The coming genetic invasion of history, and the rage to come

About ten years ago I reviewed Bryan Sykes’ book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. It was what it was, a product of the Y/mtDNA era. Therefore, there were a fair amount of conclusions which in hindsight turn out to be wrong. Sykes, and other genetic historians, such as Stephen Oppenheimer, have annoyed historians for years with their genetic imperialism. More frequently, genetic research has been an accent or inflection on historical work. Peter Heather has integrated some genetic results in his earlier books, though you can ignore those and still obtain the general conclusions.

The recent work on near antiquity is a hint that that is going to be blown apart. Ancient DNA in the historical period has been a slow simmer for a while now. The reason is simple: ancient DNA returns more on the investment for prehistory, where there aren’t historical documents. Until recently ancient DNA techniques were expensive in a variety of ways. The industrial process described in Who We Are and How We Got There is going to change that.

In the near future, a large number of projects are going to surface which test hypotheses and conjectures offered by historians.

You would think that testing hypotheses, generally with demographic predictions, would be something that historians would welcome. The problem is that the test will mean some scholars are going to turn out to be wrong. People who spent decades building up a particular model or understanding of the past are going to have that torn away from them.

The normal human reaction is to get defensive. But the problem is that many historians are not well trained in genetic methods. In fact, many geneticists are not well trained in the abstruse statistical methods developed by scholars in ancient DNA.

We’ve seen some of the same from archaeologists. But archaeologists had models which were, to be frank, more speculative than those historians cling to. Even if a particular historical model may be wrong, it is likely there are reasonable grounds to have held onto to that position. If ancient DNA falsifies it the reaction will be even more strident I suspect.

Of course, geneticists need the help of historians. So when the bad feelings clear I think the synthesis will get us to a better understanding of the past.

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new post-genetic paradigm will come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Islamic world” was not invented by Europeans

Aeon has published a piece, What is the Muslim world? Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda. The piece itself is more subtle and textured than the headline and subhead. Unfortunately, I’m 99% sure that 90% of readers will simply take the headline at face value and not engage with the text of the piece.

That being said, I also strongly disagree with the overall message of the author’s piece. He has written a book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, where he presumably extends the argument. By the message, I mean that I believe the author overemphasizes the contingent, necessary and sufficient role of European colonialism in the idea of an Islamic world.

Anyone who has read a history of the modern world, as I have, knows that it is essential to integrate into that understanding the rise of the West after 1500, and the supremacy of the West after 1800. To a great extent, modern history is Western history.

But the West did not create everything anew, and there were, and are, preexistent identities which predate the West as we commonly understand it. Anyone who reads Al-Biruni knows very well that scholars in Islamic societies had a sense of us vs. them. Al-Biruni could admit that Indian civilization was characterized by a high level of intellectual sophistication, while also asserting its differences and uniqueness in relation to the Islamic civilization which had emerged in the wake of the Arab conquests.

In the Aeon piece, the author points out that Pan-Africanism, Pan-Asianism, and Pan-Islamism, developed as reactions to European colonialism. The first thing is to observe that Pan-Islamism is a very different thing than the idea of the “Islamic world,” a set of societies delimited by a cluster of beliefs and practices. Pan-Islamism is a modern ideology, strongly influenced by the rise and domination of the West. As such, contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. But Islamic fundamentalism draws on older traditions within Islam, for example, the thinking of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Additionally, like many post-colonial thinkers, the author in the piece collapses different movements together in a mishmash as if they were equivalent. Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism have no deep historical roots, but were and are geopolitical responses to European domination. In contrast, arguably the West can not be understood without integrating the rise of Islam. Pan-Islamism appeals to a genuine history of pre-modern unity, before its dissolution and decay. Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism have been relative failures in comparison to Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism because they were thin, artificial, and purely geographic, constructions. In contrast, Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism appeal to and extend from true commonalities that have deep resonances.

The theoretical foundation for understanding what Pan-Islamic identity is and its historical precursors is that it is a “meta-ethnic” identity. Islam, like most of the world religions, binds together people of disparate backgrounds. It does not collapse differences, and it does not impose homogeneity. Nor does it mean that every Muslim shall stand with every other Muslims against every non-Muslim. Rather, it simply gives people from diverse backgrounds who may not know each other an immediate common ethical and cultural currency, tenuous as that may be.

