A Negative Review of Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition
A rather negative review of my book Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future appeared by someone who calls himself thezman. I am not familiar with his blog, but he seems to be basically on the right side of things as indicated by its blogroll, which includes Vdare.com, AmRen, Steve Sailer, etc. Since most people are not going to wade through a 500+-page book, this is my version of the main ideas.
Thezman’s review will not be helpful to someone who isn’t familiar with the book because it leaves out critical information and basic ideas. The review begins by complaining that I don’t get around to defining individualism until Chapter 8. But a major point, ignored by the reviewer, is that there are two clearly spelled out definitions of individualism in Chapters 2 and 3 respectively, the aristocratic individualism of the Indo-Europeans, and the egalitarian individualism of the northern hunter-gatherers. Unless one discusses these concepts, the entire point of the book is missed because it’s essentially about how these two types of individualism played out in history, with the power of aristocratic individualism gradually decreasing after the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. One would do better by reading some of the reviews on Amazon, such as this one; or even better, read Prof. Ricardo Duchesne’s 9-part review for the Council of European Canadians.
Re aristocratic individualism, from Chapter 2:
The novelty of Indo-European culture was that it was not based on a single king or a typical clan-type organization based on extended kinship groups but on an aristocratic elite that was egalitarian within the group. Critically, this elite was not tied together by kinship bonds as would occur in a clan-based society, but by individual pursuit of fame and fortune, particularly the former. The men who became leaders were not despots, but peers with other warriors—an egalitarianism among aristocrats. Successful warriors individuated themselves in dress, sporting beads, belts, etc., with a flair for ostentation. This resulted in a “vital, action-oriented, and linear picture of the world” [citing Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization]i.e., as moving forward in pursuit of the goal of increasing prestige. Leaders commanded by voluntary consent, not servitude, and being a successful leader meant having many clients who pledged their loyalty; often the clients were young unmarried men looking to make their way in the world. The leader was therefore a “first among equals.” …
Oath-bound contracts of reciprocal relationships [not biological relatedness] were characteristic of [Proto-Indo-Europeans] and this practice continued with the various [Indo-European] groups that invaded Europe. These contracts formed the basis of patron-client relationships based on reputation—leaders could expect loyal service from their followers and followers could expect equitable rewards for their service to the leader. This is critical because these relationships are based on talent and accomplishment, not ethnicity (i.e., rewarding people on the basis of closeness of kinship) or despotic subservience (where followers are essentially unfree).
Thus aristocratic individualism is fundamentally about individual accomplishment rather than kinship ties as being at the heart of social organization while retaining a strongly hierarchical social structure. Chapter 3 describes Egalitarian Individualism:
As noted in Chapter 2, there were already strong strands of individualism in Indo-European-derived cultures. Thus the argument here is not that northern [hunter-gatherers; h-gs] are the only basis of Western individualism, but that Indo-European individualism dovetailed significantly with that of h-gs they encountered in northwest Europe. The major difference between these two strands is that I-E-derived cultures are strongly hierarchical and relatively egalitarian only within aristocratic peer groups (aristocratic individualism), while the h-g’s were strongly egalitarian without qualification. The burden of this chapter is to make the case for this. The contrast and conflict between aristocratic (hierarchical) individualism and egalitarian individualism is of fundamental importance for my later argument.
I really don’t understand how a competent reviewer could miss this, or the material in the following paragraph on the evolutionary basis of egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer groups and the central importance of moral communities as the social glue binding hunter-gatherer communities rather than extensive kinship. This concept is critical for understanding Chapters 6–8. From Chapter 3:
Egalitarianism is a notable trait of hunter-gatherer groups around the world. Such groups have mechanisms that prevent despotism and ensure reciprocity, with punishment ranging from physical harm to shunning and ostracism. Christopher Boehm describes hunter-gatherer societies as moral communities in which women have a major role, and the idea that Western cultures, particularly since the seventeenth century, are moral communities based on a hunter-gatherer egalitarian ethic will play a major role here, particularly in Chapters 6-8. In such societies people are closely scrutinized to note deviations from social norms; violators are shunned, ridiculed, and ostracized. Decisions, including decisions to sanction a person, are by consensus. Adult males treat each other as equals.
