Saturday, April 27, 2013

Where do those tensions come from?

Home sweet home in the Scottish borderlands. This was one of the last regions of Britain to be pacified and brought under State control. People lived in fortified homes where the second floor could be reached only by an external ladder that could be pulled up. The stone walls were up to 3 feet thick. (source – photo owned by Les Hull)

I first went to elementary school in a largely English Canadian neighborhood of Scarborough. Schoolyard fights were only occasional, and there was almost always a good reason. My family then moved to a largely Scotch-Irish town in central Ontario. There, the schoolyard fights were a daily occurrence, and they seemed to happen for no reason at all. I eventually found out the reason … something to do with “respect” or rather the lack of it.

We like to think that people everywhere respond to situations more or less as we do. If the response is anger—red boiling anger that can kill—we assume there must be a very good reason. Otherwise, the person wouldn’t be so angry.

Hence the puzzlement over the Boston bombers. What drove them to such an act? Had they been treated badly? This was the conclusion reached by Justin Trudeau, the recently elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada:

But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from? (The National, 2013)

Actually, the Tsarnaev brothers were hardly excluded from American society. Tamerlan married the daughter of a well-off American family and lived in their spacious home. Sure, if you look hard enough, you may find evidence of exclusion. There must have been slights and indifference, perhaps jokes about his first name, but such things don’t cause normal people to kill.

“Normal” is a relative term. In other societies, people do kill for apparently trifling reasons. In Les damnés de la Terre, Frantz Fanon discusses male violence in Algeria, particularly the lack of restraint and the apparently trivial motives:

Autopsies undeniably establish this fact: the killer gives the impression he wanted to kill an incalculable number of times given the equal deadliness of the wounds inflicted.

[…] Very often the magistrates and police officers are stunned by the motives for the murder: a gesture, an allusion, an ambiguous remark, a quarrel over the ownership of an olive tree or an animal that has strayed a few feet. The search for the cause, which is expected to justify and pin down the murder, in some cases a double or triple murder, turns up a hopelessly trivial motive. Hence the frequent impression that the community is hiding the real motives. (Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

This behavioral pattern begins early in life. Parents seek not to suppress it but to channel it in the right direction, i.e., defense of the family:

In Algerian society for example, children are raised according to their sex. A boy usually receives an authoritarian and severe type of upbringing that will prepare him to become aware of the responsibilities that await him in adulthood, notably responsibility for his family and for the elderly. This is why a mother will allow her son to fight in the street and will scarcely be alarmed if the boy has a fall or if she sees a bruise. The boy of an Algerian family is accustomed from an early age to being hit hard without whimpering too much. People orient him more toward combat sports and group games in order to arm him with courage and endurance—virtues deemed to be manly. (Assous, 2005)

This pattern of behavioral development doesn’t differ completely from my own. The difference is largely one of degree. But there’s also a difference in kind: the violent male as an independent actor who fights for himself and his immediate family. For “normal” boys in Western society, male violence is legitimate only when done under orders for much larger entities: the home team, the police, the country, NATO … Everywhere else, it is evil, criminal, and pathological.

This schizophrenic attitude to violence was the subject of the Milgram experiment. You’ve probably heard of it. Assistants are told to administer ever stronger electric shocks if a subject fails on a learning task. About 65% of the assistants—the real subjects of the experiment—will increase the shock intensity up to the top end of the scale, even when the pseudo-subject pleads for cessation. Yet the same assistants act very differently if the decision is theirs. Only 1.4% of them will, on their own initiative, increase the shock intensity up to the top end of the scale (Milgram, 1974)

You may not have heard, however, that this finding holds true only for societies like our own. When the Milgram experiment was done with Jordanian assistants, they were just as willing as Americans to inflict pain under orders (62.5%). But they were more willing than Americans to inflict pain when no orders were given, with 12.5% of them delivering shocks right up to the top end of the scale (Shanab & Yahya, 1978).

How would Chechens have responded in the same situation? Or Algerians? Or Scotch-Irish? Male violence has long been viewed differently in different societies. In our own, it is stigmatized, except when done “under orders” by soldiers or the police. Some societies, however, had no police or army until recent times. Every adult male was expected to use violence to defend himself and his family. Yes, you could go to a law court to settle your differences with someone. But even if the court ruled in your favor, the sentence still had to be enforced by you, your brothers, and other male family members. That’s the way things were done. For millennia and millennia.

