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

June 19, 2012

Civilization is not Ferguson’s best

Filed under: civilization,History,Niall Ferguson — Razib Khan @ 8:44 pm

Last winter I took note of a major conflict between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson over a review by the former of the latter’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson accused Mishra of attempting to assassinate his character, and even suggested that he would take him to court over libel. This piqued my curiosity, so I added Ferguson’s latest work to my stack. I recently managed to get to it and finish it. It’s a very quick and jaunty read. I enjoyed his The Ascent of Money and The World’s Banker, but have avoided Ferguson’s forays into neoconservative intellectual polemic. I’m obviously not a neoconservative myself, but normally disagreement with an individual’s theses doesn’t deter me from grappling with their ideas. Rather, the past decade of American history has been a wasteful experiment in neoconservative nation-building, and I’d had enough of that. No need for more o that crap in flowery and more erudite paragraphs. But when it comes to economic history Niall Ferguson seems to be on more legitimate terrain, though his histories of the Rothschild House are much weightier tomes than something like The Ascent of Money. But to ...

December 26, 2011

The sons of Adam: spirit, not blood


Hominin increase in cranial capacity, courtesy of Luke Jostins


A few years ago a statistical geneticist at Cambridge’s Sanger Institute, Luke Jostins, posted the chart above using data from fossils on cranial capacity of hominins (the human lineage). As you can see there was a gradual increase in cranial capacity until ~250,000 years before the present, and then a more rapid increase. I should also note that from what I know about the empirical data, mean human cranial capacity peaked around the Last Glacial Maximum. Our brains have been shrinking, even relative to our body sizes (we’re not as large as we were during the Ice Age). But that’s neither here nor there. In the comments Jostins observes:

The data above includes all known Homo skulls, but none of the results change if you exclude the 24 Neandertals. In fact, you see the same results if you exclude Sapiens but keep Neandertals; the trends are pan-Homo, and aren’t confined to a specific lineage….


In other words: the secular increase in cranial capacity for our lineage extends millions of years back into the past, and also shifts laterally to “side-branches” (with our specific terminal node, H. sapiens sapiens, as a reference). This is why I often contend as an aside that humanity was to some extent inevitable. By humanity I do not mean H. sapiens sapiens, the descendants of a subset of African hominins who flourished ~100,000 years before the present, but intelligent and cultural hominins who would inevitably construct a technological civilization. The parallel trends across the different distinct branches of the hominin family tree which Luke Jostins observed indicated to me that our lineage was not special, but simply first. That is, if African hominins were exterminated by aliens ~100,000 years before the present, at some point something akin to H. sapiens sapiens in creativity and rapidity of cultural production would eventually arise (in all likelihood later, but possibly earlier!).

This does not mean that I think humanity was inevitable upon earth. For most of the history of this planet life was unicellular. I do not find it implausible that life on earth may have reached its “sell by” date due to astronomical events before the emergence of complex organisms (in fact, from what I have heard the end of life is going to occur ~1 billion years into the future due to the persistent increase in the energy output of Sol, not ~4 billion years in the future when Sol turns into a red giant). But, once complex organisms arose it does seem that further complexity was inevitable. This was Richard Dawkins’ case in The Ancestor’s Tale based simply on the descriptive record. But did the emergence of complex organisms necessarily entail the evolution of a technological species? I don’t think so. It took 500 million years for that to occur (it does not seem that coal resources formed hundreds of millions of years ago were tapped before humans). Given enough time obviously a technological species would evolve (e.g., extend the time of evaluation to 1 trillion years), but note that the earth has only ~5 billion years. Homo arrived on the scene in the last 20% of that interval.

Here I am positing at a minimum two not excessively likely or inevitable events over a 5 billion year time span which would lead to a hyper-technological and cultural species:

- The emergence of multicellular life

- The emergence of a lineage with the propensities of Homo

One Homo evolved and expanded outside of Africa I suspect that something of the form of a technological civilization became inevitable n this planet. We see parallelism in our own short post-Pleistocene epoch. Multiple human societies shifted from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists over the past 10,000 years. The experience of the New World civilizations in particular illustrates that human universal tendencies are real. Not only were “game changing” cultural forms such as agriculture and literacy invented independently during the Holocene, but they were not invented during earlier interglacials (at least in all likelihood).


