Bryan Caplan  

Galton's Demented Idea

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In 1873, Francis Galton, founding father of modern statistics and behavioral genetics, publicized a demented idea.  It begins promisingly:
My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy...
You might think that Galton would hail the mutual economic benefits of immigration for Chinese and Africans alike.  Perhaps Chinese entrepreneurs would kick-start African economic growth, or at least help modernize agriculture.  But the idea of mutually beneficial exchange never crosses Galton's mind.  Instead, he predicts gradual genocide, professing...
...the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese...
If that's not clear enough for you:
We ourselves are no descendents of the aborigines of Britain, and our colonists were invaders of the regions they now occupy as their lawful home. But the countries into which the Anglo-Saxon race can be transfused are restricted to those where the climate is temperate. The Tropics are not for us, to inhabit permanently; the greater part of Africa is the heritage of people differently constituted to ourselves. On that continent, as elsewhere, one population continually drives out another.
Normally, of course, it is the opponents of immigration who claim that immigration is the first step toward genocide.  But Galton reverses this logic:
The history of the world tells a tale of the continual displacement of populations, each by a worthier successor, and humanity gains thereby... The gain would be immense to the whole civilized world if we were to out-breed and finally displace the negro, as completely as the latter has displaced the aborigines of the West Indies.
Most modern readers will attribute Galton's demented idea to racism.  He certainly sounds racist enough, luridly contrasting Chinese virtue with African vice:
[I]ndividuals of the mental caliber I have just described are much more exceptional in the negro than in the Anglo-Saxon race, and that average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization without a large measure of external guidance and support.

[...]

The Chinese emigrants possess an extraordinary instinct for political and social organization; they contrive to establish for themselves a police and internal government, and they give no trouble to their rulers so long as they are left to manage those matters by themselves. They are good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific.
But Galton's error goes deeper than racism.  Despite his glorification of the "civilized world," he fails to grasp that specialization and trade - not killing people and looting their stuff - are the material and moral foundation of civilization. 

Materially speaking, civilization is a vast system of cooperation of people with a vast range of abilities.  The Law of Comparative Advantage shows that peaceful trade for mutual gain is possible between people of widely varying skills.  Even if Galton's factual claims about the Chinese and African character were entirely correct, the two groups could still prosper side by side.

Morally speaking, respect for individual rights is the essential difference between civilization and barbarism.  If Galton were accused of murdering his maid, "I was smarter than her" would be an absurd defense.  Any civilized society would treat him as a heinous criminal.  The same holds at the societal level.  Genocide is criminal even if the perpetrators are "good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific" and the victims are lacking in "intellect, self-reliance, and self-control."  For a civilized person, Galton's sweeping compliments and insults are morally beside the point.

You could say that the power of comparative advantage and the wrongness of mass murder are too trivial to blog.  I wish it were so.  But if these claims are so trivial, how could Francis Galton, one of history's most brilliant men, utterly fail to see them?

The good news is that, 140 years after Galton wrote "Africa for the Chinese," the forces he ignored are well at work.  China will soon be Africa's largest trading partner.  Chinese businesses are investing heavily in Africa.  21st-century capitalism is building the better Africa that 19th-century eugenics tried and failed to kill in the womb.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Bedarz Iliaci writes:

they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race.

I fail to see genocide here. A conquest is implied but to accuse Galton of advocating genocide is unwarranted extrapolation.

Sam Hardwick writes:

As Bedarz says, there is no indication of killing and looting. Almost anywhere on Earth you care to look, you'll find older, smaller population groups coexisting with newer, larger population groups. The background is not necessarily one of genocide (although some kind of conflict & occasional killing is inevitable), but of faster growth and outbidding for resources on the part of the newer group.

8 writes:

Marx had the same ideas (read his comparison of what Americans did with the West Coast versus what the Mexicans did with it), as did many people in the 19th Century who applied Darwin's theories.

Native Americans still exist because the U.S. decided to close the borders around them. If the U.S. opened those borders, Native American lands would be sold to the highest bidder and every tribe would probably cease to exist within a a few generations.

The African example is yet to be finished. The Chinese have been accused of bringing in Chinese labor to do work in Africa. It seems that if they could get away with it, the Chinese would buy African land and move in Chinese people, eventually filling Africa with Chinese people and displacing the native Africans.

Colin Liddell writes:

"the two groups could still prosper side by side."

This is not the experience of the White population of South Africa at the moment or White people who get lost in heavily Black areas.

Graham Peterson writes:

This is a particularly good post, Bryan. I like that you include morals here: "specialization and trade - not killing people and looting their stuff - are the material and moral foundation of civilization."

I find the argument that pro-social morals are the mere accident of enlightened self interest and comparative advantage to be a little empty. Not sure if you're advocating that particular position. But I think it's clear, empirically, that history has shown an increase of ethics concomitant to an increase in transactions -- regardless the mechanism.

Jeff writes:

Comparative advantage is great and all, but there's a lot more to the story. If East Africa is populated by hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculturalists, then they must live off what the land produces, which ain't much. Nevertheless, their land is still their land; their ancestors have probably inhabited it for generations. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years. It would be far more productive in the hands of more industrialized people like the Chinese, and the obvious solution is for the Chinese to simply buy the land from the indigenous Africans, but again...ancestry, traditional lifestyle, etc. The Africans may not be willing to part with it for any price. And the higher the price goes, the more the logic of simply using force to take the land seems compelling. A Maxim gun or two was typically all the colonists needed to get whatever they wanted from native peoples.

Galton's problem, I'd wager, wasn't ignorance of basic economics, it was simply a lack of empathy for those very different from himself.

MikeP writes:
The Chinese emigrants possess an extraordinary instinct for political and social organization; they contrive to establish for themselves a police and internal government, and they give no trouble to their rulers so long as they are left to manage those matters by themselves. They are good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific.

