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April 09, 2004

The Sword of Empiricism

Well, it looks like nothing is going to be wagered on the outcome, but I am now at the last hurdle in my attempt to convince a skeptical jury of my peers of the merits of my wack thesis on Adam and Eve -- to wit, that not only is it a true story, allegorically speaking, but that it is also empirically connected to the events to which it refers, in time as well as space, in fact as well as metaphorically.

The first piece of evidence I would like to introduce is the nameEden itself. The garden, let us recall, was planted "eastward in Eden." I once looked up the derivation of the word Eden in a religious encyclopedia of some scholarly repute [1], and read that the name was thought to be derived from a Sumero-Akkadian word, edinu, signifying "wilderness" or, more specifically, "wild land not under cultivation." Let me point out that this hypothesized derivation of the name agrees well with the interpretation of the story I am trying to establish. . .

For in the land between the rivers which was Mesopotamia, there were basically two kinds of land; one kind was the land that was cultivated for agriculture, upon which independent horticultural villages (and later subjugated peasant villages) made their living. Everywhere else was land that was not under cultivation, over which hunters-gatherers roamed (and later, herder-pastoralists) subsisting off of the fat of the land. It is a well-documented archeological fact, that in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE, when the first walled cities and political states began to appear in Mesopotamia, there were still examples of hunting-and-gathering societies existing in the uncultivated countryside, in plain sight for everyone to see. [2] It would make sense, therefore, that if an observer with a gift for metaphor were on the scene at the time of the first conquest, and had wanted to convey the essence of what happened in a form that would be understood by the common folk of the time, he might have chosen the phrase "garden of Eden" to designate the world of leisure and equality that was being swept away in the maelstrom of change. In any event, the name Eden is not only consistent with, but highly suggestive of, the possible Mesopotamian origins of this story.

The second piece of evidence I want to adduce is an exceedingly curious sentence that occurs near the middle of the story, right after Eve has been created from Adam?s rib to be his helpmate and companion. It reads, "And therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave (literally "adhere") to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Does anyone notice what is odd about this? It would seem to suggest the custom of matrilocal residence, in which the husband leaves his family to go live with his wife, instead of the other way around. This is a custom that is virtually unknown in complex societies anywhere in the word, and certainly nowhere in the Middle East. It was however quite common -- indeed characteristic -- in early horticultural societies as they existed all over the world in the days before conquest and servitude.[3] After conquest, by a kind of compensatory development, matrilocalism gave way to its opposite, patrilocalism (along with patrilinialism and, of course, patriarchy itself) among both the lower and the upper classes, in every civilization for which we have records. The reference to matrilocalism, therefore, is to an obvious historical anachronism; it attests to its author's familiarity with a vanishing but once widespread way of life that existed right up to the moment when history began. As such, it is an additional indication of the early historical origin of the story, in the late Neolithic period, before the patriarchal transformation of society had blotted out all memory of earlier customs.

An interesting historical side light: the earliest known word for "freedom" in any language is the Sumerian word amargi, which meant originally, "return to the mother." [4] Could this derivation have something to do with the fact that early horticultural societies are precisely the ones that are associated with the so-called "mother goddesses" so beloved in feminist anthropology? There can be little doubt that the status of women was unusually high in just these societies, higher probably than at any other form of society before modern times. This elevated status was a reflection of the importance which the women's work had in the horticultural economy, relative to the contribution of the males. To understand why, it helps to keep in mind that hunting and gathering, not horticulture, was the preferred means of subsistence in pre-historical times. Almost the whole world was given over to hunting and gathering, with agriculture being practiced only on the fringes of that world, to which the least successful and weakest bands had been pushed by their inability to compete with stronger and more able groups, in competition for the most desirable territories, where fruit and game were plentiful. In other words, the men in these horticultural societies were relative failures in their age-old role of defenders of the tribe and the bringers home of meat, which means their prestige and status would have suffered accordingly; by contrast the womenfolk were the saviors of the day, with the art of the hoe being their exclusive preserve. (Later, after conquest, men enter the fields for the first time, behind the plow, which also makes its appearance.) Matriarchy itself may never have existed in any society, in fact almost certainly did not, but it nevertheless remains true that the late Neolithic period was the time of maximum equality between the sexes, until modern times. This circumstance, of course, is well-reflected in the story, in Adam's rib, companionate marriage, one flesh, and all the rest of it, and is indicative of its time of origin.

The third piece of evidence I would like us to consider concerns the serpent that appears in the story and tempts Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In my metaphorical riff on Adam and Eve which I presented in the Chattanooga public library, I said that the invention of agriculture was a result of the female discovery that "by dropping a seed in a hole in the ground, a plant would grow" and that this was symbolized in the story by the serpent, ?that lives in a hole in the ground," and tempts the woman with the tree of knowledge. As fetching as this image might be to the untutored imagination of a child, I am conscious that a more skeptical adult reaction might be to question whether such a fanciful leap in the imagination can be justified. I mean, after all, what do we really know about serpent symbolism in the ancient Near East?

