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March 11, 2004

"Myth," "fact," and other such things....

From Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400-1400, page 59:

...Tacitus claims that German women enjoy legal and social rights far greater than those of Roman women and that marriage vows are respected, in contrast to the sexual immorality and easy divorce prevalent in Rome. In fact, while Roman matrons could escape the legal tutelage of male relatives if they had borne three children...German women in the early law codes remained under such tutelage for life. While Tacitus does note the institution of bride-price and the morning gift a Germanic husband gives his wife in contrast to the dowry given by the Roman bride's family...he omits the fact that some Germanic groups practiced polygyny.

Got that? The effete southron Latins were monogamous and granted more legal rights to their women-folk than the sturdy Germanic peoples who have birthed liberalism. How's that to conflate stereotypes?

I bring this up because some GNXP readers, and far more frequently in racial/ethnic nationalist (white, black, brown, yellow, etc.) venues, evince what I would term ethno-autism, roughly speaking, and inability to conceive other peoples and cultures as fully fleshed out organisms who have their own creativity, histories and genius, and most importantly values congruent with those of modern Western civilization. Just as Philo of Alexandria tried to show how his own Jewish culture espoused the same positive traits of the Hellenistic civilization of which he was a part, many modern day ethnic groups project their own values as being the wellspring of the universal Western culture they see, or at least the ideal that the Western culture aims for. This neglects crucial importance of human universals within the context of cultural malleability. In other words, while I find matriarchy implausible and at odds with our mental substrate, many human cultures have practiced matrilineal, bilineal and patrilineal descent, showing the importance of a flexibility within constraints.

I will move back to northern Europe and this issue of the Germans and their affinal peoples, but want to explicate of what I speak, ethno-autism, in more detail with two groups that I have observed it in.

  • When I read Shanti Magala's blog I understand that there will more than the usual number of Hindus. I encounter one opinion now and then, which contrasts Hindu tolerance and pluralism with "other religions." The implication, sometimes stated baldly, is that Hinduism is unique its toleration and acceptance of religious pluralism. This is of course false, but it is an idea that salves the individual egos of Hindus, as it ascribes to their culture a trait which is the aim of the universal Western culture that they reside in (I speak of non-resident Indians and the Westernized Indian elite). If you compare Hindus to Muslims, this is most certainly a true, and flattering, comparison. If you compare Hindus to Christians, there is again some truth in this. But there the contrast stops. The indigenous cultures of eastern and southeastern Asia have themselves integrated and accepted Hindu (Indian) religious ideas. True, there have been religious conflicts, but they are often of a political, rather than spiritual nature, and even within India one may point to individual acts of persecution of Hindus by Buddhists and Jains or the reverse (though I reject that this is symptomatic of the culture). Tolerance, acceptance of religious pluralism, and the lack of need to proslyetize do make Hinduism congenial to ascepts of Western liberalism. But one could say this about many groups, most prominently in the American context, Jews....
  • It always strikes me as peculiar that a Jewish rabbi could say, "Judaism, virtually alone among the religions of the world, is not a proselytizing faith and we actively discourage those who seek to join because we do not believe they upgrade their existence by doing so." This, on a religion website that has spokesmen from the many other religions that do have those exact same beliefs. Certainly this sort of myopia is not a Jewish sin, I note above that Hindus do not give Zoroastrians, Shintoists, Confucians and assorted other religious faiths their fair due.

Hindu and Jewish contrasts with Islam & Christianity exist in a particular social context. Jews, prior to the the restrictions of Islam and Christianity were aggressive, and sometimes intolerant, in proslyetizing. The Jewish preference for tolerance and pluralism is acceptance of a fact of their existence-not some deep-rooted ideal of the religion. Hindus, it is true, do not proslyetize aggressively or practice much intolerance, but then, but of course, caste acts as an integrative and segregative phenomenon that makes conversion or unified outlook unecessary. Tolerance and religious pluralism is gained at a rather repulsive cost (from the Western perspective).

I could go on with more examples, the Chinese and their common attitude that it-was-all-invented-in-China (the Chinese who were rather less than clever with the use of iron for far longer than western Eurasia) or the Muslims and their it-is-all-in-the-Koran dogma (the Koran that is sometimes obviously a second-hand copy of parts of the Jewish and Christian religious texts). Just as an isolated tribe are "the People," so that tribe knows that kindness, altruism and forethought are traits of "the People," and accidents or acquired traits in "Others." I always think this when I read commentary on the Hebrew Bible and a scholar speaks eloquently of the genius of ethical monotheism, as if ethics are a concept lacking from the Greek, Indian or Chinese civilizations (let alone the typical individual human!), created ex nihilo by the Lord God, rather than in the context of Zoroastrian and Hellenistic thought. This cultural narcissism is possibly a human universal, just as the good & the bad are in all individuals, and so the groups that they form.

