Philosophical Reflections on On Genetic Interest

I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests… and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. — Hamilton, 1991

Opening reflections

Through reproduction, living beings obtain immortality. This was the view of the ancients. All beings seek the divine, which is the eternal. For mortals, unending life can only be had through generation. While the individual particularity is doomed, through reproduction the general form can be perpetuated and a type of eternity can yet be grasped. In De Anima, Aristotle expresses the view thusly:

For any living thing … the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as it nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible… Since then no living thing is able to partake in what is eternal and divine by uninterrupted continuance for nothing perishable can for ever remain one and the same, it tries to achieve that end in the only way possible to it[.]

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima accounts for filial love likewise:

For among animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction… And in that way everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been… So don’t be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, because it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows zeal, which is Love.

Genetic Interest

A decade ago, Frank Salter published On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration (OGI). The book’s stated purpose was not to account for human behavior, “but rather to offer social and political theory about what individuals should do.” The book attempts to answer a theoretical question: “How would an individual behave in order to be adaptive in the modem world?” — where “adaptive” means maximizing the survival chances of the totality of one’s unique gene frequencies. In line with the book’s title, Salter concerns himself with individual, family, ethnic and species genetic stake. He concludes that a portfolio with a balanced investment in all of these is preferable. He asks, “Which [gene conserving] strategies are best?” And then replies that focusing exclusively on any one level of genetic interest is suboptimal. He concerns himself largely with “ethnic genetic interest” (EGI) for two reasons. First, reigning ideologies neglect it. They end up, as he notes, advancing species genetic interest (e.g., radical Christianity and humanism) and, when not, individual and family interest. And second, mass immigration presently threatens the existence, as coherent biocultural groups, of many ethnic groups.

Salter, both an ethnologist and political scientist in training, notes that he was motivated to write OGI after having discovered, with the help of anthropologist Henry Harpending, that the aggregate kinship shared by members of a typical ethnic or racial group, relative to random members of the species, “was typically 1000 times greater than” he originally anticipated. Prior to writing the book, he had been using van den Berghe’s theory of ethnic nepotism as a heuristic to understand ethnological findings. He wrote the book in light of his findings and the ongoing replacement-level immigration to the West. He felt that the biological impact of that process needed to be analyzed and discussed.

Semantic concerns

Despite providing a glossary (appendix 2), Salter’s terminology leads to some confusion. Part of this arises due to how he defines and applies concepts, given how they are used by others. For example, a behavior is said to be “adaptive” if it increases the overall number of copies of an individual’s distinctive genes (from appendix 2: adaptive: “to conserve or expand genetic interests”, where genetic interest means: “The number of copies of an individual’s distinctive genes”). Yet this meaning (for short: genome conserving, (G)-adaptive) is at odds with the typical gene-centered, neo-Darwinian usage, according to which adaptive behaviors are ones which increase the number of copies of genes specific to those behaviors (for short: trait conserving (T)-adaptive). Salter’s usage would seem to allow for maladaptive behaviors, in the sense of ones which would be selected against, to be “adaptive” in the sense of whole genome conserving or expanding. I qualify the statement above with “would seem” because, in personal communications, Salter insisted that he was not using “adaptive” in a way different from how gene centered, neo-Darwinians employ the term. He asserted that “the idiosyncrasy of my meaning has not been demonstrated.” Yet his definitions speak for themselves.

Similarly, he defines “genetic interest” or “genetic stake” to mean the “number of copies of an individual’s distinctive genes.” This definition allows him to speak of a genetic stake in other species. Thus he tells us that based “on gene frequencies, that humans have an interest in their genes in whatever species they happen to be propagated.” Salter is clear that genetic interest does not entail adaptations for altruism. He restates this point throughout the book, telling us, for example:

To complete this section I want to distinguish genetic interests from genes for altruism.

The idea of genetic group interests is logically distinct from the view that tribes have evolved through group selection.

The term genetic interest/stake is not uncommonly used by others. And, in line with Salter’s usage, the phrase refers a reservoir of one’s distinctive genes, just as financial stake refers to financial capital. Consistent with Salter’s usage, it does not refer to “interest” in the sense of “concern for” or in that of favoritistic behaviors; rather, the concept is frequently used to explain the evolution of altruism, nepotism and protective behaviors. Usage examples are given below:

Human beings evolve to be sensitive, as parents, to their child’s cries, as serves their genetic interest; but it is in the interest of the child’s genes to exploit this sensitivity at the occasional expense of sibling and parent alike… (Ben-Ner & Putterm, 2000).

But individuals have a genetic stake not only in their children, but also in their grandchildren, and indeed in all their relatives (Sigmund and Hauert, 2002).

While there ought to be no problem accepting that both parents have an equal genetic stake in the foetus, that they may well have an equal emotional stake in it… it is obviously true that the mother is physically attached to it in a way that the father is not. (Brassington, 2009).

Thus, it is often in the genetic ‘interest’ of an individual organism to behave, even at the expense of its own production of surviving offspring, so as to increase the reproductive success of another individual that carries copies of its own alleles (Crippen, 1989)

Yet genetic “interest/stake” is frequently used in a narrow sense. Thus, considering the psychological aspects of donor insemination, Petok (2014) tells us that, “Indeed, some [men] see adoption as a “fairer” choice because neither parent will have a genetic stake.” Of importance is that the author does not add a qualification such as “relative to their population,” so to allow the parents to have a possible genetic stake relative to the species or even to the genus. Similarly, discussing lion behavior, Lessells (1999) notes that, “These incoming males have no genetic interest in the infants that they kill, because they are unrelated to them.” Again, we see a lack of the qualifying “with respect to”. Lessells’ lions have no genetic stake in another lion’s cubs. Period. Yet Salter’s lions have an unrealized one even in a herd of antelopes. Accordingly, in response to Dawkins’ playful critique of group selection — where Dawkins rhetorically asks, “Lions and antelopes are both members of the class Mammalia… Should we then not expect lions to refrain from killing antelopes, “for the good of the mammals”?’ — Salter candidly replies that, faced with some types of threats “an adaptively-minded intelligent lion might spare antelopes, even if this meant its own demise.”

In personal communications, Salter clarified that it would only be rational for an “adaptively” minded intelligent lion to sacrifice its life under situations where the common Mammalian gene pool was under threat. Yet his clarification reiterates his broad conception of genetic interest: a lion does in fact have a genetic stake in its class’s gene pool. Whether under ordinary circumstances it would be “adaptive” to act on behalf of that is another matter. Of course, Salter’s usage is based on a reasonable reading of the “genetic stake” concept; and it’s effectively the same as that employed by E. O. Wilson. Moreover, his understanding makes sense given his broader perspective. It is just somewhat uncommon. Can humans really have a “genetic stake” in chimpanzees’ survival? If your answer is “no” then your meaning of “genetic interest” diverges from Salter’s. The semantic non-equivalence appears to arise – the exact reason is not clear to me – because many who employ the term explicitly refer to a reservoir of unique genes, yet, implicitly, of only the type that could lead to kin selection for kin altruism.

