Saturday, December 29, 2012

Looking back and ahead

Was the scientific revolution (1540-1700) due to an increase in trade and the discovery of the New World? Or were there just more people around who could understand and appreciate new ideas? (source)

The past year has seen the deaths of two scholars who tackled the thorny issue of IQ and race, first Philippe Rushton (October 2) and then Arthur Jensen (October 22). The coming year may see more departures. Most of the remaining HBD scholars are retired or getting on in years.

Some see this as proof of the issue’s irrelevance. Rushton and Jensen were too old to understand that “race” and “intelligence” are outdated concepts. In reality, they were old because they had earned tenure before the campaign against “racist academics” had gotten into full swing … back in the 1980s.

I use quotation marks because that campaign cast a very wide net. It targeted anyone who might believe in race differences, or heritable differences of any sort. A good example would be John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, who founded evolutionary psychology in the 1980s and have authored publications that are now required reading in undergrad psychology. Yet they had to wander in the wilderness for years before getting secure academic positions. Their sin? They believed that many human behaviors have a sizeable heritable component, although they repeatedly denied the existence of any heritable differences among human populations. But that wasn’t good enough. They had taken the first step in a chain of reasoning that could lead God knows where. They weren’t guilty of something they actually thought. They were guilty of something they might end up thinking.

The climate in academia today, especially in the social sciences, eerily resembles that of Eastern Europe a half-century ago. In private, many academics make fun of the idea that every aspect of human behavior is “socially constructed.” In public, they say nothing. Even the ones with tenure are terrified to speak out. It just isn’t worth it. Even if your position is secure, you’ll still see funding and publishing opportunities disappear, and your acquaintances will treat you as a horrible person. At best, you’ll be considered an oddball.

With little new blood entering the pipeline, and with its leading scholars growing old and dying off, the HBD community seems destined to disappear within academia and the larger community of intellectuals. Game over.

I’m less pessimistic. Individuals may die, but ideas don’t die so easily, especially if they make sense. The HBD idea may lose certain aspects and gain new ones, but the idea itself will be much more tenacious. And the false academic consensus can be shattered with a bit of effort. All it takes is a few people who can make their case calmly and lucidly. The basic facts are already in and beyond dispute.

We know, for instance, that at least 7% of the human genome has changed over the past 40,000 years, with most of the change being squeezed into the last 10,000. In fact, human genetic evolution speeded up by over a hundred-fold about 10,000 years ago (Hawks et al., 2007). By then, however, humans had spread over the earth’s entire surface from the equator to the Arctic Circle. They weren’t adapting to new physical environments. They were adapting to new cultural and behavioral environments. They were adapting to differences in diet, in mating systems, in family and communal structure, in notions of morality, in forms of language, in systems of writing, in modes of subsistence, in means of production, in networks of exchange, and so on. This genetic evolution involved changes to digestion, metabolism, and … mental processing.

Another fact. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans were no longer a small founder group. They were already splitting up into different geographic populations. So the acceleration of human genetic evolution did not affect all humans the same way. Yes, we are different, and the differences aren’t skin deep.

Undoubtedly, these differences are statistical, and many weakly so. But even a statistical difference can affect the way a society develops. I once believed that the scientific revolution of the 16th century onward was due to the increase in trade and the discovery of the New World. I’ve now come to the conclusion that it was driven by an increase in the smart fraction of northwestern European societies, and this increase was in turn driven by the demographic processes described by Clark (2007). That revolution didn’t happen just because new ideas were being discovered (actually, many of them had been around for some time). It happened because more people could now understand those ideas and appreciate their significance.

But enough digression. You can bury a person but not an idea.


Anon. (2012). Unit 12 – The Scientific Revolution, MrGrayHistory

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

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.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Year's end

Just horsing around? Or is there also a political message?

It’s year’s end, and to date I’ve written nothing on the three themes I promised to blog about back in January. One reason was the need to comment on certain unforeseen events, like Phil Rushton’s death and the confirmation that Europeans became white-skinned long after their ancestors had arrived in Europe. Another reason was the difficulty in finding relevant data, particularly with respect to the Burakumin of Japan.

