Thursday, August 27, 2009

Who saw it coming?

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a reversal took place throughout the Western world in the ratio of single men to single women among people of reproductive age. This sex ratio slipped from male scarcity to parity and then to a relative excess of males, due to a decline in male mortality and an increase in divorce and remarriage by older men with younger women (Pedersen, 1991). The imbalance seems to have steadily worsened. In Germany, single men now outnumber single women up to the age of 60 (Glowsky, 2007).

This demographic reversal has elicited little comment over the past thirty years. Even with the recent spate of discussion in the blogosphere, the typical reaction among older commenters has been one of disbelief. Sorry guys, you just aren’t trying hard enough ...

Did anyone see it coming? In 1983, the looming wife shortage was briefly mentioned by Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord in their book Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question. Using the 1980 U.S. census, they predicted that a shortage of potential partners would start to hit young men in the 1980s, “increasing by 1990 to about 116-118 men for every 100 women from 23 to 28 years of age” (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 179). This analysis of the latest census is not discussed elsewhere in their book and seems to have been added as an afterthought.

When the two authors discuss wife shortages at other times and in other places, the reader initially gets the impression that there is nothing to worry about. When women are scarce, men become more responsible:

In a nutshell, when women are scarce and men are readily available, a protective morality develops that favors monogamy for women, limits their interactions with men, and shapes female roles in traditional domestic directions. But when men are scarce and women are readily available, no such protective morality arises to favor monogamy for men. Instead, the traditional protective customs and practices pertaining to women and the pressures on them to fulfill domestic roles weaken or disappear. Men have multiple relationships with women and become less willing to commit themselves in marriage to one woman. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, pp. 231-232)

The authors are careful to add, however, that female scarcity is socially beneficial only if there are limits on women’s sexual freedom:

Remember that the background conditions under which imbalanced sex ratios have had their effect have been relatively constant from the time of classical Greece until the advent of the twentieth century. Earlier we called attention to the importance of the fact that structural power—economic, political, and legal—has invariably been in male hands. This condition has prevailed in every high and low sex ratio society that we have examined in detail. What this means is that sex ratio imbalances might well have radically different effects in a society where women had appreciable structural power. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 233)

In most high sex ratio societies of the past, where women held dyadic power because of their scarcity, this power was effectively neutralized by many legal constraints. Given contemporary Western customs, when young women are scarce, they are able to use their dyadic power to their advantage as long as they remain single.

… Young single women are not confined to the home and have much experience with the opposite sex. They make their own decisions about male friends or the choice of a husband. Either party to a marriage can now get a divorce if they want one. These changes that free young single people to choose their own mates and loosen the marriage bond favor the gender that is in short supply. In a word, structural constraints that have in the past neutralized dyadic power, particularly that of women, have disappeared. (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 239)

The book Too Many Women? came out when the marriage market was just starting to flip from male scarcity to male surplus. Since then, this subject has been largely addressed by baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s or early 1970s. For them, male scarcity is the problem. They often blame it for the sexual revolution of that era and for various social pathologies among African Americans—who have continued to have a low sex ratio among individuals of reproductive age (because of high male mortality, high male incarceration, and low sex ratio at birth).

Hence, Pedersen (1991) predicted that the new regime of high sex ratios would deliver many positive outcomes: lower divorce rates; greater commitment by males to provisioning and parenting; less illegitimacy; and higher birth rates. He foresaw only one negative outcome: increased risk of male violence.

Bennett et al. (1989) concluded that the lower sex ratio of African Americans accounted for their lower rate of marriage and higher rate of marriage dissolution. Messner and Sampson (1991) similarly found that the low sex ratio of U.S. cities correlated with female-headed households and violent crime. They argued that “low sex ratios impede family formation and contribute to marital instability. The sex ratio therefore should be inversely related to indicators of family disruption.”

In a cross-cultural analysis, Barber (2000) compared 70 countries and found that societies with low sex ratios had less paternal investment and marital stability.

