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In England, executions peaked between 1500 and 1750 at 1 to 2% of all men of each generation. Were there genetic consequences? Were propensities for violence being removed from the gene pool? Did the English population become kinder and gentler? Such is the argument I made in a recent paper with Henry Harpending.

In this column, I will address a second criticism made against this argument: Many executed criminals already had children, so execution came too late in their lives to change the makeup of the next generation.

Reproductive success

Hayward (2013) provides a sample of 198 criminals who were executed in the early 1700s. Of this total, only 32 (16%) had children at the time of execution, and 12 of them had one child each. Their reproductive success breaks down as follows:

Family size — # executed criminals (out of 198)

1 child – 12
2 children – 3
3 children – 3
3-4 children – 1
5 children – 3
9 children – 1
“children” – 9

Although the above figures include illegitimate children, some executed criminals may have had offspring that they were unaware of or didn’t wish to acknowledge. So we may be underestimating their reproductive success. But what were the chances of such children surviving to adulthood and reproducing? In pre-1840 England, 30% of all children were dead by the age of 15; in pre-1800 London, only 42% of all boys reached the age of 25 (Clark and Cummins, 2009). Chances of survival were undoubtedly even lower for children raised by single parents.

Here and there, we find references to high infantile mortality among the progeny of executed criminals. The coiner John Johnson regretted “the heavy misfortune he had brought upon himself and family, two of his children dying during the time of his imprisonment, and his wife and third child coming upon the parish.” Prospects seemed better for childless widows, as noted in the life story of the thief Robert Perkins: “He said he died with less reluctance because his ruin involved nobody but himself, he leaving no children behind him, and his wife being young enough to get a living honestly” (Hayward, 2013).

Reproductive success was also curbed by marital instability. The footpad Joseph Ward was married for all of two days:

The very next morning after their wedding, Madam prevailed on him to slip on an old coat and take a walk by the house which she had shown him for her uncle’s. He was no sooner out of doors, but she gave the sign to some of her accomplices, who in a quarter of an hour’s time helped her to strip the lodging not only of all which belonged to Ward, but of some things of value that belonged to the people of the house. (Hayward, 2013)

In these life stories, the word “wife” is often qualified: “lived as wife,” “whom he called his wife,” “who passed for his wife,” “he at that time owned for his wife,” etc. Overall, only 40% of the executed criminals had been married: 38% of the men and 80% of the women.

Age structure

The age composition of the executed criminals suggests another reason for their low reproductive success. More than half were put to death before the age of 30. Since the mean age of first marriage for English men at that time was 27 (Wikipedia, 2015b), it’s likely that most of these criminals were still trying to amass enough resources to get married and start a family.

Ages — # executed criminals (out of 198)

10 – 19 years – 18
20 – 29 years – 88
30 – 39 years – 41
40 – 49 years – 20
50 – 59 years – 6
60 – 69 years – 0
70 + years – 1

Many criminals may have planned to steal enough money to give up crime and lead a straight life. Such plans came to nought for the thief John Little:

[...] the money which they amass by such unrighteous dealings never thrives with them; that though they thieve continually, they are, notwithstanding that, always in want, pressed on every side with fears and dangers, and never at liberty from the uneasy apprehensions of having incurred the displeasure of God, as well as run themselves into the punishments inflicted by the law. To these general terrors there was added, to Little, the distracting fears of a discovery from the rash and impetuous tempers of his associates, who were continually defrauding one another in their shares of the booty, and then quarrelling, fighting, threatening, and what not, till Little sometimes at the expense of his own allotment, reconciled and put them in humour. (Hayward, 2013)

Nonetheless, it is possible that others would have saved up a “nest egg,” started a family, and moved on to a respectable life. Dick Turpin, for instance, was able to abandon highway robbery and pose as a horse trader. His ruse ultimately failed because he continued to run afoul of the law (Wikipedia, 2015a). The extent of this life strategy is difficult to measure because the existing information almost wholly concerns those criminals who were caught and executed.

Conclusion

Clearly, some of the executed criminals had already reproduced, but the overall reproductive success was very low, and probably lower still if we adjust for infantile mortality. Instead of arguing that executions had little impact on the gene pool because too many of the executed had already reproduced, one could argue the opposite: the genetic impact was inconsequential because so few would have reproduced anyway, even if allowed to live out their lives.

