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

February 26, 2021

Open Thread – 02/27/2021 – Brown Pundits

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

On Substack, Made in China – Does it matter who writes history if no one reads it?

Readers of this weblog care about China. But know too little about it. Become less ignorant.

Clubhouse at 7 pm PDT https://www.joinclubhouse.com/event/MKlLwwoo

February 22, 2021

On the historicity of the Vedas

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 11:38 am


BPer Mukunda and I were having a discussion on Twitter, which I want to elevate and push to the blog, because it’s somewhat important.

When I was young (20th century) I read stuff about how the Indo-Aryans described the natives of the subcontinent as dark and “snub-nosed.” That their arrival in some ways was a meeting of two different races.

In the 2000’s I read other books and works that suggested that actually, these descriptions were metaphorical. Terms like “dark” in other words reflect an ideological or tribal conflict, with the descriptions pointing to tropes that signal which side is evil and which side is good. This is not a crazy view. The anthropology is clear that a certain level of fictitious dehumanization occurs with inter-group conflict.

So I accept this view and moved on with my life.

But in the 2010’s things changed. I am now convinced that 3,000-4,000 years ago a people who resembled what we would term “white” expanded within the Indian subcontinent. If modern Armenians are white, then the Indo-Aryans were white. At least initially. In the subcontinent, they met a variety of people. Some of them, such as in Sindh, were of brownish complexion. Others, to the south and east, would have been considerably darker. I also assume that the Vedas were constructed in situ in the Indian subcontinent. That is, they reflect a milieu of people who were encountering the northwest of the subcontinent, and had recently traversed through BMAC (Indra may actually be a BMAC diety).

What’s the upshot here? I know think that the metaphorical view of the physical descriptions should be set next to the literal view. The reality is probably a mix. But the fact is that groups with very different physical appearances did interact in ancient India. The Aryans were almost certainly very light-skinned, with “sharp features”, in comparison to many of the people they encountered. Though one can construct hybrid scenarios, where Indo-Aryan enemies were described in inaccurate ways precisely because those tropes were associated with tribes and peoples the Indo-Aryans had conquered.

Someone who has deep knowledge of the Vedas in Sanskrit and genetics needs to look into this. That’s obviously not met.

February 2, 2021

Classics must fall!

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:57 pm

A very long piece in New York Times Magazine, He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive? – Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline. There is obviously some self-interestedness from those who would defend Classics when they are Classicists. Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, both of whom I respect, don’t think much of the field (though both have some association with it).

I feel the piece tried to break it down into a binary when the reality is more complex.

My own comment would be to repeat Terrence:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”
“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”

January 28, 2021

2,500 years later Master Kong is more relevant than ever

Filed under: Confucius,History — Razib Khan @ 10:18 am

Victor Lieberman in Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830 that one reason the “Indian model” of statecraft and culture was more favored to the “Chinese model” is that the former is far less intense and easier to execute than the latter. We now know that a substantial number of Indians actually migrated to Southeast Asia in the 1st millennium, but that’s not sufficient to explain everything. The Thai arrived in Southeast Asia as Mahayana Buddhists but everywhere shifted to Theravada (the Shan in Burma are Tai).

Lieberman’s thesis is that the full package of Confucian statecraft requires a large literate bureaucratic class. Vietnam after 1500 shifted in large part to this model, but it was the exception, not the rule. And Vietnam is the mainland Southeast Asian state that looks much more to China than India in its high culture. The reason the Chinese model was hard, and really only Korea pulled it off (Vietnam and Japan executed parts of it), is that it requires a level of cultural conformity and investment in education for the elites that is a massive opportunity cost in time. It’s a lot easier to just express loyalty to the semi-divine king rather than study classical texts in the hopes of achieving high office.

But, I just realized that the modern world is much more amenable to the Confucian model! Mass literacy is already common, and the bureaucratic state is the rule, not the exception.

And now, more than ever, we need virtue in our elites. The rational “eat what you can kill” model of modern elite culture in the West is producing a group of individuals who are feeding off the massive carrion of their dying societies.

January 17, 2021

The Sindhi homeland of the “Dravidians”

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:16 am

Peter Bellwood in First Farmers presents a hypothesis for the expansion of the Dravidian languages into southern India in the late Neolithic through the spread of an agro-pastoralist lifestyle through the western Deccan, pushing southward along the Arabian sea fringe. At the time I was skeptical, but now I am modestly confident that this is close to the reality.

There is always talk about “steppe” ancestry on this weblog. But there are groups that seem “enriched” from IVC ancestry, as judged by the Indus Periphery samples. The confidence is lower since we don’t have nearly as good a sample coverage…but I think I can pass on what we’ve seen so far: groups in southern Pakistan, non-Brahmin elites in South India, and some Sudra groups in Gujarat and Maharashtra, seem to be relatively enriched for IVC-like ancestry. Then there is the supposed existence of Dravidian toponyms in Sindh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. And, their total absence in the Gangetic plain.

There have been decades of debate about Brahui. I’ve looked closely at Brahui genetics, and they are no different from the Baloch. Combined with evidence from Y chromosomes (the Baloch and Brahui have some of the highest frequencies of haplogroups found in IVC-related ancient DNA), I doubt the thesis they are medieval intruders (if they are, their distinctive genes were totally replaced).

Genetically, we know that some southern tribes, such as the Pulliyar, have some IVC-related ancestry. But other groups, such as Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, have a lot more. How does this cline emerge? My conjecture is that there were several movements of “Dravidian” people from Sindh and Gujarat into southern India, simultaneous with the expansion of Vedic Aryans to the north into the Gangetic plain. The region the Vedic Aryans intruded upon, Punjab, was not inhabited by Dravidian speakers. Like Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley Civilization was probably multi-lingual, despite broad cultural affinities developed over time.

The scions of the priest kings

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 12:59 am

I was talking to a person of South Indian Brahmin origin today about their genetics. Over the course of the conversation, he showed me Y and mtDNA haplogroup types amongst his jati. The vast majority of the Y haplogroups were not R1a.

Brahmin groups in India seem to be about 15% to 30% steppe in their overall genome. But their Y chromosomes are usually 50% or so R1a1a-Z93. The lineage associated with Indo-Iranian pastoralists.

So what’s going on with the other haplogroups? For example, J2, L, C, G, and H?

From what I can see J2 and L are the next most frequent haplogroups after R1a1a-Z93. This tells us something. These are haplogroups found in ancient “Indus Periphery” samples. And, these two haplogroups are found at high concentrations in the northwest of the subcontinent.

It doesn’t take a {{{Brahmin}}} to connect the dots here. Some of the gotra as early as the Vedic period were almost certainly derived from high-status individuals in the post-IVC society. Warriors and priests in the fallen civilization of the IVC, which had likely degraded itself to a level of barbarism by the time the Indo-Aryans became ascendant.

I like to make jokes about “sons of Indra.” But let’s give the dasyu credit where it’s due: those Indians carrying J2 and L almost certainly descend from the men who build the great cities of yore. Their dominion was lost when their civilization fell, but they integrated themselves into the new order.

