On the HBD Chick Interview

Kevin MacDonald


The following is from an interview of HBD Chick that appeared on the Hoover Hog. I should say that I am an admirer of HBD Chick and follow her on Twitter.

Hoover Hog: I think it’s fair to say that one of the most polarizing figures in the HBD-o-sphere is Kevin MacDonald, whose work is mostly concerned with the evolutionary psychology of Judaism. I remember reading his book, A People That Shall Dwell Alone (long before that Cochran/Harpending/Hardy paper), and thinking that he made a fairly plausible case that Jewish identity could be understood as an evolutionary outcome. But when I got around to reading The Culture of Critique – a genuinely captivating book, whatever its merits – I came away with the impression that it was ultimately more of a polemic than a scientific treatise. Do you see value in MacDonald’s work, or is he off the reservation? More generally – and I could just as easily cite the work of Richard Lynn or Frank Salter in this context – how do you approach scholarly work that seems to be politically motivated?

HBD-Chick: Before I answer any of those questions, I’m just going to come right out and say that I admire Kevin MacDonald (and Richard Lynn and Frank Salter) very much.  Anyone who stands their ground in the face of sometimes truly vitriolic political correctness deserves respect as far as I am concerned. I mean, as far as I can tell (and I haven’t read all of his books), MacDonald has compiled plenty of historical evidence in support of his theories. His theories may be wrong, or you may disagree with his theories or his approach, but he’s not making stuff up off the top of his head. (If he were, that’d be a different story.) If people object to what he has to say, they simply need to refute his evidence and/or argumentation. It’s really that simple. There’s no need for protests in his classroom or personal attacks in newspapers, etc., etc.

I don’t think MacDonald’s work is off the reservation at all – or if it is, so, too, is the work of people like Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond (and many others!). I’ve only read A People that Shall Dwell Alone and three chapters from The Culture of Critique that happen to be floating around online – the one on Boasian anthropology, the one on the Frankfurt School, and the one on Jewish involvement in shaping U.S. immigration policy. I haven’t read Separation and Its Discontents at all. I don’t recall thinking that The Culture of Critique was very polemical, but perhaps that comes out more in the conclusion/other chapters (?).

KM: I am surprised that anyone would think CofC was polemical (I discuss why CofC had not gotten much traction for people like Hoover Hog here). A polemic on that topic could never have been published by an academic press.

I wouldn’t hesitate in reading MacDonald’s books even if he does have an ulterior political motive for writing them for the same reason that I still read Jared Diamond’s and other leftist academics’ books:  because there’s often a lot to be learned from them! And now I’m talking about simply acquiring knowledge – getting my hands on new info or data – although I suppose one could also learn something about what motivates people to write academic books in the manner that they do.  (~_^)  Maybe MacDonald does primarily want to convey his social/political message in his books. So what? And Gould didn’t? It’s not the way I’d like it to work, but as one of my high school teachers once said – she was a nun, by the way – books are for inspiring thought, not dictating it.

KM: For the record, I started out on the left during the 1960s madness and only came to my present views after a lot of reading. Because I was intellectually on the left, the whole thrust of my work beginning in the 1980s was on thinking about culture from an evolutionary perspective and how culture could trump evolution. My first interest was in understanding European family patterns, particularly what Richard Alexander called socially imposed monogamy, where the emphasis was on how the mating patterns of wealthy, powerful males were regulated by social pressures emanating from powerful institutions and lower status males. (This work eventually emphasized both culture and our unique biological heritage.)  Evolutionary psychology tends to theorize in a vacuum in which sexual behavior is determined by evolved modules, with no consideration of how social/cultural processes involving conflicts of interest over mating can affect the actual mating behavior of even very powerful individuals (like European monarchs).   Because of this interest in the social regulation of mating, it was a short step to the idea that groups could regulate themselves — whence the idea of cultural group selection which forms the basis of A People That Shall Dwell Alone. Much of PTSDA describes how traditional Jewish groups regulated behavior within Jewish groups and between Jews and non-Jews. I chose Judaism as the case study because it is so well documented and only much later became a critic of Jewish behavior because, quite frankly, I came to realize that there are and have always been conflicts of interest between Jews and non-Jews. These conflicts assume center stage in Separation and Its Discontents and, of course, The Culture of Critique. No evolutionist should be surprised that ethnic groups often have conflicting interests — or that conflicts of interest can range from territorial struggles to the ivied halls of elite academic institutions. The tragedy of evolutionary science is that, apart from Frank Salter and me, the vast majority of evolutionists completely ignore selection against their own people that is occurring throughout the West. 

