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Africa and the Malthusian Wringer
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Nicholas Wade is in trouble for trying to bring up the topic of the selection pressures felt by Africans in Africa. That’s not a topic we are supposed to think about. Instead, we are supposed to nod along as T-N Coates informs us that the reason African-Americans have lower property values than white Americans is solely because of bad things done by white Americans since 1619 so white must pay reparations. No history from before 1619 is imaginable. 

But as Wade wrote in The Spectator:

More specific evidence that evolution has shaped human social behaviour in the recent past comes from a third major social transition, from agrarian to modern economies. 

This transition is usually known as the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, almost everyone in agrarian economies but the rich lived near the edge of starvation. Whenever any improvement in farming technology raised productivity, more children were born, the extra mouths ate up the surplus and semi-starvation soon reigned again. This harsh regime is known as a Malthusian economy after the Revd Thomas Malthus, who described it in his 1798 ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’. As it happened, the Malthusian regime was nearing an end at the very time Malthus was writing because of the vast increase in productivity that was the essence of the Industrial Revolution. 

The cause of the Industrial Revolution is the central issue of economic history, yet economic historians have arrived at no consensus as to what that cause or causes may have been. Their preferred candidates are institutions of various kinds, or access to resources. For a quite different explanation, step back to Malthus for a moment. It was from Malthus that Darwin derived the idea of natural selection. 

Darwin perceived that if people were struggling on the edge of existence, as Malthus described, then a person with the slightest advantage would have more children and bequeath this advantage to them. ‘Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work,’ Darwin wrote in his autobiography. 

If the English population provided the example from which Darwin intuited the idea of natural selection, that population was surely being subjected to the same force. The question then is what traits were being selected for. The economic historian Gregory Clark, of the University of California, Davis, has documented four behavioural changes in the English population between 1200 and 1800 AD. 

The level of violence declined, literacy increased, and so did work hours and the propensity to save. The effect of these changes, Clark notes in his 2009 book Farewell to Alms, was to transform the violent peasant population of 1200 into the disciplined workforce of 1800. Because the nature of the people had changed, productivity soared, and for the first time an increase in population failed to drag down the standard of living. 

Clark not only documents the behavioural change in English society but also provides a plausible mechanism of hereditary transmission. From the study of wills he finds that the well-off had more surviving children than the poor. Since the size of the English population remained fairly constant, many children of the rich must have dropped in social status, diffusing the genes and values that had made their parents wealthy into the wider-population. 

The same process presumably occurred in other agrarian populations, which is why the Industrial Revolution spread so easily to other European countries and later, after political obstacles had been removed, to the countries of East Asia. 

With all three transitions, an evolutionary change is plausible but remains a hypothesis nonetheless: proof awaits discovery of the relevant genes. …

Persistently poor countries, particularly those that are still tribally organised, have not been through the Malthusian wringer experienced by agrarian populations and may therefore find the transition to a modern state that much harder. 

Jared Diamond made a lot of money off his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel documenting how different the environment was in Africa than in Eurasia. But when in 2002 during a previously congenial conversation I brought up the obvious implication of his book, as I put it in my 1997 review in National Review: “Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it’s hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection,” his face fell, he gathered his things and hustled out of the auditorium. Diamond isn’t dumb.

The lack of a Malthusian Trap in most of Africa during most of pre-history is a central theme in the best book I’ve read on Africa, John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent. The concept of a Malthusian Trap is hard enough to grasp, so it’s particularly braintwisting to come to grips with the implications of the lack of a Malthusian Trap. So, please allow me to repeat what I blogged in 2010:

Reader writes on p. 249:

The human population of Africa has never approached the size that the continent seems capable of supporting. … An FAO survey published in 1991 reported that only 22 percent of land in Africa suitable for agriculture was actually in production (the comparable figure for south-east Asia is 92 per cent).

Reader offers a long list of discouraging factors, such as disease burden, poor soil, and wild beasts, especially elephants. We think elephants are cute, but they’re huge and thus quite capable of eating a farmer’s crop. Africa tended to be populated in a patchwork fashion. In some regions, enough people could be concentrated to drive off elephants, while other areas were conceded to elephants until enough human numbers could be assembled. Somewhat similarly, stronger herding tribes would tend to drive farming tribes (who use less land per person) into refuges in the mountains or islands. 

So, intensive agricultural use of land was rare, which meant that men didn’t have to work terribly hard at farm work as long as they had women hoeing weeds for them. 

