Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wishing you a merry ... something

Yale was founded by English Congregationalist ministers. Today, only 22% of its student body has a Christian European background of any sort.


Last year, around this time, friends and acquaintances offered me all sorts of religiously neutral salutations: Seasons Greetings! Happy Holidays! Joyeuses fêtes! Meilleurs vœux! Only two people wished me Merry Christmas.

One was Muslim, the other was Jewish.

They meant well. After all, isn't that the culturally correct greeting? In theory, yes. In practice, most Christians feel uncomfortable affirming their identity. And this self-abnegation gets worse the closer you are to the cultural core of Anglo-America. Immigrants of Christian background enjoy being wished Merry Christmas. Black people likewise. Catholics seem to split half and half, depending on how traditional or nominal they are.

But the WASPs. Oh, the WASPs! With them, those two words are a faux pas. The response is usually polite but firm: "And a very happy holiday season to you!"

Things weren’t always that way. The situation calls to mind a Star Trek episode where Capt. Kirk persuades an alien robot to destroy itself. "That which excludes is evil. If you affirm your identity, you are excluding those who don't share your identity. You are therefore evil."

I could question this logic. What about other cultural groups? Why single out just one? But I’ve heard the answer already. WASPs and their culture dominate North America. The path to power, or simply a better life, runs through their institutions. Minorities can affirm their own identities without restricting the life choices of others, but the same does not hold true for WASPs. Their identity affects everyone and must belong to everyone.

I’m still not convinced. Yes, WASPs did create the institutions of Anglo-America, but their influence in them is now nominal at best. The U.S. Supreme Court used to be a very WASPy place. Now, there's not a single White Protestant on it. That's a huge underrepresentation for a group that is still close to 40% of the population. We see the same thing at the Ivy League universities, which originally trained Protestant clergy for the English colonists. Today, how many of their students have any kind of Christian European background? The proportions are estimated to be 20% at Harvard, 22% at Yale, and 15% at Columbia (Unz, 2012).

Sometimes reality is not what is commonly believed.  WASPs are not at all privileged. In fact, they have been largely pushed aside in a country that was once theirs.

Whenever this ethnic displacement comes up for discussion (it usually doesn't), it gets put down to meritocracy. In the past, WASPs were the best people for the job of running the country. Now it's a mix of Jews, Asians, and other high-performing groups. A cynic might ask whether merit is the only factor ... and whether the U.S. is better run today than it was a half-century ago. Indeed, the latest Supreme Court appointee had little experience as a solicitor general and a scanty record of academic scholarship.

Merit isn't the whole story. There is also networking. In most parts of the world, an individual gets ahead in life by forming bonds of reciprocal assistance with family and kinfolk. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." That's how most of the world works.

But not all of the world. Northwest Europeans have diverged the most from this pattern, at least since the 12th century (Macfarlane, 1978a - 2012). Their kinship ties have been weaker and their sense of individualism correspondingly stronger. As a result, their cultural evolution has to a large degree been emancipated from the restraints of kinship, and this emancipation has facilitated other ways of organizing social relations: the nation-state, ideology, the market economy ... not to mention the strange idea of personal advancement through personal merit alone. This model of society has succeeded economically, militarily, and geopolitically, but it's vulnerable to people who don't play by the rules, since the threat of kin retaliation is insufficient to keep them in line. Societal survival is possible only to the extent that rule-breakers are ostracized and immigration restricted from cultures that play by other rules. 

This brings us to the dark side of traditional WASP culture: the busybodiness, the judgmentalism, the distrust of foreigners no matter how nice or refined they may seem. That mentality still exists, but it has been turned against itself. The people to be excluded are now those who exclude. The cultural programming for survival has been turned into a self-destruct mechanism ... as in that Star Trek episode.

Even if we could somehow abort this self-destruct sequence, it's hard to see how WASPs can survive on the current playing field. WASPs believe in getting ahead through rugged individualism. Most of the other groups believe in using family and ethnic connections. Guess who wins.

Anyway, I wish all of you a merry end of 2014! Far be it for me to exclude anyone from the merriment.


Unz, R. (2012). The myth of American meritocracy, The American Conservative, November 28 

Macfarlane, A. (2012). The invention of the modern world. Chapter 8: Family, friendship and population, The Fortnightly Review, Spring-Summer serial 

Macfarlane, A. (1992). On individualism, Proceedings of the British Academy, 82, 171-199. 

