The Biology of Beauty

Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (New York: Anchor Books 2000) 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  

This much is true by very definition. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary defines beauty as: 

A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight’. 

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the ‘eye of the beholder’ has been shaped by a process of natural, and sexual, selection to find certain things beautful — and, if beauty is in the ‘eye of the beholder’, then sexiness is located in a different part of the male anatomy but similarly subjective

Thus, beauty is defined as that which is pleasing to an external observer. It therefore presupposes the existence of an external observer, separate from the person, or thing, that is credited with beauty, from whose perspective the thing or individual is credited with beauty.[1]

Moreover, perceptions of beauty do indeed differ.  

To some extent, preferences differ between individuals, and between different races and cultures. More obviously, and to a far greater extent, they also differ as between species.  

Thus, a male chimpanzee would presumably consider a female chimpanzee as more beautiful than a woman. The average human male, however, would likely disagree – though it might depend on the woman. 

As William James wrote in 1890: 

To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her” (Principles of Psychology (vol 2): p387). 

Beauty is therefore not an intrinsic property of the person or object that is described as beautiful, but rather a quality attributed to that person or object by a third-party in accordance with their own subjective tastes. 

However, if beauty is then indeed a subjective assessment, that does not mean it is an entirely arbitrary one. 

On the contrary, if beauty is indeed in the ‘eye of the beholder’ then it must be remembered that the ‘eye of the beholder’—and, more importantly, the brain to which that eye is attached—has been shaped by a process of both natural and sexual selection

In other words, we have evolved to find some things beautiful, and others ugly, because doing so enhanced the reproductive success of our ancestors. 

Thus, just as we have evolved to find the sight of excrement, blood and disease disgusting, because each were potential sources of infection, and the sight of snakes, lions and spiders fear-inducing, because each likewise represented a potential threat to our survival when encountered in the ancestral environment in which we evolved, so we have evolved to find the sight of certain things pleasing on the eye. 

Of course, not only people can be beautiful. Landscapes, skylines, works of art, flowers and birds can all be described as ‘beautiful’. 

Just as we have evolved to find individuals of the opposite sex attractive for reasons of reproduction, so these other aspects of aesthetic preference may also have been shaped by natural selection. 

Thus, some research has suggested that our perception of certain landscapes as beautiful may reflect psychological adaptations that evolved in the context of habitat selection (Orians & Heerwagen 1992).  

However, Nancy Etcoff does not discuss such research. Instead, in ‘Survival of the Prettiest’, her focus is almost exclusively on what we might term ‘sexual beauty’. 

Yet, if beauty is indeed in the ‘in the eye of the beholder’, then sexiness is surely located in a different part of the male anatomy, but equally subjective in nature. 

Indeed, as I shall discuss below, even in the context of mate preferences, ‘sexiness’ and ‘beauty’ are hardly synonyms. As an illustration, Etcoff herself quotes that infamous but occasionally insightful pseudo-scientist and all-round charlatan, Sigmund Freud, whom she quotes as observing:  

The genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead, to attach to certain secondary sexual characters” (p19: quoted from Civilization and its Discontents). 

Empirical Research 

Of the many books that have been written about the evolutionary psychology of sexual attraction (and I say this as someone who has read, at one time or another, a good number of them), a common complaint is that they are full of untested, or even untestable, speculation – i.e. what that other infamous scientific charlatan Stephen Jay Gould famously referred to as just so stories

This is not a criticism that could ever be levelled at Nancy Etcoff’s ‘Survival of the Prettiest’. On the contrary, as befits Etcoff’s background as a working scientist (not a mere journalist or popularizer), it is, from start to finish, it is full of data from published studies, demonstrating, among other things, the correlates of physical attractiveness, as well as the real-world payoffs associated with physical attractiveness (what is sometimes popularly referred to as ‘lookism’). 

Indeed, in contrast to other scientific works dealing with a similar subject-matter, one of my main criticisms of this otherwise excellent work would be that, while rich in data, it is actually somewhat deficient in theory. 

Youthfulness, Fertility, Reproductive Value and Attractiveness 

A good example of this deficiency in theory is provided by Etcoff’s discussion of the relationship between age and attractiveness. Thus, one of the main and recurrent themes of ‘Survival of the Prettiest’ is that, among women, sexual attractiveness is consistently associated with indicators of youth. Thus, she writes: 

Physical beauty is like athletic skill: it peaks young. Extreme beauty is rare and almost always found, if at all, in people before they reach the age of thirty-five” (p63). 

Yet Etcoff addresses only briefly the question of why it is that youthful women or girls are perceived as more attractive – or, to put the matter more accurately, why it is that males are sexually and romantically attracted to females of youthful appearance. 

Etcoff’s answer is: fertility

Female fertility rapidly declines with age, before ceasing altogether with menopause

There is, therefore, in Darwinian terms, no benefit in a male being sexually attracted to an older, post-menopausal female, since any mating effort expended would be wasted, as any resulting sexual union could not produce offspring. 

As for the menopause itself, this, Etcoff speculates, citing scientific polymath, popularizer and part-time sociobiologist Jared Diamond, evolved because human offspring enjoy a long period of helpless dependence on their mother, without whom they cannot survive. 

Therefore, after a certain age, it pays women to focus on caring for existing offspring, or even grandchildren, rather than producing new offspring whom they will likely not be around to care for (p73).[2]

This theory has sometimes been termed the grandmother hypothesis.

However, the decline in female fertility with age is perhaps not sufficient to explain the male preference for youth. 

After all, women’s fertility is said to peak in their early- to mid-twenties.[3]

However, men’s (and boy’s) sexual interest, if anything, seems to peak in respect of females, if anything, somewhat younger, namely in their late-teens (Kenrick & Keefe 1992). 

To explain this, Douglas Kenrick and Richard Keefe propose, following a suggestion of Donald Symons, that this is because girls at this age, while less fertile, have higher reproductive value, a concept drawn from ecology, population genetics and demography, which refers to an individual’s expected future reproductive output given their current age (Kenrick & Keefe 1992). 

Reproductive value in human females (and in males too) peaks just after puberty, when a girl first becomes capable of bearing offspring. 

Before then, there is always the risk she will die before reaching sexual maturity; after, her reproductive value declines with each passing year as she approaches menopause. 

Thus, Kenrick and Keefe, like Symons before them, argue that, since most human reproduction occurs within long-term pair-bonds, it is to the evoluionaryadvantage of males to form long-term pair-bonds with females of maximal reproductive value (i.e. mid to late teens), so that, by so doing, they can monopolize the entirety of that woman’s reproductive output over the coming years. 

Yet the closest Etcoff gets to discussing this is a single sentence where she writes: 

Men often prefer the physical signs of a woman below peak fertility (under age twenty). Its like signing a contract a year before you want to start the job” (p72). 

Yet the theme of indicators of youth being a correlate of female attractiveness is a major theme of her book. 

Thus, Etcoff reports that, in a survey of traditional cultures: 

The highest frequency of brides was in the twelve to fifteen years of age category… Girls at this age are preternaturally beautiful” (p57). 

It is perhaps true that “girls at this age are preternaturally beautiful” – and Etcoff, being female, can perhaps even get away with saying this without being accused of being a pervert or ‘pedophile’ for even suggesting such a thing. 

Nevertheless, this age “twelve to fifteen” seems rather younger than most men’s, and even most teenage boys, ideal sexual partners, at least in western societies. 

Thus, for example, Kenrick and Keefe inferred from their data that around eighteen was the preferred age of sexual partner for most males, even those somewhat younger than this themselves.[4]

Of course, in primitive, non-western cultures, women may lose their looks more quickly, due to inferior health and nutrition, the relative unavailability of beauty treatments and because they usually undergo repeated childbirth from puberty onward, which takes a toll on their health and bodies. 

On the other hand, however, obesity is more prevalent in the West, decreases sexual attractiveness and increases with age. 

Moreover, girls in the west now reach puberty somewhat earlier than in previous centuries, and perhaps earlier than in the developing world, probably due to improved nutrition and health. This suggests that females develop secondary sexual characteristics (e.g. large hips and breasts) that are perceived as attractive because they are indicators of fertility, and hence come to be attractive to males, rather earlier than in premodern or primitive cultures. 

Perhaps Etcoff is right that girls “in the twelve to fifteen years of age category… are preternaturally beautiful” – though this is surely an overgeneralization and does not apply to every girl of this age. 

However, if ‘beauty’ peaks very early, I suspect ‘sexiness’ peaks rather later, perhaps late-teens into early or even mid-twenties. 

Thus, the latter is dependent on secondary sexual characteristics that develop only in late-puberty, namely larger breasts, buttocks and hips

Thus, Etcoff reports, rather disturbingly, that: 

When [the] facial proportions [of magazine cover girls] are fed into a computer, it guesstimates their age to be between six and seven years of age” (p151; citing Jones 1995). 

But, of course, as Etcoff is at pains to emphasize in the next sentence, the women pictured do not actually look like they are of this age, either in their faces let alone their bodies. 

Instead, she cites Douglas Jones, the author of the study upon which this claim is based, as arguing that the neural network’s estimate of their age can be explained by their display of “supernormal stimuli”, which she defines as “attractive features… exaggerated beyond proportions normally found in nature (at least in adults)” (p151). 

Yet much the same could be said of the unrealistically large, surgically-enhanced breasts favored among, for example, glamour models. These abnormally large breasts are likewise an example of “supernormal stimuli” that may never be found naturally, as suggested by Doyle & Pazhoohi (2012)

But large breasts are indicators of sexual maturity that are rarely present in girls before their late-teens. 

In other words, if the beauty of girls’ faces peaks at a very young age, the sexiness of their bodies peaks rather later. 

Perhaps this distinction between what we can term ‘beauty’ and ‘sexiness’ can be made sense of in terms of a distinction between what David Buss calls short-term and long-term mating strategies

Thus, if fertility peaks in the mid-twenties, then, in respect of short-term mating (i.e. one-night stands, casual sex, hook-ups and other one-off sexual encounters), men should presumably prefer partners of a somewhat greater age than their preferences in respect of long-term partners – i.e. of maximal fertility rather than maximum reproductive value – since in the case of short-term mating strategies there is no question of monopolizing the woman or girl’s long-term future reproductive output. 

In contrast, cues of beauty, as evinced by relatively younger females, might trigger a greater willingness for males to invest in a long-term relationship. 

This ironically suggests, contrary to contemporary popular perception, males’ sexual or romantic interest in respect of relatively younger women and girls (i.e. those still in their teens) would tend to reflect more ‘honourable intentions’ (i.e. more focussed on marriage or a long-term relationship rather than mere casual sex) than does their interest in older women. 

However, as far as I am aware, no study has ever demonstrated differences in men’s preferences regarding the preferred age-range of their casual sex partners as compared to their preferences in respect of longer-term partners. This is perhaps because, since commitment-free casual sex is almost invariably a win-win situation for men, and most men’s opportunities in this arena likely to be few and far between, there has been little selection acting on men to discriminate at all in respect of short-term partners. 

Are There Sex Differences in Sexiness? 

Another major theme of ‘Survival of the Prettiest’ is that the payoffs for good-looks are greater for women than for men. 

Beauty is most obviously advantageous in a mating context. But women convert this advantage into an economic one through marriage. Thus, Etcoff reports: 

The best-looking girls in high school are more than ten times as likely to get married as the least good-looking. Better looking girls tend to ‘marry up’, that is, marry men with more education and income then they have” (p65; see also Udry & Eckland 1984; Hamermesh & Biddle 1994). 

However, there is no such advantage accruing to better-looking male students. 

On the hand, according to Catherine Hakim, in her book Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom (which I have reviewed here, here and here) in the workplace, the wage premium associated with being better looking is actually, perhaps surprisingly, greater for men than for women. 

For Hakim herself: 

This is clear evidence of sex discrimination… as all studies show women score higher than men on attractiveness” (Money, Honey: p246). 

However, as I explain in my review of her book, the better view is that, since beauty opens up so many other avenues to social advancement for women, notably through marriage, relatively more beautiful women corresponding reduce their work-effort in the workplace since they have need of pursuing social advancement through their careers when they can far more easily achieve it through marriage. 

After all, by bother to earn money when you can simply marry it instead. 

According to Etcoff, there is only one sphere where being more beautiful is actually disadvantageous for women, namely in respect of same-sex friendships: 

Good looking women in particular encounter trouble with other women. They are less liked by other women, even other good-looking women” (p50; citing Krebs & Adinolfy 1975). 

She does not speculate as to why this is so. An obvious explanation is envy and dislike of the sexual competition that beautiful women represent. 

However, an alternative explanation is perhaps that beautiful women do indeed come to have less likeable personalities. Perhaps, having grown used to receiving preferential treatment from and being fawned over by men, beautiful women become entitled and spoilt. 

Men might overlook these flaws on account of their looks, but, other women, immune to their charms, may be a different story altogether.[5]

All this, of course, raises the question as to why the payoffs for good looks are so much greater for women than for men? 

Etcoff does not address this, but, from a Darwinian perspective, it is actually something of a paradox which I have discussed previously

After all, among other species, it is males for whom beauty affords a greater payoff in terms of the ultimate currency of natural selection – i.e. reproductive success. 

It is therefore male birds who usually evolve more beautiful plumages, while females of the same species are often quite drab, the classic example being the peacock and peahen

The ultimate evolutionary explanation for this pattern is called Bateman’s principle, later formalized by Robert Trivers as differential parental investment theory (Bateman 1948; Trivers 1972). 

The basis of this theory is this: Females must make a greater minimal investment in offspring in order to successfully reproduce. For example, among humans, females must commit themselves to nine months pregnancy, plus breastfeeding, whereas a male must contribute, at minimum, only a single ejaculate. Females therefore represent the limiting factor in mammalian reproduction for access to whom males compete. 

One way in which they compete is by display (e.g. lekking). Hence the evolution of the elaborate tail of the peacock

Yet, among humans, it is females who seem more concerned with using their beauty to attract mates. 

Of course, women use makeup and clothing to attract men rather than growing or evolving long tails. 

However, behavior is no less subject to selection than morphology, so the paradox remains.[6]

Indeed, the most promising example of a morphological trait in humans that may have evolved primarily for attracting members of the opposite sex (i.e. a ‘peacock’s tail’) is, again, a female trait – namely, breasts

This is, of course, the argument that was, to my knowledge, first developed by ethologist Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape, which I have reviewed here, and which I discuss in greater depth here

As Etcoff herself writes: 

Female breasts are like no others in the mammalian world. Humans are the only mammals who develop rounded breasts at puberty and keep them whether or not they are producing milk… In humans, breast size is not related to the amount or quality of milk that the breast produces” (p187).[7]

Instead, human breasts are, save during pregnancy and lactation, composed predominantly of, not milk, but fat. 

This is in stark contrast to the situation among other mammals, who develop breasts only during pregnancy. 

Breasts are not sex symbols to other mammals, anything but, since they indicate a pregnant or lactating and infertile female. To chimps, gorillas and orangutans, breasts are sexual turn-offs” (p187). 

 Why then does sexual selection seem, at least on this evidence, to have acted more strongly on women than men? 

Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), first alluded to this anomaly, lamenting: 

What has happened in modern western man? Has the male really become the sought-after sex, the one that is in demand, the sex that can afford to be choosy? If so, why?” (The Selfish Gene: p165). 

Yet this is surely not the case with regard to casual sex (i.e. hook-ups and one-night stands). Here, it is very much men who ardently pursue and women who are sought after. 

For example, in one study at a University campus, 72% of male students agreed to go to bed with a female stranger who propositioned them to this effect, yet not a single one of the 96 females approached agreed to the same request from a male stranger (Clark and Hatfield 1989). 

(What percentage of the students sued the university for sexual harassment was not revealed.) 

Indeed, patterns of everything from prostitution to pornography consumption confirm this – see The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here). 

Yet humans are unusual among mammals in also forming long-term pair-bonds where male parental investment is the norm. Here, men have every incentive to be as selective as females in their choice of partner. 

In particular, in Western societies practising what Richard Alexander called socially-imposed monogamy (i.e. where there exist large differentials in male resource holdings, but polygynous marriage is unlawful) competition among women for exclusive rights to resource-abundant alpha males may be intense (Gaulin and Boser 1990). 

In short, the advantage to a woman in becoming the sole wife of a multi-millionaire is substantial. 

This, then, may explain the unusual intensity of sexual selection among human females. 

Why, though, is there not evidence of similar sexual selection operating among males? 

Perhaps the answer is that, since, in most cultures, arranged marriages are the norm, female choice actually played little role in human evolution. 

Instead, male mating success may have depended less upon what Darwin called intersexual selection and more upon intrasexual selection – i.e. less upon female choice and more upon male-male fighting ability (see Puts 2010). 

Male Attractiveness and Fighting Ability 

Paradoxically, this is reflected even in the very traits that women find attractive in men. 

Thus, although Etcoff’s book is titled ‘The Evolution of Prettiness’, and ‘prettiness’ is usually an adjective applied to women, and, when applied to men, is—perhaps tellingly—rarely a complement, Etcoff does discuss male attractiveness too.  

However, Etcoff acknowledges that male attractiveness is a more complex matter than female attractiveness: 

We have a clearer idea of what is going on with female beauty. A handsome male turns out to be a bit harder to describe, although people reach consensus almost as easily when they see him” (p155).[8]

Yet what is notable about the factors that Etcoff describes as attractive among men is that they all seem to be related to fighting ability. 

This is most obviously true of height (p172-176) and muscularity (p176-80). 

Indeed, in a section titled “No Pecs, No Sex”, though she focuses on the role of pectoral muscles in determining attractiveness, Etcoff nevertheless acknowledges: 

Pectoral muscles are the human male’s antlers. Their weapons of war” (p177). 

Thus, height and muscularity have obvious functional utility. 

This in stark contrast to traits such as the peacock’s tail, which are often a positive handicap to their owner. Indeed, one influential theory of sexual selection contends that it is precisely because they represent a handicap that they have evolved as a sexually-selected fitness indicator, because only a genetically superior male is capable of bearing the handicap of such an unwieldy ornament, and hence possession of such a handicap is paradoxically an honest signal of health. 

Yet, if men’s bodies have evolved more for fighting than attracting mates, the same is perhaps less obviously true of their faces. 

Thus, anthropologist David Puts proposes: 

Even [male] facial structure may be designed for fighting: heavy brow ridges protect eyes from blows, and robust mandibles lessen the risk of catastrophic jaw fractures” (Puts 2010: p168). 

Indeed, looking at the facial features of a highly dominant, masculine male face, like that of Mike Tyson, for example, one gets the distinct impression that, if you were foolish enough to try punching it, it would likely do more damage to your hand than to his face. 

Thus, if some faces are, as cliché contends, highly ‘punchable’, then others are presumably at the opposite end of this spectrum. 

This also explains some male secondary sexual characteristics that otherwise seem anomalous, for example, beards. These have actually been found in some studies “to decrease attractiveness to women, yet have strong positive effects on men’s appearance of dominance” (Puts 2010: p166). 

David Puts concludes: 

Men’s traits look designed to make men appear threatening, or enable them to inflict real harm. Men’s beards and deep voices seem designed specifically to increase apparent size and dominance” (Puts 2010: p168). 

Interestingly, Etcoff herself anticipates this theory, writing: 

Beautiful ornaments [in males] develop not just to charm the opposite sex with bright colors and lovely songs, but to intimidate rivals and win the intrasex competition—think of huge antlers. When evolutionists talk about the beauty of human males, they often refer more to their weapons of war than their charms, to their antlers rather than their bright colors. In other words, male beauty is thought to have evolved at least partly in response to male appraisal” (p74) 

Of course, these same traits are also often attractive to females. 

After all, if a tall muscular man has higher reproductive success because he is better at fighting, then it pays women to preferentially mate with tall, muscular men so that their male offspring will inherit these traits and hence themselves have high reproductive success, helping the spread the women’s own genes by piggybacking on the superior male’s genes.  

This is a version of sexy son theory

In addition, males with fighting prowess are better able to protect and provision their mates. 

However, this attractiveness to females is obviously secondary to the primary role in male-male fighting. 

Moreover, Etcoff admits, highly masculine faces are not always attractive. 

Thus, unlike the “supernormal” or “hyperfeminine” female faces that men find most attractive in women, women rated “hypermasculine” faces as less attractive (p158). This, she speculates, is because they are perceived as overaggressive and unlikely to invest in offspring

As to whether such men are indeed less willing to invest in offspring, this Etcoff does not discuss and there appears to be little evidence on the topic. But the association of testosterone with both physiological and psychological masculinization suggests that the hypothesis is at least plausible

Etcoff concludes: 

For men, the trick is to look masculine but not exaggeratedly masculine, which results in a ‘Neanderthal’ look suggesting coldness or cruelty” (p159). 

Examples of males with perhaps overly masculine faces are perhaps certain boxers, who tend to have highly masculine facial morphology (e.g. heavy brow ridges, deep set eyes, wide muscular jaws), but are rarely described as handsome. 

For example, I doubt anyone would ever call Mike Tyson handsome. But, then, no one would ever call him exactly ugly either – at least not to his face. 

An extreme example might be the Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev, whose extreme neanderthal-like physiognomy was much remarked on. 

Another example that sprung to mind was the footballer Wayne Rooney (also, perhaps not uncoincidentally, said to have been a talented boxer) who, when he first became famous, was immediately tagged by the newspapers, media and comedians as ugly despite – or indeed because of – his highly masculine, indeed thuggish, facial physiognomy

Likewise, Etcoff reports that large eyes are perceived as attractive in men, but these are a neotenous trait, associated with both immature infants and indeed with female beauty (p158). 

This odd finding Etcoff attributes to the fact that large eyes, as an infantile trait, evoke women’s nurturance, a trait that evolved in the context of parental investment rather than mate choice

Yet this is contrary to the general principle in evolutionary psychology of modularity of mind and the domain specificity of psychological adaptations, whereby it is assumed that that psychological adaptations for mate choice and for parental investment represent domain-specific modules with little or no overlap. 

Clearly, for psychological adaptations in one of these domains to be applied in the other would result in highly maladaptive behaviours, such as sexual attraction to infants and to your own close biological relatives.[9]

In addition to being more complex and less easy to make sense of than female beauty, male physical attractiveness is also less importance in determining female mate choice than is female beauty in male mate choice

In particular, she acknowledges that male status often trumps handsomeness. Thus, she quotes a delightfully cynical, not especially poetic, line from the ancient Roman poet Ovid, who wrote: 

Girls praise a poem, but go for expensive presents. Any illiterate oaf can catch their eye, provided he’s rich” (quoted: p75). 

A perhaps more memorable formulation of the same idea is quoted on the same page from a less illustrious source, namely boxing promoter, numbers racketeer and convicted killer Don King, on a subject I have already discussed, namely the handsomeness (or not) of Mike Tyson, King remarking: 

Any man with forty two million looks exactly like Clark Gable” (quoted: p75). 


[1] I perhaps belabor this rather obvious point only because one evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, argues that, since many aspects of beauty standards are cross-culturally universal, beauty standards are not ‘in the eye of the beholder’. I agree with Kanazawa on the substantive issue that beauty standards are indeed mostly cross-culturally universal among humans, albeit not entirely so). However, I nevertheless argue, perhaps somewhat pedantically, that beauty remains strictly in the ‘eye of the beholder’, but it is simply that the ‘eye of the beholder’ (and the brain to which is attached) has been shaped by a process of natural selection so as to make different humans share the same beauty standards. 

[2] While Jared Diamond has indeed made many original contributions to many fields, this idea does not in fact originate with him, even though Etcoff oddly cites him as a source. Indeed, as far as I am aware, it is even especially associated with Diamond. and may actually have been originated by another, lesser known, but arguable even more brilliant evolutionary biologist, namely George C Williams (Williams 1957). 

[3] Actually, pregnancy rates peak surprisingly young, perhaps even disturbingly young, with girls in their mid- to late-teens being most likely to become pregnant from any single act of sexual intercourse, all else being equal. However, the high pregnancy rates of teenage girls are said to be partially offset by their greater risk of birth complications. Therefore, female fertility is said to peak among women in their early- to mid-twenties.

[4] This the authors of the study inferred from, among other evidence, an analysis of lonely hearts advertisements, wherein, although the age of the female sexual/romantic partner sought was related to the advertised age of the man placing the ad (which Kenrick and Keefe inferred was a reflection of the fact that their own age delimited the age-range of the sexual partners whom they would be able to attract, and whom it would be socially acceptable for them to seek out) nevertheless the older the man, the greater the age-difference he sought in a partner. In addition, they reported evidence of surveys suggesting that, in contrast to older men, younger teenage boys, in an ideal world, actually preferred somewhat older sexual partners, suggesting that the ideal age of sexual partner for males of any age was around eighteen years of age. 

[5] Etcoff also does not discuss whether the same is true of exceptionally handsome men – i.e. do exceptionally handsome men, like beautiful women, also have problems maintaining same-sex friendships. I suspect that this is not so, since male status and self-esteem is not usually based on handsomeness as such – though it may be based on things related to handsomeness, such as height, athleticism, earnings, and perceived ‘success with women’. Interestingly, however, French novelist Michel Houellebecq argues otherwise in his novel, Whatever, in which, after describing the jealousy of one of the main characters, the short ugly Raphael Tisserand, towards an particularly handsome male colleague, writes: 

Exceptionally beautiful people are often modest, gentle, affable, considerate. They have great difficulty in making friends, at least among men. They’re forced to make a constant effort to try and make you forget their superiority, be it ever so little” (Whatever: p63) 

[6] Thus, in other non-human species, behaviour is often subject to sexual selection, in, for example, mating displays, or the remarkable, elaborate and often beautiful, but non-functional, nests built by male bowerbirds, which Geoffrey Miller sees as analogous to human art. 

[7] An alternative theory for the evolution of human breasts is that they evolved, not as a sexually selected ornament, but rather as a storehouse of nutrients, analogous to the camel’s humps, upon which women can draw during pregnancy. On this view, the sexual dimorphism of their presentation (i.e. the fact that, although men do have breasts, they are usually much less developed than those of women) reflects, not sexual selection, but rather the calaric demands of pregnancy. 
However, these two alternative hypotheses are not mutually incompatible. On the contrary, they may be mutually reinforcing. Thus, Etcoff herself mentions the possibility that breasts are attractive precisely because: 

Breasts honestly advertise the presence of fat reserves needed to sustain a pregnancy” (p178.) 

On this view, men see fatty breasts as attractive in a sex partner precisely because only women with sufficient reserves of fat to grow large breasts are likely to be capable of successfully gestating an infant for nine months. 

[8] Personally, as a heterosexual male, I have always had difficulty recognizing ‘handsomeness’ in men, and I found this part of Etcoff’s book especially interesting for this reason. In my defence, this is, I suspect, partly because many rich and famous male celebrities are celebrated as ‘sex symbols’ and described as ‘handsome’, even though their status as ‘sex symbols’ owes more to the fact they are rich and famous than their actual looks. Thus, male celebrities sometimes become ‘sex symbols’ despite their looks, rather than because of it. Many famous rock stars, for example, are not, I feel especially handsome. In contrast, men did not suddenly start idealizing physically unattractive female celebrities as ‘sex symbols’, or as beautiful, simply because they are famous celebrities, howsoever rich and famous they may become. 
Add to this the fact that much of what passes for good looks in both sexes is, ironically, normalness – i.e. a lack of abnormalities and averageness – and identifying which men women consider ‘handsome’ had, before reading Etcoff’s book, always escaped me.
However, Etcoff, for her part, might well call me deluded. Men, she reports, only claim they cannot tell which men are handsome and which are not, perhaps to avoid being accused of homosexuality: 

Although men think they cannot judge another man’s beauty, the agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest” (p138). 

Nevertheless, there is indeed some evidence that judging male handsomeness is not as clear cut as Etcoff seems to suggests. Thus, it has been found that, not only do men claim to have difficulty telling handsome men from ugly men, but also women themselves are more likely to disagree among themselves about the physical attractiveness of members of the opposite sex as compared to men (Wood & Brumbaugh 2009Wake Forest University 2009). 
Indeed, not only do women not always agree with one another regarding the attractiveness of men, sometimes they can’t even agree with themselves. Thus, Etcoff reports: 

A woman makes her evaluations of men more slowly, and if another woman offers a different opinion, she may change her mind” (p76). 

This indecisiveness, for Etcoff, actually makes good evolutionary sense:

If women take a second look, compare notes with other women, or change their minds after more thought, it is not out of indecisiveness but out of wisdom. Mate choice is not just about fertility—most men are fertile most or all of their lives—but about finding a helpmate to bring up the baby” (p77). 

Another possible reason why women may consult other women as to whether a given man is attractive or not is sexy son theory
On this view, it pays for women to mate with men who are perceived as attractive by other women because then any offspring whom they bear by these men will likely inherit the very traits that made the father attractive to women, and hence themselves be attractive to women and hence be successful in spreading the woman’s own genes to subsequent generations. 
In other words, being attractive to other women is itself an attractive trait in a male. However, sexy son theory is not discussed by Etcoff.

[9] Another study discussed by Etcoff also reported anomalous results, finding that women actually preferred somewhat feminized male faces over both masculinized and average male faces (Perrett et al 1998). However, Etcoff cautions that: 

The Perrett study is the only empirical evidence to date that some degree of feminization may be attractive in a man’s face” (p159). 

Other studies concur that male faces that are somewhat, but not excessively, masculinized as compared to the average male face are preferred by women. 
However, one study published just after the first edition of ‘Survival of the Prettiest’ was written, holds the possibility of reconciling these conflicting findings. This study reported cyclical changes in female preferences, with women preferring more masculinized faces only when they are in the most fertile phase of their cycle, and at other times preferring more feminine features (Penton-Voak & Perrett 2000). 
This, together with other evidence, has been controversially interpreted as suggesting that human females practice a so-called dual mating strategy, preferring males with more feminine faces, supposedly a marker for a greater willingness to invest in offspring, as social partners, while surreptitiously attempting to cuckold these ‘beta providers’ with DNA from high-T alphas, by preferentially mating with the latter when they are most likely to be ovulating (see also Penton-Voak et al 1999Bellis & Baker 1990). 
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
While the intensity of women’s sex drive does indeed seem to fluctuate cyclically, the evidence for more fine-grained changes in female mate preferences should be treated with caution. 


Bateman (1948), Intra-sexual selection in DrosophilaHeredity, 2(3): 349–368. 
Bellis & Baker (1990). Do females promote sperm competition?: Data for humansAnimal Behavior, 40: 997-999. 
Clark & Hatfield (1989) Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2(1), 39–55 
Doyle & Pazhoohi (2012) Natural and Augmented Breasts: Is What is Not Natural Most Attractive? Human Ethology Bulletin 27(4):4-14. 
Gaulin & Boser (1990) Dowry as Female Competition, American Anthropologist 92(4):994-1005. 
Gildersleeve et al (2014) Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic reviewPsychological Bulletin 140(5):1205-59. 
Hamermesh & Biddle (1994) Beauty and the Labor Market, American Economic Review 84(5):1174-1194.
Jones 1995 Sexual selection, physical attractiveness, and facial neoteny: Cross-cultural evidence and implications, Current Anthropology, 36(5):723–748. 
Kenrick & Keefe (1992) Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in mating strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15(1):75-133. 
Orians & Heerwagen (1992) Evolved responses to landscapes. In Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 555–579). Oxford University Press. 
Penton-Voak et al (1999) Menstrual cycle alters face preferencesNature 399 741-2. 
Penton-Voak & Perrett DI (2000) Female preference for male faces changes cyclically: Further evidence. Evolution and Human Behavoir 21(1):39–48. 
Perrett et al (1998) Effects of sexual dimorphism on facial attractiveness. Nature 394(6696):884-7. 
Puts (2013) Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 31(3):157-175. 
Wake Forest University (2009) Rating Attractiveness: Consensus Among Men, Not Women, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 June 2009. 
Trivers (1972) Parental investment and sexual selectionSexual Selection & the Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179. Chicago. 
Williams (1957) Pleiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution. 11(4): 398–411. 
Wood & Brumbaugh (2009) Using Revealed Mate Preferences to Evaluate Market Force and Differential Preference Explanations for Mate Selection, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96(6):1226-44.
Udry & Eckland (1984) Benefits of Being Attractive: Differential Payoffs for Men and Women, Psychological Reports 54(1):47–56.
Wood et al (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferencesEmotion Review, 6(3), 229–249.  