Reader writes:

From the time that Europeans first set foot in Africa, travelers have commented upon what they saw as an excessive interest in sex among Africans.

Think of this from the perspective of the Malthusian Trap. Europeans already tended to voluntarily keep their populations below Malthusian limits by practicing the moral restraint that the Rev. Malthus famously advised in 1798. From 1200-1800, the average age of first marriage for an Englishwoman was 24-26. Rich women tended to marry at younger ages, poor women at older. Illegitimacy rates were in the lower single digits. 

Thus, due to this sexual restraint, Europeans tended to be in a less Malthusian situation than, say, the
Chinese, who tended to marry younger. Consequently, Europeans tended to be richer while working less hard than the Chinese. If the European population didn’t grow as fast during good times as the Chinese population did, they didn’t experience quite as many vast die-offs from famine during times when good government broke down (e.g., as recently as the early 1960s during Mao’s crazy Great Leap Forward). England, for example, hasn’t had a major famine in over 600 years.

So, Europeans developed cultural forms that attempted to sublimate sexual urges in more restrained and refined directions. Traditional Europeans dances like the minuet didn’t feature a lot of pelvic thrusting, for example.

In Africa, however, conditions of life were such that the Malthusian Trap was not an active worry. More people were needed, so African culture — dance, song, and so forth — tended to encourage mating now rather than to encourage delay. Listening to Top 40 radio today, this pattern seems to have carried over from Africa.
(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Foseti says: • Website

    "No history from before 1619 is imaginable."

    If only that were the case! 1968 is more like it.

    Progressive history consists of nothingness until slavery happened and then nothingness until 1968.

    If they went back to the 17th Century, they'd be able to compare slavery in the US to slavery elsewhere (the former was much preferable, per Eugene Genovese's great work). They'd also be forced to explain Black's decline in certain important areas during the latter half of the 20th Century.

    We seem to be witnessing this weird phenomenon that as we learn more and more about genetics and evolution, progressive racial doctrine gets fiercer and fiercer. It's as if there was a cult that insisted that the moon was made out of cheese and they were growing in numbers and influence (and inability to tolerate dissent) just as the Apollo missions were launched. I don't think this can end well.

  2. I can't recall the name of the book that claimed that the real first industrial revolution in Europe began with widespread use of windmills and similar machines back in the 12'th century. Which is when behaviors seem to start to change.

  3. 1. People with good genes have more children than those with bad genes.

    2. Some of those children with the good genes drop in social class, diffusing the good genes downward.

    So, why are there any poor people left in England?

  4. We think elephants are cute, but they're huge and thus quite capable of eating a farmer's crop.

    Do wooly mammoths count as elephants? They were furry, so they'd have been even cuter.

    Neanderthal home made of mammoth bones discovered in Ukraine

  5. Off-topic but will we get a million Nigerian refugees out of our initial investment of 80 troops to find the girls?

  6. Rushton really laid it all out. He didn't get nearly enough attention.

  7. JayMan says: • Website

    It's important to keep in mind that attitudes towards sex and sex drive itself are both just as heritable as other behavioral traits. If Northwest (non-Celtic) Europeans have lower average sex drives (which it would seem to be case at first glace), it is because they were selected to for this.

    It would seem Clarkian selection may be involved, in some manner. That, and perhaps social norms that may have ostracized overly sexual individuals, lowering their fitness.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "Reader offers a long list of discouraging factors, such as disease burden, poor soil, and wild beasts, especially elephants. "

    There are drawings of mammoths and lions on the walls French stone age caves. Europeans and NE Asians ate all of the European and NE Asian elephants (mammoths) because they could. Why didn't Africans do the same? Backstrapolating from the present one is tempted to blame low mean IQ and low ability to cooperate with one another.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Caucasoids and Mongoloids lived through the last Ice Age. Negroids and Australoids didn't. There was no ice in the tropics during the last glacial maximum.

    As soon as the ice retreated, agriculture developed pretty much simultaneously in two widely-separated places – the Middle East and northern China. As soon as Ice Age survivors got a little warmth, they were off to the races of civilization. Negroids and Australoids had that warmth all along, yet they didn't use it. This makes me think that the mental prerequisites to civilization could have developed during the last Ice Age.

    Why were Malthusian pressures low in the tropics? Dangerous animals? Non-starter. There were lots of them in the north before local humans ate them all. More diseases? Good candidate. Poor soil? Non-starter. If that was the main problem, Africans would have at least used all the acreage they had. They did not do that. Greater propensity for violence? Good candidate. The more people are killed in warfare, the lower the Malthusian pressure is going to be. This fits well with the East Asian experience – very low propensity for violence, very high Malthusian pressure.

