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

December 31, 2020

Substack 2021

Filed under: Admin,Substack — Razib Khan @ 10:55 am

Thank you again to everyone who has subscribed to my Substack. This is a millionth (and final!) reminder to anyone who was planning to subscribe to Substack that my 2020 rates are the lowest allowable on the platform and will be adjusted upward in the new year.

Just in case anybody took the healthy approach of being offline for the last couple of weeks I cranked out a bunch of content for the Substack. Here are five free blog posts (available whether your subscription is paid or unpaid):

I chose the topics, so of course, I enjoyed writing all of these. But I think the one on the Zhou was the most satisfying for me. Not a surprise that it was the IQ piece that seemed to speak to the most readers.

I pulled 6 favorite past podcasts from my archives too:

I’m working through a long list of favorite thinkers I already know and have enjoyed talking with in the past, and people who are on my radar to chase down for a first podcast, but if there’s anyone you think I’d be remiss not to try and connect with this year, please leave a comment. 

I had a great Christmas, not least because my youngest became completely obsessed with dinosaurs overnight (thanks, Schleich!). Not going to lie, I was always a little disappointed his older siblings had no love for dinosaurs (one of his siblings had such disdain for all things biology, that for probably a solid year, he would dismiss any quadruped sighting, whether cow, sheep, horse, etc. with an unimpressed “DIE-SAUR”).

But the tail is wagging the dog since Christmas and half of sibling chatter is now debates of omnivore v. carnivore v. herbivore and discussions of the Jurassic and things like what syllable of diplodocus is emphasized. The caliber of illustrated books for kids, refinements on old hypotheses, and depth of detail known today are leaving me with a lot of updates to perform on my mid-80’s body of dinosaur knowledge. So what should I read? Who should I know? Anyone it would be a shame not to seek out for the podcast?

For all you current paid subscribers and those who grab a subscription today, I can unreservedly suggest my final 2020 podcast: a conversation with Armand Leroi. It drops today. We discussed both Mutants and The Lagoon. Each well worth a read if you missed them. Mutants is a quick read, The Lagoon is a bit encyclopedic (we discuss why it’s so long). Additionally, we revisited his op-ed on race from 2005, his argument in favor of ‘neo-eugenics‘, recent work on cultural evolution, and the impact of wokeness on the academy in Britain.

Some newer readers may find my interview with Armand from the end of 2005 interesting.

Dragon babies

Filed under: China — Razib Khan @ 10:32 am

Zoom Executive Accused of Disrupting Calls at China’s Behest – U.S. prosecutors have charged a company executive based in China with conspiring to terminate online meetings about the Tiananmen Square massacre.

TikTok Said to Be Under National Security Review – The review comes after lawmakers raised concerns about TikTok’s growing influence in the United States.

I don’t really have much to say about this. It’s just strange to me that this isn’t a bigger story. Zoom is now huge for professionals. And TikTok seems to be the way that people born in the year 2000 and later prefer to communicate. This isn’t the 20th century anymore. China may not have in-your-face cultural power, but the control of platforms like this matters a lot (I recall in 1995 foreign governments were very worried about backdoors in Windows 95 for the US government placed there by Microsoft).

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 6, Chris Stringer: the state of paleoanthropology in the 2010’s

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 5:30 am

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I'm counting down to the new year here by re-releasing favorite past episodes from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before. These episodes are free for all; next on the docket are new episodes for paying subscribers only, including conversations with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan.

My conversation with Armand releases today for paid subscribers.

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With the steady downpour of new fossil finds and ever more freshly sequenced ancient DNA, ours is an era of plenty in the field of human evolution. In June of 2020, I had a chance to record a long discussion for The Insight podcast with Chris Stringer, one of the doyens of human paleoanthropology. We talked about all the discoveries we've been lucky to witness over the past few years on these topics of such incredible interest to the general public.

Stringer has been active in the field for decades, first as an early advocate of the African origin of modern humans, and now as an all-around synthesizer and public intellectual. His gift for communicating the pith of abstruse results is on fine display in this conversation. I enjoyed it very much and I hope you will too.

This is day 6 of 6. Here is day 1: Shadi Hamid, day 2: Vagheesh Narasimhan, day 3: Thomas Chatterton Williams, day 4: Alexander Ioannidis, day 5: Suhag Sukhla.

And in case you missed them in the busy runup to the holidays, here is my series of five quick pieces from last week:

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

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December 30, 2020

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 5, Suhag Shukla: Hindus in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 5:08 am

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I'm counting down to the new year here by re-releasing favorite past episodes from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before. These episodes are free for all; next on the docket are new episodes for paying subscribers only, including conversations with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan.

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What is a Hindu? In pre-modern times that might encompass all the people of the Indian subcontinent, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. But over the past few centuries, the term has narrowed to include just those who adhere to the subcontinent’s indigenous religious traditions And, over the last decades of the 20th century and into the early 21st, these people have migrated in large numbers to the United States. About 1% of Americans are now of Indian origin, and the majority of those are Hindu.

Suhag Shukla is an attorney and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. In an hour-long wide-ranging conversation we recorded in the summer of 2019 for Brown Pundits we explore what it means to be Hindu in American in the year 2019. As it happens, the most prominent person of the Hindu faith today in the United States is not of Indian subcontinental origin: Tulsi Gabbard. Additionally, the hold of Hinduism on many Indian Americans whose family traditions are of that faith seems to be tenuous at best.

Shukla’s organization is fundamentally American, recapitulating the pattern of ancient faiths adapting to the American landscape like Judaism and Roman Catholicism.


This is day 5 of 6. Here is day 1: Shadi Hamid, day 2: Vagheesh Narasimhan, day 3: Thomas Chatterton Williams, 4: Alexander Ioannidis.

Also, if you were too busy over the holidays, my series of five quick pieces from this holiday season:

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

December 29, 2020

The massive Indian migration to Southeast Asian

Filed under: Genetics,Southeast Asia — Razib Khan @ 2:38 pm


Over at my other weblog I put up a post, Indian Ancestry In Southeast Asia Is Older Than Statistical Genetic Tests Suggest. If you look at two populations in Southeast Asia and find one has Indian ancestry you often can’t find the admixture older than 1000 A.D. (in peninsular Malaysia there is more recent intermarriage between Muslim Indians and Malays too). This seems far too recent. My explanation is simple: these dates reflect the assimilation of a hybrid Indian-Southeast Asian population across much of Southeast Asia. I have done the analyses myself, and in Cambodia, I get dates around 1000 A.D. Cambodia is not close to India and there isn’t evidence of a large Diaspora in recorded history. But, we know that Hinduism was a major influence in the region, and the Vietnamese Cham are still predominantly Hindu.

The kingdom of Funan, known mostly from Chinese accounts, flourished in Cambodia for the first five centuries of the common era or so. There is an inscription in Sanskrit from the region dated to the 5th century A.D. that refers to the moon of the Kauṇḍinya line (… kauṇḍi[n]ya[vaṅ]śaśaśinā …) and chief “of a realm wrested from the mud”. The text is in the Grantha script.

Further west, Dvaravati also had a strong Indic influence, no later than the 5th century A.D.

The genetic results indicate on the order of 10-20% of the ancestry of people in central Thailand is broadly Indian. This is not a trivial fraction. Who were these people? How early did they come?

On a minor editorial note, I’ll observe there is lots of discussion about possible Indian gene flow to the north and west (into Iran and Turan), but the data on Southeast Asia is clear and of greater magnitude. But there is far less discussion and exploration of this.

