Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 19, 2018

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah

Filed under: History,Islam,Muslim World — Razib Khan @ 12:48 pm


The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.

August 9, 2018

The new post-genetic paradigm will come

Filed under: Archaeology,History,Prehistory — Razib Khan @ 1:29 am

Oftentimes the domain on which a technical framework is applied matters a great deal. Imagine, if you will, an explicit statistical test for a phylogenetic relationship between a set of extant populations, whereby one infers a group of ancestral populations. If the genus is Drosophila, it’s academic. Interesting, but academic. If the genus is Homo, then it gets complicated.

People care a great deal about the historical inferences made from human population genomic datasets. I say genomic, and not genetic, because the last ten years with genome-wide analyses and ancient DNA is very different from what we saw in the late 20th century and aughts. The definitive granularity is such that population genomics has touched upon very sensitive and precious issues, both in a scholarly and non-scholarly context.

A lot of the time I have my head down reading supplements where the statistical methods are. The reality is that this sort of science is cutting edge, and there are always later revisions. Usually you can see where those revisions might come from if you look at the detailed methods and conclusions that are found in the supplements. Also, you will find that that is where you see the limitations, and the reasons that the authors chose particular parameters.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, consider 2016’s Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East. The paper proper is 24 pages. But the supplemental text is 148 pages. There is a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I would just jump to page 125 and read the whole section there and down to the end. The method portion is important because you always need to take number values in results with a grain of salt. You see for example later work which refines fractions significantly when it comes to estimating admixture between a finite set of putative populations. And the last section seems likely to become a paper in and of itself at some point

But that doesn’t mean that the genetic inferences are not robust and come out of a vacuum. In the details the phylogenetic models being tested are going to be wrong on many particulars, but in relation to hypotheses being tested they are often entirely sufficient to reject to accept.

For example, there was long the idea that the Basque people of the western trans-Pyrenees region of Spain and France descended from pre-farming Europeans, and therefore the Basque language, which is an isolate, might have local roots which went back to the Pleistocene. Today, ancient DNA along with explicit testing of various phylogenetic scenarios makes it clear that the largest fraction of Basque ancestry derives from “Early European Farmers,” who represent a demographic pulse which radiated out of the Eastern Mediterranean and reached Spain 7,500 years ago. Of course Basques do have local hunter-gatherer ancestry, but these Mesolithic peoples themselves were the last in a sequence of very distinctive populations in Pleistocene Europe. Finally, Basques do have admixture from Indo-European peoples, just less than other people in Iberia.

Of course, genetics can’t tell us about languages. Using linguistic labels in population genetic papers is to some extent a lexical convenience, but it is also one we use because of the constellation of information we have. The last major demographic pulse into Iberia is associated with an ancestry which derives from Central Eurasia. This ancestry is copious in Northern Europe, but is also found in South Asia, and ancient DNA suggests its expansion occurred between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago. It also happens that the Indo-European languages are spoken in both India and Europe. The natural inference then is to make an association between this language family, and this demographic pulse.

Some observers note discordance between estimated fractions from paper to paper, but don’t seem to understand that the point isn’t to estimate fractions of ancestry as ends in and of themselves, but to estimate fractions of ancestry to expose and highlight demographic change (or lack thereof). We can say with a very high degree of certainty that the period between 3000 and 2000 BC witnessed massive demographic change in Northern Europe. Somewhat later there was a similar change in Southern Europe, but more demographically modest. These are simple facts.

There are some scholars, frankly often archaeologists, who dismiss the relevance of the genetic findings. But anyone who has read archaeology knows that there are many cases where researchers see demographic continuity, and posit in situ cultural evolution, where it is just as possible that a new people arrived. The reason ancient DNA has revolutionized our understanding of prehistory isn’t because it has brought us new knowledge, it has foregrounded old and buried knowledge. The knowledge being that migration matters.

But genetics is only a skeleton. A framework. True flesh on the bones of the story needs the input of archaeologists, linguistics, and other scholars. In Who We Are and How We Got Here David Reich expresses his ambition to construct a historical genetic atlas of the world. But that atlas will be all the poorer without the input from other fields besides genetics. Many archaeologists have gotten on board with genetics as a tool, but the reality is that there needs to occur the rejection of some theories precious to some scholars if there is going to be total buy-in. Eventually that will happen, and a new synthesis will arise.

August 2, 2018

The “Islamic world” was not invented by Europeans

Filed under: History,Post-Colonialism — Razib Khan @ 2:46 pm

Aeon has published a piece, What is the Muslim world? Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda. The piece itself is more subtle and textured than the headline and subhead. Unfortunately, I’m 99% sure that 90% of readers will simply take the headline at face value and not engage with the text of the piece.

That being said, I also strongly disagree with the overall message of the author’s piece. He has written a book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, where he presumably extends the argument. By the message, I mean that I believe the author overemphasizes the contingent, necessary and sufficient role of European colonialism in the idea of an Islamic world.

Anyone who has read a history of the modern world, as I have, knows that it is essential to integrate into that understanding the rise of the West after 1500, and the supremacy of the West after 1800. To a great extent, modern history is Western history.

But the West did not create everything anew, and there were, and are, preexistent identities which predate the West as we commonly understand it. Anyone who reads Al-Biruni knows very well that scholars in Islamic societies had a sense of us vs. them. Al-Biruni could admit that Indian civilization was characterized by a high level of intellectual sophistication, while also asserting its differences and uniqueness in relation to the Islamic civilization which had emerged in the wake of the Arab conquests.

In the Aeon piece, the author points out that Pan-Africanism, Pan-Asianism, and Pan-Islamism, developed as reactions to European colonialism. The first thing is to observe that Pan-Islamism is a very different thing than the idea of the “Islamic world,” a set of societies delimited by a cluster of beliefs and practices. Pan-Islamism is a modern ideology, strongly influenced by the rise and domination of the West. As such, contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. But Islamic fundamentalism draws on older traditions within Islam, for example, the thinking of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Additionally, like many post-colonial thinkers, the author in the piece collapses different movements together in a mishmash as if they were equivalent. Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism have no deep historical roots, but were and are geopolitical responses to European domination. In contrast, arguably the West can not be understood without integrating the rise of Islam. Pan-Islamism appeals to a genuine history of pre-modern unity, before its dissolution and decay. Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism have been relative failures in comparison to Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism because they were thin, artificial, and purely geographic, constructions. In contrast, Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism appeal to and extend from true commonalities that have deep resonances.

The theoretical foundation for understanding what Pan-Islamic identity is and its historical precursors is that it is a “meta-ethnic” identity. Islam, like most of the world religions, binds together people of disparate backgrounds. It does not collapse differences, and it does not impose homogeneity. Nor does it mean that every Muslim shall stand with every other Muslims against every non-Muslim. Rather, it simply gives people from diverse backgrounds who may not know each other an immediate common ethical and cultural currency, tenuous as that may be.

Modern political movements have to be understood as reactions to events and situations of the modern era. But those political movements were not created ex nihilo out of a cultural vacuum. It is surely correct that in most cases one cannot understand the modern without considering the colonial era, but it is also true in many cases that one can not understand the modern without understanding the deep history of many regions of the world which long predate the colonial area.

July 26, 2018

Render unto Caesar worldly goods

Filed under: History,Religion,Secularism — Razib Khan @ 11:11 pm

At Tanner Greer’s recommendation, I purchased a copy of Imperial China 900-1800. Now that I’ve received it I realize that I read a few chapters of Imperial China 900-1800in 2008, before abandoning the project due to sloth. Older and wiser.

As I’m reading this book, I’ve been giving thought how I would respond to this comment:

…not only were priests an independent power source from kings, but no matter how deeply interrelated each was in principle independent of the other, with their own independent spheres: the secular sphere and the religious sphere. This fact too was important in shaping the modern world, in that modernity assumes that government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom.

This is a common view. Fareed Zakaria, for example, expresses something similar in The Future of Freedom, whereby the emergence of an independent Western Church after the Fall of Rome created space for secularization and the development of liberal democratic institutions through decentralization of power.

And yet after having just read History of Japan, and reading again about the Battle of Anegawa, where Oda Nobunaga completed a chapter of his crushing of institutional Buddhism as an independent power in Japan, I wonder what the above even means. A standard model would argue that in East Asia religion suffused life, philosophy tended toward monism, and there was no separation between this world and that. The Emperor of Japan descended from the Sun Goddess. The Emperor of China was the Son of Heaven, though Heaven was not conceived of in an anthropomorphic sense. And yet the kingship of nations such as France and England have exhibited a sacral nature, and to this day the monarch of England is also the head of its established religion.

About when I abandoned my plan to read Imperial China I read Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the many things that stuck with me from that book was just how radical in regards to religion the federal government established by the American Founders was at the time. While the American states had all had an established religion, due to the pluralism of the new nation, and the personal secularism of many of the Founders, no consideration was given to privileging religion on the national level. This concerned many leading thinkers, some of whom suggested that simply declaring Christianity in the general sense the national religion would have been sufficient (and for all practical purposes Protestant Christianity was the national religion, even though church-state separationists such as Andrew Jackson were punctilious in making this not a de jure matter).

With hindsight, it seems clear that having a “national religion” only makes sense in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, and the collapse of the religious system of Western Christendom during the medieval period. The medieval Western Church was characterized by a great deal of diversity and variation. But something happened during early modernity, whereby that variation produced too many tensions and factionalized. Eventually, this shattered the tacit understandings and compromises which allowed for external unity. In nations where monarchs supported Protestant Reformers, national churches emerged, and become official arms of the state for all practical purposes. In Catholic Europe, a reaction produced a newly muscular and standardized church, which stood opposed to the new official Protestantism on very similar terms. The Roman Catholic church remained international, but it also became the national churches of nations as diverse as Poland, Ireland, and Spain.

