Supply Everyone With Every Nutrient

An introductory note to my ongoing “ritual pattern language” project – on ritual practice as cuisine, and the roles of inclusion and exclusion

Every human group has faced different obstructions related to diet. Groups faced geographic restrictions (rainforest, desert, or arctic tundra?), cultural limitations (what agricultural products and food processing methods are available?) and biological limitations (does your group have the right genes to digest lactose?). These restrictions fed off of and influenced each other; as milk-producing animal technology became available, in certain geographic regions, some people developed the ability to take nutrition from the new source. But each human group, as proven by its long-term existence, has found a way to supply all the necessary nutrients to its members. While we have a pretty good idea of the nutrients necessary to prevent most forms of malnutrition – macronutrients, vitamins, minerals – the role of, for instance, microorganisms is just beginning to be widely understood, and obesity is a common form of malnutrition that our culture does not seem to be able to reliably prevent or cure.

Similarly, there are social and behavioral “nutrients” – that are very poorly understood – the lack of which causes suffering akin to malnutrition. Everyone in solitary confinement endures severe suffering from the social equivalent of starvation; but there are likely a host of complex social behaviors and interactions that produce the “social nutrients” necessary for flourishing and well-being, the social and psychological equivalents of bright eyes and shiny fur. As with food nutrients, people likely vary in their needs, and they certainly vary in their ability to extract “nutrition” from different sources. People who are lactose intolerant cannot get calcium from milk, but they still need calcium.

The ritual patterns presented here represent ingredients or techniques for a possible “cuisine of social behavior.” It is very important that not everyone will be able to practically participate in each ritual pattern enough to extract the “nutrient” that it represents. A person with hearing loss will have a harder time participating in singing; a person without much mobility will have a harder time participating in synchronized movement rituals. A person with severe face blindness will not be able to participate in greeting everyone by name, and would likely feel distressed if expected to do so.

That they might exclude someone, somewhere, does not mean that these rituals should never be performed by any groups, on general principles. Every ritual necessarily excludes many people, and that is part of the point of ritual, to draw a boundary around a group. But the whole point of a group is to satisfyingly provide “social nutrients” to all of its actual members. Just as geographic, cultural, and genetic obstructions formed the context in which nutritional traditions had to fit, the brains and bodies of group members define a large part of the given landscape that a group’s ritual practice must fit.

Imagine a cuisine that anyone on earth can eat: lactose-free, gluten-free, free of nuts and all allergens, vegan, kosher, not spicy, etc. Those few foods that would be left (if there are any at all) would not satisfy any particular person’s aesthetic and nutritional needs well. But imagine a group with various dietary restrictions cooking lunch together every day. Some members probably have some dietary restrictions, but probably not all the possible dietary restrictions are represented; many foods can be eaten together. And there is no requirement that each food be eaten by every person. Evolving rituals that fit a particular group is a similar creative process of experiment, communication, and play.

If the obvious forms of the presented patterns are not practical for supplying a particular member (or even several members) with a necessary nutrient, the group may need to supply that member or those members with the nutrient in a different way, or may need to supply all members of the group with that nutrient in a different way. Being excluded from a ritual that one’s group all participates in can be distressing and painful, depending on the circumstances. This is especially difficult, because the “nutrients” supplied by a particular ritual are not always legible to us. But this is the essential task for creating beautiful rituals that fit the members of the group. It is similar to designing beautiful, functional clothing or buildings: always adapted to the specific, local situation of body, group, weather, and land.

Why Ritual?

Ritual is just “going through the motions.” Is that a bad thing?

Think about saying “I love you” to a romantic partner. It might be sincere, or it might not be; how can you prove it?

Now think about “going through the motions” in love – staying up all night to take care of someone when they’re sick even if you don’t feel like it, having dinner together night after night, gazing into each other’s eyes, making a special effort to be kind instead of grumpy over and over, every day. Compared to “going through the motions,” saying “I love you” is just lip service.

Performing the same behaviors over and over demonstrates commitment. It establishes a rhythm that’s predictable and safe, allowing for creative exploration, just like a predictable jazz rhythm allows for a creative melody.

Ritual allows people to coordinate with each other. Dance partners dance best together when they know the steps – and they can improvise from there. Ritual can be energizing, relaxing, and fun. Knowing what you’re supposed to be doing takes the pressure off. And doing things together creates strong, trusting groups. It’s better than just talking. Far from “empty ceremony,” rituals can be deeply meaningful.

All human groups have rituals. Doing rituals together is how we cooperate and get along with each other – especially in a diverse society. When words fail, “going through the motions” can be the key to comfort, trust, and creativity.

Respecting and Erasing

Ending something does not entail denying its value.

Note: edited from original 2008 version, all links updated.

In 1959, the artist Robert Rauschenberg asked the much older and more established artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. Eventually, de Kooning gave him a drawing, executed in heavy crayon, grease pencil, graphite, and ink. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg erased the drawing and mounted it in a gold frame. View a large image of it here – it’s a beautiful object, evocative and moving in its silence.

I relate this here in response to J. David Velleman, whose “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628) presents an ethical argument against a moral right to suicide, at least suicide committed in order to make things better for oneself.

The core of the paper’s argument is that it is wrong for a person to kill himself in his own interest, because by doing so, he devalues that which inheres to him – his dignity, in Kantian terms – that is not his to evaluate, but belongs rather to all of humanity. Velleman thinks that we ought to defer to a person to judge what is in his interests – he just does not think that killing oneself in one’s own interest is morally permissible “solely on the grounds of the benefits [one] will thereby obtain or the harms [one] will avoid.”

Velleman proposes that there is a special kind of value to every person, that logically must exist if his interests are to matter. It is an answer to the question, why should we act in the interests of other people? The answer is, because people matter. This mattering Velleman equates with Kantian dignity, which is further equated with man’s rational nature. (The capacity to rationally choose one’s ends is what gives a person dignity, in Kantian terms.)

Dignity is the reason we respect people (and respect their wishes). Velleman argues that suicide is a form of rejecting this dignity – and that we don’t have the right to do that, because it is not ours to reject, exactly, but a feature of humanity. (Compare this thinking to the moral claim of suicide contagion.) This dignity, says Velleman, is “a value that [a person] possesses by virtue of being one of us, and the value of being one of us is not his alone to assess or defend. The value of being a person is therefore something larger than any particular person who embodies it.” Therefore we don’t have the right to destroy it. It’s not just that suicide is failing to treat oneself with the respect due to persons, though it is certainly that, according to Velleman – it’s that suicide undermines respect for persons in general.

The story of the paper is this. Professor Velleman had cancer (in real life). A few years ago he was sitting around after dinner at a philosophy conference with some colleagues and a few people were smoking. One of the smoking professors said something about how he knew smoking would probably kill him, but that his enjoyment of smoking outweighed the probable early death it would cause him. Velleman, fresh from the chemo table, was deeply offended. Over the years, he came to realize that, by joking about trading life for pleasure, the professor was implying that human life lacks serious value (dignity), dehumanizing not only himself but Professor Velleman as well. The core of the paper, as I see it, is this:

My host’s remarks implied that an early death, of the sort he was risking and I was hoping to forestall, would be a loss to him that could be offset by sufficient gains. But what would it matter how much I lost or gained if I myself would be no loss? My gains or losses would merit concern only on the basis of concern for me – which, being the basis of concern for them, could not then be offset by that concern. Hence my gains or losses wouldn’t matter unless I had value that could not be offset by theirs.

My host was implicitly denying the existence of such a value. For he claimed that death was worth worrying about only in respects for which he could be compensated by the pleasures of smoking. He was thus implicitly denying the interest-independent value of a person, without which it couldn’t really matter whether I lived or died.

In an appendix to the piece, Velleman responds to criticisms from Professor F. M. Kamm, in her article “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of the Double Effect, and the Ground of Value” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 586-605). Kamm calls one of Velleman’s arguments the Exchange Argument, and interprets it to mean (correctly, says Velleman) that it is forbidden to exchange the intrinsic value of one’s humanity merely to benefit one’s interests, as in suicide or some kind of voluntary slavery. But, Kamm says,

According to Kant, beautiful things (e.g., art) have a value beyond price, though not the dignity that persons have. Most would say (though perhaps Kant would not, given his theory of beauty) that beautiful things have intrinsic value, even if no one cares about them and they satisfy no human interests. Yet we may permissibly exchange beautiful things for money or food. The permissibility of exchanging them for things that have interest-relative value and a market price does not imply, I believe, that they only have interest-relative value. It implies that what has intrinsic aesthetic value has only finite value and could be permissibly exchanged for what has only interest-relative value (e.g., food). But this does not show that beautiful things have only interest-relative value rather than intrinsic aesthetic value. That we can exchange one thing for another does not mean that they share the same essential nature or type of value. The same might be true of persons.

Velleman responds that the painting analogy fails, because when we sell a painting, we are not destroying it, but entrusting it into the care of another art appreciator. A better analogy, says Velleman, would be burning a painting in the fireplace because one has run out of kindling. “But then,” says Velleman, “burning an artwork for kindling would ordinarily be objectionable. Not coincidentally, it’s also what would be analogous to self-interested suicide.”

But I think that analogy fails as well. I am so glad I heard about that empty, erased de Kooning drawing, because there is the proper analogy for a suicide, and, I think, a serious objection to Velleman here. The act of erasing or destroying does not imply a lack of respect. There is such a thing as respectful erasing. Rauschenberg could believe heartily in the value of de Kooning’s drawing – in fact, the drawing’s artistic value is key to the work’s success – and still, with the consent of de Kooning, erase it. Similarly, I think it is possible to commit suicide without implying that human life, and even one’s own life, lacks value or dignity.

In many cases, as with the de Kooning, the absence of the thing is what heightens its value. When I saw the erased de Kooning, I immediately thought of Miller Williams’ poem “The Curator,” in which a young assistant curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad comes up with a scheme to ship all the paintings out of the city to avoid their destruction by the German bombs. They ship the paintings out, but leave the frames up to make it easier to put things back in their place when the war is over. Williams says:

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.

Russian soldiers come to the Hermitage from all over Russia, and are disappointed that the paintings are gone, so the staff gives tours despite their absence. And gradually the tour of this “Unseen Collection” becomes more popular:

We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves.

Eventually, blind people begin to come for the tour. Eventually, of course, the war is over and the paintings are replaced, but the blind people never come back, and people don’t pay quite as much attention as before.

Can one erase a person in such a manner? Certainly, many who have been erased by death are still valued. Although rational choosing must cease at death, I do not believe that the thing that causes people to matter ceases at death. It is strange that one’s biological life – and, especially, one’s rational capacity – should be the basis for one’s intrinsic claim to matter.

It might even occasionally be true that killing someone else could be done out of respect for his dignity, as in Sharon Olds’ poem “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” in which the speaker imagines killing her son in order to save him from being tortured by the police. An excerpt:

You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
“as they like to do.”
Things that are worse than death.
I can see myself taking my son’s ash-blond hair in my fingers,
tilting back his head before he knows what is happening,
slitting his throat, slitting my own throat
to save us that.

And in the recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, a father in a post-apocalyptic horror of a world is constantly aware that he might have to kill his son to spare him from being raped, tortured, and eaten by cannibals. Late in the novel, the father and son find a baby lying abandoned over a smoldering cooking fire. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that the father’s actions, in keeping his son alive in such a world, are wrong – that he has failed to respect his son’s dignity and value by keeping him alive even more than the baby’s parents have failed to respect his dignity by burning him as if to eat him. (Some theories of familicide, the killing of spouse and children, including data regarding the virtual male monopoly of familicide compared with more equal gender ratios in killings of children alone, seem to suggest that real killings of children are generally motivated by proprietary feelings, rather than committed out of pure concern for the children’s dignity. But the possibility remains.)

And many of us feel that such a world – such an unending stream of horrors – is already upon us, and perhaps has been since humanity’s inception. For many people, the only way to genuinely respect themselves is to erase themselves.

One Less Outgroup

In honor of Serene Social Sloth Sunday, a made-up internet holiday in which we avoid posting “outrage porn” (partisan articles designed to engender feelings of contempt or rage toward the outgroup), I propose to explore the scapegoating of a widely-hated outgroup and frequent target of outrage porn, the college fraternity. I further propose a narrative mechanism by which false reports of rape achieve more publicity than true reports of rape.

Since the late 1970s, college fraternities have been portrayed as a dangerous, vile outgroup in popular culture as well as academic culture. As a category, they are one of the few remaining outgroups in American popular culture. Other candidates, depending on one’s social situation, might include police, the technology industry, GamerGate, anti-GamerGate, feminists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Tumblr Social Justice, and trans-exclusive radical feminists – but all these find more defenders than fraternities. Regardless of the actual properties of their members, they are, in common knowledge, agreed to be wealthy, and especially to be the beneficiaries of inherited wealth; to be athletically and sexually successful and physically attractive; and above all, to be very masculine white men. This is the kulak axis of their despicable nature as characters in folklore. In addition, they are also organized secret societies who conduct secret rituals that bind their members together. This is the conspiracy axis of their despicable nature, similar to that attributed at various times to the Jews, the Masons, the Mormons, and presently to the Church of Scientology.

One particular subversion myth that has attached itself to fraternities, in gossip, news, and other folkloric channels, is that of the rape. (See also Bil Ellis’ treatment of the subversion myth, quoted in my previous piece. Here of course I am not using “myth” to mean “untrue,” but rather using it in the folkloric sense of stories “told for true” that are transmitted from person to person without excessive scrutiny, which scrutiny is especially withheld when the myth in question is one that unites an ingroup together.)

