Saturday, October 3, 2015

The adaptive value of "Aw shucks!"

Solitude - Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)

In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).

Do women learn this behavior? Why, then, do they learn it just as easily in Western societies where constraints on female behavior are much weaker and typically stigmatized?

In U.S. society most of the formal institutional constraints on women have been removed, and ideologies of the inferiority of women are publicly frowned on. Sexual jealousy is also publicly disapproved, however much private expectation there may be of the phenomenon. Resources inequalities between men and women have also been reduced, although not eradicated. Certainly, male violence against women is still a reality and may play a role promoting deference behaviors in college-aged women. However, it seems unlikely that fear of physical violence is enough to explain why young women typically defer to men when involved in non-sex typed tasks in experimental settings. (Hopcroft, 2009)

Moreover, why would this behavior be learned mainly between 15 and 18 years of age?

[...] by many measures, girls at this age in the United States are doing objectively better than boys — they get better grades, have fewer behavioral and disciplinary problems, and are more likely to go to college than boys (Fisher 1999: 82). Qualitative studies also show the decline in female confidence and certainty at adolescence (Brown and Gilligan 1992). Brown and Gilligan's (1992) study was done in an elite private girls' school among girls who were likely to have every opportunity in life. Why would their self confidence be eroded at puberty? Certainly, there are few differences in resources between teenage boys and girls. Brown and Gilligan (1992) argue that our sexist culture strikes at girls during puberty, stripping girls of their self esteem. It seems odd that our patriarchal culture should wait until that precise moment to ensnare girls. (Hopcroft, 2009)

Female self-esteem seems to be hormonally influenced. It declines at puberty, reaches its lowest levels in late adolescence, gradually increases during adulthood, and peaks after menopause.

[...] evidence from many cultures [shows that] post-menopausal women often enjoy a status equal to that of men: they become in effect "honorary men." [...] Even in the most gender restrictive societies they are freed from menstrual taboos and purdah, often begin to inherit property and acquire wealth, and in general have increased freedom, status, power and influence in society. A recent experimental study of influence in small groups showed that older women (50 and older) do not defer to older men, and that older men do not display lack of deference to older women. (Hopcroft, 2009)

Female deference varies not only over a woman's lifetime but also from one woman to the next, i.e., some women are more predisposed than others. This variability may exist for one or more reasons:

- Not enough time has elapsed for selection to remove contrary predispositions (non-deference) from the gene pool.

- The selection pressure is relatively weak: contrary predispositions appear through mutation as fast as they are removed through selection.

- The strength or weakness of selection may vary among human populations. Gene flow may reintroduce contrary predispositions from populations where the selection pressure against them is relatively weak.

- There may be frequency-dependent selection. Non-deferring women may be better liked when less common.

Sexual selection?

For all these reasons, evolutionary psychologist Rosemary Hopcroft (2009) argues that female deference is an innate predisposition and not a learned behavior. It has become widespread because sexual selection has favored deferential women. When women compete on the mate market, success goes to the more deferential ones.

One might point out that deferential behavior would be advantageous not only at the time of mating but also later—during pregnancy and infant care. So, strictly speaking, the selection pressure wouldn’t be just sexual selection.

But Hopcroft's argument is vulnerable to a more serious objection: sexual selection of females is the exception and not the rule in most animal species, especially mammals. The males are the ones that have to compete for mates. This reflects differing contributions to procreation, the female being saddled with the tasks of pregnancy, nursing, and early infant care. Meanwhile, the male is usually free to go back on the mate market, with the result that mateable males outnumber mateable females at any one time.

Hopcroft knows this but argues that the human species is a special case because "human fathers often invest heavily in their children." But often they don't. What about societies where men do very little to raise their offspring? This point doesn't disprove Hopcroft's argument. In fact, it may provide a way to prove it, i.e., female deference should be stronger where paternal investment is higher.

If we look at hunter-gatherers, paternal investment tends to follow a north-south cline. It's low in the tropical zone where women gather food year-round and can thus provide for themselves and their children with little male assistance. It's higher farther away from the equator, where winter limits food gathering and makes women dependent on food that men provide through hunting. Paternal investment is highest in the Arctic: almost all food is provided by men, and women specialize in tasks unrelated to food procurement (garment making, shelter building, meat processing).

This north-south cline was maintained and in some cases accentuated when hunting and gathering gave way to farming. In the tropical zone, farming developed out of female food gathering and thus became women's work, as is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea. This sexual division of labor also explains why tropical farmers preferred to domesticate plants for food production. Only one animal species, the guinea fowl, has been domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, and it was apparently domesticated by women. All other forms of livestock have come from elsewhere.

How universal is female deference?

Female deference should therefore vary within our species. In particular, it should correlate with the degree of paternal investment in offspring and, relatedly, the intensity of female-female competition for mates. This doesn't mean that women are actually more deferential in societies where men are providers. It simply means that they create an impression of deference, while continuing to do much of the real decision-making.

