Diane Abbott’s Spiteful Victimhood


Bill Hamilton and George Price were eccentrics. Hamilton would die after an expedition to the Congo to prove his thesis that HIV arose from the oral polio vaccine, while Price cut through his carotid artery with a pair of nail scissors.

However, they were scientists and so eccentricity was no barrier either to pursuing a successful career or to producing important work. And the discoveries they made had a major impact in our understanding of evolution.

Biologists, having broadly accepted Darwin’s ideas, discovered a problem with his theory. For there are countless examples in nature of animals sacrificing themselves to help others. But if the point of life is to reproduce, this makes little sense – it is hard to do so if one is dead. How then to explain the “Problem of Altruism”?

Eccentric though he may have been, it was Bill Hamilton who saw the answer. In one of the foundational discoveries of what is termed “gene-centric evolution”, he realised that sacrifice made sense if it increased the reproductive chances of one’s relatives, because one shares with them most of one’s genes. While one’s individual copy may not reproduce, it might allow those of one’s kin to do so more successfully than otherwise. Altruism, therefore, may not be beneficial for individuals, but it can be highly advantageous for their genes. Hamilton was able to support his thesis by showing that altruism correlates with relatedness and thus gene similarity – the closer the relationship, the more likely altruistic behaviour – a parent is more likely to sacrifice for a child than an aunt for a nephew or one random stranger for another.

If Hamilton had reduced what had been seen as praiseworthy and noble to a matter of cold biological maths, he soon came to realise that his ideas had yet darker implications. For, in a world of scarce resources, if it makes sense to help one’s relatives, it also makes sense to hurt those to whom one is not related. One can improve one’s genes’ chances by reducing those of their rivals. In a tribute he may not have wished, this came to be known as “Hamiltonian Spite”.

Price, who had a varied scientific career including a stint on the Manhattan Project, became fascinated by Hamilton’s ideas, and produced what is seen as the best mathematical formulation of the theory. Like his colleague, he came to realise that bad behaviour is just as biologically reasonable as good, but unlike Hamilton, he found this conclusion hard to accept. With devout, if unorthodox, Christian beliefs, he set out to live in such a way as to refute his own theory – indulging in ever more extreme acts of charity such as helping alcoholics steal his own possessions and sleeping in his office after giving his house to the homeless. In the end, however, it was not enough and he took his own life at the age of 52, Hamilton identifying the body.

Human beings are highly complex animals, but animals nonetheless. The shackles of biology still bind us, much though we might prefer to ignore that fact. Just as in the animal kingdom, advantages accrue to those at the top of the tree, even if our intelligence has allowed us to move beyond using solely physical characteristics to get there- an ugly rich guy probably has a beautiful wife, an ugly poor guy is probably single. Just as animals fight for dominance, we fight for status.

Over time, humans have derived it from different attributes. Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning divide history into three different periods. Most humans have lived in an “Honour Culture”, where the lack of a strong authority leaves individuals to resolve their own slights. As a result, status is gained by having the ability to do so – courage, physical strength and quickness to use it are prized. The Industrial Revolution, however, allowed the state to grow and stand as referee in disputes, creating a “Dignity Culture” prizing restraint, tolerance and giving the benefit of the doubt. Lately, however, Campbell and Manning detect the rise of a “Victimhood Culture” which blends the two. The strong state still exists to resolve disputes, but the intolerance of an “Honour Culture” has returned. To gain status in such a society, one must have a “narrative of suffering” public airing of which previous generations would have regarded as shameful or narcissistic. By contrast, those who do so today receive “recognition, support and protection.”

These are things which are worth having and, if we are the machines biology tells us we are, they are the sort of things which we should wish our kin to have. But, as Hamilton and Price showed to the latter’s cost, they are also the sort of things we should seek to deny to others.

Which is what Diane Abbott did in her letter/first draft/latest gaffe over the weekend.

In it, she argued that people with white skins such as Travellers and members of the Jewish community suffer from “prejudice” which is “similar to racism” but “they are not all their lives subject to racism”. Cue an inevitable firestorm and, in contrast to previous Labour leaderships, the suspension of the whip.

While much of the criticism has attacked her ignorance – the minor historical detail of the Holocaust seeming to have passed her Cambridge education by – others attacked her very approach. “You can’t have a hierarchy of victimhood” Labour’s Pat Macfadden – perhaps the only man in public life who would be rejected for a job in a funeral parlour for being too gloomy – opined. Rightly, he saw that Abbott was trying to elevate the suffering and, in a Victimhood Culture, the status of one group (her own) by downgrading the suffering of another. Afflicted by the full-blown flu of racism, her group is more worthy than those affected by the mild sniffle of prejudice.

But if he was correct in diagnosing her approach, and (possibly) correct in a moral sense, he was 100% wrong about the way humans act. For as soon as society decides that something gives status, with all its associated benefits, people compete to acquire it for themselves and those similar to them. And they try to prevent others from having it. Biology will have it no other way. When a culture decides that something intangible such as victimhood should bring advantages, its members will try to define it just as Abbott did so that they are more victim than others, more of the upside thus accruing to them. In a world of scarce resources, it is not that you “can’t” have a hierarchy of victimhood, it is more that, as soon as you decide it brings status, everyone is incentivised to invent one (with themselves at the top and, just as importantly, others at the bottom). Rather than bring people together, a Victimhood Culture can only drive them apart as each group seeks to maximise the perception of its own suffering and minimise that of others. 

By all means condemn Diane Abbott (although if you would preserve a Dignity Culture, perhaps you should not). She was factually wrong and morally crass. But perhaps also give her half a cheer for, in all likelihood unwittingly, revealing the pernicious logic of her ideology.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.