where do clans come from?

in “Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origins and Implications of Western Corporations,” stanford economist avner greif wrote [pgs. 308-09]:

“There is a vast amount of literature that considers the importance of the family as an institution. Little attention, however, has been given to the impact of the family structure and its dynamics on institutions. This limits our ability to understand distinct institutional developments — and hence growth — in the past and present. This paper supports this argument by highlighting the importance of the European family structure in one of the most fundamental institutional changes in history and reflects on its growth-related implications.

“What constituted this change was the emergence of the economic and political corporations in late medieval Europe. Corporations are defined as consistent with their historical meaning: intentionally created, voluntary, interest-based, and self-governed permanent associations. Guilds, fraternities, universities, communes, and city-states are some of the corporations that have historically dominated Europe; businesses and professional associations, business corporations, universities, consumer groups, counties, republics, and democracies are examples of corporations in modern societies….

“In tracing the origins of the European corporations, we focus on their complementarity with the nuclear family. We present the reasons for the decline of kinship groups in medieval Europe and why the resulting nuclear family structure, along with other factors, led to corporations. European economic growth in the late medieval period was based on an unprecedented institutional complex of corporations and nuclear families, which, interestingly, still characterizes the West. More generally, European history suggests that this complex was conducive to long-term growth, although we know little about why this was the case or why it is difficult to transplant this complex to other societies….

“The conquest of the Western Roman Empire by Germanic tribes during the medieval period probably strengthened the importance of kinship groups in Europe. Yet the actions of the church caused the nuclear family — consisting of a husband and wife, children, and sometimes a handful of close relatives — to dominate Europe by the late medieval period.

The medieval church instituted marriage laws and practices that undermined kinship groups…. The church … restricted marriages among individuals of the same blood (consanguineous marriages), which had historically provided one means of creating and maintaining kinship groups….

“European family structures did not evolve monotonically toward the nuclear family, nor was their evolution geographically or socially uniform (Greif, 2006, chap. 8).** By the late medieval period, however, the nuclear family was dominant. Even among the Germanic tribes, by the eighth century the term ‘family’ denoted one’s immediate family and, shortly afterwards, tribes were no longer institutionally relevant. Thirteenth-century English court rolls reflect that even cousins were as likely to be in the presence of nonkin as with each other. The practices the church advocated (e.g., monogamy) are still the norm in Europe. Consanguineous marriages in contemporary Europe account for less than 1 percent of the total number of marriages, in contrast to Muslim and Middle Eastern countries where such marriages account for between 20 and 50 percent per country (Alan H. Bittles, 1994). Among the anthropologically defined 356 contemporary societies of Euro-Asia and Africa, there is a large and significant negative correlation between the spread of Christianity (for at least 500 years) and the absence of clans and lineages; the level of commercialization, class stratification, and state formation are insignificantly correlated (Andrey V. Korotayev, 2003).”
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the presence (or absence) of clans in societies is somehow connected to the mating patterns of societies. in fact, it seems to be that a whole range of kinship-based societal types is somehow connected to a whole range of mating patterns: the “closer” the mating patterns in a society, the more “clannish” it tends to be — the more distant the mating patterns, the less “clannish.”

so we see a spectrum of “clannish” societies ranging from the very individualistic western societies characterized by nuclear families and, crucially, very little inbreeding (cousin marriage, for instance) to very tribal arab or bedouin societies characterized by nested networks of extended families and clans and large tribal organizations and having very high levels of inbreeding (specifically a form of very close cousin marriage which increases the degree of inbreeding). falling somewhere in between these two extremes are groups like the chinese whose society is built mostly around the extended familiy but in some regions of china also clans — or the medieval scots (especially the highland scots) whose society for centuries was built around the clan (h*ck, they even coined the term!). these “in-betweener” groups are, or were, characterized by mid-levels of inbreeding (typically avoiding the very close cousin marriage form of the arabs).

furthermore, not only do the degrees of extended family-ness/clannish-ness/tribal-ness in societies seem to be connected to the degrees of inbreeding in those societies, the degrees of “clannism” also seem to be connected to the degree of inbreeding — the more inbreeding, the less civicness, the less democracy, the more corruption, and so on.

