Saturday, June 29, 2013

Still missing the point

Occurrences of ‘Blumenbach’ in published writings. After a peak in the early 19th century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach faded into the background. He had little influence on the thinking of later anthropologists. (source) 

Stephen Jay Gould believed that the Western world view had been perverted by the racial theorizing of anthropologists in the 18th and 19th centuries, one of them being the American anthropologist Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Another was his German contemporary Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840):

In the eighteenth century a disastrous shift occurred in the way Westerners perceived races. The man responsible was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the least racist thinkers of his day.

[…] Blumenbach chose to regard his own European variety as closest to the created ideal and then searched for the subset of Europeans with greatest perfection--the highest of the high, so to speak. As we have seen, he identified the people around Mount Caucasus as the closest embodiments of the original ideal and proceeded to name the entire European race for its finest representatives.

[…] however subjective (and even risible) we view the criterion today, Blumenbach chose physical beauty as his guide to ranking. He simply affirmed that Europeans were most beautiful, with Caucasians as the most comely of all.

[…] Where would Hitler have been without racism, Jefferson without liberty? Blumenbach lived as a cloistered professor all his life, but his ideas have reverberated in ways that he never could have anticipated, through our wars, our social upheavals, our sufferings, and our hopes. (Gould, 1994)

As Gould himself noted, Blumenbach denied that human populations differ in mental capacity. In this, he was less racist than many other people of his day. But he did posit differences in sexual beauty, thus ultimately leading humanity to … Hitler.

Is this true? Yes, Blumenbach considered Europeans the most attractive of all humans, as we may see in his work De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa:

Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy, hair brown or chestnut-coloured [...] In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming. (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 265)

Meiners refers all nations to two stocks: (1) handsome, (2) ugly; the first white, the latter dark. He includes in the handsome stock the Celts, Sarmatians, and oriental nations. The ugly stock embraces all the rest of mankind. (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 268)

Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind. For in the first place, that stock displays, as we have seen, the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two ultimate extremes (that is on the one side, the Ethiopian, on the other, the Mongolian) […] (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 269)

These passages, however, covered less than a page out of a tome that ran to 276 pages. Nor did they recount anything new in the academic or popular literature. Blumenbach simply stated what most people of his time believed, as is implied by the above quotes. One likeminded person was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832):

The white race, with its oval face, long hair, protruding nose, to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong, and which appears to us to be the most beautiful of all races, is also much superior to the others by strength of genius, courage and activity. (Cuvier, 1798, p. 71)

Another was the American President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826):

And is this difference [of color] of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them […] (Jefferson, 1785, p. 265)

Blumenbach did not create a perception that Europeans were more beautiful than other humans. That perception already existed.

Influences on later anthropologists?

But was Blumenbach instrumental in transmitting this perception to later anthropologists? Did he play a pivotal role in creating the racialized mind-set of later times? That, too, is doubtful. There is a chasm between him and his successors. Unlike the latter, he saw human diversity through the lens of the Bible, in particular the story of the Flood. Since Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, he reasoned that the inhabitants of that region must closely resemble the humans that God chose to repeople the Earth. From this epicenter of physical perfection, Noah’s descendants spread to other lands and gradually became less perfect in appearance.

This view is quite unlike later ones, which were framed in secular and evolutionary terms. For Blumenbach, change was degenerative, moving from the perfect to the less perfect. Later anthropologists, while accepting the possibility of degenerative change, saw a general trend towards advancement and increasing complexity.

Like others of his time, Blumenbach also believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. If people of any origin share the same climate, diet, and means of existence, they will converge to the same physical type—not through natural selection, but through the direct action of the environment. In this, he was poles apart from later writers, particularly those influenced by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.

The chasm between him and later writers can be seen in the occurrence of the term ‘Blumenbach’ in books over the years. After a peak in the early 19th century, references to his name fell into steep decline, long before the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871 (Hawks, 2013). That book had only four such references, all of them minor.

Finally, European writers do not assign this German naturalist a key role in the development of racial thinking. In a recent French dictionary on the history of racism, there are entries for such individuals as Bolk, Buffon, Darwin, Gobineau, Haeckel, Nietzsche, and Linnaeus, but none at all for Blumenbach (Taguieff, 2013).