Though many people assert that the Roman Empire became “officially” Christian with the conversion of Constantine, or perhaps during the reign of Theodosius the Great at the end of the 4th century, the reality is that the Roman Empire was not a totalitarian state. The dissolution of paganism occurred more through slow decay and death, as the cessation of subsidies from the state starved elite paganism, and persistent missionary efforts blanketed the population with nominal Christianity.

The assertion above that “government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom” always strikes me as strange because of my familiarity with Chinese history and philosophy, and the interpretation of how the Chinese seem to have viewed “church”-state relations. It is often said that the Chinese are superstitious, but not religious. In other words, what China lacked in the vigor of organized religion, it made up for in widespread belief in supernaturalism. This is broadly correct, but the same could be said for the West for most of its history. That is, many pre-modern peasants were not religious as much as they were superstitious, and their Christianity was a thin skein upon folk beliefs.

The issue rather is with the cultural elite, and what their beliefs were. There is a line of argument that philosophical dualism, and a particular sort of disenchantment with the world and a rationalism, was pregnant within Western Christianity, and came to fruition with Calvinism and modern forms of Catholicism. In the ancient world, Christians believed that magic was real, and that the pagans worshipped true supernatural forces, but that these were rooted in the devil. The argument proceeds that in early modernity this belief gave way to more rationalist views, whereby God remained true, but non-Christian beliefs were rooted in falsehood, rather than demons. Magic was now simply trickery.

And yet History of Japan notes that even before Oda Nobunaga’s crushing of the Buddhist clerical powers of the 16th century the society was going through broad secularization, as popular and elite enthusiasm for religion abated. Though the Tokugawa regime enforced Buddhist registration by families across Japan, this was a measure that enabled control and regulation, not one which promoted religion as such. Japanese intellectuals during this period were influenced by currents skeptical of supernaturalism that had its roots in Chinese Confucianism, and this in its turn can be found to have prefigured by anti-supernaturalist threads as far back as Xunzi.

Curiously, the Japanese system after the decline of the Fujiwara and the rise of the Shogun dynasties recollects the mythologies of dual kingship, with a sacred and a secular king, in other societies. To me, this reinforces my own current position that all the semantical distinction between secular and sacred power and how they differ between societies elides more than it illuminates. My own materialist bent leads me to suggest that in fact, secularization in early modernity at the two antipodes of Eurasia were natural and likely inevitable developments with mass societies and more powerful states. A coercive state did not need to rely on supernatural power to persuade a populace, and the workaday nature of bureaucratic governance, in any case, would not reflect positively upon a religious order that was fused with that state.

Naturally, others will have different views. But one of the reasons I am such a fan of Peter Turchin’s project is that I tire of semantic definitions as the axis around which arguments hinge. I am usually unconvinced by the erudition of my interlocutors because in most cases I don’t get a sense that they know more than I do, even though perhaps they may, in fact, be in the right. Rather than calculating, argumentation is often a way for two individuals to assess each other’s knowledge base and sophistication. If there is parity, there will never be a resolution, because personal qualities are more relevant than reality.

July 22, 2018

Japan as a natural cultural experiment

Filed under: History,Japan,Japanese — Razib Khan @ 6:59 pm

History of Japan is a good survey for anyone curious about the topic because it is short enough to not be intimidating (this was a complaint from friends who I recommended read The Making of Modern Japan), but dense enough to actually be much more informative than a Wikipedia entry. Unlike many surveys of Japanese history, it does not operationally begin with Oda Nobunaga. The extensive treatment of the Nara and Heian period is something that I particularly appreciated since often these are explored only in specialist monographs with any depth.

One of the curious things about Japan is that since the conquest of the Emishi of northern Honshu around 800 AD, the Japanese lost an external frontier with another people. True, there were periods of endemic warfare between Japanese when central authority collapsed, but by and large, these conflicts were arguably less destructive than shocks from without would have been. Wars within cultural groups are highly destructive, but often they are governed by unified cultural scripts and mores.

In Strange Parallels: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands, the historian Victor Lieberman examines Japan as a case study of a “protected-zone” civilization. In Lieberman’s framework, the emergence of organized steppe nomadism in the years after the fall of Rome and China caused stress and chaos across what Nichols Spyman would term the “Eurasian rimland,” and what the ancients would have termed the civilized oikoumene. The same model crops up in Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

The development of the chariot during the Bronze Age was arguably an integrative force in the evolution of agricultural polities. Chariots were useful for the transport and deployment of elite warriors and archers. But, they were not utilized as shock troops, as would be the case with the rise of mounted cavalry. First emerging around 1000 BC on the western edge of the Eurasian steppe, by 0 AD the mounted cavalry had given birth to full-blown nomadism from Europe to China. To some extent, the only way that core civilizations on the Eurasian rimland could maintain themselves in the face of the pure nomadic assault was through co-option and assimilation. Arabs, Turks, and Mongols all swallowed up earlier settled civilizations. In the Near East, China, and India,  peoples of nomadic origin became the ruling classes, synthesizing and integrating with the traditions of those they conquered.

In contrast, much of Western Europe and Southeast Asia were protected from these incursions due to distance, topography, and climate. The German barbarians who took over the reins of power in the post-Roman world were agro-pastoralists, not nomads. In mainland Southeast Asia, the Tai incursions was a migration of agriculturalist warrior elites. The modern states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma withstood the assaults and maintained cultural continuity with their past. In Western Europe, Ireland can be thought of as an analogous case, though the Viking shocks, and later Anglo-Normand conquest, disrupted its continuity.

Lieberman argues in Strange Parallels that these protected-zone societies are much more natural nation-states than elsewhere, in part because their organic identity from earlier cultural traditions persisted down to the modern era, as opposed to having been created anew through novel ideologies. And is it a surprise that of the European nations England, which has not undergone a mass invasion since 1066*, has one of the deepest self-conceptions as a nation-state?

Which brings us back to Japan: its imperial family dates at least the early 6th century AD. Though we don’t have verified dates before the Emperor Kinmei, it seems likely that the Imperial House of Yamato is quite a bit older than that. Unlike in the West then the Japanese have a much easier line of descent from antiquity for its elites. The persistence of the Japanese imperial family is a testament to the cultural prominence that the Yamato lineage has, with all of its ups and downs. In contrast, the arrival of waves of barbarians in other regions of the Eurasian rimlands produces a situation where taboos against taking official power eventually broke down. In the 5th century West Roman Empire, there was a taboo against barbarians or people of part-barbarian ancestry from becoming Emperor. Eventually, the barbarians got rid of the Emperor, and over the centuries became Emperors themselves. The same process is evident in the Islamic world, where the Arab Caliphs remained figureheads for Persian and Turkic potentates until they took over both de jure and de facto roles.

The Japanese have a different experience. At the beginning of their history, they were a cohesive culture expanding into the post-Jomon frontier. Though reinforced with an elite migration of Koreans and Chinese prior to the Fujiwara period, unlike polities across Eurasia the Japanese ruling class have been uniformly and continuously of the same ethnicity and identity as the populace which it ruled.** And, unlike the Vietnamese or Koreans, they have not been subjected to conquest and hegemony by China. They have long been of the Sinic sphere, not within the Sinic sphere.

Between Korea and Japan, there is a 200 km distance by water. In contrast, between England and France, there are about 30 km. This greater distance explains the relative isolation of Japan in comparison to England when it comes to continental affairs. Proto-historical expeditions in Korea, or Hideyoshi’s adventure, are exceptions, not the rule.  Official contacts between Japan and China often had gaps of centuries.

This is not to say that Japan was not influenced by the continent. Obviously, Buddhism, Chinese writing, and the wholesale transplantation of Tang culture during the Fujiwara period attest to the early influences, while later on even during the Tokugawa era there were influences from Western thought via the Dutch. Rather, the Japanese are a natural experiment of a people who have repeatedly engaged with the world on their own terms, and developed their own culture organically to such an extent that they put their ancient tribal animism, Shinto, as the state religion during their phase of modernization!

In answer to the question “why is Japan different?” I would say this is a peculiarity of geography, close enough to be influenced culturally, but distant enough to be politically isolated.

* I think the Dutch invasion under William of Orange really was an invasion. But its impact was mild due to broad local support.

** Contrast this with ethnically distinct ruling elites in the Near East, India, and China, as well as cosmopolitan ruling families in Europe. Even England was for several centuries ruled by a nobility which spoke French.

 

July 18, 2018

The Insight show notes: Episode 29, The Genetics of China, Han & Beyond

Filed under: China,Genetics,History,science — Razib Khan @ 3:39 pm

This week Razib and Spencer discussed the genetics and history of China on The Insight (iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play).

Chinese history looms large in the podcast, and there are many books one can read on the topic. In particular, John King Fairbank’s China: A New History is one of the rest comprehensive treatments. To understand what’s going on in China today it’s probably good to have at least one survey book or course of its past under your belt!

For the purposes of this episode though, you can just check out a list of Chinese dynasties, if you just want a visual outline of the timeframe and period which Razib and Spencer covered in the podcast.

In relation to the genetics alluded, for genome-wide patterns of relatedness across Chinese regions: Genetic Structure of the Han Chinese Population Revealed by Genome-wide SNP Variation. This 2009 paper uses 350,000 markers from 10 provinces to perform exploratory analysis of genetic structure within China.

