Biological Diversity and Ethnic Identity: Changing Patterns in the Modern World (J. W. Jamieson)

Biological Diversity and Ethnic Identity: Changing Patterns in the Modern World

J. W. Jamieson

Evolution expresses itself in two major biological processes. One is a tendency toward passive adaptation to prevailing environmental conditions, and the other is a trend toward increasing biological complexity that permits organisms in specific phylogenetic continuua to vary their response to changes in the environment in a manner which will facilitate their ability to survive and produce future generations. The combined result is adaptive radiation resulting in what we call speciation.

In the case of the higher animals, the increasing ability to respond to changes in the environment took the form of increased mobility and an enhanced ability to detect what was taking place in the environment. In the case of the hominids and manlike creatures, it specifically resulted in selection in favor of higher intelligence: that is to say, an enhanced ability to analyze the information received from the sensory organisms and with the aid of memory to devise appropriate survival- oriented responses. The hominid brain expanded at a remarkable rate in the past million years, more than doubling by the time of the emergence of the first Homo sapiens sapiens some forty thousand years ago.(1) As Ernst Mayr wrote, “The most astounding phenomenon of human evolution is the rapid increase in brain size since the Pleistocene.”(2)

Intelligence led to tool-making, and eventually to a situation which has made humankind dominant over virtually the entire organic world. However, since the introduction of agriculture about ten thousand years ago, mankind has multiplied enormously in numbers, but has also been devolving in certain ways. It is arguable that the decrease in the size of the brain, when the Cro-Magnons are compared with the diverse living peoples of today’s world, may indicate a decline in intelligence. Let us see how this may have occurred.

To do so we need to return to our overview of evolution. Since man is but a product of evolutionary forces, the variety of different directions in which organisms may develop as a result of these two main trends, notably passive adaptation and an ability to develop positive survival-oriented responses to changes in the environment has resulted in speciation. A species has been defined as a phylogenetic continuum that has become so differentiated that it has lost the ability to procreate with other life forms that have taken different evolutionary courses. At some point in its evolution every species has to have passed through a stage known as subspeciation, when it constituted a population that was beginning to evolve in a new direction but still had not lost the ability to procreate with other populations of similar ancestral origin. The emergence of different subspecies would generally be due to geographical isolation under different environmental selective forces. No speciation can take place if emerging subspecies lose their identity by merging their genes with other related subspecies before they have become so differentiated that they have lost the ability to cross-breed, or in other words have evolved into different species. Genetic isolation is an essential prerequisite for evolutionary speciation.

In the case of the more complex, more mobile animals, a problem arises. Geographical isolation is not always effective in their case, and newly emerging, mobile subspecies may come into contact with related subspecies. If they were to substantially mingle their genes, the evolutionary experiment would be brought to an end. No new separate subspecies would have a chance to evolve into new species.

As G. G. Simpson(3) early pointed out, and no evidence has since come to life to controvert this, in feral conditions, behavioral tendencies frequently arise which discourage attempts at cross-breeding between subspecies. He suggested that feral constraints may arise which discourage such subspecies from attempting to crossbreed with each other, thus making further speciation possible. These may take the form of biological constraints, based on differences in physical factors such as color, shape or smell, or acquired, constraints, such as intellectual “prejudices” in favor of the organisms own kind. Simpson suggested that these detectable differences in visual appearance, body odor, or behavior operate in feral conditions like a yellow flag hoisted aboard a ship carrying disease, as it enters harbor: warning other ships or subspecies “Danger, stay away, a new evolutionary experiment is in progress here.”

In the course of hominid evolution many populations or subspecies simply died out, or gave up control over their territories to other groups better equipped to survive. But the existing hominid subspecies of today never reached the level of specific differentiation when they would have lost the biological ability to crossbreed with each other. However, they have still possess an element of the ethnic consciousness that once warned their forebears to against crossbreeding with other subspecies. Indeed, if the mitochondrial DNA theory is correct, then the ancestors of all modern human peoples avoided crossbreeding with other less evolved hominid and hominoid lineages. It is difficult to believe that Homo sapiens sapiens sprang spontaneously into existence as a full- fledged species, biological incapable of cross-procreation with other hominid or hominoid populations with whom they must have had contact and the fossil record indicates that many very different evolving populations of hominoids and hominids occupied the earth contemporaneously (e.g. Austrolopithecines and Homo habilis. It may therefore be likely that from an early date they were restrained by Simpson’s biological and intellectual constraints against crossbreeding, having an inbred reluctance to intermingle with subspecies at lower levels of evolution, and had already developed a sense of what we would today call “prejudice” an awareness of “ethnic identity.” At the hunting and gathering level of subsistence, band type Homo sapiens societies may be supposed to have felt little ethnic difference between their own band and neighboring bands. They therefore intermingled genes with their local neighbors and biological diversification or subspeciation would have taken the form of genetic clines or gradients which reflected the prevailing selective forces in the local geographical environment over large areas. Thus, biologically and culturally, hunters in the Northern parts of Eurasia during the Würm glaciation evolved differently from hunters and gatherers who remained in the more favorable conditions of the tropical and subtropical zones of human occupation. Among other things, there may well have been an increased selection in favor of the higher intelligence required to obtain food by hunting the large mammals which were a prime source of food in more northerly climates. This is evidenced by the increasing size of the brain case, and by the changing shape as the lower areas such as the mesencephalon, already present in reptiles, became proportionately smaller to the whole brain, while the frontal lobes, the cerebrum, and the limbic cortex develop and increase in size.(4)

