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.


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.

The IQ Breaking Point – How Civilized Society is Maintained or Lost

September 24, 2013
West Virgina at IQ 96. Life just below the breaking point.

West Virgina at IQ 96. Life just below the breaking point.

It’s a well-known fact that intelligence corresponds to various kinds of life outcomes at the individual level, such as income, education, drug abuse, criminality etc. A little less known is the fact that national average IQs correspond to similar outcomes on the national level. This has been shown by among others psychologists Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen, who have found staggering correlations between national IQ and things like health, education, income, crime, corruption, democracy.  To give you a rough idea, here are some of the findings,

Educational measures like TIMSS and PISA correlate 0.79-0.92

Number of scientists and engineers correlate 0.61

Measures of  per capita national income (GDP, GNP, GNI) correlate 0.51-0.89

Poverty and unemployment: -0.63 and -0.76 respectively

Crime in the form of homicide, assault and rape: -0.21 to -0.82 with distinctly higher correlations for the more accurate measure of homicide

Corruption: -0.27 to -0.68, all but one study above -0.54

Democracy: 20 of 22 measures show correlations around 0.60

Life expectancy: 0.51-0.82, expect for one study that found a negative correlation (possibly a typo)

Anyway, you get the picture. All the basic requirements for modern civilization – democracy, education, wealth, health and (lack of) crime and corruption – are strongly related to national IQs.

IQ 97: The Breaking Point

Seeing these correlations, it’s easy to assume that national IQ averages would correspond to specific degrees of development – that South Korea with an IQ of 107 would be much more civilized than Australia at 98, which in turn would be fairly similar to Russia or some other country at 97. But looking at the stats this is far from the case. Instead it seems like there is a point, somewhere around 97, above which a modern civilization can be maintained and below which things abruptly begin to fall apart. To illustrate this I’ll review some of the correlations mentioned above.

GDP (PPP) Per Capita

You can’t have civilization without money. It pays for education, healthcare, police etc. If we use the national IQs from, who appear to have the updated version of Lynn and Vanhanen’s data set (correct me if I’m wrong), and compare them with the GDP/PPP that takes local purchase power into account, we find clear support for the idea of a breaking point at 97 or thereabout. If we exclude oil nations, the top 20 with populations over one million, according to Wikipedia/IMF are,

Singapore, Hong Kong, USA, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Austria, Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Taiwan, Belgium, Denmark, UK, Finland, Japan, France, Israel and South Korea.

In these top 20, there are nine nations in the 98-99 range, but only two countries below 98 – Israel and Ireland. Both can be partly explained by the fact that they receive plenty of financial aid from USA and the EU respectively. And it’s unlikely that Ireland will stay in the top 20 given its huge public debt and very high unemployment.

And if we look at more “normal” countries with IQs below 98, those without oil or rich friends, we find Slovenia with an IQ of 96 at 24th place, then Cyprus with an IQ of 91 at 26th, and Greece with an IQ of 92 at 27th. And Greece may well have lost this spot as I write this. So at 98 there are plenty of wealthy countries, but at 97 it suddenly seems to evaporate. And this isn’t just about money; if we turn to corruption we find a very similar picture.


According to the Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI), the top 20 countries (again with a population of over one million) most free of corruption are,

Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Hong Kong, Belgium, Japan, UK, US, Chile, Uruguay, France, Austria and Ireland.

Strictly speaking this is 21 nations since Austria and Ireland share the 20th spot and it seemed a bit random to exclude the one or the other. Anyway, we find 10 countries in the 98-99 range – including the top 4 and 6 in the top 10. The only three countries below 98 are Ireland (see above), Chile with an IQ of 90 and Uruguay with an IQ of 96. Again we see how everything is fine at 98, but at 97 and below things go south.


Turning to crime, so to speak, we find the top 20 countries with the lowest homicide rates (and more than one million inhabitants) according to Wikipedia/UNODC are,

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Bahrain, Norway, Austria, Oman, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Germany, Qatar, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, China, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Australia.