So, before the clock runs out, I’ll post my thoughts on all three themes:

Archaic admixture

There is growing evidence that a Neanderthal-like archaic population once inhabited parts of Africa. Lachance et al. (2012) studied the genomes of three hunter-gatherer peoples from sub-Saharan Africa: Pygmy, Hadza, and Sandawe. All three of them showed introgression from an unknown archaic group whose ancestors had separated from ancestral modern humans at about the same time as ancestral Neanderthals had.

Africa is probably the continent where modern humans have the most archaic admixture, since it is where they were in contact with archaic hominins for the longest time. In addition, it’s also where modern humans were in contact with “almost-moderns” who offered weaker barriers to intermixture because they were so similar behaviorally and physically.

But what does all this mean? If a human population has a lot of archaic admixture, is it therefore more primitive anatomically and mentally? Not really. The “modern” gene variants are still present in the gene pool, and if they’re any better they will progressively displace their archaic counterparts through natural selection. Over time, archaic admixture will thus be confined to junk DNA of little or no selective value. Mallards, for instance, have outbred so much that only a minority of them cluster together on an mtDNA tree, the rest being scattered among black ducks (Avise et al., 1990). Yet each and every one of them looks, quacks, and waddles like a mallard.

Indeed, if we follow Greg Cochran’s reasoning, an admixed population provides natural selection with a wider range of interesting variants, some of which might even be better than the ones in the original genetic toolkit.

The Korean tinderbox

In late capitalism, the elites are no longer restrained by ties of national identity and are thus freer to enrich themselves at the expense of their host society. This clash of interests lies at the heart of the globalist project: on the one hand, jobs are outsourced to low-wage countries; on the other, low-wage labor is insourced for jobs that cannot be relocated, such as in the construction and service industries.

This two-way movement redistributes wealth from owners of labor to owners of capital. Business people benefit from access to lower-paid workers and weaker labor and environmental standards. Working people are meanwhile thrown into competition with these other workers. As a result, the top 10% of society is pulling farther and farther ahead of everyone else, and this trend is taking place throughout the developed world. The rich are getting richer … not by making a better product but by making the same product with cheaper and less troublesome inputs of labor.

In the United States, globalism is being pushed by a contrived bipartisan consensus. As Jeff Faux (2012) notes:

But the national discourse is silent on the tacit agreement both parties have already made on the future that lies ahead for the majority of working Americans: a dramatic drop in their living standards. […] Even before the financial crash, real wages for the typical American worker had been stagnant for 30 years as a result of: 1) trade and investment deregulation that shoved American workers into a brutally competitive global labor market for which they were unprepared; 2) the relentless war on unions that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980; and 3) more recently, the erosion of the social safety net for low wage workers and the unemployed.

In East Asia, South Korea has gone the furthest in embracing the globalist project, as one observer recently summarized in comparing that country with Ireland and the U.S.:

[…] lesser skilled jobs are moving from advanced markets to developing nations. Companies recovering from the financial shocks of 2008 have discovered more cost-effective processes than older, more labor-intensive means through technology and outsourcing. Consequently, the recent economic rebounds have not been matched with expected re-employment.

Independent “knowledge professionals” represent more and more of the labor force. Decreasing numbers of “permanent” employees mean more reliance on multi-skilled, independent specialists on a plug-in and plug-out basis for short- and medium-term projects. This major development is becoming an increasingly common aspect of this new paradigm.

[…] I have seen an erosion of the middle classes, and a strengthening of the upper-middle classes and upper classes, while the lower classes are growing in size. At the same time, I have seen the middle class getting by on less, and becoming much less aggressive consumers. (Coyner, 2012)

South Korea has also gone global by opening its borders to immigration. Officially, there are about 1.4 million foreigners (2011), but this figure excludes illegal immigrants (estimated to be 30-50% of the legal total) and foreigners who have acquired South Korean citizenship. Also excluded are their Korean-born children (Anon, 2011).

