The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian

This is a comment at Santi’s blog that became so long I figure it can stand alone as post. He mentioned this TED talk dialogue between Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein as it appears to be in line with his own optimistic view of moral progress and opposed to my more pessimistic view. If you haven’t seen the video before I highly recommend it. In the following I’ll just summarize the main points and then go on to present my own view on the matter.

The Long Reach of Reason

Obviously, reason has its merits. As Goldstein begins by  pointing out, we wouldn’t have a debate about that using anything other than reason. And when we have reason, and the knowledge that comes with it, we rarely look for alternatives. No one asks a witch doctor to fix their car – not even a superstitious person. We ask a mechanic because mechanics is based on reason and reason will fix the car as it fixes so many other problems. In short, we don’t argue with success, and reason has been enormously successful in many ways. But exactly how long is the reach of reason – and is it equally successful in the moral domain?

Goldstein says it is, although on two conditions – humans must have self-interest and there must be a community of reasoners with the capacity to communicate and affect each other’s well-being. This vague and somewhat libertarian sounding idea seems plain wrong to me. It presupposes a lot of things, for instance that all citizens would be equipped with reason, that they would care about the well-being of others etc. But perhaps this is just a rhetorical starting point of the dialogue?

Anyway, Pinker questions this idea by asking if it accords with the cruelties we find in cultures world wide right up until the modern era, and if it can explain how we from there on have become more humane. Instead of reason, he points to the better angels of our nature, “self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness.” These angels, he argues, gain ground as the circle of empathy expands,

“…with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathize with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.”

By this logic, moral progress occurs as the circle of empathy expands to include more and more people we previously thought of as strangers or whose existence we didn’t reflect on at all. The circle would have begun to expand from the late 1400s during the Age of Discovery, when global trade interconnected the world in an unprecedented way. And it wouldn’t require much reason, just empathy and an increasing awareness of people around the world.

Goldstein counters with an Adam Smith quote from 1759, claiming that a European would be more upset to lose a finger than at the prospect of China perishing in an earthquake. If that was the sentiment in mid 1700s Europe, we’d have around 250 years of getting acquainted and not much empathy to show for. Instead she argues that it was Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason), beginning from late 1600s, that expanded the circle of empathy, a process driven by the thinkers of that era,

“…if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.”

We wouldn’t like to be kept as slaves, we wouldn’t like this for our family or friends either, so why would we like it for foreigners? Reason compels us to widen our circle of empathy.

She then proceeds to illustrate her point with some humanitarians like Bentham, Erasmus, John Locke, Mary Astell etc. Pinker concedes and they both reflect on how this reason-driven process will make our grandchildren think of us as barbarians given how much further their circle of empathy will reach. End of story.

The Haidtian Elephant in the Room

And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

“My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”

This of course refers to Jonathan Haidt and others whose research makes a good case for such post hoc rationalization being an important aspect of human nature. To illustrate this behavior he likens our emotions with an elephant and our reason with the rider. The elephant, being much stronger, walks about as he pleases while the helpless rider pretends that he is in complete control.

Given this statement, it’s a bit disconcerting how easily Pinker ignores the obvious risk that their conclusion might also be post hoc rationalization. After all, two top notch academics agreeing that all you need is reason sounds a bit like two hippies agreeing that all you need is love. So is it post hoc? It definitely has some conspicuous flaws that suggest so.

As Pinker himself pointed out back in 2002 in his book The Blank Slate, all behavioral traits are highly inheritable and change very little over the lifespan and, most importantly, they are unaffected by shared environment, such as schools, education – and humanitarian essays. But width of empathy must, by any reasonable definition, be a behavioral trait. But by their logic it would be a trait like no other, strongly affected by shared environment, even though all other traits, thus including very similar traits like ingroup loyalty and identification, aren’t. So either width of empathy isn’t a behavioral trait – which is crazy – or it is somehow a completely unique trait affected by shared environment. Either way Pinker and Goldstein have some serious splaining to do.

Still, moral progress has been achieved, no argument there, so what exactly did happen during the last 4-5 centuries? I would argue that there was progress, but without any widening of the circle of empathy. How can that be? I believe that the people Locke and others addressed were already equipped with a wide capacity for empathy. When they heard of other people around the world and the arguments on how they should be treated they responded accordingly and this naturally had implications for other categories too, like women, children and even animals. Before that their concern had been mainly with family, clan, and tribe because that was their world.

The Chinese Anomaly

But if width of empathy is so large in most people, does it really matter if it’s a behavioral trait or not? Doesn’t growing awareness and the empathic inclusion that follows amount to the same thing as an expansion of our circle of empathy? Yes, you might say this is all semantics, weren’t it for one important thing: width of empathy is only large in Northwest Europeans and their descendants. People sometimes referred to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). This trait is intimately (inversely) linked to ingroup loyalty which is weaker among the WEIRD populations as well as among liberal/progressive people, as Haidt’s research has shown.

The rest of the world is not very impressed by Enlightenment ideals and it never was. To this day most of the world is not very into human rights. It’s something you do to make rich Western friends. And now with the rise of China many are abandoning this pretense altogether.

In fact, present day China makes an excellent example of how awareness and reason (this is a highly intelligent people) in no way has expanded the circle of empathy. The internet is full of videos from China illustrating cruelty and lack of concern for both humans and animals. This is a glaring contradiction that Pinker and Goldstein fail to address. Another friend of the expanding circle (who even wrote a book with that name), Australian philosopher Peter Singer has made an attempt to resolve this problem in his own TED talk. In it he shows very disturbing film clip (so click at your own peril) in which a 2-year-old Chinese girl is run over by a car and then left lying in the street. Other people look at her but walk by without helping in any way. He then goes on to compare this behavior with Westerners who can prevent child mortality by supporting UNICEF but fail to do so, at least sufficiently to eradicate the problem,

Does it really matter that we’re not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us, the fact, of course, that they’re of a different nationality or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me. What is really important is, can we reduce that death toll? Can we save some of those 19,000 children dying every day?

As you can see by this quote, in Singer the circle is wider than the sky. But this attempt at killing the anomaly implies that Westerners fail to help in other ways and that the difference between his (largely WEIRD) audience and the Chinese is illusory. But do Westerners (and especially Northwesterners) fail in other ways? I don’t know about UNICEF specifically but if you look at foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income, 18 of the top 20 contributors are all in Northwestern Europe, directly bordering to these countries or having substantial ancestry from this region (USA, Canada and Australia). The two outsiders are Portugal at 17th and Japan at 20th place. So on closer inspection it would seem Singer’s implication is false and the difference is even bigger than you may have thought initially.

And I wonder what he would make of this scene, which is also very disturbing to watch, a Chinese dog vendor pressures soft-hearted woman to buy dog at a high price by threatening to kill it. In the surrounding crowd people are smiling and taking pictures. Not trying to bash China here. I could show much scarier pictures from the Middle East or Africa. I’m just trying to make a simple point: width of empathy varies across populations, and these differences persist despite efforts by the influential Northwest Euros to promote their really wide circle as the global norm.