Even since the earliest hunting and gathering hominoid societies, we believe that man’s ancestors, like most other mammals and even birds, had developed some form of territoriality, and with territorially-based groups or bands altruism would have likely developed. Both territoriality and altruism were conducive to group survival, aiding the survival of the breeding population. Those hominoids which did not develop these behavioral tendencies would be less likely to survive. The term “altruism” is here used to refer to behavior by any individual member of a group which serves to promote the survival chances of the group even at the risk to the individual’s own survival or procreative chances, for what matters in evolution is the survival of the phylogenetic continuum, not of the individual. However, with the coming of agricultural, pastoral, and advanced fishing communities, an increase in population eventually led to increased competition between groups for the resources necessary to facilitate survival and successful procreation. There was also the possibility that some populations would become dominant over others, and that different stocks would come to be incorporated into the same territorially-based society, without necessarily blending their genes. Evolutionary prejudices could have prevented or restricted this, in the form of often quite sophisticated restraints, such as the Brahmanical caste system.

In short, among more complex, advanced and mobile life forms, selection takes place not only in the form of competition between individuals within a breeding population to reproduce, but also competition to reproduce between different breeding populations. This does not necessarily involve violent conflict; often it is merely competition to control the resources necessary for intergenerational survival. This resulted at the Mammalian level of evolution in a number of complex patterns of behavior such as territoriality, altruism, and at some time after the appearance of hominids, a strong sense of loyalty to the breeding population – what we would today call a sense of “ethnic identity.” A sense of ethnicity or group identity was an automatic concomitant to effective altruistic behavior (often demanding the life of the altruistic individual) if the survival chances of the gene pool are to be enhanced by altruism. Contrariwise, altruistic behavior which aided the survival chances of competing groups would be self- defeating and dysgenic.

Altruism, whereby the individual promotes the survival of his or her group, enhances the survival chances of the breeding population, as also does a sense of group identity. Furthermore. altruism and a sense of ethnic identity or group loyalty were mutually supportive because and enhanced mutual cooperation within the group. Evolution was not based solely on competition between individuals: it clearly involved intergroup competition to reproduce and to raise the resultant progeny to the level when they could produce a further generation. A strong sense of ethnic identity would have played an important role in survival at the Hominid level.

In more modern societies, greatly enhanced opportunities for extended communication and for travel beyond the geographical limits of the individual’s own “breeding ground” have operated to negate the traditional pattern of altruism and breeding. Instead of the band or immediate breeding population representing the individual’s community and total society, the inhabitants of modernized Western societies have increasingly come to perceive the entire population of the world as a part of a single community, and even of a single society. Whether this is an entirely correct perception or not, the result has been a shift of altruism away from its former in-group directed evolutionary limits and function to embrace peoples of all populations around the world. Indeed, more sympathy can sometimes be felt for the suffering of alien populations with whom the individual has never had contact than for the concerns of his or her next door neighbor, with whom past tensions may have created a certain degree of conflict.

In consequence, ethnic identity has become a less powerful force than formerly, and as a result altruism often results, through government financial aid and voluntary organizations in the redirection of resources away from the altruist’s own genetic group toward subsidizing a vast increase in the numbers of what were formerly considered competing populations. A group which directs its altruism to the benefit rival groups weakens its own chances in the demographic struggle for scarce resources. But could an extension of altruism to embrace the entire world population possibly bring peace and cooperation to an increasingly overcrowded world? Perhaps not. The problem is that as Garrett Hardin has pointed out

In the absence of competition between tribes the survival value of altruism in a crowded world approaches zero because what ego gives up necessarily goes into the commons. What is in the commons cannot favor the survival of the sharing impulses that put it there unless limits are placed on sharing [on who is to benefit from the altruistic urge]. To place limits on sharing is to create a tribe … A state of One World [universal society], if achieved, would soon redissolve into an assemblage of tribes.”(5)

Ethnicity is unlikely to disappear, according to Hardin, because the pressure of population that is currently breaking down tribal barriers will in course of time create conditions in which some of the existing groups will rediscover their identify and seek to protect themselves by limiting their altruism to their own group, failing which new groups will form and evolutionary speciation will continue one way or another. The only question is: how many thousands of generations of evolutionary speciation will be lost in the intervening period of genetic panmixia?

End Notes

(1) George R. Harrison, What Man Might Be. p. 263, New York: Morrow, 1956.

(2) Ernest Mayr, Animal Species and Evolution, p. 650. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

(3) G. G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution. New York: Oxford University Pres, 1949.

(4) See “Evolution and Hominization” by F. J. Irsigler, The Mankind Quarterly, 21,3;211-225. In short, as hominid evolution is marked by an increase in the ability to reason and a more powerful regulation of impulsive, unreasoned behavior. It is arguable that the modern races differ markedly in both these qualities.

(5) Garrett Hardin, The Limits of Altruism: An ecologist’s view of survival. Indiana University Press, 1977. p. 132.


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