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.
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.
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 second season of Westworld has some scenes set in Edo period Japan. To spoil things for you there is apparently a scene-by-scene re-creation of a plot arc from the first season of the show set in the American West. Watching this scene, and comparing it to the earlier version, I can’t but help feel that the Edo period setting is more grand and refined. If the first season’s violent attack was brutalist, the scene above is more neoclassical.
The context for the Edo period is that 16th century Japan was a dynamo. Not always in a good way. The islands were riven by internal warfare. The Japanese were known to be a piratical race by the Ming dynasty, and the 16th century ended with the warlord Hideyoshi’s disastrous invasion of Korea. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns, while Roman Catholic Christianity had great success in the southern island of Kyushu.
Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu set the stage for Japan’s nearly three hundred year exile from the congress of nations, turning his back on Hideyoshi’s adventurousness. Of course, it is false to assume that the Japanese were totally insulated from the outside world. Not only did they connect with the West through the Dutch, but the Japanese maintained a more intense relationship with Korea. Even in the 17th and 18th century, a movement of “Western Learning” persisted through the interaction with the Dutch (though arguably late Confucian influences may have been more significant).
The violent suppression of Christianity in the 17th century and the emergence of a static caste system strikes modern sensibilities as brutal, barbaric and regressive. But the Edo period’s reduction in distribution and production of lethal firearms shows the upside of a conservative and controlling social land political elite. Violence continued, but it was relatively controlled and channeled.
We think of the future as endlessly protean and dynamic. But science fiction offers up an alternative possibility far more like Edo period Japan: technologically stagnant, culturally conservative. Frank Herbert’s Dune was set in the context of a universe where there had been a religious jihad against artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally based on imperial Rome, but later incarnations admitted that the better model was imperial China. Just as in the Dune series, the Foundation universe had to grapple with humanity’s protean and chaotic violence, which threatened to take down our civilization periodically due to enthusiasms.
The Edo period stretches from the early 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. All in all this is not a bad run. Our own republic’s 250 year anniversary will be on us in 2026.
The figure to the left is from The genetic prehistory of the Greater Caucasus. If you are a regular reader of this weblog, or Eurogenes, you can figure out what’s going on, and keep track of the terminology. But in 2018 I think we’re getting to the end of the line in making sense of “admixture graphs” in relation to West Eurasian population structure. The models are just getting too complicated to keep everything straight, and the distinct-populations-subject-to-pulse-admixture seems to be an assumption that may not necessarily hold.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, the above preprint focuses on populations in and around the Caucasus region. One of the major reasons that this is important is that the Caucasus was and is to some extent a continental hinge, connecting Eastern Europe and the Pontic steppe, to the Near East. The Arab Muslims pushed north of the Caucasus, and came into conflict with the Khazars, while Cimmerians and Scythians moved south from the Pontic steppe.
The elephant in the room is the relevance to the “Indo-European controversy.” Colin Renfrew long ago posited that the Indo-European languages derive from West Asian farmers who expanded into Europe as early as ~9,000 years ago. A rival theory is that Indo-Europeans spread out of the Pontic steppe ~4,000 years ago. In 2015 twomajor papers suggested that the steppe was a major source of Indo-European expansion. Case closed? This preprint suggests perhaps not.
But we’ll get to that later. What do the results here show? The prose is a little hard to tease apart, but the major issues seem to be that in antiquity, or at least the period they’re focusing on, much of the gene flow seems to have been south (Near East) to the north (through the Caucasus, and out to the north slope). To some extent, we already knew this: the Yamna people of the Pontic steppe have “southern” ancestry from the Near East that earlier East European/Pontic people do not. In this preprint, the authors show that groups such as the Maykop of the north slope of the Caucasus carry Y haplogroups such as G2, and not the R1 lineages commonly found in the steppe. David W. suggests that this confirms that Near Eastern gene flow into the steppe was female-mediated. This is plausible, but I would caution that Y chromosomes alone can be deceptive, due to the power of particular patrilineages. We’ll probably rely on the X chromosome to make a final judgment.
The plot below shows many of the relationships as a function of location and time. The green component is modal among “Iranian farmers,” the orange among “Anatolian farmers,” and the blue among “Western hunter-gatherers.”
