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 of 11782 restaurants and health food stores across America half of which are completely vegan or vegetarian and half are vegetarian friendly. With the measure of restaurants/million inhabitants as a proxy for vegetarianism, I made this map showing the variation across the contiguous states except for Washington DC,


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

English Ancestry

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

White by state


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

vegetarians by english ancestry.php


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

vegetarians by white ancestry


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

What Is Moral Progress?

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

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

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



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

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

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

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

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

The Post-Slate Situation

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

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

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

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

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

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

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

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

Gene-Environment Interactions

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

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

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

Family Interactions

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

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

The Three Systems Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I think Harris may be on to something.

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