This clearly breaks the pattern since we have five nations in the 98-99 range and just as many low-IQ nations, all from the Arab world. However, if we are looking for a point at which modern civilization begins to crumble, then we shouldn’t look at dictatorships at all. They can keep the murder rate low with social control and oppression, but at in doing so they disqualify themselves as candidates for civilized societies. So if we limit our sample to at least somewhat civilized countries we get a different picture. This is of course a rather subjective method but I think we can all agree that the countries above can’t be a part of it. I have included Hong Kong but excluded China so that’s where I draw the admittedly somewhat arbitrary line. The top 20 at least moderately civilized countries with the lowest homicide rates then become,

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Poland, France, Netherlands, Ireland, UK, Portugal and Serbia (IQ 89).

Again, this became 21 countries because the two last share the 20th place. We find nine nations in the range 98-99 and four countries below that. The anomaly here is Slovenia at 6th place, a country that was also a mild anomaly with 24th on the GDP per capita list. But overall, this confirms the previous findings in that there are plenty nations in the 98-99 range but at 97 or less they are few and nowhere near the top of the list.

Indeed looking at where the sub-98 countries are on these lists we find that they made places 9 and 18 on the GDP list; 17, 18 and 20 on the corruption list and 6, 18, 20, 20 on the homicide list. So they are not only few but mainly at the bottom.


Finally, let’s have a look at the Economist Democracy Index for 2012. The top 20 nations with more than a million people are as follows,

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Germany, UK, Czech Republic, Uruguay, Mauritius, South Korea, USA, Costa Rica and Japan.

As you might expect by now, around half of these, nine, are in the 98-99 range whereas only four are below that. Again, Ireland is breaking the pattern, as are Uruguay, Mauritius and Costa Rica with IQs of 90 and 89 respectively. We also find that four of the top five have 98 IQs whereas those below this level are at 11, 15, 16 and 19.

An Index of Civilization

So what happens if we add these measures up? I did this by scoring point in reversed rank order starting from 100 for each measure to create an civilization index. A statistician can probably come up with something better, but it will give a rough idea of the overall picture. The chart below shows the result,


As expected, there is a general pattern of higher degrees of civilization as intelligence increases. But the most civilized countries are all in a cluster with IQs between 98 and 101. Below 98 the level drops dramatically as can be seen by the lack of dots in the upper left part of the chart. The only distinct anomaly left is Ireland which scores 360 points for the 12th spot and, less striking, Slovenia at 20th with 335. Or, given what I’ve mentioned about the Irish economy, it may be Slovenia that is the more genuine anomaly here – clearly not as horrible as it’s portrayed in the Hostel movies. At any rate, combining these factors eliminates anomalies and further strengthens the support for an idea of a breaking point at approximately 97.


I haven’t found any official statistics for state-level IQs in America. There are however some estimates made by the Audacious Epigone, based on the NAEP scores, and educational measures are strongly correlated with IQs. He has also set the American average at 98 which matches the figures I’ve used above. If we exclude District of Columbia, which is common in these cases since it’s full of government money and temporary inhabitants, the top 20 GDP per capita (I haven’t found any PPP numbers), are as follows,

Delaware, Alaska, Connecticut, Wyoming, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Hawaii, Iowa, North Dakota and Louisiana.

As in all the previous calculations, we find that states in the 98-99 make up roughly half of the sample, once more dominating the top positions – 1, 2, 4, 6, 8. Below this level we find only three states, California with an IQ of 95 at 11th position and Hawaii with an IQ of 96 at 17th and Louisiana with an IQ of 96 at 20th place. There may be some explanations for these anomalies although I’m not that familiar with American politics. But it seems clear that California is in at least as much trouble as Ireland.

Conclusions and Implications

I’m not going to say that every conceivable measure on every conceivable level will show this pattern, but overall I think we have to conclude the existence of an IQ breaking point somewhere close to 97, at which we see drastically different outcomes depending on whether a country is above or below this level. A country can of course still fail above this point, like Italy and most likely North Korea. But a national IQ above 97 represent a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success.

One implication, if this turns out to be true, is that immigration could pose a serious threat to the West, especially those countries and regions that are closest to the breaking point. The sad part is that since everything is going so well at 98 they may dismiss this risk. This is especially true for those countries and states who are right at 98 and whose immigrants have the lowest IQs, for instance France or Texas. As for California that state has now clearly passed the breaking point, it will be interesting to see if they will break the pattern. I suspect they won’t, given that the few countries that do fairly well below 98 (Ireland, Slovenia, Uruguay etc) are all small and lacking in diversity, which is the opposite of California.

