‘Chosen People’?: A Memetic Theory of Judaism

Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, With Diaspora Peoples. Writers Club Press 2002.

Every people claims to be unique and in some sense, of course, the claim is true. But some people are more unique than others.” 

Pierre van den Berghe, The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed here).

Ethnocentrism is an innate and pan-human facet of human nature. Every ethnic group therefore regards itself as special and unique (see The Ethnic Phenomenon: which I have reviewed here).  

Viewed in this light, the Jewish claim to be special and unique (i.e. to be God’s chosen people) is, of itself, not so special and unique. 

However, of all the ethnic groups in the world that claim to be special, Jews perhaps have the best claim to actually being justified in their self-assessment. 

The impact of the Jewish people on world history is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. The two largest world religions, Christianity and Islam, both derive ultimately, in large part, from Judaism, and Jews are vastly overrepresented public intellectuals, Nobel Prize winning scientists, celebrities, millionaire media moguls and multibillionaires

Yet, the most remarkable achievement of Jews is arguably their very survival as a people, despite conquestbanishment, persecution, successive pogroms, the holocaust and almost two thousand years of diaspora, not to mention to the recent trend towards secularization.[1] 

Thus, Kevin Macdonald, in his book ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ (henceforth, ‘PTSDA’), argues: 

From an evolutionary perspective, the uniqueness of… Jews lies in their being the only people to successfully remain intact and resist normal assimilative processes after living for very long periods as a minority in other societies” (p86). 

He therefore concludes: 

They [Jews] are the only group that has successfully maintained genetic and cultural segregation while living in the midst of other peoples over an extremely long period of time… ‘the most tenacious people in history’” (p76). 

Off the top of my head, I can think of only two other groups who might plausibly assert a competing claim to this mantle: 

  1. Upper-caste Hindus, whose ancestors supposedly subjugated India several millennia ago, but who supposedly created the caste system precisely so as to preserve their racial and ethnic integrity; and 
  2. The Romani people (aka Gypsies or Roma), who have lived in Europe for at least several hundred years but have maintained their separate identity and way of life, resisting assimilation into the mainstream. 

Indeed, regarding the former, one might even argue that this complete genetic and cultural segregation applies, not only to upper-caste Hindus, but to all Indian castes, since each is, at least in theory, expected to marry endogamously

Moreover, this applies, not just to the four hierarchically-organized varna, plus the untouchable dalits, but also, again at least in theory, to each of the literally thousands of separate Jāti within each varna scattered across the subcontinent.

As a consequence, castes remain genetically distinguishable even today, with upper-caste Indians having greater genetic affinities with European populations, presumably a reflection of the Iranian, Indo-European origins of the Aryan invaders who settled and subdued the subcontinent, and are thought to have established the caste system (Bamshad et al 2001).

Indeed, to some extent, different castes are even distinguishable phenotypically, with upper-caste Indians having relatively lighter complexions (Jazwal 1979; Mishra 2017). Thus, Varna, the Hindi word for caste, originally derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘colour, possibly being a reference to the lighter complexions of the Aryan invaders.[2]

In this light, it is perhaps no surprise that the second group listed above, namely the Romani (or ‘Gypsies’), themselves also trace their ancestry ultimately to the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, the Romani insistence on maintaining remaining strict separation from the disdained ‘Gadjo’ outgroup, an aspect of their concern for ritual purity and cleanliness, is itself likely an inheritance from the Indian caste system

However, curiously, Macdonald characterizes “the caste system of India” as:

An example of a fairly open group evolutionary strategy… In India wealthy powerful males were able to mate with many lower-status concubines” (p31).[3]

In contrast, Macdonald claims, for Jews, all sexual contact with Gentiles was proscribed (p54-62). 

However, other biblical passages seemingly envisage the forced concubinage of foreign women (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:14Numbers 31:18). 

Macdonald acknowledges this, but argues that “although captured women can become wives, they have fewer rights than other wives”, citing the ease with which the divorce of foreign women captured as spoil is permitted under Deuteronomy 21:14 (p57). 

Similarly, with regard to the admonition in Numbers 31:18 “keep alive for yourselves” Midianite virgins, Macdonald concludes, given the prohibition on actually marrying Midianites which is contained in the very same biblical Book (Numbers 25:6), that the offspring of such sexual unions would be illegitimate: 

The captured women will be slaves and/or concubines for the Israelite males [and] their children would presumably have lower status than the offspring of regular marriages” (p57-8).[4]

However, much the same was true of lower-caste women used as concubines by upper-caste men under the Indian caste system

Thus, in India, the offspring of lower-caste concubines inherit the caste status of their mothers, irrespective of their paternal lineage. Therefore, at least in theory, the practice of concubinage would have no impact on the genetic composition, and ‘racial purity’, of the highest caste-group, namely the Brahmins. 

In short, the concubinage envisaged in the Bible seems directly analogous to that practiced by upper-caste Indians under the caste system

Cultural Group Selection 

In ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ (PTSDA), Kevin Macdonald explains Jewish survival and success through a theory of cultural group selection, whereby he conceptualizes Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy that functions to promote the survival and prospering of Jews throughout the diaspora. 

Macdonald is not here referring to group selection in the strict biological sense. Instead, Macdonald seems to have in mind, not biological, but cultural evolution.  

Thus, although he never uses the term, perhaps on account of an animosity towards Richard Dawkins, the originator of the term, whom he credits with indoctrinating evolutionists against the view that groups have any important role to play in evolution (pviii), we might characterise his theory of Judaism as a memetic theory, in accordance with Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes as units of cultural evolution (see The Selfish Gene: which I have reviewed here). 

PTSDA is, then, a work, not of evolutionary psychology, but of memetics

Dawkins famously described religions as Viruses of the Mind that travel between and infect human hosts just like biological viruses (Dawkins 1993). 

On this view, the success of a religion in surviving and spreading depends partly on its ‘infectiousness’. This, in turn, depends on the behaviours (or ‘symptoms’) that the infection produces in those whom it afflicts. 

Thus, proponents of Darwinian medicine contend that pathogens (e.g. viruses) produce symptoms like coughing, sneezing and diarrhoea precisely because such symptoms enable the pathogen to infect new hosts via contact with the bodily fluids expelled, as part of the pathogen’s own evolutionary strategy to reproduce and spread. 

Indeed, some pathogens even affect the brains and behaviours of their host, in such a way as to facilitate their own spread at the expense of that of their hosts. For example, rabies causes dogs and other animals to become aggressive and bite, which, of course, helps the virus spread to a new host, namely the individual who has been bitten.[5]

Similarly, successful religions also promote behaviours that facilitate their spread. 

Thus, Christians are admonished by scripture to save souls and preach the gospel among heathens; while Muslims are, in addition to this, admonished to wage holy war against infidels.[6]

These behaviours promote the spread of Christianity and Islam just as surely as coughing, sneezing and diarrhoea facilitate the spread of flu or the common cold. 

In short, a religion that commands its adherents to be fruitful and multiply, indoctrinate infants in the faith from earliest infancy, persecute apostates and actively convert nonbelievers will likely enjoy greater longevity than would a religion that commanded its adherents to be celibate hermits and taught that proselytism and having children are both mortal sins.[7]

Christianity and Islam are examples of the former type of religion and, no doubt partly for this reason, have spread around the world from inauspicious beginnings to become the two largest world religions. 

In contrast, religions which forbid proselytism and reproduction are few and far between, probably precisely because, even when they are founded, they do not survive long, let alone spread far beyond their originators. 

Macdonald quotes biologist Richard Alexander as citing the Shakers, an eighteenth-century Christian sect practising strict celibacy, as an example of this latter type of religion – i.e. a religion which, because of its tenets, in particular strict celibacy, has today largely died out (p8). 

In fact, however, a small rump group of Shakers, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, does survive in North America to this day, perhaps because, although celibate, they did apparently proselytize.[8]

In contrast, any religion which renounced both reproduction and proselytism would surely never have spread beyond its original founder or founders and hence never even come to the attention of historians, or theorists of religion like Alexender and Macdonald, in the first place. 

Judaism: A ‘Closed Strategy’ 

Judaism has also survived – indeed rather longer than has either Christianity or Islam. However, its numbers have not grown to the same degree. 

This is perhaps because, unlike Christianity and Islam, it adopted what Macdonald calls a ‘closed strategy’. 

In other words, whereas the Shakers renounced reproduction but practised proselytism, Jews did the exact opposite. 

Thus, the Israelites are repeatedly admonished by scripture to be fruitful and multiply (p51-4), marry within the faith (p54-62) and indoctrinate their offspring as believers from earliest infancy (p326-335). 

However, Jews do not actively seek converts. Likewise, they were forbidden to intermarry with Gentiles (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:3;), and punished for so doing (e.g. 1 Kings 11:1-13). 

It is sometimes claimed that Judaism was once a proselyting religion. However, Macdonald dismisses this as “apologetics”, designed to deflect the charge that, in contrast to the universalism of Hellenism (and later of Christianity), Judaism was a parochial, particularist or even a racist religion (p92). 

Indeed, Macdonald even hints that the decision to admit converts at all reflected a desire to forestall and counter precisely this charge. 

Macdonald therefore characterizes the Jewish strategy as: 

Allow converts and intermarriage at a formal theoretical level, but minimise them in practice” (p97). 

Thus, Rabbinic attitudes towards proselytes fluctuated, at least in Macdonald’s telling, from ambivalent to overtly hostile. Prospective converts to Judaism are traditionally turned away by a rabbi three times before being accepted, required to devote considerable effort to religious study, and, if male, undergo the brutal and barbaric practice of circumcision

However, Jews were not, even in Macdonald’s telling, entirely averse to conversion. On the contrary, according to Macdonald, the Israelites did forcibly convert conquered groups, notably the Galileans and Nethinim, the latter, Macdonald argues, representing the descendants of non-Israelite conquered peoples who were forcibly converted to Judaism. 

However, both these groups were, Macdonald claims, relegated to low status within the Jewish community, and subject to discrimination (p11). 

Indeed, this was, according to Macdonald, true of converts in general, who, even when they were admitted, faced systematic discrimination (p91-113). 

In particular, they were genetically quarantined from the core Jewish population, through restrictive marriage prohibitions, designed to maintain the “racial purity” of the core Jewish population, especially the priestly ‘kohanim’ line descended from Aaron

These restrictions remained in force for many generations, until all evidence of their alien origins had disappeared – an especially long time given the Jewish practice of maintaining genealogies (p119-127). 

Racial Purity” 

Macdonald repeatedly refers to Judaism as designed to conserve the “racial purity” of the group, this very phrase, or variants on it, being used by Macdonald on over twenty different pages.[9]

Thus, for example, it was, Macdonald claims, perceived racial impurity, rather than theological differences, that explained the rift with the Samaritans (p59).[10]

Racial Purity” is, of course, a phrase today more often associated with Nazis than with Jews. However, this apparently paradoxical link between the Jews and their principal persecutors during the twentieth century is, according to Macdonald, no accident. 

Thus, a major theme of Macdonald’s follow-up book, Separation and Its Discontents, is that: 

Powerful group strategies tend to beget opposing group strategies that in many ways provide a mirror image of the group which they combat” (Separation and Its Discontents: pxxxvii). 

