Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Have we been selected for long-term thinking?

GDP per capita as a function of future orientation (Preis et al. 2012)

To what degree do we value the short term over the long term? The answer varies not only from individual to individual but also from society to society. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, value the short term. Perishable food cannot be stored for future use and, in any case, is not normally obtained in large enough amounts to make storage worthwhile. If a hunter gets more meat than his family can consume, he'll give it away to others in the local band.

There are exceptions, especially at northern latitudes. Meat can be stored in caches during winter and in cold lake waters during summer. With limited opportunities for food gathering, women specialize in technologies that need more cognitive input and longer-term thinking, like garment making, needlework, weaving, leatherworking, pottery, and use of kilns. Finally, men hunt over longer distances and therefore plan over the longer term. Northern hunting peoples thus broke free of the short-term mental straitjacket imposed by hunting and gathering. In time, their descendants would spread south and rise to the challenges of social complexity (Frost 2019).

Those northern hunting peoples were better able to exploit the opportunities created by farming, but the transition from one lifestyle to the other was still far from easy. Farming requires not only longer-term thinking but also less monotony avoidance and higher thresholds for expression of personal violence. In recent times, hunter-gatherers usually refused offers to be settled on farms. They saw farming as akin to slavery.

The change in mindset didn't end with the transition to farming. There were different types of farming, and some required longer-term investment than others. Those types generated stronger selection for future orientation.

Language as a mirror of cultural evolution

Galor et al. (2018) argue that language is a mirror of cultural evolution. It can show a society’s degree of commitment to a long-term mindset, as well as other psychological traits.

The periphrastic future tense

The authors studied the relationship between future orientation and forms of the future tense that express intention and obligation, rather than simply prediction:

Languages differ in the structure of their future tense. In particular, linguists distinguish between languages that are characterized by an inflectional versus periphrastic future tense [...]. Inflectional future tense is associated with verbs that display morphological variation (i.e., a change in the verb form that is associated with the future tense). In contrast, periphrastic future tense is characterized by roundabout or discursive phrases, such as `will', `shall', `want to', `going to' in the English language [...] (Galor et al. 2018, p. 6)

[U]nlike the inflectional future tense, the periphrastic future tense is formed by terms that express a desire, an intention, an obligation, a commitment as well as a movement towards a goal. In particular, in the English language, "shall has developed from a main verb meaning 'to owe', will from a main verb meaning 'to want', and the source of be going to is still transparent" [...]. Moreover, "intention and prediction are most commonly expressed by the periphrastic future, while the synthetic one is more common in generic statements, concessives, and suppositions" [...]. Inflectional futures "also appear systematically (often obligatorily) in sentences which express clear predictions about the future (which are independent of human intentions and planning), whereas less grammaticalized constructions [i.e., periphrastic] often tend to be predominantly used in talk of plans and intentions - a fact which is explainable from the diachronic sources of future tenses" [...] (Galor et al. 2018, p. 6)

Galor et al. (2018, p. 16) used pre-1500 AD data to estimate the return on agricultural investment ("crop return") in the homeland of a language’s speakers. They found a positive correlation between this return on investment and the existence of a periphrastic future tense. They concluded that "a one standard deviation increase in crop return in the language's contemporary homeland is associated with a 6 percentage points increase in the probability that the language is characterized by a periphrastic future tense."

Using the World Values Survey, the authors also found a positive correlation between the existence of a periphrastic future tense and future orientation. The correlation held true both for the people of the world as a whole and for Old World peoples who speak languages originating in the Old World (Galor et al. 2018, p. 23).

Interestingly, the return on agricultural investment did not correlate with other linguistic characteristics, like the existence of the past tense or the perfect tense, the existence of possessive classifications, the existence of coding for evidentiality, the number of consonants, and the number of colors (Galor et al. 2018, pp. 18-19).

