Open Thread, 08/19/2018

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story is a “deal” on Kindle. Recommended. Also, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.

Greece’s Bailout Is Ending. The Pain Is Far From Over. Seems to me that Greece is stuck in an unfortunate equilibrium (see the employment laws).

The Big Sort: Selective Migration and the Decline of Northern England, 1780-2018.

On Twitter, I implicitly defended Steven Pinker a bit. I think The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined will be noted as one of his most important books because many people were not, and are not, aware of positive trends in the aggregate. My personal experience is that many academic biologists, especially those with ecological backgrounds, are highly pessimistic. Basically, they are stuck in the 1970s.

There are reasons to be pessimistic, and I’m not as optimistic about the future as Pinker, but we first need to accept the facts as they are.

One of the strange things over the past five years or so has been the hatred I’ve seen directed at Steven Pinker by some academics. Consider this from the classicist in the thread above: “I’ve yet to come across *any* respective expert that doesn’t think Pinker’s popular books are garbage….” Or earlier this year I saw a German researcher on my Twitter timeline declare Pinker was pro-Nazi (based on a highly edited clip)!

Most interesting chart from Pew, How Millennials today compare with their grandparents 50 years ago.

The Nastiest Feud in Science: A Princeton geologist has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions. But she’s reopened that debate.

“I will die here”: Death toll rises in southern India’s worst flooding in a century.

The importance of fine-scale studies for integrating paleogenomics and archaeology.

Forager-farmer transitions from East Asia to Sahul: Regional and Global Perspectives.

The Ginkgo Model of Societal Crisis.

530 House Projection.

A quantitative genetics model for the dynamics of phenotypic (co)variances under limited dispersal, with an application to the coevolution of socially synergistic traits.

The perils of intralocus recombination for inferences of molecular convergence.

The Insight is taking a break for a few weeks. Just want to note that I’m proud we have 32 episodes now! Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or listen on the web.

I’ve asked people what podcasts they listen to before, but what blogs do you read? Honestly, I don’t read many anymore.

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah


The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.

Alpha is finally almost here

I’ve wondered whatever happened to Alpha, the film about a Solutrean boy? It was supposed to come out much earlier in the year, but they pushed it back to August. So it will be competing with Crazy Rich Asians this weekend. Not sure if I’ll end up catching it, but it seems like they are making the new trailer a bit more “feel good.”

I do have to admit: it’s strange to realize that for the vast majority of our species’ existence we were just hunters, like the ones depicted in this film. Unfortunately I doubt they’ll illustrate much about Soultrean society, even if conjectural, because the film is mostly about a lone boy with a tamed wolf.

Open Thread, 08/14/2018

Weekly book recommendation, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium.

V. S. Naipaul has died. I never read his fiction. Perhaps I should. Suggestions? People always talk about A House for Mr. Biswas.

Genome-wide polygenic scores for common diseases identify individuals with risk equivalent to monogenic mutations. ” We propose that it is time to contemplate the inclusion of polygenic risk prediction in clinical care, and discuss relevant issues.” Totally honestly, this is happening way faster than I had assumed it would.

Relatedness disequilibrium regression estimates heritability without environmental bias. A blog post on the topic: Relatedness disequilibrium regression explained.

Large-scale whole-genome sequencing of three diverse Asian populations in Singapore. Han (Southern) Chinese, Malays, and Indians (mostly Tamil).

Can Amazon Maintain the Spirit of ‘The Lord of the Rings’? I doubt it. One thing to remember is that George R. R. Martin was a screenwriter in Hollywood for a period. His writing is a more natural translation to modern visual media.

Only the Truth Will Prevent Harm. Sarah Haider. Enough said.

Deep Reads: How I learnt to love population genetics.

Important preprint. Expected patterns of local ancestry in a hybrid zone.

Salt and heart disease: a second round of “bad science”?

Last year, The Witchwood Crown was published. Haven’t read it. Any good?

Live not by the haplogroup alone

In The population genomics of archaeological transition in west Iberia the authors note that “the population of Euskera speakers shows one of the maximal frequencies (87.1%) for the Y-chromosome variant, R1b-M269…” In the early 2000s the high frequency of R1b-M269 among the Basques, a non-Indo-European linguistic isolate, was taken to be suggestive of the possibility that R1b-M269 reflected ancestry from European hunter-gatherers present when farmers and pastoralists pushed into the continent.