To take the folkloric perspective is to be interested in the content and spreading mechanisms of stories, to appreciate and make sense of the stories that organize social reality and shape our worldview and the worldview of others. It is not the skeptic’s perspective: the folklorist mindset should not motivate us to respond to all stories with skepticism (and “wrong on the internet”), but with interest. Only when stories have grave, real-world consequences should we be particularly concerned with their veracity.

Consider this quotation in the Washington Times, from an anonymous source, claiming to have participated in mob vandalism against the fraternity whose members were briefly accused of gang-raping a young woman (which young woman’s allegations turned out to have been made up):

“I texted one of my friends and I was like, ‘Let’s throw bottles at the Phi Psi house tonight,’ and she said, ‘Yes!’ I think that the article made it clear that victims at the university have no legitimate channels to take action, and I think vandalism is a completely legitimate form of action when like, legitimate authority is corrupt. I think it was justified,” he said in an interview with The Times.

This male student was not imagining the fraternity members as fellow human beings, with as vivid an inner life as himself, with similar failings and longings and joys. He was imagining the fraternity as a metonym for evil, protected in enacting its horrors by the “corrupt” administration (an extra dimension to the “conspiracy” axis). His actions were based on hearing a story, a very powerful story, one that drew on the beliefs obtained through college folklore about fraternities, already existing in students’ minds. Note that the power of this anecdote relies on its being a good story; it’s only an anonymous quotation. If you could feel it changing or confirming your perceptions, then you understand the power of folkloric understanding.

The Power of Stories

Consider also an article by Jessica Valenti, Frat brothers rape 300% more. One in 5 women is sexually assaulted on campus. Should we ban frats?, arguing that fraternities should be banned. Here, the myth of fraternity rape is used to argue for the end of this particular kind of institution – to attempt to threaten its existence, to eradicate it. Much of the evidence Valenti presents is folkloric in nature; she presents, for instance, a “rape bait” email allegedly circulated among fraternity members (and since circulated as outrage porn). Presenting vile writings and attributing them to a hated outgroup is reminiscent of similar folkloric practices used against certain historical and contemporary groups, such as Masons and Scientologists.

Note that there is danger here in “outgrouping” Jessica Valenti, alone or as a representative of the mysterious and powerful tribe known as feminists. It is wise to be aware of “feminism” as a possible folkloric outgroup in our own minds, whose mythical existence might color our narrative perceptions.

Valenti begins with a vignette composed of information taken exclusively from folkloric sources:

When I was at Tulane University, girls were warned about the “bad” fraternities: the ones that spiked the punch at parties with Everclear and maybe drugs, the kind of frats where girls got hurt. During my first week of class 18 years ago, rumours circulated about a girl on my floor who had been sexually assaulted by multiple men at a frat party. These issues were always discussed with a certain nonchalance – as if having at least one rapist around was an inevitable part of fraternity life.

Almost everyone who has attended college has heard warning stories about fraternities, about date rape drugs and gang rape, secret hazing rituals and sexual exploitation. These are told “for true,” though, as Valenti notes, often with a nonchalance that belies their serious content. Perhaps these stories function as valuable gossip, helping new friends and acquaintances feel intimate with each other; that they are not “about” their gruesome informational content (as with many college horror legends) explains the lack of gravity with which they are treated.

Valenti, however, presents the stories “for true” – these stories are included in a short list of evidence for why fraternities should not be allowed to exist. They set the tone – fraternities are bogeymen – and the framework within which evidence will be considered. Within this mindset, when presented with the statistic that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape, we already know it must be true; it needs no investigation, because it confirms the emotional content that was already present in our minds.

This statistic, stated in the article’s headline, is a lie. Here I am not interested in merely demonstrating that it is untrue, wrong-on-the-internet style, but in showing how very wrong it is, and how blatant the misrepresentation, in order to illustrate the power of the fraternity rape myth to shape expectations and beliefs.

Valenti’s title claims “Frat Brothers 300% More Likely to Rape;” later in the article, her exact claim is “numerous studies have found that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape. [Emphasis mine].” She credits the researcher John Foubert with the statement. His exact words characterizing his study:

Guys who joined a fraternity then committed three times as many sexual assaults as those who didn’t join. It is reasonable to conclude that fraternities turn men into guys more likely to rape. [Emphasis mine.]

Note that Foubert uses the term “sexual assault” to describe his study, and generalizes this to “rape” when he turns to “reasonable” implications. Valenti condenses Foubert’s condensation, keeping only the “rape” language. Are fraternity members 300% more likely to commit sexual assault, or rape?

Actually, neither, which is why I think it is appropriate to characterize the statement as a lie. Foubert’s actual study measures “sexual aggression” according to the Sexual Experiences Survey, short form perpetrator version, an instrument created by Mary P. Koss and described by her as follows:

All versions of the revised SES measure behavior that meets legal definitions of various sex crimes, with the exception of acts accomplished by verbal coercion not involving threats of physical harm. The acts accomplished by coercion are certainly on the sexual assault spectrum and they are of interest in many fields and settings, but it is important to clearly understand that they are not crimes. Feminist legal scholars argue that these acts should be forms of attempted rape and rape and recommend changing statutory definitions of rape as a goal for advocate policy reform. [Emphasis mine.]

What are these non-crimes that are “on the sexual assault spectrum,” called sexual assaults by Foubert and called rape by Valenti? The short-form SES asks explicit questions about particular sexual acts, conducted under certain contexts. For each type of sex act, the instrument asks several questions. A representative question:

2. I had oral sex with someone or had someone perform oral sex on me without their consent by:

a. Telling lies, threatening to end the relationship, threatening to spread rumors about them, making promises about the future I knew were untrue, or continually verbally pressuring them after they said they didn’t want to.

b. Showing displeasure, criticizing their sexuality or attractiveness, getting angry but not using physical force after they said they didn’t want to.

c. Taking advantage when they were too drunk or out of it to stop what was happening.

d. Threatening to physically harm them or someone close to them.

e. Using force, for example holding them down with my body weight, pinning their arms, or having a weapon.

Only items c, d, and e correspond to what the law recognizes as sexual assault or rape. Within the study, Foubert characterizes answers to questions a and b to be “sexual aggression,” rather than rape. But when he is testing whether fraternity membership predicts rape, he lumps these behaviors – including having sexual contact by “making promises about the future I knew were untrue,” which used to be called “seduction” – as one category. His does not present any correlation between fraternity membership and rape; rather, the correlation falls out of treating the entire category of “sexual aggression” and rape as one. And it only works for the first three-month period of the study. And his sample size was 220.

But these are small quibbles in comparison to the chain of exaggeration that followed the study. Foubert characterized his work as demonstrating that fraternity members “commit three times as many sexual assaults” as non-fraternity members, but his study does not reflect sexual assaults — rather, vague “sexual aggression” that, while perhaps not laudable behavior, makes up a substantial part of human sexual interactions. (Twenty-five percent of Foubert’s sample during the first three-month follow-up period committed acts of “sexual aggression” as defined by the SES.) Valenti then doubled down on Foubert’s dishonest characterization and called it “rape.”

The result Foubert actually obtained is entirely explicable by the fact that those men selected for fraternities had more sex, and therefore performed more of the normal, though perhaps unfortunate, behaviors associated with sex – emotional conflict, ambivalence, and deceit. But taking the perspective of the purveyors of the myth, these behaviors really do seem like a kind of rape: since men operate from a position of power and privilege, what is “normal” is actually a status quo of systematic oppression. If a man is in a position of power over a woman because of his sex, their negotiations and conflicts can never be judged in the same way as those between equals. So it is reasonable and honest, in their view, to call the result of these conflicts “rape.” The reason that the rest of the world (not to mention the law) does not call it rape is, in their view, the result of a mistaken concept of the notion of rape itself.

I am not accusing Valenti of having read Foubert’s paper; it is more likely that she simply passed Foubert’s lie along as she found it, shortening it in a way that seemed reasonable. These dishonesties are probably not perceived by their perpetrators as wrong. Again, from the inside, the myth of fraternity rape is a terrifying reality, and no exaggeration even approaches the severity of the problem. They may even believe they are being conservative, understating the extent of the problem (only three times as likely?).

Jonathan Haidt’s mantra in The Righteous Mind is: sacredness binds and blinds. It binds people together, allowing us to signal allegiance to group norms and loyalty to our perceived group, and to express care for others. However, it also blinds us to the views of the outgroup, to information or perspectives that violate this sacredness.

Reality Distortion Field

Compare Valenti’s vignette with this description of a fraternity whose members were accused of a gang rape in 1988, shortly after the Tawana Brawley rape hoax:

The “Pikes” are the elite of Florida State’s Greek organizations, confident young men who sport Ray-Ban sunglasses and tans, notorious for their BMWs, biceps and buxom blond girlfriends.

Painting a picture of fraternities as a dangerous outgroup is a normal and expected part of writing this kind of crime story. Just like legends transmitted by gossip, these news stories first bring to mind the stereotype of the malevolent, conspiratorial group of high-status kulaks, then contribute to the legend in each case by adding a new story to fit the stereotype.

The journalism scholar Jack Lule described an influential framework within which to view news of current events: as a set of archetypal stories that humans are naturally interested in. These stories, or “master myths,” are apparent in oral culture, and do not disappear when oral cultures move to print. A brief summary of Lule’s framework follows:

Lule’s analysis of news produced seven of what he calls “master myths”: the victim, whose life is abruptly altered by “the randomness of human existence”; the scapegoat, deployed in stories to remind us of “what happens to those who challenge or ignore social beliefs”; the hero, there to remind us that we have the potential for greatness; the good mother, who offers us “a model of goodness in times when goodness may seem in short supply” (p. 24); the trickster, a crafty figure who usually ends up bringing “on himself and others all manner of suffering,” thanks to his crude, boorish behavior; the other world, which enables us to feel good about our way of life by contrasting it, sometimes starkly, with ways of life elsewhere (as when reporters wrote of life in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War); and the flood, in which we see the “destruction of a group of people by powerful forces,” often because they have “strayed from the right path” (p. 25). [Emphasis in original.]

In Lule’s terms, the fraternity is portrayed as a scapegoat – composed of high-status people, challenging and ignoring important social beliefs about gender, conspiring together behind a veil of secret ritual and privilege to harm vulnerable young women. The fraternity rape myth also contains a victim, who is sometimes transformed into a trickster if the allegations turn out to be false.

Journalism is folkloric in that it is made up of stories; this is not to say, as Lule emphasizes, that these stories are false, just that they are interpreted through the only lens of understanding to which we have access, that of the story. This lens can warp reality even as it offers our only contact with social reality.

The values of newsworthiness, existing in many different forms, may be seen as another shorthand framework for thinking about what stories are likely to be presented in mass media, and what shapes they take when they are there. For example, stories with elements of the bizarre are preferred, as well as those that depict high-status people. Stories have their own momentum; more reporting in the wider media means the story becomes more desirable to report about, through competition with other media outlets to cover stories proven to be desirable; in addition, greater public familiarity with the topic makes stories on the same topic more understandable by the public.

That journalistic selection practices are concerned with optimizing criteria other than truth is not to say that journalists often knowingly publish false stories. But in cases in which veracity is inherently difficult to determine (or perhaps in which the conflict over veracity is itself the story), other criteria will be operative. We are probably much more likely to hear bizarre, shocking stories about high-status people that turn out to be untrue, than to hear ordinary, mundane stories about regular people that turn out to be untrue. This is not a filter limited to mass media: both news stories and ordinary gossip now largely travel along the pathways of social media, and those stories that go “viral” are those that maximize transmission by folkloric, person-to-person means. Facts are massaged into stories, and good stories spread.

But what if, within a pool of candidate stories of unverifiable veracity, those least likely to be true are the ones that spread?

Are Correlates of False Accusations Also Correlates of Newsworthiness?

I am not interested here in debating the prevalence of false accusations of rape. I tend to agree with Megan McArdle that these are inherently dark statistics, not truly knowable from scientific inquiry. I also agree with Scott Alexander that these false reports are not extremely rare. Here, I will discuss studies of false rape allegations not to establish prevalence, but to present certain distinctive features that may be more common to false accusations (as admitted by the accuser) than to real cases of rape.

Again, taking the feminist perspective, any attempt to distinguish false reports from real rapes is regarded with suspicion — indeed, the notion of “real rape” itself, and the existence of the false report as a serious risk, are greeted with outraged protectiveness. The victim is sacred in this narrative, up against forces of privilege and power; she is all too likely to be doubted and “revictimized” by the legal system. The idea that false reports are common enough to meaningfully study, much less that there are correlates from accusers’ stories that are more common to false reports, is a violation of the sacredness of the victim, who must be protected at all costs, including from scrutiny of her account. Matt Atkinson provides an example of research viewed from this perspective, referring to the belief that false allegations either exist or are common as “the ‘women are lying’ belief.”

Why do false accusers do it? A study of all rapes reported in an unnamed midwestern town, as well as reported to two large midwestern universities, reveals that among false accusers, the most common motivation was to provide an alibi for the accuser – an alibi for a pregnancy, for contracting an sexually transmitted disease, for sex that would be damaging to one’s reputation, or for an unexplained absence (as in the Tawana Brawley case). Second, false accusations were motivated by revenge against the accused, often for a romantic slight. Third, some false accusers were motivated by seeking attention, as appears to be the case in the recent UVA/Rolling Stone fraternity rape hoax. Understanding these motivations makes sense of some of the features of false reports, as they differ from reports of actual rape.