It may never have occurred to the author that those particular individuals were selected, by self or by others, to have these traits or highly correlated traits.

This is actually an argument for the most "good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific" people of every land to go improve some other land in a mass mutual migration of "good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific" people worldwide -- i.e., an argument for free migration.

Clay writes:

He's advocating peaceful population replacement with immigration and fertility rather than violent genocide. The former is what we are seeing today and is the major concern of immigration opponents.

Arthur Pierce writes:

"Even if Galton's factual claims about the Chinese and African character were entirely correct, the two groups could still prosper side by side."

Well, Whites and Africans did that in South Africa, until somebody thought it would be a brilliant idea to introduce egalitarian democracy. Ditto for Rhodesia. Now look at them. Progress!

Whiskey writes:

How was Galton inaccurate in his characterization of Africans, Humanity's biggest failure, in terms of male cooperation, IQ, inter-personal violence, and technology development. Math and Science are open to any and every group. Two plus two equals four for any race, creed, or culture. Africans despite gargantuan natural resources, protection from foreign conquest since the end of the colonial era, and high demand for their resources, have posted an absolute record of absolute failure. Everywhere Africans are a majority, they rapidly turn the place into a hell-hole of Judge Dredd to Lord of the Flies proportions.

Meanwhile, the Chinese though subject to periodic bloodletting of massive scale, the Taipeng Rebellion killing 20 million in an era of Civil War musket-loaders, and Mao's purges killing likely 50 million, have posted an astonishing record of rapid technological assimilation and male cooperation and literacy and economic advancement despite nearly no natural resources to speak of.

If technology kills, and it does, African's destiny is to be wiped out, in one way or another. Because Africans by and large are not even capable of basic literacy.

Galton's core comments about the virtues of the Chinese (many) and Africans (none) is empirically correct. It might not be PC. It might not be filled with maudlin, weepy post-modern sentiment. It is nevertheless true.

As for open borders = genocide, that is also true. No Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Israeli, Swiss, Icelandic, Irish, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Filipino politician would advocate defacto population replacement by say, opening their borders to the vastly poorer masses of Bangladesh, Somalia, Angola, etc.

There is no comparative advantage between peoples of different races competing for the same land and resources. That's a Santa Claus fantasy, never ever EVER seen in human history. People who push the idea of comparitive advantage BETWEEN nations into that of peoples make an error akin to being open to new experiences equivalent to wife-sharing. Not a trait likely to be passed on genetically, to put it mildly. Or as the great romantic poet Robert Frost said in his magnificent love poem (sarcasm folks) "Good fences make good neighbors."

Tyrone writes:

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MikeP writes:

People who push the idea of comparitive advantage BETWEEN nations into that of peoples make an error...

Comparative advantage is a fact that applies between nations as well as between any arbitrary collections of people -- including between any two collections of size 1, i.e., individuals.

Even if you are the very best at doing everything there is to do in the world, you do not have the time to do everything there is to do in the world. You are better off using your limited time to do what gives you your greatest comparative advantage and trading that product with the product of others' doing everything else.

Cimon Alexander writes:

Galton's idea sounds like a peaceful immigration policy to me. He is simply doing what people arguing over policy often fail to do by extrapolating the (un)pleasant consequences of increased immigration. It sounds bad, but it is really just a harsh sounding description of comparative advantage and trade.

Similarly, an immigration advocate in the US could say something like "we will increase the admittance of the Mexican race, who with their higher fertility, will soon drive out the majority of the white race from the southwest, and following that the rest of the country". But this is nothing more than a racist sounding description of peaceful immigration, trade, and comparative advantage. There is no dispute that, on average, Mexican immigrants have higher fertility, but whether or not you think it is a problem depends on which words you choose to describe it.

It sounds like you are getting tripped up on Galton's tone or choice of words. And his motives may be racist. But the policy he is advocating would bring the benefits of increased specialization and cultural exchange to the African continent, whatever his motives might be.

Cimon Alexander writes:

This suggests a new test for moral beliefs: frame your moral beliefs in the most unfavorable tone possible. Do you still believe in them? If not, why not?

Also, we continue to overlook the actual concerns of anti-immigration activists. They are generally not racist, but they do note that each population has externalities. There is relatively little anti-immigrant sentiment against east asians, for example, because that group statistically commits little crime (less than American average), does well in school, and contributes more to the commonweal than it takes away. Those are all pro-social pro-civilization attributes.

Ricardo-style analysis doesn't capture that.

James A. Donald writes:
Even if Galton's factual claims about the Chinese and African character were entirely correct, the two groups could still prosper side by side.

Observe Detroit. Obviously Galton's claims are entirely correct, and obviously the two groups cannot prosper side by side.

For two groups of very differing abilities to prosper side by side in accordance with the law of comparative advantage, they both have to respect law, contracts, and property rights - which most people of subsaharan African descent do not.

Thus, one must rule over the other. If the superior rules over the inferior as with US segregation or the highly successful, peaceful, and prosperous Belgian Congo, things work. If the inferior rule over the superior, as with today's Congo or Hutu ruled Rwanda, you get genocide, mass murder, desperate poverty, and women of the superior race are vaginally impaled with very large objects.

el sid writes:

K so lemme get this straight.

It's a moral and economic good to replace indigenous inhabitants of European derived lands through immigration and higher fertility rate of outsiders. But it's unconscionable, evil and morally indefensible to replace africans through immigration and out breeding.

If Caplan understands why it is objectionable to replace Africans with Chinese colonists, why does he not see why it would be objectionable to replace (low fertility) white Europeans and post-Europeans with (higher fertility) African, Southwest Asian, and Latin American colonists?

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