HBD Chick: Having said all that, if I might go off track for a sec: While I think that MacDonald is right in pointing out that quite a few European Jews have been highly influential in Western academia, culture, and politics in the last couple of centuries, I don’t think he’s got the explanation for why that has been the case right.  As I said earlier, I don’t buy group selection theories, and so I don’t think that how European Jews behave, on average, is a “group evolutionary strategy.”  Secondly, I don’t think he’s got the explanation for why non-Jewish Europeans behave in the ways they do right, either.

With regard to European (Ashkenazi) Jews, Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending [pdf] have (I think convincingly) shown that, because of some pretty special selection pressures which the European Jewish population experienced during the Middle Ages in Europe, they now have a higher average IQ than other European groups.

KM: The argument that Jewish intellectual movements were influential is not really a formal group selection argument because there was no discussion of changes in gene frequencies resulting from between-group competition, as there was in PTSDA (especially Chap. 5). HBD Chick seems to think that I am saying that there were these smart Jews who became influential in the West and she would perhaps agree that their ideas stemmed from their Jewish identity and maybe she would go along with me in thinking that they were seen by their creators as advancing Jewish interests and not at all in the interests of Europeans. This is indeed the argument, but there is more to it than that. These intellectuals were indeed highly intelligent, but at the heart of the argument in CofC is the idea that these movements did not stand or fall on the power of their ideas but rather on ethnic networking (summarized in Chap.6, p. 215ff and especially 222-228). For example, the success of psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School was not due simply to the intelligence of Freud and Adorno and even less to the (e.g., non-existent in the case of psychoanalysis, fraudulent in the case of the Frankfurt School) data. Their success derived from the group structure of these movements, which centrally involved their co-ethnics, and their ability to gain a foothold in the elite academic world and in the major publishing houses and media outlets, and their ability to ignore or expel dissenters. These movements were like religious cults centered around charismatic leaders (228-230). These movements would never have managed to be successful and influential in a purely individualist scientific culture (pp.234-236).

But Jewish IQ certainly contributed to the success of these movements as a necessary condition, so the theory of Jewish IQ is important. Chapter 7  from PTSDA discusses my theory for the selection for higher IQ among Jews. My theory is not that Jewish IQ is the result of selection between groups (I explicitly reject the idea that Jewish IQ is higher because of persecution by non-Jews) but mainly the result of internal processes within Judaism — that Jewish groups were practicing eugenics beginning in the ancient world. I therefore reject the theory of Cochran and Harpending which proposes selection in the early modern period among Ashkenazim. I have written about my disagreements with Cochran and Harpending here, the main points being that there is plenty of evidence for high Jewish intelligence in the ancient world — well prior to the Middle Ages — and among the Sephardic Jews who dominated Spain until forced to bear the brunt of the Inquisition.