I am aware of at least three purported lists of “red flags” – features that are more common in false reports than in non-recanted rape accusations, or even that seem to exclusively occur in false allegation scenarios. Lists like these may be useful, but to keep them in perspective we must remember that they are themselves an important folkloric channel. Lists condense and organize information in an easily consumable way, hence their high representation in clickbait; they give them impression of reliability through truthiness, like nonprobative photographs. Most of all, lists seem to provide action notes, a bridge between reading and doing. Importantly, two of the lists I am aware of come from a police handbook on handling rape cases (Rape Investigation Handbook, Chapter 11, False Reports, by Brent E. Turvey). (Imagine, from the feminist perspective, that police are using checklists to bias themselves against believing a victim’s report of rape.) Whether such lists, as cautiously presented as they are, are appropriate to be used in police procedure or training, is not my question. Rather, I am interested in the behavior of the press: should these characteristics inform a standard of care for the press, to avoid reporting stories that turn out to be false? And wouldn’t it be unfortunate if the exact characteristics that are associated with false reports are exactly those that make a particular rape newsworthy?

The first list of alleged “red flags” was presented at the Tawana Brawley grand jury by Dr. Park Elliot Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist; he based this list on “his own research” and consultation with retired FBI agent Roy Hazelwood. From the Rape Investigation Handbook, linked above, these are features that allegedly characterize false reports:

  1. The story tends to be bizarre or sensational.
  2. The pseudo-victim injures herself, sometimes seriously, or simulates injury for the purpose of gaining support.
  3. The pseudo-victim presents herself in such a way that people believe no one would do this to herself.
  4. The pseudo-victim does not initially report the incident to police.
  5. A stranger is accused.
  6. The pseudo-victim claims that overwhelming force was used or that she resisted greatly or that there were multiple assailants.
  7. The account is either overly detailed or very vague.
  8. The pseudo-victim reports having her eyes closed during the attack or that she was unconscious, or passed out, or has no memory of what happened or was drugged, and so cannot provide details.
  9. The pseudo-victim is indifferent to her injuries.
  10. The expected laboratory findings are absent.
  11. The pseudo-victim is vague about the location of the assault or there is no evidence at the scene to corroborate the complaint.
  12. Damage to the clothing is inconsistent with the injuries.
  13. There are escalating personal problems in the life of the pseudo-victim.
  14. The pseudo-victim has been exposed in the past to accounts of similar things.
  15. The pseudo-victim’s post-assault behavior is inconsistent with the allegations.
  16. The pseudo-victim is uncooperative with the investigation.
  17. When the pseudo-victim talks to the authorities, she tends to steer the conversation away from the specific to the unprovable.
  18. There is writing on the body of the pseudo-victim.
  19. There is a history of making other false allegations.
  20. There is a history of extensive medical care.

Another list, reported in the same book, is called the Baeza False Report Index (BAFRI), compiled by Detective John J. Baeza (again not based on published research, but based on the experience of the detective):

  1. A female victim has demanded to speak with a female officer or investiga-tor (this excludes those cases in which a male officer or investigator has acted inappropriately toward the female).
  2. A female victim’s husband, boyfriend, or other intimate partner has forced her to report the alleged crime, rather than having reported the crime of her own volition.
  3. A victim’s parents have forced the victim to report the alleged crime, rather than having reported the crime of his or her own volition.
  4. A victim, most often under age (less than 18 years old), has returned home after curfew.
  5. A victim states that he or she was abducted at a busy intersection (or some other very public location) during the day, and there are no witnesses to the incident.
  6. A victim states that he or she was attacked by a masked offender in the middle of the day on a busy street (paradoxical offender behavior).
  7. A victim is in a drug rehabilitation program and is out past curfew.
  8. A pregnant female victim is forced by a parent or guardian to report the crime to police.
  9. A victim cannot describe the suspect or provide details of the crime.
  10. A victim has previously been charged with falsely reporting an incident.
  11. A victim has previously reported a similar crime to the police.
  12. A victim focuses on relocating to a new home or apartment during the investigation.
  13. A victim focuses on initiating a lawsuit or on monetary gain during the investigation.
  14. A victim displays “TV” behavior when initiating a complaint, mimicking the way that stereotypical victims act on television and in film (hysterical, demand female officer, catatonic, etc.).
  15. A victim cries at crucial points in the interview to avoid answering key questions.
  16. A victim has a long psychiatric history.

Finally, the third such list comes from a study that is lost to the internet, a 1985 study on rapes in the United States Air Force by Charles P. McDowell, available only as summarized and interpreted in the work of others, as noted by Atkinson, above. Note that Atkinson’s characterization of McDowell’s methodology varies substantially from that reported by Bruce Gross in the Annals of Psychotherapy in 2008.

The list, as excerpted from McDowel’s work by Gross, is as follows:

  1. Physical injuries of false accusers usually are limited to superficial cuts, scratches, and abrasions. Scratches often appear in a hatching or crosshatching pattern, due to repeated attempts to make the scratches visible. Scratches that resemble letters or words sometimes are found on false accusers, typically on their abdomens, but are not found on actual victims.
  2. False accusers frequently claim that they offered vigorous and continuing physical resistance but suffered no serious reprisals. Most actual rape victims do not offer vigorous resistance, and those who do often suffer extremely brutal reprisals.
  3. A false accusation typically solves some perceived problem for the “victim.” It may explain a pregnancy or venereal disease, or it may exact revenge. In contrast, actual rapes seldom appear to solve a problem. They usually create serious problems.
  4. False accusers usually do not make their allegations initially to authorities. Typically they make them to friends or relatives who in turn inform the authorities.
  5. False victims, more often than actual ones, claim to have been raped by strangers.
  6. False accusers, much more often that actual ones, claim to have been attacked by multiple assailants who fit an unsavory stereotype.
  7. False accusers typically claim to have been victims of simple penile insertions, or blitz rapes, without collateral sexual activity.
  8. False accusers tend to be vague on the details, but when a false victim does provide details she tends to do so with a relish that actual victims seldom have.
  9. False accusers, far more frequently than actual victims, cannot say exactly where the rape occurred.
  10. In false accusation cases, far more frequently than in actual cases, the purported crime scene and the physical evidence are found to be inconsistent with the allegation.
  11. False accusers, more often than actual victims, claim to have received phone calls from their “rapists” before or after the crime.
  12. False accusers, more often than actual victims, have personal problems, including difficulty in interpersonal relationships and a history of lying and exaggeration.

One thing that is interesting about these lists is that many of the criteria they propose to be overrepresented in false reports of rape are exactly the criteria by which they are judged newsworthy. Dietz proposes that false reports are more likely to contain elements of the bizarre, itself a news value. Specifically, the existence of some kind of writing on the alleged victim’s body, especially in a place she can reach, is proposed as a criterion unique to false accusations by Dietz and McDowell. Certainly, the charcoal writing on Tawana Brawley’s body served the bizarre, newsworthiness of the story; here, the false accuser and the media are drawing from the same narratives, finding the same things scary, bizarre, and newsworthy.

In a highly folkloric study promoting the myth of evil fraternities, a fraternity gang rape involving just this aspect is taken as the “model” for the authors’ feminist analysis. This is the same fraternity rape story linked above, appearing in the national media (e.g., “Rape Case a Story of Shattered Lives May 14, 1990, Gang Rape Accusations Scar Fraternities, May 13, 1988) shortly after the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. “When the victim was found,” the authors say, “she was comatose and had suffered multiple scratches and abrasions. Crude words and a fraternity symbol had been written on her thighs.” Whether or not this accusation was false, the “crude symbols written on her thighs” detail is present, and the story did capture national media attention, as well as Martin et al.’s academic attention.

Cases that involved “multiple assailants that fit an unsavory stereotype” (e.g., fraternity members) make McDowell’s list, and multiple assailants also make Dietz’ list. An organized, ritualistic gang rape that involves multiple attackers belonging to a hated outgroup is the most news-friendly rape imaginable; this is present in both the Tawana Brawley case and the UVA/Rolling Stone rape hoax.

Kanin (linked above) notes that most of the false accusers recant in the early stages of the investigation. McDowell proposes that false accusers are more likely to report the rape only to family or friends, and Baeza proposes that those pressured by family or intimate partners to press charges are more likely to be false accusers. (In addition, Kanin relates one false accusation case in which a woman, seeking attention from her therapist, reported a false rape to him; he then insisted she go to the police.)

Since currency is a news value, the mass media often selects its cases from those still in the early stages of police involvement, in which a higher percentage of purported cases are false reports. The UVA/Rolling Stone rape hoax reported on a rape story that had not been reported to the police, but had only been related to friends.

There are several harms in the wide exposure of questionable rape claims. First, those who are falsely accused receive more attention and scorn, and in some cases, as in the Tawana Brawley case, police and prosecutors feel more pressure to punish the falsely accused regardless of guilt. Second, false accusers are exposed to the national spotlight, which attention can hardly be imagined to be good for them. Third, when and if these poorly-selected false stories are revealed as false, the public perception of the likelihood of false accusations is increased beyond even realistic levels. If reporters and academics are preferentially selecting stories that are likely to be proved false, the false reporting rate as perceived by the public can be expected to be even higher than the real false reporting rate.


In closing, I would like to mention Caitlin Flanagan’s 2014 investigative piece on fraternities, The Dark Power of Fraternities. When I first read the piece when it came out, I noticed that merely detailing the practices that a long-surviving institution has used to survive has a way of making the institution look dark and conspiratorial. While at the time, Flanagan’s piece seemed to be an example of the myth of evil fraternities, compared to what I have spent the last day reading, it is positively even-handed. Flanagan does report on a rape that occurred inside a fraternity, but it was not sensational, and was not even committed by fraternity members. (I did not see any “red flags” present in the story, for instance.) While much of the piece is devoted to detailing the scheming machinations of fraternities to avoid liability for accidents (including accidental deaths), Flanagan sometimes depicts fraternities positively, and even proposes that fraternities and sororities are essential in financially supporting colleges. Without fraternities, the very existence of many institutions of higher education would be threatened. Since “school” as a metonym for the education system is one of my most reviled personal outgroups, Flanagan unintentionally provides this would-be fraternity rehabilitator with an interesting argument that fraternities should not exist.

Of course, I do not take this argument very seriously; the mere fact that fraternities have survived for so long as institutions makes them valuable for study, and the fact that they provide bonding and companionship gives them value to their members. To justify destroying such institutions, hard data would be required. Unfortunately, most research into fraternity rape does not measure rape, but rather constructs like the “rape-supportive attitude”. Martin et al. suggest that “fraternities create a sociocultural context in which the use of coercion in sexual relations with women is normative and in which the mechanisms to keep this pattern of behavior in check are minimal at best and absent at worst” – but, as with Valenti, their non-folkloric evidence that fraternities are especially prone to rape is missing.

Finally, here are some sloths:
Gift of the Dr. Francis D. Murnaghan Fund, 1973

Sacredness As Practiced by Religious Entrepreneurs: Rape, Riots, and Economic Efficiency

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

Jonathan Haidt

Sacredness is an epistemic phenomenon in human groups; it limits what we can say and even what we can think. This is true even among groups which explicitly identify as non-religious.

Sacred beliefs are supported both by rituals and by stories; the sacred stories are the ones that cannot be challenged. The folklorist Linda Dégh describes these as “legend-like narratives that enforce belief and that deny the right of disbelief or doubt, narratives that express majority opinion and are safeguarded by moral taboos from negation and, what is more, from deviation” (“Tape-Recording Miracles for Everyday Living,” in American Folklore and the Mass Media, Indiana University Press, 1994; emphasis mine). Dégh’s examples are “religious (Christian, hagiographic, or saint’s) legends,” and the “patriotic (heroic) legends dispensed through school education by governments, confirming citizens in civil religiosity.” Ostensibly secular societies still form moral communities that insulate certain beliefs from scrutiny. We may not really question the harmfulness of tobacco or the benefits of breastfeeding, for example, and remain truly polite.

One of the most important sacred stories is the subversion myth – the story about a bad group of people doing bad things and thereby causing all of our problems. The folklorist Bill Ellis describes some features of subversion myths in his book Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, which I will quote at length in graphic form. I invite you to consider the dueling sacredness stories about the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson when thinking about subversion myths and how they work:


Sacredness is serious business. In a time like our own, in which religious practices and beliefs are nebulous and in flux, competition for holiness and piety can be lucrative, in terms of social status and mating opportunities as well as material benefits. People and institutions that compete to define sacredness, and to judge which speech and actions are compatible with sacredness, may be thought of as religious entrepreneurs, using terminology from Seth Abrutyn’s Religious Autonomy and Religious Entrepreneurship: An Evolutionary Institutionalist’s Take on the Axial Age. While Arbrutyn is concerned with religious movements thousands of years in the past, the model is surprisingly applicable today. Religious evolution, says Abrutyn,

is a product of religious entrepreneurs creating, combining, articulating, and struggling to impose new cultural assemblages on other strata of society in ways that can reconfigure the broader societal frameworks for (inter) action, exchange, and communication.

A religious entrepreneur can only be successful when existing power structures permit his activities or are too weak to oppose them, and when a surplus of material production makes his work possible, even though it is not productive in the material sense. These were true of the Axial Age, and are true of our own age as well.

A major religious entrepreneurial activity of our time is journalism. Writers and organizations attempt to establish themselves, in Abrutyn’s terms, as having “a legitimate claim to sole, or dominant, authority over the production and distribution of resources associated with sacredness, truth, and knowledge.” Gawker and its associated websites (including Valleywag and Kotaku) are a particularly shrill example of entrepreneurship of the new religion. A few months ago, Sam Biddle of Valleywag took up a sacredness crusade to argue that my friend Justine Tunney should lose her job at Google because her tweets violated the new sacredness that Gawker and its associates endorse.

