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.

Guest Right Is Holocene

With the surfeit of genomic data, whether contemporary or ancient, there is a lot of mileage to be gained by description and inference. That is, looking at the data, generating a result, and drawing some conclusion from that result. But another way to skin the cat is construct an explicit model and then test the data. There are details, and then there are generalities.

I’ll offer up a proposition here then: the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and pastoralism has increased the rate of gene flow between neighbor populations. Several years ago Science published ancient DNA results which showed that there was little gene flow between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers in Germany. Those trained in population genetics will know that only a small rate of gene flow can quickly homogenize difference between neighboring groups. Large genetic distances between neighboring populations requires strong taboos in relation to intermarriage.

It also happens that this summer I saw a poster presented by Anders Bergstrom at SMBE where he reported very high genetic distance values in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Ethnographically we’re well aware that New Guinea is characterized by high degrees of linguistic diversity as well as xenophobia an war between neighboring groups. But a deeper dive into the genetic patterns suggest common descent in New Guinean from a random mating population on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, and more recent barriers to contact. New Guinea’s agriculture, which is gardening horticulture, is somewhat different from cereal cultivation. So there may be some differences there which we need to explore.

But something happened in the Holocene. In Game of Thrones “guest right” is sacred. That may seem like a silly observation, but the same principle is the clear in the Bible. The visitation of the angels to Sodom saw an attempt by the natives of the city attempt to violate the hospitality offered by the family of Lot, to the point where Lot offered his own daughters to the men who aimed to rape the angels.

The most recent genetic work suggest that the past 5,000 years or so have seen massing mixing across the world, and reduction of inter-group genetic distances. This is clearly the consequence of rapid increased rates of gene flow. You can take a cultural evolutionary viewpoint for the reason behind this, as Ara Norenzayan does in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Or you can take a more traditional materialistic route which puts the causal agent in the hands of mechanistic processes having to due with increased density and economic complexity. But whatever the reason, we know a transition occurred.

Heraclius was a great man, but a dirty old man

The Emperor Heraclius is someone who more people should know. He saved the Byzantine Empire before it truly became the Byzantine Empire in a mature form. When he took power the Persians were on the march, and ruled vast swaths of the Asian and African possessions of the East Roman Empire. Theodore of Tarsus, one of the early Archbishops of Canterbury, grew up under Persian rule. Like Hannibal’s early victories Heraclius’ defeat of the Persians is a tour de force of strategic brilliance. I’ll leave it to the reader to find out why themselves (I recommend A History of the Byzantine State and Society to any reader).

But this post is inspired by pop-culture. People are talking about nephew-aunt relations right now. As it happens Heraclius’ second wife was his niece, Martina. Here is something I found on Wikipedia: “He had two children with Fabia and at least nine with Martina, most of whom were sickly children…Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios, who was a deaf-mute….” The history of this period can be patchy and unreliable. So I’m not sure there were nine children and most were sickly…but probably inbreeding was causing some serious issues.

Roman cultural history has almost no demographic imprint

Several friends have asked that I weigh in the recent dust-up between Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mary Beard. I haven’t for a few reasons. First, I can’t really be bothered to go incognito and see every detail of Taleb’s argument, as he has me blocked on Twitter (he called me a fucking idiot or something at some point). Second, the passion around this topic has little to do with genetics or ancient history from what I can see, two topics which I am actually interested in. Rather, it’s more about contemporary geopolitics. This is interesting too, and I have opinions on that, but I try really hard to keep history and politics in separate silos unless I am explicit about the connections and relevance. That’s because I don’t see classical history as simply something instrumentally important for modern times, but interesting in and of itself (the same goes for population genetics).

And for what it’s worth, Mary Beard says the same in her conclusion to SPQR. The ancients were ancients. Let them be what they were.

That being said, as someone with knowledge sets in ancient history and historical population genetics, I will make a few statements and let others interpret them however they wish (to be frank, I’m not going to cede ground to any of the experts I’ve seen who have spoken on the intersection of these two knowledge sets, so I figured it was time to put something somewhere beside Twitter).