Novel application of Hamilton’s rule?

When it comes to the key theoretical question — “How would an individual behave in order to be adaptive in the modem world?” — Salter employs Hamilton’s rule, rB < C, to quantify the degree of ethnic directed altruism that would be rational for a hypothetical fitness maximizer to engage in. The employment is somewhat confusing, though. Were he strictly to concern himself with G-adaptive behaviors, his application would be, while unique, consistent. But he also seems to be intently concerned with the T-adaptivity of ethnic altruism. As such, he tells us:

Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness allows us to calculate the number of coethnics that must benefit if an altruistic act is to be adaptive. Hamilton formulated a rule for calculating when an act of altruism is adaptive, or ‘evolutionarily stable’, such that the altruist’s genes are not reduced in frequency in the population… Based on the example discussed in Chapter 3, an act of charity or heroism by an Englishman that prevented 10,000 Danes from replacing I 0,000 English would be adaptive even if the act cost the altruist his or her life and with it all prospects of raising a family [.]

Would be “adaptive” in what sense? Sacrificing one’s life to halt replacement immigration of the type discussed could be G-adaptive but most likely not T-adaptive. Yet the two meanings of “adaptive” are undifferentiated. In personal communications, Salter responded that “the differentiation is your view, not mine.” Salter rejected this criticism and maintained that “presently stated, this section undermines the credibility” of your discussion. His response, in short, was to assert that there is no conceptual difference to speak of. Since this issue resurfaces, it is worth illustrating the distinction with an example. Imagine that young adults of European ancestry could temporarily halt the replacement immigration by non-Europeans, especially ones of non-West Eurasian descent, by engaging in annual self-immolation protests. Also imagine that in reprisal the elite legally targeted the families of the individuals, generally making the families’ lives worse off. If so, the self-sacrifices would most likely succeed in shoring up, for a time, the loss of the genetic stake stored in the individuals’ continental race and, consequently the loss of their GI relative to the species gene pool. In short, our self-immolators would be G-adaptive. Yet, the genetic predispositions which incline their behavior would face negative selection, ceteris paribus, because the relevant genes would not promote their own continuance, directly or indirectly. Now, this does not mean that the dispositions would actually be selected against –- after all, they could be byproducts of some very stable disposition. But the genetic predispositions, so manifest, would, nonetheless, be T-maladaptive.

His position that there is no distinction is simply odd. After all, he applies his logic, and Hamilton’s Rule, beyond the intraspecific level. For example, he notes that, “In the unlikely event that the continuation of the species or the genera or of life of any kind was absolutely conditional on individual self-sacrifice, that would be adaptive.” Does he really think that this type of behavior could be selected for, thus could be T-adaptive? In personal communications, I suggested the follow hypothetical in an attempt to clarify his meaning: Imagine a small human colony on Mars, a planet which, after terraforming, had a relatively small but stable biotic carrying capacity. Imagine that back on earth a virus wiped out humanity (or even all life but algae) and that as a result Earth was no longer habitable for humans, despite teeming with life. Next, imagine that our Martian colony discovered that a monstrous asteroid was hurtling towards them. The brilliant scientists figured out a way to save Mars, but this required deflecting the asteroid onto a path to the Earth, which it would destroy. What would the cardinal value of GI prescribe our Mars bound humans to do– Algae over own species — and why? Assume a gene count favors the former i.e., relative to nothing more copies of shared genes are stored in the Algae than in all of the organic life on Mars. After answering that question add: also, assume that the Martian colony can survive only a few hundred years. Would Human self-sacrifice be “adaptive” or not? I think that — no reply has been forthcoming –- Salter would have to say “yes” in the G-adaptive sense. But this act would not be adaptive in any gene centered one. Thus, despite his insistence, there is a difference that he is eliding.

Salter’s failure to clearly see the distinction might explain why he seems to feel compelled, at times, to defend the possibility of group selection for altruism directed at random members of large ethnic groups (from now on: mega-ethnic altruism). We are told, for example:

Group selectionist theories have been criticized… [but] … the free rider problem among humans was probably solved long ago in small-scale societies by monitoring and punishment, as reported in contemporary band societies… Secondly, the group selection under consideration here is actually extended kin selection, since tribes and ethnics are extended kin groups.

Group selection models of tribal altruism are quite plausible. Simulations and theoretical models indicate that under restricted scenarios, such as low dispersion and local interactions, altruistic ethnocentrism can readily emerge (Hartshorn, et al. 2013). Local interactions assure that altruism emerges and group competition allows parochial clusters to out-compete both non-cooperators and universalistic altruists. Incorporating in-group policing (Bausch, 2014), punishment (Boyd, Gintis, & Bowles, 2010) and group sensitive behavioral strategies (Chen et al. 2014)) into models can expand the evolutionary space in which parochial altruism is viable. A major limiting factor to these models is group size, but for 95% of our species’ lifetime, region depending, humans lived in small forager groups. Yet given the limiting factor of group size, mega-ethnic altruism would not be T-adaptive (unless social institutions were structured in a way to make it so).

To be clear, Salter argues that humans were not selected to defend genetic interest beyond that stored in close kin networks and, as a result, that we “must rely on our intelligence” to see the importance of the stake stored in ethnic groups. Concerning the lack of adaptations, he reiterates Tooby and Cosmides (1989) point that “human societies have been monoracial for almost all of their evolutionary history” and thus that there would have been no competition between groups and resultant selection for mega-ethnic altruism. Of course, ethnocentrism is an undeniable aspects of human reality, past and present (Gat, 2012). Salter points this out. He does not commit himself to a specific explanation but suggests in the manner of Tooby and Cosmides (1989) that kin recognition systems might over-generalize in multiracial context. “[Ethnic/racial] differences,” he tells us, “may constitute super-normal releasers of familial ethnocentrism.” Alternatively, in the manner of Eibesfeldt (1998), Salter suggests that descent groups might be socially analogized to extended-kin and that this could lead to an extension of kin altruistic feelings. “If we are adapted to defend tribal genetic interests,” Salter reasons, “the explanation is more likely to reside in culturally elaborated kin selection mechanisms.” Nonetheless, he wishes to defend the T-adaptivity and consequent “evolutionarily stability” of mega-ethnic altruism. He tells us, for example:

It might be argued that group selection theory must be embraced by anyone who wants to argue that ethnic nepotism can be evolutionarily stable. In other words… any attempt to defend [ethnic genetic] interest must be evolutionarily unstable (that is, maladaptive) unless one accepts the possibility of group selection. The critic would then conclude that anyone who rejects group selection theory must also reject the concept of ethnic genetic interests as applicable to the real world. [Emphasis added]

Both his framing of the critique and his answer illustrates his tendency to fail to distinguish between the different senses of “adaptive behaviors”. Thus, in the passage above, he uses the term “adaptive” in the T-sense. He then defends the adaptivity of ethnic altruism with a reference to his discussion in his chapter 6, where he focuses on the G-sense. In defense he could have said: “Well, just as one can rationally seek to maximize general human happiness in the manner of preference utilitarians, despite such behaviors being obviously T-maladaptive, one can rationally seek to maximize ethnic genetic interest despite the same. And just as radical humanistic philosophies from Mohism to Singerian utilitarianism can encourage T-maladaptive behaviors — e.g., to love and value without preference even for oneself — and yet be relatively ideologically stable, “adaptive utilitarianism” can be likewise.” But instead he argues, basically, that mega-ethnic altruism can be T-adaptive because it can be G-adaptive.

