From the content to the creator

The science fiction writer S. M. Stirling has a problem with his series centered around the Domination alternative history because readers often confuse the narrative of the alternative history for the author’s endorsement of its arc and philosophy. You see, the novels and stories depict a world where a quasi-Nazi ghoulishly Nietzschean race termed the Draka eventually rise to conquer the whole world. Similarly, the fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has had problems with readers who are curious why he has sympathetic atheist characters, despite he himself being a devout Mormon.

Obviously, some writers focus on what they know and have experienced. Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind. She has said that she has no plans to delve beyond the purview of her West Bengali story arcs. But other writers like to explore viewpoints which are startlingly novel and at variance with those of themselves. This is probably particularly true of speculative fiction. Part of being human is the ability to do this with varying levels of fluency.

It is important in any case not to confuse the writer with what they are writing about.

Some of the same applies to what I talk about on this blog. This is clear and obvious when I’m considering the selection coefficient of a novel allele. But what about the Iranian regime?

  1. I am not personally a fan of the regime.
  2. I also believe it is important to describe it accurately and in its own terms.

Some of the latter is for instrumental reasons: if you are to defeat the enemy you must understand it. Even in the early 9/11 years, this was clear, but many people resisted this attempt, as emotions were quite raw. Islamist radicals were viewed in almost metaphysical terms, as forces of nature, evil essences of the universe. The reality though is that they are embodied creatures with needs, wants, and delusions, just like any other.

Ultimately I’m generally pretty frank with my views on a topic if I have them and want to express them. I’m not being cryptic. In some cases, I don’t want to interject my own personal views (which most can infer or know in any case). In other cases, I don’t have a strong opinion.

What religion is

It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.

People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.

At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.

In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.

As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.

So in the post-Axial Age, the religious professional is often shaman, priest, and philosopher.

In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto.  But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.

What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.

Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.

These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).

Jade Eggs anyone?

The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…

As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us.  But I do not presume I am not typical.

Personal genomics question: am I related to my 5th cousins?

There are some personal genomics questions I get over and over via email. I thought I would post an answer so that Google could pick it up.

One of them usually has do with if someone is “really” related to someone who comes up as a 5th cousin on a DTC service. What does “really” mean?

Graham Coop has done the formal work to show that it’s highly likely all our genealogies intersect some point in the recent past. Several years ago in his paper with Peter Ralph, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe, they used genetic data to infer just how closely European lineages coalesced with each other over the past few thousand years.

So yes, you are related (though that doesn’t mean you have matching genetic segments).

But that’s not the question people are really asking about. They are asking, does this DNA match increase the probability that I’m somehow related to this person?

In general, I think not. For example, I regularly get queries from South Asians about distant matches with Europeans. Does this mean they are European? No. I think what it means is:

1) There are lots of Europeans in the database, so a false positive match is likely to be European, even if you are non-European.

2) At short genetic distances, the segments are really mostly some sort of false positive.

Why I am not a New Atheist

Since this comes up now and then I thought I’d put up a quick and short post why I am not a “New Atheist.”

I am an atheist. But I have two major disagreements with the New Atheist tendency. One of them is descriptive and the other is prescriptive.

For the past fifteen years or so I have been strongly convinced that the cognitive anthropology of religion has a lot to say in explaining why most people have historically been religious. The thesis, outlined in books such as In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained, is that humans have strong innate cognitive dispositions which often synthesize together to produce intuitions that dispose them toward belief in the supernatural.

In contrast, a caricature of the New Atheist position would be that religion was written down in a book, and is a meme copied into human brains. As such, it is a meme which can be undone with enough social and cultural suasion. New Atheists, like the village atheists of yore, seem to think one can argue others out of their religiosity.

Fundamentally I do not think this is correct. Nor do I think that religious beliefs have much to do with logic or reason. Religion is a complex phenomenon which is rooted in supernatural intuitions and then evolves further in a cultural context, with some possible functional utility as a group-marker.

Second, I do not think religion is the “root of all evil”, and so see no need to convert the world to atheism. Obviously, the horror of Communism illustrates that removing supernatural religion does not remove the human impulse to atrocity.

More recently, I have been convinced that truth and knowledge is a minor value to most humans, including elites. Lying is pretty ubiquitous, and most people are rather satisfied with big lies girding social norms and conventions. One may try to avoid “living by lies” in private, but actually promoting this viewpoint in public is ridiculously self-destructive. Most people could care less about the truth,* while elites simply manipulate facts to buttress their social positions and engage in control.

In other words, the New Atheists seem to think that it’s a worthy to aim to enlighten humanity toward views which they believe align with reality.

At this point, I care about converting the common man to a true understanding of reality as much as I care about a cow grokking trigonometry. I don’t.

Note: I am not anti-New Atheist either! I think they play a role in the ecology of ideas. Also, I don’t really care if people get their feelings hurt. I hurt feelings all the time. To paraphrase George Constantza, you get a few New Atheists running around, and I’m not looking so bad.