* The prior probability that a Roman officer of the period in Britain would have visible black African ancestry (as seems clear by the cartoon, though no one has asked the cartoonists what their intent was) probability seems rather low. But it is non-zero, because a small minority of Roman subjects and citizens would have been defined as black by their physical appearance if they were alive today (they are mentioned passingly in the literature and texts from the period). Including in Britain.

* The probability conditional that he was based on an officer in Britain who was a native of Tidis is low, but higher. Several historians have pointed out in defense of the cartoon’s plausibility that there were many North Africans in Roman service, as well as prominent North Africans in Roman history (to name three of note, Septimius Severus, Tertullian, and St. Augustine). Whole tribes of what we’d today term Berbers enrolled in the Roman military a federates.

There are several separate issues to note. First, of the many North African genotypes I’ve seen detectable Sub-Saharan ancestry is found in almost all of them. But, many (most?) North Africans do not look visibly of Sub-Saharan African ancestry (see list of heads of states of Algeria). Second, both historical and genetic evidence indicates that this admixture from Sub-Saharan Africa is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the period after Islam and the rise of a much bigger trans-Saharan trade (see Genomic Ancestry of North Africans Supports Back-to-Africa Migrations). Modern North Africa does have a large population today of people who are black or of obvious part-black ancestry, but this is due to the slave trade under Islam, and not antiquity.

* As evidence of the lack of non-European ancestry the paper The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population has been submitted. This is a great paper with best-of-breed methods and a massive data set of native English, with regional data. How do we resolve textual and archaeological evidence of people born outside of Britain during the Roman period in Britain with their lack of long-term genetic footprint among native modern Britains?

These sorts of questions need to be integrated in a broader context of the demography and genetics of antiquity that we have. On the whole looking at papers on modern and ancient DNA I am surprised by the lack of perturbation on the genetic structure attributable to the Roman period across Western Eurasia. I will offer two likely reasons that are related.

First, Classical civilization was an urban one, and the textual evidence we have is going to be highly skewed culturally in terms of our perception. The Roman world was predominantly written in cultured Latin and Greek (from what I have read the early translations of the Bible are indicative of a more pedestrian background of Christians due to the class markers of their lexical choices and idioms). But it was not necessarily spoken in cultured Latin and Greek across vast swaths of its territory. Even in St. Augustine’s time Punic was still spoken in the North African countryside, while the persistence and resurgence of Basque and Berber, and perhaps Brythonic Celtic in Britain, attest to vast reservoirs of people who were under the Roman peace, but not of it (also, the persistence of Albanian from a native Illyrian substrate). Because of the resources historians have on hand, text, there is going to be a major lacunae in our understanding and perception of the past. We hear the urban elites speaking to us. Not the rural majority.

Second, Classical civilization was an urban one, and this might have a major impact on the demographic consequences of migration. At any given size the effective breeding population is smaller than the census population, and the breeding population may not be representative of the overall population in terms of their genetic character. More specifically, it seems highly possible that the cosmopolitan urban Roman cities were massive demographic sinks. Rome before the Gothic Wars was a very populous city, not too far on the path of decline from its early imperial peak. But by the year 600 it had decreased its population to the point that vast swaths of the city were abandoned. Where did these people go? No doubt some of the elites scattered. Cassiodorus simply moved when barbarism came to his front step. But this was less possible for the urban proletariat. There is strong evidence that slaves in the ancient world were not replacing themselves reproductively due to brutality under which they lived. Some of the same was likely true of the urban proletariat.

* There is a difference between the inheritance pattern of culture and genes. In The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe this passage has always stuck out for me: “There is relatively little common ancestry shared between the Italian peninsula and other locations, and what there is seems to derive mostly from longer ago than 2,500 ya…The rate of genetic common ancestry between pairs of Italian individuals seems to have been fairly constant for the past 2,500 years, which combined with significant structure within Italy suggests a constant exchange of migrants between coherent subpopulations.”