Regarding group selection in general, cultural group selection is eminently respectable these days but even now it’s an uphill struggle in some quarters. It’s certainly true that if ever there was a dogma in evolutionary science, it’s that group selection is a non-starter. I agree that it is likely to be of trivial importance in nature — except for humans, and that’s because humans are able to monitor and police the behavior of other group members in ways that animals have not been able to achieve. As noted above, my 1994 book was ultimately based on ideas stemming from the regulation of the mating behavior of powerful males by other elements of the society, but obviously this implies that the group can regulate behavior independent of the interests of individual members, even very powerful ones like English kings (here, p. 14) and wannabe despots in hunter-gatherer groups (e.g., Christopher Boehm’s work). Cultural group selection has always had a strong theoretical basis. For example, as part of the theoretical argument in Chapter 1 of PTSDA, I cited Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson’s “Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups. Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (1992):171–195). Richerson has a paper that is now in press at Behavioral And Brain Sciences that cites this paper as central in his argument for cultural group selection.  My own work in this area has emphasized human psychological mechanisms that enable cultural group selection, particularly the ability to monitor people’s reputation and impose personally inexpensive punishments for non-cooperators (e.g., here, here, here).

HBD Chick: I would guess that the special selection pressures they experienced also selected for different frequencies of other traits as well. There is some evidence to suggest, for instance, that verbal IQ is stronger in Ashkenazi Jews, on average, than some of the other aspects of general intelligence (spatial skills, for instance).

KM: Chapter 7 of PTSDA also discusses a variety of other traits besides IQ that were selected for in Jewish populations (viz., personality systems, ethnocentrism, high-investment parenting; see below). And I made a big deal about the distinction between verbal and performance IQ among Ashkenazi Jews in the same chapter and contrasted Jews and Europeans (see Ch. 7, linked above, especially p. 188ff).

HBD Chick: I also read ages ago, and unfortunately I don’t have the reference for it, that ADHD rates are comparatively high in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. I imagine that, on the whole, the frequencies of other personality/behavioral traits probably differ between Ashkenazi Jews and, say, Poles – just as the frequencies of personality/behavioral traits differ between Poles and southern Italians – or the English and the Scots – or the French and the Albanians – due to somewhat different evolutionary histories of the (individuals in those) different groups.  That’s all.

KM: I never heard of ADHD being higher among Jews, but again, Chapter 7 discusses evidence on personality systems (and psychiatric disorders related to personality systems) among Jews (pp. 204-214), particularly conscientiousness, emotionality, and the behavioral approach system. Briefly, the idea is that Jews, or at least Ashkenazi Jews, are high on several personality systems, resulting in 1.) tendencies toward personalities that react intensely to environmental contingencies (i.e., high on the emotionality system), 2.) strongly attracted to dominance, social status, reward (including sex), and prone to aggressiveness (i.e., high on the behavioral approach system), and 3.) able to have strong top-down control over modular systems related to emotions and behavioral approach (i.e., high on the conscientiousness system). I also review articles on Jewish parenting, particularly the inculcation of guilt and a strong desire to please the parents, and on the compartmentalization of affection/hostility — that is, the phenomenon of hostility alternating with affection. I updated some of this material in “Background Traits for Jewish Activism” (2003) which focuses on traits that are most important for the success of Jewish activism: hyper-ethnocentrism, intelligence, psychological intensity (emotionality), and aggressiveness. The evolutionary theory of personality that this is based on has been updated since 1994, most recently here.

HBD Chick: Then there’s my own personal theory about the effects of long-term close mating and “familial altruism” that I described above (which, again, might be completely wrong!) – that comes into play here, too, I think, with European Jews since they necessarily mated closely for a very long time being a relatively small, endogamous group. Genetic studies have shown, for instance, that all Jews are as related to one another as if they were fourth or fifth cousins. Plus there is also some evidence that European Jews had rather high cousin marriage rates, at least at some points in time – 22% in Germany in the 1920s, for instance. If I’m at all right, then it shouldn’t be surprising that European Jews are more oriented towards themselves and their extended families and their group than they are towards outsiders; this is the case in all “clannish” groups, as far as I can tell.  Couple these insular altruistic attitudes with their high (verbal) IQs and other traits, and I think that you just wind up with a bunch of people that are very good at looking after their own interests – which is what all peoples do, just to varying degrees, in different ways, and with varying success rates. In other words, no “group evolutionary theory” necessary.

