Thursday, November 26, 2009

Does civilization select against intelligence?

We know the brain has been evolving in human populations quite recently," said paleoanthropologist John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Surprisingly, based on skull measurements, the human brain appears to have been shrinking over the last 5,000 or so years.

"When it comes to recent evolutionary changes, we currently maybe have the least specific details with regard the brain, but we do know from archaeological data that pretty much everywhere we can measure - Europe, China, South Africa, Australia - that brains have shrunk about 150 cubic centimeters, off a mean of about 1,350. That's roughly 10 percent," Hawks said.

"As to why is it shrinking, perhaps in big societies, as opposed to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, we can rely on other people for more things, can specialize our behavior to a greater extent, and maybe not need our brains as much," he added. (source)

It’s usually assumed that humans have steadily increased in intellectual capacity. But what if this trend reversed with the advent of civilization? As societies grow more complex, perhaps the average human has not had to know so much. He or she can ‘delegate’ tasks (not that such delegation is always voluntary). Perhaps civilization has made us dumber, not smarter.

Yes, the ‘great civilizations’ have made major contributions to the arts and sciences, typically through upper-class patronage of creative individuals—who otherwise would have to worry about their next meal. The down side, however, is that this emancipation of creativity requires a much larger number of helots. The latter also specialize in their own way—in doing the grunt work that others consider beneath them.

In the ancient world, intellectual life—the debating, pondering, and creating of new ideas—was confined to a small powerless minority, too few in number to generate the critical mass that makes intellectual ferment possible. There were no conferences, no academic journals, and no scientific associations. For the most part, there were only isolated individuals who felt estranged from the world around them. The more renowned ones had disciples in their entourage. But that was it.

This situation contrasts with that of Western Europe and then North America from the 17th century to the 20th. That intellectual ferment was broad-based. It took place within a large swath of the population that could understand the ideas being generated, and that could argue the pros and cons. It was this democratization of intellectual activity that made the West so exceptional.

I’m increasingly convinced that extreme social stratification—i.e., the creation of a small class of intellectuals and a much larger helot class—is inimical to true scientific progress. The intellectuals are too few in number, and too dependent on the system, to make any real contribution.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Skin bleaching

Since the mid-20th century, ‘skin bleaching’ has become more and more common among dark-skinned populations. It involves lightening skin color by means of topical preparations that contain hydroquinone, cortisone, or mercury. These products are effective, but prolonged use may damage the skin by making the epidermis thinner and by breaking down collagen fibers. Despite being condemned by the medical profession and increasingly restricted by governments, they can easily be obtained in various places: hair-stylist salons, subway stations, African public markets, etc.

Skin bleachers seem to be used the most in South Asia and its diaspora. Next come sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora (West Indies, Brazil, United States, Western Europe, etc.), the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia. The market is mainly young and female. Thus, rate of use is 61.4% among Surinamese women of Indian origin less than 26 years old, as compared to 13.1% among young Surinamese of other origins (Javanese, African, etc.) (Menke, 2002).

In Africa, rate of use is 25% in Bamako, Mali, up to 52% in Dakar, Senegal, up to 35% in Pretoria, South Africa, and up to 77% in Lagos, Nigeria (Ntambwe, 2004). The practice has become so widespread that it has been nicknamed maquillage – ‘make-up’ (Ondongo, 1984). According to one African specialist, men encourage it by considering light-skinned women to be more attractive, intelligent, moral, desirable, and chaste. In contrast, dark-skinned women are said to look mean, evil, stupid, and untrustworthy (Ntambwe, 2004). This opinion is consistent with the results of a survey among Ghanaian women. Most of the respondents thought that men prefer light skin in a woman: “Sometimes if you really want to marry a particular man, you have to bleach” (Fokuo, 2009)

In Jamaica, users do not seem motivated by shame of their Black identity. Surveys show them having as much racial self-esteem as non-users. The motivation is more to make one’s face ‘cool’, to imitate one’s peers, to look pretty and attract a partner, and to feel good about oneself. There is also the influence of popular culture, such as Eurocentric beauty contests and singers who glorify women with light brown skin. In the dance-hall song Browning, Buju Banton says he loves his light-skinned girlfriend, his ‘browning’, more than his car, his motorbike, and his money. In Bleach On, Captain Barkey tells girls to keep on bleaching their skin (Charles, 2009).

