Civilization was inevitable, not contingent

Nice review in Nature, When did societies become modern? ‘Big history’ dashes popular idea of Axial Age Humanity’s supposed singular transition to modernity in the first millennium BC was much messier than previously thought, finds sweeping study of historical data. I blogged an earlier paper with a smaller version of the dataset that the book, Seshat History of the Axial Age, is based on.

My inclination is to believe that the authors are on the right trail. It’s rather like the thesis that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t a revolution, but a gradual affair which ramped up in the 19th-century (the “long fuse”). The human mind likes to transform continuities into singular events. We create categories and classes. For various plausible reasons the “Axial Age” happening around the centuries focused on 500 BC does make sense. But like an English paper, once you have the hypothesis, all experiments prove your preconception.

One of William H. McNeill’s last books was The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. McNeill argued that over time interactions across the Eurasian oikoumene threaded together the whole zone so that civilization became more robust to external shocks. The results from the Seshat database seem to confirm that insight. Instead of independent illuminations, the emergence of Axial characteristics can be thought of as a creative and integrated synthesis.

It also seems clear now that common trends and patterns were occurring across human societies during the Holocene, and much of what we see around us is not contingent and arbitrary. A technological literate world civilization with religions such as the Roman numina and Japanese kammi seems unlikely (Japanese Shinto only exists as a substrate coexistent with Buddhism). Animism of this sort of is primal and universal. As per Paul Bloom and others, it is likely that it’s a basic and atomic unit of religious expression. But as societies become more complex, dense, and literate, new forms of religiosity emerge with common themes.* It’s inevitable.

What Seshat and other projects are doing with formalism and data to me is analogous to what happened with evolutionary biology in the early 20th-century. History has many great ideas. But now they’re being tested systematically.

* Local gods give way to universal gods and principles. Ethics and metaphysics become deeply intertwined with religion and an explicit relationship between cult and state emerge.

City air makes you less fecund


A follow-up from an earlier post. Looking at a transect of Roman DNA I made the assertion that modern Roman Italian samples reflect the rural hinterlands of Lazio, which repopulated the city after its massive population loss of the 7th-centuries. This separate post is probably warranted because taking into account comments, I have reread and rethought, and I think I am going to update a few views.

But first, something I won’t update: it seems clear that Imperial Romans were genetically distinct and quite cosmopolitan in comparison to their Republican predecessors, but neither did they leave a clear imprint down to the future. The histories are quite clear that Imperial Rome was a reflection of the whole Roman Empire, with eminent intellectuals and aristocrats congregating from all corners of the world-state. That being said, the results from the paper confirmed the weight of the eastern provinces in their influence and demographic heft.

And yet for all that heft, the scions of the eastern provinces who settled down in and around the Eternal City left few descendants judging from modern Italian DNA. Why? Because cities were massive demographic sinks in the best of times, with endemic disease, combined with periodic shocks like plagues and invasions.

With the decline of the Pax Romana, and the shattering of the Mediterranean system with the rise of Islam, the demographics of the Roman people no longer reflected the world of antiquity. Rather, Romans became Italians once more, more or less. But, there were subtle differences from the Republican Romans. Modern Romans seem to be placed as you would expect between North and South Italians. The Italian peninsula as a whole seems to have received more “Pan-European” genetic influence since the Iron Age. The cumulative impact of Goths, Lombards, as well as the slave trade and the remnant of Imperial cosmopolitanism, has likely made a difference.

The Chinese customer is always right

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock you are aware that there is a controversy around China and the NBA due to different standards of political speech in the USA and China. Obviously the major issue that looms over the debate is the reality that at some point in the 2020s China will become the world’s largest economy, and one of the major consumer engines of the world. From a corporate perspective, this hangs over all the discussion and consideration. The Chinese market is like El Dorado.

But I would like to draw attention to something Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Alibaba, said on Facebook:

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19thcentury, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.

