Monday, January 28, 2019

Evolution of empathy, part II

Medical students, Monterrey (credit: Daniel Adelrio, Wikicommons). Mexicans feel more empathy if they have a university degree. Does university make people more empathic?

We differ from individual to individual in our capacity not only to understand how others feel but also to experience their pain or joy. This “affective empathy” also differs between the sexes, being stronger in women than in men. Does it also differ between human populations? It should, for several reasons: 

- Affective empathy is highly heritable. A recent study put its heritability at 52-57% (Melchers et al. 2016).

- It differs in adaptiveness from one cultural environment to another, being adaptive in high-trust cultures and maladaptive in low-trust ones. There has thus been a potential for gene-culture coevolution.

- Such an evolutionary scenario would require relatively few genetic changes. Affective empathy exists in all human populations, and most likely already existed in ancestral hominids. Differences within our species are thus differences in fine-tuning of an existing mechanism. 

One can imagine the following scenario:

1. Initially, affective empathy existed primarily in women and served to facilitate the mother-child relationship.

2. Later, when human societies grew beyond the size of small kin groups, this mental trait took on a new task: regular interaction with people who were not necessarily close kin.

3. Selection thus increased the capacity for affective empathy in both sexes but more so in men.

4. This gene-culture evolution went the farthest in high-trust cultures.

Affective empathy and educational level in Mexico

To measure differences in affective empathy between human populations we can administer tests like "Pictures of Facial Affect" and the "Cambridge Behavior Scale." The first test is a measure of the ability to recognize emotion in human faces. The second test is a questionnaire with responses on a 4-point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

In a recent study from Mexico these tests confirmed that affective empathy is stronger in women than in men. There were also differences by occupational status:

[...] we sought to explore facial emotion recognition abilities and empathy in administrative officers and security guards at a center for institutionalized juvenile offenders. One hundred twenty-two Mexican subjects, including both men and women, were recruited for the study. Sixty-three subjects were administrative officers, and 59 subjects were security guards at a juvenile detention center. Tasks included "Pictures of Facial Affect" and the "Cambridge Behavior Scale." The results showed that group and gender had an independent effect on emotion recognition abilities, with no significant interaction between the two variables. Specifically, administrative officers showed higher empathy than security guards. Moreover, women in general exhibited more empathy than men. (Quintero et al. 2018)

Why were the guards less able to recognize signs of distress or happiness on human faces? The authors offer no explanation but do note that the two groups differed in educational level: most of the administrative officers were university graduates, whereas the guards had gone no farther than middle school. 

In Mexico, educational level correlates with European admixture (Martinez-Marignac et al. 2007). Is this group difference in empathy really an ethnic difference?

The amygdala and political orientation in the U.S. and the U.K.

Tests are subjective and thus suffer from biases that may produce different results in different populations. To avoid this problem, a promising method is to measure the size or activity of brain structures that are associated with affective empathy. In the latest review of the literature, Tal Saban and Kirby (2019) assign the amygdala a key role:

Neuroscientists have identified the brain regions for the "empathy circuit": 1) the amygdala, responsible for regulating emotional learning and reading emotional expressions; 2) the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), activated during observed or experienced pain in the self or others; and 3) the anterior insula (AI), which responds to one's pain and the pain of a loved one (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2003). In recent years the mirror neuron system (MNS), comprised of the inferior frontal gyrus and inferior parietal cortex, has been suggested to also be involved in empathy (Gazzola et al., 2006, Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006, Pfeifer et al., 2008, Baird et al., 2011). The broad notion that empathy involves "putting oneself in another's shoes" by simulating what others do, think, or feel, has been linked to the properties of mirror neurons.

The amygdala has been linked to affective empathy by MRI studies on healthy individuals and on individuals with amygdala lesions (Bzdok et al. 2012; Brunnlieb et al. 2013; Gu et al. 2010; Hurlemann et al. 2010; Leigh et al. 2013).

Two studies have found group differences in amygdala size or activity. When brain MRIs were done on 82 adults from the University of California at San Diego, the right amygdala showed more activity in Republicans than in Democrats (Schreiber et al., 2013). Similarly, a study of 90 adults from University College London found that the right amygdala was larger in self-described conservatives than in self-described liberals (Kanai et al., 2011).

Is affective empathy stronger in conservatives than in liberals? Or are these labels a proxy for something else? In both the United States and England, party politics is increasingly identity politics. While it is true that non-European minorities tend to be socially conservative, they nonetheless tend to be politically liberal, often overwhelmingly so. In the American study, party affiliation was undoubtedly the dimension being measured: participants were asked whether they were Democrat or Republican. This is less evident in the English study, where participants were asked about their "political orientation."

Both universities are ethnically diverse. University of California at San Diego is 36% Asian, 20% White, 19% non-resident alien, and 17% Latino (Anon 2019). There is no ethnic breakdown of University College students, but we know that a third of them come from outside the United Kingdom (Wikipedia 2019).


