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, Swift, 2021.
Charles Pincourt with James Lindsay, Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond, Imprint: Independently published, 2021.
Robert J. Richards, Was Hitler a Darwinian?: Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell with Mind And Matter & Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, [1944, 1958, 1992] 2013.
Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Bodley Head, 2015.
Emmanuel Todd, The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems, (trans. David Garroch), Basil Blackwell, 1985.
P. W. Anderson, ‘More is Different,’ Science, New Series, Vol. 177, No. 4047. (Aug. 4, 1972), 393-396.
C. Barbieri, D.E. Blasi, E. Arango-Isaza, A.G. Sotiropoulos, H. Hammarström, S. Wichmann, S.J. Greenhill, R.D. Gray, R. Forkel, B. Bickel, K.K. Shimizu, ‘A global analysis of matches and mismatches between human genetic and linguistic histories,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 2022 Nov 22;119(47):e2122084119.
Jessica J.M. Barnes, Angela J. Dean, L. Sanjay Nandam, Redmond G. O’Connell, and Mark A. Bellgrove, ‘The Molecular Genetics of Executive Function: Role of Monoamine System Genes,’ Biological Psychiatry, 2011;69:e127–e143.
Catherine Cubbin, Linda Williams Pickle, and Lois Fingerhut, ‘Social Context and Geographic Patterns of Homicide Among US Black and White Males,’ American Journal of Public Health, April 2000, Vol. 90, No. 4, 579-587.
Laura E. Engelhardt, Daniel A. Briley, Frank D. Mann, K. Paige Harden Tucker-Drob, ‘Genes Unite Executive Functions in Childhood,’ Psychological Science, 2015 August, 26(8), 1151–1163.
O¨rjan Falk, Ma¨rta Wallinius, Sebastian Lundstro¨m, Thomas Frisell, Henrik Anckarsa¨ter, No´ra Kerekes, ‘The 1% of the population accountable for 63% of all violent crime convictions,’ Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 2014, 49, 559–571.
Erik P. Hoel, Larissa Albantakis, and Giulio Tononi, ‘Quantifying causal emergence shows that macro can beat micro,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, December 3, 2013, vol. 110, no. 49, 19790–19795.
Monika Karmin, et al., ‘A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture,’ Genome Resources, 2015 Apr;25(4):459-66.
Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga, ‘Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa,’ The Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2012, 94(1): 20–36.
Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, ‘The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,’ American Economic Review, December 2011, 101 (7): 3221–3252.
Aaron Pfennig, Lindsay N Petersen, Paidamoyo Kachambwa, Joseph Lachance, ‘Evolutionary Genetics and Admixture in African Populations,’ Genome Biology and Evolution, Volume 15, Issue 4, April 2023, evad054
A.R. Templeton. ‘Biological races in humans,’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2013 Sep; 44(3): 262-71.
Jordan E. Theriault, Liane Young, Lisa Feldman Barrett, ‘The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure’, Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 36, March 2021, 100-136.
John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, ‘The Psychological Foundations of Culture,’ in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby (eds), Oxford University Press, 1992, 19-136.
A mixture of absorption through inter-breeding, out-competing for resources, and killing them off.
Culture notoriously has lots of definitions in the scholarly and scientific literature. Richerson and Boyd’s definition — Culture is socially learned information stored in individuals' brains that is capable of affecting behavior — is used here. This also covers bundling of life strategies.
From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs is a program of systematic transfer of resources but is presumed to apply equally to all humans.
Localities that systematically generate substantially less revenue than they cost in expenditure.
These elites get standing and leverage when their group does disproportionately badly: they therefore have an interest in the continuation of any group disadvantage.
Some recent increases in African-American IQ scores likely come from an influx of Afro-Caribbean and—disproportionately highly educated—African immigrants.