I once asked myself this very question, and went off in search of an answer. Through some sleuthing among junior faculty in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, I learned of a book written on this very topic by a young researcher at a small college in Alabama called Sanford (not to be confused with Stanford in California). When I got back to Chattanooga, I drove down to Sanford and duly got my hands on a copy of the book in the college library. It turned out to be a very straightforward and competent survey of all the archeological evidence then existing, as regards serpent-symbolism in ancient Mesopotamia.[4]

There were three distinct periods in the stratigraphic record, according to Prof. Joines, who was the author of the study. During the most recent period, which covered the 1st and 2nd millenniums BCE, the serpent was a symbol of health. It was this meaning of the figure of the serpent, for example, which lies behind the modern symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, which consists of a serpent coiled around a staff; the caduceus itself dates from 5th century Greece, but is thought to derive from Mesopotamian sources which form part of the cultural background of ancient Greek civilization. (Other examples of Mesopotamian influence in Greek culture, if I am not mistaken, would include such things as the seven day week, the hexadecimal measuring system, and the pyramidal form of the Greek pantheon of gods, but don't hold me to this.)

The next most recent tradition in serpent symbolism in Mesopotamia, according to Prof. Joines, was predominant during much of the 3rd millennium BCE and treated the serpent as a symbol of life and immortality. This certainly makes sense as a precursor to the symbol of health and medicine: if you want to live forever, it is only a matter of time before you start seeing doctors. It also fits the widely documented interest in questions of life and immortality that were current in Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium. In the story of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero, who's fame rests on his reputation as a great "builder of cities," goes off in search of the secret of immortality (in this he seems to have something in common with our own Randall Parker). It also brings to mind, I must confess, references to life and immortality that occur in the story of Adam and Eve itself (eat of the fruit, and "ye shall become as gods, and live forever") which might cause one to whether the story might betray 3rd as well as 4th millennium influences? I have no ready answer to this.

But, be that as it may, our Alabama scholar reported a yet a third layer of meaning for the serpent in the cultural debris of Mesopotamian archeology. At the very bottom of the pit, as it were, in layers that could be dated to the 4th millennium BCE, the serpent was functioning as something quite different -- but also something that archeologists and anthropologists are far more familiar with, from sites all around the world. It was a straightforward fertility symbol.

What kind of fertility symbol? Well, like all fertility symbols in early horticultural societies, it had a dual reference. On the one hand, it was a symbol of you-know-what, as it relates to human fertility and the congress of the male and the female of our species for the purpose of procreation. In that capacity it can also function as a symbol of the man, which helps explain the significance of the serpent's curses in Genesis: "on thy belly shalt thy go, and it will bruise thy head and his heel, and I will put an enmity between her seed and thy seed" In a general way, these curses are suggestive of the new spirit of alienation and inequality that now permeates society, which pits the high against the low, and which henceforth will divide the sexes, to say nothing of different and very unequal classes of men.

But, like every fertility symbol in a horticultural society, this one also has an unmistakable agricultural reference. It is a symbol of the fertility of the fields -- and I would merely note that, given the relatively open and dry character of the Mesopotamian countryside, where vegetation does not thickly cover the ground, snakes do in fact live in holes along the river banks, as I once observed myself near the small town of Hit, on the banks of the Euphrates, in present-day Iraq. (I was there while bumming with a friend across the Middle East -- this was 1963, when Americans were virtually untouchable in that part of the world, even when traveling alone and no matter how outrageous their behavior; needless to say, me and my friend wouldn?t last five minutes in today's environment, particularly when I consider some of the things I did -- I was so ignorant and naïve -- which, looking back, cause me shame and remorse even now, but that's another story.) Here is how Joines summarized the connection between serpents and agriculture:

Serpents live in the ground, near water, in the very locals where vegetation thrives; moreover, like much vegetation, serpents hibernate (i.e., disappear) during the winter months and reappear in the spring, often sporting bright new skins as a result of molting.

So, I submit, my interpretation of the serpent in the story as tempting Eve with the practice of agriculture, is not only fetching, but justified, based on a solid body of archeological evidence which serves to further establish both the place and the time of the narrative: namely, in Mesopotamia, in the 4th millennium BCE.

At this point, if I were a more conservative person, I might rest my case. Indeed, I probably should rest my case and quit while I am ahead. But there is one last small detail in the story, that, while slight, I would like bring to everyone?s attention, as a final, possibly corroborating bit of evidence, even as I beg my readers to understand that, in case I am not successful with this final argument, they will be generous enough to grant that I have already made my case pretty much, to at least a reasonable degree of probability. Or to put it another way: while each of the three pieces of internal evidence I have sighted above are, when considered in isolation, not fully determinative, when they are they are considered together, as an ensemble, they give some real plausibility to my claim that the original composition of the story is linked, in both time and place, to the site of the first conquests in history. The only thing missing is a direct reference to conquest itself.

So, at the risk of weakening my argument, I would like to go out on a limb and examine the very last sentence in the tale. It reads: "And so he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." What I want to dwell on is not the derivation of the word Cherumbim (which means literally "those who are grasped," although "those who grasp, or seize [power? grain?]" would make more sense. Neither am I going to try to do anything with "the tree of life" (grain? bread? the staff of life?), though it is an arresting image. Rather, what fascinates me here is the reference to the "flaming sword" that guards the way to the tree of life.

