Saturday, December 21, 2013

Looking back over 2013

She looks nice in a long skirt. Source: Ted Talks

The year is ending, and it’s time to take stock. Which posts interested you the most? Here are the five most popular ones, with the number of visits to each post:

The other slave trade  5948
Eye color, face shape, and perceived personality traits  5708
Cleansing the scientific literature  4989
First, sexual transmissibility and then …?    3578

The first two belonged to a five-part series on the white slave trade (see also Trading in fair-skinned women. Did it happen elsewhere? From Slavs to slaves, From Slavs to slaves. Part II). The existence of this trade is little known even among the well-educated, who typically react with disbelief. Surely those white slaves were fewer in number than the black slaves taken across the Atlantic.  And surely all of that happened long before the Atlantic slave trade. 

Wrong on both counts. Europe exported about as many slaves to the non-European world as were exported from Africa to the Americas. Eastern Europeans continued to be “harvested” until the mid-1700s and the population of the Caucasus until the mid-1800s. By comparison, the black slave trade was banned within the British Empire in 1807 and throughout the Western Hemisphere by the 1860s. The difference was qualitative and not quantitative. Black slaves were mostly male; white slaves mostly female.

In writing those posts, I wasn’t driven by a desire to slander Muslims. Many white slave girls went on to become the wives of leading men, including sultans (like Roxelana). Their slave status was a passing thing, as explained by a notable of Tunis, Mohamed Rechid, when the authorities questioned him in 1891 on his role in slave trafficking:

Q. Do you have any white slave women of Circassian or other origins?
A. No, I don’t have any.
Q. When you went to Constantinople, you didn’t bring any white slave women back with you?
A. I brought two women back with me, this is true, but they aren’t slaves. They are two sisters, one of whom is my wife. One is called Zohra and the other Daïde.
Q. If they aren’t slaves, how did you get them?
A. I bought them in Constantinople, I freed them, and I married one of them. The other one is my sister-in-law. (Dali, 2012)

In Tunis, the noblest families are partly descended from such women (Dali, 2012). The same seems true for most of North Africa and the Middle East, according to this historian of Muslim Spain:

The same convoys of booty also included women, these Frankish women who were all the more sought after in Cordova because they were blond and fair-skinned. It was among them, as among the captive women from Gascony, that the Umayyad princes chose their most pampered concubines and who, once they became mothers, were themselves raised to the rank of veritable princesses, of proven sultanesses (umm walad) who were influential and quick to enter, with the assistance of Slav eunuchs, into secret and complicated palace intrigues. But the Frankish women did not populate only the caliph's harems; the dignitaries of the khassa and the rich burghers of the cities also procured them at lavish prices, like, in the modern period, the Circassian women who have so curiously tinted the upper classes of oriental Muslim society. (Lévi-Provençal, 1953, p. 179)

Of course, many white slave women had less fortunate outcomes, never rising above the level of concubine, singing girl, or prostitute. But this is not something to feel bitter or guilty about. The past is another country. We study it so that we may better understand the present.

In this five-part series, I was responding to Cameron Russell’s argument that she and other top models are cashing in on a legacy of white privilege. In other words, if Europeans had not become so dominant socially, economically, and geopolitically, her white skin and facial features would today seem much less attractive. Well, that alternate reality did exist. Until five centuries ago, white folks were weaklings on the world scene, with large areas of their continent under the rule of outsiders. And yet, European women were greatly admired in Muslim Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, this being why so many of them were enslaved and exported to those regions … just because of their looks.

This post was about Karel Kleisner’s study on eye color and face shape. In sum, blue eyes are associated with less robust and more feminine faces, but only if the faces are male. It may be that female face shape is overdetermined, i.e., all girls are exposed to enough estrogen in the womb to feminize their faces, but only blue-eyed boys reach this level of estrogenization. Thus, to some degree, blue eyes are a female trait. This finding is consistent with the view, supported by other findings, that the most visible features of Europeans are actually female features, i.e., they are a product of a selection pressure that acted primarily on women.