This influx of foreign labor is framed as a positive development that will make South Korea a more open society:

In order to sustain its development, the country has increasingly turned to foreign labor and selective immigration as countermeasures for its economic and demographic problems. The state manages the influx of foreigners under a framework of “multiculturalism” that professes openness towards becoming a “multicultural society” despite resistance rooted in ethno-nationalism and a history of homogeneity. (Kim & Kwon, 2012).

The veneer of official discourse conceals the stresses and strains that are building among ordinary South Koreans. With conditions of life deteriorating for the majority, animosity is growing toward the top 10% whose lives are steadily improving. The latter are satirized in the hit video “Gangnam style” by Korean rapper Psy:

Gangnam is a wealthy neighborhood in the South Korean city of Seoul where young people go to party. In the song, Psy describes the kind of guy he is and the kind of girl he wants, painting caricatures of the ostentatious culture of people who hang out in Gangnam. 

As The Atlantic pointed out in an in-depth article last month, behind the flashy costumes and killer dance moves in Psy's video, there's a subtle commentary on class in South Korea. 


It roughly means something like 'Your man has Gangnam Style.' 'Oppa,' which literally means 'older brother,' is an affectionate term girls use to address older guy friends or a boyfriend. It can also be used as a first-person pronoun, as PSY does here — in this case, he's telling a woman that he has Gangnam style.


"It's a horse-riding dance," PSY explained in an interview with NY1 anchor Michelle Park. "So there is an invisible horse, and you're on it. (Goyette, 2012)

No, that’s not the whole story. The dance is also a parody of an American cowboy. (Twirling a lasso is not a usual feature of horseback riding). There is in fact a streak of anti-Americanism in all of this, as recent revelations about Psy’s past have shown. Something is going on beneath the apparent calm of South Korean society, and it won’t be pretty when it finally comes to a head …

Places like South Korea and Greece, which lie on the periphery of the current world-system, will be the first to push back against globalism. In such countries, national identity is still strong and the elites use little imagination in adapting their approach to local circumstances, preferring to “copy and paste” from elsewhere. There too, the failure of globalism will be the most obvious.

The Burakumin

In pre-modern Japanese society, the Burakumin specialized in jobs that required contact with dead flesh, e.g., butchery, leather making, and preparation of corpses for burial. They were and still are socially stigmatized, and marriage with them was forbidden. Because of their endogamy and their reserved occupations, they may have thus escaped the process of demographic replacement that Gregory Clark (2007) described for English society, i.e., they were not gradually replaced by downwardly moving members of the middle class. As such, they might provide a glimpse into the genetic predispositions that characterized the Japanese several centuries ago—at a time when the State was largely absent and when social relations were quite different.

In this earlier social environment, adult males were expected to use force on a regular basis to defend themselves and their families. Law courts did exist, but their rulings were enforced by the aggrieved party, not by the State. Young men preferred to socialize with other young men in small loosely hierarchical groups that sought to control local territory while engaging in raids to plunder neighboring territories. Literacy was rare, with less importance being given to creation, processing, and storage of abstract information. Finally, time orientation was focused much more on the present. This reflected the uncertainty over one’s own future, including life expectancy, and also the difficulty in converting oral agreements into long-term enforceable contracts.

These behavior patterns seem to describe the Burakumin. Modern Japanese society is alienating to them, not because of discrimination but because of its high level of domesticity, social discipline, and nerdish devotion to intellectual pursuits. Male Burakumin, in particular, prefer alternate forms of social affiliation and expression, such as the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), the largest Yakuza syndicate being over 70% Burakumin.  At school, their achievement scores have remained nearly one standard deviation below those of other Japanese regardless of the time and place of the research (BLHRRI, 1997). The persistent gap may reflect a lack of either ability or interest, or a lack of both.