Some dozen or so years ago, while working on a project around the house, I was thinking about this flaming sword, and it occurred to me that the metal copper, when it is raw and new, is extremely shiny and bright red, like fire, especially when glinting in the sunlight. (I happened to have been working with some at the time.) Well, since, according to my theory, the action in the story takes place in the age before bronze (which in Mesopotamia wasn't introduced until hundreds of years later) it occurred to me that maybe the original conquerors fell upon their victims with copper weapons. I wrote to Prof. Robert McAdams, then at the Smithsonian in D.C., to ask his opinion on the matter. I guess I should explain that I had previously met with Prof. McAdams years before at the U. of Chicago, on the same trip I mentioned above, and in fact had gotten him to critique the first draft of my legal brief on Adam and Eve for errors of fact. At the time he had an office in the Oriental Institute there, and was a recognized authority on early Mesopotamia; I am sure he thought my case bizarre, but he was kind enough to read and criticize my manuscript.*

Anyway, Prof. McAdams wrote back saying there was no evidence that he knew of, for their being swords in Mesopotamia at this period, whether made of copper or anything else. The use of copper was known, and even copper battle axes had been found, but no copper swords. At this point I went back to my Hebrew lexicon and looked up the word "sword" as it occurs in the story. I discovered that the Hebrew word is cherib, whose literal meaning is not "sword" exactly, but rather the much more general, "destroying weapon." Battle axe, in fact, would fit the description perfectly. And so, on the basis of this finding, I would like to conclude this series of posts with a prediction. The prediction, which is straight-forward and falsifiable, is this: that when the archeologists finally start digging in Iraq again (and let us hope it is sooner rather than later) and the first Ubaid burials are uncovered at the Halaf-Ubaid cultural boundary, that Childe?s hypothesis will be confirmed. Weapons will be found in the graves: weapons made of copper, battle axes to be precise, which will not only establish Childe?s hypothesis, but also the one I am trying to establish here: that the true subject of the story of Adam and Eve is the first conquest in history.

*Prof. McAdams response to my brief, in so many words (I think I even have his marked up copy around somewhere), was that while I seemed to have most of my facts right, my argument was not convincing from his professional point of view. Why not? Because no references to Adam and Eve had ever turned up in any of the cuneiform manuscripts that had survived from the period. I mentioned, but did not press, my answer to that: Of course no references had been found. This, after all, is a putative folktale -- an allegory -- which, if true, would have belonged to the illiterate peasantry at the bottom of the social heap, whose interests would have been to keep it a secret from their rulers and masters. Anyway, I was grateful this distinguished man had taken the time to give me a hearing, and I still feel that way 25 years later.

[1] See the article "Eden, garden of" in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Abington Press, 1962)
[2]See Robert McAdam's essay in Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered, edited by Elizabeth F. Henrickson and Ingolf Thuesen, The Carsten Nieburh Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen, 1989, pp. 441-446.

[3] See, e.g., Kathleen Gough's article, "Variations in Residence" in Matrilineal Kinship edited by Schneider and Gough (University of California Press, 1962). After noting that "it would be very unlikely, if not impossible, for matrilineal descent groups to develop except out of prior matrilocal residence," Prof. Gough goes on to generalize: "World distribution [of primitive matrilineal societies] suggests that matrilineal descent is most commonly found in predominantly cultivating societies which lack the plow, important large domesticates, or extensive irrigation works." In other words, it is found in horticultural societies of the type we are discussing.

[4] Samuel Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago, 1963) p.79.

[5]See Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament by Karen Randolph Joines, Haddonfield House (New Jersey 1974) pp.109ff. Specifically, Joines cites data found on cylinder seals and painted sherds taken from StrataVII and VIII at Tepe Gawra, as reported be E. A. Speiser in Excavations at Tepe Gawra, Volume I, Philadelphia, 1935, to wit: Plate LXXVI:7, 12-13; Plate LXXI: 149; Plate LXXV:208: Plate LVII, 20, 21, 24-27, 30; Plate LVIII:32; Plate LVIII: 33, 38: Plate XLVI:b; Plate XXVIII:a3; Plate CLXX: 179.

Posted by lukelea at 09:45 PM | | TrackBack

Must blog about....

Almost full circle, I'm flying back to the West coast today. When I'm settled, I need to blog about the term norm of reaction:

The pattern of phenotypes produced by a given genotype under different environmental conditions.

Too often it seems people are given the options of essentialist/determinism & an operational tabula rasa. More on the norm of reaction. A more nerdy link.

Posted by razib at 12:26 PM | | TrackBack

April 08, 2004

The "Left" on Evolutionary Psychology

A somewhat sneering post taking jabs at evolutionary psychology over at Crooked Timber. Check out this piece in The American Prospect suggesting that liberals shouldn't take gratuitous potshots as evolutionary psychology, I guess that advice didn't take everywhere. Not much time to comment on the post itself, but a good reminder that the Left, home of intellectuals opposed to "superstition," have their own values that do not brook any empirical input. My favorite parts below:

Part of the issue here is that any form of psychology makes a poor sociology, and it’s only evolutionary psychology that tries to pretend that the distinction between individual and social psychology doesn’t exist.
And the other part of the issue is that, however much Steven Pinker would like it to be, the mind is not a Swiss Army knife and the division of psychological entities into modules is something without anatomical basis when carried out at the level of anything other than the broadest and most general ur-behaviours. The only things which are even a candidate for evolutionary explanation are the big drives; eating, reproduction, childcare, status, suppression of same-species aggression.

I suggest you read Kevin Drum's comment-he's pretty reasonable about this overkill-aimed-to-the-choir.

Now, compare and contrast with this post from Ideofact about the attitudes of Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb's attitude toward biological science:

In other words, Darwinist biology -- evolutionary theory -- asks questions that shouldn't be asked, puts data together that should be kept discreet and separate, and so on. Forget for a moment the question of whether Darwin was right -- just consider the amount of research his ideas spawned.