I was initially taken aback on seeing the averaged blue-eyed and brown-eyed male faces that appear in Dr. Kleisner’s first paper on this subject. Surely some of those photographed subjects were partly Jewish or Roma. But, then, the brown-eyed men would have been more variable in face shape, yet they were not. And how would that reason explain why blue eyes correlated with facial feminization in men but not in women?


Two years ago, the Danish psychologist Helmuth Nyborg published a paper on his country’s demographic future. He made the following points:

- Contrary to official statistics, immigrant birth rates are not falling. In fact, they have been rising since 1980 and were over twice the ethnic Danish birth rate in 2009. Since 1995, the ethnic Danish birth rate has been falling.

- After rising for half a century, average national IQ began to fall in 1997. This decline has also been observed in Norway, even though average IQ has continued to rise elsewhere in line with the Flynn effect.

- By 2050, less than one fifth of the population will have IQs in the 90 to 104 range, and over half in the 70 to 85 range. Primary schools will mainly have low IQ children of sub-Saharan, Middle Eastern, North African, Latin American, and Caribbean backgrounds.

- By 2072, ethnic Danes will have fallen to 60% of the population and 33% of all births. They will become a minority around 2085.

These predictions may or may not be correct (see Does Nyborg’s study make sense?). Is the rapidity of demographic change overstated? Are the differences in IQ due to poor upbringing and hence amenable to improvement? Criticism can and should be made, but that option was passed over by three of Nyborg’s colleagues. They complained to the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty, which ruled that he must withdraw his study from the scientific literature. I denounced this decision in an e-mail to Morten Østergaard, the Danish Minister for Research, Innovation, and Higher Education, as did many other academics.

I got the following reply (words bolded as in the original):

Dear Dr. Frost,

The Minister for Science, Innovation and Higher Education Morten Østergaard acknowledges receipt of your e-mail dated 14 November 2013.

Further to your concern as to the decision (ruling) dated 28 October 2013 of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty on Helmuth Nyborg’s contribution to the article “The Decay of Western Civilization: Double Relaxed Darwinian Selection” published in the scientific journal “Personality and Individual Differences”, we are now pleased to invite you to study the translation into English of the decision. You will find the translation following this link:

Based on the conclusions of the Committees they recommend that the article be withdrawn. But, as you will see, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty have not in any way considered the conclusions drawn by Dr. Nyborg, nor have they ordered him to withdraw the article.

The Committees have been established as stipulated in an act of Parliament to “investigate allegations on research misconduct only, i.e. falsification, fabrication, plagiarism and other serious violation of good scientific practice committed wilfully or grossly negligent on planning, performance or reporting of research results”. The Committees are not entitled to consider cases involving the validity or truth of scientific theories or cases involving the research quality of a scientific product.

If you are interested in more information on the mandate of the Committees, you may find all the relevant regulations translated into English here:

Yours sincerely,

Charlotte Elverdam
General Counsel and
Head of Secretariat for Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty

Yes, it was just a recommendation, but recommendations are made to be acted upon by someone in authority. Or maybe the Committee expected that Dr. Nyborg would just voluntarily purge his study from the scientific literature? Anyhow, it’s clear that no one in authority wishes to proceed further.

The scientific community is slowly realizing that microscopic parasites can manipulate human behavior. Attention is now focused on the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, but only because we already know what it does to cats and mice. There is no reason to think that human-specific microbes have not also evolved in this direction. As the Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr points out: “A large number of parasitic organisms […] may influence the phenotype of their human host even more than the Toxoplasma. These organisms are, however, still waiting for research teams to engage in a systematic study of their influence on the human host.”

Some of them may be surprisingly commonplace, organisms like vaginal yeast and bacterial vaginosis. See also Brainwashed by a microbe?

