Tag Archives: kinship

Kin selection and ethnic group selection

Sometimes I interrupt the normal day-by-day progression of Logarithmic History to cover my own work. Here I introduce a just-published paper, “Kin selection and ethnic group selection.” It’s about what, if anything, ethnicity has in common with kinship – evolutionarily speaking that is, on the assumption that human psychology has been shaped by natural selection. The paper doesn’t have anything to do with galaxy formation or nucleosynthesis, recent topics on the blog, but it would have been a good fit on August 5 last year, when I wrote about cultural group selection, population genetics, and prehistory, or December 15, when I wrote about nationalism in Europe at the end of the Cold War.

The paper itself is behind a paywall, but here’s a link to an earlier uncorrected, unpublished draft.

As a starting point, take the concept of ethnic nepotism. If you look up the term on the web, one thing you’ll find is an array of sources arguing that ethnicity is kinship on a large scale, and that the theory of kin selection, developed in evolutionary biology to explain altruism, cooperation, and conflict in families, is also a key to understanding such things at the level of ethnic groups. In the paper, I cite academic publications that take this position, including some from my late colleague at the University of Utah, Henry Harpending. And here is a non-academic link.

But you’ll also find people arguing the opposite, that ethnicity can’t be equated with kinship, at least as far as the theory of kin selection is concerned. Again I cite academic publications in the paper, and here, here, and here are some non-academic links.

The nay-sayers win the first round of the argument. I cover this in the first part of the paper. The theory of kin selection is concerned with r, the coefficient of relatedness, the expected number of genes that one organism shares with another as a result of common descent. Natural selection favors altruism between family members in proportion to their r’s, as a gene’s way of making more genes. So we’re told by William Hamilton, the biologist who figured this out. As it turns out, we can calculate r values not just for families, but for large groups – nations, continent-scale races. Does this mean we can plug these r’s into the standard formula and predict altruism between ethnic group members accordingly? No, because we’re now violating something called the weak selection assumption (see the paper for details). A physics analogy: at Earth’s surface, a falling object accelerates at a constant 9.8 meters per second per second. So we’re told by Galileo. This works for heavy objects over short distances. But we run into problems if we try to apply this law to lighter objects and longer distances without allowing for air resistance. Assuming weak selection in the theory of kin selection is like assuming no air resistance in physics, a simplifying assumption that can get us in trouble.

Eppur … even if ethnicity can’t simply be equated with kinship, it’s still theoretically possible to rescue the idea of ethnic nepotism, with the help of two further principles.

Socially enforced altruism. Suppose you decide, on your own, to help somebody at some cost to yourself. (If we’re thinking about evolution, we’ll want to count benefits and costs as fitness increments and decrements.) This is an instance of individual altruism. Discussions of kin selection commonly begin and often end here. But now imagine that you are part of a group that decides collectively to help another group. You and your fellow villagers, say, vote to tax yourselves to help a neighboring village recover from a flood; you don’t expect them to pay you back. This is socially enforced altruism. It’s not altruism at the individual level – you pay the tax to avoid a penalty – but it’s altruism at the village level – y’all could have kept the money for yourselves. In an earlier paper, I analyzed a variant on this, a reputation-based system where you help the needy not so much out of pure kindness, but to get the benefits that go with having a good reputation. I showed how the social enforcement of charity via reputation can amplify altruism toward distant kin. (Here’s the article, and a blog post about it, Beating Hamilton’s Rule, and an earlier article, Group nepotism and human kinship, and another post on the Brothers Karamazov Game, a simple three-person version of group nepotism.)

Ethnic group relatedness. The earlier paper was concerned with socially enforced altruism at the scale of local kin groups. Socially enforced altruism might also work at the level of ethnic groups. In this case, however, genetic similarity among segments of an ethnic group may reflect something other than just shared descent. In this case, two segments of an ethnic group may be genetically similar because they have shared a common culture for some time, resulting in similar selection pressures on genes contributing to the maintenance of that cultural regime. The basic principle behind kin selection can still operate here – you (or y’all; see above) help others because they share your genes, even if they can’t pay you back. But the expected number of shared genes – the ethnic coefficient of relatedness – no longer tracks the standard r’s based on genealogy or genetic similarity over the genome as a whole.

So ethnic group nepotism resulting from ethnic group selection* is a theoretical possibility, and I lay out the theory in the middle part of the paper. Whether it actually occurs I consider in the last part of the paper, which reviews some population genetics and political psychology.**


* Depending on how we define our terms, selection for socially enforced altruism may or may not count as group selection, but either way the usual objections to group selection for pure altruism don’t hold here.

** The social science literature on ethnicity and nationalism, including Conor, Gat, and Horowitz, is a topic for another day.


Saddam’s kin

March 2003 – November 2004

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, it took more than eight months before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of the country, was captured, on December 13, 2003. Tracking down Saddam was less a matter of deploying cutting-edge super-technology, and more a matter of rediscovering basic social anthropology. Here is a news story on the topic.

The gist is that two junior American military intelligence analysts began with a long list of about 9,000 names. They gradually narrowed this down to a “Mongo List” (classified) of about 300 people, tightly interconnected by blood and marriage, who were involved in the resistance and connected with Saddam. Rounding up and interrogating central figures on the list ultimately led to Saddam himself. This approach was successful because Saddam’s immediate power base was his clan and kin.

