Saturday, May 17, 2014

Another Robert Chambers?

Robert Chambers (1802-1871). His anonymously published book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), helped pave the way for public acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. (source)


I haven't yet read Nicholas Wade's book A Troublesome Inheritance. I will venture to say, however, that it will be remembered less for its actual content than for its role in encouraging discussion of a difficult topic. In particular, it will familiarize a broad audience with the following points:

1. Biological evolution did not slow down with the advent of cultural evolution. In fact, it speeded up, particularly when farming began to replace hunting and gathering some 10,000 years ago. At that time, the pace of genetic change may have risen a hundred-fold.

2. Cultural evolution diversified the range of human environments. Instead of adapting only to differences in climate or food sources, like other animals, our species also adapted to differences in social structure, in the division of labor, in the means of subsistence, in unwritten or codified norms of conduct, in the degree of sedentary living, and in many other human-made phenomena. Our ancestors reshaped their environments, and these human-made environments reshaped them via gene-culture co-evolution.

3. This gene-culture co-evolution persisted into modern times. The English population, for instance, evolved between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries in terms of certain behavioral traits, particularly future time orientation and distaste for violence as a means to settle personal disputes. As Gregory Clark has shown, this behavioral change resulted from a demographic change—the relative reproductive success of the middle and upper classes—which altered the composition of the English gene pool. So the mantra that "we, too, were once savages" does not, in fact, deny the reality of biological evolution. It affirms it.

4. Human populations thus differ not only anatomically but also in various mental and behavioral predispositions. These differences are statistical and often apparent only when one compares large numbers of people. But even a weak statistical difference can profoundly affect how a society will develop and organize itself.

5. Finally, Richard Lewontin was right when he reported that genes vary much more within populations than between populations. He was unaware, however, that genetic variability between populations is qualitatively different from genetic variability within a population. The more a gene has value, the more it will vary across a population boundary, since such boundaries usually coincide with barriers that separate different habitats, different environments, different means of subsistence and, hence, different selection pressures. Conversely, the less a gene has value, the more it will vary within a population, that is, among individuals who share similar conditions of life. The selection pressure is uniform but this uniformity will not level out the variability of such genes within the population—much as a steam iron will smooth a rumpled shirt—since this variability is less phenotypically significant, i.e., it produces fewer functional differences that natural selection can act on. 

Are there questionable points in Wade's book? Undoubtedly. But we should not wait until all issues are settled before we put pen to paper. Writing is a process where ideas are shared with a broader audience for debate. We may forget that The Origin of Species was written without any knowledge of Mendelian genetics. We may also forget, or simply not know, that Darwin’s path to public acceptance was cleared by an earlier book: Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Although its anonymous author, Robert Chambers, had no understanding of natural selection, he nonetheless played a key role in familiarizing the public with the fossil record and the reality of biological change over time. As one historian pointed out:

It is customary among biographers of Darwin to speak of the excitement which greeted the appearance of the Origin and of Huxley's able defense of Darwin at Oxford in his clash with Bishop Wilberforce. Actually, however, by the time Darwin published, Robert Chambers had drawn much of the first wrath of the critics and the intelligent public was at least reasonably prepared to consider a more able, scientific presentation of the subject.

[…] The attacks which the scientific world launched upon the Vestiges have, in retrospect, a quite unreal character. They belabor minutiae and amateurish minor errors as though there was some subconscious recognition that the heart of the thesis was unassailable.

[…] With its publication and success as a best seller, the world of fashion discovered evolution. The restricted professional worlds of science and of theology both lost their ability to suppress or intimidate public thinking upon the matter.

[…] By 1859, when the Origin of Species was published, an aroused and eager audience was considerably prepared for the revelations of Charles Darwin. The great amateur disputant and the great professional scholar should always be remembered as having together won the public mind to evolution. (Eiseley, 1958, pp. 134, 138, 139)


Chambers, R. (1844). Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, London: John Churchill

Eiseley, L. (1958). Darwin's Century. Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, New York: Anchor Books.

Wade, N. (2014). A Troublesome Inheritance. Genes, Race and Human History, Penguin Books.



Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to make of Wade's more speculative claims he makes about changes in social behavior since the Middle Ages. But the fundamental premise of his work is compelling.

Humans clearly have undergone quite a lot of evolution since they dispersed from East Africa. Most human populations have clearly experienced considerable physical evolution, much of it in the last 15,000 years. This is particularly well illustrated by the fact that the earliest people in the Americas looked quite different from recent Native Americans despite being unmistakably ancestral to them genetically.

If selective pressures acting on a small number of genes could exert a significant impact on the external anatomy of various populations since the end of the Pleistocene, there seems little reason to rule out the possibility that the same process could have molded genes affecting the brain or the endocrine system.

One thing that surprised me about Wade's book is that he neglects discussion of Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture in non-Africans - not to mention the less-discussed but accumulating evidence for archaic back-crossing within Africa itself. It's a curious omission because these discoveries, if anything, strengthen his case for copious, recent, regional evolution.

Sean said...

At present genetic equality is officially assumed, it follows that disparate impact is evidence of racial discrimination (though the rubric isn't officially applied to immigration, yet). What motivates Wade and others to try and get hard empirical science accepted is a belief that certain societal arrangements would be modified.

Those speaking against Chambers were worried what would logically follow, or happen, were his ideas to be accepted; "evolutionary theories were exceedingly unpopular, except among political radicals". Chambers's book was popular, but the sky didn't fall in. Darwin benefited because the real opposition to him was of a similar type.

It's quite clear that Wade's topic is treated with a lack of realism whenever it is discussed merely from a hard science merits perspective. Supposing points 1-5 were known to be correct; would it necessarily follow, given current Western ethical premises, that society ought to acknowledge those facts? I don't think so.

Bear in mind than people like Bryan Caplan ignore the fact that in Western society hurting others is a fast track to being locked up or worse, and implicitly claim that our felt 'moral obligations' are what is responsible for us not acting like Nazi psychopaths (which he appears to believe is the natural default condition for humans).

Until it's shown that human decency will not be greatly changed by accepting the reality of human evolution, it's going to be rejected by the establishment.
There needs to be more, much more, explained about the genetic basis of decency and morality, so that we can all be be reassured. Until then:-

"MAN is a questioning creature, constantly striving for answers. But there is some knowledge for which he's not yet ready. Secrets once learned overwhelm him. Secrets that for now are best left the Twilight Zone."

peppermint said...

Is Nicholas Wade John the Baptist or Jesus Christ? Personally, I think Gregory Cochran and an army of HBD bloggers are John the Baptist, and Wade gets to be Christ, but maybe society still isn't ready for HBD.

pseudoerasmus said...

I'm not sure what to make of Wade's more speculative claims he makes about changes in social behavior since the Middle Ages.

It's not Wade's claims, they are Gregory Clark's claims, and they are not nearly as speculative as everyone makes out -/ especially if you look at the Clarkian "survival of the richest" in IQ terms, which Clark does not. But what Clark actually documented in probate records ia remarkable — an actual eugenic effect in historical time. This has got to be as close to an actual witnessing of human evolution by natural selection as it is possible to get. Almost like watching moths adapt colours in response to the industrial revolution, or finches' beaks evolving. Yet this "social phenotype" evidence is dismissed by many because it's not accompanied by genomic data. But by that standard most evolutionary arguments from phenotype are pure speculations.

Anonymous said...

"Cultural evolution diversified the range of human environments."

artificial evolution

Anonymous I said...

This is a great article, Peter! I hadn't really realized or considered your point 5 before; nor had I ever heard of Robert Chambers. It's interesting to see this kind of pattern occurring even in Darwin's day.

Sean said...

NYT on Wade's book The Reviewer considers that even to say "social institutions and culture explain why Europe beat Asia to prosperity, and why parts of the Mideast and Africa continue to suffer destabilizing violence and misery" is 'controversial'. Wade gives evolutionary explanations while being "surprisingly sanguine assumptions about the ability of science to generate facts free from the cultural mesh of its times."

Arthur Allen suggests what gave, and gives, hereditarian ideas their credibility was a "tendency to support what powerful people wanted to believe?". I was not aware of any billionaire or politician who backs HBD.