December 5, 2020

Sharing a continent

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 9:16 am

25% of humans live in the Indian subcontinent. 18.5% live in China. Together that’s 43.5% of the world’s population in the two great Asian civilizations. Not a trivial number in the 21st century, especially in a nascent multipolar world.

And yet the two societies often lack a deep awareness of each other, as opposed to an almost pathological fixation on the West, and in India’s case the world of Islam.

Indians are clearly geopolitically aware of China. Obsessed even. But aside from cultural exotica (e.g., the Chinese “eat everything”), there seems to be profound ignorance.

This is illustrated most clearly when I hear Indian intellectuals aver the proud continuous paganness of their civilization. Setting aside what “pagan” means, and its applicability to the Hindu religious tradition, the key here is a contrast with the world to the west, which was impacted by a great rupture. The people of Iraq have a written history that goes back 5,000 years, but the continuity between ancient and modern people of the region is culturally minimal. Modern inhabitants of Bagdhad know on some level that their ancestors were Sumerian, but for most of them their identity is wrapped up in their religion and the lives of the Prophet and his family, or for Christians that of Jesus.

This is not the case with the majority of Indian subcontinental people, whose religious traditions and cultural memory go back further, literally to the Bronze Age at the latest. The foundational mythological cycles which define Indian culture probably date to 1000 to 1500 BC. During this time Kassites ruled Babylonia, and the Assyrians were coming into their own. Until modern archaeology, these people were only names in the Bible or in Greek historians.

But this is not only true of India. These Chinese also look to the Bronze Age Shang dynasty, and in particular, the liminal Zhou, to set the terms of their modern culture. The ancient sage kings, who likely predate the Shang, are also held in cultural esteem.

Does any of this matter? I don’t honestly know. I’m American, not India or Chinese. But perhaps it might help on some level if these two civilization-states could understand and accept that they share in common having extremely deep cultural roots apart from the revelation of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

November 21, 2020

You will be assimilated!

Filed under: Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 10:52 am

Michael Lind has a piece in Tablet, The Revenge of the Yankees: How Social Gospel became Social Justice. As a trained American historian, Lind is always a good read and generally makes erudite and cogent arguments, whether you believe him or not. To me, the piece struck me as trying a bit too hard to fit facts into a thesis…but it foregrounds dynamics of American history that many modern Americans, being totally ignorant, are unaware of.

Knowing people in the D.C. nonprofit world, I recall being told by an old-line WASP that this is where all the WASPs went. So Lind is not seeing something that is not there when he says that WASPs retained control in the “Deep State” and nonprofits, while the white ethnic, Southern, and black, coalition dominated politics and culture between the 1930s and 1960s. The past few generations has seen a realignment of that configuration, but that is not the only thing that happened.

About 15 years ago I read many books on the history of American Catholicism, and the book that stays with me the longest is Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. In it, the author highlights the strong strand of intellectual anti-Catholicism that existed in the 19th century, and the victory of American Anglo-Protestant culture over the Catholic attempt to remain apart and distinct (one of the intra-Catholic stories is the erosion of German-language instruction due to the pressure put by the Irish dominated hierarchy).

One of the threads of Catholicism and American Freedom is the collapse of the intellectual alliance between Jews and Roman Catholics after World War II. Basically, American Jews who secularized and assimilated switched sides in the 1960s and aligned with secular post-Protestants in fighting the attempts of Roman Catholic thinkers to maintain a level of social conservatism informed by religious values on the Center-Left. Earlier, due to the nativism of early 20th-century Protestant progressives, Jews and Catholics had fit together as “white ethnics,” albeit with some disagreements (Jews never supported Roman Catholic attempts to gain support for parochial schools because they, on the whole, took to public education).

What does this have to do with Lind’s piece? Let’s grant his contention that modern-day social justice activism has its roots contingently in WASP Protestant culture, and particularly Yankee culture. Anyone who reads Curtis Yarvin or David Hackett Fisher will see the cultural genealogy here. But secular Jews, who are overrepresented in the Ivy League and institutions more broadly, have assimilated perfectly as well. And not just them. Indian Americans who grew up in this country in the last quarter of the 20th century are extremely well assimilated too.

One of the geniuses of modern social justice ideology is that it’s highly portable and deployable by people who are educated in the WEIRD way.

October 21, 2020

Not all societies are identical

Filed under: France,History — Razib Khan @ 10:48 pm

There is some discussion on “Hindu Twitter” and elsewhere about the French response to the murder of Samuel Paty. In short, France is going “medieval” on the asses of a lot of Muslims, even nonviolent but very conservative organizations. To use a German phrase, the French state is entering into a Kulturkampf against militant Islam. Or at least it is signaling that it is.

To all this, some on the Hindu Right are asking why some liberal or Left intellectuals are applauding or tolerating France’s reaction, which is hitting down hard on the Muslim community. Would they be so tolerant of India clamping down on Muslims? My own answer is simple: different nations have different histories, and abstract universal values and standards are often not useful.

Let me illustrate the nature of France, and how it differs from India. When the French emancipation of Jews occurred in the late 18th century, they were quite clear they were liberating Jews as individuals, not as a community. That is, Jews would not have corporate rights as a community. To the Jew as an individual, everything. To the Jews as a community, nothing.

When the modern French nation arose during the Revolution, only a minority of the people of France could speak French as their mother tongue. The creation of the French nation anew, as a bottom-up identity that superseded the monarchy, occurred through the crushing of regional dialects and their absorption into the national language.  The same occurred in the 19th century, as waves of migrants from Poland arrived, assimilating into French identity. In the early 20th century, it was the turn of Italians and Spaniards.

The ideal, which is more a goal than a reality, is that various nationalities, religions, and peoples, could fuse together around a common language, and a common history anchored around the Revolution and the emergence of republican France. This is one reason the French have been cooler to Black Lives Matter than other nations. The idea of racial identity and separatism is offensive to the French self-conception, even if the segregated suburbs of Paris witness to the reality of lack of integration.

There could be much more I say about France, and why there is an arms-length relationship to religion and Catholicism in particular. There’s a history there.

But compare France to India. Whereas France rejects violently the idea of subnational communities, India is organized all around the idea of subnational communities. This is a totally different equation than a society like France, where a hegemonic identity absorbs secondary identities in totality. France and to be French is a unitary ideal.  There’s not unity in diversity.

The situation in India is quite different. Myself, personally, I have long thought something like a “uniform civil code” was necessary and just, and that there was a degree of toleration of illiberalism of Muslims by various political social factions in India that needed to stop. But, as an empirical matter, India is not an individualist WEIRD society, it is a communal society where communities achieve consensus through negotiation.

What does this have to do with France, Islam, and India? The French would have Islam be the religion of some individuals in the French state. Only that. Religion as a political social force in France is consciously marginalized. As such, Islam needs to be modified, or not exist, in the French way of looking at the world. This is obviously not the case in India, where Islam is another community, and communities have rights and integrity that has to be respected from what I can tell.

As an American conservative, I am skeptical of affirmative action and take a dim view of reservations. What does it matter if 90% of doctors are {{{Brahmins}}}?  Do they do their job well? But I am not Indian, and not conscious of the Indian social and political landscape. Even many conservative Indians favor reservations because they are a way to maintain communal harmony, and in India, it’s communities that matter.

