Friday, November 28, 2014

Do Chinese people get bored less easily?

Boy in a café (S. Yao, Wikicommons)


All humans were once hunter-gatherers. Back then, versatility came with the territory. There were only so many game animals, and they differed a lot in size, shape, and color. So you had to enjoy switching back and forth from one target animal to another. And you had to enjoy moving from one place to another. Sooner or later you'd have to.

Beginning 10,000 years ago, farmers made their appearance. Now monotony came with the territory. A plot of land wasn't something you could forget while you took off somewhere else. It needed constant care. The tasks were also more repetitive: ploughing, sowing, harvesting ...

Things worsened as farming became more advanced. You had to focus on one crop and a limited number of key tasks.

Different means of subsistence have selected for different mental traits, and this selection has had genetic consequences. Monotony avoidance has a heritability of 0.53 (Saudino, 1999). This predisposition has usually been a handicap in modern societies, so much so that it often leads to criminality. Males with a history of early criminal behavior tend to score high on monotony avoidance, as well as on sensation seeking and low conformity (Klinteberg et al., 1992).

Today, if you have trouble fitting into your society, you might still survive and reproduce. In the past, you probably wouldn’t. Other people would take your place in the gene pool and, over successive generations, their mental makeup would become the norm.

That’s gene-culture co-evolution. We have reshaped the world we live in, and this human-made world has reshaped us. After describing how our ancestors radically changed their environment, Razib goes on to write: "We were the authors of those changes, but in the process of telling that story, we became protagonists within it" (Khan, 2014).

China: a case study

Advanced farming—intensive land use, task specialization, monoculture—has profoundly shaped East Asian societies, particularly China. This is particularly so for rice farming. Because the paddies need standing water, rice farmers must work collectively to build, dredge, and drain elaborate irrigation networks. Wheat farming, by comparison, requires no irrigation and only half as much work.

Advanced farming seems to have favored a special package of predispositions and inclinations, including greater acceptance of monotony. This has been shown in two recent studies.

The first one was about boredom and how people experience it in their lives. The results from the 775 Chinese participants were then compared with the results from a previous survey of 572 Euro-Canadians. It was found that the Chinese participants were less likely to feel bored in comparable situations. They seemed to value low-arousal (calm, relaxation) versus high arousal (excitement, elation) in the case of Euro-Canadians (Ng et al., 2014). 

The authors attributed their findings to cultural learning. One may wonder, however, why preference for low arousal persists in the face of China’s massive influx of high-arousal Western culture.

Relational thinking, collectivism, and favoritism

The second study had the aim of seeing whether the sociological differences between rice farmers and wheat farmers have led to differences in mental makeup. When 1,162 Han Chinese performed a series of mental tasks, the results differed according to whether the participants came from rice-farming regions or wheat-farming regions (Talhelm et al., 2014).

When shown a list of three items, such as “train”, “bus”, and “tracks”, and told to choose two items that pair together, people from rice-farming regions tended to choose "train and tracks," whereas people from wheat-farming regions tended to choose "train and bus." The former seemed to be more relational in their thinking and the latter more abstract. This pattern held up even in neighboring counties along China's rice-wheat border. People from the rice side of the border thought more relationally than did people from the wheat side.

A second task required drawing pictures of yourself and your friends. In a prior study, Americans drew themselves about 6 mm bigger than they drew their friends, Europeans drew themselves 3.5 mm bigger, and Japanese drew themselves slightly smaller. In the present study, people from rice regions were more likely than people from wheat regions to draw themselves smaller than they drew their friends. On average, people from wheat regions self-inflated 1.5 mm, and people from rice regions self-deflated -0.03 mm.

A third task required imagining yourself doing business with (i) an honest friend, (ii) a dishonest friend, (iii) an honest stranger, and (iv) a dishonest stranger. This person might lie, causing you to lose money. Or this person might be honest, causing you to make money. You could reward or punish this person accordingly. A previous study found that Singaporeans rewarded friends much more than they punished them. Americans were much more likely to punish friends for bad behavior. In this study, people from rice regions were more likely to remain loyal to friends regardless.

