Monday, May 28, 2018

Outsourcing torture and execution

Member of an American prison gang (Wikicommons: Border Brothers). A jail sentence is no longer just a jail sentence.

When my scholarship was cancelled I began looking for short-term contracts to support myself. At that time Quebec City offered little in the way of long-term employment, but demand was strong for bilingual contractuels who knew software packages like WordPerfect (which was not at all user-friendly in the late 1980s). 

One day I got a call from a maximum security prison west of Quebec City. A renewable six-month clerical position. Good pay. But I'd have to get vaccinated for hepatitis B. "You never know. There's always a risk of rape in these places." I politely declined. Later someone else phoned to reassure me that the risk was "minimal" and nothing to worry about. I still declined.

Rape and assault are frequent in prisons. This is no surprise. More surprisingly, prison violence is becoming a deliberate form of punishment—a way to make the original sentence a lot worse. This punitive function has been discussed in a recent paper:

To what extent are rapes, beatings, and other assaults essential to the punitive function of the modern prison? Officially, violence of this sort is unlawful and clearly outside the bounds of legitimate punishment. The United States Supreme Court has declared more than once that being assaulted is not "part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."

[...] In reality, violence thoroughly defines the prison experience. Prisoners face a substantial risk of being beaten, raped, and even killed at the hands of their fellow inmates or keepers. In a way that is sometimes difficult for those who are unfamiliar with prison to appreciate, prisoners inhabit a world comprehensively defined by this kind of violence. Such violence is the dominant arbiter of social status in prison. It is the means by which authority, hierarchy, and privilege are articulated among prisoners and between prisoners and their keepers. And it is, paradoxically, the most reliable protection against being the victim of violence. (White 2008, pp. 737-738)

When did this punitive function come to be? To some extent it has always existed, but it began to gain much more importance during the "demographic shift" of the 1960s and 1970s (White 2008, pp. 745-746). The baby boom was invading all spheres of life, and this dramatic growth in the number of young people coincided with a weakening of informal social controls by family and church. People were also moving from rural communities (where these informal controls were strong) to big cities (where they were weak). All of these factors facilitated an explosion of criminal behavior, especially the violent sort that young males specialize in. American prisons were overwhelmed, "and by the mid 1970s the correctional model had totally collapsed, superseded by a very different regime" (White 2008, p. 745).

Male violence: pathological in some societies, normal in others

This surge of violent crime happened in all racial groups, but much more in African Americans. Why? The usual explanation is social deprivation. Young men turn to violence when denied full access to education, employment, and social acceptance. Such behavior is abnormal and will disappear in normal circumstances.

That view of “normal” behavior applies only to some societies. Elsewhere, young men are supposed to fight. And not simply as a last resort. They're expected to fight proactively, as a means to gain status, to impress women, and to strike terror in potential enemies (Frost 2010; Frost and Harpending 2015). 

This is in contrast to pacified societies, where the State has imposed a monopoly on violence, and where even self-defense is not always a sufficient excuse. In such societies, violent behavior is criminalized and pathologized. The ideal young man goes to "school" and "work" without ever using violence to defend himself and his family, or even to impress women. Sheesh!

Pacified societies exist throughout much of Europe and East Asia, with interesting exceptions. The strong arm of the State has historically been weak in mountainous regions, like Albania and the Caucasus, and this is also where men are most willing to act violently on their own behalf. In England, endemic violence persisted until the 18th century in the northern border regions, where any encounter with non-kin, however innocent, could turn violent. Disputes would grow into long-running feuds if not settled through payment of blood money (Fischer 1989, pp. 621-632).

These two kinds of society can work fairly well ... if kept apart. In non-pacified societies, the level of personal violence is not as high as one might expect. A sort of dynamic equilibrium makes young men think twice before acting violently, since any violence will be repaid in kind by the victim, his brothers, and his male kin. So violence tends to target people who cannot retaliate, either because they're physically weak or because they have no kinfolk to stand up for them. 

Problems begin when these two kinds of society co-exist on the same territory. When the non-pacified society becomes sufficiently numerous, but not necessarily the majority, it can impose its rules, and everyone will have to play by them. If you cannot fight back and have no "brothers" to defend you, there remains only one option: submit. This is now the case in American prisons and, increasingly, in prisons throughout the Western world.