Indian ancestry in Southeast Asia is older than statistical genetic tests suggest

Filed under: Southeast Asia — Razib Khan @ 12:35 pm

The panels above are from a new preprint, Reconstructing the human genetic history of mainland Southeast Asia: insights from genome-wide data from Thailand and Laos. It’s an OK preprint, marked mostly by the inclusion of a lot of samples from Thailand. The “southern Thai” samples are from peninsular Thailand, and there are Malays in there. The “central Thai” samples are from in and around Bangkok. The Mon seems to be sampled from Thailand as well.

Most of the papers on mainland Southeast Asian genetics are hard to follow because there isn’t a clear relationship in many cases between language and genetics, and linguistic classification can be dodgy. E.g., is Vietnamese Austro-Asiatic? The biggest difference is the old “Australo-Melanesian” substrate, and the ancestry brought by the farmers from the north. But these farmers themselves come out of a southern Chinese milieu where there isn’t a distinction. The biggest difference between a lot of the “Austro-Asiatic” and “Tai-Kadai” groups is how much Australo-Melanesian (Hoabinhian) ancestry they carry (the former carry more since they arrived earlier).

But the question of “Indian ancestry” is more interesting and a bit clearer. It seems obvious that a lot of Southeast Asian groups have South Asian ancestry. For twenty years it’s been clear that the HGDP Cambodian has a West Eurasian affinity, and many of us assumed it was simple “Ancestral South Indian” (ASI) shared lineage. Basically, the people from India to the South China sea were part of a genetic continuum before the intrusion of West Asians into South Asia and Northeast Asians into Southeast Asia. But this is wrong. The Indian ancestry clearly exhibits “Ancestral North Indian” heritage. In Cambodia itself on the order of 5% of the men seem to carry Y haplogroup R1a1a. This is steppe-associated.

So the question is when did this come into the region? The preprint’s figure is a little misleading, though in the text it’s clearer: the statistics indicate a major admixture ~750 years ago. The Mon in particular have lots of Indian ancestry. 20% is probably a low bound figure for this group. When I ran ALDER I got about 750 years for Cambodia. There is zero chance that there was a large scale migration of Indians into Cambodia at that date. Unlike proto-Burma, Cambodia is also pretty far from mainland India.

The most plausible explanation is that these admixture dates are picking up the mixing between a Southeast Asian set of populations without much Indian ancestry, and a group of Austro-Asiatic people who had a lot of Indian ancestry from an earlier admixture.

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 4, Alexander G. Ioannidis: Native American ancestry in pre-Columbian Polynesia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 5:18 am

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I'm counting down to the new year here by re-releasing favorite past episodes from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before. These episodes are free for all; next on the docket are new episodes for paying subscribers only, including conversations with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan.

Share

Alexander Ioannidis is not the most famous Ioannidis at Stanford. But perhaps he should be!

In the summer of 2020, he led a study that seems to confirm gene flow of Native American ancestry into Polynesia long before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. On some level, we always knew and suspected this. How could people who crossed the whole Pacific not have arrived on the American mainland? Also, the existence of the American sweet potato in Polynesia indicates some contact.

But we had always assumed it was cultural. Using the “best-of-breed” genetic methods Alex found that there were clear signs of ancient Native American ancestry in the people of the Marquesas. Over 45 minutes in May of 2020, we discuss technical details, the archaeological and anthropological relevance to contacts between Pacific and American peoples, and future directions for his research.


This is day 4 of 6. Here is day 1: Shadi Hamid, day 2: Vagheesh Narasimhan, day 3: Thomas Chatterton Williams.

And if you missed them in the busy runup to the holidays, here is my series of five quick pieces from this past week

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

December 28, 2020

On the varieties of Marxism

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 6:07 pm

Democrats’ Georgia Hopes Rest on Jon Ossoff, 33. How Did He Get Here? He’s rich. That’s it. No need to read the piece, that’s all it is. Yes, he has other attributes, but his main qualification is that he is from the leisure class. You knew that before you read the piece. This is not a huge ideological point. George W. Bush was from a wealthy and well-connected family. He had other attributes, but without the financial and social capital, he would have gone nowhere in life probably judging by his dissolute middle period.

It doesn’t really matter if you are a partisan. Ossoff will vote with the Democrats. That’s the reason to vote for him if you are a Democrat, and against him, if you are a Republican. For many years Nancy Pelosi has been one of the wealthiest members of Congress (#3 in 2018), and she’s led the Democrats without any problem.

The Democratic party is the party of the economic left. The base and the members of Congress are to the left of the average Democrat. But, as David Shor pointed out, the Democratic leadership and base are much further left in relation to the average Democrat on cultural issues. The Democrats have gotten some serious policies predicated on their economic liberalism (e.g., ACA). But, on the whole, that is small-ball in comparison to other left parties the world over.

Time’s up!

But on cultural topics things are different. Right now some stupid person is denigrating the classics as white male and worthless, etc. The usual. I still see academics use the term “Latinx” in places like The New York Times even though it’s ridiculous and opposed by the people who it purports to describe. Through the capture of media, academia, and in alliance with the corporate and governmental bureaucracy, the left is rearranging and modifying our language and categories. To be frank, I feel they are engaging in an inverted rectification of the names; attempting to make reality conform to names.

A left materialist critique of this pattern is that this is neoliberal co-option of the class struggle and transmutation of it into something that capital can control and leverage. It’s idealism. The people stay poor, but they are given the opium of the ideals of antiracism. I have right-libertarian friends who agree in some ways with this critique, but they look positively on it. They are more fearful of distortion of the market process that materialist leftists would engage in, rather than ransacking our cultural categories.

So what would you pick: Canadian single-payer healthcare with Shakespeare or no Shakespeare without single-player? It’s a stupid contrast but it cuts to the heart of the issue. I think there are people on the right who are so well-off due to their position within capital than the rise of cultural barbarism does not concern them. They are in their gated community. What would you prefer, that they come for your tax bracket or your soul? Perhaps it depends on what bracket you’re in and if you can buy a soul.

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 3, Thomas Chatterton Williams: beyond black and white

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 6:01 am
But he does look good in black and white, doesn’t he?

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In anticipation of releasing new podcasts in 2021, including with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan, I’ve been reposting some of my favorite conversations of the past few years in the last week of the current year. I'm counting down to the new year here by re-releasing a favorite past episode from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before. If they weren’t famous to you before, I hope they are now.

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Some guests need no introduction. In 2020, Thomas Chatterton Williams is one of those individuals. But back in March of 2019, when we talked for 1 hour and 15 minutes he was neither quite as internet-notorious nor as widely fêted. The author of two books, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd and Self-Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood, and Rethinking Race, Thomas has also become renowned and reviled for his role in organizing “the letter”, which made a calm plea for open debate and discussion on the Left.

Since reaching that level of visibility in the summer of 2020 Thomas has been caught up in a series of “internet-controversies.” But as much as I appreciate his cool under social-media pressure, there has always been a lot more to him than internet drama, and over the course of our discussion, we get into his background as a mixed-race black American, his ex-pat life in France and the birth of his “white presenting” children.


Also, if you were too busy over the holidays, my series of five quick pieces from this holiday season:

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

December 27, 2020

Open Thread – 10/27/2020 – Gene Expression

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 5:48 pm

I’ve kind of fallen down on the job regarding the book club. But, I will catch up with Not Born Yesterday and Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. My goal is to catch-up this week after a few calls tomorrow.

