Thursday, January 21, 2010

What era are our intuitions about elites and business adapted to?   posted by agnostic @ 1/21/2010 01:36:00 AM

Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don't even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don't have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do -- these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.

So that leaves two major eras -- agricultural and industrial societies. I'm going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order -- hunter-gatherer life -- there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders -- or "natural states" that sprung up with agriculture -- substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen -- who all make up a dominant coalition -- that I'll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.

This way, the strongman doesn't have to work very much to live a comfortable life -- just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won't one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone's land gets ravaged, everyone's peasants can't produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).

The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people's ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn't going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn't those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition -- only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.

It's not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power -- maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren't going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents -- they're going to raid him and take enough so that he's left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won't be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.

Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy -- it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell -- it's a mercantile elite -- rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations -- as opposed to not having the freedom to do so -- that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.

OK, now let's take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits -- that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people's mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.

First, the view that capturing more of the audience -- whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you -- matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs -- boosting profits -- remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they've got them locked in, make money off of them somehow -- by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.

Of course, that hasn't gone away since then, as everyone says that "providers of online content" can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don't think most people believe that charging a subset for "premium content" is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon's reaction to the NYT's official statement that they're going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:

Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven't made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they're incredibly profitable -- and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as "go after audiences" -- they must do that in a way that's profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could "watch revenues follow" by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.

The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn't matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.

Clearly that doesn't work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what -- there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT's ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.

Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence -- not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won't be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It's mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.

Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways -- higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it -- bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!

That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn't want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That's correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there's nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.

The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late '70s and early '80s but couldn't adapt to changing tastes -- and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn't adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-'90s and early 2000s -- and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by -- Nintendo! It doesn't even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-'80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.

But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before -- same amount of food taken -- but now you're getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master's land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair -- he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you're entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.

You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out -- the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial -- but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion -- the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power -- is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.

By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.

But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn't see it -- the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats -- that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen -- we don't want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!

This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering -- hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness -- if we didn't subsidize them, they couldn't provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don't really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.

It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there's a decent trace of it in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli -- and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)

We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains -- we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven't had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I'm sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.

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Not as the crow flies   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2010 12:29:00 AM

A comment below:
This thought has probably occurred to others as well, but isn't it interesting that if this theory of Baltics being the "true" Europeans is correct, that history repeated itself several thousand years later when the Baltic peoples became the last adopt Christianity, a Middle Eastern Religion? There must be something repelling about the region.

This is a good point. The Baltic sea is a bit closer on a straight line than Ireland and Scotland, but pre-modern transport and communication was much more dependent on water. The comment references the fact that Lithuania became a Christian nation only in the late 1300s. Some of this was a matter of geopolitics, the Baltic peoples were being subjected to what we'd probably term genocidal assaults from various German military orders whose notional rationale was to spread the Christian faith in a series of crusades. Christianity was therefore broadly construed as the religion of the enemy, with the Christian God being termed the "German god" in some cases. But another issue was that in the 14th century Lithuania expanded into the lands of the West and East Slavs, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, respectively, and the religious neutrality of the Lithuanian elite allowed them to play off the two subject populations usefully. Once the Lithuanian elite chose Roman Catholicism, it began the centuries long process of total assimilation of that elite into the Polish nobility and their alienation from their East Slavic Orthodox subjects and allies (the final completion of which occurred after the Union of Lublin).

But even accounting for the historical and geopolitical contingencies, the relatively late conversion of the Baltic peoples to Roman Catholic Christianity is notable. The Sami of northern Fenno-Scandinavia actually were only nominally Christianized during the medieval period, and maintained their shamanistic indigenous religion until the 18th century (along with a few beliefs and practices adopted from their Norse neighbors, there are woodblocks which seem to depict Sami venerating an idol of Thor). One Finnic group in Russia actually claims an unbroken line of non-Christian religious belief & practice down to the modern day. The lesson here is that it is in northeastern Europe that the homogenizing processes which swept across much of the rest of the continent were felt last, and to the least effect.

Why? I assume it's ecology. Or as some would say, maybe its agriculture (or the lack thereof). The climate of northeastern Europe is very unsuitable for crops which originate in the Middle East, so it would take some time for them to adapt them appropriately. The historical and genetic data imply a relatively recent push of Slavic-speaking farmers into northeastern European Russia. A model which posits that northeastern Europeans are particularly deep reservoirs of ancient European lineages would rely on the ecological parameters as the primary reason.

The parallelism between the spread of cultures and genes here is notable, because the two often interact. Just as northeastern Europe may be the last redoubt of the hunter-gatherer relict populations within the continent, so it was also the region which was the last to join the medieval "Christian Commonwealth." In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond introduced the importance of geography in understanding historical patterns. This is quite clear when it comes to something like the history of the native populations of the New World; the critical role of environment in the lives of aboriginal peoples is something we're preconditioned to assume as an important background parameter. But the same factors are at work in Europe, in both prehistory and history.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Dark Age Mighty Whitey   posted by Razib @ 1/10/2010 11:12:00 AM

This week David Brooks has a column up on the messianic variant of the "Mighty Whitey" motif. Steve points out that this is a relatively old genre, with roots back to the Victorian period. And, it also has basis in fact. Consider the White Rajahs of Sarawak. But Mighty Whitey highlights something more general, and much older.

In some cases Mighty Whitey is not particularly mysterious. The Europeans had modest organizational and technological advantages over the indigenes of the New World, but their biggest advantage was biological. This biological advantage easily became an ideological one, in the pre-modern world disease had a strongly supernatural cast and served as an indicator of the gods' favor. The emergence of the White Rajahs of Sarawak relies on more straightforward social and historical processes; the period around 1900 was arguably the one where there was maximal technological and organizational disjunction between Europe and the rest of the world. Non-European populations theoretically had access to European technology and organizational techniques (e.g., the Japanese), but it is also likely that a European was particularly well-placed to leverage the wider network of information and materiel which had spread across the world during the high tide of the imperial & colonial moment.

The reason for an individual "going native" can be conceived of in a relative-status sense; being a king among the barbarians sounds much more fun than being an obscure civilized burgher. In the process these individuals serve as the vectors for cultural diffusion of ideas. One can also model this as a tension between within-group vs. between-group dynamics; traitors can often secure for themselves great wealth and status, at the expense of the group from which they defected. From their own perspective a traitor is just engaging in self-interested cultural arbitrage. But as I said above the motif is an old one, and its factual basis is ancient and likely general. Consider Samo:
Samo (died 658) was a Frankish merchant from the "Senonian country" (Senonago), probably modern Sens, France. He was the first ruler of the Slavs (623-658) whose name is known, and established one of the earliest Slav states, a supra-tribal union usually called (King) Samo's empire, realm, kingdom, or tribal union.


Ultimately, Samo can be credited with forging a Wendish identity by speaking on behalf of the community which recognised his authority....

If the accounts are correct the historical Samo traded a life as a merchant in Post-Roman Francia for that of the paramount chief of a federation of pagan Slavs in a fully re-barbarized margin of the post-Roman world. Though a product of Christian post-Roman Western European civilization Samo ended his life as a pagan warlord. He is notable because of the critical role he reputedly played in the ethnogenesis of the Wends, a group of Slavs who were forcibly Christianized and Germanized in the 13th century, five to six hundred years after Samo's time.

Over the long arc of history Europeans became a Christian meta-ethnicity, influenced by the long shadow of Romanitas. After the fall of Rome this often occurred through a mix of processes, but generally it involved the conversion of the elite or the king, and then a slow gradual shift among the populace. What became Christendom was the end product of the process. But this was not the only process. On a specific individual level there were likely many Samos, who profited by tacking against the winds of history in their own lives (though the post-Roman nations which arose in Gaul, Iberia and Italy generally assimilated the German barbarians who settled amongst them, in the first few generations there were many instances of local Roman nobility "going barbarian" for personal advantage, with several cultural traits such as trousers persisting as the common heritage of both Germans and Romans).

Samo's life may also illustrate the power of marginal advantages in the pre-modern world. It is not as if he brought significant technological advantages to the Slavs. Additionally, this was a world where median differences in wealth between societies which were the richest and poorest was on the order of 25%. Everyone was poor. And as a merchant he was likely somewhat worldly, but he likely lacked connections to the power elites of the post-Roman world. But he was a Christian, at least by origin, and was fluent in post-Roman civilization. His cultural background included within its memory the concept of powerful autocrats tying together disparate peoples. Concepts which might have seemed obvious to anyone who matured within post-Roman civilization might have been alien and novel to those who were purely barbarian, as the Slavs were (i.e., the Slavs were not barbarized after the fall of Rome, they were the barbarians who had never known Roman rule or influence). To the Slavic elite Samo may have been both worldly and organizationally confident. Or, more prosaically he might have been perceived as a compromise candidate who did not put at risk the relative status and position of any of the contemporary elite lineages. After all, it recorded that Samo's sons did not inherit his power.

If you conceive of cultures as phenomena of interest which are subject to dynamics, it is important to fix upon the individual elements which allow for them to evolve over time. The role of indigenous cultural vanguards, what might be colloquially termed "sell outs," is well known. But outsiders who "go native," and so transform the natives profoundly, has been less well emphasized and clarified, in part because the outsiders become a seamless part of the natives' heritage, and also because the outsiders may only delay the inevitable. But in the end, only death is inevitable.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Royal Society on In Our Time   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2010 11:33:00 AM

In Our Time has several episodes up on The Royal Society. You can listen online at the link, but I'd recommend that you just subscribe on iTunes to IOT.


Friday, January 01, 2010

Estimating black-white racial tension from 1850 to present   posted by agnostic @ 1/01/2010 08:59:00 PM

As a New Year's gift, here is a free copy of an entry I put up on my data blog (details on that here). It's a quantitative look at the history of race and culture in America, together with qualitative examples that illustrate the story that the numbers tell. Enjoy.

Previously I looked at how much attention elite whites have given to blacks since the 1870s by measuring the percent of all Harvard Crimson articles that contained the word "negro." That word stopped being used in any context after 1970, which doesn't allow us to see what's happened since then. Also, it is emotionally neutral, so while it tells us how much blacks were on the radar screen of whites, it doesn't suggest what emotions colored their conversations about race.

When tensions flare, people will start using more charged words more frequently. The obvious counterpart to "negro" in this context is "nigger." It could be used by racists hurling slurs, non-racists who are quoting or decrying the slur, by tribalist blacks trying to open old wounds to recruit new members, by blacks trying to "re-claim" the term, by those debating whether or not the term should be used in any context, and so on. Basically, when racial tension is relatively low, these arguments don't come up as often, so the word won't appear as often.

I've searched the NYT back to 1852 and plotted how prevalent "nigger" was in a given year, though smoothing the data out using 5-year moving averages (click to enlarge):

We see high values leading up and throughout the Civil War, a comparatively lower level during Reconstruction, followed by two peaks that mark "the nadir of American race relations." It doesn't change much going through the 1920s, even though this is the period of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the West and Northeast. It falls and stays pretty low during the worst part of the Great Depression, WWII, and the first 10 years after the war. This was a period of increasing racial consciousness and integration, and the prevalence of "negro" in the Crimson was increasing during this time as well. That means that there was a greater conversation taking place, but that it wasn't nasty in tone.

However, starting in the late 1950s it moves sharply upward, reaching a peak in 1971. This is the period of the Civil Rights movement, which on an objective level was merely continuing the previous trend of greater integration and dialogue. Yet just as we'd guess from what we've studied, the subjective quality of this phase of integration was much more acrimonious. Things start to calm down throughout the '70s and mid-'80s, which our study of history wouldn't lead us to suspect, but which a casual look at popular culture would support. Not only is this a period where pop music by blacks had little of a racial angle -- that was also true of most of the R&B music of most of the '60s -- but was explicitly about putting aside differences and moving on. This is most clearly shown in the disco music scene and its re-birth a few years later during the early '80s dance and pop music scene, when Rick James, Prince, and above all Michael Jackson tried to steer the culture onto a post-racial course.

But then the late '80s usher in a resurgence of identity politics based on race, sex, and sexual orientation ("political correctness," colloquially). The peak year here is technically 1995, but that is only because of the unusual weight given to the O.J. Simpson trial and Mark Fuhrman that year. Ignoring that, the real peak year of the racial tension was 1993 according to this measure. By the late '90s, the level has started to plummet, and the 2000s have been -- or should I say were -- relatively free of racial tension, a point I've made for awhile but that bears repeating since it's not commonly discussed.

Many people mention Obama's election, but that was pretty late in the stage. Think back to Hurricane Katrina and Kanye West trying but failing to foment another round of L.A. riots, or Al Sharpton trying but failing to turn the Jena Six into a civil rights cause celebre, or the mainstream media trying but failing to turn the Duke lacross hoax into a fact that would show how evil white people still are. We shouldn't be distracted by minor exceptions like right-thinking people casting out James Watson because that was an entirely elite and academic affair. It didn't set the entire country on fire. The same is true for the minor exception of Larry Summers being driven out of Harvard, which happened during a remarkably feminism-free time.

Indeed, it's hard to recognize the good times when they're happening -- unless they're fantastically good -- because losses loom larger than gains in our minds. Clearly racial tensions continue to go through cycles, no matter how much objective progress is made in improving the status of blacks relative to whites. Thus, we cannot expect further objective improvements to prevent another wave of racial tension.

Aside from the long mid-20th C hiatus, there are apparently 25 year distances between peaks, which is about one human generation. If the near future is like most of the past, we predict another peak around 2018, a prediction I've made before using similar reasoning about the length of time separating the general social hysterias that we've had -- although in those cases, just going back to perhaps the 1920s or 1900s, not all the way back to the 1850s. Still, right now we're in a fairly calm phase and we should enjoy it while it lasts. If you feel the urge to keep quiet on any sort of racial issues, you should err on the side of being more vocal for right now, since the mob isn't predicted to come out for another 5 years or so, and the peak not until 10 years from now. As a rough guide to which way the racial wind is blowing, simply ask yourself, "Does it feel like it did after Rodney King and the L.A. riots, or after the O.J. verdict?" If not, things aren't that bad.

Looking at absolute levels may be somewhat inaccurate -- maybe all that counts is where the upswings and downswings are. So I've also plotted the year-over-year percent change in how prevalent "nigger" is, though this time using 10-year moving averages to smooth the data out because yearly flucuations up or down are even more volatile than the underlying signal. In this graph, positive values mean the trend was moving upward, negative values mean it was moving downward, and values close to 0 mean it was staying fairly steady:

Again we see sustained positive growth during the Civil War, the two bookends of the nadir of race relations, although we now see a small amount of growth during the Harlem Renaissance era. The Civil Rights period jumps out the most. Here, the growth begins in the mid-1940s, but remember that it was at its lowest absolute levels then, so even the modest increases that began then show up as large percent increases. The PC era of the late '80s through the mid '90s also clearly shows up. There are several periods of relative stasis, but I see three periods of decisively moving against a nasty and bitter tone in our racial conversations: Reconstruction after the Civil War (admittedly not very long or very deep), the late '30s through WWII, and the "these are the good times" / Prince / Michael Jackson era of the mid-late '70s through the mid '80s, which is the most pronounced of all.

That trend also showed up television, when black-oriented sitcoms were incredibly popular. During the 1974-'75 season, 3 of the top 10 TV shows were Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons. The last of those that were national hits, at least as far as I recall, were The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and In Living Color, which were most popular in the late '80s and early '90s. Diff'rent Strokes spans this period perfectly in theme and in time, featuring an integrated cast (and not in the form of a "token black guy") and lasting from 1978 to 1986. The PC movement and its aftermath pretty much killed off the widely appealing black sitcom, although after a quick search, I see that Disney had a top-rated show called That's So Raven in the middle of the tension-free 2000s. But it's hard to think of black-focused shows from the mid-'90s through the early 2000s that were as popular as Good Times or The Cosby Show.

(In the top picture, the comparison between Jennifer Beals and Halle Berry shows that a black-white biracial babe actress who came of age during the late '70s and early '80s took a white husband twice, while her counterpart who became famous in the early '90s went instead for black men.)

But enough about TV. The point is simply that the academic material we're taught in school usually doesn't take into account what's popular on the radio or TV -- the people's culture only counts if they wrote songs about walking the picket line, showed that women too can be mechanics, or that we shall overcome. Historians, and people generally, are biased to see things as bad and getting worse, so they rarely notice when things were pretty good. But some aspects of popular culture can shed light on what was really going on because its producers are not academics with an axe to grind but entrepreneurs who need to know their audience and stay in touch with the times.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

The mosaic of North American populations   posted by Razib @ 11/22/2009 08:51:00 PM

A few months ago an interesting paper connected the historical demographics of New Hampshire with genetic variation. One of the notable features of North American history and culture is that it is a mosaic of different populations, and, that mosaic has come about in very different ways. For example, the millions of Italian and Jewish Americans descend from hundreds of thousands of Italian and Jewish immigrants. By contrast, millions of Yankees and Quebecois descend from tens of thousands of ancestors, who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1992 a Census demographer, Gibson Campbell, calculated that 49% of the population of the United States in 1990 was descended from those whose ancestors were resident withi nthe United States in in 1790 in "The Contribution of Immigration to the Growth and Ethnic Diversity of the American Population" (inclusive of blacks and whites). 51% were descended from those who arrived after 1790. Put it another way, 127 million Americans in 1990 were attributable to the net 50 million immigrants who arrived after 1790. The remainder of the population would be attributable to the 4 million U.S. residents in 1790.

Note: Looking at the immigration records more than 1 million Italians and Jews remained in the United States (around 4 million Italians arrived between 1820 and 1920, but the majority seem to have gone back to Italy). But reproductive variance being what it is, I think it is plausible to assuming that fewer than 1 million may contribute most to the current generations of these two groups.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Elite ancient Egyptians had heart disease   posted by Razib @ 11/17/2009 03:05:00 PM

Heart Disease Found in Egyptian Mummies:
"Atherosclerosis is ubiquitous among modern day humans and, despite differences in ancient and modern lifestyles, we found that it was rather common in ancient Egyptians of high socioeconomic status living as much as three millennia ago," says UC Irvine clinical professor of cardiology Dr. Gregory Thomas, a co-principal investigator on the study. "The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease."

"Every man a king" in these days indeed.


Monday, November 16, 2009

A simple framework for thinking about cultural generations   posted by agnostic @ 11/16/2009 12:44:00 AM

In this discussion about pop music at Steve Sailer's, the topic of generations came up, and it's one where few of the people who talk about it have a good grasp of how things work. For example, the Wikipedia entry on generation notes that cultural generations only showed up with industrialization and modernization -- true -- but doesn't offer a good explanation for why. Also, they don't distinguish between loudmouth generations and silent generations, which alternate over time. As long as a cohort "shares a culture," they're considered a generation, but that misses most of the dynamics of generation-generation. My view of it is pretty straightforward.

First, we have to notice that some cohorts are full-fledged Generations with ID badges like Baby Boomer or Gen X, and some cohorts are not as cohesive and stay more out of the spotlight. Actually, one of these invisible cohorts did get an ID badge -- the Silent Generation -- so I'll refer to them as loudmouth generations (e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen X, and before long the Millennials) and silent generations (e.g., the small cohort cramped between Boomers and X-ers).

Then we ask why do the loudmouth generations band together so tightly, and why do they show such strong affiliation with the generation that they continue to talk and dress the way they did as teenagers or college students even after they've hit 40 years old? Well, why does any group of young people band together? -- because social circumstances look dire enough that the world seems to be going to hell, so you have to stick together to help each other out. It's as if an enemy army invaded and you had to form a makeshift army of your own.

That is the point of ethnic membership badges like hairstyle, slang, clothing, musical preferences, etc. -- to show that you're sticking with the tribe in desperate times. That's why teenagers' clothing has logos visible from down the hall, why they spend half their free time digging into a certain music niche, and why they're hyper-sensitive about what hairstyle they have. Adolescence is a socially desperate time, not unlike a jungle, in contrast to the more independent situation you enjoy during full adulthood. Being caught in more desperate circumstances, teenagers freak out about being part of -- fitting in with -- a group that can protect them; they spend the other half of their free time communicating with their friends. Independent adults have fewer friends, keep in contact with them much less frequently, and don't wear clothes with logos or the cover art from their favorite new album.

OK, so that happens with every cohort -- why does this process leave a longer-lasting impact on the loudmouth cohorts? It is the same cause, only writ large: there's some kind of social panic, or over-turning of the status quo, that's spreading throughout the entire culture. So they not only face the trials that every teenager does, but they've also got to protect themselves against this much greater source of disorder. They have to form even stronger bonds, and display their respect for their generation much longer, than cohorts who don't face a larger breakdown of security.

Now, where this larger chaos comes from, I'm not saying. I'm just treating it as exogenous for now, as though people who lived along the waterfront would go through periods of low need for banding together (when the ocean behaved itself) and high need to band together (when a flood regularly swept over them). The generation forged in this chaos participates in it, but it got started somewhere else. The key is that this sudden disorder forces them to answer "which side are you on?" During social-cultural peacetime, there is no Us vs. Them, so cohorts who came of age in such a period won't see generations in black-and-white, do-or-die terms. Cohorts who come of age during disorder must make a bold and public commitment to one side or the other. You can tell when such a large-scale chaos breaks out because there is always a push to reverse "stereotypical gender roles," as well as a surge of identity politics.

