Saturday, September 20, 2014

Affective empathy, an evolutionary mistake?

The Classic of Filial Piety, Ma Hezhi, 12th century (Wikicommons). In China, empathy is experienced primarily as a moral duty, rather than as an involuntary emotional response.


In a previous post, I asked, "How universal is empathy?" The question is tricky because empathy has three components:

1. pro-social behavior - willingness to help people out, hospitality to strangers, acts of compassion.

2. cognitive empathy - capacity to see things from another person's perspective and to understand how he or she feels.

3. affective or emotional empathy - capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately. Failure to help a person in distress can trigger a self-destructive sequence: anguish, depression, suicidal ideation.

Pro-social behavior is very widespread among humans and may even be universal. It isn't unconditional, however. It can be used strategically and is often influenced by previous experiences with the person in question.

Cognitive empathy seems much less universal. In Oceanic cultures, for instance, there is both an unwillingness and an inability to know what other people feel. A person's inner feelings are said to be private and unknowable (Lepowski, 2011).

Affective empathy has an even more restricted range. If the range of empathic guilt is indicative, it may reach its highest incidences in the "guilt cultures" of northwestern Europe. In these cultures, guilt outweighs shame as a way to enforce social rules. What's the difference between the two? You feel shame when someone from your community sees you breaking a rule. With guilt, no witnesses are needed. You feel guilty when no else is watching or even when you merely think of breaking the rule.

Until recently, empathy has been studied only in Western populations, with the result that it is often assumed to have the same characteristics everywhere, at least potentially. This shortcoming was noted in a Hong Kong study: "A limitation of the existing literature on empathy in the social work context is that most of the existing studies on empathy are Western studies, and there are very few empirical studies of empathy in Chinese populations" (Siu and Shek, 2005)

When Siu and Shek (2005) studied empathy in a Chinese sample ranging from 18 to 29 years of age, they found that the participants made little distinction between cognitive empathy and affective (emotional) empathy. These two components seemed to be weakly differentiated from each other. The authors attributed this finding to "cultural differences" "Chinese people might not perceive the items from the two dimensions as too different in nature." The authors went on to note that "there are still debates concerning the boundaries of emotional and cognitive processes underlying empathy" and that "the causal relationships between cognitive and emotional processing underlying empathy are not simple or unidirectional."

In short, the Chinese participants could see things from another person's perspective and understand how that person felt. There is much less indication, however, that they involuntarily experienced the feelings of other people, especially feelings of distress. This is not to say they were incapable of such emotion transference, but rather that it seems limited in scope, perhaps being confined to family members and not extended to strangers.

In general, empathy is perceived in China as a moral duty and not as an involuntary emotional response. The authors underline this point when they discuss relevant beliefs in their culture:

These include the cultural beliefs of "qi suo bu yu, wu shi yu ren" (do not do unto others that you would not wish others to do on you), "jiang xin bi ji" (compare people's hearts with your own), "she shen chu di" (put yourself into other people's position), and "shen tong gan shou" (experiencing the experience of other people). With the emphases on collectivism and familism (Yang, 1981), taking the views of others is an essential duty, and the lack of consideration to others' perspectives is generally regarded as a lack of virtue in the Chinese culture (Wong, 1998). (Siu and Shek, 2005)

From cognitive empathy to affective empathy: the how and why

In humans, empathy seems to have differentiated progressively into its three components, with pro-social behavior being the oldest and most widespread one, followed by cognitive empathy and, finally, affective empathy.
This kind of mental evolution has been certainly possible in our species:

First, all three components display moderate to high heritability, especially the last one, i.e., 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). There has thus been a potential for gene-culture co-evolution.

Second, gene-culture co-evolution seems to have been widespread. About 10,000 years ago, human genetic evolution accelerated by over a hundred-fold, yet by that time our ancestors had colonized this planet from the tropics to the arctic (Hawks et al., 2007). They were evolving primarily in response to different cultural environments, and only secondarily to different physical environments.

Third, people have thus been selected for their ability to function in a certain cultural environment, just as they have been selected for their ability to function in heat or cold.

That answers the "how" question, but what about the "why"? Why was affective empathy more advantageous at the northwestern end of Eurasia? Together with empathic guilt, it may be part of a larger behavioral adaptation called the Western European Marriage Pattern, which seems to reflect a culture where kinship ties are relatively weak and thus insufficient to enforce rules of correct behavior.

The WEMP predominates north and west of an imaginary line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg and has the following general characteristics:

 - men and women tend to marry relatively late and many never marry

- children usually leave the family to form new households

- a high proportion of non-kin circulate among different households (Hajnal, 1965)

This zone of relatively weak kinship existed before the Black Death of the 14th century and is attested by fragmentary evidence going back to the 9th century and even earlier (Hallam, 1985; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94). I suspect its origins go back to a unique Mesolithic culture that once existed along the North Sea and the Baltic (Price, 1991). At that time, an abundance of marine resources drew people to the coast each year for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting, thus creating large but fluid settlements unlike anything seen in other hunter-gatherers. Social interactions would have largely involved non-kin, and there would have thus been strong selection for mechanisms that could enforce social rules in the absence of kin obligations.