Re climate, I certainly agree that climate is important, as emphasized in Chapter 3 on the northern hunter-gatherers, where the harsh climate of Scandinavia resulted in a general deemphasis on extended kinship in favor of nuclear families. The Indo-Europeans originated in what is now Ukraine but developed a very different culture than the hunter-gatherers. Their culture was completely militarized—likely needed to survive and prosper in the steppes where marauding groups were the norm (not the case in Scandinavia). Their individualism, whereby individual merit mattered more than kinship, was highly adaptive in getting the best leaders. I suppose this could have been simply a cultural invention enabled by domain-general processing (see below; the cultural invention approach is emphasized by Joseph Henrich in his The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous re the role of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages). Or it could have been due to a similar scenario as that sketched in Chapter 3 for the northern hunter-gatherers: Both of these groups lived in areas where one kinship group couldn’t control the basis of economic production. In the case of the northern hunter-gatherers, their source of food on the Scandinavian littoral was not available year-around, forcing them to retreat into small family-based bands where only very close kinship relationships mattered for part of the year (Chapter 3). On the other hand, the proto-Indo-Europeans periodically traveled for extended periods in their wagons in small family-based groups to grazing areas for their cattle and returned to the larger encampment. Again, no kinship group could control the vast steppe region, and relatively intensive kinship typical of hunter-gatherers rather than extensive kinship relations (e.g., in a Middle Eastern clan) would continue as the fundamental basis of social organization. I favor the ecological scenario, but the cultural innovation perspective is also possible. However, a purely cultural shift would have to entail strong social controls to prevent evolved predilections for kinship ties from dominating. Seems difficult and there is no evidence for it.
[thezman:] The first three chapters of the book cover the migration of people into Europe and what we know about the organizational structures. Europe was initially settled by hunter-gatherers with an egalitarian culture. Then nomadic people with an aristocratic warrior class came in from the east. MacDonald argues that the genetic basis for egalitarianism and meritocracy is in these original people. This is not an argument from science, but rather an argument from inference.
Thezman thus ignores the ecological argument of Chapter 3, the clear evidence for individualism in both of these groups, and the genetic cline from northern to southern Europe revealed by population genetic research discussed in Chapter 1.
[thezman:] It cannot be emphasized enough how marriage patterns and family formation helped define what we think of as the West. The rapid decline in cousin marriage, for example, is arguably the great leap forward for Western people. It naturally lead [sic] to the evolution of alternatives to narrow kinship in human cooperation. MacDonald does a good job summarizing how these mating patterns were brought to the West with the aristocratic people who migrated from the East.
But it’s not just the aristocratic peoples from the East that created the familial basis of individualism (i.e., a tendency toward nuclear families rather than, say, compound families common in Southern and Eastern Europe based on brothers living together with their wives). I argue in Chapter 4 that the nuclear family pattern is strongest in Scandinavia, a result I attribute to climate (monogamy is favored in harsh environments because of the difficulty of men provisioning the children of more than one woman) in conjunction with the ecological argument noted above.
[thezman:] In the next chapters the focus shifts to culture and history. Chapter four is about European family formation. The focus is entirely on Europe, so the reader is left to guess why this differs from the rest of the world.
But the arguments from Chapters 2 and 3 make it clear that the roots of individualism in both the Indo-Europeans and the northern hunter-gatherers are essentially primordial, as noted above.
[thezman:] Chapter eight is an interesting chapter in that he finally gets around to providing a definition of individualism. He states at the opening that individualist societies are based on the reputation of the individual. Group cohesion depends on the members judging other members on an individual basis. Each member also accepts that he will be judged by society as an individual. This contrasts with other societies where membership in a tribe or clan is the basis for judging people.
But the theme of the importance of reputation appears long before Chapter 8. Indeed the word ‘reputation’ appears around 80 times in the entire book, beginning with Chapter 1 and throughout the book. The stage is set for developing the importance of reputation in the emphasis on individual military reputation in Chapter 2 on the Indo-Europeans and the concept of moral communities in Chapter 3—individuals were trusted to the extent that they had a good reputation, and trust was not based on kinship distance. This chart contrasting northwestern European hunter-gathers with the Middle Old World culture is from Chapter 3:
|Hunting, gathering||Pastoralism, agriculture|
|Family System||Nuclear family;
|Individual choice based on personal characteristics of spouse||Utilitarian; based on
family strategizing within kinship group
|Relatively high||Relatively low|
|Ethnocentrism||Relatively low||Relatively high|
|Social Status||Mainly influenced by reputation||Mainly influenced by status in kinship group|
|Trust||Trust based on individual’s reputation||Trust based mainly on kinship distance|
Contrasts between European and Middle Old-World Cultural Forms
[thezman:] This gets to the major flaw in the book. It needs an editor. The parts are here for a straight line argument that individualism has genetic roots and that it was selected for in European people. As humans adapted to the harsh northern climates, they adopted social structures that rewarded the behaviors necessary to survive as a group in the areas we now call Europe. While we cannot locate an “individualism gene” we can infer it through things like marriage patterns and family formation.