In Defence of Physiognomy

Edward Dutton, How to Judge People by What they Look Like (Wrocław: Thomas Edward Press, 2018) 

Never judge a book by its cover’ – or so a famous proverb advises. 

However, given that Edward Dutton’s ‘How to Judge People by What they Look Like’, represents, from its provocative title onward, a spirited polemic against this received wisdom, one is tempted, in the name of irony, to review his book entirely on the basis of its cover. 

I will resist this temptation. However, it is perhaps worth pointing out that two initial points are apparent, if not from the book’s cover alone, then at least from its external appearance. These are: 

1) It is rather cheaply produced and apparently self-published; and

2) It is very short – a pamphlet rather than a book.[1]

Both these facts are probably excusable by reference to the controversial and politically-incorrect nature of the book’s title, theme and content.

Thus, on the one hand, the notion that we can, with some degree of accuracy, judge people by appearances alone is a very politically-incorrect idea and hence one that many publishers would be reluctant to associate themselves with or put their name to.

On the other hand, the fact that the topic is so controversial may also explain why the book is so short. After all, relatively little research has been conducted on this topic for precisely this reason.

Moreover, even such research as has been conducted is often difficult to track down. 

After all, physiognomy, the field of research which Dutton purports to review, is no longer a recognized science. On the contrary, most people today dismiss it as a discredited pseudoscience.

Therefore, there is no ‘International Journal of Physiognomy’ available at the click of a mouse on ScienceDirect. 

Neither are there any Departments of Physiognomy or Professors of Physiognomy at major universities, or a recent undergraduate, or graduate-level textbook on physiognomy collating all important research on the subject. Indeed, the closest thing we have to such a textbook is Dutton’s own thin, meagre pamphlet. 

Therefore, not only has relatively little research has been conducted in this area, at least in recent years, but also such research as has been conducted is spread across different fields, different journals and different researchers, and hence not always easy to track down. 

Moreover, such research rarely actually refers to itself as ‘physiognomy’, in part precisely because physiognomy is widely regarded as a pseudoscience and hence something to which researchers, even those directly researching correlations between morphology and behaviors, are reluctant to associate themselves.[2]

Therefore, conducting a key word search for the term ‘physiognomy’ in one or more of the many available databases of scientific papers would not assist the reader much, if at all, in tracking down relevant research.[3]

It is therefore not surprising that Dutton’s book is quite short. 

For this same reason, it is perhaps also excusable that Dutton has evidently failed to track down some interesting studies relevant to his theme. 

For example, a couple of interesting studies not cited by Dutton purported to uncover an association between behavioural inhibition and iris pigmentation in young children (Rosenberg & Kagan 1987; Rosenberg & Kagan 1989). 

Another interesting study not mentioned by Dutton presents data apparently showing that subjects are able to distinguish criminals from non-criminals at better than chance levels merely from looking at photographs of their faces (Valla, Ceci & Williams 2011).[4]

Such omissions are inevitable and excusable. More problematically however, Dutton also seems to have omitted at least one entire area of research relevant to his subject-matter – namely research on so-called minor physical anomalies or MPAs

These are certain physiological traits, interpreted as minor abnormalities, probably reflecting developmental instability and mutational load, which have been found in several studies to be associated with various psychiatric and developmental conditions, as well as being a correlate of criminal behaviour (see below).

Defining the Field 

Yet Dutton not only misses out on several studies relevant to the subject-matter of his book, he also is not entirely consistent in identifying just what the precise subject-matter of his book actually is. 

It is true that, at many points in his book, he talks about physiognomy

This term is usually defined as the science (or, according to many people, the pseudoscience) of using a person’s morphology in order to determine their character, personality and likely behaviour. 

However, the title of Dutton’s book, ‘How to Judge People by What They Look Like’, is potentially much broader. 

After all, what people look like includes, not just our morphology, but also, for example, how we dress and what clothes we wear.

For example, we might assess a person’s job from their uniform, or, more generally, their socioeconomic status and income level from the style and quality of their clothing, or the designer labels and brand names adorning it. 

More specifically, we might even determine their gang allegiance from the color of their bandana, and their sexuality and fetishes from the colour and positioning of their handkerchief

We also make assessments of character from clothing style. For example, a person who is sloppily dressed and is hence perceived not take care in his or her appearance (e.g. whose shirt is unironed or unclean) might be interpreted as lacking in self-worth and likely to produce similarly sloppy work in whatever job s/he is employed at. On the other hand, a person always kitted out in the latest designer fashions might be thought shallow and materialistic. 

In addition, certain styles of dress are associated with specific youth subcultures, which are often connected, not only to taste in music, but also with lifestyle (e.g. criminality, drug-use, political views).[5]

Dutton does not discuss the significance of clothing choice in assessments of character. However, consistent with this broader interpretation of his book’s title, Dutton does indeed sometimes venture beyond physiognomy in the strict sense. 

For example, he discusses tattoos (p46-8) and beards (p60-1). 

I suppose the decision to get tattooed or grow a beard reflects both genetic predispositions and environmental influence, just as all aspects of phenotype, including morphology, reflect the interaction between genes and environment. 

However, this is also true of clothing choice, which, as I have already mentioned, Dutton does not discuss.  

On the other hand, both tattoos and, given that they take time to grow, even beards are relatively more permanent than whatever clothes we are wearing at any given time. 

However, Dutton also discusses the significance of what he terms a “blank look” or “glassy eyes” (p57-9). But this is a mere facial expression, and hence even more transitory than clothing. 

Yet Dutton omits discussion of other facial expressions which, unlike his wholly anecdotal discussion of “glassy eyes”, have been researched by ethologists at least since Charles Darwin’s seminal The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in 1872. 

Thus, Paul Ekman famously demonstrated that the meanings associated with at least some facial expressions are cross-culturally universal (e.g. smiling being associated with happiness). 

Indeed, some human facial expressions even appear to be homologues of behaviour patterns among non-human primates. For example, it has been suggested that the human smile is homologous with an appeasement gesture, namely the baring of clenched teeth (aka a ‘fear grin’), among chimpanzees. 

Of particular relevance to the question posed in Dutton’s book title, namely ‘How to Judge People by What They Look Like’, it is suggested some facial expressions lie partly outside of conscious control – e.g. blushing when embarrassed, going pale when shocked or fearful.  

Indeed, even a fake smile is said to be distinguishable from a Duchenne smile

This then explains the importance of reading facial expressions when playing poker or interrogating suspects, as people often inadvertently give away their true feelings through their facial expressions, behaviour and other mannerisms (e.g. so-called microexpressions). 

Somatotypes and Physique 

Dutton begins his book with a remarkable attempt to resurrect William Sheldon’s theory that certain types of physiques (or, as Sheldon called them, somatotypes) are associated with particular types of personality (or as Sheldon called them, constitutions). 

Although the three dimensions by which Sheldon classified physiques – endomorphy, ectomorphy and mesomorphy – have proven useful as dimensions for classifying body-type, Sheldon’s attempt to equate these ideal types with personality is now widely dismissed as pseudoscience. 

Dutton, however, argues that physique is indeed associated with character, and moreover provides what was conspicuously lacking in Sheldon’s own exposition – namely, compelling theoretical reasons for the postulated associations. 

Yet, interestingly, the associations suggested by Dutton do indeed to some extent mirror those first posited by William Shelton over half a century previously.

Whereas, elsewhere, Dutton draws on previously published research, here, Dutton’s reasoning is, to my knowledge, largely original to himself, though, as I show below, psychometric studies do support the existence of at least some of the associations he postulates. 

This part of Dutton’s book represents, in my view, the most important and convincing original contribution in the book. 

Endomorphy/Obesity, Self-Control and Conscientiousness

First, he discusses what Sheldon called endomorphy – namely, a body-type that can roughly be equated with what we would today call fatness or obesity

Dutton points out that, at least in contemporary Western societies, where there is a superabundance of food, and starvation is all but unknown even among the relatively less well-off, obesity tends to correlate with personality. 

In short, people who lack self-control and willpower will likely also lack the self-control and willpower to diet effectively. 

Endomorphy (i.e. obesity) is therefore a reliable correlate of the personality factor known to psychometricians as conscientiousness (p31-2).  

Although Dutton himself cites no data or published studies in support of this conclusion, nevertheless several published studies confirm an association between BMI and conscientiousness (Bagenjuk et al 2019; Jokela et al 2012; Sutin et al 2011). 

Obesity is also, Dutton claims, inversely correlated with intelligence

This is, first, because IQ is, according to Dutton, correlated with time-preference – i.e. a person’s willingness to defer gratification by making sacrifices in the short-term in return for a greater long-term pay-off. 

Therefore, low-IQ people, Dutton claims: 

Are less able to forego the immediate pleasure of ice cream for the future positive of not being overweight and diabetic” (p31). 

However, far from being associated with a short-time preference, some evidence, not discussed by Dutton, suggests that intelligence is actually inversely correlated with conscientiousness, such that more intelligent people are actually on average less conscientious (e.g. Rammstedt et al 2016; cf. Murray et al 2014). 

This would suggest that low IQ people might, all else being equal, actually be more successful at dieting than their high IQ counterparts. 

However, according to Dutton, there is a second reason that low-IQ people are more likely to be fat, namely: 

They are likely to understand less about healthy eating and simply possess less knowledge of what constitutes healthy food or a reasonable portion” (p31). 

This may be true. 

However, while there are some borderline cases (e.g. foods misleadingly marketed by advertisers as healthy), I suspect that virtually everyone knows that, say, eating lots of cake is unhealthy. Yet resisting the temptation to eat another slice is often easier said than done. 

I therefore suspect conscientiousness is a better predictor of weight than is intelligence

Interestingly, a few studies have investigated the association between IQ and the prevalence of obesity. However, curiously, most seem to be premised on the notion that, rather than low intelligence causing obesity, obesity somehow contributes to cognitive decline, especially in children (e.g. Martin et al 2015) and the elderly (e.g. Elias et al 2012). 

In fact, however, longitudinal studies confirm that, as contended by Dutton, it is low IQ that causes obesity rather than the other way around (Kanazawa 2014). 

At any rate, people lacking in intelligence and self-control also likely lack the intelligence and self-discipline to excel in school and gain promotions into high-income jobs, since both earnings and socioeconomic status correlate with both intelligence and conscientiousness.[6]

One can also, then, make better than chance assessments of a person’s socioeconomic status  and income from their physique. 

In other words, whereas in the past (and perhaps still in the developing world) the poor were more likely to starve or suffer from malnutrition and only the rich could afford to be fat, in the affluent west today it is the relatively less well-off who are, if anything, more likely to suffer from obesity and diseases of affluence such as diabetes and heart disease

This, then, all rather confirms the contemporary stereotype of the fat, lazy slob. 

However, Dutton also provides a let-off clause for offended fatties. Obesity is associated, not only with conscientiousness, but also with the factor of personality known as extraversion. This refers to the tendency to be outgoing, friendly and talkative, traits that are generally viewed positively. 

Several studies, again not cited by Dutton, do indeed suggest an association between extraversion and BMI (Bagenjuk et al 2019; Sutin et al 2011). Dutton, for his part, explains it this way: 

Extraverts simply enjoy everything positive more, and this includes tasty (and thus unhealthy) food” (p32). 

Dutton therefore provides theoretical support to the familiar stereotype of, not only the fat, lazy slob, but also the jolly and gregarious fat man, and the ‘bubbly’ fat woman.[7]

Mesomorphy/Muscularity and Testosterone

Mesomorphs were another of Sheldon’s supposed body-types. Mesomorphy can roughly be equated with muscularity. 

Here, Dutton concludes that: 

Sheldon’s theory… actually fits quite well with what we know about testosterone” (p33). 

Thus, mesomorphy is associated with muscularity, and muscularity with testosterone

Yet testosterone, as well as masculinizing the body, also masculinizes brain and behaviour. 

This is why anabolic steroids, not only increase muscularity, but are also said to be associated with roid rage.[8]

Testosterone, at least during development, may also be associated, not only with muscularity, but also with certain aspects of facial morphology, such as a wide and well-defined jawline, prominent brow ridges, deep-set eyes and facial width.  

I therefore wonder if this might go some way towards explain the finding, not mentioned by Dutton (but clearly relevant to his subject-matter), that observers are apparently able to identify convicted criminals at better than chance levels from a facial photograph alone (Valla, Ceci & Williams 2011).[9]

Testosterone and Autism 

Further exploring the effects of testosterone on both psychology and morphology, Dutton also proposes: 

We would also expect the more masculine-looking person to have higher levels of autism traits” (p34). 

This idea seems to be based on Simon Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain theory of autism

However, the relationship between, on the one hand, levels of androgens such as testosterone and, on the other, degree of masculinization in respect of a given sexually-dimorphic trait may be neither one-dimensional nor linear

Thus, interestingly, Kingsley Browne in his excellent Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here) reports: 

The relationship between spatial ability and [circulating] testosterone levels is described by an inverted U-shaped curve… Spatial ability is lowest in those with the very lowest and the very highest testosterone levels, with the optimal testosterone level lying in the lower end of the normal male range. Thus, males with testosterone in the low-normal range have the highest spatial ability” (Biology at Work: p115; Gouchie & Kimura 1991). 

In contrast, however, Dutton claims: 

There is evidence that testosterone level in healthy males is positively associated with spatial ability” (p36). 

However, the only study he cites in support of this assertion was, according to its methodology section and indeed its very title, conducted among “older males”, reported as having been between the ages of 60 and 75 years of age (Janowsky et al 1994). 

Therefore, since testosterone levels are known to decline with age, this finding is not necessarily inconsistent with the relationship between testosterone and spatial ability described by Browne (see Moffat & Hampson 1996). 

This, of course, accords with the anecdotal observation that math nerds and autistic males are rarely athletic, square-jawed ‘alpha male’-types.[10]

Testosterone and Baldness 

Another trait associated with testosterone levels, according to Dutton, is male pattern baldness. Thus, Dutton contends: 

Baldness is yet another reflection of high testosterone… [B]aldness in males known as androgenic apolecia, is positively associated with levels of testosterone” (p55). 

As evidence, he cites a study both a review (Batrinos 2014) and some indirect anecdotal evidence: 

It is widely known among doctors – I base this on my own discussions with doctors – that males who come to them in their 60s complaining of impotence tend to have full heads of fair or only very limited hair loss” (p55).[11]

If male pattern baldness is indeed associated with testosterone levels then this is somewhat surprising, because our perceptions regarding men suffering from male pattern baldness seem to be that they are, if anything, less masculine than other males. 

Thus, Nancy Etcoff, in Survival of the Prettiest (which I have reviewed here), reports that one study  found that: 

Both sexes assumed that balding men were weaker and found them less attractive” (Survival of the Prettiest: p121; Cash 1990).[12]

Yet, if the main message of Dutton’s book is that individual differences in morphology and appearance do indeed predict individual differences in behaviour, psychology and personality, then a second implicit theme seems also to be that our intuitions and stereotypes regarding the association between appearance and behaviors are often correct.  

True, it is likely that few people notice, say, digit ratios, or make judgements about people based on them either consciously or unconsciously. However, elsewhere, Dutton cites studies showing that subjects are able to estimate the IQ of male students at better than chance levels simply by viewing a photograph of their faces (Kleisner et al 2014; discussed at p50); and identify homosexuals and heterosexual men at better than chance levels from a facial photograph alone (Kosinski & Wang 2017; discussed at p66). 

Yet, according to Etcoff and Cash, perceptions regarding the personalities of balding men are almost the opposite of what would be expected if male pattern balding were indeed a reflection of high testosterone levels, as suggested by Dutton. 

In fact, however, although a certain level of testosterone is indeed a necessary condition for male pattern hair loss (this is why neither women nor castrated eunuchs experience the condition, though their hair does thin with age), this seems to be a threshold effect, and among non-castrated males with testosterone levels within the normal range levels of circulating testosterone do not seem to significantly predict either the occurrence, or severity, of male pattern baldness

Thus, healthline reports: 

It’s not the amount of testosterone or DHT that causes baldness; it’s the sensitivity of your hair follicles. That sensitivity is determined by genetics. The AR gene makes the receptor on hair follicles that interact with testosterone and DHT. If your receptors are particularly sensitive, they are more easily triggered by even small amounts of DHT, and hair loss occurs more easily as a result. 

In other words, male pattern baldness is yet another trait that is indeed related to testosterone, but does not evince a simple linear relationship

2D:4D Ratio

Another presumed correlate of prenatal androgens is 2D:4D ratio (aka digit ratio). 

Over the last two decades, a huge body of research has reported correlations between 2D:4D ratio and a variety of psychiatric conditions and behavioural propensities, including autism (Manning et al 2001), ADHD (Martel et al 2008; Buru 2020; Işık 2020), psychopathy (Blanchard & Lyons 2010), aggressive behaviours (Bailey & Hurd 2005; Benderlioglu & Nelson 2005), sports and athletic performance (Manning & Taylor 2001Hönekopp & Urban 2010; Griffin et al 2012; Keshavarz et al 2017), criminal behaviour (Ellis & Hoskin 2015; Hoskin & Ellis 2014) and homosexuality (Williams et al 2000; Lippa 2003; Kangassalo et al 2011; Li et al 2016; Xu & Zheng 2016). 
Unfortunately, and slightly embarrassingly, Dutton apparently misunderstands what 2D:4D ratio actually measures. Thus, he writes: 

If the profile of someone’s fingers is smoother, more like a shovel, then it implies high testosterone. If, by contrast, the little finger is significantly smaller than the middle finger, which is highly prevalent among women, then it implies lower testosterone exposure” (p69). 

Actually, however, both the little finger and middle finger are irrelevant to 2D:4D ratio.

Indeed, for virtually everyone, “the little finger is significantly smaller than the middle finger”. This is, of course, why the latter is called “the little finger”.

Actually, 2D:4D ratio concerns the ratio between index finger and the ring finger – i.e. the two fingers on either side of the middle finger

These fingers are, of course, the second and fourth digit, respectively, if you begin counting from your thumb outwards, hence the name ‘2D:4D ratio’. 

In evidently misnumbering his digits, I can only conclude that Dutton began counting at the correct end, but missed out his thumb. 

At any rate, the evidence for any association between digit ratios and measures of behavior and psychology is, at best, mixed

Skimming the literature on the subject, one finds many conflicting findings – for example, sometimes significant effects are found only for one sex, while other studies find the same correlations limited to the other sex (e.g. Bailey & Hurd 2005; Benderlioglu & Nelson 2005; see also Hilgard et al 2019), and also many failures to replicate earlier reported associations (e.g. Voracek et al 2011; Fossen et al 2022; Kyselicová et al 2021). 

Likewise, meta-analyses of published studies have generally found, at best, only small and inconsistent associations (e.g Voracek et al 2011 ; Pratt et al 2016). Thus, 2D:4D ratio has been a major victim of the recent so-called replication crisis in psychology

Indeed, it is not entirely clear that 2D:4D ratio represents a useful measure of prenatal androgens in the first place (Hollier et al 2015), and even the universality of the sex difference that originally led researchers to posit such a link is has been called into question (Apicella 2015; Lolli et al 2017).  

In short, the usefulness of digit ratio as a measure of exposure to prenatal androgens, let alone an important correlate of behaviour, psychology, personality or athletic performance, is questionable. 

Testosterone and Height 

The examples of male pattern baldness and spatial ability demonstrate that the effect of testosterone on some sexually-dimorphic traits is not necessarily always linear. Instead, it can be quite complex. 

Therefore, just because men are, on average, higher for a given trait than are women, which is ultimately a consequence of androgens such as testosterone, this does not necessarily mean that men with relatively higher levels of testosterone are necessarily higher for this trait than are men with relatively lower levels of testosterone. 

Indeed, Dutton himself provides another example of such a trait – namely height

Thus, although men, in general, are taller than women, nevertheless, according to Dutton: 

Men who are high in testosterone… tend to be of shorter stature than those who are low in it. High levels of testosterone at a relatively early age have been shown to reduce stature” (p34).[13]

In evolutionary terms, Dutton explains this in terms of the controversial Life History Theory of Philippe Rushton, of whom Dutton seems to be, with some reservations, something of a disciple (p22-4). 

If true, this might explain why eunuchs who were castrated before entering puberty are said to grow taller, on average, than other men. 

Further corroboration is provided by the fact that, in the Netherlands, whose population is among the tallest in the world, excessively tall boys are sometimes treated with testosterone in order to prevent them growing any taller (de Waal et al 1995).[14]

This is said to occur because additional testosterone speeds up puberty, and produces a growth spurt, but it also brings this to an end when height stabilizes and we cease to grow any taller. This is discussed in Carole Hooven’s book Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.

Short Man Syndrome’?

Interestingly, although Dutton does not explore the idea, the association between testosterone levels and height among males may even explain the supposed phenomenon of short man syndrome (also referred to, by reference to the supposed diminutive stature of the French emperor Napoleon, as a Napoleon complex), whereby short men are said to be especially aggressive and domineering. 

This is something that is usually attributed to a psychological need among shorter men to compensate for their diminutive stature. However, if Dutton is right, then the supposed aggressive predilections of short men might simply reflect differences between short and taller man in testosterone levels during adolescence. 

Actually, however, so-called short man syndrome is likely a myth – and yet another way society in general demeans and belittles short men. Certainly, it is very much a folk-psychiatric diagnosis with no empirical or real evidential basis, besides the merely anecdotal.  

Indeed, far from short men being, on average, more aggressive and domineering than taller men, one study commissioned by the BBC actually found that short men were less likely to respond aggressively when provoked

Given that tall men have an advantage in combat, it would actually make sense for relatively shorter men to avoid potentially violent confrontations with other men where possible, since, all else being equal, they would be more likely to come off worse in any such altercation.  

Consistent with this, some studies have found a link between increased stature and anti-social personality disorder, which is associated with aggressive behaviours (e.g. Ishikawa et al 2001; Salas-Wright & Vaughn 2016), while another study found a positive association between height and dominance, especially among males (Malamed 1992).[15]

Height and Intelligence 

Height is also, Dutton reports, correlated with intelligence, with taller people having, on average, slightly higher IQs than shorter people.  

The association between height and IQ is, like most if not all of those discussed by Dutton in this book, modest in magnitude or effect size.[16]

However, unlike many other associations reported by Dutton, many of which are based on just a single published study, or sometimes by purely theoretical arguments, the association between height and intelligence is robust and well-established.[17] Indeed, there is even wikipedia page on the topic

Dutton’s explanation for this phenomenon is that intelligence and height “have been sexually selected for as a kind of bundle” (p46). 

Females have sexually selected for intelligent men (because intelligence predicts social status and they have been specifically selected for this) but they have also selected for taller men, realising that taller men will be better able to protect them. This predilection for tall but intelligent men has led to the two characteristics being associated with one another” (p46). 

Actually, as I see it, this explanation would only work, or at least work much better, if both men and women had a preference for partners who are both tall and intelligent

This is indeed Arthur Jensen’s explanation for the association between height and IQ: 

Probably represents a simple genetic correlation resulting from cross-assortative mating for the two traits. Both height and ‘intelligence’ are highly valued in western culture. There is also evidence for cross-assortative mating for height and IQ. There is some trade-off between them in mate selection. When short and tall women are matched on IQ, educational level and social class of origin, for example, it is found that taller women tend to marry men of higher socioeconomic status… than do shorter women” (The G Factor: The Science of Mental Ability: p146). 

An alternative explanation might be that both height and intelligence reflect developmental stability and a lack of deleterious mutations. On this view, both height and intelligence might represent indices of genetic quality and lack of mutational load. 

However, this alternative explanation is inconsistent with the finding that there is no ‘within-family’ correlation between height and intelligence. In other words, when one looks at, say, full-siblings from the same family, there is no tendency for the taller sibling to have a higher IQ (Mackintosh, IQ and Human Intelligence: p6). 

This suggests that the genes that cause greater height are different from those that cause greater intelligence, but that they have come to be found in the same individuals through assortative mating, as suggested by Jensen and Dutton.[18]

Height and Earnings 

Although not discussed by Dutton, there is also a correlation between height and earnings. Thus, economist Steven Landsburg reports that: 

In general, an extra inch of height adds roughly an extra $1,000 a year in wages, after controlling for education and experience. That makes height as important as race or gender as a determinant of wages” (More Sex is Safer Sex: p53). 

This correlation could be mediated by the association between height and intelligence, since intelligence is known to be correlated with earnings (Case & Paxson 2009). 

However, one interesting study found that it was actually height during adolescence that accounted for the association, and that, once this was controlled for, adult height had little or no effect on earnings (Persico, Postlewaite & Silverman 2004). 

Controlling for teen height essentially eliminates the effect of adult height on wages for white males. The teen height premium is not explained by differences in resources or endowments” (Persico, Postlewaite & Silverman 2004). 

Thus, Landsburg reports: 

Tall men who were short in high school earn like short men, while short men who were tall (for their age) in high school” (More Sex is Safer Sex: p54). 

This suggests that it is height during a key formative period (a critical period’) in adolescence that increases self-confidence, which self-confidence continues into adulthood and ultimately contributes to higher adult earnings of men who were relatively taller as adolescents. 

On the other hand, however, Case and Paxon report that, in addition to being associated with adult height, intelligence is also associated with an earlier growth spurt. This leads them to conclude that adolescent height might be a better marker for cognitive ability than adult height, thereby providing an alternative explanation for Persico et al’s finding (Case & Paxson 2009). 

Head Size and Intelligence 

Dutton also discusses the finding that there is an association between intelligence and head-size. This is indeed true and is a topic I have written about elsewhere

However, Dutton’s illustration of this phenomenon seems to me rather unhelpful. Thus, he writes: 

Intelligent people have big heads in comparison to the size of their bodies. This association is obvious at the extremes. People who suffer from a variety of conditions that reduce their intelligence, including fetal alcohol syndrome or the zika virus, have noticeably very small heads” (p56). 

However, to me, this seems to be the wrong way to think about it. 

While it is indeed true that microcephaly (i.e. a smaller than usual head size) is usually associated with lower than normal intelligence levels, the reverse is not true. Thus, although head-size is indeed correlated with IQ, people suffering from macrocephaly (i.e. abnormally large heads) do not generally have exceptionally high IQs.  

Neither do people afflicted with forms of disproportionate dwarfism, such as achondroplasia, have higher than average IQs even though their heads are larger relative to their body-size than are those of ordinary-sized people.  

In short, rather than being, as Dutton puts it “obvious at the extremes”, the association between head-size and intelligence is obvious at only one of the extremes and not at all apparent at the other extreme. 

In general, species, individuals and races with larger brains have higher intelligence because, because brain-size is highly metabolically expensive and therefore unlikely to evolve without some compensating advantage (i.e. higher intelligence). 

However, conditions such achondroplasia and macrocephaly did not evolve through positive selection. On the contrary, they are pathological and maladaptive. Therefore, in these cases, the additional brain tissue may indeed be wasted and hence confer no cognitive advantage. 

Mate Choice 

In evolutionary psychology, there is a large literature on human mate-choice and beauty/attractiveness standards. Much of this depends on the assumption that the physical characteristics favoured as mate-choice criteria represent fitness-indicators, or otherwise correlate with traits desirable in a mate. 

For example, a low waist-to-hip ratio (or ‘WHR’) is said to be perceived as attractive among females because it is supposedly a correlate of both health and fertility. Similarly, low levels of fluctuating asymmetry are thought to be perceived as attractive by members of the opposite sex in both humans and other animals, supposedly because it is indicative of developmental stability and hence indirectly of genetic quality

Dutton reviews some of this literature. However, an introductory textbook on evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind), or on the evolutionary psychology of mating behaviour in particular (e.g. David Buss’s The Evolution of Desire), would provide a more comprehensive review. 

Also, some of Dutton’s speculations are rather unconvincing. He claims: 

Hipsters with their Old Testament beards are showcasing their genetic quality… Beards are a clear advertisement of male health and status. They are a breeding ground for parasites” (p61). 

However, if this is so, then it merely raises the question as to why have beards come back into fashion very recently? Indeed, until the last few years, beards had not been in fashion for men in the west to my knowledge since the 1970s.[19]

Moreover, it is not at all clear that beards do increase attractiveness (e.g. Dixson & Vasey 2012). Rather, it seems that beards increase perceptions of male age, dominance, social status and aggressiveness, but not their attractiveness.[20]

This suggests that beards are more likely to have evolved through intrasexual selection (i.e. dominance competition or fighting between males) than by intersexual selection (i.e. female choice). 

This is actually consistent with a recently-emerging consensus among evolutionary psychologists that human male physiology (and behaviour) has been shaped more by intrasexual selection than by intersexual selection (Puts 2010; Kordsmeyer et al 2018). 

Consistent with this, Dutton notes: 

“[Beards] have been found to make men look more aggressive, of higher status, and older… in a context in which females tend to be attracted to slightly older men, with age tending to be associated with status in men” (p61). 

However, this raises the question as to why, today, most men prefer to look younger.[21]

Are Feminine Faces More Prone to Infidelity?

Another interesting idea discussed by Dutton is that mate-choice criteria may vary depending on the sort of relationship sought. For example, he suggests: 

A highly feminine face is attractive, in particular in terms of a short term relationship… [where] a healthy and fertile partner is all that is needed” (p43). 

In contrast, however, he concludes that for a long-term relationship a less feminine face may be desirable, since he contends “being extremely feminine in terms of secondary sexual characteristics is associated with an r-strategy” and hence supposedly with a greater risk of infidelity (p43).[22]

However, Dutton presents no evidence in favour of the claim that less feminine women are less prone to sexual infidelity. 

Actually, on theoretical grounds, I would contend that the precise opposite relationship is more likely to exist. 

After all, less feminine and more masculine females, having been subjected to higher levels of androgens, would presumably also have a more male-typical sexuality, including a high sex drive and preference for promiscuous sex with multiple partners

Indeed, there is data in support of this conclusion, from studies of women afflicted with a rare condition, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which results in their having been exposed to abnormally high levels of masculinizing androgens such as testosterone both in the womb and sometimes in later life as compared to other females, and who, as a consequence, exhibit a more male-typical psychology and sexuality than other females. 

Thus, Donald Symons in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here) reports:  

There is evidence that certain aspects of adult male sexuality result from the effects of prenatal and postpubertal androgens: before the discovery of cortisone therapy women with andrenogenital syndrome [AGS] were exposed to abnormally high levels of androgens throughout their lives, and clinical data on late-treated AGS women indicate clear-cut tendencies toward a male pattern of sexuality” (The Evolution of Human Sexuality: p290). 

Thus, citing the work of, among others the much-demonized John Money, Symons reports that women suffering from andrenogenital syndrome

Tended to exhibit clitoral hypersensitivity and an autonomous, initiatory, appetitive sexuality which investigators have characterized as evidencing a high sex drive or libido” (The Evolution of Human Sexuality: p290). 

This suggests that females with a relatively more masculine appearance, having been subject, on average, to higher levels of masculinizing androgens, will also evidence a more male-typical sexuality, including greater promiscuity and hence presumably a greater proclivity towards infidelity, rather than a lesser tendency as theorized by Dutton. 

Good Looks, Politics and Religion 

Dutton also cites studies showing that conservative politicians, and voters, are more attractive than liberals (Peterson & Palmer 2017; Berggren et al 2017). 