This issue is sidestepped by Hopcroft, who speaks only of 'women' and 'men'—as if all human groups show the same pattern of female deference. She cites many studies to prove her point, but this literature is overwhelmingly based on Euro-American or European participants. There is one study on African Americans, but it was limited to boys and girls 11 to 14 years old (Weisfeld et al., 1982).

In fact, this presumed universality of female deference was already disproven by a study published two years earlier:

Much feminist literature has described the relative silence of girls in classrooms and a concomitant drop in self-esteem for girls in their early teens (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; American Association of University Women, 1992). But other work has noted that Black girls maintain their self-esteem and their classroom "voice" into adolescence despite the fact that they may feel neglected in education (Orenstein, 1994; Taylor et al., 1995). (Morris, 2007)

Over a period of two years, Morris (2007) studied African American girls in grades 7 and 9 of an American middle school referred to as "Mathews." The students were 46% African American and the teachers two-thirds African American.

He found that African American girls seemed to feel little inhibition in the presence of boys:

Indeed, at Matthews I often observed girls—particularly Black girls—dominating classroom discussion.

[...] I noticed this active participation of girls to a greater extent in English classrooms, particularly when, as in this example, the subject concerned gender issues or relationships. However, the topic in this example also concerned computers and technology, areas more commonly dominated by boys. Furthermore, girls at Matthews, especially Black girls, spoke out to ask and answer questions in science and math classes as well, although to a lesser extent than in English and history classes. This willingness of African American girls to compete and stand up to others also emerged in their non-academic interactions with boys.

[...] Black girls at Matthews often challenged physical contact initiated by boys by hitting and chasing them back. They did not yield to and accept this behavior from boys, nor did they tend to seek adult authority to protect themselves and punish the boys.

[...] Thus, most African American girls in my observations did not hesitate to speak up in classrooms, and stand up to boys physically. Few Black girls I observed created disruptions in classrooms, but most consistently competed with boys and other girls to gain teachers' positive attentions.

[..] I observed this outspokenness at Matthews. Black girls there appeared less restrained by the dominant, White middle-class view of femininity as docile and compliant, and less expectant of male protection than White girls in other educational research.

These observations were consistent with those of the teachers, who generally described African American girls as being confrontational, loud, and unladylike:

Teachers, particularly women, often scolded Black girls for supposedly subverting their authority in the classroom. 

[...] By far the most common description and criticism of African American girls by all teachers at Matthews was that they were too "loud."

[...] For many adults at Matthews, the presumed loud and confrontational behavior of African American girls was viewed as a defect that compromised their very femininity. This emerged most clearly in educators castigating Black girls to behave like "ladies."

Morris attributed this behavioral pattern to America's history of slavery and race relations. It would be useful to examine comparable data from sub-Saharan Africa. Do African women show less deference to men in mixed-gender settings?

According to a study of Akan society in Ghana, wives traditionally deferred to their husbands, but such deference was less common than in European society because social interactions were less frequent between husband and wife, being limited to certain areas of family life:

Traditional norms stipulated, for example, that the wife should not eat with the husband; that she alone must carry the foodstuffs from the farm; take water for the husband to the bathroom; sweep the compound; do the cooking; clean her husband's penis after sexual intercourse; and show deference to him in speech and action. (van der Geest, 1976)

Husbands and wives seldom made decisions jointly:

Joint decision-making is believed to be a departure from the past when decisions were made in a much more autocratic way by the husband alone or when spouses decided over their own matters separately (van der Geest, 1976).

Things were very different in mixed-gender settings outside the family. In the larger community, African women of all ages showed little deference to men, the situation being similar to that of older women in European societies.

Despite these outward rules, however, women held considerable power and commanded wide respect. They played a role in traditional politics and religion and were nearly always economically independent of their husbands. Moreover, women enjoyed a high degree of freedom to enter and to terminate marital unions, and in the matrilineal society of the Akan they were the focal points of descent lines. (van der Geest, 1976)

It is unclear to what degree modernization has changed these social dynamics. Van der Geest (1976) found much interest among younger Akan in the European model of family life, i.e., husband and wife eating and socializing together, and making decisions together. His own study, however, failed to find a significant difference between older and younger Akan in this respect. He concluded that the elite were moving toward European models of behavior, but not the majority of the population:

There are indications that—contrary to the situation in elite circles—marriage in lower socioeconomic groups remains an institution of secondary importance. Spouses have relatively low expectations of their marriage partners and of marriage in general. Men are often reluctant or unable to provide sufficient financial support for their families, and not infrequently women bear the burden of parenthood alone. [...] Wives remain more attached to their families of origin than to their partners, and in almost half of all cases husband and wife do not even constitute a residential unit. The relatively low status of marriage in Kwahu is perhaps best reflected in the high incidence of divorce and extramarital sex. (van der Geest, 1976)

This is consistent with findings from other studies. The pair bond is relatively weak in sub-Saharan Africa. Husband and wife tend to feel greater attachment to their respective kin. The husband is more certain that his sister's offspring are his blood relatives, whereas the wife sees her mother, sisters, and other female relatives as more reliable sources of child care.

