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

September 2, 2014

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

The Long Reach of Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Haidtian Elephant in the Room

And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Anomaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Biodiversity (General introduction here)

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

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

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

The English Vegetarian

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

Vegetarians

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

English Ancestry

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

White by state

 

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

vegetarians by english ancestry.php

 

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

vegetarians by white ancestry

 

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

What Is Moral Progress?

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

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

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

 

 


Changelings, Infanticide and Northwest European Guilt Culture

January 2, 2014
And he is always hungry...

And he is always hungry…

Guilt and Shame Cultures

On his blog Evo and Proud, anthropologist Peter Frost recently wrote a highly interesting two-part article entitled The origins of Northwestern European guilt culture. In guilt cultures, social control is regulated more by guilt than by shame, as is the case in shame cultures that exist in most parts of the world. A crucial difference between these types of cultures is that while shame cultures require other people to shame the wrongdoer, guilt cultures do not. Instead, he or she will shame themselves by feeling guilty. This, according to Frost, is also linked to a stronger sense of empathy with others, not just with relatives but people in general.

The advantages of guilt over shame are many. People can go about their business without being supervised by others, and they can cooperate with people they’re not related to as long as both parties have the same view on right and wrong. And with this personal freedom come individualism, innovation and other forms of creativity as well as ideas of universal human rights etc. You could argue, as Frost appears to, that the increased sense of guilt in Northwestern Europe (NWE) is a major factor behind Western Civilization. While this sounds fairly plausible (in my ears at least), a fundamental question is whether there really is more guilt in the NWE sphere than elsewhere.

How to Measure Guilt

The idea of NWE countries as guilt cultures may seem obvious to some and dubious to others. The Protestant tradition is surely one indication of this, but some anthropologists argue that other cultures have other forms of guilt, not as easily recognized by Western scholars. For instance, Andrew Beatty mentions that the Javanese have no word for either shame or guilt but report uneasiness and a sense of haunting regarding certain political murders they’ve committed. So maybe they have just as much guilt as NWE Protestants?

This is one of the problems with soft science – you can argue about the meaning of terms and concepts back and forth until hell freezes over without coming to any useful conclusion. One way around this is to find some robust metric that most people would agree indicates guilt. One such measure, I believe, would be murder rate. If people in different cultures vary in the guilt they feel for committing murder, then this should hold them back and show up as a variation in the murder rate. I will here take the NWE region to mean the British Isles, the Nordic countries (excluding Finland), Germany, France and Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for a total of 14 countries. According to UNODC/Wikipedia, the average murder rate in the NWE countries is exactly 1.0 murder per 100K inhabitants. To put this in perspective, only 20 other countries (and territories) of 207 listed are below this level and 70 percent of them have twice the murder rate or more.

Still, criminals are after all not a very representative group having more of the dark traits (psychopathy, narcissism, machiavellism) than the rest of the population. Corruption, on the other hand, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, seems relatively unrelated to regular personality traits, so it should tap into the mainstream population. Corruption is often about minor transgressions that many people engage in knowing that they can usually get away with it. They will not be shamed because no one will know about it and many will not care since it’s so common, but some will feel guilty and refrain from it.  Looking at the Corruptions Perceptions Index for 2013, the NWE countries are very dominant at the top of the ranking (meaning they lack corruption). There are seven NWEs in the top ten and two additional bordering countries (Finland and Switzerland).  The entire NWE region is within the top 24, of a 177 countries and territories.

But as I’ve argued before here, corruption appears to be linked to clannishness and tribalism (traits rarely discussed in psychology) and it’s reasonable to assume that it is a causal factor. How does this all add up? Well, the clannish and tribal cultures that I broadly refer to as traditional cultures are all based on the premise that the family, tribe or similar ingroup is that which should be everyone’s first concern. So while a member of a traditional culture may have personal feelings of guilt, this means little compared to the collective dislike – the shame – from the family or tribe. At the same time traditional cultures are indifferent or hostile towards other groups so if your corruption serves the family or tribe there will be no shame in it, the others will more likely praise you for being clever.