Journalists-cum-religious-entrepreneurs argue for much worse things than firing women in technology, though. Today’s clickbait (presented to you in an epistemic condom, don’t worry) argues for the surprising conclusion that riots, are, in fact, good, from a dispassionate economic perspective:

Thus far, the rioting question has been focused on whether it’s good or bad, as if those are the only two answers. From an economic perspective, surely the question is whether the level of rioting is optimal: Do the potential benefits of Ferguson rioting as a police sanctioning tool outweigh its immediate wealth destruction? I suspect it does and, in fact, that the current rioting level is likely economically suboptimal.

Matt Bruenig’s diction earlier in the piece indicates that he does not intend the piece to be interpreted as a dispassionate analysis. However, he interprets the question through the framework of economic efficiency, indicating aspirations toward that field’s inherently dispassionate framework. In a sense, he attempts to desacralize the harm of rioting, comparing it to the harm of police killings (both translated into dollars by means that I am sure are completely free from sacredness bias, as of course jury awards of damages are). Bruenig also assumes that rioting is an effective method of preventing these other harms, pointing to the Boston Tea Party (via a link) as an example of a riot that got results. In recent years, the pattern in the wake of riots has been that of demographic replacement; in both South Central Los Angeles and Watts, local black populations declined in favor of immigrant populations. If harm to black people were really the deepest concern of these religious entrepreneurs, the stark reality of the aftermath of riots would be relevant to the analysis. Since it violates the sacredness narrative, it is elided.

But most importantly, a genuinely sacredness-blind analysis would include many items that Bruenig does not mention. What, for example, are the economic benefits of police killings? Such a question obviously violates sacredness rules, and the fact that it is not asked indicates that there is unexamined sacredness underlying Bruenig’s article.

Bruenig cites Gary Becker in particular in favor of an economic efficiency analysis of social phenomena. Becker, along with his frequent collaborator Richard Posner, have performed some of the most interesting economic analyses of social phenomena of our time. I think that their ability to stand back from ambient sacredness is what makes their work so surprising and fascinating. Their desacralized economic approach to suicide, for example, would not be possible by thinkers clinging to cultural suicide taboos. Ian Ayres and John Donahue compared Posner’s genius to that of the “erratic” work of composer Franz Liszt; Posner, they say, “does not always manifest a proper appreciation of…limits on economic analysis” – the limits imposed by sacredness, as with his famous “rape license” hypothetical. This is precisely the root of his and Becker’s genius – seeing through some of the illusions that sacredness maintains, including impolitely noticing the existence of the ring of motivated ignorance itself.

I wrote about the sacralization of rape in Rape, Humor, Liberals, and the Sacred back in 2011 (when I still considered myself a liberal, albeit a crappy one), identifying Posner’s “rape license” hypothetical (discussed by Ayres and Donehue, linked above) as an insightful sacredness violation. In a recent piece of religious entrepreneurship, economist Noah Smith latches onto a similar violation by Robin Hanson, and attempts to connect it to the (sacralized) harm of women being underrepresented in economics.

Rape functions as a sacred taboo, its harm spreading to infect even words associated with it and discussion of the topic itself. In fact, Hanson’s argument is very similar to Bruenig’s, seeking to compare two kinds of harm that are differently sacralized. Posner’s infamous rape license example is explicitly an analysis of economic efficiency. The only reason Smith would forbid them in this context is the sacred nature of rape.

What motivated me to take graduate-level economics classes in college and to study law and economics in law school was precisely what Noah Smith seeks to prevent: scholars like Becker and Posner offering a domain in which secret knowledge might still be had, in which the veil of sacredness was lifted so that the naked processes of peopling might be gazed upon. It never occurred to me to feel excluded from economics because mysteries sacred to my sex were dispassionately analyzed: quite the opposite. It was the audacity of thinkers like Becker and Posner that made me feel free to write a book that is basically a series of sacredness violations wrapped in sacredness analysis wrapped in a Jack Kevorkian painting.

But I don’t think religious entrepreneurs like Noah Smith and Matt Bruenig are actually especially concerned with the harm of women being underrepresented in economics, or the harm of dead young black people, any more than Sam Biddle is concerned with the harm of people’s feelings being hurt by tweets (he personally tweeted that “nerds” deserve to be bullied and shamed).


Rather, they are concerned with establishing themselves as priests of the new religion, with “sole, or dominant, authority over the production and distribution of resources associated with sacredness, truth, and knowledge” (Abrutyn). Who are these would-be priests? Why are they so effective as religious entrepreneurs? What can be done to limit the damage they do while respecting traditional notions of free speech?

One of my favorite trolls (and that is high praise), Pax Dickinson, was actually fired from Business Insider for tweets that, in the opinion of the new priesthood, reflected insufficient respect for the new sacredness. His new venture, currently in fundraising stages, would investigate the new priesthood and attempt to answer some of the questions posed in the previous paragraph. A recent article by J. Arthur Bloom provides more case studies of sacredness in action in relation to the project, which I fully support and encourage you to support, too.

But that I encourage the challenging of this new, insidious sacredness does not mean that I think society can function without any sacredness at all. As I have written, this is a complex inquiry; we need sacredness, but it should be designed to help us flourish, rather than impeding thought, fun, beauty, and safety. The question of sacredness is too important to be left up to journalists.

Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

Cultural evolution represents an entire field of study. It has the potential, like biological evolution, to be a mechanism underlying and connecting many fields of study. This short introduction will pull together a few themes and compelling stories from this large field and present some of its concepts, mechanisms, and evidence—hopefully enough to increase the reader’s suspicion of the claim that cultural evolution is a “myth.”

John Gray, whose work I admire, unfortunately provides the perfect statement of social evolution denial in a recent essay:

Social evolution is just a modern myth. No scientific theory exists about how the process is supposed to work. There’s been much empty chatter about memes – units of information or meaning that supposedly compete with one another in society. But there’s no mechanism for the selection of human concepts similar to that which Darwin believed operated among species and which later scientists showed at work among genes. Bad ideas like racism seem to hang around forever, while the silly idea of social evolution has shown an awesome power to mutate and survive.

John Gray, Why capitalism hasn’t triumphed, November 8, 2014. Thanks to xenosystems for highlighting this quotation.

These claims are very similar to claims he made in a review of Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist over four years ago:

Whatever political goals it is used to promote, the idea of cultural evolution is not much more than a misleading metaphor….Memes are just a pseudo-scientific way of talking about ideas, not actually existing physical entities. There is nothing in society that resembles the natural selection of random genetic mutations; even if such a mechanism existed, there is nothing to say its workings would be benign. Bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They tend to recur, as racist memes are doing at present in parts of the world where economic dis­location is reviving hatred of minorities and immigrants. Knowledge advances, but in ethics and politics the same old rubbish keeps on piling up. The idea of social evolution is rubbish of this kind, a virulent meme that continues to reproduce and spread despite having been refuted time and time again.

John Gray, Review of The Rational Optimist, August 2, 2010.

While Gray is correct that cultural evolution does not have human well-being as its goal any more than biological evolution does, he is wrong to deny the existence of cultural evolution, particularly on the grounds that there is “no mechanism” by which cultural evolution can be demonstrated to occur. It seems that Gray did not, in the four years between the two essays, find time to learn more about cultural evolution, such as by reading the paper Matt Ridley linked in his reply to Gray’s review, Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution by Henrich, Boyd, and Richerson. This (excellent) paper offered by Ridley is a 41-page PDF, written in somewhat technical language; forty-one pages is perhaps asking a lot. But I find it useful to treat cultural evolution as part of my model of reality, and it is discouraging to see such useful concepts discarded without a fair hearing. (Steven Pinker’s take-down of group selection, The false allure of group selection, probably did not help matters, even though group selection and cultural evolution are not at all the same thing; see also Joseph Henrich’s response to Pinker.) My aim here is to provide an introduction to cultural evolution that is somewhat more respectful of my readers’ time than a 41-page PDF, but also to provide many seductive jumping-off points for further reading.

At the outset, here is an outline of what I mean by cultural evolution:

  • Human culture includes language, artifacts, music, stories, rituals, behaviors, and other information stored inside and outside of human brains.
  • Humans acquire culture through social learning. There are two major pathways of transmission: vertical, from parents to children only, or horizontal, between unrelated people. The mode of transmission is itself a major selective factor, shaping the content of culture.
  • Culture cannot survive and reproduce itself without humans; humans, after long dependence on culture, can no longer survive and reproduce themselves without it.
  • Cultures vary and change, and experience differential “reproductive” success: they spread or fail to spread, and their host populations grow or shrink.
  • Biological organisms only change by selection on random mutations. Culture, on the other hand, varies in part through intentional (non-random) human action. Despite this, it is rarely the case that humans fully understand all the functions of their culture, or predict how any changes they make will affect them and their descendants. (See, e.g., Alex Mesoudi, Foresight in cultural evolution.)
  • The relationship between humans and their culture is best modeled as a relationship between host and symbiote or between host and parasite, depending on the fitness cost extracted by culture, with humans as the host.

Humans Eat Culture, Not Food

Culture is not a luxury; it is life or death. Culture has likely been the most important part of the human selective environment for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans are not adapted to life without culture. Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Joseph Henrich (also the authors of the aforementioned 41-page PDF) invite us to consider the “lost European explorer experiment” in order to understand the gravity of our dependence on culture for survival:

[The Lost European Explorer] experiment has been repeated many times when European explorers were stranded in an unfamiliar habitat. Despite desperate efforts and ample learning time, these hardy men and women suffered or died because they lacked crucial information about how to adapt to the habitat. The Franklin Expedition of 1846 illustrates this point. Sir John Franklin, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an experienced Arctic traveler, set out to find the Northwest Passage, and spent two ice-bound winters in the Arctic, the second on King William Island. Everyone eventually perished from starvation and scurvy. The Central Inuit have lived around King William Island for at least 700 years. This area is rich in animal resources. Nonetheless, the British explorers starved because they did not have the necessary local knowledge, and despite being endowed with the same cognitive abilities as the Inuit, and having two years to use these abilities, failed to learn the skills necessary to subsist in this habitat.

Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich, The cultural evolution of technology: Facts and theories. Citations omitted.
[Note: if you read only one paper about cultural evolution, this is a great choice – it’s fun and insightful, only 25 pages, and it has pictures.)

Humans rely on culture to survive not only in marginal environments, but even in environments rich with resources, such as the Australian outback. People rely on culture to obtain sources of food, and also to eat their food safely:

In 1860, two intrepid Victorian explorers named Robert Burke and William Wills set out on an expedition to cross the Australian continent from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north – a distance of 2,000 miles. They were successful in reaching the north coast, but on the return journey they both succumbed to starvation. Burke and Wills were educated modern men, but they did not know how to survive in the Outback. They were living on a plentiful supply of freshwater shellfish and a plant known as ‘nardoo’ that the local Aboriginals ate. However, both contain high levels of an enzyme that destroys vitamin B1, which is a vital amine (hence ‘vitamin’) essential for life. By ignoring the traditional Aboriginal method of roasting the shellfish and wet grinding and then baking the nardoo, which neutralizes the toxic enzyme, Burke and Wills had failed to capitalize on the ancient cultural Aboriginal knowledge. They did not die because of a lack of things to eat, but of beriberi malnutrition. Aborigines did not know about vitamin B1, beriberi or that intense heat destroys enzymes; they just learned from their parents the correct way to prepare these foods as children – no doubt knowledge that was acquired through the trial and error of deceased ancestors. Their cultural learning had provided them with critical knowledge that Burke and Wills lacked. As the two explorers’ fates show, our intelligence and capacity for survival depends on what we learn from others.

Bruce Hood, The Domesticated Brain. 2014.

Food processing is one of the easiest parts of transmissible, reproducing culture for us to observe. The nixtamalization process, an ancient American method of processing corn, increases the availability of another B vitamin (niacin). Like the shellfish and nardoo of the Outback, corn without its associated cultural processing cannot form the basis of a human diet; where corn traveled without nixtamalization, malnutrition followed.

As Hood notes, above, the people using these cultural food processing methods – and these methods, by the way, are memes – did not need to understand their utility in providing essential vitamins, or even need to understand what a vitamin is. Despite a complete lack of modern chemical knowledge, around the world in vastly different environments with different nutritional challenges, people found diets that supplied all the nutrients they needed in a safe way. And there were many casualties along the way. I wonder if KNM-ER 1808, a female Homo erectus from Kenya who lived 1.6 million years ago and may have died of an overdose of vitamin A, was one of these “deceased ancestors” whose “trial and error” eventually produced cultural solutions. Daphne Miller has posited (in The Jungle Effect) that our sudden switch en masse away from our carefully-evolved recent ancestral diets is behind the most common form of malnutrition in the world today, obesity.

Humans change their culture, but cultures also change humans on the genetic level; cultures themselves formed a major part of our selective environments. Lactase persistence, for instance, seems to have evolved only among dairying populations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The purely cultural availability of milk changed the selective environment, favoring those with the genetic ability to take advantage of this novel source of food.

The Observable Evolution of Artifacts

It’s difficult to visualize the evolution of ephemeral cultural items such as behaviors, rituals, and stories. Focusing on durable artifacts, whose properties may be catalogued and compared, makes this process easer to grasp.