A major aspect of this preprint is that it has to work hard to differentiate two Anatolian farmer-like signals: the first, from Anatolian farmers proper, and the second from the descendants of European farmers, who themselves are a mix of Anatolian farmers with a minority ancestry among the hunter-gatherers. The answers would probably be totally unintelligible if not for archaeology. It’s clear that the steppe people had contact with both European and Near Eastern farmers and that later East European groups that succeeded the Yamna were subject to reflux from Central Europe, and received European farmer ancestry.
Another curious nugget in their results is that there was early detection of both Ancestral North Eurasian (ANE) ancestry and, some East Eurasian gene flow (related to Han Chinese). One of their individuals carries the East Eurasian variant of EDAR, which today is only found in Finns, though it was found in reasonable frequencies among the Motala hunter-gatherers of Scandinavia. Additionally, Fu et al. 2016 found that the ancestors of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers received some gene flow from Eastern Eurasians as well (also in the supplements of Lazaridis et al. 2016).
The authors admit that there is probably population structure among ANE and undiscovered groups of East Eurasians who were traversing the Inner Asian landscape. I think this is all suggestive of some long-distance contacts, though the intensity and magnitude increased a lot with high-density societies and the mobility of pastoralism.
Much of the genetic mixing in the Near East, and to some extent in the trans-Caucasian region, seems to date to the 4th millennium. This is technically prehistory, but it is also the Uruk period. This was a phase of Mesopotamian culture expansion between 4000 and 3100 BC which resulted in replicas of Uruk style settlements as far away as Syria and southeastern Anatolia. There is even evidence of Uruk-related migration to the North Caucasus.
The Uruk experienced abrupt and sudden collapse. Uruk settlements outside of the core zone of Mesopatamia disappear.
It’s the final paragraph that warrants discussion:
The insight that the Caucasus mountains served not only as a corridor for the spread of CHG/Neolithic Iranian ancestry but also for later gene-flow from the south also has a bearing on the postulated homelands of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages and documented gene-flows that could have carried a consecutive spread of both across West Eurasia…Perceiving the Caucasus as an occasional bridge rather than a strict border during the Eneolithic and Bronze Age opens up the possibility of a homeland of PIE south of the Caucasus, which itself provides a parsimonious explanation for an early branching off of Anatolian languages. Geographically this would also work for Armenian and Greek, for which genetic data also supports an eastern influence from Anatolia or the southern Caucasus. A potential offshoot of the Indo-Iranian branch to the east is possible, but the latest ancient DNA results from South Asia also lend weight to an LMBA spread via the steppe belt…The spread of some or all of the proto-Indo-European branches would have been possible via the North Caucasus and Pontic region and from there, along with pastoralist expansions, to the heart of Europe. This scenario finds support from the well attested and now widely documented ‘steppe ancestry’ in European populations, the postulate of increasingly patrilinear societies in the wake of these expansions (exemplified by R1a/R1b), as attested in the latest study on the Bell Beaker phenomenon….
More interesting are the results in West Asia, and the linguistic supplement. In the authors note that tablets now indicate an Indo-Aryan presence in Syria ~1750 BC. Second, Assyrian merchants record Indo-European Hittite, or Nesili (the people of Nesa), as early as ~2500 BC.
As suggested in earlier work Hittite remains don’t suggest steppe influence. David W. says:
The apparent lack of steppe ancestry in five Hittite-era, perhaps Indo-European-speaking, Anatolians was interpreted in Damagaard et al. 2018 as a major discovery with profound implications for the origin of the Anatolian branch of Indo-European languages.
But I disagree with this assessment, simply because none of these Hittite-era individuals are from royal Hittite, or Nes, burials. Hence, there’s a very good chance that they were Hattians, who were not of Indo-European origin, even if they spoke the Indo-European Hittite language because it was imposed on them.
The main aspect I’d bring up with this is that in other areas steppe ancestry has spread deeply and widely into the population, including non-Indo-European ones. It is certainly possible that the sample is not needed enough to pick up the genuinely Hittite elite, but I probably lean to the likelihood that the steppe signal won’t be found. It seems that the Anatolian languages were already diversified by ~2000 BC, and perhaps earlier. Linguists have long suggested that they are the outgroup to other Indo-European languages, though this could just be a function of their isolation among highly settled and socially complex populations.
Two alternative models present themselves for these results. The Anatolian Indo-European languages expanded through elite diffusion, part of the same general migrations that emerged out of the Yamna culture ~3000 BC. The lack of a steppe signal may be due to sampling bias, as David W. suggested, or, more likely in my opinion, simple dilution of the signal. Second, the steppe migrations were one part of a broader palette of population movements and cultural diffusions, and the Anatolian Indo-Europeans are basal to the efflorescence of the steppe derived branches.
