Tuesday, August 20, 2019

South Korea at the crossroads

By mid-century, immigrant workers will be almost as numerous as native-born workers (AINZ 2016)

Readers took exception to a population forecast in my last post: children of mixed parentage will make up a third of all South Korean births in 2020 (Lim 2011). Yet in 2015 they made up only 5% (Lim 2017). From 5% to one third—is that possible in only five years?

This forecast was tangential to my argument. Ultimately, the rate of population replacement is less important than the final outcome. All the same, this forecast seems to me plausible because South Korea's population is changing at an accelerating rate. There are three interacting reasons: 

Logarithmic increase

The increase in births of "multicultural children" is logarithmic, and not linear. In 2015, such children numbered 207,693 and more than half were under 6 years of age (Wiki- Multicultural Family in South Korea 2019). This factor, alone, will cause the annual number of such births to double or even triple between 2015 and 2020.

Declining fertility of native-born women

The total fertility rate declined from 1.25 births per woman in 2015 to 0.98 in 2018 (Steger 2019). The rate of decline is probably higher for native-born women. In addition, fewer of them are of childbearing age. These two factors are together driving down the total number of births. In one year alone, from 2017 to 2018, the birth rate fell by 8.6% (Steger 2019).

Shift in sources of foreign brides toward high-fertility countries

Initially, many foreign brides were ethnic Koreans from northeast China, where the total fertility rate is even lower, only 0.75 births per woman (Wang 2018). The ethnic mix is now shifting toward brides from Southeast Asia, where TFRs are three or four times higher: Philippines: 3 births per woman, Vietnam: 2 births per women, Indonesia: 2.1 births per woman, Cambodia 2.5 births per woman.

So will "multicultural children" make up 33% of all births in 2020? Forecasts can be wrong, but I don't think this one will be far off the mark. On the one hand, the annual number of such births seems to be more than doubling every five years. On the other hand, the total number of South Korean births is falling sharply. 

By the way, that forecast doesn't include labor immigration

Please note: this is not the whole story of population replacement in South Korea. There is also labor immigration, which will become more and more important demographically:

[...] The government has brought in an immigration policy that actively embraces immigrants. Last year, it formulated it in the low birth rate and aging measures and economic policy direction. It will actively accept immigration and solve various economic and social problems such as lack of population. Immigration policy will be in full swing after 2018.

[...] According to the data from the Korea Immigration Policy Institute, a steady influx of immigrants is needed to increase the potential growth rate by 1 percentage point. In 2020, there will be 4,994,000, and in 2030, 9,927,000. In 2035, 10,864,000 people will be needed, a quarter of the total working population of 41.75 million. In 2050, 16,116,000 people will be needed. In 2060, there will be 17,224,000 people—only 4 million people less than the domestic workforce (21,865,000 people). (AINZ 2016)

It’s not clear whether these immigrants and their children will be entitled to citizenship or will always be guest workers. In the end it doesn’t really matter. They will become a permanent presence in South Korea.

Can South Korea overcome its fertility crisis?

Fertility rates can rise, just as they can fall, as one commenter noted:

[...] there's no reason to think native Korean fertility is going to stay at such a low level indefinitely. Birth rates go up and down and yearly TFRs are just a snapshot. A number of European countries had fertility drop to very low levels and have seen their TFRs increase significantly, though usually not to replacement. Czech Republic, Romania, Russia and Georgia all come to mind. (Georgia's fertility is now at replacement actually, thanks to their church.) I could see South Korean fertility following that pattern.

Yes, fertility rates can rise, but vigorous action is needed to make them rise. I'm not convinced that such action will be sufficient in South Korea's case. Detailed analysis suggests that the fertility rate is so low because many young adults are trapped in "nonregular" jobs that offer little stability and no benefits, particularly maternity or parental leave. They are nonetheless expected to meet traditional preconditions for family formation:

Our analysis also indicates a very limited scope for future fertility increase in Korea, especially because larger families have almost vanished. [...] The low fertility will be sustained by irregular work contracts among younger people and a combination of unfavorable labor market conditions for women with families and the persistence of traditional gender roles and expectations regarding their family roles, household tasks, caring for dependent members, and childrearing. (Yoo and Sobotka 2018)

The example of South Korea suggests that social conservatives may be wrong in blaming the West's fertility crisis largely on the decline in traditional values and the rise of alternative sexual lifestyles (single motherhood, gay marriage, etc.). These factors are much less important in South Korea. Furthermore, an argument can be made that some traditional values are doing more harm than good in the current economic environment, both in South Korea and in the West, specifically the idea that parents shouldn't start a family until one of them has secure employment. In most cases, that precondition will never be met. 

The main problem is thus twofold: 1) young adults increasingly have precarious employment and are postponing childbearing until their situation becomes sufficiently stable; 2) the culture in general has shifted away from the family and toward employment as the ultimate meaning of life.

Young South Koreans should explore alternative means of gaining income and accept the idea that family life can be just as rewarding as work life. This will be difficult to do, however, if the South Korean government pursues its commitment to globalism. Young adults are increasingly thrown into competition with poorly paid foreign workers, either through outsourcing of employment to low-wage countries or through insourcing of low-wage workers for "3D jobs"—dirty, dangerous, and demeaning (Mundy 2013). 

Employers are in fact incentivized to bring in foreign workers. South Korea has the largest wage gap of OECD countries between local and immigrant labor, and the gap remains even when one controls for differences in work skills (Hyun-ju 2015). This use of immigrants to do "work that Koreans won't do" has the perverse effect of increasing such employment while reducing employment that can support a family. 