Through their high capacity for affective empathy and empathic guilt, these Northwest Europeans had an edge in adapting to later cultural environments that would be structured not by kinship but by other ways of organizing social relations: the State, ideology, and the market economy.

This has been one path that leads to advanced societies, but it is not the only one. East Asian societies have pursued a similar path of cultural evolution while having relatively low levels of affective empathy and empathic guilt. They seem to have done so by relying more on external means of behavior control (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance) and by building on cognitive empathy through learned notions of moral duty.

Meanwhile, Northwest European societies have had their capacity for empathy pushed to the limit, as seen in the commonly heard term "aid fatigue." And there is no easy way to turn it off. The only real way is to convince oneself that the object of empathy is morally worthless.

Was it all an evolutionary mistake? Time will tell.


Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Hajnal, J. (1965). European marriage pattern in historical perspective. In D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley (eds). Population in History, Arnold, London.

Hallam, H.E. (1985). Age at first marriage and age at death in the Lincolnshire Fenland, 1252-1478, Population Studies, 39, 55-69.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending,& R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.

Lepowsky, M. (2011). The boundaries of personhood, the problem of empathy, and "the native's point of view" in the outer islands, in D.W. Hollan, C. J. Throop (eds).The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies, (pp. 43-68), New York: Berghahn.

Price, T.D. (1991). The Mesolithic of Northern Europe, Annual Review of Anthropology, 20, 211-233.  
Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe, London: Verso.

Siu, A.M.H. and D.T. L. Shek. (2005). Validation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in a Chinese Context, Research on Social Work Practice, 15, 118-126.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rotherham: The search for answers

A Bangladeshi youth gang in Tower Hamlets, London. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Bangali71). Is this the kind of assimilation you had in mind?



In my last post, I discussed the revelations from Rotherham, England. In a town of some 250,000 people, at least 1,400 school-age girls have been "groomed" for prostitution by organized gangs. Grooming begins with seduction by "lover boys" and ends in abduction, trafficking, and confinement. It is this final stage that apparently explains why some 500 girls were missing from the 15 to 19 age group at the last census.

Two more points. All of the girls are white, and all of the groomers are Pakistani, except for a few Afghans and Roma.

Even before the latest revelations, and even in antiracist circles, there was a growing (though reluctant) awareness that this social problem is disproportionately "Asian," a term that increasingly means Muslim South Asian. The cause, however, seems elusive:

[...] this disparity begs further exploration and, if possible, explanation. Admittedly, this is not an easy job. Complex social issues can rarely be explained in terms of a single factor and moving from correlation to causality is particularly challenging. Nonetheless, in CSE [child sexual exploitation], as with other crimes, observed relationships between race and offending may well be mediated by social, structural or situational factors. Asians, like whites or blacks, do not commit CSE offences because they are Asian, white or black. This lazy, circular logic, verging on quasi-geneticism, would label every Asian adult equally a groomer-in-waiting and fails to address the immediate precipitates of CSE, such as ready access to children and low levels of formal or informal surveillance to constrain deviant behaviour. (Cockbain, 2013)

But if we wish to understand constraints on deviancy, one key variable may be ethnicity, particularly if an ethnic boundary separates the victim from the victimizer. It is precisely within this underdetermined space that such constraints are most likely to break down.

The limits to shame

In most of the world's cultures, deviant behavior is kept in check by shaming. A wrongdoing is witnessed by other people, who spread the word to others. The wrongdoers feel shame, knowing that their reputation is now tarnished. In cases of severe wrongdoing, they may have to leave their community.

As a means to keep deviancy in check, shaming has three limitations:

- It cannot control behavior that is not witnessed by anyone other than the wrongdoers themselves.

- It cannot control behavior that is aimed at someone outside one's community.

- Because shame is socially mediated, it is less effective in modern Western societies, where people generally interact as anonymous individuals.

A minority of world cultures supplement shame with another means of behavior control. These cultures, essentially those of Western Europe, rely much more on internal mental mechanisms—guilt and affective empathy—to enforce social rules that have the perceived backing of moral authority. You feel guilt when you break a rule or even merely think about breaking it. No witnesses are necessary, other than the imaginary one inside your mind (Benedict, (1946 [2005]). Similarly, no one tells you to feel empathy when you see another person unjustly suffering. Refusal to act on these feelings can lead to anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation (Jadhav, 1996; O'Connor et al.,2007). Guilt and empathy are thus more effective than shame as means to control behavior.

The capacity to feel guilt and empathy varies from one individual to another, the heritability being moderate to high (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013; Daviset al., 1994). There has thus been a potential for gene-culture co-evolution, i.e., guilt cultures may have selected for individuals with a higher capacity for guilt and empathy. Even if the behavioral differences between guilt cultures and shame cultures are entirely softwired, the consequences are nonetheless real.

