Sunday, August 31, 2008
Variation is interesting. Why are there species, for example? Why do identical twins vary in life outcomes at all? How, and why, do the two antipodal maritime temperate regions of Eurasia, China and Europe, differ? The answers one comes up with vary by discipline and scope. In Farewell to Alms the economic historian Gregory Clark explains the genetic outcome of differences in lactase persistence (LP) as a function of variation in wealth; Europeans were wealthier so they could invest in the expensive production of milk and meat. I suspect most natural scientists would look to environmental constraints as the largest effect variables; LP arises in environments where cattle culture is more productive on a per area unit basis than grain culture. And then there is of course the fact that human lifestyles do not exist in a social and historical vacuum. There is evidence that wide swaths of the north China plain were abandoned by farmers during periods of political disorder due to their vulnerability to the depredations of nomadic groups (Genghis Khan's plan to depopulate the Yellow River plain and turn it into pasture was not as bizarre as one might think). When political stability returned there would be a shift in the boundary between nomad and farmer. If Peter Turchin is right then the variables effecting these changes are endogenous to a model of historical dynamics which are characterized by cycles (Turchin's case study of the expansion of Slavs and farming along the Ukrainian Cossack frontier is a classical case where politics rather than ecology served as the limiting reagent).
But for a moment I want to zoom the scale. In The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, there is a chapter, The Riddle of Longevity: Why Zunhua?:
People lived longer in the late-imperial department Zunhua in the mountains along the old Ming northern frontier...The expectation of life at birth for a woman was in the high forties, twice as long as in Jiaxing....
Jiaxing is highlighted because another chapter focuses on the taming of this region and its transition from being a marginal territory on the periphery of Chinese civilization to a rationally managed agricultural heartland. A case in point supporting the thesis of hydraulic despotism. The author notes a few points to contrast Zunhua and Jiaxing:
1) Climate. Zunhua was much colder in winter, with temperatures generally falling below zero. This surely dampened the local pathogen load.
2) Ecological differences. Zunhua is relatively mountainous, while Jiaxing is a coastal wetland region tamed into an expanse of intensive rice production. Irrigation is common in Jiaxing, but there were ecological constraints on its utilization in Zunhua (the soil is very sandy and so there are major issues with drainage which reduced the efficiency of canals).
3) Differences in diet. Zunhua's populace had a relatively diverse diet, where dry land agriculture was balanced with animal husbandry and hunting and gathering. In contrast, Jiaxing was a classic climax rice monoculture where almost all calories were from grain.
4) There were differences in ethnicity. The local historical identity of non-Han peoples was far stronger in Zunhua than in Jiaxing. The process of Sinicization had proceeded to completion in Jiaxing, which now lay along the axis of the economic heartland of China. In contrast, Zunhua was for nearly 3,000 years on the northeast boundary of Han habitation. It was known to the ancient Chinese, and Han populations were generally extant within its territory, but it was often dominated culturally by non-Han groups who would play a large role without Chinese history, culminating in the Manchus.
The author also notes that there was a large difference in the extent of female labor in Jiaxing and Zunhua. It was a prominent feature of the life of peasants in Jiaxing, but not so of Zunhua. Additionally, one bureaucrat observed that unlike many other parts of China it was not typical for very poor women in Zunhua to supplement their income with de facto prostitution (random "walks" in the fields). The inhabitants of Zunhua were consumers of a fair amount of meat, but interesting they were also milk drinkers, atypical for China.
The Census data from 1820 to 1910 suggests that Zunhua was relatively underpopulated (the author's focus here is on observations hinged around the late Imperial Manchu dynasty). This probably explains the relative wealth of a the typical peasant in Zunhua vis-a-vis one in Jiaxing (as well as lack of epidemics). But why was Zunhua so underpopulated in the first place? Are the data from the late Imperial period just a transient which captures a snapshot before the region is caught in a Malthusian Trap? To some extent I suspect so, but, I wanted to note specifically that Zunhua was on the radar of Chinese annalists nearly 3,000 years ago. Unlike vast regions of far southern inland China it was not new to Sinicization, rather, Sinicization simply never completed itself over the ensuing centuries. In fact, the region was for long periods under barbarian rule and outside of China proper.
First, I want to repeat one of the major obvious insights of The Retreat of the Elephants, the process of Sinicization was inevitable, a matter of time, across much of what is today China. The millet and rice based agricultural systems associated with Han Chinese swept away competing lifestyles before them like a deterministic physical system. A proactive program of cutting down forests and clearing land, as well as channeling and controlling the flow of running water across the landscape, was part and parcel of the expansion of the Chinese state and Han identity. Some of the increase in the numbers of the latter is surely a matter of demographics, as Chinese settlers push into cleared land. On the other hand, there is extensive documentary evidence that those non-Chinese tribes which adhered to lifestyles which were at variance with that of the Han on many occasions adopted the intensive farming lifestyle when their territories were impinged upon. Eventually they saw themselves as Han. In the Christian and Islamic world it was common to assert that war against those outside of the bounds of their religious civilization was by nature just because they were infidels, and that enslavement of unbelievers was acceptable. Some of the material in this book highlights a similar ideology on the part of the the Han Chinese through their perception that those who were not Han were fundamentally not human or subhuman. But, just as with Christianity or Islam, tribes and peoples could become Han. This process was one less of ideology, though certainly elites adopted Confucian ethics and the Chinese classics, as opposed to one characterized by a way of life in terms of the optimal mode of resource extraction and utilization. To be Han the commoners farmed like the Han, and the rulers ruled like the Han.
The Han way of life was eminently successful in terms of extracting more productivity per unit are of land, as evidenced by the fact that China is now well over 90% Han, and, its historically high population density. It was not a rigid orthodoxy, the original millet based farming system which arose around the Yellow River plain gave way to the dominance of rice agriculture, likely originally a feature of the culture of non-Han populations of central and south China. The Han way of life was one of maximal resource extraction and mass mobilization of populations under the aegis of a central governing unit. The transition from Han to non-Han seems to have been partly due to demic and cultural diffusion as a bottom-up process, but, as documented in The Retreat of the Elephants, it was also a function of the greater robusticity of the war machines of Han states. Not only could they mobilize more men, but they could they could organize and coordinate their actions because of the central nature of their polities. Local peoples had an advantage in terms of their knowledge of regional conditions and could wage a persistent rearguard action over the centuries by disrupting the social and agriculture systems (e.g., canals, bridges, bureaucrats, etc.) which Han society depended upon, but over the long haul Sinicization marched on. The machine could be broken, but never utterly destroyed.
So why did Zunhua resist Sinicization so long? I suspect that the prevalence of animal husbandry indicates that the Han agricultural complex was simply not as well suited to this region. In areas too dry for agriculture irrigation is an option, but as noted above it was not an ideal one in Zunhua because of the characteristics of the terrain and soils. During the Former Han dynasty the emperor Wu engaged in a series of wars with the nomadic Xiongnu, but a serious problem with defeating these peoples was that a Chinese victory did not result in cultural assimilation. There were instances where the nomads could not win, but they could never truly lose. In areas too dry, cold and rugged for Han agricultural techniques nomadic life simply was more economically more efficient, or, more accurately the only option aside from hunting and gathering. The final Chinese "victory" over the Xiongnu occurred via co-option from their within by dividing their elite and brandishing the allure of civilized luxury goods. To some extent there was little difference in the material conditions of the Xiongnu elite, instead of engaging in raids to obtain wealth they were bribed or paid by the Chinese polity. In terms of efficiency this reduced the uncertainty on the part of the Chinese and so was economically a good decision as it allowed for a shift toward lower time preference.
Reading the chapter in question here, I got the feeling that the economic and social conditions in Zunhua mimicked the contrasts which one might draw between pre-modern Europe and China. Europeans had a more mixed diet than the Asian peasant, and their agricultural complex relied to a far greater extent on animal husbandry and cattle (or, differently stated, more inputs of capital than labor to increase marginal returns). The average European peasants was arguably wealthier than the average Chinese peasant. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark points to better hygiene in East Asia leading to a different death schedule, so that the Chinese would be pushing against the Malthusian limit to a greater extent (fewer mouths dividing up a finite pie in Europe vs. China at any given time). On the other hand, economic historians such as Raymond Crotty have emphasized the peculiar ecology of Northern Europe, and the incentives that existed toward raising of cattle stock as opposed to cereal agriculture. From what I have read it seems clear that in places such as Scandinavia traditional cereal agriculture gave a relatively low in yield. After all, wheat is a crop of the Mediterranean. Oats were a better bet, but are relatively unpalatable to humans, so they were more effectively grown as fodder for cattle.
A quick look at a world map will show that Europe is far to the north of China. Because of the disparate impact of Westerlies the different sides of continents at the same latitude may experience climatic regimes which vary a great deal. Northern California and New Jersey are an example. Distance from oceans also matter, southern Nebraska has a more "continental" climate than either New Jersey or northern California despite similar latitudes. It seems to me that on reason China and Europe took such radically different paths in terms of agriculture styles, in particular northern Europe and China, were differences in their ecological parameters. Europe is a very high latitude temperate zone characterized by moderation in its climate and relative regularity in its precipitation. China is a relatively low latitude temperate zone because of its exposure to the winter air of central Asia, as well as being subject to the reversal monsoonal flow during the summer, which is the season of greatest precipitation. The region of Europe at the similar latitude as north China, the Mediterranean zone, is characterized by much milder temperatures in winter as well as an inverted precipitation regime from Asia, with a maximum during the cold season of least sunlight.
But in the case of Zunhua ecology is probably not the only constraint. Its local population in the ancient phase included many "friendly" Xiongnu, suggesting its proximity to the steppe heartland. The period which The Retreat of the Elephants surveys is one of relative peace when Zunhua was not on a political frontier, the Manchu dynasty had subjugated Mongolia, and pushed the north boundaries of the Chinese Empire past the Amur river. For much of Chinese history in contrast Zunhua was a borderland, often not under Chinese hegemony. It seems plausible that therefore Zunhua was often a "No Man's Land," and so not subject to economic exploitation because of the risks inherent. I suspect an analogy to arable regions of Ukraine which were long occupied by nomads may be made. Up until the expansion of the Czarist state during the 17th century farmers that lived in central and eastern Ukraine would be subject to brutal exploitation by nomadic peoples, a dynamic one can glean as far back as the Scythians. Only with the rise of the Gunpowder Empires were the nomads on the marchlands finally defeated and extinguished as a threatening wild card which dissuaded farmers from settling vast swaths of Inner Eurasia. To some extent this might be interpreted simply as a variant of Greg Clark's point about shifting the death schedule; during periods when Zunhua was on the borders only those who were willing to risk life and limb would settle there, and periodic wars would "clean out" the region demographically.
Ultimately though I am curious as to why agriculture developed the way it did in China, being so focused on human labor. In The Great Divergence it is pointed out that China was more densely populated than India, and that land was more plentiful in South Asia. In Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches it is argued that cattle reverence in India is a function of the fact that bulls are an essential draft animal (the author notes that a disproportionate number of feral cattle are cows). In When Histories Collide Raymond Crotty argues that cattle reverence in India is due to the fact that killing calves would be counterproductive in terms of milk production. I have already provided some general rationales for why animal husbandry was relatively rational in Europe. In China, the primary animal was the pig. In terms of domesticates it seems that the pig is nearly feral, generally subsisting on offal. The pig can not produce milk, nor can it serve as a work animal. Various regions of Eurasia developed "critical mass" as complex literate societies during the pre-modern era, but gross features of their modes of production still differed. Why? Some ideas.
Going off William H. McNeill's arguments in Plagues and Peoples, I suggest that South Asia had a higher pathogen load than East Asia, and so there was always downward pressure on the population so that it did not "push" against the Malthusian Trap to the same extent. This also freed up more land so that successful farmers might get a relatively larger marginal return from the utilization of cattle as draft animals.
In Europe the variables were not disease related, but structural differences in climatic regimes. Northern Europe was well watered, but extremely cool and moist. It was not suited to the arid adapted grains from the temperate zone because of the latter parameter, but also not appropriate for rice agricultural because of the former (the Po river valley has rice now due to advanced irrigation techniques). Mediterranean Europe is subject to the peculiarities of its winter maxima precipitation regime. This allows for the cultivation of olives and other specialty crops, but, it also results in a situation where most of the rain falls during the season of least sunlight.
The ecological differences between Europe and China had an agricultural/economic implication: the Chinese could maximize caloric output per unit area of land through pure cereal cultivation. In contrast, the Europeans could not maximize calorie output through cereal cultivation but had to engage in "mixed" agriculture. The caloric total extractable out of the land per unit area was lower when summing the complements which were produced in European agriculture, but, the balance of nutritional intakes (protein, vitamins, etc.) was superior. This resulted in naturally greater physiological fitness for Europeans than Chinese as well as a lower final population density, and also natural evolutionary changes such as LP to deal with specific nutritional intakes.
Finally, I want to touch upon the general manner in which farming spread. It is quite clear that over the long term in China the Han way of life resulted in reduced lifetime physiological fitness. Nevertheless, it was above the threshold of fitness necessary for viability so that an individual could reproduce. Additionally during the transient when it was expanding into regions where land was in surplus it might actually have been a lifestyle that lead to relative affluence. The main problem is that this affluence was temporary as the population reached the local Malthusian limit. At this point the exhaustion of the local ecological base which might have supplemented the grain monoculture was beyond a point of no return and the society was "boxed in" to a lifestyle predicated on surviving through the next harvest. Additionally, judging by the fact that Han elites had surplus which they could use to bribe barbarian warlords the quantitative rise in the subjects from which to extract rents was sufficient to more than cancel out the qualitative decline in the character of the tax extracted. The Han way of life might have been misery for the peasantry, but there was a reasonable case that the Confucian bureaucratic fixation on a free peasant base as the ideal subject population was self-interested. Underfed farmers made quiescent subordinates. In contrast, nomads were notoriously factious, and their periodic organized eruptions were contingent upon coalescence around a particularly charismatic figure, or, more often the collapse of the Chinese political order and the opportunity for unparalleled plunder. Nevertheless, the fact that nomads were presences along the northern edge of Chinese civilization implies that there were ecological constraints on the spread of the Han lifestyle. Beyond the reach of dryland farming and irrigation there was no possibility of settlement. While nomads could always turn arable land into pasturage, the Han could not always turn pasturage into arable land.