The intensity with which they display their group membership badges and groupthink is perfectly rational -- when there's a great disorder and you have to stick together, the slightest falter in signaling your membership could make them think that you're a traitor. Indeed, notice how the loudmouth generations can meaningfully use the phrase "traitor to my generation," while silent generations wouldn't know what you were talking about -- you mean you don't still think The Ramones is the best band ever? Well, OK, maybe you're right. But substitute with "I've always thought The Beatles were over-rated," and watch your peers with torches and pitchforks crowd around you.

By the way, why did cultural generations only show up in the mid-to-late 19th C. after industrialization? Quite simply, the ability to form organizations of all kinds was restricted before then. Only after transitioning from what North, Wallis, and Weingast (in Violence and Social Orders -- working paper here) call a limited access order -- or a "natural state" -- to an open access order, do we see people free to form whatever political, economic, religious, and cultural organizations that they want. In a natural state, forming organizations at will threatens the stability of the dominant coalition -- how do they know that your bowling league isn't simply a way for an opposition party to meet and plan? Or even if it didn't start out that way, you could well get to talking about your interests after awhile.

Clearly young people need open access to all sorts of organizations in order to cohere into a loudmouth generation. They need regular hang-outs. Such places couldn't be formed at will within a natural state. Moreover, a large cohort of young people banding together and demanding that society "hear the voice of a new generation" would have been summarily squashed by the dominant coalition of a natural state. It would have been seen as just another "faction" that threatened the delicate balance of power that held among the various groups within the elite. Once businessmen are free to operate places that cater to young people as hang-outs, and once people are free to form any interest group they want, then you get generations.

Finally, on a practical level, how do you lump people into the proper generational boxes? This is the good thing about theory -- it guides you in practice. All we have to do is get the loudmouth generations' borders right; in between them go the various silent or invisible generations. The catalyzing event is a generalized social disorder, so we just look at the big picture and pick a peak year plus maybe 2 years on either side. You can adjust the length of the panic, but there seems to be a 2-year lead-up stage, a peak year, and then a 2-year winding-down stage. Then ask, whose minds would have been struck by this disorder? Well, "young people," and I go with 15 to 24, although again this isn't precise.

Before 15, you're still getting used to social life, so you may feel the impact a little, but it's not intense. And after 24, you're on the path to independence, you're not texting your friends all day long, and you've stopped wearing logo clothing. The personality trait Openness to Experience rises during the teenage years, peaks in the early 20s, and declines after; so there's that basis. Plus the likelihood to commit crime -- another measure of reacting to social desperation -- is highest between 15 and 24.

So, just work your way backwards by taking the oldest age (24) and subtracting it from the first year of the chaos, and then taking the youngest age (15) and subtracting it from the last year of the chaos. "Ground zero" for that generation is the chaos' peak year minus 20 years.

As an example, the disorder of the Sixties lasted from roughly 1967 to 1972. Applying the above algorithm, we predict a loudmouth generation born between 1943 and 1957: Baby Boomers. Then there was the early '90s panic that began in 1989 and lasted through 1993 -- L.A. riots, third wave feminism, etc. We predict a loudmouth generation born between 1965 and 1978: Generation X. There was no large-scale social chaos between those two, so that leaves a silent generation born between 1958 and 1964. Again, they don't wear name-tags, but I call them the disco-punk generation based on what they were listening to when they were coming of age.

Going farther back, what about those who came of age during the topsy-turvy times of the Roaring Twenties? The mania lasted from roughly 1923 to 1927, forming a loudmouth generation born between 1899 and 1912. This closely corresponds to what academics call the Interbellum Generation. The next big disruption was of course WWII, which in America really struck between 1941 and 1945, creating a loudmouth generation born between 1917 and 1930. This would be the young people who were part of The Greatest Generation. That leaves a silent generation born between 1913 and 1916 -- don't know if anyone can corroborate their existence or not. That also leaves The Silent Generation proper, born between 1931 and 1942.

Looking forward, it appears that these large social disruptions recur with a period of about 25 years on average. The last peak was 1991, so I predict another one will strike in 2016, although with 5 years' error on both sides. Let's say it arrives on schedule and has a typical 2-year build-up and 2-year winding-down. That would create a loudmouth generation born between 1990 and 2003 -- that is, the Millennials. They're already out there; they just haven't hatched yet. And that would also leave a silent generation born between 1979 and 1989.

My sense is that Millennials are already starting to cohere, and that 1987 is more like their first year, making the silent generation born between 1979 and 1986 (full disclosure: I belong to it). So this method surely isn't perfect, but it's pretty useful. It highlights the importance of looking at the world with some kind of framework -- otherwise we'd simply be cataloguing one damn generation after another.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A quantitative ecologist looks at world history (again)   posted by Razib @ 11/12/2009 07:30:00 PM

Doing a literature search on the Price Equation for some weblog posts I found that Peter Turchin had written a new paper on world history using Price's formalism explicitly. A quantitative ecologist by training, Turchin has already written a series of books attempting to model human history in a more formal fashion than is usually the case. Though his work has a tendency to overlap with economic history, in particular cliometrics, Turchin brings a more robust theoretical toolkit from the natural sciences to the table. An ecologist once told me that the ultimate aim of his career was to "count stuff," and that professional expertise is handy when it comes mapping the distribution & abundance of the human species over time. What David Sloan Wilson is to multilevel selection theory, Peter Turchin is to "cliodynamics", his attempt to grapple with the general dynamics which characterize the cycles of human history.

Specifically, Turchin focuses the agricultural societies which mark the span between the age of the hunter-gatherers, and the industrial revolution. What I term the "traditionalist transient." Traditionalist because from our "modern" viewpoint we perceive many of the customs, institutions and values of this age as timeless and traditional. This despite the fact that they emerged in a specific and relatively brief historical transient after the Ice Age & before the Great Divergence. But this period is still important in our modern age, because the basic building blocks of contemporary identities draw from the traditionalist transient. Higher religions invariably date back to this period (Salafi Muslims and some ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholics look back to particular periods during the traditionalist transient as golden ages to be emulated), as do modern lingua francas, and the basic terms of political organization (democracy, republic, etc.). Early modern thinkers of the Enlightenment may have rejected or superseded the orthodoxies of the traditionalist transient as the Quarrel of the Ancients & Moderns was finally resolved to the satisfaction of the latter, but the context of the refutation was still to a large extent on the basis of traditionalist transient assumptions. For example, contemporary secularism, laicism and disestablishmentarianism are intelligible only in light of the fusion of the sacred and temporal which played out in the agricultural societies after the rise of Sumer. Turchin always notes that his conclusions may not, likely do not, apply to the dynamics extant in the present. But I suspect that much of what does go on in the present is intelligible only in light of the phenomena of the past. So his models are not purely abstract intellectual exercises.

Whether you think the project as a whole is worthwhile or not (see Massimo Pigliucci's skepticism), I am intrigued by the fact that Turchin focuses on Inner Asia because this is one region of the world which has long been "at the center of it all," both literally as well as more metaphorically. Some of the inferences from Turchin's framework illuminate rather well the broad observations and hints presented in Christopher Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road. Since Beckwith is a philologist he lacks Turchin's more robust theoretical toolkit, but he naturally exhibits both more depth and granularity when it comes to the details of the history and ethnography. Setting both against each other is fascinating as one can make out binocular intellectual vision with more subtly than if just one narrative is considered.

As I said, in the paper, Warfare and the Evolution of Social Complexity: A Multilevel-Selection Approach, Peter Turchin uses the Price Equation as a theoretical framework. The reason for this is that Turchin believes that human societies within the past 10,000 years can be viewed as functional units subject to selection; in other words, they're adapting entities, organisms. The Price Equation allows one to partition variation between and within groups, variation being necessary for selection to operate upon collections of entities. Though the economist Samuel Bowles has suggested that between group genetic variance (FST) and selection (through warfare) may have values high enough in "small-scale societies" to allow for non-trivial biological group level selection, most seem to accept the contention of those who suggest that between group variance only makes cultural group selection plausibly common. Turchin is in the latter camp, in particular because his focus is not on small-scale societies, but larger polities which characterize what we would term "civilization." In the world of civilization it is clear that between group variance can be much greater culturally than biologically. Consider the example the case of Transylvanian Hungarian Protestants who could get by in late 16th century Oxford by virtue of their common fluency in Latin, combined with shared Calvinist religious precepts with many English Protestants (example from The Reformation: A History). Yet genetically Hungarians are closer to their neighbors, the Orthodox Romanians, than to the British. By intuition and impression it is clear that in relation to gene frequencies religious and linguistic identity tend to exhibit a less clinal pattern of variation. Though genes are discrete units, genetic variation approaches blending dynamics more easily than religious and linguistic variation, where pidgins and syncretisms are often marginalized or absorbed into one of the "parent" traditions.* Because languages and religions vary less gradually, it is easier for one to conceive of a clear and distinct group coherency in a selective framework. Where one entity ends and another begins is not arbitrary, the genes of France blend in to the genes of Germany more gently than do the dialects of French to those of German. It seems that selection between group genetic differences (not reducible to individual level selection) runs up against the problem of "gene flow" overwhelming divergences in frequency (I imagine in pre-modern times this gene flow consisted predominantly of the assimilation of the breeding-age women of conquered tribes). Here's an example from a primitive people:
31:9 And the children of Israel took [all] the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
31:13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
31:14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, [with] the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

In fact, it seems likely that between group genetic differences have been driven by cultural differences. The Jews are a famous case, but this dynamic also crops up in surprising places, such as among Christian & Muslim Arabs in Lebanon. It seems likely that high FST values in small-scale societies tracks their cultural and linguistic diversity; as conventional gene flow through movement of mates between populations which can not communicate or worship different gods is likely to be dampened due to mutual unintelligibility and suspicion. By contrast, the expansive spread of the possible Y chromosomal lineage of Genghis Khan within the last 1,000 years is a testament to the power of cultural prestige and conquest over large areas to generate rapid gene flow.

The ethnogenesis of the Hazara in Afghanistan illustrate the complex interplay between religion, language and lineage. The Hazaras show clear evidence on Structure-based analyses of being an East Eurasian and West Eurasian hybrid population. Y chromosomal lineages tied to Genghis Khan the Mongols are common among them, and there are historical legends that they arose from exactly this group. Their practice of Islam & usage of a Persian dialect likely dates to the time that the Mongol Khans of the Ilkhanate accepted the religion of the local majority in the 13th century. The Mongols who refused to accept Islam emigrated to Inner Asia, while those who remained assimilated, accepting the religion and dominant language of the local populations whom they ruled. Today as a physically distinct Shia Muslim Persian speaking group in Afghanistan the Hazara are now endogamous, their biological distinctiveness a function of broader cultural-historical forces.

Of course that is just a specific concrete illustration of historical dynamics, and an atypical one at that. The general processes which Peter Turchin discusses have an extreme specific case scenario in the form of the Mongols, who left an outsized impact on the World Island. A big shift from small-scale societies to those of agricultural civilizations is the need for complex hierarchies to mediate decision making from the apex of the political pyramid. Like Archimede's lever with which he could move the world, the functional integrity of these units allowed the decisions of Genghis Khan to affect tens of millions. It is presumed that for small-scale societies primary face-to-face interaction sufficed to coordinate decision making. Interestingly, there is also compelling data which points to relative egalitarianism of material wealth to complement the flat authority structures. By the time history arises to supplement archaeology, meaning that we have records in the form of cuneiform tablets, societies are clearly already quite hierarchical (literacy probably emerged as a more sophisticated form of accounting, so rather complex economies are already necessary conditions). A reliance on rules, heuristics and institutions which coordinate and channel power tracked the crystallization of a powerful and wealthy rentier class (as well as a possible reallocation of power between the sexes). The idea that the poor will always be with us, and that true status and nobility accrue to those who can consume at leisure, as opposed to those who increase productivity, was the norm in the traditionalist transient.** Whereas in small-scale societies alien tribes were subhuman, in civilization the elites would often dehumanize their own subjects as lower orders of a different nature.

It is this last tendency which Turchin examines in this paper, to contrast it with conflicts which emerge on the "meta-ethnic frontiers." If you have read his earlier work you are familiar with the idea, which basically describes civilizational marchlands. The Muslim Ottomans, Orthodox Cossaks and Buddhist Oirats were all forged in the fires of meta-ethnic frontiers. In opposition to this is the "narcissism of small differences", whereby societies exhibit cleavage along what may otherwise seem to be marginal differences. Civil wars within polities can often by traced back to these issues, or sides aligned based on internal factions. Consider the divisions between Protestants which resulted in the English Civil War. Turchin wishes to assess the extent of ethnocide and genocide in the former vs. latter cases. Why? Because he believes that it is the former cases which are responsible for the rise of large empires and re-ordering of civilization and historical shifts. Evolutionary theory tells us that selection needs extant variation to operate, and it seems that along meta-ethnic frontiers such variation would would be extant in more copious quantities than in civilizational heartlands. In particular, along the boundaries of civilizations. Within individual societies there should be less variation, so selective forces should have less traction. To assess this he reviews the literature to evaluate the magnitude of depopulation wrought upon cities by victorious armies. This is a classic form of "hard selection".

Table 1 shows that conflict on meta-ethnic frontiers does have a stronger effect than civil wars. Why? Turchin posits a simple psychological explanation: those of different civilizational character are dehumanized, so empathy is modulated downward (it is notable that during and before the Albigensian Crusade the Cathars were subject to many conventional demonizing tropes, and effectively de-Christianized in the eyes of the rest of Christendom) .This is clear from the history of Christianity and Islam, in the medieval period the religious norms in both civilizations accepted the enslavement and maltreatment of unbelievers to an extent not acceptable for believers. This is the explanation for why some of the Christian military orders in the Baltic, whose original raison d'etre was to Christianize the native peoples, actually were among the last to allow and encourage baptism of their subjects. Baptism imposed constraints on efficient extraction of marginal product. The analogy to New World chattel slavery here is clear, as some plantation owners viewed proselytization among blacks dimly lest economics be modulated by morality. When the crossbow was invented the Roman Catholic Church attempted to ban its usage between Christian powers, though declared it acceptable as a weapon against Muslims. This sort of behavior, constraining and/or ritualizing high stakes competition and conflict within groups, while accepting a more "no holds barred" attitude toward between group conflicts is known from small-scale societies (though perhaps the contrast would manifest more in the extent of extreme barbarism with which outgroups were treated, rather than any particular norm of humanity for ingroups). Civilization simply operationalized this on a grander scale, and scaffolded human nature and channeled it through particular institutions and identities.

Peter Turchin argues, and presents data, that these frontier regions where primitive, and frankly savage, passions are channeled toward outgroups serve as the loci for new empires and mega-polities. In particular, being an ecologist, he focuses on particular ecologies as the exceptional cauldrons for state-formation: the semi-arid steppe. It is here that Turchin aligns with some of Christopher Beckwith's insights in Empires of the Silk Road. This should not be totally surprising, though we look through the glass darkly nature is fundamentally one, and history is a phenomenon rooted in nature. Beckwith attempts to generate a revisionist history of the world where the rise and fall of nomadic empires are just as salient as the ebb and flow of peasant-based civilizations, where the eruptions from the heartland echo down the centuries. And Turchin, like Beckwith, seems to hold that it is less important or relevant that the movers of history are unlettered nomads, but that they are derived from the marchlands where nomads or part-nomads are prominent on both sides of the frontier, civilized and barbarian. Consider the Cossacks who pushed the frontier of the Russian Empire back against the Tatars from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Loyal to the Russian state, Orthodox Christians, and trailblazers for Slavic culture and society, they certainly were the civilizational antithesis of the Muslim Turks descended from the Golden Horde of the Mongols. But upon closer inspection there were similarities between the Cossacks and Tatars as rough frontiersmen which exposed affinities when set against the lives of Russian peasants, or the more cultured nobility of the Russian heartland. It is known that many Tatars "went Cossack," abandoning the Muslim religion and eventually shifting toward a Slavic self-identity in the wake of defeats (though this is most notable for elite Tatars who converted to Christianity and were assimilated into the Russian noble class). This is what Turchin would label "ethnocide," cultural extermination if not physical. The men who expanded the domain of Russian civilization in the early modern era were useful barbarians (this seems especially evident to the more sophisticated and European-oriented Russian rulers of the 18th century, who relied upon and disdained & feared, the Cossack). The Turks who had crushed the first efflorescence of Slavic civilization which ran from Kiev to Novgorod were less useful barbarians. But to Turchin this distinction is not particularly important, as civilization-destroying barbarians such as the Arabs after Muhammad and the Mongols can set the stage for the emergence of a new civilizational-system (in the case of the Mongols there was of course the brief world-system of the Pax Mongolica).

So what do the data say?

If these data & the result, repackaged in a statistically significant form are any surprise to you, I recommend you read some books. The importance of the semi-arid steppe, the rise of the mounted cavalry and utility of the reflex bow are plain in the record of civilized societies. Macedonia, the Zhou & Chin, Persia the Turks are just a few examples of peoples who are barbarian or semi-barbarian, and came blazing out of the marchlands to establish a new order over civilized peoples. Naturally the horse looms large here. It is a truism that the average peasant was never more than 10 miles from where they were born. Even if the exact value on this expectation is off, the general thrust is surely correct, in the Malthusian world the average sedentarist was quite sedentary. In contrast the mounted nomads were highly mobile, with whole peoples such as the Avars migrating en masse from Mongolia to the Hungarian plain on the order of a decade! More mobile units of males operated on the scale of years, as was shown by the Turks and the Mongols whose zone of control spanned the margins of the Pacific to the Black Sea. The Mongols were simply the apotheosis of the terror and savagery which mobile calvary could inflict upon settled populations. In the classical period the Scythians and their fellow travelers ranged widely in their depredations, causing havoc in their wake. It is often forgotten that the Huns who were menacing Gaul in the 450s were strafing Syria ~400, sweeping down through the Caucasus from the plains to the north of the Black Sea. Just as the institutions of the traditionalist transient allowed for individuals at the apex of power to control and affect massive change at a distance, so the rise of the horse and bow gave the nomad a combination of mobility and lethality which was only neutralized with the spread of firearms.

Turchin dates the emergence of the nomadic warrior toolkit, and therefore the potential to wreak havoc on civilized polities, to the period between 1000-500 BCE. This sounds about right. Though the records are sparse because literate civilization was thin on the ground, this is the period when the Scythians battered the Assyrian Empire, and the Medes and Persians finally sacked Nineveh. In China the rise of this sort of nomadic lifestyle and warfare seems to have taken a bit longer, with the Xiongnu making permanent the archetype of the raw nomad beyond the frontiers of Han civilization in the 3rd century BCE. But a more critical point is that there is the suggestion that the Axial Age is a deterministic reaction on the part of civilized peoples to the hammer-blow which nomad polities dealt them (in the case of Persia you have the barbarians overwhelm, assimilate and re-order the civilizations of the Near East in totality). To Turchin this is an evolutionary process, as selection operates upon cultures and polities to give rise to adaptations to a new fitness landscape. In this case, the mounted archer, a combination of lethality and mobility which the more primitive modalities of the Bronze Age were helpless. The choice was clear, adapt or be swallowed.

To me it is notable that the Assyrians are reputed to have been particularly savage, while the Persians who were their eventual successors were depicted as relatively benevolent. Some of this is selection bias, as the Persians treated the Jews with less brutality than the Assyrians, and much of our character/narrative history of this place and period come from the Hebrew Bible. But there are other independent records of the nature of Assyrian rule, which seemed to be rather coarse and overly generous in its application of intimidation and cruelty to the conquered. From what I can tell it is as if the Assyrians were Yanomami in chariots, exhibiting a brutal inchoate savagery more the norm in small-scale societies. In contrast, the Persian system of rule were imperial, but often indirect. Local traditions were respected, but it was under the Achaemedids that the Zoroastrian religion began to develop, which later developed into a state-religion for the Persians in the manner that Christianity was for Rome and State Confucianism in China. It is likely that the ethical aspect of Judaism as an ethical monotheism came to the fore during the period of influence under the Persian Zoroastrians, whose primary deity is, Ahura Mazda, is an explicit force for good, not an angry and jealous god. In Empires of the Silk Road Christopher Beckwith suggests that the synchronous efflorescence of religio-philosophical systems across the ecumene during the Axial Age was promoted by the expansion of nomads, their ideas, and the facilitating role of their trade networks. Turchin's model would seem to suggest that nomads played a role as well, but more as antagonists for civilized polities (and in some cases the progenitors of new polities and empires), who had to increase in scale and develop institutional and ideological adaptations. The two models are not mutually exclusive. In terms of religion there are many cases of barbarians beyond the limes being influenced and innovating. Most famously with Islam, but in both Scandinavia and the Baltic before the conversion to Christianity the extant records and preserved mythologies are clear enough to show an influence and institutional mimicking of the "Roman religion." In the latter cases the cult of Baldr and the temple at Arkona were dead-ends, as Christianization eliminated those cultural experiments. A more successful universal religious model is the worship of Tengri, the sky god of the Turks and Mongols who was the focus of worship their "shamanistic" phase. The similarities of Tengri to El, one of the ancestors of the Abrahamic God, can not be a coincidence. Sky gods are portable and plainly omnipresent, looking down from on high, in a way that makes them ideal candidates for the God.