More recently, A comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group — Han Chinese, is a preprint that utilizes whole-genome sequencing to assemble an even larger dataset.

For maternal mtDNA, Large-Scale mtDNA Screening Reveals a Surprising Matrilineal Complexity in East Asia and Its Implications to the Peopling of the Region. For Y chromosomes on the paternal side, Y Chromosomes of 40% Chinese Descend from Three Neolithic Super-Grandfathers.

To get a sense of how China’s population has grown genetically, see Robust and scalable inference of population history from hundreds of unphased whole-genomes. The figure to the left shows the “Out of Africa” bottleneck, and then demographic expansion in the last 50,000 years. “CHB” represents Chinese sampled in Beijing. Along with “GIH”, who are Gujuratis, and “CEU”, a Northern European American cohort from Utah, the Chinese exhibit explosive growth in the last 10,000 years.

There is extensive discussion of the environment and geography of China, and how it related to agricultural expansion and migration southward. The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin chronicles this process of the expansion of rice farming into the jungles of southern China through natural history and human geography.

Though most people are aware of the Mongols, fewer are cognizant of the interregnum between the Han and Sui-Tang, when many steppe nomads settled in China, Buddhism took root, and many elite Han lineages migrated from the north to the south. For those curious about this period, China Between Empires: The History of the Northern and Southern Dynasties is an excellent introduction accessible to all.

Finally, there was extensive discussion about the future of Chinese science. For a deeper exploration of that that, see A Chinese Province Is Sequencing One Million of Its Residents’ Genomes and China Has Already Gene-Edited 86 People With CRISPR.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight show notes: Episode 29, The Genetics of China, Han & Beyond was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

History and genetics of the Han

Filed under: China,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 3:14 pm

About 20 percent of the world’s population lives in the People’s Republic of China.Taking their name from the Han dynasty of ancient China, they are the core ethnicity of the People’s Republic of China: making up about 90% of the total population. When the imperial system was overthrown by a republic in 1911, China was founded as a union of “five races.” They were the Manchu, who had previously provided the royal house, the historically important and ethnically distinctive Hui (Muslims), Tibetans, Mongols, and of course, the Han: who provided the common language of Chinese society and dominated its culture, civil administration, and military.

Shang Dynasty Chariots

The origin of the modern Han traces back to the mists of antiquity and prehistory. Chinese history is highly periodized; with a sequence of legendary dynasties which gave rise to those which were textually attested. This thematic arrangement of time is not a matter of conjecture or externally imposed frameworks, but rather it emerges out of the rich and elaborated native historiography. Like the Greco-Romans, the Chinese produced native annalists and observers galore.

China, as we understand it, began more than 3,000 years ago. During the Late Bronze Age, the centuries before 1000 BC, the Shang dynasty emerged as the paramount military group in the middle reaches of the Yellow river basin. With a ruling caste of chariot-riding aristocrats, the Shang seem much like the barbarian ruling houses of the Mycenaean world in lifestyle and outlook. Much of what we know about them can be ascertained only through archaeology or the commentaries and critiques of their successors: the Zhou. Because of their use of oracle bones as a form of divination, the Zhou still provide the first evidence of a state deploying literacy in East Asia. The distinct writing style of the modern Chinese has its roots in this place and time.

Eventually, the Shang fell to the Zhou. Originally a semi-barbarian state on the western fringes of the Shang state, the Zhou needed to be more cultivated than the Shang because they were arrivistes. The Zhou left a more substantial literary record as transmitted by their cultural heirs. It is from them that many concepts central to later Chinese civilization are inherited, such as the emphasis on the Mandate of Heaven in determining who ruled and who was ruled. The benevolent and upright character of men such as the semi-historical Duke of Zhou served as exemplars for Chinese elites for nearly over 2,500 years!

It was through Confucius and his acolytes that the influence of the Zhou echoed down through the generations, even into the 20th century. The imperial bureaucracy was steeped in a philosophy, which esteemed the Zhou as having presided over a Golden Age of righteousness and rectitude.

The First Emperor’s terracotta army

As the Zhou dynasty collapsed as a military power in the course of events over the first millennium BC, hundreds of philosophical schools proliferated across the landscape. Men who would have otherwise wielded the sword in service to their masters, took up the brush to paint and write out their thoughts. Martial codes of honor were transformed into rules to live a more pacific life by. These men, the shih, were the prototypes of the civilian scholar-officials who served as the model for the Chinese gentlemen throughout the whole period of the imperial system, from around 200 BC down to 1911 AD.

A class system, often honored in the breach, emerged in China during this period. The rulers and scholar officials were on top, and just below them were farmers: the producers of wealth. Under them toiled the the artisans, merchants, and soldiers. Strangely, this may reflect aspects of deep history.

While in much of the other half of Eurasia over the past 5,000 years has been characterized by the explosion of a few paternal Y chromosomal lineages, the Chinese population shows evidence of more gradual and consistent expansion; beginning with the rise of agriculture. Though the Shang ruled their domains from chariots, these tools of war came late to the East, and the Shang ascendancy was short-lived. The deep and broad growth of Y chromosomal lines across China suggests expansion from a small core group of agriculturalists, until the full expanse of North China was dominated by people speaking the Chinese language and practicing the Chinese culture.

As documented in a preprint from last year, a comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group — Han Chinese, modern genetic variation within the People’s Republic between the Han of different regions is strongly conditioned on geography. Most of the variation is from the north to the south; far more than from the east to west. This may reflect the fact that until the Tang dynasty, between 600 and 900 AD, much of China south of the Yangzi river was inhabited by minority groups, such as the Dai and peoples related to the Vietnamese and the Hmong.

Meanwhile in the heart of early Chinese civilization, the Yellow river basin, many of the people exhibit the hallmarks of genetic influence from the people of the steppe, like the Mongols and even Western Eurasians. Between 200 BC and 200 AD, China was ruled by the Han dynasty: a culmination of the first period of Chinese cultural and demographic expansion and consolidation. After the Han collapse, however, much of North China was occupied and ruled by groups from the steppe. A mixed aristocracy of horsemen arose, and it was from this class there emerged the men who eventually reconquered all of China, from north to south, culminating in the Tang dynasty.

Buddhism flourished in China during the Tang dynasty

In the centuries before 1000 AD, the Tang pushed the center Chinese civilization from the north down to the Yangzi basin; engaging in reclamation projects and encouraging the planting of superior varieties of rice. If the people of northern China are the scions of the Han, those in southern China are children of the Tang.

As the second millennium after Christ began, the Chinese civilization and state occupied the broad expanse of eastern China that we know of today, from Korea along the edge of the sea and down to Vietnam, and deep into the interior. Whether noodle loving people in the north, or rice farmers in the south, they all spoke a dialect of Chinese, and were united by a written language. Though differences of region and class persisted, the meritocratic regime of scholar officials promoted by the new Song dynasty that succeeded the Tang bound the nation together, and took strength from a a revived Confucianism, which synthesized aspects of Buddhism — which had been introduced from the western regions.

But just as the Song were on the cusp of bringing shape to the China we know today, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors first conquered the North China plain and later the Yangzi basin — and even the far South. The edifice of culture the Song built, the Mongols destroyed. China under the Song had promoted a meritocracy, and the Mongols placed themselves at the head of an ethnic a caste system determined by blood; where Muslims from Central Asia operated in the middle ranks as intermediaries above the subordinate Han majority. The Mongol rule was not for long, but after their expulsion and the reemergence of the Han under the Ming dynasty, the Muslim presence in China continued on as a long-term reminder of that era.

Hui Muslims

Today the descendants of these Muslims, the Hui, resemble the Han physically, and speak the Chinese dialect of the region in which they live, but practice Islam and eschew pork. Their East Asian physical appearance is a testament to the assimilative power of the Han, who absorbed various steppe peoples each in turn, though the cultural distinctiveness reminds us that China has long been connected to the rest of the world, and has changed with impact, from Buddhism to the Mongols and finally the adoption of Communism in the 20th century.

On the eve of the modern era, Jesuit astronomers were advising the Ming court, and the Chinese were conquered again by outsiders. Manchu people from the far northeast swept down and took city after city, until the last Ming emperor hurled himself into the South China Sea. And yet, just as captive Greece conquered Rome culturally, so the Manchus became for their Han subjects exemplary Confucian autocrats. The apogee of Imperial China came under the Qianlong Emperor, who presided over a decades long “Indian summer” of Han civilization in the 18th century… unaware of the specter of European colonialism on the horizon. Over the centuries, the Manchu separation from the Han majority became less and less a matter of reality (as opposed to a polite fiction). Today China is home to millions of “Manchu,” but the vast majority are difficult to distinguish from the Han of the north.

With more than a billion citizens today, China is a massive “natural experiment” in human demography. Hundreds of millions are on the move from the heartland to the glittering (and grimy) cities: mixing marrying with people they would otherwise never meet. Though lacking in the rich and deep genetic diversity of Africa, China makes up for it in raw numbers and a newly found focus on scientific advances — backed by a dynamic economy. The Chinese were expert chroniclers of their own history, so genetics will shed only so much new light beyond that. We already know the broad narrative because the Han remember and record.

Rather, the large potential upside of Chinese population genetics is in medical traits. The shock of the modern world and its consumer lifestyle, intersecting with the genetics of peasants farmers. Though specific results in China may not always be generalizable to the whole world, to some extent China is much of the world. The history of the Chinese past is vast and fascinating, but the possibility of the Chinese science of the future is tantalizing.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


History and genetics of the Han was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

July 16, 2018

A “carvaka” perspective historicity of myth and religion

Filed under: History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:29 pm

A comment thread below discussed the issues relating to the historicity of Jesus, Muhammad, and Hindu figures such as Ram and Krishna. The assertion is that while Jesus and Muhammad are historical figures, Ram and Krishna are mythological.