The substance of the dispute here on their face-value isn’t too important. Rather, from a commercial perspective the opinions of Chinese matter because there are 1.4 billion of them. Additionally, from a commercial perspective, the “objective truth” doesn’t matter. The “customer” is always right. Whether the Chinese have legitimate grounds for their beliefs is less important than what their beliefs are, because there are so many of them. The substance of beliefs may dictate consumption. Whether those beliefs are true or not is secondary (ask the supplements industry in the USA).

But this is not a dynamic limited to this context. Do you remember the Islamic mosque and cultural center that was slated to be built near the World Trade Center? The project was abandoned after various groups, including some 9/11 victim families, felt that it was offensive. Though I didn’t believe that the center had anything to do with 9/11 as such, I do recall being vaguely sympathetic to their feelings. In hindsight, this was clearly the wrong call by me in light of broader trends in our culture.

Since that time the reign of feelings over facts has proceeded apace. In American society, the facts at hand matter less and less, than who the people are who have their own reaction, perception, and subjective experience, of the facts. The fact that 9/11 families were uncomfortable determined the ultimate course of construction. The fact that college students are uncomfortable that someone is going to speak who wrote something that offends them 20 years ago is key factor that determines if the invitation will be rescinded. The overall objective fact of something is incidental in comparison to the visceral reaction.

One of the things that I have witnessed which illustrates this trend is the way Richard Dawkins is viewed by young “enlightened” people. Dawkins has always been a bit of a brusque and direct individual in regards to what he believes are the facts irrespective of the target. In 2006 he was commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 to take lead on a documentary titled The Root of all Evil. When The God Delusion was published Dawkins’ intellectual celebrity rose to new heights.

Not so in 2019. The reason? Richard Dawkins is 78. In fundamental ways, he has not changed. He is an old man. And, he has a naive and to my mind an overly simplistic view of the importance of truth above all things. But those are his sincere beliefs. As such, he expresses his views without much equivocation and in a simple and open manner which is now often highly offensive to many people who a decade ago admired him. The primary reason is that Richard Dawkins is an upper-middle-class white male, and the targets of his criticism, for example, a hijabi in Bradford, England, are not. How sympathetic the targets are matters a great deal. The logic or empirical basis less so.

In the late 2000s I recall a friend of mine at the time, an academic philosopher, explaining to me that in the context of the offense, the intent of the offender is irrelevant when compared to the reaction of the offended. This seemed like a bizarre view to me at the time, but in this decade this view has become more and more mainstream.

When these ideas were first being articulated several decades ago there was still a strong hope and expectation that economic liberalization in China would lead to political liberalization. I shared that hope. It seems that in many ways we were wrong. Rather than the internet as a means for free expression, it has become an essential tool of commerce and social control and manipulation. My vague impression is that most  Chinese are either politically apathetic or somewhat nationalist and anticipating warmly the geopolitical power of their nation-state on the world stage.

In contrast, in the United States I feel we are in a parochial cultural moment. On the Right, the slogan “Make America Great Again” is reflective of nostalgia for the 20th-century. On the Left, particular concerns with the failings of the American project loom larger than the larger dynamics in human history (as opposed to the mass decline of poverty in places like China over the last generation). Around the year 2000 many Americans had a view of the 21st-century where prosperity would transform the rest of the world into cultural clones of America. This would have resulted in universal particularisms and sensitivities. That is, the ascendency of post-modern thinking, and the rise of subjectivism would have been constrained by a common cultural framework directed and shaped by American and European elites. What is “problematic” here would be “problematic” there.

That has not happened. Rather, Alistar McGrath’s general prediction in The Twilight of Atheism has come to be. I say general because atheism has not collapsed in a specific sense (on the contrary, as irreligion has increased greatly in the United States). But particular cultural understandings of what is right and proper have come to the foreground with more muscular robustness as the Enlightenment ideal of a universal shared reality fades.

One of the more nihilistic aspects of the intellectual revolution triggered by the influence of Michel Foucault is to reduce perception and comprehension as simply outcomes of power relations. I would argue that what we see today in the corporate response to the rise of Chinese economic power is the reshaping of truth and sensitivities toward broadly Chinese outlines due to Chinese power. What one sees here is the convergence between capitalist kowtowing toward power, and the reality that more and more people acknowledge and accept that power determines our understanding of reality.