The evidence of the explosion of Indo-Aryans in the years after 2000 BC in West and South Asia, as well as the expansion of Iranians across vast swaths of Inner Asia during the same period, suggest to me that Indo-Iranians are most definitely part of the steppe pulse. The connection to the Sintashta charioteers presents itself, and, connections to the Uralic languages indicates incubation in the trans-Volga region.
We next tested a model of the present-day Lebanese as a mixture of Sidon_BA and any other ancient Eurasian population using qpAdm. We found that the Lebanese can be best modeled as Sidon_BA 93% ± 1.6% and a Steppe Bronze Age population 7% ± 1.6% (Figure 3C; Table S6). To estimate the time when the Steppe ancestry penetrated the Levant, we used, as above, LD-based inference and set the Lebanese as admixed test population with Natufians, Levant_N, Sidon_BA, Steppe_EMBA, and Steppe_MLBA as reference populations. We found support (p = 0.00017) for a mixture between Sidon_BA and Steppe_EMBA which has occurred around 2,950 ± 790 ya (Figure S13B).
This needs to be more explored. The admixture could have come from many sources. I am curious about the frequency of R1a1a-z93 among modern-day Syrians and Lebanese.
For me these arguments can only be resolved with a deeper understanding of linguistic evolution. The close relationship of Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages is obvious to any speaker of either of these languages (I can speak some Bengali). A divergence in the range of 4 to 5 thousand years before the present seems most likely to me. But the relationship of the other Indo-European languages is much less clear.
One of the arguments in Peter Bellwood’s First Farmers is that the Indo-European languages exhibit a “rake-like” topology with the exception of Indo-Iranian, which forms a clear clade. To him and others in his camp, this argues for deep divergences very early in time.
It is hard to deny that the steppe migrations between 4 and 5 thousand years ago had something to do with the distribution of modern Indo-European languages. But, it is harder to falsify the model that there were earlier Indo-European migrations, perhaps out of the Near East, that preceded these. Only a deeper understanding of linguistic evolution, and multidisciplinary analysis of regional substrates will generate the clarity we need.
Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.
The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.
Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.
But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).
Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.
The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.
Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?
Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).
Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).
The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.
I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).
This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.
* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.
I’m writing up a full reaction for National Review Online, so I’m not going to say too much here in specifics. And, since the book is still not out for a bit over a week I think it would be kind of rude of me to spill the beans on anything too juicy (though if you read this blog closely there won’t be any huge reveals).
So let me say something in the generality first. I’ve told the story of my friend Barry* before. Barry is a smart guy. He has a Ph.D. in the physical sciences from an eminent university in the Boston area. Barry works as a senior research engineer at a major semiconductor firm. Barry is interested in many things about the world. In 2011 I mentioned in passing to Barry over dinner that researchers had published in Science last year the fact that most humans alive today carry appreciable Neanderthal DNA. Barry was shocked. This was news to him. When I expressed shock that someone like Barry would be ignorant of this fact, Barry suggested perhaps I needed to expand my horizons as to the nature of things that the typical educated and interested person knows about science at any given time. That’s fair enough.
Someone like Barry is a perfect audience for Who We Are and How We Got Here. Barry hasn’t taken much biology, so the review of concepts such as recombination (even if the author doesn’t use that word) and mutation are useful. But more importantly, Who We Are and How We Got Here catches someone like Barry up to the state-of-the-art knowledge that we have in terms of human history, deep and prehistoric.
But it’s not just Barry. I’ve talked to plenty of people who work in evolutionary genomics who are not totally up-to-speed on the ancient DNA revolution. They too would benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here front to back. I know people who work in the field of cultural evolution, who would also benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here. I know behavior geneticists who would benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here. And so forth.
Last summer I had the pleasure of having lunch with the author of Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich. If you read the prose it’s hard not to hear his precise and careful words echoing in your mind. Who We Are and How We Got Here is not rich with the same stylistic flourish and engagement as one might find in a popularization by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins. And I don’t think that was its intent, judging by how much space is given over to the four-population test! This is a serious book that is earnest in focusing on the substance of the science first, second, and last.
David expressed his discomfort with the opportunity cost that writing this book entailed for him when we spoke. While focusing on the book for the past few years he hasn’t had much time to do original analysis himself. His body language indicated the deep discomfort this caused him, and in Who We Are and How We Got Here he admits frankly that devoting himself to the book resulted in him not performing many analyses and publishing many papers.
