Learning from cultural anthropology as opposed to unlearning from cultural anthropology

On my other weblog one of the commenters, who I have nicknamed Syme (others call him Bentwig), proudly boasts about his training anthropology. Those who know me personally are aware that for me this is often a red flag for an individual who is willing to furiously declare that up is down if Edward Said stated that this was so in a footnote somewhere, or that black is the palest color if Michel Foucault averred this offhand in an interview. I exaggerate in the generality, though in the case of Syme/Bentwig there is a common tendency to proudly attempt to forestall arguments with comments of the form “Edward Said said….” or “According to Foucault.”

Of course, arguing from the authority of others isn’t always bad…but with far too many people with undergraduate anthropology backgrounds seem to engage in this sort of argument-by-citation and refutation-by-declaration-of-theory. Perhaps a contrast of interest are people educated in philosophy. There’s not much they know in thick detail, but they often exhibit analytic acuity when presented with startling and novel information. In contrast, many people with anthropological training may express befuddlement and then proceed to fury when confronted with facts which are outside of their domain and foreknowledge.

Enough punching down. Alex Mesoudi, a scholar in the field of cultural evolution, is publishing book chapters as preprints. The author of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences, Mesoudi’s first submission, The study of culture and evolution across disciplines, should be read by anyone who is interested in the material on this weblog.

Mesoudi reviews the history of the field, from the rise and fall of human sociobiology in the 1970s to the birth of evolutionary psychology in the 1980s, and the gradual but consistent waxing of lesser-known disciplines such as cognitive anthropology and human behavioral ecology (out of which comes cultural evolution). A consistent binding feature of these disciplines is that they attempt to understand human cultural expression as a function of naturalistic processes, in particular, evolutionary ones. This is in contrast to the shift away from analysis to interpretation and description in much of cultural anthropology across the same time period, with the ultimate secession of much of the field from “science.” If you want to read a good primer on the division between scientific and non-scientific anthropology, I recommend Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture or the anthropological introduction to D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness. Scott Atran also tackles the issue in In Gods We Trust. The reason this is necessary is that to understand and take in cognitive anthropology, you often need to unlearn or dampened tics obligate in cultural anthropology.

The flight of much of American cultural anthropology from crisp and powerful analytic frameworks, and toward linguistic obscurantism, to me explains the relative poverty of cognition of those students with only an undergraduate training. Without field-work and graduate courses and reading there’s not even the ability to obtain the deep knowledge required to enable feats of “thick description.”

In any case, the genius of the tradition in which Mesoudi operates under is that it allows for powerful analysis and prediction of cultural patterns and dynamics. Using similar formal frameworks, the idea is to do to culture what population genetics has done to biological evolution: produce a machine to generate predictions and test them with empirical data.

Here’s a taste of how researchers in this field think of “cultural patterns”:

Boyd and Richerson (1985) developed models showing that transmitted culture is favored when environments change moderately quickly, too fast for genes to track, but not so fast that the culturally transmitted behavior is out of date (see also Aoki et al., 2005). Transmitted culture also evolves when individual learning is costly (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Under such conditions, however, social learning evolves but does not increase the average fitness of the population. This phenomenon became known as “Rogers’ paradox” after Alan Rogers, the first person to clearly point it out (Rogers, 1988). The fact that social learning does not enhance average population fitness is not inherently paradoxical, but does contradict the common claim that humans are so ecologically and demographically successful because of transmitted culture.

Rogers’ paradox occurs because the success of social learning is frequency-dependent. When rare, social learners do well because they forego the costs borne by individual learners. But when common, and environments change, social learners will be copying other social learners’ out-dated information. At equilibrium, social and individual learners have equal fitness, which will be equal to the fitness of a population entirely composed of individual learners (which is fixed, because their learning is not dependent on others). Thus, social learning evolves, but does not enhance fitness in a way that could be described as the ‘secret to our success’.

Two small quibbles with the chapter. First:

Bouckaert et al. (2012) reconstructed the cultural evolutionary history of the Indo-European language family, finding that it originally spread along with farming practices from present-day Turkey around 8,000 years ago.

Bouckaert et al. used valid phylogenetic methods, but it seems quite clear that these models have difficulty predicting the protean and punctuated character of many population expansions, which reshape the distribution and relationship of languages. Since 2012 a substantial amount of ancient DNA work has strongly pointed to the likelihood that the distribution of extant Indo-European languages in Europe is due to an expansion out of the Pontic steppe 5,000 years ago (with later secondary migrations into Southern Europe after 4,000 years ago). Though the Anatolian origin may still be preserved if one argues that the Pontic expansion was a secondary one, clearly most of the diversification of the Indo-European languages occurred in the period between 3000 and 1000 BC, in a 2,000-year radiation. The “Indo-European question” ultimately showed to me the limitations of phylogenetic methods because they are sensitive to particular assumptions within the model (e.g., continuous endogenous demographic expansion).

Second:

Note that this is different to Wilson’s (1976) earlier speculations that genetic differences might explain behavioral differences between groups of people. Tooby and Cosmides explicitly disavowed this, instead arguing that people everywhere are genetically far too similar to explain any behavioral variation directly (which concurs with modern genetic data: Feldman, 2014). Genes instead generate a set of universal responses to predictable environmental variation.

Considering the very rapid changes in cultural types across time and between closely related lineages, it seems hard to credit that most behaviorally based cultural variation is due to genetic variation (e.g., walk down a street in Finland and walk down a street in Italy, and see how differently the comportment of the typical passerby is). But, it seems quite possible, probably likely, that there are going to be some behavioral differences due to different distributions in polygenic quantitative traits. The question is more the extent of magnitude. That will depend on the phenotype and between population pair.

Also, there is clearly variation within the cultural evolution community on this issue. I know this from personal communication. Joe Henrich admits the possibility in The Secret of Our Success, without taking a position.

But, with those quibbles out of the way, go and read The study of culture and evolution across disciplines. I think it’s great that Mesoudi is putting out preprints for his book chapters. Makes his research accessible, and this is one field where more publicity would be good (shout out to Paul Smaldino, who apparently inspired Mesoudi on this track).

On the whole genomics will not be individually transformative…for now

A new piece in The Guardian, ‘Your father’s not your father’: when DNA tests reveal more than you bargained for, is one of the two major genres in writings on personal genomics in the media right now (there are exceptions). First, there is the genre where genetics doesn’t do anything for you. It’s a waste of money! Second, there is the genre where genetics rocks our whole world, and it’s dangerous to one’s own self-identity. And so on. Basically, the two optimum peaks in this field of journalism are between banal and sinister.