Reproductive success was highly variable in the criminal underclass. Many would have had few children with or without being sent to the gallows. But some would have done much better. At the age of 26, the highwayman William Miller already had two children by two wives, and many other women gravitated around him, even as he prepared for death: “Yet in the midst of these tokens of penitence and contrition several women came still about him.” At the age of 25, the murderer Captain Stanley had fathered three or four children by one woman and was looking for a new wife. One might also wonder about some of the executed teenagers. At the age of 19, the footpad Richard Whittingham was already married, though still childless, and the thief William Bourne likewise at the age of 18.

In an earlier England, such young men would have done well reproductively, as leaders of warrior bands. But that England no longer existed, and criminal gangs offered the only outlet for engaging in plunder, violence, and debauchery with other young men.

References

Clark, G. and N. Cummins. (2009). Disease and Development: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Urbanization, Mortality, and Fertility in Malthusian England, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 99,2, 242-247

http://neilcummins.com/Papers/AER_2009.pdf

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243. http://www.epjournal.net/articles/western-europe-state-formation-and-genetic-pacification/

Hayward, A.L. (2013[1735]). Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals – who Have Been Condemned and Executed for Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining Or Other Offences, Routledge.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13097/13097-h/13097-h.htm

Wikipedia. (2015a). Dick Turpin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Turpin

Wikipedia (2015b). Western European Marriage Pattern

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_European_marriage_patter

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. JayMan says: • Website

    I suppose the assumption here is that England during this period is representative of conditions across Western Europe at the time?

    • Replies: @Bill Jones
  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    If executing the violent and anti-social elements of English society produced a society that was genetically more sociable and less violent… is there a converse effect from the French Revolution and the large scale execution of the nobility? Gregory Clark has noted that French surnames in North America are typically low class.

  3. Jesse says:

    Would I be correct in assuming that you believe that the vast bulk of those executed were in fact guilty? Have you considered the question in your work?

    • Replies: @Director
  4. colm says:

    after the 17-18th century some of the convicts were not killed but exiled to a certain continent antipodal to Englanf.

    although quite a few of their descendants were culled at Gallipoli a bit later.

  5. JayMan says: • Website
    @Anonymous

    Gregory Clark has noted that French surnames in North America are typically low class.

    Not North America; just the United States. The French in Canada do just fine. It was the French Canadian migration to the U.S. that was the sorting event.

    • Replies: @syonredux
  6. Director says:

    Colonization and Seapower controlled most of the antisocial.

    Either abroad or on a ship there’s not much room for crime.

    Also adventurers could paddy whack if they were aggressive.

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  7. Director says:
    @colm

    Incorrect.

    Gallipoli’s Aussies were often first generation English who still felt loyal to Empire. 1/2 of the Anzacs were born in the UK.

    Service was not popular among long settled Aussies.

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  8. Director says:
    @Jesse

    I agree here. The truly strong and aggressive and vicious were most likely recruited by lord such n such as legally sanctioned toughs.

    The Justice system was most concerned with people with subversive intent. Like the Watt Tyler’s of the Peasant revolt or the levellers that Cromwell executed

    • Replies: @syonredux
    , @anon
  9. syonredux says: • Website
    @JayMan

    Gregory Clark has noted that French surnames in North America are typically low class.

    Not North America; just the United States. The French in Canada do just fine. It was the French Canadian migration to the U.S. that was the sorting event.

    What about Louisiana? Cajuns are not known for their intellectual prowess….

    For a counter example (people with French surnames doing well in the USA) , one could point to the Huguenots.Of course, there the sorting event produced a quite different outcome

    • Replies: @Realist
  10. Realist says:
    @syonredux

    “For a counter example (people with French surnames doing well in the USA) , one could point to the Huguenots.Of course, there the sorting event produced a quite different outcome.”

    Quite true.

  11. Hibernian says:
    @Anonymous

    I’m partly (1/8) of French Canadian heritage. A lot of the French surnamed people in the U.S. are. The French Canadians are very predominantly descended from people who crossed the Atlantic before the French Revolution.

  12. Hibernian says:
    @Director

    Australia is substantially more Irish Catholic than the United States . A Catholic Prime Minister is no big deal. Think of The Thorn Birds.

  13. Hibernian says:
    @Director

    Does “paddy whack” mean suppress the irish in Ireland, or something else? Just asking, I don’t take it personally.

    • Replies: @anon
  14. syonredux says: • Website
    @Director

    I agree here. The truly strong and aggressive and vicious were most likely recruited by lord such n such as legally sanctioned toughs.