Indeed, the demographic profile of prisons has changed a lot even in Western Europe, where native Europeans make up fewer and fewer of the inmates. More and more are from societies where State control of personal violence is recent and widely perceived as being illegitimate. They come mostly from North Africa, West Africa, Somalia, Southwest Asia, and South Asia. They are predominantly Muslim, and the Muslim proportion of the prison population gives a rough idea of the demographic shift. This proportion is 60 to 70% in France (Moore 2008), 45% in Belgium ( 2013), and 15% in the United Kingdom (Allen and Watson 2017, p. 14). Furthermore, Muslim inmates have power beyond their numbers because they are willing to fight for each other. This is a recurring theme in interviews with prisoners:

“there's no gangs in Rochester it's just Muslims stick together”, Muslims “walk around the wings in tens” and 'people will say that the only gang in here are the Muslims they always stick up for each other”. For many Muslim prisoners the solidarity engendered by sharing a faith was viewed as presenting certain obligations just as area allegiances required mutual defensive protection for prisoners: “I see Muslims will stay closer together so ...obviously you have to look out for your brother, help his brother, it's a Muslim's duty. And it's like whatever, whatever I want for myself I should want for my brother.” (Phillips 2012, p. 60)

Some prisoners even convert to Islam as a way to get protection (Phillips 2012, p. 62).

Prison violence as an instrument of law enforcement

Beginning in the 1970s, American law-enforcement began to turn this situation to its own advantage, initially to assert control over prisoners:

In some circumstances, it is clear that rape is used by prison officials as a means of control in its own right—as a means of punishing inmates who are (by the officials' reckoning) especially troublesome, of breaking the will of defiant inmates, and of rewarding (by accommodating their victimization of others) inmates who are in some way helpful to the institution's interests. Where rape is sanctioned in this fashion, a victimized inmate has little hope of gaining the institution's protection from further abuse. Even where it is not so sanctioned, victims of rape often encounter considerable indifference on the part of administrators and staff who would rather not antagonize powerful rapists, who anticipate difficulties with successful investigation, or who for some other reason cannot be bothered. Many staff simply may take the position that defense against rapes and other assaults are an inmate's own obligation. (White 2008, p. 757)

This punitive function has since been extended to people currently outside prison. Initially, it helped to keep juvenile delinquents in line by sending them a crude but simple message: if you're not careful, we'll send you to a place where you'll be raped, assaulted, and perhaps killed. 

Today, that message is no longer aimed solely at juvenile delinquents. Every American knows that a prison sentence is a lot more than time behind bars. In theory, the State no longer maims or tortures. In practice, it does … and on a scale not seen since medieval times:

That such violence is so thoroughly unlawful allows it to serve the state as a mode of punishment without the state ever confessing the true extent of its resort to such barbarity and without thereby surrendering much in the way of its legal and political legitimacy. Indeed, by deeming prison violence illegal, the state in its various manifestations can actually condemn the phenomenon, while yet relying on it as part of [the] regime of control. (White 2008, p. 740)

Toward a new regime of control

This regime of control has developed in an atmosphere of "They’ve got it coming to them anyway!" Prison sentences are normally handed down for serious crimes, like murder or gang rape, and there is still a widespread feeling that such people are not being punished enough. In recent years, however, prison sentences have begun to be imposed for minor offenses, especially in the United Kingdom. 

Last year, an English man was found guilty of placing two bacon sandwiches outside the door of a mosque. He was sentenced to a year in jail, and halfway through the sentence he was found dead in his cell (Curtis 2018). The prison sentence is itself incredible. This was a first-time offense that would have been considered a misdemeanor scarcely a decade ago.

A similar sentence was handed down to Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League. Not long into his sentence, the inevitable happened:

"They gave him a pasting. He was being taken for a legal visit and was then put in a room with these guys. The door was locked and the warders all disappeared. He has quite a few injuries to his face and neck and needed two visits to the medical wing." The source said his attackers were Muslim prisoners but that could not be verified. Robinson suspects the situation was engineered by the warders because of the obvious threat posed to him by opponents of the EDL. He fears he is a marked man inside the category A prison. (Gover 2014)

The official reason for the sentence? Making an incorrect statement on a mortgage application—a misdemeanor normally punished by a fine. And for this Tommy Robinson was sent to a category A prison. 