Mr. Arthur ends his review by pointedly quoting Ludwik Fleck. Bruno Latour named Fleck “the founder of sociology of science”. Latour is worth harkening to:-

"Modernity, in Latour’s view, is the attempt at a double purifying movement. The world is split into two mutually exclusive zones: nature and society. Nature is single and absolute, an armada of objective facts about atoms and other hard red billiard balls, pure in their resistance to any human interference. On the flip side, cultures are numerous, arbitrary, and merely perspectival without any binding claim of one over the other. As Latour puts it in his Politics of Nature, multiculturalism is always allied with a mononaturalism. The modern world swings wildly from one pole to the other, but remains constant in always denouncing the other. We can take the nature side, and denounce the sophists who pervert truth with base political motives. Or we can take the society pole and denounce those who believe in objective truth, celebrating the collapse of all objective reality, championing the multitude of diverse social perspectives, shouting out to the world that the high priests of truth are merely manipulating a cloak of objectivity to cover selfish power-interests. To repeat, these two positions, mononaturalism and multiculturalism, seem like the most extreme opponents, but are really two symptoms of the same mistake. Both employ the critical method of denunciation, getting rid of all natural reality on the one hand or all perspective and power on the other. Both attitudes are simply forms of metaphysics in thbad, old-fashioned sense, taking one layer of reality to be the genuine article, and explaining all others in terms of it, reducing them to mere derivatives, flickering shadows in the caves of the deluded. Modernity consists in the theory that our enemies are trapped in the cave, bewitched by superstitions or language or power-games, while we ourselves stand above the fray. The modernist is at bottom a fundamentalist, issuing death warrants for Infidel Nature or Infidel Society. Knowledge will come from exterminating all toxic residues of the enemy."

Anonymous said...

Peter, could you elaborate on point 5 making illustrative examples?

Thanks you very much. I am a layman in genetics.

Peter Fros_ said...


Admixture, in itself, does not fall under evolution by natural selection. You have to show that the admixture is adaptive, i.e., it provides useful alleles that would not otherwise be available. There is some evidence that this is the case, although it also looks like most of the archaic admixture provided nothing useful to modern humans.

There was a lot of talk that the derived Microcephalin allele was of Neanderthal origin. This turned out to be false; so people are now wary of the hypothesis that archaic admixture helped make modern humans what they are today.


There's also a lot of groupthink. People believe because their friends and peers believe, and those people believe for the same reason. It's a vicious circle that will stop only when leading intellectuals begin to step forward. Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, could say a few words about Wade's book.

Most money-making opportunities involve outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries and insourcing of low-wage labor. So billionaires
have a vested interest in globalism. Wade's book throws a spanner into their dreams of easy money.


It's more exact to say that Greg Cochran is both John the Baptist and Christ. As the space of discourse expands, he and others like him will be able to reach a broader audience. The process will feed on itself. The important thing today is to move beyond the blogosphere and reach people via the traditional media.


It will be interesting to read what Gregory Clark has to say about Wade's book.


Or human-directed evolution?

Anon I,

This is a recurring pattern. New ways of thinking are initially bottled up in the "anti-culture" -- the part of a society's culture that has no legitimacy and is systematically ignored by mainstream discourse. People nonetheless become exposed to the anti-culture while not openly acknowledging its existence. This situation can continue for a certain time but it becomes more and more fragile to the extent that mainstream discourse fails to provide believable answers. A crisis may eventually develop where secret disenchantment with mainstream discourse reaches a critical mass.

Sean said...

From what I can gather, Wade apparently says the 20's American dysgenics movement led to gassing of handicapped in (wartime) Germany, and also 'ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas'. here.

Wade accepts that hereditarianism was an 'intellectual influence on Hitler'. I think it is relevant that, given the Nazi regime, WW2 was the causal factor in the killing of the (German) handicapped, other atrocities. US academics were not causal in German National Socialism. What was, was... Hitler. And anyone who knows anything about Hitler knows he was inspired by the operas of Wagner. Rienzi seems to have had a tremedous effect on him as an adolescent. Hitler came to lead Germany through his extraordinary oratorical gift for speaking convincingly (which was remarked on while he was still in his teens) and single mindedness. He also had the inestimable advantage of Marxist fertiliser to make his movement grow. It owed nothing at all to hereditarianism.