Poewe found in her fieldwork that the marriage institution was highly flexible and discouraged strong, intense, or lasting solidarity between husband and wife. The male in these matrilineal societies did not produce for his progeny or for himself, but usually for a matrician with whom he might or might not reside. His role, as husband, was to sexually satisfy and impregnate his wife and to take care of her during her pregnancies, but under no circumstances should a man be the object of "exclusive emotional investment or focus of attention. Instead, women are socialized to invest their emotions and material wealth in their respective matrilineages." (Saidi, 2010, p. 16).

For this reason, European outsiders see parental neglect of children where Africans see no neglect at all—simply another system of child care. As Africans move to other parts of the world, they tend to recreate the African marriage system in their host countries by using local people and institutions as "surrogate kin." This is the case in England, where young African couples often place their children in foster homes:

The foster parents interpret the infrequent visiting of their wards' "real" parents as signs of parental neglect and become strongly attached to the foster children. This sometimes results in legal suits for transfer of custody to the foster parents (Ellis 1977). Meanwhile, the African parents make no comparable assumption that the delegation of care means they have surrendered formal rights in children. They consider that by having made safe and reliable arrangements for the care of children and by regular payment of fees, they are dispatching their immediate responsibility. (Draper, 1989, p.164)

In recent years, there has been much talk of an "adoption crisis" in Africa, where millions of children are not being raised by both parents and thus purportedly need to be placed in Western homes. Yet this situation is far from new. In fact, it's unavoidable in a culture where women cannot count on male assistance and have to make other arrangements:

In most African communities, the concept of "adoption" does not exist in the western sense. Children are fostered, a prevalent, culturally sanctioned procedure whereby natal parents allow their children to be reared by adults other than the biological parent [35] [36]. Child fostering is a reciprocal arrangement and contributes to mutually recognised benefits for both natal and fostering families [37]. In Tanzania, less than one quarter of children being fostered by relatives other than their biological parent were orphans. (Foster and Williamson, 2000).


Evolutionary psychologists believe that all human populations share the same genetic influences on behavior. They defend this belief by pointing to the complexity of behavior and the presumably long time it would take for corresponding genetic influences to evolve coherently from scratch. But why do they have to evolve from scratch? Evolution usually proceeds through minor modifications to what already exists. This is no less true for genetic determinants of behavior. For instance, an innate mental algorithm may be partially or completely deactivated. Or its range of targets may be broadened. Or it may deactivate more slowly with increasing age.

To the extent that human groups differ genetically in mental makeup, the differences are not due to some groups having completely new mental algorithms. Instead, the differences are due to the same algorithms being modified in various ways, often subtly so. For example, learning is primarily an infant behavior that becomes more difficult with increasing age. People may differ in learning capacity not because their learning algorithms differ but because these algorithms remain fully active for a longer time in some people than in others.

Another example may be female deference. In early modern humans, women tended to feel deferential in the presence of men, but this tendency was weak because a woman's interactions with her husband were infrequent and less important for her survival and the survival of her children. This is still the case in human groups that never left the tropical zone.

As humans spread beyond the tropics, this behavioral tendency became more easily triggered, particularly during the ages of 15 to 18 when young women entered the mate market. This evolutionary change came about because women in non-tropical environments were more dependent on men for food, particularly in winter. Women were, so to speak, in a weaker bargaining position than men, first of all on the mate market and later during pregnancy and infant care.


Brown, L.M., and C. Gilligan. (1992). Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, Harvard University Press. 

Draper, P. (1989). African marriage systems: Perspectives from evolutionary ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 145-169.

Fisher, H. (1999). The First Sex, Random House. 

Foster, G., and J. Williamson. (2000). A review of current literature of the impact of HIV/AIDS on children in sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS 2000, 14: S275-S284. 

Hopcroft, R.L. (2009). Gender inequality in interaction - An evolutionary account, Social Forces, 87, 1-28. 

Morris, E.W. (2007). "Ladies" or "Loudies"? Perceptions and experiences of black girls in classrooms, Youth & Society, 20, 1-26. 

Saidi, C. (2010). Women's Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa, University of Rochester Press. 

van der Geest, S. (1976). Role relationships between husband and wife in rural Ghana, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38, 572-578. 

Weisfeld, C.C., G.E. Weisfeld, and J.W. Callaghan. (1982). Female inhibition in mixed-sex competition among young adolescents, Ethology and Sociobiology, 3, 29-42.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Déjà vu ?

Goths traversant une rivière, Évariste-Vital Luminais (1822-1896). The Goths came en masse and unopposed, as immigrants. They discovered that Roman civilians would not defend themselves and had not done so for a long time.