In response to this, I stated that for most people personal genomics will probably have an impact somewhere in the middle. To be fair, someone reading the headline of the comment I co-authored in Genome Biology, Consumer genomics will change your life, whether you get tested or not, may wonder as the seeming contradiction.

But it’s not really there. On the aggregate social level genomics is going to have a non-trivial impact on health and lifestyle. This is a large proportion of our GDP. So it’s “kind of a big deal” in that sense. But, for many individuals, the outcomes will be quite modest. For a small minority of individuals, there will be real and important medical consequences. In these cases, the outcomes are a big deal. But for most people, genetic dispositions and risks are diffuse, of modest effect, and often backloaded in one’s life. Even though it will impact most of society in the near future, it’s touch will be gentle.

An analogy here can be made with BMI or body-mass-index. As an individual predictor and statistic, it leaves a lot to be desired. But, for public health scientists and officials aggregate BMI distributions are critical to getting a sense of the landscape.

Finally, this is focusing on genomics where we read the sequence (or get back genotype results). The next stage that might really be game-changing is the write revolution. CRISPR genetic engineering. In the 2020s I assume that CRISPR applications will mostly be in critical health contexts (e.g., “fixing” Mendelian diseases), or in non-human contexts (e.g., agricultural genetics). Like genomics, the ubiquity of genetic engineering will be kind of a big deal economically in the aggregate, but it won’t be a big deal for individuals.

If you are a transhumanist or whatever they call themselves now, one can imagine a scenario where a large portion of the population starts “re-writing” themselves. That would be both a huge aggregate and individual impact. But we’re a long way from that….

The Philippines as a postcolonial exemplar: out of wedlock birthrates

Edward Said’s Orientalism was a book I first read in the fall of 2001. I recall not being too impressed and finding simple historical errors in it. But mostly it bore me. I am now rereading it because in 2018 the book is far more relevant to our current American culture, if not the world in a real sense. That’s because Orientalism is one of the most influential and seminal works in the field of postcolonialism (and to be frank, it seems more comprehensible than the stuff written by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

At some point, I may put down into a post my thoughts on Orientalism. But long-time readers are familiar with my position that postcolonialists, and most progressive Westerners, overemphasize the importance of the colonial in most non-Western societies. But this is not the same as saying the colonial is not important, and, that the colonial does not affect different societies in varied ways.

The Philippines is the mostly large majority Christian country in Asia. It is predominantly Roman Catholic, though like many Catholic nations it’s religiosity is declining. The brutal and blunt current president of the country has had some harsh things to say about the Church.

I bring up the Philippines because in comparison to other Southeast Asia nations it seems clear that it is a creature of colonialism. A hybrid of Western and Asian values that is somewhat out of place. The French influence Vietnam is undeniable, but fundamentally Vietnam remains part of the broader Sinic cultural sphere, as it was before the rise of Europe. This is not so with the Philippines, which was in the early stages of Islamicization when the Spaniards arrived and had only been lightly impacted by Indic civilization in comparison to Java or the Austronesian kingdom of the Chams in mainland Vietnam.

One of the most striking things to me is that more than half of the babies in the Philippines are now born out of wedlock. This is an exception within Asia and even Southeast Asia.

There is one set group of nations which has long had high rates of out of wedlock births: those of Latin America. My reading of the ethnography indicated that this is partly a function of the fact that Iberian males entered into de facto polygynous family relationships early on during the conquest of the New World. And, unlike some other European nations, “natural children” did have some customary rights in Spanish law. Hernan Cortes had two sons with the name Martin. One of them was a mestizo, the product of a relationship with an indigenous woman of New World. The other was the legitimate offspring with Cortes’ aristocratic Spanish wife.

Though Martin Cortes, known as “El Mestizo,” did not have the rights of his brother, he was still provided for. He fought in Central Europe for the Habsburgs, and married and had children.

This pattern of giving some rights and consideration to illegitimate children has been argued as a major reason for the high rates of out of wedlock birth in much of Latin America today. But, the problem with this model is that the number of Spaniards in the islands of the Phillippines was always far lower than in the New World. Demographically they made a marginal impact, and in fact, the Chinese were more numerous.

But it remains the case that Spanish colonial regimes in environs as distinct as the Philippines and the New World left a legacy of high rates out of wedlock births. It could be coincidental, but I doubt that. Scholars genuinely interested in the impact of exogenous colonial shocks should be exploring these cross-cultural patterns theoretically and empirically, not engaging in abstruse linguistic analysis or deploying Theory toward the ends of particular politics.

Open Thread, 9/17/2018

There are lots of things from Imperial China 900–1800 that I learned, though more often it simply deepened my knowledge. At this point, I am curious about something that is more like economic history (yes, I’ve read The Great Divergence). Recommendations?

Here is a fact I learned from Imperial China 900–1800 that might be of interest: in the late 17th century the expanding Manchu Empire (which had conquered China) and Russia began to jostle for power in Inner Asia, and the Khalkha Mongols, the Mongols proper, were deciding which side to align with. I had long known that the Khalkha Mongols had aligned with the Manchus. What became the Manchu imperial line had a genealogical relationship with the Mongols, as they would often take wives from a particular group of Mongol tribes (Kangxi Emperor’s paternal grandmother was a Mongol). Imperial China makes it clear that Mongol cavalry units were critical elements of the Manchu military machine, and as the Manchu assimilated into the Han culture they became arguably even more important as a population which could provide militarily ready men at a moment’s notice.

But a more interesting aspect of the Manchu alliance with the Mongols are the ethnoreligious implications, and what they wrought across Inner Asia. The Khalkha had become Tibetan Buddhists by the time the Manchus conquered China. According to Imperial China, their religious leaders argued for the furtherance of their alliance as junior partners to the Manchus as opposed to the expanding Russians in part because the Manchus were more respectful of Buddhism. Mind you, the Manchus were not themselves Tibetan Buddhists, though they were always keen to co-opt the various prominent Tibetan lamas. But, they had earlier practiced Chinese and Korean forms of Buddhism (as the Jurchens) and seemed resistant to Tibetan Buddhism in comparison to the Mongols.

The Russian Empire was obviously dominated by an Eastern Orthodox Christian elite. But, eventually, they made accommodations with various minority religions, including Buddhism. But, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and non-Orthodox Christianity were all subordinate religions. Historically non-Orthodox ethnic groups invariably suffered erosion due to the social advancement which conversion to Orthodoxy entailed. From the viewpoint of meta-ethnic identity, the Manchus were clearly superior to the Russians, as the Manchus tended toward more neutrality in religion than the Russians.

