I am an American living in Ukraine with a half Ukrainian son. Like everybody in Kiev I am shocked at Russia’s barbarous invasion. Shocked, but not surprised – the Russians are behaving the way they have for the last eight centuries.
We have several options, the top two of which are to stay put or to leave now that there is a war. Staying, we could be faced with the decision of whether or not we want to be Russian. My son, when he comes of age, may be faced with the decision of whether or not to fight for Ukraine.
At the heart of the question is, to what extent are these my people? Will they support me and should I support them? JBS Haldane famously said he was willing to give up his life for three brothers or nine cousins. His logic was as follows: each brother shares half of his genome. Three brothers together add up to 1 ½ times his genome. Allowing them to survive would promote his evolutionary interests more than sacrificing their lives for his own.
By this logic, I owe Ukraine nothing. My son is my only genetic investment. We should get out. By this same logic I likewise owe the United States nothing. I have almost no remaining relations who are of childbearing age and inclination.
Wikipedia’s statement of Hamilton’s rule is more nuanced: “According to Hamilton’s rule, kin selection causes genes to increase in frequency when the genetic relatedness of a recipient to an actor multiplied by the benefit to the recipient is greater than the reproductive cost to the actor.” Simply put, the question is how closely related am I to the Ukrainians? Walking down the street I am taken for Ukrainian. Our behavior is similar. We understand each other pretty well. I did a thought experiment using numbers I got from Wikipedia.
Let’s start with a crude assumption that I am descended of white people living at the dawn of the agricultural age, 10,000 years ago. That far back my family tree shows as many ancestors as there are grains of sand. They double up. Each of the few hundred thousand white people of that era who shows up anywhere in my lineage probably shows up billions and billions of times. The same DNA was recycled over and over in the gene pool.
Random mutation acts only very slowly. Our DNA is made up of base pairs of the four chemicals abbreviated A,C,T and G. Only one pair in 100 million mutates per generation. A little figuring shows that random mutations would have resulted in a cumulative gene pool change of only .0007% over that time. I am sure I am different from my ancestors ten thousand years ago, but random mutation cannot explain it. I would be pretty much the same as every other white person, descended from the same white ancestors, my DNA drawn randomly from their gene pool, and I should therefore have a high level of altruism. The fact that I cannot trace any of my ancestry back to Ukraine would make no difference.
Those are the extremes. By Hamilton’s law I should display no altruism toward the Ukrainians, and expect none. On the other hand, if only random mutation made us different, I should assume that we have so much in common that I should naturally give and expect altruism. Neither can possibly be right. Darwin’s theory of natural selection leads me to a middle assumption.
Darwin would observe that people are different. Their different qualities allow some people to leave more surviving offspring than others. Such differing qualities get passed along in the DNA. Tibetans and Andean Indians have evolved to survive at high altitude. We Europeans have white skins to make maximum use of scant sunlight, the ability to digest milk, and the altruism necessary for community life in harsh conditions. Vikings, Tatars and Yanomamo Indians evolved fierceness. Chinese evolved industriousness, and Jews evolved intelligence.
The selection pressures on Ukrainians were only somewhat different than on my ancestors in Western Europe and the United States. Natural selection would have favored most of the same traits in either place.
Living in the highly diverse United States, I found myself among people who shared a last common ancestor thousands of years farther back, and whose ancestors were subject to quite different evolutionary pressures. Theoretically I have less reason to expect that they would display altruism towards me. The daily newspaper confirms the fact. It only makes sense that they evolved with different skills and different notions as to who belongs within their circle of altruistic, ethical behavior.
In the best of all possible worlds we will raise our son in a free and liberal Ukraine where he looks, thinks, and talks just like everybody else. He will be naturally accepted . There is a high level of what is called “social capital” because there is a low-level of diversity. Our son is accepted as one of them. He can be expected to be an asset to them: a taxpayer, a son-in-law, a good neighbor, and perhaps a soldier.
If we are put to the hard decision, whether to become subject to a Russian dictatorship in which our son looks just like everybody else, or to return to a United States in which his difference would stand out evermore clearly every year, perhaps it would be safer to remain here. In either place he will have to learn the discipline of keeping his mouth shut. That should be enough to survive here. Back in the United States his pale hide would betray him to the likes of the polar bear hunters and the Attorney General. I think my evolutionary odds are better here.