When discussing the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, we often ignore one thing: most of them are neither Syrians nor refugees. The majority are Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, or even Bangladeshis. They live crummy lives but are in no immediate danger, their motive being simply the prospect of a better life in the West.

A Pakistani identity card in the bushes, a Bangladeshi one in a cornfield. A torn Iraqi driver's license bearing the photo of a man with a Saddam-style mustache, another one with a scarfed woman displaying a shy smile.

Documents scattered only metres from Serbia's border with Hungary provide evidence that many of the migrants flooding Europe to escape war or poverty are scrapping their true nationalities and likely assuming new ones, just as they enter the European Union. Serbian border police say that 90 percent of those arriving from Macedonia, some 3,000 a day, claim they are Syrian, although they have no documents to prove it. [...]

"You can see that something is fishy when most of those who cross into Serbia enter January first as the date of their birth," said border police officer Miroslav Jovic. "Guess that's the first date that comes to their mind." (The New Zealand Herald, 2015)

A breach has opened up in the defenses of Europe, and large numbers of people are pouring through. Meanwhile, another breach has been made in Libya.

Steve Sailer has compared this influx to the entry of the Goths into the Roman Empire (Sailer, 2015). They too came en masse and unopposed, as refugees. Is the comparison justified? There are both similarities and dissimilarities, but the latter, I will argue, are such that the current crisis may actually be the worse one.

Let's begin with the similarities:

Demographic imbalance

Contemporary observers (Augustus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Stobaeus) believed that birth rates had fallen considerably, largely because too many people were postponing marriage and resorting to abortion or infanticide within marriage (Harris, 1982; Rawson, 1986). This opinion is supported by archaeological evidence that Roman towns and cities lost population between the 2nd and 5th centuries, with no signs of population growth elsewhere. Using this evidence, Latouche (1947) argued that birth rates were falling throughout the Empire by the 3rd century. Nonetheless, other historians tend to be dismissive, saying that the contemporary observers in question had pro-family biases.

There is agreement on one point: infantile mortality was high, particularly in urban areas. Even a modest fertility decline would have led to a shrinking population (Frost, 2010b). Just to keep the population stable, each Roman mother would have had to bear at least five children (Parkin, 1992).

Conditions were better for growth just outside the Empire, where people enjoyed increased opportunities for trade without the cultural influences that tend to delay family formation and reduce fertility (Wells, 1999, p. 225). The result would have been an increasing pressure of population on the Empire's borders.

Controlled immigration: beginnings of the mass influx

The fall of Rome evokes horrific images of death and plunder. At first, however, the barbarians came peacefully, being recruited as soldiers and rewarded with land grants at the end of their military service (Goffart, 1980). It was with this outcome in mind that the Goths, fleeing the advance of the Huns in the 4th century, showed up along the Danube and begged to be allowed in. But this time the influx would be much greater, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. They were nonetheless allowed in, and the Emperor's entourage saw this influx as business as usual.

Optimism among the elites

By that time, Rome's capacity to assimilate was at its height. Ethnic and regional identities were dissolving throughout the Empire and being replaced by a common identity of Roman civilization or humanitas. This broader identity seemed to be spreading even beyond the Empire:

The most profound effect of the interactions was to spread Roman goods, practices, and values beyond the provinces out to regions far removed from the territories conquered by Rome. When auxiliary soldiers returned home to regions such as Denmark or Poland, they brought with them not only their weapons and perhaps Roman bronze vessels and ornate pottery, but also personal familiarity with large-scale political organization, cities, writing, and all of the myriad other features that distinguished Roman civilization from the cultures of the peoples of northern Europe. (Wells, 1999, p. 225)

Christianity was likewise making inroads. For all these reasons, the northern barbarians didn't form a rival civilization like the Persian Empire to the east. They were merely disparate tribes being drawn economically and culturally into Rome's orbit and apparently destined to become future Romans. This should be kept in mind when we read about the optimism of the Emperor's entourage, who considered the Gothic influx to be a godsend of future soldiers and loyal subjects (Pohl, 1997, p. 4). Goffart (1980, p. 35) is not far off the mark when he states, "what we call the fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand."

Why things went wrong

To some degree, optimism was justified. Large numbers of barbarians had become useful citizens, particularly soldiers. But past success is no guarantee against future failure. First, a demographic pressure cooker was developing beyond the Empire's borders, and many more barbarians would soon follow the example of the Goths. Second, even as longtime Roman soldiers, they often felt greater loyalty to their own people than to abstract principles of humanitas. Third, many had trouble accepting the Roman idea that only the State may use violence.

Barbarians considered violence to be legitimate. In their eyes, every adult male had the right to use violent means when and if appropriate, even to the point of committing murder. In barbarian society, a victim of violence could go to a court of law, but the court's decision had to be enforced by the victim and his kinsmen. In short, no one had an inherent right to life and property. That right had to be continually earned through one's ability to defend oneself and rally support from friends and family (Frost, 2010a). 