The world is not out there, the world is created by us.

Anticipating post-postcolonialism

Recently on Facebook, an old friend who is now a professor promoted a new series of essays to which she contributed. She noted that this is a history which “…place enslavement, colonialism, and indigenous removal at the center…” Some of the analyses clearly take postcolonialism for granted, where the contact with and shock of European imperialism are critical to understanding everything.

One some level empirically it is impossible to understand the recent history of black Americans or Native Americans without understanding the role that imperialism and colonialism played in shaping their self-understandings, and how they reacted to their oppression. But, on a purely normative level, I wonder if this diminishes the attempt to understand cultures and societies in a positive sense. As in, what defines a people beyond their reaction to other people? To be frank, often the fixation on slavery and genocide by white intellectuals allows these intellectuals to continue to focus on white people as the agents of history.

To some extent, this does reflect reality. But even in bondage and subjugation people continued to innovate, create, and flourish. The long recession of the native peoples and nations of the New World in the face of European hegemony was the work of centuries. How many people know that the last Maya kingdom was conquered by the Spaniards in 1697? Or that the Mapuche people of southern Chile were fully not conquered until the late 19th-century?

There are whole histories here that could be told which are not nearly as Eurocentric.

But the bigger issue is that outside of the context of the peoples of the New World, who felt the blunt force of European imperialism for centuries and manifested the colonialist experience par excellence, a postcolonial narrative that foregrounds the agency and action of Europeans may not be fully informative. The period between 1400 and 1800 is one where Europe became progressively more dynamic and powerful vis-a-vis other regions of the oikoumene, but until the very end of this period European powers were often marginal players except in their own imaginations.

After 1800 European hegemony truly took hold, as the Eurasian “gunpowder empires” collapsed, and the interior of Africa was finally opened up to colonization due to quinone. The question then becomes: does this century or so allow us to understand by and large the course of future history?

British rule in 1800

Consider both India and China. India was under direct or indirect British rule in totality by the middle of the 19th-century, though note that even in 1800 much of the subcontinent was under native rule. India and Pakistan were independent by 1947. China began to be impinged by European powers by the 1840s, and then underwent a series of shocks and decentralizations so that it was quasi-colonial by the early 20th-century. Like India, China’s indigenous elite shucked off foreign rule in the 1940s with the victory of the Communists.

But both India and China were strongly shaped by non-indigenous ideologies and currents after independence. China was Communist, while India’s elite was shaped by Fabian socialism. But today both China and India are arguably shifting toward more self-consciously indigenous modalities.

One way to understand the contemporary turn of both India and China is to interpret them in the lens of recent Western political history. For example, Hindu nationalism as an analog to nationalist movements in 20th-century Europe. These analogies are not without merit, but the problem is that often they are taken to extreme correspondences which are highly implausible. To me, it is important to consider the possibility, even likelihood, that deep indigenous sentiment and sensibilities are resurfacing in these societies as European ascendency recedes.

If this is the case, then it is important to understand the histories of these people beyond their interaction and engagement with the West. Beyond postcolonialism. Hindu nationalism is far more than fascism in brownface, and Salafism is more than a purely rational reaction to the Western challenge.* We must move beyond our European schemas to understand the post-European age.

* Actually, I do think Salafism is impossible to understand without its reaction and engagement with the West, but the impulse is far more ancient and goes back to Ibn Taymiyyah.

An Age of Miracles is Inevitable

Growing up with a lot of Mormons I was exposed to their culture a fair amount. Though Mormonism is really distinct as a culture, with folkways and mores (jello!), there are a lot of weird beliefs there too.

One of the arguments presented as supporting the validity of the religion is that the Book of Mormon is very extensive. How could we imagine that Joseph Smith, a relatively uneducated young man, could have written it by himself? It is such a long and detailed narrative. The scripture is then evidence of divine provenance and inspiration.

