The Rise of Universalism
Unlike many commenters in this space, I don’t particularly lament the secular rise of “universalism” that has occurred in Northwestern European societies (and their derivatives). Indeed, as a Black man, this is especially important to me. Without universalism, slavery may never have ended in the West. Without universalism, my family may never have been able to come to the United States from Jamaica, and I would likely not exist. Without universalism, laws banning interracial marriage might still be on the books, and my marriage to my wife would not be recognized throughout much of the country, and quite possibly my son would not exist.
“Universalism” is, broadly, the belief that all humans deserve the rights and recognition that historically people would only reserve for their own clan, own tribe, or at best, own countrymen. The idea of “universal human rights” is a very foreign concept to most of the world (even if many pay lip service to the idea today). As we saw in my previous post (200 Blog Posts – Everything You Need to Know (To Start): section Intraracial group variation and HBD Chick’s theory), this is the purview of Northwestern Europeans, a group of people who are distinct from all others in the world.
Many Northwestern Europeans unfamiliar with this fact assume that values found in WEIRDO societies are found across the globe. This has led some like Steven Pinker to conclude that all humanity is imbued with an “expanding moral circle.” That is, we posses an adjustable circle of morality, that can be expanded when we gain familiarity with those outside. If one confines oneself to NW European societies, it sure does look that way: we no longer keep people as slaves; we feel all have a right to participate in democracy; we don’t allow child labor; we feel that the disabled and the mentally ill deserve to live with dignity; Jim Crow has ended. We have enshrined a Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations (a NW European invention). We even extend some of these ideas beyond the human species with certain segments pushing for animal rights.
The idea of a universal “expanding moral circle” was mocked by Staffan in his post The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian:
if width of empathy is so large in most people, does it really matter if it’s a behavioral trait or not? Doesn’t growing awareness and the empathic inclusion that follows amount to the same thing as an expansion of our circle of empathy? Yes, you might say this is all semantics, weren’t it for one important thing: width of empathy is only large in Northwest Europeans and their descendants. People sometimes referred to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). This trait is intimately (inversely) linked to ingroup loyalty which is weaker among the WEIRD populations as well as among liberal/progressive people, as Haidt’s research has shown.
The rest of the world is not very impressed by Enlightenment ideals and it never was. To this day most of the world is not very into human rights. It’s something you do to make rich Western friends. And now with the rise of China many are abandoning this pretense altogether.
In fact, present day China makes an excellent example of how awareness and reason (this is a highly intelligent people) in no way has expanded the circle of empathy. The internet is full of videos from China illustrating cruelty and lack of concern for both humans and animals. This is a glaring contradiction that Pinker and Goldstein fail to address. Another friend of the expanding circle (who even wrote a book with that name), Australian philosopher Peter Singer has made an attempt to resolve this problem in his own TED talk. In it he shows very disturbing film clip (so click at your own peril) in which a 2-year-old Chinese girl is run over by a car and then left lying in the street. Other people look at her but walk by without helping in any way. He then goes on to compare this behavior with Westerners who can prevent child mortality by supporting UNICEF but fail to do so, at least sufficiently to eradicate the problem
Indeed, China is rife with awful tales, such animals being routinely skinned alive (WARNING: extremely graphic video – click here to view). Pakistan is known for “bear baiting” (where a declawed and detoothed bear is tied up left to be attacked by dogs), as well as the recent case of a married couple who were burned alive for blasphemy. Face-disfiguring acid attacks against women are common occurrences across South Asia. Human rights abuses abound in much of the non-Western world; the idea of a universal morality is clearly untenable.
Peter Frost discussed a trait that plays a significant role in universalism: affective empathy. From his post Feeling the Other’s Pain:
We like to think that all people feel empathy to the same degree. In reality, it varies a lot from one person to the next, like most mental traits. We are half-aware of this when we distinguish between “normal people” and “psychopaths,” the latter having an abnormally low capacity for empathy. The distinction is arbitrary, like the one between “tall” and “short.” As with stature, empathy varies continuously among the individuals of a population, with psychopaths being the ones we find beyond an arbitrary cut-off point and who probably have many other things wrong with them. By focusing on the normal/abnormal dichotomy, we lose sight of the variation that occurs among so-called normal individuals. We probably meet people every day who have a low capacity for empathy and who nonetheless look and act normal. Because they seem normal, we assume they are as empathetic as we are. They aren’t.
