John Dickson’s ‘Jesus: A Short Life’: Christian Apologetics Masquerading as History

John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life (Oxford: Lion Books, 2012). 

The edition of John Dickson’s book, ‘Jesus: A Short Life’, that I read, published in 2012 was subtitled ‘Jesus: A Short Life – The Historical Evidence’. However, I notice that the first edition of this book, published a few years earlier in 2008, seemed to omit part of the subtitle referring to “The Historical Evidence”. 

This is actually quite fitting, because, despite this added subtitle, Dickson himself omits to include much historical evidence supporting the biographical details he presents in the book. 

Instead, Dickson relies heavily on what is referred to as the ‘appeal to authority or ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’ fallacy – albeit with a touch of the Argumentum Ad Populum fallacy thrown in too for good measure. 

Thus, he repeatedly insists that ‘all serious scholars agree’ on a certain aspect of Jesus’s biography, with the clear implication that that this is reason enough for non-expert readers like myself to agree as well. 

Unfortunately, he only very rarely actually takes the time to explain why all serious scholars supposedly agree on this aspect of Jesus’s life or present the actual evidence that has led the experts to agree. 

Instead, he seems to imply that the reader should simply defer to expert opinion rather than taking the time to actually look at the evidence for themselves and make their own judgement. 
For example, he observes that the claim that Jesus was publicly baptised by John the Baptist is “doubted by no one doing historical Jesus research” (p49). 

However, he neglects to explain in the main body of his text why no serious scholar doubts this, or why the evidence is indeed so compelling.

Only in an accompanying endnote does he bother to explain that the main reason all experts agree is that this episode supposedly satisfies what New Testament scholars refer to as the criterion of embarrassment.  

In other words, because it seems to cast Jesus in a role subordinate to that of John, the opposite of the impression the biblical authors presumably intended to convey, it is hardly the sort of thing the gospel writers are likely to have invented (p137-8).[1]

Similarly, in rebutting the assertion of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion that “it is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all”, Dickson insists in reply, “no one who is actually doing history thinks so” (p21). 

Actually, although it remains very much a minority, maverick position, some researchers, who certainly regard themselves as “doing history”, have indeed championed the so-called mythicist’ thesis that Jesus never existed, including, for example, Richard CarrierEarl Doherty and Robert Price

Perhaps Dickson regards these authors’ work as so worthless that they cannot be said to be truly “doing history” at all. If so, however, then this is an obvious, indeed almost a textbook, example of the no true Scotsman’ fallacy

Thus, Dickson asserts: 

Not only is Jesus’ non-existence never discussed in academic literature… but most experts agree that there are… ‘no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life’” (p10-11).

The actual evidence he cites, however, seems rather less than compelling. 

Aside from the gospels themselves one of the few other sources he cites is contemporary letter written by one Mara bar Serapion referring to the Jews killing their “wise king”. 

Dickson claims: 

There is a consensus among scholars that Mara bar Serapion‘s ‘wise king’ was none other than Jesus. It simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description of Jew, law-giver, king and martyr by his own people” (p19).

Perhaps so – but unfortunately Jesus himself doesn’t fit the bill all that well either.

After all, Jesus may indeed have been ‘wise’. This, at least, is debatable.[2]

However, he certainly does not appear to have been a king’, at least in the ordinary, familiar sense of the word

Neither does he appear to have been killed by the Jews, as claimed of the figure described in Mara bar Serapion’s letter, but rather by the Romans.Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution.

Moreover, Dickson himself admits “Jesus of Nazareth was not the most revered religious figure of the period”, even in Palestine (p109). Might not these other religious gurus fit the bill better?

Moreover, although Dickson asserts “it simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description”, actually there appears to be nothing in Mara bar Serapion’s letter that actually says anything about this “wise king” necessarily having resided “in first century Palestine”. This seems to have been entirely an invention of Dickson’s own. 

What then of Jewish religious leaders, or better still actual “kings” (in the familiar sense of this word) from other periods?

Or perhaps Mara bar Serapion was just mixed up and confusing the Jews with some other people.

Who Mara bar Serapion was referring to seems to be, at best, a mystery. Certainly, his letter hardly represents the definitive proof of Jesus’s historicity.[3]

Should we Trust the Experts’? 

The argumentum ab auctoritate, or appeal to authority, is perhaps a method of argumentation that naturally appeals to devout Christians. After all, they usually appeal to the ostensible authority, not of ‘experts’ and ‘reputable scholars’, but rather to that of God, or of ‘holy scripture’ or ‘the Word of God’). 

Of course, appealing to the unanimous opinion of scholars in a given field is sometimes legitimate. If, for example, we do not have the time or the inclination to research the topic for ourselves, it is prudent to defer to majority opinion among qualified experts. 

However, in a book subtitled “The Historical Evidence”, one is surely entitled to demand rather more. 

Moreover, the field of study in which the experts are ostensibly deemed to be expert must itself be a reputable field of study in the first place. 

Thus, if all ‘reputable homeopaths’ or all ‘reputable astrologers’ agree on a particular aspect of homeopathic or astrological theory, I am entitled to disagree simply because the entire fields of homeopathy and astrology are pseudo-scientific and therefore there is simply no such thing as a ‘reputable homeopath’ or ‘reputable astrologer’ in the first place and all are no more than charlatans or professional damned fools.

Similarly, I submit, although the case is nowhere near as clear cut as with astrology or homeopathy, that there is reason not to trust the so-called ‘experts’ in the case of historical Jesus research. 

This is because those who have chosen to devote their lives to the study of the life of Jesus have typically done so because they are themselves devout and committed Christians. 

Given, then, that their whole philosophy of life is predicated on the existence of a figure of Jesus resembling the one described in the gospels, it is perhaps hardly surprising that they tend to conclude that the story in the gospels is more or less accurate. 

Admittedly, unlike homeopaths and astrologers, many of these researchers have important-sounding professorships at apparently reputable, sometimes even prestigious, universities.

However, this is largely an anachronistic remnant of origins of the European university system in Medieval Chrisendom, when religious scholarship was a key function, perhaps the key function, of the university system.[4]

However, this should not fool us into mistaking them for serious, secular historians.[5]

Thus, most researchers investigating the historical Jesus, at least in universities, seem to come from backgrounds, not in history, but rather in theologyseminaries and Bible studies

Few, then, seem to have spent any time researching other areas of history, and they are therefore presumably relatively unaware of the standards of evidence demanded by mainstream historians researching other periods of history or other historical questions. 

Thus, the tools used by researchers into the historical Jesus to judge the veracity of gospel claims (e.g. the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of multiple/independent attestation) do not seem to be widely used in other areas of history when assessing the trustworthiness of sources – or, at any rate, the same terms are not used.  

One finds these terms only, so far as I am aware, in the index on books on dealing with historical Jesus studies – not in general books on methods of historical research, nor in works of history dealing with other times and places. 

Certainly, analogous principles are employed, but the standards of proof seem, in my opinion, to be rather higher.[6]

I would have preferred it if Dickson had announced at the onset that he was a Christian, in the same way that politicians and lawmakers are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before they venture an opinion during a debate, let alone cast a vote regarding a decision.[7]

However, although there is no such explicit declaration in the opening paragraphs, Dickson is, to his credit, open about his own religious belief. Nevertheless, he insists that he approaches the facts of Jesus’s life as an historian not as a Christian. 

Thus, Dickson insists: 

The presupposition that the Bible is God’s word and therefore entirely trustworthy is perfectly arguable at the philosophical level” (p13). 

To play Dickson at his own game of appealing to expert opinion in lieu of making an actual substantive argument, I am not sure how many contemporary philosophers would agree this statement. Certainly not Daniel Dennett for one.

Nevertheless, Dickson insists in the same paragraph: 

I intend to approach the New Testament as an entirely human document” (p13). 

However, we surely have reason to doubt whether a devout Christian, whose beliefs are surely at the very core of their philosophy of life, can ever perform the sort of ‘mental gymnastics’ necessary to approach a topic such as the life of Jesus with the necessary disinterest, scholarly detachment and objectivity required of a serious historian. 

The Gospels as an Historical Source 

At the heart of Dickson’s account of the life of Jesus is his contention that the gospels themselves are legitimate historical sources in their own right. 

Thus, they are, he argues, more trustworthy than the apocrypha, because the latter are less contemporaneous and they generally date from a later period (p25). This is, indeed, according to Dickson, the main reason why the latter were rejected as non-canonical in the first place. 

On researching the issue, I discovered that it does indeed seem to be generally true that the canonical gospels date back to an earlier time-frame than do the New Testament apocrypha. It is indeed perhaps the one useful thing I learnt from reading Dickson’s book – since it is indeed true that many skeptics and atheist authors do indeed seem to imply that the choice of which books to be included in the New Testament Canon was either entirely arbitrary or else reflective of the theological or political agendas of the later Christian leaders responsible for the decision. 

True, Dickson acknowledges, the gospel writers were Christians, and sought to convince readers of the divinity of Jesus – but all ancient sources, he observes, have some sort of agenda, and there is therefore, he argues, no reason to give any less credence to Christian sources than to any others. 

This is only partly true. 

Dickson is right in so far as he asserts that most, if not all, sources, ancient or indeed modern, have some sort of bias. Thus, we should not regard any source as completely infallible, in the same way that Christians have traditionally regarded the Bible as the infallible ‘Word of God’. 

But, if no source is completely trustworthy, this does not mean that all sources are equally trustworthy. 

On the contrary, some sources are much more accurate and reliable than others, some of which are completely worthless as history. 

The Christian gospels, with their plainly ahistorical content and frankly preposterous elements (e.g. miracles, the resurrection), are clearly unreliable.

Are there no other contemporary sources on the life of Jesus besides the Christians gospels to provide balance? What about anti-Christian writings by adherents of other faiths? 

Moreover, call me naïve, but from a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, I expected something more than another repetition of the gospel stories so many of us were so cruelly subjected to in Sunday School from earliest infancy – albeit this time supplemented with occasional references to Josephus and, of course, ‘the unanimous opinion of all reputable scholars’. 

Dickson therefore concludes: 

History… demonstrates that the story at the heart of the Gospels is neither a myth nor fraud, but a broadly credible account of a short first century life” (p129). 

However, the primary (indeed virtually the only) source he has used to construct this so-called ‘history’ is the gospels themselves. No other sources (e.g. Josephus) provide any details whatever beyond the faintest of outlines. 

To establish that “the story at the heart of the gospels” is “a broadly credible account” surely requires an independent source external to the gospels themselves against which to judge their veracity. 

To claim that we can be certain of the gospels’ historical veracity because they are consistent with all the contemporary historical sources available simply won’t do when the only contemporary historical sources available are the gospels themselves. 

This is simply to state the self-evident tautological truism that the gospels are consistent with themselves. 

Jesus’s Birthplace 

Actually, however, the gospels are not entirely consistent with themselves – or at least not with one another. 

Take, for example, the matter of Jesus’s birthplace. 

Against the arguments of sceptics such as Richard Dawkins, Dickson argues in favour of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, in accordance with Christian tradition. 

Dismissing the claim that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew only relocated the nativity to Bethlehem so as to accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), Dickson demands petulantly: 

What is the evidence that Matthew  and  Luke  put him there out of some necessity to make him look messianic? None. The argument dissolves” (p37). 

Instead, Dickson argues: 

Just as important as the fact that Bethlehem is not mentioned in Mark or John is the fact that it is mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Surely the silence of two of the gospels cannot be louder than the affirmation of the other two” (p37). 

Yet Dickson does not mention that the two gospels manage to relocate Jesus to Bethlehem by entirely different and mutually incompatible means. Thus, Matthew has the family based in Bethlehem then only leaving to escape the wrath of Herod; whereas Luke has them only visiting Bethlehem in order to register for a census. 

Nor does he mention that both stories are historically doubtful.

Whereas there is simply no evidence for the so-called Massacre of the Innocents outside of the Gospel of Matthew itself, the story in Luke is positively contradicted by the historical record. 

Thus, the first census did not occur until AD 6 after the death of King Herod. Yet, just a couple of pages earlier Dickson himself has concluded: 

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born while Herod the Great, the Rome appointed king over Palestine, was still alive… This leads to the broad consensus among scholars that Jesus was born around 5 BC” (p35). 

At any rate, a census, even if it occurred, would apply only to Roman citizens, not Jews in Galilee, then a client state not under direct Roman rule. Moreover, even Roman citizens were not required to return to the hometowns of their remote ancestors merely for the purpose of a census – an obviously preposterous proposition given the expense and difficulty of long-distance travel during this time-period and the huge disruption and chaos such a requirement would impose (see The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible: p27-32). 

Finally, given that Dickson acknowledges that Jesus was born into obscurity and attained what little prominence he did achieve within his own lifetime only as an adult, anything about his birth is likely to be legendary and made-up long after the fact. At the time of birth, on the other hand, hardly anyone was likely paying much attention. 

Dickson is therefore right to conclude “one cannot prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. However, given the incentive to make Jesus’s birth accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), the apparent embarrassment associated with his originating in Nazareth (John 1:46) and the contradictions and ahistorical elements in the accounts given of how ‘Jesus of Galilee’ (also known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’) could ever have ended up being born in Bethlehem – seventy or eighty miles from Galilee and Nazareth – the weight of evidence is surely strongly against the notion. 

Supernatural Events, Miracles and the Resurrection 

Yet perhaps the strongest evidence against the notion that the Gospels can ever be considered reliable historical sources is the fact that they contain many supernatural elements (e.g. miracles). 

However, Dickson, being a Christian, obviously does not see this as a problem. Instead, he maintains: 

The best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field produce the unexpected – and, for some, embarrassing – conclusion that the paradoxa erga [i.e. miracles] are, as Professor James Dunn admits ‘one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal’” (p77). 

In this passage, Dickson admits that this conclusion is “for some, embarrassing” (p77). However, he does not mention to whom it is supposedly embarrassing. 

Yet it ought to be embarrassing, not, as implied by Dickson, to skeptics, rationalists and atheists, but rather to biblical scholars themselves – since, if indeed “the best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field” suggest that events such as the feeding of the 5,000’, the turning of water into wine and Jesus healing lepers by touching them are “firmly established… historical facts”, then this seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “sources and methods employed by leading scholars” in the field to such an extent that the entire field is called into disrepute. 

Of course, the reliable historical attestation of Jesus performing miracles could be interpreted differently. It might suggest simply that Jesus perhaps performed conjuring tricks, involving psychological suggestion and other chicanery of the sort employed by contemporary faith healers and similar charlatans, which, together with the well-documented placebo effect, together explain the similarly “widely attested and firmly established” eye-witness testimony regarding the ostensible miracles of these modern-day charlatans and con artists. 

Similarly, resorting again to the argumentum ab auctoritate, Dickson lists various scholars who have investigated the historicity of the resurrection, claiming “All of these scholars agree that there is an irreducible core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110) – because “from the very beginning, numbers of men and women claimed to have seen Jesus alive after death” and that this is “a fact of history” (p111-2). 

Of course, large numbers of men and women also claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, most of us do not regard this as evidence for the occurrence of alien abductions so much as it is evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and either the deceit or delusion of those making the claims. 


I have complained that I would have preferred it had admitted at the beginning of his book, or, better yet, on the back cover, that he is a devout Christian and hence far from impartial with regard to the matter of the life of Jesus, just as politicians are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before casting their ballots or participating in a Parliamentary debate. 

Here is my own belated disclaimer: I am an atheist. 

However, I make this belated disclaimer, not so much to ‘declare an interest’ as it is to declare a lack of interest, or rather a disinterest. 

I am obviously interested in the subject of the historical Jesus – otherwise I would not have taken the time to read Dickson’s book, let alone to write this review. 

However, unlike Christian readers or researchers, I have no vested interest one way or another regarding the biography of Jesus. It does not challenge my fundamental beliefs whether Jesus existed, didn’t exist, lived a life roughly similar to that described in the gospels or a life very different. 

Certainly, if evidence of the occurrence of miracles were discovered, this would challenge my beliefs, since it would suggest that the laws of physics as they are currently understood are somehow mistaken, incomplete or capable of temporary suspension on demand. 

However, given that it is inconceivable that miracles supposedly performed some two millennia ago could ever be conclusively proven to have occurred some two thousand years after they are alleged to have happened, this is not really a problem. 

Apart from this, I am in principle entirely open to the possibility that – miracles aside – the rest of the gospels is largely accurate as a description of Jesus’s life. However, on reading Dickson’s account of the “historical evidence”, it just seems to me that the evidence isn’t really there. 

Certainly it is possible that (excepting miraclesvirgin births and resurrections other such obvious nonsense) Jesus’s life did indeed take roughly the same path as that described in the gospels. 

Moreover, since the canonical gospels, though obviously unreliable, do indeed seem to be the earliest surviving detailed accounts that we have of the life of Jesus, I am even prepared to tentatively concede that we must provisionally accept this as the most likely scenario. 

However, it also seems quite possible that the course of Jesus’s life was very different and that the gospel stories themselves are largely mythical and invented after the fact. 

It certainly seems probable that there existed a religious leader called Jesus who lived and was crucified by the Romans at around the time and place he is alleged to have lived and died and who provided a basis, howsoever minimal, for the stories and myths that subsequently came to be told about him. 

However, I suspect that, given his relative obscurity in his own lifetime, it is doubtful much can ever be known about him today some two millennia later. 

Moreover, even the most extreme form of the so-called mythicist’ thesis, namely that the gospel stories are entirely mythical and no person called Jesus upon whom the stories were based ever existed in the real world, hardly seems to be the sort of preposterous crank theory, roughly on a par with holocaust denial, as it is portrayed as being by Dickson and other apologists.[8]

It just seems to me that there is so little reliable contemporary historical evidence regarding the life of Jesus that even extreme positions remain tenable – or at least cannot be definitively disproven. This is why attempted reconstructions of the historical Jesus are so notoriously divergent. 

Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Dickson’s thesis. 

On the one hand, he contends, surely rightly, that Jesus was, during his own lifetime, only, as Dickson himself puts it, quoting the title of another book about the historical Jesus,  A Marginal Jew, who achieved prominence and historical importance only after his death. 

However, at the same time, Dickson contends that there is abundant reliable evidence regarding the life of this marginal Jew. Yet, if the Jew in question was so marginal, one would hardly expect to find abundant documentary evidence regarding his life. 

In short, perhaps the reason so few serious secular scholars and historians have studied the life of Jesus and the field remains the preserve of ‘true believers’ like Dickson is precisely because there is so little to study in the first place.[9]

Only those with an a priori emotional commitment to belief in Jesus (or sometimes an a priori commitment to disbelief), precisely those whose emotional commitment renders them unfit to undertake a disinterested and objective investigation, take it upon themselves to embark on the project in the first place. 


[1] Incidentally, I am not sure whether the so-called criterion of embarrassment is unambiguously satisfied with respect to the claim that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. After all, Jesus is portrayed as humble throughout the gospels and often adopts a subordinate role – for example, when he is described as washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17). 
Indeed, given that Jesus’s philosophy represents what Nietzsche called a slave morality, whereby what would usually be seen as a source of shame and embarrassment is instead elevated into a positive virtue, the entire concept of the criterion of embarrassment seems to of dubious value, at least with respect to questions regarding the historical Jesus
Thus, Jesus’s entire life, from his birth in Nazareth, through his baptism by John, to the ultimate failure of his ministry and his ignominious death at the hands of the Romans, would seem to be an embarrassment from start to finish, at least for a figure who claimed to be a saviour and ‘Messiah, who would free the Jews from subjugation at the hands of their Roman overlords and usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, for Christians, all of this, far from being embarrassing, is reinterpreted as perverse proof of Jesus’s divinity and omnipotence.
In short, at least as applied to historical Jesus research, the so-called criterion of embarrassment seems to represent something of an embarrassment in and of itself.

[2] Actually, at least in so far as the accounts of his teachings as reported in the gospels are accurate, Jesus’s teachings do not appear to have been at all ‘wise’ in my opinion. On the contrary, they appear highly foolish. Thus, advising people to turn the other cheek when they are victims of assault (Matthew 5 39-42Luke 6: 27-31), and to give up their worldly possessions (Mark 10:21Luke 14:33) seems, to me, not ‘wise’ counsel, but rather quite foolish advice. Corroboration for this interpretation is found in Jesus’s ultimate fate: If he had indeed been ‘wise’ perhaps he would not have ended up nailed to a tree when still apparently a young man.

[3] Another supposed early textual reference to Jesus sometimes cited by New Testament scholars, but curiously omitted by Dickson, seems similarly spurious. This is the reference by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars to disturbances during the reign of Claudius supposedly conducted at the instigation of Chrestus. After all, quite apart from the fact that ‘Chrestos’ was in fact a common name at the time, at least among Pagans, if not among Jews, the word is also the same, or very similar, to the Greek word, Khristós (Χριστός), which is itself the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Given that it was widely anticipated among the Jews that a ‘Messiah’ would appear among them, overthrow Roman rule and restore independence in Judea, and Jesus was only one of many claimants to this mantle, this reference to a ‘Chrestus’ or ‘Chresto’ could easily have referred to one of these other candidates for this title.

[4] The fact that the western university system traces its origins to medieval Christendom, when Christian dogma was almost unopposed, results in the paradoxical irony that, whereas many new universities often no longer even bother with courses in theology and Bible studies, the older, and hence generally more prestigious, universities often maintain a large number of professorships in these fields, and have long-established and well-endowed Schools of Divinity.

[5] The idea that simply because someone has an impressive-sounding professorship at a prestigious university this must mean they are authoritative is, of course, another version of the argumentum ab auctoritate, or appeal to authority, that features so heavily in Dickson’s book, and the criticism of which is a major theme of this review. In fact, however, today as in the medieval age, there are many tenured and credentialled professors at ostensibly prestigious universities who are little more than ‘professional damned fools’. In a former age they were mostly theologians; today, meanwhile, they are mostly professors of women’s studiesgender studiescultural studiesblack studies, and other aspects of what has been aptly termed the grievance studies’ industry. These fields, indeed, arguably represent the modern ‘cultural Marxist’ equivalent of what theology represented in the medieval age, and are today even more entrenched in academia.

[6] Of course, this may depend on the area of history in question. Obviously, sources are more abundant for certain historical periods than for others. Thus, obviously, as a general rule, ancient history tends to be more speculative than modern history.

[7] Had Dickson began with a declaration to this effect, then, I must confess, I would probably never have bothered to read his book in the first place. This might perhaps be dismissed as a prejudice on my part. However, as explained above, I simply do not believe that a devout Christian can ever be capable of investigating the historical Jesus with the necessary scholarly detachment, disinterest and objectivity required for such an endeavour.

[8] Indeed, it is bizarre to read Christian apologists like Dickson pouring scorn on mythicism as a kind of crankish, kookish conspiracy theory or form of pseudo-scholarship, while at the same time insisting that miracles are among “the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts” about Jesus (p77), and that there is an irreducible [historical] core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110). Is Dickson really trying to have us believe that the idea that Jesus never existed is more preposterous than the idea that he cured lepers by touching them and later rose from the dead?
I am reminded of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2006 Easter Sermon, where he dismissed The Da Vinci Code book and film, then just released, as a preposterous conspiracy theory (as indeed it was), contrasting it with what he had the audacity to call the prosaic reality – the latter presumably a reference to the gospel accounts with all their virgin birth, resurrection and miracle stories. The phrases pot calling the kettle black and people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones very much spring to mind in both these cases.

[9] These ‘true believers’ include, it must be acknowledged, not only Christians like Dickson, but also many virulently anti-Christian cranks and conspiracy theorists, who often seemingly have almost as strong an a priori commitment to their own pet theories (e.g. mythicism) as the Christians do to the veracity of the gospel stories.

John R Baker’s ‘Race’: “A Reminder of What Was Possible Before the Curtain Came Down”

[Warning: Overlong book review of what is, in my defence, a very long book, which has also greatly shaped my thinking on the topic of race differences, but in which there is also much to criticize.]

‘Race’, by John R. Baker, Oxford University Press, 1974.

John Baker’s ‘Race’ represents a triumph of scholarship across a range of fields, including biology, ancient history, archaeology, history of science, psychometrics and anthropology.

First published by Oxford University Press in 1974, it also marks a watershed in Western thought – the last time a major and prestigious publisher put its name to an overtly racialist work.

As science writer Marek Kohn writes:

“Baker’s treatise, compendious and ponderous, is possible the last major statement of traditional race science written in English” (The Race Gallery: p61).

Inevitably for a scientific work first published over forty years ago, ‘Race’ is dated. In particular, the DNA revolution in population genetics has revolutionized our understanding of the genetic differences and relatedness between different human populations.

Lacking access to such data, Baker had only indirect phenotypic evidence (i.e. the morphological similarities and differences between different peoples), as well as historical and geographic evidence, with which to infer such relationships and hence construct his racial phylogeny and taxonomy.

Phenotypic similarity is obviously a less reliable method of determining the relatedness between groups than is provided by genome analysis, since there is always the problem of distinguishing homology from analogy and hence misinterpreting a trait that has independently evolved in different populations as evidence of relatedness.[1]

However, I found only one case of genetic studies decisively contradicting Baker’s conclusions. Thus, whereas Baker classes the Ainu People of Japan as Europid (p158; p173; p424; p625), recent genetic studies suggest that the Ainu have little or no genetic affinities to Caucasoid populations and are most closely related to other East Asians.[2]

On the other hand, however, Baker’s omission of genetic data means that, unusually for a scientific work, in the material he does cover, ‘Race’ scarcely seems to have dated at all. This is because the primary focus of Baker’s book – namely, morphological differences between races – is a field of study that has become politically suspect and in which new research has now all but ceased.[3]

Yet in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century, when the discipline of anthropology first emerged as a distinct science, the study of race differences in morphology was the central focus of the entire science of anthropology.

Thus, Baker’s ‘Race’ can be viewed as the final summation of the accumulated findings of the ‘old-stylephysical anthropology of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, published at the very moment this intellectual tradition was in its death throes.


Baker’s ‘Race’ is indeed a magnum opus. Unfortunately, however, at over 600 pages, embarking on reading ‘Race’ might seem almost like a lifetime’s work in and of itself.

Not only is it a very long book, but, in addition, much of the material, particularly on morphological race differences and their measurement, is highly technical, and will be readily intelligible only to the dwindling band of biological anthropologists who, in the genomic age, still study such things.

This inaccessibility is exacerbated by the fact that Baker does not use endnotes, except for his references, and only very occasionally uses footnotes. Instead, he includes even technical and peripheral material in the main body of his text, but indicates that material is technical or peripheral by printing it in a smaller font-size.[4]

Baker’s terminology is also confusing.[5] He prefers the ‘-id’ suffix to the more familiar ‘-oid’ and ‘ic’ (e.g. ‘Negrid‘ and ‘Nordid‘ rather than ‘Negroid’ and ‘Nordic‘) and eschews the familiar terms Caucasian or Caucasoid, on the grounds that:

The inhabitants of the Caucasus region are very diverse and very few of them are typical of any large section of Europids” (p205).

However, his own preferred alternative term, ‘Europid’, is arguably equally misleading as it contributes to the already common conflation of Caucasian with white European, even though, as Baker is at pains to emphasize elsewhere in his treatise, populations from the Middle East, North Africa and even the Indian subcontinent are also ‘Europid’ (i.e. Caucasoid) in Baker’s judgement.

In contrast, the term Caucasoid, or even Caucasian, causes little confusion in my experience, since it is today generally understood as a racial term and not as a geographical reference to the Caucasus region.[6]

At any rate, a similar criticism could surely be levelled at the term ‘Mongoloid’ (or, as Baker prefers, ‘Mongolid’), since Mongolian people are similarly quite atypical of other East Asian populations, and, despite the brief ascendancy of the Mongol Empire, and its genetic impact (as well as that previous waves of conquest by horse peoples of the Eurasian Steppe), were formerly a rather marginal people confined to the arid fringes of the indigenous home range of the so-called Mongoloid race, which had long been centred in China, the self-styled Middle Kingdom.[7]

Certainly, the term ‘Caucasoid’ makes little etymological sense. However, this is also true of a lot of words which we nevertheless continue to make use of. Indeed, since all words change in meaning over time, the original meaning of a word is almost invariably different to its current accepted usage.[8]

Yet we continue to use these words so as to make ourselves intelligible to others, the only alternative being to invent an entirely new language all of our own which only we would be capable of understanding.

Unfortunately, however, too many racial theorists, Baker included, have insisted on creating entirely new racial terms of their own coinage, or sometimes new entire lexicons, which, not only causes confusion among readers, but also leads the casual reader to underestimate the actual degree of substantive agreement between different authors, who, though they use different terms, often agree regarding both the identity of, and relationships between, the major racial groupings.[9]

Historical Focus

Another problem is the book’s excessive historical focus.

Judging the book by its contents page, one might imagine that Baker’s discussion of the history of racial thought is confined to the first section of the book, titled “The Historical Background” and comprising four chapters that total just over fifty pages.

However, Baker acknowledges in the opening page of his preface that:

Throughout this book, what might be called the historical method has been adopted as a matter of deliberate policy” (p3).

Thus, in the remainder of the book, Baker continues to adopt an historical perspective, briefly charting the history behind the discovery of each concept, archaeological discovery, race difference or method of measuring race differences that he introduces.

In short, it seems that Baker is not content with writing about science; he wants to write history of science too.

A case in point is Chapter Eight, which, despite its title (“Some Evolutionary and Taxonomic Theories”), actually contains very little on modern taxonomic or evolutionary theory, or even what would pass for ‘modern’ when Baker wrote the book over forty years ago.

Instead, the greater part of the chapter is devoted to tracing the history of two theories that were, even at the time Baker was writing, already wholly obsolete and discredited (namely, recapitulation theory and orthogenesis).

Let me be clear, Baker himself certainly agrees that these theories are obsolete and discredited, as this is his conclusion at the end of the respective sections devoted to discussion of these theories in his chapter on “Evolutionary and Taxonomic Theories”.

However, this only begs the question as to why Baker chooses to devote so much space in this chapter to discussing these theories in the first place, given that both theories are discredited and also of only peripheral relevance to his primary subject-matter, namely the biology of race.

Anyone not interested in these topics, or in history of science more generally, is well advised to skip the majority of this chapter.

The Historical Background

Readers not interested in the history of science, and concerned only with contemporary state-of-the-art science (or at least the closest an author writing in 1974 can get to modern state-of-the-art science) may also be tempted to skip over the whole first section of the book, entitled, as I have said, “The Historical Background”, and comprised of four chapters or, in total, just over fifty pages.

These days, when authoring a book on the biology of race, it seems to have become almost de rigueur to include an opening chapter, or chapters, tracing the history of race science, and especially its political misuse during nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries (e.g. under the Nazis).

For example, in Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, this comes in Chapter Two, titled ‘Perversions of Science’; in Philippe Rushton’s Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (which I have reviewed here), this historical account is postponed until Chapter Five, titled ‘Race and Racism in History’; in Jon Entine’s Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About it, it is delayed until Chapter Nine, titled ‘The Origins of Race Science’; whereas, in Sarich and Miele’s Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here), these opening chapters discussing the history of racial science expand to fill almost half the entire book.

The usual reason for including these chapters is for the author or authors to thereby disassociate themselves from the earlier supposed misuse of race science for nefarious political purposes, and emphasize how their own approach is, of course, infinitely more scientific and objective than that of their sometimes less than illustrious intellectual forebears.

However, Baker’s discussion ofThe Historical Background” is rather different, and refreshingly short on disclaimers, moralistic grandstanding and benefit-of-hindsight condemnations that one usually finds in such potted histories.

Instead, Baker strives to give all views a fair hearing in as objective and sober a tone as possible.

Indeed, somewhat disconcertingly, even Hitler’s Mein Kampf is taken seriously – “The early part of the chapter dealing with the ethnic problem is quite well-written and not uninteresting” (p59) – or perhaps this is only to damn with faint praise.

Only Lothrop Stoddard’s infamous but once influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy is dismissed outright. Stoddard is, for Baker, an “obviously unimportant” thinker, whose book “contains nothing profound or genuinely original” (p58-9).

Yet this is perhaps unfair. Whatever the demerits of Stoddard’s racial taxonomy (“oversimplified to the point of crudity,” according to Baker: p58), Stoddard’s geopolitical and demographic predictions have proven prescient.

Overall, Baker draws two general conclusions regarding the history of racial thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

First, he observes how few of the racialist authors whom he discusses were anti-Semitic. Thus, Baker reports:

Only one of the authors, Lapouge, strongly condemns the Jews. Treitschke is moderately anti-Jewish; Chamberlain, Grant and Stoddard mildly so; Gobineau is equivocal” (p59).

The rest of the authors whom he discusses evince, according to Baker, “little or no interest in the Jewish problem”, the only exception being Friedrich Nietzsche, who is “primarily an anti-egalitarian, but [who] did not proclaim the inequality of ethnic taxa”, and who, in his comments regarding the Jewish people, or at least those quoted by Baker, is positively gushing in his praise.

Yet anti-Semitism often goes hand-in-hand with philo-Semitism. Thus, both Nietzsche and Count de Gobineau indeed wrote passages that, at least when quoted in isolation, seem highly complementary regarding the Jewish people. However, it is well to bear in mind that Hitler did as well, the latter writing in Mein Kampf:

The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew. In hardly any people in the world is the instinct of self- preservation developed more strongly than in the so-called ‘chosen’. Of this, the mere fact of the survival of this race may be considered the best proof” (Mein Kampf, Manheim translation).[10]

Thus, as a character from a Michel Houellebecq novel observes:

All anti-Semites agree that the Jews have a certain superiorityIf you read anti-Semitic literature, you’re struck by the fact that the Jew is considered to be more intelligent, more cunning, that he is credited with having singular financial talents – and, moreover, greater communal solidarity. Result: six million dead” (Platform: p113) 

Baker’s second general observation is similarly curious, namely that:

None of the authors mentioned in these chapters claims superiority for the whole of the Europid race: it is only a subrace, or else a section of the Europid race not clearly defined in terms of physical anthropology, that is favoured” (p59).

In retrospect, this seems anomalous, especially given that the so-called Nordic race, on whose behalf racial supremacy was most often claimed, actually came relatively late to civilization, which began in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, arriving in Europe only with the Mediterranean civilizations of Greece and Rome, and in Northern Europe later still.

However, this focus on the alleged superiority of certain European subraces rather than Caucasians as a whole likely reflects the fact that, during the time period in which these works were written, European peoples and nations were largely in competition and conflict with other European peoples and nations.

Only in European overseas colonies were Europeans in contact and conflict with non-European races, and, even here, the main obstacle to imperial expansion was, not so much the opposition of the often primitive non-European races whom the Europeans sought to colonize, but rather that of rival colonizers from other European nations.

Therefore, it was the relative superiority of different European populations which was naturally of most concern to Europeans during this time period.

In contrast, the superiority of the Caucasian race as a whole was of comparably little interest, if only because it was something that these writers already took very much for granted, and hence hardly worth wasting ink or typeface over.

The Rise of Racial Egalitarianism

There are two curious limitations that Baker imposes on his historical survey of racial thought. First, at the beginning of Chapter Three (From Gobineau to Houston Chamberlain’), he announces:

The present chapter and the next [namely, those chapters dealing with the history of racial thinking from the mid-nineteenth century up until the early-twentieth century] differ from the two preceding ones… in the more limited scope. It is are concerned only with the growth of ideas that favoured belief in the inequality of ethnic taxa or are supposedrightly or wronglyto have favoured this belief” (p33).

Given that I have already criticised ‘Race’ as overlong, and as having an excessive historical focus, I might be expected to welcome this restriction. However, Baker provides no rationale for this self-imposed restriction.

Certainly, it is rare, and enlightening, to read balanced, even sympathetic, accounts of the writings of such infamous racialist thinkers as Gobineau, Galton and Chamberlain, whose racial views are today usually dismissed as so preposterous as hardly to merit serious consideration. Moreover, in the current political climate, such material even acquires a certain allure of the forbidden’.

However, thinkers championing racial egalitarianism have surely proven more influential, at least in the medium-term. Yet such enormously influential thinkers as Franz Boas and Ashley Montagu pass entirely unmentioned in Baker’s account.[11]

Moreover, the intellectual antecedents of the Nazism have already been extensively explored by historians. In contrast, however, the rise of the dogma of racial equality has passed largely unexamined, perhaps because to examine its origins is to expose the weakness of its scientific basis and its fundamentally political origins.[12]

Yet the story of how the theory of racial equality was transformed from a maverick, minority opinion among scientists and laypeople alike into a sacrosanct contemporary dogma which a person, scientist or layperson, can question only at severe cost to their career, livelihood and reputation is surely one worth telling.

The second restriction that Baker imposes upon his history is that he concludes it, prematurely, in 1928. He justifies closing his survey in this year on the grounds that this date supposedly:

Marks the close of the period in which both sides in the ethnic controversy were free to put forward their views, and authors who wished to do so could give objective accounts of the evidence pointing in each direction” (p61).

Yet this cannot be entirely true, for, if it were, then Baker’s own book could never have been published – unless, of course, Baker regards his own work as something other than an “objective account of the evidence pointing in each direction”, which seems doubtful.

Certainly, the influence of what is now called political correctness is to be deplored for impact on science, university appointments, the allocation of research funds and the publishing industry. However, there has surely been no abrupt watershed but rather a gradual closing of the western mind over time.

Thus, it is notable that other writers have cited dates a little later than that quoted by Baker, often coinciding with the defeat of Nazi Germany and exposure of the Nazi genocide, or sometimes the defeat of segregation in the American South.

Indeed, not only was this process gradual, it has also proceeded apace in the years since Baker’s ‘Race’ first came off the presses, such that today such a book would surely never would have been published in the first place, certainly not by as prestigious a publisher as Oxford University Press (who, surely not uncoincidently, soon gave up the copyright).[13]

Moreover, Baker is surely wrong to claim that it is impossible:

To follow the general course of controversy on the ethnic problem, because, for the reason just stated [i.e. the inability of authors of both sides to publicise their views], there has been no general controversy on the subject” (p61).

On the contrary, the issue remains as incendiary as ever, with the bounds of acceptable opinion seemingly ever narrowing and each year a new face falling before the witch hunters of the  contemporary racial inquisition.


Having dealt in his first section with what he calls “The Historical Background”, Baker next turns to what he calls “The Biological Background”. He begins by declaring, rightly, that:

Racial problems cannot be understood by anyone whose interests and field of knowledge stop short at the limit of purely human affairs” (p3).

This is surely true, not just of race, but of all issues in human biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology and political science, as the recent rise of evolutionary psychology attests. Indeed, Baker even coins a memorable and quotable aphorism to this effect, when he declares:

No one knows Man who knows only Man” (p65).

However, Baker sometimes takes this thinking rather too far, even for my biologically-inclined tastes.

Certainly, he is right to emphasise that differences among human populations are analogous to those found among other species. Thus, his discussion of racial differences among our primate cousins are of interest, but also somewhat out-of-date.[14]

However, his intricate and fully illustrated nine-page description of race differences among the different subspecies of crested newt stretched the patience of this reader (p101-109).

Are Humans a Single Species?

Whereas Baker’s seventh chapter (“The Meaning of Race”) discusses the race concept, the preceding two chapters deal with the taxonomic class immediately above that of race, namely ‘species’.

For sexually-reproducing organisms, ‘species’ is usually defined as the largest group of organisms capable of breeding with one another and producing fertile offspring in the wild.

However, as Baker explains, things are not quite so simple.

For one thing, over evolutionary time, one species gradually transforms into another gradually with no abrupt dividing line where one species suddenly becomes another (p69-72). Hence the famous paradox, Which came first: the chicken or the egg?.

Moreover, in respect of extinct species, it is often impossible to know for certain whether two ostensible ‘species’ interbred with one another (p72-3). Therefore, in practice, the fossils of extinct organisms are assigned to either the same or different species on morphological criteria alone.

This leads Baker to distinguish different species concepts. These include:

  • Species in the paleontological sense” (p72-3);
  • Species in the morphological sense” (p69-72); and
  • Species in the genetical sense”, i.e. as defined by the criterion of interfertility (p72-80).

On purely morphological criteria, Baker questions humanity’s status as a single species:

“Even typical Nordids and typical Alpinids, both regarded as subraces of a single race (subspecies), the Europid, are very much more different from one another in morphological characters—for instance in the shape of the skull—than many species of animals that never interbreed with one another in nature, though their territories overlap” (p97).

Thus, later on, Baker claims:

Even a trained anatomist would take some time to sort out correctly a mixed collection of the skulls of Asiatic jackals (Canis aureus) and European red foxes (vulpes vulpes), unless he had made a special study of the osteology of the Canidae; whereas even a little child, without any instruction whatever, could instantly separate the skulls of Eskimids from those of Lappids” (p427).

That morphological differences between human groups do indeed often exceed those between closely-related but non-interbreeding species of non-human animal has recently been quantitatively confirmed by Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele in their book, Race the Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here).

However, even if one defines ‘species’ strictly by the criterion of interfertility (i.e. in Baker’s terminology, “species in the genetical sense”) matters remain less clear than one might imagine.

For one thing, there are the phenomena of ring species, such as the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull.

These two ostensible species (or subspecies), both found in the UK, do not interbreed with one another, but each does interbreed with intermediaries that, in turn, interbreed with the other, such that there is some indirect gene-flow between them. Interestingly, the species ranges of the different intermediaries form a literal ring around the Arctic, such that genes will travel around the Artic before passing from lesser black backed gull to herring gull or vice versa (p76-79).[15]

Indeed, even the ability to produce fertile offspring is a matter of degree. Thus, some pairings produce fertile offspring only rarely.

For example, often, Baker reports, “sterility affects [only] the heterogametic sex [i.e. the sex with two different sex chromosomes]” (p95). Thus, in mammals, sterility is more likely to affect male offspring. Indeed, this pattern is so common that it even has its own name, being known as Haldane’s Rule, after the famous Marxist-biologist JBS Haldane who first noted this pattern.

Other times, Baker suggests, interfertility may depend on the sex of the respective parents. For example, Baker suggests that, whereas sheep may sometimes successfully reproduce with he-goats, rams may be unable to successfully reproduce with she-goats (p95).[16]

Moreover, the fertility of offspring is itself a matter of degree. Thus, Baker reports, some hybrid offspring are not interfertile with one another, but can reproduce with one or other of the parental stocks. Elsewhere, the first generation of hybrids are interfertile but not subsequent generations (p94).

Indeed, though it was long thought impossible, it has recently been confirmed that, albeit only very rarely, even mules and hinnies can successfully reproduce, despite donkeys and horses, the two parental stocks, having, like goats and sheep, a different number of chromosomes (Rong et al 1985; Kay 2002).

Thus, Baker concludes:

There is no proof that hybridity among human beings is invariably eugenesic, for many of the possible crosses have not been made, or if they have their outcome does not appear to have been recorded. It is probable on inductive grounds that such marraiges would not be infertile, but it is questionable whether the hybridity would necessarily be eugenesic. For instance, statistical study might reveal a preponderance of female offpsring” (p97-8).

Is there then any evidence of reduced fertility among mixed-race couples? Not a great deal.

Possibly blood type incompatibility between mother and developing foetus might be more common in interracial unions due to racial variation in the prevalence of different blood groups.

Also, one study did find a greater prevalence of birth complications, more specifically caesarean deliveries, among Asian women birthing offspring fathered by white men (Nystrom et al 2008).