Thus, Macdonald claims: 

There is an eerie sense in which National Socialist ideology was a mirror-image of traditional Jewish ideology. As in the case of Judaism, there is a strong emphasis on racial purity and on the primacy of group ethnic interests rather than individual interests. Like the Jews, the National Socialists were greatly concerned with eugenics” (Separation and Its Discontents: p194). 

On other words, Macdonald seems to arguing that Judaism provided, if not the conscious model for Nazism, then at least its ultimate catalyst. Nazism was, on this view, ultimately a defensive, or at least reactive, strategy.

Indeed, Macdonald goes further, arguing that the ultimate source of Nazi race theory was not WagnerChamberlain or Gobineau, let alone EckartRosenberg or Hitler himself, but rather ethnically Sephardic British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who, despite being a Christian convert and having married a Gentile, nevertheless considered the Jews a superior race, something he apparently attributed to their supposed racial purity. Thus, Macdonald quotes historian LJ Rather as claiming:

“Disraeli rather than Gobineau—still less Chamberlain—is entitled to be called the father of nineteenth-century racist ideology” (Reading Wagner: quoted in Separation and Its Discontents: p180).

Jewish Genetics 

So, if the Jewish group evolutionary strategy is indeed focussed on maintaining the ethnic integrity and “racial purity” of the Jewish people, how successful has it been in achieving this end? 

Recent population genetic studies provide a new way to answer this very question. 

As a diaspora community with ostensible origins in the Middle East, but having lived for many generations alongside host populations with whom they were, at least in theory, forbidden to intermarry, save under certain strict conditions, the study of the population genetics of the Jews is of obvious interest to both geneticists and historians, not to mention many laypeople, Jewish and gentile alike.  

Add to this the fact that many leading geneticists are themselves of Jewish ancestry, and it is hardly a surprise that the study of the genetics of contemporary Jewish populations has become something of a cottage industry within population genetics in recent years.[11]

Unfortunately, however, Kevin Macdonald’s ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ was first published in 1994, some years before any of this recent research had been published.[12]

Therefore, in attempting to assess the success of the Jewish population in reproductively isolating themselves from the host populations amongside whom they have lived, Macdonald is forced to rely on studies measuring, not genes themselves, but rather of their indirect phenotypic expression, for example studies of blood-group distributions and fingerprint patterns (p34-40). 

Nevertheless, recent genetic studies broadly corroborate Macdonald’s conclusions, regarding: 

  1. The genetic distinctness of Jews; 
  2. Their Middle Eastern origins; and 
  3. The genetic affinities among widely dispersed Jewish populations – including the Ashkenazi JewsSephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and perhaps even possibly the Lemba of Southern Africa (but not the Beta Israel of Ethiopia).[13]

However, this is true only with one major proviso – namely, the Ashkenazim, who today constitute the vast majority of world Jewry, trace a substantial part of their ancestry to Southern Europe (Atzmon et al 2010).[14]

Interestingly, comparison of the mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome ancestry of Ashkenazim, passed down the male and female lines respectively, suggests that most of this ancestry ultimately derives from Jewish men marrying (or at least mating with) with Gentile women, and their offspring being incorporated into the Jewish population (Costa et al 2013). 

This is perhaps ironic given that, according to traditional rabbinic law, Jewish identity is, at least in theory, traced down the female line

Economic Success 

Macdonald identifies various elements of the Jewish group evolutionary strategy that have enabled Jews to repeatedly economically outcompete gentile host populations. These include: 

  1. High levels of collectivism and ethnocentrism
  2. Emphasis on education and high-investment parenting (e.g. the stereotypical Jewish mother); 
  3. High levels of intelligence


Macdonald characterizes Judaism as “hyper-collectivist”, in accordance with the distinction between collectivist and individualist cultures formulated by Harry Triandis in Individualism and Collectivism (p353). 

Collectivist refers to a tendency for a person to regard their group membership, and ethnic identity, as an important part of their identity and to elevate the interests of the group above those of the individual, sometimes to the level of willing self-sacrifice. 

Macdonald regards this tendency towards collectivism and indeed to ethnocentrism as at least partly genetic in origin, although accentuated by rearing practices in which Jews are encouraged to identify with the in-group (p54-62). 

Partly, he claims, this genetic predisposition to collectivism is an inheritance from the Middle East, the region from which Jews trace (some of) their ancestry. In the Middle East, Macdonald claims, all groups are relatively collectivist and ethnocentric, at least compared to Europeans. 

This seems plausible given the tribal structure, and endemic tribal and ethnic conflict throughout much of the Middle East. 

Actually, it would be more accurate to say, not that Middle Eastern populations are especially collectivist or ethnocentric, but rather that Europeans are unusually individualist, since, viewed in global perspective, it is clearly we Europeans who are the WEIRD’ ones in this respect.[15]

One might imagine that, at least for the Ashkenazim (and perhaps Sephardi Jews too), both living among Europeans and to some extent acculturating to their norms, not to mention, as we have seen, incorporating a significant proportion of their genes from interbreeding with Europeans, might have accentuated, moderated or diluted these ethnocentric and collectivist impulses, at least as compared to those Middle Eastern populations who remained resident in the Middle East. 

However, Macdonald makes no such concession. On the contrary, he argues that, far from Jews being less collectivist and ethnocentric than other Middle Eastern populations, that Jews actually remain especially collectivist, even as when compared to other Middle Eastern groups. Moreover, he claims that this tendency long predates, though has not been noticeably moderated since, the exile.[16]

Thus, even in ancient times, Macdonald observes:

Jews alone of all the subject peoples in the Roman Empire engaged in prolonged, even suicidal wars against the government in order to attain national sovereignty… [and] only… Jews, of all subject peoples were exempt from having to sacrifice to the Empire’s Gods, and… were… allowed its own courts and… ex officio government” (p356-8).[17]

This tendency towards ethnocentrism was augmented through strict prescriptive endogamy (i.e. marrying within the group), which increases the level of relatedness between group members, and hence facilitates cooperation and trust (p54-62).

In addition to endogamy, a further factor is a preference for consanguineous marriage (i.e. incestuous marriage), which again increases relatedness within the group, and hence further facilitates cooperation and trust – but also, over time, threatens to divide the group into separate, inbred, endogamous lineages, with loyalty only to themselves. 

This is, again, like endogamy, a common feature of marriage throughout the Middle East. However, whereas Muslims, Arabs and other Middle Eastern groups typically favour cross-cousin marriage, the Jews, Macdonald reports, extolled, in particular, uncle-niece marriage, a practice probably even more distasteful to contemporary western sensibilities given the generational difference and hence likely the age-disparity. They were therefore, he reports, sometimes exempted from Christian laws prohibiting such unions (p118-9).[18]

As evidence of Jewish clannishness, Macdonald cites what he calls the ‘double-standards’ that are imposed by Judaic law. 

The most famous example relates to usury. Whereas Christians were forbidden outright to lend money at interest, Jews interpreted the same biblical passages as forbidding only the lending of money at interest to other Jews.[19]

Yet, ironically, this double-standard actually benefited its ostensible victims, since it gave Jews an incentive to lend money to Gentiles in the first place, and the resulting availability of capital for investment was probably a major factor in the economic growth of the West and its rise to world dominance.[20]

Other prohibitions, however, evinced greater economic understanding. Thus, Macdonald reports, Jews were not permitted to encroach upon the monopolies of other Jews, or undercut Jews, but only if the customers were Gentile – if the customer-base was Jewish, then competition was to be free so as to drive down prices and thereby benefit consumers (p227-230). 

Macdonald acknowledges that the more egregious examples of this ‘dual morality’ (e.g. “while the rape of an engaged Israelite virgin was punishable by death, there was no punishment at all for the rape of a non-Jewish woman”: p228) were tempered from the medieval period onward. 

However, this was done, he insists, only “to prevent ‘hillul hashem’ (disgracing the Jewish religion)” (p229). 

In other words, Macdonald seems to be saying that even the abolition of such practices was done in the interests of Jews themselves, in order to forestall, or avoid inciting, anti-Semitism, should such laws became widely known among gentile audiences. 

This, though, means that his theory comes close to being unfalsifiable

Thus, if an aspect of Judaism involves favouring Jews at the expense of non-Jews, then this, of course, supports Macdonald’s contention that Judaism is a group evolutionary strategy centred on maximizing the success and prospering of Jews and of Judaism. 

But if, on the other hand, an aspect of Jewish teaching actually involves tolerance for or even altruism towards Gentiles, then this also, according to Macdonald, supports his theory, because it is, in his view, a mere public relations exercise aimed at deceiving gentile audiences into viewing Jews and Judaism in a benign, non-threatening light.  

On this interpretation, it is difficult to see just what kind of evidence would falsify or be incompatible with Macdonald’s theory.[21]

Thus, Macdonald’s theory comes close to being a conspiracy theory. 

Indeed, if one were to go through the whole of Macdonald’s so-called ‘Culture of Critique trilogy’ replacing the words “Jewish group evolutionary strategy” with the words “Jewish conspiracy”, it would read much like traditional anti-Semitic literature. 

Collectivism and Capitalism 

Ironically, the Jewish tendency towards collectivism gave them a particular economic advantage in quintessentially individualist Western capitalist economies. 

Thus, in terms of game theory, a society otherwise composed entirely of atomized individualists, with no strong preference for one trading partner over another, is obviously vulnerable to invasion by a collectivist group with strong in-group bias, who, through preferentially favouring one another, would, all else being equal, outcompete the individualists and gradually come to dominate the economy. 

Thus, Macdonald writes: 

Jewish economic activity has historically been characterized by high levels of within-group economic cooperation and patronage. Jewish elites overwhelmingly tended to employ other Jews in their enterprises” (p220). 

Indeed, even in pre-capitalist times, Macdonald notes: 

The importance of highly placed courtiers in the general fortunes of the entire Jewish community” (p220). 

Moreover, both kinship ties which crossed international boundaries, and a common language (Yiddish), meant that Jews had business links and lines of credit that crossed international boundaries, giving Jews an advantage in an already increasingly globalized economy. 

Middleman Minorities? 

One concept central to understanding the economic, social and political position of Jews in host societies is that of the middleman minority group

Yet Jews are by no means the only ethnic group to have occupied this social and economic niche.  

Indeed, although Jews are often regarded as the quintessential exemplar of a middleman minority, this is arguably a western-centric perspective. Other ethnicities occupying an analogous economic niche in their host societies include the Lebanese in West AfricaSouth Asians in East Africa, and the overseas Chinese in much of Southeast Asia

As economist Thomas Sowell, an economist and long-term student of ethnic relations in cross-cultural perspective, observes in his essay Are Jews Generic?’

Although the overseas Chinese have long been known as ‘the Jews of Southeast Asia’, perhaps Jews might be more aptly called the overseas Chinese of Europe” (Black Rednecks and White Liberals: p129) 

Thus, the overseas Chinese dominate the economies of South-East Asia to a far greater extent than the Jews have ever dominated the economy of any western economy save in the imaginings of the most paranoid of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, and also, again like Jews in Europe, have been the subject of ongoing resentment combined with periodic persecution (see Amy Chua’s World on Fire).[22]

Yet Jews acted, not only as economic middlemen (e.g. bankers, moneylender, peddlers, wholesalers), but also as, if you like, ‘political middlemen’ – i.e. intermediaries between rulers and their subjects. 