Brain MRIs provide a means to measure affective empathy objectively. We can thus evaluate differences between human populations, just as we have evaluated differences between men and women, and from individual to individual. This kind of comparative research will likely be done by accident rather than by design, as with the above three studies.

Another approach would be to identify alleles that correlate with a high level of affective empathy. A polygenic score could then be created, thus providing an objective yardstick for measuring this mental trait in any human population. Particularly promising are two polymorphisms. Alleles at the OXTR gene correlate with inter-individual differences in empathy, especially with affective empathy in women (Huetter et al. 2016). Alleles at the GNAS gene correlate with inter-individual differences in cognitive empathy, but only in women (Huetter et al. 2018).


Anon. (2019). University of California - San Diego, Ethnic Diversity.

Bzdok, D., L. Schilbach, K. Vogeley, et al. (2012). Parsing the neural correlates of moral cognition: ALE meta-analysis on morality, theory of mind, and empathy. Brain Structure and Function 217(4):783-796. 

Brunnlieb, C., T.F. Munte, C. Tempelmann, and M. Heldmann. (2013). Vasopressin modulates neural responses related to emotional stimuli in the right amygdala. Brain Research 1499:29-42. 

Gu, X., X. Liu, K.G. Guise, et al. (2010). Functional dissociation of the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices in empathy for pain. Journal of Neuroscience 30:3739-3744. 

Huetter, F.K., H.S. Bachmann, A. Reinders, D. Siffert, P. Stelmach, D. Knop, et al. (2016). Association of a Common Oxytocin Receptor Gene Polymorphism with Self-Reported 'Empathic Concern' in a Large Population of Healthy Volunteers. PLoS ONE 11[7]:e0160059

Huetter, F.K, P.A. Horn, and W. Siffert. (2018). Sex-specific association of a common GNAS polymorphism with self-reported cognitive empathy in healthy volunteers. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0206114. 

Hurlemann, R., A. Patin, O.A. Onur, et al. (2010). Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans. Journal of Neuroscience 30(14):4999-5007. 

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.

Leigh, R., K. Oishi, J. Hsu, et al. (2013). Acute lesions that impair affective empathy. Brain 136(8):2539-2549.

Martinez-Marignac, V.L., A. Valladares, E. Cameron, A. Chan, A. Perera, R. Globus-Goldberg, N. Wacher, J. Kumate, P. McKeigue, D. O'Donnell, M.D. Shriver, M. Cruz, and E.J. Parra. (2007). Admixture in Mexico City: implications for admixture mapping of Type 2 diabetes genetic risk factors. Human Genetics 120(6): 807-819.

Melchers, M., C. Montag, M. Reuter, F.M. Spinath, and E. Hahn. (2016). How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents. Motivation and Emotion 40(5): 720-730. 

Quintero, L.A.M., J. Muñoz-Delgado, J.C. Sánchez-Ferrer, A. Fresán, M. Brüne, and I. Arango de Montis.  (2018). Facial Emotion Recognition and Empathy in Employees at a Juvenile Detention Center. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 62(8) 2430-2446.

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.

Tal Saban, M. and A. Kirby. (2019). Empathy, social relationship and co-occurrence in young adults with DCD. Human Movement Science 63: 62-72

Wikipedia (2019). University College London.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The evolution of empathy

Maria Walpole and her daughter Elisabeth Laura (1762), by Joshua Reynolds. Affective empathy may have initially evolved to facilitate the mother-child relationship. 

Empathy is key to the functioning of high-trust cultures. If everyone is empathic toward each other, there is no need to waste energy on self-protection or on double-checking every single transaction. Just as importantly, you can make transactions that would otherwise be uneconomical.

Empathy, however, has to be reciprocated. Otherwise, it will divert your limited resources to people who will never reciprocate and who will, in fact, bleed you dry.  

The adaptiveness of empathy therefore depends on the cultural environment. Some cultures will favor it but not others. Does it follow, then, that some human populations have become more empathic than others? Can this mental trait undergo gene-culture coevolution?

It can, if three pre-conditions are met:

1. The trait varies in adaptiveness from one culture to another.

2. The trait is genetically heritable.

3. The trait can easily evolve out of pre-existing traits, i.e., only a few genetic changes are needed.

Evolutionary psychologists will argue that modern humans have not existed long enough to evolve new mental adaptations, particularly since their expansion out of Africa and into new natural and cultural environments. There has only been fine-tuning of existing adaptations (Tooby, Cosmides, and Barkow 1992). This argument is debatable:

Even if 40 or 50 thousand years were too short a time for the evolutionary development of a truly new and highly complex mental adaptation, which is by no means certain, it is certainly long enough for some groups to lose such an adaptation, for some groups to develop a highly exaggerated version of an adaptation, or for changes in the triggers or timing of that adaptation to evolve. That is what we see in domesticated dogs, for example, who have entirely lost certain key behavioral adaptations of wolves such as paternal investment. Other wolf behaviors have been exaggerated or distorted. (Harpending and Cochran 2002)

Empathy can thus differ between human populations if the differences arise from simple changes to an existing mechanism.

