Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rotherham: The search for answers

A Bangladeshi youth gang in Tower Hamlets, London. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Bangali71). Is this the kind of assimilation you had in mind?



In my last post, I discussed the revelations from Rotherham, England. In a town of some 250,000 people, at least 1,400 school-age girls have been "groomed" for prostitution by organized gangs. Grooming begins with seduction by "lover boys" and ends in abduction, trafficking, and confinement. It is this final stage that apparently explains why some 500 girls were missing from the 15 to 19 age group at the last census.

Two more points. All of the girls are white, and all of the groomers are Pakistani, except for a few Afghans and Roma.

Even before the latest revelations, and even in antiracist circles, there was a growing (though reluctant) awareness that this social problem is disproportionately "Asian," a term that increasingly means Muslim South Asian. The cause, however, seems elusive:

[...] this disparity begs further exploration and, if possible, explanation. Admittedly, this is not an easy job. Complex social issues can rarely be explained in terms of a single factor and moving from correlation to causality is particularly challenging. Nonetheless, in CSE [child sexual exploitation], as with other crimes, observed relationships between race and offending may well be mediated by social, structural or situational factors. Asians, like whites or blacks, do not commit CSE offences because they are Asian, white or black. This lazy, circular logic, verging on quasi-geneticism, would label every Asian adult equally a groomer-in-waiting and fails to address the immediate precipitates of CSE, such as ready access to children and low levels of formal or informal surveillance to constrain deviant behaviour. (Cockbain, 2013)

But if we wish to understand constraints on deviancy, one key variable may be ethnicity, particularly if an ethnic boundary separates the victim from the victimizer. It is precisely within this underdetermined space that such constraints are most likely to break down.

The limits to shame

In most of the world's cultures, deviant behavior is kept in check by shaming. A wrongdoing is witnessed by other people, who spread the word to others. The wrongdoers feel shame, knowing that their reputation is now tarnished. In cases of severe wrongdoing, they may have to leave their community.

As a means to keep deviancy in check, shaming has three limitations:

- It cannot control behavior that is not witnessed by anyone other than the wrongdoers themselves.

- It cannot control behavior that is aimed at someone outside one's community.

- Because shame is socially mediated, it is less effective in modern Western societies, where people generally interact as anonymous individuals.

A minority of world cultures supplement shame with another means of behavior control. These cultures, essentially those of Western Europe, rely much more on internal mental mechanisms—guilt and affective empathy—to enforce social rules that have the perceived backing of moral authority. You feel guilt when you break a rule or even merely think about breaking it. No witnesses are necessary, other than the imaginary one inside your mind (Benedict, (1946 [2005]). Similarly, no one tells you to feel empathy when you see another person unjustly suffering. Refusal to act on these feelings can lead to anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation (Jadhav, 1996; O'Connor et al.,2007). Guilt and empathy are thus more effective than shame as means to control behavior.

The capacity to feel guilt and empathy varies from one individual to another, the heritability being moderate to high (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013; Daviset al., 1994). There has thus been a potential for gene-culture co-evolution, i.e., guilt cultures may have selected for individuals with a higher capacity for guilt and empathy. Even if the behavioral differences between guilt cultures and shame cultures are entirely softwired, the consequences are nonetheless real.

From shame culture to guilt culture

Immigration is not just a movement from one place to another. It is also a movement from one culture to another. In Britain in general, it has largely involved people coming to a guilt culture from various shame cultures in South Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. 

In South Asia, be it Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, shaming provides a woman with no protection from unwanted sexual advances once she ventures beyond her own neighborhood:

The prime danger is from male strangers who are seen as liable to take advantage of an unescorted woman. Such strangers, as a category, are presumed to be sexually predatory and always ready to pounce. Some young men (and some not so young) reinforce that notion in town streets and in buses through the common practice known in Indian English as "eve-teasing." In the anonymity of the streets, some men who would spring fiercely to the defense of the women of their own families, leer, hoot, pinch, and make sexually pointed remarks at passing women whom they do not know and who do not know them [...]. However, they rarely act that way in their own mohalla, neighbourhood. (Mandelbaum, 1993, pp. 9-10)
In a shame culture, a wrongdoing is not shameful if the witnesses are from outside one's "moral community." Often, there is no clear boundary between outside and inside; the moral community simply fades away as one goes farther away from the people one knows. The boundary is much more clear-cut if it coincides with a difference in religion. When Moroccan and Turkish "lover boys" were interviewed in Amsterdam, it was found that their identity as Muslims strongly influenced how they perceived their victims:

One pimp told us that it was not only easier to get Dutch girls into prostitution, but that they were worth less than other girls and therefore deserved to end up as prostitutes. 'Culturally and religiously, a Dutch girl is little more than a pig to a loverboy. She's nothing, she's of no value. When that's what you're thinking, you can completely block out your emotions.' As mentioned, most loverboys were reluctant to manipulate the daughters of immigrants into prostitution, especially when it came to girls leading a pious life. 'We are obligated to treat Moroccan girls as we would treat our own sisters; we can't treat them as rags. You can't just make a Moroccan girl work for you. (...) Listen, when a Moroccan girl wants to do it, that's different. But if she goes to school and wears a headscarf, it's just not right'. (Van San and Bovenkerk,2013)

Muslim girls were not avoided, however, solely out of loyalty to Islam.