Hm...well, evolutionary psychology teaches us that there are many human universals with common themes, though the particulars may differ, after all, all sins are one....

Posted by razib at 04:53 PM | | TrackBack

It's all about gene expression!

New light shed on chimp genome:

The key to the distinction between the two species could lie in the functional importance of different levels of gene expression.

OK, we've had our fill of surveys of "junk DNA," let's look at what's functionally important. In these specific details is where the real gold is. It's all good to say that our genome is 98-99% chimp (and so emphasize our common genetic kinship phylogenetically)-but common sense tells us that that 1-2% difference is very crucial indeed (and so realize our uniqueness anatomically).

Posted by razib at 07:21 AM | | TrackBack

Proportional Representation Systems

Mixed-Member Proportional Voting (with the 5% threshold caveat) is what I generally think would be best for the United States at this point in its history. Winner-take-all single districts aren't a bad idea, and they do foster political centrism, but in a nation of 285 million people, I don't think the "mushy middle" approach is viable anymore. Every year there is a refrain of "no choices," and the "mushy middle" approach politically has not seemed to payoff in a more amicable and less partisan broader culture, rather, it just enforces "best fit" politicians on perennially unsatisfied constituencies.

Posted by razib at 06:43 AM | | TrackBack

April 07, 2004

Where the buck stops

I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Chelsea (NYC). While my gf & I were in Chicago recently, we started talking about how we only drink Starbucks on the road. When away from the Northwest (Imbler & Washington) it is kind of a cultural touchstone, and makes us feel like we're home, doesn't matter if we're in Chicago, Florida or Pennsylvania. Of course, when we are home we often don't drink Starbucks, because we know of a better local coffee shop. Just goes to show you what corporations can be good for, a national brand you trust! Interestingly, to me at least, the type of bohemian folk who dislike corporate brands might be leading to the decline of local businesses, as they push for a mobile, wandering culture, unrooted in place or time.

Posted by razib at 07:34 PM | | TrackBack

April 06, 2004

Back to Adam

In my previous post on Adam and Eve, I set about trying to establish the historicity of this foundational myth of Western culture and civilization, arguing that it was "a true story, that tells the invention of agriculture, which brought slavery into the world" -- and that as such it was suitable for inclusion in the world history curriculum of our nation's elementary public schools. I didn't get as many objections from GNXP readers on this score as I was expecting, particularly in light of my suggestion that it was suitable for elementary school children. So let me say what I think the major weakness in my argument is, so far: it is lacking in empirical support. I supplied a metaphorical interpretation of the story, which, however persuasive as a piece of rhetoric (and let's admit, it was persuasive) does not set it apart from a thousand other fanciful readings of the text, supplied by theologians, psychologists, self-help gurus, lay preachers, and the certifiably insane. For my argument to be taken seriously, I am going to have to establish it on empirical grounds, in the form of a falsifiable proposition, which either is or is not supported by the bulk of the historical evidence that is relevant to the question.

Or to break it down further, if I am going to convince a majority of people of reasonable intelligence -- including, eventually, a majority of justices in various courts of law -- of the validity of this interpretation, there are three things I have got to accomplish:

First, I will have to show that there is in fact a highly improbable historical coincidence here that stands in need of explanation. This comes down, in my judgment, to supplying the evidence to support my contention that the first conquest in history actually did occur somewhere in Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE, which is where the story in Genesis is set. I'll come back to this question in a moment.

My second task is to show there is a plausible possibility that the story of Adam and Eve, assuming it did originate in the 4th millennium BCE, could have survived intact in oral tradition for roughly three thousand years, before being reduced to writing (which, scholars believe, occurred sometime around 1000 BCE). This turns out to be the easiest of my three tasks, surprisingly, so let me dispose of it quickly.

Prof. Glyn Daniel -- the same University of Cambridge archeologist whom I cited previously for his coinage of the term sinoecism, denoting "the union of two or more independent villages under a single head" -- has also documented the survival of a more-than-three-thousand-year-old oral tradition in the Hindu religion, transmitting what later turned out to be accurate descriptions of the people, cities, and arts of northern India at the time of the Aryan invasion in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. The information was contained in the sacred Aryan hymns of the Brahmin caste, which, according to Prof. Daniel, were not written down until the 18th century A.D. during the time of British rule in India. For more than a hundred years after that they remained the only written clue that there had ever been a civilization in India prior to the Aryan arrival; and, indeed, it wasn't until the 20th century that the remains of the first cities of the so-called Harrapan civilization were uncovered by archeologists, at which point the essential accuracy of the information in the hymns was confirmed.

Well, it is a simple matter to argue that if happened once, then it could happen twice. Nor is it perhaps entirely a matter of coincidence that in both cases we are dealing with sacred literature. The major difference is that whereas the Indian tradition contains miscellaneous data about the physical appearance, wealth, arts, etc., of a forgotten civilization, the Adam and Eve material takes the memorably artful form of what (I think most everyone would agree) is one of the most charming folktales in world literature. If anything, the story of Adam and Eve would seem to be better calculated to survive the ravages of time and the hazards of oral transmission. So unless Prof. Daniel can be shown to have been mistaken as to when the Vedic hymns were first written down, I rest this part of my case.