There is one extremely special kind of artifact whose unusual properties make it the perfect introductory example for illustrating the workings of cultural evolution: the chain letter. The chain letter (whether paper or electronic) consists of discrete units of information, almost like DNA, and causes humans to reproduce it. (Most artifacts, like arrowheads and carpets, do not share these properties.) The brilliant Daniel VanArsdale has assembled hundreds of paper chain letters, dating back to the 1880s; his Chain Letter Evolution (which, by the way, is worth spending many leisurely weekend hours immersed in) explains how these documents—literal self-replicators—evolved over the centuries, exploiting beneficial mutations that increased replication:

Apocryphal letters claiming divine origin circulated for centuries in Europe. After 1900, shorter more secular letters appeared that promised good luck if copies were distributed and bad luck if not. Billions of these “luck chain letters” circulated in the last century. As these letters were copied through the decades they accumulated changes from copying errors, offhand comments, and calculated innovations that helped them prevail in the competition with other chain letters. For example, complementary testimonials developed, one exploiting perceived good luck, another exploiting perceived bad luck. Using an archive of over 900 dated letters, predominant types are identified and analyzed for their replicative advantage. In 1935 the first money chain letter appeared, the infamous “Send-a-Dime,” which flooded the world within a few months. The motives and insight of its anonymous author are examined. A 1933 luck chain letter is shown to have provided a model for the Send-a-Dime letter, and this letter itself may have brought unexpected money in the mail to some senders in small towns. In the 1970’s a luck chain letter from Latin America that mentioned a lottery winner invaded the US and was combined on one page with a chain letter already circulating. This combination rapidly dominated circulation. In 1979 the postscript “It Works” was added to it and within a few years the progeny of this single letter had replaced all the millions of similar letters in circulation without this postscript. By examining hundreds of chain letters in the archive, evolutionary hypotheses are formulated that explain these and other events in chain letter history.

Dan VanArsdlale, Chain Letter Evolution

Within this small subset of artifacts that are made from information and that cause their own replication (given a population of literate hosts), the tracks of evolution are clearly visible. Most artifacts are not made of discrete units of information, and do not cause their own replication directly; rather, they are the result of intensive social learning of the behaviors required to replicate them. But ordinary artifacts too display the hallmarks of evolution.

In my outline, I mentioned that there are two (basic) pathways of transmission of culture. First, culture may be transmitted from parent to child only; this is vertical transmission (sometimes called phylogenesis). Second, culture may be transmitted between unrelated individuals; for our purposes (and speaking a bit loosely), this is horizontal transmission (sometimes called ethnogenesis). Exclusively vertical transmission results in a perfect, branching “tree-like” cladistic structure; horizontal transmission makes the phylogenetic tree look more like a tangled bush. Another important distinction is the mechanism of memetic transfer: transmission might either be particulate, “all-or-nothing discrete transmission of cultural traits,” or blending, “adopting the average value of a continuous trait from more than one model” (Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution, 2011, p. 57).

The evolution of biological organisms is particulate, in that traits are passed by discrete units of DNA. Biological evolution also mostly relies on vertical transmission, with genes passed from parent to child. However, as Mesoudi notes in Cultural Evolution (p. 100), horizontal gene transfer is common among bacteria and plants, transmitted between unrelated individuals and even across species by viruses. Biological evolution appears to be more of a “tangled bush” than classical models would predict; cultural evolution, however, appears both more particulate and more tree-like than one might expect – that is, more like biological evolution.

In 2002, Tehrani and Collard’s study of Turkmen textiles from the eighteenth century to the present revealed a very tree-like pattern, indicating mostly vertical transmission (“phylogenesis”) and particulate, rather than blending, transmission.

The Turkmen textiles were produced in a context ideal for exclusively vertical transmission, especially prior to 1881: women learned weaving from their mothers, rarely traveled to other villages, and tended to marry within their tribes, reducing the chances for horizontal transmission or “ethnogenesis” to tangle up the phylogenetic tree. Is this result representative of other cultural data sets? Mesoudi, summarizing Branching versus blending in macroscale cultural evolution: A comparative study, by Collard, Shennan, and Tehrani (2006), says:

[I]f biological and cultural evolution really are fundamentally different processes, the former branching and the latter blending…then there should be a systematic difference in the tree-likeness of the biological and the cultural data sets. To test this prediction, Collard et al. collected twenty-one biological data sets that contained genetic, morphological, and behavioral data from a diverse range of taxa, including lizards, birds, hominids, bees, and primates. They also collected twenty-one cultural data sets, including Tehrani and Collard’s Turkmen rug patterns, O’Brien et al’s North American projectile points, other material artifacts such as Neolithic pottery decorations, plus nonmaterial data sets regarding food taboos, religious beliefs, and puberty rites. For each data set, Collard et al. calculated the number of homoplasies [changes due to independent invention or diffusion across lineages or groups], this time using the retention index (RI), which controls for differences in the number of species and characters and is particularly useful when comparing data sets, as was done here….[A]n RI of 1 indicates no homoplasies and a perfectly treelike evolutionary pattern, with lower RI values increasingly less treelike. The results showed that the biological data sets and the cultural data sets had remarkably similar average RIs of 0.61 and 0.59, respectively. Assuming that the biological data sets are primarily generated through branching speciation, this analysis suggests that cultural data sets, too, have been shaped by a similar branching process.

Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution, 2011, p. 101. (Preface and first chapter available here. If you want to read just one whole BOOK about cultural evolution, Mesoudi is engaging and thorough, and only about 40% more technical than the present article.)

Cultural evolution, then, shares many traits with biological evolution. But, with the exception of the chain letters, what is the substance of memes? How can cultural evolution appear particulate and tree-like if there are no magical particles that code for each cultural trait? An intriguing solution is presented in that same 41-page PDF that no one is ever going to read: attractors. In this model, “it is the attractors that create quasi-discrete representations for selective forces to act on” in the absence of genuine discrete, DNA-like memestuff.

Attractors in Culture Space

Why do cultural data sets reflect evolution as “particulate” as biological evolution, when particulate mechanisms of transmission are extremely rare? Henrich, Boyd, and Richerson argue that the particulate nature is in the traits themselves, rather than the stuff of inheritance:

[I]nferential processes often systematically transform mental representations, so that unlike genetic transmission, cultural transmission is highly biased toward particular representations. Following Sperber (1996), we call the representations favored by processes of psychological inference (including storage and retrieval) “cognitive attractors.”

[C]ultural transmission does not involve the accurate replication of discrete, gene-like entities. Nonetheless, we also believe that models which assume discrete replicators that evolve under the influence of natural- selection-like forces can be useful. In fact, we think such models are useful because of the action of strong cognitive attractors during the social learning.

The reason is simple: cognitive attractors will rapidly concentrate the cultural variation in a population. Instead of a continuum of cultural variants, most people will hold a representation near an attractor. If there is only one attractor, it will dominate. However, if, as seems likely in most cases, attactors are many, other selective forces will then act to increase the frequency of people holding a representation near one attractor over others. Under such conditions, even weak selective forces (“weak” relative to the strength of the attractors) can determine the final distribution of representations in the population.

Henrich, Boyd, and Richerson, Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution, 2008 (a cleaner, shorter version of the paper, with in-line figures).

A major feature of cognitive attractors is that particulate cognitive information is less costly to hold and transmit than blended information – for example, it’s easier to model the moon as either purely a rock in space or purely a conscious entity than some combination of the two (Henrich & Boyd, On modeling cultural evolution: why replicators are not necessary for cultural evolution., 2002).

Attractors are forms that frequently appear to be the targets of convergence; they are indications of strong constraints in the spaces in which they appear. Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals (from his excellent 1991 book, Human Universals) provides a list of likely “attractors” in human space – products of cognitive, physical, and social constraints. When a feature is common to all human societies ever studied, such convergence is a strong indication of the presence of constraints. The human poetic line tends to be just around three seconds long – about the length of a human breath. The pentatonic scale is found all over the world and is encoded in 40,000-year-old flutes found in European caves made from the bones of vultures.

The ship’s rudder is another attractor; it has convergently evolved many times. As ships became larger and more complex, the rudder also changed; major advances in rudder technology were not able to be widely used, however, until all pieces of the puzzle were present (see, e.g., The development of the rudder, A.D. 100-1600: A technological tale, by Lawrence V. Mott, summarized in Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich, The cultural evolution of technology: Facts and theories). It is not difficult to see biological analogies to this process.

Human universals are far from a comprehensive list of attractors. Many stable attractors exist only at a very complex level of development that not all human groups have attained, for instance. But the particulate nature of the space of possible cultural solutions can explain the particulate nature of cultural evolution even in the absence of particulate “meme DNA.”

The Cultural Evolution of Massive Institutions

It is easy to see the processes of cultural evolution in the small scale, in projectile points, language, and carpets; but evolutionary processes are also visible in the macroscale. Peter Turchin has proposed that the unprecedented mega-empires beginning around 3000 B.C. were the products of cultural evolutionary constraints. A theory for formation of large empires presents a model in which large empires are constrained into existence by warfare and competition between nomadic herders and settled agrarian societies; as with agriculture crowding out hunting and gathering as a viable way of life, smaller-scale societies simply could not exist. It is not safety that created these giant engines of “cooperation,” but danger and necessity. He says:

Nomads are hard to tax, because they are skilled at fighting and can move themselves and their wealth much more easily than farmers can. Moreover, their chief product—livestock—cannot be stored easily, unlike the grain produced by agrarian economies. Thus, political organizations among nomads had to draw resources from the agrarian societies, by robbing the farmers, by extorting tribute from agrarian states, or by controlling trade routes….This argument suggests a reason why the sizes of agrarian states and nomadic confederations are correlated. As agrarian states in East Asia grew, nomads needed to cooperate on an increased scale to continue successful raiding, to present a credible threat to extort the tribute, or to impose favourable terms of trade. Additionally, larger and richer sedentary states possessed greater wealth that nomads could extract, thus enabling larger nomadic polities. Consequently, Barfield calls the nomadic confederations the ‘shadow empires’, their size mirroring that of agrarian states.

Thus, Barfield and Kradin suggest that the appearance of agrarian mega-empires explains the rise of nomadic imperial confederations. This is probably correct. However, if the presence of a large agrarian state produced larger nomadic confederations, should not the presence of a large nomadic confederation have similar effects on farmer societies?

Peter Turchin, A theory for formation of large empires, 2009. Citations omitted.

The religions of the Axial Age, on a scale much larger than the Dunbar-sized tribe, also reflect this process. Seth Abrutyn presents a cultural evolution theory of the evolution of large-scale religions, recognizing holiness and piety as a shared resource and “religious entrepreneurs” as memetic carriers, in one of my favorite papers, Religious autonomy and religious entrepreneurship: An evolutionary-instutitionalist’s take on the Axial Age.

The evolution of religion is one of the most interesting and ignored areas of cultural evolution. We tend to exaggerate the degree of rationality and conscious thought in human life, ignoring the enormous and influential contribution of magical thinking. Just as there are vital amines (vitamins) that human cultures must figure out how to supply us with, there are social and cognitive equivalents; modernity may do as poor a job supplying us with social belonging and ritual as it does supplying us with proper nutrition.

How Transmission Pathways Matter

In my outline, I mentioned that the transmission pathway – vertical or horizontal – matters a great deal for the content and friendliness of transmitted cultural items.

In biology, there is already support for this model. Parasitic entities like bacteria that are limited to vertical transmission – transmission from parent to child only – quickly evolve into benign symbiosis with the host, because their own fitness is dependent on the fitness of the host entity. But parasitic entities that may accomplish horizontal transmission are not so constrained, and may be much more virulent, extracting high fitness costs from the host. (See, e.g., An empirical study of the evolution of virulence under both horizontal and vertical transmission, by Stewart, Logsdon, and Kelley, 2005, for experimental evidence involving corn and a corn pathogen.)

As indicated in an earlier section, ancient cultural data is very tree-like, indicating that the role of horizontal transmission has been minimal. However, the memetic technologies of modernity – from book printing to the internet – increased the role of horizontal transmission. I have previously written that the modern limited fertility pattern was likely transmitted horizontally, through Western-style education and status competition by limiting fertility (in The history of fertility transitions and the new memeplex, Sarah Perry, 2014). The transmission of this new “memeplex” was only sustainable by horizontal transmission; while it increases the individual well-being of “infected carriers,” it certainly decreases their evolutionary fitness.

Parent-child transmission plays an increasingly limited role in cultural evolution. Horizontal transmission allows for the spread of cultural items that are very harmful to the fitness of host organisms, though they may (or may not) benefit the host organism in the hedonic sense. Indeed, the carefully evolved packages of culture transmitted for hundreds of thousands of years from parents to children are almost certainly too simple to solve the complex problems that moderns face.

Unselfconscious evolution is no longer up to the challenges of the fast changes of culture. As my hero Christopher Alexander says in Notes on the Synthesis of Form,

[T]he culture that once was slow-moving, and allowed ample time for adaptation, now changes so rapidly that adaptation cannot keep up with it. No sooner is adjustment of one kind begun than the culture takes a further turn and forces the adjustment in a new direction. No adjustment is ever finished. And the essential condition on the process—that it should in fact have time to reach its equilibrium—is violated.

Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964, p. 56.

While unselfconscious evolution with limited foresight can no longer be relied upon to produce solutions of good fit, an understanding of evolutionary processes is essential to producing such fit. In particular, the constraints that have not changed for humans – nutritional, social, and cognitive – must be recognized, and old, hard-won solutions to these constraints must be seriously considered as essential building blocks of synthetic, selfconsciously-designed solutions to human flourishing.