Dzungaria in red

And yet there are two conditions that need to be highlighted here. The Manchus were responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Mongol Dzungar tribes in the 18th century. The Dzungars were the last great Inner Asian polity to challenge the gunpowder empires. They were arguably the final flowering of the steppe and its way of war. Unlike the Khalkha Mongols the Dzungar tribes, who were Oirat, were not part of the Mongol expansion under Genghis Khan. Ethnically somewhat distinct, the Dzungar nevertheless were Tibetan Buddhists, just like the Khalkha.

The 18th-century wars to destroy the Dzungar polity and exterminate or scatter its people occurred with the assent and aid of the Khalkha Mongols, who were ethnically close and religiously identical. Some of the Dzungar even fled westward, to joint co-ethnics under Russian rule in the Kalmyk Khanate. The region of Xinjiang that today is labeled “Dzungaria” had very few Mongols after the wars against the Dzungars. Nor did it have many people who we today would call Uygurs. Rather, post-genocide Dzungaria was occupied by nominally Muslim Kazakh and Kirghiz people, while today it has become a magnet for Han and Hui people as Urumqi has become Central Asia’s largest city.

Why am I reviewing all of this? To show how complicated the idea of alliances and affinities based on civilizational identity can be. The reality is that religion and ethnic identity do matter somewhat, but on the medium-scale, they are not as important informatively as on the extremes. Obviously traditionally ethnoreligious groups exhibited ingroup affinity. Buddhist Mongols lived with Buddhist Mongols. Muslim Mongols often assimilated to becoming Turks, while Mongol tribes which had experimented with Islam but eventually became Buddhist lost their Islamic connections. And, on the largest temporal scales and on the margin broader ethnoreligious affiliations matter. Buddhists from as far away as Japan protested to the Taliban when they were mooting the idea of destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Christians focus on the persecution of Christians in China. The Mongols, Oirat and Khalkha, became heavily involved in Tibetan politics after their conversion.

Details matter.

A very long post from me, Between the saffron and scimitar, inspired by a lot of the comments we get at Brown Pundits. About six months ago I said something about the Kali Yuga on Twitter in a joking manner, and someone responded: “isn’t that an alt-right meme.” Well, it turns out that some alt-right people are Evola-loving pagans, though I doubt most are. But the idea of the Kali Yuga kind of predates the alt-right in the Hindu tradition, though a lot of people don’t know anything about Hinduism. Similarly, many Indian Hindus (religious or not) have weird perceptions of the origin of any ideas that are also found in Islam…and my name does not help in the way they reflexively respond when I express ideas that might be found in Islam.

But the reality is that it is hard to tease apart Indian culture today from the various influences that domination by Muslims left, even if said Indians are self-consciously anti-Muslim. This is to many people somewhat offensive. I think a good analogy might be some conservative white Americans who don’t want to admit that for many decades white supremacy was considered part and parcel of American patriotism, and constitutive to American nationalism. That arguably has long-term impacts, though unlike many on the Left I do not think that it is an all-pervasive miasma which touches every aspect of American life in 2018.

Pew has a new religious typology out. Not much in the report is surprising.

Here is a surprise to me though: New Age beliefs are more common among the orthodox Christian/religious groups than among the secular subset that is dominated by atheists and agnostics.

There are some interesting distinctions between the “Religion Resisters” and “Solidly Secular.” The latter is 65% male, while the former is majority female. The latter is more educated, wealthier, and more likely to be concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, while the former is more often in the West. The “Solidly Secular” are the type of people who would be New Atheists. The “Religion Resisters” are actually somewhat more liberal socially and politically issues than the “Solidly Secular.”

Another Pew report suggests that Americans with no religious affiliation have nearly as many Christian beliefs as Europeans who say they are Christian. This is not because those with no religious affiliation in the USA are very Christian. Rather, it’s because European “Christians” are a lot less orthodox than you might expect.

The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground Fueled by debt and years of easy credit, America’s energy boom is on shaky footing. Basically, the argument is that the fracking boom, which has driven American fossil fuel supply to the point where we now surpass Saudi Arabia, is an artifact cheap credit pumping money into the system.

Fracking isn’t profitable at current oil prices. I think the author is probably a little too pessimistic, because technology does get better, and increased crude oil prices will probably show up at some point to fuel further investment.

One of the best things about the fracking boom is I don’t have to listen to friends yammer on about “peak oil” in all-knowing tones. That being said, how are books like Confronting Collapse maintaining such high Amazon star rankings? Is it a fraud? Or do these sorts of pessimistic tomes just always sell well?

A thing I’ve noticed since I’ve shifted to mostly reading on Kindle: I read in a more sequential fashion. Obviously, I can still jump chapters, but the reality is that I don’t do it much. Is it just me?

Genomic prediction of cognitive traits in childhood and adolescence. This claim is important: “Polygenic scores for educational attainment and intelligence are the most powerful predictors in the behavioural sciences and exceed predictions that can be made from parental phenotypes such as educational attainment and occupational status.” I’m assuming this is the sort of stuff in Robert Plomin’s new book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.

Going to try and get a review copy for National Review.

E-book Sales Fell 10% in 2017:

Adult fiction remained the most popular e-book category–44% of sales in the category were in the digital format–but e-book sales in the segment dropped 14% from 2016, to 108 million units.

E-books have a much smaller share of the adult nonfiction market, 12%, but sales in the segment rose 3% last year, to 38 million units, NPD reported.

The steepest decline in e-book sales last year was in the children’s category, where sales fell 22%. In children’s, the digital format accounted for only 5% of all sales last year. E-book sales were down 8% in the young adult category, falling to 4 million units sold. The format comprised 18% of all young adult unit sales last year.

Makes sense that it would decline in the children’s category. When it comes to reference textbooks, I still go paper. It’s just easier for me to look things up.

Numbers did not add up in the passport revocation story. Unfortunately, this is a pattern in the media. Stuff that happened in the Obama administration was not reported…but when it continues in the Trump administration it becomes teh Nazi!

Genomic history of the Sardinian population. As Spencer and I alluded to on last week’s episode of The Insight, L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues did a really good job in their sampling. “Low effective migration rates separate these provinces from a broad area that extends to the mountainous Gennargentu massif region, including inland Ogliastra to the west. The Gennargentu region is also where some of the Sardinian individuals in the HGDP originate (A. Piazza, personal communication). We find that the HGDP Sardinian individuals partially overlap with our dataset and include a subset that clusters near the Ogliastra subpopulation.” That is, the HGDP Sardinians are among the more “EEF” Sardinians.

A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel is on sale for Kindle. I don’t even know if I’d want to read a novel in graphic form. But then I’m not a very visual person. Some of the original books actually had a few illustrations. But not that many. For the record, Eddard Stark in my head will always look somewhat like the actor Bill Campbell, not Sean Bean.