Gene-culture co-evolution

Humans differ from other animals in that we create a large part of our environment. We adapt not only to a physical environment of climate, landscape, vegetation, and wildlife but also to a cultural environment of our making: codified laws, behavioral norms, religious beliefs, social and political systems, and so on. We shape our environment, and this environment shapes us. To be more precise, it selects the kind of individuals who can live in it.

Initially, all adult males everywhere had to defend themselves and their families, not by paying taxes but by getting their hands bloody. This situation changed with the rise of the State. In other words, some powerful men became so powerful that they could impose a monopoly on the use of violence. Only they or their underlings could use it. Male violence had been “nationalized” and could be used only if ordered by the State or in narrowly defined situations of self-defense.

In this new pacified environment, the violent male went from hero to zero. He became a criminal and was treated accordingly. Society now favored the peace-loving man who got ahead through work or trade. This process has been described for England and other parts of Western Europe by several academics, like Gregory Clark. With the establishment of strong States toward the end of the Dark Ages, and a subsequent pacification of social relations, the incidence of violence declined steadily. Violent predispositions were steadily removed from the population, either through the actual execution of violent individuals or through their marginalization and lower reproductive success. The meek thus inherited the earth (see previous post).

Or rather a portion of it. In some parts of the earth, particularly remote mountainous areas, State control came very late. These are societies in the earliest stages of pacification. Male violence is a daily reality, which the State can only contain at best. Such is life in Chechnya … and elsewhere.

Genetics of male violence  

But is such gene-culture co-evolution possible? How susceptible is male violence to the forces of natural selection? Are some men more predisposed to violence than others? Is this a heritable trait, or something that men pick up from their peers?

A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies estimated a heritability of 40% for aggressive behavior (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. By comparison, many of us accept that homosexuality is inborn even though the heritability of that behavior is much lower: perhaps 34-39% for gays and 18-19% for lesbians (Wikipedia, 2013).

The actual neural basis remains to be sketched out. Perhaps a greater predisposition to violence simply reflects stronger impulsivity and weaker internal constraints on behavior (Niv et al., 2012). Or perhaps there is a lower threshold specifically for expression of violence. Or perhaps ideation of violence comes easier. Or perhaps the consequences of a violent act trigger feelings of pleasure. Frantz Fanon noted that the violent male seems to feel pleasure at the sight of blood. He needs to sense its warmth and even bathe in it. There is in fact an extensive medical literature about “abnormal” individuals who feel pleasure at the sight of blood and even wish to feel and taste it, whereas “normal” individuals feel disgust and often faint (Vanden Berghe & Kelly, 1964). Again, words like “normal” and “abnormal” are relative …

All of this may seem incomprehensible to nice folks like Justin Trudeau. Surely, no one in his right mind would enjoy violence. There must be another reason for such horrors. A good reason. A reason that would make sense to nice folks. Because, deep down, we’re all nice folks, aren’t we?


Assous, A. (2005). L’impact de l’éducation parentale sur le développement de l’enfant, Hawwa, 3(3), 354-369.

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

Fanon, F. (2004). The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority, New York: Harper & Row.

Niv, S., C. Tuvblad, A. Raine, P. Wang, and L.A. Baker. (2012). Heritability and longitudinal stability of impulsivity in adolescence, Behavior Genetics, 42, 378-392.  

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

Shanab, M.E. and Yahya, K.A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience, Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 11, 267-269.

The National. (2013). Trudeau on Boston bombings, April 17

Vanden Bergh, R.L., and J.F. Kelly. (1964). Vampirism. A review with new observations, Archives of General Psychiatry, 11, 543-547.

Wikipedia (2013). Biology and Sexual Orientation,



Saturday, April 20, 2013

The gay germ hypothesis

Incidence of chlamydia, a major cause of infertility. The high polygyny rate among the “female farming” peoples of sub-Saharan Africa may have favored the evolution of STDs. Is this where we should look for the precursor of the hypothetical “gay germ”? (source)


Heritability for male homosexuality is low to moderate (30 to 45%). There is thus some kind of genetic predisposition, but it’s weak and may simply be a low degree of pre-natal androgenization. All things being equal, such individuals would still develop a heterosexual orientation.

But all things aren’t equal. Something out there is tipping these individuals over the threshold that separates heterosexual from homosexual orientation. What is it? I suspect there are several causes, including the rising level of estrogens and estrogen-like substances in the environment over the past century (see previous post).