Thus, for Macdonald, the quintessential Jewish role in host cultures was one that combined both these roles, namely as tax farmers

The prototypical Jewish role as an instrument of governmental oppression has been that of the tax farmer” (p175). 

Tax-farmers were private agents responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of a ruler, who, in return for this service, received a cut of the monies received as payment and recompense. He therefore had a direct incentive to extract the maximum taxes possible so as to maximise his own profits. 

According to Macdonald, Jews’ status as strictly endogamous aliens perfectly preadapted them for this role: 

Precisely because their interests, as a genetically segregated group, were maximally divergent from those of the exploited population… [they would have] no family or kinship ties (and thus no loyalty) to the people who were being ruled” (p172). 

They could therefore be entrusted to extract maximum revenue with all necessary ruthlessness. 

He even discovers a biblical precursor to this role, namely Joseph from the Book of Genesis, claiming: 

The archetype of the well placed courtier who helps other Jews, while oppressing the local population, is Joseph in the biblical account of the sojourn in Egypt” (p175).  

Thus, in the famous bible story, Joseph, by building up stockpiles of grain and selling it back to the Egyptians during famine, ultimately reduced the latter to servitude (p175; Genesis 47:13-21).[23]

Thus, while the masses usually resented Jews, ruling elites often acted as patrons and protectors. 

However, protection could only go so far, and Jews also served another vital function for elites, namely to act as a convenient scapegoat in times of revolt and rebellion. 

Thus, Pierre van den Berghe observes, since middleman minorities groups “deal more directly and frequently with the masses than the upper class” and are ethnically alien, they, not the ruling-elite itself, “become primary targets of hostility by the native masses… and are blamed for the system of domination they did nothing to create” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: reviewed here: p145). 

Thus, Macdonald quotes Hubert Blalock in Toward a New Theory of Minority group Relations as observing: 

The price the [middleman] minority pays for protection in times of minimal stress is to be placed on the front lines of battle in any showdown between the elite and the peasant groups” (quoted: p173).

Jews’ IQs?

Another factor contributing to Jewish economic success is their high intelligence.  

I have discussed the topic of Jewish intelligence in a previous post

The subject of Jewish IQs, unlike other postulated race differences in intelligence, recently became a semi-respectable, if politically incorrect, topic of polite, and not so polite, conversation, with the publication of a paper, championed by Steven Pinker, proposing that Ashkenazi Jews in particular have evolved high intelligence, and that this intelligence is mediated in part through the same genetic mutations that result in higher rates of certain genetic diseases among Ashkenazim, such as Tay Sachs, through a form of heterozygote advantage (Cochran et al 2005). 

Interestingly, Macdonald has a claim to having anticipated Cochran et al’s theory in PTSDA, where he writes: 

Eldridge (1970; see also Eldridge & Koerber 1977) suggests that a gene causing primary torsion dystonia, which occurs at high levels among Ashkenazi Jews, may have a heterozygote advantage because of beneficial effects on intelligence. Further supporting the importance of selective processes, eight of the 11 genetic diseases found predominantly among Ashkenazi Jews involve the central nervous system, and three are closely related in their biochemical effects (see Goodman 1979, 463) (p36).[24]

Despite his reputation as an anti-Semite, Macdonald’s estimate for the average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is actually even higher than that of Cochran et al and indeed most other researchers on the topic.[25]

Thus, he estimates the average Ashkenazi IQ at a whole standard deviation above the white gentile mean – i.e. 15 IQ points, or the roughly same as the difference between white and black Americans in the United States

However, despite the famous g factor (i.e. the correlation between scores for all different types of intelligence – verbal, spatial, mathematical etc.), Macdonald reports a massive difference in the verbal and performance IQs of Jews, with Ashkenazi jews scoring only about the same as the white European average for spatio-visual ability, but almost two standard deviations higher in verbal intelligence (p290).[26]

This, then, may explain the relative paucity of famous Jewish engineers or even architects as compared to Jewish overrepresentation in other spheres of achievment. It might also explain why, as MacDonald puts it:

This, together with the fact that Jewish entrepreneurs and financiers sometimes lent their financial and business skills to promote, market and profit from the innovations of Gentile engineers, lent superficial credence to the anti-Semitic charge that “Jews were not innovators, but only appropriated the innovations of others” (p291).[27]


If a component of the Jewish group evolutionary strategy, and Jewish economic success, is their high level of intelligence, how exactly did they obtain and maintain this high level of intelligence? Macdonald attributes the higher average IQ of Jews primarily to what he terms “eugenics” (p275-88). 

As evidence he cites various Rabbinic quotations regarding the desirability of marrying the daughter of a scholar, or marrying one’s daughter to a scholar, some of which seem to recognize, sometimes implicitly, sometimes almost explicitly, the heritability of intellectual ability (e.g. p275; p278; p281). 

This accords with what Steven Pinker rather disparagingly terms the Jewish ‘folk theory’ of Jewish intellectual ability, namely:

The weirdest example of sexual selection in the living world: that for generations in the shtetl, the brightest yeshiva boy was betrothed to the daughter of the richest man, thereby favoring the genes, if such genes there are, for Talmudic pilpul” (Pinker 2006).

In addition, Macdonald also observes that wealthy Jews generally had more surviving offspring than poor Jews and infers that this would produce an increase in intelligence levels, because wealth is correlated with intelligence. 

However, this pattern surely existed among all ethnic groups prior to the demographic transition and development of effective contraception and the welfare state, which disrupted the usual association between wealth and fertility. 

Thus, even in the absence of polygyny, the rich had higher numbers of surviving offspring, if only because only they could afford to feed and care for so many offspring. 

However, among Jews, wealth may have been especially correlated with intelligence, because most were concentrated in occupations requiring greater intellectual ability (e.g. moneylending rather than farm labouring).[28]

Poor Jews, meanwhile, were often the victims of substantial discrimination, sometimes including restrictions on their ability to marry, which, he infers, may have motivated the latter to abandon Judaism. Thus, their genes were lost from the Jewish gene pool. 

However, he provides no hard data showing that it was indeed relatively less well-off Jews who did indeed abandon Judaism in greater numbers. 

Moreover, in an earlier chapter on the alleged ‘clannishness’ of Jews, he discusses Jewish charity directed towards less well-off Jews, which may have represented an incentive for poor Jews to remain within the fold (p234-241). 

More plausible is Macdonald’s claim that Jews low in the personality trait known to psychometricians as conscientiousness may have been more prone to defect from the fold, because they lacked the self-discipline to comply with the incredible ritual demands that Judaism imposes on its adherents (p312-9). 

Religious Scholarship 

Whereas Jewish religious scholars were apparently much favoured as husbands, celibacy was imposed on many Christian religious scholars. As Francis Galton first surmised, this may have had a dysgenic effect on intelligence among Christians. 

Of course, today, religious scholarship is not regarded as an especially intellectually demanding field, nor arguably even an academically respectable one. Indeed, Richard Dawkins is even said to have disparaged theology as “not a real subject at all”. 

Moreover, there is a well-established inverse correlation between religiosity and IQ (Zuckerman et al 2013). 

My own view is that theology is indeed a real subject, just a rather silly and unimportant one rather like, as Dawkins has put it elsewhere, the hypothetically postulated field of ‘fairyology’ (i.e. the serious academic study of the nature of fairies). 

However, just because a subject-matter is silly and unimportant does not necessarily mean that it is intellectually undemanding. These are two different matters. 

Moreover, in the past, theology may have been the only form of scholarship it was safe for intellectually-minded Jews, Christians or even closet atheists to undertake. 

After all, anyone taking it upon himself to investigate more substantial matters, such as whether the Earth orbited the Sun or vice versa, was in danger of being burnt at the stake if he reached the wrong conclusion – i.e. the right conclusion.[29]

Untestable Panglossianism? 

Macdonald tends to view every aspect of Judaism as perfectly designed to ensure the survival and prospering of the Jewish people. Often, however, this is questionable. 

For example, Macdonald describes the special status accorded the Tribe of Levi, and the priestly Aaronite (Kohanim) line, as “from an evolutionary perspective… a masterstroke because it resulted in the creation of hereditary groups whose interests were bound up with the fate of the entire group” (p385).  

Thus, he contends: 

The presence of the priesthood among the Babylonian exiles and its absence among the Syrian exiles [i.e. the fabled lost tribes] from the Northern Kingdom may explain why the latter eventually… assimilated and the former did not” (p394).

However, one could just as plausibly argue that this arrangement, especially the hereditary right of the Levite priestly caste to payment from the other tribes, would produce resentment in other tribes and hence division. 

Again, this suggests that MacDonald’s theory is unfalsifiable.

Conscious Design or Random Mutation? 

In biological evolution, adaptions emerge without conscious design, through random mutation and selection.  

A similar process of selection may have occurred among rival religions: Some, like the Shakers, die out; others, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, survive and spread. 

However, religions are also consciously created by their founders – i.e. by figures such as Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Zoroaster, Ron Hubbard, Jesus and Saul of Tarsus. 

Thus, although Macdonald is an atheist and evolutionist, with respect to Judaism he seems to be something of a creationist. 

Thus, he writes that, although Moses, like Lycurgus of Sparta, may have been mythical, the systems developed in their respective names “have all the appearance of being human contrivances” (p395). 

Thus, Macdonald seems also to envisage that the teachings of Judaism were indeed consciously designed with the survival and prospering of the Jews in mind. 

Indeed, there were likely, he suggests, multiple authors. Thus, Macdonald argues that: 

The Israelite system has been so successful in its persistence precisely because crucial aspects of the strategy were continually changed… to meet current contingencies” (p396).[30]

Thus, Jewish writings authored in Exile (e.g the Talmud) extol very different traits than the martial values celebrated in the Books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, authored when the Jews were, if not independent, at least still resident in Palestine; while the twentieth-century establishment of the state of Israel presaged, once again, Macdonald reports, “a return to military values” (p318). 

Yet, in proposing that the Jewish evolutionary strategy was consciously designed by its formulators, Macdonald credits the authors of the Biblical texts with remarkable judgement and foresight. 

It also casts them in the role of a sort of metaphoric premodern Elders of Zion

This suggests, once again, that Macdonald’s thesis comes close to a conspiracy theory. 

Indeed, as I have already noted, if one were to go through Macdonald’s work replacing the words “Jewish group evolutionary strategy” with the words “Jewish conspiracy” then it would read much like traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy literature.[31]

Cultural or Biological Evolution? 

Since Judaism represents what Macdonald terms a ‘closed’ group strategy, it has as its effect, not only of ensuring the survival of Judaism as a religion, but also the survival of the Jewish people and their genes. 

Sometimes, this makes Macdonald’s theory read more like a theory of biological evolution than of cultural evolution or memetics. For example, he repeatedly talks of the Jewish group strategy as being designed to conserve “Jewish genes” and, as we have seen, preserve the racial purity of the group. 

This could cause confusion. Indeed, I suspect Macdonald has even managed to confuse himself. 

Thus, in his opening chapter, Macdonald emphasizes that: 

Strategizing groups can range from complete genetic segregation from the surrounding population to complete panmixia (random mating). Strategizing groups maintain a group identity separate from the population as a whole but there is no theoretical necessity that the group be genetically segregated form the rest of the population” (p15). 