It’s fully possible that someone else already has noted this breaking point, but since I hadn’t heard of it before and it didn’t seem like common knowledge, I figured it was worth sharing. I have no idea why 97 would be a magic number; maybe it’s just something in the human condition. I’ll be updating this article whenever I find any relevant information on this.

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,

The Search for Western Tribalism

June 29, 2013

Readers of this blog know of my interest in tribalism, the tendency to team up in groups that distinguish themselves from and compete with other groups. This trait is both good and bad. It fosters a sense of community and identity and like I’ve said before, it’s probably the most important fabric of any society. But tribalism also comes with ideas of the superiority of the ingroup and hostility towards outgroups creating tension and conflicts within and between societies.

Reading the blogger hbd chick*, I’ve also learned about the similar behavioural trait of clannishness found in clan-based societies, mainly in the Muslim world. I’ve been treating the terms clannishness and tribalism rather synonymously although I now believe they are two related but separate things. And now I’m reading psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in which he presents his theory of moral foundations, gut feelings on which we base our moral judgments. According to Haidt, one of these foundations is Loyalty/betrayal aka Ingroup, which appears very similar to tribalism. He notes that self-identified conservatives lean more on this foundation than liberals.

So, exactly how do clannishness, tribalism and conservatism relate to one another? Well, I’m basically arguing that clannishness is a more primitive or extreme form of tribalism and that conservatism is a heterogeneous attitude that may or may not incorporate tribalism.

In the Beginning There Was Clannishness

To get a better understanding of the tribal person, especially in America, and probably most other Western countries, we need to go back to the evolutionary roots of this trait. hbd chick* has described how this behavior may have evolved  when people found themselves in situations where trusting strangers was especially risky – like if you for instance were a cattle herder and all your property could be easily stolen. This problem was solved by marrying relatives. This created clans in which everyone was tied by blood to each other. If you needed a job done you could hire a person in your clan and you didn’t have to worry about your cattle being gone the next day. Most people probably have a little of this tendency since we appear to have lived for most of our existence as a species in small groups competing with each other.  But pastoralists and people in similar situations made this their special niche.

This arrangement in clans can only work through inbreeding, and this in turn means that everyone in the clan can pass on their genes more efficiently through relatives than they could if they weren’t inbred. And since all known behavioural traits have been found to be highly inheritable, the tendency to be loyal to relatives and disloyal or hostile to non-relatives – that is to say clannishness – was selected for. This trait then helped to reinforce the tendency to inbreed and a loop was created which increased clannishness until the detrimental effects of inbreeding, low intelligence and various congenital diseases, slowed down the process.

Tribalism as Clannishness Light

Clannishness was probably a dominant feature of most societies up until just a few centuries ago. Then various changes occur that makes it less competitive.  Agriculture outcompetes pastoralism and in the West the Church bans first-cousin marriages etc. So people start outbreeding get smarter and clannishness disappears, except in the Muslim world and other cultures in which these changes never took place. But before that – for almost our entire existence as a species – genes for tribalism must have been selected for. It didn’t matter if you distinguished between relatives or not because the ingroup was always your relatives.  So when inbreeding and clannish life ended we became smarter and a little more open and tolerant since those traits become more important as we compete in new and shifting constellations. But for most of our existence tribalism has been selected for. And it doesn’t vanish when inbreeding stops, which explains why it’s such a prominent trait in today’s world.

Testing the Theory

To test this theory I have looked at state-level differences in intelligence, corruption and outgroup hostility, the last one as a more direct measure of tribalism. Now if tribalism is just clannishness without the inbreeding it should correlate to corruption but not nearly as much to low intelligence since this is mainly due to inbreeding – although tribalism means you submit and conform to the group rather than think for yourself so it should be linked to normal or slightly below normal intelligence. For the same reason there should not be a strong negative correlation between IQ and corruption as seen internationally because there is no clannishness in America. So here goes…

