Book Review: The Ten Thousand Year Explosion (2009) by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending

October 27, 2014


I have a feeling most people don’t read reviews, but with some books I still think it’s worth making a little noise. Books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris, and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. And now this one, so yes, it’s kind of a big deal. Many readers of this blog are no doubt already familiar with it, but since some probably aren’t, and it has been ignored by most of the media, I feel I should throw my two cents in.

The Persistence of Blank Slatism

The authors, physicist Greg Cochran and anthropologist Henry Harpending, challenge a common view among both the public and in Academia that evolution ended some 50 thousand years ago after the exodus out of Africa, or that it’s too slow to have any meaningful impact on humans within that time period. For that reason we must, they claim, be the same biological creatures as we were back then. As a consequence of this view, the cultural diversity that we see today and throughout history must also be unrelated to biology. They quote the late biologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould who sums up (and embraces) this opinion,

“Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”

Most of his readers gladly accept this as the truth. It is after all the Blank Slate that has dominated Western thought on human nature for the last 400 years or so that claims we are all built of the same stuff, we all share an incredible ability to change, improve, and evolve. Steven Pinker did some damage to this idea but most people who have read him seem to have landed in a half slatism, admitting they were wrong but only half wrong. In psychology, this is known as anchoring: people don’t change opinion to fit the evidence but meet the evidence half way. And ironically you can be as anchored in thinking you’re a free spirit as in any other point of view.

But “the same body”? Are there Japanese people who can be mistaken for Scandinavians? Are there Peruvians who could pass themselves off as Nigerians?

More likely, as the authors argue, is that when leaving Africa humanity spread to various different environments, each with its own unique selective pressures. East Asians (to be) who passed through the extremely cold climate of central and northern Asia got shorter extremities. They and northern Europeans became paler as they were less exposed to the sun and they lost the ability to retain salt while sweating as they sweated less in their new environments. The people of the Andes and Himalayas became adapted to high altitude, and so on.

In short, our bodies are not the same. There are plenty of differences that are obvious adaptations to new environments giving rise to slightly different variants of Homo sapiens. And there are no supernatural elves guarding the blood-brain barrier either; the brain, for all its sophistication and complexity, is still part of our body, so anyone seeking the truth about human nature must at least entertain the possibility that evolution may have produced mental, biologically based group differences.

The Upper Paleolithic Revolution

There is little doubt that something big happened around 45 thousand years ago. At this time all sorts of innovations pop up – bow and arrow, fishnet and fishhook, cooking, rope, basket, textiles. Other novelties such as art, music, trade, and ritual burials indicate that there was a sudden and fundamental shift in human thinking, away from the day-by-day living of roaming bands, towards a more reflective, planned and organized way of life.

This abrupt change is hard to understand in terms of natural selection as there is very little time and no signs of strong selective pressures. In fact it seems so hard to understand it that many scholars deny it altogether. Instead, they argue for a gradual development by showing cultural artifacts that predates that of the Great Leap Forward, as it’s sometimes referred to. But I think it’s clear that they make their case more with words than with actual evidence. The extent to which they ascribe ingenuity and artistic qualities into the artifacts predating the Great Leap is similar to how some mothers will praise the scribblings of their children. As geographer and science writer Jared Diamond pointed out in another interesting book, gradualists have a tendency to give fancy names to early primitive tools as a way of creating an appearance of continuity,

Early stone tools vary in size and shape, and archaeologists have used those differences to give the tools different names, such as ‘hand-axe’, ‘chopper’, and ‘cleaver’. These names conceal the fact that none of those early tools had a sufficiently consistent or distinctive shape to suggest any specific function, as do the obvious needles and spear-points left by the much later Cro-Magnons. Wear-marks on the tools show that they were variously used to cut meat, bone, hides, wood, and non-woody parts of plants, but any size or shape of tool seems to have been used to cut any of those things, and the tool names applied by archaeologists may be little more than arbitrary divisions of a continuum of stone forms.

So most likely there was a Big Leap, and a corresponding biological leap that enabled it. But what kind of biological change could have such a dramatic effect?

The Neanderthal Within

As I said earlier, natural selection is not a likely candidate. The change is just too large and rapid, even if the new environments presented strong selective pressures and humans had lots of pre-existing genetic variation to work with. And clearly the new environment did not set the Neanderthals already living there on a highway to any kind of cultural revolution.

Instead the authors suggest that the change was caused by interbreeding between the Homo sapiens leaving Africa and the Neanderthals who lived in Europe and Asia. These two species split up some half a million years ago and Cochran & Harpending point out that no primate species have split completely in such a short time. And as human population genetics shows, people who live next to each other will inevitably mix to some extent. So common sense dictates that interbreeding was very likely.

This way Homo sapiens could have picked up a number of advantageous gene variants almost instantly. Most likely some of these variants relate to language skills (it’s very hard to think of something like trade without some kind of language). One such candidate gene is the FOXP2 that involved in speech, another suggested by the authors is MCPH1 that regulates brain size, as these both have new versions that roughly fit the time when Homo sapiens met Neanderthals and the cultural explosion that followed.

Since this book was written in 2009, you may wonder how well the theory holds up in view of current evidence. Well, recently gradualists have seized on a piece of depictive cave painting in Sulawesi, Indonesia, estimated to be around 35 thousand years old. They argue that this find somehow makes their case, but I honestly can’t see how it would do that. It leaves plenty of time for Homo sapiens to leave Africa, pick up the crucial Neanderthal gene variants in the Middle East or Europe and then migrate to Southeast Asia. And fact remains that advanced artifacts, such as depictive paintings, are still only found in times and places where people are likely to have Neanderthal admixture.

Meanwhile the evidence for interbreeding, doubted by gradualists like anthropologist Sally McBrearty, is now pretty solid. Recent studies also indicate that the authors were slightly off regarding the time line as it appears that interbreeding happened just before the window of opportunity would have closed. The FOXP2 is also ruled out as a Neanderthal contribution to contemporary humans. But the main point is that it did happen and that and non-Africans (Neanderthals were never in Africa) worldwide now have a few percent Neanderthal DNA as a consequence. So thus far, their theory is holding up pretty well.


This, however, isn’t even the main point of the book. The Upper Paleolithic Revolution is just the starting point of a new chapter in human evolution. Cochran & Harpending argue that the cultural innovations that emerged around 50 thousand years ago created selective pressures that were much stronger than those already in place so that we evolved faster than before. Sure, innovations had no patents back then so they were accessible for all. But not everyone was equally skilled at using them. If you’re good with a bow and arrow you’ll shoot the game from a safe distance, if you’re less skilled you’ll have to get closer and take the higher risk. But that would still be preferable to getting up close and bludgeoning it to death with a club, which seems to have been the Neanderthal way.

Language, as the authors point out, may well be the most important cultural innovation of them all, and no doubt one creating an enormous selective pressure. With good language skill you can excel at trade, you can convince, seduce, and deceive as well as detect deception. You can make detailed plans together with others. All of this confers obvious fitness – in proportion to your skill level. And thus far we don’t know of any skills that aren’t highly heritable. So if you agree that language and other cultural innovations have been of great importance to our success and survival in our recent past, then you must also agree that the genes behind the corresponding skills would have been selected for in proportion to that success. These skills then changed how we think which must have led to further innovations, “Men made better tools and then, in turn, were reshaped by those tools over many generations.” This of course must have been going on since the dawn of humanity. But with the Upper Paleolithic explosion the process shifted gears.

Genetic Evidence

As plausible and common sense as this sounds, the authors also offer more direct evidence of recent selection. For instance that which is based on a phenomenon called recombination. Thing is, we don’t inherit single genes, instead chromosomes from our parents are cut into 2-4 pieces and half of these pieces from each parent are then put together – recombined – to make our own chromosomes. As the cuts are few and the chromosomes contain enormous stretches of DNA, it’s unlikely that a cut will be anywhere near a single gene. So when a favorable mutation starts spreading through a population its closest neighbors usually tag along, like the entourage of a rising star. Together they make up a characteristic pattern called a haplotype. The more advantageous the mutation is the more common the haplotype will become. But with every generation that passes the cuts in the chromosomes will reduce the length of the haplotype so that fewer and fewer genes around the mutation will be shared in the population. So while fitness is indicated by how common the haplotype is, age is indicated by its length (the longer, the younger).