Macfarlane, A. (1978a). The origins of English individualism: Some surprises, Theory and society: renewal and critique in social theory, 6, 255-277.

Macfarlane, A. (1978b). The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A darker shade of pale

Subjects identified the left-hand image as a woman and the right-hand one as a man. Yet the two images differ only in skin tone. Study by Richard Russell, Sinha Laboratory for Vision Research, MIT.


Skin color differs by sex: women are fairer and men browner and ruddier. Women also exhibit a greater contrast in luminosity between their facial skin and their lip and eye areas. These differences arise from differing concentrations of three skin pigments: melanin (brown); hemoglobin (red); and carotene (yellow). The cause is ultimately hormonal, as shown by studies on castrated and ovariectomized adults, on boys and girls during puberty, and on digit ratios (Edwards and Duntley, 1939; Edwards and Duntley, 1949; Edwards et al., 1941; Frost, 2010; Kalla and Tiwari, 1970; Manning et al., 2004; Mesa, 1983; Omoto,1965; Porcheron et al., 2013). Women are fairer than men in all human populations. The difference is greatest in people of medium color and least in very dark- or very fair-skinned people, apparently because of "floor" or "ceiling" effects (Frost, 2007). 

This sex difference is used by the human mind for sex recognition. In fact, it's more important for this purpose than other visual cues, like face shape. When subjects are shown an image of a human face, they can tell whether it is male or female even if blurred and differing only in hue and luminosity. Hue provides a "fast channel" for sex recognition. If the facial image is too far away or the lighting too dim, the mind switches to the "slow channel" and relies on luminosity (Bruce and Langton, 1994; Dupuis-Roy et al., 2009; Frost, 2011; Hill et al., 1995; Russell and Sinha, 2007; Russell et al., 2006; Tarr et al., 2001; Tarr et al., 2002).

Age differences

Skin color also differs by age. It can be used to distinguish younger from older women, since the contrast in luminosity between facial skin and the lip/eye areas decreases with age (Porcheron et al., 2013). It can also be used to recognize infants. All humans are born with very little melanin, and the resulting pinkish-white skin is often remarked upon in different cultures.

This is especially so where adults are normally dark-skinned, in striking contrast to newborns. In Kenya, the latter are often called mzungu ('European' in Swahili), and a new mother may ask her neighbors to come and see her mzungu (Walentowitz, 2008). Among the Tuareg, children are said to be whitened by the freshness and moisture of the womb (Walentowitz, 2008). The situation in other African peoples is summarized by a French anthropologist: "There is a rather widespread concept in Black Africa, according to which human beings, before 'coming' into this world, dwell in heaven, where they are white. For, heaven itself is white and all the beings dwelling there are also white. Therefore the whiter a child is at birth, the more splendid it is" (Zahan, 1974, p. 385). A Belgian anthropologist makes the same point: "black is thus the color of maturity [...] White on the other hand is a sign of the before-life and the after-life: the African newborn is light-skinned and the color of mourning is white kaolin" (Maertens, 1978, p. 41). 

This infant/adult difference is evolutionarily old, being present in nonhuman primates. In langurs, baboons, and macaques, the newborn's skin is pink while the adult's is black. This visual cue not only helps adults to locate a wayward infant but also seems to induce a desire to defend and provide care (Jay, 1962). Humans may respond similarly to the lighter color of infants and women. This would be consistent with a tendency by the adult female body to mimic the newborn body in other ways: face shape; pitch of voice; amount of body hair; texture and pliability of the skin; etc. Over time, women may have come to resemble this 'infant schema' because it is the one that can best reduce aggressiveness in a male partner and induce him to assume a provider role.

The sun-tanning fad: An aesthetic revolution

The sex-specific aspects of skin color have influenced the development of cosmetics in many cultures. Even in ancient times, women would use makeup to increase the natural contrast in luminosity between their facial skin and their lip/eye areas (Russell, 2009; Russell, 2010). They would also make their naturally fair complexion even fairer by avoiding the sun and applying white powders or bleaching agents.

This feminine aesthetic changed radically in the 1920s with the sudden popularity of sun-tanning throughout the Western world, initially as a health fad. Tanned skin then entered women's fashion and became part of the flapper image, along with bobbed hair, broad shoulders, a relatively flat chest, narrow hips, and long legs. This fashion image was intended to be hermaphroditic, the aim being to energize the erotic appeal of the female body by masculinizing some of its key features (Bard, 1998; Segrave, 2005). 

