Saturday, May 2, 2015

Impressions of Russia

The Battle for Sevastopol, now showing in Russian theatres
The young man shook his head. “No, I can’t say I’m pro-Putin. There’s too much corruption in Russia, with too much money going to the wrong people. We should become more Western. Instead, we’re moving in the other direction.”

Finally, I thought, a liberal critic of Putin. The young man continued. “Here it’s not too bad, but in Moscow you can see the change. They’re all over. Please, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate anyone, but I feel uncomfortable when there are so many of them. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m still in Russia.”


Much had changed since my last visit ten years ago. Driving into the city of Voronezh from the airport, I could see entirely new neighborhoods, supermarkets, office buildings, and the like. In 2003, there was only one shopping mall in the whole city, and it was nothing special. Now, there were malls as huge as any in Toronto. Things had likewise improved for some of our old friends and acquaintances. A few had moved up into the growing middle class, including one couple who showed us their new palatial home on the outskirts.

Yet the bulk of the population seemed no better off, and in some ways worse off. Ten years ago, jobs were there for the taking. The pay may have been lousy, but it was money. Now, the competition is intense even for those jobs. An unemployed man told me: “It’s hard to find work now. Employers will hire immigrants because they work for much less and won’t complain. And there are a lot of them now, mainly from Central Asia, but also from places all over.”

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But it’s consistent with what a Quebec building contractor had told me earlier. “I no longer bother with Russian construction projects because there’s always a Russian company that will put in an absurdly low bid. The only way he can stay within budget is by hiring illegal immigrants. Everyone knows it, but nothing is ever done to stop it.”


I wasn’t surprised to see Ukrainian refugees in a big city like Voronezh, but it was surprising to see so many in remote farming villages. And each refugee family had a horror story to tell. It’s one thing to hear these stories from professional journalists; it’s another to hear them from ordinary people who aren’t being paid to say what they say. This is an underappreciated factor in the growing anger among Russians against the Ukrainian government.

After all that’s happened, I don’t see how eastern Ukraine will ever accept being ruled by Kiev. It’s like a marriage that has crossed the line between verbal abuse and physical violence.


We were standing outside a fast food kiosk. “I just don’t get it,” said my wife. “Prices are almost as high here as in Canada, yet the wages are a lot lower. How do people manage to survive?”

A young man overheard her. “The people who don’t survive are the ones you don’t get to see.”


Postwar housing projects cover most of the city. They are now aging badly, and North Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call them “slums.” We like to think that slums cause crime, broken homes, and stunted mental development. Yet, here, you can walk up about in safety, families are usually intact, and the children are studying hard to become engineers, scientists, ballet dancers, or what have you.


We were sitting in a restaurant with two young Russians, a lawyer and a university teacher. “Will there be war?” said one, looking worried. I tried to be reassuring, saying no one wanted war. But I wasn’t sure myself.

There was another question. “But do the Americans know what they’re getting into?” I shook my head. Few people in the West know much about Russia, and what little they do is worse than useless.


Hitler said it would be like kicking in the door of a rotten building. That’s how it seemed at first. And then the war dragged on and on, grinding down one German division after another. If—God forbid—war happens another time, we’ll probably see the same pattern. Without a higher purpose, the average Russian man often retreats into indolence, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior. Give him that purpose, and he will fight for it with almost superhuman power.

One of my professors ascribed it to the yearly cycle of traditional farm life. For most of the year, the muzhik slept a lot and whiled away his days in aimlessness. But when it came time to plough the fields or bring in the harvest, he had to pull out all stops and work continuously from dawn to dusk.


It’s the 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, and reminders can be seen everywhere. There has been a spate of new war movies, including one about the Battle for Sevastopol. It’s hard not to see references to the current conflict.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More on the younger Franz Boas

As a professor at Columbia, Franz Boas encountered the elite liberal culture of the American Northeast, one example being Mary White Ovington, a founder of the NAACP (Wikicommons)

Antiracism has roots that go back to early Christianity and the assimilationist Roman and Hellenistic empires. In its modern form, however, it is a much more recent development, particularly in its special focus on relations between whites and blacks and its emphasis on discrimination as the cause of any mental or behavioral differences.