Famous but no real legacy

Blumenbach, though widely respected in his time, made few intellectual contributions that would be both lasting and original, other than his coining of the term ‘Caucasian’ for white folks. What about the notion that the Caucasus is the epicenter of human beauty? It was already in circulation, as seen in this passage by the French traveler Jean Chardin (1643-1713):

[…] the Persian blood is now highly refined by frequent intermixtures with the Georgians and the Circassians, two nations which surpass all the world in personal beauty. There is hardly a man of rank in Persia who is not born of a Georgian or Circassian mother; and even the king himself is commonly sprung, on the female side, from one or other of these countries. As it is long since this mixture commenced, the Persian women have become very handsome and beautiful, though they do not rival the ladies of Georgia (Lawrence, 1848, p. 310)

The Caucasus was the last area where one could freely buy fair-skinned women for marriage or concubinage, typically for clients in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Previously, the zone of recruitment had been larger, extending into what is now Ukraine and southern Russia. Further back in time, it had covered almost all of Europe. But this earlier page of European history was largely forgotten by Blumenbach’s time.

Blumenbach really had only one original idea. He saw a causal link between the biblical account of the Flood and the beauty of European women, particularly those from the Caucasus. But that single flash of insight would leave no lasting impression on future generations.

More shenanigans …

None of this was pointed out in 1994, when Stephen Jay Gould published his essay on Blumenbach. Or perhaps it was. If a man shouts in a forest and no one listens, did he ever really say anything?

Two years later, Gould incorporated this essay into a new edition of The Mismeasure of Man. Once again, he couldn’t resist the urge to “fudge”:

In 1996, when Gould updated The Mismeasure of Man, he added an article about Blumenbach. It included a drawing of skulls which Gould claimed to be an illustration from one of Blumenbach’s books. In this graphic, a Caucasian skull is situated higher than those of other races. When a paper by University of Tubingen historian Thomas Junker demonstrated that the original drawing placed all the skulls at the same level, Gould blamed the mistake on his editor saying, “I don’t think that I even knew about the figure when I wrote the article, for I worked from a photocopy of Blumenbach’s text alone.” Gould dismissed this error as “inconsequential” and faulted Junker for misstating “the central thesis of my article—a misinterpretation that cannot, I think, be attributed to any lack of clarity on my part.” (Michael, 2013)

One might wonder why Gould missed this error when he got the galley proofs for the new edition. Furthermore, since his errors point in the same direction, one might wonder whether there had been a systematic tendency to distort the facts, either consciously or unconsciously. Wasn’t this the same argument he had made when condemning Samuel George Morton?


Blumenbach, J.F. (1795). De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, trans. On the Natural Variety of Mankind, 1865, London.

Cuvier, G. (1798). Tableau elementaire de l'histoire naturelle des animaux, Paris.

Gould, S.J. (1994). The Geometer of Race, Discover Magazine, (November 1994), online edition

Jefferson, T. (1785). Notes on the State of Virginia,

Hawks, J. (2013). Blumenbach, Haeckel, Dobzhansky, January 2, John Hawks Weblog,

Lawrence, W. (1848). Lectures on Comparative Anatomy, Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, London: Henry G. Bohn.

Michael, J.S. (2013). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4, June. 14,

Taguieff, P.-A. (ed.) (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Not getting the point

Samuel George Morton, an early American anthropologist. He fudged his data to suit his preconceived ideas on race, according to Stephen Jay Gould. It later turned out that Gould was the fudger.

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) is still seen as a great evolutionary biologist, if not one of the greatest. Yet the years since his death have steadily tarnished his memory. This is especially so for his best known book, The Mismeasure of Man, which focused on an early American anthropologist, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). In this book and in an earlier Science article, Gould showed how Morton had fudged his measurements of a collection of skulls to make Europeans seem bigger-brained than Africans.

Gould didn’t re-measure any of the skulls. He reanalyzed Morton’s data … and in the process did far more fudging than Morton had ever done. When a team of physical anthropologists, headed by Jason E. Lewis, located and re-measured half of the skulls, they found only a few randomly distributed errors in the original measurements. Morton had in fact tended to overestimate African skull size (Lewis et al., 2011).

Interestingly, the same conclusion had been reached almost a quarter-century earlier by John S. Michael, a senior at Macalester College in Minnesota. This discovery has been recounted on John’s blog:

I re-measured the Morton skulls in 1986 as part of my undergraduate thesis, which was limited in scope and conducted without the rigor of graduate research. Nonetheless, I determined that my measurements more or less matched Morton’s, and so I described his overall results to be “reasonably accurate.” (Michael, 2013a)

Troubled by his finding, he got in touch with Gould:

In 1986, I mailed my results to Gould, who requested we meet after he gave a lecture in May at the University of Minnesota. Our meeting lasted perhaps five minutes. He told me that I “missed the point,” and abruptly ended the conversation, ignoring me and instead speaking to the man next to him. My recollection is that he did not say goodbye, so I simply walked away. […] After I published my paper in 1988, I sent Gould a copy but got no response. When I wrote him again, he replied that he had lost it and requested another copy, which I sent. I never heard back from him.