This past week, he was again sentenced to jail:

At 14h00 on 25 May 2018 Judge Denise Marson QC summarily sentenced Robinson and issued a notice under Section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 banning any reporting of the hearing, sentence, evidence offered or any other matter relating to the proceedings against Robinson indefinitely until the conclusion of a series of child grooming trials in Leeds Crown Court. (Wikipedia 2018)

This time, Tommy Robinson was sentenced to jail for broadcasting information that might influence the outcome of a rape gang trial (he was livestreaming outside the courthouse). Yet that information had already been published in a local newspaper. Even more strangely, the judge extended the reporting ban to the outcome of Robinson’s trial. That trial had no jurors to influence. It was a trial by judge and was completed in four hours. One final point: some reports state that the judge simply reactivated an existing suspended sentence, hence the speedy trial. But only a few months remained on that sentence, and this one seems to be much longer. For a new sentence a defendant is normally given time to prepare a defense, find witnesses, and choose a lawyer, rather than having a court-appointed one (as was actually the case).

Because of the reporting ban, news reports on this story have either been pulled or modified. Fox News states that he was sentenced to 13 months in prison despite protests from his lawyer, who said this measure would be tantamount to a death sentence, “given his profile and previous credible threats” (Fox News 2018).

One might wonder about these jail sentences for misdemeanors that hardly justify such punishment. And is the punishment really the time spent behind bars? Or is it something else? Like something in the prison environment that can “finish the job”? A strange collusion seems to be developing between the UK justice system and the vilest elements of prison society.


Allen, G. and C. Watson (2017). UK Prison Population Statistics. Briefing Paper. House of Commons Library.

Fischer, D.H. (1989). Albion's Seed. Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, pp. 621-632.

Curtis, J. (2018). Man jailed for leaving a bacon sandwich outside a mosque is found dead in prison halfway through his 12-month sentence. Daily Mail, May 27, 2018

Fox News (2018). Right-wing activist Tommy Robinson reportedly jailed after filming outside child grooming trial.

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

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology 13: 230-243.

Gover, D. (2014). Fear of Muslim Attack Beaten up in Woodhill Prison. International Business Times, February 5

Moore, M. (2008). In France, prisons filled with Muslims, The Washington Post, April 29

Phillips, C. (2012). 'It ain't nothing like America with the Bloods and the Crips': Gang narratives inside two English prisons. Punishment & Society 14(1): 51-68. (2013). 45% des détenus des prisons belges sont de confession musulmane,, May 23

White, A.A. (2008). The Concept of "Less Eligibility" and the Social Function of Prison Violence in Class Society. Buffalo Law Review 56: 737-820.

Wikipedia. (2018). Tommy Robinson (activist).

Monday, May 21, 2018

The end of Jewish achievement?

Neurons show more axonal growth when exposed to higher levels of sphingolipids (last figure) (Cochran et al. 2006)

Jewish achievement is a difficult topic. Recently, it has been addressed by Jordan Peterson, as in this interview with the Forward:

"You can assume that they [Jews] are intelligent and have a culture of learning, or you can think that there's some kind of cabal," Peterson told the Forward. "So if I'm gonna hit the hornets nest, I might as well hit it on the side that takes the wind out of the sails of far-righters and their idiot anti-Semitism." (Feldman 2018)

That quote appeared under the headline "Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?" There was also a photo montage (since removed) juxtaposing his image with that of Hitler. It's hard to believe that this topic was freely discussed in the mainstream a mere decade ago. At that time Commentary ran an article by Charles Murray on "Jewish Genius":

From 1870 to 1950, Jewish representation in literature was four times the number one would expect. In music, five times. In the visual arts, five times. In biology, eight times. In chemistry, six times. In physics, nine times. In mathematics, twelve times. In philosophy, fourteen times.

