Our Edo period future?

The second season of Westworld has some scenes set in Edo period Japan. To spoil things for you there is apparently a scene-by-scene re-creation of a plot arc from the first season of the show set in the American West. Watching this scene, and comparing it to the earlier version, I can’t but help feel that the Edo period setting is more grand and refined. If the first season’s violent attack was brutalist, the scene above is more neoclassical.

Then again, Edo Japan and the American West are perhaps antipodes of second-millennium civilization. Where the 19th century American West was anarchic, chaotic, and creative, the Edo period in Japan was notable for its stability, order, and the perception that it was a culture in chrysalis. Old forms may have been reinvented, but those forms were treasured.

The context for the Edo period is that 16th century Japan was a dynamo. Not always in a good way. The islands were riven by internal warfare. The Japanese were known to be a piratical race by the Ming dynasty, and the 16th century ended with the warlord Hideyoshi’s disastrous invasion of Korea. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns, while Roman Catholic Christianity had great success in the southern island of Kyushu.

Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu set the stage for Japan’s nearly three hundred year exile from the congress of nations, turning his back on Hideyoshi’s adventurousness. Of course, it is false to assume that the Japanese were totally insulated from the outside world. Not only did they connect with the West through the Dutch, but the Japanese maintained a more intense relationship with Korea. Even in the 17th and 18th century, a movement of “Western Learning” persisted through the interaction with the Dutch (though arguably late Confucian influences may have been more significant).

The violent suppression of Christianity in the 17th century and the emergence of a static caste system strikes modern sensibilities as brutal, barbaric and regressive. But the Edo period’s reduction in distribution and production of lethal firearms shows the upside of a conservative and controlling social land political elite. Violence continued, but it was relatively controlled and channeled.

We think of the future as endlessly protean and dynamic. But science fiction offers up an alternative possibility far more like Edo period Japan: technologically stagnant, culturally conservative. Frank Herbert’s Dune was set in the context of a universe where there had been a religious jihad against artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally based on imperial Rome, but later incarnations admitted that the better model was imperial China. Just as in the Dune series, the Foundation universe had to grapple with humanity’s protean and chaotic violence, which threatened to take down our civilization periodically due to enthusiasms.

The Edo period stretches from the early 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. All in all this is not a bad run. Our own republic’s 250 year anniversary will be on us in 2026.

Why Bronze Age steppe people replaced the farmers they conquered

One of the major revisions in my own mind about the demographic and historical processes of the Holocene in relation to humans has been the reality that large and dense agglomerations of agriculturalists could be marginalized by later peoples, to the point of having a smaller genetic footprint in the future than anyone might have imagined. If you had asked me ten years ago I just wouldn’t have believed that the first farmers of Europe or South Asia wouldn’t account for the vast majority of the ancestry of the contemporary populations of the region. By “first farmers” I don’t even mean migrants. At that point, I had assumed a primarily Pleistocene indigenous hypothesis for the origin of Europeans and South Asians, with farming diffusing through a mixture of a few migrants along a demographic wave of advance.

That’s not what it looks like according to ancient DNA. In Northern Europe, it seems that around half or more of the ancestry is due to the incursions of a pastoralist steppe population during the Bronze Age. In Southern Europe and South Asia, the fraction is closer to 10-25%. But even in the latter case, the fraction of steppe ancestry is far higher than I had expected.

I had assumed that the steppe migrants would contribute 1-5% of the ancestry of Europeans and South Asians and that the spread of Indo-European languages was a matter of elite transmission and emulation. Think the Hungarians, for example, as an example of what had assumed.

So what explains what really happened?

During the Mongol conquest of Northern China Genghis Khan reputedly wanted to turn the land that had been the heart of the Middle Kingdom into pasture, first by exterminating the whole population. Part of the motive was to punish the Chinese for resisting his armies, and part of it was to increase his wealth. One of his advisors, Yelu Chucai, a functionary from the Khitai people, dissuaded him from this path through appealing to his selfishness. Chinese peasants taxed on their surplus would enrich Genghis Khan far more than enlarging his herds. Rather than focus on primary production, Genghis Khan could sit atop a more complex economic system and extract rents.

Most of you at this point can see the general framework then. For thousands of years, pastoralist people of the Inner Asian steppe and forest would extract rents out of the oikoumene by threatening them with force. The reason the East Roman Empire did not face the Hunnic onslaught during the lifetime of Attila is that they paid the horde tribute. Imperial China did the same during some periods. In other instances, civilized states found in the barbarians of the steppe useful confederates. The Tang dynasty did not collapse during the 750s because of the intervention of the Uyghurs, who suppressed the rebellion of An Lushan. In 9th century Baghdad the rise of the Turks was enabled by their usefulness in court politics and distance from any given faction.

