Today I recorded a podcast for Rationally Speaking. Julia Galef wanted to talk to me about my recent post, Stuff I Was Wrong About!. It was a long discussion, and I don’t know what will go into the final edit. But we did touch on this point from my post:
…I believe that some sort of complex ethical religious system was going to become dominant in the Roman Empire at some point. If Arbogast had won the Battle of Frigidus I think ultimately Christianity would still have become dominant within the empire (see the resistance to Buddhism in Tibet to envision a possible scenario).
The context here is that there is a tradition with the historiography which sees Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Roman Empire from the usurper Eugenius, who was a puppet of the Frankish general Arbogast, as the final victory of Christianity as the state religion over the customary pagan cults. Though non-Christians, or people with strong non-Christian religious sympathies, were persistent as public figures in the Roman world for decades, the last hope for state paganism seems to have ended with Theodosius’ victory.
There are nuances and details here. Alan Cameron presents a mildly revisionist take in The Last Pagans of Rome, arguing that state paganism was in sharp decline after the withdrawal of public subsidies decades before Theodosius’ victory. But that does not impact my general argument. The emergence of Julian the Apostate as emperor heading a counter-Christian movement in the early 360s, and varying degrees of toleration of non-Christian cults in the decades after, tells us that the rise of Christianity as the Roman state religion was a gradual affair that took decades.
Many people perceive that Constantine’s patronage of the Christian religion in the early 4th-century as analogous to Henry VIII changing the English Church from the Catholic to the Protestant camp.* But this is not so. Though Constantine favored Christians, the ruling class of the Roman state remained predominantly pagan for decades.
There was no break with the pagan past. But a gradual evolution. Even though the Roman Empire had been ruled by Christian emperors for nearly two centuries, Anastasius I was still deified upon his death. Presumably, this was a customary honor which persisted, even though by the early 6th-century everyone understood this was a legacy of pagan emperor-cult.
With the gradual withdrawal of paganism’s hold on the landed aristocracy, the old cults declined as features of public culture due to lack of patronage. And, the eventual extinction of the tradition of philosophy also resulted in the intellectual death of elite paganism. By the early Dark Ages, paganism was associated with rustics and marginal peoples. Even if radical Protestants are correct that Europe’s people remained predominantly pagan their primitive beliefs and practices until the 16th-century, European political systems and elite culture were thoroughly Christian long before that.
Back to the original question: is there a scenario where Christianity did not succeed in capturing the Roman state, and so becoming the Roman religion? If Arbogast had won at the Battle of Frigidus in 394, would paganism have revived in the Western Empire? Perhaps, but, I think Christianity had sunk roots too deeply into the matrix of Roman culture and society to be turned back. The fact that Arbogast’s puppet, Eugenius, was a nominal Christian illustrates the reality that even in the Western Empire, where many elite families had pagan sympathies, the head of state was now expected to be a Christian. Christianity was the normative religion of the state.
We don’t know much about Arbogast. He was a Frank by origin, that is, a German. But the ancient sources indicate that Arbogast was a cultured individual, and assimilated into Romanitas. He was also a pagan, though from what I have read, one of the Greco-Roman variety, and not a devotee of Woden or any German god. There was likely an avenue of assimilation and integration whereby men from barbarian cultures could integrate into the high culture and society of old Rome during Late Antiquity, but we know little about it from Christian sources, who were likely not privy to such circles in any case.
If Arbogast had won at Frigidus and pushed forward a revival of the old pagan religion and Roman traditionalism through state patronage, some sort of short-term revival is likely. But a key issue to observe is that we are not talking about the old religion which Augustus attempted to preserve. The Roman religious culture was literally multicultural and very promiscuous. The 1st-century emperor Vespasian was a devotee of Isis, while the cult of Sol Invictus was popular in the 3rd-century. Roman religious traditions evolved and changed, and Kyle Harper suggests in Fate of Rome that pagan temple building decreased sharply after the Plague of Cyprian in the 260s. One interpretation might be that pagan religious practice itself was evolving in a less monumental and personal direction.