Interestingly, these findings came from people with no connection to farming at all. They grew up in a modern urban society, and most were too young to have known the China that existed before the economic reforms of the late 1970s.  It looks like rice regions have favored hardwiring of certain psychological traits: less abstract thinking and more relational thinking, less individualism and more collectivism, and less impartiality toward strangers and more favoritism toward kin and friends.

Why farming sucks, for you but not for me

These findings corroborate the ethnographic literature on the differences in mentality between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Hunter-gatherers typically see farming as a kind of slavery, and they have trouble understanding well-meaning outsiders who want to turn them into land-slaves.

Yes, for the same land area, farming can produce much more food. But it's hard work, not only physically but mentally as well. Humans had to undergo a change in mentality before they could make the transition from hunting and gathering to farming

Those humans ended up transforming not just their physical landscape but also their social and cultural landscape … and ultimately themselves. By creating new values and social relations, they changed the rules for survival and reproduction, thereby changing the sort of mentality that future generations would inherit.

Humans transformed the world through farming, and the world returned the favor.


Khan, R. (2014). Our cats, ourselves, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 24

Klinteberg, B., K. Humble, and D. Schalling. (1992). Personality and psychopathy of males with a history of early criminal behaviour, European Journal of Personality, 6(4), 245-266.
Ng, A.H., Y. Liu, J-Z. Chen, and J.D. Eastwood. (2014). Culture and state boredom: A comparison between European Canadians and Chinese, Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 13-18.
Saudino, K.J., J.R. Gagne, J. Grant, A. Ibatoulina, T. Marytuina, I. Ravich-Scherbo, and K. Whitfield. (1999). Genetic and environmental influences on personality in adult Russian twins, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 375-389.
Talhelm, T., X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, and S. Kitayama. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture, Science, 344, 603-607.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Are liberals and conservatives differently wired?

Anti-UKIP protest in Edinburgh (source: Brian McNeil, Wikicommons). "Conservative" increasingly means pro-white.


Are liberals and conservatives differently wired? It would seem so. When brain MRIs were done on 90 young adults from University College London, it was found that self-described liberals tended to have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas self-described conservatives tended to have a larger right amygdala. These results were replicated in a second sample of young adults (Kanai et al., 2011).

The amygdala is used to recognize fearful facial expressions, whereas the anterior cingulate cortex serves to monitor uncertainty and conflict (Adolphs et al., 1995; Botvinick et al., 1999; Critchley et al., 2001; Kennerley et al., 2006). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings were changed somewhat in the popular press. "Conservatives Big on Fear, Brain Study Finds," ran a headline in Psychology Today. The same article assured its readers that the anterior cingulate cortex "helps people cope with complexity" (Barber, 2011).

A study on 82 young American adults came to a similar conclusion. Republicans showed more activity in the right amygdala, and Democrats more activity in the left insula. Unlike the English study, the anterior cingulate cortex didn't differ between the two groups (Schreiber et al., 2013).

It would seem, then, that conservatives and liberals are neurologically different. Perhaps certain political beliefs will alter your mental makeup. Or perhaps your mental makeup will lead you to certain political beliefs. But how can that be when conservatism and liberalism have changed so much in recent times, not only ideologically but also electorate-wise? A century ago, English "conservatives" came from the upper class, the middle class, and outlying rural areas. Today, Britain's leading "conservative" party, the UKIP, is drawing more and more of its members from the urban working class—the sort of folks who routinely voted Labour not so long ago. Similar changes have taken place in the U.S. Until the 1950s, white southerners were overwhelmingly Democrats. Now, they're overwhelmingly Republicans.

Of course, the above studies are only a few years old. When we use terms like "conservative" and "liberal" we refer to what they mean today. Increasingly, both terms have an implicitly ethnic meaning. The UKIP is becoming the native British party, in opposition to a growing Afro-Asian population that votes en bloc for Labour. Meanwhile, the Republicans are becoming the party of White Americans, particularly old-stock ones, in opposition to a Democrat coalition of African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, plus a dwindling core of ethnic whites.