In practice, low-sex-ratio societies are characterized by hostility between the sexes and by marital instability … Moreover, in countries having a low sex ratio for 15- to 19-year-olds, young women are more likely to become pregnant in the teenage years… Evidently, if females cannot expect to make a favorable marriage, many gravitate to early reproduction without the economic contribution, and parental investment in general, provided by husbands. Crime rates are also higher, at least for women who have higher theft rates in low-sex-ratio societies, possibly reflecting reduced economic support from men. … These findings can be seen as supportive of the evolutionary theory of socialization according to which a pattern of antisocial and undisciplined behavior is elicited by a conflictual rearing environment. (Barber, 2000, p. 266)

These arguments are repeated by Wilson (2004) when he disagrees with the authors of Bare Branches in their contention that the growing number of single males in China and India will have harmful effects:

The authors neglect one offsetting benefit of having more young men than young women. In the U.S., a high sex ratio is statistically associated with high rates of marriage and low rates of illegitimate births. This argument, first made by Marcia Guttenberg and Paul Secord and amplified in other studies—and in my book, "The Marriage Problem"--arises from the laws of supply and demand.

If there are a lot of men for young women, then the women will trade sex in exchange for what they value, which for most women is a stable relationship--that is, marriage and two-parent child care. But if men are scarce and women abundant, then women will lose their bargaining power and exchange sex for whatever is available: one-night stands, illegitimate children or even prostitution. In the U.S., African-Americans have a very low sex ratio, and the consequences of that fact are obvious.

The above writers have shaped current thinking on the new marriage market, i.e., an excess of single males over single females at all reproductive ages. In general, their optimistic conclusions have gone unopposed. It is little wonder that few alarms have been sounded about this massive demographic shift.

Is the optimism warranted? All of the above authors cite Guttentag and Secord’s Too Many Women?, even to the point of chastising sex-ratio pessimists for ignoring its findings. Yet, as Guttentag and Secord themselves pointed out, those findings were based on societies that forbid female promiscuity. If women are allowed to be promiscuous, and if the marriage market is biased in their favor, they too will postpone commitment and try to play the market as long as possible. They too will ‘sow their wild oats.’

Indeed, over the past thirty years the new marriage market has failed to deliver its presumed benefits. Divorce rates have gone up, not down—because more women are filing for divorce. Illegitimacy has gone up, not down—because more women are voluntarily having children out of wedlock. And more women are postponing marriage or rejecting it altogether. True, men are participating more in family life, but this has not offset the overall withdrawal from family life by women. And true, the birth rate has gone up in the last few years, but for the rest of the past thirty years it was trending downward. The current boomlet probably has other causes.

These negative outcomes could have been predicted. Why weren’t they? The main reason seems to be an assumption that women are naturally monogamous and will remain so even when legal and cultural restraints are removed. It was a naïve assumption. To the extent that women are predisposed to monogamy, this predisposition is likely conditional on certain cues in the social environment, notably being in a parenting relationship. This cue is absent in a population that practices contraception and is voluntarily childless. Willingly or unwillingly, we have leveled the behavioral playing field between men and women.

Other criticisms could be leveled at the above studies. Do African Americans exhibit less paternal investment because their sex ratio is low at reproductive ages? Such sex ratios were, after all, typical for Euro Americans until the 1970s. They have also long been typical for most European societies, as seen in such practices as the sending of girls to nunneries and the giving of dowries at marriage. Moreover, sub-Saharan African societies typically have high sex ratios among individuals willing to mate (because the high polygyny rate dries up the supply of marriageable women). These societies nonetheless show the same pattern of low paternal investment.

And if we look at Barber’s cross-cultural study, its findings are almost wholly an artefact of population differences. Societies with low sex ratios are generally of sub-Saharan African descent. Barber failed to control for this confounding factor. He also erred in assuming that the population sex ratio closely matches the sex ratio among individuals willing to mate. This is not the case in Western societies and is especially not so in sub-Saharan Africa, where 20% to 40% of all marriages are polygynous and where the relatively low population sex ratio does not create a poor marriage market for women. In fact, the reverse is true: there is typically a surplus of marriageable men—because of the high polygyny rate.

So what is the optimal sex ratio of single males to single females? If we wish to have a society with no double standard, i.e., equal limitations on male and female sexual freedom, the optimum would be parity at all reproductive ages. This is something we have not had for thirty years now, and it would take an act of political will to bring it back. We would have to scrap no-fault divorce and make joint custody the norm. We would also have to lower the sex ratio at birth, probably through incentives for the birth of daughters.

It could be done and probably will be. The question is how bad things will get before action is finally taken.


