Cultural Caviar

Race of the Amish

June 04, 2014

Multiple Pages
Race of the Amish

The conventional wisdom about how race is just a social construct is back in the news with the endless excoriations of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. Sadly, the term “social construct” is usually used as an excuse to stop thinking: just announce that scientists have proven that race is socially constructed and you can shut down all cognitive processes without worry that you’ll get in trouble for crimethink.

Yet, as with all thoughtful considerations of nature and nurture, the notion of “social construction” can yield fruitful paradoxes. If social construction is as powerful as its enthusiasts claim, how could it not affect human beings genetically? If a social group constructs a new ideology about who should marry whom, for instance, how would that not alter future lineages and gene frequencies?

For example, America has witnessed over the last ten generations the socially planned breeding of a new endogamous extended family, a fast-growing proto-race that now numbers over 200,000 and is currently on pace to double every 21 years: the Amish.

And, judging from how spectacularly well the Amish have weathered the last half-century’s fertility-depressing social revolution in the surrounding “English” culture, they seem to have a clear flight path to numbering in the millions before the end of this century.

“The idea of the Amish as a racial group might appear bizarre to 21st century American minds, but that mostly shows how provincial our thinking has become.”

The idea of the Amish as a racial group might appear bizarre to 21st century American minds, but that mostly shows how provincial our thinking has become.

Because groups from different continents settled America, it’s easy for contemporary Americans to associate race with merely the big differences seen among peoples who were long somewhat isolated by oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and trackless steppes.

Yet 19th century Americans also remained cognizant of critical differences within continents: for instance, Italians, Scots, and Swedes tend to handle their alcohol differently. While Italians were more likely to ruin their livers than their lives by drinking a bottle of wine with meals, Swedes had a tendency toward occasional heroic binge-drinking bashes. My father-in-law recalled an old figure of speech in Chicago: “as drunk as seven Swedes.”
To a 19th century American, the Book of Genesis provided a vivid example of how a nation is bred: through inbreeding. According to the lurid family history of Abraham’s descendants, the dozen sons of Jacob, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, had only six unique grandparents instead of the usual eight.

Like most Christian sects with German roots, the Bible-reading Amish were familiar with the Jewish origin stories. They wound up with a social system somewhat like that of the Ashkenazi. Like medieval Jews, the Amish are content to “dwell apart” in the midst of outsiders without having their own state or territory, using ostracism (“shunning”) to enforce their norms, and encouraging high fertility.

Like modern ultra-Orthodox Jews who dress in fashions hundreds of years out of date, the plain clothes of the Amish are perhaps more profitably interpreted less as exercises in religious fanaticism and more as the canny choices of clever leaders constructing the kind of cultures and human beings they most value. The arduous customs of both groups served to exclude the casual and construct barriers to intermarriage.

I had always assumed that the Amish had a religious objection to modern technology, but driving around Ohio’s Holmes County last year, it became clear that their views on technology are more instrumental. For example, most yards had brightly colored plastic children’s outdoor toys such as slides. Plastic toys are a modern invention, but the Amish don’t reject them out of hand for that reason. Instead, they pick and choose the technologies they believe mold the type of people they prefer. (Not surprisingly, the Amish, like the ultra-Orthodox, sometimes fracture into new congregations when charismatic leaders disagree on the right path.)

But there are clear differences between the Amish and the ultra-Orthodox Jews as well, such as the Amish being intensely agricultural rather than commercial.

The Amish opted out of the productivity revolution. Farming efficiency has increased radically over American history, which is, on the whole, a terrific thing. Nobody needs to conquer their neighbors anymore to get enough calories to eat because of the huge increase in what can be produced per acre and per farmer. 

But that’s left America’s farm regions rather lonely. Drive across the country and you’ll see lots of farms but very few farmers … except in Amish regions, which look lively and sociable. There are numerous people around, both doing backbreaking labor in the fields and having fun with friends and family.