Sometime later, Gould gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he was asked a question about my paper. His response was simply that he would not discuss it, and he did not. Gould never mentioned my paper in any of his prolific writings. In 2011, Lewis wrote that, “were Gould still alive, we expect he would have mounted a defense of his analysis of Morton.” Soon after that, Prothero noted, “I’m sure if Steve were alive, he would be able to counter these accusations in his own inimitable way.” And yet these two statements conflict with the fact that Gould actually had two opportunities to counter such accusations, and instead chose to silently disengage. (Michael, 2013b)

Although John Michael’s paper appeared in Current Anthropology, a leading journal in its field, the response was largely silence (Michael, 1988). As recently as five years ago, a science historian had only this to say:

Gould’s interpretation of Samuel George Morton’s cranial data have been questioned by John S. Michael, who, as an undergraduate student at Macalester College, re-measured the skulls as part of an honors project (Michael, 1988). It is not entirely evident that one should prefer the measurements of an undergraduate to those of a professional paleontologist whose own specialist work included some very meticulous measurements of fossil snails. (Kitcher, 2004)

Some people were more supportive, but they were the wrong kind:

Because my findings refuted the writings of Gould, a left-leaning anti-racist Jew, I was celebrated in hate-filled white supremacist web pages, such as and My work was grossly misquoted in a series of papers by J. Philippe Rushton, a proponent of eugenics from University of Western Ontario. In 2002, he served as the president of the Pioneer Fund, which the Southern Law Poverty Center designated as a “White Nationalist” group because it continues to fund the study of “breeding superior human beings that was discredited by various Nazi atrocities.” I have written this paper in part to document my strong displeasure that my work was used to promote eugenics or racist ideology, which I in no way support. (Michael, 2013a)

Yes, supporters can be as problematic as detractors. But a scientific finding is not invalidated because its supporters are the wrong kind of people. It stands or falls on its own merits. Also, the Southern Law Poverty Center is hardly an impartial source.

John Michael was ultimately vindicated when the Lewis et al. paper came out two years ago. Yet, even then, he never got the credit he deserved, as may be seen in a Nature editorial that raised the possibility of an improper relationship between Lewis’ research team and the University of Pennsylvania:

Of course, Lewis and his colleagues have their own motivations. Several in the group have an association with the University of Pennsylvania, and have an interest in seeing the valuable but understudied skull collection freed from the stigma of bias (Anon, 2011)

No evidence is provided for this curious accusation. In any case, Gould’s fudging had originally been revealed by someone from another university and from another state.  But who remembers?


John Michael found himself in an unequal battle. As a graduate student he was challenging not only an Ivy League professor but also a leading antiracist crusader. It didn’t really matter whether Gould was telling the truth or not. There was something bigger at stake—the war on racism. And that war had to be won.

John indeed “missed the point.” By insisting too much on truth, he was being at best naïve and at worst a willing accomplice of racism—by far a greater evil than falsehood. This was how many well-meaning people saw things in the late 20th century.


Anon. (2011). Mismeasure for mismeasure, Nature, 474, 419.

Gould S.J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Gould, S.J. (1978). Morton’s ranking of races by cranial capacity: unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm, Science, 200, 503–509.

Kitcher, P. (2004). Evolutionary Theory and the Social Uses of Biology, Biology and Philosophy, 19, 13-14.

Lewis, J.E., D. DeGusta, M.R. Meyer, J.M. Monge, A.E. Mann, and R.L. Holloway. (2011). The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias, PLoS Biology, 9(6) e1001071

Michael, J.S. (2013a). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, June 7,

Michael, J.S. (2013b). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4, June. 14,

Michael, J.S. (1988). A new look at Morton’s craniological research, Current Anthropology, 29, 349–354.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How the pacification of Europe came to an end

John Locke: “every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer […] such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey (source of picture)

The last millennium has seen three overlapping trends in Western societies with respect to unlawful violence.

The first one began in the 12th century with the rise of strong States and a growing determination, with the consent of the Church, to punish the “wicked” so that the “good” may live in peace. By the late Middle Ages, the courts were condemning to death between 0.5 and 1.0 % of all men of each generation, with an equal number dying while awaiting trial. There was correspondingly a shift in the cultural environment. The violent male went from hero to zero; even if he didn’t pay the ultimate penalty, his opportunities for social advancement were now much more constrained.

The second trend was a steady drop in the homicide rate throughout most of Western Europe. In England, this rate fell by over a hundred-fold between the 12th and 19th centuries (Eisner, 2001).