From shame culture to guilt culture

Immigration is not just a movement from one place to another. It is also a movement from one culture to another. In Britain in general, it has largely involved people coming to a guilt culture from various shame cultures in South Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. 

In South Asia, be it Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, shaming provides a woman with no protection from unwanted sexual advances once she ventures beyond her own neighborhood:

The prime danger is from male strangers who are seen as liable to take advantage of an unescorted woman. Such strangers, as a category, are presumed to be sexually predatory and always ready to pounce. Some young men (and some not so young) reinforce that notion in town streets and in buses through the common practice known in Indian English as "eve-teasing." In the anonymity of the streets, some men who would spring fiercely to the defense of the women of their own families, leer, hoot, pinch, and make sexually pointed remarks at passing women whom they do not know and who do not know them [...]. However, they rarely act that way in their own mohalla, neighbourhood. (Mandelbaum, 1993, pp. 9-10)
In a shame culture, a wrongdoing is not shameful if the witnesses are from outside one's "moral community." Often, there is no clear boundary between outside and inside; the moral community simply fades away as one goes farther away from the people one knows. The boundary is much more clear-cut if it coincides with a difference in religion. When Moroccan and Turkish "lover boys" were interviewed in Amsterdam, it was found that their identity as Muslims strongly influenced how they perceived their victims:

One pimp told us that it was not only easier to get Dutch girls into prostitution, but that they were worth less than other girls and therefore deserved to end up as prostitutes. 'Culturally and religiously, a Dutch girl is little more than a pig to a loverboy. She's nothing, she's of no value. When that's what you're thinking, you can completely block out your emotions.' As mentioned, most loverboys were reluctant to manipulate the daughters of immigrants into prostitution, especially when it came to girls leading a pious life. 'We are obligated to treat Moroccan girls as we would treat our own sisters; we can't treat them as rags. You can't just make a Moroccan girl work for you. (...) Listen, when a Moroccan girl wants to do it, that's different. But if she goes to school and wears a headscarf, it's just not right'. (Van San and Bovenkerk,2013)

Muslim girls were not avoided, however, solely out of loyalty to Islam.

They [lover boys] had a lot more trouble with the daughters of immigrants, 'because those families have respect for each other.' In their view, this was not the case with Dutch girls: 'Dutch girls really are the easiest. (...) Nowadays, there are girls of thirteen or fourteen years old who have already lost their virginity. They go to clubs and discos and stay away from home for a whole weekend. They want to go out, they want new clothes, but they don't have the money. When a loverboy comes along and the girl spots him and he seems like a nice boy, things happen... Meeting a loverboy is like hitting the jackpot, you know what I mean?' (Van San and Bovenkerk, 2013)

The lover boy, an adaptation to female mate scarcity?

Keep in mind that Muslims are not the only group to be overrepresented in this social niche. Among the lover boys interviewed by Van San and Bovenkerk (2013), half were Muslims (Moroccans, Turks) and half were from the Dutch West Indies. In the British OCCE study on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, around 24% of the suspects were neither white nor Asian, being probably blacks of Caribbean or African origin (Cockbain, 2013).

Thus, in addition to the difference of religion, and the resulting moral boundary between victim and victimizer, there seems to be another factor in the genesis of lover boys. This factor is nonreligious and would apply not only to the Muslim world but also to sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora. In both culture areas, many young men are inevitably shut out of the marriage market because of excess female mortality and high polygyny rates (5-10% in the Muslim world and 20-40% in sub-Saharan Africa) (D'Souza and Chen, 1980; Fuse and Crenshaw, 2006; Goody, 1973, pp. 175-190; Pebley and Mbugua, 1989). There may have therefore been selection for young men who can exploit sexual opportunities, if and when they arise, via specific personality traits.

Alvergne et al. (2009, 2010a, 2010b) explored the relationship between male personality and sexual competition in the high-polygyny environment of Senegal. There was no correlation among Senegalese men between mating success and most personality traits, i.e., neuroticism, openness, and agreeableness. There was a strong correlation, however, with extraversion, defined as "pro-social behavior which reflects sociability, assertiveness, activity, dominance and positive emotions." Men with above-medium extraversion were 40% more likely to have more than one wife than those with below-medium extraversion, after controlling for age. Furthermore, this personality trait correlated with higher testosterone levels. It thus seems to be part of the male toolkit for mating success in a high-polygyny environment.

From antiracism to anti-Islamism

It’s one thing to look for answers. In this, anthropology can offer some insights. It’s quite another to translate the explanation into applicable solutions. To go from one to the other may involve surmounting mental and political obstacles.

First, most Britons have been living in denial. Few wish to believe, at least openly, that organized gangs are preying on school-age girls. Fewer wish to believe that the gangs are overwhelmingly non-white and largely Muslim. And even fewer wish to believe the extent of the problem: perhaps one in ten of Rotherham's white families, if not more. It all sounds like vicious propaganda that only ugly hate-filled people could believe.