So does empathy meet the above preconditions?

Differences in adaptiveness

All cultures have rules of one sort or another. These rules are enforced by external sanctions (shaming by the community, especially by family members) and internal sanctions (feelings of guilt). Most cultures rely primarily on shaming. Some cultures, particularly in Europe, rely much more on feelings of guilt. Guilt is a subset of empathy. As the wrongdoer, you transfer to yourself the feelings of the person you have wronged. You feel the pain you have inflicted, and you will now mentally punish yourself.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict described the differences between shame and guilt:

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

Shame seems to be evolutionarily older than guilt. Sigmund Freud speculated that feelings of guilt arose as a mechanism to punish misbehavior in larger communities where paternal authority is insufficient: 

When an attempt is made to widen the community, the same conflict is continued in forms which are dependent on the past; and it is strengthened and results in a further intensification of the sense of guilt. [...]. What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group. If civilization is a necessary course of development from the family to humanity as a whole, then [...] there is inextricably bound up with it an increase of the sense of guilt, which will perhaps reach heights that the individual finds hard to tolerate. (Freud 1962, pp. 79-80)

East Asians might seem to be an exception to this evolutionary trend. They generally live in large communities where paternal authority is insufficient to enforce social rules. This problem seems to have been resolved through a stronger sense of social duty, rather than a greater propensity for empathy and guilt.

We see this in a study of young Chinese adults. The participants could see things from another person's perspective and understand how that person felt, but they did not seem to internalize those feelings and experience them vicariously. They were motivated to obey social rules by a sense of duty, rather than by empathy and feelings of guilt: "taking the views of others is an essential duty, and the lack of consideration to others' perspectives is generally regarded as a lack of virtue in the Chinese culture" (Siu and Shek 2005).


First, we should keep in mind that empathy is not a unitary construct. It has different components:

Pro-social behavior: willingness to help others

Cognitive empathy:  capacity to understand how others feel

Affective or emotional empathy: involuntary transference of another person's feelings to yourself, i.e., feeling that person's pain or joy.

The last component is usually what we mean by empathy. Nonetheless, a person can be low in affective empathy while being high in cognitive empathy; this is in fact the hallmark of the sociopath, i.e., a person who understands how others feel and knows how to exploit those feelings for personal gain. Of the three kinds of empathy, pro-social behavior seems the most divergent and shares the least mental circuitry with the other two. Cognitive and affective empathy share circuits that specialize in representing another person's thoughts and intensions; affective empathy seems to be an additional step where these representations are relayed to brain regions that produce the corresponding emotional responses (Carr et al. 2003; Krishnan et al. 2016).

The latest review of the literature concluded that all three components of empathy have moderate to high heritability (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen 2013). Since then, an adult twin study has estimated the heritability of affective empathy at 52-57% and that of cognitive empathy at 27%. The rest of the variance was largely due to non-shared environment (Melchers et al. 2016). 

These findings are in line with those of a longitudinal twin study of children from 7 to 12 years of age. Genetic influences accounted for most of the variance in callousness/unemotionality, and environmental influences were entirely non-shared (Henry et al. 2018). Other studies have shown that the capacity for affective empathy remains stable as a child develops, while cognitive empathy progressively increases (Decety et al. 2017):

Finally, men and women seem to differ in affective empathy but not in cognitive empathy: “females do indeed appear to be more empathic than males [but] [t]hey do not appear to be more adept at assessing another person's affective, cognitive, or spatial perspective” (Hoffman 1977). This sex difference has been confirmed by recent studies, notably a British study (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004), a largely Argentinean study (Baez et al. 2017), an Italian twin study (Toccaceli et al. 2018), and a Chinese study (Liu et al. 2018). The size of the sex difference varied, however, being slight in the British and Argentinean studies, large but not significant in the Italian study, and significant in the Chinese study. 

Evolution in Homo sapiens

Affective empathy seems to be universal in our species. Differences do exist, however, between individuals, and these differences are distributed along a Bell curve in a human population (Baron-Cohen 2011; McGregor 2018). Any distinction between “normal people” and “sociopaths” is therefore arbitrary. There is simply a continuum of decreasing capacity for affective empathy.

Affective empathy also differs between men and women, and this sex difference seems, in turn, to differ from one population to another. This last point suggests an evolutionary pathway. Affective empathy may have initially evolved in ancestral humans as a means to facilitate the mother-child relationship. "Guilt cultures" then favored extension of affective empathy to a wider range of social interactions, as well as increased expression in men. One consequence would be a smaller sex difference in this mental trait.

How do guilt cultures ensure that affective empathy is reciprocated? They seem to resolve this problem by defining themselves much more as moral communities than as communities of related individuals. Adherence to social rules defines community membership, and these rules are perceived as being universal and absolute, as opposed to the situational morality of communities defined solely by kinship. Guilt cultures are also highly ideological. Community members monitor not only outward behavior for compliance but also inward thoughts—and this monitoring can target not just the thoughts of other members but also one’s own. Non-compliance can lead to a member being branded as morally worthless and expelled from the community (Frost 2017).