The rise of the “gunpowder empires” during the 16th century and the eventual closing of the Inner Asian frontier with the crushing of the last embers of the Oirat confederacy between the Russian and Chinese Empires in the 18th century marked the end of thousands of years of interaction between the farmland and pasture.

But this makes us ask: when did this dynamic begin? I don’t think it was primordial. It was invented and developed over time through trial and error. I believe that the initial instinct of pastoralists was to turn farmland into pasture for his herds. This was Genghis Khan’s instinct. The rude barbarian that he was he had not grown up in the extortive system which more civilized barbarians, such as the Khitai, had been habituated to.

In these situations where pastoralists expropriated the land, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for the farmer to raise a family. Barbarian warlords throughout history have aspired to be rich by plundering from the civilized the peoples…but would the earliest generations have understood the complexity of the institutions that they would have to extract rents out of if there wasn’t a precedent?

Instead of conventional historical dynamics of predatory elites and static peasantry, a better way to understand what occurred with the incursion of steppe pastoralists during the Bronze Age might be a simple ecological model of intra-specific competition. In a pre-state society defined by clan and tribal ties, steppe elites may have seen the farmers who were earlier residents in the territories which they were expanding into as competitors rather than resources from which a life of leisure might be obtained. In other words, instead of conquest, the dynamic was of animal competition.

Of course, pre-modern societies did not have totalitarian states and deadly technology. Rapid organized genocide in a way that we would understand was unlikely to have happened. Rather, in a world on the Malthusian margin, a few generations of deprivation may have resulted in the rapid demographic extinction of whole cultures. You don’t need to kill them if they starve because they were driven off their land.

In fact, we have some precedent of this historically. The Spaniards were intent on extracting rents out of the native peoples of the New World and living a life of leisure, but in many areas disease and exploitation resulted in demographic collapse. Imagine a conquest elite as vicious as the Spaniards, but without thousands of years of precedent that conquered peoples were more useful alive rather than dead. 

Addendum: The fraction of haplogroup M, which is probably derived from Pleistocene South Asians, is greater than 50% in places like Sindh. This indicates that the steppe migrations were strongly male biased in the initial generations.

Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.

Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.

But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).

Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.

The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?

Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).

Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).

The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.

I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).

This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.

* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.

Communities only exist only in the Minds of Europeans

I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism because other people read it. This is a book that is routinely alluded to in discussions by pundits of various stripes. On the back of the 2006 edition, the publisher notes that over 250,000 copies have been printed of this short academic work. Time put this as 48th out of 100 all-time great nonfiction books. It’s one of the most assigned works to undergraduates at universities.

There are two things about Imagined Communities that drove me crazy. First, there’s a tendency to just assert something that is perhaps profound, perhaps inscrutable. Honestly, I just don’t know. I randomly opened to page 23, and found this:

Figuring the Virgin Mary with “Semitic” feature or “first-century” costumes in the restoring spirit of the modern museum was unimaginable because the medieval [sic] Christian mind had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separation between past and present.30

But wait, there’s a note! What does it cite? “For us, the idea of ‘modern dress,’ a metaphorical equivalencing of past with present, is a backhanded recognition of their fatal separation.”

This is pretty typical throughout the book. I’m really skeptical of this strong assertion that medieval Christians didn’t understand cause and effect, and the past or present, considering that they periodically went through millenarian enthusiasms about the End of the World. But perhaps I misunderstand Anderson? It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s just not that clear a lot of the time.

About ten years ago Jonathan Gottschall observed that often in literary scholarship all their “experiments” confirm their theories. Imagined Communities follows this model. I’m very confused why pundits with backgrounds in political science are citing a work which is basically a long analysis of literature, with some historical references thrown in. Though there are numbers in the book, there are no graphs or tables. This is a work of literary scholarship.

Second,  Anderson likes to use a lot of words which are very obscure. For example, “the philological-lexicographic revolution and the rise of intra-European nationalist movements, themselves the products, not only of capitalism, but of the elephantiasis of the dynastic states….”

I understood what the author meant by “elephantiasis.” But that’s a really unnecessary word. If it was the exception, I’d shrug it off. But this reliance on overly obscure terminology is pretty common in this book, and again, it makes me wonder what undergrads are getting out of it. Not to brag, but I have a pretty big vocabulary, and the lexical flourishes were obscuring the point of whole passages. If that’s how I feel, what about someone with a smaller vocabulary?

Probably the most intellectually creative thing about Imagined Communities is that the author begins by examining the emergence of nation-states in Latin America, and the role of white Creole communities in the rebellion against the Spaniards. Anderson contends that this model influenced Europeans. The United States as well showed much of Europe that a large continental republic could actually flourish. From here Imagined Communities digs deeply into the various intricate details of how the Empire of the Romanovs began to assert a more clear Russian identity, or the nationalities trapped into the Habsburg polity.

