May 13, 2006

Great article: The genetics of nepotism and neposchism in Shakespeare's history plays

William D. Hamilton's kin selection calculus strikes again!

Study: Royal Executions Followed Pattern

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

A study of British royal executions has determined that the killings followed consistent patterns that correspond to Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory.

The study helps to explain why so many British royals killed family members, particularly over a 200-year period called The Cousins' Wars that spanned the 14th to the 16th centuries.

It also suggests that human behavior, even family murders, can be consistent with patterns of survival under circumstances in which resources are scarce, yet highly valued, life-supporting and gained only through inheritance.

According to the researchers, such conditions existed after Edward III's death in 1377. The king and his wife produced five sons and three daughters who survived to adulthood and who all had their eyes on the crown.

Richard II, Edward's successor and eldest son, proved to be a weak, despised leader. Richard's cousin, Henry IV, executed the king and began the apparently Darwinian Cousins' Wars.

"Darwin's major contribution to science was selection -- natural and sexual, which depend upon competition between individuals and their choices," explained Kathleen Heath, who worked on the study, which has been selected for publication in The History of the Family journal.

Heath, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana State University, added, "Those who adapt best -- better than his/her competitor -- in a particular environment are favored by natural selection, that is, live longer and have a better chance of passing on their genes to the next generation."

Heath and her colleagues determined that the murdering royals never sacrificed lineal relatives. Of the 47 killed, only five were not cousins. These included one brother, two uncles and two nephews.

The researchers assigned genetic relatedness values to each individual, so that a parent, for example, is 50 percent, or .5, related to a child, while a full first cousin is .125.

Using these values, the scientists found that executioners never killed in excess of their own nuclear relatedness, meaning the total value assigned to the individual and his or her children.

If they had killed in excess of this amount, it "would have been the equivalent of evolutionary suicide," according to the researchers, since the killers would have been eliminating, instead of furthering, their genetic family line.

Finally, the study found that the longer an individual lived and served as monarch, the more people he or she killed. Elizabeth I, whose long, stable reign ended the Cousins' Wars, wound up killing five cousins, all of which were perceived threats to her life and throne.

"Some royals killed as a simple insurance policy -- the poster boy for this is Henry VIII, who would not allow anyone to come close to his son's claim to the throne," Heath told Discovery News. "As a mother is violent when her children are in danger, there is an inherent drive to protect one's offspring/lineage by whatever means -- love or murder."

She said non-royal wealthy families had to devise other means for reducing inter-family competition for resources. These tactics included sending relatives off to military service, on quests, to the priesthood or to a nunnery.

David Zeanah, graduate coordinator of archaeology at California State University, Sacramento, and graduate student Henry Lyle told Discovery News that the researchers were "ingenious" in "finding a source of data where the consequences of human behaviors for reproductive success can be evaluated."

Zeanah and Lyle added, "This not only offers tremendous potential benefits for Darwinian approaches to studying human behavior, but promises new insights into the ultimate, Darwinian causes of historical events that have previously been understood in terms of proximate causation alone."

Not surprisingly, Dr. Heath got her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the U. of Utah, the department that is home to Henry Harpending and many other independent minds.

By the way, awhile ago I asked readers to coin a term for exactly this flip side of nepotism, this tendency to struggle most with one's own kin for resources, what I'd been calling "sibling rivalry writ large." Ideally, the terms would form a handy pair like Galton's "nature and nurture."

I particularly liked one suggestion: nepotism vs. "neposchism".

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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