(In this context it’s also interesting to note that people who shame others often do this by expressing disgust, an emotion linked to a traditional dislike for various outgroups, such as homosexuals or people of other races. So disgust, which psychologist Jonathan Haidt connects with the moral foundation of sanctity/degradation, is perhaps equally important to the foundation loyalty/ingroup.)

When Did Modernity Begin?

One important question is whether this distinction between modern and traditional is to what extent it’s a matter of nature or nurture. There is evidence that it is caused by inbreeding and the accumulation of genes for familial altruism (that’s to say a concern for relatives and a corresponding dislike for non-relatives). Since studies on this are non-existent as far as I know – no doubt for political reasons – another form of evidence could be found in tracing this distinction back in time. The further we can do this, the more likely it’s a matter of genes rather than culture. And the better we can identify populations that are innately modern the better we can understanding the function and origin of this trait. Frost argues that guilt culture can be found as early as the Anglo-Saxon period (550-1066), based thing like the existence of looser family structures with a relatively late age of marriage and the notion of a shame before the spirits or God, which can be construed as guilt. This made me wonder if there is any similar historical evidence for NWE guilt that is old enough to make the case for this to be an inherited behavior (or at least the capacity for guilt-motivated behavior). And that’s how I came up with the changeling,

The Changeling

As Jung has argued, there is a striking similarity between myths and traditional storytelling over the world. People who have never been in contact with each other have certain recurring structures in their narratives, and, as I’ve argued before here, even modern people adhere to these unspoken rules of storytelling – the archetypes. The only reasonable explanation for archetypes is that they are a reflection of how humans are wired. But if archetypal stories reveal a universal human nature, what about stories found in some places but not in others? In some cases they may reflect differences in things like climate or geography, but if no such environmental explanation can be found I believe that the variation may be a case of human biodiversity.

I believe one such variation relevant to guilt culture is the genre of changeling tales. These folktales are invariably about how otherworldly creatures like fairies abduct newborn children and replace them with something in their likeness, a changeling. The changeling is sometimes a fairy, sometimes just an enchanted piece of wood that has been made to look like a child. It’s typically very hungry but sickly and fails to thrive. A woman who suspected that she had a changeling on her hands could find out by beating the changeling, throwing it in the water, leaving it in the woods overnight and so on. According to the folktales, this would prompt the fairies or whoever was responsible for the exchange to come to rescue their child and also return the child they had taken.

Infanticide Made Easy

Most scholars agree that the changeling tales was a way to justify killing sickly and deformed children. According to American folklorist D. L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh, people firmly believed in changelings and did as the tales instructed,

There is ample evidence that these legendary accounts do not misrepresent or exaggerate the actual abuse of suspected changelings. Court records between about 1850 and 1900 in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland reveal numerous proceedings against defendants accused of torturing and murdering suspected changelings.

This all sounds pretty grisly but before modern medicine and social welfare institutions, a child of this kind was a disaster. Up until the 1900s, children were supposed to be relatively self-sufficient and help out around the house. A child that needed constant supervision without any prospect of ever being able contribute anything to the household was more than a burden; it jeopardized the future of the entire family.

Still, there is probably no stronger bond between two people than that between a mother and her newborn child. So how could a woman not feel guilty for killing her own child? Because it must be guilt we’re talking about here – you would never be shamed for doing it since it was according to custom. The belief in changelings expressed in the folktales gave the women (and men) a way out of this dilemma. (Ironically, Martin Luther, the icon of guilt culture, dismissed all the popular superstitions of his fellow countrymen with the sole exception of changelings which he firmly believed in.) Thus, the main purpose of these tales seems to have been to alleviate guilt.