Barber, N. (2000). The sex ratio as a predictor of cross-national variation in violent crime, Cross-Cultural Research, 34, 264-282.

Bennett, N.G., D.E. Bloom, & P.H. Craig. (1989). The divergence of black and white marriage patterns, AJS, 95, 692-722

Davis, K. & P. van den Oever. (1982). Demographic foundations of new sex roles, Population and Development Review, 8, 495-511.

Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61

Guttentag, M. & P.F. Secord. (1983). Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, Beverly Hills: Sage

Messner, S.F. & R.J. Sampson. (1991). The sex ratio, family disruption, and rates of violent crime: The paradox of demographic structure, Social Forces, 69, 693-713.

Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior, Human Nature, 2, 271-291.

Wilson, J.Q. (2004). Sex Matters. Will too many boys make China and India aggressive militarily? The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where are the women?

I was visiting cousins in Collingwood and the subject of conversation turned to a 30-something bachelor who lived down the road.

“Maybe he just enjoys being single,” I said.

“Oh, no,” came the reply. “He wants to get married. He’s tried everything: dating clubs, church groups. Nothing seems to work.”

“Well, maybe he’s ugly or has some kind of psychological problem. Or maybe he doesn’t make enough money.”

“No, no, and no. There’s just not a lot out there for someone in his age bracket.”

I often hear this kind of remark nowadays. Yes papa, there are too many single men. This is a recent problem and one that surprises older men who grew up when bachelorettes outnumbered bachelors at all reproductive ages:

The period from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s was one in which there was a shortage of males at median age of first marriage. From the perspective of sexual selection pressures, this period was one of diminished levels of competition among males for qualities sought by females because there was an abundant supply of females. Similarly, females were less able to be “choosy” because there was a shortage of males. (Pedersen, 1991).

For men, this was a great time to be alive. It wasn’t the music that made the times so great. It was the abundance of young nubile women and the lack of competition from other men.

Then things changed:

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, sex ratios tipped over from male scarcity to parity and then to a relative excess of males. In 1991, plurality of males is clear in the age combinations when first marriage normatively occurs, and this situation will persist through the end of the century. (Pedersen, 1991)

This male surplus varies by age bracket. When Davis and van den Oever (1982) examined the ratio of single men to single women in nine developed countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary Japan, Norway, and Yugoslavia), they found male surpluses up to and into the early 30s:

Single Males per 100 Single Females, by Age Bracket

15-19 years old ----- 114.3
20-24 years old ----- 168.1
25-29 years old ----- 177.6
30-34 years old ----- 133.2
35-39 years old ----- 103.2
40-49 years old ------ 55.7
50-59 years old ------ 39.5
60-74 years old ------ 32.4

Has the marriage market since improved for men? I found only one recent article on this subject, and it described the situation in Germany:

In Germany, single men above the age of about 30 years are confronted with a lack of single women in their age-group (Martin 2001: 310). This “marriage squeeze” rises to the age of 45, decreases slightly after this, but remains intact up to beyond 60 years. (Glowsky, 2007)

For Germany at least, there are now more single men than single women at all reproductive ages, and even beyond. How did this situation come about?

There are two major reasons. One is that far more males are living to adulthood. In European populations, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. But this male surplus used to disappear by the age of marriage because more boys than girls fell victim to infantile mortality and then to high-risk behaviors (accidents, alcohol, fights, wars, etc.). Since 1945, war has killed off much fewer young men. We have also greatly reduced male mortality at work and on the road.

By now, however, death rates have fallen so far that nearly everybody survives to age 50 (89.8 percent of white males and 94.7 percent of white females, according to the 1980 US life tables). This being true, there is no longer room at young ages for differential mortality to make an impact, and such improvements as are made must be mainly among males. (Davis & van den Oever, 1982)

The birth ratio of about 105 males to 100 females is thus persisting well into adulthood. Indeed, by the 1980s many Western countries had managed to preserve it through all reproductive ages. In Norway, for instance, 30-39 year-olds still had a sex ratio of 106.4 at the 1979 census (Davis & van den Oever, 1982).

The other reason is that divorce laws have been liberalized throughout the Western world. It is now much easier for older men to re-enter the marriage market and marry younger women.