Anyone who takes an interest in early Christianity can observe that it evolves and mutates from its origins as a Jewish sect into something more elaborated in the 2nd-century. Very much a mystery religion of the gentiles. The life and thought of Origen illustrate the nexus between Christians and the broader culture. But the influence did not go in a single direction. Not only did the currents of Roman society affect Christianity, but the currents that led to Christianity shaped Roman society. Prominent Jews were already associated with some of the Julio-Claudians, in particular, Gauis, but the penetration of Near Eastern sects into Roman society was high. Christianity was one of these new religious movements.
Just as Arbogast’s personal evolution as a man of Roman culture is hidden from us, so we perceive the cults of the Great Mother, Mithras, or Isis, darkly through a fog. They seem but shadows of the depth and richness that was early Christianity. And they may indeed have been such. But there is an alternative hypothesis: perhaps a large set of new religious movements were converging toward the same broad configuration, and Christianity was the one which won the race to the top, whether through chance or necessity.
And there was a necessity. In my post The Invention Of World Religions 2,000 Years Ago I argue that “higher religions” evolved to fill a cultural niche that became very open with the rose of the Iron Age Empires. Rome, China, Persia, etc. The argument about whether “big gods” came before or after complex polities is a different one than the question I’m exploring here. Rather than “big gods,” the imperial polities of the last few thousand years seem to need “big systems.”
These systems can take various forms but share broad family features. One of the arguments made for the revival of paganism in the Roman Empire is that in the 9th-century Tang China suppressed the power of Buddhism at the cultural commanding heights. Though emperors could be personally devout Buddhists, the religion never obtained the same stature and monopoly power that Christianity or Islam did in western Eurasia. What this analysis ignores though is that the arrival of Buddhism fundamentally transformed the Chinese religious landscape. The development of complex religious Daoism was clearly due to Buddhist stimulus, while Neo-Confucianism took for granted many metaphysical presuppositions inherited from Buddhism. Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism in China began to operate as three legs of a religious stool.
If “paganism” had revived in the Roman Empire, it would have had a heavily Christian flavor by the 5th-century. The use of the word pagan in a non-pejorative sense is somewhat broad. Many Christians consider those outside of the Abrahamic tradition “pagans.” But there is a world of difference between Indian practitioners of Vedanta, and a Korean shaman. The latter is pagan in a way that is analogous to the augurs of ancient Rome. Those who espouse Vedanta have views sharply at variance with Nicene Christianity, but their philosophical sophistication is no less than that of the heirs of Basil of Caesarea.
The Romans of the Republic practiced what we would today call a “tribal religion.” The similarities between orisha and numina are not coincidental. The Romans of the Republic were a tribal people in a quite literal sense and worshipped gods of particular places. Though some of their elites were already cosmopolitan and Greek-educated, Roman religion and philosophy remained primitive. By 300 AD the situation was very different. Pagan Romans worshipped a variety of gods and adhered to many different cults, but Neoplatonic philosophy added an intellectual sheen to the new paganism, introducing monism whereby all gods might be emanations from the Ultimate. Christianity came out of the same milieu and was somewhat influenced by Neoplatonists, though Neoplatonists were some of the earliest intellectual critics of the religion, and the school remained the refuge for diehard pagans into the 6th-century.
Which brings us to perennialism. The perennial philosophy is the idea that the world’s religious traditions share a single, metaphysical truth or origin. Unlike perennialists, I do not believe in a single metaphysical truth or origin. Rather, I believe that particular social and cultural conditions 2,000 years ago made it very likely that a set of higher religions would emerge. In particular, in large and complex multi-ethnic societies you need more than big gods. You needed big religions.
These higher religions always came with abstruse and complex philosophies opaque to the vast majority of adherents. But these elements were appealing to and justified the project of a large empire for religious professionals. A unitary principle, a Ground of Being, justified the necessity of a vice-reagent of God upon the earth, the son of Heaven, or the Cakravartin. Pre-modern states lacked the tools for genuine totalitarianism or the rapidity of unifying information technology. They required ideological bindings across their administrative classes. Philosophy injected into supernatural systems and then universalized provided just that.