Modern antiracism began in the early 1800s as a radical outgrowth of abolitionism, reaching high levels of popular support in the mid-1800s, particularly in the American Northeast, and then falling into decline due to growing interest in Social Darwinism and increasing disillusionment with the aftermath of the Civil War. By the 1920s, it really held sway only in the Northeast, and even there it was losing ground.

This situation changed dramatically in the 1930s. Antiracism revived and entered a period of growth that would eventually go global. The anthropologist Franz Boas played a key role through his own work and indirectly through the work of his two protégés: Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Yet this was the old Boas, a man already in his seventies. The younger Boas had thought differently, as seen in an 1894 speech he gave on "Human Faculty as Determined by Race":

We find that the face of the negro as compared to the skull is larger than that of the American [Indian], whose face is in turn larger than that of the white. The lower portion of the face assumes larger dimensions. The alveolar arch is pushed forward and thus gains an appearance which reminds us of the higher apes. There is no denying that this feature is a most constant character of the black races and that it represents a type slightly nearer the animal than the European type. [...] We find here at least a few indications which tend to show that the white race differs more from the higher apes than the negro. But does this anatomical difference prove that their mental capacity is lower than that of the white? The probability that this may be the case is suggested by the anatomical facts, but they by themselves are no proof that such is the case. (Boas, 1974, p. 230)

It does not seem probable that the minds of races which show variations in their anatomical structure should act in exactly the same manner. Differences of structure must be accompanied by differences of function, physiological as well as psychological; and, as we found clear evidence of difference in structure between the races, so we must anticipate that differences in mental characteristics will be found. (Boas, 1974, p. 239)

We have shown that the anatomical evidence is such, that we may expect to find the races not equally gifted. While we have no right to consider one more ape-like than the other, the differences are such that some have probably greater mental vigor than others. The variations are, however, such that we may expect many individuals of all races to be equally gifted, while the number of men and women of higher ability will differ. (Boas, 1974, p. 242)

Boas returned to this topic in a 1908 speech on "Race Problems in America":

I do not believe that the negro is, in his physical and mental make-up, the same as the European. The anatomical differences are so great that corresponding mental differences are plausible. There may exist differences in character and in the direction of specific aptitudes. There is, however, no proof whatever that these differences signify any appreciable degree of inferiority of the negro, notwithstanding the slightly inferior size, and perhaps lesser complexity of structure, of his brain; for these racial differences are much less than the range of variation found in either race considered by itself. (Boas, 1974, pp. 328-329)

How did his views on race evolve over the next twenty years? This evolution is described by Williams (1996), who sees his views beginning to change at the turn of the century. After getting tenure at Columbia University in 1899, he became immersed in the elite liberal culture of the American northeast and began to express his views on race accordingly. The onset of this change is visible in 1905, when he penned an article for the first issue of The Crisis, the organ of the NAACP: “The Negro and the Demands of Modern Life.” While pointing out that the average negro brain was "smaller than that of other races" and that it was "plausible that certain differences of form of brain exist," he cautioned:

We must remember that individually the correlation [...] is often overshadowed by other causes, and that we find a considerable number of great men with slight brain weight. [...] We may, therefore, expect less average ability and also, on account of probable anatomical differences, somewhat different mental tendencies. (Williams, 1996, p. 17)

The same year, he wrote to a colleague, stressing "the desirability of collecting more definite information in relation to certain traits of the Negro race that seem of fundamental importance in determining the policy to be pursued towards that race" (Williams, 1996, p. 18). In 1906, he sought funding for such a project with two specific goals:

(1) Is there an earlier arrest of mental and physical development in the Negro child, as compared with the white child? And, if so, is this arrest due to social causes or to anatomical and physiological conditions?

