Anthropology Friday: Gypsies

Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans
Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans

It is easy to romanticize the Gypsies–quaint caravans, jaunty music, and the nomadic lifestyle of the open road all lend themselves to pleasant fantasies. The reality of Gypsy life is much sadder. They are plagued by poverty, illiteracy, violence, the diseases of high consanguinity, and the meddling of outsiders, some better intentioned than others.

I’m going to start off with something which, if true, is rather poetic.

The Gypsies refer to themselves as Rom (or Romani.) I prefer “Gypsy” because I am an American who speaks English and “Gypsy” is the most accepted, well-known ethnonym in American English, but I am also familiar with Rom.

Anyway, there are a couple of other nomadic groups which appear to be related to the Rom, called the Lom and Dom (their langauges, respectively, are Romani, Domari, and Lomavren.) Genetically, these three groups may be the results of different waves of migration from India, where they may have originated from the Domba (or Dom) people.

All four groups speak Indo-European languages. According to Wikipedia:

Its presumed root, ḍom, which is connected with drumming, is linked to damara and damaru, Sanskrit terms for “drum” and the Sanskrit verbal root डम् ḍam- ‘to sound (as a drum)’, perhaps a loan from Dravidian, e.g. Kannadaḍamāra ‘a pair of kettle-drums’, and Teluguṭamaṭama ‘a drum, tomtom‘.[2]

The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel
The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel

Given the Gypsies’ reputation for musical ability, there is something lovely and poetic about having a name that literally means “Drum.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the picture is not so cheerful.

Isabel Fonseca recounts in Bury me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey:

The new socialist government in postwar Poland aspired to build a nationally and ethnically homogenous state. Although the Gypsies accounted for about .005 percent of the population, “the Gypsy problem” was labeled an “important sate task,” and an Office of Gypsy Affairs was established under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs–that is, the police. It was in operation until 1989.

In 1952 a broad program to enforce the settlement of Gypsies also came into effect: it was known a the Great Halt … The plan belonged to the feverish fashion for “productivization” which, with its well-intentioned welfare provisions, in fact imposed a new culture of dependency on the Gypsies, who had always opposed it. Similar legislation would be adopted in Czechoslovakia (1958), in Bulgaria (1958), and in Romania (1962), as the vogue for forced assimilation gathered momentum. … by the late 1960s settlement was the goal everywhere. In England and Wales … the 1968 Caravan Sites Act aimed to settle Gypsies (partially by a technique of population control known as “designation” in which whole large areas of the country were declared off-limits to Travelers). …

But no one has ever thought to ask the Gypsies themselves. And accordingly all attempts at assimilation have failed. …

In a revised edition of his great book The Gypsies in Poland, published in 1984, Ficowski reviews the results of the Big Halt campaign. “Gypsies no longer lead a nomadic life, and the number of illiterates has considerably fallen.” But even these gains were limited because Gypsy girls marry at the age of twelve or thirteen, and because “in the very few cases where individuals are properly educated, they usually tend to leave the Gypsy community.” The results were disastrous: “Opposition to the traveling of the Gypsy craftsmen, who had taken their tinsmithing or blacksmithing into the uttermost corner of the country, began gradually to bring about the disappearance of … most of the traditional Gypsy skills.” And finally, “after the loss of opportunities to practice traditional professions, [for many Gypsies] the main source of livelihood became preying on the rest of society.” Now there really was something to be nostalgic about. Wisdom comes too late. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

That a crude demographic experiment ended in rootlessness and squalor is neither surprising nor disputed… “

Cabrini Green, circa 1960
Cabrini Green, circa 1960

Of course, Gypsy life was not so great before settlement, either. Concentrations of poverty in the middle of cities may be much easier to measure and deplore than half-invisible migrant people on the margins of society, but no one appreciates being rounded up and forced into ghettos.

I am reminded here of all of the similar American attempts, from Pruit Igoe to Cabrini Green. Perhaps people had good intentions upon building these places. New, clean, cheap housing. A community of people like oneself, in the heart of a thriving city.

And yet they’ve all failed pretty miserably.