So are these brain differences really ethnic differences? Neither study touches the question. The English study assures us that the participants were homogeneous:

We deliberately used a homogenous sample of the UCL student population to minimize differences in social and educational environment. The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency reports that 21.1% of UCL students come from a working-class background. This rate is relatively low compared to the national average of 34.8%. This suggests that the UCL students from which we recruited our participants disproportionately have a middle-class to upper-class background. (Kanai et al., 2011)

Yes, the students were largely middle-class, but how did they break down ethnically? Wikipedia provides a partial answer:

In 2013/14, 12,330 UCL students were from outside the UK (43% of the total number of students in that year), of whom 5,504 were from Asia, 3,679 from the European Union ex. the United Kingdom, 1,195 from North America, 516 from the Middle East, 398 from Africa, 254 from Central and South America, and 166 from Australasia (University College London, 2014)

These figures were for citizenship only. We should remember that many of the UK students would have been of non-European origin. 

We know more about the participants in the American study. They came from the University of California, San Diego, whose student body at the time was 44% Asian, 26% Caucasian, 10% Mexican American, 10% unknown, 4% Filipino, 3% Latino/Other Spanish, and 2% African American (Anon, 2010). This ethnic breakdown mirrors the party breakdown of the participants: 60 Democrats (72.5%) and 22 Republicans (27.5%).

Affective empathy and ethnicity

In my last post, I cited a study showing that the amygdala is larger in extraordinary altruists—people who have donated one of their kidneys to a stranger. In that study, we were told that a larger amygdala is associated with greater responsiveness to fearful facial expressions, i.e., a greater willingness to help people in distress. Conversely, psychopaths have a smaller amygdala and are less responsive to fearful faces (Marsh et al., 2014).

Hmm ... That's a tad different from the spin in Psychology Today. Are liberals the ones who don't care about others? Are they ... psychopaths?

It would be more accurate to say that "liberals" come from populations whose capacity for affective empathy is lower on average and who tend to view any stranger as a potential enemy. That's most people in this world, and that's how most of the world works. I suspect the greater ability to monitor uncertainty and conflict reflects adaptation to an environment that has long been socially fragmented into clans, castes, religions, etc. This may explain why a larger anterior cingulate cortex correlated with "liberalism" in the British study (high proportion of South Asian students) but not in the American study (high proportion of East Asian students).

As for "conservatives," they largely come from Northwest Europe, where a greater capacity for affective empathy seems to reflect an environment of relatively high individualism, relatively weak kinship, and relatively frequent interactions with nonkin. This environment has prevailed west of the Hajnal Line since at least the 12th century, as shown by the longstanding characteristics of the Western European Marriage Pattern: late age of marriage for both sexes; high rate of celibacy; strong tendency of children to form new households; and high circulation of non-kin among families. This zone of weaker kinship, with greater reliance on internal means of behavior control, may also explain why Northwest Europeans are more predisposed to guilt than to shame, whereas the reverse is generally the case elsewhere in the world (Frost, 2014).

All of this may sound counterintuitive. Doesn't the political left currently stand for autonomy theory and individualism? Doesn't it reject traditional values like kinship? In theory it does. The reality is a bit different, though. When Muslims vote Labour, it's not because they want gay marriage and teaching of gender theory in the schools. They expect something else.

The same goes for the political right. When former Labourites vote UKIP, it's not because they want lower taxes for the rich and offshoring of manufacturing jobs. They expect something else. Are they being delusional? Perhaps. But, then, are the Muslims being delusional? 

Perhaps neither group is. Perhaps both understand what politics is really about.



Adolphs, R., D. Tranel, H. Damasio, and A.R. Damasio. (1995). Fear and the human amygdala, The Journal of Neuroscience, 15, 5879-5891. 

Anon (2010). Racial breakdown of the largest California public colleges, The Huffington Post, May 4 

Barber, N. (2011). Conservatives big on fear, study finds, Psychology Today, April 19

Botvinick, M., Nystrom, L.E., Fissell, K., Carter, C.S., and Cohen, J.D. (1999). Conflict monitoring versus selection-for-action in anterior cingulate cortex, Nature, 402, 179-181.

Critchley, H.D., Mathias, C.J., and Dolan, R.J. (2001). Neural activity in the human brain relating to uncertainty and arousal during anticipation, Neuron, 29, 537-545. 

Frost, P. (2014). We are not equally empathic, Evo and Proud, November 15 

Kanai, R., T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults, Current Biology, 21, 677 - 680.