It seems that the model presented here is that from savagery comes civilization. This is basically an evolutionary model of human history, an "arms race" of ideas and institutions between polities and civilizations. Sometimes, as in the case of the mounted warrior with bow, the race was triggered by a technological change. The civilizations of the Near East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, did not change or adapt fast enough. They became fiefs in a Persian world. It can be argued that the Classical Greeks, descendants of the barbaric city-states which sacrificed humans to placate savage gods as they were falling to the Sea Peoples, did formulate appropriate institutional (the cohesive polis and national identity) and technological (the accoutrements and organization of the hoplite phalanx) responses to the threat. In China the two dynasties which set the tone for Imperial China down to 1900, the Zhou and the Chin, emerged out of the borderlands as semi-barbarian polities. The Zhou introduced the peculiar elite Chinese variant of supernaturalism whereby worship centered around the impersonal "Heaven." The Chin state was organized around an efficient and utilitarian plan which may have been repudiated in name, but not totally in practice, by subsequent dynasties. Reorganized from within by useful barbarians China was ready to meet the nomad threat in the form of the Xiongnu.

In The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History John and William McNeill point out that history seems to have a direction in terms of human complexity. Between 1200 and 800 BCE the Greeks "forgot" how to write in totality, so that the Linear B system of the Mycenaeans has no connection to the Phoenician derived alphabet of the later period. As the ages progressed these sorts of "Dark Ages" when the clock was reset, the slate wiped clean, became less and less frequent. The world of settled humanity, dominated by rentier elites, purporting to justify their domination through transcendent truth, covered the face of the earth. Ray Haung, in China: A Macro History, observes that the interregnums between dynasties exhibits a persistent decline in length. Why? One hypothesis is that the "Chinese system," as embodied in norms and values passed down through its bureaucratic class, became more robust to the "exogenous shocks" of political chaos. Some, such as Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, would explain this in generally "microeconomic" terms. Game theory applied through the lens of rational actors. Turchin rejects this view insofar as he seems to be suggest that cultural units are being driven to success because of a process of expansion through the elimination of rivals. Again, there is no need to assume these are exclusive alternative choices. Religions such as Christianity and Buddhism clearly spread through individual action and choice (both seem to have been popular first among cosmopolitan urbanites, and counter-elites). But, they also clearly spread by being adopted as ideological cement for polities, the choice made on high at the apex of the political pyramid and extended down by fiat to the population as a whole. This choice may have conferred upon the polity the benefits which accrue from being members of a meta-ethnic civilizational coalition. The benefits to being members of Christendom for the pagan elites to the north of the post-Roman world were clear. James I of England asserted "No bishop, no King," to indicate the necessary connection between ruler and the priests. And so it was the arrival of Christianity seems curiously concomitant with the emergence of kings on pagan Europe, one God, one ruler. Pagan peoples who remained relatively disinclined toward joining the Christian Commonwealth were liable to be subject to ethnocide, as occurred with the Wends and the Old Prussians.

A focus on elites is evident in Turchin's model, and I think in some ways that is a critical piece of information. Group level selection on the scale that he focuses upon, large polities and such, may be a feature of only a small slice of a given polity. The elites, or particularly important military groups, such as the Cossacks. History is written by and for the elites. The gods and languages of the elites, their norms, often percolate down to the masses (though not always, my example above about a Latin speaking Transylvanian in Oxford is obviously extremely elitist, but in terms of international politics they are all who counted!). Greg Clark documented high mortality rates for the military nobility of England in Farewell to Alms, as opposed to the relative fertility of the pacific gentry. This shows how high the stakes for intergroup conflict for elites may have been, as opposed to commoners. Benjamin Franklin reputedly stated that "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Kevin Phllips reports in The Cousins' Wars that much of the Virginia planter aristocracy, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were in severe debt to English financial houses. Their individual material stakes illustrate how victory or loss in war can have huge negative or positive outcomes to those at the apex of the power pyramid in agricultural societies. This is where I think the civilizational values which unite and engender a degree of cosmopolitanism among elites within the bounds of that broader meta-ethnic framework serve to dampen the savagery of loss and the gluttony of gain. The world of a defeated king may seem to collapse upon him, but if the foe shares the same civilizational presuppositions the institutions and values remain intact, and some honor and status may be retained by the rules of the game which are enforced by third parties (e.g., in medieval Europe, the Church). By contrast, it is no surprise that when the kingdom of the Visigoths fell to the armies of the Arabs and Berbers the elites either fled, or, more likely converted to Islam to preserve their positions. This was ethnocide. A process which was inverted in 1492, as Granada fell to the armies of Castile and Aragon, and the Muslim elites either had to flee to North Africa, or convert to Christianity. In the former case they lost their wealth and power. In the latter case they lost their identity. These are of course the less savage cases, on occasion elites are simply exterminated by the conquerors so that the snake's head is removed.

If Peter Turchin turns this most recent paper into a book, I have a catchy title in mind: Civilization: a tale of regicide. It has been said that science can not progress until old ideas die with old scientists, and so it may be that civilization can not proceed until old elites die prematurely thanks to the efforts of new ones. The argument is too broad to be sure, but the history of the evolution of power is a biography of the lives of those in power, so this captures much to a first approximation if it is correct.

* English has a strong influence from the Romance languages via French, but it is still recognizably a Germanic language. Similarly, Sikhism emerged as a new world religion or sect which navigated between the disjoint idea spaces which defined Hinduism and Islam, but it is notable that many Hindus claim Sikhism to be a variant of Hinduism, while no Muslims seem inclined to make this assertion.

** The poor were always with the hunter-gatherers as well, because they were all poor, but a wealthy leisured class who could comment on the plight of the poor did not exist so the observation would have been ludicrous.

Related: Historical Dynamics and contingent conditions of religion, Cliodynamics, the rise & fall of empires and asabiya.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Inequality & wealth   posted by Razib @ 11/02/2009 10:27:00 AM

A review over at ScienceBlogs of a new paper, Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies. I'm going to comment more in the near future, as I think this an give us insight into historical dynamics. An interesting find is that pastoralists and settled agriculturalists exhibit the same levels of heritability of material wealth (as well as the same values on material wealth). Hunter-gatherers and slash & burn agriculturalists seem to be at the other end of the spectrum.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Social cycles in history due to cognitive differences   posted by Razib @ 10/31/2009 03:11:00 PM

Steve points me to this Jason Richwine piece, Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?. Richwine states:
Religion would seem to be the clear choice of smart people in this hypothetical example, but there would still be a positive correlation between IQ and atheism. The correlation exists not because smart people have necessarily rejected religion, but because religion is the "default" position for most of our society.

This same principle works in places where the default and iconoclastic beliefs are reversed. Japan, for example, has no tradition of monotheistic religion, but the few Japanese Christians tend to be much more educated than non-Christians in Japan. By the logic of someone who wants to read a lot into the Stankov study, Christianity must be the wave of the future, perhaps even the one true faith! But, of course, the vast majority of educated Japanese are not Christians. Just as with atheism in the West, the correctness of Christianity cannot be inferred from the traits of the minority who subscribe to it in Japan.

On the specific issue Richwine is right, Christianity is associated with higher socioeconomic status vis-a-vis non-Christianity across much of East Asia. You can go look in the WVS or Statistics Singapore. Though I do have to note that only in South Korea does there seem to be a positive correlation between theism and socioeconomic status (e.g., in Singapore those with no religion and Christians both have high SES and tend to be concentrated among young professional class Chinese, those with lower SES tend to be Muslims [Malays] and followers of Chinese folk religions). Additionally, in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore it seems that Buddhism has reworked itself to mimic the aspects of Christianity which made it more appealing to middle-class professionals. This is a classic case of a new equilibrium being attained after the initial outside cultural "shock" of Christianity. Finally, in Japan Christians are basically a rounding error (a few percent at most), so the example of Korea, where they are 1/3 of the population is of more relevance.

But I was struck by a general implication from Richwine's model. Two premises:

1) Elites, cognitive or otherwise, tend to deviate from the "default" norms of society for various reasons (it could be signalling costly behavior to show that they are "above" conventional considerations and such).

2) Eventually, the masses often emulate in the elites in subsequent generations.

The inference would be that cultural cycles should exhibit a pattern where the masses serve as lagging indicators of elite sensibilities. Once the masses start attempting to "catch up," of course the elites have moved on. Empirically implausible? I'll let readers dissect it.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Language(s), then and now   posted by Razib @ 10/20/2009 02:31:00 PM

One of the trends which L. L. Cavalli-Sforza pointed to years ago is that linguistic and genetic cladograms exhibit a great deal of similarity. More recently geneticists such as Marcus Feldman have suggested that the reason behind this is that people tend to marry those who they can communicate with. Once the genetic data becomes more granular in Europe it will be interesting to see if this works on the national level. Though it is true that languages such as French or German are relatively new standards within the boundaries of their nation state, it is also true that people from village to village were intelligible with each other, until presumably they hit upon a major linguistic boundary such as between Romance and Germanic languages (though presumably here bilingualism would have been common).

But one of the problems which crops up now and then trying to think of the past, especially with all the new results coming out of historical genetics, is that we project the linguistic homogeneity of the present back. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia there were two languages which are linguistic isolates to the best of our knowledge, Sumerian and Elamite. If we didn't have extant written records, or, more accurately if writing hadn't arrived in Mesopotamia so early, we'd have no idea that there were non-Semitic languages in that region today. Not only that, but the ancient records from that period in Mesopotamia hint at other language groups which were not literate and so left no record. In the Roman Empire the vast majority of our extant records are in Greek and Latin. We know the existence of other languages, such as Celtic dialects, Punic, and such, but there are also indications of the flourishing of local lingua franca such as "Iberian" in southern Spain which have left only a marginal literary impact. The emergence of large polities led to linguistic homogenization; I have read that the dominance of Quechua, the language of the Incas of Cuzco and its environs, actually dates to the Spanish colonial period. In the chaos after the fall of the Inca Empire the language of the Incas gave the local peoples are a sort of solidity.

I'm thinking about this because I am corresponding with some people about the David Reich paper on Indian genetics, and people are asking questions such as "did the ancestral South Indians speak Dravidian languages?" I doubt it, but I also doubt that the language families of ancient India were as cleanly sorted out as they are today. Even the languages of the Andaman Islanders may not be one family! Over the past 10,000 years, and especially the last 2,000 years, much of the World Island has seen cultural positive feedback loops which have resulted in linguistic homogeneity. The rise of nation-states, literate elites, class stratification, etc., are I think part of the whole package which has given rise to this dynamic. Some of these are general phenomenon which presumably apply to H. sapiens 30,000 years ago, but I suspect the powerful magnitude is a new feature.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Answering ancient history questions with an equation   posted by Razib @ 10/12/2009 04:03:00 PM

Peter Turchin is at it again, Coin hoards speak of population declines in Ancient Rome (ungated version):
In times of violence, people tend to hide their valuables, which are later recovered unless the owners had been killed or driven away. Thus, the temporal distribution of unrecovered coin hoards is an excellent proxy for the intensity of internal warfare. We use this relationship to resolve a long-standing controversy in Roman history. Depending on who was counted in the early Imperial censuses (adult males or the entire citizenry including women and minors), the Roman citizen population of Italy either declined, or more than doubled, during the first century BCE. This period was characterized by a series of civil wars, and historical evidence indicates that high levels of sociopolitical instability are associated with demographic contractions. We fitted a simple model quantifying the effect of instability (proxied by hoard frequency) on population dynamics to the data before 100 BCE. The model predicts declining population after 100 BCE. This suggests that the vigorous growth scenario is highly implausible.

The figure to the left shows the reasoning. A simple model which related population size (dependent) to coin hordes (independent) was fitted before 100 BCE. The correlation between coin hordes to population size and political stability are well attested for many polities. In any case, using the model and projecting outward with the coin hordes known for the early imperial period a theory which suggests that multiplicative increases in census size during the Julio-Claudian age were a function of a shift in the accounting method (instead of simply males, including the whole household) was supported. The high count was already implausible on other grounds (e.g., if true, that means that Italy never attained the early Roman imperial population size until the mid-19th century), but that the model fits so well with the lower projections previously offered by other scholars is very suggestive. Contra extreme subjectivists some models of the past are probably right, and some are probably wrong.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Semitocracy   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2009 02:15:00 PM

Reading Sumer & the Sumerians to see if there are any new facts known about these people and period since I was a kid. Unfortunately, as noted in the preface, after 1991 and until the mid-2000s (when the book was published) archaeology in Iraq wasn't feasible. So not so much. But, the author does note and reiterate an old dynamic: the slow but persistent decline in the proportion of those for whom Sumerian is a native language in the cities of Mesopotamia. Semitic speakers (e.g., Akkadians) were a presence in the earliest extant cuneiform tablets ~3000, and were likely dominant in the north of Mesopotamia. Earlier and more speculative works in fact have suggested that the Sumerians, whose language seems an isolate (unrelated to any other in the world), were outsiders who arrived from the south. So the Semitic speaking peoples may in fact have been indigenes who were temporarily dispossessed.

In any case, the text makes it clear that it seems two types of rural nomads moved into the cities of Sumer. Very wealthy individuals who experienced diminishing marginal returns as their herds expanded in size, and who found in cities more opportunities for efficient allocation of their capital. And secondly, very poor nomads who simply no longer had herds which were numerous enough for them to subsist. For the whole period of Sumerian cultural ascendancy, from 3000 to 2000 BCE, one presumes that the nomadic population reserves were stocked then with the "middle class" which hovered around the margins of subsistence. From what can be gathered by the textual evidence the nomads were invariably populations which were Semitic. The Sumerians were city-dwellers, though no doubt they also formed the peasantry around the canals and irrigation works during much of this period. Somehow we know that gradually between 3000 and 2000 the Sumerians went from being the majority in the cities of Sumer, to being a likely minority (though still culturally and to some extent politically dominant). By 1800 BCE it is likely that Sumerian was a dead language (one can't dismiss the possibility of Sumerian speaking communities here and there, but they're gone from the written record).

So what happened? The gradualism is of particular interest to me, and the likely concentration of Sumerians in the cities. It seems plausible that because the Sumerians were the first to settle in the cities, and concentrate disproportionately within them, natural increase would have been reduced for them relative to less urban populations. The slow replacement by Semitic speakers may have been due to the fact that Semitic speakers had a demographic reservoir which the Sumerians did not. There is of course a way to balance this out, and that is cultural assimilation. It seems likely that this did occur, but for some reason this was not a powerful enough effect so as to prevent the Semitic takeover. Or was it? 1,000 years is a long time. For all we know the Sumerians may have arrived as a small minority form the outside, and their lasting 1,000 years, as well as leaving a cultural impact which redounded down the generations, was a rather good show. That being said, I do wonder if the edifice of cultural complexes were more primitive during the time of Sumer than they became later, as the long road of cultural evolution of written & institutional civilization was only beginning.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bye bye Kalash! It was good while it lasted....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:39:00 PM

Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we're talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual ("rational") choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I've noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism's initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the "upper middle classes" (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I've read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran's peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they'll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They're a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander's sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Civilization saved the Church?   posted by Razib @ 9/20/2009 12:39:00 AM

One question which I have touched upon repeatedly is why is it that in some regions languages of elites replace those of the populace, and in other regions the inverse occurs? This is one reason why I'm very interested in genetic studies of populations, they add a new dimension to the large set of often confusing, contradictory and cloudy "facts" we have on hand. Among Anatolian Turks for example there is still a noticeable imprint of East Eurasian ancestry, though by & large it seems that Anatolian Turks are the descendants of those acculturated to a Turkish identity from a Greek, Armenian or Kurdish past (the main qualification is that I have read, though am not sure as to the veracity of the claims, that large numbers of Orthodox Christian Turkish speakers who switched language, but not religion, have been totally Hellenized after the exchange of populations). In contrast it is difficult to find any genetic evidence that the Magyars actually settled among the peoples of what is today Hungary (Pannonia), even though their origin was likely from the Volga region (some of the difference might simply be that it is harder to detect deviations from expectation if the Magyars were more similar to the peoples of Pannonia than the Turks were to the natives of Anatolia, as is likely the case).

In the lands of the former Roman Empire most of the Latin domains quickly assimilated the Germanic military elites to the native culture, in both religion & language. There are two glaring exceptions to this: Britain & the Balkans. Several years ago I read The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, and I began thinking of the processes described in this book when reading the chapter on post-Roman Britain in The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. To my mild pleasure I then came upon this passage:
This model for the Anglo-Saxon settlements, which I broadly accept, thus has the invaders settling in the very small groups, initially covering ahandful of local communities for the mostpart, which could as in Wales, be called tribal. Political leadership would have been very simple and informal, though of course necessarily military, for a fragmented conquest is still a conquest. THis picture further fits with the archaeolgy of early Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries, which shows a very simple material culture, far simpler in every respect than that found anywhere in the ex-Roman Continent outside the Balkans.

My pleasure was not due to excitement about the collapse of Roman civilization. Rather, it was that I had anticipated an analogy which the author later spotlighted, suggesting to me that the correspondence is striking enough to be obvious to independent observers. What occurred by and large in the Balkans, and to an even greater extent in Britain, is that the complex of literate Roman city-centered society yielded to decentralized village-based societies, and barbarism seems to assimilated the peasants left behind after the withdrawal of the Imperial forces. Though one can find some evidence of exogenous genetic input indicating non-trivial population movements, especially in Britain, it does not seem that the native substrate was replaced in the majority across these regions (see the links here). In Britain the old models of pots-not-peoples seems falsified by suggestive gradients of alleles of Germanic provenance from East Anglia, the Dark Age "Saxon Shore." But, in terms of total genome content the English as a whole seem to resemble the other peoples of the British Isles more than they do the populations of northern Germany (though again, there are regional variations within England, with East Anglia and the former "Danelaw" showing signs of the more recent gene flow). In the Balkans genetic relationships between populations seem to follow geography more than language; the Bulgarians resemble Romanians, not the Czechs, who are close to the Hungarians.

And yet despite the genes there was a massive cultural discontinuity between Roman Britain and the Balkans, and what came after. It is now fashionable to assert that the Roman world "transformed," and did not "fall," after 476. This view seems least defensible in the case of these two regions. Not only did Romanitas disappear, but the physical character of these societies as evident from the archaeology show rupture and regression. The fall of Roman Britain can be pegged to a specific date, 410, when the legions were recalled to the continent. This did not mean that the barbarian hordes struck immediately, rather, in the decades after political fragmentation and a reassertion of the native Celtic tribal traditions seem to have occurred. In The Inheritance of Rome the author suggests that the political prominence of what were once marginal regions, Wales and southern Scotland, is a reflection of the fact that these areas held the deepest stores of Celtic tribal cultural capital which might fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Latin civilization. To battle a militarized society one requires a militarized society, and the peoples of the Celtic marchlands fit that bill. It is here that there is a contrast between Britain and the Balkans: Britain was far less Latinized than the Balkans. Latinization had proceeded in Spain, Gaul (France) and the Balkans to the point that ib these regions the natives were initially termed "Romans" by barbarian conquerors. The persistence of Latin-derived languages in the Balkans into the modern era is also witness to the thoroughness of Latinization. Romanian, the persistence of the Vlachs, as well as the recently extinct language of Dalmatian can not be ignored. Of course Greece and the region around Constantinople were presumably Greek speaking. And there were obviously regions where the ancestor of Albanian was spoken. But it seems likely that Latin was the dominant language among the peasants across much of the Balkans, most certainly above the Jirecek Line. Justinian the Great, the last East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor who spoke Latin as a first language, was born near Skopje, the capital of modern day Macedonia. In Britain the working assumption is that the peasantry spoke a Celtic language related to modern Welsh, though the elite used Latin frequently, and Latin was the dominant written language. Though the Celtic inhabitants of Britain had adopted many Roman customs, they remained Britons, while the Thracians, Illyarians, Dacians, etc., of the Balkans had adopted Roman ways to the point where they termed themselves Roman.

There was also another difference between the British and Balkan case, in the former instance Roman influence disappeared for centuries (only to reappear via the Franks in the early 7th century), while in the latter the lines of Imperial control washed over barbarized regions many times over the centuries. In The Fall of the Roman Empire Peter Heather contends that the northern Balkans were effectively lost in the early 5th century to barbarians as a sort of "No Man's Land" where city-based civilization simply was untenable. But by the late 5th to 6th centuries it seems that the Empire reasserted its control and pushed secure boundaries out toward the Danube. By the year 600 almost the whole of the Balkan interior excepting Greece itself was lost to the Avars (see A History of Byzantine State & Society). The period between the collapse of Roman control of the interior and the later medieval emergence of nations which we would recognize such as the Serbs and Bulgarians is unclear and to a great extent lost to history. There were indications and references of massive Slavic migrations, though these groups were usually under the hegemony of non-Slavic groups such as the Avars and Bulgars. But as I pointed out above, the primary predictive variable of genetic change in the Balkans is geography, not language (this does not mean that language has no effect, I am simply suggesting that outsiders do not seem to have totally replaced the local population in toto).