I realize that at 511 pages, Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition is something of a tome but I think there is in fact a straight-line—albeit complex—argument. The difficulty is that one is dealing with two different forms of individualism and how they play out in history. The primordial tendencies of all three groups (the Indo-Europeans, the northern hunter-gatherers and Early Farmers) and how they influence family structure (Ch. 4) must be integrated. But one must also include the argument on the role of the Church in accommodating to aristocratic individualism in the early Middle Ages (the Germanization of Christianity) and ultimately facilitating egalitarian individualism (e.g., the canon law of moral universalism, monogamy, exogamy. Canon law swept away the morality of the ancient world based on natural inequality characteristic of the aristocratic moral framework and substituted a morality based on moral egalitarianism and individual conscience, paving the way for outbreaks of Protestant-type individualist thinking about religion during the later Middle Ages) (Ch. 5). This culminated in the Protestant Reformation and the rise to dominance of egalitarian individualism, leading to the English Civil War and the gradual decline of aristocratic individualism (Ch. 6). And then Chapter 7 (which is completely unmentioned in the review) focuses on egalitarian individualism and how it figured in the movement to eradicate slavery by creating a moral community that abhorred slavery. In any case, its tomeishness is no reason to fail to comment on the central differences and the historical dynamic between aristocratic individualism and egalitarian individualism. There is an argument there, but I rather doubt that thezman read it carefully enough to get it.
[thezman:] This [a shorter book] would make for a nice, crisp two-hundred-page book. Instead, these bits are spread over five hundred pages, mixed with material that is highly debatable. People familiar with the history of the early church, for example, will scratch their head at the assertions made in chapter five. The section on Puritanism often seems to contradict what he said in early chapters about individualism. A professional editor could have pointed this out and forced a rethinking of these chapters.
It’s not professional to complain about the statements in Chapter 5 without saying what was puzzling. And the chapter on Puritanism shows that essentially it started out as what one might call a group of individualists (because of their evolutionary background as northern Europeans). This concatenation of individuals formed a cohesive group via powerful social controls embedded in Calvinism. In America, the Puritans originated with the intention of keeping non-Puritans out of Massachusetts (building “the proverbial city on a hill”), but this gradually gave way, mainly because of the colonial policies of the British government preventing the colony from restricting immigration and settlement. During the nineteenth century, several intellectual offshoots of Puritanism, having escaped the powerful social controls of Calvinism, revealed themselves to be radical individualists (e.g., the libertarian anarchists).
[thezman:] Another problem with the book is that it is not really about individualism so much as a way to support his theory of group evolutionary strategy. As a result, he reduces group behavior to individual motivations. This sort of reductionism is common among older right-wing writers for some reason. That generation has always had a fetish for assigning base human desires to the behavior of groups. For some reason, emergent behavior lies beyond their intellectual event horizon.
Sorry, but I don’t get this; I would like to see examples where I reduce group behavior to individual motivations or assign “base human desires to the behavior of groups.” The whole point of cultural group selection theory (which has gradually become eminently respectable) is that groups are a fundamental category of natural selection, that groups are far more than a concatenation of individuals—an idea I first developed regarding the ancient Spartans (Social and Personality Development: An Evolutionary Synthesis (Plenum, 1988) and later applied to traditional Jewish groups (A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (Praeger, 1994). Take a look at Chapter 1 of the latter; it’s a cultural group selection argument. Think of a military unit. Group behavior is not a simple function of individual motivations but of a hierarchical command structure enforced by rigid discipline; cheaters in the ranks are often forced to suffer severe penalties, thereby solving the fundamental problem of group selection: human groups, unlike the vast majority of animals, are able to develop social controls and ideologies that prevent individual cheating detrimental to group interests. This is a major theme of A People That Shall Dwell Alone where I show that heretical Jews were dealt with harshly.