Much of this material is interesting and has clearly percolated to other areas of scholarship, as I was familiar with it. Again, the author has a tendency toward abstruse phraseology or obscure word choices, but the portion on Europe was relatively coherent and familiar, though there was a strong bias to present nationalism as novel and new, rather than primordial.

But when the story moves to Asia it lost me. This is strange insofar as Anderson has a background in Asian scholarship, with a focus on Indonesia. He devotes a fair amount of time to Southeast Asia for these reason. And perhaps it wasn’t intended, but Imagined Communities depicts the emergence of Southeast Asian nation-states as an outcome of the agency of Europeans. The British created Burma. The French created Vietnam (Anderson makes much of the name changes that “Vietnam” has undergone over the past few centuries). China was a diverse motley of dialects before being dragged into the modern world by European-influenced intellectuals. Japan was given form with the Meiji revolution. Thailand created itself due to its engagement with colonial powers. Indonesia was stitched together by the Dutch.

Non-Europeans have no agency or originality in creating their own national identities. They were blank slates upon which European colonials drew something.

Luckily for me, I don’t come into reading Imagined Communities totally ignorant of other viewpoints. I’ve read Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, which makes the case that mainland Southeast Asia resembled Europe in the coalescence of distinct proto-national identities one to two thousand years ago.

The same is true to the north. China was arguably a nation-empire long before Europeans arrived. Though the Chinese peasantry spoke different dialects, it was united by a ruling class with a sense of coherency. The modern Japanese nation-state state is modeled on Western nation-states, in particular, Prussia. It strikes as bizarre to hold that this unique and isolated nation didn’t exist in the imagination of Japanese when the Europeans first arrived.

Anderson, like many scholars of his ilk, gets carried away with the novelty and power of European rationalism. For example, he focuses on European censuses with the clear implication that they somehow created many ethnicities. Not to sidetrack, but modern genetics shows that this is just false. It’s false in India. It’s false in Southeast Asia. It’s probably false more or less everywhere.

Western science and the bureaucratic machinery of the Western nation-state, were novel and revolutionary. But peoples existed with a self-identity long before Europeans arrived. To be honest I found Anderson’s treatment of the Vietnamese almost insulting. The first edition of Imagined Communities was written in the early 1980s, and the work is pervaded by Cold War concerns. Though Vietnam has been a catspaw in the game of great power, the fact that they began adjuncts to, but did not become absorbed into, the Chinese system highlights that their national identity in some inchoate way is very old.

Overall it is worth reading Imagined Communities because of its purported cultural significance. But much of it is so garbled and unclear I’m not sure what people are taking from it, aside from the proposition that the modern nation-state was invented in the last few centuries due to modernity. In the end the book is kind of a long tautology.

A preview review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

So I read the final version of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It’s good. You can finally set aside The History and Geography of Human Genes, though with the rate of change in the field of ancient DNA I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major revision of Who We Are and How We Got Here in two to four years.

I’m writing up a full reaction for National Review Online, so I’m not going to say too much here in specifics. And, since the book is still not out for a bit over a week I think it would be kind of rude of me to spill the beans on anything too juicy (though if you read this blog closely there won’t be any huge reveals).

So let me say something in the generality first. I’ve told the story of my friend Barry* before. Barry is a smart guy. He has a Ph.D. in the physical sciences from an eminent university in the Boston area. Barry works as a senior research engineer at a major semiconductor firm. Barry is interested in many things about the world. In 2011 I mentioned in passing to Barry over dinner that researchers had published in Science last year the fact that most humans alive today carry appreciable Neanderthal DNA. Barry was shocked. This was news to him. When I expressed shock that someone like Barry would be ignorant of this fact, Barry suggested perhaps I needed to expand my horizons as to the nature of things that the typical educated and interested person knows about science at any given time. That’s fair enough.

Someone like Barry is a perfect audience for Who We Are and How We Got Here. Barry hasn’t taken much biology, so the review of concepts such as recombination (even if the author doesn’t use that word) and mutation are useful. But more importantly, Who We Are and How We Got Here catches someone like Barry up to the state-of-the-art knowledge that we have in terms of human history, deep and prehistoric.

But it’s not just Barry. I’ve talked to plenty of people who work in evolutionary genomics who are not totally up-to-speed on the ancient DNA revolution. They too would benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here front to back. I know people who work in the field of cultural evolution, who would also benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here. I know behavior geneticists who would benefit from reading  Who We Are and How We Got Here. And so forth.

If you can’t find it in yourself to read 200-page supplements top to bottom, Who We Are and How We Got Here also is what you need.

Last summer I had the pleasure of having lunch with the author of Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich. If you read the prose it’s hard not to hear his precise and careful words echoing in your mind. Who We Are and How We Got Here is not rich with the same stylistic flourish and engagement as one might find in a popularization by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins. And I don’t think that was its intent, judging by how much space is given over to the four-population test! This is a serious book that is earnest in focusing on the substance of the science first, second, and last.