Thus, Macdonald insists: 

At a theoretical level… a group strategy does not require a genetic barrier between the strategizing group and the rest of the population. Group evolutionary strategies may be viewed as ranging from completely genetically closed… to genetically open” (p15; see also p27). 

However, in a later chapter, Macdonald seems to contradict himself, writing: 

In order to qualify as an evolutionary strategy, genetic segregation must be actively maintained by the strategizing group” (p85). 

This suggests that ‘open strategies’ like ChristianityIslam, and Shakerism cannot qualify as ‘group evolutionary strategies’ and hence reduces the applicability, and hence, in my view, the usefulness, of the concept. 

Towards a ‘Culture of Critique’? 

Most problematically, this confusion carries over into The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), Macdonald’s more (in)famous sequel to the present work, where Macdonald envisages even secular intellectuals of Jewish ethnicity, including Marxists, Freudian psychoanalysts and Boasian cultural anthropologists, as somehow continuing to pursue a Jewish group evolutionary strategy even though they have long previously abandoned the religion in whose teachings this group evolutionary strategy is ostensibly contained. 

Yet, if the Jewish group evolutionary strategy is encoded, not in Jewish genes, but rather in the teachings of Judaism, how then can secular Jews, some of whom have abandoned the religion of their forebears, and others, raised in secular households, never been exposed to it in the first place, somehow continue to pursue this group evolutionary strategy. 

The Culture of Critique, then, seems to be fundamentally theoretically flawed from the onset (see my reviewhere). 

In contrast, ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’ represents a tenable and, in some respects, persuasive theory in explaining the survival and success of the Jewish people over the centuries, and it is regrettable that its reputation has been tarnished and overshadowed somewhat by Macdonald’s more recent writings, reputation and political activism. 


A final issue must also be addressed – namely, is Macdonald’s ‘A People that Shall Dwell Alone’ an anti-Semitic work? Certainly, in the light of Macdonald’s subsequent writing on the Jews, and political activism, it has been retrospectively characterized as such. 

Indeed, even at the time he authored the book, Macdonald was sensitive to the charge, insisting on the opening page of his Preface that, in his opinion: 

I believe that there is no sense in which this book may be considered anti-Semitic” (xcvii). 

In contrast, in the sequel, Separation and Its Discontents, Macdonald does not deny the charge of anti-Semitism, but rather predicts that this charge will indeed be levelled at his work, and indeed concludes that it is entirely compatible with his theory of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy that it would be .

The charge that this is an anti-Semitic book is… expectable and completely in keeping with the thesis of this essay” (Separation and Its Discontents: pxxxvi). 

Most recently, in the Preface to the First Paperback Edition of the The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), the last work in Macdonald’s trilogy, the most (in)famous and, in my view, also the least persuasive, Macdonald comes very close to admitting the charge of anti-Semitism, writing: 

Whatever my motivations and biases, I would like to suppose that my work on Judaism at least meets the criteria of good social science, even if I have come to the point of seeing my subjects in a less than flattering light” (Culture of Critique: plxxix). 

Yet, here, Macdonald is surely right. 

The key question is not whether Macdonald himself is anti-Semitic, nor even whether his books are themselves anti-Semitic (whatever that means), or are liable to provoke antisemitism in others. Rather, it is whether his theory is true – or, rather, provides a useful and productive model of the real world. 

Moreover, it bears emphasizing that any evolutionary theory is necessarily cynical. 

All organisms evolve to promote their own survival, often if not always at the expense of competitors. Likewise, superorganisms, including ‘cultural group strategies’, also evolve to promote their own survival, often at the expense of other groups and other individuals. 

Indeed, as Macdonald shows in Separation and Its Discontents, this is no less true of anti-Semitic movements, such as medieval Christianity or National Socialism, than it is of Judaism itself (p1-2). 

Interestingly, in an even more recent speech/essay, Macdonald returns again to denying the charge of anti-Semitism, instead professing: 

I greatly admire Jews as a group that has pursued its interests over thousands of years, while retaining its ethnic coherence and intensity of group commitment (Macdonald 2004).[32] 

Moreover, as suggested by the title of this speech (Can the Jewish Model help the West Survive?), he even suggests that Judaism, as a successful ‘closed’ group strategy, might even provide a useful model for the contemporary West. 

In other words, for the West, and white westerners in particular, to survive amidst globalization, mass immigration, declining birth-rates, below replacement-level fertility and gradual demographic displacement even in our own indigenous homelands, perhaps white Americans, and white Europeans, must, in imitation of Judaism, develop a new, and rather less ‘open’, group evolutionary strategy of our own. 


[1] Indeed, ironically, even the very first definite textual and archaeological reference to the Jews is a reference to their ostensible destruction, namely the Merneptah Stele, dated to the Second Millennium BCE, which reads, in part, Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more. Yet some four thousand years later, the Jewish people survive and thrive, still practising a continuation of the same religion, while Egypt itself has long been relegated to a global backwater. As Twain is apocryphally quoted as observing in response to his own obituary, reports of Israel’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

[2] In fact, although the word varna is undoubtedly cognate with the Sanskrit word for ‘colour, recent attempts have been made to deny a connection with skin colour. Thus, the latest version of the Encyclopædia Britannica entry for ‘varna’ argues that the idea that:

Class distinctions were originally based on differences in degree of skin pigmentation between an alleged group of lighter-skinned invaders called ‘Aryans’ and the darker indigenous people of ancient India… has been discredited since the mid-20th century.”  

Instead, the authors of this entry argue: 

The notion of “colour” was most likely a device of classification.” 

In support of this interpretation, it is notable that, in discussing Georges Dumézil’s Trifunctional hypothesis with respect to the original proto-Indo-Europeans, from which the four varna system of India likely developed, David W Anthony writes: 

The most famous definition of the basic divisions within Indo-European society was the tripartite scheme of Georges Dumézil, who suggested there was a fundamental three-part division between the ritual specialist or priest, the warrior and the ordinary herder/cultivator. Colors may have been associated with these three roles: white for the priest, red for the warrrior and black or blue for the herder/cultivator” (The Horse, the Wheel and Language: p92). 

Similarly, leading Indo-Europeanist JP Mallory observes:

Indo-Iranian, Hittite, Celtic and Latin ritual all assign white to priests and red to the warrior. The third function would appear to have been marked by a darker colour such as black or blue” (In Search of the Indo-Europeans: p133).

Likewise, Mallory also observes that “both ancient India and Iran expressed the concept of caste with the word for colour” (In Search of the Indo-Europeans: p133).
These commonalities suggest that the association of caste with colour predated the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by Indo-Europeans and therefore cannot have been a reference to the lighter complexion of the Indo-European conquerors as compared to the subjugated indigenous Dravidian peoples.
On the other hand, however, given the increasing genetic support for Aryan invasion theory in the populating of the subcontinent, and continued caste differences in complexion and skin colour, the idea that the term ‘varna’ was at least in part a reference to differences in skin colour cannot be ruled out.
Moreover, it is notable that, although ostensibly based on clothing not skin tone, even in the colour schemes outlined by Anthony and Mallory in the passages quoted above, it is the relatively higher caste groups that are associated with lighter colours (e.g. priests with white) and the lower status groups (e.g. herders/commoners) with darker colours (e.g. black or blue).
Part of the reason for the persistent denial of an association with skin colour seems to be political correctness, since the idea of an Aryan conquest, and an association with lighter complexion, is associated both with notions of racial supremacy and also with caste snobbery. In fact, however, it was presumably the earlier indigenous pre-Aryan Dravidian populations who were responsible for founding one of the world’s earliest civilizations, so there is no reason to think of the Aryan invaders as in any way racially superior. On the contrary, like later waves of nomadic horse warriors who originated in the Euasian Steppe but, with their mastery of the horse, subjugated more advanced civilizations (e.g. the Mongols and Huns), the proto-Indo-Europeans may have been militarily formidable but otherwise culturally-backward barbarians.

[3] This claim, namely that the Indian caste system represents a “fairly open” group evolutionary strategy, seems to me to be contrary to all the historical, and the genetic, evidence. For example, even Gregory Clark’s recent The Son Also Rises, which uses surname analysis to determine rates of social mobility, finds that, until very recently, India had exceptionally, indeed uniquely, low rates of social mobility as compared to anywhere else in the world.

[4] Since Jewish identity is traditionally passed down the female line, the offspring of non-Jewish concubines and Jewish males would not qualify as Jewish, unless either the mother, or the offspring him or herself, had formally converted. However, this idea first finds scriptural authority in the Mishnah, compiled in the Tannaitic period, i.e. the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. It therefore appears to be an innovation of Rabbinic Judaism, and hence of little if any relevance to the interpretation of the passages quoted by Macdonald from the Book of Numbers and of Dueteronomy, which, as part of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) were composed many centuries earlier. Indeed, some evidence suggests that originally Jewish identity was passed down the male line, and that this was only later altered in the early Tannaitic era.

[5] There are more dramatic examples of behavioural manipulation of hosts by pathogens. For example, one parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, when it infects a mouse, reduces the mouse’s aversion to cat urine, which is theorized to increase the risk of its being eaten by a cat, hence facilitating the reproductive life-cycle of the pathogen at the expense of that of its host. Similarly, the fungus, ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into so-called ‘zombie ants’, who willingly leave the safety of their nests, and climb and lock themselves onto a leaf, in order to facilitate the life cycle of their parasite at the expense of their own. Similarly, dicrocoelium dendriticum (aka the lancet liver fluke) causes the ants whom it infects to climb to the tip of a blade of grass during daylight hours, increasing the chance they will be eaten by cattle or other grazing animals, again facilitating the next stage of the parasite’s life-history.

[6] For example, the Islamic promise that martyrs will receive 72 virgins in paradise seems perfectly designed to encourage young, unmarried males, excluded from reproduction in the polygynous mating milieu of Islam, where there are inevitably not enough fertile females to go around, to risk their lives or even commit suicide attacks in the name of holy war. Such an afterlife is vastly more appealing to young males than the Christian conception of heaven, or even the ancient Norse conception of Valhalla

[7] For example, the requirement of the Catholic Church, since relaxed, whereby, for a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic to be permitted, the parties had to agree to raise any offspring as Catholic, and also that the Catholic partner continue to attempt to convert the non-Catholic, obviously had high memetic fitness and likely contributed to the changing demographic fortunes of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland

[8] A celibate group which replenishes its numbers through accepting newcomers is therefore capable of surviving. Perhaps the various (ostensibly) celibate holy orders of the Christian Church, and other religions, can be conceptualized in a similar way, though they, of course, exist only as part of, and with the support of, the wider Christian religious community as a whole. 

[9] E.g. p50; p55; p60; p78; p82; p98; p107; p117; 118, p119; p120; p122; p127; p158; p163; p120; p121; 122; p227; p360; p362; p363; p366; p403; p404. This is easily discoverable by using the ‘search inside’ feature on either amazon or google books. 

[10] On this view, the Samaritans supposedly represented the remnants of the Northern Kingdom who, being of lower social status, had not been exiled by the Assyrians, but rather remained in Samaria, but had supposedly intermarried with non-Jews. In addition to any concern for racial purity, there seem seems also to have been an element of class snobbery involved in the split, since those remnants of the Northern Kingdom who were not expelled were mostly of a lower social class.

[11] For example, several books aimed at a popular readership have been published on the topic, including Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (2008), David Goldstein’s Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (2008) and Harry’s Ostrer’s Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People (2012).