A problem

So why the concern with evolutionary stable ethnic altruism? There seem to be two key reasons. First, Salter imagines that if ethnic altruism is evolutionary unstable, a political philosophy, such as his, will be likewise. I don’t see how this follows. One, numerous moral philosophies and ideologies council promiscuous — that is, inclusive fitness reducing — altruism and yet are memetically stable. The meme, “EGI is valuable,” could act similarly. Two, while concern for EGI would entail ethnic nepotism, it’s not obvious that ethnic nepotism requires direct fitness costing ethnic altruism. According to Harpending (2015, personal communications) the model of ethnic nepotism which he had in mind did no imply a fitness cost: “[Salter & Harpending’s (2013)] only claim is that group nepotism is advantageous for a group, not for individuals. We don’t consider any cost to it.” This type of model would seem to involve a form of homophily (ethnophily) and homophily is evolutionary stable in a wide range of conditions (Fu, Nowak, Christakis, & Fowler, 2012). Three, dispositions for both altruistic and non-altruistic ethnic nepotism can be byproducts of evolutionary stable traits and thus stable despite being inclusive fitness reducing ceteris paribus. Four, regardless of whether ethnic altruism of the type Salter has in mind is evolutionary unstable, disposition for ethnic/racial favoritism exist and are heritable (e.g., Hatemi et al., 2010; Weber, Johnson, and Arceneaux, 2011; Martin et al. 1986; Lewis & Bates, 2014; Kandler et al. 2015); a philosophy which holds EGI as valuable can simply tap into these. Five, humans are evolutionary novel creatures who can structure incentives to bring traits under positive selection; in short, they can rebel against historic replicator logic.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the idea of an evolutionary stable ethnic altruism – but not species altruism – provides Salter with a mechanism to keep his adaptive utilitarianism from devolving into universalism. The issues comes up in his defense of EGI contra species genetic interest (SGI). Elaborating on the argument for species genetic interest, he writes:

One might argue that since] we share over 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, is not a random chimp essentially as precious as a human? …And since the genetic distances between individual humans are very small compared to those between humans and chimpanzees, let alone between humans and yeast, should we not feel protective about our genetic interests residing in all fellow human beings without regard for ethnicity, race or indeed kinship?

He then dismisses this on the grounds that species altruism is T-maladaptive:

The theoretical flaw in this reasoning was first perceived by Hamilton… A universal altrruists one who distributed resources randomly, would be outbred by a kin altruist, one who restricted generosity to kin. So within a few generations the gene that caused universal altruism would have fallen in frequency in the population and be slipping towards complete replacement by genes that directed altruism towards relative.

Yet if the relative importance of SGI can be downgraded because species altruism, as a behavior, is T-maladaptive, despite the massive amount of absolute genetic interest stored in the species, the same must hold for EGI. Given his logic, Salter must either: one, defend the T-adaptivity ethnic altruism, two, grant that EGI is dwarfed by SGI, or, three, find another justification for downgrading to importance SGI. As the second possibility leads his adaptive utilitarianism directly into the hands of radical humanists, this will not do. While he takes both the first and third route, the former is, as noted, problematic. And this argument is something of a red herring. Even if Humanism is T-maladaptive it is still a live ideology, one which also moves people. And there are no signs that it is being eliminated from the human meme pool. On the genetic level it could very well by an evolutionary “unstable” byproduct of an evolutionary stable trait and thus under no overall negative selection. What would this trait be? Reason, of course. Like ascending Diotima’s ladder, it is all too easy for some to generalize their concern. Darwin appreciated this point and saw the tendency as enlightened:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are unites into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reach, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.

Salter’s call to reason, thus, can lead us to leap past EGI to SGI and even beyond. This is exactly what E.O Wilson does, who, among others, Salter dedicates his book to. Wilson espouses concern for SGI and dismissed EGI:

In the beginning the new ethicists will want to ponder the cardinal value of the survival of human genes in the form of a common pool over generations. Few persons realize the true consequences of the dissolving action of sexual reproduction and the corresponding unimportance of “lines” of descent…human nature bends us to the imperatives of selfishness and tribalism. But a more detached view of the long-range course of evolution should allow us to see beyond the blind decision making process of natural selection and to envision the history and future of our own genes against the background of the entire human species. [Emphasis added.] (On Human Nature, 1978/2004)

Wilson, of course, agrees with Salter that genetic interest is a “cardinal value” and that we need to rely on reason both to perceive its importance and to act in defense of it. But he deduces that the genetic interest stored in ethnic groups – lines of descent – are of little importance compared to that stored in the species. It’s possible that Wilson simply erred and underestimated the GI stored in races or lines of descent. I tend to think not. If after reading Salter’s book he changed his mind, he has given no indication of this. Generally, I think that this SGI argument is a serious problem for Salter’s position. But it is one what I will return to latter. Let us first consider Salter’s philosophical framework and justifications for taking personal interest in genetic stake.

But, first, why EGI?

One of Salter’s points of departure is that persisting is the paramount — or ultimate — interest of any entity. Were a creature immortal then being would be its primary interest (whether or not it recognized this). Thus, he tells us, if “virtual existence allowed a consciousness to replicate itself perfectly, dispense with sexual reproduction and achieve immortality, its personal survival would become its only ultimate interest.” It is because “we mortals” are “but dissolving links in evolving chains of life” that we must realize continuance the only way possible, through the reproduction of others like ourselves. Were we digital beings, our paramount interest would be in the replication of similar software “and the maintenance of suitable hardware for storing and powering it.” Since we are organic ones, since our structural designs are passed on genetically, our means of achieving continuance is primarily through assuring that beings genetically akin to us are reproduced and well represented in the world. Salter moves us beyond Plato’s Diotima by viewing the situation through a neo-Darwinian lens. Accordingly, procreation (direct fitness conservation) is but one way of achieving organic continuity — another is the protecting of close and extended kin. Thus, we are told that reproduction “is achieved by passing on genes down the generations, both in one’s children, collateral kin, and fellow ethnics.”

But why GI: For the Ego?

Salter justifies the position that genetic interest is an or the ultimate interest with several different lines of, at times, conflicting argumentation. On the one hand, it is presented as a contingent good, one derived from an individual’s conditional desire to continue on. We are told:

I conclude that it surely is not a theoretical truth that one ought to defend one’s genetic interest.


Genetic Interests seeks to develop ‘social and political theory about what individuals should do if they want to behave adaptively’. Criticisms that ignore the ‘if’ in that statement miss the point.

