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October 17, 2018

The expansion of the polar people

Filed under: Finland,History,science — Razib Khan @ 10:58 am

The expansion of the polar people

Sami in the far north of Europe

Since the development of agriculture 12,000 years ago, the cultural and genetic landscape of our world has been transformed by the emergence of peasants as the dominant demographic. For most of the recorded history, the average human was a peasant; a laboring tiller of the soil.

There were of course exceptions. Some peoples took up pastoralism. Others specialized in extracting resources from the sea — such as fisherman. And of course, there were hunter-gatherers who continued to practice a lifestyle as old as the human race itself.

Muskox in the Taimyr Peninsula

Though we often think of hunter-gatherers in a tropical context, the reality is that some of the most successful practitioners of this lifestyle have flourished in and around the Arctic. Not only have they flourished, but they have vastly expanded! For instance, the Thule culture of North America famously replaced the Norse agriculturalists of Greenland in the 15th century.

But perhaps the most speculator expansion of a non-agriculturalists in the north has been that of the Uralic peoples. A paper titled “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations” has an excellent map which illustrates the geographic span of this language family:

Citation: Tambets, Kristiina, et al. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations.” Genome biology 19.1 (2018): 139.

Over twenty years ago researchers noted that one particular Y haplogroup lineage, N1c, was very common among Uralic peoples. Notice the overlap in distribution between this lineage and the Uralic populations below.

Distribution of N1c

The question then emerges: did the Uralic peoples come from the east, into northern Europe, or were they indigenous to northern Europe and expanded eastward? Examining patterns of genetic diversity indicate that this Y chromosomal lineage emerged in Siberia and later spread to northern Europe. Why? Because diversity accumulates in regions where the lineage has been present the longest.

Citation: Lamnidis, Thiseas Christos, et al. “Ancient Fennoscandian genomes reveal origin and spread of Siberian ancestry in Europe.” bioRxiv (2018): 285437.

New research from ancient DNA has clarified the timing of the arrival of these Siberians, Ancient Fennoscandian genomes reveal origin and spread of Siberian ancestry in Europe.

What we do know from modern genetic variation is that the Uralic people, including the Finns, seem to have recent Siberian affinities. In contrast, most other Northern Europeans do not have this — making it even more distinct. This Siberian affinity is strongest in the Sami hunter-gatherers of the far north.

Samples from a population in the Kola Peninsula of northern Russia from to 3,500 years ago yielded individuals who were even more Siberian than the Sami — as you can see in the admixture plot to the left. In particular, the Siberian ancestry of the Finnic people seems to be similar to that of the Ngananasn people of the Taymyr peninsula in Russia.

Looking at patterns within the genome of these ancient people, researchers have concluded that these people are the product of mixing between Siberians and indigenous European hunter-gatherers, which began to occur ~4,000 years ago. This aligns with other work that suggests that the Ceramic Comb Culture, the dominant Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society of northeast Europe before the expansion of agriculture, lacked Siberian ancestry.

Nenet Samoyed people

Where does this leave us? If we use genetics as a guide, it seems that around ~4,000 years ago a migration of Arctic hunter-gatherers swept out of the northern fringe of Siberia to the west. These people were likely related to the easternmost of modern Uralic peoples: the Samoyed tribes. The Y chromosomes of western Uralic peoples, such as the Sami and Finn, carry the hallmarks of ancestry similar to the Samoyeds. But the mitochondrial lineage is almost wholly similar to their European neighbors. Therefore, it seems that the spread of Uralic languages westward was due to the migration of males.

One of the implications of these conclusions is that the Uralic languages may have arrived in the Baltic after the Indo-European languages! In much of Estonia and southern Finland, the Corded Ware culture, presumed to be associated with Indo-Europeans, predates 2000 BC by centuries.

Though we often imagine that history and culture move in a singular direction, toward agriculture, the Uralic people may be an instance of an exception. If it is correct that hunter-gatherer Siberian men moved into large areas of northeastern Europe, and culturally assimilated more numerous peoples, some of whom were agriculturalists, it may indicate that the trajectory of history is more winding and complex than we may imagine.