    More like the the elite engaged the services of some of the aggressive and the vicious, the ones who were smart enough to see the upside of serving the state.The dumb ones stayed on the wrong side of the law. We do the same today with policemen, who are basically men who like ordering people around but who are disciplined enough to make it through police training.

    Incidentally, a key stage in the “civilizing process” (decline of homicide, etc) occurred during the reign of Henry I. Homicide was changed from a kind of tort (the victim’s family, assuming that they just didn’t seek revenge, would demand money as compensation for the murder of a loved one) to a crime against the crown. Hence, the wergild (literally the “man payment”) would go to the King, who now had an incentive to ferret out the malefactor. A special office was created (the coroner) whose duty consisted of determining whether a death was homicide or not.

  15. @colm

    8000 dead at Gallipoli out of a population of 5 million is not significant if one was not related. But 60 000 Australians died in First World War and that was a terrible tragedy, the ripples now just fading. Perhaps comment was made in jest but talk of culling reminds one of vermin. My favourite vermin:

    https://www.google.com.au/search?q=margot+robbie&client=safari&hl=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=QpchVeuxB8GbsgGjrITADg&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1024&bih=649

    https://www.google.com.au/search?q=miranda+kerr&client=safari&hl=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=gpchVbjTO8ONsgGen4DAAw&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1024&bih=649

    • Replies: @colm
  16. Naw, Peter’s out to lunch, I knew where this was going (and by who) before I clicked on the link. The English merely discovered the convenience of murdering abroad, where murder was positively sanctioned (colonialism) as opposed to murdering a bit less at home where it was negatively sanctioned (for purposes of domestic tranquility and all that clap-trap concealing a murderous race of people.) Or, perhaps in Peter’s genetic studies, the literally inestimable numbers of ‘non-White’ dead at the hands of the English (Red Indian, South Asia Indian, Black Africans, Australian Aborigines and more) aren’t factored into his equations in which case empirical method needs a bit of explaining:

    http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2015/04/05/francis-bacon/

    ^ In any case, here’s the better account of the Western science roots & rationale (it’s nothing personal Peter, I just don’t happen to like ‘White’ science in any case)

    • Replies: @Enrique Cardova
  17. colm says:
    @Tacitus2016

    don’t think that was precisely in the mind of the english planners when they threw the anzacs into certain death?

  18. @JayMan

    It perhaps may explain why the genius of the Industrial Revolution commenced there.

    The low IQ violent types were bred out of existence.

    Now there’s a concept the liberals will hate (or not):

    http://www.blackgenocide.org/sanger.html

  19. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Ringwood”

    “is there a converse effect from the French Revolution and the large scale execution of the nobility? ”
    The “Nobility” of course, as they are now, are merely the most successful of the criminal classes.

    • Replies: @colm
  20. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Bill Jones

    It doesn’t really explain anything unless you’re prepared to claim that executing 1 to 2 percent of violent criminals results in the Industrial Revolution.

  21. colm says:
    @Anonymous

    Yes but they now have a monopoly over everything and their lines will survive long after America dies.

  22. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    A factor that needs to be looked into is how successful a sociopathic bloodline can be at reproducing not just over one generation, but 2-3 generations. I really doubt very many sociopaths have grandchildren, and if they do, those descendants will have bred out the sociopathic strain and have become better citizens. Darwinian effects aren’t particularly noticeable in the short-term. You really need a long-term multigenerational view to be able to see the results.

    • Replies: @Jim
  23. anon • Disclaimer says:
    @Director

    The truly strong and aggressive and vicious were most likely recruited by lord such n such as legally sanctioned toughs.

    The strong and aggressive and vicious…and self-disciplined.

  24. ohwilleke says: • Website

    Modern mass incarceration in the U.S. depresses lifetime fertility of men who are convicted of felonies by an average of about 50%.

    @23 A multi-generational view does indeed matter. For example, two children per generation with 20 year generations produces more descendants after 60 years (14) than three children per generation with 30 year generations (12).

  25. anon • Disclaimer says:
    @Hibernian

    It’s a cheap cut of meat.

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  26. Hibernian says:
    @anon

    It was used as a verb phrase. Does it mean raising livestock for this cheap cut of meat, maybe in the Australian Outback?