Back to the Germans and their possible misogyny. It is certainly not conclusive from the quote above, and Norse sagas I have scanned do not indicate rife polygyny, though the practice is also not verboten, and does crop up. The early Church ecclesiastics like Gregory of Tours even noted that the practice continued among the Merovingians and the kings of the Burgundians, even after Christianization. Also, note that the quote above juxtaposes bride-price and polygyny, as if the former implied the high status of women, while the latter was a manifestation of females as objects. As I've noted before, bride-price is a tendency of polygynous cultures that are highly patriarchal! I have even heard Muslims disparage Hindus by comparison because they practice bride-price (not all Muslims do), indicating that they esteem their women-folk (good, because the West says so!), while traditional Hindus practice dowry, and so view them as a burden. Dowry seems to be a practice of highly socially stratified monogamous societies. Just like the Romans!

The Romans, like the Greeks, were generally a monogamous people. It seems plausible that the enforcement of monogamy as the norm among Christians is the result of the Greco-Roman character of the majority of the early Church, or at least the elite theoreticians, of that faith. In many Third World nations newly Christianized, such "Western" accreations are in fact being abandoned.

An "objective" evaluation of the "status" of women in ancient cultures can be difficult. For instance, Athenian women were famously segregated and excluded from the public square, in contrast to Roman women, who though not active players, were names to be reckoned with (Livia Drusilla, the Agrippinas, the Serverian Julias, and so on). But one must extend the granularity of generalizations, after all, Spartan women from what I know were more active players in their brutal oligarchic despotism, while Olympias of Epirus, the mother of Alexander the Great, was a prominent (if maligned) figure in the politics and intrigue of Macedonia and the early Hellenistic age. Among the northern peoples of Europe itself, the Celts seem to have had a prominent role for women in the public sphere, while among the early Japanese warrior-queens and matrilocality were not out of the norm. And lest one think that only the cold winds of Europe allowed the rights of women to flourish, the independence (often economic as well as social) of West African women is well known, while ancient Sumeria and Egypt both has considerations for the property rights of women in their law codes and traditions (in fact, Egyptian inheritance often had a matrilineal component).

OK, so now that I'm smeared fact, myth and preconception all over the canvas, let me get back to the Europeans. While Nordicist fantasies often depict a great white race coming out of the glens of Germany and its environs to give the fruits of civilization to the south, and the eventually degeneracy of those lands under the influx of non-Nordic genes, it seems to me that many social customs were exported and enforced northward, in particular, the Roman predeliction for monogamy, which was stamped on Christianity, despite its Hebrew origins (note that polygyny was acceptable among Ashkenazi Jews until the 9th century, and it is still halakah for certain Mizrahi Jews, like those from Yemen, though it is illegal in Israel itself). The Romans themselves are often thought to have put such a premium on the importance of females, their lineage and impact on their children, via their influence from the Etruscans, a people who might have had "eastern" (Asia Minor?) origins.

A coherent argument for the special character of "European" individualism, monogamy, etc. is made by the likes of Kevin MacDonald. His thesis is far less crazy than those presented by some of those who use his work, and I do not find it particularly objectionable, and see many interesting ideas in it. On the other hand, I am still highly skeptical of it, because I believe that MacDonald knows a great deal about Europeans and Jews, for instance, and less about other groups (though he has done work on Overseas Chinese and so forth, I would bet his knowledge of other groups is an order of magnitude less). He clumps India in with other regions of Eurasia, but today, Hindu northern India practices strict monogamy & village exogamy (Korean culture has a system of extreme exogamy). In contrast, genetically similar Muslim peoples of Bangladesh and Pakistan practice consanguineous marriage and some levels of polygyny, showing the enormous impact that cultural elasticity has.

To be fair, MacDonald says that European groups have a tendency, and does not make strict generalizations that are easy to falsify. He focuses a great deal on the Romans, because that is where the historical evidence supports him. But I do believe he plays hide & seek with the data in a way that could confuse readers. For instance, he notes that Roman civilization forms the robust cultural "core" of Western practices like monogamy, and in the next paragraph moves to the genetic predispositions in the "Nordic" experience. Of course, the Romans could provide the cultural framework while the Nordic peoples have the genetic tendencies that implement these principles well, but, throughout his piece MacDonald jumps across "Europe," though his special focus is "northwest" Europe. Are all European peoples forged in the same evolutionary cauldron? MacDonald quotes the "80% are Paleolithic" number for Europeans based on mtDNA. There are some problems with this:

1) The 80% value is likely a low-bound (others say 50%).
2) The 80% is not equally distrubted, in other words, the populations of Greece, and to a lesser extent Italy, have might be more "similar" (ie; more of their genome has a shorter coalescence time with A than B) with the populations of the Near East (in particular the northern Levant and Asia Minor) than those of far northern Europe.
3) The "80%" itself is not unitary. From the evidence that I have seen, it seems that during the last Ice Age "Europeans" (obviously, there wasn't a Europe, and dividing Asia Minor from the Balkans seems a bit artificial when there was an isthmus connecting the two) had three refugia, one in the southwest (~Iberia), one in the east (Ukraine?) and one in the Balkans (which obviously has a strong overlap with "Near Eastern Farmers" in the demic diffusion scenario). Subsquent to the warming there was a repopulation of Europe, and "northwest Europeans" are the result of the mosaic of various strands, so that Welsh show strong affinities with the Basques (from the Iberian refugia), while English have connections with Slavs via the Scandinavians ( via the Ukrainian refugia), and the "demic diffusion" from the Balkans/Anatolia/northern Levant muddies the watern considerably for much of southern Europe. One point I would like to submit is that similar climatic conditions can lead to parallel evolution, but it can also lead to different adaptations and evolutionary outcomes. For instance, if you agree that release of functional constraints and sexual selection resulted in blondism in the eastern European refugia (I find this plausible), one must note that the same did not occur in the Iberian refugia, after all, Welsh are notoriously dark, and though Spaniards are not as swarthy as some Americans might believe, the Basques are not a notoriously blonde people.

OK, enough, I've made my point. I urge scholars to be cautious in this area because the waters are muddied. Those who read scholarship should always be skeptical, and be on guard for ethno-autism. When I read Jared Taylor's Ways of Our Race in The American Renaissance, I noted that he asserted that respect for animals and the environment set white people apart. To this, I could only react in my own head by imagining the black-faced tribal people of India who kill poachers because of their worship of nature and its animals, or the snub-nosed Jain who will walk with a brush to sweep away ants. I'm sure there are other examples from other cultures-history can throw stereotypes on their head, after all, the hyper-puritan Muslim cultures of the Levant once practiced temple prostitution and engaged in the selling of the virginity of new brides to strangers in a public market for a coin and the favor of Ashtoreth-Ishtar (this is part of the context of Israelite objections to Caananite practices). Readers of Taylor's piece of course most likely did not know that Indian tribals (and Indian Hindu culture as a whole) have a respect for animals despite their black-faces and snub-noses in a tropical environment (and would probably not think of cowalatry in that moment). Perhaps they reflected proudly that white man in particular treats animals with humanity, a practice that is the norm in the great Western civilization, that is the unique product of white man. Are the protections accrued to pets in the United States the result of Indian/South Asian social norms? Of course not! But, I submit they are the outgrowth of a human universal of anthropomorphizing animal companions, a tendency that can be countervailed by cultural conditioning or need.

This is not to say that various populations might not differ-and that this might be genetically rooted. For instance, from Steve Sailer's blog:

The shy and phlegmatic men of the north face less competition for their woman's affections from the other shy and phlegmatic men around them, so they too need jealously less. It's the men in middle who need to be most jealous.

Steve is talking in the context of polygyny & monogamy, and I think that my cautions above show that I don't buy north = monogamy and south = polygyny (in Europe). I don't think it's a false assertion, I'm just pretty unconvinced. On the other hand, I do agree that northern Europeans are pretty shy. Southern Europeans on the other hand are pretty...well...not shy. Cultural stereotypes and national characters do change, but are these personality traits genetically rooted?

Well, we do know that personality has a heritable component that is rather large. I don't think we can really gauge from the historical record whether the men of the north were shy in comparison to the men of the south. But, a priori, I find it highly plausible that the northern Europeans, who lived at low densities far longer than southern Europeans (on the order of thousands of years in lag as far as agriculture, and far later attainment of "high civilization" and dense urban life), have social skills optimized for smaller groups, and especially with familiars. An outgoing personality might be beneficial in cementing new relationships and interconnecting a sedentary village, but less important (and an irritation?) in small family groups of slash & burn agriculturalists. I really don't know, as I'm not an anthropologist or psychologist. But...my point is that a tendency toward monogamy or polygyny can be an emergent tendency of these basic personality traits. Aggressive hyper-competitive individuals might be more reproductively successful in denser social contexts than in areas where low population density and life in a small band is the norm. Who knows? I don't, but I think this is a fruitful avenue of research. On the other hand, be prepared for a groundswell of contradictory data when addressing complex behavorial tendencies and trends. If you seek it, you shall find evidence.

Posted by razib at 12:35 PM