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


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

October 13, 2018

The leisure class of the ancient world

Filed under: History,trade — Razib Khan @ 8:06 pm

The years before 1914 and the First World War are often termed the “first age of globalization” (with our current era the second). But that’s a little short-right, even though arguably correct in some sense.

Books such as The Fate of Rome and The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization make it quite clear that Classical Antiquity achieved some level of globalization in its corner of Eurasia. At the other end of Eurasia, the Grand Canal also illustrates the importance of trade and economic interdependence in complex pre-modern societies.

But what has been made can be unmade. One of the major arguments in Framing the Early Middle Ages is that the decline in the social complexity of the early medieval period in Europe was due in part to the collapse of the whole fiscal apparatus of the Roman bureaucratic state. Some of these weak post-Roman states were really chiefdoms bound together with personalized rule. A process which advanced the furthest in Britain and the Balkans.

And yet during the first grat maximum of human civilization in the years after 0 international trade extended even beyond the bounds of specific imperium, from one end of Eurasia to the other.

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India focus mostly on the international aspect of the trade. Much of it is concerned with the role of conspicuous consumption among elites in the Roman Empire in driving this trade, and so the bullion drain to the east. Silk, incense, ivory, and medicines were all imported in large quantities from the east. The state benefited in some sense through taxation, but the drain on specie was a constant consideration. It is well known that Roman coinage, sometimes modified, became the standard in the southern half of India in the first centuries AD.

In a stepwise fashion, East Roman traders pushed across the Indian ocean until in 166 we know that they reached the imperial court in China. This connection seems to have been made by following the trade routes which were already established by Indians into Southeast Asia. Roman geographers were familiar with the general shape of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as Java.

Because our records from China and the Roman Empire are very good, is easy to ignore the reality that a whole network of cities existed along the shores of the Indian ocean. These cities grew up around trade and acted as intermediaries for the demand for particular luxury goods which also pumped specie out of Roman mines. But the decades after the Antonine plague seems to have been defined by multiple regressions across Eurasia, as societies dependent and expecting trade faltered when local nodes collapsed and interrupted the flow.

October 9, 2018

How the Greeks came to be

Filed under: Greeks,History — Razib Khan @ 4:01 pm

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.

Who are the Greeks? Where did they come from?

We have enough ancient DNA now to answer many of these questions. It seems that the largest component of Greek ancestry derives from the expansion of farmers out of Anatolia ~9,000 years ago. But at some point in the latter phases of prehistory, another wave of migrants pushed out from the east, with affinities to peoples as far away as Iran. And then during the Bronze Age, another pulse of migration arrived, likely correlated with the arrival of Greek-speaking peoples as such, the Mycenaeans. Finally, there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that the peregrinations of the pagan Slavs during Late Antiquity and the early Medieval period left their imprint on many Hellenes, in particular in the north of the country, around Salonika.

But that’s just genetics. What about culture? In terms of religion, Greek paganism is a composite. Zeus pater is clearly a standard Indo-European sky-god. Jupiter in Latin. Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́ for the ancient Aryans. In contrast, gods such as Athena seem to have synthetic, and at least partly pre-Indo-European origins. Finally, Dionysius was possibly an eastern import relatively late in prehistory.

Though the Greek language is definitely Indo-European, there are also extensive loanwords indicating an indigenous substrate. For example, words with the syllabic fragment nth, such as in Hyacinth, are likely native. The Greeks settled amongst peoples who had a long history of settled life, and had developed their own civilization.

The point is that it is probably not even wrong to say that the Greeks as we understand came from elsewhere, or, that they were indigenous. To be Greek probably emerged in the period after 2500 BC, as Indo-Europeans mixed with the local cultures, and created something new. Autochthonous.