And now for the duds …

My year-end review would be incomplete unless I mentioned my least popular posts:

The cagots – 649
The Visual Word Form Area. Part II    667
Thoughts on the Paris Spring – 755
More thoughts. The evolution of a word – 771
Can antiracism reform itself? – 860

I thought my worst post would be Is something afoot with Bigfoot? Yet that one had a respectable 1199 visits (the alleged yeti DNA turned out to be from a bear). Instead, the booby prize goes to ...

The cagots

In this post, together with previous ones on the Paekchong of Korea and the Burakumin of Japan, I argued that outcaste groups are evolutionarily conservative and thus tend to preserve predispositions that once were prevalent in the general population, e.g., with respect to time orientation, impulse control, anger threshold, etc.

Such groups exist in many societies, such as those of East Asia. The existence of stigmatized occupations, notably trades that involve contact with dead flesh (butchering, leather making, undertaking), provide lower-class individuals with a protected means of livelihood, but at the cost of becoming themselves stigmatized. The occupational class becomes a caste and, hence, no longer participates in the evolutionary changes that affect the general population. Over time, this caste tends to perpetuate the same behavioral profile and thus increasingly diverges from the evolving behavioral profile of the larger society, with the result that social stigmatization and genetic isolation further increase.

The situation is unlike that of England where, over the past millennium, the reproductive success of the upper and middle classes caused a demographic overflow that continually replenished the ranks of the lower classes, who had negative natural increase. Today, the population of English background, even in the lower classes, is composed of lineages that half a millennium ago were predominantly upper or middle class (Clark, 2007; Clark, 2009).

The Paris Spring, racism, and antiracism

Time will tell whether anything will come of the Paris Spring (better known as the French Spring). By “time” I mean the next year or so. Can antiracism reform itself? I doubt it. Yes, there is a growing willingness to extend the concept of “hate crime” to cases of interracial violence where the victim is white, e.g., the knockout game. But such willingness can never be more than tokenism. First, whites are the victims in most cases of interracial violence, and overwhelmingly so. Any acknowledgement of that reality would completely transform antiracism. Second, as antiracists are right to point out, non-white on white violence is less ideologically motivated than the reverse. The motive is typically a perception that whites are soft targets. “Whites don’t fight back.” In particular, they don’t fight back collectively. The White man has no friends.

In the real world, motives are less important than consequences. Humans have been ganging up on soft targets for millennia, but for most of that time they had no conscious ideological motive. Were the Thule Inuit aware that they were driving the Dorset people to extinction? Not really. They would first move into Dorset territory and work out a modus vivendi. When they became more numerous, they would drive those people out. Then they moved into the next patch of Dorset territory. And the cycle repeated again and again until the Dorset were no more.


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

Clark, G. (2009) The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England, 

Dali, I.M. (2012). Problématique du phénotype. Approche comparative des esclavages dans la Tunisie du XIXe siècle, in R. Botte and A. Stella (eds.) Couleurs de l’esclavages sur les deux rives de la Méditerranée (Moyen Âge-XXe siècle), (pp. 337-369), Paris: Éditions Karthala.

Lévi-Provençal, E. (1953). Histoire de l’Espagne musulmane, tome III, Paris: G.P. Maisonneuve.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Origins of Northwest European guilt culture. Part II

Reconstructed Mesolithic roundhouse near Northumberland, Great Britain (source: Andrew Curtis)

At different times and in different regions, humans have entered larger social environments that are no longer limited to close kin. Because there is less interaction with any one person and more interaction with non-kin, correct behavior can no longer be enforced by the to and fro of family relationships. A moral code develops, with rules enforced by ostracism and shaming.

In Northwest Europe, the moral code is also enforced by guilt—a form of self-shaming where the wrongdoer inflicts self-punishment even when he or she is the sole witness to the wrongdoing. There is also a high degree of empathy; the wrongdoer literally feels the pain of the person who has been wronged.

