Posted on June 4, 2014

Race of the Amish

Steve Sailer, Takimag, June 4, 2014

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.


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Like modern ultra-Orthodox Jews who dress in fashions hundreds of years out of date, the plain clothes of the Amish are perhaps more profitably interpreted less as exercises in religious fanaticism and more as the canny choices of clever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.)


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.


{snip} 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.