This line of reasoning is pretty straight forward. Following in the footsteps of Dawkins, Salter considers genes to be of preeminent importance, but he clarified that what really matters is not the genes per se but the organic beings which they code for. Synthesizing millions of copies of one’s genes will not aid in obtaining continuance but having “part of one’s genome help form a new human” will. This consideration allows us to move away for the somewhat alien neo-Darwinian jargon of “replicators” and approach the matter in more human friendly terms. From the egocentric point of view, there are two questions of importance: “Should one seek continuance?” and if so “How?” The latter question involves a third: “What makes one what one is?” As Salter rightfully notes, the first question is self-resolving — so long as people are prompted to make a choice.

Once one affirms that one wishes to continue on and it is granted that one can not as – to use Aristotle’s phrase –one’s self-same self, the questions becomes: In what way can one? For Salter, as for Aristotle, the obvious method is the creation of other self-like living beings. One might disagree. The house of Augustus has long perished. As Aurelius reminds:

The court of Augustus — wife, daughter, descendants, ancestors, sister, Agrippa, kinfolk, household, friends, Areius, Maecenas, physicians, diviners — dead, the whole court of them!… [O]ne must be the last of a line — here again the death of a whole race.

Yet Augustus’s reputation lives on. As does that of Gilgamesh. “This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world,” we are told at the end of the song to him. Mattathias agreed that one could live on otherwise, “for though our bodies are mortal, subject to death, we can, through the memory of our deeds, attain the heights of immortally.” Perhaps, then, one can then better achieve continuance through remembrance. Perhaps. Salter does not address that possibility directly, but he consider lengthily whether memes — culture — could act as an ultimate interest, a means of perpetuating oneself. He notes:

Memes are a more serious challenge to the genes’ claim to a monopoly as bearers of irreplaceable ultimate interests.. Like genes, memes are conceptualized by Dawkins to be replicating entities that use phenotypes as disposable survival vehicles, just as genes do. For example, he sees religion as a memetic mind virus, some varieties of which have been contagious…

He rejects the idea on the grounds that “memes do not replicate but are selected for and replicated” by living beings. A more intuitive way of putting this would be that memes are not in any sense alive. One can only live on in a meme in the way that Rembrandt does in a painting. Such continuity as remembrance is something. For it, many have perished. One recalls Homer’s Sarpendon:

My good friend, if, when we were once out of this fight, we could escape old age and death thence forward and forever, I should neither press forward myself nor bid you do so, but death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.

It is something, but yet a shadow, a mental state, with no volition, held in the mind of another ego. Imagine that one could write out all of one’s mental states. When another read it, they would know you. And you would gain a life in their mind, perhaps like Sophie in Hilde Knag’s – just without autonomy. Autonomy — without it, living on is not being alive. The goal is to continue on in living form. Salter’s point then makes sense, when the alien “replicating entity” is replaced with the familiar “living being”. And yet… In what way does one less problematically live on through the mere existence of other self-resembling living beings? What does it mean for “us” as “us” to live on in the form of another? We have been dying our whole life — changing and yet continuing to be by retaining an integrity of our identity. Like Theseus’s ship, we remain ourselves by retaining a resemblance with what was just before, even despite being radically different from what we once were. But can we still be in the form of another like us? Can “we” survive that leap? For Salter, genetic resemblances can bridge the gap and allow one to continue on.

The ego or the replicators?

Salter’s geno-centrism leads him to the seemingly paradoxical position, from the perspective of the ego, that for the sake to self-continuance, it might be necessary to sacrifice oneself. He notes:

Most of us give priority to the survival and well being of ourselves as individuals…. Yet as compelling as these may seem, and despite contributing to reproductive fitness, they are actually of secondary importance to the ultimate interest… Emphasis on genetic interests automatically demotes ego to just one source of our vital interests, albeit the most concentrated.

A tension, which Salter does not explore, arises because the value of genetic interest is being defended partially on the grounds of ego-centrism. This leads one to wonder if the capital T-true ultimate interest is an ego’s continuance – with genetic continuance as a contingent way of realizing this — or if it is genetic continuance – with the ego as a means of promoting this. Imagine a person who had the choice of having biological children or of uploading his consciousness into a synthetic vehicle, one which could maintain consciousness indefinably, but could not organically reproduce. What would the paramount interest dictate? Salter’s neo-Darwinian – or at least biophilic – perspective would counsel against siding with the ego, yet his egotistic perspective would counsel siding against the genetic replicators.

Most of us, I am guessing, want more than mere genetic continuity. Our egos want to live on, too. This is why we, as our mind, might choose to live on in a synthetic body at the cost of organic continuity. Unfortunately, this is presently not a decision which we have the luxury of struggling with. Returning to the point above, granting that we as egos want to live on and yet are doomed, we might rather perpetuate what is more like us, what is more integral to ourselves as thinking beings: thoughts or memes — which would not offer us a mode of living on as a living being, for these are not living, but a mode of continuing on – as thoughts — in that other – as something more like us as a thinking things.

Salter notes though – and research verifies – that genetic resemblance tracks cultural. Since most mental traits are heritable — as vividly demonstrated by reared apart twins who on first encounter are often stunned to find that they share the same quirky preferences for wired rim glasses — genetic resemblance, by way of predispositions, also tracks fine grain mental resemblance. Moving from close kin to extended this might form a behavioral genetic foundation of the collective unconscious. As Jung noted:

[W]ith the beginning of racial differentiation essential differences are developed in the collective psyche as well. For this reason we cannot transplant the spirit of a foreign race in globo into our own mentality without sensible injury to the latter.

Also, for most people, living on through remembrance is simply not an option. As Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones counsels his son, “It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor… but family. You understand?” And as Twain noted, “A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight … age creeps upon them; infirmities follow … [Release] comes at last… and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence … a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever.”

Biophilia and continuance

The considerations above allow us to rephrase the central question from “Why should we care about genetic continuance?” to “Granting that we care about continuance and that we would prefer to continue as a living being and that we can not continue on as our self-same self, but must in the form of another, to which we find connectedness through resemblance, what type of self-resembling others should we seek to realize ourselves through? Reframed thusly, we can better understand Salter’s answer: organic ones. But why? Again, because for him genetic affinity takes on a special status. We see this especially in his discussion of robots and humanoids. Speaking of eagles, he notes:

Replenishing the Grand Canyon with robotic eagles would somehow be less satisfying than saving the real thing, even if the outer resemblance were perfect, even if the robots hunted and laid eggs. So what is it about the bald eagle that we treasure? Still something is missing. Real eagles are descended genetically from other real eagles. [Emphasis added.]