However, this is a simple reflection of the differences in average stature of between whites and Asians, with smaller-framed Asian women having difficult birthing larger half-white offspring. Thus, the same study also found that white women birthing offspring fathered by Asian men actually have lower rates of caesarean delivery than did women bearing offspring fathered by men of the same race as themselves (Stanford University Medical Center 2008).[17]

Also, one study from Iceland rather surprisingly found that the highest pregnancy rates were found among couples who were actually quite closely related to one another, namely equivalent to third- or fourth-cousins, with less closely related spouses enjoying reduced pregnancy rates (Helgason et al 2008; see also Labouriau & Amorim 2008).

On the other hand, however, David Reich, in Who We Are and How We Got Here reports that, whereas there was evidence of selection against Neanderthal genes in the human genome (that had resulted from ancient hybridization between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals) owing to the deleterious effects of these genes, there was no evidence of selection against European genes (or African genes) among African-Americans, a racially-mixed population:

“In African Americans, in studies of about thirty thousand people, we have found no evidence for natural selection against African or European ancestry” (Who We Are and How We Got Here: p48; Bhatia et al 2014).

This lack of selection against either European-derived (or African-derived) genes in African-Americans suggests that discordant genes did not result in reduced fitness among African-Americans.[18]

Humans – A Domesticated Species?

A final complication in defining species is that some species of nonhuman animal, wildly recognised as separate species because they do not interbreed in the wild, nevertheless have been known to successfully interbreed in captivity.

A famous example are lions and tigers. While they have never been known to interbreed in the wild, if only because they rarely if ever encounter one another, they have interbred in captivity, sometimes even producing fertile offspring in the form of so-called ligers and tigons.

This is, for Baker, of especial relevance to question of human races since, according to Baker, we ourselves are a domesticated species. Thus, he approvingly quotes Blumenbach’s claim that:

Man is ‘of all living beings the most domesticated’” (p95).

Thus, with regard to the question of whether humans represent a single species, Baker reaches the following controversial conclusion:

The facts of human hybridity do not prove that all human races are to be regarded as belonging to a single ‘species’. The whole idea of species is vague because the word is used with such different meanings, none of which is of universal application. When it is used in the genetical sense [i.e. the criterion of interfertility] some significance can be attached to it, in so far as it applies to animals existing in natural conditions… but it does not appear to be applicable to human beings, who live under the most extreme conditions of domestication” (p98).

Thus, Baker goes so far as to question whether:

Any two kinds of animals, differing from one another so markedly in morphological characters (and in odour) as, for instance, the Europid and Sanid…, and living under natural conditions, would accept one another as sexual partners” (p97).

Certainly, in our ‘natural environment’ (what evolutionary psychologists call the environment of Evolutionary adaptedness or EEA), many human races would never have interbred, if only for the simple reason that they would never come into contact with one another.

On the contrary, they were separated from one another by the very geographic obstacles (oceans, deserts, mountain-ranges) that reproductively isolated them from one another and hence permitted their evolution into distinct races.

Thus, Northern Europeans surely never mated with sub-Saharan Africans for the simple reason that the former were confined to Northern Europe and surrounding areas while the latter were largely confined to sub-Saharan Africa, such that they are unlikely ever to have interacted.[19]

Only with the invention of technologies facilitating long-distance travel (e.g. ships, aeroplanes) would this change.

However, whether humans can be said to be domesticated depends on how one defines ‘domesticated’. If we are domesticated, then humans are surely unique in having domesticated ourselves (or at least one another).

Defining Race

Ultimately then, the question of whether the human race is a single species is a purely semantic one. It depends how one defines the word ‘species’.

Likewise, whether human races can be said to exist ultimately depends on one’s definition of the word ‘race’.

Using the word ‘race’ interchangeably with that of ‘subspecies’, Baker provides no succinct definition. Instead, he simply explains:

If two populations [within a species] are so distinct that one can generally tell from which region a specimen was obtained, it is usual to give separate names to the two races” (p99).

Neither does he provide a neat definition of any particular race. On the contrary, he is explicit in emphasizing:

The definition of any particular race must be inductive in the sense that it gives a general impression of the distinctive characters, without professing to be applicable in detail to every individual” (p99).

Is Race Real?

At the conclusion of his chapter on “Hybridity and The Species Question”, Baker seems to reach what was, even in 1974, an incendiary conclusion – namely that, whether using morphological criteria or the criterion of interfertility, it is not possible to conclusively prove that all extant human populations belong to a single species (see above).

Nevertheless, in the remainder of the book, Baker proceeds on the assumption that differences among human groups are indeed subspecific (i.e. racial) in nature and that we do indeed form a single species.

Indeed, Baker criticises the notion that the existence persons of mixed racial ancestry, and the existence of clinal variation between races, disproves the existence of human races by observing that, if races did not interbreed with one another, then they would not be mere different races, but rather entirely separate species, according to the usual definition of this term. Thus, Baker explains:

Subraces and even races sometimes hybridise where they meet, but this almost goes without saying: for if sexual revulsion against intersubracial or interracial marriages were complete, one set of genes would have no chance of intermingling with the other, and the ethnic taxa would be species by the commonly accepted definition. It cannot be too strongly stressed that intersubracial and interracial hybridization is so far from indicating the unreality of subraces and races, that it is actually a sine qua non of the reality of these ethnic taxa” (p12).

This, Baker argues, is because:

It is the fact that intermediaries do occur that defines the race” (p99).

Some people seem to think that, since races tend to blend into one another and hence have blurred boundaries (i.e. what biologists refer to as clinal variation), they do not really exist. Yet Baker objects:

In other matters, no one questions the reality of categories between which intermediaries exist. There is every graduation, for instance, between green and blue, but no one denies these words should be used” (p100).

However, this is perhaps an unfortunate example, since, as psychologists and physicists agree, colours, as such, do not exist.

Instead, the spectrum of light varies continuously. Distinct colours are imposed on this continuous variation only by the human brain and visual system.[20]

Using colour as an analogy for race is also potentially confusing because colour is already often conflated with race. Thus, races are referred to by their ostensible colours (e.g. blacks, whites, browns etc.) and the very word ‘colour’ is sometimes even used as a synonym, or perhaps euphemism, for race, even though, as Baker is at pains to emphasize, races differ in far more than skin colour.

Using colour as an analogy for race differences is only likely to exacerbate this confusion.

Yet Baker’s other examples are similarly problematic. Thus, he writes:

“The existence of youths and human hermaphrodites does not cause anyone to disallow the use of the words, ‘boy’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’” (p100).

However, hermaphrodites, unlike racial intermediaries, are extremely rare. Meanwhile, words such as ‘boy’ and ‘youth’ are colloquial terms, not really scientific ones. As anthropologist John Relethford observes:

We tend to use crude labels in everyday life with the realization that they are fuzzy and subjective. I doubt anyone thinks that terms such as ‘short’, ‘medium’ and ‘tall’ refer to discrete groups, or that humanity only comes in three values of height” (Relethford 2009: p21).

In short, we often resort to vague and impressionistic language in everyday conversation. However, for scientific purposes, we must surely try, wherever possible, to be more precise.

Rather than alluding to colour terms or hermaphrodites, perhaps a better counterexample, if only because it is certain to provoke annoyance, cognitive dissonance and doublethink among leftist race-denying sociologists, is that of social class. Thus, as biosocial criminologist Anthony Walsh demands:

Is social class… a useless concept because of its cline-like tendency to merge smoothly from case to case across the distribution, of because its discrete categories are determined by researchers according to their research purposes and are definitely not ‘pure’” (Race and Crime: A Biosocial Analysis: p6).

However, the same leftist social scientists who insist the race concept is an unscientific social construction, nevertheless continue to employ the concept of social class almost as if it were entirely unproblematic.

However, the objection that races do not exist because races are not discrete categories, but rather have blurred boundaries, is not entirely fallacious.

After all, sometimes intermediaries can be so common that they can no longer be said to be intermediaries at all and all that can be said to exist is continuous clinal variation, such that wherever one chose to draw the boundary between one race and another would be entirely arbitrary.

With increased migration and intermarriage, we may fast be approaching this point.[21]

However, just because the boundaries between racial groups are blurred, this does not mean that the differences between them, whether physiological or psychological, do not exist. To assume otherwise would represent a version of the continuum fallacy or sorties paradox, also sometimes called the fallacy of the heap or fallacy of the beard.

Thus, even if races do not exist, race differences still surely do – and, just as skin colour varies on a continuous, clinal basis, so might average IQbrain-size and personality!

Anticipating Jared Diamond

Remarkably, Baker even manages to anticipate certain erroneous objections to the race concept that had not, to my knowledge, even been formulated at the time of his writing, perhaps because they are so obviously fallacious to anyone without an a priori political commitment to the denying the validity of the race concept.

In particular, Jared Diamond (1994), in an influential and much-cited paper, argues that racial categories are meaningless because, rather than being classified by skin colour, races could just as easily be grouped on the basis of traits such as the prevalence of genes for sickle-cell or lactose tolerance, which would lead us to adopting very different classifications.

Actually, Baker argues, the importance of colour for racial classification has been exaggerated.

In the classification of animals, zoologists lay little emphasis on differences of colour… They pay far more attention to differences in grosser structure” (p159).

Indeed, he quotes no lesser authority than Darwin himself as observing:

Colour is generally esteemed by the systematic naturalist as unimportant (p148).

Certainly, he is at pains to emphasise that, among humans, differences between racial groups go far beyond skin colour. Indeed, he observes, one has only to look at an African albino to realize as much:

An albino… Negrid who is fairer than any non-albino European, [yet] appears even more unlike a European than a normal… Negrid” (p160).

Likewise, some populations from the Indian subcontinent are very dark in skin tone, yet they are, according to Baker, predominantly Caucasoid (p160), as, he claims, are the Aethiopid subrace of the Horn of Africa (p225).[22]

Thus, Baker laments how:

An Indian, who may show close resemblance to many Europeans in every structural feature of his body, and whose ancestors established a civilization long before the inhabitants of the British Isles did so, is grouped as ‘coloured’ with persons who are very different morphologically from any European or Indian, and whose ancestors never developed a civilization” (p160).

Yet, in contrast, of the San Bushmen of Southern Africa, he remarks:

The skin is only slightly darker than that of the Mediterranids of Southern Europe and paler than that of many Europids whose ancestral home is in Asia or Africa” (p307).

But no one would mistake them for Caucasoid.

What then of the traits, namely the prevalence of the sickle-cell gene or of lactose tolerance, that would, according to Diamond, produce very different taxonomies?

For Baker, these are what he calls “secondary characters” that cannot be used for the purposes of racial classification because they are not present among all members of any group, but differ only in their relative prevalence (p186).

Moreover, he observes, the sickle-cell gene is likely to have “arisen independently in more than one place” (p189). It is therefore evidence, not of common ancestry, but of convergent evolution, or what Baker refers to as “independent mutation” (p189).

It is therefore irrelevant from the perspective of cladistic taxonomy, whereby organisms are grouped, not on the basis of shared traits as such, but rather of shared ancestry. From the perspective of cladistic taxonomy, shared traits are relevant only to the extent they are (interpreted as) evidence of shared ancestry.

The same is true for lactose tolerance, which seems to have evolved independently in different populations in concert with the development of dairy farming, in a form of gene-culture co-evolution.

Indeed, lactose tolerance appears to have evolved through somewhat different genetic mechanisms (i.e. mutations in different genes) in different populations, seemingly a conclusive demonstration that it evolved independently in these different lineages (Tishkoff et al 2007).

As Baker warns:

One must always be on the lookout for the possibility of independent mutation wherever two apparently unrelated taxa resemble one another by the fact that some individuals in both groups reveal the presence of the same gene” (p189).

In evolutionary biology, this is referred to as distinguishing analogy from homology.

But Diamond’s proposed classification is especially preposterous, since he proposes to classify races on the basis of a single trait in isolation, the trait in question (either lactose tolerance or the sickle-cell gene) being chosen either arbitrarily or, more likely, to illustrate the point that Diamond is attempting to make.

Yet even pre-Darwinian taxonomies proposed to classify species, not on the basis of a single trait, but rather on the basis of a whole suit of traits that intercorrelate together.

In short, Diamond proposes to classify races on the basis of a single character that has evolved independently in distantly related populations, instead of a whole suite of inter-correlated traits indicative of common ancestry.

Interestingly, a similar error may underlie an even more frequently cited paper by Marxist-geneticist Richard Lewontin, which argued the vast majority of genetic variation was within-group rather than between-group – since Lewontin, like Diamond, also relied on ‘secondary characters’ such as blood-groups to derive his estimates (Lewontin 1972).[23]

The reason for the recurrence of this error, Baker explains, is that:

Each of the differences that enable one to distinguish all the most typical individuals of any one taxon from those of another is due, as a general rule, to the action of polygenes, that is to say, to the action of numerous genes, having small cumulative effects” (p190).

Yet, unlike traits resulting from a few alleles, polygenes are not amenable to simple Mendelian analysis.

Therefore, this leads to the “unfortunate paradox” whereby:

The better the evidence of relationship or distinction between ethnic taxa, the less susceptible are the facts to genetic analysis” (p190).

As a consequence, Baker laments:

Attention is focussed today on those ‘secondary differences’… that can be studied singly and occur in most ethnic taxa, though in different proportions in different taxa… The study of these genes… has naturally led, from its very nature, to a tendency to minimise or even disregard the extent to which the ethnic taxa of man do actually differ from one another” (p534).

Finally, Baker even provides a reductio ad absurdum of Diamond’s approach, observing:

From the perspective of taste-deficiency the Europids are much closer to the chimpanzee than to the Sinids and Paiwan people; yet no one would claim that this resemblance gives a true representation of relationship” (p188).

However, applying the logic of Diamond’s article, we would be perfectly justified and within our rights to use this similarity in taste deficiency in order to classify Caucasians as a sub-species of chimpanzee!


The third section of Baker’s book, “Studies of Selected Human Groups”, focusses on the traditional subject-matter of physical anthropology – i.e. morphological differences between human groups.[24]

Baker describes the physiological differences between races in painstaking technical detail. These parts of the book makes for an especially difficult read, as Baker carefully elucidates both how anthropologists measure morphological differences, and the nature and extent of the various physiological differences between the races discussed revealed by these methods.

Yet, curiously, although many of his measures are quantitative in nature, Baker rarely discusses whether differences are statistically significant.[25] Yet without statistical analysis, all of Baker’s reports of quantitative measurements of differences in the shapes and sizes of the skulls and body parts of people of different races represent little more than subjective impressions.

This is especially problematic in his discussion of so-called ‘subraces’ (subdivisions within the major continental races, such as Nordics and the Meditaranean race, both supposed subdivisions within the Caucasiod race), where differences could easily be dismissed as, if not wholly illusory, then at least as clinal in nature and as not always breeding true.

Yet nowhere in his defence of the reality of subracial differences does Baker cite statistics. Instead, his argument is wholly subjective and qualitative in nature:

In many parts of the world where there have not been any large movements of population over a long period, the reality of subraces is evident enough” (p211).

One suspects that, given increased geographic mobility, those parts of the world are now reduced in number.

Thus, even if subracial differences were once real, with increased migration and intermarriage, they are fast disappearing, at least within Europe.

Studies of Selected Human Groups

This third section of the book focuses on certain specific selected human populations. These are presumably chosen because Baker feels that they are representative of certain important elements of human evolution, racial divergence, or are otherwise of particular interest.

Unfortunately, Baker’s choice of which groups upon which to focus seems rather arbitrary and he never explains why these groups were chosen ahead of others.

In particular, it is notable that Baker focuses primarily on populations from Europe and Africa. East Asians (i.e. Mongoloids), curiously, are entirely unrepresented.

The Jews

After a couple of introductory chapters, and one chapter focussing on “Europids” (i.e. Caucasians) as a whole, Baker’s next chapter discusses Jewish people.

In the opening paragraphs, he observes that:

In any serious study of the superiority or inferiority of particular groups of people one cannot fail to take note of the altogether outstanding contributions made to intellectual and artistic life, and to the world of commerce and finance, generation after generation by persons to whom the name of Jews is attached” (p232).

However, having taken due “note” of this, and hence followed his own advice, he says almost nothing further on the matter, either in this chapter or in those later chapters that deal specifically with the question of racial superiority (see below).

Instead, Baker first focuses on justifying the inclusion of Jews in a book about race, and hence arguing against the then-politically-correct notion that Jews are not a race, but rather mere practitioners of a religion.[26] Baker gives short-shrift to this notion:

There is no close resemblance between Judaism in the religious sense and a proselytizing religion such as the Roman Catholic” (p326).

Yet, actually, even proselytizing religions like Christianity, Catholicism and Islam often come take on an ethnic character, since offspring usually inherit (i.e. are indoctrinated in) the faith of their parents, apostates are persecuted, conversion is rare, and people are admonished to marry within the faith.

Thus, in places beset by ethnic conflict like Northern Ireland, Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia, religion often comes to represent a marker for ethnicity, and even ostensibly proselytizing religions like Islam and Catholicism can come to be like ethnicities, if not races – i.e. reproductively-isolated, endogamous breeding populations.

Having concluded, then, that there is a racial as well as a religious component to Jewish identity, Baker nevertheless stops short of declaring the Jews a race or even what he calls a subrace.

Dismissing the now discredited Khazar hypothesis in a sentence,[27] he instead classes the bulk of the world’s Jewish population (i.e. the Ashkenazim) as merely part of “Armenid subrace” of the Europid race” with some “Orientalid” (i.e. Arab) admixture (p242).[28]

Thus, Baker claims:

Persons of Ashkennazic stock can generally be recognised by certain physical characters that distinguish them from other Europeans” (p238).

These include a short but wide skull and a nose that is “large in all dimensions” (p239), the characteristic shape of which Baker even purports to illustrate with a delightfully offensive diagram (p241).[29]

Likewise, Baker claims that Sephardic Jews, the other main subgroup of European Jews, are likewise “distinguishable from the Ashkenazim by physical characters”, being slenderer in build, with straighter hair, narrower noses, and different sized skulls, approximately more to the Mediterranean racial type (p245-6).

But, if Sephardim and Ashkenazim are indeed “distinguishable” or “recognisable” by “physical characters”, either from one another or from other European Gentiles, as Baker claims, then with what degree of accuracy is he claiming such distinctions can be made? Surely far less than 100%.[30]

Moreover, are the alleged physiological differences that Baker posits between Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Europeans based on recorded quantitative measurements, and, if so, are the differences in question statistically significant? On this, Baker says nothing.

The Celts

The next chapter concerns The Celts, a term surrounding which there is so much confusion and which has been used in so many different senses – racial, cultural, ethnic, territorial and linguistic (p183) – that some historians have argued that it is best abandoned altogether.

Baker, himself British, is keen to dispel the notion that the indigenous populations of the British Isles were, at the time of the Roman invasion, a primitive people, and is very much an admirer of their artwork.

Thus, Baker writes that:

Caesar… nowhere states that any of the Britons were savage (immanis), nor does he speak specifically of their ignorance (ignorantia), though he does twice mention their indiscretion (imprudentia) in parleying” (p263).

Of course, Caesar, though hardly unbiased in this respect, did regard the indigenous Britons as less civilized than the Romans themselves. However, I suppose that barbarism, like civilization (see below), is a matter of degree.

Regarding the racial characteristics of those inhabitants of pre-Roman Britain who are today called Celts, Baker classifies them as Nordic, writing:

Their skulls scarcely differ from those of the Anglo-Saxons who subsequently dominated them, except in one particular character, namely, that the skull is slightly (but significantly) lower in the Iron Age man than in the Anglo-Saxon” (p257).[31]

Thus, dismissing the politically-correct notion that the English were, in the words of another author, “true multiracial society”, Baker claims:

“[The] Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, Belgics and… Celts… were not only of one race (Europid) but of one subrace (Nordid).” (p267).

Citing remains found in an ancient cemetery in Berkshire supposedly containing the skeletons of Anglo-Saxon males but indigenous British females and hybrid offspring, he concludes that, rather than extermination, a process of intermarriage and assimilation occurred (p266).

However, the indigenous pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles were, he concludes, less Nordic than Mediterranid in phenotype.[32]

Such influences remain, Baker claims, in the further reaches of Wales and Ireland, as evidenced by the distribution of blood groups and of hair colour.

Thus, whereas the Celtic fringe is usually associated with red, auburn or ginger hair, Baker instead emphasizes the greater prevalence of dark hair among the Irish and Welsh:

The tendency towards the possession of dark hair was much more marked in Wales than in England, and still more marked in the western districts of Ireland” (p265).[33]

This conclusion is based upon the observations of nineteenth century English ethnologist John Beddoe, who travelled the British Isles recording the distribution of different hair and eye colours, reporting his findings in The Races of Britain, which was first published in 1862 and remains, to my knowledge, the only source of data on the distribution of hair and eye colour in the British Isles to this day.

On this basis, Baker therefore concludes that:

The modern population of Great Britain probably derives mainly from the [insular] ‘Celts’… and Belgae, though a more ancient [i.e. Mediterranean] stock has left its mark rather clearly in certain parts of the country, and the Anglo-Saxons and other northerners made an additional Nordid contribution later on” (p269).

Yet recent population genetic studies suggest that even the so-called Celts, like the later Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings, actually had only a quite minimal impact on the ancestry of the indigenous peoples of the British Isles.[34]

This, of course, further falsifies the politically correct, but absurd notion that the British are a nation of immigrants – which phrase is, of course, itself a recent immigrant from America, in respect of whose population the claim surely has more plausibility.

The Celts, moreover, likely arrived from on the British Isles from continental Europe by the same route as the later Anglo-Saxons and Normans – i.e. across the English channel (or perhaps the south-west corner of the North Sea), by way of Southern England. This is, after all, by far the easiest, most obvious and direct route.

This leads Baker to conclude that the Celts, like the Anglo-Saxons after them, imposed their language on, but had little genetic impact on, the inhabitants of those parts of the British Isles furthest from this point of initial disembarkation (i.e. Scotland, Ireland, Wales). Thus, Baker concludes:

The Iron Age invaders transmitted the dialects of their Celtic language to the more ancient Britons whom they found in possession of the land [and] pushed back these less advanced peoples towards the west and north as they spread” (p264).

But these latter peoples, though adopting the Celtic tongue, were not themselves (primarily) descendants of the Celtic invaders. This leads Baker to follow Carleton Coon in concluding:

It is these people, the least Celtic—in the ethnic sense—of all the inhabitants of Great Britain, that have clung most obstinately to the language that their conquerors first taught them two thousand years ago” (p269).

In other words, in a racial and genetic, if not a linguistic, sense, the English are actually more Celtic than are the self-styled Celtic Nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales!

Australian Aboriginals – a “Primitive” Race?

The next chapter is concerned with Australian Aboriginals, or, as Baker classes them, “Australids”.

In this chapter Baker is primarily concerned with arguing that Aboriginals are morphologically primitive.

Of course, the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Australia were, when Europeans first made contact with them, notoriously backward in terms of their technology and material culture.

For example, Australian Aboriginals are said the only indigenous people yet to have developed the simple bow or bow and arrow; while the neighbouring, and related, indigenous people of Tasmania, isolated from the Australian mainland by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age but usually classed as of the same race, are said to have lacked even, arguably, the ability to make fire.

However, this is not what Baker means by referring to Aboriginals as “primitive”. Indeed, unlike his later chapters on black Africans, Baker says nothing regarding the technology or culture of indigenous Australians.

Instead, he talks exclusively about their morphology. In referring to them as “primitive”, Baker is therefore using the word in the specialist phylogenetic sense. Thus, he argues that Australian Aboriginals:

Retain… physical characters that were possessed by remote ancestors but have been lost in the course of evolution by most members of the taxa that are related to it” (p272-3).

In other words, they retain traits characteristic of an earlier state of human evolution which have since been lost in other extant races.

Baker purports to identify twenty-eight such “primitive” characters in Australian aboriginals. These include prognathism (p281), large teeth (p289), broad noses (p282), and large brow ridges (p280).

Baker acknowledges that all extant races retain some primitive characters that have been lost in other races (p302). For example, unlike most other races (but not Aboriginals), Caucasoids retain scalp hair characteristic of early hominids and indeed other extant primates (p297).

However, Baker concludes:

The Australids are exceptional in the number and variety of their primitive characters and in the degree to which some of them are manifested” (p302).

Relatedly, Nicholas Wade observes that, whereas there is a general trend towards lighter and less robust bones and skulls over the course of human evolution, something referred to as gracialization, two populations at “the extremities of the human diaspora” seem to have been exempt, or isolated, from this process, namely Aboriginals and the “Fuegians at the tip of the South America” (A Troublesome Inheritance: p167-8).[35]

Of course, to be morphologically ‘primitive’ in this specialist phylogenetic sense entails no necessary pejorative imputations as are often associated with the word ‘primitive’.

However, some phylogentically primitive traits may indeed be indicative of primitive’ technology of indigenous Aboriginals at the time of first contact with Europeans.

For example, tooth size decreased over the course of human evolution as human invented technologies (e.g. cooking, tools for cutting) that made large teeth unnecessary. On this view, the relatively large size of Aboriginal teeth could be associated with the primitive state of their technology.

More obviously, phylogentically primitive brains obviously do imply lesser intelligence, given the increase in human brain size and intelligence that has occurred over the course of human evolution.

Thus, Aboriginals have, on average, Baker reports, smaller brains than those of Caucasians, weighing only about 85% as much (p292). The smaller average brain-size of Aboriginals is confirmed by more recent data (Beals et al 1984).

Baker also reviews some suggestive evidence regarding the internal structure of Aboriginal brains, as compared to that of Europeans, notably in the relative positioning of the lunate sulcus, again suggesting similarities with the brains of non-human primates.

In this sense, then, Australian Aboriginals ‘primitive’ brains may indeed be linked to the primitive state, in the more familiar sense of the word ‘primitive’, of their technology and culture.

San Bushmen and Paedomorphy

Whereas Australian Aboriginals are morphologically “primitive” (i.e. retain characters of early hominids), the San Bushmen of Southern Africa (“Sanids”), together with the related Khoi (collectively Khoisan, or, in racial terms, Capoid) are, Baker contends, paedomorphic.

By this, Baker means that the San people retain into adulthood traits that are, in other taxa, restricted to infants or juveniles, and is more often referred to as neoteny.[36]

One example of this supposed paedomorphy is provided by the genitalia of the Sanid males:

The penis, when not erect, maintains an almost horizontal position… This feature is scarcely ever omitted in the rock art of the Bushmen, in their stylized representations of their own people. The prepuce is very long; it covers the glans completely and projects forward to a point. The scrotum is drawn up close to the root of the penis, giving the appearance that only one testis has descended, and that incompletely” (p319).[37]

Humans in general are known to be neotenous in many of our distinct characters, and we are also, of course, the most intelligent known species.[38] However, Baker argues:

Although mankind as a whole is paedomorphous, those ethnic taxa (the Sanids among them) that are markedly more paedomorphious than the rest have never achieved the status of civilization, or anything approaching it, by their own initiative. It would seem that, when carried beyond a certain point, paedomorphosis is antagonistic to purely intellectual advance” (p324).

As to why this might be the case, he speculates in a later chapter:

Certain taxa have remained primitive or become paedomorphous in their general morphological characters and none of these has succeeded in developing a civilization. It is among these taxa in particular that one finds some indication of a possible cause of mental inferiority in the small size of the brain” (p428).

Yet this is a curious suggestion since neoteny is usually associated with increased brain growth in humans.

Moreover, other authorities class East Asians as a paedomorphic race, yet they have undoubtedly founded great civilizations and have brains as large as, or, after controlling for body-size, even larger than those of Europeans, and are generally reported to have somewhat higher IQs (see Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence: which I have reviewed here).

The Big Butts of Bushmen – or just of Bushwomen?

Having discussed male genitalia, Baker also emphasizes the primary and secondary sexual characteristics of Sanid women – in particular their protruding buttocks (“steatopygia”) and alleged elongated labia.

The protruding buttocks of Sanid women are, Baker contends, qualitatively different in both shape and indeed composition from those of other populations, including the much-celebrated ‘big butts’ of contemporary African-Americans (p318).

Thus, whereas, among other populations, the shape of the buttocks, even if very large, are “rounded” in shape:

It is particular characteristic of the Khoisanids that the shape of the projecting part is that of a right-angled triangle, the upper edge being nearly horizontal … [and] internally… consist of masses of fat incorporated between criss-crossed sheets of connective tissue said to be joined to one another in a regular manner.

Regarding the function of these enlarged buttocks, Baker rejects any analogy with the humps of the camel, which evolved as reserves of fat upon which the animal could call in the event of famine or draught.

Unlike camels, which are, of course, adapted to a desert environment, Baker concludes:

The Hottentots, Korana, and Bushmen are not to be regarded as people adapted by natural selection to desert life” (p318).

However, today, San Bushmen are indeed largely restricted to a desert environment, namely the Kalahari desert.

However, although he does not directly discuss this, Baker presumably regards this as a recent displacement, resulting from the Bantu expansion, in the course of which the less advanced San were displaced from their traditional hunting grounds in southern Africa by Bantu agriculturalists, and permitted to eke out an undisturbed existence only in an arid desert environment of no use to Bantu agriculturalists.

Instead of having evolved as fat reserves in the event of famine, drought or scarcity, Baker instead suggests that Khoisan buttocks evolved through sexual selection.

This seems plausible, given the sexual appeal of ‘big butts even among western populations. However, recent research suggest that it is actually lumbar curvature, or lordosis, an ancient mammalian mating signal, rather than fat deposits in the buttocks as such, that is primarily responsible for the perceived attractiveness of so-called ‘big butts’ (Lewis et al 2015).

This sexual selection hypothesis is, of course, also consistent with the fact that large buttocks among the San seem to be largely, if not entirely, restricted to women.

However, Carleton Coon, in Racial Adaptations: A Study of the Origins, Nature, and Significance of Racial Variations in Humans, suggests alternatively that this sexual dimorphism could instead reflect the caloric requirements of pregnancy and lactation.[39]

The caloric demands of pregnancy and lactation are indeed the probable reason women of all races have greater fat deposits than do males.

Indeed, an analogy might be provided by female breasts, since these, unlike the mammary glands of other mammalian species, are present permanently, from puberty on, and, save during pregnancy and lactation, are composed predominantly of fatty tissues, not milk.[40]

Elusive Elongated Labia?

In addition to their enlarged buttocks, Baker also discusses the alleged elongated labia of Sanid women, sometimes referred to, rather inaccurately in Baker’s view, as the “the Hottentot apron”.

Some writers have discounted this notion as a sort of nineteenth-century anthropological myth. However, Baker himself insists that the elongated labia of the San are indeed real.

His evidence, however, is less than compelling, the illustrations included in the text being limited to a full-body photograph in which the characteristic is barely visible (p311) and what seems to be a surely rather fanciful sketch (p315).

Likewise, although a Google image search produces abundant photographic evidence of Khoisan buttocks, their elongated labia prove altogether more elusive.

Perhaps the modesty of Khoisan women, or the prudery and puritanism of Victorian anthropologists and explorers, prevented the latter from recording photographic evidence for this characteristic.

However, it is perhaps telling that, even in this age of Rule 34 of the Internet (If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions), I have been unable to find photographic evidence for this trait.

Racial Superiority

The fourth and final section of ‘Race’ turns to the most controversial topic addressed by Baker in this most controversial of books, namely whether any racial group can be said to be superior or inferior to another, a question that Baker christens “the Ethnic Question”.

He begins by critiquing the very nature of the notion of superiority and inferiority, observing in a memorable and quotable aphorism:

Anyone who accepts it as a self-evident truth, in accordance with the American Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal may properly be asked whether the meaning of the word ‘equal’ is self-evident” (p421).

Thus, if one is “concerned simply with the question whether the taxa are similar or different”, then, Baker concludes, “there can be no doubt as to the answer” (p421).

Indeed, this much is clear, not simply from the huge amount of data assembled by Baker himself in previous chapters, but also from simple observation.[41]

However, Baker continues:

The words ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ are not generally used unless value judgements are concerned” (p421).

Any value judgement is, of course, necessarily subjective.

On objective criteria, each race can only be said to be, on average, superior in a specific endeavour (e.g. IQ tests, basketball, mugging, pimping, drug-dealing, tanning, building civilizations). The value to be ascribed to these endeavours is, however, wholly subjective.

On these grounds, contemporary self-styled ‘race realists’ typically disclaim any association between their theories and any notions of racial superiority.

Yet these race realists are often the very same individuals who emphasise the predictive power of IQ tests in determining many social outcomes (income, criminality, illegitimacy, welfare dependency) which are generally viewed in anything but value-neutral terms (see The Bell Curve: which I have reviewed here; here and here).

From a biological perspective, no species (or subspecies) is superior to any other. Each is adapted to its own ecological niche and hence presumably superior at surviving and reproducing within the specific environment in which it evolved.

Thus, sociobiologist Robert Trivers quotes his mentor Bill Drury as observing during a discussion between the two regarding a possible biological basis for race prejudice:

Bob, once you’ve learnt to think of a herring gull as equal, the rest is easy” (Natural Selection and Social Theory: p57).

However, taken to its logical conclusion, or reductio ad absurdum, this suggests a dung beetle is equal to Beethoven!

From Physiology to Psychology

Although he alludes in passing to race differences in athletic ability, Baker, in discussing superiority, is concerned primarily with intellectual and moral achievement. Therefore, in this final section of the book, he turns from physiological differences to psychological ones.

Of course, the two are not entirely unconnected. All behaviour must have an ultimate basis in the brain, which is itself a part of an organism’s physiology. Thus:

Cranial capacity is, of course, directly relevant to the ethnic problem since it sets a limit to the size of the brain in different taxa; but all morphological differences are also relevant in an indirect way, since it is scarcely possible that any taxa could be exactly the same as one another in all the genes that control the development and function of the nervous and sensory systems, yet so different from one another in structural characters in other parts of the body” (p533-4).

Indeed, Baker observes:

Identity in habits is unusual even in pairs of taxa that are morphologically much more similar to one another than [some human races]. The subspecies of gorilla, for instance, are not nearly so different from one another as Sanids are from Europids, but they differ markedly in their modes of life” (426).

In other words, since human races differ significantly in their physiology, it is probable that they will also differ, to a roughly equivalent degree, in psychological traits, such as intelligence, temperament and personality.

Measuring Superiority?

In discussing the question of the intellectual and moral superiority of different racial groups, Baker focusses on two lines of evidence in particular:

  1. Different races’ performance in ability and attainment tests;
  2. Different races’ historical track record in founding civilizations.

Baker’s discussion of the former topic is now rather dated.

Recent findings unavailable to Baker include the discovery that East Asians score somewhat higher on IQ tests than do white Europeans (see Race Differences in Intelligence: reviewed here), and also that Ashkenazi Jews score higher still (see The Chosen People: review forthcoming).[42]

Evidence has also accumulated regarding the question of the relative contributions of heredity to racial differences in IQ, including the Minnesota transracial study (Scarr & Weinberg 1976; Weinberg et al 1992) and studies of the effects of racial admixture on IQ using blood-group data (Loehlin et al 1973; Scarr et al 1977), and, most recently, genome analysis (Lasker et al 2019). See also my review of Richard Lynns Race Difference in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Perspective’, posted here.

Readers interested in more recent research on this issue should consult Jensen and Rushton (2005) and Nisbett (2005), or Nicholas Mackintosh’s summary in Chapter Thirteen of his textbook, IQ and Human Intelligence (2nd Ed) (pp324-359).[43]

Criteria for Civilization and Moral Relativism

While his data on race differences in IQ is therefore now dated, Baker’s discussion of the track-record of different races in founding civilizations remains of interest today, if only because this is a topic studiously avoided by most contemporary authors, historians and anthropologists on account of its politically-incorrect nature – though Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, represents an important recent exception to this trend.[44]

The first question, of course, is precisely how one is to define ‘civilizations’ in the first place, itself a highly contentious issue.[45]

Thus, Baker identifies twenty-one criteria for recognising civilizations (p507-8).[46]

In general, these can be divided into two types:

  1. Scientific/technological criteria;
  2. Moral criteria.[47]

However, the latter are inherently problematic. What constitutes moral superiority itself involves a moral judgement that is necessarily subjective.

In other words, whereas technological and scientific superiority can be demonstrated objectively, moral superiority is a mere matter of opinion.

Thus, the ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our technology – and, if they did not, we would, as a consequence of the superiority of our technology, outcompete them both economically and militarily and hence prove it ourselves.

However, they would view our social, moral and political values as decadent and we would have no way of proving them wrong.

Take, for example, Baker’s first requirement for civilization, namely that:

In the ordinary circumstances of life in public places they [i.e. members of the society under consideration] cover the external genitalia and greater part of the trunk with clothes” (p507).

This criterium is not only curiously puritanical, but also blatantly biased against tropical cultures. Whereas in temperate and arctic zones clothing is essential for survival, in the tropics the decision to wear clothing represents little more than an arbitrary fashion choice.

Meanwhile, the requirement that the people in question “do not practice severe mutilation or deformation of the body”, another moral criterion, could arguably exclude contemporary westerners from the ranks of the ranks of the civilized’, given the increasing prevalence of tattooing, flesh tunnel ear plugs and other forms of extreme bodily modification – or perhaps it is merely those among us who succumb to such fads who are not truly civilized.

The requirement that a civilization’s religious beliefs not be “purely or grossly superstitious” (p507) is also problematic. As a confirmed atheist, I suspect that all religions are, by very definition, superstitious. If some forms of Buddhism and Confucianism are perhaps exceptions, then they are perhaps simply not religions at all in the western sense.

At any rate, Christian beliefs  regarding miracles, resurrection, the afterlife, the Holy Spirit and so on surely rival those of any other religion when it comes to “gross superstition”.

As for his complaint that the religion of the Mayansdid not enter into the fields of ethics” (p526), a complaint he also raises in respect of indigenous black African religions (p384), contemporary moral philosophers generally see this as a good thing, believing that religion is best kept of moral debates.[48]

In conclusion, any person seeking to rank cultures on moral criteria will, almost inevitably, rank his own society as morally superior to all others – simply because he is judging these societies by the moral standards of his own society that he has internalized and adopted as his own.

Thus, Baker himself views Western civilization as superior to such pre-Columbian mesoamerican civilizations as the Aztecs due to the latter’s practice of mass ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism (p524-5).

However, in doing so, he is judging the cultures in question by distinctly Western moral standards. The Aztecs, in contrast, may have viewed human sacrifice as a moral imperative and may therefore have viewed European cultures as morally deficient precisely because they did not butcher enough of their people in order to propitiate the gods.

Likewise, whereas Baker views cannibalism as incompatible with civilization (p507), I personally view cannibalism as, of itself, a victimless crime. A dead person, being dead, is incapable of suffering by virtue of being eaten. Indeed, in this secular age of environmental consciousness, one might even praise cannibalism as a highly ‘sustainable’ form of recycling.

Sub-Saharan African Cultures

Baker’s discussion of different groups’ capacity for civilization actually begins before his final section on “Criteria for Superiority and Inferiority” in his four chapters on the race whom Baker terms Negrids – namely, black Africans from south of the Sahara, excluding Khoisan and Pygmies (p325-417).

Whereas his previous chapters discussing specific selected human populations focussed primarily, or sometimes exclusively, on their morphological peculiarities, in the last four of these chapters, focussing on African blacks, his focus shifts from morphology to culture.

Thus, Baker writes:

The physical characters of the Negrids are mentioned only briefly. Members of this race are studied in Chapters 18-21 mainly from the point of view of the social anthropologist interested in their progress towards civilization at a time when they were still scarcely influenced over a large part of their territory, by direct contact with members of more advanced ethnic taxa” (p184).

Unlike some racialist authors,[49] Baker acknowledges the widespread adoption of advanced technologies throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa prior to modern times. However, he attributes the adoption of these technologies to contact with, and borrowings from, outside non-Negroid civilizations (e.g. Arabs, Egyptians, Moors, Berbers, Europeans).

Therefore, in order to distinguish the indigenous, homegrown capacity of black Africans to develop advanced civilization, Baker relies on the reports of seven nineteenth century explorers of what he terms “the secluded area” of Africa, by which term Baker seems to mean the bulk of inland Southern, Eastern and Central Africa, excluding the Horn of Africa, the coast of West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea (p334-5).[50]

In these parts of Africa, at the time these early European explorers visited the continent, the influence of outside civilizations was, Baker reports, “non-existent or very slight” (p335). The cultural practices observed by these explorers therefore, for Baker, provide a measure of black Africans indigenous capacity for social, cultural and technological advancement.

On this perhaps dubious basis, Baker thus concludes that there is no evidence black Africans ever:

  • Fully domesticated any plants (354-6) or animals (p373-7); or
  • Invented the wheel (p373); or other ‘mechanical’ devices with interacting parts (p354).[51]

Also largely absent throughout ‘the secluded area’, according to Baker, were:

In respect of these last two indices of civilization, however, Baker admits a couple of partial, arguable exceptions, which he discusses in the next chapter (Chapter 21). These include the ruins of Great Zimbabwe (p401-9) and a script invented in the nineteenth century (p409-11).[52]

Domesticated Plants and Animals in Africa

Let’s review these claims in turn. First, it certainly seems to be true that few if any species of either animals or plants were domesticated in what Baker calls the “the secluded area” of sub-Saharan Africa.[53]

However, with respect to plants, there may be a reason for this. Many important, early domesticates were annuals. These are plants that complete their life-cycle within a single year, taking advantage of predictable seasonal variations in the weather.

As explained by Jared Diamond, annual plants are ideal for human consumption, and for domestication, because:

Within their mere one year of life, annual plants inevitably remain small herbs. Many of them instead put their energy into producing big seeds, which remain dormant during the dry season and are then ready to sprout when the rains come. Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes. But many of the big seeds… are edible by humans. They constitute 6 of the modern world’s 12 major crops” (Guns, Germs and Steel: p136).

Yet sub-Saharan Africa, being located closer to the equator, experiences less seasonal variation in climate. As a result, relatively fewer plants are annuals.

However, it is far less easy to explain why why sub-Saharan Africans failed to domesticate any wild species of animal, with the possible exception of guineafowl.[54]

After all, Africa is popular as a tourist destination today in part precisely because it has a relative abundance of large wild mammals of the sort seemingly well suited for domestication.[55]

Jared Diamond argues that the African zebra, a close relative of other wild equids that were domesticated, was undomesticable because of its aggression and what Diamond terms its nasty disposition” (Guns, Germs and Steel: p171-2).[56]

However, this is unconvincing when one considers that Eurasians succeeded in domesticating such formidably powerful and aggressive wild species as wolves and aurochs.[57]

Thus, even domesticated bulls remain a physically-formidable and aggressive animal. Indeed, they were favoured adversaries in blood sports such as bullfighting and bull-baiting for precisely this reason.

However, the wild auroch, from whom modern cattle derive, was undoubtedly even more formidable, being, not only larger, more muscled and with bigger horns, but also surely even more aggressive than modern bulls. After all, one of the key functions of domestication is to produce more docile animals that are more amenable to control by human agriculturalists.[58]

Compared to the domestication of aurochs, the domestication of the zebra would seem almost straight forward. Indeed, the successful domestication of aurochs in ancient times might even cause us to reserve our judgement regarding the domesticability of such formidable African mammals as hippos and African buffalo, the possibility of whose domestication Diamond dismisses a priori as preposterous.

Certainly, the domestication of the auroch surely stands as one of the great achievements of ancient Man.

Reinventing the Wheel?

Baker also seems to be correct in his claim that black Africans never invented the wheel.

However, it must be borne in mind that the same is also true of white Europeans. Instead, Europeans simply copied the design of the wheel from other civilizations and peoples, namely those from the Middle East, probably Mesopotamia, where the wheel first seems to be have been developed.

