Saturday, February 23, 2013

Regulation of emotions and gene-culture co-evolution

Facial expressions in Manga (Japanese) comics. East Asian culture strongly regulates the expression of emotions, particularly in their impact on other people. (source)

Humans have had to adapt not only to physical environments (climate, vegetation, wildlife) but also to cultural environments (diet, language, codes of behavior, class and family structure, etc.). A culture will thus select for those mental predispositions and personality types that are most compatible with it.

This point is made by a recent paper on emotion regulation in East Asian and Western cultures:

Culture influences the development of psychological tendencies by presenting specific norms, practices, and institutions for how to act properly and be a good person […] culture is not only constrained by genetics but also influences the behavioral expression of genes and can thus moderate the psychological and behavioral expressions of genotypes. We propose that genes may affect phenotypic expression in the form of underlying psychological tendencies, but how and whether these tendencies are manifested in actual behavioral patterns may be shaped by sociocultural factors. (Kim et al, 2011)

The authors studied a gene that influences the way we regulate emotions. This is the oxytocin receptor gene OXTR rs53576, which has two alleles ‘A’ and ‘G’. The GG genotype is associated with more sensitive parenting, greater sensitivity to infant crying, greater empathy, less loneliness, and a more prosocial temperament. These tendencies are less characteristic of the AA genotype, and the AG genotype produces outcomes that fall between the two.

The ‘A’ allele is more common among Koreans than among white Americans, perhaps because its negative effects are buffered by a culture that fosters empathy, specifically a keen interest in the possible adverse effects of one’s behavior on others:

[…] in more collectivistic cultures, the expression of emotions is practiced with concern for negatively affecting social relations, whereas in more individualistic cultures, the expression of thoughts and feelings is valued as a sign of an independent self (Kim et al., 2011)

A more individualistic culture, like the one that prevails in the U.S., would thus have a weaker capacity to offset the negative effects of the AA genotype.

Interestingly, culture also influences expression of the GG genotype, but in a different way. Because people with this genotype tend to be more attuned to rules of correct behavior, they’re more likely, in an American context, to express their emotions than are people with the AA genotype, apparently because white American culture today values the expression of emotions. Koreans, however, show the opposite pattern:

Emotional suppression was most clearly observable among Koreans with the OXTR GG genotype, those characterized as more socioemotionally sensitive, compared to those with AA genotype. Among Americans, the pattern was reversed, such that those with the GG genotype engaged in less emotional suppression, compared to those with the AA genotype. (Kim et al., 2011)

This is actually the reverse of the Baldwin effect. If white American culture exercises less control over emotions, particularly in their possible adverse effects on others, there should correspondingly be weaker genetic control. The same selection pressure should have produced similar cultural and genetic outcomes. Yet, paradoxically, the actual outcomes are almost poles apart. Although white Americans are less softwired for empathy and control of emotions, they seem to be more hardwired in this respect.

Of course, if we were to go back a hundred years, we would see that white Americans differed less, in this same respect, from East Asians. When I look at old family photos, I notice that the subjects never smiled for the camera. It was considered rude to smile at strangers, who might have taken such behavior the wrong way. Now smiling is normal, even mandatory. A century ago, white Americans controlled their emotions much more than they do now, especially with a view to minimizing their impact on other people.

There is another possible answer to the above paradox. Maybe weaker cultural control led to stronger genetic control, partly as a kind of compensatory action and partly because a less kin-based society requires more hardwiring of empathy. As Alan Macfarlane has argued in The Origins of English Individualism (and also hbd* chick), the English began to enter a freer and more individualistic cultural environment as far back as the 13th century (see earlier post). Because most social and economic relationships were no longer with close kin, it became necessary to extend the feelings of empathy one felt for immediate blood relations to a much larger circle of people. This psychological substrate would later make possible the rise of a market economy, i.e., the replacement of kinship by the market as the main organizing principle of society. 


Kim, H.S., D.K. Sherman, T. Mojaverian, J.Y. Sasaki, J. Park, E.M. Suh, & S.E. Taylor. (2011). Gene–Culture Interaction: Oxytocin Receptor Polymorphism (OXTR) and Emotion Regulation, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 665-672

Macfarlane, A. (1978a). The origins of English individualism: Some surprises, Theory and society: renewal and critique in social theory, 6, 255-277.