On the other hand, the Guardian reports on  violence (particularly domestic) in Gypsy communities in Britain:

..a study in Wrexham, cited in a paper by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2007, found that 61% of married English Gypsy women and 81% of Irish Travellers had experienced domestic abuse.

The Irish Travellers are ethnically Irish, not Gypsy, but lead similarly nomadic lives.

“I left him and went back to my mammy but he kept finding me, taking me home and getting me pregnant,” Kathleen says. She now feels safe because she has male family members living on the same site. “With my brother close by, he wouldn’t dare come here.” …

But domestic violence is just one of the issues tackled by O’Roarke during her visits. The welfare needs, particularly those of the women and girls, of this community are vast. The women are three times more likely to miscarry or have a still-born child compared to the rest of the population, mainly, it is thought, as a result of reluctance to undergo routine gynaecological care, and infections linked to poor sanitation and lack of clean water. The rate of suicides among Traveller women is significantly higher than in the general population, and life expectancy is low for women and men, with one third of Travellers dying before the age of 59. And as many Traveller girls are taken out of education prior to secondary school to prevent them mixing with boys from other cultures, illiteracy rates are high. …

Things seem set to get worse for Traveller women. Only 19 days after the general election last year, £50m that had been allocated to building new sites across London was scrapped from the budget. O’Roarke is expecting to be the only Traveller liaison worker in the capital before long – her funding comes from the Irish government.

“Most of the women can’t read or write. Who is supposed to help them if they get rid of the bit of support they have now?” asks O’Roarke. “We will be seeing Traveller women and their children on the streets because of these cuts. If they get a letter saying they are in danger of eviction but they can’t read it, what are they supposed to do?”

August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children
August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children

Welfare state logic is painful. Obviously Britain is a modern, first-world country with a free education system in which any child, male or female, can learn to read (unless they are severely low-IQ.) If Gypsies and Travellers want to preserve their cultures with some modicum of dignity, then they must read, because literacy is necessary in the modern economy. Forced assimilation or not, no one really needs traditional peripatetic tin and blacksmiths anymore. Industrialization has eliminated such jobs.

Kathleen, after spending time in a refuge after finally managing to escape her husband, was initially allocated a house, as opposed to a plot on a [trailer] site. Almost immediately her children became depressed. “It’s like putting a horse in a box. He would buck to get out,” says Kathleen. “We can’t live in houses; we need freedom and fresh air. I was on anti-depressives. The children couldn’t go out because the neighbours would complain about the noise.”

Now this I am more sympathetic to. While I dislike traveling, largely because my kids always get carsick, I understand that plenty of people actually like being nomadic. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were genetically inclined to be outside, to move, to be constantly on the road, while others were genetically inclined to settle down in one place. To try to force either person into a lifestyle contrary to their own nature would be cruel.

Disease, lifestyle, and consanguinity in 58 American Gypsies:

Medical data on 58 Gypsies in the area of Boston, Massachusetts, were analysed together with a pedigree linking 39 of them in a large extended kindred. Hypertension was found in 73%, diabetes in 46%, hypertriglyceridaemia in 80%, hypercholesterolaemia in 67%, occlusive vascular disease in 39%, and chronic renal insufficiency in 20%. 86% smoked cigarettes and 84% were obese. Thirteen of twenty-one marriages were consanguineous, yielding an inbreeding coefficient of 0.017. The analysis suggests that both heredity and environment influence the striking pattern of vascular disease in American Gypsies.

Genetic studies of the Roma (Gypsies) A review:

Although far from systematic, the published information indicates that medical genetics has an important role to play in improving the health of this underprivileged and forgotten people of Europe. Reported carrier rates for some Mendelian disorders are in the range of 5 -15%, sufficient to justify newborn screening and early treatment, or community-based education and carrier testing programs for disorders where no therapy is currently available. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig2_htmlReported gene frequencies are high for both private and “imported” mutations, and often exceed by an order of magnitude those for global populations. For example, galactokinase deficiency whose worldwide frequency is 1:150,000 to 1:1,000,000 [56,57] affects 1 in 5,000 Romani children [44]; autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) has a global prevalence of 1:1000 individuals worldwide [58] and 1:40 among the Roma in some parts of Hungary [17]; primary congenital glaucoma ranges between 1:5,000 and 1:22,000 worldwide [59,60] and about 1:400 among the Roma in Central Slovakia [61,62].

