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China: Chinese Eugenics?

In modern American society, few terms carry the negative and socially disreputable ring of “eugenics,” first coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and later widely advocated by Margaret Sanger, America’s founding mother of birth control and abortion.  Denouncing one’s opponents as eugenicists has become a mainstay of political rhetoric across both the Left and Right, while also being an excellent means of attracting attention.

This combination of visibility and negativity left me with mixed feelings when I noticed “Chinese Eugenics” [1] as the lead headline for the earliest discussion of my recent article [2] suggesting that China and the Chinese may have been shaped by a thousand years or more of Social Darwinist forces.  Another slight problem was that the headline was totally incorrect.

After all, “eugenics” refers to a conscious, deliberate effort to select future generations according to some particular human ideal, while my own Chinese hypothesis could not be more dissimilar.  I had merely suggested that the extremely difficult conditions of life in traditional rural China ensured that only the hardest-working, most diligent, and most able Chinese peasants managed to survive and multiply in each generation, thereby gradually moving the Chinese people in that general direction during a thousand years of intense economic pressure.  After all, the accepted explanation for the long necks of giraffes is that in each generation only the tallest individuals gained access to available leaves, while their shorter-necked brethren often went hungry; no eugenics involved.

Indeed, after reading my article a rightwing individual with strong eugenicist leanings dropped me an anguished note, saying that my hypothesis seemed quite persuasive but also very depressing, suggesting as it did that today’s Chinese became smart and successful because their ancestors had spent most of the previous thousand years starving to death.  After all, when free market principles are taken to their “Social Darwinist” extreme, the logical result is a society in which economic achievement counts for virtually everything, and insufficiently successful families face starvation.  Add in China’s Malthusian population pressure and the relentless downward mobility produced by a strongly pro-natalist socio-cultural tradition, and the consequences seem obvious.  Intentional “eugenics” in any sense of the word had nothing to do with it.

One reason for the “eugenic” mischaracterization of my Chinese model may have been the recent column [3] by prominent evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who argued that today’s Chinese government has long been pursuing a consciously eugenic social policy, and that America must soon move in a similar direction or inevitably risk falling behind.  However, I believe that Prof. Miller’s analysis of China is quite mistaken.

Certainly Chinese law does contain some minor eugenic elements, restricting individuals with severe genetic abnormalities from having children, but the numbers involved are utterly trivial.  Meanwhile, the centerpiece of Miller’s argument—China’s longstanding one-child policy—is actually far more dysgenic in its likely consequences, given that it is only strictly enforced among the wealthier and more successful urban Chinese, and often interpreted with considerable flexibility among the rural peasants of the countryside. Furthermore, all of China’s minority groups are completely exempt, a major reason why their share of the national population has increased considerably over the last three decades.

If the American government imposed an official one-child limit on whites, but permitted poorly-educated rural hillbillies to have two or three, while totally exempting blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white minorities from any restrictions whatsoever, I doubt that most rightwing white racialists with eugenic leanings would be pleased.


Fortunately, John Derbyshire provided a much longer and more detailed review of my article [4], drawing upon his considerable personal familiarity with modern China (including a Chinese-born wife), and his discussion was quite respectful.  He was particularly encouraged by my willingness to address the taboo possibility that hundreds or thousands of years of distinct social conditions might shift the intrinsic characteristics of a people, although he himself points out that Gregory Clark’s influential 2007 book “A Farewell to Alms” had already blazed that trail several years ago.

Derbyshire remains somewhat skeptical of the Western analysts from a century ago, such as A.E. Ross, whom I quoted as anticipating China’s rise, and provides the testimony of other China-hands from that same era who emphasized the inefficiency and corruption of that same society.  But this contrast is probably more apparent than real.  Ross was hardly a starry-eyed visitor and his discussion of China was filled with exactly the same sort of negative details he witnessed or reported, including the failure of major development projects due to the endless outstretched hands of local government officials and the poor quality of much Chinese industrial labor.  However, Ross was a leading sociologist, and despite these outward problems, he saw strong signs that the human potential of the Chinese workforce was actually quite high, and that a generation or two of familiarization with factory life and modern technology might bring them much closer to Western standards.  Given the trajectory of the last few decades, Ross’s judgment seems quite prescient.

On another point, Derbyshire emphasizes the Chinese examination system as the centerpiece of my meritocratic social analysis, and numerous commenters on my article have done the same, often in critical fashion.  But my actual argument was quite different, since I pointed out that the total number of exam-selected officials or even exam-passers was just too negligible to have had any impact on the innate characteristics of the Chinese population, as opposed to their cultural traits.  Nearly all modern Chinese are descended from rural peasants and I suggest that it was the highly competitive struggle for existence of those farming families and their unusual land-tenure system that shaped the modern Chinese.