(2) What is the position of the mulatto child and of the adult mulatto in relation to the two races? Is he an intermediate type, or is there a tendency of reversion towards either race? So that particularly gifted mulattoes have to be considered as reversals of the white race. The question of the physical vigor of the mulatto could be taken up at the same time. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

His tone was less even-handed in a private letter, written the same year:

You may be aware that in my opinion the assumption seems justifiable that on the average the mental capacity of the negro may be a little less than that of the white, but that the capacities of the bulk of both races are on the same level. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

In 1911, Boas published the first edition of The Mind of Primitive Man. It recycled most of his previous writings on race, while emphasizing that race differences in mental makeup were statistical and showed considerable overlap. In 1915, he continued in this direction when he wrote a preface to Half A Man by Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP:

Many students of anthropology recognize that no proof can be given of any material inferiority of the Negro race; that without doubt the bulk of the individuals composing the race are equal in mental aptitude to the bulk of our own people; that, although their hereditary aptitude may lie in slightly different directions, it is very improbable that the majority of individuals composing the white race should possess greater ability than the Negro race. (Williams, 1996, pp. 22-23)

Nonetheless, one finds little change from his earlier writings in his 1928 work Anthropology and Modern Life:

[...] the distribution of individuals and of family lines in the various races differs. When we select among the Europeans a group with large brains, their frequency will be relatively high, while among the Negroes the frequency of occurrence of the corresponding group will be low. If, for instance, there are 50 percent of a European population who have a brain weight of more than, let us say 1,500 grams, there may be only 20 percent of Negroes of the same class. Therefore, 30 percent of the large-brained Europeans cannot be matched by any corresponding group of Negroes. (Williams, 1996, p. 35)


From 1900 to 1930, Boas seemed to become increasingly liberal in his views on race, but this trend was hesitant at best and reflected, at least in part, a change in the audience he was addressing. As a professor at Columbia, he was dealing with a regional WASP culture that still preserved the radical abolitionism of the previous century. A good example was Mary White Ovington, whose Unitarian parents had been involved in the anti-slavery movement and who in 1910 helped found the NAACP. Boas was also dealing with the city's growing African American community and, through Ovington's contacts, wrote articles for the NAACP. Finally, he was also dealing with the growing Jewish community, who identified with antiracism partly out of self-interest and partly out of a desire to assimilate into northeastern WASP culture.

Boas didn't really change his mind on race until the 1930s. The cause is not hard to pinpoint. When he died in 1942, an obituary mentioned his alarm over the threat of Nazism:

Dr. Boas, who had studied and written widely in all fields of anthropology devoted most of his researches during the past few years to the study of the "race question," especially so after the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Discussing his efforts to disprove what he called "this Nordic nonsense," Prof. Boas said upon his retirement from teaching in 1936 that "with the present condition of the world, I consider the race question a most important one. I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race those days. I think the question is particularly important for this country, too; as here also people are going crazy." (JTA, 1942)

Hitler's rise to power created a sense of urgency among many academics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, thereby convincing fence-sitters like Franz Boas to put aside their doubts and take a more aggressive stand on race. Thus began the war on racism, which foreshadowed the coming world conflict.


Boas, F. (1974). A Franz Boas Reader. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911, G.W. Stocking Jr. (ed.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Frost, P. (2014). The Franz Boas you never knew, Evo and Proud, July 13

JTA (1942). Dr. Franz Boas, Debunker of Nazi Racial Theories, Dies in New York, December 23

Williams Jr., V.J. (1996). Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries, University Press of Kentucky.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The hidden past of Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1973 (Wikicommons)

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died six years ago, leaving behind a treasure trove of correspondence and unpublished writings. We can now trace where his ideas came from and how they evolved.

I admired Lévi-Strauss during my time as an anthropology student because he asked questions that Marxist anthropologists would never ask. That's why I preferred to call myself a Marxisant, and not a full-blown Marxist. I especially admired him for addressing the issue of nature versus nurture, which had once been a leading issue in anthropology but was now studiously ignored. Only he, it seemed, could defy this omertà and not suffer any ill effects, perhaps because of his age and status.

In his best known tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, this issue dominated the first chapter:

Man is both a biological being and a social individual. Among his responses to external or internal stimuli, some are wholly dependent upon his nature, others upon his social environment.

Lévi-Strauss admitted that the two were not always easy to separate:

Culture is not merely juxtaposed to [biological] life nor superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as a substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it, to bring about the synthesis of a new order.
He reviewed the different ways of disentangling one from the other:

The simplest method would be to isolate a new-born child and to observe its reactions to various stimuli during the first hours or days after birth. Responses made under such conditions could then be supposed to be of a psycho-biological origin, and to be independent of ulterior cultural syntheses.