Yet it's true. So what comes next? Many disillusioned antiracists will likely end up seeing Islam, and not racism, as the problem. The solution will therefore be to secularize Muslim culture and replace it with an assimilated, Westernized version, like modern Christianity.

Politically, anti-Islamism is attractive. It has the merit of framing the problem in ideological and not racial terms. It is also likely to win over much of the political elite, particularly those who have backed previous military interventions in the Muslim world and would like to see more.

But will it work? Let's assume anti-Islamists are not sidetracked into cheerleading a new round of foreign interventions "to get to the root of the problem." Let's also assume the focus is on assimilating Muslims living in Britain. Unfortunately, not only will this approach fail to solve the problem, it will actually make things worse.

In a Western context, assimilation does not mean giving up the restraints of one culture and taking on those of another. It means the first but not the second. Immigrants leave an environment where behavior is restrained mainly by external controls (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance) and they enter one where behavior is restrained mainly by internal controls (guilt, empathy). To the extent that assimilation happens, external social controls will weaken and may even disappear, but they will not be replaced by internal mental controls. There is no known way to give people a greater capacity for guilt and empathy than what they already have. No such psychotherapy exists. This is true even if we assume that population differences in these two traits are due solely to cultural conditioning, and not to inborn tendencies.

Assimilation is already making things worse by dissolving traditional restraints on behavior and leaving nothing in their place. Keep in mind that grooming is largely absent from the 1st generation of Britain's Pakistani community. It's much more present among young men of the 2nd and 3rd generations. They are very much into contemporary Western culture and are freely borrowing those elements that appeal to them the most:

Taj refers to '. . . the growing popularity of the "gangsta" fashion affected by local youths as they adopt the clothing and elements of the attitudes of disenchanted urban American youth gangs' (1996, p.4). Khan describes 'This new youth Pakistani "street culture" [as] male dominated and highly macho' (1997, p.18), linking drug dependency among young Pakistani men with their involvement in violent crime, including prostitution. (Macey, 1999)

Accusations of "racism" likewise reflect an insider's view of Western society and its weak points:

When I asked about racial harassment by the police, the women reacted with amusement. One of them said: 'Well, they would, wouldn't they? After all, they know it's these lads who're doing the dealing'. Another stated that 'the lads' had planned to accuse the police of racism because they had found this an effective weapon against authority in the past. In sum, while it seems unlikely that the Bradford police force contains no racists in its ranks, to 'explain' Pakistani male violence solely, or even mainly, as a reaction to police racism might well be over-simplified. (Macey, 1999)

The result is an unstable hybrid culture that is as foreign to 1st generation immigrants as it is to native Britons:

These young men have constructed an ethnic and religious identity which goes beyond hybridity in containing a high level of contradiction — a contradiction which is highly functional in its facilitation of dual standards, hypocrisy and legitimation, which are used as resources to maintain power over women. These aspects of male behaviour and their control function are clearly recognized, and resented, by young Pakistani women. One example quoted to me is the men's involvement in 'discos, drink, drugs and white women', while simultaneously putting pressure (to the point of harassment and threatened violence) on Pakistani women to stay at home and behave as 'good' Muslim women. (Macey,1999)


Yes, the whole issue is a messy ball of wax. The worst part is the reluctance not just to discuss it but even to think it through, the result being that the proposed solutions have only a vague connection to the actual problem, which is neither "racism" nor "Islamism."

What then is the problem? It's the mass migration of certain communities from an environment where behavior is subject to certain checks and balances to one where these are virtually absent.

Why do you think Pakistani parents want their daughters to wear headscarves or at least dress modestly? Are they being slaves to hidebound custom? Or is it because they come from a society where many single men are, in fact, sexual predators?

And that’s just one aspect of a much larger problem. Humans have adapted to local circumstances in many different ways, and these adaptations involve mental traits with moderate to high heritability. Things like time orientation, monotony avoidance, anger threshold, strength and nature of the sexual bond, and so forth. Such differences keep us from becoming interchangeable units in a global community. Each human and each community is a product of adaptations to specific circumstances, and what works in one set of circumstances may not work so well in another.


Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, C. Faurie, and V. Lummaa. (2010a). Personality and testosterone in men from a high-fertility population, Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 840-844. 

Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, and V. Lummaa. (2010b). Personality and reproductive success in a high-fertility human population, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 11745-11750. 

Alvergne, A., C. Faurie, and M. Raymond. (2009). Variation in testosterone levels and male reproductive effort: Insight from a polygynous human population, Hormones and Behavior, 56, 491-497.

Benedict, R. (1946 [2005]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture, First Mariner Books. 

Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Cockbain, E. (2013). Grooming and the 'Asian sex gang predator': the construction of a racial crime threat, Race & Class, 54, 22-32.  

Davis, M.H., C. Luce, and S.J. Kraus. (1994).The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy, Journal of Personality, 62, 369-391. 