AINZ (2016). Population in 2750 South Korea, large-scale immigration government in progress. January 9

Hyun-ju. (2015). Korea's wage gap between local, foreign workers largest in OECD. The Korea Herald, September 9

Lim, T. (2011). Korea's multicultural future? The Diplomat, July 20

Lim, T. (2017). The road to multiculturalism in South Korea. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, October 10

Mundy, S. (2013). S Korea struggles to take in foreign workers. Financial Times, September 17

Steger, I. (2019). South Korea's birth rate just crashed to another alarming low. Quartz Daily Briefs, February 27

Wang, M. (2018). For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Retrospective and Predictive Study of Fertility Rates in China (November 8, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3234861

Wikipedia (2019). Multicultural Family in South Korea.

Yoo, S.H. and T. Sobotka. (2018). Ultra-low fertility in South Korea: The role of the tempo effect. Demographic Research 38(22): 549-576.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

South Korea's experiment

Mid-term exams at a South Korean middle school (Wikicommons - Samuel Orchard)

South Korea opened up to mail-order brides a quarter of a century ago. Most are from Southeast Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia), although some are ethnic Koreans from northeast China. Men outnumber women in South Korea, as they do elsewhere in East Asia, and the male surplus is even larger in rural areas because of the many women who move to cities for employment (Park 2011). 

As a result, 472,390 "multicultural marriages" were performed between 2000 and 2016 (Lim 2017). In 2005, the peak year, 13% of all marriages involved a foreign-born bride. This way of finding a bride has been especially popular in rural areas, where 40% of all couples are mixed (Park 2011). The offspring of these marriages "are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions" (Lim 2011). In rural areas, this proportion is expected to be half of all children by 2020 (Park 2011).

Such children will increase both in absolute numbers and proportionately for three reasons. First, they are born mostly in rural areas, where incentives for childbearing are relatively high. Second, their mothers come from cultures where fertility is likewise relatively high. Third, Korean women have a very low fertility rate: only 0.98 children per woman in 2018.

South Korea is thus on track for rapid demographic replacement. This change is interesting not only because of its rapidity but also because it is happening in a country that differs considerably from Western Europe and North America in history and culture. Negative effects cannot be blamed on slavery, colonialism, or other chickens coming home to roost. Until the twentieth century the country kept to itself, to such a point that it was called "The Hermit Kingdom." There then followed Japanese rule, American occupation, and devastating war. Not until the 1980s did South Korea become truly advanced, and affluent.

So can South Korea change its population and remain advanced and affluent? This question is all the more relevant because the country has only one natural advantage in the global marketplace: its human capital.

Academic failure

In general, children of mixed parentage do badly at school: "The drop-out rate among mixed-blood youths is estimated at 9.4% in elementary schools and 17.5% at the secondary level, compared with less than 3% among ordinary Korean youths" (Kang 2010).

This poor performance is usually put down to the mother's poor language skills. "Because their mothers have difficulty in speaking and writing Korean, these children may be making slow progress in language development in comparison to the Korean children" (Kang 2010). If this explanation is correct, such children should do worse in subjects that demand much social interaction and language use. Conversely, they should do better in subjects that require abstract skills, like mathematics, or memorization of names and dates, like social studies. This is, in fact, the pattern we see in children of East Asian immigrants in North America.

But this is not the pattern we see in children born in South Korea to non-Korean mothers: "Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%)" (Kang 2010). The learning deficit seems to be strongest in those subjects that require the most abstraction and memorization.

Moreover, a study conducted over several months found that these children do not have language problems that can be traced to deficient learning at home from their mothers: "This study revealed that multicultural children did not exhibit any difficulty in communicating with others in everyday Korean but that they had varying degrees of academic vocabulary mastery" (Shin 2018). So the problem is not with learning of normal spoken language at home but with learning of specialized terminology at school. The study's author concluded: “This finding then raises the questions of why the simplified discourse about multicultural children's deficiency in Korean has been easily accepted as true in society and who benefits from the (re)production of the idea that they need special care, particularly regarding Korean language instruction” (Shin 2018).

Non-compliance with social rules

Koreans are expected to show a high level of compliance with social rules. These rules may apply to everyone (e.g., wearing seatbelts) or only to students (e.g., no smoking, mandatory hand washing). Compliance seems to be weaker in children of foreign-born mothers, as suggested by lower rates of hand washing and wearing of seatbelts and higher rates of smoking (Yi and Kim 2017).

Suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts

Children of mixed parentage are more likely to contemplate and attempt suicide, but this seems to be related more to decreased self-control than to increased depression or stress. Kim et al. (2015) concluded: "There was no significant difference in the levels of depression, self-reported happiness, and self-reported stress between adolescents from multicultural and monocultural families. However, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempt were significantly higher in adolescents from multicultural families."

Violence and hyperactivity

Children of mixed parentage also show higher levels of hostility, fear, anxiety, and anger (Moon and An 2011). Between the ages of 5 and 12 years they are more likely to engage in hyperactive behaviors, as rated by their teachers (Park and Nam 2010). Finally, between the ages of 11 and 13 years they are more prone to delinquency and aggression (Lee et al. 2018).

On the other hand, Yu and Kim (2015) found higher incidences of violence at school and non-compliance with rules (smoking, drug use, alcohol use, sexual activity) only in children of foreign-born fathers and native-born mothers. Children of foreign-born mothers and native-born fathers were behaviorally similar to children of native-born mothers and native-born fathers. It is true that the other studies lump all “multicultural” children together, making no distinction between those with foreign-born mothers and those with foreign-born fathers. However, the second group is much smaller than the first—too small to explain the differing results. This may be seen in the study by Yu and Kim (2015), which had 88 binational children of foreign-born fathers versus 622 of foreign-born mothers.

The findings of Yu and Kim (2015) also run counter to the standard acculturation model. A child normally has a stronger bond with its mother than with its father, so a child should better assimilate Korean behavioral norms if its mother is Korean than if its mother is non-Korean. But here we see the reverse.


The most robust finding is that children of mixed parentage do poorly at school. The reason is commonly said to be poor language skills, yet the pattern of academic failure is actually the opposite of what that explanation would predict. Moreover, these children seem to have no trouble with everyday spoken Korean. Their problem is with specialized vocabulary that is normally learned at school and not at home.