The History of Fertility Transitions and the New Memeplex

Sarah Perry, October 2014


European cultures have historically prevented people from restricting family size within marriage. The European marriage pattern allowed for the control of fertility only through delaying and restricting nuptiality. A new pattern, allowing for controlled fertility within marriage, simultaneously originated in New England and France in the late eighteenth century. The new pattern traveled with a new set of values, including suffrage, democracy, equality, women’s rights, and social mobility. Its main mechanism of spread was education, the availability of which also incentivized the new fertility pattern’s adoption by providing a clear way for parents to compete for the future status of their children by having fewer children. The new pattern spread across Europe, North America, and Australia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, encountering temporary, partial resistance from some groups. Even Catholics and Mormons worldwide adopted controlled fertility by the early twentieth century or earlier. As the new pattern grew to dominate the western world in the twentieth century, Asia and Latin America transitioned to the new pattern. Sub-Saharan Africa entered a fertility transition beginning in the 1980s that is ongoing. In each of these transitions, when controlled fertility was adopted, the pre-transition positive (eugenic) relationship between fertility and wealth became a negative (dysgenic) relationship. Only tiny pockets of culture that maintain extreme separation from the new pattern – especially through refusing outside education and preventing women from contact with the outside world – have fertility patterns plausibly consistent with uncontrolled fertility. These may include the Amish and Hassidim in the United States. Once the fertility transition to controlled fertility occurs in a population, its fertility generally continues to decline until it is below replacement. The benefits of the new pattern are increased material wealth per person, a reduction in disease, starvation, and genocide, and upward social mobility. The main drawback is the onset of a dysgenic phase that may end civilization as we know it.

Introduction to Cultural Evolution

By creating language, humans opened up a new frontier for evolution. Cultures – a group’s collection of language, beliefs, behaviors, rituals, music, stories, rules, taboos, and markers of status – are made of information, transmitted from generation to generation and group to group. Cultures, or memeplexes, influence the genetic success of their adherents, often acting heterogeneously on members of their constituent populations. They form a major part of the selective environment itself, shaping the size and composition of the groups of humans they rely on to reproduce themselves.

memeplex: the collection of values, beliefs, practices, rituals, music, art, rules, stories, and markers of status that makes up a human culture, is passed from generation to generation within a population, and is sometimes passed from one population to another.

Although cultural evolution operates by very different mechanisms than genetic evolution, many biological patterns are present. Cultures mutate, reproducing varying versions of themselves by generational transmission and spread, experience differential reproductive success (selection), and sometimes go extinct. They are dependent on their human hosts, or symbiotes, a population they both change and are changed by. And we are dependent on them.

There are two ways that memeplexes can reproduce themselves: first, they can reproduce intergenerationally, being passed on to the genetic descendants of their adherents. Second, they can reproduce by spread or diffusion, transmitted from their adherents to people other than their own genetic descendants, such as to neighboring groups. In early human groups, cultures were mostly limited to the first method of reproduction. However, advances in technology, such as the invention of writing and, later, of printing, increased the importance of the second method of cultural transmission. This change relaxed selection on memeplexes in a crucial way: their success became less dependent on the genetic fitness of their adherents.

A Cultural Evolution History of Fertility

Where cultures may only be transmitted to the genetic descendants of their people, fertility norms are perhaps the most important aspect of cultural evolution. Every human group ever studied by anthropologists has a population policy (Murdock, 1945); while usually not explicit, every culture has norms and behaviors that limit population or mandate its increase. Different environments and technological packages are associated with different fertility norms. Arctic hunter populations face different pressures than medieval European farmers, and different fertility norms are successful in maintaining or even increasing a stable memeplex-reproducing population.

Matras (1965) identified four possible fertility strategies that a human culture might include:

  • A early marriage, uncontrolled fertility
  • B late marriage, uncontrolled fertility
  • C early marriage, controlled fertility
  • D late marriage, controlled fertility

Controlled fertility is not an artifact of modernity. Hunter-gatherers often control their fertility within marriage, whether by infanticide or by non-reproductive sexual practices or abstinence. The number of children born to the average hunter-gatherer woman ranges from .87 to 8.5, and in many groups is less than three (Marlowe, 1965). The higher values are consistent with uncontrolled (natural) fertility (Bongaarts 1978), but the lower numbers indicate some form of fertility control. (Differences in nuptiality do not explain the variance.)

Hunter-gatherer populations varied substantially in population policy, depending on the demands of their environment and mode of subsistence. As some groups began to practice agriculture, however, they faced the opportunity to dramatically increase their populations and take over new lands populated by hunter-gatherers by achieving high population densities. Territory determined the success of farming cultures, and a high population was crucial to maintaining and even expanding territory. Memeplexes whose population policy mandated uncontrolled fertility now had a major advantage against those that didn’t. When an agricultural culture is expanding into a frontier populated only by hunter-gatherers, whether in the Stone Age or in the eighteenth century, only cultures establishing early, universal marriage and uncontrolled fertility as the norm are successful. Populations either increased and expanded or were kept in check by mortality.

Early marriage and uncontrolled fertility were probably the norm in all of Europe prior to the sixteenth century. This pattern exists today in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, and in isolated pockets elsewhere, though this has often been the result of a fertility transition away from an earlier, controlled norm. Improvements in agricultural productivity have mimicked the selective effects of a frontier, relaxing the need for cultural limitation of fertility, much as that experienced by the Stone Age European farmers and colonial American farmers.

Around the sixteenth century, Europeans west of the Hajnal line began to switch to a pattern of late marriage, with a significant proportion of people never marrying, and uncontrolled fertility within the population who married. This norm was likely not adopted for the conscious purpose of limiting the population, but had the effect of keeping the population somewhat more comfortable below the Malthusian limit (Clark 2009). In preindustrial Japan and parts of China, however, farmers in long-settled areas kept early and universal marriage, but adopted fertility control by selective female infanticide and other means. In these populations, almost all women married and married young, but had around three children during their lives (Jones 1990 at p. 118). With industrialization and agricultural advances offering a pseudo-frontier relaxing Malthusian limits, the Japanese briefly adopted uncontrolled (or at least much less controlled) fertility, but after World War II they began to control their fertility once more. Most existing populations have been through multiple fertility transitions, and each transition has shaped the population.

Almost the entire world has recently undergone a single fertility transformation, one from uncontrolled fertility to controlled fertility. This transformation began in the late eighteenth century in a few small villages in France and New England, and subsequently spread to every continent and almost every population in the world. Europe at this time exhibited both early and late marriage patterns, but uncontrolled fertility was the norm, a crucial part of a memeplex maintained by the Catholic Church and other institutions at the center of every community.

What caused this worldwide fertility transition? Why did it start where and when it did, and what were the mechanisms of its spread? Why did so many humans adopt fertility norms at odds with their own genetic fitness? And what made some societies immune? What follows is a theory for the timing, location, spread, and limits of the modern fertility transition, taking into account the cultural, economic, and reproductive histories of dozens of populations. In short, it is a battle of the memeplexes.

A Note on the Non-Role of Child Mortality in the Fertility Transition

Since child mortality has drastically declined in the last century, many assume that child mortality had a role in people’s decisions to limit fertility. This is a problematic conception: child mortality can only affect fertility when parents have a “target” parity in mind; in uncontrolled fertility regimes, no such target exists, so there is no sense in which parents might “replace” deceased children to achieve their target. The transition is from an uncontrolled fertility regime to a controlled regime; this “target parity” is the very essence of the transition that must be explained.

Indeed, in sample after sample, decreasing mortality is found to have no role in decreasing fertility; it occurs at the wrong time and in the wrong place to be causal (see, e.g., Guinane 2010, Murphy 2012, Cummins 2012).

The Uncontrolled Fertility Norm in the Catholic Memeplex

In the centuries leading up to the eighteenth, European cultures, whether marrying early or late, exhibited uncontrolled fertility. Fertility outside of marriage was prevented and punished, but there was a positive obligation to realize one’s natural fertility if married. The enforcement of this obligation was centralized in the Catholic Church, which played a role in its communicants’ lives so extensive it is hard for moderns to imagine it.

The uncontrolled fertility norm was crucial to the success of the memeplex stewarded by the Catholic Church, by the mechanism described in an earlier section. The fact that it is a positive obligation implies that it has costs to individuals, who might benefit from “defecting.” Defecting, in this sense, means not maximizing one’s fertility within marriage. If humans directly wished to maximize their own fertility, such a positive obligation would not be necessary. But, as is often said, humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Human preferences often align with high fertility, but high fertility is not itself the target. Sexual images of young, fertile women are desirable even though they do not increase fertility; similarly, sugar is not disdained simply because it is no longer scarce enough to promote health. One of the strongest drives that humans exhibit is for high social status. In all human societies prior to the recent global fertility transition, status was strongly correlated with fertility. Like sugar and sexual images, humans continue to seek status for its own sake even when it ceases to be correlated with fertility.

People compete for status along many dimensions. In order to sustain high fertility in its host population, a memeplex must effectively forbid competition along one particular axis: competing for status (one’s own or that of one’s children) by reducing the number of births. In many situations, it may be tempting for people to “defect” from a high-fertility norm by having fewer children, in order to have a less burdensome life themselves, or in order to improve the health and social status of their smaller number of children. This latter is what modern demographers call the “quality-quantity tradeoff;” it is a tradeoff that is forbidden by uncontrolled fertility norms. Luckily for memeplexes with this norm, there were few opportunities for upward mobility in social status in the world before the eighteenth century. Social and religious pressure was enough to prevent most would-be “defectors” from realizing these marginal opportunities; those that tried risked outcast status, and one’s fertility was highly observable by the community.

How was the Church able to impose this norm on people who had incentives to defect by controlling fertility? The Church derived its power from its deep involvement in its members’ lives. It was able to offer a profound spiritual gift: contact with the Divine as part of a community. In the fifth century, worship in Christian churches on Sundays was not just a single service, but an “interlocking series of services” beginning before dawn and continuing until after dusk (Kavanagh 1984, at pp. 56-60). Everyone participated in at least some of the services, including laudes at dawn, processions across the city, lively preaching, communion, and vespers at night; only the most pious participated in all of them. In medieval Europe, the Church had dominion over time itself, from the calendar of holidays organizing the sacred year to the church bells declaring the hours. It provided musical and other refined aesthetic experiences at a time when they were scarce, elaborating its own holiness and meaning. It united Christians under a loving, powerful, and soon-returning God.

With the invention of the printing press in Europe in the fifteenth century, a new memetic frontier opened. Over the following centuries, literacy expanded dramatically; people were able to access a new universe of cultural items, including new ideas and old books (especially the Bible) that were previously only accessible to the elite few. The earliest Protestants encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves, instead of accessing the divine only through community worship and rites guided by priests. The Catholic Church was no longer able to maintain memetic control over religion; heretical sects with mutant ideologies caused havoc (see, e.g., Carlin 2013). The Catholic Church itself entered a more literary phase as well, calcifying the “primary theology” discovered through community contact with the divine into “secondary theology” refined and approved by experts in ivory towers (Kavanagh 1984). People’s need for contact with the divine through rite was not being met by the calcified liturgy of the Church as it existed after the Council of Trent, not to mention the English Act of Uniformity of 1549 (Kavanagh 1984, at p. 81). The intimate contact with the divine offered through reading the Bible for oneself (or with one’s own charismatic preacher) proved tempting for the spiritually undernourished. Literacy, and the Church’s response to it, weakened the Church’s control over its members even as powerful new memeplexes were being born to compete with it. One of these new memeplexes would come to dominate the entire world.

The New Memeplex

In a few ordinary villages in New England and a few ordinary villages in France, commencing around the year 1776, a new memeplex was being created. Those who adopted it began to control their fertility within marriage. On two different continents and in two different languages, small communities had adopted new sacred virtues, competing with the sacredness of the old memeplex. The new sacred beliefs included democracy and suffrage, equality, universal education, and the rights of women. In America, temperance and abolition were gradually added, and as the memeplex gained power, it began to emphasize centralized organization. Like many religions, its claims to universal truth made it imperative for its adherents to impose it even upon unwilling participants in distant lands.

The memeplex that precipitated low fertility was not industrialization. The fertility transition occurred in rural as well as urban areas. More importantly, the fertility transition was centered on France, whereas the industrial revolution spread outward from England. Genetic and linguistic distance from France predicted the spread of the fertility transition within Europe between 1830 and 1970, supporting a model of cultural adoption of new norms and behaviors at the memetic “frontier” (Spolaore et al. 2014) rather than economic responses to industrialization. The same pattern of cultural transmission can be observed within the United States.

The new memeplex offered adherents the opportunity to compete along the long-forbidden dimension: by limiting their fertility. The revolutionary atmosphere in the late eighteenth century promised upward social mobility, and for the first time, there were major gains available to one’s children’s future status from trading off child “quantity” for child “quality.” An educated child, it now seemed, might rise above his parents’ station in life, a station previously accepted without question for centuries. By the nineteenth century in New England, members of the religious arms of the new memeplex controlled their fertility in order to have fewer children of better “spiritual quality,” a thought unthinkable in Catholic terms (Parkerson et al. 1988). “Pietism emphasized direct contact with God by personal prayer and scripture reading, and the need to inclucate this spirituality in young children,” say Parkerson et al. “It fostered a sense of individualism and self-worth, and put women in leadership roles that permitted notions of gender equality to emerge.”

These American religions stewarding the new memeplex were cultural descendants of the Puritan religions, formed and reformed in Great Awakenings, new memetic entities promoting new sacred beliefs often in conflict with the old ones. They allowed adherents previously forbidden gains in status in exchange for limiting fertility; and as more people began to compete along this dimension, those who did not were at a disadvantage.

It should be noted that the quality-quantity tradeoff here is not for better evolutionary quality. For example, in a large Swedish sample over many generations, children from smaller (limited) families had more education and achieved higher socioeconomic status, but had fewer children themselves (Goodman et al. 2012). Status was passed on at the expense of evolutionary fitness. There is no mystery here. Status has been reliably associated with high fertility for so long that humans pursue it for themselves and their children for its own sake, just as they enjoy sugar for its own sake.