Things were very different within the Empire, as summed up by the term Pax Romana. Only the State had the right to use violence, and people who usurped that right were branded as bandits and treated as such. It was this pacification of social relations that made possible the creation of a large complex society where people could live, trade, and come and go in relative peace.

The barbarian influx would destroy the Pax Romana. If we take the case of the Goths, so many were allowed to enter that the Empire lacked the means to feed them. The resulting famine pushed them to plunder towns and villages for food. At that point, they saw with their own eyes the defenselessness of the average Roman, who in any altercation would not defend himself and would typically flee.

The Romans did have a system of collective defense. By the 4th century, there was an extensive network of walls, forts, and watchtowers along the border, as well as defense in depth—legions stationed farther behind to contain any incursions. But this system failed to allow for a situation where large numbers of barbarians would be invited to cross the militarized border zone with no opposition whatsoever. At that point, they entered the so-called 'civil zone,' where defenses were much weaker.

The resulting crisis tended to feed on itself. When large numbers of barbarians were invited in, even more decided to invite themselves. The border ceased to exist. There was no longer any barrier between the barbaric outer world and the pacified Roman world, which was home to millions of people who didn't know how to defend themselves and who had not done so for generations.

And so the inevitable happened. The barbarians didn't wish to destroy Roman society—they just wanted to help themselves to its wealth—-but their very presence made the survival of Roman society impossible. No, they didn't completely destroy the heritage of Rome. They came to plunder, not to destroy; moreover, they were already semi-Roman and semi-Christian, and in time the kingdoms they founded would preserve some of that heritage. But the Empire did collapse, as a French historian has wryly pointed out:

For the decisive point is that Rome had shown its weakness by admitting peoples onto its territory whom it had been unable to subordinate and whose presence it had regularized without having vanquished them in the field. Contrary to what is commonly said today, the invasions really did happen. The Barbarians were in no way "invited" to settle in the empire. They entered in large numbers by immigration and also, at least in equal numbers, by violent invasion, by piercing the defense lines, plundering the cities, and massacring people as much in Italy and Greece as in Gaul, Spain, and Africa. (Voisin, 2014)

And now the differences

While the fall of Rome resembles the current crisis, there are differences. First, the demographic imbalance between Romans and barbarians was hardly comparable to the one that now exists between Europeans, on the one hand, and Muslims and Africans, on the other. When the Roman Empire collapsed, barbarians replaced the native population in only a few areas: England, Flanders, southern Germany, parts of Switzerland, and Austria (furthermore, the case of England is disputed by some historians). Elsewhere, they were no more than 5 to 10% of the local population. The population replacement now under way—which is merely in its initial stages—promises to be much greater.

Second, the peoples of Africa and the Muslim world may covet Europe's higher standard of living, but they don't see themselves as future Europeans. They see themselves as Africans and Muslims, and that's not going to change. The difference is crucial. Whereas Europe was still European when the Dark Ages ended, it may be something else when this is all over.

The outcome will depend on what you do or fail to do. When people look on and say nothing, they hand over the keys of history to those who have no such inhibitions.


Frost, P. (2010a). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

Frost, P. (2010b). Are empires bad for your health? Evo and Proud, January 14

Goffart, W. (1980). Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-584. The Techniques of Accommodation, Princeton University Press.

Harris, W.V. (1982). The theoretical possibility of extensive infanticide in the Graeco-Roman world, The Classical Quarterly, 32, 114-116.

Latouche, R. (1947). Aspect démographique de la crise des grandes invasions, Population, 2, 681-690.

Parkin, T.G. (1992). Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pohl, W. (1997). Kingdoms of the Empire. The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity, Brill.

Rawson, B. (1986). The Roman Family, in B. Rawson (ed.) The Family in Ancient Rom, New Perspectives, Cornell University Press.

Sailer, S. (2015). Civilization capitulates to barbarism at the Danube in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," The Unz Review, September 7

The New Zealand Herald. (2015). The big migrant passport scam, September 7 

Voisin, J.L. (2014). Ce que nous enseigne la chute de l'empire romain, Le Figaro, October 17 

Wells, P.S. (1999). The Barbarians Speak. How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe, Princeton University Press.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


The Second Class Carriage, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879)


I'll be on vacation until October and will probably have little time for my weekly column. I hope to profit from this hiatus to rethink my priorities for the next twelve months.

That rethink will include this column. Is it reaching its target audience? Are changes needed? A recurring suggestion is that I should write more simply and in a less pedantic style. Yes, plain language is best. A lot of academic writing suffers from turgid jargon, not to mention silly attempts to imitate the syntax of French deconstructionists. But it’s not as if I write my columns first and later try to impress folks by inserting “organizing principle,” “evolutionary trajectory,” and other bafflegab. That’s how I think. Jargon also allows me to squeeze complex ideas into a few words. A certain amount is unavoidable, unless you want to read columns that are twice as long.

