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.
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.