The third trend began in the 17th century with a growing unwillingness by the courts to impose the death penalty. Then, from the mid-18th century onward, one country after another began to limit the death penalty or abolish it altogether.

These three trends were interrelated. The first one—the “war on murder”—succeeded all too well. The pool of violent men dried up to the point that most murders occurred only under conditions of extreme stress, jealousy, or intoxication. Violence ceased to be a socially approved way to gain prestige and advance personal interests. It became a mark of shame, condemning those guilty of it to the margins of society, if not to the gallows. Thus, the longer the death penalty was used, the less necessary it became.

The ideological background

But there was another reason, an ideological one. At all levels of society, people began to see the death penalty as being inherently wrong. In the early 19th century, for instance, English law still required hanging for thefts equal to or greater than forty shillings. To get around the law, and save a condemned man, a jury decided that a stolen 10-pound note was worth only thirty-nine shillings. Another jury came to the same decision for a theft of a hundred pounds! (Savey-Casard, 1968).

What caused this change of heart? The usual answer is liberalism, specifically “the Enlightenment”—a philosophical movement of the 18th century that sought to base public policy on reason and science. For many traditionalists today, this is one example among many of how the Enlightenment replaced the old faith in proven tradition with a new faith in unproven ideals.

Yet most philosophers of the Enlightenment accepted the death penalty. This was the case with John Locke (1632-1704), the Father of Classical Liberalism:

[…] every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. (Second Treatise of Government, 2, 11)

[…] one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power. (3, 16)

This is the idea of the “Social Contract.” In modern societies, people forego the use of violence for personal ends so that they may enjoy the benefits of a peaceful society. If a man commits unlawful violence, he repudiates this implicit contract and thus loses his immunity from violence. Interestingly, Locke supported the death penalty not just for murder but for lesser offences as well: “each transgression may be punished to that degree [with death], and with so much severity, as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the offender, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like” (2, 12). 

The Social Contract was central to an essay by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

The death-penalty inflicted upon criminals may be looked on in much the same light: it is in order that we may not fall victims to an assassin that we consent to die if we ourselves turn assassins. […]

Again, every malefactor, by attacking social rights, becomes on forfeit a rebel and a traitor to his country; by violating its laws he ceases to be a member of it; he even makes war upon it. In such a case the preservation of the State is inconsistent with his own, and one or the other must perish; in putting the guilty to death, we slay not so much the citizen as an enemy. (Du contrat social, 2, 5)

Among the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) was the only major one to argue against the death penalty:

[…] the laws, which are intended to moderate the ferocity of mankind, should not increase it by examples of barbarity the most horrible, as this punishment is usually attended with formal pageantry. Is it not absurd that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves? (On crimes and punishments, 28)

But Beccaria’s opinion was a minority one. After the French Revolution, his arguments for abolition were presented to the Assembly by several deputies, but the majority remained opposed (Carbasse, 2011, p. 76-77).

Was abolitionism liberal?

The French Revolution actually reversed an abolitionist trend that had developed under the Ancien Régime. From 1750 onward, the courts had become increasingly reluctant to condemn people to death. In Dijon, the death penalty accounted for 13 to 14.5% of all sentences before 1750, 8.5% in 1758-1760, 6% in 1764-1766, and less than 5% after 1770. By 1788, on the eve of the revolution, no executions at all were being carried out in Paris (Carbasse, 2011, p. 70).

Elsewhere, abolitionism made the most progress where liberalism was the weakest. In Russia, the death penalty was unofficially abolished during the reign of Elizaveta Petrovna (1741-1762), apparently out of Christian piety. It was then reestablished by Ekaterina II (Catherine the Great), who corresponded with Voltaire and professed Enlightenment ideals (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 74-75). Under the influence of Beccaria, the death penalty was abolished in countries that were nonetheless illiberal by any other standard, notably Tuscany in 1786 and the Hapsburg dominions in 1787. The least progress was made in England, the very epicenter of liberalism:

The only European country where the ideas of penal reform had almost no effect was finally England. English criminal law, whose particular ferocity we have pointed out, remained just as repressive. In the late 18th century, nearly 300 infractions were still punishable by death (Carbasse, 2011, p. 75).  

Who was breaking with the past?