Kennerley, S.W., Walton, M.E., Behrens, T.E., Buckley, M.J., and Rushworth, M.F. (2006). Optimal decision making and the anterior cingulate cortex. Nat. Neurosci. 9, 940-947.

Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041.

Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A.N., Dawes, C.T., Flagan, T., et al. (2013). Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 8(2): e52970. 

University College London. (2014). Wikipedia

Saturday, November 15, 2014

We are not equally empathic

The Child at Your Door (c. 1917-1919). We're not equally empathic toward strangers. This largely heritable trait varies continuously from psychopathy to extraordinary altruism (source: Wikicommons)


In a previous post, I discussed why the capacity for affective empathy varies not only between individuals but also between populations. First, its heritability is high: 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). So natural selection has had something to grab hold of. Second, its usefulness varies from one culture to another. It matters less where kinship matters more, i.e., where people interact mainly with close kin and where non-kin are likely to be enemies. The threat of retaliation from kin is sufficient to ensure correct behavior.

Affective empathy matters more where kinship matters less. This is a situation that Northwest Europeans have long known. Historian Alan Macfarlane argues that kinship has been weaker among the English—and individualism correspondingly stronger—since at least the 12th century and perhaps since Anglo-Saxon times (Macfarlane, 2012; Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174). A weaker sense of kinship seems to underlie the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP), as seen by its defining characteristics: late age of marriage for both sexes; high rate of celibacy; strong tendency of children to form new households; and high circulation of non-kin among families. The WEMP has prevailed since at least the 12th century west of the Hajnal Line, a line running approximately from Trieste to St. Petersburg (Hallam, 1985; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94).

Can natural selection specifically target affective empathy?

So if affective empathy helps people to survive and reproduce, there will be more and more of it in succeeding generations. If not, there will be less and less.

But what exactly is being passed on or not passed on? A specific capacity? Or something more general, like pro-social behavior? If it's too general, natural selection could not easily make some populations more altruistic than others. There would be too many nasty side-effects.

Although pro-social behavior superficially looks like affective empathy, the underlying mental processes are different. Pro-social behavior is a willingness to help others through low-cost assistance: advice, conversation, a helping hand, etc. The logic is simple: give some help now and perhaps you'll receive a lot later from the grateful beneficiary. By the same logic, you may stop helping someone who seldom reciprocates.

Affective empathy is less conscious. It seems to have developed out of cognitive empathy: the ability to simulate what is going on in other people's minds, but not necessarily for the purpose of helping them. Con artists have plenty of cognitive empathy. Empathy is affective when you not only simulate how other people feel but also experience their feelings (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen,2013). Their wellbeing comes to matter as much as your own. 

Empathy of either sort relies on unconscious mimicry: "empathic individuals exhibit nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others (the chameleon effect) to a greater extent than nonempathic individuals" (Carr et al., 2003). The ability to mimic is key to the empathic process of relaying information from one brain area to another via "mirror neurons":

- The superior temporal cortex codes an early visual description of another person's action and sends this information to posterior parietal mirror neurons.

- The posterior parietal cortex codes the precise kinesthetic aspect of the action and sends the information to inferior frontal mirror neurons.

- The inferior frontal cortex codes the purpose of the action.

- Parietal and frontal mirror areas send copies of motor plans back to the superior temporal cortex in order to match the visual description of the person's action to the predicted sensory consequences for that person.

- The mental simulation is complete when the visual description has been matched to the predicted sensory consequences (Carr et al., 2003).

By simulating the sensory consequences of what someone does or intends to do, we gain an understanding of that person that goes beyond what our senses immediately tell us. 

[...] we understand the feelings of others via a mechanism of action representation shaping emotional content, such that we ground our empathic resonance in the experience of our acting body and the emotions associated with specific movements. As Lipps noted, ''When I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him.'' To empathize, we need to invoke the representation of the actions associated with the emotions we are witnessing. (Carr et al., 2003)

Affective empathy exists when this mental representation is fed into our own emotional state. We feel what the other person feels and we act appropriately. This is much more than pro-social behavior.