  27. @Bill Jones

    Bill Jones says:
    It perhaps may explain why the genius of the Industrial Revolution commenced there. The low IQ violent types were bred out of existence.
    The Industrial Revolution did not “breed out” low IQ types by any stretch of the imagination. Your own link shows eugenicist Margaret Sanger lamenting the INCREASE of such low IQ types during said Revolution period, as it fostered unsavory population increases in sync with urbanization and concentrations of poverty and vice.

    Sean says:
    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/England_18thc./England_18thc.html

    Your link notes that people slated to be executed or convicted of executable offenses often were never executed. For one thing they could invoke the “benefit of clergy” defence. But more importantly, capital sentences were also often commuted by using alternatives short of death- such as transportation to Australia or the West Indies. Per your article- quote:

    “Of those convicted of capital felonies in Beattie’s sample, only about 40% were hanged. Most of the rest were either pardoned and released or pardoned and transported; some were pardoned on condition that they agree to enlist in the army or navy. Multiplying the fraction of those indicted for capital offenses who were convicted of them by the fraction of those convicted who were hanged, the fraction of defendants charged with a capital felony who were actually hanged was less than 16%.”

    Peter’s sample is no doubt valid but whether it represents a widespread societal pattern is another thing. A number of studies still show sociopaths and criminals having greater reproductive success. See for example Bolen and Walsh 2013, The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture ) or Bloom and Dess 2003; Evolutionary Psychology and Violence)which shows psychopathy correlated with better than average reproductive success.

    Perhaps the contrasts can be reconciled if we consider that many people convicted of capital crimes in that 1700s-1800s era actually escaped the death penalty, and were instead fined, pardoned, transported or “encouraged” to join the military forces like the Navy, which on into the 19th century was still using kidnapping to fill its ranks. Thus Peter could be right in that those ACTUALLY executed may not have had a chance to sow their seed widely. But then again with all the numbers escaping actual execution, plenty of scope for seed spreading among the more violent lower IQ, sociopathic/psychopathic was in place. In short, they may not have been killed fast enough.

  28. @Ronald Thomas West

    Ronald says:
    Naw, Peter’s out to lunch, I knew where this was going (and by who) before I clicked on the link. The English merely discovered the convenience of murdering abroad, where murder was positively sanctioned (colonialism) as opposed to murdering a bit less at home where it was negatively sanctioned (for purposes of domestic tranquility and all that clap-trap concealing a murderous race of people.)
    I think Peter’s argument has some traction- in that removal of the most violent, even if having only a local impact, would at some level, have a pacifying societal effect with those individuals removed. I am not convinced of continent wide effects just from execution alone, especially since many convicted of capital offenses were never actually iced. “Culling” could also be done by transport/removal of lower end Europeans into the military, into overseas colonies as indentured/coerced labor, or into Europe’s many wars at home and abroad. Colonialism abroad would have absorbed some of these “cull” numbers, though home grown warfare in Europe accounted for a lot more European bodies.

    http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2015/04/05/francis-bacon/
    ^ In any case, here’s the better account of the Western science roots & rationale (it’s nothing personal Peter, I just don’t happen to like ‘White’ science in any case)

    But your link deals mostly with Bacon’s personal peccadilloes- love of buggery and such, advocacy of various tortures, etc etc. How would this tie in with the topic at hand? Would Bacon have advocated “culling” of undesirables or lower-end types?

  29. Hans Olo says:

    One wonders how much of this might be selection for traits that have some other kind of benefit, but also have the effect of making one less murder-prone.

    For example, in England’s increasingly complex, commercial economy, having strong self-control was probably a plus. You were more likely to scrimp and save and spend your money wisely. But as an added bonus, you would also be less likely to kill someone when they made you angry.

    Also, people with higher IQs are less likely to engage in stupid behavior, and murder was becoming an increasingly stupid thing to do. And IQs were probably rising, based on Gregory Clark’s work.

    • Replies: @Sean
  30. Sean says:
    @Hans Olo

    Yes, humans are bull-headed but they form schemas that help them survive and those can change faster than genes . Where the pathology in psychopaths shows up is in that dangerous situation in which well-functioning humans have schema to override their counter-productive propensities.

    The culling of the most aggressive would reduce the cover of other active criminals and make it very difficult to get away with crime. But it is important that there were other opportunities available as commerce rapidly developed, which may have had something to do with reduction in crime of course.

    The removal of those most genetically predisposed to become violent was necessary for the practical-ethical reasons to be non-violent taken seriously. It is difficult to know what proportion was of men were psychopathic was back when as Peter says “In an earlier England, such young men would have done well reproductively”.