Macfarlane, A. (1978b). The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Visual Word Form Area - part II

Dr. Kimberly G. Noble has studied the Visual Word Form Area of children in New York City schools (source). The VWFA seems more hardwired in higher SES children.

The Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) is a brain region that specifically recognizes written words. It seems to be composed of neurons that were originally used to recognize human faces. Though not essential for reading, it greatly speeds up this mental task (Gaillard et al, 2006; see earlier post).

Is the VWFA a product of gene-culture co-evolution? Did natural selection favor the reproductive success of individuals who were better able to recognize words? Or does this brain area develop independently in each individual through experience with reading?

The second explanation is the one now favored. Dehaene and Cohen (2011) argue that the VWFA is where the brain can most easily recruit neurons for the task of recognizing words. One problem with this developmental explanation is that the VWFA responds preferentially to images of letter strings even in kindergarten children who haven’t learned to read yet (Brem et al., 2010).

We could answer this question one way or the other by comparing populations that have a long history of reading with those that were illiterate until relatively recent times. Does the second type of population exhibit a less developed and less specialized VWFA even in individuals who learned to read at an early age?

Only two VWFA studies have dealt with the second type of population. In these two cases, some of the subjects were of sub-Saharan African descent. We should nonetheless remember that some sub-Saharan African societies, notably those of the Sahel, have a history of reading and writing that goes back over seven hundred years.

In the first of the two studies, Noble et al. (2006) examined brain responses to reading tasks that were performed by native English-speakers in New York City elementary schools. The students differed by socioeconomic status (SES) and by ethnicity. Eleven were African-American, five Latino, one Asian, fourteen White, and seven mixed or other. Brain activation varied as a function of SES. Among lower SES children, VWFA activation was much stronger in those who were “phonologically aware”, i.e., who explicitly knew how to represent and manipulate the sounds of language. But this pattern was absent in higher SES children:

In contrast, as the SES of the population increases, children demonstrating a similar range of phonological skill show an attenuated brain–behavior relationship in this region. This suggests that, among children who are likely to have adequate access to literacy resources, the relationship between reading precursor skills and left fusiform activity to reading may, to an extent, be reduced, marking an atypical relationship between cognitive skill and brain activity. A marginally significant PA × SES interaction was also observed in the left superior temporal region, demonstrating a similar trend. (Noble et al., 2006)

The authors attributed this non-correlation to “adequate access to literacy resources.” An alternate explanation would be that VWFA activation was more hardwired in the higher SES children. Strangely enough, the authors did not break down their data by race, so it is impossible to say whether SES was simply a proxy for ethnic background.

The second study was by Dehaene et al. (2010) on literate, illiterate, and ex-illiterate adults from Brazil and Portugal. No information is given on ethnicity, although many of the illiterate or ex-illiterate Brazilians were probably of African or part-African ancestry. The authors found that VWFA activation was much less apparent in adult illiterates than in adult literates, even when the data were controlled for SES and schooling.

Again, there is no breakdown of the data by ethnicity, although one might assume that SES and schooling were proxies for ethnicity. This is a flawed assumption, however, at least in Brazil:

Still, the patterns of racial in Brazilian education have remained and have transcended social class barriers. Nelson do Valle Silva and Carlos Hasenbalg have demonstrated that patterns of educated attainment remain unequal even when social class is eliminated as a factor: whites of the same social class have higher literacy rates and remain more likely to attend school, to stay in school longer, to be advanced through school more rapidly, and to secure better-paying jobs given the same educational qualifications. Silva and Hasenbalg conclude that “white children’s rates of school advancement are significantly more rapid than those of pardo [mixed] and preto [black] children. These differences result in profound educational inequalities that separate whites and nonwhites in Brazilian society.” (Davila, 2003, p. 8)


On the basis of these two studies, it is impossible to say whether the VWFA is hardwired or softwired. This brain area may result solely from developmental processes within the lifetime of each individual. Or it may be due to longer-term evolutionary processes.

A common problem is that both studies use SES to the exclusion of ethnicity. Yes, ethnic differences may simply reflect SES differences, but that arrow of causality should be proven and not assumed. In any case, SES varies imperfectly with ethnicity. With respect to the Dehaene etal. (2010) study, black Brazilians tend to be more illiterate than white Brazilians even among people of similar SES. With respect to the Noble et al. (2006) study, differences in phonological skill might likewise reflect ethnic differences, even if we consider only the lower SES children.