Parents had been asked, it seemed, for centuries to come to a miniature version of the Repugnant Conclusion. Under the new pattern, a parent was able to form a sort of alliance with his first few children, increasing their well-being at the (unfelt) expense of the existence of their never-born siblings. When the birth of children was firmly the responsibility of God, this calculation was not even considered. But imagine an eighteenth century peasant watching his neighbor’s few, well-fed children gain status through education, while his own, many children are malnourished with no prospects beyond his own. Combined with the waning influence of the Church’s memetic package, the direct observation of Fortune’s smile must have been compelling. Only those in very tightly-knit religious communities, exercising a high degree of social control, and ideally rarely observing small families in practice, were immune. Only they were not compelled to compete by fertility control – at least, for a limited time, and in a progressively limited manner.

The Role of Women’s Rights

The new memeplex that drove the fertility transition to controlled fertility replaced the old sacred values of hereditary hierarchy, religious obedience, and traditional gender roles with new values, including equality, democracy, education, women’s rights, upward mobility, and suffrage. Education seems to be the primary means of transmitting the memplex and incentivizing the adoption of the new fertility pattern. However, the other factors are also important in transmitting the low-fertility pattern, though their importance varies over time. Women’s status does not seem to have been a very important determinant of the early fertility decline, though it has clearly been a determinant of the most recent fertility transition to sub-replacement fertility.

It is difficult to quantify women’s rights or women’s status in order to measure their effect on fertility. However, the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century do not seem to have been periods in which women enjoyed particularly high status, even in New England and France. Women in the United States did not gain suffrage until the early twentieth century; prior to the mid-twentieth century, women who attempted to compete with men were regarded as objects of ridicule. Rousseau, whose writings likely originate with (and partly make up) the new memeplex, prescribes a traditional role for women, taking care of children and attending to the home sphere, distinct from the role of men. While female literacy predicted lower fertility during the early transitions, these women were a long way from liberated, and the low fertility pattern was able to spread in countries in which women had very low status at the time, such as Japan.

In addition, the means that were used to space births during the early fertility transition – namely, periodic abstinence and withdrawal – would have required the participation of men. Workforce participation for women was extremely low at the beginning of the nineteenth century, around 5%, and rose very slowly during the nineteenth century. By most definitions, in the United States, traditional gender roles survived into the 1950s, when the fertility transition was already long over. While women’s rights and status would become important determinants of fertility in the twentieth century, education and social mobility seem to be more important fertility determinants in the initial transition to controlled fertility.

During the later fertility declines, women’s rights were very important as women themselves were incentivized to compete for status via education and careers. The pattern of voluntary childlessness is relatively new outside monastic contexts. It is not merely a tail of the desire for smaller families, as rates of having zero children frequently decreased as families got smaller; voluntary childlessness bears no consistent relationship to fertility (Gobbi 2011). Only later, as new, nonreproductive roles for women emerged, did voluntary childlessness begin to become common. Women’s education is also important in fertility transitions of developing countries, in which it is highly correlated to the use of modern contraceptives (Ainsworth et al. 1995). When women are taught to understand and trust the new Western memeplex, they are more willing to limit fertility using its medical technology, which might otherwise be scary and forbidden. In developing countries in which contraceptive use is not universal, female education is a strong predictor of the use of contraception (Bbaale et al. 2011, Gribble et al. 2008).

1776 at Ground Zero of the Fertility Transition

In order for the new memeplex to make progress against the old memeplex, several conditions had to be met:

  1. The weakening of the institutions of the old memeplex
  2. A new set of sacred beliefs that could compete with the old sacred beliefs
  3. Economic and social conditions that rewarded competition on future children’s status by restricting one’s own fertility
  4. Institutional mechanisms for the spread of the new memeplex

As we have seen, the influence of the Catholic Church and its organization and control of communities had been substantially weakened during the Enlightenment. The American Revolution and French Revolution were products of a new set of sacred beliefs, valuing democracy, equality, suffrage, and education. The equality and social mobility made possible by the Revolutions increased the returns possible from status climbing, which was rarely possible before. Democratic reforms were associated with increasing public spending on education; education was at once an important mechanism by which people could trade off fertility for future child status, and a mechanism for the spread of the ideas of the new memeplex. Only those who maintained church control, rejected the new education, and prevented competition with the outside world were able to slow the spread of the new memeplex’s fertility pattern – for a while.

The fertility transition began at the same time at two places where conditions were particularly hospitable to the new form of future-oriented status competition. In both New England and France, the fertility transition began not in the wealthiest areas, but in more modest areas with low inequality. New England was both less wealthy and more equal than the South (Lindert et al., 2012), and within the South, high wealth and high inequality negatively predicted the spread of education (the most crucial component of the new memeplex) within counties (Ager 2013). Within France, those villages (Cummins 2013) and county-equivalent départements (Murphy 2012) that were the first to switch to the new fertility regime were poorer and more equal than similar areas that did not experience a fertility decline. Villages that experience fertility decline were more equal (measured by gini coefficient) than England or non-decline villages, and wealth as measured in wills was less correlated with father’s wealth in fertility decline villages, indicating higher social mobility (Cummins 2009). “Decreases in the level of economic inequality, associated with the 1789 Revolution, suggest that the environment for social mobility changed to incentivize lower fertility in France,” says Cummins (2013). The social and economic changes surrounding the American Revolution likely had the same effect, as ideals of universal education, equality, and suffrage found adherents in New England as well.

However, within these modest French villages, it was the wealthier members who limited their fertility first. Within Cummins’ (2013) “decline villages” – those experiencing the fertility transition – the wealthiest tercile of families reduced their fertility the most. In “non-decline” villages, where fertility remained high, the wealthy had more children. These two fertility regimes map directly to the two memeplexes that are battling. Below, from Cummins (2013), shows the relationship between fertility and wealth at the individual level under the two regimes between 1750 and 1810:


In the New England town of Hampton, New Hampshire, it was the middle tercile of families who reduced their fertility the most (Kilbourne 1986). Ambitious middle-class families from modest areas had the most to gain in social mobility from limiting their fertility and educating their children. They were the first to undergo the fertility transition, but others soon followed their example. By the time the fertility transition was detectable at the state level in New York in the nineteenth century, it was the wealthiest families who limited fertility the most (Haines 2008). When England experienced its fertility decline in the late nineteenth century, it was the poorest members of the highest social class (professionals) who reduced their marital fertility first (Cummins 2009) – apparently hoping to avoid downward social mobility rather than provide for the upward social mobility for their children. This pattern represents a clear departure from the eugenic, Malthusian European regime of the past, during which those with the highest wealth and status experienced the highest fertility.

The Role of Education

The new memeplex was both incentivized and spread by education (Perry 2014a and Perry 2014b). Education was costly, both in terms of expenses and in terms of forfeiting children’s labor, but returns to education in terms of both status and income were beginning to be positive for a large number of people in eighteenth century France and New England. Prior to the eighteenth century, only elites had access to education; but in the period leading up to the Revolutions, universal education gradually became a sacred mandate. Connecticut and the Massachusetts Bay Colony mandated universal elementary schooling in the 1640s and 50s, says Kenny (2008). Major educational reforms were carried out in New Hampshire as early as the seventeenth century (Wallace), and education was a major Revolutionary priority in late-eighteenth-century France (Markham).

In transitioning France, education of children (as well as mother’s literacy) was correlated with decreasing fertility (Murphy 2012). Within the United States at the same time, years of education was highly predictive of fertility decline, while income bore no consistent relationship (Hansen et al., 2014).

Spatially, the fertility transition in the United States began in New England in the late eighteenth century, then spread from the northeastern coastal states across the North to the West, and finally to the South. The map below shows the woman-child ratio (a proxy for fertility) at the county level in the United States in 1800: (from Haines et al. 2011)


In 1800, the fertility transition was underway in modest rural villages in two coastal areas, centered on Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Bay. By 1840, the low-fertility pattern centered on Cape Cod had intensified and spread to the west in the North, but not in the South (Haines et al., 2011):


At this point, education had been widely adopted in the North, and significantly less in the South. The following map (my own) illustrates the spatial distribution of education at the state level in 1840. The metric is the state’s number of children attending primary and grammar schools and academies, but not colleges, as a proportion of the number of white children ages 5-14 in the state, calculated from the 1840 census. As with fertility, education spread west in the North, but not in the South.


In the map above, enrollments approached the ideal of universal education in the Northeast, northern midwestern states made some progress, and the South educated only a small fraction of its youth. Between 1840 and 1880, fertility dropped substantially more in the Northeast than anywhere else, and fell least in the South (Hacker 2009).

In the years that followed, enrollment rates would increase rapidly in the northern Midwest, but would stagnate or even decrease in much of the South. The following map (Bleakley et al. 2013) shows the change in enrollment rates in counties across the United States between 1850 and 1870:


The states in the Northeast were already educating almost all their children in 1850, and their enrollment rates did not change much. Across the northern Midwest, enrollment rates soared, but stagnated or decreased across much of the South. Note that the figure only takes white enrollment rates into consideration, so the difference between Northern and Southern states is not just measuring the percentage of recently freed slaves.

By 1860, using white child-woman ratios as a proxy for fertility, lower fertility appears to have spread into parts of the south (Haines et al. 2011):


Within the South, the inverse relationship between fertility and education remained strong (Bleakley et al. 2009):


Hookworm, an intestinal parasite that primarily affects children and causes lethargy and anemia, but not mortality, was endemic to many parts of the South until the early 20th century. A major eradication effort was launched in 1910, and was extremely successful. Bleakley et al. (2009) posit that hookworm acted as a barrier to education, effectively increasing the cost of educating children. In areas with high infection rates, education and literacy increased and fertility declined when the parasite was eradicated. Areas with lower infection rates experienced less education increase and less fertility decline. By 1920, much of the South appears to have adopted the controlled fertility norm, and educational improvements would only increase from that point on.

Across the United States, as immigrant and native populations were exposed to the new memeplex advocating upward mobility, education, and equality, more and more Americans switched to a controlled fertility pattern. The education rate for blacks lagged that of whites until the early 20th century (Margo 1990); accordingly, black fertility began declining much later than white fertility, but then fell faster than white fertility (Haines et al. 2006, Table 1). Uncontrolled fertility groups (such as Irish immigrants in the early twentieth century) that encounter the strong, fully-formed memeplex when it is already widely accepted tend to experience rapid drops in fertility compared to the initial slow decline of the innovators; American blacks may have been culturally removed enough from the status competition domain of whites to exhibit a similar pattern.

The fertility-education relationship is also present in Europe during the fertility transition. For example, this map depicts the relationship between fertility and education in Prussia in 1849, when the fertility transition was well underway (Becker 2009):


This pattern is exhibited virtually everywhere the fertility transformation takes place, from Iran (Raftery et al. 1995) to Nepal (Axinn 2001). During Nepal’s transition, just being near a school reduced a woman’s fertility even if neither she nor her children attended it. The more the new memeplex gained in worldwide power and status, the more powerful it became at bringing new converts under its spell. Education has spread much more quickly in the recent era than during the first decades of the fertility transition (Benavot et al. 1988).

As noted above, the early converts in Europe were those with close genetic and linguistic distance from France (Spolaore 2014). In South America between 1870 and 1940, states with populations predominantly of European origin were most likely to expand education (Benavot et al. 1988). Among Europeans, the population most susceptible to the early forms of the new memeplex, education is associated with democracy and suffrage. In both France during the Revolution and Britain a century later, major public educational provisions were enacted shortly after a major expansion of suffrage (Kenny 2008). In France, the enactments occurred during the Revolution, and French marital fertility fell below 10% of its previous level for the first time in 1827. So many people had switched away from uncontrolled fertility that the phenomenon was now visible at a country level. In Great Britain, the education enactments occurred in 1870 and 1891, and Great Britain’s fertility first fell 10% below its prior level in 1892 (Spolaore 2014).

Hold-Out Groups

Return for a moment the map of 1800, 1840, and 1860 fertility above (the black-and-white maps by Haines et al. 2011). Notice the high fertility area at the northern tip of Maine. This area was heavily Catholic, as seen in this map of Catholic Churches per county in 1860 (Mullen 2013):


For decades, it formed one of the “hold-out areas” that maintained high fertility despite dropping fertility all around. In the next section, we will examine these hold-out groups and find out what caused them to resist the new fertility norms, the mechanisms by which they did so, and how the nature of the norm changed over time.

The Changing Nature of High Fertility: Catholics and Mormons

Catholics and Mormons in the United States maintained higher fertility than other religious groups, and the Irish, Spanish, and Dutch maintained high fertility for a long time after the fertility transition in Europe. However, all these groups have subsequently adopted the modern controlled fertility pattern, and their adoption of controlled fertility within marriage appears quite early. Instead of maintaining the old, uncontrolled fertility pattern, Catholics and Mormons appear to have shifted to controlled fertility, but at a higher target parity (or lower target spacing) than the surrounding population. In both cases, the nature of church control changed: it was not able to mandate true uncontrolled fertility, but was able to convince parents not to stray too far from the community mean on the highly observable metrics of birth spacing and parity. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the fertility of Mormons and Catholics descended well below any possible natural fertility population, converging at or just above the non-Mormon, non-Catholic mean. These institutions have been fighting losing battles against the new controlled fertility pattern, defending ever-shrinking concessions to higher fertility.

The role of theology in maintaining high fertility is secondary to the role of community control (Goldsheider 2006). The religious community can exercise indirect control by preventing contact with extra-religious status seeking, such as through providing religious rather than public education and emphasis on traditional gender roles; and it can exercise direct control through surveillance of birth spacing and parity by religious officials and by the community. By maintaining control of primary education, by being the center of social life among its communicants, and by surveilling the birth spacing of its members, the Church slowed but did not ultimately prevent the adoption of controlled fertility. Instead, the Church maintained a high target parity (or low target birth spacing) among its members even as they controlled their fertility. This target parity decreased over time; this is consistent with Catholics and Mormons controlling fertility and targeting the current mean parity or birth interval (so as to avoid detection by being average), as the mean would decrease over time by this process alone.

