December 19, 2009

Niall Ferguson
Harvard History Department
35 Quincy Street
Cambridge, Mass. 92138

Dear Dr. Ferguson:

I have read your book (WAR OF THE WORLD, Penguin Press, New York, 2006) with great interest.  It’s amazing how many things I did not know and how much of what I thought I knew was wrong.  So Churchill never said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few”?  He got the idea across but phrased it differently.  Oh well. 

By your leave I will attempt to pearl pick your book a little and then string something together.  When I make mention of the enclosed DVD, I shall have finished the important part and shall go into a rant that you may want to skip. 

In the introduction you mention three factors that appear to predispose a society to the most awful forms of mass violence: Unstable economy, reversal of the process of assimilating minority groups and dying empires.  Then near the end you bring up unstable birth rates.  That will be my first and most important bead.

Every healthy adult has the ability to contribute to society.  A baby also has an impact.  First the baby requires full time attention twenty four-seven and must be fed more than enough to survive but enough to grow and develop.  Later the child will require also much instruction to prepare it for the world.  Second, the fact of a baby has an impact on those outside the family; people may respect the parents more or may be more suspicious, but their attitude toward the parents will be affected.  Third the parents will be motivated to get rid of dangerous things in the environment and to think farther ahead than their own lives; the world must be prepared for the baby.  And fourth of course barring tragedy the average child will grow into an average adult making an average contribution.  So you might well count the social impact of a baby as greater than that of an adult.  An unstable birth rate should be expected to result in an unstable society.  This is something that can be investigated statistically.

The second bead is like the first.  An unstable birth rate will cause an unstable economy.  This again is subject to test.

So we are down to three causes of war.

Next, consider where babies come from.  You mention that there is a surprisingly narrow range of kinship between parents that will result in normal fertility (enough children to replace the parents).  Here is a graph from a study done in Iceland.

An Association Between Kinship And Fertility of Human Couples.  Agnar Helgason, Snaebjoern Palsson, Daniel F. Guobjartsson, Pordur Kristjansson and Kari Stefensson, SCIENCE vol 329 8 February 2008 page 813 figure 3 C. 

The range is between second cousin once removed out to fifth cousin or so.  This is the range you call “optimal outbreeding.”  Of course you could just as well call it “optimal inbreeding.”  I shall call it “optimal breeding.”  But this study was published in 2008, and you refer to it in a book published in 2006.  So I very much want to know how you knew.  I was telling this to anyone who I thought might listen at least as far back as 2001, but I have been convinced nobody listened. 

There are three biologically significant degrees of kinship between a couple.  The inbreeders are on the left.  There are some things to mention about them, but let us just say they are rare, relatively infertile and not the current interest.  Then there are the optimal breeders, who in the long run are the source of subsequent generations.  Then there are the outbreeders, who are also in the process of dying out.  Two lines: three groups.  Well enough.  But there is a third line.  That is the line of ethnicity, religion, race, what have you.  This line has no biological significance.  As you say, race is not real. 
These things frequently are visible, but glance back at the graph.  By the time you have gone past 8th cousin the line is essentially horizontal.  Fertility is pathologically depressed but about the same whether you marry a tenth cousin or somebody from the far side of the earth.  The notion that mixing races depresses fertility is just racist propaganda. 

You might think that birth rate is primarily a matter of choice.  And it is.  But the choice is the one you make when you marry.  After that there is very good evidence that fertility has been determined.  This may be hard to see, because as you can see again from the graph, outbreeding infertility reaches across generations. 

So now consider four segments of a population.  There are the optimal breeders of whom some are tolerant and some are intolerant.  They are the future.  Then there are the outbreeders, some of whom marry within the perceived but unreal ethnic line and some of whom marry outside.  They will in the long run make a negligible contribution.

Now you go into a stable population and introduce change.  There are economic advantages to moving to a different place.  It is socially praiseworthy to marry across ethnic lines.  It is taboo to engage in inbreeding or anything close.  You can marry a stranger and escape annoying relatives.  Any of these things will tend to promote integration of the society into a homogenous ethnic mix.

But in the long run the only ones that matter are those who are potentially optimal breeders.  Any of the pressures for outbreeding will be resisted more by the intolerant optimal breeders than by the tolerant optimal breeders.  And every time you coax or cajole a potential optimal breeder into outbreeding, you have removed babies who would have grown up into tolerant adults.  This is not good.