Children of mixed parentage also seem to be less compliant with rules and more prone to violence and hyperactivity. This was the finding of three out of four studies. The underlying cause may be weaker mechanisms for self-control, self-discipline, and internalization of social rules. This factor may also play a role in the higher incidences of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts.

In the academic literature, these findings are explained in terms of normal versus abnormal development. Children of mixed parentage are said to develop abnormally because they are more interested in music and physical education than in math. Their higher levels of violence and hyperactivity are explained the same way.  But what if they had been assessed in their mothers' home countries? Would they still seem so abnormal? On a global level, few societies expect the degree of academic nerdiness that Koreans expect of themselves. 

Better research is needed. My first suggestion: provide data on ethnicity. It’s not enough to distinguish between "native-born" and "foreign-born." A foreign-born mother could be an ethnic Korean from China who has more in common with a native-born mother. There may also be significant behavioral differences among binational children depending on which Southeast Asian country the mother comes from. The relevant factor is really ethnicity and not place of birth.

This factor may explain why children are less violent when they have foreign mothers and Korean fathers than when they have Korean mothers and foreign fathers. The foreigners are ethnically different in the two cases. In the first case, they are Southeast Asians. In the second case, they are either U.S. servicemen or migrant laborers who come not only from Southeast Asia but also from South Asia, Southwest Asia, and Africa.

My second suggestion: do not frame the issue solely in terms of "acculturation." i.e., insufficient learning by children of Korean culture, particularly the Korean language. This is not to say that acculturation is never a causal factor, but rather that it is assumed to be the only one, even to the point of misrepresenting reality.

Yes, culture does matter, but it interacts with other factors, including genetic ones. Humans everywhere have had to adapt to their cultural environment—more so, in fact, than to their natural environment—and this has been no less true for the Korean people. To survive in a highly complex and demanding culture, they have had to acquire certain mental capabilities:

- high cognitive ability (mean IQ of 106)

- high self-control

- high degree of compliance with social rules

- low time preference and, correspondingly, strong future-oriented thinking

- strong inhibition of violence, which can be released only if permitted by social rules

All of these mental capabilities have moderate to high heritability and are no less real than the more visible aspects of the human body, like gender, skin color, and body height. They exist because they have enabled Koreans to survive and flourish in a specific cultural environment

The Korean people have achieved a high standard of living through their knowledge, foresight, and self-discipline—qualities that are the outcome of a long process of gene-culture coevolution. Generation after generation of their ancestors have had to adapt to the demands of a harsh cultural environment, this adaptation being bought at a high price: the success of some individuals and the failure of many more. This is why Koreans traditionally revere their ancestors.

All of this has been gained through much effort over many generations, but it can all be lost in one or two. To do or to undo—which do you think is easier?   


Kang, S.W. (2010). Multicultural education and the rights to education of migrant children in South Korea. Educational Review 62(3): 287-300.

Kim, J-M., B-G. Kong, J-W. Kang, J.-J. Moon, D.-W. Jeon, E.-C. Kang, H.-B. Ju, Y.-H. Lee, and D.-U. Jung. (2015). Comparative Study of Adolescents' Mental Health between Multicultural Family and Monocultural Family in Korea. Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 26(4): 279-287.

Lee, J.S., J.M. Kim, and A.R. Ju. (2018). A structural analysis on the effects of children's parentification in multicultural families on their psychological maladjustment - comparison with children in monocultural families. Journal of the Korea Institute of Youth Facility and Environment 16:117-130.

Lim, T. (2011). Korea's multicultural future? The Diplomat, July 20

Lim, T. (2017). The road to multiculturalism in South Korea. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, October 10

Moon SH, and H.J. An (2011). Anger, anger expression, mental health and psychosomatic symptoms of children in multi-cultural families. Journal of Korean Academy of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 20(4): 325-333.

Park, S. (2011). Korean Multiculturalism and the Marriage Squeeze. Contexts 10: 64-65.

Park, J.H., and J.S. Nam (2010). The language development and psychosocial adjustment of multicultural children. Studies on Korean Youth. 21:129-152.

Yi, Y., and J-S. Kim. (2017). Korean Adolescents' Health Behavior and Psychological Status according to Their Mother's Nationality. Osong Public Health and Research Perspectives 8(6): 377-383.

Shin, J. (2018). Minority youth's mastery of academic vocabulary and its implications for their educational achievements: the case of 'multicultural adolescents' in South Korea. Multicultural Education Review 10(1): 35-51,

Yu, J-O, and M. Sung Kim. (2015). A Study on the Health Risk Behaviors of Adolescents from Multicultural Families according to the Parents' Migration Background. Journal of Korean Academy of Community Health Nursing 26(3):190-198

Monday, August 5, 2019

Classical antiquity was a low point of human intelligence

Aristotle discussed adaptation by natural selection long before Darwin, yet despite his fame this theory remained ignored throughout antiquity. (Wikicommons)

Gabriel Andrade and Maria Campo Redondo have come out with a paper on the ancient Greeks and how they saw differences between human groups:

Critics of Rushton and Jensen, and of the very category of race, claim that race is a social construct that only came up in the 16th century, as a result of overseas voyages and the Atlantic slave trade. The goal of this article is to refute that particular claim, by documenting how, long before the 16th century, in classical antiquity race was already a meaningful concept, and how some Greek authors even developed ideas that bear some resemblance to Rushton and Jensen's theory. The article documents how ancient Egyptians already had keen awareness of race differences amongst various populations. Likewise, the article documents passages from the Hippocratic and Aristotelian corpus, which attests that already in antiquity, there was a conception that climatic differences had an influence on intelligence, and that these differences eventually become enshrined in fixed biological traits. (Andrade and Redondo 2019)