Indeed, most cultures with access to the wheel never actually invented it themselves, for the simple reason that it is far easier to copy the invention of a third-party through simple reverse engineering than to independently invent afresh an already existing technology all by oneself.

This then explains why the wheel has actually been independently invented, at most, only a few times in history.

The real question, then, is not why the wheel was never invented in sub-Saharan Africa, but rather why it failed to spread throughout that continent in the same way it did throughout Eurasia.

Thus, if the wheel was known, as Baker readily acknowledges it was, in those parts of sub-Saharan Africa that were in contact with outside civilizations (notably in the Horn of Africa), then this raises the question as to why it failed to spread elsewhere in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans. This indeed is acknowledged to remain a major enigma within the field of African history and archaeology (Law 2011; Chavez et al 2012).

After all, there are no obvious insurmountable geographical barriers preventing the spread of technologies across Africa other than the Sahara itself, and, as Baker himself acknowledges, black Africans in the ‘penetrated’ area had proven amply capable of imitating technological advances introduced from outside.

Why then did the wheel not spread across Africa in the same way it did across Eurasia? Is it possible that African people’s alleged cognitive deficiencies were responsible for the failure of this technology to spread and be copied, since the ability to copy technologies through reverse engineering itself requires some degree of intellectual ability, albeit less than that required for original innovation?

One might argue instead that the African terrain was unsuitable for wheeled transport. However, one of the markers of civilization is surely its very ability to alter the terrain by large, cooperative public works engineering projects, such as the building of roads.

Thus, most of Eurasia is now suitable for wheeled transport in large part only because we, or more specifically our ancestors, have made it so.

Another explanation sometimes offered for the failure of African to develop wheeled transportation is that they lacked a suitable draft animal, horses being afflicted with sleeping sickness spread by the tsetse fly.

However, as we have seen above, Baker argues a race’s track record in successfully domesticating wild animals is itself indicative of the intellectual ability and character of that race. For Baker, then, the failure of sub-Saharan African to successfully domesticate any suitable species of potential draft animal (e.g. the zebra) is itself indicative of, and a factor in, their inability to successfully develop advanced civilization.

At any rate, even in the absence of a suitable draft animal, wheels are still useful (e.g. wheel barrows, pulled rickshaws; also the potter’s wheel).

After all, humans can themselves be employed as a draft animal, whether by choice or by force, and, if there is one arguable marker for civilization for which Africa did not lack, and which did not await introduction by Europeans, Moors and Arabs, it was, of course, the institution of slavery.

African Writing Systems?

What then of the alleged failure of sub-Saharan Africans to develop a system of writing? Baker refers to only a single writing system indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, namely the Vai syllabary, invented in what is today Liberia in the nineteenth century in imitation of foreign scripts. Was this indeed the only writing system indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa?

Of course, writing has long been known in North Africa, and ancient Egypt even lays claim to have invented the first written script, namely hieroglyphs, although most archaeologists believe that they were beaten to the gun, once again, by Mesopotamia, with its cuneiform script.

However, this is obviously irrelevant to the question of black African civilization, since the populations of North Africa, including the ancient Egyptians, were largely Caucasoid.[59]

Thus, the Sahara Desert, as a relatively impassable obstacle to human movement throughout most of human history and prehistory (a geographic filter”, according to Sarich and Miele) that hence impeded gene flow, has long represented, and to some extent still represents, the boundary between the Caucasoid and Negroid races (Race: The Reality of Human Differences: p210).

What then of writing systems indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa? The wikipedia entry on writing systems of Africa lists several indigenous African writing systems of sub-Saharan Africa.

However, save for those of recent origin, almost all of these writing systems seem, from the descriptions on their respective wikipedia pages, to have been restricted to areas outside of ‘the secluded area’ of Africa as defined by Baker (p334-5).

Thus, excluding the writing systems of North Africa (i.e. Meroitic, Tifinagh and  ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs), Geze seems to have been restricted to the area around the Horn of Africa; Nsibidi to the area around the Gulf of Guinea in modern Nigeria; Adrinka to the coast of West Africa, while the other scripts mentioned in the entry are, like the Vai syllabary, of recent origin.

The only ancient writing system mentioned on this wikipedia page that was found in what Baker calls ‘the secluded area’ of Africa is Lusona. This seems to have been developed deep in the interior of sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of what is today eastern Angola, north-western Zambia and adjacent areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus, it is almost certainly of entirely indigenous origin.

However, Lusona is described by its wikipedia article as only an ideographic tradition, that function[s] as mnemonic devices to help remember proverbs, fables, games, riddles and animals, and to transmit knowledge”.

It therefore appears to fall far short of a fully developed script in the modern sense.

Indeed, the same seems to be true, albeit to a lesser extent, of most of the indigenous writing systems of sub-Saharan Africa listed on the wikipedia page, namely Nsibidi and Adrinka, which each seem to represent only a form of proto-writing.

Only Geze seems to have been a fully-developed script, and this was used only in the Horn of Africa, which not only lies outside ‘the secluded area’ as defined by Baker, but whose population is, again according to Baker, predominantly Caucasoid (p225).

Also, Geze seems to have developed from an earlier Middle Eastern script. It is therefore not of entirely indigenous African origin.

It therefore seems to indeed be true that sub-Saharan Africans never produced a fully-developed script in those parts of Africa where they developed beyond the influence of foreign empires.

However, it must here be emphasized that the same is again probably also true of indigenous Europeans.

Thus, as with the wheel, Europeans themselves probably never independently invented a writing system, the Latin alphabet being derived from Greek script, which was itself developed from the Phoenician alphabet, which, like the wheel, first originated in the Middle East.[60]

Indeed, most writing systems were developed, if not directly from, then at least in imitation of, pre-existing scripts. Like the wheel, writing has only been independently reinvented afresh a few times in history.[61]

The question, then, as with the wheel, is, not so much why much of sub-Saharan Africa failed to invent a written script, but rather why those written scripts that were in use in certain parts of the continent south of the Sahara,  nevertheless failed to spread or be imitated over the remainder of that continent.

African Culture: Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, it certainly seems clear that much of sub-Saharan Africa was indeed backward in those aspects of technology, social structure and culture which Baker identifies as the key components of civilization. This much is true and demands an explanation.

However, blanket statements regarding the failure of sub-Saharan Africans to develop a writing system or two-storey buildings seem, at best, a misleading simplification.

Indeed, Baker’s very notion of what he calls ‘the secluded area’ of Africa is vague and ill-defined, and he never provides a clear definition, or, better still, a map precisely delineating what he means by the term (p334-5).

Indeed, the very notion of a ‘secluded area’ is arguably misconceived, since even relatively remote and isolated areas of the continent that did not have any direct contact with non-Negroid peoples, will presumably have had some indirect influence from outside of sub-Saharan Africa, if only by contact with peoples from those regions of the continent south of the Sahara which had been influenced by foreign peoples and civilizations.

After all, as we have seen, Europeans also failed to independently develop either the wheel or a writing system for themselves, instead simply copying these innovations from the neighbouring civilizations of the Middle East.

Why then were black Africans south of the Sahara, who were indeed exposed to these technologies in certain parts of their territory, nevertheless unable to do the same?

Pre-Columbian Native American Cultures

Baker’s discussion of status of the pre-Columbian civilizations, or putative civilizations, of America is especially interesting. Of these, the Mayans definitely stand out, in Baker’s telling, as the most impressive in terms of their scientific and technological achievements.

Baker ultimately concludes, however, that even the Maya do not qualify as a true civilization, largely on moral grounds – namely, their practice of mass sacrifices and cannibalism.

Yet, as we have seen, this is to judge the Mayans by distinctly western moral standards.

No doubt if western cultures were to be judged by the moral values of the Mayans, we too would be judged just as harshly. Perhaps they would condemn us precisely for not massacring enough of our citizens in order to propitiate the gods.

However, even seeking to rank the Mayans based solely on their technological and scientific achievements, they still represent something of a paradox.

On the one hand, their achievements in mathematics and astronomy were impressive.

Baker educates us that it is was Mayans, not the Hindus or Arabs more often credited with the innovation, who first invented the concept of zero – or rather, to put the matter more precisely, “invent[ed] a ‘local value’ (or ‘place notational’) system of numeration that involved zero: that is to say, a system in which the value of each numberical symbol depended on its position in a series of such symbols, and the zero, if required, took its place in this series ” (p552).

Thus, Baker writes:

The Maya had invented the idea [of zero] and applied it to their vegisimal system [i.e. using a base of twenty] before the Indian mathematicians had thought of it and used it in denary [i.e. decimal] notation” (p522).[62]

Thus, Baker concludes:

The mathematics, astronomy, and calendar of the Middle Americans suggest unqualified acceptance into the ranks of the civilized” (p525).

However, on the other hand, according to Baker’s account:

They had no weights… no metal-bladed hoes or spades and no wheels (unless a few toys were actually provided with wheels and really formed part of the Mayan culture)” (p524).

Yet, as Baker alludes to in his rather disparaging reference to “a few toys”, it now appears the these toys were indeed part of the Maya culture.

Thus, far from failing to invent the wheel, Native Americans are one of the few peoples in the world with an unambiguous claim to having indeed invented the wheel entirely independently, since the possibility of wheels being introduced through contact with Eurasian civilizations is exceedingly remote.

Thus, the key question is, not why Native American civilizations failed to invent the wheel, for they did indeed invent the wheel, but rather why they failed to make full use of this remarkably useful invention, seemingly only employing it for seemingly frivolous items resembling toys (but whose real purpose is unknown) rather than for transport, or indeed ceramics.

Terrain may have been a factor. As mentioned above, one of the markers of a true civilization is arguably its very ability to alter its terrain by large-scale engineering projects such as the building of roads. However, obviously some terrains pose greater difficulties in this respect, and the geography of mesoamerica is particularly uninviting.

As in respect of sub-Saharan Africa, another factor sometimes cited is the absence of a draft animal. The Inca, but not the Aztecs and Maya, did have the llama. However, llama are not strong enough to carry humans, or to pull large carts.

Of course, for Baker, as we have seen, the domestication of suitable species of non-human animal is itself indicative of a peoples capacity for advanced civilization.

However, in the Americas, most large wild mammals of the sort possibly suited for domestication as a draft animal were wiped out by the first humans to arrive on the continent, the latter having evolved in isolation from humans, and hence being completely evolutionarily unprepared for the sudden influx of humans with their formidable hunting skills.[63]

However, as noted in respect of Africa, the wheel is useful even in the absence of a draft animal, since humans themselves can be employed for this purpose (e.g. the wheel barrow and pulled rickshaw).

As for the Mayan script, this was also, according to Baker, quite limited. Thus, Baker reports:

There was no way of writing verbs, and abstract ideas (apart from number) could not be inscribed. It would not appear that the technique even of the Maya lent itself to a narrative form, except in a very limited sense. Most of the Middle Americans conveyed non-calendrical information only by speech or by the display of a series of paintings” (p524).

Indeed, he reports that “nearly all their inscriptions were concerned with numbers and the calendar” (p524).

The Middle Americans had nothing that could properly be called a narrative script” (p523-4).

Baker vs Diamond: The Rematch

However,departing from Baker’s conclusions, I regard the achievements of the Mesoamerican civilizations as, overall, quite impressive.

This is especially so, not only when one takes into account, not only their complete isolation from the Old World civilizations of Eurasia, but also of other factors identified by Jared Diamond in his rightly-acclaimed Guns, Germs and Steel.

Thus, whereas Eurasia is oriented largely on an east-to-west axis, spreading from China and Japan in the East, to western Europe and North Africa in the West, America is a tall, narrow continent that spreads instead from north-to-south, quite narrow in places, especially at the Isthmus of Panama, where the North American continent meets South America, which, at the narrowest point, is less than fifty miles across. 

As Diamond emphasizes, because climate varies with latitude (i.e. distance from the equator), this means that different parts of the Americas have very different climates, making the movement and transfer of crops, domesticated animals and people much more difficult.

This, together with the difficulty of the terrain, might explain why even the Incas and Aztecs, though contemporaraneous, seem to have been largely if not wholly unaware of one another’s existence, and certainly had no direct contact.

As a result, Native American cultures developed, not only in complete isolation from Old World civilizations, but even largely in isolation even from one another.

Moreover, the Americas had few large domesticable mammals, almost certainly because the first settlers of the continent, on arriving, hunted them to extinction on first arrival, and the mammals, having evolved in complete isolation from humans, were entirely unprepared for the arrival of humans, with their formidable hunting skills, to whom they were wholly unadapted.

In these conditions, the achievements of the Mesoamerican civilizations, especially the Mayans, seem to me quite impressive, all things considered – certainly far more impressive than the achievements of, say, sub-Saharan Africans or Australian Aboriginals.

If these latter groups can then indeed be determined to possess lesser innate intellectual capacity as compared to, say, Europeans or East Asians, then I feel it is premature to say the same of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Artistic Achievement

In addition to ranking cultures on scientific, technological and moral criteria, Baker also assesses the quality of their artwork (p378-81; p411-17; p545-549). However, judgements of artistic quality, like moral judgements, are necessarily subjective.

Thus, Baker disparages black African art as non-naturalistic (p381) yet also extols the decorative art of the Celtics, which is mostly non-figurative and abstract (p261-2).

However, interestingly, with regard to styles of music, Baker recognises the possibility of cultural bias, suggesting that European explorers, looking for European-style melody and harmony, failed to recognise the rhythmical qualities of African music which are, Baker remarks, perhaps unequalled in the music of any other race of mankind (p379).[64]

A Reminder of What Was Possible”?

The fact that Race’ remains a rewarding some read forty years after first publication, is an indictment of the hold of politically-correctness over both science and the publishing industry.

In the intervening years, despite all the advances of molecular genetics, the scientific understanding of race seems to have progressed but little, impeded by political considerations.

Meanwhile, the study of morphological differences between races seems to have almost entirely ceased, and a worthy successor to Baker’s ‘Race’, incorporating the latest genetic data, has, to my knowledge, yet to be published.

At the conclusion of the first section of his book, dealing with what Baker calls “The Historical Background”, Baker, bemoaning the impact of censorship and what would today be called political correctness and cancel culture on both science and the publishing industry, recommends the chapter on race from a textbook published in 1928 (namely, Contemporary Sociological Theories by Pitirim Sorokin) as “well worth reading”, even then, over forty years later, if only “as a reminder of what was still possible before the curtain went down” (p61).

Today, some forty years after Baker penned these very words and as the boundaries of acceptable opinion have narrowed yet further, I recommend Baker’s ‘Race’ in much the same spirit – as both an historical document and “a reminder of what was possible”.



[1] Genetic studies often allow us distinguish homology from analogy, because the same or similar traits in different populations often evolve through different genetic mutations. For example, Europeans and East Asians evolved lighter complexions after leaving Africa, in part, by mutations in different genes (Norton et al 2007). Similarly, lactase persistence has evolved through mutations in different genes in Europeans than among some sub-Saharan Africans (Tishkoff et al 2009). Of course, at least in theory, the same mutation in the same gene could occur in different populations, thus providing an example of convergent evolution even at the genetic level. However, with the analysis of a large number of genetic loci, especially in non-coding DNA, where mutations are unlikely to be selected for or against and hence are lost or retained at random in different populations, this problem is unlikely to lead to errors in determining the relatedness of populations. 

[2] In his defence, the Ainu are not one of the groups upon whom Baker focuses in his discussion, and are only mentioned briefly in passing (p158; p173; p424) and at the very end of the book, in his “Table of Races and Subraces”, where he attempts to list, and classify by race, all the groups mentioned in the book, howsoever briefly (p624-5).

[3] Although we no longer need to rely on morphological criteria in order to determine the relatedness between populations, differences between racial groups in morphology and bodily structure remain an interesting, and certainly a legitimate, subject for scientific study in their own right. Unfortunately, however, the study and measurement of such differences seems to have all but ceased among anthropologists. One result is that much of the data on these topics is quite old. Thus, HBDers, Baker included, are sometimes criticized for citing studies published in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century. In principle, there is, however, nothing wrong with citing data from the nineteenth or early-twentieth century, unless critics can show that the methodology adopted have subsequently been shown to be flawed. However, it must be acknowledged that the findings of such studies with respect to morphology may no longer apply to modern populations, as a result of recent population movements and improvements in health and nutrition, among other factors. At any rate, the reason for the paucity of recent data is the taboo associated with such research.

[4] This is a style of formatting I have not encountered elsewhere. It makes it difficult to bring oneself to skip over the material rendered in smaller typeface since it is right there in the main body of the text, and indeed Baker himself claims that this material is “more technical and more detailed than the rest (but not necessarily less interesting)” (pix).

[5] Yet another source of potential terminological confusion results from the fact that, as will be apparent from many passages from the book quoted in this review, Baker uses the word “ethnic” to refer to differences that would better to termed “racial” – i.e. when referring to biologically-inherited physical and morphological differences between populations. Thus, for example, he uses the term “ethnic taxon” as “a comprehensive term that can be used without distinction for any of the taxa that are minor to species: that is to say, races, subraces and local forms” (p4). Similarly, he uses the phrase “the ethnic problem” to refer to the “whole subject of equality and inequality among the ethnic taxa of man” (p6). However, as Baker acknowledges, “English words derived from the Greek ἔθνος (ethnic, ethnology, ethnography, and others) are used by some authors in reference to groups of mankind distinguished by cultural or national features, rather than descent from common ancestors” (p4). However, in defending his adoption of this term, he notes “this usage is not universal” (p4). This usage has, I suspect, become even more prevalent in the years since the publication of Bakers book. However, in my experience, the term ethnic’ is sometimes also used as politically correct euphemism for the word ‘race’, both colloquially and in academia.

[6] In both cases, the source of potential confusion is the same, since both terms, though referring to a race, are derived from geographic terms (Europe and the Caucasus region, respectively), yet the indigenous homelands of the races in question are far from identical to the geographic region referred to by the term. The term Asian, when used as an ethnic or racial descriptor, is similarly misleading. For example, in British-English, Asian, as an ethnic term, usually refers to South Asians, since South Asians form a larger and more visible minority ethnic group in the UK than do East Asians. However, in the USA, the term Asian is usually restricted to East Asians and Southeast Asians – i.e. those formerly termed Mongoloid. The British-English usage is more geographically correct, but racially misleading, since populations of the Indian subcontinent, like those from the Middle East (also part of the Asian continent) are actually genetically closer to southern Europeans than to East Asians and were generally classed as Caucasian by nineteenth and early-twentieth century anthropologists, and are similarly classed by Baker himself. This is one reason that the term Mongoloid, despite pejorative connotations, remains useful.

[7] Moreover, the term Mongoloid is especially confusing given that it has also been employed to refer to people suffering from a developmental disability and chromosomal abnormality (Down Syndrome), and, while both usages are dated, and the racial meaning is actually the earlier one from which the later medical usage is derived, it is the latter usage which seems, in my experience, to retain greater currency, the word ‘Mongoloid’ being sometimes employed as a rather politically-incorrect insult, implying a mental handicap. Therefore, while I find annoying the euphemism treadmill whereby terms once quite acceptable terms (e.g. ‘negro’, ‘coloured people’) are suddenly and quite arbitrarily deemed offensive, the term ‘Mongoloid’ is, unlike these other etymologically-speaking, quite innocent terms, understandably offensive to people of East Asian descent given this dual meaning.

[8] For example, the word Asia, the source of the ethnonym, Asian, derives from the Greek Ἀσία, which originally referred only to Anatolia, at the far western edge of what would now be called Asia, the inhabitants of which region are not now, nor have ever likely been, Asian in the current American sense. Indeed, the very term Asia is a Eurocentric concept, grouping together many diverse peoples, fauna, flora and geographic zones, and whose border with Europe is quite arbitrary.

[9] The main substantive differences between the rival taxonomies of different racial theorists reflect the perennial divide between lumpers and splitters. There is also the question of precisely where the line is to be drawn between one race and another in clinal variation between groups, and whether a hybrid or clinal population sometimes constitutes a separate race in and of itself.

[10] The exact connotations of this passage may depend on the translation. Thus, other translators translate the passage that Manheim translates as The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew instead as The Jew offers the most striking contrast to the Aryan”, which alternative translation has rather different, and less flattering, connotations, given that Hitler famously extols the Aryan as the master race. The rest of the passage quoted remains, when taken in isolation, broadly flattering, however.

[11] To clarify, both Boas and Montagu are briefly mentioned in later chapters. For example, Boass now largely discredited work on cranial plasticity is discussed by Baker at the end of his chapter on ‘Physical Differences Between the Ethnic Taxa of Man: Introductory Remarks’ (p201-2). However, this is outside of Baker’s chapters on “The Historical Background”, and therefore Boas’s role in (allegedly) shaping the contemporary consensus of race denial is entirely unexplored by Baker. For discussion on this topic, see Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature; see also Chapter Two of Kevin Macdonald’s The Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here) and Chapter Three of Sarich and Miele’s Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here).

[12] Thus, there was no new scientific discovery that presaged or justified the abandonment of biological race as an important causal factor in the social and behavioural sciences. Later scientific developments, notably in genetics, were certainly later co-opted in support of this view. However, there is no coincidence in time between these two developments. Therefore, whatever the true origins of the theory of racial egalitarianism, whether one attributes it to horror at the misuse of race science by the Nazi regime, or the activism of certain influential social scientists such as Boas and Montagu, one thing is certain – namely, the abandonment, or at least increasing deemphasis, of the race category in the social and behavioural sciences was originally motivated by political rather than scientific considerations. See Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature; see also Chapter 2 of Kevin Macdonald’s Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here) and Chapter Three of Sarich and Miele’s Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here).

[13] That OUP gave up the copyright is, of course, to be welcomed, since it means, rather than gathering dust on the shelves of university libraries, while the few remaining copies still in circulation from the first printing rise in value, it has enabled certain dissident publishing houses to release new editions of this now classic work.

[14] Baker suggests that, at the time he wrote, behavioural differences between pygmy chimpanzees and other chimpanzees had yet to be demonstrated (p113-4). Today, however, pygmy chimpanzees are known to differ behaviourally from other chimps, being, among other differences, less prone to intra-specific aggression and more highly sexed. However, they are now usually referred to as bonobos rather than pygmy chimpanzees, and are recognized as a separate species from other chimpanzees, rather than a mere subspecies.

[15] This is, at least, how Baker describes this species complex and how it was traditionally understood. Researching the matter on the internet, however, suggests whether this species complex represents a true ring species is a matter of some dispute (e.g. Liebers et al 2006).

[16] In most cases of matings between sheep and goats that result in offspring, the resulting offspring are themselves usually, if not always, infertile. Moreover, actually, according to the wikipedia page on the topic, the question of when sheep and goats can ever successfully interbreed is more complex than suggested by Baker.

[17] I have found no evidence to support the assertion in some of the older nineteenth-century literature that women of lower races have difficulty birthing offspring fathered by European men, owing to the greater brain- and head-size of European infants. Summarizing this view, contemporary Russian racialist Vladimir Avdeyev in his impressively encyclopaedic Raciology: The Science of the Hereditary Traits of Peoples, claims:

The form of the skull of a child is directly connected with the characteristics of the structure of the mother’s pelvis—they should correspond to each other in the goal of eliminating death in childbirth. The mixing of the races unavoidably leads to this, because the structure of the pelvis of a mother of a different race does not correspond to the shape of the head of [the] mixed infant; that leads to complications during childbirth” (Raciology: p157).

Thus, Avdeyev claims, owing to race differences in brain size:

Women on lower races endure births very easily, sometimes even without any pain, and only in highly rare cases do they die from childbirth. But this can never be said of women of lower races who birth children of white fathers” (Raciology: p157).

Thus, he quotes an early-twentieth century Russian race theorist as claiming:

American Indian women… often die in childbirth from pregnancies with a child of mixed blood from a white father, whereas pure-blooded children within them are easily born. Many Indian women know well the dangers [associated with] a pregnancy from a white man, and therefore, they prefer a timely elimination of the consequence of cross-breeding by means of fetal expulsion, in avoidance of it” (Raciology: p157-8).

However, as noted above, I found no support for these claims in contemporary delivery room data, other than the higher rate of caesarean deliveries among Asian women birthing offspring fathered by white men, as discussed in the main body of the text above (Nystrom et al 2008).

On the contrary. far from women of lower races’ enjoying fewer birth complications, owing to the smaller head size of their offspring, data from the USA seems to indicate a somewhat higher rate of caesarean delivery among African-American women as compared to white American women (Braveman et al 1995; Edmonds et al 2013; Getahun et al 2009; Valdes 2020.

[18] Examining the effects of interracial hybridization on other traits besides fertility, there are mixed results. Thus, one study reported what the authors interpreted as a hybrid vigour effect on g-factor of general intelligence among the offspring of white-Asian unions in Hawaii, as compared to the offspring of same-race couples matched for educational and occupational levels (Nagoshi & Johnson 1986). Similarly, Lewis (2010) attributed the higher attractiveness ratings accorded to the faces of mixed-race people to heterosis. Meanwhile, another study found that height was positively correlated with the distance between the birthplaces of one’s parents, itself presumably a correlate of their relatedness (Koziel et al 2011). On the other hand, however, behavioural geneticist Glayde Whitney suggests that hybrid incompatibility may explain the worse health outcomes, and shorter average life-spans, of African Americans as compared to whites in the contemporary USA, owing to the former’s mixed African and European ancestry (Whitney 1999). One specific negative health outcome for some African-Americans resulting from a history racial admixture is also suggested by Helgadottir et al (2006). It is notable that, whereas recent studies tend to emphasize the (supposed) positive genetic effects resulting from interracial unions, the older literature tends to focus on (supposed) negative effects of interracial hybridization (see Frost 2020). No doubt this reflects the differing zeitgeister of the two ages (Provine 1976; Khan 2011c).

[19] While they did not directly interbreed with one another, both Northern Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans may, however, each have interbred, to some extent, with their immediate neighbours, who, in turn, interbred with their intermediate neighbours who may, in turn, have interbred indirectly with the other group. There may therefore have been some indirect gene flow even between distantly related populations as Northern Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans, even if no Nordic European ever encountered, let alone mated with, a black African. This creates a situation somewhat analogous to the ring species discussed above. Thus, there was probably some geneflow even across some of the geographic barriers that circumscribe and delineate the ancient boundaries of the great continental macro-races (e.g. the Sahara and the Himalayas). Indeed, there may even have been gene flow between Eurasia and the Americas at the Bering Strait. Only perhaps Australian Aboriginals may to have been completely reproductively isolated for millennia.

[20] Interestingly, while languages and cultures vary in the number of colours that they recognise and have words for, both the ordering of the colours recognised, and the approximate boundaries between different colours, seems to be cross-culturally universal. Thus, some languages have only two colour terms, which are always equivalent to ‘light’ and ‘dark’. Then, if a third colour terms is used, it is always equivalent to ‘red’. Next come either ‘green’ or ‘yellow’. Experimental attempts to teach colour terms not matching the familiar colours show that individuals learn these terms much less quickly than they do the colour familiar terms recognised in other languages. This, of course, suggests that our colour perception is both innately programmed into the mind and cross-culturally universal (see Berlin & Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution). 

[21] Indeed, as I discuss later, with respect to what Baker calls subraces, we may already have long previously passed this point, at least in Europe and North America. While morphological differences certainly continue to exist, at the aggregate, statistical level, between populations from different regions of Europe, there is such overlap, such a great degree of variation even within families, and the differences are so fluid, gradual and continuous, that I suspect such terms as the Nordic race, Alpine race, Mediterranid race and Dinaric race have likely outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had and are best retired. The differences are now best viewed as continuous and clinal.

[22] While Ethiopians and other populations from the Horn of Africa are indeed a hybrid or clinal population, representing an intermediate position between Caucasians and other black Africans, Baker perhaps goes too far in claiming:

Aethiopids (‘Eastern Hamites’ or ‘Erythriotes’) of Ethiopia and Somaliland are an essentially Europid subrace with some Negrid admixture (p225).

Thus, summarizing the findings of one study from the late-1990s, Jon Entine reports:

Ethiopians [represent] a genetic mixture of about 60 percent African and 40 percent Caucasian” (Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It: p115)

The study upon which Entine based this conclusion looked only at mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome data. More recent studies have incorporated autosomal DNA as well. However, while eschewing terms such as Caucasian’, such studies broadly confirm that there exist substantial genetic affinities between populations from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East (e.g. Ali et al 2020Khan 2011aKhan 2011bHodgson 2014).

[23] Thus, Lewontin famously showed that, when looking at individual genetic loci, most variation is within a single population, rather than between populations, or between races (Lewontin 1972). However, when looking at phenotypic traits that are caused by polygenes, it is easy to see that there are many such traits in which the variation within the group does not dwarf that between groups – for example, differences in skin colour as between Negroes and Nordics, or differences in stature between as Pygmies and even neighbouring tribes of Bantu.

[24] In addition to discussing morphological differences between races, Baker also discusses differences in scent (170-7). This is a particularly emotive issue, given the negative connotations associated with smelling bad. However, given the biochemical differences between races, and the fact that even individuals of the same race, even the same family, are distinguishable by scent, it is inevitable that persons of different races will indeed differ in scent, and unsurprising that people would generally prefer the scent of their own group. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case. In general, Baker reports that East Asians have less body odour, whereas both Caucasoids and blacks have greater body odour. Partly this is explained by the relative prevalence of dry and wet ear wax, which is associated with body odour, varies by population and is one of the few easily detectable phenotypic traits in humans that is determined by simply Mendelian inheritance (see McDonald, Myths of Human Genetics). Intriguingly, Nicholas Wade speculates that dry earwax, which is associated with less strong body-odour, may have evolved through sexual selection in colder climates where, due to the cold, more time is spent indoors, in enclosed spaces, where body odour is hence more readily detectable, and producing less scent may have conferred a reproductive advantage (A Troublesome Inheritance: p91). This may explain some of the variation in the prevalence of dry and wet ear wax respectively, with dry earwax predominating only in East Asia, but also being found, albeit to a lesser degree, among Northern Europeans. On the other hand, however, although populations inhabiting colder climates may spend more time indoors, populations inhabiting tropical climates might be expect to sweat more due to the greater heat and hence build up greater bodily odour.

[25] A few exceptions include where Baker discusses the small but apparently statistically significant differences between the skulls of ‘Celts’ and Anglo-Saxons (p257), and where he mentions statistically significant differences between ancient Egypian skulls and those of Negroes (p518).

[26] At the time, the politically-correct view was that Judaism was merely a religion, not a race. However, today, Jewish geneticists typically emphasize the unique ancestry of Jews, the commonalities among widely dispersed Jewish populations, Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi (and even possibly to some extent, the black Lemba of southern Africa, but not the Beta Israel of Ethiopia) and their commonalities with other Middle Eastern populations. This change in emphasis probably reflects a need to provide justification for the foundation of the state of Israel. Baker, for his part, concedes that:

Some [non-Ashkenazi] Jewish communities scattered over the world are Jews simply in the sense that they adhere to a particular religion (in various forms); they are not definable on an ethnic basis” (p246).

[27] Thus, of the infamous Khazar hypothesis, now almost wholly discredited by genetic data, but still popular among some anti-Zionists, because it denies the historical connection between (most) contemporary Jews and the land of Israel, and among Christian anti-Semites, because it denies that the Ashkenazim are indeed chosen people’ of the Old Testament, Baker writes:

It is clear they [the Khazars] were not related, except by religion, to any modern group of Jews” (p34).

[28] Baker thus puts the intellectual achievements of the Ashkenazim in the broader context of other groups within this same subrace, including the Assyrians, Hittites and indeed Armenians themselves. Thus, he concludes:

The contribution of the Armenid subrace to civilization will bear comparison with that of any other” (p246-7).

Some recent genetic studies have indeed suggested affinities between Ashkenazim and Armenian populations (Nebel et al 2001; Elhaik 2013).

[29] In Baker’s defence, the illustration in question is actually taken from the work of a Jewish anthropologist, Joseph Jacobs (Jacobs 1886). Jacobs findings this topic are summarized in this entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, entitled Nose, authored by Jacobs and Maurice Fishberg, another Jewish anthropologist, which reports that the ‘hook nose’ stereotypically associated with Jewish people is actually found in only a minority of European Jews (Jacobs & Fishberg 1906).
However, such noses do seem to be more common among Jews than among at least some of the host populations among whom they reside. The
wikipedia article on Jewish noses cites this same entry from the Jewish Encyclopaedia as suggesting that the prevalence of this shape of nose is actually no greater among Jews than among populations from the Mediterranean region (hence the supposed similar shape of so-called Roman noses). However, the Jewish Encyclopaedia entry itself does not actually seem to say any such thing. Instead, it reports:

“[As compared with] non-Jews in Russia and Galiciaaquiline and hook-noses are somewhat more frequently met with among the Jews” (Jacobs & Fishberg 1906). 

The entry also reports that, measured in terms of their nasal index, “Jewish noses… are mostly leptorhine, or narrow-nosed” (Jacobs & Fishberg 1906). Similarly, Joseph Jacobs reports in On the Racial Characteristics of Modern Jews’:

Weisbach‘s nineteen Jews vied with the Patagonians in possessing the longest nose (71 mm.) of all the nineteen races examined by him … while they had at the same time the narrowest noses (34 mim)” (Jacobs 1886).

This is consistent Jews having evolved in an arid desert environment, such as the Nagev or other nearby deserts, or in the Judean mountains, where the earliest distinctively Jewish settlements are thought to have developed. Thus, anthropologist Stephen Molnar writes:

Among desert and mountain peoples the narrow nose is the predominant form” (Human Variation: Races, Types and Ethnic Groups: p196).

As Baker himself observes, the nose width characteristic of a population correlates with both the temperature and humidity of the environment in which they evolved (p310-311). However, he reports, the correlations are much weaker among the indigenous populations of the American continent, presumably because humans only relatively recently populated that continent, and therefore have yet to become wholly adapted to the different environments in which they find themselves (p311).
A further factor affecting nose width is jaw size. This might explain why Australian Aboriginals have extremely wide noses despite much of the Australian landmass being dry and arid (Human Variation: Races, Types and Ethnic Groups: p196).

[30] Hans Eysenck refers in his autobiography to a study supposedly conducted by one of his PhD students that ostensibly demonstrated statistically that people, both Jewish and Gentile, actually perform at no better than chance when attempting to distinguish Jews from non-Jews, even after extended interaction with one another (Rebel with a Cause: p35). However, since he does not cite a source or reference for this study, it was presumably unpublished, and must be interpreted with caution. Eysenck himself, incidentally, was of closeted half-Jewish half-Jewish ancestry, practising what Kevin Macdonald calls crypsis, which may be taken to suggest he was not entirely disinterested with regard to to question of the extent to which Jews can be recognized by sight. The only other study I have found addressing the quite easily researchable, if politically incorrect, question of whether some people can or cannot identify Jews from non-Jews on the basis of phenotypic differences is Andrzejewski et al (2009).

[31] This is one of the few occasions in the book where I recall Baker actually mentioning whether the morphological differences between racial groupings that he describes are statistically significant.

[32] Interestingly, some recent population genetic studies indeed suggested an affinity between the indigenous populations of the British Isles and one Mediterranean population in particular, namely the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, especially the Basques, themselves probably the descendants of the original pre-Indo-European inhabitants of the peninsula (see Oppenheimer 2006; see also Blood of the Isles). More recent research, however, has suggested that the indigenous populations of the British Isles are more closely related to other Northern European continental groups, such as the French, than to Mediterranean populations, which is, of course, what one would expect on obvious geographical grounds.

[33] However, complicating the picture somewhat, Baker also acknowledges, “there is rather a high proportion of people with red hair in Wales”, something for which, he claims “no satisfactory explanation of this fact has been provided” (p265). Baker is sceptical regarding the supposed association of the ancient Celts with ginger or auburn hair. He traces this belief to a single casual remark of Tacitus. However, he suggests that the Latin word used rutilai is actually better translated as red (inclining to golden yellow), and was, he observes, also used to refer to the Golden Fleece and to gold coinage (p257). 

[34] The genetic continuity of the British people is, for example, a major theme of Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British (see also Oppenheimer 2006). It is also a major conclusion of Bryan Sykes’s Blood of the Isles, which concludes:

We are an ancient people, and though the [British] Isles has been the target of invasion and opposed settlement from abroad ever since Julius Caesar first stepped onto the shingle shores of Kent, these have barely scratched the topsoil of our deep rooted ancestry” (Blood of the Isles: p338).

However, population genetics is an extremely fast moving science, and recent research has revised this conclusion, suggesting a replacement of around 90% of the population of the British Isles, albeit in very ancient times (around 200BCE) associated with the spread of the Bell Beaker culture and Steppe-related ancestry, presumably deriving from the Indo-European expansion (Olalde et al 2018). Also, recent population genetic studies suggest that the Anglo-Saxons actually made a greater genetic contribution to the ancestry of the English, especially those from Eastern England, than formerly thought (e.g. Martiniano et al 2016; Schiffels et al 2016).

[35] Interestingly, in addition gracialization having occurred least, if at all, in Fuegians and Aboriginals, Wade also reports that:

Gracialization of the skull is most pronounced in sub-Saharan Africans and East Asians, with Europeans retaining considerable robustness (A Troublesome Inheritance: p167).

This is an exception to what Steve Sailer calls ‘Rushton’s Rule of Three (see here) and, given that Wade associates gracialization with domestication and pacification (as well as neoteny), suggests that, at least by this criteria, Europeans evince less evidence of pacification and domestication than do black Africans.

[36] Actually, the meaning of the two terms is subtly different. ‘Paedomorphy’ refers to the retention of juvenile or infantile traits into adulthood. ‘Neoteny refers to one particular process whereby this end-result is achieved, namely slowing some aspects of physiological development. However, ‘paedomorphy’ can also result from another process, namely progenesis’, where, instead, some aspects of development are actually sped up, such that the developing organism reaches sexual maturity earlier, before reaching full maturity in other respects. In humans, most examples of paedomorphy result from the former process, namely ‘neoteny.

[37] These genitalia, of course, contrast with that of neighbouring Negroids, at least according to popular stereotype. For his part, Baker accepts this stereotype regard the genitalia of black males. However, he cites no quantitative data, remarking only:

That Negrids have large penes is somtimes questioned, but those who doubt it are likely to change their minds if they will look at photographs 8, 9, 20, 23, 29, and 37 in Bernatzig’sexcellently illustrated book Zwischen Weissem Nil und Belgisch-Kongo’. They represent naked male Nilotids and appear convincing” (p331).

But five photos, presumably representing just five males, hardly represents a convincing sample size. (I found several of the numbered pictures online by searching for the book’s title, and each showed only a single male.) Interestingly, Baker is rightly sceptical regarding claims of differences in the genitalia between European subraces, given the intimate nature of the measurements required, writing:

It is difficult to obtain reliable measurements of theses parts of the body and statements about subracial differences in them must not be accepted without confirmation” (p219).

[38] Among the traits that have been associated with neotenty in humans are our brain size, growth patterns, hairlessness, inventiveness, upright posture, spinal curvature, smaller jaws and teeth, forward facing vaginas, lack of a penis bone, the length of our limbs and the retention of the hymen into adulthood.

[39] Thus, anthropologist Carleton Coon, in Racial Adaptations: A Study of the Origins, Nature, and Significance of Racial Variations in Humans, does not even consider sexual selection as an explanation for the evolution of Khoisan steatopygia, despite their obviously dimorphic presentation. Instead, he propses:

“[Bushman’s] famous steatopygia (fat deposits that contain mostly fibrous tissue) may be a hedge against scarce nutrients and draught during pregnancy and lactation” (Racial Adaptations: p105). 

[40] Others, however, notably Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape (which I have reviewed here and here), have implicated sexual selection in the evolution of the human female’s permanent breasts. The two hypotheses are not, however, mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may be complementary. Thus, Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest (which I have reviewed here and here) proposes that breasts may be perceived as attractive by men precisely because they honestly advertise the presence of the fat reserves needed to sustain a pregnancy” (Survival of the Prettiest: p187). By analogy, the same could, of course, also be true of fatty buttocks.

[41] Thus, Baker demands rhetorically:

Who could conceivably fail to distinguish between a Sanid and a Europid, or between an Eskimid [Eskimo] and a Negritid [Negrito], or between a Bambutid (African Pygmy) or an Australid [Australian Aboriginal]?

[42] Baker does discuss the performance of East Asians on IQ tests, but his conclusions are ambivalent (p490-492). He concludes, for example, “the IQs of Mongolid [i.e. East Asian] children in North America are generally found to be about the same as those of Europids” (p490). Yet recent studies have revealed a slight advantage for East Asians in general intelligence. Baker also mentions the relatively higher scores of East Asians on tests of spatio-visual ability, as compared to verbal ability. However, he attributes this to their lack of proficiency in the language of their host culture, as he relied mostly on American studies of first and second-generation immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, who were often raised in non-English-speaking homes, and hence only learnt English as a second-language (p490). However, recent studies suggest that East Asians score relatively lower on verbal ability, as compared to their scores on spatio-visual ability, even when tested in a language in which they are wholly proficient (see Race Differences in Intelligence: reviewed here).

[43] Rushton and Jensen (2005) favour the hereditarian hypothesis vis a vis race difference in intelligence, and their presentation of the evidence is biased somewhat in this direction. Nisbett’s rejoinder therefore provides a good balance, being very much biased in the opposite direction. Macintosh’s chapter is perhaps more balanced, but he still clearly favours an environmental explanation with regard to population differences in intelligence, if not with regard to individual differences. 

[44] Indeed, in proposing tenable environmental-geographical explanations for the rise and fall of civilizations in different parts of the world, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel represents a substantial challenge to Baker’s conclusions in this chapter and the two books are well worth reading together. Another recent work addressing the question of why civilizations rise and fall among different races and peoples, but reaching less politically-correct conclusions, is Michael Hart’s Understanding Human History, which seems to have been conceived of as a rejoinder to Diamond, drawing heavily upon, but also criticizing the former work.

[45] Interestingly, Baker quotes Toynbee as suggesting that:

An ‘identifying mark’ (but not a definition) [of] civilization might be equated with ‘a state of society in which there is a minority of the population, however small, that is free from the task, nor merely of producing food, but of engaging in any other form of economic activities-e.g. industry or trade” (p508).

Yet a Marxist would view this, not as a marker of civilization, but rather of exploitation. Those free from engaging in economic activity are, from a Marxist perspective, clearly extracting surplus value, and hence exploiting the labour of others. Toynbee presumably had in mind the idle rich or leisure class, as well perhaps as those whom the latter patronize, e.g. artists, though the latter, if paid for their work, are surely engaging in a form of economic activity, as indeed are the patrons who subsidize them. (Indeed, even the idle rich or leisure class engage in economic activity, if only as consumers.) However, this criterion, at least as described by Baker, is at least as capable of applying to the opposite end of the social spectrum – i.e. the welfare-dependent underclass. Did Toynbee really intend to suggest that the existence of the long-term unemployed is a distinctive marker of civilization? If so, is Baker really agreeing with him?