  10. Densely populated Rwanda's been the site of intensive farming for a while now. And under Paul Kagame, it seems to be a real success story economically. The Tutsis are tough, disciplined people.

    Cruel windfall: How wars, plagues, and urban disease propelled Europe’s rise to riches

    In modern economic thinking, peace and prosperity go hand in hand. However, there are good reasons why in pre-modern societies, the opposite relationship held true – war, disease, and urban death spelled high incomes. This column explains why Europe’s rise to riches in the early modern period owed much to exceptionally bellicose international politics, urban overcrowding, and frequent epidemics.

  12. "compare slavery in the US to slavery elsewhere (the former was much preferable…": elsewhere is a large place.

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "Densely populated Rwanda's been the site of intensive farming for a while now. And under Paul Kagame, it seems to be a real success story economically. The Tutsis are tough, disciplined people"

    I'd wager they also have a higher IQ than their Hutu compatriots. It would be interesting to compare the average IQ of the Nilotic branch of Sub-Saharan Africa with that of the Bantu branch. On the other hand, the Nilotic people of Southern Sudan don't seem to have much going for them.

  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Wild idea: Could the subtle propagation of homosexuality by the British public (i.e. private) schools (and comparable institutions elsewhere in Europe) have something to do with the delayed reproduction. All those homoerotic Greek stories… Apparently, adolescent homosexuality was problematic only when it threatened social order (e.g. lord Curzon and his teacher Oscar Browning at Eton)or looked like it might become a "life choice". Probably, pederastic pursuits were considered to be – in all secrecy, of course – much better than danger of impregnating some maid.

  15. "1. People with good genes have more children than those with bad genes.
    2. Some of those children with the good genes drop in social class, diffusing the good genes downward.
    So, why are there any poor people left in England?"

    Because "poor" is a relative condition.

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Malthusian trap doesn't seem that complex. What really puzzles me is meme evolution. Are memes material? Are they born of the human instinct to imitate? Is reason just a meme? I imagine Jayman, probably your most materialist commenter/blogger could help clarify this. To me evolution is algebra, but memes are second year algebra and I'm hitting a wall. Memes seem to explain all human behavior and that makes me skeptical. Perhaps Africans made elephants sacred, the way Westerners have now.

  17. "arm work as long as they had women hoeing weeds for them. "

    Well, at least they didn't slaughter their girl babies & women en masse, like in China.

    I wonder what the effect on the Chinese genome killing so many girls has had.

  18. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Lower sexuality/birth rates does not mean Europe was not in a Malthusian trap before the Industrial Revolution (Clark's point was that Europe was, as was every other society). Just means that the particular causes of the Malthusian trap in Africa were different, i.e., caused higher death rates — perhaps disease, predators, inter-tribal warfare etc. — so the birth rates were higher to compensate. Interesting point that different Malthusian trap features will lead to different genetic adaptation.

  19. I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. The guy who established slavery here in 1619 was Abraham Piersay – my direct ancestor. So if anyone is responsible for reparations it would be me and only me.

    That's my mother's side. My father's side only came over from Ireland about a hundred years ago. So I would be liable for only half.

    And since St. Patrick – who had been a slave – is the patron saint of slaves, I claim the 'Patrick Exemption' – i.e. anyone named Pat is exempt from slavery reparations.

    So the darkies are SOL. They'll have to devise another dodge.

    Pat Boyle

  20. Blacks suffered the Lions and hyenas trap. Slow ones got eaten, which is why Negroes be so fast and strong.

  21. war, disease, and urban death spelled high incomes.

    One of the strangest things about the millennium-long French vs English warfare is how the elites on both sides saw themselves as basically the same people. Sure they fought on the battlefield, but when captured, the officers were very rarely killed or tortured, but were instead ransomed back to their side. When they won they got the ransom and when they lost they paid it. But if the peasants revolted, all nobility was on the same side. War became an economic enterprise for striving young men. Which became a useful model once technology made it possible to colonize around the world.

  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "…book that claimed that the real first industrial revolution in Europe began with widespread use of windmills and similar machines back in the 12'th century.

    It was probably water wheels. Britain had a large number and was particularly suited to water power (lots of rain and creeks). Water wheels are more constant and (in those days) more powerful than wind power.

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