The Mormon fertility transition occurred over the latter half of the nineteenth century, just after the frontier peak in fertility (Heaton 1998). Mormon women born in 1840-1845 had on average around nine children, and the maximum parity observed was a staggering 22 (Bean 1990 at pp. 186-202). Mormon women born in 1895-1899, however, had an average of around five children, with the maximum observed birth order being just ten. Age at marriage declined only one year during that time, and the period of lactational infecundability remained constant. Beginning with the 1860-1865 cohort, women were clearly utilizing fertility control by birth spacing, and their fertility control started earlier and became more effective over time. By 1900, the Utah LDS were no longer a natural fertility population, but a controlled fertility population with a high target parity (ibid).


During the twentieth century, LDS birth rates ran parallel to but higher than the American birth rate (Heaton 1998).


Throughout the twentieth century, samples of Mormon college students and families have reported high rates of usage of fertility control, as well as high rates of usage (Bush 1976). The LDS fertility rate is presently probably about three children per woman, much higher than the average white American fertility rate, which is below two. Again, while the LDS Church was not able to maintain a genuinely uncontrolled fertility pattern, despite narratively compelling pronatalist theology and strong community involvement, it has maintained a target parity somewhat above the background level.

This is not the case for modern Catholic populations. In the United States, Catholic and Protestant fertility converged in the 1970s, and both are currently below replacement (Frejka et al. 2006). Catholic fertility in Southern Europe has also fallen to below replacement since the 1970s (Berman et al. 2007). But throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Catholic communities maintained high fertility for long periods of time even as the fertility transition accelerated in surrounding populations.

French Canadians arrived in Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from home populations practicing the late marriage, uncontrolled fertility European marriage pattern. While the French who stayed in France experienced a fertility decline, shifting to controlled fertility, the French Canadians experienced a fertility transition in the opposite direction – to early marriage and uncontrolled fertility (Milot et al. 2011). Fertility rose significantly, consistent with the frontier pattern, as each generation of women was able to give birth slightly earlier than the last. While the rest of Canada transitioned to controlled fertility early and quickly, French Canada transitioned very slowly; births per woman declined 23% between 1851 and 1921 in Quebec, compared to a 51% decline for Anglophone Canadians during the same time period (Krull et al. 2003, note 1). French Canada likely ceased to be a natural fertility population during this time period. During the 1960s, during a period of modernization and change, total fertility in Quebec suddenly decreased by half, to below the replacement rate, where it remains today (Krull et al. 2003). Thus, in cooperation with linguistic and cultural isolation, the Catholic Church in French Canada was able to slow the fertility transition and maintain a high target parity until the 1960s.

A similar pattern appears in Ireland, with both the initial slow decline and the final rapid decline occurring later than the decline in French Canada. Controlled fertility is first apparent from census data in the first decade of the twentieth century in Ireland (David et al. 1995). In 1911, 14% of completed Irish families had more than ten children; by 1946, only 5% of Irish Catholics had more than ten children, and only 3% had more than ten in 1961 (Kennedy 1973 at p. 185). The proportion having 7-9 children decreased from 36% in 1911 to 16% in 1961, and smaller family sizes became proportionally more common.

The Catholic Church in Ireland was able to maintain natural fertility until 1900 and a high (though decreasing) target parity thereafter. The Catholic Church controlled the school system in Ireland, ensuring that children were not indoctrinated in “new memeplex” ideas. Interestingly, when free public education was mandated in Ireland in 1892, primary school enrollments rose from 50.7% in 1890 to over 80% in 1900 (Benavot et al. 1988). This may or may not be related to the onset of fertility control shortly thereafter. Fertility rose again around 1929, when birth control was criminalized in Ireland, another demonstration of the strength of the Catholic Church. Finally, in the early 1980s, Irish fertility declined to approximately the replacement rate, and hovers around the replacement rate today.

Irish immigrants to the United States did not demonstrate the same fertility pattern as the Irish who remained in Ireland. Irish-Americans had higher fertility than native-born Americans, but lower than those who remained in Ireland (Guinane et al. 2004). They became a controlled fertility population almost immediately upon arrival, but maintained a high target parity, though this declined with successive generations. Irish Catholic immigrants who moved to areas with low Catholic populations, on the other hand, experienced approximately normal American fertility levels. The Catholic Church was able to maintain some control in America, but only within tightly-knit Catholic communities, and only to a lesser degree than the Catholic Church in Ireland. As noted above, American Catholic fertility has since fallen below replacement. In 1965, when American Catholic fertility rates were beginning to converge with non-Catholic fertility rates, 4.4 million children attended Catholic elementary schools out of a Catholic population of around 46 million. This number steadily declined even as the Catholic population increased; in 2014, only 1.3 million children attend Catholic elementary school out of a Catholic population of around 66 million. As the influence of the Catholic Church declined, Catholic fertility declined as well.

The Netherlands is another predominantly Catholic country that displayed high fertility relatively late for Europe. Dutch Catholics were likely a natural fertility population until the late nineteenth century, while liberal Dutch protestants had higher birth intervals indicative of deliberate birth spacing (Van Bavel et al. 2004). Van Bavel et al. are too quick to attribute the early fertility decline to breastfeeding; it is possible to estimate the interval of lactational infecundity (as in Bean 1990) and measure its variation over time, but this is not done here. At any rate, all religious groups’ fertility declined slowly but relentlessly between marriages in 1885 and marriages in 1955 (Somers et al. 2003):


Catholic fertility was initially highest but declined the most, from almost 9 children per woman in 1885 to just over three in 1955. Liberal protestant births and “no religion” births had already declined to this level by 1925. Whenever the onset of controlled fertility, the Catholic Church successfully maintained a higher target parity than other religions until the 1940s, when traditional Calvinists first exceeded Catholic fertility. As in the United States, a fundamentalist protestant community maintained higher fertility than the general population for a time; unlike the Mormons in the United States, however, the fertility of the Calvinists, like all groups in the Netherlands, continued to decline, converging at between 2 and 2.5 births per woman in the 1990s. The fertility rate in the Netherlands has since fallen to below replacement.


Fertility in the World Today

Since the inception of the fertility transition in the late eighteenth century, every country in the world has transitioned to controlled fertility (Bongaarts 2013). Europe and North American transitioned first, with European populations around the world leading the way, as in South America (Schultz 2005). East Asia transitioned next, and accomplished its transition fastest. Latin America, South Asia, and West Asia followed, and sub-Saharan Africa transitioned last and slowest. It is still in the process of transitioning today, and fertility rates remain the highest in the world (Schultz 2005):


Fertility in the developing world has declined from 6.1 children per woman in 1960-1965 to 2.7 children per woman in 2005-2010 (Bongaarts 2013), with fertility falling slowest in the poorest parts of the world. Fertility in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen only 19% over this period of time, but it has entered the controlled fertility revolution. Fertility in the developed world is much lower and commonly below replacement.

In each country from the eighteenth century until today, a very important transformation takes place as fertility begins to be controlled. In uncontrolled fertility regimes, wealth (and income, and education) are positively correlated to fertility; as the transition occurs, these become negative predictors of fertility, though not necessarily at the same time. Finland is the only country in which the husband’s income correlates positively to fertility (Weiss 2008). Other countries, from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, exhibit a pattern in which the intelligent, careful, and wealthy limit their fertility earlier and more than the dull, profligate, and poor (from Gribble et al. 2008):


The uncontrolled fertility pattern is a thing of the past outside of small groups that renounce non-religious education and involvement with the outside world. While some Amish orders appear to be natural fertility populations, there is some evidence of fertility control by birth spacing in Amish populations (Greksa 2002). Little evidence is available for Hassidic and Haredi Jewish populations, but the sociologist Bruce Phillips (in unpublished research) has been cited as saying that Hassidic birth rates average 7.9 births per women, within the range of natural fertility populations. The true test of a natural fertility population is the existence of extremely high parity families, and there do appear to be Hassidic families numbering fifteen children. Haredi rates are lower, 6.6 per woman, perhaps indicative of fertility control. Some modern Hassidim do use birth control (personal correspondence), and it is possible that these populations will transition to the modern fertility pattern.

Effects of the Fertility Transition

The modern low-fertility pattern has allowed humans to spread the fruits of economic development among fewer people, resulting in a standard of living that pre-1800 populations never dreamed of. Starvation, disease, and genocide, the dangers of high population density, have been averted on a massive scale. It is difficult to imagine the misery that would have accompanied industrialization without controlled fertility.

However, the new fertility pattern has changed the population of humans, as memeplexes do. The old fertility pattern, in which the wealthy had more surviving children, increased the genetic share of the population that was intelligent and careful (Clark 2009). The new fertility pattern, in which education and wealth negatively predict fertility, both within and between populations, means an ever-smaller genetic share of the population is intelligent and displays low time preference. It is a form of selection, just as deadly pathogens killing those without genetic resistance to them is a form of selection. Intelligence is highly heritable in humans (Davies et al. 2011), as is time preference (Carpenter 2011). The Flynn Effect has masked the genetic effects of the new selection environment (Weiss 2008), and the new memeplex itself had come to regard talk of good people husbandry as a sacredness violation. At any rate, it is too late to address the changes caused by the new fertility pattern on a global scale (Weiss 2008).


The traditional fertility pattern in Europe, from Roman times until the eighteenth century, was uncontrolled fertility, in which those who married had as many children as they were biologically capable of having. Some European populations transitioned to a pattern of late and non-universal marriage, which reduced fertility, but couples did not control their fertility within marriage. In the late eighteenth century, in New England and France, a new pattern emerged, in which married couples controlled their fertility within marriage by spacing their births. This pattern was associated with a new memeplex, which promoted democracy, suffrage, education, women’s rights, and equality. The spread of the new fertility pattern was distinct from the spread of industry in the Industrial Revolution; rather than being centered on England, it was centered on less-industrialized France and New England, spreading first to culturally similar populations through education and religion. For the first time, parents competed for the status of their future children by reducing their family size. The Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent other churches, resisted the new fertility pattern, but all populations eventually adopted it. An important characteristic of the transition is that in post-transition societies, the poor and uneducated have more children, whereas in pre-transition societies, the wealthier and more educated have more children. At present, most European populations have transitioned to sub-replacement fertility patterns; even Mormons in Utah exhibit only three births per woman. Those countries and populations whose fertility transitions occurred later retain much higher fertility. These patterns have left their imprint on the genetic composition of the population of the world, perhaps the most important form of human selection of our time.

Appendix: Deliberate Fertility Control among England’s Elite in 1800?

Cummins (2009, Chapter 4, co-written with Gregory Clark) presents a theory that the wealthiest members of English society intentionally decreased their fertility around 1800, much earlier than the fertility decline in England, which occurred about 90 years later. Further, he proposes that the mechanism of fertility decline was “stopping” behavior, ceasing fertility at a target parity, rather than increasing the birth interval or “spacing.” While Cummins’ dissertation presents invaluable information about the relationship between fertility and status in transitioning France and England, there are reasons to be skeptical of this particular claim.

Cummins & Clark present strong evidence of a total fertility decline among the wealthiest segment of English society beginning around 1800, data extracted from thousands of recorded wills executed in England. While elite fertility was higher than the fertility of the poor before 1800, after 1800 it was lower. However, the evidence is much weaker that this elite fertility decline was a result of controlled fertility. Instead, it appears to be an exaggerated form of the Western European marriage pattern. Indeed, age at marriage for elite women rose by about two years during the period of the fertility decline. Cummins & Clark say that this higher age at marriage cannot explain the entire fertility decrease, but this conclusion seems unwarranted.

Evidence for deliberate fertility control comes from a much smaller sample of only a few hundred wills. There is no evidence of an increase in the birth interval for the wealthy during this period, so spacing – the mechanism underlying every early fertility decline discussed thus far – is ruled out as a candidate. Instead, Cummins et al. posit that couples decreased their fertility by stopping at a target parity, a pattern not seen in any other early fertility decline. This conclusion rests on very slim evidence.


The chart above (Cummins 2009) depicts the birth interval and the interval between marriage and the final birth for the four wealth groups, group 1 being poorest and group 4 being richest. Before the fertility decline in 1800, the interval between marriage and the last birth for poor women was 9.5 years; for the richest women, it was 13.2 years. However, after 1800, the poorest women maintained their same marriage-last birth interval at 9.5 years, but the richest women reduced their marriage-last birth interval to 10.5 years, a reduction of 2.7 years. Given the small sample sizes, this appears easily within the range of marriage-last birth intervals for women practicing uncontrolled fertility but marrying two years later. It does not seem parsimonious to posit highly anomalous (not to mention technologically precocious) “stopping behavior” when the interval between the alleged “stopping” and the natural course of menopause appears to be about .7 years.

From the same small sample, Cummins and Clark tabulate the age at final birth for women of the four classes:


All classes of women decreased their age at last birth within this sample, not just the elite group Cummins et al. claim practiced precocious stopping. Only the reduction in age at last birth for the second-wealthiest group is significant in this sample, which does not fit with the story of elite stopping, and is just as likely noise. For the highest-wealth elite group (group 4) after 1800, age at last birth (35.2) is higher than the age at last birth in all other post-1800 groups. This is difficult to harmonize with a picture of falling elite fertility from stopping behavior. The poor are not hypothesized to have controlled their fertility, yet they cease reproduction around age 32 or 33; but the elite are suspected of stopping after a final birth at the age of 35.

There is also the fact that, unlike other early fertility transitions, this one did not spread. These anomalies and evidence problems should make us skeptical of any deliberate within-marriage fertility control among the English elite in the early eighteenth century.

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