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OPINION

Slavery runs in their blood? Why Russia's cultural code transcends any genetic explanation

Vladimir Putin's disastrous full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a remarkably competent wave of repression at home, leading to renewed talk of Russians’ supposed “genetic predilection for slavery.” Ostensibly, centuries of oppression, dictatorship, and state terror could not but affect the Russian people's “DNA” — a fact, some argue, that is clearly demonstrated by the absence of any mass protest movement against the war inside Russia itself. Biologist Alexander Markov, however, has an answer for those arguing in favor of the popular theory that genetics — or “cultural heritability” — can explain why Russia today remains so persistently authoritarian.

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The very question as to the mythical or “real” foundations of Russians’ supposed “genetic slavery” is unquestionably politically incorrect. Many will call it racist, and for good reason: the idea that socially meaningful differences between peoples — such as their intelligence, levels of aggression, penchant for hard work, or love for democracy — are determined by genetic traits, is baldly racist. The broad modern-day consensus, shared in particular by the educated general public of Western countries (at least in public discourse), is that such differences do not exist and could not exist in principle. Such is the generally acceptable social norm, the product of a cultural revolution rooted in the long and tumultuous history of fighting for social justice and equality for all.

However, as important as this tenet might be at our present stage of societal development, it contains no scientific proof that genetic differences between ethnic groups do not actually exist. Indeed, many societies and individuals continue to indulge in racist heresy, whether publicly or in private.

But even weak arguments are usually based on at least some facts. It is true that the Russian state yet again failed to build a Western-style democracy, and it is also true that the bloody consequences of this spectacular failure have shaken the entire world. As a result, many have come to wonder, eagerly or reluctantly, whether the Russian people really might be a few cards short when it comes to the genetic deck.

Genetics is a science — a natural science. It deals with facts and experiments. At least in theory, it should have nothing to do with ideological bias or political correctness. And since we cannot simply ban racist thoughts, we should at the very least be willing to offer a scientific clarification for those political activists who have only a vague understanding of genetics.

Since we cannot simply ban racist thoughts, we should at the very least be willing to offer a scientific clarification

To begin with, the very idea of a hypothetical genetic explanation for behavioral trends in human populations, in particular genetic explanations purporting to explain social differences between them, does not contradict science. The genetics of human behavior, of psychology, and of cognitive abilities is a well-developed branch possessing powerful, modern research methods and ample, interesting, meaningful data. It continues to develop despite the growing resistance from certain political forces. Traditionally, cognitive and psychological genetics have been actively disliked by leftists — and in Russia itself, this dislike goes back to Stalin’s rule.

And there really is sufficient scientific evidence demonstrating that genes can indeed influence many characteristics we find important: from social skills, conformity, and open-mindedness, to graduation grades, education level, and even personal income. Still, we should clarify this statement in order to avoid any possible misinterpretation.

Genes may affect your ability to trust people, and also your income level

First, the vast majority of studies examine intra-population — not inter-population variability. That is, they are focused on differences between individuals within a population, and not between those of different populations. Thus, we could take 10,000 representatives of the indigenous population of an ethnically homogeneous country — say, Iceland — and measure their phenotypic traits, such as height, years of education, or IQ score. We could then genotype them by determining the genetic variants (alleles) in polymorphic loci (that is, sections of the genome that are different in different people).

The next step would be to match their genotype to a phenotype. If we found that certain alleles are significantly more frequent in tall Icelanders than in short ones, we would thus identify “tallness genes.” Similarly, we could identify — as we have indeed — “IQ genes,” “education genes,” and so on. This approach is called genome-wide association study (GWAS).

However, the findings of a GWAS are only meaningful if the researchers meticulously observe a host of intricate methodological nuances. One of the paramount conditions is to use an extremely homogeneous sample and do everything humanely possible to account for external (non-genetic) factors that may have influenced the examined trait. For one, if your sample includes representatives of different nations — a motley crew of Icelanders, Chinese, and Pygmies — interpreting GWAS results will be problematic, to say the least. One of the reasons is that genetic influence on human traits is culturally determined: in two different cultural environments, one and the same variant may have a different impact on the trait in question. And that’s not to mention that culture has a profound influence on psychological characteristics, even regardless of the genes involved. A GWAS on a mixed sample will not help us understand why an average European is more individualistic than a native of South China: whether it’s because of the genes (which are different) or culture (which also bears little similarity) simply cannot be determined by such a study. And since the majority of studies are conducted on homogeneous samples, we now know a lot more about the influence of genes on the differences between individuals within a population than the differences between populations.

Another important caveat: the impact of genes on human psychology and cognitive features is never strictly deterministic. In most cases, it is probabilistic and limited. Environment in its broadest sense is no less — and is often far more — important. For human beings, the environment is determined by culture.