Occasionally some of my Indian correspondents message me to apologize for how Hindu Twitter treats me when I get on their bad side. Usually, they see my name and start hurting invective about my Islamic faith and such.

Since I have no Muslim identity I don’t take it very personally, and to be frank, I find it rather amusing.  Most of them, like some of you commenters, are stupid, ignorant, and a large fraction no doubt teenage incels. Though I have never encountered crass vulgarity in the United States, Indians of non-Muslim background have routinely coded me as Muslim even if they see me eating a bacon cheese-burger and drinking beer,  and have a difficult time understanding how I can have no communal affinity or identity.

I simply don’t care. I am WEIRD. My children have Germanic names and are assumed to be white. My lineage is destined to fade, it will diminish and pass to the west. I have had to correct Indian American friends who refer to me as an “atheist Muslim.” I don’t care if people call me a Muslim, or Hindu, or Asatru, but I do want people to be clear that I just identify as an atheist, though I’m not a particularly militant type.  As far as religion goes, my personal sympathy probably goes toward the sort of rationalist Confucianism of Xunzi.

In “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” Sidney Poitier’s character tells his father that he will always think of himself as a black man, while Poitier’s younger character will think of himself as a man. Indians think, on the whole, in communal terms. If Muslim fisherman in Tamil Nadu acceded to conversion to Hinduism on the condition that their sons and daughters could marry local Hindu communities, would there be enthusiasm for the conversion?

I believe that in India people should marry who they want to marry, irrespective of jati.  But over 90% of people marry within their jati. I believe people should be able to choose their religion, of their own free choice. But 99% of people remain in the religion of their birth. Communal birth should be no privilege or debility. But it is. There is the abstract of what I would prefer as “should be,” and then there is the reality.

Edith Piaf was one of France’s greatest singers. She had Moroccan ancestry on her mother’s side. No one cares. Similarly, the great 19th century French writer, Alexandre Dumas, was 1/4th African. Though of some interest, Dumas is thought of as a French writer, not a black French writer.

Americans in our current moment think our particular history is relevant for everyone. It’s not. Similarly, India is not France, and France is not India. France need not do caste-based reservations, because France has no castes now that the Cagots are gone. Similarly, Indians should probably be cautious about projecting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the sides of government buildings.

September 15, 2020

Meta-ethnic identities to world-swallowing memes

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 3:23 pm

One of Peter Turchin’s ideas which have had a major impact on me is that of a “meta-ethnic” identity, and how that fits perfectly with what we might term “world religions.” Meta-ethnic identity isn’t a fancy construct, but the name itself gives essential information. In the world of the Bronze Age human societies were scaling beyond tribe, but they lacked the ideological toolkit, or what Samo Burja calls “social technology,” to maintain institutional continuity. In Brotherhood of Kings the author outlines how Bronze Age Near Eastern polities established diplomatic relationships by extending the idea of biological kinship. There was no great creativity, and the analogy was imperfect enough to cause confusion (e.g., Egyptian ideas of status and kinship were substantively different from Levantine and Mesopotamian ones, which led to inefficiencies).

The development of religions which span ethnicities, and unite people in spiritual and ideological kinship and affinity, breaks the biological analogy enough to be flexible and portable. Common books and mythologies serve as transmission vehicles of meta-ethnic norms. As I have noted before, the reason that most of the world religions emerged between the period of 500 BC and 500 AD (give or take a few centuries and definitions) is that this was the period of social technological innovation. Once the major players shook out, ideological oligopolies stabilized into a new equilibrium. There may even have been structural reasons in relation to the scaling of human civilizations that mean the number of world religions was never going to converge upon one (e.g., I believe that Islam is best thought of as an offshoot of Christianity which emerged almost accidentally from the perspective of the principals; perhaps in the pre-printing press world Christianity simply ‘outran its supply lines’).

But though the horizontal nature of meta-ethnic identities seems to have obtained an equilibrium, there has been a great shift in their vertical impact, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy. In 360 A.D. Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, the religion in which he was raised, and embraced Neoplatonism and Late Antique Paganism. This was feasible at the time because Christianity identity had not become solid among the Roman elites, who were still in the main nominally pagan, though there was a vociferous rising Christian minority. But over time Christianity swallowed the Roman elite, so rulers who may privately have had little sympathy or piety would never have engaged in apostasy.

But why? The Reformation and the conundrum of Akbar tell us why. Richard Eaton argues in India in the Persianate Age that Akbar wanted to leave Islam behind for much of his life. By the end, he even innovated and created his own pantheistic religion. He and some of the later Mughals (e.g., Dara Shikoh) were clearly influenced by the Brahmins and other Indian religious thinkers in their circle and felt keenly the tension between world-normative Islam, and the assimilative power of the Indic religious tradition. Just like Julian, Akbar was raised as a conventional follower of a monotheistic religion but became emotionally and intellectually invested in something different, and more ancient. But Akbar never went as far as Julian, who clearly wished to marginalize Christianity in a way that Akbar could never marginalize Islam. The reason is that Julian’s elites were religiously plural, and their identity was still weak and new. By the time of Akbar the Islamic military elites that the Mughals relied upon could imagine no other religious identity than world-normative Islam, to which they were bound by family and cultural ties (e.g., most were Turk, Afghan, and Persian, not Indian converts; Akbar would have been unable to build his rule around Hindu Rajputs alone).

By the 16th century in much of the world meta-ethnic identities have percolated down from the elites to the ruling class. One reason the Reformation happened in much of Europe is that the nobility and proto-bourgeoisie were quite open to the religious change, as winds of reform were blowing through late medieval Westen Christianity. In contrast, the peasantry was less relevant. The little information we have indicates that in places like Denmark and England the rural peasantry was not enthused about changing their folkways through the Reformation commanded from on high, and imposed by elites and sub-elites. But they did eventually change.

The point here can be illustrated by a 17th Cambodian king who converted to Islam. His nobles overthrew him. Similarly, when the Hohenzollern’s became Reformed Christians in the 17 century, the people whom they ruled remained Lutheran. They would not convert. Confessional meta-ethnic had percolated and suffused mass identity by the 17th century in much of the world so that elites could not control it, dictate it.

Today we are far beyond that. The collapse of religious identity in the 1960s in the United States was unpredicted. Its stabilization in the 1970s and 1980s was unanticipated by secularization theory as well. But it’s subsequent collapse again in the 1990s and into the 21st century was also not anticipated (Samuel Huntington’s last work was written in the 1990s and published in the early 2000s, before the research was in about secularization, leading to some erroneous conclusions about the power of religious assimilation). Bottom-up dynamics are hard to model* and occur through information and communication channels which elites and scholars may not have access too (think conspiracy theories).

Meta-ethnic identity emerged during the Iron Age to add solidity to the political structures of the period. They were tools for the elites operationally, no matter the sincerity with which most people held to them. Though peasants had nominal affinities, their deeper beliefs were often animist, and their most important affiliations were in the local community. But with the printing press and thicker more pervasive political and cultural institutions, elite identities became popular identities. Elite control faded away, as popular passions took over.