[12] Admittedly, in the ‘Diaspora Peoples: Preface to the Paperback Edition’, included in more recent editions of PTSDA, Macdonald does discuss a few of the early genetic studies (pxiv-iv). Unfortunately, however, these all seem to involve Y chromosome ancestry (i.e. male-line ancestry). Subsequent studies which also sample mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the female line, have shown that most European input into the Ashkenazi gene-pool has come from Jewish men mating with Gentile women (Costa et al 2013). Therefore, Macdonald’s review of studies of Y chromosome ancestry in this preface causes him to overestimate the segregation of the Jewish gene-pool in diaspora. There have also now been studies of Jewish autosomal DNA (i.e. neither Y chromosome nor mitochondrial DNA, but rather genes from the remainder of the genome besides the sex chromosomes), which reflects both male- and female-line ancestry.

[13] In A Troublesome Inheritance, science journalist Nicholas Wade reports:

As to European Jews, or Ashkenazim, genetics show that there has been a 5% to 8% admixture with Europeans since the founding of the Ashkenazi population in about 900 AD, which is equivalent to 0.05% per generation” (A Troublesome Inheritance: p200). 

As evidence for this claim, Wade cites a study entitled ‘A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans’ (Need et al 2009). Wade also estimates:

The rate of admixture with host populations has probably been similar among the other two main Jewish populations” (A Troublesome Inheritance: p200). 

[14] Population genetics studies also suggest that Sephardi Jews (i.e. those who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula prior to their expulsion in the late fifteenth century) also have substantial European admixture. Only the Mizrahi Jews, who remained in the Middle East and with whom Sephardi are sometimes conflated, may perhaps be of wholly Middle Eastern ancestry, since they lived among, and hence intermarried, only with other Middle Eastern populations. 

[15] Thus, for example, East Asian populations also seem to be highly collectivist in orientation. For example, a famous Japanese saying has it that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and it seems difficult to imagine Europeans volunteering, or even agreeing, to become kamikaze pilots. The issue of European individualism, which Macdonald traces much further back in human history than would most historians, is a principal theme of Macdonald’s most recent book Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition.

[16] Interestingly, in the Preface to the Paperback Edition of The Culture of Critique (reviewed here), a sequel to the work currently under review, Macdonald cites evidence of a difference in stranger anxiety as between infants from North Germany and those from Israel, including both Kibbutz-raised and city-dwelling infants (The Culture of Critique (paperback): pxxxii). This finding is consistent with a greater level of group-mindedness and ethnocentrism. The source cited by Macdonald for this claim in the associated endnote is the edited book, Growing Points of Attachment Theory and Research (pp233–275).

[17] However, interestingly, the suicidal wars against their Roman overlords were pursued most tenaciously by the Galileans. Yet the Galileans were, at least according to Macdonald, themselves only recent converts to Judaism, and still of lower status than other Jews. This is, of course, contrary to Macdonald’s theory that Jews are especially ethnocentric and collectivist. It also suggests that suicidal wars against the Romans were a manifestation of the phenomena sometimes referred to as the zeal of the convert.

[18] Macdonald reports that Jews also practised polygyny, both in Biblical times (p53-54; e.g. Exodus 21:10), and indeed into relatively modern times, the practice remaining common especially among Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (p373). Polygyny is, of course, another marriage pattern less frequent in the West than the Middle East, and which is today frowned upon, and unlawful, in all western cultures.

[19] Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The Jewish interpretation actually seems more reasonable given the wording of the passages. Indeed, according to anaesthesiologist-anthropologist John Hartung, many Old Testament Biblical injunctions that are today interpreted as universalist both by Christians and by many Jews, such as to love one’s neighbour and thou shalt not kill, and indeed many of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament as well, are properly to be interpreted, in their proper historical context, as applying only to fellow Jews (Hartung 1995).

[20] Macdonald, in contrast, sees Jewish usury, at least in ancient times, as exploitative. Thus, he observes:

“[F]ew individuals could expect to profit by taking a loan at the interest rates common in the medieval period. Interest rates in northern France were 65 percent and compounded until 1206, when the rate was fixed at 43 percent and compounding was made illegal… [But] both compounding and rates higher than the legal limit continued after attempts to abolish these practices. The great majority of loans were not for investment in businesses, but for living expences in a society that hovered near the subsistence level” (p406-7).

Although he acknowledges that moneylending, in making capital available for investment, is now an essential economic service, he emphasizes the exorbitant interest rates charged by Jewish moneylenders in the medieval period (in Separation and its Discontents: p46-7).
However, Jewish moneylenders were only able to charge such exorbitant rates because of a lack of competition (i.e. because Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest). The ultimate fault therefore lies with the prohibition on Christians charging interest on loans, not the Jewish moneylenders who took advantage of this exclusive market niche. Perhaps high interest rates were partly a product of price-fixing by Jewish monopolist cartels. However, if so, this was only because Christians were not permitted to compete with Jews as moneylenders, thereby undercutting them and hence driving down interest rates through increased competition.
Moreover, the high interest rates Jewish moneylenders charged probably also reflected the fact that the authorities had a habit of periodically declaring all debts void and expelling Jews from their territory without reimbursing them. The high interest rates charged therefore at least partly reflected the level of risk.
At any rate, even lending money at these seemingly exorbitant rates provided a service to the public. If it did not, then no one would ever have chosen to borrow money even on these terms. After all, if this was the only way in which monies were available to borrow, then it was better than nothing, if an urgent demand for capital demanded it.

[21] Interestingly, in its unfalsifiability, Macdonald’s theory mirrors Marxist sociology. Thus, for Marxist sociologists, if, for example, the law seemingly favours the capitalist class at the expense of workers, then this, of course, only confirms the Marxist in his belief that the capitalist legal system is biased in favour of the former. But if, on the other hand, laws are passed that, say, protect workers’ rights at the expense of their employers, then this is interpreted by the Marxist as a ‘sop to the workers’ – a forlorn effort on the part of the bourgeois capitalist government to appease the proletariat and thereby forestall, or at least postpone, the inevitable overthrow of capitalism – and hence proof of the inevitable coming of communism. Thus, Marxist social theory is as unfalsifiable as Marxist historicism.
In this light, the title of John Derbyshire’s piece on Macdonald in The American Conservative – namely The Marx of the Anti-Semities – is, I feel, rather insightful (thought Derbyshire himself, it must be noted, disclaimed this title, saying it had been forced on him by an editor).

[22] Macdonald argues that Jews differ from other middleman minorities, which usually attempt to maintain a low-profile, by their aggressiveness. Thus, Macdonald refers to the aggressiveness of the Jews, compared to the relative political passivity of the Overseas Chinese (Macdonald 2005).
For example, Amy Chua begins her book World on Fire by discussing the murder of her aunt, who was part of the Philippines’ wealthy Chinese business community, and the indifference of the police, and even of her own family, regarding the murder. Thus, she writes:

Hundreds of Chinese in the Philippines are kidnapped every year, almost invariably by ethnic Filipinos. Many victims, often children, are brutally murdered, even after ransom is paid. Other Chinese, like my aunt, are killed without a kidnapping, usually in connection with a robbery… The policemen in the Philippines, all poor ethnic Filipinos themselves, are notoriously unmotivated in these cases” (World on Fire: p2-3).

Even her own family, Chua reports, had a “matter of fact, almost indifferent attitude”, she reports, passively accepting that the murderer, though known, was unlikely ever to be apprehended (p2). 
It is impossible to imagine Jews in the West today reacting similarly. On the contrary, Jewish groups would surely be outraged and publicly protesting if Jews were being disproportionately targeted in racially motivated killings. Thus, for example, the powerful American Anti-Defamation League was formed in an attempt to protect wealthy Jewish convicted rapist and child murderer Leo Frank
On the other hand, however, I suspect, in previous centuries, attitudes among Jews in the West may have been similar to those in the Philippines. Perhaps the turning point for western Jewry in this respect was the Dreyfuss affair.
In stark contrast to Jews in the west, Macdonald reports:

The overseas Chinese in Indonesia have a reputation of being relatively uninterested in politics despite the fact that political trends have often had major effects on their business” (pliv).

Thus, the overseas Chinese strategy to avoid incurring enmity of the part of the host society among whom they live seems to involve maintaining a low-profile, keeping their heads down and concentrating on making money rather than making waves. Thus, Macdonald explains: 

Unlike the Jews, overseas Chinese have adopted a low profile political posture and have generally stayed out of local politics. Whereas Jews in the United States and elsewhere tend to have economic, political and cultural influence far out of proportion to their numbers, the Chinese are similar only in their economic influence.” (plxxxix). 

This is what sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe, in his book The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewed here and here) calls “weak money syndrome” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p153). Thus, van den Berghe observes:

“[Middleman minorities] basically survive by keeping a low profile, by remaining as inconspicuous as possible, by being unostentatious about wealth, by staying out of politics (at least overtly) and by adopting a conciliatory, nonaggressive strange” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p144).

The ironic result is that  “the more economically secure a [Middleman Minority group] becomes, the more precarious its position grows”, since their economic wealth produces an increase both their visibility and the resentment towards them that this provokes (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p144).
But Jews are seemingly almost as overrepresented among politicians and leading political activists as they are among businesspeople, though, as a rule, they tend to play down, sometimes even hide, their ethnicity.
Also, unlike Jews, Macdonald reports, the overseas Chinese “have not been concentrated in media ownership or in the construction of culture” (Macdonald 2005: 67). Neither, he reports, do we hear of: 

Chinese cultural movements, disseminated in the major universities and media outlets that subject the traditional culture of Southeast Asians and anti-Chinese sentiment to radical critique” (pxc)

However, to be fair, we don’t hear much about Jewish cultural movements that subject traditional western culture to radical critique either – unless of course, we happen to be readers of Macdonald’s own writings, especially The Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here).
Macdonald himself attributes these differences partly to the fact that “The [overseas] Chinese [in Southeast Asia] are a very recent group evolutionary strategy” and partly also to the fact that, although both groups have high IQs, East Asians have a very different, almost opposite intelligence profile to Ashkenazi Jews (pxc).
Thus, whereas Jews, as discussed above and in a previous post, score very high in verbal ability, but not especially highly spatio-visual ability, East Asians score higher in spatio-visual and mathematical ability than in verbal ability.

[23] Though the Biblical passage in question actually describes this course of events as benefitting all concerned, including the subjects who were reduced to bondage, Macdonald regards this interpretation as disingenuous (p175). This is not unreasonable. It is rarely if ever to anyone’s advantage to be reduced to bondage and slavery

[24] Macdonald also notes in an accompanying endnote:

Motulsky (1977a) suggests that the higher incidence of myopia in Ashkenazi Jewish populations could be the result of selection for higher verbal intelligence. Myopia and intelligence have been linked in other populations, and Jews tend to have higher intelligence and higher rates of myopia

However, the celebrated (and ethnically-Jewish) geographer, anthropologist, physiologist, ornithologist and all-round polymath (and anti-racist) Jared Diamond has an even earlier claim to anticipating Cochran et al’s theory in a paper published in the jounral Nature in 1994 (see Sailer 1999). 

[25] E.g. Richard Lynn’s The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement.