Carrier rates for a number of disorders have been estimated to be in the 5 to 20% range (Table 3). …

Historical demographic data are limited, however tax registries and census data give an approximate idea of population size and rate of demographic growth through the centuries (Table 4). A small size of the original population is suggested by the fact that although most of the migrants arriving in Europe in the 11th-12th century remained within the limits of the Ottoman Empire [1,75], the overall number of Roma in its Balkan provinces in the 15th century was estimated at only 17,000. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig4_htmlDuring its subsequent history in Europe, this founder population split into numerous socially divided and geographically dispersed endogamous groups, with historical records from different parts of the continent consistently describing the travelling Gypsies as “a group of 30 to 100 people led by an elder” [1,2]. These splits, a possible compound product of the ancestral tradition of the jatis of India, and the new social pressures in Europe (e.g. Gypsy slavery in Romania [76] and repressive legislation banning Gypsies from most western European countries [1,2]), can be regarded as secondary bottlenecks, reducing further the number of unrelated founders in each group. The historical formation of the present-day 8 million Romani population of Europe is therefore the product of the complex initial migrations of numerous small groups, superimposed on which are two large waves of recent migrations from the Balkans into Western Europe, in the 19th – early 20th century, after the abolition of slavery in Rumania [1,2,76] and over the last decade, after the political changes in Eastern Europe [7,8]. …

Individual groups can be classified into major metagroups [1,2,75]: the Roma of East European extraction; the Sinti in Germany and Manouches in France and Catalonia; the Kaló in Spain, Ciganos in Portugal and Gitans of southern France; and the Romanichals of Britain [1]. The greatest diversity is found in the Balkans, where numerous groups with well defined social boundaries exist. The 700-800,000 Roma in Bulgaria belong to three metagroups, comprising a large number of smaller groups [75].

Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics reports:

picture-2 picture-3

Of course, if you want the full details on consanguinity in Gypsies, you have to read HBDChick:

the actual cousin marriage rates vary though from (as you’ll see below) ca. 10-30% first cousin only marriages amongst gypsies in slovakia to 29% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in spain [pdf] to 36% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in wales [pdf]. these rates are comparable to those found in places like turkey (esp. eastern turkey) or north africa…or southern india.

I’m not quoting the whole thing for you; you’ll just have to go read the whole thing yourself.

Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England:

The 1987 national study of Travellers’ health status in Ireland11 reported a high death rate for all causes and lower life expectancy for Irish Travellers: women 11.9 years and men 9.9 years lower than the non‐Traveller population. Our pilot study of 87 Gypsies and Travellers matched for age and sex with indigenous working class residents in a socially deprived area of Sheffield,12 reported statistically and clinically significant differences between Gypsies and Travellers and their non‐Gypsy comparators in some aspects of health status, and significant associations with smoking and with frequency of travelling. The report of the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in the UK, 1997–1999, found that Gypsies and Travellers have “possibly the highest maternal death rate among all ethnic groups”.13

picture-1And as Dr. James Thompson notes, Gypsies do not do well on IQ tests, with many groups scoring in the 60-85 range. (White Americans average 100.)

This is all kind of depressing, but I have a thought: if Gypsies want to preserve their culture and improve their lives, perhaps the disease burden may be lessened and IQs raised by encouraging young Gypsy men and women to find partners in other Gypsy groups from other countries instead of from within their own kin groups.

According to Wikipedia:

Further evidence for the South Asian origin of the Romanies came in the late 1990s. Researchers doing DNA analysis discovered that Romani populations carried large frequencies of particular Y chromosomes (inherited paternally) and mitochondrial DNA (inherited maternally) that otherwise exist only in populations from South Asia.