Human Biodiversity (General introduction here)

My thinking is that this can be explained by HBD Chick’s observation that cultural and social differences around the world can largely be explained by varying degrees of inbreeding and how this phenomenon applies to basic evolutionary theory. There is research to show that humans care more for those they share gene variants with – in all populations. This for the simple fact that if you do, then you pass on your gene variants via others and increase your fitness. When you for instance ask people who they’d save first from a burning building they tend to make young close relatives their top priority, especially their own children. But this circumstance is not a human universal because populations differ in how inbred they are. The more inbred, the more gene variants you can pass on via relatives and the more of a priority relatives become.  And this familial altruism is more or less the reverse of width of empathy.

Using anthropological and historical records as well as biological data, the aforementioned Chick  has tracked the varying degress of long-term inbreeding of populations over the world. Her conclusion is that evolution must have created distinct variations in familiar altruism/empathic width. And most interestingly, she finds that Northwestern Europe is expected to have the least familiar altruism/widest circle of empathy.  The center of this area, she concludes, must be England (not the UK) and the Netherlands. As you may have noticed, of the seven humanitarians and reformers that are mentioned in this TED talk, four are English, one of English descent, one Dutch, one French and one from northern Italy. Enlightenment is often referred to as an Anglo-French phenomenon, but it’s way more Anglo than French. (If you want to read further about the moral characteristics of Northwestern peoples there are several posts on this topic on Peter Frosts’ blog Evo and Proud.)

A skeptical reader might say that England’s geographic location was optimal for getting acquainted with the world and starting the process Pinker and Goldstein speak of. But Portugal and Spain were better poised and did in fact start the Age of Discovery way before the rest. But couldn’t it have been a combination of geography and intelligence since it seems, going back at least to Victorian England, the population may have been very intelligent. This makes more sense, but if so, shouldn’t all such advantages be gone by now? We are more interconnected than ever before so with geography out of the equation we’d expect countries on the same IQ level to have the same width of empathy. But looking at foreign aid and similar indicators we find that countries on the same level or even higher than Northwestern Europe, like South Korea, China, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary do not have wide circles of empathy. This all points to HBD Chick being right on the money.

The English Vegetarian

A way of illustrating this theory is by using maps of ethnic correlates, maps I’ve come to think of as JayMaps, for obvious reasons. In this case I looked at vegetarianism and English ancestry in America. For vegetarians empathy transcends the art barrier which I figure is an indication of extremely wide empathy something we might expect to find more of among the English than in any other population. English ancestry varies a lot by state so it enables us to use national data rather than the mess of international comparisons. In this case I used a catalog from of 11782 restaurants and health food stores across America half of which are completely vegan or vegetarian and half are vegetarian friendly. With the measure of restaurants/million inhabitants as a proxy for vegetarianism, I made this map showing the variation across the contiguous states except for Washington DC,


And another one showing self-reported English ancestry according to Wikipedia/US Census 2000,

English Ancestry

As you can see the maps are fairly similar. They could hardly be identical since people have moved around. There is for instance good reason to believe that WEIRD people of all ethnicities have flocked to California. As an indication that English isn’t just a proxy for white, I made a non-hispanic white map too,

White by state


Here you can clearly see that vegetarianism is way more English than generically white. How much? I used one of the online number crunchers and came up with this correlation between diet and English ancestry,

vegetarians by english ancestry.php


As you can see that’s a pretty hefty correlation, 0.68 to be precise. For non-hispanic whites the same picture looks like this,

vegetarians by white ancestry


This correlation is a measly 0.13.  The difference is striking, especially considering that most people of self-reported English ancestry probably are white. It looks like the English brought their empathic width with them to their new country and incorporated it in their culture in this way. Other white Europeans with more narrow empathy did not.

What Is Moral Progress?

Moral progress can’t be the expanding circle as Pinker, Goldstein and Singer believe simply because everything point to the size of the circle being a behavioral trait like any other. But it can also not be progress unless you’re WEIRD/Northwestern to begin with. As Haidt has pointed out, the rest of the world value ingroup loyalty more. Expanding the cirlce would go against their morals.  Moral progress is better defined as the implementation of morals specific to certian groups and individuals. By this definition progress will mean different things in England, Syria, and China. And one man’s progress is inevitably another man’s decline.

So, from my relatively WEIRD perspective, am I an optimist or a pessimist? I would say I’m cautiously  optimistic. I don’t think Northwestern civilization is doomed, only its current cultural manifestation of multiculturalism which combines pathological altruism with an equally oppressive attitude towards anyone dares stand up against it. We recently got an example of the destructiveness of this culture when it was uncovered that 1400 children have been systematically raped by Muslim men in Rotherham, just one small city in England, while those who were supposed to protect the children hushed it up out of fear of racist accusations. (Kind of makes a sadistic dog vendor in China look like small potatoes.) But this oppressive PC culture is finally coming to an end. A recent poll by BBC showed 95 percent thought multiculturalism had failed.

There is probably a Rotherham effect in this poll but  UKIP became the largest party in the EU elections and we’re seeing anti-immigration parties rising throughout the region. And it’s not people dreaming of the 1950s or of old-school fascism either. You’ll sometimes see both the Israeli and rainbow flag at their rallies. People who are tolerant and inclusive but without forgetting their identity or allowing themselves to be exploited or victimized. Perhaps some will think I’m an incurable optimist but I think I see a new healthier incarnation of the Northwestern spirit in this movement.



103 Responses to The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian

  1. JayMan says:

    Simply brilliant work good sir! It’s good to see another long-due post from you.

    I think you capture the matter quite well. This post is an excellent introduction to those naively attached to the idea of inevitable human moral progress. (I think the world of Star Trek, especially as portrayed in The Next Generation era, is the expected idea of what the world will become.) You hit all the key points.

    A few (minor) nitpicks though:

    As Pinker himself pointed out back in 2002 in his book The Blank Slate, all behavioral traits are highly inheritable and change very little over the lifespan and, most importantly, they are unaffected by shared environment, such as schools, education – and humanitarian essays.

    That the absence of shared environment environment specifically suggest a general lack of environmental malleability (which it does) is not a straightforward argument, and a newcomer would be justified in wondering what’s up. It (along with many other pieces of evidence) does speak to the general resistance behavioral traits have to change, and that the known method of environmental change – change to the overall environment (pathogens etc. notwithstanding) – can only operate in very limited ways, likely by changing the incentive structure. The existence of corruption and other forms of psychopathic nepotism demonstrates the limited ability that incentives have to get people to shape up their act, morally.

    In this case I looked at vegetarianism and English ancestry in America. For vegetarians empathy transcends the art barrier which I figure is an indication of extremely wide empathy something we might expect to find more of among the English than in any other population. English ancestry varies a lot by state so it enables us to use national data rather than the mess of international comparisons.

    While the cited post of mine (More Maps of the American Nations) does show that the self-reported ethnic origin of Americans does have some confirmation from genetic data, I myself wouldn’t like to use these reported values. That said, I can’t argue with your result. Clearly you’ve found something.

    Great work again! I’d invite readers to see this post, which again seems relevant:

    Predictions on the Worldwide Distribution of Personality | JayMan’s Blog

    Which itself links back to one of your own posts, which I think is also relevant.