The genealogies of the Amish, who have long been literate but not highly educated (eighth grade is considered enough), are well documented on the flyleaves of their family Bibles. They are descended from about 200 ancestors who immigrated from Germany and Switzerland, mostly in the 18th century. Immigration continued in the 19th century, but most of the European newcomers merged into the less hardcore Mennonite churches.
The fairly distinctive genetic signature of the Amish is increasingly studied.

The Amish fight their congenital diseases caused by inbreeding by encouraging courting among their less closely related members. (Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, who battle hereditary diseases such as Tay-Sachs via eugenics, the Amish don’t arrange marriages.) This practice has the paradoxical property of making the Amish more genetically homogeneous.

There is something a little postmodern about the confidence with which the Amish believe they can bend human nature to their beliefs. But, unlike postmodern theorists who are all talk, the Amish are willing to walk the walk (or at least to ride the buggy).

Moreover, as farmers, the Amish aren’t ignorant of the role of biology either. Evolutionary theorists Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran have recently argued that the Amish are in effect breeding themselves for “plainness.”

This is mathematically quite possible because there has been little gene flow into the Amish in many generations. They seldom proselytize, preferring to grow their own adherents. Large numbers of “English” tourists flow daily past their farms in Amish strongholds like Holmes County, but the Amish aren’t interested in converting them.

Not surprisingly, there’s a steady genetic outflow from the Amish (often into the only somewhat less strict Mennonites, whom certain Amish groups consider a respectable enough alternative to the Old Order that they won’t shun their loved ones who join the Mennonites). As Anabaptists, the new generation of Amish isn’t baptized into the church until young adulthood.
Overall, about 10 to 15 percent leave their Amish community for a less constrained existence. (With an average of close to seven children apiece, losing one to the outside world is less of a tragedy.) Strikingly, the rate of defection appears to have declined from the 18 to 24 percent range seen in the past.

Harpending and Cochran hypothesize that the Amish are genetically distinct not only because of “founders’ effects”—idiosyncrasies in the genes of the 200 original American Amish – but also because they are increasingly becoming more Amish genetically due to “selection effects.”
First, they are likely getting more fertile. The U. of Utah anthropologists go on:

Second, and more interesting, the Amish have probably experienced selection for increased Amishness—an increase in the degree to which Amish find their lifestyle congenial, since those who like it least, leave. We have called this kind of differential emigration “boiling off”. Obviously, if some of the soup boils off, what is left is more concentrated.

They theorize the existence of an Amish Quotient:

One could, with difficulty and a lot of investment, identify dimensions of a hypothetical AQ. It would likely include affinity for work, perseverance, low status competition, respect for authority, conscientiousness, community orientation, and so on.

If the Amish community has typically lost the 10% of its population least Amish by nature, the average AQ would have increased by about 1 AQ point for each of the ten generations in America: that’s nine or ten points in total so far.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ashkenazi Jews, whom Cochran and Harpending argued in their 2005 paper Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence have undergone Darwinian selection for traits conducive to success at white collar business, appear to average about ten IQ points higher than gentile Europeans.

Nicholas Wade’s New York Times article nicely summarized their theory of how Jewish congenital diseases like Tay-Sachs are likely tragic side effects of intense Darwinian selection for higher intelligence.

And that’s what the denunciations of Wade’s new book ultimately are about. Whether the critics recognize it or not, they are parroting a line of patter developed for ethnocentric purposes by various Jewish intellectuals, such as anthropologist Ashley Montagu (born Israel Ehrenberg).

There are no Amish intellectuals, and there aren’t even many black intellectuals anymore (note the embarrassing rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates due to lack of competition). But you can’t begin to understand the modern world without making yourself aware of Jewish intellectuals’ predilections and biases. These tropes are mostly just funny, and we’d be better off if we could all laugh about them.

Unfortunately, noticing is not allowed.

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