The cause may also be a pathogen that alters its host’s sexual orientation in order to enhance its chances of spreading to other hosts. This is the “gay germ” theory proposed by Greg Cochran (Cochran et al., 2000). It’s interesting, and there are certainly precedents for this kind of psychological manipulation … from zombie ants to rats losing their fear of cats.

But so far there’s no smoking gun. No candidate pathogens have been identified, although some STDs seem to have adapted to non-heterosexual modes of transmission, e.g., the bacterium responsible for bacterial vaginosis, particularly Gardnerella vaginalis, and some strains of vaginal yeast (see previous post).

Another objection is that natural selection should reduce host susceptibility. As Ron Unz (2013) has recently argued:

Cochran and others ridicule the gene model as absurd, arguing that strong selective pressure would have rapidly eliminated any such genes from the population, and this is not unreasonable. But similar criticism could applied to their own model, since genetic susceptibility to the germ would obviously be subject to equally powerful selective disadvantage.

A lot of pathogens seem undeterred by this argument. People die all the time from infections of one sort or another. One reason is that pathogens have shorter generation times and thus can evolve faster than their hosts can. An evolutionary equilibrium will eventually fall into place, but it will be heavily weighted in the pathogen’s favor. There are also limits to what a host can do. If the host’s defense system becomes too sensitive, it will attack not only possible pathogens but also host tissues.

Still, the most catastrophic epidemics tend to burn themselves out, largely because they destroy the pool of individuals they can most easily spread amongst. The Plague of Justinian of the 6th and 7th centuries may have wiped out half of Europe’s population. Then it disappeared. The Black Death of the 14th century killed between one and two thirds of all Europeans. It too disappeared, the last possible outbreaks being in the 18th century. This is not the case, however, with STDs, even in places where the consequences are dramatic, such as Africa’s “infertility belt”:

Africa shares the largest burden of infertility in the world. Estimates indicate that an average of 10.1% of couples experience infertility in Africa, with a high percentage of 32% in some countries and ethnic groups within Africa. An infertility belt” spreading through West Africa, through Central Africa to East Africa has been described. In some countries in this belt, up to one-third of women may be childless at the end of their reproductive lives. (Okonofu & Obi, 2009)

A pathogen would not sterilize one third of the population, generation after generation, unless it had something to gain, as Ron Unz notes. In sub-Saharan Africa, infertility can lead to abandonment of the wife, thus making her a better vehicle for pathogen transmission:

The high prevalence of untreated STD, resulting in increased infertility acts paradoxically to increase rather than decrease the fertility in Africa. Infertility is devastating for an African woman, resulting in divorce and diminished social status that often leads to prostitution. The fear of infertility results in refusal of contraception and early childbearing to demonstrate fertility. (O’Reilly, 1986)

Other separated women owe their status to infertility, which is a frequent reason for being driven from marriage and for being unable to marry […] Nadel […] identified such women as a major source of prostitutes: “Adultery and unchastity count less in her than other women. [The] paramount stigma [is] barrenness itself.” (Caldwell et al.,1989)

The existence of Africa’s infertility belt is generally attributed to a high prevalence of STDs, particularly gonorrhea and chlamydia (Collet et al., 1988), which in turn is related to a high polygyny rate (20 to 40% of all sexual unions throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa), which in turn is related to the low cost of maintaining a second or third wife, which in turn is related to year-round hoe farming and the ability of women to support themselves and their children with little male assistance.

We know that the AIDS virus evolved in sub-Saharan Africa, and it may be that syphilis evolved out of yaws, likewise endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. It may be that this region favors the evolution of STDs; if so, we might best look for the precursor of the “gay germ” there as well, assuming of course that it does exist.


Caldwell, J.C., P. Caldwell, and P. Quiggin. (1989). The social context of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Population and Development Review, 15, 185-234.

Collet, M., J. Reniers, E. Frost, R. Gass, F. Yvert, A. Leclerc, C. Roth-Meyer, B. Ivanoff, and A. Meheus. (1988). Infertility in Central Africa: Infection is the cause, International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 26, 423–428

Cochran, G.M., Ewald, P.W., and Cochran, K.D. (2000). Infectious causation of disease: an evolutionary perspective, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 43, 406-448.

Okonofu, F.E. and H. Obi. (2009). Specialized Versus Conventional Treatment of infertility in Africa: Time for a Pragmatic Approach, African Journal of Reproductive Health, 13, 9-11.