Eight Decades of Ethnic Dilemmas: Iconic sociologist Nathan Glazer on the problems of group identity, affirmative action and Donald Trump. It’s incredible to me that Nathan Glazer is still around and intellectually active. To a great extent I’m sympathetic to many of the views he expresses in this article. He’s in the same class as Thomas Sowell for me, though to be entirely frank Sowell has gotten a little too predictably partisan with age for my taste.

Inferring Continuous and Discrete Population Genetic Structure Across Space. An important paper.

Gibraltar Neanderthal Genomes on the way….

Bacteria in a Dinosaur Bone Reignite a Heated Debate.

Dating genomic variants and shared ancestry in population-scale sequencing data. When I see Gil McVean on the author list I read.

Two Psychologists Four Beers. Podcast with Alice Dreger. One of the co-hosts seems to have disappeared for most of the podcast. I assume he was just drinking beer. The last third where Dreger talks about journalism is probably the most novel.

Also, Dreger admits that she probably would have defended Bret Weinstein and Heather Heyer with vigor if she had not been so exhausted and drained by her own academic controversy, as she was forced out of her Northwestern position.

I will add on a personal note that I feel some fatigue and exhaustion because many of my friends in academia expect me to “speak up” about topics that are too politically sensitive for them to broach. I’m OK with doing that…but I have my limits, and other peoples’ third rails are not the burning passion of my life.

To be frank, I’m pretty skeptical about the future of the republic of letters and intellectual life in the West. At least in public. The liberal moment is probably passing. If you have opinions you want to spread, then try to convince those with power. They will make people agree with you.

For example, Thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days.

The Many Indian Genomes.

Historical biogeography of the leopard (Panthera pardus) and its extinct Eurasian populations.

An Ancient Crosshatch May Be the Earliest Drawing Ever Found. Looks like well-done steak to me.

By the way, the consistently shared drift between Basques and Sardinians, especially highland Sardinians, should make us lean toward the non-Indo-European hypothesis for Paleo-Sardinian.

Sequence them all and let God sort it out!

Researchers reboot ambitious effort to sequence all vertebrate genomes, but challenges loom:

In a bid to garner more visibility and support, researchers eager to sequence the genomes of all vertebrates today officially launched the Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP), releasing 15 very high quality genomes of 14 species. But the group remains far short of raising the funds it will need to document the genomes of the estimated 66,000 vertebrates living on Earth.

The project, which has been underway for 3 years, is a revamp and renaming of an effort begun in 2009 called the Genome 10K Project (G10K), which aimed to decipher the genomes of 10,000 vertebrates. G10K produced about 100 genomes, but they were not very detailed, in part because of the cost of sequencing. Now, however, the cost of high-quality sequencing has dropped to less than $15,000 per billion DNA bases…

Funding remains an obstacle. To date, the VGP has raised $2.5 million of the $6 million needed to sequence a representative species from each of the 260 major branches of the vertebrate family tree. To reach the goal of all 66,000 vertebrates will require about $600 million, Jarvis says.

Though a lot of the details are different (sequencing vs. genotyping, vertebrates vs. humans), many of the general issues that David Mittelman and I brought up in our Genome Biology comment, Consumer genomics will change your life, whether you get tested or not, apply. That is, to some extent this is an area of science where technology and economics are just as important as science in driving progress.

I remember back in graduate school that people were talking about sequencing hundreds of vertebrates. But even in the few years since then, the landscape has shifted. I’m so little a biologist that I actually didn’t know there were only ~66,000 vertebrate species!

And yet this brings up a reasonable question from many scientists who came up in an era of more data scarcity: what are the questions we’re trying to answer here?

Science involves people. It’s not an abstraction. Throwing a whole lot of data out there does not mean that someone will be there to analyze it, or, that we’ll get interesting insights. To be frank, the original Human Genom Project project should probably tell us that, as its short-term benefits were clearly oversold.

In relation to how cheap data storage is and the declining price point of sequencing, I think my assertion that a genome, a sequence, is not a depreciating asset still holds. There is the initial cost of sequencing and assembling and the long term cost of storage, but these are small potatoes. The bigger considerations are the salaries of scientific labor and the opportunity costs. Sequencing tens of thousands of genomes may not get us anywhere, but really we’re not going to lose that much.

Ultimately I side with those who believe that the existence of the data itself will change the landscape of possible questions being asked, and therefore generate novel science. But it’s pretty incredible to even be debating this issue in 2018 of sequencing all vertebrates. That’s something to reflect on.

Avars across a sea of grass

That sound you hear is the rumbling of the earth caused by the rippling tsunami that’s coming. The swell of ancient DNA papers focused on historical, rather than prehistorical, time periods. Some historians are cheering. Some are fearful. Others know not what to think. It will be. The illiterate barbarians of yore shall come out of the shadows.

If they had arrived on the edge of Europe two centuries earlier, the Avars would have a reputation as fearsome with the Huns, with whom they are often confused, and rightly so. But the Avars emerged as a force on the European landscape after the end of the West Roman Empire. The post-Roman polities did not have their own Ammianus Marcellinus (sorry Bede, you lived in the middle of nowhere).

And yet for centuries the Avars dominated east-central Europe and held the numerous Slavic tribes in thrall. They smashed past the borders of Byzantium during the reign of the heir of Justinian, and by 600 AD, on the eve of the great battle with Persia Constantinople had lost control of most of its Balkan hinterlands to these barbarians. A Byzantium which still controlled North Africa, much of Italy, southern Spain, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant, had been reduced to strongpoints all around the Balkan littoral. During the wars with the Sassanids, the Avars took advantage of the opportunity offered, and even raided the suburbs of Constantinople itself!

So who were these people? The most plausible conjecture is that they were part of the great mass mobilization of Turkic peoples which began in the early centuries of the first millennium after Christ. As Rome and Han China fell, nomadic barbarians rose. A new preprint seems to all but confirms this, Inner Asian maternal genetic origin of the Avar period nomadic elite in the 7th century AD Carpathian Basin:

After 568 AD the nomadic Avars settled in the Carpathian Basin and founded their empire, which was an important force in Central Europe until the beginning of the 9th century AD. The Avar elite was probably of Inner Asian origin; its identification with the Rourans (who ruled the region of today’s Mongolia and North China in the 4th-6th centuries AD) is widely accepted in the historical research. Here, we study the whole mitochondrial genomes of twenty-three 7th century and two 8th century AD individuals from a well-characterised Avar elite group of burials excavated in Hungary. Most of them were buried with high value prestige artefacts and their skulls showed Mongoloid morphological traits. The majority (64%) of the studied samples’ mitochondrial DNA variability belongs to Asian haplogroups (C, D, F, M, R, Y and Z). This Avar elite group shows affinities to several ancient and modern Inner Asian populations. The genetic results verify the historical thesis on the Inner Asian origin of the Avar elite, as not only a military retinue consisting of armed men, but an endogamous group of families migrated. This correlates well with records on historical nomadic societies where maternal lineages were as important as paternal descent.