These higher religions had localisms (e.g., Rome), but they were not fundamentally local. Priests and monks could travel across the world with some surety of safety due to the respect given to them by rulers. Rather than appealing to raw power or the capricious favor of household gods, universal rulers could argue that their power was a reflection of the universal gods and universal principles. Just as there was a God in heaven there was an emperor on earth. Karma and the Dharma applied to all peoples.
In evolutionary biology on occasion, there is a rhetorical question asked: why doesn’t evolution favor a single fit species? Why is there diversity? One explanation is that there are different adaptive niches, but even here there is no single species that occupies an adaptive niche across the whole world. Abiotic factors dictate certain parameters in terms of body-plan and behavior for numerous species. They are clearly being pushed and shaped by the same selective forces, but history is such that they are distinct and different.
And so it is with cultural evolution. I have observed that pagan and antique cults of Babylon existed in Mesopotamia in the early centuries of the Common Era. But by the 4th-century they faded and under the Sassanians Mesopotamia became dominated in its public culture by a welter of sects, Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, and Zoroastrian, with combinations thereof. This is important because unlike in the Roman Empire, the Sassanian Persians took a liberal attitude toward religious liberty. There was no coercive imposition of the new religions on the elites. Rather, the elites adopted the new religions to integrate themselves into the Roman and Persian world.
There were selective pressures that militated in favor of this transition. It wasn’t simply an accident of history. It was an inevitable consequence of social complexity.
* I am aware that Henry VIII maintained a basically Catholic Church that had broken from Rome.
A new method for estimating heritability and selection, Evaluating and improving heritability models using summary statistics:
There is currently much debate regarding the best way to model how heritability varies across the genome. The authors of GCTA recommend the GCTA-LDMS-I Model, the authors of LD Score Regression recommend the Baseline LD Model, while we have instead recommended the LDAK Model. Here we provide a statistical framework for assessing heritability models using summary statistics from genome-wide association studies. Using data from studies of 31 complex human traits (average sample size 136,000), we show that the Baseline LD Model is the most realistic of the existing heritability models, but that it can be significantly improved by incorporating features from the LDAK Model. Our framework also provides a method for estimating the selection-related parameter α from summary statistics, finding strong evidence (P<1e-6) of negative selection for traits including height, systolic blood pressure and college education.
The preprint jumped out at me for what they detected selection in (or against). If you look at the details, they actually show selection against “Preference for Evenings.” I don’t know if this is a spurious finding (they talk a bit about population structure in the preprint), but this is really funny to me.
I am trying to make a second go-around the whole audiobook thing. For whatever reason, I’m not very good at listening to books, as opposed to reading them. I’ve spent a lifetime reading, but am not the best listener. Books require concentrated attention across many sequences of ideas and thoughts, and I’m much better with text than audio when it comes to that.
But I’ve decided to try listening to Plato’s The Republic while I’m exercising. I read portions of The Republic as an undergraduate, but the reality is so many of the concepts therein have been internalized and interpreted throughout Western culture that it’s not too difficult to follow the abstractions. I follow Karl Popper in taking a dim view of Plato’s influence on Western civilization, but one cannot deny that influence.*
My biggest reaction listening so far (I’m 10% of the way in) is that Socrates is incredibly unpleasant. Though the sophist Thrasymachus is presented as something of a fool, his critique of Socrates’ schtick seems spot-on. I don’t recall finding Socrates so unpleasant when reading the text years ago. But listening to someone speaking in Socrates’ voice, his somewhat boorish nature comes through.
A final note, when encountering ancient philosophy at some level of depth at around the age of twenty, I was always struck by how modern their thinking was in many ways. Is that because they were like us? Or we are like them?
* My anti-Plato partisanship is not strongly held. To some extent, Plato is at the root of much that is good and evil.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Roman playright Terence. He asserted: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I know of it through the English translation, “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”
This truth was brought home to me in the early 2000s when I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran has a long section where he critiques a dominant mode of analysis and interpretation within American cultural anthropology which emphasizes differences in cognitive frameworks and paradigms, to the point of incommensurability. The simplest reduction of Atran’s critiques are that the logical conclusion of this line of thinking would make even the interpretive scholarship of this school of cultural anthropology totally worthless.