The ancients knew about psychological differences between human groups but usually put them down to the direct action of the climate. This environmental explanation seemed disproved by black Africans, or "Ethiopians" as they were called, because they and their descendants remained just as dark-skinned at northern latitudes. But this example of heritability didn't lead to a theory of genetics. Instead, black skin was seen as an indelible stain, perhaps due to divine punishment of Ham (or Cham), the ancestor of the Egyptians and black Africans, for seeing the nakedness of his father Noah (Goldenberg 2003). This view appears in a homily by the third-century Christian writer Origen: 

But Pharao easily reduced the Egyptian people to bondage to himself, nor is it written that he did this by force. For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Cham, who had laughed at his father's nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race.   Homily on Genesis XVI (Origen 2010)

In general, human differences were attributed to direct action by the environment:

Greek authors to a large extent believed that acquired characteristics were inherited. For example, the text On Airs, Waters and Places considers the people of Trapezus, who had the custom of artificially elongating their children's heads. The author of this text believed that this particular practice would make elongated heads in the future generations, without parents having to artificially do the procedure: "Thus, at first, usage operated, so that this constitution was the result of force: but, in the course of time, it was formed naturally; so that usage had nothing to do with it... If, then, children with bald heads are born to parents with bald heads; and children with blue eyes to parents who have blue eyes; and if the children of parents having distorted eyes squint also for the most part; and if the same may be said of other forms of the body, what is to prevent it from happening that a child with a long head should be produced by a parent having a long head?". Aristotle had similar ideas: "Mutilated young are born of mutilated parents".

Why wasn’t natural selection understood?

Ironically, and long before Darwin, the Greek philosopher Empedocles (494-434 BC) came up with another explanation: adaptation through natural selection. Change initially occurs by accident. If the change is good, the changed life-form will survive and reproduce; if not, it will perish. Good changes are therefore kept and bad changes lost. Thus, all aspects of living matter look "as if they were made for the sake of something," but this is only illusion. There is no conscious "maker" of all things. 

This idea was summarized by Aristotle (384-322 BC):

So what hinders the different parts (of the body) from having this merely accidental relation in nature? as the teeth, for example, grow by necessity, the front ones sharp, adapted for dividing, and the grinders flat, and serviceable for masticating the food; since they were not made for the sake of this, but it was the result of accident. And in like manner as to other parts in which there appears to exist an adaptation to an end. Wheresoever, therefore, all things together (that is all the parts of one whole) happened like as if they were made for the sake of something, these were preserved, having been appropriately constituted by an internal spontaneity; and whatsoever things were not thus constituted, perished and still perish. Physicae Auscultationes 2:8, 2 (Darwin 1936 [1888], p. 3)

Aristotle's fame, as well as Empedocles', ensured that this idea would be read and passed on for generations, and yet it failed to take root in the minds of classical antiquity. It fell on barren ground. Aristotle himself rejected it, saying that all things must be for an end. Only much later, and independently, would natural selection be rediscovered.

The difficulty was not in understanding that humans, like other animals, are adapted to their environment. That part was obvious. The difficulty was in understanding adaptation as an indirect process. People more easily understood direct processes: something changed some people, and that change was passed on to their descendants. Aristotle himself fell for that idea when he mused that mutilated young are born to mutilated parents. 

This was the mentality of classical antiquity, and indeed of many people today. Change implies the existence of a changer, just as creation implies the existence of a creator. Few people rose above that level of thinking.

Did most people in classical antiquity think like children?

A Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), studied children in his country and concluded that all individuals go through stages of mental development. Children go through a "pre-operational stage" when causality is understood only in terms of conscious intent, specifically animism, artificialism, and transductive reasoning:

Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of actions and have lifelike qualities. An example could be a child believing that the sidewalk was mad and made them fall down, or that the stars twinkle in the sky because they are happy. Artificialism refers to the belief that environmental characteristics can be attributed to human actions or interventions. For example, a child might say that it is windy outside because someone is blowing very hard, or the clouds are white because someone painted them that color. Finally, precausal thinking is categorized by transductive reasoning. Transductive reasoning is when a child fails to understand the true relationships between cause and effect. Unlike deductive or inductive reasoning (general to specific, or specific to general), transductive reasoning refers to when a child reasons from specific to specific, drawing a relationship between two separate events that are otherwise unrelated. For example, if a child hears the dog bark and then a balloon popped, the child would conclude that because the dog barked, the balloon popped. (Wikipedia 2019)

Piaget correctly observed Swiss children in the mid-20th century. He incorrectly concluded that the mind develops at the same pace in all humans (Oesterdiekhoff 2012). Indeed, you need not go far back to reach a time when most individuals never developed beyond the pre-operational stage. Just go back to classical antiquity.

At that time, the smart fraction was relatively small. Most intellectuals seemed to be loners. There were no academic societies, no academic journals, and no indications that large numbers of scholars did, or could, interact with each other. This point is made in an article on Roman science:

According to Sarton, who is the foremost living historian of science, "Roman science at its best was but a pale imitation of the Greek." "The Romans," he continues, "were so afraid of disinterested research that they discouraged any investigation the utilitarian value of which was not obvious."

Reymond remarked in his "History of Science" that the Romans were never distinguished for any love or even interest in pure science or abstract thinking. Virtually the same conclusion was reached by Heiberg, and Fowler made the interesting observation that even their literature and their philosophy had a practical object.

[...] historians of the economic life of ancient Rome have shown that there was a surprising paucity of inventions. They were not only few in number, but they lacked originality and were unimportant. (Salant 1938)

The Roman Empire was organizationally strong but intellectually weak. It depended on a store of knowledge that had been laid up in earlier times, notably by the ancient Greeks. This was the prevailing opinion among Roman writers, an opinion today dismissed as nostalgia for a mythical golden age.

The evidence of ancient DNA

"Cognitive archaeology" is a new field that has been made possible by retrieval of DNA from human remains and by calculation of polygenic cognitive scores from this DNA (based on alleles associated with educational attainment).