David expressed his discomfort with the opportunity cost that writing this book entailed for him when we spoke. While focusing on the book for the past few years he hasn’t had much time to do original analysis himself. His body language indicated the deep discomfort this caused him, and in Who We Are and How We Got Here he admits frankly that devoting himself to the book resulted in him not performing many analyses and publishing many papers.

One reason to write Who We Are and How We Got Here is that a book will reach outside the circle of those consuming and participating in the ancient DNA revolution. And a revolution it is! David Reich is already a highly eminent academic by any measure.  Who We Are and How We Got Here will do nothing to elevate his standing among his peers, because amongst them his stature is measured by the scientific papers published and projects in which he is involved.

So why make the sacrifice and write this book? Let me quote David Reich himself:

…I finally thank several people who repeatedly encouraged me to write this book. I resisted the idea for years because I did not want to distract myself from the science, and because for geneticists papers are the currency, not books. But my mind changed as my colleagues grew to include archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and others eager to come to grips with the ancient DNA revolution.

I would expand the purview here more broadly: all public intellectuals should know about the human past in its fullness. It’s a shadow that hangs over us and frames our arguments about the present. How we came to be where we are matters unless you are the most clinical of logicians. If you are Gilbert Ryle, turn away!

In Who We Are and How We Got Here Reich recounts an encounter with an impudent undergraduate at MIT who wondered at the end of a lecture how it was he got funding for his abstruse projects. He responded with the standard pitch that goes into NIH grant proposals, that to understand human disease, one must also understand human population structure, and to understand human population structure it helps to understand human population history. After recollecting this anecdote Reich observes that he wishes he had responded differently. He concludes:

The study of the human past-as of art, music, literature, or cosmology-is vital because it makes us aware of aspects of our common condition that are profoundly important that we heretofore never imagined.

To me, this goes back to the Greek distinction of techne vs. telos. Science as an instrument in expanding the limits of human longevity and health is important, but it is not the only thing that science is capable of. If we turn science into pure instrument, we lose something essential and integral in its purpose.

These are old, ancient, universal disagreements. In ancient China, there were groups of philosophers who outlined a vision that had little use for the fripperies of the past. Legalists who wished to turn the whole society into an instrument of production and power, for whom techne was prominent. The Legalists expressed a cold calculating face of practicality and instrumentality, but the universal altruists who followed Mozi ultimately had some of the same inclinations. How could men make merry with music when there was still suffering in the world? Shouldn’t nonproductive cultural practices be curtailed before we achieve the Utopia of plentitude?

Because the disciplines of Confucius won the ancient culture wars the Legalists and Mohists are remembered as crass caricatures. But the Confucian respect and reverence for accumulated human wisdom, the customs, and folkways of the past, were wise, insofar as a Confucian system persisted in China for over 2,000 years.** They gelled with deep human dispositions.

If we are to view human beings more than production and consumption machines shackled to the modern capitalist hedonic treadmill, then we need to consider the past as part of who we are. It is part of the treasury of human existence, which is more than just feelings of the present, but echoes down through the generations, through family lines, and cultures, and even in our genes. Humans without root float freely, but they are never truly free.

* I’m changing names, though if you know me from college or know me personally, you know who I’m talking about.

** Obviously this is a coarse generalization, one could argue that Legalism was laundered through State Confucianism!

The first ethical revolution

My maternal grandfather was born in 1896. He died in 1996. He saw a great many changes in his life. If my children live 100 years what changes will they see? To the same extent? In the biological sciences, I suspect so. In particular, in the domain of stell cells and genetic engineering it strikes me that many revolutions will occur. My confidence when it comes to automation and AI is weaker, but the potential is great.

That being said, there probably won’t be flying cars or day-trips to the moon base.

Why? This may be a function of the nature of the low hanging fruit that we’ve picked in the area of physics with engineering application to technology. If you agree with the work of scholars such as Robert J Gordon there’s been a decrease in technological innovation which changes our lives over the past century so (see The Rise and Fall of American Growth). This isn’t for lack of trying. The institutional structures and organizational effort toward novel innovation are far more directed, conscious and planned than in the past (here’s a Planet Money podcast on how technological change is slower now, though not for lack of trying).

Arguably the only major technological revolution of this century is the smart-phone. And I don’t think that that’s something you can dismiss, the smart-phone has interposed itself today into our lives in some deep and fundamental ways.

But the point of this post is that perhaps human society periodically goes through phases of innovation. And then, there’s nothing.

Fifty years ago Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Seventy years ago Karl Jaspers introduced the concept of the Axial Age. Both point to the same dynamic historically.

Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.

The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.

It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).