A more concrete issue where this form of thinking has crept into the broader discussion is confusion of terms for reality, and the reconceptualization of reality through diversification of terminology. Consider the discussion about democratic forms of governance. One can assert, with credibility, that the Greeks “invented” democracy. But, I think this masks the reality that the democratic impulse existed across many cultures and societies (e.g., the republics of ancient India). The Greeks had a genius for systematizing and formalization of social and political structures. But the basic elements and dynamics were already there.
Similarly, people are wont to say that one can’t understand Chinese or Indian religion from the Western perspective of religion. I understand where people are coming from when they say this (and in fact, it’s not a “Western perspective,” but often a post-Calvinist confessional Protestant conceptualization that they have in mind as “Western”), but the reality is that the broader category of religious phenomena is easy to identify. That is the reason that Portuguese Catholics initially though Indian Hindus were Christian. It is the reason that the Chinese and Japanese in the 16th century often confused Roman Catholicism with a sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Religions differ a great deal across cultures. But they are pretty recognizable.
But there is the reverse side to this equation: thinking that you understand the psychology of others so well that you misconstrue their motives and intentions.
Two concrete examples come to mind. My liberal friends often talk about conservatives in ways that seem totally wrong-headed, but, they behave as if they understand the conservative mind as experts, despite not knowing any conservatives besides myself or reading much about conservatives in a way that takes ethnography seriously. There is some evidence that liberals, in particular, have problems modeling conservative motivations, but the issue is general and not specific to any ideology.
To illustrate this, on the Say Goodnight Kevin YouTube channel, there is an analysis of Christian* films and media from a skeptical perspective. Kevin himself is an evangelical Christian who was homeschooled. One of his major criticisms is that in evangelical Protestant Christian media nonbelievers, especially atheists, are depicted in a way that is totally unrealistic, and in keeping with the prejudices of evangelicals about the low moral character and motives of nonbelievers.
Obviously, there is a spectrum here. Humans are not total islands from each other. The limits of my comprehension are not the limits of my culture. But neither are cultural and subcultural norms and idioms so transparent that one can always make very precise and deep inferences about the intentions of outgroups. Any analysis of human psychology and culture must always wrestle with this reality.
* “Christian” here refers to the American evangelical Protestant subculture.
John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent is one of my favorite books. Cities is not as good, but if you are trying to avoid cookie-cutter surveys, it is pretty decent. Reader is an engaging writer.
I haven’t had time to work on the South Asian Genotype or Tutsi projects in a while. But I haven’t forgotten about them and will get to them in the near future.
Since I’ve stopped engaging much on Twitter much it has become so much more obvious to me how difficult it is to have good-faith engagements on the platform. Tweeting out a few links and announcements is fine. Having a discussion is ridiculous.
China Said It Closed Muslim Detention Camps. There’s Reason to Doubt That. “Now I know the error of my ways,” he said, as his wife and daughter shuffled nervously around the living room.
Being a Law Firm Partner Was Once a Job for Life. That Culture Is All but Dead. Winner-take-all. I looked up the median vs. mean wage for lawyers, and the skew was way more extreme than for physicians.
How San Francisco’s Wealthiest Families Launched Kamala Harris. Gavin Newsome is far more a creature of the Getty family, so Harris isn’t even that bad.
Because of the long and thorough tradition of Chinese historiography, we have a good and deep chronological record of East Asia going back two to three thousand years ago. Chinese records also help illuminate and clarify aspects of Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian, history. For example, what we know about the Indianized kingdom of Funan in eastern mainland Southeast Asia is from textual sources are Chinese.
But, history can take us only so far. We know this for Western Eurasia, where ancient DNA has revolutionized our understanding of Holocene transformations. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much ancient DNA from East Asia. So we still have to make recourse mostly to modern data. A new preprint proposes to use a lot of modern (and some ancient) data to answer a very specific question, Inland-coastal bifurcation of southern East Asians revealed by Hmong-Mien genomic history. The basic results are totally unsurprising:
Consistent with the two distinct routes of agricultural expansion from southern China, this Hmong-Mien founding ancestry is phylogenetically closer to the founding ancestry of Neolithic Mainland Southeast Asians and present-day isolated Austroasiatic-speaking populations than Austronesians. The spatial and temporal distribution of the southern East Asian lineage is also compatible with the scenario of out-of-southern-China farming dispersal. Thus, our finding reveals an inland-coastal genetic discrepancy related to the farming pioneers in southern China and supports an inland southern China origin of an ancestral meta-population contributing to both Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic speakers.