He also highlights what I regard as the greatest single weakness in my hypothesis, discussed at length in Endnote 34 [5], namely the comparable success of various other East Asian peoples, notably the Japanese, whose society and land-tenure policies were radically different.  However, there does seem to exist some evidence that Chinese may significantly outperform Japanese on some performance measures.  Most notably, on a per capita basis, California’s Chinese residents produce over 1000% more National Merit semifinalists than do their Japanese neighbors, and the ratio was also very wide a generation ago.  Some of this difference is obviously due to various demographic or cultural factors, but so enormous a nominal gap is intriguing.  On the other hand, if further research fails to confirm a substantial Chinese/Japanese disparity in performance, my hypothesis on the roots of Chinese success certainly falls.

In addition, my phrasing sometimes produced needless confusion.  I had closed my article by warning that the stubborn adherence of the Soviets to an incorrect model of reality caused enormous amounts of their national effort to be wasted and eventually led to their collapse.  I noted that large Soviet investments “in many fields [e.g. agriculture and consumer goods] produced nothing.”  Unfortunately, my poor choice of words had led Derbyshire and others to conclude that I was denying the existence of any major Soviet achievements, but that was certainly not my intent: Russian developments in space technology, military hardware, and the theoretical physical sciences were excellent.  I regret leading some of my readers astray.


Anthropologist Peter Frost also discussed my article under the title “East Asian’s Farewell to Alms?” [6], further emphasizing the close analogy between my ideas and those of Clark, and Frost generously mentioned that my analysis was developed independently and earlier.  Although I had briefly alluded to the history of my paper in Endnote 10, the story is sufficiently unusual that I will recapitulate it.

I originally developed my theory of the evolutionary origins of high Chinese ability almost 35 years ago during the late 1970s, prompted by my discovery of the Edward Moise article on massive downward social mobility in traditional rural China.  A few years later, I wrote it up as a paper for E.O. Wilson when I studied under him at Harvard in the early 1980s, but never made any effort to publish it, which seemed a hopeless effort given the intellectual climate of the times and the near-total dominance of the Gouldian “Blank Slate” perspective.

Afterward, it languished in my files for over a quarter century, until I happened to mention the idea to someone a couple of years ago, and he persuaded me to dig it out and put it on the Internet, where it drew quite a bit of attention from a couple of science-oriented bloggers [7].  Then last year to my utter astonishment, I discovered that my old unpublished paper had been cited in a major academic journal review article [8] as being among the earliest modern examples of the application of evolutionary analysis to a particular population groups.  Since my college paper was totally outdated and was also so totally embarrassing in style and form, I resolved to revise and finally publish it, which I have now done.

Although I am hardly convinced my Chinese hypothesis is correct, there is one empirical argument in my favor.  I developed my theory suggesting China’s enormous potential almost exactly when Deng’s economic reforms were first implemented, and as a consequence for almost thirty-five I have always told everyone around me that I expected remarkable Chinese economic and technological progress.  And for thirty-five years China has regularly exceeded even my most optimistic projections.

As a slight nugget of evidence behind this dramatic claim, there’s a long letter of mine [9] that The Economist published in 1986, in which I suggested that China and the rest of East Asia might become the world’s economically dominant region within 30 or 40 years, a prediction that seems to have now been fully borne out.  Some months after my letter ran The Economist did exactly as I had suggested and added an Asian Survey section, so I may even have helped nudge along that particular development.

Personally, I claim no great credit for my insight, given that A.E. Ross, Lothrop Stoddard, and many other leading Western intellectuals had been making similar predictions long before I was even born, and that by 1980 the economic growth trajectories of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea already provided strong indications of what a market-oriented China might achieve.  But I should note that on the very first page of Giovanni Arrighi’s 2007 book Adam Smith in Beijing, he emphasized that not a single significant Western economist of any ideology had ever predicted China’s remarkable economic dynamism.  So perhaps the economics profession should begin revising its “Blank Slate” view of human nature, and incorporating the ideas promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project [10], affiliated with George Mason University.

Given the powerful ideological taboos surrounding some of the issues I raise, I have no idea if my ideas will gain any traction in mainstream circles.  So far, my article has received fewer than 10,000 pageviews, far less than many of my other pieces.  But according to Google Analytics the average time spent on the piece has been a remarkable 90 minutes, a very long visit by website standards, and several times more than most of my other articles.  So although my audience has been relatively small, those who read the piece seem to be reading and absorbing it in great detail, which bodes well for the long-term impact.

I have also now released a Chinese-language translation of the article [11], thereby making the ideas more easily available to the 600 million Han on the Internet.

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#1 Comment By spite On March 20, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

About the quote “the logical result is a society in which economic achievement counts for virtually everything”, in the Chinese mindset this is completely understandable. The reason that China suffered the “Century of humiliation” as they call it, was that both the European and Japanese plunderers had superior economies that allowed them to do so.

I think what gives China an advantage over a country like India, is the homogenous population, not eugenics. India is one of the most diverse places on earth, even being a democracy will not be enough to compensate for the religious, class and ethnic divisions which drains a lot of resources from the state.

#2 Comment By Glaivester On March 20, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

Galton, not Dalton.

By the way, fans of Galton might enjoy the [12], which attempts to emulate the “Darwin Fish,” but parodying a different popular symbol.