This topic unfortunately suffers from insufficient good data. The American literature often asserts that IQ scores have risen dramatically among Burakumin immigrants to the U.S., but Jason Malloy has shown that this claim is an academic legend:

I often see media assertions like Steve Olson in The Atlantic: “Yet when the Buraku emigrate to the United States, the IQ gap between them and other Japanese vanishes.” This claim is somewhat apocryphal. There is no data for Burakumin in the US. False claims about US IQ data have mutated second-hand from John Ogbu who claimed a study showed that the Buraku immigrants here “do slightly better in school than the other Japanese immigrants”. The book chapter Ogbu references for this claim (Ito 1966) however, is by a pseudonymous author who relied strictly on gossip from non-outcast Japanese communities in California to surmise how the outcasts here might be performing. The author’s informants believed the US outcasts were more attractive, more fair-skinned, and made more money. Though– as a testament to Ogbu’s immaculate scholarship– the author reported no gossip about how these Burakumin performed in school. (Cochran, 2011)

The Japanese literature doesn’t seem much better. It generally admits the existence of negative stereotypes about the Burakumin but provides little information on the content of these stereotypes. 


Anon. (2011). Foreigners make up 3% of Korea’s population, December 19, Gusts of Popular Feeling

Avise, J.C., C.D. Ankney, W.S. Nelson. (1990). Mitochondrial gene trees and the evolutionary relationship of mallard and black ducks, Evolution, 44, 1109-1119.

BLHRRI (1997). Practice of Dowa Education Today, Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Institute.

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Cochran, G. (2011). Risch’s conjecture, December 28, West Hunter

Coyner, T. (2012). Learning to move with the tide, Korea Joongang Daily, September 12 

Faux, J. (2012). The elites are unanimous: Lower everyone’s wages and standard of living, Jeff Faux

Goyette, B. (2012). Psy’s ‘Gangam Style,’ explained! NY Daily News, September 7,

Ito, H. (1966). Japan’s outcastes in the United States. In G.A. deVos and H. Wagatsuma (eds.), Japan’s Invisible Race. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kim, J. & Y-S. Kwon. (2012). Economic development, the evolution of foreign labor and immigration policy, and the shift to multiculturalism in South Korea, Philippine Political Science Journal, 33, 178-201.

Lachance, J., B. Vernot, C.C. Elbers, B. Ferwerda, A. Froment, J-M Bodo, G. Lema, W. Fu, T.B. Nyambo, T.R. Rebbeck, K. Zhang, J.M. Akey, S.A. Tishkoff. (2012). Evolutionary history and adaptation from high-coverage whole-genome sequences of diverse African hunter-gatherers, Cell, 150, 457-469.

Wikipedia. (2012). PSY (entertainer).

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Genetic pacification in medieval Europe

Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000 (Eisner, 2001)

States seek to pacify their territories by monopolizing the use of violence. With each passing generation, violent individuals are ostracized, imprisoned, or executed, their predispositions being thereby selected out of the gene pool. Has this “genetic pacification” made longtime State societies kinder and gentler places to live in?
The last millennium saw violence steadily decline in Western societies, and this trend has caught the attention of scholars like Manuel Eisner (2001), Gregory Clark (2007), Steven Pinker (2011), and our beloved hbd* chick (2012).

Clark attributes the decline to an underlying demographic, cultural, and even genetic change. With the end of the Dark Ages, states began reasserting their power throughout Western Europe and reestablishing their monopoly on the use of violence. The result was a new social landscape. The young violent male went from hero to zero, with success now going to the law-abiding man who bettered himself by peaceful means. And so the meek inherited the earth—or rather those portions of the earth under persistent State control.

But was this evolution cultural or genetic? Did the meek reproduce their meekness by teaching their children to behave likewise? Or were they passing on certain genetic predispositions?

Clark is hesitant on this point, and rightly so. How does one distinguish cultural from genetic inheritance? And is it possible for genetic evolution to work that fast?

We know that aggressive/antisocial male behavior is moderately to highly heritable. A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies put forward a heritability of 40% (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). A later twin study found a heritability of 96%, where the subjects were 9-10 year-olds of diverse ethnic backgrounds (Baker et al., 2007). This higher figure reflected the narrow age range and the use of a panel of evaluators to rate each subject. In the latest twin study, the heritability was 40% when the twins had different evaluators and 69% when they had the same evaluator.