By way of explanation for these findings, Dutton speculates that in ancestral environments: 

Populations… so low in ethnocentrism as to espouse Multiculturalism and reject religion would simply have died out… Therefore… the espousal of leftist dogmas would partly reflect mutant genes, just as the espousal of atheism does. This elevated mutational load… would be reflected in their bodies as well as their brains” (p76). 

However, this seems unlikely, since atheism and possibly socially liberal political views as well have usually been associated with higher intelligence, which is probably a marker for good genes.[23]

Moreover, although mutations might result in suboptimal levels of both ethnocentrism and religiosity, these suboptimal levels would presumably also manifest in the form of excessive levels of religiosity and ethnocentrism

This would suggest that religious fundamentalists and extreme xenophobes and racial supremacists would be just as mutated, and hence just as ugly, as atheists and extreme leftists supposedly are. 

Yet Dutton instead insists that religious fundamentalists, especially Mormons, tend to be highly attractive (Dutton et al 2017). However, he and his co-authors cite little evidence for this claim beyond the merely anecdotal.[24]

The authors of the original paper, Dutton reports, themselves suggested an alternative explanation for the greater attractiveness of conservative politicians, namely: 

Beautiful people earn more, which makes them less inclined to support redistribution” (p75). 

This, to me seems, both simpler more plausible. However, in response, Dutton observes: 

There is far more to being… right-wing… than not supporting redistribution” (p75). 

Here, he is right. The correlation between socioeconomic status/income and political ideology and voting is actually quite modest (see What’s Your Bias). 

However, earnings do still correlate with voting patterns, and this correlation is perhaps enough to explain the modest association between physical attractiveness and political opinions. 

Nevertheless, other factors may also play a role. For example, a couple of studies have found, among men, an association between grip strength and support for policies that benefit oneself economically (Peterson et al 2013; Peterson & Laustsen 2018). 

Grip strength is associated with muscularity, which is generally considered attractive in males

Since most leading politicians mostly come from middle-class, well-to-do, if not elite backgrounds, this would suggest that conservative male politicians are likely to be, on average, more attractive than liberal or leftist politicians.

Indeed, Noah Carl has even purported to observe, and presents evidence suggesting, a general, and widening, masculinity gap between the political left and right, and some studies have found evidence that more physically formidable males have more conservative and less egalitarian political views (Price et al 2017; Kerry & Murray 2018). 

Since masculinity in general (e.g. not just muscularity, but also square jaws etc.) is associated with attractiveness in males (see discussion here), this might explain at least part of the association between political views and physical attractiveness. 

On the other hand, among females, an opposite process may be at work. 

Among women, leftist politics seem to be strongly associated with feminist views

Since feminists reject traditional female sex roles, it is likely they would be relatively less ‘feminine’ than other women, perhaps having been, on average, subjected to relatively higher levels of androgens in the womb, masculinizing both their behaviour and appearance. 

Yet it is relatively more feminine women, with feminine, sexually-dimorphic traits such as large breasts, low waist to hip ratios, and neotenous facial features, who are perceived by men as more attractive.

It is therefore unsurprising that feminist women in particular tend to be less attractive than women who are attracted to traditional sex roles.[25]

Developmental Disorders and MPAs

One study cited by Dutton found that observers are able to estimate a male’s IQ from a facial photograph alone at better than chance level (Kleisner 2014). To explain this, Dutton speculates: 

Having a small nose is associated with Downs [sic] Syndrome and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and this would have contributed to our assuming that those with smaller noses were less intelligent” (p51). 

Thus, he explains: 

“[Whereas] Downs [sic] Syndrome and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome are major disruptions of developmental pathways and they lead to very low intelligence and a very small nose… even minor disruptions would lead to slightly reduced intelligence and a slightly smaller nose” (p51-2). 

Indeed, foetal alcohol syndrome itself seems to exist on a continuum and is hence a matter of degree. 
Indeed, going further than Dutton, I would agree with publisher/blogger Chip Smith, who observes in his blog

Dutton only mention[s] trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) in passing, but I think that’s a pretty solid place to start if you want to establish the baseline premise that at least some mental traits can be accurately inferred from external appearances.” 

Thus, the specific ‘look associated with Down Syndrome is a useful counterexample to cite to anyone who dismisses the idea of physiognomy, and the existence of any association between looks and ability or behaviour, a priori

Indeed, other developmental disorders and chromosomal abnormalities, not mentioned by Dutton, are also associated with a specific specific ‘look’ – for example, Williams Syndrome, the distinctive appearance, and personality, associated with which has even been posited as the basis for the elf figure in folklore.[26]

Less obviously, it has even been suggested that there are also subtle facial features that distinguish autistic children from neurotypical children, and which also distinguish boys with relatively more severe forms of autism from those who are likely to be diagnosed as higher functioning (Aldridge et al 2011; Ozgen et al 2011). 

However, Dutton neglects to mention that there is in fact a sizable literature regarding the association between so-called minor physical anomalies (aka MPAs) and several psychiatric conditions including autism (Ozgen et al 2008), schizophrenia (Weinberg et al 2007; Xu et al 2011) and paedophilia (Dyshniku et al 2015). 

MPAs have also been identified in several studies as a correlate of criminal behaviour (Kandel et al 1989; see also Criminology: A Global Perspective: p70-1). 

Yet these MPAs are often the very same traits – the single transverse palmar crease; sandal toe gap; fissured tongue – that are also used to diagnose Down Syndrome in nenates.

The Morality of Making Judgements

But is it not superficial to judge a book by its cover? And, likewise, by extension, isn’t it morally wrong to judge people by their appearance? 

Indeed, it is not only morally wrong to judge people by their appearance, but also, worse still, isn’t it racist

After all, skin colour is obviously a part of our appearance, and did not our Lord and Saviour, Dr Martin Luther King, himself advocate for a world in which people would be judged “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

Here, Dutton turns from science to morality, and convincingly contends that, at least in certain circumstances, it is indeed morally acceptable to judge people by appearances. 

It is true, he acknowledges, that most of the correlations that he has uncovered or reported are modest in magnitude. However, he is at pains to emphasize, the same is true of almost all correlations that are found throughout psychology and the social sciences. Thus, he exhorts: 

Let us be consistent. It is very common in psychology to find a correlation between, for example, a certain behaviour and accidents (or health) of 0.15 or 0.2 and thus argue that action should be taken based on the results. These sizes are considered large enough to be meaningful and even for policy to be changed” (p82). 

However, Dutton also includes a few sensible precautions and caveats to be borne in mind by those readers who might be tempted overenthusiastically apply some of his ideas. 

First, he warns against regarding making inferences regarding “people from a racial group with which you have relatively limited contact”, where the same cues used with respect to your own group may be inapplicable, or must be applied relative to the group averages for the other group, something we may not be adept at doing (p82-3). 

Thus, to give an obvious example, among Caucasians, epicanthic folds (i.e. so-called ‘slanted’ eyes) may be indicative of a developmental disorder such as Down syndrome. However, among East Asians, Southeast Asians and some other racial groups (notably the Khoisan of Southern Africa), such folds are entirely normal and not indicative of any pathology. 

He also cautions regarding people’s ability to disguise their appearance, both by makeup and plastic surgery. However, also notes that the tendency to wear excessive makeup, or undergo cosmetic surgery, is itself indicative of a certain personality type, and indeed often, Dutton asserts, of psychopathology (p84-5). 

Using physical appearance to make assessments is particularly useful, Dutton observes, “in extreme situations when a quick decision must be made” (p80). 

Thus, to take a deliberately extreme reductio ad absurdum, if we see someone stabbing another person, and this first person then approaches us in an aggressive manner brandishing the knife, then, if we take evasive action, we are, strictly speaking, judging by appearances. The person appears as if they are going to stab us, so we assume they are and act accordingly. However, no one would judge us morally wrong for so doing. 

However, in circumstances where we have access to greater individualizing information, the importance of appearances becomes correspondingly smaller. Here, a Bayesian approach is useful. 

In 2013, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller caused predictable outrage and hysteria when he tweeted

Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” 

According to Dutton, as we have seen above, willpower is indeed likely correlated with obesity, because, as Miller argues, people lacking in willpower also likely lack the willpower to diet. 

However, a PhD supervisor surely has access to far more reliable information regarding a person’s personality and intelligence, including their conscientiousness and willpower, in the form of their application and CV, than is obtainable from their physique alone. 

Thus, the outrage that this tweet provoked, though indeed excessive and a reflection of the intolerant climate of so-called cancel culture’ and public shaming in the contemporary west, was not entirely unwarranted. 

Similarly, if geneticist James Watson did indeed say, as he was rather hilariously reported as having said, that “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them”, he was indeed being prejudiced, because, again, an employer has access to more reliable information regarding applicants than their physique, namely, again, their application and CV. 

Obesity may often—perhaps even usually—be indicative of low levels of conscientiousness, willpower and intelligence. But, it is not always indicative of low levels of conscientiousness, willpower and intelligence. Instead, it may instead, as Dutton himself points out, reflect only high extraversion, or indeed an unusual medical condition. 

However, even at job interviews, employers do still, in practice, judge people partly by their appearance. Moreover, we often regard them as well within their rights to do so. 

This is, of course, why we advise applicants to dress smartly for their interviews.


[1] If ‘How to Judge People by What They Look Like’ is indeed a very short book, then, it must be conceded that this is, by comparison, a rather long and detailed book review. While, as will become clear in the remainder of this review, I have many points of disagreement with Dutton (as well as many points of agreement) and there are many areas where I feel he is mistaken, nevertheless the length of this book review is, in itself, testament to the amount of thinking that Dutton’s short pamphlet has inspired in this reader. 

[2] In addition, I suspect few of the researchers whose work Dutton cites ever even regarded themselves as working within, or somehow reviving, the field of physiognomy. On the contrary, despite researching and indeed demonstrating robust associations between morphology and behavior, this idea may never even have occurred to them.
Thus, for example, I was already familiar with some of this literature even before reading Dutton’s book, but it never occurred to me that what I was reading was a burgeoning literature in a revived science of physiognomy. Indeed, despite being familiar with much of this literature, I suspect that, if questioned directly on the matter, I may well have agreed with the general consensus that physiognomy was a discredited pseudoscience.
Thus, one of the chief accomplishments of Dutton’s book is simply to establish that this body of research does indeed represent a revived science of physiognomy, and should be recognized and described as such, even if the researchers themselves rarely if ever use the term.

[3] Instead, it would surely uncover mostly papers in the field of ‘history of science’, documenting the history of physiognomy as a supposedly discredited pseudoscience, along with such other real and supposed pseudosciences as phrenology and eugenics.

[4] The studies mentioned in the two paragraphs that precede this endnote are simply a few that I happen to have stumbled across that are relevant to Dutton’s theme and which I happen to have been able to recall. No doubt, any list of relevant studies that I could compile would be just as inexhaustive as that of Dutton and my own list would be longer than Dutton’s only because I have the advantage of having read Dutton’s book beforehand.

[5] Thus, a young person dressed as a hippy in the 60s and 70s was more likely to ascribe to certain (usually rather silly and half-baked) political beliefs, and also more likely to engage in recreational drug-use and live on a commune, while a young man dressed as a teddy boy in Britain in the 1950s, a skinhead in the 1970s and 80s, a football casual in the 1990s, or indeed a chav today, may be perceived as more likely to be involved in violent crime and thuggery. The goth subculture also seems to be associated with a certain personality type, and also with self-harm and suicide.

[6] The association between IQ and socioeconomic status is reviewed in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (which I have reviewed here). The association between conscientiousness and socioeconomic status is weaker, probably because personality tests are a less reliable measure of conscientiousness than IQ tests are of IQ, since the former rely on self-report. This is the equivalent of an IQ test that, instead of asking test-takers to solve logical puzzles, simply asked them how good they perceived themselves to be at solving logical puzzles. Nevertheless, conscientiousness, as measured in personality tests, does indeed correlate with earnings and career advancement, albeit less strongly than does IQ (Spurk & Abele 2011Wiersma & Kappe 2016).

[7] If some fat people are low in conscientiousness and intelligence, and others merely high in extraversion, there may, I suspect, also be a third category of people who do have self-control and self-discipline, but simply do not much care about whether they are fat or thin. However, given both the social stigma and health implications of obesity, this group is, I suspect, small. It is also likely young, since health dangers of obesity increase with age, and male, since both the social stigma of fatness, and especially its negative impact on mate value and attractiveness, seems to be greater for females. 

[8] Actually, whether roid rage is a real thing is a matter of some dispute. Although users of anabolic steroids do indeed have higher rates of violent crime, it has been suggested that this may be at least in part because the type of people who choose to use steroids are precisely those already prone to violence. In other words, there is a problem of self-selection bias.
Moreover, the association between testosterone and aggressive behaviours is more complex than this simple analysis assumes. One leading researcher in the field, Allan Mazur, argues that testosterone is not associated with aggression or violence per se, but only with dominance behaviours, which only sometimes manifest themselves through violent aggression. Thus, for example, a leading politician, business tycoon or chief executive of a large company may have high testosterone and be able to exercise dominance without resort to violence. However, a prisoner, being of low status in the legitimate world, is likely only able to assert dominance through violence (see Mazur & Booth 1998; Mazur 2009).

[9] Here, however, it is important to distinguish between the so-called organizing and ‘activating’ effects of testosterone. The latter can be equated with levels of circulating testosterone at any given time. The former, however, involves androgen levels at certain key points during development, especially in utero (i.e. in the womb) and during puberty, which thenceforth have long-term effects on both morphology and behaviour (and a person’s degree of susceptibility to circulating androgens).
Facial bone structure is presumable largely an effect of the ‘organizing’ effects of testosterone during development, though jaw shape is also affected by the size of the jaw muscles, which can be increased, it has been claimed, by regularly chewing gum. Bodily muscularity, on the other hand, is affected by both levels of circulating testosterone (hence the effects of anabolic steroids on muscle growth) but also levels of testosterone during development, not least because high levels of androgens during development increases the number and sensitivity of androgen receptors, which affect the potential for muscular growth.

[10] In this section, I have somewhat conflated spatial ability, mathematical ability and autism traits. However, these are themselves, of course, not the same, though each is probably associated with the others, albeit again not necessarily in a linear relationship.

[11] I have been unable to discover any evidence for this supposed association between lack of balding and impotence in men. On the contrary, googling the terms ‘male pattern baldness’ and ‘impotence’ finds only a results, mostly people speculating whether there is a positive correlation between balding and impotence in males, if only on the very unpersuasive ground that the two conditions tend to have a similar age of onset (i.e. around middle-age).

[12] In contrast, the shaven-head skinhead-look, or close-cropped military-style induction cut, buzz cut or high and tight is, of course, perceived as a quintessentially masculine, and even thuggish, hairstyle. This is perhaps because, in addition to contrasting with the long hair typically favoured by females, it also, by reducing the size of the upper part of the head, makes the lower part of the face e.g. the jaw and body, appear comparatively larger, and large jaws are a masculine trait, Thus, Nancy Etcoff observes:

The absense of hair on the head serves to exaggerate signals of strength. The smaller the head the bigger the look of the neck and body. Bodybuilders often shave or crop their hair, the size contrast between the head and neck and shoulders emphasizing the massiveness of the chest” (Survival of the Prettiest: p126).

[13] The source that Dutton cites for this claim is (Nieschlag & Behr 2013).

[14] In America, it has been suggested, especially tall boys are not treated with testosterone to prevent their growing any taller. Instead, they are encouraged to attempt to make a successful career in professional basketball

[15] On the other hand, one Swedish study investigating the association between height and violent crime found that the shortest men in Sweden had almost double convictions for violent crimes as compared to the tallest men in Sweden. However, after controlling for potential confounds (e.g. socioeconomic status and intelligence, both of which positively correlate with height), the association was reversed, with taller man having a somewhat higher likelihood of being convicted of a violent crime (Beckley et al 2014). 

[16] According to Dutton, the correlation between height and IQ is only about r = 0.1. This is a modest correlation even by psychology and social science standards.

[17] In other words, although modest in magnitude, the association between height and IQ has been replicated in so many studies with sufficiently large and representative sample sizes that we can be certain that it represents a real association in the population at large, not an artifact of small, unrepresentative or biased sampling in just one or a few studies. 

[18] An alternative explanation for the absence of a within-family correlation between height and intelligence is that some factor that differs as between families causes both increased height and increased intelligence. An obvious candidate would be malnutrition. However, in modern western economies where there is an superabundance of food, starvation is almost unknown and obesity is far more common than undernourishment even among the ostensible poor (indeed, as noted by Dutton, especially among the ostensible poor), it is doubtful that undernourishment is a significant factor in explaining either small stature or low IQs, especially since height is mostly heritable, at least by the time a person reaches adulthood.

[19] The conventional wisdom is that beards went out of fashion during the twentieth century precisely because their role as in spreading germs came to be more widely known. Thus, Nancy Etcoffwrites:

Facial hair has been less abundant in this century than in centuries past (except in the 1960s) partly because medical opinion turned against them. As people became increasingly aware of the role of germs in spreading diseases, beards came to be seen as repositories of germs. Previously, they had been advised by doctors as a means to protect the throat and filter air to the lungs” (Survival of the Prettiest: p156-7). 

Of course, this is not at all inconsistent with the notion that beards are perceived as attractive by women precisely because they represent a potential vector of infection and hence advertise the health and robustness of the male whom they adorn, as contended by Dutton. On the contrary, the fact that beards are indeed associated with infection, is consistent with and supportive of Dutton’s theory. 

[20] It would be interesting to discover whether these findings generalize to other, non-western cultures, especially those where beards are universal or the norm (e.g. among Muslims in the Middle East). It would also be discover whether women’s perceptions regarding the attractiveness of men with beards have changed as beards have gone in and out of fashion. 

[21] Perhaps this is because, although age is still associated with status, it is no longer as socially acceptable for older men to marry, or enter sexual relationships with, much younger women or girls as it was in the past, and such relationships are now less common. Indeed, in the last few years, this has become especially socially unacceptable. Therefore, given that most men are maximally attracted to females in this age category, they prefer to be thought of as younger so that it is more acceptable for them to seek relationships with younger, more attractive females.
Actually, while older men tend to have higher status on average, I suspect that, after controlling for status, it is younger men who would be perceived as more attractive. Certainly, a young multi-millionaire would surely be considered a more eligible bachelor than an older homeless man. Therefore, age per se is not attractive; only high status is attractive, which happens to correlate with age.

[22] This idea is again based on Philippe Rushton’s Differential K theory, which I have reviewed here and here.

[23] Dutton is apparently aware of this objection. He acknowledges, albeit in a different book, that “Intelligence, in general, is associated with health” (Why Islam Makes You Stupid: p174). However, in this same book, he also claims that: 

Intelligence has been shown to be only weakly associated with mutational load” (Why Islam Makes You Stupid: p169). 

Interestingly, Dutton also claims in this book: 

Very high intelligence predicts autism” (Why Islam Makes You Stupid: p175). 

This claim, namely that exceptionally high intelligence is associated with autism, seems anecdotally plausible. Certainly, autism seems to have a complex and interesting relationship with intelligence
Unfortunately, however, Dutton does not cite a source for the claim the claim that exceptionally high intelligence is associated with autism. Nevertheless, according to data cited here, there is indeed a greater variance in the IQs of autistic people, with greater proportions of autistic people at both tail-ends of the bell curve, the author even referring to an inverted bell curve for intelligence among autistic people, though, even according to her own cited data, this appears to be an exaggeration. However, this is not a scholarly source, but rather appears to be the website of a not entirely disinterested advocacy group, and it is not entirely clear from where this data derives, the piece referring only to data from the Netherlands collected by the Dutch Autism Register (NAR). 

[24] Admittedly, Dutton does cite one study showing that subjects can identify Mormons from facial photographs alone, and that the two groups differed in skin quality (Rule et al 2010). However, this might reflect merely the health advantages resulting from the religiously imposed abstention from the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee.
For what it’s worth, my own subjective and entirely anecdotal impression is almost the opposite of Dutton’s, at least here in secular modern Britain, where anyone who identifies as Christian, let alone a fundamentalist, unless perhaps s/he is elderly, tends to be regarded as a bit odd.
An interesting four-part critique of this theory, along very different lines from my own, is provided by Scott A McGreal at the Psychology Today website, see here, here, here, and here. Dutton responds with a two-part rejoinder here and here.

[25] However, when it comes to actual politicians, I suspect this difference may be attenuated, or even nonexistent, since pursuing a career in politics is, by its very nature, a very untraditional, and unfeminine, career choice, most likely because, in Darwinian terms, political power has a greater reproductive payoff for men than for women. Thus, it is hardly surprising that leading female politicians, even those who theoretically champion traditional sex roles, tend themselves to be quite butch and masculine in appearance and often as unattractive as their leftist opponents (e.g. Ann Widdecombe). Indeed, even Ann Coulter, a relatively attractive woman, at least by the standards of female political figures, has been mocked for her supposedly mannish appearance and pronounced Adam’s apple.
Moreover, most leading politicians are at least middle-aged, and female attractiveness peaks very young, in mid- to late-teens into early-twenties

[26] Another medical condition associated with a specific look, as well as with mental disability, is cretinism, though due to medical advances, most people with the condition in western societies, develop normally and no longer manifest either the distinctive appearance or the mental disability. 


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Desmond Morris’s ‘The Naked Ape’: A Pre-Sociobiological Work of Human Ethology 

Desmond Morris, Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1967)

First published in 1967, ‘The Naked Ape’, a popular science classic authored by the already famous British zoologist and TV presenter Desmond Morris, belongs to the pre-sociobiological tradition of human ethology

In the most general sense, the approach adopted by the human ethologists, who included, not only Morris, but also playwright Robert Ardrey, anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox and the brilliant Nobel-prize winning ethologist, naturalist, zoologist, pioneering evolutionary epistemologist and part-time Nazi sympathizer Konrad Lorenz, was correct. 

They sought to study the human species from the perspective of zoology. In other words, they sought to adopt the disinterested perspective, and detachment, of, as Edward O Wilson was later to put it, “zoologists from another planet” (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis: p547). 

Thus, Morris proposed cultivating: 

An attitude of humility that is becoming to proper scientific investigation… by deliberately and rather coyly approaching the human being as if he were another species, a strange form of life on the dissecting table” (p14-5).  

In short, Morris proposed to study humans just as a zoologist would any other species of non-human animal. 

Such an approach was an obvious affront to anthropocentric notions of human exceptionalism – and also a direct challenge to the rather less scientific approach of most sociologists, psychologists, social and cultural anthropologists and other such ‘professional damned fools’, who, at that time, almost all studied human behavior in isolation from, and largely ignorance of, biology, zoology, and the scientific study of the behavior of all animals other than humans. 

As a result, such books inevitably attracted controversy and criticism. Such criticism, however, invariably missed the point. 

The real problem was not that the ethologists sought to study human behavior in just the same way a zoologist would study the behavior of any nonhuman animal, but rather that the study of the behavior of nonhuman animals itself remained, at this time, very much in its infancy. 

Thus, the field of animal behavior was to be revolutionized just a decade or so after the publication of ‘The Naked Ape’ by the approach that came to be known as, first, sociobiology, now more often as behavioral ecology, or, when applied to humans, evolutionary psychology

These approaches sought to understand behavior in terms of fitness maximization – in other words, on the basis of the recognition that organisms have evolved to engage in behaviors which tended to maximize their reproductive success in ancestral environments. 

Mathematical models, often drawn from economics and game theory, were increasingly employed. In short, behavioral biology was becoming a mature science. 

In contrast, the earlier ethological tradition was, even at its best, very much a soft science. 

Indeed, much such work, for example Jane Goodall’s rightly-celebrated studies of the chimpanzees of Gombe, was almost pre-scientific in its approach, involving observation, recording and description of behaviors, but rarely the actual testing or falsification of hypotheses. 

Such research was obviously important. Indeed, Goodall’s was positively groundbreaking. 

After all, the observation of the behavior or an organism is almost a prerequisite for the framing of hypotheses about the behavior of that organism, since hypotheses are, in practice, rarely generated in an informational vacuum from pure abstract theory. 

However, such research was hardly characteristic of a mature and rigorous science. 

When hypotheses regarding the evolutionary significance of behavior patterns were formulated by early ethologists, this was done on a rather casual ad hoc basis, involving a kind of ‘armchair adaptationism’, which could perhaps legitimately be dismissed as the spinning of, in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase, just so stories

Thus, a crude group selectionism went largely unchallenged. Yet, as George C Williams was to show, and Richard Dawkins later to forcefully reiterate in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here), behaviors are unlikely to evolve that benefit the group or species if they involve a cost to the inclusive fitness of the individual engaging in the behavior. 

Robert Wright picks out a good example of this crude group selectionism from ‘The Naked Ape’ itself, quoting Morris’s claim that, over the course of human evolution: 

To begin with, the males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting. So the females had to develop a pairing tendency” (p64). 

To anyone schooled in the rudiments of Dawkinsian selfish gene theory, the fallacy should be obvious. But, just in case we didn’t spot it, Wright has picked it out for us: 

Stop right there. It was in the reproductive interests of the males for the females to develop a tendency toward fidelity? So natural selection obliged the males by making the necessary changes in the females? Morris never got around to explaining how, exactly, natural selection would perform this generous feat” (The Moral Animal: p56). 

In reality, couples have a conflict of interest here, and the onus is clearly on the male to evolve some mechanism of mate-guarding, though a female might conceivably evolve some way to advertise her fidelity if, by so doing, she secured increased male parental investment and provisioning, hence increasing her own reproductive success.[1]

In short, mating is Machiavellian. A more realistic view of human sexuality, rooted in selfish gene theory, is provided by Donald Symons in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here). 

Unsuccessful Societies? 

The problems with ‘The Naked Ape’ begin in the very first chapter, where Morris announces, rather oddly, that, in studying the human animal, he is largely uninterested in the behavior of contemporary foraging groups or other so-called ‘primitive’ peoples. Thus, he bemoans: 

The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world… scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct. They then returned with startling facts about the bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures of these tribes, and used this material as though it were of central importance to the behaviour of our species as a whole. The work done by these investigators… did not tell us was anything about the typical behaviour of typical naked apes. This can only be done by examining the common behaviour patterns that are shared by all the ordinary, successful members of the major cultures-the mainstream specimens who together represent the vast majority. Biologically, this is the only sound approach” (p10).[2]

Thus, today, political correctness has wholly banished the word ‘primitive’ from the anthropological lexicon. It is, modern anthropologists insist, demeaning and pejorative.  

Indeed, post-Boasian cultural anthropologists in America typically reject the very notion that some societies are more advanced than others, championing instead a radical cultural relativism and insisting we have much to learn from the lifestyle and traditions of hunter-gatherers, foragers, savage cannibals and other such ‘indigenous peoples’. 

Morris also rejects the term ‘primitive’ as a useful descriptor for hunter-gatherer and other technologically-backward peoples, but for diametrically opposite reasons. 

Thus, for Morris, to describe foraging groups as ‘primitive’ is to rather give them altogether too much credit: 

The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified. Truly primitive tribes have not existed for thousands of years. The naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed, ‘gone wrong’. Something has happened to it to hold it back, something that is working against the natural tendencies of the species to explore and investigate the world around it” (p10). 

Instead, Morris proposes to focus on contemporary western societies, declaring: 

North America… is biologically a very large and successful culture and can, without undue fear of distortion, be taken as representative of the modern naked ape” (p51) 

It is indeed true that, with the diffusion of American media and consumer goods, American culture is fast becoming ubiquitous. However, this is a very recent development in historical terms, let alone on the evolutionary timescale of most interest to biologists. 

Indeed, viewed historically and cross-culturally, it is we westerners who are the odd, aberrant ones. 

Thus, we even have been termed, in a memorable backcronym, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and hence quite aberrant, not only in terms of our lifestyle and prosperity, but also in terms of our psychology and modes of thinking

Moreover, while foraging groups, and other pre-modern peoples, may now indeed now be tottering on the brink of extinction, this again is a very recent development. 

Indeed, far from being aberrant, this was the lifestyle adopted by all humans throughout most of the time we have existed as a species, including during the period when most of our unique physical and behavioural adaptations evolved

In short, although we may inhabit western cities today, this is not the environment where we evolved, nor that to which our brains and bodies are primarily adapted.[3]

Therefore, given that it represents the lifestyle of our ancestors during the period when most of our behavioral and bodily adaptations evolved, primitive peoples must necessarily have a special place in any evolutionary theory of human behaviour.[4]

Indeed, Morris himself admits as much himself just a few pages later, where he acknowledges that: 

The fundamental patterns of behavior laid down in our early days as hunting apes still shine through all our affairs, no matter how lofty they may be” (p40). 

Indeed, a major theme of ‘The Naked Ape’ is the extent to which the behaviour even of wealthy white westerners is nevertheless fundamentally shaped and dictated by the patterns of foraging set out in our ancient hunter-gatherer past. 

This, of course, anticipates the concept of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) in modern evolutionary psychology

Thus, Morris suggests that the pattern of men going out to work to financially provision wives and mothers who stay home with dependent offspring reflects the ancient role of men as hunters provisioning their wives and children: 

“Behind the façade of modern city life there is the same old naked ape. Only the names have been changed: for ‘hunting’ read ‘working’, for ‘hunting grounds’ read ‘place of business’, for ‘home base’ read ‘house’, for ‘pair-bond’ read ‘marriage’, for ‘mate’ read ‘wife’, and so on” (p84).[5]

In short, while we must explain the behaviors of contemporary westerners, no less than those of primitive foragers, in the light of Darwinian evolution, nevertheless all such behaviors must be explained ultimately in terms of adaptations that evolved over previous generations under very different conditions. 

Indeed, in the sequel to ‘The Naked Ape’, Morris further focuses on this very point, arguing that modern cities, in particular, are unnatural environments for humans, rejecting the then-familiar description of cities as concrete jungles on the grounds that, whereas jungles are the “natural habitat” of animals, modern cities are very much an unnatural habitat for humans. 

Instead, he argues, the better analogy for modern cities is a Human Zoo

The comparison we must make is not between the city dweller and the wild animal but between the city dweller and the captive animal. The city dweller is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain” (The Human Zoo: pvii). 


Morris adopts what he calls a zoological approach. Thus, unlike modern evolutionary psychologists, he focuses as much on explaining our physiology as our behavior and psychology. Indeed, it is in explaining the peculiarities of human anatomy that Morris’s book is at his best.[6]

This begins, appropriately enough, with the trait that gives him his preferred name for our species, and also furnishes his book with its title – namely our apparent nakedness or hairlessness. 

Having justified calling us ‘The Naked Ape’ on zoological grounds, namely on the ground that this is the first thing the naturalist would notice upon observing our species, Morris then comes close to contradicting himself, admitting that we actually have more hairs on our bodies than do chimpanzees.[7]

However, Morris summarily dispatches this objection: 

It is like saying that because a blind man has a pair of eyes, he is not blind. Functionally, we are stark naked and our skin is fully exposed” (p42). 

Why then are we so strangely hairless? Neoteny, Morris proposes, provides part of the answer. 

This refers to the tendency of humans to retain into maturity traits that are, in other primates, restricted to juveniles, nakedness among them. 

Neoteny is a major theme in Morris’s book – and indeed in human evolution

Besides our hairlessness, other human anatomical features that have been explained either partly or wholly in terms of neoteny, whether by Morris or by other evolutionists, include our brain size, growth patterns, 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 sexual maturity (see below). Indeed, many of these traits are explicitly discussed by Morris himself as resulting from neoteny

However, while neoteny may supply the means by which our relative hairlessness evolved, it is not a sufficient explanation for why this development occurred, because, as Morris points out: 

The process of neoteny is one of the differential retarding of developmental processes” (p43). 

In other words, humans are neotenous in respect of only some of our characters, not all of them. After all, an ape that remained infantile in all respects would never evolve, for the simple reason that it would never reach sexual maturity and hence remain unable to reproduce. 

