One of the often overlooked historical oddities in the development of the environmental movement in the United States was its close relationship to what we would today term white supremacy. Though many praise Teddy Roosevelt for his embrace of conservationism and evolutionary theory, he also adhered to racial beliefs of the day, which presumed the superiority of Anglo-Saxon people and couched it in Darwinian terms. Even less well known is the activism of race theorist Madison Grant, who was as much a conservationist as the intellectual for white supremacy that he is remembered for today (see Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant). In some ways the connection is reasonable, in that both are fundamentally conservative instincts. To preserve the environment and the racial order of the day. The connection was clear well into the 20th century, Charles Lindbergh was a prominent eugenicist, but later became an environmentalist, while Garrett Hardin, who originated the term “tragedy of the commons” opposed both high immigration levels and was skeptical of racial diversity.
Because of environmentalism’s association with the cultural Left in the United States these connections no longer apply so straightforwardly. In fact, the Sierra Club and other such organizations tend to be careful to not oppose immigration on environmental terms because of its racial implications. But, I’ve noticed that many people with an environmental orientation still use what strikes me as quite racialist language in the context of animals. I don’t think it is a problem. Different moral and ethical standards apply to animals than humans. But I also think it is funny, as well as somewhat wrong-headed. This came to my attention because of an article in Nautilus, A Strange New Gene Pool of Animals Is Brewing in the Arctic. There’s a lot of talk about issues like hybrid zones, and pre- and postzygotic isolation (at least implicitly). But this section caught is just totally confused:
In September, in an inlet some 1,800 miles north of Fargo, North Dakota, where the North American landmass dissolves into the Arctic Ocean, the whales met in the middle. They spent two weeks together, and although not much happened before they turned around, the meeting was historic. The fossil record indicates the last time Pacific and Atlantic bowhead whales came into contact was at least 10,000 years ago.
While it’s tempting to imagine a strange new Arctic teeming with “grolar bears” and “narlugas,” hybridization comes at a cost. Arctic biodiversity will be reduced through gradual consolidation, taking with it a blend of genes that have evolved by natural selection over millennia. “There’s going to be a whole bunch of organisms containing genes that we’re going to lose,” Kelly says. Which genes, exactly, is unclear….
The problem here is that the terms are being mixed up. “Biodiversity” is often applied at the level of species or races, with a diversity index calculated from discrete numbers of population types. If you calculate a diversity index based on Swedish, Nigerians, and Chinese, you start out with three populations and look at their proportions. If you take them all and mix them so they are one population obviously the diversity is going to go down. But the genetic diversity is not going to down, because genes don’t “mix”. This is the blending theory of inheritance, and what Mendelian genetics overthrew with its understanding of discrete and particulate units of inheritance. The same confusion crops up with the idea of “disappearing blondes” and “disappearing redheads.” The phenotypes may change in frequency, but the understanding alleles, the genetic variants, remain. From a genetic perspective if you wanted to you could probably pull back out the original populations through selective breeding if you wanted to. Not only does the allelic diversity of the pooled populations not change, but the genotypic diversity increases, because of elevated heterozygosity. Finally, because of new potential combination genotypes the phenotypic diversity in totality also probably increases (example: Brazilians exhibit a wider range of skin color variation than Africans or Europeans).
Of course this is predicated on racial/subspecies level variation and divergence. If the populations are separated long enough then there will be barriers to easy gene flow. This is evident in the modern human-Neandertal event, where the X chromosome seems to have been purified of Neandertal alleles (this is a common tendency with hybridization events). But please note above that the people in the piece are concerned about populations of whales separated for 10,000 years. There are plenty of human populations separated for 10,000, and even 100,000 years. So this isn’t really a terrifying number of generations.