When did this guilt culture emerge? Historians usually link it to the rise of Protestantism, the expansion of the market economy, and the emancipation of the individual from the kin group, all of which happened—or are said to have happened—over the last thousand years. Yet there is compelling evidence for an earlier time frame. At the dawn of history, the peoples along the North Sea and the Baltic already had relatively loose kinship ties, a tendency toward prolonged celibacy, and a high level of circulation of non-kin individuals between households.

This behavioral package would enable them to exploit the potential of later historical developments, particularly the rise of the market economy. Back then, however, its usefulness was far from obvious. The future seemed to belong to other peoples, and not to these barbarians on the edge of the known world.

So how did this package come into being so long before modernity? And why? At first, I thought the cause was the introduction of agriculture to Northwest Europe. Only farming can create a population density that is high enough for people to enlarge their circle of interaction beyond that of close kin. Previously, there was only hunting and gathering, and hunter-gatherers were just small bands of closely related individuals. That kind of social setting has little need for either shame or guilt, a good example being the Inuit of northern Canada:

That is, in the past, the individual was expected and encouraged to do what he wanted, and thus had little guilt over most acts. In fact, there was so little censure, overtly, that one could do whatever one could get away with. But there was always the shame — concern with what people would think. What guilt existed was very archaic and related to oral incorporation and “bad mother” fears. Taboo-breaking was always a problem but at least one was not “guilty,” but simply inappropriate in his acts. That is, one had to suffer the shame of exposing one’s inappropriate acts to the spirits as one’s inappropriate social acts would be noted and subtly censured by friends. (Hippler, 1973)

In these simple societies, “guilt” was little more than fear of retaliation, either from living people or from spirits. In both cases, there was no real empathy with the person who had been wronged. Mental anguish was produced by fear and not by any feeling of the other person’s pain. 

The first complex societies of Northwest Europe

I was therefore surprised to learn that the first complex societies of Northwest Europe were hunter-gatherers, or rather hunter-fisher-gatherers:

The societies of the last hunters (and fishers and gatherers) of northern Europe appear to have evolved quickly toward increasing complexity in the period prior to the spread of agriculture. Complexity is defined by greater diversity (more things) and integration (more connections). Advances in technology, settlement, and subsistence are preserved in the archaeological record. During this period technology developed toward greater efficiency in transport, tools, and food procurement. Settlements were generally larger, more enduring, and more differentiated in the Mesolithic than in the preceding Paleolithic. Food procurement was both more specialized and more diversified-specialized in terms of the technology and organization of foraging activities, and diversified in terms of the numbers and kinds of species and habitats exploited. (Price, 1991)

We like to see hunter-gatherers as beautiful losers who were steamrollered out of existence by much savvier and more numerous farming peoples. In reality, from around 8,500 BP, these hunter-fisher-gatherers of the North Sea and the Baltic began to achieve ever higher levels of population density and social complexity that would put them on a par with farming peoples farther south. They were thus able to stop the advance of farming for two to three thousand years:

After a rapid spread across Central Europe, […] farming communities came to a halt in the North European Plain, leaving the coastal areas of the North Sea occupied by hunter-gatherers. […]

This could not have been due to ecological conditions. The frontier extends across a uniform geographical area, and the soils of southern Scandinavia are, in many places, light, fertile, and favorable for cultivation […]. The reason for the delay must be sought in the late Mesolithic communities of the region. Although regional differences exist […], hunter-gatherers in the southern Baltic region are likely to have had a greater population density than central European foragers […], larger and more permanent settlements […], and a complex economic pattern involving specialized extraction camps, seasonal scheduling, and seasonally intensive use of specific resources […] (Zvelebil and Dolukhanov, 1991)

These North Sea and Baltic peoples were semi-sedentary. Most of them lived from spring to fall in large coastal agglomerations where they fished, sealed, and collected shellfish. They then dispersed to small inland hunting stations (Price, 1991). Johansen (2006) has argued for a higher degree of mobility: “a number of small groups rotating between sites on a seasonal basis within a confined territory, but perhaps periodically aggregating at key localities.” Bang-Andersen (1996) states: “In certain areas such as the seaboard of central West Norway, particularly resource-rich marine and terrestrial environments may have made it possible to stay within restricted parts of the region all the year round on a diffuse sedentary basis.” Most areas, however, had “a permanent or semi-permanent base camp on the coast, a certain number of extended extraction sites for seasonal hunting, gathering and fishing activities, a larger amount of transitory sites, and an almost indefinite number of special purpose sites or single-activity loci.”