#3 Comment By TomB On March 21, 2013 @ 12:05 am

Ron Unz wrote:

“I had merely suggested that the extremely difficult conditions of life in traditional rural China ensured that only the hardest-working, most diligent, and most able Chinese peasants managed to survive and multiply in each generation, thereby gradually moving the Chinese people in that general direction during a thousand years of intense economic pressure.”

A.) It’s very difficult to believe that the conditions of life in China have been so uniform for 1,000 or so years so as to exert the kind of constant, brutal negative natural selection pressure (i.e., killing off the less favored) to select for the genes—indeed there are any—determining the kind of “hard-workingness, diligence and ability” that is meant here.

B.) And even if the conditions of life in China were so uniform for so long, I find it very difficult to believe that a mere thousand years or so would produce enough generations to *significantly* alter the genetics of such a huge population. 1000 years is, after all, a mere 1/1000 of a million years, with my general sense being that a million is just about the shortest span of time that, absent some highly unusual factor, geneticists say seems to be necessary to breed very significant changes.

C.) On the other hand it seems to me very easy to believe significant *cultural* changes can very easily be effected over the course of mere tens of years if not fewer given tough enough situations.

D.) Therefore it seems to me that Occam’s Razor falls on the side of saying that if indeed the chinese have changed it has bee due to change(ssssadass in their cultural environment rather than their genetic circumstances.

Or in other words, if indeed there has been any change in the Chinese populace that has happened in the last 1000 years the far more likely explanation is the prosaic one of cultural change rather than some genetic one.

E.)Regardless, no one can accuse Unz of shying away from the controversial!

#4 Comment By namae nanka On March 21, 2013 @ 8:48 am

“I wrote it up as a paper for E.O. Wilson when I studied under him at Harvard in the early 1980s, but never made any effort to publish it, which seemed a hopeless effort given the intellectual climate of the times and the near-total dominance of the Gouldian “Blank Slate” perspective..”

what could’ve been:

#5 Comment By cdugga On March 21, 2013 @ 10:57 am

It is possible that the chinese you think you know don’t really need you to release your hypothesis in chinese. But on the subject of eugenics, which this essay does not seem to address much, it is likely that chinese are very diligently pursueing the genetics and nurture of the human for the specific goal of improving intelligence, physical ability and even social skills. Besides the selection and planned ordering they evolved to allow survival of their civilization, the chinese, especially their military, are undoubtedly pursueing eugenics to produce superior soldiers. While many americans argue evolution and bible stories, and still consider much of scientific fact, much less scientific promise, as some kind of sci-fi fantasy or horror, the chinese have no such obstacles to attempting to direct their own evolution vs accepting a multiply transcribed and translated subjective argueable and often contradictory plan from diety as their destiny. As to evolution? It can happen practically over night, especially cultural and technological evolution. Seen any androids communicating great distances lately? Did they say hi as they walked by?

#6 Comment By oval On March 21, 2013 @ 11:04 am

well the fact that you used so many words to make your point was responsible for the 90mins

#7 Comment By RH On March 21, 2013 @ 11:29 am

“with my general sense being that a million is just about the shortest span of time that, absent some highly unusual factor, geneticists say seems to be necessary to breed very significant changes.”

Lol, I’d like to know where you get this “general sense.” Ever heard of agriculture? Dogs? Cats?

#8 Comment By James Guest On March 21, 2013 @ 11:43 am

Can’t wait to finish reading all the links and links to links of this fascinating article while Ron’s typo remains uncorrected; i.e. not Dalton but Galton. Anyway that gives me a way in to remark that Greg Clark’s inability to prove that the successful classes in China, like those in Japan, failed to outbreed the poor could have been supplemented by a presumption that I proffer based on a (possibly ill-informed) speculation that it was only towards the end of the 18th century that famine became a big Malthusian factor in China. Given the advanced state of Chinese agriculture for 1000 years or more and given the availability of well watered fertile forested lands to the south-west the feeding of the additional tens of millions only needed a bit more deforestation and establishment of small rice farms where the forest had stood.

Clark provided good evidence that the Japanese had gone on feeding a hugely increasing population from about 1300 to 1750 while the English population almost stagnated (and even went backwards between 1600 and 1650) and that it was not disproportionately the successful who bred the children. As China’s population also rose at a comparable rate it seems likely that the disproportionate death rate of the poor experienced in England which coincided with static population, did not apply to Chinese reproduction.

