Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The large society problem in Northwest Europe and East Asia


Allegory of Justice punishing Injustice – Jean-Marc Nattier (Wikicommons). Initially, economic and social activity was organized among closely related individuals, a limitation that kept societies from realizing their full potential as they grew larger. Northwest Europeans and East Asians overcame this limitation through behavioral and mental changes.

I have published an article on "the large society problem in Northwest Europe and East Asia." Comments are welcome.




Kinship was the organizing principle of early societies, defining how people should behave toward each other. Social and economic activity was thus organized mostly among closely related individuals, a limitation that would keep societies from realizing their full potential as they grew larger. The "large society problem" has not been fully solved anywhere, but Northwest Europeans and East Asians have gone the farthest toward a solution. In general, the solution has been to weaken the relative importance of kinship and strengthen forms of sociality that can include everyone, and not just close kin. In particular, one must think and feel in certain ways, i.e., be susceptible to social norms that are absolute, universal, and independent of kinship; feel guilty after breaking social norms; feel empathy for non-kin; and orient oneself toward society. This mindset shows similarities and differences between Northwest Europeans and East Asians. Both groups adapted to a larger social environment by becoming more empathetic toward non-kin and more susceptible to universal social norms. Northwest Europeans became more individualistic while acquiring stronger internal controls of behavior (affective empathy, guilt proneness). East Asians became more collectivistic while acquiring stronger internal controls (cognitive empathy) and stronger external controls (shaming, family-community surveillance, inculcation of normative behavior).





Frost, P. (2020). The large society problem in Northwest Europe and East Asia. Advances in Anthropology 10(3): 214-134.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Declining intelligence in the 20th century: the case of Estonia

Soviet-era stamp. In Estonia, cranial volume shrank between the cohort of girls born in 1937 and those born in 1962, apparently because the intellectually gifted were more likely to pursue higher education and postpone childbearing.


Is the genetic basis for intelligence declining from one generation to the next? That’s the conclusion of several recent studies on alleles associated with high educational attainment. By adding up such alleles over the genome, we can get a person's "polygenic score." By calculating the mean polygenic score for each generation, we can then find out whether this genetic basis is declining.

The polygenic score has declined among Icelanders since the cohort born in 1910 and among Euro Americans between the 1931 and 1953 cohorts (Beauchamp 2016; Kong et al. 2017). The Icelandic study is especially interesting because that country took in very few immigrants during the period under study. The decline was thus driven by internal factors. One reason seems to be the tendency of university-educated people to delay reproduction and have fewer children. But that's not the whole story. Even among Icelanders who didn’t pursue higher education, fertility was lower among the intellectually gifted, apparently because their intelligence was associated with a desire to plan for the future and delay gratification.

Before the twentieth century, such forward-looking people were reproductively successful. They were the ones who had enough resources to survive disasters of one sort or another: famine, disease, the Little Ice Age, etc. Today, such disasters are a lot less deadly, and it no longer matters so much whether one is a grasshopper or an ant.

Moreover, because of demographic and cultural changes during the twentieth century, it’s no longer possible to count on the same degree of assistance for child-raising from relatives and grandparents. With childbearing at later ages, grandparents are either dead or too frail to help. With people moving around more, not all relatives live nearby. If you’re the sort of person who plans for the future and delays gratification, you may be a lot more intimidated than your forbears by the costs of raising a family.

Shrinking cranial volume in Estonians

Cranial volume correlates with IQ and with educational attainment, albeit imperfectly (see Frost 2020). Has it been declining in tandem with the decline in alleles for educational attainment?

In Soviet-era Estonia, cranial volume was one of several anthropometric traits that were measured in girls born between 1937 and 1962. Because the measurements were mandatory, there was no volunteer basis; mortality bias was minimal because all the participants were younger than 20. In this respect, the study is better than Western biobank studies. On the other hand, the results may be less applicable to Western populations, given the differences in demographic history. Estonia had no postwar baby boom. Fertility then rose from the late 1960s until the breakup of the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, fertility was actually higher in Estonia than in any other major region of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were demographic similarities between Soviet Estonia and the West, particularly the rising prevalence of single mothers and the influence of education on fertility:

- Divorce rates began to rise during the interwar years, equalling or exceeding those of Scandinavia from the 1970s onward.

- Throughout the twentieth century, Estonian women with only primary education bore 0.5 to 0.75 more children on average than women with tertiary education. In the population under study, taller children and those with larger crania were more likely to go on to secondary and/or tertiary education, independently of sex, socioeconomic position, and rural vs urban origin (Valge et al. 2019).