  2. Staffan says:


    Good data are always hard to come by. In this case I merely used that which was easily available. I had no idea if I was on to something or not, so I didn’t want to get too invested. But I’m definitely keeping my eyes open for ways to find better data, and possibly other behaviors, although in this particular case I think vegetarianism is a pretty good choice.

    Generally speaking, I’m beginning to think that looking at actual behavior, rather than self-reports or even peer-reports, is where the paydirt is.

  3. Alan says:

    You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.
    Al Capone

    What all of these reviews miss is the proverbial Elephant In The Room, which for this analysis would be the elephant in the world. There are precedents, for example the very large, prosperous and inclusive Persian Empire of circa 400 BC, the early Roman Empire and the British Empire.
    For whatever reason, and there were many and various, but the bottom line was the executive decision of the powerful leaders. These dominant states chose an inclusive and rational leadership plan, resulting in inclusive, rational citizenry. Reason triumphs when enforced by strong leadership with strong enforcement.

    • Staffan says:

      Wasn’t that how Ceasar thinking? And look what happened to him. When everyone is a Roman no one is a Roman and Rome is no more.

      Sooner or later these empires all fall, and what’s left is the ethnic groups, people who share blood and history. Not even the rationality of Rome combined with the strong leadership of Ceasar could triumph over human nature.

      • Alan says:

        From whence comes this joy in celebrating failure? Following a few centuries’ prosperity and (relative) peace of Roman rule were over 1500 years of tribal wars across Europe. The Caesars’ triumph was long but not forever. Just as our current Pax Americana will one day fail it still represents the only model (inclusive empire) that offers the opportunity of wide spread peace and prosperity. Small, tribal states have no security from bellicose neighbors. And their wars bring ruin to at least one, more often to many.

      • Staffan says:

        No, the model is more like dominant tribe grows by incorporating others until it becomes so big and diverse social cohesion can’t be maintained.

        I’m not celebrating, just calling it the way I see it. Small states have problems too, no argument there.

      • Alan says:

        Your position is sadly fatalistic – all will die, so why waste energy on living? Why strive for success when we can all just be mediocre? Why build a powerful state when we can just wait to be conquered?
        Rome and Persia failed when their leadership failed, not with growth of diversity. The British Empire failed when its leaders abdicated, releasing its possessions. The current growth of tribal chaos is not due to diversity but the failing will of the UN and Western Powers to enforce the peace. Sure, it is easier to give up, but far less rewarding (on the global scale).

      • Staffan says:

        No, you’re seeing things that aren’t there. I’m saying this is not how you build a strong state, but how a dominant tribe can build an empire but inevitably lose their dominance as they involve an increasing number of other tribes.

        Ask yourself why leadership never was an issue during the Republic. It lasted for centuries while there was very little diversity.

        It’s not sad or fatalistic unless you assume diversity is a must. We can build strong nations that have good relations to one another. Finland, Japan, Botswana and Chile are all such nations. They are peaceful with little corruption and they’re making progress at their various levels.

      • Alan says:

        The Roman Republic lasted from about 700 BC to 50 BC. The Empire about 50 BC to 1435 AD, roughly twice as long as the republic. Tribes regularly go extinct, empires only occasionally fall. A few tribes last thousands of years, but most blend and reform with new tribal identities over far shorter time frames. You are ‘cherry-picking’ a few successful examples. Japan only exists as a relatively small, successful state because the US crushed their empire, then rebuilt them and protects their independence from China. Finland (and likely Botswana, Chile and dozens of other small states around the world) only exist as independent due to the vision and armies of the US. Finland (along with the rest of Scandinavia and greater parts of Europe) would be a tribute paying client of Germany or Russia if not for US armies. Independence of small states is only possible in the power vacuum of a fallen empire or when (as is now) they have the protection of a powerful state or empire. Non diverse states are at far greater risk of being conquered and colonized. Learning to manage diversity and grow is your best protection from being dominated.
        Today, as the US abdicates its role as World Bully and enforcer of The Peace, Russian armies roll into Ukraine, Chinese navies spread terror through the eastern Pacific and private militias wreak havoc through the Middle East. Manage diversity and grow strong, or submit to the next power to do so. To avoid diversity is to abdicate your freedom and control over your own future.

      • Staffan says:

        “Tribes regularly go extinct, empires only occasionally fall.”

        This implies that most are still around. But how many that existed just 100 years ago exist today? America – the most recent one, and it’s showing clear signs of starting to fall apart. All other have “occasionally” fallen.

        “You are ‘cherry-picking’ a few successful examples. Japan only exists as a relatively small, successful state because the US crushed their empire, then rebuilt them and protects their independence from China. Finland (and likely Botswana, Chile and dozens of other small states around the world) only exist as independent due to the vision and armies of the US.”

        This is not a fact but an assumption. And if this is Cherry-picking, how about the Spanish empire, the Greek empire, the Swedish empire, the Romanov and Soviet empires? All gone, but Spain, Greece, Sweden and Russia are still around. Empires typically don’t last longer than 250 years but lots of nations last way longer.

      • Alan says:

        Correcting dates: The Roman Republic lasted from about 509 BC to 27 BC. The Empire about 27 BC to 1453 AD, roughly three times as long as the republic.
        Over the last 500 years in the Americas, two empires have fallen (Spanish, English) while hundreds of tribes went extinct. Many states have similarly disappeared throughout Asia and Europe. Surviving states are the exception.

      • Staffan says:

        Surviving states the exception? How about surviving empires? There is only one left of those and it’s looking a bit shaky. Meanwhile there are plenty of nations that are older than America and still around.

      • Alan says:

        What you call Greece represents hundreds to thousands of conquered and or failed tribes and states and several fallen empires. Again, over 100 to 1. Similarly for other extant states.
        There have been tens to hundreds of thousands of tribes and states, dozens of empires. States and tribes are a thousand times more likely to fail. But my argument is not about simply surviving. It is about maintaining your independence. Yes, you can survive as a slave, but why settle for that? To abandon diversity is to abandon your best chance at independence. If and when your empire fails, you go back to being a state, and perhaps, subjugated. The Swedish Empire was independent, the Swedish state faced subjugation and has paid tribute to Russia, Germany and now NATO (to stave off Soviet/Russian aggression). Focusing on survival is the wrong metric.

      • Staffan says:

        Yes but the Swedish empire fell, like all but one has. And Sweden is still fairly independent. Meanwhile empires always rely on slaves – no independence for them, or for current illegal aliens.

      • Alan says:

        Yes, my point! Thanks to US expunging and/or deferring European despots, Sweden enjoys relative freedom. It was Sweden’s luck, US’s choice. Sweden remains at the mercy of US and Russia – the stronger states. To strengthen its position, Sweden has chosen diversity (EU) over dependence on the US alone.

      • Staffan says:

        Ok, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I don’t want this to get too sidetracked from the post. Maybe I’ll write a post on empires and we can continue this discussion.

  4. matin says:

    In that disgusting “Chinese girl run over” video something like 50 people walked past before anyone did anything. This just shows that its that 98% that make the other 2% look bad.

