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December 13, 2003

Nationcraft as Mythcraft

George Will once wrote a book titled “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” For many years historians have known that the modern handmaid of the state, the nation, is mythcraft. In the past ten years genetics has begun to highlight very sharp divergences from national myths and even linguistic and historical analyses (the latter often influenced by and used by the mythicists).

In the previous post on the origin of the Japanese I noted quizzically that the Yayoi people who were the primary determinants of Japanese identity originated in the Korean peninsula, but Japanese and Korean seem to be more disparate than languages separated by 2,000 years of history should be (compare the many vulgar Latin, Romance, languages or the tongues of northern India that emerged out of vulgar Prakits). Abiola Lapite notes that this should not surprise us that greatly, after all, neighboring languages in Africa (or Papua New Guinea, or Amazonia, or the Caucasus) can have no genetic relationship of recent origin.

I think that it is a reasonable explanation of the facts that the Japanese language (and the Yayoi people) are descended from a southern “Korean” ethnic group which differed linguistically from that of the primary Korean nation (see the thread in the previous post for links to the fully-fleshed theory as described in a book). But, it must be noted that more than science or history are involved, the self-conception of both the Japanese and Korean people need revision, and that self-conception is at the root of both their nationalisms.

It is fashionable to say today that the Japanese are derived from the Koreans, making the enmity and prejudice between the two groups peculiar[1]. I have heard Koreans dismiss the Japanese as a derivative people, Korean substrate leavened with Ainu. In fact, many Japanese I have met will freely admit Ainu ancestry, but seemed surprised when I asserted the Korean origin of their people. The facts outlined as below, and inferred from the divergence between Korean and Japanese today, are more complex than the standard revisionist narrative.

The Koreans themselves, often asserting that they are the world’s most homogenous people, the spiritual heirs of their mythical founder Tangun, are the end-product of a history of cultural assimilation and transformation. It seems that the Japanese are the cultural (and genetic) descendents of a people who were outside the main line of Korean development. The Korea of today was shaped by the Silla, Goryeo and later Choson periods. Today’s homogenous Korea is the byproduct of two thousand years of assimilation, the Japanese being a colony of the long lost “non-Korean” Koreans. The conflation between geography, history and culture have confused the situation to the point where the construction of a simple historical myth is more a work of fiction than a fantastical rendering of the past.

The process of assimilation and absorption of smaller groups, and the smearing away of linguistic and cultural diversity, has affected different parts of the world to various degrees.

For instance:

Europe is today mostly an “Indo-European” continent. Basque seems likely to have local roots, and the Baltic tongues of Finland and Estonia may as well. The Caucasian languages like Georgian are peripheral to Europe, but they too are likely “indigenous.” But this was not always so. It seems likely that the “Iberians” of southern Spain spoke a non-Indo-European language, as did the Etruscans (who might have been of Anatolian origin), not to mention peoples who might-or-might-not have been Indo-European before written history (Picts? The people of Stonehenge?).

China proper is today dominated by “Chinese,” one written language and a multiplicity of “dialects.” But the presence of hundreds of small “national minorities” in the highlands of southern China, and the historically attested origin of both the Thai (Dai) and Vietnamese peoples in southern “China” are a testament to the power of Han demographic expansion. Less than one thousand years ago the modern Chinese province of Yunnan was the center of a powerful Thai polity that fell to the Mongols.

India is often depicted as a civilization of innumerable babblings. And compared to China and Europe the linguistic diversity is greater. There are more scripts and many hundreds of small tribal dialects, but still two great linguistic families (Indo-Aryan and Dravidian, along with a few minor ones). About a dozen languages encompass more than 90% of the population.

In contrast, the New World, Papua New Guinea, parts of Africa[2] and the Caucasus reflect a much higher degree of linguistic diversity. Geography (mountainous refugium) and history (lack of centralized states) combine to preserve diversity in some parts of the world.

Within the more homogenous regions the echoes of ancients languages remain. English words like “boat” seem to be non-Indo-European, while philologists have spied the influence of a lost local substrate in both India and southern China.

Looking to the genetic evidence it becomes even more befuddled. The Japanese are a hybrid people. Instead of being a “special” race set apart they a rather conventional mix of Eurasian stocks[3]. In the early 20th century, when language was seen as good indicator of racial affinity[4] Finns were often thought of as Mongoloid, but genetic evidence shows a strong relationship with both the Swedes to their west and the Latvians and Lithuanians to their south. In fact, to the confusion of all, the Latvians and Lithuanians share with Finns and Estonians certain halplogroups that are absent from the peoples of central Europe[5]. The fact that Lithuanians exhibit the presence of haplogroups more characteristic of Finns and absent in Poles, with whom they have had a close political and cultural relationship for the past 600 years (and speak a similar Indo-European language), was something I turned into a whole post.