In the 1990s many of us had delusions about what the internet would do. How information would illuminate and enlighten. What has really happened is that information production and consumption are now driven by popular passions in totality. Meta-ethnic identities emerged to foster social cohesion and stability. Today their protean uncontrolled nature may actually lead to the collapse of societies, as passions are unleashed with no conscious direction and guided by no initiated cabal. The information does not aid humans, it is now parasitic upon our minds and the infrastructure that we created to facilitate it’s spread.

* Is this true? Any modelers in the house? That’s my impression.

History beyond the screaming

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 2:05 pm

Last night I realized I’m not going to weigh in on history discussions on Twitter if they pertain to the Indian subcontinent. Even people who I know are not 13-year old incels behave totally emotionally and engage in shitposting posturing constantly. It’s really impossible to get a signal out of the discussion.

Indians and Pakistanis seem so intensively invested in various topics that it is literally and seriously impossible to get value out of any exchange, the swell of stupidity and bad faith (on all sides!) is so intense. There is a reality out there. There is a true history. But this is not what most of you really care about it, is it?

For example, reading India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 gives a nuanced and fully textured picture in outlines of the subcontinental elite in the premodern period. It aligns in broad sketches with what I know about human psychology and history elsewhere. But attempting to bring nuance seems like a fool’s errand in most of these debates.

Understanding the history of the Indian subcontinent is rewarding to me because there are comments here on the general human condition. I will not turn away from that. But, I do need to reflect on whether that is best done in solitude rather than engaging with the world “out here.”

Note: I don’t mind or care too much if particular truths are leveraged in some ideological manner. Rather, my suggestion is ideological priors are doing all the sifting of which truths are correct or not.

August 25, 2020

Why Turks ruled India for so long

Filed under: Geopolitics,History — Razib Khan @ 10:04 pm

After finishing Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity I continue to believe that geography and economics explain the basic reason for the very long ascendance of Turkic people in the Indian subcontinent, and, their eventual eclipse.

The context for this is the fact that many Indian and Indian American friends have posited cultural rationales for the Turkic hegemony. That is, there was a passivity and disunity in Hindu society which made it vulnerable to the Turks, who were also adherents to a separatist hegenomic ideology in the form of Musim. All this may very well be true, but I have always held that the key factor was that Turks and Muslims more general had ready and easy access to warhorses.

Between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. was the heyday of the nomadic pastoralist as a geopolitical force in Eurasia for various reasons. Even in the centuries after 1500 A.D. horses remained critical for mobility. The problem is that in much of agricultural Eurasia there is not sufficient pasturage to raise large numbers of horses.

Pretty much every Eurasian society within reach of the steppe (so basically every society except for those in Western Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia) had to deal with the menace of armed nomads. Sometimes they paid them off. Sometimes they mobilized enormous armies which incurring crushing costs. And sometime they were conquered.

Between 1700 and 1900 this spectre faded. Improvements in military technology, transport, and mass national mobilization, leveled the gap between the steppe and the settled peoples, to the point where by 1900 the steppe was a marginal factor.

Note: the author of Escape from Rome attributes the rise and fall of Vijayanagara explicitly as a function of its access to horses.

August 24, 2020

Who do the English think they are?

Filed under: Anglo-Saxons,Fall of Rome,Genetics,History,Population genetics — Razib Khan @ 3:04 pm

In the early 5th century the Roman legions abandoned Britain, and the sceptered isle fell off the pages of history. When it reemerges two centuries later Celtic Britain had become the seedbed for the nation-state of England. The Christian religion, newly-established on the island at the time, had given way once again to paganism. Brythonic Celtic speech was ascendant only on the fringes. A cacophony of German dialects spread out across the fertile south and east, radiating out of the “Saxon Shore”.

This ethno-religious transformation of the island occurred under the shadow of semi-history, allowing for the development of an imaginative romantic tradition exemplified by the Arthurian Cycle. But this Dark Age also became a bone of contention between the English who saw themselves as deeply rooted in the land, and those who declared that they were a German folk who had won their new home through conquest and blood. The dominant view at any given time reflected social and political events of the 20th century more than facts. The propaganda value of myth meant more than the conjectures of scholars.

While in the early 20th century the dominant position was that the English were a people akin to German Saxons, a race apart from the Welsh, by the early 21st century serious scholars assumed that the spread of Anglo-Saxon culture occurred through imitation rather than replacement.

Today we can say with some confidence that neither stark view is correct, and that the middle path between is far more interesting and complex. Large numbers of Saxons, Angles and Jutes did in fact cross the North Sea — but the preponderance of England’s heritage still draws from the Celtic-speaking peoples. It is not coincidence that the earliest rulers in Alfred the Great’s lineage bear Celtic names, not German ones.

Those who argued for the erasure of the Celtic people did not do so without any basis. St. Gildas, a 6th century British Celt, recounted in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain the defeat and destruction of his people at the hands of the Saxons. More recently, 19th century philologists observed that the number of Brythonic Celtic loan words in English is extremely small; in fact, there may be more Celtic loan words from Gaulish, due to the later Norman French influence. Finally, the collapse of institutions like the Roman Christian Church and the total decay of urban life indicates incredible disruption of the social hierarchy which characterised post-Roman Britain.

A contrast here exists with Gaul, which absorbed a German-speaking elite but retained Roman language and religion. Some of the nobility of southern and western France even traced their descent from Romans, not Germans. On a more demotic level, British archaeologists have also observed that the arrival of the Saxons seems to have been associated with a transformation of the layout of rural farmsteads. In most societies, farmers have customs and traditions which they hew to, and they are often quite stubborn and set in their ways. Such a change indicates new people, not just practices.

But by the late 20th century such views of cultural and demographic disruption were in bad odour. The dominant ethos is that people did not move, their customs and traditions did. Hengist and Horsa may have existed, but rather than a folk migration the Anglo-Saxon conquest was one of a small number of German mercenaries who were engaged in elite capture of the post-Roman peasantry.

The Welsh historian Norman Davies observed in his 1999 book The Isles that “blood price” in 8th century Wessex differed between whether one was Saxon or British, the implication here being that there were many Celtic Britons living in the Anglo-Saxon lands, even if our documentary evidence is from the Saxon elite; this would tally with the 6th century ancestors of Alfred the Great having names such as Ceawlin, Cynegils and Cerdic, all of which have a distinctive Welsh flavor.

Genetics has untangled the Gordian knot of this semi-historical mystery, although illumination has not come at once, and only in fits and starts. One of the primary reasons is that the genetic difference between “Celtic” and “German” peoples is very small. Most Northern Europeans separated from each other very recently. Ancient DNA from between three and eight thousand years ago shows that Northern Europe underwent several mass migrations which transformed the genetic landscape.

First, the blue-eyed dark-skinned hunter-gatherers who descend from Ice Age Europeans disappeared and were absorbed by brown-eyed pale-skinned farmers who moved north out of the Near East. Then, these agriculturists were themselves overwhelmed by a people who migrated out of the Eurasian steppe into Europe 5,000 years ago. These pastoralist people probably brought Indo-European languages, and 4,500 years ago they arrived in Britain as the Bell Beaker culture. Within a few generations there was 90% genetic turnover, as the farmers who first erected Stonehenge disappeared, and were replaced by people who seem to have arrived from what is today northern Germany, possibly prefiguring the later Anglo-Saxon migration.