Like most mental traits, empathy is heritable, its heritability being estimated at 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). It has two distinct components: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Some researchers identify a third component, pro-social behavior, but its relationship to the other two seems tangential.
Cognitive empathy appears to be the evolutionarily older component of the two. It is the capacity to understand how another person is feeling and then predict how different actions will affect that person’s emotional state. But this capacity can be used for selfish purposes. Examples are legion: the con artist; many telemarketers; the rapist who knows how to charm his victims …
Affective empathy is the younger component, having developed out of cognitive empathy. It is the capacity not just to understand another person’s emotional state but also to identify with it. A person with high affective empathy will try to help someone in distress not because such help is personally advantageous or legally required, but because he or she is actually feeling the same distress.
Is it possible, then, that this capacity varies among human populations, just as it varies among individuals? … I have also argued that this evolutionary change has gone the farthest in Europeans north and west of the Hajnal Line (Frost, 2014a). In these populations, kinship has been a weaker force in organizing social relations, at least since the early Middle Ages and perhaps since prehistoric times. There has thus been selection for mechanisms, like affective empathy, that can regulate social interaction between unrelated individuals.
In child labor laws (from here):
With where slavery remains:
With vegetarianism (in Europe):
And of course (relevant to current events), in this (now a bit outdated) map of the legal standing of homosexuality across the world:
The countries closest to the upper right corner of the plot embrace universalistic values the strongest, and those furthest away are more clannish and kin-centric.
So why this rapid change in NW European societies? Indeed, it seems many of these changes have happened in an eye-blink. Nationally recognized same-sex marriage in the U.S. was unfathomable 25 years ago:
Now it’s the reality. But this shift in attitudes is only one such “secular change” we have witnessed in just the last few decades. Others include the rise in individuals claiming not to embrace a religion…
Much has changed in a pretty short period of time. Now, as we saw previously, views and attitudes are highly heritable. So how could they have changed so quickly? This brings me to an on-going point of confusion that I encounter on this topic. Such rapid changes couldn’t reflect genetic changes, since evolution doesn’t proceed that quickly. Nor can this be attributed to demographic changes. So what then? This illustrates that sometimes a change in the gross environment can lead to considerable changes in the expression of highly heritable phenotypes.
The nature of these changes are almost always poorly understood, since they’re incredibly difficult to research. I previously discussed this topic in my post Why HBD:
Rapid change can result when an idea receives widespread appeal among the people. Both components of this – the origin of the idea itself (a reflection of the heritable temperament of its progenitors) – and its reception among the masses (a reflection of the heritable temperament of adherents) are influenced by genes. In a way then, social revolutions can reflect pent-up genetic “potential” in a population, which may express itself when enough people accept that the idea is “OK” and hence can successfully overturn the established order. This is the essence of HBD Chick’s ideas, and Staffan’s remark on needing to “account” for the “history of communism” when looking at the current state of Eastern European societies (“We can’t adjust for their entire history”). The sexual revolution wasn’t the only revolution of consequence in relatively recent history. The American Revolution itself, the Protestant Reformation, the abolition of slavery in the U.S., the rise of communism in Russia, etc are as well. Historical revolutions are in essence, in many respects, a “changing of the genetic guard”, where the genetic dam “bursts” so to speak. More loosely attached individuals may convert if the idea attains a critical mass (see how much longer? | hbd* chick).
To be clear: this is not to say that “genetic potential” is the only factor. As mentioned, other realities, such as technology and the geographic/climatic landscape affect the viability of new ideas/behaviors, and facilitate or quench their dispersal.