  31. Sean says:

    The later executions would be of those most genetically predisposed to become violent. So the steeper the decline of the murder rate as time went on, the more the paper’s hypothesis would be confirmed.

  32. Sean says:

    Back from the pub, it occurs to me that if humans form schemas that help them survive and those can change faster than genes, then the steepest decline of the murder rate should have been in the initial stages of a pro death penalty era. But a very low murder rate requires culling the genes of those too stupid/psychopathic to restrain themselves.

  33. Jim says:
    @Anon

    If sociopaths are very low in biological fitness it is difficult to understand why they are so common.
    Also aren’t sociopaths fairly common in a large number of societies? This isn’t what I would expect from an occasional random mutation producing a disposition toward sociopathy but resulting in very low fitness. If such individuals rarely had grandchildren this implies very high selection against sociopathic tendencies. In that case sociopaths should be very rare.

    • Replies: @reiner Tor
  34. Sean says:

    There is an ecological aspect; prospective criminals being discouraged with the risks relative to benefits they would be running, which could have increased precipitously through the execution era. The great unknown in all this is the proportion of people in England who had (and still have) no qualms about murder, if they think it is objectively necessary in their particular circumstances. Although mass entertainment gives more societal acceptance of violence and thug culture, it really is very difficult to get away with murder in the modern West, and it is virtually impossible to get away with murdering someone you know.

    Following a criminal lifestyle and getting involved in murder would be a lot more commonly chosen by somewhat rational men in an era where the rewards relative to risk were sufficient to make it attractive. And there were few opportunities for a lower class man to enjoy meaningful reproductive success back then, so there was less to lose. You can’t assume killers 400 years ago were psychopathic the way killers are now. My feeling is the biggest part of the reduction in homicide was due to killing becoming an increasingly stupid thing to do, which was cast in ethical terms. Getting murder down to rock bottom levels can’t be done unless there are executions or other means of restricting the reproduction of the feckless.

    • Replies: @iffen
  35. @Jim

    Sociopathy is a loss of a function (consciousness, empathy) so it could be relatively easy. I’m also not sure if it’s an either/or binary thing, I’d think that it’s a scale, some people are very highly sociopathic, and some are just a little bit. Probably selection is pushing in both directions, with there being an optimal value. Too high or too low sociopathy could be both bad for fitness, and the optimum value probably differs in different societies.

    I’d also imagine a relatively large number of genes might be responsible for it, so everybody might have some genes for high and some for low sociopathy, and the question is how widespread these are.

  36. Sean says:

    Pathology is the opposite of reproductive fitness and a population a few people will have all of the different genes that go towards the profile of a murder-prone individual, which seems to be more or less a crime prone person. The question is how effective execution would be at removing those genes. I think it would be increasingly effective as time wore on. In the 15th century those being executed would be relatively normal, if somewhat less peaceable than average. By the 18th century every executed individual would have lots of crime genes.

  37. iffen says:
    @Sean

    it really is very difficult to get away with murder in the modern West

    This is not true. Most murders are solved because the killer or a neighbor calls 911 and says I or somebody just killed a wife, girlfriend, husband, etc. come and take me (him) to jail. Serial killers kill many people over decades and are seldom caught right away. The clearance rate for “whodunits” is frighteningly small.

  38. skep says:
    @Anonymous

    the members of nobility represented 10 % of all the decapitated; 20% of them were farmers, or simple peasants, 20% artisans, and 20% traders or merchants. Most of the victims of the madness of jacobinism and 93′ leaders were poor people from the Third State.

  39. Sean says:

    Testosterone has an obvious connection with both reproduction and aggression, so does the warrior gene, So pacification could easily reduce the birthrate .

    Pinker: Guess what? More people are living in peace now. Just look at the numbers Has the world seen moral progress? The answer should not depend on whether one has a sunny or a morose temperament. Everyone agrees that life is better than death

    Fewer births than deaths; is that an overall improvement?

  40. @Anonymous

    Or Anglo prejudice against the untrustworthy French (Quebec and Napoleon in Mexico).

  41. @colm

    They were sent to Virginia before that; any correlations come to mind?

  42. “Reproductive success was highly variable in the criminal underclass.” On the basis of my own family tree which is 14 generations deep, it was highly variable in most classes. Most couples had none or one child and a few had 10 or 12. Fertility problems, persistent low level disease, early death of a partner and poverty would have kept most people’s reproductive success low, a few mothers accounting for most of a generation.

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