There are many other results that confound expectations. The sum affect is to give birth to a thousand questions, conjectures and hypotheses asking to be falsified or given further credence. For those interested in the movements of peoples and the history outside the bounds of the written word, these are exciting times.

But for others the proliferation of methods and the data generated cause problems. There are two groups who fear the current trend toward looking to genes to supplement historical and linguistic patterns.

First, there are the National Essentialists. These are people who are nationalists at the least, and racialists at the most. Historical questions are crucial to the identities of these people. They come in all sorts. From Native Americans that reject the Siberian origin of their peoples on the grounds of spiritual chauvinism to upper caste Indians who react with fury when told that they are genetically closer to their black-skinned Dalit neighbors than other “Aryans.” Genetics tends to throw the “Great Chain of Being” of these people out of kilter since they invest so much in the current state of knowledge, reverse engineering the facts to show their own heritage to be the most prestigious. If they hold that “group A” brought civilization to the world, and it turns out they are a member of “group B,” it takes great effort to reinterpret the facts so that group B are the jewels of God’s creation. Rather, instead of throwing out years of self-serving “scholarship,” this group will reject the genetic evidence as long as possible. The deductive moral-nationalist systems of these people demand a deterministic science that tells them beyond a shadow of a doubt what “kind” they are. But much of genetics is statistical, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, often implying mixture and indeterminate ancestry. The gaps in the knowledge give them ground to reject the most obvious interpretations, but also makes it difficult to create a system of values predicated on Truths when Truths are subject to revision and skepticism.

Second, there are the National Idealists. The statistical nature of genetics gives them the room to reject all assertions of the movement of genes and people. Though a given set of results is provisional and subject to revision, they tend to deny the results a priori (or evince a divine skepticism) because they prefer to think that culture, ideas, are the prime movers, not peoples. They would say that the Japanese became Japanese by the replacement of Jomon by Yayoi culture. They would be cautious about accepting evidence that might imply that group A marginalized group B, killed group B, and so forth. Rather, they prefer the death of ideas, the extinction of languages, than the bloody (and not so bloody) replacement of one people for another. It is not only the movement of peoples that concerns them, genetic evidence that points to the prevalence of polygyny (PDF) or patrifocality undermines their attempts to rewrite the historical record on human nature to suit their “vision.”

Both groups are concerned with norms and re-creating idealized utopias. Their values might be different, one group worships the primacy of Blood and another idolizes the power of the Idea, but their enemy is the same, facts, reality, tightly constructed deductive models buttressed by empirical evidence, subject to provision, de-sacralized and reduced to the bare necessities that science demands, but no more[6]. They stand united as romantics against the unfeeling march of science and scholarship. Without the aid of natural science the human sciences have traditionally been hijacked and used as tools in the furtherance of ideological crusades[7]. But now that natural science has joined the fray (the scientists have the “back” of empirically oriented scholars and the reverse), the ideologues are terrified, their utopian visions always threatened by the encroachment of reality. The scholarship is strengthened and more difficult to dismiss when buttressed by genetics or skeletal morphology (augmented by computation).

Yes Virginia, there are people out there that live in terror of facts.

fn1. Remember the controversy when the Emperor of Japan admitted his Korean ancestry?

fn2. I believe that the Jomon people had more “beach comber” southern wave Out-of-Africa migrants while the Yayoi were probably more of the “central Asian” lineage. See Journey of Man.

fn3. Cavalli-Sforza did show that phylogenetic linguistic trees showed a surprising congruency with his phylogenies based on classical markers. See The History and Geography of Human Genes.

fn4. The Bantu language are actually very similar and reflect radiative expansion from the eastern part of West Africa in the past few thousand years. See Guns, Germs and Steel.

fn5. Look up TAT-C in PubMed.

fn6. When scientists that work in this field are interviewed by the press the are often cajoled or encouraged to offer “sexy” dollops of information that re-enforce or undermine the “standard” models of national mythology. A standard question would be, “Did the Aryans invade India?” And a standard honest response would be, “Uh, that depends….” What sells copy tends to win out though....

fn7. With the introduction of computers to ameliorate some of the subjectivity in comparing skulls and other fossilized remains some of the more non-scientific abuses of physical anthropology that occurred in the first half of the 20th century are not being re-introduced. In fact, the morphological evidence now seems to usually be in line with the genetic evidence.

Posted by razib at 01:40 AM