Hispan said...

I use to forget about the #5 point with regards to Lewontin's Fallacy. It's a really important idea to keep in mind. Anyway, I still prefer Edwards' criticism, even if it is less easy to explain. It's not just that more adaptive alleles don't vary within populations as much as "neutral" ones: besides that, the genetic information is structured. When several loci are considered at the same time, you can build phylogenetic trees where everybody will find a place.'s_Fallacy

It's my understanding that this latter fact is even more undermining of Lewontin's trick.

Anonymous said...

Well, before Wade we have Hart and "Understanding Human history"

Peter Fros_ said...


For more discussion of #5, you can read:
Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740–748

The following is an excerpt:

The same genetic overlap exists not only between populations of one species, like our own, but also between related species, like canids. “[U]sing genetic and biochemical methods, researchers have shown domestic dogs to be virtually identical in many respects to other members of the genus. … there is less mtDNA difference between dogs, wolves and coyotes than there is between the various ethnic groups of human beings, which are recognized as belonging to a single species” [6, p. 32-33].

Many other examples could be cited. In the deer family, we see more genetic variability within some species than between some genera [7]. Some masked shrew populations are genetically closer to prairie shrews than they are to other masked shrews [8]. Only a minority of mallards cluster together on an mtDNA tree, the rest being scattered among black ducks [9]. All six species of Darwin’s ground finches seem to form a genetically homogeneous genus with very little concordance between mtDNA, nuclear DNA, and morphology [10]. In terms of genetic distance, redpoll finches from one species are not significantly closer to each other than are redpolls from different species [11]. Among the haplochromine cichlids of Lake Victoria, it is extremely difficult to find interspecies differences in either nuclear or mitochondrial genes, even though these fishes are well differentiated morphologically and behaviorally [12]. Neither mtDNA nor allozyme alleles distinguish the various species of Lycaedis butterflies, despite clear differences in morphology [13]. An extreme example is a dog tumor that spreads to other dogs through sexual contact: canine transmissible venereal sarcoma (CTVS). It looks and acts like an infectious microbe, yet its genes would reveal a canid and conceivably some beagles may be genetically closer to it than to Great Danes [14].

Peter Fros_ said...

In sum, total genetic variation poorly mirrors genetic variation in adaptive traits, be they morphological, behavioral, or physiological. Keep in mind that a new species typically arises when a founder group buds off from a parent population and enters a new environment with new selection pressures. The new selection pressures, however, will leave most of its genome unchanged. In some cases, this is because the gene itself has little adaptive value (e.g., most genetic markers), often being no more than ‘junk DNA’. In other cases, the gene’s variants are equally adaptive in a variety of organisms. Many blood polymorphisms span not only different species but even different genera. In terms of the ABO system, for instance, a person may have more in common with some apes than with other people [15].

Of course, once the two populations have become reproductively isolated, they no longer accumulate the same mutations and will drift apart at all gene loci, including the many that weakly respond to natural selection. But this process is slow. For example, redpoll finches diverged into two species some fifty thousand years ago and have distinct phenotypes, yet their mitochondrial DNA shows a single undifferentiated gene pool [16]. The past ten thousand years have seen dogs diverge into distinct breeds, which nonetheless cannot be told apart by genetic markers. In fact, greater mtDNA differences exist within the single breeds of Doberman pinscher or poodle than between dogs and wolves [6].

One might argue that humans have artificially created dog breeds by using limited criteria that involve a small set of genes. This objection is not wholly true. Many breeds, such as dingoes, originated in prehistory long before kennel clubs. More to the point, if one argues that artificial selection acts on relatively few genes, it does not follow that natural selection acts on the whole genome. In fact, we are still looking at a small set of genes, a larger one than what dog breeders use, but still much smaller than the genome. It is no surprise, then, that human populations overlap so much genetically. They began to move apart only some fifty thousand years ago.

Sean said...