October 1, 2018

Postcolonial imperialism

Filed under: History,Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 7:03 pm

Rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism I am struck by the fact that he’s a very good writer compared to his heirs in postcolonial studies. As someone who cites Foucault, it is natural that there is a fair amount of vapid but lexically textured passages in Orientalism (you can open up any page and stumble upon a polished by inscrutable passage). But the general thesis and the review of the literary works seems moderately coherent actually. Far less of a screen than the more recent distillations. Who says evolution ascends upward in complexity?

As someone who isn’t well versed in literature I can’t really comment on the validity of the interpretations, but, there is one thing that I noticed in Said’s argument which prefigures modern postcolonialism: it abstracts and generalizes from a particular instance in human history, European interactions with non-Europeans in the early modern and modern period, and projects them across all of history. Like tachyons going back in time the manipulations and predations of early modern Europeans echo back through time and forward into infinite.

Here is a representative sample of what I’m talking about. The first section is a quote from Aeschylus:

Now all Asia’s land
Moans in emptiness.
Xerxes led forth, oh oh!
Xerxes destroyed, woe woe!
Xerxes’ plans have all miscarried
In ships of the sea.
Why did Darius then
Bring no harm to his men
When he led them into battle,
That beloved leader of men from Susa?

What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile “other” world beyond the seas….

Said is quoting here someone who lived in the 5th century BC. What Aeschylus meant by “Asia” had a much different connotation than what we think of today. In part, the idea of a decadent civilization and the decline from more vigorous ages is a common theme in the ancient oriented, and the Romans in their turn depicted the Greeks as the Greeks had depicted the Persians.

And, of course, the context here is that some people of Hellas were resisting the domination and expansion of the world’s greatest empire of the time, that of the Persians, which was based in Asia. Aeschylus was a bard of the subaltern in this context! The whole passage when exposed is actually an inversion of the larger thesis.

The author does not mask the historical context of the passage, but it strikes me that it’s totally silly to make any identity between Europe in the 5th century BC to Europe in the 18th to 20th centuries, and Asia in the 5th century BC to Asia in the 18th to 20th century.

To be honest, the concept of différance may apply here. Said cannot be so naive as to not understand the chasm between Europe in the Classical World, which was an almost clinical description of the geography, and Europe in the early modern period, which was freighted with the weight of history. The Thracians did not care if they were European, but the Russian nobility yearned to be so thought.

Now transfer this to a typical undergraduate. Are they intuitively aware of the chasm of history, the centuries, the transmutation of words and their implications? To be entirely frank, I think some of the teaching assistants guiding the students are probably too stupid and ignorant to actually understand these nuances themselves.

But the students learn about terms like postcolonialism and Orientalism, and as some of them move into the professions and the media these words became part of the common lexicon to show you are an educated person, just as dialectical materialism was for an earlier generation.

And that is how postcolonial theory mutated from being a system that decomposes very precise and delimited historical dynamics to becoming an heir to classical Marxism, a theory for all of history in the past and into the future.

Forgive them their ignorance, for they infer the path through the darkness by Theory alone.

September 26, 2018

India is eternal but Indians are not

Filed under: History,India,science — Razib Khan @ 10:18 pm

This week’s episode of The Insight dug deeply into the current scientific understanding of the genetic origins of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Recent publications and media coverage have caught the science in midstream, as scholars have to deal with the clamor for new information in the face of the need to be careful and cautious when presenting new results.

Steppe Chariot

The show notes linked extensively to the scientific literature which documents the interface between cutting-edge genomics, modern population genetics and computation, and finally the abstruse lab science of ancient DNA. Or, just go to the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

The general outline of what we know so far is straightforward. Over the past 10,000 years, the Indian subcontinent has been a great vortex, sucking in peoples from various corners of Eurasia. The overwhelming proportion of the ancestry of any given person in the Indian subcontinent, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, binds together the heritage of three peoples. First, the longstanding residents of South Asia who were descended from the original migrants out of Africa. Second, farmers and pastoralists from the hills of western Iran. And finally, Indo-Aryan peoples who arrived in chariots and drove their cattle before them.