It was in the coastal agglomerations that Northwest Europeans began to develop social relations in a setting where most people were not close kin. Unlike farming communities, there seems to have been a continual demographic turnover, with people spending part of the year in small bands and then regrouping in much larger settlements. It was perhaps this fluid environment that made guilt more effective than shame, since shaming works to the extent that one continues to interact with those who have witnessed the shameful act.

But this raises another question. How did guilt become so dominant within these populations? What is to stop some individuals from exploiting the guilt proneness of others while feeling no guilt themselves? This free-rider dilemma may have been resolved in part by identifying such individuals and ostracizing them. It may also be that these semi-sedentary communities were conducive to evolution of altruistic behavior, as described by Maynard Smith’s haystack model (Wikipedia, 2013). According to this model, guilt-prone individuals are at a disadvantage within any one community and will thus become fewer and fewer with each generation. If, however, a community has a high proportion of guilt-prone individuals, it will have an advantage over other communities and thus expand in numbers at their expense. And if these communities disperse and regroup on a regular basis, the overall proportion of guilt-prone individuals will increase over time. 


History is not always what we think it to be. This is not just because of bad data. There is also the way we imagine the stages of human progress, i.e., hunting and gathering, farming and, finally, modern industrial society. Each stage led to the next, and it was ultimately farming that prepared us for the modern world.

In reality, it was the hunter-fisher-gatherers of the North Sea and the Baltic who led the way to behavioral modernity, i.e., individualism, reduced emphasis on kinship, and the market as the main organizing principle of social and economic life. Their mode of subsistence was not wiped out by agriculture, unless one sees fishing as a kind of farming. They not only survived, but also went on to create what we now call the Western World. Not bad for a bunch of losers. 

In a recent post, hbd* chick (2013) has shown how these societies were the locomotive of sustained economic growth within Europe long before Europeans began to expand their trade to Africa and the New World. She quotes a study by Greer (2013):

By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the ‘West’ begins its more famous split from ‘the rest.’

[…] we can pin point the beginning of this ‘little divergence’ with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time. 

We can go farther back to the steady expansion of North Sea trade from the 7th century onward (Callmer, 2002). There were external influences here and there, but most of this growth seems to have been endogenous, the main external influence being an international context that made trade more and more profitable. The rest—mindset, behavior, culture—was locally supplied.


Bang-Andersen, S. (1996). Coast/Inland Relations in the Mesolithic of Southern Norway, World Archaeology, 27, 427-443.

Callmer, (2002). North–European trading centres and the early medieval craftsman. Craftsmen at Åhus, North-Eastern Scania, Sweden ca. AD 750-850+, UppSkrastudier 6 (Acta Archaeologica Lundensia Ser. in 8, no. 39), 133-158.

Greer, T. (2013). Another look at the ‘Rise of the West’ - but with better numbers, November 20

Hbd *chick (2013). Going Dutch, November 29 

Hippler, A.E. (1973). Some observations on witchcraft: the case of the Aivilik Eskimos, Arctic, 26, 198-207. 

Johansen, K.L. (2006). Settlement and land use at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Southern Scandinavia, Journal of Danish Archaeology, 14, 201-223.

Price, T.D. (1991). The Mesolithic of Northern Europe, Annual Review of Anthropology, 20, 211-233.

Wikipedia (2013). Group selection. 