Geography

If this is true then changeling stories should be more common in the NWE region than elsewhere, which also seems to be the case. There are numerous changeling tales found on the British Isles, in Scandinavia, Germany and France. It can be found elsewhere in Europe as well, in the Basque region and among Slavic people and even as far as North Africa, but at least according to folklorists I’ve found discussing these tales, they are imported from the NWE region. And if we look beyond regions bordering to Europe changelings seem to be virtually non-existent. Some folklorists have suggested that for instance the Nigerian Ogbanje can be thought of as a changeling, although at a closer inspection the similarity is very superficial. The Ogbanje is reborn into the same family over and over and to break the curse families consult medicine men after the child has died. When they consult a medicine man when the child is still alive it is for the purpose of severing the child’s connection to the spirit world and make it normal. So the belief in the Ogbanje never justifies infanticide. Another contender is the Filipino Aswang which is a creature that will attack children as well as adults and is never takes the place of a child but is more like a vampire. So it’s safe to say that the changeling belief is firmly rooted in the NWE region at least back to medieval times and perhaps earlier too.

Before There Were Changelings, There Was Exposure

Given how infanticide is such a good candidate for measuring guilt, we could go back further in time, before any evidence of changelings and look at potential differences in attitudes towards this act.

I doing so I think we can find, if not NWE guilt, so at least Western ditto. According this Wikipedia article, the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as Germanic tribes, killed infants by exposure rather than through a direct act. Here is a quote on the practice in Greece,

Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

And the Archeology and Classical Research Magazine Roman Times quotes several classical sources suggesting that exposure was controversial even back then,

Isocrates (436–338 BCE)  includes the exposure of infants in his catalog of horrendous crimes practiced in some  cities (other than Athens) in his work Panathenaicus.

I also found this excerpt from the play Ion by Euripides, written at the end of the 400s BC. In it Kreusa talks with an old servant about having exposed an unwanted child,

Old Servant: Who cast him forth? – Not thou – O never thou!

Kreusa: Even I. My vesture darkling swaddled him.

Old Servant: Nor any knew the exposing of the child?

Kreusa: None – Misery and Secrecy alone.

Old Servant: How couldst thou leave they babe within the cave?

Kreusa: Ah how? – O pitiful farewells I moaned!

It seems to me that this play, by one of the most prominent playwrights of his time, would not make much sense to the audience unless exposure was something that weighed on many people’s hearts.

Compare this with historical accounts from other cultures, taken from the Wikipedia article mentioned above,

Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine. Others state that “female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time” (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.

In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs.

The Svans (a Georgian people) killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.

A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby’s mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th century and early 20th century.

Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in South Asia for illegitimate female children during the Middle Ages. According to Firishta, as soon as the illegitimate female child was born she was held “in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death”

Polar Inuit (Inughuit) killed the child by throwing him or her into the sea. There is even a legend in Inuit mythology, “The Unwanted Child”, where a mother throws her child into the fjord.

It seems that while people in ancient Greece practiced exposure, something many were troubled by, the active killing was common in the rest of the world and persists to this day in many places. While people in other cultures may or may not feel guilt it doesn’t seem to affect them as much, and it’s sometimes even trumped by shame as psychiatrist Steven Pitts and clinical psychologist Erin Bale write in an article in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law regarding the practice of drowning unwanted girls,

In China, the birth of a daughter has traditionally been accompanied by disappointment and even shame.

To summarize, the changeling lore provides evidence of a NWE guilt culture dating back at least to medieval times, and the practice and attitude towards exposure suggests that ancient Greece had an emerging guilt culture as early as the 400s BC which enabled a similar individualism and intellectual development that we’ve seen in the NWE in recent centuries. I’m not sure exactly how genetically related these populations are, but the geographical proximity makes it hard to ignore the possibility of gene variants for guilt proneness in Europe responsible for guilt cultures both in ancient Greece and the NWE region. Some branch of Indo-Europeans perhaps?

Update 2014-03-01:

Assistant Village Idiot wrote an interesting post on HBD/folklore regarding gender issues, http://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.se/2014/02/fairy-tales.html


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

July 24, 2013

haidt

 

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,

Conservatives,

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.

Liberals,

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.

 


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