[46] The full list of criteria for civilization provided by Baker is as follows:

  1. In the ordinary circumstances of life in public places they cover the external genitalia and greater part of the trunk with clothes” (p507);
  2. They keep the body clean and take care to dispose of its waste elements” (p507);
  3. They do not practice severe mutilation or deformation of the body” (p507);
  4. They have knowledge of building in brick or stone, if the necessary materials are available in their territory” (p507);
  5. Many of them live in towns or cities, which are linked by roads” (p507);
  6. “They cultivate food plants” (p507);
  7. They domesticate animals and use some of the larger ones for transportif suitable species are available (p507);
  8. They have knowledge of the use of metals, if these are available” (p507);
  9. They use wheels” (p507);
  10. They exchange property by the use of money” (p507);
  11. They order their society by a system of laws, which are enforced in such a way that they ordinarily go about their various concerns in times of peace without danger of attack or arbitrary arrest” (p507);
  12. They permit accused people to defend themselves and call witnesses” (p507);
  13. They do not use torture to extract information or punishment” (p507);
  14. They do practice cannibalism” (p507);
  15. The religious systems include ethical elements and are not purely or grossly superstitious” (p507);
  16. They use a script… to communicate ideas” (p507);
  17. There is some facility in the abstract use of numbers, without consideration of actual objects” (p507); and
  18. A calendar is in use” (p508);
  19. “[There are] arrangements for the instruction of the young in intellectual matters” (p508);
  20. There is some appreciation of the fine arts” (p508);
  21. Knowledge and understanding are valued as ends in themselves” (p508).

[47] Actually, some of the criteria include both technological and moral elements. For example, the second requirement, namely that the culture in question keep the body clean and take care to dispose of its waste elements”, at first seems a purely moral requirement. However, the disposal of sewage is, not only essential for the maintenance of healthy populations living at high levels of population density, but also often involves impressive feats of engineering (p507). Similarly, the requirement that some people live in towns or cities” seems quite arbitrary. However, to sustain populations at the high population density required in towns and cities usually requires substantial technological, not to mention social and economic, development. Likewise, the building and maintenance of roads linking these settlements, also mentioned by Baker as part of the same criterion, is a technological achievement, often requiring, like the building of facilities for sewage disposal, substantial coordination of labour.

[48] Indeed, even the former Bishop of Edinburgh apparently agrees (see his book, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics). The classic thought-experiment used to demonstrate that morality does not derive from God’s commandments is to ask devout believers whether, if, instead of commanding Thou shalt not kill, God had instead commanded Thou Shalt kill, would they then consider killing a moral obligation? Most people, including devout believers, apparently concede otherwise. In fact, however, the hypothetical thought-experiment is not as hypothetical as many moral philosophers, and many Christians, seem to believe, as various passages in the Bible do indeed command mass killing and genocide (e.g. Deuteronomy 20: 16-17; Samuel 15:3; Deuteronomy 20: 13-14), and indeed rape too (Numbers 31:18).

[49] For example, in IQ and Racial Differences (1973), former president of the American Psychological Association and confirmed racialist Henry E Garrett claims:

Until the arrival of Europeans there was no literate civilization in the continent’s black belt. The Negro had no written language, no numerals, no calendar, no system of measurement. He never developed a plow or wheel. He never domesticated any animal. With the rarest exceptions, he built nothing more elaborate than mud huts and thatched stockades” (IQ and Racial Differences: p2).

[50] These explorers included David Livingston, the famous missionary, and Francis Galton, the infamous eugenicist, celebrated statistician and all-round Victorian polymath, in addition to Henry Francis FlynnPaul Du ChailluJohn Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker (the author John R Baker’s own grand-uncle) and George August Schweinfurth (p343).

[51] This, of course, depends on precisely how we define the words machine and ‘mechanical’. Thus, many authorities, especially military historians, class the simple bow as the first true ‘machine’. However, the only indigenous people known to lack even the bow and arrow at the time of their first contact with Europeans were the Australian Aboriginals of Australia and Tasmania.

[52] With regard to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, Baker emphasizes that “the buildings in question are in no sense houses; the great majority of them are simply walls” (p402). Nor do they appear to have been part of a two-storey building (p402). Unlike some other racialist authors who have attributed their construction to the possibly part-Jewish Lemba people, Baker attributes their construction and design to indigenous Africans (p405). However, he suggests their anomalous nature reflected that they had been constructed in (crude) imitation of buildings constructed outside of the “secluded area” of Africa by non-Negro peoples with whom the former were in a trading relationship (p407-8). This would explain why the structures, though impressive by the standards of other constructions within the “secluded zone” of Africa from the same time-period, where buildings of brick or stone were rare and tended to be on a much smaller scale (so impressive, indeed, that, in the years since Baker’s book was published, they have even had an entire surrounding country named after them), are, by European or Middle Eastern standards of the same time period, quite shoddy. Baker also emphasizes:

The splendour and ostentation were made possible by what was poured into the country from foreign lands. One must acknowledge the administrative capacity of the rulers, but may question the utility of the ends to which much of it was put” (p409).

[53] Several plants seem to have been domesticated in the Sahel region, and the Horn of Africa, both of which are part of sub-Saharan Africa. However, these areas lie outside of what Baker calls the “secluded area”, as I understand it. Also, populations from the Horn of Africa are, according to Baker predominantly Caucasoid (p225).

[54] The sole domestic animal that was perhaps first domesticated by black Africans is the guineafowl. Guineafowl are found wild throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but not elsewhere. It has therefore been argued, plausibly enough, that it was first domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa. However, Baker reports that the nineteenth-century explorers whose work he relies on “nowhere mention its being kept as a domestic animal by Negrids” (p375). Instead, he proposes it was probably first domesticated in Ethiopia, outside the “secluded area” as defined by Baker, and whose population are, according to Baker, predominantly Caucasoid (p225). However, he admits that there are no “early record of tame guinea-fowl in Ethiopia” (p375).

[55] This may partly be because other continents have depleted their numbers of many wild mammalian species in recent times (e.g. wolves have been driven to extinction in Britain and Ireland, bison to the verge of extinction in North America). However, it is likely that Africa had a comparatively large number of large wild mammalian species even in ancient times. This is because outside of Africa (notably in the Americas), many wild mammals were wiped out by the sudden arrival of humans with their formidable hunting skills to whom indigenous fauna were wholly unadapted. However, Africa is where humans first evolved. Therefore, prey species will have gradually evolved fear and avoidance of humans at the same time as humans themselves first evolved to become formidable hunters. Thus, Africa, unlike other continents, never experienced a sudden influx of human hunters to whom its prey species were wholly unadapted. It therefore retains many of large wild game animals into modern times.

[56] Of course, rather conveniently for Diamonds theory, the wild ancestors of many modern domesticated animals, including horses and aurochs, are now extinct, so we have no way of directly assessing their temperament. However, we have every reason to believe that aurochs, at least, posed a far more formidable obstacle to domestication than does the zebra.

[57] Actually, a currently popular theory of the domestication of wolves/dogs holds that humans did not so much domesticate wolves/dogs as wolves/dogs domesticated themselves.

[58] Aurochs, and contemporary domestic cattle, also evince another trait that, according to Diamond, precludes their domestication – namely, it is not usually possible to keep two adult males of this species in the same field enclosure. Yet, according to Diamond, the social antelope species for which Africa is famous” could not be domesticated because:

The males of [African antelope] herds space themselves into territories and fight fiercely with one another when breeding. Hence, those antelope cannot be maintained in crowded enclosures in captivity” (Guns, Germs and Steel: p174).

Evidently, the ancient Eurasians who successfully domesticated the auroch never got around to reading Diamonds critially acclaimed bestseller. If they had, they could have learnt in advance to abandon the project as hopeless and hence save themselves the time and effort. It is fortunate for us that they did not.

[59] With regard to the racial affinities of the ancient Egyptians, a source of some controversy in recent years, Baker concludes that, contrary to the since-popularized Afrocentrist Black Athena hypothesis, the ancient Egyptians were predominantly, but not wholly, Caucasoid, and that “the Negrid contribution to Egyptian stock was a small one” (p518). Indeed, there is presumably little doubt on this question, since, according to Baker, there is an abundance of well-preserved skulls from Egypt, not least due to the practice of mummifying corpses and thus:

More study has been devoted to the craniology of ancient Egypt than to that of any other country in the world” (p517).

From such data, Baker reports:

Morant showed that all the sets of ancient Egyptian skills that he analysed statistically were distinguishable by each of six criteria from Negrid skulls” (p518).

For what it’s worth, this conclusion is also corroborated by their self-depiction in artwork:

In their monuments the dynastic Egyptians represented themselves as having a long face, pointed chin with scanty beard, a straight or somewhat aquiline nose, black irises, and a reddish-brown complexion” (p518).

Similarly, in Race: the Reality of Human Differences (reviewed here, here and here), Sarich and Miele, claiming that Egyptian monuments are not mere ‘portraits but an attempt at classification’”, report that the Egyptians painted themselves as red, Asiatics or Semites as yellow, Southerns or Negroes” as black, and “Libyans, Westerners or Northerners” as “white, with blue eyes and fair beards” (Race: the Reality of Human Differences: p33).
Thus, if not actually black, neither were the ancient Egyptians exactly white either, as implausibly claimed by contemporary Nordicist Arthur Kemp, in his books, Children of Ra: Artistic, Historical, and Genetic Evidence for Ancient White Egypt and March of the Titans: The Complete History of the White Race.
In the latter work, Kemp contends that the ancient Egyptians were originally white, being part-Mediterranean (the Mediterranean race itself being now largely extinct, according to Kemp), but governed by a Nordic elite. Over time, however, he contends that they interbred with imported black African slaves and Semitic populations from the Middle East and hence the population was gradually transformed and hence Egyptian civilization degenerated.
This is, of course, a version of de Gobineau’s infamous theory that great empires inevitably decline because, through their imperial conquests, they subjugate, and hence ultimately interbreed with, the inferior peoples whom they have conquered (as well as with inward migrants attracted by higher living standards), which interbreeding supposedly dilutes the very racial qualities that permitted their original imperial glories.
Interestingly, consistent with Kemp’s theory, there is indeed some evidence that of an increase in the proportion of sub-Saharan African ancestry in Egypt since ancient times (Schuenemann et al 2017).
However, this same study demonstrating an increase in the proportion of sub-Saharan African ancestry in Egypt also showed that, contrary to Kemp’s theory, Egyptian populations always had close affinities to Middle Eastern populations (including Semites), and, in fact, owing to the increase in sub-Saharan African ancestry, and despite the Muslim conquest, actually had closer affinities to Near Eastern populations in ancient times than they do today (Schuenemann et al 2017).
Importantly, this study was based on DNA extracted from mummies, and, since mummification was a costly procedure that was almost always restricted to the wealthy, it therefore indicates that even the Egyptian elite were far from Nordic even in ancient times, as implausibly claimed by Kemp.
To his credit, Kempt does indeed amass some remarkable photographic evidence of Egyptian tomb paintings and monuments depicting figures, according to Kemp intended to represent Egyptians themselves, with blue eyes and light hair and complexions.
Admitting that Egyptian men were often depicted with reddish skin, he dismisses this as an artistic convention:

It was a common artistic style in many ancient Mediterranean cultures to portray men with red skins and women with white skins. This was done, presumably to reflect the fact that the men would have been outside working in the fields” ( Children of Ra: p33). 

Actually, according to anthropologist Peter Frost, this difference in male and female complexions reflects real and innate differences, as well as differing sexually selected ideals of male and female beauty (see Dark Men, Fair Women).
Most interestingly, Kemp also includes photographs of some Egyptian mummies, including Ramses II, apparently with light-coloured hair. 
At first, I suspected this might reflect loss of pigmentation owing to the process of decay occurring after death, or perhaps to some chemical process involved in mummification.
Robert Brier, an expert on mummification, confirms that Ramses’s “strikingly blond” hair was indeed a consequence of its having been “dyed as a final step in the mummification process so that he would be young forever” (The Encyclopedia of Mummies: p153). However, he also reports in the next sentence that:

Microscopic inspection of the roots of the hair revealed that Ramses was originally a redhead” (The Encyclopedia of Mummies: p153).

Brier also confirms, again as claimed by Kemp, that one especially ancient predynastic mummy, displayed in the British Museum, was indeed nicknamed Ginger on account of its hair colour (The Encyclopedia of Mummies: p64). However, whether this was the natural hair colour of the person when alive is not clear.
At any rate, even if both Ginger and Ramses the Great were indeed natural redheads, in this respect they appear to have been very much the exception rather than the rule. Thus, Baker himself reports that

It would appear that their head-hair was curly, wavy, or almost straight, and very dark brown or black” (p518).

This conclusion is again based on the evidence of their mummies, and, since mummification was a costly procedure largely restricted to the wealthy, it again contradicts Kemp’s notion of a ‘Nordic elite’ ruling ancient Egypt. On this and other evidence, Baker therefore concludes:

There is general agreement… that the Europid element in the Egyptians from predynastic times onwards has been primarily Mediterranid, though it is allowed that Orientalid immigrants from Arabia made a contribution to the stock” (p518).

In short, ancient Egyptians, including Pharaohs and other elites, though certainly not black, were not really exactly white either, and certainly far from Nordic. Despite the increase in sub-Saharan African ancestry and the probable further influx of Middle Eastern DNA owing the Muslim conquest, they probably resembled modern Egyptians, especially the indigenous Copts.

[60] The same is true of the earlier runic alphabets of the Germanic peoples, and presumably of the undeciphered Linear A alphabet that was in use at the outer edge of the European continent during the Bronze Age.

[61] Writing appears to have been developed first in Mesopotamia, then shortly afterwards in Egypt (though some Egyptologists claim priority on behalf of Egypt). However the relative geographic proximity of these two civilizations, their degree of contact with one anther and the coincidence in time, make it likely that one writing system was copied from the other. It then seems to have been independently developed in China. Writing was also developed, almost certainly entirely independently, in Mesoamerica. Other possible candidates for the independent development of writing include the Indus Valley civilization, and Easter Island, though, since neither script has been deciphered, it is not clear that they represent true writing systems, and the Easter Island script has also yet to be reliably dated.

[62] Actually, it is now suggested that both the Mayans and Indians may have been beaten to this innovation by the Babylonians, although, unlike the later Indians and Muslims, neither the Mayans nor the Babylonians went on to take full advantage of this innovation, by developing mathematics in a way made possible by their innovation. For this, it is Indian civilization that deserves credit. The invention of the concept by both the Maya and the Babylonians was, of course, entirely independent of one another, but the Indians, the Islamic civilization and other Eurasian civilizations probably inherited the concept ultimately from Babylonia.

[63] Interestingly, this excuse is not available in Africa. There, large mammals survived, probably because, since Africa was where humans first evolved, prey species evolved in concert with humans, and hence gradually evolved to fear and avoid humans, at the same time as humans themselves gradually evolved to be formidable predators. In contrast, the native species of the Americas would have been totally unprepared to protect themselves from human hunters, to whom they were completely ill-adapted, owing to the late, and, in evolutionary terms, sudden, peopling of the continent. This may be why, to this day, Africa has more large animals than any other continent.

[64] Baker also uses the complexity of a people’s language in order to assess their intelligence. Today, there seems to be an implicit assumption among many linguists that all languages are equal in their complexity. Thus, American linguists rightly emphasize the subtlety and complexity of, for example, African-American vernacular, which is certainly, by no means, merely a impoverished or corrupted version of standard English, but rather has grammatical rules all of its own, which often convey information that is lost on white Americans not conversant in this dialect. However, there is no a priori reason to assume that all languages are equal in their capacity to express complex and abstract ideas. The size of vocabularies, for example, differs in different languages, as does the number of different tenses that are recognised. For example, the Walpiri language of some Australian Aboriginals is said to have only a few number terms, namely words for just onetwo’ and ‘many, while the Pirahã language of indigenous South Americans is said to get by with no number terms at all. Thus, Baker contends that certain languages, notably the Arunta language of indigenous Australians, as studied by Alf Sommerfelt, and also the Akan language of Africa, are inherently impoverished in their capacity to express abstract thought. He may well be right.



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Peter Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’

Peter Singer, ‘A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999.

Social Darwinism is dead. 

The idea that charity, welfare and medical treatment ought to be withheld from the poor, the destitute and the seriously ill so that they perish in accordance with the process of natural selection and hence facilitate further evolutionary progress survives only as a straw man sometimes attributed to conservatives by leftists in order to discredit them, and a form of guilt by association sometimes invoked by creationists in order to discredit the theory of evolution.[1] 

However, despite the attachment of many American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that evolutionary psychology is somehow right-wing

Thus, if humans are fundamentally selfish, as Richard Dawkins is taken, not entirely accurately, to have argued, then this surely confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics. 

Of course, as Dawkins also emphasizes, we have evolved through kin selection to be altruistic towards our close biological relatives. However, this arguably only reinforces conservatives’ faith in the family, and their concerns regarding the effects of family breakdown and substitute parents

Finally, research on sex differences surely suggests that at least some traditional gender roles – e.g. women’s role in caring for young children, and men’s role in fighting wars – do indeed have a biological basis, and also that patriarchy and the gender pay gap may be an inevitable result of innate psychological differences between the sexes

Political scientist Larry Arnhart thus champions what he calls a new ‘Darwinian Conservatism’, which harnesses the findings of evolutionary psychology in support of family values and the free market. 

Against this, however, moral philosopher and famed animal liberation activist Peter Singer, in ‘A Darwinian Left’, seeks to reclaim Darwin, and evolutionary psychology, for the Left. His attempt is not entirely successful. 

The Naturalistic Fallacy 

At least since David Hume, it has an article of faith among most philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts. To do otherwise is to commit what some philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy

Edward O Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was widely accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, by attempting to derive moral values form facts. However, those evolutionary psychologists who followed in his stead have generally taken a very different line. 

Indeed, recognition that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy has proven very useful to evolutionary psychologists, since it has enabled them investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed downright morally reprehensible) behaviours as infidelityrape, warfare and child abuse while at the same time denying that they are somehow thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question.[2] 

Singer, like most evolutionary psychologists, also reiterates the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value dichotomy

Thus, in attempting to construct his ‘Darwinian Left’, Singer does not attempt to use Darwinism in order to provide a justification or ultimate rationale for leftist egalitarianism. Rather, he simply takes it for granted that equality is a good thing and worth striving for, and indeed implicitly assumes that his readers will agree. 

His aim, then, is not to argue that socialism is demanded by a Darwinian worldview, but rather simply that it is compatible with such a worldview and not contradicted by it. 

Thus, he takes leftist ideals as his starting-point, and attempts to argue only that accepting the Darwinian worldview should not cause one to abandon these ideals as either undesirable or unachievable. 

But if we accept that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy then this only raises the question: If it is indeed true that moral values cannot be derived from scientific facts, whence can moral values be derived?  

Can they only be derived from other moral values? If so, how are our ultimate moral values, from which all other moral values are derived, themselves derived? 

Singer does not address this. However, precisely by failing to address it, he seems to implicitly assume that our ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith. 

However, Singer also emphasizes that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant to politics. 

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not prescribe any particular political goals as desirable, it may nevertheless help us determine how to achieve those political goals that we have already decided upon. Thus, Singer writes: 

An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals… as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (p15). 

Thus, in a memorable metaphor, Singer observes: 

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood, Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work and modify their design in order to suit its grain…Those seeking to reshape human society must understand the tendencies inherent within human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them” (p40). 

Abandoning Utopia? 

In addition to suggesting how our ultimate political objectives might best be achieved, an evolutionary perspective also suggests that some political goals might simply be unattainable, at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself. 

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much. 

Contrary to the crudest misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, humans are not entirely selfish. However, we have evolved to put our own interests, and those of their kin, above those of other humans. 

For this reason, communism is unobtainable because: 

  1. People strive to promote themselves and their kin above others; 
  2. Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing; 
  3. The individuals in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so. 

Thus, Singer laments: 

What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?” (p39). 

Or, alternatively, as HL Mencken put it:

“[The] one undoubted effect [of political revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another.” 

In addition, human selfishness suggests, if complete egalitarianism were ever successfully achieved and enforced, it would likely be economically inefficient – because it would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances. 

Thus, as Adam Smith famously observed: 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

And, again, the only other means of ensuring goods and services are produced besides economic self-interest is state coercion, which, given human nature, will always be exercised both corruptly and inefficiently. 

What’s Left? 

Singer’s pamphlet has been the subject of much controversy, with most of the criticism coming, not from conservatives, whom one might imagine to be Singer’s natural adversaries, but rather from other self-described leftists. 

These leftist critics have included both writers opposed to evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Stack in The First Darwinian Left), but also some other writers claiming to be broadly receptive to the new paradigm but who are clearly uncomfortable with some of its implications (e.g.  Marek Kohn in As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind). 

In apparently rejecting the utopian transformation of society envisioned by Marx and other radical socialists, Singer has been accused by other leftists for conceding rather too much to the critics of leftism. In so doing, Singer has, they claim, in effect abandoned leftism in all but name and become, in their view, an apologist for and sell-out to capitalism. 

Whether Singer can indeed be said to have abandoned the Left depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘the Left’, a rather more problematic matter than it is usually regarded as being.[3]

For his part, Singer certainly defines the Left in unusually broad terms.

For Singer, leftism need not necessarily entail taking the means of production into common ownership, nor even the redistribution of wealth. Rather, at its core, being a leftist is simply about being: 

On the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider” (p8). 

However, this definition is obviously problematic. After all, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor. 

On the contrary, conservatives and libertarians usually reject the dichotomous subdivision of society into oppressed’ and ‘oppressor groups. They argue that the real world is more complex than this simplistic division of the world into black and white, good and evil, suggests. 

Moreover, they argue that mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, rather than exploitation, is the essence of capitalism. 

They also usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, including both the poor and rich, rather than favouring one class over another.[4]

Indeed, conservatives claim that socialist reforms often actually inadvertently hurt precisely those whom they attempt to help. Thus, for example, welfare benefits are said to encourage welfare dependency, while introducing, or raising the level of, a minimum wage is said to lead to increases in unemployment. 

Singer declares that a Darwinian left would “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61).

Yet many conservatives would share Singer’s aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. 

Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively-extracted taxes invariably favoured by the Left. 

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity 

Yet Selfish gene theory suggests humans are not entirely self-interested. Rather, kin selection makes us care also about our biological relatives.

But this is no boon for egalitarians. 

Rather, the fact that our selfishness is tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely makes equality of opportunity as unattainable as equality of outcome – because individuals will inevitably seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, and those individuals better placed to do so will enjoy greater success in so doing. 

For example, parents with greater resources will be able to send their offspring to exclusive fee-paying schools or obtain private tuition for them; parents with better connections may be able to help their offspring obtain better jobs; while parents with greater intellectual ability may be able to better help their offspring with their homework. 

However, since many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to equality of opportunity as socialists are to equality of outcome, this conclusion may be as unwelcome on the right as on the left. 

Indeed, the theory of kin selection has even been invoked to suggest that ethnocentrism is innate and ethnic conflict is inevitable in multi-ethnic societies, a conclusion unwelcome across the mainstream political spectrum in the West today, where political parties of all persuasions are seemingly equally committed to building multi-ethnic societies. 

Unfortunately, Singer does not address any of these issues. 

Animal Liberation After Darwin 

Singer is most famous for his advocacy on behalf of what he calls animal liberation

In ‘A Darwinian Left’, he argues that the Darwinian worldview reinforces the case for animal liberation by confirming the evolutionary continuity between humans other animals. 

This suggests that there are unlikely to be fundamental differences in kind as between humans and other animals (e.g. in the capacity to feel pain) sufficient to justify the differences in treatment currently accorded humans and animals. 

It sharply contrasts account of creation in the Bible and the traditional Christian notion of humans as superior to other animals and as occupying an intermediate position between beasts and angels. 

Thus, Singer concludes: 

By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals, Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals” (p17). 

This makes our consumption of animals as food, our killing of them for sport, our enslavement of them as draft animals, or even pets, and our imprisonment of them in zoos and laboratories all ethically suspect, since these are not things generally permitted in respect of humans. 

Yet Singer fails to recognise that human-animal continuity cuts two ways. 

Thus, anti-vivisectionists argue that animal testing is not only immoral, but also ineffective, because drugs and other treatments often have very different effects on humans than they do on the animals used in drug testing. 

Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species makes this argument less plausible. 

Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, not the elevation of animals to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to just another species of animal. 

In short, we do not occupy a position midway between beasts and angels; we are beasts through and through, and any attempt to believe otherwise is mere delusion. 

This is, of course, the theme of John Gray’s powerful polemic Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed hereherehere and here). 

Finally, acceptance of the existence of human nature surely entails recognition of carnivory as a part of that nature. 

Of course, we must remember not to commit the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy.  

Thus, just because meat-eating may be natural for humans, in the sense that meat was a part of our ancestors diet in the EEA, this does not necessarily mean that it is morally right or even morally justifiable. 

However, the fact that meat is indeed a natural part of the human diet does suggest that, in health terms, vegetarianism is likely to be nutritionally sub-optimal. 

Thus, the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is not always entirely fallacious, at least when it comes to human health. What is natural for humans is indeed what we are biologically adapted to and what our body is therefore best designed to deal with.[5]

Therefore, vegetarianism is almost certainly to some degree sub-optimal in nutritional terms. 

Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions, then we must ask ourselves: If he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive measures to prevent lions from eating gazelles? 


Thus, bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, he protests:

From an evolutionary perspective, we cannot identify wealth with self-interest… Properly understood self-interest is broader than economic self-interest” (p42). 

Singer is right. The ultimate currency of natural selection is not wealth, but rather reproductive success – and, in evolutionarily novel environments, wealth may not even correlate with reproductive success (Vining 1986). 

Thus, as discussed by Laura Betzig in Despotism and Differential Reproduction, a key difference between Marxism and sociobiology is the relative emphasis on production versus reproduction

Whereas Marxists see societal conflict and exploitation as reflecting competition over control of the means of production, for Darwinians, all societal conflict ultimately concerns control over, not the means of production, but rather what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words, women, their wombs and vaginas

Thus, sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observed: 

“The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon**: p165). 

Production is ultimately, in Darwinian terms, merely by which to gain the necessary resources to permit successful reproduction. The latter is the ultimate purpose of life. 

Thus, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx, in his emphasis on economics (‘production’) at the expense of sex (‘reproduction’), was just another Victorian sexual prude

Competition or Cooperation: A False Dichotomy? 

In Chapter  Four, entitled “Competition or Cooperation?”, Singer argues that modern western societies, and many modern economists and evolutionary theorists, put too great an emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation. 

Singer accepts that both competition and cooperation are natural and innate facets of human nature, and that all societies involve a balance of both. However, different societies differ in their relative emphasis on competition or cooperation, and that it is therefore possible to create a society that places a greater emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. 

Thus, Singer declares that a Darwinian left would: 

Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61) 

However, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.[6]

Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic (as opposed to a despotic, totalitarian) government, let alone for a solitary Australian moral philosopher – and Singer’s condemnation of “the nightmares of Stalinist Russia” suggests that he would not countenance the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedom to which the Left has so often resorted in the past, and continues to resort to in the present (even in the West), with little ultimate success, in the past. 

But, more fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as necessarily in conflict with cooperation. 

On the contrary, perhaps the most remarkable acts of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice are those often witnessed in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilotssuicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet war represents perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man. 

In short, soldiers risk and sacrifice their lives, not only to save the lives of others, but also to take the lives of other others. 

Likewise, trade is a form of cooperation, but are as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Indeed, I suspect most economists would argue that exchange is even more fundamental to capitalism than is competition. 

Thus, far from disparaging cooperation, neoliberal economists see voluntary exchange as central to prosperity. 

Ironically, then, popular science writer Matt Ridley also, like Singer, focuses on humans’ innate capacity for cooperation to justify political conclusions in his book, The Origins of Virtue

But, for Ridley, our capacity for cooperation provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for free markets – because humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which government intervention almost always only distorts. 

However, whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassiongratitude and guilt
However, sociobiologist Robert Trivers argues in his paper that introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism to evolutionary biology that these emotions themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971). 

Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily novel environments, they are necessarily limited in scope. 

Group Differences 

Singer’s envisaged ‘Darwinian Left’ would, he declares, unlike the contemporary left, abandon: 

“[The assumption] that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case” (p61). 

Instead, Singer admits that at least some disparities in achievement may reflect innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities, temperament and preferences. 

This is probably Singer’s most controversial suggestion, at least for modern leftists, since it contravenes the contemporary dogma of political correctness

Singer is, however, undoubtedly right.  

Moreover, his recognition that some differences in achievement as between groups reflect, not discrimination, oppression or even the lingering effect of past discrimination or oppression, but rather innate differences between groups in psychological traits, including intelligence, is by no means incompatible with socialism, or leftism, as socialism and leftism were originally conceived. 

Thus, it is worth pointing out that, while contemporary so-called ‘cultural Marxists‘ may decry the notion of innate differences in ability and temperament as between different racessexesindividuals and social classes as anathema, the same was not true of Marx himself

On the contrary, in famously advocating from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that people differed in “ability” – differences which, given the equalization of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably conceived of as innate in origin.[7]

As Hans Eysenck observes:

“Stalin banned mental testing in 1935 on the grounds that it was ‘bourgeois’—at the same time as Hitler banned it as ‘Jewish’. But Stalin’s anti-genetic stance, and his support for the environmentalist charlatan Lysenko, did not derive from any Marxist or Leninist doctrine… One need only recall The Communist Manifesto: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This clearly expresses the belief that different people will have different abilities, even in the communist heaven where all cultural, educational and other inequalities have been eradicated” (Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind: p85).

Thus, Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, points to the theoretical possibility of what he calls a “Hereditarian Left”, arguing for a Rawlsian redistribution of resources to the, if you like, innately ‘cognitively disadvantaged’.[8] 

With regard to group differences, Singer avoids discussing the incendiary topic of race differences in intelligence, a question too contentious for Singer to touch. 

Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning” with the marginally less incendiary case of sex differences.  

Here, it is sex differences, not in intelligence, but rather in temperament, preferences and personality that are probably more important, and likely explain occupational segregation and the so-called gender pay gap

Thus, Singer writes: 

If achieving high status increases access to women, then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women” (p18). 

This alone, he implies, may explain both the universalilty of male rule and the so-called gender pay gap

However, Singer neglects to mention another biological factor that is also probably important in explaining the gender pay gap – namely, women’s attachment to infant offspring. This factor, also innate and biological in origin, also likely impedes career advancement among women. 

Thus, it bears emphasizing that never-married women with no children actually earn more, on average, than do unmarried men without children of the same age in both Britain and America.[9]

For a more detailed treatment of the biological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by professor of law, Kingsley Browne, which I have reviewed here and here.[10] See also my review of Warren Farrell’s Why Men Earn More, which can be found herehere and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is often claimed by conservatives that the welfare system only encourages the unemployed to have more children so as to receive more benefits and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns. In response, Singer retorts: 

Even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are ‘deleterious’ would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us” (p15). 

Singer is, of course, right that an extra-scientific value judgement is required in order to label certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as deleterious or undesirable. 

Indeed, if single mothers on welfare do indeed raise more surviving children than do those who are not reliant on state benefits, then this indicates that they have higher reproductive success, and hence, in the strict biological sense, greater fitness than their more financially independent, but less fecund, reproductive competitors. 

Therefore, far from being deleterious’ in the biological sense, genes contributing to such behaviour are actually under positive selection, at least under current environmental conditions.  

However, even if such genes are not ‘deleterious’ in the strict biological sense, this does not necessarily mean that they are desirable in the moral sense, or in the sense of contributing to successful civilizations and societal advancement. To suggest otherwise would, of course, involve a version of the very appeal to nature fallacy or naturalistic fallacy that Singer is elsewhere emphatic in rejecting. 

Thus, although regarding certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as undesirable does indeed involve an extra-scientific “value judgement”, this is not to say that the “value judgement” in question is necessarily mistaken or unwarranted. On the contrary, it means only that such a value judgement is, by its nature, a matter of morality, not of science. 

Thus, although science may be silent on the issue, virtually everyone would agree that some traits (e.g. generosity, health, happiness, conscientiousness) are more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness, depression, illness). Likewise, it is self-evident that the long-term unemployed are a net burden on society, and that a successful society cannot be formed of people unable or unwilling to work. 

As we have seen, Singer also questions whether there can be “a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment”. 

However, in the strict biological sense, unemployment probably is indeed partly heritable. So, incidentally, are road traffic accidents and our political opinions – because each reflect personality traits that are themselves heritable (e.g. risk-takers and people with poor physical coordination and slow reactions probably have more traffic accidents; and perhaps more compassionate people are more likely to favour leftist politics). 

Thus, while it may be unhelpful and misleading to talk of unemployment as itself heritable, nevertheless traits of the sort that likely contribute to unemployment (e.g. intelligenceconscientiousnessmental and physical illness) are indeed heritable

Actually, however, the question of heritability, in the strict biological sense, is irrelevant. 

Thus, even if the reason that children from deprived backgrounds have worse life outcomes is entirely mediated by environmental factors (e.g. economic or cultural deprivation, or the bad parenting practices of low-SES parents), the case for restricting the reproductive rights of those people who are statistically prone to raise dysfunctional offspring remains intact. 

After all, children usually get both their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents – and this could be changed only by a massive, costly, and decidedly illiberal, policy of forcibly removing offspring from their parents.[11]

Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically or environmentally mediated is simply beside the point, and the case for restricting the reproductive rights** of certain groups remains intact.  

Of course, it is doubtful that welfare-dependent women do indeed financially benefit from giving birth to additional offspring. 

It is true that they may receive more money in state benefits if they have more dependent offspring to support and provide for. However, this may well be more than offset by the additional cost of supporting and providing for the dependent offspring in question, leaving the mother with less to spend on herself. 

However, even if the additional monies paid to mothers with dependent children are not sufficient as to provide a positive financial incentive to bearing additional children, they at least reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with rearing additional offspring.  

Therefore, given that, from an evolutionary perspective, women probably have an innate desire to bear additional offspring, it follows that a rational fitness-maximizer would respond to the changed incentives represented by the welfare system by increasing their reproductive rate.[12]

A New Socialist Eugenics

If we accept Singer’s contention that an understanding of human nature can help show us how achieve, but not choose, our ultimate political objectives, then eugenics could be used to help us achieve the goal of producing the better people and hence, ultimately, better societies. 

Indeed, given that Singer seemingly concedes that human nature is presently incompatible with communist utopia, perhaps then the only way to revive the socialist dream of equality is to eugenically re-engineer human nature itself so as to make it more compatible. 

Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, before World War Two, eugenics was a cause typically associated, not with conservatives, nor even, as today, with fascism, but rather with the political left

Thus, early twentieth century socialist-eugenicists like H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may then have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists, Singer very much included – namely that re-engineering society necessarily requires as a prerequisite re-engineering Man himself.[13]



[1] Indeed, the view that the poor and ill ought to be left to perish so as to further the evolutionary process seems to have been a marginal one even in its ostensible late nineteenth century heyday (see Bannister, Social Darwinism Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought). The idea always seems, therefore, to have been largely, if not wholly, a straw man.

[2] In this, the evolutionary psychologists are surely right. Thus, no one accuses biomedical researchers of somehow ‘justifying disease’ when they investigate how infectious diseases, in an effort maximize their own reproductive success, spread form host to host. Likewise, nobody suggests that dying of a treatable illness is desirable, even though this may have been the ‘natural’ outcome before such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination and antibiotics were introduced.

[3] The convenional notion that we can usefully conceptualize the political spectrum on a single dimensional left-right axis is obviously preposterous. For one thing, there is, at the very least, a quite separate liberal-authoritarian dimension. However, even restricting our definition of the left-right axis to purely economic matters, it remains multi-factorial. For example, Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom classifies fascism as a left-wing ideology, because it involved big government and a planned economy. However, most leftists would reject this definition, since the planned economy in question was designed, not to reduce economic inequalities, but rather, in the case of Nazi Germany at least, to fund and sustain an expanded military force, a war economy, external military conquest and grandiose vanity public works architectural projects. The term ’right-wing‘ is even more problematic, including everyone from fascists, to libertarians to religious fundamentalists. Yet a Christian fundamentalist who wants to outlaw pornography and abortion has little in common with either a libertarian who wants to decriminalize prostitution and child pornography, nor with a eugenicist who wants to make abortions, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classed together as ’right-wing’ even though they share no more in common with one another than any does with a raving unreconstructed Marxist.

[4] Thus, the British Conservatives Party traditionally styled themselves one-nation conservatives, who looked to the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than what they criticized as the divisive ‘sectionalism’ of the trade union and labour movements, which favoured certain economic classes, and workers in certain industries, over others, just as contemporary leftists privilege the interests of certain ethnic, religious and culturally-defined groups (e.g. blacks, Muslims, feminists) over others (i.e. white males).

[5] Of course, some ‘unnatural’ interventions have positive health benefits. Obvious examples are modern medical treatments such as penicillin, chemotherapy and vaccination. However, these are the exceptions. They have been carefully selected and developed by scientists to have this positive effect, have gone through rigorous testing to ensure that their effects are indeed beneficial, and are generally beneficial only to people with certain diagnosed conditions. In contrast, recreational drug use almost invariably has a negative effect on health.

[6] It is certainly possible for more altruistic cultures to exist. For example, the famous (and hugely wasteful) potlatch feasts of some Native American cultures exemplify a form of competitive altruism, analogous to conspicuous consumption, and may be explicable as a form of status display in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle. However, recognizing that such cultures exist does not easily translate into working out how to create or foster such cultures, let alone transform existing cultures in this direction.

[7]  Indeed, by modern politically-correct standards, Marx was a rampant racist, not to mention an anti-Semite

[8] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ’veil of ignorance’. 

[9] As Warren Farrell documents in his excellent Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here), in the USA, women who have never married and have no children actually earn more than men who have never married and have no children and have done since at least the 1950s (Why Men Earn More: pxxi). More precisely, according to Farrell, never-married men without children on average earn only about 85% of their childless never-married female counterparts (Ibid: pxxiii). The situation is similar in the UK. Thus, economist JR Shackleton reports:

“Women in the middle age groups who remain single earn more than middle-aged single males” (Should We Mind the Gap? p30).

The reasons unmarried, childless women earn more than unmarried childless men are multifarious and include:

  1. Married women can afford to work less because they appropriate a portion of their husband’s income in addition to their own
  2. Married men and men with children are thus obliged to earn even more so as to financially support, not only themselves, but also their wife, plus any offspring;
  3. Women prefer to marry richer men and hence poorer men are more likely to remain single;
  4. Childcare duties undertaken by women interfere with their earning capacity.

[10]  Incidentally, Browne has also published a more succinct summary of the biological factors underlying the pay-gap that was first published in the same ‘Darwinism Today’ series as Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’, namely Divided Labors: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. However, much though I admire Browne’s work, this represents a rather superficial popularization of his research on the topic, and I would recommend instead Browne’s longer Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (reviewed here) for a more comprehenseive treatment of the same, and related, topics. 

[11] A precedent for just such a programme, enacted in the name of socialism, albeit imposed consensually, was the communal rearing practices in Israeli Kibbutzim, since largely abandoned. Another suggestion along rather different lines comes from Adolf Hitler, who, believing that nature trumped nurture, is quoted as proposing: 

The State must also teach that it is the manifestation of a really noble nature and that it is a humanitarian act worthy of all admiration if an innocent sufferer from hereditary disease refrains from having a child of his own but bestows his love and affection on some unknown child whose state of health is a guarantee that it will become a robust member of a powerful community” (quoted in: Parfrey 1987: p162). 

[12] Actually, it is not entirely clear that women do have a natural desire to bear offspring. Other species probably do not have any such natural desire. Since they are almost certainly are not aware of the connection between sex and child birth, such a desire would serve no adaptive purpose and hence would never evolve. All an organism requires is a desire for sex, combined perhaps with a tendency to care for offspring after they are born. (Indeed, in principle, a female does not even require a desire for sex, only a willingness to submit to the desire of a male for sex.) As Tooby and Cosmides emphasize: 

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” 

There is no requirement for a desire for offspring as such. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of so-called broodiness, and the fact that most women do indeed desire children, despite the costs associated with raising children, suggests that, in human females, there is indeed some innate desire for offspring. Curiously, however, the topic of broodiness is not one that has attracted much attention among evolutionists.

[13] However, there is a problem with any such case for a ‘Brave New Socialist Eugenics’. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) would still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest then that, as philosopher John Gray concludes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here):  

“[If] human nature [is] scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).


Parfrey (1987) Eugenics: The Orphaned Science. In Parfrey (Ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amoc Press). 

Trivers 1971 The evolution of reciprocal altruism Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):35-57 

Vining 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1), 167-187.

The Decline of the Klan and of White (and Protestant) Identity in America

Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987

Given the infamy of the organization, it is surprising that there are so few books that cover the entire history of the Ku Klux Klan in America. 

Most seem to deal only with only one period (usually, but not always, either the Reconstructionera Klan or the Second Klan that reached its apotheosis during the twenties), one locality or indeed only a single time and place

On reflection, however, this is not really surprising. 

For, though we habitually refer to the Ku Klux Klan, or the Klan (emphasis on ‘the’), as if it were a single organization that has been in continuous existence since its first formation in the Reconstruction-era, there have in fact been many different groups calling themselves ‘the Ku Klux Klan’, or some slight variant upon this name (e.g. ‘Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’, ‘United Klans of America’), that have emerged and disappeared over the century and a half since the name was first coined in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Most of these groups had small memberships, recruited and were active in only a single locality and soon disappeared altogether. Yet even those incarnations of the Klan name that had at least some claim to a national, or at least a pan-Southern, membership invariably lacked effective centralized control over local klaverns.

Thus, Wade observes: 

After the Klan had spread outwards from Tennessee, there wasn’t the slightest chance of central control over it – a problem that would characterize the Klan throughout its long career” (p58). 

It is perhaps for this reason that most historians authoring books about the Klan have focussed on Klan activity in only a single time-frame or geographic locality.

Indeed, it is notable, besides Wynn Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’, the only other work of which I am aware that even purports to cover the entirety of the Klan’s history (apart from the recently published White Robes and Burning Crosses, which I have not yet read) is David Chambers’ Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan

Yet even this latter work (‘Hooded Americanism’), though it purports in its blurb to be “The only work that treats Ku Kluxism for the entire period of it’s [sic] existence”, actually devotes only a single, short, cursory chapter to the Reconstruction-era Klan, when the group was first founded, arguably at its strongest, and certainly at its most violent.

Moreover, ‘Hooded Americanism’ is composed of separate chapters recounting the history of the Klan in different states in each time period, such that the book lacks an overall narrative structure and is difficult to read. 

In contrast, for those with an interest in the topic, Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ is both readable and informative, and somehow manages to weave the story of the various Klan groups in different parts of the country into a single overall narrative. 

A College Fraternity Turned Terrorist? 

If, today, the stereotypical Klansman is an illiterate redneck, it might come as some surprise that the group’s name actually bears an impressively classical etymology. It derives from the ancient Greek kuklos, meaning ‘circle’. To this was added ‘Klan’, both for alliterative purposes, and in reference to the ostensible Scottish ancestry of the group’s founders.[1]

This classical etymology reflected the social standing and educational background of its founders, who, far from being illiterate rednecks, were, Wade reports, “well educated for their day” (p32). 

Thus, he reports, of the six founder members, two would go on to become lawyers, another would become editor of a local newspaper, and yet another a state legislator (p32). 

Neither, seemingly, was the group formed with any terroristic, or even any discernible political, aspirations in mind. Instead, one of these six founder members, the, in retrospect, perhaps ironicallynamed James Crow, claimed their intention was initially: 

Purely social and for our amusement” (p34). 

Since, as a good white Southerner and Confederate veteran, Crow likely approved the politics with which the Klan later became associated, he had no obvious incentive to downplay a political motive. Certainly, Wade takes him at his word. 

Thus, if the various Klan titles – Grand GoblinImperial Wizard etc. – sound more like what one might expect in, say, a college fraternity than a serious political or terrorist group, then this perhaps reflects the fact that the organization was indeed conceived with just such adolescent tomfoolery in mind. 

