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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sociobiological implications of the (historical) rural Chinese economy?

I thought readers might be interested in this unpublished paper by former theoretical physicist Ron Unz, entitled Preliminary notes on the possible sociobiological implications of the rural Chinese economy. Ron anticipates economist Greg Clark's ideas concerning how selection pressure related to culture and economics shaped the English (see here and here), although it is fair to say the general line of thinking is quite old.

(From Ron's email.)

A few points to keep in mind:

(A) Reading it over again, I find much of it to be of rather embarrassingly low quality. You might even want to completey ignore the first 1 1/2 pages, which really aren't on the topic itself. But *please* do keep in mind that I did write it as a college freshman for an independent study I'd persuaded E.O. Wilson to give me on Sociobiology. And I do think my theory itself is probably correct, even though the presentation and style isn't very good.

(B) The idea is a very simple one, and I'd actually gotten it a couple of years earlier when I was taking a seminar on the rural Chinese political economy back at UCLA. Chinese society had several fairly unique characteristics which together probably caused the evolution of high Chinese intelligence.

(1) For many centuries and to some extent for a couple of millenia, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits. The orderly, stable, and advanced nature of Chinese society meant that food supply and poverty were usually the limiting factor on population, rather than wars, general violence, or plagues.

(2) Chinese rural life was remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements, vastly more complex and legalistic than anything you would find among European peasants let alone those in Africa or elsewhere. Hence there was obviously huge selective pressure for those able to prosper under a system of such (relative) financial complexity.

(3) Virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing, with none of the feudal or caste legal districtions you would find in Europe or India. Successful poor peasants who acquired wealth became the complete social equals of rich peasants or landlords. Rich peasants or landlords who lost their wealth became no different from all other poor peasants.

(4) In each generation only the relatively affluent could afford to marry, e.g. have parents wealthy enough to afford to buy them wives. The poor couldn't obtain wives for their children, hence didn't have grandchildren.

(5) The unique Chinese custom of "fenjia" meant that land, i.e. wealth, was equally divided among all sons. Since the wealthy tended to have several surviving children, those children automatically started life much poorer than their parents, and needed to reacquire wealth through their own ability. Because of this system, rural Chinese society exhibited an absolutely massive and continual degree of downward social mobility, perhaps unprecedented in human history. Each generation, a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool, while the wealthy generally became poor. The richest slice of the population could afford multiple wives and numerous children, but due to fenjia this just tended to impoverish their families to a compensating extent.

(6) The smartest children of the wealthy often received specialized education in hopes they might pass imperial exams and thereby join the "gentry," which might greatly increase the future economic prospects for themselves and their close relatives. So there was indeed some "pull at the top" but I think the genetic impact was pretty small compared to the "push from the bottom."

(7) Overall, the model is pretty similar I think to what that Clark fellow wrote about England. However, I think the degree of genetic pressure in each generation was enormously greater, fenjia caused automatic downward mobility each generation, and I think the system remained in place for several times longer than the few centuries Clark claims for England. So you'd expect the results to be much greater.

(8) One very important difference with the Cochran-Harpending model for the Ashk Jews of Eastern Europe is that the selective pressure was multifaceted. Ashk Jews merely needed to be smart and make money in order to become selectively advantaged. However, the selective pressure on Chinese peasants pushed in lots of different directions simultaneously. Peasants needed to be smart and have good business-sense, but they were also being selected on the basis of physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption, and lots of other things. So selection for intelligence couldn't come too much at the expense of other vital traits, hence took place much more slowly.


Anyway, I really should try to write up a "clean" version of this paper at some point, but meanwhile feel free to reference it if you'd like, though please to characterize it as "unpublished."

Best,

Ron

See also this 1920s characterization (Stoddard) of Chinese as economic competitors:

Certainly no one has ever denied the Chinaman's extraordinary economic efficiency. Winnowed by ages of grim elimination in a land populated to the uttermost limits of subsistence, the Chinese race is selected as no other for survival under the fiercest conditions of economic stress. At home the average Chinese lives his whole life literally within a hand's breadth of starvation. Accordingly, when removed to the easier environment of other lands, the Chinaman brings with him a working capacity which simply appalls his competitors. That urbane Celestial, Doctor Wu-Ting-Fang, well says of his own people: "Experience proves that the Chinese as all-round laborers can easily outdistance all competitors. They are industrious, intelligent, and orderly. They can work under conditions that would kill a man of less hardy race; in heat that would kill a salamander, or in cold that would please a polar bear, sustaining their energies, through long hours of unremitting toil with only a few bowls of rice." (Quoted by Alleyne Ireland, "Commercial Aspects of the Yellow Peril," North American Review, September, 1900.)

This Chinese estimate is echoed by the most competent foreign observers. The Australian thinker, Charles E. Pearson, wrote of the Chinese a generation ago in his epoch-making book, "National Life and Character": "Flexible as Jews, they can thrive on the mountain plateaux of Thibet and under the sun of Singapore; more versatile even than Jews, they are excellent laborers, and not without merit as soldiers and sailors; while they have a capacity for trade which no other nation of the East possesses. They do not need even the accident of a man of genius to develop their magnificent future." (Charles H. Pearson, "National Life and Character," p. 118 (2nd edition).)

And Lafcadio Hearn says: "A people of hundreds of millions disciplined for thousands of years to the most untiring industry and the most self-denying thrift, under conditions which would mean worse than death for our working masses -- a people, in short, quite content to strive to the uttermost in exchange for the simple privilege of life." (Quoted by Ireland, supra.)

This economic superiority of the Chinaman shows not only with other races, but with his yellow kindred as well. As regards the Japanese, John Chinaman has proved it to the hilt. Wherever the two have met in economic competition, John has won hands down. Even in Japanese colonies like Korea and Formosa, the Japanese, with all the backing of their government behind them, have been worsted. ...

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