Has the tanning fad un-gendered skin color? Not wholly, to judge by the above studies on sex recognition. There still seems to be a tendency to prefer a lighter skin tone for women than for men. This was the conclusion of a recent study on how people perceive two skin pigments: melanin (brown) and carotene (yellow). When shown facial images with varying concentrations of melanin and carotene, the subjects had a greater preference for carotene than for melanin. This preference was stronger for female faces than for male faces, irrespective of the observer's sex. Nonetheless, for both male and female faces, the preferred skin color was much darker than it would have been a century ago (Lefevre and Perrett, 2014).

Again, this aesthetic norm has darkened only in the Western world. The tanned look had some popularity among Japanese women in the postwar era up to the 1970s, but it has since gone out of fashion (Ashikari, 2005). It never did catch on elsewhere in Asia (Li et al., 2008). In North America and Europe, the tanned look seems much more persistent, and this persistence suggests that it is locked into place by something else in our cultural environment.

Such as ...? One factor may be the conscious effort to promote images of dark-skinned people in advertising and, more generally, in popular culture. Another factor may be a half-conscious desire in popular culture for more aggressive, "harder" forms of eroticism. This is something that fair skin is less effective at delivering, having been originally part of the infant schema and thus less conducive to that kind of emotional response.



Ashikari, M. (2005). Cultivating Japanese whiteness. The 'whitening' cosmetics boom and the Japanese identity, Journal of Material Culture, 10, 73-91. 

Bard, C. (1998). Les Garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles, Flammarion, Paris. 

Bruce, V., and S. Langton. (1994). The use of pigmentation and shading information in recognising the sex and identities of faces, Perception, 23(7), 803-822.

Dupuis-Roy, N., I. Fortin, D. Fiset, and F. Gosselin. (2009). Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting, Journal of Vision, 9(2), 10, 1-8.

Edwards, E.A. and S.Q. Duntley. (1949). Cutaneous vascular changes in women in reference to the menstrual cycle and ovariectomy, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 57, 501-509.

Edwards, E.A. and S.Q. Duntley. (1939).The pigments and color of living human skin, American Journal of Anatomy, 65, 1-33.

Edwards, E.A., J.B. Hamilton, S.Q. Duntley, and G. Hubert. (1941). Cutaneous vascular and pigmentary changes in castrate and eunuchoid men, Endocrinology, 28, 119-128. 

Frost, P. (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks, Human Ethology Bulletin,

Frost, P. (2010). Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme, Québec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 202 p.

Frost, P. (2007). Comment on Human skin-color sexual dimorphism: A test of the sexual selection hypothesis, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 133, 779-781.

Hill, H., Bruce, V., and S. Akamatsu. (1995). Perceiving the sex and race of faces: The role of shape and colour, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 261, 367-373. 

Jay, P.C. (1962). Aspects of maternal behavior among langurs, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 102, 468-476.

Kalla, A.K. and S.C. Tiwari. (1970). Sex differences in skin colour in man, Acta Geneticae Medicae et Gemellologiae, 19, 472-476. 

Lefevre, C.E. and D.I. Perrrett. (2014). Fruit over sunbed: Carotenoid skin colouration is found more attractive than melanin colouration, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,

Li, E.P.H., H.J. Min, R.W. Belk, J. Kimura, and S. Bahl. (2008). Skin lightening and beauty in four Asian cultures, Advances in Consumer Research, 35, 444-449.

Maertens, J-T. (1978). Le dessein sur la peau. Essai d'anthropologie des inscriptions tégumentaires, Ritologiques I, Paris: Aubier Montaigne. 

Manning, J.T., P.E. Bundred, and F.M. Mather. (2004). Second to fourth digit ratio, sexual selection, and skin colour, Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 38-50. 

Mesa, M.S. (1983). Analyse de la variabilité de la pigmentation de la peau durant la croissance, Bulletin et mémoires de la Société d'Anthropologie de Paris, t. 10 series 13, 49-60. 

Omoto, K. (1965). Measurements of skin reflectance in a Japanese twin sample, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Nippon (Jinruigaku Zassi), 73, 115-122. 