This means that common and long haplotypes can only exist if there is still strong and recent selection. This is for instance the case with lactose tolerance among people of European ancestry, which is only a few thousand years old. But according to the authors, recent studies show plenty of long and young haplotypes, some of which have reached 100 percent frequency in their populations. This can only mean that there is both strong and recent selection on a large scale. So evolution is still going strong

They offer other types of evidence too, supporting the idea that the rate of evolution is accelerating, but this is the part I found most convincing.


Unlike the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, agriculture was a single innovation that emerged some 12 thousand years ago. But its impact on the course of evolution was probably at least as big. It increased the world population from ca 6 million to 600 million by the time of Christ. As mutations are proportional to the size of the population this means a hundred fold increase of new mutations to speed up evolution even more. But like any innovation promoting fitness it also created a selective pressure benefitting the most skilled farmers.

But it also meant a new diet, based heavily on grain. While more people could be fed this way, the diet itself was low on protein and other nutrients. Average height dropped almost five inches with the introduction of agriculture. This meant that any mutations that would somehow increase access to protein would be selected for as was the case with those rendering owners lactose tolerance. The mutations that enabled adults to consume dairy food spread like wildfire among early farmers. This is a very compelling piece of evidence of the process of gene-culture coevolution that the authors mean is the force that has created our human nature. Culture (in this case agriculture) created a selective pressure for lactose tolerance which then in turn affected our culture as our diet and food production changed. And all this in just a few thousand years. Do we have any particular reason to assume that this process wouldn’t affect our culture and our behavior in other aspects?

Personality: The Rise of the Nerds

I ask this because just like the Upper Paleolithic innovations made certain skills important so did agriculture. The former most likely brought complex speech and the ability to deceive. Before that life was probably no picnic, but there wasn’t much room for Dark Triad personality traits. Language, however, must have created a huge selective pressure for such traits. And with agriculture came new traits, since traits tend to correspond to skills. The hunter-gatherers didn’t need to make plans; they roamed, and they may have memorized certain places and routes where food was plentiful or where they could find shelter. As the authors point out, instant gratification would not be a problematic trait under those circumstances. But the farmer who ate just a little of the grain needed for next year’s sowing may well have sealed his and his family’s fate that way, especially a northern farmer.

Farming changed the whole way of life. It required making plans, collecting and evaluating information, and thinking ahead – sometimes years ahead. It required intelligence, true, but also a kind of personality captured by Big Five Conscientiousness, MBTI Thinking and Judgment, or the Cerebral factor of interests isolated by psychologist Peter Rentfrow and colleagues. These all refer to being rational, deliberate and careful. While this sounds like being intelligent none of these measures correlate with actual intelligence. It’s more similar to being nerdy. This cerebral/nerdy trait is most likely an even newer aspect of human personality than the Dark Triad.

What about the Pastoralists?

This begs the question of why people in the Middle East, who the authors argue should be the most adapted to agriculture, can be so unnerdy? They mention resistance to type 2 diabetes as an example of an adaptation to agriculture (a larger intake of carbs), but people in the Middle East have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world. There is a possible explanation for this in the form of nomadic pastoralism. This culture emerged around 3000 years ago in the Middle East and remains strong right up to the modern era. So their experience of agriculture is interrupted and mixed with this other culture and corresponding diet, richer in meat. And since agriculture has been an accelerating process, cutting off 3000 years at the end means a whole lot more than at the beginning.

But pastoralism is more than an end of agriculture. It’s a cultural innovation with its own pressures, taking people in that culture down a different evolutionary path. This path leads to inbreeding, clannishness, honor culture and a warrior-like lifestyle. This is where I feel this book is lacking a conspicuous piece of the puzzle. It focuses too much on agriculture and gives the reader the impression that differences between populations are mainly about how long they’ve been farmers. They do mention it but mainly in the discussion of how early Indo-Europeans conquered the steppe with the edge of lactose tolerance. But if human nature has been shaped varying selective pressures of agriculture then the same should hold for pastoralists. (This type of human is described in some detail by blogger HBD Chick.)

Ashkenazi Intelligence

As a final example of just how fast the wheels of evolution are spinning, the authors present the rise of Ashkenazi intelligence. This would be a significant change in less than a millennia, which may be hard to believe in. But although speculative, it’s not a matter of belief, but of evidence and plausibility.

The Ashkenazi has existed as a distinct group of Jews since medieval times, but according to the authors their intellectual prominence is as late as the 1800s. Today their average IQ is estimated at 112-115. They have won more than 25 percent of all Nobel prices but make up only 0.17 percent of the world’s population. That is pretty mind-blowing. So how did it happen?

The cause, Cochran & Harpending suggest, is a well-known historical fact that most people simply don’t think of as relating to the theory of evolution,

“When persecution became a serious problem and the security required for long-distance travel no longer existed, the Ashkenazim increasingly specialized in one occupation, finance,

left open to them because of the Christian prohibition of usury. The majority of the Ashkenazim seem to have been moneylenders by 1100, and this pattern continued for several centuries. Such occupations (trade and finance) had high IQ demands, and we know of no other population that had such a large fraction of cognitively demanding jobs for an extended period.”

So they were effectively forced into high IQ professions and as success translated to more children this constituted a very strong and unique selective pressure that increased their intelligence. This sounds plausible, but while we know of their later achievements we don’t have any way to estimate their intelligence at the beginning of this period. The fact that they were sought after in the finance sector must mean that they had some smarts right from the start. As blogger Jewamongyou points out, in his overall positive review, religion may be an overlooked selective pressure, “It was specifically religious scholarship that made a man coveted as a husband.”

I have no idea of just how sexy Talmudic analysis was back then and to what extent those who excelled at it could extract resources to afford more children than others. But if this was the case then it certainly changes things a bit. It would weaken the case for superfast evolution, but the authors would still have a case for very fast ditto. How so?

Well, Ashkenazi Jews are a genetically distinct group with a number of serious genetic diseases. The popular explanation for this is that they at some point passed a bottleneck, a point when the population was so small that single individuals would leave their genetic mark on future generations. This has happened before but in this case the gene variants behind these diseases cluster together in regard to very specific functions of the brain and nervous system, DNA repair etc. A bottleneck would be random – no clusters.

Instead these clusters suggest that selection for something having to do with the brain – something that improves fitness – has taken place. And it would be recent selection as the genetic diseases are caused by homozygosity in these genes. Because in the long run adaptive genes with harmful side effects will be replaced by less harmful ones. So like haplotypes, harmfulness is another way of dating adaptations. And these diseases like for instance Tay-Sachs are among the worst imaginable.

So be it finance skills or perhaps religious fervor (that would surely give Richard Dawkins a stroke), there is still a case for some recent selection relating to intelligence.


Like I said in the beginning of this review, I think this book is among the top science books of recent years. It replaces the highly popular nonsense idea of halted evolution with a plausible theory of accelerating evolution. It provides a theory of how human nature has been shaped and differentiated into genetically distinct groups, not just by the physical environment, but increasingly by the social environment that various cultures represent, the most important factor being agriculture (or lack thereof). I still miss the pastoralist/clannish branch but maybe that will be in the next edition.

It would be easy to dismiss it had it not been so plausible and backed up by hard evidence. So the natural reaction from science journalists, pundits etc, the majority of whom still feel Stephen Jay Gould view is valid, is to ignore this book. Economist Tyler Cowen (who also doubted Homo sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals despite of the common sense appeal of the idea) wrote a sweeping 14-line review, snubbing it without addressing anything specific, hardly more than a hit-and-run. One professor of biochemistry by the name of Larry Moran even tried to question the veracity of the Gould quote above, presumably hoping that fact checking is now a thing of the past. (Anthropologist John Hawks set him straight on that one).

I think this silence and these inferior attempts at dismissal speak volumes by themselves. If critics really had a good argument against Cochran & Harpending then surely they would use it. Given how the academic community tends to react to theories about heritability of intelligence and personality trait, innate group differences etc, I think they would use it much like a Neanderthal would use a club to bludgeon someone from an enemy tribe to death with. But don’t take my or anyone else’s word for it. It’s a short book, an easy read, and it only costs 10 dollars. If you’re a truly intellectually curious person, chances are you’ll get a good buzz from it. I certainly did.


The Most Feminine Country in the World

May 8, 2014
The Swedish Model

The Swedish Model

Mars, Venus, and All That

Continuing on the theme of culture and personality, I’ve noticed that social psychologist Geert Hofstede has found Sweden to be the most feminine country in the world according to his theory of cultural dimensions. Apart from masculinity/femininity, these dimensions – that he also views as personality traits, at least judging by his website – also include individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance (strength of social hierarchy), long-term orientation, and indulgence/self-restraint. But in this post I’m going to focus on the gender dimension in this post. Is Sweden the most feminine country in the world?