One reason to write Who We Are and How We Got Here is that a book will reach outside the circle of those consuming and participating in the ancient DNA revolution. And a revolution it is! David Reich is already a highly eminent academic by any measure. Who We Are and How We Got Here will do nothing to elevate his standing among his peers, because amongst them his stature is measured by the scientific papers published and projects in which he is involved.
So why make the sacrifice and write this book? Let me quote David Reich himself:
…I finally thank several people who repeatedly encouraged me to write this book. I resisted the idea for years because I did not want to distract myself from the science, and because for geneticists papers are the currency, not books. But my mind changed as my colleagues grew to include archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and others eager to come to grips with the ancient DNA revolution.
I would expand the purview here more broadly: all public intellectuals should know about the human past in its fullness. It’s a shadow that hangs over us and frames our arguments about the present. How we came to be where we are matters unless you are the most clinical of logicians. If you are Gilbert Ryle, turn away!
In Who We Are and How We Got Here Reich recounts an encounter with an impudent undergraduate at MIT who wondered at the end of a lecture how it was he got funding for his abstruse projects. He responded with the standard pitch that goes into NIH grant proposals, that to understand human disease, one must also understand human population structure, and to understand human population structure it helps to understand human population history. After recollecting this anecdote Reich observes that he wishes he had responded differently. He concludes:
The study of the human past-as of art, music, literature, or cosmology-is vital because it makes us aware of aspects of our common condition that are profoundly important that we heretofore never imagined.
To me, this goes back to the Greek distinction of techne vs. telos. Science as an instrument in expanding the limits of human longevity and health is important, but it is not the only thing that science is capable of. If we turn science into pure instrument, we lose something essential and integral in its purpose.
These are old, ancient, universal disagreements. In ancient China, there were groups of philosophers who outlined a vision that had little use for the fripperies of the past. Legalists who wished to turn the whole society into an instrument of production and power, for whom techne was prominent. The Legalists expressed a cold calculating face of practicality and instrumentality, but the universal altruists who followed Mozi ultimately had some of the same inclinations. How could men make merry with music when there was still suffering in the world? Shouldn’t nonproductive cultural practices be curtailed before we achieve the Utopia of plentitude?
Because the disciplines of Confucius won the ancient culture wars the Legalists and Mohists are remembered as crass caricatures. But the Confucian respect and reverence for accumulated human wisdom, the customs, and folkways of the past, were wise, insofar as a Confucian system persisted in China for over 2,000 years.** They gelled with deep human dispositions.
If we are to view human beings more than production and consumption machines shackled to the modern capitalist hedonic treadmill, then we need to consider the past as part of who we are. It is part of the treasury of human existence, which is more than just feelings of the present, but echoes down through the generations, through family lines, and cultures, and even in our genes. Humans without root float freely, but they are never truly free.
* I’m changing names, though if you know me from college or know me personally, you know who I’m talking about.
** Obviously this is a coarse generalization, one could argue that Legalism was laundered through State Confucianism!
My maternal grandfather was born in 1896. He died in 1996. He saw a great many changes in his life. If my children live 100 years what changes will they see? To the same extent? In the biological sciences, I suspect so. In particular, in the domain of stell cells and genetic engineering it strikes me that many revolutions will occur. My confidence when it comes to automation and AI is weaker, but the potential is great.
That being said, there probably won’t be flying cars or day-trips to the moon base.
Why? This may be a function of the nature of the low hanging fruit that we’ve picked in the area of physics with engineering application to technology. If you agree with the work of scholars such as Robert J Gordon there’s been a decrease in technological innovation which changes our lives over the past century so (see The Rise and Fall of American Growth). This isn’t for lack of trying. The institutional structures and organizational effort toward novel innovation are far more directed, conscious and planned than in the past (here’s a Planet Money podcast on how technological change is slower now, though not for lack of trying).
Arguably the only major technological revolution of this century is the smart-phone. And I don’t think that that’s something you can dismiss, the smart-phone has interposed itself today into our lives in some deep and fundamental ways.
But the point of this post is that perhaps human society periodically goes through phases of innovation. And then, there’s nothing.
Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.
The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.
It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).
I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult. Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).
Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.
Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.
The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).
We may be living in the 21st century, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics. And that’s not surprising.
To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.