The straightforward conclusion from this is that the Latinization of the Italian tribes and Magna Graecia occurred with no great demographic transformation. Modern Italy has within it the ghost of tribes long gone. This is notable because if you read the historical records of the Roman period you see evidence of trade, transport, and migration. But the genetic data would not lead you to this conclusion outside of Sicily and a few parts of Southern Italy.*

Above I have presented my reasoning for why this might be. But I think what it tells us that genetic data can informs us when there is a demographic turnover, and therefore a cultural turnover, but it will miss cultural turnovers which don’t have demographic impacts. These are many. To give a few examples, the rise of Islam in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Latinization of the Western Mediterranean, the de-Latinization of Britain after the withdrawal of Roman legion and before the mass arrival of Saxons, and arrival of Buddhism in East Asia. All these are massive historical and cultural events, but they would not be visible in the genetic record.

If you want to learn about Roman history there are many books you could read. But I do recommend you try Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It’s a nice materialist take, and I think it gets to the underlying dynamics of institutional fragility of ancient civilization which was so easily wiped away by barbarism.

Addendum: The migration of the Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and the Islamic Empires, all seem to differ from antiquity in having a major demographic impact. Why? In the case of massive institutional collapse, as in the first two cases, very old dynamics of inter-group competition arise, and famine probably does the rest of the trick. For Islam, it was a genuinely cosmopolitan civilization, with a more complex gradation between free and slave than in antiquity. Though it was quite brutal, African and Turkish slaves became free, and their genetic impact can be seen throughout the Islamic world.

* Like Spain, a substantial proportion of the Sicilian gene flow exchange is almost certainly due to the Islamic period. There are segments of North African and Sub-Saharan ancestry in Sicilians, albeit to a smaller extent than in Spain (in keeping with the shorter time period as part of the Islamic world).

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a monthly deal

Just a heads up to readers, Amazon Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is $1.99 right now. I’d highly recommend you get this book if you are interested in this general topic.

Here is my review from about seven years ago.

On the precipice of the Kali Yuga

The idea of decline is an old one. See The Idea of Decline in Western History for a culturally delimited view. But whether it is Pandora opening her box or Eve biting the apple, the concept of an idyllic past and the ripeness of imminent decline seems baked into the cake of human cultural cognition. It was always better in the good old days.

Of course there is the flip side of those who presume that the Eternal City will continue as it always was unto the end of time. Meanwhile, cornucopian optimists of our modern era, such as Steve Pinker, are the historical aberration. But they are influential in our age.

Tanner Greer has a profoundly pessimistic post up, Everything is Worse in China, which is getting some attention (as I’ve stated before Tanner’s blog in general is worth a read). Rod Dreher has two follow up posts in response. First, A: Confucius, Basically, which is somewhat an answer to Tanner. And then an email from Tanner himself. It is here that he suggests to Rod’s readers Xunzi: The Complete Text. That is all for the good (for a broader view, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy).

Readers can probably read between the lines that I have been gripped somewhat by Sinophilia of late. I am rather pessimistic about the state of American culture and the prospects for the American republic as we have known it. I don’t see any of the major political factions offering up a solution for the impending immiseration of the middle class.

So I look to the east. Much of the history of the world has been a history of Asia, and it seems we are going to go back in that direction. If we are pessimistic about China, to a great extent we are pessimistic about the world.

Perhaps then we need to abandon the idol of the nation-state, or in China’s case the nation-civilization. Rod Dreher has the Benedict Option for orthodox Christians* But we need to think bigger. Men and women of civilized inclinations may need to band together, and form secret societies shielded from the avarice of the institutional engines which channel human passions toward inexorable ends. We need a strategy for living as civilized people in an anarchic world, an archipelago of oligarchy in the sea of barbarism. Sooner, rather than later.