Thus, when debating the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty, most philosophers of the Enlightenment did not break with the past. Medieval views similarly prevailed in secondary debates, like whether this penalty should be motivated by retribution or by the need to maintain public order. The latter, more utilitarian view is often associated with the Enlightenment, yet it had been earlier expressed by medieval thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):

[…] it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community's welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death.  (IlaIlae, q. 64)

Another secondary debate was whether murderers act out of free will and, if not, whether it is fair to execute them. On this, the philosophers of the Enlightenment denied the existence of free will. All behavior is channeled through constraints that exist either within oneself or in one’s environment, and these constraints are stronger in those murderers who act on impulse and not after sober reflection. Nonetheless, lack of free will is no excuse for a condemned murderer, any more than for a mad dog. He isn’t sentenced to be executed because he “deserves” it and will know better next time. There will be no next time. He is simply removed, permanently, from the community of peace-loving citizens. In this, the Enlightenment was reiterating views held by Thomas Aquinas and other medieval scholars. (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 62-63).

The Enlightenment thus refined ideas that had already taken shape during the late Middle Ages. It was really the 12th century that had broken with prior thinking. Previously, the death penalty had been reserved for exceptional cases, partly because the Church considered it inherently wrong and partly because the State preferred to be an honest broker in personal conflicts that did not challenge its authority. It was only from the 12th century onward that the death penalty came to be seen as a force for good, and this consensus still prevailed among most philosophers of the Enlightenment.

So how did this consensus come to an end? The Enlightenment was paralleled by an ideological change within Christianity itself. The same processes that made the Enlightenment possible—invention of printing, mass distribution of books, rising level of literacy—also allowed more and more Christians to discover the Bible. They soon discovered that this book did not contain the overlay of correction, interpretation, and commentary that had been added during the Middle Ages. Why, they wondered, was this overlay absent from the Holy Scriptures? Surely it must be a sham! And so they discarded the hard lessons that had been learned at much cost. The clock was literally turned back to the Dark Ages—when the Church provided murderers with sanctuary and when the State preferred to be an arbiter between the murderer and the victim’s family.

We associate this rejection of medieval teachings with Protestantism, but it has also been present in Catholicism. In both, there has been a move towards a truncated kind of Christianity … towards “Jesusism.”

It is this Jesus-centered Christianity, much more so than the Enlightenment, that has shaped modern liberalism. For every copy of John Locke’s works, there have been millions more of the Bible, and millions more of writings by people who spurn medieval Christianity as one would an imposter.


Some people have called me a thinker of the “Dark Enlightenment.” Actually, the original one seems fine enough to me. We have not been failed by science and reason. Rather, we have been failed by an ideological change within Christianity that has become secularized and now dominates the modern world view. One might call it “secularized Christianity” or perhaps “Christian atheism,” but neither is really appropriate. It is a changeling. It claims descent from our rich traditions of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment … while actually owing little to either.


Beccaria, C. (1767). An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, transl. from the Italian

Carbasse, J-M. (2011). La peine de mort, Que sais-je ?, Paris.

Eisner, M. (2001). Modernization, self-control and lethal violence. The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective, British Journal of Criminology, 41, 618-638.

Locke, J. (1690). Second Treatise of Government,

Rousseau, J-J. (1762). The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, transl. from the French

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

Thomas Aquinas. Ila Ilae, The Summa Theologica, Benziger Bros (transl. 19474)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Making Europeans kinder, gentler

Hanged, drawn, and quartered. (source)

Although the Middle Ages were, in the imagination of our contemporaries, “the time of the gallows,” the reality was appreciably different (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 38-39)

Like many well-meaning people, I once considered the death penalty a relic of a more barbaric age. Outside the old jailhouse, here in Quebec City, I can see the open space where people used to be hanged … in public. In some cases, the authorities would go one better. The body would be placed in a cage and suspended near a thoroughfare for all to see … while it decomposed. This was our past, and presumably the system of justice was even more gruesome longer ago.

Actually, it wasn’t. Longer ago, the death penalty was not the preferred punishment for murder.

The Dark Ages – 5th to 12th centuries

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, so did its system of retributive justice. Actually, justice had already become less retributive through the growing influence of Christianity. This is apparent in a letter from a Roman magistrate who felt troubled by the death penalty and sought advice from Ambrose, bishop of Milan (374-397). In a long reply, the bishop defended this punishment, but then went on to praise those who refrain from it. In fact, most of his reply was an appeal for mercy on the grounds that the wrongdoer may end up repenting (Swift, 1970, p. 542, see also Frost, 2010).

This trend continued after the Empire’s collapse. In 511, the bishops of France greatly extended the right of sanctuary. If a man committed murder, he could now ask for and receive sanctuary in any holy place. This policy was defended by Pope Gregory the Great: “Let the Church extend its protection even to those who have spilled blood, for it must not contribute, even indirectly, to the shedding of their own blood” (Carbasse, 2011, p. 34).