Is this heritability high enough, and the time span long enough, to account for the historical decline of violence? This question has been addressed by American anthropologist Henry Harpending at the blog West Hunter 

He began by defining this heritable trait as a “propensity to violence.” The stronger the propensity, the lower would be the threshold for real violence. In the comments, Steve Sailer pointed out the need to distinguish between organized violence, i.e., war, and disorganized violence. In reply, Henry Harpending restricted his definition to violent acts by individuals with “high time preference and fast life history.”

He then calculated the speed of the hypothetical genetic change, and the corresponding strength of natural selection:

In 1300 the homicide rate was about 50 per 100,000 people, or 0.5 per thousand. Homicide must have caused on the order of 1 to 2 percent of all deaths and a much higher proportion of deaths of young adult males. [By the year 2000] the distribution is shifted so that the homicide threshold is surpassed by only 1 in 100,000 people rather than 1 in 2,000.

[…] What strength of natural selection would have been required to cause this amount of genetic change? […] Assuming an additive heritability of 0.5 (the true value is probably 0.8 or so from literature on the heritability of aggressive behavior in children) the selective differential must be about 1/14 or .07 standard deviations per generation. […] This would occur if the most homicidal 1.5% of the population were to fail to reproduce each generation (Harpending, 2012)

That figure of 1.5% sounds awfully high. Yet it’s close to historical reality. In 16th century England and Flanders:

Executions were carried out at the rate of one per ten thousand inhabitants per year, i.e., ten times more than under Louis XV. Women were, except during acute epidemics of witch-hunting, less executed than men. Life expectancy was shorter than today: probably around 40 years. Calculation shows that one man out of a hundred at most, or one man out of two hundred at least, ended his life following a judge’s decision! (Taccoen, 1982, p. 52; see also Savey-Casart, 1968).  

This is a figure between 0.5% and 1.0% of the population, which is still less than Henry Harpending’s calculation of 1.5%. But that first figure excludes extra-judicial executions, i.e., men who were killed before they could be brought to justice, typically at the time of the crime. Nor does it include the significant number of accused who died in jail while awaiting trial. When the records of one medieval English jail were examined, it was found that 25% of the inmates died before they could be tried. By comparison, only 25% of them were eventually convicted of their alleged crimes (Ireland, 1987).

Finally, violent predispositions were also being weeded out by a third factor: class differences in reproductive success, i.e., Clark’s model. A pacified society tends to marginalize violent men and confine them to the lower classes, which reproduce at a lower rate than do the middle and upper classes of premodern societies with unrestricted fertility (Clark, 2007, see also Frost, 2010). 

In the comments on Henry’s post, it was pointed out that murder cases were rarely solved during the Middle Ages. Executions were largely for more common and less serious crimes like highway robbery and horse theft (although such offences would have been difficult to commit without a willingness to kill).

Yes, medieval justice was worse than modern justice at solving specific murder cases. In general, it was less effective at finding the specific criminal behind any one crime. But it was more effective, and ruthlessly so, at profiling likely criminals. This explains the seemingly irrational harshness of medieval punishment for petty crimes. The punishment was aimed not so much at the crime but at the underlying criminal mindset. If someone had crossed the psychological barrier of committing one crime, however petty it might be, he or she would probably commit—or may have already committed— other crimes of greater importance. Qui vole un oeuf vole un bœuf 

Final thoughts

My elementary school was one of the last to end corporal punishment. Once, I was strapped for talking in class without permission (the lunch hour bell had already sounded, but the teacher hadn’t formally dismissed us). The teacher was uncompromising: If I had broken one rule, I had probably broken others. If unpunished, I might go on to do something worse.

This old mentality may partly explain the historical decline of violence. Our ancestors were selected for their ability to learn “what to do and what not to do.” And this is how many think today. Once a given rule has the backing of perceived moral authority, we eagerly fall into line, despite any inner doubts we might have. That has been one of the strengths of our civilization. It may also be our undoing.  


Baker, L.A., K.C. Jacobson, A. Raine, D.I. Lozano, S. Bezdjian (2007). Genetic and environmental bases of childhood antisocial behavior: a multi-informant twin study, J Abnorm Psychol., 116, 219-235.  

