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Don’t Eat the Strange Fruit

1,505 words

Kenan Malik
Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate
Oneworld, 2009

There has been some discussion on the Internet about the book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate by South Asian intellectual Kenan Malik, a book in which the work of Frank Salter is sharply critiqued. Now, the person best suited to answer Malik is Salter himself; further, I don’t see Malik introducing any novel arguments beyond that already presented by other anti-Salterian critics, arguments that I have answered in the past. Nevertheless, it is worth briefly looking at Malik’s remarkable suggestion that humans (and life itself!) do not have an interest in genetic continuity; only our “wants, needs, and desires” constitute real human interests.

However, there are really two types of human interests. With respect to the present discussion, these can be defined as follows. As the name suggests, preference interests describe a concern for objects or activities that a person or group has a conscious preference for; e.g., “my friend Joe has an interest in baseball.” This is the type of interest most people are familiar with, and Malik exploits this familiarity by framing his “argument” in these terms. However, such a narrow definition of “interest” as our “wants, needs, and desires” leads us to conclude that non-sentient organisms have no interests and that, for example, a recent heart attack victim can have an interest in smoking, eating deep fried Twinkies, and drinking melted lard – if he so “wants” and “desires.”

Therefore, we must consider welfare interests – which describes those objects and activities that contribute to the well being (defined in very broad terms, including the evolutionary) of any organism, independent of their “wants or desires” (if they are even capable of having “wants and desires”). Therefore, although a bacterium does not have preference interests, it does indeed have welfare interests in its survival and reproduction – reproduction contributing to genetic continuity, which is the core measure of “success” or “fitness” from an evolutionary perspective. And it should also be noted that Salter refers to the interests of evolved organisms (individual organisms and groups thereof), not the “interests” of genes per se. If Malik or anyone else wants to critique the “genes have interests” paradigm, I refer them to Richard Dawkins.

One of the defining characteristics of life on Earth is reproduction; indeed, as stated above, genetic continuity is so fundamental to evolutionary theory that biological “fitness” itself is defined in terms of reproductive success and genetic representation in future generations. It is therefore a quite unusual definition of “interests” that excludes as a fundamental concern the central tendency of all evolved organisms. It is more reasonable to see genetic continuity as one of – if not the – most important aspect of welfare interests for all life on Earth. After all, “welfare” presupposes existence; a group that does not exist cannot have “welfare” for any of its non-existent members to have an interest in. Thus, in a real sense, life does have a welfare interest in genetic continuity. All life on Earth reproduces using genetic material; therefore, genetic continuity of life equals the existence of life itself.

It is clear that evolved organisms have interests – welfare interests – in genetic continuity. The idea of kin selection recognizes that it doesn’t matter from an objective standpoint whether the genetic information to be continued is yours or identical, or relatively more similar, information in “kin.” “Kin” is a relative term, so that co-ethnics who share more of your genetic information in a relative sense compared to non-ethnics are also “kin” from the standpoint of genetic continuity. It therefore stands to reason that if genetic continuity constitutes a welfare interest for evolved organisms, and if the continuity of “kin” (including co-ethnics) is part of this continuity, then organisms have a welfare interest in the genetic continuity of their “kin,” relative to others. The word “relative” must be stressed. One does not say that an organism has a greater interest in a random “kin” member compared to self, but it does have an interest in “kin” compared to others of the same (or different) species who are genetically more dissimilar. And, the greater the numbers of co-ethnic kin vs. non-ethnics involved, the greater the welfare interests in the (genetic) continuity of kin over non-kin.

If we accept welfare interests as legitimately encompassing genetic continuity – and, after all, for life on Earth, genetic continuity is continuity itself, and existence must be an interest, is it not? – then the next line of “argument” against Salter involves the “naturalistic fallacy” (see note). In other words, the accusation is that Salter derives a preference interest for genetic continuity directly from welfare interests in that continuity, and one cannot directly derive an “ought” from an “is.” In other words, one cannot directly derive preferred human action from natural laws and biological facts.

However, Salter repeatedly makes clear that he does not do this – he intersperses “values” in between nature and human action. After all, why can’t humans “want” and “need” and “desire” genetic continuity? Why can’t they “want” and “need” and “desire” ethnic/racial continuity? Why is this an invalid value? Why can’t people value biological fitness? We are not saying they are obligated to do so from the reality of biological fitness; however, we are saying that if people choose to behave adaptively, then valuing genetic continuity is the way to achieve that objective.


Preference Interests in Genetic Continuity = Welfare Interests in Genetic Continuity + Values Favoring Fitness

If Malik believes that the values favoring fitness are morally or aesthetically or rationally wrong (at least for whites) then he needs to explicitly say so. He should go on the BBC and tell native Britons that a concern for their own continuity is bad and stupid – in the context of honestly and completely explaining evolutionary theory and biological fitness. He needs to openly express the opinion that native Britons should be unconcerned with their own survival as a (biological) group and that they should be unconcerned with displacement by others. It is clear that any group that takes Malik’s advice and eschews genetic continuity as a value will be replaced by groups that do hold such a value as a fundamental interest. Indeed, a lack of interest in group continuity is not evolutionarily stable – any groups that lack such an interest will replaced by those groups that value that interest, and if all groups lack this interest then the entire species may become extinct.

In addition, issues of preference interests and welfare interests begin to overlap – to declare that people have children only because of “desires and wants” for parenthood misses the point that most prospective parents want their own biological children, sometimes going to extreme lengths to achieve that objective. Isn’t then the preference interest for parenthood – manifested as a “need” and “desire” for one’s own children – an evolved instinct for personal genetic continuity? Can one continue to insist that genetic continuity is not an interest when so much of the “striving” of life is toward that goal?

Further, the idea that ethnocentrism is no longer adaptive today, although it may have been in the past, is ludicrous, since ethnocentrism is most adaptive in the context of ethnic/racial competition – a competition most salient in today’s globalist world, and in multiracial “western” nations. Indeed, ethnocentrism is likely more adaptive (at least for Westerners) today than in any other time in human history. The stakes have never been higher.

While genetic interests, like all ideas, should certainly be subjected to rational critique, the absurd assertion that human groups have no interest in their own continuity – which goes against evolutionary theory – is way beyond the limits of rationality. Why would Malik promote such an idea? Perhaps the first sentence of this abstract holds a clue (emphasis added):

The term Darwinian fitness refers to the capacity of a variant type to invade and displace the resident population in competition for available resources.

Indeed.  Given that Salterism can be viewed as a tool that the “resident population” can use to resist displacement by an invading “variant type,” is it surprising that a representative of a quite variant type wishes to delegitimize that tool so as to facilitate the invasion? Isn’t it in the genetic interests of the variant to deny the very existence of those same genetic interests when addressing the resident population, to disarm that population in the competition for “available resources” (e.g., territory)?


I in fact have become skeptical of this, and a number of other, commonly cited “fallacies.”  It is too easy for people to dismiss unwelcome ideas by stating that the promoter of those ideas has “committed the XYZ fallacy,” thus ending debate on the topic. It may be useful to, at some point in the future, revisit the idea of whether the “naturalistic” and/or “is/ought” fallacy is indeed a fallacy in the light of modern evolutionary theory.


  1. Wandrin
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Cultural warfare as ideological area bombing.

  2. John Kellner
    Posted February 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Is there any particular reason why Malik put the subtitle of his book as: Why Both sides are wrong in the race debate”? Based on this review, it would seem that he is arguing in favour of the side most Westerners are all too familiar with.

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