The problem from the perspective of genetics in understanding the proportion of Anglo-Saxon ancestry in the modern English goes back to the reality that Germans and Celts themselves had only been separated for 3,000 years, at most. These are genetically very close populations, and the technology of the early 21st century could not resolve the questions being asked.

UCL geneticist Steve Jones did attempt such a thing in his 2003 book Y: The Descent of Men. Jones observed that the distribution of two Y chromosomal lineages exhibits a sharp break at Offa’s Dyke. A far higher proportion of Welsh men are R1b, which is very common across the Atlantic facade of Europe, while more English men carry R1a, which is found in higher frequencies in Germany and Norway. In contrast, Professor Jones observed that there was no difference in the maternal heritage of the Welsh and English, suggesting that the ethnic change was due to the impact of men. Jones’s UCL colleague Mark Thomas later developed an “apartheid model” to explain why the genetic difference between the English and Welsh was so striking.

But the true understanding of the situation could only be obtained by looking across the whole genome, not simply the paternal and maternal lineages. This was done by the Peopling of the British Isles Project, which published a paper in 2015 that drew from analysis on hundreds of thousands of genetic markers from 2,000 British individuals who were sampled from all across the United Kingdom.

They estimated that 10-40% of the ancestry in central and southern England was Anglo-Saxon — that is, DNA segments more similar to the Germans than the Welsh. Another paper from 2016, utilising ancient as well as contemporary DNA, estimated that 38% of the ancestry in the “East English” — people from East Anglia and the East Midlands — is derived from the Anglo-Saxons. These researchers actually found DNA from Dark Age-era graves identified as Anglo-Saxon, and some of these individuals were far more like the Germans in their DNA than the modern English; they differed from earlier Iron Age samples, proving beyond a doubt that a significant number of Germans did cross the North Sea in the 6th century.

Where does this leave us in relation to the question of whether the transformation of Dark Age Britain to early medieval England was one of genes or memes? The clear answer seems to be both. The emergence of a new style of farming, pottery and the collapse of urban Roman civilization and Christianity in eastern Britain was not simply due to the prestige and power of a small number of German warlords. Whole villages must have transplanted themselves across the North Sea, creating the nucleus of a new people, and absorbed the remaining British Celts. The lack of Celtic loanwords and the adoption of Saxon peasant culture may indicate the self-confidence of the newcomers. If St. Gildas is correct, the British elites moved to the west of the island, leaving the common people to their own devices.

But though the southern and eastern fringe of England has a substantial Anglo-Saxon demographic imprint, that fades out as one moves to the west, including to the lands that once comprised the kingdom of Wessex. There is far less German genetic influence in Hampshire, Berkshire or Wiltshire, let alone Devon. We know from early medieval records that Celtic language speakers did exist as late as the 8th century in these domains (and much later in Devon) but by then Old English, which is for all purposes a purely Germanic language, was dominant.

The genealogy of the House of Wessex may offer a clue as to what occurred in broad swaths of western England. In the 6th century Celtic names imply that this elite lineage was identified with British culture, and looked west, but by the 7th German names became common, and the kings were pagan. Though the Saxons may have imposed their way of life through sheer numbers in the east, explaining the light impact of British Celtic culture upon their folkways and language, their expansion beyond the Saxon Shore seems to have been due to the adoption of the German identity by native British. The killing of a Celtic-speaking individual under the Saxon system of blood price was far cheaper than for a German speaker, serving as a clear inducement to assimilate.

What science makes clear then is that both extreme scenarios presented in the 19th and 20th centuries were wrong. The English are not a race apart from the Welsh. The modern English are genetically closest to the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, but the modern English are not simply Celts who speak a German language. A large number of Germans migrated to Britain in the 6th century, and there are parts of England where nearly half the ancestry is Germanic.

These folk served as the focus of a cultural revolution that transformed the British Isles. It was not a passive affair: the cities, churches, and hamlets of the previous inhabitants were blotted out, and what had been one of the provinces of the Roman Empire became a backwater pagan land. Though the original Romano-British elites had some knowledge of Latin, and patronised the Christian Church, the patina of civilization was clearly thin upon them, and the loosely Christian Celtic warlords of Dark Age western Britain transformed seamlessly into the pagan kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

The initial founding of the Saxon Shore was surely based on a level of brutality that Christian priests, if any had lived to tell the tale, would have recorded with foreboding. But the transformation of vast swaths of western Britain into the core of what had become England by the Viking Age occurred consensually, so seductive had the Saxon society become to the Celts, highborn and low.

The lesson that history and genetics teach us that cultural change is a complex phenomenon, and a single factor does not explain the whole story. Today we live in an age of migration, and native peoples fear being replaced, while immigrant communities fear being assimilated. Numbers matter, but the Saxons tell us that numbers are not everything.

Who do the English think they are?

Filed under: Anglo-Saxons,Fall of Rome,Genetics,History,Population genetics — Razib Khan @ 3:04 pm

In the early 5th century the Roman legions abandoned Britain, and the sceptered isle fell off the pages of history. When it reemerges two centuries later Celtic Britain had become the seedbed for the nation-state of England. The Christian religion, newly-established on the island at the time, had given way once again to paganism. Brythonic Celtic speech was ascendant only on the fringes. A cacophony of German dialects spread out across the fertile south and east, radiating out of the “Saxon Shore”.

This ethno-religious transformation of the island occurred under the shadow of semi-history, allowing for the development of an imaginative romantic tradition exemplified by the Arthurian Cycle. But this Dark Age also became a bone of contention between the English who saw themselves as deeply rooted in the land, and those who declared that they were a German folk who had won their new home through conquest and blood. The dominant view at any given time reflected social and political events of the 20th century more than facts. The propaganda value of myth meant more than the conjectures of scholars.

While in the early 20th century the dominant position was that the English were a people akin to German Saxons, a race apart from the Welsh, by the early 21st century serious scholars assumed that the spread of Anglo-Saxon culture occurred through imitation rather than replacement.

Today we can say with some confidence that neither stark view is correct, and that the middle path between is far more interesting and complex. Large numbers of Saxons, Angles and Jutes did in fact cross the North Sea — but the preponderance of England’s heritage still draws from the Celtic-speaking peoples. It is not coincidence that the earliest rulers in Alfred the Great’s lineage bear Celtic names, not German ones.

Those who argued for the erasure of the Celtic people did not do so without any basis. St. Gildas, a 6th century British Celt, recounted in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain the defeat and destruction of his people at the hands of the Saxons. More recently, 19th century philologists observed that the number of Brythonic Celtic loan words in English is extremely small; in fact, there may be more Celtic loan words from Gaulish, due to the later Norman French influence. Finally, the collapse of institutions like the Roman Christian Church and the total decay of urban life indicates incredible disruption of the social hierarchy which characterised post-Roman Britain.