In personal communications he walked back some. But his terms speak for him: “real thing” versus “outer resemblance”; a “missing” something. To clarify, I offered the following hypothetical: If eagles were to go extinct and you had a choice of making mechanical simulacra or of biologically resurrected the genus would you be indifferent about the decision? Again, no reply. Perhaps Salter simply merely meant, “Most people would obviously recognize that mechanical creations that resemble organic eagles are not, in fact, organic eagles. And they would be unhappy about this since they would instinctively prefer organic eagles.” Yet as he notes latter on, most people wouldn’t care if “interpersonal signals sent by robots overwhelm our abstract knowledge that robots share none of our genes.” So he would have to mean something else, such as “Most people would be unhappy about this since they would prefer organic eagles so long as they recognized that genetic continuance was a cardinal value.” Which is true, but trivial unless he added: “And most people would recognize that genetic interest is a cardinal value if they reflected on the matter and their behaviors and inclinations and took a couple of classes in population genetics.” If this is the argument — if he is simply conjecturing about what most people would believe if … and not defending a worldview or a way to best seek immortality … I would have expected experimental evidence. His view that genetic continuity is a good in and of itself shows up in his discussion of androids. We are told:

If robots could be made that imitated our children perfectly in outward appearance and behaviour I doubt that many parents would be willing to make the substitution…Why? The objection is emotional, based on the bond that has developed between parent and child. And that is bond serves genetic interests, the preservation of the parent’ s distinctive genes

He argues that parents would not want to replace their children with Mecha, even if the latter perfectly replicated the former in behavior and form for the same reason that parents would not what to replace their children with the biological ones of other parents. Yet the biological children of other parents would not replicate these parents’ children in behavior and form, so we have a disanalogy. We run into an extension of the problem we considered above: Imagine a person who had the choice of synthetic children who had the form and behavior of what their biological would have had or the biological children of someone else. What would the ultimate interest dictate?

In Artificial Intelligence, the Swintons choose David over adopting. Only after their biological son, Martin, recovers, is David sent off. In Caprica, Daniel Graystone downloads his daughter’s consciousness into an android, an act which culminates in the birth of the Cylons. Why? Because the parents are less interested in genetic similarity than in “outer resemblance” (physical, behavioral and psychic). They want the person, not the DNA. For those of us who grew up watching Ghost in the Shell Salter’s position is simply jarring: “From the perspective of genetic interests, we owe more empathy to our fellow humans, even to fellow mammals, than to any robot, no matter how well the robot amuses us or endears itself to us by imitating selected human characteristics.” If Deckard turned out to be a skin job, would he be less real? Knowing that Roy was, is his “tears in the rain” monologue less moving. Salter’s response is: of course not. And he sees this as a problem, a reason for halting cybernetic research:

Again, will humans ever care for their robots the way they care for biotic life? The answer will become a definite yes if human-like interpersonal signals sent by robots overwhelm our abstract knowledge that robots share none of our genes, that they do not belong somewhere onour extended family tree. All this is probably an excellent case for banning the construction of human-like robots.

The idea that people will care for synthetic being is disturbing to him since they are not the real McCoy. In personal communications, Salter maintained that he meant something else: “The McCoys are not relevant… The point … [is] … to consider the tension between proximate and ultimate interests.” But the whole point at issue is the “true” ultimate interest. Does organic continuity – and genetic descent – matter per se? Is this a means or an ends? When I was younger, I found cotton and wood to be more genuine that nylon and plastic. Forests felt more pleasant than residential areas. I appreciate biophilia. Regardless, there is a clear tension here. On the one hand, Salter’s radical genocentrism, grounding in neo-Darwinian thinking, leads him to the conclusion that there is something artificial and unreal about non-organic beings and thus that they are not legitimate vehicles for continuance. Yet, on the other, when he approaches the matter from egocentric point of view, he is left to conclude that, if the opportunity arose, the ego should “dispense with sexual reproduction and achieve immortality” if virtual reality allowed it.

I suspect that the vast majority of human sentient selves do not care about organic continuance per se. They merely wish to continue on as sentient selves in some form. Were it revealed to Christians that on the second coming the faithful would not be resurrected as organic beings but as spirits, I doubt many would care. Nonetheless, I do not see that this is an insurmountable problem for Salter’s philosophy. We can appreciate that organic continuance is a means of self-continuance for biological beings. Perhaps not The means, but a means. And, as things are, organic continuance pulls with it memetic persistence, both coincidentally and as a result of gene-cultural co-evolution. It also pulls with it memories. Thus, Matthias lives on in Jewish thought more than in gentile. With the rise of Mecha and cross fertilization between man and machine the horizons of self with change. The quantifications of relatedness will take on more dimensions. But many will still want to live on – and if not as their self-same self then though something else like them.

The logic of GI

The idea of defending one’s genetic and memetic stake as a means of continuance might seems obvious. Apparently, it isn’t. Thus biologist George Williams (1988) assures us that, “There is no conceivable justification for any personal concern with the interests (long-term average proliferation) of the genes we received in the lottery of meiosis and fertilization.” And philosopher Alan Gibbard (1992) states that “human moral propensities were shaped by something it would be foolish to value in itself, namely multiplying one’s own genes.” And Philosopher Daniel Dennet (1995) tells us:

You can do something for your own sake, or for the sake of the children, or for the sake of art, or for the sake of democracy, or for the sake of… peanut butter…. One could even decide—though it would be a strange choice—that the thing one wanted most to protect and enhance, even at the cost of one’s own life, was one’s own genes. No sane person would make such a decision…

No sane person… no conceivable justification… would be foolish… I think this speaks a great deal about the narrow horizons of post-modern western philosophy. Dennet makes the same point about culture (in the form of memes): why be slaves to replicators? Instead, according to him, we should, to quote Dawkins (1976), “rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” But Dennet’s response misses what should be obvious. The ego is choosing to replicate its form using memes and genes. In deciding, one is not a slave but the master of one’s fate. One might reply, though: Why should one be a slave to historical forces which created us in the form we are in.

I think there is a valid point here which touches on the debate between bioliberalism and bioconservativism. In Conscience, E. O. Wilson defends bioconservatism: “Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?” He worries that if as a species we “surrender our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination … absolved from our ancient heritage” that we will “become nothing.” But Wilson’s question answers itself; we might wish to move on from that “teetering on a jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations” (Wilson, 1978) because it was based on trial and error.

Self and a bioliberal alternative

Salter has been criticized for his bio-conservativism, as his prioritizing genetic interest would seem to counsel for minor inter-generational edits but no fundamental transformation of the genome, lest one’s descendants cease to be of one’s same temporal species or race, in which case one would cease to continue on through them. This is a philosophically fertile topic to explore, but doing so in length is out of place here. Generally, the problem, from the perspective of wishing to continue on, is with creasing to be and being replaced. From the Aristotlean perspective the solution was simple — reproducing generation on end — since that act faithfully reproduced the species form and so granted the species immortality. But for evolving – transmuting – populations, reproduction tends towards a becoming other. As a result, there is a conflict between replication and evolution on the population level. What does this imply for a philosophy of genetic interest grounded both in a desire for continuance and a view of man as an evolutionary creature?

Consider the matter prescriptively: Should the ancient pond slime have remained faithful to its temporal race and not let itself transmutate eventually into humanity? Parallel: Should humanity not let itself transmutate into something greater even if that means ceasing to be the same as it is now? Those are not fair questions, of course, because they approach the matter from a third person point of view, when the argument we are presently considering is an egocentric, first person one. A more appropriate question would be: Do you really want your form to continue on as it is? Or would you not rather continue on – in the sense of bringing forth – something greater as judged by your own evolved values? The psychology which would lead to an affirmation is something that asks to be explored: a will which impels oneself to let oneself – and one’s kind – to be transcended for the sake of something better — to continue on by being a part of something greater, which may barely resemble, or care for, what one was. Surely this oddly egomaniacal zeal drives some contemporaneous research on artificial intelligence.

