Peter Frost is a Canadian anthropologist. His main research interest has been the role of sexual selection in highly visible human traits, notably diverse hair and eye colors. Other interests include vitamin D metabolism in northern hunting peoples and gene-culture coevolution, such as genetic pacification due to the state monopoly on violence.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You are notably known for your claim that the most plausible origin for the high frequency of light coloration of skin in European ethnicities lies in sexual selection (rather than in natural selection). Could you remind us of your argument?
Peter Frost: It’s not just light skin. It’s also the extraordinary variety of hair and eye colors. I prefer to begin with them because they are much less explainable by anything other than sexual selection.
Take hair color. Most humans have black hair and one allele for hair color. Europeans have over two hundred for colors ranging from black to blond. The conventional explanation is straightforward: as humans entered higher latitudes, with less solar radiation, there was less selection for dark skin and, consequently, an accumulation of defective alleles for pigmentation. So the number of hair colors grew as a side effect.
That scenario has two problems. First, the genetic linkage between skin color and hair color is weak: if we took all humans with black hair, we would have a group with the full range of skin colors. Second, millions of years are needed to accumulate that many alleles through relaxation of selection. Yet modern humans have been in Europe for scarcely 45,000 years.
Did Europeans get their hair colors from the Neanderthals? According to a study of five alleles for red hair, one of them seems to be an archaic introgression, but the others are of modern human origin. Even if we assume that all of the alleles for hair color had slowly accumulated during the long existence of the Neanderthals, the timeline is still too short — at most three quarters of a million years. Furthermore, even if they all had a Neanderthal origin, we would still need to explain how they reached their current prevalence. Europeans today are only 1 to 4% Neanderthal.
That’s not all. Eye color, too, diversified during the same 45,000 years. So we have two color polymorphisms, with different genetic causes, developing in parallel within the same limits of time and space. There must have been a process of selection. Something helped preserve those new colors and pass them on to subsequent generations.
That something, in my opinion, was sexual selection. It begins when too many of one sex have to compete for too few of the other. The latter are in a buyer’s market and can pick and choose among prospective mates. Conversely, the “sellers” are in a worse position and have to market themselves as best they can. The successful ones are those who can attract attention and hold it as long as possible, typically by means of bright colors.
Sexual selection is consistent with the evolution of European hair and eye color in four ways:
First, the European color pattern has become more developed in one sex. Specifically, hair and eye colors are more varied among women than among men, with infrequent colors more common among women and frequent ones less common. A UK Biobank study found that red hair is especially prevalent among women, followed by blond hair and light brown hair. Conversely, the same study found that black hair is three to five times less common among women than among men. The different eye colors are likewise distributed more uniformly among women. These sex differences seem to be due to the action of estrogen during fetal development. A Czech study found that face shape was more feminine in blue-eyed men than in brown-eyed men, as if a single factor had feminized both face shape and eye color.
Second, dark colors have given way to brighter colors, even though new dark colors could have been created. Hair is carrot red, not beet red. Eyes are light blue, not navy blue. Brightness increases visual impact, causing the observer to watch the image longer and keep it in memory longer.
Third, broad-spectrum colors have given way to narrow-spectrum, “pure” ones. A pure color has relatively few wavelengths and is restricted to a narrow slice of the visible spectrum. Such colors don’t happen by accident. They are unusual in the natural world and almost always serve to attract attention, either as a warning coloration or as a means to attract a mate.
Fourth, a single color has given way to a variety. A color grabs attention not only by being bright within a narrow slice of the spectrum but also by being novel. If a particular color becomes too common, it will be less novel and less attractive, and the pressure of sexual selection will shift to more unusual ones. A variety of colors will thus coexist and grow in number as more appear through mutation.
But why would sexual selection be stronger in Europe than elsewhere? Keep in mind that most Europeans did not look European until late in time, almost at the dawn of history. As late as the Mesolithic, pale skin and diverse hair and eye colors were confined to Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and areas farther east. The oldest dating of blond hair goes back 18,000 years in central Siberia. We know all this from DNA in human remains. Inferential methods place the emergence of pale skin within the same time frame: 19,000 to 11,000 years ago according to one research team, and 19,200 to 7,600 years ago according to another. That’s more or less the last ice age, and long after modern humans had come to Europe. As a Science correspondent wrote: “The implication is that our European ancestors were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years.”
We still need more data, but it seems that the current European phenotype arose during the last ice age, some 10 to 20 thousand years ago, among hunting people who inhabited the plains stretching from the Baltic to Siberia. Their women were subjected to strong sexual selection for two reasons. First, men were fewer in number. In a hunting society, male mortality increases as hunters cover longer distances, and mean hunting distance is longest in open northern environments. Second, polygyny was less frequent. Since men provided almost all the food, the effort of providing for a second wife and her children was impossible for all but the best hunters. With few polygynous men, and fewer men altogether, women were in a tough market — too many competing for too few. Even slight improvements in attractiveness could make a big difference.
Why didn’t the new phenotype survive in Siberia? First, the colder and drier climate kept human numbers smaller than in Europe, the Gulf Stream being too distant to exert its warming and moistening influence. So the effects of sexual selection could not survive and accumulate as much, especially when the population contracted at the height of the ice age. Other humans then moved in as the climate turned warmer. Nonetheless, as shown by ancient DNA, the new phenotype did persist in south-central Siberia as late as the fourth century. Its population base had probably become too small to ensure its long-term survival.