From psychopaths to extraordinary altruists

The capacity for affective empathy varies from one person to the next. It is least developed in psychopaths:

Psychopathy is a heritable developmental disorder characterized by an uncaring nature, antisocial and aggressive behavior, and deficient prosocial emotions such as empathy, guilt, and remorse. Psychopaths exhibit consistent patterns of neuroanatomical and functional impairments, such as reductions in the volume of the amygdala and in the responsiveness of this structure to fear-relevant stimuli. These deficits may underlie the perceptual insensitivity to fearful facial expressions and other fear-relevant stimuli observed in this population. (Marsh et al., 2014)

Mainstream opinion accepts that psychopaths are heritably different because they are "sick." Heritable differences are thus thought to be unusual and even pathological. "Normal" individuals may vary in their capacity for affective empathy, but surely that sort of variability is due to their environment, isn't it?

No it isn't. That variability, too, is largely genetic. Affective empathy varies over a largely heritable continuum, and an arbitrary line is all that separates psychopaths from "normal" individuals. There may be many psychopaths or there may be few; it depends on where you set the cut-off point.

At the other end of this continuum is another interesting group: extraordinary altruists. A research team has recently looked at the brains of such people, specifically individuals who had donated one of their kidneys to a stranger:

Given emerging consensus that psychopathy is a continuously distributed variable within the general population and that psychopaths represent one extreme end of a caring continuum, we hypothesized that extraordinary altruism may represent the opposite end of this continuum and be supported by neural and cognitive mechanisms that represent the inverse of psychopathy; in particular, increased amygdala volume and responsiveness to fearful facial expressions. (Marsh etal., 2014)

In extraordinary altruists, the right amygdala is larger and responds more to fearful facial expressions. This is the inverse of what we see in psychopaths, who have smaller amygdala and are less responsive to fearful facial expressions.

Affective empathy is thus a specific mental trait, like psychopathy. It is not a form of pro-social behavior any more than psychopathy is a form of antisociality:

[...] it is important to distinguish between antisociality that results from psychopathy, which is specifically associated with reduced empathy and concern for others, as well as with reduced sensitivity to others' fear and distress, and antisociality that results from any of a variety of other factors, such as impulsivity or trauma exposure, that are not closely related to empathy. (Marshet al., 2014)

Marsh et al. (2014) cite a number of studies to show the relative independence of these two behavioral axes: prosociality / antisociality and affective empathy / psychopathy.


Affective empathy is specific and largely heritable. People differ continuously in their innate capacity for affective empathy, and it is only by setting an arbitrary cut-off point that we classify some as "psychopaths" and others as "normal," including extraordinary altruists who may be a small minority.

Affective empathy is an intricate adaptation that must have evolved for some reason. Initially, it may have served to facilitate the relationship between a mother and her children, this being perhaps why it is stronger in women than in men (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004). In some cultures, natural selection may have increased this capacity in both sexes and extended it to a wider range of social interactions. This scenario would especially apply to Northwest Europeans, who have long had relatively weak kinship. They have consequently relied more on internal means of behavior control, like affective empathy (Frost, 2014).


Baron-Cohen, S. and S. Wheelwright. (2004).The Empathy Quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 163-175. 

Carr, L., M. Iacoboni, M-C. Dubeau, J.C. Mazziotta, and G.L. Lenzi. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 100, 5497-5502.  

Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Frost, P. (2014). Affective empathy. An evolutionary mistake?  Evo and Proud, September 20

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

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 

Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041.

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A look at an early European

Kostenki Man, reconstructed by Mikhail Gerasimov (1907-1970). An early European who was not yet phenotypically European.


Who were the first Europeans? We now have a better idea, thanks to a new paper about DNA from a man who lived some 38,700 to 36,200 years ago. His remains were found at Kostenki, a well-known Upper Paleolithic site in central European Russia (Seguin-Orlando et al., 2014).

Kostenki Man tells us several things about the first Europeans and, more broadly, the first non-African humans:

The Neanderthal encounter

Modern humans received their Neanderthal admixture when they were just spreading out of Africa some 54,000 years ago. At that time, they had not yet encountered the Neanderthals and were entering the territory of the Skhul/Qafzeh hominids, a semi-archaic people of the Middle East. So we may have got our Neanderthal admixture indirectly. The Skhul/Qafzeh hominids had probably interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors to the north, and our ancestors may have then picked up this admixture while in the Middle East. 