Why did both research teams ignore ethnicity? One reason, at least in the case of Dehaene’s team, is a belief that mental traits take eons to evolve. This might be true if the trait is radically new and different, but here the transition from face recognition to letter recognition is relatively simple. This is the kind of evolution that could happen over a few centuries, if the selection pressure were strong enough.

The other reason is a belief that ethnicity is genetically irrelevant, since genes vary much more within than between human populations. This fact is well known and beyond dispute. What is less well known is that the same pattern often appears when we examine the way genes vary within and between sibling species—even when such species are morphologically and behaviorally distinct. We should understand that we’re comparing apples with oranges when genetic variation within populations is compared with genetic variation between populations. Different populations typically occupy different environments with different selection pressures. Variation across a population boundary is thus more likely to involve genes that have real adaptive value. In contrast, variation within a population tends to involve genes of low adaptive value that are insensitive to the homogenizing action of similar selection pressures (Frost, 2011).


Brem, S., S. Bach, K. Kucian, T.K. Guttorm, E. Martin, H. Lyytinen, D. Brandeis, & U. Richardson. (2010). Brain sensitivity to print emerges when children learn letter-speech sound correspondences, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 107, 7939–7944.

Davila, J. (2003). Diploma of Whiteness. Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917-1945, Duke University Press.

Dehaene, S. & L. Cohen. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 254-262.

Dehaene, S., F. Pegado, L.W. Braga, P. Ventura, G.N. Filho, A. Jobert, G. Dehaene-Lambertz, R. Kolinsky, J. Morais, & L. Cohen. (2010). How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language, Science, 330, 1359-1364

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740–748.

Gaillard, R., Naccache, L., P. Pinel, S. Clémenceau, E. Volle, D. Hasboun, S. Dupont, M. Baulac, S. Dehaene, C. Adam, & L. Cohen. (2006). Direct intracranial, fMRI, and lesion evidence for the causal role of left inferotemporal cortex in reading, Neuron, 50, 191-204.

Hasenbalg, C.A., & N.V. Silva. (1990). Raça e oportunidades educacionais no Brasil, Cadernos de Pesquisa (Sao Paulo), 73, 5-12

Noble, K.G., M.E. Wolmetz, L.G. Ochs, M.J. Farah, & B.D. McCandliss. (2006). Brain–behavior relationships in reading acquisition are modulated by socioeconomic factors, Developmental Science, 9, 642–654.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why are girls and boys maturing earlier?

For girls, the age of puberty has been falling since the 19th century. The same period has seen a similar decline for boys (source)

In the United States and other Western countries, girls have been reaching puberty at earlier and earlier ages. A recent longitudinal study has examined this trend in white Americans born between 1928 and 1992. Its conclusion? Girls are reaching puberty earlier because of an interaction between a lifestyle factor and a pre-existing genetic predisposition:

Our data also show, for the first time, that the effect of menarche SNPs on prepubertal BMI was stronger in children born more recently compared to those born earlier in the century, thereby suggesting that the developmental genetic susceptibility to elevated BMI may have only been ''uncovered'' in the more obesogenic environments of the recent past. (Johnson et al., 2013)

For the study's authors, the lifestyle factor is that girls are eating more, exercising less, and accumulating more body fat. Because fatty tissue is a significant source of estrogen, an increasing percentage of body fat tends to hasten puberty in young girls (Frisch & Revelle, 1970; Frisch & McArthur, 1974; Kaplowitz et al., 2001; Siiteri & MacDonald, 1973). This effect is stronger in girls with a certain genetic background:

It is possible that over the examined time period, individuals with higher genetic burden for accelerated sexual development are for the first time ''allowed'' by liberalization of the environment to alter dietary intake and energy expenditure to support their genetic potential for rapid weight gain and earlier sexual development. (Johnson et al., 2013)

But why are boys too maturing earlier?

In boys, body fat is not linked to early puberty. In fact, there seems to be a negative correlation, perhaps because fatty tissue is a significant source of estrogen (Wang, 2002). Overweight boys often present signs of disrupted male sexual development, e.g., breast budding, higher voice pitch, etc.