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A contrast here exists with Gaul, which absorbed a German-speaking elite but retained Roman language and religion. Some of the nobility of southern and western France even traced their descent from Romans, not Germans. On a more demotic level, British archaeologists have also observed that the arrival of the Saxons seems to have been associated with a transformation of the layout of rural farmsteads. In most societies, farmers have customs and traditions which they hew to, and they are often quite stubborn and set in their ways. Such a change indicates new people, not just practices.

But by the late 20th century such views of cultural and demographic disruption were in bad odour. The dominant ethos is that people did not move, their customs and traditions did. Hengist and Horsa may have existed, but rather than a folk migration the Anglo-Saxon conquest was one of a small number of German mercenaries who were engaged in elite capture of the post-Roman peasantry.

The Welsh historian Norman Davies observed in his 1999 book The Isles that “blood price” in 8th century Wessex differed between whether one was Saxon or British, the implication here being that there were many Celtic Britons living in the Anglo-Saxon lands, even if our documentary evidence is from the Saxon elite; this would tally with the 6th century ancestors of Alfred the Great having names such as Ceawlin, Cynegils and Cerdic, all of which have a distinctive Welsh flavor.

Genetics has untangled the Gordian knot of this semi-historical mystery, although illumination has not come at once, and only in fits and starts. One of the primary reasons is that the genetic difference between “Celtic” and “German” peoples is very small. Most Northern Europeans separated from each other very recently. Ancient DNA from between three and eight thousand years ago shows that Northern Europe underwent several mass migrations which transformed the genetic landscape.

First, the blue-eyed dark-skinned hunter-gatherers who descend from Ice Age Europeans disappeared and were absorbed by brown-eyed pale-skinned farmers who moved north out of the Near East. Then, these agriculturists were themselves overwhelmed by a people who migrated out of the Eurasian steppe into Europe 5,000 years ago. These pastoralist people probably brought Indo-European languages, and 4,500 years ago they arrived in Britain as the Bell Beaker culture. Within a few generations there was 90% genetic turnover, as the farmers who first erected Stonehenge disappeared, and were replaced by people who seem to have arrived from what is today northern Germany, possibly prefiguring the later Anglo-Saxon migration.

The problem from the perspective of genetics in understanding the proportion of Anglo-Saxon ancestry in the modern English goes back to the reality that Germans and Celts themselves had only been separated for 3,000 years, at most. These are genetically very close populations, and the technology of the early 21st century could not resolve the questions being asked.

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UCL geneticist Steve Jones did attempt such a thing in his 2003 book Y: The Descent of Men. Jones observed that the distribution of two Y chromosomal lineages exhibits a sharp break at Offa’s Dyke. A far higher proportion of Welsh men are R1b, which is very common across the Atlantic facade of Europe, while more English men carry R1a, which is found in higher frequencies in Germany and Norway. In contrast, Professor Jones observed that there was no difference in the maternal heritage of the Welsh and English, suggesting that the ethnic change was due to the impact of men. Jones’s UCL colleague Mark Thomas later developed an “apartheid model” to explain why the genetic difference between the English and Welsh was so striking.

But the true understanding of the situation could only be obtained by looking across the whole genome, not simply the paternal and maternal lineages. This was done by the Peopling of the British Isles Project, which published a paper in 2015 that drew from analysis on hundreds of thousands of genetic markers from 2,000 British individuals who were sampled from all across the United Kingdom.

They estimated that 10-40% of the ancestry in central and southern England was Anglo-Saxon — that is, DNA segments more similar to the Germans than the Welsh. Another paper from 2016, utilising ancient as well as contemporary DNA, estimated that 38% of the ancestry in the “East English” — people from East Anglia and the East Midlands — is derived from the Anglo-Saxons. These researchers actually found DNA from Dark Age-era graves identified as Anglo-Saxon, and some of these individuals were far more like the Germans in their DNA than the modern English; they differed from earlier Iron Age samples, proving beyond a doubt that a significant number of Germans did cross the North Sea in the 6th century.

Where does this leave us in relation to the question of whether the transformation of Dark Age Britain to early medieval England was one of genes or memes? The clear answer seems to be both. The emergence of a new style of farming, pottery and the collapse of urban Roman civilization and Christianity in eastern Britain was not simply due to the prestige and power of a small number of German warlords. Whole villages must have transplanted themselves across the North Sea, creating the nucleus of a new people, and absorbed the remaining British Celts. The lack of Celtic loanwords and the adoption of Saxon peasant culture may indicate the self-confidence of the newcomers. If St. Gildas is correct, the British elites moved to the west of the island, leaving the common people to their own devices.

But though the southern and eastern fringe of England has a substantial Anglo-Saxon demographic imprint, that fades out as one moves to the west, including to the lands that once comprised the kingdom of Wessex. There is far less German genetic influence in Hampshire, Berkshire or Wiltshire, let alone Devon. We know from early medieval records that Celtic language speakers did exist as late as the 8th century in these domains (and much later in Devon) but by then Old English, which is for all purposes a purely Germanic language, was dominant.

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The genealogy of the House of Wessex may offer a clue as to what occurred in broad swaths of western England. In the 6th century Celtic names imply that this elite lineage was identified with British culture, and looked west, but by the 7th German names became common, and the kings were pagan. Though the Saxons may have imposed their way of life through sheer numbers in the east, explaining the light impact of British Celtic culture upon their folkways and language, their expansion beyond the Saxon Shore seems to have been due to the adoption of the German identity by native British. The killing of a Celtic-speaking individual under the Saxon system of blood price was far cheaper than for a German speaker, serving as a clear inducement to assimilate.

What science makes clear then is that both extreme scenarios presented in the 19th and 20th centuries were wrong. The English are not a race apart from the Welsh. The modern English are genetically closest to the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, but the modern English are not simply Celts who speak a German language. A large number of Germans migrated to Britain in the 6th century, and there are parts of England where nearly half the ancestry is Germanic.

These folk served as the focus of a cultural revolution that transformed the British Isles. It was not a passive affair: the cities, churches, and hamlets of the previous inhabitants were blotted out, and what had been one of the provinces of the Roman Empire became a backwater pagan land. Though the original Romano-British elites had some knowledge of Latin, and patronised the Christian Church, the patina of civilization was clearly thin upon them, and the loosely Christian Celtic warlords of Dark Age western Britain transformed seamlessly into the pagan kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

The initial founding of the Saxon Shore was surely based on a level of brutality that Christian priests, if any had lived to tell the tale, would have recorded with foreboding. But the transformation of vast swaths of western Britain into the core of what had become England by the Viking Age occurred consensually, so seductive had the Saxon society become to the Celts, highborn and low.

The lesson that history and genetics teach us that cultural change is a complex phenomenon, and a single factor does not explain the whole story. Today we live in an age of migration, and native peoples fear being replaced, while immigrant communities fear being assimilated. Numbers matter, but the Saxons tell us that numbers are not everything.

The post Who do the English think they are? appeared first on UnHerd.

August 21, 2020

The Aryan Integration Theory (AIT)

Filed under: AIT,History — Razib Khan @ 8:48 am

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about loaded terms like the “Aryan Invasion Theory.” Since I’m not Indian I don’t get super worked up about the ideological valence of the term. But, after thinking about it for a while, a few weeks ago I decided that the term “Aryan Invasion Theory” (AIT) is not useful, and I will abandon my gentle defense of its utility.