The samples were from a period about a century after the arrival of the Avars. It is not unreasonable to think that the Avar conquest meant that a continuous stream of Inner Asian pastoralists kept entering into the territory which they occupied for the opportunity, but this sort of genetic distinctiveness indicates that the Avars remained very separate from the people from whom they extracted tribute. Most, though not all, of these people, were or became Slavs.

Around 800 AD the Avars were finally defeated decisively by the Franks, and their elite converted to Christianity. I suspect this was the final step which would result in their assimilation over the next few centuries into the location population until they diminished and disappeared.

The results above support the proposition that the Pannonian Avars of the second half of the 6th century were the descendants of the Rouran Khaganate of the early half 6th century. The kicker is that the Rouran flourished in Mongolia! So like the Mongols six hundred years later, the Avars seem to have swept across the entire length of Eurasia that was accessible to their horses in a generation. To some extent, this is a recapitulation of the pattern we see nearly 3,000 years before the Avar, when the Afanasievo culture established itself in the Altai region, far from its clear point of origin in the forest-steppe of Eastern Europe.

Perhaps the period between 500 BC and 300 AD can be seen as an ephemeral transient between the vast periods before and after when pastoralists had free reign across most of temperate Eurasia?

Gods and wizards in fantasy

A reader in the comments pointed me to Vice and Fire (though I’d already seen it on Twitter), a rumination on 20th century and 21st century fantasy literature by Peter Hitchens in First Things. Hitchens is the religious and politically conservative brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.

The piece is curious because it reflects more about Hitchens than the material which he is describing. First, he begins with perplexity that J. R. R. Tolkien’s secondary world seems to lack a moralistic high religion, as we’d understand it. To Hitchens this is confusing in light of the fact that Tolkien was a very religious Roman Catholic in his own life. But it isn’t as if Tolkien scholars haven’t noticed this juxtaposition, or the contrast with C. S. Lewis’s style, who was extremely heavy on Christian allegory.

I think the most plausible explanation is that Tolkien had something of the same issue as L. Sprague de Camp. An aeronautical engineer by training, Isaac Asimov in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green recounts that de Camp made the shift to explicit fantasy away from hard science fiction because his professional background made it difficult for him to engage in the suspension of disbelief necessary to write plausibly about faster-than-light travel and other such things. In fantasy his own background did not get in the way of his creativity.

Like de Camp, Tolkien was gifted with knowing too much. This was a man whose legendarium was an attempt to create for the English people a mythology similar to what the Scandinavians and Irish took for granted. A philologist who was a scholar of Beowulf, Tolkien knew the whole cultural corpus of the ancient pagan Germanic people well. He mined their mythos in constructing the world in which he set his fiction. As such, he was aware of the violent brutality which characterized pre-Christian, and frankly pre-civilized, Northern Europe, and how its folkways were at variance with Christian morality. If Tolkien applied his scholarly skills to creating religions for the Men of the West, it seems unlikely that he would have been comfortable sanitizing what he knew their practices would be. On the other hand, as an invented secondary world of the imagination, it was not plausible that they would be Christian, and in any case, Tolkien was a sincere and devout believer in the Christian religion and may have been uncomfortable mixing his imaginative fictional world with the metaphysical truths he held sacred.

And yet this does not mean that the ethical monotheism which J. R. R. Tolkien personally adhered to did not bleed into his work. In Return of the King, there is a well-noted reference to “heathen kings” and their practice of burning the dead. The Men of the West may not be Christians, but nor were they pagans.

Which brings me to Hitchen’s diatribe against George R. R. Martin’s attitude toward religion. Unlike Tolkien, Martin seems irreligious. Some fantasists, such a Anne McCAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin, have created worlds where theism is understated or nonexistent (the Kargads in Earthsea do have something that we’d recognize as a religion grounded in gods…but they are the “bad guys”). Not so with Martin. His world exhibits a great deal of religious complexity and verisimilitude.

Perhaps too much verisimilitude for Peter Hitchen’s taste. Let me quote at length a description of the religions as from the piece above:

Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in ­Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the ­Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who ­represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity…The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.

A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.

This is where it strikes me that the author had a hammer, and everything was a nail. There’s some truth to what he’s saying. The religion of The Seven is never outlined in great detail in comparison to other quasi-medieval aspects of Martin’s world. But there is a backstory to this: apparently the religious institutions were subordinated and suppressed to some extent by the previous Targaryen dynasty (who were clearly only nominal converts in any case). The fact is that the Faith of the Seven is monotheistic, where each god is a manifestation of the single ultimate God. And, it is a religion derived ultimately from revelation to the Andals in Essos. This is not a naive and organic tribal paganism.

As for the religion of the Red God, Martin has admitted that its spread to Westeros is modeled explicitly on the spread of Christianity. It is intolerant, but so was the spread of the religion which Peter Hitchens is a personal devotee of. On the Isle of Wight the last pagans were mostly killed by invading Christians due to their reluctance to adopt the new religion. He claims to have read the books, but he gives no indication that the Red God is a favorite of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who fight to defend the common people against the depredations of warring lords. Though the Red Priest Melisandre commits evil, like those Protestants who burned witches in Northern Europe, she believes that any suffering is ultimately to further the good. The brutality of the followers of the Red God is the other face of the fact that they are zealous and on fire for their faith, and believers who have faith that they walk in the path of virtue. The Cathars who Hitchens allude to were persecuted and then slaughtered by the orthodox Christians.

What explains Hitchen’s bile then? I am being pedantic on the points he makes about Tolkien and Martin in part because not all readers of the above essay will have read the source material, and will take his misrepresentation at face value. But it is true George R. R. Martin’s worlds exhibit a high level of brutality and perversion. When I first read Martin’s work I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend fixedly in post-Roman Dark Age Britain. I decided to email Martin to ask him if he was perhaps influenced by this work, and he did admit that he was a great admirer of the Warlord Chronicles. Martin has said repeatedly that his work attempts to show that just because someone takes a vow of knighthood does not necessarily entail that they are virtuous. As a point of fact many knights in the European Middle Ages were little better than mercenaries and brigands. Codes of conduct and broad ethical frameworks exist in part to tame, constraint, and smooth out the rough edges of military elites who rule by force of arms.

Additionally, like fantasist Robin Hobbs, Martin does not engage in plotting where your precious ones will always come out unscathed. This is a painful feature, not a bug. The idea is to humanize the protagonist, sometimes uncomfortably verging on creating anti-heroes, and to contrast the highs of the payoff with some major lows. The way Martin does this bothers many people, and I think it’s within their rights to be bothered. But for those of us who have read more anodyne and more juvenile fantasy works, encountering Martin’s work was a bracing shock and made us want more precisely because of the rougher texture and sharper edges.