it’s not clear what exactly the mechanism(s) behind this inbreeding-leads-to-clannishness pattern is, but since mating patterns are involved, and mating is a very biological process, it seems likely (to me anyway) that the explanation is something biological — i.e. some sort or sorts of evolutionary process/es — like natural selection — resulting in different/different degrees of behavioral traits related to “clannism” in different populations with inbreeding acting as a sort of accelerant for those processes.

clans and clannism, then, are not things that peoples “fall back on” in the absence of a state as mark weiner suggests in The Rule of the Clan [kindle locations 106-108]:

“[I]n the absence of the state, or when states are weak, the individual becomes engulfed within the collective groups on which people must rely to advance their goals and vindicate their interests. Without the authority of the state, a host of discrete communal associations rush to fill the vacuum of power. And for most of human history, the primary such group has been the extended family, the clan.”

rather, people’s attachments to their extended families/clans/tribes — and, more importantly, their tendencies towards clannish behaviors — are likely innate behaviors. and those behaviors likely vary, on average, between populations since (long-term) mating patterns have varied — and, indeed, still vary — between populations.

such innate behaviors cannot be changed overnight — certainly not within a generation or even two (evolution does take some amount of time — but not, necessarily, extremely long amounts of time either) — and definitely not by simply changing a few laws here and there in the hopes of encouraging individualism. as avner greif grasped, although probably not fully because he’s likely missed the underlying biology of what he’s noticed, family structures need to be altered in order to effect changes to larger societal structures (again, all via tweaks to innate behavioral tendencies). and, again, that can’t be done overnight — as greif pointed out, the process in europe began in the early medieval period (with the church’s bans on cousin marriages) and didn’t really start to take hold until the late medieval period — i.e. a 500 year (or, conservatively, a ca. 25 generation) timeline.
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see also: Cousin Marriage Conundrum by steve sailer and Why Europe? by michael mitterauer (in particular chapter 3) and Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade by avner greif.

**see “mating patterns in europe series” in left-hand column below ↓ for further details.

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more on genetics and the historical decline of violence

the good professor harpending who, unlike me, actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to population genetics, took a mathematical look at my suggestion (guess!) that there might have been enough time over the medieval period for genetic changes in the population to have resulted in the historical decline of violence in nw europe that pinker described in The Better Angels (see also eisner).

prof. harpending concludes that — yeah, sure — there might’ve been enough time (from the 1300s to the modern period) to effect such a genetic change. it would’ve been a bit of a push, but it could’ve happened:

“In the present case we need a response of 1/28 of a standard deviation per generation. Assuming an additive heritability of 0.5 (the true value is probably 0.8 or so from literature on the heritability of aggressive behavior in children) the selective differential must be about 1/14 or .07 standard deviations per generation. In terms of IQ this would correspond to a one point IQ advantage of parents over the population average and in terms of stature parents with a mean stature 0.2 inches greater than the population average. This would occur if the most homicidal 1.5% of the population were to fail to reproduce each generation.”

no, i didn’t understand most of that either.

i do understand that he thinks he went conservative in his calculation (i.e. using an additive heritability [<< two links there] of just 0.5 although he thinks it's probably more like 0.8), so that might mean that his calculation should actually be even more in the hbd-ist’s favor. in any case, he concludes that natural selection against “genes for violence” (or selection for “genes for nonviolence”) could explain the historical decline of violence in nw europe “if the most homicidal 1.5% of the population were to fail to reproduce each generation.” a bit of a push, maybe, but possible. (if they really did fail to reproduce.)

he suggests:

“Justice was famously brutal and harsh in Medieval and Renaissance England so this may not be an entirely meaningless exercise. In this excellent essay Peter Frost suggests that the nearly the same selection against violence occurred in the several centuries before the fall of the Roman Empire, and he provides grisly details of Roman treatment of criminals.”

that is one route to go — have the state simply remove the bad guys out of the gene pool.

i’d like to suggest another route (and this is where i’m going to start sounding like a broken record): that they got rid of clannishness in medieval nw europe.

why should getting rid of clannishness matter? because, for whatever reasons (i think the reasons are connected to inclusive fitness), clannish people are violent. blood feuds, honor killings, general obstreperosity — clannish people are just not peaceful.