Modern political movements have to be understood as reactions to events and situations of the modern era. But those political movements were not created ex nihilo out of a cultural vacuum. It is surely correct that in most cases one cannot understand the modern without considering the colonial era, but it is also true in many cases that one can not understand the modern without understanding the deep history of many regions of the world which long predate the colonial area.

Render unto Caesar worldly goods

At Tanner Greer’s recommendation, I purchased a copy of Imperial China 900-1800. Now that I’ve received it I realize that I read a few chapters of Imperial China 900-1800in 2008, before abandoning the project due to sloth. Older and wiser.

As I’m reading this book, I’ve been giving thought how I would respond to this comment:

…not only were priests an independent power source from kings, but no matter how deeply interrelated each was in principle independent of the other, with their own independent spheres: the secular sphere and the religious sphere. This fact too was important in shaping the modern world, in that modernity assumes that government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom.

This is a common view. Fareed Zakaria, for example, expresses something similar in The Future of Freedom, whereby the emergence of an independent Western Church after the Fall of Rome created space for secularization and the development of liberal democratic institutions through decentralization of power.

And yet after having just read History of Japan, and reading again about the Battle of Anegawa, where Oda Nobunaga completed a chapter of his crushing of institutional Buddhism as an independent power in Japan, I wonder what the above even means. A standard model would argue that in East Asia religion suffused life, philosophy tended toward monism, and there was no separation between this world and that. The Emperor of Japan descended from the Sun Goddess. The Emperor of China was the Son of Heaven, though Heaven was not conceived of in an anthropomorphic sense. And yet the kingship of nations such as France and England have exhibited a sacral nature, and to this day the monarch of England is also the head of its established religion.

About when I abandoned my plan to read Imperial China I read Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the many things that stuck with me from that book was just how radical in regards to religion the federal government established by the American Founders was at the time. While the American states had all had an established religion, due to the pluralism of the new nation, and the personal secularism of many of the Founders, no consideration was given to privileging religion on the national level. This concerned many leading thinkers, some of whom suggested that simply declaring Christianity in the general sense the national religion would have been sufficient (and for all practical purposes Protestant Christianity was the national religion, even though church-state separationists such as Andrew Jackson were punctilious in making this not a de jure matter).

With hindsight, it seems clear that having a “national religion” only makes sense in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, and the collapse of the religious system of Western Christendom during the medieval period. The medieval Western Church was characterized by a great deal of diversity and variation. But something happened during early modernity, whereby that variation produced too many tensions and factionalized. Eventually, this shattered the tacit understandings and compromises which allowed for external unity. In nations where monarchs supported Protestant Reformers, national churches emerged, and become official arms of the state for all practical purposes. In Catholic Europe, a reaction produced a newly muscular and standardized church, which stood opposed to the new official Protestantism on very similar terms. The Roman Catholic church remained international, but it also became the national churches of nations as diverse as Poland, Ireland, and Spain.

Though many people assert that the Roman Empire became “officially” Christian with the conversion of Constantine, or perhaps during the reign of Theodosius the Great at the end of the 4th century, the reality is that the Roman Empire was not a totalitarian state. The dissolution of paganism occurred more through slow decay and death, as the cessation of subsidies from the state starved elite paganism, and persistent missionary efforts blanketed the population with nominal Christianity.

The assertion above that “government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom” always strikes me as strange because of my familiarity with Chinese history and philosophy, and the interpretation of how the Chinese seem to have viewed “church”-state relations. It is often said that the Chinese are superstitious, but not religious. In other words, what China lacked in the vigor of organized religion, it made up for in widespread belief in supernaturalism. This is broadly correct, but the same could be said for the West for most of its history. That is, many pre-modern peasants were not religious as much as they were superstitious, and their Christianity was a thin skein upon folk beliefs.