KM: I have never argued that Jews were unique in being clannish or having high levels of consanguinity; e.g., Muslim populations continue to have high levels of consanguinity even after migration to the West. Ultimately, I trace these aspects of Judaism to its origins in the Middle Eastern cultural area. From Chapter 8 of PTSDA:

The relatively greater Eastern sense of ethnocentrism is also indicated by the much greater tendency toward consanguineous marriage that is characteristic of the entire region, and thus not confined to the Jews.[i] As indicated in Chapters 3 and 6, consanguineous marriage (marriage with biological relatives) and endogamous marriage (marriage within the group) are important components of a group strategy because they result in the correlation of individual fitness with the fitness of the group. Group‑oriented, collectivist societies emphasize consanguinity and endogamy based on known patterns of biological descent (e.g., tracing genealogies to prove group membership or establishing degrees of biological relationship such as first cousin or niece).

Goody (1983) shows that first cousin marriage was the norm among all Near Eastern peoples, and this practice continued into the Muslim era [and continues today]. Jews have also shown a very pronounced tendency toward consanguinity, including not only first cousin marriage, but also uncle-niece marriage (see Chapters 3, 4, and 6). Indeed, while uncle‑niece marriage is prohibited by Muslim law, such marriages are considered ideal in Jewish law and have been practiced throughout Jewish history (see Goitein 1978, 26; Goodman 1979, 463‑467), suggesting that the Jews are even  more inclined toward consanguinity than other Near Eastern groups. Modern groups of Samaritans also practice very high levels of consanguineous marriage, including 43 percent with first cousins and over 80 percent with some relative (Bonné 1966).

In marked contrast, there was a long tradition favoring exogamy at Rome. (PTSDA, pp. 239-240; updated in 2002, here, p. xxv ff)

I also wrote a monograph on other groups that have practiced endogamy while living as a Diaspora (Roma, Overseas Chinese, Amish, Puritans: see Diaspora Peoples). The individualism so typical of the West is far more the exception than the rule.

HBD Chick: Where I think MacDonald has got non-Jewish Europeans wrong is that he believes the general spirit of individualism that we see in Westerners is something that has roots in our Paleolithic past (the referenced article was published in 2002 – it could be that his thinking has changed on this since then, I don’t know). Instead, I think this is something that developed in the Middle Ages, along with the decline in kinship and “clannishness” in northern Europe, something which MacDonald actually discusses at some length in the same article. The two things are tied together – or are opposites, rather – either you are “clannish” and kin-oriented, as most peoples are, or you are individualistic and less kin-oriented. The difference, as far as I can tell, appears to be a result of mating patterns: inbred versus outbred (regular, long-term close matings versus more distant matings).  All the evidence suggests that pre-Christian northern Europeans were clannish and tribal in nature, not individualistic.  The origins of the individualistic European – and by that I really mean the individualistic northwestern European – lie in the Middle Ages, not the Paleolithic.

KM: Developing an understanding of Europeans is the most difficult intellectual question I can think of. Understanding Jews or other groups seems easy in comparison. When I first started reading about various Jewish groups over a 2000-year span, it started seeming like a broken record, whether the group was in ancient Alexandria, medieval Spain, the traditional Islamic world, or 19th-century Russia. But how to explain a pattern that is so unique to Europeans? How to explain a culture that is so dynamic and ever-changing?