[...] What accounts for this remarkable record? A full answer must call on many characteristics of Jewish culture, but intelligence has to be at the center of the answer. Jews have been found to have an unusually high mean intelligence as measured by IQ tests since the first Jewish samples were tested. (The widely repeated story that Jewish immigrants to this country in the early 20th century tested low on IQ is a canard.) Exactly how high has been difficult to pin down, because Jewish sub-samples in the available surveys are seldom perfectly representative. But it is currently accepted that the mean is somewhere in the range of 107 to 115, with 110 being a plausible compromise. (Murray 2007)

Murray then discussed a paper by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending, likewise published in a mainstream journal. The authors argued that Ashkenazi Jews had historically worked in occupations that select for cognitive ability, i.e., sales, finance, and trade. Non-Jews usually worked in intellectually less demanding occupations, most often farming. Sephardic Jews were similarly selected, but not to the same extent. They tended to work in a wider range of occupations, with more emphasis on crafts than on finance. Furthermore, beginning in the 17th century, Ashkenazi craftsmen were more entrepreneurial than their Sephardic counterparts; they produced for a larger market, geographically and demographically, where the rewards for success were greater and where successful craftsmen had only one way of increasing their workforce to meet demand: marrying younger and having more children (Frost 2007).

This theory is supported by a striking piece of evidence: the high incidence among Ashkenazim of certain genetic disorders: Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, and mucolipidosis type IV (MLIV). All four of these disorders affect the same metabolic pathway: the capacity to store sphingolipid compounds that promote the growth and branching of axons in the brain. Although these disorders are deleterious in the homozygote state, they're a net benefit in the much more frequent heterozygote state. They provide the brain with higher levels of sphingolipids without the adverse health effects (Cochran et al. 2006).

This is not to say that only these four disorders explain the higher mean IQ of Ashkenazim.  They're simply witnesses to a selection pressure that has probably acted on the many thousands of genes that in one way another influence cognitive ability.

A strange collapse

If Jewish achievement is genetically based, it should be relatively stable, shouldn't it? Yet it has been far from stable over the past forty years. Ron Unz (2012) has ably documented what he calls "the strange collapse of Jewish achievement":

- In the U.S. Math Olympiad, over 40% of the top students were Jewish during the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the percentage averaged about one-third. During the thirteen years since 2000, two names out of 78 or 2.5% appear to be Jewish. 

- On the Putnam Exam (a mathematics competition for American college students) over 40% of the winners were Jewish before 1950. Between that year and the 1990s, the percentage was 22-31%. Since 2000, it has been under 10%, without a single likely Jewish name between 2005 and 2012.

- Of the national finalists for the Science Talent Search, 22-23% were Jewish from the 1950s to the 1980s. The percentage was 17% in the 1990s, 15% in the 2000s, and 7% from 2010 to 2012. Of the thirty top students over the last period, only one seems to have been Jewish. 

- Jews were over one-quarter of the top students in the Physics Olympiad from 1986 to 1997. During the 2000s the percentage was 5%.

- From 2000 to 2012, only 8% of the top students in the Biology Olympiad were Jewish, with none from 2010 to 2012. 

- Between 1992 and 2012, only 11% of the winners of the Computing Olympiad had Jewish names, as did 8% of the Siemens AP Award winners. 

- From 2010 to 2012, none of the Chemistry Olympiad winners had a probable Jewish name.

A similar decline seems to be under way in Israel. Rindermann (2018, p. 148) cites student assessment studies that indicate a decrease in that country's IQ from 101 in the 1960s to 95 today. Yet the intervening years saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union—about 979,000 between 1989 and 2006 (Wikipedia 2018b). The Ashkenazi proportion of Israel's population is consequently higher today than it was in the 1960s.

So what is driving this decline in academic performance? Ron Unz opts for a social/cultural cause: "today's overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience."

Hmm ...It's a bit of a stretch to say that most Jewish American kids were still the children or grandchildren of immigrants as late as the 1970s. In this, Ron is echoing the frequent claim that the immigrant experience has a transformative effect, turning slackers into strivers or at least encouraging the slackers to stay home. 

Let's take off the rose-tinted glasses and look reality in the face: most immigrants are not high achievers. Either today or back in the challenging 1970s. As for the minority who are, they typically come from groups that were already that way in their countries of origin. So the immigrant experience, in itself, has little explanatory value. The explanation is that certain cultures have selected for mental and behavioral traits that make high achievement possible.