Russia, Russia, Russia ...

Another suggestion is that I should write more pieces about foreign politics, like "Impressions of Russia." In The Unz Review that column got me 246 comments (My score was higher with only one other column “The Jews of West Africa”). Yet I wrote it off the top of my head.

So why not write about Russia? To be honest I don't feel qualified. I remember my first impressions of that country and how so many turned out to be incomplete or dead wrong. Nonetheless, those same first impressions turn up again and again in pieces by journalists and other writers.

Like the ones who go on about "grim-faced Russians weighed down by centuries of oppression." I've read that refrain so often it's no longer funny. Russians dislike smiling at strangers because it’s considered rude—and also because a stranger with attitude might take it the wrong way. But among friends and family they laugh and smile like anyone else. This is changing, to be sure. On my last visit I noticed many store employees flashing American-style smiles at customers.

Then there's that travel writer who said he knew he was being spied upon because the hotel maid looked like a top model. Uh, that's just the local demographics, and the fact that many young women work in services to pay for their university education. In the West, students are supposed to work as unpaid "interns."

Finally, many journalists have been writing that Russia is hell on earth for gays and lesbians. The real situation is like that of the West in the 1970s: homosexuality is no longer illegal but most people still consider it wrong. So gays and lesbians get disowned by their parents and beaten up by young toughs. On the other hand, they form a large and very visible community with its own bars, magazines, and festivals. I remember going to a night club where about a third of the clientele were openly gay or lesbian. It was no hole-in-the wall either.

So if some journalists think Russia today is evil, they should also think the West in the 1970s was evil. Maybe they do.

Of course, there is a big difference between us in the 1970s and Russians today. We had to wait forty years to see how things would turn out. They don’t have to wait. They can just look at us. That cuts two ways. On the one hand, Russian gays and lesbians look at the West and feel frustrated. They want change to happen faster. On the other hand, traditional Russians look at the West and feel dismayed. They want no part of this change.

Can you blame them? In the 1980s I supported gay rights on the principle of "live and let live." Gays weren't asking to be accepted by people who didn't accept them, least of all religious conservatives. They just wanted to be left alone, as consenting adults, and who could be against what consenting adults do in private?

The next three decades then saw a ratcheting upward of gay rights. For example, since 2012 all Ontario schools have had to allow gay/lesbian clubs on their premises, even Catholic and elementary schools. So much for freedom of religion. So much for "consenting adults."  Gays and lesbians seem to be like any pressure group: they make whatever promises are necessary to get what they want and then forget them when they get what they want.

So Russia is a bit like our past. Only it's a past where people have a better idea of the future.

Punditry, left vs. right, and globalism

That's about all I have to say about Russia. If you want to know more, ask someone from that country.

What about punditry on other topics? Again, I don't feel qualified, and there are columnists far better at that than me.

I also have mixed feelings about punditry. It aims not so much to change how people think as to confirm what they think. So the net effect is to polarize public opinion. Liberals become more self-assured about their ideology and conservatives likewise. Yet, as I see it, both groups are equally wrong, and both have betrayed their original principles. 

As I see it (again), the worst threat comes from the right. It’s the right that best articulates globalism and is best able to persuade everyone that it's for their own good. And globalism will be much more far-reaching—and devastating—than communism ever was. It is literally the abolition of all barriers to the free flow of capital, trade, and labor. In the best scenario, wages and working conditions will be levelled downward throughout the West. In the worst scenario, the whole world will be worse off because the conditions most suitable to wealth creation are in the high-trust societies of the West.

Those societies are not high-trust because of laws, constitutions, or charters of rights. They are that way because of their cultural, behavioral, and psychological characteristics—low levels of personal violence, high levels of affective empathy and guilt proneness, strong orientation toward the future rather than the present, and so on. It was that mental package that made the rise of the West possible.

That mental package is now being dissolved, not so much by "cultural Marxists" as by business interests that want to cut labor costs and increase GDP. They feel no animosity toward the West and its national identities. They just feel those identities have had their day. In their opinion, this is how we'll all move into a better and more prosperous future.

People are entitled to their opinions, but this one—globalism—isn’t competing with the others on a level playing field. It dominates the media, the think tanks, and even the entertainment industry. And it dominates both the left and the right. It’s an opinion that has succeeded not on its own merits but because it has much more money behind it.

This has always been a problem in open, democratic societies. It has gotten worse, however. This is partly because the top 1% have proportionately more money nowadays and partly because they have less sense of national loyalty nowadays. They’ll say it out loud: “Why should I feel more loyal to someone who works here than to someone who works in another country?” This sort of view is promoted by eminently conservative groups, like the Fraser Institute here in Canada.