Yet boys likewise are reaching puberty at an earlier age. This is the conclusion of a recent American study:

We observed that onset of secondary sexual characteristics in US boys as seen in office practice appears to occur earlier than in previous US studies and the 1969 British study commonly used for pubertal norms. […] White boys in our study entered stage 2 genital growth 1.5 years earlier than the British boys (10.14 vs 11.60 years of age).

[…] These data are consistent with recent trends from other countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain, Italy, and China. For example, urban Han Chinese boys achieve a testicular volume of ≥4 mL (13% by age 9) and spermarche earlier than studies conducted several decades ago; Danish boys achieve a testicular volume >3 mL more than 3 months earlier now than 15 years ago. (Herman-Giddens, 2012)

This trend has also been observed in the age when a boy's voice begins to change:

According to records kept by the Leipzig choir, the most common period of voice breaking for male singers in the mid-18th century was between 17.5 and 18.5 years of age (Daw, 1970); in contrast, children enrolled in the Copenhagen Municipal Choir School from 1994-2003 had a median age of voice breaking of 10.4 years (Juul, Magnusdottir, Scheike, Prytz, & Skakkebæk, 2007), which is consistent with the choir's subjective reports of difficulty retaining children as singers past the age of 12 or 13 years. (Mendle & Ferrero, 2012).

This is a challenge for Occam's Razor, and the task is no easier if we look at other possible causes. If the cause isn’t a higher proportion of body fat, could it be a higher level of estrogens and estrogen-like substances in the environment? (see earlier post). Yes, that might hasten puberty in girls and increase accumulation of body fat. But in boys it would delay puberty by offsetting the rising level of male hormones.

In trying to figure out the causal chain of events, we should keep in mind that the relationship between body fat and age of puberty runs in both directions. On the one hand, estrogen from body fat lowers the age of puberty in girls. On the other hand, earlier puberty increases ovarian production of estrogen, which in turn stimulates deposition of body fat, particularly on the hips, buttocks, and breasts (Van Lenthe et al., 1996). So perhaps some unknown factor is causing earlier sexual development in both sexes and thus greater deposition of body fat in girls.

A response to social cues?

This unknown factor might be something in the social environment. As Hawley (2011) argues, humans unconsciously monitor their social environment for reproductive opportunities and accordingly speed up or slow down their pace of sexual development:

[...] human children, especially girls, may be sensitive to their early socioecological conditions in ways that entrain development toward either a faster (earlier pubertal maturation, more sexual partners, less stable relationships) or slower (later pubertal maturation, fewer sexual partners, more stable relationships) life history strategy.

With the transition to post-traditional societies, there has been an increase in the erotic stimuli that preteens encounter in their surroundings:

Common in traditional societies are adult-supervised adolescent initiation ceremonies (Schlegel & Barry, 1980) that are designed to commemorate the transition from childhood to adulthood and inculcate the adolescent with adult values, duties, behaviors, and sex roles associated with the culture (Schlegel, 1973). That is, these adolescents are taught adult sex roles by adults. We now appear to have a complete turnaround. In modern, Western cultures, adolescents derive sexual relationship expectations from television, cable, music, purveyors of racy lingerie (who target teenage girls), and pornography that they can now access on the Internet and thereby carry around on their cell phones. (Hawley, 2011)

Erotic imagery in particular is today available to a degree that was impossible not so long ago. Young boys and girls have virtual access to an endless supply of picture-perfect sexual partners. Whatever the media—films, TV, magazines, the Internet—we're exposed to images that can stimulate sexual desire as efficiently as what normally exists in the real world. More so, in fact. These images are ‘supernormal’ stimuli.

To date, only one study has looked into possible relationships between erotic imagery and pubertal timing:

The aim of this study was to investigate associations between pubertal timing and boys' Internet use, particularly their viewing of pornography. We used a sample comprising of 97 boys in grade 8 (M age, 14.22 years) from two schools in a medium-sized Swedish town. This age should be optimal for differentiating early, on-time, and later-maturing boys. Boys responded to self-report questionnaires on their Internet use and pubertal timing. Early, on-time, and late-maturing boys did not differ in terms of most Internet activities. However, early maturers reported downloading and viewing pornography more often than the other boys did (p<.001). (Skoog et al.,2009)

Admittedly, the arrow of causality might point in the other direction, i.e., early maturing boys have a stronger sex drive and thus a greater interest in porn. This was, in fact, the authors' explanation. We should also remember the well established correlation between early puberty in girls and the absence of a father in the home. It was long thought that father absence triggers early puberty in girls. In fact, a twin study has shown a genetic cause: absent fathers tend to have genes that favor earlier sexual development in their progeny (Mendle et al., 2006).