To some extent, this is a religiously fraught topic. People from Abrahamic backgrounds are wont to dismiss Dharmic tradition as pagan, heathen, and yes, mythological. In many Abrahamic traditions pagan gods, a class into which Hindu deities are often bracketed, are emanations of true supernatural powers, but demonic ones. In the West, this tendency within Christianity has been pushed to the background. But it still exists in more conservative denominations and traditions.

Therefore, those who adhere to false and marginal religions have “myths.” Those who adhere to true and cultural dominant religions have “stories” or “narratives.” That is the cultural context which we must admit. Even in places where non-Abrahamic religions or traditions are dominant, the past few centuries of European cultural and imperial hegemony have imposed certain interpretive frameworks which are Abrahamic.

And yet that being said, as someone who believes all religious supernatural claims come from the realm of our minds, as opposed to reality, there is a qualitative difference between Jesus, Muhammad, and Ram and Krishna. If Ram and Krishna did exist, they are individuals who lived in “prehistory.” That is, from a period not accessible to us even at some remove through non-religious text. In this way, they are like Abraham or Zoroaster. In contrast, the Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, and various figures in Hebrew legend and myth such as David, Solomon, and Jeremiah are liminal figures. The world in which they lived was stepping out of prehistory and archaeology, and into the written word, but it was not a fully-fleshed world.

Finally, you have the prophets and religious leaders who are “of history.” Jesus, along with Muhammed and Mani are generally agreed to be figures of history. But we don’t have contemporaneous records of their lives outside of religious traditions, and even in that case only from texts dated to later periods from when they flourished. This means that the context and the details of who these figures were may not align with what current religious tradition suggests and argues for their significance (though since Manichaeanism is dead as a living religion that is a separate case).

A common revisionist case for the nature of the “historical Jesus,” is that he was a Jewish reformer in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel. The emergence of a religion of universal salvation, as https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56opposed to a different form of Judaism, was a process which then developed in the generations https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56after the death of the historical Jesus, the Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef. Roman Christianity as a sect cannot be understood without appreciating its birth in an Empire where syncretistic “mystery cults” were revolutionizing popular religious life (e.g., Mithraism). The elite Roman Christianity of the 3th to 6th centuries cannot be understood without the cultural priors brought to the religion by converts from aristocratic or educated backgrounds steeped in Greek philosophy (e.g., Origen, Athanasius, and in the West Augustine).

In short, a person around whom the legend and myth of Jesus grew almost certainly existed. But the Jesus of myth is to a great extent the creation of a Christianity which developed long after he died.*

Much the same can be said of Islam. A certain legend exists of Muhammad the warlord within Islamic traditions. But outside of these records, in the contemporaneous ones of the Byzantines, he is not noted (little remains of the records of the Persians and Ethiopians). This would not be surprising, because outside of modern Yemen, and the liminal zones of the Levant and the fringe of the desert on the western shore of the Euphrates, Arabia was of little consequence. So long as the spice flowed (e.g., frankincense), the goings on of the Arabs were not of note unless they impinged upon the civilized world.https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56

And yet that did happen indeed, with the defeat of the Byzantines at Yarmouk and the Persians at al-Qādisiyyah. But as highlighted by revisionist scholars, the Byzantines took many decades to perceive in the Arab armies as anything but heretics and schismatics. This is also echoed in some ways in particular Islamic traditions which emphasize the relative impiety of the Umayyad Caliphate, denigrated in some sources as the “Arab Kingdom” due to its ethnocentric nature.

Compared to the later Abbasid period we don’t know much about the Umayyads. Part of the reason is that the winners write the histories, and the Abbasids won. In Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, he argues that Muawiyah was clearly a far more influential and important figure in Islamic history than one might think from the attention he receives from classical scholars and thinkers. But that’s because the Shia detest him, while the Abbasids and the Sunni Islam which evolved under their aegis minimized him.

But there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that compared to the Abbasids the Umayyads were very much a skeletal barracks-state where Arabs imposed an ethnic dominion, rather than a religious one. Even in the Islamic histories, there are attestations of Christian Arab tribes who were exempt from the jizya tax, while mawlā individuals of Persian origin were subject to the same indignities of non-Muslim Persians.

In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Umayyads in Syria patronized the creation of mosaics which continued the Late Antique Hellenic visual tradition, depicting both humans and animals. And, Greek was the administrative language of the Umayyads for the first few generations. The last of the Church Fathers, John of Damascus, was a Greek-speaker of Syrian background who served as a civil official under the Umayyads in the years around 700 A.D.  In contrast, the elite Barmakid family which was so prominent under the early Abbasids were of Buddhist background, but had to convert to Islam to become part of administrative apparatus which was becoming distinctively Muslim by this period.

All this is to set up the contention that Islam as we understand it, just like Christianity as we understand it, may actually not be the product of the first few decades of its flourishing as commonly understood, but of a later period when certain orthodoxies were understood and internalized, and grand narratives were later retroactively imposed. This aligns with the arguments in Lost Enlightenment and Warriors of the Cloisters that Islam, as we understand it today, was fundamentally shaped by the shift to the east initiated by the early Abbasids.

Which brings me to Mormonism, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unlike Jesus or Muhammad, there is no great debate about the details about the life of the Joseph Smith, the prophet of the religion that became Mormonism. Smith was born in Greater New England, and the Mormon church emerged as a sect in the Restorationist Protestant tradition. Its cultural context was among the Yankees of the American North. Smith’s family had been involved in radical Christianity, in https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56particular, the Universalist Church.

Over the decades of Smith’s life as leader of the church, and later after his death, his sect became a new religion, fundamentally different from the Protestant milieu in which it emerged. Mormon religion early on took a jaundiced view of Nicene Christianity, holding to the Restorationist perspective that all other Christian churches were fallen and corrupt. But Mormonism deviated by innovating and transforming its theology, away from the dominant orthodoxy as articulated by early thinkers such as Bishop Irenaeus.

Due to secret revelations late in Joseph Smith’s life, Mormon leaders developed a Christology which was fundamentally different from that of other Christian traditions. Rejecting Trinitarianism and much of Greek metaphysics, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was God the Heavenly Father’s bodily son, with Lucifer being his rebellious brother. Additionally, God the Heavenly Father has a Heavenly Mother, who is his wife. Father and Mother live on a planet in this universe in physical bodies.

There is much more which is exotic and strange to non-Mormons, whether Christian or not, in their theology. But, because Mormonism has existed in the light of history non-Mormons can look upon its claims with a much more critical eye. It is obvious, to many, that early Mormonism was just another Restorationist Christian church. Why did Mormonism deviate so far from mainstream American Christianity in its beliefs and practices?

It is important to remember that Mormonism is simply the westernmost and most successful offshoot of Joseph Smith’s religion. The Community of Christ, previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, remained located in Missouri when most of the community migrated west. Under the leadership of the descendants of Joseph Smith, the midwestern Mormons eventually merged back into the mainstream of liberal Protestant Christianity. Why?

I suspect one of the reasons that this occurred is simply the fact that the western Mormons became a very distinct ethno-cultural community, geographically separated from other Americans. In contrast, the Midwestern Mormons remained just another church among churches, albeit with a peculiar origin. And, like many “independent churches” in Africa founded in the 20th century, as it matured and stabilized, it slowly moves back into the mainstream of the dominant tendency of American Protestantism (with a few doctrinal quirks).

Since I began talking about Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, to Hinduism we come back. A lot of the discussion online (and on this weblog) is difficult to follow because there is Hinduism, and then there is Hinduism. Hinduism as the religion of the people of India is an old concept, and a generic one. But elite philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, crystallized much later, even down into the period when Muslims began to first make incursions into India.

I have alluded to here to the book The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. The focus on Greeks and Indians is due to the fact that aside from the Chinese these were the two ancient cultures which developed a fully elaborated philosophy that we in the modern world would understand, from metaphysics to ethics (Jewish and Persian philosophy in a distinctive sense tended toward religion).

Though they exhibited different biases and emphases, but it is clear that the Greeks saw in Indian “gymnosophists” kindred souls. The great Neoplatonist, Plotinus, reputedly inquired into the nature of Indian philosophy through meetings with scholars in Persia according to his classical biographers. The correspondence between Advaita Vedanta and Neoplatonism is rather clear, and probably due to a common set of monistic ideas which were in currency across the trading network between Alexandria and southern India, as well as through Persia, which spanned the edge of Roman Syria and into modern Pakistan, as well as ruling substantial Buddhist domains in Turan.

One of the generalizations often made about the development of Hinduism in the subcontinent over the past 1,000 years is that it is as if Islam did not even exist. That is, the indigenous religious traditions persisted and maintained themselves at such a remove that their evolutionary development was unperturbed by the exogenous cultural intrusion.

Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, presents the argument that both Muslims and Hindus exhibited much more religious fluidity until the past few centuries. This is often argued in the context of peasant folk religion, where this is obviously true. But the author makes the case that groups like Hussaini Brahmins were much more numerous in earlier periods, especially before the emergence of a later Mughal orthodoxy under the aegis of Naqshbandi Sufis. Not only did this mean the forced conversion of many Ismailis to Sunni Islam, but also the shift of some liminal groups away from Islam and toward adherence to a Sanskritized Hindu identity. The reason for this is obvious: heretical or ghulat sects of Islam are viewed far more negatively by Sunni enforces of orthodoxy than Hindus, who were outside of the pale of Islamic writ in any case. This is analogous to the early decades of the Christian Roman Empire, when persecutions were directed primarily to heretical sects, rather than the pagan majority, which was neglected.