My own views can be read extensively at already, so I won’t belabor the details of what I believe.

Rather, I think that the classical version of the “AIT” is not useful because I think most people associate the idea of a barbarian “invasion” with a conflict between two clear and distinct groups, and one of the groups have a coherent social and political organization in a complex fashion. This is not what I believe at this point. Rather, I believe that Indo-Aryans interposed themselves into a fallen landscape.

The best evidence from Narasimhan et. al. indicates that “steppe” admixture into Indian subcontinental groups in the northwest dates to the period between 1900 and 1500 BCE (95% confidence intervals). What we now call “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI) and “Ancestral South Indian” (ASI) seem to have emerged in the period between 2000 and 500 BCE. In the “Swat transect” which begins ~1000 BCE there is an increase in AASI related ancestry over time (and, increase in “steppe” as well), suggestive of subcontinent-wide gene flow, including into the northwest from the southeast.

My idea for how Indo-Aryans became preeminent in South Asia is similar to the arrival of Rohirrim into Rohan. The “Mature IVC” is almost certainly have collapsed by the time of the Indo-Aryans arrived. This is part of a West and South Asia wide collapse of complex urban societies. This is often attributed to a climatic shock and was correlated with an influx of barbarian peoples (e.g., the Guti of the Zagros into the territory of Ur III). In some cases, such as Egypt, the indigenous elites recovered rapidly. In the case of Babylonia, an intrusive Semitic population, the Amorites, assimilated into the high culture of the Akkadians and Sumerians.

The situation in South Asia is unlikely to be peaceful. The Y chromosomes of South Asians are on the order of 10-20% attributable to the steppe (depending on sampling and weighting of populations). A much smaller percentage of mtDNA is attributable to these people. The indication here is that this was a migration of males.

But, the opposition to the Indo-Aryans was not culturally as advanced as the IVC. Rather, the likelihood is that what we see is similar to what occurred in the Balkans after 550 A.D. and the withdrawal of East Roman forces. The Latin-speaking peasantry, with no elites, and the collapse of the Christian church, eventually assimilated into the “peasant culture” of the intrusive Slavs across much of the Balkans. A similar process seems to have occurred across much of Britain, where a minority of pagan Germans assimilated larger numbers of semi-Christianized Celts after their elites retreated to Cornwell, Wales, and Brittany.

August 20, 2020

How the Roman Empire led to the Great Divergence

Filed under: History,Roman Empire — Razib Khan @ 6:08 pm

Joe Henrich argued in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous that the post-Roman order is what you have to look to to understand the nature of Western exceptionalism, and how it led to modernity as we understand it. Walter Schiedel in Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity makes the same argument. But whereas Henrich emphasizes the peculiar family system of Western Europe, imposed in part by the Roman Catholic Church, Scheidel engages in geographic determinism of a sort, emphasizing the special position and ecology of Europe after the fall of Rome and how it was conducive to multiple polities.

The two books are fundamentally complementary. If Scheidel had written Escape from Rome a few years later, I think he would integrate insights from The WEIRDest People in the World.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Escape from Rome is that the rise of Rome, and the persistence of the Roman Empire, was something of a miracle. Scheidel hammers home again and again how the human and physical geography of Europe mitigates against the development of a large unified imperial order analogous to China (he agrees with the argument that proximity to the steppe and large core zones such as the North China plain were critical in the formation of large states over and over).

From what I can tell Scheidel’s argument is that the Roman city-state employed various “social technologies” to mobilize massive armies at a minimal cost. This allowed the Romans to conquer their rivals in the eastern Mediterranean and Carthage through the sheer robustness of their system (the strategy Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus employed was only possible due to its ability to mobilize). Second, Western and Northern Europe was relatively underdeveloped before the rise of Rome, allowing the Italian power to conquer them in short order. In contrast, after the fall of Rome, the social and political system of Western and Northern Europe was complex and well developed enough that imperial conquests were much more difficult. Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians argues that the existence of the Roman Empire spurred the development of larger barbarian groupings just beyond the limes, which eventually were able to invade the Empire.

To be honest I suspect the “Roman miracle” may have been an inevitable “one-off” exception. By this, I mean that many of the arguments for polycentrism presented by Scheidel really apply to the period after 0 A.D. The rise of the Empire was going to occur, of some sort, but after its inevitable collapse in Europe, the system was not going to be “rewound” for structural reasons.

Scheidel accepts Victor Lieberman’s argument in Strange Parallels that mainland Southeast Asia shares many geographic features with Europe. But the difference between Europe and Southeast Asia is that the Roman Empire served as a cultural template and left institutional legacies that bound European polities together more tightly as a social whole than Southeast Asia. Henrich’s argument about the role of the Western Church in breaking down the power of kindreds in post-Roman Western Europe is contingent upon the Church existing as a powerful Roman institution. Not only did Europe benefit from competitive polycentrism, as argued by Scheidel, but Western Europe also benefited from a powerful multinational binding institution which was the “ghost of the Roman Empire,” the Church.

August 18, 2020

The greatest killer of all time?

Filed under: Genghis Khan,History — Razib Khan @ 5:42 pm


Recently there was a somewhat stupid “controversy” on Twitter where someone tried to get “Genghis Khan canceled.” It was mostly a joke but illustrated an important fact: it is hard to deny the reality of the brutality of Genghis Khan’s conquests.

Part of the reason is that the Mongols themselves are not shy about what happened. The Secret History of Mongols is a document that is nearly contemporary with the original conquests and outlines their brutality. But sometimes conquerors boast. Consider the monuments erected by the Egyptians asserting they won the Battle of Kadesh, which they did not in fact win.

But we have external validation of the Mongol impact on the world’s human geography. The human die-off was large enough that it may have left an ecological footprint to increase carbon uptake from forests that grew because fewer people were around to cut them down! Additionally, there is lots of circumstantial evidence that the Mongols replaced some of the genes of people they killed.

If you want a thorough modern overview, I recommeend Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. If you want, “actually Genghis Khan was good”, then Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

A bigger question is how we should judge Genghis Khan in relation to his time. Julius Caesar in Gallic Wars claims hundreds of thousands of deaths. Other ancient historians argue for millions. These are likely exaggerations, but they illustrate the fact that ancient war was brutal, and the Mongols were basically a hunter-gatherer people who had recently taken up nomadism. Their morality and ethics were primitive, to say the least. In t he 18th century the highly civilized Qianlong Emperor ordered the genocide of the Dzunghars.

I think the clear reason why the Mongols and Genghis Khan are held in such ill repute is that they were the greatest and most explosive of the barbaric eruptions from the Eurasian core. They were Atilla the Hun simultaneously assaulting the Four Corners of the world. They quickly created the largest land empire in the history of the world and therefore wreaked havoc from one end of Eurasia to the other. The Mongols finally collapsed the distinctions and distances between disparate portions of the Eurasian “rimland” civilizations. They were the ones who brought Roman Catholic Alans to Northern China and sponsored a flourishing of Buddhism in Iran for several decades. The consensus is that the Hui Chinese Muslim community derives mostly from the Mongol period when they imported Central Asian Muslims as a “middleman minority.”