The paper above shows that the reality is that the Basque people have higher fractions of Neolithic farmer ancestry than any other Iberian people. Additionally, they have lower fractions of the steppe pastoralist ancestry than other Iberian groups. This, despite the fact that we also know from ancient DNA that R1b-M269 does seem to have spread with steppe pastoralists, likely Indo-Europeans.

Obviously the relationship between Y chromosomes and genome-wide ancestry is complex. The pattern here for the indicates that Indo-European male lineages were assimilated into the Basques. Perhaps the Basque were matrilineal? One can’t know. But, these men did not impose their culture. Instead, they were assimilated into the Basque. This is entirely not shocking. There history of contact between different peoples in the recent past shows plenty of cases where individuals have “gone native.” In some cases, many individuals.

I was thinking this when looking at South Asian Y chromosome frequencies. Though R1a1a is correlated with higher castes and Indo-European speakers, its frequency is quite high in some ASI-enriched groups. I suspect that the period after 2000 BC down to the Common Era witness a dynamic where particular patrilineal societies were quite successful in maintain their status over generations. Additionally, the ethnogenesis of “Indo-Aryan” and “Dravidian” India was occurring over this period, in some cases through a process of expansion, integration, and conflict. It seems some pre-Aryan paternal lineages were assimilated into Brahmin communities. For example, Y haplogroup R2, whose origin is almost certainly in the Indus Valley Civilization society.

Some population genetic models are stylized and elegant. They have to be to be tractable. But we always need to remember that real history and prehistory were complex, and exhibited a richer and more chaotic texture.

White people are not gods, they bleed

I’ve kept my mouth shut on this issue for a while, but it keeps popping up on my Twitter timeline.

The comment above was directed at a piece in The Washington Post, White, and in the minority: She speaks English. Her co-workers don’t. Inside a rural chicken plant, whites struggle to fit in. You can imagine the typical reaction to this sort of story. Journalistic organizations don’t arbitrarily select a particular topic. A story about non-college educated whites being demographically and socially marginalized is appealing for various reasons that have nothing to do with how representative the story is. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer would say that this is a story that we’d be interested in because it’s a “minimally counter-intuitive” concept: the dominant demographic experiencing what it’s like to be a minority. It’s interesting…but it’s not far-fetched.

I grew up in the 1980s in an area where the majority population was white, and the non-whites were black. I know what it’s like to be a minority. To be complimented on my English every week by strangers, and asked what “Indian tribe” I belonged to if I told people my family was from India (they wouldn’t know where Bangladesh was). In my adolescence, I lived in areas which were even whiter. Over 95% white. When many non-whites in the United States have to read about white people expressing worry and consternation because they’re not the majority and in a position of demographic dominance as if we are supposed to have sympathy, people with my experiences can get frustrated because being a minority is constitutive to many of our lives. Welcome to our world!

The problem is that we really shouldn’t reduce everything to a simple racial equation. Our color is not our world. Or at least that’s my opinion. If you are a frog-nazi, your mileage may vary.

I don’t know Rani Molla’s class background, and I won’t presuppose, but she managed to get degrees from Oberlin and Columbia. She’s now a data journalist for Recode, but she’s done work at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal. If she came from a position of less privilege, she’s been a sterling meritocrat, getting degrees from elite institutions, and transitioning to a career as a journalist in New York City.

The fact is that the piece above makes clear that the people profiled did not have “every advantage.” Yes, they are white. But in the economy of 2018 in the United States, and the developed world in general, they did not have every advantage. Though the story highlights their alienation from the Spanish-speaking majority at their plant, their class interests were interchangeable with the immigrant demographic majority.

In contrast, even South Asians who grow up poor in the United States, usually have an ancestral class background which is somewhat elite. While black Americans and South Asians may share common physical features as dark-skinned people of color, most black Americans descend from slaves, while most South Asian Americans are more likely to either be the scions of a genuinely elite family or a prosperous lineage from a rural backwater. If you buy Greg Clark’s argument in The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, then you know that he makes the case that social status is highly heritable when you look across many generations, as opposed to focusing on single generation correlations.