As must be clear by this point: Christians, Muslims, and though I have not addressed it, Jews, seem to have “cleaned” up their history.** In fact, one might even say they “retconned” their history so that present beliefs naturally lead from ancient beliefs, even though that is hard to see logically and empirically quite often where the ancient leads to the modern (e.g., reading the Synoptic Gospels, and then the Athanasian Creed, is confusing without any historical context).  I believe that many modernist Hindus, living in a world of explicit and demarcated confessions, and formal beliefs and portable and digestible holy texts, have attempted to do something similar.

First, Hinduism becomes a religion of deep antiquity, despite its historical development over the past 2,000 years. Just as modern Muslims, Jews, and Christians look to the legendary Abraham, who lived 4,000 years ago, outside of the gaze of history, so modern Hindus look to the mythos of Ram, Krishna, and the Vedas, and built their house upon those rocks. This, despite the detachment of multitudinous folk Hinduisms from this ancient foundation, as well as the relatively tenuous connections of highly intellectualized philosophical Hinduism to the concrete and corporeal character of the early Vedas (Vedas venerated by vegetarian “Hindu fundamentalists” which clearly depict vigorous beef-eating warriors!).

Second, the localized diversity of Hinduism becomes flattened in an atomized world characterized by anomie. Just as ‘traditional’ Javanese Hinduism tends to flourish in the village, but not in the urban centers, so ‘traditional’ Hinduism of locality is not portable or plausible in the great fleshpots of modern India. Urban Hindus need something that gives them religious succor and is also in keeping with their understanding of their traditional origins. Something that is not a rupture from the past, but an extension and evolution. A “perfection” as Christians would say of Judaism and Salafi Muslims of traditional Islam.

Just as urban Indonesian Muslims who shift from abangan Islam to a more “orthodox” world-normative santri Islam view themselves as reclaiming a more pure and primal Islam, so it strikes me that modern Indians who adhere to a “Vedic religion,” stripped of locality and universalized and extended, create a mythos and narrative of reclamation, not innovation.

Over the 21st century, India will urbanize, and the villages will fade away in memory and with time. It is plausible that as this occurs modern urban Hinduism will produce a relatively standardized, and yes, deracinated, a spirituality which is more amenable to a people who move from one end of the country to another, as their professions take them on peregrinations over their lifetime.

To some extent the Abrahamic religions, and Buddhism, have already been through this. Torn away from a specific soil that nurtures them in a distinct local culture, these religious traditions have developed portable variants, which eventually become normative, uniting disparate peoples with distinct folkways. As India becomes its own world, and different cultures within it synthesize and merge, a need will develop for a more portable and flexible Hinduism. Both secular Hinduism and Hindu fundamentalism are faces of this transition, and both are likely the seeds of sectarian traditions which will wax and elaborate over the coming decades.

* Reading the Gospels, this is most clear in the writings of “John.” A grand and conceited figure, in contrast with the modest Jewish prophet of Mark.

** Orthodox Judaism as we understand really congealed in the 6th century with the Babylonian Talmud. Therefore, I argue it is a sister religion to Christianity, with both deriving from sects of Classical Judaism. Some scholars have in fact argued that Christianity is an extreme derivative of a form of Hellenistic Judaism!

July 12, 2018

The Insight show notes: episode 28, Violence & Warfare

Filed under: History,violence,War — Razib Khan @ 12:28 am
Scottish cavalry charging during the Battle of Waterloo

This week Razib and Spencer discussed violence and warfare on The Insight (iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play).

Spencer’s book, Pandora’s Seed, was mentioned. As was John Horgan’s The End of War and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes were presented as giving opposite views of human nature and its relationship to conflict: the peaceful noble savage and the brute engaged in a war of all-against-all. Spencer expressed a sympathy with Rousseau’s views due to his earlier research as well as field work with indigenous people.

Transitions between various cultural stages were extensively discussed. From the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Karl Jaspers’ idea of an Axial Age was introduced in the context for the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, and the fall of Mycenaean Greece and the rise of the Classical World.

The difference between the brutal warlike Bronze Age, defined by a charioteer, and the more genteel Iron Age, with the rise of ethical and religious prophets, was presented in the context of cultural evolution. The theorist Peter Turchin argues that rising violence due to more effective weapons may have resulted in the emergence of countervailing ideologies. In short, ideologies which favored peace evolved as social stabilizers in the face of war and inequality, which had been ramping up since the adoption of farming.

Spencer and Razib also talk about the biological corollaries and causes of war. Men are much more violent and warlike than women, especially young men. Some aspect of this is likely “hard-wired.”

But classical Malthusian theory familiar to anyone who has studied ecological carrying capacity was suggested to be the primary driver of war, as opposed to reflexive instinct or ideology. In Pandora’s Seed Spencer presented the thesis that increased conflict during the Neolithic was a consequence of Malthusian sedentarism, and the rapid rise of extremely of non-egalitarian societies (which today may include sex-biased societies with “bare branches”).

Finally, in the modern era was presented as one which has been defined by the decline of violence, mortality, and the development of a more peaceful lifestyle, and what that tells us about the potentialities of human nature.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight show notes: episode 28, Violence & Warfare was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

July 10, 2018

2019 isn’t 1999: the unipolar moment is over

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:02 am

I just finished reading War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots where the author argues that hegemonic Leviathans are actually good for average human well-being because they maintain order and peace. In other words, a multipolar balance-of-powers situation is dangerous. Unipolarity is less dangerous.

For various personal normative reasons, I’m not entirely happy with this conclusion. But, this book and others have convinced me that this is probably correct (for others, see The Fall of Rome).  So on some level, the Claire Berlinksi thread post below reflects a lot of truth. But I think it is wrong to get overly exorcised over Donald Trump’s acceleration of American involution.

The reason is that is that inevitable forces of economic determinism mean that the American unipolar world is not going to be maintained into the 21st century. In the late 1990s, with Japanese somnolescence, Russia as a supine post-superpower, and China only starting to get its footing as a capitalist nation, the vision of eternal American hegemony in our time was not a simple fantasy. It was an extension of the world that we saw around us.

That world is gone.

A quick check of GDP (PPP) by nation(s) tells us that China + India is now already ~75% of the USA + European Union. On a nominal basis, all the forecasts seem to put China and India #1 and #3 in GDP by 2030. On a per capita basis, these nations are going to be poorer than the West for a while longer. But in terms of power projection that may not matter so much. The fact that Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union were poorer per capita and had less human capital per unit didn’t prevent them from grinding superior western and central European powers down through sheer size.*

As a man in his 70s Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that America cannot dictate as much by force of will as it could in the second half of the 20th century when he came into the fullness of manhood. But he’ll learn. And America will learn.

Our society is rich and wealthy. We are powerful. Our armed forces are the sharpest and longest blades on the face of the earth. But aside from the inexorable heaving emergence of the Asian nations the United States, and the West more generally, seems to be gripped by alternating fluxes of anomie and ennui. Trump’s election is a reflection of this.

* I refer here to the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. The Czarist collapse of World War I strikes me in some ways a collapse in morale and national spirit.

July 7, 2018

Carthage (and others) must be read

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 12:07 am

The first half of Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization is useful, but there’s less of a focus on the culmination you know is coming, the Punic Wars. For a history of that, I’d actually recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC (one of the best descriptions of Cannae).

By utilizing archaeology and generating an inferred cultural history of Carthage, Miles does a great job contrasting the Punic mercantile republic with Rome. Aside from the penchant to name their leading citizens Hanno, Hannibal, and Hamilcar (to the point it’s hard to keep track of who is who), the most notable aspect of ancient Carthage seems to be its tendency to crucify generals who fail in battle. The Carthaginians come off as cartoon villains, even setting aside the child sacrifice. This is probably partly history being written by the winners, but it’s clear that still, Rome, in particular, was unique in its public spiritedness and social cohesion.  This, despite the fact that Rome and Carthage had both converged on a system of an oligarchic republic during the height of their rivalry.

Ancient history, and reading about other cultures, is illuminating about the human condition because different peoples in different exigent circumstances seem to react mostly the same but to wildly different outcomes.

For China, I don’t know of a better treatment in survey form than John King Fairbank’s classic. I also have a very soft spot for Jaques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. Fairbank’s book is more narrative history with some cultural fat on the bones. Gernet is more a cultural history with an exoskeleton of narrative diplomatic history.

For Rome, there are many recent books. But I still really like Michael Grant’s big thick survey, History of Rome. I don’t know about Greece since I haven’t read Greek history much since I was a child. Though Grant has some books on Greece too.

Finally, Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind should be on a “to read” list. It’s a little off the beaten path because it’s a history of Iran. It’s got only superficial coverage of the recent past and tries to go deep into the psyche of what makes Iran Iran. I think it is fair to say that the book ends of concluding that Iran, as we understand it today, is hard to detach from the Safavid period (when it become Shia).

I think these civilizations of the Eurasian oikoumene are good places to start to understand the human condition because so many people were peasants and those ruled by peasants over the past 10,000 years. I would recommend a book on India, but those are mostly religious books. Islam comes a little late, as does Northern Europe. Much of Eurasia and Africa had no written language. If you understand China, Persia, and Rome, you’ll understand a lot. And probably enough.

Book recommendations welcome.

July 5, 2018

Give me liberty or give me alternative history!

