by Loren Seibold
The researches of the Third Reich into eugenics ended, perhaps permanently, any serious pursuit of creating a better human race by intentional breeding choices. At one time it was a favorite topic of Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Harvey Kellogg, among others. Now, even researchers into disease inheritance have to be careful, particularly if said disease involves identifing a group racially. The link between biology and populations is impossible to deny, but it becomes dangerous when it is used in critiquing traits of specific populations.
One who has stepped up to that dangerous line is Gregory Cochran, a physicist and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah. He’s made arguments about selection for intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews, and advanced a theory that homosexuality is caused by a microorganism. One of his latest contributions, with Henry Harpending, is a draft paper suggesting that the Amish have been successful because their social system acts as a selective breeding program, choosing for the traits of subservience to authority, hard work, plain living, and in general, a personality that fits into the American Amish community, while rejecting for breeding those with tendencies toward dissent or innovation.
Cochran and Harpending call it the Amish Quotient, (AQ) and posit that by marrying only within the faith, refusing converts, and “boiling off” at least 10% (some say more than 20%) of their less tractable offspring, they are increasing the AQ for plainness and cooperation. And it seems to be working: according to Ohio State University researchers and the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, there are around 200,000 Amish in the United States, and they’re set to double every 21 years.
The Amish have been laughed at for their anti-technological lifestyle, and idealized for their clean, rural life. Neither is entirely merited. They’re not opposed to all modern innovations (they love plastic and polyester), and their rules for what is permissible are quite specific and suprisingly narrow. They accept rides from others, borrow phones, let their teenage children have cars, accept modern medicine, and have little hesitation about using themselves as tourist bait. Many use highly sophisticated machinery adapted to alternative forms of power, as long as an engine doesn’t drive rubber tires or use electricity off the grid. They may be “green”, but that’s not the principle that dictates their choices. In fact, in some communities, a majority are no longer farmers: there's not enough land to support their large families.
Nor is their world idyllic. They quash any desire for advanced education. They experience a host of genetic disorders (the community is almost entirely descended from 200 18th century founders). Sexual abuse and incest aren't uncommon and are handled privately (which means very, very badly). Congregations schism, and internecene fights have led to violence and shunning. And families' rejection of children who don’t remain in the community is brutal. (See the documentary "Shunned" shown on PBS and still excerpted on the internet.)
But they’re remarkably successful for a group that moves in opposition to so many vectors of American culture (some of which we'd admit they're better off without), and perhaps Cochran and Harpending are identifying the reason. All of us in some way breed with a purpose, simply by the mates we’re attracted to. Perhaps the success of the Amish is that they’ve done it purposefully within their very restricted human ecosystem.