It’s been a busy last quarter of 2020 for various reasons. I will offer a bit of a personal note and admit that this has been a very nice Christmas with the family. The kids are not yet at the age where they hate me. yet.

A lot of my spare energy has been going into my Substack. Since you read this weblog you know all about it and are probably sick of hearing about it, but just to reiterate, I imagine it is a synthesis of a blog, a podcast, and a newsletter. Last week I recorded podcasts with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan. I’ll be posting Armand’s this week for subscribers, and then pushing in a few weeks to the ungated website.

In setting up the short conversation with Alina I feel like I’ve gotten a better sense of her. Perhaps she’s fooling me, but my initial impression that she’s sincere and earnest has been confirmed. I wish more young academics had her fire for truth above all else. There are more important things than truth, but if you are an academic in particular, why are you in the game if the truth isn’t number one?

Chinese Demography: China is shrinking, and is about to shrink more. These are structural forces we all know. I think they give the rest of the world an opportunity to constrain the dragon. The problem that I see is that the West seems to be engaging in some sort of cultural suicide, in particular the United States.

The distribution of waiting distances in ancestral recombination graphs and its applications.

Democrats see grim prospects in final election results despite Biden’s win. The takeaway is what Kevin Drum observed: Democratic elites and base are very culturally liberal, and don’t want to concede an inch on cutting edge progressive values. Non-college educated America barely knows what they’re talking about half the time. I think this is a bit like the Republican fixation on cutting taxes to increase revenue and the cult of the “job-creator.” People on the Right are pretty bullish on 2022 and 2024.

That being said, the Left controls all the major cultural institutions. What does it matter if you win elections if in 2024 every member of Congress is mandated to state their pronoun on the directory?

Reconstructing the human genetic history of mainland Southeast Asia: insights from genome-wide data from Thailand and Laos. Going to have to look at this closely.

Bryan Sykes obituary.

Sexual conflict drives micro- and macroevolution of sexual dimorphism in immunity.

Placing ancient DNA sequences into reference phylogenies.

A higher burden of multiple sclerosis genetic risk confers an earlier onset.

Last week I posted a long conversation with Samon Burja. I’ll ungate it soon. But I think you’ll enjoy it.

How 2 Pro-Nazi Nobelists Attacked Einstein’s “Jewish Science”. Science must fall?

What was the population of the Americas in 1492?

Filed under: Ancient DNA,Human Population Genetics — Razib Khan @ 12:04 pm

Several people have asked me about the new study on ancient DNA in the Caribbean, A genetic history of the pre-contact Caribbean. There is a lot to this paper, some of which is outside of my purview (e.g., I don’t know anything about the archaeology of this region so can’t interpret the genetic results well). One of the major things they did was establish patterns of relatedness. This seems like a major step forward in terms of future applicability to ancient DNA.

But the biggest thing that jumped out at me had to do with effective population size. Carl Zimmer’s write-up highlights this issue:

The genetic variations also allowed Dr. Reich and his colleague to estimate the size of the Caribbean society before European contact. Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartholomew sent letters back to Spain putting the figure in the millions. The DNA suggests that was an exaggeration: the genetic variations imply that the total population was as low as the tens of thousands.

This matters because it starts to change our sense of revisionism (now orthodox?) in books such as 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. To reconcile the small numbers of indigenous people by the 16th century in the Caribbean the hypothesis that there were mass die-offs due to disease, or, the Spanish were inordinately cruel (“The Black Legend”). These results suggest that the scale of the pandemic shock was less of an issue since the baseline number of native peoples is lower in the area.

What does this imply for the rest of the New World? I don’t know. But perhaps the huge census sizes argued for by some scholars won’t hold? It probably depends on the region. But with enough ancient DNA, the same sort of analyses could be replicated.

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 2, Vagheesh Narasimhan: Indian genetic history

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 9:45 am

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In anticipation of releasing new podcasts in 2021, including with Armand Leroi and Alina Chan, I am reposting some of my favorite conversations of the past few years in the last week of 2020. I'm going to count down to the new year here by re-releasing a favorite past episode from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before.

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Vagheesh Narasimhan is an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin. I am honored to count Vagheesh as a friend. But even before we got to know each other I was shouting about his research because his work has been some of the most impactful in the area of human evolutionary genomics over the past few years. His 2019 paper, The Formation of Human Populations in South and Central Asia is the first and last word on the ancient population-genetic history of a region that is home to 25% of the world’s population.

 Recording in September of 2019 Vagheesh and I spent about an hour and a half discussing the implications of the results in his seminal 2019 paper, and future directions in his research. If you want to understand the genetic history of South Asia, this podcast will get you off to an excellent start.


Also, if you were too busy over the holidays, my series of five quick pieces from this holiday season:

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

December 26, 2020

BP Unlurk Thread

Filed under: Admin — Razib Khan @ 6:17 pm

In the post where I allude to “10 years of BP” someone mentioned old comments pre-2014 (I do have those posts in tables I need to load up). That suggests to me that some few of the readers here date to the beginning and transitioned to the blogspot site and back again.

So here is an unlurk thread where you can tell us who you are. Are you Indian? Are you a techie? What is your caste/jati? The usual.

Podcast countdown to 2021 – day 1, Shadi Hamid

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 1:11 pm

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This past week I recorded two podcast episodes I'm particularly looking forward to sharing with you.

First, I had a long chat with Armand Leroi. Any chance I get to talk to him I come away wondering why he isn't everywhere, all the time. Leroi’s Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body is one of the most elegantly written works of scientific narrative from the 2000’s. Even so, I was surprised to pick up his next book in the 2010’s and discover a beautifully illustrated, historically rich tome, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. Armand has mad range. In the course of 1 hour and 20-minutes, we discuss C. elgans, personal genomics, eugenics, race, the future directions of Leroi’s scholarly work, and the intellectual and cultural climate of the 2020’s.

My other conversation was with the understandably very in-demand Alina Chan. I've been asking Alina to carve out a little time for a chat for weeks because she’s been at the center of the discussion of an important scientific topic over the last six months, the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Alina downplays her bravery, but her relentless commitment to uncovering the verifiable truth, whether it be good, bad, inconvenient, or ugly, really sets her apart in 2020. She's well worth a follow and I look forward to seeing how her career unfolds. Her spirit gives me hope.


As this year winds down, I'm counting my blessings, including the chance to have logged hundreds of podcasts over the past few years with fascinating people in a huge range of fields. Many of these conversations are just as relevant and compelling as they were when they first went live. With that in mind, I'm going to count down to the new year here by re-releasing a favorite past episode from the archives of my other podcast homes each day until 2021. Hope you'll discover a memorable voice or two you might have missed before.

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Today, I bring you a conversation I had with Shadi Hamid in March of 2019 for the Brown Pundits podcast. The world is so unimaginably different a year and a half later so I was gratified to find it’s still a fresh listen. In the 1 hour and 45-minute conversation, Shadi talks about his background (Egyptian, Muslim, American), his professional interests (the Middle East), and his status as a mildly non-woke American-of-color.

Despite our political difference (Shadi’s left to my right) and opposition on religious views (Shadi’s Islam to my atheism), we have always gotten along and been able to have a conversation because of our commitment to the pluralism of views. Shadi is an adherent to a very old-fashioned cultural liberalism predicated on the marketplace of ideas. You may disagree with him on something, and I do on many topics, but he is always open to engagement. He takes on all comers.