    Talking of English vegetarians, in 2001 I was driving in Haringey (St Annes Rd) and on each side of the road were crowded about 200 East Europeans waiting around for the lorry with the consignment of cigarettes that they would then sell along Archway Rd. They were a rough looking bunch, burly, shouting down their mobile phones and at each other. When I reached Stoke Newington I noticed two weedy looking white Englishmen coming out of the local organic shop carrying their paper bags full of organic fruit and veg. I posted this on the Internet at the time. Whose philosophy and culture would survive? I conjectured.

    • Staffan says:

      In the long run I think the WEIRD will survive, just not in the highly exploitable form that you see today. They have the ideas and social skills to outcompete the rest.Look at the clannish world of Islam – they are living on oil and immigration welfare alone. At some point these resources will run out.

  5. JayMan says:

    I will add, readers should also see this, which is also relevant:

    The Atheist Narrative | JayMan’s Blog

    No Richard Dawkins, you can’t teach Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be an English atheist using reason.

  6. Staffan says:

    Dawkins reminds me again that we are all ruled by our elephants. Only those few (usually sciency aspie type people) whose elephants desire the truth will seek it. The rest will be post hoc-ing and deleting anomalous comments.

  7. JS says:

    Why does the explanation have to be genetic? Why can’t it just be that the English philosophical tradition descends from Locke, while French history descends from Rousseau, and German from Kant and Hegel (the Spanish world has almost no significant political philosophy, probably due to their adherence to Catholicism and missing the Enlightenment)?

    • JayMan says:


      Because, as the venerable hbd* chick would ask, where does philosophical tradition come from?

    • Staffan says:

      There may be such traditions, but that which we are taught by parents, teachers etc is shared environment. This is the environmental influence that would make relatives similar, in this case more inclusively empathic. However every research so far has shown zero or almost zero effect of this factor on behavioral traits. Easiest way to illustrate the fact that adoptive siblings who share parents, schools etc, but not genes, show no resemblance in such traits. In terms of personality, intelligence, even BMI, they are as similar as two random persons from the larger population they belong to – which is typically white middle class Americans in general.

      So if a population persists with some philosophical tradition it is more likely that their genes, and the behavioral traits that result from their particular DNA, are behind these traditions.

      • JS says:

        So how come whites were racist only 50 years ago?

      • Staffan says:

        Whites do seem less racist today, at least Northwesterners, Eastern and Southern Europe not so much. This may be due to the fact that awareness of various outgroups has continued to grow. Then there is the matter of attitudes becoming sufficently common to be dominant. Conformists then adopt these attitudes to fit in. (And it’s also a matter of how you define racism.)

    • Jim says:

      How many English have ever read a word of Locke? How many English have even heard of him? The idea that the average guy in Germany is reading Kant and Hegel is nonsense.

  8. Pinker, Singer, Goldstein…those are Jewish names, not English or Dutch, though they come from Anglospheric countries. I don’t think that affects your national data much, but it bears keeping in mind.

    I think it is quite possible that the circle has widened some, because of outbreeding forces that HBDchick mentions. It is this, perhaps, that allowed the growth of the nation-state (as opposed to the collection of tribes under empire that was and is more common). People displayed altruism to a somewhat larger circle of Fellows, but that doesn’t imply they can keep up the expanding pattern just because their reason tells them they should. In fact, I think we have evidence that people do top out in their expansion of altruism. If they try to expand further, they start unconsciously dropping others into different outgroups. One-Worlders are rather notorious for disliking political and cultural competitors in America and identifying with (some) Europeans instead.

    Americanism would then continue to erode as population increases. A nation this large may be a bridge too far to keep everyone identifying. Racial, ethnic, and perhaps religious similarity might allow the self-identified “nation” to grow to American size, but I doubt that could go on forever either.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, I don’t have any data on it but I get the feeling that at least secular Jews are pretty WEIRD. Singer is a vegetarian and so was the most prominent animal rights activist of all, Henry Spira. Others include Bill Maher, Natalie Portman, Michael Eisner, and psychologist Diana Fleischman who I’ve been following on Twitter lately. Sure there are lots more. It’s possible that we have some assortative mating between intelligent Jews and outbred intellectually curious Northwesterners?

      Is the circle slowly expanding at population level? It’s really hard estimate. I would imagine that genes for familial altruism would still linger for some time in the population. But as Cochran and Harpending have pointed out, change can happen fast if there is genetic diversity to work with. We can see a gradual change in American Ulster Scots going from the clan feuds of the 1800s to the “We don’t call 911” signs of today. But they must have been mixing with other whites, who in America are mainly Northwesterners.

      America has most likely grown beyond its limits. It can’t be an ingroup and I think we will see a split of some type in the near future. Perhaps not outright secession, but local autonomy like that of northern Italy.

      • santoculto says:

        Portman, at least, is Israel activist.

      • Outmarriage by Jews over the last hundred years has indeed been considerable, except among the Orthodox/Hasids. It has definitely been disproportionately with NW Europeans. While Jews have been accused of being clannish for centuries, there may have also been considerable social support for identifying with “tribesmen” who actually were from other countries and not closely related, similar to the expanded boundaries of clans into tribes and tribes into nations in Europe.

  9. Nelson Lynde says:

    The majority of Anglo settlers in the state of Texas (and many other states) were German, not English, Germans, as you know, like their sausages.

    • JayMan says:

      @Nelson Lynde:

      Actually, settlers to the Dixie nations were Ulster Scots (in the case of Greater Appalachia) and SW English (in the case of the Deep South). The Germans are mostly confined to the northern areas (save the settlers in Texas).

      Remember, there’s English, and then there’s English….

    • anon2 says:

      I was referring to the back country in NC and SC. From there significant numbers moved on to Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas.

  10. santoculto says:

    Thinking = breathe, heartbeat, kidney function… is also an involuntary movement, specially for the majority of people.

    • Staffan says:

      Sorry, you got caught in the spam filter.

      Yes, thinking comes in different varieties. The majority think with their visceral brain – the stomach. They need a reaction from the fight-flight response or the reward system to learn. Otherwise it’s just storing data, not adjusting.

      • santoculto says:

        Interesting. I think We are three personas, two dualistic personalities and a main, core personality. Example, when we thinking rationally, hearing our rational inside voice. Our God. From this perspective, we are all the same, the ‘God’.

  11. […] if you haven’t read staffan’s latest post, you really should! it’s terrific!: The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian. […]

  12. Andrea Ostrov Letania says:

    The problem with moral progress, even if genuine, is that it may become TOO moralistic, especially in a paralytic guilt-ridden way; and then, the forces of barbarism or savagery(especially if they happen to be objects of ‘historical guilt’) may run amok and tear civilization, but civilization will be TOO MORAL to do anything about it out of fear that noticing and confronting the truth may be ‘racist’ or ‘xenophobic’.

    The Rotherdam case is a case of society paralyzed by excessive morality. Authorities didn’t want to be ‘racist’, so they turned a blind eye to evil. Paradoxically, it was because UK became more a nation of ‘better angels’ that the demonic forces, as objects of ‘historical guilt’, were able to run loose. And then, remember the London riot.