On the heels of the previous paper describing the "genetic map of europe" comes a new paper that makes the same general observation that genetic data contain information about geography. These authors also develop a model that does reasonably well at predicting the country of origin of an individual based on genetics alone.
It's worth considering why this is possible. A previous paper by some of these same authors proved that under a simple isolation by distance model, the first two principal components of genetic data are perpendicular in geographic space. So it appears that this basic model is a decent approximation to Europe; further work will likely refine the ways, which are likely to be interesting, that this model doesn't fit the data.
The method the authors develop for predicting an individual's country of origin from genetics are only a beginning for this kind of application of genetic data. They note that the SNP chip used in the study only includes common variation, while rare variants are likely to be much more geographically restricted (and thus more informative in this kind of analysis). The limits to the resolution of these sorts of methods are likely to be very fine indeed; the authors note that, even with this panel, they're able to distinguish with some confidence individuals that are from the German, Italian, and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. With full resequencing data, it's likely that even the precise village of origin of an individual will be predictable from genetics alone.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
During the recent glut of genome-wide association studies, many researchers were compelled (or chose) not to make all their data public after publication due to vague privacy concerns. Instead, they often made available only genotype frequencies in sets of cases and controls, the idea being that individual-level information is lost when pooled together.
A new paper in PLoS Genetics shows that this assumption is wrong. The idea, obvious in retrospect, goes like this: assume some individual has genotype AA at a particular locus, while the frequency of A in the general population is 10% and the frequency in the pooled sample is 11%. This gives you some (very slight) amount of information suggesting that your individual is in the sample. If your individual is TT at another locus where the frequency of that allele is 25% in the general population and 27% in the pooled sample, this gives you another (again, tiny) bit of evidence that the individual is in the sample. Summing over thousands of loci, this actually becomes quite a bit of information. In fact, the authors are able to reliably tell whether an individual contributes DNA to a pooled sample, even if that contribution is around 0.1%.
In theory, then, police with an unknown person's DNA could match it against all published case/control studies to find out if that person was involved in the study. A more immediate application could be to determine whether a suspect contributed DNA to a crime scene where the mixing of DNA (ie. blood) from a large number of individuals has muddied the forensic evidence.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Update: Overcoming Bias responds.
Reading excerpts of the memoirs of the Mughal warlord Babur, founder of the dynasty in India, I note that his father was an alcoholic. This is not exceptional in the lineage, the Emperor Jahangir's reign was marred by problems due to his alcoholism. Nevertheless, these individuals were faithful Muslims by all their other actions. In fact, I have noted before that the early Arab Caliphs, who were responsible for the spread and dominance of Islam across what we now term the Islamic world, were by an large appreciators of wine. I was struck by Babur's mention of his father's weakness for alcoholism because I recently read about Glorious Revolution. As you know James II lost his throne because of his sincere Roman Catholicism. He rejected apostasy as the price of regaining his position. If his private correspondences did not attest to his sincerity, his public actions surely did. Nevertheless, despite James' relative religious seriousness and moral qualms for a ruler of his day (in contrast to his brother, Charles II), he retained his mistress as was customary for British kings.
I point out these moral failings because I have always been struck by starkness of human hypocrisy and its incongruity in the face of avowed beliefs. How can a sincere Muslim drink alcohol? Have can a sincere Christian engage in sexual vice? One might infer from their actions that men such as James II were cynics, but as I note above James was willing to greatly reduce his chances of retaking his throne for the sake of his sincere religious commitment. I have been oversimplifying in reducing James' moral quandary to these two issues, contrasting the manifest evidence of his religious commitment in the face of inducements to convert to Protestantism with his sexual practices which contradicted Christian teaching. There are certainly other complicating factors, but I think the point stands that sin is common, and human weakness in the face of contradiction the norm. Mens' hearts are easily divided, and simultaneously sincere in their inclinations.
All this leads to the point that I believe far too many of those of us who wish to comprehend human nature scientifically lack a basic grasp of it intuitively. I have never truly believed in an awesome God of history, so my hypothetical behavior in reaction to this transcendent truth is conjecture. I know how I believe I will behave, but I have no true intuitive grasp. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many atheists simply lack a deep understanding of what drives people to be religious, and that our psychological model of those who believe in gods is extremely suspect. The "irrationality" and "contradiction" of human behavior may be rendered far more systematically coherent simply by adding more parameters into the model. Too many "rationalists" insist on the primacy of their own spare and minimalist axioms, while normal humans may lack both the eloquence and intuition to communicate to their "rationalist" interlocutors that they are missing key structural variables. When I engage with these sorts of issues with readers of Overcoming Bias or Singularitarians my suspicions beocme even stronger because I see in some individuals an even greater lack of fluency in normal cognition than my own. What I am lacking in becomes all the more obvious when I see with my own eyes those who are even more damned in the eyes of God.
From all this one should not conclude that I see the reality of the mystical truths of gods before unveiled before my eyes. I do not. Rather, my point is that understanding human nature is not a matter of fitting humanity to our expectations and wishes, but modeling it as it is, whether one thinks that that nature is irrational or not within one's normative framework. Readers of this weblog are well aware and conscious of this issue; that is why I believe it is important to broach topics such as IQ because this variable matters, and most of us would wish that retardation was simply not a phenotype which was extant, but we know that that will not be so. Similarly, those of who are psychologically atypical enough to be rather obsessed with modeling human nature into a framework which is analytically tractable need to be more conscious of the alien complexities of the normal human mind, in all its baroque paradox.
An Association Analysis of Murine Anxiety Genes in Humans Implicates Novel Candidate Genes for Anxiety Disorders:
Specific alleles and haplotypes of six of the examined genes revealed some evidence for association (p ≤ .01). The most significant evidence for association with different anxiety disorder subtypes were: p = .0009 with ALAD (δ-aminolevulinate dehydratase) in social phobia, p = .009 with DYNLL2 (dynein light chain 2) in generalized anxiety disorder, and p = .004 with PSAP (prosaposin) in panic disorder.
Furthermore, the team's international collaborators in Spain and the United States are trying to replicate these findings in their anxiety disorder datasets to see whether the genes identified by Finnish scientists predispose to anxiety disorders in other populations as well. Only by replicating the results firm conclusions can be drawn about the role of these genes in the predisposition to anxiety in more general.
Haplotter shows selection around ALAD for Africans. PSAP is interesting:
This gene encodes a highly conserved glycoprotein which is a precursor for 4 cleavage products: saposins A, B, C, and D. Each domain of the precursor protein is approximately 80 amino acid residues long with nearly identical placement of cysteine residues and glycosylation sites. Saposins A-D localize primarily to the lysosomal compartment where they facilitate the catabolism of glycosphingolipids with short oligosaccharide groups. The precursor protein exists both as a secretory protein and as an integral membrane protein and has neurotrophic activities. Mutations in this gene have been associated with Gaucher disease, Tay-Sachs disease, and metachromatic leukodystrophy....
Tectonic environments of ancient civilizations in the eastern hemisphere:
The map distribution of ancient civilizations shows a remarkable correspondence with tectonic boundaries related to the southern margin of the Eurasian plate. Quantification of this observation shows that the association is indeed significant, and both historical records and archaeoseismological work show that these civilizations commonly suffered earthquake damage. Close association of ancient civilizations with tectonic activity seems to be a pattern of some kind. In the hope that dividing the civilizations into subsets might clarify the meaning of this relation, primary and derivative civilizations were compared. Derivative civilizations prove to be far more closely related to the tectonic boundaries. Similarly, the civilizations that endured the longest (and that have been described as most static) are systematically the farthest from plate boundaries. It is still unclear how the relation actually worked in ancient cultures, i.e., what aspects of tectonism promoted complexity. Linkages to water and other resources, trade (broadly construed), and societal response seem likely. Volcanism appears not to be involved.
ScienceNow, Did Rumbling Give Rise to Rome? has a nice map. Exogenous shocks playing a critical role in cultural creativity? Remember that earthquakes were often interpreted as negative divine omens and elicited a drive toward soul searching....
City of Brass is now at Beliefnet. I enjoy Crunchy Con, so it will have company on that domain in my RSS....
Medical Hypotheses, Figureheads, ghost-writers and quant bloggers:
The term 'quant blogger' (i.e. quantitative analysis blogger) was invented by Steve Sailer  who is the practicing 'blogfather' of an interconnected group of mostly pseudonymous bloggers that have been in some way inspired by Sailer's example and his (often distinctly 'non-PC') interests in issues such as IQ; immigration; evolution; education; politics and sports - often analyzed by sex, class and race. Sailer has blogged many interesting quantitative analyses, including an influential hypothesis of the relationship between 'affordable family formation' and politics in the USA.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
A few years ago Bryan Caplan argued that the cross-cultural male-female sex difference was due some innate differences. And specifically the differences he postulated explained why the less religious a society was the greater the sex difference. I took data from Rodney Stark's original paper (N = 54 nations), log-transformed the proportions of males and females who claimed to be religious, and plotted them along with the sex ratio (sorted by increasing male religiosity from left to right). As you can plainly see, the trends converge as the societies become progressively more religious and the sex ratio attenuates. Full disclosure, I discarded China from the list of nations because it was such an outlier of irreligiosity compared to every other nation and I didn't want to change the scaling too much. Stark has a follow up paper which explores this pattern of greater sex differences in religiosity with decreased traditionalism in the social milieu.
As Bryan notes Stark has his own particular model for why this sex difference persists. I have some issues in the details with Bryan's hypotheses, but I think he's going in the right direction. That being said, I wonder if some of the differences across societies might be viewed through individual vs. group dynamics. In societies where religions are personal choices, and "switching" or "defecting" does not entail high costs, then it is rational to "shop around" for the best bundle of characteristics which are congenial to your own preferences (or, one can opt-out of the whole institution). Some sort of neoclassical inspired rational choice model might work very well in these societies; the United States is probably one such culture (about 16% of Americans "switch" in their lifetime according to the Religious Identification Survey). But a society like Saudi Arabia or even Italy is far less of a rational individualist utopia; traditional religions operate like monopolies and there are powerful group level pressures to conform at the expense of personal actualization. Men and women have the same cognitive biases, but they're channeled and express in very different ways.
Finally, I was curious as to insights from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. Trends were hard to spot; whatever group level effects I'm alluding to might be extant only on the scale of national cultures. But, I did notice that when there were two Protestant denominations which split on liberal-conservative lines, such as the American and Southern Baptists, or the Presbyterian Church in America and Presbyterian Church USA, the conservative denomination had proportionately more males. One hypothesis might be that the constraints, or disincentives via social sanction and ostracism, are low enough in the more liberal sects that they suffer high male defection rates vis-a-vis their conservative counterparts. Unfortunately the N for the GSS to answer these questions just isn't there, so I'll have to dig elsewhere....
One thing I have wondered about: why do people want to give people the benefit of the doubt in terms of looks if they get a "Myspace angle" photo or only hear someone's voice? I have talked to many friends who are really biased in the direction of giving people the benefit of the doubt about the reality that there is a strong incentive to select the flattering picture (in large part because of retarded individuals such as my friends). So the individual is going to be less attractive than their photo on average even if it isn't a totally blurry or tiny image. Additionally, in terms of pure perception I notice that when you see a very small thumbnail size photo there's a tendency to perceive the person as more attractive than they are when you click the image and see them at a higher resolution. Finally, many people easily create a fantasy image of someone based on their voice.
So what's up with this? Why aren't we preprogrammed to be choosier and more jaded about these things? False negatives are less harmful than false positives? Why are guys still surprised when they meet their Myspace date who never posted a fully body shot and notice that the height to width ratio isn't what they'd prefer? Is it the whole polygyny thing? Are women any different?
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Frequency-Dependent Selection and the Evolution of Assortative Mating:
A long-standing goal in evolutionary biology is to identify the conditions that promote the evolution of reproductive isolation and speciation...Here, we analyze the conditions under which selection favors the evolution of assortative mating...using a general model of selection, which allows fitness to be frequency dependent. Our analytical results are based on a two-locus diploid model, with one locus altering the trait under selection and the other locus controlling the strength of assortment...Examining both equilibrium and nonequilibrium scenarios, we demonstrate that whenever heterozygotes are less fit, on average, than homozygotes at the trait locus, indirect selection for assortative mating is generated. While costs of assortative mating hinder the evolution of reproductive isolation, they do not prevent it unless they are sufficiently great. Assortative mating that arises because individuals mate within groups...is most conducive to the evolution of complete assortative mating from random mating. Assortative mating based on female preferences is more restrictive, because the resulting sexual selection can lead to loss of the trait polymorphism and cause the relative fitness of heterozygotes to rise above homozygotes, eliminating the force favoring assortment. When assortative mating is already prevalent, however, sexual selection can itself cause low heterozygous fitness, promoting the evolution of complete reproductive isolation...regardless of the form of natural selection.
I think sexual selection is real. Even the more "wild" forms of this, such as the Handicap Principle, have been theoretically (formally that is) and empirically supported in some circumstances. That being said, too much sexual selection, like stochastic forces in general, emerges as a deus ex machina in lieu of a plain admission of ignorance. The question is not does sexual selection occur, but in what contexts and frequencies....
Just noticed something weird. Seems like around 20% of atheists in the United States self-identify as a member of a religion. By atheist, I mean someone who states that they "Do not believe in God." 19% of Buddhists are atheists. 10% of Jews. 5% of Muslims and Hindus. 9% of "Other Faiths." And of course, 22% of the Unaffiliated (those without a religious identification). To get to my 20% number I just went to the Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, checked belief in God by religion and cross-referenced with the proportion within the sample of each religion. I think it's a rather peculiar situation that the same proportion of atheists are religious as non-religious are atheists! Chart and data below the fold....