And if you missed them in the busy runup to the holidays, here is my series of five quick pieces from this past week

The Age of Genetic Engineering Begins

The Original Chinese Man

Applying IQ to IQ

Your Roots are Showing

In Gods We Trusted

One reason I shared this sampler of my writing was to leave those considering a subscription plenty of time to grab one at Substack’s lowest rates before I adjust the pricing upward in the new year.

Subscribe now

Give a gift subscription

December 25, 2020

Open Thread – 12/26/2020 – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Admin — Razib Khan @ 9:21 pm

Brown Pundit emeritus Zach pointed out on Twitter that BP launched at the end of 2010. A lot has changed. At BP and the world.

There is actually MySQL table data with archives back to 2010. I should resurrect those at some point.

A lot has changed in the last 10 years. The biggest thing is the size of the brown faction on the internet is now huge. About as many Indians read this website as Americans.

December 24, 2020

Sign-up for my Substack!

Filed under: Admin — Razib Khan @ 9:15 pm

The price-point for paid subscription to my new newsletter is too high for most Indians (well, Americans perhaps?). So I am not asking for paid sign-ups as much as encouraging people to do a free sign-up. The reason is two-fold.

First, I’m going to put out a reasonable amount of free content. You can see that this week where I put out 5 posts.

Second, I want more sign-ups from India, because one of the areas I plan on covering in my Substack into the 2020’s is the America-India relationship and India’s future prospects. I’m personally interested, and honestly, I think there are some business opportunities I want to explore. So I would appreciate sign-ups as I want to build up that relationship.

(if you don’t know what Substack is, here’s an article)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Filed under: Holidays — Razib Khan @ 5:03 pm


I am not Christian, nor have I ever been. But I grew up in the Northeast where Christmas was a big deal, and the season brings a lot of memories back for me. Since my parents are Muslim and did not celebrate Christmas when I was a child (they later assimilated and do celebrate it now), the holiday was mostly about cartoon specials, snowy days off school, and the ambiance (candy canes, Santa, etc.). I really like “Christmas specials,” though I will admit my children don’t see the point. Who would have guessed?

Below the fold, I am reposting something I wrote in 2005. That’s 15 years ago. A lot of things have changed in the world, and in my own life. To be frank, this has been a hard year for me, my family, and the whole world. I’m trying to be positive, and have high hopes for 2021. How bad could it be?

Finally, thanks to everyone who has gotten on board with the Substack, whether you are a paid or unpaid subscriber (if you cannot afford it and are a superfan, email me!). I’m happy where we are and hope to do more with it. Aside from the big names, there are all sorts of people on that platform (e.g., Colin Wright).

Now, onto the post…
Evoking the season – originally posted December 25th, 2005

Culture” is difficult to define. Sometimes it is used to indicate a particular mix of preferences which have a strong correlation with the social elites, i.e., those who enjoy opera, live theater or classical music. In a more prosaic context it is usually thought of as socially transmitted behaviors and folkways that are particular to groups of humans. Some aspects of culture are universal, for instance, artistic expression. But the details of artistic expression allow us to demarcate various cultural units. Many pieces of cultural expression can be bundled together into a cultural unit, for example, the modes of behavior which are dictated by rabbinical Judaism and traditional Islam. But for each individual there are often multiple bundles of culture which coexist, axes of identification. For example, despite the common norms imposed by Rabbinical Judaism, there are differences between Yemeni Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Some of these differences might be the result of the broader cultural matrix in which these two Jewish cultures evolved, for example, Ashkenazi Jewish law forbade polygyny from the 10th century onward, while Yemeni Jewish law did not. It might not be coincidental that Yemeni Jews were embedded in an Islamic social matrix where polygyny was accepted while Ashkenazi Jews interacted with a larger Western Christian culture where monogamy was normative. In short, culture is a bugger.

This makes discussions about culture extremely slippery, and the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding are manifold. Discussions about “Christian culture” or “Western culture” or “Islamic culture” are fraught with difficulties in defining boundaries or ascribing to a particular culture a fundamental diagnostic characteristic. I believe one flaw in most discussions is that the tendency to speak in terms of idealized types translates into a neglect of the reality that culture is a distribution of behaviors that ultimately exist in flux within the minds of humans. Our discourse is often predicated on particular texts or outward physical manifestations of cultural expression, but we neglect that much of what culture is can only be understood as a dynamic process that emerges out of the swarm of human social interaction, mediated by cognitive preferences.

With that in mind, I want to review a distinction I have made before between evoked and epidemiological culture. Evoked culture can be thought of as human universals which are naturally expressed when one develops within a conventional social and physical environment. Consider language, in the context of human socialization it seems to be an inevitable development. Though a particular language is not hard-wired, the consensus seems to be emerging that a powerful cognitive bias exists to generate complex and recursive syntactical structures buttressed by an enormous lexical memory. In a milder fashion, religious belief can also be thought of as an evoked cultural phenomenon, the existence of an agency detection bias in congress with various other cognitive processes might naturally result in the conception in one’s mind that supernatural agents must exist. But, though these general tendencies are universally evoked, how they express themselves in the details may differ greatly. Chinese or English are not hard-wired in the brains of people speaking those languages, and belief in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob must also be learned (I know some theists would disagree with this, but I would argue that the ‘innate’ god does not exhibit the details of particular religions but is a generic entity). These details must spread by person to person communication, and this is where epidemiological culture comes into play, as it defines the texture and diversity across the cultural landscape. Though the constraints defined by our mental architecture seem to limit language toward particular canals of development and expression, why a language spreads or does not spread is likely not due to cognitive variables.1 Why have English and Mandarin Chinese spread? For that matter why have Indo-European languages been so successful? There are several variables that likely influenced the success of these languages in spreading, but the key one is likely historical luck, the people who spoke English (British conquerors) and Mandarin Chinese (bureaucrats of the Chinese Empire) were of high and successful status and so emulation and imitation resulted in the spread of these languages. Additionally, the tendency to emulate majority preferences amongst individuals would likely result in a ‘tipping point’ effect so that the process of linguistic spread would be somewhat sigmoidal as the defection of local elites and peers would result in accelerated transition from the old language to the new. But in some cases innate cognitive factors can play a role even in epidemiological culture. Consider Calvinism. Jean Calvin elucidated a neo-Augustinian view that rejected Free Will in his Reformed theology. In response to this theology there arose a faction within Reformed Protestantism of Arminianism, which rejected the logical conclusions of Predestinary Calvinism. To make a long story short, Arminianism won out in the Church of England, and to a large extent in American Protestantism (despite the Calvinistic roots of many denominations). Operationally Arminianism is the dominant system which humans seem to be working under, even if they verbally espouse an Predestinary theology (as many Reformed denominations and Muslims do). The point here is that the relative success of many Christian denominations at the expense of strict Reformed sects might simply be due to the fact that the compromises with operational Free Will that the former have made is more cognitively optimal than strict Calvinist Predestinarian theology. Finally, another way that a cultural trait can spread is through typical functional benefits. For example, agriculture likely spread simply because the fitness of individuals who adhered to this style of subsistence was higher than that of those who did not (as defined by descendants). Many early theories in regards to religion were functional in that they held that common gods served as expressions of communal unity which served to cohere the group against outside threats. In this paradigm the details of culture are less relevant than that individuals within a group share common norms and trade in interchangeable cognitive currency (swearing oaths to the same god, or fighting under the protection of a tribal god).