Finally, there is one aspect where George R. R. Martin explicitly attempts to mimic J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is in creating a “low magic” world. More honestly, Martin’s magic is actually magic, rather than a different form of science and engineering. When Martin’s series began to gain prominence, fantasy had fallen into a period where formulaic magical elements resembling Dungeons and Dragons had saturated the genre, to the point where lazier authors often made recourse to magical deus ex machina. If you remember back to Tolkien you observe that there really wasn’t that much magic, and you never saw Gandalf cast spells like a carnival act.

Ultimately George R. R. Martin is attempting to pull off several things at once, and obviously he isn’t always doing it well, nor does he fulfill all the expectations of his readers. The broader framework of the world he is creating does exist in a sort of good vs. evil paradigm with dark magical forces. But Martin enjoys shades of gray, and coming from a background as a Hollywood screenwriter, he worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give his characters moral complexity. They are often both saints and sinners. Finally, though A Song of Ice and Fire is epic high fantasy, he has injected into its veins an element of dark historical fantasy. This does not not always work, and I suspect readers keying in on the high fantasy elements are easily repulsed by the frank brutality and amorality of the historical fantasy. To make an analogy, the flavors clash. Your mileage may vary on whether this is good or bad.

The genetics of Afrikaners (again)

    Click to enlarge

 

I personally get asked about the genetics of Afrikaners, because I’ve written about/analyzed the issue before. The main outlines seem to be established, but I thought I might go and revisit it again. The main reason is that we have ancient South African DNA, and I’ve been adding it to my personal analyses for a while. It might be worthwhile to reanalyze the South Africa samples I do have with some of these added in.

The plot at the top shows the core populations I started with. I did some outlier pruning. I only kept the South African samples that were overwhelmingly white. I picked Malays and a South Indian population because of Cape Coloureds, a mixed-race Afrikaans speaking group which has Asian ancestry that can be attributed to both South and Southeast Asian populations (the Dutch imported many slaves from India and had outposts in Java). I also used Bantu samples from South Africa, Kenya, as well as a Nigeria population. Finally, I also had some Hadza as a different hunter-gatherer population than the San Bushmen. For Europeans, I used white Dutch.

The final marker density as 200,000 SNPs, so not too bad.

As you can see if you click on the image all of the South African whites were shifted away from the Dutch. There were two outlier individuals, one of which was closer to the Dutch cluster, and one further. All the other individuals form a neat cluster. None of these individuals were close relatives.

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I ran Treemix on the data with multiple migrations until the migrations stopped making sense to me. The African populations’ exhibit migration flows to each other. Much of it is entirely comprehensible. The Esan receive no migration, highlighting that this population did not receive gene flow from any groups in these data. The Kenya Bantus receive gene flow from the direction of Eurasians. This is also certainly Nilotic mediated. The gene flow they receive from the base of the ancient San is more enigmatic, but probably reflects uptake of local ancestry as the Bantus expanded. The southern Bantus receive gene flow from modern San.

The South African whites receive gene flow from a position on the graph between the modern San and other non-San African groups.

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Next, I ran Admixture in the unsupervised mode with K = 6. The two populations mostly light-blue are South African whites and the Dutch, from the top to the bottom. You can see though that the South African whites clearly have other ancestral components. Most of these individuals have the components modal in the San, Esan Nigerians, Indians, and Malays. The two outlier individuals are also clear. The individual very close to the Dutch, but shifted toward the Asians, in the PCA does not have any African admixture. The individual shifted more toward the non-Europeans in the PCA also has more non-European fractions of ancestral components (that is, those components modal in non-European populations).

Next, I decided to confirm things by running a three population test. If you read this blog you’ve seen this before. Basically this is measuring shared ancestry by looking at deviations from a particular phylogenetic model: (test population(pop 1, pop2)). The relatedness of the test population to either pop1 or pop2 (that is, it’s a mix of the two) is measured by the negative f3 statistic, and I focused on z-scores greater than two.

Here they are:

Outgroup Pop1 Pop2 f3 z
Bantu_NE EsanNigeria Dutch -0.0009 -6.54
Bantu_NE EsanNigeria South_Africa_White -0.0010 -6.54
Bantu_NE EsanNigeria Malay -0.0009 -6.33
Bantu_NE EsanNigeria Telegu -0.0008 -6.00
Bantu_NE Bantu_S South_Africa_White -0.0008 -4.84
Bantu_NE Bantu_S Dutch -0.0008 -4.77
Bantu_NE Bantu_S Malay -0.0007 -4.21
Bantu_NE Bantu_S Telegu -0.0007 -4.05
Bantu_NE Dutch San_Ancient -0.0009 -3.02
Bantu_NE Hadza EsanNigeria -0.0004 -2.97
Bantu_NE Telegu San_Ancient -0.0007 -2.32
Bantu_NE Malay San_Ancient -0.0007 -2.04
Bantu_S EsanNigeria San_Modern -0.0028 -21.62
Bantu_S EsanNigeria San_Ancient -0.0039 -20.78
Bantu_S San_Ancient Bantu_NE -0.0030 -12.91
Bantu_S San_Modern Bantu_NE -0.0019 -12.45
Bantu_S Dutch San_Ancient -0.0031 -10.63
Bantu_S Telegu San_Ancient -0.0030 -10.33
Bantu_S San_Ancient South_Africa_White -0.0027 -9.17
Bantu_S Malay San_Ancient -0.0029 -8.97
San_Modern Dutch San_Ancient -0.0091 -34.96
San_Modern Telegu San_Ancient -0.0087 -33.86
San_Modern San_Ancient South_Africa_White -0.0089 -33.54
San_Modern San_Ancient Bantu_NE -0.0063 -31.93
San_Modern Malay San_Ancient -0.0085 -30.98
San_Modern Bantu_S San_Ancient -0.0052 -28.91
San_Modern Hadza San_Ancient -0.0051 -27.58
South_Africa_White Dutch Bantu_NE -0.0017 -12.96
South_Africa_White EsanNigeria Dutch -0.0017 -12.68
South_Africa_White San_Modern Dutch -0.0018 -12.41
South_Africa_White Bantu_S Dutch -0.0017 -12.36
South_Africa_White Dutch San_Ancient -0.0021 -12.14
South_Africa_White Hadza Dutch -0.0014 -10.41
South_Africa_White Malay Dutch -0.0007 -5.97
South_Africa_White Telegu Dutch -0.0003 -3.64
Telegu Malay Dutch -0.0004 -2.79

 

No surprises so far. One thing that did surprise me though was the extent of the admixture even after PCA outlier removal. So I took the output you saw above and removed individuals that were very mixed, except for the case of the white South Africans. Then, I ran admixture in supervised mode, where the “pure” populations were fixed as references (I merged the moden San without much admixture with the ancient San). You can see the results below:

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Re-running the three population test with these “pure” populations I only got significant results for the below cases:

Outgroup Pop1 Pop2 f3 z
South_Africa_White Dutch EsanNigeria -0.0017 -13.1937
South_Africa_White San Dutch -0.0020 -12.6910
South_Africa_White Hadza Dutch -0.0014 -9.7246
South_Africa_White Malay Dutch -0.0009 -6.6481
South_Africa_White Telegu Dutch -0.0004 -4.6167

No big surprise.