Moreover, my argument is definitely not biologically reductionist, since there is a major role for cultural innovation via human general intelligence and its control over the modular mechanisms of the lower brain (see here and here on the links between general intelligence and innovation, solving novel problems, and solving old problems in new ways). My view is that ideologies are not reducible to the deterministic output of evolved modules, and this should have been apparent from reading the book, especially Chapters 5 and 8. From Chapter 5:
Religious beliefs are able to motivate behavior because of the ability of explicit representations of religious thoughts (e.g., the traditional Catholic teaching of eternal punishment in Hell as a result of mortal sin) to control sub-cortical modular mechanisms (e.g., sexual desire). In other words, the affective states and action tendencies mediated by implicit [modular] processing are controllable by higher brain centers located in the cortex. For example, people are able to effortfully suppress sexual thoughts, even though there is a strong evolutionary basis for males in particular becoming aroused by sexual imagery. Thus, under experimental conditions, male subjects who were instructed to distance themselves from sexually arousing imagery were able to suppress their sexual arousal. Imagine that instead of a psychologist giving instructions, people were subjected to religious ideas that such thoughts were sinful and would be punished by God.
Ideologies such as the Christian ideology of the sinfulness of sexual thoughts are a particularly important form of explicit processing [i.e., non-modular processing linked to general intelligence] that may result in top-down control over behavior. That is, explicit construals of the world may motivate behavior. For example, explicit construals of costs and benefits of religiously relevant actions mediated by human language and the ability of humans to create [emphasis added here] explicit representations of events may influence individuals to avoid religiously proscribed food or refrain from fornication or adultery in the belief that such actions would lead to punishments in the afterlife.
Ideologies, including religious ideologies, characterize a significant number of people and motivate their behavior in a top-down manner—i.e., the higher cognitive functions involving explicit processing located primarily in the prefrontal cortex are able to control the more primitive (modular, reflexive) parts of the brain such as structures underlying sexual desire. Ideologies are coherent sets of beliefs. These explicitly held beliefs are able to exert a control function over behavior and evolved predispositions.
There is no reason to suppose that ideologies are necessarily adaptive. Ideologies often characterize the vast majority of people who belong to voluntary subgroups within a society (e.g., a particular religious sect). Moreover, ideologies are often intimately intertwined with various social controls—rationalizing the controls but also benefitting from the power of social controls to enforce ideological conformity in schools or in religious institutions [e.g., Marxist control of the educational system in the USSR]. The next section illustrates these themes as applied to regulating monogamy in Western Europe.
Ideologies are cultural creations enabled by human general intelligence and language; they are not a deterministic outcome of evolved psychological mechanisms. In Chapter 8 I discuss the ability of ideologies such as racial egalitarianism created by elites throughout the West that dominate the media and academia to control evolved tendencies toward ethnocentrism—a major problem for White people now. Hence, I absolutely reject biological reductionionism. Thus the title of my book, The Culture of Critique. Culture is critical and underdetermined by our evolutionary history.
[thezman:] The final criticism of the book is that it fails to explain why individualism has led the West to the verge of self-extinction. It has become an article of faith in certain circles that Western individualism is the cause of decline. Some argue that it makes it possible for tribal minority groups to exert undue influence on society to the detriment of the majority population. If so, then why now and not a century ago or five centuries ago when the West was far more fragmented?
Again, I think the argument is quite clear: the rise of a substantially Jewish elite (i.e., thezman’s “tribal minority”) hostile to the traditional people and culture of the West discussed extensively in Chapters 6 and 8, and continued in Chapter 9. From Chapter 9:
So, what went wrong? Why, little more than a half century after the countercultural revolution, is the West on the verge of suicide, everywhere inundated by other peoples—peoples that are typically far more clannish, far more prone to corruption (an endemic problem in much of the Third World where relationships are based primarily on kinship rather than individual merit and trust of non-kin), and often of demonstrably lower intelligence. This has continued to the point that Western peoples are on the verge of becoming minorities in areas they have dominated for hundreds or, in Europe, thousands of years. Ultimately, if present trends continue, their unique genetic heritage will be lost entirely. One need only look at the demographic trend lines in all Western countries, steady declines in the White percentage of the world population, and generally below-replacement White fertility in the context of massive immigration of non-Whites. Extinction, after all, is just as much a part of the story of life as the evolution of new life forms.