One might also object that the decline in the age of puberty began long before the Internet. Before the Internet, however, there were porn magazines. And before them, there were pictures garnered from art books, fashion magazines, or the lingerie sections of mail-order catalogues. One could also bring erotic images to mind by reading certain novels. Thus, modern pornography is merely the latest stage of a lengthy co-evolution between, on the one hand, improvements in photography and other imaging technologies and, on the other hand, a weakening of taboos against masturbation. At the beginning of this co-evolution, in the 19th century, masturbation was much less developed among young boys and girls as a sexual lifestyle. Visual aids were scarce and of poor quality, religious injunctions were strong, and adult supervision inside and outside the home was omnipresent.


The age of puberty might be declining because boys and girls are being exposed to ever more and ever better erotic imagery, but this hypothesis needs confirmation by longitudinal studies to determine which is the cause and which is the effect. Another drawback with current research is its focus on the most extreme forms of pornography, such as child porn. Yet the usual stuff is the kind that most people consume ... and in unparalleled quantities. As the authors of a recent Dutch study remarked:

[...] we can only emphasize that Dutch youth are confronted with and expose themselves to an unprecedented amount of R-rated and Xrated material in the media. Research on its consequences for adolescents' sexual socialization is largely missing but, as this study has shown, is urgently needed. (Peter & Valkenberg, 2006)

And erotic imagery isn't confined to X-rated websites or magazines. It is in fact ubiquitous in modern social environments. Girls might accelerate their sexual development by leafing through fashion magazines just as boys might accelerate theirs by viewing porn.

The erotic imagery hypothesis will have to fit the data better than rival hypotheses. Two of these, the body fat and environmental estrogen hypotheses, can explain the decline in the age of puberty for girls but not for boys. Another possible cause is better nutrition. Yet, among white Americans at least, much of this decline has happened since the 1950s—when nutrient levels were already adequate for this population. Finally, there is the possibility that puberty is happening earlier because genes that favor that developmental trajectory are spreading within the population. Modern social environments favor a reproductive strategy of early puberty, low parental investment and, especially, low paternal investment—in short, the ‘cads’ are outbreeding the ‘dads’ (see earlier post).


Frisch, R.E., R. Revelle. (1970). Height and weight at menarche and a hypothesis of critical body weights and adolescent events, Science, 169, 397-399.

Frisch, R.E. & J.W. McArthur. (1974). Menstrual cycles: fatness as a determinant of minimum weight necessary for maintenance or onset, Science, 185, 949-951.

Hawley, P.H. (2011). The evolution of adolescence and the adolescence of evolution: The coming of age of humans and the theory about the forces that made them, Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 307-316.

Herman-Giddens, M.E., J. Steffes, D. Harris, E. Slora, M. Hussey, S.A. Dowshen, R. Wasserman, J.R. Serwint, L. Smitherman, & E.O. Reiter. (2012). Secondary sexual characteristics in boys: Data from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network, Pediatrics, 130, e1058-e1068.

Johnson, W., A.C. Choh, J.E. Curran, S.A. Czerwinski, C. Bellis, T.D. Dyer, J. Blangero, B. Towne, & E.W. Demerath. (2013). Genetic risk for earlier menarche also influences peripubertal body mass index, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150, 10-20

Kaplowitz, P.B., E.J. Slora, R.C. Wasserman, S.E. Pedlow & M.E. Herman-Giddens. (2001). Earlier onset of puberty in girls: relation to increased body mass index and race, Pediatrics, 108, 347-353.

Mendle, J. & J. Ferrero. (2012). Detrimental psychological outcomes associated with pubertal timing in adolescent boys, Developmental Review, 32, 49-66.