Filed under: Alternative history,American History,History — David Hume @ 9:33 pm

For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is one of the best alternative history science fiction novels written in the 20th century. It is literally encyclopedic. A fully realized alternative timeline, the novel takes the form of a narrative history!  I don’t know if one can say that the world depicted is better or worse than ours…it is simply different.

I think of it whenever I see pieces such as one in Vox, 3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake. There are some people offended by the timing of the piece, July 3rd. And I can see that.

But what about the premise? The author makes three assertions:

  • Slavery would have ended sooner
  • The Native Americans would have done better under the British
  • The British system of parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy is superior to the presidential republican one

The last point really isn’t about the American Revolution. It’s an argument about a presidential system vs. that of a constitutional monarchy. The second point seems the simplest and most straightforwardly defensible. The reality is that there is a consistent pattern of monarchs and authorities being more benevolent to marginalized subjects than those nearer to those subjects. The Spanish who settled the New World were brutal to the native peoples, and though the rulers of Spain could not ultimately stop them, it is clear that they did not condone or encourage the brutality. Similarly, the white settlers of Australia treated the native peoples brutally and genocidally, but this occurred because of the relatively free hand that the British Empire gave the white settler colonies. And finally, even in the United States, in the 19th century, the most pro-Native sentiment was often found in places like New England, where the local Native population was mostly gone due to earlier wars (during which Congregationalist ministers had justified the tossing of Indian children into rivers to drown).

Though it is likely that the Native Americans would have been marginalized and decimated by white settlers in North America no matter what timeline you look at, it seems plausible that if the American settlers had not taken over their government the British crown probably would have suppressed some of the more overt brutality. It is likely, for example, that the Cherokee would never have been relocated to Oklahoma, at great human cost.

But the phenomenon of slavery brings to mind a major issue when weighing the cost vs. benefit of American independence: as tacitly acknowledged in the Vox piece the very secession of the American colonies from the British Empire likely had an impact on the British themselves.

In Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America he points out that the removal of the American colonies (or the majority at least) in the late 18th century, and the mass exodus of the Catholic Irish in the 1840s, transformed the white population of the British Empire. In 1800 the population of England and Wales was about 10 million and the population of Ireland was 5 million. By 1900 there 30 million people living in England, and 3 million living in Ireland. In 1850 there were about 15 million people in England and 25 million people in the United States of America.

The removal of the Catholic Irish from the United Kingdom, often to the United States, shifted the cultural and ethnic balance in the United Kingdom to one where people who adhered to the established Anglican Church were numerically dominant. The United States itself when it had been the American colonies were dominated by dissenter Protestants. With the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, only a small minority of the population was affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Arguably the only part of the British Empire which could ever compete with the metropole as producers of manufactured goods would have been the New England colonies and the northern Mid-Atlantic region. The American exit probably had fortuitous long-term consequences for British cohesion and singular purpose in terms of imperial policy.

Overall I think considering the morality of the American Revolution is a good thing. In the year 2000, the film The Patriot depicted the British as proto-Nazis, committing heinous acts against the American populace. One reason that this was not plausible is that a substantial minority of the American population was pro-British, and a large number were ambivalent or neutral. By all estimates, the hardcore revolutionaries were a minority, though this varied by region and period (e.g., New England was a hotbed of revolt, while New York City and much of the Mid-Atlantic remained loyalist). And the reality is that the British treated white Americans colonials with kid gloves in part because those American colonials were seen as part of the British people in a way that nonwhites never were. The issue for the Americans is that the metropole did not see them as exact equals.

I was taught history in the United States, and so it was written and presented in a way which did depict the British as villains who were imposing unjust demands on the American colonists. As I got older I realized that though the revolutionaries had cause to be angry, the British also had a rationale for their behavior. 1776 was not 1986.

But even aside from that, the Vox piece suffers from not acknowledging the fact that history is nonlinear and the knock-on effects of a British victory may have been much more drastic and unpredictable than the movement of a few parameters here and there (e.g., slavery abolished in the USA in 1830 rather than 1860). Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval documents just how radical the American regime was in its time. The American republic was an exotic and strange experiment and served as a model and beacon. It is quite possible that without its model of revolutionary success the French Revolution may never have occurred. As a conservative, I think that would be a good thing, but I’m not sure many progressives would agree.

Additionally, the democratic republican model of government was shown to work in the modern world at large political scale by the United States. Most Europeans were skeptical of its feasibility, as ancient republics and democracies had never been able to sustain themselves beyond a certain size. And, unlike most every other nation at the time the United States also had a federal government which eschewed the mixing of religion and state, so that the republic was not sanctified by a divine or supernatural principle.

As an exercise in historical analysis, or entertaining alternative history, wondering about the consequences of a British victory over the rebels in the war in the American colonies is interesting, and possibly important. But I’m not sure there are truly deep moral lessons across the full arc of history, because the success of the rebellion itself had consequences far outside of the American colonies.

July 4, 2018

American folkways & American pedigrees

Filed under: American History,Genealogy,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:35 am
St. Augustine Historic district

Over ten thousand years after the first Americans settled the New World, from the Arctic to Patagonia, a new people arrived on these shores. From “deep history” to colonial history. Before Plymouth, before Jamestown, even before Santa Fe, there was St. Augustine, facing the Atlantic on the Florida coast. Occupied continuously since 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest current city in the continental United States.

This small and obscure town has witnessed massive culture, political, and demographic changes wrought over the continent of North America across 450 years from the fringes. Its existence reflects a tentative and tenuous phase in the exploration of North America by Europeans. Though inauspicious, the fact that St. Augustine sustained itself on the edge of North America for centuries is a testament to something different that was looming on the horizon.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Of course the dominant culture and people in the continental United States by 1800 was not that of the Spaniards of Florida or New Mexico. Rather, it was from the British Isles. The two primary early zones of British settlement were in the Chesapeake and Massachusetts Bay areas. These were the core regions around which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Commonwealth of Virginia developed.

By the last quarter of the 18th century the entire eastern seaboard of North America was dominated by settler colonies of diverse European provenance.

In New England, Massachusetts had been joined by colonies which were offshoots in various ways from the founding stock that coalesced around Boston. The 50,000 or so English settlers of the middle of the 17th century were now 750,000 New Englanders, due to natural increase driven by the fecundity of its people. Similarly, to the north in Canada the original small number of French who settled on the margins of the vast coniferous forests in search of furs and other riches had flourished and grown into a fully-fledged society, which even maintained itself in the face of British conquest and domination, strong their Roman Catholicism and fiercely devoted to their language.

In Virginia the younger sons of English nobility and the descendants of indentured servants had recreated an aristocratic society characterized by hierarchy and inequality typical of southern England on American shores. While the settlers of New England brought their Reformed Calvinist faith and its sectarian offshoots to the New World, seeking freedom to worship as they wished, the grandees of the Tidewater adhered nominally to the Anglican Church, and focused their energies on increasing their wealth and prestige. The kingdom which they wished to inherit was in this world, not the next!

Slaves cultivating tobacco in Virginia

Much of the wealth of the kingdom which the planters were building unfortunately consisted of slaves. The ancestors of black Americans arrived mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though importation of slaves was legal almost into the 19th century, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestors of black Americans date to a far earlier period. Because slave fertility was above replacement, the American trade in humans quickly become independent of international sources. The first person killed in the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American ancestry, who was as American as American can be.

Along with Puritans, and the Southern planters and the slaves, on the eve of the Founding of the United States of America numerous other societies had developed organically from very different seeds. Dutch New Amsterdam had become New York by the Revolution, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the Dutch republic persisted, as the great port remained an ethnic melange driven by commerce, not the whims of aristocrats or the will of God. Further south, the great city of Philadelphia was founded by industrious English Quakers, but these were joined by German Protestants and people from Ulster and the border region between Scotland and England, the “Scots-Irish.”

Wyckoff House in Brooklyn dates to the Dutch period

Though Philadelphia was the destination for the hundreds of thousands of Scots-Irish fleeing deprivation in their homeland, they did not tarry long, pushing deep into the back-country of Pennsylvania, and then migrating south along the ridges of the Appalachians. Where planter class established an aristocratic society of elites whose privileges were built on the backs of poor whites and black slaves, the rugged uplands of the vast southern stretches of the English colonies were populated by an individualistic and egalitarian people whose wealth was measured in their pride.

President Andrew Jackson, the son of Ulster migrants

These were the people caught up in the American Revolution, on both sides, rebel and loyalist. Despite their Northern European origins, with the exception of the black slaves, they were still a diverse motley. Thirteen separate and distinct colonies with many local subcultures. Not a single nation.

There were numerous waves of people who arrived after the British colonies became the United States of America. Irish and Germans in the decades before the Civil War transformed the culture of the United States of America, with their Catholicism and their beer, not to mention triggering an anti-immigrant populist movement which has resonances down to the present day.

After the traumatic conflict between the North and South, immigrants arrived in large numbers as industry began to demand labor in the cities and the vast open expanses of West needed to be settled. Scandinavians, Southern and Eastern Europeans in the decades around 1900 congregated in the cities of the East and Midwest and worked in factories and planted farms deep on the Great Plains. From the Far East there even arrived Chinese to build the railroads and operate the mines across the Pacific coast. The racial resentment of these Chinese led to explicit bans on immigration from Asian countries for decades.

Despite all this immigration, even as late as 1990 50% of the ancestry of the population of the United States of America was derived from those who were present and counted by the Census of 1790.

Though there are numerous interpretations and debates about American history, one thing that is clear is that it is a history of which we have copious records and documentation. The Founding Fathers are not dead names, but people who come alive in their correspondence. By the middle of the 19th century the immigrants who came to these shores are also visible in all the realism of their features through the magic of photography. Documents at Ellis Island mean that genealogical detective work can yield insights which illuminate the understanding of many a family’s past.

