Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

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, […]

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” as the lead headline for the earliest discussion of my recent article 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 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, 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, 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?”, 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.  Then last year to my utter astonishment, I discovered that my old unpublished paper had been cited in a major academic journal review article 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 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, 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, thereby making the ideas more easily available to the 600 million Han on the Internet.