The average European ancestry I got in my South African white samples, N = 12, is 93.5%. Making a composite individual, note that if someone had great-great-grandparents who were not European, they would be expected to have 6.25% non-European ancestry. That’s 4 generations back. So about 100 years. These individuals are presumably adults. Let’s say they are 25 years old. That goes back 125 years. It’s probably reasonable in a single person admixture people to suggest it was sometime in the mid to late 19th century.

This seems unlikely. The evenness of admixture and balance between different groups indicates that it is older than that, and they are obtaining it from different lineages. Traditional genealogical estimates suggested in the range of 5-7.5% non-European ancestry in Afrikaners, and one study of 185 individuals showed 18% non-European mtDNA.

I will probably do some ancestry deconvolution and see if I can get a figure for the time of admixture (though the fractions here are very small, as is the sample size of the admixtured population). But the non-European ancestry of Afrikaners is uncannily similar to the non-European ancestry of the Cape Coloureds. That to me leads us to the conclusion that in the early European settler community a fair number of mixed-race women married in. Those mixed-race women who married mixed-race men helped found the Cape Coloureds.

On the instrumental uses of Arabic science

A new piece in Aeon, Forging Islamic science: Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books. How? is quite rich food for thought. The nuts & bolts of the story are interesting enough, but perhaps the bigger picture is the emergence of (to borrow a phrase) “the idea of Islamic science.”

On the most general level, the spread of these obvious fakes is a matter of the epidemiology of ideas. Basically, the ubiquity of these fakes is like the spread of chain letters or viruses which hack our cognitive biases. By analogy, consider the fondness for Qing China exhibited by some early modern European thinkers, such as Leibniz and Voltaire. With hindsight, it is clear that their affection for Chinese civilization was a reflection more upon their critique and aspiration of their own civilization. For Leibniz, bureaucratic rationalism, and Voltaire, secular humanism.

Centuries on their Sinophilia is of academic interest as a fragment of cultural history which brings into salience particular currents which bubbled up during the period of both European modernization and development vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and the last contact that European civilization made with a powerful and self-assured alien civilization, that of China under the Kangxi Emperor, Yongzheng Emperor, and Qianlong Emperor. If you want to understand China during this period, its culture and politics, then these early modern thinkers are not the ones to consult. Their opinions and views on China shed more light on currents in their own culture than the reality in China.

A similar thing happened to Islam and Islamic civilization after the 18th century.  As Western civilization was secularizing some intellectuals pointed to the world of Islam as evidence that some tolerance of pluralism would be sustainable and preferable. What is being alluded to here is the system of formalized tolerance of the “People of the Book”, dhimmis, within Islam from its earliest period. But the highlighting of the Muslim alternative was less about Muslims and more about the reality of a post-Reformation early modern Europe riven by sectarian pluralism, as well as incipient secularization of a substantial numbers of intellectuals who began to perceive themselves as dissenters from the regnant orthodoxy as a class.

There is a scholarly study that engages in the exploration of the development and crystallization of the Muslim system of tolerance of religious minorities. That scholarship plumbs into the depths of the early formalization of Islam as a distinctive confession and civilization, and its roots (including the tolerance of dhimmis) in Byzantine and Sassanian practice. But when most people speak of the tolerance of early Islam in the West, they are speaking about and engaging issues related to the West, not Islam, which is simply a tool or instrument in an argument particular to factions within the West.

Going back to this specific issue, the fabrication of the depiction of “Islamic science,” there is a particular social and cultural context in the West that needs to be highlighted (as opposed to the Muslim world, which is a somewhat different dynamic, and analogous to the rise of Vedic science). Early modern secular intellectuals who contrasted the intolerance of Christian civilization to the relative tolerance of Islamic civilization were working implicitly within a modernist framework where objective truth would eventually pave the way for a universal civilization which would evolve out of the post-Christian West. This attitude is exemplified by the liberal French nobleman, Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, who when arguing for removing various restrictions on Jews declared “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

These modernist conceits of clear and distinct universal truths and moralities leading to a common human ethos have fallen by the wayside. Rather, today many who espouse multiculturalist viewpoints are careful not to aver that one culture is superior or more advanced than another. This assumption means that today many reject a progressive and Whiggish view of history which implicitly highlights Western exceptionalism between 1700 and the current age.

These people may not be comfortable with the assertion that the form of intellectual inquiry that emerged out of Renaissance natural philosophy that we today call science is sui generis. A particular expression of the genius of Western civilization. Rather, what it is appealing toward many with a multiculturalist viewpoint, where all cultures have notionally similar ethical values, is that all cultures produce their own form of science, just as valuable, exceptional, and illustrative of universal human genius.

With Islam and science anyone with superficial interest in the topic can be easily convinced of the genius of individuals such as Ibn Sina. If the the great Bukharan polymath had been born today it would not be surprising if perhaps he became a scholar of some renown. But the reality is that most of the people who will tell you that Islam once had great scientists could not name a single scientist of pre-modern Islam. Just as with Voltaire and the Chinese, modern Western intellectuals who have moved beyond Whiggishness and naive modernism see in other cultures something that serves to critique and comment on their own. The legend of Islamic science is an instrument, a tool, in a particular deconstruction of the “myth” of Western science.

A curious aspect of this viewpoint, which is in some ways highly relativistic in relation to epistemology (“other ways of knowing”), is that it is also highly universalistic in ethics. Other cultures are shoehorned into frameworks and paradigms of Western making, particular mirrors through which all are seen darkly.

This is the same observation that could be made of early modern Whiggishness, where all cultures are seen as ascending slowly up a ladder of complexity and progress, with Northwest Europe in particular leading the way. Whigs viewed history in a linear fashion, and all societies could be placed along the sequence.