To measure intelligence I used the White IQ scores that the Audacious Epigone constructed based on NAEP scores for 2009. To measure public corruption I took convictions for the period 2001-2010 – this because the State Integrity Index is based on expert ratings on policies rather than actual outcomes and shows weird fluctuations. As a measure of tribalism I used outgroup hostility in the form racially charged Google searches for the words “nigger” and “niggers”, compiled by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD student in economics at Harvard. As he points out this measure may be superior to surveys where people answer in a socially desirable rather than truthful way on sensitive issues. But he also mentions research about how the size of an outgroup influences outgroup hostility. According to this research when the Black part of the population is close to zero then so is hostility; it’s just a non-issue to most people. But when it reaches 20-30 percent you’ll find the most hostility (above that most White people leave with only the most tolerant staying). So since I’m looking for a measure of innate outgroup hostility rather than explicit racism, I decided to omit states with more than 20 percent and less than one percent Black inhabitants. The lower limit may sound too low but Maine with just over one percent Black people is still at 32th spot in racial searches.

I also excluded Hawai since I couldn’t find all the stats for it. This leaves us with 37 states and still plenty of regional variation.

And here are the results…

  • Google racial searches correlated -0.41 with White IQ

A pretty weak correlation when you consider that these search words are very low-brow. This suggests that the correlation to a more accurate measure of outgroup hostility would be even lower since not all racists are stupid and not all outgroup hostility is racist.

  • Public corruption correlated 0.51 with racial Google searches

By the same logic we might argue that this fair-sized correlation could be due to Google searches link to low IQ and the well-known link between IQ and corruption. However…

  • Public corruption correlated -0.05 with White IQ

Now it’s getting interesting. International studies point to a correlation between corruption and intelligence of around -0.7 – and here we have nothing. How can this be? One possible explanation that supports my theory is that the -0.7 found globally is due to clannishness. Since this trait incorporates low IQ, mainly due to inbreeding, we get an incidental link between IQ and corruption. In reality it’s the ingroup favouritism and outgroup hostility that causes corruption. Since there is no inbreeding in America (that I know of) there is no connection between these behaviors and intelligence. But the gene variants behind them don’t go away when you outbreed so people with a clannish history will retain their groupish behavior, their tribalism. That way we would have a substantial link between tribalism and corruption and little or no connection between corruption and intelligence.

Case In Point: Appalachia

As an example of how clannish people may have transformed into tribals, let’s look at the Appalachian region. This area is where the Ulster Scots people settled, originally noted for their many clan feuds and rumoured to be inbred (although it’s hard to find any research on this). The top 3 states with highest rate of racial searches are Appalachian, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky,  and 6 in the top 10 are Appalachian states – and there are only 7 Appalachian states in this sample. In fourth spot is Michigan which was a major destination for migrants from Appalachia looking for work in Detroit after the coal mines stopped hiring. According to Wikipedia it seems like they maintained their tribalism in this metropolitan environment,

“Once they migrated to Michigan, they were lumped together as southern white laborers, and a group consciousness based on that label emerged. Migrants from all over Appalachia began to feel a social solidarity with each other, preferring to work and live beside other Southerners than with Northerners. It was believed that the Appalachian migrants assimilated less rapidly than Northern rural migrants because of their group consciousness and the persistence of certain southern regional attitudes, and an acute awareness of the difference between themselves and other native-born white Americans.”

(The other states in the top 10 – that seem to be completely unrelated to Appalachia – are New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida.)

And as expected the region has more corruption than the average – 6.7 convictions per 10K public employees compared to the overall average 4.2. That’s roughly 60 percent higher.

Also as expected Appalachians are of normal intelligence. It’s true that West Virginia has the lowest estimate of all states at 96.8 but this is similar to many well developed countries in Europe, and the Appalachian average is 99.8 compared to the overall average 100.7, a difference of less than one point. (I excluded New York, which had 102, but with only 5.7 percent of its population in this region.)

So it seems that this region that was by all accounts the most clannish in the 1700s and 1800s is today, without any reasonable chance of widespread inbreeding, instead the most tribal. And the most melodious…

And Conservatism?

