Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

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.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

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.

A preview review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

So I read the final version of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It’s good. You can finally set aside The History and Geography of Human Genes, though with the rate of change in the field of ancient DNA I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major revision of Who We Are and How We Got Here in two to four years.

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.

If you can’t find it in yourself to read 200-page supplements top to bottom, Who We Are and How We Got Here also is what you need.

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!

The first ethical revolution

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.

Fifty years ago Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Seventy years ago Karl Jaspers introduced the concept of the Axial Age. Both point to the same dynamic historically.

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.

The Truth is that history is not evolving toward Truth

My friend Walter Olson pointed me to this from John Locke:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is great and inspirational quote, but in most interpretive sieves I believe it is wrong. Hume’s assertion that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is closer to the truth in terms of describing the typical human in terms of how they think, and what they value.

One of the insights of modern cognitive science is that the “rational” and “reflective” component of our mind tends to promote some delusions about its role in our decision-making process. Rather than being the conductor, it’s more often the rationalizer. That is, we make a decision, and then we concoct rationales after the fact. One can think of conscious rationality as a public relations outfit, as opposed to the client.

None of this is deep wisdom, and the latest research is all outlined in The Enigma of Reason. But, another issue which I think is important to note is that the propaganda over the generations by the very small proportion of the population for whom reason and truth are prioritized as the summum bonum of human existence, as implied by Locke’s assertion, have biased our understanding of history. The reason being that they are the ones disproportionately writing the history! Our species’ collective memory lies to us because cultural organs of memory have their own agendas (albeit, unconsciously!).

In Near Eastern antiquity the scribal caste was very much a group of literate wizards. No doubt some elements of literacy percolated to the general public, as is evident by graffito hieroglyphics by workers in ancient Egypt, but habitual engagement with the written word was the purview of a small group of professionals. These individuals dealt in abstraction in their day to day, and by the middle of the first millennium B.C. out of the culture of scribes developed the group we would term intellectuals. The philosophers, prophets, and sages of antiquity. A period when religion, magic, and science, were all one.

Of course, many of these intellectuals were not from the scribal caste as such. Many were aristocrats and gentry (e.g., Siddhartha and Plato). But by this time literacy had spread out beyond the scribal castes, and a civilian elite culture had emerged which valued intellectual pursuits in some fashion. Elite male leadership training in some societies began to include intellectual arts as part of their education. But we should be cautious about inferring from this that these elite males valued rhetoric and philosophy as ends in and of themselves. Rather, rhetoric and philosophy exhibited some instrumental (in politics for the former) and signaling value (abstruse philosophical abstraction could only be mastered by those with leisure and means, so it suggested one’s class origin and cultivation).

Across the centuries, and even millennia, the minority of intellectuals who notionally chased the truth, Plato, Sima Qian, and Ibn Khaldun, remain in our memories because their ideas were powerful, attractive, and their intellectual coherency and brilliance impressed future generations of thinkers. But we need not infer from this that in their own time they were of such inordinate fame or glory in relation to others of similar note though intellectual mediocrity. To give a concrete example, for a few shining decades phlogiston and Lysenkoism were bright and influential, even though the latter, and possibly the former, were both fraudulent enterprises.

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Guest Right Is Holocene

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

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

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

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

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

Heraclius was a great man, but a dirty old man

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

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

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

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

Here is my review from about seven years ago.

Rome fell fast, and so did we

The fall of Rome has obviously been a topic of much interest and discussion. It is, after all, a conversation about the fall of civilization as we knew it.

If you read my blog you are probably aware that I lean toward a thesis of genuine and rapid fall. One of the most revelatory books I’ve read in the past 20 years is Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Ward-Perkins’ tale is an apocalyptic one. The material basis of Roman civilization the West collapsed. Perhaps the most relevant and evocative fact for me is that pollution due to manufacturing production in England did not match that of the Roman period until the industrial revolution. Though the Roman economy never achieved the industrial revolution’s gains in productivity, it did attain a level of Smithian efficiency and interdependence on the margins of the factors of production.

From a totally different perspective Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire broadly agrees with Ward-Perkins’ contention. The Roman Empire fell, and it fell fast, and the imperial elites didn’t see it coming. Remember, the Roman Empire was dismembered and disordered during the “crisis of the third century”. Under Diocletian and his successors in the 4th century it came back to health and strength before the distress of the 5th century in the West. But at the time contemporaries did not view the shocks and exigencies of these decades as any more distressing then the events of the 3rd century, and the Eastern Empire around Constantinople was reasonably robust.