There is a book GOING TO EXTREMES that makes a great deal of the fact that studies have been done in which groups of like minded people, say all Democrats, were tested for their opinion on some issue.  Then they were put together to discuss the issue.  Then they were tested again.  Exposure to people who were like minded – against a background of having frequently encountered people who disagreed – radicalized them.  So the later generation consists disproportionately of intolerant optimal breeders.  They begin to pass laws to discourage cross breeding – the only visible line.  This begins the debate.  Trouble.  Now you have a community of radical intolerants. 

So mating strategy, and in particular high rates of outbreeding, is expected to lead to unstable birth rates, an unstable economy and an intolerant population.  Three of your causes of horror are the same cause.

You said in the introduction that there is no mathematical way to predict the fall of empires.  I beg to differ.  I even suspect you have a hunch it is not true, because you must have looked at a lot of empires before you came up with the Safavid empire as a long-lived one.  You also concocted an enduring empire by hooking two Chinese dynasties together.  As for the Holy Roman Empire, alas I have not made much of a study of it. 

But here is a graph I made of Mesopotamia.  The horizontal axis is the age of the empires.  The vertical axis is the chance empires of that age have of making it through the next fifty years.  Since we are talking demographics, I broke the Ottoman Empire into two regimes.  In the first the Janissaries were slaves picked out of the European part of the empire.  In the second the Janissaries were a hereditary class.  They ran out of suitable slaves.  Making this single change, here is what I get:

The source is not the most prestigious, but I am loath to change it because that would amount to shopping for supportive data.

You see why I must make a reservation when you write that the fall of empires does not follow a mathematical formula.  Here it certainly seems to.  Now there have been empires in other places, but where the numbers are sufficient, (and by empires I mean something a little different than you of course) that tendency to crash at three centuries persists.  It has to be genetic, since it appears all over the world.  And it has to be due to mating strategy, since that is the only genetic thing that could make this happen: the elite engage in outbreeding, their offspring are not numerous enough to do the work of maintaining the system, and the whole things collapses

There may be something to be said for globalization, but it certainly carries the seeds of its own terrible destruction, since by its very nature it encourages the outbreeding of the most productive and tolerant members of all societies. 

So that is the fourth bead.  It is always the same cause.  It’s mating strategy.  I have been trying to get the word out on this for years, but without success.  So I be you to get in touch with me and let us put our heads together.  Proof and references are on the enclosed 10 minute DVD, and I shall post this on my website so you will always know where to find it. 

It does baffle me as to why I receive no help, hardly even any feedback.  You describe in your book scene after scene in which onlookers fail to intervene in an atrocity.  But, as they say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. 

If I run across a man brutalizing a woman I might say, “It’s none of my business.”  I might say, “If I object, he might kill me.”  I might say, “Duh …,” and not be able to gather my wits soon enough to act.  But I have presented this to a number of intellectuals, and it certainly is the business of anybody who accepts pay for being wise and knowledgeable.  One can respond in perfect safety; I am hardly going to hunt anybody down with a weapon no matter what they might say.  They might be afraid of being held up to public scorn, since this issue is unknown to the public; if so I swear with every fiber of my honor that I will do nothing that appears to reflect badly on you (unless posting this letter counts and you don’t answer) and will keep secret anything you care to say that is to the point and that you ask me to guard.  You may well smile for it is an empty promise.  It is not a false promise.  I truly mean it.  But if I could embarrass you, if I had that kind of access to lines of communication, then I wouldn’t have to beg for help, would I?

As for time?  As I said, I have been goading people for years.

I continue howling and yowling by bringing up the issue of terminology.  You were good enough to address it explicitly.  A word is a good thing to know.  Roughly speaking, a person’s income is usually about the size of his vocabulary in dollars.  If you only know 20,000 words, you probably are not doing very high paying work.  If you know 100,000 you are probably able to find a good paying job.  Of course you may elect to do something other than maximize your income.  Even now a person with your ability at analysis and statistics could probably make more as a business consultant than as an academic, but that just proves the point.  A big vocabulary is actually worth more than its cash value. 