[26] Interestingly, despite the g factor, Macdonald suggests that, if overall IQ (or g), is controlled for, then there is actually an inverse correlation between, on the one hand, verbal, and, on the other hand, spatio-visual, intelligence, suggesting that there is a degree of trade-off between the two, perhaps whereby the more brain tissue is devoted to one form of ability, the less remains to be devoted to the other. Thus, Macdonald writes:

Visuo-spatial abilities and verbal abilities are actually negatively correlated in populations that are homogeneous for Spearman’s g, and… there are neurological trade-offs such that the more the cortex is devoted to one set of abilities, the less it can be devoted to the other” (p292; see Lynn 1987).

[27] Interestingly, and no doubt controversially, in an associated endnote, Macdonald credits Nazi-era German geneticist and eugenicist Fritz Lenz, in his account of Nordic and Jewish abilities, as tentatively recognizing this difference in verbal versus spatio-visual ability. According to Macdonald, Lenz explains this difference in terms of what contemporary racial theorists would call cold winters theory. Thus, Macdonald writes: 

Lenz gives major weight to the selective pressures of the Ice Age on northern peoples. The intellectual abilities of these peoples are proposed to be due to a great need to master the natural environment, resulting in selection for traits related to mechanical ability, structural design, and inventiveness. Lens’s description of Jewish intellectual abilities conforms essentially to what is termed here verbal intelligence, and he notes that such abilities are important for social influence and would be expected in a people who evolved in large groups” (p341-2).

[28] Interestingly, contrary to popular opinion, Jews did not work as moneylenders primarily because they were forbidden from owning land and hence working as farmers. It is true that they were sometimes forbidden from owning land. However, in other times and places, they were actually encouraged by the gentile authorities to own land and take up farming to facilitate assimilation. However, Jews generally resisted such entreaties. This was because the financial rewards offered by moneylending was actually greater than that available in other careers. However, non-Jews did not typically work as moneylenders, because to do so required literacy, and the vast majority of non-Jews were not literate, and the exorbitant costs of education actually more than offset the financial benefit associated with careers such as moneylending that required literacy. However, since Jews were required by religious law to be literate anyway, they naturally took advantage of this ability to earn more money in careers such as moneylending (Landsburg 2003). 

[29] The Jews were no more tolerant than the Christian Church in this respect, as the excommunication of Spinoza demonstrates. Neither were protestants more tolerant than Catholics. Indeed, at least according to Bertrand Russell, both Luther and Calvin actually condemned Copernicus before the Catholic Church, and may have thereby indirectly provoked the Catholic Church into persecuting Galileo, since the latter were in danger of being seen as ‘soft on Heliocentrism’ as compared to their protestant rivals. As Bertrand Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy:

Protestant clergy were at least as bigoted as Catholic ecclesiastics. Nevertheless there soon came to be much more liberty of speculation in Protestant than in Catholic countries, because in Protestant countries the clergy had less power… for schism led to national Churches, and national Churches were not strong enough to control the lay government” (History of Western Philosophy).

Thus, if the Church of England did not persecute Darwin as the Roman Church did Galileo, it was, Russell argues, only because they lacked the power to do so.

[30] Indeed, in practice, all successful religions have multiple designers, as they gradually evolve and change over time. Thus, Christianity, as we know it today, was probably at least as much the creation of Saul of Tarsus as it was of Jesus, while later figures such as Aquinas, Luther and Calvin also played key roles in shaping contemporary Christian beliefs and dogmas. Obviously, Christianity also draws on pre-Christian writings and religious ideas, most obviously those in the Old Testament.

[31] As Jeffrey C. Blutinger observes in a recent article on Macdonald’s work, A New Protocols: Kevin MacDonald’s Reconceptualization of Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory, Macdonald’s concept of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy enables him to resurrect all the essential elements of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with actually positing any actual conspiracy or conspiring.

[32] As I have mentioned in a previous post, anti-Semitism has a curious tendency to slide over into its ostensible opposite namely philo-Semitism. Both anti-Semites and philo-Semites tend to view Jews as uniquely separate from, and different to, all other peoples, and both also tend to notice the hughly disproportionate overrepresentation of Jews among different groups – philo-Semites, for example, pointing to the overrepresentation of Jews among Nobel prize winning scientists; anti-Semites more often pointing to their overrepresentation in media ownership and among leftists.
As Robert, a character from Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform observes:

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

Indeed, even Hiter occassionally seemed to cross the line into philo-Semiticism, the latter writing in Mein Kampf

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

However, the precise connotations of this passage may depend on the translation. Thus, other translators translate the passage that Manheim translates as The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew instead as The Jew offers the most striking contrast to the Aryan”, which alternative translation has rather different, and less flattering, connotations, given that Hitler famously extols ‘the Aryan’ as the master race.
Nevertheless, if Hitler was loathe to openly admit Jewish intellectual superioriry, Nazi propaganda and ideology certainly came to close to inadvertantly implying Jewish superiority.
Thus, for example, Weimar-era Nazi propaganda often dwelt on, and indeed exaggerated, the extent of Jewish overrepresentation in big business and the professions, arguing that Jews had come to dominate Weimar-era Germany.
Yet if Jews, only ever a tiny proportion of the population of Weimar-era Germany, had indeed come to dominate the far greater number of ethnic Germans in whose midst they lived, then this not only seemed to indicate that the Jews were anything but inferior to those Germans, but also that the Germans were hardly the master race of Hitler’s own imagining. Nazi propaganda, then, came close to self-contradiction.


Atzmon, Gil et al (2010) Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern AncestryAmerican Journal of Human Genetics 86(6): 850 – 859.
Bamshad et al 2001 Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste PopulationsGenome Research 11(6): 994–1004.
Cochran, Hardy and Harpending (2006) Natural History Of Ashkenazi IntelligenceJournal of Biosocial Science 38(5):659-93.
Costa et al (2013). A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages. Nature Communications. 4: 2543.
Dawkins (1993) “Viruses of the Mind,” in Bo Dalhbom, ed., Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993).
Hartung (1995) Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group MoralitySkeptic 3(4):86–98, 1995.
Jazwal (1979) Skin colour in north Indian populationsJournal of Human Evolution 8(3): 361-366.
Lansburg (2003) Why Jews Don’t FarmSlate June 13.
Lynn (1987) The intelligence of the Mongoloids: A psychometric, evolutionary and neurological theoryPersonality and Individual Differences 8(6): 813-844.
Macdonald (2004) Can the Jewish Model Help the West Survive? Acceptance speech, First Jack London Literary Prize (October 31, 2004).
Macdonald (2005) Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews as a Hostile Elite in the USSROccidental Quarterly 5(3): 65-100.
Mishra (2017) Genotype-Phenotype Study of the Middle Gangetic Plain in India Shows Association of rs2470102 with Skin Pigmentation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 137(3):670-677.
Need et al (2009) ‘A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans’ Genome Biology 10: R7.
Pinker (2006) Groups and Genes, New Republic, June 26.
Sailer (2019) Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ Respectability Anticipated Some of Henry Harpending’s ‘Ashkenazi Intelligence’ Theory in 1994 in ‘Nature’Unz Review, December 30.
Zuckerman et al (2013) The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity, Personality and Social Psychology Review. 17: 325–354. 


Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’: Selfish Genes, Selfish Memes and Altruistic Phenotypes

‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Selfish Genes ≠ Selfish Phenotypes

Richard Dawkins’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ is among the most celebrated, but also the most misunderstood, works of popular science.

Thus, among people who have never read the book (and, strangely, a few who apparently have) Dawkins is widely credited with arguing that humans are inherently selfish, that this disposition is innate and inevitable, and even, in some versions, that behaving selfishly is somehow justified by our biological programming, the titular ‘Selfish Gene’ being widely misinterpreted as referring to a gene that causes us to behave selfishly.

Actually, Dawkins is not concerned, either directly or primarily, with humans at all.

Indeed, he professes to be “not really very directly interesting in man”, whom he dismisses as “a rather aberrant species” and hence peripheral to his own interest, namely how evolution has shaped the bodies and especially the behaviour of organisms in general (Dawkins 1981: p556).

‘The Selfish Gene’ is then, unusually, if not uniquely, for a bestselling work of popular science, a work, not of human biology nor even of non-human zoology, ethology or natural history, but rather of theoretical biology.

Moreover, in referring to genes as ‘selfish’, Dawkins has in mind not a trait that genes encode in the organisms they create, but rather a trait of the genes themselves.

In other words, individual genes are themselves conceived of as ‘selfish’ (in a metaphoric sense), in so far as they have evolved by natural selection to selfishly promote their own survival and replication by creating organisms designed to achieve this end.

Indeed, ironically, as Dawkins is at pains to emphasise, selfishness at the genetic level can actually result in altruism at the level of the organism or phenotype.

This is because, where altruism is directed towards biological kin, such altruism can facilitate the replication of genes shared among relatives by virtue of their common descent. This is referred to as kin selection or inclusive fitness theory and is one of the central themes of Dawkins’ book.

Yet, despite this, Dawkins still seems to see organisms themselves, humans very much included, as fundamentally selfish – albeit a selfishness tempered by a large dose of nepotism.

Thus, in his opening paragraphs no less, he cautions:

If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from our biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (p3).

The Various Editions

In later editions of his book, namely those published since 1989, Dawkins tempers this rather cynical view of human and animal behaviour by the addition of a new chapter – Chapter 12, titled ‘Nice Guys Finish First’.

This new chapter deals with the subject of reciprocal altruism, a topic he had actually already discussed earlier, together with the related, but distinct, phenomenon of mutualism,[1] in Chapter 10 (entitled, ‘You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride on Yours’).

In this additional chapter, he essentially summarizes the work of political scientist Robert Axelrod, as discussed in Axelrod’s own book The Evolution of Co-Operation. This deals with evolutionary game theory, specifically the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and the circumstances in which a cooperative  strategy can, by cooperating only with those who have a history of reciprocating, survive, prosper, evolve, and, in the long-term, ultimately outcompete  and hence displace those strategies which maximize only short-term self-interest.

Post-1989 editions also include another new chapter titled ‘The Long Reach of the Gene’ (Chapter 13).

If, in Chapter 12, the first additional chapter, Dawkins essentially summarised the contents of of Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation, then, in Chapter 13, he summarizes his own book, The Extended Phenotype.

In addition to these two additional whole chapters, Dawkins also added extensive endnotes to these post-1989 editions.

These endnotes clarify various misunderstandings which arose from how he explained himself in the original version, defend Dawkins against some criticisms levelled at certain passages of the book and also explain how the science progressed in the years since the first publication of the book, including identifying things he and other biologists got wrong.

With still more recent new editions, the content of ‘The Selfish Gene’ has burgeoned still further. Thus, he 30th Anniversary Edition boasts only a new introduction; the recent 40th Anniversary Edition, published in 2016, boasts a new Epilogue too. Meanwhile, the latest so-called Extended Selfish Gene boasts, in addition to this, two whole new chapters.

Actually, these two new chapters are not all that new, being lifted wholesale from, once again, The Extended Phenotype, a work whose contents Dawkins has already, as we have seen, summarized in Chapter 13 (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), itself an earlier addition to the book’s seemingly ever expanding contents list.

The decision not to entirely rewrite ‘The Selfish Gene’ was apparently that of Dawkins’ publisher, Oxford University Press.