Ultimately though 476 was a coup de grace to the Western Empire. The Gothic wars tore apart the fabric of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century, and the substantive reality of the old empire faded away. There was no going back. Of course I’m well aware of the argument that the Roman world evolved, that it did not collapse. And Late Antiquity and its continuities with the Classical world, and how it bridged itself to the Medieval world, are fascinating. But I do not accept that the preservation of Roman motifs and ideals in the courts of barbarian German warlords is evidence that substantively nothing changed.

Much of it depends on how you weight material vs. ideological parameters. The idea of Rome cast a shadow centuries beyond its substantive material integrity. After, the Byzantines called themselves Romans until the conquest of their city-stateless in 1453. But no matter the name, they were not Romans as the Romans were in 400 A.D.

The theoretical context of all this is that it strikes me cultures can go through rapid nonlinear shocks which induce very quick and unexpected changes. In the human past this would often entail collapses and regressions. The “Dark Age” after the chaos of the late Bronze Age is a case in point. In one generation the citadel society of Mycenanean Greece disappeared across much its extant range. The gap between 1966 and 1969 in much of the West was arguably greater than between 1956 and 1966.

The United States today is the most powerful nation in the world. And our cultural centrality and ascendency is such that we don’t challenge our implicit position as the premier power in the world. But I believe that we’ve become a inward looking involuted culture. There’s no point in litigating this, and obviously I may be wrong. But too often we confuse our own petty internecine squabbles with the concerns of the world. The world is passing us by….

Indian genetic history: before the storm

Over at Brown Pundits I’ve mentioned the continuing simmer of controversy over a recent piece, How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate. This has prompted responses in the Indian media from a Hindu nationalist perspective. One of these notes that the author of the piece above cites me, and then goes on to observe I was fired from The New York Times a few years ago due to accusations of racism (also, there is the implication that I’m just a blogger and we should trust researchers with credibility like Gyaneshwer Chaubey; well, perhaps he should know that Gyaneshwer Chaubey considers me “unbiased” according to an email exchange which I had with him last week [we all have biases, so I think he’s wrong in a literal sense]).

I was a little surprised that a right-wing magazine would lend legitimacy to the slanders of social justice warriors, but this is the world we live in. Those who believe that everything written about me in the media, I invite you to submit your name and background to me. I have contacts in the media and can get things written if I so choose. Watch me write something which is mostly fact, but can easily be misinterpreted by those who Google you, and watch how much you value the objective “truth-telling” power of the press all of a sudden.

There’s a reason so many of us detest vast swaths of the media, though to be fair we the public give people who don’t make much money a great deal of power to engage in propaganda. Should we be surprised they sensationalize and misrepresent with no guilt or shame? I have seen most of those who snipe at me in the comments disappear once I tell them that I know what their real identity is. Most humans are cowards. I have put some evidence into the public record to suggest that I’m not.

Perhaps more strange for me is that the above piece was passed around favorably by Sanjeev Sanyal, who I was on friendly terms with (we had dinner & drinks in Brooklyn a few years back). I asked him about the slander in the piece and he unfollowed me on Twitter (a friend of Hindu nationalist bent asked Sanjeev on Facebook about the articles’ attack on me, but the comment was deleted). It shows how strongly people feel about these issues.

I’m in a weird position because I’m brown and have a deep interest in Indian history. But that interest in Indian history isn’t because I’m brown, I’m pretty interested in all the major zones of the Old World Oikoumene. Aside from some jocular R1a1a chauvinism I don’t have much investment personally (I just told said Hindu nationalist friend who turns out to be R2 to clean my latrine; joking of course, though I’m sure he resents that I’m descended on the direct paternal line from the All-Father & Lord of the Steppes and he is not!).

In the aughts I accepted the model outlined in 2006’s The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations. But to be frank it always struck me as a little confusing because the tentative autosomal data we had suggested that many South Asians were closer to West Eurasians than deep divergences dating to the Last Glacial Maximum would suggest. Since I’ve written something like 5 million words in 15 years, I actually can check if I’m remembering correctly. So here’s a post from 2008 where I express reservations of the idea of long term deep heritage of Indians separate from other West Eurasians. The reason I was so impressed by 2009’s Reconstructing Indian Population History is that it resolved the paradox of South Asian genetic relatedness.