[Nonetheless,] the question always remains open whether a certain reaction is absent because its origin is cultural, or because, with the earliness of the observation, the physiological mechanisms governing its appearances are not yet developed. Because a very young child does not walk, it cannot be concluded that training is necessary, since it is known that a child spontaneously begins to walk as soon as it is organically capable of doing so.

His interest in the interactions between culture and biology went further. The gene pool of a population will influence its culture, which in turn will alter the gene pool:

The selection pressure of culture—the fact that it favors certain types of individuals rather than others through its forms of organization, its ideas of morality, and its aesthetic values—can do infinitely more to alter a gene pool than the gene pool can do to shape a culture, all the more so because a culture's rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift. (Lévi-Strauss, 1979, p. 24-25)

This is of course gene-culture co-evolution. He may have given the idea to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, who first began to propound it while teaching a cultural evolution class in 1978-1979. Two of his students, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, went on to popularize the idea in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985) (Stone and Lurquin 2005, p. 108). Lévi-Strauss had in fact mentioned the same idea long before in a UNESCO lecture:

When cultures specialize, they consolidate and favor other traits, like resistance to cold or heat for societies that have willingly or unwillingly had to adapt to extreme climates, like dispositions to aggressiveness or contemplation, like technical ingenuity, and so on. In the form these traits appear to us on the cultural level, none can be clearly linked to a genetic basis, but we cannot exclude that they are sometimes linked partially and distantly via intermediate linkages. In this case, it would be true to say that each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

In the same lecture, he made another point:

[Humanity] will have to relearn that all true creation implies some deafness to the call of other values, which may go so far as to reject or even negate them. One cannot at the same time melt away in the enjoyment of the Other, identify oneself with the Other, and keep oneself different. If fully successful, complete communication with the Other will doom its creative originality and my own in more or less short time. The great creative ages were those when communication had increased to the point that distant partners stimulated each other but not so often and rapidly that the indispensable obstacles between individuals, and likewise between groups, dwindled to the point that excessively easy exchanges would equalize and blend away their diversity. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

His audience was taken aback, according to fellow anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski:

These words shocked the listeners. One can easily imagine how disconcerted UNESCO employees were, who, meeting Lévi-Strauss in the corridor after the lecture, expressed their disappointment at hearing the institutional articles of faith to which they thought they had the merit of adhering called into question. René Maheu, the Director General of UNESCO, who had invited Lévi-Strauss to give this lecture, seemed upset. (Stoczkowski, 2008; Frost, 2014)

Where his ideas came from

Since his death in 2009, we have gained a clearer picture of his intellectual evolution. His published writings had already provided an answer:

When I was about sixteen, I was introduced to Marxism by a young Belgian socialist, whom I had got to know on holiday, and who is now one of his country's ambassadors abroad. I was all the more delighted by Marx in that the reading of the works of the great thinker brought me into contact for the first time with the line of philosophical development running from Kant to Hegel; a whole new world was opened up to me. Since then, my admiration for Marx has remained constant [...] (Lévi-Strauss, 2012 [1973])

Looking through Lévi-Strauss' published and unpublished writings, Wiktor Stoczkowski tried to learn more about this episode but found nothing:

It suffices however to look closely at the milieus that Lévi-Strauss frequented in the 1920s and 1930s, or to reread the articles he published during that period to realize that his references to Marx were at that time astonishingly rare, in flagrant contradiction with his declarations […] In contrast, another name often came up during that time in the writings of the young Lévi-Strauss: that of Henri De Man. And that name, curiously, Lévi-Strauss would never mention after the war. (Stoczkowski, 2013)

As a young leftist disenchanted with Marxism, Lévi-Strauss was especially fascinated by De Man's book Au-delà du marxisme (Beyond Marxism), published in 1927. One of his friends invited De Man to Paris to present his ideas to French socialists. Lévi-Strauss was given the job of organizing the lecture and wrote to De Man about the difficulties encountered:

We have run into many difficulties, which we scarcely suspected and which have sadly shed light on the conservative and sectarian spirit of a good part of French socialism [...]. We thought that the best means to give this [lecture] all of the desirable magnitude would be to make it public [...] [but] to obtain the key support of the Socialist Students, we have agreed to make your lecture non-public, and to reserve admission to members of socialist organizations. Thus, we have learned that Marxism is a sacrosanct doctrine in our party, and that to study theories that stray from it, we have to shut ourselves in very strongly, so that no one on the outside will know (Stoczkowski, 2013)

The lecture was held the next year. Stoczkowski describes the letter that Lévi-Strauss wrote to the invitee afterwards:

"Thanks to you," he wrote, "socialist doctrines have finally emerged from their long sleep; the Party is undergoing, thanks to you, a revival of intellectual activity ...." But there is more. Speaking on his behalf and on behalf of his young comrades, Lévi-Strauss informed De Man that his book Au-delà du marxisme had been for them "a genuine revelation..." Speaking personally, Lévi-Strauss added that he was "profoundly grateful" to De Man's teachings for having "helped me get out of an impasse I believed to have no way out." (Stoczkowski, 2013)

Nothing indicates that Lévi-Strauss had ever been a Marxist in his youth. Both he and his friends saw it as a pseudo-religion that stunted the development of socialism.

But who was Henri De Man?

He was a Belgian Marxist who had lived in Leipzig, Germany, where he became the editor of a radical socialist journal, Leipziger Volkszeitung, that ran contributions by Rosa Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Radek, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, and others. In 1907, he helped found the Socialist Youth International. He later returned to Belgium and enrolled when war broke out, seeing the Allied side as a progressive alternative to German authoritarianism.

His views changed during the 1920s, while teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He came to feel that Marxists erred in seeing themselves as an antithesis to the current system; such a perspective made them oppose all traditional values, particularly Christianity and national identity. He now argued that laws, morality, and religion are not bourgeois prejudices, but rather things that are necessary to make any society work. Marxists also erred, he felt, in their narrow focus on economic determinism and their disregard for psychology and the will to act. Although De Man acknowledged the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, these tendencies do not inevitably lead to revolution. Rather, revolution will happen only when enough people realize that current conditions are neither tolerable nor inevitable. Above all, revolution cannot happen unless it respects existing cultural, religious, and national traditions:

If one sees in socialism something other than and more than an antithesis to modern capitalism, and if one relates it to its moral and intellectual roots, one will find that these roots are the same as those of our entire Western civilization. Christianity, democracy, and socialism are now, even historically, merely three forms of one idea.

De Man returned to Belgium during the 1930s, becoming vice-president and then president of the Belgian Labour Party. In 1935, with the formation of a government of national unity to fight the Great Depression, he was made minister of public works and job creation. In this role, he pushed for State planning and looked to Germany and Italy as examples to be followed. He became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary democracy and began to call for an “authoritarian democracy” where decisions would be made primarily through the legislature and referendums, rather than through the executive and party politics (Tremblay, 2006).

When Germany overran Belgium in 1940, De Man issued a manifesto to Labour Party members and advised them to collaborate: "For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance" (Wikipedia, 2015). Over the next year, he served as de facto prime minister before falling into disfavor with the German authorities. He spent the rest of the war in Paris and then fled to Switzerland where he lived his final years. Meanwhile, a Belgian court convicted him in absentia of treason.


Like many people after the war, Claude Lévi-Strauss had to invent a new past. It didn't matter that he had admired Henri de Man at a time when the Belgian socialist was not yet a fascist or a collaborator. As Stoczkowski notes, guilt by association would have been enough to ruin his academic career. Ironically, if he had really been a loyal Marxist during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he would also have denied back then the crimes being committed in the name of Marxism: the Ukrainian famine, Stalin's purges ... Yet, for that, he never faced any criticism.


De Man. (1927). Au-delà du marxisme, Brussels, L'Églantine.

Frost, P. (2014). Negotiating the gap. Four academics and the dilemma of human biodiversity, Open Behavioral Genetics, June 20. 

Lévis-Strauss, C. (1969 [1949]). The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1971). Race et culture, conférence de Lévi-Strauss à L'UNESCO le 22 mars 1971

Lévi-Strauss, C. (2012[1973]). Tristes Tropiques, New York: Penguin

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Claude Lévi-Strauss à l'université Laval, Québec (septembre 1979), prepared by Yvan Simonis, Documents de recherche no. 4, Laboratoire de recherches anthropologiques, Département d'anthropologie, Faculté des Sciences sociales, Université Laval.