As a Swede myself, I think this might be true, but it all depends on your definition of course. Here is how Hofstede defines it on his website,

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

As all definitions, this one can be criticized. Women have part of achievement too – in a world of global capitalism you may argue that being modest and caring for the weak are big achievements. And men don’t necessarily look for material rewards, as can be seen in the case of for instance psychologist Hans Eysenck, composer Arvo Pärt or architect Antoni Gaudi. But overall, there is probably something to the general idea that men are competitors and doers and that women are caring and cooperative.

One way to validate this dimension would be with measures of gender equality, since we should expect feminine cultures to have more gender equality. Here is Hofstede’s measure compares to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI),



As you can see, there are clear similarities between these indices. The Nordic countries and the Netherlands (which is culturally similar to those countries) make up 5-6 spots of the top ten on all three.  Outside this zone the measures start varying with some European, Anglosphere and Latin American countries. So the Nordic region plus the Netherlands is where femininity is the strongest. I’ll refer to this as the Feminine region from now on.

The Difference between WEIRD and Feminine

This may come as a bit of a surprise since femininity and the related concept of gender equality appear to be an integral part of the Enlightenment legacy that is mostly found throughout Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, sometimes given the acronym WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), a region characterized by its civic-mindedness, human rights and lack of corruption. And while the Feminine region is within the WEIRD region it’s only one half of it with the Anglosphere with countries like America, Australia, and Great Britain making up the other half, which is no where near as feminine.

So it seems not all children of Enlightenment are created equal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain or even mention this divide (although someone has probably mentioned it). If, as I suggested in my previous post, culture is ultimately the collective manifestation of our individual personalities, this would have to be a mainly genetic divide, perhaps created by different selective pressures within Northwest Europe. One possible explanation would be that farming in the Nordic countries, with its much harsher climate and long winters, would make flexibility in gender roles a fitness trait. The combination of scarcity of resources and the high energy costs of a cold climate means that margins are small even under normal circumstances. If your wife is too ill to milk the cows and your children won’t survive without the milk, then you have to be flexible and sometimes do women’s work.

Health Care

So, is femininity a good thing, besides for milking cows? Are these countries really more caring and cooperative? A society level measure of caring might be quality of health care. This can be highly subjective since health is made up of many subfactors not always easy to quantify into numbers. And poor health can be largely self-inflicted by people we don’t necessarily think of as weak. To get around these problems I went with child mortality. If we compare the Feminine region with the Anglosphere we also have the benefit of comparing otherwise very similar countries. Acording to a recent report published in the Lancet with estimates of  mortality rates for children under five years of age (deaths per 1000 live births for the year 2013), we have the following,



Compared to the Feminine region, the Anglosphere has a mortality rate that is 70 percent higher, and there is no overlap between these groups of countries. It may seem like a small difference compared to sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s striking to have such a difference between rich Northwest European countries (or their descendants).

Udate: Jayman wondered about whether race may be a factor for American mortality. According to CDC, first year mortality per 1000 births for White Americans is 5.11 so it’s roughly on the same level as the rest of the Anglosphere, especially given that the figures above are for the first 5 years. (Black 1-year infant mortality is at 11.42.)

Consensus versus Majoritarian Democracy

The other main aspect of femininity, cooperation, is something that is found in the political systems of these countries. The Feminine region is characterized by consensus democracy, especially in the sense that these countries have proportional electoral system, lots of political parties that form coalitions and with the ambition of getting broad support for decisions, not just within coalitions but with opposition and other interest groups and institutions. It’s the friendly, inclusive, and cooperative way of governing.

In contrast, the Anglosphere is characterized by the majoritarian model (see the link above) in which countries have fewer parties, form less coalitions with often just a single party in government at a time. The government also focuses more on their own agenda with less concern for and compromise with other parties, interest groups etc. It’s the competitive and take-charge way of governing.

Unlike with child mortality, it’s not obvious which of these models is the better; it depends on the situation and what you look to accomplish. Polls on how content people are with democracy and government do not show either of these models to be more popular than the other. But this offers more support to the idea that the WEIRD countries, while being very similar in other ways, differ in ways that can be described as masculine and feminine.

The Feminine Madness

Overall, femininity seems like a fairly good thing, seeing as how the most feminine countries in the world are wealthy, healthy and democratic.But what happens at the extreme ends of the spectrum? Just as for individual personalities you get crazy and maladaptive behavior. This can be seen in Sweden, where feminism has become so dominant that any critique is viewed as backward-minded bigotry by definition. The lack critique creates a sort of unsupervised playground for all sorts of crazy. According to a recent poll, 2.3 percent of the voters favoured the feminist party Feminist Initiative in the upcoming election to the European Parliament. Here is what one of their leaders said in 2002,

“The discrimination and the violations appears in different shapes depending on where we find ourselves. But it’s the same norm, the same structure, the same pattern, that is repeated both in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and here in Sweden.”

The Angel of Reason

Tanja Bergkvist – The Angel of Reason

But it’s in the academic community that feminism is the most influential and the consensus/conformity is the strongest. A rare example of someone rebelling against the insanity is Tanja Bergkvist, mathematician at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In her blog she reports on gender politics that the mainstream media normally don’t care to mention for political reasons. It’s unfortunately only in Swedish but if you’re interested you might try and crunch it through a translator. Otherwise, here are a few goodies from her blog that will show that words like “madness” and “insanity” are in fact appropriate,

  • In 2007, the University of Lund (one of the most prestigious) decided to introduce so-called gender certification for every single course. Meaning a course in for instance theoretical physics should include information about the implications and relevance regarding gender issues on things like quantum theory. One criteria for certification was whether the department in question was actively seeking an equal distribution of male and female teachers. However, the department of gender issues at the university turned out to have 89 percent female teachers!
  • The government guidelines on gender education in pre-school include reading only modern stories to children and avoiding the classics or at least changing the gender of the characters. Cinderella would be a pretty gay dude – but all the better I guess.
  • In 2008, the gender committee of the Science Council, a government agency created to promote scientific research, begins a three year project on the gender aspects of the musical instrument of the trumpet. Here is a quote presenting the project and the important questions it will raise, “What timbre in the wide spectrum of the trumpet becomes the norm and what timbre is perceived as deviant and labeled female and male respectively?”
  • Also in 2008, the company Swedish Nuclear Waste Disposal that manages all the waste from Sweden’s nuclear power plants, hired two gender experts to include a text in the company’s yearbook entitled, “Gender constructions, perceptions on gender and the experience of risk – a reflection on the meaning of gender in regard to attitudes to long-term management of nuclear waste.”
  • In 2009, a gender expert holds a lecture at a seminar at the University of Uppsala (like Lund a top university) and notes that a man in the audience appears inattentive. She later finds out from a third person that he commented on the way she was dressed. So she files a complaint of sexual harassment. The university informs the man that they have started an investigation about his conduct. So he calls the woman to explain the reason why he had commented on her clothes. The woman forwards this information to the university as evidence of further harassment. The man is then questioned and admits to looking in his papers at times during the lecture and apologizes for commenting her clothes, but is nonetheless officially reprimanded by the university president.

This is just 5 out of 213 posts on Bergkvist’s blog and I have in no way cherry picked them; I just took a few of the earliest that were easy to understand for non-Swedes. You might think I’m making this up (or that she is) but see for yourselves, there are links to sources on all this madness. When this happens on the individual level it’s called a personality disorder, but what do you call it on the societal level?

And at the other side of the spectrum of Hofstede’s cultural dimension, Japan scores as the most masculine country in the world. A whole different brand of crazy…


The Nurture Enigma – How Does the Environment Influence Human Nature?

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

As some of you are well aware, a predominant idea among intellectuals has been that human nature is shaped by the environment, commonly known as the Tabula Rasa or in English, the Blank Slate. This has been the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, the political and philosophical movement of that grew out of late 1600s England and spread throughout the world (although mainly to countries of Northwest European origin). It was an idea that justified social reforms that greatly improved life for most people who were affected by them.

The Tabula reigned pretty much until 1975 when biologist E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology, a book that attempted to use evolution to explain not only animal but also human social behavior. Although this book shook things up in Academia it didn’t make that much impact elsewhere. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the reaction against the Blank Slate began to get serious. At this point in time people in the field of behavioural genetics conducted studies on the heritability of things like personality and intelligence that were so extensive and of such quality that they simply couldn’t be ignored. And they showed substantial heritabilities of not just some traits but all of them, something that still holds today. There were some die hard blank slatists, like biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who persisted but most of the resistance to the idea of an inheritable human nature had waned by the mid 1990s (at least that’s my impression).

