With the migrant crisis in Europe at full boil, immigration is a hot topic. I’ve just had another round with our multiculturalist gadfly in the previous post’s comment thread, but of course we’ve been over all of this before. I invite readers to review, in particular, the long and patient discussion we had here, which ultimately foundered on familiar shoals: a naive and counterfactual faith in human universalism, and the idea that the United States is nothing more than what is called a “proposition nation”.
The error of these beliefs is that they overlook both the origin and importance of culture. To be harmoniously embedded and contextualized in one’s own culture is, as everyone everywhere seems to have understood until the latter half of the last century, the foundation and bedrock of normal human experience, and is generally a precondition for individual happiness and flourishing. Furthermore, the variety of human cultures is not a superficial fact, nor is it a matter of contingent historical accident; cultures do not simply fall from the sky and land, haphazardly, upon whichever human population happens to be passing below. I believe they are best understood, instead, as what Richard Dawkins has called “extended phenotypes“.
The idea is a simple one: a biological organism has both a genotype, which is the sum of its genetic information, and a phenotype, which is the physical result of the expression of the genotype — the term “phenotype” usually being understood to refer to the organism’s body. Dawkins’s fertile insight was that the phenotype extends beyond the body, into the wider world.
For example: a beaver has a beaver genome. This expresses itself in the usual beavery way: big front teeth, webby feet, and a broad, flat tail. But the “extended” phenotype is much more than that: it consists of felled trees, a dam, a lodge, and a pond. In this view, that pond is as much a part of the beaver’s gene-expression as its teeth. Bird’s nests, spiderwebs, and honeycombs — things in the world that themselves contain no genetic information — are as much a manifestation of genomes as wings and stingers.
In H. sapiens, the social animal par excellence, the extended phenotype quite naturally includes culture. And just as we see variation among subspecies for, say, bowerbird nests, we should expect to see that long-isolated human populations, whose genomes have been subject to widely varying selection pressures throughout their history, will create different, often very different, cultures — cultures as distinct as their physical appearance. And so we do.
In an earlier post, Culture and Metaculture, I quoted Lezek Kolakowski on the impossibility of genuine multicultural synthesis, which creates a problem that worsens in proportion both to the number of cultures to be blended, and their dissimilarity. An extended-phenotype model — which understands culture not as something contingently and exogenously grafted onto individuals and populations, but rather as an endogenous, organic, and wholly natural expression of the innate characteristics of a distinct subpopulation — should make even clearer why high levels of “diversity” lead so reliably to faction and strife.