The current evidence is suggestive but not conclusive. As Baez et al. (2017) point out, most of our evidence on sex differences in empathy comes from self-report, i.e., questionnaires that men and women fill out. Many studies also fail to distinguish between cognitive empathy (understanding what others feel) and affective empathy (feeling what others feel). To measure affective empathy objectively, especially when comparing people from different cultural backgrounds, it would be best to use brain fMRIs (Krishnan et al. 2016).

To be cont'd


Baez, S., Flichtentrei, D., Prats, M., Mastandueno, R., García, A.M., Cetkovich, M., et al. (2017). Men, women...who cares? A population-based study on sex differences and gender roles in empathy and moral cognition. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179336.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The Empathy Bell Curve. Phi Kappa Phi Forum; Baton Rouge 91(1): 10-12.

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.

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

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.

Davis, M.H., C. Luce, and S.J. Kraus. (1994). The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy. Journal of Personality 62: 369-391.

Decety, J., K.L. Meidenbauer, and J.M. Cowell. (2017). The development of cognitive empathy and concern in preschool children: A behavioral neuroscience investigation. Developmental Science 2018;21:e12570. 

Freud, S. (1962[1930]). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton

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

Harpending, H., and G. Cochran. (2002). In our genes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 99(1): 10-12.

Henry, J., G. Dionne, E. Viding, A. Petitclerc, B. Feng, F. Vitaro, M. Brendgen, R.E. Tremblay, and M. Boivin. (2018). A longitudinal twin study of callous-unemotional traits during childhood. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 127(4): 374-384. 

Hoffman, M. L. (1977). Sex differences in empathy and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin 84(4): 712-722. 

Krishnan, A., C.W. Woo, L.J. Chang, L. Ruzic, X. Gu, M. López-Solà, P.L Jackson, J. Pujol, J. Fan, and T.D. Wager. (2016). Somatic and vicarious pain are represented by dissociable multivariate brain patterns. eLife 2016;5:e15166 

Liu, J., X. Qiao, F. Dong, and A. Raine. (2018). The Chinese version of the cognitive, affective, and somatic empathy scale for children: Validation, gender invariance and associated factors. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0195268. 

McGregor, J. (2018). The highly empathic. SoRECS – The Society for Research into Empathy, Cruelty & Sociopathy. May

Melchers, M., C. Montag, M. Reuter, F.M. Spinath, and E. Hahn. (2016). How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents. Motivation and Emotion 40(5): 720-730. 

Siu, A.M.H. and D.T. L. Shek. (2005). Validation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in a Chinese Context. Research on Social Work Practice 15: 118-126.

Toccaceli, V., C. Fagnani, N. Eisenberg, G. Alessandri, A. Vitale and M.A. Stazi. (2018). Adult Empathy: Possible Gender Differences in Gene-Environment Architecture for Cognitive and Emotional Components in a Large Italian Twin Sample. Twin Research and Human Genetics 21(3): 214-226

Tooby J, L. Cosmides, and J. Barkow. (1992). Introduction: Evolutionary Psychology and Conceptual Integration. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and L. Tooby (eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, pp. 3-16, New York: Oxford Univ. Press; 1992.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Unusually diverse

Portrait “Mijke” – Frans Koppelaar (1943 - ). Europeans are unusually diverse for hair color. Over 200 alleles have been identified in British subjects.

Europeans are unusually diverse for hair color. When this diversity was being studied two decades ago, 11 nonsynonymous alleles for hair color had been identified in Europeans, versus 5 in Asians and 1 in Africans (Harding et al. 2000; Rana et al. 1999). The disparity is even greater because the Asian alleles produce pretty much the same hair color.

European hair color is unusual in another way. “Nonsynonymous alleles” make a visible difference and are usually outnumbered by those that don’t. The reverse is true, however, at the main gene for hair color, MC1R, where nonsynonymous alleles outnumber synonymous alleles by a ratio of two to one. 

Rana et al. (1999) concluded that some kind of selection had caused hair color to diversify outside Africa. Harding et al. (2000) disagreed, attributing this diversification to relaxation of selection: as humans spread out of Africa, selection for black hair grew weaker and new hair colors gradually accumulated. Of course, this scenario would require a long span of time: close to a million years to produce the current variability of hair color, including approximately 80,000 years for today's prevalence of red hair alone (Harding et al. 2000; Templeton 2002). 

That is a long time. Given that modern humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago and arrived in Europe only 45,000 years ago, some academics began to argue that Europeans must have inherited their diverse hair colors from the Neanderthals. 

A Neanderthal origin is nonetheless problematic, if only because ancestral Neanderthals and Denisovans separated from ancestral modern humans an estimated three quarters of a million years ago (Rogers et al. 2017). Well, perhaps that's close enough to the above estimate of one million years ago. Another problem: when Ding et al. (2017) examined alleles for red hair, they identified only one as being of Neanderthal origin; the others apparently arose among modern humans. Finally, even if the different alleles for hair color had been introduced through Neanderthal admixture, some kind of selection would have still been needed to increase their frequency in the European gene pool, which is only 1 to 4% of Neanderthal origin.