The second factor seems to explain why cranial volume declined from the older cohorts to the younger ones:

[...] the majority of selection for smaller cranial volume acted indirectly via educational attainment, whereas the direct path of selection in the SEM model was non-significant (Figs. 2 and 4). In other words, consistent with our prior expectations, girls with larger heads were selected against because they were more likely to obtain higher education than girls with smaller heads. Lower education (Tiit, 2013) and rural origin (Kulu, 2005) have been independently and additively associated with higher fertility in Estonia throughout the past century. The reason for the link between education and fertility is that early reproduction, a major determinant of LRS, is not compatible with schooling for both cultural and genetic reasons. (Valge 2020)

 It is doubtful that this decline is due to ethnic change. All of the girls were from Estonian schools (Russian-speakers had their own schools). Nonetheless some of them were of mixed background. According to a personal communication from the corresponding author, 84% of the fathers and 93% of the mothers were Estonian. Ideally, the study should be redone without individuals of mixed parentage. The problem here is not only that one of the parents was non-Estonian but also that such individuals were disproportionately economic migrants who had trouble finding suitable work elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

Other anthropomorphic changes

Height also declined. Unlike cranial volume, this decline was not wholly explained by educational/socioeconomic differences:

Notably, higher reproductive success of shorter girls in Estonia could not be entirely ascribed to indirect selection via educational attainment, nor via other measured socioeconomic variables such as rural/urban origin, although indirect selection via education did account for a large portion of total selection (Fig. 4). The finding that selection against height remains after controlling for education or income (that favours less-educated individuals who are generally shorter than highly-educated ones) is consistent with findings of studies reviewed by Stulp and Barrett (2016).

Female hips and female jaws became narrower even after controlling for educational/socioeconomic differences. There seems to have been selection for rounder female faces, but this selection is significant only if one allows for nonlinear effects. Finally, there was no direct selection on two markers of overall health and nutritional status: handgrip strength and lung capacity.

In general, "direct selection favoured shorter, slimmer and lighter girls with smaller heads, more masculine facial and body shapes and slower rates of sexual maturation."


The genetic basis for intelligence has declined in European populations, apparently since the early twentieth century. This decline is attested by two "hard" measures: 1) alleles associated with educational attainment; and 2) cranial volume. Furthermore, it is attested in two relatively homogenous societies, i.e., Iceland and Estonia.

In Estonia, the decline seems entirely due to the intellectually gifted going to university and postponing family formation. In Iceland, this factor explains only part of the decline: the intellectually gifted chose to postpone family formation even when they didn't go to university. Perhaps the Soviet system was better at steering gifted individuals into higher education.

On a final note, this problem will not go away on its own. If we wish to have large numbers of intellectually gifted people who plan for the future and delay gratification, we will need to reverse certain social and cultural changes of the twentieth century.

Comments by Peeter Horak

In an email, Peeter pointed out that the decrease in height due to natural selection might be offset by an increase in height due to lower pathogen load (as a result of vaccination and antibiotics, see Hõrak and Valge 2015). In addition, we currently don't know the direction of selection on boys. It may entirely cancel out natural selection on girls if men's income and education correlate positively with their reproductive success. In the sample under study, taller boys and those with larger heads went on to obtain more education; if they were reproductively successful, there would be sexually antagonistic selection: selection would favor larger boys and smaller girls at the same time.


Beauchamp, J.P. (2016). Genetic evidence for natural selection in humans in the contemporary United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(28): 7774-7779

Frost, P. (2020). Did women jumpstart recent cognitive evolution? Evo and Proud, July 1

Hõrak, P., and M. Valge. (2015). Why did children grow so well at hard times? The ultimate importance of pathogen control during puberty, Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 2015 (1): 167–178,

Kong, A., M.L. Frigge, G. Thorleifsson, H. Stefansson, A.I. Young, F. Zink, G.A. Jonsdottir, A. Okbay, P. Sulem, G. Masson, D.F. Gudbjartsson, A. Helgason, G. Bjornsdottir, U. Thorsteinsdottir, and K. Stefansson. (2017). Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(5): E727-E732

Valge, M., P. Horak, and J.M. Henshaw. (2020). Natural selection on anthropometric traits of Estonian girls. Evolution and Human Behavior in press.

Valge, M, R. Meitern, and P. Horak. (2019). Morphometric traits predict educational attainment independently of socioeconomic background. BMC Public Health 19: 1696.