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The new post-genetic paradigm will come

Oftentimes the domain on which a technical framework is applied matters a great deal. Imagine, if you will, an explicit statistical test for a phylogenetic relationship between a set of extant populations, whereby one infers a group of ancestral populations. If the genus is Drosophila, it’s academic. Interesting, but academic. If the genus is Homo, then it gets complicated.

People care a great deal about the historical inferences made from human population genomic datasets. I say genomic, and not genetic, because the last ten years with genome-wide analyses and ancient DNA is very different from what we saw in the late 20th century and aughts. The definitive granularity is such that population genomics has touched upon very sensitive and precious issues, both in a scholarly and non-scholarly context.

A lot of the time I have my head down reading supplements where the statistical methods are. The reality is that this sort of science is cutting edge, and there are always later revisions. Usually you can see where those revisions might come from if you look at the detailed methods and conclusions that are found in the supplements. Also, you will find that that is where you see the limitations, and the reasons that the authors chose particular parameters.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, consider 2016’s Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East. The paper proper is 24 pages. But the supplemental text is 148 pages. There is a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I would just jump to page 125 and read the whole section there and down to the end. The method portion is important because you always need to take number values in results with a grain of salt. You see for example later work which refines fractions significantly when it comes to estimating admixture between a finite set of putative populations. And the last section seems likely to become a paper in and of itself at some point

But that doesn’t mean that the genetic inferences are not robust and come out of a vacuum. In the details the phylogenetic models being tested are going to be wrong on many particulars, but in relation to hypotheses being tested they are often entirely sufficient to reject to accept.

For example, there was long the idea that the Basque people of the western trans-Pyrenees region of Spain and France descended from pre-farming Europeans, and therefore the Basque language, which is an isolate, might have local roots which went back to the Pleistocene. Today, ancient DNA along with explicit testing of various phylogenetic scenarios makes it clear that the largest fraction of Basque ancestry derives from “Early European Farmers,” who represent a demographic pulse which radiated out of the Eastern Mediterranean and reached Spain 7,500 years ago. Of course Basques do have local hunter-gatherer ancestry, but these Mesolithic peoples themselves were the last in a sequence of very distinctive populations in Pleistocene Europe. Finally, Basques do have admixture from Indo-European peoples, just less than other people in Iberia.

Of course, genetics can’t tell us about languages. Using linguistic labels in population genetic papers is to some extent a lexical convenience, but it is also one we use because of the constellation of information we have. The last major demographic pulse into Iberia is associated with an ancestry which derives from Central Eurasia. This ancestry is copious in Northern Europe, but is also found in South Asia, and ancient DNA suggests its expansion occurred between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago. It also happens that the Indo-European languages are spoken in both India and Europe. The natural inference then is to make an association between this language family, and this demographic pulse.

Some observers note discordance between estimated fractions from paper to paper, but don’t seem to understand that the point isn’t to estimate fractions of ancestry as ends in and of themselves, but to estimate fractions of ancestry to expose and highlight demographic change (or lack thereof). We can say with a very high degree of certainty that the period between 3000 and 2000 BC witnessed massive demographic change in Northern Europe. Somewhat later there was a similar change in Southern Europe, but more demographically modest. These are simple facts.

There are some scholars, frankly often archaeologists, who dismiss the relevance of the genetic findings. But anyone who has read archaeology knows that there are many cases where researchers see demographic continuity, and posit in situ cultural evolution, where it is just as possible that a new people arrived. The reason ancient DNA has revolutionized our understanding of prehistory isn’t because it has brought us new knowledge, it has foregrounded old and buried knowledge. The knowledge being that migration matters.

But genetics is only a skeleton. A framework. True flesh on the bones of the story needs the input of archaeologists, linguistics, and other scholars. In Who We Are and How We Got Here David Reich expresses his ambition to construct a historical genetic atlas of the world. But that atlas will be all the poorer without the input from other fields besides genetics. Many archaeologists have gotten on board with genetics as a tool, but the reality is that there needs to occur the rejection of some theories precious to some scholars if there is going to be total buy-in. Eventually that will happen, and a new synthesis will arise.

Open thread, 08/06/2018

In light of the recommendation of F. W. Motte’s Imperial China: 900-1800, I thought it would be useful to reiterate a minimal set of other books that are important in my intellectual development in relation to the history of China.