With enough hand-waving, one can explain the many hair colors of Europeans in terms of relaxation of selection and Neanderthal admixture... as long as there are only a dozen alleles to explain away. A recent study, however, has found a lot more:

We report here the analysis of the majority of UK Biobank, a total of almost 350,000 subjects. By performing genome-wide analyses across hair colours, we have discovered novel variation in and around MC1R that contributes to red hair. [...] Furthermore, we identify more than 200 genetic variants independently associated with multiple hair colours on the spectrum of blond to black. (Morgan et al. 2018)

More than two hundred! If these alleles were due to relaxation of selection we would have to assume they had slowly accumulated over tens of millions of years—a time span longer than the existence of all hominids. Clearly, the facts call for another explanation: some kind of selection created these numerous hair colors, and very strong selection at that. 

This selection operated relatively fast and over a relatively small geographic area, while also causing eye color to diversify at the same time. Ancient DNA shows that most Europeans had only black hair and brown eyes until seven thousand years ago, and perhaps later still. Previously, the other hair and eye colors existed only in humans from Scandinavia, the East Baltic and, apparently, areas farther east (Günther et al. 2018; Mittnik et al. 2018). 

In fact, the oldest genetic evidence of blond hair, dated to 18,000 years ago, comes from the site of Afontova Gora in central Siberia (Mathieson et al. 2018, p. 52). At sites in south-central Siberia dating from the third millennium B.C. to the fourth century A.D. we find that most individuals had blue or green eyes and blond, red, or brown hair (Bouakaze et al. 2009). This finding is consistent with old Chinese records, which mention south Siberian peoples with "green eyes" and "red hair" (Keane 1886, p. 703).

The evidence thus suggests that the current European phenotype came into being during the last ice age 10,000 to 20,000 years ago on the plains stretching from the Baltic to central Siberia. But why would a cold, open environment select for a diverse palette of hair and eye colors? Apparently, this was not natural selection by the steppe-tundra environment; it was sexual selection by the accompanying social environment, specifically a mate market where too many women had to compete for too few men. Polygyny was not an option for most men. Almost all of the food was obtained through hunting of big game (reindeer, bison, etc.), and this high meat diet made it too costly for all but the ablest hunters to support a second wife and her offspring. High male mortality further reduced the number of men available for mating. Game animals had to be pursued over long distances and unstable terrain with no alternative food sources (Frost 2006; Frost 2014; Frost, Kleisner, and Flegr 2017).

This new phenotype eventually died out in its eastern range and became confined to the northeast of Europe. From there it spread to the rest of the continent on the eve of recorded history. Only then, not long before the beginnings of ancient Greece, did most Europeans come to look European ... as if they were a cast of actors who had been made up and rushed onto the stage just moments before curtain time.


Bouakaze, C., C. Keyser, E. Crubézy, and D. Montagnon, and B. Ludes. (2009). Pigment phenotype and biogeographical ancestry from ancient skeletal remains: inferences from multiplexed autosomal SNP analysis. International Journal of Legal Medicine 123(4): 315-325.

Ding, Q., Y. Hu, S. Xu, C.C. Wang, H. Li, R. Zhang, et al. (2014). Neanderthal origin of the haplotypes carrying the functional variant Val92Met in the MC1R in modern humans. Molecular Biology and Evolution 31(8): 1994-2003

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior 27(2): 85-103.

Frost, P. (2014). The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color. Advances in Anthropology 4(2): 78-88. 

Frost, P., K. Kleisner, and J. Flegr. (2017). Health status by gender, hair color, and eye color: Red-haired women are the most divergent. PLoS One 12(12): e0190238. 

Günther, T., H. Malmström, E.M. Svensson, A. Omrak, F. Sánchez-Quinto, G.M. Kilinç, et al. (2018). Population genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia: Investigating early postglacial migration routes and high-latitude adaptation. PLoS Biol 16(1): e2003703. 

Harding, R.M., E. Healy, A.J. Ray, N.S. Ellis, N. Flanagan, C. Todd, et al. (2000). Evidence for variable selective pressures at MC1R. American Journal of Human Genetics 66(4): 1351-1361.

Keane, A.H. (1886). Asia with Ethnological Appendix. London: Edward Stanford.

Mathieson, I., S.A. Roodenberg, C. Posth, A. Szécsényi-Nagy, N. Rohland, S. Mallick, et al. (2018). The Genomic History of Southeastern Europe, Supplementary Information, p. 52. Nature 555: 197-203

Mittnik, A., C-C. Wang, S. Pfrengle, M. Daubaras, G. Zarina, F. Hallgren, et al. (2018). The genetic prehistory of the Baltic Sea region. Nature Communications 9(442)

Morgan, M.D., E. Pairo-Castineira, K. Rawlik, O. Canela-Xandri, J. Rees, D. Sims, A. Tenesa, and I.J. Jackson. (2018). Genome-wide study of hair colour in UK Biobank explains most of the SNP heritability. Nature Communications 9: 5271

Rana, B.K., D. Hewett-Emmett, L. Jin, B.H.J. Chang, N. Sambuughin, M. Lin, et al. (1999). High polymorphism at the human melanocortin 1 receptor locus. Genetics 151(4): 1547-1557.