Instead, only certain specific juvenile or infantile traits are retained into adulthood, and the question then becomes why these specific traits were the ones chosen by natural selection to be retained. 

Thus, Morris concludes: 

It is hardly likely… that an infantile trait as potentially dangerous as nakedness was going to be allowed to persist simply because other changes were slowing down unless it had some special value to the new species” (p43). 

As to what this “special value” (i.e. selective advantage) might have been, Morris considers, in turn, various candidates.  

One theory considered by Morris theory relates to our susceptibility to insect parasites.  

Because humans, unlike many other primates, return to a home base to sleep most nights, we are, Morris reports, afflicted with fleas as well as lice (p28-9). Yet fur, Morris observes, is a good breeding ground for such parasites (p38-9). 

Perhaps, then, Morris imagines, we might have evolved hairlessness in order to minimize the problems posed by such parasites. 

However, Morris rejects this as an adequate explanation, since, he observes: 

Few other den dwelling mammals… have taken this step” (p43). 

An alternative explanation implicates sexual selection in the evolution of human hairlessness.  

Substantial sex differences in hairiness, as well as the retention of pubic hairs around the genitalia, suggests that sexual selection may indeed have played a role in the evolution of our relative hairlessness as compared to other mammals. 

Morris, however, rejects this explanation on the grounds that: 

The loss of bodily insulation would be a high price to pay for a sexy appearance alone” (p46). 

But other species often often pay a high price for sexually selected bodily adornments. For example, the peacock sports a huge, brightly coloured and elaborate tail that is thought to have evolved through sexual selection or female choice, which is costly to grow and maintain, impedes his mobility and is conspicuous to predators. 

Indeed, according to Amotz Zahavi’s handicap principle, it is precisely the high cost of such sexually-selected adornments that made them reliable fitness indicators and hence attractive to potential mates, because only a highly ‘fit’ male can afford to grow such a costly, inconvenient and otherwise useless appendage. 

Morris also gives unusually respectful consideration to the highly-controversial aquatic ape theory as an explanation for human hairlessness. 

Thus, if humans did indeed pass through an aquatic, or at least amphibious, stage during our evolution, then, Morris agrees, this may indeed explain our hairlessness, since it is indeed true that other aquatic or semiaquatic mammals, such as whales, dolphins and seals, also seem to have jettisoned most of their fur over the course of their evolution. 

This is presumably because fur increases frictional drag while in the water and hence impedes swimming ability, and is among the reasons that elite swimmers also remove their body-hair before competition. 

Indeed, our loss of body hair is among the human anatomical peculiarities that are most often cited by champions of aquatic ape theory in favor of the theory that humans did indeed pass through an aquatic phase during our evolution. 

However, aquatic ape theory is highly controversial, and is rejected by almost all mainstream evolutionists and biological anthropologists.  

As I have said, Morris, for his part, gives respectful consideration to the theory, and, unlike many other anthropologists and evolutionists, does not dismiss it out of hand as entirely preposterous and unworthy even of further consideration.[8]

On the contrary, Morris credits the theory as “ingenious”, acknowledging that, if true, it might explain many otherwise odd features of human anatomy, including not just our relative hairlessness, but also the retention of hairs on our head, the direction of the hairs on our backs, our upright posture, ‘streamlined’ bodies, dexterity of our hands and the thick extra layer of sub-cutaneous fat beneath our skin that is lacking in other primates. 

However, while acknowledging that the theory explains many curious anomalies of human physiology, Morris ultimately rejects ‘aquatic ape theory’ as altogether too speculative given the complete lack of fossil evidence in support of the theory – the same reason that most other evolutionists also reject the theory. 

Thus, he concludes: 

It demands… the acceptance of a hypothetical major evolutionary phase for which there is no direct evidence” (p45-6). 

Morris also rejects the theory that was, according to Morris himself, the most widely accepted explanation for our hairlessness among other evolutionists at the time he was writing – namely the theory that our hairlessness evolved as a cooling mechanism when our ancestors left the shaded forests for the open African savannah

The problem with this theory, as Morris explains it, is that:  

Exposure of the naked skin to the air certainly increases the chances of heat loss, but it also increases heat gain at the same time and risks damage from the sun’s rays” (p47). 

Thus, it is not at all clear that moving into the open savannah would indeed select for hairlessness. Otherwise, as Morris points out, we might expect other carnivorous, predatory mammals such as lions and jackals, who also inhabit the savannah, to have similarly jettisoned most of their fur. 

Ultimately, however, Morris accepts instead a variant on this idea – namely that hairlessness evolved to prevent overheating while chasing prey when hunting. 

However, this fails to explain why it is men’s bodies that are generally much hairier than those of women, even though, cross-culturally, in most foraging societies, it is men who do most, if not all, of the hunting. 

It also raises the question as to why other mammalian carnivores, including some that also inhabit the African Savannah and other similar environments, such as lions and jackals, have not similarly shed their body hair, especially since the latter rely more on their speed to catch prey species, whereas humans, armed with arrows and javelins as well as hunting dogs, do not always have to catch a prey themselves in order to kill it. 

I would tentatively venture an alternative theory, one which evidently did not occur to Morris – namely, perhaps our hairlessness evolved in concert with our invention and use of clothing (e.g. animal hides) – i.e. a case of gene-culture coevolution

Clothing would provide an alternative means of protect from both sun and cold alike, but one that has the advantage that, unlike bodily fur, it can be discarded (and put back on) on demand. 

This explanation suggests that, paradoxically, we became naked apes at the same time, and indeed precisely because, we had also become clothed apes. 

The Sexiest Primate? 

One factor said to have contributed to the book’s commercial success was the extent to which its thesis chimed with the prevailing spirit of the age during which it was first published, namely the 1960s. 

Thus, as already alluded to, it presented, in many ways, an idealized and romantic version of human nature, with its crude group-selectionism and emphasis on cooperation within groups without a concomitant emphasis on conflict between groups, and its depiction of humans as a naturally monogamous pair-bonding species, without a concomitant emphasis on the prevalence of infidelity, desertion, polygamy, Machiavellian mating strategies and even rape.  

Another element that jibed with the zeitgeist of the sixties was Morris’s emphasis on human sexuality, with Morris famously declaring: 

The naked ape is the sexiest primate alive” (p64). 

Are humans indeed the ‘sexiest’ of primates? How can we assess this claim? It depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘sexiness’. 

Obviously, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then sexiness is located in a rather different part of the male anatomy, but equally subjective in nature. 

Thus, humans like ourselves find other humans more sexy than other primates because we have evolved to do so. A male chimpanzee, however, would likely disagree and regard a female chimpanzee as sexier. 

However, Morris presumably has something else in mind when he describes humans as the “sexiest” of primates. 

What he seems to mean is that sexuality and sexual behavior permeates the life of humans to a greater degree than for other primates. Thus, for example, he cites as evidence the extended or continuous sexual receptivity of human females, writing: 

There is much more intense sexual activity in our own species than in any other primates” (p56) 

However, the claim that sexuality and sexual behavior permeates the life of humans to a greater degree than for other primates is difficult to maintain when you have studied the behavior of some of our primate cousins. Thus, for example, both chimpanzees and especially bonobos, our closest relatives among extant non-human primates, are far more promiscuous than all but the sluttiest of humans

Indeed, one might cynically suggest that what Morris had most in mind when he described humans as “the sexiest primate alive” was simply a catchy marketing soundbite that very much tapped into the zeitgeist of the era (i.e. the 1960s) and might help boost sales for his book. 

Penis Size

As further evidence for our species’ alleged “sexiness” Morris also supposedly unusually large size of the human penis, reporting: 

The [human] male has the largest penis of any primate. It is not only extremely long when fully erect, but also very thick when compared with the penises of other species” (p80). 

This claim, namely that the human male has an unusually large penis, may originate with Morris, and has certainly since enjoyed wide currency in subsequent decades. 

Thus, competing theories have been formulated to account for the (supposedly) unusual size of our penes.

One idea is that our large penes evolved through sexual selection, more specifically female choice, with females preferring either the appearance, or the internal ‘feel’ of a large penis during coitus, and hence selecting for increased penis size among men (e.g. Mautz et al 2013; The Mating Mind: p234-6).

This idea dovetails neatly with Richard Dawkins’ tentative suggestion in an endnote appended to later editions of The Selfish Gene (reviewed here) that the capacity to maintain an erection (presumably especially a large erection) without a penis bone may function as an honest signal of health in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle, an idea I have previously discussed here (The Selfish Gene: p307-8).

Another suggestion implicates sperm competition. On this view, human penes are designed to remove sperm deposited by rival males in the female reproductive tract (Human Sperm Competition: p170-171; Gallup & Burch 2004; Gallup et al 2004; Goetz et al 2005; Goetz et al 2007). 

Yet, according to Alan F Dixson, the human penis is, in fact, not unusually long by primate standards, being roughly the same length as that of the chimpanzee (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p64). 

Instead, Dixson reports: 

The erect human penis is comparable in length to those of other primates, in relation to body size. Only its circumference is unusual when compared to the penes of other hominids” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p65). 

The human penis is unusual, then, only in its width or girth. 

As to why our penes are so wide, the answer is quite straightforward, and has little to do with the alleged ‘sexiness’ of the human species, whatever that means. 

Instead, it is a simple, if indirect, reflection of our increased brain-size.

Increased brain-size first selected for changes in the size and shape of female reproductive anatomy. This, in turn, led to changes in male reporoductive anatomy. Thus, Bowman suggests: 

As the diameter of the bony pelvis increased over time to permit passage of an infant with a larger cranium, the size of the vaginal canal also became larger” (Bowman 2008). 

Similarly, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis write: 

The dimensions and elasticity of the vagina in mammals are dictated to a large extent by the dimensions of the baby at birth. The large head of the neonatal human baby (384g brain weight compared with only 227g for the gorilla…) has led to the human vagina when fully distended being large, both absolutely and relative to the female body… particularly once the vagina and vestibule have been stretched during the process of giving birth, the vagina never really returning to its nulliparous dimensions” (Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity: p171). 

In turn, larger vaginas select for larger penises in order to fill this larger vagina (Bowman 2008).  

Interestingly, this theory directly contradicts the alleged claim of infamous race scientist Philippe Rushton (whose work I have reviewed here and here) that there is an inverse correlation between brain-size and penis-size, which relationship supposedly explains race differences in brain and genital size. Thus, Rushton was infamously quoted as observing: 

It’s a trade off, more brains or more penis. You can’t have everything.[9]

On the contrary, this analysis suggests that, at least as between species (and presumably as between sub-species, i.e. races, as well), there is a positive correlation between brain-size and penis-size.[10]

According to Baker and Bellis, one reason male penis size tracks that of female vagina size (both being relatively large, and especially wide, in humans) is that the penis functions as, in Baker and Bellis’s words, a “suction piston” during intercourse, the repeated thrusting functioning to remove any sperm previously deposited by rival males – a form of sperm competition

Thus, they report:

In order to distend the vagina sufficiently to act as a suction piston, the penis needs to be a suitable size [and] the relatively large size… and distendibility of the human vagina (especially after giving birth) thus imposes selection, via sperm competition, for a relatively large penis” (Human Sperm Competition: p171). 

Interestingly, this theory – namely that the human penis functions as a sperm displacement device – although seemingly fanciful, actually explains some otherwise puzzling aspects of human coitus, such as its relatively extended duration, the male refractory period and related Coolidge effect – i.e. why a male cannot immediately recommence intercourse immediately after orgasm, unless perhaps with a new female (though this exception has yet to be experimentally demonstrated in humans), since to do so would maladaptively remove one’s own sperm from the female reproductive tract. 

Though seemingly fanciful, this theory even has some empirical support (Gallup & Burch 2004; Goetz et al 2005; Goetz et al 2007), including some delightful experiments involving sex toys of various shapes and sizes (Gallup et al 2004). 

Morris writes:

“[Man] is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honor falsely to the mighty gorilla” (p9). 

Actually, the gorilla, mighty though he indeed may be, has relatively small genitalia. This is on account of his polygynous, but non-polyandrous, mating system, which involves minimal sperm competition.[11]

Moreover, the largeness of our brains, in which, according to Morris, we take such pride, may actually be the cause of the largeness of our penes, for which, according to Morris, we have such shame (here, he speaks for few men). 

Thus, large brains required larger heads which, in turn, required larger vaginas in order to successfully birth larger-headed babies. This in turn selected for larger penises to fill the larger vagina. 

In short, the large size, or rather large girth/width, of our penes has less to do with our being the “sexiest primate” and more to do with our being the brainiest

Female Breasts

In addition to his discussion of human penis size, Morris also argues that various other features of human anatomy that not usually associated with sex nevertheless evolved, in part, due to their role in sexual signaling. These include our earlobes (p66-7), everted lips (p68-70) and, tentatively and rather bizarrely, perhaps even our large fleshy noses (p67). 

He makes the most developed and persuasive case, however, in respect of another physiological peculiarity of the human species, and of human females in particular, namely the female breasts

Thus, Morris argues: 

For our species, breast design is primarily sexual rather than maternal in function” (p106). 

The evolution of protruding breasts of a characteristic shape appears to be yet another example of sexual signalling” (p70). 

As evidence, he cites the differences in shape between women’s breasts and both the breasts of other primates and the design of baby bottles (p93). In short, the shape of human breasts do not seem ideally conducive to nursing alone. 

The notion that breasts have a secondary function as sexual advertisements is indeed compelling. In most other mammals, large breasts develop only during pregnancy, but human breasts are permanent, developing at puberty, and, except during pregnancy and lactation, composed predominantly of fat not milk (see Møller et al 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016). 

On the other hand, it is difficult to envisage how breasts ever first became co-opted as a sexually-selected ornament. 

After all, the presence of developed breasts on a female would originally, as among other primates, have indicated that the female in question was pregnant, and hence infertile. There would therefore initially have been strong selection pressure among males against ever finding breasts sexually attractive, since it would lead to their pursuing infertile women whom they could not possibly impregnate. 

How then did breasts ever make the switch to a sexually attractive, sexually-selected ornament? This is what George Francis, at his blog, ‘Anglo Reaction’, terms the breast paradox.[12]

Morris does not address this not insignificant problem. However, he does suggest that two other human traits unique among primates may have facilitated the process. 

Our so-called ‘nakedness’ (i.e. relative hairlessness), the trait that furnished Morris’s book with its title, and Morris himself with his preferred name for our species, is the first of these traits. 

Swollen breast-patches in a shaggy-coated female would be far less conspicuous as signalling devices, but once the hair has vanished they would stand out clearly” (p70-1). 

Secondly, Morris argues that our bipedalism (i.e. the fact we walk on two legs) and resulting vertical posture, necessarily put the female reproductive organs out of sight underneath a woman when she adopts a standing position, and hence generally out of the sight of potential mates. There was therefore, Morris suggests, a need for some frontal sexual-signaling. 

This, he argues, was further necessitated by what he argues is our species’ natural preference for ventro-ventral (i.e. missionary position) intercourse. 

In particular, Morris argues that human female breasts evolved in order to mimic the appearance of the female buttocks, a form of what he terms ‘self-mimicry’. 

The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks” (p76). 

Everted Lips 

Interestingly, he makes a similar argument in respect of another trait of humans not shared by other extant primates – namely, our inverted lips.

The word ‘everted’ refers to the fact that our lips are turned outwards, as is easily perceived by comparing human lips with the much thinner lips of our closest non-human relatives

Again, this seems intuitively plausible, since, like female breasts, lips do indeed seem to be a much-sexualized part of the human anatomy, at least in western societies, and in at least some non-western cultures as well, if erotic art is to be taken as evidence.[13]

These everted lips, he argues, evolved to mimic the appearance of the female labia

As with Morris’s idea that female breasts evolved to mimic the appearance of female buttocks, the idea that our lips, and women’s use of lipstick, is designed to imitate the appearance of the female sexual organs has been much mocked.[14]

However, the similarity in appearance of the labia and human lips can hardly be doubted. After all, it is even attested to in the very etymology of the word

Of course, inverted lips reach their most extreme form among extant sub-species of hominid among black Africans. This Morris argues is because: 

If climatic conditions demand a darker skin, then this will work against the visual signalling capacity of the lips by reducing their colour contrast. If they really are important as visual signals, then some kind of compensating development might be expected, and this is precisely what seems to have occurred, the negroid lips maintaining their conspicuousness by becoming larger and more protuberant. What they have lost in colour contrast, they have made up for in size and shape” (p69-70).[15]

Thus, rejecting the politically-incorrect notion that black Africans are, as a race, somehow more ‘primitive than other humans, Morris instead emphasizes the fact that, in respect of this trait (i.e. everted lips), they are actually the most differentiated from non-human primates.  

Thus, all humans, compared to non-human primates, have everted lips, but black African lips are the most everted. Therefore, Morris concludes, using the word ‘primitive’ is in the special phylogenetic sense

Anatomically, these negroid characters do not appear to be primitive, but rather represent a positive advance in the specialization of the lip region” (p70).

In other words, whereas whites and Asians may be more advanced than blacks when it comes to intelligence, brain-size, science, technology and building civilizations, when it comes to everted lips, black Africans have us all beaten! 

Female Orgasm

Morris also discusses the function of the female orgasm, a topic which has subsequently been the subject of much speculation and no little controversy among evolutionists.  

Again, Morris suggests that humans’ unusual vertical posture, brought on by our bipedal means of locomotion, may have been central to the evolution of this trait. 

Thus, if a female were to walk off immediately after sexual intercourse had occurred, then: 

Under the simple influence of gravity the seminal fluid would flow back down the vaginal tract and much of it would be lost” (p79).  

This obviously makes successful impregnation less likely. As a result, Morris concludes: 

There is therefore a great advantage in any reaction that tends to keep the female horizontal when the male ejaculates and stops copulating” (p79). 

The chief adaptive function of the female orgasm therefore, according to Morris, is the tiredness, and perhaps post-coital tristesse, that immediately follows orgasm, and motivates the female experiencing these emotions to remain in a horizontal position even after intercourse has ended, and hence retain the male ejaculate within her reproductive tract. 

The violent response of female orgasm, leaving the female sexually satiated and exhausted has precisely this effect” (p79).[16]

However, the main problem with Morris’s theory is that it predicts that female orgasm should be confined to humans, since, at least among extant primates, we represent the only bipedal ape.  

Morris does indeed argue that the female organism is, like our nakedness, bipedal locomotion and large brains, an exclusively human trait, describing how, among most, if not all, non-human primates: 

At the end of a copulation, when the male ejaculates and dismounts, the female monkey shows little sign of emotional upheaval and usually wanders off as if nothing had happened” (p79). 

Unfortunately for Morris’s theory, however, evidence has subsequently accumulated that some non-human (and non-bipedal) female primates do indeed seem to sometimes experience responses seemingly akin to orgasm during copulation. 

Thus, Alan Dixson reports: 

Female orgasm is not confined to Homo sapiens. Putatively homologous responses [have] been reported in a number of non-human primates, including stump-tail and Japanese Macaques, rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees… Pre-human ancestors of Homo sapiens, such as the australopithecines, probably possessed a capacity to exhibit female orgasm, as do various extant ape and monkey species. The best documented example concerns the stump tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides), in which orgasmic uterine contractions have been recorded during female-female mounts… as well as during copulation… De Waal… estimates that female stump-tails show their distinctive ‘climax face’ (which correlates with the occurrence of uterine contractions) once in every six copulations. Vaginal spasms were noted in two female rhesus monkeys as a result of extended periods of stimulation (using an artificial penis) by an experimenter… Likewise, a female chimpanzee exhibited rhythmical vaginal contractions, clitoral erection, limb spasms, and body tension in response to manual stimulation of its genitalia… Masturbatory behaviour, accompanied by behavioural and physiological responses indicative of orgasm, has also been noted in Japanese macaques… and chimpanzees” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p77). 

Thus, in relation to Morris’s theory, Dixson concludes that the theory lacks “comparative depth” because: 

Monkey and apes exhibit female orgasm in association with dorso-ventral copulatory postures and an absence of post-mating rest periods” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p77). 

Certainly, female orgasm, unlike male orgasm, is hardly a prerequisite for successful impregnation. 

Thus, American physician, Robert Dickson, in his book, Human Sex Anatomy (1933), reports that, in a study of a thousand women who attended his medical practice afflicted with so-called ‘frigitity’ (i.e incapable of orgasmic response during intercourse): 

The frigid were not notably infertile, having the expected quota of living children, and somewhat less than the average incidence of sterility” (Human Sex Anatomy: p92). 

Thus, as argued by Donald Symons in his groundbreaking The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), the most parsomonious theory of the evolution of female orgasm is that it represents simply a non-adaptive byproduct of male orgasm, which is, of course, itself adaptive (see Sherman 1989Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).

It thus represents, if you like, the female equivalent of male nipples – only more fun.


Interestingly, Morris also hypothesizes regarding the evolutionary function of another peculiarity of human female reproductive anatomy which, in contrast to the controversy regarding the evolutionary function, if any, of the female orgasm and clitoris (and of the female breasts), has received surprisingly scant attention from evolutionists – namely, the hymen

In most mammals, Morris reports, “it occurs as an embryonic stage in the development of the urogenital system” (p82). However, only in humans, he reports, is it, when not ruptured, retained into adulthood. 

Regarding the means by which it evolved, the trait is then, Morris concludes, like our large brains, upright posture and hairlessness, “part of the naked ape’s neoteny” (p82). 

However, as with our hairlessness, neoteny only the means by which this trait was retained into adulthood among humans, not the evolutionary reason for its retention.  

In other words, he suggests, the hymen, like other traits retained into adulthood among humans, must serve some evolutionary function. 

What is this evolutionary function? 

Morris suggests that, by making first intercourse painful for females, it deters young women from engaging in intercourse too early, and hence risking pregnancy, without first entering a relationship (‘pair-bond’) of sufficient stability to ensure that male parental investment, and provisioning, will be forthcoming (p73). 

However, pain experienced during intercourse occurs rather too late to deter first intercourse, because, by the time this pain is experienced, intercourse has already occurred. 

Of course, given our species’ unique capacity for speech and communication, the pain experienced during first intercourse could be communicated to young virginal women through conversation with other non-virginal women who had already experienced first intercourse.  

However, this would be an unreliable method of inducing fear and avoidance regarding first intercourse, especially given the sort of taboos regarding discussion of sexual activities which are common in many cultures. 

At any rate, why would natural, or sexual, selection not instead simply directly select for fear and anxiety regarding first intercourse – i.e. a psychological rather than a physiological adaptation. After all, as evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists have convincingly demonstrated, our psychology is no less subject to natural selection than is our physiology. 

Although, as already noted, the evolutionary function, if any, of the female hymen has received surprisingly little attention from evolutionists, I can think of at least three rival hypotheses regarding the evolutionary significance of the hymen. 

First, it may have evolved among humans as a means of advertising to prospective suitors a prospective bride’s chastity, and hence reassuring the suitor of the paternity of offspring that subsequently result and encouraging paternal investment in offspring. 

This would, in turn, increase the perceived attractiveness of the female in question, and help secure her a better match with a higher-status male, and hence increase her own reproductive success

Thus, it is notable that, in many cultures, prospective brides are inspected for virginity, a so-called virginity test, sometimes by the prospective mother-in-law or another older woman, before being considered marriageable and accepted as brides. 

Alternatively, and more prosaically, the hymen may simply function to protect against infection, by preventing dirt and germs from entering a woman’s body by this route. 

This, of course, would raise the question as to why, at least according to Morris, the trait is retained into sexual maturity only among humans?  

Actually, however, as with his claim that the female orgasm is unique to humans, Morris’s claim that only humans retain the hymen into sexual maturity is disputed by other sources. Thus, for example, Catherine Blackledge reports: 

Hymens, or vaginal closure membranes or vaginal constrictions, as they are often referred to, are found in a number of mammals, including llamas, guinea-pigs, elephants, rats, toothed whales, seals, dugongs, and some primates, including some species of galagos, or bushbabys, and the ruffed lemur” (The story of V: p145). 

Finally, even more prosaically, the hymen may simply represent a nonadaptive vestige of the developmental process, or a nonadaptive by-product of our species’ neoteny

This would be consistent with the apparent variation with which the trait presents itself, suggesting that it has not been subject to strong selection pressure that has weeded out suboptimal variations. 

This then would appear to be the most parsimonious explanation. 

Zoological Nomenclature 

The works on human ethology of both Richard Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz attracted much attention and no little controversy in their day. Indeed, they perhaps attracted even more controversy than Morris’s own ‘The Naked Ape’, not least because they tended to place greater emphasis on humankind’s capacity, and alleged innate proclivity, towards violence. 

In contrast, Morris’s own work, placing less emphasis on violence, and more on sex, perhaps jibed better with the zeitgeist of the era, namely the 1960s, with its hippy exhortations to ‘make love not war’. 

Yet, although all these works were first published at around the same time, the mid- to late-sixties (though Adrey continued publishing books of this subject into the 1970s), Morris’s ‘The Naked Ape’ seems to be the only of these books that remains widely read, widely known and still in print, to this day. 

Partly, I suspect, this reflects its brilliant and provocative title, which works on several levels, scientific and literary.  

Morris, as we have seen, justifies referring to humans by this perhaps unflattering moniker on zoological grounds.  

Certainly, he acknowledges that humans possess many other exceptional traits that distinguish us from all other extant apes, and indeed all other extant mammals. 

Thus, we walk on two legs, use and make tools, have large brains and communicate via a spoken language. Thus, the zoologist could refer to us by any number of descriptors – “the vertical ape, the tool-making ape, the brainy ape” are a few of Morris’s own suggestions (p41).  

But, he continues, adopting the disinterested detachment of the proverbial alien zoologist: 

These were not the first things we noticed. Regarded simply as a zoological specimen in a museum, it is the nakedness that has the immediate impact” (p41) 

This name has, Morris observes, several advantages, including “bringing [humans] into line with other zoological studies”, emphasizing the zoological approach, and hence challenging human vanity. 

Thus, he cautions: 

The naked ape is in danger of being dazzled by [his own achievements] and forgetting that beneath the surface gloss he is still very much a primate. (‘An ape’s an ape, a varlet’s a valet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet’). Even a space ape must urinate” (p23). 

Thus, the title works also on another metaphoric level, which also contributed to the title’s power.  

The title ‘Naked Ape’ promises to reveal, if you like, the ‘naked’ truth about humanity—to strip humanity down in order to reveal the naked truth that lies beneath the façade and finery. 

Morris’s title reduces us to a zoological specimen in the laboratory, stripped naked on the laboratory table, for the purposes of zoological classification and dissection. 

Interestingly, humans have historically liked to regard ourselves as superior to other animals, in part, precisely because we are the only ones who did clothe ourselves. 

Thus, beside Adam and Eve, it was only primitive tropical savages who went around in nothing but a loincloth, and they were disparaged as uncivilized precisely on this account. 

Yet even tropical savages wore loincloths. Indeed, clothing, in some form, is sometimes claimed to be a human universal

Yet animals, on the other hand, go completely unclothed – or so we formerly believed. 

But Morris turns this reasoning on its head. In the zoological sense, it is humans who are the naked ones, being largely bereft of hairs sufficient to cover most of our bodies. 

Stripping humanity down in this way, Morris reveals the naked truth that beneath, the finery and façade of civilization, we are indeed an animal, an ape and a naked one at that. 

The power of Morris’s chosen title ensures that, even if, like all science, his book has quickly dated, his title alone has stood the test of time and will, I suspect, be remembered, and employed as a descriptor of the human species, long after Morris himself, and the books he authored, are forgotten and cease to be read. 


[1] In fact, as I discuss in a later section of this review, it is possible that the female hymen evolved through just such a process, namely as a means of advertising female virginity and premarital chastity (and perhaps implying post-marital fidelity), and hence as a paternity assurance mechanism, which benefited the female by helping secure male parental investment, provisioning and hypergamy.

[2] Morris is certainly right that anthropologists have overemphasized the exotic and unfamiliar (“bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures”, as Morris puts it). Partly, this is simply because, when first encountering an alien culture, it is the unfamiliar differences that invariably stand out, whereas the similarities are often the very things which we tend to take for granted.
Thus, for example, on arriving in a foreign country, we are often struck by the fact that everyone speaks a foreign unintelligible language. However, we often take for granted the more remarkable fact that all cultures around the world do indeed have a spoken language, and also that all languages supposedly even share in common a universal grammar.
However, anthropologists have also emphasized the alien and bizarre for other reasons, not least to support theories of radical cultural malleability, sometimes almost to the verge of outright fabrication (e.g. Margaret Mead’s studies in Samoa).

[3] It is true that there has been some significant human evolution since the dawn of agriculture, notably the evolution of lactase persistence in populations with a history of dairy agriculture. Indeed, as Cochran and Harpending emphasize in their book The 10,000 Year Explosion, far from evolution having stopped at the dawn of agriculture or the rise of ‘civilization’, it has in fact sped up, as a natural reflection of the rapid change in environmental conditions that resulted. Thus, as Nicholas Wade concludes in A Troublesome Inheritance, much human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional”, leading to substantial differentiation between populations (i.e. race differences), including in psychological traits such as intelligence. Nevertheless, despite such tinkering, the core adaptations that identify us as a species were undoubtedly molded in ancient prehistory, and are universal across the human species.

[4] However, it is indeed important to recognize that the lifestyle of our own ancestors was not necessarily identical to that of those few extant hunter-gatherer groups that have survived into modern times, not least because the latter tend to be concentrated in marginal and arid environments (e.g. the San people of the Kalahari DesertEskimos of the Arctic region, Aboriginals of the Australian outback), with those formerly inhabiting more favorable environments having either themselves transitioned to agriculture or else been displaced or absorbed by more advanced invading agriculturalists with higher population densities and superior weapons and other technologies.

[5] This passage is, of course, sure to annoy feminists (always a good thing), and is likely to be disavowed even by many modern evolutionary psychologists since it relies on a rather crude analogy. However, Morris acknowledges that, since “’hunting’… has now been replaced by ‘working‘”: 

The males who set off on their daily working trips are liable to find themselves in heterosexual groups instead of the old all-male parties. All too often it [the pair bond] collapses under the strain” (p81). 

This factor, Morris suggests, explains the prevalence of marital infidelity. It may also explain the recent hysteria, and accompanying witch-hunts, regarding so-called ‘sexual harassment’ in the workplace.
Relatedly, and also likely to annoy feminists, Morris champions the then-popular man the hunter theory of hominid evolution, which posited that the key development in human evolution, and the development of human intelligence in particular, was the switch from a largely, if not wholly, herbivorous diet and lifestyle, to one based largely on hunting and the consumption of meat. On this view, it was the cognitive demands that hunting placed on humans that selected for increased intelligence among humans, and also the nutritional value of meat that made possible increases in  highly metabolically expensive brain tissue.
This theory has since fallen into disfavor. This seems to be primarily because it gives the starring role in human evolution to men, since men do most of the hunting, and relegates women to a mere supporting role. It hence runs counter to the prevailing feminist zietgeist.
The main substantive argument given against the ‘man the hunter theory’ is that other carnivorous mammals (e.g. lions, wolves) adapted to carnivory without any similar increase in brain-size or intelligence. Yet Morris actually has an answer to this objection.
Our ancestors, fresh from the forests, were relative latecomers to carnivory. Therefore, Morris contends, had we sought to compete with tigers and wolves by mimicking them (i.e. growing our fangs and claws instead of our brains) we would inevitably have been playing a losing game of evolutionary catch-up. 

Instead, an entirely new approach was made, using artificial weapons instead of natural ones, and it worked” (p22).