So the general idea of all nurture and no nature was losing the battle but the vast majority of people were still unaware of this and continued their lives as if nothing had changed – carefully rearing their children during their “formative years” according to “expert” advice, and feeling great when they turned out good, and feeling guilty when they didn’t.  Then in 1998, a text book writer named Judith Rich Harris wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption, summarizing and popularizing the findings of behavioural geneticists, focusing especially on the implications for child development. This was followed in 2002 by psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, a broad exposé of the whole nature-nurture issue that in its informative and entertaining style became popular in wider circles. People still talk of the formative years even today (I just got a comment from one of them), but by now the tide has irreversibly shifted.

The Post-Slate Situation

So, what does the “new” research from the 1980s, that is now finally beginning to reach public awareness, tell us about human nature? The most obvious part is that nature is a major factor. This is typically summed up in textbooks in the 50/50 rule, claiming that genes and environment can explain about half of the variance each of things like intelligence, personality, psychopathology etc. Which is easy to remember – but also incorrect. This is due to the fact that there is something called measurement error. Most studies are done in a way that doesn’t distinguish this error from the environmental factor. So it’s 50 percent nature and 50 percent environment plus measurement error. Studies that have managed to minimize measurement error typically yield heritabilities for personality traits and similar characteristics around 70 percent. You also have the fact that some of the traits linked to the most important life outcomes, like intelligence and impulsiveness, have even higher heritabilities, around 0.75-0.80.

Equally important – and especially problematic for the adherents of Enlightenment –  is the distinction between shared environment and non-shared environment. It’s the shared environment – family, school, neighbourhood etc – that would lend itself to social reforms. But the research has consistently shown that this factor is very small, often close to zero. As behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin says,

‘Nurture’ in the nature–nurture debate was implicitly taken to mean shared environment because from Freud onwards, theories of socialization had assumed that children’s environments are doled out on a family-by-family basis.

So while there is still a fair amount of environmental influence, it’s not coming from parents, schools, teachers etc. Some people will never accept this; they are too stuck in their political views, they like to blame their parents for how they turned out or take credit for the success of their children. But rational and intellectually honest people will be forced to accept it.

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

But this still leaves us with a substantial environmental influence of the non-shared variety, the unique experiences of the individual, that undeniably affects our personality and intelligence. So what experiences are we talking about?

Oddly enough, 30 years after behavioural geneticists uncovered the importance of non-shared environment, we still don’t know anything about the nature of this influence. This great mystery that goes right to the heart of human nature seems to be uninteresting to both psychologists and the media. Possibly because of the political implications but it might be that they simply lack ideas or intellectual curiosity. After all, personality psychologists – 95 percent of whom identify as liberal – do not praise the Big Five model for all the theories it has generated but for all the consensus it has achieved. Yay…

But one woman, the above mentioned Judith Rich Harris, is actively searching for answers. In a chapter in the anthology The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences by psychologists David Buss and Patricia Hawley, she reviews the evidence, the old theories and proposes a new one that could explain the nature of the non-shared environmental influence.

Gene-Environment Interactions

This is not to say that she is the first to have attempted this. Some have claimed that parents, school and all that may still be important because of gene-environment interactions: the fact that the same environmental factor will affect two persons differently because of their different DNA. This would mean that the environment believed to be shared is really unique and non-shared and possibly very important.

While gene-environment interactions do occur, Harris argues that it’s highly unlikely for these interactions to cancel each other out. Would an overbearing teacher make one child anxious but the other calm and confident? Even if some children would become angry by such a teacher this would not be the opposite of anxious but rather two expressions of neuroticism. Apart from being implausible, Harris also points to the fact that interactions seem to be rare and most of the documented cases involve sensitivities in which people have the same reactions in varying degrees, not opposite reactions that would cancel each other out.

Even more damning to this theory is the research on identical twins. If things like family was in fact unique and non-shared due to gene-environment interaction for siblings it could not be that for the twins since they have identical DNAs so no interactions are possible. This would mean that parents, school etc would have a profound effect on all people with the exception of identical twins for whom it would mean little or nothing, which would make them fundamentally different from the rest of us. At the same time identical twins have the same size of shared and non-shared environment influence as everyone else. So even though it would be made up of completely different experiences it would still by some happy accident add up to exactly the same size. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Family Interactions

Another couple of theories that both try to save the idea of family as an important influence on human nature, are those of differential parental treatment and birth order effects. While it has been found that parents do treat their children differentially, Harris mentions research on this that showed no effect of this on the children. Instead it suggested that parents do this as a response to the children’s varying behavior. Which sounds very plausible: you would not expect a parent to lose his or her temper as often with a quiet and conscientious child as with an impulsive and emotionally unstable one.

Research has also failed to provide support for any effects from sibling interactions, a very popular theory. Sibling rivalry is something most people can recall from their childhood. It may seem only natural that all that bickering would have some impact. But to date, there is no evidence of that. Identical twins again provide further evidence to the contrary, since they have been found to compete less with each other (as they should according to the laws of evolution). This would mean that the sibling interaction effect would be smaller on them and we again end up with the idea that identical twins have a different shared environment than the rest of us but that it serendipitously adds up to the exact same size.

The Three Systems Theory

Instead of these half-hearted attempts at rescuing any possible remains of the Blank Slate, Harris proposes a different theory based on evolutionary psychology and especially on the observation that traits or mechanisms tend to evolve to solve specific problems and that they for this reason often are largely independent of each other.  So, what problems and what mechanisms?

Well, we know that personality is more malleable in childhood than in adulthood. This is most likely because the brain’s plasticity gradually decreases over the life span. So the environment should exert most of its influence during childhood. This means that we should look for basic adaptive problems that children face. Harris identifies three such problems: how to form personal relationships, how to fit in among your peers, and how to compete among your peers. To solve these problems she hypothesizes that the brain has evolved three mechanisms or systems which she calls the Relationship System (RS), the Socialization System (SS), and the Status System (STS).

The RS is basically an ever-growing database of information on people along with judgments of them based on that data. Since these judgments are used to relate to people they tend to be emotional – who we love, hate, fear, pity and so on. Another characteristic is that the data collected is consciously retrievable. The RS is the base of gossip; we talk about people we have stored information on and compare notes. Although in the modern world this is often done about celebrities that aren’t socially relevant to us.

The SS also collects data but on social categories – male, female, adult, child, rich, poor etc. This is essential information if you want to fit in because you need to know where to fit in – which social categories apply to you. Unlike the RS that looks at personal experiences of specific individuals, the SS generalizes about groups, stereotypes you might say. It’s the basis of our ingroup/outgroup distinctions, according to Harris. But when did we learn about these categories? At no particular time, it just builds up gradually. So unlike the information in the RS, there is no consciously retrievable memory of it.

Finally, we have the STS which collects information about where we stand in comparison to other people in our social category – because that’s where the competition takes place. The reason for keeping track of all the possible status hierarchies – being funny, smart, tough etc – is that it enables the child to find an optimal competitive strategy. So this system looks for things like respect, appreciation and recognition.

So which of these systems is the most likely mechanism by which non-shared environment can influence personality? Although Harris doesn’t say much about why the RS couldn’t do this, we already know that some central relationships in a child’s life are those with family members – which is shared environment and thus of little importance. Still, close friends seems like a possible candidate here… She points out that the least likely mechanism would be the SS, since this is a process by which the social environment (peers) reduce variance in personality as it makes children conform to the people in their social categories. But the STS looks very promising. When a child looks for an optimal strategy for competition, it isn’t looking to conform but to stand out. And if one niche is taken it will have to look for other venues. Like if you’re a big boy who is moderately funny in a peer group of plenty of really big guys but no one who can tell a joke, you may go against your genetic disposition and become the comedian rather than to assert yourself physically.


Now that sounds like a plausible theory, but is there any evidence?

Harris agrees that her theory needs to be tested but she does have some evidence too. She mentions the fact that men who were tall as boys grow up to be more assertive and confident as adults. That height in adolescence predicts salary better than height in adulthood. Although she admits that the same thing that makes a person grow fast (androgens) may also be causing their assertiveness. To get around this Harris suggests that we look at relative age within peer groups. One important peer group is that of classmates in school, in which children can differ in age up to a year. This makes for differences in size and maturity that are unrelated to hormones or other biological factors. This relative age effect can be seen in sports where the older boys in groups of selection are picked up by better teams. This may seem stupid if all you do is select players who happen to be older than their peers. But what if being bigger also give them confidence that in turn make them better players?