However, I believe sometimes the environmental change that precipitates this behavioral change is the previous behavioral change. In other words, the secular change could be a rapid move towards realizing genetic potential. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll point out that Charles Darwin foresaw a good bit of this nearly 150 years ago!
Here’s a passage from his 1871 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Vol. 1, pp 101-102):
As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shewn by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions. The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas. This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually through public opinion.
In short, the idea appears to be this: once sympathy (and hence rights) are extended to one group, what’s to stop it from being extended further? If it is wrong to enslave poor Englishmen, then why is it OK to enslave Blacks or Native Americans? If the wealthy are deserving of living decent, healthy lives, why not the poor? If men can have the right to vote and earn a living, why can’t women? If Whites can marry other Whites, and Blacks can marry other Blacks, why can’t Blacks marry Whites? If straights can get married, why not gays? If “cis-gendered” can have their own bathrooms, why shouldn’t transgendered?
The progress has carried us from the abolition of slavery all the way up to the “safe spaces” and “microaggressions” of today. NW Euro society aims to be more inclusive, as the expanding moral circle identifies more targets worthy of human regard. This means the process isn’t over, as it will likely continue to expand.
How could this happen? The ultimate reason is the nature of NW European regard for others. In most societies across the world (i.e., clannish ones), there are weak and highly conditional attitudes towards reciprocity. The primary targets of altruism are kin. Prosociality is maintained through various forms of social honor and shame or at worst, fear of reprisal from the aggrieved or by the state. Dealings between non-kin typically take place warily and with many measures to ensure honesty by all participants. Trust is very low and is not given freely.
By contrast, NW Europeans have evolved a sense of reciprocal altruism and can deal much more readily with non-related individuals. Trust is extended. The other party is presumed to act honestly. Indeed, favors will be extended to others because the recipient may one day return the favor (or at the very least, the helping individual may earn a reputation for generosity that may parlay into favors from others).
In clannish societies, there is typically low regard for those outside the clan, let alone those from social outgroups. Regard for outgroups comes through expediency or through fear. With little outgroup regard or sense of reciprocal altruism, little by way of universalism can appear. We can see this in measures of civic engagement, particular the kind directly involved in helping others:
As Misdreavus put it in his debunking of “ethnic genetic interests” (emphasis in original):
1) It is impossible for such a thing as a “race altruist gene” to evolve, because sacrificing yourself on behalf of strangers does nothing to increase the frequency of the gene under any set of circumstances. It doesn’t matter if the frequency of a such a gene “magically” originated with a frequency of 4 in 10 Chinese people. The Chinese who don’t have the gene, on average, would have a higher fitness, resulting in the frequency decreasing monotonically over time.
2) On the other hand, it is entirely possible for complex social arrangements to evolve between completely unrelated people — and the more that strangers have in common culturally (e.g. speaking a common language, sharing a common religion, etc.) the stronger such ties will be. But that has absolutely nothing to do with “altruism”, in the strict evolutionary sense. All participants in the social network either have something to gain (e.g. the help of one’s neighbours during a famine), or at least something terrible to lose (e.g. being sent to a prison camp for insulting Kim Jong Un). And all societies, virtually everywhere, have social mechanisms in place that penalize shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and all other people who do not uphold their end of the social bargain.
Once any such social bargains erode away, there is absolutely stopping individuals from betraying their “racial interests” [sic] to enrich themselves and their close kin, or any other people with whom they have arranged better social bargains.
When there are no natural seams (kin interests) in conferring human regard to others – as is the case with NW European societies – the social boundaries of who deserves regard are wholly “artificial.” Having a sense of reciprocal altruism (which actively seeks targets with which to trade favors) – along with a suite of other traits that co-evolved with this (such as a sense of fairness and a belief in the equality of all in-group members) – there is little to prevent extending the (soft) cognitive barrier those presently in an outgroup when new information serves to humanize this outgroup (by appealing to affective empathy). And since no outgroup is really any different from any other (being effectively equally unrelated), there’s nothing to stop this process from repeating once new outgroups become humanized. Runaway universalism was thus inevitable.