However, this theory fails to explain how female intelligence evolved. One possibility is that increases in female intelligence are an epiphenomenal byproduct of selection for male intelligence, rather like the female equivalent of male nipples.
On this view, men would be expected to have higher intelligence than women, just as male nipples are smaller than female nipples, and the male penis is bigger than the female clitoris. That adult men have greater intelligence than adult women is indeed the conclusion of a recent controversial theory, though the difference is very modest (Lynn 1999). There is also evidence this sexual division of labour between hunting and gathering led to sex dithfferences spatio-visual intelligence (Eals & Silverman 1994).

[6] Another difference from modern evolutionary psychologists derives from Morris’s ethological approach, which involves a focus on human-typical behaviour patterns. For example, he discusses the significance of body language and facial expressions, such as smiling, which is supposedly homologous with an appeasement gesture (baring clenched teeth, aka a ‘fear grin’) common to many primates, and staring, which represents a form of threat across many species.

[7] Interestingly, however, he acknowledges that this statement does not apply to all human races. Thus, he observes: 

Negroes have undergone a real as well as an apparent hair loss” (p42). 

Thus, it seems blacks, unlike Caucasians, have fewer hairs on their body than do chimpanzees. This fact is further evidence that, contrary to the politically correct orthodoxy, race differences are real and important, though this fact is, of course, played down by Morris and other popular science writers.

[8] Edward O Wilson, for example, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (which I have reviewed here) dismisses aquatic ape theory, as then championed by Elaine Morgan in The Descent of Woman, as feminist-inspired pop-science “contain[ing] numerous errors” and as being “far less critical in its handling of the evidence than the earlier popular books”, including, incidentally, that of Morris, who is mentioned by name in the same paragraph (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis: p29).

[9] Actually, I suspect this infamous quotation may be apocryphal, or at best a misconstrued joke. Certainly, while I think Rushton’s theory of race differences (which he calls ‘differential K theory’) is flawed, as I explain in my review of his work, there is nothing in it to suggest a direct trade-off between penis-size and brain-size. Indeed, one problem with Rushton’s theory, or at least his presentation of it, is that he never directly explains how traits such as penis-size actually relate to r/K selection in the first place.
The quotation is usually traced to a hit piece in Rolling Stone, a leftist hippie rag with a reputation for low editorial standards and fake news. However, Jon Entine, in his book on race differences in athletic ability, instead traces it to a supposed interview between Rushton and Geraldo Rivera broadcast on the Geraldo’ show in 1989 (Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports: p74).
Interestingly, one study has indeed reported that there is a “demonstrated negative evolutionary relationship”, not between brain-size and penis-size, but rather between brain-size and testicle size, if only on account of the fact that each contain “metabolically expensive tissues” (Pitnick et al 2006).

[10] Interestingly, Baker and Bellis attribute race differences in penis-size, not to race differences in brain-size, but rather to race differences in birth weight. Thus, they conclude:

Racial differences in size of penis (Mongoloid < Caucasoid < Negroid…) reflects racial differences in birth weight… and hence presumably, racial differences in size of vagina” (Human Sperm Competition: p171). 

[11] In other words, a male silverback gorilla may mate with the multiple females in his harem, but each of the females in his harem likely have sex with only one male, namely that silverback. This means that sperm from rival males are rarely simultaneously present in the same female’s oviduct, resulting in minimal levels of sperm competition, which is known to select from larger testicles in particular, and also often more elaborate penes as well.

[12] Alternative theories for the evolution of permanent fatty breasts in women is that they function analogously to camel humps, i.e. as a storehouse of nutrients to guard against and provide reserves in the event of future scarcity or famine. On this view, the sexually dimorphic presentation (i.e. the fact that fatty breasts are largely restricted to women) might reflect the caloric demands of pregnancy. Indeed, this might explain why women have higher levels of fat throughout their bodies. (For a recent review of rival theories for human breast evolution see Pawłowski & Żelaźniewicz 2021.)

[13] However, to be pedantic, this phraseology is perhaps problematic, since, to say that breasts and lips are ‘sexualized’ in western, and at least some non-western, cultures implicitly presupposes that they are not already inherently sexual parts of our anatomy by virtue of biology, which is, of course, the precisely what Morris is arguing. 

[14] For example, if I recall correctly, extremely annoying, left-wing 1980s-era British comedian Ben Elton once commented in a one of his stand-up routines that the male anthropologist (i.e. Morris, actually not an anthropologist, at least not by training) who came up with this idea (namely, that lips and lipstick mimiced the appearance of the labia) had obviously never seen a vagina in his life. He also, if I recall correctly, attributed this theory to the supposed male-dominated, androcentric nature of the field of anthropology – an odd notion given that Morris is not an anthropologist by training, and cultural anthropology is, in fact, one of the most leftist-dominated, feminist-infested, politically correct fields in the whole of academia, this side of ‘gender studies’, which, in the present, politically-correct world of academia, is saying a great deal.

[15] To test this theory, we might look at other relatively dark-skinned, but non-Negroid, populations. Here, the theory receives, at best, only partial support. Thus, Australian Aboriginals, another dark-skinned but unrelated group, do indeed tend to have quite large lips. However, these lips are not especially everted. 
On the other hand, the dark-skinned Dravidian populations of Southern India are not generally especially large-lipped, but are rather quite Caucasoid in facial morphology, and indeed, like the generally lighter-complexioned, Indo-European speaking, ‘Aryan’ populations of northern India, were generally classified as ‘Caucasoid by most early-twentieth century racial anthropologists.

[16] This theory is rather simpler, and has hence always struck me as more plausible, than the more elaborate, but also more widely championed so-called ‘upsuck hypothesis’, whereby female orgasm is envisaged as somehow functioning to suck semen deeper into the cervix. This idea is largely based on a single study involving two experiments on a single subject (Fox et al 1970). However, two other studies failed to produce any empirical support for the theory (Grafenberg 1950; Masters & Johnson 1966). Baker and Bellis’s methodologically problematic work on what they call ‘flowback’ provides, at best, ambivalent evidence (Baker & Bellis 1993). For detailed critique, see Dixson’s Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p74-6.


Baker & Bellis (1993) Human sperm competition: ejaculate manipulation by females and a function for the female orgasm. Animal Behaviour 46:887–909. 
Bowman EA (2008) Why the human penis is larger than in the great apes. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(3): 361. 
Eals & Silverman (1994) The Hunter-Gatherer theory of spatial sex differences: Proximate factors mediating the female advantage in recall of object arrays. Ethology and Sociobiology 15(2): 95-105.
Fox et al 1970. Measurement of intra-vaginaland intra-uterine pressures during human coitus by radio-telemetry. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility 22:243–251. 
Gallup et al (2004). The human penis as a semen displacement device. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 277–289 
Gallup & Burch (2004). Semen displacement as a sperm competition strategy in humans. Evolutionary Psychology 2:12-23. 
Goetz et al (2005) Mate retention, semen displacement, and human sperm competition: A preliminary investigation of tactics to prevent and correct female infidelity. Personality and Individual Differences 38:749-763 
Goetz et al (2007) Sperm Competition in Humans: Implications for Male Sexual Psychology, Physiology, Anatomy, and Behavior. Annual Review of Sex Research 18:1. 
Grafenberg (1950) The role of urethra in female orgasm. International Journal of Sexology 3:145–148. 
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. 
Lynn (1999) Sex differences in intelligence and brain size: A developmental theory. Intelligence 27(1):1-12.
Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women, Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236. 
Masters & Johnson (1966) Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966).
Mautz et al (2013) Penis size interacts with body shape and height to influence male attractiveness, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(17): 6925–30.
Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success, Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219. 
Pawłowski & Żelaźniewicz (2021) The evolution of perennially enlarged breasts in women: a critical review and a novel hypothesis. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 96(6): 2794-2809. 
Pitnick et al (2006) Mating system and brain size in bats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273(1587): 719-24. 

Pierre van den Berghe’s ‘The Ethnic Phenomenon’: Ethnocentrism and Racism as Nepotism Among Extended Kin

Pierre van den Berghe, The Ethnic Phenomenon (Westport: Praeger 1987) 

Ethnocentrism is a pan-human universal. Thus, a tendency to prefer one’s own ethnic group over and above other ethnic groups is, ironically, one thing that all ethnic groups share in common. 

In ‘The Ethnic Phenomenon’, pioneering sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe attempts to explain this universal phenomenon. 

In the process, he not only provides a persuasive ultimate evolutionary explanation for the universality of ethnocentrism, but also produces a remarkable synthesis of scholarship that succeeds in incorporating virtually every aspect of ethnic relations as they have manifested themselves throughout history and across the world, from colonialism, caste and slavery to integration and assimilation, within this theoretical and explanatory framework. 

Ethnocentrism as Nepotism? 

At the core of Pierre van den Berghe’s theory of ethnocentrism and ethnic conflict is the sociobiological theory of kin selection. According to van den Berghe, racism, xenophobia, nationalism and other forms of ethnocentrism can ultimately be understood as kin-selected nepotism, in accordance with biologist William D Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness (Hamilton 1964a; 1964b). 

According to inclusive fitness theory (also known as kin selection), organisms evolved to behave altruistically towards their close biological kin, even at a cost to themselves, because close biological kin share genes in common with one another by virtue of their kinship, and altruism towards close biological kin therefore promotes the survival and spread of these genes. 

Van den Berghe extends this idea, arguing that humans have evolved to sometimes behave altruistically towards, not only their close biological relatives, but also sometimes their distant biological relatives as well – namely, members of the same ethnic group as themselves. 

Thus, van den Berghe contends: 

Racial and ethnic sentiments are an extension of kinship sentiments [and] ethnocentrism and racism are… extended forms of nepotism” (p18). 

Ethnic Groups as Kin Groups?

Before reading van den Berghe’s book, I was skeptical regarding whether the degree of kinship shared among co-ethnics would ever be sufficient to satisfy Hamilton’s rule, whereby, for altruism to evolve, the cost of the altruistic act to the altruist, measured in terms of reproductive success, must be outweighed by the benefit to the recipient, also measured in terms of reproductive success, multiplied by the degree of relatedness of the two parties (Brigandt 2001; cf. Salter 2008; see also On Genetic Interests). 

Thus, Brigandt (2001) takes van den Berghe to task for his formulation of what the latter catchily christens “the biological golden rule”, namely: 

Give unto others as they are related unto you” (p20).[1]

However, contrary to both critics of his theory (e.g. Brigandt 2001) and others developing similar ideas (e.g. Rushton 2005; Salter 2000), van den Berghe is actually agnostic on the question of whether ethnocentrism is ever actually adaptive in modern societies, where the shared kinship of large nations or ethnic groups is, as van den Berghe himself readily acknowledges, “extremely tenuous at best” (p243). Thus, he concedes: 

Clearly, for 50 million Frenchmen or 100 million Japanese, any common kinship that they may share is highly diluted … [and] when 25 million African-Americans call each other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, they know that they are greatly extending the meaning of these terms” (p27).[2]

Instead, van den Berghe suggests that nationalism and racism may reflect the misfiring of a mechanism that evolved when our ancestors still still lived in small kin-based groups of hunter-gatherers that represented little more than extended families (p35; see also Tooby and Cosmides 1989; Johnson 1986). 

Thus, van den Berghe explains: 

Until the last few thousand years, hominids interacted in relatively small groups of a few score to a couple of hundred individuals who tended to mate with each other and, therefore, to form rather tightly knit groups of close and distant kin” (p35). 

Therefore, in what evolutionary psychologists now call the environment of evolutionary adaptedness or EEA:

The natural ethny [i.e. ethnic group] in which hominids evolved for several thousand millennia probably did not exceed a couple of hundred individuals at most” (p24) 

Thus, van den Berghe concludes: 

The primordial ethny is thus an extended family: indeed, the ethny represents the outer limits of that inbred group of near or distant kinsmen whom one knows as intimates and whom therefore one can trust” (p25). 

On this view, ethnocentrism was adaptive when we still resided in such groups, where members of our own clan or tribe were indeed closely biologically related to us, but is often maladaptive in contemporary environments, where our ethnic group may include literally millions of people. 

Another not dissimilar theory has it that racism in particular might reflect the misfiring of an adaptation that uses phenotype matching, in particular physical resemblance, as a form of kin recognition

Thus, Richard Dawkins in his seminal The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), cautiously and tentatively speculates: 

Conceivably, racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance” (The Selfish Gene: p100). 

Certainly, van den Berghe takes pains to emphasize that ethnic sentiments are vulnerable to manipulation – not least by exploitative elites who co-opt kinship terms such as ‘motherland’, fatherland and ‘brothers-in-arms‘ to encourage self-sacrifice, especially during wartime (p35; see also Johnson 1987; Johnson et al 1987; Salmon 1998). 

However, van den Berghe cautions, “Kinship can be manipulated but not manufactured [emphasis in original]” (p27). Thus, he observes how: 

Queen Victoria could cut a motherly figure in England; she even managed to proclaim her son the Prince of Wales; but she could never hope to become anything except a foreign ruler of India; [while] the fiction that the Emperor of Japan is the head of the most senior lineage descended from the common ancestor of all Japanese might convince the Japanese peasant that the Emperor is an exalted cousin of his, but the myth lacks credibility in Korea or Taiwan” (p62-3). 

This suggests that the European Union, while it may prove successful as customs union, single market and even an economic union, and while integration in other non-economic spheres may also prove a success, will likely never command the sort of loyalty and allegiance that a nation-state holds over its people, including, sometimes, the willingness of men to fight and lay down their lives for its sake. This is because its members come from many different cultures and ethnicities, and indeed speak many different languages. 

For van den Berghe, national identity cannot be rooted in anything other than a perception of shared ancestry or kinship. Thus, he observes: 

Many attempts to adopt universalistic criteria of ethnicity based on legal citizenship or acquisition of educational qualifications… failed. Such was the French assimilation policy in her colonies. No amount of proclamation of Algérie française could make it so” (p27). 

Thus, so-called civic nationalism, whereby national identity is based, not on ethnicity, but rather, supposedly, on a shared commitment to certain common values and ideals (democracy, the ‘rule of law’ etc.), as encapsulated by the notion of America as a proposition nation’, is, for van den Berghe, a complete non-starter. 

Yet this is today regarded as the sole basis for national identity and patriotic feeling that is recognised as legitimate, not only in the USA, but also all other contemporary western polities, where any assertion of racial nationalism or a racially-based or ethnically-based national identity is, at least for white people, anathema and beyond the pale. 

Moreover, due to the immigration policies of previous generations of western political leaders, policies that largely continue today, all contemporary western polities are now heavily multi-ethnic and multi-racial, such that any sense of national identity that was based on race or ethnicity is arguably untenable as it would necessarily exclude a large proportion of their populations.

On the other hand, however, van den Berghe’s reasoning also suggests that the efforts of some white nationalists to construct a pan-white, or pan-European, ethnic identity is also, like the earlier efforts of Japanese imperialist propagandists to create a pan-Asian identity, and of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA to construct a pan-African identity, likely to end in failure.[3]

Racism vs Ethnocentrism 

Whereas ethnocentrism is therefore universal, adaptive and natural, van den Berghe denies that the same can be said for racism

There is no evidence that racism is inborn, but there is considerable evidence that ethnocentrism is” (p240). 

Thus, van den Berge concludes: 

The genetic propensity is to favor kin, not those who look alike” (p240).[4]

As evidence, he cites:

The ease with which parental feelings take precedence over racial feeling in cases of racial admixture” (p240). 

In other words, fathers who sire mixed-race offspring with women of other races, and the women of other races with whom they father such offspring, often seemingly love and care for the resulting offspring just as intensely as do parents whose offspring is of the same race as themselves.[5]

Thus, cultural, rather than racial, markers are typically adopted to distinguish ethnic groups (p35). These include: 

  • Clothing (e.g. hijabs, turbans, skullcaps);
  • Bodily modification (e.g. tattoos, circumcision); and 
  • Behavioural criteria, especially language and dialect (p33).

Bodily modification and language represent particularly useful markers because they are difficult to fake, bodily modification because it is permanent and hence represents a costly commitment to the group (in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle), and language/dialect, because this is usually acquirable only during a critical period during childhood, after which it is generally not possible to achieve fluency in a second language without retaining a noticeable accent. 

In contrast, racial criteria, as a basis for group affiliation, is, van den Berghe reports, actually quite rare: 

Racism is the exception rather than the rule in intergroup relations” (p33). 

Racism is also a decidedly modern phenomenon. 

This is because, prior to recent technological advances in transportation (e.g. ocean-going ships, aeroplanes), members of different races (i.e. groups distinguishable on the basis of biologically inherited physiological traits such as skin colour, nose shape, hair texture etc.) were largely separated from one another by the very geographic barriers (e.g. deserts, oceans, mountain ranges) that reproductively isolated them from one another and hence permitted their evolution into distinguishable races in the first place. 

Moreover, when different races did make contact, then, in the absence of strict barriers to exogamy and miscegenation (e.g. the Indian caste system), racial groups typically interbred with one another and hence become phenotypically indistinguishable from one another within just a few generations. 

This, van den Berghe explains, is because: 

Even the strongest social barriers between social groups cannot block a specieswide [sic] sexual attraction. The biology of reproduction triumphs in the end over the artificial barriers of social prejudice” (p109). 

Therefore, in the ancestral environment for which our psychological adaptations are designed (i.e. before the development of ships, aeroplanes and other methods of long-distance intercontinental transportation), different races did not generally coexist in the same locale. As a result, van den Berghe concludes: 

We have not been genetically selected to use phenotype as an ethnic marker, because, until quite recently, such a test would have been an extremely inaccurate one” (p 240). 

Humans, then, have simply not had sufficient time to have evolved a domain-specificracism module’ as suggested by some researchers.[6]

Racism is therefore, unlike ethnocentrism, not an innate instinct, but rather “a cultural invention” (p240). 

However, van den Berghe rejects the fashionable, politically correct notion that racism is “a western, much less a capitalist monopoly” (p32). 

On the contrary, racism, while not innate, is, not a unique western invention, but rather a recurrent reinvention, which almost invariably arises where phenotypically distinguishable groups come into contact with one another, if only because: 

Genetically inherited phenotypes are the easiest, most visible and most reliable predictors of group membership” (p32).

For example, van den Berghe describes the relations between the Tutsi, Hutu and Pygmy Twa of Rwanda and neighbouring regions as “a genuine brand of indigenous racism” which, according to van den Berghe, developed quite independently of any western colonial influence (p73).[7]

Moreover, where racial differences are the basis for ethnic identity, the result is, van den Berghe claims, ethnic hierarchies that are particularly rigid, intransient and impermeable.

For van den Berghe, this then explains the failure of African-Americans to wholly assimilate into the US melting pot in stark contrast to successive waves of more recently-arrived European immigrants. 

Thus, van den Berghe observes: 

Blacks who have been English-speaking for several generations have been much less readily assimilated in both England… and the United States than European immigrants who spoke no English on arrival” (p219). 

Thus, language barriers often break down within a generation. 

As Judith Harris emphasizes in support of peer group socialization theory, the children of immigrants whose parents are not at all conversant in the language of their host culture nevertheless typically grow up to speak the language of their host culture rather better than they do the first language of their parents, even though the latter was the cradle tongue to which they were first exposed, and first learnt to speak, inside the family home (see The Nurture Assumption: which I have reviewed here). 

As van den Berghe observes: 

It has been the distressing experience of millions of immigrant parents that, as soon as their children enter school in the host country, the children begin to resist speaking their mother tongue” (p258). 

While displeasing to those parents who wish to pass on their language, culture and traditions to their offspring, this response is wholly adaptive from the perspective of the offspring themselves:  

Children quickly discover that their home language is a restricted medium that not useable in most situations outside the family home. When they discover that their parents are bilingual they conclude – rightly for their purposes – that the home language is entirely redundant… Mastery of the new language entails success at school, at work and in ‘the world’… [against which] the smiling approval of a grandmother is but slender counterweight” (p258).[8]

However, whereas one can learn a new language, it is not usually possible to change one’s race – the efforts of Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren, Jessica Krug and Michael Jackson notwithstanding. However, due to the one-drop rule and the history of miscegenation in America, passing is sometimes possible (see below). 

Instead, phenotypic (i.e. racial) differences can only be eradicated after many generations of miscegenation, and sometimes, as in the cases of countries like the USA and Brazil, not even then. 

Meanwhile, van den Berghe observes, often the last aspect of immigrant culture to resist assimilation is culinary differences. However, he observes, increasingly even this becomes only a ‘ceremonial’ difference reserved for family gatherings (p260). 

Thus, van den Berghe surmises, Italian-Americans probably eat hamburgers as often as Americans of any other ethnic background, but at family gatherings they still revert to pasta and other traditional Italian cuisine

Yet even culinary differences eventually disappear. Thus, in both Britain and America, sausage has almost completely ceased to be thought of as a distinctively German dish (as have hamburgers, originally thought to have been named in reference to the city of Hamburg) and now pizza is perhaps on the verge of losing any residual association with Italians. 

Is Racism Always Worse than Ethnocentrism? 

Yet if raciallybased ethnic hierarchies are particularly intransigent and impermeable, they are also, van den Berghe claims, “peculiarly conflict-ridden and unstable” (p33). 

Thus, van den Berghe seems to believe that racial prejudice and animosity tends to be more extreme and malevolent in nature than mere ethnocentrism as exists between different ethnic groups of the same race (i.e. not distinguishable from one another on the basis of inherited phenotypic traits such as skin colour). 

For example, van den Berghe claims that, during World War Two: 

There was a blatant difference in the level of ferociousness of American soldiers in the Pacific and European theaters… The Germans were misguided relatives (however distant), while the ‘Japs’ or the ‘Nips’ were an entirely different breed of inscrutable, treacherous, ‘yellow little bastards.’ This was reflected in differential behavior in such things as the taking (versus killing) of prisoners, the rhetoric of war propaganda (President Roosevelt in his wartime speeches repeatedly referred to his enemies as ‘the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese’), the internment in ‘relocation camps’ of American citizens of Japanese extraction, and in the use of atomic weapons” (p57).[9]

Similarly, in his chapter on ‘Colonial Empires’, by which he means “imperialism over distant peoples who usually live in noncontiguous territories and who therefore look quite different from their conquerors, speak unrelated languages, and are so culturally alien to their colonial masters as to provide little basis for mutual understanding”, van den Berghe writes: 

Colonialism is… imperialism without the restraints of common bonds of history, culture, religion, marriage and blood that often exist when conquest takes place between neighbors” (p85). 

Thus, he claims: 

What makes for the special character of the colonial situation is the perception by the conqueror that he is dealing with totally unrelated, alien and, therefore, inferior people. Colonials are treated as people totally beyond the pale of kin selection” (p85). 

However, I am unpersuaded by van den Berghe’s claim that conflict between more distantly related ethnic groups is always, or even typically, more brutal than that among biologically and culturally more closely related groups. 

After all, even conquests of neighbouring peoples, identical in race, if not always in culture, to the conquering group, are often highly brutal, for example the British in Ireland or the Japanese in Korea and China in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Indeed, many of the most intense and intractable ethnic conflicts are those between neighbours and ethnic kin, who are racially (and culturally) very similar to one another. 

Thus, for example, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, and Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans, and even Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, are all racially and genetically quite similar to one another, and also share many aspects of their culture with one another too. (The same is true, to give a topical example at the time of writing, of Ukrainians and Russians.) However, this has not noticeably ameliorated the nasty, intransient and bloody conflicts that have been, and continue to be, waged among them.  

Of course, the main reason that most ethnic conflict occurs between close neighbours is because neighbouring groups are much more likely to come into contact, and hence into conflict, with one another, especially over competing claims to land.[10]

Yet these same neighbouring groups are also likely to be related to one another, both culturally and genetically, because of both shared origins and the inevitable history of illicit intermarriage or miscegenation, and cultural borrowings, that inevitably occur even among the most hostile of neighbours.[11]

Nevertheless, the continuation of intense ethnic animosity between ethnic groups who are genetically, close to one another seems to pose a theoretical problem, not only for van den Berghe’s theory, but also, to an even greater degree, for Philippe Rushton’s so-called genetic similarity theory (which I have written about here), which argues that conflict between different ethnic groups is related to their relative degree of genetic differentiation from one another (Rushton 1998a; 1998b; 2005). 

It also poses a problem for the argument of political scientist Frank K Salter, who argues that populations should resist immigration by alien immigrants proportionally to the degree to which the alien immigrants are genetically distant from themselves (On Genetic Interests; see also Salter 2002). 

Assimilation, Acculturation and the American Melting Pot 

Since racially-based hierarchies result in ethnic boundaries that are both “peculiarly conflict-ridden and unstable” and also peculiarly rigid and impermeable, Van den Berghe controversially concludes: 

There has never been a successful multiracial democracy” (p189).[12]

Of course, in assessing this claim, we must recognize that ‘success’ is not only a matter of degree, but also can also be measured on several different dimensions. 

Thus, many people would regard the USA as the quintessential “successful… democracy”, even though the US has been multiracial, to some degree, for the entirety of its existence as a nation. 

Certainly, the USA has been successful economically, and indeed militarily.

However, the US has also long been plagued by interethnic conflict, and, although successful economically and militarily, it has yet to be successful in finding a way to manage its continued interethnic conflict, especially that between blacks and whites.

The USA is also afflicted with a relatively high rate of homicide and gun crime as compared to other developed economies, as well as low levels of literacy and numeracy and educational attainment. Although it is politically incorrect to acknowledge as much, these problems also likely reflect the USA’s ethnic diversity, in particular its large black underclass.

Indeed, as van den Berghe acknowledges, even societies divided by mere ethnicity rather than race seem highly conflict-prone (p186). 

Thus, assimilation, when it does occur, occurs only gradually, and only under certain conditions, namely when the group which is to be assimilated is “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” (p219). 

Thus, van den Berghe observes: 

People tend to assimilate and acculturate when their ethny [i.e. ethnic group] is geographically dispersed (often through migration), when they constitute a numerical minority living among strangers, when they are in a subordinate position and when they are allowed to assimilate by the dominant group” (p185). 

Moreover, van den Berghe is careful distinguish what he calls assimilation from mere acculturation.  

The latter, acculturation, involves a subordinate group gradually adopting the norms, values, language, cultural traditions and folkways of the dominant culture into whom they aspire to assimilate. It is therefore largely a unilateral process.[13]

In contrast, however, assimilation goes beyond this and involves members of the dominant host culture also actually welcoming, or at least accepting, the acculturated newcomers as a part of their own community.  

Thus, van den Berghe argues that host populations sometimes resist the assimilation of even wholly acculturated and hence culturally indistinguishable out-groups. Examples of groups excluded in this way include pariah castes, such as the untouchable dalits of the Indian subcontinent, the Burakumin of Japan and, at least according to van den Berghe, blacks in the USA.[14]

In other words, assimilation, unlike acculturation, is very much a two-way street. Thus, just as it ‘takes two to tango’, so assimilation is very much a bilateral process: 

It takes two to assimilate” (p217).  

On the one hand, minority groups may sometimes themselves resist assimilation, or even acculturation, if they perceive themselves as better off maintaining their distinct identify. This is especially true of groups who perceive themselves as being, in some respects, better-off than the host outgroup into whom they refuse to be absorbed. 

Thus, middleman minorities, or market-dominant minorities, such as Jews in the West, the overseas Chinese in contemporary South-East Asia, the Lebanese in West Africa and South Asians in East Africa, being, on average, much wealthier than the bulk of the host populations among whom them live, often perceive no social or economic advantage to either assimilation or acculturation and hence resist the process, instead stubbornly maintaining their own language and traditions and marrying only among themselves. 

The same is also true, more obviously, of alien ruling elites, such as the colonial administrators, and settlers, in European colonial empires in Africa, India and elsewhere, for whom assimilation into native populations would have been anathema.

Passing’, ‘Pretendians’ and ‘Blackfishing’ 

Interestingly, just as market-dominant minorities, middleman minorities, and European colonial rulers usually felt no need to assimilate into the host society in whose midst they lived, because to do so would have endangered their privileged position within this host society, so recent immigrants to America may no longer perceive any advantage to assimilation. 

On the contrary, there may now be an economic disincentive operating against assimilation, at least if assimilation means forgoing from the right to benefit from affirmative action in employment and college admissions

Thus, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the phenomenon of passing, at least in America, typically involved non-whites, especially light-skinned mixed-race African-Americans, attempting to pass as white or, if this were not realistic, sometimes as Native American.  

Some non-whites, such as Bhagat Singh Thind and Takao Ozawa, even brought legal actions in order to be racially reclassified as ‘white’ in order to benefit from America’s then overtly racialist naturalization law.

Contemporary cases of passing, however, though rarely referred to by this term, typically involve whites themselves attempting to somehow pass themselves off as some variety of non-white (see Hannam 2021). 

Recent high-profile recent examples have included Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren and Jessica Krug

Interestingly, all three of these women were both employed in academia and involved in leftist politics – two spheres in which adopting a non-white identity is likely to be especially advantageous, given the widespread adoption of affirmative action in college admissions and appointments, and the rampant anti-white animus that infuses so much of academia and the cultural Marxist left.[15]

Indeed, the phenomenon is now so common that it even has its own associated set of neologisms, such as Pretendian, ‘blackfishing’ and, in Australia, box-ticker.[16]

Indeed, one remarkable recent survey purported to uncover that fully 34% of white college applicants in the United States admitted to lying about their ethnicity on their applications, in most cases either to improve their chances of admission or to qualify for financial aid

Although Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren and Jessica Krug were all women, this survey found that white male applicants were even more likely to lie about their ethnicity than were white female applicants, with only 16% of white female applicants admitting to lying, as compared to nearly half (48%) of white males.[17]

This is, of course, consistent with the fact that it is white males who are the primary victims of affirmative action and other forms of discrimination.  

This strongly suggests that, whereas there were formerly social (and legal) benefits that were associated with identifying as white, today the advantages accrue to instead to those able to assume a non-white identity.  

For all the talk of so-called ‘white privilege’, when whites and mixed-race people, together with others of ambiguous racial identity, preferentially choose to pose as non-white in order to take advantage of the perceived benefits of assuming such an identity, they are voting with their feet and thereby demonstrating what economists call revealed preferences

This, of course, means that recent immigrants to America, such as Hispanics, will have rather less incentive in integrate into the American mainstream than did earlier waves of European immigrants, such as Irish, Poles, Jews and Italians, the latter having been, primarily, the victims of discrimination rather than its beneficiaries

After all, who would want to be another, boring unhyphenated American when to do so would presumably mean relinquishing any right to benefit from affirmative action in job recruitment or college admissions, not to mention becoming a part of the hated white ‘oppressor’ class. 

In short, ‘white privilege’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

This perverse incentive against assimilation obviously ought to be worrying to anyone concerned with the future of American as a stable unified polity. 

Ethnostates – or Consociationalism

Given the ubiquity of ethnic conflict, and the fact that assimilation occurs, if at all, only gradually and, even then, only under certain conditions, a pessimist (or indeed a racial separatist) might conclude that the only way to prevent ethnic conflict is for different ethnic groups to be given separate territories with complete independence and territorial sovereignty. 

This would involve the partition of the world into separate ethnically homogenous ethnostates, as advocated by racial separatists and many in the alt-right. 

Yet, quite apart from the practical difficulties such an arrangement would entail, not least the need for large-scale forcible displacements of populations, this ‘universal nationalism’, as championed by political scientist Frank K Salter among others, would arguably only shift the locus of ethnic conflict from within the borders of a single multi-ethnic state to between those of separate ethnostates – and conflict between states can be just as destructive as conflict within states, as countless wars between states throughout history have amply proven.  

In the absence of assimilation, then, perhaps fairest and least conflictual solution is what van den Berghe terms consociationalism. This term refers to a form of ethnic power-sharing, whereby elites from both groups agree to share power, each usually retaining a veto power regarding major decisions, and there is proportionate representation for each group in all important positions of power. 