When our ancestors spread farther north into Europe, some 45,000 to 42,000 years ago, they could have interbred directly with Neanderthals, but they didn't. Perhaps the two groups were just too different. They seem to have intermixed only via a third party that was neither fully modern nor fully archaic.

A strange detour ... and then another!

There was initially a large continuous population across northern Eurasia, perhaps composed of nomads who pursued wandering herds of reindeer across the European Plain and its eastward extension into central and northern Asia.

Not long before the time of Kostenki Man, these Northern Eurasians began to split into three regional groups: Western Eurasians, Eastern Eurasians, and the ancestors of Middle Eastern farmers. The degree of reproductive isolation is unclear, however, and gene flow may have continued between all three groups until the onset of the last ice age some 25,000 years ago. This may be why Kostenki Man does not fit perfectly into any of the three groups, although he is genetically closest to Western Eurasians.

Yes, Northern Eurasians were ancestral to the early farming peoples of the Middle East. It seems that early modern humans had to head north, learn to hunt reindeer, and then head south again before they could start farming. Sounds like a strange detour. Wouldn't it have been easier to stay put and do it locally? You know, Middle-Eastern hunter-gatherers becoming Middle Eastern farmers? Apparently not.

It gets even more convoluted. After some of those Northern Eurasians had gone south to the Middle East, some of their farming descendants "returned" to Europe and partially replaced its hunter-gatherers, particularly in southern and central Europe. This second detour has been greeted with disbelief. Dienekes (2014), for instance, has written: "I don't think many archaeologists would derive European farmers from Russia (Russia is actually one of the last places in Europe that became agricultural)."

True, but farming requires a mindset that may have come from those northern hunters (Frost, 2014). When Piffer (2013) looked at human variation in alleles at COMT, a gene linked to executive function, working memory, and intelligence, he found that northern hunting peoples had more in common with farming peoples than with other hunter-gatherers, "possibly due to the higher pressure on technological skills and planning abilities posed by the adverse climatic conditions."

That mindset made farming possible, but the first steps toward farming could not be taken in a cold climate. They had to be taken in a place with a long growing season and a wide variety of domesticable plants and animals, such as in the Middle East. Once farming had developed there, it could move back north, while taking along its technologies, its food crops, and its livestock species. 

Farming can develop in the tropics with a "tropical" mindset, but it looks very different. The farming that arose in West Africa is overwhelmingly women's work and seems to have wholly developed out of female plant gathering. The guinea fowl is the only animal that has been domesticated for food consumption in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Ice Age was not so bad 

The Upper Paleolithic humans of northern and eastern Europe did not die out during the last ice age, as was commonly thought. They survived the glacial maximum intact.

The European phenotype came later

Kostenki Man was dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and rather short. These details, curiously enough, appear not in the paper but in a review of the paper, published by the same journal, as well as in an interview with one of the authors (Associated Press, 2014; Gibbons, 2014). 

So we now have an upper bound for the emergence of the European phenotype, i.e., light skin and a diverse palette of hair and eye colors. The lower bound has been set by the remains of a Swedish hunter-gatherer, dated to 8,000 years ago, who had the "European" allele for light skin at the gene SLC24A5 (Skoglund et al., 2014).


My main criticism centers on the dating to 38,700 - 36,200 years ago. At the Kostenki site, the radiocarbon dating used to be some 10,000 years younger. It was then recalibrated to an older range of dates when a layer of volcanic ash at the site was attributed to a volcano that had erupted in southern Italy some 39,000 years ago. This recalibration was initially controversial, but the controversy has since subsided (Sinitsyn and Hoffecker, 2006). I would not rule out a subsequent re-recalibration.

By retrieving ancient DNA from an early modern human, we have made a key advance in human paleogenetics, perhaps more so than by sequencing the Neanderthal genome. We again see that evolution did not slow down with the emergence of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans some 60,000 years ago. It actually began to speed up, as humans began to enter not only new natural environments but also new cultural environments of their own making.