The new barbarian rulers also disliked the death penalty, but for different reasons. There was a strong feeling that every adult male had a right to use violence and to kill, if need be. This right was of course reciprocal. If you killed a man, his death could be avenged by his brothers and other male kinsmen. The prospect of a vendetta thus created a ‘balance of terror’ that kept violence within limits. So, initially, the barbarians allowed capital punishment only for treason, desertion, and cowardice in combat (Carbasse, 2011, p. 35).

As the barbarian kingdoms developed on the ruins of the Roman Empire, steps were taken to limit male violence, particularly when it took the form of vendettas. This was the aim of the Salic Law, proclaimed in 507-511:

[The Salic Law] is a pact (pactus) “concluded between the Franks and their chiefs,” for the specific purpose of ensuring peace among the people by “cutting short the development of brawls.” This term evidently means private acts of vengeance, the traditional vendettas that went on from generation to generation. In place of the vengeance henceforth forbidden, the law obliged the guilty party to pay the victim (or, in the case of murder, his family) compensation. This was an indemnity whose amount was very precisely set by the law, which described with much detail all of the possible damages, this being to avoid any discussion between the parties and make [murder] settlements as rapid, easy, and peaceful as possible. […] This amount was called the wergild, the “price of a man.” The victim’s family could not refuse the wergild, and once it was paid, the family had to be satisfied. They no longer had the right to avenge themselves (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 33-34).

The punishment for murder was thus monetized. If you killed a boy under 10, you paid 24,000 denars. Killing a free pregnant woman would cost a bit more: 28,000 denars. The payment was only 12,000 denars for killing a Roman who ate in the king’s palace (source). Capital punishment existed only for the murder of the king, for whom there was no wergild, or in the case of a slave killing a free man.

Over the next few centuries, attempts were made to broaden the scope of the death penalty but to little avail, partly because law enforcement was still rudimentary and because of resistance from the Church:

[…] the couple “peace and charity” remained the supreme objective. This ideal had practical applications, since the legal forms of this time offered model agreements called “peace” or “concords” (today we would say ‘plea bargaining’) for even major crimes like murder. Clearly, the public justice system was used only in exceptional cases, the usual way of settling disputes being private in nature (Carbasse, 2011, p. 36).

The war on murder – 12th to 17th centuries

Thus, for a long period, murder was normally a personal matter to be settled by the victim’s family, through vengeance or a cash settlement.

This situation began to change in the 12th century. One reason was that the State had become stronger. But there also had been an ideological change. The State no longer saw itself as an honest broker for violent disputes that did not challenge its existence. Jurists were now arguing that the king must punish the wicked to ensure that the good may live in peace. The Church itself was coming around to this view through what may be called a medieval synthesis of Christian morality:

[…] a reaction arose beginning in the 11th century against the previous system of monetary compensation. Henceforth, increasingly, it was felt that money could not be a sufficient compensation for such an infraction. The idea that the murder of a man is a crime too serious, an offence too manifest to the order of Creation, to be simply “compensated” by a sum of money was present from the early 11th century onward in the thinking of some bishops (Carbassse, 2011, p. 38)

And so began the war on murder. From the 12th to 17th centuries, capital punishment became steadily more prevalent. We see this in an increasing willingness to use it not only for murder but also for other crimes (rape, abortion, infanticide, lèse majesté, theft, counterfeiting, etc.). We also see this in the use of ‘exemplary’ punishment: drawing and quartering, breaking on the wheel, and burning. Beginning in the 13th and 14th centuries, we see cases of a murderer being buried alive in a casket placed underneath the victim’s casket (Carbasse, 2011, p. 53).

Then, after the 17th century, the war on murder began to go into reverse. It had been largely won, and public sympathy now shifted to the condemned man. In England, the homicide rate fell by over a hundred-fold between 1300 and 1900 (Eisner, 2001). Europeans were becoming kinder and gentler, and this pacification of social relations would make possible much of what we call modernity: the expansion of the market economy; a growing freedom to live among total strangers; the rise of the individual as an autonomous, self-maximizing being, and so on.

But this pacification also had a down side. We now take it for granted. If people act violently, to the point of committing murder, we assume there must be a very good reason. Otherwise, why would they have done it?


Carbasse, J-M. (2011). La peine de mort, Que sais-je ? Paris

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.

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

Swift, L.J. (1970). St. Ambrose on violence and war, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 101, 533-543.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Just for show?

Of all humans, male and female, European women have the whitest skin and the most diverse range of hair and eye colors. Are European physical characteristics really female characteristics? (source)

People of European origin have an unusually diverse palette of hair and eye colors. This diversity is commonly ascribed to their unusually white skin. Ancestral Europeans became lighter-skinned, and this genetic change therefore caused other changes to hair and eye pigmentation.