Stoczkowski, W. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO, The UNESCO Courrier, no. 5, pp. 5-8.

Stoczkowski, W. (2013). Un étrange socialisme de Claude-Lévi-Strauss / A weird socialism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Europe91, n° 1005-1006, 37-53.

Stone, L. and P.F. Lurquin. (2005). A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey. The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tremblay, J-M. (2006). Henri de Man, 1885-1953, Les classiques des sciences sociales, UQAC

Wikipedia. (2015). Henri de Man

Saturday, April 4, 2015

How many were already fathers?

Hanging outside Newgate Prison (Wikicommons)

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.


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.


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

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243.  

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.

Wikipedia. (2015a). Dick Turpin

Wikipedia (2015b). Western European Marriage Pattern

Saturday, March 28, 2015

In the wrong place at the wrong time?

Dick Turpin was convicted of robbery but had also been guilty of a string of murders (Wikicommons)

In each generation from 1500 to 1750, between 1 and 2% of all English men were executed either by court order or extra-judicially (at the scene of the crime or while in prison). This was the height of a moral crusade by Church and State to punish the wicked so that the good may live in peace.

Meanwhile, the homicide rate fell ten-fold. Were the two trends related? In a recent paper, Henry Harpending and I argued that a little over half of the homicide decline could be explained by the high execution rate, and its steady removal of violent males from the gene pool. The rest could be partly explained by Clark-Unz selection—violent males lost out reproductively because they were increasingly marginalized in society and on the marriage market. Finally, this decline was also due to a strengthening of controls on male violence: judicial punishment (policing, penitentiaries); quasi-judicial punishment (in schools, at church, and in workplaces); and stigmatization of personal violence in popular culture.

These controls drove the decline in the homicide rate, but they also tended over time to hardwire the new behavior pattern, by hindering the ability of violent males to survive and reproduce. The last half-century has seen a dramatic relaxation of these controls but only a modest rise in the homicide rate among young men of native English origin.

The above argument has been criticized on two grounds:

1. Executed offenders were not the worst of the worst. They were often people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

2. Executed offenders may have had children who survived to adulthood.

This week's column will address the first criticism. Did execution remove the most violent men? Or did it randomly remove individuals from, say, the most violent third?

Many genetic factors influence our propensity for personal violence: impulse control; violence ideation; pleasure from inflicting pain; etc. Regardless of how strong or weak these factors may be, the propensity itself should be normally distributed within the male population—it should follow a bell curve. If we move right or left from the population mean, the number of men should initially decline very little, with the result that over two-thirds of the men can be found within one standard deviation of the mean.

We really have to go one standard deviation to the right before the men begin to seem abnormally violent, but the remaining right-hand “tail” leaves us only 16% of the male population. What if we’re looking for a man who’s at least twice as violent as the normal two-thirds? He’s in the far right 1%. In a single gene pool, violent men stand out not just because they are noticeably abnormal but also because they are much less common.

Identifying the most violent men. But how?

Were these men the ones that the English justice system executed between 1500 and 1750? Murder is violence taken to its logical extreme, yet most murder cases went unsolved in early modern England. The crime was difficult to prove for want of witnesses, either because none wished to come forward or because they had likewise been murdered. There were no police, no forensic laboratories, and much less of the investigative infrastructure that we have today. If you committed a one-time murder, your chances of not getting caught were good.

The criminal justice system in the eighteenth century [...] therefore operated on a rationale very different from that of a modern state, with its professional police forces, social services and a fully bureaucratised law-enforcement system. In the early eighteenth century at least, the enforcement of law and order depended largely on unpaid amateur officials, the justices of the peace and the parish constables and other local officers. (Sharpe, 2010, p. 92)

This is not to say that the justice system gave murder a lower priority. Rather, with the limited resources available, judges and juries engaged in "profiling." They scrutinized not only the offence but also the accused—his character and demeanor, his behavior during the crime and in the courtroom, and his previous offences. Juries could be lenient in cases of first-time offences for theft, but this leniency disappeared if the accused had a criminal history.