Unz is on firmer ground when he says that over the last two decades up to half of the Jewish winners of the Math Olympiad were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But why, then, did the mean IQ of Israel decline when that country took in a similar influx of Soviet Jews? That influx was much larger proportionately—almost a million in a country of eight and a half million. Today, Russian Jews number 1.2 million in Israel, if one includes non-Jewish household members (Wikipedia 2018a; Wikipedia 2018b). 

Perhaps Soviet Jews who went to the United States were somehow different from those who went to Israel.  In the U.S., about half of them arrived under the Lautenberg amendment (1990) which authorizes the entry of religious minorities "with a credible, but not necessarily individual, fear of persecution." In Israel, they arrived under the Law of Return, which lets in anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse. 

Israel is thus more open to immigrants from the former Soviet Union ... as long as they have some sort of Jewish affiliation. The affiliation is often weak:

In 1988, a year before the immigration wave began, 58% of married Jewish men and 47% of married Jewish women in the Soviet Union had a non-Jewish spouse. Some 26%, or 240,000, of the immigrants had no Jewish mother, and were thus not considered Jewish under Halakha, or Jewish religious law, which stipulates one must have a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish. (Wikipedia 2018b)

Out-marriage has increased considerably in those countries that provide Israel with immigrants, not only the former Soviet Union but also the United States, Canada, and France. If Jews are becoming less and less Jewish by ancestry, it should be no surprise that anything specific to them genetically is likewise becoming less and less, whether they live in Israel or in the United States. This genetic change should be most noticeable on the right tail of the bell curve ... among the most gifted.


So the decline in Jewish achievement may be both an argument for and an argument against a genetic cause. Ron Unz sees an argument against: "the innate potential of a group is unlikely to drop so suddenly." Well, only if the group has a closed membership. According to a 2013 American survey, the intermarriage rate is now 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews. Yet 81% of all Jews still raise their children as Jewish (Goodstein 2013). It seems that "Jewishness" is increasingly self-defined and self-ascribed.

Besides out-marriage, something else may be going on. There are signs that fertility is sharply declining among the most intelligent women (Kanazawa 2014). Jewish Americans would be harder hit in this respect, but the problem may be a much larger one, as indicated by the recent slowing down and reversal of the Flynn Effect and by the steady increase in reaction time from about the year 1980 onward (Flynn 2007, pp. 143; Frost 2014; Madison 2014; Teasdale and Owen 2005).

In conclusion, the decline in Jewish achievement may have a genetic cause, a social/cultural one, or both. It nonetheless looks real. Much has been written about the bleak outlook for Jewish Americans due to their high out-marriage rate and their low fertility rate. But what if, on top of this numerical decline, there has also been a cognitive and intellectual one?

What will happen when Jewish millennials and post-millennials pick up the torch, move up in the world, and begin to make their mark? We may see another collapse: that of the remarkable Jewish presence in American life and culture.


Cochran, G., J. Hardy, and H. Harpending. (2006). Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38: 659-693.   

Feldman, A. (2018). Is Jordan Peterson enabling Jew hatred? Forward. May 11

Flynn, J.R. (2007). What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge University Press.

Frost, P. (2007). Natural selection in proto-industrial Europe. Evo and Proud, November 16.

Frost, P. (2014). What happened in the 1980s to reaction time? Evo and Proud, May 3.

Goodstein, L. (2013). Poll shows major shift in identity of U.S. Jews. The New York Times, October 1.  

Kanazawa, S. (2014). Intelligence and childlessness. Social Science Research 48: 157-170.

Madison, G. (2014). Increasing simple reaction times demonstrate decreasing genetic intelligence in Scotland and Sweden, London Conference on Intelligence, Psychological comments, April 25,  #LCI14 Conference proceedings

Murray, C. (2007). Jewish Genius. Commentary, April 1  

Rindermann, H. (2018). Cognitive Capitalism. Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations. Cambridge University Press.

Teasdale, T.W., and D.R. Owen. (2005). A long-term rise and recent decline in intelligence test performance: The Flynn Effect in reverse. Personality and Individual Differences 39(4): 837-843.