70022853649Peter, the above terminology to explain adaptation is likely to result in a trench war, and get us nowhere. No one can deny a hell of a lot of selection happened to everyone, that is certain. The HBD position with rock solid support is it cannot be a default assumption that all populations have had the same pressures to adapt to; the unity of all humankind notwithstanding.

I'm not so sure that the recent evolution known to be as important or intense as some of the books are claiming.

Parallel selection pressures were still operating after races separated. The early modern Europeans of 20,000 years ago were huge and robust. This is the signature of selection for violence. Europeans lost a chunk of brain the size of a tennis ball after the Ice Age. "Bailey and Geary found population density did indeed track closely with brain size, but in a surprising way. When population numbers were low, as was the case for most of our evolution, the cranium kept getting bigger. But as population went from sparse to dense in a given area, cranial size declined in Europe, China, Africa, Malaysia”"(happened in Australia too). Also see here. I know you think it was hunting algorithms, but John Hawkes is still arguing about the cause of cranial reduction.

There was a reduction in size, robustness and brain. All this is quite comparable to the changes seen in domesticated animals. The human species became tamer and less violent; which was due to increased population density at the end of the last Ice Age, there was selection for social adaptations instead of violence. This explains why it isn't just the populations that lived in advanced civilisations that lack brutal psychopathy as a default.

The main danger for HBD is overstating the differences between, for instance, English and Nigerians, because very many people will bring to mind 100% sub Saharan Africans they know who seem not so different to Europeans in social behaviour; at least not to the extent that 10,000 years of completely different selection would suggest. Civilisation is recent and more intense version of hunter gatherer domestication that had already been around for a very long time among hunter gatherers, and eliminated the main cause of violent death. The lion's share of the elimination of violence may well have happened happened thousands of years before the first civilisations.

Countless books on psychology implicitly claim that this elimination of endemic individual violence was the worst thing that ever happened to humanity. That is what writers do when religion and nationalism are cited as the most destructive ideas of all time and to blame for all humanity's troubles, like race or 'essentialism'. All these culprits are merely proxies for group thinking, which is actually what allowed humans to progress to a more benevolent existence, even before agriculture.

So in a nutshell there should never be any kind of implied analogy within living modern humankind to domesticated and wild, to dogs and wolves: all humans are domesticated.

Sean said...

"People believe because their friends and peers believe, and those people believe for the same reason. It's a vicious circle that will stop only when leading intellectuals begin to step forward. Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, could say a few words about Wade's book."

I wonder, was the fall of communism in eastern Europe was due to principled critique from intellectuals. Or, was it because the authorities in countries where people had to stand in queues for hours to get bread, let the population (and even the Apparatchiks) see American programs like like 'Dallas'.

The Western nomenclatura are going to have to see some advantage for themselves. One interesting difference between wolves and dogs is that if you give a wolf a difficult task it will keep on and on trying to find a way to get it done. Dogs will try and then attempt to get it's master to help.

Chris Crawford said...

A few thoughts:

1. What is the basis for the statement that human evolution has speeded up a hundred-fold since the rise of civilization? Is it based on genome analysis? Given the high amount of variance in populations, I would think that we would neither either stupendous changes to detect such a fast rate of change, or huge numbers of genome analyses to produce such a number.

2. If the nature of English society did indeed produce a genetically superior race, as Mr. Clark asserts, then why did it not continue its triumphs after the Industrial Revolution? Should not Great Britain have become the world super-power, and continued in that position to this day? How could the USA, with its large population of mongrel races from Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Italy, and Asia, have surpassed the superior English race? Quite troubling, this.

3. You might want to examine "Reason and Society in the Middle Ages", by Alexander Murray. He asserts that the selection process for rational thinking began much earlier, perhaps as early as the 11th century, and was not confined to England. For example, he provides a quotation from a Florentine bigwig named Bruni in 1428 on social mobility in that city:

"The hope of winning public honors and ascending is the same for all, provided they possess industry and natural gifts, and lead a serious-minded and respected way of life... it is marvelous to see how powerful this access to public office, once it is offered to a free people, proves to be in awakening the talents of the citizens. For where men are given the hope of attaining honor in the state, they take courage and raise themselves to a higher plane; where they are deprived of that hope, they grow idle and lose their strength."