Actually, the genetic changes are different in each case. European skin turned white through a replacement of alleles, primarily at TYRP1, SLC24A5, and SLC45A2. European hair and eyes diversified in color through a proliferation of new alleles, primarily at MC1R for hair color and in the HERC2-OCA2 region for eye color.

It now appears that this diversification has occurred at other gene loci as well. Zhang et al. (2013) report that a region downstream from EDNRB is associated with differences in hair color and that two other loci, VASH2 and POLS, are associated with differences in eye color. Sulem et al. (2008) report that TPCN2 is associated with differences in hair color and that ASIP is associated with red hair.

A common selection pressure, not a common gene

This is further proof that a selection pressure created the visual effect of color diversity by acting on whatever genes it could. In short, this diverse palette of hues seems to exist “just for show.”

The evolutionary problem is spelled out by Walsh et al. (2012):

People of European descent display the widest variation in pigmentation traits, such as iris (eye) and hair colouration, in the world. In particular, eye colour variation is nearly restricted to people of (at least partial) European descent. Eye colour categories here often concern blue, brown and intermediate (green, etc.). In the rest of the world, people tend to have brown eye colour, which is considered to be the ancestral human trait in agreement with the Out-of-Africa hypothesis of modern humans. The current variation in eye colour is thought to have originated via a genetic founder event involving non-brown irises in early European history. It is furthermore assumed that eye colour variation in Europe has been shaped by positive selection via sexual selection i.e., mate choice preference. Alternatively it has been proposed that eye colour variation evolved via a correlation with skin colour and its environmental adaptation e.g. maximizing vitamin D conversion in low levels of UV radiation, or as a combination of both. One suggested geographic region for the origin of blue eye colour in Europe is the southern Baltic, as indicated by concentric rings of decreasing frequency of the blue eye colour trait spreading from the southern Baltic region, resulting in a strong north–south gradient in blue eye colour frequency across Europe.

It is doubtful whether a lack of vitamin D at northern latitudes played a role in the whitening of European skin, let alone in the diversifying of European hair and eye color. As Elias and Williams (2012) note, certain northern populations whitened much more than others:

An obvious feature of the northward dispersal of humans is a quasi-geographic reduction in pigmentation (Murray, 1934; Loomis, 1967; Chaplin and Jablonski, 2009). Coloration varies greatly among northerners. Native Inuit display medium-to-dark (type III/IV), rather than light pigmentation, and both northern and central-dwelling Asians display medium (type III) pigmentation. Recent population genetic data show that the reduction in skin pigmentation occurred sporadically and incompletely in northern and Asian populations (Sturm, 2009). Moreover, while modern humans reached Central Europe ≈40 ka (thousands of years ago), they reached northern Europe only after the last ice sheets receded less than 11 ka. It is only these humans that display light pigmentation, and recent molecular genetic studies suggest that the very light pigmentation of northern Europeans did not develop until 5-6 ka (Norton et al., 2007; Norton and Hammer, 2008).

Heather Norton’s estimate for European skin whitening (which she set within a broader range of 3,000 to 12,000 years ago) has been revised upward by Sandra Beleza to a range of 11,000 to 19,000 years ago, the second estimate being now accepted as the better one by Norton (Beleza et al., 2013; Norton and Hammer, 2007; Norton, 2012). This time period still began long after the entry of modern humans into Europe, the implication being that ancestral Europeans were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years.

Elias and Williams (2012) also note that the vitamin-D hypothesis cannot explain the changes to European hair color, since hair is not involved in vitamin-D synthesis. Their alternate hypothesis is that European skin became white as a way to cut back on unnecessary energy expenditure:

[…] a declining need to heavily pigment the epidermis favored the retention of mutations in genes that reduced pigment synthesis, thereby diverting energy toward the production of more urgently-needed proteins.

But why, then, did ancestral Europeans wait over twenty thousand years before cutting back on this unnecessary expenditure? And why would this expenditure be less unnecessary at northern latitudes in Asia and North America? Moreover, in the case of hair color, what has happened is not a loss of pigment but rather a shift from production of one kind of pigment, i.e., eumelanin (black-brown hues), to production of another, i.e., pheomelanin (yellow-red hues).

Sexual selection?

Color polymorphisms are not limited to humans. They occur in many other species for reasons that Hofreiter and Schöneberg (2010) discuss in a recent review article. One reason is crypsis—the need to blend into a background that may vary from one place to another. Deer mice, for instance, have light fur where the ground is likewise light in color and dark fur where it is dark in color. Another reason is aposematism—individuals with a rare coloration have better chances of survival, since they are a poorer match for a predator’s search image.