Grammatical gender

The authors also looked into the relationship between grammatical gender and the sexual division of labor in a language's homeland:

Further, consider ancient civilizations that had been characterized by a sexual division of labor and consequently by the existence of gender bias. Linguistic traits that had fortified the existing gender biases have plausibly emerged and persisted in these societies over time. In particular, geographical characteristics that had been associated with the adoption of agricultural technology that had contributed to a gender gap in productivity, and thus to the emergence of distinct gender roles in society (e.g., the suitability of land for the usage of the plow […]), may have fostered the emergence and the prevalence of sex-based grammatical gender in the course of human history. (Galor et al. 2018, p. 2)

Galor et al (2018, p. 24) found a negative correlation between grammatical gender and “plow negative” crops (i.e., crops not requiring use of the plow and, hence, requiring less male participation). A one standard deviation increase in the potential caloric yield of plow negative crops was associated with a 13 percentage point decrease in the probability that the language has grammatical gender.  The correlation was reversed in the case of all crops, the caloric yield now being associated with a 17 percentage point increase in the probability that the language has grammatical gender.

Politeness distinctions in pronouns

Finally, Galor et al. (2018) looked into the relationship between politeness distinctions in pronouns and ecological diversity, which they related to the emergence of hierarchical societies.

Linguistic traits that had reinforced existing hierarchical structures and cultural norms had conceivably emerged and persisted in these stratified societies in the course of human history. In particular, politeness distinctions in pronouns (e.g., the differential use of "tu" and "usted" in the Spanish language, "Du" and "Sie" in German, and "tu" and "vous" in French) had conceivably appeared and endured in hierarchical societies. Thus, geographical characteristics, such as ecological diversity that had been conducive to the emergence of hierarchical societies (Fenske, 2014), may have contributed to the emergence of politeness distinctions. (Galor et al. 2018, p. 2)

Galor et al. (2018, p. 32) found a significant relationship between politeness distinctions and ecological diversity in a language's homeland. A one standard deviation increase in ecological diversity corresponded to a 15 percentage point increase in the probability that the language has politeness distinctions.

I'm skeptical about the last finding. Is ecological diversity conducive to hierarchical societies? The authors refer to a study that mostly uses African data. More to the point, the study seeks to link ecological diversity to centralized states. Centralization of state power and social hierarchization are not the same thing. Japan, for instance, had a weak central state for much of its history and yet was very hierarchical, as seen in the politeness distinctions of the Japanese language.


Although the authors refer to work by L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, Peter Richerson, and Robert Boyd on gene-culture coevolution, they avoid discussing the possibility that selection for future orientation, gender specialization, and hierarchical politeness has influenced not only culture and language but also human biology. The coevolution they propose is simply between culture and language. It can be summed up as follows:

- Certain patterns of mind and behavior have been favored to varying degrees in different societies.

- These cultural patterns are transposed into language.

- Language then reinforces those cultural patterns: "In light of the apparent coevolution of cultural and linguistic characteristics in the course of human history, emerging linguistic traits have conceivably reinforced the persistent effect of cultural factors on the process of development" (Galor et al. 2018, p. 1).

Language is not a passive mirror of culture. It can also act upon culture. For instance, the way we perceive the future, and its relative importance to us, may be shaped by the way we speak. This is of course the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  In a farming society, the periphrastic future tense might make it easier to envision farming methods and technologies that pay off over the longer term. Similar arguments have been made for grammatical gender and politeness distinctions. The way we speak influences our thoughts and behavior.

Again, the authors leave it to the reader to go one step farther: patterns of mind and behavior may influence the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool.


Fenske, J. (2014). Ecology, trade, and states in pre-colonial Africa. Journal of the European Economic Association 12(3): 612-640. 

Frost, P. (2019). The Original Industrial Revolution. Did Cold Winters Select for Cognitive Ability? Psych 1(1): 166-181 

Galor, O., O. Özak, and A. Sarid. (2018). Geographical Roots of the Coevolution of Cultural and Linguistic Traits (November 7, 2018). Available at SSRN: or  

Preis, T., H.S. Moat, H.E. Stanley, and S.R. Bishop. (2012). Quantifying the advantage of looking forward. Scientific Reports 2: 350


Anonymous said...