The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. You need to start at the beginning, and this is that. To be fair, the Spring and Autumn period were a pretty big deal too, but I think a lot of their insights were distilled into what we see in the Qin-Han era. The Zhou and Shang are so distant that I’m not sure a real history could be written, as opposed to analysis of myth and archaeology (especially for the Shang).

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. The period between the fall of the (Later/Eastern) Han and the rise of the Sui-Tang lasted many centuries. There wasn’t a precedent yet truly for the revival of a unitary Chinese state during this period. So a lot of cultural and political issues got hashed out over these 300+ years. Buddhism became a major cultural force, and the social and political fabric of Tang dynasty was stitched together (the Tang were a Han-Xianbei cultural mix, for example).

There are many histories of the Tang, which has a particular appeal in the modern era, but I like China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. For the more ambitious, I think S. A. M. Adshead’s T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History is worth a read (this is expensive, so find a good library!).

The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China. Compared to the Tang the Song seem a bit dull, but a lot that defines modern China has its roots in this period, and not the Tang (which was somewhat atypical). For example, the meritocratic bureaucracy really got ingrained during the Song (though it has roots in the Han).

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. The title says it all. We’re coming into early modernity here.

And finally, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. These are the Manchus.

If you are wary of diving in headfirst, then I suggest John Keay’s book on China, but do not stop there. Keay is more conversant in the history and peoples of South Asia, so it’s not just best work in terms of thoroughness.

Why does any of this matter? First, because China matters to non-Sinologists in the 21st century, like the United States mattered to non-Americans in the 20th. That’s just a plain fact. It matters for the future. Second, if you take an interest in the human past China is a large proportion of that past. If you don’t know Chinese history, don’t talk to me about knowing history (similarly, you should know the history of the Near East and the Classical West, at a minimum, to really express an opinion to me about history in a broad sense and be taken seriously by me).

I would be interested in a recommendation on modern Chinese history, perhaps dating to after 1800. Someone besides Spence. And then also something on the Spring-Autumn period.

For a while I’ve been saying the new Rakhigarhi paper is going to be over-hyped in relation to what the science will tell us. The reason I say this is that The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia really hit the major points in broad-strokes already. But in India Rakhigarhi is going to be a huge deal because:

1) it is a site in the Republic of India
2) it is from the mature Harappan phase

The results will confirm some beliefs, but it’s not a game-changer. A game-changer would be if we found someone who was half Corded-Ware in genetic ancestry from India in 2250 BC. Ultimately a lot of ancient DNA will probably come online in India over the next few years (hopefully?), and then the real action of mapping the details will begin. That’s exciting.

The Genomic Basis of Arthropod Diversity. This is a big preprint and a big deal.

Population size history from short genomic scaffolds: how short is too short?

I’ve started using my Facebook Page (as opposed to Profile). Mostly I’m going to use it push my content.

Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise. Randomized controlled trials, despite their flaws, remain a powerful tool.

On Sarah Jeong. People need to never forget that NYC-DC elite journalists are a class. Their defense of her is a defense of their class interests. She’s a friend or acquaintance, and her social and political views, and writing style align with their own (or the writing they’d like to do more in public). Of course they are going to have her back and interpret everything she says charitably. She’s “their kind of people.” Someone like Protagoras, eh, I mean Jeet Heer, is inevitably going to tweet-storm about “contextualizing” her offensive statements.

Once you view elite national journalism as the voice of a self-interested class, as opposed to disinterested reportage, then it all makes sense.

Here’s Why It’s So Impossible to Get Reliable Diet Advice From the News. You should know all this. If you don’t, read it closely. It’s pretty obvious.

Mitochondrial genomes reveal an east to west cline of steppe ancestry in Corded Ware populations. No surprise. Men on the move.

The fitness consequences of genetic variation in wild populations of mice. The Hoekstra lab is producing work in evolutionary biology that is always worth keeping track of.

Genetic draft and valley crossing. You had me at draft, but I want to marry you at “valley crossing.”

How Sexually Dimorphic Are Human Mate Preferences? The blogger and twitter named “Yeyo” (the new one is a fake) raised my consciousness to the fact that in terms of upper body muscle mass human males and females are extremely dimorphic.