Associated Press (2014). DNA study dates Eurasian split from East Asians, The Columbus Dispatch, November 6 

Dienekes (2014). Genome of Kostenki-14, an Upper Paleolithic European (Seguin-Orlando, Korneliussen, Sikora, et al. 2014), Dienekes' Anthropology Blog, November 7  

Frost, P. (2014). The first industrial revolution, Evo and Proud, January 18 

Gibbons, A. (2014). European genetic identity may stretch back 36,000 years, Science, News, November 6 

Piffer, D. (2013). Correlation of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism with latitude and a hunter-gather lifestyle suggests culture-gene coevolution and selective pressure on cognition genes due to climate, Anthropological Science, 121, 161-171. 

Seguin-Orlando, A., T.S. Korneliussen, M. Sikora, A.-S. Malaspinas, A. Manica, I. Moltke, A. Albrechtsen, A. Ko, A. Margaryan, V. Moiseyev, T. Goebel, M. Westaway, D. Lambert, V. Khartanovich, J.D. Wall, P.R. Nigst, R.A. Foley, M.M. Lahr, R. Nielsen, L. Orlando, and E. Willerslev. (2014). Genomic structure in Europeans dating back at least 36,200 years, Science, Published online 6 November 2014  

Sinitsyn, A.A., and J.F. Hoffecker. (2006). Radiocarbon dating and chronology of the Early Upper Paleolithic at Kostenki, Quaternary International, 152-153, 164-174. 

Skoglund, P., H. Malmstrom, A. Omrak, M. Raghavan, C. Valdiosera, T. Gunther, P. Hall, K. Tambets, J. Parik, K-G. Sjogren, J. Apel, E. Willersley, J. Stora, A. Gotherstrom, and M. Jakobsson. (2014). Genomic diversity and admixture differs for stone-age Scandinavian foragers and farmers, Science, 344 (6185), 747-750.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The evolution of antiracism

Collection box for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1850 (Wikicommons).


Throughout the world, kinship used to define the limits of morality. The less related you were to someone, the less moral you had to be with him or her. We see this in the Ten Commandments. The phrase "against thy neighbor" qualifies the commandment against bearing false witness and, implicitly, the preceding ones against killing, adultery, and stealing. For the modern reader, "thy neighbor" is helpfully explained as meaning "the children of thy people" (Leviticus 19:18).

In some cases, this kin-based morality gradually ceased to apply the farther away one went from home and from immediate kith and kin. Usually, however, the limits of one's moral community coincided with some kind of boundary: a geographic barrier, a political border, and/or an ethnic frontier. Beyond lay the world of "strangers."

Toward a universal morality

The first efforts to universalize morality—to create a single moral system that could apply to everyone—"arose simultaneously around 500 BCE in various parts of the world, from China in the Far East to Southern Italy in the West" (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p. 121). These efforts were initially driven by the need to form alliances between different peoples:

Alliance - the formation of treaties - proved the most important instrument of internationalism. Forming an alliance required mutual recognition of the deities which served as patrons. The treaties which these empires formed with each other and with their vassals had to be sealed by solemn oaths invoking the gods of both parties. The list of these gods conventionally closes the treaty [...]. They had to be equal in their function and rank. Intercultural theology became a concern of international law. (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p. 125) 

As ancient empires expanded and absorbed different peoples, this intercultural theology became useful for internal peace, notably with the Hellenistic empires that arose in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests. By affirming that different religions are interchangeable, it became possible to create a common civic culture for diverse peoples:

Hellenization had two faces. On the one hand, it referred to the diffusion of Greek language, ideas and customs all over the Ancient World; on the other hand, it appeared to be more of a construction of a 'common culture', suggesting a similar change in Greece as in the other cultures. Flavius Josephus did not speak of 'Greek' but of 'common culture', ho koinos bios, as the goal of Jewish assimilation or reform in the Hellenistic age. (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p.  127) 

One result would be the emergence of a universal religion. We like to associate this development with the teachings of Jesus, but a kind of proto-Christianity was already emerging near the end of the pre-Christian era.  At that time, many Jews were adapting their belief in one God to the universal worldview of Hellenistic culture:

Thus, while biblical universalism was founded on a notion of the mission of Israel to save all of humanity and bring them to the true worship of the only God, Hellenistic notions of universalism involved the assumption that all the gods were really different names for one God. (Boyarin, 1994, chap. 3). 

The two belief-systems merged among the increasingly Hellenized Jews of the eastern Mediterranean, thus setting the stage for Jesus and making it easier for his movement to succeed.