The justice system thus looked for signs that the accused had already committed worse crimes or would go on to do so. Ironically, our current system is the one that tends to catch people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., inexperienced one-time murderers.

Hanged for robbery but guilty of murder

This may be seen in a book, published in London in 1735, that told the life stories of 198 executed criminals. Of the 198, only 34 (17%) had been sentenced to death for murder. A much larger number, 111 (56%), were charged with robbery, being described as highwaymen, footpads, robbers, and street robbers. Finally, another 37 (19%) were executed simply for theft (Hayward, 2012; see note). Robbery was punished more severely than simple theft because it threatened both life and property, especially if the victim failed to cooperate sufficiently or seemed to recognize the robber.

Robbery is the taking away violently and feloniously the goods or money from the person of a man, putting him in fear [...]. Yea, where there is a gang of several persons, only one of which robs, they are all guilty as to the circumstance of putting in fear, wherever a person attacks another with circumstances of terror [...] And in respect of punishment, though judgment of death cannot be given in any larceny whatsoever, unless the goods taken exceed twelve pence in value, yet in robbery such judgment is given, let the value of the goods be ever so small. (Hayward, 2013, p. 27)

Sooner or later, a robber ended up killing. We see this in the life story of Dick Turpin, who was hanged for cattle theft, even though he had committed worse crimes:

The process of reconstruction may not tell us much about Turpin's personality, but it does give us the opportunity to put together a remarkable criminal biography, a tale of violent robberies, of murder, and, eventually, of the horse-thefts that led to his execution. (Sharpe, 2010, p. 8)

Allegations of murder came up in trials of robbers, but typically remained unproven because no witnesses could be produced. Nonetheless, the accused would sometimes confess to murder, either to clear his conscience or, in the wake of a death sentence, because he had nothing left to lose, like this man convicted for highway robbery: "This Reading had been concerned in abundance of robberies, and, as he himself owned, in some which were attended with murder" (Hayward, 2013, p. 91). A member of another gang, when caught, confessed to a long string of murders:

[...] he, without any equivocation, began to confess all the crimes of his life. He said that it was true they all of them deserved death, and he was content to suffer; he said, moreover, that in the course of his life he had murdered upwards of three-score with his own hands. He also carried the officers to an island in the river, which was the usual place of the execution of those innocents who fell into the hands of their gang [...] (Hayward,2013, p. 1014)

In most cases, however, the accused would deny involvement in murders even after being condemned to death:

There has been great suspicions that he murdered the old husband to this woman, who was found dead in a barn or outhouse not far from Hornsey; but Wigley, though he confessed an unlawful correspondence with the woman, yet constantly averred his innocency of that fact, and always asserted that though the old man's death was sudden, yet it was natural. (Hayward, 2013, pp. 92-93)

At the place of execution he behaved with great composure and said that as he had heard he was accused in the world of having robbed and murdered a woman in Hyde Park, he judged it proper to discharge his conscience by declaring that he knew nothing of the murder, but said nothing as to the robbery. (Hayward, 2013, p.96)

In the wrong place at the wrong time?

If we look at executed criminals, their profile is not that of unfortunates caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most were young men who had done their work in the company of likeminded young men. Those who operated alone were atypical, like this highwayman:

Though this malefactor had committed a multitude of robberies, yet he generally chose to go on such expeditions alone, having always great aversion for those confederacies in villainy which we call gangs, in which he always affirmed there was little safety, notwithstanding any oaths, by which they might bind themselves to secrecy. (Hayward, 2013, p. 93)

For most, long-term safety was a secondary concern. Their behavioral profile—fast life history, disregard for the future, desire to be with other young men and impress them with acts of bravado and violence—stood in contrast to the ascendant culture of early modern England. One example is this robber:

[...] when he returned to liberty he returned to his old practices. His companions were several young men of the same stamp with himself, who placed all their delight in the sensual and brutal pleasures of drinking, gaming, whoring and idling about, without betaking themselves to any business. Natt, who was a young fellow naturally sprightly and of good parts, from thence became very acceptable to these sort of people, and committed abundance of robberies in a very small space of time. The natural fire of his temper made him behave with great boldness on such occasions, and gave him no small reputation amongst the gang. [...] He particularly affected the company of Richard James, and with him robbed very much on the Oxford Road, whereon it was common for both these persons not only to take away the money from passengers, but also to treat them with great inhumanity [...] (Hayward, 2013, pp. 108-109)