On Twitter, I joked that people should send me money via Paypal as recompense for my “emotional labor” as a PoC who has to educated people. No one sent me money. #whitePeopleAreRacistForReal! If you are an anti-racist white person who reads my blog, you should send me money, or you are a racist! How do you feel when you read about Cameron Whitten’s shakedowns of white liberals? I think they’re hilarious, and more power to him. He’s a total con artist, but I would appreciate these people going broke.

The “clash of civilizations” is a thing, just not the only thing

A few days ago I put up a post, The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. Since then, I have been reading the author’s book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History.

It’s an interesting work with a lot of facts. Though so far no facts have been surprising to me, and, many facts were known to me. For example, the author talks about the reality that Muslims were subjects of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I happen to have read a book about the topic. Specifically, how the ulema in the Russian Empire adjusted to rule under an Orthodox Christian monarch. The author mentions that Protestants fought with the Ottomans at Vienna, and exhibited a cool attitude toward Indian Muslim nationalism against the British. Both of these facts, I knew.

The basic thesis seems to be similar to what I had inferred earlier: that the idea of a unitary Muslim world is a reaction to the European colonial experience, and not deeply rooted. The problem is that a lot of these assertions hinge on semantic interpretations. What does “unitary Muslim world” mean for example? The author, Cemil Ayden, seems to also suggest that both the “West” and the “Muslim world” are modern constructions. And they are. That does not mean these modern constructions don’t build upon and extend pre-modern self-conceptualizations which are very important. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Reading Ayden reminds me of encountering Bryan Catlos’ work on Muslim Spain years ago. Catlos’ publicity people at the university press tried to make it as if he was arguing that the line between Muslim and Christian was incredibly fluid and that his work refuted the “clash of civilizations.” But anyone, which includes me, who is aware of the large numbers of conversions of Christians to Islam and then back to Christianity, not to mention the Jews, knows that the categories are a bit more complex than the modern cartoon. Nevertheless, nothing in Catlos’ scholarship refutes the reality that religious identity was a critical, and perhaps the most important, building block of self-conceptualization in medieval Iberia.

One way to avoid the baggage around the word civilization is to rename it a “meta-ethnic” identity, as Peter Turchin does. A meta-ethnic identity allows people from different tribes and ethnicities to unite around something greater. Often, though not always, it is religion. The initial decades of the rise of Islam are complicated by the possibility that the religion wasn’t a meta-ethnic identity, but rather a tribal cult specific to a group of Arabs. This was not sustainable if Muslims were to maintain a multi-ethnic polity. Like the Mongols, they would have been absorbed by those whom they conquered. The rise of the Abbasids around 750 is often characterized as the revenge of the convert peoples, with Iranians in especially prominent in the early years of the dynasty.

Something similar happened with Christianity, which in its early centuries was fundamentally a Roman religion in Western Europe. Eventually, the expansion of the commonwealth of European kingdoms in the early medieval period occurred through the expansion of the Roman religion, and its transformation into something that was post-ethnic (during the medieval period in parts of pagan Eastern Europe Christianity was considered a “German” religion!).

There is certainly something commendable in Ayden’s work in situating current geopolitical tensions and alignments with their early modern precursors. But to the naive these arguments often erase the real deep roots of these configurations and their durability across the millennia. For example, I have stated, justifiably I think, that modern Iran was fundamentally and essentially shaped by the Safavid transformation of the region in the 16th century. That is, unifying the various Iranian and Turkic peoples in present-day Iran under the banner of Twelver Shia religion. But this is not to deny the reality that elements of Persian national self-conception predate the Safavids by thousands of years!

To bring it back to conflict, Christian cities such as Amalfi in southern Italy, often aligned themselves with Muslim pirates and corsairs in the first few centuries Islam. This does not mean that Amalfi was not Christian. Or that the distinction between Christianity and Islam meant nothing. Amalfi came under sharp criticism from Christian polities for its pragmatic alliances with Muslims. Similarly, France’s traditional friendly relations with the Turks due to the common Habsburg enemy came under criticism during the second Ottoman siege of Vienna.