Zvelebil, M. and P. Dolukhanov. (1991). The transition to farming in Eastern and Northern Europe, Journal of World Prehistory, 5, 233-278.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The origins of Northwest European guilt culture

Ruth Benedict first made the distinction between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” (source). Pervasive feelings of guilt are part of a behavioral package that enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to complex social environments where kinship is less important and where rules of correct behavior must be obeyed with a minimum of surveillance. Is this pervasive guilt relatively recent, going back only half a millennium? Or is it much older?

As societies grew larger and more complex, it became necessary to interact with people who were less closely related. This new social environment was made to work by extending to non-kin the sort of conduct (trust, empathy, desire to cooperate, etc.) previously reserved for kin. To this end, language was manipulated: people would call each other “brother” and “sister” even when not from the same family. They also became more attuned to enforcement of correct behavior, either through external controls (shame) or through internal controls (guilt).

Shame is the primary means of behavioral control in most societies. If you are seen breaking a social rule, you will feel shame, and this feeling will be reinforced by what people say and do (gossiping, malicious looks, spitting, ostracism, etc.). Shame is much less effective if you break a rule without being seen or if you merely think about breaking a rule.

Guilt is more important in European societies, particularly those of Northwest European origin. It operates even when you act alone or merely think about breaking a rule. Behavior can thus be regulated in all possible situations with a minimum of surveillance.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes how guilt differs from shame:

True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case, it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man’s feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin. (Benedict, 1946, p. 223)

The high level of guilt in Western societies is often attributed to various traumatic events like the Holocaust, the assassination of JFK, the heritage of black slavery, the dispossession of the American Indian, and so on. Actually, a pervasive sense of guilt can be normal and even healthy. As Baumeister et al. (1994) explain:

Guilt serves various relationship-enhancing functions, including motivating people to treat partners well and avoid transgressions, minimizing inequities and enabling less powerful partners to get their way, and redistributing emotional distress.

Historically, guilt has proven to be a useful adaptation, being part of a larger behavioral package that has enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to a social environment where kinship matters less and individualism matters more. This package is widely believed to have come together over the last thousand years, with increased reliance on guilt going back only half a millennium. The conventional view among historians may be summarized as follows:

11th century onward – Throughout Western Europe, states pacified social relations by imposing the death penalty for murder and other acts of personal violence. People no longer had to rely as much on kinsmen for protection of life and property (see previous post).

14th century – The Black Death created a widespread labor shortage that increased labor mobility and led to the dissolution of feudalism. The rural population was no longer bound to the land in static communities of closely related individuals.

16th century onward – Most of Northwest Europe converted to Protestantism, which emphasized the individual’s relationship with God. Faith became interiorized, and behavior became regulated more through the workings of private conscience and less through acts of public worship. Guilt also assumed more importance because it could no longer be routinely purged through confession (Carroll, 1981).

16th century onward – The market economy expanded beyond the marketplace at the expense of domestic modes of production. Instead of growing their own food, making their own clothes, and manufacturing their own wares, families increasingly sold what they made and bought what they needed. The family ceased to be the main organizing principle of economic and social relations (Seccombe, 1992).

This conventional view is not wholly false. From the 11th century to the 20th, the individual became more and more important in Northwest Europe while kinship became less and less so. Meanwhile, the same region broke away from Catholicism to create a more individualistic and guilt-based version of Christianity.

Of course, we are left with the question as to why these changes happened more readily there than elsewhere. Moreover, if we go back to the beginning of the past millennium, we still see a tendency towards greater individualism and looser kinship ties. The market economy was already replacing kinship as the main organizing principle of society:

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

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

Individualism was strong even within the nuclear family:

Probably from Anglo-Saxon times – and certainly from the thirteenth century – children had no automatic rights in a parent’s property. A child could be disinherited; there is no ‘family property’, nemo est heres viventis (no one is the heir of a living person). Maitland documents this in detail, showing that from at least the thirteenth century parents could leave their property to whom they liked – and by gift, sale or will disinherit all their children if they so wished. (Macfarlane, 2012)

This was before the Black Death and thus barely fits into the conventional timeline of the origins of individualism. Does the picture change if we go further back in time?