Final question: why are Europeans diverse for hair and eye color but not for skin color? The reason may be a pre-existing sex difference that oriented sexual selection in one direction. In all human populations, girls become lighter-skinned during adolescence, with the result that young women are noticeably fairer than young men. A fair complexion was traditionally valued in women, who would make themselves even fairer by avoiding the sun, by wearing protective clothing, and by using face powders. This gender norm has existed across all cultures with one exception, albeit a big one: the tanning craze of Western women since the early 20th century. Thus, at least in premodern times, fairer women were preferred, and such a preference, under intense sexual selection, would eventually drain the gene pool of alleles for dark skin. This may explain the strange albino-like skin of Europeans.
I should stress that this episode of intense sexual selection probably did much more than change hair, eye, and skin color. Those effects are the most obvious, and the hardest to explain otherwise.
Other effects might include changes in hair form. Hair form was originally thick and straight across northern Eurasia. It then diversified in Europe during the same narrow timeframe that saw hair and eye colors diversify. From being thick and straight it became thin with diverse textures: about 45 percent of Europeans now have straight hair, 40 percent wavy hair, and 15 percent curly hair. The cause was probably the same desire for novelty that created the palette of hair and eye colors. A novelty effect has in fact been shown in an Austrian study, which found that women tend to change their hair form to a less common one.
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Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color – A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior 27(2): 85-103.
Frost, P. (2014). The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color. Advances in Anthropology 4(2): 78-88.
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Kleisner, K., L. Priplatova, P. Frost, and J. Flegr. (2013). Trustworthy-looking face meets brown eyes. PLoS One 8(1): e53285.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: Speaking of sexual selection and skin color, the spread of miscegenation in France and in other Western countries can hardly be denied—with white women falling increasingly into the arms of black men, and white men into those of black or yellow women. How do you sum up the biocultural trends underlying those preferences?
Peter Frost: Let’s begin with the marriage market in Western countries. Until the 1980s, single women outnumbered single men throughout adulthood. Today, it’s almost the reverse: single men outnumber single women until the fifth decade of life in the U.S. and the sixth decade in the U.K. The imbalance is even worse among childless single people. If a young man wants to have children of his own, he has to marry a woman within a narrow age range, essentially between 26 and 29. Below that age range, single women generally don’t marry; above it, most are single mothers, and others will ride the carousel as long as they can and with as many men as they can.
So a lot of men look abroad for brides. This isn’t just a Western thing. In East Asia, more and more men are going to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia to get married.
Why the shortage of brides? Three reasons:
- A decrease in male mortality. Fewer men are dying in wars, car crashes, and other accidents. Infant mortality has also fallen, especially among boys. So the high sex ratio at birth is lasting all the way through middle age and even into early old age.
- An increase in polygyny. The deregulation of sexual behavior has ratcheted up competition for young women. On the one hand, we have more serial polygyny, i.e., an older man divorces and remarries with a younger wife. On the other hand, we have more “polyamory,” i.e., a man monopolizes sexual access to more than one woman at a time.
- An increase in immigration, together with changes to its makeup. Immigrants are increasingly young single men, like the ones in Angela Merkel’s million man march.
This is a dramatic change, yet few are discussing it. One reason is that older women dominate discourse on marriage, particularly in the chattering classes. Another is that baby boomers remember a different time and refuse to believe that things have changed. Finally, young men lose face if they admit they are failing with women. So they lie, not only to others but also to themselves. The reality is that a typical young bachelor has no girlfriend at all, particularly after college, but he won’t talk about it and neither will most other people.
But why are white women looking elsewhere when they have never had such good odds with white men? Is it just “the circumstances of life”? That’s what people say if a question is too personal … or if they aren’t sure themselves. When I was studying how children perceive differently colored dolls, I found they had distinct responses to differing shades of skin color, but they couldn’t explain why. One of them simply said: “Because I love her!”
I think adults are similar to those children in some ways but not in others. Skin color arouses strange feelings in us that we don’t understand, just as children don’t understand many things. Unlike children, however, we deny those feelings or feel ashamed about them, just as people once felt ashamed about sex. And like certain adults of another day and age, we may even believe that evil forces have implanted those feelings in us.
That’s the logic we’re being drawn into. If that’s where you are, please put aside your prejudices — yes, prejudices — and hear me out.
Men are naturally darker than women, their skin being browner and ruddier. Many studies have shown that we use this visual cue unconsciously to tell men and women apart. In fact, human subjects can use hue and luminosity to identify the sex of a face even if the image is blurred and provides no other useful information. There is also an aesthetic dimension. In one study, women were asked to optimize the attractiveness of computer-generated facial pictures, so they made the male faces darker and ruddier than the female ones.
I’ve done two studies on this subject, the first one with preschool children. My assistant showed each of them a pair of dolls, one slightly darker than the other, and the child had to choose one of them. The choice was then written down, plus the child’s age, sex, height, weight, adiposity, and skin color (skin reflectance under the child’s upper arm). Next came the analysis. Sex did not affect doll choice. Nor did height, weight, or skin color. However, body mass had a definite effect among children younger than three, as did triceps fat adjusted for body size. Body fat seemed to increase preference for the darker doll. At those ages, fatty tissue is the main source of estrogen in the human body.