Rogers, A.R., R.J. Bohlender, C.D. Huff. (2017). Early history of Neanderthals and Denisovans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (37): 9859-9863, 

Templeton, A.R. (2002). Out of Africa again and again. Nature 416(6876): 45-51.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Demise of the West

Rachel Silverthorne's Ride (1938), mural by John W. Beauchamp at Muncy Post Office. Government-funded art used to promote love of family, community, and nation.

In my last post I discussed the uncoupling of gene-culture coevolution in the Western world. We are no longer co-evolving genetically with an environment where kinship matters less and less and where the market economy has become the main way we process social and economic transactions. Meanwhile, this cultural environment has continued to evolve on its own ... and at an ever-faster rate.

A lot of cultural change has happened since that uncoupling in the late nineteenth century. The extended family is gone—few young people have significant relationships with their cousins or grandparents … if only because most of the latter are already dead because of longer generation times. As for the nation-state, kinship no longer plays even a symbolic role—your "nation" is where you currently reside. Only the nuclear family remains as a kin group, and that last holdout is crumbling. A growing proportion of the population lives alone, and the families that do exist are increasingly "blended" or single-parent.

This liquidation of kinship is driven by the expansion of the market economy and its accompanying ideology of liberalism. This ideology allows some differences of opinion: Right-liberals wish to let kinship self-liquidate and wither away on its own, whereas Left-liberals want to use the State to accelerate the process. Both agree, however, on the end game. Once kinship has been reduced to a vestigial role, individual freedom will be maximized, and we will be able to do the most with what we have in a global marketplace.

So why worry? There may be bumps and potholes on the road to a better world, but we'll all be better off in the end. So let's stay the course and ignore the purveyors of doom and gloom. Such is the thinking that prevails among our elites.

I see fewer grounds for optimism:

Psychological mismatch

We are creating conditions of extreme social atomization that have never existed before and for which we are psychologically ill prepared. It's true that northwest Europeans have a long history of individualism, and this is largely why our ancestors were able to create free societies where the market economy replaces kinship networks as the main way for people to relate to each other. Nonetheless, we’ve freed ourselves from ties of kith and kin to a degree that would surprise even our recent ancestors, with no accompanying changes to our psychological makeup.

Some consequences are already visible: after decades of uninterrupted increase among white Americans, life expectancy is falling because of suicide and opioid abuse among the growing numbers of men who live alone. Those people are like canaries in a coal mine.

To make matters worse, we are exporting this societal model to the rest of the world. The psychological consequences will be much worse there, as can be seen with immigrants to the West. Typically, the first generation has low levels of dysfunction; the problems arise mostly in the second and third generations. 

You may ask: how can that be when the latter are more acculturated? To ask the question is to answer it. Non-Western societies keep people in line through multiple social, cultural, and ideological restraints. Migration to the West dissolves those restraints in an acid bath of personal freedom. The first generation will be OK, but the succeeding generations will have a serious mismatch between their genotype and our phenotype of extreme individualism. Some of them will become a caricature of Western dysfunction. Others will try to recreate the restrictive environment of their ancestors.

Decline of the bourgeois mindset

The market economy requires a certain psychological makeup. It will not, for instance, self-generate in a low-trust society where people are fixated on the present and prefer to settle personal disputes through violence. In that context, the market mechanism will be confined in space and time to marketplaces. It will not spread throughout society to encompass most of the transactions that people carry on with each other (Frost 2018).

This was the case for most of history and prehistory. It's not that people didn't understand markets. They did. It's just that they preferred to get most of what they wanted on their own or through people they could trust in their kinship network. Conditions were not in place for the market mechanism to break out of this straitjacket and create a true market economy.

It's no coincidence that this breakout happened in northwest Europe, where kinship networks were already relatively weak, where most adults remained single into their mid to late twenties, and where many never married. Once the market economy took off, people exploited its possibilities by pushing their envelope of phenotypic plasticity—by living, thinking, and behaving in new ways. Then, through selection over succeeding generations, the mean genotype followed this evolving phenotype, thus allowing people to keep pushing the envelope farther and farther. 

In sum, this market-driven environment favored the survival and reproduction of people with a certain psychological makeup. Such people were more future-oriented, less willing to settle personal disputes with violence, and better able to process numerical and textual data. In other words, this was the bourgeois mindset of thrift, self-control, foresight, numeracy, and literacy (Clark 2007; Clark 2009; Frost 2011; Frost 2017; Frost and Harpending 2015; hbd*chick 2014; Rindermann 2018, pp. 86-87).