O’Reilly, K.R. (1986). Sexual behaviour, perceptions of infertility and family planning in sub-Saharan Africa, African Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 2, 47-49.

Unz, R. (2013). “Gay gene” vs. “gay germ”, April 16, The American Conservative,


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pathogen-stress theory

A Paris suburb, on the eve of the French Revolution. The shift to democracy and individualism began under conditions of high pathogen prevalence and long before modern sanitation (source)

Is stress from parasites a major cause of psychological differences among humans? Yes, if we are to believe a popular theory in evolutionary psychology. According to this theory, when people develop in a parasite-infested environment, they behave in a way that reduces their likelihood of infection. They become less curious, less exploratory, and less open to strangers. The result is a cultural system that is less conducive to learning, openness, and tolerance—in short, what we like to call progressive values.

[…] the predictions of the parasite-stress model are consistent with the marked increase in the liberalization of social values that began to occur in the West in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-authoritarianism, etc.). In the West, but not outside of it, infectious-disease prevalence was reduced dramatically a generation or two earlier as a result of widespread availability of antibiotics, child vaccination programs, food- and water-safety practices, increased sanitation and vector control.

This theory is used to explain not only cultural differences over time, but also cultural differences over space, i.e., between different human populations:

The parasite-stress model of human sociality provides an evolutionarily informed explanation of why specific human populations inhabiting different parts of the planet (northern Europe versus southern Europe, for instance) are often described by different traits, different values, and different cultural norms.

[…] parasite prevalence also is expected to predict other forms of political liberalism. For example, democratization is accompanied by the liberation of women from the tradition of masculine social control, which manifests in an increase in women’s civil rights and political representation (Inglehart, 2003; Wejnert, 2005; Welzel, 2007). It follows from the parasite-stress model that this form of liberalism should be more pronounced within populations that have a relatively low prevalence of parasites. It is. Across many countries of the world, parasite prevalence correlates negatively with national indicators of gender equality (Thornhill et al., 2010)

Several objections come to mind. Liberalism goes back long before the 1960s. Think of the American and French revolutions. Think of the abolitionists, the chartists, and the suffragettes. These were genuine mass movements that caught the imagination of ordinary people, and not just the elites. Yet they occurred at a time when young men and women routinely died from pathogens under conditions like those of the developing world today. And those conditions persisted well into the 20th century. It really wasn’t until the interwar years that doctors began to cure more people than they killed.

The parasite-stress model has been re-examined by Hackman and Hruschka (2013) with respect to the United States. They confirm that pathogen prevalence correlates with collectivism, strength of family ties, homicide, child maltreatment, and religious commitment. These correlations, however, hold true only for sexually transmitted diseases. Non-STD infections show no correlation with the above behaviors. Moreover, the STD correlation may simply be a side effect of lifestyle choices. As the authors note: “A life history model can explain these ambiguous results by treating STDs as an outcome of faster life history strategies rather than a driver of behavioral adaptations.” Indeed, the data are best explained by two variables: early childbirth and race, i.e., non-Hispanic white American, Hispanic American, or black American:

Our two-component measure [early childbirth and race] showed that across race categories, teenage birth rates are predictive of three-generation households and proportion of the population living alone. We conclude that these findings are inconsistent with the PST [pathogen-stress theory], but fit well with an alternative model based on life history allocations. (Hackman and Hruschka, 2013)

Parasite-stress theory reverses cause and effect. Pathogens are less prevalent in those human populations that have integrated principles of modern hygiene into their lives. Those same populations have also adopted other aspects of behavioral modernity—pacifism, individualism, reduced importance of kinship, etc. More broadly speaking, the construction of freer, more open societies cannot happen without certain psychological predispositions: first, higher anger thresholds and less willingness to use violence as a means to settle personal disputes; second, a time orientation that allocates more resources to the future and fewer to the present. Evidently, if you’re more oriented to the future, you’ll avoid choices that may lead to illness and early death.

This point may seem obvious, yet it’s surprising how unobvious it seems to some people, especially those, like evolutionary psychologists, who should know better. How come? Keep in mind that elite approval is necessary for advancement in society, particularly for academics who work amidst offspring of the elite and who help legitimize the dominant social agenda. To gain acceptance for their own pet ideas, academics unconsciously, or consciously, sign on to the elite's agenda.