In general, not only are grooms somewhat older than their brides at first marriage, but after divorce or widowhood a larger proportion of men than women remarry and, when they do, they tend to marry women younger than themselves by a margin wider than in their first marriages. With this source of distortion added to the sources already described, imbalances in the sex ratio of the married and unmarried in some age groups become spectacular. (Davis & van den Oever, 1982)

These two reasons—reduction of male mortality and liberalized divorce laws—account for the growing excess of single males over single females at all reproductive ages. Nonetheless, this male surplus might still translate into a smaller one on the marriage market. Men are likelier than women to end up in jail, in psychiatric institutions, and on skid row. As far as the marriage market is concerned, such men don’t exist. The rate of homosexuality is also higher among men than among women (3-5% versus 1%).

On the other hand, two other factors would magnify this male surplus. First, women are likelier than men to get child custody when relationships break up. Women are also much likelier to have children on their own. In either case, some of them never return to the marriage market and the others are ambivalent about having more children. Thus, if we look only at single childless males and single childless females, the male surplus becomes even larger.

Second, there has been an increase not only in serial polygyny (an older man divorces and remarries with a younger woman) but also in concurrent polygyny (a man monopolizes more than one woman at any one time). This phenomenon is hard to quantify because it takes place among purportedly ‘single’ people and thus flies under the radar of most statistics. But it is showing up in a sex reversal of STD infection rates, notably with respect to chlamydia—the most common sexually transmitted disease. Among Hispanic Americans, the traditional pattern still holds true: the rates are 7.24% of men and 4.42% of women (Miller et al., 2004). These polygynous males still have to make do with a smaller number of prostitutes and ‘loose women.’ Among Euro-Americans, however, the pattern has reversed: the rates are 1.38% of men and 2.52% of women (Miller et al., 2004). This is also the pattern among African Americans and is apparently due to young women being targeted by a smaller subpopulation of older polygynous men (Auerswald et al., 2006).

Is the same thing happening in the Euro-American population? Some young men think so, such as this commenter at In Mala Fide:

Today, the top 60% attractive women delay marriage while having casual sex with the top 20% of players, men like Mystery who do nothing to benefit society. This gives men either a powerful incentive to become players or a powerful incentive to play video games and view porn.

Using myself as an example, I have a good job, but no wife, no girlfriend, and no children, which has alienated me from society. Sixty years ago, I would have been married and a pillar of the community. Today, I have no respect for women or societal institutions, don’t vote, don’t go to church, and don’t donate money to charity. I save most of my money for retirement and spend the rest on hookers.

In reading the other comments at In Mala Fide I see a generation gap. Older men tend to be disbelieving. They either tell the younger commenters to stop being “losers” or suggest they join dating agencies or attend church. Yet all dating agencies now have more male than female members, except in the 40+ bracket. From personal observation, I see the same pattern among singles at local churches.

So what is to be done? One problem is getting our intellectual and political elites to react. I suspect one reason they don’t is that many are beneficiaries of the existing system, i.e., older men who have remarried with younger women. Our elites are also generally committed to social libertarianism, this being now true as much for the political right as it is for the political left.

I used to be something of a libertarian. No longer. The sexual marketplace does not function like the marketplace of goods and services. Increasing the demand for young single women will not increase the supply. Nor will this market failure go away if “losers” attend special seminars or get special coaching. Nor will it go away on its own. This is a real problem and one that will likely get worse. Yes, if nothing is done we will have a society where marriage is unattainable for over one third of all men.

What would I recommend? First, if we’re going to extend the sex ratio at birth to the age of 50 and beyond, we should try to keep it as close to parity as possible. The least coercive way would be to pay surrogate mothers to have daughters who would then be put up for adoption. Given the number of people who wish to adopt, this would pose no problem. Is this playing God? Perhaps. But we began playing God by cutting male mortality to levels that had never before existed.

Second, we should tighten divorce laws. No-fault divorce would be allowed only when both spouses request it or when there are no children. Otherwise, one would have to show just cause and child custody would normally be split 50:50.

Third, polygynous men should be publicly identified. While polygyny itself would not be criminalized, the public would be free to discriminate against such men in employment and housing. Repeat offenders would be barred from most forms of social assistance. In this, the goal would be to return such men to the margins of society where they belong.