    Sometimes, you have to put the ‘better angels’ aside and use ruthless force to deal with problems. But the West is too moralistic to do anything about problems of racial violence, immigration, the homo lobby, and etc.

    Israel survives because it isn’t very moralistic in dealing with the enemies that it identifies and attacks with clarity of survivalism.

    Morality is necessary as a brake against our dangerous impulses, but it can also be a brake on our survival instinct, as well as an accelerator on our suicidal ‘atoning’ instinct.

    So, what I fear most is that Pinker may be too right about ‘moral progress’. Whites in the West may be turning more ‘better angel’-like in an ‘end of history’ way.

    But will such a people have the warrior instincts to unite, fight, and survive?
    Whites in South Africa chose ‘better angels’, and look what happened to them. So many whites have been raped and/or murdered, but the ‘better angeled’ whites in the West think themselves so goody because they worship Mandela who was only a Trojan Horse.

    ‘Moral progress’ is esp dangerous since people like Pinker, Sunstein, and Gesson decide what is moral. To them, Pussy Riot is more moral than Christian revival and family values in Russia.

    Highest form of morality is a matter of individual conscience, but what passes for morality for the great majority is a matter of mass propaganda and fashionableness.
    No wonder so many affluent people are Liberal. Their material vanity go hand-in-hand with their moral vanity. They want fashionable shoes and causes to make themselves look good.

    • Staffan says:

      I agree with most of this. I’d like to add that Rotherham isn’t just being afraid of being racist. Those who ignore children being raped don’t do that to be nice, they are cowards who were afraid of the confrontation. That’s a rotten thing by their own standards. And that’s not just the locals, lots of media all over the world have been keeping silent about it.

      But generally speaking, the better angels are vulnerable to exploitation; that is the main problem. There is an awakening, as I mentioned in the post, but what effect that will have remains to be seen. There are some close to NW countries that are coping better than others. Finland, Poland, Australia, Ireland, northern Italy look pretty viable.

      • JayMan says:


        There are some close to NW countries that are coping better than others. Finland, Poland, Australia, Ireland, northern Italy look pretty viable.

        Interestingly, those many of those are clannish (or, in the cause of Finland, and to a lesser extent, Poland) semi-clannish societies.

        They are the “in betweeners” with a clannishness level of 3-4, on hbd* chick’s scale.

        What’s interesting, I think, is that semi-clannish people show up in many places around the world: the Finns, the Icelandic, the Japanese, and perhaps also the Koreans, the Taiwanese, and the Swiss. I have treated these societies as outliers to hbd* chick’s theory, but perhaps they’re not. Perhaps a moderate level of inbreeding (possibly also coupled with isolation) naturally leads to the evolution of the semi-clannish peoples – where the entire society functions as if it was one big clan. I think we need to take a closer look at these groups.

      • Staffan says:

        Yes, it’s that smooth inbreeding, possibly enabled by geographic and/or linguistic isolation. They become, as you say, on big clan. It’s definitely an interesting phenomenon very different from regular clannishness. For one, at least Finns and Poles, while being less into foreign aid and clearly dismissive of immigration, maintain a friendly and trustworthy behavior towards people of other nationalities. At least that’s my distinct impression.

    • Alan says:

      As Machiavelli noted in ‘The Prince’, A leader who commits himself to any moral principal gives his enemies and rivals an opportunity to take advantage of. Even apart from any fashion or propaganda, morality increases your vulnerability. And for every American (and probably European as well) who want a (preferably distant) moral cause to make themselves feel good, there are several who just want to withdraw from the brutal side of the world and leave them to fend for themselves.

  13. anon2 says:

    The ever widening circle.
    Last stop:
    No un-willing molecules were harmed or coerced in the living of this life.

  14. Joe Walker says:

    If the English are so big on empathy how do you explain their habit of going around the world and conquering other peoples’ territories?

    • Staffan says:

      That’s not a first in history. Everyone wields their power. You’d have to make a comparison to other countries in similar situations. A complicated task for sure, but I get the feeling that for instance Indians have less hard feelings about the British than the Chinese have about the Japanese.

    • The answer is long, and ambiguous. As you seem to prefer neatly packaged stereotypes, I’m betting you can’t bear to hear it. But start with other trading nations as a comparison, and examine what the pattern of events are that lead to this conquering.

  15. JayMan says:


    What kind of effect do you think that would have on his level of empathy? Because it would not have been at all uncommon for an Englishman circa, say, 1600 to live like that. Is it really any wonder bear-baitings and public executions drew huge crowds?

    As has been shown again and again, a low-to-zero shared environmental effect within a cohort does not absolutely preclude environmental effects between cohorts.

    It does weaken the idea that things like you describe have much of an effect, at least through the mode you seem to be thinking of. Generational effects likely work primarily through affecting the incentive structure. The are likely “rational” responses to the situation at the time, not “personality altering” effects.

    Europeans were still being selected for decreased propensity to violence in 1600, so comparing an individual from that time to a modern European isn’t a fair comparison.

    Height increased by about 5 standard deviations in Europe from 1800 to the present day –– and height is much more heritable than any personality trait, except perhaps g.

    But most of these changes involve deprivation effects (for the record, the change in height, at least in the U.S., wasn’t monotonic). That may be quite different, qualitatively, from anything that effects personality.

  16. Staffan says:

    True, but I get the impression Pinker & Goldstein are talking of within-cohort effects – they mention progress since the 1960s which seemingly has been enormous. That time span doesn’t allow for any slow and gradual process.

    Also, as partly mentioned by Jayman, it seems such changes are situational and refer to specific behavior rather than genuine personality changes. If we agree that intelligence and personality make up the foundation of cultural differences, such changes would have the power to turn, say Japan, to an extraverted and impulsive culture like that of America or vice versa.

    Given how differently Enlightenment has affected groups world wide it seems more plausible that it triggered certain behaviors in those who were predisposed to those behaviors.

    • Staffan says:

      Height may well be very different from intelligence and personality in other ways. It may for instance be affected by infections, something that would also affect the elites to a great extent.

      I don’t doubt the horrors of medieval societies, but isn’t this state rather than trait? It’s of course hard to make estimates of empathy through history. But as I noted in an earlier post, the changeling legend can be thought of as an indication of empathy and it is found mainly in Northwestern Europe. And that legend certainly dates back to the bad old days,

    • JayMan says:


      “I don’t believe these changes are caused by incentive structure.”

      Why not? People do respond to the incentives at the time (otherwise people couldn’t alter behavior to respond to circumstances).

      “Other highly-heritable traits, like IQ and physiological indices, have changed greatly –- and incentives cannot explain these.”

      All of those are related to environmental deprivation – or a lack there of. You don’t see that generalizing from these to a general (and permanent) environmental effect on personality traits as building a bridge too far?

      “Also, selection for increased empathy reversed itself long ago. From 1850 to the present day, selection must have been away from high empathy.”

      I don’t think we have any way to know, other than selection acting on major personality dimensions in the 20th century in the U.S. (particularly, against openness to experience).