D'Souza, S. and L.C. Chen. (1980). Sex differentials in mortality in rural Bangladesh, Population and Development Review, 6, 257-270.  

Fuse K. and E.M. Crenshaw. (2006). Gender imbalance in infant mortality: a cross-national study of social structure and female infanticide, Social Science and Medicine, 62, 360-374.

Goody, J. (1973). The Character of Kinship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Jay, A. (2014). Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013  

Jadhav, S. (1996). The cultural origins of Western depression, International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 42, 269-286. 

Macey, M. (1999). Class, gender and religious influences on changing patterns of Pakistani Muslim male violence in Bradford, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22, 5, 845-866

Mandelbaum, D.G. (1993). Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, University of Arizona Press. 

O'Connor, L.E., J.W. Berry, T. Lewis, K. Mulherin, and P.S. Crisostomo. (2007). Empathy and depression: the moral system in overdrive, in: T.F.D. Farrow and P.W.R. Woodruff (eds). Empathy in Mental Illness, (pp. 49-75). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Pebley, A. R., and W. Mbugua. (1989). Polygyny and Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa. In R. J. Lesthaeghe (ed.), Reproduction and Social Organization in Sub-Saharan Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 338-364. 

Van San, M. and F. Bovenkerk. (2013). Secret seducers. True tale of pimps in the red light district of Amsterdam, Crime, Law and Social Change, 60, 67-80.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A nice place to raise your kids

Rotherham (source: Stanley Walker, geograph project, Wikimedia Commons)


The English town of Rotherham has been in the news. Between 1997 and 2013, at least 1,400 school-age girls were "groomed" for prostitution—a process that begins with seduction and ends with confinement, trafficking, and serial rape. The girls were white. The groomers were older men of Pakistani origin, except for a few Afghans and Roma.

This in a town of some 250,000 people. And that figure of 1,400 is "conservative." It's hard to avoid concluding that many of Rotherham's white families have been affected, perhaps one in ten.

Grooming may have even left a dent in the census data. In Western countries, boys outnumber girls at birth, and this gender gap gradually shrinks through the higher mortality of boys until it is gone by the age of 20. This trend holds true in Rotherham up to the 15-19 age group, at which point the gender gap strangely widens. There seem to be around 500 girls unaccounted for. Evidently, this figure would capture only the final "confinement" stage of grooming and would exclude earlier stages when the girl is voluntarily living with her Pakistani boyfriend (Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, 2013, p.5. Figure 1.5).

What do the academics have to say?

Not much. British academia has either ignored the issue or cast aspersions on anyone who brings it up, as seen in this paper:

The implications of the current fixation with grooming and 'Asian sex gangs' are examined and shown to further a political agendum and legitimise thinly veiled racism, ultimately doing victims a disservice. (Cockbain, 2013)

Cockbain cites two official studies to show that this fixation has no scientific basis:

Widespread concern around grooming resulted in two large-scale government studies: the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's (CEOP) assessment of 'localised grooming', and the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England's (OCCE) study on 'child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups'.

[...] Like The Times, CEOP focused on community-based CSE, specifically excluding familial, peer-on-peer, professional or primarily online abuse. Unlike The Times, CEOP removed limitations on victims' age and gender and covered both solo and group offenders. Of the 31 per cent (N = 753) of suspects for whom race was known, 49 per cent (N = 367) were white and 46 per cent (N = 346) Asian.  Meanwhile, the OCCE included all forms of CSE in England, both online and offline, but was restricted to offenders acting in groups of two or more, the exclusion of solo offenders seriously undermining its claim to provide the 'most thorough and comprehensive collection of information' on CSE to date. The statistics presented in the report are often confused and incoherent, exacerbating methodological shortcomings and understandable data deficiencies. What can be disentangled is that only a minority of submissions to the call for evidence included any information on suspects. Of a total of 1,514 suspects thus identified, race data were available for 84 per cent (N = 1266). For those suspects where race was known, 43 per cent (N = 545) were white and 33 per cent (N = 415) Asian.

Almost half the suspects were homegrown whites? That figure seems far removed from the picture one gets in the British press. It also seems far removed from the picture one gets in a Dutch study of Amsterdam "lover boys":

The young men were all between 21 and 24 years of age. Some of them were the children of Moroccan and Turkish guest labourers who had come to the Netherlands in the 1970s. Others had migrated at a young age with their parents from Surinam or Curacao, or were born in the Netherlands. (Van San and Bovenkerk, 2013)

Is seduction for profit more of a white boy thing in the UK than in the Netherlands? Or is the difference due to some bias in data gathering? The second explanation is suggested by the incompleteness of the British data. Only 31% of the CEOP files had information on the suspect's race, and only a minority of the CSE files had any information at all on the suspect.