Anglo-Saxon times and earlier

Family structures

Further back, before the last thousand years, the evidence becomes sparser. Nonetheless, we still see signs of weaker kinship ties and greater individualism in Northwest Europe:

Most family systems take as their basic premise that the group is more important than the individual. This is both caused by and reflected in their way of conceiving how people are related to each other, how kinship is passed on or what anthropologists call 'descent'. The majority of societies are what is known as 'unilineal', that is, they trace their ancestors or descendants through one gender alone, usually male, but sometimes female. This allows them to form into 'descent groups' of relatives. This is the case, for instance, in most of China, India and Africa and it was the breakdown of these larger 'corporate' groups that Weber thought marked out the West.

In contrast, if we inspect our own thoughts about the family, we will probably find that they show that, unusually, we operate in what is known as an 'ego-focused' cognatic system. This is a way of tracing relatives simultaneously through the male and female lines and of taking as the point of departure the individual who is tracing the relatives. This is part of a European-wide system (with a few variations). What is most striking, is that in England, as in much of Europe, this system of reckoning kin has remained practically unchanged since at least the seventh century. […]

Such a system already predisposes a society towards flexibility, networks and the concept of the individual as more important than the group. Indeed, there are no groups, just ego-centred networks of people. Each individual's kin (except brothers or sisters) is different. This is a central underpinning of an individualistic way of looking at the world. Already, by the Anglo-Saxon period, the movement away from strong family blocks, Weber's de-familization of society, had begun to occur. (Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174; see also hbd* chick here and here)

The antiquity of these flexible family structures is supported by the antiquity of a related phenomenon: the Western European marriage pattern. West of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg, marriage has long had the following characteristics:

- relatively late marriage for men and women

- many people who never marry

- neolocality (children leave the family household to form new households)

- high circulation of non-kin among different households (typically young people sent out as servants) (Hajnal, 1965; ICA, 2013).

This pattern used to be attributed to the effects of the Black Death, but recent historical work has challenged this view, as in this study of marriage between 1252 and 1478 in an English community:

The average age at first marriage in the Lincolnshire Fenland before the Black Death would be 24 years for the woman and 32 years for the man. The wife would die one year before her husband and the marriage would last for about 13 years. The couple could have six children, if their fertility was higher than average, of whom, judging by pedigrees, perhaps three would survive to become adults. After the Black Death the mean age would be 27 for the woman and 32 for the man. The husband would die three years before his wife and the marriage would last about 12 years. Again the couple could have six children, of whom perhaps three would survive to become adult. (Hallam, 1985, p. 66)

Hallam (1985, p. 56) also points to evidence of late marriage in 9th-century France. On the estates of the Abbey of St Germain-des-Prés near Paris, about 16.3% of all adults were unmarried. In Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, the figure was 11.5%. Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites a 9th-century survey of the Church of St Victor of Marseille, where both men and women appear to have married in their mid to late twenties. Going even farther back, Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites the description by Tacitus (56-117) of Germanic women being “not hurried into marriage [and] as old and as full-grown as the men [who were] slow to mate.”


In Anglo-Saxon England, guilt already existed as a major means of behavioral control. The English abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010) described it as a special kind of shame where the witnesses to the wrongful act are divine entities or spirits of the dead:

He who cannot because of shame confess his faults to one man, then it must shame him before the heaven-dwellers and the earth-dwellers and the hell-dwellers, and the shame for him will be endless. (Bedingfield, 2002, p. 80)

This argument comes up repeatedly in Anglo-Saxon literature, where it forms a ‘penitential motif’:

The motif runs: it is better to be shamed for one's sins before one man (the confessor) in this life than to be shamed before God and before all angels and before all men and before all devils at the Last Judgement. (Godden, 1973)