More interesting to me is the admixture graph to the right. It uses a bunch of ancient and modern populations to model ancient and modern populations. You can see some general patterns and suggestions of what might come out fo ancient DNA.
For example, the green component is defined by the Hoabinhian samples. These are the people who are distantly related to the Andaman Islanders, and occupied Southeast Asia before the arrival of rice farmers. They are distantly related to “Ancient Ancestral South Indians” (AASI) as well. It is unsurprising that this component is well represented in a Munda tribe (Kharia) from northeast India, or in Austro-Asiatic people of Southeast Asia. But notice that it is well represented in the Jomon of Japan, and modern Tibetans.
If you read the preprint, the authors clearly don’t think that this is Hoabinhian ancestry as such. Rather, the model is looking for something very basal (distant) from other East Eurasians, and Hoabinhians fit that (and are somewhat closer to this basal group). This is probably the same phenomenon of “Australo-Melanesian” ancestry in the Amazon. Curiously, Y haplogroup D is found in Tibet, Japan, and the Andaman Islanders.
The largest group in East Asia are Han Chinese and can be modeled as an admixture of the ancient Northeast Asian Devil’s Gate Cave people and modern Ami Taiwanese aboriginals (Austronesians). This is basically a north-south cline. One doesn’t need to posit obviously that the modern Han is truly a mix of these two groups, but rather that Han identity emerged out of a synthesis of various Neolithic groups with differential affinities to these two groups.
Two ancient samples give a good picture of how these groups are related to West Eurasians. The Afanasevio was almost exactly like the Yamnaya. The Namazga sample comes from ancient prehistoric Khorasan, on the border of modern Iran and Turkmenistan. These two samples do have some affinities with each other. Both have ancestry that related to or derived from “Ancestral North Eurasians” (ANE) and “Caucasus Hunter-Gatherers” (CHG), with the Yamnaya having more ANE and Namazga more CHG. But the Yamnaya also had affinities with “Western Hunter-Gatherers” (WHG) that Namazga lacked. You see that the Kharia has affinities to Namazga, but not Afanasevio. This is not surprising: the Munda tribes of Northeast India seem almost untouched by Indo-Aryan influence (they are entirely lacking in R1a1a, which is found in South Indian tribals). Rather, they mixed with Indian populations which were impacted by migrations of farmers from West Asia.
The proportion of Afanasevio and Namazga are illustrative of particular historical dynamics. Mongols and Xiongnu (ancient) had some connection to the Afanasevio. This is almost certainly Indo-European (probably East Iranian) contact. In contrast, the Hui, Chinese Muslims who are mostly no different from Han aside from religion, have contributions from both Afanasevio and Namazga. This is a strong indication that Hui do have more recent Central Asian (Muslim) ancestry, while Mongolians do not. The increase in Namazga ancestry across Central Asia is probably a function of the rise of Persian and Islamic polities, and the movement north of agriculturalists. The shift to Turkic dominated polities integrated Turan with the rest of the Islamic steppe, which happens to exclude the Mongolians.
It is also interesting that the Thai have more Namazga than Khmer. This is strongly suggestive of a large contribution of Indian ancestry to the Dvaravati culture (the enrichment for Devil’s Cave in the Khmer is probably due to the reality that a few of the HGDP samples seem to be mixed with Chinese), though it could be more recent admixture from India. Note however that the Mon people of Burma seem to have more Indian ancestry, and were often associated with Dvaravati.
Finally, the authors point out that the red southern Northeast Asian component is now common in peoples like the Koreans and Japanese. A clear indication of the spread of farming from southern people, as well as the likely later demographic impact of the expansion of the Chinese state and its spillover impact on Korea.
Though we are taking a hiatus for the summer for The Insight podcast, we have many episodes already recorded and ready to go. The current plan is to launch season 3 with a discussion between Spencer and myself on the Tocharians.