In my second study, I showed women several pairs of facial pictures that differed slightly in skin tone, and I asked them to choose the most pleasing one. When two male faces were shown, the darker face was more strongly preferred by women in the first two-thirds of their menstrual cycle (high estrogen/progesterone ratio) than by women in the last third (low estrogen/progesterone ratio). The cyclical effect was absent if the women were judging female faces or taking oral contraceptives. It looks as if a higher ratio of estrogen to anti-estrogens (such as progesterone) causes a more favorable assessment of darker male faces.
Those findings are supported by a brain imaging study of female subjects: Women had a stronger neural response to pictures of “masculinized” male faces, and this response correlated with their estrogen level across the menstrual cycle. The study’s authors had masculinized the faces by making them darker and more robust in shape.
In sum, the hue and luminosity of human skin is unconsciously processed by the human mind as a visual cue for sex recognition and, apparently, for associated purposes ranging from sexual attraction to emotional distancing and preparedness for a possibly aggressive encounter, all of which remain poorly understood.
But there’s more to this than skin color. In relationships between white women and black men, as in all sexual relationships, the key is not only how the woman initially feels but also how persistent the man is. Black men tend to be more willing to try, try, and try again. That personality type is no accident — it comes out of a polygynous society in which men have to compete more keenly for mates. Because women in sub-Saharan Africa traditionally produced most of the food, this being through year-round farming, a man could more easily support a second wife and her children, with the result that 20 to 50 percent of marriages were polygynous. With many men taking more than their fair share, competition for women was more intense. This was not the case with hunter-gatherers, among whom the man and the woman contributed equally to the family food supply. They had lower rates of polygyny and less mate competition.
Personality has been studied in polygynous and monogamous Senegalese men. The polygynous men were more extraverted than the monogamous ones, being more sociable, more assertive, and more emotionally dominant. Likewise, testosterone levels were higher in the polygynous men than in the monogamous ones up to the age of 30. After 45, the pattern reversed, with monogamous men having higher levels. Interestingly, the same age trends are seen in African and Euro Americans. Testosterone levels are higher in African American boys than in Euro American boys as early as 5 to 9 years of age. The difference is largest during adolescence and early adulthood and then shrinks to zero after 24 years of age.
Polygyny favors not only outgoingness but also aggressiveness and physical robustness. That was the finding of a comparative study of two East African peoples: the polygynous Datoga and the monogamous Hadza. Datoga men were more aggressive than Hadza men on all measures: physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and hostility. They were also larger and more robust. Finally, the two groups differed at the androgen receptor gene, with the polygynous Datoga more often having an allele that correlated in men with aggressiveness and number of children fathered. Thus, through a process of gene-culture coevolution, a highly polygynous culture has produced a different sort of man, both mentally and physically. It’s worth quoting the study to understand the different cultural environments:
“There is a negative attitude toward aggression among the Hadza but not among the Datoga. In situations of potential aggression, the Hadza prefer to leave. In contrast, aggression is an instrument of social control — both within the family and in outgroup relations — in Datoga society. Datoga men are trained to compete with each other and to act aggressively in particular circumstances.”
This male phenotype can succeed on a personal level but on a societal level it does less well. It creates problems that can be resolved only at the cost of creating more problems.
That is what happened in sub-Saharan Africa. Marriageable women were scarce, so the community gave older men priority. Young men could not marry, so they raided other communities for women. Raiding parties took unwanted male captives, so they got rid of them at slave markets. Local markets became oversupplied, so the surplus went to buyers farther away. Buyers farther away became dependent on slave labor, so they lobbied for more slaves and got directly involved in the trafficking.
From the outset, Africans were complicit in the slave trade because of the contradictions of a polygynous society. In time, the web of complicity spread beyond Africa and entangled societies farther and farther away, eventually altering their historical development.
There were also long-term impacts where it all began. The same polygyny that created slaves for export also held back progress beyond a certain level. Progress requires peace: the State imposes a monopoly on violence, and people can concentrate on other things. That never happened in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
All in all, the big picture hardly resembles the little picture. On a societal level, monogamy is a winning strategy: it outperforms polygyny in creating peaceful, productive societies. On a personal level, it’s a losing strategy: monogamous men get driven out of the sexual marketplace. They can’t compete. There have been attempts to level the playing field by teaching nice guys how to do “game,” i.e., how to seduce and pick up women. If it works, fine. For most, however, game is a poor fit for their personality type. Game pushes their envelope of phenotypic plasticity too far and for too long a time. Even if they could learn it, they would have trouble keeping up the act for years and years. Do you want to be a dynamic asshole your whole life?
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Grégoire Canlorbe: You challenge the notion that the biological nature of Homo sapiens was essentially designed during the roughly two and a half million-year hunter-gatherer phase which ended before the climax of the last ice age (and that is commonly called the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”). How come?
Peter Frost: That idea was first challenged by people better than me, namely John Hawks, Henry Harpending, and Greg Cochran. Through a genomic survey, they showed that human genetic evolution accelerated over a hundredfold some 10,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering gave way to farming. At that time, we had already spread over the world from the equator to the arctic. We were no longer adapting to a single natural environment or even multiple natural environments. We were adapting to more and more cultural environments.