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Reading up on the MC1R, I came across this nice summary of work I mentioned before on the genetics of coat color in the dog. The summary includes the figure below, which is a pretty intuitive illustration of a few of the genes involved in pigment type-switching (ie. production of eumelanin versus pheomelanin). The caption:
Production of yellow versus black pigment in dogs is controlled by three genes: Mc1r, Agouti, and CBD103. Dogs carrying wild-type alleles for all three genes have a yellow coat resulting from Agouti antagonism of Mc1r signaling in melanocytes (yellow Great Dane, top). Dogs carrying a loss-of-function mutation at Mc1r have a yellow coat, regardless of their genotype at Agouti or CBD103 (yellow Labrador Retriever, middle). Dogs carrying wild-type alleles for Mc1r and Agouti, together with the dominant black allele of CBD103 (KB) have a black coat resulting from the interaction between a beta-defensin and Mc1r (black Curly Coated Retriever, bottom).
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
In the spirit of the games, Daniel MacArthur has an extensive post up on ACTN3 and the genetic endowments of elite sprinters. Well worth a read.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
The first correct daily temperature forecast was not broadcast [in China] until July 1999. Previously, temperature predictions were never permitted to fall outside the range for efficient factory work.
That's from Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture, by Eric Jones. Jones is best known for his book The European Miracle, an anti-Pomeranz text if there ever was one. In Cultures Merging, he provides decent anecdotal evidence that while "bad culture" might be able to hold back a country back a little, cultures are actually fairly fluid over the span of decades, and tend to steer in the direction of economic efficiency (a point emphasized by Clark). Jones's pet example is East Asia, where Confucianism was once said to be a barrier to economic development (too much blind obedience to the dead hand of hierarchy) but is now lauded as the driving force behind superior "Asian Values" of hard work and sacrifice.
The first half of the book (parts one and two of four total) can be easily recommended to those interested in the culture question. Lots of stories, some big-think, some bold generalizations. The second half is filled with stories about his Asian graduate students; not sure what that's all about.
But while it's fun to read books about culture, it sure would be nice to bring some rigor to the debate, wouldn't it? My preference--typical for an economist--is to look for the key under the lamppost of things we can actually measure. Lynn and Vanhanen's national average IQ measures spring to mind--and boy are those scores ever robust as predictors of national economic outcomes. And Jones and Schneider show that even if you control for "cultural" variables like Confucianism, Islam, or Buddhism, the nation's average IQ is still a strong predictor of economic performance. High-IQ groups are likely to have some good cultural traits like patience, cooperativeness, and a tendency to agree with economists on the merits of untrammeled competition.
What'd be nice to know at this point is "What's left after you control for national average IQ?" Do cultural variables (as measured in, say, the World Values Survey) still have predictive power? It might be all stems and seeds, but right now we don't know. Sure would be nice if someone out there did some research into this....
Debin Ma of the London School of Economics has spent time in the archives and has come to conclusions quite different from Pomeranz's.
Ma's recent papers (especially this one and this one) make archive-driven comparisons of European and East Asian living standards around the start of the industrial revolution. Both papers have coauthors, but I focus on Ma because he speaks and reads both Japanese and Chinese, something lamentably rare among economic historians at English-speaking universities.
One quote from the abstract of the first-linked paper:
Matching caloric and protein contents in our Japanese consumption baskets with those in European baskets, we compare Japanese and European urban real wages. Real wage rates in Kyoto and later Tokyo are about a third London wages but comparable to wages in major Southern and Central European cities for the 1700-1900 [period].
From the abstract of the second-linked paper:
In the eighteenth century, the real income of building workers in Asia was similar to that of workers in the backward parts of Europe and far behind that of workers in the leading economies in northwestern Europe. Industrialization led to rising real wages in Europe and Japan. Real wages declined in China in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries....
A lot of Ma's work is Japan v. China, not Asia v. Europe, so both lines of his agenda are likely of interest to GNXP readers. Given the overfishing in the pool of English-language economic history documents, Ma should be able to just throw his net overboard and pull in the big hauls for at least another decade.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Nature Genetics has reports from two Japanese groups on an association between variants in KCNQ1 and susceptibility to Type II diabetes. The study itself falls into the now-standard genome-wide association study mold (except perhaps for the choice of SNPs in one of the studies--"only" 100,000, mostly genic--and the decision to not type them using a chip), but performing GWA studies in non-European populations is important for a number of reasons:
1. It enables the identification of novel loci involved in a trait. In some idealized model, risk for a disease could hypothetically be influenced by a set of N genes, but in a population polymorphic at only some subset of those genes, only that subset will be found by association studies (which map variation--if there's no variation, an association study won't find anything). Due to the vagaries of genetic drift (and perhaps natural selection), different populations may end up polymorphic at a different subset of those genes. So mapping the same trait in a number of distant populations could lead to a much greater understanding of the biology of the trait.
Even if it's not the case that one population has variation in a gene and another population doesn't, it's certainly the case that the power to detect a given variant can differ between populations due to smaller variations in allele frequency. That seems to be the case here--the SNP identified is at low frequency in European populations (~5% minor allele frequency), but at modest frequency in East Asians (~40% MAF), right in the "sweet spot" for detection by an association study.
2. Studies of the same phenotype in multiple populations also allows one to get at questions of "heterogeneity". Back in the old days of candidate gene approaches to complex disease, the failure to replicate an association was often blamed on heterogeneity, ie. the possibility that the risk alleles in your population were different from the risk alleles in the population in which the association was originally found. That excuse always seemed to be a bit suspect, and now, with sample sizes orders of magnitude greater, it's testable. In this case, the risk allele in the Japanese sample is replicated in a Danish populations, suggesting heterogeneity (and effects of genetic background) are not an issue in this instance.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
In many vertebrates, there is an association between pigmentation and behavior. One potential reason for this is that genes influencing pigmentation also have pleiotropic effects on other traits, including behavior. A recent paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution lays out this hypothesis:
In vertebrates, melanin-based coloration is often associated with variation in physiological and behavioural traits. We propose that this association stems from pleiotropic effects of the genes regulating the synthesis of brown to black eumelanin. The most important regulators are the melanocortin 1 receptor and its ligands, the melanocortin agonists and the agouti-signalling protein antagonist. On the basis of the physiological and behavioural functions of the melanocortins, we predict five categories of traits correlated with melanin-based coloration. A review of the literature indeed reveals that, as predicted, darker wild vertebrates are more aggressive, sexually active and resistant to stress than lighter individuals. Pleiotropic effects of the melanocortins might thus account for the widespread covariance between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits in vertebrates.
This is clearly far from gospel truth; the authors are laying out the plausibility of this hypothesis and a framework for further exploration. The hypothesis is that higher levels of the molecules that bind the melanocortin receptors (the melanocortins and agouti proteins) lead to both darker pigmentation as well as pleiotropic effects in other tissues (I've mentioned before some of the effects of messing with these receptors in sexual behavior and metabolism). Analysis of the way pigmentation and various other traits vary in mouse models leads to results consistent with this hypothesis.
A corollary of this argument is that in vertebrates where pigmentation is controlled downstream of the melanocortins (ie. at, or further downstream of, MC1R), this correlation between pigmentation and other traits should not be consistently true. For this reason, the authors argue that humans should be exempt. However, they may be unaware that some difference in pigmentation both between and within populations is controlled by ASIP, a protein that binds MC1R, acting as an antagonsist for melanocortin binding. Humans, then, could be an ideal test case for the hypothesis--do phenotypes like aggression map to ASIP like pigmentation does? However, the unpalatable nature of this question makes it rather unlikely to be pursued in humans.
Excellent new physics blog, Built on Facts. Highly recommended, though the author of the weblog seems to be a big believer in the omnipresence of porn (perhaps building upon personal facts?).
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Svante Paabo's group just finished sequencing the complete mitochondrial DNA of a Neanderthal. The article is in the newest Cell. John Hawks has a summary.
One of the big findings: In one tiny way, we've become more like monkeys recently, since Neanderthals, chimps, and other sequenced apes have the same non-homo-sapiens variants on COX2, but these human variants are common among old world monkeys. Guess I'll have to take my pet macaque off of Vioxx now.
Upshot: Something big may have happened to human metabolism in the last few hundred thousand years since our split from the Neanderthals. And on this one gene, the solution our species found looks like the same solution that works for monkeys.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Daniel Koretz of Harvard's Graduate School of Education took the lecture notes from his course, "Methods of Educational Measurement," and turned it into a book: Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. It's readable, filled with funny anecdotes, and contains absolutely nothing that will be new to regular GNXP readers.
But because Koretz takes the math and most of the controversy out of the debate over standardized tests, he has time to actually drill home a couple of important points repeatedly: Modern standardized tests have little bias, are pretty reliable, and while they don't tell you everything about a person or a school or a city, they are good for making rough predictions.
Hence, the title of this blog post: Feel free to recommend Measuring Up as a "baby steps" book for your favorite sociologist or folk guitarist.
Koretz waves his political correctness card early on, letting us know that "IQ [is] just one type of score on one type of standardized test..." and he lets us know about the "pernicious and unfounded view that differences in test scores between racial and ethnic groups are biologically determined." But you already knew he was going to say that, right? And in an unintended parody of blank-slatism, he has a chapter entitled "What influences test scores" that never once mentions genetic factors, even to dismiss them.
Koretz does a great job dodging such troubling questions while focusing on what he really wants to talk about, with solid, candid chapters entitled "Validity," "Inflated Test Scores," "Error and Reliability," chapters that actually do a good job of conveying big ideas about non-experimental social science in jargon-free prose. Kudos to him for doing so.
Treat it as a book on the narrow field of psychometrics and its link to policy, not as a book on the broader field of standardized tests per se and its link to policy: You'll spend a lot less time grinding your teeth.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
A rumor I've been hearing a lot lately, although I recall hearing it as early as 2003, is that "porn is becoming / has become mainstream" -- or that it's ubiquitous, unavoidable, the wallpaper of our culture. Like most alarmist ideas spread by the innumerate -- failing schools, oral sex rampant among teenagers, the coming Islamic Caliphate -- I assume it is a gross exaggeration or false. And as always, I'm right. It doesn't take a genius: simply judge based on the track record of similar panics made possible by mass media, going back to the witch hysterias of Early Modern Europe.
I collected a bunch of data about a month ago and planned on doing some time series analysis, maybe showing how certain models (like epidemics or logistic growth) would fit the data, but the fall semester begins soon, and I'm preparing enough as it is. So nuts to the analysis; I'll just present the data, since the picture is very clear. In brief, the popularity of pornographic movies has remained steady for over 20 years, and in a sense for the last 35 years -- when the data begin. The popularity of print pornography fell sharply after its peak in the early/mid 1970s and has more slowly declined for about the past 20 years. Even non-pornographic but racy "lad mags" have seen their popularity tank, with only Maxim US holding steady.
Before getting to the data, though, how far back does the "porn has become mainstream" meme go? I didn't conduct an exhaustive search, but I found a 1990 letter-to-the-editor in the NYT, as well as a 1998 news story in Time, so it's hardly new. It's interesting to note that most such articles feature a quote like this one from New York Magazine in 2003:
Over beers recently, a 26-year-old businessman friend shocked me by casually remarking, "Dude, all of my friends are so obsessed with Internet porn that they can't sleep with their girlfriends unless they act like porn stars."
The grave implication is: "Just think of what young people who grow up with this will expect!" But a moment's reflection tells us that the same is true of men who visit prostitutes, who've been around forever. And yet men haven't come to expect their wives to behave like wild whores inside or outside the bedroom -- again, except for the handful of 20-something losers who New York Magazine manages to mine such embarrassing quotes from. Indeed, the universal Madonna / Whore dichotomy tells us that most men will continue to prefer their flings to act like call girls, pornstars, strippers, etc., while preferring their gfs and wives to act not whorish.
Enough gasbaggery; onto the data (and then more hot air). The "porn is everywhere" meme claims that a high percentage of people are infected by porn, whether through video or print. Obviously the claim is not that there's a lot of porn out there, but which no one ever consumes -- so we just look at the prevalence of porn-watchers over time. Fortunately, the General Social Survey, a large and representative national survey, asks Americans if they've watched an X-rated movie in the past year. To see for yourself, go here and type in, without quotes, "xmovie" in the row box and "year" in the column box. If you want to see male vs. female, type "sex(1)" for male or "sex(2)" for female into the selection filter box. Across the years, the response rate is 58%, from about 51,000 people -- damn good for surveys. Here are the results for men and women (click on the image to see it full-size):
For men, porn-watching declined at least from 1973 until 1980, and increased until 1987. After that, you may be able to see fluctuations up and down but they're around a pretty steady value of about 35%. The pattern for women is much clearer to see: essentially no trend, but cycles of varying period and amplitude. I interpret these patterns as a decline during the 1970s when porn theaters became unfashionable, an increase during the 1980s as porn became available on VHS, and no change afterward -- in particular, no skyrocket due to the availability of internet porn, something I would not have predicted by intuition.
Also bear in mind that if porn were indeed "becoming more mainstream," we should see a strong upward trend just because people are less embarrassed to admit they watch it. Only if people in the 1970s were hooked up to porn 24 hours a day but denying it, while people today admit to it at the same rate but are watching less, would we observe a lack of a strong upward trend. Even in that case, that means porn-watching was more prevalent in the past. I favor a simpler interpretation: that because porn has not become mainstream, nor more taboo, people tell the truth at the same rates from the sexually liberated 1970s up to today.