Meenakshi Temple, South India

As noted on the podcast, the slippery and sometimes sloppy usage of labels can mislead as much as illuminate. The term “Indian” can refer to many things, whether it’s a geographic landmass, or, people. More esoteric but still widely used terms such as “Indo-Aryan” are properly linguistic, but they have gained ethnic connotations. A shorthand that communicates, and sometimes, distorts.

In some of the scholarly literature, and on the podcast, you may hear terms such as “Iranian farmer” without context. By this, we do not mean the farmers of modern Iran, but the people nearly 10,000 years ago who lived in what became Iran, and began to herd goats and grow wheat. These people then migrated eastward, eventually to India. Of the great farming cultures of the Middle East that arose with agriculture, these were the easternmost extension.

Obviously, the same caveat applies to the “steppe ancestry”, which is associated with likely Indo-European peoples, from the early Yamnaya to the successor Corded Ware, Andronovo and Sintashta cultures. The fact is that there were different peoples on the steppe before these cultures arose, and there were, and are, people on the steppe after they left the stage of history. But, in the context of Indian history what we mean by “steppe ancestry” are these particular cultures, and the genetic imprint we see on the steppe between the Volga and the Aral Sea, and later among the peoples of India after 2000 BC. The term is not genetic, but specific.

Indra atop his mount, an elephant

The latest genetic work aligns with earlier theories that the Indo-Aryans arrived in India after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. All signs point to their connection to peoples on the Eurasian steppe, whose origins are themselves a melange of West Asian, European and Siberian. This has led some commentators to suggest that the Indo-Aryans were “alien invaders.”

In sharp contrast, Indian nationalists have long been keen to point out that the earliest texts written down from the oral epics of the Indian Aryans do not seem to record a memory of a land outside of South Asia. In the Vedas, the oldest of the memories of the Indo-Aryan tribes, the Thunder God Indra sits atop an elephant, an Indian beast if there ever was one.

Though the origin of the Indo-Aryans was likely outside of the continent, it is important to remember that their cultural and historical identity as we understand them today seem to have been forged in the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas themselves bear the imprint of non-Aryans words, indicating that by the time the warlike and pastoralist tribes began to fashion the seminal epics which defined their identity, they had already become of the soil of the subcontinent in a deep sense.

Diversification of the Dravidian languages 4,500 years ago

One of the major dichotomies in the prehistory of South Asia on the edge of the history, from the arrival of Alexander the Great in the north to the Sangam period flourishing in the south, is between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Often, the Indo-Aryans are posited to be newcomers, while the Dravidians are aboriginals. But new research in linguistics and archaeology is pointing to the conclusion that Dravidian languages themselves diversified in the period after 2,500 BC. In other words, not very much earlier than when the Indo-Aryans arrived in the subcontinent.,

Though the Dravidian populations of the south often lack the ancestry from the Eurasian steppe, so common among Brahmins, in particular, they invariably show signs of being descended from the ancient Iranian farmers. Like Indo-Aryan speaking peoples, the Dravidians are themselves likely a fusion of newcomers from the north and west, and indigenous hunter-gatherers. The linguistic evidence, along with the start of the South Indian Neolithic in 2,500 BC, indicates that Dravidian-speaking peoples forded the path for the Indo-Aryans that came after them.

What genetics has told us over the past generation is that most of the world’s populations are mixes between very different groups of people. 10,000 years ago no one lived in the world who looked much like modern Indians. Or Northern Europeans. Or, likely Southeast Asians. And so on.

Underneath all the statistics, the new science and old history, the final truth is that in the game of precedence and indigeneity, no one really comes out ahead. It’s been a long and complicated dance between many different peoples, and everyone’s ancestry leads to both outsiders and insiders.

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


India is eternal but Indians are not was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 3: ANI, ASI, IVC and The Genetics of India

Filed under: Genetics,History,India,science — Razib Khan @ 3:49 pm
A scene from an ancient Indian epic

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Play) we discussed how the genetics of 25% of the world’s population, the people of South Asia, came to be. It’s a journey of thousands of years.