They [lover boys] had a lot more trouble with the daughters of immigrants, 'because those families have respect for each other.' In their view, this was not the case with Dutch girls: 'Dutch girls really are the easiest. (...) Nowadays, there are girls of thirteen or fourteen years old who have already lost their virginity. They go to clubs and discos and stay away from home for a whole weekend. They want to go out, they want new clothes, but they don't have the money. When a loverboy comes along and the girl spots him and he seems like a nice boy, things happen... Meeting a loverboy is like hitting the jackpot, you know what I mean?' (Van San and Bovenkerk, 2013)

The lover boy, an adaptation to female mate scarcity?

Keep in mind that Muslims are not the only group to be overrepresented in this social niche. Among the lover boys interviewed by Van San and Bovenkerk (2013), half were Muslims (Moroccans, Turks) and half were from the Dutch West Indies. In the British OCCE study on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, around 24% of the suspects were neither white nor Asian, being probably blacks of Caribbean or African origin (Cockbain, 2013).

Thus, in addition to the difference of religion, and the resulting moral boundary between victim and victimizer, there seems to be another factor in the genesis of lover boys. This factor is nonreligious and would apply not only to the Muslim world but also to sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora. In both culture areas, many young men are inevitably shut out of the marriage market because of excess female mortality and high polygyny rates (5-10% in the Muslim world and 20-40% in sub-Saharan Africa) (D'Souza and Chen, 1980; Fuse and Crenshaw, 2006; Goody, 1973, pp. 175-190; Pebley and Mbugua, 1989). There may have therefore been selection for young men who can exploit sexual opportunities, if and when they arise, via specific personality traits.

Alvergne et al. (2009, 2010a, 2010b) explored the relationship between male personality and sexual competition in the high-polygyny environment of Senegal. There was no correlation among Senegalese men between mating success and most personality traits, i.e., neuroticism, openness, and agreeableness. There was a strong correlation, however, with extraversion, defined as "pro-social behavior which reflects sociability, assertiveness, activity, dominance and positive emotions." Men with above-medium extraversion were 40% more likely to have more than one wife than those with below-medium extraversion, after controlling for age. Furthermore, this personality trait correlated with higher testosterone levels. It thus seems to be part of the male toolkit for mating success in a high-polygyny environment.

From antiracism to anti-Islamism

It’s one thing to look for answers. In this, anthropology can offer some insights. It’s quite another to translate the explanation into applicable solutions. To go from one to the other may involve surmounting mental and political obstacles.

First, most Britons have been living in denial. Few wish to believe, at least openly, that organized gangs are preying on school-age girls. Fewer wish to believe that the gangs are overwhelmingly non-white and largely Muslim. And even fewer wish to believe the extent of the problem: perhaps one in ten of Rotherham's white families, if not more. It all sounds like vicious propaganda that only ugly hate-filled people could believe.

Yet it's true. So what comes next? Many disillusioned antiracists will likely end up seeing Islam, and not racism, as the problem. The solution will therefore be to secularize Muslim culture and replace it with an assimilated, Westernized version, like modern Christianity.

Politically, anti-Islamism is attractive. It has the merit of framing the problem in ideological and not racial terms. It is also likely to win over much of the political elite, particularly those who have backed previous military interventions in the Muslim world and would like to see more.

But will it work? Let's assume anti-Islamists are not sidetracked into cheerleading a new round of foreign interventions "to get to the root of the problem." Let's also assume the focus is on assimilating Muslims living in Britain. Unfortunately, not only will this approach fail to solve the problem, it will actually make things worse.

In a Western context, assimilation does not mean giving up the restraints of one culture and taking on those of another. It means the first but not the second. Immigrants leave an environment where behavior is restrained mainly by external controls (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance) and they enter one where behavior is restrained mainly by internal controls (guilt, empathy). To the extent that assimilation happens, external social controls will weaken and may even disappear, but they will not be replaced by internal mental controls. There is no known way to give people a greater capacity for guilt and empathy than what they already have. No such psychotherapy exists. This is true even if we assume that population differences in these two traits are due solely to cultural conditioning, and not to inborn tendencies.

Assimilation is already making things worse by dissolving traditional restraints on behavior and leaving nothing in their place. Keep in mind that grooming is largely absent from the 1st generation of Britain's Pakistani community. It's much more present among young men of the 2nd and 3rd generations. They are very much into contemporary Western culture and are freely borrowing those elements that appeal to them the most:

Taj refers to '. . . the growing popularity of the "gangsta" fashion affected by local youths as they adopt the clothing and elements of the attitudes of disenchanted urban American youth gangs' (1996, p.4). Khan describes 'This new youth Pakistani "street culture" [as] male dominated and highly macho' (1997, p.18), linking drug dependency among young Pakistani men with their involvement in violent crime, including prostitution. (Macey, 1999)

Accusations of "racism" likewise reflect an insider's view of Western society and its weak points:

When I asked about racial harassment by the police, the women reacted with amusement. One of them said: 'Well, they would, wouldn't they? After all, they know it's these lads who're doing the dealing'. Another stated that 'the lads' had planned to accuse the police of racism because they had found this an effective weapon against authority in the past. In sum, while it seems unlikely that the Bradford police force contains no racists in its ranks, to 'explain' Pakistani male violence solely, or even mainly, as a reaction to police racism might well be over-simplified. (Macey, 1999)

The result is an unstable hybrid culture that is as foreign to 1st generation immigrants as it is to native Britons:

These young men have constructed an ethnic and religious identity which goes beyond hybridity in containing a high level of contradiction — a contradiction which is highly functional in its facilitation of dual standards, hypocrisy and legitimation, which are used as resources to maintain power over women. These aspects of male behaviour and their control function are clearly recognized, and resented, by young Pakistani women. One example quoted to me is the men's involvement in 'discos, drink, drugs and white women', while simultaneously putting pressure (to the point of harassment and threatened violence) on Pakistani women to stay at home and behave as 'good' Muslim women. (Macey,1999)


Yes, the whole issue is a messy ball of wax. The worst part is the reluctance not just to discuss it but even to think it through, the result being that the proposed solutions have only a vague connection to the actual problem, which is neither "racism" nor "Islamism."

What then is the problem? It's the mass migration of certain communities from an environment where behavior is subject to certain checks and balances to one where these are virtually absent.

Why do you think Pakistani parents want their daughters to wear headscarves or at least dress modestly? Are they being slaves to hidebound custom? Or is it because they come from a society where many single men are, in fact, sexual predators?

And that’s just one aspect of a much larger problem. Humans have adapted to local circumstances in many different ways, and these adaptations involve mental traits with moderate to high heritability. Things like time orientation, monotony avoidance, anger threshold, strength and nature of the sexual bond, and so forth. Such differences keep us from becoming interchangeable units in a global community. Each human and each community is a product of adaptations to specific circumstances, and what works in one set of circumstances may not work so well in another.


Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, C. Faurie, and V. Lummaa. (2010a). Personality and testosterone in men from a high-fertility population, Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 840-844. 

Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, and V. Lummaa. (2010b). Personality and reproductive success in a high-fertility human population, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 11745-11750. 

Alvergne, A., C. Faurie, and M. Raymond. (2009). Variation in testosterone levels and male reproductive effort: Insight from a polygynous human population, Hormones and Behavior, 56, 491-497.

Benedict, R. (1946 [2005]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture, First Mariner Books. 

Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Cockbain, E. (2013). Grooming and the 'Asian sex gang predator': the construction of a racial crime threat, Race & Class, 54, 22-32.  

Davis, M.H., C. Luce, and S.J. Kraus. (1994).The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy, Journal of Personality, 62, 369-391. 

D'Souza, S. and L.C. Chen. (1980). Sex differentials in mortality in rural Bangladesh, Population and Development Review, 6, 257-270.  

Fuse K. and E.M. Crenshaw. (2006). Gender imbalance in infant mortality: a cross-national study of social structure and female infanticide, Social Science and Medicine, 62, 360-374.

Goody, J. (1973). The Character of Kinship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Jay, A. (2014). Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013  

Jadhav, S. (1996). The cultural origins of Western depression, International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 42, 269-286. 

Macey, M. (1999). Class, gender and religious influences on changing patterns of Pakistani Muslim male violence in Bradford, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22, 5, 845-866

Mandelbaum, D.G. (1993). Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, University of Arizona Press. 

O'Connor, L.E., J.W. Berry, T. Lewis, K. Mulherin, and P.S. Crisostomo. (2007). Empathy and depression: the moral system in overdrive, in: T.F.D. Farrow and P.W.R. Woodruff (eds). Empathy in Mental Illness, (pp. 49-75). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Pebley, A. R., and W. Mbugua. (1989). Polygyny and Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa. In R. J. Lesthaeghe (ed.), Reproduction and Social Organization in Sub-Saharan Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 338-364. 

Van San, M. and F. Bovenkerk. (2013). Secret seducers. True tale of pimps in the red light district of Amsterdam, Crime, Law and Social Change, 60, 67-80.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A nice place to raise your kids

Rotherham (source: Stanley Walker, geograph project, Wikimedia Commons)


The English town of Rotherham has been in the news. Between 1997 and 2013, at least 1,400 school-age girls were "groomed" for prostitution—a process that begins with seduction and ends with confinement, trafficking, and serial rape. The girls were white. The groomers were older men of Pakistani origin, except for a few Afghans and Roma.

This in a town of some 250,000 people. And that figure of 1,400 is "conservative." It's hard to avoid concluding that many of Rotherham's white families have been affected, perhaps one in ten.

Grooming may have even left a dent in the census data. In Western countries, boys outnumber girls at birth, and this gender gap gradually shrinks through the higher mortality of boys until it is gone by the age of 20. This trend holds true in Rotherham up to the 15-19 age group, at which point the gender gap strangely widens. There seem to be around 500 girls unaccounted for. Evidently, this figure would capture only the final "confinement" stage of grooming and would exclude earlier stages when the girl is voluntarily living with her Pakistani boyfriend (Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, 2013, p.5. Figure 1.5).

What do the academics have to say?