The issue rather is with the cultural elite, and what their beliefs were. There is a line of argument that philosophical dualism, and a particular sort of disenchantment with the world and a rationalism, was pregnant within Western Christianity, and came to fruition with Calvinism and modern forms of Catholicism. In the ancient world, Christians believed that magic was real, and that the pagans worshipped true supernatural forces, but that these were rooted in the devil. The argument proceeds that in early modernity this belief gave way to more rationalist views, whereby God remained true, but non-Christian beliefs were rooted in falsehood, rather than demons. Magic was now simply trickery.

And yet History of Japan notes that even before Oda Nobunaga’s crushing of the Buddhist clerical powers of the 16th century the society was going through broad secularization, as popular and elite enthusiasm for religion abated. Though the Tokugawa regime enforced Buddhist registration by families across Japan, this was a measure that enabled control and regulation, not one which promoted religion as such. Japanese intellectuals during this period were influenced by currents skeptical of supernaturalism that had its roots in Chinese Confucianism, and this in its turn can be found to have prefigured by anti-supernaturalist threads as far back as Xunzi.

Curiously, the Japanese system after the decline of the Fujiwara and the rise of the Shogun dynasties recollects the mythologies of dual kingship, with a sacred and a secular king, in other societies. To me, this reinforces my own current position that all the semantical distinction between secular and sacred power and how they differ between societies elides more than it illuminates. My own materialist bent leads me to suggest that in fact, secularization in early modernity at the two antipodes of Eurasia were natural and likely inevitable developments with mass societies and more powerful states. A coercive state did not need to rely on supernatural power to persuade a populace, and the workaday nature of bureaucratic governance, in any case, would not reflect positively upon a religious order that was fused with that state.

Naturally, others will have different views. But one of the reasons I am such a fan of Peter Turchin’s project is that I tire of semantic definitions as the axis around which arguments hinge. I am usually unconvinced by the erudition of my interlocutors because in most cases I don’t get a sense that they know more than I do, even though perhaps they may, in fact, be in the right. Rather than calculating, argumentation is often a way for two individuals to assess each other’s knowledge base and sophistication. If there is parity, there will never be a resolution, because personal qualities are more relevant than reality.

Carthage (and others) must be read

The first half of Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization is useful, but there’s less of a focus on the culmination you know is coming, the Punic Wars. For a history of that, I’d actually recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC (one of the best descriptions of Cannae).

By utilizing archaeology and generating an inferred cultural history of Carthage, Miles does a great job contrasting the Punic mercantile republic with Rome. Aside from the penchant to name their leading citizens Hanno, Hannibal, and Hamilcar (to the point it’s hard to keep track of who is who), the most notable aspect of ancient Carthage seems to be its tendency to crucify generals who fail in battle. The Carthaginians come off as cartoon villains, even setting aside the child sacrifice. This is probably partly history being written by the winners, but it’s clear that still, Rome, in particular, was unique in its public spiritedness and social cohesion.  This, despite the fact that Rome and Carthage had both converged on a system of an oligarchic republic during the height of their rivalry.

Ancient history, and reading about other cultures, is illuminating about the human condition because different peoples in different exigent circumstances seem to react mostly the same but to wildly different outcomes.

For China, I don’t know of a better treatment in survey form than John King Fairbank’s classic. I also have a very soft spot for Jaques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. Fairbank’s book is more narrative history with some cultural fat on the bones. Gernet is more a cultural history with an exoskeleton of narrative diplomatic history.

For Rome, there are many recent books. But I still really like Michael Grant’s big thick survey, History of Rome. I don’t know about Greece since I haven’t read Greek history much since I was a child. Though Grant has some books on Greece too.

Finally, Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind should be on a “to read” list. It’s a little off the beaten path because it’s a history of Iran. It’s got only superficial coverage of the recent past and tries to go deep into the psyche of what makes Iran Iran. I think it is fair to say that the book ends of concluding that Iran, as we understand it today, is hard to detach from the Safavid period (when it become Shia).

I think these civilizations of the Eurasian oikoumene are good places to start to understand the human condition because so many people were peasants and those ruled by peasants over the past 10,000 years. I would recommend a book on India, but those are mostly religious books. Islam comes a little late, as does Northern Europe. Much of Eurasia and Africa had no written language. If you understand China, Persia, and Rome, you’ll understand a lot. And probably enough.