Finally, I used the difference between the percent identifying as conservative and liberal in a state, the so-called conservative advantage, from Gallup as a measure of conservatism. This measure correlated 0.05 with racially charged Google searches, slightly higher, 0.17 with corruption and negatively with intelligence, -0.32. This clearly doesn’t fit the tribal profile. It may just be an average of different conservative subtypes. As Haidt’s research shows, liberals rely on two moral foundations, Harm and Fairness, whereas conservatives rely more or less equally on all foundations. This leaves room for more variation.

Summing Up

So, what do these correlations tell us? They support the theory that clannishness is the mother of tribalism. Clan-based societies amassed gene variants contributing to ingroup bias and outgroup hostility. Inbreeding caused low intelligence. As inbreeding was banned in the West the intelligence went up but the gene variants behind the general tribalism are still with us and is very clear among peoples or ethnic groups with a clannish history. Furthermore, tribalism is not a defining characteristic of conservatism since people who identify as conservative don’t fit the tribal profile very well; it could perhaps be regarded as a subtype.


Human Biodiversity – Things You Are Not Supposed to Know About

June 5, 2013

As someone interested in personality, I find the field known as Human Biodiversity (HBD) to be fascinating. For those who are unfamiliar with it, HBD is a field in which controversial issues regarding human nature are explored, debated, and above all, brought out into the open. HBD is about things ordinary scientists and journalist would prefer you didn’t know about. Plausible but suppressed facts and theories on things like how inbreeding has turned people in the Muslim world more “tribal” than others, resulting in corruption and violence and low national IQs. Or how homosexuality actually has a very low heritability and may be caused by a pathogen. Or how low intelligence may be a greater health problem than overweight, how ethnic groups may differ in behavior for genetic reasons and how this affects society. And so on.

Often discounted as amateurs, racists, sexists etc, HBDers are a mixed bunch of people who pursue these issues with little or no funds at their disposal. They are rarely prominent experts in their fields – because that would no doubt get them fired – but they have plenty of education and intelligence, and I think any honest person who listens to what they have to say will have to agree that they offer more than just shock value. Human nature includes our dark and problematic sides too. A true scientist delves into that as well, because he holds the truth above all other considerations. In that sense HBD is more science than a lot of what passes as science in Academia.

There is no official introduction to HBD as yet, but as a next best thing you can read Jayman’s 100th post  published today, which offers a well-written overview of the field.

The Connection Between Tipping and Corruption (and Tribalism)

May 17, 2013

TippingMagnus Thor Torfason, professor of Harvard Business School, and colleagues have made an interesting study on tipping and corruption, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science (for a larger image click on this link). They found that countries in which tipping is common are more corrupt than others, according to the Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI). The raw correlation is a whopping 0.6, but since other factors affect corruption these must be controlled for in order to see if there is some new unique effect linked to tipping. So they controlled for other relevant factors, namely Individualism Index, Power Distance Index, GDP per capita, income inequality, homicide rates, civil liberty restrictions, highest marginal tax rate, minimum wage and public funding of health care. When all these are taken into account there is still a unique influence linked to tipping, about half the size of GDP per capita (which btw is a rough proxy of intelligence which for some reason wasn’t included).

Two Kinds of Tipping

So what lies behind this mysterious tipping effect? Torfason’s hypothesis is that it has to do with temporal focus. It’s tipping in order to influence future behavior that he thinks is linked to corruption. Not all tipping has this temporal focus; some people will tip simply as a way of saying thanks. It’s the others, those who tip in an attempt to manipulate the person they tip, that are thinking in the same way as a corrupt person and that supposedly makes up the link between tipping and corruption.

In order to test this hypothesis Torfason & Co made secondary study comparing two countries equal in the prevalence of tipping but very different in levels of corruption – Canada and India. The participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I want to motivate this person to give me good service in the future.” Agreeing with this statement would obviously indicate a temporal focus on future events. They then filled in a bribery attitude measure form, judging actions like for instance whether it’s ok to bribe a policeman to avoid getting a traffic ticket.

The result clearly indicated that Indians were thinking about tipping with a temporal focus on future rewards to larger extent than the Canadians, and at the same time they were more accepting of corruption. The researchers also also crunched the numbers to ensure that the temporal focus did in fact mediate the link between tipping and attitude to corruption.

Further exploring this issue Torfason writes,

If cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward bribery are driven by temporal focus, it seems reasonable to assume that differences in temporal focus, at the individual level, will relate to bribery attitudes in the same way, even for citizens of the same country.”