Many books of history that are macro-focus use the Mongol Empire as a watershed because it destroyed so much and created a new “world system” which persisted long after the Mongol Empire as such was no more. To understand the “Great Divergence” and the early modern breakout of Europe,  one has to understand the resurgence of rimland polities in the wake of the Mongol shock.

August 9, 2020

Martin Luther opened pandora’s box

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 7:19 pm

In the Second Foundation Trilogy, written by Greg Bear, David Brin, and Gregory Benford, we are told that Hari Seldon was one of the few individuals who was never infected with a particular virus endemic on his home planet. R. Daneel Olivaw had designed this virus to produce a fever. A major consequence of getting sick with this fever is that it made humans duller and less intelligent. This explains Seldon’s comparative brilliance. But why would the immortal robot want to do this? Olivaw had shepherded many planetary civilizations, and after a period of efflorescence and creativity, they would collapse in chaos. In contrast, less creative and duller humans could maintain themselves.

A similar conceit is at the heart of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo future history. You find out that the enlightened despots who rule this earth consciously dampen technological innovation because they fear its social consequences. “Chung Kuo” maintains its stability through this process.

This was what came to mind when I read Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. The author has a big thesis, that the Reformation is critical to understanding and explaining the modern world. That seems broadly correct, but the “Reformation” means so many things at an important place and time that it’s almost trivially true.

Gregory recounts what we know about Martin Luther, and how it influences his role in the religious revolution he spearheaded. Luther seems to have been a neurotic, very intelligent, and very stubborn, man. He was a professor, and when he began to push into heretical territory, he refused to conform despite the censure of his colleagues. No doubt many of these fellow professors would be swept along by the Reformation in due course, but they lacked the courage and conviction of someone like Luther. They were followers. He was not.

But, I do have to say that I believe Luther’s role was contingent. He was the spark, but another would have come eventually or may have come earlier. Huldrych Zwingli, for example, was only a few years behind Luther in his thought. The issues that Luther perceived in the Western Christian Church had existed for centuries. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus lived too early.

Though there were many aspects of the time and place that allowed the Reformation to explode in the 16th century in Western Europe, I believe that the ubiquity of the printing press was critical. This early information technology made it far more difficult for cultural elites to manage the flow and distribution of ideas.* In particular, culture elites in power that wished to maintain their power.

Imagined Communities is an overrated book, but it does a good job highlighting the role of information in shaping identities in early modernity. The printing press enabled the reproduction of ideas faster than authorities could crush and contain them. Even if most people were not literate, for various reasons most people knew someone who was literate. And, the press reproduced books so fast and cheaply that programs of mass literacy were finally implementable in much of Europe. In Northern Europe Luther’s emphasis on vernacular Bible reading resulted in much higher literacy quite rapidly in concert with the technological change.

Gregory argues that the Reformation began the long road down the path that led to liberal individualist democratic republicanism and secularism. Some have argued that Calvinism in particular disenchanted he world, and helped drive religion into the private domain, but Rebel in the Ranks points to the example of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century specifically, which introduced the idea of a pluralist society focused on material gains. The fixation on material gains, innovation, and eventually science, unleashed the productivity and cultural efflorescence we see all around us. Consumerism, secularism, and liberalism.

I believe that the likelihood that the West would “break-out” has deeper roots than Martin Luthern and the Reformation. But, the Reformation was an essential proximate mechanism that uncorked the bottle. Everything after follows.

Demotic societies driven by the masses are protean and change rapidly. Elites have less and less control over the tiger they’re riding. The bottom-up process is such that even those who drive it, the participants, don’t see the direction in which they drive. Rebel in the Ranks is about the past influence the present, but it’s hard for me not to think about how the present is going to influence the future.

* Protestantism was more likely to succeed the more printing presses a region had

August 8, 2020

What is indigenous about Indian civilization?

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 9:53 am

The curry to the right contains potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper. All of these are features of Indian cuisine from the last 500 years, as they are New World crops. Unsurprisingly, they were often brought by the Portuguese and spread out from Goa. But, at this point, it’s hard to deny these have been thoroughly indigenized. So this brings me to some questions I have for readers (non-troll answers only, I may start banning people who answer unseriously, since I’m very busy this week and don’t want to waste time with drivel):

  1. What are Hindus proud of in regards to the achievements of Indian civilization? I’m not talking about Hindu nationalist pseudohistory (genetic engineering in the Vedic age). To give an example: Buddhism is an Indian religion that exported Indian ideas and philosophical systems across much of the world.
  2. What is North Indian Hindu culture (“Hindi-belt”) without Islamicate influence?
  3. Is it feasible to detach the “Islamicate” influence from modern Indian civilization?

July 21, 2020

The myth of Brahmin supremacy!

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 12:35 am

It seems in this globalized world many intellectual movements deploy the same abstractions. For example, the terms “Brahmin privilege” and “Brahmin supremacy” are clearly constructed as perfect analogs to “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” Brahmins cannot have their own independent history, but operationalize a general model of power relations predicated on the white-black dynamic in the United States that developed in the 19th-century (nevermind that Brahmins were in existence long before this).

This piece, Anti-Blackness Goes Back To Ancient Times, has this passage which I know to be promoting ideas which are false:

Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Suraj Yengde, whose research focuses on the solidarity between Dalits and blacks, say that it wasn’t just outsiders — India gave birth to the original color-based social class system that dates back to the ancient Rig Veda texts, to around 1200 B.C. “The Varna system literally means ‘color’ system, so it’s not surprising that Indians in America have maintained these racist dogmas,” he said. Dalits and the black American experience have strong ties because they are the most disenfranchised people in their communities. “This whole situation is having a global ripple effect. I don’t know if it will bring about much change, but people are definitely talking about it.”

Yengde adds that the caste system and skin color are very much linked. “Oftentimes, we’ll see Brahmins push ideas of colorism, racism, casteism on British and Muslim invaders,” he said. That’s why Yengde doesn’t see the inherent bias of some South Asians going away anytime soon.

Within the piece itself, the author notes that there are early Hadith that express racism against dark-skinned people, presumed by descended from African slaves. Racial attitudes were an issue in the early Islamic period, with a Turkic scholar making the case for the value of his own people, and Arab commentaries on Indians refers somewhat negatively upon their “black” complexion. This persists down to the period of Turkic rule when prestigious “white” Muslims (often born in Central Asia) were distinguished from local “black” Muslims (often descended from converts). Modern colloquial color categories in the Gangetic plain date to this period.

As far as the British, their ideas of race, color, and caste, were shaped by the Atlantic trade and slavery, as well as contacts with Native Americans, long before the rise of the Raj. There was a history of the British Empire long before intense engagement with Indian Brahmins.

I do knot know Yengde’s work, but he seems of a type of modern scholar, taking a meta-narrative, and fitting all of history into that meta-narrative, no matter how absurd. Ultimately this is not scholarship, but a form of polemic and propaganda.

I stand against this. I will always will.

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