I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult.  Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).

Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.

Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.

The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).

We may be living in the 21st century, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics. And that’s not surprising.

Preparing for Nero

Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Hidden Face of God grapples with the reality that over time in the Biblical narrative the deity becomes less and less a direct presence. In Genesis, humankind has conversations with the divine, and arguably even wrestles with God himself. This is not what we see in later books. Or more precisely, we don’t see.

For a nonbeliever, this is an issue of intellectual curiosity (I’d be one of those). But if you are a believer in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, then these are serious and important questions. God is, after all, the most important truth of them all.*

The “hiding” away of a great truth or truths is not simply of relevance to God or the supernatural. Whigs believe that modernity converges toward truth. But Whigs may not get to define the truth of matters on this question.

Let’s posit, hypothetically, that the notionally open Enlightenment republic of letters, which plumbs the depths of nature and society for Truth, is beyond its high tide. That over the next decade or so intellectuals, seekers of the truth in a notional objective reality, slowly withdraw from visibility or at least begin to engage in explicit and self-conscious opacity. In public speaking for example making recourse to code or dog-whistles. But private intellectual communities will persist.

The question is how will they persist? Face-to-face salons and meet-ups are one option. Then there are private e-lists and slack channels, as well as direct message communities on Twitter and Facebook groups (these have all emerged in the last few years as public discourse on social media has gotten nastier).

The major problem I see here is that you trade off scale for security. Consider what happened with JournoList. Any “exclusive” group will become infested with moles over time, and private conversations will be made public. People will anticipate this as a group becomes popular and become less candid. As a group scales, it loses its utility.

In contrast, in-person meetings are generally totally free from these worries (unless someone is recording you). Unfortunately, these do not scale well. Adding and removing people from in-person meet-ups takes a lot of work. From what I’ve seen often that work is done by a few individuals who eventually get burned out. At which point the group dissolves or breaks up into smaller more socially-focused units. If a group can not scale, its utility is constrained and limited.

What we need are technological tools which will allow for surreptitious private candid freethought in a public world dominated by social credit and conformity due to authoritarianism. Demagogues may persecute those who speak uncomfortable truths for the sake of the body politic, but if these people are discreet they surely have a role in to play in the great game of mass manipulation that will probably become much more advanced as this century proceeds. Truth is a tool which even the princes of lies can use to win their battles. When Nero comes all will make peace with the new brutality no doubt.

The reality is that many of our institutions are already quite corrupt. And yet it is also true that privately many people who lie in public exhibit virtue and common sense. They are constrained by the system, they do not create it. Of course, they are craven and one has to understand that they will make the denunciations necessary when the time comes for them to do so. But it’s all just business. This seems the human norm.  Technology has to work with our nature, not against it.

Snapchat’s feature of messages which disappear was created so that teens could exchange nudes. The aim here was to share an intimacy, titillate, not create a permanent record. Similarly, any technological system to foster intellectual discussion has to take into account considerations of privacy, trust, and permanency. In a way, the peer-review system has some of these features, but it is rather slow and calcified at this point.

We need better things….

* Christians reverse the disappearance of God through the incarnation, but that’s a different thing altogether.


The general social complexity factor is a thing

The above is the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world, derived from responses to the World Values Survey which are subject to principal component analysis. Basically, you take all the variation and pull out the biggest independent dimensions which can explain the variation. You’ve seen this with genetic data, but the method is pretty common in the social sciences.

When you do this with genetic data and human populations and use adequate sample representation PC1 is almost always African vs. non-African and PC2 is West Eurasia/North Africa vs. the rest of the world that’s not Africa. Though one can quibble with the details the reality is that these patterns are easy to reconcile with evolutionary history. Humans first split between Africans and non-Africans, and the west vs. east division in Eurasia is arguably the next major bifurcation (and gene flow barrier).

For the above map, the first two principal components explain 70 percent of the variance in the data. So what are they? You can see above that they labeled the x-axis as survival to self-expression, and the y-axis tradition to secular-rational. I’m not hung up on what this means and am not going to explore that. Rather, notice the geographic clustering.  These dimensions pass the smell test in terms of their clustering.

If you look at the distributions pretty much none of them should be surprising to you historically.  Protestant Northern Europe was very different in 1700 from today, but it was already a coherent socio-cultural phenomenon. Similarly, Russia has been historically distinct from Western Europe culturally for nearly the whole of its existence as a coherent polity (from ~1000 AD on). In fact, the marriage of Ann of Kiev into the French royal family in the 11th century may be indicative of the closest relationship of what became Russia to the West before the early modern period.* On this map, Russia and other Eastern European nations are quite distant from Northern Europe, and to some extent from Catholic Europe.

