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February 18, 2003

The many-headed hydra

Brother Poe chides those of us who become a bit too seduced by the serpent. Richard's problem is that evolutionary conservatives-ergo Steve Sailer-have become a bit too enamoured of biology, nature and "instinct" and neglect other factors that shape human events. Biology is not always destiny. And yet, neither is culture. To prove that, note that Poe disagrees with Sailer, but both are men of half-Jewish extraction (biology) of Catholic faith (culture).

I know that here at Gene Expression we focus on, well, genes. But the main reason we do this is that others do not, social & cultural explanations rule the roost (among both liberals and cultural conservatives). Additionally, evolutionary psychologists study human universals, while ignoring possible group & individual differences [1]. But that doesn't mean that I ignore culture and history, a quick perusal of the content here will show that I am very cognizant of non-biological forces that are determinants of the human condition.

Richard in particular seems to object to Steve's contrast of the family patterns in west Africa with Scandinavia, and the different products that have resulted from the same reagents [2]. Reading Steve's original article, I had some of the same thoughts as Richard. Some of the ancient pre-Christian European peoples had strong fosterage traditions, as Richard notes, the Celts for instance. The Romans themselves had peculiar familial institutions where adoption was given great weight. But just because the two groups practice/practiced fosterage does not mean the anology holds (to my knowledge, I recall that many tribal peoples practiced fosterage to strengthen ties between families and tribes, while Steve indicates that west African fosterage is more of a practical way to discard the children of a dead father).

I began to think of these topics a few weeks ago when considering that west Africa is often considered matrifocal in orientation. And yet the men live basically polygamous lives. Parts of southern India (among the Nairs of Kerala) also exhibit matrifocal tendencies, but it seems that there are important differences. In Kerala there was a matrilineal tradition that focused on the relationship between maternal uncles and their nieces and nephews, as well as the primacy of the female lineage [3]. To my knowledge Nairs and their kin do not practice anything close to the family structure that characterizes west Africa (weak relationships between parents, primacy of females in farm work, etc.), and yet both can be characterized as "matrifocal." Similarly, yes, the Celts practiced fosterage, but they did not tend toward the commonplace loosely structured polygany that characterises modern west Africa (the pre-Christian Indo-European tribes did practice polygany to a limited extent among high status males, similar to the depictions found in Indo-Aryan oral tradition, but never to the extent that seems the norm in African and Semitic lore).

That being said, time will tell if Richard is correct, if Scandinavia will succumb to the "underclass disease." It is good to look at the same problem from every angle-it hints that solutions may be possible if not obvious....

Brother Poe strikes again! Response pending completion of my day job....

[1] The exception to this is gender, which is one reason that Gene Expression does not focus so much attention on a topic that is often covered in Time and Newsweek.

[2] Scandinavia + welfare = nanny state, black America + welfare = heart of darkness (both groups are characterized by high rates out-of-wedlock births, but the former situation is noted for cohabitation and male involvement in progeny according to Fukuyama's Great Disruption).

[3] For comparison, note that northern India and the Middle East both share intense patriarchal traditions and are highly patrilineal. Women are commodities, suttee is a north Indian sin, while honor killings are most prevelant in the Middle East. And yet the Indo-Aryan cultures of northern India enforce intra-village exogamy and male monogamy, while those of the Middle East and Muslim influenced northern India favor familial endogamy (cousin marriages) and polygamy (a sign of high status).

Posted by razib at 12:10 AM




Well, I've been listening to predictions of Scandinavian collapse since about 1958 or so. So I'm taking a wait and see attitude; at this rate I probably won't live long enough though.

My general impression is that attempts to classify cultures by family structure have been deemphasized in anthropology, just because any category of description covers too many distinct actual ways of life.

The Scandinavian peoples are a pretty good challenge for anyone arguing for hereditary "national character". Up until 1709 the Swedes were the goon squad of Europe -- Gustavus Adolphus invented the modern army, and Karl XII alnmost conquered Russia. But now they're weenies.

Posted by: zizka at February 18, 2003 02:01 PM


I emailed Mr. Sailer about the subject, and from his response I don't think he intended to imply that the Scandinavian welfare policy had no problems. I think Mr. Poe is perceiving more disagreement between his and Sailer's positions than actually exists.

Posted by: Glaivester at February 18, 2003 07:47 PM


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Posted by: at February 24, 2003 06:40 PM