In previous blogposts we have considered how different Eurasian civilizations developed different compromises between state power, established religion, and patrilineal clans. In the Middle East, clan-based politics have continued to be important right up to the present. In China, a millennia-old tradition of patriarchal clan authority was violently assaulted in the course of the Communist Revolution. In Europe, the move away from clan-based politics came much earlier. The decline of royal and aristocratic rule in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the rise of mass politics further weakened the rule of the clan (except insofar as the nation itself operated as a kind of imagined kin group). Hence the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Western Europe’s premier Evil Dictatorship: compiling a “Mongo List” of 300 of Hitler’s closet relations by blood and marriage wouldn’t get you far in understanding Nazi rule.

Here’s a valuable book on The Rule of the Clan, and a different take on “clannishness” across cultures.

Europe of nations

May 1990 – September 1992

The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.

Being of Irish ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.

However there was a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.

On a scholarly note:

The theory of comparative advantage, in economics, and the theory of kin selection, in evolutionary biology, are two of the great theories in the social sciences. But both theories, in their usual elementary form, depend on some simplifying assumptions. You can get in trouble if you apply either theory carelessly without noticing if those assumptions are violated.

When it comes to winners and losers in international trade, I’ve already noted some complications. What’s of note where this post is concerned: some people have tried to apply the theory of kin selection to explain ethnicity and ethnocentrism as expressions of ethnic nepotism. But converting coefficients of inbreeding into coefficients of relatedness among kin is a dicey business. I’ve had something to say about the topic in a couple of articles, and a blogpost, and have more to say in a forthcoming article. Stay tuned!

The veil

January 1979 – February 1982


From Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a number of Western scholars wrote books attempting to develop general theories of revolution. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is an early classic in the genre, treating different political trajectories – liberal, reactionary, and communist – as the outcome of different bargains between landowners, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions covers some of the same ground with an added focus on states and war-making.

But the class-centered theories that these authors develop don’t do a very good job of accounting for the Iranian Revolution or broader political currents in the Islamic world. It’s difficult to map Middle Eastern political movements onto a Left-Right spectrum. And both democracy and communism made far less headway in the Middle East than in either Latin America or East Asia. Nor do the class-based theories have much to say about gender relations and patriarchy, major issues in Islamic politics.

One of our themes in the past few months of Logarithmic History has been how the major civilizations of Eurasia have found different ways of combining patrilineal clans, state formation, and major world religions. From this perspective, the Islamic world is distinctive in several respects. The custom of marriage within the patrilineage (stemming from a culture of honor long predating Islam in the Near East, but spread far and wide by Muslim conquests) probably contributes to making the Muslim Middle East exceptionally fragmentary and fissiparous. And Islam has been exceptionally successful in overriding alternative identities based on nationality and class. Today for example, according to surveys, most Pakistani Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second, while most Indian Hindus think of themselves as Indians first and Hindus second. Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics makes the case for Muslim exceptionalism in some detail in comparing the Islamic world with Hindu India and Catholic Latin America.

Half the sky

February 1947-October 1951

Chinese state patriarchy – the alliance of the Emperor and his officials with patrilineal extended families and clans and patriarchal authority, under the sign of Confucius – was extraordinarily resilient. Over the course of several thousand years, it bounced back again and again in the face of foreign invasions, and neutered potentially disturbing influences like Buddhism and Christianity. It was finally severely weakened, if not quite eliminated, in the twentieth century. Chinese intellectuals, including the student reformers of the May 4th movement, regarded the traditional Chinese family system as a source of backwardness, which would have to be overthrown for China to take its rightful place among the world’s powers. After the Chinese Communists took over in 1949, they promulgated a revolutionary new marriage law (1950), which stated, in part

The feudal marriage system, which is based on arbitrary and compulsory arrangements and the superiority of man over women and ignores the children’s interests, shall be abolished.

The New Democratic marriage system, which is based on the free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women and children shall be put into effect.

Bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the re-marriages of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriages, shall be prohibited.

Marriage shall be based on the complete willingness of the two parties. Neither party shall use compulsion, and no third party shall be allowed to interfere.

(The law, however, allowed traditional rules of exogamy to stand. These required people to marry outside their clan.) A campaign began, launched in 1953, to enforce the new law. The Communist Party in China would prove willing to use extraordinary violence to attack old ways, including a kinship system that stood in the way of new forms of state power.

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”

Inbreeding depression


“Let others wage war. Thou, happy Austria, marry” (a description of Habsburg marriage policy).

And here’s what “30 Rock” (TV show) had to say about the Habsburgs, marriage and inbreeding.

Human inbreeding has both a genetic side (which favors outbreeding, at least within the species) and a political side which may favor a balance between outmarriage (to make new alliances), and in-marriage (to conserve old alliances, and keep land and honor within the family). The Habsburgs played the political game adroitly, putting together an enormous empire, partly by war, but partly by astute dynastic marriages. The Habsburg domains were so unwieldy that after the death of Charles V in 1558, they were divided between two branches of the family. Both sections were huge. The map below doesn’t even show the Habsburg possessions outside Europe, in Spanish America and the Far East.


By 1700, however, genetics caught up with the Habsburgs. The Spanish Habsburg line ended with Charles II, who was grossly disabled, physically and mentally. He was also impotent, and left no heirs. A recent calculation shows that, as a result of generation of in-marriage, Charles II had a coefficient of inbreeding of .254. For comparison, a child of full sibling incest will have a coefficient of inbreeding of .25!

Here’s a recent journal article, and discussions by Ed Yong and Razib Khan.