But this map isn’t just a reflection of geography. You see that Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia occupy positions in relationship to Russia and Western Europe exactly where you would predict from their history. Serbia has a much stronger affinity with Russia, Croatia is in Catholic Europe, while Slovenia seems more like Northern European nations than Croatia. Bosnia occupies a position between Croatia and Serbia. These variations are important because ethno-linguistically the divisions between Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians (and lesser extent Slovenians) are minor. They originate from groups of Slavs who settled among the native Pannonians, whether Latin or Illyrian speaking, only in the centuries before 1000 AD.

What you are seeing here quantitatively are the historical fissures that occurred during to division between Western and Eastern Europe through theological conflict, and later the shock of the Tatar Yoke for the Russians, and Ottoman domination in the Balkans. If you know some history the reality that Croatia is Catholic, and oriented toward the West, and long been under Austrian and Hungarian hegemony, explains why it is where it is culturally. Similarly, Serbia is Orthodox, was oriented toward Byzantium, and later subjugated for centuries under the Ottomans.

But most people don’t know much history. This is why visual representations of quantitative social science data are quite useful. It’s almost impossible to convince the ignorant of historical truths when they don’t know any history because they can’t tell if you are making things up. Usually they trust you if you are part of their in-group, and distrust you if you are of an out-group.

For example, over the years a few times I’ve had really strange conversations about whether Russia is a Western nation or not on Twitter. There are roughly two groups that assert Russia is a Western nation: 1) white nationalists, for whom whiteness is necessary and sufficient for being Western 2) historically naive public intellectuals who can’t evaluate competing hypotheses, and implicitly impute Western identity to Russia because Russians are white and Christian (at least culturally). With white nationalists obviously there isn’t going to be a major argument. Their framework is just so different.

But historically naive public intellectuals are a different case. They simply don’t know enough facts to make even the weakest judgement, and so default back to the heuristic of racial and cultural categorization at the coarsest levels (this also explains their need to transform white-skinned and often blue-eyed Turkish and Balkan Muslims into “people of color”). At this point one can point out a lot of facts, including the reality that for centuries Russian intellectuals themselves debated about whether to become Western or retain their own distinctive identity as separate. And yet at the end of it all how would someone who doesn’t know much history know whether to give credibility to my contentions? If I stated that much of late medieval Russian statecraft owed much to experience of princes who grew up under the Tatar Yoke as well as the creation of a frontier culture which assimilated aspects of the Tatar lifestyle (as well as some Tatar nobility, who converted to Christianity and became part of the boyar class), how would they easily figure out if I’m bullshitting them? (yes, they could go read-up, but by the fact they don’t know relatively introductory history well into adulthood indicates no deep interest in doing this).

Quantitative and formal measures give us a simple language that even the naive can navigate. One can define Russia as within the West, or without, but one can not deny that socio-culturally it is quite distinct from Western and Northern European cultures. The data say it is so!

This brings me to a new paper in PNAS (OA), Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization. It’s one of the first results from the Seshat: Global History Databank. Peter Turchin is heavily involved in this, but I notice the above paper also includes Harvey Whitehouse on the author list. I’ve long admired his work on the cognitive dimension of cultural production and variation.

Here’s the abstract:

Do human societies from around the world exhibit similarities in the way that they are structured, and show commonalities in the ways that they have evolved? These are long-standing questions that have proven difficult to answer. To test between competing hypotheses, we constructed a massive repository of historical and archaeological information known as “Seshat: Global History Databank.” We systematically coded data on 414 societies from 30 regions around the world spanning the last 10,000 years. We were able to capture information on 51 variables reflecting nine characteristics of human societies, such as social scale, economy, features of governance, and information systems. Our analyses revealed that these different characteristics show strong relationships with each other and that a single principal component captures around three-quarters of the observed variation. Furthermore, we found that different characteristics of social complexity are highly predictable across different world regions. These results suggest that key aspects of social organization are functionally related and do indeed coevolve in predictable ways. Our findings highlight the power of the sciences and humanities working together to rigorously test hypotheses about general rules that may have shaped human history.

Intuitively most people would have guessed this. Social complexity is a thing. Human cultural evolution has exhibited some directionality or at least a general secular trend. If you have read a lot of history and thought about these things you’d come to these conclusions intuitively.

I could also assert that northern France in the 12th century AD was a more socially complex society than the one the Romans conquered in the 1st century BC. Why? I could give plenty of reasons. But it is at this point that a fashionable viewpoint in some academic circles would problematize this assertion, and argue that characterizing High Medieval France as more complex than pre-Roman Gaul exposes one’s own assumptions and beliefs, as opposed to facts about the world.

You know the type. One problem one often encounters with this line of argument is that the individuals making the argument really don’t know enough in terms of facts to know what they’re refuting. Rather, they’ve been caught along on a current academic fashion.