Guilt thus played a major role in English culture at least as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. Furthermore, it seems to have been indigenous:

One particularly interesting fact that emerges is the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon character of the motif. Not only did it circulate widely in Old English writings but the only two Latin works in which I have been able to find it were written by Anglo-Saxons — Alcuin and Boniface. Moreover an important element of the motif, the notion of three hosts present at the Last Judgement, is itself characteristic of Anglo-Saxon writers: the usual representation of the Last Judgement in continental works (as in Alcuin's letter) has the angels and all mankind present, and sometimes the devil as prosecutor, but not the whole host of devils, whereas the concept of the three hosts, as in Boniface's homily, is very common in Old English writings generally. (Godden, 1973)

Frantzen (1983) argues that the penitential tradition first developed in Anglo-Saxon England and then was exported to the continent in the 8th century. It is thus inaccurate to see this guilt culture as something that Christianity introduced into Northwest Europe. Instead, an indigenous guilt culture seems to have modified the historical development of Western Catholic Christianity, eventually giving rise to Protestantism.

A possibly earlier witness to Anglo-Saxon guilt is the epic poem The Song of Beowulf. The hero’s “dark thoughts” come from private fears of having broken some rule, as opposed to shame over a publicly known wrongdoing:

That was sorrow to the good man's soul, greatest of griefs to the heart. The wise man thought that, breaking established law, he had bitterly angered God, the Lord everlasting. His breast was troubled within by dark thoughts, as was not his wont. The Song of Beowulf, 90

With Beowulf, we are entering the transition between paganism and Christianity. Indeed, a pagan underlay is already visible in the above quote by Aelfric. Why should Christians worry about their wrongdoings being witnessed by “hell-dwellers”? The word ‘hell’ seems to be used in the old pagan sense (abode of the dead) rather than in the newer Christian sense (place of damnation). 


Clearly, the last thousand years have seen Northwest Europeans become increasingly individualistic and guilt-driven. Nonetheless, this behavioral trajectory began long before the timeline of the last millennium. In fact, it seems to have begun before the dawn of history.

It looks as though Northwest Europeans had already become pre-adapted to conditions that would arise much later. They would thus be better able to exploit the potential of later social environments, in particular the market economy. 

This raises questions of how and why. How did Northwest Europeans initially make the transition to more complex social relations? Why did they adopt a mode of socialization that was so different from that of other complex societies? And why the greater reliance on guilt as a means of regulating behavior?

To be cont’d


Anon. (1900). The Song of Beowulf, London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Baumeister, R.F., A.M. Stillwell, and T.F. Heatherton. (1994). Guilt: An interpersonal approach, Psychological Bulletin, 115, 243-267.

Bedingfield, M.D. (2002). The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, The Boydell Press.

Benedict, R. (1946 [2005]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture, First Mariner Books.

Carroll, J. (1981). The role of guilt in the formation of modern society: England 1350-1800, The British Journal of Sociology, 32, 459-503.

Frantzen, A.J. (1983). The literature of penance in Anglo-Saxon England, New Brunswick (N.J.): Rutgers University Press.

Godden, M.R. (1973). An Old English penitential motif, Anglo-Saxon England, 2, 221-239.

Hajnal, John (1965). European marriage pattern in historical perspective. In D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley. Population in History. Arnold, London.

Hallam, H.E. (1985). Age at first marriage and age at death in the Lincolnshire Fenland, 1252-1478, Population Studies, 39, 55-69. 

ICA (2013). Research Themes – Marriage Patterns, Institutions for Collective Action 

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. 

Macfarlane, A. (1992). On individualism, Proceedings of the British Academy, 82, 171-199. 

Macfarlane, A. (2012). The invention of the modern world. Chapter 8: Family, friendship and population, The Fortnightly Review, Spring-Summer serial 

Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe, London: Verso.