There are of course liars, but they don't seem concentrated in one period or another. How bad is the lying in any period, though? -- maybe all men are watching porn now but only 35% admit it. In 2003, the Nielsen Ratings people tracked the traffic of internet porn sites, and they found that 1 in 4 internet users visits porn sites (see here). That's just what we'd expect from the GSS results, which show that of men and women combined, 24% in 2002 and 26% in 2004 watched porn. Traffic doesn't lie, and because the numbers are virtually identical to what people say, we conclude that almost nobody lies about watching porn (at least in anonymous surveys). So not only have their proportions not increased relative to before, but porn-watchers are not even a majority of men -- a bit more than one-third. For women, even less so -- about one-sixth. Porn is not now, and never was, mainstream.
Turning to porn in print, I collected circulation data for Playboy for any year I could find. The data are from many sources -- business sections of newspapers, histories of the magazine, etc. -- and for some years I couldn't find estimates. Still, there are plenty to see a clear pattern. I did the same for Maxim's US edition, both shown here:
Playboy accelerated in popularity from its beginning in 1953 to 1973, after which it plummets until 1987, and then it slowly but steadily declines to today. I don't have rich data to show it, but from what I read in my research, the same rough pattern holds for other porn magazines like Penthouse and Hustler. Maxim looks like it's grown logistically, on analogy with a fad growing by word-of-mouth contagion. Maxim of course is not porn; the nearest thing might be 1940s pin-ups. I speculate that Playboy's exponential growth was due to featuring young brunette girl-next-door types, and its crash due to using blonder and older "power bitch" types. Maxim has done well, in this view, for relying so heavily on dark-haired women. In any event, we see that porn has not become mainstream in print either -- just the opposite.
One last batch of data mostly from the UK, home of the "lad mag." Almost as soon as the fad had begun, it peaked and began plummeting, which has been well covered in the British press. I've shown it here for three of the most popular UK lad mags (I culled the data from various newspaper or other reports):
The US edition of FHM appeared to be doing well, even if it had begun to saturate. The drop-off I drew to show that it was abruptly canceled and only exists as a website now. Stuff Magazine, also once popular in the US, was cancelled in 2007. So even the non-porn but racy lad mags are dying off, save Maxim US.
Because the "porn has become mainstream" meme is part of a panic -- either about eroding cultural standards, eroding barriers between public and private vis-a-vis sex, eroding relations between men and women due to unrealistic expectations, or the erosion of something else -- most of those who already believe it will not be persuaded by the stark clarity of the data here. (Hopefully the open-minded ones will end up reading this.) Like witch-hunters, they will shift the goalposts perhaps by saying, "Well yeah, but that just means that porn's influence is more subtle and covert, but no less pervasive and corrupting because of that."
The first target will be female appearance, of course: as porn becomes more ubiquitous, they start dressing like sluts! Except that porn-watching increased most dramatically and reached a peak during the '80s -- the decade of high-waisted pants, granny-panties, and bulky manlike tops (baggy sweaters, shoulder-pads, etc.). I've written elsewhere about how girls don't even dress like sluts anymore, a 5-year fad in thongs notwithstanding.
The second target will be sexual behavior: as porn becomes more ubiquitous, people will begin acting more promiscuously. But I've already shown that there was probably a single increase and single decrease in promiscuity, with the turning point around 1991. The popularity of porn either waxes and wanes for women or dips, increases and stays for men -- it has nothing to do with how promiscuous people are.
Anyway, I could go on, but you get the idea. Let's all be done with this "porn has become mainstream" nonsense.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
A little while back, I mentioned a paper demonstrating the rapid evolution of a gene duplicate as it was selected for targeting to a novel subcellular location. The same group has apparently been following up a number of these stories--see this new paper on another example of a retrocopy of a gene acquiring a novel subcellular localization via positive selection in hominids.
Most of you have heard about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (which, more accurately should probably be termed the Catholic Reformation). But after posting earlier on the parameters which affect the shape and constraints of religious change, I thought it was important to mention something: in the second half the 16th century Catholicism was very close to becoming purely a Mediterranean sect of Christianity. In other words, Catholicism seemed on the verge of disappearing from Germany to the same extent that it did from England by and large. In East Central Europe, the precursors to the modern states of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland and Hungary, it was also being marginalized by Lutheranism, the Reformed Churches as well as even more extreme groups such as Unitarians. France had a large Huguenot minority which was represented disproportionately among the gentry and nobility. If you want to read about the extent of the rollback in the face of Protestantism check out The Thirty Years' War, The Reformation and Divided by Faith. All of them explore the massive penetration and domination of Protestantism among the Polish and Austrian nobility and the near collapse of Catholic parishes in regions which we today view as staunchly Roman Catholic.
But a Catholic world dominated by the peninsular Mediterranean never became. Today we have a German Pope, and the previous Pontif was Polish. Vast swaths of southern and western Germany remain Catholic, while the Protestant minority in France was expelled in the later 17th century (aside from mountainous redoubts such as Cevannes). What happened? The short answer is that the Hapsburgs happened. The Church operated in concert with the Holy Roman Emperor and other monarchs to reinvigorate the institutional framework of Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were famously instrumental in this process of reform. But this was not a pure program of persuasion; Protestants who were not noble were often given the choice of emigration or conversion to the Catholic faith. Whole districts in Austria where Catholic parishes were no longer a feature of the landscape were re-Catholicized in a few years simply through imperial fiat. The mostly Protestant nobility could not be forced to convert, but they were blocked from patronage and access to the offices which brought glory upon their houses and maintained their fortunes. Additionally, though their private worship was given some latitude on their estates initially a step-by-step process of removal of these privileges also occurred over several generations. The result was that noble lineages who remained in the re-Catholicized regions of the Hapsburg Empire converted to the established religion, while those who would not give up their Protestant faith emigrated to regions where they could practice freely.
There are two domains of the former Hapsburg Empire which retain a large Protestant population; Hungary and Transylvania. And they illustrate the power of imperial fiat in driving religious change, because for much of the early modern period Transylvania was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Hungary was divided by a western Hapsburg domain and an eastern Ottoman portion. Not surprisingly, it is in the east that Protestant populations are most numerous because it is in the east that the re-Catholicization program was operative for the shortest period since these regions were under Turkish rule for most of the 17th century. The moral of the story here is that the diplomatic history of Europe between 1600 and 1800 can very accurately predict the religious configuration that we see today. Mass social movements simply could not succeed without the support of the elite, and the potentate had wide powers with which he or she could reshape that elite.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Another dopamine-related fear and anxiety related gene, COMT Genetic Variation Affects Fear Processing: Psychophysiological Evidence. ScienceDaily with the predigested form. Quick points,
1) It looks like the SNP in question does show some variation world wide. Europeans seem to have a higher frequency of the MET/MET genotype than Africans, while Asians tend to be lowest.
2) I notice that some genes around this locus show up as being under selection in Haplotter. Within +/- 1.5 megabases.
3) This locus is implicated in a lot of other stuff.
4) Genetic Future's post The challenge of psychiatric genetics is probably worth a read if you are interested in these findings.
I don't have much original to say here that I/we haven't said before. So I invite you to browse the links below....
Related: Optimal personality and way of life, Really ancient morphs?, DRD4, politics & friendship, Heritability of the Ultimatum Game, DRD4, sex and Jews, More DRD4, ADHD & DRD4 and Picking apart the black box.
Our intuition of space and time is to perceive them logarithmically: we place a bunch of tick-marks near "here" and "now," and only measure orders of magnitude as we move outward. The linear scale used by scientists places a tick-mark at evenly spaced intervals. For example, between "here" and 100 miles away, humans may have a bunch of words for nearby distances -- "right here right here," "right here," "heeeeere," "here," and "there" -- while we would represent the majority of the distance that is not near with a few words, such as "theeeeere," "over there," "way over there," "way way over there," etc. Ditto for time. John Hawks reviewed a recent study, which itself contains many references, er, right here right here.
I think we perceive physical attractiveness in the same way. (Although quick Googling didn't turn up anything, I'd be surprised if this idea were original -- at least, it's not a common idea.) The reason is the same as the above: when we use something like the popular "1 to 10" ratings, we seem to finely slice up the attractiveness space near the "good-looking" end and place tick-marks increasingly farther apart as we move farther away, like this:
Just think about it -- have you ever split hairs over how incredibly ugly a person was, like 1 vs. 2? Probably you have never done so, but I'll bet you and your friends get into regular arguments about whether Jessica Alba, or anyone else like her, is an 8.5, 9, or 9.5. You probably save the "1" from the "1 to 10" scale only for the most distant monsters, humanoids so freakish you could not expect to reach them in a dozen lifetimes. And anyone in a large vicinity of that spot would be compressed into the "1" category.
Why do we make these compressions -- why not keep the fine structure of the space, like rate people from 1 to 1 million? Because we have limited vocabularies and cognitive resources, and because not all regions of the space are as attention-worthy as others for surviving and reproducing. We care a lot about what's going on near us because the goings-on of the other side of the world, until very recently, had no bearing on our survival and reproduction. The same is true for time: until very recently, the very long run did not matter at all, so why bother measuring the next millenium in yearly intervals? Only the somewhat near future has mattered.
Continuing the analogy, then, it must be that it has been the good-looking rather than the ugly people who have been most worthy of our attention during our evolution, since that's where the density of tick-marks is greatest. That is not a tautology. Indeed, the great evolutionary biologist William Hamilton had an idea that probably is too crazy to be true -- that animals pay attention to attractiveness in order to avoid getting infected by parasites while mating, attractiveness signaling the mate's parasite-free status and ugliness signaling their being bug-ridden.
But if that were true for humans (and I'm only talking about us now), then we would finely slice up the attractiveness space near the ugly end, reflecting our worry of getting infected: "definitely swimming in bugs," "pretty buggy," "buggy enough that I'll be scarred for life," "buggy but I won't be too compromised by sleeping with them," "low bugginess," etc., and compress the vast expanse of attractive people into a few categories like "probably not buggy" and "definitely safe."
So, it doesn't look like we avoid the ugly but that we pursue the attractive, and that jibes better with the alternatives to Hamilton's "parasite avoidance" hypothesis, namely the genetic hypotheses. First is Alfred Russell Wallace's "good genes" hypothesis: we pursue good-looking people because their good looks signal having genes that have protected them against the ravages of pathogens, or whatever else may damage their health. And second is R.A. Fisher's "sexy sons" hypothesis: we pursue good-looking people because, whether we find them good-looking or not, the potential mates of our offspring will, so we'd improve their reproductive success by giving them genes for attractiveness. The idea that attractiveness is logarithmically perceived doesn't decide between these two genetic theories, but I think it does go against the "parasite avoidance" hypothesis.
Last, I used to think that attractiveness was lognormally distributed -- that, due to the synergistic effects of different body parts, most people are ugly, and only a handful are good-looking. (And anyone who says otherwise is being polite, fooling themselves, or not looking at a broad spectrum of human beings.) However, that's just based on my perception -- perhaps attractiveness really is normally distributed. If our mind re-scales attractiveness using logarithms, then it will transform a normal into a lognormal distribution too.
Normally distributed traits suggest an additive genetic basis, whereby small effects across a large number of loci are added together to determine the phenotype.* A lognormally distributed trait, such as "genius" in the sense of "eminence in the arts and sciences," has low heritability. The reason isn't relevant here; what's important is that we wouldn't expect a lognormally distributed trait to have a mostly additive genetic basis.
But the one study that estimated the heritability of attractiveness, McGovern et al. (1996), found that the monozygous concordance rate was virtually twice the dizygous rate (0.65 vs. 0.33, respectively), and that means that the genetic variance in the trait is almost entirely additive. So the quantitative genetic evidence fits into the bigger picture of a normally distributed trait in reality, but which the human mind transforms logarithmically.
I can't do any empirical tests like those in the study that John Hawks reviewed because we haven't yet found an objective way to measure attractiveness. I don't just mean that we can't trust what people say -- even if you measured a person's attractiveness by taking the average level of physiological arousal from subjects who viewed the person's picture, that still is a reflection of the subjects' perception. However, I'm more of a theorist than an experimentalist, so maybe a clever doohicky-rigger out there can think of something better. If they do, the prediction is that true attractiveness can be measured on a linear scale just like time and space, and that on this scale, humans would place their "1 to 10" tick-marks in a logarithmic spacing, as in the earlier picture, the same way that innumerate tribes do with their number words.
* This is unlike, for example, eye color, where only a few genes make most of the difference, and where eye color is mostly a recessive trait. That is, most people have dark eyes and only a few have light eyes -- whereas a normal distribution of eye color would show most having green and equal, smaller numbers having blue or brown.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Dienekes has a long post on a new paper, Correlation between Genetic and Geographic Structure in Europe. I took the figure and decided to just label the geographic provenance of the primary clusters which emerged when one plotted them along the two largest dimensions of variation (Y axis is 1st component, X is 2nd component) for easy gestalt absorption. To a large extent genetics does seem to follow geography. Obviously the labels for Italy and Spain really underestimate the area these two samples span, so they are meant to be general pointers, not precise indicators of the center of a given cluster. Note Finland...too terrified to join the party I assume?
Update: Also, see what Sandman sayeth.
Update II: And Genetic Future.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Peter Turchin's Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall showed up a little sooner than I'd thought it would, and it was an even quicker read than War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (see review). There isn't really anything new verbal in the more technical treatment, but the book is about half the length because so much of the text was condensed into simple differential equations and figures which displayed the results of simulations. The figure to the left was one that I found particularly interesting, the differential equations which this is based on are:
dA/dt = c0AS(1 - A/h) - a
dS/dt = r0(1 - A/[2b])S(1 - S)
Where A = area, c = state's resources translated into geopolitical power, r is the growth rate, h is the spatial scale of power project, a is the geopolitical pressure from the hinterland and S is average polity-wide level of collective solidarity. You can find the elucidation of the details of the simulation in the appendix of Historical Dynamics.
Turchin was obviously pleased with how similar the dynamics of area of polity vs. time were in the simulation to what the empirical data showed. Of course, because of the sensitivity to initial parameters there isn't going to be a real prediction of the trajectory of state rise and fall, as opposed to inferences about the likely patterns. For example, in the comments to the previous post Italy was focused in on as a weakness in many of the generalizations, and Turchin actually spends a fair amount of time admitting that he has no real answer for why Italy turned out the way it did and admits that his model can explain a lot, but not all. He's happy with an r-squared of 0.75.