And if we do nothing? “Let them eat porn?” The social costs may be greater than we think. A surplus of single males tends to make societies less stable and more prone to violence (Pedersen, 1991). Such individuals are likelier to agitate for war or revolution, since they have little stake in the existing order. This is a subject that has attracted notice with the so-called ‘bare branches’ of China and India, yet similar regions of ‘bare branches’ are also becoming noticeable throughout the Western World, particularly outside major cities.

How will things pan out? I don’t know. I hope this is not one of those situations where the pressure will just build up and up until the lid blows off.


Auerswald, C.L., S.Q. Muth, B. Brown, N. Padian, & J. Ellen. (2006). Does partner selection contribute to sex differences in sexually transmitted infection rates among African American adolescents in San Francisco? Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 33, 480-484.

Davis, K. & P. van den Oever. (1982). Demographic foundations of new sex roles, Population and Development Review, 8, 495-511.

Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61

Miller, W.C., C.A. Ford, M. Morris, M.S. Handcock, J.L. Schmitz, M.M. Hobbs, M.S. Cohen, K.M. Harris, & J.R. Udry. (2004). Prevalence of chlamydial and gonococcal infections among young adults in the United States, JAMA, 291, 2229-2236.

Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior, Human Nature, 2, 271-291.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Was Christianity responsible?

There is a thread of thought going back to antiquity and revived by Nietzsche that blames Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire. Christ and his followers are thus held responsible for replacing pagan virtues with ‘slave values’ of submission and pacifism.

In reality, and long before the triumph of Christianity, it was pagan Rome that strove to pacify its subjects and make them submissive. This was a deliberate and longstanding policy:

By humanitas the Romans meant two things: the adoption of the customs and the value system of the Roman people and material prosperity. The first was to be achieved by pacification, subjugation, and ‘Romanization’; the second was provided under the umbrella of the Pax Romana. By pacifying unruly elements, the Pax Romana allowed for their integration into civilization itself: it promised urbanization, cultural refinement, and in some instances, even enfranchisement. (Parchami, 2009, p. 28)

The Pax Romana did not mean peace with rival empires. Nor did it really mean peace within the empire. Indeed, it meant regular use of State violence—to quash revolts by slaves and the newly conquered and to protect life and property from brigands, bandits, pirates, and the like. Violence had become a state monopoly and anyone who transgressed this monopoly became an enemy of the State.

This ‘peace’ impressed Aristides, a 2nd-century pagan philosopher: “Now total security, universal and clear to all, has been given to the earth itself and those who inhabit it” (Parchami, 2009, p. 33). The Pax Romana didn’t simply benefit the elites by eliminating potential rivals. It benefited everyone by creating a more productive economy:

This security protected people—both their physical selves and their property—from external attack. Furthermore, the reduction of piracy and banditry meant more safety for travelers and for trade and commerce than at any previous time. Last, but not least, Roman rule prevented the eruption, into military conflict, of century-old disputes between the various provinces, or between disparate communities within a single province. (Parchami, 2009, p. 33)

These benefits came at the cost of a social contradiction. Although the use of violence was forbidden to the general population, it remained legitimate and even noble as a State prerogative. Initially, this situation seemed normal to everyone. It certainly served the purpose of the ruling elites, particularly during the early years of empire when their subjects were mostly ‘objects’—i.e., the spoils of recent conquests. Nor did the general population see anything unusual. After all, the Gods themselves behaved likewise.

In time, however, this contradiction lost its legitimacy. First, the conquered were assimilated into Roman society. Many became citizens and, as such, enjoyed certain rights and protections. Second, the State no longer had to use violence so often against its own subjects. Piracy largely disappeared following the battle of Actium in 31 BC. After the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), there were no new provinces to pacify and fewer rebellions in the older ones. The Pax Romana increasingly seemed irrevocable, as Plutarch noted in the first century:

The greatest blessings that cities can enjoy are peace, prosperity, populousness, and concord. As far as peace is concerned the people have no need of political activity, for all war, both Greek and foreign, has been banished and has disappeared from among us. (cited in Parchami, 2009, p. 30)

Third, a profound behavioral change was spreading through the general population. The ‘internal war’ against thugs and criminals was producing a new kind of Roman, one more submissive to authority and less willing to countenance violence. In fact, these new Romans were coming to see arrogant, violent conduct as inherently wrong. Yet such conduct characterized the Gods they were supposed to respect. Increasingly, people looked elsewhere for spiritual comfort.