This incompleteness can be traced to two biases in data gathering, which, curiously enough, reflected a desire to avoid "bias":

1. Fear of harming community relations

First, there was a fear that evidence of Asian sex gangs, if publicized, could damage community relations and hinder investigative work:

For example, ever since projects for sexually exploited children were first opened by Barnardo's there have been reports of Asian gangs at work. This information was, very sensibly, not publicised by Barnardo's because they knew that their workers depend on the goodwill and support of the local population — also largely Asian — to gather information about the girls so they can help them. Publicly highlighting the racial profile of the perpetrators would inevitably turn the community against them. (Linehan, 2011)

Cockbain (2013) similarly evokes a fear of "fuelling racist rhetoric, distorting policy and practice and exacerbating community tensions."

These fears seem to have shaped public policy, as confirmed by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham:

Several councillors interviewed believed that by opening up these issues they could be 'giving oxygen' to racist perspectives that might in turn attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion. To some extent this concern was valid, with the apparent targeting of the town by groups such as the English Defence League. (Jay, 2014, p. 93)

2. Fear of seeming racist

Another reason, cited in the Inquiry, was simply a fear of seeming racist:

Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so. (Jay, 2014, p. 2)

[...] there was a widespread perception that messages conveyed by some senior people in the Council and also the Police, were to 'downplay' the ethnic dimensions of CSE. Unsurprisingly, frontline staff appeared to be confused as to what they were supposed to say and do and what would be interpreted as 'racist'. (Jay, 2014, p. 91)

She also reported in 2006 that young people in Rotherham believed at that time that the Police dared not act against Asian youths for fear of allegations of racism. This perception was echoed at the present time by some young people we met during the Inquiry, but was not supported by specific examples. (Jay, 2014, p. 92)

Those who had involvement in CSE were acutely aware of these [ethnic] issues and recalled a general nervousness in the earlier years about discussing them, for fear of being thought racist. (Jay, 2014, p. 93)

A systematic bias

Because of these fears of either harming community relations or seeming racist, there was a systematic bias toward underreporting of Pakistani involvement in grooming. This bias in data gathering led to a distorted view of reality among public officials:

Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.

In the early 2000s, a small group of professionals from key agencies met and monitored large numbers of children known to be involved in CSE or at risk but their managers gave little help or support to their efforts. Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE. (Jay, 2014, p.1)

In a BBC interview, a researcher described how an official reacted to one of the reports: "She said you must never refer to that again. You must never refer to Asian men. And her other response was to book me on a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues" (Brooks-Pollock, 2014).

It makes sense that public officials had trouble believing the evidence being brought to their attention. After all, it ran counter to the findings of the authoritative CEOP and CSE studies. The situation is not unlike that of the old Soviet Union, where official statistics said one thing and reality quite another.

How could this have happened?

The answer is easy. We live in a society where "racism" is viewed as a major evil. Once this view had gained the full backing of moral authority, it was just a matter of time before everyone fell into line ... and acted accordingly. The average social worker became reluctant to report evidence of sex crimes if the suspects were non-white and non-Christian. The average police officer became reluctant to lay charges or pursue them if already laid. The average politician became reluctant to bring the matter up in council or parliament.

The result? Underreporting on a massive scale. This all could happen in broad daylight and no one would see a thing.

This massive underreporting then distorted the findings of official reports, which in turn convinced people in authority that the whole thing had been greatly exaggerated, undoubtedly for mischievous purposes. There was thus growing pressure from above to root out racist politicians, racist police officers, and racist social workers ...

Antiracism is self-validating. On the one hand, it leads people to dismiss evidence that may undermine its view of reality. On the other, it strengthens its view of reality by encouraging people to create supporting evidence. There is no conspiracy. There is only the madness of ideology.


Brooks-Pollock, T. (2014). Rotherham researcher 'sent on diversity course' after raising alarm, The Telegraph, September 2

Cockbain, E. (2013). Grooming and the 'Asian sex gang predator': the construction of a racial crime threat, Race & Class, 54, 22-32.

Jay, A. (2014). Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013

Linehan, T. (2011). Child sexual exploitation in the UK is all too common. But notions of gangs and grooming are a distraction and hinder our efforts to combat the problem.

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. (2013). Demographic Profile of Rotherham,

Van San, M. and F. Bovenkerk. (2013). Secret seducers. True tale of pimps in the red light district of Amsterdam, Crime, Law and Social Change, 60, 67-80. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Does Natural Law exist?

A widow about to be buried alive in her husband's grave (Wikimedia Commons). Do we all share the same sense of right and wrong?


What, ultimately, is the basis for morality? In a comment on a previous post, fellow columnist Fred Reed argued that some things are self-evidently wrong, like torture and murder. No need to invoke the Ten Commandments or any religious tradition. Some things are just wrong. Period.

This is a respectable idea with a long lineage. It's the argument of Natural Law. All people are born with a natural sense of right and wrong, and it is only later, through vice or degeneration, that some can no longer correctly tell the two apart.

The idea began with the Stoics of Ancient Greece. They believed that the universe is governed by laws and that everyone naturally wishes to live in harmony with them, thanks to the divine spark that exists in all of us. In reply, the Epicureans argued that the laws of the universe are indifferent to humans and their problems. We alone define right and wrong.

The Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) worked out a compromise that divided Natural Law into general precepts and secondary precepts. The former are known to all men but can be hindered "on account of concupiscence or some other passion." The latter "can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions [..] or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rom. i), were not esteemed sinful" (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 94, Art. 6).

Aquinas lived at a time when Christian morality had already penetrated deeply into the hearts and minds of Europeans. It was continually being violated, of course, but violators typically knew they had done wrong and they typically tried to justify their wrongdoings on Christian grounds, or seek absolution. Aquinian Natural Law thus closely approximated moral reality, much as Newtonian physics would long remain a good approximation of physical reality.

Things changed from the 16th century on, as Christian Europe spread outward into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It became evident that notions of right and wrong were not everywhere the same, or even similar.  One example was sati, the Indian custom of burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Though supposedly voluntary, it usually involved the tying of her feet or legs to prevent escape. She could also be buried alive, as a 17th century traveler noted:

In most places upon the Coast of Coromandel, the Women are not burnt with their deceas'd Husbands, but they are buried alive with them in holes which the Bramins make a foot deeper than the tallness of the man and woman. Usually they chuse a Sandy place; so that when the man and woman both let down together, all the Company with Baskets of Sand fill up the hole about half a foot higher than the surface of the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it, till they believe the woman to be stiff'd. (Tavernier, 1678, p. 171; see also Sati, 2014)

When the British sought to ban the practice, they appealed to notions of right and wrong, but to no avail. Defenders of sati considered it right and even honorable. The debate was finally resolved by the logic of force, as set forth by the British commander-in-chief:

This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs! (Napier, 1851, p. 35)

Enlightenment thinkers attributed this custom and others like it to degeneration from an original state of goodness. Thus was born the idea of the Noble Savage. Yet this idea, too, came under attack with the realization that even simple "uncorrupted" societies may have very different attitudes toward human life, as seen in the torturing of captives, the abandonment of weak or deformed children, and the killing of old men and women:

The problems posed by limited resources and old peoples' dependence are sometimes resolved in an extreme way: killing, abandoning, or exposure of the elderly—what anthropologists call gerontocide. Cross-cultural studies show that such treatment is more common than we might suppose. Maxell and Silverman found evidence of gerontocide in a little over 20% of 95 societies in a worldwide sample (Silverman, 1987). Glascock uncovered abandonment of the elderly in 9 of the 41 nonindustrial societies in his sample—and reports of killing old people in 14 of these societies. (Bengtson and Achenbaum, 1993, p. 110)

This kind of thing may seem unfortunate but justifiable among nomads. Sometimes, the elderly just have to be left behind. But we also see elder abandonment in sedentary peoples, like the Hopi of the American southwest:

As long as aged men controlled property rights, held special ceremonial offices, or were powerful medicine men, they were respected. But "the feebler and more useless they become, the more relatives grab what they have, neglect them, and sometimes harshly scold them, even permitting children to play rude jokes on them." Sons might refuse to support their fathers, telling them, "You had your day, you are going to die pretty soon." (Bengtson and Achenbaum, 1993, pp. 108-109)

Whenever such accounts come up at anthropological conferences, there is a certain malaise. Some will blame European contact for the devaluing of human life. Others, however, will present similar facts that often predate the coming of traders or missionaries. I remember one speaker who presented evidence of cannibalism at an Inuit site. This wasn't an isolated case, such as might happen in extreme circumstances of starvation. There seemed to be an accumulation of human bones, of Indian origin, with cut marks on them. The findings were later published:

The remains of at least 35 individuals (women, children, and the elderly) were recovered from the Saunaktuk site (NgTn-1) in the Eskimo Lakes region of the Northwest Territories. Recent interpretations in the Arctic have suggested a mortuary custom resulting in dismemberment, defleshing, chopping, long bone splitting, and scattering of human remains. On the evidence from the Saunaktuk site, we reject this hypothesis. The Saunaktuk remains exhibit five forms of violent trauma indicating torture, mutilation, murder, and cannibalism. Apparently these people were the victims of long-standing animosity between Inuit and Amerindian groups in the Canadian Arctic. (Melbye and Fairgrieve, 1994)

When I talked with the speaker after his presentation, he seemed apprehensive. How would people react? 

He needn't have worried. The noble savage is still alive and well. Strangely enough, this kind of thinking has seeped even into the missionary mindset, as I discovered during my last few years at the United Church of Canada. I was surprised to learn just how little our mission work involved teaching of Christian morality:

"Do you talk to these people about the Christian faith?"
"Not unless they specifically request it."
"Do you at least have Christian literature on display?"
"No, we're not allowed to do that."

Things aren't much better in the fundamentalist churches. I remember attending a Pentecostal presentation on "the cause of Third World Poverty." I thought the talk would focus on cultural values. Instead, we were told that the cause is ... lack of infrastructure. The Third World is poor because it doesn't have enough roads, bridges, and buildings. 