As Thornhill et al. (2010) note: “[…] public health initiatives are most likely to have additional consequences for societies (e.g., promotion of civil liberties and egalitarian value systems).” Here, the academic is no longer pretending to be a disinterested observer. The role is more like that of a cheerleader … or worse.


Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (eds.) (1992). The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hackman, J. and D. Hruschka. (2013). Fast life histories, not pathogens, account for state-level variation in homicide, child maltreatment, and family ties in the U.S., Evolution and Human Behavior, 34, 118-124.

Thornhill, R., C.L. Fincher, D.R. Murray, and M. Schaller. (2010).  Zoonotic and Non-Zoonotic Diseases in Relation to Human Personality and Societal Values: Support for the Parasite-Stress Model, Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 151-169.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Parsis

A Parsi woman in traditional costume, painted by Raja Ravi Varma (source)

The Parsis are renowned for achievement in many areas of life—trade, education, philanthropy, and popular culture. Yet they number only about 100,000 in the entire world (Wikipedia, 2013). What qualities made them so successful? The most often-cited ones are their thrift, foresight, skillfulness, and sense of initiative. The Wikipedia entry notes:

While the British saw the other Indians, "as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful" (Luhrmann 1994, p. 333), the Parsis were seen to have the traits that the colonial authorities tended to ascribe to themselves. Mandelslo (1638) saw them as "diligent", "conscientious" and "skillful" in their mercantile pursuits.

But why do they have these qualities? Before the British arrived in the early 17th century, the Parsis were living in farming communities in western India, apparently like many other Indians. Centuries earlier they may have been merchants and traders, but by the time the British came there was little in the cultural environment to support a mercantile lifestyle, at least no more than for other Indians in similar communities.

Did these qualities become embedded through gene-culture evolution? This possibility is evoked, in passing, by anthropologists Greg Cochran, John Hardy, and Henry Harpending while discussing the intellectual performance of Ashkenazi Jews:

Since strong selection for IQ seems to be unusual in humans (few populations have had most members performing high-complexity jobs) and since near-total reproductive isolation is also unusual, the Ashkenazim may be the only extant human population with polymorphic frequencies of IQ-boosting disease mutations, although another place to look for a similar phenomenon is in India. In particular, the Parsi are an endogamous group with high levels of economic achievement, a history of long-distance trading, business and management, and who suffer high prevalences of Parkinson disease, breast cancer and tremor disorders, diseases not present in their neighbours. (Cochran et al., 2006)

Parsi-specific neurologic diseases are listed in a screening study:

We designed a questionnaire to rapidly screen a community of 851 people (Parsis living in a colony in Bombay, India) for possible neurologic diseases. […] One hundred and sixty-three people were identified by this questionnaire as possibly having neurologic disease. Neurologists later examined these 163 people and found that 80 of them actually suffered from at least one of the neurologic diseases of interest (positive predictive value = 48 percent). The most common neurologic disorders were peripheral neuropathy (32 cases), essential tremor (13 cases), stroke (12 cases), Parkinson's disease (six cases), and epilepsy (four cases). (Bharucha et al., 1987)

Although some of these genetic diseases, especially Parkinson’s, greatly reduce life expectancy, mean longevity is actually higher among the Parsis than in most human populations (Ravindran, 2011).

Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending explain the presence of these diseases as a side effect of strong natural selection over a relatively short time scale. Selection was for “rough-and-ready” solutions that came with a cost. Over a longer time scale, and with continuing selection, these bugs would have eventually been ironed out.

The conventional explanation attributes these diseases to a founder effect, i.e., the Parsis are descended from a small group of individuals and are thus more likely to diverge, genetically, from other humans. In short, the smaller the founder group, the less it will genetically represent the source population, and the higher will be the incidence of certain genetic diseases. By way of illustration, if you pick five Smarties from a box of Smarties, they’re much less likely to be a representative cross-section than if you empty out half the box.

But are the Parsis descended from a small founder group? According to tradition, their ancestors fled from Persia to western India when Muslim Arabs invaded their native land in the 7th century. Once settled in India, they had no further contacts with their fellow Persians for several centuries. Meanwhile, they married only amongst themselves and avoided intermarriage with the local Indians.

This narrative is incorrect, however, on two points. Although the Parsis have been endogamous for some time, there was at first intermarriage with the local population, essentially between Persian men and Gujarati women. Y-chromosome and mtDNA studies indicate that paternal lineages are largely Persian and maternal lineages largely Gujarati (Qamar et al., 2002; Quintana-Murci et al., 2004).