History comes at you fast.

* I mean here Trinitarian Christians of a traditionalist bent, not Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Christians.

The sons of Ham and Shem

Recently I had the pleasure of having lunch with David Reich and he asked me about my opinions in relation to the Afro-Asiatic languages. I thought it was a strange question in that I get asked about that in the comments of this weblog too. Why would I have any particular insight? I gave him what I thought was the likely answer: Afro-Asiatic languages probably emerged from the western Levant. The ancient textual evidence indicates that to the north and east of Mesopotamia the languages were not Semitic. Though Akkadian, a Semitic language, was present at the dawn of civilization, Sumerian was the dominant language culturally in the land between two rivers, and it was not Semitic. As Lazaridis et al. did not detect noticeable Sub-Saharan African ancestry in Natufians, or later Near Easterners, I have become skeptical of any Sub-Saharan African origin for Afro-Asiatic.

But after the earlier post I made a few mental connections, and so I’ll put something up which pushes forward my confidence on a few issues. They lean predominantly on Y chromosomes. I understand that this sort of phylogeography has been shown to be not too powerful in the past, but in the scaffold of the ancient DNA framework it can resolve some issues.

About a decade ago study of Adolf Hitler’s paternal lineage (through male relatives) indicated that his haplogroup was E1b1b. Though reports that Hitler was non-European, because this is a very common lineage in non-Europeans, as well as Jews, were incorrect, it does turn out that Hitler’s paternal lineage is not associated with the Indo-European migrations. That is, unlike me, Adolf Hitler does not descend from the All-father, but rather one of the men who were conquered and assimilated by the steppe pastoralists.

But E1b1b is an interesting lineage. First, it is very common in much of Africa, especially the north. Second, it is common among the Natufian people according to Lazaridis et al. In contrast the Neolithic Iranian farmers seem to have harbored haplogroups J. Today the Near East is a mix of the two, which makes sense in light of the fact that reciprocal gene flow has occurred in the last 6,000 years.

Looking at E1b1b frequencies you notice a few things. The highest frequencies with large N’s are in the Cushitic and Berber languages. Haplogroup J has a different distribution, being skewed more to West Asia. In Ethiopia E1b1b is more common, but J is far more prevalent among the Semitic Amhara than the Cushitic Oromo. Though it is subtle autosomal DNA makes it clear that the Semitic speaking populations in Ethiopia-Somalia have more Eurasian ancestry than the Cushitic ones. I believe this is evidence of the multiple migration pattern discerned earlier.

If you go further south in East Africa and compare E1b1b and J you see a skew in the ratio. E1b1b declines in frequency, but J basically disappears. Among the Masai, who have a clear minor West Eurasian ancestral component, albeit far less than Ethiopians, 50% carry E1b1b. Among the Sandawe, who are a language isolate  with clicks, but exhibit Cushitic genetic affinities, 34% carry E1b1b. Among their Hadza hunter-gatherer neighbors, 15% do so. Among many Khoisan groups the frequency of E1b1b is 10%. Most of these groups exhibit no J haplogroup. This aligns easily with what Skoglund was reporting earlier: the first pastoralists had no “eastern farmer,” but did have “western farmer.” The Natufians were E1b1b. The wider reach of E1b1b in Africa in comparison to J is likely due to the fact that the admixed pastoralists were pushing into relatively virgin territories. Later Eurasian backflow events, which brought Semitic languages, encountered a much more densely populated Africa.

The hypothesis I present is that after the descendants of the Natufians made the transition to farming, some immediately pushed into areas of Africa suitable for farming and/or pastoralism. They quick diversified into the various Berber and Cushitic languages. The adoption of Nilo-Saharan languages, and later Khoisan ones, was simply the process of successive and serial admixture into local populations as these paternal lineages introduced their lifestyle. In the Near East many distinct Semitic languages persisted across the Fertile Crescent, and for whatever reason the various non-Semitic languages faded and Semitic ones flourished.