With this general sketch in place, let's move to the similarities. Britain, in particular the regions which became England, and the Balkans were barbarized and descended into a "Dark Age" in a classic sense (obviously I exclude the persistent arc of city-based culture which clung to the coasts and exhibited some depth in Greece in the case of the Balkans). Writing disappears. The local language is replaced (though with important exceptions in the Balkans). And Christianity also fades. The replacement of Celtic language with Anglo-Saxon dialects was so total, with so little borrowing, that the model of replacement does not seem totally implausible. Archaeologists have also uncovered extreme discontinuities in more prosaic aspects of culture such as how farmsteads are laid out. But as I said above from what I can tell the genetic data point to Anglo-Saxon input of only a minority, if a substantial one at that with local concentrations, across England. We are then faced with the possibility that the local Romano-British elites, along with the more thoroughly Celtic peasants, assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon culture (there are textual indications of the persistence of British subjects of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England into the era of the Venerable Bede, see Norman Davies' The Isles). The genetic data indicate the same in the Balkans, though here I am less familiar with the research, and it seems much thinner than in reference to the British for social and political reasons (i.e., British people are interested in their genetic history and can fund that interest).

In The Early Slavs the author argues that the natives simply went barbarian. Though Roman civilization was predominantly peasant-based, and caught in a Malthusian trap, it was still quantitatively different in terms of its economic and social complexity from those of societies beyond the limes (see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization). The cultural toolkit of Slavic tribes pushing into the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of Roman rule was far simpler than that which had been dominant prior to their arrival. In a localized world shorn of Roman networks of trade it may be that peasants saw in the barbarian culture something more adaptable and appropriate in light of the new structural conditions of their lives. On the margins of subsistence perhaps those who shed affiliation with what was now a distant political power fared best. The same may have been true for the Celtic peasants who lived under Anglo-Saxon rulers, and tilled the soil with Anglo-Saxon immigrants (the weregild for Celts in Anglo-Saxon Britain was less than for Anglo-Saxons, so the incentives were strong to switch if possible). We have copious data in the case of local elites who assimilate to the norms and values of their barbarian conquerors in the post-Roman states of the West (e.g., Romans of senatorial background like Cyprian, rival of Boethius, raising sons with a strongly Gothic cultural orientation), as well as the Visigothic elites conquered by Muslim Arabs & Berbers (who were at that point barbarians). But that is a function of the fact that the elites are literate, or employ those who are literate, and leave hallmarks of cultural shifts in their correspondences or actions.

This brings me to the title of the post. It is classic chestnut of wisdom that the Christian Church was the vessel which preserved elements of classical civilization for posterity through the Dark Ages. This model is tendentious, in large part because partisan Christians and anti-Christians wish to come to different conclusions, select their data, and cull their analysis, until they arrive at the inferences which they prefer. It is a dodge to admit that the issue is complex, but dodge I will. Rather, let us note that religion, and religious institutions, have been powerful forces across history. It seems rather obvious that "higher religions" have a strong cultural fitness advantage in any complex civilization. By higher religion, I refer to religious systems which combine primal religious sentiment with philosophical content as well as robust institutional organizations. Over the long term only higher religions can resist the spread of other higher religions. There are cases where non-higher religions can arrest or suspend the expansion of higher religions, but these are always temporary setbacks. Lithuania, Japan and Tibet are detailed case studies of temporary setbacks which only delayed the dominance of higher religions. Often higher religions imported from the outside stimulate the emergence of a complex literary society because of the need of a class of text oriented religious professionals to interpret the scriptures and commentaries which justify the existence of such institutions. In theory the Bible, the Koran, the Palin Canon, are causally prior to the variegated religious institutions which accumulate around them. In the model that the Roman Christian Church preserved Roman civilization the institution which arose due to the Christian scriptures as a side effect also served to maintain and perpetuate aspects of Roman culture which were not necessarily related to Christian religiosity (though naturally justifications were often presented as to why secular works were spiritually edifying or useful).

So why the inversion in my title? One cynical and obviously irreligious perspective contends that the specific belief content of higher religions is actually co-opted as a post facto rationale for organically emerging institutions which are products of complex societies. This can be approached from a religious perspective; many early Christian thinkers offered that a singular and unified political order was the ideal seedbed for a singular religion which expressed the fullness of truth (there are analogs to this sort of thinking among Buddhists when a potential chakravartin appears on the scene). The point is that higher religions seem to coexist with higher civilizations. In some cases they bring higher civilization to a lower one, and in other cases they are the products of higher civilizations (e.g., Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, Buddhism in the early phase of Indo-Aryan literate states in the Indian subcontinent).

But what if a higher civilization regresses to the state of a lower one? To some extent the collapse of the social and economic order in the Post-Roman world fits the bill, and Christianity remained a robust presence. But so did the Latin language in what became France, Spain and Italy. It is in these regions that the term "transformation" as opposed to "fall" apply the most. There was a shift away from direct taxation and toward what became feudalism, and an evolution from a civilian aristocracy into a military caste. Literacy became less prominent a feature of the cultural landscape, though it did not disappear (e.g., Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Boethius & Cassiodorus, the province of specialists rather than elites as a whole). But the contrast with the total collapse in what became England and the sharp reordering of the cultural landscape in the Balkans is obvious. The decline of Christianity (to the point of near total extinction in England) and the need for missionary efforts centuries after the collapse suggest to me that higher religion is not robust when higher civilization disappears.

I discount the suggestion that concerted persecution led to de-Christianization. Pagan societies and states did persecute Christians (or adherents of higher religions with foreign connections in general, such as the case with Buddhism in late Tang China), but on the whole they were more systematically tolerant of religious pluralism than civilizations where higher religions were dominant. Pagan Lithuania remained pagan for a relatively long time in part because it lay between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, and conversion to either religion would have aligned it with one of the states irrevocably (Lithuania eventually became Catholic and was absorbed into the Polish political and cultural orbit). But during the period when this state remained officially pagan large numbers of Christians were under Lithuanian rule, and at the height of the state the majority of the population was no doubt Christian, as were large numbers of Lithuanian nobles. There are many other examples which illustrate the trend whereby pagan persecution of adherents of higher religions is sporadic and situational, and not persistent, structural and systematic, so I won't belabor the point.

What I am positing then is that the process of barbarization led not just to the discarding of language, but also of Christian religion, in both England the Balkans. In France, Spain and Italy the pagan or heretic (Arian) rulers of predominantly Catholic populations acceded to the religious sentiments of the ruled. In the Balkans and England it seems that the rulers had no such inclination, and the institutional framework of the Christian Church simply withered without the proper structural preconditions. There are cases where even Christian rulers can be paganized by their population, as seems to have occurred with Samo. Protestant critics of the depth of Catholic Christianization of illiterate peasants in Medieval Europe have already assembled a large amount of scholarship which allows us to comprehend how nominal Christians might shift their identity to that of identified pagans. The Christian priesthood was also often illiterate and quite ignorant of the details of their religion during this period (though sometimes the deviation was from the other end, an archbishop of Toulouse in the 18th century was a materialist and atheist, see The Pursuit of Glory). Here is a quote from The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914:
...While roughly a third of village schools were run by the Orthodox Church, the priests had little influence on their flock. They were themselves hardly more than peasants and were deeply ignorant; studying theology and doctrine were the domain of the robed 'black clergy' in the monasteries, who fulfilled no pastoral duties. Knowledge of the Christian doctrine was therefore minimal, as Maksim Gorky heard from a Kazan peasant, who said that God 'cannot be everywhere at once, too many men hae been born fro that., But he will succeed, you see. But I can't understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned. There is no God and that's enough. But there's another! The son, they say. So what if he's God's son. God isn't dead, not that I know of'

This describes late 19th century Russia, but I have read similar accounts from Prussian peasants of the 18th century who were left without a pastor for a generation because of a bureaucratic problem. These peasants' worldviews were only recorded because there was an inquisition into their beliefs after the burial of a bull which occurred in the locality to ensure a good harvest (the peasants' rationale was quite inchoate, but the burial of bulls was actually a custom of the Baltic peoples of that region, so I suspect the reemergence of the practice reflected folktales which had preserved fragments of the old religion). Books such as Theological Incorrectness report data that illustrate the reality that cross-culturally most lay persons exhibit religious sentiments and intuitions which are roughly the same. A tendency to "default" toward animism when philosophical religion disappears because of a lack of institutional support shouldn't be too surprising.

With all that said, it is understandable then why higher religion goes extinct with a regression to barbarism, just as literacy, civilized arts and economies of scale go into decline. What I am contending then is that the suggestion that Christianity was responsible for the perpetuation of classical high culture is incoherent, the same level of civilizational complexity which would allow for the perpetuation of classical high culture in some form may also be necessary for the perpetuation of Christianity! What if Constantine had lost at Milvian Bridge? If you are familiar with Rodney Stark's oeuvre then you will respond that this was irrelevant, and perhaps even counterproductive, as Christianity was a bottom-up movement with a better religious product which was inevitably going to become dominant. Looking from the year 300 I think that this is a defensible position. But years ago I read an alternative history short story which posits that Europe would be dominated by illiterate savages if Maxentius had defeated Constantine. This is fictionalization, but lays out the extreme case that but for Christianity Rome & Greece would have been lost forever. As it is, I think that this is likely wrong. Chinese civilization persisted after the collapse of the Han even though that polity did not have an organized religion like Christianity (in fact, Buddhism as a foreign religion spread after the fall of the Han and influenced indigenous religious traditions such as Daoism into competitive imitation). As a point of fact, it was the pagan Sabians of Haran who were heavily overrepresented in the translation of Greek classics in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs because the Sabians revered ancient pagan works. Haran's paganism was a historical accident, as they were protected by the Persian Shahs from forced conversion by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. If Christianity had not become the dominant religion of the Roman world I suspect some other religious system would have become the vessel for classical culture. Higher civilization begets higher religion, or adopts higher religion.

Simple models of causality in the social or historical realm assume the unproblematic teasing apart of variables. Many anti-religionists assert that all evil done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. Many religionists assert that all good done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. I think both views are probably wrong. Religion may be the root of some evil and the root of some good, but I doubt it is the root of all good or evil, and I believe we tend to overestimate how much of a root it is in any specific behavior. Religious suicide bombing seems very comprehensible today, but the atheist anarchist movement of 19th century Russia also engaged in a great deal of suicidal terrorism.

The historical data I survey above tell me that there is a very easy way to destroy organized religion: destroy organization. That is what I believe occurred in Britain and the Balkans. Without scale, complexity and organization the Christian Church could not flourish. Even the bottom-up "Primitive Church" of the early Empire was likely dependent upon the structure which the Roman Empire provided. The Christianization of much of Europe after the fall of Empire was concomitant with the rise of complex polities which wished to integrate themselves into the Christian commonwealth of states, as well as the ambitions of kings who were eager to justify centralization of power into one individual with the ideology of one true religion. If globalization is here to the stay, then the global religions are here to stay. Additionally, the vast majority of the world religions all emerged in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD. We're probably at some sort of competitive equilibrium, and without some major exogenous shock it looks like the market is saturated.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

The rise of the South (China)   posted by Razib @ 9/10/2009 06:32:00 PM

Just wanted to put some concrete data from China's Cosmopolitan Empire out there. Most people know that the Tang Dynasty witness the rise of South China, defined as the Yantgze river valley and on south, as the economic and demographic engines of China (though arguably the plains around the Yellow river remained the cultural and political heart of China). There were several censuses across Chinese history.

- Between the census of 742 and 1080 the population of North China rose by ~25%. The population of South China rose by ~325%. The reasons for this are many, but one of the primary ones was the introduction and improvement upon of Champa rice (the pre-Champa strains dominant at the beginning of the Tang died out by the Song Dynasty).

- The transformation of South China from isolated cities and a few densely populated pockets of cultivation,(e.g, around lake Tai) to a region where Han agriculture was omnipresent witnessed a shift from using animals (oxen, buffalo, etc.) to human labor.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When China contained the world   posted by Razib @ 9/09/2009 11:44:00 PM

The Tang Dynasty is to a great extent a contemporary favorite because of the norms of the modern day West. It was a notionally native dynasty which was also open to outside influences and was strengthened by its cosmopolitan tenor. The merit-based industry of the Song lacks scale and romantic glamor. The Ming withdrew from the world after the the voyages of Zheng He. And the Manchus were outsiders and so were more exotic than cosmopolitan. During the ancient Han Dynasty the Chinese were the world for all practical purposes.

This tendency of co-opting the Tang for modern needs, a case-study of China as a cosmopolitan empire, not only is flat and lacks nuance, but ignores other aspects of this period in Chinese history which Western moderns may find unappealing. The Tang were characterized by the dominance of aristocratic values, a cabal of elite noble lineages in the capital who for all practical purposes monopolized the bureaucracy. Its foreign conquests were often done via native proxies, and divide and conquer (sound familiar?). During the second half of the Tang period the dynasty was in decline, and was given to bouts of persecution of disfavored foreign religions (all except for Daoism), and massacres of foreigners. All this is not to say that the Tang were "bad." Or frankly "good." It seems that such judgments bear less fruit than a genuine descriptive examination of the history and culture of this distinctive period in Chinese history. That is what China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty does, even if the title naturally catches the attention of the typical Western reader.

I come to this with some knowledge of this region and period, having read works such as T'ang China: The Rise of the East in World History. A more accurate title for China's Cosmopolitan Empire might have been "China's Last Empire," insofar as I have pointed out before that the Manchu administered areas outside China proper differently from China for most of that dynasty's history. Of course the claim that the Tang are native, while the Manchu are foreign, is to some extent a matter of art. The Li family of the Tang dynasty likely emerged out of the milieu of partly barbarized borderland warlords who dominated north China after the fall of the Han. Likely they had Turk and Xianbei ancestors, and they maintained many of the customs and outlooks of these non-Han peoples. Emperor Taizong fought like a nomad when necessary with native skill. The early Tang developed symbiotic relationships with nomadic federations such as that of the Uyghurs to buttress their Empire and guard their borders, relationships cemented by the fact that the early Tang emperors could move with ease among the barbarians because of shared experiences, values and background. When Taizong broke the Turks he took upon himself a barbarian title in addition to his role as emperor of China, subsuming within himself what had previously been rival opposites. It is notable the early Tang apparently also practiced the horse sacrifice on occasion, a common feature of Central Eurasian societies.

Of course unlike the Manchu and the Yuan (Mongol) the Tang were not alien overlords despite their partial Central Eurasian provenance. The Li family claimed descent from Laozi, patronized Chinese high culture on a grand scale, and the emperors themselves were civilized aesthetes who produced original poetry. Unlike the Yuan and Manchu the non-Han populations which settled in China proper during the early generations of the Tang dynasty were not given a superior status to the natives, and on the contrary like the Li family themselves many of these individuals assimilated to a Han identity and constructed false genealogies to elide the fact of their foreign provenance. It would be wrong to suggest I think that the Tang produced a hybrid culture, rather, they fostered a cosmpolitanism with Chinese characteristics.

If you are reading this now likely you will have read my review of Empires of the Silk Road. It was fascinating to read China's Cosmopolitan Empire in the wake of that work because the intersection of concepts, facts and trends were palpable. The Tang dynasty was a period when China was a Central Eurasian power, operating in a three-way game with the Turks to the north and the Tibetans to the south. The scope of the Tang's reach is evident when one considers that in 751 Chinese proxy forces (there were very few Han in the notional Chinese force) were defeated by outriders of the Abbasid Caliphate along with their Tibetan allies at the river Talas. Up to this point Chinese and Muslim political and culture influence vied in the Fergana valley, which today spans parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is likely that the battle itself is important only in hindsight, but it marks a convenient turning point when Central Asia irrevocably shifted its focus west to the world of Islam, and lost its ancient connections to the east and China.

Those connections were not, and are not, trivial. The few generations of the Tang were at the tail end of what sometimes is termed the "Buddhist Age." During this period Buddhism served as a common cultural connection across much of Asia to the east of Persia. Though the city states of Central Asia were multireligious, it is arguable that Buddhism was the most prominent of those religions. It was from Central Asia that Buddhism arrived in China, and flourished in the centuries after the fall of Han. Though Buddhism was likely in decline relative to what we now term Hinduism in South Asia, it was still a relatively vital cultural force, and far more prevalent in what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in the east in Bengal. In Empires of the Silk Road Christopher Beckwith argues that many Indian concepts and institutions which came to shape Islamic culture during the Abbasid Caliphate were actually transmitted via Buddhism (it is clear that there were Buddhists in Sindh when the Arab armies conquered it). The Barmakid family which was extremely powerful during the early years of the Abbasids was of course from the Buddhist priesthood of Balkh. And just as ideas flowed west from Buddhist northwest India, so they flowed east from Buddhist Central Asia. Indian Buddhist eminences also took the route through Central Asia to China to spread their teachings or aid in translations. During these early centuries Buddhism was an exotic foreign religion in China, not indigenized, and the Silk Road was the vector via which came a stream of foreign sacred objects and texts from India. To the east the Silla kingdom of Korea and the Fujiwaras of Japan patronized Buddhism as part of their imperialistic project, resulting in several decades in which Buddhistmonks could take advantage of an international network which flowed uninterrupted from South Asia to Japan.

Of course very few Indian or Central Asia monks went to Japan. Rather, much more likely was that Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhists would meet in Chang'an, the capital of the Tang which also lay at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Though India was the Jerusalem of Buddhism, China quickly became its Rome and Constantinople. The process of indigenization of Buddhism in China was lent a helping hand by the armies of the caliphs, as the 7th century progressed the Muslims pushed into Afghanistan and the marches of South Asia, and conquered the Buddhist and Hindu kings who patronized the great monasteries. Prominent Buddhists, such as the Barmakid family, no doubt converted to Islam. With the Tang withdrawal from Central Asia after 750 Islam totally absorbed the former Buddhist city-states. The international was broken, and China had to rely on its own resources. It is an odd parallelism that to a great extent the eruption of Islam, and its absorption of the lands from with Europe and China were evangelized in their respective dominant institutional religions, led to the rise of a self-conscious Christian West and Buddhist East. Europe was the faith, and the faith was Europe, because Islam and swallowed whole the domains of eastern Christianity. Similarly, as the centuries progressed the holy sites of Buddhism were to fall under the sway of Islamicized Turkish warlords (this dynamic was unfortunately on display with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan).

But the resources of Buddhism in China were many. The Tang era is generally thought to be the period when Buddhism was most powerful and esteemed as an institutional religion across the Chinese class structure. The anti-Buddhist Confucian Han Yu was speaking from a position of weakness in relative comparison to the disdain or contempt which later Confucian scholars would exhibit toward Buddhism. It must also be noted that Buddhism was not officially the most favored religion during this period, Daoism was. One of the ways in which the Tang ruling family emphasized their Chinese character was their descent from Laozi, and they tacitly tolerated attacks upon Buddhism as a debased foreign religion which was inappropriate for the Chinese by prominent Daoists. This is a contrast to what occurred during the reign of Khubilai Khan, who favored the Buddhists and forced the Daoists to cease their attacks. Nevertheless, this is a case where the Tang did not eat their own dog food; Buddhism was patronized extensively, given favor, and the monasteries accumulated great wealth. The similarities to medieval Catholic Christianity are manifold, as bequests by wealthy individuals were often a form of operational tax evasion, and Tang armies marched with the blessing of Buddhist abbots. Buddhist ideas spread across China, and stories were told of how ignorant individuals were sent to hell for sacrificing animals to native gods. The monasteries became so powerful that during the later years of the dynasty there was a great persecution which ultimately destroyed Buddhism's status as an elite religion, and reserved for it the role of the opium of the masses. When the first Jesuits arrived in China they dressed as Buddhist priests to assimilate, but found they received no hearing from the powers that be. They were dismissed due to their low status as clerics in a popular religion. That is, Buddhism (in later years the Catholic missionaries tried very hard to make their religion distinctive from Pure Land Buddhism).

By the end of the Tang Buddhism was no longer a foreign religion which held some glamor for the elite. Rather, it was an indigenized popular cult. Tang cosmpolitanism seemed to exhibit a tendency whereby the foreign transmuted and became native. Whereas earlier rebellions relied on Daoism, institutional Buddhism became a new avenue for secret societies and organizations of sedition. In fact, during the 18th and 19th century Hui Islamic revivalists had to use terms derived from Pure Land Buddhism in the course of fomenting revolt because symbolism from that sect had percolated into the consciousness of the general Chinese population to the extent of it becoming common semantic currency. One aspect of the later Tang that led to the emergence of the Song which might be of foreign provenance was the rise of military bands cemented by bonds of fictive kinship. This is not a novel idea, as it as occurred in several societies, but in light of the central role of real kinship in the Confucian order, and the strong Turkic influence on the Tang, one has to wonder if this is the Central Eurasian comitatus emerging in a Chinese context, totally extracted and now assimilated. But one must not make too much of this, even if the Song Dynasty arose in part propelled by traditions and customs which the Tang imported from the steppe, it became the civilian Chinese dynasty par excellence.