If you can borrow money without security and after all fees and taxes for 10% you have a pretty sweet deal.  So the word is worth $10 to you.  That is if the word represents a new concept, like the fletching on an arrow or the DVD in your hand.  But if there is no new concept, the new word is worthless.  They are now trying to change the name starfish to “sea star” because it isn’t a fish.  Well it is a lot closer to being a fish than it is to being a star.  If they succeed, “starfish” will be worthless, and I shall have lost $10. So will some half billion or more other English speakers.  I say whoever wants to make such a change need to fish 5 billion dollars out and hand it around for the inconvenience to the rest of us.  Even then, the change serves to cut us off from out literary past. 

A case in point is Rh incompatibility.  I am sure as an educated man you are aware the Rh factor, named after the rhesus monkey in which it was first found, is a site on a red blood cell that can initiate an allergic response.  Some people have it and some don’t.  Of those of European ancestry in America, more than half have either one or two Rh negative genes.  If they have two of them, they do not make the antigen at all.  If a woman who is Rh negative has a child by an Rh positive man, when the child is born, some of its blood finds its way into the mother’s circulation and makes her allergic.  (If she has the antigen herself, her system is tolerant of it.)  The next baby will probably be attacked by the mother’s immune system and be brain damaged or die.  The law used to require blood tests before marriage to try to avoid this sort of thing.  Modern medical treatment can usually prevent death or clinical brain damage, but I have it informally that even now the Rh positive child of an Rh negative woman has double the chance of being schizophrenic.  No matter whether that is true or not, babies are still dying in the US right now because the treatment is not perfect. 

Now, my understanding is that they are changing the name from Rh to D.  No reason.  It’s still the same antigen with the same implications.  So when you say that if a Chinese woman marries an American man she will probably have only 1 viable fetus, it sounds like Rh incompatibility.  Only it’s the other way around.  Almost everybody in China is Rh positive.  It’s when a Chinese man marries a European woman that there may be a problem.  Of course there may also be a problem if an American man marries an American woman.  Although most people carry at least one Rh negative gene, there are actually more Rh positive genes around and thus a lot more Rh positive people. 

So I fear that the name change blindsided you.  If I am wrong, please let me know.  It would be very interesting, and as I said you know very much including things that I can’t imagine how you know them. 

Let me say that I am no expert on this.  I can only give you the perspective of a broken down old doctor.

Another place where it looks like you have been blindsided has to do with hemophilia.  There is a protein made by a gene on the X chromosome called factor VIII.  It is one of a number of proteins in the clotting system.  If you have no factor VIII, it is going to take a long time for bleeding to stop.  You might be lucky enough to have a helpful monk who will put his finger on the bleeding point for a long while.  Monks know a lot of prayers they can recite to themselves to pass the time.  Human males have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome.  Human females have two X’s.  So if there are X chromosomes that lack the factor VIII gene, there are going to be some boys with bleeding problems.  This happened to the European royal families.  Women very seldom get the disease because in order to have to copies of the defective gene, they would need to get one from the mother – no problem – and one from the father.  But the father would have to be a hemophiliac.  Until modern times, very few boys who were bleeders grew up. 

So factor VIII deficiency is exceedingly rare in women.  I have never even heard of a case.  But you can imagine it would be more likely under conditions of inbreeding.  But in boys it has nothing to do with inbreeding at all.  If the gene were scattered all over the population rather than being concentrated in one family it would kill exactly the same number of boys.  Hurting girls is only a remote theoretical possibility.  Of course spreading the problem around so that it is invisible, like spreading the cost of a word change, makes it easy to ignore.  And people by an large do.

So the next time you hear, “Ooo, royal family, inbreeding, sick, hemophilia, disgusting,” don’t buy it.  For practical purposes it has nothing to do with inbreeding at all.  That sentiment is just part of the social force that tends to drive potential tolerant optimal breeders into infertile outbreeding. 

As I said, just an old doctor here.

End of rant.  Please take a look at the DVD.  It takes no special training to understand it.  And take a look at history again.  See whether I tell the truth.  Of course as I said, breeding across ethnic lines does not harm, but it may be a surrogate for outbreeding in general.  If so, and there is a definite if there, then it might be possible to match up outbreeding with fertility decline with prejudice, with economic instability, with the fall of empires and with the most hideous violence.

It’s an easy fix if one could only get the word out.  Get in touch with me and let me know if you are willing to help and maybe we can figure out what to do next to make this century nicer than the last.


M. Linton Herbert MD
Open letter on

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