47.3% of Romani men carry Y chromosomes of haplogroup H-M82 which is rare outside South Asia.[18] Mitochondrial haplogroup M, most common in Indian subjects and rare outside Southern Asia, accounts for nearly 30% of Romani people.[18] A more detailed study of Polish Roma shows this to be of the M5 lineage, which is specific to India.[19] Moreover, a form of the inherited disorder congenital myasthenia is found in Romani subjects. This form of the disorder, caused by the 1267delG mutation, is otherwise known only in subjects of Indian ancestry. This is considered to be the best evidence of the Indian ancestry of the Romanis.[20]

Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe
Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe

I must stop here and note that I have painted a largely depressing picture. It is not the picture I want to paint. I would like to paint a picture of hope and triumph. Certainly there are many talented, hard-working, kind, decent, and wonderful Gypsies. I hope the best for them, and a brighter future for their children.

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Consanguinity and Socialism

So I’ve been thinking about the connection between consanguinity and socialism.

In one account I read recently, a young man, attempting to better his lot in life, took out a loan, produced 30 loaves of bread, and began selling them along the side of the road. He managed to sell ten loaves before his father came along, spotted the bread, and took the remaining 20 loaves to feed his hungry children–the young man’s siblings and half siblings, of which there were well over a dozen.

Obviously the young man could not pay back his loan, and the business failed.

In Kabloona, de Poncins describes the extreme communality of the Eskimo lifestyle (including, it seems, some form of communal wife-sharing.) One man builds up a cache of fish and seals, and another family comes upon it and eats it all–it cannot be helped, says the author. No one was mad or even irritated. Life in the arctic is so precarious, the food supply so unsteady, that everyone would likely die if they could not depend on their neighbors’ catches in such a way.

He describes another case of a mentally retarded couple who were kept alive primarily through the generosity of their kin-folk.

Toward the end of Frederick and Josephine’s adventure through the Congo, they describe conversations with, IIRC, a white person living in the Congo. He noted that although he had lived there for many years, he had not become friends with the natives–that such was impossible, in fact, because friendship carries with it obligations, and those obligations would quickly bankrupt him.

In The Harmless People, anthropologist Elizabeth Thomas describes the distribution networks that determine exactly how a killed animal is distributed among everyone in the tribe. Obviously it makes sense to distribute a giraffe–no one can eat an entire giraffe, and the Bushmen (aka San) don’t have refrigerators. But even when people are hungry and there isn’t enough to go around, the rules still apply: you must share.

In another account (the name of which, forgive me, has slipped my mind over the intervening decade and a half since I read it,) the author discussed the difficulties of getting the Bushmen started on agriculture/animal husbandry. The crux of the matter was that people would give the Bushmen goats to raise, and then a while later some other Bushmen would come visiting, and the goats would get slaughtered to feed their guests. Pretty soon, the goats were gone and the Bushmen had nothing left to eat, until the outsiders donated some more goats and the round of visiting and goat-eating began again.

Apparently they solved this problem by giving the Bushmen cows. Because a cow has far more meat on it than a visiting family can eat in a week–even a large family–the social obligation to slaughter one’s livestock for visiting relatives didn’t apply to cows.

In The Continuum Concept, Liedloff describes life in an isolated Amazonian village. She relates a story about a young man who, after being raised in the hustle and bustle of the city, came back to his ancestral village (he’d been adopted.) He proceeded to sit on his butt for several years, supported by the rest of the village. He was not entirely idle–he managed to get marry and have children during those years. Eventually he got bored and began raising a garden of his own (it was a horticultural society.)

It took me a long time to figure out why people engage in ritual gift-giving, but one enlightening study on the subject found that Chinese folks with gift-giving networks that extended outside their own villages were less likely to starve during the famines–these folks, it appeared, had been able to call upon their networks when the local crops failed. People whose networks were limited to their own villages had no one to call upon when the village’s crops failed.

I recall someone–I think it was HBD Chick–claiming that Russia traditionally had a somewhat communal style of land inheritance/distribution among its serfs, but I can’t find it, now.