This is why figures like the one to the left are important. It shows values on the social complexity factor, PC1, for Latium (red), the Paris basin (blue) and Iceland (green). What you see is that the Paris basin lags Latium up until around 0 AD. At this point there is catch-up. Though Gallic social complexity was already increasing in the centuries up to the Roman conquest (one reason the Romans found conquest of Gaul useful was that it was wealthy enough to steal from), it was only around the time of assimilation into the Roman state that it caught up to Latium.

Latium and the Paris basin both decrease in social complexity after the fall of the Roman Empire. But after 1000 AD the Paris basin outstrips Latium. In the 12th century it does seem that the Paris basin was more socially complex than it was in the pre-Roman period.

It is much easier to point an ignorant person to a chart than go through a laundry list of facts. Facts without context and background knowledge are not useful. But visualizations of data are much more easily digestible.

The authors show that the nine complexity characteristics are highly correlated with each other. Some of these make sense (those related to polity scale). But others are not as straightforward, though the verbal arguments present themselves (e.g., polities with lots of people are more likely to need written scripts for bureaucratic record keeping; the data show this to be true). Additionally, the models that are general can predict patterns in individual regions. That implies that the same dynamics are occurring cross-culturally. Each society is not sui generis for the purposes of analysis.

Of course a standard retort will be that the selection and coding of criteria of complexity itself is biased. That’s fine. But with formal methods we can actually hash out disagreements and points of interpretation in a much simple and clear manner than before. Ultimately I think those who object to this sort of analysis actually object to analysis driven by data and formal methods, as opposed to their own intuitions and personal preference. After all, it’s not a great discovery to find that there is a common cross-cultural dynamic which underpins social complexity.

But in the future Seshat and the researchers who utilize it will smoke out counter-intuitive or surprising results. The data and methods are there.

* Ann herself seems to have been mostly of Scandinavian ancestry as was the norm for the early Kievan nobility. Her mother was a Swedish-born princess, while her father was a Slavicized Rurikid.

The Truth is that history is not evolving toward Truth

My friend Walter Olson pointed me to this from John Locke:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is great and inspirational quote, but in most interpretive sieves I believe it is wrong. Hume’s assertion that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is closer to the truth in terms of describing the typical human in terms of how they think, and what they value.

One of the insights of modern cognitive science is that the “rational” and “reflective” component of our mind tends to promote some delusions about its role in our decision-making process. Rather than being the conductor, it’s more often the rationalizer. That is, we make a decision, and then we concoct rationales after the fact. One can think of conscious rationality as a public relations outfit, as opposed to the client.

None of this is deep wisdom, and the latest research is all outlined in The Enigma of Reason. But, another issue which I think is important to note is that the propaganda over the generations by the very small proportion of the population for whom reason and truth are prioritized as the summum bonum of human existence, as implied by Locke’s assertion, have biased our understanding of history. The reason being that they are the ones disproportionately writing the history! Our species’ collective memory lies to us because cultural organs of memory have their own agendas (albeit, unconsciously!).

In Near Eastern antiquity the scribal caste was very much a group of literate wizards. No doubt some elements of literacy percolated to the general public, as is evident by graffito hieroglyphics by workers in ancient Egypt, but habitual engagement with the written word was the purview of a small group of professionals. These individuals dealt in abstraction in their day to day, and by the middle of the first millennium B.C. out of the culture of scribes developed the group we would term intellectuals. The philosophers, prophets, and sages of antiquity. A period when religion, magic, and science, were all one.

Of course, many of these intellectuals were not from the scribal caste as such. Many were aristocrats and gentry (e.g., Siddhartha and Plato). But by this time literacy had spread out beyond the scribal castes, and a civilian elite culture had emerged which valued intellectual pursuits in some fashion. Elite male leadership training in some societies began to include intellectual arts as part of their education. But we should be cautious about inferring from this that these elite males valued rhetoric and philosophy as ends in and of themselves. Rather, rhetoric and philosophy exhibited some instrumental (in politics for the former) and signaling value (abstruse philosophical abstraction could only be mastered by those with leisure and means, so it suggested one’s class origin and cultivation).

Across the centuries, and even millennia, the minority of intellectuals who notionally chased the truth, Plato, Sima Qian, and Ibn Khaldun, remain in our memories because their ideas were powerful, attractive, and their intellectual coherency and brilliance impressed future generations of thinkers. But we need not infer from this that in their own time they were of such inordinate fame or glory in relation to others of similar note though intellectual mediocrity. To give a concrete example, for a few shining decades phlogiston and Lysenkoism were bright and influential, even though the latter, and possibly the former, were both fraudulent enterprises.

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Black ancestry in white Americans of colonial background

I stumbled upon striking photographs of “white slaves” while reading The United States of the United Races: A Utopian History of Racial Mixing. The backstory here is that in the 19th century abolitionists realized that Northerners might be more horrified as to the nature of slavery if they could find children of mostly white ancestry, who nevertheless were born to slave mothers (and therefore were slaves themselves). So they found some children who had either been freed, or been emancipated, and dressed them up in more formal attire (a few more visibly black children were presented for contrast).