To date, two studies have used these research tools to chart changes in mean intelligence. The first study used ancient DNA from Europe and central Asia and found that the polygenic cognitive score gradually increased between 4,560 and 1,210 years ago (Woodley of Menie et al 2017).

This finding has been nuanced by a second study, using a sample of ancient DNA that was much larger and only from ancient Greece. It found that mean intelligence was initially high in ancient Greece and then began to decline after the end of the Mycenaean period in 1100 BC (Woodley of Menie et al. 2019). It looks like intelligence was at first strongly advantageous as humans adapted to increasing social complexity: farming, sedentism, literacy … Then something made it much less advantageous.

Mean intelligence was therefore lower during Roman times in comparison both to Greece in earlier periods and to Europe in later periods. 


So was Aristotle the Gregor Mendel of natural selection? Not really. Aristotle was much more famous than Mendel, and his works were read over a much longer span of time. Furthermore, Mendel's findings had to wait only 35 years before getting their due recognition. Aristotle's thoughts on natural selection lay dormant for more than two millennia before their significance was pointed out to Charles Darwin.

Aristotle didn't suffer from being insufficiently known. He had a worse handicap, especially in this case: not enough people could understand his line of reasoning. He was a lone voice in the wilderness over the many centuries separating him from Darwin. By Darwin’s time, many more people could understand natural selection, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population. Even before The Origin of Species Darwin had a large audience of thinking people who could answer his questions and comment on his ideas. Earlier thinkers were not so lucky.

In the final analysis, the people of classical antiquity failed to understand natural selection for the same reason they failed to understand economics. They preferred to imagine cause and effect in simple terms: a person or personified thing producing a big change over a short time, and not impersonal forces producing an accumulation of small changes over a long time. They thought like children.


Andrade, G. and M.C. Redondo. 2019. Rushton and Jensen's Work Has Parallels with Some Concepts of Race Awareness in Ancient Greece. Psych 1 (1): 391-402.

Aristotle. Physics

Darwin, C. (1936) [1888]. The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. reprint of 2nd ed., The Modern Library, New York: Random House.

Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Oesterdiekhoff, G.W. (2012). Was pre-modern man a child? The quintessence of the psychometric and developmental approaches. Intelligence 40: 470-478.

Origen (2010). Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, transl. by R.E. Heine., Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press

Salant, W. (1938). Science and Society in Ancient Rome. The Scientific Monthly 47(6): 525-535.

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 Res Hum Genet 20: 271-280.

Woodley of Menie, M.A., J. Delhez, M. Peñaherrera-Aguirre, and E.O.W. Kirkegaard. (2019). Cognitive archeogenetics of ancient and modern Greeks. London Conference on Intelligence 

Wikipedia (2019). Piaget's theory of cognitive development. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piaget%27s_theory_of_cognitive_development#Concrete_operational_stage

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Why that stereotype and not the other?

Nubian Pyramids (Wikicommons - Petr Adam Dohnalek). In classical antiquity, contacts with black Africans were largely with Nubians, a people who already enjoyed a high level of material culture. 

A decade ago, Jason Malloy noted a curious fact: the ancient world did not see sub-Saharan Africans as less intelligent, despite the existence of other stereotypes, like macrophallia (Frost 2009, see comments; Thompson 1989). A stereotype of low intelligence is recorded in only two Greco-Roman texts, to the best of my knowledge. One is a reference by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD) to the Greek physician Galen (129-210 AD). The statement attributed to Galen does not appear in any of his works, at least not in those that have survived, and may be a false attribution.

We have seen that Negroes are in general characterized by levity, excitability, and great emotionalism. They are found to dance wherever they hear a melody. They are everywhere described as stupid. ... Al-Masfiüdi undertook to investigate the reason [for this]. However, he did no better than to report on the authority of ... al-Kindi and Jalinus [Galen] that the reason is a weakness of their brains which results in a weakness of their intellects. This is an inconclusive and unproven statement. ... The real reason is that ... joy and gladness are due to the expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit. Sadness is due to the opposite. (Hunwick 2005)

The other is the Christian parable of the Ethiopian woodcutter. The desert monk Arsenius (350-445 AD) recounted how an Ethiopian went out to gather wood. When the burden became too heavy, he put it down and continued to gather, but now his load was even heavier. So he put it down and gathered even more (Wallis Budge 1907). This parable is from late antiquity and may reflect the growing influx of black slaves into the Middle East during that period.

It seems, then, that low intelligence was not attributed to sub-Saharan Africans during classical antiquity, at least not often enough to become a stereotype. This stereotype would emerge later, during late antiquity and even more so during the Islamic period (Lewis 1990, pp. 46-47, 92-97).

I suspect there were two reasons:

- mean intelligence was probably lower in the Mediterranean world during classical antiquity, perhaps in the low 90s. This would be consistent with the apparently smaller size of its "smart fraction," in contrast not only to Western societies in later times but also to ancient Greece in earlier times (see July 13 post). In Roman society, intellectuals seem to have largely been isolated individuals. They did not come together to hold regular conferences or publish journals. While there were elementary schools, the ludus litterarius, there were no institutions of higher learning, only private tutors. The difference in mean intelligence with sub-Saharan Africa would have thus seemed smaller.

- contacts with dark-skinned Africans were initially most frequent with Nubians, who under Egyptian influence already enjoyed a high level of material culture and were thus already being selected for cognitive ability. Contacts with peoples farther south developed later, with development of the African slave trade. This trade seems to have slowly but steadily increased in volume during late antiquity and, subsequently, the Islamic period (Frost 2008).

Civilization and intelligence

So, beyond a certain point, does civilization actually select against intelligence? The short answer: yes, in some cases. 