* This includes journalists and scientists. And by “care,” I mean in revealed preferences. Not what people claim privately.

Zhejiang, on the margins of Jiangnan

Zhejiang is the province to the south of Jiangsu, and the heart of Jiangnan, the lower Yangzi river area. As noted in my previous post this region is notable for its economic productivity and wealth, which dates back more than 1,000 years, and persists down the present. Like Jiangsu, Zhejiang is outside of the core area of the rise of Han civilization, but by the 1st millennium A.D. became a redoubt of Chinese civilization in the face of non-Chinese incursions into the north.

Zhejiang is also the location for one of the major centers of Christianity in China, Wenzhou. On the order of ten percent of this city’s population is Christian.

Out of Africa-Out of Asia-Out of Africa

Roberta Estes recenty posted about the fact that Spencer & I will be revisiting The Journey of Man, fifteen years after he wrote the book and made the documentary.

As part of the preparation, I’m revisiting some uniparental results, in particular, recent ones. This preprint in bioRxiv Carriers of mitochondrial DNA macrohaplogroup L3 basic lineages migrated back to Africa from Asia around 70,000 years ago., caught my attention:

Background: After three decades of mtDNA studies on human evolution the only incontrovertible main result is the African origin of all extant modern humans. In addition, a southern coastal route has been relentlessly imposed to explain the Eurasian colonization of these African pioneers. Based on the age of macrohaplogroup L3, from which all maternal Eurasian and the majority of African lineages originated, that out-of-Africa event has been dated around 60-70 kya. On the opposite side, we have proposed a northern route through Central Asia across the Levant for that expansion. Consistent with the fossil record, we have dated it around 125 kya. To help bridge differences between the molecular and fossil record ages, in this article we assess the possibility that mtDNA macrohaplogroup L3 matured in Eurasia and returned to Africa as basic L3 lineages around 70 kya. Results: The coalescence ages of all Eurasian (M,N) and African L3 lineages, both around 71 kya, are not significantly different. The oldest M and N Eurasian clades are found in southeastern Asia instead near of Africa as expected by the southern route hypothesis. The split of the Y-chromosome composite DE haplogroup is very similar to the age of mtDNA L3. A Eurasian origin and back migration to Africa has been proposed for the African Y-chromosome haplogroup E. Inside Africa, frequency distributions of maternal L3 and paternal E lineages are positively correlated. This correlation is not fully explained by geographic or ethnic affinities. It seems better to be the result of a joint and global replacement of the old autochthonous male and female African lineages by the new Eurasian incomers. Conclusions: These results are congruent with a model proposing an out-of-Africa of early anatomically modern humans around 125 kya. A return to Africa of Eurasian fully modern humans around 70 kya, and a second Eurasian global expansion by 60 kya. Climatic conditions and the presence of Neanderthals played key roles in these human movements.

It was really hard for me to parse all the coalescene and phylogenies here. I know some readers are pretty well versed in this area so I’m curious about critiques and reactions to the above.

Why Confucianism matters

Human nature has not changed, within some broad parameters, across history. When I first became interested in topics such as ancient philosophy twenty years ago I recall being struck by the contemporary relevance of thinkers such as Aristotle. Previously my focus has been on the natural sciences, where the dead were just names, whose ideas had often been superseded and extended.

And yet when it came to ethics and moral living the philosophers and religious thinkers who flourished 2,000 years ago seem to have arrived at the primary issues at the general level, though progress and change occurred on the details (and continues to occur).

Why look to China? After all, there were ethical systems in the West. First, I’m not sure that the supernaturalistic religions work to bind elites together anymore due to lack of credibility. Christianity is getting weaker. My own personal hunch is that the current wave of Islamic assertiveness and violence is the paroxysm of a civilization confronting its irrelevance.

Second, Classical Antiquity had plenty of ethical systems, especially during the Hellenistic and Roman period. But Rome collapsed. There was a great rupture between antiquity and the medieval period. In contrast, the Confucian and Neo-Confucian system persisted down to the early 20th century in classical form and casts a strong shadow over East Asia even today. While Stoicism had personal relevance, Confucianism was designed to scale from the individual all the way to the imperial state.

The 1960s saw a radical transition to notional social egalitarianism in the West. This is the world I grew up and matured in. Arguably, I believed in its rightness, inevitability, and eternal dominance, until very recently. But I think that today that model is fraying and people are looking to find some mooring. In particular, I think we are in need of a rectification of names. From Wikipedia:

Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor. He said he would “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. The phrase has now become known as a doctrine of feudal Confucian designations and relationships, behaving accordingly to ensure social harmony. Without such accordance society would essentially crumble and “undertakings would not be completed.”

How are we supposed to behave with each given person? A lot of this is free-form and improvisational today, and it turns out that many people are not comfortable with this. Humans need scripts.

Finally, the world that Confucianism developed was highly stratified, though there was some chance of advancement. It was not a calcified caste system, but it was a hierarchical one. I believe that is the system that we are moving toward in the West, and it seems that a system that takes for granted non-egalitarianism, such as Confucianism, may benefit us.