This illustrates that the media and elites have been using this ploy for a long time. I am talking about the Afghan girl photograph, or the foregrounding of blonde and blue-eyed Yezidi children. Recently I expressed some irritation on Twitter when there was a prominent photograph of a hazel-eyed Rohingya child refugee being passed around. Something like 1 in 500 people in that region of the world has hazel eyes! That couldn’t be a coincidence. Race matters when it comes to compassion.

But this post isn’t about that particular issue…rather, the images of enslaved white children brought me back to a tendency I’ve seen and wondered about: the old stock white Americans whose DNA results suggest ~1% or less Sub-Saharan ancestry. These are not uncommon, and I’ve looked at several of them (raw data). I’m pretty sure the vast majority at the 0.5% or more threshold are true positives, and probably many a bit below this (to my experience people from England and Ireland don’t get 0.3% African “noise” estimates with the modern high-density marker sets).

According to 23andMe’s database about 1 out of 10 white Southerners has African ancestry at the 1% threshold. It would be even more if you dropped to closer to 0.5%. And the DNA ancestry here understates the extent of what was going on: at about 10 generations back you are about 50% likely to inherit zero blocks of genomic ancestry from a given ancestor (assuming no inbreeding in the pedigree obviously). And this is exactly when a lot of the ancestry that is being detected seems to have “entered” the white population. In other words, for every person who is 1% African and 99% white American, they have a sibling who is 0% African and 100% white American, even though genealogically they share the same ancestors. Dropping the threshold to closer to 0.3%, and considering that even in the South there was migration from the North, and to a lesser extent Europe, after the Civil War, I wouldn’t be surprised if models of admixture inferred from the distributions we see indicate that over half the lowland Southern white population likely had genealogical descent from a black slave.

This all comes to mind because there aren’t too many records of people “passing” during this period. Those who deal in genealogy and encounter these cases of low fractions, which are nevertheless likely not false positives, almost never find a “paper trail” when they go look. And they look really hard.

The reason is obvious in the context of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings had three white grandparents and one African slave grandparent. Several of her children are recorded to have been totally European in an appearance, and all except one passed into the white population (the two eldest married well into affluent white families in Washington D.C.). Passing as white was a way to escape the debilities of black status in the United States.

That being said, I think our Whig conception of the progressive nature of history sometimes misleads us in forgetting that the dynamics of race relations has had its ups and downs several times in the last few centuries in North America. If you read Daniel Walker Howe’s excellent What Hath God Wrought you observe that racial beliefs about the necessity and institutionalization of white supremacy in the early American republic evolved over time. Though the early republic would never be judged racially enlightened by modern lights, it was certainly far less explicitly racially conscious than what was the norm in the decades before the Civil War.

In particular, the rise of democratic populism during the tenure of Andrew Jackson was connected with much more muscular racial nationalism. To utilize a framework emphasized by David Cannadine in Ornamentalism, colonialism and Western civilization during the 19th and early 20th centuries can be viewed through the lens of race and class. Though the economic inequalities of American society persisted through the 19th century, men such as Andrew Jackson affected a more populist and rough-hewn persona than the aristocratic presidents of the early 19th century.* The white man’s republic had a leveling effect on the nature of elite culture.

But the attitudes toward racial segregation and mixing took decades to harden. Martin van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was well known to have had a common-law wife, Julia Chinn, who was a slave. He recognized his two daughters by her. He was vice president from 1837-1841 in the more racist of the two American political parties of the time. It is hard to imagine this being a viable “lifestyle” choice for someone of this prominence in later decades (after Julia Chinn’s death Johnson continued to enter into relationships with slaves).

Walter F. White, a black leader of the NAACP

Which brings us back to what was happening in the decades around 1800. Racism was a fact of life, necessitating the need for passing. But, beliefs about racial purity and the one drop rule had not hardened, so it would not be surprising to me that it was much easier for slaves or ex-slaves with mostly European ancestry to change their identity. Perhaps white Americans of that period were simply less vigilant about someone’s background because they were genuinely less concerned about the possibility that their partner may have had some black ancestry, so long as they looked white.

As the databases grow larger we’ll get a better sense of the demographic and genealogical dynamics. My suspicion is that we’ll see that there wasn’t much diminishment of gene flow into the black-identified community over the past 200 years, as much as the fact that hypo-descent, the one-drop rule, became so powerful in the between 1850 and 1950 we can confirm that passing declined, before rising again in the 1960s as whites became less vigilant due to decreased racism.

* As a middle class New Englander John Adams obviously was no aristocrat, but he was no populist either.