Mendle, J., E. Turkheimer, B.M. D'Onofrio, S.K. Lynch, R.E. Emery, W.S. Slutske, N.G. Martin. (2006). Family structure and age at menarche: a children-of-twins approach, Developmental Psycholpgy, 42, 533-542.

Peter, J. & P.M. Valkenberg. (2006). Adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit material on the Internet, Communication Research, 33, 178-204.

Siiteri, P.K. & P.C. MacDonald. (1973). Role of extraglandular estrogen in human endocrinology. In S.R. Geiger (ed.), Handbook of Physiology, Washington D.C. American Physiology Society, sect. 7, vol. 2, part 1, pp. 615-629.

Skoog, T., H. Stattin, & M. Kerr. (2009). The role of pubertal timing in what adolescent boys do online, Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19, 1-7.

Van Lenthe, F.J., C.G. Kemper & W. van Mechelen. (1996). Rapid maturation in adolescence results in greater obesity in adulthood: the Amsterdam Growth and Health Study, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64, 18-24.

Wang, Y. (2002).Is obesity associated with early sexual maturation? A comparison of the association in American boys versus girls, Pediatrics, 110, 903-910.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Seeing China plain

China's working-age population is now declining. As labor becomes scarcer, the business community will either take on the challenge of moving to a higher-wage, more capital-intensive economy ... or lobby hard for immigration. (source)

We like to compare ourselves with others, often seeing them as an alter ego who had gone to the right university, found the right job, or married the right person.

The same principle applies to countries. For a long time, many believed that if their country had done whatever the United States had done, they too would be powerful and prosperous. Today, this role of "Big Other" is increasingly being assigned to China.
An example is a recent article about "Chinese eugenics":
China has been running the world's largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China's ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end. (Miller, 2013)
The author, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, sees this eugenics program in the one-child policy, which serves “partly to curtail China’s population explosion, but also to reduce dysgenic fertility among rural peasants,” presumably because the best and the brightest migrate to the cities. Furthermore, to the extent that the best and the brightest are wealthier, they’re also better able to pay the fine for having a second child.
But Miller overlooks the weaker enforcement of this policy in rural areas. If the first-born in a farming family is a girl, they’re allowed to have another child. This might be why the fertility rate is higher in China’s rural areas, although it’s questionable whether the one-child policy has much effect at all. The fertility rate is actually higher in China (1.55) than in Taiwan (1.06) or Singapore (1.2), neither of which tries to limit family size.

Miller is on firmer ground when discussing the 1995 “Eugenic Law”:
With the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law (known as the Eugenic Law until Western opposition forced a name change), China forbade people carrying heritable mental or physical disorders from marrying, and promoted mass prenatal ultrasound testing for birth defects. (Miller, 2013)
As he notes further on, the word "eugenic" corresponds here to the Chinese term yousheng, literally "good birth." The idea here, however, is not to create a new superhuman, but rather to maintain the current quality of the gene pool. A better English translation would be "anti-dysgenic."

This idea is not specific to China. It was, in fact, widespread in the Western world until a little over thirty years ago, as seen in a widely used undergrad textbook from the 1970s:
Perhaps it is not unreasonable to assume that a person with a good record of achievement in certain areas of human endeavor has on the average a more desirable gene combination than a person whose achievements are less spectacular. In our present society, the superior person is punished by the government in numerous ways, by taxes and otherwise, which make it more difficult for him to raise a large family. Why, for instance, should tax exemption for children be a fixed sum rather than a percentage of earned income? Why should tuition in school be based, in large part, on the ability of the father to pay rather than inversely on the achievement of the student? Innumerable administrative rules and laws of the government discriminate inadvertently against the most gifted members of the community. (Mayr, 1970, pp. 408-409)
An analogy can be made here with the current view that East Asian societies are "ultranationalistic"—a view seldom expressed a half-century ago when national sentiment was thought to be normal and even healthy. Since then, they haven't diverged from us. We've diverged from them. Remember, we observe other human societies from a moving frame of reference, and this perspective creates the illusion that some societies are becoming more extreme, more religious, or more xenophobic.
In reality, China has no eugenics program. It has a population program that may have anti-dysgenic effects. Moreover, a truly anti-dysgenic program would apply to everyone, yet the one-child policy is applied only in part to peasants and not at all to non-Han Chinese.
The best and the brightest?

