joshua keating wrote on his foreign policy blog last week:

Questions you never thought to ask: Is inbreeding bad for democracy?

heh. (~_^)

well, some of us HAVE thought to ask that very question, a couple of people waaaay before i did — going back to 2002 in fact:

- Consanguinity prevents Middle Eastern political development from parapundit.
- Cousin Marriage Conundrum – from steve sailer. steve’s essay was also included in a volume co-edited by steven pinker, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004.

keating is referring to the woodley and bell paper, Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations, which was published last year and which i blogged about here (and here and here and here) — and steve sailer also blogged about at the time.

just to refresh everyone’s memory, woodley and bell found a negative correlation (r = –0.632, p < 0.001) between the frequency of consanguineous marriages in the 70 nations at which they looked and the level of democracy in those countries. in other words, the greater the amount of consanguineous marriages in a country, the less democracy it probably has.

keating is not convinced:

“As a counterpoint, Iceland — a country so isolated and sparsely populated that people need an Android app to keep them from hooking up with a close relative — has had a representative parliament since the 10th century and a culture of individualism so strong they write Nobel Prize-winning novels about it. So there.”

two things.

first of all, it should be remembered that woodley and bell specifically looked for success at liberal democracy (fwiw, ymmv). from the paper:

“As conceived here, democracy refers to a system in which there is opportunity for competitive elections and deliberative referendums, with broad public participation encouraged for both (Vanhanen, 2003). Democracy in this instance refers exclusively to the liberal variety where the emphasis is on competitive politics, rather than the classical type in which the focus is on consensus building and statesmanship (Werlin, 2002). Two key characteristics of liberal democratic systems include the presence of institutions that permit citizens to express preferences for alternative policies and leaders, and the existence of institutionalized constraints that prevent the misuse of power by an executive elite (Inglehart, 2003; Lipset, 1959; Marshall & Jaggers, 2010).”

secondly, tenth century icelandic democracy was not an example of liberal democracy — and wasn’t right through to 1262 when the norwegian crown took over the governance of iceland. rather, the icelandic commonwealth was a system based on consensus which i posted about previously here.

early medieval icelanders were represented at their alþingi by regional chieftans known as goðar. nobody elected these goðar — they were the local strongmen from various areas of iceland, and they typically inherited their position, although these chieftainships were sometimes sold. you could, in theory, pick your own goði to whom you swore allegiance, but apparently in practice this rarely ever happened — because a lot of medieval icelanders were kin to their goðar [pdf], and it’s almost always bloody awkward to break it off with family — especially when you can’t easily move to the other side of the island or something.

so these early medieval icelandic “representatives” bore little resemblance to the representatives we have in modern, parliamentary systems (h*ck – maybe that was a good thing!). if you were an early medieval icelander, your alþingi representative was likely your kin, and you were probably stuck with him for life — until his son took over. this was not liberal democracy.

did the early medieval icelanders marry their cousins? i’m not sure. it’s very likely that their immediate ancestors from norway did (like the early medieval swedes probably did), and the medieval icelanders ignored many other of the church’s teachings and regulations on marriage at the time [pdf], so i wouldn’t be surprised if they did. the fact that medieval icelandic society seems to have devolved from one in which kinship was comparatively unimportant to a state where large clans controlled the place also suggests to me that they married their cousins — or at least mated awfully closely (they may not have had to marry very close cousins since they were such a small population to start off with).
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having said all that, when trying to work out why the medieval icelanders — or any other group for that matter — didn’t/don’t have liberal democracy, it’s not really important whether or not they were marrying their cousins at the time in question. well, it is … and it isn’t. (don’t pull your hair out just yet.)

what is important (i think) is whether or not the medieval icelanders — or any group-X — had been marrying their cousins over the long-term. i don’t think that there’s an instantaneous connection between cousin marriage (or other close mating) and failing to manage a functional liberally democratic system. what i think that there is are longer term evolutionary processes connected to inbreeding/outbreeding patterns and the selection for individualism vs. familism or clannism. and if you have clannism, liberal democracy will just not work.

woodley and bell acquired their consanguinity data from consang.net. here’s a map of those data:

consang net

what stands out right away is that consanguinity rates are very high in the arab world, the middle east, north africa, and places like pakistan and afghanistan, while rates are really low in the u.s. and scandinavia. that seems to fit the cousin-marriage-doesn’t-promote-democracy theory. but the cousin marriage rates in china are very low — same range as england and western europe. why don’t the chinese manage to have a liberal democracy then?

what you have to understand is that this map is a snapshot. it is a moment in time (mostly the twentieth century). it doesn’t tell us much about the history of cousin marriage in any of these societies — whether any of it’s been short-term or long-term — and without knowing that, we can’t even start to guess at any effects the mating patterns (and related family types) might’ve had on the evolution of behaviors in these populations, including those related to clannishness.

once you know, for instance, that up until very recently, the chinese actually preferred cousin marriage, then you can — i think — begin to understand why they’re clannish (or, at least, extended family-ish). and why, therefore, liberal democracy doesn’t work there — or didn’t arise there in the first place either.

rinse and repeat for all the other locales on the map.
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see also Cousin Marriage and Democracy @marginal revolution.

previously: liberal democracy vs. consensus building and democracy and endogamous mating practices and “hard-won democracy”

(note: comments do not require an email. driving in iceland.)