This seems to be roughly the basis of the power sharing agreement imposed on Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement, which was largely successful in bringing an end to the ethnic conflict known as ‘the Troubles.[18]

On the other hand, however, power-sharing was explicitly rejected by both the ANC and the international anti-apartheid movement as a solution in another ethnically-divided polity, namely South Africa, in favour of majority rule, even though the result has been a situation very similar to the situation in Northern Ireland which led to the Troubles, namely an effective one-party state, with a single party in power for successive decades and institutionalized discrimination against minorities.[19]

Consociationalism or ethnic power-sharing also arguably the model towards which the USA and other western polities are increasingly moving, with quotas and so-called ‘affirmative action increasingly replacing the earlier ideals of appointment by merit, color blindness or freedom of association, and multiculturalism and cultural pluralism replacing the earlier ideal of assimilation

Perhaps the model consociationalist democracy is van den Berghe’s own native Belgium, where, he reports: 

All the linguistic, class, religious and party-political quarrels and street demonstrations have yet to produce a single fatality” (p199).[20]

Belgium is, however, very much the exception rather than the rule, and, at any rate, though peaceful, remains very much a divided society

Indeed, power-sharing institutions, in giving official, institutional recognition to the existing ethnic divide, function only to institutionalize and hence reinforce and ossify the existing ethnic divide, making successful integration and assimilation almost impossible – and certainly even less likely to occur than it had been in the absence of such institutional arrangements. 

Moreover, consociationalism can be maintained, van den Berghe emphasizes, only in a limited range of circumstances, the key criterion being that the groups in question are equal, or almost equal, to one another in status, and not organized into an ethnic hierarchy. 

However, even when the necessary conditions are met, it invariably involves a precarious balancing act. 

Just how precarious is illustrated by the fate of other formerly stable consociationalist states. Thus, van den Bergh notes the irony that earlier writers on the topic had cited Lebanon as “a model [consociationalist democracy] in the Third World” just a few years before the Lebanese Civil War broke out in the 1970s (p191). 

His point is, ironically, only strengthened by the fact that, in the three decades since his book was first published, two of his own examples of consociationalism, namely the USSR and Yugoslavia, have themselves since descended into civil war and fragmented along ethnic lines. 

Slavery and Other Recurrent Situations  

In the central section of the book, van den Berghe discusses such historically recurrent racial relationships as “slavery”, middleman minorities, “caste” and “colonialism”. 

In large part, his analyses of these institutions and phenomena do not depend on his sociobiological theory of ethnocentrism, and are worth reading even for readers unconvinced by this theory – or even by readers skeptical of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology altogether. 

Nevertheless, the sociobiological model continues to guide his analysis. 

Take, for example, his chapter on slavery. 

Although the overtly racial slavery of the New World was quite unique, slavery often has an ethnic dimension, since slaves are often captured during warfare from among enemy groups. 

Indeed, the very word slave is derived from the ethnonym, Slav, due to the frequency with which the latter were captured as slaves, both by Christians and Muslims.[21]

In particular, van den Berghe argues that: 

An essential feature of slave status is being torn out of one’s network of kin selection. This condition generally results from forcible removal of the slave from his home group by capture and purchase” (p120).

This then partly explains, for example, why European settlers were far less successful in enslaving the native inhabitants of the Americas than they were in exploiting the slave labour of African slaves who had been shipped across the Atlantic, far from their original kin groups, precisely for this purpose. 

Thus, for van den Berghe, the quintessential slave is: 

Not only involuntarily among ethnic strangers in a strange land: he is there alone, without his support group of kinsmen and fellow ethnics” (p115)

Here van den Berghe seemingly anticipates the key insight of Jamaican sociologist Orlando Peterson in his comparative study of slavery, Slavery and Social Death, who terms this key characteristic of slavery natal alienation.[22]

This, however, is likely to be only a temporary condition, since, at least if allowed to reproduce, then, gradually over time, slaves would put down roots, produce new families, and indeed whole communities of slaves.[23]

When this occurs, however, slaves gradually, over generations, cease to be true slaves. The result is that: 

Slavery can long endure as an institution in a given society, but the slave status of individuals is typically only semipermanent and nonhereditary… Unless a constantly renewed supply of slaves enters a society, slavery, as an institution, tends to disappear and transform itself into something else” (p120). 

This then explains the gradual transformation of slavery during the medieval period into serfdom in much of Europe, and perhaps also the emergence of some pariah castes such as the untouchables of India. 

Paradoxically, van den Berghe argues that racism became particularly virulent in the West precisely because of Western societies’ ostensible commitment to notions of liberty and the rights of man, notions obviously incompatible with slavery. 

Thus, whereas most civilizations simply took the institution of slavery for granted, feeling no especial need to justify its existence, western civilization, given its ostensible commitment to such lofty notions as individual liberty and the equality of man, was always on the defensive, feeling a constant need to justify and defend slavery. 

The main justification hit upon was racialism and theories of racial superiority

If it was immoral to enslave people, but if at the same time it was vastly profitable to do so, then a simple solution to the dilemma presented itself: slavery became acceptable if slaves could somehow be defined as somewhat less than fully human” (p115).  

This then explains much of the virulence of western racialism in the much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and even early-twentieth centuries.[24]

Another important, and related, ideological justification for slavery was what van den Berghe refers to as ‘paternalism’. Thus, Van den Berghe observes that: 

All chattel slave regimes developed a legitimating ideology of paternalism” (p131). 

Thus, in the American South, the “benevolent master” was portrayed a protective “father figure”, while slaves were portrayed as childlike and incapable of living an independent existence and hence as benefiting from their own enslavement (p131). 

This, of course, was a nonsense. As van den Berghe cynically observes: 

Where the parentage was fictive, so, we may assume, is the benevolence” (p131). 

Thus, exploitation was, in sociobiological terms, disguised as kin-selected parental benevolence

However, despite the dehumanization of slaves, the imbalance of power between slave and master, together with the men’s innate and evolved desire for promiscuity, made the sexual exploitation of female slaves by male masters all but inevitable.[25]

As van den Berghe observes: 

Even the strongest social barriers between social groups cannot block a specieswide [sic] sexual attraction. The biology of reproduction triumphs in the end over the artificial barriers of social prejudice” (p109). 

Thus, he notes the hypocrisy whereby: 

Dominant group men, whether racist or not, are seldom reluctant to maximize their fitness with subordinate-group women” (p33). 

The result was that the fictive ideology of ‘paternalism’ that served to justify slavery often gave way to literal paternity of the next generation of the slave population. 

This created two problems. First, it made the racial justification for slavery, namely the ostensible inferiority of black people, ring increasingly hollow, as ostensibly ‘black slaves acquired greater European ancestry, lighter skins and more Caucasoid features with each successive generation of miscegenation. 

Second, and more important, it also meant that the exploitation of this next generation of slaves by their owners potentially violated the logic of kin selection, because: 

If slaves become kinsmen, you cannot exploit them without indirectly exploiting yourself” (p134).[26]

This, van den Berghe surmises, led many slave owners to free those among the offspring of slave women whom they themselves, or their male relatives, had fathered. As evidence, he observes:  

In all [European colonial] slave regimes, there was a close association between manumission and European ancestry. In 1850 in the United States, for example, an estimated 37% of free ‘negroes’ had white ancestry, compared to about 10% of the slave population” (p132). 

This leads van den Bergh to conclude that many such free people of color – who were referred to as people of color precisely because their substantial degree of white ancestry precluded any simple identification as black or negro – had been freed by their owner precisely because their owner was now also their kinsmen. Indeed, many may have been freed by the very slave-master who had been responsible for fathering them. 

Thus, to give a famous example, Thomas Jefferson is thought to have fathered six offspring, four of whom survived to adulthood, with his slave, Sally Hemings – who was herself already three-quarters white, and indeed Jefferson’s wife’s own half-sister, on account of miscegenation in previous generations. 

Of these four surviving offspring, two were allowed to escape, probably with Jefferson’s tacit permission or at least acquiescence, while the remaining two were freed upon his death in his will.[27]

This seems to have been a common pattern. Thus, van den Berghe reports: 

Only about one tenth of the ‘negro’ population of the United States was free in 1860. A greatly disproportionate number of them were mulattoes, and, thus, presumably often blood relatives of the master who emancipated them or their ancestors. The only other slaves who were regularly were old people past productive and reproductive age, so as to avoid the cost of feeding the aged and infirm” (p129). 

Yet this made the continuance of slavery almost impossible, because each new generation more and more slaves would be freed.  

Other slave systems got around this problem by continually capturing or importing new slaves in order to replenish the slave population. However, this option was denied to American slaveholders by the abolition of the slave trade in 1807

Instead, the Americans were unique in attempting to ‘breed’ slaves. This leads van den Berghe to conclude that: 

By making the slave woman widely available to her master…Western slavery thus literally contained the genetic seeds of its own destruction” (p134).[28]

Synthesising Marxism and Sociobiology 

Given the potential appeal of his theory to nationalists, and even to racialists, it is perhaps surprising that van den Berghe draws heavily on Marxist theory. Although Marxists were almost unanimously hostile to sociobiology, sociobiologists frequently emphasized the potential compatibility of Marxist theory and sociobiology (e.g. The Evolution of Human Sociality). 

However, van den Berghe remains, to my knowledge, the only figure (except myself) to actually successfully synthesize sociobiology and Marxism in order to produce novel theory.  

Thus, for example, he argues that, in almost every society in existence, class exploitation is disguised by an ideology (in the Marxist sense) that disguises exploitation as either: 

1) Kin-selected nepotistic altruism – e.g. the king or dictator is portrayed as benevolent ‘father’ of the nation; or
2) Mutually beneficial reciprocity – i.e. social contract theory or democracy (p60). 

However, contrary to orthodox Marxist theory, van den Berghe regards ethnic sentiments as more fundamental than class loyalty since, whereas the latter is “dependent on a commonality of interests”, the former is often “irrational” (p243). 

Nationalist conflicts are among the most intractable and unamenable to reason and compromise… It seems a great many people care passionately whether they are ruled and exploited by members of their own ethny or foreigners” (p62). 

In short, van den Berghe concludes: 

Blood runs thicker than money” (p243). 

Another difference is that, whereas Marxists view control over the so-called means of production (i.e. the means necessary to produce goods for sale) as the ultimate factor determining exploitation and conflict in human societies, Darwinians instead focus on conflict over access to what I have termed the means of reproduction – in other words, the means necessary to produce offspring (i.e. fertile females, their wombs and vaginas etc.). 

This is because, from a Darwinian perspective: 

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

Thus, unlike his contemporary Darwin, Karl Marx was, for all his ostensible radicalism, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another Victorian sexual prude.[29]

Mating, Miscegenation and Intermarriage 

Given that reproduction, not production, is the ultimate focus of individual and societal conflict and competition, van den Berghe argues that ultimately questions of equality, inequality and assimilation must be also determined by reproductive, not economic, criteria. 

Thus, he concludes, intermarriage, especially if it occurs, not only frequently, but also in both directions (i.e. involves both males and females of both ethnicities, rather than always involving males of one ethnic group, usually the dominant ethnic group, taking females of the other ethnic group, usually the subordinate group, as wives), is the ultimate measure of racial equality and assimilation: 

Marriage, especially if it happens in both directions, that is with both men and women of both groups marrying out, is probably the best measure of assimilation” (p218). 

In contrast, however, he also emphasizes that mere “concubinage is frequent [even] in the absence of assimilation” (p218). 

Moreover, such concubinage invariably involves males of the dominant-group taking females from the subordinate-group as concubines, whereas dominant-group females are invariably off-limits as sexual partners for subordinate group males. 

Thus, van den Berghe observes, although “dominant group men, whether racist or not, are seldom reluctant to maximize their fitness with subordinate-group women”, they nevertheless are jealously protective of their own women and enforce strict double-standards (p33). 

For example, historian Wynn Craig Wade, in his history of the Ku Klux Klan (which I have reviewed here), writes: 

In [antebellum] 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.” (The Fiery Cross: p20). 

The result, van den Berghe reports, is that: 

The subordinate group in an ethnic hierarchy invariably ‘loses’ more women to males of the dominant group than vice versa” (p75). 

Indeed, this same pattern is even apparent in the DNA of contemporary populations. Thus, geneticist James Watson reports that, whereas the mitochondrial DNA of contemporary Columbians, which is passed down the female line, shows a “range of Amerindian MtDNA types”, the Y-chromosomes of these same Colombians, are 94% European. This leads him to conclude: 

The virtual absence of Amerindian Y chromosome types, reveals the tragic story of colonial genocide: indigenous men were eliminated while local women were sexually ‘assimilated’ by the conquistadors” (DNA: The Secret of Life: p257). 

As van den Berghe himself observes: 

It is no accident that military conquest is so often accompanied by the killing, enslavement and castration of males, and the raping and capturing of females” (p75). 

This, of course, reflects the fact that, in Darwinian terms, the ultimate purpose of power is to maximize reproductive success

However, while the ethnic group as a whole inevitably suffers a diminution in its fitness, there is a decided gender imbalance in who bears the brunt of this loss. 

The men of the subordinate group are always the losers and therefore always have a reproductive interest in overthrowing the system. The women of the subordinate group, however frequently have the option of being reproductively successful with dominant-group males” (p27). 

Indeed, subordinate-group females are not only able, and sometimes forced, to mate with dominant-group males, but, in purely fitness terms, they may even benefit from such an arrangement.  

Hypergamy (mating upward for women) is a fitness enhancing strategy for women, and, therefore, subordinate-group women do not always resist being ‘taken over’ by dominant-group men” (p75). 

This is because, by so doing, they thereby obtain access to both the greater resources that dominant group males are able to provide in return for sexual access or as provisioning for their offspring, as well as the superior’ genes which facilitated the conquest in the first place. 

Thus, throughout history, women and girls have been altogether too willing to consort and intermarry with their conquerors. 

The result of this gender imbalance in the consequences of conquest and subjugation, is, a lack of solidarity as between men and women of the subjugated group. 

This sex asymmetry in fitness strategies in ethnically stratified societies often creates tension between the sexes within subordinate groups. The female option of fitness maximization through hypergamy is deeply resented by subordinate group males” (p76). 

Indeed, even captured females who were enslaved by their conquerers sometimes did surprisingly well out of this arrangement, at least if they were young and beautiful, and hence lucky enough to be recruited into the harem of a king, emperor or other powerful male.

One slave captured in Eastern Europe even went on to become effective queen of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. Hurrem Sultan, as she came to be known, was, of course, exceptional, but only in degree. Members of royal harems may have been secluded, but they also lived in some luxury.

Indeed, even in puritanical North America, where concubinage was very much frownded upon, van den Berghe reports that “slavery was much tougher on men than on women”, since: 

Slavery drastically reduced the fitness of male slaves; it had little or no such adverse effect on the fitness of female slaves whose masters had a double interest – financial and genetic – in having them reproduce at maximum capacity” (p133) 

Van den Berghe even tentatively ventures: 

It is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that, even today, much of the ambivalence in relations between black men and women in America… has its roots in the highly asymmetrical mating system of the slave plantation” (p133).[30]

Miscegenation and Intermarriage in Modern America 

Yet, curiously, however, patterns of interracial dating in contemporary America are anomalous – at least if we believe the pervasive myth that America is a ‘systemically racist’ society where black people are still oppressed and discriminated against

On the one hand, genetic data confirms that, historically, matings between white men and black women were more frequent than the reverse, since African-American mitochondrial DNA, passed down the female line, is overwhelmingly African in origin, whereas their Y chromosomes, passed down the male line, are often European in origin (Lind et al 2007). 

However, recent census data suggests that this pattern is now reversed. Thus, black men are now about two and a half times as likely to marry white women as black women are to marry white men (Fryer 2007; see also Sailer 1997). 

This seemingly suggests white American males are actually losing out in reproductive competition to black males. 

This observation led controversial behavioural geneticist Glayde Whitney to claim: 

By many traditional anthropological criteria African-Americans are now one of the dominant social groups in America – at least they are dominant over whites. There is a tremendous and continuing transfer of property, land and women from the subordinate race to the dominant race” (Whitney 1999: p95). 

However, this conclusion is difficult to square with the continued disproportionate economic deprivation of much of black America. In short, African-Americans may be reproductively successful, and perhaps even, in some respects, socially privileged, but, despite benefiting from systematic discrimination in employment and admission to institutions of higher education, they are clearly also, on average, economically much worse-off as compared to whites and Asians in modern America.  

Instead, perhaps the beginnings of an explanation for this paradox can be sought in van den Berghe’s own later collaboration with anthropologist, and HBD blogger, Peter Frost

Here, in a co-authored paper, van den Berghe and Frost argue that, across cultures, there is a general sexual preference for females with somewhat lighter complexion than the group average (van den Berghe and Frost 1986). 

However, as Frost explains in a more recent work, Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Racial Prejudice, preferences with regard to male complexion are more ambivalent (see also Feinman & Gill 1977). 

Thus, whereas, according to the title of a novel, two films and a hit Broadway musical, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (who also reputedly, and perhaps as a consequence, have more fun), the idealized male romantic partner is instead tall, dark and handsome

In subsequent work, Frost argues that ecological conditions in sub-Saharan Africa permitted high levels of polygyny, because women were economically self-supporting, and this increased the intensity of selection for traits (e.g. increased muscularity, masculinity, athleticism and perhaps outgoing, sexually-aggressive personalities) which enhance the ability of African-descended males to compete for mates and attract females (Frost 2008). 

In contrast, Frost argues that there was greater selection for female attractiveness (and perhaps female chastity) in areas such as Northern Europe and Northeast Asia, where, to successfully reproduce, women were required to attract a male willing to provision them during cold winters throughout their gestation, lactation and beyond (Frost 2008). 

This then suggests that African males have simply evolved to be, on average, more attractive to women, whereas European and Asian females have evolved to be more attractive to men. 

This speculation is supported by a couple of recent studies of facial attractiveness, which found that black male faces were rated as most attractive to members of the opposite sex, but that, for female faces, the pattern was reversed (Lewis 2011; Lewis 2012). 

These findings could also go some way towards explaining patterns of interracial dating in the contemporary west (Lewis 2012). 

The Most Explosive Aspect of Interethnic Relations” 

However, such an explanation is likely to be popular neither with racialists, for whom miscegenation is anathema, nor with racial egalitarians, for whom, as a matter of sacrosanct dogma, all races must be equal in all things, even aesthetics and sex appeal.[31]

Thus, when evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa made a similar claim in 2011 in a blog post (since deleted), outrage predictably ensued, the post was swiftly deleted, his then-blog dropped by its host, Psychology Today, and the author reprimanded by his employer, the London School of Economics, and forbidden from writing any blog or non-scholarly publications for a whole year. 

Yet all of this occurred within a year of the publication of the two papers cited above that largely corroborated Kanazawa’s finding (Lewis 2011; Lewis 2012). 

Yet such a reaction is, in fact, little surprise. As van den Berghe points out: 

It is no accident that the most explosive aspect of interethnic relations is sexual contact across ethnic (or racial) lines” (p75). 

After all, from a sociobiological perspective, competition over reproductive access to fertile females is Darwinian conflict in its most direct and primordial form

Van den Berghe’s claim that interethnic sexual contact is “the most explosive aspect” of interethnic relations also has support from the history of racial conflict in the USA and elsewhere. 

The spectre of interracial sexual contact, real or imagined, has motivated several of the most notorious racially-motivated ‘hate-crimes’ of American history, from the torture-murder of Emmett Till for allegedly propositioning a white woman, to the various atrocities of the reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in defence of the ostensible virtue of ‘white womanhood, to the recent Charleston church shooting, ostensibly committed in revenge for the allegedly disproportionate rate of rape of white women by black man.[32]

Meanwhile, interracial sexual relations are also implicated in some of American history’s most infamous alleged miscarriages of justice, from the Scottsboro Boys and Groveland Four cases, and the more recent Central Park jogger case, all of which involved allegations of interracial rape, to the comparatively trivial conduct alleged, but by no means trivial punishment imposed, in the so-called Monroe ‘kissing case

Allegations of interracial rape also seem to be the most common precursor of full-blown race riots

Thus, in early-twentieth century America, the race riots in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 and in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 were all ignited, at least in part, by allegations of interracial rape or sexual assault

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, multi-racial Britain’s first modern post-war race riot, the 1958 Notting Hill riot in London 1958, began with a public argument between an interracial couple, when white passers-by joined in on the side of the white woman against her black Jamaican husband (and pimp) before turning on them both. 

Meanwhile, Britain’s most recent unambiguous race riot, the 2005 Birmingham riot, an entirely non-white affair, was ignited by the allegation that a black girl had been gang-raped by South Asians.

Meanwhile, at least in the west, whites no longer seem participate in race riots, save as victims. However, an exception was the 2005 Cronulla riots in Sydney, Australia, which were ignited by the allegation that Middle Eastern males were sexually harassing white Australian girls on Sydney beaches. 

Similarly, in Britain, though riots have yet to result, the spectre of so-called Muslim grooming gangs, preying on, and pimping out, underage white British girls in northern towns across the England, has arguably done more to ignite anti-Muslim sentiment among whites in the UK than a whole series of Jihadist terrorist attacks on British civilian targets

Thus, in Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here) Sarich and Miele caution that miscegenation, often touted as the universal panacea to racism simply because, if practiced sufficiently widely, it would eventually eliminate all racial differences, or at least blur the lines between racial groups, may actually, at least in the short-term, actually incite racist attacks. 

This, they argue, is because: 

Viewed from the racial solidarist perspective, intermarriage is an act of race war. Every ovum that is impregnated by the sperm of a member of a different race is one less of that precious commodity to be impregnated by a member of its own race and thereby ensure its survival” (Race: The Reality of Human Differences: p256) 

This “racial solidarist perspective” is, of course, a crudely group selectionist view of Darwinian competition, and it leads Sarich and Miele to hypothesize: 

Paradoxically, intermarriage, particularly of females of the majority group with males of a minority group, is the factor most likely to cause some extremist terrorist group to feel the need to launch such an attack” (Race: The Reality of Human Differences: p255). 

In other words, in sociobiological terms, ‘Robert’, a character from one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, has it right when he claims: 

What is really at stake in racial struggles… is neither economic nor cultural, it is brutal and biological: It is competition for the cunts of young women” (Platform: p82). 


[1] Actually, however, contrary to Brigandt’s critique, it is clear that van den Berghe intended his “biological golden rule” only as a catchy and memorable aphorism, crudely summarizing Hamilton’s rule, rather than a quantitative scientific law akin to, or rivalling, Hamilton’s Rule itself. Therefore, this aspect of Brigandt’s critique is, in my view, misplaced. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this supposed rule could be applied as a quantitative scientific law, since relatedness, on the one hand, and altruism, on the other, are measured in different currencies. 

[2] Thus, van den Berghe concedes that: 

In many cases, the common descent acribed to an ethny is fictive. In fact, in most cases, it is partly fictive” (p27). 

[3] The question of racial nationalism (i.e. encompassing all members of a given race, not just those of a single ethnicity or language group) is actually more complex. Certainly, members of the same race do indeed share some degree of kinship, in so far as they are indeed (almost by definition) on average more closely biologically related to one another than to members of other races – and indeed that relatedness is obviously apparent in their phenotypic resemblance to one another. This suggests that racial nationalist movements such as that of, say, UNIA or of the Japanese imperialists, might have more potential as a viable form of nationalism than do attempts to unite racially disparate ethnicities, such as civic nationalism in the contemporary USA. The same may also be true of Oswald Mosley’s Europe a Nation campaign, at least while Europe remained primarily monoracial (i.e. white). However, any such racial nationalism would incorporate a far larger and more culturally, linguistically and genetically disparate group than any form of nationalism that has previously proven capable of mobilizing support.
Thus, Marcus Garvey’s attempt to create a kind of pan-African ethnic identity enjoyed little success and was largely restricted to North America, where African-Americans, do indeed share a common language and culture in addition to their race. Similarly, the efforts of Japanese nationalists to mobilize a kind of pan-Asian nationalism in support of their imperial aspirations during the first half of the twentieth century was an unmitigated failure, though this was partly because of the brutality with which they conquered and suppressed the other Asian nationalities whose support for pan-Asianism they intermittently and half-heartedly sought to enlist.
On the other hand, it is sometimes suggested that, in the early twentieth century, a white supremacist ideology was largely taken for granted among whites. However, while to some extent true, this shared ideology of white supremacism did not prevent the untold devastation wrought by the European wars of the early twentieth century, namely World Wars I and II, which Patrick Buchanan has collectively termed The Great Civil War of the West.
Thus, European nationalisms usually defined themselves by opposition to other European peoples and powers. Thus, just as Irish nationalism is defined largely by opposition to Britain, and Scottish nationalism by opposition to England, so English (and British) nationalism has itself traditionally been directed against rival European powers such as France and Germany (and formerly Spain), while French nationalism seems to have defined itself primarily in opposition to the Germans and the British, and German nationalism in opposition to the French and Slavs, etc.
It is true that, in the USA, a kind of pan-white American nationalism did seem to prevail in the early twentieth century, albeit initially limited to white protestants, and excluding at least some recent European immigrants (e.g. Italians, Jews). This is, however, a consequence of the so-called melting pot, and really only amounts to yet another parochial nationalism, namely that of a newly-formed ethnic group – white Americans.
At any rate, today white American nationalism is, at most, decidedly muted in form – a kind of implicit white racial consciousness, or, to coin a phrase, the nationalism that dare not speak its name. Thus, Van den Berghe observes: 

In the United States, the whites are an overwhelming majority, so much so that they cannot be meaningfully conceived of as a ruling group at all. The label ‘white’ in the United States does not correspond to a well-defined ethnic or racial group with a high degree of social organization or even self-consciousness, except regionally in the south” (p183). 

Van den Berghe wrote this in 1981. Today, of course, whites are no longer such an “overwhelming majority” of the US population. On the contrary, they are already well on the way to becoming a minority in America, a milestone that is likely to be reached over the coming decades.
Yet, curiously, white ‘racially consciousness’ is seemingly even more muted and implicit today than it was back when van den Berghe authored his book – and this is seen even in the South, which van den Berghe cited as an exception and lone bastion of white identity politics.
True, White Southerners may vote as a solidly for Republican candidates as they once did for the Democrats. However, overt appeals to white racial interests are now as anathema in the South as elsewhere.
Thus, as recently as 1990, a more or less open white racialist like David Duke was able to win a majority of the white vote in Louisiana in his run for the Senate. Today, this is unimaginable.
If the reason that whites lack any ‘racial consciousness’ is indeed, as van den Berghe claims, because they represent such an “overwhelming majority” of the American population, then it is interesting to speculate if and when, during the ongoing process of white demographic displacement, this will cease to be the case.
One thing seems certain: If and when it does ever occur, it will be too late to make any difference to the ongoing process of demographic displacement that some have termed ‘The Great Replacement’ or a third demographic transition.

[4] Of course, a preference for those who look similar to oneself (or one’s other relatives) may itself function as a form of kin recognition (i.e. of recognizing who is kin and who is not). This is referred to in biology as phenotype matching. Moreover, as Richard Dawkins has speculated in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here), racial feeling could conceivably have evolved through a misfiring of such a crude heuristic (The Selfish Gene: p100).

[5] Actually, I suspect that, on average, at least historically, both mothers and fathers may indeed, on average, have provided rather less care for their mixed-race offspring than for offspring of the same race as themselves, simply because mixed-race offspring were more likely to be born out of wedlock, not least because interracial marriage was, until recently, strongly frowned upon, and both mothers and fathers tended to provide less care for illegitimate offspring, fathers because they often refused to acknowledge their illegitimate offspring and had little or no contact with them, and mothers because, lacking paternal support, they usually had no means of raising their illegitimate offspring alone and hence often gave them up for adoption or fostering.

[6] On the other hand, in his paper, An integrated evolutionary perspective on ethnicity, controversial antiSemitic evolutionary psychologist Kevin Macdonald disagrees with this conclusion, citing personal communication from geneticist and anthropologist Henry Harpending for the argument that: 

Long distance migrations have easily occurred on foot and over several generations, bringing people who look different for genetic reasons into contact with each other. Examples include the Bantu in South Africa living close to the Khoisans, or the pygmies living close to non-pygmies. The various groups in Rwanda and Burundi look quite different and came into contact with each other on foot. Harpending notes that it is ‘very likely’ that such encounters between peoples who look different for genetic reasons have been common for the last 40,000 years of human history; the view that humans were mostly sessile and living at a static carrying capacity is contradicted by history and by archaeology. Harpending points instead to ‘starbursts of population expansion’. For example, the Inuits settled in the arctic and exterminated the Dorsets within a few hundred years; the Bantu expansion into central and southern Africa happened in a millennium or less, prior to which Africa was mostly the yellow (i.e., Khoisan) continent, not the black continent. Other examples include the Han expansion in China, the Numic expansion in northern America, the Zulu expansion in southern Africa during the last few centuries, and the present day expansion of the Yanomamo in South America. There has also been a long history of invasions of Europe from the east. ‘In the starburst world people would have had plenty of contact with very different looking people’” (Macdonald 2001: p70). 

[7] Others have argued that the differences between Tutsi and Hutu are indeed largely a western creation, part of the divide and rule strategy supposedly deliberately employed by European colonialists, as well as a theory of Tutsi racial superiority promulgated by European racial anthropologists known as the Hamitic theory of Tutsi origins, which suggested that the Tutsi had migrated from the Horn of Africa, and had benefited from Caucasoid ancestry, as reflected in their supposed physiological differences from the indigenous Hutu (e.g. lighter complexions, greater height, narrower noses).
On this view, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was originally primarily socioeconomic rather than racial, and, at least formerly, the boundaries between the two groups were quite fluid.
I suspect this view is nonsense, reflecting political correctness and the leftist tendency to excuse any evidence of dysfunction or oppression in non-Western cultures as necessarily of product of the malign influence of western colonizers. (Most preposterously, even the Indian caste system has been blamed on British colonizers, although it actually predated them, in one form or another, by several thousand years.)
With respect to the division between Tutsi and Hutu, there are not only morphological differences between the two groups in average stature, nose width and complexion, but also substantial differences in the prevalence of genes for lactose tolerance and sickle-cell. These results do indeed seem to suggest that, as predicted by the reviled ‘Hamitic theory’, the Tutsi do indeed have affinities with populations from the Horn of Africa and East Africa. Modern genome analysis tends to confirm this conclusion. 

[8] Exceptions, where immigrant groups retain their distinctive language for multiple generations, occur where immigrants speaking a particular language arrive in sufficient numbers, and are sufficiently isolated in ethnic enclaves and ghettos, that they mix primarily or exclusively with people speaking the same language as themselves. A related exception is in respect of economically, politically or socially dominant minorities, such as alien colonizers, as well as market-dominant or middleman minorities, who often resist assimilation into the mainstream culture precisely so as to maintain their cultural separateness and hence their privileged position within society, and who also, partly for this reason, take steps to socialize, and ensure their offspring socialize, primarily among their own group. 

[9] Some German-Americans were also interred during World War II. However, far fewer were interred than among Japanese-Americans, especially on a per capita basis.
Nevertheless, some German-Americans were treated very badly indeed, yet the latter, unlike the Japanese, have yet to receive a government apology or compensation. Moreover, there was perhaps justification for the differing treatment accorded Japanese- and German-Americans, since the latter were generally longer established and more integrated, and there was perceived to be a real threat of enemy sabotage.
Also, with regard to van den Berghe’s observation that nuclear atomic weapons were used only against Japan, this is rather misleading. Nuclear weapons could not have been used against Germany, since, by the time of the first test detonation of a nuclear device, Germany had already surrendered. Yet, in fact, the Manhattan Project seems to have been begun with the Germans very much in mind as a prospective target. (Many of the scientists involved were Jewish, many having fled Nazi-occupied Europe for America, and hence their hostility towards the Nazis, and perhaps Germans in general, is easy to understand.)
Whether it is true that, as van den Berghe claims, atomic bombs were never actually likely to be “dropped over, say, Stuttgart or Dortmund” is a matter of supposition. Certainly, there were great animosity towards the Germans in America, as illustrated by the Morgenthau Plan, which, although ultimately never put into practice, was initially highly influential in directing US policy in Europe and even supported by President Roosevelt.
On the other hand, Roosevelt’s references to ‘the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese’ might simply reflect the fact that there was no obvious name for the faction or regime in control of Japan during the Second World War, since, unlike in Germany and Italy, no named political party had seized power. I am therefore unconvinced that a great deal can necessarily be read into this.