I would suggest that there is a genuine conflict of values. And moreover that there are alternative understandings of “continuing on.” One might very well re-understand oneself to be an inherently evolving being and feel that to “continue on” one must replicating “oneself” in the form of ever-differentiating beings. In short, senses of self are open to multiple even paradoxical understandings. Nonetheless, I think we can appreciate the desire to continue on as something like ourselves. A desire to continue does not entail genetic interest as a cardinal value, but the latter is a plausible way of realizing the former.

But why GI: Because it’s natural?

As said, Salter approaches the issue from multiple perspectives. Genetic interest is a contingent good grounded in egocentrism, but it also is an absolute good, grounded in an evolutionary outlook, one which sets the foundation for biophilia. Thus we are told:

The message of modern biology is that genetic fitness is the ultimate interest meaning precisely that it is of absolute importance… Since life is evolved, reproduction is the ultimate interest, one of overriding importance.

This justification can be understood as a subtle form of naturalism. Perceived from the perspective of the evolutionary paradigm, genetic continuity can be seen as “life’s overriding goal” or telos. In Dawkins’ terms, it is “the ultimate rationale for our existence.” If this reading is correct, Salter suggests that one can discern the ultimate purpose of life by examining how the world works. Thus he tells us that “knowledge of human biology confirm that genetic continuity is the ultimate, or even, an ultimate interest.” Moreover, he justifies his inference about the purpose of life, and his teleological reasoning, by noting that “modern biology” also commits “teleological reasoning” “in its quest to identify ultimate as well as proximate causes.”

Some might object, citing Hume’s law, that such naturist arguments are inherently fallacious. If so, they misunderstand the general structure of them. A fallacious argument, long Salter’s lines, would run:

Premise: Organisms generally act in ways that promote the continuance of their lineage (descriptive empirical claim).
Conclusion: Therefore, promoting the continuance of one’s lineage is a moral good (prescriptive, ethical claim).

This argument is obviously invalid because the premise contains no prescriptive statement, yet the conclusion does. Manna is pulled from heaven. But serious naturalistic arguments are structured differently. They involve an intermediate chain of premises which allow one to bridge the descriptive-prescriptive chasm. Specifically, they involve an inference about the underlying nature (in a metaphysical sense) and consequent telos of things. An example argument would look like:

Premise 1: Organisms generally act in ways that promote the continuance of their lineage (descriptive empirical claim)
Premise 2: The normal actions of organisms betrays their underlying nature and telos. (metaphysical claim).
Premise 3: Organisms are essentially replicators: their purpose is to replicate themselves and continue their lineage. (inference based on 1 and2)
Premise 4: What is in line with an organisms telos is a moral good. (meta-ethical claim)
Conclusion: Therefore, promotes the continuance of one’s lineage is a moral good for an organism. (prescriptive, deduction)

Something that promotes the “ultimate purpose” or telos of a being is necessarily a moral good and this purpose is induced from the nature of things. The concept of telos and of underlying nature allows one to transverse the ’is’/’ought’ gap. For many, who can no longer appreciate teleological reasoning, this mode of thinking is probably quite odd. Which is why the “naturalistic fallacy” seems to have such import. But ethical naturism, in one form or another, has been ubiquitous. It underwrote and underwrites the value systems of Aristotelians, Thomistst, Taoists, the Stoics, the Epicureans and most theologians. When Chrysippus, tells us that “Living virtuously is equal to living in accordance with one’s experience of the actual course of nature,” he is engaging in nature reasoning.

Considerations on emotive “naturalism”

Daniel Dennet appreciates, to a degree, this point. Defending a soft form of naturalism, if it can be called that, he notes:

From what can “ought” be derived? The most compelling answer is this: ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature—on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be. If that is naturalism, then naturalism is no fallacy. No one could seriously deny that ethics is responsive to such facts about human nature. We may just disagree about where to look for the most telling facts about human nature—in novels, in religious texts, in psycho-logical experiments, in biological or anthropological investigations.

The fallacy, he tells us, “is not naturalism but, rather, any simple-minded attempt to rush from facts to values” or a “greedy reductionism of values to facts rather than reductionism considered more circumspectly, as the attempt to unify our world-view so that our ethical principles don’t clash irrationally with the way the world is.” He oddly goes on to cite Nietzsche’s criticism of the Stoic’s “greedy” naturalism:

According to nature” you want to live? O you noble stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifferent itself as a power – how could you live according to this indifference!

The citation is out of place since Nietzsche’s critique was that the stoics saw “nature falsely”, not that they engaged in a “simple-minded attempt to rush from facts to values.” Nietzsche came to see nature in terms of ceaseless creative becoming. This allowed him to understand philosophy and ethics in general as art, as a creative act, and see his specific philosophy – of the world as creative becoming – as revelation, thus true despite being art. How one could live according to this vision of nature is an issue he confronted in, for example, “On the Vision and the Riddle”. Nietzsche, one of the last great metaphysicians read, like the Stoics, out of – or into – the world an underlying nature.

More generally, Dennet’s discussion is unfortunate, since it leaves muddled an important issue. There are genuine naturalistic fallacies: attempts to derive prescriptive statements from descriptive ones. Naturalism is not this; it does not draw invalid conclusions, at worst it draws unsound ones. Presumably, Dennet is not a moral realist and he does not believe in underlying natures and telos. These would, for him, be ethical “skyhooks”. Ethical “naturalism” for him is something quite different than what it traditionally was understood to be. For Dennet, it entails organizing our ways of feeling about and relating to the world in a manner that is congruent with the way that the empirical world is. It is empirically informed ethical subjectivism or emotivism.

Dennet goes on to rebuke E.O Wilson and Alexander for their “greedy naturalism”, which places genetic interest as an ultimate one. Noting Wilson’s statement that, “In the beginning the new ethicists will want to ponder the cardinal value of the survival of human genes in the form of a common pool over generations,” Dennet replies that, “In short, they don’t get it… It does not follow from the fact that out reproductive ends were the ultimate historical source of our present values, that they are the ultimate (and still principla) beneficiary of our ethical actions.” The reply is odd because in Consilience, E. O. Wilson denies that “there is a supreme principle either divine or intrinsic in the order of nature, and we will be wise to learn about it and find the means to conform to it.” He denies moral realism and the possibility of ethical naturalism, traditionally understood. His position is no different in his earlier “On Human Nature”. For Wilson, sociobiology is about finding out what sociological system are congruent with evolved human psychology; it’s a descriptive endeavor. Wilson, just as Dennet, advocated “naturalism” in the sense of empirically informed ethical subjectivism/emotivism. He just comes to a different conclusion about human biopsychology.

Of course, for Wilson, the question arises: Why should we let ourselves care about the “survival of human genes”, especially on the species level? If the answer is that we just do or that this concern flows from reason, the question becomes: Why should we keep these dispositions as design feature? Obviously Wilson can have no answer to the latter question. But then Dennet has no grounds upon which to defend his moral positions – which is why he proposes moral thought stoppers and nothing but a subjectivist justification for them: he will not tolerate otherwise.