A study by Dr Chris J Gee at the University of Toronto, published in the International Journal of Coaching Science gives some support for this idea. Gee has followed promising young hockey players over 15 years in order to see if personality can predict success in the sport. According to the study a composite measure of the typical traits thought to be linked to success – self-confidence, need for achievement, competitiveness etc – did in fact predict success. And in regard to the relative age effect common in drafting, Gee writes,

Interestingly, when height and weight (both commonly cited anthropometric indices used when scouting amateur hockey players) were entered into each of the previously mentioned regression models, they failed to significantly increase the amount of variance accounted for.

This strongly suggests that coaches pick the boys who are oldest in their age group, not because they are bigger or have more androgens or something like that, but because they have certain personality traits associated with athletic success. How did they get those traits if all that distinguishes them from other boys is that they happened to be born earlier? It seems to me that Harris’ theory fit these data very well: these boys became confident and assertive through their social environment of peers who couldn’t push them around. This put them on the track to athletic careers, while others who might have been of average size for their age but the youngest in their age group turned to comedy or some other way of becoming popular and getting status.

I think Harris may be on to something.

Openness to Experience – That Liberal Je Ne Sais Quoi

November 5, 2013
Forgot where he put his weed.

Looking for the anthology on existentialism, or maybe just his stash of weed.

Whatever you think of the Big Five personality model, most of its traits are easy to understand. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness are all pretty much what they sound like. Neuroticism is a little more problematic since it deals with emotional instability but only in regard to negative emotions, but it’s still easy to understand what it means – being anxious, worrisome, sometimes depressed. But then there is openness to experience. You’d think that would be equally straight-forward: being into new experiences, like travelling and experiencing other cultures, having broad interests, making new friends, maybe sexual experimentation and trying drugs as well. Not so much.

The Official Picture

Here is a list of words and phrases that psychologists feel characterizes this trait,

Intellectual, imaginative, artistic, cultured, refined, original, insightful, curious, creative, independent and divergent thinkers, appreciation of art and beauty, willingness to consider new ideas, unconventional.

And here are some test items that measure openness,

Have a rich vocabulary.

Have a vivid imagination.

Have excellent ideas.

Quick to understand things.

Use difficult words.

Spend time reflecting on things.

Am full of ideas.

Carry the conversation to a higher level.

Catch on to things quickly.

Love to think up new ways of doing things.

Love to read challenging material.

Am good at many things.

Or in reverse,

Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

Am not interested in abstract ideas.

Do not have a good imagination.

Try to avoid complex people.

Have difficulty imagining things.

Avoid difficult reading material.

Will not probe deeply into a subject.

Intelligence and Creativity

When looking at these items, it’s pretty easy to notice two separate factors, one of intelligence,

Intellectual, have a rich vocabulary, quick to understand things, spend time reflecting on things, catch on to things quickly. (Whoever makes these tests clearly has a thing for the word “thing”.)

And one of creativity,

Have vivid imagination, have excellent ideas, full of ideas, love to think up new ways of doing things.

This is not something I personally discovered just now. Already back in 1981 psychologists John Digman and Naomi Takemoto-Chock analyzed the openness factor and found two sub-factors, “one of which appeared to be concerned more with intelligence, the other with matters of culture.” Others have referred to these factors as “reflection and curiosity/experimentation/hypotheses testing.” (Couldn’t find a link to the article so if you have one please let me know.)

Not that there is anything wrong with combining two traits into one. The trait of psychopathy is a combination of impulsivity and lack of empathy. That’s a meaningful construct because while both factors are relatively harmful the combination produces a type of person that make up less than one percent of the population but 20 percent of all convicts. And many of the other prisoners are afraid of them. That effect makes it a useful construct.

Openness, however, is supposed to be a broad factor of personality, a basic building block that only breaks down into aspects of itself, so-called facets. Like the shades of a color. Although some facets of other Big Five factors are questionable, the overall picture is clear – they are really aspects of the same thing, not combinations of essentially different traits. The same goes for broad factors of other models, like those of Eysenck, Cloninger or the MBTI, based on Jung’s theory.  So you might say such a factor is a contradiction in terms – it’s not broad or basic, it’s narrow and specific.

The Correlates – In Search of the Je Ne Sais Quois Factor

Unless of course you think of intelligence and creativity as two aspects of some underlying factor that is for some reason called openness to experience. But what would that factor be? We all know what conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion boil down to, but what is the core of openness to experience? It’s clearly not being literally open to experience because sensation seekers and the similar novelty seekers are very open to various experiences and measures of those only correlate modestly with openness. Perhaps the behavioral correlates of openness can give us a hint. Unsurprisingly, it correlates to measures of intelligence and creativity but that’s to be expected since it measures exactly those traits in the tests. Is there some other correlates that suggests an underlying factor behind both of these?

Liberal values. A liberal attitude has consistently been linked to openness (as has conscientiousness to conservatism). There is some research to suggest that liberalism is linked to intelligence, although this study is of moderate quality. And artists, generally thought to be a liberal group, do score about half a standard deviation higher than non-artist according to a big meta-study made by psychologist Gregory Feist. So this correlate clearly supports the idea of a two-factor trait rather than an underlying factor of openness.

Entrepreneurship. Openness appears to be a part of the entrepreneurial personality (along with high extraversion and conscientiousness and low agreeableness and neuroticism). But this is almost by definition a matter of creativity and most likely to some degree intelligence, so again nothing lurking beneath these two factors.

Migration. People high on openness tend to move around more, both within and between countries. Could be something beyond intelligence and creativity. I don’t see it, but let me know if you do.

Extramarital Affairs. This has not been properly established. There is a huge global study on this that found no link between openness and infidelity. (Instead it found this to be a matter of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.)

Trying new foods. This sounds like creativity maybe in conjunction with a liberal appreciation of other cultures.  And of course a bit of sensation seeking since as I mentioned before this trait has a modest correlation to openness.

Tattoos and piercing. I haven’t found any evidence that this relates to intelligence or even creativity. On the other hand, what underlying factor of openness would it be an indication of?

The Mystic Component

Dreams. People who score high on openness remember their dreams and often use their dreams to solve problems. This may be something that isn’t just a matter of intelligence or creativity or a combination of both. I have yet to see any research to confirm it but it’s a possibility perhaps suggesting that openness is some form of transcendent quality.

Spirituality. This somewhat vague dimension of religiousness, often defined more as a quest than a belief, has been found to correlate with openness.

Schizotypy. This trait, which is basically schizophrenia light, is also linked to openness.

This certainly looks like a candidate for an underlying factor but it’s most likely not. In a large high quality study of religion and intelligence, psychologist Gary Lewis found a correlation between spirituality and IQ of -0.05, which he generously refers to as support of the stronger inversed relation found by Kanazawa and others, but in reality it indicates that there is no relation between the two whatsoever. Other research has shown schizotypy to be linked to creativity so it would seem this mystic component belongs in that sub-factor.

Susan Sarandon - the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, a bit a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

Susan Sarandon – the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, like a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

In Any Way Useful?

But even if openness fails miserably, in my opinion, as a broad factor of personality it could still be useful. The two-factor trait of psychopathy has relevance in many situations, indeed, no one would find it irrelevant to know if the person in front of them is a psychopath or not.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with openness. The correlates I’ve mentioned above represent a large portion of what we know about this trait. And they don’t suggest any real need for this trait at all. They can all be reduced to either intelligence or creativity or a unsynergistic combination of the two. With the possible exception of something like migration and tattoos and piercing. Compare this with just a few correlates of conscientiousness like divorce rate, overweight and health, school and work performance and leadership. It’s just very hard to understand what use psychology (or anyone) can have of the trait openness to experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

And yet, if we combine all the features and correlates into a portrait we might find a clue to have this trait has become so prominent in personality psychology. The open person is of high intelligence and presumably also creative. He (or she) is a liberal with interests that lean more towards the humanities and soft science than hard science. He is not an atheist but also not part of traditional religion – a searcher rather than a dogmatic person. To me, this sounds a bit like a well-educated hippie, a White Californian, like for instance the always interesting blogger Santi Tafarella. But more than anything else, it sounds like a psychologist.



Am I Missing Something or Is Malcolm Gladwell a Fraud?

October 24, 2013
Another Jonah Lehrer?

Another Jonah Lehrer?