Thus, the advantage that Mr. Clark attributes to the English seems to have been present in Italy beforehand. Moreover, I do not recall him doing a comparative study showing that social mobility in continental European societies was less than it was in England. As I recall, he merely showed the existence of social mobility in English society. So what?

Anonymous said...

Communism fall because it was required from most people living in double-thinking reality, lying, turning blind eye to many things and so on. In the same time not the most able raised to the top, but most able with the art of deception and political games.

Most decent people could not practice this good enough, and there were only that few ideological, true-believing communist, which were rarely intelligent enough. As the result, at the top eventually you had bunch of opportunists which did not really believed what they were preaching. In 1989, when party had "test discussions" everyone wanted to play the role of the opposition, and no one could bring any examples against them.

When elites don't care about the system, and population hates the system, system fall is inevitable. It's just question of time. In case of Poland, you could argue that it took at least 20 years, when elites already thought the system is bad.

Anonymous said...

Moreover, I do not recall him doing a comparative study showing that social mobility in continental European societies was less than it was in England. As I recall, he merely showed the existence of social mobility in English society. So what?

Clark has in fact, recently, found that a fairly constant level of social mobility is typical of societies.

The issue is whether this is connected with reproductive advantage (e.g. what is the actual degree of real wealth disparity and how does this translate to family size, not mobility). This could well have been more the case in England during a particular period than other societies.

Chris Crawford said...

Anonymous wrote: "This could well have been more the case in England during a particular period than other societies."

Indeed so; but *was* that the case? In the absence of comparative data, there is no foundation for a conclusion that this factor played a role in the difference between behavior in England and elsewhere.

Has anybody carried out such a comparative study? I would have expected Dr. Clark to have followed up with such an analysis. Has he?

Sean said...

Chris, I suppose Peter might well wish to address your points in detail himself, but here is my effort for what it is worth:-

(1) John Hawks seems to think there is hard evidence, see domesticated brains may have been the key.

(2) Industrialisation blasted England out of the Malthusian trap that was culling the lower orders.

(3) Well yes, though the character of the 'outsiders' who rise to power can vary I can think of a Corsican, an Austrian, and currently someone from Hawaii. The Most Powerful Idea in the World" Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘cook’), one of the most important legal theorists in history. This guy died in 1634, a century before the Industrial Revolution, but he did more to make it happen than anybody else, because he formulated the idea of the patent."

"Thus, the advantage that Mr. Clark attributes to the English seems to have been present in Italy beforehand".

Some city states of Italy were close, sure. I suppose they couldn't get it off the launch pad because there was not the population critical mass for beneficial genes to spread throughout the society. Hawks explains the way mutations spread in big populations if you are at all interested.

Re. Chris follow up comment. I agree England may have had peculiar advantages, some tied up with it being on an island. And there are probably unknown reasons why countries have periods of disproportionate innovation that fade out. But some countries have never distinguished themselves so far. Others, like Scotland, have, despite being backward and poor (poorest in Europe for centuries).

While Clark may not have the whole story, we can't discount the factor he has brought to light.


peppermint, I see Gregory Cochran as more of a Salieri.

szopeno, It's mainly the same people at the top whatever the system. The system changes when they see there will be benefits for them, as there were for the communists who turned into bankers and are now are the main winners in Eastern Europe. Places like Romania have an elite, an accelerating exodus of all qualified people with marketable skills, and poor people who are in relative terms worse off than ever before.

Sean said...

Link for (1) shoud have been this from John Hawks. It's possible pre civilisation post Ice Age species wide evolution may have been the real key, see Domesticated Brain.

Anonymous said...

If the nature of English society did indeed produce a genetically superior race, as Mr. Clark asserts, then why did it not continue its triumphs after the Industrial Revolution? Should not Great Britain have become the world super-power, and continued in that position to this day? How could the USA, with its large population of mongrel races from Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Italy, and Asia, have surpassed the superior English race? Quite troubling, this.

The statistical foundation for Clark's thesis regarding the Industrial Revolution is really weak. He looks at England and Japan and China, and says that the wealthier classes were more fertile in England and that there was more downward mobility there that spread production-oriented values.