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Eisner, M. (2001). Modernization, self-control and lethal violence. The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective, Br J Criminol., 41, 618-638. doi: 10.1093/bjc/41.4.618

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.
Harpending, H. (2012). Genetics and the historical decline of violence, November 25, West Hunter.

hbd* chick (2012). What Pinker missed, hbd* chick, November 23,

Ireland, R.W. (1987). Theory and practice within the medieval English prison, The American Journal of Legal History, 31, 56-67.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking. 

Rhee, S.H. & I.D. Waldman. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies, Psychol Bull., 128, 490-529. 

Savey-Casart, P. (1968). La peine de mort, Geneva: Librairie Droz.

Taccoen, L. (1982). L’Occident est nu, Paris: Flammarion. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Origins of English individualism

Did the end of the Middle Ages bring a rapid shift to individualism in English society? Or was something already going on beforehand?

For most of human history and prehistory, our lives were based on kinship—economically, socially and even spiritually. Kinship determined who provided whom with the basics of life: food, shelter, and clothing. And kinship decided whom we trusted and whom we didn’t, who was “us” and who was “them.”

That worldview lingers on in our language. We still talk about “family,” “brotherhood” and “nation” but these words have lost their original meanings. A nation, for instance, is no longer an ethnic community with a shared historical and cultural heritage. It’s now an administrative unit. The word itself has become more or less synonymous with “country.”

As for “family,” even that final holdout seems increasingly irrelevant.

One of my aunts died recently, and my brother phoned her sister to break the bad news. She appreciated the phone call but said it wasn’t necessary. She hadn’t seen her sister in decades! I first thought there had been a conflict between the two of them. But, no, they had merely lost touch with each other. Each had gone her own way.

Our modern kin-free society would have been unthinkable to our ancestors and still is to most people on this planet. Ours is a society where you should treat strangers as you would your own kith and kin. To act otherwise is to break the rules. 

How did this revolution come about? A long line of historians, going back to Marx and Weber, have argued that it all began in late medieval England. As summarized by Macfarlane (1978a), this view holds that England had previously been a kinship-based peasant society:

The basic element of society is not the individual, but the family, which acts as a unit of ownership, production and consumption. Parents and children are also co-owners and co-workers. The separation between the household and the economy which Weber thought to be a pre-requisite for the growth of capitalism has not occurred. For our purposes, the central feature is that ownership is not individualized. It was not the single individual who exclusively owned the productive resources, but rather the household.

[…] In this situation, farm labor is family labor. Hired labor is almost totally absent. Production is mainly for use, rather than for exchange in the market. Cash is only occasionally used within the local community. Land is not viewed as a commodity which can be easily bought and sold. There is a strong emotional identification with a particular geographical area.

Then, very quickly, kinship became much less central to English life:

[…] this totally different social and economic system was destroyed, above all in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by a number of factors. Some lay stress on the expropriation of the peasantry, who then became a landless laboring force, others suggest that the growth of world trade and markets, encouraging the use of cash, severed the old face-to-face relationships. Others again stress the rise of a new acquisitive ethic which paralleled the rise of protestantism.

Whatever the cause, the basics of life were no longer being produced, exchanged, and consumed primarily among close kin. Markets had largely taken over this task. And they were no longer just marketplaces—discrete points of activity localized in space and time. These scattered points were growing and coalescing to form a true market economy. A web of production, exchange, and consumption was developing between people who were neither kith nor kin and, often, strangers to each other.

This view is challenged, however, by Alan Macfarlane in his book The Origins of English Individualism. He agrees that the end of the Middle Ages brought momentous changes to England—the expansion of the market economy, the rise of parliamentary government, the beginnings of the scientific revolution, the advent of Protestantism, and the establishment of a colonial empire—but these were consequences, and not causes, of a mindset that had been developing for some time. As early as the 13th century, individualism was already trumping kinship in England:

Recent work on thirteenth century manorial documents has uncovered a very extensive land market from at least the middle of the thirteenth century. There is rapidly accumulating evidence of the buying and selling of pieces of land by non-kin; the idea that land passed down in the family is now increasingly regarded as a fiction. Whether in Suffolk, Huntingdonshire, the Eastern Midlands, Berkshire or elsewhere, the evidence suggests that the supposedly free and the unfree were buying and selling land.