In an interview at Tuesday, writer Malcolm Gladwell is on The Daily Show plugging his new book David and Goliath. It deals with the notion of “desirable difficulties”, how you can overcome seemingly debilitating conditions and turn them into assets. One such condition, supposedly, is dyslexia, a disorder characterized by difficulties in basic language skills, like reading and writing.  So how is that desirable?

Gladwell mentions the phenomenon of successful and dyslectic entrepreneurs saying, “they didn’t succeed despite of their dyslexia, but because of it” and that their childhood problems with this condition “forced them to learn all kinds of strategies that ended up being more important.” More generally, he remarks that when asked about the reasons for their success they often speak of all sorts of problems as a source of their success. He seems blissfully unaware of the idea that this may be how people enjoy thinking about themselves – as the guy who beat the odds with his guts and determination. I’ve at least never heard anyone attribute their success to having a rich and powerful dad. And yet isn’t that how George W Bush became president, a man who many believe have dyslexia or some similar condition?

Or maybe Gladwell is well aware that this type of success stories sell, especially if they’re made to look as if they also tell the reader something new and interesting about human nature. Am I being cynical here? Let’s look at the evidence.

The only real, non-anecdotal evidence Gladwell presents is that a disproportionate number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. This claim seems to be based on a study by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London. In it Logan says,

This research set out to find an explanation for the high proportion of dyslexics among successful entrepreneurs…

This is a sneaky way of putting it because the word “high” suggests that it would be disproportionate, as Gladwell claims. But the study found no such thing. In fact, it didn’t even attempt to, since it has a sample size of ten (10) individuals who were selected because they are dyslectic and successful entrepreneurs! It’s interesting to note in the clip from The Daily Show when Gladwell mentions four such dyslectic entrepreneurs and and the host Jon Stewart jokingly wonders if they are only four and Gladwell laughs and says, “there is significantly more.” This way it appears as if he had a few dozen, but from what I’ve gathered there are only the ten from Logan’s study. Are an additional six really significantly more?

Anyway, where did Gladwell come up with this idea that dyslectics are overrepresented among prominent entrepreneurs? I haven’t read the book but in the Barnes & Noble Book Blog review, Amy Wilkinson states that it contains the claim that some 30 percent of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. But Logan’s study doesn’t state this anywhere. However, in her review of her own previous research she mentions that she found that 35 percent of all American entrepreneurs – successful or otherwise – have dyslexia. So it seems that when Logan cautiously stretched the truth with her “high proportion”, Gladwell took this one step further and fabricated the idea of a disproportionate amount of dyslectics in this group.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to be sure, but this looks very suspicious.

Update: I’ve now read the parts of the book that concern dyslexia. His claim is found in the quote,

An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades.

And as I said above, Logan only claims that roughly a third of all American entrepreneurs are dyslectic. She pushes the same idea as Gladwell, that they are successful but all she can provide is self-rated competence and the rate at which the dyslectics grow their businesses – neither of which is evidence of actual success.

On The Daily Show he makes the same claim,

If you look at groups of very successful entrepreneurs or professionals you will find a much greater than expected number of dyslectics among their ranks.

Now he examplifies with people like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab etc giving the impression that dyslectics are disproportionate among the entrepreneurial stars.  But the research he is basing his claim on is still made on a sample of  all dyslectic entrepreneurs. It’s not a subset as Gladwell implies. And their success has not been established. This is just a simple case of having an idea, looking for the evidence, not finding it – and then making it up.

Book Review: Why Evolution Is True (2009) by Jerry Coyne

October 18, 2013


I read this book just to get an introduction before going to the heavier stuff. Not that I’m completely ignorant on the subject but I often find that going back to the basics is the best way to re-kindle and interest and as a launch pad for the heavier literature. The obvious choice for a non-expert would probably be Richard Dawkins, but I find his style a bit pompous; he sounds too much like the character Buzz Killington in Family Guy. So I settled for biologist and evolutionist zealot Jerry Coyne instead. He has a clear and simple albeit impersonal style like so many writers in Academia. Unlike many other biologists, he focuses on the theory and doesn’t get bogged down in a myriad of empirical facts, something that has always turned me away from reading books on biology; maybe it’s an aspergery trait of biologists, I don’t know.


He starts off with a presentation of the basic concepts of the theory, like natural selection, how gene variants in a population will become more or less frequent depending on whether they will promote survival and reproduction in a species. Then there is the less natural selection that is due to the fact that most species reproduce by sex rather than by cloning themselves. This means that we only pass on some gene variants to our offspring. Gene variants that aren’t good or bad can then become more or less common in a species just by random recombination, so-called genetic drift. It could also happen when a species dwindles to a very few individuals (called a bottleneck). If these individuals all happen to have pointy ears and this trait is neutral, then pointy ears it is. This random effect is not a big factor but it does happen.


The other big thing is speciation: how every species ends either in extinction or by splitting into two new species. This means that the ancestral tree of all species is binary, and full of dead ends as most species become extinct without leaving any descendants. Speciation usually happens as populations of the same species are separated in different environments. A new environment will make new traits more adaptive, that is leading to survival and reproduction. And so the gene variants that cause these traits will become more common. This means that the populations become genetically less related. At some point they can’t interbreed anymore and the species has split. Unless Homo sapiens becomes extinct, we too will split eventually. I bet that will be awkward…


The evidence for evolution can be found in many places. In spite of modern DNA technique, fossils remain an important clue to how life has evolved. We can date fossil by looking at what layer of rock it is located in, or by radioactive material that breaks down at a certain pace after the rock formed. Another dating method is based on the fact that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down so that days are getting longer and years are getting shorter – 380 million years ago, a year had 396 days and a day had 22 hours. Some organisms have growth markers for both day and year that are preserved in their fossil and can be dated this way.

What the fossil records tell us is that life has evolved, become more advanced and better adapted to various environments. When we go backwards in time we can find how tetrapods evolved into reptiles that evolved into birds and mammals. And all the fossils can be dated to the time period when they are supposed to be if evolution took place. That’s pretty hard evidence.

In a way art is like fossil - something alive in the mind of the artist that has been petrified and frozen in time. Art by Jenny Edlund. For more of her work just click the image.

In a way art is like fossil – something alive in the mind of the artist that has been petrified and frozen in time. Art by Jenny Edlund. For more of her work just click the image.

We can also find evidence in the form of vestiges, like the wings of ostriches. Both DNA and fossil records show that they descended (hehe) from flying birds. So at some point flying was not beneficial anymore and they started to evolve new traits. But wings can’t just disappear from one generation to the next, so in the case of the ostrich they represent a transition between the flying wing and whatever trait they will evolve into in the flightless existence. Why did it happen? One clue is that they are common on remote islands with few reptiles and mammals that could prey on them.

Or we have the hind legs of whales, small bones no longer connected to the rest of the skeleton, encapsulated in their bodies. They make no sense at all unless whales descend from land-living animals. Same goes for dolphins that have inactive olfactory receptors. Or our own genes for tails, also inactivated in most of us. And so on. Overall, Coyne presents this evidence well and makes a good case.

The Mystery of Sexual Selection

But when it comes to sexual selection, in which choice of mate decides the reproductive success of the individual, he fails to deliver a clear and reasonable explanation. Even Darwin had problems with this phenomenon. This type of selection is partly about male competition, the strongest walrus will knock out his competitors and mate with the females. That’s easy to understand because strength and endurance required to win these battles are heritable qualities that will then be passed on to the next generation. But in some cases, like peacocks, the males just show off gaudy traits like bright colors and large tail feathers and such. And for some reason the gaudiest win.

It seems that females (and in some species males) will choose whatever is novel and intense. You can glue some random blingy stuff on males and they will be transformed into desirable alphas. This makes less sense because unlike an alpha walrus who was selected for traits that enable him to search for food or fight off other animals, the gaudy traits are useless, even harmful as they reduce the animals mobility and attract predators. Or are they?

This, apparently, is what a real male looks like.

This, apparently, is what a real male looks like.

Coyne explains this as having to do with the fact that the sexes have different numbers and sizes of their gametes (eggs and sperm). But why did sexual reproduction become so common in the first place? The author says this is unclear. And why two sexes rather than three or five? And why the asymmetry of the gametes? Coyne says these are “messy” issues and just states these things as facts the reader will simply have to accept. I guess that saved him a lot of hard work, but it does nothing for the reader. But since the number of sexes and the asymmetry of gametes are facts, let’s move on and see if Coyne can explain sexual selection – and especially the weird gaudy traits that even Darwin was worried about.