One of the things I brought up is an observation about the changing lifestyles of proto-Tocharians and post-Tocharian peoples. It seems likely that the proto-Tocharians, the descendants of the Afanasevio people, were pastoralists. At some point, they settled down in the oases around the Tarim Basin. And, they became city-dwellers. Eventually, they were conquered by the Uygurs. They too were pastoralists, and they settled down to become city dwellers. The Uygurs were eventually conquered by other Turks, who also became city dwellers.
To my knowledge, the shift from pastoralism to a sedentary lifestyle seems to be far more common than the other way. Pastoralist peoples conquer sedentary peoples…and in their turn settle down, and are conquered by later pastoralists. Meanwhile, hunter-gatherers, such as Mongolians and Australian Aboriginals, adapt to pastoralism quite well.
On the first episode of a new podcast, The Realignment, the hosts interview J. D. Vance. It was an interesting conversation, during the course of which Vance expressed a great deal of alarmism about the rise of China as a world power. He indicated that hear feared China is intent on world domination. Vance’s mentor, Peter Thiel, is also a China-skeptic.
I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, Thiel and Vance are expressing a reasonable view of the reality that the coming age of instability is going to be driven by the emergence of a rival superpower to the United States of America.* In Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For? he argues that hyper-powers and “world police” impose order and peace, which is good for everyone. This was also the logic, in part, of the post-war maintenance of American military forces (as opposed to our customary drawdown and demobilization). American military power allowed for Germany and Japan to flourish as economic powers.
The rise of Chinese economic and military power in the 21st-century at some level of parity with the United States of America will destabilize certain established relationships between and across nations. China doesn’t even have to match the United States, the Soviet Union in the 20th-century showed all one needs is some level of parity to introduce destabilization into many regions of the world, as kleptocrats can play the great powers against each other.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the 2000s Chimerica was a force for global development, and the USA and China operated as two legs of an engine that drove the world economy. If you read Thomas Friedman and the boosters of globalization you would smile at the thought of win-win dynamics, and the vast markets that were going to emerge for American products.
It hasn’t worked out that way. But, despite Vance and Thiel’s criticisms, part of me has to admit that the rise of Chinese prosperity is one of the greatest and most positive things that has occurred in the history of the world. The decline of grinding poverty to a great extent is the rise of the Chinese economy, driven by the industry and ingenuity of its people, despite its authoritarian government and perverse regnant Communist ideology. If I was Chinese, I would surely be proud about the rise of my nation, and my people, from the horrible shocks of the 20th-century, from the de facto colonization of the early decades to the self-inflicted horror of Maoist Communism.
So the question presents itself: is there any scenario where a China which takes its rightful place in the sun does not threaten the American order? The most unrealistic boosters of the pre-2008 consensus made the argument that economic integration would make it so that ties of common interest and affinity would knit together China and the liberal democratic world. Liberalization the economic sphere would lead to liberalization in the political sphere.
That has not happened. And, it does not seem to be likely to happen in the near future. Chinese economic output is converging with the West (some urban regions are already part of the developed world), but its social and political culture is not doing so at all. Arguably it is less amenable to liberal democratic norms today than it was a generation ago.
As an empirical matter we, Americans, are going to have to deal with the rise of the dragon. I do think that Vance presented in the podcast an excessively apocalyptic view. I do not believe that the Chinese political class has ambitions of world domination. I believe it has ambitions of a level of hegemony at least comparable to that of America, which is a great deal of power. Nor do I believe that the Chinese consumer, who are threatened by demographic headwinds, are willing to subsidize the sort of quasi-imperium that the American public has paid for for the past 70+ years in the form of bases the world over.
When it comes to economics and military concerns I don’t have simple answers. But I do have some thoughts about culture. Today, in the midst of its economic revival, the average citizen of mainland China is quite self-interested and selfish. This will not always be so, as post-material concerns will arise. Chinese society, the Chinese state, has traditionally rested on a system of political and social ethics which is entirely intelligible and civilized to the non-Chinese mind. Concepts such as “good-heartedness” and “rites” are not difficult to understand in regards to why they might be useful to the maintenance of a proper society and individual flourishing.