Khufu, Necho, Augustus and Napoleon

Why not? Well, consider the cultural torpidity of Paleolithic toolkits, which might persist for hundreds of thousands of years! I suspect some of this due to biology. But even over the Holocene we do perceive that cultural change has proceeded at a more rapid clip as time has progressed (i.e., at a minimum cultural change has been accelerating, and it may be that the rate of acceleration itself is increasing!). Consider that the civilization of ancient Egypt spanned at least 2,000 years. Though there are clear differences, the continuity between Old Kingdom Egypt and the last dynasties before the Assyrian and Persian conquests is very obvious to us, and would be obvious to ancient Egyptians. In contrast, 2,000 years separates us from Augustan Rome. The continuities here are clear as well (e.g., the Roman alphabet), but the cultural change is also clear (if you wish to argue that the early modern and modern period are sui generis, the 1,500 year interval from Augustan Rome to the Neo-Classical Renaissance would still be a stark contrast when compared against an ancient Egyptian reference*, despite the latter’s aping of the forms of the former).

So far I have focused on the vertical dimension of time. But there is also the lateral dimension, of cross-fertilization across the branches of the hominin family tree. The admixture of a Neanderthal element into non-Africans has started to become widely accepted recently, thanks to the confluence of archaeology and genomics in the field of ancient DNA. Even if one rejects the viability of Neanderthal admixture, the solution to the conundrum of these results must still entail stepping away from a simple model of recent exclusive origin of humans from a small African population. There are also hints of admixture with other archaic lineages on the Pacific fringe, and within Africa.

Until recently it was common to posit that modern humans, our own lineage, had some special genius which allowed it to sweep the field and extinguish our cousins. The qualitative result of Luke Jostins’ plot was known; that other hominin lineages also exhibited encephalization. In fact, it was a curious fact that Neanderthals on average had larger cranial capacities than anatomically modern humans. But the reality remained that we replaced them, ergo, we must have a special genius. Until the lack of distinction between Neanderthals and modern humans on loci implicated in the necessary (if not sufficient) competency of language that trait was a prime candidate for what made “us” special. But now I put “us” in quotation marks. The data do point to an overwhelming descent from an African or near-African population for non-Africans over the past 100,000 years. But the “archaic admixture” is not trivial. What was they are us, and we have become what they might have been.

For over two centuries there has been a debate in the West between monogenesis and polygenesis. The former is the position that humankind derives from one single pair or population (the former a straightforward recapitulation of the standard Abrahamic model). The latter is the position that different races of humans derive from different proto-humans, or, for the Christian polygenists that only Europeans descent from Adam and Eve (the other races being “non-Adamic”). Echoes of this conflict persist down to the present era. Many of the earlier partisans of “Out of Africa” have claimed that the proponents of multiregionalism were latter-day polygenists (not without total justification in some cases).

But the conflict between monogenism and polygenism is not the appropriate frame for what is being unveiled by reality before our eyes. What we see in the creation of modern humanity is a monogenic base inflected with the flavors of polygenism. Modern humans descend, by and large, from an expansion of an African population over the past 200,000 years. But on the margins there are other strands and filaments of ancestry which tie disparate populations back to lineages which branched off far earlier from the main trunk. At a minimum hundreds of thousands, and perhaps an order of 1 million years, before our own age. Today genomics avails of us the statistical power to extract out these discordant signals from the fluid “Out of Africa” narrative, but I would not be surprised if in the near future we stumble upon more and more “long branches” of less noteworthy quantity. Admixture is likely to be an old and persistent story in the hominin lineage, with only the most recent substantial bouts of separation and hybridization being of notice and curiosity at this moment in time.

What does all this mean? And why have I juxtaposed deep time natural history across the tree of life with inferences of relatively recent paleoanthropology? Let’s start with two propositions:

- Technological civilization, an outward manifestation of radically complex sentience, is not inevitable, though it is probable given certain preconditions (I believe that the existence of Homo increased its probability to ~1.0 over a reasonable time period)

- Radically complex sentience is not the monopoly of a particular exclusive lineage which accrues its genius from a particular specific forebear

John Farrell has pointed out the possible issues that the Roman Catholic church may have with the new model of human origins. But the Catholic church is only but a reflection of more general human strain of thought. Descent-groups, whether real or fictive, loom large in the human imagination. The evolutionary rationale for this is not too hard to explain, but we co-opt the importance of kinship in many different domains. Like evolution, human cultural forms simply take what is already present, and retrofit and modify elements to taste.