This ongoing disaster for the traditional people of America is the direct result of the rise of a new elite as a result of the 1960s countercultural revolution. This new elite despises the traditional people and culture of America.
The above is essentially a reference to the argument from Chapter 6 on the decline of the WASP elite and the rise of a substantially Jewish elite, culminating in the 1960s countercultural revolution and recounted in my book The Culture of Critique (especially Chapter 3). The above passage continues:
The intellectuals who came to dominate American intellectual discourse and academe were quite aware of the need to appeal to Western proclivities toward individualism, egalitarianism, and moral universalism discussed throughout this volume. A theme of The Culture of Critique is that moral indictments of their opponents have been prominent in the writings of these activist intellectuals, including political radicals and those opposing biological perspectives on individual and group differences in IQ. A sense of moral superiority was also prevalent in the psychoanalytic movement, and the Frankfurt School developed the view that social science was to be judged by moral criteria.
The triumph of these intellectual movements to the point of consensus in the West has created a moral community where people who do not subscribe to their beliefs are seen as not only intellectually deficient but as morally evil.
It was noted in Chapter 6 that during the period of ethnic defense in the 1920s, Darwinist thinking on race was common throughout Western culture and assumed prominence among many U.S. immigration restrictionists, energized by the changing ethnic balance of the United States. A theme of The Culture of Critique is that the intellectuals who became influential beginning in the 1930s (particularly the Boasian school of anthropology) targeted Darwinian theories of race as well as individual identities based on White racial group identity. For example, attacking racial identities in favor of atomized individualism for European-Americans was a central strategy of the Frankfurt School. Group identities based on race and even the family, were portrayed as an indication of psychopathology. Radical individualism was thus promoted by intellectuals who retained a strong allegiance to their own group and self-consciously promoted group interests.
These ideologies fell on particularly fertile soil because they dovetailed with Western European tendencies toward individualism. And whereas individualism has been the key characteristic of Western peoples in their rise to world dominance, these ideologies and their internalization by so many Europeans now play a major role in facilitating Western dispossession.
In particular, the ideology that White identity and having a sense of White interests are signs of psychopathology has made it impossible in mainstream media and academia to argue for the legitimate interests of White people in having homelands and in avoiding becoming minorities in societies they have dominated for hundreds, and in the case of Europe, thousands of years. Such ideologies are disseminated by the mainstream media—including conservative and libertarian media—and throughout the educational system, from elementary school through university.
They have in effect created a moral community that is radically opposed to the interests of Whites. And as with the Puritans, the new elite has been able to create a culture of altruistic punishment in which White people punish fellow Whites who deviate from the dogmas of the moral community created by the new elite, even at the cost of compromising the long-term interests of themselves and their descendants.
These ideologies have been increasingly buttressed by powerful social controls. As discussed in Chapter 8, in much of the West these controls include formal legislation punishing critics of immigration and Western dispossession. Because of the First Amendment, such statutory controls are in their infancy in the United States but are likely to gain traction in the coming years if the left gains power.
However, informal controls are also very effective in the United States and throughout the West. For example, many people have been fired from their jobs as a result of the actions of activist organizations simply phoning their employers. These organizations take advantage of the moral community created by media and academic elites over the last 50 years by limiting the influence of dissident individuals and exposing them to public scrutiny, thereby subjecting them to ostracism and job loss. The effectiveness of these tactics relies on elite consensus and conformist popular attitudes for their effectiveness. Scientifically based ideas that were entirely respectable less than a century ago now result in ostracism and job loss.
You can disagree with that (please do!), but it’s unprofessional to review this book without mentioning the book’s discussion of the role of the rise of the Jews in creating the culture of Western suicide. But once again, a critical piece of the argument is missing from the review. One wonders if thezman did anything more than thumb through the book.
 Christopher H. Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
 Ibid., 8.
 Kevin MacDonald, “Evolution and a Dual Processing Theory of Culture: Applications to Moral Idealism and Political Philosophy,” Politics and Culture (Issue, #1, April, 2010), unpaginated; see also K. MacDonald, K. (2009). Evolution, Psychology, and a Conflict Theory of Culture. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(2), 208–233.