Humans have coevolved with culture. The concept of gene-culture coevolution was first put into words by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them.” Unlike other life forms, we create our environment, not only our built environment of houses and roads but also languages, religions, social classes, means of subsistence, oral and written texts, ways of organizing space, and so on. In short, humans create their environment and then have to adapt to it, thereby being remade by things of their making. We have directed our evolution.
The fast pace of our genetic evolution continued into the time of recorded history. Just think: more genetic change has happened over the past 10,000 years than over the previous million. Human evolution is not a straight line but an exponential curve with most of the interesting stuff squeezed into the last few segments. If you could meet an archaic human, you’d think it was a big ape. The Tungus peoples of Siberia tell stories about the “monkey people” who once lived in the mountains. Except perhaps for the Japanese macaque, Siberia has never had monkeys, only a form of archaic human that some taxonomists place in our genus and others in our species.
All of this is at odds with earlier thinking. It used to be thought that genetic evolution lagged farther and farther behind as culture became more and more complex. That’s the reasoning behind the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” — a place and time in the Pleistocene when human nature took its present form. Since then, there has supposedly been insufficient time to create new mental mechanisms from scratch. But who says new ones have to be created? Just change the existing ones. A single mutation at a single regulator gene can alter the way thousands of other genes work. In fact, human evolution mostly involves changes to existing mechanisms, particularly those that control the speed, timing, and duration of development.
Those points are known to the founders of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, yet they still talk about the Pleistocene as the end point of human evolution. It’s not that they dislike giving up a long-cherished idea. In fact, they never were sure about it, nor did they ever consider it foundational to evolutionary psychology. The “foundation” is simply the idea that our present way of life doesn’t match our genetic makeup, which is an adaptation to past environments. But those past environments don’t have to go all the way back to the Pleistocene. That last detail began as a guess and became an article of faith out of necessity.
It’s like Trump in the White House. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides wandered in the wilderness and took a lot of abuse before finally getting secure university positions… at a price: “You want to dabble in biological determinism? OK, do so if you must, but don’t ever touch the third rail! Is that clear?” So human evolution had to end when the Pleistocene ended.
Some academics have touched the third rail, one of them being Henry Harpending. He was repeatedly told to stop, subtly at first and then not so subtly. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center added his name to its published list of “extremists.” A year later, he died of an MRSA infection while in hospital. An accident, I suppose.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: A case of gene-culture coevolution which you like to point out is that of the high incidence of the neurological disorder Tay-Sachs among French Canadians from Eastern Quebec or among Ashkenazi Jews. Could you tell us more about it?
Peter Frost: Ashkenazi Jews have high frequencies of four lysosomal storage disorders: Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, and mucolipidosis type IV. All four affect the brain by increasing the capacity of lysosomes to store sphingolipid compounds for the growth and branching of axons. Each disorder can have multiple unrelated causes. Ashkenazi Jews have two unrelated mutations for Tay-Sachs and five unrelated mutations for Gaucher disease. As Jared Diamond wrote: “In effect, lightning has struck Jewish lysosomes not once, not three times, but at least eight times.”
Those mutations have apparently spread through heterozygote advantage: they are harmful in the homozygous state, with two copies from both parents, but are helpful in the much more common heterozygous state, with only one copy from one parent. In the second state, the brain is better supplied with sphingolipids and suffers no adverse effects. The result is better retention and processing of information, i.e., higher intelligence.
Again, I’m late to the party. Jared Diamond was the first not only to point out the impossibility of such disorders being due to chance but also to propose selection for intelligence as a possible cause. His idea was then developed in a paper by Greg Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending. Recently, other researchers have shown that Ashkenazim have higher frequencies of alleles associated with educational attainment.
This is no longer conjecture. Ashkenazi Jews really are smarter on average, as are probably other populations that have specialized in trade, such as the Parsis in India and the Igbo in Nigeria. The Parsis likewise show high frequencies of certain neurological disorders: peripheral neuropathy, essential tremor, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy. Such disorders may be an unfortunate side-effect of strong selection over a short time in a small population.
These facts are coming to light at a time when Ashkenazi Jews are disappearing through low fertility and high out-marriage. The same trends explain their disappearance from the top winners at the U.S. Math Olympiad, the Putnam Exam, the Computing Olympiad, and other academic competitions. The decline became noticeable in the 1980s and has since accelerated. The Parsis, too, are dying out, with a fertility rate of less than one child per woman. It seems that the current environment is toxic to the survival of highly intelligent populations.
To return to the subject, lysosomal storage disorders are like weathervanes. They tell us the strength and direction of selection for intelligence, but the selection itself has acted on many more genes.
Such weathervanes are found in another population. In French Canadians, two alleles for Tay-Sachs reach high frequencies, but only in eastern Quebec, with one allele being prevalent on the north shore of the St. Lawrence and the other on the south shore. In Rimouski, the heterozygote frequency is 7.6%, versus 4.2% among Ashkenazi Jews and 0.3% among French Canadians in Montreal. Eastern Quebec also has high frequencies of another lysosomal storage disorder: mucolipidosis type II, which has a heterozygote frequency of 2.6% in the regions of Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean, the highest reported rate for this mutation.
So lightning has struck French Canadians at least three times in the same metabolic pathway, and also in the same geographic area. That, too, is odd. Look at the regions where lysosomal storage disorders are most common: Charlevoix, Saguenay, and Lac Saint-Jean on the north shore and Bas Saint-Laurent on the south shore. Those regions historically had the fewest English Canadians.