Porcheron, A., E. Mauger, and R. Russell (2013). Aspects of facial contrast decrease with age and are cues for age perception, PLoS ONE 8(3): e57985 

Russell, R. (2010). Why cosmetics work. In R. Adams, N. Ambady, K. Nakayama, and S. Shimojo. (eds.) The Science of Social Vision, New York: Oxford. 

Russell, R. (2009). A sex difference in facial contrast and its exaggeration by cosmetics, Perception, 38, 1211-1219

Russell, R. (2003). Sex, beauty, and the relative luminance of facial features, Perception, 32, 1093-1107.

Russell, R. and P. Sinha. (2007). Real-world face recognition: The importance of surface reflectance properties, Perception, 36, 1368-1374.

Russell, R., P. Sinha, I. Biederman, and M. Nederhouser. (2006). Is pigmentation important for face recognition? Evidence from contrast negation, Perception, 35, 749-759.

Segrave, K. (2005). Suntanning in 20th Century America, Jefferson (North Carolina), McFarland & Co. 

Tarr, M. J., Kersten, D., Cheng, Y., and Rossion, B. (2001). It's Pat! Sexing faces using only red and green, Journal of Vision, 1(3), 337, 337a

Walentowitz, S. (2008). Des êtres à peaufiner. Variations de la coloration et de la pigmentation du nouveau-né, in J-P. Albert, B. Andrieu, P. Blanchard, G. Boëtsch, and D. Chevé (eds.), Coloris Corpus, (pp. 113-120), Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2008.

Zahan, D. (1974). White, Red and Black: Colour Symbolism in Black Africa, in A. Portmann and R. Ritsema (eds.) The Realms of Colour, Eranos 41 (1972), 365-395, Leiden: Eranos.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Are Chinese babies more docile?


Navaho woman with a child on cradleboard.
see video on cross-cultural differences in newborn behavior, Daniel Freedman, 1974 (posted by hbd chick)


In my last post I discussed recent research on mental differences between Europeans and Chinese people. The latter are less prone to boredom. They think less abstractly and more relationally. They're less individualistic, and less likely to punish friends for dishonesty. Mental differences also seem to exist within China, depending on whether one comes from a region that historically grew rice or one that historically grew wheat. Chinese from wheat-growing regions are closer to Europeans in mentality.

Are these differences inborn? Or are they due to upbringing? The second explanation is hard to reconcile with the fact that the regional differences within China involved urban residents who had never lived on a farm of any sort.

Almost a half-century ago, these questions interested the American psychologist Daniel Freedman and his wife Nina Chinn Freedman. They examined 24 Chinese-American and 24 Euro-American newborns whose parents were otherwise similar in age, economic class, and number of previous children. The two groups nonetheless behaved differently. The Euro-American babies cried more easily, were harder to console, and would immediately turn their faces aside if placed face down on a sheet. In contrast, the Chinese-American babies accepted almost any position without crying or resisting. When a light was shone in their eyes, the Euro-American babies would continue to blink long after the Chinese-American babies had stopped blinking (Freedman and Freedman, 1969; Freedman, 2004).

These findings were partially replicated by another American psychologist, Jerome Kagan, who found that Chinese 4-month-olds cried, fretted, and vocalized less than Euro-American infants. At older ages, however, the pattern reversed with Chinese Americans fretting and crying more when separated from their mothers (Kagan et al., 1978; Kagan et al., 1994).

Is this response specific to Chinese? Or does it apply to East Asians in general? In a study of Euro-American, Japanese, and Chinese 11-month olds, the last group was the least expressive one, being least likely to smile or cry. The Japanese babies either fell between the two other groups or were like the Euro-American babies (Camras et al., 1998). When another study looked at Japanese and British newborns, the latter actually showed more self-quieting activity (Eishima, 1992).

On the other hand, Navaho babies are even calmer and more adaptable than Chinese babies (Freedman, 2004). Some anthropologists have attributed this finding to a traditional practice of tying the baby to a cradleboard. As Freedman pointed out, however, this practice is now only sporadic among the Navaho.

Freedman attributed his Chinese and Navaho findings to a general Mongoloid temperament. If that were the case, infants should behave similarly in other North American native peoples. A study of Alaskan Inupiaq found young children to be shy but otherwise no different from Euro-American children. These subjects were, however, older than Freedman’s, being 3 to 6 years of age (Sprott, 2002).