Which brings me to Christmas. As an atheist from a non-Christian cultural background who was raised not celebrating the holiday within the family (but partook of the general cultural zeitgeist), I have a peculiar perspective. On the issue of whether to say “Merry Christmas” or not, I generally take it as a default setting unless there are other factors which suggest it should be more appropriate to say “Happy Holidays” (reader surveys suggest that most readers of this weblog are not religious, so I would probably say “Happy Holidays” since I suspect that they have as little attachment to the name Christmas as I do). A few weeks ago I was in an email correspondence with a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian, and I wished him a “Merry Xmas.” He asked me if I celebrated Christmas, and how I felt about that if I did since he knew I was an atheist. The gist of my response was that I did celebrate Christmas, but, I did not th
ink that Christmas was fundamentally a Christian holiday in any case, and I have no aversion to the name Christmas, just as he, a non-Catholic Christian, likely did not object to the historical relict of the Catholic mass that is still embedded within the term. I also explained that though I understand that most Christians assert that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” I believe that he became the reason for the season. That is, the pagan origins of many Christian traditions are well known, and the association with Yule, Saturnalia and Natalis Sol Invictus are also common knowledge.

Which brings back to some of the ideas I introduced earlier: the public discourse tends to fixate on Christmas as if it is an idealized unitary type that we all have a common understanding of. Pagans will assert that Christmas is a pagan holiday (they’ll change the name). Most Christians will assert it is a Christmas holiday. Some Christians will assert that it is a pagan holiday. Many will contend that it has been distorted and become a celebration of the God of the Market. And so on. The amusing reality that mostly Muslim African Senegal has taken up Christmas (as has Shinto-Buddhist Japan) should point us to the possibility that Christmas is a far messier and diffuse concept than the talking points that have erupted would let on. Going back to the idea of “evoked” cultural traits, I began to wonder if it was not inevitable that a prominent holiday would exist in the darkest days of winter amongst agricultural peoples in Europe. Saturnalia was a Mediterranean Latin affair. Yule was a northern European affair. The American Christmas seems to exhibit aspects of both. In a manner, it might have been inevitable that the rise of Christianity as the dominant religious mode amongst Europeans would result in the transition of many non-Christian cultural elements into the Christian pantheon, that it would coopt cognitively optimal features of the native cultures. It is to me no surprise that the Christians who have been most prominent in rejecting Christmas as a pagan holiday are descendants of the Radical Reformation which explicitly attempted to revert back to “primitive” Christianity, shorn of cultural accretions and adhering to strictly scripturally approved norms and motifs.2 Some Christian thinkers have attempted to dismiss the pagan aspects of the Christmas holiday as minor trivialities, but the laundry list of holiday “traditions” which have pre-Christian roots is rather long (Christmas cookies, gift-giving, the yule log, excessive celebration). I was surprised that even The Catholic Encyclopedia expressed a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the holiday.

Ultimately I suspect that pagans, Christians, and non-theists who celebrate “Christmas” (whatever you call it) are evoking common cognitive states and recapitulating many of the cultural motifs which were in circulation across much of Europe prior to the rise of the Christian religion. The fact that Christmas trees can be perceived to be fundamentally Christian is an interesting commentary on the fluidity of cultural motifs. The debates over Christmas are not truly about Christmas, since the holiday itself is a melange of various cultural streams, and like a kaleidoscope can impart to the perceiver multiple conformations. It is an outgrowth of social anomie that results from disputes over who owns the meaning of particular cultural currencies. Though I have asserted multiple times that I believe that religious believers actually believe in the same cognitive God, that does not negate the reality that they will kill each other over disputes predicated on the particular abstract nature of that God, or the term they use for that God (in reality I suspect that the theological disputes are simply masks for a host of cleavages that make intergroup conflict inevitable). Though the general expression of Christmas is rather the same across various groups, what Christmas “means” has crucial significance as a group marker, just as whether the Son was inferior & created or coequal and eternal with the Father corresponded with barbarian-Roman divisions in late antiquity.

As a non-Christian who is part of the majority consensus in regards to the generality and details of the God hypothesis I am attuned to the dynamics of cultural ownership of symbols and ideas.3 But, I do not believe that Christmas is a particular prudent battle which should be waged by unbelievers simply because no matter what people might say, the practice of the holiday tends to exhibit cross-group similarities which bespeaks to the fact that is drawing upon universal evoked sentiments and cultural traits. Granted, non-Christians who adhere to alternative religions have a greater stake in the “meaning of Christmas,” whether they want to reappropriate it (as the pagans do) or deny it its central place (as Jews or Muslims or Hindus might), but to me as an unbeliever such debates seem to be lexical details, not substantive differences.

1 – In The Symbolic Species Terrence Deacon does suggest that languages have been reverse engineered by our cognitive architecture to “fit” them optimally. But, Deacon is not suggesting here that modern languages are variant in their cognitive optimality, rather, this is a contention that is only intelligible in the grand evolutionary context.

2 – I recommend Antonie Wessels’ Europe, was it ever really Christian?: The interaction between gospel and culture for the logical conclusion of Reformed examination of the fundamentals of Christianity. Wessels’ examination of the pagan antecedents of many cultural motifs in “Christendom” is enlightening.

3 – From what I can see the “War against Christmas” is in large part driven by corporate-capitalist concerns of minimizing the risk of any offense.

Samo Burja on “social technology,” China, and the foreign view of America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 1:24 pm

On this episode of Unsupervised Learning I talk at length with Samo Burja, a public intellectual who focuses on the insights that history can provide to the present and future. To be frank, Samo is one of the most historically literate people I’ve ever met. This probably explains how we could talk so easily for well over an hour on topics as diverse as …

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December 23, 2020

In God We Trusted

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 11:54 pm

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It’s Christmas Eve now (well, by the time you read this). Thank you for being so willing to support my fledgling substack project, this week I've been releasing a set of year-end posts. These are five reads about the state as I see it of five sectors I follow. Might have been perfect for raising the level of chitchat at a normal year's run of December parties. In 2020, I hope they'll edify if it's not your field and that you'll let me know what I'm missing if it's your bailiwick I'm reflecting on. Here are the earlier posts:

Thank you for reading, for subscribing, and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers!

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The turning tide

Sometimes cultural change is very visible. In the first half of the 1960's the commonplace of hats for men went into sharp decline. Some blame the influence of President John F. Kennedy, whose sartorial affect marked a sharp break with that of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it seems more likely that Kennedy’s choices reflected deeper cultural currents. His example was the outcome, not the cause.

Sometimes though, it’s harder to even “see” change. Archaeologists and historians focus on material remains and texts to trace cultural evolution, but they lack access to the inner lives of the common people. In The Fate of Rome Kyle Harper asserts that after the Plague of Cyprian in the 250’s pagan temples fell into disrepair. Implied is that there was a crisis of faith in the middle of the 3rd century A.D., preparing the rise of Christianity as the Roman religion. But on some level we’ll never know, because we missed the chance to send survey takers and ethnographers into the urban slums of late imperial Rome.

The evolution of cultural forms and beliefs is like a vast roiling ocean. Though always in motion underneath the surface, you only detect its kinetic power when the surface is disturbed and a gathering wave is hurtling toward you. By the early 1960's America was already ripe for change. The conditions for a revolution in mores were in place. But people going about their business during that time did not see the changes coming. Only the chaos of the second half of the 1960’s alerted them that the world they’d known their whole lives was going to change irrevocably. Between 1965 and 1970 the number of murders and rapes in the USA increased by 50%. Robberies doubled. The United States Supreme Court liberalized its interpretation of obscenity in 1966, allowing localities to define local standards, while in 1967 Denmark became the first country to legalize pornography. The clean-shaven look that had been dominant for decades became “square” in the space of a few years, and the short hairstyles which were expected of men since the early 19th century had to compete with longer fashions. In 1967 laws against interracial marriage in the United States were banned.