Indeed, although it is not mentioned by Wade, it has even been suggested that a then-defunct nineteenth-century fraternity, Kuklos Adelphon, may even have provided a partial model for the group. Thus, Wade writes: 

It has been said that, if Pulaski had had an Elks Club, the Klan would never have been born” (p33). 

White Sheets and Black Victims 

However, from early on, the group’s practical jokes increasingly focussed on the newly-emancipated, and already much resented, black population of Giles County

Yet, even here, intentions were initially jocular, if mean-spirited. Thus, the white sheets famously worn by Klansmen were, Wade informs us, originally conceived in imitation of ghosts, the wearers ostensibly posing as: 

The ghosts of the Confederate dead, who had risen from their graves to wreak vengeance on [the blacks]” (p35). 

This accorded with the then prevalent stereotype of black people as being highly superstitious. 

However, it is likely that few black victims were taken in. Instead, the very real fear that the Klan came to inspire in its predominantly black victims reflected instead the also very real acts of terror and cruelty with which the group became increasingly associated. 

The sheets also functioned, of course, as a crude disguise.  

However, it was only when the Klan name was revived in the early twentieth century, and through the imagination of its reviver, William Joseph Simmons, that this crude disguise was transformed into a mysterious ceremonial regalia, the sale of which was jealously guarded, and an important source of revenue for the Klan leadership. 

Indeed, in the Reconstruction-era Klan, the sheets, though a crude disguise, would not even qualify as a uniform, as there was no standardization whatsoever. Instead:  

Sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, blankets, sacks… paper masks, blackened faces, and undershirts and drawers were all employed” (p60).  

Thus, Wade reports the irony whereby one: 

Black female victim of the Klan was able to recognise one of her assailants because he wore a dress she herself had sewed for his wife” (p60). 

Chivalry – or Reproductive Competition? 

Representing perhaps the original white knights, Klansmen claimed to be acting in order to protect the ostensible virtue and honour of white women. 

However, at least in Wade’s telling, the rapes of white women by black males, upon which white Southern propaganda so pruriently dwelt (as prominently featured, for example, in the movie, Birth of a Nation, and the book upon which the movie was based, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan) were actually very rare. 

Indeed, he even quotes a former Confederate General, and alleged Klansman, seemingly admitting as much when, on being asked whether such assaults were common, he acknowledged: 

Oh no sir, but one case of rape by a negro upon a white woman was enough to alarm the whole people of the state” (p20). 

Certainly, the Emmett Till case demonstrates that even quite innocuous acts could indeed invite grossly disproportionate responses in the Southern culture of honour, at least where the perceived malfeasors were black. Thus, Wade claims: 

“Sometimes a black smile or the tipping of a hat were sufficient grounds for prosecution for rape. As one southern judge put it, ‘I see a chicken cock drop his wings and take after a hen; my experience and observation assure me that his purpose is sexual intercourse, no other evidence is needed’” (p20). 

Likewise, such infamous cases as the Scottsboro boys and Groveland four illustrate that false allegations were not unknown in the American South. Indeed, false rape allegations remain common to this day

However, I remain skeptical of Wade’s claim that black-on-white rape were quite as rare as he makes out. 

After all, American blacks have had high rates of violent crime ever since records began, and, as contemporary racists are fond of pointing out, today, black-on-white rape is actually quite common, at least as compared to other victim-offender dyads. 

Thus, in Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America, published in 1992, Jared Taylor reports: 

In a 1974 study in Denver, 40 percent of all rapes were of whites by blacks, and not one case of white-on-black-rape was found. In general, through the 1970s, black-on-white rape was at last ten times more common than white-on-black rape… In 1988 there were 9,406 cases of black-on-white rape and fewer than ten cases of white-on-black rape. Another researcher concludes that in 1989, blacks were three or four times more likely to commit rape than whites and that black men raped white women thirty times as often as white men raped black women” (Paved with Good Intentions: p93) 

Indeed, the authors of one recent textbook on criminology even claim that: 

Some researchers have suggested, because of the frequency with which African Americans select white victims (about 55 percent of the time), it [rape] could be considered an interracial crime” (Criminology: A Global Perspective: p544).[2] 

At any rate, Southern chivalry was rather selectively accorded, and certainly did not extend to black women. 

Indeed, Wade claims that Klansmen themselves, employing a blatant double-standard and rank hypocrisy, actually themselves regularly raped black women during their raids: 

The desire for group intercourse was sometimes sufficient reason for a den to go out on a raid…. Sometimes during a political raid, Klansmen would rape the female members of the household as a matter of course” (p76). 

As someone versed in sociobiological theory who has studied evolutionary psychology, I tempted to see these double-standards in sociobiological terms as a form of reproductive competition, designed to maximize the reproductive success of the white males involved, and indeed of the white race in general.

Thus, for white men, it was open season on black women, but white women were strictly off-limits to black men: 

In Southern white culture, the female was placed on a pedestal where she was inaccessible to blacks and a guarantee of purity of the white race. The black race, however, was completely vulnerable to miscegenation. White men soon learned that women placed on a pedestal acted like statues in bed, and they came to prefer the female slave whom they found open and uninhibited… The more white males turned to female slaves, the more they exalted their own women, who increasingly became a mere ornament and symbol of the Southern way of life” (p20). 

Klan Success? 

The Klan came to stand for the reestablishment of white supremacy and the denial of voting rights to blacks. 

In the short-term, at least, these aims were to be achieved, with the establishment of segregation and effective disenfranchisement of blacks throughout much of the South. Wade, however, denies the Klan any part in this victory: 

The Ku-Klux Klan… didn’t weaken Radical Reconstruction nearly as much as they nurtured it. So long as an organized secret conspiracy swore oaths and used cloak and dagger methods in the South, Congress was willing to legislate against it… Not until the Klan was beaten and the former confederacy turned to more open methods of preserving the Southern way of life did Reconstruction and its Northern support decline” (p109-110). 

Thus, it was, Wade reports, not the Klan, but rather other groups, today largely forgotten, such as Louisiana’s White League and South Carolina’s Red Shirts, that were responsible for successfully scaring blacks away from the polls and ensuring the return of white supremacy in the South. Moreover, he reports that they were only able to do so only because the federal laws enacted to tackle the Klan had ceased to be enforced precisely because the Klan itself had ceased to represent a serious threat. 

On this telling, then, the First Klan was, politically, a failure. In this respect, it was to set the model for later Klans, which would fight a losing rearguard action against Catholic immigration and the civil rights movement. 


If the First Klan was a failure, why then was it remembered, celebrated and ultimately revived, while other groups, such as the White LeagueRed Shirts and Knights of the White Camelia, which employed similar terrorist tactics in pursuit of the same political objectives, are today largely forgotten? 

Wade does not address this, but one suspects the outlandishness of the group’s name and ceremonial titles contributed, as did the fact that the Klan seems to have been the only such group active throughout the entirety of the former Confederacy

The reborn Klan, founded in the early twentieth century, was the brainchild of William Joseph Simmons, a self-styled professional ‘fraternalist’, alumni of countless other fraternal organizations, Methodist preacher, strict prohibitionist and rumoured alcoholic. 

It is him to whom credit must go for inventing most of the ritualism (aka ‘Klancraft’) and terminology (including the very word ‘Klancraft’) that came to be associated with the Klan in the twentieth century. 

Birth of a Nation’ and the Rebirth of the Klan 

Two further factors contributed to the growth and success of the reborn Klan. First, was the spectacularly successful 1915 release of the movie, The Birth of a Nation

Both deplored for its message yet also grudgingly admired for its technical and artistic achievement, this film occupies a curious place in film history, roughly comparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. (Sergei Eisenstein’s Communist and Stalinist propaganda films curiously, but predictably, receive a free pass.) 

In this movie, pioneering filmmaker DW Griffith is credited with largely inventing much of the grammar of modern moviemaking. If, today, it seems distinctly unimpressive, if not borderline unwatchable, this is, not only because of the obvious technological limitations of the time period, but also precisely because it invented many of the moviemaking methods that cinema-goers, and television viewers, have long previously learnt to take for granted (e.g. cross-cutting). 

Yet, if its technical and artistic innovations have won the grudging respect of film historians, its message is, of course, wholly anathema to modern western sensibilities. 

Thus, portraying the antebellum American South with the same pair of rose-tinted spectacles as those donned by the author of Gone with the Wind, ‘Birth of a Nation’ went even further, portraying blacks during the Reconstruction period as rampant rapists salivating after the flesh of white women, and Klansmen as heroic white knights who saved white womanhood, and indeed the South itself, from the ravages of both reconstruction and of Southern blacks. 

Yet, though it achieved unprecedented box-office success, even being credited as the first modern blockbuster, the movie was controversial even for its time. 

It even became the first movie to be screened in the White House, when, as a favour to Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, the film received an advance, pre-release screening for the benefit of the then-President, Woodrow Wilson, a college acquaintance of Dixon – though what the President thought of it is a matter of dispute.[3]

Indeed, such was the controversy that the movie was to provoke that the nascent NAACP, itself formed only a few years earlier, even launched a campaign to have the film banned outright (p127-8). 

This, of course, puts the lie to the notion that the political left was, until recent times, wholly in favour of freedom of speech and artistic expression

Actually, even then, the Left’s commitment to freedom of expression was, it seems, highly selective, just as it is today. Thus, it was one thing to defend the rights of raving communists, quite another to apply the same principle to racists. 

The Murders of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank 

Another factor in the successful resurrection of the Klan were two murders that galvanized popular opinion in the South, and indeed the nation. 

First was the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old factory girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Second was the lynching of Leo Frank, her boss and ostensible murderer, who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death, only to have this sentence commuted to life-imprisonment, only to be lynched by outraged locals. 

His lynching was carried out by a group styling themselves ‘The Knights of Mary Phagan’, many of whom would go on to become founder members of the newly reformed Klan. 

It was actually this group, not the Klan itself, which would establish a famous Klan ritual, namely the ascent of Stone Mountain to burn a cross, a ritual Simmons would repeat to inaugurate his nascent Klan a few months later.[4]

Yet, in the history of alleged miscarriages of justice in the American South, the lynching of Leo Frank stands very much apart. 

For one thing, most victims of such alleged miscarriages of justice were, of course, black. Yet Leo Frank was a white man. 

Moreover, most of his apologists insist that the real perpetrator was, in fact, a black man. They are therefore in the unusual position of claiming racism caused white Southerners to falsely convict a white man when they should have pinned the blame on a black instead.

It is true, of course, that Frank was also Jewish. However, there was little history of anti-Semitism in the South. Indeed, I suspect there was more prejudice against him as a wealthy Northerner who had come south for business purposes, and hence as, in Southern eyes, a ‘Yankee carpetbagger’.

Moreover, although his lynching was certainly unjustified, and his conviction possibly unsafe, it is still not altogether clear that Frank was indeed innocent of the murder of which he stood accused.[5]

Wade himself admits that there was some doubt as to his innocence at the time. However, he refers to a deathbed statement by an elderly witness some seventy years later in 1982 as finally proving his innocence: 

Not until 1982 would Frank’s complete innocence come to light as a result of a witness’s deathbed statement” (p143). 

However, a claim made, not in court under oath, but rather to the press for a headline (albeit also in a signed affidavit under oath), by an elderly, dying man, regarding things he had supposedly witnessed some seventy years earlier when he was himself little more than a child, is obviously open to question.

At any rate, it is interesting to note that Frank’s lynching played an important role, not only in the founding of the Second Klan, but also in the genesis of another political pressure group whose influence on American social, cultural and political life has far outstripped that of the Klan and which, unlike the Second Klan, survives to this day – namely the Anti-Defamation League of of B’nai B’rith or ADL

The parallels abound. Just as the Second Klan was a fraternal organization for white protestants, so B’nai B’rith, the organization which birthed the ADL, was a fraternal order for Jews, and Frank himself, surely not uncoincidentally, was president of the Atlanta chapter of the group. 

The organizational efforts of B’nai B’rith to protect Frank, a local chapter president, from punishment can therefore be viewed as analogous to the way in which the Klan itself sought to protect its own members from successful prosecution through its own corrupt links in law enforcement and government and on juries. 

Moreover, just as the Klan was formed to defend and promote the interests of white Christian protestants, so the ADL was formed to protect the interests of Jews.

However, the ADL was to prove far more successful in this endeavour than the Klan had ever been, and, unlike the Second Klan, very much survives, and prospers, to this day.[6]

Klan Enemies 

Jews were not, however, the primary objects of Klan enmity during the twenties – and neither, perhaps surprisingly, were blacks. 

This was, after all, the period that later historians have termed ‘the nadir of American race relations’, when, throughout the South, blacks were largely disenfranchised, and segregation firmly entrenched. 

Yet, from a white racialist perspective, the era is misnamed.[7] Far from a nadir, for white racialists the period represented something like a utopia, lost Eden or Golden Age.[8] 

White supremacy was firmly entrenched and not, it seemed, under any serious threat. The so-called civil rights movement had barely begun.

Of course, then as now, race riots did periodically puncture the apparent peace – at Wilmington in 1898Springfield in 1908Tulsa in 1912Rosewood in 1923, and throughout much of America in 1919

However, unlike contemporary American race riots, these typically took the form of whites attacking blacks rather than vice versa, and, even when the latter did occur, white solidarity was such that the whites invariably gave at least as good as they got.[9]

Thus, in early-twentieth century America, unlike during Reconstruction, there was no need for a Klan to suppress ‘uppity’ blacks. On the contrary, blacks were already adequately suppressed.  

Thus, if the Second Klan was to have an enemy worthy of its enmity, and a cause sufficient to justify its resurrection, and, more important, sufficient to persuade prospective inductees to hand over their membership dues, it would have to look elsewhere. 

To some extent the enemy selected varied on a regional basis, depending on the local concerns of the population. The Klan thus sought, like Hitler’s later NSDAP, to be ‘all things to all men’, and, for some time before it hit upon a winning strategy, the Klan flitted from one issue to another, never really finding its feet. 

However, to the extent the Second Klan, at the national level, was organized in opposition to a single threat or adversary, it was to be found neither in Jews nor blacks, but rather in Catholics. 


To modern readers, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan seems bizarre. Modern Americans may be racist and homophobic in ever decreasing numbers, but they at least understand racism and homophobia. However, anti-Catholicism of this type, especially in so relatively recent a time period, seems wholly incomprehensible.

Indeed, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan is now something of an embarrassment even to otherwise unreconstructed racists and indeed to contemporary Klansmen, and is something they very much disavow and try to play down. 

Thus, anti-Catholicism, at least of this kind, is now wholly obsolete in America, and indeed throughout the English-speaking world outside of Northern Ireland – and perhaps Ibrox Football stadium for ninety minutes on alternate Saturdays for the duration of the Scottish football season. 

It seems something more suited to cruel and barbaric times, such as England in the seventeenth century, or Northern Ireland in the 1970s… or, indeed, Northern Ireland today. But in twentieth century America? Surely not. 

How then can we make sense of this phenomenon? 

Partly, the Klan’s anti-Catholicism reflected the greater religiosity of the age. In particular, the rise of the Second Klan was, at least in Wade’s telling, intimately linked with the rise of Christian fundamentalism in opposition to reforming practices (the so-called Social Gospel) in the early twentieth century.

Indeed, under its first Imperial Wizard, William Joseph Simmons, a Methodist preacher, the new Klan was initially more of a religious organization than it was a political one, and Simmons himself was later to lament the Klan’s move into politics under his successor.[10]

There was, however, also a nativist dimension to the Klan’s rabid anti-Catholicism, since, although Catholics had been present among the first settlers of North America and numbered even among the founding fathers, Catholicism was still associated with recent immigrants to the USA, especially Italians, Irish and Poles, who had yet to fully assimilate into the American mainstream. 

Catholics were also seen as inherently disloyal, as the nature of their religious affiliation (supposedly) meant that they owed ultimate loyalty, not to America, but rather to the Pope in Rome.  

This idea seems to have been a cultural inheritance from the British Isles.[11] In England, Catholics had long been viewed as inherently disloyal, and as desirous to overthrow the monarchy and restore Britain to Catholicism, as, in an earlier age, many had indeed sought to do

This view is, of course, directly analogous to the claim of many contemporary Islamophobes and counter-Jihadists today that the ultimate consequence of Muslim immigration into Europe will be the imposition of Shariah law across Europe.

However, even in the twenties, during the Second Klan’s brief apotheosis, their anti-Catholicism already seemed, in Wade’s words, “strangely anachronistic”, to the point of being “almost astounding” (p179).

Thus, as anti-Catholicism waned as a serious organizing force in American social and political (or even religious) life, it soon became clear that the Klan had nailed their colours to a sinking ship. Thus, as anti-Catholic sentiments declined among the American population at large, so the Klan attempted to distance itself from its earlier anti-Catholicism.[12]

First, anti-Catholicism was simply deemphasized by the Klan in favour of new enemies like communism, trade unionism and the burgeoning civil rights movement. 

Eventually, in the Sixties, the United Klans of America, the then dominant Klan faction in America, announced, during “an all-out crusade for new members”, that: 

Catholics were now welcome to join the Klan – the Communist conspiracy more than made up for the Klan’s former anti-Catholic fears of Americans loyal to a foreign power” (p328). 

Today, meanwhile, the Second Klan’s anti-Catholicism is seen as an embarrassment even by otherwise unreconstructed racists and Klansmen. 

The decline of anti-Catholicism provides, then, an optimistic case-study of the remarkable speed with which (some) prejudices can be overcome.[13]

It also points to an ironic side-effect of the gradual move towards greater tolerance and inclusivity in American society – namely, even groups ostensibly opposed to this process have nevertheless been affected by it. 

In short, even the Klan has become more tolerant and inclusive

Losing Land and Territory

For many nationalists, racial and ethnic conflict is ultimately a matter of competition for territory and land.

It is therefore of interest that the decline of the Klan, and of white protestant identity in the USA, was itself presaged and foreshadowed by two land sales, one in the early-twenties, when Klan membership was at a peak, and a second just over a decade later, when the decline was already well underway.

First, in the early-twenties, the Klan’s boldly envisaged Klan University had gone bankrupt. The land was sold and a synagogue was constructed on the site. 

Then, under financial pressure in the 1930s as the Depression set in, the Klan was even forced to sell even its main headquarters in Atlanta. 

If selling a Klan university only to see a synagogue constructed on the same site was an embarrassment, then the eventual purchaser of the Klan headquarters was to be an even greater Klan enemy – the Catholic Church. 

Thus, the erstwhile site of the Klan’s grandly-titled Imperial Palace became a Catholic cathedral

Perhaps surprisingly, and presumably in an effort at rapprochement and reconciliation, the new cathedral’s hierarchy reached out to the Klan by inviting the then-Grand Wizard, Hiram Evans, who had outmanoeuvred Simmons for control of the then-lucrative cash-cow during the Klan’s twenties heyday, to the new Cathedral’s inaugural service. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Evans actually accepted the invitation. Afterwards, even more surprisingly still, he was quoted as observing: 

It was the most ornate ceremony and one of most beautiful services I ever saw” (p265). 

More beautiful even than a cross-burning!

Evans was forced to resign immediately afterwards. However, in deemphasizing anti-Catholicism, he correctly gaged the public mood and the Klan was later, if belatedly, to follow his lead. 

The Turn to Terror 

The Klan is seemingly preadapted to terror. However benign the intentions of its successive founders, each Klan descended into violence. 

If the First Klan was formed, as a sort of college fraternity, the Second Klan seems to have been conceived primarily as a money-making venture, and hence, in principle, no more inherently violent than the Freemasons or the Elks

Yet the turn to terror was perhaps, in retrospect, inevitable. After all, this new Klan had been modelled on what had been, or at least become, a terrorist group (namely, the First Klan), employed masks, and, from the lynching of Leo Frank, had associated itself with vigilantism from the very onset. 

Interestingly, although precise data is not readily available, one gets the distinct impression that, during this era of Klan activity, most of the victims of its violence were, not blacks nor even Catholics, but rather the very white protestant Christians whom the Klan ostensibly existed to protect, or, more specifically, those among this community who had somehow offended against the values of the community, or simply offended Klansmen themselves. 

Of course, lynchings of blacks continued, at least in the South. But these were rarely conducted under the auspices of the Klan, since these were a longstanding tradition that long predated the Klan’s re-emergence, and the perpetrators of such acts rarely felt the need to wear masks to conceal their identities, let alone don the elaborate apparel, and pay the requisite membership dues, of the upstart Klan.[14]

But Klan violence per se did not always deter new members. On the contrary, some seem to have been attracted by it. Thus, Klan recruiters (‘Kleagles’) at first maintained that newspaper exposés amounted to free publicity and only helped them in their recruitment drive. 

Instead, Wade claims, more than violence, it was the perceived hypocrisy of Klan leaders which ultimately led to the group’s demise (p254).  

Thus, it purported to champion prohibition, temperance and Christian values, but had been founded by Simmons, a rumoured alcoholic, while its (hugely successful) marketing and recruitment campaign was headed by Edward Young Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association, who were openly engaged in an extra-marital affair with one another. 

However, the most damaging scandal to hit the Klan, which, as we have seen, purported to champion Prohibition and the protection of the sanctity of white womanhood, combined both violence, drunkenness and hypocrisy, and occurred when DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, a hugely successful Indianna Grand Dragon, was convicted of the rape, kidnap and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, herself a white protestant woman, during a drunken binge. 

In fact, by the time of the assault, Stephenson had already split from the national Klan to form his own rival, exclusively Northern, Klan group. However, his former prominence in the organization meant that, though they might disclaim him, the Klan could never wholly disassociate themselves from him.  

It seems to have been this scandal more than any other which finally discredited the Klan in the minds of most Americans. Thus, Wade concludes: 

The Klan in the twenties began and ended with the death of an innocent young girl. The Mary Phagan-Leo Frank case had been the spark that ignited the Klan. And the Oberholtzer-Stephenson case had put out the fire” (p247). 


Thenceforth, the Klan’s decline was as rapid and remarkable as its rise. Thus, Wade reports: 

In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan had boasted more than four million members. By 1930, that number had withered to about forty-five thousand… No other American movement has ever risen so high and fallen so low in such a short period” (p253). 

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, even its famous 1925 march on Washington “proved to be its most spectacular last gasp”, attracting, Wade reports, “only half of the sixty thousand expected” (p249) 

The National gathering of thirty thousand was less than what [DC Stephenson] could have mustered in Indiana alone during the Klan’s heyday” (p250). 

Not only did numbers decline, so did the membership profile. 

Thus, initially, the new group had attracted members from across the socioeconomic spectrum of white protestant America, or at least among all those who could afford the membership dues. Indeed, analyses of surviving membership rolls suggest that the Klan in this era was, at first, a predominantly middle-class group representing what was then the heart of Middle America

However, probably as a consequence of the revelations of violence, the respectable classes increasingly deserted the group.

Klan defections began with the prominent, the educated and the well-to-do, and proceeded down through the middle-class” (p252). 

Thus, the stereotype of the archetypal Klansman as an uneducated, semi-literate, tattooed, beer-swilling redneck gradually took hold. 

Indeed, from 1926 or so, the Klan even sought to reclaim this image as a positive attribute, portraying themselves as, in their own words, “a movement of plain people” (p252). 

But this marketing strategy, in Wade’s telling, badly backfired, since even less well-off, but ever aspirant, Americans hardly wanted to associate themselves with a group that admitted to being uneducated hicks (Ibid.). 

As well as the membership narrowing in its socioeconomic profile, Klan membership also retreated geographically. 

Thus, in its brief heyday, the Second Klan, unlike its Reconstruction-era predecessor, had had a truly national membership. 

Indeed, the state with the largest membership was said to be Indiana, where DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, in the few years before his dramatic downfall, was said to have built up a one-man political machine that briefly came to dominate politics in the Hoosier State. 

However, in the aftermath of the fall of Stephenson and his Indiana Klan, the Klan was to haemorrhage members in not just Indiana, but throughout the North. The result was that: 

By 1930, the Klan’s little strength was concentrated in the South. Over the next half-century the Klan would gradually lose its Northern members, regressing more and more closely towards its Reconstruction ancestor until, by the 1960s, it would stand as a near-perfect replica” (p252) 

Thenceforth, the Klan was to remain, once again, a largely Southern phenomenon, with what little numerical strength it retained overwhelmingly concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. 

Death and Taxes – The Only Certainties in Life 

The Second Klan was finally destroyed, however, not by declining membership, violent atrocities, bad publicity and inept brand-management, nor even by government prosecution, though all these factors did indeed play a part.  

Rather, the final nail in the Klan’s coffin was dealt by the taxman. 

In 1944, the Inland Revenue demanded restitution in respect of unpaid taxes due on the profits earnt from subscription dues during the Klan’s brief but lucrative 1920s membership boom (p275). 

The Klan, which had been haemorrhaging members even before the 1930s Depression, and, unlike the economy as a whole, had yet to recover, was already in a dire financial situation. Therefore, it could never hope to pay the monies demanded by the government, and instead was forced to declare bankruptcy (p275). 

Thenceforth, the Klan was no more. 

Ultimately, then, the government destroyed the Klan the same way had did Al Capone – failure to pay their taxes! 

The Klan and the Nazis – A Match Made in Hell? 

In between recounting the Klan’s decline, Wade also discusses its supposed courtship of, or by, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund

Actually, however, a careful reading of Wade’s account suggests that he exaggerates the extent of any such association. 

Thus, it is notable, if bizarre, that, in Wade’s own telling, the Bund’s leader, German-born Fritz Julius Kuhn, in seeking the “merging of the Bund with some native American organization who would shield it from charges of being a ‘foreign’ agency”, had first set his sights on that most native of “native American organizations” – namely, Native Americans (p269-70). 

When this quixotic venture inevitably ended in failure, if only due to “profound indifference on the Indians’ part”, only then did the rebuffed Kuhn turn his spurned attentions to the Klan (p270). 

Yet the Klan seemed to have been almost as resistant to Kuhn’s advances as the Native Americans had been. Thus, Wade quotes Kuhn as admitting, somewhat ambiguously:

The Southern Klans did not want to be known in it… So the negotiations were between representatives of the Klans in New Jersey and Michigan, but it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Yet, by this time, in Wade’s own telling, the Klan was extremely weak in Northern states such as New Jersey and Michigan, and what little numerical strength it retained was concentrated in the Southern states of the former Confederacy. 

This suggests that it was only the already marginalized northern Klan groups who, bereft of other support, were willing to entertain the notion of an alliance with Bund. 

If the Southern Klan leadership was indeed aware of, and implicitly approved, the link, it was nevertheless clear that they wanted to keep any such association indirect and at an arm’s length, hence maintaining plausible deniability

This is perhaps the only way we can make sense of Kuhn’s acknowledgement, on the one hand, that “the Southern Klans did not want to be known in it”, while, on the other, that “it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Thus, when negative publicity resulted from the joint Klan-Bund rally in New Jersey, the national (i.e. Southern) Klan leadership was quick to distance itself from and disavow any notion of an alliance, promptly relieving the New Jersey Grand Dragon of his office.

On reflection, however, this is little surprise.

For one thing, German-Americans, especially those who willing to flagrantly flaunt their ‘dual loyalty’ by joining a group like the German-American Bund, were themselves exactly the type of hyphenated-Americans that the 100% Americans of the Klan professed to despise.

Indeed, though they may have been white and (mostly) protestant, German-Americans own integration into the American mainstream was, especially after the anti-German sentiment aroused during the First World War, still very much incomplete. 

Today, of course, we might think of Nazis and the Klan as natural allies, both being, after all, that most reviled species of humanity – namely, white racists.

However, besides racialism, the Klan and the Nazis actually had surprisingly little in common. 

After all, the Klan was a Protestant fundamentalist group opposed to Darwinism and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.

Hitler, in contrast, was an ardent social Darwinist, who was reported by his confidents as harbouring a profound antipathy to the Christian faith, albeit one he kept out of his public pronouncements for reasons of political expediency, and some of whose followers even championed a return to Germanic paganism.[15]

Indeed, even their shared racialism was directed primarily towards different targets.

In Germany, blacks, though indeed persecuted by the Nazis, were few in number, and hence not a major target of Nazi propaganda, animosity or persecution – and nor were Catholics among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, Hitler himself having been raised as a Catholic in his native Austria.[16]

Yet, if Catholics were not among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, members of secret societies like the Klan very much were. 

Thus, among the less politically-fashionable targets for persecution by the Nazis were both the Freemasons and indeed the closest thing Germany had to a Ku Klux Klan. 

Thus, in 1923 a Klan-like group, “the German Order of the Fiery Cross”, had been founded in Germany in imitation of the Klan, by an expatriate German on his return to the Fatherland from America (p266). 

Yet, ironically, it was Hitler himself who ultimately banned and suppressed this German Klan imitator (p267). 

The Third Klan/s 

The so-called Third Klan was really not one Klan, but many different Klans, each not only independent of one another, but also often in fierce competition with one another for members and influence. 

They filled the vacuum left by the defunct Second Klan and competed to match its size, power and influence – though none were ever to succeed. 

From this point, it is no longer really proper to talk about the Klan, since there was not one Klan but rather many separate Klans, with little if any institutional connections with one another. 

Moreover, the different Klan groups varied more than ever in their ethos and activity. Thus, Wade reports: 

Some Klans were quietly ineffective, some were violent and some were borderline psychotic” (p302) 

With no one group maintaining a registered trademark over the Klan ‘brand’, inevitably the atrocities committed by one group ended up discrediting even other groups with no connection to them. The Klan ‘brand’ was irretrievably damaged, even among those who might otherwise be attracted to its ideology and ethos.[17] 

Indeed, the plethora of different groups was such that even Klansmen themselves were confused, one Dragon complaining: 

The old countersigns and passwords won’t work because all Klansmen are strangers to each other” (p302). 

Increasingly, opposition to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, rather than to Catholicism, now seems to have become the Klan’s chief preoccupation and the primary basis upon which Klaverns, and Kleagles, sought to attract recruits. 

However, respectable opposition to desegregation throughout the South was largely monopolized by the Citizens’ Councils.

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, “preventing a build-up of the Ku Klux Klan” was, quite as much as opposing desegregation, one of the principal objectives for which the Citizens Councils had been formed, since “violence was bad for business, and most of the council leaders were businessmen” (p299). 

If this is true, then perhaps the Citizens Councils were more successful in achieving their objectives than they are usually credited as having been. Segregation, of course, was gone and did not come back – but, then again, neither did the Klan. 

Yet, in practice, Wade reports, the main impact of the Citizens Councils on the Klan was: 

Not so much eliminating the Klan as leaving it with nothing but nothing but the violence prone dregs of Southern white society” (p302). 

Thus, the Klan’s image, and the characteristic socioeconomic status of its membership profile, declined still further. 

The electoral campaigns of the notorious segregationist and governor of Alabama George Wallace also had a similar effect. Thus, Wade reports: 

Wallace’s campaigns… swallowed a lot of disaffected Klansmen. In fact, Wallace’s campaigns offered them the first really viable alternative to the Klan” (p364). 

Political Cameos and Reinventions 

Here in Wade’s narrative, the myriad of disparate Klan groups inevitably fade into the background, playing a largely reactive, and often violent but nevertheless largely ineffective, and often outright counterproductive, role in opposing desegregation. 

Instead, the starring role is taken, in Wade’s own words, by: 

Two men who were masters of the electronic media: an inspired black minister, Martin Luther King, and a pragmatic white politician, JFK, who would work in an uneasy but highly productive tandem” (p310). 

Actually, in my view, it would be more accurate to say that the starring role was taken by two figures who are today vastly overrated on account of their respective early deaths by assassination, and consequent elevation to martyr status. 

In fact, however, while Wade’s portrait of King is predictably hagiographic, that of Kennedy is actually refreshingly revisionist. 

Far from the liberal martyr of contemporary left-liberal imagining, Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, only a “pragmatic white politician”, and moreover only a rather late convert to the African-American civil rights movement

Indeed, before he first took office, Wade reports, Kennedy had actually endorsed the the Dunning School of historiography regarding the Reconstruction-era, was critical of Eisenhower having sent the National guard into Arkansas to enforce desegregation, and only reluctantly, when his hand was forced, himself sent the National Guard into Alabama (p317-22). 

Meanwhile, another political figure making a significant cameo appearance in Wade’s narrative, ostensibly on the opposite side of the debate over desegregation, is the notorious segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace

Yet Wade’s take on Wallace is, in many respects, as revisionist as his take on Kennedy. Thus, far from a raving racist and staunch segregationist, Wade argues: 

In retrospect… no one used and manipulated the Klansmen more than Wallace. He gave them very few rewards for their efforts on his behalf: often his approval was enough. And in spite of his fiery cant and cries of ‘Never!’ that so thrilled Klansmen, Wallace was a former judge who well understood the law – especially how far he could bend it” (p322). 

Thus, Wade reports, while it is well-known that Wallace famously blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama preventing black students from entering, what is less well-known is that: 

When the marshals asked for the black students to be admitted in the afternoon, Wallace quietly stepped aside. Instead of being recognized, at best, as a practical politician or, at worst, a pompous coward, Wallace was instead hailed by Klansmen as a dauntless hero” (p322). 

Thus, if Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, “a pragmatic white politician”, then Wallace emerges as an outright political chameleon and shameless opportunist. 

As further evidence for this interpretation, what Wade does not get around to mentioning is that, in his first run for the governorship of Alabama in 1958, Wallace had actually spoken against the Klan and been backed by the NAACP, only after his defeat vowing, as he was eloquently quoted as observing, ‘never to be outniggered again’ again, and hence reinventing himself as an (ostensible) arch-segregationist. 

Neither does Wade mention that, in his last run for governor in 1982, reinventing himself once again as a born-again Christian, Wallace actually managed to win over 90% of the black vote

Yet even Wallace’s capacity for political reinvention is outdone by that of one of his supporters and speech-writers, former Klan leader Asa ‘Ace’ Carter, a man so notorious for his racism that even the Wallace denied employing him, but who was supposedly responsible for penning the words to Wallace’s infamous segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech

Expelled from a Citizens’ Council for extremism, Carter had then founded and briefly reigned as tin pot führer of one of the most violent Klan outfits – “the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, which resembled a cell of Nazi storm troopers” (p303). 

This group was responsible for one of the worst Klan atrocities of the period, namely the literal castration of a black man, whom they: 

Castrated… with razor blades; and then tortured… with by pouring kerosene and turpentine over his wounds” (p303). 

This gruesome act was, according to a Klan informant, performed for no better reason than as a “test of one of the members’ mettle before being elected ‘captain of the lair” (p303). 

The group was also, it seems, too violent even for its own good. Thus, it subsequently broke up when, in a dispute over financing and the misappropriation of funds, Carter was to shoot two fellow members, yet, for whatever reason, never stood trial (Ibid.). 

Yet what Wade does not get around to mentioning is Asa ‘Ace’ Carter was also, like Wallace, to later successfully reinvent himself, and achieve fame once again, this time as Forrest Carter, an ostensibly half-Native American author who penned such hugely successful novels as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (subsequently made into the successful motion picture, The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood) and The Education of Little Tree, an ostensible autobiography of a growing up on an Indian reservation, and a book so sickeningly sentimental that it was even recommended and championed by none other than Oprah Winfrey! 

The David Duke Show” 

By the 1970s, open support for white supremacy and segregation was in decline, even among white Southerners. This, together with Klansmen’s involvement in such atrocities such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, might have made it seem that the Klan brand was irretrievably damaged and in terminal decline, never again to play a prominent role in American social or political life again. 

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the Klan brand did manage one last hurrah in the 1970s, this time through the singular talents of one David Duke

Duke was to turn the Klan’s infamy to his own advantage. Thus, his schtick was to use the provocative imagery of the Klan (white sheets, burning crosses) to attract media attention, but then, having attracted that attention, to come across as much more eloquent, reasonable, intelligent and clean-cut than anyone ever expected a Klansman to be – which, in truth, isn’t difficult. 

The result was a media circus that one disgruntled Klansmen aptly dismissed as “The David Duke Show” (p373). 

It was the same trick that George Lincoln Rockwell had used a generation before, though, whereas Rockwell used Nazi imagery (e.g. swastikas, Nazi salutes) to attract media attention, Duke instead used the imagery of the Klan (e.g. white sheets, burning crosses).

If Duke was a successor to Rockwell, then Duke’s own contemporary equivalent, fulfilling a similar niche for the contemporary American media as the handsome, eloquent, go-to face of white nationalism, is surely Richard Spencer. Indeed, if rumours are to be believed, Spencer even has a similar penchant to Duke for seducing the wives and girlfriends of his colleagues and supporters.. 

Such behaviour, along with his lack of organizational ability, were among the reasons that Duke alienated much of his erstwhile support, haemorrhaging members almost as fast as he attracted them. 

Many such defectors would go on to form rival groups, including Tom Metzger, a TV repairman, who split from Duke to form a more openly militant group calling itself White Aryan Resistance (known by the memorable backronym ‘WAR’), and who achieved some degree of media infamy by starring in multiple television documentaries and talk-shows, before being bankrupted by a legal verdict in which he was held liable for involvement in a murder in which he seems to have had literally no involvement.

However, for Wade, the most important defector was, not Metzger, but rather Bill Wilkinson, perhaps because, unlike Metzger, who, on splitting from Duke, abandoned the Klan name, Wilkinson was to set up a rival Klan group, successfully poaching members from Duke. 

However, lacking Duke’s eloquence and good-looks, Wilkinson had instead to devise to another strategy in order to attract media attention and members. The strategy he hit upon was that of “taking a public stance of unbridled violence” (p375). 

This, together with the fact the fact that he was nevertheless able to evade prosecution, led to the allegation that he was a state agent and his Klan an FBI-sponsored honey trap, an allegation only reinforced by the recent revelation that he is now a multimillionaire in the multiracial utopia of Belize

Besides openly advocating violence, Wilkinson also hit upon another means of attracting members. Thus, Wade reports, he “perfected a technique that other Klan leaders belittled as ‘ambulance chasing’” (p384): 

Wilkinson… traversed the nation seeking racial ‘hot spots’… where he can come into a community, collect a large amount of initiation fees, sell a few robes, sell some guns… collect his money and be on his way to another ‘hot spot’” (p384). 

This is, of course, ironically, the exact same tactic employed by contemporary black race-baiters like Al Sharpton and the Black Lives Matter movement

Owing partly to the violent activities of rival Klan groups from whom he could never hope to wholly disassociate himself, Duke himself eventually came to see the Klan baggage as a liability. 

One by one, he jettisoned these elements, styling himself National Director rather than Imperial Wizard, wearing a suit rather than a white sheet and eventually giving up even the Klan name itself. Finally, in what was widely perceived as an act of betrayal, Duke was recorded offering to sell his membership rolls to Wilkinson, his erstwhile rival and enemy (p389-90). 

In place of the Klan, Duke sought to set up what he hoped would be a more mainstream and respectable group, namely the National Assocation for the Advancement of White People or NAAWP, one of the many short-lived organizations to adopt this rather unimaginative name.[18]

Yet on abandoning the provocative Klan imagery that had first brought him to the attention of the media, Duke suddenly found media attention much harder to come by. Wade concludes:

Duke had little chance at making a go of any Klan-like organization without the sheets and ‘illuminated crosses’. Without the mumbo-jumbo the lure of the Klan was considerably limited. Five years later the National Association for the Advancement of White People hadn’t got off the ground” (p390). 

Duke was eventually to re-achieve some degree of notoriety as a perennial candidate for elective office, initially with some success, even briefly holding a seat in the Louisiana state legislature and winning a majority of the white vote in his 1991 run for Governorship of Louisiana.

However, despite abandoning the Klan, Duke was never to escape its shadow. Thus, even forty years after abandoning the Klan name, Duke was to still find his name forever prefixed with the title former Klansman or former Grand Wizard David Duke, an image he was never able to jettison. 

Today, still railing against “the Jews” to anyone still bothering to listen, his former good looks having long previously faded, he cuts a lonely, rather pathetic figure, marginal even among the already marginal alt-right, and in his most recent electoral campaign, an unsuccessful run for a Senate seat, he managed to pick up only a miserly three percent of the vote. 

Un-American Americanism 

Where once Klansmen could unironically claim to stand for 100% Americanism, now, were not the very word ‘un-American‘ so tainted by McCarthyism as to sound almost un-American in itself, the Klan could almost be described as a quintessentially un-American organization. 

Indeed, interestingly, Wade reports that there was pressure on the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the Klan from even before the committee was first formed. Thus, Wade laments: 

The creation of the Dies Committee had been urged and supported by liberals and Nazi haters who wanted it used as a congressional forum against fascism. But in the hands of chairman Martin Dies of Texas, an arch-segregationist and his reactionary colleagues… the committee instead had become an anachronistic pack of witch hunters who harassed labor leaders… and discovered ‘communists’ in every imaginable shape and place” (p272).

Thus, Wade’s chief objection to the House Un-American Activities Committee seems to be, not that they became witch hunters, but that they chose to hunt, to his mind, the wrong coven of witches. Instead of going after the commies, they should have targeted the racists instead.

Yet what Wade does not mention is that perhaps the most prominent of the “liberals and nazi haters” who advocated for the formation of the HUAC in order persecute fascists and Klansmen, and who, as the joint-chairman of the ‘Special Committee on Un-American Activities’, the precursor to the HUAC, from 1934 to 1937, did indeed use the Committee to target fascists, albeit mostly imaginary ones, was congressman Samuel Dickstein, who was himself a paid Soviet agent, hence proving that McCarthyist concerns regarding communist infiltration and subversion at the highest level of American public life were no delusion.

Ultimately, however, Wade was to have his wish. Thus, the Klan did indeed fall victim to the same illiberal and sometimes illegal FBI cointelpro programme of harassment as more fashionable victims on the left, such as Martin Luther King, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party (p361-3).

Indeed, according to Wade, it was actually the Klan who were the first victims of this campaign of FBI harassment, with more fashionable victims of the left being targeted only later. Thus, Wade writes:

After developing Cointelpro for the Klan, the FBI also used it against the Black Panthers, civil rights leaders, and antiwar demonstrators” (p363).[19]

Licence to Kill?

The Klan formerly enjoyed a reputation something like that of the the Mafia, namely as a violent dangerous group whom a person crossed at their peril, since, again like the Mafia, they had a proven track record of committing violent acts and getting away with it, largely through their corrupt links with local law enforcement in the South, and the unwillingness of all-white Southern juries to hand down convictions.[20]

Today, however, this reputation is long lost.

Indeed, if today a suspect in a racist murder were outed as a Klansman, this would likely unfairly prejudice a jury of any ethnic composition, anywhere in the country, against him, arguably to the point of denying him any chance of a fair trial. 

Thus, when aging Klansmen, such as Edgar Ray KillenThomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherrywere belatedly put on trial and convicted in the 2000s for killings committed in the early 1960s, some forty years previously, I rather suspect that they received no fairer a trial then than they did, or would have had, when put on trial before all-white juries in the 1960s American South. The only difference was that now the prejudice was against them rather than in their favour. 

Thus, today, we have gone full circle. Quite when the turning point was reached is a matter of conjecture.

Arguably, the last incident of Klansmen unfairly getting away with murder was the so-called Greensboro massacre in 1979, when Klansmen and other white nationalist activists shot up an anti-Klan rally organized by radical left Maoist labour agitators in North Carolina. 

Here, however, if the all-white jury was indeed prejudiced against the victims of this attack, it was not because they were blacks (all but one of the five people killed were actually white), but rather that they were ‘reds’ (i.e. communists).[21]

Today, then, the problem is not with all-white juries in the South refusing to convict Klansmen, but rather with majority-black juries in urban areas across America refusing to convict black defendants, especially on police evidence, no matter how strong the case against them, for example in the OJ case (see also Paved with Good Intentions: p43-4; p71-3). 

