Friday, March 16, 2007

The March of Civilizations   posted by Razib @ 3/16/2007 02:20:00 PM

Over at Aziz's blog there has been some discussion about ideas like "the West." On a level of serious intellectual discussion this is a complicated and expansive topic. On the level of unintellectual cheerleading it is all rather simpler. To some extent this is apropos as we've been discussing 300 a lot recently, and it relates to my earlier post on Al-Andalus in regards to how people view, and use, history. Defining a "civilization" is difficult, basically you're trying to describe a cluster of characters in which span many dimensions. It is the same problem which crops up when we talk about "race," essentialism becomes the straw man which everyone likes to knock-down. This was in fact one of the main ways that people attacked Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, it was a coarse enough model that you didn't need to know much to poke holes in the categorizations.

Aziz said over at his blog:
As far as whose civilization precedes whose, I just don't see any meaningful lines to be drawn between Persia, Greece, etc. Obviously they were distinct but they also were built on the same shared foundation of previous civilizations. It's like genetics - mixtures and sharing of ideas/genes freely flowing. Rewind the the tape far enough and everything that looks distinct today just melds into the amorphous mass.

Yes, and no. Obviously like genetic evolution, cultural evolution is marked by mixing & matching various elements together in combinations, and an inevitable spread of selected traits (e.g., iron usage, rice farming, etc.). But, there is a marked difference in the nature of variation between genes and cultures: two adjacent populations are far more likely to exhibit more between group variation culturally than genetically. An obvious example would be the peoples of Bengal. The eastern 2/3 of the historic Bengal now form the nation of Bangladesh. The western 1/3 is now the province of West Bengal in India. Going back to the blood group studies of the early 20th century little distinction could be made between these two regions, one where Muslims predominated and the other where Hindus did. But, there is obviously a strong cultural difference, that of religion. And that religious difference bleeds into various areas of life, in regards to speech, dress, food and manners. Cultural evolution can occur very fast, in my own family a great-grandfather of mine converted from Hinduism to Islam, and therefore there is a sharp discontinuity in cultural traditions, at least outwardly, across the generations. Of course, Hindus and Muslims in Bengal are not cultural aliens, they share a culture, broadly speaking. But, their between group difference is far greater than what one would predict based on genetics. The moral here is that cultures can have relatively sharp boundaries which emerge very fast because of the nature of the human capacity to absorb new ideas, and, the high fidelity that some of these traits exhibit when spread within a group. Language is a perfect example, within a tribe there is no dialect difference because everyone has approximately the same accent. What does this have to do with civilization? Differences do exist, and they manifest in a relatively sharp fashion in comparison to genetics. This is starkest when it comes to language and religion. Consider the border between Turkey and Greece in in the southeast Balkans, linguistically and religiously the difference across a few tens of miles can be enormous (in part because of ethnic cleansing in the early 20th century on both sides of the border), but genetically the difference will be far smaller. Though Greeks and Turks do not intermarry much because of the religious and linguistic differences, the Turkish cultural complex spread through the substratum of Anatolia and left only a minor genetic impact. Many of the ancestors of modern day Turks would likely be Greek speakers, and their non-Greek antecedents likely lived in Anatolia long before the arrival of nomads from Central Asia in the 11th century.

But though there can be sharp differences in civilizations over short periods of time (e.g., the conversion from a Greek dominant culture in central Anatolia in the 10th century to a Turkish one in the 12th) and space (the convergence of Turkic, Greek and Slavic cultural complexes in Thrace in the Balkans), there is also a great deal of cultural exchange, and a particular ethnic group or tribe is not always easily boxed into one civilizational category. For example, though the Javanese are overwhelmingly Muslim, they retain their Indian derived script, and aspects of custom and tradition from their Hindu-Buddhist past. In fact, the pre-modern state which the Indonesian government uses as justification for its dominion over the far flung archipelago, the Majapahit Empire, was based on Indian (Hindu) cultural foundations. So what civilization do the Javanese belong too? The Indian one, or the Islamic? Clearly they are a synthesis of various cultural elements from both major civilizations, which serve as an overlay upon their own indigenous cultural traditions. Similarly, the Thai nation emerged from the milieu of southern China, and their co-ethnics, the Dai, are still a national minority in the People's Republic. But once in southeast Asia they took the Khmer Empire as their exemplar and adopted more "Indian," as opposed to Chinese, cultural forms. For example, Theravada Buddhism and court Brahmins. Though the Thai king was often a vassal of the Emperor of China (and the Thai ruling dynasty has Chinese ancestry!), the royal system was based more on Indian precepts than Chinese ones. Further east the Vietnamese also emigrated south from what is now southern China, but whereas the Thai adopted an Indian cultural model, the Vietnamese were much more directly influenced by Chinese culture, the dominant form of Buddhism being Mahayana, and an emulation of Confucian models occurred here just as they did in Korea, and to a some extent, Japan. On the other hand, the Vietnamese state absorbed the Saivite Hindu Malay speaking Champa Empire. So today there still remain an ethnic minority of Chams in the Vietnamese highlands of the central coast who remain Hindus. The point is that though the disparate nations of southeast Asia were different influenced by other civilizations, we can estimate very approximately the weights, without denying that the influences were not singular or uniform.

Now, with the technicalities addressed, let me address another point Aziz made in his post:
I look at history and I see two civilizations - that of the Islamic-Christian arc, and the East (China). I also see a vast struggle between barbarians and nations.