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A most Christian president and a crusading nation

The early 2000’s in the United States would prove a similar calm before the storm. George W. Bush, an avowed born-again Christian, who named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher in a Republican primary debate, was president. The conflict with militant radical Islam after 9/11 had clear religious overtones, with a resurgent Christian West opposed to the threat of Islamic terrorism and Muslim immigration into Europe. I recall talking to people who believed that there was a “religious revival” going on in the United States. But what did the data say? 

The actual fact is that the dawning century was witnessing substantial secularization in the United States. As late as 2009 I attempted to correct a New York Times columnist’s contention that America was not secularizing, that its exceptionalism compared to Europe in regards to religion still endured. In that same year, two journalists at The Economist published God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. A decade on, the premise of the book is clearly wrong. Though there are important nations, such as China and Russia, where religion is making a comeback with the retreat of orthodox Marxism, the first few decades of the 21st century have witnessed a major recession of religion in the United States and indications of the same in the Islamic world. Overall God is in retreat in the two zones where he has been politically most salient.

When Samuel P. Huntington wrote Who Are We? Challenges to America’s National Identity in 2004 he proposed that it would be Protestant Christianity which assimilated and bonded new immigrants to native-born US populations. He was drawing here upon research from the 1990’s by Barry Kosmin at CUNY that Asian Americans and people from Latin America were beginning to convert in large numbers to American Protestantism. Which is reasonable in light of the fact that we are a Protestant nation by origin.

Or at least we were. Huntington wrote at the beginning of a period when the religious identity of the United States began to undergo a radical and serious shift. We needn’t speculate about this. Since the early 1970’s the General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking Americans a raft of very specific questions, and collecting their demographic variables. What percentage of Americans are Protestant? Ask the GSS.

The variable RELIG asks for religious identity, while the variable YEAR divides those responses by when the respondents were surveyed. The chart below makes plain where we were and where we are:

The blue bars are those who identify as Protestants. The green bars are those with “No Religion.” By the end of the first Bush term, fewer than 50% of Americans were reporting they were Protestant, for the first time in the history of this nation. In the three decades since 1990 those who report “No religion” have more than doubled, from fewer than 10% to more than 20% of Americans.

Huntington was writing at a time when the data, if he had had access, would have made it clear that the Protestant America he presumed immigrants would assimilate to was dying of disbelief and defection.

Using the GOD variable in GSS also records a decline in belief in God overall, though this is much more modest:

But, since the 1980’s those who admit to being atheists have gone from 1% of the population to 5%. There has been some reduction in the number of people who “know” that God exists, and an increase in those who believe in a “Higher Power” instead. The decline of organized religion is feeding both spiritualism and atheism.

Perhaps more telling than belief is attendance. The ATTENDS variable tells us how many people admit to never going to church within a calendar year:

The trend again is clear. Between 1970 and the end of the 1980’s a steady 10-15% of Americans didn’t go to church all year. Today that figure is between 25-30%.

From the perspective of age, the secularization of the younger age cohorts is remarkable. Below is religious identity partitioned by generation using the COHORT variable (millennials are born in 1981 and later):

Nearly as many among the younger generations have “No Religion” as are Protestant. These statistics bear more resemblance to Europe than the United States itself just 40 years ago. 30% of people in the United Kingdom of all ages claim “no religion.” In Germany, the figure is 28%. These rates are similar to the current proportions for younger Americans. American exceptionalism in regards to religion will continue to wane as we lose our older generations. 

What about the patterns in relation to education? Using the DEGREE variable and focusing on millennials you see a different trend:

There isn’t much difference on most variables. There is a perception by some populist conservatives that it is highly educated cosmopolitans who are detached from religion. But among younger Americans, the secularization trend cuts across all demographics and is broad-based. 

And, there is evidence that less educated younger Americans are actually less attached to religious institutions than those who have college degrees. Even though less educated young Americans are more certain that God exists (48% vs. 38%), they are somewhat more likely to go a full year without attending church (31% vs. 27%). This recapitulates patterns familiar in some European nations, where the working class and underclass are most alienated from institutions like organized religion. This, despite not necessarily being more atheist.

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Two nations divided by God

This pattern hasn’t escaped the notice of commentators. Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, reports the decline of religion among working-class whites. Anyone who has done ethnography among working-class British whites knows that lack of church attachment is typical in that class, with religious attendance being seen as a bourgeois affectation. The same pattern now seems to be emerging in the American data.

Why did this happen in the last generation? How could the cultural elites fail to notice for so long? In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us the authors argue that the politicization of religion with the rise of the Christian Right is the key to understanding the change. As American Christianity became more and more identified with right-wing politics, nominally Christian liberals began to leave religion altogether, which produced a feedback loop so that the Christians who remained were more conservative. American Grace even reports that when conservative people join a church that is more politically moderate or apolitical, they tend to change the politics of the church. The church does not change them.

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America’s empty pews

In the era around 2005-2010, when “New Atheism” was at its peak with bestsellers like The God Delusion and God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would moot the idea of a world without God. Though God is still with us, the 2010’s witnessed a massive rise in secularism. Or at least disaffection from the traditional religions of the United States. Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both arguably the most secular American presidents since Kennedy. Trump’s 2016 victory occurred in part through increased support from less religious white working-class voters. The normative Christianity at the heart of the American republic might well and truly be gone when even the head of the more religiously conservative party is only nominally Christian.

In 2000 we had a president whose whole identity revolved around Christianity. In 2020 we have a president whose basic nature is at odds with core Christian values of humility and charity.

The visions of a critically rationalist body politic ushered in through the collapse of Christianity ending up remaining dreams unfulfilled. The United States is now more, not less, polarized due to politics. The subordination of religion to politics in the wake of religion’s collapse as a public force in America has not resulted in the rise of individual conscience. If anything it’s cleared the way for new forms of collective group-think, hastened on the wings of instantaneous social media technology. The social media endorphin machine now substitutes for the God of the church pew, as we like and share articles that arouse tribal passions.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the collapse of religion among white liberals in the past few decades has allowed their passions to be channeled in other directions. Some time in the middle of the last decade white liberals in the United States began to be more worried about racism than non-whites were. Little accident then that this movement has been termed the “Great Awokening” in explicit analogy to the “Great Awakening.” One religious-style revival in American history recalls another. The social gospel has been replaced by social justice.

Much of American history, going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations in the 19th century, alludes to the pious nature of the populace, at least in comparison to more jaded and secular Europeans. The 21st century seems to herald an end to this exceptionalism, as large swaths of American society finally become as secular as their consumer-society economics would predict. 

You can run into the marketplace screaming that “God is dead!” But the declaration does not dictate reality. Officially atheistic societies under communism killed God in the public square, only to see him reborn in personality cults, with dictators like Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung assuming an almost divine aura for their people. Nothing so traumatic has happened in the United States. No churches were torn down, no priests persecuted. Rather, the youth are moving on, and faith is fading, having exhausted itself. 