It’s also questionable whether the Parsis are descended from a single wave of refugees. The Persians ruled Sindh in western India for several centuries before the Islamic conquest, and their traders had probably already become established in ports along India’s west coast. This initial community may have later taken in waves of refugees fleeing the Islamic conquest of Persia (Wikipedia, 2013).

The historical record is clearer when the British arrived in the early 17th century. At that time, the Parsis were living in farming communities across Gujarat, and it was only then that many moved to Bombay to seek opportunities for trade and work with the British East India Company. Their economic ascension was rapid. While in 1700, "fewer than a handful of individuals appear as merchants in any records; by mid-century, Parsis engaged in commerce constituted one of the important commercial groups in Bombay" (White 1991, p. 312).

It’s possible that the Parsis had been merchants several centuries earlier. They may have then been stripped of their mercantile livelihood as punishment for supporting local Hindu rulers when the Muslims overran western India in the 11th to 13th centuries:

For years and years, the Parsis lived in perfect peace and harmony; they increased in number and dispersed in small knots over the whole of Guzarat [Gujarat]. The Mohammedan conquest at first did them harm. They had sided with the Rana against the Sultan of Ahmedabad; after the storming of Sanjan , they had much to suffer from their new rulers, and the Sacred Fire was moved from place to place. (Menant, 1901, p.134)

At present, we simply don’t know enough about Parsi history to understand what social and psychological characteristics may have been favored during the long centuries between the arrival of this community in India and its encounter with the British from the 17th century onward. We might be able to reconstruct this history from genetic data. Indeed, a “Parsi Genome Project” was launched with much fanfare a few years ago, but it now seems to be stalled for lack of funds (Phadnis, 2012).

Whatever eventually happens, such research may become a race against time. You see, the Parsis are dying out. They have long had high rates of late marriage and non-marriage, and both trends have worsened in recent decades. By 1980-82, their total fertility rate was already down to 1.12, i.e., half the replacement rate. By 2000, it was 0.94. The latest data, from 2001-2006, indicate a total fertility rate of 0.88 (Patel, 2011).

That’s even lower than Japan’s fertility rate. And, unlike Japan, the Parsi community cannot afford to lose a few million people. A recent Parsi novel, Family Matters, highlights the growing sense of foreboding:

“Demographics show we’ll be extinct in fifty years. Maybe it’s the best thing. What’s the use of having spineless weaklings walking around, Parsi in name only.”

[…] Extinct, like dinosaurs. They’ll have to study our bones, that’s all.

[..] “If, if, if,” said Dr. Fitter. “If we are meant to die out, nothing will save us.”
“Yes,” said Inspector Masalavala. “But it will be a loss to the whole world. When a culture vanishes, humanity is the loser.” (Mistry, 2002, pp. 46, 385, 388)

And when a people vanishes, the loss is even greater. A culture can at least be preserved in books, videos, and the like.


Bharucha, N.E., E.P. Bharucha, H.D. Dastur, and B.S. Schoenberg. (1987). Pilot survey of the prevalence of neurologic disorders in the Parsi community of Bombay, Am. J. Prev. Med., 3, 293-299.

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

Menant, D. (1901). Zoroastrianism and the Parsis, The North American Review, 172, 132-147.

Mistry, R. (2002). Family Matters. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Patel, D. (2011). Understanding Parsi population decline in India: A historical perspective, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre, Mumbai.

Phadnis, S. (2012). Avesthagen in a freeze as funds dry up, May 29, The Times of India,

Qamar, R., Ayub, Q., Mohyuddin, A., Helgason, A., Mazhar, K., Mansoor, A., Zerjal, T., Tyler-Smith, C. et al. (2002). Y-chromosomal DNA variation in Pakistan, American Journal of Human Genetics, 70, 1107–1124.

Quintana-Murci, L., Chaix, R., Wells, R., Spencer, B., Doron M., Sayar, H., Scozzari, R., Rengo, C., Al-Zahery, N. et al. (2004). Where West Meets East: The Complex mtDNA Landscape of the Southwest and Central Asian Corridor, American Journal of Human Genetics, 74, 827–845.

Ravindran, N. (2011). The art of longevity, April 5, India Today

White, D. (1991). From Crisis to Community Definition:The Dynamics of Eighteenth-Century Parsi Philanthropy, Modern Asian Studies, 25, 303–320

Wikipedia. (2013). Parsi