This is great and inspirational quote, but in most interpretive sieves I believe it is wrong. Hume’s assertion that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is closer to the truth in terms of describing the typical human in terms of how they think, and what they value.
One of the insights of modern cognitive science is that the “rational” and “reflective” component of our mind tends to promote some delusions about its role in our decision-making process. Rather than being the conductor, it’s more often the rationalizer. That is, we make a decision, and then we concoct rationales after the fact. One can think of conscious rationality as a public relations outfit, as opposed to the client.
None of this is deep wisdom, and the latest research is all outlined in The Enigma of Reason. But, another issue which I think is important to note is that the propaganda over the generations by the very small proportion of the population for whom reason and truth are prioritized as the summum bonum of human existence, as implied by Locke’s assertion, have biased our understanding of history. The reason being that they are the ones disproportionately writing the history! Our species’ collective memory lies to us because cultural organs of memory have their own agendas (albeit, unconsciously!).
In Near Eastern antiquity the scribal caste was very much a group of literate wizards. No doubt some elements of literacy percolated to the general public, as is evident by graffito hieroglyphics by workers in ancient Egypt, but habitual engagement with the written word was the purview of a small group of professionals. These individuals dealt in abstraction in their day to day, and by the middle of the first millennium B.C. out of the culture of scribes developed the group we would term intellectuals. The philosophers, prophets, and sages of antiquity. A period when religion, magic, and science, were all one.
Of course, many of these intellectuals were not from the scribal caste as such. Many were aristocrats and gentry (e.g., Siddhartha and Plato). But by this time literacy had spread out beyond the scribal castes, and a civilian elite culture had emerged which valued intellectual pursuits in some fashion. Elite male leadership training in some societies began to include intellectual arts as part of their education. But we should be cautious about inferring from this that these elite males valued rhetoric and philosophy as ends in and of themselves. Rather, rhetoric and philosophy exhibited some instrumental (in politics for the former) and signaling value (abstruse philosophical abstraction could only be mastered by those with leisure and means, so it suggested one’s class origin and cultivation).
Across the centuries, and even millennia, the minority of intellectuals who notionally chased the truth, Plato, Sima Qian, and Ibn Khaldun, remain in our memories because their ideas were powerful, attractive, and their intellectual coherency and brilliance impressed future generations of thinkers. But we need not infer from this that in their own time they were of such inordinate fame or glory in relation to others of similar note though intellectual mediocrity. To give a concrete example, for a few shining decades phlogiston and Lysenkoism were bright and influential, even though the latter, and possibly the former, were both fraudulent enterprises.
With the surfeit of genomic data, whether contemporary or ancient, there is a lot of mileage to be gained by description and inference. That is, looking at the data, generating a result, and drawing some conclusion from that result. But another way to skin the cat is construct an explicit model and then test the data. There are details, and then there are generalities.
I’ll offer up a proposition here then: the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and pastoralism has increased the rate of gene flow between neighbor populations. Several years ago Science published ancient DNA results which showed that there was little gene flow between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers in Germany. Those trained in population genetics will know that only a small rate of gene flow can quickly homogenize difference between neighboring groups. Large genetic distances between neighboring populations requires strong taboos in relation to intermarriage.
It also happens that this summer I saw a poster presented by Anders Bergstrom at SMBE where he reported very high genetic distance values in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Ethnographically we’re well aware that New Guinea is characterized by high degrees of linguistic diversity as well as xenophobia an war between neighboring groups. But a deeper dive into the genetic patterns suggest common descent in New Guinean from a random mating population on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, and more recent barriers to contact. New Guinea’s agriculture, which is gardening horticulture, is somewhat different from cereal cultivation. So there may be some differences there which we need to explore.
But something happened in the Holocene. In Game of Thrones “guest right” is sacred. That may seem like a silly observation, but the same principle is the clear in the Bible. The visitation of the angels to Sodom saw an attempt by the natives of the city attempt to violate the hospitality offered by the family of Lot, to the point where Lot offered his own daughters to the men who aimed to rape the angels.
The most recent genetic work suggest that the past 5,000 years or so have seen massing mixing across the world, and reduction of inter-group genetic distances. This is clearly the consequence of rapid increased rates of gene flow. You can take a cultural evolutionary viewpoint for the reason behind this, as Ara Norenzayan does in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Or you can take a more traditional materialistic route which puts the causal agent in the hands of mechanistic processes having to due with increased density and economic complexity. But whatever the reason, we know a transition occurred.