The above was just a taste, I'm not going to go much deeper since you can get the book yourself. Mathematically oriented works are pretty straightforward and you can reject it or accept it (or not understand it). In any case, I want to focus on another issue which is emphasized in Historical Dynamics, the autocatalytic model of religious conversion. The idea here is simple; the rate of conversion is proportional to the number of converts, and the result is a logistic curve over time. Turchin draws strongly upon Rodney Stark & co's work on the importance of transmission through social networks, and uses textual data to suggest that the growth of Christianity during the Roman Empire, and Islam in both Spain and Iran, seem to map well onto a logistic growth function.
In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that the conversion of Constantine, and the progression in the 4th century of Christianity becoming a state-identified cult, actually slowed the spread of the religion! Stark's thesis is obviously derived in large part from the American experience of cult, sect and denominational rise and fall. Historically minded readers might wonder as to the generalizable nature of a supply side rational choice model for the ancient world. In The Barbarian Conversion the difference between the Roman and early medieval periods in terms of the spread of Christianity is rather clear and distinct, what was plausibly a "bottom up" dynamic quickly turned into a "trickle down" and fiat process (also see Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity).
A comparison to the Islamic case is perhaps a good analogy for what happened across much of Europe after the fall of Rome. When the elites in the German frontier, or Lithuania, or Russia, converted to Christianity, their nations were considered Christianized. That is, full members of Christendom. But the persistence of pagan practices among the populace was common, and even the newly Christian nobility often exhibited dual religious identities (e.g., public and international practice of Christianity combined with cryptic or local adherence to pagan seasonal rituals and sacrifices). I suspect that here you have a situation where autocatalytic models for the population might be appropriate to describing the dynamics of initially nominally Christian states. In Iran or Al-Andalus the elites were Muslim, and the population as a whole, who were ethnically different, lagged. From an "orthodox" Muslim perspective any state which is ruled by Muslims is by definition part of the domain of Islam (this is the rational for reconquering Spain and India by jihadists, as these lands remain Muslim in perpetuity). To some extent the Christian hierarchy seems to have taken a similar viewpoint, though there were attempts to stamp out open paganism among the peasantry, to a large extent de facto syncretism was tolerated so long as the monopoly of Christianity as the elite public religion was maintained and forms were adhered to during ritual occasions.
As I observed above, the autocatalytic model as elucidated by Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that spread of religions such as Christianity is inevitable. In One True God Stark makes this explicit. Turchin emphasizes the importance of exclusionary religions which also can assimilate outsiders in allowing for the coalescence of identity on metaethnic frontiers. In Darwin's Cathedral David Sloan Wilson promotes the idea that religious belief can serve functional ends in producing higher than individual left units of interest and action. Many cognitive psychologists have observed that universal religions often result in fictive kinship. Note here that the important point is not the propensity toward supernatural belief; that's modal human cognition. Rather, it is the specific theological and institutional character of a religious organization which allows them to successfully compete with other "firms," and if the autocatalytic dynamics are dominant these will result in the extinction of "weaker" religious organizations in the face of "stronger" ones over time via the choice of individual actors along the filaments of a social network.
A classic case study is the rise of Christianity and the late Roman Empire referred to above. It seems likely that around the year 300 about 10% of the Roman Empire's population was Christian. Rodney Stark would hold that the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent sponsorship of the new religion by the emperors was only illustrative of the general trend at best, and possibly even detrimental. On the face of it this seems likely a ridiculous contention. Could it be that paganism was actually strengthened by state sponsorship of Christianity? That Theodosius' forcible suppression of pagan cults around 395 was only the outcome of the relative weakness of Christianity because of its association with the Roman state? Could the fact that as the 4th century proceeded customary subsidies to pagan cults were shifted to the Christian Church have actually taken some of the thunder out of the triumph of Christianity?
Stark and company point to the anemic nature of state sponsored Christianity in Europe as compared to the free market of American religious firms. Their model is to some extent an economical one, and they hold that state enforced subsidies and monopolies do nothing but sap the vigor of any corporate entity, which the early Christian Church was to a great extent. This particular critique is not new, even if the language borrows a bit from modern economic thinking. Early Protestant radicals viewed the Roman Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation, and some of them even looked explicitly back to the "primitive" Church before Constantine as the model for how true religion should organize. The descendants of this sort of outlook are numerous in American Protestantism, though the most direct heirs are the Amish who reject the contention that the world as a whole can be saved. They are the most extreme of the Protestants who turned their backs on the concept of the Church Universal which sanctifies and saves the whole society.
But hypotheses need to be teased apart and tested. The state sponsorship of Christianity manifested in a "soft" form between 320 and 390, and in more explicit and exclusive form after 390. The subsequent identity of the Roman Empire and Christianity adds a rather large confound into the autocatalytic model. After all, though to a large extent unenforceable, the emperor Theodosius I issued edicts which banned private practice of pagan religion. There were also state approved destruction of pagan temples, as well as tacit elite approval of the vigilante violence on the part of radical priests. A good analogy for those of you who aren't versed in this era of history would be the way Christians are treated in the Middle East, they are not forced to convert through direct violence, but there is certainly a general lack of tolerance for religious pluralism and moderate levels of intimidation directed at Christian practice on a day to day basis. The ultimate result is of course emigration and conversion in the face of strong disincentives at practice of the Christian religion. This does not show that Islam is necessarily a better "firm," rather, state subsidy and dominant support have only expanded its operational religious monopoly. At the end of the day state support might result in such a weakened Islam that a new religion supersedes it, but that process might not come to fruition for centuries. Until then....
There are two cases I can think of which do not suffer from this direct confound of state sponsorship and subsidy. The first is Ireland, where Christianity came to dominance via diffusion across the nobility in a decentralized manner. While Ireland was being Christianized, the Roman frontier right across the Irish Sea was seeing the extinction of Romano-British Christianity aside from in enclaves in Wales. The eventual flourishing of Ireland as a center of Christian civilization in the early medieval period is well known, so I won't belabor the point. Though no doubt prominent Irish Christians favored their own religion on their own lands, it remains that this was a decentralized society so unitary fiat could not enforce Christianity from above. In the Irish case I think it is plausible that the strengths of Christianity as a Roman religion, with the attendant associations with Romanitas, was attractive for barbarian warlords who wished to integrate themselves into the international luxury goods trade, or encourage the spread of literacy so as to rationalize their economic arrangements. These warlords likely did load the die for the Christian religion so that the consumer element might be relatively muted from a modern American perspective. But nevertheless, here you have a case where neither direct exogenous Christian force (e.g., the Germans threatening to invade Denmark unless the king converted to Christianity), nor a endogenous compulsion from the center, were operative.
The second case is more obscure, and perhaps less tenable because of the fewer facts known, but to me far more interesting. And that is Mesopotamia. Though there were some periods when what is today Iraq was part of the Roman Empire, by and large Mesopotamia was an extension of Persia before the rise of Islam. The summer capital of the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, Ctesiphon, was a successor to Babylon and Seleucia, the predecessor of Baghdad. Nevertheless, Mesopotamia was not culturally Persian, it was Semitic. Prior to the Arabicization of what became Iraq the dominant dialects were affiliated with Aramaic, though there were Arab, Persian and Greek speaking minorities. But more importantly as Peter Brown notes in The Rise of Western Christendom, Mesopotamia was a mostly Christian region (with a large Jewish minority, especially in the south). There were no Zoroastrian Fire Temples in Ctesiphon.
In the Sassanid Empire the Zoroastrian religion was very much the ethnic cult of the Persians. Though some non-Persians might espouse this religion (there are attested cases of Zoroastrian Turks, and other converts), this was not a program sponsored by the ruling caste in a proactive manner. The attempts to force Armenian nobles to convert to Zoroastrianism was the exception that proved the rule; the Armenian elite were culturally very similar to the Persian nobles with whom they fought in the armies of the Sassanids, and the Armenian ruling dynasty was even originally a cadet branch of the Parthian Arascids. Proselytising of Armenians was simply part of the project to homogenize the martial elite of the Persian Empire under the same religious ideology. In contrast, the Aramaic speaking peasantry were left to their own devices.
The relatively laissez faire attitude of the Sassanids toward the religious identity of their subjects in Mesopatamia had the expected result in terms of pluralism. Modern Haran was usually within the orbit of the Roman Empire, but it was the only area to persist with organized paganism down into the Islamic area, and it seems likely that the Sabians of the early Muslim period emerged from this milieu (they were by the way extremely overrepresented among those involved in the preservation and transmission of classical learning). Why did they not convert to Christianity? One reason is that they were given religious tolerance because they were explicitly protected by the Shah of Persia, who could have easily intervened because of the geographic proximity of Haran to his domains. In contrast during the mid-6th century the last vestiges of institutional paganism in places like Egypt and Lebanon were blotted out under the order of the Emperor Justinian. Across the border in Sassanid Mesopotamia the majority of the population became Christians in all likelihood, but the extant presence (at least until recently) of heterodox cults such as Mandaeism and Yezidism in this region today are I believe echoes of the diversity which was the norm during late antiquity.
All that being said, it seems likely that when the Arabs conquered Iraq in the mid-600s most of the populace were Christian. It is important to note that they were Christians which the Roman Empire based in Constantinople would perceive as heretical. They were Monophysite or Nestorian in inclination, not only theologically deviant, but institutionally hostile to the Christian Church organized within the Roman Empire (those Christians in the Fertile Crescent who adhered to Roman Church were termed Melkite, which means Imperial, an allusion to their loyalties). The Nestorian Christians are often identified as the Persian Church because of that group's almost total exclusion from the Roman Empire and prominence among ethnic Persians.
I've put the spotlight on Mesopotamian Christianity as it was around 600 as the dominant religion to ask this question: whatever happened to Babylonian paganism? As I said above, Roman hegemony over Mesopotamia only occurred under the religiously tolerant pagan period. The Persian rulers were interested in the religion of their Mesopotamian subjects only insofar as it had political ramifications; obviously they would encourage the anti-Roman Nestorian faction, discourage pro-Roman Melkites, and deal with the Monophysites who spanned both the Persian and Roman Empire on a case by case basis as circumstances dictated (the Persians tended to suppress socially disruptive Mazdakites and Manichaeans because these groups drew from Zoroastrianism). The case of the Sabians and the Persian protection of this pagan-descended cult against the religious cleansing which was a characteristic of Justinian's reign in the mid-6th century also suggests that there was no hostility to polytheistic paganism as such. In fact, many scholars of Zoroastrianism contend that that religion is more monotheistic in its presentation today for two reasons. First, the period of Muslim rule of course incentivized Zoroastrians to present the most acceptable, i.e., monotheistic, face of their religion to the majority. In India the Parsis generally escaped this, but during the period of British rule again they were faced with a monotheistically oriented group to whom they had to bend a knee, so again, an emphasis on similarities with the Abrahamic religions.
In any case, in Mesopotamia outside forces can not account from the shift from institutional polytheism to monotheistic universalist religion. Polytheistic paganism seems to have naturally withered. A quick survey of the situation in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire seems to also show a pattern where paganism was simply not institutionally robust enough to hold off Christianization. A repeated pattern in is one where rulers who wish to cultivate ties to the civilized Roman Christian Commonwealth convert and encourage conversion among their populace, but so invite a backlash. This occurred in Scandinavia and the Slavic lands, as well among the Magyars in Hungary and the Bulgars in Bulgaria. But, the backlash generally is only a short-term correction which only delays the inevitable. In the west Slav lands bordering Germany and in Lithuania a very robust and persistent form of paganism arose which did seem to keep Christianity at bay for several centuries, as opposed to a few generations at most as was the case above. Looking more closely one can see very specific contingent conditions which gave rise to these dynamics. The Christian assault on the Wends (ancestors of the modern Sorbs) was very much also an ethnic German one. The Christian god was identified as a German god, and the German drive to the east was one of of total ethnic and religious assimilation at best and extermination at worst. It is then no surprise that west Slavic paganism was particularly robust in terms of generating an institutional framework around which to rally against the Christian-German invasion; they were fighting total extermination as a people (if not as individuals). In contrast, the Polish who were further from the front used Christianity to buttress their independence from the expanding Germans, cultivate ties to other Christian powers, while the duke, who became a king, used the One True God and One True Church to justify his centralizing drive as the One True King. This was a rational maneuver because of their greater distance from the wave front of German expansion; Christianity was not necessarily a German religion (the Bohemians to their south of course had contact with Byzantium as well as German Christianity). The case of Lithuania is even more explicable in terms of particular geopolitical and historical conditions: with the decline of European states and the Mongol hordes the Lithuanian polity forged against the German drive to the east under the banner of the Sword Brothers and Teutonic Knights expanded to fill the vacuum. By the mid-14th century Lithuania included most of modern Ukraine, White Russia as well as the Baltic lands and parts of Poland. The majority of the subjects of the pagan Lithuanian warrior elite were Christian. Either Western Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. A conversion to Christianity would of course entail that the Lithuanian elite pick a side, Catholic or Orthodox, while persisting in their paganism allowed them to play off the two groups against each other. A substantial number of Lithuanians did convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but the commanding heights remained pagan due to the geopolitical circumstances. In the late 14th century Lithuanians converted to Catholicism, cementing their alliance with Poland, naturally resulting in Lithuania becoming the marcher state aginst Orthodox Muscovy and the last frontier of the West (after the 16th century the Lithuanian nobility was totally Polonized).
The autocatalytic model does work, but I believe social and political incentives also matter. Aside from Ireland every instance of Christianity spreading and absorbing a culture in Europe after the fall of Rome was initiated from the top and down. Though most of these states had small Christian minorities, sometimes of influence, the majority of the logistic growth curve occurred while Christianity was the official religion. Many Protestants even contend that Christianization of the European peasantry was not completed until after the Reformation. But there were strong incentives to become a pious Christian in Europe after 1000, when Christianity and civilization and elite status went hand in hand, and paganism was tatamount to barbarism.
