Bandit with traditional tattoos (source). In premodern China, who enjoyed the most reproductive success? The thrifty hardworking farmer? Or the local bandit/warlord?
In my last post, I asked how well the Clark-Unz model of selection applied to Japan and Korea (Unz, 2013). Let me now ask a more obvious question. How well did it apply to China? After all, if such ruthless selection had been going on for so long, the Chinese would surely be super-geniuses by now.
Perhaps there is an upper limit to mean intelligence. Above a certain level, the disadvantages may start to crowd out the advantages, especially if tradeoffs exist between high intelligence and other, no less valuable traits.
Or perhaps this model of selection did not operate continuously. More to the point, whenever it ceased to operate, other selection pressures took over and began to favor a different psychological profile. Remember, this model depends on the existence of a State that can monopolize the use of violence and pacify social relationships. Only then does natural selection favor individuals who get ahead by working hard, being thrifty, and planning for the long term.
But such pacification existed very discontinuously throughout China’s history. There were periods of anarchy when the State was more or less absent and when power belonged to local warlords. Even during the best of times, the power of the State was in a seesaw relationship with that of bandits, particularly in the countryside. There was thus a parallel model of selection that favored “big man” qualities: charisma, verbal bombast, physical strength, ability to intimidate, talent for mobilizing gangs of young men ...
This point is discussed by Feichtinger et al. (1996) who see Chinese history as a shifting equilibrium between farmers, bandits, and the State: “Farmers who produce a good, bandits who steal this good, and rulers fighting against banditry and taxing farmers.” When the State weakened, as it often did, farmers had to placate bandits as best they could. Banditry may have then surpassed farming as the best way to accumulate wealth, prestige, access to women and, ultimately, reproductive success.
As Bianco (1991) notes:
About ten years ago, a Chinese scholar, invited to spend his holidays in Haute-Provence, was worried: “There aren’t too many bandits there?” As an emigrant settled in France since the revolution, he continued—and to this day continues—to associate the countryside with banditry as a matter of course. For a rich family like his own (otherwise he would not have become a scholar), the obsessive fear of a bandit raid, of being taken away or of extortion was constant. The landowners maintained private militias who could at least stand up to the small gangs, and their sons avoided venturing too far away for fear of being kidnapped. The oldest son especially was the most valued prey because the family would have to rush to pay a high ransom to ensure the continuity of their lineage and appease the spirits of their ancestors.
[…] on some rail lines of southern China, the train almost never reached its destination without being attacked at least once [by bandits]. In the province of Yunnan, highwaymen controlled most of the roads, stopped and ransomed travelers, and those merchants who persisted in pursuing their occupation, since commercial traffic ended up being choked off or became more selective.
We forget, especially the libertarians among us, how awful things were before the State pacified social relations. It was this pacification that made free and open societies possible. It especially made the market economy possible. Ironically, when the Communists wiped out banditry—something no previous regime had managed to do—they also laid the basis for their country’s future economic takeoff.
Anon. A History of Chinese Tattoos and Chinese Tattooing Traditions, Cultural China,
Feichtinger, G., A. Prskawetz, E. Gröller and G. Fischel. (1996). Despotism and Anarchy in Ancient China: Visualizing the Dynastic Cycle, Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftswissenschaften / Review of Economics, 47, 1-13
Lucien, B. (1991). Compte rendu de Phil Billingsley, Bandits in Republican China, Annales. Économies, societies, civilisations, 46, 126-127.http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ahess_0395-2649_1991_num_46_1_278931_T1_0126_0000_000
Unz, R. (2013). How Social Darwinism made modern China, The American Conservative, March 11