Punditry becomes part of the problem to the degree it shores up the false dichotomy of “left” versus “right.” Today, the real one is globalism versus the forces it opposes.


Ostroff, J. (2015). How Canada got its first Catholic elementary school gay-straight alliance, Huffington Post, May 11 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A genetic marker for empathy?

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The more you empathize with the world, the more you feel its joy and pain, but too much can lead to overload.


One of my interests is affective empathy, the involuntary desire not only to understand another person's emotional state but also to make it one's own—in short, to feel the pain and joy of other people. This mental trait has a heritability of 68% and is normally distributed along a bell curve within any one population (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). Does it also vary statistically among human populations? This is possible. Different cultures give varying importance to affective empathy, and humans have adapted much more to their cultural environments than to their natural environments. This is why human genetic evolution accelerated over 100-fold about 10,000 years ago when humans began to abandon hunting and gathering for farming, which in turn led to increasingly diverse forms of social organization (Hawks et al., 2007).

I have argued previously that Europeans to the north and west of the Hajnal Line (an imaginary line running from Trieste to Saint-Petersburg) have adapted to a cultural environment of weaker kinship and, conversely, greater individualism. In such an environment, the reciprocal obligations of kinship are insufficient to ensure compliance with social rules. This isn’t a new situation. Weak kinship is inherent to the Western European Marriage Pattern, which goes back to at least the 12th century, if not earlier.

This cultural environment has selected for a package of mental adaptations:

- capacity to internalize punishment for disobedience of social rules (guilt proneness)

- capacity to simulate and then transfer to oneself the emotional states of people who may be affected by rule-breaking (affective empathy)

- desire to seek out and expel rule-breakers from the moral community (ideological intolerance).

The above mental package has enabled Northwest Europeans to free themselves from the limitations of kinship and organize their societies along other lines, notably the market economy, the modern State, and political ideology. They have thus managed to meet the threefold challenge of creating larger societies, ensuring greater compliance with social rules, and making possible a higher level of personal autonomy.

So much for the theory. What direct evidence do we have that affective empathy is stronger on average in Northwest Europeans? We know that a higher capacity for affective empathy is associated with a larger amygdala, which seems to control our response to facial expressions of fear and other signs of emotional distress (Marsh et al., 2014). Two studies, one American and one English, have found that "conservatives" tend to have a larger right amygdala (Kanai et al., 2011; Schreiber et al., 2013). In both cases, my hunch is that "conservatives" are disproportionately drawn from populations that have, on average, a higher capacity for affective empathy.

But testing this kind of hunch would require a large-scale comparative study, which in turn would require cutting up a lot of cadavers or doing a lot of MRIs. It would be nicer to have a genetic marker that shows up on a simple test. It would also be cheaper.

We may now have that marker: a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). This is not to say that the ADRA2b deletion variant is the sole reason or even the major reason why some people have increased capacity for affective empathy. As with intelligence, an increase in capacity seems to have come about through changes of small effect at many genes.

Nor can we say that "emotional memory" is equivalent to affective empathy. Instead, it seems to be one component, albeit a critical one: the capacity to imagine an emotional state based on visual information (a picture of a person's face, a puppy dog, etc.) and then keep it as part of one's current emotional experience. Emotional memory may be upstream to affective empathy, being perhaps closer to cognitive empathy—the ability to imagine how another person feels without involuntarily making that feeling one's own.

Does its incidence differ among human populations?

This variant was first studied in the United States. Small et al. (2001) found a higher incidence in Caucasians (31%) than in African Americans (12%). Belfer et al. (2005) likewise found a higher incidence in Caucasians (37%) than in African Americans (21%).

In a press release, the authors of the latest study noted that this variant is not equally common in all humans:

The ADRA2b deletion variant appears in varying degrees across different ethnicities. Although roughly 50 per cent of the Caucasian population studied by these researchers in Canada carry the genetic variation, it has been found to be prevalent in other ethnicities. For example, one study found that just 10 per cent of Rwandans carried the ADRA2b gene variant. (UBC News, 2015)

Curiously, its incidence seems higher among “Canadian Caucasians” (50%) than among "American Caucasians” (31-37%). This may reflect differences in participant recruitment or in ethnic mix between the two countries. Indeed, the "Caucasian" category may prove to be problematic because it includes people from both sides of the Hajnal Line. If the average incidence is 31% to 50%, there may be populations that score much higher.

I have found only three studies on specific European ethnicities. The first study found an incidence of 50% in Swiss participants (de Quervain, 2007). The second one found an incidence of 56% in Dutch participants (Cousijn et al., 2010). The third one had two groups of participants: Israeli Holocaust survivors and a control group of European-born Israelis who had emigrated with their parents to the British Mandate of Palestine. The incidence was 48% in the Holocaust survivors and 63% in the controls (Fridman et al., 2012).