Not much. British academia has either ignored the issue or cast aspersions on anyone who brings it up, as seen in this paper:

The implications of the current fixation with grooming and 'Asian sex gangs' are examined and shown to further a political agendum and legitimise thinly veiled racism, ultimately doing victims a disservice. (Cockbain, 2013)

Cockbain cites two official studies to show that this fixation has no scientific basis:

Widespread concern around grooming resulted in two large-scale government studies: the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's (CEOP) assessment of 'localised grooming', and the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England's (OCCE) study on 'child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups'.

[...] Like The Times, CEOP focused on community-based CSE, specifically excluding familial, peer-on-peer, professional or primarily online abuse. Unlike The Times, CEOP removed limitations on victims' age and gender and covered both solo and group offenders. Of the 31 per cent (N = 753) of suspects for whom race was known, 49 per cent (N = 367) were white and 46 per cent (N = 346) Asian.  Meanwhile, the OCCE included all forms of CSE in England, both online and offline, but was restricted to offenders acting in groups of two or more, the exclusion of solo offenders seriously undermining its claim to provide the 'most thorough and comprehensive collection of information' on CSE to date. The statistics presented in the report are often confused and incoherent, exacerbating methodological shortcomings and understandable data deficiencies. What can be disentangled is that only a minority of submissions to the call for evidence included any information on suspects. Of a total of 1,514 suspects thus identified, race data were available for 84 per cent (N = 1266). For those suspects where race was known, 43 per cent (N = 545) were white and 33 per cent (N = 415) Asian.

Almost half the suspects were homegrown whites? That figure seems far removed from the picture one gets in the British press. It also seems far removed from the picture one gets in a Dutch study of Amsterdam "lover boys":

The young men were all between 21 and 24 years of age. Some of them were the children of Moroccan and Turkish guest labourers who had come to the Netherlands in the 1970s. Others had migrated at a young age with their parents from Surinam or Curacao, or were born in the Netherlands. (Van San and Bovenkerk, 2013)

Is seduction for profit more of a white boy thing in the UK than in the Netherlands? Or is the difference due to some bias in data gathering? The second explanation is suggested by the incompleteness of the British data. Only 31% of the CEOP files had information on the suspect's race, and only a minority of the CSE files had any information at all on the suspect.

This incompleteness can be traced to two biases in data gathering, which, curiously enough, reflected a desire to avoid "bias":

1. Fear of harming community relations

First, there was a fear that evidence of Asian sex gangs, if publicized, could damage community relations and hinder investigative work:

For example, ever since projects for sexually exploited children were first opened by Barnardo's there have been reports of Asian gangs at work. This information was, very sensibly, not publicised by Barnardo's because they knew that their workers depend on the goodwill and support of the local population — also largely Asian — to gather information about the girls so they can help them. Publicly highlighting the racial profile of the perpetrators would inevitably turn the community against them. (Linehan, 2011)

Cockbain (2013) similarly evokes a fear of "fuelling racist rhetoric, distorting policy and practice and exacerbating community tensions."

These fears seem to have shaped public policy, as confirmed by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham:

Several councillors interviewed believed that by opening up these issues they could be 'giving oxygen' to racist perspectives that might in turn attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion. To some extent this concern was valid, with the apparent targeting of the town by groups such as the English Defence League. (Jay, 2014, p. 93)

2. Fear of seeming racist

Another reason, cited in the Inquiry, was simply a fear of seeming racist:

Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so. (Jay, 2014, p. 2)

[...] there was a widespread perception that messages conveyed by some senior people in the Council and also the Police, were to 'downplay' the ethnic dimensions of CSE. Unsurprisingly, frontline staff appeared to be confused as to what they were supposed to say and do and what would be interpreted as 'racist'. (Jay, 2014, p. 91)

She also reported in 2006 that young people in Rotherham believed at that time that the Police dared not act against Asian youths for fear of allegations of racism. This perception was echoed at the present time by some young people we met during the Inquiry, but was not supported by specific examples. (Jay, 2014, p. 92)

Those who had involvement in CSE were acutely aware of these [ethnic] issues and recalled a general nervousness in the earlier years about discussing them, for fear of being thought racist. (Jay, 2014, p. 93)

A systematic bias

Because of these fears of either harming community relations or seeming racist, there was a systematic bias toward underreporting of Pakistani involvement in grooming. This bias in data gathering led to a distorted view of reality among public officials:

Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.

In the early 2000s, a small group of professionals from key agencies met and monitored large numbers of children known to be involved in CSE or at risk but their managers gave little help or support to their efforts. Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE. (Jay, 2014, p.1)

In a BBC interview, a researcher described how an official reacted to one of the reports: "She said you must never refer to that again. You must never refer to Asian men. And her other response was to book me on a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues" (Brooks-Pollock, 2014).

It makes sense that public officials had trouble believing the evidence being brought to their attention. After all, it ran counter to the findings of the authoritative CEOP and CSE studies. The situation is not unlike that of the old Soviet Union, where official statistics said one thing and reality quite another.

How could this have happened?