This sort of description comes up repeatedly. Most condemned men struck observers as very atypical, and not merely among the worst third of society. In 1741, an observer described a hanging and the interactions between the condemned men and a crowd composed largely of their friends:

The criminals were five in number. I was much disappointed at the unconcern and carelessness that appeared in the faces of three of the unhappy wretches; the countenance of the other two were spread with that horror and despair which is not to be wondered at in men whose period of life is so near [...]

[...] the three thoughtless young men, who at first seemed not enough concerned, grew most shamefully wanton and daring, behaving themselves in a manner that would have been ridiculous in men in any circumstances whatever. They swore, laughed, and talked obscenely, and wished their wicked companions good luck with as much assurance as if their employment had been the most lawful.

At the place of execution the scene grew still more shocking, and the clergyman who attended was more the subject of ridicule than of their serious attention. The Psalm was sung amidst the curses and quarrelling of hundreds of the most abandoned and profligate of mankind, upon them (so stupid are they to any sense of decency) all the preparation of the unhappy wretches seems to serve only for subject of a barbarous kind of mirth, altogether inconsistent with humanity. And as soon as the poor creatures were half dead, I was much surprised to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness as to occasion several warm rencounters and broken heads. These, I was told, were the friends of the persons executed, or such as, for the sake of tumult, chose to appear so; as well as some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at [...] The face of every one spoke a kind of mirth, as if the spectacle they beheld had afforded pleasure instead of pain, which I am wholly unable to account for. (Hayward, 2013, pp. 8-10)

The situation in early modern England was akin to a low-grade war, and it was not for nothing that its justice system seems to us so barbaric. The judges and juries were dealing with barbarians: gangs of young men who led a predatory lifestyle that made life miserable for people who ventured beyond the safety of their own homes.


We are still left with the original question: Were these criminals the most violent 1 to 2% or a random sample of a much larger proportion? In general, they behaved quite unlike most people, especially if they belonged to gangs, which seem to have been responsible for most homicides. It is hard to see how such people could correspond even to the most violent 16%—a range of individuals that begins one standard deviation to the right of the mean, at which point behavior just begins to seem "abnormal."

In all likelihood, execution removed individuals who were more than one standard deviation to the right of the mean, with a strong skew toward people more than two standard deviations to the right—in other words, something less than the most violent 16% with a strong skew toward the most violent 1%.

These assumptions differ from those of our model, which assumes that execution removed the most violent 1 to 2%. On the other hand, our model also assumes that each executed criminal would, in the absence of execution, have killed only one person over a normal lifetime. Clearly, many people among the executed were already serial murderers, not so much among the convicted murderers as among the convicted robbers. It is difficult to say whether the two sources of error would balance each other out, since we need more information on (1) just how abnormal the executed were in terms of behavior and (2) how many people they would have otherwise killed over a normal lifetime.

Executed criminals were probably a heterogeneous group. A quarter of them (mostly the thieves) would have likely killed 0 to 1 people on average if allowed to live out their lives. Another quarter may have averaged 1 to 2 murders. Finally, the remaining half may have had an ever higher score. Within this last group, we can be sure that a hard core of individuals would have each gone on to kill dozens of people, if they had not already done so.


The other executed criminals were identified as 8 housebreakers, 7 forgers, 4 pirates, 2 incendiaries, 1 threatening letter writer, 1 ravisher, 1 thief-taker, and 1 releaser of prisoners. Wherever a single individual was charged with more than one crime, I classified him or her under the most serious offence, i.e., murder took precedence over robbery, and robbery took precedence over theft.

Of the 198 executed criminals, 10 were women. The book actually tells the life stories of 201 criminals, but three of them were not executed. I excluded the life stories in the appendix (7 murderers and 4 thieves) because they came from a much earlier time period and may have been less representative.


Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243.   

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.

Sharpe, J. (2010). Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, Profile Books.