questions some of us thought to ask

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).
_____

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.
_____

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.)

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17 Comments

  1. “Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.”

    That’s just about the best piece of writing I’ve come across recently. Succinct, rhythmical, jargon-free, humble yet suggestively logical, formally structured yet interesting with precise and relevant use of adjectives and sub-clauses. Plus one of my favorite adjectives – inimical, so the phrase ‘inimical to individualism’ is like music (Cowboy Junkies) to my ears.

    Reply

  2. Now compare this piece of writing:

    “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.”

    Is it humble and suggestive or emphatic/attacking/insulting in style? Is the language sophisticated or colloquial/populist? Is it logical to conclude that because the Icelanders want to protect against inbreeding that they are therefore the product of it?

    Reply

  3. Ah, but all of the people who’ve thought to ask the question before (Steve Sailer, et al) were evil racists who didn’t want us to bring the light of democracy to the middle east. By contrast, I am quite certain that Mr. Keating holds, or publicly professes to hold, all of the politically correct positions on race and human nature.

    Reply

  4. @hbd chick “and if you have clannism, liberal democracy will just not work.” Well put. Of course liberal democracy seems to be coming apart at the seams just now. George Washington and company must, perforce, have been less outbred the we. The were consesus builders I guess and certainly the “democracy” they set up was flawed. When you exclude women and Blacks your voters are a minority. But somehow I kind of have to give them points at least for not finding a viable democratic system and destroying it.

    And if Iceland is no liberal democracy then every single liberal democracy on the planet is going through the siphon demographically. Don’t worry about leaving nothing but people you have problems with. They’re coming along demographically if not politically. They’re just a generation or two behind.

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  5. Nice summary, or summation, or anthology, or whatever it is. I’m doing to start linking to it in my comments on blogs and magazines that are actually read by policy makers (eg, Walter Russell Mead). Sooner or later this is going to become the conventional wisdom. The truth will out.

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  6. @georgia resident – “Ah, but all of the people who’ve thought to ask the question before (Steve Sailer, et al) were evil racists who didn’t want us to bring the light of democracy to the middle east.”

    oh, yeah. i keep forgetting. we’re all waaaaycists! thanks for reminding me. (~_^)

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  7. @linton – “Of course liberal democracy seems to be coming apart at the seams just now.”

    sure does! =/

    @linton – “George Washington and company must, perforce, have been less outbred the we.”

    maybe. quite possibly. dunno for sure.

    @linton – “The were consesus builders I guess and certainly the ‘democracy’ they set up was flawed.”

    actually, no. i don’t think that george washington — or rather, say, thomas jefferson — was a consensus builder. they were really interested in liberal democracy (minus women and slaves and those who didn’t own land, of course) and not consensus democracy. one historic american politician that i know of who was interested in consensus democracy was john c. calhoun, one of those good ol’ troublemaking scots-irish boys! (~_^)

    @linton – “When you exclude women and Blacks your voters are a minority.”

    arguably, the reason why america’s liberal democracy is coming apart at the seams today is because non-outbred peoples have been included in it (italians, irish, greeks, african americans, hispanics). women — well, that’s another story. too busy voting with their feelings than with their heads. repeal the nineteenth amendment! (~_^) (i’m only half kidding….)

    @ linton – “And if Iceland is no liberal democracy….”

    well, iceland was no liberal democracy in the medieval period. dunno what they’ve got today. sounds on the surface as though it’s liberal democracy, but i wonder how much consensus building is involved?

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  8. @luke – “Nice summary, or summation, or anthology, or whatever it is.”

    yeah, i don’t know what it is either. (^_^)

    @luke – “I’m doing to start linking to it in my comments on blogs and magazines that are actually read by policy makers (eg, Walter Russell Mead).”

    yay! thank you. (^_^)

    Reply

  9. @grey – “sounds like the shuras and loya jirgas you get in Afghanistan, Iraq etc”

    ah ha! i didn’t know about the jirgas. thanks!

    yes. there seems to be a lot of democratic tendencies in all sorts of human societies. everybody wants to be heard and to be able to have some say in how their lives are run, and that desire seems to be accommodated to some extent or another almost everywhere. maybe not everybody is heard — and slaves are always ignored, of course — but 100% despotism seems to be unusual. and you can imagine why — that sort of system is awfully hard to maintain (unless you have dragons…).

    i read somewhere (lord knows where — i hope i have it in my notes!) that there’s this consensus democracy in the arab tribal system, too. when a major decision is to be made, all the clan and sub-clan leaders have a say in the decision making process along with whoever the head guy(s) is(are). and the trick is to somehow give everyone what they want — or persuade them to want what the majority wants (like in medieval novgorod (~_^) ). the goal seems to always be to reach a consensus — somehow. that some people would just give in to the will of the majority is a total non-starter in clannish societies.

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  10. hubchik
    “there seems to be a lot of democratic tendencies in all sorts of human societies.”

    i think this may be a standard template for how clannish societies manage the jump from organizing at the clan-scale to organizing at the tribe-scale (on the few occasions they do so). my understanding of the shura, jirga, (althing?) is they’re not sitting organisations. they just come together for big stuff like war and peace.

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  11. “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?”

    maybe there is something other that prevents them? I don’t know chinese culture – but Russia for example is paler on that current map than Western Europe and I don’t think this relation was much different in the past.

    By the way I think it is about trust – in a society with much outbreeding you are more open to trusting strangers because they can be related. This interpretation does not require a special case for Island – because on a small island it is also very probable that a stranger is related to you.

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  12. @zby – “’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?’”

    well, that was actually one of those … whatchamacallits? … rhetorical questions. (~_^)

    i actually went on to answer why i think the chinese (and other populations) don’t manage to have liberal democracy [fwiw]:

    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.”

    @zby – “…but Russia for example is paler on that current map than Western Europe and I don’t think this relation was much different in the past.”

    well, it was, actually. see the “mating patterns in europe series” below ↓ in left-hand column, particularly the posts under slavs/eastern europeans. see also this post: russians, eastern europeans, runs of homozygosity (roh), and inbreeding.

    @zby – “By the way I think it is about trust – in a society with much outbreeding you are more open to trusting strangers because they can be related.”

    i think how readily people trust strangers — like any behavior — is something that’s at least partially affected by genes. being trusting is something that characterizes peoples with universalistic ideals/moral systems — and they, it appears to me anyway, seem to be outbred populations. see this comment for more on what i mean.

    Reply

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