Klans Today 

Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ was first published in 1987. It is therefore not, strictly speaking, a history of the Klan for the entirety of its existence right up to the present day, since Klan groups have continued to exist since this date, and indeed continue to exist in modern America even today. 

However, Wade’s book nevertheless seems complete, because such groups have long previously ceased to have any real significance in American political, social and cultural life save as a media bogeyman and folk devils

In its brief 1920s heyday, the Second Klan could claim to play a key role in politics, even at the national level. 

Wade even claims, dubiously as it happens, that Warren G Harding was inducted into the organization in a special and secret White House ceremony while in office as President (p165).

Certainly, they helped defeat the candidacy of Al Smith, on account of his Catholicism, in 1924 and again in 1928 (p197-99). 

Some half-century later, during the 1980 presidential election campaign, the Klan again made a brief cameo, when each candidate sought to associate the Klan with their opponent, and thereby discredit him. Thus, Reagan was accused of insensitivity for praising “states’ rights, to which Reagan retorted by accusing his opponent, inaccurately as it happens, of opening his campaign in the city that “gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan”. 

This led Grand Dragon Bill Wilkinson to declare triumphantly: 

We’re not an issue in this Presidential race because we’re insignificant” (p388). 

Yet what Wilkinson failed to grasp, or at least refused to publicly admit, was that the Klan’s role was now wholly negative. Neither candidate actually had any actual Klan links; each sought to link the Klan only with their opponent.

Whereas in the 1920s, candidates for elective office had actively and openly courted Klan votes, by the time of the 1980 Presidential election to have done so would have been electoral suicide. 

The Klan’s role, then, was as bogeymen and folk devils – roughly analogous to that played by Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign; the role NAMBLA plays in the debate over gay rights; or, indeed, the role communists played during the First and Second Red Scares.[22]

Indeed, although in modern America lynching has fallen into disfavour, one suspects that, if it were ever to re-emerge as a popular American pastime and application of participatory democracy to the judicial process, then, among the first contemporary folk devils to be hoisted from a tree, alongside paedophiles and other classes of sex offender, would surely be Klansmen and other unreconstructed white racists. 

Likewise, today, if a group of Klansmen attempt to march in any major city in America then a police presence is required, not to protect innocent blacks, Jews and Catholics from rampaging Klansmen, but rather to protect the Klansmen themselves from angry assailants of all ethnicities, but mostly white. 

Indeed, the latter, styling themselves Antifa (an abbreviation of anti-fascist), despite their positively fascist opposition to freedom of speech, expression and assembly, have even taken, like Klansmen of old, to wearing masks to disguise their identities

Perhaps anti-masking laws, first enacted to defeat the First Klan, and later resurrected to tackle later Klan revivals, must be revived once again, but this time employed, without prejudice, against the contemporary terror, and totalitarianism, of the militant left. 


[1] The only trace of possible illiteracy in the name is found in the misspelling of ‘clan’ as ‘klan’, presumably, again, for alliterative purposes, or perhaps reflecting a legitimate spelling in the nineteenth century when the group was founded.

[2] The popular alt-right meme that there are literally no white-on-black rapes is indeed untrue, and reflects the misreading of a table in a government report that actually involved only a small sample. In fact, the government does not currently release data on the prevalence of interracial rape. However, there is no doubt that black-on-white rape is much more common than white-on-black rape. Similarly, in the US prison system, where male-male rape is endemic, such assaults disproportionately involve non-white assaults on white inmates, as discussed by a Human Rights Watch report.

[3] The then-president Woodrow Wilson (who, in addition to being a politican, was also a noted historian of the reconstruction period, of Southern background, and sympathies, whose five-volume book, A History of the American People, on the reconstruction period is actually quoted in several of the movie’s title cards) was later quoted as describing the movie, in some accounts the first moving picture that he had ever seen, as: 

History [writ] with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (p126). 

However, during the controversy following the film’s release, Wilson himself later issued a denial that he had ever uttered any such words, insisting that he had only agreed to the viewing as a “courtesy extended to an old acquaintance” and that:

The President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it” (p137).

This claim is, however, doubtful given the notoriety of the novel and play upon which the film had been based, and of its author, Thomas Dixon.

[4] Like so many other aspects of what is today considered Klan ritual, there is no evidence that cross-burning, or cross-lighting as devout Christian Klansmen prefer to call it, was ever practised by the original Reconstruction-era Klan. However, unlike other aspects of Klan ritualism, it had been invented, not by Simmons, but by novelist Thomas Dixson (by way of Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake), in imitation of an ostensible Scottish tradition, for his book, The Clansman: A Historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, upon which novel the movie Birth of a Nation was based. The new Klan was eventually granted an easement in perpetuity over Stone Mountain, allowing it to repeat this ritual.

[5] A conviction may be regarded as unsafe, and even as a wrongful conviction, even if we still believe the defendant might be guilty of the crime with which s/he is charged. After all, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If there remains reasonable doubt, then the defendant should not have been convicted. Steve Oney, who researched the case intensively for his book, And the Dead Shall Rise, concedes that “the case [against Frank] is not as feeble as most people say it is”, but nevertheless concludes that Frank was probably innocent, “but there is enough doubt to leave the door ajar” (Berger, Leo Frank Case Stirs Debate 100 Years After Jewish Lynch Victim’s Conviction, Forward, August 30, 2013).

[6] The ADL ’s role in Wade’s narrative does not end here, since the ADL would later play a key role in fighting later incarnations of the Klan.

[7] Indeed, even from a modern racial egalitarian perspective, the era is arguably misnamed. After all, from a racial egalitarian perspective, the plantation era, when slavery was still practised, was surely worse, as surely was the period of bloody conflict between Native Americans and European colonists.

[8] Even among open racists, support for slavery is rare. Therefore, few American racists openly pine for a return to the plantation era. Segregation is, then, then next best thing, short of the actual expulsion of blacks back to Africa. Thus, it is common to hear white American racialists hold up early twentieth century America as lost Eden. For example, many blame the supposed decline of the US public education system on desegregation.

[9] It is thus a myth that oppressed peoples invariably revolt against their oppressors. In reality, truly oppressed peoples, like blacks in the South in this period, tend to maintain a low profile precisely so as to avoid incurring the animosity of their oppressors. It is only when they sense weakness in their oppressors, or ostensible oppressors, that insurrections tend to occur. This then explains the paradox that black militancy in America seems to be inversely proportional to the actual extent of black oppression. Thus, the preeminent black leader in America at the height of the Jim Crow era was Booker T Washington, by modern standards a conservative, if not an outright Uncle Tom. Yet, today, when blacks are the beneficiaries, not the victims of discrimination, in the form of what is euphemistically called affirmative action, and it is whites who are ‘walking on eggshells’ and in fear of losing their jobs if they say something offensive to certain protected groups, American blacks are seemingly more militant and belligerent than ever, as the recent BLM riots have shown only too well. 

[10] This disavowal may have been disingenuous and reflected the fact that, by this time, Simmons had lost control of the then-lucrative cash-cow.

[11] Thus, in Ireland, the Protestant minority opposed Home Rule’ for Ireland (a form of devolution, or self-government, that fell short of full independence) on the grounds that it would supposedly amount, in effect, to Rome Rule, due to the Catholic majority in Ireland.

[12] Interestingly, unlike the Klan, another initially anti-Catholic fraternal order, Junior Order of United American Mechanics, successfully jettisoned both its earlier anti-Catholicism, and a similar association with violence, to reinvent itself as a respectable, non-sectarian beneficent group. However, the Klan was ultimately unable to achieve the same feat. 

[13] Of course, other forms of intergroup prejudice have been altogether more intransigent and long-lasting. Indeed, even anti-Catholicism itself had a long history. Pierre van den Berghe, in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (which I have reviewed here and here), argues that assimilation is possible on in specific circumstances, namely when the groups to be assimilated are: 

Similar in physical appearance and culture to the group to which it assimilates, small in proportion to the total population, of low status and territorially dispersed” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p219). 

Thus, those hoping other forms of intergroup prejudice (e.g. anti-black sentiment in the USA, or indeed the continuing animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland) can be similarly overcome in such a short period of time in coming years are well-advised not to hold their breaths.

[14] In the many often graphic images of lynchings of black victims accessible via the internet, I have yet to find one in which the lynch-mobs are dressed in the ceremonial regalia of the Klan. On the contrary, far from wearing masks, the perpetrators often proudly face the camera, evidently feeling no fear of retribution or legal repercussions for their vigilantism.

[15] The question of the religious beliefs, if any, of Hitler is one of some controversy. Certainly, many leading  figures in the National Socialist regime, including Martin Bormann and Alfred Rosenberg, were hostile to Christianity. Likewise, Hitler is reported as making anti-Christian statements in private, in both Hitler’s Table Talk, and by such confidents as Speer in his memoirs. Hitler talked of postponing his Kirchenkampf, or settling of accounts with the churches, until after the War, not wishing to fight enemies on multiple fronts.

[16] To clarify, it has been claimed that the Catholic Church faced persecution in National Socialist Germany. However, this persecution did not extend to individual Catholics, save those, including some priests, who opposed the regime and its policies, in which case the persecution reflected their political activism rather than their religion as such. Although Hitler was indeed hostile to Christianity, Catholicism very much included, Nazi conflict with the Church seems to have reflected primarily the fact that the Nazis, as a totalitarian regime, sought to control all aspects of society and culture in Germany, including those over which the Church had formerly claimed hegemony (e.g. education).

[17] In a later era, this was among the reasons given by David Duke in his autobiography for his abandonment of the Klan brand, since his own largely non-violent Klan faction was, he complained, invariably confused with, and tarred with the same brush as, other violent Klan factions through guilt by association

[18] Duke later had a better idea for a name for his organization – namely, the National Organization For European American Rights, which he intended to be known by the memorable acronym, NO-FEAR. Unfortunately for him, however, the clothing company who had already registered this name as a trademark thought better of it and forced him to change the group’s name to the rather less memorable European-American Unity and Rights Organization (or EURO).

[19] Certainly, the Klan was henceforth a major target of the FBI. Indeed, the FBI were even accused, in a sting operation apparently funded by the ADL, of provoking one Klan bombing in which a woman, Kathy Ainsworth, herself one of the bombers and an active, militant Klanswoman, was killed (p363). The FBI was also implicated in another Klan killing, namely that of civil rights campaigner Viola Liuzzo, since an FBI agent was present with the killers in the car from which the fatal shots were fired (p347-54). Indeed, Wade reports that “about 6 percent of all Klansmen in the late 1960s worked for the FBI” (p362).

[20] Thus, former Klan leader David Duke, in his autobiographical My Awakening, reports that, when he and other arrestees were outed as Klansmen in a Louisiana prison, the black prisoners, far attacking them, were initially cowed by the revelation: 

At first, it seemed my media reputation intimidated them. The Klan had a reputation, although undeserved, like that of the mafia. Some of the Black inmates obviously thought that if they did anything to harm me, a “Godfather” type of character, they might soon end up with their feet in cement at the bottom of the Mississippi.

[21] All but one of those killed, Wade reports, were leaders of the Maoist group responsible for the anti-Klan rally (p381). Wade uses this to show that the violence was premeditated, having been carefully planned and coordinated by the Klansmen and neo-Nazis. However, the fact that they were leading figures in this Maoist group would also likely mean that they were hardly innocent victims, at least in the eyes of conservative white jurors in North Carolina. In fact, the victims were indeed highly unsympathetic, not merely on account of their politics, but also on account of the fact that they had seemingly deliberately provoked the Klan attack, openly challenging the Klan to attend their provocatively titled ‘Death to the Klan’ rally (p379), and, though ultimately heavily outgunned, they themselves seem to have first initiated the violence by attacking the cars carrying Klansmen with placards (p381).

[22] This was the same role that the Klan was to play once again during the recent Trump presidential campaigns, as journalists trawled the South in search of grizzled, self-appointed Grand Dragons willing, presumably in return for a few drinks, to offer their unsolicited endorsement of the Trump candidature and thereby, in the journalists’ own minds, and that of some of their readers, discredit him through guilt-by-association.

‘Alas Poor Darwin’: How Stephen Jay Gould Became an Evolutionary Psychologist and Steven Rose a Scientific Racist

Steven Rose and Hillary Rose (eds.), Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology’ is an edited book composed of multiple essays by different authors, from different academic fields, brought together for the purpose of ostensibly all critiquing the emerging science of evolutionary psychology. This multiple authorship makes it difficult to provide an overall review, since the authors approaches to the topic differ markedly.  

Indeed, the editors admit as much, conceding that the contributors “do not speak with a single voice” (p9). This seems to a tacit admission that they frequently contradict one another. 

Thus, for example, feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling attacks evolutionary psychologists such as Donald Symons as sexist for arguing that the female orgasm as a mere by-product of the male orgasm and not an adaptation in itself, complaining that, according to Symons, women “did not even evolve their own orgasms” (p176). 

Yet, on the other hand, scientific charlatan Stephen Jay Gould criticizes evolutionary psychologists for the precise opposite offence, namely for (supposedly) viewing all human traits and behaviours as necessarily adaptations and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4).

Meanwhile, some chapters are essentially irrelevant to the project of evolutionary psychology

For example, one, that of full-time ‘Dawkins-stalker’ (and part-time philosopher) Mary Midgley critiques the quite separate approach of memetics

Likewise, one singularly uninsightful chapter by ‘disability activist’ Tom Shakespeare and a colleague seems to say nothing with which the average evolutionary psychologist would likely disagree. Indeed, they seem to say little of substance at all. 

Only at the end of their chapter do they make the obligatory reference to just-so stories, and, more bizarrely, to the “single-gene determinism of the biological reductionists” (p203).

Yet, as anyone who has ever read any evolutionary psychology is surely aware, evolutionary psychologists, like other evolutionary biologists, emphasize to the point of repetitiveness that, while they may talk of ‘genes for’ certain characteristics as a form of scientific shorthand, nothing in their theories implies a one-to-one concordance between single genes and behaviours. 

Indeed, the irrelevance of some chapters to their supposed subject-matter (i.e. evolutionary psychology) makes one wonder whether some of the contributors to the volume have ever actually read any evolutionary psychology, or even any popularizations of the field – or whether their entire limited knowledge of the field was gained by reading critiques of evolutionary psychology by other contributors to the volume. 

Annette Karmiloff-Smith’s chapter, entitled ‘Why babies’ brains are not Swiss army knives’, is a critique of what she refers to as nativism, namely the belief that certain brain structures (or modules) are innately hardwired into the brain at birth.

This chapter, perhaps alone in the entire volume, may have value as a critique of some strands of evolutionary psychology.

Any analogy is imperfect; otherwise it would not be an analogy but rather an identity. However, given that even a modern micro-computer has been criticized as an inadequate model for the human brain, comparing human brains to a Swiss army knives is obviously an analogy that should not be taken too far.

However, the nativist, massive modularity thesis that Karmiloff-Smith associates with evolutionary psychology, while indeed typical of what we might call the narrow ‘Tooby and Cosmides brand’ of evolutionary psychology is rejected by many evolutionary psychologists (e.g. the authors of Human Evolutionary Psychology) and is not, in my view, integral to evolutionary psychology as a discipline or approach.

Instead, evolutionary psychology posits that behaviour have been shaped by natural selection to maximise the reproductive success of organisms in ancestral environments. It therefore allows us to bypass the proximate level of causation in the brain by recognising that, howsoever the brain is structured and produces behaviour in interaction with its environment, given that this brain evolved through a process of natural selection, it must be such as to produce behaviour which maximizes the reproductive success of its bearer, at least under ancestral conditions. (This is sometimes called the phenotypic gambit.) 

Stephen Jay Gould’s Deathbed Conversion?

Undoubtedly the best known, and arguably the most prestigious, contributor to the Roses’ volume is the famed palaeontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Indeed, such is his renown that Gould evidently did not feel it necessary to contribute an original chapter for this volume, instead simply recycling, and retitling, what appears to be a book review, previously published in The New York Review of Books (Gould 1997). 

This is a critical review of a book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by philosopher Daniel Dennett that is itself critical of Gould, a form of academic self-defence. Neither the book, nor the review, deal primarily with the topic of evolutionary psychology, but rather with more general issues in evolutionary biology. 

Yet the most remarkable revelation of Gould’s chapter – especially given that it appears in a book ostensibly critiquing evolutionary psychology – is that the best-known and most widely-cited erstwhile opponent of evolutionary psychology is apparently no longer any such thing. 

On the contrary, he now claims in this essay: 

‘Evolutionary psychology’… could be quite useful, if proponents would change their propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty for a healthy dose of modesty” (p98). 

Indeed, even more remarkably, Gould even acknowledges: 

The most promising theory of evolutionary psychology [is] the recognition that differing Darwinian requirements for males and females imply distinct adaptive behaviors centred on male advantage in spreading sperm as widely as possible… and female strategy for extracting time and attention from males… [which] probably does underlie some different, and broadly general, emotional propensities oof human males and females” (p102). 

In other words, it seems that Gould now accepts the position of evolutionary psychologists in that most controversial of areas – innate sex differences

In this context, I am reminded of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’s observation that critics of evolutionary psychology, in the course of their attacks on evolutionary psychology, often make concessions that, if made in any context other than that of an attack on evolutionary psychology, would cause them to themselves be labelled (and attacked) as evolutionary psychologists (Tooby and Cosmides 2000). 

Nevertheless, Gould’s backtracking is a welcome development, notwithstanding his usual arrogant tone.[1]

Given that he passed away only a couple of years after the current volume was published, one might almost, with only slight hyperbole, characterise his backtracking as a deathbed conversion. 

Ultra-Darwinism? Hyper-Adaptationism?

On the other hand, Gould’s criticisms of evolutionary psychology have not evolved at all but merely retread familiar gripes which evolutionary psychologists (and indeed so-called sociobiologists before them) dealt with decades ago. 

For example, he accuses evolutionary psychologists of viewing every human trait as adaptive and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4). 

However, this claim is easily rebutted by simply reading the primary literature in the field. 

Thus, for example, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson view the high rate of abuse perpetrated by stepparents, not as itself adaptive, but as a by-product of the adaptive tendency for stepparents to care less for their stepchildren than they would for their biological children (see The Truth about Cinderella: which I have reviewed here).  

Similarly, Donald Symons argued that the female orgasm is not itself adaptive, but rather is merely a by-product of the male orgasm, just as male nipples are a non-adaptive by-product of female nipples (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality: which I have reviewed here).  

Meanwhile, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer are divided as to whether human rape is adaptive or merely a by-product of men’s greater desire for commitment-free promiscuous sex (A Natural History of Rape: which I have reviewed here). 

However, unlike Gould himself, evolutionary psychologists generally prefer the term ‘by-product’ to Gould’s unhelpful coinage ‘spandrel’. The former term is readily intelligible to any educated person fluent in English. Gould’s preferred terms is needless obfuscation. 

As emphasized by Richard Dawkins, the invention of jargon to baffle non-specialists (e.g. referring to animal rape as “forced copulation” as the Roses advocate: p2) is the preserve of fields suffering from physics-envy, according to ‘Dawkins’ First Law of the Conservation of Difficulty’, whereby “obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity”. 

Untestable? Unfalsifiable?

Gould’s other main criticism of evolutionary psychology is his claim that sociobiological theories are inherently untestable and unfalsifiable – i.e. what Gould calls Just So Stories

However, one only has to flick through copies of journals like Evolution and Human Behavior, Human Nature, Evolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychological Science, and many other journals that regularly publish research in evolutionary psychology, to see evolutionary psychological theories being tested, and indeed often falsified, every month. 

As evidence for the supposed unfalsifiability of sociobiological theories, Gould cites, not such primary research literature, but rather a work of popular science, namely Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal

Thus, he quotes Robert Wright as asserting in this book that our “sweet tooth” (i.e. taste for sugar), although maladaptive in the contemporary West because it leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, was nevertheless adaptive in ancestral environments (i.e. the EEA) where, as Wright put it, “fruit existed but candy didn’t” (The Moral Animal: p67). 

Yet, Gould protests indignantly, in support of this claim, Wright cites “no paleontological data about ancestral feeding” (p100). 

However, Wright is a popular science writer, not an academic researcher, and his book, The Moral Animal, for all its many virtues, is a work of popular science. As such, Wright, unlike someone writing a scientific paper, is not to be expected to cite a source for every claim he makes. 

Moreover, is Gould, a palaeontologist, really so ignorant of human history that he seriously believes we really need “paleontological data” in order to demonstrate that fruit is not a recent invention but that candy is? Is this really the best example he can come up with? 

From ‘Straw Men’ to Fabricated Quotations 

Rather than arguing against the actual theories of evolutionary psychologists, contributors to ‘Alas Poor Darwin’ instead resort to the easier option of misrepresenting these theories, so as to make the task of arguing against them less arduous. This is, of course, the familiar rhetorical tactic of constructing of straw man

In the case of co-editor, Hilary Rose, this crosses the line from rhetorical deceit to outright defamation of character when, on p116, she falsely attributes to sociobiologist David Barash an offensive quotation violating the naturalistic fallacy by purporting to justify rape by reference to its adaptive function

Yet Barash simply does not say the words she attributes to him on the page she cites (or any other page) in Whisperings Within, the book form which the quotation claims be drawn. (I know, because I own a copy of said book.) 

Rather, after a discussion of the adaptive function of rape in ducks, Barash merely tentatively ventures that, although vastly more complex, human rape may serve an analogous evolutionary function (Whisperings Within: p55). 

Is Steven Rose a Scientific Racist? 

As for Steven Rose, the book’s other editor, unlike Gould, he does not repent his sins and convert to evolutionary psychology. However, in maintaining his evangelical crusade against evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and all related heresies, Rose inadvertently undergoes a conversion, in many ways, even more dramatic and far reaching in its consequences. 

To understand why, we must examine Rose’s position in more depth. 

Steven Rose, it goes almost without saying, is not a creationist. On the contrary, he is, in addition to his popular science writing and leftist political activism, a working neuroscientist who very much accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

Rose is therefore obliged to reconcile his opposition to evolutionary psychology with the recognition that the brain is, like the body, a product of evolution. 

Ironically, this leads him to employ evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology. 

For example, Rose mounts an evolutionary defence of the largely discredited theory of group selection, whereby it is contended that traits sometimes evolve, not because they increase the fitness of the individual possessing them, but rather because they aid the survival of the group of which s/he is a member, even at a cost to the fitness of the individual themselves (p257-9). 

Indeed, Rose even goes further, even going so far as to assert: 

Selection can occur at even higher levels – that of the species for example” (p258). 

Similarly, in the book’s introduction, co-authored with his wife Hillary, the Roses dismiss the importance of evolutionary psychological concept of the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ (or ‘EEA’).[2] 

This term refers to the idea that we evolved to maximise our reproductive success, not in the sort of contemporary Western societies in which we now so often find ourselves, but rather in the sorts of environments in which our ancestors spent most of our evolutionary history, namely as Stone Age hunter-gatherers. 

On this view, much behaviour in modern Western societies is recognized as maladaptive, reflecting a mismatch between the environment to which we are adapted and that in which we find ourselves, simply because we have not had sufficient time to evolve psychological mechanisms for dealing with such ‘evolutionary novelties’ as contraception, paternity tests and chocolate bars. 

However, the Roses argue that evolution can occur much faster than this. Thus, they point to: 

The huge changes produced by artificial selection by humans among domesticated animals – cattle, dogs and… pigeons – in only a few generations. Indeed, unaided natural selection in Darwin’s own Islands, the Galapagos, studied over several decades by the Grants is enough to produce significant changes in the birds’ beaks and feeding habits in response to climate change” (p1-2). 

Finally, Rose rejects the modular’ model of the human mind championed by some evolutionary psychologists, whereby the brain is conceptualized as being composed of many separate ‘domain-specific modules’, each specialized for a particular class of adaptive problem faced by ancestral humans.  

As evidence against this thesis, Rose points to the absence of a direct one-to-one relationship between the modules postulated by evolutionary psychologists and actual regions of the brain as identified by neuroscientists (p260-2). 

Whether such modules are more than theoretical entities is unclear, at least to most neuroscientists. Indeed evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker go to some lengths to make it clear that the ‘mental modules’ they invent do not, or at least do not necessarily, map onto specific brain structures” (p260). 

Thus, Rose protests: 

Evolutionary psychology theorists, who… are not themselves neuroscientists, or even, by and large, biologists, show as great a disdain for relating their theoretical concepts to material brains as did the now discredited behaviorists they so despise” (p261). 

Yet there is an irony here – namely, in employing evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology (i.e. emphasizing the importance of group selection and of recently evolved adaptations), Rose, unlike many of his co-contributors, actually implicitly accepts the idea of an evolutionary approach to understanding human behaviour and psychology. 

In other words, if Rose is indeed right about these matters (group selection, recently evolved adaptations and domain general psychological mechanisms), this would suggest, not the abandonment of an evolutionary approach in psychology, but rather the need to develop a new evolutionary psychology that gives appropriate weight to such factors as group selection, recently evolved adaptations and domain general psychological mechanisms

Actually, however, as we will see, this ‘new’ evolutionary psychology may not be all that new and Rose may find he has unlikely bedfellows in this endeavour. 

Thus, group selection – which tends to imply that conflict between groups such as races and ethnic groups is inevitable – has already been defended by race theorists such as Philippe Rushton and Kevin MacDonald

For example, Rushton, author of Race, Evolution and Behavior (which I have reviewed here), a notorious racial theorist known for arguing that black people are genetically predisposed to crime, promiscuity and low IQ, has also authored papers with titles like ‘Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selection’ (Rushton 1989) and ‘Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection’ (Rushton 1998), which defend and draw on the concept of group selection to explain such behaviours as racism and ethnocentrism.

Similarly, Kevin Macdonald, a former professor of psychology widely accused of anti-Semitism, has also championed the theory of group selection, and even developed a theory of cultural group selection to explain the survival and prospering of the Jewish people in diaspora in his book, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (which I have reviewed here and here) and its more infamous, and theoretically flawed, sequel, The Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here). 

Similarly, the claim that sufficient time has elapsed for significant evolutionary change to have occurred since the Stone Age (our species’ primary putative environment of evolutionary adaptedness) necessarily also entails recognition that sufficient time has also elapsed for different human populations, including different races, to have significantly diverged in, not just their physiology, but also their psychology, behaviour and cognitive ability.[3]

Finally, rejection of a modular conception of the human mind is consistent with an emphasis on what is perhaps the ultimate domain-general factor in human cognition, namely general factor of intelligence, as championed by psychometriciansbehavioural geneticists, intelligence researchers and race theorists such as Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Chris Brand, Philippe Rushton and the authors of The Bell Curve (which I have reviewed here, here and here), who believe that individuals and groups differ in intellectual ability, that some individuals and groups are more intelligent across the board, and that these differences are partly genetic in origin.

Thus, Kevin Macdonald specifically criticizes mainstream evolutionary psychology for its failure to give due weight to the importance of domain-general mechanisms, in particular general intelligence (Macdonald 1991). 

Indeed, Rose himself elsewhere acknowledges that: 

The insistence of evolutionary psychology theorists on modularity puts a strain on their otherwise heaven-made alliance with behaviour geneticists” (p261).[4]

Thus, in rejecting the tenets of mainstream evolutionary psychology, Rose inadvertently advocates, not so much a new form of evolutionary psychology, as rather an old form of scientific racism.

Of course, Steven Rose is not a racist. On the contrary, he has built a minor, if undistinguished, literary career smearing those he characterises as such.[5]

However, descending to Rose’s own level of argumentation (e.g. employing guilt by association and argumenta ad hominem), he is easily characterised as such. After all, his arguments against the concept of the EEA, and in favour of group-selectionism directly echo those employed by the very scientific racists (e.g. Rushton) whom Rose has built a minor literary career out of attacking. 

Thus, by rejecting many claims of mainstream evolutionary psychologists – about the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, about group-selectionism and about modularity – Rose ironically plays into the hands of the very ‘scientific racists’ whom he purportedly opposes.

Thus, if his friend and comrade Stephen Jay Gould, in own his recycled contribution to ‘Alas Poor Darwin’, underwent a surprising but welcome deathbed conversion to evolutionary psychology, then Steven Rose’s transformation proves even more dramatic but rather less welcome. He might, moreover, find his new bedfellows less good company than he expected. 


[1] Throughout his essay, Gould, rather than admit he was wrong with respect to sociobiology, the then-emerging approach that came to dominate research in animal behaviour but was rashly rejected by Gould and other leftist activists, instead makes no such concession. Rather, he seems to imply, even if he does not directly state, that it was his constructive criticism of sociobiology which led to advances in the field and indeed to the development of evolutionary psychology from human sociobiology. Yet, as anyone who followed the controversies over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and read Gould’s writings on these topics will be aware, this is far from the case.

[2] Actually, the term environment of evolutionary adaptedness was coined, not by evolutionary psychologists, but rather by psychoanalyst and attachment theorist, John Bowby.

[3] This is a topic addressed in such controversial recent books as Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. It is also a central theme of Sarich and Frank Miele’s Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here). Papers discussing the significance of recent and divergent evolution in different populations for the underlying assumptions of evolutionary psychology include Winegard et al (2017) and Frost (2011). Evolutionary psychologists in the 1990s and 2000s, especially those affiliated with Tooby and Cosmides at UCSB, were perhaps guilty of associating the environment of evolutionary adaptedness too narrowly with Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. Thus, Tooby and Cosmides have written our modern skulls house a stone age mind. However, while embracing this catchy if misleading soundbite, in the same article Tooby and Cosmides also write more accurately:

“The environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA, is not a place or time. It is the statistical composite of selection pressures that caused the design of an adaptation. Thus the EEA for one adaptation may be different from that for another” (Cosmides and Tooby 1997).

Thus, the EEA is not a single time and place that a researcher could visit with the aid of a map, a compass, a research grant and a time machine. Rather a range of environments, and also that the relevant range of environments may differ in respect of different adaptations.

[4] This reference to the “otherwise heaven-made alliance” between evolutionary psychologists and behavioural geneticists, incidentally, contradicts Rose‘s own acknowledgement, made just a few pages earlier, that:

Evolutionary psychologists are often at pains to distinguish themselves from behaviour geneticists and there is some hostility between the two” (p248). 

As we have seen, consistency is not Steven Rose’s strong point. See Kanazawa 2004 the alternative view that general intelligence is itself, paradoxically, a domain-specific module.

[5] I feel the need to emphasise that Rose is not a racist, not least for fear that he might sue me for defamation if I suggest otherwise. And if you think the idea of a professor suing some random, obscure blogger for a blog post is preposterous, then just remember – this is a man who once threatened legal action against publishers of a comic book – yes, a comic book – and forced the publishers to append an apology to some 10,000 copies of the said comic book, for supposedly misrepresenting his views in a speech bubble in said comic book, complaining “The author had literally [sic] put into my mouth a completely fatuous statement” (Brown 1999) – an ironic complaint given the fabricated quotation, of a genuinely defamatory nature, attributed to David Barash by his Rose’s own wife Hillary in the current volume: see above, for which Rose himself, as co-editor, is vicariously responsible. Rose is an open opponent of free speech. Indeed, Rose even stands accused by German scientist, geneticist and intelligence researcher Volkmar Weiss of actively instigating the infamously repressive communist regime in East Germany (Weiss 1991). This is moreover an allegation that Rose has, to my knowledge, never denied or brought legal action in respect, despite his known penchant for threatening legal action against the publishers of comic books.


Brown (1999) Origins of the speciousGuardian, November 30.
Frost (2007) Human nature or human natures? Futures 43(8): 740-74.
Gould (1997) Darwinian Fundamentalism, New York Review of Books, June 12.
Kanazawa, (2004) General Intelligence as a Domain-Specific Module, Psychological Review 111(2):512-523. 
Macdonald (1991) A perspective on Darwinian psychology: The importance of domain-general mechanisms, plasticity, and individual differencesEthology and Sociobiology 12(6): 449-480.
Rushton (1989) Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selectionBehavioral and Brain Sciences 12(3) 503-59.
Rushton (1998). Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection. In I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt & F. K. Salter (Eds.), Indoctrinability, Ideology and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives (pp369-388). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Tooby & Cosmides (1997) Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, published at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology website, UCSB.
Tooby & Cosmides (2000) Unpublished Letter to the Editor of New Republic, published at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology website, UCSB.
Weiss (1991) It could be Neo-Lysenkoism, if there was ever a break in continuity! Mankind Quarterly 31: 231-253.
Winegard et al (2007) Human Biological and Psychological Diversity. Evolutionary Psychological Science 3:159–180.

Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’: A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read

Edward O Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Cambridge: Belknap, Harvard 1975

Sociobiology – The Field That Dare Not Speak its Name? 

From its first publication in 1975, the reception accorded Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ has been divided. 

On the one hand, among biologists, especially those specialist in the fields of ethology, zoology and animal behaviour, the reception was almost universally laudatory. Indeed, my 25th Anniversary Edition even proudly proclaims on the cover that it was voted by officers and fellows of the Animal Behavior Society as the most important ever book on animal behaviour, supplanting even Darwin’s own seminal On The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

However, on the other side of the university campus, in social science departments, the reaction was very different. 

Indeed, the hostility that the book provoked was such that ‘sociobiology’ became almost a dirty word in the social sciences, and ultimately throughout the academy, to such an extent that ultimately the term fell into disuse (save as a term of abuse) and was replaced by largely synonymous euphemisms like behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.[1]

Sociobiology thus became, in academia, ‘the field that dare not speak its name’. 

Similarly, within the social sciences, even those researchers whose work carried on the sociobiological approach in all but name almost always played down the extent of their debt to Wilson himself. 

Thus, books on evolutionary psychology typically begin with disclaimers acknowledging that the sociobiology of Wilson was, of course, crude and simplistic, and that their own approach is, of course, infinitely more sophisticated. 

Indeed, reading some recent works on evolutionary psychology, one could be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary approaches to understanding human behaviour began around 1989 with the work of Tooby and Cosmides

Defining the Field 

What then does the word ‘sociobiology’ mean? 

Today, as I have mentioned, the term has largely fallen into disuse, save among certain social scientists who seem to employ it as a rather indiscriminate term of abuse for any theory of human behaviour that they perceive as placing too great a weight on hereditary or biological factors, including many areas of research only tangentially connected to with sociobiology as Wilson originally conceived of it (e.g. behavioral genetics).[2]

The term ‘sociobiology’ was not Wilson’s own coinage. It had occasionally been used by biologists before, albeit rarely. However, Wilson was responsible for popularizing – and perhaps, in the long-term, ultimately unpopularizing it too, since, as we have seen, the term has largely fallen into disuse.[3] 

Wilson himself defined ‘sociobiology’ as: 

The systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (p4; p595). 

However, as the term was understood by other biologists, and indeed applied by Wilson himself, sociobiology came to be construed more narrowly. Thus, it was associated in particular with the question of why behaviours evolved and the evolutionary function they serve in promoting the reproductive success of the organism (i.e. just one of Tinbergen’s Four Questions). 

The hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic causes of behaviours are just as much a part of “the biological basis of behavior” as are the ultimate evolutionary functions of behaviour. However, these lie outside of scope of sociobiology as the term was usually understood. 

Indeed, Wilson himself admitted as much, writing in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself of how: 

Behavioral biology… is now emerging as two distinct disciplines centered on neurophysiology and… sociobiology” (p6). 

Yet, in another sense, Wilson’s definition of the field was also too narrow. 

Thus, behavioural ecologists have come to study all forms of behaviour, not just social behaviour.  

For example, optimal foraging theory is a major subfield within behavioural ecology (the successor field to sociobiology), but concerns feeding behaviour, which may be an entirely solitary, non-social activity. 

Indeed, even some aspects of an organism’s physiology (as distinct from behaviour) have come to be seen as within the purview of sociobiology (e.g. the evolution of the peacock’s tail). 

A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was a massive tome, numbering almost 700 pages. 

As Wilson proudly proclaims in his glossary, it was: 

Written with the broadest possible audience in mind and most of it can be read with full understanding by any intelligent person whether or not he or she has had any formal training in science” (p577). 

Unfortunately, however, the sheer size of the work alone was probably enough to deter most such readers long before they reached p577 where these words appear. 

Indeed, I suspect the very size of the book was a factor in explaining the almost universally hostile reception that the book received among social scientists. 

In short, the book was so large that the vast majority of social scientists had neither the time nor the inclination to actually read it for themselves, especially since a cursory flick through its pages showed that the vast majority of them seemed to be concerned with the behaviour of species other than humans, and hence, as they saw it, of little relevance to their own work. 

Instead, therefore, their entire knowledge of the sociobiology was filtered through to them via the critiques of the approach authored by other social scientists, themselves mostly hostile to sociobiology, who presented a straw man caricature of what sociobiology actually represented. 

Indeed, the caricature of sociobiology presented by these authors is so distorted that, reading some of these critiques, one often gets the impression that included among those social scientists not bothering to read the book for themselves were most of the social scientists nevertheless taking it upon themselves to write critiques of it. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the field was so obviously misguided (as indeed it often was in the caricatured form presented in the critiques) gave most social scientists yet another reason not to bother wading through its 700 or so pages for themselves. 

As a result, among sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, public intellectuals, and other such ‘professional damned fools’, as well as the wider the semi-educated, reading public, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ became a book much read about – but rarely actually read (at least in full). 

As a consequence, as with other books falling into this category (e.g. the Bible and The Bell Curve) many myths have emerged regarding its contents which are quite contradicted on actually taking the time to read it for oneself. 

The Many Myths of Sociobiology 

Perhaps the foremost myth is that sociobiology was primarily a theory of human behaviour. In fact, as is revealed by even a cursory flick through the pages of Wilson’s book, sociobiology was, first and foremost, a theoretical approach to understanding animal behaviour. 

Indeed, Wilson’s decision to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans as well was, it seems, almost something of an afterthought, and necessitated by his desire to provide a comprehensive overview of the behaviour of all social animals, humans included. 
This is connected to the second myth – namely, that sociobiology was Wilson’s own theory. In fact, rather than a single theory, sociobiology is better viewed as a particular approach to a field of study, the field in question being animal behaviour. 
Moreover, far from being Wilson’s own theory, the major advances in the understanding of animal behaviour that gave rise to what came to be referred to as ‘sociobiology’ were made in the main by biologists other than Wilson himself.  
Thus, it was William Hamilton who first formulated inclusive fitness theory (which came to be known as the theory of kin selection); John Maynard Smith who first introduced economic models and game theory into behavioural biology; George C Williams who was responsible for displacing a crude group-selection in favour of a new focus on the gene itself as the principal unit of selection; while Robert Trivers was responsible for such theories such as reciprocal altruismparent-offspring conflict and differential parental investment theory
Instead, Wilson’s key role was to bring the various strands of the emerging field together, give it a name and, in the process, take far more than his fair share of the resulting flak. 
Thus, far from being a maverick theory of a single individual, what came to be known as ‘sociobiology’ was, if not based on accepted biological theory at the time of publication, then at least based on biological theory that came to be recognised as mainstream within a few years of its publication. 
Controversy attached almost exclusively to the application of these same principles to explain human behaviour. 

Applying Sociobiology to Humans 

In respect of Wilson’s application of sociobiological theory to humans, misconceptions again abound. 

For example, it is often asserted that Wilson only extended his theory to apply to human behaviour in his infamous final chapter, entitled, ‘Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology’. 

Actually, however, Wilson had discussed the possible application of sociobiological theory to humans several times in earlier chapters. 
Often, this was at the end of a chapter. For example, his chapter on “Roles and Castes” closes with a discussion of “Roles in Human Societies” (p312-3). Similarly, the final subsection of his chapter on “Aggression” is titled “Human Aggression” (p 254-5). 
Other times, however, humans get a mention in mid-chapter, as in Chapter Fifteen, which is titled ‘Sex and Society’, where Wilson discusses the association between adultery, cuckoldry and violent retribution in human societies, and rightly prophesizes that “the implications for the study of humans” of Trivers’ theory of differential parental investment “are potentially great” (p327). 
Another misconception is that, while he may not have founded the approach that came to be known as sociobiology, it was Wilson who courted controversy, and bore most of the flak, because he was the first biologist brave, foolish, ambitious, farsighted or naïve enough to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans. 
Actually, however, this is untrue. For example, a large part of Robert Trivers’ seminal paper on reciprocal altruism published in 1971 dealt with reciprocal altruism in humans and with what are presumably specifically human moral emotions, such as guilt, gratitude, friendship and moralistic anger (Trivers 1971). 
However, Trivers’ work was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and therefore presumably never came to the attention of any of the leftist social scientists largely responsible for the furore over sociobiology, who, being of the opinion that biological theory was wholly irrelevant to human behaviour, and hence to their own field, were unlikely to be regular readers of the journal in question. 

Yet this is perhaps unfortunate since Trivers, unlike the unfortunate Wilson, had impeccable left-wing credentials, which may have deflected some of the overtly politicized criticism (and pitchers of water) that later came Wilson’s way. 

Reductionism vs Holism

Among the most familiar charges levelled against Wilson by his opponents within the social sciences, and by contemporary opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, alongside the familiar and time-worn charges of ‘biological determinism’ and ‘genetic determinism’, is that sociobiology is inherently reductionist, something which is, they imply, very much a bad thing. 
It is therefore something of a surprise to find among the opening pages of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson defending “holism”, as represented, in Wilson’s view, by the field of sociobiology itself, as against what he terms “the triumphant reductionism of molecular biology” (p7). 
This passage is particularly surprising for anyone who has read Wilson’s more recent work Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, where he launches a trenchant, unapologetic and, in my view, wholly convincing defence of “reductionism” as representing, not only “the cutting edge of science… breaking down nature into its constituent components” but moreover “the primary and essential activity of science” and hence at the very heart of the scientific method (Consilience: p59). 

Thus, in a quotable aphorism, Wilson concludes: 

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (Consilience: p59). 

Of course, whether ‘reductionism’ is a good or bad thing, as well as the extent to which sociobiology can be considered ‘reductionist’, ultimately depends on precisely how we define ‘reductionism’. Moreover, ‘reductionism’, how ever defined, is a surely matter of degree. 

Thus, philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, distinguishes what he calls “greedy reductionism”, which attempts to oversimplify the world (e.g. Skinnerian behaviourism, which seeks to explain all behaviours in terms of conditioning), from “good reductionism”, which attempts to understand it in all its complexity (i.e. good science).

On the other hand, ‘holistic’ is a word most often employed in defence of wholly unscientific approaches, such as so-called holistic medicine, and, for me, the word itself is almost always something of a red flag. 

Thus, the opponents of sociobiology, in using the term ‘reductionist’ as a criticism, are rejecting the whole notion of a scientific approach to understanding human behaviour. In its place, they offer only a vague, wishy-washy, untestable and frankly anti-scientific obscurantism, whereby any attempt to explain behaviour in terms of causes and effects is dismissed as reductionism and determinism

Yet explaining behaviour, whether the behaviour of organisms, atoms, molecules or chemical substances, in terms of causes and effects is the very essence, if not the very definition, of science. 

In other words, determinism (i.e. the belief that events are determined by causes) is not so much a finding of science as its basic underlying assumption.[4]

Yet Wilson’s own championing of “holism” in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ can be made sense of in its historical context. 