[10] This was especially so in historical times, before the development of improved technologies of long-distance transportation (ships, aeroplanes) enabled more distantly related populations to come into contact, and hence conflict with one another (e.g. blacks and whites in the USA and South Africa, South Asians and English in the UK or under the British Raj). Thus, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft and strategy, Arthashastra, observed that a ruler’s natural enemies are his immediate neighbours, whereas his next-but-one neighbours, being immediate neighbours of his own immediate neighbours, are his natural allies. This is sometimes credited as the origin of the famous aphorism, The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

[11]  The idea that neighbouring groups tend to be in conflict with one another precisely because, being neighbours, they are also in close contact, and hence competition, with one another, ironically posits almost the exact opposite relationship between ‘contact’ and intergroup relations than that posited by the famous contact theory of mid-twentieth psychology, which posited that increased contact between members of different racial and ethnic groups would lead to reduced prejudice and animosity.
This, of course, depends, at least partly, on the nature of the ‘contact’ in question. Contact that involves territorial rivalry, economic competition and war, obviously exacerbates conflict and animosity. In contrast, proponents of contact theory typically had in mind personal contact, rather than, say, the sort of impersonal, but often deadly, contact that occurs between rival belligerent combatants in wartime.
In fact, however, even at the personal level, contact can take many different forms, and often functions to increase inter-ethnic animosity. Hence the famous proverb, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.
Indeed, social psychologists now concede that only ‘positive’ interactions with members with members of other groups (e.g. friendship, cooperation, acts of altruism, mutually beneficial trade) reduces animosity and conflict.
In contrast, negative interactions (e.g. being robbed, mugged or attacked by members of another group) only serves to reinforce, exacerbate, or indeed create intergroup animosity. This, of course, reduces the contact hypothesis to little more than common sense – positive experiences with a given group lead to positive perceptions of that group; negative interactions to negative perceptions.
This in turn suggests that stereotypes are often based on real experiences and therefore tend to be true – if not of all individuals, then at least at the statistical, aggregate group level.
I would add that, anecdotally, even positive interactions with members of disdained outgroups do not always shift perceptions regarded the disdained outgroup as a whole. Instead, the individuals with whom one enjoys positive interactions, and even friendships, are often seen as exceptions to the rule (‘one of the good ones’), rather than representative of the demographic to which they belong. Hence the familiar phenomenon of even virulent racists having friendships and sometimes even heroes among members of races whom they generally otherwise disdain. 

[12] However, Van den Berghe acknowledges that racially diverse societies have lived in “relative harmony” in places such as Latin America, where government gives no formal political recognition to racial groups (e.g. racial preferences and quotas for members of certain races) and where the latter do not organize on a racial basis, such that government is, in van den Berghe’s terminology, “non-racial” rather than “multiracial” (p190). However, this is perhaps a naïvely benign view of race relations in Latin American countries such as Brazil, which is, despite the fluidity of racial identity and lack of clear dividing lines between races, nevertheless now viewed by most social scientists, not so much as a model racial democracy, so much as a racially-stratified pigmentocracy , where skin tone correlates with social status. It is also arguably an outdated view of race relations in Latin America, because, perhaps due to indirect cultural and political influence emanating from the USA, ethnic groups in much of Latin America (e.g. blacks in Brazil, indigenous populations in Bolivia) increasingly do organize and agitate on a racial basis.

[13] I am careful here not to refer to refer the dominant culture as that of either a ‘host population’ or a ‘majority population’, or the subordinate group as a ‘minority group’ or an incoming group of migrants. This is because sometimes newly-arrived settlers successfully assimilate the indigenous populations among whom they settle, and sometimes it is the majority group who ultimately assimilate to the norms and culture of the minority. Thus, for example, the Anglo-Saxons imposed their Germanic language on the indigenous inhabitants of what is today England, and indeed ultimately most of the inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well, even though they likely never represented a majority of the population even in England, and may have made only a comparatively modest contribution to the ancestry of the people whom we today call ‘English’.

[14] Interestingly, and no doubt controversially, Van den Berghe argues that blacks in the USA do not have any distinctive cultural traits that distinguish them from the white American mainstream, and that their successful assimilation has been prevented only by the fact that, until very recently, whites have refused to ‘assimilate’ them. He is particularly skeptical regarding the notion of any cultural inheritances from Africa, dismissing “the romantic search for survivals of African Culture” as “elusive” (p177).
Indeed, for van den Berghe, the whole notion of a distinct African-American culture is “largely ideological and romantic” (p177). “Afro-Americans are,” he argues, “culturally ‘Anglo-Saxon’” and hence paradoxically ”as Anglo as anyone… in America” (p177). He concludes:

The case for ‘black culture’ rests… largely on the northern ghetto lumpenproletariat, a class which has no direct counterpart. Even in that group, however, much of the distinctiveness is traceable to their southern, rural origins” (p177). 

This reference to “southern rural origins” anticipates Thomas Sowell’s later black redneck hypothesis. Certainly, many aspects of black culture, such as dialect (e.g. the use of terms such as y’all and ain’t and the pronunciation of ‘whores’ as ‘hoes’) and stereotypical fondness for fried chicken, are obvious inheritances from Southern culture rather than distinctively black, let alone an inheritance from Africa. Thus, van den Berghe observes:

Ghetto lumpenproletariat blacks in Chicago, Detroit and New York may seem to have a distinct subculture of their own compared collectively to their white neighbors, but the black Mississippi sharecropper is not very different, except for his skin pigment, from his white counterparts” (p177). 

Any remaining differences not attributable to their Southern origins are, van den Berghe claims, not “African survivals, but adaptation to stigma” (p177). Here, van den Berghe perhaps has in mind the inverse morality, celebration of criminality, and bad nigger’ archetype prevalent in, for example, gangsta rap music. Thus, van den Berghe concludes that: 

Afro-Americans owe their distinctiveness overwhelmingly to the fact that they have been first enslaved and then stigmatized as a pariah group. They lack a territorial base, the necessary economic, and political resources and the cultural and linguistic pluralism ever to constitute a successful nation. Their pluralism is strictly a structural pluralism inflicted on them by racism. A stigma is hardly an adequate basis for successful nationalism” (p184). 

[15] Thus, Elizabeth Warren was a law professor who became a Democratic Party Senator and Presidential candidate, and had described herself as ‘American Indian, and been cited by her University employers as an ethnic minority, in order to benefit from informal affirmative action, despite having only a very small amount of Native American ancestry. Krug and Dolezal, meanwhile, taking advantage of the one drop rule, both identified as African-American, Krug, a history professor and leftist activist, taking advantage of her Middle-Eastern appearance, itself likely a reflection of her Jewish ancestry. Dolezal, however, was formerly a white, blonde girl, but, through the simple expedient of getting a perm and tan, managed to become an adjunct professor of black studies at a local university and local chapter president of the NAACP in an overwhelmingly white town and state. Whoever said blondes have more fun? 

[16] It has even given rise to a popular new hairstyle among young white males attempting to escape the stigma of whiteness by adopting a racially ambiguous appearance – the mulatto perm

[17] Interestingly, the examples cited by Paddy Hannam in his piece on the phenomenon, The rise of the race fakers also seem to have been female (Hannam 2021). Steve Sailer wisely counsels caution with regard to the findings of this study, noting that anyone willing to lie about their ethnicity on their college application, is also likely even more willing to lie in an anonymous survey (Sailer 2021 ; see also Hood 2007). 

[18] Actually, the Northern Ireland settlement is often classed as centripetalist rather than consociationalist. However, the distinction is minimal, with the former arrangement representing a modification of the latter designed to encourage cross-community cooperation, and prevent, or at least mitigate, the institutionalization and ossification of the ethnic divide that is perceived to occur under consociationalism, where constitutional recognition is accorded to the divide between the two (or more) communities. There is, however, little evidence that centripetalism have ever actually been successful in encouraging cross-community cooperation, beyond what is necessitated by the consitutional system, let alone encouraging assimilation of the rival communities and the depoliticization of ethnic identity. 

[19] The reason for the difference in the attitudes of leftists and liberals towards majority-rule in Northern Ireland and South Africa respectively seems to reflect the fact that, whereas in Northern Ireland, the majority protestant population were perceived of as the dominant oppressor’ group, the black majority in South Africa were perceived of as oppressed.
However, it is hard to see why this would mean black majority-rule in South Africa would be any less oppressive of South Africa’s white, coloured, and Asian minorities than Protestant majority rule had been of Catholics in Ulster. On the contrary, precisely because the black majority in South Africa perceive themselves as having been ‘oppressed’ in the past, they are likely to be especially vengeful and feel justified in seeking recompense for their earlier perceived oppression. This indeed seems to be what is occurring in South Africa, and Zimbabwe, today. 
Interestingly, van den Berghe, writing in 1981 was wisely prophetic regarding the long-term prospects for both apartheid – and for white South Africans. Thus, on the one hand he predicted: 

Past experience with decolonization elsewhere in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe (which is in almost every respect a miniature version of South Africa) seems to indicate that the end of white domination is in sight. The only question is whether it will take the form of a prolonged civil war, a negotiated partition or a frantic white exodus. The odds favor, I think, a long escalating war of attrition accompanied by a gradual economic winddown and a growing white emigration” (p174). 

Thus, van den Berghe was right in so far as he predicted the looming end of the apartheid system – though hardly unique in making this prediction. However, he was wrong in his predictions as to how this end would come about. On the other hand, however, with ongoing farm murders and the overtly genocidal rhetoric of populist politicians like Julius Malema, van den Berghe was probably right regarding the long-term prognosis of the white community in South Africa when he observed: 

Five million whites perched precariously at the tip of a continent inhabited by 400 millions blacks, with no friends in sight. No matter what happens whites will lose heavily, perhaps their very lives, or at least their place in the African sun that they love so much” (p172). 

However, perhaps surprisingly, van den Berghe denies that apartheid was entirely a failure: 

Although apartheid failed in the end, it was a rational course for the Afrikaners to take, given their collective aims, and probably did postpone the day of reckoning by about 30 years” (p174).

[20] The only other polity that perhaps has a competing claim to representing the world’s model consociationalist democracy is Switzerland. However, van den Berghe emphasizes that Switzerland is very much a special case, the secret of its success being that:

Switzerland is one of those rare multiethnic states that did not originate either in conquest or in the breakdown of multinational empires” (p194).

It managed to avoid conquest by its richer and more powerful neighbours simply because:

The Swiss had the dual advantage in resisting outside conquest: favorable terrain and lack of natural resources” (p194)

Also, it provided valuable services to these neighbours, first providing mercenaries to fight in their armed forces and later specialising in the manufacture of watches and what van den Berghe terms “the management of shady foreigners’ ill-gotten capital” (p194).
In reality, however, although divided linguistically and religiously, Switzerland does not, in van den Berghe’s constitute true consociationalism, since the country, with originated as confederation of fomerly independent hill tribes, remains highly decentralized, and power is shared, not by ethnic groups, but rather between regional cantons. Therefore, van den Berghe concludes:

The ethnic diversity of Switzerland is only incidental to the federalism, it does not constitute the basis for it” (p196-7).

In addition, most cantons, where much of the real power lies, are themselves relatively monoethnic and monoliguistic, at least as compared to the country as a whole.

[21] Indeed, since the Slavs of Eastern Europe were the last group in Europe to be converted to Christianity, and it was forbidden by Papal decree to enslave fellow-Christians or sell Christian slaves to non-Christians (i.e. Muslims, among whom there was a great demand for European slaves), Slavs were preferentially targeted by Christians for enslavement, and even those non-Slavic people who were enslaved or sold into bondage were often falsely described as Slavs in order to justify their enslavement and sale to Muslim slaveholders. The Slavs, for geographic reasons, were also vulnerable to capture and enslavement directly by the Muslims themselves.

[22] Although this review is based on the 1987 edition, The Ethnic Phenomenon was first published in 1981, whereas Orlando Peterson’s Slavery and Social Death came out just a year later in 1982.

[23] In the antebellum American South, much is made of the practice of slave-owners selling the spouses and offspring of their slaves to other masters, thereby breaking up families. On the basis of van den Berghe’s arguments, this might actually have represented an effective means of preventing slaves from putting down roots and developing families and slave communities, and might therefore have helped perpetuate the institution of slavery.
However, even assuming that such practices would indeed have had this effect, it is doubtful that there was any such deliberate long-term policy among slaveholders to break up families in this way. On the contrary, van den Berghe reports:  

It is not true that slave owners systematically broke up slave couples… On the contrary, it was in their interest to foster stable slave families for the sake of morale, and to discourage escape” (p133). 

Thus, though it certainly occurred and may indeed have been tragic where it did occur, slaveholders generally preferred to keep slave families intact, precisely because, in forming families, slaves would indeed ‘put down roots’ and hence be less likely to try to escape, lest, in the process, they would leave other family members behind to face the vengeance of their former owners alone and without any protection and support they might otherwise have been in a position to offer. The threat of breaking up families, however, surely remained a useful tool in the arsenal of slaveholders to maintain control over slaves. 

[24] While acknowledging, and indeed emphasizing, the virulence of western racialism, van den Berghe, bemoaning the intrusion of “moralism” (and, by extension, ethnomasochism) into scholarship, has little time for the notion that western slavery was intrinsically more malign than forms of slavery practised in other parts of the world or at other times in history (p116). This, he dismisses as “the guilt ascription game: whose slavery was worse?” (p128). Male slaves in the Islamic world, for example, were routinely castrated before being sold (p117). 
Thus, while it is true that slaves in the American South had unusually low rates of manumission (i.e. the granting of freedom to slaves), they also enjoyed surprisingly high standards of living, were well-fed and enjoyed long lives. Indeed, not only did slaves in the American South enjoy standards of living superior to those of most other slave populations, they even enjoyed, by some measures, higher standards of living than many non-slave populations, including industrial workers in Europe and the Northern United States, and poor white Southerners, during the same time period (The End of Racism: p88-91; see also Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Slavery). 
Ironically, living standards were so high for the very same reason that rates of manumission were so low – namely, slaves, especially after the abolition and suppression of the transatlantic slave-trade (but also even before then due to the costs of transportation during the middle passage) were an expensive commodity. Masters therefore fully intended to get their money’s worth out of their slaves, not only by rarely granting them their freedom, but also ensuring that they lived a long and healthy life.
In this endeavour, they were surprisingly successful. Thus, van den Berghe reports, in the fifty years that followed the prohibition on the import of new slaves into the USA in 1908, the black population of the USA nevertheless more than tripled (p128). In short, slaves may have been property, but they were valuable property – and slaveholders made every effort to protect their investment.
Ironically, therefore, indentured servants (themselves, in America, often white, and later, in Africa, usually South or East Asian) were, during the period of their indenture, often worked harder, and forced to live in worse conditions, than were actual slaves. This was because, since they were indentured for only a set number of years before they would be free, there was less incentive on the part of their owners to ensure that they lived a long and healthy life.   
Van den Berghe concludes: 

“The blanket ascription of collective racial guilt for slavery to ‘whites’ that is so dear to many liberal social scientists is itself a product of the racist mentality produced by slavery. It takes a racist to ascribe causality and guilt to racial categories” (p130). 

Indeed, as Dinesh D’Souza in The End of Racism, and Thomas Sowell in his essay ‘The Real History of Slavery’ included in the collection Black Rednecks and White Liberals, both emphasize, whereas all civilizations have practised slavery, what was unique about western civilization was that it was the first civilization ever known to have abolished slavery (at, as it ultimately turned out, no little economic cost to itself).
Therefore, even if liberals and leftists do insist that we play what van den Berghe disparagingly calls “the guilt ascription game”, then white westerners actually come out rather well in the comparison. 

[25] Indeed, in most cultures and throughout most of history, the use of female slaves as concubines was, not only widespread, but also perfectly socially acceptable. For example, in the Islamic world, the use of female slaves as concubines was entirely open and accepted, not only attracting literally no censure or criticism in the wider society or culture, but also receiving explicit prophetic sanction in the Quran. For this reason, in the Islamic world, females slaves tended to be in greater demand than males, and usually commanded a higher price.
In contrast, most slaves transported to the Americas were male, since males were more useful for hard, intensive agricultural labour and, in puritanical North America, sexual contact with between slaveholder and slave was very much frowned upon, even though it certainly occurred. Thus, van den Berghe cynically observes:  

Concubinage with slaves was somewhat more clandestine and hypocritical in the English and Dutch colonies than in the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies where it was brazen, but there is no evidence that the actual incidence of interbreeding was any higher in the Catholic countries” (p132). 

Partial corroboration for this claim is provided by historian Eugene Genovese, who, in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, reports that, in New Orleans slave markets:

First-class blacksmiths were being sold for $2,500 and prime field hands for about $1,800, but a particularly beautiful girl or young woman might bring $5,000” (Roll, Jordan, Roll: p416).

[26] Actually, exploitation can still be an adaptive strategy, even in respect of close biological relatives. This depends of the precise relative gain and loss in fitness to both the exploiter (the slave owner) and his victim (the slave), and their respective coefficient of relatedness, in accordance with Hamilton’s rule. Thus, it is possible that a slaveholder’s genes may benefit more from continuing to exploit his slaves as slaves than by freeing them, even if the latter are also his kin. Possibly the best strategy will often be a compromise of, say, keeping your slave-kin in bondage, but treating them rather better than other non-related slaves, or freeing them after your death in your will. 
Of course, this is not to suggest that individual slaveholders consciously (or subconsciously) perform such a calculation, nor even that their actual behaviour is usually adaptive. Slaveholding is likely an ‘environmental novelty’ to which we are yet to have evolved adaptive responses

[27] Others suggest that Thomas Jefferson himself did not father any offspring with Sally Hemmings and that the more likely father is Jefferson’s wayward younger brother Randolph, who would, of course, share the same Y chromosome as his elder brother. For present purposes, this is not especially important, since, either way, Heming’s offspring would be blood relatives of Jefferson to some degree, hence likely influencing his decision to free them or permit them to escape.

[28] Quite how this destruction can be expected to have manifested itself is not spelt out by van den Berghe. Perhaps, with each passing generation, as slaves became more and more closely biologically related to their masters, more and more slaves would have been freed until there were simply no more left. Alternatively, perhaps, as slaves and slaveowners increasingly became biological kin to one another, the institution of slavery would gradually have become less oppressive and exploitative until ultimately it ceased to constitute true slavery at all. At any rate, in the Southern United States this (supposed) process was forestalled by the American Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, and neither does it appear to have occurred in Latin America.  

[29] Another area of conflict between Marxism and Darwinism is the assumption of the former that somehow all conflict and exploitation will end in a future posited communist utopia. Curiously, although healthily cynical about exploitation under Soviet-style communism (p60), van den Berghe describes himself as an anarchist (van den Berghe 2005). However, anarchism seems even more hopelessly utopian than communism, given humanity’s innate sociality and desire to exploit reproductive competitors. In short, a Hobbesian state of nature is surely no one’s utopia (except perhaps Ragnar Redbeard). 

[30] The idea that there is “ambivalence in relations between black men and women in America” seems anecdotally plausible, given, for example, the delightfully misogynistic lyrics found in much African-American rap music. However, it is difficult to see how this could be a legacy of the plantation era, when everyone alive today is several generations removed from that era and living in a very different sexual and racial milieu. Today, black men do rather better in the mating market place than do black women, with black men being much more likely to marry non-black women than black women are to marry non-black men, suggesting that black men have a larger dating pool from which to choose (Sailer 1997; Fryer 2007).
Moreover, black men and women in America today are, of course, the descendants of both men and women. Therefore, even if black women did have a better time of it that black men in the plantation era, how would black male resentment be passed down the generations to black men today, especially given that most black men are today raised primarily by their mothers in single-parent homes and often have little or no contact with their fathers?

[31] Indeed, being perceived as attractive, or at least not as ugly, seems to be rather more important to most women that does being perceived as intelligent. Therefore, the question of race differences in attractiveness is seemingly almost as controversial as that of race differences in intelligence. This, then, leads to the delightfully sexist Sailer’s first law of female journalism, which posits that: 

The most heartfelt articles by female journalists tend to be demands that social values be overturned in order that, Come the Revolution, the journalist herself will be considered hotter-looking.” 

[32] A popular alt-right meme has it that there are literally no white-on-black rapes. This is, of course, untrue, and reflects the misreading of a table in a US departnment of Justice report that actually involved only a small sample. In fact, the government does not currently release data on the prevalence of interracial rape. Nevertheless, the US Department of Justice report (mis)cited by some white nationalists does indeed suggest that black-on-white rape is much more common than white-on-black rape in the contemporary USA, a conclusion corroborated by copious other data (e.g. Lebeau 1985).
Thus, in his book Paved with Good Intentions, 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). 

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 the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons


Brigandt (2001) The homeopathy of kin selection: an evaluation of van den Berghe’s sociobiological approach to ethnicity. Politics and the Life Sciences 20: 203-215. 
Feinman & Gill (1977) Sex differences in physical attractiveness preferences, Journal of Social Psychology 105(1): 43-52. 
Frost (2008) Sexual selection and human geographic variation. Special Issue: Proceedings of the ND Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4): 169-191 
Fryer (2007) Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner? Trends in Interracial Marriage over the 20th Century, Journal of Economic Perspectives 21(2), pp. 71-90 
Hannam (2021) The rise of the race fakers., 5 November. 
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Johnson (1987) In the Name of the Fatherland: An Analysis of Kin Term Usage in Patriotic Speech and Literature. International Political Science Review 8(2): 165-174.
Johnson, Ratwik and Sawyer (1987) The evocative significance of kin terms in patriotic speech pp157-174 in Reynolds, Falger and Vine (eds) The Sociobiology of Ethnocentrism: Evolutionary Dimensions of Xenophobia, Discrimination, Racism, and Nationalism (London: Croom Helm). 
Lebeau (1985) Rape and Racial Patterns. Journal of Offender Counseling Services Rehabilitation, 9(1- 2): 125-148 
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Lewis (2012) A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage PLoS One. 2012; 7(2): e31703. 
Lind et al (2007) Elevated male European and female African contributions to the genomes of African American individuals. Human Genetics 120(5) 713-722 
Macdonald 2001 An integrative evolutionary perspective on ethnicity. Poiltics & the Life Sciences 20(1):67-8. 
Rushton (1998a). Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection. In I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt & F. K. Salter (Eds.), Indoctrinability, Warfare, and Ideology: Evolutionary perspectives (pp. 369-388). Oxford: Berghahn Books. 
Rushton (1998b). Genetic similarity theory and the roots of ethnic conflict. Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, 23, 477-486. 
Rushton, (2005) Ethnic Nationalism, Evolutionary Psychology and Genetic Similarity Theory, Nations and Nationalism 11(4): 489-507. 
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The ‘Means of Reproduction’ and the Ultimate Purpose of Political Power

Laura Betzig, Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History (New Brunswick: AdelineTransation, 1983). 

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, alias ‘Ismail the Bloodthirsty’, a late-seventeenth, early eighteenth century Emperor of Morocco is today little remembered, at least outside of his native Morocco. He is, however, in a strict Darwinian sense, possibly the most successful human ever to have lived. 

Ismail, you see, is said to have sired some 888 offspring. His Darwinian fitness therefore exceeded that of any other known person.[1]

Some have questioned whether this figure is realistic (Einon 1998). However, the best analyses suggest that, while the actual number of offspring fathered by Ismail is indeed probably apocryphal, such a large progeny is indeed eminently plausible for a powerful ruler with access to a large harem of wives and/or concubines (Gould 2000; Oberzaucher & Grammer 2014).

Indeed, as Laura Betzig demonstrates in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, Ismail is exceptional only in degree.

Across diverse societies and cultures, and throughout human history, wherever individual males acquire great wealth and power, they convert this wealth and power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely reproductive success – by asserting and maintaining exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young female sex partners. 

A Sociobiological Theory of Human History 

Betzig begins her monograph by quoting a small part of a famous passage from the closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species which she adopts as the epigraph to her preface. 

In this passage, the great Victorian naturalist tentatively extended his theory of natural selection to the question of human origins, a topic he conspicuously avoided in the preceding pages of his famous text. 

Yet, in this much-quoted passage, Darwin goes well beyond suggesting merely that his theory of evolution by natural selection might explain human origins in just the same way it explained the origin of other species. On the contrary, he also anticipated the rise of evolutionary psychology, writing of how: 

Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. 

Yet this is not the part of this passage quoted by Betzig. Instead, she quotes the next sentence, where Darwin makes another prediction, no less prophetic, namely that: 

Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history 

In this reference to “man and his history”, Darwin surely had in mind primarily, if not exclusively, the natural history and evolutionary history of our species.

Betzig, however, interprets Darwin more broadly, and more literally, and, in so doing, has both founded, and for several years, remained the leading practitioner of a new field – namely, Darwinian history.

This is the attempt to explain, not only the psychology and behaviour of contemporary humans in terms of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and selfish gene theory, but also to explain the behaviour of people in past historical epochs in terms of the same theory.  

Her book length monograph, ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History’ remains the best known and most important work in this field. 

The Historical and Ethnographic Record 

In making the case that, throughout history and across the world, males in positions of power have used this power so as to maximize their Darwinian fitness by securing exclusive reproductive access to large harems of fertile females, Betzig, presumably to avoid the charge of cherry picking, never actually even mentions Ismail the Bloodthirsty at any point in her monograph. 

Instead, Betzig uses ethnographic data taken from a random sample of cultures from across the world. Nevertheless, the patterns she uncovers are familiar and recurrent.

Powerful males command large harems of multiple fertile young females, to whom they assert, and defend, exclusive reproductive access. In this way, they convert their power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely, reproductive success or fitness.

Thus, summarizing Betzig’s work, not only in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, but also in other published works, science writer Matt Ridley reports:

[Of] the six independent ‘civilizations’ of early history – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas… the Babylonian king Hammurabi had thousands of slave ‘wives’ at his command. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten procured three hundred and seventeen concubines and ‘droves’ of consorts. The Aztec ruler Montezuma enjoyed four thousand concubines. The Indian emperor Udayama preserved sixteen thousand consorts in apartments guarded by eunuchs. The Chinese emperor Fei-ti had ten thousand women in his harem. The Inca… kept virgins on tap throughout the kingdom” (The Red Queen: p191-2; see Betzig 1993a).[2]

Such vast harems seem, at first, wholly wasteful. This is surely more fertile females than even the horniest, healthiest and most virile of emperors could ever hope to have sex with, let alone successfully impregnate. As Betzig acknowledges: 

The number of women in such a harem may easily have prohibited the successful impregnation of each… but, their being kept from bearing children to others increased the monarch’s relative reproductive accomplishment” (p70). 

In other words, even if these rulers were unable to successfully impregnate every concubine in their harem, keeping them cloistered and secluded nevertheless prevented other males from impregnating them, which increased the relative representation of the ruler’s genes in subsequent generations.

To this end, extensive efforts also were made to ensure the chastity of these women. Thus, even in ancient times, Betzig reports: 

Evidence of claustration, in the form of a walled interior courtyard, exists for Babylonian Mai; and claustration in second story rooms with latticed, narrow windows is mentioned in the Old Testament” (p79). 

Indeed, Betzig even proposes an alternative explanation for early evidence of defensive fortifications

Elaborate fortifications erected for the purposes of defense may [also] have served the dual (identical?) function of protecting the chastity of women of the harem” (p79). 

Indeed, as Betzig alludes to in her parenthesis, this second function is arguably not entirely separate to the first. 

After all, if all male-male competition is ultimately based on competition over access to fertile females, then this surely very much includes warfare. As Napoleon Chagnon emphasizes in his studies of warfare and intergroup raiding among the Yąnomamö Indians of the Amazonian rainforest, warfare among primitive peoples tends to be predicated on the capture of fertile females from among enemy groups.[3]

Therefore, even fortifications erected for the purposes of military defence, ultimately serve the evolutionary function of maintaining exclusive reproductive access to the fertile females contained therein. 

Other methods of ensuring the chastity of concubines, and thus the paternity certainty of emperors, included the use of eunuchs as harem guards. Indeed, this seems to have been the original reason eunuchs were castrated and later became a key element in palace retinues (see The Evolution of Human Sociality: p45). 

Chastity belts, however, ostensibly invented for the wives of crusading knights while the latter were away on crusade, are likely a modern myth.

The movements of harem concubines were also highly restricted. Thus, if permitted to venture beyond their cloisters, they were invariably escorted. 

For example in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, Betzig reports: 

The king’s wives’… approach was always signalled by the ringing of a bell by the women servant or slave who invariably preceded them [and] the moment the bell is heard all persons, whether male or female , turn their backs, but all the males must retire to a certain distance” (p79). 

Similarly, inmates of the Houses of Virgins maintained by Inca rulers:

Lived in perpetual seclusion to the end of their lives… and were not permitted to converse, or have intercourse with, or to see any man, nor any woman who was not one of themselves” (p81-2). 

Feminists tend to view such practices as evidence of the supposed oppression of women

However, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, the primary victims of such practices were, not the harem inmates themselves, but rather the lower-status men condemned to celibacy and ‘inceldom’ as a consequence of royal dynasties monopolizing sexual access to almost all the fertile females in the society in question. 

The encloistered women might have been deprived of their freedom of movement – but many lower-status men in the same societies were deprived of almost all access to fertile female sex partners, and hence any possibility of passing on their genes, the ultimate evolutionary function of any biological organism. 

In contrast, the concubines secluded in royal harems were not only able to reproduce, but also lived lives of relative comfort, if not, in some cases, outright luxury, often being: 

Equipped with their own household and servants, and probably lived reasonably comfortable lives in most respects, except… for a lack of liberal masculine company” (p80). 

Indeed, seclusion, far from evidencing oppression, was primarily predicted on safety and protection. In short, to be imprisoned is not so bad when one is imprisoned in a palace. 

Finally, methods were also sometimes employed specifically to enhance their fertility of the women so confined. Thus, Ridley reports: 

Wet nurses, who allow women to resume ovulation by cutting short their breast-feeding periods, date from at least the code of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC… Tang dynasty emperors of China kept careful records of dates of menstruation and conception in the harem so as to be sure to copulate only with the most fertile concubines… [and] Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day” (The Red Queen: p192). 

Confirming Betzig’s conclusions but subsequent to the publication of her work, researchers have now uncovered genetic evidence of the fecundity of one particular powerful ruler (or ruling male lineage) – namely, a Y chromosome haplogroup, found in 8% of males across a large region of Asia and in one in two hundred males across the whole world – the features of which are consistent with its having spread across the region thanks to the exception prolificity of Genghis Khan, his male siblings and descendants (Zerjal 2003). 

Female Rulers? 

In contrast, limited to only one pregnancy every nine months, a woman, howsoever rich and powerful, can necessarily bear far fewer offspring than can be sired by a man enjoying equivalent wealth, power and access to multiple fertile sex partners, even with the aid of evolutionary novelties like wet nurses, bottle milk and IVF treatment. 

As a female analogue of Ismail the Bloodthirsty, it is sometimes claimed that a Russian woman gave birth to 69 offspring in the nineteenth-century. She was also supposedly, and very much unlike Ismail the Bloodthirsty, not a powerful and polygamous elite ruler, but rather a humble, monogamously married peasant woman. 