Elsewhere in Quebec, the ethnic divide was an economic one: business was mostly in the hands of British and American families. Because such people were absent in the above regions, the business niche had to be filled by local talent. Those individuals were not a random sample. They possessed skills in numeracy, literacy, negotiation, and planning, while having a certain outlook on life and supportive family members. In an early market economy, before mass production and specialization of labor, business people and business talents were necessarily more common. A shoemaker, for instance, had to do everything — from purchasing the raw materials to selling the finished product. The workforce was his family, so he, his wife, and their children were the ones who performed the different stages of production: cutting the hides, dyeing, sewing, fitting pieces together, and so on. Evidently, the workforce was likewise homemade, as seen in the higher fertility of self-employed French Canadians at that time.
So a niche was vacant, and capable French Canadians filled it while having more children than average. Could that higher fertility explain the higher frequency of lysosomal storage disorders? To make the selection model work, heterozygotes would need a fitness advantage of 25 to 30 percent over non-carriers. That seems too high. On the other hand, the same regions saw many people leave for New England factories during the 19th century, and those emigrants were disproportionately landless farmers. So a lower fitness advantage might have been enough.
If I could pursue research on the subject, I would examine the genealogies of French Canadians with lysosomal storage disorders. Did heterozygotes have more surviving children than non-carriers? Were they more business-oriented? The second question is the harder one. If a businessman owned a farm, he would describe himself as a farmer to the census-taker, even if his business made more money than his farm. The ideal was to own land. If anything went wrong, he could live on the farm, grow his own food, and still enjoy a normal life. If all he had was a business, and it went bankrupt, he could end up in the street.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: A rudimentary cartographer of intelligence, medieval philosopher Maimonides referred to “the extreme Turks who wander about in the North, the black-colored people who live in the South, and those in our country [plausibly Egypt] who look like them,” not only as people who “have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition,” but as “irrational beings.” How do you sum up the progresses achieved since the time of A Guide for the Perplexed in mapping race differences in intelligence?
Peter Frost: It’s like mapping a moving object. We’re always evolving, and there is evidence that mean intelligence has changed during recorded history, particularly in Europe.
In the time of Maimonides, mean intelligence seems to have been highest within a middle zone stretching from the Mediterranean, through the Middle East and into South Asia and East Asia. By the end of the first millennium, that zone had reached the limits of its mode of production. Northwest Europe, where kinship was weaker and individualism stronger, was more conducive to the creation of a true market economy, which would favor not only cognitive ability but also future time orientation, reluctance to settle personal disputes with violence, and ability to process numerical and textual information — in short, a middle-class mindset
Gregory Clark has used demographic data to chart the growth of the English middle class. He found that it grew steadily from the 12th century onward, its descendants not only growing in number but also replacing the lower classes through downward mobility. By the 1800s, its lineages accounted for most of the English population. Meanwhile, England became more and more middle class in culture.
With respect to Northwest Europeans in general, Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff has argued that mean intelligence steadily rose during late medieval and early modern times. Previously, most people were stuck at the stage of preoperational thinking. They could learn language and behavioral norms but their ability to reason was hindered by cognitive egocentrism, anthropomorphism, finalism, and animism. From the 16th century onward, more and more people could understand probability, cause and effect, and another person’s perspective, whether real or hypothetical. As this “smart fraction” grew, it eventually reached a point where intellectuals were not loners anymore. They were communities of people who could exchange ideas in clubs, salons, coffeehouses, and debating societies. Thus began the Enlightenment.
During the same time period, mean cranial capacity seems to have increased. An increase has been demonstrated from at least 1800 in Germans and 1820 in white Americans (the specimens don’t go back earlier), and it cannot be easily explained by changes to nutrition or childhood disease. Infant mortality is a good proxy for both, and it began to decrease only around 1900.
What goes up can come down. In the late 19th century, cottage industries began to give way to industrial capitalism. Businessmen no longer translated financial success into early marriage and large families who could help with the work. If they needed more workers, they simply hired them. Large families thus became a net cost for businessmen at a time when the costs of maintaining a high-status lifestyle were rising. For all these reasons, middle-class fertility entered a long decline, interrupted only by the baby boom of the mid-20th century.
The result was a decline in mean intelligence. The evidence is incomplete but consistent:
– Mean reaction time has risen in the United Kingdom by 13 points since the Victorian era. A Swedish study has found the same change, particularly in cohorts born since the 1970s. People are taking a longer time to process the same information.
– In Iceland, since the cohort born in 1910, there has been a steady decrease in the mean frequency of alleles associated with educational attainment.
– The Flynn effect is ending throughout the West. In fact, it is reversing in Scandinavia, England, and Austria.
Please note: The Flynn effect never was a real increase in intelligence. Do you think people are smarter today than a century ago? Read the popular literature from back then. Examine the vocabulary and the complexity of the plots. Also examine what people were expected to know upon graduation from elementary school. Yes, IQ scores rose during the 20th century, but the reason is largely because people became more familiar with test-taking and with thinking in terms of standardized answers to standardized questions. Real intelligence was actually declining all that while, and the decline is becoming apparent on IQ tests with the end of the Flynn effect.