This was probably the right decision. After all, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is not a mere undergraduate textbook, in need of revision every few years in order to keep up-to-date with the latest published research.

Rather, it was a landmark work of popular science, and indeed of theoretical biology, that introduced a new approach to understanding the evolution of behaviour and physiology to a wider readership, composed of biologist and non-biologist alike, and deserves to stand in its original form as a landmark in the history of science.

However, while the new introductions and the new epilogue is standard fare when republishing a classic work several years after first publication, the addition of four (or two, depending on the edition) whole new chapters strikes me less readily defensible.

For one thing, they distort the structure of the book, and, though interesting in and of themselves, always read for me rather as if they have been tagged on at the end as an afterthought – as indeed they have.

The book certainly reads best, in a purely literary sense, in its original form (i.e. pre-1989 editions), where Dawkins concludes with an optimistic, if fallacious, literary flourish (see below).

Moreover, these additional chapters reek of a shameless marketing strategy, designed to deceive new readers into paying the full asking price for a new edition, rather than buying a cheaper second-hand copy or just keeping their old one.

This is especially blatant in respect of the book’s latest incarnation, The Extended Selfish Gene, which, according to the information provided on Oxford University Press’s own website, was released only three months after the previous 40th Anniversary Edition, yet includes two additional chapters.

One frankly expects better from so presigious a publisher such as Oxford University Press, and indeed so celebrated a biologist and science writer as Richard Dawkins, especially as I suspect neither are especially short of money.

If I were recommending someone who has never read the book before on which edition to buy, I would probably advise them to get a second-hand copy of any post-1989 editions, since these can now be picked up very cheap, and include the additional endnotes which I personally often found very interesting.

On the other hand, if you want to read three additional chapters either from or about The Extended Phenotype then you are probably best to buy, instead, well… The Extended Phenotype – as this is also now a rather old book of which, as with ‘The Selfish Gene’, old copies can now be picked up very cheap.

The ‘Gene’s-Eye-View’ of Evolution

The Selfish Gene is a seminal work in the history of biology primarily because Dawkins takes the so-called gene’s-eye-view of evolution to its logical conclusion. To this extent, contrary to popular opinion, Dawkins’ exposition is not merely a popularization, but actually breaks new ground theoretically.

Thus, John Maynard Smith famously talked of kin selection by analogy with ‘group selection’ (Smith 1964). However, William Hamilton, who formulated the theory underlying these concepts, always disliked the term ‘kin selection’ and talked instead of the direct, indirect and inclusive fitness of organisms (Hamilton 1964a; 1964b).

However, Dawkins takes this line of thinking to its logical conclusion by looking – not at the fitness or reproductive success of organisms or phenotypes – but rather at the success in self-replication of genes themselves.

Thus, although he certainly stridently rejects group-selection, Dawkins replaces this, not with the familiar individual-level selection of classical Darwinism, but rather with a new focus on selection at the level of the gene itself.

Abstract Animals?

Much of the interest, and no little of the controversy, arising from ‘The Selfish Gene’ concerned, of course, the potential application of its theory to humans. However, in the book itself, humans, whom, as mentioned above, Dawkins dismisses as a “rather aberrant species” in which he professes to be “not really very directly interested” (Dawkins 1981: p556) are actually mentioned only occasionally and briefly.

Indeed, most of the discussion is purely theoretical. Even the behaviour of non-human animals is described only for illustrative purposes, and even these illustrative examples often involve simplified hypothetical creatures rather than descriptions of the behaviour of real organisms.

For example, he illustrates his discussion of the relative pros and cons of either fighting or submitting in conflicts over access to resources by reference to ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ – but is quick to acknowledge that these are hypothetical and metaphoric creatures, with no connection to the actual bird species after whom they are named:

The names refer to conventional human usage and have no connection with the habits of the birds from whom the names are derived: doves are in fact rather aggressive birds” (p70).

Indeed, even Dawkins’ titular “selfish genes” are rather abstract and theoretical entities. Certainly, the actual chemical composition and structure of DNA is of only peripheral interest to him.

Indeed, often he talks of “replicators” rather than “genes” and is at pains to point out that selection can occur in respect of any entity capable of replication and mutation, not just DNA or RNA. (Hence his introduction of the concept of memes: see below).

Moreover, Dawkins uses the word ‘gene’ in a somewhat different sense to the way the word is employed by most other biologists. Thus, following George C. Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection, he defines a “gene” as:

Any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection” (p28).

This, of course, makes his claim that genes are the principle unit of selection something approaching a tautology or circular argument.

Sexual Selection in Humans?

Where Dawkins does mention humans, it is often to point out the extent to which this “rather aberrant species” apparently conspicuously fails to conform to the predictions of selfish-gene theory.

For example, at the end of his chapter on sexual selection (Chapter 9, titled, “Battle of the Sexes”) he observes that, in contrast to most other species, among humans, at least in the West, it seems to be females who are most active in using physical appearance as a means of attracting mates:

One feature of our own society that seems decidedly anomalous is the matter of sexual advertisement… It is strongly to be expected on evolutionary grounds that where the sexes differ, it should be the males that advertise and the females that are drab… [Yet] there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacock’s tail is exhibited by the female, not the male” (p164).

Thus, among most other species, it is males who have evolved more elaborate plumages and other flashy, sexually selected ornaments. In contrast, females of the same species are often comparatively drab in appearance.

Yet, in modern western societies, Dawkins observes, it is more typically women who “paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes” (p164).

Here, it is notable that Dawkins, being neither an historian nor an anthropologist, is careful to restricts his comments to “our own society” and, elsewhere, to “modern western man”.

Thus, one explanation is that it is only our own WEIRD, western societies that are anomalous?

Thus, Matt Ridley, in The Red Queen, proposes that maybe:

Modern western societies have been in a two-century aberration from which they are just emerging. In Regency England, Louis XIV’s France, medieval Christendom, ancient Greece, or among the Yanomamö, men followed fashion as avidly as women. Men wore bright colours, flowing robes, jewels, rich materials, gorgeous uniforms, and gleaming, decorated armour. The damsels that knights rescued were no more fashionably accoutred than their paramours. Only in Victorian times did the deadly uniformity of the black frock coat and its dismal modern descendant, the grey suit, infect the male sex, and only in this century have women’s hemlines gone up and down like yo-yos” (The Red Queen: p292).

There is an element of truth here. However, I suspect it partly reflects a misunderstanding of the different purposes for which men and women use clothing, including bright and elaborate clothing.

Thus, it rather reminds me of Margaret Mead’s claim that, among the Tschambuli of Papua New Guinea, sex-roles were reversed because, here, it was men who painted their faces and wore ‘make-up’, not women.

Yet what Mead neglected to mention that the ‘make-up’ and face-paint that she evidently found so effeminate was actually war-paint that a Tschambuli warrior was only permitted to wear after killing his first enemy warrior, an obviously very male activity (see Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior: p152).

Of course, clothes and makeup are an aspect of behaviour rather than morphology, and thus more directly analogous to, say, the nests (or, more precisely, the bowers) created by male bowerbirds than the tail of the peacock.

However, behaviour is, in principle, no less subject to natural selection (and sexual selection) than is morphology, and therefore the paradox remains.

Moreover, even concentrating our focus exclusively on morphology, the sex difference still seems to remain.

Thus, perhaps the closest thing to a ‘peacock’s tail’ in humans (i.e. a morphological trait designed to attract mates) is a female trait, namely breasts.

Thus, as Desmond Morris first observed, in humans, the female breasts seem to have been co-opted for a role in sexual selection, since, unlike among other mammals, women’s breasts are permanent, from puberty on, not present only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016).

In contrast, men possess no obvious equivalent of the peacock’s tail’ (i.e. a trait that has evolved in response to female choice) – though Geoffrey Miller makes a fascinating (but ultimately unconvincing) case that the human brain may represent a product of sexual selection (see The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature).[2]

Interestingly, in an endnote to post-1989 editions of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins himself tentatively speculates that maybe the human penis might represent a sexually-selected ‘fitness indicator’.

Thus, he points out that the human penis is large as compared to that of other primates, yet also lacks a baculum (i.e. penis bone) that facilitates erections. This, he speculates, could mean that the capacity to maintain an erection might represent an honest signal of health in accordance with Zahavis handicap principle (307-8).

However, it is more likely that the large size, or more specifically the large width, of the human penis reflects instead a response to the increased size of the vagina, which itself increased in size to enable human females to give birth to large-brained, and hence large-headed, infants (see Bowman 2008; Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: pp61-70).[3]

How then can we make sense of this apparent paradox, whereby, contrary to Bateman’s principle, sexual selection appears to have operated more strongly on women than on men?

For his part, Dawkins himself offers no explanation, merely 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?” (p165).

However, in respect of what David Buss calls short-term mating strategies (i.e. casual sex, hook-ups and one night stands), this is certainly not the case.

On the contrary, patterns of everything from prostitution and rape to erotica and pornography consumption confirm that, in respect of short-term ‘commitment’-free casual sex, it remains women who are very much in demand and men who are the ardent pursuers (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality: which I have reviewed here).

Thus, in one study conducted on a University campus, 72% of male students agreed to go to bed with a female stranger who approached them with a request to this effect. In contrast, not a single one of the 96 females approached agreed to the same request from a male questioner (Clark and Hatfield 1989).

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

However, humans also form long-term pair-bonds to raise children, and, in contrast to males of most other mammalian species, male parents often invest heavily in the offspring of such unions.

Men are therefore expected to be relatively choosier in respect of long-term romantic partners (e.g. wives) than they are for casual sex partners. This may then explain the relatively high levels of reproductive competition engaged in by human females, including high levels of what Dawkins calls ‘sexual advertising’.

Reproductive competition between women may be especially intense in western societies practising what Richard Alexander termed socially-imposed monogamy.

This refers to societies where there are large differences between males in social status and resource holdings, but where even wealthy males are prohibited by law from marrying multiple women at once.[4]

Here, there may be intense competition as between females for exclusive rights to resource-abundant ‘alpha male’ providers (Gaulin and Boser 1990).

Thus, to some extent, the levels of sexual competition engaged in by women in western societies may indeed be higher than in non-western, polygynous societies.

This, then, might explain why females use what Dawkins terms ‘sexual advertising’ to attract long-term mates (i.e. husbands). However, it still fails to explain why males don’t – or, at least, don’t seem to do so to anything like the same degree.

The answer may be that, in contrast to mating patterns in modern western societies, female choice may actually have played a surprisingly limited role in human evolutionary history, given that, in most pre-modern societies, arranged marriages were, and are, the norm.

Male mating competition may then have taken the form of male-male contest competition (e.g. fighting) rather than displaying to females – i.e. what Darwin called intra-sexual selection’ rather than ‘inter-sexual selection’.

Thus, while men indeed possess no obvious analogue to the peacock’s tail, they do seem to possess traits designed for fighting – namely considerably greater levels of upper-body musculature and violent aggression as compared to women (see Puts 2010).

In other words, human males may not have any obvious ‘peacock’s tail’, but we perhaps we do have, if you like, stag’s antlers.

From Genes to Memes

Dawkins’ eleventh chapter, which was, in the original version of the book (i.e. pre-1989 editions), the final chapter, is also the only chapter to focus exclusively on humans.

Entitled ‘Memes: The New Replicators’, it focuses again on the extent to which humans are indeed an “aberrant species”, being subject to cultural as well as biological evolution to a unique degree.