Strangely, these products have become increasingly popular among South Asians, Africans, and West Indians for the past half-century, yet the same period has also seen these peoples regain much of their cultural independence. In advertising, magazines, or TV serials, one sees many more women from the local population than there were before.

Actually, it’s not so strange. Back when the local media recycled images of women from Western sources, the female audience had trouble identifying with them; there was a gap between the two. Because these images are now adapted to the local reality, they project a stronger normative influence on local women, who are keener to imitate them. These women, however, are still darker-skinned than the somatic norm being projected. This is especially so with Indian ‘Bollywood’ films but is also the case with serial dramas in Latin America and the Arab world.


Charles, C.A.D. (2009). Skin bleachers’ representations of skin color in Jamaica, Journal of Black Studies, 40, 153-170.

Charles, C.A.D. (2003). Skin bleaching, self-hate, and Black identity in Jamaica, Journal of Black Studies, 33, 711-728.

Fokuo, J. Konadu. (2009). The lighter side of marriage: Skin bleaching in post-colonial Ghana, Research Review NS, 25(1), 47-66.

Menke, J. (2002). Skin bleaching in multi-ethnic and multicolored societies. The case of Suriname, paper presented to the CSA Conference, Nassau, Bahamas, May 27 – June 1, 2002, Coping with Challenges, Contending with Change.

Ntambwe, M. (2004), 'Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the FAIREST of them all?' Science in Africa, March.

Ondongo, J. (1984), Noir ou blanc ? Le vécu du double dans la pratique du « maquillage » chez les Noirs, Nouvelle Revue d’Ethnopsychiatrie, 2, 37-65.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lévi-Strauss and gene-culture co-evolution

With the recent death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, there has been an outpouring of praise for his contributions to anthropology, notably the struggle for a more politically conscious anthropology and the shift from biological determinism to cultural determinism. This praise tells us more about the praisers than about Lévi-Strauss himself. In truth, he scarcely resembled the image presented in most of his obituaries, having denounced in his book Tristes tropiques the intrusion of a “utopian spirit” into his field.

With a shelter of legalistic and formalistic rationalism, we similarly build an image of the world and society where all problems can be settled by a courtroom approach whose logic is artful maneuvering, and we do not realize that the universe is no longer composed of what we are talking about.

Nor was he a complete cultural determinist. Like many thinkers of his generation, he felt that culture has contributed just as much as biology to differences among human populations. This is not, however, the same as believing that biology has created only skin-deep differences. He made this clear in a speech at our university in 1979:

… I would not feel truly anthropologist or structuralist if I did not accept that all questions should be discussed, and the question of the respective share of nature and nurture in human culture seems to me one of the most important ones we can and ought to ask ourselves. This issue has been made sterile for years and years by the false categorizations of physical anthropology related to the belief in the existence of human races.

However, we must not forget that, as anthropologists, the aspects of the question that will always appeal to us will be much less the genetic determination of culture or cultures than the cultural determination of genetics. By this I mean that a culture always will be made much less by its members’ gene pool than it will contribute to shaping and altering this 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)

He is clearly referring here to the concept of gene-culture co-evolution. But just what are these genetic traits that cultures have shaped differently in different human populations? He doesn’t seem to mean minor physiological processes, like an improved ability to digest milk or carbohydrates. In fact, he seems to be referring to mental and behavioral traits, especially when he mentions ‘ideas of morality’. Is he saying that there has been selection for differences in moral capacity among human populations?

And if cultures have shaped different gene pools differently wouldn’t these gene pools be ‘races’? Did Lévi-Strauss think through this line of thought? Perhaps in denying the race concept he was simply making the kind of ritual denunciation that most anthropologists make … and only half-believe.

It is probably too late to find out what he really meant. This is not a line of thought that he seems to have pursued in his other publications, at least none I am aware of.


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.