EGI from a classically naturalistic perspective

Turning back to Salter, when he says that the “message of modern biology is that genetic fitness… is of absolute importance … [and this] is surely the starting po­sition of any ethical discussion,” it is not clear if he means something along the lines of Wilson -– “Look anthropology shows that people are hard wired to care about genetic interest” – or if he is making a naturalistic, teological argument in a moral realist sense. It think both, since he explicitly defends both ethical emotivism and teleology.

Let’s consider the latter possibility, that of grounding values in an evolutionary worldview. The reasoning can crudely be put as: “Hey this is the nature of living things; they reproduce. Get with the picture.” While Salter distances himself from such a position, all the while suggesting it, I do not find this type of justification inherently problematic. Ultimately, barring moral realism, all prescriptive values must be grounded in, essentially, mythopoetry – if not rhetorical tricks. We can accept the mythic, artistic nature of views of how things are and still allow them to underwrite views of the Good Life. One can represent evolution as a value informing poetic myth, according to which we live. Of course, evolution is not just replication but also divergence and modification. So a mythopoeic reading of evolutionary theory can also lend itself to a prescription for change. Herbert Spencer’s view comes to mind. He came to see that we should pattern our lives in line with evolution as continual transformation. But again if we dispense with the idea of a “True” nature, conflicting readings cease to be a problem; they represent different life poems. And Salter’s evolution as continuance worldview resonates with biopsychology at least as much as do many others. In communications, Salter noted that his statement regarded teology “was made within an explicitly evolutionary framework”, implying that he doesn’t endorse naturalism. Yet many of his arguments and phrasings suggest otherwise — that the “explicitly evolutionary framework” is more than just a paradigm for understanding empirical data, that it is something which can speak about what “is of absolute importance” per se.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m eliding a more nuanced position: just appreciating man as an organic being – in Salter’s terms appreciating the “modem evolutionary view of humans (and all other species)…” I would consider viewing humans as “evolutionary beings” to represent a quasi-metaphysical position in the same way that viewing humans as “rational animals” (Aristotle) or “spiritual creatures” (Feuerbach) or “productive beings” (Marx) is. It’s more than just a physical observation like “humans evolved” or humans are “featherless bipeds”. It’s a claim about the underlying nature of man. It’s a worldview, a narrative which isn’t simply a fact of the world. Yes, humans evolved and are evolving, but Salter seems to be inducing values from this, an act which requires more than descriptive statements about empirical reality. When he states, “In this essay I argue for the importance of genetic continuity as an end in itself, for humans as well as for other species,” it doesn’t sound like he is simply making a claim about human biopsychology.

EGI from an emotive perspective

As noted, an alternative reading, which Salter explicitly endorses, is an emotivistic one. Since Salter grants that people are only weakly, at best, hard wired to care about EGI, he has to argue that they would care more if they reflected on their behaviors, feelings and thoughts and if they familiarized themselves with theoretical biology. Accordingly, many would come to see that the representation of their unique gene frequencies with respect to the species gene pool along with the persistence of the species was a cardinal values. Salter does suggest several ways by which people could come to value EGI:

First, if a person comes to believe that his ethny is his extended family, he might feel obliged to aid it even though he has no tribal feeling. Alternatively, his belief might lead to tribal feeling that then releases a sense of obligation. Secondly, when members of an ethny do in fact belong to an extended genetic family, as is often the case, the average member is a store of genetic interests for every other member. Understanding the nature of this mutual interest might produce a feeling of responsibility to preserve that interest, for example by making oneself a productive member of society and by acting to maintain group cohesion. Would an observer feel that such an individual was obliged to favour his ethny in either condition? Arguably yes, if the observer felt that family members have a special duty towards one another, or that it is wrong to harm other’s vital interests.

As Salter notes people merely have to feel kin interest, interpret this as interest in general ancestry and then, by way of a spiral of reason, come to value ancestry in general. In the same way, people do not need to first order care about “general happiness”; concern for this can flow from concern for “personal happiness” and a universalization of this concern. Of course, this latter example reminds us of our problem of leaping to species interest. Perhaps, practically, this is not an issue, as most people reason concentrically in a Confucian rather than Mohist manner, and, as such, tend to reach ethnic interest before species interest, a process which allows for one of Salter’s most rhetorically compelling arguments: “ethny is extended family, and you care about your family don’t you?”
The problem, again

Yet the leap to SGI will be seductive for those inclined to universalize. And such people tend to disproportionately shape the noosphere and thus how ordinary people frame their values and thoughts. Thus, to prevent “adaptive altruism” from degenerating into another universalism, the problem needs to be addressed: Why ethnic interest at all? Let us take a concrete example. There are situations — they are all around us — where replacement migration with fecundous immigrants to low fertility regions, such as throughout the West, could simultaneously decrease the genetic interest of the low fertility populations relative to other ones and yet increase these populations’ genetic interest, in absolute terms, relative to what it would have been otherwise by maintaining the species population. From a SGI perspective, it would be a tragedy for Japanese to let the population of Japan dwindle by 40 million as opposed to maximize the territory’s carrying capacity by importing e.g., African immigrants. Put generally: Why isn’t replacement immigration good if it maintains the species population? If, say, Europeans are not going to breed why for the sake of our absolute genetic interest, should we not hope that they are replaced by peoples who will?

I asked Salter about this and he replied that, “In the above example, Japanese would be replacing their distinctive gene variants with Africans’ gene variants. But for rare circumstances, relative fitness, not absolute fitness, is the ultimate interest.” True. Replacement immigration with fecundous African immigrants would decrease the frequency of ethnic Japanese genes, but doing so would increase the number of human species genes. This is equivalent to saying that the Japanese’ relative fitness with respect to the species will decrease but the relative fitness with respect to the genus will increase. Thus Salter’s relative versus absolute distinction fails. And since we are discussing what a rational gene frequency maximizer would do to maximize gene frequencies, one can not take recourse to claims about kin and extended-kin section.

A possible resolution

We can readily solve the inter-species version of the problem by replacing average genetic similarity with multivariate similarity, especially if one takes into account emergent traits such as sentience. Such an understanding surely fits better with the goal of continuing on through similar resembling beings. Our hypothetical Mars bound humans have good reason to save themselves at the expense of Earth inhabiting algae. But we are still left with the intra-species problem. Consider the following scenario: Why not support 1.006 random human individuals (99% similar) — or whatever, using multivariate distance estimates – instead one biological child (99.5% similar)? Salter offers a possible rational:

In the absence of universal threats of the kind postulated above, distinctive genes define genetic interests. A gene that is so widely distributed that it is present in predator and prey and in competing conspecifics, has no interest in influencing its phenotypes to cease predating or competing, because it survives whatever the outcome. Such genes become part of the background environment, their status as interests (between competing organisms) cancelled by ubiquitousness.