Now for the long answer. First, increased intelligence comes at a cost:

The brain requires about 22 times as much energy to run as the equivalent in muscle tissue. The energy required to run every bodily process comes from the food we eat. Human brains are three times larger than our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, and use up to three times the energy, but the two species have the same metabolic rate. (Welsh 2011)

Because of that high energy cost, any excess intelligence is under strong negative selection and will decline noticeably—even over a few generations. Positive selection becomes confined to a minority of the population as a civilization develops and moves toward specialization of labor, i.e., the most difficult intellectual work is done by a minority while the majority performs menial tasks. 

Nonetheless, we have examples of advanced civilizations, notably in East Asia from ancient times and, later on, in Western Europe, where mean intelligence was and still is quite high. Those civilizations likewise had specialization of labor. So what made them different?

It seems to have been a process of internal demographic replacement that Gregory Clark described with respect to England and Ron Unz with respect to China. The mean intelligence of an entire population will steadily rise if two conditions are met:

1. Fertility is higher in higher social classes.

2. Class boundaries are sufficiently porous that the resulting demographic surplus of these classes can move downward and replace the lower classes.

Historically and cross-culturally, these two conditions were far from universal. In many societies, surplus members of the upper class preferred to remain unmarried and wait for a suitable high-status niche to open up. It was shameful to "lose caste" and enter a niche lower on the social ladder. Nor was fertility universally higher in higher social classes. In some cases, the rich and powerful had fewer children because they could count on other means of support for their old age. In other cases, they tended to congregate in towns and cities, where infant mortality was higher. Finally, greater sexual access to women often failed to translate into reproductive success because of infertility due to STDs or because of a culture of debauchery and indifference to married life.


With ancient DNA and polygenic cognitive scores, we can now understand history in a new light. Mean intelligence has risen and fallen during the time of recorded history, and not simply because of migrant influxes. The people may have been the same, and yet they really weren't:

Since it looks like there has been significant evolutionary change over historical time, we're going to have to rewrite every history book every written," said Gregory Cochran, a population geneticist at the University of Utah. "The distribution of genes influencing relevant psychological traits must have been different in Rome than it is today," he added. "The past is not just another country but an entirely different kind of people” (Wade 2006).


Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, 1st ed.; Princeton University Press: Princeton,

Frost, P. (2008). The beginnings of black slavery. Evo and Proud, January 25

Frost, P. (2009). Skin color and Egyptian/Nubian encounters. Evo and Proud, April 23

Hunwick, J.O. (2005). A region of the mind: Medieval Arab views of African geography and ethnography and their legacy. Sudanic Africa 16: 103-136

Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. Oxford University Press.

Thompson, L.A.  (1989). Romans and Blacks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Unz, R. (2013). How Social Darwinism made modern China. The American Conservative, March/April, 16-27.

Wade, N. (2006). The twists and turns of history, and of DNA. The New York Times, March 12, Week in Review 14

Wallis Budge, E.A. (1907). The Paradise of the Holy Fathers. London: Chatto and Windus.

Welsh, J. (2011). Still up for debate. LiveScience, November 9

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Stumbling into the future

China's TFR before and after introduction of the one-child policy (Chaparro and Kulkarni 2015). Did that policy really change anything?

The European world has entered "demographic autumn"—on the one hand, fertility rates have fallen below replacement level; on the other, non-European immigration has risen progressively. These two trends can have only one outcome.

A similar demographic autumn is developing in East Asia. In some ways the situation is worse—fertility rates are at their lowest here. The record is held by the provinces of northeastern China, which have a total fertility rate of only 0.75 children per woman (Wang 2018). South Korea has an estimated TFR of 0.96, and a significant number of those births are to immigrant mothers from Southeast Asia (Haas 2018). Japan is doing better only by comparison, with a TFR of 1.4.

As for China as a whole, the rate is officially 1.6 and unofficially 1.05; the authorities revise this statistic upward to include second children who go unreported because they are illegal under the one-child policy (Wang 2018). That policy was scrapped in 2016, yet those second children still seem to be in hiding. Do they really exist? Did they ever? The Chinese government is stuck in a classic quandary: what do you do when you realize you've not been telling the truth?

The truth is that China’s TFR is half of what it needs to maintain its current population. This should be no surprise. In fact, it’s in line with what we see in Taiwan (1.1), in Singapore's Chinese community (1.1), and in Malaysia's Chinese community (1.3). Looking back, one can wonder whether the one-child policy ever had much impact on the TFR (Chaparro and Kulkarni 2015). The decline seems to have deep roots in modern Chinese society:

China faces an intractable and protracted demographic crisis driven by millions of individual family planning choices made by its increasingly wealthy and urbanized population. Policies restricting births imposed by the authorities have played only a contributing role in the drama. Similar aging trends can be seen throughout East Asia, especially in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong — territories that never had the types of legal restrictions imposed upon mainland Chinese couples.

[...] The current relaxation of family size restrictions is simply too little, too late. Before the policy was completely abolished in 2013, the Chinese government relaxed the one-child policy by allowing 11 million couples in which both spouses had no siblings to have two children. However, by May 2015, only 18 percent of eligible couples had taken advantage of the opportunity. This shows to what extent China's declining fertility is driven by personal considerations, as opposed to public policies.

In October 2015, the country's National Health and Family Planning Commission estimated that some 90 million families would qualify for the new, two-child policy. By the end of the year, however, only two million families had applied for permission to have a second child. China Daily conducted a survey in 2016 which showed that nearly 60 percent of working mothers do not want a second child, citing time and energy needed to raise it. Other concerns of the women included career risks, the pain of childbirth and little faith in their marriages. (O'Reilly 2019)

This problem is made worse by the gender imbalance: fewer girls than boys are being born. China now has 33 million more males than females. Finally, there is no reason to believe that the decline will stop at one child per woman.

Stumbling into the future

China's workforce is already shrinking, and the total population will begin to shrink before the mid-2020s.  The decline could be offset by pro-natalist measures. For instance, men and women could be encouraged to remain in rural areas and small towns, where conditions are better for family formation. To deal with the shrinking workforce, there could be measures to phase out low-paying jobs through automation and robotization. Of course, there must first be a willingness to act. Unfortunately, such willingness is far from evident, to judge by the current denial and inaction.