This deeper texture often renders characterizations of cosmopolitan or xenophobic trite. A simple narrative of the Tang is that the period between 600 and 750 was one of cosmopolitan expansionism, while that after 750 was one of slow long xenophobic decline. Descriptively this is not false, but it is not as if China was insulated from the rest of the world, and moved along an endogenous track. The Buddhist Age, in which Tang China was the preeminent state, gave way after 750 to what was operationally an Islamic Age, when the Abbasid Caliphs were for one century near a world empire, from the borders of China to the margins of the Atlantic. The inward focus of the Tang was partially a function of a collapse of a greater world order which had nourished them and against which they had tested their mettle. The trade routes which allowed for the Sogdians to flourish frayed, with the arc of the Caliphate expanding outward and cutting the ties which bound the older civilized centers together. Though I am cautious about a hydraulic metaphor, it seems not too much a stretch that the rise of Islam and the decline of the Tang operated in concert.

Obviously I've just skimmed some interesting points in this book. I haven't discussed literature, city planning, rural life or the nature of the mercantile cities of the lower Yangtze. It's all in there and all worthy of note, but, I want to get back to the point about cosmpolitanism. There were many foreigners in China during this period. Tang Guangzhou was a city dominated by foreigners, with Arabs being especially prominent. In much of northern China Uyghurs dominated money-lending. There are many physical depictions of people of western Eurasian appearance in artifacts from the Tang period. Where are these people's genes? I pointed out that one problem with an Indo-European origin for ancient Chinese in Empires of the Silk Road is that the genetic data seem clear that the Han people are very distinct from those to the west. And, that groups like Uyghurs are recent hybridization events between two distinct gene pools from western and eastern Eurasia. There are isolated cases of prominent generals in ancient China who were of reputed western origin who turn out to have genes which indicate that they were western. But the modern data from China show very little (if any) western ancestry.

One immediately wonders about the adequacies of the samples we have now. The HapMap had 45 unrelated Chinese from Beijing. The overseas samples are mostly from people whose families are derived from Fujian or Guangdong. But what about Guangdong? Where did the foreigners in Guangzhou go? The easiest explanation is that they were all massacred as is described in the histories. But could all foreigners in China have been massacred? Were they all recognizably foreign? As it happens Chinese speaking Muslims carry a significant western quanta of ancestry, even if it is the minority. The origin stories for this group all derive from men who arrived from western Asia, so this stands to reason. And, it shows that western ancestry does exist in some Chinese populations in China proper. So is there another reason that it is not evident among the Han? I will give a reason that Greg Cochran gave years ago for why the area around Rome is not dominated by Greek genes: the foreigners lived in cities, and the cities were demographic sinks. The cultural cosmpolitanism of Tang China had important long term historical consequences. But its genetic cosmpolitanism was less significant because the locus of that cosmpolitanism was centered around evolutionary dead-ends. The cities of yore live on in faded memory, but their blood has long gone extinct.

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Super Y lineages over the past 10,000 years   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2009 03:45:00 PM

Dienekes posted a bunch of abstracts from the 2009 American Society of Human Genetics meeting. This one is of interest in light of recent posts on this weblog:
Some Y-chromosomal haplotypes have been found at unusually high frequencies in Asian and European human populations. The massive spreadof these lineages has been explained by the impact of social selection i.e.the high reproductive success of some males and their relative/descendants due to their high social status. The most well-known examples are the "Khan haplotype" and the "Manchou haplotype" in Asia, and the U’Neill haplotype in Ireland. But are these frequent haplotypes always associated with recentevents of social selection, or could they be linked to much older processes? To address this question, we have surveyed ~ 3500 males in 97 populationsfrom Turkey to Japan. We have focused on the 12 most frequently represented haplotypes in Eurasia and tested whether their expansions are linked to a specific factor such as language or subsistence methods. Our results show that both recent and ancient processes are responsible for the expansions of these lineages. The recent expansions (2000-3000 years) likely to be linked to social selection are prevalent in Altaic-speaking and pastora lpopulations. This might indicate a recent cultural change in the social organizationof these populations. The ancient expansions (8000-10000 years) are over-represented in Indo-European speaking and sedentary farmer populations,and are likely to be the result of the Neolithic transition.

Asymmetries between male and female lineages are always of interest. For example, diversity of Y and mtDNA correlates well with patrilocality vs. matrilocality. The idea of "super-male" lineages was mooted by Bryan Sykes several years ago in the wake of the "Genghis Khan haplotype", though it benefited from particular preconceptions many have about the nature of male genetic reproductive fitness. But it is likely that these dynamics vary by population due to ecological and/or social parameters. The time window for the expansion of Y lineages among Altaic speakers is very suggestive in light of historical records and archaeological data. It seems that early on (i.e., before 500 BCE) horse-based nomadism was dominated by Indo-Europeans, predominantly Iranians, in Eurasia. In the few centuries before Christ the populations of the eastern steppe, the precursors of Altaic language families, adopted this lifestyle, and to a great extent superseded the Iranian populations across the length and breadth of the non-sedentary zone over the next 1,500 years (the fact that the Ossetians are now a people who reside in the Caucasus is illustrative of the great retreat of Iranian peoples on the steppe). I have suggested that there is a winner-take-all dynamic in regards to steppe polities, and I suspect this will be reflected in the genetics of male lineages as well.

* It is notable that Ireland was to a great extent a pastoralist society during the period of domination by the Ui Neill .

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Who's the barbarian now? Empires of the Silk Road   posted by Razib @ 9/02/2009 01:00:00 AM

If there is one word that is applicable to Empires of the Silk Road, Christopher I. Beckwith's magnum opus, it would be dense. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is a complement of similar density and topical intersection (they do not quite overlap, and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is missing from the bibliography of Empires of the Silk Road). A quick perusal of Beckwith's ouvre shows that he writes history from the center. What we might term the Ecumene he calls the "periphery." Page after page he defends the "barbarians" of the Heartland against the slander of peripheral scribblers. Though in the introduction the author takes a stand against both the Whiggishness of much of Modernism and the vacuous relativism of Post-Modernism, this work is clearly written as something of a corrective, not an objective treatment where all scales are balanced with care, caution and precision.

One of the themes of Empires of the Silk Road which distinguishes it from most pre-modern history is its mobility, scope and breadth, of space. A history of ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire spans centuries, and even millennia. But their geographic expanse is limited. Roman expeditions to eastern Germany shock and surprise, but the Roman Empire was fundamentally a polity of the western periphery of Eurasia. In contrast Beckwith's subject matter naturally pushes the boundaries to a far greater extent. For example, the flight of the Avars, who dominated what is today Hungary for several centuries, covers from what is today Mongolia to the Danubian plain in less than 10 years! It is a common assert that before the modern era a typical human would be born, live and die with a 10 mile radius. The exact number of miles is irrelevant, the moral is that one wishes to project a sense of incredible spatial stasis which we modern people could not comprehend. Similarly, the fashion in archaeology to assert that a shift in culture as evident through artifact is never through migration, but always through communication, internalizes this assumption. But the reality is that this assumption is only valid for the vast peasantry of peripheral societies (if even there), not for hunter-gatherers, nomads and those who practice mixed-lifestyles. In other words, not for the peoples of the Eurasian Heartland which is the subject of Empires of the Silk Road. The very high likelihood that much of what we today call Xinjiang was inhabited by peoples of Western provenance is one of those "mysteries of the ancient world" which surprises us, but that's because we're the descendants of peasants who are conditioned to assume that pre-moderns were immobile! Conversely, the descriptions of some of the more exotic nomadic groups which arrived on the Central European plain after the collapse of the Roman Empire strongly hint at an East Eurasian provenance for an element of these hordes (the physical characterizations of the Huns and Avars seem qualitativey different from that of Scythians and Samartians).

There are two great pulses, Volkerwanderung, which loom large in Beckwith's narrative, that of the Indo-Europeans and of the Turks. The former is always much more difficult than the latter because in the case of the Turks we have copious records from other groups as to their appearance on the margins of major civilized states. In contrast, when the Indo-Europeans were on the march there was very little widespread literacy, and what there was was often devoted to the kind tedious accounting which dominate the Linear B tablets. The model in Empires of the Silk Road seems to lean strongly on Robert Drews' The Coming of the Greeks, chariot riding martial elites swooping down on the settled peripheral civilizations from the Eurasian Heartland, and rapidly generating synthetic creole cultures in a matter of centuries if not decades. In Beckwith's telling the Indo-Europeans mastered the horse and chariot, and used these technological advances to take over civilized states, though he suggests that instead of full-frontal attack the norm would much more likely be that warbands were invited or their services purchased by the settled elites. Only after this period service would the Indo-European warriors rebel and take over the reigns of power (think the takeover of Britain by Anglo-Saxons after their having been brought over as mercenaries by native warlords). This specific model of servitude is assumed to be an instantiation of a general dynamic which characterizes the ethos of the Heartland, fealty of the comitatus to a leader who they will follow 'till death. We are familiar with this in its classical form among the Mongols or the Japanese samurai, but Beckwith suggests that Islamicized Turks and Christianized Franks continued to express some of the values of this ethos even after repudiation of its more extreme aspect of collective suicide in case of the death of the leader. This sort of non-kin based group cohesion can often be very powerful, and even if it is the exception historically in many societies, these exceptional periods can sometimes serve as hinges which determine the course of nations. The Arabs are a kin-based society, but the presence of non-kin among the Muhajirun, and the obvious non-kin status of the Ansar, is notable as it was they who helped Muhammad rise to power. Though the early Muslim movement was co-opted by the Umayyad clan, it nevertheless relied on an esprit de corps which was not kin-based in its early decades (though it was to a great extent ethnically based, see The Great Arab Conquests).

Though the effect of the chariot in the short term, and Indo-European languages in the long term, are not dismissed, one of the interesting suggestions made in Empires of the Silk Road is that perhaps more critical is the role that Indo-European nomads, and perhaps in particular North Iranians, played as facilitators, communicators and even originators, of ideas and technologies across Eurasia. It is not an exaggeration to note that sometimes Beckwith seems to see Indo-Europeans everywhere. The most controversial and perhaps tendentious claim (which he admits is not the scholarly consensus) is that Indo-Europeans may have played an essential formative role in the emergence of Shang & Zhou China. In particular, it is known that some elements of the culture of the Shang elite is of western origin, in particular the style of chariot warfare. It is also known that the Zhou were a semi-barbarian group from western China, and Beckwith makes a philological argument that the maternal lineage of the Zhou are not Tibetan barbarians, but Indo-European ones. He even goes so far as to offer that perhaps the original Chinese language was Indo-European, now overlain by the indigenous substrate so as to be unrecognizable. I find this last to be rather implausible, but then I know little philology so I can't critique it technically. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we know that Indo-Europeans were a presence in ~2000 BCE in what is today western China, and some aspects of technology were transmitted from them. My skepticism is partly due to the fact that the Han populations of China are genetically very distinct from those of West and Central Eurasia. The Europoid remains from Xinjiang have had enough of their DNA extracted so as that we know that on many genes where Europeans and Chinese are disjoint in frequency, so were they. Additionally, some historical remains of individuals who were claimed to be of western origin have been analyzed, and yes, they were West Eurasian. The thinness of distinctive West Eurasian genes in China proper, genes which are found in abundance among the Uighurs, shows that there were limits to the genetic admixture in this case, to the point where the indigenous substrate totally absorbed and marginalized the exogenous input. This may explain why even if Indo-European warbands had a critical role to play as a cultural stimulus among the elites of the North China plain they seem to have left a rather marginal biological impact.

The contrast with India is illustrative, as there are candidates for genes which the Indo-Europeans brought. Not only that, but the sex asymmetry in terms of genome content is very striking in South Asia, exactly in the direction which Beckwith would argue insofar as they are roving bands of males who engage in societal takeover. India naturally does seem to have a highly creolized culture, most manifest in the Indo-Aryan languages of northern India which show many hallmarks of being the synthetic product of local dialects and an intrusive language. The author barely even manages to conceal his contempt for South Asian nationalists who make arguments to the effect that Aryans were indigenous to South Asia. I think that though the tone could have been a bit more scholarly, anyone who looks as the total range of data from all Indo-European traditions can not escape the conclusion that the probability that Indo-Europeans originated in South Asia is very low, to the point of triviality. He exhibits the same attitude toward those who argue for a deep history of Indo-Europeans in Greece or Anatolia, sentiments with which I sympathize and am in general agreement, but, I would have liked the arguments sketched out in more detail rather than asserted blithely (the footnotes on this topic often don't satisfy since Beckwith cites his future work!).

One interesting facet of the story in Empires of the Silk Road seems to be the winner-take-all and positive-feedback-loop dynamic which reoccurs. The spread of the Indo-European languages is rather amazing, and invites more scholarly interest, but that is not where the story stops. Beckwith notes that for much of antiquity the heart of Asia was dominated by one group of Indo-Europeans, the Northern Iranians. The term "Iranian" here is something of a misnomer, as groups such as Scythians, Samartians and Alans may have had little to do with the contemporary Iran. Rather, the peoples of modern Iran speak a language which is related to the dialects of the Scythians. Up until fall of Rome the Northern Iranian nomads drove all others before them. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Iranians displaced the Indo-Aryans from the plateau of what later became Persia, and Herodotus seems to describe peoples under Scythian hegemony who would later become Slavs and Balts.

This winner-take-all dynamic repeats with the Turks, who swept the Iranians from the plains of Central Eurasia after marginalizing other groups such as the Avars in their climb to the top. What was so special about the Turks? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps to some extent this is a stochastic process which is characterized by positive-feedback-loops, someone has to win, and winners become even more powerful over the course of time. Eventually these great confederations which have eaten dozens of other smaller confederations expand until they lap up against the margins of peripheral civilizations, at which point the scribes of the settled marvel as to the savage superhuman nature of the nomads at the gates. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World the author clearly implies that Temujin's personal qualities were essential in allowing for the mobilization of the whole Mongol nation. He notes in particular his rejection of kin-based favoritism and elevation of his comitatus (he does not use that word, but same difference) as critical ingredients in scaling up the Mongol war-machine. But do note that the Mongols had risen before, under Genghis Khan's great-grandfather Khabul Khan, and been crushed by the Tatars. Perhaps Khabul Khan had all the necessary personal qualities, but the fates did not smile upon him, and now he is simply a footnote in history. The domain of the Goturks in the 6th century was nearly was expansive as that of Genghis Khan in his lifetime, but most readers of this weblog are likely unaware of the Goturks. Why? Some of this is simply that the Goturks crested at a lower maximum of territory, but some of it is simply that in the mid-500s much of peripheral civilization was in low ebb and so the Goturks did not come into conflict with the lettered lands (in fact, the Turks were often used sought out as allies against the true barbarians at the gates).

What I'm trying to say about the importance of positive-feedback-loops is not going to shock and surprise anyone. The larger the Roman or Persian Empire got, the more resources were at their disposal. So the more likely victory against other powers became (though at a certain point holding territory becomes more difficult due to diminishing returns on force projection with more numbers). But the parameters are somewhat different in the center. Rome took centuries to reach its "climax" configuration under Augustus (with only changes at the margins under Trajan, etc.). In contrast, most of the area of the Mongol Empire was conquered within 20 years. 30 years after the death of Genghis Khan Baghdad was sacked, and 50 years later all of China was finally conquered. It is understandable why the rate of conquest slowed as the Mongols pushed into the periphery; capture of the territory of nomads by nomads is far different from the taking and holding of cities, or the pacification of mountains. But winner-take-all dynamics on the plains of Eurasia did result in a series of polities which had the numbers and expertise to learn the game of peripheral states, and beat them at it, repeatedly. The Mongols famously learned siege warfare in in the process of conquering China, while the Ottomans hired European gunners, and the Huns made recourse to infantry in forested regions. But the size of their forces due to winner-take-all dynamics, and the cohesion of the comitatus, served them in good stead until the natural decay of soft civilization set in.

About which, Christopher Beckwith has serious objections to the characterizations which posit dichotomies between the soft sedentary and barbarian hardy nomads. He correctly points out that most "nomads" were not pure nomads, but lived a mixed lifestyle (hunting, herding and farming). Additionally, there's plenty of evidence that disgruntled peasants could turn roving brigand when authority was disrupted. So the boundaries between the two are not so clear cut (also, whole populations seem to have switched between settled farming and nomadic animal husbandry several times). The idea of the nomad as the born warrior is also exaggerated, and Beckwith points out the widespread literary evidence which attest to the love of luxury and laziness of the nomad populations (they're humans). And as evidence of the hardiness of peasants, he offers the examples of the citizen soldiers of Republican Rome (before Marius' reforms) and the Greek hoplites who formed the famous phalanx. Good points all, but Beckwith protests too much. He asserts repeatedly that the peoples of Central Eurasia tended to be larger and more well fed than the peasants of the periphery. Why? In a pre-modern society the population would push up against the Malthusian limit, so why were the nomads larger? To some extent this was a function of their higher quality diet in regards to meat and milk, but one might suppose that another issue was that there were greater ecological fluctuations which culled the nomad populations in a manner which was more extreme than among peasants. I bring this hypothesis up because in Empires of the Silk Road this particular problem, starvation due to theft of livestock of their deaths (disease?) is introduced as one issue which made the life of the nomad more uncertain than that of the peasant. But another factor may simply be interpersonal violence on the plains. If the peasant toiled on the margins under the boot of their sedentary nobles, they were often shielded from the sort of violence we read about in the raids common among herders. These facts lead me to contend that that Beckwith overemphasizes the symmetry between nomad and peasant when it comes to their viability as fighters. Finally, I think the body of evidence implies that nomadic populations did mobilize a greater fraction of their able bodied males in organized violence than peasant-based societies (consider Imperial Rome with its professionalized army). This would naturally give the average nomadic male more martial skills simply through experience.

Before I go to the most explosive contentions of Empires of the Silk Road, let me address a peculiar set of chapters near the end of the book. These chapters throw repeated polemical salvos at "Modernism." They attack populism, democracy, and the overall degeneracy of contemporary "high culture." Though they make the factual observation that the old architecture and traditions of Central Eurasia have been totally decimated by Modernist ideology, specifically Communism, the bigger issue here seems to be that Christopher Beckwith objects vociferously to the general slant of the Modernist era in culture. Though I have some sympathy with this, these sections of the book read rather uncomfortably next to the great mass of erudite, if assertive, scholarship which is the majority of the narrative. It is clear that Beckwith believes that Modernism is a base expression of human preferences, and that our better nature has its origins in the genius of the Heartland.

About that genius, the proposition is forwarded by Beckwith that the philosophical production of the Axial Age may have something to due to the facilitative or even original contributions of the peoples of Central Eurasia. As noted above these were peoples who could span great distances in short periods of time, so in some ways it is plausible that they would be the "Pony Express" of their age. Beckwith notes that at least one philosopher who resettled in Greece was Scythian, so the peoples of the Steppe may have been familiar with philosophy. Some of the ideas originated by the Greeks, Indians and Chinese seem eerily similar, while the religious genius of the Jews and ancient Iranians was also operative during this period. Zoroaster is likely a figure of Central Eurasia, not the sedentary world of Fars.

The simultaneous aspect of the Axial Age is rather peculiar. If you are a theist who believes in an active God this is one historical epoch which would seem a likely candidate for divine intervention. Barring that, though I am not convinced by Beckwith's hypothesis, I think a less ambitious model which posits the Central Eurasians not as drivers but as enablers of the spread of ideas is plausible. The civilized areas of the periphery were expanding during this period so they would be in more intimate contact with the Heartland than before, and also naturally more culturally productive because of gains of efficiency due to scale. There are cases later in history where the trade routes and peoples of Central Eurasia were critical in the spread of ideas: Buddhism became a religion of East Asia almost certainly through the cities of Central Eurasia. Islam also spread through the same trade routes, from the Crimean Tatars in the west to the Uighurs in the east. Finally, as Arnold Toynbee observed Far Eastern Christianity spread along these routes, during the time of Genghis Khan most of the tribes of western Mongolia was nominally of Nestorian Orthodox Christian affiliation.

In keeping with Beckwith's thesis that in the period between 2000-1000 BCE a series of cultures arose as syntheses between Indo-Europeans and the sedentary polities of distant antiquity he concludes that Central Eurasians are the spiritual ancestors of modern people, and not the Sumerians, or Egyptians, or the people of the Indus Valley civilization. This is naturally a contentious point. It is for example often noted that of the gods of ancient Greece only Zeus is of undisputed Indo-European origin, even the Mycenaean Greeks may mostly have been culturally indigenized! (or barely Indo-Europeanized if you invert it) Buddhism, arguably India's most impacting cultural export, has been argued by many scholars to be one example of a reemergence of some of South Asia's indigenous religious strands after a period of Vedic Indo-Aryan cultural domination. And so on. I can grant that the ethos of the Heartland was powerful, the expanse of the Indo-European and Turkic languages are manifest evidence of this, but I am not eager to abandon one biased narrative from another. The nature of modern civilization, and its antecedents, are complex. Empires of the Silk Road is admirable at exploring one particular neglected strand, but I'd rather not turn that tree into the forest just yet.