We cited the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

Additionally, we cite a chapter in David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, where he discusses the genetics of India, and how it’s analogous to Europe.

A cover story from India Today, 4500-year-old DNA from Rakhigarhi reveals evidence that will unsettle Hindutva nationalists, was also referenced. Please read with caution! The research has not been published, and there are likely going to be changes based on new results (actually, probably certainly from what I have heard)….

There was a discussion of some technical, but important, statistical genetic tests to infer admixture. The paper in Genetics, Ancient Admixture in Human History, outlines these methods in detail. The three and four population tests, as well LD decay estimates of admixture time are all discussed in this paper. All are alluded to or discussed in the podcast.

Linguistic families in South Asia

There was extensive discussion of the various language families in India, in particular, Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Munda. We discussed the results of a recent, paper A Bayesian phylogenetic study of the Dravidian language family, which indicates a recent expansion of this language family in South Asia. Also, a new preprint on Munda, The genetic legacy of continental scale admixture in Indian Austroasiatic speakers suggests that the Munda emerged around the same time as the Dravidians.

A lot of ethnographic terms were thrown around with deeper exploration. If you want to follow-up, Elamites from ancient Iran, Indo-European Sintashta culture, and the Bactria-Margiana culture of Central Asia.

We talked about ANI and ASI. The 2009 paper, Reconstructing Indian Population History, introduced these terms and constructs. The Kalash and Pulayar people of Pakistan and southern India respectively were mentioned as modern-day exemplars of ANI and ASI.

Distribution of R1a1a

The distribution of R1a1a in India and Eastern Europe was also discussed, and how it is associated with expanding steppes. Also, caste and its antiquity were discussed, in particular, that modern boundaries between groups seem to have emerged around 2,000 years ago, after several thousand years of admixture between disparate Indian groups. The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia is a preprint that explores the relevance of this endogamy today for health risks.

Linguistic isolates Burusho and Nihali were mentioned. And, the development of the “Yankee” identity, which Razib analogized to Indo-Aryans!

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 — Season 2, Episode 3: ANI, ASI, IVC and The Genetics of India was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

September 12, 2018

Season 2, Episode 1: The Legacy of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza

Filed under: anthropology,Evolution,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 1:15 pm
L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, 1922–2018

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Play) we discussed the life and legacy of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, who died on August 31st, 2018. See the Stanford obit. From John Hawks, The man who tried to catalog humanity on Medium is probably the most thorough review of his life and works.

Cavalli-Sforza’s magnum opus

We discussed the popularization of PCA and phylogenetic trees by Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues, outlined in his magnum opus The History and Geography of Humans. The methods of analysis developed in the 20th century prepared us for the avalanche of data we confront into the 21st century.

Also, Cavalli-Sforza’s collaboration with Marcus Feldman that laid the seed for the field of cultural evolution. See the book Cultural Transmission and Evolution. Today the field of cultural evolution is being pushed by researchers such as Joe Henrich.

Cavalli-Sforza was also instrumental in synthesizing the application of formal demographic models to archaeology. See The Neolithic Transition and the Genetics of Populations in Europe.

L. L. Cavalli-Sforza remained active into the 21st century. See this interview from 2012.

After his retirement, several labs have carried on the project of exploring population genetic history. David Reich’s lab’s publications. Also, see Eske Willerslev’s work.

Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation. A 2008 study that uses the HGDP sample on a SNP-array, bringing The History and Geography of Humans into the 21st century!

Finally, the cultural anthropologist wrote a full-length biography of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s life, with a focus on his scientific contributions, A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey.

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


Season 2, Episode 1: The Legacy of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

August 30, 2018

The passing

Filed under: Decline of the West,History — Razib Khan @ 6:00 pm

In 1998 Bill Clinton stated:

Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years, there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years, there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time … [These immigrants] are energizing our culture and broadening our vision of the world. They are renewing our most basic values and reminding us all of what it truly means to be American.