To recap, Reich et al. proposed that modern Indians (South Asians) could be modeled as a two way mixture between two distinct populations with separate evolutionary genetic histories, Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI). How distinct? ANI were basically another West Eurasian population, while ASI was likely nested in the clade with Eastern Non-Africans. Additionally, there was a NW-to-SE and caste admixture cline. In other words, the higher you were on the caste ladder the more ANI you had, and the closer your ancestors were from the north and west, and more ANI you had. The difference between Y and mtDNA, male and female, could be explained by sex-biased migration.

But there were still aspects of the paper which I had reservations about. After all, it was a model.

  • Models are imperfect fits onto reality. The idea of mass migration seemed ridiculous to me at the time, because even by the time of the Classical Greeks it was noted that India was reputedly the most populous land in the world (to their knowledge). But ancient DNA has convinced me of the reality of mass migrations.
  • I wasn’t sure about the nature of the closest modern populations to the ANI. The researchers themselves (in particular, Nick Patterson) told me that the relatedness of ANI to Europeans was very close (on the order of intra-European differences). But modern Indians do not look to be descended from a population that is half Northern European physically. Again, ancient DNA has shown that there was lots of population turnover, and it turns out that Europeans and ANI were likely both compounds and mixed daughter populations of common ancestors (also, typical European physical appearance seems to have emerged in situ over the past 5,000 years).
  • The two way admixture modeled seemed too simple. I had run some data and it struck me that North Indian populations like Jats had something different than South Indian groups like Pulayars. In 2013 Priya Moorjani’s paper pretty much confirmed that it was more than a two way admixture along the ANI-ASI cline.

This March BMC Evolution Biology published Silva et al’s A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. It has made a huge splash in India, arguably triggering the write up in The Hindu. But for me it was a bit ho-hum. If you read my 2008 post it is pretty clear that I suspected the most general of the findings in this paper at least 10 years back. It is nice to get confirmation of what you suspect, but I’m more interested to be surprised by something novel.

Nevertheless A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals has come in for lots of repeated attack in the right-wing Indian press. This is unfair, because it is a rather good paper. I suspect that it wasn’t published in a higher ranked journal because most scientists don’t consider the history of India to be that important, and they didn’t really apply new methods, as opposed to bringing a bunch of data and methods together (in contrast, the 2009 Reich et al. paper was one of the first publications which showed how to utilize “ghost populations” in explicit phylogenetic models with relevance to human demographic history).

As it happens I will be writing up my thoughts in detail in an article for a major Indian publication (similar circulation numbers as The Hindu). This has been in talks for over six months, but I’ve been busy. But a month or so ago I thought it was time that I put something into print for the Indian audience, because I felt there was some misrepresentation going on (i.e., the Aryan invasion theory has not been been refuted by genetics, but this is what many Indians assert).

For any years people have told me there are certain topics that shouldn’t be talked about. I have offended people greatly. There are many things people do not want to know. I have come to the conclusion this is not an entirely indefensible viewpoint (though if you accept this viewpoint, I think acceptance of authoritarianism is inevitable, so I hope people will toe the line when the new order arrives; knowing their personalities I think they will conform fine). But my nature is such that I continue to have nothing but contempt for the duplicitous and craven manner in which people go about these sorts of private conversations. I assume that as someone with the name “Razib Khan” I will be attacked vociferously by Hindu nationalists, who will no doubt make recourse to the Left-wing hit pieces against me to undermine my credibility. The fact that these groups are fellow travelers should tell us something, though I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

I will write my piece that reflects the science as I believe it is, without much consideration of the attacks. That is rather easy for me to do in part because I live in the United States, where denigrating the deeply held views and self-esteem of Hindu nationalists is not sensitive or politically protected (unlike say, Muslims). And Hindu nationalists are less likely to kill me by orders of magnitude than Muslim radicals, and they have far less purchase in this nation then the latter (though you may be interested to know that very conservative Muslims follow me on Twitter; they’re actually more open-minded than many SJWs to be entirely honest).

Let me go over some general points that I see coming up over and over on the relationship between Indian (pre)history and genetics in the critiques .