China will stumble into its demographic future, with one ad hoc solution after another. One of them may be immigration: "[China] currently hosts some 900,000 legal migrants and untold numbers of illegals, most of them factory workers from Vietnam. Also, desperate Chinese bachelors, unable to find Chinese mates because of the gender imbalance, are increasingly marrying Cambodian or Vietnamese women" (O'Reilly 2019). This is not to say that immigrants will be actively recruited. As is already the case, most will come illegally, being lured by jobs and empty housing. The onus will then be on the authorities to act—in the face of opposition not only from the business community but also from the migrants' home countries, many of which provide Chinese industry with valuable raw materials.

The solutions will ultimately depend on the ideological environment. Westerners often believe that the Chinese are intensely nationalist. In reality, there is a range of views within China, with the majority supporting civic nationalism. This is not coincidentally the view that the government promotes, partly out of conviction and partly to co-opt Tibetans, Muslims, and other minorities. Meanwhile, younger, university-educated people are moving toward the globalist consensus that reigns in the West.

One such person is Yinghong Cheng, who went abroad to study and is now a professor at Delaware State University. His latest book has a chapter titled "Racism and Its Agents in China" (Cheng 2019). In it he argues:

As an ideology, racism or racial discourses do not exist for their own sake or by themselves but always reflect power relations that may be addressed in other social hierarchy-based or identity-related discourses. In China today, racial thinking can appear in various discourses addressed to the political and ideological needs of the party-state, cultural and intellectual elites, and ordinary citizens: nationalism, patriotism, statism, social Darwinism, Han Chauvinism (or Hanism), non-Han ethno-nationalism, populism, and the Chinese civilizational supremacism in general (associated with the traditional ethnocentrism of China). (Cheng 2019, p. 241)

Elsewhere, he describes Hanism as “an ultra-ethnic supremacism” that “comes close to racism in its way of essentializing differences in a condescending manner” (Cheng 2019, p. 264). “The anti-Qing Hanist racism and a racial hierarchy of the world are the twin of the discourse of race in modern Chinese history. Like any other racial discourse in the world, they reflect power relations in reality but construct imaginary orders for a racially ideal—or “natural”—world” (Cheng 2019, p. 16). “… the Han political and intellectual elite exploited the social science disciplines of history, archaeology, and ethnology to establish the centrality of the Han blood and ancestors …” (Cheng 2019, p. 7).

Cheng overstates his case when he describes racism as an ideology that always reflects power relations. This is untrue if we examine its core value: preference for one’s kind. Throughout history and prehistory, humans have cared a lot about their kith and kin, even to the point of sacrificing their lives—and this has been no less true in simple societies with no elite or ruling class. Indeed, the oldest societies were essentially clans of related individuals. Furthermore, kinship is key not only to human life but also to the lives of organisms incapable of having ideas, let alone an ideology. 

Please note: I'm not arguing that kin preference is innate (although that argument can be made). I'm simply saying that it predates ideology and has long been the main organizing principle of society. Perhaps it's now obsolete. Perhaps it’s time for us to become self-defining individuals in a global marketplace. That’s the mainstream liberal argument. But that’s not Cheng's argument. He is arguing that kin preference always was wrong, and now we finally have a chance to get rid of it for good—by eliminating the "agents of racism." How this elimination is supposed to happen is not discussed. Indeed, he never applies to himself the sort of painstaking analysis he applies to others.

In all this, Cheng’s thinking is strangely ahistorical. If kinship has always been the basis for human society, perhaps there is a reason. Perhaps it has been the best way to organize social relations. Or perhaps not. Could we at least have a debate without being accused of base motives? Or being eliminated?

A big problem here is cargo-cult reverence for the West, and this reverence extends to the individualism and globalism that has become so dominant in North America and Western Europe, particularly in elite circles. Cheng denounces China for not doing enough to follow their example, while quoting Chinese writers who point to the resulting problems. If that model of society is already problematic in the West, where it has existed for a longer time, has deeper roots in the culture, and has greater chances for success, why should it do better in a country like China?

Cheng further reveals his ahistoricism when he argues that racism suits elite interests. Yes, it did back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when elites were nation-based. But they haven’t been that way for some time. Elites no longer have a national conscience, particularly in the West. Their self-interest now pushes them to liquidate the nation-state, notably by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries and by insourcing low-wage labor for jobs that cannot be outsourced in construction, agriculture, and services. It is this two-way movement—and not "racism"—that is steadily increasing the Gini index, the most common measure of the gap between the rich and the poor.

Do China’s elites still have a national conscience? One can wonder. Unfortunately, this question goes unanswered in Cheng's book. Only nationalism is seen as problematic in the new China, and only nationalism is viewed as serving elite interests. Yet globalism, too, exists within a context of power relations. It, too, serves certain interests. 

As China's working population continues to shrink, will the elites push for higher wages so that labor may be used more sparingly? Or will they keep wages down by bringing in migrant labor? Which scenario is more likely if policymaking is in their hands? And which scenario will get better coverage in the Chinese media?


Chaparro, R. and K. Kulkarni. (2015). Does high population growth help or hurt economic development? Cases of China and Pakistan. International Journal of Education Economics and Development 6. 162. 10.1504/IJEED.2015.070629.

Cheng, Y. (2019). Discourses of Race and Rising China. Palgrave Macmillan

Haas, B. (2018). South Korea's fertility rate set to hit record low of 0.96. The Guardian, September 3

O'Reilly, B. (2019). China lacks the wherewithal to adjust to demographic decline. Austrian Economics Center

Wang, M. (2018). For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Retrospective and Predictive Study of Fertility Rates in China (November 8, 2018). Available at SSRN: 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Golden Age of Intelligence?

Busts of Greek philosophers (Wikicommons, Matt Neale). Did the Ancient Greeks have the highest mean IQ of any human population then and since?