The answer is easy. We live in a society where "racism" is viewed as a major evil. Once this view had gained the full backing of moral authority, it was just a matter of time before everyone fell into line ... and acted accordingly. The average social worker became reluctant to report evidence of sex crimes if the suspects were non-white and non-Christian. The average police officer became reluctant to lay charges or pursue them if already laid. The average politician became reluctant to bring the matter up in council or parliament.

The result? Underreporting on a massive scale. This all could happen in broad daylight and no one would see a thing.

This massive underreporting then distorted the findings of official reports, which in turn convinced people in authority that the whole thing had been greatly exaggerated, undoubtedly for mischievous purposes. There was thus growing pressure from above to root out racist politicians, racist police officers, and racist social workers ...

Antiracism is self-validating. On the one hand, it leads people to dismiss evidence that may undermine its view of reality. On the other, it strengthens its view of reality by encouraging people to create supporting evidence. There is no conspiracy. There is only the madness of ideology.


Brooks-Pollock, T. (2014). Rotherham researcher 'sent on diversity course' after raising alarm, The Telegraph, September 2

Cockbain, E. (2013). Grooming and the 'Asian sex gang predator': the construction of a racial crime threat, Race & Class, 54, 22-32.

Jay, A. (2014). Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013

Linehan, T. (2011). Child sexual exploitation in the UK is all too common. But notions of gangs and grooming are a distraction and hinder our efforts to combat the problem.

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. (2013). Demographic Profile of Rotherham,

Van San, M. and F. Bovenkerk. (2013). Secret seducers. True tale of pimps in the red light district of Amsterdam, Crime, Law and Social Change, 60, 67-80. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Does Natural Law exist?

A widow about to be buried alive in her husband's grave (Wikimedia Commons). Do we all share the same sense of right and wrong?


What, ultimately, is the basis for morality? In a comment on a previous post, fellow columnist Fred Reed argued that some things are self-evidently wrong, like torture and murder. No need to invoke the Ten Commandments or any religious tradition. Some things are just wrong. Period.

This is a respectable idea with a long lineage. It's the argument of Natural Law. All people are born with a natural sense of right and wrong, and it is only later, through vice or degeneration, that some can no longer correctly tell the two apart.

The idea began with the Stoics of Ancient Greece. They believed that the universe is governed by laws and that everyone naturally wishes to live in harmony with them, thanks to the divine spark that exists in all of us. In reply, the Epicureans argued that the laws of the universe are indifferent to humans and their problems. We alone define right and wrong.

The Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) worked out a compromise that divided Natural Law into general precepts and secondary precepts. The former are known to all men but can be hindered "on account of concupiscence or some other passion." The latter "can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions [..] or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rom. i), were not esteemed sinful" (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 94, Art. 6).

Aquinas lived at a time when Christian morality had already penetrated deeply into the hearts and minds of Europeans. It was continually being violated, of course, but violators typically knew they had done wrong and they typically tried to justify their wrongdoings on Christian grounds, or seek absolution. Aquinian Natural Law thus closely approximated moral reality, much as Newtonian physics would long remain a good approximation of physical reality.

Things changed from the 16th century on, as Christian Europe spread outward into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It became evident that notions of right and wrong were not everywhere the same, or even similar.  One example was sati, the Indian custom of burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Though supposedly voluntary, it usually involved the tying of her feet or legs to prevent escape. She could also be buried alive, as a 17th century traveler noted:

In most places upon the Coast of Coromandel, the Women are not burnt with their deceas'd Husbands, but they are buried alive with them in holes which the Bramins make a foot deeper than the tallness of the man and woman. Usually they chuse a Sandy place; so that when the man and woman both let down together, all the Company with Baskets of Sand fill up the hole about half a foot higher than the surface of the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it, till they believe the woman to be stiff'd. (Tavernier, 1678, p. 171; see also Sati, 2014)

When the British sought to ban the practice, they appealed to notions of right and wrong, but to no avail. Defenders of sati considered it right and even honorable. The debate was finally resolved by the logic of force, as set forth by the British commander-in-chief:

This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs! (Napier, 1851, p. 35)

Enlightenment thinkers attributed this custom and others like it to degeneration from an original state of goodness. Thus was born the idea of the Noble Savage. Yet this idea, too, came under attack with the realization that even simple "uncorrupted" societies may have very different attitudes toward human life, as seen in the torturing of captives, the abandonment of weak or deformed children, and the killing of old men and women:

The problems posed by limited resources and old peoples' dependence are sometimes resolved in an extreme way: killing, abandoning, or exposure of the elderly—what anthropologists call gerontocide. Cross-cultural studies show that such treatment is more common than we might suppose. Maxell and Silverman found evidence of gerontocide in a little over 20% of 95 societies in a worldwide sample (Silverman, 1987). Glascock uncovered abandonment of the elderly in 9 of the 41 nonindustrial societies in his sample—and reports of killing old people in 14 of these societies. (Bengtson and Achenbaum, 1993, p. 110)

This kind of thing may seem unfortunate but justifiable among nomads. Sometimes, the elderly just have to be left behind. But we also see elder abandonment in sedentary peoples, like the Hopi of the American southwest:

As long as aged men controlled property rights, held special ceremonial offices, or were powerful medicine men, they were respected. But "the feebler and more useless they become, the more relatives grab what they have, neglect them, and sometimes harshly scold them, even permitting children to play rude jokes on them." Sons might refuse to support their fathers, telling them, "You had your day, you are going to die pretty soon." (Bengtson and Achenbaum, 1993, pp. 108-109)

Whenever such accounts come up at anthropological conferences, there is a certain malaise. Some will blame European contact for the devaluing of human life. Others, however, will present similar facts that often predate the coming of traders or missionaries. I remember one speaker who presented evidence of cannibalism at an Inuit site. This wasn't an isolated case, such as might happen in extreme circumstances of starvation. There seemed to be an accumulation of human bones, of Indian origin, with cut marks on them. The findings were later published:

The remains of at least 35 individuals (women, children, and the elderly) were recovered from the Saunaktuk site (NgTn-1) in the Eskimo Lakes region of the Northwest Territories. Recent interpretations in the Arctic have suggested a mortuary custom resulting in dismemberment, defleshing, chopping, long bone splitting, and scattering of human remains. On the evidence from the Saunaktuk site, we reject this hypothesis. The Saunaktuk remains exhibit five forms of violent trauma indicating torture, mutilation, murder, and cannibalism. Apparently these people were the victims of long-standing animosity between Inuit and Amerindian groups in the Canadian Arctic. (Melbye and Fairgrieve, 1994)

When I talked with the speaker after his presentation, he seemed apprehensive. How would people react? 

He needn't have worried. The noble savage is still alive and well. Strangely enough, this kind of thinking has seeped even into the missionary mindset, as I discovered during my last few years at the United Church of Canada. I was surprised to learn just how little our mission work involved teaching of Christian morality:

"Do you talk to these people about the Christian faith?"
"Not unless they specifically request it."
"Do you at least have Christian literature on display?"
"No, we're not allowed to do that."

Things aren't much better in the fundamentalist churches. I remember attending a Pentecostal presentation on "the cause of Third World Poverty." I thought the talk would focus on cultural values. Instead, we were told that the cause is ... lack of infrastructure. The Third World is poor because it doesn't have enough roads, bridges, and buildings. 

The modern world has bought so much into the argument of Natural Law that the entire Christian enterprise now looks like a waste of time. There was no need for missionaries to fight barbaric customs, since there were no barbaric customs to be fought. All of that was one big misunderstanding. Christian mission work is now limited to good works, apparently in the belief that all humans share the same moral framework and that it's enough to set a good example. If you act nice, other people will get the message and likewise act nice.

A hazardous assumption

Christianity has been killed by its success. It has so thoroughly imposed its norms of behavior that we now assume them to be human nature. If some people act contrary to those norms, it's because they're "sick" or "deprived." Or perhaps something is misleading us and they're really acting just like everyone else.

For two millennia, the Christian faith has profoundly shaped the culture of European peoples, allowing very little to escape its imprint. This is especially so in attitudes toward the taking of life. Beginning in the 11th century, the Church allied itself with the State to punish murder, which previously had been a private matter to be settled through revenge or compensation. At the height of this war on murder, between 0.5 and 1.0 % of all men of each generation were sentenced to death, and a comparable proportion of offenders died at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial. Meanwhile, homicide rates plummeted from between 20 and 40 per 100,000 in the late Middle Ages to between 0.5 and 1.0 in the mid-20th century (Eisner, 2001). The pool of violent men dried up until most murders occurred under conditions of jealousy, intoxication, or extreme stress. Yes, people got the message to act nice, but the message was not delivered nicely.

By pacifying social relations, Church and State also created a culture that rewarded men who got ahead through trade and hard work, rather than through force and plunder. It became easier to plan for the future and develop what came to be known as middle-class values: thrift, sobriety, and self-control. Popular tastes changed accordingly, as seen in the decline of cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, and other blood sports (Clark, 2007; Clark, 2009a; Clark, 2009b).

Were these changes in behavior purely cultural? Or was there also a steady removal of violent predispositions from the gene pool? It's only now that a few scholars are beginning to ask such questions, let alone answer them.

Towards a new perspective ... 

The idea of Natural Law is true up to a point. All humans have to face certain common problems that have to be solved in more or less the same way. Kinship, for instance, matters in all human societies, at least traditional ones. Marriage and family are likewise universal.

But even these "universals" vary a lot. There are many kinds of kinship systems, including some with relatively weak kinship and a correspondingly stronger sense of individualism. Mating systems likewise vary a lot. Monogamy makes sense in non-tropical societies where the mother cannot feed her children by herself, particularly in winter. It makes less sense where the mother can provide for her children with minimal assistance.

Human societies similarly differ in their treatment of murder. There is a general tendency to limit the taking of human life, but the variability is considerable. In some societies, murder is so rare that instances of it are thought to be pathological. The murderer is said to be "sick." In other societies, every adult male has the right to use violence to settle personal disputes, even to the point of killing. If he abdicates that right, he's no longer a real man.

The same "problem" will thus be solved in different ways in different places. Over time, each society will develop a "solution" that favors the survival and reproduction of certain people with a certain personality type and certain predispositions. So there is no single human nature, any more than a single Natural Law. Instead, there are many human natures with varying degrees of overlap.

... and the take-home message?