The decline in intelligence is no longer due to the slump in middle-class fertility. For one thing, use of contraception and abortion has spread to families of all social classes. For another, a Norwegian study has shown that the reversal of the Flynn effect in Norway is largely explained by “within-family variation.” In other words, the current decline is not due to the lower class outbreeding the middle class or to immigrants outbreeding natives. It’s due to younger siblings being dumber than older siblings.
That explanation does not exclude a genetic cause. In Norway, siblings are increasingly half-siblings. The above finding was based on a comparison of brothers in the military conscript register (only men are conscripted in Norway), and for a woman to produce a pair of brothers, she has to have three children on average. Among Norwegian women with three children, 36.2 percent have had them by two or more men. In Norway, multi-partner fatherhood is most common among men with the lowest level of education, and multi-partner fertility has been increasing among such men. Subsequent fathers of siblings thus tend to be less intelligent. Furthermore, within a family, half-siblings contribute more to change in mean sibling IQ over time because they tend to be born farther apart than full-siblings, i.e., the mother loses some time while searching for a new partner.
This probably provides us with the reasons for the current IQ decline in Norway — the decomposition of the family, and fathers who are little more than sperm donors. The children acquire the mother’s family name and later, if she remarries, her new husband may adopt them. Official statistics are thus misleading. In reality, more and more individuals are not fathered by their legal “fathers.” This is a long-term trend throughout the West: the family has ceased to be a legally enshrined “pact to procreate” and is becoming a group of two or more individuals who share space for a certain time.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: The first (to the best of my knowledge) to notice a link between Western Christianity and Northwest Europeans’ domestic individualism, anthropologist Jack Goody imputed—in his 1983’s book The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe—the latter to the Church’s domestic teachings (especially those of Pope Gregory the Great) in the aftermath of the fall of Rome… with the Church securing its land interests through promoting the nuclear and equalitarian family. You proposed a reverse interpretation of the cause and effect link—namely that the Catholic Church was actually assimilating (instead of shaping) the domestic norms of its faithful. Could you tell us more about your reading?
Peter Frost: North and west of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg a different social environment has prevailed for at least a millennium: almost everyone is single for at least part of adulthood, and many stay single their entire lives; in addition, households often have non-kin members, and children normally leave the nuclear family to form new households. This weak-kinship environment is associated with an unusual pattern of behavior: Northwest Europeans are more individualistic, less loyal to kin, and more trusting of strangers.
In a recent study, Jonathan Schulz and others have ascribed this behavior pattern to Western Christianity, particularly its ban on consanguineous marriages and a consequent weakening of family ties and strengthening of impersonal relationships. Therefore, the ban must have predated the behavior pattern. Actually, no one knows which came first. As we go farther back in time, we have less data to work with, but the same pattern still appears in the little we do have. In 13th-century Lincolnshire, households were already nuclear and a late age of first marriage was the norm: 24 for the woman and 32 for the man. In 9th-century France, households were small and nuclear among married people, 12 to 16 percent of adults were unmarried, and both sexes were marrying in their mid to late twenties. Earlier data are too fragmentary to produce firm conclusions. Furthermore, the data usually focus on elite males who typically had young brides. Nonetheless, we see evidence of first marriages at late ages, such as observations by Julius Caesar and Tacitus that the people of the Germanic tribes married late.
The direction of causality may thus run in the other direction. The Northwest European behavior pattern does not exist because Western Christianity diverged from Eastern Christianity on the question of consanguineous marriage. Rather, the divergence happened because Western Christianity was assimilating the behavioral norms of its converts.
Let’s look more closely at the ban on consanguineous marriages, particularly its timeline. Roman Civil Law had banned them only for first cousins. The first legal code to go farther was the mid-7th century Visigothic Code, which went two degrees farther. Then, in the early 9th century, the Church changed its way of calculating degrees of kinship by adopting the Germanic system. Under the Roman system, first cousins were considered fourth degree. The Germanic system made them second degree, thereby doubling the number of forbidden marriage partners. Thus, although the ban was Church-enforced, it seems to have originated among the converted Germanic peoples.
The same may apply to other beliefs and practices. Why, for instance, is the doctrine of original sin and hereditary guilt more developed in Western Christianity? One reason may be that the converted peoples regulated their behavior much more by internal means — by feeling guilt over wrongdoing, instead of being shamed by others. In the guilt cultures of Northwest Europe, the average person felt guilty even about transgressions that no one else had witnessed. The burden of guilt had to be regularly purged somehow, and Western Christianity became oriented to that end.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: When it comes to challenging the hypothesis that cold winters are natural selectors playing specifically in favor of high intelligence, it is not uncommon to argue that all sorts of natural environment are likely to present challenges requiring high intelligence—and that hunting in the woodlands of Africa is actually not less difficult than hunting in the grasslands of Eurasia. It is added that Artic peoples such as the Inuit, though encountering the harshest winter conditions, prove to be not especially intelligent; and that, generally speaking, the severity of a given environment does not guarantee the nurture of intelligence through natural selection—with the !Kung inhabiting one of the most arid environment on earth and yet exhibiting low intelligence.
In those conditions, a more credible explanation for high intelligence in Europeans and in East-Asians would lie in the crossbreeding with their Neanderthal cousins of those of Homo sapiens who spread out of Africa into Northern Eurasia. What do you reply to that line of thought?