[…] It appears probable that in many areas of England in the period before the Black Death up to half of the adult population were primarily hired laborers. It was not parents and children who formed the basic unit of production, but parents with or without hired labor. This was only made possible by the widespread use of money. The work of Kosminsky and Postan has shown that commutation of labor services for cash was widespread by the middle of the twelfth century. Cash penetrated almost every relationship; selling, mortgaging and lending are apparent in many of the documents. Most objects, from labor to rights in all kinds of property, were marketable and had a price. Production was often for exchange rather than for use. (Macfarlane, 1978a)

Today, the consensus seems to be that Macfarlane is half-right. In the Middle Ages, England had already gone further toward social atomization than the rest of Europe. But loyalty to family—in the sense of lineage—still reigned supreme well into the post-medieval period. A study of an Essex manor between 1550 and 1750 found that most land holdings were still being passed down within the family:

In any one decade, around 63 per cent of the area of the copyhold land of the manor passed through the court. Of this about two-thirds was land conveyed within the family and a third by extra-familial transaction. As we found at Slaidburn, extra-familial transactions were, on average, of smaller units of land. Whilst 57 per cent of transactions over the 200 years were familial, they conveyed 67 per cent of the land. (French & Hoyle, 2003)

English individualism seems to have developed gradually over a lengthy time span that began long before the end of the Middle Ages and continued long after. In particular, it was not a product of major events like the Black Death or the break with Roman Catholicism. It was instead driven by rather subtle behavioral and attitudinal changes that have eluded standard historical analysis.

In this, Alan Macfarlane is on the same page as Gregory Clark (2007; 2009a; 2009b), who argues that historical change in England was fueled by incremental changes in behavior and attitude from one generation to the next, which in turn reflected an incremental process of demographic, cultural, and even genetic change.

This process began with the imposition of Norman rule in the 11th century. England became a unified, pacified country and would remain so for the next millennium to a greater extent than elsewhere. This pacification extended to the local level, with the State now enforcing court rulings (previously the job of the aggrieved party and his kin). The violent young male went from hero to zero, his place now taken by the law-abiding man who bettered himself not through plunder but through work and trade. This was particularly so within the nascent middle class, whose descendants steadily grew in number and replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. Their class values—thrift, foresight, self-control, and sobriety—eventually became national values.

Meanwhile, the State and the market economy were increasingly taking the place of close kin. People looked to the State for protection, and the State could provide it much more effectively and over a larger land area than blood relations ever could have. This freer environment also enabled the market economy to expand out of the marketplace and into every nook and cranny of society. People were no longer confined to dealing with close kin or long-time friends. They could trust total strangers. Blood relations thus became of minor importance, even obsolete.

Macfarlane is less willing than Clark to dwell on initial causes: “Where this [behavioral] structure came from and hence its causes are problems for further investigation.” But he does spell out some consequences of not seeing English history clearly:

[…] to draw parallels between England and currently developing Third World peasantries without realizing the enormous differences which flow not merely from a disparity in wealth, but in the social, political and psychological sphere, is a recipe for disaster. If most contemporary countries are trying to move from "peasantry" to "urban-industrial" within a generation, whereas England moved from non-industrial but largely "capitalist" to "urban-industrial" over a period of at least six hundred years, it will be obvious that the trauma and difficulties will not only be very different but probably far more intense. Furthermore, if such countries absorb any form of western industrial technology, they are not merely incorporating a physical or economic product, but a vast set of individualistic attitudes and rights, family structure, patterns of geographical and social mobility which are very old, very durable, and highly idiosyncratic. They therefore need to consider whether the costs in terms of the loneliness, insecurity and family tensions which are associated with the English structure outweigh the economic benefits. (Macfarlane, 1978a)


Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England.
Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of Man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos 2(1): 64-80. 

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