The third task I have to accomplish is more difficult; indeed, on its face, it would seem close to impossible. Somehow or other, using only evidence that is internal to the document itself, I have got to establish an empirical link between the text as we have it in Genesis, and a specific historical event which may (or may not) have occurred in Mesopotamia sometime in the early 4th millennium BCE. What makes this an especially difficult thing to do, is the fact that the only two obvious connections -- the references to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the genealogies in Genesis which link Adam to later historical figures -- are neither of them part of the story of Adam and Eve proper. The river references, in particular, occur in a passage which has quite obviously been interpolated into the original body of the text well after it had been reduced to writing. The abrupt change in style is only too apparent -- even in translation, and to the untutored eye -- to come to any other conclusion. So we might as well dispense with that evidence right off the bat.

A similar view can be taken with regard to the genealogical tables in Genesis that link Adam to Abraham, even though these genealogies are the means by which the Jewish calendar has traditionally been reckoned; to say nothing of the fact that they are also the basis on which Bishop Butler made his famous calculation of the day of Creation as occurring in the year 4004 BCE. Granted, it is not altogether beside the point that the West Semitic tribes who roamed southwest Asia in ancient times, were known for the importance they attached to their genealogies (see, e.g., George Roux). But even so, any relevance that these genealogies may have, bears a lot more on the credence we can place in the integrity and continuity of Semitic oral tradition, than on the dating of the time of composition of the story itself. For that reason I don't intend to make any further use of them.

Well, then, at this point, if I were a betting man and knew nothing more about it, I would be inclined to say that the odds were pretty slim of my being able to persuade a majority of GNXP regulars -- an intelligent and skeptical bunch, if ever there was one -- that I have been able to successfully surmount this third and final challenge. On the other hand, knowing what I do (or think I do), if there is anyone out there on the web who would be willing to give me ten-to-one odds, then I just might make an exception in this particular case, and risk a few of my (wife's) hard earned dollars on a serious wager, if only to make a point. Godless, would you hold the money?

But enough of such tactics. It is time to get back to task number one: fixing the time and the place of the first conquest in history. Has anyone ever had the temerity to actually propose the site of such a momentous, world-shattering event? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, within certain broad limits, one man has; his name was Gordon Childe, and he is generally regarded (by his colleagues at any rate) to have been the greatest interpretive archeologist in the history of that discipline. (He was the guy, for example, who originally formulated the concepts of the Neolithic and the Urban revolutions.) In middle of the last century, in a general survey of the archeological record as it then existed, Childe drew attention to the stratigraphic evidence at some sites in northern Mesopotamia where two cultures met: below were the broken shards and other material debris associated with the Halafian culture, known for the unusual beauty and refinement of its pottery ware. Above were the remains of a much less sophisticated culture known as the Ubaid. Childe pointed to something unusual about this particular stratigraphic boundary: whereas normally one culture gave way to another completely, indicating the total replacement of one people by another, in this case the Halafian culture did not disappear, but continued to exist along side of, and in intermixture with, a much smaller amount of Ubaidian material. Childe interpreted this, along with the introduction of certain Ubaidian features in local architecture and building styles, as evidence that a conquest had taken place, with a relatively small number of Ubaidians controlling a larger population of Halafians. Unfortunately Childe's hypothesis has never been confirmed nor disconfirmed, owing to a dearth of new archeological digs in Iraq, caused by the unfavorable political situation. In particular, no one has yet discovered any Ubaid burials at those sites, which, if they could be shown to contain weapons or other royal insignia, would be strong evidence in favor of Childe's claim.

But no matter. Even if we cannot establish Childe's hypothesis at present, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence which indicate that the first conquests in history occurred somewhere in the general vicinity -- ie, in northern Mesopotamia, sometime in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE -- though it might have been a little later in the Ubaid period, or even later in the early Uruk. We see it not only in the multiple appearance of walled cities around this time, but also in the abundant imagery of warfare and captivity -- including large-scale scenes of corporal punishment being administered to civilians -- found on the cylinder seals that start showing up in the archeological record in northern Mesopotamia. (Some good pictures can be found here.)

To avoid confusion, readers need to keep in mind that while Sumer, or southern Mesopotamia, is famous as the locus of the first fully developed civilization in history, there is reason to believe that the first conquests in history actually occurred slightly to the north of Sumer, in which case the development of Sumer itself can be understood as one of those defensive reactions I described in my previous post, occasioned by threats of conquest which were perceived to be coming from Sumer's neighbors to the north. This would help explain, for example, why in the earliest Sumerian written records there are references to town councils and other relatively egalitarian social institutions; in time, however, the requirements of defense, including the maintenance of full-time professional armies, caused the collective security states in the south to become virtually indistinguishable from the more aggressive military states, to the north, and in the case of the peasantry, completely indistinguishable.

Two minor notes: because Mesopotamian developments were a couple of hundred years ahead of similar developments in Egypt, and given the extensive cultural contacts that are known to have existed between these two regions from the earliest periods on, it is generally assumed that the direction of causation ran from east to west and not the other way; in other words, the Egyptians may have gotten the idea of conquest from the Mesopotamians. It is likewise possible that the civilization which arose slightly later than Sumer and Egypt in the Indus Valley was in response to observations of what happened in Sumer and beyond, which could have been communicated via trade contacts that ran up through the Persian Gulf. This might explain the relative egalitarian features of the so-called Harrapan civilization, for example (if, indeed, those features prove to be genuine). Harrapan civilization, in other words, might be understood as an example of a voluntary defensive formation that did not succumb to internal corruption at the hands of its military elites, because it was not subject to relentless military pressure from overland assault, the way Sumer was. But eventually, of course, this peaceful civilization (if such it was) fell like all the rest, at the hands of Aryan invaders from the north.