The impact of genes on human psychology and cognitive features is always probabilistic and limited

A measure of the degree to which genes influence a trait is called the heritability of the trait. There are quite a few methods for estimating heritability, varying both in their accuracy and in their applicability to specific situations. The heritability of traits ranges from 0% (meaning that all variability in a trait in a sample is explained by the environment and genes have nothing to do with it) to 100% (all variability is entirely due to genetic differences between individuals in the sample). In practice, such extremes are very rare. For the most interesting and important psychological traits in properly conducted studies, the heritability appears to be somewhere between 5-10% and 50-60%. Moreover, the heritability of a trait may vary across societies and even change with time in the same society.

With these reservations in mind (and many other reservations left out), we can still at least say that genetics can explain an appreciable fraction of the individual variability in important psychological traits in all human populations studied. Consequently, such traits have the capacity for “Darwin-style” evolution and are bound to develop on the condition of appropriate selection. For example, if extraversion as a trait has a heritability more than zero and if extraverts have on average more children surviving to reproductive age than introverts, then over time the share of extraverts in the population and the frequency of occurrence of “extraversion genes” will increase. This sampling case should be taken with a million reservations, but it at least illustrates the principle.

Nevertheless, human selection by a variety of important personality traits would be efficient — if it were indeed taking place. Therefore, the hypothesis about Russians’ supposed genetic authoritarian bent cannot be discarded as inherently false or antiscientific. Naturally, no one has seriously studied the genetics of “predilection for slavery” in Russians or other populations. But still, drawing parallels with studied traits that are more or less similar in meaning — such as “conformity,” or willingness to give up one's objectively correct opinion in favor of an erroneous majority — we can suggest that no matter how we define “predilection for slavery” and which measurable psychological components we include in it, this complex characteristic will almost certainly have a non-zero heritability.

However we define “predilection for slavery,” it will almost certainly have non-zero heritability

For example, a credible Chinese study places the heritability of conformity at an amazing 37%. The researchers even identified several specific alleles associated with conformity in the Chinese (data on other populations are still insufficient), including a variant of the NAV3 gene, which affects the growth of axons (long branches of nerve cells). That is, conformity is a partly hereditary trait and can therefore evolve under the influence of selection.

As a result, we have grounds to assume that a population that has undergone centuries of intensive selection for “predilection for slavery” can theoretically differ significantly, both phenotypically and genetically, from other populations that have avoided this fate. In simple terms, a people could possibly be more inclined to tolerate slavery than other peoples, and this difference could be partly explained by genes.

Except that we have no grounds to apply this assumption to the “Russian people” (however we define it) without applying it to Ukrainians or Poles. I may be mistaken, but I believe the idea of Russian “genetic slavery” essentially implies that Ukrainians and Poles have fundamentally different backgrounds — otherwise its appeal would be completely lost.

The idea of Russians’ “genetic slavery” essentially implies that Ukrainians and Poles have fundamentally different backgrounds

We can speculate all we want that Russians have been subjected to selection for servility for centuries, but we have no real data to validate this assumption. On average, victims of repression and forced migration in different historical epochs may have had a lower predilection for slavery than those who survived and stayed behind. But we cannot say that for sure. They may have had a lower average frequency of occurrence of hypothetical alleles that increase the likelihood of the trait “propensity to slavery” in the phenotype. But since we cannot measure it, we can neither claim that the selection by trait was indeed taking place nor assess its intensity and effectiveness. Admittedly, it would be fascinating to genotype 10,000 emigrants and the same number of those who stayed and compare allele frequencies. The results may show no selection at all — or selection for other traits, such as open-mindedness and adventurousness, traits that have been verified as inheritable by geneticists.

And yet the main argument against the idea of Russian “genetic slavery” is that Russians have very few genetic differences with other Eastern European peoples, including Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Czechs, and Poles — all of whom have developed along a democratic path in recent decades. Even from Germans, who live a little farther away, Russians differ in genes so slightly that, if we were to examine them as wild animals with no cultural differences, biologists would not think of them as different populations. The detectable genetic differences between European peoples mainly concern the frequencies of alleles associated with such “boring” features as the immune system and skin pigmentation, which evolve most rapidly with migration. There is not a single allele that is present in all or almost all Russians but absent in all or almost all Poles or Estonians.

Genetically, Russians differ very little from other Eastern European peoples

If Russians differed drastically from other Eastern Europeans in the frequency of some alleles that significantly affect behavior, personality traits, or cognitive abilities, scientists would have noticed it ten or even twenty years ago. Today we can say that such distinctions almost certainly do not exist.

But does this mean that the Russian nation can breathe a sigh of relief: they do not possess the “slavery gene,” signaling that their bright democratic future is not far off? I'm afraid there is no basis for that conclusion either.