I don’t remember Clark, in his book, making much of the genetic consequences of the differential breeding for cognitive abilities. Quoting Ron’s article “Since personal economic achievement was probably in part due to traits such as diligence, prudence, and productivity, Clark argued that these characteristics steadily became more widespread in the British population, laying the human basis for later national economic success.” However I have read a couple of online pieces where Clark makes it quite clear that he does regard the evolution of higher cognitive abilities as likely also, and important. It would be an unlikely coincidence if the people who largely created the Scientific Revolution and the Ashkenazi Jews who have contributed so much to modern science in the last 150 years didn’t evolve high cognitive abilities in comparable ways. Evolving comparable mental horsepower the Chinese way, assuming the selective outcomes derived from the more successful peasants outbreeding the others in a very big population with varying environmental pressures over 1000 years, would be entirely consistent with the picture of Chinese having average IQs higher than European averages but lower than Ashkenazi IQ…. and greater persistence, partly culturally derived, than anyone. (What makes the Chinese such mad gamblers one is tempted to ask because it does seem hard to reconcile with high IQ – on average that is, because one knows plenty of smart people who are addicts of all kinds).

The effects of a disproportion in the population between males and females would, prima facie, favour generally desired qualities of which intelligence would obviously be one in almost every community. This or Ron’s previous article makes the point that this disproportion is not just a recent phenomenon so might be counted as one reason why, absent some strong cultural qualifying factors, average Chinese IQs would have increased.

A countervailing factor, as against the natural female instinct to acquire a mate who would be a good provider, would be for the successful male – the rich peasant – to go for quantity and sexual attractiveness in his mating rather than take the opportunity of marrying just one sharp witted female for her company as would often have been the case with the married clergy after the Reformation.

Primogeniture in England, in contrast to much of the Continent, is traditionally supposed to have been good for wealth creation because the younger sons had to go and make their own way with not a great deal of capital behind them. It would follow that they had to succeed in a more cognitively testing environment than the sons of the Chinese rich peasant who had merely got to make the best of a very small amount of land.

It will be interesting to see what the 35 years of one child policy does to average Chinese cognitive abilities. On the one hand it is dysgenic in being enforced most effectively on the urban middle class. On the other it may have been eugenic in producing a competition amongst men to qualify to mate in a society where males outnumbered females by perhaps 15%. The “little prince” syndrome will also need to be factored in to any predictions. For the first generation presumably it won’t make much difference to academic achievement because the combination of tradition and family expectation could be expected to elicit considerable diligence and application by the only child. From limited observation I offer also the speculation that the only child may find it natural to break from the supposedly Confucian conformity that is said to stifle Chinese creativity. For example, a Chinese graduate student whom I employed to write some software contradicted my view of what was the best way to go about it without any great attempt at tact, and when I remarked that he didn’t fit the stereotype Chinese Confucian model he said he was quite happy to argue with his superiors.

FWIW I throw in an old idea of mine which added to the Adam Smith plus Greg Clark explanations for the Industrial Revolution occurring where it did rather than in China or Japan. That is the time it takes to learn to write (and even to read) Chinese in traditional ideographs compared to the time taken to learn to English reading and writing. The 16th century English tradesman whose family heard the Bible read in English each Sunday and possibly owned a Bible would hardly begrudge the reasonably bright 8 year old the six months needed to enable him to read the Bible instead of earning a living helping his father or being apprenticed. By contrast the Chinese or Japanese equivalent father might have had to contemplate two or three years for equivalent literacy and without the additional incentive of Bible reading.

#9 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On March 21, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

“Why That Bear Has No Tail, and That Bull Market Has No Steam”

Wouldn’t the shortest and scrubbiest of trees survive the voracious predations of the increasingly long-necked giraffe, and prompt a cervical arthralgia of major proportions?

So why do the “just-so” folks incessantly focus on the adaptable and ever-cute G-cattle, and not on those laconic and sessile sticks, in their fantastical descriptions of the battle of life? Is is because the bark actually discourages hugging or something?

#10 Comment By Gaeranee On March 21, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

TomB, interesting comments you made there. But we’re not talking about the evolution of a different species here. Unz is talking about the intermarriages among the rich (smart people) while the poor (low IQ people) die out as a result of starvation or failing to reproduce. Even a few generations under a major famine condition that wipes out the poor/low IQ population would be enough to to shift the IQ of a given population. Why would you need a uniform negative natural selection pressure for 1000 years? Just a few famines once in a while would be enough to wipe out enough of the poor/low IQ population at a given time, hence raising the mean IQ.

While I agree with you that the mean IQ increase in China may be largely due to cultural reasons (such as even the poorest/low IQ people in China spending an obscene amount of their income on educating their children), I wouldn’t dismiss Unz’s argument entirely.

This bring me to other interesting ideas:

(1) Historically, poor people’s children would be more likely to die than rich people’s children as a result of starvation, malnutrition, or poor health conditions/lack of access to medical care. But with modernization of farming and the introduction of welfare state, we have allowed poor people to thrive and reproduce at a rapid rate. So now, it seems to me that poor people are having more children than rich people. [Most of my professional friends have 1 or 2 or sometimes 3 children while it seems that so many people on welfare have 3 or more children and people in third world countries are many multiple children So, globally, we’re going to have less and less rich people having to support more and more poor people. This is going to be a big problem if it isn’t already.