Lévi-Strauss, C., (1955). Tristes tropiques, Paris.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Was Roman Britain multiracial?

Historians often assume that the Romans changed Britain politically but not demographically. The indigenous elites adopted Roman culture while the mass of the population remained Celtic. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century, much of this population fled to Wales and Cornwall, where they would retain their language and traditions. Meanwhile, those who remained behind were obliterated through a process of ethnic cleansing and coerced assimilation.

This historical account may be false. First, the Roman occupation seems to have brought profound demographic change. This has been suspected for some time on the basis of unusual burial objects and epigraphic inscriptions that record the presence of individuals from throughout the Roman Empire. Now, after analyzing remains from two burial grounds near Roman York, a research team has concluded that the buried individuals had diverse geographic origins (Leach et al., 2009). In particular, the craniometric data revealed many of sub-Saharan or Egyptian origin. At the ‘Trentholme Drive’ burial ground, 66% clustered most closely with Europeans, 23% with sub-Saharan Africans, and 11% with Egyptians. At the ‘Railway’ burial ground, the proportions were 53% European, 32% sub-Saharan, and 15% Egyptian.

York was a legionary fortress, so these individuals may have been legionnaires. There are, in fact, epigraphic references to African soldiers and even a written account about one in a history of the Emperor Septimius Severus (146-211 AD) (Scriptores Historiae Augustae, p. 425).

On another occasion, when he was returning to his nearest quarters from an inspection of the wall at Luguvallium (Carlisle) in Britain, at a time when he had not only proved victorious but had concluded a perpetual peace, just as he was wondering what omen would present itself, an Ethiopian soldier, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable jester, met him with a garland of cypress-boughs. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, the Ethiopian by way of jest cried, it is said, “You have been all things, now, O conqueror, be a god.”

Why were these Africans so far from home? In the case of the Egyptians, Rome thought it unwise to station soldiers among people of the same ethnic background. The temptation would be strong to side with the locals if a rebellion occurred. In the case of the sub-Saharan Africans, they were recruited into the army for the same reason that Germanic barbarians were recruited: Rome could not meet its manpower requirements solely from within its empire. There was also a perception that the Romans had become soft and that barbarians made better soldiers.

Finally, Rome, like many multi-national empires, had a policy of moving people around in order to promote a common identity and to eliminate ethnic distinctiveness. The Assyrians had perfected this policy, e.g., the deportation of the Jews to Babylon and their replacement by other peoples. The Roman authorities used their army to this end. They wished to create an atomized society where regionalism or ethnicity could not mobilize resistance to imperial rule.

It is likely that these legionnaires had a major demographic impact wherever they were stationed, especially if we include the many officials, petty functionaries, traders, and others who came in their wake. Much of Roman Britain thus seems to have been Romanized in culture and multiethnic in origin.

This, in turn, calls for a few other reinterpretations. Wales and Cornwall are not Celtic-speaking today because they took in Romano-British refugees fleeing Anglo-Saxon invaders. They were simply those parts of Britain that had remained Celtic in language, culture, and population. The rest—present-day England—had long become heavily Romanized and cosmopolitan.

Nor do we have to postulate a process of ethnic cleansing and coerced assimilation to explain the extinction of Roman Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. As Seccombe (1992) points out, the Roman Empire suffered from negative population growth. Not enough people married and had children to offset relatively high mortality among infants and young adults. In breaking down local collective identities, whether ethnic or regional, the Empire had created an atomized and increasingly anonymous society without the carrots and sticks that tightly knit societies use to push individuals down the path of family formation.

Once Rome had pulled its troops out of Britain in the early 5th century, there was no longer an inflow of people to offset the demographic deficit. The local population fell into decline, and the decline accelerated in the 6th century when plagues killed three out of every ten people. The Romano-British needed no help from the Anglo-Saxons to die out. They did it largely on their own.


Leach, S., M. Lewis, C. Chenery, G. Müldner, & H. Eckardt. (2009). Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: A multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140, 546-561.

Scriptores Historiae AugustaeSeptimius Severus 22:4-6, transl. D. Magie (1922-1932) Vol 1, London: Heinemann.

Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. London: Verso.