Interestingly, however, Dawkins argues that the principles of natural selection discussed in the preceding chapters of the book can be applied just as usefully to cultural evolution as to biological evolution.

In doing so, he coins the concept of the meme as the cultural unit of selection, equivalent to a gene, passing between minds analogously to a virus.

This term has been enormously influential in intellectual discourse, and indeed in popular discourse, and even passed into popular usage.

The analogy of memes to genes certainly makes for an interesting thought-experiment. However, like any analogy, it can be taken too far.

Certainly ideas can be viewed as spreading between people, and as having various levels of fitness depending on the extent to which they catch on.

Thus, to take one famous example, Dawkins famously described religions such as Islam and Christianity as Viruses of the Mind, which travel between, and infect, human minds in a manner analogous to a virus.

Thus, proponents of Darwinian medicine contend that pathogens such as flu and the common cold produce symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and diarrhea precisely because these behaviours promote the spread and replication of the pathogen to new hosts through the bodily fluids thereby expelled.

Likewise, rabies causes dogs and other animals to become aggressive and bite, which likewise facilitates the spread of the rabies virus to new hosts.[5]

By analogy, successful religions are typically those that promote behaviours that facilitate their own spread.

Thus, a religion that commands its followers to convert non-believers, persecute apostates, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and indoctrinate your offspring with their beliefs is, for obvious reasons, likely to spread faster and have greater longevity than a religious doctrine that commands adherents become celibate hermits and that proselytism is a mortal sin.

Thus, Christians are admonished by scripture to save souls and preach the gospel among heathens; while Muslims are, in addition, admonished to wage holy war against infidels and persecute apostates.

These behaviour facilitate the spread of Christianity and Islam just as surely as coughing and sneezing promote the spread of the flu.[6]

Like genes, memes can also be said to mutate, though this occurs not only through random (and not so random) copying errors, but also by deliberate innovation by the human minds they ‘infect’. Memetic mutation, then, is not entirely random.

However, whether this way of looking at cultural evolution is a useful and theoretically or empirically productive way of conceptualizing cultural change remains to be seen.

Certainly, I doubt whether ‘memetics’, as it is sometimes termed, will ever be a rigorous science comparable to genetics, after which it is named, as some of the concept’s more enthusiastic champions have sometimes envisaged. Neither, I suspect, did Dawkins ever originally intend or envisage it as such, having seemingly coined the idea as something of an afterthought.

At any rate, one of the main factors governing the ‘infectiousness’ or ‘fitness’ of a given meme, is the extent to which the human mind is receptive to it and the human mind is itself a product of biological evolution.

The basis for understanding human behaviour, even cultural behaviour, is therefore how natural selection has shaped the human mind – in other words evolutionary psychology not memetics.

Thus, humans will surely have evolved resistance to memes that are contrary to their own genetic interests (e.g. celibacy) as a way of avoiding exploitation and manipulation by third-parties.

For more recent discussion of the status of the meme concept (the ‘meme meme’, if you like) see The Meme Machine; Virus of the Mind; The Selfish Meme; and Darwinizing Culture.

Escaping the Tyranny of Selfish Replicators?

Finally, at least in the original, non-‘extended’ editions of the book, Dawkins concludes ‘The Selfish Gene’, with an optimistic literary flourish, emphasizing once again the alleged uniqueness of the “rather aberrant” human species.[7]

Thus, his final paragraph ends:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (p201).

This makes for a dramatic, and optimistic, conclusion. It is also flattering to anthropocentric notions of human uniqueness, and of free will.

Unfortunately, however, it ignores the fact that the “we” who are supposed to be doing the rebelling are ourselves a product of the same process of natural selection and, indeed, of the same selfish replicators against whom Dawkins calls on us to rebel. Indeed, even the (alleged) desire to revolt is a product of the same process.[8]

Likewise, in the book’s opening paragraphs, Dawkins proposes:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.” (p3)

However, this ignores, not only that the “us” who are to do the teaching and who ostensibly wish to instill altruism in others are ourselves the product of this same evolutionary process and these same selfish replicators, but also that the subjects whom we are supposed to indoctrinate with altruism are themselves surely programmed by natural selection to be resistant to any indoctrination or manipulation by third-parties to behave in ways that conflict with their own genetic interests.

In short, the problem with Dawkins’ cop-out Hollywood Ending is that, as anthropologist Vincent Sarich is quoted as observing, Dawkins has himself “spent 214 pages telling us why that cannot be true”. (See also Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: which I have reviewed here).[9]

The preceding 214 pages, however, remain an exciting, eye-opening and stimulating intellectual journey, even over thirty years after their original publication.



[1] Mutualism is distinguished from reciprocal altruism by the fact that, in the former, both parties receive an immediate benefit from their cooperation, whereas, in the latter, for one party, the reciprocation is delayed. It is reciprocal altruism that therefore presents the greater problem for evolution, and for evolutionists, because, here, there is the problem policing the agreement – i.e. how is evolution to ensure that the immediate beneficiary does indeed reciprocate, rather than simply receiving the benefit without later returning the favour (a version of the free rider problem). The solution, according to Axelrod, is that, where parties interact repeatedly over time, they come to engage in reciprocal altruism only with other parties with a proven track record of reciprocity, or at least without a proven track record of failing to reciprocate. 

[2] Certainly, many male traits are attractive to women (e.g. height, muscularity). However, these also have obvious functional utility, not least in increasing fighting ability, and hence probably have more to do with male-male competition than female choice. In contrast, many sexually-selected traits are positive hindicaps to their bearers, in all spheres except attracting mates. Indeed, one influential theory of sexual selection claims that it is precisely because they represent a handicap that they serve as an honest indicator of fitness and hence a reliable index of genetic quality.

[3] Thus, Edwin Bowman writes:

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, in their controversial book Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis persuasively contend:

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: p171).

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

According to Baker and Bellis, this is because the human penis functions as a suction piston, functioning to remove the sperm deposited by rival males, as a form of sperm competition, a theory that actually has some experimental support, not least from some hilarious research involving sex toys of differing sizes and shapes (Gallup et al 2003; Gallup and Burch 2004; Goetz et al 2005; see also Why is the Penis Shaped Like That).

Thus, according to this view:

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).

However, even in the absence of sperm competition, Alan Dixson observes:

In primates and other mammals the length of the erect penis and vaginal length tend to evolve in tandem. Whether or not sperm competition occurs, it is necessary for males to place ejaculates efficiently, so that sperm have the best opportunity to migrate through the cervix and gain access to the higher reaches of the female tract” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p68).

[4] In natural conditions, it is assumed that, in egalitarian societies, where males have roughly equal resource holdings, they will each attract an equal number of wives (i.e. given an equal sex ratio, one wife for each man). However, in highly socially-stratified societies, where there are large differences in resource holdings between men, it is expected that wealthier males will be able to support, and provide for, multiple wives, and will use their greater resource-holdings for this end, so as to maximize their reproductive success (see here). This is a version of the polygyny threshold model (see Kanazawa and Still 1999).

[5] There are also pathogens that affect the behaviour of their hosts in more dramatic ways. For example, one parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, when it infects a mouse, reduces the mouse’s aversion to cat urine, which is theorized to increase the risk of its being eaten by a cat, facilitating the reproductive life-cycle of the pathogen at the expense of that of its host. Similarly, the fungus, ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into so-called zombie ants, who willingly leave the safety of their nests, and climb and lock themselves onto a leaf, again in order to facilitate the life cycle of their parasite at the expense of their own. Another parasite, dicrocoelium dendriticum (aka the lancet liver fluke) also affect the behaviour of ants whom it infects, causing them to climb to the tip of a blade of grass during daylight hours, increasing the chance they will be eaten by cattle or other grazing animals, facilitating the next stage of the parasite’s life-history

[6] In contrast, biologist Richard Alexander in Darwinism and Human Affairs cites the Shakers as an example of the opposite type of religion, namely one that, because of its teachings (namely, strict celibacy) largely died out.
In fact, however, Shakers did not quite entirely disappear. Rather, a small rump community of Shakers the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village survives to this day, albeit greatly reduced in number and influence. This is presumably because, although the Shakers did not, at least in theory, have children, they did proselytise.
In contrast, any religion which renounced both reproduction and proselytism would presumably never spread beyond its initial founder or founders, and hence never come to the attention of historians, theorists of religion, or anyone else in the first place.

[7]  As noted above, this is among the reasons that The Selfish Gene’ works best, in a purely literary sense, in its original incarnation. Later editions have at least two further chapters tagged on at the end, after this dramatic and optimistic literary flourish.

[8] Dawkins is then here here guilty of a crude dualism. Marxist neuroscientist Steven Rose, in an essay in Alas Poor Darwin (which I have reviewed here and here) has also accused Dawkins of dualism for this same passage, writing:

Such a claim to a Cartesian separation of these authors’ [Dawkins and Steven Pinker] minds from their biological constitution and inheritance seems surprising and incompatible with their claimed materialism” (Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology: p262).

Here, Rose may be right, but he is also a self-contradictory hypocrite, since his own views represent an even cruder form of dualism. Thus, in an earlier book, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, co-authored with fellow-Marxists Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin, Rose and his colleagues wrote, in a critique of sociobiological conceptions of a universal human nature:

Of course there are human universals that are in no sense trivial: humans are bipedal; they have hands that seem to be unique among animals in their capacity for sensitive manipulation and construction of objects; they are capable of speech. The fact that human adults are almost all greater than one meter and less than two meters in height has a profound effect on how they perceive and interact with their environment” (passage extracted in The Study of Human Nature: p314).

Here, it is notable that all the examples “human universals that are in no sense trivial” given by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin are physiological not psychological or behavioural. The implication is clear: yes, our bodies have evolved through a process of natural selection, but our brains and behaviour have somehow been exempt from this process. This of course, is an even cruder form of dualism than that of Dawkins.

As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides observe:

This division of labor is, therefore, popular: Natural scientists deal with the nonhuman world and the “physical” side of human life, while social scientists are the custodians of human minds, human behavior, and, indeed, the entire human mental, moral, political, social, and cultural world. Thus, both social scientists and natural scientists have been enlisted in what has become a common enterprise: the resurrection of a barely disguised and archaic physical/mental, matter/spirit, nature/human dualism, in place of an integrated scientific monism” (The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture: p49).

A more consistent and thoroughgoing critique of Dawkins dualism is to be found in John Gray’s excellent Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here).

[9] This quotation comes from p176 of Marek Kohn’s The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science (London: Vintage, 1996). Unfortunately, Kohn does not give a source for this quotation.



Bowman EA (2008) Why the human penis is larger than in the great apes Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(3): 361.

Clark & Hatfield (1989) Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2:39-53.

Dawkins (1981) In defence of selfish genes, Philosophy 56(218):556-573.

Gallup et al (2003). 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.

Gaulin & Boser (1990) Dowry as Female Competition, American Anthropologist 92(4):994-1005.

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

Hamilton (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour I and II, Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-16,17-52.

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.

Kanazawa & Still (1999) Why Monogamy? Social Forces 78(1):25-50.

Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women, Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236.

Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success, Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219.

Puts (2010) Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans, Evolution and Human Behavior 31:157-175.

Smith (1964). Group Selection and Kin Selection, Nature 201(4924):1145-1147.