I have now reached the point where I cannot put off much longer my third and final task. Readers may choose not to believe me, therefore, when I say I have no wish to keep any of you in suspense. But in fairness, I think I ought to wait at least a few days to see if anybody out there on the web is going to take me up on my wager. Like everybody else who contributes to this blog, I've never earned a penny for my thoughts; it would be nice for a change -- at least my wife would think so -- if I could show a little something for all those countless years she's had to put up with me reading my books and staring off into space. On the other hand, if I should lose this bet . . . well, let's just hope she doesn't ask for a divorce; because, truth to tell, I can't live without her, and she knows it full well.

(to be continued, with one final installment)

Posted by lukelea at 09:57 PM | | TrackBack

Tacking to get where you need to go

My politics are kind of orthogonal to the main axis of American politics as it currently seems to orient itself (the "line of best fit" so to speak). Small government, laissez faire social policy, a non-adventurous foreign policy as well as an animus toward "multiculturalism," nothing special, but I feel kind of left out in the current climate (I am kind of apathetic to the whole "Iraq situation").

In any case, the reason I'm posting on this political topic is that I'm seeing ads on TV about Pat Toomey (I'm in Pennsylvania right now, and Toomey is trying to knock off Arlen Specter as the Republican nominee for the Senate). Toomey is a "movement conservative," and I saw him speak at a CATO event on the "Social Security Crisis" last year. He is an easy target for Arlen Specter, because he's principled, and it's easy to caricature his votes because they aren't always guided by how it might be framed in a 30-second advertisement. Now, my politics aren't Toomey's politics, but, he has principles, and he's an "extremist." I like extremists, because they often attempt to affect some change to the status quo. So, for me, that means hoping that radicals like Toomey unseat the moderates in their party like Arlen Specter, or, from conversely, a Leftist pro-civil liberties & pro-drug legalization Democrat against a more moderate candidate.

Some might wonder if this is might not be a prescription for gridlock? Well, yes, it might be just that....

Posted by razib at 09:14 PM | | TrackBack

One among many....

The headline shouts Genetic basis of hereditary nerve disorder revealed. But read the fine print: "While defects in multiple genes are known to underlie various forms of CMT...Two primary forms of CMT are recognized...Our results indicate that mitofusin 2 is a major gene underlying CMT type 2A, and probably one of the major genes that cause all hereditary forms of the axonal neuropathy, CMT type 2...."

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) affects 150,000 Americans. There is no known cure. This research, as the article notes, is a first step in going from palliation to remediation. But would it hurt to just add an "A" in front of the headline? Recently I noted that we should be careful about presenting a one-size-fits-all narrative to the public when it comes to genetic science, and the scientific media should definately step up to the plate. The link was to Medical News Today, it's not like they're The New York Times, I expect more when it comes to nuance....

Posted by razib at 02:03 PM | | TrackBack

April 05, 2004

Islamic observations & memes

A few quick notes.

1 - I am having some serious bouts of skepticism about "memes." Last year, David B submitted two posts on memes where he expressed his own problems with "memetics." My own personal interest in intellectual ideas & talking to people makes me very wary of high fidelity of the copies of a given meme (people have a hard enough time communicating prosaic social information, let alone more esoteric concepts). Yes, I know that one can transmit general axioms on how to produce the meme-but I am skeptical most people have a clear tendency to think axiomatically, or the ability to make the "correct" inferences.

2 - This gets to my opinions about Islam. I have been a priori open to "clash of civilization" arguments because I feel empirically they have some support in the specifics. But, I have qualms about generalities about the "nature" of Islam. This goes back to my issues with the fidelity of transmission of ideas, people seem to be able to spin anything into anything, within their own preconceived parameters, that is, religious ideas tend to be justifications for their own personal inclinations, rather than the other direction. I am well aware that early in the 20th century thinkers would assert that "Confucianism was the reason East Asian societies were backward," while today, scholars will declare that "Confucian values lead to success!" Empirical evidence can result in a plethora of conjectures, but how to falsify or validate them?

3 - So, to the specifics, the idea tht "Muhammed was his own Constantine" is used to show how Islam differs in nature from Christianity. I have made the argument that the fact that the Koran is the literal word of God, rather than the impressions and interpretations of various humans, makes Islam qualitatively different in its axioms. Nonetheless, if my skepticism about the ability of humans to infer correctly the intent of those making axiomatic assertions holds, this might be irrelevant to how most Muslims practice their faith.

4 - But then I see this in the Muslim Under Progress Blog:

His call on Muslims to "revise God's word" must also be rejected. Sorry, but problems with the transmission and authentication of text in the Judeo-Christian tradition cannot be simply transposed onto the Islamic tradition.

Hmmm...OK, one far more learned in the One True Faith is saying that Islam has some axioms that one can not just re-work themselves in a Judeo-Christian fashion. Given that, is that relevant? Can the human mind develop an ingenius "work around" to dovetail Western liberalism with the Eternal Uncreated Koran? (remember that the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to "liberalism" until well into this century)

5 - Over at ParaPundit I express skepticism that defeating Islam on the plains of battle will have any impact on demoralizing the faith of the believers. My rationale is based on historical evidence from the various Abrahamic faiths-when True Believers lose, they lose not because of their God, but because of their lack of faith. So their solution is more faith in the face of defeat. This is in contrast with pagan groups, where defeat on the plains of battle is evidence for the weakeness of a totemic god against another totemic god. On the other hand, Islam's own problems in mixing faith & state, for instance, Iran, seem more likely to lead to an emergence of "post-Islamic identity."