Unz, R. (2012). The myth of American meritocracy. The American Conservative, November 28  

Wikipedia (2018a). Russian Jews in Israel

Wikipedia (2018b). 1990s Post-Soviet Aliyah

Monday, May 14, 2018

A new yardstick

If we look at ancient DNA from 4600 BC to 1200 AD, we see a steady increase over time in the number of genetic variants that are linked to high educational attainment (Woodley et al. 2017)

Four years ago I discussed genetic variants that seem to favor high educational attainment (Frost 2014). They’re found at single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and their incidence varies from one human population to another. In all but one case, they are specific to humans and not shared with ancestral primates. 

Davide Piffer has been interested in these SNP variants, seeing them as a possible way to measure how genes contribute to intelligence in different populations. By looking up population data, he can calculate their average incidence for a given group of people. This measure is called the “cognitive polygenic score.”

When he wrote up his latest paper (Piffer 2017a), only nine of these variants were known. For each geographic region, the scores were as follows:

Sub-Saharan Africans – 18%
Amerindians – 25%
North Africans – 30%
Oceanians (Papuans, Melanesians) – 34%
Southeast Asians – 35%
West Asians – 38%
Middle Easterners – 40%
Europeans – 41%
Siberians – 43%
East Asians – 45%

This regional breakdown is open to criticism. Sardinians (32%) were not included in the European category, and Mongolians (49%) were grouped with East Asians rather than with Siberians. The distinction between Middle Easterners and West Asians is not clear to me. The Amerindian category is based on a few small groups. And who is included in the Southeast Asian category? Only Cambodians?

When Piffer compared these scores with the results of IQ tests in these regions, he found a high correlation of 0.9. That is high, higher than what I would expect, given the quality of the data, especially for mean IQ, and the very disparate nature of the two datasets.

Over a two-year period Piffer submitted his paper to Intelligence, resubmitted it, had it rejected, and then resubmitted it to Frontiers in Psychology, where it was accepted by the reviewers before being rejected by the editor. It is now sitting in the limbo of a preprint repository (Piffer 2017a).

Meanwhile, the number of these SNPs has continued to grow. A research team led by Aysu Okbay identified 74 SNPs that are associated with educational attainment (Okbay et al. 2016). Another team led by David Hill reported 107 in their initial preprint and 187 in their published paper (Hill et al. 2018). 

Piffer (2017b) repeated his analysis, now using the 107 SNPs that Hill’s team had identified. The geographic pattern still held up but was weaker, the correlation being only 0.64. This lower score is actually more in line with what I would expect. It diverges the most from mean IQ in two geographic areas:

1. South Asia (Pakistan, India) - South Asians seem to do worse on IQ tests than their genetic endowment predicts. Why? Is it the culture? The diet? Inbreeding? Perhaps language. IQ tests are often administered in a language (English, Hindi, Urdu) that may be the second language of the person taking it. Or perhaps South Asian educational attainment is determined not only by IQ but also by qualities like the ability to sit still and not make a ruckus in class.

2. The Mende of Sierra Leone - For some reason, the Mende have a higher cognitive polygenic score than any other African population. This might be a real finding, or a typo.

Another research team, led by Michael Woodley, has compared the Okbay dataset with ancient DNA to see whether the cognitive polygenic score has increased over time, specifically between 4600 BC and 1200 AD. The DNA was retrieved from European sites and a few sites from southwest and central Asia. The result? The cognitive polygenic score did increase over time. People on average had more and more of the alleles that favor educational attainment. The authors note that IQ alone may not be responsible:

[...] While the increase in these variants over time is certainly consistent with the expectation of rising GCA [general cognitive ability], the possibility that their increase indicates a simultaneous rise in other factors that make unique contributions to educational attainment (such as 'slow' life history or 'high-K' social cognitive characteristics) cannot be ruled out. (Woodley et al. 2017; references within quote removed)

The new mental/behavioral package developed through a process of feedback with the cultural environment. This gene-culture coevolution likely continued into recent times:

This process likely continued until the Late Modern Era, where it has been noted that among Western populations living between the 15th and early 19th centuries, those with higher social status (which shares genetic variance with, and is therefore a proxy for GCA) typically produced the most surviving offspring. These in turn tended toward downward social mobility due to intense competition, replacing the reproductively unsuccessful low-status stratum and effectively 'bootstrapping' those populations via the application of high levels of skill to solving problems associated with production and industry, eventually leading to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. (Woodley et al. 2017; references within quote removed)


More and more SNPs are being linked to educational attainment. The total is now in the triple digits. That’s still less than the thousands of genes that influence intelligence, but there is no need to identify most of them to spot general trends. Selection acts on phenotype, not on genotype. Selection for intelligence should therefore impact all of these SNPs in the same direction. It’s like estimating the proportions of different colors in a bowl of Smarties. You don’t have to count every last one. Just pick out a handful at random and count the colors.

