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Do Genes and Polymorphisms Explain the Differences between Eastern and Western Societies?

2150 words

In 2012, biologist Hippokratis Kiaris published a book titled Genes, Polymorphisms, and the Making of Societies: How Genetic Behavioral Traits Influence Human Cultures. His main point is that “the presence of different genes in the corresponding people has actually dictated the acquisition of these distinct cultural and historical lines, and that an alternative outcome might be unlikely” (Kiaris, 2012: 9). This is a book that I have not seen discussed in any HBD blog, and based on the premise of the book (how it purports to explain behavioral/societal outcomes between Eastern and Western society) you would think it would be. The book is short, and he speaks with a lot of determinist language. (It’s worth noting he does not discuss IQ at all.)

In the book, he discusses how genes “affect” and “dictate” behavior which then affects “collective decisions and actions” while also stating that it is “conceivable” that history, and what affects human decision-making and reactions, are also “affected by the genetic identity of the people involved” (Kiaris, 2012: 11). Kiaris argues that genetic differences between Easterners and Westerners are driven by “specific environmental conditions that apparently drove the selection of specific alleles in certain populations, which in turn developed particular cultural attitudes and norms” (Kiaris, 2012: 91).

Kiaris attempts to explain the societal differences between the peoples who adopted Platonic thought and those who adopted Confucian thought. He argues that differences between Eastern and Western societies “are not random and stochastic” but are “dictated—or if this is too strong an argument, they are influenced considerably—by the genes that these people carry.” So, Kiaris says, “what we view as a choice is rather the complex and collective outcome of the influence of people’s specific genes combined with the effects of their specific environment … [which] makes the probability for rendering a certain choice distinct between different populations” (Kiaris, 2012: 50).

The first thing that Kiaris discusses (behavior wise) is DRD4. This allele has been associated with miles migrated from Africa (with a correlation of .85) along with novelty-seeking and hyperactivity (which may cause the association found with DRD4 frequency and miles migrated from Africa (Chen et al, 1999). Kiaris notes, of course, that the DRD4 alleles are unevenly distributed across the globe, with people who have migrated further from Africa having a higher frequency of these alleles. Europeans were more likely to have the “novelty-seeking” DRD7 compared to Asian populations (Chang et al, 1996). But, Kiaris (2012: 68) wisely writes (emphasis mine):

Whether these differences [in DRD alleles] represent the collective and cumulative result of selective pressure or they are due to founder effects related to the genetic composition of the early populations that inhabited the corresponding areas remains elusive and is actually impossible to prove or disprove with certainty.

Kiaris then discusses differences between Eastern and Western societies and how we might understand these differences between societies as regards novelty-seeking and the DRD4-7 distribution across the globe. Westerners are more individualistic and this concept of individuality is actually a cornerstone of Western civilization. The “increased excitability and attraction to extravagance” of Westerners, according to Kiaris, is linked to this novelty-seeking behavior which is also related to individualism “and the tendency to constantly seek for means to obtain satisfaction” (Kiaris, 2012: 68). We know that Westerners do not shy away from exploration; after all, the West discovered the East and not vice versa.

Easterners, on the other hand, are more passive and have “an attitude that reflects a certain degree of stoicism and makes life within larger—and likely collectivistic—groups of people more convenient“. Easterners, compared to Westerners, take things “the way they are” which “probably reflects their belief that there is not much one can or should do to change them. This is probably the reason that these people appear rigid against life and loyal, a fact that is also reflected historically in their relatively high political stability” (Kiaris, 2012: 68-69).