(2) Another interesting point is about Korea. Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world. But now that women from the rural areas are fleeing to Seoul to find jobs or to marry, the poorer Korean farmers in rural areas are marrying outside of the race (marrying women from Thailand, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Philippines…. lower IQ countries) So Korea is going to end up with a lower socioeconomic rural population having a mixed population with lower IQs than the Korean population with higher IQs. It would be interesting to see how this affects the country’s IQ down the road.

#11 Comment By TomB On March 22, 2013 @ 5:16 am

As regards my sense that ” a million [years] is just about the shortest span of time that, absent some highly unusual factor, geneticists say seems to be necessary to breed very significant changes, RH responded:

“Ever heard of agriculture? Dogs? Cats?”

But what you are referring to is not *natural* selection, RH, indeed in the most accurate way possible it’s *unnatural* selection. Or *forced” selection.

Re: Gaeranee:

I’m not sure this is quibbling or not but in the first place you seem to equate Unz’s characteristics of “hardworkingness, diligence and ability” with I.Q., and then, perhaps even more tenuously, with wealth, and I while one can perhaps see some or even lots of commonalities between all those, it takes some powerful assuming to do so.

But it’s exactly that kind of assuming that bothers me with lots of this kind of stuff excitedly ascribing all kinds of characteristics to (very fast) genetic changes instead of cultural ones. After awhile it sort of becomes rather protean all this assuming, doesn’t it? This becomes that and that becomes this and by doing so one can seemingly prove anything, yet, just as one example, there’s not a trace of actual evidence that there’s any gene for “hardworkingness.”

After all “hardworkingness” can mean mere physical stamina, right? But I.Q. doesn’t seem to relate to that, and indeed to a reasonable degree one would suspect that the higher I.Q. a person has the better able they are to *avoid* backbreaking physical stamina of the sort that cripples people in their youth even. Or look at the celebrated biz of high-I.Q. ashkenazi jews … often explained not by any “hardworkingness” on their part, but by generations being involved in more mental/intellectual labor.

Like I say, it’s protean, and can explain anything, and for that reason alone seems deeply suspect to me.

And then you talk about how just a few regular famines could be enough to wipe out enough low I.Q. chinese people to shift the general I.Q.

Once again it *sounds* okay, but then you think “wait a minute; to *really* so start limiting mate choices (to surviving higher-I.Q. mates) significantly enough to trigger any appreciable I.Q. rise you’d *really* have to wipe out a huge percentage of the total population.

But my God, even accepting the “major” famines you posit, what famines anywhere much less China have wiped out say … 60-70-80 or 90% of all the people? And then you think … “this is suggested to have happened—repeatedly—in *China*? With all its *billions*? Well my God if so how come we still got billions of Chinese then?”

No, so let’s put up Unz’s hypothetical against its opposing possibility:

Unz is saying that in massively populated China, over a mere thousand years or so, the conditions across at least the majority of that vast land were so uniformly grim that, in this blink of an evolutionary eye so many “lesser abled” Chinese were wiped out or otherwise reproductively disabled that a/the gene(s) for “hardworkingness, diligence and ability” or even higher I.Q. became more dominant across a majority of the billions of remaining Chinese.

And the reason he is saying this is due to anecdotal evidence … not even of what the average Chinese was like one or two thousand years ago, but only of a few *hundred* years ago, to the tune that the average Chinese has substantially gone from being bumbling, lazy individuals to the supercharged ones we (allegedly) see today.

And the opposing possibility says that … okay, assuming indeed one can see some change(s) along this line in the average Chinese even across 1000 or 2000 years (to be fairer than the evidence admits even), what’s the likelihood that same was *genetically* caused in that evolutionary blink of an eye’s time, as opposed to *culturally* caused?

And then you look and say “aha, but … as opposed to not readily seeing the sorts of changes that would occasion *genetic* changes—such as regular, titanic mass famines all across the land—shouldn’t we also then ask whether there have been social changes that caused any hypothetical *cultural* changes? ”

And of course we *should* ask that, because if indeed we are looking for cultural changes they’d have to be caused too.

And what do we see?

Well my God we’ve seen *immense* cultural changes there in China, just in the last 100 years or so, haven’t we? Indeed, *revolutionary* changes.

To start with, at least *some* agricultural technology started creeping in, and then you had all the “early” political turmoil putting people in the situation where they had to use their brains to try to negotiate same, and then most lately of course you had … relative freedom.

Freedom to *use* their *already* existing qualities of “hardworkingness, diligence and ability/I.Q.’s.”

So now we see the qualities on display, *very* suddenly, and what makes the most sensible, reasonable explanation between these two? The gradual gradual gradual genetic-change explanation that somehow seeks to say that despite their huge nature we’ve only recently seen them? Or simply that … huge sudden social changes allowed certain characteristics to hugely manifest themselves?

When indeed we *have* seen such huge social changes?

Like I say, the *far* more reasonable explanation to me at least is the latter.

#12 Comment By TomB On March 22, 2013 @ 5:43 am

@ Gaeranee:

I’d also note that your talk of “rich marrying rich” is quite different from Unz’s idea. Once again that’s not natural selection so much as it is RH’s artificial selection, but even then where’s the evidence?