Cultural decline

This mindset has helped the market economy to work better, but there is no reason to think that the latter will return the favor. This was pointed out by Daniel Bell in his work The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). In it, he argued that the market economy encourages consumerism and desires for immediate fulfilment, thus eroding the values of thrift and delayed gratification that originally made it possible. Furthermore, since personal desires cannot be satisfied without effort, and since people vary in their ability to make the necessary effort, there will be growing pressure on the State to step in and satisfy those desires for everyone. The culture itself will become narcissistic.

These negative effects were being noticed by the late nineteenth century, notably in Catholic encyclicals. In Rerum novarum (1891), the church stated that employers must see the worker "as a person ennobled by Christian character" and ensure that he "be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings."

In the United States, the Progressive Era of the 1890s to the 1920s reflected this same mistrust of the free market and individualism. Many movements for community or national improvement began in that era, particularly those for temperance, social hygiene, immigration control, nature conservation, urban beautification, and so on.

Genetic decline

Alongside this cultural decline, the bourgeois mindset also seems to have suffered genetic decline. There is growing evidence that people in Western countries are losing the gene-based improvements their ancestors had gained in cognitive capacity and other mental traits. 

The strongest evidence for this regressive evolution is seen in an Icelandic study that shows a steady decline since the early twentieth century in alleles associated with high educational attainment (Kong et al. 2017). Only a fraction of such alleles have been identified to date, but it is disturbing that the ones we have identified are being replaced by alleles associated with low educational attainment. There is also evidence that mean reaction time has increased since the Victorian era (Madison 2014; Madison et al. 2016; Woodley et al. 2013). Finally, the Flynn effect is leveling off and even reversing in some Western countries (Rindermann 2018, p. 88). The Flynn effect is itself illusory, being due mostly to increasing familiarity with test taking. With peak familiarity the genetic decline is now becoming visible.

At first, this decline was driven by a reversal of class differences in natural increase. Previously, the lower classes had failed to reproduce themselves and had steadily absorbed downwardly mobile members of the middle class, which at that time was much more reproductively successful (Clark 2007). In the late nineteenth century this situation reversed. The middle class had fewer children because they wished to pursue higher education and pay for the trappings of an affluent lifestyle. Meanwhile, working people were better able to settle down, marry, and have children. This was largely because industrialists began to recognize they had a vested interest in creating stable communities for their workers. Two English companies, Cadbury's and Lever Brothers, showed the way by providing their employees with housing, medical care, and recreational activities. Other companies followed suit, and this industrial paternalism became a model for the welfare state (Wikipedia 2019a)

These class differences in natural increase would eventually narrow, particularly after the Second World War. All classes participated in the postwar economic boom and baby boom, with fertility rising among middle-class couples. This leveling of class differences was further aided by greater access to contraception for people of all backgrounds.

Since the 1970s the IQ decline seems to be driven much more by decomposition of the nuclear family: proportionately more births are to single mothers who tend to have children by sexy men who are less intelligent and more prone to violence (see previous post).

The Indian summer of the mid-twentieth century

This cultural and genetic decline leveled off during the mid-twentieth century. On both the right and the left, people had become convinced that the market economy was fouling its nest through impulse buying, needless consumer debt, and erosion of community values. In response, a new societal model came into being.

That model took shape during the last great depression and lasted until the 1960s. Called the "New Deal" in the U.S., it was characterized by low immigration, particularly of unskilled, low-wage labor, by high unionization, by corporate paternalism (employee benefits, recreational activities for workers, etc.), and by the welfare state (pensions, health care, unemployment insurance). It was also characterized by propaganda to promote the family, the community, and the nation. Although this societal model is now branded as "fascist" it was present to some degree in all advanced societies, including America under Roosevelt and the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Indeed, Roosevelt's America was a lot less liberal than we like to think. The Hays Code, introduced in 1930 and strengthened in 1934, imposed strict moral guidelines on movie making. Meanwhile, Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, brought in policies to encourage marriage, larger families, and population growth:

Maternalists would use the New Deal to reward the domestic woman and discourage the working mother. They expanded and nationalized existing state programs that protected mothers and created "new ones to deliver social benefits to the wives and widows of wage-earning men." They "prescribed domesticity to unemployed women in vocational programs that trained [them] for housekeeping and parenting," and they urged "counseling services for mothers tempted to work outside the home." Linking truancy, incorrigibility, and emotional disorders among children to a "mother's absence at her job," the Maternalists mounted campaigns to bring working mothers home. (Carlson 2002)

Under the New Deal, support was also given to artwork that promoted love of family, community, and nation. This was particularly so with "regionalist” artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Thomas Craven, and many others (Baigell 1974).

End of the New Deal and beginnings of globalization

The baby boom ended in the 1960s and the economic boom a decade later. To some degree both were victims of their success. As incomes doubled, and as unemployment remained low, people could more easily do as they liked. Many postponed marriage, either to pursue postsecondary education or simply to enjoy the pleasures of the new affluence. Sexual experimentation became widespread. Again, this was made easier by the success of postwar society, particularly in reducing STDs to a low level and in creating a safety net that could cope with broken homes and parentless children. Negative effects were less serious back then than they would be later.