But in the place of old sureties, no consensus of cold critical-rationalist individualists is emerging to declare “let us calculate.” Dawkins averred that religion was the root of all evil in his 2006 documentary of that name. But with the collapse of the authority of traditional religion in the United States, we don’t yet see a utopian society governed by the considerations of reason. Rather, new collective hysterias rise to take the place of religion. From conspiracy theories like QAnon to theories-of-everything like “systemic racism,” people crave grand meta-narratives. The impulse to belong, to perform, to show one’s devotion, remains. Who is the most pious of them all? Who is the most woke? 

The death of the godly nation that Europeans saw the United States as has not meant the rebirth of something fundamentally different. The nature of the people remains the same. Instead of apocalyptic street prophets, we now have unhinged YouTube celebrities. Rather than epistemological humility the human mind still prizes the certainty of beliefs that must not be questioned. Unseen forces, from George Soros to the Koch brothers dominate the demon-haunted minds of post-religious Americans, becoming our modern-day myths. Ultimately the faith in rationality was just that, another faith. Reason is a far less powerful motivator for human action than faith, whether we label it religious or not.

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Thank you again for reading, for subscribing and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers! 

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December 22, 2020

Your roots are showing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Razib Khan @ 9:29 pm

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The holidays are upon us. By way of thanking all of you for being so willing to support my fledgling substack project, this week I'm releasing a set of year-end posts. These are five reads about the state as I see it of five sectors I follow. Might have been perfect for raising the level of chitchat at a normal year's run of December parties. In 2020, I hope they'll edify if it's not your field and that you'll let me know what I'm missing if it's your bailiwick I'm reflecting on. So far:

Thank you for reading, for subscribing, and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers!

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Beyond black and white

The Republican Party was born as an ethnic party. Formed out of a fusion of the anti-slavery factions in the Whigs and the Democrats, it absorbed the straightforwardly named Free Soil Party and established itself as one half of the American political duopoly that has persisted down to the present. But its core motivations were as much cultural as ideological. It was a revolt of one section of America against the power of the South and “Slave Power.”

Despite all of the nostrums about ending slavery and polygamy and the need for federal investment in public works, the 1856 map shows who the Republican Party first drew its support from: it was the party of Northern Yankees. It was about identity, not ideology. Though in some contexts “Yankee” gets used as shorthand for all Americans, the term originates with the citizens of New England. Seeking opportunity outside of their overpopulated homeland, New England Yankees fanned out from their crowded corner of the United States. Yankee traders and whalers became the most numerous Americans beyond the nation’s shores. So common that the term Yankee became synonymous with American. 

New Englanders also migrated westward all along the northern fringe of the United States, creating the “Yankee Empire.” They settled the vast domains of western New York, northern Ohio and Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Later the western portions of the Yankee Empire also became a magnet for Germans and Scandinavians, whose lifestyles and values were more consonant with those of New Englanders than with other factions of “Old Stock'' Americans further south. 

This was the soil where the Republican Party took root. In 1860, the Republicans nominated a Kentucky-born candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and the party’s reach expanded to other parts of the north beyond the Yankee fringe, thus capturing political power, which it would hold until FDR’s New Deal. Until Roosevelt’s realignment, every election involved jockeying between the old factions of Yankees, other Northerners, and the South. Though all these groups were white, their rivalries were deep and old. Despite attempts to patch up the fabric of American society, the blood spilled during the Civil War forever held the citizens of the North and South at a remove from one another.

In contrast, in 2020 the debate often foregrounds “whites” and “communities of color” as if the world is divided into such stark demographic dualities and always has been. Only it isn’t describing anything more than a recent fashion. The idea of a white America vs. oppressed minorities is a flattening and erasing of the persistent internal divisions amongst the former. 

Some systems of categorization obscure more history than they illuminate. This is patently obvious to many when it comes to “communities of color.” What has the Cuban American to do with the Hmong American? But the same applies to white Americans, from the erstwhile white “ethnic” category including Catholics and Jews, Italians and Poles, to the Mayflower descendants.

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The old ones

In the 20th century, the past stream of migrants through Ellis Island captured the American imagination. There were several reasons for this. First, the Germans, Italians, and Poles who arrived in the decades around 1900 had fresh memories of the old country, and the first generation was still alive after World War II. The “old country” was not yet dim oral history but vividly conjured in the personal histories of living people. Second, the romanticization of the great Ellis Island wave of migration was part of a process of assimilation that produced a homogeneous white American self-conception in the decades after World War II. The war had brought together G.I.’s from all walks of life.  Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. Northern urban Italian and Southern, rural, Old Stock American. But in some ways, this just sublimated older distinctions that persisted below the surface.

The romantic narrative of late 19th and early 20th-century immigration flattered the descendants of the Ellis Island generation, who settled in alongside the old Americans. Whereas in the first decades of the 20th century the vast waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants were seen as a threat to the American way of life, motivating immigration restriction in the 1920’s, the coalescence of a cohesive white identity after World War II leaned on a rose-tinted depiction of the Ellis Island generation.

But who were the old Americans that predated the most famous immigrant wave? These consisted of earlier waves of migration, in particular, Germans and Irish in the early 19th century who triggered the first rise of xenophobia in the United States, but more importantly, the Old Stock of white and black Americans who were present in the United States in the 1790 Census. As late as 1990 these Old Stock Americans contributed nearly half the ancestry in the USA. These are the people whose roots in America go back to the colonial period. They were settlers and slaves who established themselves in the North American colonies of Britain. Not immigrants to the United States of America. 

Despite the vast differences in the experiences of free white Americans who emigrated from Britain and enslaved Africans brought over in bondage, the language, and religion of colonial America impacted both groups in deep ways. Though their paths diverged, white indentured servants who worked alongside enslaved Africans shaped and were shaped by the nascent black American culture. The black American practice of jumping over a broom during weddings derives from folk traditions in the British Isles, while the parallel emergence of blues and country music cannot be understood without the mutual cultural exchange between Southern blacks and whites. Though fundamentally set apart, black Americans are more rooted in the soil of this nation than most whites.

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The Other Americans

The tortured history of black Americans, the descendants of Africans enslaved and brought to the New World, is well known. Much of American history is an engagement with this founding sin of slavery, and the unreconciled nature of racial relations in this country. Black Americans are in many ways the most American of our citizens but also the most alienated from our history. By the Revolutionary War, the enslaved population of the United States was already Christian and English-speaking, with few retaining any deep knowledge of Africa. 

Black Americans represent the most prominent and well-known bloc of Old Stock Americans, but they are not the most numerous. Speaking about  “white Americans'' artificially brackets many different types of Americans together. In the process, we erase a tense history of conflict and a fruitful synthesis of folkways. When headlines trumpet the fact that “most white voters voted for Trump” they collapse the essential distinctions and local histories that drive these social and political decisions. The cultural and social distance between a white roofer in southern Mississippi and a white lawyer in Connecticut is vast. And yet both are just “white” beneficiaries of “systemic racism” in our present-day secular theology.

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The Four Folkways

The most prominent theorist of the different cultural streams of Anglo-America is David Hackett Fischer. A historian at Brandeis, he identifies four general Anglo-American folkways at the founding. These were the groups of Anglo-Americans who interacted with the native peoples of North America, and the enslaved Africans brought over to power the cash-crop economy of the South. 

First, there were the New England Yankees, descended mostly from 30,000 settlers who arrived from England in the 1630’s. These were mostly Puritans, and disproportionately from the eastern coast of England, where these religious sects were most numerous. It is not a coincidence that Boston, England, lies on the eastern coast of the English Midlands. A huge number of early Puritans also migrated out of the neighboring region of East Anglia, the home country of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who had Charles II executed and established a Puritan republic in the 1650’s. The famous Boston accent is actually a descendent of an extinct East Anglian one.