Into this new behavioral landscape came Christianity. Indeed, one of the early Church fathers, Origen (185-254 AD), explicitly linked the success of his faith to the Pax Romana:

God was preparing the nations for his teaching, that they might be under one Roman Emperor, so that the unfriendly attitude of the nations to one another, caused by the existence of a large number of kingdoms, might not make it more difficult for Jesus’ apostles to do what he commanded them when he said, ‘Go and teach all nations’. It is quite clear that Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, the one who reduced to uniformity, so to speak, the many kingdoms on earth so that he had a single empire. It would have hindered Jesus’ teaching from being spread through the whole world if there had been many kingdoms, not only for the reasons just stated, but also because men everywhere would have been compelled to do military service and to fight in defence of their own land. This used to happen before the times of Augustus and even earlier still when a war was necessary, such as that between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, and similarly in the case of the other nations which fought one another. Accordingly, how could this teaching, which preaches peace and does not even allow men to take vengeance on their enemies, have had any success unless the international situation had everywhere been changed and a milder spirit prevailed at the advent of Jesus? [Against Celsus 2, 30]

For Eusebius (4th century), it “was not by mere human accident” but “of God’s arrangement” that the universal empire of peace came in time for the universal religion of peace (Mommsen, 1951, p. 361). Both sought to unite and pacify the world’s many peoples:

Two great powers sprang up fully as out of one stream and they gave peace to all and brought all together to a state of friendship: the Roman empire, which from that time appeared as one kingdom, and the power of the Saviour of all, whose aid was at once extended to and established with everyone. [Theophania 3,2 – cited in Mommsen (1951, pp. 361-362)]

Immediately after Augustus had established his sole rule, at the time of our Saviour’s appearance, the rule by the many became abolished among the Romans. And from that time to the present you cannot see, as before, cities at war with cities, nor nation fighting with nation, nor life being worn away in the confusion of everything. [Praeparatio Evangelica 1,4– cited in Mommsen (1951, pp. 361)]

This peace, however, was sustained by violent means—a flaw that Christian writers knew full well. Origen felt that the Empire’s enemies were better fought through prayer [Against Celsus 8, 73]. Arnobius of Sicca [4th century] thought it better to convert them:

[We] have learned from His teachings and His laws that evil should not be repaid with evil; that it is better to suffer wrong than be its cause, to pour forth one’s own blood rather than to stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another: the world, ungrateful as it is, has long had this benefit from Christ by whom the rage of madness has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of fellow beings.

And if all without exception who understand that [they] are men, not through the form of their bodies but through the power of reason, would for a little while be willing to lend an ear to His wholesome and peaceful commandments, and would believe not in their own arrogance and swollen conceit but rather in His admonitions, the whole world, long since having diverted the use of iron to more gentle pursuits, would be passing its days in the most placid tranquillity and would come together in wholesome harmony, having kept the terms of treaties unbroken.
[Against the Pagans 1,6]

The 4th century gave Christians a chance to put their ideas into practice. In 313 AD, Christianity was placed on an equal standing with the old pagan religion. Then, gradually, it became the sole official religion.

This transitional period saw large numbers of barbarians enter the Empire. They were allowed in largely out of expediency: they helped meet the army’s manpower needs and it was considered preferable to have them as allies on the inside rather than as enemies on the outside. Although some feared the growing barbarian presence, these fears were calmed by Christian reassurances. In 417 AD, the theologian Orosius observed: “the barbarians [in Spain], having forsworn their swords, have turned to the plow, and now nurture the surviving Romans as allies and friends.” (cited in Mathisen, 2006, p. 33). But late pagan philosophers, like Themistius, were just as naïve. In 383 AD, he wrote that the Goths of Thrace “are now converting the iron from their swords and cuirasses into mattocks and scythes.”