A quick trip back to late antiquity highlights the importance of the incentives and framing social structures in terms of how it affects the trajectory of religious change. According to the data that Turchin and Stark accept, the Empire was over half Christian by around 360. By the 400s it was overwhelmingly Christian. Nevertheless, in 529 Justinian closed the Academy in Athens which was still the locus of pagan philosophical thought. The Diaspora of Neoplatonic pagans remained active until the Islamic period in Alexandria, and likely influenced the Sabians of Haran. By the time of Justinian these pagans could only draw from a small subset of the Empire's population, those whose families remained loyal to the old religion, or, those of other minority religions such as Judaism or Samaritanism. The similiarities to dhimmis under Islam is again rather clear. But the point I want to make here is that despite the presumed autocatalytic dynamics operative through the Christian Empire, philosophers still remained pagan! There were particular incentives within the philosophical culture which fostered adherence to a pagan religious outlook. The autocatalytic process does not operate across the full sample space to the same extent. While most of the Empire was being immersed in a religion which was a synthesis of Roman institutions, Greek philosophy and Hebrew theism, a subset of the population of philosophical inclination was being drawn into a religious system descended from Hellenistic paganism. This quasi-philosophical world-view was the one that drew the pagan convert Julian to the Apostate. It is notable that Julian, a self-conscious Hellenist in his fashions, was relatively well-educated and manor-born in comparison to the military populists who were dominant between 280 and 400. Though the first illiterate Roman Emperor did not come onto the scene until the early 6th century, there was a wide range of cultural sensibilities, from philosopher-kings and scholars such as Marcus Aurelius and Claudius, to military tryants and autocrats such as Decius and Diocletian.
This "different world" was not operative only among philosophers. The Frankish general Arbogast was the son of a Romanized German, and yet he is known to have been a pagan of classical Roman sensibilities. Arbogast led a pagan senetorial rebellion against Theodosius the Great, and was defeated. Because history has minimal interest in losers we do not truly understand with any clarity how it was that a barbarian by ancestry was acculturated to the world-view of the pagan Roman elite at this late date (Roman society had become far more xenophobic and prejudiced against barbarians than it had been earlier by the 4th century). But books such as The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire draw upon a wide range of textual evidence on the late Roman senatorial elite of the West to imply that they did not make the final turn to Christianity until after 400. Additionally, a deeper analysis of the shape of religious variation smokes out intriguing patterns. Roman senators of the 4th century who were Christian were much more likely to be new men, parvenus dependent upon imperial patronage. They were more likely to have risen through the military or civil service, as opposed to having inherited their status. Additionally, Christian senators were also more likely to come from Gaul and other provinces on the frontier, while the pagans were more likely from the old imperial core, Italy and North Africa, two regions relatively insulated from the disturbances of the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Within the status hierarchies of the old senatorial elite paganism and its attendant familial cults had a strong attraction. Even in the mid-5th century, high status nobles such as the general Marcellinus, were devout pagans. Another locus of pagan power in the army is rather clearly illustrated by a revocation of the expulsion of non-Christians from the officer corps by Theodosius II early in the 5th century; so many officers, including generals, protested and offered to resign that it was judged to be impractical in implementation. There were enough crypto-pagans on the ground that as late as the reign of the Emperor Zeno in 474 there were hopes that paganism would be restored as the official religion. In any case, that wasn't to be, at some point the cause of paganism during late antiquity was as futile as that of Roman Catholicism in England by the 17th century. But, with hindsight I think we need to not forget that inevitable dynamics didn't seem so inevitable back then, and different incentives and social networks intersected across the same time and space. Similarly, an autocatalytic process might have been operative in terms of conversion to Islam in the Levant, but even in 1900 around 10-20% of Palestinian Arabs were Christian, and across the coastal mountain ranges of Syria-Lebanon Christians and heretical Muslims (Druze, Alawites) were more numerous than Sunni Muslims (emigration in this case was so strongly biased toward Christian Arabs that the proportions would have changed a great deal even without the differential birthrates which came to the fore in the 20th century).
Despite the specific twists and conditonalities, I do think that the null model of the autocatalytic expansion of particular religious groups is useful. In Persia I believe we have an excellent case study in Mesopotamia which suggests that ethnic polytheism naturally tends to cede ground over time to universal monotheism. As I have outlined I think the likelihood that there was an exogenous confound is sharply dampened in this one scenario. Obviously there isn't the issue of Christian blackmail (i.e., monotheistic states after the fall of Roman had a cheery habit of threatening to invade unbelievers because of the fact that they were unbelievers), nor sponsorship by Christian elites. Granted, like Ireland the Christianization of Mesopatamia might have been facilitated by the mediating role of local notables wishing to integrate themselves into the transnational luxury trade. It seems that Semitic ethnicity was a bar to conversion to Zoroastrianism, and the Arab federates of the Sassanids, the Lakhimids, were not surprisingly Christians (one could argue that the incentives of the pagan piligrimage trade were one of the reasons that the nobles of Mecca did not align themselves with a world religion). But in a pre-modern society there simply wasn't as much individual choice, and patrons followed their clients, whether those patrons were an individual or a corporate entity like a guild or village council.
But the Sassanid Empire also expanded east, into Central Asia and the Punjab. These were regions where Zoroastrianism was simply not much of an option for those non-assimilated to Persian ethnicity or identity. And not surprisingly, Nestorian Christianity was influential along the trade routes. Arnold Toynbee alluded to a stillborn Nestorian civilization, and it was thanks to the reach of the Zoroastrian Sassinid Empire that Nestorianism spread so far and wide. In the 8th century Nestorians were a prominent power not just in Central Asia, but also in China. It seems that the Christians of Kerala were originally affiliated with the Nestorian Church of Mesopotamia. And, it is well known that Nestorians were still extant among the Turco-Mongol peoples swept up in the expansion of the armies of Genghis Khan; the mother of Kubilai Khan was a Nestorian Christian.
And yet, what happened here? Shouldn't the autocatalytic process have increased the frequency of Nestorianism so that it dominated all these regions? In Persia itself Nestorianism declined with the rise of Islam. There are attested conversions, but it seems pretty clear that preponderant ancestry of modern Iraqi Muslims are from Aramaic speaking Christian peasants. In China there was a major suppression of foreign religions in the mid-9th century. This seems to have nearly extirpated Nestorianism, and driven Manichaeanism (which also came from Persia) to such low numbers that it went extinct in a few centuries, and also set Islam back quite a bit (modern Chinese Islam probably owes more to the influx of Central Asians with the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries than the original expansion of Islam into China in the 7th and 8th). In India Nestorianism flourished in Kerala, but did not spread to any other region. One would assume that 1,500 years was long enough for autocatalytic dynamics to kick in....but it seems that Kerala's Christians (who are by and large no longer identified as Nestorian, though they retain Syrian affinities) turned into another caste. The modern spread of Christianity in India was spurred by British raj and Western missionaries, though Syrian Christians were often critical conduits.
The case of India is important enough to inspect with greater detail. India is the only civilization which has produced a world religion besides the Middle East. Indians will generally assert that Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are Dharmic religions set against the Abrahamic religions of of the Middle East. The gap is a real one obviously. Hinduism and Buddhism are very different, but ultimately they deal in the same semantic currency and there are institutional resemblences. In Myanmar the Indians who have remained are by origin either Muslim or Hindu. The latter have been consistently changing their religious identity to that of Buddhism. Muslims have been to a far lesser extent. Though there are tensions between the Chinese and Thai in Thailand, and a religious gap between Chinese Mahayana sects and the Therevada Buddhism of Thailand, the mixing between the communities is rather fluid when compared to the situation in Malaysia, as the relations between Chinese and the Muslim peoples of the Malay archipelago is fraught with more tension. There are orthopraxic gaps which make this comprehensible; the food taboos of Buddhist priests and monks, whether Mahayana or Therevada, are rather intelligible to each other (generally derivations from Indian vegetarianism). In contrast, the Muslim aversion to pork does not generally allow for easy communal meals with Chinese, for whom pork is nearly the obligate meat. I recall that when there were riots in Java in the 1990s against the Chinese many fled to Hindu Bali. Here the proximate dynamic isn't simply reducible to civilizational gaps, after all, both the Balinese and Chinese are outsiders in the mix of the Muslim majority and so a natural empathy might arise (and a substantial number of Chinese Indonesians are Christians, even if only nominally). But on a coarser scale increasing the N I think Turchin's model of a metaethnic border is probably viable and useful, even if it is not likely the avowed rationale given for conflicts, it may lurk in the background as a necessary framing condition, or at least one which increases likelihood.
The East broadly, the Indian and Chinese cultural orbits, are interesting cases when it comes resistence against the expanding orbit of the One True God. On a whole, it's taken some hits. Around 1/3 of South Asians now subscribe to an Abrahamic religion. Island southeast Asia was lost to Islam relatively recently from the Hindu-Buddhist bloc. The Dutch helped along the process in Java because of their rivalry with the Hindu kingdom of Bali (eastern Java was the center of a Hindu kingdom allied with Bali until the 18th century). China has a non-trivial Muslim minority. Myanmar, Thailand and Indochina all non-trivial large Abrahamic minorities. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have non-trivial and powerful Christian populations. Japan has a small, but influential, Christian minority. On the other end of the balance sheet, in the secularizing West ideas from Dharmic religions are very popular among the elites, and some, such as reinarnation have penetration rates as high as 25%. But the influence is less institutional and organizational than it is a percolation of ideas and assumptions.
Let's look at India first. By India, I'll include the states not currently in the Republic of India, since before 1947 India meant the whole subcontinent, though Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka were often bracketed off because of their Buddhist leanings. About 1/3 of the Indian population, broadly, is Muslim. Islam was present in India from the 8th century. Sindh was conquered by the Ummayads. In the next few centuries military incursions were minimal, but Arab mercenaries and merchants were a prominent force. The large number of Muslims in Kerala is a function of trade much more than the later rise of foreign Islamic dynasties since most of the time Hindu rulers were preeminent in this region (see Vasco da Gama's reports). In the north of India Muslim warlords were dominant after 1000, and exclusive at the top of the totem pole by 1200. This situation persisted for 500 years until 1700, at which point political fragmentation was the dominant dynamic. After 1700 some non-Muslim groups rose to parity, but only after 1800 and British rule was the political supremacy of Muslim elites off the table.
So a 500 hundred year window of near domination, and quite a bit of power (1000-1200 was a long rearguard action on the journey to extinction on the part of Hindu kingdoms in northern India, not one of parity). And yet only 1/3 of the population is Muslim? First, autocatalytic dynamics assume a level of connectedness perhaps inappropriate in South Asia. Though there were no north Indian Hindu kings, many of the great vassals, rajputs, remained Hindu. So there were mediators who continued to foster the production of Hindu religious ritual through their patronage. There were many instances of conversion, but it seems clear from the extant biographical data Hindu warlords did not want to turn their back on their own cultural heritage, as would be an implication by conversion to Islam (they would also remain inferior in status to Muslims from Persia or Central Asia). There is an element of irony in this because it seems likely that some of the rajputs of northern India were themselves immigrants from Central Asia who filled the power vacuum after the collapse of the Gupta dynasty in the 6th century. But like the Tibeto-Burman Ahoms of Assam later, they became defenders of Hindu Indian cultural traditions on the metaethnic frontier. Additionally, Muslim power projected rather raggedly into southern India for much of this period, where the Empire of Vijayanagar flourished. Though Vijayanagar was contested, and eventually conquered, by south Indian Muslim dynasties, it remained a separate locus of patronage for Hindu cultural production during the period of Islamic domination. Finally, it must be remembered that India is a highly segmented society, and many villages were run by Hindu landlords (patels, thakurs, etc.) who served as mediators between the new Muslim overlords and the masses.
With the fall of the Mughul raj and the rise of the British Hindu notables quickly rose up to fill the void and stepped into the shoes of the Muslim ruling classes to administer India. This shows that a reservoir of non-Muslim elite talent always remained extant. Some of these were no doubt patronized by Hindu dynasts such as the Marathas and those of Vijayanagar. Others were patronized by Hindu vassals of the Muslim dynasties, such as the rajputs. And some of them were patronized by the Muslims themselves (e.g., the Kayasthas served the Muslims more than other high caste groups which had a tradition of literacy). The Sunni Muslim elite seems to have taken a role as a rentier caste, opening up niches for enterprising non-Muslims. It is interesting that some of the most economically successful Muslims in the Indian subcontinent are the marginal Ismailis, who were persecuted by the Mughals and forced to convert to Sunni Islam.
Not only are there complex patterns vertically up and down the class ladder, but one must look at the conversion patterns as a function of geography. In modern India it is no surprise that aside from Kerala and centers of Muslim dynasties (e.g., Hyderabad) that Islam is relatively thin on the ground in the south compared to the north. Additionally, in Orrisa there are very few Muslims, and this is an isolated and frankly backward region which was less exposed to outside currents. But, it is important to note that the Muslim heartland around Dehli remained predominantly Hindu across all those centuries. It is no surprise that Muslims are the majority along the western fringe, not only are these regions closer to the demographic sources of Turkic and Persian immigration which buttressed the Islamic dynasties as soldiers and bureaucrats, but the Sindh was under direct Muslim rule far longer than any other region. Yet in Pakistan it is in Sindh which has the largest Hindu minority (likely due to the relative easy of population exchange along the Punjab border as opposed of the Thar boundary to the east of Sindh). Additionally, of course the other locus of Muslim majority in the Indian subcontinent is far to the east, in Bengal. Not only is it in Bengal, but there is a consistent pattern that the further east you go in Bengal the more Muslim the population gets, with the most pious region the southeastern district of Noakhali. When the British census revealed that there were more Muslims than Hindus in Bengal in the late 19th century they were somewhat shocked.