Under *either* Unz’s hypothetical or yours if valid what would we have expected to see in that “thousand or so” years of genetic cooking?

Well, at the very least given the magnitude of the differences in ability/I.Q.’s you two posit one would think we would have seen some *very* distinct stratification amongst China’s rural, agricultural population, right? A “kulak” class to use a terrible term.

But that’s not my sense of China’s rural, agricultural population’s history. Instead my sense is that for that thousand and more years it remained pretty stable that damn near all its population got stuck in very uniform poverty, scratching out a bare living from what nearly everyone else had which was a couple of acres at best. (A couple at best because China’s population was so huge any more wasn’t available. With that huge population again arguing against any mate-selection constriction.)

Once again then, we are talking about seeing an apparent change in a population’s general characteristic(s), and a very big change at that.

But both genetic changes and cultural changes need causes. Changes to environment, broadly speaking. And what I see here is not big changes to China’s environment over the last thousand years or so leading up to, say, 1900, but instead simply titanic change in China’s environment thereafter, and especially with fall of Mao and the economic change thereupon instituted. A change from … an inability to really reap any much benefit from working harder, being more diligent and etc., to one where the benefits therefrom are spectacular.

And we know that this *kind* of change *can* do exactly that sort of thing. Think of the economic miracles of post-war Germany, Japan or South Korea.

So all this sudden revelation of Chinese ability argues “mere” cultural change to me explaining what we are seeing. Not some oddly-hidden-until-now natural or even artificially caused genetic change.

#13 Comment By Fed On March 22, 2013 @ 10:04 am

Hi Ron,

I apologies for this brief comment, but I figured you might be interested in this article, and I didn’t find a public email to share it with you:


Since you’ve taken a strong interest in mathematical performance, this is more data you might find interesting.


#14 Comment By RH On March 22, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

“But what you are referring to is not *natural* selection, RH, indeed in the most accurate way possible it’s *unnatural* selection. Or *forced” selection.”

While what you’re saying is true regarding those examples, there is no scientist that says that it takes millions of years for there to be large changes in cognition or personality. The races have been split for a hundred thousand years or less, and differ on every single physical trait. Here’s a recent NYT piece about evolution occurring in humans over an even shorter time period. Tibetans developed expansive lungs in the last 3,000 years.


“I’m not sure this is quibbling or not but in the first place you seem to equate Unz’s characteristics of “hardworkingness, diligence and ability” with I.Q., and then, perhaps even more tenuously, with wealth, and I while one can perhaps see some or even lots of commonalities between all those, it takes some powerful assuming to do so.”

Once again, you’re simply wrong empirically. The connection between IQ and wealth is indisputable, no assumptions are necessary. Google is your friend here.

You seem to be arguing in good faith, but if you’re interested in these issues your time would be better spent doing some independent research rather than debating these issues with people who are much better read on these subjects. I would encourage you to look into these issues yourself. Try J. Philippe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior and the book The Bell Curve as starting points.

#15 Comment By Gaeranee On March 22, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

TomB, as I said before, I agree with you that it’s largely cultural. But I find Unz’s argument plausible so it could be that it also partially contributed to the highering of Asian IQs.

My theory is that in most societies, you’ll have a greater standard deviation in IQ as time progresses (with the smart marrying smart people and dumb people marrying dumb people in most cases).

And when a famine hits (such as the one in the 1950s that wiped out about 40 million people in China as well as others before that may have wiped out millions of others), it will, more likely than not, eliminate the the lower end of the IQ spectrum. So if you have about 40 million people mostly dying from the lower IQ spectrum (IQs in the 70s – 90s), a subsequent IQ test would have a higher mean because you have that many less people on the lower end of the IQ spectrum. This is all theoretical but quite plausible in my opinion.

And yes, I am equating smart = rich (unless you inherit it or get lucky in a lottery). I know plenty of people who are hardworking… but they’re not rich because they’re not very smart.

#16 Comment By TomB On March 22, 2013 @ 8:14 pm


In the first place let’s back off the insults and condescension, huh? You’re obviously presenting yourself as oh-so-much better read than I (and you may indeed be), but yet in your first post you confused artificial selection with natural selection. (And then indeed tried to make a denigrating comment off of that too.) So let’s just go forward on the agreement that none of us is experts here, that we’re all susceptible to making blunders, and that even any scientist who says they know anything in this field for absolute certain beyond the elemental are blowing smoke, okay? So unless your ego just really really needs the self-stroking, knock it off and try to be actually helpful here. We’re just trying to think this thing through, Dude. And it sounds as if you might be able to help if you can get over yourself.

Secondly, I didn’t say that scientists say that it always takes millions of years for there to be large changes in characteristics. While I no doubt could have said it better what I clearly meant was that from my readings, absent some titanic change in environment, my general sense is that the minimum unit they talk about with natural selection making big significant changes is in the million year term, if not longer.

And thus you’ll note I didn’t even deny that Unz’s theory is possible. Indeed that’s all my argument amounts to: That it’s just a lot less *likely* than cultural change.