While certain notions of right and wrong can apply to all humans, much of what we call "morality" will always be population-dependent. What is moral in one population may not be in another.

Take public nudity, particularly of the female kind. This is less of a problem in places like Finland where polygyny is rare and sexual rivalry among men less intense. It's more of a problem where the polygyny rate is higher but men still have to invest a lot in their offspring. In such a setting, men will be more jealous, more fearful of cuckoldry, and more insistent on measures to ensure exclusive sexual access. Such insistence can lead to extreme practices like sati. More generally, it leads to demands for modesty in female dress. 

This is not to condone the dress codes that prevail in some countries, but we should try to understand the circumstances that give rise to them. Above all, there are limits to what we can impose on other societies. While sati has no justification anywhere on this planet, there may be practices that are warranted in some societies but not in others.


Aquinas, T. (1265-1274). Summa Theologica, Part I-II (Pars Prima Secundae) From the Complete American Edition, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Project Gutenberg

Bengtson, V.L. and W.A. Achenbaum. (1993).The Changing Contract across Generations, Transaction publ.

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: Surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England. 

Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos, 2, 64-80. 

Eisner, M. (2001). Modernization, self-control and lethal violence. The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective, British Journal of Criminology, 41, 618-638. 

Melbye, J. and S.I. Fairgrieve. (1994). A massacre and possible cannibalism in the Canadian Arctic: New evidence from the Saunaktuk site (NgTn-1), Arctic Anthropology, 31, 57-77.

Napier, W. (1851). The History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of Scinde: And Campaign in the Cutchee Hills, London: Charles Westerton. 

Sati (practice). (2014). Wikipedia

Tavernier, J-B. (1678).The six voyages of John Baptista Tavernier, London: R.L. and M.P.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

How modular is intelligence?

Great at reading or recognizing faces? You might not do so well on an IQ test. Source: Histoire naturelle générale et particulière avec la Description du Cabinet du Roy (1749) (Wikicommons)


The English psychologist Charles Spearman was the first to argue that a single factor, called "g," explains most of the variability in human intelligence. When observing the performance of children at school, he noticed that a child who did well in math would also do well in geography or Latin. There seemed to be a general factor that facilitates almost any kind of mental task.

Spearman did, however, acknowledge the existence of other factors that seem more task-specific:

[...] all branches of intellectual activity have in common one fundamental function (or group of functions), whereas the remaining or specific elements of the activity seem in every case to be wholly different from that in all the others. (Spearman, 1904, p. 284) 

That is where things stood for over a century. In recent years, however, we’ve begun to identify the actual genes that contribute to intelligence. These genes are very numerous, numbering perhaps in the thousands, with each one exerting only a small effect. Many act broadly on intelligence in general and may correspond to the g factor, which seems to be a widespread property of neural tissue, perhaps cortical thickness or the integrity of white matter in the brain. Other genes act more narrowly on specific mental tasks. The ability to recognize faces, for instance, seems to have no relation at all to general intelligence. You can be great at recognizing faces while being as dumb as rocks (Zhu et al., 2009).

One way to locate these genes is through genome-wide association studies. We look at the various alleles of genes whose locations are already known, typically SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), and see whether this source of variability correlates with variability in a mental trait. If we find a significant correlation, the genes for that trait must be nearby. The same kind of study can also show us how narrowly or broadly these genes act. Do they merely influence intelligence in general? Or do they provide more specific instructions? Such as how to recognize certain objects or how to react to them?

A genome-wide association study has recently shed light on various mental traits. In most cases, a common factor seems to explain about half of the genetic variability. This common factor is weakest for emotion identification, i.e., the ability to identify the emotions of other people by their facial expressions. Emotion identification actually correlates negatively with nonverbal reasoning (-0.25) and only weakly with verbal memory (0.17) and spatial reasoning (0.26). The highest correlation is with reading (0.40) and language reasoning. (0.45). Reading and language reasoning are highly intercorrelated, perhaps because they share the same mental module (Robinson et al., 2014).

This partial modularity has been confirmed by a recent twin study on reading and math ability. If we look at the genetic component of either reading or math ability, at least 10% and probably half affects performance on both tasks. Conversely, the other half is specific to either one or the other (Davis et al., 2014).

An evolutionary mystery?

But how can reading ability have a specific genetic basis if people began to read only in historic times? Indeed, history is said to begin with the first written documents. Surely humans weren't still evolving at that point?

To ask the question is to answer it. Not only were they still evolving, they were actually doing so at a faster pace than their prehistoric ancestors. Humans have undergone much more genetic change over the past 10,000 years than over the previous 100,000 (Hawks et al., 2007). This is a difficult fact to swallow, let alone digest, but we must learn to accept it and all of its implications.

The new findings on reading ability are consistent with other ones. The human brain has a special region, called the Visual Word Form Area, that is used to recognize written words and letters. If it is damaged, your reading ability will suffer but not your recognition of objects, names, faces, or general language abilities. There will be some improvement over the next six months, but reading will still take twice as long as it had previously. This brain region varies in size and organization from one individual to another and from one human population to another, being differently organized in Chinese people than in Europeans (Frost, 2014; Gaillard et al, 2006; Glezer and Riesenhuber, 2013; Levy et al., 2013; Liu et al., 2008).