Aziz has stated this before, but, I would offer that there is a third civilization: that of South Asia. Though on the "rank order" of influence I would place the West first, and China second, I do believe Indian civilization deserves to be counted as a major one simply because it is the only one besides the West which has produced world religions (and, it did it first, and there is evidence that later Abrahamic forms of organization, such as monasticism, had original Indian models mediated through Persia and Rome). Among higher religions there are two broad streams: the Abrahamic, and the Dharmic. Indian influence was predominantly through religion, though they also participated non-trivially in the cultural lines of communication which stretched from the Atlantic to Persia (e.g., the Indian numeric system). From an Abrahamic perspective (Aziz is a Muslim) it stands to reason that one would divide the world into Heathen and non-Heathen, and in modern America there has been an attempt to generate a pan-Asian identity which includes Indians by appealing to the cultural glue of Buddhist civilization (but this seems a stretch). But these three civilizational streams are but principle components which sketch out particularly powerful cultural pulses across time and space. Back-projecting "Indian" or "Western" identity 2,000, or 3,000, years ago is clearly problematic. When Westerners say "our forebears the Greeks" there are issues with such an assertion.

A major factor is that most people are not interested in history aside from the bricks and mortar it can provide for our ideology, our patriotism, our sense of identity and place in history. The past consists of symbols, and for most humans the reality of its existence and the manner in which it played out is irrelevant. In From Plato to NATO classicist David Gress outlines what he perceives to be the attempt by some intellectuals (preeminently Will Durant) to draw a connection between the modern West, and especially the United States, and democratic Athens of the 5th century. In the process Gress argues that these intellectuals dismissed and marginalized the impact of the Roman Empire, the Christian religion, the post-Roman Germanic feudal states. Concisely put, Gress argues that the creation of the West, what was once termed Christendom, was a organic process, while historians such as Will Durant wished to retell the story so that Athens was rediscovered in the 18th century, and subsequently served as the model for the liberal democratic present we now live in. But the reality is that even in the United States our classically educated founding fathers looked less to Athens than Rome, for we are first and foremost a republic, and the system of checks and balances reflects more properly the mixed government and indirect representation of the Roman Republic than the more uniform participatory polity which Athens was.

The emergence and crystallization of civilizations and cultures and the self-identity of a people is subject to many contingencies. But, as I note above, this can occur relatively fast and with sharpness when set against biological evolution. The French Revolution imposed a national self awareness upon what had been a more amorphous entity, a French nation of villages, with local dialects and languages, under the personal rule of a king. As a child of the late 20th century the myth of Athens was taught to me with clarity and finality, and yet this was a creation of the mid-20th century. But what is the past but a strange and forgotten land? As I noted earlier this week, at the same time that the Muslim government of Iran burnishes its religious credentials, it can take offense at the insult direct at its pagan past, which it might otherwise wish to deemphasize. Pakistani Muslims can cheer and identify with the depredations of Turkic warlords upon the Hindus of the Punjab and Sindh, even though those Hindus were their own ancestors!

Aziz's post began as a reaction to a comment thread over at Dean Esmay's group blog. The gist is that some individual was making caricaturish assertions about the West vs. the East, and others pointed out that a) the classical Greeks might only tenuously be connected to the West now, and b) Persia was the font of a great deal of culture. Additionally, there came the conventional argument about the contributions of Islam to the development of the Western intellectual tradition. My own opinion is this:

a) The Greeks were special, especially in regards to intellectual and political life. But much of what they wrought did not "take" as Roman autocracy resembled "oriental" despotism far more than the vibrant political life that was Athens. Greece serves as an important retrospective model, but we should be cautious in drawing a straight line between 5th century Greece and the modern West.

b) The Persia of Xerxes was not quite yet Zoroastrian, but it was the seedbed from which that religion arose. Zoroastrianism has been highly important in the history of the world via its influence on Exilic Judaism (ergo, Christianity and Islam). One can model Christianity as a combination of Hebrew religious ideas synthesized with Persian ones, and then flavored with a strong Geek philosophical spice.

c) In regards to the influence of Islam on the West (e.g., Aristotle):

1) My most current reading implies that intellectual development preceded the importance of "the Commentator" in the 13th century ("the Commentator" was Ibn-Rushd). The Islamic influence amplified and enriched the Western intellectual milieu in the 13th century, and was an important ingredient in the "Aristotelian Renaissance," but a major reason that it is emphasized is ideological.

2) I say the last because the emigration of Greeks from Byzantium during the same centuries to Italy was also extremely important, and unlike the Andalusian impact it was via classical authors in the original Greek (as opposed to translations into Latin from Arabic which were translated from the original Greek or Aramaic translations themselves). This is not to dismiss the Andalusian contribution, but, it is to suggest that the outsize importance that it is given is perhaps a reflection on the intellectual and cultural currents of the 19th and 20th centuries above and beyond what occurred in the 13th century (part of it is perhaps that Anglo-Saxon scholars are probably biased toward the influence that Ibn-Rushd it had on the relatively nearby University of Paris as opposed to the intellectual ferment that occurred in Italy because of the Greek learning imparted by the Byzantines).

Of course, no offense, but I don't have any hope that the "rabble" that Aziz alludes to will be influenced by this post at all. I say this, and state this, in the interests of capturing the world as it is, and as it was, to the best of my current knowledge and analytic capacity. And in hopes that others will also be willing to muddle along with me....

Further Reading:
From Plato to NATO
Aristotle's Children
The Closing of the Western Mind
Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual
The Classical World
Sailing from Byzantium
Not by Genes Alone
Indonesia: Peoples and Histories

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