Peter Frost: A challenging environment doesn’t necessarily reward intelligence. In many cases, the challenges are distributed too randomly over time to be anticipated. In other cases, the payback doesn’t justify the increased mental effort. Harsh environments such as the Kalahari are so resource-poor that increases in mental effort are not rewarded with corresponding gains in food, fuel, and shelter.
The Arctic is resource-rich. There is plenty of food, plenty of fuel, and plenty of useful materials for shelter, but those resources cannot be accessed without a lot of mental effort.
Take food. Most hunter-gatherers assign hunting to men and gathering to women. To hunt, a man has to collect, memorize, and manipulate data about space and time, not only his own coordinates but also those of game animals. The quantity of data increases exponentially as a function of hunting distance, which in turn increases as a function of latitude — game animals roam over larger areas in northern environments. So, at high latitudes, his brain has to store huge amounts of spatiotemporal data.
In the Arctic, a woman has few opportunities to gather food, so she specializes in other tasks: meat processing, garment making, shelter building, leather working, fire making, pottery, and ornamentation. If we look at the first modern humans to colonize northern Eurasia, during the last ice age, we see that such specialization led to creation of new tools, a wide range of woven goods, and new ceramic technologies, including use of kilns. This was also noted by Nicole Waguespack in her cross-cultural study of recent hunter-gatherers. She found that women develop new skills and technologies in cultures where they do less food gathering and are more dependent on male providers. She concluded that it was this reorientation of women’s work in the Arctic, and not farming or population growth at lower latitudes, that pushed people to go beyond the primary tasks of getting food. Humans were freed from the mental straitjacket of hunting and gathering. They were now imagining totally new tasks that existed independently of food procurement — what would later become “industry.”
In addition, for men and women alike, the Arctic favors planning because terrestrial and marine resources are typically seasonal and have to be obtained and processed during a short time to provide a surplus for the lean season. The time constraint is solved by scheduling, by devising specific tools for specific tasks, by using untended devices, such as pits, traps, weirs, and nets, and by digging storage pits down to the permafrost to refrigerate perishables. Again, huge quantities of spatiotemporal data have to be gathered, memorized, and manipulated.
Finally, the cold itself requires cognitive effort. Clothing has to be tailored to retain body heat, and such tailoring requires development of awls, eyed needles, and hide scrapers. Shelters likewise have to be made cold-resistant and built with hearths.
Those demands on cognitive ability are shown by differences in cranial capacity. A team led by Kenneth Beals found a high correlation between cranial capacity and latitude: 0.76 for the Old World and 0.44 for the New World. They concluded that higher latitudes favor more globular heads as a means to retain body heat. Yet their own data showed much lower correlations between latitude and the ratio of body surface to mass, which is the main factor in heat dissipation. If heads are larger at higher latitudes as a means to retain heat, why would heat retention be much less important for the body as a whole?
The cognitive demands of hunting, especially at higher latitudes, are also shown by a decline in cranial capacity after hunting and gathering gave way to farming. Between the Mesolithic and modern times, the decline was 10 percent for men and 17 percent for women. This can be securely demonstrated only for Europeans and East Asians We do not find this decline in the one non-Eurasian population (Nubians) for whom we have a large enough collection of crania. Did the decline in cranial capacity reflect a decline in intelligence? It was more likely a reorientation of intelligence; in particular, the male mind no longer had to store so much data for hunting. But why, then, was the decline even greater for women? Perhaps men were displacing them in craft production. I can only speculate.
You said the Inuit are not especially intelligent. Actually, they do well on IQ tests. Inuit children in Arctic Quebec perform as well as white children from southern Quebec and even exceed U.S. norms. If we look at adult Inuit who have gone to school and are familiar with test-taking, we see them doing as well as whites and even surpassing them on spatial tasks. Indeed, adult Inuit are reported to have an “extraordinary ability to find their way through what appears to be a featureless terrain by remembering visual configurations […]. According to some reports, such memories persist for long periods of time. Elderly hunters have succeeded in guiding parties through terrain seen only in their youth.”
That extraordinary memory for detail, as expressed in contemporary Inuit art, came to the attention of L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, a leading geneticist. He organized a project with our university and Queen’s on the genetic and cultural bases of Inuit spatial intelligence. He hoped to show how gene-culture coevolution has created cognitive differences between human groups. Then he dropped the project, for “health reasons.”
I don’t wish to romanticize the Inuit. They have serious problems with alcohol abuse and a high rate of youth suicide. In short, they are ill-suited to the Western model of sedentary living, individualism, and superficial interaction with other people, particularly kinfolk. Young Inuit feel useless in that environment and develop suicidal thoughts. In my opinion, they should disengage from Western culture.
So should we. Yes, we can better tolerate the toxic effects of asociality and weak kinship, but that tolerance has been pushed to the limit and beyond. We’re now in the red zone.
Finally, you asked whether intermixture with Neanderthals was key to the evolution of human intelligence. The Neanderthals had to adapt to the cold. Perhaps they provided modern humans with intelligence-boosting alleles.
It’s a nice theory, but the facts are less obliging. If we look at Neanderthal admixture in our genome, we see that it is disproportionately inactive. There has been selection to remove genetic material that actually does something. Should we be surprised? The Neanderthals adapted to a similar natural environment, but they did so not only in different ways but also in a different body. Something useful in a Neanderthal body is probably not so useful in ours.