The conservatives (typically being more clannish) who lament the rise of same-sex marriage like to point out that redefining marriage such that individuals of the same sex may marry establishes a slippery slope. After all, if those of the same-sex may marry, why not more than two individuals, for example. On this, they do have a point. The nature of the expanding moral circle, bereft of inherent boundaries, makes the slippery slope argument somewhat valid in this case. (Indeed, there are now calls to legalize polygamy.)
(For those curious about my own view on these things, I don’t have a problem with same-sex marriage. I don’t see it causing any particular harm, even if it likely confers little benefit. Live and let live. For that matter, I have a similar view towards polygamy. I have said before that the main issue arises in only if the polygamy rate gets too high, which it’s unlikely to in the West. Society can – contra Peter Frost – easily tolerate low levels of polygamy, since indeed, it essentially already does. Though it will be interesting to see how attitudes towards homosexuality will be affected by knowledge of its pathogenic origin. I expect it will not be well.)
Many commenters on this matter like to blame Jewish influence for these shifts in social attitudes, and it is true that Ashkenazi Jews commonly hold and have promoted progressive agendas. But what these commenters ignore is this: why do people listen? Or more to the point, why have some people (and peoples) embraced these views and not others? A promoted agenda is only as good as the traction it gains. Clearly, the trend towards universalism has been the purview of Northwestern European societies almost exclusively. If Jewish influence has had any role, it is only in the form of a rush in a much larger prevailing current.
Indeed, Jews are a vanishingly small portion of the population in many of the most progressive countries, such as the Scandinavian ones. Sweden for example is known for being a foremost champion of progressive causes:
The Swedes … “are extremely liberal toward immigration, but they have a very authoritarian attitude toward debate about it. In Norway the idea is, open discussion is basically good. If there’s hostility, better to get it out.”
In America, there’s clear variation in enthusiasm for universalistic causes by regional population. This variation follows the American Nations lines (see here and here), and many examples of such were featured in my post More Maps of the American Nations.
Some of these include women’s suffrage:
The most recent example, the Supreme Court decision establishing same-sex marriage across the country, is the culmination of a process that spread unevenly (though predictably) across the country:
We can see the clear American Nations lines by following the pattern of rates of adoption of the red equal sign on Facebook profiles:
Throughout history, certain peoples in certain American nations ave resisted progressive goals, most notably those in the Deep South, the Tidewater, and Greater Appalachia. The populations in these regions are more clannish – and hence less universalistic than those in other parts of the country (see A Tentative Ranking of the Clannishness of the “Founding Fathers” and the The Cavaliers). To these peoples, there are is a natural division of and natural hierarchies and (and in this respect they are quite like most the peoples of the world) that run diametrically opposed to universalism and many progressive causes. Hence they are always pulled along for the ride (often reluctantly) rather than spearheading the charge when the more “core” European-derived populations in the rest of the country proceed down their genetically ordained path of universalism.
The problem however is that temperaments do not change. No amount of “progress” is going to completely rid American Southerners of their non-progressive views about the world. Rather, the residents of the South continue to feel slighted as they see their “proper” society perverted by the universalist northerners (click to play animated GIF):
Tensions between the various American nations have recently been running high as of late, and may only continue to intensify. This was predicted by Peter Turchin, and discussed in my earlier post Mapping the Road to American Disunion. In short, in many societies, unrest seems to follow cyclical patterns (likely due to underlying generational negative feedback loops). Violence in particular follows a roughly 50 year cycle, and following the pattern, we are due for a peak in violence and unrest. Recent events have not been encouraging.
Despite certain key problem presented by it, there is no question that NW European universalism has been an enormous positive force for humanity. It has ended institutional exploitation, oppression, and marginalization. It has improved the quality of life for millions, or even has made those lives possible. I personally have benefited from it and continue to do so. Some may argue that progressive causes have run their course. Having achieved as much as they could hope to achieve, they now reach a point of diminishing returns – and there’s certainly some truth to that…
…but let us not throw out the baby with the bath water (if such were even possible), and remember the great gift to humanity that universalism is.