It may be that the Navaho differ from other North American native peoples in this respect. Perhaps, in the past, mortality was higher among those babies who resisted the cradleboard; over time, they and their temperament would have been steadily removed from the gene pool. As Freedman noted, "most Navaho infants calmly accept the board; in fact, many begin to demand it by showing signs of unrest when off." When Euro-American mothers tried using the cradleboard, "their babies complained so persistently that they were off the board in a matter of weeks" (Freedman, 2004).

Infant calmness can thus arise in relatively simple societies, and not just in advanced ones as I had argued in my last post. In the Navaho case, there may have been some kind of parental selection, i.e., through their child-rearing practices, parents influence what sort of children survive and what sort don't. In other simple societies, such as among the Australian Aborigines, infant behavior is much less calm and compliant (Freedman, 2004).

Behavior can likewise differ between infants from different complex societies. We've seen this with Chinese-American and Euro-American babies, the latter having a less easy temperament. A difficult temperament (colic, excessive crying) is also much more common in babies of Greek or Middle Eastern origin than in babies of Northwest European or Asian Indian origin (Prior et al., 1987).

In the future, it would be interesting to find out whether infants differ in temperament within China, such as between rice-growing and wheat-growing regions.

But will there be more research?

There seems to be less and less interest in this area of research, particularly within the United States. I can point to several reasons:

- The behavioral differences between Chinese and Japanese babies must have arisen over a relatively short span of evolutionary time. Many researchers, even those who are receptive to HBD thinking, have trouble accepting fast behavioral evolution, especially below the level of large continental races.

- American researchers are increasingly interested in the possibility that early parental interaction, such as reading to children, can stimulate brain development. Although it is doubtful that parental interaction can explain differences in newborn behavior, this assumption seems to make people dismissive of Freedman's work. 

- Since the 1970s, and throughout the Western world, academia has become more hostile to the possibility of genetic influences on human behavior. This trend is self-reinforcing, since hiring decisions are biased toward candidates who believe in environmental determinism.

The last two points apply much less to East Asian scholars ... or American ones who are willing to do some of their work offshore. 

Right now, we need to identify the genetic causation for these differences in infant behavior. One cause may be the 7R allele of the D4 dopamine receptor gene, which is associated with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and is very rare in East Asians (Leung et al., 2005). Nonetheless, as with differences in intellectual capacity, we're probably looking at an accumulation of small effects at many different genes. Natural selection acts on what genes produce, and not directly on genes, so there is no reason to believe that a single behavioral outcome has a single genetic cause. That would be too convenient.



Camras, L.A., H. Oster, J. Campos, R. Campos, T. Ujiie, K. Miyake, L. Wang, and Z. Meng. (1998). Production of emotional facial expressions in European American, Japanese, and Chinese infants, Developmental Psychology, 34, 616-628.,%20Japanese,%20and%20Chinese%20infants..pdf  

Eishima, K. (1992). A study on neonatal behaviour comparing between two groups from different cultural backgrounds, Early Human Development, 28, 265-277.  

Freedman, D.G. (2004). Ethnic differences in babies, in L. Dundes (ed.). The Manner Born: Birth Rites in Cross-Cultural Perspective, pp. 221-232, AltaMira Press.

Freedman, D.G., and N.C. Freedman. (1969). Behavioural differences between Chinese-American and European-American newborns, Nature, 224, 1227. 

Kagan, J., D. Arcus, N. Snidman, W. Feng, J. Hendler, and S. Greene. (1994). Reactivity in infants: A cross-national comparison, Developmental Psychology, 30, 342-345.

Kagan, J., R. Kearsley, and P. Zelazo. (1978). Infancy: Its place in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Leung, P.W.L., C.C. Lee, S.F. Hung, T.P. Ho, C.P. Tang, et al. (2005). Dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene in Han Chinese children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Increased prevalence of the 2-repeat allele, American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 133B, 54-56.

Prior, M., E. Garino, A. Sanson, and F. Oberklaid. (1987). Ethnic influences on "difficult" temperament and behavioural problems in infants, Australian Journal of Psychology, 39, 163-171.

Sprott, J.E. (2002). Raising Young Children in an Alaskan Iñupiaq Village: The Family, Cultural, and Village Environment of Rearing, Greenwood Publishing Group.