Francis Galton argued that average intelligence had been much higher in ancient Greece than in modern England. He came to this conclusion after comparing the proportion of eminent men in Athens of the fifth century BC with the proportion of eminent men in the England of his day:

It follows from all this, that the average ability of the Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own-that is, about as much as our race is above that of the African negro.(Galton 1869, p. 342)

This high ability was then presumably lost:

We know, and may guess something more, of the reason why this marvellously-gifted race declined. Social morality grew exceedingly lax; marriage became unfashionable, and was avoided; many of the more ambitious and accomplished women were avowed courtesans, and consequently infertile, and the mothers of the incoming population were of a heterogeneous class. (Galton 1869, pp. 342-343)

If we accept Galton's reasoning, Ancient Greeks had the highest mean IQ of any human population, something like 120 or 125. By comparison, Ashkenazi Jews have an estimated mean IQ of 110. But was Galton right? His calculations were criticized at the time, specifically for underestimating the number of Athenian citizens. He consequently revised his calculation downward to 1.5 grades higher, i.e., a mean IQ of 115 to 119 (Challis 2013, p. 56).

That's still impressive. But higher IQ doesn't necessarily imply higher innate intelligence. Conditions in ancient Greece may have simply been better for intellectual discussion, such activity being respected as an activity in its own right. By comparison, intellectual discussion was much more circumscribed in the ancient Middle East, where it was confined to specific people who performed specific duties, most often writing and copying texts at the request of others.

Admittedly, this explanation does not exclude a genetic one. If the cultural environment favors intellectual development, it will tend to reward the most promising people with reproductive success. A scribe is thus praised in a Jewish wisdom book from the second century BC: "Many will praise his understanding; it will never be blotted out. His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations. Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise. If he lives long, he will leave a name greater than a thousand." Book of Sirach [39.1-11].

In the ancient world, 'leaving a great name' did not mean being written about by historians but rather having many illustrious children to carry on the family name long after death. Intellectual ability thus co-evolved with a supportive cultural base. Indeed, we humans have co-evolved much more with our cultural environment than with our natural environment (Hawks et al. 2007).

A new yardstick

Galton's conjecture can now be tested with two new research tools:

1. Ancient DNA. Large quantities of genetic data have been collected from ancient human remains and are now being made available to researchers. This year, the Reich lab at the Harvard Medical School released over 2,000 ancient genomes, including 30 from ancient Greece.

2. Polygenic cognitive score. Some gene loci are associated with differences in educational attainment. By examining the variants at these loci and by adding up the ones associated with higher educational attainment, we can calculate a polygenic score that correlates with mean IQ (r = 0.98).

By examining 102 ancient genomes, a research team led by Michael Woodley of Menie was able to chart the evolution of cognitive ability in Europe and Central Asia. His team found that genetic variants for higher educational attainment gradually increased in frequency from 4,560 to 1,210 years ago (Woodley of Menie et al. 2017). Now, with newly released data from the Reich lab, he is leading a research effort to look specifically at ancient Greeks. The results are still preliminary, but they indicate a progressive increase in the polygenic score from Neolithic to Mycenaean times, followed by a decrease. When? We don't know because we lack post-Mycenaean data (Woodley of Menie et al. 2019).

More to come ...

This is a promising avenue for research. In particular, we need:

- A larger sample of modern Greek genomes. This should not be difficult.

- Samples from post-Mycenaean times to the end of Ottoman rule. Was Galton right in placing this cognitive decline during the ensuing Hellenistic and Roman periods? Or did it happen over a longer span of time?

The final published paper should explain at greater length the research team's use of a restricted polygenic score, i.e., a polygenic score based only on those genetic variants that seem causally related to high educational attainment, and not simply associated with high educational attainment. This approach is acceptable if a third party had identified these variants; otherwise, there is a risk of focusing on those variants that support Galton's hypothesis.

Another point: in the presentation of his new project, Woodley of Menie spoke repeatedly about population replacement at various times in the history of ancient Greece (Woodley of Menie et al. 2019). Yet the current thinking is that immigration was historically unimportant in Greece. Present-day Greeks are largely descended from the Mycenaeans, with some later introgression by Slavic tribes and other peoples (Gibbons 2017; Stamatoyannopoulos et al. 2017).

This research is especially exciting because the Reich lab released ancient DNA data not only from ancient Greece but also from elsewhere. History may end up being seen in a new light. For instance:

- Rome probably went through a similar increase in mean intelligence, followed by decline. When did the decline begin? During the collapse of the fifth century? I suspect earlier, perhaps in the third century. The barbarian invasions were both a cause and effect in the collapse of Roman civilization.

- The Enlightenment was due only in part to things like the invention of the printing press, the voyages of discovery, and the founding of universities. These were subsidiary causes that resulted from and supported a more fundamental change: a steady increase in the smart fraction of European societies—the proportion of people who enjoy reading, writing and, above all, thinking.


Angel, J.L. (1950). Population size and microevolution in Greece. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 15: 343-351. doi:10.1101/SQB.1950.015.01.031

Challis, D. (2013). The Archaeology of Race. The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. London: MacMillan.

Gibbons, A. (2017). The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals. Science August 2

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.
Stamatoyannopoulos, G., A. Bose, A. Teodosiadis, F. Tsetsos, A. Plantinga, N. Psatha, N. Zogas, E. Yannaki, P. Zalloua, K.K. Kidd, B.L. Browning, J. Stamatoyannopoulos, P. Paschou, P. Drineas et al. (2017). Genetics of the peloponnesean populations and the theory of extinction of the medieval peloponnesean Greeks. European Journal of Human Genetics 25: 637-645.

Woodley of Menie, 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: 271-280

Woodley of Menie, M.A., J. Delhez, M. Peñaherrera-Aguirre, and E.O.W. Kirkegaard. (2019). Cognitive archeogenetics of ancient and modern Greeks. London Conference on Intelligence