Note: I want to emphasize that did not touch upon many aspects of Christopher Beckwith's argument. When I say that the book is dense, I mean it is dense.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Empires of the Silk Road   posted by Razib @ 8/30/2009 11:44:00 PM

I'm now reading Empires of the Silk Road. I'm about 2/3 of the way through the main text, and being slowed down by the fact that I keep reading the footnotes on almost every page. Additionally, there are 40 pages or so of endnotes which I haven't gotten to yet, but each one reads like a very interesting blog post (I do not refer to it as such to cast aspersions but praise!). I'll probably have my full thoughts up in a few days. It has a little less ecology and archaeology than I'd like so far, but the density of fact is pretty awesome (The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a book where the opposite is the case, it could have been about half as long due to its repeated exposition of the same series of facts with a slight twist). There are some issues where genetics might offer a slightly different perspective than the author, and I'll definitely mention that....


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lives of the ancients   posted by Razib @ 8/25/2009 10:45:00 AM

John Hawks has a long post on ancient lifespans. It seems likely that the range has not shifted much, though the shape of the distribution naturally has. Child mortality has obviously declined, but it seems likely that death at any given age in adulthood has probably decreased as well. But for what it's worth, several of the Roman Emperors from aristocratic backgrounds whose ages are probably reliable and died natural deaths expired at an advanced age. Augustus at 76, Tiberius at 77, Claudius 63 (there is debate whether he died a natural death), Vespasian 69, Nerva 67, Trajan 63, Hadrian 62, Antinuous Pius 74 and Marcus Aurelius 58. As most of you probably know, hell broke loose after Aurelius at many Emperors did not die of natural causes until the late 3rd century after his reign. Note that some of these Emperors, such as Nerva or Vespasian, were already at very advanced ages when they came to power, so there is probably some selection effect at work in terms of age at death. Vespasian's son Titus died of fever at the age of 41.

H/T Dienekes.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The origins of China   posted by Razib @ 8/23/2009 08:01:00 PM

Until the overthrow of the Manchus in the early 20th century the Chinese political-cultural system had exhibited an incredible amount of continuity for over 2,000 years, from the Qin and Han dynasties on. It seems a defensible position that just as the Mycenaean Greeks of 3,200 years ago were cultural aliens to Western elites in a way that the Classical Greeks of 2,500 years ago were not, so the Chinese bureaucrats could see themselves in the lettered gentry of 500 B.C.E, but not among the warlords of 1200 B.C.E, thanks to the crystallization of the canon during this critical axial age.

But the Greeks of the Classical period did not emerge out of a historical vacuum, and neither did the Chinese of the Spring and Autumn period. In hindsight the Duke of Zhou has been characterized in some ways as both the Lycurgus and Solon of ancient China, but one assumes that later commentators shaved off his harder edges and refashioned him in their own image, just as the Iliad which purports to tell a Bronze Age tale clearly reflects much of a Dark Age society.

Because of the thinness of the ancient textual evidence (if it exists at all), archaeology is often the only game in town. The new issue of Science has a series of articles putting a spotlight on the ancient physical history of what became China.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Wars we know   posted by Razib @ 8/16/2009 11:28:00 AM

I've decided to read up on the World Wars recently. I don't know much about World War I & II aside from what I've seen on The History Channel and some books I read in elementary school. I've read The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I and The First World War, and am almost finished with A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. I'm struck by the fact though I've learned many details of interest about World War I, almost everything I've read about World War II so far in A World at Arms (which is ~1,000 pages) is totally unsurprising. To me that emphasizes how much World War II still looms in our popular culture, while the Great War is an ignored prologue. Some of this is surely time, there are fewer than 10 World War I veterans alive today. But another factor is that you couldn't invent evil on the scale of the German regime plausibly. The banal barbarity of the Second Reich pales in comparison. If one could find someone totally unfamiliar with World War II and lay out the course of events and the nature of the insane dictators (Hitler and Stalin), I suspect their initial response would be that it was implausible science fiction or alternative history, and you need to go to a writer's workshop to brush up on the craft. In contrast the First World War I exhibited a human-scaled level of folly and hubris.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What does the decline in homicide rates look like?   posted by agnostic @ 8/04/2009 08:40:00 PM

Steve points us to a brief review by Steven Pinker on the decline in war and violence. Focusing just on homicide rates, what exactly does that mean -- a decline in violence during modern times? It is impossible to have a solid feel for the observation Pinker wants to explain without seeing time series data on homicide rates (one of which he includes in his TED talk on the same subject). The pictures come from Manuel Eisner's review article in the British Journal of Criminology.

This is required reading (only 20 pages) for anyone who wants to understand crime, and especially changes in crime -- changes in the overall rate, differences across regions in the decline, differences in the decline across social classes, etc. If you don't have access to it, it's one of those rare articles that is worth the one-time price of $28 -- or just request it from one of your friends or colleagues who does have university access.

Below the fold, I've included the pictures for all countries that Eisner found data for, along with a brief remark on the trend for each country. The vertical axis is homicides per 100,000 population and is on a logarithmic scale (so that the visible changes are by orders of magnitude). Also note that the recent decline in crime since the early-mid 1990s may not be easily visible in these pictures, given that Eisner's article came out in 2001 -- not very long for the reversal to jump out of the graphs.

First, England:

Increases during the High Middle Ages, decreases sometime starting in the Late Middle Ages or Early Modern period.

Netherlands and Belgium:

Decreases starting in Early Modern period.


Decreases starts as late as the 17th C -- Scandinavia being one of the last parts of Western Europe to become civilized.


Apparent increase during High Middle Ages, decreases starting in Late Middle Ages or Early Modern period.


Barely visible change during 18th C, while steady decline only starts in 19th C -- Italy having lacked a strong central state until then. Article says that Northern Italy shows a much earlier decline than Southern Italy (no surprise).

Also notice the presence of cycles about the overall trend. Just because there were recurring crime waves and abatements of crime waves during the 19th and 20th centuries -- see here for the US, or see the Scandinavian graph above -- should not distract us from the clear downward trend going only a few centuries farther back. Any account of rises or declines must deal with all of these patterns, making it impossible to generalize the narrow hypotheses for the 1990s decline in crime -- there were no cell phones before then, the trend since 1500 has been toward less corporal punishment and harsh sentencing rather than more, and so on.

What we would do is write down a system of differential equations that claimed how two or more groups of people interacted with each other -- say, "criminals," "law-abiders," and "police" -- and fool around with them until they produced a solution that would show cycles or oscillations around an overall downward trend. The interactions between these groups of people are what real historical causes are made of -- not the sudden introduction of some technology or law (or sudden disappearance of some technology or repealing of a law).

I'm up for a math modeling jam session if anyone else is. I remember seeing ODE models from ecology where one species replaces another, although the values oscillate around the upward trend of the winner, as well as around the downward trend of the loser.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

The shape of empires past   posted by Razib @ 7/18/2009 09:04:00 AM

Aziz pointed me to this article in Forbes, The New Great Game, which highlights the imperial aspect of the contemporary Chinese regime. It is important to emphasize that there is a striking disjunction between the manner in which the present spatial expanse of the Chinese state emerged, and the fiction which the modern Chinese state promotes to its citizens and abroad. The acquisitions which pushed China to the furthest extent in its history were achieved under the Qinq Dynasty in the 18th century. The Qing are also know as the Manchu dynasty, a pointer to the fact that they were outsiders. The Manchu elite took over the administrative apparatus of the previous Ming dynasty by the 17th century, but they were never wholly Chinese. The reality was that for much of the Qing dynasty China was part of the Manchu Empire. Though exemplary students of Chinese forms in their roles as Emperors of China, the Manchu rulers also remained warlords of the Manchu people, and it is in this capacity (albeit leveraging the resources of China proper) that they conquered the western territories, or pushed beyond Amur river to the north of Manchuria.

To the left is an image which shows the geographical expanses of the major Chinese dynasties over time (earliest to left, the last bottom right). Only one dynasty rivals the Manchus in terms of the territory which they controlled, the Yuan, the Mongol dynasty. Like the Manchus the Mongols ruled China as part of a greater set of domains. Of the remaining the dynasties only the Tang had a robust and wide presence in Central Asia, but this hegemony evaporated by the second half of the Tang.

Turkestan, Tibet and the lands to the north of the Amur (which were later extracted from the Manchu Empire by the Czars) were acquired due to the Manchu's greater cultural and geographic horizons than the Chinese (or, more accurately, a syngery between the enterprise of the nomad and the economic base of the Han Chinese). Like the Mongols the Manchus had a relatively good relationship with the lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, and the acquisition of Tibet occurred by way of their conflicts with the western Mongols (Oirat). The conquest of Xinjiang occurred as a byproduct of the Manchu involvement in intra-Mongol politics, as the Muslims of the Tarim Basin were chafing under the hegemony of the Dzungar Mongol confederacy. The drive to the north of the Amur would be a natural necessity to buffer the Manchu homeland against the expansion of the Russians into Siberia. Native Chinese dynasties, such as the Ming and Han, were hampered in their forays out of China proper due to their inability to maintain supply lines indefinitely and inflict any final defeat on nomadic populations which coul take advantage of the strategic depth offered by their vast ranges. It is notable that the Chinese dynasty which rivaled, though did not equal, the Manchu achievement in Central Asia were the Tang, of partial nomad background.

The fact that China was part of a Manchu Empire mattered in concrete terms because many of the domains outside of China were administered separately (though later in the 19th century there was a trend toward more thorough integration as part of a modernization drive). The Turks of Xinjiang naturally would not consider themselves Chinese, since China was simply a subcomponent of a set of territories of which also included the city-states of the Tarim Basin. Similarly, the integration of Tibet into the Manchu Empire was cemented by the personal relationship between the lamas and the ruling Manchu, as well as religious affinities between the two peoples. China was a third party actor.

All this makes more sense if you keep in mind the personal aspect of rule of hereditary kingdoms before the rise of the nation-state. George III, the king against who the American colonies revolted, was king of England, Wales and Scotland, Great Britain, as well as Ireland, the United Kingdom. Additionally, he was the Elector of Hanover. The fact that Hanover and the United Kingdom had the same ruler did not mean that these two administrative units were fused, on the contrary one of the concerns of the bureaucratic and aristocratic classes of both domains was that they not become excessively entangled in the international or domestic concerns of the other (the creation of Great Britain was favored by Scotland's ruling classes because they were excluded from many of the English colonies!). In 1837 Hanover's personal union with the United Kingdom ended because of the Salian law of inheritance of the throne. Now the connection between these two regions is simply a historical coincidence.

Now imagine if England made a claim on Hanover based on the century of personal union between the two polities. This would be ludicrous. But in The New Chinese Empire the author recounts that several times during diplomatic visits by Russians Deng Xiaoping referred to the territories beyond the Amur which were lost in the 19th century as if they naturally belonged to the modern Chinese state. The reality of course is that these were conquests by the Manchus, and they were losses by the Manchus (though by the latter period the Manchus were far more Sinicized than they had been in the 17th century). For nationalistic and ideological reasons the Communist regime simply pretends as if the era of the Manchus was one where their domains were conceived of as a nation-state. Because the Chinese Empire entered onto the world stage in the 19th century in the post-Westphalian context the qualitatively non-Chinese aspects of rule in Xinjiang, Tibet or Manchuria were elided in terms of their relations with other states.

Most Uighurs naturally are ignorant of these details of history. But these details of history have no doubt shaped the attitudes of ethnic minorities like Uighurs and Tibetans, for their integration into the Chinese state is naturally a thin veneer because it is a novel and new aspect to their experience. China proper emerged in its present form in larg part because of 2,000 years of institutional governance modeled on the precedents set forth in the Han dynasty; most of the Manchu acquisitions naturally lacked this background. The attempt to centralize the Manchu adminstrative apparatus in the 19th century was stillborn because of the death spiral of the dynasty. Only with the rise of the Communists did the Far West became an integral part of the nation.

Note: China is a geographically diverse, but an ethnically homogeneous, "empire." In the Soviet Union Russians were only ~50% of the population, while in China the Han are ~90%.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How soon businesses forget how loony the loony ideas of yesterday were   posted by agnostic @ 7/15/2009 10:37:00 PM

Mathematical models of contagious diseases usually look at how people flow between three categories: Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered. In some of these models, the immunity of the Recovered class may become lost over time, putting them back into the Susceptible class. This means that if an epidemic flares up and dies down, it may do so again. If we treat irrational exuberance as contagious, then we can have something like a recurring exuberant-then-gloomy cycle within people's minds. That is, people start out not having strong opinions either way, they get pumped up by hype, then they panic when they figure out that the hype had no solid basis -- but over time, they might forget that lesson and become ripe for infection once more.

I'm in the middle of Stan Liebowitz's excellent post-mortem of the dot-com crash, Re-thinking the Network Economy, and in Chapter 3 he reviews the "first mover wins" craze during the tech bubble. According to this idea, largely transplanted into the business world from economists who'd already spread the myth of QWERTY, the prospect of lock-in was so likely -- even if newcomers had a superior product -- that it paid to rush your product to the market first in order to get the snowball inevitably rolling, no matter its quality.

The idea was bogus, of course, as everyone learned afterward. (There were plenty of examples available during the bubble, but the exuberance prevents people from seeing them -- Betamax was before VHS, WordPerfect was before Microsoft Word, Sega Genesis was before Super Nintendo, etc. And there were first-movers who won, if their products were highly rated. So, when you enter doesn't matter, although quality of product does.) But when I looked up data on how much the media bought into this idea, I was surprised (though not shocked) to see that it was resurrected during the recent housing bubble, although it has been declining since the start of the bust phase. Below the fold are graphs as well as some good representative quotes over the years.

First, here are two graphs showing the popularity of the idea in the mainstream media. The first is from the NYT and controls for the overall number of articles in a given year. (I excluded a few articles that use "first mover" in reference to the Prime Mover god concept in theology.) I don't have the total number of articles for the WSJ, so those are raw counts. Still, the pattern is exactly the same for both, and it very suggestively reflects the two recent bubbles:

The first epidemic is easy enough to understand -- after languishing in academia during the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, the ideas of path dependence, lock-in, and first-mover advantage caught on among the business world with the surge of the tech bubble. When it became apparent that the dot-coms weren't as solid as was believed (to put it lightly), everyone realized how phony the theory supporting the bubble had been. Here's a typical remark from 2001:

WHEN they were not promoting the now-laughable myth of ''first mover advantage,'' early e-commerce proponents proffered the idea that self-service Web sites could essentially run themselves, with little or no overhead.

But clear-headedness eventually wears off, and when another bubble comes along, we can't help but feel exuberant again and take another swig of the stuff that made us feel all tingly inside before. Here's a nugget of wisdom from 2006:

Media chieftains may be kicking themselves a few years from now because they didn't step up to pay whatever it took to own the emergent first mover in online video.
And a similar non-derogatory, non-ironic use of the phrase from 2007:

For the current generation of Internet applications, sometimes referred to as "Web 2.0," the data collected from users is the true source of competitive advantage. And the first movers, the companies that understand and apply this insight, have services that get better fast enough that their competition never catches up.

Thankfully we've been hearing less and less of this stupid idea ever since the housing bubble peaked, and at least the most recent peak was lower than the first one, but we can still expect to hear something like this during whatever the next bubble is. Note that the first-mover-wins idea wasn't even being applied primarily to real estate during the housing bubble -- the exuberance in one domain carried over into a completely unrelated domain where it had flourished before. So, if you're at all involved in the tech industry, be very wary during the next bubble of claims that "first mover wins" -- it wasn't true then (or then, or then), and it won't be true now.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Porn & Rome   posted by Razib @ 7/14/2009 12:25:00 PM

Rod Dreher has a post about the The problem of pornography. My question: how is porn fundamentally different from fantasizing? Is it because of the shift toward bizarre fetish porn which rescales your perceptions of normal? I'm generally skeptical of anecdotal arguments about how porn is "changing everything." Because of my interest in Transhumanism and the Singularity I have run into people whose sexual outlets are skewed toward the virtual as opposed to the physical, and all seem to prefer the latter over the former. I won't even get into the issues of causality when it comes to all the bizarre things which known serial killers engage in.

Also, Rod makes a reference to "Late-Roman" culture. The allusion is common among many Christian conservatives, and I think I know what he's suggesting, that our society is becoming decadent, amoral, lacking spiritual values (he's made the allusion multiple times). Here's my problem: this doesn't comport at all with even a cursory reading of Roman history that you could gain from Wikipedia. The Late Roman period was one of the Chrisitanization of the Empire, and a resurgence of moralism among both pagans and Christians. Much of the Western Empire shifted more toward primary production and the modest economies of scale, and the specialization which allowed for the long distance trade of basic consumer and luxury goods diminished. In the East the Empire did not fall, but became progressively more Christian in its identity, as evidenced by the Christian moral ethical influence on the codification of Roman law during the reign of Justinian. The secular intellectual pursuits of the elite gave way to an emphasis on religious piety, study and endowment of monasteries and churches (see the life of Cassiodorus).

In fact the revisionists who followed in the wake of Peter Brown and have reinterpreted the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a Transformation of the Roman World point to the importance of Late Antiquity in setting the groundwork for the Christian civilization of Medieval Europe. "Late-Rome" was the time of the flourishing of Augustine and Ambrose in the West, the Cappadocian Fathers in the East who are so important in the Greek Christian tradition. In general the revisionists might not deny the decline in material standards, in median affluence, but they emphasize the richness of cultural production, particularly religious cultural production.

Were public morals at the peak of the Empire such a high watermark? Augustus' own family was wracked with debauchery to the point where he banished his own daughter. Though there were rumors about Tiberius, the perversions of Caligula and Nero are famous, and even the relatively innocuous Claudius married his niece. For those of you not up on your emperors, this is within the first century of the Empire. The Antonine Emperors were known to be moderate and virtuous in comparison to the prurience of the Julio-Claudians or the tyranny of Domitian, but Hadrian was certainly a pederast, and there are rumors about Trajan as well. Commodus of course made Andrew Johnson seem a model of sobriety and gravitas (this is the second century of the Empire).

At its peak the the Roman Empire was pagan, pluralist in religion and philosophy, and many of the autocrats flaunted personal morals which were in sharp contradiction to Christian virtue. It was relatively affluent (though we're talking percentages on the margin of median wealth I suspect, not multiplicative) and militarily robust. In the later phase the Empire imposed religious homogeneity on the elites in the form of Christianity, and the sort of public virtue which Augustus or Marcus Aurelius might have smiled upon became baked-into-the-cake of the ideology of the proto-monarchs which the emperors had become (although women such as Pulcharia and Theodora were generally the enforcers). Bread & circuses might have persisted in Rome up until the Gothic Wars, across much of the Empire there was a shift toward self-suffuciency and primary production. Dare I say, the Empire was becoming more "crunchy"?

As I said, the analogy to the Late Roman Empire has rhetorical force. Everyone knows what the allusion is meant to indicate. The problem emerges when people think that they can then start looking to Late Antiquity as an analogical model to make predictions about the future because of tight correspondences of conditions. Since those correspondences actually don't exist, rather, if there were material and moral variations across the span of the time of the Roman Empire they go in an inverse direction from the rhetoric, all you do is mess up your model of how the world works. Since Rod Dreher converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church he has no excuse of being ahistorical and fixated on abstract concepts of primitive salvation. The Late Roman Empire was the midwife for the greatest revolution in the history of the world from the perspective of a Catholic or Orthodox Christian,* so perhaps he should reconsider his sloppy use of the analogy. In the short term these rhetorical tactics are useful, but in the long term truth matters and errors which propagate through the chain of reasoning can be hard to filter out.

Note: If you want some evidence of the decline in material affluence as a function of time, see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. A narrative of the cultural genius of the Late Roman period can be found in The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000.

* Some Protestant radicals are skeptical of the influence of Late Antiquity because they believe that the Church took a wrong turn in its institutionalization and association with temporal powers.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

QWERTY-nomics debate thriving 20 years after "The Fable of the Keys"   posted by agnostic @ 7/13/2009 02:05:00 AM

In 1990, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis wrote an article detailing the history of the now standard QWERTY keyboard layout vs. its main competitor, the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. (Read it here for free, and read through the rest of Liebowitz's articles at his homepage.) In brief, the greatest results in favor of the DSK came from a study that was never officially published and that was headed by none other than Dvorak himself. Later, when researchers tried to devise more controlled experiments, the supposed superiority of the DSK mostly evaporated.

Professional typists may have enjoyed about a 5% faster rate, or maybe not -- despite the conviction of the claims you hear, this isn't a well established body of evidence, such as "smarter people have faster reaction times." Moreover, most keyboard users aren't professional typists, and the vast bulk of their lost time is due to thinking about what they want to say. Therefore, the standardization of the QWERTY layout is not an example of our being locked in to an inferior technology. Which isn't to say that the QWERTY layout is the best imaginable -- but certainly not a clearly inferior layout compared to the DSK.