Irish immigrants

And yet genetics can shed light on historical patterns. Unlike written text genetics is neutral. It does not present a particular narrative or agenda. Though the tale genetics tells is that of the winners, there is no hiding this truth. In genetics the future belongs to those who procreate, and that is the foundation on which its logic is built.

Modern genetic technology surveying hundreds of thousands of markers in the human genome allow researchers to reconstruct pedigrees, family trees, and mark the history of peoples through their descent. While ancestry tests usually focus on deep history and ancient evolutionary and population events, modern genomic techniques allow for the exploration of events even within the last few hundred years.

Several years ago the genetics arm of Ancestry looked in their database, and selected 770,000 individuals of American heritage to analyze.

By surveying the patterns and clusters of relatedness, the researchers constructed a map which shows that most genetic variation in the United States is between the north and the south. That is, people from New England tend to be more different from people from the Deep South, than they are from those from neighboring states. In fact, the largest component of variation tracks geography very well, from northern New England, down to the Mid-Atlantic, then to the South.

The second component of variation tracks east to west, the direction of the migration of settlers. Very few people left Massachusetts for Mississippi. Many did leave Massachusetts for Michigan.

Those who pulled up stakes were not always the same sort of people who stayed home. So over time Westerners became somewhat distinct from Easterners. Those who left married others who left. Those who stayed continued to marry others who stayed.

Citation: Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America
And yet the reality is that different regions of the West were settled from different regions of the East.

The genetic clusters present some interesting results which are comprehensible only through the lens of history. Hawaii and Utah are two states which are a bit skewed to the north. But as it happens these are states which were heavily settled by New England Yankees. In contrast, though states such as California might be dominated by cosmopolitan cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the hinterland are many people whose roots are in the uplands of the South. Scots-Irish who traveled west in search of greener pastures, who brought their music, twang, and kinfolk.

Geographic patterns of genetic clusters

While Indiana was settled mostly from the South, there were far more Yankees who founded towns in Michigan and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Ohio and Illinois were both divided between a northern portion settled from New England, and a southern expanse dominated by Scots-Irish “Butternuts.”

All this seems clear in the genetic results. Now we can quantify the differences. Illinois is tilted a bit to the northern migrants. Ohio somewhat to the southern ones. Historical debates can be resolved through genetic analyses!

Over the next few years tens of millions of more Americans will obtain direct to consumer genetic tests. The database will grow larger and larger. Many demographic questions related to the history of this country will not need to be explored through reconstruction of texts and laborious perusal of letters and court documents. Rather, scientists will simply scan through the pedigrees they construct from human genomes, and synthesize their results with the rich assortment of resources already available from the fields of genealogy and history.

A nation of immigrants and settlers will become an open book to all who wish to read their incredible stories.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


American folkways & American pedigrees was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

June 26, 2018

A shock is a surprise because it’s a shock

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 7:08 am

Reading Thomas Childer’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany reminds me a lot of reading The Red Flag: A History of Communism. These strange and extreme ideological systems seem likely to be eternally marginalized…until they aren’t. The dream of revolution is a fantasy until it isn’t. The rot within these societies, their anomie and disharmony, could be papered over and suppressed for a time. But the revolution took root in rich soil fertilized by the decay and necrosis of the old order.

Human social and cultural systems go through the evolutionary process in a gradual fashion. But quite often they don’t. In fact, compared to biological systems I’d say cultural evolutionary processes are more nonlinear and protean. We may attribute this to exogenous shocks, but with hindsight, we often see that there were endogenous parameters setting the system up to collapse with the first “push” from the outside or an unexpected variable.

And one of the curiosities of humans is our tendency to maintain public fictions all the while knowing that private realities are different. With the chaos of the 1st century B.C., social unrest, the rise of successive strongmen, it was clear to observers of the time that the Roman Republic was sick. The final victory of Augustus and the end of the “republican” chaos is often depicted as a relief for most Romans and their subjects, with the exception of a few aristocrats who were pushed into a purely servile and ceremonial role.

Still, the public fiction continued. Augustus famously was the “first citizen,” princeps. The term imperator became more ubiquitous with the reign of Vespasian a century later, as the Roman Empire recovered from the fall of its first royal dynasty. Nevertheless, the forms of the Republic were maintained despite the reality that Rome become an autocracy. Only around 300 AD did princeps fall into disuse. Diocletian began to exclusively use the term dominus. Lord.

Other public fictions persisted even then. The office of consuls, which date to Roman prehistory, was maintained down to the 6th century A.D., the reign of the Justinian. The last of the Roman Emperors coincidentally who grew up as a native Latin speaker.

Obviously, the tendency toward public fictions is not an artifact of Rome. To a great extent, Constitutional Monarchies are public fictions. When around 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus did away with the fiction that the laws enacted were derived from the will of the Senate of Rome, he did away with a practice that had maintained a republican facade for centuries. The shocks and violence of the 3rd century, when the Roman system almost collapsed, was the coup de grace. Though Diocletian and the military emperors which came after him were never self-styled kings, due to the taboo around the term in Roman society, their forms and manners were inherited by the monarchs of medieval Europe. The radiant crown that Westerners perceive to be prototypical of the form is a Roman inheritance was popularized by the sun-worshipping emperors of the late 3rd century. Julian the Apostate, a reactionary who abhorred the new, did away with many of the imperial accretions added by his recent predecessors, with all the pomp, ceremony and glamor (though his reign was an aberration in more ways than that). The Romans never had kings, but showed kings how to be kings in substance and style.

In the pre-modern world, these fictions were quite resilient. The Zhou dynasty persisted centuries after it no longer had any power to speak of. The Abbassid Caliphs were kept as puppets in Mamluk Egypt for 250 years before the Ottoman conquest. The Merovingian dynasty’s last 100 years was to be as symbolic puppets for the lords of the Franks.

The moral of the story is that public fictions can last quite a bit longer than the reality form which they are spun. With hindsight, the chaos and disrepute ushered in by the reign of Commodus clearly signals the end of the old Roman Empire with its republican fictions. But that was not clear then. The frog continued to boil, until from the outside barbarians threw in a dash of scalding water.

June 24, 2018

Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Cultural Evolution,History,Human sacrifice — Razib Khan @ 4:00 pm

A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.

The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.

Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important set-aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villians” are not white).

The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.

Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.

Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.

Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.

The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.

In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.

The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.

To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished.  The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.

The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture,  it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.

Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.

June 22, 2018

Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 11:21 pm

I recently read John Keay’s Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition. Like his earlier books on the history of India and China, this is a work written by a journalist, not an area specialist (though Keay seems to take a particular interest in South Asia judging by his oeuvre).

To be frank I’m not sure if I learned that much…and I don’t know much about South Asian history after 1945. But, it reaffirmed my intuitions that some of the ideologues who bandy extremely high casualty rates are doing a disservice to the real tragedies that have marred the subcontinent over the past century.

In any case, I do recommend this book to the 50% of the readers of this weblog who are not South Asian.

Note: I don’t have the time or interest to read Guha’s India After Gandhi. Also, my friend Reihan Salam has indicated to me it’s a more tendentious work than most are willing to admit.

June 20, 2018

Why the world before 1450 matters

Filed under: History,History Books — Razib Khan @ 12:31 am

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood-the-zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and Athens in particular. But is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlights deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to man students because of the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of the strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a world where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

June 13, 2018

The days of the All-Fathers

Filed under: Father's Day,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:12 am
Citation: Zerjal et al.

“A man’s greatest joy is crushing his enemies.”

— Genghis Khan

There are many apocryphal quotes attributed to Genghis Khan. And there’s a reason for that — in a single generation he led an obscure group of Mongolian tribes to conquer most of the known world. His armies, and those of his descendants, ravaged lands as distant as Hungary, Iran and China. After the great wars, though, came great peace — the Pax Mongolica. But the scale of death and destruction were such that in the wake of the Mongol conquests great forests grew back from previously cultivated land, changing the very ecosystem of the planet.

It is no great surprise then that if there were ecological impacts of the Mongol conquest, there were also genetic ones. About ~10% percent of the men who live today within the former territories of the Mongol Empire at the death of Genghis Khan carry a particular Y chromosome lineage. About 15 years ago researchers tried to assess the relationship of these individuals on their Y chromosome, and were confronted by the reality that there wasn’t any neat relationship…the phylogeny was a “star.”

Citation: Zerjal et al.

What this means is that at some point in the past men who carried this Y chromosome underwent a very rapid expansion. So rapid that the genetic tree simply “explodes,” rather than accumulating mutations in a gradual manner which could outline different relationships between parental and offspring Y chromosomes. By looking at the pattern of diversity of the branches of the star lineage scientists concluded that this cluster must have expanded about ~1,000 year ago in the past.

Genghis Khan

What happened about ~1,000 years ago? It is notable that the lineage, the “star haplotype,” is most diverse and frequent in and around Mongolia. The conclusion was unmistakable: this Y-chromosome lineage comes down from the tribe of Genghis Khan, and its explosive growth occurred due to the explosive growth of the Mongol Empire.

Genes reflect history and social norms. The history of the Mongol expansion and the extermination of local elites across vast swathes of Inner Asia has left its legacy in the genomes of modern people, with the signature of explosive growth in the Genghis Khan Y haplotype, which stretches far and wide. The persistence and frequency of this lineage across nearly 1,000 years attests to the social prestige attached to be a direct male scion of Genghis Khan and his descendants.

