Monday, September 4, 2017

Gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe

Notre-Dame-de-Compassion, Paris. Women have more affective empathy than do men, an indication that it originated served to bind a mother to her young children. To different degrees, and in different societies, it has become extended to other human relations. 

I've published a new paper: The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe. This is the abstract:

North and west of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg, social relations have long conformed to the Western European Marriage Pattern, i.e., men and women marry relatively late; many people never marry; children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households, and households often have non-kin members. This pattern goes back at least to the thirteenth century and perhaps to prehistoric times. I argue that this environment of weaker kinship caused northwest Europeans to create communities based on shared moral rules, rather than shared kinship. Community members enforced these rules by monitoring not only the behavior of other members but also their own behavior and even their own thoughts. Initially, this new mindset did not have a genetic basis. Individuals acquired it within the bounds of phenotypic plasticity. Over time, however, a genetic basis would have developed through the survival and reproduction of individuals who were better at being socially independent, at obeying universal rules, at monitoring other community members, and at self-monitoring, self-judging, and self-punishing. These psychological adaptations-independent social orientation, universal rule adherence, affective empathy, guilt proneness-are moderately to highly heritable. Although they are complex, they required only minor evolutionary changes to evolve out of mechanisms that were already present but limited to specific behavioral contexts. Affective empathy, for instance, is a species-wide trait but usually confined to relations with close kin, particularly between a mother and her young children. An evolutionary scenario is proposed, and two questions discussed. Are these mental traits too complex to have evolved over a span of 30 to 300 generations? Are they too altruistic to be sustainable?


In a series of tweets, hbd* chick has accused me of plagiarizing her work without acknowledgment. This is a serious accusation, so please let me address it at length. 

I first became interested in the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP) in the early 1990s. I wanted to know why marriage systems are so different in Europe from elsewhere in the world. The high incidence of polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa can be explained by the mode of subsistence (year-round horticulture with high female participation and low male participation). But why is polygyny stigmatized so much more in European societies than elsewhere in Eurasia? Why the emphasis on monogamy and on postponement of marriage? Most scholars seemed to blame Christianity, but I knew, from my own readings, that polygyny had been stigmatized in Europe before Christianization. I made this point in an exchange with Kevin MacDonald in the pages of Ethology and Sociobiology in 1991 and 1992. I later discovered Wally Seccombe’s book A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe (1992). It was this book that introduced me to the WEMP, and it was at that point in time that I began to wonder whether the WEMP might explain the development of "guilt culture" (as opposed to "shame culture") in northwest Europe.

I first put forward some of these ideas in a post on my blog, "The Western European Marriage Pattern" (November 12, 2011). At that time, I knew hbd* chick had also written about the WEMP, but her posts hadn't contributed to the development of my thinking. I recognize that she has come up with original ideas on this topic, particularly her belief in the key role of manorialism, but I don't share that belief. Like Seccombe, I believe that the WEMP goes farther back in time. At one point, I tried to incorporate her ideas into my thinking, but I eventually gave up. I may be wrong, and I would like to be proven wrong, but the northwest European mindset seems to be much older than the Middle Ages.

So what did I plagiarize without acknowledgment? Whatever I know about this subject comes from authors who predate hbd chick, especially Wally Seccombe, but also Alan MacFarlane and Ruth Benedict. And I discovered those authors independently of hbd* chick. I'm especially flabbergasted by her claim that she originated the notion of Western European "guilt culture." Is she older than Ruth Benedict? Nor did she (or I) originate the notion that independent social orientation is stronger in northwest Europe. Alan MacFarlane and, more recently, Joan Chiao and Katherine Blizinsky have been the trailblazers in that area. Yes, credit should be given where credit is due, and I have given credit to those people who have the strongest moral claim to those ideas.

I wanted to insert a reference in my article to hbd* chick, but that insertion would have simply described her belief that the spread of manorialism was key to the WEMP (whereas I feel otherwise). Unfortunately it's difficult to cite an anonymous blogger in an academic publication because reviewers and editors have a strong prejudice against such citations. I tried doing that once for a previous article, and I was persuaded to find another source. Citing Wikipedia is usually possible, but citing an anonymous blogger is a bridge too far. The reasons are understandable. When people write under a pseudonym and without peer review, there is no way to prevent publication of poorly formulated views that are written impulsively and in the heat of the moment. I'm not supporting political correctness here. I'm supporting responsible scholarship.

I can understand why many people choose to publish under a pseudonym, especially on topics like this one. I've had to endure personal attacks for publishing under my own name, and my name can be linked to a lot of things: home address, personal photos, place of work, and so on. That's the price I've chosen to pay. In exchange, my publications can be cited in the academic literature. 

Aside from that one point (the spread of manorialism), I feel no moral obligation to cite hbd* chick for a topic that has long been discussed by many other people. My interest in the WEMP is quite different from hers. I wanted to explain why guilt plays such a strong role in the cultures of northwest Europe. The usual explanation is that northwest Europeans feel guilty because they have a lot to feel guilty about: slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust, etc. But how would that explain a guilt-ridden country like Sweden? The Swedes played little or no role in those historical events. In any case, the roots of northwest European guilt culture go much farther back in time.

I hope everyone will think over what I have written here. I don't like to treat people wrongly, and it pains me to be accused of wrongdoing.


I'm back to blogging, perhaps a new column every two weeks. To be honest, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, blogging forces me to come up with new ideas, which can later be written up as academic articles, like the above. On the other hand, a single column can easily consume five to seven hours of my time. There are also legal ramifications: I can be held responsible not only for what I write but also for what anonymous commenters write.


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

Chiao, J.Y. & Blizinsky, K.D. (2010). Culture-gene coevolution of individualism-collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 529-537.

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe, Advances in Anthropology, 7, 154-174.

Frost, P. (2011). The Western European Marriage Pattern, November 12, 2011

Frost, P. (1991). Letter to the Editors, Ethology and Sociobiology, 12(5), 335-336.

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

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

Macfarlane, A. (1978). The origins of English individualism: Some surprises. Theory and Society, 6, 255-277. 

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


Bruce said...

Glad to see you're back .You're a gifted writer with a lot of intereting ideas to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Just moderate the comments.

Anonymous said...

You're in the right, Peter. hbdchick's writings have mainly consisted of poorly theorized, vague musings about cousin marriage and outbreeding. They've never been clearly formulated, but she seems to suggest some vague causal relationship between outbreeding and a variety of effects. This emphasis has not been your approach. Beyond this, hbdchick's writing has mostly consisted of citing other anthropological writings.

Sean said...

"In a series of tweets, hbd* chick ..."

Glad to see you have not lost your sense of humour.

She picked up on some very important issues and kept hammering away at them, but as you say pseudonymous writers cannot be cited as if they are Henry Harpending without hurting the credibility of the paper and preventing the ideas from escaping the blogosphere. While she helped keep the concepts warm, denouncing you as a plagiarist was a cheep, sorry cheap, shot.

Bartolo said...

Happy you are back, Mr. Frost!