In fact, Bengal has been under Muslim rule only a century or two less than the Punjab, so the difference of duration isn't that great. But, it is notable that prior to the Muslim conquest these two regions were relatively weak in terms of institutional Hinduism, and Bengal was the last region of India to host a flowering of Buddhism. The social and institutional robusticity of Indian religion, the set of beliefs and rituals which became Hinduism, did not characterize the Punjab or Bengal during this period. Polities in these areas were more often aligned with the "losing" cultural faction, and divided within themselves. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 documents the confluence of social and economic conditions which allowed eastern Bengal, what became Bangladesh, to become a mostly Muslim domain while western Bengal, now part of India, remained mostly Hindu. It is important to remember that eastern Bengal was to a large extent not characterized by the Malthusian trap which we see today, rather, for most of the past 1,000 years its the frontier served as a demographic release valve as peasants cleared the forest under the supervision of expanding elites. Those elites were of course mostly Muslim (though the capital input might have been from Hindu moneylenders). A combination of the relative weakness of extant Hindu institutions in eastern Bengal, combined with the emergence of a new non-Hindu elite, and, an expansion into a frontier so that a small number of pioneers might serve as genetic and cultural "founders" makes the fact that Bengal was much more fruitful for Islam than the central Gangetic plain much more comprehensible. Recall that I observed that there is data which suggests that elites on the geographic margins, the frontiers, were more open switching to the Christian religion and abandoning their older customs and traditions during late antiquity. In contrast, the old civilized cores, such as Italy and Greece, were notable for remaining pagan longer than new frontier metropoles such as Constantinople or Antioch. A similar difference might have applied to Iran and Central Asia, where the latter was Islamicized earlier than the former.
Of course, the analogy between paganism and Hinduism is not very strong. The robusticity of Indian socio-religious structures in the face of domination by another socio-religious framework is impressive and makes it very different from Babylonian paganism. Just as elite Roman senators were resistent to attractions of Christianity for a relatively long period, attempts by Christian missionaries to convert Indians have had to focus on the lower castes and maringally Indianized (e.g., the Tibeto-Burman tribal peoples of the northeast). Once the ball starts rolling though that is a sign that there as an institutional vacuum which Christianity can fill; the instances of forced conversions of pagan and Hindu Nagas by Naga fundamentalist Christians illustrates the power of autocatalyic peer "pressure." On the other hand, among higher caste Hindus it seems that the logistic growth curve tends to saturate at a lower level.
A shift to southeast Asia highlights the importance of conditional parameters in these autocatalytic dynamics. Christianity is a minority religion in most of mainland southeast Asia. But, it is an ethnic religion. Specifically, it is a religion which is popular among minorities who have traditionally been at the cultural and economic margins. Lowland southeast Asia has been dominated by powerful kingdoms with a very strong self-conscious identity as vessels for Therevada Buddhism. Buddhist monarchs in southeast Asia even sent aid to those attempting to kickstart the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka during the period of British rule when the elites were converting to Protestantism (a dynamic which was halted, and reversed). Groups such as the Karens, Hmong and tribes of the Montangnard highlands resisted conversion to Therevada Buddhism for a very simple reason: those who converted became Bamar/Burman, Thai or Vietnamese. The tension across ethnicites was strongly diluted when the religious barrier disappeared. On the other hand, as we have seen above, non-institutional paganism tends to lack robusticity over the long term. Tibet and Japan both manifested the same dynamic which I asserted for pagan Europe during the process of the shift toward a universal world religion. In both these cases the correction was temporary, and the setbacks rolled back as Buddhism eventually embedded itself as the dominant institutional religion of the culture.
The arrival of Christianity changed the game. Groups like the Karens observed correspondences between Christian theology and their own indigenous religion, but, seeing at how similar and convergent supernatural concepts tend to be I don't believe that similarities would be hard to observe (Christianity was repeatedly confused as a form of Buddhism in East Asia). Today a large proportion of Karens are Christian, but not all. A significant number are Therevada Buddhists, and not surprisingly these tend to be much less hostile to the central government, and even complain of persecution at the hands of Christians. About 10 years back I recalled reading about the conversion of the only non-Christian resistance leader among the Karens. It is obvious that the Karen resistance has religious overtones, and the Christian identification operates synergistically with their historical self-conception as a separate people. A similar process occurred in Indonesia after the suppression of the Communist Party. Many Chinese and secular Javanese became Christian because that was an open option available to (one had to affiliate with a religion in Indonesia during Suharto's regime) them. At this point their children are no doubt sincere believers, but one can not ignore the contingent parameters which drove what is now an autocatalytic process within these networks (also, a minority of very nominal Javanese Muslims are making the switch to Hinduism, as they view it as a more authentic expression of their outlooks and identity as Javanese).
In China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan Christianity is a religion with some influence. Christianity is a firmly bourgeois sect in Taiwan and Singapore. Though growing in Singapore, recent data suggests that Buddhism is now rapidly rising in proportion faster by siphoning off Chinese religionists, and many of the college educated cohorts are switching to Buddhism instead of Christianity as would have been the norm one generation ago in the process of upward mobility. In Taiwan Christianity has been stagnant for the past generation, likely going through a contractionary phase. Again, the same dynamic of Taoists and Chinese folk religionists switching to Buddhism is noticeable here. What's going on? I think the key here is that Buddhism is a familiar religion, it simultaneously can play the role of Chinese ethnic religion and world religion. In contrast, it seems that Christianity often opens up a fissure with the family because of its more stark rejection of "pagan" practices which older members might continue out of custom and habit (it seems in Singapore that Christianity drew disproportionately from secular educated segments where these familial concerns would likely loom less).
One important point to emphasize with East Asia is the relatively weak role that institutional religion has played within these set of societies. In China, Japan and South Korea though Buddhism was the most common religion before the arrival of Christianity, it was neither dominant or elite. The Tokugawa demand that Japanese families affiliate with a Buddhist temple in the process of extirpating Christianity was not due to Buddhist piety, in fact, the predecessors of the Tokugawa had gone to great lengths to break the back of institutional Buddhism as an alternative power center in the 16th century. Rather, religion was an instrument of social control and tool for sifting the loyalists from those prone to sedition; in this case, Catholics whom the regime assumed to be supportive of rival southern daimyos and foreign powers. In China and Korea Buddhism was the primary institutional religion above the level of local cults and shamans, but, it was also kept at remove from the centers of power because of the skepticism of the Confucian mandarins toward otherworldly religion. The rise of Christianity in Korea was not truly at the expense of a vibrant Buddhism, it was within a very secular context when it comes to rival institutional structures. South Korean Buddhism to some extent has been prodded by Christianity, going so far as create its own religious television channel. Many would argue that Christianity was the best thing that could have happened to South Korean Buddhism, which had become a moribund mountain cult.
South Korea is an interesting case beause it has the largest Christian population proportionately outside of the Philippines in Asia. But they are only 30% of the population, and many Americans are surprised that around 20% of Koreans are avowed Buddhists and 50% have no affiliation. Again, this is due to the expectation that societies transition from religious monopolies (as in the West) toward a more relaxed regime. In Korea religion was marginalized as a source of authority by the center, and its new power in coalescing individuals is a throwback to the period before 1300 when Buddhism was likely an important cog in the process of "Koreagenesis." Again, I suspect the insight that metaethnic frontiers require ideological cement is important to keep in mind. With the period of Japanese colonialism many patriotic Koreans began to look to Christianity as a source of resistence, and Christians went from 5% to 25% of the population within 2 generations. But from the data I've seen over the last 15 years that rate of growth has slowed radically and the proportion has been only inching upward. Part of the issue might be the correlation between higher levels of education and Christianity, and the lower fertility of these groups. Additionally, it seems that many Korean Christians are now switching across churches, implying that the social networks are becoming tapped out of new low hanging consumers.
These data from various East Asian countries, and the example of Japan as a nation where autocatalytic Abrahamic dynamics seem to simply not operate, suggest that the logistic growth curve for Christianity has limits in penetrating all societies. South Korea was a best-case-scenario for a variety of reasons, but even here it seems that the trajectory has slowed down. The standard model in Christian or Muslim nations is for the logistic growth curve to move up toward an overwhelmingly majority, if not nominal uniformity. But East Asia has long been characterized by pluralism, and even when Buddhism was ascendent as during Tang China, Silla Korea or Fujiawara Japan, there tends to be a correction and institutional religion can never "swamp" the culture. The Indian case is separate because there you have a robust institutional religious system which weathered the rather large exogenous Abrahamic shock, and it is important to note that Indian religious systems were exported long ago into East Asia, and yet they have never attained the level of cultural monopoly that they exhibit within India, or, southeast Asia.
During the 16th century Japan was very open to Christianity. Daimyos in the south of the country converted to Christianity and brought their peasants with them. As much as 10% of the Japanese population might have become Christian at some point. The Tokugawa exterminated this population aside from a few crytpo-Christians whose orthopraxy had been Buddhaized to the point where they had evolved into a new religion. When Japan was reopened in the 19th century many Christians assumed that it was going to be easy pickings...in fact, it didn't turn out like that. Though Christians were influential, including likely many women in the imperial family, they never achieved critical mass. Sociology is deterministic only with particular background conditions. No doubt some scholars assume that Japan would have become totally Catholic if the growth rate persisted and was extrapolated, but why make that assumption? Perhaps the Christians of Japan would have become the Moros of the Phillipines, or the Catholics of Sri Lanka, a substantial minority, but eventually sealed off into their own social networks.
This post obviously got a little out of hand. You can probably tell that I like both general deductive models, and an attention to contingent detail. There can be a general trend (e.g., we all die) with variations along the way of interest (e.g., what we do before we die). It seems that autocatalytic process will result in Africa becoming totally Muslim or Christian. On the other hand, if it takes 1,000 years for India and China to become totally Christian or Muslim...well, I'm not sure if that certain projection is really that useful seeing as how 1,000 years is a long enough time that a lot of the background parameters could change. Additionally, there are various frequency dependent dynamics and mixed morphs which are likely operative in these historical social trajectories that I think are being left out in this treatment.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Tyler points me to a new paper coming out in PNAS, Male dominance rarely skews the frequency distribution of Y chromosome haplotypes in human populations. It isn't on the site yet, but New Scientist has a write up:
To determine whether dominance could last more than a couple generations, Watkins and a team of anthropologists and geneticists sifted through the DNA of 1269 males from 41 Indonesian communities.
How does Wilkins know this about Mongolians? Perhaps there's some empirical data in the paper he isn't reporting re: Mongolia, but it seems that one must be cautious about extrapolating from Indonesia. As most of you know, Indonesia is an archipelago, and water tends to be really good at bottling up gene flow.
Of course, this is a big question that spans all human societies across time. I assume there are going to be variations across space, and time, and that frequency dependence is important as a conditional which frames any assertions we make. I suspect that Genghiside "super-male" lineages are more a feature of the last 10,000 years where it is possible for only a few people to sequester large amounts of surplus productivity and travel was much more common along elites. Additionally, I've made this point before, but I'll do so again: in many pre-modern societies being a high status male opens you up to a great deal of risk and gain simultaneously. So there might be a long term angle in turning your vehicles into indispensable betas....
Saturday, August 02, 2008
This week's To the Best of Our Knowledge is on Post-Modernism. The whole episode is worth a listen, but one of the segments is with Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like. Unlike most of my friends I haven't generally found the website that funny,* but Lander is actually pretty amusing in the interview. I think the Steve Sailer influence is pretty obvious, especially the parts where Lander dwells on the fact that White People elevate their White status by dissing white people more broadly (the fact that Lander is distilling a lot of Sailerisms probably explains part of my general "so what" reaction to Stuff White People Like; no shit NPR is real white, that's just true, not ironic).**
* Some of my anti-racist Lefty haters might sneer that here through my avowed disinterest in Stuff White People Like I am actually signaling the aspirational Whiteness which I often manifest. But I, a Man of Color (MoC), will never be able to attain this status because of the structural parameters which Oppress the Other. Of course, one could argue that one of the things that White People like is hating on Persons of Color (PoC) who don't toe the White line on what PoCs should be about, so simulating white (as opposed to White) attitudes on PoCs to show recalcitrant PoCs that they need to get back in line is something White People Like.
** Steve has stated that Lander is a long time reader.
Friday, August 01, 2008
Yesterday assman recommended Peter Turchin's oeuvre as a nice theoretical overview of world history, in particular Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Unfortunately it was checked out at the library, so I've ordered it, but his more popularly oriented War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires was available and I read it last night. With rather large font, copious endnotes, and a great deal of quotation of ancient and early modern historians and cultural observers it really doesn't measure up to 416 pages. It's a quick read. For those who are interested in world history and have some background knowledge I would recommend it, but its value is more in clarification than in originality (if you don't have much background knowledge, skip it, you won't know if Turchin is full of it or not, so why bother?). As a mathematical biologist by training Turchin's program seems to be how to translate verbal models into formal ones (he has Santa Fe Institute connections in case you're curious, so be warned or heartened, depending on where you stand). The reasoning behind this project is so obvious that I won't repeat or elucidate it. Overall his goal is to flesh out a discipline of cliodynamics which can complement cliometrics. There's a strong undercurrent within War and Peace and War that the reliance of cliometricians upon economic theory as a framework to make sense of empirical macrohistorical data needs to be complemented copiously by methodologies from a host of other disciplines.
If you read this blog regularly you'll know that I'm generally skeptical of the power of theory in history. Not only am I skeptical of theory in history, but I'm skeptical of the empirical data which has been collected in the historical disciplines, at least in terms of its operational utility in generating a model of the past as it was, and aiding us in projecting the future as it is likely to be. The rise of economic and social history within the past few decades points to the fact that traditional textual scholarship left something to be desired; in short, it looked through the glass with elite eyes. If you conceive of historical and social processes as purely a function of elite dynamics then so it goes, but if you reject that then you are missing out on much of the picture. You could attempt to understand Christianity as it was in the 4th century when the Roman Empire began sponsoring it as the imperial cult simply by reading the New Testament and the commentary of the early Church Fathers, but I don't think this would truly make things that comprehensible. Rather, Christianity was also social phenomenon of Jews and gentiles who lived and died from the 1st to the 3rd century, and these people had an important influence upon the practices and norms which were associated with believers in the Christian religion.