Four years ago only 7 SNPs had been linked to educational attainment. Now we have 187. In another four years we’ll probably have more than a thousand. All the same, I doubt that the overall geographic pattern will change much. The problems lie elsewhere:

-          Genetic data may be lacking for some unmixed groups, particularly Amerindians.

-          The relationship between intelligence and cognitive polygenic score may not be linear.

-          We may be relying too much on educational attainment as a proxy for IQ (which itself is a proxy for intelligence).

When I was in public school, girls did better than boys in almost every subject. They had good attendance, always took notes, and did their homework. Boys got bored more easily and spent more time fidgeting, daydreaming, and drawing pictures in their notebooks. This sex difference exists in all cultures, but it seems greater in some than in others.

How useful is educational attainment as a proxy for IQ? Yes, these two measures correlate highly with each other (Rindermann 2018, pp. 51-54), but this high correlation is based on studies from WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). Does it hold up on a global scale? I’m not so sure.


Frost, P. (2014). Population differences in intellectual capacity: a new polygenic analysis, Evo and Proud, March 8

Hill, W. D., R.E. Marioni, O. Maghzian, S.J. Ritchie, S.P. Hagenaars, A.M. McIntosh, C.R. Gale, G. Davies, I.J. Deary. (2018). A combined analysis of genetically correlated traits identifies 187 loci and a role for neurogenesis and myelination in intelligence. Molecular Psychiatry

Okbay, A., J.P. Beauchamp, M.A. Fontana, J.J. Lee, T.H. Pers, C.A. Rietveld, et al. (2016). Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment. Nature 533: 539-542.

Piffer, D. (2017a) Evidence for Recent Polygenic Selection on Educational Attainment and Intelligence Inferred from GWAS Hits: A Replication of Previous Findings Using Recent Data. Preprints, June 8

Piffer, D. (2017b). Piffer's results replicated (again) by latest GWAS (N=147,194), toppseudoscience, July 21

Rindermann, H. (2018). Cognitive Capitalism. Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations. Cambridge University Press.

Woodley, M.A., S. Younuskunju, B. Balan, and D. Piffer. (2017). Holocene selection for variants associated with general cognitive ability: comparing ancient and modern genomes. Twin Research and Human Genetics 20(4): 271-280. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Outbreeding: not what you may think

Mean number of children as a function of geographic distance between Danish marriage partners (Labouriau and Amorim 2008).

Most of us know about the genetics costs of inbreeding. If you do a Google search for "inbreeding is bad," you get 35,900 hits.  "Outbreeding is bad" yields only 2.

Yet outbreeding does incur genetic costs. It can reduce fitness either by introducing alleles that are unsuited to the local environment or by disrupting co-adapted gene complexes. When a native trout species was hybridized with non-native trout, fertility fell by half with as little as 20% admixture (Muhlfeld et al. 2009).

Fertility is the canary in the coal mine. A measurable decline is a sign that some genes are malfunctioning, either at the time of fertilization or during embryonic development. A malfunction can occur because the genes from the mother and father are too similar—the risk is higher that both copies of a gene will be defective. It can also occur because one copy is too different—incompatibilities may develop with other genes.

That's what we know from data on fish and other animals. But what about our species? At what degree of relatedness do the costs of human outbreeding start to exceed the benefits? When you marry a Neanderthal? The answer may surprise you. An Icelandic study found that fertility peaks at marriages between third or fourth cousins. Fertility is lower when the prospective parents are more closely related ... or less.