While Liebowitz and Margolis may have hoped that their examination of the evidence would have thrown some cold water on the "lock-in to inferior standards" craze that had gotten going in the mid 1980s, with QWERTY as the proponents favorite example, the idea appears too appealing to academics to die. (Read this 1995 article for a similar debunking of Betamax's alleged superiority over the VHS format.) Liebowitz appeared on a podcast show just this May having to reiterate again that the standard story of QWERTY is bogus.

To investigate, I did an advance search of JSTOR's economics journals for "QWERTY" and divided this count by the total number of articles. This was done for five four-year periods because it's not incredibly popular in any year, and that creates more noise in a year-by-year picture. I excluded the post-2004 period since there's typically a 5-year lag between publication and archiving in JSTOR. This doesn't show what the author's take is -- only how in-the-air the topic is. With the two major examples having been shown to not be examples of inferior lock-in at all, you'd think the pattern would be a flaring up and then dying down as economists were made aware of the evidence, and everyone can just leave it at that. But nope:

Note that the articles here aren't the broad class discussing various types of path dependence or network effects, but specifically the kind that lead to inferior lock-in -- as signalled by the mention of QWERTY. I attribute the locking in of this inferior idea to the fact that academia is not incentivized in a way that rewards truth, at least in the social sciences. Look at how long psychoanalysis and Marxism were taken seriously before they started to die off in the 1990s.

Shielded from the dynamics of survival-of-the-fittest, all manner of silly ideas can catch on and become endemic. In this case, the enduring popularity of the idea is accounted for by the Microsoft-hating religion of most academics and of geeks outside the universities. For them, Microsoft is not a company that introduced the best word processors and spreadsheets to date, and that is largely responsible for driving down software prices, but instead a folk devil upon which the cult projects whatever evil forces it can dream up. Psychologically, though, it's pretty tough to just make shit up like that. It's easier to give it the veneer of science -- and that's just what the ideas behind the QWERTY and Betamax examples were able to give them.

Overall, Liebowitz's work seems pretty insightful. There's very little abstract theorizing, which modeling nerds like me may miss, but someone's got to take a hard-nosed look at what all the evidence says in support of one model or some other. He and Margolis recognized how empirically unmoored the inferior lock-in literature was early on, and they also saw how dangerous it had become when it was used against Microsoft in the antitrust case. [1] He also foresaw how irrational the tech bubble was, losing much money by shorting the tech stocks far too early in the bubble, and he co-wrote an article in the late 1990s that predicted The Homeownership Society would backfire on the poor and minorities it was supposed to help. (Read his recent article on the mortgage meltdown, Anatomy of a Train Wreck.) Finally, one of his more recent articles looks at how file sharing has hurt CD sales. Basically, he details everything that a Linux penguin shirt-wearer doesn't want to hear.

[1] Their book Winners, Losers, and Microsoft and their collection of essays The Economics of QWERTY attack the idea from another direction -- showing how the supposed conditions for lock-in or market tipping were met, and yet time and again there was turnover rather than lock-in, with each successive winner having received the highest praise.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

More porn does not lead to less rape -- or to more either   posted by agnostic @ 7/05/2009 09:21:00 PM

There's a post on porn and rape that's making the rounds (among the blogs I read, at Half Sigma and Roissy so far). The author claims to show that a greater availability of pornography is associated with lower rape rates. But it is not -- nor are the two directly related. They simply appear unrelated altogether.

First, the original post's author is not an idiot; he just made an honest mistake in getting his crime data. (And he is right in his side-point about how moronic feminists are when they suggest that rape has little to do with meeting the guy's sexual urges.) But let's focus on what the crime data say.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics website has a page of summary statistics that includes the graph in his post that shows what looks like a decline in the rape rate from the early-mid 1970s until today. Those data appear to be from the National Crime Victimization Survey, and one drawback here is that minors are often questioned in the presence of their parents or guardians. They're much less likely to report something embarrassing and painful as rape when the adults are there, especially if it was a family member or acquaintance of the family, as is typical. And young females are the most at risk. The definition of rape there seems too broad also, including attempted rape and psychological intimidation -- what people really have in mind when they hear "rape" is someone using physical force to gain sexual access to another person.

Luckily, though, the BJS also has data on the forcible rape rate ("real" rape), and this series goes back even further than the NCVS data -- back to 1960. What do these data say? If you're a regular reader, you already know because I've reviewed the change in violent crime and forcible rape rates before. Go to that post to see the graph and get the details. In brief, there was a sharp rise from about 1964 through 1992 and a decline thereafter.

What was the change in porn availability from 1960 to 2006? I've reviewed that topic too. Again, go there for the graphs and details. Looking just at Playboy to stand in for pornography generally, its circulation in 1960 was about 1 million and shot up to 7.2 million at its peak in 1972, dropping to 3 million by 1987, where it has stayed since. Population size isn't the main factor here since the US population did not multiply by 7 between 1960 and 1972. There was an explosion in Playboy circulation, and even through the 1980s it was still 3 times as high as in 1960. Therefore, from 1960 to 1972, there was a surge in porn availability and a surge in the forcible rape rate. This much of the data contradicts the "more porn, less rape" idea.

But Playboy circulation dropped sharply from 1973 to 1987, and that didn't cause the rape rate to drop. Its circulation has remained pretty steady since 1987, while the rape rate has steadily fallen since 1992. There are other data in the above post from the General Social Survey on what percent of men have watched an X-rated movie in the past year. Again there are no clear patterns that suggest an association with the forcible rape rate. If anything, the availability of porn has increased since the mid-late 1990s with the adoption of the internet. That suggests the "more porn, less rape" idea since rape was falling -- but it had peaked in 1992, about a half-decade before most guys had easy access to internet porn.

Putting all of the data together, it doesn't look like there's a relationship at all between availability of porn and the forcible rape rate. It's trivial to choose a time period in which your preferred hypothesis pans out, but looking at the big picture is always more revealing. In this case, we discover a big let-down -- neither side is right, and rape has little to do with porn. Debates like "porn and rape" or "poverty and crime" serve mostly as a full employment plan for gasbags. What if the two things aren't related in the first place? Well, that's a pretty boring debate -- way to rain on our parade.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Hold everything equal and offer no insight   posted by Razib @ 7/03/2009 04:40:00 PM

I was listening to Marketplace the other day and Kevin Hassett delivered a commentary combining economics with a revisionist evaluation of the American Revolution. Hassett's argument seems to be that the Revolution, which was notionally predicated on taxation without representation, will in the long run be a historical blip of no consequence as the United States converges upon the same tax and spend structure as the United Kingdom. From this convergence of tax and expenditure structures Hassett infers an eventual closing of the $10,000 GDP per capita gap between the United States and the United Kingdom. What therefore was the point of breaking away if 200 years later the USA is going to be so similar to the United Kingdom?

There are many ways to critique this sort of analysis, but there are two major issues that I jumped out for me. First, 200 years is not a trivial interval of time, especially when taking into account the large numbers of Americans who lived between then and now. To view economic history as convergence toward equilibria as a few parameters are modulated at some point in the future seems worthless, just as pointing out that the Sun will go nova, or that the universe may be doomed to heat death. There is a big difference between asserting that the GDP per capita gap will close within 10 years, and within 100 years. Tractable and elegant macroeconomic models may be mostly junk over the short term, but I'm pretty sure that they're total junk over the long term. Inferences from stylized facts may provoke, but spare me the assumption that that the error bars of projections aren't so huge as to make them useless even for government work. Second, it isn't as if the only things that separate the United States and the United Kingdom are institutional frameworks. Even within the United States there is quite a bit of regional variation in culture. Perhaps Hassett would say that specific variation in the instantiation of human capital is totally irrelevant, but most people wouldn't assume that as a given. Secondarily there is a sense here that historical contingency doesn't exist, that there is no path dependence in economic development. So the 200 year interval whereby the American Revolution served as an exogenous shock which tore the thirteen colonies out of the British Empire had no significant effect by shifting initial parameters in a manner which might "lock in" a bias toward some developmental paths as opposed to others. But evaluated over a long enough interval all historical events can be marginalized as futile acts against the trendline, whatever it is.

Instead of using an abstract framework riddled with assumptions that many people would find laughable, why not go the route of pointing to the nature of the British settler colonies which did not revolt, but eventually became independent? Obviously Australia, Canada and New Zealand are different in myriad ways from the United States, but are the comparisons more strained than the model that Hassett posits?

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Genetics of Cape Coloureds   posted by Razib @ 6/30/2009 08:36:00 AM

A few weeks ago I noticed that the Wikipedia entry for Cape Coloureds has little fleshed out information on their genetics. As a mixed population it seems that people would be interested, but has always been hard to find anything from Google Scholar on this topic. But the recent Tishkoff paper, The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans, has some data. You can find a full post at my other weblog, but it seems that not only are the Cape Coloureds substantially European, Khoisan and Bantu, but likely they're also substantially Indian, and there is a definite East Asian element, no doubt from slaves brought from Maritime Southeast Asia by the VOC. There's also a lot of variance in this particular sample of Cape Coloureds. Assuming this is representative I would offer that the main reason is that the Coloured population has historically had many people entering it from other groups, and, many leaving to other groups.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Monopoly allows innovation to flourish   posted by agnostic @ 6/25/2009 12:28:00 AM


This may be old hat for some readers, but it's worth reviewing and providing some good new data for. The motivation is the idea that monopoly-haters have that when some company comes to dominate the market, they will have no incentive to change things -- after all, they've already captured most of the audience. The response is that industries where invention is part of the companies' raison d'etre attract dynamic people, including the executives.

And such people do not rest on their laurels once they're free from competition -- on the contrary, they exclaim, "FINALLY, we can breathe free and get around to all those weird projects we'd thought of, and not have to pander to the lowest common denominator just to stay afloat!" Of course, only some of those high-risk projects will become the next big thing, but a large number of trials is required to find highly improbable things. When companies are fighting each other tooth-and-nail, a single bad decision could sink them for good, which makes companies in highly competitive situations much more risk-averse. Conversely, when you control the market, you can make all sorts of investments that go nowhere and still survive -- and it is this large number of attempts that boosts the expected number of successes.

With that said, let's review just a little bit of history impressionistically, and then turn to a new dataset that confirms the qualitative picture.

Taking only a whirlwind tour through the pre-Information Age time period, we'll just note that most major inventions could not have been born if the inventor had not been protected from competitive market forces -- usually from protection by a monopolistic and rich political entity. Royal patronage is one example. And before the education bubble, there weren't very many large research universitities in your country where you could carry out research -- for example, Oxford, Cambridge, and... well, that's about it, stretching back 900 years. They don't call it "the Ivory Tower" for nothing.

Looking a bit more at recent history, which is most relevant to any present debate we may have about the pros and cons of monopolies, just check out the Wikipedia article on Bell Labs, the research giant of AT&T that many considered the true Ivory Tower during its hey-day from roughly the 1940s through the early 1980s. From theoretical milestones such as the invention of information theory and cryptography, to concrete things like transistors, lasers, and cell phones, they invented the bulk of all the really cool shit since WWII. They were sued for antitrust violations in 1974, lost in 1982, and were broken up by 1984 or '85. Notice that since then, not much has come out -- not just from Bell Labs, but at all.

The same holds true for the Department of Defense, which invented the modern airliner and the internet, although they made large theoretical contributions too. For instance, the groundwork for information criteria -- one of the biggest ideas to arise in modern statistics, which tries to measure the discrepancy between our scientific models and reality -- was laid by two mathematicians working for the National Security Agency (Kullback and Leibler). And despite all the crowing you hear about the Military-Industrial Complex, only a pathetic amount actually goes to defense (which includes R&D) -- most goes to human resources, AKA bureaucracy. Moreover, this trend goes back at least to the late 1960s. Here is a graph of how much of the defense outlays go to defense vs. human resources (from here, Table 3.1; 2008 and beyond are estimates):

There are artificial peaks during WWII and the Korean War, although it doesn't decay very much during the 1950s and '60s, the height of the Cold War and Vietnam War. Since roughly 1968, though, the chunk going to actual defense has plummeted pretty steadily. This downsizing of the state began long before Thatcher and Reagan were elected -- apparently, they were jumping on a bandwagon that had already gained plenty of momentum. The key point is that the state began to give up its quasi-monopolistic role in doling out R&D dollars.

Update: I forgot! There is a finer-grained category called "General science, space, and technology," which is probably the R&D that we care most about for the present purposes. Here is a graph of the percent of all Defense outlays that went to this category:

This picture is even clearer than that of overall defense spending. There's a surge from the late 1950s up to 1966, a sharp drop until 1975, and a fairly steady level from then until now. This doesn't alter the picture much, but removes some of the non-science-related noise from the signal. [End of update]

Putting together these two major sources of innovation -- Bell Labs and the U.S. Defense Department -- if our hypothesis is right, we should expect lots of major inventions during the 1950s and '60s, even a decent amount during the 1940s and the 1970s, but virtually squat from the mid-1980s to the present. This reflects the time periods when they were more monopolistic vs. heavily downsized. What data can we use to test this?

Popular Mechanics just released a neat little book called Big Ideas: 100 Modern Inventions That Have Changed Our World. They include roughly 10 items in each of 10 categories: computers, leisure, communication, biology, convenience, medicine, transportation, building / manufacturing, household, and scientific research. They were arrived at by a group of around 20 people working at museums and universities. You can always quibble with these lists, but the really obvious entries are unlikely to get left out. There is no larger commentary in the book -- just a narrow description of how each invention came to be -- so it was not conceived with any particular hypothesis about invention in mind. They begin with the transistor in 1947 and go up to the present.

Pooling inventions across all categories, here is a graph of when these 100 big ideas were invented (using 5-year intervals):

What do you know? It's exactly what we'd expected. The only outliers are the late-1990s data-points. But most of these seemed to be to reflect the authors' grasping at straws to find anything in the past quarter-century worth mentioning. For example, they already included Sony's Walkman (1979), but they also included the MP3 player (late 1990s) -- leaving out Sony's Discman (1984), an earlier portable player of digitally stored music. And remember, each category only gets about 10 entries to cover 60 years. Also, portable e-mail gets an entry, even though they already include "regular" e-mail. And I don't know what Prozac (1995) is doing in the list of breakthroughs in medicine. Plus they included the hybrid electric car (1997) -- it's not even fully electric!

Still, some of the recent ones are deserved, such as cloning a sheep and sequencing the human genome. Overall, though, the pattern is pretty clear -- we haven't invented jackshit for the past 30 years. With the two main monopolistic Ivory Towers torn down -- one private and one public -- it's no surprise to see innovation at a historic low. Indeed, the last entries in the building / manufacturing and household categories date back to 1969 and 1974, respectively.

On the plus side, Microsoft and Google are pretty monopolistic, and they've been delivering cool new stuff at low cost (often for free -- and good free, not "home brew" free). But they're nowhere near as large as Bell Labs or the DoD was back in the good ol' days. I'm sure that once our elected leaders reflect on the reality of invention, they'll do the right thing and pump more funds into ballooning the state, as well as encouraging Microsoft, Google, and Verizon to merge into the next incarnation of monopoly-era AT&T.

Maybe then we'll get those fly-to-the-moon cars that we've been expecting for so long. I mean goddamn, it's almost 2015 and we still don't have a hoverboard.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Goodbye Old Kashgar   posted by Razib @ 5/27/2009 08:17:00 PM

To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It. The city is Kashgar, in the far west of China. I have read that Kashgar is the large city furthest from oceans on all directions. It's a typical story of developers wanting to develop. You read articles like this about Beijing all the time (or did, I assume that most of the developing to be done has been done). One issue that I'm curious about though, my understanding is that China (and East Asia in general) has fewer buildings of great antiquity than in the West because so much of the monumental architecture was in wood. This results in ancient cities being viewed as relatively ephemeral, with the elements (especially fire) taking what humans don't eventually tear down and reprocess. So there is very little of the earlier dynasties in the old imperial capital of Xi'an because the complexes of the imperial family and aristocrats were made of wood. Perhaps some of the reporting of how heartless Chinese bureaucrats are in regards to historic buildings suffers from a cultural gap whereby societies which materials like stone assume more permanence to architecture than those which rely in less durable medium such as wood.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Rome Fell   posted by Razib @ 5/20/2009 07:17:00 PM

David Frum has a very interesting review of How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. In it he touches upon two other works which address the same topic, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization & The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. I've read them both, and they are excellent histories, though as Frum notes they take different tacks. The former taking a materialist perspective, and the latter a more classical narrative of politics and government. I also agree that to some extent modern multiculturalism has fed into the revisionism which suggests that there was no decline from Classical to Late Antiquity. In From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents conservative historian David Gress actually shows how pre-multiculturalist liberal intellectuals, such as Will Durant, privileged pre-Christian antiquity, in particular Greece, and excised the entire period after the fall of Rome and before the rise of the Enlightenment (with a nod to the Renaissance) as making any substantive contribution to the liberal democratic consensus

Where you stand matters in making these sorts of judgements. For obvious reasons Catholic Christian intellectuals of what we term the medieval period did not view the ancient world as superior to their own, because whatever its material or intellectual merits, it was a fundamentally pagan one at its roots. Though the modern West is still predominantly Christian in religion, that religion no longer serves as quite the core anchor that it once did,* and material considerations as well as abstractions such as "democracy" and the "republic" are given greater weight than they once were. I believe that David Gress is right to suggest that attempts by secular liberal historians to deny the essential role of Christendom, the period between antiquity and the age of the nation-state, was driven more by politics than reality. The founders of the American republic were obviously classical educated and that influenced their outlook, as evidenced by their writings as well concrete aspects of culture such as architecture. But they were also heirs to a tradition which defended the customary rights of Englishmen, rights which go back ultimately to Anglo-Saxon tribal law. It is simply laughable to imagine that Greek democracy slept for 2,000 years and reemerged in the late 18th century in the form of the American democratic republic. But, the very same historical factors which make Western civilization what it is today also result in a set of normative presuppositions that does naturally marginalize or diminish the glory of medieval civilization set next to its classical predecessor.

Also, one minor point. Frum says:
...Some scholars have speculated that the empire was depopulated by plague after 200. (William McNeill wrote a fascinating history of the global effects of disease, Plagues and Peoples, that argues for disease as a principal cause of Roman decline.

This could well be true. On the other hand, of the emperors and would-be emperors who contested power in the turbulent 3rd century, only one Claudius II Gothicus, died of plague. At least 17 were assassinated or executed, and four more died under unknown circumstances. Four died in battle, one in captivity after battle - but only two of those five met their end at the hands of foreign enemies. The other three died fighting Roman rivals.

In regards to the hypothesis of demographic decline due to plague, the fact that only Claudius II Gothicus died of this cause is likely a weaker point than one might think. Only one monarch died of the Black Plague, which most historians assume killed 1/4 to 1/3 of Europeans. This is probably most easily interpreted in light of the reality that the elites are relatively well fed, and might therefore have been less susceptible to disease than the populace as a whole. The connection between poor nutrition and a relatively anemic immune response to disease has been offered as one reason why deadly pandemics were much more common in the pre-modern period, when a far higher proportion of the population was nutritionally stressed.

H/T Conor Friedersdorf

* I think the Islamic world is a better model of how medieval Christians might view their classical pagan cultural forebears. Egyptians take pride in the antiquity of their society, but what was before Islam was jahaliya. The preservation of Greek knowledge by the Arab Muslims during the first few centuries of Islam exhibited a strong selection bias toward works of abstract philosophy. Ancient Greece's cultural production in the arts held no great interest, so it is only thanks to the Byzantines that many of those works were preserved.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The problem of diverse meritocracies   posted by Razib @ 5/14/2009 07:28:00 PM

From page 17 of Neo-Confucianism in History:
...Already by the 1050s southerners accounted for the majority of the literary men; within a century southerners would tower over intellectual culture, as they would continue to do for centuries to come. By the 1070s officials from the south had come to dominate policy-making offices. Literati knew this, but in the latter half of the eleventh century they were divided over the solution. Some called on the court to institute regional quotas for the civil service examinations but defended a system that would favor talent above regional representation....

This describes the period of the Northern Song. Though militarily and politically the Song were a subpar dynasty, in terms of cultural and economic production they were exceptional. In fact it is common for historians to wonder why the Song efflorescence did not lead to a Chinese industrial revolution and Great Divergence. In any case, I am struck by the aspects of geographic determinism evident during the Song period, and the analogies one can draw to the Germanic-speaking world in the 17th and 18th centuries as recounted in Tim Blanning's The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815. While the Rhineland, the Netherlands and north German ports saw the emergence of robust proto-capitalist commercial cities facilitated by cheap water transport, the cities of the Central European Austrian domains still remained primarily centers of royal pomp and bureaucratic administration. The same contrast is clear during the Song dynasty between the inland northern cities, and those urban areas with access to water transport, particularly in the south.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Secular Cycles of the human animal   posted by Razib @ 4/29/2009 09:10:00 AM

Quantitative ecologist Peter Turchin's Secular Cycles is not available for purchase, but you can get a final draft copy online. His previous books, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations & Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall, prefigure many of the arguments that are fleshed out in Secular Cycles. Turchin's aim is audacious. The last paragraph of Secular Cycles lays out the vision:
Our concluding thoughts are these. We believe that we showed that it is possible to obtain quantitative empirical estimates for many variables that are needed to test theories of historical dynamics. Furthermore, our models, and the demographic-structural theory in particular, have matured to the point where they can make quantitative and testable predictions. Many of these predictions are supported by the data; others failed, but often in interesting ways that suggest further development of the theory. The historical process is very complex, we have to live with severe data limitations, but nevertheless it is possible to apply the standard scientific approach to the study of history. We are optimistic about the future prospects of History as Science.