Another thing. There is Neanderthal admixture in all of the indigenous peoples of Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Europeans are actually the least Neanderthal of all those populations (Oceanians are the most). Those populations also differ a lot in technology and social complexity. So it’s not obvious that Neanderthal admixture has had much effect on mind and behavior.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: Apart from Spartans (whom the other Greeks acknowledged to be mentally and culturally backward), it seems that Classical Greece was jointly characterized by high levels of average and exceptional intelligence (and consequently a high propensity to enjoy reading, writing, and thinking); and by a pluralistic and heroic approach of cognitive life, in which intellectual innovation and the competition between different intellectual leaders (like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Plato, or Aristotle) find themselves to be praised—contrasting with the traditionally conformist approach of knowledge in China. From a eugenic point of view, how do you make sense of the “Greek Miracle”?
Peter Frost: A team led by Michael Woodley of Menie has found that alleles for educational attainment gradually became more frequent between 4,560 and 1,210 years ago in Europeans and Central Asians. He’s now looking specifically at ancient Greek DNA. The preliminary results show an increase in the same alleles from Neolithic to Mycenaean times, followed by a decrease between then and the modern era.
What was driving that increase? I don’t know. To explain the Golden Age of Greece, we must understand what was happening before, particularly in terms of demography. I suspect there was a process like that of medieval and early modern England, i.e., a steady increase in people who made their living from trade. Trade seems to select for intelligence, particularly numeracy and literacy.
Once people can read commercial contracts they can read philosophy. The doors are wide open to further intellectual improvement.
You asked why the approach to knowledge was less conformist in ancient Greece than in China. In a word, the Chinese state “nationalized” intelligence through the imperial examination for entry into the state bureaucracy. That exam had an impact on the Chinese people not only intellectually but also demographically and perhaps genetically. It’s true that only 1 percent of the population reached the top degree of chin-shih or the lesser degree of chu-jen, but success at lower levels also brought benefits, if only prestige, and the beneficiaries were much more numerous. Anyway, let’s assume that benefits accrued only to the 1 percent who held those degrees. Let’s also assume that with each passing century the descendants of that original 1 percent became only twice as numerous. In six centuries they would be the majority.
I can already hear the criticisms. “But some of them would’ve married into the rest of the population! You’re assuming the population was stationary! And you’re forgetting regression to the mean!” Well, OK, but in the meantime there would have been new cohorts of degree-holders. Whatever the line of criticism, my basic point still stands: steady growth has a dramatic impact over the long term, even from a small base. In this case, the long term was quite long. The imperial examination began some 1400 years ago, reached its apogee almost a thousand years ago, and ended at the dawn of the 20th century.
Thus, over the long term, the imperial examination could have influenced the psychological makeup of the Chinese people, both in their average level of intelligence and in the nature of their intelligence. Intellectual conformity was favored. Degree-holders were chosen for their ability to memorize existing knowledge and present it in standardized ways, particularly classic works of prose and poetry and neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Over the centuries, attempts were made at reform, notably by eliminating questions on poetry and introducing more practical subjects, but such measures ignored a more serious shortcoming.
Exams, by their very nature, sanctify existing ways of thinking. People are penalized for giving “wrong” answers that may, in fact, be logical and defendable. Ultimately, doubt itself is penalized, since it distracts from the all-important task of knowing the “right” answers.
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Grégoire Canlorbe: You have the following words by Blaise Pascal inscribed in the pediment of your blog: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.” How does that quote resonate with your work as an evolutionary anthropologist?
Peter Frost: I learned that quote from Michel Cabanac, an evolutionary psychologist at our university and a strong Christian. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.
Evolutionary social scientists grasp the importance of religion better than many evangelists and certainly better than conservative politicians. We need religion, and we feel that need in our flesh and bones.
Religiosity is partly innate. Twin studies have shown that the genetic component is between 25 and 45 percent, but the non-genetic component includes literally everything else, like errors in understanding the question and in collecting the data. We therefore have an innate need to internalize norms of correct behavior, particularly our notions of right and wrong. This need seems to vary from one person to another, and perhaps from one population to another, but I won’t go into that here.
We used to meet our need for moral guidance by looking to religion: the Church taught us how to behave. Its teachings, though imperfect, had at least been tried and tested over many generations. Today, with the decline of Christian faith, our culture is being reprogrammed with new behavioral norms that have never proven their worth. These are not just things that are wonderful in theory but terrible in practice. Many are terrible in theory and in practice. They get accepted because their proponents have the megaphone.
Michel Cabanac was appalled by this reprogramming of post-Christian society. We still have an innate need for moral guidance, but it is now being pushed into new channels and made to serve new ends, often cynically so.
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Lewis, G.J. and T.C. Bates. (2013). Common genetic influences underpin religiosity, community integration, and existential uncertainty. Journal of Research in Personality 47: 398-405.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Is there something you would like to add?
Peter Frost: I’m an armchair anthropologist. I’ve done research, but the above material comes overwhelmingly from other people. Some of them are still active, others are no longer of this world, and still others have fallen silent for reasons of their own.
I understand the reasons. We are indeed going through difficult times, and the worst may be yet to come. But all of this will pass.
That conversation first appeared in American Renaissance, divided into two parts that were both published in March 2020.