So why are humans special? And why do humans have inalienable rights? Many of us may not agree with the proposition that we are the descendants of Adam and Eve, and therefore we were granted the divine grace of eternal souls. But a hint of this logic can be found in the assumptions of many thinkers who do not agree with the propositions of the Roman Catholic church. Recently I listened to Sherry Turkle arguing against a reliance on “robot companions” which are able to exhibit the verisimilitude of human emotions for those who may be lacking in companionship (e.g., the aged and infirm). Though Turkles’ arguments were not without foundation, some of her arguments were of the form that “they are not us, they are not real, we are real. And that matters.” This is certainly true now, but will it always be? Who is this “they” and this “we”? And what does “real” mean? Are emotions a mysterious human quality, which will remain outside of the grasp of those who do not descend from Adam, literal or metaphorical?

If there arises a point where non-human sentience is a reality, do they have the same rights as we? Though the difference is radical in terms of quantity to some extent I think we know the answer: they are human by the way they are, not by the way their ancestors were. The “taint” of admixture with diverse lineages across the present human tree of life has not resulted in an updating of our understanding of human rights. That is because the idea that we are all the children of Adam, or the descendants of mitochondrial Eve, is a post facto justification for our understanding of what the rights of humanity are, adn what humanity is. And what it is is a particular ecological niche, a way of being, not being who descend down in a line of biological relationship from a particular person or persons.

* The cultural fundamentals of Old Kingdom Egypt arguably persisted in a living fossil form in the temple at Philae down to the 6th century A.D.! Therefore, a 3,500 year lineage of literature continuity.

Image credits: all public domain images from Wikpedia

March 28, 2011

India as an idea

Filed under: civilization,Culture — Razib Khan @ 2:07 pm

Overselling India?:

I am familiar with some of the India-merchants that Chaudhuri mentions but not all; I should therefore withhold judgment on the quality of the entire literary output. However, I can see the dangerous pitfalls (and the inevitable pratfall) facing anyone who undertakes to convey the “idea” of India, an ancient, vast and immensely populous nation with a dizzying diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions (subdivided into castes) and cultures. A few times in passing, some of us here have complained about the unnecessary “exoticization” of India which unfortunately is often a two way traffic. Non-Indian seekers of ”India as an experience“ go there to validate a preconceived notion of the place and certain sellers of India enthusiastically and cynically provide reinforcement. The trade often results in hypocrisy and disillusionment. The most disappointing (and disappointed) reporting usually comes from those who expect a limited foray into India as a spiritual retreat to resolve all or most of their existential conflicts. I will paraphrase here what I once wrote as a comment in response to an article of discontent written by a traveler to India who did not find there what he had sought.

I think one has to make recourse to analogies here. Imagine the idea of Europe. Or the idea of Latin America. The idea of Europe is not trotted out very often because Europe is well known to all, and we live in many ways a Eurocentric world imaginatively. No one would presume that Sweden and Spain are interchangeable. Rather, each are special, distinctive, and must be taken on their own terms. In contrast, people do distill Latin America into one amorphous whole. But if you ask Latin Americans, an Argentine, a Mexican, and a Panamanian would protest their distinctiveness. If you they have spent time in America they will also tell you how often people assume something about them because of a mistaken generalization about “Latinos” as a whole.

June 27, 2010

The two cycles

Filed under: China,civilization,Culture,History — Razib @ 12:05 pm

I’m reading Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. The book basically outlines the international state system in the ancient Near East which fostered diplomatic relationships between the monarchies of the period. It is noted that this state system and diplomatic culture did not make it through the chaos which marks the transition between what we term the Bronze Age and Iron Age; the centuries between 1200 and 600 BC. I try and read about the ancient Near East when I can, it’s a hard area to find academic books accessible to lay people (I don’t know Sumerian or Akkadian for example, which means that a lot of the philological stuff goes over my head). But thanks the usage of cuneiform tablets which are often well preserved when palaces are burned down we have a substantial amount of records, albeit not of the personable narrative form excluding some exceptions (good for economic historians, not so much for cultural historians).


One thing that seems to jump out to me is that our history can be divided between what came before the transition above, and what came after. If you know about Julian Jaynes you know some argue for a really deep psychological chasm. Setting that aside, consider the cultural continuity of texts between the period after, and the period before. Much of what we know of antiquity in the West is due to translation efforts during the Carolingian period, encyclopediasts in 10th century Byzantium, and the Abbasids in 9th century. These are the major choke points. If it were not for these periods of elite sponsorship of transcription we would be much poorer in antique Greco-Roman works (the maligned Assyrian Empire played that role in the early Iron Age; I believe we have the Epic of Gilgamesh thanks to its libraries).