The Christian impulse

This new religion became a vehicle not only for moral universalism but also for belief in human equality. For if morality is universal, all humans must have the same capacity to follow its rules. In Christ, asserted Paul, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

While Christianity would steer people in the direction of universalism, there were limits to how far it could go. Theologians sometimes spoke of the need to set lower aims for average people and higher aims for saintly men and women. We see this realism in Augustine's position on prostitution: "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust" (De Ordine ii, 4). The same could be said for the Church's position on war, slavery, prejudice, and other manifestations of human inequality. These were the realities of an imperfect world. 

Such imperfections nonetheless became harder to accept over the following centuries. First, there was "mission creep." Once the Church had established certain ideals, there was continual pressure to bring human behavior into line with them. Second, the geocenter of the Church was shifting away from the eastern Mediterranean, where the absolute morality of Christianity had been constrained by the relative morality of kinship. Farther north and west, beyond the Hajnal Line, kinship ties were weaker and people more receptive to universal principles. There was thus a "fruitful encounter" between the Christian faith and these northwest Europeans who were more willing to internalize such principles and apply them more thoroughly (Frost, 2014a). 

Within this region, Catholicism would radicalize to the point of splitting away and becoming Protestantism. Here, too, Christian ideals would increasingly be taken to their logical conclusion.

The Abolitionist movement

Abolitionism began in the 17th century among English Quakers as a movement to abolish the slave trade. Over time, it grew more radical, seeking not only to free black slaves but also to extirpate racial and ethnic prejudice. Although "antiracism" did not yet exist as a word, its form and substance were already recognizable by the early 19th century. This was particularly so in the American northeast, where radical abolitionists denounced not only slavery but also fellow abolitionists who wanted to settle freed slaves in Africa. "In the 1830s, for the first time in American history an articulate and significant minority of Americans embraced racial equality as both a concept and a commitment" (Goodman, 1998, p. 1). This militant minority wanted more than simply an end to slavery: 

Believing that racial prejudice underpinned slavery, abolitionists committed themselves not just to emancipation [...] "Our prejudice against the blacks is founded in sheer pride; and it originates in the circumstance that people of their color, only, are universally allowed to be slaves," Child argued. "We made slavery, and slavery makes the prejudice." Color phobia, abolitionists contended, is irrational, wicked, preposterous, and unmanly. It is contrary to natural rights and Christian teaching, which recognizes no distinctions based on color. Race prejudice, Elizur Wright Jr. exploded, is "a narrow, bitter, selfish, swinish absurdity." (Goodman, 1998, p.58)

Decline ... and resurgence

That first wave of antiracism subsided in the late 19th century, partly because of the rise of Social Darwinism and partly because of disillusionment with the Civil War's aftermath. Radical abolitionists had long set their sights on ending slavery and crushing the American South, yet achievement of both goals failed to bring the final goal of human equality any closer. In the face of growing self-doubt, they lacked the ideological stamina to keep the faith and push forward, come what may. The movement thus fell into decline, remaining dominant only in the American northeast.

This first wave did not die, however. It was resuscitated in the early 1930s and would give rise to a much more dynamic second wave. The rise of Nazism convinced many Jewish intellectuals, notably the anthropologist Franz Boas, of the need to fight "racism" in all its forms, this word being initially a synonym for Nazism (Frost, 2014b). The war on racism would outlive the defeat of Nazi Germany, as a result of continuing fears of anti-Semitism in the postwar era. Moreover, it had now taken on a life of its own, much like its 19th-century predecessor. 

Today, some eighty years later, that war is still being fought. What began as a reaction to Nazism has become a permanent cultural revolution.


Assmann, A., and S. Conrad. (2010). Memory in a Global Age. Discourses, Practices and Trajectories, Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies, New York  

Boyarin, D. (1994). A Radical Jew. Paul and the Politics of Identity, Berkeley: University of California Press.;brand=ucpress  

Frost, P. (2014a). A fruitful encounter, Evo and Proud, September 26  

Frost, P. (2014b). From Nazi Germany to Middletown: ratcheting up the war on racism, Evo and Proud, July 19  

Goodman, P. (1998). Of One Blood. Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality, Berkeley: University of California Press.