HBD Chick agrees with the discussion in my 2002 paper “What Makes Western Culture Unique?”  that emphasizes the role of the Church and the rise of strong central governments as key influences in the decline of extended kinship relations in Europe. Again, my thinking on this goes back to my writing on monogamy from the 1980s. But whereas she is satisfied with these cultural mutations that happened a millennium ago, I began to think that something was missing. For one thing, the cultures of ancient Greece and especially Rome had strong individualist overtones (monogamy and exogamy enshrined in law) as described in my earlier writing and emphasized also in Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. “What Makes Western Culture Unique?” summarizes data suggesting an ethnic dimension — that the simple household versus joint household pattern splits some countries, like France, and there are differences in height, literacy levels  and economic productivity on either side of the line; one should also mention Peter Frost’s research showing genetic mutations implying personal choice of marriage partner (an individualist pattern) and monogamy rather than marriage on the basis of known kinship relations (typical of collectivist groups) (summarized here, p. 16). These mutations happened long before the Middle Ages. Further, an archeological excavation of a 4600-year old site in modern Germany found evidence for monogamy and exogamy, both strong markers of individualism.[1] And finally, although this is by no means a settled area, population genetic evidence continues to support a north/south genetic cline (see also Paul Skogland’s work and here), with the northern genetic influence descended from paleolithic hunter-gatherers who were not replaced by later migrations of Middle Eastern farmers or the Indo-Europeans from the Pontic Steppes.

My view is that the culture of the West since the Enlightenment has reflected northern hunter-gatherer culture: individualism, the simple family, de-emphasis on extended kinship, monogamy resulting from individual choice of marriage partner based on mutual attraction rather than consanguinity, egalitarian social organization, and proneness to moral universalism, altruistic punishment, guilt rather than shame as a mechanism for enforcing social conformity (see also Peter Frost), and creating moral ingroups based on reputation, not kinship— all features of hunter-gatherer societies.

Empathy and the creation of moral communities seem central to Western history since the rise of Western egalitarianism beginning in the 17th century with the rise of the Puritans — prime examples being the movement to end slavery beginning in the late 18th century and the culture of guilt and empathy that pervaded elite circles in England in the 19th century (the latter also a theme of David Hackett Fischer’s Fairness and Freedom). Beginning with the Civil Rights Movement, all of the cultural changes in America since the 1960s have been phrased in moral terms. This strategy simply doesn’t work in other cultures, and we have to understand why this is.

I am certainly not claiming that European culture is completely different from other cultures in the sense that Europeans have no tendencies at all toward collectivism. (This point reemerges in Separation and Its Discontents where a major theme is that individualism gives way to greater collectivism in the context of perceived between-group resource competition between Jews and non-Jews. All the great anti-Jewish movements in the West have been fundamentally collectivist, from the Catholic Church in the fourth century, to the Inquisition beginning in the fifteenth century, to National Socialism in the twentieth.) Indeed, as I point out in “What Makes Western Culture unique?,” the Germanic tribes that inhabited Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire had a clan-type social organization that was not truly individualistic (although there were strong tendencies toward forming military groups under leaders chosen for their ability rather than their kinship connections), presumably the result of group-based resource competition stemming from an earlier period.

The Western tendency toward individualism is relative, not absolute. It is fairly fragile, and it depends on contextual factors. The conclusion of the argument is that “these changes [toward individualism] occurred much more quickly and much more thoroughly than in other parts of the world,” and that this suggests that a biological tendency toward individualism deriving from European pre-history is part of the explanation.

I could be wrong about this, of course. However, when one looks at what is going on in Iraq and many other parts of the world, it would seem that it is not at all a simple matter to create individualistic social and political forms for most humans, even with strong central governments. For one thing, the level of consanguineous marriage in Iraq and other Muslim countries is much higher than it ever was among the peoples of Western Europe. In Europe people naturally gravitated to a world of friends and neighbors and exogamous marriages based on personal attraction when the costs of extended kinship relationships exceeded the  benefits. But the fundamentally collectivist, extended family social structure so typical of the rest of the world seems to be deeply ingrained and not easily altered.

I have updated the ideas in “What Makes Western Culture Unique?” here, p. 14ff . Briefly, I think there are at least two cultural strands that are important for understanding the West, what I term aristocratic individualism and egalitarian individualism, the latter being increasingly dominant since the 17th century rise of the Puritans. But all of that is too much to go into here.

HBD Chick: Sorry for going so off-piste. Just wanted to get all of that off my chest!  I feel better now.  (^_^)

KM: Me too.


[1] Haak, Wolfgang et al., Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age. PNAS 104[47] [2008], 18226–18231

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