Even if we grant this, there have been a large number of other stratified societies that had been in existence ever since the dawn of the neolithic. We're talking a huge number of agrarian societies that, over many millenia had the same nutritional deficits relative to hunter gatherers that supposedly was the "unique" selection regime of Great Britain.

Even the Greeks had a blueprint for a steam engine. Why didn't their upper classes invest?

No, what was unique about this era that resulted in the Industrial Revolution, was a confluence of 2 factors:

1) What WD Hamilton calls the 800-year delay from invasion of barbarian pastoralists till renaissance "to bring the old mercantile thoughtfulness and the infused daring into conjunction in a few individuals who then find courage for all kinds of inventive innovation against the resistance of established thought and practice", and

2) The unique-in-history event of a new hemisphere of land that was open to the labor of Great Britain so as to further weaken the forces of economic rent-seeking that operate as capital welfare, and substituting de facto slave labor for technology, and render investment capital risk averse. This helps explain why the upper classes of Greece didn't develop steam power: Their slaves had no where to escape.

The mother of invention: Necessity.

Labor was leaving Great Britain for the New World.

Chris Crawford said...

Sean, thanks for the link to John Hawks' blog; it's a fascinating piece, and I want to take some time to digest it. I have long recognized the importance of population to speed of change, but he notes some additional considerations that I need to mull over. One problem, though: I still don't see the justification for the "hundred-fold" increase in rate of change. But I'll need more time before I draw any firm conclusions.

There are now more theories to explain the Industrial Revolution than there were to explain the Fall of Rome. In general, I find Dr. Clark's hypothesis to be one of the least convincing. Certainly his hypothesis may be a contributing factor, but certainly a very minor one. As you point out, The Most Powerful Idea in the World hits much closer to home on this point. (The book has been sitting next to my computer for the last week.)

And of course, we can trace the foundations of the Industrial Revolution all the way back to the Bronze Age Collapse, if you want to reach far enough back.

Peter Fros_ said...


The word “important” is relative. For some people, it would be a sea-change to admit that human populations differ in any way at all, except for anatomical differences (which for some reason are more susceptible to natural selection than mental or behavioral traits).

In European populations, an IQ of 80 is not normal. It usually results either from a recent deleterious mutation or from developmental errors in the fetal stage. In either case, the effects are wide-ranging. The person has trouble not only with abstract thinking but also with all forms of thinking.

The situation is different when an IQ of 80 falls within the normal range of a population. In such cases, the person looks and acts normal, and you might think that the IQ test was improperly administered.

The fall of communism had three causes:

1. A worsening debt crisis.
2. A growing realization among the ruling elites that something was fundamentally wrong.
3. The effect of example.

The dissidents were not responsible for either #1 or #3 but they did play a role in articulating #2. It’s not enough to have a feeling that something is wrong. You have to hear other people say so and explain why. Otherwise, you might conclude that nothing is wrong. Or you might think that something is wrong because you’re not trying hard enough to make the system work.

#3 is the final stage. When you see change coming to other countries, you realize that change is indeed possible. Once communism began to collapse in Poland and Hungary, the process quickly spread to the rest of Eastern Europe.

Peter Fros_ said...


It’s good to see you back!

1. My reference is: Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 104, 20753-20758.

Here is the abstract:

Genomic surveys in humans identify a large amount of recent positive selection. Using the 3.9-million HapMap SNP dataset, we found that selection has accelerated greatly during the last 40,000 years. We tested the null hypothesis that the observed age distribution of recent positively selected linkage blocks is consistent with a constant rate of adaptive substitution during human evolution. We show that a constant rate high enough to explain the number of recently selected variants would predict (i) site heterozygosity at least 10-fold lower than is observed in humans, (ii) a strong relationship of heterozygosity and local recombination rate, which is not observed in humans, (iii) an implausibly high number of adaptive substitutions between humans and chimpanzees, and (iv) nearly 100 times the observed number of high-frequency linkage disequilibrium blocks. Larger populations generate more new selected mutations, and we show the consistency of the observed data with the historical pattern of human population growth. We consider human demographic growth to be linked with past changes in human cultures and ecologies. Both processes have contributed to the extraordinarily rapid recent genetic evolution of our species.