From East Asia, a study on Chinese participants reported an incidence of 68% (Zhang et al., 2005). This is surprising because Chinese seem less likely to distinguish between cognitive empathy and affective empathy (Siu and Shek,2005). Japanese participants had an incidence of 56% in one study (Suzuki et al., 2003) and 71% in another (Ishii et al., 2015). Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015).


The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective).

It may be significant that a high incidence was found among the Shors, who were largely hunter-gatherers until recent times. This suggests that empathy reached high levels in Eurasia long before the advent of complex societies, or even farming. The example of the Shors also suggests that non-carriers of the deletion variant suffer from higher mortality—a somewhat surprising finding, given the evidence that carriers have a higher risk of heart disease.

More research is needed on how this variant interacts with variants at other genes. For instance, it has been found that people with at least one copy of the short allele of 5-HTTLPR tend to be too sensitive to negative emotional information. This effect seems to be attenuated by the deletion variant of ADRA2b, which either keeps one from dwelling too much on a bad emotional experience or helps one anticipate and prevent repeat experiences (Naudts et al., 2012). Nonetheless, too much affective empathy may lead to an overload where one ends up helping others to the detriment of oneself and one’s family and kin.


Belfer, I., B. Buzas, H. Hipp, G. Phillips, J. Taubman, I. Lorincz, C. Evans, R.H. Lipsky, M.-A. Enoch, M.B. Max, and D. Goldman. (2005). Haplotype-based analysis of alpha 2A, 2B, and 2C adrenergic receptor genes captures information on common functional loci at each gene. Journal of Human Genetics, 50, 12-20. 

Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cousijn, H., M. Rijpkema, S. Qin, H.J.F. van Marle, B. Franke, E.J. Herman, G. van Wingen, and G. Fernández. (2010). Acute stress modulates genotype effects on amygdala processing in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 107, 9867-9872.

de Quervain, D.J. F., I.-T. Kolassa, V. Ertl, L.P. Onyut, F. Neuner, T. Elbert, and A. Papassotiropoulos. (2007). A deletion variant of the alpha2b-adrenoceptor is related to emotional memory in Europeans and Africans. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 1137-1139.

Fridman, A., M.H. van IJzendoorn, A. Sagi-Schwartz, and M.J. Bakermans-Kranenburg. (2012). Genetic moderation of cortisol secretion in Holocaust survivors: A pilot study on the role of ADRA2B. International Journal of Behavioral Development. 36, 79 

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.

Ishii, M., H. Katoh, T. Kurihara, and S. Shimizu. (2015). Catechol-O-methyl transferase gene polymorphisms in Japanese patients with medication overuse headaches. JSM Genetics and Genomics, 2(1), 1-4.

Kanai, R., T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current Biology, 21, 677 - 680.

Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041. 

Mulerova, T.A., A.Y. Yankin, Y.V. Rubtsova, A.A. Kuzmina, P.S. Orlov, N.P. Tatarnikova, V.N. Maksimov, M.I. Voevoda, and M.Y. Ogarkov. (2015). Association of ADRA2B polymorphism with risk factors for cardiovascular diseases in native population of mountain Shoria. Bulletin of Siberian Medicine, 14, 29-34.

Naudts, K.H., R.T. Azevedo, A.S. David, K. van Heeringen, and A.A. Gibbs. (2012). Epistasis between 5-HTTLPR and ADRA2B polymorphisms influences attentional bias for emotional information in healthy volunteers. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 15, 1027-1036.

Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A.N., Dawes, C.T., Flagan, T., et al. (2013). Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE, 8(2): e52970.

Siu, A.M.H. and D.T. L. Shek. (2005). Validation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in a Chinese Context. Research on Social Work Practice, 15, 118-126.

Small, K.M., and S.B. Liggett. (2001) Identification and functional characterization of alpha(2)-adrenoceptor polymorphisms. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 22, 471-477.

Suzuki N, Matsunaga T, Nagasumi K, Yamamura T, Shihara N, Moritani T, et al. (2003). a2B adrenergic receptor deletion polymorphism associates with autonomic nervous system activity in young healthy Japanese. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 88, 1184-1187.

Todd, R.M. and A.K. Anderson. (2009). The neurogenetics of remembering emotions past. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 106, 18881-18882

Todd, R.M., M.R. Ehlers,  D. J. Muller, A. Robertson, D.J. Palombo, N. Freeman, B. Levine, and A.K. Anderson (2015). Neurogenetic Variations in norepinephrine availability enhance perceptual vividness. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35, 6506-6516.

UBC News. (2015). How your brain reacts to emotional information is influenced by your genes, May 6 

Zhang, H., X. Li, J. Huang, Y. Li, L. Thijs, Z. Wang, X. Lu, K. Cao, S. Xie, J.A. Staessen, J-G. Wang. (2005). Cardiovascular and metabolic phenotypes in relation to the ADRA2B insertion/deletion polymorphism in a Chinese population. Journal of Hypertension, 23, 2201-2207.