The correlations listed seem kind of random. Did the authors find any others? Are we sure they weren't p-hacking -- i.e., looking at a large number of possible correlations between linguistic and social characteristics and then reporting the few that came up positive?

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting subject for sure. I myself have wondered why languages have evolved they have. One of my questions is why, going from West to East, European languages start having cases (e.g. Russian and Polish have 7, French and English have none, and German is in the middle with 3 - precisely according to the geographical distribution of these countries). It's as if Western languages are more liberal and Eastern ones more conservative, with German in the middle. I think there's something about Eastern Europe that favors complex grammars, and something about Western Europe that wants to simplify.

Peter Frost said...


I'm suspicious about the data on politeness distinctions. But the authors make a good case for the relationship between return on agricultural investment and the periphrastic future tense. They looked at a large number of other linguistic characteristics and found no correlation. Of course, you could argue that they built their theory after finding a chance correlation with the periphrastic future.


The authors argue that the shift away from cases is due, at least in part, to a shift toward greater future orientation. It became more necessary to state intentions about the future.

Anonymous said...

In linguistics, highly inflected languages such as those with many cases are called "synthetic", and those that are less so are called "analytic".

Proto-Indo-European was very synthetic with lots of inflection and 8 or 9 cases. Older IE languages like Latin and Greek are regarded as synthetic, along with certain modern IE languages like Russian and German that retain many cases and lots of inflection. English is regarded as being very analytic and among the most analytic of the IE languages, since it has lost most of its inflection. All the modern IE languages are less synthetic/more analytic than their older variants and Proto-IE.

Chinese is regarded as being among the most analytic languages in general, since it lacks inflection almost entirely.

More analytic languages such as Chinese or English depend on word order and helping verbs such as "will", "shall" as mentioned above to convey meaning.

I'm not sure if there's anything to the idea that decline in inflection is associated with greater future orientation. It seems to me that they just use different means to convey the same meanings.

Anonymous said...

^^ But think about the IQ implications of the speakers of synthetic languages vs. analytic/compositional languages.

Russian, German, Finnish, Polish, Hungarian, and other synthetic languages still have their prepositions like "to," "from," "with," etc., but in addition to that, the speaker has to be conversant in 100's of suffixes that need to be in strict agreement with function, gender (3 in all those languages), and even mood. The helping words haven't gone away, they're still there, it's just that the complexity has been ADDED on top, and is immense.

In contrast to that analytic languages just rely on the helping words and nothing else. So you don't need a very high IQ to speak those languages. You don't need to keep track of hundreds of suffixes or prefixes corresponding to 3 (genders) x 7 (cases) x (2 or 3) moods or other categories ~ 45 or 50 word forms. It's just that the word order is a little bit firmer, but word order is also relatively firm in the synthetic languages in terms of everyday speech. (Relaxed word order only occurs in poetry.) So they're not equivalent, you really have to be quite smart to speak synthetic (or as I call them "conservative") languages.

And unlike English, where people are free to mangle grammar in major ways such as "He don't care" or "Who did you see" or "Who done it" without any resulting foreignness, in the synthetic languages, if you even so much as miss one small ending corresponding to the large number of permutations, people will scream at you, scold you, and instantly treat you as a foreigner.

Therefore my thesis is that languages like English, Spanish, French, and Chinese have a natural affinity to low-IQ populations. I know it's a controversial thing to say, but I stand behind it. I have objective proof.

Anonymous said...

^^ But think about the IQ implications of the speakers of synthetic languages vs. analytic/compositional languages.

Because of the traditional influence of Latin pedagogy in the English speaking world, Latin and its inflectional nature have been taken as the model for grammar for English scholars, despite English itself being very analytic. Hence the traditional rule against splitting the infinitive in English. The only reason this "rule" existed was because in Latin the infinitive is one word. In English, infinitives are two words, so keeping them together and not splitting them makes them more like the Latin infinitive and thus more correct. Grammar itself was identified with inflection. Thus the traditional view of Chinese having no grammar because it was almost purely analytic.