More after full digestion.

Posted by razib at 07:54 PM | | TrackBack

Living Wages: A Good Idea?

Though most conservative and libertarian types are strongly against a living wage and are often against any minimum wage at all, as a conservative myself, I see such views as overly simplistic and idealistic. America today is far from an absolute free market system—the government provides services such as education, health care, housing assistance, and food stamps. Though this may seem like a trivial statement, it often seems to be ignored by the Limbaugh/Hannity/Bush “Right” when the issue is immigration or “cheap” labor in general.

Workers who are paid low wages and few or no benefits generally pay very little in taxes and often use taxpayer-funded services heavily. Businesses (and individuals, such as in the case of nannies) can also draw low-wage workers from other countries who require such services and pay very little in taxes. The lowered wages due to an increased unskilled labor pool also mean that native-born unskilled workers pay less in taxes and are likely to use more in public benefits.

Employers should be required to pay the full cost of hiring unskilled workers, especially because so many employers are so enthusiastic about bringing new “cheap” (subsidized) labor to the U.S. It is harmful and unfair for employers to be able to pay $7 an hour for a worker (for a 50 hour workweek, 50 weeks a year, this works out to a paltry $17,500 a year), while the taxpayers are stuck paying $7,000 or more per year, per kid to educate the employee’s children, and thousands or even tens of thousands more for health care and other benefits. At the least, the minimum wage should be increased, and employers should be required to pay for catastrophic health care benefits (obviously low-wage employees are unable to afford such care on their own—taxpayers end up paying for it). I might even support a low wage tax that would increase with decreasing wages. Such a tax would make up for the taxes low-wage workers do not pay and for the benefits they use.

Some libertarians and those who lean libertarian believe that “any willing employer should be able to hire any willing employee.” The problem with that statement is that there is a third party—the unwilling taxpayer who often must pay for services and benefits for immigrant workers. To me there is nothing "libertarian" (much less sensible) about forcing taxpayers to subsidize employers' cheap labor.

Posted by bb at 07:42 PM | | TrackBack

Posted by razib at 07:12 PM | | TrackBack


If Rome is any good-I might have to get HBO! Here is an article about the production of the series (due 2005) in The New York Times.

Posted by razib at 06:07 PM | | TrackBack


I will be in NYC tomorrow night, until Friday evening. Probably taking a day trip to the Hudson valley on Wed....

Posted by razib at 01:04 PM | | TrackBack

April 04, 2004

"An intriguing mystery"

On the road I've been re-reading a copy of Principles of Population Genetics by Daniel Hartl & Andrew Clark (2nd edition, 1989). A box on page 324-325 (chapter on "Population Subdivision & Migration") has the following:

Four Israeli communities characterized by large families & high levels of consanguinity were found to display four different lysosomal storage disorders. The coincidence of four distinct diseases with similar biochemical consequences is quite extraordinary...The four disorders - including Tay Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, and mucolipidosis IV - are genetically distinct, but all four are characterized by an excess of a type of lipid known as sphingolipid, and all involve sphingolipids with a ceramid-lipid backgound...Although it is not useful to perform a formal statistical test on this observation, it does suggest that the clustering of such similar diseases would not be likely to occur by chance alone. There has been a suggestion that the prevalence of lysosomal storage diseases in these populations may be the result of natural selection, perhaps favoring carriers of the diseases in some as yet undisclosed manner. One speculation is that resistance to tuberculosis and pneumonia is involved. However, the cause of the clustering of these otherwise rare diseases remains an intriguing mystery.

Here are selections from a recent paper (full text at the link) from the authors cited by Hartl & Clark.

Regarding Ashkenazi Jews, although we have no clear evidence for the selection force, we can safely assume that the environmental factor lasted for centuries and that there is no reason to doubt that this selection force was effective in Central Europe as well as in the eastern part. Medical care for the Jewish people was not basically different in these regions. Thus, we would expect to find diverse distributions of allelic mutations for a selection process. Although the four LSDs are recessive, it can be postulated that, under extreme conditions, such as lung disorders, heterozygotes might undergo even a slight lysosomal storage of these substances, which might confer beneficial resistance to these conditions.
One may wonder why the selection phenomenon was restricted primarily to the Ashkenazim and not to the non-Jewish people around them. Two, equally plausible, assumptions might explain this phenomenon. (a) The Jews in Europe, particularly in earlier periods (i.e., the 10th-17th centuries) lived for the most part in an extremely poor socioeconomic status with poor medical management. Thus, a selection force by heterozygous advantage might have been more effective for that population. (b) The genetic background of Jews was shown to be unique and different from that of other European people. It can be postulated that this particular genetic structure might have conferred a higher sensitivity or susceptibility to certain lung disorders, when compared with other people in the same region.
Welll, as regular readers of GNXP are aware, I know some folks who agree with the selection pressure part, but disagree on the specifics, with the above authors. When Greg & Henry have their paper published, we can compare the plausibility of their thesis with the one above (I am unconvinced by Risch's argument for genetic drift). One thing for sure though, their assertions are in much bolder face and more baldly stated.
Posted by razib at 09:03 AM | | TrackBack

Physics Envy

In my previous post on this subject, I asserted the non-applicability of higher mathematics to economic analysis, arguing that true functions (in the mathematical sense) are missing from all economic relationships. Abiola asked for a demonstration or proof.