One of the major critiques has to do with the nature of R1a-Z93 and its subclades. Basically this Y chromosomal haplogroup, the greatest that has ever been known, exhibits a strong signature of very rapid expansion over the past 4,000 years or so. It is divided from Z282. While Z93 is found in South Asia, Central Asia, and Siberia, Z282 is European, with its dominant subclade the one associated with Eastern Europeans. Both of these clades of R1a have gone through massive expansion. In the Altai region R1a is 40% of the heritage of peoples who are now predominantly East Eurasian today. But they are Z93. Additionally, ancient DNA from the Pontic Steppe dated ~4,000 years ago from Srubna remains is Z93, as are Scythian remains from the Iron Age.

Much of the argument comes down to dating, and citing papers that give deep coalescence numbers between difference branches of R1a1a. Hindu nationalists and their fellow travelers point to recent papers which give dates >10,000 years ago, and so place the origin of Z93 plausibly in the Pleistocene. The problem is that Y chromosomal coalescence dating is something of a mug’s game. Often they use microsatellite data whose mutational rates are highly uncertain. In contrast, using SNP data, which has a slower mutation rate but requires a lot more data, you get TRMCA (common ancestry) between Z93 and Z282 around ~5,800 years ago. But coalescence estimates often have wide confidence intervals of thousands of years. And even with these intervals, the assumptions you make (e.g., mutation rate) strongly influence your midpoint estimate.

The Y chromosomal data is powerful, but its interpretation is still buttressed upon other assumptions. The really big picture framework is the nature of ancient genome-wide variation across Eurasia. Lazaridis et al. 2016 condition us to a prior where much of Eurasia was subject to massive population-wide genetic changes since the Holocene. Therefore, I am much less surprised if there was massive genetic change in India relatively recently. The methods in Priya Moorjani’s paper and in other publications make it obvious that mixture was extensive in South Asia between very distinct groups until about ~2,000 years ago. In fact, Moorjani et al. using patterns of variation across the genome to come at a number of two to four thousand years ago as the period of massive admixture.

Though we don’t have relevant ancient DNA from India proper to answer any questions yet, we do have ancient DNA from across much of Europe, Central Asia, and the Near East. What they show is that Indian populations share ancestry from both Neolithic Iranians and peoples of the Pontic steppe, who flourished ~5 to ~10,000 years ago. To some extent the latter population is a daughter population of the former…which makes things complicated. Conversely, no West Eurasian population seems to harbor ancient signals of ASI ancestry.

One scientist who holds to the position that most South Asian ancestry dates to the Pleistocene argued to me that we don’t know if ancient Indian samples from the northwest won’t share even more ancestry than the Iranian Neolithic and Pontic steppe samples. In other words, ANI was part of some genetic continuum that extended to the west and north. This is possible, but I do not find it plausible.

The reasons are threefold. First, it doesn’t seem that continuous isolation-by-distance works across huge and rugged regions of Central Eurasia. Rather, there are demographic revolutions, and then relative stasis as the new social-cultural environment crystallizes. This inference I’m making from ancient DNA and extrapolating. This may be wrong, but I would bet I’m not off base here.

Second, it strikes me as implausible that there was literally apartheid between ASI and ANI populations for the whole Holocene right up until ~4,000 years before the present. That is, if Northwest India was involved in reciprocal gene flow with the rest of Eurasia over thousands of years I expect there should have been some distinctive South Asian ASI-like ancestry in the ancient DNA we have. We do not see it.

Third, one of the populations with strong affinities to some Indian populations are those of the Pontic steppe. But we know that this group itself is a compound of admixture that arose 5,000-6,000 years ago. Because of the complexity of the likely population model of ANI this is not definitive, but it seems strange to imagine that ANI could have predated one of the populations with which it was in genetic continuum as part of a quasi-panmictic deme.

Finally, many of the critiques involve evaluation of the scientific literature in this field. Unfortunately this is hard to do from the outside. Citing papers from the aughts, for example, is not wrong, but evolutionary human population genomics is such a fast moving field that even papers published a few years ago are often out of date.