Genome-wide association studies may help us pinpoint the actual genes responsible for the Visual Word Form Area. In fact, we may have already found one: ASPM. This gene influences brain growth in other primates and has evolved in humans right up into historic times. Its latest allele arose about 6000 years ago in the Middle East and proliferated until it reached incidences of 37-52% in Middle Easterners, 38-50% in Europeans, and 0-25% in East Asians. Despite its apparent selective advantage, this allele does not improve performance on IQ tests (Mekel-Bobrov et al.,2007; Rushton et al., 2007). It is nonetheless associated with larger brain size in humans (Montgomery and Mundy, 2010).

Its Middle Eastern origin some 6000 years ago suggests this allele may have owed its success to the invention of writing. Most people had trouble reading, writing, and copying lengthy texts in ancient times, when characters were written continuously with little or no punctuation. There was an acute need for scribes who could excel at this task, and such people were rewarded with reproductive success (Frost, 2008; Frost, 2011).


Human intelligence is modular to varying degrees, and much of this modularity seems to have arisen during historic times. It is a product of humans adapting not only to their physical environments but also to their more rapidly evolving cultural environments.

While there is such a thing as general intelligence, it seems to be only half of the picture. Two people may have the same IQ and yet differ significantly in various mental abilities. There may also be trade-offs between general intelligence and more specific mental tasks. If you're great at abstract reasoning, you may be lousy at decoding facial expressions. This may be because the two abilities compete with each other for limited mental resources. Or it may be that selection for abstract reasoning has occurred in an environment where people can trust each other and have no need to scrutinize facial expressions for signs of lying ... or imminent physical assault. 

The same applies to human populations. Two populations may have the same mean IQ, and yet differ statistically over a large number of mental and behavioral traits. Although these differences may be scarcely noticeable if we compare two individuals taken at random from each population, their accumulative effect over many thousands of individuals can steer one population along one path of cultural evolution and the other along another. Furthermore, two populations may arrive at a similar outcome via different paths of cultural evolution and via different mental and behavioral packages. Europeans and East Asians have both reached an advanced level of societal development, but this similar outcome has been achieved in East Asian societies largely through external mediation of rule enforcement (e.g., shaming, peer pressure, family discipline) and in European ones mainly through internal means of control (e.g., guilt, empathy).


Davis, O.S.P., G. Band, M. Pirinen, C.M.A. Haworth, E.L. Meaburn, Y. Kovas, N. Harlaar, et al. (2014). The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component, Nature Communications, 5 

Frost, P. (2008). The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene, Medical Hypotheses, 70, 17-20.

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740-748.  

Frost, P. (2014). The paradox of the Visual Word Form Area, March 1, Evo and Proud 

Gaillard, R., Naccache, L., P. Pinel, S. Clémenceau, E. Volle, D. Hasboun, S. Dupont, M. Baulac, S. Dehaene, C. Adam, and L. Cohen. (2006). Direct intracranial, fMRI, and lesion evidence for the causal role of left inferotemporal cortex in reading, Neuron, 50, 191-204.  

Glezer, L.S. and M. Riesenhuber. (2013). Individual variability in location impacts orthographic selectivity in the "Visual Word Form Area", The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(27), 11221-11226. 

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758. 

Levy, J., J.R Vidal, R. Oostenveld, I. FitzPatrick, J-F. Démonet, and P. Fries. (2013). Alpha-band suppression in the Visual Word Form Area as a functional bottleneck to consciousness, NeuroImage, 78C, 33-45. 

Liu, C., W-T. Zhang, Y-Y Tang, X-Q. Mai, H-C. Chen, T. Tardif, and Y-J. Luo. (2008). The visual word form area: evidence from an fMRI study of implicit processing of Chinese characters, NeuroImage, 40, 1350-1361.  

Mekel-Bobrov, N., Posthuma, D., Gilbert, S. L., Lind, P., Gosso, M. F., Luciano, M., et al. (2007). The ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM and Microcephalin is not explained by increased intelligence, Human Molecular Genetics, 16, 600-608.  

Montgomery, S. H., and N.I. Mundy. (2010). Brain evolution: Microcephaly genes weigh in, Current Biology, 20, R244-R246.  

Robinson, E.B., A. Kirby, K. Ruparel, J. Yang, L. McGrath, V. Anttila, B.M. Neale, K. Merikangas, T. Lehner, P.M.A. Sleiman, M.J. Daly, R. Gur, R. Gur and H. Hakonarson. (2014). The genetic architecture of pediatric cognitive abilities in the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort, Molecular Psychiatry, published online July 15

Rushton, J. P., Vernon, P. A., and Bons, T. A. (2007). No evidence that polymorphisms of brain regulator genes Microcephalin and ASPM are associated with general mental ability, head circumference or altruism, Biology Letters, 3, 157-160.

Spearman, C. (1904). "General intelligence," objectively determined and measured, The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

Zhu, Q., Song, Y., Hu, S., Li, X., Tian, M., Zhen, Z., Dong, Q., Kanwisher, N. and Liu, J. (2009). Heritability of the specific cognitive ability of face perception, Current Biology, 20, 137-142.