Now, given my admission of the obvious that Unz may still be right, okay, let’s take into account some truly devastating repeated famines in China, perhaps forming those titanic changes. But still, with the Chinese hypothesis here we aren’t even talking about *hundreds* of thousands of years, or even *tens* of the thousand, are we? Just a mere thousand or two.

And here the Tibetan lung is then raised and while I don’t know if that’s pretty much accepted or not even doing so just leads into what I think makes Unz’s hypo more disputable.

One of my big points after all was that given China’s huge huge population you’d really need repeated, super-titanic famines to start significantly limiting mate choice to “better abled” individuals, and yet while of course periodic bad famines are an old Chinese fixture, I have to believe you’d need repeated famines taking something like 60-70-80% or more of all people to the grave to do that. And that’s hard to square with known history, and the present still titanic population in China.

With the Tibetans, however, you had what might well be called a very very small and isolated population, and unlike with famines that tend to be spotty in distribution, the environmental challenge they faced was *uniformly* afflicting, right? A relative lack of oxygen.

So three things that bother me with Unz’s hypo here are the speed at which it’s suggested working, and then its alleged massive effect over a gigantic, non-isolated population, at least somewhat mobile, spread out over a huge part of the globe.

Now, as to “richness=I.Q.”; in the first place I don’t know that the research shows this to be true in China specifically. And anyway originally Unz didn’t even talk about richness or I.Q. but about “hardworkingness, diligence and ability.”

But let’s say there’s some decent correlation anyway, and in China too today.

But doesn’t that raise difficulties itself with Unz’s theory given what Chinese history seems to be? If indeed the Chinese “ability/I.Q./richness” is the result of slow, gradual genetic change over a thousand years or so, then as I posited above shouldn’t we have seen a distinct social *stratification* in China’s rural population growing up over those hundreds and hundreds of years? I.e., as the … “better abled/smarter/richer” got even moreso?

But that’s not my sense of China’s rural history. Instead as stated my distinct sense is that abject poverty was just simply an amazingly universal and constant feature there. With the overwhelmingly main stratification being not between classes of peasants, but between peasants and dynasty or regime officials.

So how come “Unz’s genetics”—slowly but surely it is alleged, bringing big differences—seemingly didn’t manifest themselves at all until … suddenly, now?

And then there’s yet one more thing that, somewhat as a wild-card because I don’t know what to make of it other than as an example perhaps of the fundamental unknowability of this genetic supposing, lies in what is said to be the clear advantage asians in general but including the Chinese have over many others in math skills.

Now … how the hell did this happen with descendants of rural, agricultural Chinese peasants? What was there about *their* experience that preferred mathematical ability over European whites?

Again it just seems to me to show how genetics works in such weird ways it’s *always* going to be very tenuous to posit that X experience resulted in Y characteristic. Maybe even so much that this can never reach the level of true science beyond some simple correlations: I.e., just something unprovable.

And I’ve already commented about how suspiciously glibly any characteristic can be assigned some genetic cause.

My big big problem then might be summed up as taking off from something you, RH, said as follows: “The races have been split for a hundred thousand years or less, and differ on every single physical trait.”

Putting aside, that is, that I don’t think it’s true as to “every single physical trait” (we all have hearts, do we not, all have fingers and etc.), instead of focusing on the *differences* in those traits that do differ, is the *smallness* of them.

That is, despite the undisputed *millions* of years here with human populations being separated, some incredibly isolated, and etc., etc., well my God despite all those millions of years look at how *little* we vary. Skin tones to some degree, but no polka-dotted people, I.Q.’s, but no fantastically huge differences, basic sizes not—like ants say—varying from the near-microscopic to the huge … and on and on.

In other words, we put all humans and all of their separated populations through *millions* of years of evolutionary pressures, including ice-ages and volcanic ages and all the different environments different groups experienced, and yet … what’s the result? A species that all within can still successfully mate with, and that all individuals are clearly very very very similar with.

And yet Unz is saying that in a mere thousand or two years you saw a very significant cognitive change. (Oddly unaccompanied, it seems, by any other suggested physiological change.)

Alls’ I’m saying then is that just about the *only* question to be debated in the face of hypos like Unz’s isn’t whether they are “right” or “wrong,” because that simply can’t be known. Instead THE question is … what’s the *chances* they are right or wrong? And I don’t dispute that you, RH and Gaeranee have given at least *some* greater likelihood to his idea, and indeed may have made it very likely that he’s at least a *little* right in terms of I.Q. very probably almost *always* feeling pressure upwards.

But I still think that in the main the chances are that his explanation for what he sees is overwhelmingly wrong.

#17 Comment By MEH 0910 On March 23, 2013 @ 11:45 am

Razib Khan at Gene Expression wrote on: [16]

Is there any substantive difference between natural, sexual, and artificial selection? Or is it just semantic sugar, useful for humans in our own cognitive bookkeeping? I lean toward the latter proposition. To some extent I would think that this is an irrelevant issue, selection is selection, but I have encountered folks who seem surprised at analogies between “artificial” and “natural” selection quite regularly.