The cultural chasm between Mycenaean Greece and Classical Greece, a period of 500 years, is arguably greater than that between Classical Greece and 6th century Byzantium. After 1200 BC literate culture disappeared from the Aegean and Anatolia. The societies of the Near East and Egypt were under extreme stress, and their survival was a near thing. Literacy had long disappeared from India (assuming that the Indus Valley script is a full-fledged script, something I suspect it is simply because the society seems too complex and expansive for it not to have more than accounting notation). Western and Indian writing systems derive from the alphabets of the Levant. If the Near East and Egypt had descended into pure barbarism, with Assyria and Egypt being swallowed up in the sea of illiteracy, what would the present look like?

China is the arguable exception to this trend, even though there was a transition from the Shang to the Zhou, I do not know of a major cultural regress during this period in the Far East. Greece remained in a decentralized pre-literate state for centuries. If the West  persisted in such a state for far longer what would that mean for us? The Persian Empire, which had control of Central Asia, depended to a large extent on co-opting the political and cultural systems preexistent across its domains. If these regions had remained in a state of barbarism long enough it may be that Chinese culture hegemony in Central Asia would have been robust enough to withstand all the subsequent historical shocks, and world history would look far different.*

* In the period between 0 and 1000 AD Central Asia was contested between China and the Western Eurasian societies. After 1000 AD Central Asia became more fully integrated into Western Eurasian civilization as China withdrew back beyond its geographical perimeter.

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The two cycles

Filed under: China,civilization,Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 12:05 pm

I’m reading Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. The book basically outlines the international state system in the ancient Near East which fostered diplomatic relationships between the monarchies of the period. It is noted that this state system and diplomatic culture did not make it through the chaos which marks the transition between what we term the Bronze Age and Iron Age; the centuries between 1200 and 600 BC. I try and read about the ancient Near East when I can, it’s a hard area to find academic books accessible to lay people (I don’t know Sumerian or Akkadian for example, which means that a lot of the philological stuff goes over my head). But thanks the usage of cuneiform tablets which are often well preserved when palaces are burned down we have a substantial amount of records, albeit not of the personable narrative form excluding some exceptions (good for economic historians, not so much for cultural historians).


One thing that seems to jump out to me is that our history can be divided between what came before the transition above, and what came after. If you know about Julian Jaynes you know some argue for a really deep psychological chasm. Setting that aside, consider the cultural continuity of texts between the period after, and the period before. Much of what we know of antiquity in the West is due to translation efforts during the Carolingian period, encyclopediasts in 10th century Byzantium, and the Abbasids in 9th century. These are the major choke points. If it were not for these periods of elite sponsorship of transcription we would be much poorer in antique Greco-Roman works (the maligned Assyrian Empire played that role in the early Iron Age; I believe we have the Epic of Gilgamesh thanks to its libraries).

The cultural chasm between Mycenaean Greece and Classical Greece, a period of 500 years, is arguably greater than that between Classical Greece and 6th century Byzantium. After 1200 BC literate culture disappeared from the Aegean and Anatolia. The societies of the Near East and Egypt were under extreme stress, and their survival was a near thing. Literacy had long disappeared from India (assuming that the Indus Valley script is a full-fledged script, something I suspect it is simply because the society seems too complex and expansive for it not to have more than accounting notation). Western and Indian writing systems derive from the alphabets of the Levant. If the Near East and Egypt had descended into pure barbarism, with Assyria and Egypt being swallowed up in the sea of illiteracy, what would the present look like?

China is the arguable exception to this trend, even though there was a transition from the Shang to the Zhou, I do not know of a major cultural regress during this period in the Far East. Greece remained in a decentralized pre-literate state for centuries. If the West  persisted in such a state for far longer what would that mean for us? The Persian Empire, which had control of Central Asia, depended to a large extent on co-opting the political and cultural systems preexistent across its domains. If these regions had remained in a state of barbarism long enough it may be that Chinese culture hegemony in Central Asia would have been robust enough to withstand all the subsequent historical shocks, and world history would look far different.*

* In the period between 0 and 1000 AD Central Asia was contested between China and the Western Eurasian societies. After 1000 AD Central Asia became more fully integrated into Western Eurasian civilization as China withdrew back beyond its geographical perimeter.