      “The living conditions in early-modern and medieval societies were beyond horrendous. I simply cannot believe that they did not appreciably affect the personality traits of the people.”

      Is there any a priori reason to expect they would?

      Neither the IQ nor height change is due to deprivation, at least not wholly. IQ gains have been similar across all levels. Even the aristocracy in 18th-c. France were very short by our standards. One of Sade’s aristocratic characters is referred to as an awe-inspiring giant of 5’11”.

      Interesting. I can envision even the upper classes being “deprived” by modern standards (micronutrients, disease), so still not horrendously surprising. But I’d like to know more about that.

      As evidence against the idea of life circumstances having lasting impacts on personality and views, there is the extended twin study of Hatemi et al, which I talk about here. They found that gene-environment covariance, the things you’d expect to shape views (like having like-minded peers, etc,) have no effect whatsoever.

      Plus what Staffan said.

    • JayMan says:


      That’s speculation after speculation. You do not see this? Perhaps we should stick to what we actually know and go from there?

      do you seriously believe that brutal abuse and deprivation as a child doesn’t have an impact on personality? Not only is that prima facie absurd, but there is no good evidence to support it at all

      We try to prove positives, not negatives. The default position should be no effect until proven otherwise.

      And strictly speaking, we have a wealth of evidence that childhood experience has no effect on adult outcome (short of things that cause physical damage).

      Anecdotes, by the way, are perfectly legitimate in scientific discourse

      Anecdotes have their place. But we should know their place at all times.

      Prenatal cocaine exposure, foetal alcohol syndrome, malnutrition, and formal education or the lack thereof all affect IQ very strongly, for instance.

      Actually, evidence for both of those is shaky, at best. In fact, there is evidence that the observed association with these are not causal.

      Remember, always be wary of correlational evidence.

      By our standards, the vast majority of past environments were “deprived”, not just biologically but socially. If you admit deprivation as a cause of low IQ, small size and so on, you should admit deprivation as a cause of cruelty, sadism, low empathy and so on.

      For what reason?

      We are talking about a culture where, as I said in my initial post, an average child watched his siblings die in agony around him, and was taken by his family to watch agonizing public executions, and would spend months or years at a time in ravening hunger, and went to his grave believing the earth was flat. I don’t think a single subject in any adoption study grew up in conditions even approaching that.

      Yes, and, so? You seem to still be approaching the matter with the a priori assumption that these things should matter.

      It’s not like we don’t have mounting evidence that environmental variables such as these have no real effect today. The work of Amir Sariaslan and crew have been adding to that pile (non effect of poverty, bad neighborhoods, etc., at least by modern Swedish standards). These should reduce our confidence in the idea that environment is a key determinant of behavioral traits. Every single firm test for these effects has failed. At what point do you stop looking for unicorns?

    • Staffan says:

      “…do you seriously believe that brutal abuse and deprivation as a child doesn’t have an impact on personality? Not only is that prima facie absurd, but there is no good evidence to support it at all, and a lot of anecdotal evidence to counteract it.”

      As anectdotes go, Judith Rich Harris pointed out that children who grew up in concentration camps turned out seemingly normal. Holocaust survivors are often public figures who certainly do not stand out in any way. They often lecture and talk of the importance of empathy and other self helpy stuff, pretty generic.

      But we need some research on this. It would certainly be interesting to compare children who come as refugees from war zones to the West with children of the same ethnicity who grew up in the Western world. My suspicion is that you will not find any big difference.

  17. Recovering Schizophrenic says:

    Bravo Staffan. As you can probably tell by my handle I do not have the cognitive presence of mind to make intellectual contributions like this yet, but I hope that as I recover more I will be able to.

    • Staffan says:


      I suspect a lot of schizophrenics have great potential to make such contributions, given the link to schizotypy and creativity. It’s a spectrum that contains a lot of idea oriented people. Anyway, I don’t know your situation but I hope you get better : )

  18. santoculto says:

    I agree with Elijah Armstrong on environmental factors, but I believe it is important to bear in mind that there are genetic predispositions earlier. Just as the anomalous lateralization is based on non-habitual neurological integration, the same should happen to the rest, the same standards. Then we have people who genetically strong in any situation while others are not genetically strong as when we have dogs mutts who live on the streets and are more resistant than dogs that live inside houses.

  19. Staffan says:

    True, we would have to find similar fates among people living today and see if they differ somehow. Not the easiest thing to do since they would have to still be in that awful situation. Perhaps people who have been kept in dungeons?

  20. santoculto says:

    I still think we are neglecting the role of genetic combination of genetic predispositions. The genetic combinations occur immediately upon the design, i.e., coupling occurs sperm and ovum.
    I learned, extremely superficial way when conception takes place, there are possibilities of which phenotype will be selected.
    Pregnancy at an advanced age can reduce the percentage of heterozygous phenotypes for homozygous phenotypes. Pregnancy at a young age can also have the same effect.

    • Staffan says:

      Interesting. Do you have any links on that? I’ve heard of lower sperm quality with increasing age, but not that young/old pregnancy would be affected in this manner.

      • santoculto says:

        No, hihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi, my link is my mind, make sense.

        I do not know what ‘low quality sperm’ could mean. I think that relates to styles of human selection. You have the balanced and unbalanced selection selection. I think the behavioral pattern reverberates in the phenotype of the population. People who are more sensation-seeking, have children later, it will produce precisely the phenotype of sensation seekers. The child who has earlier and from which people enjoy a long time and that fit can produce exactly the phenotype of stable personality, which are not feel seekers. Maybe if the Europeans returned to breed before the age of 30, any sudden effect on culture could end extreme liberalism.

  21. Miss Minnie says:

    Here is a bit of an anecdote, although I don’t know if it’s really relevant. I’m a Chinese, born and raised in China. We have vegetarians, and a system of food labeling to certify that an item is vegetarian.

    Even if someone isn’t vegetarian, they might avoid meat on certain days of the month similar to the Orthodox Christian fast.

    There is also a common belief that people there have that cows cry before they are slaughtered. This is part of a pattern of beef avoidance that many people in China have.

    I accept that we probably naturally do have less empathy than Northwestern Europeans, and are probably a lost cause to animal rights boosters like myself, and human rights activists.

    Thanks for discussing this topic without relying on political correctness, and taking a hard look at the reality of how people are like.

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks for you open-minded and interesting comment.

      I try to look at all cultures with equal realism, and as I mentioned we have Rotherham and similar phenomena, nothing to be proud of.

      The fact that you have vegetarians is also interesting. If, as I have come to believe, this behavior is largely genetic we would expect to find non-WEIRD populations to contain WEIRD minorities. So while China as a whole may be a lost cause in this regard, mobilizing that minority could nonetheless amount to a large global change for the animals.

  22. “I don’t think Northwestern civilization is doomed, only its current cultural manifestation of multiculturalism which combines pathological altruism with an equally oppressive attitude towards anyone dares stand up against it.”

    I wonder how this will play out in the centuries ahead? Either expulsion (unlikely) or permanent ghettos of the unassimilatable? Poor Sweden.