Regarding prepositions, their development and usage in a language correspond with a movement away from synthetic to analytic (relatively speaking).

Analytic languages don't just rely on helping words but on syntax such as word order. Traditionally French has been regarded as being a highly "logical" language because of its emphasis on word order, in contrast to synthetic languages with their freer word order.

Native speakers of synthetic languages don't "keep track" of inflections in a top-down fashion the way an English speaking schoolboy would memorize tables and lists of Latin and Greek declensions and conjugations. The work of grammarians and pedagogy in school are quite removed from how people actually learn and use languages. Typically they just assimilate words and their particular inflections in context and usage.

Analytic languages are regarded as more complex in terms of syntactic rules. They also tend to have more different and new words, so are regarded as more complex in that regard, while synthetic languages tend to inflect preexisting words to develop new and different words. English famously has a huge vocabulary.

Synthetic languages are not only associated with high IQ populations. Amerindian languages tend to be highly synthetic.

Anonymous said...

"analytic languages are regarded as more complex... English famously has a huge vocabulary."

English has a huge vocabulary because it incorporated Roman words into its Germanic base, not because it's an analytic language. Combinations such as begin/commence, end/finish, friendly/amicable, build/construct, abandon/relinquish, fast/rapid and so on are due to the merger of Latin and Teutonic words which is a phenomenon unique to the English language and the history of the English people. But Spanish and French, for example, which are also analytic, don't have this unusually expanded vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

"Analytic" and "synthetic" are relative terms. Spanish and French are more synthetic/less analytic compared to English, and less synthetic/more analytic relative to, say, Russian.

English's huge vocabulary is not necessarily because it's an analytic language, but there's likely an association there. Analytic languages are characterized by having very low morpheme to word ratios. Synthetic ones by contrast have high morpheme to word ratios. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning, but not necessarily a word. For example, the prefix "re" in "reheat". "Re" has meaning but is not an independent word. Synthetic languages tend to preserve roots and affix morphemes to come up with new words and meanings, and are less eager to adopt promiscuously independent words wholesale.

Peter Frost said...

"Therefore my thesis is that languages like English, Spanish, French, and Chinese have a natural affinity to low-IQ populations. I know it's a controversial thing to say, but I stand behind it. I have objective proof."

Your thesis should be easy to test. Do synthetic languages correlate with the mean population IQ? Offhand, I would say the correlation is weakly negative.

In any case, the issue here is future orientation, not IQ per se. Over time, languages seem to evolve from a synthetic structure to an analytic one

Anonymous said...

just to add some small corrections: german has not 3 cases, but 4 :)) ... and, of course, also french, spanish and english have all 4 cases - but as 'false/faux cases' (nevermind, english still performs the genitive even more boldly than german...
on the other hand, average, ordinary language in most german dialects is rather simple and often vey similar to basic english analytic language (little wonder, as anglo-saxon old/middle english was a west-germanic language very similar to dutch/platt dialects.
as with regards to IQ-level: chinese people with the most analytic language outdo (like korean or japanese) all european/westerners by 5-10 points, right? so, it cannot be directly dertived/connected IQ and 'simplicity' of language.
quite the contrary: australian aborigines show some of the most complex languages in grammar, syntax and lexik, but perform very poorly in IQ.

tomR said...

The limit seems to be 30+ years for even advanced organizations and governments and around 10 years for typical consumers.

I derive the 30+ year limit for organizations from what has happened with the newest generations of nuclear reactors, like EPR and ATMEA. Their producers shot themselves in the foot by extending the lifespan to 60 years at the cost of higher upfront cost. And it completly failed financially - noone knows how to properly finance for such long times. For example Hinkley-C financing is basically paying double the price of electricity for 35 years - if they could spread the cost of building it over 60 years then per-MWh price would be close to normal market price.

In case of consumers - most popular household products are designed for 7 - 10 years of use. There are brainds that advertise 20 years of use (eg. Miele), but it doesn't look like the bulk of consumers care.