And then there's immigration. In official discourse, China carefully screens its newcomers, letting in only the best and the brightest (Pieke, 2012). In reality, most immigrants enter the country illegally or on visitor visas to fill low-paying jobs:
In the short to medium term, the rise of China as a major immigration country is mostly predicated on the continued growth of its economy and its gradual transition to an urban, service-based economy. The role, and especially the timing, of demographic factors is less clear. In 2003, for the first time China began to experience shortages of internal migrant labor. There are only few people left in rural China younger than 30 years-the cohort most predisposed to out-migration-who still work in agriculture. (Pieke, 2012, p. 41)
The looming scarcity of labor could lead to higher wages and greater reliance on automation and robotization. Or it could lead to a growing influx of cheaply paid immigrant labor. To date, China seems to be moving down the second path:
In contrast to the influx of skilled foreigners stands the recent arrival of a large number of Southeast Asian workers, mainly Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian, who have been "smuggled" into the Pearl River Delta to take low pay work and this is believed helpful to alleviate the pressure of shortage of labour force in the region. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 8)
As usual, the term "labor shortage" needs qualifying. There is only a shortage of people who will work for less than the going market rate:
"They are hard workers and obedient employees," Zeng Xiangbiao, a shoe factory owner in Dongguan, told a Chinese reporter in a familiar refrain on immigrant labor. He has more than 200 workers from Cambodia and Laos, a quarter of his workforce. "They could work 15 to 16 hours a day and work for a month without any break. Few of the domestic workers, especially those born in the 1980s and after, could take this." (Epstein, 2010)
There has also been an influx of sub-Saharan Africans, who number an estimated 200,000 in Guangzhou alone, in addition to a growing presence in Hong Kong, Macao, Yiwu, Shanghai, and Beijing (Bodomo, 2012; Li etal., 2007). Most come to China as immigrants, and not as transients:
A distinctive feature of Africans in China, which differentiates them from other foreign nationals, is their expressed intention to settle in China for a long period [...] Most Africans are actually seeking a life in China if the local situation permits them to remain. Moreover, a significant part of African immigrants are relatively poor when they arrive at China. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 4)
The African influx will probably continue to "happen" through irregular means. Eventually, it will be regularized as a fait accompli. Indeed, some are already arguing that such immigration must be legally recognized in order to manage it better:
The failure to manage the African immigration wave is indicated by the absence of a concerted system of national laws and regulations on the legal protection of foreigners' basic rights and interests, and also by the non-recognition of minimal social rights to immigrants in China. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 19)

For Geoffrey Miller, China acts with a view to the longer term, especially when deciding the future of its population, i.e., the basis of its society and economy. In contrast, the West acts "stupidly and shortsightedly."

The real picture is less flattering to the Chinese and is, in fact, depressingly familiar. As in the West, population policy is dominated by short and medium term needs, even though today's decisions have long-term consequences that will be hard to reverse.

Like its Western counterparts, the Chinese business community feels entitled to cheap labor and will lobby hard to preserve this "right" as the pool of homegrown labor shrinks. Although the average Chinese worker would gain from higher wages and a more capital-intensive economy, such a change would be costly for existing businesses, many of which would lose market share or go bankrupt. A tempting solution will be to keep wages low by letting in people who will work at those wages.

And keeping such people out will be diplomatically difficult. Their home countries are usually the same ones that increasingly supply China with food and valuable raw materials. Fear of economic reprisals will force policy-makers to treat this issue with kid gloves.

Unlike its Western counterparts, however, the Chinese business community is less effective at lobbying the upper echelons of the Chinese state. These two worlds are distinct with little overlap. State officials move up through the ranks of the Communist Party, and there is none of the to and fro of businessmen running for public office and later retiring to the private sector as consultants. Businessmen do try to get their way through bribery, but such behavior is punished more harshly than it is in the West, as seen in the government's reaction to the infant formula scandal of 2008:
[...] they quickly launched a national police investigation which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried and executed for their role, measures that gradually assuaged popular anger. Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances.  (Unz, 2012)

It is thus easier in China to make population policy with a view to long-term national goals. But will this actually be the case? Only time will tell ...

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Unz, R. (2012). Chinese Melamine and American Vioxx: A Comparison, The American Conservative, April 17
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