Today in the West there is a tendency to exalt individual self-actualization and self-cultivation above all. It is an atomistic and ad hoc ideology. Though somewhat marginal, it may become less so over time. Many Americans are not excited about denouncing all the “olds” at the behest of our own red guards. Though I understand in geopolitical terms Vance and Thiel’s alarm, when it comes to culture I have to admit that I do hope Chinese assertiveness may allow our global civilization to stand athwart history just a bit, and make some room for the verities of yore.
* It is also not irrelevant that I broadly share Thiel and Vance’s political sympathies in the American context.
To be frank I don’t count myself as a public intellectual…but since some people have much looser criteria than I do, I thought I should review things I’ve changed my mind on since 2002 when I started writing on the internet.
– I used to think group selection was totally incoherent, but now think that is very useful in understanding cultural evolution, and perhaps in some other contexts. I probably fundamentally changed my mind between 2010 and 2015 when I looked more deeply at the cultural evolution literature.
– I no longer believe in a “cognitive great leap forward” 50,000 years ago in human evolution. I don’t know what I believe, but I think gradual and cumulative processes are probably more important, and the roots of human uniqueness as quite ancient. My views began to change around 2010, with evidence for archaic introgression.
– I am not sure I quite believe “Out of Africa” in a clear manner as I did in the 2000s. Everything is very muddled now. Africa seems central to human evolution. But there are lots of specifics which are unclear to me.
– The neutral theory of molecular evolution was useful in its time, but I am much more of a selectionist now when it comes to genomic phenomena.
– My views in relation to religion were close to what was for a while termed the “New Atheism.” I don’t hold that view anymore. Around 2004 I moved away from this position and came to believe that the roots of religion were cognitive, and the social and cultural complexity required deeper analysis rather than plain dismissal.
– Connected to an earlier point (group selection), I think that some of the functionalist explanations of religious phenomena are probably not totally wrong. That is, religions may have adaptive value (I came around to this after 2010).
– On economics, I am far less of a neoliberal/libertarian than I used to be in the early 2000s. I would have laughed as “industrial policy” in 2005, but I’m not sure so in 2015. Rather than a new view on the right policies, I’m just uncertain about a lot. The neoliberal critiques of government direction and planning are persuasive to me, but 1999 did not usher in the age that we were expecting.
– The period between 2002 and 2004 made me much more skeptical of foreign intervention. Barring something major, I’ll probably be an isolationist for the rest of my life.
– I am far less sure that the liberal democratic consensus will persist in the American republic today than I was in 2015.
– Related to the last point, until the 2016 election I had assumed that the elites of both parties could keep a lid on populist energies. I was wrong.
– I was more bearish on Bangladeshi economic performance in the 2000s than what we see today (at current rates of growth Bangladesh may surpass India in per capita GDP in the late 2020s).
– I believed that the post-modernist fad would fade. I was wrong. Post-modernism isn’t talked of much today, because its general manner of analysis pervades our “discourse.”
– I would have been willing to bet a lot of money in 2002 that China would go through a major correction within the next 10-15 years. At some point, I will be right, but I think the robustness of the Chinese economy is greater than I would have guessed.
– I underestimated how “complex” complex traits were. I wasn’t totally wrong, but the factor was off.
– Like many people, I put too much credence in fMRI-based cognitive neuroscience. Should have ignored it.
– I was wrong about how much salience ‘racial politics’ would have in our public debate. The key here is debate and discussion. I think we’re arguably less racist as a country. But we are more conscious of racism.
– Did not guess that socialism would make a comeback. This relates to a misjudgment of how much elites knew and understood, and how much control they had.
– I accepted the stuff about the “Great Moderation.” I specifically remember telling someone I knew all about it right before Lehman Brothers blew up.
– The “Frog Nazi” cultural moment ~2015-2016 was a total surprise to me. Inexplicable.
– Reading Bryan Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome transformed my views on this question. From agnosticism, I now believe that Rome did fall in a consequential and disruptive manner.
– Related to the above, I believe that some sort of complex ethical religious system was going to become dominant in the Roman Empire at some point. If Arbogast had won the Battle of Frigidus I think ultimately Christianity would still have become dominant within the empire (see the resistance to Buddhism in Tibet to envision a possible scenario).