At the time I didn’t have much to say to that argument, though I was skeptical. Now I have something more to say to that. In the context of the time and place, the Second Great Awakening in greater New England, it is not surprising that some enterprising you man created a scripture that many would find convincing (at least convincing enough).* The Mormons were the most successful of the new religious movements to come out of the northern United States during this period, but it was an extremely culturally creative time and place. If a new scripture was going to be created in the USA, this is when conditions were most ripe.

In antiquity, some Christians asserted that the emergence of a unified Roman Empire was ordained by their God to serve as a vehicle for the rise of Christianity. Indeed, I have argued that something like Christianity was probably inevitable with the rise of Rome. There were broader historical-cultural forces at work. As I am not a believer in Christianity (or any religion), I don’t think that the unifying religion necessarily had to have all the particular features of Christianity, but Christianity clearly sufficed. The cultural victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire was unlikely in a specific sense, but someone was going to probably have a cultural victory.

Which brings me to Islam. Like Mormons, many Muslims assert the nature of the Koran is proof of Muhammad’s revelation. After all, he was an illiterate merchant. How could he have produced such work? Setting aside revisionism about the nature of the Koran (and Muhammad), there is a broader issue about the miraculous conquest of much of the Roman Empire, and all of the Persian Empire, in the 7th-century by the Arabs.

The magnitude and scale were clearly incredible.

But was it truly that great of a surprise? Historically peoples from the fringes and margins have been prominent in Near Eastern history in engaging in takeovers of older civilizations.  Amorites, Kassites, Aramaeans, Medes, Persians, Parthians. Right before the rise of the Arabs, the Turks created a short-lived trans-Eurasians Empire, and after the decline of early Islam, the Mongols created another (and before the Mongols the Turks had become dominant within Islam after their adoption of the religion).

Scholars such as Peter Turchin, Christopher Beckwith, and Victor Lieberman have observed the relationship between the civilizational “marches” and “cores” over the past few thousand years (also see Ibn Khaldun). Over time the cores become inert, somnolescent, and they are conquered and revived by eruptions from the march. The Zhou, the first great Chinese dynasty which served as the cultural foundation for imperial China were semi-barbarized. The revival of the Chinese Empire under the Sui-Tang was spearheaded by semi-barbarized marchland elites as well. The Seleucid hegemony of the old Persian lands was wrested from their control by the Parthian Arsacids, who were of Central Asian origin (in contrast, the Sassanians came out of the old Persian heartland in the southwest). The Maurya focus of power was in Maghda, on the edge of Aryavarta.

The Arab conquest was not surprising in the grand scope then. It was not inevitable, but neither was it entirely unlikely. In later centuries the Arab hegemony gave way to a Persian revival (e.g., the Buyids and Samanids), which gave way to Turkic hegemony. The rare aspect of the Arabs is the creation of a new civilizational mythology and identity. That is, Islam.

Of the peoples listed above, the only analog I can see here is the Zhou, who seem to have fused their own particularities (e.g., emphasizing the worship of an impersonal Heaven as opposed to a more personal Lord on High) with the broader matrix of late Shang proto-Chinese culture, and therefore created the identity we later think of as quintessentially Chinese. Though the roots of Han Chinese civilization do go back to the Erlitou, 1,000 years before he Zhou, the broad outlines are Zhou.

xTo evaluate these unique, surprising, and novel events in history, one always has to keep in mind the broad scope. When seen across the patterns of history the individual perturbations are clearly part of the moving river of events, inexorable and directional.

* I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the witnesses were involved in the creation of the Book of Mormon.

The European invention of taxonomy?

One of the temptations of rejecting Eurocentrism in modern scholarship is to confuse the semantic terms for reality. Europeans have reshaped the semantic landscape over the past few centuries, but that does not mean that what the terms were pointing to did not exist in some form before.

Last year Aeon published What is the Muslim world? Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda. This led me to read The Idea of the Muslim World. This book did not convince me that colonialists had invented the Muslim world.

Rather, the rise of Europe and the West reconfigured preexistent identities and solidarities.