Book recommendations welcome.

A shock is a surprise because it’s a shock

Reading Thomas Childer’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany reminds me a lot of reading The Red Flag: A History of Communism. These strange and extreme ideological systems seem likely to be eternally marginalized…until they aren’t. The dream of revolution is a fantasy until it isn’t. The rot within these societies, their anomie and disharmony, could be papered over and suppressed for a time. But the revolution took root in rich soil fertilized by the decay and necrosis of the old order.

Human social and cultural systems go through the evolutionary process in a gradual fashion. But quite often they don’t. In fact, compared to biological systems I’d say cultural evolutionary processes are more nonlinear and protean. We may attribute this to exogenous shocks, but with hindsight, we often see that there were endogenous parameters setting the system up to collapse with the first “push” from the outside or an unexpected variable.

And one of the curiosities of humans is our tendency to maintain public fictions all the while knowing that private realities are different. With the chaos of the 1st century B.C., social unrest, the rise of successive strongmen, it was clear to observers of the time that the Roman Republic was sick. The final victory of Augustus and the end of the “republican” chaos is often depicted as a relief for most Romans and their subjects, with the exception of a few aristocrats who were pushed into a purely servile and ceremonial role.

Still, the public fiction continued. Augustus famously was the “first citizen,” princeps. The term imperator became more ubiquitous with the reign of Vespasian a century later, as the Roman Empire recovered from the fall of its first royal dynasty. Nevertheless, the forms of the Republic were maintained despite the reality that Rome had become an autocracy. Only around 300 AD did princeps fall into disuse. Diocletian began to exclusively use the term dominus. Lord.

Other public fictions persisted even then. The office of consuls, which date to Roman prehistory, was maintained down to the 6th century A.D., the reign of the Justinian. The last of the Roman Emperors coincidentally who grew up as a native Latin speaker.

Obviously, the tendency toward public fictions is not an artifact of Rome. To a great extent, Constitutional Monarchies are public fictions. When around 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus did away with the fiction that the laws enacted were derived from the will of the Senate of Rome, he did away with a practice that had maintained a republican facade for centuries. The shocks and violence of the 3rd century, when the Roman system almost collapsed, was the coup de grace. Though Diocletian and the military emperors which came after him were never self-styled kings, due to the taboo around the term in Roman society, their forms and manners were inherited by the monarchs of medieval Europe. The radiant crown that Westerners perceive to be prototypical of the form is a Roman inheritance was popularized by the sun-worshipping emperors of the late 3rd century. Julian the Apostate, a reactionary who abhorred the new, did away with many of the imperial accretions added by his recent predecessors, with all the pomp, ceremony and glamor that that entailed (though his reign was an aberration in more ways than that as a beared pagan convert). The Romans never had kings, but showed kings how to be kings in substance and style.

In the pre-modern world, these fictions were quite resilient. The Zhou dynasty persisted centuries after it no longer had any power to speak of. The Abbassid Caliphs were kept as puppets in Mamluk Egypt for 250 years before the Ottoman conquest. The Merovingian dynasty’s last 100 years was to be as symbolic puppets for the lords of the Franks. The last Mughals lived over a century after the power of the dynasty, if not its glamor, had faded from memory.

The moral of the story is that public fictions can last quite a bit longer than the reality from which they are spun. With hindsight, the chaos and disrepute ushered in by the reign of Commodus clearly signals the end of the old Roman Empire with its republican fictions. But that was not clear then. The frog continued to boil, until from the outside barbarians threw in a dash of scalding water. Only then did the skin peel. But the frog had long been dead.

Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped up. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.

The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.

Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important to set aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villains” are not white).

The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.

Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.

Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.

Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.

The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.

In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.

The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.

To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished.  The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.

The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture,  it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.

Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.

Why the world before 1450 matters

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood the zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand it has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and to Athens in particular. But it is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlight deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to many students because the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a state where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

The monarch as an expression of the people

One of the major conclusions of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is that Protestantism only captured societies with finality when the most powerful temporal leader pushed for the change from above or maintained the pressure. The “magisterial” Reformation succeeded in those nations where the king or the most powerful aristocrats defended Protestantism and made it their own.