Kiaris describes DRD4 as a “prototype Westerner’s gene” (pg 83), stating that the 7R allele of this gene is found more frequently in Europeans compares to Asians. The gene has been associated with increased novelty-seeking, exploratory activity and human migrations, along with liberal ideology. These, of course, are cornerstones of Western civilization and thought, and so, Kiaris argues that the higher frequency of this allele in Europeans—in part—explains certain societal differences between the East and West. Kiaris (2012: 83) then makes a bold claim:

All these features [novelty-seeking, exploratory activity and migration] indeed tend to characterize Westerners and the culutral norms they developed, posing the intriguing possibility that DRD4 can actually represent a single gene that can “predispose” for what we understand as the stereotypic Western-type behavior. Thus, we could imagine that an individual beating the 7-repeat allele functions more efficiently in Western society while the one without this allele would probably be better suited to a society with Eastern-like structure. Alternatively, we could propose that a society with more individuals bearing the 7-repeat allele is more likely to have followed historical lines and choices more typical of a Western society, while a population with a lower number (or deficient as it is the actual case with Easterners) of individuals with the 7-repeat allele would more likely attend to the collective historical outcome of Eaasterners.

Kiaris (2012: 84) is, importantly, skeptical that having a high number of “novelty-seekers” and “explorers” would lead to higher scientific achievement. This is because “attempts to extrapolate from individual characteristics to those of a group of people and societies possess certain dangers and conceptual limitations.

Kiaris (2012: 86) says that “collectivistic behavior … is related to the activity of serotonin.” He then goes on to cite a few instances of other polymorphisms which are associated with collective behavior as well. Goldman et al (2010) show ethnic differences in the and alleles (from Kiaris, 2012: 86):


It should also be noted that populations (Easterners) that had a higher frequency of the allele had a lower prevalence of depression than Westerners. So Western societies are more likely to “suffer more frequently from various manifestations of depression and general mood disorders than those of Eastern cultures (Chiao & Blizinsky, 2010)” (Kiaris, 2012: 89).

As can be seen from the table above, Westerners are more likely to have the allele than Easterners, which should subsequently predict higher levels of happiness in Western compared to Eastern populations. However, “happiness” is, in many ways, subjective; so how would one find an objective way to measure “happiness” cross-culturally? However, Kiaris (2012: 94) writes: “Intuitively speaking, though, I have to admit that I would rather expect Asians to be happier, in general, than Westerners. I cannot support this by specific arguments, but I think the reason for that is related to the individualistic approach of life that the people possess in Western societies: By operating under individualistic norms, it is unavoidably stressful, a condition that operates at the expense of the perception of individuals’ happiness.”

Kiaris discusses catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), which is an enzyme responsible for the inactivation of catecholamines. Catecholamines are the hormones dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones regulate the “fight or flight” function (Goldstein, 2011). So since catecholamines play a regulatory role in the “fight or flight” mechanism, increased COMT activity results in lower dopamine levels, which is then associated with better performance.

“Warriors” and “worriers” are intrinsically linked to the “fight or flight” mechanism. A “warrior” is someone who performs better under stress, achieves maximal performance despite threat and pain, and is more likely to act efficiently in a threatening environment. A “worrier” is “someone that has an advantage in memory and attention tasks, is more exploratory and efficient in complex environments, but who exhibits worse performance under stressful conditions (Stein et al., 2006)” (Kiaris, 2012: 102).

Kiaris (2012: 107) states that “at the level of society, it can be argued that the specific Met-bearing COMT allele contributes to the buildup of Western individualism. Opposed to this, Easterners’ increased frequency of the Val-bearing “altruistic” allele fits quite well with the construction of a collectivistic society: You have to be an altruist at some degree in order to understand the benefits of collectivism. By being a pure individualist, you only understand “good” as defined and reflected by your sole existence.

So, Kiaris’ whole point is thus: there are differences in polymorphic genes between Easterners and Westerners (and are unevenly distributed) and that differences in these polymorphisms (DRD4, HTT, MAOA, and COMT) explain behavioral differences between behaviors in Eastern and Western societies. So the genetic polymorphisms associated with “Western behavior” (DRD4) are associated with increased novelty-seeking, tendency for financial risk-taking, distance of OoA migration, and liberal ideology. Numerous different MAOA and 5-HTT polymorphisms are associated with collectivism (e.g., Way and Lieberman, 2006 for MAOA and collectivism). The polymorphism in COMT more likely to be found in Westerners predisposes for “worrier’s behavior”. Furthermore, certain polymorphisms of the CHRNB3 gene are more common in all of the populations that migrated out of Africa, which predisposed for leaders—and not follower—behavior.