Second, the younger sons of the British rural gentry and servants settled the rich agricultural sections of the lowland South. If the people of New England descended from Puritans, then these Southern tobacco farmers and planters were the scions of the Cavaliers, the people who worked in their homes and plowed their fields. The Cavaliers were the old foes of the Puritans from the English Civil War. Where the Puritans tended to be from the east of England, with close connections to the Dutch Calvinists across the North Sea, the aspiring planters and their tenants tended to have roots in the west of England, in the agricultural hinterland beyond metropolitan London. Whereas the Puritans were a people of the book and town, the planter crew favored plantations over cities, hunting over reading.

Between Southerners and New Englanders lay the middle zone of the Hudson and Delaware river valleys, and those motley colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. New England and the lowland South had a homogeneous ethos, whether that be Puritan bourgeois egalitarianism or strict social hierarchy. But the middle colonies were defined by their heterogeneity, with Quakers in Philadelphia, Dutch in New York, and Swedes in Delaware. The alliance between the Quakers and Pennsylvania German immigrants in the 18th century set the template for the coalitional politics that would come to define the United States. Very different groups were often brought together by common interests. And the mercantile orientation of the Mid-Atlantic port cities anticipated the commercial orientation of America at its peak.

Finally, the last great wave of migration before the Revolutionary War was from the borderlands between England and Scotland. Often called “Scots-Irish” thanks to their sojourn in northern Ireland, these people emigrated in vast numbers in the mid 1700’s, arriving in Philadelphia, and pushing inland to the hill country beyond the coast. Going north, but especially south, the Scots-Irish occupied the vast interior sweep of British America. Largely detaching themselves from the productive and manufacturing economy of the coast, the Scots-Irish recreated the factious, honor-bound society of northern England and Ireland on an exaggerated scale in the American uplands. This was the first wild American heartland, and the Scots-Irish were the first great “Indian fighter” culture to emerge on the frontier. 

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The past is prologue

As a child in upstate New York, I was taught about the Civil War with no ambiguity over “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. Why? Because upstate New York sent soldiers to fight the South, and is firmly a northern locality.  When we read about the English Civil War, it was clear that the Puritan Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell were more virtuous than the Cavaliers who backed the king. As an American it is hard to not root for republicans against the soldiers of the king. We see our own history. There wasn’t a deep philosophical analysis of which side was just in its cause, there was simply an extrapolation from the shared history that people in that region of New York took for granted. This included the children of immigrants from Bangladesh.

The weight of this was clear to me only later when I met people from other parts of the country, and realized they saw history differently, and people from England, whose views about the English Civil War and the American Revolution contradicted what I had taken for granted. A Korean-American friend who was raised in the southern college town where his parents were professors recounted learning that the North had aggressed against the South, and committed war crimes. He did not exactly defend the Southern position, but it was inculcated in him and he couldn’t shake that. So here we were, two young men, children of  Asian immigrants, recapitulating the disagreements between two groups of white Americans who fought each other in bloody battles in the 19th century over the destiny of black Americans. These were not our ancestors, but they were the ancestors of the cultures which became our own.

When we are told that ours is a history of unremitting white supremacy, we are being sold a myth that masks the real history. The myth has some basis in fact, but it elides as much as it illuminates. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to free white people. But many states also allowed non-white men to vote. Despite the law restricting naturalization to whites, the original “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker, settled in North Carolina, became slave owners, and American citizens. The 19th-century United States was a continent-spanning republic, and it contained multitudes and countless contradictions.

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50 shades of white

In 2020 the discourse on ethnicity and race is reductive. The media and pundits have registered shock that Americans of Latin American origin often preferred Trump to Biden. The data also makes clear that many immigrant-heavy precincts shifted to Trump since 2016. The reasons are no doubt diverse, and there are no final conclusions at this early date. But demography is clearly not destiny.

But what about white people? The history of the 19th and 20th century is manifest evidence of diversity amongst the core racial ethnicity in this country. Social statistics collected during the 1840 Census which painted the South in an unflattering light were omitted by 1850, because Southerners bridled at the sermons of Northern Yankee preachers denigrating them as debauched and violent. In 1834 a Roman Catholic convent in Massachusetts was burned down in anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant riots fomented by resentful Yankee natives. Into the early 20th century the Ku Klux Klan targeted German, Italian, and Irish Catholics. In the 1850’s violence engulfed Kansas as Yankee and Southern settlers battled each other with guns and knives. The ethnic conflict reached its pre-Civil War crescendo with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown became a hero and martyr in the North, and by the end of the Civil War Union armies were marching to “John Brown's Body.” In the South, Brown was viewed as a terrorist.

This is not a deep dark history. It’s in any standard history book. It’s the heritage, the legacy that every American, of any race or origin, shares. The idea of one white America fuses together mismatched fragments of identity. But any unity perceived at a remove dissolves upon close inspection. The idea of all-pervasive white privilege and white supremacy in 2020 America masks the reality and diversity of white American experiences. A white American of lower-class Southern origins may become a tenured professor, change their accent and elide their upbringing, but in the process, they are “passing” from one identity to another. The term “white” implies more of a shared experience and history than was ever there.

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True unity out of the diversity

The Manichaean temptation is a universal and recurring motif across human societies. The light and the dark, the good and the evil. But the real world is rarely that starkly divided. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime were exceptional in the sense that they truly seem to have been as evil as they are depicted by their enemies. Human experience usually exhibits more complexity and shades of gray.

Today America slouches into the 21st century, the holdover hyperpower of the 20th century. The fusion of white ethnics and the Anglo-American folkways after World War II was a flash of unity across the centuries of the republic. Though the divisions between Old Stock Americans and new immigrants crystallized by the Ellis Island migration faded with time, older fractures continued to exist beneath the surface. The Civil Rights revolution of the 1960’s divorced Southern whites from the Democratic party, and opened up a new era of ideological and cultural polarization. Trump’s red America is rural, and tends to be concentrated amongst the descendants of Cavaliers and Scots-Irish. In contrast, the leadership of blue America falls to the Yankees and their fellow travelers, liberal white ethnics, Jews, and highly-educated Asian immigrants. The coalitions battling across our culture and politics are not new, but channel deep historic outlines that go back to the 17th and 18th century.

If there is a white supremacy, who are these white people? My wife? Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Czech and English-origin mother in Iowa? Does the out-of-work mill worker in North Carolina truly share in the same patrimony of privilege as the scion of Upper-East-Side old money? Do they really both inherit a privilege that oppresses the children of Indian doctors and Mexican construction workers? The results of the 2020 election, where white suburbs shifted against Trump, and Latino and Asian precincts drove Republican victories down-ballot, illustrate that the theory of racial polarization where “communities of color” are arrayed against “white supremacy” is ridiculously reductive. Americans vote as individuals based on their own interests and values, not as racial blocs.

When I visit very white, liberal neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest lately, it’s easy to find blocks with a Black Lives Matter sign screaming its self-conscious slogan from every lawn or living room window. Back home in a neighborhood that’s actually half black, with more mixed-race couples than not, and Latino construction crews blasting Spanish talk radio all day long, it takes me a couple of weeks to realize I haven’t seen a Black Lives Matter sign since I got back. These Americans are out putting up Christmas lights, walking their dogs, and hammering in For Sale signs. This cross-section of America is diverse. And busy with the real stuff of life.

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