Since the number of gametes is higher for males it means they can sire more offspring. The author exemplifies with the male record holder, a Moroccan emperor during the 1700s who had around 1000 children as opposed the female record holder, a Russian women (also living in the 1700s), who had 69 children. However, he fails to mention that women have hundreds of thousands of eggs so that doesn’t appear to be the limiting factor. It seems to me that the length of the pregnancy would be a more obvious reason why women can’t have a thousand children. He does mention that females have a larger investment in this way too but how does it relate to gametes?

But again, it is a fact that females are usually more invested and this means they have to be more picky regarding who they will mate with. But how do we go from that to the preference for gaudy traits? This is how Coyne explains it,

Males must compete to fertilize a limited number of eggs. That’s why we see the “law of battle”: the direct competition between males to leave their genes to the next generation. And that is also why males are colorful, or have displays, mating calls, bowers, and the like, for that is their way of saying “Pick me, pick me!” And it is ultimately female preference that drives the evolution of longer tails, more vigorous displays, and louder songs in males.

I can’t see how this explains the gaudy traits though. A female would always be better off with a male who does battle and wins over other males since this would be an indication of gene variants conferring strength and stamina. The bright colors and long tail feathers on the other hand impair the individual so that even if it’s somehow a proxy for health this would be largely cancelled by this impairment. The choice between a healthy male who is strong and mobile and a healthy male who is strong but attracts predators and has less mobility should be easy. Coyne mentions the American house finch as an example, how brightly colored males bring more food to their offspring, and how this might be an indication of health and it certainly gives females a direct advantage since lots of food increases the survival rate of the offspring. But this still doesn’t explain why she wouldn’t prefer a male that gets her lots of food without bringing predators in his wake. And do peacocks with large tail feathers that impair mobility bring more food too?

Coyne just fails miserably to explain this. And it’s even more disconcerting that there is so little evidence that gaudy males really produce more viable offspring – two studies to date. One of these is on frogs in which the males with the loudest call gets the females. But this is more of a physical display of strength than genuine gaudiness. This leaves us with one single study of peacocks in a semi-natural environment in Britain as the entire body of evidence. And then there is a number of studies that found no such effect; Coyne doesn’t say how many. But he does admit,

This belief, in the face of relatively sparse evidence, may partly reflect a preference of evolutionists for strict Darwinian explanations—a belief that females must somehow be able to discriminate among the genes of males.

This seems problematic, to say the least. Belief?

Debating Creationists

But even more problematic is the criticism of creationism that permeates this book. Obviously any creationist who accepts scientific method as the only way of understanding reality would have to concede that Darwin beats the Bible. But creationists are into metaphysics, they work under the assumption that there is an almighty creator – who created our ability to use scientific method in the first place. If this creator exists – and there is no way we can know – then all bets are off. Disproving God with science just isn’t science.

He also addresses the concern of evangelical author Nancy Pearcey and others who feel that the theory of evolution will undermine moral and cause social decay,

But Pearcey’s notion that these lessons of evolution will inevitably spill over into the study of ethics, history, and “family life” is unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can’t.

He also mentions congressman Tom Delay’s idea that the Columbine massacre was inspired by the theory of evolution, implying that this is nonsense. But he fails to mention the fact that one of the perpetrators, Eric Harris, entertained fantasies of superiority and of killing retarded people. At the day of the massacre he wore a t-shirt with the text “natural selection.” And Finnish school shooter Pekka-Eric Auvinen called himself a social Darwinist and who declared that, “I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.”

Self-proclaimed social darwinist Pekka-Eric Auvinen.

Mass murderer and self-proclaimed social darwinist Pekka-Eric Auvinen.

Still Coyne claims that evolution doesn’t tell us to behave like these guys and that most human behavior isn’t even dictated by evolution. That may or may not be true, but that’s not the issue – it’s about how human behavior may be influenced by the theory per se, a cultural influence. Maybe some people will become inspired to acts of violence by the idea of natural selection.

And perhaps the author himself can’t handle the theory of evolution. When discussing “the sticky question of race” he admits that race is not a social construct since it is defined as differences on certain traits between populations of the same species. But he insists that the differences between races don’t amount to much since we left Africa so recently,

At the genetic level, then, human beings are a remarkably similar lot. That is just what we would expect if modern humans left Africa a mere 60,000 or 100,000 years ago.

And while he acknowledges that different groups have different intelligence and behavorial traits, he says we can’t know if this is due to evolution or not because we can’t conduct the research for ethical reasons,

Such studies require controlled experiments: removing infants of different ethnicity from their parents and bringing them up in identical (or randomized) environments. What behavioral differences remain would be genetic. Because these experiments are unethical, they haven’t been done systematically, but cross-cultural adoptions anecdotally show that cultural influences on behavior are strong.

So we have all these creative ways of dating fossil but when we come to a politically sensitive issue there is one and only one way to find evidence – and that’s forbidden for ethical reasons, so we shall never know. Personally, I think that if you can believe this nothing-to-see-move-along-folks trick then maybe belief is your forte, in which case you may prefer the Bible to this book.

Still, for some odd reason the author implies that anectdotal evidence of cross-cultural adoptions could give us a hint,

As the psychologist Steven Pinker noted, “If you adopt children from a technologically undeveloped part of the world, they will fit in to modern society just fine.” That suggests, at least, that races don’t show big innate differences in behavior.

If that’s the case then let me provide such an anecdote. A few months ago I visited a library and was using one of its computers. A White woman walks by and for some reason drops her 6-7 year old daughter next to me and walks a way to do whatever she came for. Bad parenting, right?  Normally, I would have objected to this because I know what Swedish kids are like when unsupervised. But this was a child of clearly East Asian origin. So I relax and go on working on the computer knowing – or prejudicially assuming – that I most likely will not be disturbed by her. Sure enough, she remains quiet and stationary for over an hour until her mom picks her up.

Was I prejudiced in believing in this outcome? Are East Asian adoptive children every bit as loud and rowdy as Western children? It’s almost a rhetorical question. I suspect most people share my experience that there are indeed big innate differences between Whites and East Asians. Note that this doesn’t contradict what Pinker said. That girl fitted in just fine – but her behavior was still very different from ethnically Swedish children.

Creationists Are to PC Liberals as PC Liberals Are to HBD

So it seems like Coyne and his ilk are much more similar to creationists than they care to admit. Coyne views Pearcey’s fear of evolution and its social ramifications as “alarmist” but when it comes to divergent selection for behavioural traits in humans – when his own values are at stake – he becomes defensive and says it would be unethical to find out. And that, in my view, makes him a failed scientist.

But what about Coyne’s and Pearcey’s concerns? It’s possible that spree killers are inspired by Darwin as creationists fear, and it’s equally possible that racists are inspired by research on biological differences between human races as Coyne fears. I honestly don’t know. But should we ban scientific research on sensitive issues for this reason? And if so, do we abandon research exclusively on race or do we abandon the theory of evolution altogether?  Whatever your answer is, don’t do like Coyne: pretend like you’re a scientist and the bail on it when you get cold feet.

That said, this book is pretty good introduction to some of the basics concepts of evolution, and it certainly provides insights into how politics intermingles with science in the academic community. And it’s an easy read.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt

July 24, 2013



There is a lot to be said about this book; too much for a single review, but let me just start by saying it’s been a long while since I read something this interesting. It may not be up there with Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption but it’s not far off. So yes, it really is a big deal, and as another reviewer pointed out, the ideas presented in it are nothing short of a revolution in moral psychology.

The Old Guard

Back in the 1900s, the dominant idea on morality was that it was a product of logical reasoning, a school of thought, represented by psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Haidt, this theory became dominant because it accorded well with the values of the secular liberals who, now as then, were equally dominant at the Universities. We learn about right and wrong , they claimed, through rational thought. And if we are allowed to do so without the meddling of religion, tradition or other illegitimate authorities, we become modern and rational citizens, eager to build a shiny new tomorrow.

And by predefining morals as based on concepts like justice and harm rather than authority or tradition the Kohlberg and the other rationalists – without realizing it, according to Haidt – created the results that suited the zeitgeist. Caring and demanding justice for the oppressed now seemed to be scientifically proven as the morally right thing to be doing. This way of thinking prevailed up until the 1990s when behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology was beginning to undermine the progressive hijack of science.