    • Staffan says:

      It’s a complex situation so it’s hard to predict what will happen. I think some will relocate to places like Finland or Australia, even Poland may become a popular destination. Others will try to segregate within nations but then they still have to pay taxes. It may become similar to California – people leave because of high taxes and those who are left must then pay even higher taxes…

      Yes, poor Sweden. It’s old, very pc and conformist. Swedes are seemingly friendly and relaxed, but they become angry and defensive if you question their beliefs. It’s like that Beach Boy song, “they come on like they’re peaceful, but inside they’re so uptight.”

  23. Miss Minnie says:

    I think vegetarianism is most common in India, rather than the West. Sometimes, but not always, it’s associated with religion in South and Southeast Asia but there is a reason that tofu comes from there.

    Like a religious thing for people in Buddhism and Taoism is to bust animals out of farms and release them into the wild, similar to PETA. These religions believe that animals souls can be saved, in the religious sense.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, it’s hard to tell exactly how it relates to secular animal concerns. The religious aspect makes it different from the Northwestern empathy. In Jonathan Haidt’s model this would be Sanctity/Degradation and perhaps sacralization rather than Care/Harm and Ingroup. It’s possible that helping animals can be done more efficiently by appealing to these local morals and beliefs than by appealing to Western ideals and principles.

  24. Fred says:

    While I do not argue with the circle of empathy being affected by genetics, I think there is one aspect not addressed that you might consider. People are simply less competitive and more generous when the necessities and comforts of life are more abundant.

    When making projections about the future one might consider that so much of the wealth generated in the last few centuries, especially in the last 60 years, has been acquired by use of leverage – borrowed money. The rate of credit generated has been increasing at a superexponential rate and is projected by some to arrive at a singularity near the middle of this century. The arms that enforce the Pax Americana have been likewise funded.

    We are conducting an interesting experiment.

    Here’s another TED talk by someone who is likewise hopefully optimistic, though I see nothing in the numbers to justify that optimism.

  25. Fred says:

    Actually, the phrase “We are conducting…” is pretty silly, we are not in control.

  26. Staffan says:

    True, wealth makes people less competitive, but generous or even empathic? I’m not so sure. If you look at foreign aid by gross national income,

    Even with this adjustment we’d expect wealth to be a factor. But Japan and South Korea are rich countries. And think of all the rich countries that didn’t make the top 20. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates – clearly these clannish countries are very rich thanks to their oil, but not very generous. The same goes for Israel and other wealthy East Asian nations like Singapore and Taiwan. All well outside Northwestern Europe.

    I’ll have a look at the TED, although as you hint at, TED suffers from an optimism bias. RSA is way better.

  27. Ozymandias says:

    “Learning to manage diversity and grow is your best protection from being dominated.”

    Does ‘The Narrative’ now require the ability for infinite expansion?

    • Alan says:

      As I see it, that has already been done! For millions of years, humans and proto-humans have been plagued with socialization problems – their communities severely limited in size by their inability to behave well together. There are two advances, recently implemented on a global scale, that have, I believe, eliminated that limit: Representative government and the Industrial Revolution.
      Today, the only thing stalling (relatively uniform) global cooperation is a self-paralysis among the Western powers fretting over their rather brutal colonial behaviors of the recent past.

  28. […] is a long blog post (Staffan’s Personality Blog) but a very interesting one that well repays reading it. Staffan is […]

  29. Dan says:

    I’m not arguing that the Chinese aren’t cruel or whatever it is, but in China it’s not uncommon for little kids to be unaccompanied and to wander about on their own in crowded cities, to lay about on the street and random places, nap, throw a fit, etc. So a little kid lying on the street is not the immediate, startling spectacle it would be elsewhere. In the US, seeing even just an unaccompanied little kid in a city walking around is an immediate, startling spectacle that will be noticed, because the outdoors in general, even the suburbs and especially cities, are regarded as dangerous for kids and kids are heavily supervised these days and not allowed to venture out on their own.

    In the following video, a Chinese girl walking on the street falls down a sinkhole and is immediately helped by a taxi driver and a woman on the street:

    It seems unlikely that genetics explains these different events in China. Most likely, the taxi driver and woman on the street saw the girl suddenly fall into the sinkhole, which is a startling immediately noticeable event. Whereas in the run over kid situation, the passerby didn’t notice anything unusual because kids and people laying about on the street is not as strange as it is elsewhere.

  30. Dan says:

    Yes, I don’t have any data on it but I get the feeling that at least secular Jews are pretty WEIRD. Singer is a vegetarian and so was the most prominent animal rights activist of all, Henry Spira. Others include Bill Maher, Natalie Portman, Michael Eisner, and psychologist Diana Fleischman who I’ve been following on Twitter lately. Sure there are lots more.

    Well if you’re defining WEIRD in terms of extreme social liberalism and leftism, there’s plenty of evidence that diaspora Ashkenazi Jews are among the most socially liberal populations. And it’s well documented that they’ve been extremely overrepresented in influential positions in academia, media, entertainment in which they’ve promoted these socially liberal views. Various explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, such as Jews simply being so intelligent that they’ll just be overrepresented in anything, including socially liberal intellectual positions. There’s also the explanation offered by Kevin MacDonald. Presumably you have an alternative explanation. Would it be outbreeding? Something else?

    • Staffan says:

      The most obvious explanation would be interbreeding with Northwest Europeans and just picked up the genes for these traits. Prominence in general is probably a lot to do with IQ, although there may be other traits too as high IQ minorities aren’t always as visible as the Jews are.

      • Dan says:

        So you would disagree with Kevin MacDonald’s arguments?

        Interbreeding with NW Europeans doesn’t seem to be an obvious explanation, since Ashkenazim appear to be European/Middle Eastern hybrids genetically. About half their genetic makeup is European, and this European component is Italian and Greek. Furthermore they’ve been significantly more socially liberal than their NW European majority hosts such as in the US and Weimar Germany.

  31. Staffan says:

    I haven’t read him, but like I said, there may be other traits too. Not opposed to it, just haven’t seen any research on that.

    Mixing is obvious just by looking at them. Lots of them here in Sweden are blonde. That’s not from their Italian or Greek ancestors.

    • Dan says:

      There are blond and redheaded Jews who aren’t products of recent or modern admixture events with Germanics or Slavs.

      Mixing is not obvious as an explanation since Ashkenazim are basically Southern Euro/Mideastern hybrids:

      It’s also not obvious because they tend to be significantly more socially liberal than their host populations which are more NW Euro. For example, in the recent elections in the US, the most NW Euro population, white Protestants, voted most conservatively, while Jews were among those who voted most liberally. Jews were second only to blacks in their support for the Democrats:

      • Staffan says:

        Not sure who those Jews are but its clear that Swedish Jews are blonder than French Jews. I doubt blonde Jews migrated to blonde countries.

        Quoting from West Hunter post linked above,

        “Altogether, > 80% of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry is European – mostly Italian, but a bit from France and Germany as well.”

        This is mostly Northwest Euro, especially if the Italian origin is northern.

        As for voting patterns, its not obvious that voting Democrat is a strong indication of social liberalism. As you can see white Catholics voted more Democrat than white Protestants.