Finally, going back to the distinction between types of selection, the whole argument is necessarily anthropocentric. I am a fan of anthropocentrism to some extent. I’m a human, and you are probably a human. Our nature is to look at the world from our own human perspective. The idea of domestication naturally requires a human reference, ergo, the “self-domestication” of humans. But the example of bonobo chimpanzees and their possible “self-domestication” suggests the limitation of the very framework of human directed artificial selection. Domestication and artificial selection are just subsets of the possibilities of selection, and by bracketing our thinking into the idea of “domestication” we may miss broad trends toward convergence across the tree of life. There may be a lot more “domestication” out there that we simply don’t pay close attention to because it lacks a human actor.

#18 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On March 23, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

Re: Once again, you’re simply wrong empirically. The connection between IQ and wealth is indisputable, no assumptions are necessary. Google is your friend here

It’s real, but it’s also not super strong. IQ explains something like 16-25% of the variance in wealth, and IIRC the top 10% has an IQ of only 108 or so.

Re: My theory is that in most societies, you’ll have a greater standard deviation in IQ as time progresses (with the smart marrying smart people and dumb people marrying dumb people in most cases).

Sort of. I think that smart/high social status men (who have their pick) usually try to choose *beautiful* women, not smart ones. Intelligence and income in a partner aren’t generally that important for men.

#19 Comment By Hooly On March 26, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

Sorry Ron,

I’m still not convinced … a thousand, even a few thousand years of selective pressure, assuming this sort of pressured existed in China, is not enough to change a population to any measurable degree, whether in China, or Britain for that matter. There are so many things I can disagree with, many in the comments section have articulated them better than I can. But my point of view boils down to geography, and sheer chance. I guess you can call me a disciple of Jared Diamond. Geography and culture determine the destiny of a people. That corner of Eurasian happened to be populated by a fair skinned, dark haired and almond eyed race of people, it could just have been populated by Aryan types, or Negroids and the results would have been more or less the same as we see today in ‘the Han Chinese’. Human effort (i.e. gov’t, ideology, religion, culture, etc) simply is nothing compared to the great forces of this planet. So, why have the Chinese produced one of the first great human civilizations so early on?, … because they occupy the choicest corner of Eurasia (far superior than Europe, Siberia, India or the Near East), a fertile, large, sub-continent never defaced by the ice age, watered by great rivers flowing from the Himalayas, constantly fertile due to the loess soil blown in from Central Asia. All this produces ‘the Han Chinese’ … just as the great sub-continent of North America produces ‘the Americans’, etc. People like to flatter themselves and attribute their success to things they can control and choose, … the Han like praising their culture, Americans their form or gov’t, Nazis their ‘race’, Jews/Christians/Muslims their religion, etc. All of it, like Ron Unz’s thesis here, is nonsense.

#20 Comment By [email protected] On March 27, 2013 @ 7:13 am

“I’m still not convinced … a thousand, even a few thousand years of selective pressure, assuming this sort of pressured existed in China, is not enough to change a population to any measurable degree, whether in China, or Britain for that matter. ”
But it seems it changed Ashkenazi Jews, only with a fraction of the time?

But so you’re pro-nature?

“There are so many things I can disagree with, many in the comments section have articulated them better than I can. But my point of view boils down to geography, and sheer chance.”

Geography and Chance, really?

Indian sub continent has much better geography, much larger suitable landmass and much better overall weather for agriculture than all of China putting together. Yet it can’t produce the civilisation as great, as long-lived , as civilised( Until teh British came along), and as stable as what China did. What happened?

As an Anonymous post in the following Peter Frost comment section suggested, I think it had sth to do with overall (unified) population size and its density:


Listen to Panda:

1. population size and density are much more powerful drivers for drastically increased /intensified overall competitions and the associated specialisations, not only in agriculture but perhaps more importantly also in earlier manufactoring, commerce and service sectors.

These are much powerful, primtive(fromm very early on), and universal forces than any culture-specific and/or time-specifc ones such as imperial exam (like what Ron, Frost and others suggested earlier) or whatever. Hence they seem, to me, to have much better/logical explainations than others.

2. It also has A LOT to do with the starting basic line IQ levels tha were selected dueing the Ice Age. Most related key wordes above could be logically drived by this baseline IQ in the beginging, e.g.

– large population size : higher IQ groups had larger sizes, due to better agriculture technologies deployed for more food

-large and better geograpgy: higher IQ groups by and large won wars/conflicts against lower IQ groups they encountered during their expansion phases in the beginning except stpped by natural barriers such as Hymalayas or Saraha Desearts etc , gaining larger foodholds, AND landmass with better (mild/warm?) weather suitable for better agriculture.

– Unified: higher IQ groups by and large were better suited for creating unified empires or kingdoms, adn creating the corresponding rules, laws, “cultures”, values, etc. to stablise the system.

Chance? No Sir, Panda says that in the long run nature leaves no chance, at all!