Meanwhile, the West opened up to globalization. This began in the late 1960s with outsourcing of textile production and some manufacturing to low-wage economies, initially the eastern fringe of Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea) and later, in the 1980s, the People's Republic of China, Mexico, and Bangladesh. Outsourcing soon spread through most of  manufacturing and even high-tech.

This period also saw a steady rise in the number of immigrants, principally from low-wage countries. The U.S alone went from taking in just under 300,000 a year in 1965 to over a million a year by 1990. Illegal immigrants also arrived in growing numbers, their estimated population in the U.S. now ranging from a low of 11 million to a high of 29 million (Fazel-Zarandi et al. 2018). Immigration to the United Kingdom has similarly surged from around 200,000 a year in the 1970s and 1980s to around 600,000 in the 2000s (Wikipedia 2019b). Most Western countries have followed suit, including many that had previously not received immigrants on a large scale.

Jobs have thus been outsourced to countries where labor is cheaper. Conversely, cheap labor has been insourced for jobs that, by their very nature, cannot be sent abroad, i.e., in construction, agriculture, and services. This two-way movement benefits business at the expense of workers. It is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, why more and more wealth is accruing to the top 1% (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). It is also the reason why workers in the West are getting poorer: median wages have stagnated since the 1970s and have probably fallen if we adjust for the decline in employee benefits and the decline in unpaid childcare by mothers and grandparents (Mishel et al. 2015; Semuels 2013).

The old working class also has to bear the cost of longer commutes as it gets pushed farther and farther into the exurbs by the rising cost of housing and by the new class of low-wage immigrants. The latter now dominate the suburbs and provide the gentry of the inner city with cheap services (daycare, food services, laundry and dry cleaning, landscaping, etc.).  A new social geography is being created, with high-income people in the inner city, immigrants in the suburbs, and the old working class relegated to the exurbs.

This pattern is key to understanding the gilets jaunes in France. Why are they so upset over a fuel tax? A big reason is the long commutes that French working people now have to make.

[...] employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places — in "peripheral France" (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) — that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, "workers" no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

[...] This confinement is not only geographical but also intellectual. The globalised metropolises are the new citadels of the 21st century — rich and unequal, where even the former lower-middle class no longer has a place. Instead, large global cities work on a dual dynamic: gentrification and immigration. This is the paradox: the open society results in a world increasingly closed to the majority of working people.

The economic divide between peripheral France and the metropolises illustrates the separation of an elite and its popular hinterland. Western elites have gradually forgotten a people they no longer see. (Guilluy 2018; also see Caldwell 2017)

Why not build housing for them near the big cities? Well, such housing was built. It's now inhabited overwhelmingly by immigrants who provide the inner-city gentry with cheap services:

After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country's households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it's all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today.

[...] As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public—which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidized servants' quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim. (Caldwell 2017)


We need to stop viewing the market economy as a self-correcting mechanism that works best if left alone. That view is best reserved for things that have proven themselves over the long term. That is not the case here. For most of history and prehistory we had markets but not a true market economy. It has only been over the past thousand years that this economic system gradually came into being among northwest Europeans and in the societies they founded. Its current globalized form is less than a half-century old.

Ironically, free market proponents often look back with nostalgia to the United States of the 1950s—a time of high tariffs, low immigration, high corporate taxation, and high unionization, not to mention the Hays Code and countless other restrictions on entertainment. The current system is actually much closer to the free market ideal.

Is this system sustainable? It is … for some people. As is often the case, the system is most sustainable for those who benefit the most and who have the power to prevent change. For them, life is great and couldn’t be better, at least for now. 

The system is less sustainable for the remnants of the old working class. For them, the outlook is especially bleak. They are caught between the anvil of stagnant wages and the hammer of rising costs—in part to support the growing population of net tax consumers and in part to insulate themselves from the latter … and an increasingly dysfunctional social environment.

In the end, however, the current system is not sustainable. The problem isn’t just that globalization will level the wages of Western working people down to the global average. In that scenario, the system could be sustainable. Indeed, the new gentry would have the best of both: a nice first-world lifestyle and cheap third-world labor. The world, as a whole, would be wealthier, even though people in the West would, on average, be poorer. And the top 1% would probably be richer than they are today.

That scenario ignores one thing, however. The market economy, and its power to create so much wealth, came into being because of certain cultural, psychological and, yes, genetic characteristics. Those characteristics are not distributed uniformly around the world. In fact, for a long time they didn’t even exist. They gradually evolved and came together in certain human groups, particularly in northwest Europeans.

Yes, there were similar evolutionary processes in other human groups, notably East Asians, Ashkenazi Jews, Parsees, and so on. But those groups, too, will form a diminishing proportion of the world’s population. The cultural, psychological, and genetic basis for the market economy will therefore regress as time goes on.

The most likely scenario is that the market economy will likewise regress. We will return to a low-trust world of spatially localized markets with no market economy, at least not one that will self-generate without coercion. We will all be poorer.


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#LCI14 Conference proceedings  

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