      • Dan says:

        That would make them mostly non-NW Euro, and mostly non-Euro. Italy is not part of NW Europe.

        Voting Democrat does strongly correlate with social liberalism. The Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant categories are primarily ethnic proxies rather than indications of doctrinal belief. Many, perhaps most, of the Jews for example in this poll will be agnostic or atheist and secular. The socially conservative Catholics tend to vote Republican

        The Jewish category represents those of Jewish ethnicity. The Catholic category represents those descended from Catholic European nationalities, and the Protestant category represents those descended from Protestant European nationalities, hence the Protestant category is the most NW European in ethnic makeup.

      • JayMan says:


        “That would make them mostly non-NW Euro, and mostly non-Euro. Italy is not part of NW Europe.”

        Northern Italy is, at least for the purposes we typically discuss. Of course, that distinction may not have really existed in Roman times, when Jewish Italian admixture occurred.

      • Dan says:


        Northern Italy isn’t a part of NW Europe and has never been considered as such. The “NW” refers to Europe north and west of the Alps, which divide the Italian peninsula from the rest of Europe. Furthermore, the term has certain ethnic and linguistic connotations. It generally connotes Celtic nnd Germanic Europe, and excludes Latin and Romance Europe, including much of France.

        The fact that northern Italy differs from southern Italy doesn’t mean it’s a part of NW Europe or that it doesn’t differ from NW Europe. Including northern Italy would mean that one is not using “NW Europe” as it’s generally understood.

      • JayMan says:


        When hbd* chick, Staffan, or I say “Northwest Europe,” we generally mean the region enclosed by the Hajnal line:

        “core europe” and human accomplish-ment | hbd chick

        This includes Northern Italy, Northern Iberia, and Scandinavia (including Iceland, though technically not Finland). Indeed, it excludes hbd* chick’s own Celtic fringe areas, for while this is area is geographically part of NW Europe, they largely lack the traits common to the people in the “core” regions – of the Germanics as M.G. would point out.

        Sure, there are regional/ethnic differences within this zone, but the “special traits” possessed by these people goes as far south as Rome.

  32. Secular Vegan says:

    Well I’m an English vegan but I never thought that genetics had any bearing, especially bearing in mind that I have more Irish forebears than the average ‘Irish’ Yank (which, granted, possibly isn’t saying much). If Englishness is related to vegetarianism then that is a cultural issue, not a genetic one.

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks for your comment : )

      It would be a statistical rule to which individuals don’t apply. Although Ireland is a bit of an anomaly with plenty of vegetarians it seems. Perhaps it has become more English due to its small population and proximity to the much larger UK?

      The distinction between culture and genetics is built on the assumption that culture exists independently of genetics. There are examples to the contrary, such as dairy farming, for which lactose tolerance is a prerequisite.

      Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine that vegetarianism and the whole altruistic culture of Northwestern Europe, has its own genetic prerequisites.

      • Secular Vegan says:

        The ethnic and cultural differences between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (both parts) are virtually non-existent, despite the fact that the UK is politically falling apart. Additionally, there has been cross-migration between Britain and Ireland for millennia. We are an island people of shared heritage. Oh and remember the Smiths’ ‘Meat is Murder’ album? They are all Englishmen, born and bred , of Irish parentage.

      • Staffan says:

        Yes, but this goes for genes and culture alike. England has had a cultural influence like few due to its colonial empire, but there are no former colonies (as far as I know) in which vegetarianism is common, that have adopted other aspects of the type of altruism common to England and NW Europe.

    • JayMan says:

      @Secular Vegan:

      It might be helpful to learn a few useful facts. Like #1:

      All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable.

      And that the peoples in different parts of the British Isles aren’t one population, but many:

      American Nations Series | JayMan’s Blog

      This is true for many places across the world

      Stop Saying North and South Koreans Are Necessarily Completely Identical Populations | JayMan’s Blog

      • Secular Vegan says:

        We’re a hybrid of the same influences in different proportions, the Scandinavian influence for example being strongest in the former Danelaw of Eastern England (as borne out by the commonality of place names ending in ‘by’, ‘thorpe’, ‘toft’ and ‘thwaite’). But my experience is that we are one people. The cultural differences throughout these islands are marginal. I am of Irish parentage, I have lived in Scotland and for work reasons I regularly visit Wales. I have also lived in three different regions of England.

      • JayMan says:

        @Secular Vegan:

        There are broad similarities, but of course, there are very important differences, as well.

        But my experience is that we are one people. The cultural differences throughout these islands are marginal.

        A difference is marginal until it’s not.

        The U.S. Civil War speaks to the importance of those “marginal” differences.

      • Secular Vegan says:

        The issue pertinent to this thread is about the cultural disposition towards being vegetarian, not about the internal politics of the British Isles. The similarities far outweigh the differences, even in Northern Ireland.

      • JayMan says:

        @Secular Vegan:

        You clearly don’t understand the first thing here, then.

        Whether the similarities outweigh the differences (which depends greatly on what you’re looking at) is besides the matter – namely, that there are differences, and these differences can be highly important and are intractable.

        That’s true for the entire world.

      • Secular Vegan says:

        I shall have to defer to your ‘superior’ intellect then mate. I am only an indigenous native of the British Isles who went vegetarian in 1986, vegan in 1989. Clearly I ‘don’t understand the first thing’ about the subject at hand.

  33. JayMan says:

    Superbly fitting:

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, I forgot to include that one, great stuff from @JakubMarian. Adjust for Middle East immigration and it fits incredibly well.

      Travelling the Balkan you can feel the sharp gradient between the mellow and friendly Slovenians and the harsher Serbs and Bosnians.

  34. […] The idea of a universal “expanding moral circle” was mocked by Staffan in his post The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian: […]

  35. […] Staffan points out, vegetarianism and Englishness (in this case, perhaps Welshness) are extremely […]

  36. […] another blogger in last year’s top ten list, but i forgot, so here it is now: staffan’s The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian. read that one, too, if you haven’t! […]

  37. Greying Wanderer says:

    “So how come whites were racist only 50 years ago?”

    1) widening circle sequence
    save the newts

    2) percentages
    – each widening may start with a few people and grow over time till peer pressure hits a tipping point

    3) gender
    – prob effects women more/first (guess)

  38. Dennis Hu says:

    Your assertation of “The Chinese Anomaly“ is simply wrong. The extent of the “circle of empathy” of the Chineses society in general, surely is not up the Western standard, nevertheless, it has extended steadly and dramaticly over history, There are growing objection to animal cruelty, child abuse, sexism, racism, and growing sympathy for homosexuality and alternative life styles which may unthinkable just a few years ago.

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks for you comment.

      I hope I’m wrong, but remember that these issues have only become a concern in recent time, when the Western influence has become significant. As you may recall, there was a similar cultural modernization of the Arab world in the 1970s, but it only went so far and then reverted.

      On the other hand, China has had no problem assimilating Western science and technology. The importance of this influence is treated as self-evident. Why the difference?

      I think the difference can be explained by the fact that Chinese people and Northwest Europeans are innately different and for that reason compatible in some ways but not others.

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