why? i think it’s ’cause clannish populations are inbreeders and inbreeding alters the possible inclusive fitness payoffs. if you’re from an inbred group, you don’t have to stick your neck out for two brothers or eight cousins to increase your inclusive fitness. if your group is inbred enough, you might only have to be altruistic (in the biological sense) to just one brother or only four cousins (’cause you share that many more genes with your inbred relatives than individuals in an outbred population would, capiche?).

in an inbred population, violent clannish behaviors — which are just the flip-side of being altruistic towards one’s relatives (i.e. be really un-altruistic towards one’s un-relatives) — would/could quickly be selected for since the inclusive fitness payoffs are greater for each altruistic act. and this is exactly what wade and breden (1981) found: inbreeding can accelerate the selection for altruism genes (see also here).

so, to get rid of violence, you could get rid of clannishness. and to get rid of clannishness, you need to get rid of inbreeding. which is exactly what happened in medieval europe starting in the early part of the period. the roman catholic church, supported by secular authorities, banned cousin and other close marriages beginning in 506 (i think that’s when the first ban on cousin marriage was laid down).

enforcement of the various cousin marriage bans, which ranged from first to sixth cousins depending on what century you’re talking about, wasn’t easy — at least not in the beginning. the church, for instance, didn’t require that a marriage ceremony take place in a church until something like 1000 or 1100, so enforcement by the church in the early middle ages was probably patchy at best. however, there were LOTS of secular laws throughout nw europe banning close marriage, including very much so in anglo-saxon england. just a couple of examples: the law of wihtred from the 690s outlawed cousin marriage — and the punishment for cousin marriage in another anglo-saxon law from sometime the 900s-1000s was slavery for the perpetrators. again, difficult to know how well these laws were enforced; but that there were plenty of such laws indicates that the authorities were keen to do something about all this close marriage.

the law of wihtred is, i think, the earliest anglo-saxon law that i’ve come across which made cousin marriage illegal (at least in the part of england where the law of wihtred applied). so the push against inbreeding in anglo-saxon england started at least as early as 690 a.d. again, it may not have been very effective at that point, but england’s outbreeding project had begun by that point.

lorraine lancaster, still considered the authority on anglo-saxon kinship, concluded that, although its importance was beginning to wane (as indicated by a shift in who would be awarded wergeld in the event of a crime against a person, that person’s kinsmen or their guild), an individual’s extended kindred remained of importance in anglo-saxon/english society well into the 1000s. that suggests to me that “clannishness” was still around in the 1000s in england. feuding was definitely still a regular event.

the situation had changed quite a bit by the 1300s when nuclear families were all the rage and englishmen no longer relied so extensively on their extended families. people were still violent in 1300s england, but of course the shift from clannishness to non-clannishness — i.e. from violence to non-violence — would’ve taken some time. evolution doesn’t happen overnight.
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the state’s monopoly on violence and outbreeding don’t have to be mutually exclusive explanations for why there may have been a genetic change in nw europeans leading to a decline in violent behaviors. the answer might be both. like jayman said

“Inbreeding, and hence clannishness, can interfere with this process, because while the State is selecting for less violent people, clan conflict presents a counteracting selective pressure for people who are more violent (and can fight feuds).”

…so in places where inbreeding has not abated or did not abate as early as in england — the arab world/middle east, china (or parts of it anyway — h/t luke!), the highlands of scotland, the auvergne — the state hasn’t managed to quell violence as easily. the combo of outbreeding + an effective state seems to be a winning one. better yet if you don’t need such a very strong state (modern nw europe) and the population is just non-violent naturally.
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this is all just a theory, of course — theory with a small “t”. but, as cochran and harpending have said (h/t kiwiguy!):

“Whereas tests of hypotheses ought to be careful and conservative, generation of hypotheses ought to be speculative and free-ranging.”

so there! (^_^)

there ought to be a way of mathematically modelling my suggestion — i.e. that the historical decline of violence in nw europe is at least partially the result of the de-selection (if you can say that) of “genes for violence” due to a reduction in inbreeding — but since i’m pretty much numerically illiterate, i won’t be the one working up those models. i would think, though, that in addition to using the breeder’s equation in the calculation, you’d also want to factor in inbreeding/outbreeding somehow.

see also: Genetics and the Historical Decline of Violence?

previously: what pinker missed and “violence around the world” and outbreeding, self-control and lethal violence

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