Our results, drawn from all known couples of the Icelandic population born between 1800 and 1965, show a significant positive association between kinship and fertility, with the greatest reproductive success observed for couples related at the level of third and fourth cousins. Owing to the relative socioeconomic homogeneity of Icelanders, and the observation of highly significant differences in the fertility of couples separated by very fine intervals of kinship, we conclude that this association is likely to have a biological basis. (Helgason et al. 2008)

The data come from a time when birth control was not widely practiced. Nonetheless, there may have been something different about Icelanders who married beyond their fourth cousins. Perhaps they were more likely to go to university, meet someone from the other side of the country, and eventually settle down and have children late in life. 

These socioeconomic factors were controlled in a Danish study that measured geographic distance between marriage partners: 

The Danish study was based on the cohort of all women born in Denmark in 1954 who were alive and living in Denmark in 1969, totaling 42,165 women. This cohort was followed up to the end of 1999. The number of children born to each mother between the ages of 15 and 45 years old was determined and is referred to as fertility. The mean marital radius (MR) associated with each mother in the cohort was estimated using the distance between the centroids of the parish where she was born and the parishes where the partners with which she had children were born. (Labouriau and Amorim 2008)

Fertility peaked at around 75 km. This relationship between fertility and marital radius was not explained by education, family income, urbanicity, or mother's age at first birth. The authors concluded that their findings were consistent with those of the Icelandic study, the cause being the same in both cases: fertility rises with decreasing relatedness up to a peak level and then starts to fall. Inbreeding depression then gives way to outbreeding depression.

How exactly does outbreeding reduce fertility? Joffe (2010) points to the steady decline in sperm quality since the early 20th century, suggesting it may be due to an increase in outbreeding. He rejects the usually cited cause: the rising level of estrogenic compounds in the environment, e.g., dioxin, DDT, PCBs, PBBs, phthalates, etc. This proposed cause fails to explain why the sperm quality decline has varied so much spatially, even within the same country. Why, for instance, has it been steep in Paris and nonexistent in Toulouse? Why is it nonexistent in domestic animals that are just as exposed to estrogenic compounds? Finally, the decline seems to have begun before most of these compounds began to be commercially produced. 

Joffe (2010) also suggests that there may be a parallel decline in egg quality. We don't really know because sperm is much easier to collect than eggs for large-scale study.

Do we now have outbreeding depression?

Today, inbreeding depression has largely disappeared throughout the Western world. For a long time the beneficial effects of outbreeding were shown by a steady increase in height and a steady decrease in the age of menarche. Both trends have now ground to a halt:

In Northern Europe, adult height has largely stabilised, and the age of menarche has also settled at around 13 years, while weight continues to increase due to obesity. (Cole 2003)

The steady rise in IQ, known as the Flynn Effect, has sometimes been attributed to outbreeding, although this explanation has been challenged (Flynn 2007, pp. 101-102; Woodley 2011). In any case, the Flynn Effect, too, is slowing throughout the West (Flynn 2007, p. 143). In Scandinavia, mean IQ peaked during the late 1990s and has since declined (Teasdale and Owen 2005).

Has outbreeding become more problematic than inbreeding? That's what the latest findings suggest, yet that doesn't at all seem to be the current wisdom.


Cole, T.J. (2003). The secular trend in human physical growth: a biological view. Economics & Human Biology 1(2): 161-168.

Flynn, J.R. (2007). What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge University Press.

Helgason, A., S. Pálsson, D.F. Guðbjartsson, þ. Kristjánsson, K. Stefánsson. (2008). An association between the kinship and fertility of human couples. Science 319(5864): 813-816.

Joffe, M. (2010). What has happened to human fertility? Human Reproduction 25(2): 295-307.

Labouriau, R., and A. Amorim. (2008). Comment on "An Association Between the Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples" Science 322(5908): 1634

Muhlfeld, C.C.,  S.T Kalinowski, T.E. McMahon, M.L. Taper, S. Painter, R.F. Leary, F.W. Allendorf. (2009). Hybridization rapidly reduces fitness of a native trout in the wild. Biology Letters, March 18  

Teasdale, T.W., and D.R. Owen. (2005). A long-term rise and recent decline in intelligence test performance: The Flynn Effect in reverse. Personality and Individual Differences 39(4): 837-843.

Woodley, M.A. (2011). Heterosis doesn't cause the Flynn effect: A critical examination of Mingroni (2007). Psychological Review 118(4): 689-693.