The muddiness of the glasses through which we view the past, and the power of distortion of one's own and societal biases, are critical to keep in mind whenever engaging in analyses of humane topics. Historical scholarship requires a recursive level of self-criticism and skepticism which is likely not at issue when it comes to statistical mechanics. The reality that skepticism is warranted has led some to abandon the idea of empirical truth altogether, contending that all past is "fiction." I won't engage with this viewpoint except to say that it's lazy. There are more things between heaven and earth then dreamed of in such a philosophy. Granted, the extreme skeptics may be right, true knowledge as we understand it through common sense may elude us or be a fantasy, but whether this is so is an open empirical question, not established truth. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Peter Turchin ventures a great deal in War and Peace and War. There are grand declarations in the prose about all the insight gained through the theoretical models which he's brought to bear on historical dynamics. To some extent it smells of Lakoffian hubris, but the difference is that Turchin is attempting to synthesize real formal tools, dynamical systems, with real data, economic, diplomatic and social history. In contrast, George Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory isn't widely accepted, and his empirical data seems made up (his characterizations of the psychology of conservatives is based on a Berkeley liberal's preconceptions; not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not ethnography). I bring this up because the style of exposition in War and Peace and War might seem alternatively bombastic and turgid, but there's some substance underneath it all. Keeping scratching.
As I said, the value-add here is clarity and precision. Turchin for example draws heavily on a conceptual framework created by the 14th century Arab intellectual Ibn Khaldun. The text is littered with references to Polybius and Alexis de Tocqueville (both of whom I think said a lot that could be said, especially Polybius). War and Peace and War doesn't present new hypotheses as much it injects them into quantitative analytic frameworks amenable to testing. I recall a conversation I once had with a phylogeneticist who explained that before the cladist revolution taxonomy was mostly a game of credential and age. Differences in opinion were resolved by the weight one would attribute to the "Cuz I said so!" contention of a Great Thinker (from Haeckel to Mayr). Whatever shortcomings there are to the hypothetico-deductive system promoted by the cladists, and despite their occasional veering into fanaticism, the reality remains that operationally their emphasis on a systematic framework as opposed to gestalt intuition revolutionized the field and allowed for a transparency which facilitated communication.
War and Peace and War is focused on the eternally recurrent cyclical social-historical dynamics. It isn't, for example, going to put the spotlight on the great divergence because at this point that is sui generis. Turchin outlines three cyclical dynamics which tie together the narrative of War and Peace and War:
1) Asabiya cycles
2) Secular cycles
3) Fathers-and-sons cycles
The general concepts aren't that obscure; asabiya is a term formulated by Ibn Khaldun to describe the rise and fall of polities in the Maghreb and more generally the Islamic world. Asabiya as defined by Turchin is roughly social cohesion. Finland would be a society with a great deal of asabiya, and Somalia would be one with very little. Northern Italy has it more than southern Italy. Japan has it more than China. Khaldun contended that nomads with asabiya invariably conquered farmers and city-dwellers who lacked it, but within a few generations the new conquerors would lose their asabiya and so fall prey to a new set of conquerors. Turchin expands this to a macrohistorical and imperial scale, while Khaldun's conception spans decades Turchin contends that the can dynamic span centuries (up to 1,000 years in fact in a cycle of decline).
The secular cycle is temporally shorter than the asabiya cycle, and is driven by social and demographic parameters. While asabiya may characterize the rise and fall of civilizations, secular cycles can easily be mapped onto the rise and fall of a particular polity or dynasty. Its time scale is on the order of a few hundred years. The endogenous parameters which drive the secular cycles are in Turchin's model demographic and economic; the surplus progeny of the elite, combined with the inevitability of inequality of material wealth across society. It is on this scale that the title of the book is most appropriate, as the shocks of societal collapse and anomie may allow the cycle to begin anew as the old order is shattered and the leaner and meaner new order picks up the pieces.
Finally, there is the shortest cycle, the fathers-and-sons. This is rather easy to comprehend because it is something we can viscerally comprehend. A generation which was preceded by peace may wish for some war simply because it does not comprehend the downside of aggression. In contrast, a generation which has experienced conflict may be very cautious in the future because of past experiences. This caution of course fosters peace in the present and may result in complacency in the youth who are not cognizant of the costs of disorders.
The asabiya theory is the most interesting from the point of view of the origin of empires and states: Turchin's claim is the genesis of new imperial elites is on the metaethnic frontier. These groups who face off against outgroups develop a great deal of internal cohesion, and they leverage this group level social capital into collective action. This is not a new idea, you will find an allusion to this in Guns, Germs and Steel. But War and Peace and War explores the hypothesis in detail through a systematic analysis of the cross-cultural data. I found it broadly persuasive. Here are some supports for the "frontier" theory of empire mentioned by Turchin, or that I can think of
1) Rome. The city of Rome is the borders of Latium, with the Etruscan territory to the north. Additionally, Turchin emphasizes the chasm which separated Mediterranean civilization from Gallic barbarism which dominated the Po river valley during the middle and late Republic. In the north central portion of the peninsula, the Roman Republican elite fixated on these Gauls as the Other, and their own identity emerged in part as a response to the Gaulish Sack of Rome.
2) Byzantium. Turchin argues that the origins of Byzantium can be found among the Illyrian emperors who flourished around 300. The early Byzantine elite were battle-hardened soldiers who faced the barbarians across the Danube.
3) China. The early Chinese dynasties had a tendency of being drawn from the semi-barbarian northwest fringe. In fact, the rivals to these powers were often semi-barbarian polities which bordered the Yangtze river valley! The states of the Chinese heartland on the other hand were generally conquered by these marginals. A traditional explanation is one of geographic determinism, but asabiya theory seems to suggest by facing the barbarians group cohesion is generated which is then easily used to conquered the civilized heartland.
4) The post-Roman states. I'm going to gloss over this quickly, but Turchin spends a great deal of time focusing on the fact the barbarian successor states which filled the vacuum after the fall of the West Roman Empire. By and large they were from the semi-Roman borderlands. The German tribes such as the Goths were from the frontiers of the Empire and had to develop their own identity and reorganize their polity to withstand the sallies of the Roman legions (the Goths were often federates of the Romans, as were the Franks). German groups who remained far behind the lines remained stateless, later to be conquered by the larger and more cohesive tribal confederations which arose along the Roman frontier.
5) The Islamic Empire. The Arabs arose along the borders of three major states, the Byzantines, the Persians and the Ethiopians. Some revisionist scholars such as Patricia Crone actually make arguments which dovetail even more perfectly with Turchin's thesis as to the origins of asabiya on the metaethnic frontier. For nearly 1,000 years the Arabs existed on the margins of civilized empires. Their identity as distinct from the sedentary Aramaic speakers of the Fertile Crescent no doubt emerged in large part because of their exclusion from participation in civilization.
6) The Persian Empires. The Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids all arose along the metaethnic frontier. The Parthians faced off against barbarian peoples to the north on the margins of northeast Iran. The Achaemenids and Sassanids in contrast came from the Fars, bordering the ancient civilized Semitic speaking lowlands.
7) The Mauryas. The first major Indian Empire was from the Indo-Aryan marchland of the eastern Gangetic plain, not from the heartland of Aryavarta (the Doab). The Mauryas in fact were likely Aryanized, as opposed to Aryan.
8) The Ottomans, who were the furthest northwest of the Turkic politices which rose up after the collapse of the Seljuks. The Ottomans were long known as ghazis who were both the frontline soldiers of Islam against the Christians, while at the same time being less authentically Turkic because of the assimilation of Christian elites into their power structure over time.
9) Russia. Turchen spends a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of the Cossack frontier in generating the Russian Empire. Today Moscow is in the middle of Russian Slavdom, but during the medieval period it was somewhat on the margins to the north and east, abutting up against the lands of the Finns to the north, and within reach of Turkic nomads just to the southeast.
10) The Carloginian Empire. The Franks came to power along the border of Roman and German cultures. One of the issues one confronts with the early Frankish kings was that they were often fluent in both German and Vulgar Latin. This emphasizes that their power base was neither in the Germanic forest to the north or the safely Roman south of Gaul.
Turchen's idea of the metaethnic frontier needs some elaboration. There are copious references to Clash of Civilizations and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Asabiya doesn't emerge from a vacuum, social cohesion is a response to the Other. Let's focus on Byzantium and a few emperors to illustrate the sort of individuals who might be indicative of asabiya in the elite.
Justinian the Great was a man of modest origins from the Thracian hinterlands. He was termed the Last Roman because with him the dream of a unified Roman Empire died. He was the last East Roman/Byzantine Emperor for whom Latin was his native language, though he ruled a state which was dominated by Greek speakers. Heraclius, the early 7th century Emperor who defeated the Persians was from an Anatolian Armenian family and was exarch of Carthage. Leo the III who beat back the Arabs during the Second Siege of Constantinople was of Syrian Christian background. Basil II was from an ethnically Armenian family. And so on.
The Byzantine Empire was Greek speaking and Chalcedonian Christian. But many of its emperors were not from Greek backgrounds ethnically, and the Armenians were generally not originally from Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (the Armenian national church is still not Chalcedonian today). But they identified far more strongly with Greek Christian civilization of Byzantium than they did with Arab Islam or Persian Zoroastrianism! One of Turchin's major points is that those on the metaethnic frontier might not be exemplars of the ethnic identity to which they are affiliated; rather, they are often quite marginal in the distribution of characteristics. But, they stand astride the region of greatest change, the fault-line across civilizations. Because of their position along high tension fault-lines asabiya emerges naturally because of functional necessity.
Turchin spends a chapter elaborating where he thinks asabiya comes from, and much of it is actually a dismissal of standard explanations of human prosocial tendencies. He does not believe that rational choice theory, kin selection or reciprocal altruism, scale appropriately to explain the dynamics operant along the metaethnic frontier. He appeals rather vaguely to multi-level selection driving the emergence of mixed behavioral strategies which utilize human intelligence to generate group cohesion and punish cheaters. I approach multi-level selection with a great deal of skepticism. That being said, I'm more skeptical of the ability of simple rational choice, kin selection or reciprocal altruism to scale well enough to explain the baroque social complexity which is characteristic of mass cultures.
The devil is in the details as they say, but it seems that in War and Peace and War the case is being made that excessively simplistic, universal and reductionistic explanations for human behavioral complexity can't be made to work. Evolutionary psychologists and economists often operate under the assumption of cognitive uniformity (or, at least did until recently). Turchin illustrates the likelihood of the importance of cognitive variation and personality differences via the ultimatum game. He argues that asabiya can emerge when a critical mass of moralists willing to sacrifice to punish free riders foster virtuous circles of altruism. He doesn't push this very far, but leaves it up to the reader to search for the literature. I personally think that there's something to this, though I think the argument at this point has more of a feel that x, y and z can't explain the complexity, so it must be a, b and c.
A background paradigm here is Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson's body of work on cultural evolution. Turchin suggests that the arguments over obscure religious theologies in early Christendom had less to do with details of theology as opposed to the importance of these as markers which divided groups. I agree with this. More trivially, but just as significantly, in War and Peace and War there is reference to the particular hairstyle which one German confederation promoted to separate them from another group of tribes. There's a more recent example of this sort of thing resulting in ethnogenesis; the Zulu ethnicity arose in large part in the wake of the warlord Shaka's conquest of a collection of Bantu tribes (he was of the small Zulu tribe), and one of the ritual changes that he fostered at this point early in the 19th century was the abandonment of circumcision. To this day the Zulu in South Africa are uncircumcised, while their Xhosa neighbors are circumcised.
The emphasis that the author places upon homogeneity and group identifying markers is obviously uncomfortable for the dominant consensus in American academe. War and Peace and War seems laced with muted apologia for the rather negative implications of the importance of metaethnic frontiers in terms of a multicultural society which has no core central identity. In some ways this is an exact replica of Robert Putnam's discomfort with the finding that diversity tends to lead to reduced social trust. Turchin has a solution for this: a diverse group can coalesce around a common ideology against the Other.
This common ideology is generally religious. The Byzantine Empire crystallized around Orthodox Christianity, the Caliphate around Islam, the Gupta's revitalized Hinduism while the Maurya's patronized Buddhism, the Tang alternatively favored Taosim and Buddhism, etc. One could go on and on. This is, I think, a case where the solution is just as unpalatable as the problem from most academics. An ethnically diverse frontier, such as that of the Byzantine with the Arab Muslim world, can adhere together, but only with a well demarcated religious identity. Or, one might have a relatively religiously unenthusiastic society such as Japan or Scandinavia which nonetheless has a great deal of asabiya, but here one sees that there is another sort of homogeneity. Ultimately, it seems there's No Free Lunch. Secular ideologies such as Communism or Zionism likely can fit the bill, but again, for those who wish to promote value-neutral pluralism these systems of social organization have their downsides.
The other two dynamics are much simpler to understand. For secular cycles Turchin presents some simple phenomenon which occur in many societies
1) Elites overproduce and become top-heavy during times of plenty
2) Inequality in material wealth lead to resentment and social discord
The metastable situation will generally shift at some point and switch to rebellion and civil war. This tends to kill off much of the elite, and naturally redistribute wealth with the collapse of law and order. Obviously there's much more, but that's the gist of it. The empirical examples aren't too hard to dig up (this is where having a background of knowledge helps, if not, take the author's word for it).
As for the generational cycles; let's just say that I suspect my generation of Americans will be a little less enthusiastic about foreign adventurism after what happened in the last decade. I'm sure that 20 or 30 years from now we'll be cautioning the young ones who want to Do Something in the face of uncertainty, an we'll be dismissed idiotarians or some other neologism.
...I'll probably post on Historical Dynamics in 2 weeks....