Because of profit or in the exigencies of the moment, strange bedfellows often emerge. The Hungarian Protestants that marched with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs were marching for their cultural survival. The Habsburgs were suppressing and slowly extinguishing the Reformed movement in Hungary and had been doing so for decades. Hungarian Protestantism persisted only under Ottoman protection. This does not mean that Hungarian Protestants are not aligned with Christianity. But before their civilizational commitment could come into play, they had to safeguard their existence, which forced them into making a decision to march with the armies they had and not the ones they would have wished (Viktor Orban is a Hungarian Protestant).

What quantitative scholars like Turchin, and Azar Gat in War in Human Civilization, have shown is that conflicts across meta-ethnic or civilizational boundaries tend to be particularly brutal and characterized by the dehumanization of the enemy. On average. The fact that most Christian states in the pre-modern world bordered on Christian states means that most conflicts would occur between Christian states. But the conflicts at the civilizational boundary would be characterized by more extreme levels of brutality, coercion, and a lack of chivalry.

One might see in most conflicts that they occur within meta-ethnic groups, or that in a large number of cases the alliances cross meta-ethnic identities. For example, Pakistan today is under the grip of Sinophilia, despite China’s objective reality that it is an anti-Islamic state which oppresses Muslims, and Pakistan’s objective Islamic extremism. The fact on the ground currently though is that Pakistan as a nation-state benefits much more from being pro-China in its rivalry with India then rejecting Chinese entreaties on principle due to meta-ethnic solidarity with China’s Muslims. The pragmatic aspect of this alliance does not negate the reality that Pakistanis are sincere Muslims who have strong commitments to a trans-national Islamic identity, as evidenced by the fact that Pakistanis are often represented in trans-national Muslim movements.

Anyone who has read my thoughts knows I reject the idea that religions have fundamental clear and distinct essences. Religions are what people believe they are. What people practice. But people with particular confessions exhibit more solidity in their understanding of group identity than most post-colonial treatments seem to allow. Islam and Islamic identity do not exist only in contrast with Western Christians. In the east Islam interfaces with Indian traditions, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Across all these interactions Muslims have a certain sense of self as distinct and can grade differences between various out-groups (e.g., Christians are not clearly idolaters, Jews are clearly monotheists, and Buddhists are idolaters).

It is simply a fact that post-colonial peoples had a pre-colonial history, and that pre-colonial history is just as important in their self-understanding as the post-colonial one.

What if everything that’s not a disease is polygenic?

In the early 2000s FOXP2 was dubbed the “language gene”. It was a sexy story. Humans exhibited accelerated adaptive evolution on this locus in relation to our relatives. Additionally, vocally oriented lineages such as birds and whales were also subject to the same process.

But over the past five years or so I’ve heard a lot of skepticism of the early claims as more genomic datasets have come online. Cell has a new paper which pretty much smashes the door down and breaks the skepticism out into the open, No Evidence for Recent Selection at FOXP2 among Diverse Human Populations:

FOXP2, initially identified for its role in human speech, contains two nonsynonymous substitutions derived in the human lineage. Evidence for a recent selective sweep in Homo sapiens, however, is at odds with the presence of these substitutions in archaic hominins. Here, we comprehensively reanalyze FOXP2 in hundreds of globally distributed genomes to test for recent selection. We do not find evidence of recent positive or balancing selection at FOXP2. Instead, the original signal appears to have been due to sample composition. Our tests do identify an intronic region that is enriched for highly conserved sites that are polymorphic among humans, compatible with a loss of function in humans. This region is lowly expressed in relevant tissue types that were tested via RNA-seq in human prefrontal cortex and RT-PCR in immortalized human brain cells. Our results represent a substantial revision to the adaptive history of FOXP2, a gene regarded as vital to human evolution.

Basically, our confidence in the inferences ran ahead of the data on hand. The reason that the story of the “language gene” spread like wildfire is that people wanted to believe. It was obvious that we were special. And we wanted to find how we were special.

In the 2000s, and even today, there was an idea that some single mutation might have allowed for the “Great Leap Forward” into behavioral modernity. I think that that model is probably wrong, and modern humanity was a more gradual and stepwise development. During the Eemian interglacial from 130 to 115 thousand years ago, agriculture did not emerge. No “lost civilizations” to our knowledge. Something happened to our species over the last 100,000 years. Probably biological, though in a way that facilitates cultural plasticity and evolution.

But genetically I bet it wasn’t that “one thing.” It was a lot of different things.