This “socialistic” gift-giving/distribution of wealth and catches is the essence of tribalism, and stands in contrast to capitalism. Westerners tend to either gush glowingly about the wonderful primitives who, in their Edenic state, know nothing of greed but share everything with their neighbors, or confusedly attempt to mush capitalism onto this tribal system and then wonder why it doesn’t work. The socialists tend to advocate that we should become more like the tribesfolk, while capitalists look for ways to get people to act more individually.

Of course, noble savages are a myth and people do not share because they’re morally pure; one glance at the homicide rates for tribal peoples dispels that notion. These systems exist (or existed) because they helped the people in them survive–or at least their DNA. You and your brother share quite a bit of DNA, so sharing your food with him can result in more copies of your DNA wandering around (via your brother’s children,) even if it doesn’t befit you, personally.

No man is an island; we all depend on each other for food and other resources. Where resources are few and times are tough, others become especially critical. Then the “rules” in these societies are often just as strict as ours–the young man with his loaves can no more resist his father’s claim than I can resist paying my taxes. And for the Inuit, the rules are even harsher: if you don’t share now, there will be no one left to share with you when you need them–and you will die.

Do such systems only work where people are closely related? Sharing wealth with my brother may be annoying, but that doesn’t mtter so long as my DNA gets passed on. My brother can be a total lout who takes advantage of me right and left and it doesn’t matter so long as my DNA gets passed on. But it is much more difficult to get people to cooperate with non-family–helping strangers does not lead directly to more of my DNA in the world, and if the helping harms me while helping them, then they may well increase the number of copies of their DNA at my expense.

This does not necessarily mean that cooperation with strangers is a bad idea–or that defecting on strangers is a good idea. Obviously if you’re caught out in a blizzard, it’s in your interest to cooperate with anyone around. And many, many groups have merged over the centuries of human history (and not just through warfare.) Groups can indeed merge, to their mutual benefit.

The question is whether some groups are genetically biased toward–or will reproduce better–under socialism or capitalism, and if consanguinity has any effect on this.

You see, not all brothers are created equal. If you and your brother are identical twins, then you share virtually 100% of your DNA, and giving your brother a cow is as good as giving you a cow; your brother having a kid is genetically as good as you having a kid.

Under normal conditions (as you tend to think of them, my reader), you and your brother share about 50% of your DNA–in this case, your brother has to have two kids to make up for the cost of you losing one.

If you and your brother are actually half-brothers, that % goes down to 25. Now your brother needs to have 4 kids to make up for the loss of one of yours.

But if you’re full siblings and your parents were first cousins–a pretty normal state of affairs throughout most of the world and most of history–then the DNA you share with your brother goes up. And if your grandparents and great grandparents were also cousins, well, you and your brother will start looking pretty similar to each other.

Let’s suppose that a gene for generosity pops up randomly among humans. These generous folks love cooperating. If they are closely related to their family, chances are their relatives also have this gene, and that they will all cooperate together. The less closely they are related to the folks they’re cooperating with, the less chance of those folks sharing the cooperating genes and thus, simultaneously, more chance of defection and fewer genetic gains from cooperating.

So it seems likely that the strongest norms for cooperating will exist within groups that are closely related. (Note that even Sweden-style socialism is quite weak compared to Inuit-style socialism.)

But most folks are, at best, neutral toward their out-group, and often highly antagonistic. (The few groups that are not antagonistic seem to mostly be folks who don’t have much experience with out-groups, due to geographic isolation.) But cooperation across groups may be possible if strong civic institutions / social norms exist to prevent defection.

The Genetics of Altruism

As I touched on earlier, there is probably something genetic underlying people’s attitudes toward altruism, or at least a genetics-environment interaction.

To be clear, we are looking at the pattern of “conservatives have a small network of people whom they would sacrifice a great deal for, and a large # of people whom they don’t really care about, with a fairly sharp distinction between them” vs. “liberals have a large number of people about whom they care a moderate amount, with no sharp distinction between levels of caring,” aka “high tribalness” vs. “low tribalness”.

Lots of other people who are not me have done a TON of work on this subject, so I am not even going to attempt to summarize all they have said and done. For now, I’m just going to try to keep this short, and limit it to my own best suspicions:

Conservatives probably are, or were socialized by, people who are genetically more closely to their communities (or ancestral communities) than liberals.