However, this much smaller figure is both physiologically implausible and poorly sourced. Indeed, even her name is unknown, and she is referred to only as the wife of Feodor Vassilyev. It is, in short, almost certainly an urban myth.[4]

Feminists have argued that the overrepresentation of males in positions of power is a consequence of such mysterious and non-existent phenomena as patriarchy or male dominance or the oppression of women.

In reality, however, it seems that, for women, seeking positions of power and wealth simply doesn’t have the same reproductive payoff as for men – because, no matter how many men a woman copulates with, she can usually only gestate, and nurse, one (or, in the case of twins or triplets, occasionally two or three) offspring at a time. 

This is the essence of Bateman’s Principle, later formalized by Robert Trivers as differential parental investment theory (Bateman 1948; Trivers 1972).

This, then, in Darwinian terms, explains why women are less likely to assume positions of great political power.

It is not necessarily that they don’t want political power, but rather that they are less willing to make the necessary effort, or take the necessary risks, to attain power.[5]

This calculus then, rather than the supposed oppression of women, explains, not only the cross-culturally universal over-representation of men in positions of power, but also much of the so-called gender pay gap in our own societies (see Kingsley Browne’s Biology at Work: reviewed here). 

Perhaps the closest women can get to producing such a vast progeny is maneuver their sons into having the opportunity to do so. This might explain why such historical figures as Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, and Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, are reported as having been so active, and instrumental, in securing the succession on behalf of their sons. 

The Purpose of Political Power? 

The notion that powerful rulers often use their power to gain access to multiple nubile sex partners is, of course, hardly original to sociobiology. On the contrary, it accords with popular cynicism regarding males in positions of power. 

What a Darwinian perspective adds is the ultimate explanation of why political leaders do so – and why female political rulers, even when they do assume power, usually adopt a very different reproductive strategy. 

Moreover, a Darwinian perspective goes beyond popular cynicism in suggesting that access to multiple sex partners is not merely yet another perk of power. On the contrary, it is the ultimate purpose of power and reason why men evolved to seek power in the first place. 

As Betzig herself concludes: 

Political power in itself may be explained, at least in part, as providing a position from which to gain reproductively” (p85).[6]

After all, from a Darwinian perspective, political power in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It is only if power can be used in such a way as to maximize a person’s reproductive success or fitness that it has evolutionary value. 

Thus, as Steven Pinker has observed, the recurrent theme in science fiction film and literature of robots rebelling against humans to take over the world and overthrow humanity is fundamentally mistaken. Robots would have no reason to rebel against humans, simply because they would not be programmed to want to take over the world and overthrow humanity in the first place. 

On the other hand, humans have been programmed to seek wealth and power – and to resist oppression and exploitation. This is why revolutions are a recurrent feature of human societies and history.

But we have been programmed, not by a programmer or god-like creator, but rather by natural selection.

We have been programmed by natural selection to seek wealth and power only because, throughout human evolutionary history, those of us who achieved political power tended, like Ismail the Bloodthirsty, also to achieve high levels of reproductive success as a consequence. 

Darwin versus Marx 

In order to test the predictive power of her theory, Betzig contrasts the predictions made by sociobiological theory with a rival theory – namely, Marxism

The comparison is apposite since, despite repeated falsification at the hands of both economists and of history, Marxism remains, among both social scientists and laypeople, the dominant paradigm when it comes to explaining social structure, hierarchy and exploitation in human societies.  

Certainly, it has proven far more popular than any approach to understanding human dominance hierarchies rooted in ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or selfish gene theory

There are, it bears emphasizing, several similarities between the two approaches. For one thing, each theory traces its origins ultimately to a nineteenth-century Victorian founder resident in Britain at the time he authored his key works, namely Charles Darwin and Karl Marx respectively.  

More importantly, there are also substantive similarities in the content and predictions of both these alternative theoretical paradigms. 

In particular, each is highly cynical in its conclusions. Indeed, at first glance, Marxist theory appears superficially almost as cynical as Darwinian theory. 

Thus, like Betzig, Marx regarded most societies in existence throughout history as exploitative – and as designed to serve the interests, not of society in general or of the population of that society as a whole, but rather of the dominant class within that society alone – namely, in the case of capitalism, the bourgeoisie or capitalist employers. 

However, sociobiological and Marxist theory depart in at least three crucial respects. 

First, Marxists propose that exploitation will be absent in future anticipated communist utopias

Second, Marxists also claim that such exploitation was also absent among hunter-gatherer groups, where so-called primitive communism supposedly prevailed. 

Thus, the Marxist, so cynical with regard exploitation and oppression in capitalist (and feudal) society, suddenly turns hopelessly naïve and innocent when it comes to envisaging future unrealistic communist utopias, and when contemplating ‘noble savages’ in their putative ‘Eden before the fall’.

Unfortunately, however, in her critique of Marxism, Betzig herself nevertheless remains somewhat confused in respect of this key issue. 

On the one hand, she rightly dismisses primitive communism as a Marxist myth. Thus, she demonstrates and repeatedly emphasizes that:

Men accrue reproductive rights to wives of varying numbers and fertility in every human society” (p20).

Therefore, Betzig, contrary to the tenets of Marxism, concludes:

Unequal access to the basic resource which perpetuates life, members of the opposite sex, is a condition in [even] the simplest societies” (p32; see also Chagnon 1979).

Neither is universal human inequality limited only to access to fertile females. On the contrary, Betzig observes:

Some form of exploitation has been in evidence in even the smallest societies… Conflicts of interest in all societies are resolved with a consistent bias in favor of men with greater power” (p67).

On the other hand, however, Betzig takes a wrong turn in refusing to rule out the possibility of true communism somehow arising in the future. Thus, perhaps in a misguided effort to placate the many leftist opponents of sociobiology in academia, she writes:

Darwinism… [does not] preclude the possibility of future conditions under which individual interests might become common interests: under which individual welfare might best be served by serving the welfare of society… [nor] preclude… the possibility of the evolution of socialism” (p68). 

This, however, seems obviously impossible. 

After all, we have evolved to seek to maximize the representation of our own genes in subsequent generations at the expense of those of other individuals. Only a eugenic reengineering of human nature itself could ever change this. 

Thus, as Donald Symons emphasized in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), reproductive competition is inevitable – because, whereas there is sometimes sufficient food that everyone is satiated and competition for food is therefore unnecessary and counterproductive, reproductive success is always relative, and therefore competition over women is universal. 

Thus, Betzig quotes Confucius as observing:

Disorder does not come from heaven, but is brought about by women” (p26). 

Indeed, Betzig herself elsewhere recognizes this key point, namely the relativity of reproductive success, when she observes, in a passage quoted above, that a powerful monarch benefits from sequestering huge numbers of fertile females in his harem because, even if it is unfeasible that he would ever successfully impregnate all of them himself, he nevertheless thereby prevents other males from impregnating them, and thereby increases the relative representation of his own genes in subsequent generations (p70). 

It therefore seems inconceivable that social engineers, let alone pure happenstance, could ever engineer a society in which individual interests were identical to societal interests, other than a society of identical twins or through the eugenic reingineering of human nature itself (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left, which I have reviewed here).[7]

Marx and the Means of Reproduction

The third and perhaps most important conflict between the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives concerns what Betzig terms: 

The relative emphasis on production and reproduction” (p67).

Whereas Marxists view control of what they term the means of production as the ultimate cause of societal conflict, socioeconomic status and exploitation, for Darwinians conflict and exploitation instead focus on control over what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words fertile females, their wombs, ova and vaginas. 

Thus, Betzig observes: 

Marxism makes no explicit prediction that exploitation should coincide with reproduction” (p68). 

In other words, Marxist theory is silent on the crucial issue of whether high-status individuals will necessarily convert their political and economic power into the ultimate currency of Darwinian selection – namely, reproductive success

On this view, powerful male rulers might just as well be celibate as control and assert exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young fertile wives and concubines. 

In contrast, for Darwinians, the effort to maximize one’s reproductive success is the very purpose, and ultimate end, of all political power. 

As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observes in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewe here, here and here): 

The ultimate measure of human success is no production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Thus, production is, from a sociobiological perspective, just another means of gaining the resources necessary for reproduction. 

On the other hand, reproduction is, from a biological perspective, the ultimate purpose of life. 

Therefore, it seems that, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx was, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another nineteenth-century Victorian prude! 

The Polygyny Threshold Model Applied to Humans? 

One way of conceptualizing the tendency of powerful males to attract (or perhaps commandeer) multiple wives and concubines is the polygyny threshold model

This way of conceptualizing male and female reproductive and ecological competition was first formulated by ornithologist-ecologist Gordon Orians in order to model the mating systems of passerine birds (Orians 1969). 

Here, males practice so-called resource defence polygyny – in other words, they defend territories containing valuable resources (e.g. food, nesting sites) necessary for successful reproduction and provisioning of offspring. 

Females then distribute themselves between males in accordance with size and quality of male territories. 

On this view, if the territory of one male is twice as resource-abundant as that of another, he would, all else being equal, attract twice as many mates; if it is three times as resource-abundant, he would attract three times as many mates; etc. 

The result is rough parity in resource-holdings and reproductive success among females, but often large disparities among males. 

Applying the Polygyny Threshold Model to Modern America

Thus, applying the polygyny threshold model to humans, and rather simplistically substituting wealth for territory size and quality, we might predict that, if Jeff Bezos is a hundred thousand times richer than Joe Schmo, then, if Joe has only one wife, then Jeff should have around 100,000 wives.

But, of course, Jeff Bezos does not have 100,000 wives, nor even a mere 100,000 concubines. 

Instead, he has only one solitary meagre ex-wife, and she, even when married to him, was not, to the best of my knowledge, ever guarded by any eunuchs – though perhaps he would have been better off if she had been, since they might have prevented her from divorcing him and taking an enormous share of his wealth with her in the ensuing divorce settlement.[8]

The same is also true of contemporary political leaders. 

Indeed, if any contemporary western political leader does attempt to practice polygyny, even on a comparatively modest scale, then, if discovered, a so-called sex scandal almost invariably results. 

Yet, viewed in historical perspective, the much-publicized marital infidelities of, say, Bill Clinton, though they may have outraged the sensibilities the of mass of monogamously-married Middle American morons, positively pale into insignificance besides the reproductive achievements of someone like, say, Ismail the Bloodthirsty

Indeed, Clinton’s infidelities don’t even pack much of a punch beside those of a politician from the same nation and just a generation removed, namely John F Kennedy – whose achievements in the political sphere are vastly overrated on account of his early death, but whose achievements in the bedroom, while scarcely matching those of Ismail the Bloodthirsty or the Aztec emperors, certainly put the current generation of American politicians to shame. 

Why, then, does the contemporary west represent such a glaring exception to the general pattern of elite polygyny that Betzig has so successfully documented throughout so much of the rest of the world, and throughout so much of history? And what has become of the henpecked geldings who pass for politicians in the contemporary era? 

Monogamy as Male Compromise? 

According to Betzig, the moronic mass media moral panic that invariably accompanies sexual indiscretions on the part of contemporary Western political leaders and other public figures is no accident. Rather, it is exactly what her theory predicts. 

According to Betzig, the institution of monogamy as it operates in Western democracies represents a compromise between low-status and high status males. 

According to the terms of this compromise, high-status males agree to forgo polygyny in exchange for the cooperation of low status males in participating in the complexly interdependent economic systems of modern western polities (p105) – or, in biologist Richard Alexander’s alternative formulation, in exchange for serving as necessary cannon-fodder in wars (p104).[9]

Thus, whereas, under polygyny, there are never enough females to go around, under monogamy, at least assuming that there is a roughly equal sex ratio (i.e. a roughly equal numbers of men and women), then virtually almost all males are capable of attracting a wife, howsoever ugly and unpleasant. 

This is important, since it means that all men, even the relatively poor and powerless, nevertheless have a reproductive stake in society. This, then, in evolutionary terms, provides them with an incentive both:

1) To participate in the economy to support and thereby provide for their wife and family; and

2) To defend these institutions in wartime, if necessary with their lives.

The institution of monogamy has therefore been viewed as a key factor, if not the key factor, in both the economic and military ascendency of the West (see Scheidel 2008). 

Similarly, it has recently been argued that the increasing rates of non-participation of young males in the economy and workforce (i.e. the so-called NEET’ phenomenon) is a direct consequence of the reduction in reproductive opportunities to young males (Binder 2021).[10]

Thus, on this view, then, the media scandal and hysteria that invariably accompanies sexual infidelities by elected politicians, or constitutional monarchs, reflects outrage that the terms of this implicit agreement have been breached. 

This idea was anticipated by Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw, who observed in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionaries, the preface to his play Man and Superman

Polygyny, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it” (Shaw 1903). 

Socially Imposed Monogamy’?

Consistent with this theory of socially imposed monogamy, it is indeed the case that, in all Western democratic polities, polygyny is unlawful, and bigamy a crime. 

Yet these laws are seemingly in conflict with contemporary western liberal democratic principles of tolerance and inclusivity, especially in respect of ‘alternative lifestyles’ and ‘non-traditional relationships’.

Thus, for example, we have recently witnessed a successful campaign for the legalization of gay marriage in most western jurisdictions. However, strangely, polygynous marriage seemingly remains anathema – despite the fact that most cultures across the world and throughout history have permitted polygynous marriage, whereas few if any have ever accorded any state recognition to homosexual unions.

Indeed, strangely, whereas the legalization of gay marriage was widely perceived as ‘progressive’, polygyny is associated, not with sexual liberation with rather with highly traditional and sexually repressive groups such as Mormons and Muslims.[11]

Polygynous marriage was also, rather strangely, associated with the supposed oppression of women in traditional societies

However, most women actually do better, at least in purely economic terms, under polygyny than under monogamy, at least in highly stratified societies with large differences in resource-holdings as between males. 

Thus, if, as we have seen, Jeff Bezos is 100,000 times richer than Joe Schmo, then a woman is financially better off becoming the second wife, or the tenth wife (or even the 99,999th wife!), of Jeff Bezos rather than the first wife of poor Joe. 

Moreover, women also have another incentive to prefer Jeff to Joe. 

If she is impregnated by a polygynous male like Jeff, then her male descendants may inherit the traits that facilitated their father’s wealth, power and polygyny, and hence become similarly reproductively successful themselves, aiding the spread of the woman’s own genes in subsequent generations. 

Biologists call this good genes sexual selection or, more catchily, the sexy son hypothesis

Once again, however, George Bernard Shaw beat them to it when he observed in the same 1903 essay quoted above: 

Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one” (Shaw 1903). 

Thus, Robert Wright concludes: 

In sheerly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system, and most women worse off” (The Moral Animal: p96). 

Thus, women generally should welcome polygyny, while the only people opposed to polygyny should be: 

1) The women currently married to men like Jeff Bezos, and greedily unwilling to share their resource-abundant ‘alpha-male’ providers with a whole hundred-fold harem of co-wives and concubines; and

2) A glut of horny sexually-frustrated bachelor-‘incels’ terminally condemned to celibacy, bachelorhood and inceldom by promiscuous lotharios like Jeff Bezos and Ismail the Bloodthirsty greedily hogging all the hot chicks for themselves.

Who Opposes Polygyny, and Why? 

However, in my experience, the people who most vociferously and puritanically object to philandering male politicians are not low-status men, but rather women. 

Moreover, such women typically affect concern on behalf, not of the male bachelors and ‘incels’ supposedly indirectly condemned to celibacy by such behaviours, but rather the wives of such politicians – though the latter are the chief beneficiaries of monogamy, while these other women, precluded from signing up as second or third-wives to alpha-male providers, are themselves, at least in theory, among the main losers. 

This suggests that the ‘male compromise theory’ of socially-imposed monogamy is not the whole story. 

Perhaps then, although women benefit in purely financial terms under polygyny, they do not do so well in fitness terms. 

Thus, one study found that, whereas polygynous males (unsurprisingly) had more offspring than monogamously-mated males, they (perhaps also unsurprisingly) had fewer offspring per wife. This suggests that, while polygynously-married males benefit from polygyny, their wives incur a fitness penalty for having to share their husband (Strassman 2000). 

This probably reflects the fact that even male reproductive capacity is limited, as, notwithstanding the Coolidge effect (which has, to my knowledge, yet to be demonstrated in humans), males can only manage a certain number of orgasms per day. 

Women’s distaste for polygynous unions may also reflect the fact that even prodigiously wealthy males will inevitably have a limited supply of one particular resource – namely, time – and time spent with offspring may be an important determinant of offspring success, which paid child-minders, lacking a direct genetic stake in offspring, are unable to perfectly replicate.[12]

Thus, if Jeff Bezos were able to attract for himself the 100,000 wives that the polygyny threshold model suggests is his due, then, even if he were capable of providing each woman with the two point four children that is her own due, it is doubtful he would have enough time on his hands to spend much ‘quality time’ with each of his 240,000 offspring – just as one doubts Ismail the Bloodthirsty was himself an attentive father his own more modest mere 888. 

Thus, one suspects that, contrary to the polygyny threshold model, polygyny is not always entirely a matter of female choice (Sanderson 2001).

On the contrary, many of the women sequestered into the harems of rulers like Ismail the Bloodthirsty likely had little say in the matter. 

The Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’ 

Yet, if this goes some way towards explaining the apparent paradox of socially imposed monogamy, there is, today, an even greater paradox with which we must wrestle – namely, why, in contemporary western societies, is there apparently an inverse correlation between wealth and number of offspring.

After all, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, this represents something of a paradox. 

If, as we have seen, the very purpose of wealth and power (from a sociobiological perspective) is to convert these advantages into the ultimately currency of natural selection, namely reproductive success, then why are the wealthy so spectacularly failing to do so in the contemporary west?[13]

Moreover, if status is not conducive to high reproductive success, then why have humans evolved to seek high-status in the first place? 

This anomaly has been memorably termed the ‘The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology’ in a paper by University of Pennsylvania demographer and eugenicist Daniel Vining (Vining 1986). 

Socially imposed monogamy can only go some way towards explaining this anomaly. Thus, in previous centuries, even under monogamy, wealthier families still produced more surviving offspring, if only because their greater wealth enabled them to successfully rear and feed multiple successive offspring to adulthood. In contrast, for the poor, high rates of infant mortality were the order of the day. 

Yet, in the contemporary west, it seems that the people who have the most children and hence the highest fitness in the strict Darwinian sense, are, at least according to popular stereotype, single mothers on government welfare. 

De Facto’ Polygyny 

Various solutions have been proposed to this apparent paradox. A couple amount to claiming that the west is not really monogamous at all, and, once this is factored in, then, at least among males, higher-status men do indeed have greater numbers of offspring than lower-status men. 

One suggestion along these lines is that perhaps wealthy males sire additional offspring whose paternity is misassigned, via extra-marital liaisons (Betzig 1993b). 

However, despite some sensationalized claims, rates of misassigned paternity are actually quite low (Khan 2010; Gilding 2005; Bellis et al 2005). 

If it is lower-class women who are giving birth to most of the offspring, then it is probably mostly males of their own socioeconomic status who are responsible for impregnating them, if only because it is the latter with whom they have the most social contact. 

Perhaps a more plausible suggestion is that wealthy high-status males are able to practice a form of disguised polygyny by through repeated remarriage. 

Thus, wealthy men are sometimes criticized for divorcing their first wives to marry much younger second- and sometimes even third- and fourth-wives. In this way, they manage monopolize the peak reproductive years of multiple successive young women. 

This is true, for example, of recent American President Donald Trump – the ultimate American alpha male – who has himself married three women, each one younger than her predecessor

Thus, science journalist Robert Wright contends: 

The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.” (The Moral Animal: p101). 

This, then, is not so much ‘serial monogamy’ as it is ‘sequential’ or non-concurrent polygyny’. 

Evolutionary Novelties

Another suggestion is that evolutionary novelties – i.e. recently developed technologies such as contraception – have disrupted the usual association between status and fertility. 

On this view, natural selection has simply not yet had sufficient time (or, rather, sufficient generations) over which to mold our psychology and behaviour in such a way as to cause us to use these technologies in an adaptive manner – i.e. in order to maximize, not restrict, our reproductive success. 

An obvious candidate here is safe and effective contraception, which, while actually somewhat older than most people imagine, nevertheless became widely available to the population at large only over the course of the past century, which is surely not enough generations for us to have become evolutionarily adapted to its use.  

Thus, a couple of studies have found that that, while wealthy high-status males may not father more offspring, they do have more sex with a greater number of partners – i.e. behaviours that would have resulted in more offspring in ancestral environments prior to the widespread availability of contraception (Pérusse 1993: Kanazawa 2003). 

This implies that high-status males (or their partners) use contraception either more often, or more effectively, than low-status males, probably because of their greater intelligence and self-control, namely the very traits that enabled them to achieve high socioeconomic status in the first place (Kanazawa 2005). 

Another evolutionary novelty that may disrupt the usual association between social status and number of surviving offspring is the welfare system

Welfare payments to single mothers undoubtedly help these families raise to adulthood offspring who would otherwise perish in infancy. 

In addition, by reducing the financial disincentives associated with raising additional offspring, they probably increase the number of offspring these women choose to have in the first place. 

While it is highly controversial to suggest that welfare payments to single mothers actually give the latter an actual financial incentive to bear additional offspring, they surely, at the very least, reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with bearing additional children. 

Therefore, given that the desire for offspring is probably innate, women would rationally respond by having more children.[14]

Feminist ideology also encourages women in particular to postpone childbearing in favour of careers. Moreover, it is probably higher-status females who are more exposed to feminist ideology, especially in universities, where feminist ideology is thoroughly entrenched

In contrast, lower-status women are not only less exposed to feminist ideology encouraging them to delay motherhood in favour of career, but also likely have fewer appealing careers available to them in the first place. 

Finally, even laws against bigamy and polygyny might be conceptualized as an evolutionary novelty that disrupts the usual association between status and fertility. 

However, whereas technological innovations such as effective contraception were certainly not available until recent times, ideological constructs and religious teachings – including ideas such as feminism, prohibitions on polygyny, and the socialist ideology that motivated the creation of the welfare state – have existed ever since we evolved the capacity to create such constructs (i.e. since we became fully human). 

Therefore, one would expect that humans would have evolved resistance to ideological and religious teachings that go against their genetic interests. Otherwise, we would be vulnerable to indoctrination (and hence exploitation) at the hands third parties. 


Finally, it must be noted that these issues are not only of purely academic interest. 

On the contrary, since socioeconomic status correlates with both intelligence and personality traits such as conscientiousness, and these traits are, in turn, substantially heritable, and moreover determine, not only individual wealth and prosperity, but also at the aggregate level, the wealth and prosperity of nations, the question of who has the offspring is surely of central concern to the future of society, civilization and the world. 

In short, what is at stake is the very genetic posterity that we bequeath to future generations. It is simply too important a matter to be delegated to the capricious and irrational decision-making of individual women. 



[1] Actually, the precise number of offspring Ismail fathered is unclear. The figure I have quoted in the main body of the text comes from various works on evolutionary psychology (e.g. Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4; Wright, The Moral Animal: p247). However, another earlier work on human sociobiology, David Barash’s The Whisperings Within gives an even higher figure, of “1,056 offspring” (The Whisperings Within: p47). Meanwhile, an article produced by the Guinness Book of Records gives an even higher figure of at least 342 daughters and 700 sons, while a scientific paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer gives a figure of 1171 offspring in total. The precise figure seems to be unknown and is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, the general point – namely that a powerful male with access to a large harem and multiple wives and concubines, is capable of fathering many offspring – is surely correct.

[2] In a contemporary context, I wonder whether the ostensibly ‘elite’ all-female bodyguard of Arab socialist dictator, Colonel Gadaffi, his so-called ‘Amazonian Guard’ (aka ‘Revolutionary Nuns’), served a similar function. Given the innate biological differences between the sexes, women are unlikely to represent effective bodyguards anymore than they do effective soldiers in wartime. Certainly, they did little to prevent his exection by rebels in 2011. In addition, since his overthrow and execution, accusations of sexual abuse have inevitably surfaced.
On the other hand, such allegations cannot necessarily be taken at face value, given the prevalence of false rape allegations. Moreover, it is suggested that, while female bodyguards may have been largely ineffective as conventional bodyguards, they may have served as, in effect, a ‘human shield’, whereby Gaddaffi took advantage of the reluctance of chivalrous male assassins and unsurgents, especially Arab Muslims, to shoot at and kill women.

[3] The capture of fertile females from among enemy groups is by no means restricted to the Yąnomamö. On the contrary, it may even form the ultimate evolutionary basis for intergroup conflict and raiding among troops of chimpanzees, our species’ closest extant relative. It is also alluded to, and indeed explicitly commanded, in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 20: 13-14; Numbers 31: 17-18), and was formerly prevalent in western culture as well.
It is also very much apparent, for example, in the warfare and raiding formerly endemic in the Gobi Desert of what is today Mongolia. Thus, the mother of Genghis Khan was, at least according to legend, herself kidnapped by the Great Khan’s father. Indeed, this was apparently an accepted form of courtship on the Mongolian Steppe, as Genghis Khan’s own wife was herself stolen from him on at least one occasion by rival Steppe nomads, resulting in a son of disputed paternity (whom the great Khan perhaps tellingly named Jochi, which is said to translate as ‘guest) and a later succession crisis.
Many anthropologists, it ought to be noted, dismiss Chagnon’s claim that Yanomami warfare is predicated on the capture of women. Perhaps the most famous is Chagnon’s own former student, Kenneth Good, whose main claim to fame is to have himself married a (by American standards, underage) Yąnomamö girl – who, in a dramatic falsification of her husband’s theory, was then herself twice raped and abducted by raiding Yanomami warriors.

[4] It is ironic that John Cartwright, author of Evolution and Human Behaviour, an undergraduate level textbook on evolutionary psychology, is skeptical regarding the claim that Ismail the Bloodthirsty fathered 888 offspring, but nevertheless apparently takes at face value that claim that a Russian peasant woman had 69 offspring, a biologically far more implausible claim (Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4).

[5] There may even be a fitness penalty associated with increased socioeconomic status and political power for women. For example, among baboons, it has been found that high-ranking females actually suffer reduced fertility and higher rates of miscarriages (Packer et al 1995). Kingsley Browne, in his excellent book, Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here), noting that female executives tend to have fewer children, tentatively proposes that a similar effect may be at work among humans:

Women who succeed in business tend to be relatively high testosterone, which can result in lower female fertility, whether because of ovulatory irregularities or reduced interest in having children. Thus, rather than the high-powered career being responsible for the high rate of childlessness, it may be that high testosterone levels are responsible for both” (Biology at Work: p124).

[6] However, here, Betzig is perhaps altogether overcautious. Thus, whether or not “political power in itself” is explained in this way (i.e. “as providing a position from which to gain reproductively”), certainly the human desire for political power must surely be explained in this way.

[7] The prospect of eugenically reengineering human nature itself so as to make utopian communism achievable, and human society less conflictual, is also unrealistic. As John Gray has noted in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (reviewed here), if human nature is eugenically reengineered, then it will be done, not in the interests of society, let alone humankind, as a whole, but rather in the interests of those responsible for ordering or undertaking the project – namely, scientists and, more importantly, those from whom they take their orders (e.g. government, politicians, civil servants, big business, managerial elites). Thus, Gray concludes:

“[Although] it seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

[8] Here, it is important to emphasize that what is exceptional about western societies is not monogamy per se. On the contrary, monogamy is common in relatively egalitarian societies (e.g. hunter-gatherer societies), especially those living at or near subsistence levels, where no male is able to secure access to sufficient resources so as to provision multiple wives and offspring (Kanazawa and Still 1999). What is exceptional about contemporary western societies is the combination of:

1) Large differentials of resource-holdings between males (i.e. social stratification); and

2) Prescriptive monogamy (i.e. polygyny is not merely not widely practised, but also actually unlawful).

[9] Quite when prescriptive monogamy originated in the west seems to be a matter of some dispute. Betzig views it as very much a recent phenomenon, arising with the development of complex, interdependent industrial economies, which required the cooperation of lower-status males in order to function. Here, Betzig perhaps underestimates the extent to which even pre-industrial economies required the work and cooperation of low-status males in order to function. Thus, Betzig argues that, in ancient Rome, nominally monogamous marriages concealed rampantly de facto polygyny, with emperors and other powerful males fathering multiple offspring with both slaves and other men’s wives (Betzig 1992). Similarly, in medieval Europe, she argues that, despite nominal monogamy, wealthy men fathered multiple offspring through servant girls (Betzig 1995a; Betzig 1995b). In contrast, Kevin Macdonald persuasively contends that medieval monogamy was no mere myth and most illegitimate offspring born to servant girls were fathered by men of roughly their own station (Macdonald 1995a; Macdonald 1995b).

[10] Certainly, the so-called NEET and incel phenomena seem to be correlated with one another. NEETs are disproportionately likely to be incels, and incels are disproportionately likely to be NEETs. However, the direction of causation is unclear and probably works in both directions. On the one hand, since women are rarely attracted to men without money or the prospects of money, men without jobs are rarely able to attract wives or girlfriends. However, on the other hand, men who, for whatever reason, perceive themselves as unable to attract a wife or girlfriend even if they did have a job, may see little incentive to getting a job in the first place or keeping the one they do have.

[11] Indeed, during the debates surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, the prospect of the legalization of polygynous marriage was rarely discussed, and, when it was raised, it was usually invoked by the opponents of gay marriage, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of changes in marriage laws to permit gay marriage, something champions of gay marriage were quick to dismiss as preposterous scaremongering. In short, both sides in the acrimonious debates regarding gay marriage seem to have been agreed that legalizing polygynous unions was utterly beyond the pale.

[12] Thus, father absence is a known correlate of criminality and other negative life outcomes. In fact, however, the importance of paternal investment in offspring outcomes, and indeed of parental influence more generally, has yet to be demonstrated, since the correlation between father-absence and negative life-outcomes could instead reflect the heritability of personality, including those aspects of personality that cause people to have offspring out of wedlock, die early, abandon their children or have offspring by a person who abandons their offspring or dies early (see Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, which I have reviewed here). 

[13] This paradox is related to another one – namely, why it is that people in richer societies tend to have lower fertility rates than poorer societies? This recent development, often referred to as the demographic transition, is paradoxical for the exact same reason that it is paradoxical for relatively wealthier people within western societies to have have fewer offspring than relatively poorer people within these same societies, namely that it is elementary Darwinism 101 that an organism with access to greater resources should channel those additional resources into increased reproduction. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not restricted to western societies. On the contrary, other wealthy industrial and post-industrial societies, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, have, if anything, even lower fertility rates than Europe, Australasia and North America.

[14] Actually, it is not altogether clear that women do have an innate desire to bear children. After all, in the EEA, there was no need for women to evolve a desire to bear children. All they required to a desire to have sexual intercourse (or indeed a mere willingness to acquiesce in the male desire for intercourse). In the absence of contraception, offspring would then naturally result. Indeed, other species, including presumably most of our pre-human ancestors, are surely wholly unaware of the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. A desire for offspring would then serve no adaptive function for these species at all. However, this did not stop these species from seeking out sexual opportunities and hence reproducing their kind. However, given anecdotal evidence of so-called ‘broodiness’ among women, I suspect women do indeed have some degree of innate desire for offspring.


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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 our 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? 


Bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, Singer 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 here, here and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is sometimes claimed by opponents of welfare benefts 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.
It might also be noted that, although their use by humans may be ‘unnatural’, the role of antibiotics in fighting bacterial infection is not itself ‘unnatural’, since antibiotics such as penicillin themselves evolved as a natural means by which one microorganism, namely mould, a form of fungi, fights another form of microorganism, namely bacteria.

[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 in Mein Kampf 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.

‘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 other scientists he characterises and smears 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, Sarich) whom Rose has built a minor literary career out of defaming. 

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 to repress a courageous dissident scientist in that country (Weiss 1991). This is moreover an allegation that Rose has, to my knowledge, never denied or brought legal action in respect, despite his known track record 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