Paganism lost all official status after one last clash with Christianity: the controversy over the Altar of Victory in Rome. ‘Victory’ was a Roman goddess and incense was burnt at her altar whenever the Senate met. She represented not so much a divine being as a divine principle: the imperative to fight and triumph over all enemies. The altar was first removed in the mid 4th century under Constantine but then replaced by Julian the Apostate. It was removed a second time in 382 AD. Pagan senators pleaded for its return, arguing that the altar had helped make Rome a great empire. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, acknowledged that it might have once been useful. But the time had come to move on: “It is no disgrace to pass on to better things” [Epist. 18,7]. This argument was developed by Prudentius, who argued that pagan Romans did not fully understand why their empire had come into being:

Shall I tell you, Roman, what cause it was that so exalted your labours, what it was that nursed your glory to such a height of fame that it has put rein and bridle on the world? God, wishing to bring into partnership peoples of different speech and realms of discordant manners, determined that all the civilised world should be harnessed to one ruling power and bear gentle bonds in harmony under the yoke, so that love of their religion should hold men’s hearts in union; for no bond is made that is worthy of Christ unless unity of spirit leagues together the nations it associates. Only concord knows God; it alone worships the beneficent Father aright in peace. The untroubled harmony of human union wins his favour for the world; by division it drives Him away, with cruel warfare it makes Him wroth; it satisfies Him with the offering of peace and holds Him fast with quietness and brotherly love. [Against Symmachus 2, 583-597]

Prudentius represented the Empire as a woman, Roma, who announced that it was no longer necessary to fear conquest by barbarians:

Let those who din into my ears once more the story of past disasters and ancient sorrows observe that in your time I suffer such things no longer. No barbarian foe shatters my bars with his spear, nor with strange arms and dress and hair goes roving through my captured city, carrying off my young men to bondage across the Alps [Against Symmachus 2, 690-95]

The above words were written in 403 AD. Seven years later, Rome fell to the Visigoths, who plundered it for three days. The Empire imploded as one barbarian nation after another moved in. In 455, Rome was sacked a second time—the Vandals were allowed to enter unopposed after promising not to kill anyone. With the return of piracy and brigandage, trade sharply declined, as did food production and maintenance of roads, ports, and aqueducts. Neither life nor property was secure. It is estimated that this period saw Europe’s population shrink by about a third through war, famine, and plague. So ended the Pax Romana.


Did Christianity destroy the Empire? Or did this destruction result from the Empire’s policy of pacifying its subjects while more and more unpacified barbarians pressed on its frontiers? The answer probably lies somewhere in-between.

It can be argued that all State societies are prone to catastrophic collapse, since they are structured around a single center of authority. As long as this central authority is maintained, the State can repress individual and communal violence, thus permitting a higher level of economic activity and ultimately a larger population. This repression in turn alters the mix of behavioral genotypes: predispositions to violence being selected out and predispositions to submission and passivity being selected in. If and when central authority falters, there will be a corresponding resurgence of non-State violence. On the one hand, the State can no longer restrain violent predispositions that have not yet been fully removed from the population. On the other, the State can no longer keep out non-pacified populations that enter from areas beyond its control. This new social environment reduces economic output, thus worsening the initial instability and creating a downward spiral that may spin out of control.

Nonetheless, when Roman central authority faltered in the fifth century it did so as never before. Earlier, in the third century, Rome had faced a similar crisis: civil war, foreign invasion, return of brigandage, and steep economic decline. Yet the Empire fought its way back and reasserted central authority. There was no such response in the fifth century. Instead, the crisis was met with a strange mixture of complacency and willful naiveté.

We cannot understand this change without considering the ideology that now shaped the Roman worldview, i.e., all humans share the same potential for peaceful and submissive behavior. This was largely true among the pacified populations inside the Roman Empire. Outside, it was largely false. Tragically so.


Arnobius of Sicca (1949) Arnobius of Sicca. The Case against the Pagans, transl. G.E. McGracken, Ancient Christian Writers No. 7, New York: Newman Press.

Mathisen, R.W. (2006). Violent behavior and the construction of barbarian identity in Late Antiquity, in: Drake, H.A. (ed.) Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices, pp. 27-35, Burlington (Vermont) and Aldershot: Absgate.

Mommsen, T.E. (1951). St. Augustine and the Christian idea of progress: The background of the City of God, Journal of the History of Ideas, 12, 346-374.

Origen. (1965). Origen: Contra Celsum, transl. H. Chadwick, London: Cambridge University Press.

Parchami, A. (2009). Hegemonic Peace and Empire. The Pax Romana, Britannica and Americana, Routledge.