In technical terms, we are talking about levels of consanguinity. In slightly more popular terms, we’d call it levels of in- or out-breeding. Unfortunately, the term “inbred” is an insult in American (western) society, because we have strong cultural norms (memes) on the subject (memes not shared with many other parts of the world, which have very different opinions on the subject of optimal marriage partners.)

To be clear: I am NOT saying, “Hur hur hur, conservatives is dums becuz they marry their cuzins.” This is a discussion of *comparative* levels of consanguinity in one’s ancestors and in one’s community, not whether or not one married one’s cousin or raped one’s sibling.

Now, a bit of necessary background: Different people (and regions of people) have different levels of consanguinity. For example, the descendants of a group of one hundred people who got stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific with no outside contact with the outside world for a thousand years, even if they have scrupulously followed the no-cousin-marriage rule, will obviously all be very closely related to each other, and genetically distinct from outsiders. Two individuals chosen at random from this island will be very genetically similar, sharing many (if not most) traits, and sharply different from outsiders.

By contrast, take a city founded at the confluence of several major trade routes, in the midst of relatively hospitable territory. People from different ethnic groups come and go in the city, marrying and leaving descendants. Any two randomly chosen citizens could easily be more closely related to and share more genetic traits with people from hundreds or thousands of miles away than with each other. So long as no one imposes segregation, a few thousand years of mixing (or a couple of generations, take your pick,) will produce a community of descendants who are distantly related to lots and lots of people, but less closely related than the islanders to their own immediate families. Where the islanders are sharply distinct from the rest of the world, the citizens blend gradually into the world.

This implies that islanders actually share more genes with their children than the citizens. Island-altruism toward one’s family or virtually anyone on the island will therefore propagate the individual’s genes. The citizens, who share fewer genes with their own children and immediate family and only a few with their neighbors, do not benefit as much genetically from altruism. The citizen who dies for their fellow citizen is closer to an evolutionary dead end, eliminating most of their altruism from the gene pool, while an islander who dies for their fellow islander has saved a much larger proportion of their genes. However, it is not in the citizen’s interest to do nothing for their fellows. After all, those guys do share some of their genes. The citizen, then, will display low-levels of altruism toward lots of people, without much ability to distinguish “us” from “them” (because there is no sharp “us” or “them”), but not massive sacrifices beyond the small level of genetic sharing. The islander will sacrifice readily for their fellows, but has no reason to sacrifice for outsiders.

Now, truely isolated islanders are a rare exception, as they are unlikely to have much of an adaptation for dealing with outsiders due to it never coming up. With no notion of “outsiders”, such communities can be quite nice–socialistic to the point of being indistinguishable from liberal communities, even. Japan comes immediately to mind. Yes, the Japanese have had a bad history of trying to conquer the outside world and I would characterize the people as generally conservative, but Japan itself is a socialisty state with far more equality and social cooperation than the US.

American conservatives, by contrast, interact with and are affected by the outside world far more. They consequently have a much more active hostility toward outsiders.

Implication: the idea that conservatives don’t support socialism is simply a side effect of living in a multi-ethnic society. Conservatives support socialism for themselves, but not for people whom they see as outsiders. (Which is, of course, genetically sensible.) Liberals support socialism for a much broader group of people, which is sensible for their genetics. The difference between these two groups in this discussion lies not so much in their treatment of their own, but in the nature of the distinction between “their own” and “not their own”, and their willingness to extend altruism beyond their own.

Disclaimer: I have followed a genetic train of reasoning here. As I noted, memes and genes go together; it’s entirely possible that we could get identical results just by raising people in tightly-knit culturally united communities or loosely-knit culturally diverse communities, with the results being entirely environmental. In reality, I suspect there exists a semi-complicated interaction between peoples’ natural inclinations and the environment they’re raised in and/or live in, where some people are well-adapted to certain environments and will thrive in them, and others are mal-adapted to those environments and become stressed out (perhaps pathologically so,) and would probably be better off elsewhere.