So what’s the multiculturalist/progressive/post-modern analog? It is common today in progressive Western circles to strive toward radical gender, sexual, and ethnoreligious egalitarianism. Justice. Many a time I have seen that patriarchy or sexual traditionalism are presumed to be colonial (white, Western) impositions on other societies. Western Muslims of a progressive bent may even assert that Islam is fundamentally and originally feminist and egalitarian. Hindu progressives likewise may highlight the depictions of sex acts Khajuraho temple complex as indicative of a liberal and tolerant attitude toward these matters before the arrival of the British, who introduced conservative bourgeois morals (note that often the terminology itself points to the operation of these individuals in a very Western tradition).

Nearly two hundred years ago the British Whigh politician Thomas Macaulay declared:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today progressive Westerners would never say such a thing. In part, because they would never assert that the West, and its culture, was in any way superior to that of the non-West. On the contrary, the tacit assumption might be that it was the West which manufactured and perfected the modes of oppression which spread across the world and caused human misery. With decolonization and the recession of Western imperialism, one would then see a diminishment of oppression and presumably human misery.

The difference between a 19th century liberal such as Thomas Macaulay is that whereas he perceived that the Indians would have to change their morals and develop their intellects to ever be equal to the English, today his progressive counterpart fundamentally assumes that the natural state of humanity was one of moral and intellectual equivalence. That is, oppression, the subjugation of women and minorities, the “marginalized”, was invented by Western Europeans, and imposed on non-Europeans. It is Western colonialists who brought the sin of oppression into the garden. They were responsible for the fall from ethical perfection, the stage of original grace.

Non-Europeans do differ from Europeans, but only in matters of detail, outward dress, food, and architecture. Accidents. But in matters of essence, there is no difference at all.

This conceit leads to all sorts of confusions.

After purchasing his papers, John Maynard Keynes declared Isaac Newton “was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians.” One can not deny that Isaac Newton was a genius, invariant of the age. Nor can one deny his scientific contributions, which modern undergraduates doing any scientific course of study must master to some extent. But the world of Isaac Newton was a different world, where witches were still burned, and men and women in the British Isles could still be executed for atheism. People did science, but not quite in the modern way. People were religious, but not quite in the modern way. There is a gap between 1700 and 2000.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks did science. But it was different from modern science, which is contingent on a sequence of events which are rooted in the latter Rennaissance. Did the Muslims of the “Islamic Golden Age” do science? I would say so. But like the Greeks, it was different from what came later (one could say the same of the “Aristotelian Renaissance”).

One must take the history of different cultures on their own terms, and understand them in the broad scope of human history. Theories are useful, but only in concert with a genuine engagement of the empirical record. Whigs and Marxists had theories, which grasped at essential fragments of reality but often obscured critical detail. There is a particular type of fashionable intellectual today who claims to eschew theory and focus on “thick description,” who nevertheless sneaks a particular theory of history through the back door, a variant of the “Noble Savage.”

In particular relation to “Islamic science,” there is some interesting detail in the texture of reality that is exposed when we attempt to understand it on its own terms. One thing which jumps out at you is that since most people are not particularly interested in the details, the terminology you use matters a great deal. Usually, we are focusing on the period between 750 A.D. and sometime around 1000 A.D. Now, when you use the term “Islamic Golden Age” or “Islamic science,” you obscure the reality that many prominent intellectuals during this period were not Muslim.

For example, Thabit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, which referred to the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian inhabitants of the city of Harran. The natives of Harran seem to have preserved religious traditions from Mesopotamian antiquity, in particular, astral cults. Additionally, they were also preservers and connoisseurs of Greek philosophical thought.

Though Sabians were exotic, Christians were dominant features of the scene during the early years of Islam and were instrumental in translation and preservation. In the Aeon piece, the author suggests that it should be called “Arab science” as opposed to “Islamic science.” But among the Muslims, most of the great thinkers were Iranians. That is Persians, or from related peoples. It is true that they wrote in Arabic, but Arabs were only a minority of the subjects of the Arab Caliphates before 1000 A.D. One reason Al-Kindi is exceptional is he was an Arab of the Arabs. A scion of an Arab tribe, with a lineage rooted in that ethnicity before Islam.

Matthew Cobb, an evolutionary biologist, uses the term “Arabic science” in his work to avoid these confusions. This reflects the fact that Arabic was the medium of communication between these scholars, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. In this way, it’s analogous to “Latin science,” which is probably a good term for the intellectual tradition which flourished in Western European during the Aristotelian Renaissance, and later on into the early modern period.

The universal moral of the story is that understanding history, and intellectual history, in particular, is hard. One must balance between commensurable universality and startlingly different local particularity. What is easy is co-opting and hijacking the shape of reality for one’s own ideological preferences. Humans are natural system-builders, theoretical thinkers. The reason being that systems allow one to come to conclusions without doing much research. Logical inference from presuppositions takes more mental effort than an intuitive reflex. But, it takes far less effort that researching the abyss of data from which one can make robust and genuine inferences, and test one’s theoretical reflexes.

But that journey is rewarding. Because it leads to understanding other peoples as ends unto themselves, rather than instruments.

This is a trial run (I hope!)

Early Pleistocene enamel proteome sequences from Dmanisi resolve Stephanorhinus phylogeny:

Ancient DNA (aDNA) sequencing has enabled unprecedented reconstruction of speciation, migration, and admixture events for extinct taxa. Outside the permafrost, however, irreversible aDNA post-mortem degradation has so far limited aDNA recovery within the ~0.5 million years (Ma) time range. Tandem mass spectrometry (MS)-based collagen type I (COL1) sequencing provides direct access to older genetic information, though with limited phylogenetic use. In the absence of molecular evidence, the speciation of several Early and Middle Pleistocene extinct species remain contentious. In this study, we address the phylogenetic relationships of the Eurasian Pleistocene Rhinocerotidae using ~1.77 million years (Ma) old dental enamel proteome sequences of a Stephanorhinus specimen from the Dmanisi archaeological site in Georgia (South Caucasus). Molecular phylogenetic analyses place the Dmanisi Stephanorhinus as a sister group to the woolly (Coelodonta antiquitatis) and Merck’s rhinoceros (S. kirchbergensis) clade. We show that Coelodonta evolved from an early Stephanorhinus lineage and that this genus includes at least two distinct evolutionary lines. As such, the genus Stephanorhinus is currently paraphyletic and its systematic revision is therefore needed. We demonstrate that Early Pleistocene dental enamel proteome sequencing overcomes the limits of ancient collagen- and aDNA-based phylogenetic inference, and also provides additional information about the sex and the taxonomic assignment of the specimens analysed. Dental enamel, the hardest tissue in vertebrates, is highly abundant in the fossil record. Our findings reveal that palaeoproteomic investigation of this material can push biomolecular investigation further back into the Early Pleistocene.

Dmanisi. If that doesn’t mean something, look it up!