Haidt’s Revolution

As a student in the 1980s, Haidt had doubts regarding the contemporary view on morality in psychology. He says he remembers quarrelling with his sister as a kid and how the feeling of being right was instant and emotional.  The logical reasoning came afterwards, when he tried to explain why he was right, but he kept his skepticism to himself. When studying cultural psychology taught by anthropologists, he found that among some people, you could kill a complete stranger for no good reason and the deed would increase your status. And in some cultures it was immoral to eat certain foods.

It seemed that moral psychologists only had one piece of the puzzle. This revelation and following research, including a visit to India, eventually resulted in Haidt presenting his six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation.  According to his theory, all these foundations are to some extent used by most people in forming moral judgments, although they vary by things like culture and ideology and individually as well.

Two Tribes: the WEIRD and the Old-Fashioned

In researching the foundations, he found that two patterns emerged. Westerners, liberals, adults, educated, upper class people had a tendency to rely mainly on Care/harm and to a lesser degree on Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.  Non-westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated, lower class people on the other hand relied more evenly on all foundations. The first category of people is similar to what anthropologists refer to as WEIRD – Western, Educated, Rich, Democratic. He found this pattern by confronting people  with so-called harmless taboo stories like these,

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

WEIRD people, relying heavily on Care/harm, were the least likely to say that these behaviors were wrong. They were often disturbed by the actions described, but argued that as long as no one was harmed it was their choice. Although later Haidt hints at the fact that even WEIRD people probably make moral judgments on other foundations even though they may not be keen to admit it. As an example he mentions the piece of art known as Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in urine, and wonders if a “Piss Martin Luther King” would be equally acceptable to the WEIRD. For some reason they are unwilling to admit that they rely on other foundations. Holding something sacred, relying on the Sanctity foundation, may feel awkward to a modern and rational person.

Visceral, Not Cerebral

And like his quarrels with his sister, he found that moral judgments in general are immediate and emotional, rather than cerebral and deliberate. To prove this he made some clever studies in which he gave participants tasks involving making moral judgments. He then introduced time limits and distractions – factors that lower the quality on cognitive tasks. The quality remained intact – people tend to know what’s right and wrong instantly. Haidt concluded that moral judgments are more like intuitions or gut feelings than rational thought, which only comes after the fact when people justify their judgments.

So Where Do Morals Come From?

But if we can’t reason our way to what’s right and wrong, then how do we do it? Part of it is in our DNA – moral foundations correlate with personality traits (you might actually think of them as personality traits) that are known to have a high heritability. The other part is social; people usually conform to the morals in their culture, and they usually change their mind on moral issues as a result of social influence rather than by private contemplation. This is for instance seen in the fact known to advertisers – repeated exposure makes for a positive judgment. And friendliness tends to be a better way of persuading people than reasoning. It all point to morals as something we acquire to fit in and get along. This is also found in politics where people often vote with their groups and against their self-interest.

Haidt claims that morals originated with shared intentionality. We developed this ability to hold a common idea and act on it. One man holds down the branch and the others pick the fruit. Chimps can’t do things like that. This common understanding was the seed, it meant that there was a right way of doing things and that letting go of the branch before the others had picked any fruit was a crappy thing to do. So as our ability for shared intentionality evolved so did our ability to cooperate. Which made the righteous person a team player.

Our Hivish/Clannish Nature

How far did the moral/cooperation trend take us? Haidt points out that colonial insects have outcompeted nearly all solitaries and that humans by excellence in cooperation have achieved a similar dominance. He speculates that group selection can have created individuals who can set their self-interest aside, at least under certain circumstance, and like colonial insects view the hive as the main priority. War would be one such circumstance, but Haidt also mentions rituals, like dances, marching and such ceremonies as a way to connect to our hivish nature.

Exactly how hivish we are remains to be seen. Colonial insects are clones so their evolutionary self-interest coincides with their group. Clearly Haidt could have benefitted from Human Biodiversity, especially the findings of hbd chick* that show how the most closely related also are the most hivish/clannish. Since humanity has lived in small isolated groups inbreeding must have created a selection for kin altruism. Since this way of living ended fairly recently, we could still have this hivish /clannish/tribal nature, even without any type of group selection.

Religion – It’s Not What You Believe, It’s Who You Believe It With

WEIRD people have a tendency to be skeptical of religion. They look at the various beliefs in supernatural agents and conclude that it’s an unhealthy thing, similar to a disease of the brain. The general idea behind this view is that if you believe in crazy things, you will eventually do crazy things and cause harm to others. But according to Haidt, religion is not about the beliefs per se, but about creating group cohesion with the foundation of Sanctity. And it can do so effectively even between people who are unrelated.

As an example, he mentions the research on communes in America done by anthropologist Robert Sosis. Communes are intentional communities built either on secular or religious ideas. Sosis looked 200 communes in America and found that after 20 years that only 6 percent of secular communes where still alive while 39 percent of the religious communes were still active. He also found that an important key to survival was sacrifice – the more people gave up for the commune the longer it lived. But this only held for religious communes. It seems, Haidt argues, that Sanctity, is needed for a sacrifice to make sense. Only if you hold something sacred will you truly make a sacrifice, otherwise it’s just a transaction. And if you hold something sacred and share it with a group of like-minded people you are more likely to stick together than if you are a secular who is always wondering if the commune is a good deal for you or not.

In line with these findings, Haidt mentions other research in economics that point to the cohesive power of religion. One example from German researchers is in the form of a game in which a so-called truster is given an amount of money in each round that he may share in part or fully with another participant, called the trustee. Any money transferred is then tripled by the experimenter and the trustee can then choose to return any or all of the money back to the truster. It turns out that when the truster is informed (truthfully) that the trustee is religious, he will transfer more of his money to him than if he is nonreligious. And, equally important, the religious trustee will in fact give back more money than a nonreligious trustee would.

This game is played out in real life too, for instance among Orthodox Jewish diamond merchants, a trade in which trust can lower the transaction costs. And it probably happens all over the world as people of the same faith do business on a hand shake rather than with lots of costly paper work.

As seen in this experiment religious cohesion even reaches out to outgroups. Haidt quotes political scientist Robert Putnam whose findings suggest that religious people make good citizens,

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.

Putnam’s findings indicate that while religious people are more generous to their own, they are as generous as nonreligious towards outgroups. An atheist may argue that the religious vote for lower taxes and that evens the score, but time spent in community life is not something you can get back that way.

The Culture War

 The liberal/WEIRD/atheist dismissal of religion is according to Haidt a part of the ongoing culture war between people using different moral foundations. I think he fails to explain why this war has escalated in recent years, especially in America, but there is no doubt that this trend is real and not just a media dramatization. In 1976, 27 percent of all Americans lived in landslide counties which Democrats or Republicans won by 20 percent or more – today 48 percent live in landslide counties,

Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).

Haidt goes on to discuss how the two tribes, often simply referred to as liberals and conservatives, simply don’t speak the same language, but that they both need to understand the seriousness of the situation. They need to understand the morality of their opponents in order to to have a meaningful discussion. And they can probably learn something from each other.

He also points out that there is a trade-off between these cultures. A small isolated and homogeneous society (like Nebraska) is probably not going to be as exciting as a diverse and urban place like California. This is probably true although it doesn’t explain the growing animosity between states like these. If differences in moral foundations are the cause of the conflict it should have been as fierce 30 years ago as it is today.

At any rate, Haidt’s theory offers an interesting new perspective on human nature. Hopefully, the moral foundation can become a language or a tool with which these two tribes can learn to “disagree more constructively”. Here are some points that I think any liberal or conservative should consider after having read this book,


You need to understand that the institutions you hold dear need reform in order to maintain their inherent values. A deeply religious gay couple will honor the institution of marriage better than a drunk straight couple who got married in Vegas for fun. And when you say, “I love you, but you’re going to hell” only the last part of the sentence rings true. You need to understand that without regulation, large international corporations will suck your country dry and then casually move on – strong government and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Also, since you watch a TV show like Modern Family, you clearly like some of what liberal “Hollyweird” has to offer.


You need to understand that religion is a force of cohesion in a country that is already very splintered in many ways. You need to understand that while Piss Christ should be protected by free speech, it is not good citizenship to offend people just to get a little attention. You need to understand that diversity is the opposite of cohesion – it comes with a price. Maybe you think it’s worth it, fair enough, but don’t pretend like it’s for free. And don’t try to squeeze tax money from conservatives to “spread the wealth”. They will only get more reluctant to pay taxes. Remember that conservatives are generous; if helping out is your first priority, you will find a way to work with them.

So be nice. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Michell Malkin. Notice the way she says “shush” to her opponent and gets wild-eyed four minutes in. Although she is good looking, it’s not a pretty sight,

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