In other words, just as Wilson’s defence of reductionism in ‘Concilience’ was a response to the so-called sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 80s in which the charge of ‘reductionism’ was wielded indiscriminately by the opponents of sociobiology, so Wilson’s defence of holism in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself must be understood in the context, not of the controversy that this work itself provoked (which Wilson was, at the time, unable to foresee), but rather of a controversy preceded its publication. 

In particular, certain molecular biologists at Harvard, and perhaps elsewhere, led by the brilliant yet but abrasive molecular biologist James Watson, had come to the opinion that molecular biology was to be the only biology, and that traditional biology, fieldwork and experiments were positively passé. 

This controversy is rather less familiar to anyone outside of Harvard University’s biology department than the sociobiology debates, which not only enlisted many academics from outside of biology (e.g. psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and even philosophers), but also spilled over into the popular media and even became politicized. 

However, within the ivory towers of Harvard University’s department of biology, this controversy seems to have been just as fiercely fought over.[5]

As is clear from ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson’s own envisaged “holism” was far from the wishy-washy obscurantism which one usually associates with those championing a ‘holistic approach’, and thoroughly scientific. 

Thus, in On Human Nature, Wislon’s follow-up book to ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, where he first concerned himself specifically to the application of sociobiological theory to humans, Wilson gives perhaps his most balanced description of the relative importance of reductionism and holism, and indeed of the nature of science, writing: 

Raw reduction is only half the scientific process… the remainder consist[ing] of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control if laws newly demonstrated by analysis… reveal[ing] the existence of novel emergent phenomena” (On Human Nature: p11). 

It is therefore in this sense, and in contrast to the reductionism of molecular biology, that Wilson saw sociobiology as ‘holistic’. 

Group Selection? 

One of the key theoretical breakthroughs that formed the basis for what came to be known as sociobiology was the discrediting of group-selectionism, largely thanks to the work of George C Williams, whose ideas were later popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here).[6] 
A focus the individual, or even the gene, as the primary, or indeed the only, unit of selection, came to be viewed as an integral component of the sociobiological worldview. Indeed, it was once seriously debated on the pages of the newsletter of the European Sociobiological Society whether one could truly be both a ‘sociobiologist’ and a ‘group-selectionist’ (Price 1996). 

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that the author of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, responsible for christening the emerging field, was himself something of a group-selectionist. 

Wilson has recently ‘come out’ as a group-selectionist by co-authoring a paper concerning the evolution of eusociality in ants (Nowak et al 2010). However, reading ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ leads one to suspect that Wilson had been a closet, or indeed a semi-out, group-selectionist all along. 

Certainly, Wilson repeats the familiar arguments against group-selectionism popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), but first articulated by George C Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection (see p106-7). 

However, although he offers no rebuttal to these arguments, this does not prevent Wilson from invoking, or at least proposing, group-selectionist explanations for behaviours elsewhere in the remainder of the book (e.g. p275). 

Moreover, Wilson concludes: 

Group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively implausible… are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions” (p30). 

Thus, it is clear that, unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Wilson did not view group-selectionism as a terminally discredited theory. 

Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology… and Perhaps Evolutionary Psychology 

What then of Wilson’s final chapter, entitled ‘Man – From Sociobiology to Sociology’? 

It was, of course, the only one to focus exclusively on humans, and, of course, the chapter that attracted by far the lion’s share of the outrage and controversy that soon ensued. 

Yet, reading it today, over forty years after it was first written, it is, I feel, rather disappointing. 

Let me be clear, I went in very much wanting to like it. 

After all, Wilson’s general approach was basically right. Humans, like all other organisms, have evolved through a process of natural selection. Therefore, their behaviour, no less than their physiology, or the physiology or behaviour of non-human organisms, must be understood in the light of this fact. 

Moreover, not only were almost all of the criticisms levelled at Wilson misguided, wrongheaded and unfair, but they often bordered upon persecution as well.

The most famous example of this leftist witch hunting was when, during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was drenched him with a pitcher of water by leftist demonstrators. 

However, this was far from an isolated event. For example, an illustration from the book The Moral Animal shows a student placard advising protesters to “bring noisemakers” in order to deliberately disrupt one of Wilson’s speaking engagements (The Moral Animal: illustration p341). 

In short, Wilson seems to have been an early victim of what would today be called ‘deplatorming’ and ‘cancel culture’, phenomena that long predated the coining of these terms

Thus, one is tempted to see Wilson in the role of a kind of modern Galileo, being, like Galileo, persecuted for his scientific theories, which, like those of Galileo, turned out to be broadly correct. 

Moreover, Wilson’s views were, in some respects, analogous to those of Galileo. Both disputed prevailing orthodoxies in such a way as to challenge the view that humans were somehow unique or at the centre of things, Galileo by suggesting the earth was not at the centre of the solar system, and Wilson by showing that human behaviour was not all that different from that of other animals.[7]

Unfortunately, however, the actual substance of Wilson’s final chapter is rather dated.

Inevitably, any science book will be dated after forty years. However, while this is also true of the book as a whole, it seems especially true of this last chapter, which bears little resemblance to the contents of a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology

This is perhaps inevitable. While the application of sociobiological theory to understanding and explaining the behaviour other species was already well underway, the application of sociobiological theory to humans was, the pioneering work of Robert Trivers on reciprocal altruism notwithstanding, still very much in its infancy. 

Yet, while the substance of the chapter is dated, the general approach was spot on.

Indeed, even some of the advances claimed by evolutionary psychologists as their own were actually anticipated by Wilson. 

Thus, Wilson recognises:

One of the key questions [in human sociobiology] is to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige” (p458). 

He thus anticipates the key evolutionary psychological concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA, whereby it is theorized that humans are evolutionarily adapted, not to the modern post-industrial societies in which so many of us today find ourselves, but rather to the ancestral environments in which our behaviours first evolved.

Wilson proposes examine human behavior from the disinterested perspective of “a zoologist from another planet”, and concludes: 

In this macroscopic view the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (p547). 

Thus, for Wilson: 

Sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis” (p4). 

Indeed, the idea that the behaviour of a single species is alone exempt from principles of general biology, to such an extent that it must be studied in entirely different university faculties by entirely different researchers, the vast majority with little or no knowledge of general biology, nor of the methods and theory of researchers studying the behaviour of all other organisms, reflects an indefensible anthropocentrism

However, despite the controversy these pronouncements provoked, Wilson was actually quite measured in his predictions and even urged caution, writing 

Whether the social sciences can be truly biologicized in this fashion remains to be seen” (p4) 

The evidence of the ensuing forty years suggests, in my view, that the social sciences can indeed be, and are well on the way to being, as Wilson puts it, ‘biologicized’. The only stumbling block has proven to be social scientists themselves, who have, in some cases, proven resistant. 

‘Vaunting Ambition’? 

Yet, despite these words of caution, the scale of Wilson’s intellectual ambition can hardly be exaggerated. 

First, he sought to synthesize the entire field of animal behavior under the rubric of sociobiology and in the process produce the ‘New Synthesis’ promised in the subtitle, by analogy with the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics that forms the basis for the entire field of modern biology. 

Then, in a final chapter, apparently as almost something of an afterthought, he decided to add human behaviour into his synthesis as well. 

This meant, not just providing a new foundation for a single subfield within biology (i.e. animal behaviour), but for several whole disciplines formerly virtually unconnected to biology – e.g. psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, economics. 

Oh yeah… and moral philosophy and perhaps epistemology too. I forgot to mention that. 

From Sociobiology to… Philosophy?

Indeed, Wilson’s forays into philosophy proved even more controversial than those into social science. Though limited to a few paragraphs in his first and last chapter, they were among the most widely quoted, and critiqued, in the whole book. 

Not only were opponents of sociobiology (and philosophers) predictably indignant, but even those few researchers bravely taking up the sociobiological gauntlet, and even applying it to humans, remained mostly skeptical. 

In proposing to reconstruct moral philosophy on the basis of biology, Wilson was widely accused of committing what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy

This refers to the principle that, if a behaviour is natural, this does not necessarily make it right, any more than the fact that dying of tuberculosis is natural means that it is morally wrong to treat tuberculosis with such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination or antibiotics. 

In general, evolutionary psychologists have generally been only too happy to reiterate the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value chasm, not least because it allowed them to investigate the evolutionary function of such morally dubious, or indeed morally reprehensible, behaviours as infidelity, rape, war, sexual infidelity and child abuse, while denying they are thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question. 

Yet this begs the question: if we cannot derive values from facts, whence can values be arrived at? Can they be derived only from other values? If so, then whence are our ultimate moral values, from which all others are derived, themselves ultimately derived? Must they be simply taken on faith? 

Wilson has recently controversially argued, in his excellent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that, in this context: 

The posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy” (Consilience: p273). 

Leaving aside this controversial claim, it is clear that his point in ‘Sociobiology’ is narrower. 

In short, Wilson seems to be arguing that, in contemplating the appropriateness of different theories of prescriptive ethics (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian deontology), moral philosophers consult “the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (p3). 

Yet these same moral philosophers take these emotions largely for granted. They treat the brain as a “black box” rather than a biological entity the nature of which is itself the subject of scientific study (p562). 

Yet, despite the criticism Wilson’s suggestion provoked among many philosophers, the philosophical implications of recognising that moral intuitions are themselves a product of the evolutionary process have since become an serious and active area of philosophical enquiry. Indeed, among the leading pioneers in this field of enquiry has been the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, not least in collaboration Wilson himself (Ruse & Wilson 1986). 

Yet if moral philosophy must be rethought in the light of biology and the evolved nature of our psychology, then the same is also surely true of arguably the other main subfield of contemporary philosophy – namely epistemology.  

Yet Wilson’s comments regarding the relevance of sociobiological theory to epistemology are even briefer than the few sentences he devotes in his opening and closing chapters to moral philosophy, being restricted to less than a sentence – a mere five-word parenthesis in a sentence primarily discussing moral philosophy and philosophers (p3). 

However, what humans are capable of knowing is, like morality, ultimately a product of the human brain – a brain which is a itself biological entity that evolved through a process of natural selection. 

The brain, then, is designed not for discovering ‘truth’, in some abstract, philosophical sense, but rather for maximizing the reproductive success of the organism whose behaviour it controls and directs. 

Of course, for most purposes, natural selection would likely favour psychological mechanisms that produce, if not ‘truth’, then at least a reliable model of the world as it actually operates, so that an organism can modify its behaviour in accordance with this model, in order to produce outcomes that maximizes its inclusive fitness under these conditions. 

However, it is at least possible that there are certain phenomena that our brains are, through the very nature of their wiring and construction, incapable of fully understanding (e.g. quantum mechanics or the hard question of consciousness), simply because such understanding was of no utility in helping our ancestors to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments. 

The importance of evolutionary theory to our understanding of epistemology and the limits of human knowledge is, together with the relevance of evolutionary theory to moral philosophy, a theme explored in philosopher Michael Ruse’s book, Taking Darwin Seriously, and is also the principal theme of such recent works as The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald D Hoffman. 


Is ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ worth reading today? At almost 700 pages, it represents no idle investment of time. 

Wilson is a wonderful writer even in a purely literary sense, and has the unusual honour for a working scientist of being a twice Pulitzer-Prize winner. However, apart from a few provocative sections in the opening and closing chapters, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is largely written in the form of a student textbook, is not a book one is likely to read on account of its literary merits alone. 

As a textbook, Sociobiology is obviously dated. Indeed, the extent to which it has dated is an indication of the success of the research programme it helped inspire. 

Thus, one of the hallmarks of true science is the speed at which cutting-edge work becomes obsolete.  

Religious believers still cite holy books written millennia ago, while adherents of pseudo-sciences like psychoanalysis and Marxism still paw over the words of Freud and Marx. 

However, the scientific method is a cumulative process based on falsificationism and is moreover no respecter of persons.

Scientific works become obsolete almost as fast as they are published. Modern biologists only rarely cite Darwin. 

If you want a textbook summary of the latest research in sociobiology, I would instead recommend the latest edition of Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach or An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology; or, if your primary interest is human behavior, the latest edition of David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

The continued value of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ lies in the field, not of science, but history of science In this field, it will remain a landmark work in the history of human thought, for both the controversy, and the pioneering research, that followed in its wake. 


[1] Actually, ‘evolutionary psychology’ is not quite a synonym for ‘sociobiology’. Whereas the latter field sought to understand the behaviour of all animals, if not all organisms, the term ‘evolutionary psychology’ is usually employed only in relation to the study of human behaviour. It would be more accurate, then, to say ‘evolutionary psychology’ is a synonym, or euphemism, for ‘human sociobiology’.

[2] Whereas behavioural geneticists focus on heritable differences between individuals within a single population, evolutionary psychologists largely focus on behavioural adaptations that are presumed to be pan-human and universal. Indeed, it is often argued that there is likely to be minimal heritable variation in human psychological adaptations, precisely because such adaptations have been subject to such strong selection pressure as to weed out suboptimal variation, such that only the optimal genotype remains. On this view, substantial heritable variation is found only in respect of traits that have not been subject to intense selection pressure (see Tooby & Cosmides 1990). However, this fails to be take into account such phenomena as frequency dependent selection and other forms of polymorphism, whereby different individuals within a breeding population adopt, for example, quite different reproductive strategies. It is also difficult to reconcile with the finding of behavioural geneticists that there is substantial heritable variation in intelligence as between individuals, despite the fact that the expansion of human brain-size over the course of evolution suggests that intelligence has been subject to strong selection pressures.

[3] For example, in 1997, the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, which had by then become, and remains, the leading scholarly journal in the field of what would then have been termed ‘human sociobiology’, and now usually goes by the name of ‘evolutionary psychology’, changed its name to Evolution and Human Behavior.

[4] An irony is that, while science is built on the assumption of determinism, namely the assumption that observed phenomena have causes that can be discovered by controlled experimentation, one of the findings of science is that, at least at the quantum level, determinism is actually not true. This is among the reasons why quantum theory is paradoxically popular among people who don’t really like science (and who, like virtually everyone else, don’t really understand quantum theory). Thus, Richard Dawkins has memorably parodied quantum mysticism as as based on the reasoning that: 

Quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore, Eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.”

[5] Indeed, although since reconciled, Wilson and Watson seem to have shared a deep personal animosity for one another, Wilson once describing how he had once considered Watson, with whom he later reconciled, “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met” – see Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist. A student of Watson’s describes how, when Wilson was granted tenure at Harvard before Watson:

It was a big, big day in our corridor” as “Watson could be heard coming up the stairwell…  shouting ‘fuck, fuck, fuck” (Watson and DNA: p98)  

Wilson’s description of Watson’s personality in his memoir is interesting in the light of the later controversy regarding the latters comments regarding the economic implications of racial differences in intelligence, with Wilson writing: 

Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.” 

In contrast, geneticist David Reich suggests that Watson’s abrasive personality predated his scientific discoveries and may even have been partly responsible for them, writing: 

His obstreperousness may have been important to his success as a scientist” (Who We are and how We Got Here: p263).

[6] Group selection has recently, however, enjoyed something of a resurgence in the form of multi-level selection theory. Wilson himself is very much a supporter of this trend.

[7] Of course, it goes without saying that the persecution to which Wilson was subjected was as nothing compared to that to which Galileo was subjected (see my post, A Modern McCarthyism in Our Midst). 


Nowak et al (2010) The evolution of eusociality Nature 466:1057–1062. 

Price (1996) ‘In Defence of Group Selection, European Sociobiological Society Newsletter. No. 42, October 1996 

Ruse & Wilson (1986) Moral Philosophy as Applied SciencePhilosophy 61(236):173-192 

Tooby & Cosmides (1990) On the Universality of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual: The Role of Genetics and AdaptationJournal of Personality 58(1): 17-67. 

Trivers (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57 

Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’: A Founding Work of Modern Evolutionary Psychology

The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Donald Symons (Oxford University Press 1980). 

Research over the last four decades in the field that has come to be known as evolutionary psychology has focused disproportionately on mating behaviour. Geoffrey Miller (1998) has even argued that it is the theory of sexual selection rather than that of natural selection which, in practice, guides most research in this field. 

This does not reflect merely the prurience of researchers. Rather, given that reproductive success is the ultimate currency of natural selection, mating behaviour is, perhaps along with parental investment, the form of behaviour most directly subject to selective pressures.

Almost all of this research traces its ancestry ultimately to Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ by Donald Symons. Indeed, much of it was explicitly designed to test claims and predictions formulated by Symons himself in this very book.

Age Preferences 

For example, in his discussion of the age at which women are perceived as most attractive by males, Symons formulated two alternative hypotheses. 

First, if human evolutionary history were characterized by fleeting one-off sexual encounters (i.e. one-night standscasual sex and hook-ups), then, he reasoned, men would have evolved to find women most attractive when the latter are at the age of their maximum fertility

For women, fertility is said to peak around when a woman reaches her mid-twenties since, although women still in their teens have high pregnancy rates, they also experience greater risk of birth complications

However, if human evolutionary history were characterized instead by long-term pair bonds, then men would have evolved to be maximally attracted to somewhat younger women (i.e. those at the beginning of their reproductive careers), so that, by entering a long-term relationship with the woman at this time, a male is potentially able to monopolize her entire lifetime reproductive output (p189). 

More specifically, males would have evolved to prefer females, not of maximal fertility, but rather of maximal reproductive value, a term borrowed from demography and population genetics which refers to a person’s expected future reproductive output given their current age. Unlike fertility, a woman’s reproductive value peaks around her mid- to late-teens.  

On the basis of largely anecdotal evidence, Symons concludes that human males have evolved to be most attracted to females of maximal reproductive value rather than maximal fertility.  

Subsequent research designed to test between Symons’s rival hypotheses has largely confirmed his speculative hunch that it is younger females in their mid- to late-teens who are perceived by males as most attractive (e.g. Kenrick and Keefe 1992). 

Why Average is Attractive 

Symons is also credited as the first person to recognize that a major criterion of attractiveness is, paradoxically, averageness, or at least the first to recognize the significance of, and possible evolutionary explanation for, this discovery.[1] Thus, Symons argues that: 

“[Although] health and status are unusual in that there is no such thing as being too healthy or too high ranking… with respect to most anatomical traits, natural selection produces the population mean” (p194). 

On this view, deviations from the population mean are interpreted as the result of deleterious mutations or developmental instability, and hence bad genes.[2]

Concealed Ovulation

Support has even emerged for some of Symons’ more speculative hunches. 
For example, one of Symons’ two proposed scenarios for the evolution of concealed ovulation, in which he professed “little confidence” (p141), was that this had evolved so as to impede male mate-guarding and enable females select a biological father for their offspring different from their husbands (p139-141). 
Consistent with this theory, studies have found that women’s mate preferences vary throughout their menstrual cycle in a manner compatible with a so-called ‘dual mating strategy’, preferring males evidencing a willingness to invest in offspring at most times, but, when at their most fertile, preferring characteristics indicative of genetic quality (e.g. Penton-Voak et al 1999). 

Meanwhile, a questionnaire distributed via a women’s magazine found that women engaged in extra-marital affairs do indeed report engaging in ‘extra-pair copulations’ (EPCs) at times likely to coincide with ovulation (Bellis and Baker 1990).[3]

The Myth of Female Choice

Interestingly, Symons even anticipated some of the mistakes evolutionary psychologists would be led into. 
Thus, he warns that researchers in modern western societies may be prone to overestimate the importance of female choice as a factor in human evolution, because, in their own societies, this is a major factor, if not the major factor, in determining marriage and sexual and romantic relationships (p203).[4]
However, in ancestral environments (i.e. what evolutionary psychologists now call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA) arranged marriages were likely the norm, as they are in most premodern cultures around the world today (p168).[5] 
Thus, Symons concludes: 

“There is no evidence that any features of human anatomy were produced by intersexual selection [i.e. female choice]. Human physical sex differences are explained most parsimoniously as the outcome of intrasexual selection (the result of male-male competition)” (p203). 

Thus, human males have no obvious analogue of the peacock’s tail, but they do have substantially greater levels of upper-body strength and violent aggression as compared to females.[6]
This was a warning almost entirely ignored by subsequent generations of researchers before being forcefully reiterated by Puts (2010)

Homosexuality as a ‘Test-Case 

An idea of the importance of Symons’s work can be ascertained by comparing it with contemporaneous works addressing the same subject-matter. 
Edward O Wilson’s  On Human Nature was first published in 1978, only a year before Symons’s ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. 

However, whereas Symons’s book set out much of the theoretical basis for what would become the modern science of evolutionary psychology, Wilson’s chapter on “Sex” has dated rather less well, and a large portion of chapter is devoted to introducing a now faintly embarrassing theory of the evolution of homosexuality which has subsequently received no empirical support (see Bobrow & Bailey 2001).[7] 
In contrast, Symons’s own treatment of homosexuality is innovative. It is also characteristic of his whole approach and illustrates why ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality‘ has been described by David Buss as “the first major treatise on evolutionary psychology proper” (Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: p251). 
Rather than viewing all behaviours as necessarily adaptive (as critics of evolutionary psychology, such as Stephen Jay Gould, have often accused sociobiologists of doing),[8] Symons instead focuses on admittedly non-adaptive (or, indeed, even maladaptive) behaviours, not because he believes them to be adaptive, but rather because they provide a unique window on the nature of human sexuality.
Accordingly, Symons does not concern himself with how homosexuality evolved, implicitly viewing it as a rare and maladaptive malfunctioning of normal sexuality. Yet the behaviour of homosexuals is of interest to Symons because it provides a window on the nature of male and female sexuality as it manifests itself when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex. 
On this view, the rampant promiscuity manifested by many homosexual men (e.g. cruising and cottaging in bathhouses and public lavatories, or Grindr hookups) reflects the universal male desire for sexual variety when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of women. 

This desire for sexual variety is, of course, obviously reproductively unproductive among homosexual men themselves. However, it evolved because it enhanced the reproductive success of heterosexual men by motivating them to attempt to mate with multiple females and thereby father multiple offspring. 
In contrast, burdened with pregnancy and lactation, women’s potential reproductive rate is more tightly constrained than that of men. They therefore have little to gain reproductively by mating with multiple males, since they can usually gestate, and nurse, only one offspring at a time. 
It is therefore notable that, among lesbians, there is little evidence of the sort of rampant promiscuity common among gay men. Instead, lesbian relationships seem to be characterized by much the same features as heterosexual coupling (i.e. long-term pair-bonds).
The similarity of heterosexual coupling to that of lesbians, and the striking contrast with that of male homosexuals, suggests that it is women, not men, who exert decisive influence in dictating the terms of heterosexual coupling.[9] 
Thus, Symons reports:

There is enormous cross-cultural variation in sexual customs and laws and the extent of male control, yet nowhere in the world do heterosexual relations begin to approximate those typical of homosexual men This suggests that, in addition to custom and law, heterosexual relations are structured to a substantial degree by the nature and interests of the human female” (p300). 

This conclusion is, of course, diametrically opposite to the feminist contention that it is men who dictate the terms of heterosexual coupling and for whose exclusive benefit such relationships are structured. 
It also suggests, again contrary to feminist assumptions of male dominance, that most men are ultimately frustrated in achieving their sexual ambitions to a far greater extent than are most women. 

Thus, Symons concludes: 

The desire for sexual variety dooms most human males to a lifetime of unfulfilled longing” (p228). 

Here, Symons anticipates Camille Paglia who was later to famously observe: 

Men know they are sexual exiles. They wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that anguished motion for women to envy” (Sexual Personae: p19). 

Criticisms of Symons’s Use of Homosexuality as a Test-Case

There is, however, a potential problem with Symons’s use of homosexual behaviour as a window onto the nature of male and female sexuality as they manifest themselves when freed from the conflicting desires of the opposite sex. The whole analysis rests on a questionable premise – namely that homosexuals are, their preference for same-sex partners aside, otherwise similar, if not identical, to heterosexuals of their own sex in their psychology and sexuality. 
Symons defends this assumption, arguing: 

There is no reason to suppose that homosexuals differ systematically from heterosexuals in any way other than their sexual object choice” (p292). 

Indeed, in some respects, Symons seems to see even “sexual object choice” as analogous among homosexuals and heterosexuals of the same sex. 
For example, he observes that, unlike women, both homosexual and heterosexual men tend to evaluate prospective mates primarily on the basis their physical appearance and youthfulness (p295). 

Thus, in contrast to the failure of periodicals featuring male nudes to attract a substantial female audience (see below), Symons notes the existence of a market for gay pornography parallel in most respects to heterosexual porn – i.e. featuring young, physically attractive models in various states of undress (p301). 
This, of course, contradicts the feminist notion that men are led to ‘objectify’ women only due to the sexualized portrayal of the latter in the media. 
Instead, Symons concludes: 

That homosexual men are at least as likely as heterosexual men to be interested in pornography, cosmetic qualities and youth seems to me to imply that these interests are no more the result of advertising than adultery and alcohol consumption are the result of country and western music” (p304).[10] 

However, this assumption of the fundamental similarity of heterosexual and homosexual male psychology has been challenged by David Buller in his book, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature
Buller cites evidence that male homosexuals are ‘feminized’ in many aspects of their behaviour.

For example, one recent study found that male homosexuals have more female-typical occupation interests than do heterosexual males (Ellis & Ratnasingam 2012).

Thus, one of the few consistent early correlates of homosexuality is gender non-conformity in childhood and some evidence (e.g. digit ratios, the fraternal birth order effect) has been interpreted to suggest that the level of prenatal exposure to masculinizing androgens (e.g. testosterone) in utero affects sexual orientation (see Born Gay: The Pyschobiology of Sexual Orientation).

As Buller notes, although gay men seem, like heterosexual men, to prefer youthful sexual partners, they also appear to prefer sexual partners who are, in other respects highly masculine.[11]

Thus, Buller observes: 

“The males featured in gay men’s magazines embody very masculine, muscular physiques, not pseudo-feminine physiques” (Adapting Minds: p227).

Indeed, the models in such magazines seem in most respects similar in physical appearance to the male models, pop stars, actors and other ‘sex symbols’ and celebrities fantasized about by heterosexual women and girls.
How then are we to resolve this apparent paradox? 
One possible explanation that some aspects of the psychology of male homosexuals are feminized but not others – perhaps because different parts of the brain are formed at different stages of prenatal development, at which stages the levels of masculinizing androgens in the womb may vary. 
Indeed, there is even some evidence that homosexual males may be hyper-masculinized in some aspects of their physiology.

For example, it has been found that homosexual males report larger penis-sizes than heterosexual men (Bogaert & Hershberger 1999). 
This, researchers Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman propose, may be because: 

If it is supposed that the barriers against androgens with respect to certain brain structures (notably those concerned with homosexuality) lead to increased secretion in an effort to break through, or some sort of accumulation elsewhere… then there may be excess testosterone left in other departments” (Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation: p80). 

Another possibility is that male homosexuals actually lie midway between heterosexual men and women in their degree of masculinization.  

On this view, homosexual men come across as relatively feminine only because we naturally tend to compare them to other men (i.e. heterosexual men). However, as compared to women, they may be relatively masculine, as reflected in the male-typical aspects of their sexuality focused upon by Symons. 
Interestingly, this latter interpretation suggests the slightly disturbing possibility that, freed from the restraints imposed by women, heterosexual men would be even more indiscriminately promiscuous than their homosexual counterparts.

Evidence consistent with this interpretation is provided by one study from the 1980s which found that, when approached by a female stranger (also a student), on a University campus, with a request to go to bed with them, fully 72% of male students agreed (Clark and Hatfield 1989). 

In contrast, in the same study, not a single one of the 96 females approached by male strangers with the same request on the same university campus agreed to go to bed with the male stranger.

Yet what percentage of the female students subsequently sued the university for sexual harassment was not reported.

Pornography as a “Natural Experiment

For Symons, fantasy represents another window onto sexual and romantic desires. Like homosexuality, fantasy is, by its very nature, unconstrained by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex (or indeed by anything other than the imagination of the fantasist). 

Symons later collaborated in an investigation into sexual fantasy by means of a questionnaire (Ellis and Symons 1990). 

However, in the present work, he investigates fantasy indirectly by focusing on what he calls “the natural experiment of commercial periodical publishing” – i.e. pornographic magazines (p182). 
In many respects, this approach is preferable to a survey because, even in an anonymous questionnaire, individuals may be less than honest when dealing with a sensitive topic such as their sexual fantasies. On the other hand, they are unlikely to regularly spend money on a magazine unless they are genuinely attracted by its contents. 
Before the internet age, softcore pornographic magazines, largely featuring female nudes, commanded sizeable circulations. However, their readership (if indeed ‘readership’ is the right words, since there was typically little reading involved) was almost exclusively male. 
In contrast, there was little or no female audience for magazines containing pictures of naked males. Instead, magazines marketed towards women (e.g. fashion magazines) contain, mostly, pictures of other women. 
Indeed, when, in the 1970s, attempts were made, in the misguided name of feminism and ‘women’s liberation’, to market magazines featuring male nudes to a female readership, one such title, Viva, abandoned publishing male nudes after just a few years due to lack of interest or demand, then subsequently went bust just a few years after that, while the other, Playgirl, although it did not entirely abandon male nudes, was notorious, as a consequence, for attracting a readership composed in large part of homosexual men. 
Symons thus concludes forcefully and persuasively: 

The notion must be abandoned that women are simply repressed men waiting to be liberated” (p183). 

Indeed, though it has been loudly and enthusiastically co-opted by feminists, this view of women, and of female sexuality – namely women as “repressed men waiting to be liberated” – represents an obviously quintessentially male viewpoint. 

Indeed, taken to extremes, it has even been used as a justification for rape.

Thus, the curious, sub-Freudian notion that female rape victims actually secretly enjoy being raped seems to rest ultimately on the assumption that female sexuality is fundamentally the same as that of men (i.e. indiscriminately enjoying of promiscuous sex) and that it is only women’s sexual ‘repression’ that prevents them admitting as much.

Romance Literature 

Unfortunately, however, there is notable omission in Symons’s discussion of pornography as a window into male sexuality – namely, he omits to consider whether there exists any parallel artistic genre that offers equivalent insight into the female psyche. 
Later writers on the topic have argued that romance novels (e.g. Mills and Boon, Jane Austin), whose audience is as overwhelmingly female as pornography’s is male, represent the female equivalent of pornography, and that analysis of the the content of such works provides insights into female mate preferences parallel to those provided into male psychology by pornography (e.g. Kruger et al 2003; Salmon 2004; see also Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, co-authored by Symons himself). 

Female Orgasm as Non-Adaptive

An entire chapter of ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’, namely Chapter Three (entitled, “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Artefact”), is devoted to rejecting the claim that the female orgasm represents a biological adaptation. 
This is perhaps excessive. However, it does at least conveniently contradicts the claim of some critics of evolutionary psychology, and of sociobiology, such as Stephen Jay Gould that the field is ‘ultra-Darwinian’ or ‘hyper-adaptionist’ and committed to the misguided notion that all traits are necessarily adaptive.[12]
In contrast, Symons champions the thesis that the female capacity for orgasm is a simply non-adaptive by-product of the male capacity to orgasm, the latter of which is of course adaptive. 
On this view, the female orgasm (and clitoris) is, in effect, the female equivalent of male nipples (only more fun). 
Certainly, Symons convincingly critiques the romantic notion, popularized by Desmond Morris among others, that the female orgasm functions as a mechanism designed to enhance ‘pair-bonding’ between couples. 
However, subsequent generations of evolutionary psychologists have developed less naïve models of the adaptive function of female orgasm. 
For example, Geoffrey Miller argues that the female orgasm functions as an adaptation for mate choice (The Mating Mind: p239-241). 
Of course, at first glance, experiencing orgasm during coitus may appear to be a bit late for mate choice, since, by the time coitus has occurred, the choice in question has already been made. However, given that, among humans, most sexual intercourse is non-reproductive (i.e. does not result in conception), the theory is not altogether implausible. 
On this view, the very factors which Symons views as suggesting female orgasm is non-adaptive – such as the relative difficultly of stimulating female orgasm during ordinary vaginal sex – are positive evidence for its adaptive function in carefully discriminating between suitors/lovers to determine their desirability as father for a woman ’s offspring. 
Nevertheless, at least according to the stringent criteria set out by George C Williams in his classic Adaptation and Natural Selection, as well as the more general principle of parsimony (also known as Occam’s Razor), the case for female orgasm as an adaptation remains unproven (see also Sherman 1989; Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).


Much of Symons’ work is dedicated to challenging the naïve group-selectionism of Sixties ethologists, especially Desmond Morris. Although scientifically now largely obsolete, Morris’s work still retains a certain popular resonance and therefore this aspect of Symons’s work is not entirely devoid of contemporary relevance. 
In place of Morris‘s rather idyllic notion that humans are a naturally monogamous ‘pair-bonding’ species, Symons advocates instead an approach rooted in the individual-level (or even gene-level) selection championed Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here). 
This leads to some decidedly cynical conclusions regarding the true nature of sexual and romantic relations among humans. 
For example, Symons argues that it is adaptive for men to be less sexually attracted to their wives than they are to other women – because they are themselves liable to bear the cost of raising offspring born to their wives but not those born to other women with whom they mate (e.g. those mated to other males). 
Another cynical conclusion is that the primary emotion underlying the institution of marriage, both cross-culturally and in our own society, is neither love nor even lust, but rather male sexual jealousy and proprietariness (p123). 

Marriage, then, is an institution borne not of love, but of male sexual jealousy and the behaviour known to biologists as mate-guarding
Meanwhile, in his excellent chapter on ‘Copulation as a Female Service’ (Chapter Eight), Symons suggests that many aspects of heterosexual romantic relationships may be analogous to prostitution
As well as its excessive focus on debunking sixties ethologists like Morris, ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ is also out-of-date in a more serious respect Namely, it fails to incorporate the vast amount of empirical research on human sexuality from a sociobiological perspective which has been conducted since the first publication of his work. 
For a book first published thirty years ago, this is inevitable – not least because much of this empirical research was inspired by Symons’ own ideas and specifically designed to test theories formulated in this very work. 
In addition, potentially important new factors in human reproductive behaviour that even Symons did not foresee have been identified, for example role of levels of fluctuating asymmetry functioning as a criterion for, or at least correlate of, physical attractiveness. 
For an updated discussion of the evolutionary psychology of human sexual behaviour, complete with the latest empirical data, readers should consult the latest edition of David Buss’s The Evolution Of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating
In contrast, in support of his theories Symons relies largely on classical literary insight, anecdote and, most importantly, a review of the ethnographic record. 
However, this latter focus ensures that, in some respects, the work remains of more than merely of historical interest. 
After all, one of the more legitimate criticisms levelled against recent research in evolutionary psychology is that it is insufficiently cross-cultural and, with several notable exceptions (e.g. Buss 1989), relies excessively on research conducted among convenience samples of students at western universities. 
Given costs and practicalities, this is inevitable. However, for a field that aspires to understand a human nature presumed to be universal, such a method of sampling is highly problematic. 
The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ therefore retains its importance for two reasons. 

First, is it the founding work of modern evolutionary psychological research into human sexual behaviour, and hence of importance as a landmark and classic text in the field, as well as in the history of science more generally. 

Second, it also remains of value to this day for the cross-cultural and ethnographic evidence it marshals in support of its conclusions. 


[1] Actually, the first person to discover this, albeit inadvertently, was the great Victorian polymath, pioneering statistician and infamous eugenicist Francis Galton, who, attempting to discover abnormal facial features possessed by the criminal class, succeeded in morphing the faces of multiple convicted criminals. The result was, presumably to his surprise, an extremely attractive facial composite, since all the various minor deformities of the many convicted criminals whose faces he morphed actually balanced one another out to produce a face with few if any abnormalities or disproportionate features.

[2] More recent research in this area has focused on the related concept of fluctuating asymmetry.

[3] However, recent meta-analyses have called into question the evidence for cyclical fluctuations in female mate preferences (Wood et al 2014; cf. Gildersleeve et al 2014), and it has been suggested that such findings may represent casualties of the so-called replication crisis in psychology. It has also been questioned whether ovulation in humans is indeed concealed, or is actually detectable by subtle cues (e.g. Miller et al 2007), for example, changes in face shape (Oberzaucher et al 2012), breast symmetry (Scutt & Manning 1996) and body scent (Havlicek et al 2006).

[4] Another factor leading recent researchers to overestimate the importance of female choice in human evolution is their feminist orientation, since female choice gives women an important role in human evolution, even, paradoxically, in the evolution of male traits.

[5] Actually, in most cultures, only a girl’s first marriage is arranged on her behalf by her parents. Second- and third-marriages are usually negotiated by the woman herself. However, since female fertility peaks early, it is a girl’s first marriage that is usually of the most reproductive, and hence Darwinian, significance.

[6] Indeed, the human anatomical trait in humans that perhaps shows the most evidence of being a product of intersexual selection is a female one, namely the female breasts, since the latter are, unlike the mammary glands of most other mammals, permanently present from puberty on, not only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016

[7] Wilson terms his theory “the kin selection theory hypothesis of the origin of homosexuality” (p145). However, a better description might be the ‘helper at the nest theory of homosexuality’, the basic idea being that, like sterile castes in some insects, and like older siblings in some bird species where new nest sites are unavailable, homosexuals, rather than reproducing themselves, direct their energies towards assisting their collateral kin in successfully raising, and provisioning, their own offspring (p143-7). The main problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that homosexuals do indeed devote any greater energies towards assisting their kin in this respect. On the contrary, homosexuals instead seem to devote much of their time and resources towards their own sex life, much as do heterosexuals (Bobrow & Bailey 2001).

[8] As we will see, contrary to the stereotype of evolutionary psychologists as viewing all traits as necessarily adaptive, as they are accused of doing by the likes of Gould, Symons also argued that the female orgasm and menopause are non-adaptive, but rather by-products of other adaptations.

[9] This is not necessarily to say that rampant, indiscriminate promiscuity is a male utopia, or the ideal of any man, be he homosexual or heterosexual. On the contrary, the ideal mating system for any individual male is harem polygyny in which the chastity of his own partners is rigorously policed (see Despotism and Differential Reproduction: which I have reviewed here and here). However, given an equal sex ratio, this would condemn other males to celibacy. Similarly, Symons reports that “Homosexual men, like most people, usually want to have intimate relationships”. However, he observes:

Such relationships are difficult to maintain, largely owing to the male desire for sexual variety; the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men, and the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” (p297).  

It does indeed seem to be true that homosexual relationships, especially those of gay males, are, on average, of shorter duration than are heterosexual relationships. However, Symons’ claim regarding “the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” is questionable. Actually, subsequent research in evolutionary psychology has suggested that men are no more prone to jealousy than women, but rather that it is sorts of behaviours which most intensely provoke such jealousy that differentiate the sexes (Buss 1992). However, many gay men practice open relationships, which seems to suggest a lack of jealousy – or perhaps this simply reflects a recognition of the difficulty of maintaining relationships given, as Symons puts it, “the male desire for sexual variety [and] the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men”. 

[10] Indeed, far from men being led to objectify women due to the portrayal of women in a sexualized manner in the media, Symons suggests:

There may be no positive feedback at all; on the contrary, constant exposure to pictures of nude and nearly nude female bodies may to some extent habituate men to these stimuli” (p304).

[11] Admittedly, some aspects of body-type typically preferred by gay males (especially the twink) do reflect apparently female traits, especially a relative lack of body-hair. However, lack of body-hair is also obviously indicative of youth. Moreover, a relative lack of body-hair also seems to be a trait favoured in men by heterosexual women. For a discussion of the relative preference on the part of (heterosexual) females for masculine versus feminine traits in male sex partners, see the final section of this review.

[12] Incidentally, Symons also rejects the theory that the female menopause is adaptive, a theory which has subsequently become known as the grandmother hypothesis (p13). Also, although it does not directly address the issue, Symons’ discussion of human rape (p276-85), has also been interpreted as implicitly favouring the theory that rape is a by-product of the greater male desire for commitment free promiscuous sex, rather than the product of a specific rape adaptation in males (see Palmer 1991; and A Natural History of Rape: reviewed here). 


Bellis & Baker (1990). Do females promote sperm competition?: Data for humans. Animal Behavior, 40: 997-999 
Bobrow & Bailey (2001). Is male homosexuality maintained via kin selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 22: 361-368 
Bogaert & Hershberger (1999) The relation between sexual orientation and penile size. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1999 Jun;28(3) :213-21. 
Buss (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12: 1-49
Ellis & Ratnasingam (2012) Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Occupational Interests: Evidence of Androgen Influences. Mankind Quarterly  53(1): 36–80
Ellis & Symons (1990) Sex differences in sexual fantasy: An evolutionary psychological approach, Journal of Sex Research 27(4): 527-555.
Gildersleeve, Haselton & Fales (2014) Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 140(5):1205-59.
Havlíček, Dvořáková, Bartos & Fleg (2006) Non‐Advertized does not Mean Concealed: Body Odour Changes across the Human Menstrual Cycle. Ethology 112(1):81-90.
Havlíček et al (2016) Men’s preferences for women’s breast size and shape in four cultures. Evolution and Human Behavior 38(2): 217–226 
Kenrick & Keefe (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15: 75-133. 
Kruger et al (2003) Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads. Human Nature 14(3): 305-317 
Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women. Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236 
Miller (1998). How mate choice shaped human nature: A review of sexual selection and human evolution. In C. Crawford & D. Krebs (Eds.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications (pp. 87-129). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Miller, Tybur & Jordan (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrous? Evolution and Human Behavior. 28(6):375–381 
Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success. Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219 
Palmer (1991) Human Rape: Adaptation or By-Product? Journal of Sex Research 28(3): 365-386 
Penton-Voak et al (1999) Menstrual cycle alters face preferences, Nature 399 741-2. 
Puts (2010) Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 31 157-175 
Salmon (2004) The Pornography Debate: What Sex Differences in Erotica Can Tell Us About Human Sexuality. In Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) 
Scutt & Manning (1996) Symmetry and ovulation in women. Human Reproduction 11(11):2477-80
Sherman (1989) The clitoris debate and levels of analysis, Animal Behaviour, 37: 697-8
Wood et al (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferencesEmotion Review, 6(3), 229–249.

Judith Harris’s ‘The Nurture Assumption’: By Parent or Peers

Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press, 1998.

Almost all psychological traits on which individual humans differ, from personality and intelligence to mental illness, are now known to be substantially heritable. In other words, individual differences in these traits are, at least in part, a consequence of genetic differences between individuals. 

This finding is so robust that it has even been termed by Eric Turkenheimer the First Law of Behviour Genetics and, although once anathema to most psychologists save a marginal fringe of behavioural geneticists, it has now, under the sheer weight of evidence produced by the latter, belatedly become the new orthodoxy. 

On reflection, however, this transformation is not entirely a revelation. 

After all, it was only in the mid-twentieth century that the curious notion that individual differences were entirely the product of environmental differences first arose, and, even then, this delusion was largely restricted to psychologists, sociologists, feminists and other such ‘professional damned fools’, along with those among the semi-educated public who seek to cultivate an air of intellectualism by aping the former’s affections. 

Before then, poets, peasants and laypeople alike had long recognized that ability, insanity, temperament and personality all tended to run in families, just as physical traits like stature, complexion, hair and eye colour also do.[1]

However, while the discovery of a heritable component to character and ability merely confirms the conventional wisdom of an earlier age, another behavioural genetic finding, far more surprising and counterintuitive, has passed relatively unreported. 

This is the discovery that the so-called shared family environment (i.e. the environment shared by siblings, or non-siblings, raised in the same family home) actually has next to no effect on adult personality and behaviour. 

This we know from such classic study designs in behavioural genetics as twin studiesadoption studies and family studies.  

In short, individuals of a given degree of relatedness, whether identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings, half-siblings or unrelated adoptees, are, by the time they reach adulthood, no more similar to one another in personality or IQ when they are raised in the same household than when they are raised in entirely different households. 