The year 2050, or whatever date you want, is when “whites” will become a “minority.” Both words are in quotes, since what counts as “white” and “minority” matter a great deal in terms of these quantities. Clinton, like many liberal(ish) white Americans, did not look upon that future with dread or anxiety. Rather, he was, and presumably is, hopeful. At the time many people asserted that Bill Clinton was arguably the first American president who was personally comfortable with nonwhites. After all, Vernon Jordan was one of his closest friends.

And yet here are the demographics of the town where Bill & Hillary chose to settle down after the 1990s:

. The racial makeup of the CDP was 91.80% White, 0.94% African American, 0.03% Native American, 5.62% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.52% from other races, and 1.07% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.55% of the population.

Bill may look forward to our bright diverse future of 2050, but it lives socially and demographically in 1950. And he’s not alone.

To me, this is the important lacunae left out in Panjak Mishra’s op-ed in The New York Times, The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult. The op-ed is a testament to the fact that even a sophist must speak the truth now and then. It is certainly true that there is a discomfort and disquiet in the world as the long centuries of white supremacy, in the most literal and descriptive sense, slowly come to a close. Naturally, Mishra points the finger at figures from the past, who can’t dispute his disdain, as well as those individuals such as Donald Trump, whom the readers of The New York Times see as heralds of reaction and regression.

But the truth is that as the “the rising tide of color against white world-supremacy” begins to crest even the “good whites,” the “progressive whites,” will begin to become uncomfortable and unmoored. The noblesse oblige of progressive whites is predicated on the reality and fact of their privilege, of their dominion over the colored races. And yet the reality is that many of these progressive whites show revealed preferences which are not much different than non-progressive whites. On the whole, they live amongst other whites, socialize with other whites, and marry other whites.

Having lived in California, around white people who are politically far more liberal than I am, I have a bit of personal experience with how these “revealed preferences” work. Rather than anecdotes, I’ll just point to this article, Ghosts of white people past: witnessing the white flight from an Asian ethnoburb.

The “passing of the great race” is a far bigger story than nationalism, racial or otherwise. It is the expiration of a whole Weltanschauung. An undermining of assumptions. The death of a world civilization, and the birth of a new one.

August 26, 2018

The coming genetic invasion of history, and the rage to come

Filed under: Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 10:42 am

About ten years ago I reviewed Bryan Sykes’ book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. It was what it was, a product of the Y/mtDNA era. Therefore, there were a fair amount of conclusions which in hindsight turn out to be wrong. Sykes, and other genetic historians, such as Stephen Oppenheimer, have annoyed historians for years with their genetic imperialism. More frequently, genetic research has been an accent or inflection on historical work. Peter Heather has integrated some genetic results in his earlier books, though you can ignore those and still obtain the general conclusions.

The recent work on near antiquity is a hint that that is going to be blown apart. Ancient DNA in the historical period has been a slow simmer for a while now. The reason is simple: ancient DNA returns more on the investment for prehistory, where there aren’t historical documents. Until recently ancient DNA techniques were expensive in a variety of ways. The industrial process described in Who We Are and How We Got There is going to change that.

In the near future, a large number of projects are going to surface which test hypotheses and conjectures offered by historians.

You would think that testing hypotheses, generally with demographic predictions, would be something that historians would welcome. The problem is that the test will mean some scholars are going to turn out to be wrong. People who spent decades building up a particular model or understanding of the past are going to have that torn away from them.

The normal human reaction is to get defensive. But the problem is that many historians are not well trained in genetic methods. In fact, many geneticists are not well trained in the abstruse statistical methods developed by scholars in ancient DNA.

We’ve seen some of the same from archaeologists. But archaeologists had models which were, to be frank, more speculative than those historians cling to. Even if a particular historical model may be wrong, it is likely there are reasonable grounds to have held onto to that position. If ancient DNA falsifies it the reaction will be even more strident I suspect.

Of course, geneticists need the help of historians. So when the bad feelings clear I think the synthesis will get us to a better understanding of the past.

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.

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