Many are citing a 2012 paper by a respected group which argues for the dominant model of the aughts (marginal population movement into South Asia). One of their arguments, that Central Asian migrant should have East Asian ancestry, is a red herring since it is well known that this dates to the last ~2,000 years or so (we know more now with ancient DNA). But the second point that is more persuasive in the paper is that when they look at local ancestry of ANI vs. ASI in modern Indians, the ANI haplotypes are more diverse than West Eurasians, indicating that they are  not descendants but rather antecedents (usually the direction of ancestry is from more diverse to less due to subsampling).

There are two points that I have make here. First, local ancestry analysis is difficult, so I would not be surprised if they integrated ASI regions into ANI and so elevated the diversity in that way (though they think they’ve taken care of it in the paper). Second, if the ANI are a compound of several West Eurasian groups then we expect them to be more diverse than their parents. In other words, the paper is refuting a model which is almost certainly incorrect, but the alternative hypothesis is not necessarily the true hypothesis (which is a more complex demographic model than many were testing in 2012).

But there are many things we do not know still. Many free variables which we haven’t nailed down. Here are some major points:

  • Y chromosomal lineages have a correlation with ethno-linguistic groups, but the correlation is imperfect. R1b and R1a seems correlated with Indo-European groups, but both these are found in high proportions in groups which are putatively mostly “pre-Indo-European” in origin (e.g., Basques, Sardinians, and South Indian tribals and non-Brahmin Dravidian speaking groups). Also, haplogroups like I1 in Europe expand with Indo-Europeans locally, suggesting there was lots of heterogeneity in Indo-Europeans as they expanded. In other words, Indo-European expansion in relation to powerful paternal lineages did not always correlate with ethno-linguistic change.
  • There are probably at minimum two Holocene intrusions from the northwest into South Asia, but this is a floor. The models that are constructed always lack power to detect more complexity. E.g., it is not impossible that there were several migrations of Indo-Europeans into South Asia which we can not distinguish genetically over a period of a few thousand years.
  • If one looks over all of South Asia it may be that ASI ancestry in totality is >50% of the total genome ancestry. I don’t have a good guess of the numbers. If this is correct, perhaps most South Asian ancestors 10,000 years ago were living in South Asia (though the fertility rate are such in Pakistan that ANI ancestry is increasing right now in relative rates).
  • But, this presupposes that ASI were present in South Asia in totality 10,000 years ago, rather than being migrants themselves. If ancient DNA confirms that ANI were long present in Northwest India, I hold then it is entirely likely that ASI was intrusive to South Asia! The BMC Evolutionary Biology Paper does a lot of interpretation of deep structure in haplogroup M in South Asia. I’m moderately skeptical of this. Europe may not be a good model for South Asia, but there we see lots of Pleistocene turnover.

So where does this leave us? Ancient DNA will answer a lot of questions. Pretty much all scientists I’ve talked to agree on this. My predictions, some of which I’ve made before:

  1. The first period of admixture is old, and dates to the founding of Mehrgarh as an agricultural settlement. The dominant ANI component dates to this period and mixture event, all across South Asia. The presence in South India is due to expansion of these farming populations.
  2. A second admixture event occurred with the arrival of steppe people. Those who argue for the Aryan invasion model posit 1500 BCE as the date. But these people probably were expanding in some form before this date.
  3. We still don’t know who the antecedents for the Indo-Aryans were. Probably they were a compound of different steppe groups, and also other populations which were mixed in (by analogy, in Europe it is obvious now that there was some mixture with the local European farmers and hunter-gatherers as Europeans expanded their frontier westward; the same probably applies for Indo-Aryans are the BMAC).

The system of the world by William H. McNeill

In the post below on book recommendations I forgot to mention William H. McNeill and John Robert McNeill’s The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. It’s arguably been one of the most influential works that has percolated in my mind throughout the years. It’s less than 400 pages, and illustrates in broad sketches that history has been through many random shocks, but that there are broad patterns that one can discern.

The elder McNeill is most famous for The Rise of the West and Plagues and Peoples. To a great extent he was Jared Diamond before there ever was Jared Diamond.

Unfortunately I did not notice that McNeill died last summer. From his obituary:

Refuting Francis Fukuyama’s premise in “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992 that the American model of a liberal, capitalist democracy had become the paradigm for governance, Professor McNeill wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.”

“When Asian models of social and economic efficiency seem to be gaining ground every day, and when millions of Muslims are at pains to sustain the differences, great and small, that distinguish them from Americans,” he continued, “it is hard to believe that all the world is destined to imitate us.”