Prudentius. (1953). Prudentius, Vol. II, transl. H.J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library, London: William Heinemann.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Milgram experiment: A cross-cultural perspective

You’ve probably heard of the Milgram experiment. Assistants are told to give a ‘subject’ progressively stronger electric shocks whenever he or she fails on a learning task. Most of the assistants—the real subjects of the experiment—obediently do as they are told, even when the pseudo-subject is visibly in pain and pleads for cessation of the shocks. (In reality, the pseudo-subject is a trained actor and no shocks are actually given). When Stanley Milgram began this research at Yale in the early 1960s, he found that 65% of his subjects kept on administering electric shocks right up to the top end of the scale.

In the postwar era, Milgram’s work was in line with several other studies, notably The Authoritarian Personality, that painted a dark picture of America. This cynicism appeared in a 1979 interview on Sixty Minutes:

Safer: Are you suggesting that, that it could happen here?
Milgram: I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps
in any medium-sized American town.
(Blass, 2000, pp. 35-36)

But were the subjects really brutal because they were acting under orders? Perhaps they just enjoyed having a chance to be brutal. This potential criticism occurred to Milgram (1974, pp. 70-71):

Indeed, one theoretical interpretation of the behavior holds that men harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression and that the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses. According to this view, if a person is placed in a situation where he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore.

… It becomes vital, therefore, to compare the subjects’ performance when they are under orders and when they are allowed to choose the shock levels.

When allowed to choose the shock levels, only one of the seventy-one subjects (1.4%) administered shocks right up to the top end of the scale. Milgram (1974, p. 72) concluded:

Insofar as the experiments tell us something about human nature, the revelation on how men act toward others when they are on their own is here. Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.

The Milgram experiment has been replicated outside the United States. These replications, however, are almost wholly confined to subjects in European or European-descended countries. To date, only Shanab and Yahya (1978) have replicated the Milgram experiment with non-European subjects, these being 48 students at the University of Jordan in Amman. The Jordanian subjects resembled Milgram’s in being just as willing to inflict pain under orders (proportion = 62.5%). But they differed in being more willing to inflict pain on their own initiative. When allowed to choose the shock levels, 12.5% of the Jordanians delivered shocks right up to the top end of the scale.

One in eight Jordanians is a sadist? And these were university students, presumably the cream of Jordanian society. How would the experiment have turned out if done with Bedouins, for instance, or some other group where the State has only recently monopolized the use of violence?

This question is addressed with respect to Algerians by Frantz Fanon. Better known as a political thinker, Fanon was also a psychoanalyst who knew the literature on violence in his adopted country and who reviewed it in a chapter of his book Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). He first discussed the incidence of violent crime:

It’s a fact, the magistrates will tell you, that four fifths of the cases heard involve assault and battery. The crime rate in Algeria is one of the highest in the world, they claim. There are no petty delinquents. When the Algerian, and this applies to all North Africans, puts himself on the wrong side of the law, he always goes to extremes (Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

The acts of violence also show less restraint and the precipitating causes seem banal:

Autopsies undeniably establish this fact: the killer gives the impression he wanted to kill an incalculable number of times given the equal deadliness of the wounds inflicted.

… Very often the magistrates and police officers are stunned by the motives for the murder: a gesture, an allusion, an ambiguous remark, a quarrel over the ownership of an olive tree or an animal that has strayed a few feet. The search for the cause, which is expected to justify and pin down the murder, in some cases a double or triple murder, turns up a hopelessly trivial motive. Hence the frequent impression that the community is hiding the real motives.
(Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

These facts were not challenged by Fanon, who attributed them to the effects of colonialism. As proof, he argued that violent crime was declining among Algerians established in France:

Yes, the Algerian spontaneously acknowledged the magistrates and police officers were right. This narcissistic aspect of Algerian criminality as a manifestation of genuine virility had to be tackled again and reconsidered in the light of colonial history. By showing, for example, how the criminality of the Algerians in France fundamentally differed from the criminality of the Algerians directly subjected to colonial exploitation. (Fanon, 2004, p. 229)

Frantz Fanon wrote the above thoughts in 1961. Like Stanley Milgram, he was writing at a time when State violence seemed to be the main problem and when individual violence could plausibly be seen as a State-induced pathology. If they were still alive, would the two of them think differently today?


Blass, T. (2000) “The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we know about obedience to authority”, in T. Blass (ed.) Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, pp. 35-60, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fanon, F. (2004). The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Shanab, M.E. & Yahya, K.A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience, Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 11, 267-269.