Jiangsu, from the margin to the center

When I was eight years old I memorized all the capitals in the world…because (well, because a friend had done the same). I’ve always been into geography. But there is one thing I’ve been guilty about for nearly twenty years: I can’t point to all the provinces of China on a map and name them. For example, I only scored 83% in 2 minutes 10 seconds on Seterra’s China province quiz. For comparison, on the African countries quiz I got 100% in 1 minute 59 seconds. Obviously the latter is “harder” than the former, so it indicates my lack of focus.

To make up for my lack of fluency, I’m going to be reading Wikipedia entries of Chinese provinces and putting my reflections into this space. Readers who know more can also chime in in the comments.

I’m starting, for no particular reason, with Jiangsu. The coastal province north of Shanghai, it is not surprising that this is a wealthy region in a Chinese context. Shanghai is administratively distinct, but it seems that it’s core “native” culture is really that of southern Jiangsu. Even without Shanghai in the mix, Jiangsu would have about the 14th largest economy in the world if it was a separate and distinct nation.

Since I read Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence about ten years ago I was not surprised at the fact Jiangsu was so economically vital. It had been the same in the 18th century when the lower Yangzi region became the heartland of Chinese economic growth and industry. But it seems that this region’s importance in trade and Smithian growth dates back at least to the Song dynasty, as the Grand Canal between north and south constructed during the Sui-Tang triggered development.

Originally Jiangsu was not part of China proper, as during antiquity it was inhabited by barbarian peoples. Of course, eventually, it was Sinicized, and when non-Chinese groups took over the North China plain Jiangsu and the Huai river served as a barrier to further southward expansion.

The duty to kill your friend

In the late 1980s Morgan Llwellyn wrote a novelization of the legends of Cu Chulainn, Red Branch.

One of the most dramatic passages involves the fight between Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad mac Daman. In the end Cu Chulainn kills Ferdiad (in a rather underhanded manner), because they were champions who represented rival tribal confederacies in Iron Age Ireland. But it was poignant in part because they were also very good friends.

Most of you do not know me personally, obviously. But those of you who do know me from undergraduate years (and a few of those do read this blog!) also know that one of my closest friends from that time is now a Gender Studies professor at a major research university. We stopped being as close when she went to do her study abroad and we sort of drifted apart, but we are still friends on Facebook, and despite our sharp divergences on social and political issues I can’t exactly deny and negate the history that we had. That’s part of who both of us are today.

And yet we both implicitly know we’re on opposite sides in the culture war. And that’s fine by me. Not everything is political. And even if you have to do your duty in the end and stand with your own tribe when the rubber hits the road, you don’t need to deny the humanity in others.

Accepting that most people are damned, and liberal pluralism

Here is how I learned it. Once upon a time in the West, the Church aimed to save all of society by bringing everyone under the umbrella of the Truth. The shattering of Western Christendom with the Reformation caused a problem. If the Catholics were right, then the Protestants were damned, and if the Protestants were right, the Catholics were damned. You know all about the “Wars of Religion,” which occupied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ultimately this led to the Westphalian system and a gradual acceptance that there would no longer be One True Religion in the West. Monarchs who even took a skeptical view on religion, such as Frederick the Great, arose in the 18th century. In this case, you had a Calvinist Hohenzollern dynasty which could not bring its Lutheran populace on board. In Saxony, you eventually had Catholic dukes ruling over a Protestant populace.

But another aspect of the collapse of universal Christianity in the West was the emergence of radical Protestant groups which understood most of society to be damned and beyond redemption. The separatism of the Amish is an extreme case of this. They don’t even attempt to convert anyone to their religion, which has turned into an ethnicity. This withdrawal of radical Protestants from attempting to force the temporal world to their will has expressed itself most fully in the United States of America, which never had a state-supported religion on the federal level, a radical innovation in its day.

This strain of Christianity is suspicious of the state and society in part because of the suppression their beliefs and practices by both the state and society in which they first emerged. But their relegation of the majority to the ranks of the damned also allows for a modus vivendi in this life. As a contrast, see this apologia for the Pope Pius IX behavior in the Mortara case in First Things, Non Possumus.

The basic argument seems to be that the Pope was motivated by the salvation which was being offered to the soul of the child baptized by the family’s maid. The curious thing is that the whole time I was reading the piece I was thinking about Islamists who would argue that coercive conversion of children of other religions to Islam is still good on the balance because they are now Muslims. The general way this wors is somehow a child is tricked into saying the shahada, and Islam enjoins that once converted one can not apostatize (the Kafir Kalash of Pakistan are suspicious of their children being around their Muslim neighbors because this has happened many times in the past to them).

Some of the same extreme “compassion” seems to be cropping up in American politics, as a deviation from the Truth is no longer tolerated. Pius IX was out of step with his time, as secular liberalism was on the rise. Today I wonder if that liberal in its own turn may have to give ground to a new totalitarianism.