In addition to genetic heredity, humans have cultural heredity, which in many ways is even more powerful and important. What many people sadly fail to realize is that, from a practical perspective, it does not matter whether the propensity for dictatorship (slavery, aggression, alcohol abuse, and so on) is spelled out in people's genes or in their culture.

A common misconception equates genes with fate, denying all possibility for change. Meanwhile, culture is often perceived as superficial and easy to correct. However, when it comes to complex psychological traits, the situation is rather the opposite. As we noted above, the influence of genes on human psychology is generally weak, probabilistic, completely non-deterministic, and also culturally dependent. Meanwhile, cultural traditions, including those existing only in the collective subconscious, can be powerful and persistent. They can influence specific patterns of thinking, worldview, and behavior.

It doesn't matter if the propensity for dictatorship (slavery, aggression, alcohol abuse) is spelled out in people's genes or their culture

For example, the current homicide rate in the American South correlates with the proportion of immigrants of Scottish descent in a given county according to the 1790 census. This correlation is attributed to the so-called “honor culture” characteristic of many traditional clan societies, including that of old Scotland. Early immigrants brought it to America, and the unpleasant repercussions are felt to this day. Meanwhile, Scotland itself has undergone three centuries of cultural evolution, which yielded positive results away from this tendency.

Studies have also shown that children of immigrants from poor countries, born and raised in rich Western countries, retain several psychological traits characteristic of their parents’ societies of origin. There is evidence to show that some psychological traits in modern Europeans correlate with the number of years a given area of Europe was controlled by the Roman Catholic Church in the period from 500 AD to 1500 AD. Overall, the available evidence (albeit still sparse and incomplete) suggests that cultural heredity is likely to be a factor strongly influencing the historical fates of societies.

Cultural heredity is a major factor strongly influencing the historical fates of societies

Can we assume that the Russian people (or that extremely heterogeneous aggregate which is the multinational population of Russia) have a propensity to slavery and dictatorship encoded in their culture, if not in their genes? It is a possible assumption, especially since there is no reason to reject this hypothesis out of hand (mind you, we are only talking about scientific reasons). However, there are no convincing facts or figures to back it.

Natural scientific approaches to cultural evolution studies are just beginning to develop. Presently, we still do not know for sure what cultural and psychological features of society are key to the successful assimilation of the much-fabled “democratic institutions,” which spread across notable swathes of the globe following their emergence in the West.

There are fascinating and plausible hypotheses as to why these institutions originated in Western countries (for interested readers, I warmly recommend anthropologist Joseph Henrich's “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous”). However, as beautiful as these hypotheses may be, they are just that — hypotheses. We also have little idea about what it takes for a non-Western society to successfully adopt these institutions while ensuring that society does not slip back into its habitual undemocratic ways of dictators, clans, corruption, biased courts, and a censored press.

There are plausible hypotheses explaining why democratic institutions originated specifically in the West

Similarly to genetic results, psychological studies show that Russians, especially those living in the European part of the country, hardly differ from other Eastern Europeans when it comes to traits that could be relevant to the matter at hand — individualism, the strength of kinship ties, trust in state institutions, the propensity to cooperate with strangers, and so on. Because if we believe, for example, that Finns and Poles have done a better job with democratic development than Russians, the available cross-cultural psychological studies do not yet give us a clear answer to the “Why?” Perhaps more objective and reliable data is needed. However, it is extremely challenging to collect such data in authoritarian countries without freedom of speech, with a powerful repressive apparatus, and at war with the neighbor it refuses to cease from attacking.

In short, we can safely say that Russians do not bear any sort of “slavery gene.” However, it is too early to breathe a sigh of relief, as“slave culture” — a hypothetical set of psychological adjustments to slavery passed down through cultural inheritance — is no better than “slave genes.” Nevertheless, we do not know (in terms of scientific knowledge) whether certain features of perception and thinking, social norms, habits, and stereotypes that incline a society to reject Western democratic institutions and values, are indeed rooted in Russian culture.

We can safely say that Russians have no “slavery gene” — but “slave culture” is no better than “slave genes”

If I were a somewhat less responsible interlocutor, I might cautiously suggest that Eastern Europe features a gradient of such “authoritarian-friendly” traits, one that builds up gradually as we move from Warsaw towards Moscow, maybe with a small but notable step up roughly where the Russian-Lithuanian border passed half a millennium ago. But since this would be ungrounded speculation, I will assume nothing of the sort. After all, genes and cultural codes only get you so far. Let us rather believe in the ideas so popular in Western culture (and, incidentally, alien to many other cultures): that people are masters of their own destiny, and that the future is not set in stone.

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