Today, I noticed Aeon published Race on the mind: When Europeans colonised North Africa, they imposed their preoccupation with race onto its diverse peoples and deep past. The author of this piece also wrote Inventing the Berbers: History and Ideology in the Maghrib. The book actually seems somewhat nuanced. That being said, the Aeon piece is focused on Europeans.

As someone who has read a fair amount recently on the Moorish period of Spain, one thing that is obvious and notable is that ethnolinguistic difference between various Muslim groups. Though 19th-century Europeans imposed a particularly harsh and brutal taxonomy on other peoples, the reality is that to engage in taxonomy is human. The Berbers and Arabs in Al-Andalus were divided due to the fact that Berbers were overrepresent military, while the Arabs had the cultural prestige.

There is an unfortunate trend today to see all past history as a reflection of the present. When you see this, understand that there’s shoddiness…

The fall of man

It is well known that in the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era the social complexity and economic productivity of the Roman cultural zone underwent a regression. There were two areas in particular where massive transformation occurred. The interior Balkans and Britain were ethnically and religiously changed in totality from their Roman-era state.

Romanian and Vlach dialects today are a testament to the strength of Latin in the interior Balkans, while Albanian attests to indigenous linguistic diversity. But the dominant languages today are Slavic, due to the putative mass migration of tribes under the leadership of the Avars in the 6th and 7th century. These regions also had to be re-Christianized. Something similar happened in Britain, where mass migrations of Germans transformed the language and religion of the whole region.

But we know that genetically the Balkan Slavs and English are actually genetically more like the earlier populations than descendants of migrants. This is not to say that the exogenous genetic material is trivial. It is significant. There was a mass migration of Slavs and Germans. It was just that these did not contribute to the preponderance of the genes.* And yet the language shifted, and the Christian religion faded.

How did this happen?

Late Roman society was defined by specialized economic functions on the production frontier. This was the ancient world’s equivalent of the “just-in-time” economy. In contrast, the Slavic tribes beyond the frontier were arguably even less influenced by Rome than the Germans. These were deeply rustic people. And that was their cultural advantage.

Using a biological analogy, the Late Roman society was like an asexual lineage maximizing short-term gains at the expense of long-term resilience. The “shock” of barbarian incursions in the 5th to 6th centuries totally unraveled the Roman system.

In contrast, small-scaling farming societies organized around clans and tribes, which is how the Slavs were organized, could maintain themselves. Often the Slavs were ruled by non-Slavic groups with origins in the steppes (Avars, Bulgars, etc.), but in the end, the Slavic identity swallowed up their rulers, more or less.

This new setup was successful enough to attract converts from local populations. There is circumstantial evidence that the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex was actually originally British (look at the early names in the genealogy). They may have been post-Roman British aristocrats who “barbarized.” In Merovingian Francia, Gallo-Roman elites were taking to trousers and aping German Frankish style, but, on the whole the cultural balance was tilted toward the “Romans” rather than the “Germans.” Not so in Britain, it seems.

With all this outlined, it not so surprising that a complex urban society could be culturally assimilated in some ways by a simpler agro-pastoralist lifestyle. The further back you go into the past, the more likely it happened, because the less “robust” the cultural technologies of the urban society were.

* The gene flow into the Balkans was greater proportionally than into Britain. In some cases, more than 50% of the ancestry might be attributable to migrants in the northern and western regions.

The end of the universal Western civilization

During a conversation with Carl Zha (already posted for BrownCast patrons) I inquired about Chinese views of the rest of the world and China’s relationship to other nation-states. I reflected offhand in some ways we don’t know how to deal with this “multi-polar” world, where Asian powers are again relevant after many centuries of being in the shadow of Europe and its offspring. Some of this is also reflected in India, where a rising reactionary conservative nationalism is the odds on favorite to retain power when the tallies are counted for the 2019 election.*

If I live my expected lifespan, I will see the end of the long centuries of the hegemony of Greater Europe. Today the European Union and the USA make up about 30% of the world’s GDP. India and China together are 25%. In 2050 the EU and USA will be 20%. India and China will be 35%. Many projections put Asia as a whole at (excluding the Middle East) at 50% of the world economy in 2050.