2. This demographic evolution ended in the 19th century with a sharp decline in fertility among the upper and middle classes. There were several reasons: increased availability of contraception; decline of the family and kinship as organizing principles of society; replacement of children with pensions as means of old age security; cult of the individual, etc. What would Britain be like today if this fertility decline had not happened? Interesting question. There would certainly have been more colonization in the “white dominions” and elsewhere. Britain might have become a permanent superpower and not merely a transient one.

3. The demographic expansion of the middle class was not limited to England. It occurred throughout much of Western Europe after the end of the Dark Ages. I have argued that it was strongest in those areas where the economy was dominated by family workshops where successful craftsmen and craftswomen could expand their workforce only by having more children (as opposed to hiring people or buying slaves).

Chris Crawford said...

Excellent points, Peter, and thanks for the reference. Now it's time for me to scurry back into my hole and digest all this, along with the associated secondary reading.

Thanks again!

Toad said...

@Chris Crawford
How could the USA, with its large population of mongrel races from Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Italy, and Asia, have surpassed the superior English race? Quite troubling, this.

I'll answer with a quiz:
1. What nation did the USA obtain it's independence from?
2. What language is the official language of the USA?
3. What is the name of the region consisting of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut?
4. Smith, Johnson and Williams are the most common surnames in the US. What country do these names originate from?

Chris Crawford said...

Toad, much more important is the genetic contribution from England as compared with that from other nations. Genetically, the USA is probably about half as English as England.

Peter, I had a long talk with an old friend of mine (actually, she was my girlfriend in high school many, many years ago), who is now teaching a variety of life science courses at Berkeley and St. Mary's. She expressed skepticism about the concept of rapid human evolutionary change except in narrow and specific circumstances. But she also promised to read John Hawkes' piece on that.

But during the conversation, we jointly came up with a good test for rapid human evolution based on use of C-sections and female pelvis width. Certainly death in childbirth constitutes a very strong selection effect, and a culture's propensity for this practice should have a strong effect in terms of selection for narrow female pelvis. And the ease of measuring female pelvis width suggests that this data might be readily available.

Do you know of any comparative studies on female pelvis width across different groups? Do you know of any attempts to correlate female pelvis width with the practice of C-sections?

Sean said...

Female pelvis width wider in whites. There seem to be some disadvantages for white women's ongoing reproductive health. Still, all other things being equal a population that practiced C-sections (or other procedures that require cutting mother to facilitate delivery) with late 20th century medical standards would have a higher birthrate.

Assisted childbirth as origin of cooperation

Anonymous said...

Bear in mind than people like Bryan Caplan ignore the fact that in Western society hurting others is a fast track to being locked up or worse, and implicitly claim that our felt 'moral obligations' are what is responsible for us not acting like Nazi psychopaths (which he appears to believe is the natural default condition for humans).

People like Caplan are motivated by genetic interest:

Everything is just noise in service of that interest.

Chris Crawford said...

Sean, thanks much for the link to the paper. If we assume that white American women have a higher frequency of C-sections in their ancestry than black American women, then we would expect selection to produce smaller pelvises among white American women, but in fact the reverse is the case.

This suggests that rapid evolution has not taken place in the case of pelvis widths. However, there remain plenty of objections to this deduction, the most obvious of which being the point that white women may have had much wider pelvises before the practice of C-section became common, and in fact selection has narrowed pelvises, but not by enough as yet.

Nevertheless, I think that the idea bears further investigation.

Thanks again for the link.

Sean said...

I have read that most C-sections in the US are carried out because doctors are worried about being sued and C-section for little or no reason. Moreover, women often request C-section nowadays.

Maybe there is selection, but for increased tissue elasticity. I believe the ligaments holding the pelvis together loosen a lot in the latter stages of pregnancy.

I don't know if pelvis size is the major factor (though it's an issue for women under five feet tall). There are surgical procedures done during difficult vaginal delivery that involve cutting the mother that might be a lot more common than C-sections done for real medical reasons.