The cultural importance of descent from Genghis Khan in Inner Asia can not be underestimated. Though he was a pagan through-and-through, among Muslim Turkic peoples descent from him became highly prestigious, and a mark that one was meant to rule.

Citation: Karmin et al.

In the case of the the Genghis Khan Y lineage there is a historical record that explains the cause of the genetic phenomenon. What about other Y-chromosomes?

It turns out that about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago a widespread bottleneck followed by an expansion occurred specifically on the Y chromosome for many lineages, not just one. This is particularly true of Eurasia.

For example, Y haplogroups R1a, R1b and I1 seem to have undergone expansion at this time after a population reduction. R1b is the most common haplogroup in Western Europe. R1a is the most common in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and much of South Asia. I1 is the dominant haplogroup of Scandinavia. But 5,000 years ago ancient DNA tells us that R1a ad R1b were very rare where today they are common. I1 seems to be a relic of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers of Europe, but it only began expanding at the same time as R1a and R1b.

Unfortunately 5,000 years ago most of the world was cloaked in prehistory.
Light war chariot

History provides few clues about why a few Y chromosomal lineages came to be so dominant. But we do know that this was around the time when pastoralism and horse-powered warfare, in the form of the light chariot, came into being. New research suggests that only theoretical models that rely on “inter-group competition” can explain the Y-chromosome pattern we see. That is, it can’t be polygyny, where a few men have many wives within the tribe. Rather, it has to be a tribe as conceived of as a patrilineal kinship unit. The victory of one tribe was total loss for the males in another tribe, and each tribe was represented by a particular Y-chromosomal lineage.

Which sounds awfully familiar to the descendants of Genghis Khan…

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The days of the All-Fathers was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

June 12, 2018

The invention of Hinduism 1,000 years ago by a Muslim

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 10:43 am

On of the most annoying tropes in modern intellectual discourse, in particular of the postcolonial variety, is its Eurocentrism. That is, the focus on the Western colonial experience is so strong and unwavering that operationally the rest of history becomes prehistory, a formless period which we are ignorant of, when humans were different in fundamental ways.

Empirically this is of course false. Earlier I have mentioned that the Central Asian Iranian polymath, Al-Biruni, had much to say about India. His was one of the earliest extensive anthropologies we have about the subcontinent from the prespective of an outsider. Though Al-Biruni was from a region which had once had a flourishing Buddhist presence, by the 10th century this had faded from historically memory. Whereas earlier Islamic scholars from previous centuries allude to the persistence of Buddhists in what is today Central Asia and Afghanistan, by Al-Biruni’s lifetime non-Muslims were in sharp retreat (though in the fastness of area like Chitral paganism persisted for a thousand years).

In any case, here are some extracts of Al-Biruni on Indian religion:

The belief of educated and uneducated people differs in every nation; for the former strive to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles, while the latter do not pass beyond the apprehension of the senses and are content with derived rules, without caring for details, especially in questions of religion and law, regarding which opinions and interests are divided.

With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the Hindu literature….

This is what educated people believe about God. They consider the unity of God as absolute, but that everything beside God which may appear as a unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everything that exists, exists through him. It is not impossible to think

If we now pass from the ideas of the educated people among the Hindus to those of the common people, we must first state that they present a great variety. Some of them are simply abominable, but similar errors occur also in other religions. Nay, even in Islam we must decidedly disapprove of the anthropomorphic doctrines, the teachings of the Jabriyya sect, the prohibition of the discussion of religious topics, and such like. Every religious sentence destined for the people at large must be carefully worded, as the following example shows. Some Hindu scholar calls God “a point,” meaning to say thereby that the qualities of bodies do not apply to him. Now some uneducated man reads this and imagines that God is as small as a point, and he does not find out what the word “point” in this sentence was really intended to express. He will not even stop with this offensive comparison, but will describe God as much larger, and will say, “He is twelve fingers long and ten fingers broad.” Further, if an uneducated man hears what we have mentioned, that God comprehends the universe so that nothing is concealed from him, he will at once imagine that this comprehending is effected by means of eyesight; that eyesight is only possible by means of an eye, and that two eyes are better than only one; and in consequence he will describe God as having a thousand eyes, meaning to describe his omniscience.

Similar hideous fictions are sometimes met with among the Hindus, especially among those castes who are not allowed to occupy themselves with science, of whom we shall speak hereafter.

As the word of confession, “There is no god but God, Mohammed is his prophet,” is the shibboleth of Islam, the Trinity that of Christianity, and the institution of the Sabbath that of Judaism, so metempsychosis is the shibboleth of the Hindu religion. Therefore he who does not believe in it does not belong to them, and is not reckoned as one of them. For they hold that the soul, as long as it has not risen to the highest absolute intelligence, does not comprehend the totality of objects at once. Therefore it must explore all particular beings and examine all the possibilities.

The point of this post is not to show that Al-Biruni had a good idea of what “Hinduism” was, though I think if you read it on the whole he isn’t that far removed from how some moderns would characterize it. Rather, it is to show that the distinctiveness of Indian religious thought was noticed long before Europeans arrived to create a specific system which we utilize today. The details of the system might deviate from Al-Biruni, or Adi Shankara, but in its broad outlines it’s describing the same thing.

(since some people are not subtle, the title is not to be taken literally)

June 9, 2018

Gene Expression 2018-06-09 00:09:44

Filed under: History,Nationalism — Razib Khan @ 12:09 am

One of the major conclusions of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is that Protestantism only captured societies with finality when the most powerful temporal leader pushed for the change from above or maintained the pressure. The “magisterial” Reformation succeeded in those nations where the king or the most powerful aristocrats defended Protestantism and made it their own.

In contrast, in much of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, vast territories which had been won over to Protestantism were slowly brought back to Catholicism over the course of the 17th century under imperial direction and force. The process is outlined in Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. It was a deliberate campaign to retake ground lost by the Habsburg monarchy and the Catholic Church.

The grinding down of Protestant faith in Hungary left such bitter feelings that Hungarian Calvinists marched with the armies of the Ottomans in the late 17th century during the Battle of Vienna. Even today the center of Hungarian Calvinism is in the far east, which was longest under the protection, neglect and toleration of the Ottomans.

French and Polish Protestants were well represented among the elites and parts of the nobility. Both states offered the Protestants a modicum of toleration, more or less, but in neither instance they did they capture the monarchy. In France, the Protestant Henry IV famously converted to Roman Catholicism, because the monarchy of the French state was tied so closely to the old religion. Polish Protestants, always a minority but concentrated among the upper echelons, slowly lost their position in society over the 17th and 18th centuries, to the point where being ethnically Polish and being Roman Catholic were synonymous. In contrast, the French Protestants suffered a major immediate shock when Louis XIV revoked the toleration and independence that they had enjoyed explicitly. They either had to convert, emigrate, or retreat deep into isolated areas such as the Massif Central.

The maxim adopted in 1555 was cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, his religion.”

But did this really hold? Henry VIII certainly dragged an England that wasn’t entirely comfortable with leaving Catholicism, especially in the north, to Protestantism (though not too far, as the Puritans would learn!). The Scandinavian monarchs transitioned their nations rather quickly to Lutheranism. The Dutch Protestant minority, motivated, concentrated among elite elements, rebelled against their Catholic Habsburg monarch, but rallied under the Protestant House of Orange.

And yet there were other cases where cuius regio, eius religio did not hold. Arguably Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism illustrates that the monarch was not all powerful…but this case is confounded by the reality that his kingship was conditional on his conversion.

In 1613 John Sigismund of the House of Hohenzollern made public his conversion to Calvinist Reformed Christianity. His Lutheran subjects balked, and did not follow him. Prussia remained a predominantly Lutheran domain with Calvinist rulers for hundreds of years.In 1697 the Wettin House of Saxony converted to Catholicism. While a minority of the subjects of the Hohenzollerns were Reformed Christians, almost no Catholics were present in the domains of the Lutheran Electorate. The overthrow of James II of England in part due to his Catholicism shows that by the latter half the 17th century cuius regio, eius religio did not hold.

The people were self-conscious in having a particular religious identity, and top-down pressure would be met and resisted strenuously.

It is sometimes stated that nationalism and self-identity emerged as late the French Revolution. I do not agree with this. Rather, I agree with Azar Gat’s position in Nations, that nationalism has deep historical and cultural roots. But that does not mean that I believe English self-identity in 1300 is and was the same as English self-identity in 1800. The Gordon Riots of 1780 illustrate how a strident Protestantism had become part and parcel of English national self-identity. In contrast, though there were religious conflicts between the early 16th century (with some rural peasants, especially in the north, retaining loyalty to the Catholic religion) and into the period of the English Civil War, the ultimate outcome seems to have been a matter of mobilizing elites, and up until the overthrow of Charles II retaining the favor of the monarch.

At some point the English monarchy personified the nation. The nation was not simply the extension of the monarch. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War resulted in the switch of their dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.

Today in the age of social media we talk about the power of the mob. But it seems like something happened between 1500 and 1750 in much of Western Europe. Nations-states shifted from being syndicates of elite interest groups ad powerful individuals, to becoming expressions of popular will and sentiment. This preceded democracy or liberalism by generations, and it was a gradual process. Mass society and identity emerged. Immovable, with its own will.

And this had happened before historically, from Greek democracies to the Roman republic. Polities were reflections of the public. At some point citizens become subjects, and the populace were simply resources from which to extract rents to fund aristocratic positional contests. The information revolution of the printing press, and economic development more generally, changed the calculus. The past came back.

These sorts of dynamics are universal, cyclical, and playing out to differing extents across the world.

Related: On the rectification of names and religion. A post over at Brown Pundits.

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