Basically, a rational gene maximizer could justify concern for family and ethnic genetic interest by maintaining that there are “enough” humans, where “enough” could be taken as the number for the species to survive multi-generationally. We might adopt Smith’s (2014) estimate of a minimum viable human population of 40,000 for 5 generations and maybe, arbitrarily, multiply it by 100, to allow for an indefinite number of generations. This along with a value of incremental similarity would be a way around problematic conclusions. And it makes sense to focus on incremental relatedness: if the species is secure, focus on ethny; if the ethny is secure focus on extended family. But the derivation of this condition requires some philosophical reflection and justification. It surely doesn’t follow from a simple gene count. This noted, the proposition that there are “enough humans” is consistent with the thrust of Salter’s position. He notes for example:

As I argued in Chapter 3, in the absence of mass immigration of genetically distant groups, a population occupying a fixed territory is guaranteed continuity at or below that territory’s carrying capacity, even when its global representation falls due to high fertility overseas. But mass migration inevitably reduces the native ethny’ s relative fitness within its own territory, risking its continuity.

He clearly feels that the loss of biocultural continuity would be worse than a reduction in the absolute numbers of warm bodies; as the primary issue is continuance, individuals need not try to maximize the number of random humans in the species. The species is not threatened – so we all gain immortality through that – and we can move on, following an adaptive version of Maslow’s hierarchy and focus on more specific forms of relatedness. To be clear, this same logic would apply to ethnic groups, were we to make room for them. And we can as ethnic groups offer incremental advantage in terms of continuity, especially when one uses multivariate distances and includes biopsychological and memetic factors. If we take into account the gestalt genetic, somatic and biopsychic differences in addition to extended phenotype such as culture and include shared history, surely.

But let’s not leave unrecognized the implication. Logically, GI concerned individuals should not fret about their EGI unless the sustainability of their ethny is threatened. Populations could be relatively small so long as those concerned had firm control over a territory and effective deterrents to ethnocide, whether perpetrated from inside or out. As Salter granted in discussion, “Peaceful ethnic states would allow ethnic continuity in the absence of large populations.”

Concluding remarks

The considerations above have some import for Salter’s political-philosophical project. First, the arguments for the cardinal value of GI are not very strong. A value of GI does not readily flow from a desire for continuance or an appreciation of man as an evolved creature or sociobiology. And a value of GI can lend itself to the dismissal of EGI a la E. O. Wilson. If it is to be, the value of EGI needs to be defended less hesitantly. Salter feels uneasy when it comes to doing this, so he couches discussion in terms of sociobiology, ethology and population genetics. He wishes to come across as an analyst and not an advocate for a worldview. Yet defending EGI as a cardinal value around which to structure society will require the latter. An analysis of how people should behave if … and how society should be structured if … can only come second.

If better developed, the arguments could effectively justify social organizations which are devoted to conserving cultural and genetic continuity and could justify “universal nationalism” in the sense of an ethnic nationalism which respects the right of self-determination of other peoples. But they are not forceful enough to resuscitate the presently dying nationalist world order. Salter’s political project would have to be situated in a, for a lack of a better term, vulgar liberal political order, one which is open to a diversity of kinds of political institutions, “liberal” and “illiberal,” and which grants the permissibly to free association, self-determination and a right to difference. In such a framework, politicized EGI could be seen as a noble artistic endeavor: the preservation of biocultural diversity in the world. After declaring the importance of preserving cultural diversity, Daniel Dennet argues that, “It must be scholarship, not human game preserves—ethnic or religious states under dictatorships—that saves superannuated cultural artifacts for posterity.” Just prior he tell us that, “Discrimination is beyond the pale.” Yet, why is it a sin to live differently? It is odd that one would even have to defend that legitimacy of institutions such as ethnostates but such are the strangely narrow moral and political horizon in the contemporary West.

A nationalist world order itself is a problem for ethnic nationalism, so GI’s inability to prop up the former should not be seen as a concern. If all regions of the world were filled with nation states which limited membership to culturally and genetically related people, one is incumbent, give ordinary moral sensibilities, to agree with the UN’s position that citizens can not be denaturalized. For where else would they go? These individuals include, of course, free riders and subversives. However, in absence of global nationalism, particularly when there are liberal, propositional states open to all, this moral concern diminishes. When everyone effectively could have citizenship in propositional nations and so, potentially, have dual citizenship, there ceases to be a grave moral problem with the creation of conditions which would encourage the emigration of those hostile to the goals of an ethnostate. This naturally enough allows for a solution to the free rider problem – and the moral dilemma of illiberal societies. Ethnostates can flourish alongside propositional ones, so long as the latter are not aggressively universalistic. Based on these considerations, it would seem to follow that one would not want EGI to be perceived as a cardinal value by all – thus one need not fret that the arguments lack the ability to compel many.

Finally, the considerations in relation to incremental relatedness lend themselves to the conclusion that, so long as one can assure continuance at the ethnic level, the existence of tens of millions of coethics is unimportant. This assurance is probably best achieved through control over a territory and national institution. Lacking this, raw numbers matter, so to prevent ethnocide. This reflection lends itself in support of a political aim which Salter concurs with: the establishment of ethnostates – for those interested.


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  1. Steve Sailer

    There’s a fairly strong trend at present toward granting quasi-human rights to chimpanzees.

  2. S.H.

    A late reply (not sure if you’ll read this) but I’m actually a bit of an amateur philosopher who has written about ethics. I was struck by your argument that teleology can supersede the is-ought gap- I didn’t think that followed.

    To state the criticism bluntly: why does having an inherent purpose mean this is a good purpose? A purpose that should be strived towards besides it being strived towards?

    To give an (admittedly rather crude) example: say you have a train on a railway track which leads to a station. Everything about the train is geared towards the reaching the station; the gears; it runs automatically; etc. Say there’s a conductor on the train. Why, metaphysically, shouldn’t he just stop the train? Sure, inherent in us is the subjective feeling that things should do what is natural to them, but that’s inherent in the subject and not the object where we place realist prescription.

    Imo the only real way to ‘transcend’ the is-ought is to include an ‘if’ clause accepting subjectivity. This implies a form of moral nihilism of course, in that it denies objective morality.

    Premise: The train is running towards the station by itself.
    Condition: The conductor wants to reach the station.
    Conclusion: The conductor should do nothing.

    • Chuck

      I once had a philosophy teacher to whom I asked, “why should one do what one should.” He was dumbfounded.

      In naturalistic ethics the answer to “In what way is it preferable to behave?” is “in line with the ordering principle of nature”. The answer to “but why is this preferable” is “that this is how things were supposed to be and as such behaving accordingly brings order to life”.

      Why should (is it expedient for) one act in harmony with the order of things and bring order and not chaos?

      You are not necessitated to. But if “should” means anything more that “would” and “want”, that is a reasonable understanding of it.

    • Chuck

      To address your question more directly —

      — “To state the criticism bluntly: why does having an inherent purpose mean this is a good purpose? A purpose that should be strived towards besides it being strived towards?” —

      From the naturalistic perspective, acting in harmony with the Way brings order to human life as the Way is the ordering principle of life. And the consequence of order is generally more desirable to that of chaos.

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