To test this idea, a third study was conducted, this time using only American participants. Unfortunately, Torfason didn’t just measure temporal focus and attitude to corruption, instead he primed the participants by letting half read an article titled ‘‘Basic Tips on Tipping: Encouraging Good Service’’ and the other half an article titled “Basic Tips on Tipping: Rewarding Good Service.” I’m not sure why they did this. Perhaps they were afraid of getting to little variance from a rather small convenience sample, or maybe it was the political implications – after all, priming conceals the whole issue of whether this temporal focus (read manipulation) is a matter of personality or not. Since all known personality traits are highly inheritable, such a result would leave no doubt that Indians are inherently more manipulative than Canadians.

Corruption Is Caused by Something Much Worse than Low Intelligence

Still, even if Torfason doesn’t want to spell it out, it’s pretty obvious that this is at least in part a matter of personality. Because tipping someone in the hope that they in the future will behave in a certain manner that benefits you is by definition a form of manipulation. And manipulative behavior is an aspect of Machiavellism, a well-documented personality trait characterized by manipulative and exploitive interpersonal behavior.

Although more research is needed, this certainly adds a piece to the puzzle of personality and corruption that I’ve been discussing in a previous post. In that post I found modest correlations between nation-level corruption and Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism. These correlations suggests that the corrupt person is not just someone with low intelligence who fails to understand the long-term gains of avoiding corruption, a theory proposed by German economist Niklas Potrafke. Torfason adds further evidence linking corruption to Psychoticism, or one of its aspects, Machiavellism, a trait that along with Psychopathy and Narcissism make up the so-called Dark Triad of traits often found in criminals. Far from Potrafkes image of the corrupt person as a pretty harmless person who doesn’t quite understand what he’s doing, Torfason’s research suggests a much more sinister and calculating person.

Torfason’s  – unwanted? – discovery is for that reason more in line with hbd* chick’s theory of how high corruption levels are linked to clan-based societies. In these societies evolution has favored those with gene variants for familial altruism, creating an overly friendly attitude to relatives and an equally hostile attitude towards outsiders. This hostility, Torfason’s study suggests, goes beyond being wary of strangers or putting your own children before others. It takes the form of manipulative behavior towards outsiders. And the government is one such outsider which then explains corruption.

What Can Be Done About It?

You rarely encounter research of this kind so I can understand that Torfason is cautious, kudos to him for even going there. I’ve always liked India and I think it has loads of potential. The country actually scores higher than many other countries on Openness and Agreeableness suggesting that they have the capacity to change. But having an accumulation of anti-social traits in your population is not a joke. If India and other countries with this problem want to change, they need to face reality in order to find the solutions. There are ways of reducing genes for familial altruism, anti-social behavior or any other behavioral traits. Sadly, the PC establishment will stigmatize anyone who tries to discuss this issue, since mentioning genetic differences between peoples is Nazism, and all you really have to do is give children books to read, right? It seems the people calling themselves progressive today represent the worst kind of conservatism – the let’s-not-change-anything-that-hurts-my-feelings variety.

Extraversion, Still Relevant

That’s not to say that anti-social traits are the only possible link to tribalism and corruption. I’m still holding on to my Extraversion hypothesis, given how obviously very introverted countries like Finland and Japan have so little corruption, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, Extraversion correlates some -0.30 with corruption in Western Europe. It’s also worth mentioning that people who are overly honest and open towards strangers, tend to have Asperger-like personalities, which are characterized among other things by a very strong introversion. And anyone who has been a student has probably noticed how enthusiastic highly extraverted people are about the tribal rituals of student life, initiations and the like. Hopefully there will be some research on this too sometime in the future.

(As a fun fact, the combination of tribalism, inbreeding and anti-social attitudes is nothing new. It has been described in popular culture many times. In American films, such as for instance Deliverance (1972) featuring Burt Reynolds, the isolated inhabitants of the Appalachians are often depicted as inbred and possessing a mind-boggling cruelty towards strangers. For some reason it’s ok to exaggerate and make fun of that, probably because they’re white. But it seems political correctness draws the line somewhere between the Appalachians and Morocco.)

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