Trait Gene Allele frequency
Novelty seeking DRD4 7-repeat novelty seeking allele more common in the West
Migration DRD4 7-repeat allele is associated with distance from Africa migration
Nomads/settlers DRD4 7-repeat allele is associated with nomadic life
Political ideology DRD4 7-repeat allele is more common in liberals
Financial risk taking DRD4 7-repeat allele is more common in risk takers
Individualism/Collectivism HTT s allele (collectivistic) of 5-HTT is more common in the East
Happiness HTT l allele has higher prevalence in individuals happy with their life
Individualism/Collectivism MAOA 3-repeat allele (collectivistic) more common in the East)
Warrior/Worrier COMT A-allele (worrier) more common in the West
Altruism COMT G-allele (warrior) associated with altruism
Leader/Follower CHRBN3 A-allele (leader) more common in populations Out-of-Africa

The table above is from Kiaris (2012: 117) who lays out the genes/polymorphisms discussed in his book—what supposedly shows how and why Eastern and Western societies are so different.

Kiaris (2012: 141) then makes a bold claim: “Since we know now that at least a fraction (and likely more than that) of our behavior is due to our genes“, actually “we” don’t “know” this “now”.

The takeaways from the book are: (1) populations differ genetically; (2) since populations differ genetically, then genetic differences correlated with behavior should show frequency differences between populations; (3) since these populations show both behavioral/societal differences and they also differ in genetic polymorphisms which are then associated with that behavior, then those polymorphisms are, in part, a cause of that society and the behavior found in it; (4) therefore, differences in Eastern and Western societies are explained by (some) of these polymorphisms discussed.

Now for a simple rebuttal of the book:

“B iff G” (behavior B is possible if and only if a specific genotype G is instantiated) or “if G, then necessarily B” (genotype G is a sufficient cause for behavior B). Both claims are false; genes are neither a sufficient or necessary cause for any behavior. Genes are, of course, a necessary pre-condition for behavior, but they are not needed for a specific behavior to be instantiated; genes can be said to be difference makers (Sterelny and Kitcher, 1988) (but see Godfrey-Smith and Lewontin, 1993 for a response). These claims cannot be substantiated; therefore, the claims that “if G, then necessarily B” and “B iff G” are false, it cannot be shown that genes are difference makers in regard to behavior, nor can it be shown that particular genes or whatnot.


I’m surprised that I have not come across a book like this sooner; you would expect that there would be a lot more written on this. This book is short, it discusses some good resources, but the conclusions that Kiaris draws, in my opinion, will not come to pass because genes are not neccesary nor sufficient cause of any type of behavior, nor can it be shown that genes are causes of any behavior B. Behavioral differences between Eastern and Western societies, logically, cannot come down to differences in genes, since they are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of behavior (genes are neccessary pre-conditions for behavior, since without genes there is no organism, but genes cannot explain behavior).

Kiaris attempts to show how and why Eastern and Western societies became so different, how and why Western societies are dominated by “Aristotle’s reason and logic”, while Eastern lines of thought “has been dominated by Confucious’s harmony, collectivism, and context dependency” (Kiaris, 2012: 9). While the book is well-written and researched (he talks about nothing new if you’re familiar with the literature), Kiaris fails to prove his ultimate point: that differences in genetic polymorphisms between individuals in different societies explain how and why the societies in question are so different. Though, it is not logically possible for genes to be a necessary nor sufficient cause for any behavior. Kiaris talks like a determinist, since he says that “the presence of different genes in the corresponding people has actually dictated the acquisition of these distinct cultural and historical lines, and that an alternative outcome might be unlikely” (Kiaris, 2012: 9), though that is just wishful thinking: if we were able to start history over again, things would occur differently, “the presence of different genes in the corresponding people” be dammed, since genes do not cause behavior.