In contrast, in much of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, vast territories which had been won over to Protestantism were slowly brought back to Catholicism over the course of the 17th century under imperial direction and force. The process is outlined in Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. It was a deliberate campaign to retake ground lost by the Habsburg monarchy and the Catholic Church.

The grinding down of Protestant faith in Hungary left such bitter feelings that Hungarian Calvinists marched with the armies of the Ottomans in the late 17th century during the Battle of Vienna. Even today the center of Hungarian Calvinism is in the far east, which was longest under the protection, neglect and toleration of the Ottomans.

French and Polish Protestants were well represented among the elites and parts of the nobility. Both states offered the Protestants a modicum of toleration, more or less, but in neither instance they did they capture the monarchy. In France, the Protestant Henry IV famously converted to Roman Catholicism, because the monarchy of the French state was tied so closely to the old religion. Polish Protestants, always a minority but concentrated among the upper echelons, slowly lost their position in society over the 17th and 18th centuries, to the point where being ethnically Polish and being Roman Catholic were synonymous. In contrast, the French Protestants suffered a major immediate shock when Louis XIV revoked the toleration and independence that they had enjoyed explicitly. They either had to convert, emigrate, or retreat deep into isolated areas such as the Massif Central.

The maxim adopted in 1555 was cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, his religion.”

But did this really hold? Henry VIII certainly dragged an England that wasn’t entirely comfortable with leaving Catholicism, especially in the north, to Protestantism (though not too far, as the Puritans would learn!). The Scandinavian monarchs transitioned their nations rather quickly to Lutheranism. The Dutch Protestant minority, motivated, concentrated among elite elements, rebelled against their Catholic Habsburg monarch, but rallied under the Protestant House of Orange.

And yet there were other cases where cuius regio, eius religio did not hold. Arguably Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism illustrates that the monarch was not all powerful…but this case is confounded by the reality that his kingship was conditional on his conversion.

In 1613 John Sigismund of the House of Hohenzollern made public his conversion to Calvinist Reformed Christianity. His Lutheran subjects balked, and did not follow him. Prussia remained a predominantly Lutheran domain with Calvinist rulers for hundreds of years.In 1697 the Wettin House of Saxony converted to Catholicism. While a minority of the subjects of the Hohenzollerns were Reformed Christians, almost no Catholics were present in the domains of the Lutheran Electorate. The overthrow of James II of England in part due to his Catholicism shows that by the latter half the 17th century cuius regio, eius religio did not hold.

The people were self-conscious in having a particular religious identity, and top-down pressure would be met and resisted strenuously.

It is sometimes stated that nationalism and self-identity emerged as late the French Revolution. I do not agree with this. Rather, I agree with Azar Gat’s position in Nations, that nationalism has deep historical and cultural roots. But that does not mean that I believe English self-identity in 1300 is and was the same as English self-identity in 1800. The Gordon Riots of 1780 illustrate how a strident Protestantism had become part and parcel of English national self-identity. In contrast, though there were religious conflicts between the early 16th century (with some rural peasants, especially in the north, retaining loyalty to the Catholic religion) and into the period of the English Civil War, the ultimate outcome seems to have been a matter of mobilizing elites, and up until the overthrow of Charles II retaining the favor of the monarch.

At some point the English monarchy personified the nation. The nation was not simply the extension of the monarch. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War resulted in the switch of their dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.

Today in the age of social media we talk about the power of the mob. But it seems like something happened between 1500 and 1750 in much of Western Europe. Nations-states shifted from being syndicates of elite interest groups ad powerful individuals, to becoming expressions of popular will and sentiment. This preceded democracy or liberalism by generations, and it was a gradual process. Mass society and identity emerged. Immovable, with its own will.

And this had happened before historically, from Greek democracies to the Roman republic. Polities were reflections of the public. At some point citizens become subjects, and the populace were simply resources from which to extract rents to fund aristocratic positional contests. The information revolution of the printing press, and economic development more generally, changed the calculus. The past came back.

These sorts of dynamics are universal, cyclical, and playing out to differing extents across the world.

Related: On the rectification of names and religion. A post over at Brown Pundits.