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Kinship

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Ted Bundy, 1978, State Archives of Florida. Outwardly charming but zero concern for others. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Is sociopathy an illness? We often think so ... to the point that the word "sick" has taken on a strange secondary meaning. If we call a ruthless, self-seeking person "sick," we mean he should be shunned at all costs. We don't mean he should take an aspirin and get some rest. Sociopathy doesn't look... Read More
Religiosity is moderately heritable—25 to 45% according to twin studies (Bouchard, 2004; Lewis and Bates, 2013). These figures are of course underestimates, since any noise in the data gets classified as ‘non-genetic’ variability. So the estimates would be higher if we could measure religiosity better. But what does it mean to be religious? Does it... Read More
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. 
The more you empathize with the world, the more you feel its joy and pain, but too much can lead to overload.
One of my interests is affective empathy, the involuntary desire not only to understand another person's emotional state but also to make it one's own—in short, to feel the pain and joy of other people. This mental trait has a heritability of 68% and is normally distributed along a bell curve within any one population... Read More
Compendium on agriculture, Japan, 1782. Rice farming, which requires community planning of water use and irrigation, may have favored a less individualistic mindset in East Asia (Wikicommons)
Kinship is the organizing principle of small human societies, such as bands of hunter-gatherers or small farming villages. This is seen in their notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable. Morality is enforced by social pressure from fellow kinfolk, which in... Read More
Yale was founded by English Congregationalist ministers. Today, only 22% of its student body has a Christian European background of any sort. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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... Read More
In a previous post, I discussed why the capacity for affective empathy varies not only between individuals but also between populations. First, its heritability is high: 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). So natural selection has had something to grab hold of. Second, its usefulness varies from one culture to another. It matters less where kinship... Read More
Collection box for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society circa 1850.  Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Throughout the world, kinship used to define the limits of morality. The less related you were to someone, the less moral you had to be with him or her. We see this in the Ten Commandments. The phrase "against thy neighbor" qualifies the commandment against bearing false witness and, implicitly, the preceding ones against killing,... Read More
Ruth Benedict first made the distinction between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” (source). Pervasive feelings of guilt are part of a behavioral package that enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to complex social environments where kinship is less important and where rules of correct behavior must be obeyed with a minimum of surveillance. Is this pervasive... Read More
Facial expressions in Manga (Japanese) comics. East Asian culture strongly regulates the expression of emotions, particularly in their impact on other people. (source) Humans have had to adapt not only to physical environments (climate, vegetation, wildlife) but also to cultural environments (diet, language, codes of behavior, class and family structure, etc.). A culture will thus... Read More
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