The modern world has bought so much into the argument of Natural Law that the entire Christian enterprise now looks like a waste of time. There was no need for missionaries to fight barbaric customs, since there were no barbaric customs to be fought. All of that was one big misunderstanding. Christian mission work is now limited to good works, apparently in the belief that all humans share the same moral framework and that it's enough to set a good example. If you act nice, other people will get the message and likewise act nice.

A hazardous assumption

Christianity has been killed by its success. It has so thoroughly imposed its norms of behavior that we now assume them to be human nature. If some people act contrary to those norms, it's because they're "sick" or "deprived." Or perhaps something is misleading us and they're really acting just like everyone else.

For two millennia, the Christian faith has profoundly shaped the culture of European peoples, allowing very little to escape its imprint. This is especially so in attitudes toward the taking of life. Beginning in the 11th century, the Church allied itself with the State to punish murder, which previously had been a private matter to be settled through revenge or compensation. At the height of this war on murder, between 0.5 and 1.0 % of all men of each generation were sentenced to death, and a comparable proportion of offenders died at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial. Meanwhile, homicide rates plummeted from between 20 and 40 per 100,000 in the late Middle Ages to between 0.5 and 1.0 in the mid-20th century (Eisner, 2001). The pool of violent men dried up until most murders occurred under conditions of jealousy, intoxication, or extreme stress. Yes, people got the message to act nice, but the message was not delivered nicely.

By pacifying social relations, Church and State also created a culture that rewarded men who got ahead through trade and hard work, rather than through force and plunder. It became easier to plan for the future and develop what came to be known as middle-class values: thrift, sobriety, and self-control. Popular tastes changed accordingly, as seen in the decline of cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, and other blood sports (Clark, 2007; Clark, 2009a; Clark, 2009b).

Were these changes in behavior purely cultural? Or was there also a steady removal of violent predispositions from the gene pool? It's only now that a few scholars are beginning to ask such questions, let alone answer them.

Towards a new perspective ... 

The idea of Natural Law is true up to a point. All humans have to face certain common problems that have to be solved in more or less the same way. Kinship, for instance, matters in all human societies, at least traditional ones. Marriage and family are likewise universal.

But even these "universals" vary a lot. There are many kinds of kinship systems, including some with relatively weak kinship and a correspondingly stronger sense of individualism. Mating systems likewise vary a lot. Monogamy makes sense in non-tropical societies where the mother cannot feed her children by herself, particularly in winter. It makes less sense where the mother can provide for her children with minimal assistance.

Human societies similarly differ in their treatment of murder. There is a general tendency to limit the taking of human life, but the variability is considerable. In some societies, murder is so rare that instances of it are thought to be pathological. The murderer is said to be "sick." In other societies, every adult male has the right to use violence to settle personal disputes, even to the point of killing. If he abdicates that right, he's no longer a real man.

The same "problem" will thus be solved in different ways in different places. Over time, each society will develop a "solution" that favors the survival and reproduction of certain people with a certain personality type and certain predispositions. So there is no single human nature, any more than a single Natural Law. Instead, there are many human natures with varying degrees of overlap.

... and the take-home message?

While certain notions of right and wrong can apply to all humans, much of what we call "morality" will always be population-dependent. What is moral in one population may not be in another.

Take public nudity, particularly of the female kind. This is less of a problem in places like Finland where polygyny is rare and sexual rivalry among men less intense. It's more of a problem where the polygyny rate is higher but men still have to invest a lot in their offspring. In such a setting, men will be more jealous, more fearful of cuckoldry, and more insistent on measures to ensure exclusive sexual access. Such insistence can lead to extreme practices like sati. More generally, it leads to demands for modesty in female dress. 

This is not to condone the dress codes that prevail in some countries, but we should try to understand the circumstances that give rise to them. Above all, there are limits to what we can impose on other societies. While sati has no justification anywhere on this planet, there may be practices that are warranted in some societies but not in others.


Aquinas, T. (1265-1274). Summa Theologica, Part I-II (Pars Prima Secundae) From the Complete American Edition, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Project Gutenberg

Bengtson, V.L. and W.A. Achenbaum. (1993).The Changing Contract across Generations, Transaction publ.

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: Surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England. 

Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos, 2, 64-80. 

Eisner, M. (2001). Modernization, self-control and lethal violence. The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective, British Journal of Criminology, 41, 618-638. 

Melbye, J. and S.I. Fairgrieve. (1994). A massacre and possible cannibalism in the Canadian Arctic: New evidence from the Saunaktuk site (NgTn-1), Arctic Anthropology, 31, 57-77.

Napier, W. (1851). The History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of Scinde: And Campaign in the Cutchee Hills, London: Charles Westerton. 

Sati (practice). (2014). Wikipedia

Tavernier, J-B. (1678).The six voyages of John Baptista Tavernier, London: R.L. and M.P.