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January 17, 2005

Drive your kin before you....

John Emerson has an interesting post about the kin-slaughter that accompanied the rise of Temujin (Genghis Khan). We also know that there is some evidence which points to the possibility that Genghis Khan's patrlineage is a very successful one. Researchers have suggested that this patrilineage's success might partially be a function of the fecundity of male relatives of Genghis Khan who shared the same marker, and though no doubt there is some truth to this, the historical evidence also points to the elimination of near male kin because of their perceived threats to his power. This is of course a scaled down version of the issue that crops up in the persistent ethnic nepotism debates on this blog: the enemies you elminate to consolidate resources to support your offspring are often those near to you genetically (see here, here, here and here for posts on ethnic nepotism). Genghis Khan's killing of his half-brother illustrates a very elemental aspect of this principle, sibling rivalry fueled by scarcity of resources (the murder occurred in the context of deprivation).

This is not to deny the importance of kinship in solidifying and mobilizing social units. Rather, it is to offer some more texture to the portrait of the various vectors that might work at cross-purposes to build basic up social structures.

Update: Luke points out that fratricidal conflict was often the norm in the Ottoman court (though permanent seclusion also became a common practice). This is simply a specific data point in a general trend: extremely powerful men often view near relatives as assets and favor them, but, they also can judge them to be threats and kill them to better secure their power base. The early 3rd century emperor Septimius Severus did not want his sons to perpetuate their rivalry after his reign, but the struggle and subsequent murder of one of his sons by another occurred immediately after his death. Similary, there was conflict between the sons of Constantine. One can also point to the tendency among the Mughals to engage in fratricidal conflict in the 18th century. Of course, not all relations between siblings of powerful families are so fraught with strife, but it is something to think upon.

Additionally, I think there is a gender angle on this: by killing many of his cousins one could argue that Genghis Khan was acting against his genetic interest in the immediate moment. But, by accruing considerable power to himself Genghis Khan likely increased his individual reproductive capacity by at least an order of magnitude! Clearly, this sort of bonanza is not available to females, who suffer greater constraints upon their fecundity than males.

Posted by razib at 03:16 PM