Very well. What follows is a slight re-working of a comment I posted to Brad Delong's web site a few weeks back, which ought to satisfy any reasonable person who has doubts on this question:

The root of the problem lies in the belief, held by academic economists, that deep down and in some mysterious way -- maybe only statistically -- the laws of supply and demand are like the laws of physics -- as, for example, the laws governing the attraction and repulsion of electrons and protons. But consider:

In physics, the law which describes the inverse relation between distance and force between charges (or masses) is not just a rough approximation, qualitative description, or statistical generalization. Rather, it is an extremely precise description, to roughly 20 decimal places of significance, in which measurement error plays a very small part.

What's more, each electron is considered to be not just similar to every other electron (to continue the example) but rather exactly like every other electron, to the point of electrons having no individual identity when two or more are together at the same time and place.

In addition, in the world of physics the charge on an electron (keeping to the same example) is assumed not to vary with time and place, but to remain exactly the same everywhere and always throughout the entire observable universe and for all time, to the very last decimal place that we are able to measure.

Given these assumptions (which have frequently been tested) physicists have a reasonable basis to believe they are

dealing with actual functions (in the mathematical sense) when they write a formula such as F=G(mm'/rr) for gravitation, or F=qq'r/4(pi)errr for electrostatics and therefore feel justified to hazard the use of sophisticated mathematical analysis for purposes of prediction -- yet always humbly leaving open the possibility that they could be wrong regarding any and all of their assumptions, including constancy of charge, precision of the inverse law, etc.

And yet, even then, physicists will be the first to admit that even the most powerful mathematical machinery they are able to bring to bear on a problem can deal successfully with only the very simplest situations, beyond which their equations are useless. Thus, for example, their equations can be solved for the two body problem but not the three body problem in Newtonian mechanics; they can solve the Schrödinger equation when there is only one proton and one electron interacting, but not when there are even two protons and two electrons, let alone anything more complicated than that.

Furthermore, on those occassions when physicists do make complex predictions -- such as that nuclear fission would occur en mass, before the first atom bomb was tested (to choose an historical example) -- they do so with caution, double checking all their calculations, and hoping that they haven't overlooked something, or might accidentally set the atmosphere on fire. (See Richard Rhodes excellent The Making of the Atomic Bomb for more on this subject). *

Contrast this with the situation in economics. Here the elementary particle, so to speak, is the individual human being, no two of which are alike. What's more, the forces of attraction and repulsion that each individual feels for the goods of this world cannot be measured with any precision at all, much less to an accuracy of 20 decimal places. Furthermore, these forces of attraction and repulsion do not remain constant, even approximately so, over time and place for the same individual, let alone for different individuals, who vary enormously in their likes and dislikes.

Does any of this deter economists from using the machinery of calculus and systems of linear equations and so forth, to try to model the most complex dynamic systems imaginable, involving multiple individuals and multiplicity of goods? Noooooooooooo. They rush right in; and this, my friends, is precisely what physics envy is all about.

One final note on the idea of utility. Utility is a useful heuristic concept, in my judgment, with a well-understood intuitive content: it refers to how much satisfaction or displeasure one feels as a result of acquiring or losing some good. (For the theoretical usefulness of the concept, see what William Stanley Jevons did with it in his revolutionary breakthrough to marginal analysis in the middle of the 19th century.) Now, admittedly, utility cannot be measured -- but even so, it has a hell of a lot more reality in the real world of economics than an indifference curve, which exists only in the minds of mathematical Platonists like Paul Samuelson and company -- who, I predict, will be remembered in the annals of economics about as long as the acolytes of Talcot Parsons were remembered in the annals of sociology, after that distinguished gentleman departed from the scene.

Bottom line: the field of economics is in a high state of academic decadence for now, the likes of which only a Jonathan Swift could love.

*The combination of caution and open-mindedness in the physics community is illustrated by a funny anecdote I heard during the cold-fusion fiasco a few years back, when scientists were first trying to reproduce the results. As a rule, chemists tended to be more credulous, and physicists more skeptical, of the claims of Fleischman and Pons. (btw, I have a newspaper photo of those two posing with Marylin Lloyd, our local congresswoman, who was sitting on the House Energy Committee at the time; Marilyn had long ringlets of hair falling all over her forehead, and I told her (she was a gardening client of ours) that for all the world the three of them together looked like the Marx brothers; she didn?t think it was funny.) Anyway, the joke at the time was that you could always tell the chemists from the physicists: the chemists were the guys sitting around tables with glass beakers on top, and confidence written all over their faces; while the physicists were the one's with more dubious expressions, crouching behind lead shields.

Posted by lukelea at 08:53 AM | | TrackBack

Galtonian Revolution, redux

In my last post, I mentioned I was impressed that AAAS and APA had developed behavior genetics (BG) working groups. Now, even more to my amazement, APA has devoted an issue of the Monitor, their monthly newsletter, to BG. This periodical is delivered to all APA members, including the SPSSI, the group that was largely behind the small movement to have Arthur Jensen thrown out of the APA a while back.

My favorite quote, from the Gender Bender article, is this

prenatal sex differentiation can at least sometimes trump social influences.

Like I said, the the Galtonian Revolution may be slow, but it is coming.

Posted by A. Beaujean at 01:55 AM | | TrackBack