November 16, 2009

Traditions and tribes; the genealogy of civilizations

Filed under: civilization,Culture,data — David Hume @ 2:50 pm

A few weeks ago the socially conservative sociologist who blogs under the name “Inductivist” had an intriguing post up, Social conservatives and Muslims:

Social conservatives typically align themselves with the West against the Islamic world in the “clash of civilizations,” but it needs to be recognized that in some respects we have more in common with Muslims than Europeans and many secular Americans. Our fight with liberal degenerates is not limited to the U.S. If Europe had any cultural conservatives, I’d happily team up with them, but I think they’ve gone the way of the dodo.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims, by contrast, are traditional. We need to work with them to fight against liberal cultural imperialism in their countries. I wouldn’t wish the humiliation of gay marriage on my worst enemy.

This is not an exotic or shocking observation. The fact that Muslim Creationists in Turkey co-opt and borrow American evangelical talking points in toto witnesses to some common affinities. That there are commonalities of substance between American social conservatives and Muslims (the median Muslim is more “conservative” on social issues than the conservative American Christian, so I think it is redundant to refer to conservative Muslims). On many social issues I’m sure that the Inductivist would find much more fellow feeling with Muslims than someone like me; I support abortion rights and am not opposed to gay marriage (though unlike secular cultural Leftists I can understand and respect the pro-life and anti-gay marriage perspective).

But who would Inductivist rather have over for Christmas or Thanksgiving? Myself or Mahmud? Unlike many colored children of immigrants I have no objection to the idea that this nation’s core identity derives from the white Anglo-Saxons who settled these United States, and rather embrace it. If I wanted my children to be proud Bengalis, it would probably be best to raise them in the Bengali nation. As it is, the likelihood, and my general sympathy, is that they assimilate to the norms and identities of the American nation. Despite the rhetoric of multiculturalism, as an empirical matter the identity of the United States is still Anglo-Protestant. Or consider my co-bloggers, John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald and Walter Olson. Are these aliens when set next to Mahmud?

Of course we are atypical. “A Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with a secular Leftist would be less amicable. Argument and debate would ensue, accusations would fly. Mahmud would no doubt cause less commotion. But would Mahumd eat? Is the Inductivist’s Thanksgiving table bereft of pork products? Does Mahmud keep halal? There are even a minority of Muslims who might balk at eating at the table of a kuffar.

My point is that even a Western secular Leftist engages with a Western social conservative, because both are Western. They are products of a particular historical tradition, a cultural stream which operates with a common currency. After 9/11 the similarities were stark. Leftists admitted the value of patriotism, of pride in what we were. Conservatives admitted that there was some value to what we had become (equal rights for women, homosexuals who did not live in fear for their lives).

Some of this goes back to Jerry Muller’s distinction between orthodoxy and conservatism:

The orthodox theoretician defends existing institutions and practices because they are metaphysically true: the truth proclaimed may be based on particular revelation or on natural laws purportedly accessible to all rational men. The conservative theoretician defends existing institutions above all because they are thought to have worked rather well and been conducive to human happiness. For the conservative, the historical survival of an institution or practice —be it marriage, monarchy, or the market—creates a prima facie case that it has served some human need. For conservatives, the very existence of institutions and traditions creates a presumption that they have served some useful function. In addition, conservatives tend to be acutely sensitive to the costs of radical change. Elimination or radical reconstruction of existing institutions may lead to harmful, unintended consequences, conservatives argue, because social practices are interlinked, such that eliminating one will have unanticipated negative effects on others….

On issues such as abortion and the marriage of homosexuals the orthodox will part ways with the conservative. The orthodox Westerner may see in the Muslim a closer adherent to the true tradition. This is one reason why the Traditionalist philosopher Rene Guenon converted to Islam. But, I believe that the orthodox underestimate the implicit cultural commonalities which are unspoken and unelucidated, and which bind societies and civilizations together even more than adherence to a metaphysic. “My Country, Right or Wrong” is at once a profoundly unintellectual idea, but at the same time so is the assumption that one would sacrifice one’s own life for one’s child. Instincts have their limits, but at some point human flourishing is contingent upon admitted that life depends on implicit instincts for proper functioning, and that reflection is an exceptional avocation, islands in a sea of reflex.

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