– Migration and admixture in the Holocene are much more important for patterning of human population genetic variation than I would have thought.
– The north and south Chinese are much more similar genetically than I would have thought.
– I thought I would have stopped writing/blogging by now.
– I am far less of a certain Whig about human progress. I think regression is far more likely than I would have thought in 2002.
– I accepted evolutionary psychology in a classical sense (massive modularity, etc.) in the early 2000s. Not sure that the full package is necessary.
– Did not anticipate electric vehicles and much cheaper solar is getting.
If there is an overall theme, I think I was more optimistic about the future in 2002 than how the future has actually turned out. And I’m more pessimistic about the future in 2019 than I was in 2002 by a longshot.
What did you change your mind about?
Tanner Greer has a post up, A Study Guide for Human Society, Part I, where he says this:
…I have collected fifteen separate 400+ page books that try to answer the question “why did the West get rich first.” And that was seven years ago! The number of books tackling this question has only grown larger. But if that is all you read, you are in trouble. How will you know who is right and who is wrong? If you have not read widely in history and anthropology, who are you to judge? There is absolutely no point, for example, in reading one of Peter Turchin’s books if you don’t have the background knowledge needed to assess whether his models match the historical record. There is no point reading Diamond’s explanation for why China stagnated and why Europe did not if you do not know anything about Chinese or European history yourself (I am not convinced Diamond does). Grand theories of civilization should be at the bottom of your list. They are worth reading, but not before you have the foundation in facts that you need to distinguish between the good work and the ill.
This is good advice for history. It is a theory-poor data-rich field. And, as Tanner implies, a knowledge of history is excellent as a tool for meta-cognition.
But it is different in science. Fields with lots of formal theory are such that instead of local empirical deep-dives, it’s more useful to pick up a survey of the broad frameworks so that you develop some intuitions about how to approach problems. Principles of Population Genetics is what I recommend because it introduces you to a way of thinking about biology as a set of algebraic relations. After that, you can engage with the literature. In evolutionary and population genetics that means papers.
Today a friend emailed me about similarities he noticed between young men radicalized by the logic of Islamic fundamentalist and white nationalism. He himself at one point in his life had associations with Islamic fundamentalists. One thing I told him is the problem here is a certain type of young male is attracted to radical movements based on logic, but the vast majority of humans have no great investment in logic.
Profiles of Salafi radicals from the 2000s noticed that at the elite and core groups there was an enrichment for engineers and scientists. Within Muslim subcultures, this is almost a caricature or stereotype.
The attraction of young men with highly systematizing ways of thinking to what can only be described as the logical necessity of evil is a function of peculiarities in their cognitive process which make them atypical. Though I have never been religious myself, in my 20s I too was attracted to generalizing in this sort of way of thinking, though luckily never to the point of believing in the necessity of evil.
In my mid-20s reading cognitive anthropology “cured” me of this problem. Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust made me rethink everything I believed about religion.
The writer Rod Dreher has talked about the contrast between himself and his sister and father when it comes to religion. Rod is a seeker and a thinker. Raised a Methodist, he became an atheist, and then converted to Roman Catholicism, and finally Eastern Orthodoxy. Dreher’s sister and father remained Methodist and were suspicious about his religious peregrinations. Though they did not reflect upon the fine points of faith or struggle with their beliefs, they were sincerely religious as a matter of custom, habit, and disposition.
If you take religion and turn it into a vessel for apodictic logic, it will blow up in your face. Conversely, I do wonder if some of the online “social justice” subcultures are at the opposite extreme, taking feeling, and making it the measure of all things.
Russian Land of Permafrost and Mammoths Is Thawing. When I was a kid I loved reading books about the wildlife of Siberia. Huge hardcover books with color illustrations, often dating from the 1960s and 1970s.
Europeans Don’t Necessarily Share American Values. I want to see quantitative analysis!
Identity Politics Roil Most Diverse House Democratic Caucus Ever. This makes me happy.
Scientists are making human-monkey hybrids in China. How about “In China” instead of “In Mice.”