If Asian societies maintain current economic momentum, they will have returned to the same proportion of the world economy as they were in ~1800. This date intuitively makes sense. Though the British, under the East India company, were already advancing their way through the subcontinent, in 1800 Manchu ruled Imperial China still retained certain self-confidence, born of a century of economic and demographic expansion.

The 1793 Macartney Embassy saw the Chinese treat the British as they always had. But by this point the dynamic force of history had moved past the Chinese, they just didn’t know it.

The oldest person I have known personally with any great familiarity was my maternal grandfather. He was born in 1896 and died in 1996. It is unlikely that he knew anyone personally who remembered a time before the hegemony of Europeans across the globe. But, it is entirely possible his own grandfather, my own great-great-grandfather, knew people for whom the British as an eternal and dominant force of history was something of a novelty in their youth. My own children will live on after me, likely into the 22nd century. Most of their lives will play out in a very different epoch when it comes to the balance of civilizations.

Of course, one can argue, with some reason, that all civilization from here on out is Western civilization. But I think we need to think back to the late 1990s, and what we believed at the time a post-Western universal civilization would look like. There was an optimism that the end of history would force nations like China to open up politically, while India would match its democratic humanism with robust economic growth. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was the sometimes helpmate, and sometimes supplicant, of the USA. Though people in India might speak Hindi and eat off thali, while those in China would speak Mandarin and eat with chopsticks, by the end of the 21st century many expected that universal values would lead to a natural federative political state on planet earth. There was no need for top-down world government when capitalism and democratic liberalism spread to all the nation-states on the planet.

Though we should be cautious of swinging in the opposite direction, it does look like the 21st-century will exhibit its own characteristics, not just reflect the dreams of the late 20th.

* I say reactionary because I don’t think Hindu nationalism, like Islamism, is comprehensible without the shock of European modernity. Though these movements present themselves as primal and authentic, they’re really syntheses that came out of the dialectic between the native (Indian) and the colonial (European).

The rise of the steppe (on PBS)

David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World is a bit dated, but it’s still a useful read. Papers such as Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia and Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe come out of the tradition that Anthony comes out of. Arguably these thinkers even underestimated the demographic impact of the people from the steppe.

If you are interested in this topic, I think you might find First Horse Warriors: The advent of horse riding changed the course of human history and the genetic makeup of humankind, worth a watch. I think the second half, in particular, will be interesting. Researchers whose names you see only in papers are interviewed. So if you want to put a face to the name, this is your chance.

I would say though that again watching this episode reinforces my point that visual medium is very low density in the information. They had to focus on a few major results and scaffold their visuals around that.

The main issue in the documentary is that researchers still debate the nature of the usage of the horse on the steppe. Anthony and Dorcas Brown have been arguing for an early date of widespread horse domestication, at least as early as 3500 BC. But others suggested a date closer to 2000 BC, around when the light war chariot was invented.

Why the Uyghurs as we didn’t know them didn’t exist until after 1000 AD

The period between 300 AD about 750 AD is sometimes termed the “Buddhist Age.” The reason for this is is that this was the period when Buddhism was established in China, and, was still a force in mainland South Asia. It is also when Buddhism was arguably the dominant religion in much of Central Asia. In fact, Buddhism probably arrived in China mostly through this route, via the city-states of the Tarim basin.

A point of interest for many in the public is that some of these Tarim basin Buddhists looked very “Western.” That is, they had European features and coloring. The reason for this is that their ancestors were the eastern edge of the Indo-European migrations on the steppe. Many of them famously spoke Tocharian languages, an extinct branch of the Indo-European languages. But others spoke Iranian languages. Iranian not in that they came from Iran, but that they were descended from proto-Iranians of the steppe.

A few years ago there was a discussion on this weblog and elsewhere about very recent admixture dates for the western and eastern admixture components in the Uyghurs. That is, after 1000 AD. This struck many as too recent. I think perhaps I have an answer for what happened.

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