Such a frequency dependent effect, favouring the rarer colour morphs, is also known from sexual selection, when females preferentially mate with rare colour morph males, a phenomenon also known from guppies. (Hofreiter and Schöneberg, 2010)

This kind of color polymorphism typically involves bright colors, since sexual selection is influenced by sensory biases that favor not only novel colors but also bright ones as well. In fish species, for instance, color morphs are often red because a sensory bias for this color has developed irrespective of mating contexts.

If we look at the polymorphisms for human hair and eye color, the recently evolved “European” hues tend to be brighter than the species norm of black hair and brown eyes. Eyes may be light blue, but not navy blue. Hair may be carrot red, but not beetroot red. Sexual selection is also indicated by a greater variability of hair color in women, with red hair being especially more frequent (Shekar et al., 2008).

But why?

Why would sexual selection have been more intense among ancestral Europeans? Such selection happens when too many of one sex are competing to mate with too few of the other. In most mammals, the males do the competing—because polygyny dries up the pool of available females. So the males are brilliantly colored, and the females duller in appearance.

But here we have the reverse. Hair color is brighter and more diverse in European women than in European men. We see a similar pattern with skin color. “European” physical traits seem to be female traits. It looks as though sexual selection primarily targeted women and then secondarily spilled over on to men.

This unusual color scheme seems to result from the unusual steppe-tundra that covered the plains of northern and eastern Europe during the last ice age 25,000 to 10,000 years ago. This environment offered ancestral Europeans a huge amount of edible biomass, but nearly all of it was locked up as meat in wandering herds of reindeer and other herbivores. Since male hunters provided almost all of the food for their wives and offspring, the cost of supporting a second wife and her children was prohibitive for them, being feasible for only the ablest hunters. At the same time, pursuit of migratory game greatly lengthened the mean hunting distance and boosted male death rates accordingly.

Thus, limited polygyny, combined with higher hunting-related mortality, skewed the mate market towards a shortage of available men. Women had to compete for men, unlike the situation among tropical humans and most other mammalian species. This intense mate competition in turn drove sexual selection for colorful features that could, by their brightness or their novelty, catch the attention of a prospective mate (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008).


Beleza, S., A. Murias dos Santos, B. McEvoy, I. Alves, C. Martinho, E. Cameron, M.D. Shriver, E.J. Parra, and J. Rocha. (2013). The timing of pigmentation lightening in Europeans, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 30, 24-35.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103.

Frost, P. (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Journal of Social, Evolutionary,and Cultural Psychology, 2(4), 169-191.

Hofreiter, M., and T. Schöneberg. (2010). The genetic and evolutionary basis of colour variation in vertebrates, Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 67, 2591–2603.

Norton, H.L., and M.F. Hammer. (2007). Sequence variation in the pigmentation candidate gene SLC24A5 and evidence for independent evolution of light skin in European and East Asian populations. Program of the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, p. 179

Norton, H.L. (2012). Personal communication

Shekar, S.N., D.L. Duffy, T. Frudakis, G.W. Montgomery, M.R. James, R.A. Sturm, and N.G. Martin. (2008). Spectrophotometric methods for quantifying pigmentation in human hair—Influence of MC1R genotype and environment, Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84, 719–726.

Sulem, P., D.F Gudbjartsson, S.N. Stacey, A. Helgason, T. Rafnar, M. Jakobsdottir, S. Steinberg, S.A. Gudjonsson, A. Palsson, G. Thorleifsson, S. Palsson, B. Sigurgeirsson, K. Thorisdottir, R. Ragnarsson, K.R. Benediktsdottir, K.K. Aben, S.H. Vermeulen, A.M. Goldstein, M.A. Tucker, L.A. Kiemeney, J.H. Olafsson, J. Gulcher, A. Kong, U. Thorsteinsdottir, and K. Stefansson. (2008). Two newly identified genetic determinants of pigmentation in Europeans, Nature Genetics, 40, 835-837.

Walsh, S., A. Wollstein, F. Liu, U. Chakravarthy, M. Rahu, J.H. Seland, G. Soubrane, L. Tomazzoli, F. Topouzis, J.R. Vingerling, J. Vioque, A.E. Fletcher, K.N. Ballantyne, and M. Kayser. (2012). DNA-based eye colour prediction across Europe with the IrisPlex system, Forensic Science International: Genetics, 6, 330–340.

Zhang, M., F. Song, L. Liang, H. Nan, J. Zhang, H. Liu, L.-E. Wang, Q. Wei, J.E. Lee, C.I. Amos, P. Kraft, A.A. Qureshi, and J. Han. (2013). Genome-wide association studies identify several new loci associated with pigmentation traits and skin cancer risk in European Americans, Human Molecular Genetics, advance access 1–12