The Myth of Parental Influence 

Yet parental influence has long loomed large in virtually every psychological theory of child development, from the Freudian Oedipus complex and Bowby’s attachment theory to the whole literary genre of books aimed at instructing anxious parents on how best to raise their children so as to ensure that the latter develop into healthy, functional, successful adults. 

Indeed, not only is the conventional wisdom among psychologists overturned, but so is the conventional wisdom among sociologists – for one aspect of the shared family environment is, of course, household income and social class

Thus, if the family that a person is brought up in has next to no impact on their psychological outcomes as an adult, then this means that the socioeconomic status of the family home in which they are raised also has no effect. 

Poverty, or a deprived upbringing, then, has no effect on IQ, personality or the prevalence of mental illness, at least by the time a person has reached adulthood.[2]

Neither is it only leftist sociologists who have proved mistaken. 

Thus, just as leftists use economic deprivation as an indiscriminate, catch-all excuse for all manner of social pathology (e.g. crime, unemployment, educational underperformance) so conservatives are apt to place the blame on divorcefamily breakdown, having children out of wedlock and the consequential increase in the prevalence of single-parent households

However, all these factors are, once again, part of the shared family environment – and according to the findings of behavioural genetics, they have next to no influence on adult personality or intelligence. 

Of course, chaotic or abusive family environments do indeed tend to produce offspring with negative life outcomes. 

However, none of this proves that it was the chaotic or abusive family environment that caused the negative outcomes. 

Rather, another explanation is at hand – perhaps the offspring simply biologically inherit the personality traits of their parents, the very personality traits that caused their family environment to be so chaotic and abusive in the first place.[3] 

For example, parents who divorce or bear offspring out-of-wedlock likely differ in personality from those who first get married then stick together, perhaps being more impulsive or less self-disciplined and conscientious (e.g. less able refrain from having children from a relationship that was destined to be fleeting, or less able to persevere and make the relationship last). 

Their offspring may, then, simply biologically inherit these undesirable personality attributes, which then themselves lead to the negative social outcomes associated with being raised in single-parent households or broken homes. The association between family breakdown and negative outcomes for offspring might, then, reflect simply the biological inheritance of personality. 

Similarly, as leftists are fond of reminding us, children from economically-deprived backgrounds do indeed have lower recorded IQs and educational attainment than those from more privileged family backgrounds, as well as other negative outcomes as adults (e.g. lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment). 

However, this does not prove that coming from a deprived family background necessarily itself depresses your IQ, educational attainment or future salary. 

Rather, an equally plausible possibility is simply that offspring simply biologically inherit the low intelligence of their parents – the very low intelligence which was likely a factor causing the low socioeconomic status of their parents, since intelligence is known to correlate strongly with educational and occupational advancement.[4]

In short, the problem with all of this body of research which purports to demonstrate the influence of parents and family background on psychology and behavioural outcomes for offspring is that they fail to control for the heritability of personality and intelligence, an obvious confounding factor

The Non-Shared Environment

However, not everything is explained by heredity. As a crude but broadly accurate generalization, only about half the variation for most psychological traits is attributable to genes. This leaves about half of the variation in intelligence, personality and mental illness to be explained environmental factors.  

What are these environmental factors if they are not to be sought in the shared family environment

The obvious answer is, of course, the non-shared family environment – i.e. the ways in which even children brought up in the same family-home nevertheless experience different micro-environments, both within the home and, perhaps more importantly, outside it. 

Thus, even the fairest and most even-handed parents inevitably treat their different offspring differently in some ways.  

Indeed, among the principal reasons that parents treat their different offspring differently is precisely because the different offspring themselves differ in their own behaviour.  

Corporal punishment 

Rather than differences in the behaviour of different children resulting from differences in how their parents treat them, it may be that differences in how parents treat their children may reflect responses to differences in the behaviour of the children themselves. 

In other words, the psychologists have the direction of causation precisely backwards. 

Take, for example, one particularly controversial issue, namely the physical chastisement of children by their parents as a punishment for bad behaviour (e.g. spanking). 

Thus, some psychologists have sometimes argued that physical chastisement actually causes misbehaviour. 

As evidence, they cite the fact that children who are spanked more often by their parents or caregivers on average actually behave worse than those whose caregivers only rarely or never spank the children entrusted to their care.  

This, they claim, is because, in employing spanking as a form of discipline, caregivers are inadvertently imparting the message that violence is a good way of solving your problems. 

Actually, however, I suspect children are more than capable of working out for themselves that violence is often an effective means of getting your way, at least if you have superior physical strength to your adversary. Unfortunately, this is something that, unlike reading, arithmetic and long division, does not require explicit instruction by teachers or parents. 

Instead, a more obvious explanation for the correlation between spanking and misbehaviour in children is not that spanking causes misbehaviour, but rather that misbehaviour causes spanking. 

Indeed, once one thinks about it, this is in fact rather obvious: If a child never seriously misbehaves, then a parent likely never has any reason to spank that child, even if the parent is, in principle, a strict disciplinarian; whereas, on the other hand, a highly disobedient child is likely to try the patience of even the most patient caregiver, whatever his or her moral opposition to physical chastisement in principle. 

In other words, causation runs in exactly the opposite direction to that assumed by the naïve psychologists.[5] 

Another factor may also be at play – namely, offspring biologically inherit from their parents the personality traits that cause both the misbehaviour and the punishment. 

In other words, parents with aggressive personalities may be more likely to lose their temper and physically chastise their children, while children who inherit these aggressive personalities are themselves more likely to misbehave, not least by behaving in an aggressive or violent manner. 

However, even if parents treat their different offspring differently owing to the different behaviour of the offspring themselves, this is not the sort of environmental factor capable of explaining the residual non-shared environmental effects on offspring outcomes. 

After all, this merely begs the question as to what caused these differences in offspring behaviour in the first place? 

If the differences in offspring behaviour exist prior to differences in parental responses to this behaviour, then these differences cannot be explained by the differences in parental responses.  

Peer Groups 

This brings us back to the question of the environmental causes of offspring outcomes – namely, if about half the differences among children’s IQs and personalities are attributable to environmental factors, but these environmental factors are not to be found in the shared family environment (i.e. the environment shared by children raised in the same household), then where are these environmental factors to be sought? 

The search for environmental factors affecting personality and intelligence has, thus far, been largely unsuccessful. Indeed, some behavioural geneticists have almost gone as far as conceding scholarly defeat in identifying correlates for the environmental portion of the variance. 

Thus, leading contemporary behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin in his recent book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, concludes that those environmental factors that affect cognitive ability, personality, and the development of mental illness are, as he puts it, ‘unsystematic’ in nature. 

In other words, he seems to be saying that they are mere random noise. This is tantamount to accepting that the null hypothesis is true. 

Judith Harris, however, has a quite different take. According to Harris, environmental causes must be sought, not within the family home, but rather outside it – in a person’s interactions with their peer-group and the wider community.[6]

Environment ≠ Nurture 

Thus, Harris argues that the so-called nature-nurture debate is misnamed, since the word ‘nurture’ usually refers to deliberate care and moulding of a child (or of a plant or animal). But many environmental effects are not deliberate. 

Thus, Harris repeatedly references behaviourist John B. Watson’s infamous boast: 

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” 

Yet what strikes me as particularly preposterous about Watson’s boast is not its radical environmental determinism, nor even its rather convenient unfalsifiability.[7] 

Rather, what most strikes me as most preposterous about Watson’s claim is its frankly breath-taking arrogance. 

Thus, Watson not only insisted that it was environment alone that entirely determined adult personality. In this same quotation, he also proclaimed that he already fully understood the nature of these environmental effects to such an extent that, given omnipotent powers to match his evidently already omniscient understanding of human development, he could produce any outcome he wished. 

Yet, in reality, environmental effects are anything but clear-cut. Pushing a child in a certain direction, or into a certain career, may sometimes have the desired effect, but other times have the exact opposite effect to that desired, provoking the child to rebel against parental dictates. 

Thus, even to the extent that environment does determine outcomes, the precise nature of the environmental factors implicated, and their interaction with one another, and with the child’s innate genetic endowment, is surely far more complex than the simple mechanisms proposed by behaviourists like Watson (e.g. reinforcement and punishment). 

Language Acquisition 

The most persuasive evidence for Harris’s theory of the importance of peer groups comes from an interesting and widely documented peculiarity of language acquisition

The children of immigrants, whose parents speak a different language inside the family home, and may even themselves be monolingual, nevertheless typically grow up to speak the language of their host culture rather better than they do the language to which they were first exposed in the family home. 

Indeed, while their parents may never achieve fluency in the language of their host culture, having missed out on the Chomskian critical period for language acquisition, their children often actually lose the ability to speak their parent’s language, often much to the consternation of parents and grandparents. 

Yet, from an sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, such an outcome is obviously adaptive. 

If a child is to succeed in wider society, they must master its language, whereas, if their parent’s first language is not spoken anywhere in their host society except in their family, then it is of limited utility, and, once their parents themselves become proficient in the language of the host culture, becomes entirely redundant (see The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed herehere and here): p258). 


Harris suggests that the same applies to personality. Just as the child of immigrants switches between one language and another at home and school, so they also adopt different personalities. 

Thus, many parents are surprised to be told by their children’s teachers at parents’ evenings that their offspring is quiet and well-behaved at school, since, as they themselves report, he or she isn’t at all like that at home. 

Yet, at home, a child has only, at most, a sibling or two with whom to compete for his parents’ attention. In contrast, at school, he or she has a whole class with whom to compete for their teacher’s attention.

It is therefore unsurprising that most children are less outgoing at school than they are at home with their parents. 

For example, an older sibling might be able push his little brother around at home. But, if he is small for his age, he is unlikely to be able to get away with the same behaviour among his peers at school. 

Children therefore adopt two quite different personalities – one for interactions with family and siblings, and another for among their peers.

This then, for Harris, explains why, perhaps surprisingly, birth-order has generally been found to have little if any effect on personality, at least as personality manifests itself outside the family home. 

An Evolutionary Theory of Socialization? 

Interestingly, even evolutionary psychologists have not been immune from the delusion of parental influence. Thus, in one influential paper, anthropologists Patricia Draper and Henry Harpending argued that offspring calibrate their reproductive strategy by reference to the presence or absence of a father in their household (Draper & Harpending 1982). 

On this view, being raised in a father-absent household is indicative of a social environment where low male parental investment is the norm, and hence offspring adjust their own reproductive strategy accordingly, adopting a promiscuous, low-investment mating strategy characterized by precocious sexual development and an inability to maintain lasting long-term relationships (Draper & Harpending 1982Belsky et al 1991). 

There is indeed, as these authors amply demonstrate, a consistent correlation between father-absence during development and both earlier sexual development and more frequent partner-switching in later life. 

Yet there is also another, arguably more obvious, explanation readily at hand to explain this association. Perhaps offspring simply inherit biologically the personality traits, including sociosexual orientation, of their parents. 

On this view, offspring raised in single-parent households are more likely to adopt a promiscuous, low-investment mating strategy simply because they biologically inherit the promiscuous sociosexual orientation of their parents, the very promiscuous sociosexual orientation that caused the latter to have children out-of-wedlock or from relationships that were destined to break down and hence caused the father-absent childhood of their offspring. 

Moreover, even on a priori theoretical grounds, Draper, Harpending and Belsky’s reasoning is dubious. 

After all, whether you personally were raised in a one- or two-parent family is obviously a very unreliable indicator of the sorts of relationships prevalent in the wider community into which you are born, since it represents a sample size of just one. 

Instead, therefore, it would be far more reliable to calibrate your reproductive strategy in response to the prevalence of one-parent households in the wider community at large, rather than the particular household type into which you happen to have been born.  

This, of course, directly supports Harris’s own theory of ‘peer group socialization’. 

In short, to the extent that children do adapt to the environment and circumstances of their upbringing (and they surely do), they must integrate into, adopt the norms of, and a reproductive strategy to maximize their fitness within, the wider community into which they are born, rather than the possibly quite idiosyncratic circumstances and attitudes of their own family. 

Absent Fathers, from Upper-Class to Under-Class 

Besides language-acquisition among the children of immigrants, another example cited by Harris in support of her theory of ‘peer group socialization’ is the culture, behaviours and upbringing of British upper-class males.

Here, boys were, and, to some extent, still are, reared primarily, not by their parents, but rather by nanniesgovernoresses and, more recently, in exclusive fee-paying all-male boarding schools

Yet, despite having next to no contact with their fathers throughout most of their childhood, these boys nevertheless managed somehow to acquire manners, attitudes and accents similar, if not identical, to those of their upper-class fathers, and not at all those of the middle-class nannies, governoresses and masters with whom they spent most of their childhood being raised. 

Yet this phenomenon is by no means restricted to the British upper-classes. On the contrary, rather than citing the example of the British upper-classes in centuries gone by, Harris might just as well have cited that of contemporary underclass in Britain and elsewhere, since what was once true of the British upper-classes, is now equally true of the underclass

Just as the British upper-classes were once raised by governoresses, nannies and in private schools with next to no contact with their fathers, so contemporary underclass males are similarly raised in single-parent households, often to unwed mothers, and typically have little if any contact with their biological fathers. 

Here, as Warren Farrell observes in his seminal The Myth of Male Power (which I have reviewed here and here), there is a now a “a new nuclear family: woman, government and child”, what Farrell terms “Government as a Substitute Husband”. 

Yet, once again, these underclass males, raised by single parents with the assistance of the state, typically turn out much like their absent fathers with whom they have had little if any contact, often going on to promiscuously father a succession of offspring themselves, with whom they likewise have next to no contact. 


But what of actual abuse? Surely this has a long-term devastating psychological impact on children. This, at any rate, is the conventional wisdom, and questioning this wisdom is tantamount to contemporary heresy, with attendant persecution

Take, for example, what is perhaps the form of child abuse that provokes the most outrage and disgust – namely, sexual abuse. Here, it is frequently asserted that paedophiles were almost invariably themselves abused as children, which creates a so-called ‘cycle of abuse’. 

However, there are at least three problems with this claim. 

First, it cannot explain how the first person in this cycle became a paedophile. 

Second, we might doubt whether it is really true that paedophiles are disproportionately likely to have themselves been abused as children. After all, abuse is something that almost invariably happens surreptitiously ‘behind closed doors’ and is therefore difficult to verify or disprove. 

Thus, even if most paedophiles claim to have been victims of abuse, it is possible that they are simply lying in order to elicit sympathy or excuse or shift culpability for their own offending. 

Finally, even if paedophiles can be shown to be disproportionately likely to have themselves been victimized as children, this by no means proves that their victimization caused their sexual orientation. 

Rather, since most abuse is perpetrated by parents or other close family members, an alternative possibility is that victims simply biologically inherit the sexual orientation of their abuser. After all, if homosexuality is partially heritable, as is now widely accepted, then why not paedophilia as well? 

However, the finding that the shared family environment accounts for hardly any of the variance in outcomes among adults does not preclude the possibility that severe abuse may indeed have an adverse effect on adult outcomes. 

After all, adoption studies can only tell us what percent of the variance is caused by heredity or by shared or unshared environments within a specific population as a whole. 

Perhaps the shared family environment accounts for so little of the variance precisely because the sort of severe abuse that does indeed have a devastating long-term effect on personality and mental health is, thankfully, so very rare in modern societies. 

Indeed, it may be especially rare within the families used in adoption studies precisely because adoptive families are carefully screened for suitability before being allowed to adopt. 

Moreover, Harris emphasizes an important caveat: Even if abuse does not have long-term adverse psychological effects, this does not mean that abuse causes no harm, and nor does it in any way excuse such abuse. 

On the contrary, the primary reason we shouldn’t mistreat children (and should severely punish those who do) is not on account of some putative long-term psychological effect on the adults whom the children subsequently become, but rather because of the very real pain and suffering inflicted on a child at the time the abuse takes place. 

Race Differences in IQ 

Finally, Harris even touches upon that most vexed area of the (so-called) nature-nurture debate – race differences in intelligence

Here, the politically-correct claim that differences in intelligence between racial groups, as recorded in IQ tests, are of purely environmental origin runs into a problem, since the sorts of environmental effects that are usually posited by environmental determinists as accounting for the black-white test score gap in America (e.g. differences in rates of poverty and socioeconomic status) have been shown to be inadequate because, even after controlling for these factors, there remains a still unaccounted for gap in test-scores. 

Thus, as Arthur R. Jensen laments: 

This gives rise to the hypothesizing of still other, more subtle environmental factors that either have not been or cannot be measured—a history of slavery, social oppression, and racial discrimination, white racism, the ‘black experience,’ and minority status consciousness [etc]” (Straight Talk About Mental Tests: p223). 

The problem with these explanations, however, is that none of these factors has yet been demonstrated to have any effect on IQ scores. 

Moreover, some of the factors proposed as explanations are formulated in such a vague form (e.g. “white racism, the ‘black experience’”) that it is difficult to conceive of how they could ever be subjected to controlled testing in the first place.[8] 

Jensen has termed this mysterious factor the ‘X-factor’. 

In coining this term, Jensen was emphasizing its vague, mysterious and unfalsifiable nature. Jensen did not actually believe that this posited ‘X-factor’, whatever it was, really did account for the test-score gap. Rather, he thought heredity explained most, if not all, of the remaining test-score gap. 

However, Harris takes Jensen at his word. Thus, she announces: 

I believe I know what this X factor is… I can describe it quite clearly. Black kids and white kids identify with different groups that have different norms. The differences are exaggerated by group contrast effects and have consequences that compound themselves over the years. That’s the X factor” (p248-9). 

Interestingly, although she does not develop it, Harris’s claim is actually compatible with, and potentially reconciles, the conflicting findings of two of the most widely-cited studies in this vexed area of research and debate. 

First, in the more recent of these two studies, Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study, the same differences in IQ were observed among black, white and mixed-race children adopted into upper-middle class white families as are found among the respective among black, white and mixed-race populations in society at large (Scarr & Weinberg 1976). 

Moreover, although, when tested during childhood, the children’s adoptive households did seem to have had a positive effect on their IQ scores, by the time they reached the cusp of adulthood, the black teenagers who had been adopted into upper-middle-class white homes actually scored no higher in IQ than did blacks in the wider population not raised in upper-middle class white families (Weinberg, Scarr & Waldman 1992). 

This study is often cited by hereditarians as evidence for innate racial differences (e.g. Levin 1994Lynn 1994Whitney 1996). 

However, in the light of the findings of the behavioural genetics studies discussed by Harris in ‘The Nurture Assumption’, the fact that white upper-middle-class adoptive homes had no effect on the adult IQs of the black children adopted into them is, in fact, hardly surprising. 

After all, as we have seen, the shared family environment generally has no effect on IQ, at least by the time the person being tested has reached adulthood. One would therefore not expect adoptive homes, howsoever white and upper-middle-class, to have any effect on adult IQs of the black children adopted into them, or indeed of the white or mixed-race children adopted into them. 

In short, adoptive homes have no effect on adult IQ, whether or not the adoptees, or adoptive families, are black, white, brown, yellow, green or purple! 

But, if race differences in intelligence are indeed entirely environmental in origin, then where are these environmental causes to be found, if not in the family environment? 

Harris has an answer – black culture. 

According to her, the black adoptees, although raised in white adoptive families, nevertheless still come to identify as black, and to identify with the wider black culture and social norms. In addition, they may, on account of their racial identification, come to socialize with other blacks in school and elsewhere. 

As a result of this acculturation to African-American norms and culture, they therefore come to score lower in IQ than their white peers and adoptive siblings. 

But how can we test this theory? Perhaps we could look at the IQ scores of black children raised in white families where there is no wider black culture with which to identify, and few if any black peers with whom to socialize?  

This brings us to the second of the two studies which Harris’s theory potentially reconciles, namely the Eyferth study.  

Here, it was found that the mixed-race children fathered by black American servicemen who had had sexual relationships with German women during the Allied occupation of Germany after World War Two had almost exactly the same average IQ scores as a control group of offspring fathered by white US servicemen during the same time period (Eyferth 1959). 

The crucial difference from the Minnesota study may be that these children, raised in monoracial Germany in the mid-twentieth century, had no wider African-American culture with which to identify or whose norms to adopt, and few if any black or mixed-race peers in their vicinity with whom to socialize. 

This then is perhaps the last lifeline for the radical environmentalist theory of race differences in intelligence – namely the theory that African-American culture somehow depresses intelligence. 

Unfortunately, however, this proposition is likely almost as politically unpalatable to politically-correct liberals as is the notion that race differences in intelligence reflect innate genetic differences.[9] 


[1] Thus, this ancient wisdom is reflected, for example, in many folk sayings, such as the apple does not fall far from the tree, a chip off the old block and like father, like son, many of which long predate either Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Mendel’s work on heredity, let alone the modern work of behavioural geneticists.

[2] It is important to emphasize here that this applies only to psychological outcomes, and not, for example, economic outcomes. For example, a child raised by wealthy parents is indeed likely to be wealthier than one raised in poverty, if only because s/he is likely to inherit (some of) the wealth of his parents. It is also possible that s/he may, on average, obtain a better job as a consequence of the opportunities opened by his privileged upbringing. However, his IQ will be no higher than had s/he been raised in relative poverty, and neither will s/he be any more or less likely to suffer from a mental illness. 

[3] Similarly, it is often claimed that children raised in care homes, or in foster care, tend to have negative life-outcomes. However, again, this by no means proves that it is care homes or foster care that causes these negative life-outcomes. On the contrary, since children who end up in foster care are typically either abandoned by their biological parents, or forcibly taken from their parents by social services on account of the inadequate care provided by the latter, or sometimes outright abuse, it is obvious that their parents represent an unrepresentative sample of society as a whole. An obvious alternative explanation, then, is that the children in question simply inherit the dysfunctional personality attributes of their biological parents, namely the very dysfunctional personality attributes that caused the latter to either abandon their children or have them removed by the social services.

[4] Likewise, the heritability of such personality traits as conscientiousness and self-discipline, in addition to intelligence, likely also partly account for the association between parental income and academic attainment among their offspring, since both academic attainment, and occupational success, require the self-discipline to work hard to achieve success. These factors, again in addition to intelligence, likely also contribute to the association between parental income and the income and socioeconomic status ultimately attained by their offspring.

[5] This possibility could, of course, be ruled out by longitudinal studies, which investigate whether the spanking preceded the misbehaviour, or vice versa. However, this is easier said than done, since, unless relying on the reports by caregivers or children themselves, which depends on both the memory and honesty of the caregivers and children themselves, it would have to involve intensive, long-term, and continued observation in order to establish which came first, namely the pattern of misbehaviour, or the adoption of physical chastisement as a method of discipline. This would, presumably, require continuous observation from birth onwards, so as to ensure that the very first instance of spanking or excessive misbehaviour were recorded. To my knowledge, such a careful and intensive long-term study of this sort has yet to be conducted, if even it is possible.

[6] The fact that the relevant environmental variables must be sought outside the family home is one reason why the terms ‘between-family environment’ and ‘within-family environment’, sometimes used as synonyms or alternatives for ‘shared’ and ‘non-shared family environment’ respectively, are potentially misleading. Thus, the ‘within-family environment’ refers to those aspects of the environment that differ for different siblings even within a single family. However, these factors may differ within a single family precisely because they occur outside, not within, the family itself. The terms ‘shared’ and ‘non-shared family environment’ are therefore to be preferred, so as to avoid any potential confusion these alternative terms could cause.

[7] Both practical and ethical considerations, of course, prevent Watson from actually creating his “own specified world” in which to bring up his “dozen healthy infants”. Therefore, no one is able to put his claim to the test. It is therefore unfalsifiable and Watson is therefore free to make such boasts, safe in the knowledge that there is no danger of his actually being made to make good on his claims or being proven wrong.

[8] Actually, at least some of these theories are indeed testable and potentially falsifiable. With regard to the factors quoted by Jensen (namely, “a history of slavery, social oppression, and racial discrimination, white racism… and minority status consciousness”), one way of testing these theories is to look at test scores in those countries where there is no such history. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Haiti and Jamaica, blacks are not in the majority, and are moreover in control of the government. Yet the IQ scores of the indigenous population of Africa is actually even lower than among blacks in the USA (see Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence: reviewed here). True, most such countries still have a history of racial oppression and discrimination, albeit in the form of European colonialism rather than racial slavery or segregation in the American sense. However, the lower scores for black Africans is true even in those few sub-Saharan African countries that were not colonized by western powers, or only briefly colonized (e.g. Ethiopia). Moreover, this merely begs the question as to why Africa was so easily colonized by Europeans. Also, other minority groups ostensibly subject to racial discrimination and oppression (e.g. Jews, Overseas Chinese) actually score very high in IQ, and are economically successful. As for “the ‘black experience’”, this meanly begs the question as to why the ‘black experience’ has been so similar, and resulted in the same low IQs, in so many different parts of the world, something implausible unless unless the ‘black experience’ itself reflects innate aspects of black African psychology. 

[9] Thus, ironically, the recently deceased James Flynn, though always careful, throughout his career, to remain on the politically-correct radical environmentalist side of the debate with regard to the causes of race differences in intelligence, nevertheless recently found himself taken to task by the leftist, politically-correct British Guardian newspaper for a sentence in his recent book, Does Your Family Make You Smarter, where he described American blacks as coming from a “from a cognitively restricted subculture” (Wilby 2016). Thus, whether one attributes lower black IQs to biology or to culture, either answer is certain offend leftists, and the power of political correctness can, it seems, never be appeased.


Belsky, Steinberg & Draper (1991) Childhood Experience, Interpersonal Development, and Reproductive Strategy: An Evolutionary Theory of Socialization Child Development 62(4): 647-670 

Draper & Harpending (1982) Father Absence and Reproductive Strategy: An Evolutionary Perspective Journal of Anthropological Research 38:3: 255-273 

Eyferth (1959) Eine Untersuchung der Neger-Mischlingskinder in WestdeutschlandVita Humana, 2, 102–114 

Levin (1994) Comment on Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study. Intelligence. 19: 13–20 

Lynn, R (1994) Some reinterpretations of the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study. Intelligence. 19: 21–27 

Scarr & Weinberg (1976) IQ test performance of black children adopted by White familiesAmerican Psychologist 31(10):726–739 

Weinberg, Scarr & Waldman, (1992) The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study: A follow-up of IQ test performance at adolescence Intelligence 16:117–135 

Whitney (1996) Shockley’s experiment. Mankind Quarterly 37(1): 41-60

Wilby (2006) Beyond the Flynn effect: New myths about race, family and IQ? Guardian, September 27.

A Modern McCarthyism in our Midst

Anthony Browne, The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain (London: Civitas, 2006) 

Western civilization has progressed. Today, unlike in earlier centuries, we no longer burn heretics at the stake.

Instead, according to sociologist Steven Goldberg, himself no stranger to contemporary heresy, these days: 

“All one has to lose by unpopular arguments is contact with people one would not be terribly attracted to anyway” (Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences: p222). 

Unfortunately, however, Goldberg underplays, not only the psychological impact of ostracism, but also the more ominous consequences that sometimes attach to contemporary heresy.

“While columnists, academics, and filmmakers delight in condemning, without fear of reprisals, a form of McCarthyism that ran out of steam over half a century ago (i.e. anti-communism), few dare to incur the wrath of the contemporary inquisition by exposing a modern McCarthyism right here in our midst”

Thus, bomb and death threats were issued repeatedly to women such as Erin Pizzey and Suzanne Steinmetz for pointing out that women were just as likely, or indeed somewhat more likely, to perpetrate acts of domestic violence against their husbands and boyfriends as their husbands and boyfriends were to perpetrate acts of domestic violence against them – a finding now replicated in literally hundreds of studies (see also Domestic Violence: The 12 Things You Aren’t Supposed to Know). 
Similarly, in the seventies, Arthur Jensen, a psychology professor at the University of California, had to be issued with an armed guard on campus after suggesting, in a sober and carefully argued scientific paper, that it was a “not unreasonable” hypothesis that the IQ difference between blacks and whites in America was partly genetic in origin. 
Political correctness has also cost people their jobs. 

Academics like Chris BrandHelmuth NyborgLawrence SommersFrank EllisNoah Carl and, most recently, Bo Winegard have been forced to resign or lost their academic positions as a consequence of researching, or, in some cases, just mentioning, politically incorrect theories such as the possible social consequences of, or innate basis for, sex and race differences in intelligence

Indeed, even the impeccable scientific credentials of James Watson, a figure jointly responsible for among the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, did not spare him this fate when he was reported in a newspaper as making some controversial but eminently defensible comments regarding population differences in cognitive ability and their likely impact on prospects for economic development.  

At the time of (re-)writing this piece, the most recent victim of this process of purging in academia is the celebrated historian, and long-term controversialist, David Starkey, excommunicated for some eminently sensible, if crudely expressed, remarks about slavery. 

Meanwhile, as proof of the one-sided nature of the witch-hunt, during the very same month as that in which Starkey was excommunicated from public life, a non-white leftist female academic, Priyamvada Gopal, tweeted the borderline genocidal tweet: 

“White lives don’t matter. As white lives.[1]

Yet the only repercussions the latter faced from her employer, Cambridge University, was to be almost immediately promoted to a full professorship

Cambridge University also, in response, issued a defence of their employees right to academic freedom, tweeting that: 

“[Cambridge] University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial”

This is indeed an admirable and principled stance – if applied consistently. 

Unfortunately, however, although this tweet was phrased in general terms, and actually included no mention of Gopal by name, it was evidently not of general application. 

For Cambridge University is, not only among the institutions from which Starkey was forced to tender his resignation this very same year, but also itself the very same institution that, only a year before, had denied a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson, the eminent public intellectual, for his controversial stances and statements on a range of topics, and which, only two years before, had denied an academic fellowship to researcher Noah Carl, after a letter calling for his dismissal which was signed by, among others, none other than the loathsome Priyamvada Gopal herself. 

The inescapable conclusion is the freedom of “academics to express lawful opinions which others might find controversial” at Cambridge University applies, despite the general wording of the tweet from which these words are taken, only to those controversial opinions of which the leftist academic and cultural establishment currently approves. 

Losing Your Livelihood 

If I might be accused here of focusing excessively on freedom of speech in an academic context, this is only because academia is among the arenas where freedom of expression is most essential, as it is only if all ideas, however offensive to certain protected groups, are able to freely circulate, and compete, in the marketplace of ideas that knowledge is able to progress through a selective process of testing and falsification.[2]

However, although the university environment is, today, especially intolerant, nevertheless similar fates have also befallen non-academics, many of whom have been deprived of their livelihoods on account of their politics. 

For example, in The Retreat of Reason, first published in 2006, Anthony Browne points to the case of a British headmaster sacked for saying Asian pupils should be obliged to learn English, a policy that was then, only a few years later, actually adopted as official government policy (p50). 

In the years since the publication of ‘The Retreat of Reason’, such examples have only multiplied. 

Indeed, today it is almost taken for granted that anyone caught saying something controversial and politically incorrect on the internet in his own name, or even under a pseudonym if subsequently ‘doxed’, is liable to lose his job.

Likewise, Browne noted that police and prison officers in the UK were then barred from membership of the BNP, a legal and constitutional political party, but not from membership of Sinn Fein, who until quite recently had supported domestic terror against the British state, including the murder of soldiers, civilians and the police themselves, nor of various Marxist groups that advocate the violent overthrow of the whole capitalist system (p51-2). 

Today, meanwhile, even believing that a person cannot change their biological sex is said to be a bar on admission into the British police.

Moreover, employees sacked on account of their political views cannot always even turn to their unions for support. 
Instead, trade unions have themselves expelled members for their political beliefs (p52) – then successfully defended this action in the European Court of Human rights by citing the right to freedom of association (see ASLEF v UK [2007] ECHR 184). 

Yet, ironically, freedom of association is not only the precise freedom denied to employers by anti-discrimination laws, but also the very same freedom that surely guarantees a person’s right to be a member of a constitutional, legal political party, or express controversial political views outside of their work, without being at risk of losing their job. 

Browne concludes:

One must be very disillusioned with democracy not to find it at least slightly unsettling that in Europe in the twenty-first century government employees are being banned from joining certain legal political parties but not others, legal democratic party leaders are being arrested in dawn raids for what they have said and political parties leading the polls are being banned by judges” (p57). 

Of course, racists and members of parties like the BNP hardly represent a fashionable cause célèbre for civil libertarians. But, then, neither did other groups targeted for persecution at the time of their persecution. This is, of course, precisely what rendered them so vulnerable to persecution. 
Political correctness is often dismissed as a trivial issue, which only bigots and busybodies bother complaining about, when there are so many more serious problems and suffering around in the world. 

Yet free speech is never trivial. When people lose their jobs and livelihoods because of currently unfashionable opinions, what we are witnessing is a form of modern McCarthyism. 
Indeed, as American conservative David Horowitz observes: 

“The era of the progressive witch-hunt has been far worse in its consequences to individuals and freedom of expression than was the McCarthy era… [not least because] unlike the McCarthy era witch-hunt, which lasted only a few years, the one enforced by left-wing ‘progressives’ is now entering its third decade and shows no signs of abating” (Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey).[3] 

Yet, while columnists, academics, and filmmakers delight in condemning, without fear of reprisals, a form of McCarthyism that ran out of steam over half a century ago (i.e. anti-communism during the Second Red Scare), few dare to incur the wrath of the contemporary inquisition by exposing a modern McCarthyism right here in our midst.  

Recent Developments 

Browne’s ‘The Retreat of Reason’ was first published in 2006. Unfortunately, however, in the intervening decade and a half, despite Browne’s wise counsel, the situation has only worsened. 

Thus, in 2006, Browne rightly championed New Media facilitated by the internet age, such as blogs, for disseminating controversial, politically-incorrect ideas and opinion, and thereby breaking the mainstream media monopoly on the dissemination of information and ideas (p85). 

Here, Browne was surely right. Indeed, new media, such as blogs, have not only been responsible for disseminating ideas that are largely taboo in the mainstream media, but even for breaking news stories that had been suppressed by mainstream media, such as the racial identity of those responsible for the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany

However, in the decade and a half since ‘The Retreat of Reason’ was published, censorship has become increasingly restrictive even in the virtual sphere. 

Thus, internet platforms like YouTubePatreon, Facebook and Twitter increasingly deplatform content providers with politically incorrect viewpoints, and, in a particularly disturbing move, even some websites have been, at least temporarily, forced offline, or banished to the darkweb, by their web hosting providers.

Doctrinaire libertarians respond that this is not a free speech issue, because these are private business with the right to deny service to anyone with whom they choose not to contract.

In reality, however, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are far more than private businesses. As virtual market monopolies, they are part of the infrastructure of everyday life in the twenty-first century.

To be banned from communicating on Facebook is tantamount to being barred from communication in a public place.

Moreover, the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the few competitors seeking to provide an alternative to these Big Tech monopolies with a greater commitment to free speech are themselves de-platormed by their hosting providers as a direct consequence of their commitment to free speech.

Likewise, the denial of financial services, such as banking or payment processing, to groups or individuals on the basis of their politics is particularly troubling, effectively making it all but impossible those afflicted to remain financially viable. The result is effectively tantamount to being made an ‘unperson’.

Moreover, far from remaining a hub of free expression, social media has increasingly provided a rallying and recruiting ground for moral outrage and repression, not least in the form of so-called twittermobs, intent on publicly shaming, harassing and denying employment opportunities to anyone of whose views they disapprove.

In short, if the internet has facilitated free speech, it has also facilitated political persecution, since today, it seems, one can enjoy all the excitement and exhilaration of joining a witchhunt without ever straying from the comfort of your computer screen.

Explaining Political Correctness 

For Browne, PC represents “the dictatorship of virtue” (p7) and replaces “reason with emotion” and subverts “objective truth to subjective virtue” (xiii). 

Political correctness is an assault on both reason and… democracy. It is an assault on reason, because the measuring stick of the acceptability of a belief is no longer its objective, empirically established truth, but how well it fits in with the received wisdom of political correctness. It is an assault on… democracy because [its] pervasiveness… is closing down freedom of speech” (p5). 

Yet political correctness is not wholly unprecedented. 
On the contrary, every age has its taboos. Thus, in previous centuries, it was compatibility with religious dogma rather than leftist orthodoxy that represented the primary “measuring stick of the acceptability of a belief” – as Galileo, among others, was to discover for his pains. 
Although, as a conservative, Browne might be expected to be favourably disposed to traditional religion, he nevertheless acknowledges the analogy between political correctness and the religious dogmas of an earlier age: 

Christianity… has shown many of the characteristics of modern political correctness and often went far further in enforcing its intolerance with violence” (p29). 

Indeed, this intolerance is not restricted to Christianity. Thus, whereas Christianity, in an earlier age, persecuted heresy with even greater intolerance than even the contemporary left, in many parts of the world Islam still does.  

As well as providing an analogous justification for the persecution of heretics, political correctness may also, Browne suggests, serve a similar psychological function to religion, in representing: 

A belief system that echoes religion in providing ready, emotionally-satisfying answers for a world too complex to understand fully and providing a gratifying sense of righteousness absent in our otherwise secular society” (p6).

Defining Political Correctness 

What, then, do we mean by ‘political correctness’? 

Political correctness evaluates a claim, not on its truth, but on its offensiveness to certain protected groups. Some views are held to be not only false, indeed sometimes not even false, but rather unacceptable, unsayable and beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion. 

Indeed, for the enforcers of the politically correct orthodoxy, the truth or falsehood of a statement is ultimately of little interest to them. 

Browne provides a useful definition of political correctness as: 

An ideology which classifies certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism and which makes believers feel that no dissent should be tolerated” (p4). 

Refining this, I would say that, for an opinion to be politically incorrect, two criteria must be met:

1) The existence of a group to whom the opinion in question is regarded as ‘offensive’
2) The group in question must be perceived as ‘oppressed’

Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to disparage and offend supposedly ‘privileged’ groups (e.g. males, white people, Americans or the English), but groups with ‘victim-status’ are deemed sacrosanct and beyond reproach, at least as a group. 
Victim-status itself, however, is rather arbitrarily bestowed. 
Certainly, actual poverty or deprivation has little to do with it. 

Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to denigrate the white working-class. Thus, pejorative epithets aimed at the white working class, such as redneck, chav and ‘white trash’, are widely employed and considered socially-acceptable in polite conversation (see Jim Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats).

Yet the use of comparably derogatory terms in respect of, say, black people, is considered wholly beyond the pale, and sufficient to end media careers in Britain and America.

However, multi-millionaires who happen to be black, female or homosexual are permitted to perversely pose as ‘oppressed’, and wallow in their own ostensible victimhood. 
Thus, in the contemporary West, the Left has largely abandoned its traditional constituency, namely the working class, in favour of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and feminists.

In the process, the ‘ordinary working man’, once the quintessential proletarian, has found himself recast in leftist demonology as a racist, homophobic, wife-beating bigot.

Likewise, men are widely denigrated in popular culture. Yet, contrary to the feminist dogma which maintains that men have disproportionate power and are privileged, it is in fact men who are overwhelmingly disadvantaged by almost every sociological measure.

Thus, Browne writes: 

Men were overwhelmingly underachieving compared with women at all levels of the education system, and were twice as likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to commit suicide, three times as likely to be a victim of violent crime, four times as likely to be a drug addict, three times as likely to be alcoholic and nine times as likely to be homeless” (p49). 

Indeed, overt discrimination against men, such as the different ages at which men and women were then eligible for state pensions in the UK (p25; p60; p75) and the higher levels of insurance premiums demanded of men (p73) are widely tolerated.[4]

The demand for equal treatment only goes as far as it advantages the [ostensibly] less privileged sex” (p77). 

The arbitrary way in which recognition as an ‘oppressed group’ is accorded, together with the massive benefits accruing to demographics that have secured such recognition, has created a perverse process that Browne aptly terms “competitive victimhood” (p44). 

Few things are more powerful in public debate than… victim status, and the rewards… are so great that there is a large incentive for people to try to portray themselves as victims” (p13-4) 

Thus, groups currently campaigning for ‘victim status’ include, he reports, “the obese, Christians, smokers and foxhunters” (p14). 

The result is what economists call perverse incentives

By encouraging people to strive for the bottom rather than the top, political correctness undermines one of the main driving forces in society, the individual pursuit of self-improvement” (p45) 

This outcome can perhaps even be viewed as the ultimate culmination of what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values

Euroscepticism & Brexit

Unfortunately, despite his useful definition of the phenomenon of political correctness, Browne goes on to use the term political correctness in a broader fashion that goes beyond this original definition, and, in my opinion, extends the concept beyond its sphere of usefulness. 

For example, he classifies Euroscepticism – i.e. opposition to the further integration of the European Union – as a politically incorrect viewpoint (p60-62). 

Here, however, there is no obvious ‘oppressed group’ in need of protection. 
Moreover, although widely derided as ignorant and jingoistic, Eurosceptical opinions have never been actually deemed ‘offensive’ or beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion.

On the contrary, they are regularly aired in mainstream media outlets, and even on the BBC, and recently scored a final victory in Britain with the Brexit campaign of 2016.  

Browne’s extension of the concept of political correctness in this way is typical of many critics of political correctness, who succumb to the temptation to define as ‘political correctness’ as any view with which they themselves happen to disagree. 
This enables them to tar any views with which they disagree with the pejorative label of ‘political correctness’. 
It also, perhaps more importantly, allows ostensible opponents of political correctness to condemn the phenomenon without ever actually violating its central taboos by discussing any genuinely politically incorrect issues. 

They can therefore pose as heroic opponents of the inquisition while never actually themselves incurring its wrath. 

The term ‘political correctness’ therefore serves a similar function for conservatives as the term ‘fascist’ does for leftists – namely a useful catchall label to be applied to any views with which they themselves happen to disagree.[5]

Jews, Muslims and the Middle East 

Another example of Browne’s extension of the concept of political correctness beyond its sphere of usefulness is his characterization of any defence of the policies of Israel as ‘politically incorrect’. 
Yet, here, the ad hominem and guilt-by-association methods of debate (or rather of shutting down debate), which Browne rightly describes as characteristic of political correctness (p21-2), are more often used by defenders of Israel than by her critics – though, here, the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ is substituted for the usual refrain of ‘racism’.[6]
Thus, in the US, any suggestion that the US’s small but disproportionately wealthy and influential Jewish community influences US foreign policy in the Middle East in favour of Israel is widely dismissed as anti-Semitic and roughly tantamount to proposing the existence of a world Jewish conspiracy led by the elders of Zion. 
Admittedly, Browne acknowledges: 

The dual role of Jews as oppressors and oppressed causes complications for PC calculus” (p12).  

In other words, the role of the Jews as victims of persecution in National Socialist Germany conflicts with, and weighs against, their current role as perceived oppressors of the Palestinians in the Middle East. 

However, having acknowledged this complication, Browne immediately dismisses its importance, all too hastily going on to conclude in the very same sentence that: 

PC has now firmly transferred its allegiance from the Jews to Muslims” (p12). 

However, in many respects, the Jews retain their ‘victim-status’ despite their hugely disproportionate wealth and political power

Indeed, perhaps the best evidence of this is the taboo on referring to this disproportionate wealth and power. 
Thus, while the political Left never tires of endlessly recycling statistics demonstrating the supposed overrepresentation of ‘white males’ in positions of power and privilege, to cite similar statistics demonstrating the even greater per capita overrepresentation of Jews in these exact same positions of power and privilege is deemed somehow deemed beyond the pale, and evidence, not of leftist sympathies, but rather of being ‘far right’. 
This is despite the fact that the average