If history is any guide Turchin's optimism is misplaced, and a general theory of historical dynamics will elude us. But the nature of science is that it is exhibits a strong ahistorical* bent and the past can be a weak guide to the future.  If cliodynamics emerges as a respectable field we would expect it to overturn precedent. As someone trained in the former Soviet Union it should be  no surprise I suppose that Turchin would be the one making an attempt to resurrect theoretical history in the English speaking world. An intellectual who was shaped by a Marxist Zeitgeist would be more easily inclined to consider the possibility that history could be formalized so as to produce systems of non-trivial inferential power.

So what makes this latest effort different from the speculations of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler? First, as a biological scientist Turchin comes the table with a methodological toolkit which is far superior in precision to that available to historians of the early 20th century. From game theory to systems ecology there are many new formal frameworks which can be brought to bear upon human historical dynamics which were not extant in earlier epochs. Secondly, the data sets are far more extensive than they once were due to the prominence of cliometrics, as well as the greater power of traditional fields such as archaeology due to improvements in method. Finally, Turchin's ambition is constrained to the pre-modern era when Malthusian parameters were ascendant. This is not to say that I do not think that some of his inferences and conjectures have no contemporary salience, but there is no overarching lesson or ideological implication to be derived from his models (in contrast to Marxism).

Nevertheless, I am obviously somewhat intrigued by Turchin's attempt to add some quant juice to qual questions & observations. I recently read Niall Ferguson's The House of Rothschild: Volume 1: Money's Prophets: 1798-1848. Because of the fact that the House of Rothschild was incomprehensibly wealthy at its peak via its involvement in public bond markets there was naturally a whole genre which emerged exposing their power and malice as conspirators at the center of a vast web of influence (see the Age of Metternich). Ferguson does emphasize that the financial interests of the Rothschild's, public debt, compelled them to attempt to block conflicts between major European powers. But another reality which has nothing to do with the Rothschild's is that Europe during the early years of the family's rise was recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, and nations and elites which have experienced sustained and strenuous conflict tend to be wary of future conflicts. In Turchin's data sets he present evidence that these qualitative cycles are evident in clear generational terms throughout the historical record for regions where we have good records. He also presents a causal motive force behind the explosions of violence which tend to prune military aristocracies. Ultimately one would also want to explore the neurological basis of memory and its effect on how humans make decisions and weight risks, and how long traumatic events can effect behavior, but the gross patterns and the expected period of the recession of violence are also of interest. The point being that despite their wealth even the House of Rothschild might have been accidental players in broader macrosocial dynamics.

* Though operationally it is historical because of the weakness of human cognitive powers.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Horse coat color variation and domestication   posted by Razib @ 4/24/2009 01:30:00 AM

Coat Color Variation at the Beginning of Horse Domestication:
The transformation of wild animals into domestic ones available for human nutrition was a key prerequisite for modern human societies. However, no other domestic species has had such a substantial impact on the warfare, transportation, and communication capabilities of human societies as the horse. Here, we show that the analysis of ancient DNA targeting nuclear genes responsible for coat coloration allows us to shed light on the timing and place of horse domestication.We conclude that it is unlikely that horse domestication substantially predates the occurrence of coat color variation, which was found to begin around the third millennium before the common era.

Also see ScienceDaily.

Related: Horse genetics & color, White horses and blonde humans: a genetic connection?, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World and Earliest domestication of horse?

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reverting to cultural type   posted by Razib @ 4/18/2009 11:39:00 PM

Who I Am Depends on How I Feel: The Role of Affect in the Expression of Culture:
We present a novel role of affect in the expression of culture. Four experiments tested whether individuals' affective states moderate the expression of culturally normative cognitions and behaviors. We consistently found that value expressions, self-construals, and behaviors were less consistent with cultural norms when individuals were experiencing positive rather than negative affect. Positive affect allowed individuals to explore novel thoughts and behaviors that departed from cultural constraints, whereas negative affect bound people to cultural norms. As a result, when Westerners experienced positive rather than negative affect, they valued self-expression less, showed a greater preference for objects that reflected conformity, viewed the self in more interdependent terms, and sat closer to other people. East Asians showed the reverse pattern for each of these measures, valuing and expressing individuality and independence more when experiencing positive than when experiencing negative affect. The results suggest that affect serves an important functional purpose of attuning individuals more or less closely to their cultural heritage.

More in ScienceDaily:

... And elevated mood even shaped behavior, allowing volunteers to act "out of character." These findings suggest that people in an upbeat mood are more exploratory and daring in attitude — and therefore more apt to break from cultural stereotype. That is, Asians act more independently than usual, and Europeans are more cooperative. Feeling bad did the opposite: It reinforced traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained both Western and Eastern thinking about the world.

I think these data are interesting in light of the sort of argument presented in works such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The standard model here is that cultural openness correlates with economic growth, while stagnation results in retrenchment.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The secret network   posted by Razib @ 4/04/2009 10:37:00 AM

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World is a work of economic history focused on trade. It suffers like many in this genre due to a sloppy grasp of the historical record (the numerous trivial errors are a good sign of a very thin grasp of secondary sources).* But when it comes to the details of trade networks it is relatively informative (though do check the notes!). One of the more interestings aspects of A Splendid Exchange is the deep treatment given to the Indian ocean trade network from antiquity down to the early modern period (also see Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium fora more scholarly take on this topic). The standard model from the extant sources suggest that the trade from Egypt to China had a hinge at Sri Lanka, so that Western and Eastern traders went no further than this point. But there are references by Portuguese soldiers and missionaries to "Roman colonies" in the trading cities of the Malay archipelago in the 16th century, strongly suggesting that the Italian's networks extended very far to the east. Additionally, during this period the Acehnese of northern Sumatra were a notable presence in the western Indian ocean, as evidenced today by the Malay features of some individuals in the Hadhramaut in southern Yemen. Finally, there is circumstantial evidence that the mercentile elite of Cairo during the phase of Mamluk ascendancy was of Indian provenance, specifically Tamil.

When I say "secret" I mostly mean that though the trade network was well known to the principals, because of minimal documentation our knowledge of it is thin. And when we do not see records of something, it does not exist. The copious amounts of gold & silver coins in 1st century from the Malabar Coast in India are witness to both luxury and non-luxury good consumption by the Roman world (gold = luxury, silver = non-luxury) of Asian products, while the shift to gold in the 2nd century suggests a decline in the non-luxury sector. Of course these inferences can be made only because of the durable nature of coinage and its known exchange rates with goods & services.

These data and the hints of wider patterns which we can discern make some paradoxes more comprehensible. Consider the fact that the origin or transit of the Malagasy language from southern Borneo is highly likely. Settlement of Madagascar by a people who speak and Austronesian language seems exceedingly peculiar. By analogy some have suggested it was as if Cuba had been settled by the Norwegians in the 10th century. Interestingly the linguistic relationship to Borneo is supported by the genetic data. The fact that the Malagasy has loan words from Swahili, Arabic and Sanskrit indicates a deep integration with the Indian ocean network. A bigger point is that unfortunately when it comes to modeling human history we don't tend to take into account what we don't know (naturally) as much as what we know. The Indian ocean network's outlines are detectable because of its scope, but it is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg in terms of these patterns in human history.

*Though to be fair this is not a scholarly work.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Of rats & men   posted by Razib @ 3/25/2009 11:27:00 PM

You probably know that lions were native to Greece 2,000 years ago (ergo, the Lion Gate). But more importantly I just realized today how important it might be that the rats we know of as rats are relative newcomers to Western Eurasia (above & beyond their specific relevance to plague). The black rat for example seems to have arrived in the Mediterranean just as lions were going extinct, during the days of the Roman Empire. But today the black rat is rare in Europe (generally found in port cities) and has been replaced by the brown rat, which only arrived in the early modern period (e.g., 18th century in Britain). So check out Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward an Ecological History.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Ethnic America, 1830   posted by Razib @ 3/16/2009 12:58:00 PM

One of the most frustrating things about modern American models of ethnicity is that they are so focused on the racial aspect, and to a lesser extent on the white ethnics who arrived after 1840. Albion's Seed is great because it elucidates in such detail the different British strains which settled the Americas, but unfortunately it doesn't push the story beyond the colonial period. Other works of history hint at the fissures in Anglo-America, but few explore the divisions explicitly. The political ramifications of race, or the arrival of the Irish, are relatively prominent in the public consciousness, but I think it is arguable that the differences between the Puritans and Scots-Irish have had a more important effect on the trajectory of the American republic and our history. From page 50 of Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War:
Northern-born settlers (and more particulary New Englanders) and Southern-born migrants had distinct work habits and their own approaches to entrepenurial activities. Michael Chevalier, a French official who came to America in the 1830s to study pblic works, remarked upon the differences: "In a village in Missouri, by the side of a house with broken windows, dirty in its outward appearance, around the door of which a parcel of ragged children are quarreling and fighting, you may see another, freshly painted, surrounded by a simle, but neat and nicely whitewashed fence, with a dozen of carefully trimmed trees about it, and through the windows in a small room shining with cleanliness you may espy some nicely combed little boys and some young girls dressed in almost the last Paris fashion. Both houses belong to farmers, but one of them is from North Carolina and the other from New England."

This vignette is simply an illustration of scattered quantitative data you see in some of these works. In short New Englanders were wealthier, more well educated and more fertile than immigrants to the West from the South. Because of easier movement up the Mississippi-Ohio valley the original settlers in much of the Midwest were of Southern origin; but with the opening of the Erie canal and the rise of the Great Lakes economy fertile and industrious Yankees added much of the northern Midwest to Greater New England. Much of American history can easily be modeled as a clash of civilizations.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Will the recession bring anti-globalization protests back?   posted by agnostic @ 3/15/2009 03:05:00 AM

When I was a clueless sophomore and junior in college, 2000 - 2001, the cool thing that was sweeping through campuses was anti-globalization. It was more than just that, but this was the core. (There was also the Nader campaign, the Florida vote fiasco, Enron, and 9/11.) At the time I was incredibly far left (left anarchist) but drifted away from the movement around the spring of 2003, the last big protest being against the invasion of Iraq. I didn't have anything to do with it after that, and my views have moved to the center-right.

As this list of anti-globalization protests confirms, I wasn't unusual. The really large protests took place in 2000 and especially 2001, they were on the decline by 2003, and from 2004 through 2006, they were non-existent within the First World (aside from ritualistic May Day protests). There's a slight uptick in 2007, and now The Telegraph reports that London is preparing for the biggest protest in a decade. The umbrella group organizing the protest is G20 Meltdown.

Maybe it's not surprising, but it looks like these things flare up during recessions and abate during booms. The first round took place during the dot-com crash, and by 2004, college students and 20-somethings were too busy applying their dopey open minds to the topics of metrosexual facial moisturizers, which regional real estate bubble they would exuberantly contribute to, and the crunk and post-punk revival music that was out -- way cooler than that Blink182 bullshit that was popular from about 1997 to 2002. But now that young people sense bad things ahead, we may be in for another deluge of protesting professors, fliers for International Socialist Organization meetings, and low-status young males lobbing rocks to impress the one cute anarchist chick at the protest.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Earliest domestication of horse?   posted by Razib @ 3/05/2009 04:02:00 PM

Via Dienekes, The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking:
Horse domestication revolutionized transport, communications, and warfare in prehistory, yet the identification of early domestication processes has been problematic. Here, we present three independent lines of evidence demonstrating domestication in the Eneolithic Botai Culture of Kazakhstan, dating to about 3500 B.C.E. Metrical analysis of horse metacarpals shows that Botai horses resemble Bronze Age domestic horses rather than Paleolithic wild horses from the same region. Pathological characteristics indicate that some Botai horses were bridled, perhaps ridden. Organic residue analysis, using 13C and D values of fatty acids, reveals processing of mare's milk and carcass products in ceramics, indicating a developed domestic economy encompassing secondary products.

Related: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World and lactase persistence.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Like a moth to a flame?   posted by Razib @ 1/23/2009 11:21:00 AM

Arnold Kling comments about my assertion that until recently cities were genetic black holes:
Today,. we think of cities as places where people come to thrive. Wealth is higher in cities than in small towns and rural areas. Richard Florida tells us that the creative class is to be found in cities.


I wonder: who came to cities? Was it people without land? Were cities like an awful lottery that people would play when they had no other choice? A bunch of landless people gathered together to prey on one another, with the winners thriving (moving to the country as soon as they could afford it) and the losers enduring a Hobbesian existence, where life was nasty, brutish and short?

My comment was a contention in relation to reproductive fitness; not quality of life or satisfaction (H/T to Greg Cochran for the observation). In the comments I cite a paper which suggests that city and rural divide in mortality favored the rural until around 1900 in the United States. The divide does not exist in large part due to proactive public health measures. Needless to say, though there were variations (e.g., compare 18th century London to Tokyo/Edo), in the pre-modern context public health was much more primitive.

So why move to the city? I think it is likely correct that city air makes one free. We can see this today as social change is occurring in Developing World megalopolises. In the ancient cities there were clear benefits for the poor, Rome and Constantinople had doles for the urban proletariat (though these doles were of course simply viable due to rents derived from their Empire). After the wars of the middle to late republic many impoverished peasants migrated to Rome to escape famine (the famine was exacerbated by the fact that many men were called up as soldiers to serve in foreign wars, and so their labor was missing). On the other hand, despite the dole there was often no regular employment. From the data I have seen modern urban-life worldwide tends to correlate with a lower fertility; and I see no reason this would not be so in the pre-modern world (I assume that the marginal return on "extra hands" provided by more children would likely be lower for a sporadically employed urban laborer than a farmer). But the main difference I suspect is disease load over time. Plagues regularly killed on the order of 50% of the population of ancient cities. After the population declines the cities would bounce back, but not through natural increase, but further waves of rural migrants. Rome's population declined to tens of thousands in the medieval period, from on an order of 1 million in antiquity. I am skeptical of the idea that most modern Romans are descended from a demographic expansion of the medieval deme as opposed to migrants from the hinterland.

All the population genetic negatives are not to deny that civilization and the city are to a large extent identical (Sumer). Who says that cultural creativity or innovation has to track Darwinian fitness? Look at our own modern societies, the least successful by accepted measures are often the most "fit" in Darwinian terms.

Addendum: A shorthand way of thinking what I'm asserting, imagine two brothers who are farmers. One moves to the city to get on the bread dole, while the other attempts to make do on the margins. The former might have a higher chance of surviving, but because of the greater power of disease in the urban context the city brother is likely to have far fewer descendants than the country brother as periodically all of his descendants come under threat of dying in a plague (again, I also believe that fertility will be lower for urban descendants).


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Which American states have defaulted?   posted by Razib @ 1/18/2009 11:39:00 PM

Some of you may know that California is in a budget crisis. A significant portion of the proposed stimulus package is going to go to the states which are in a financial crunch because of tax shortfalls. But did you know that the in the 19th century several American state went into default to European bankers? Below the fold for the list....

Arkansas (never paid in full)
Indiana (eventually paid)
Illinois (eventually paid)
Michigan (never paid in full)
Louisiana (never paid in full)
Mississipi (repudiated debt, never paid)
Florida (repudiated debt, never paid)
Maryland (eventually paid)
Pennsylvania (eventually paid)


One of the justifiers of the repudiation of the debt in Mississipi was Jefferson Davis. This caused some issues when the Confederacy went looking for financing from those Europeans who Davis had argued a decade before should be stiffed.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

The four culture model of American history   posted by Razib @ 11/06/2008 05:04:00 PM

The McCain Belt:
So, why did McCain do best, relative to George W. Bush in 2004, in states like #1. Tennessee, #3. Arkansas, #5 Oklahoma, #7 West Virginia, #9 Kentucky, and #10 Alabama?

Here's a map by counties, with counties where McCain improved relative to GWB in 2004 the most shown in reddest red.

Before reading onward, can you figure out why this pattern exists?

Until recently I'll be honest and admit that I had very little interest in American history beyond what I learned in high school (in contrast to my interest in the Classical period or China, etc.). It seemed rather boring because we live in America, the history is all around us, and I could watch documentaries, etc. At least that was my logic, and it's not totally faulty. The problem is that our knowledge of American history which we obtain through direct experience as Americans is implicit, and we tend to lack clarity which would allow us to discern predictable dynamics. My ignorance combined with a lack of formal paradigm meant I simply wouldn't have noted the reemergence of familiar dynamics several times within the past few years.

David Hackett Fisher's Four Folkways aren't perfect, there's a lot you can quarrel with. But it adds a lot of value as a framework which you can use to understand the flows and patterns of American history; dynamics which we ourselves are seeing as a snapshot currently. Since most pundits are ignorant of course they'll miss the big picture. I don't know enough myself to really hazard much which would add value to anyone's understanding aside from what they might get from reading Albion's Seed or The Age of Lincoln. But...though I'm not being original, I think it is important to emphasize that much of the arc of American political history can be conceived of as a set of cyclical dynamics which are the product of alliances across the Four Folkways (the demographic weights of the Four Folkways in American society at a given time are obviously crucial). As an example, during the 1930s and in the early 19th century New England stood alone against the dominant American political configuration, steadfastly adhering to a minority party. In contrast, the 1850s and the current period seem to be witnessing a more equitable division as the two northern and southern folkways align with each other in a "50:50" nation.

I also think that it is important to emphasize that much of popular history which focuses on individuals and wars might not help you generate a good model of the past which has any utility for comprehending the present. The framework above would be implicit within a narrative, humans are embedded in a sociocultural matrix, but you might fail to discern any systematic pattern if you're focusing on the personalities. This is I think a problem with a lot of "pop history" in documentary form; "boring" cultural and economic parameters take a back seat (or are mentioned in passing) to interesting, but structurally trivial, personal epiphenoma (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 4th of July).

Note: An important issue to emphasize about the Four Folkways is that they may evolve so that the way in which they relate to each other changes over time. In 1800 New England was arguably the most socially conservative and evangelical Protestant part of the United States, while the lowland South was at the other end of the spectrum. It was no surprise at the time that the architects of American church-state separation were low country Virginia planters, while explicit state support and preference for a particular church lasted longest in New England. Obviously things have changed, but the point is that New England and the lowland South evolved as roughly discrete units over time due to local dynamics as well as parameters which effected the United States broadly. Even though the distribution of "New England" and the "South" in parameter space has changed as a function of time, they are still discernable discrete distributions.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Dark Age giants?   posted by Razib @ 10/17/2008 10:58:00 PM

From Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered:
Measurements taken on skeletal remains in cemeteries in southwestern Germany indicate that the average height for men was about five feet eight inches, for women about five feet four inches, statures well above those of late medieval and early modern times. Measurements taken on skeletons in other regions are comparable. In Denmark, for example, the average height for men was about five feet nine inches-just above those for southwestern Germany-and for women about five feet four inches. These average heights were not achieved again until the twentieth century. Compared with earlier and later populations in the same regions, these average measurements show that most people had adequate nutrition during most of their lives and their living conditions were generally good
This is in line with the charts I posted below. With the introduction of the three-field system, mouldboard plow and horse collar northwest Europe, in particular the regions of northern France, the Low Countries and the Rhineland, surpassed the Mediterranean as the population center of the continent (at least its western half). During the expansionary phase, i.e., 500-800, the span covered by Barbarians to Angels, the Malthusian pressures would have been relatively modest. The screws would have been tightened up to the medieval demographic peak before 1300.

In any case, remember my focus on morbidity vs. mortality? It might be apropos in this case. The uncertainty and political instabilities due to the collapse of the Pax Romana could plausibly have increased mortality as peasants were exposed to the erratic depredations of barbarian warrior bands. But as depopulation occurred, in part because of withdrawal from the frontiers in places like Gaul (France) an western Germany of most farmers, those who opted to remain and take on the risks would be relieved of some Malthusian pressures. I think the chart of European heights does point to this as well, you can discern a slight upward trend after the Black Death due to a radical population reduction. I've reedited one of the charts for clarity:

As for Barbarians to Angels, the author doesn't really make me reconsider. I've talked about my skepticism of the idea of revisionism in regards to the decline of Rome. The author argues that technological advances occurred during the Dark Ages, and that many cities remained active nodes in trade networks. But the author's treatment is highly qualitative where he had concrete examples of how complex society persisted after the collapse of the Pax Romana, and he repeatedly scolds the readers to not judge Dark Age societies by modern standards which would tend to align more with the priorities of Roman civilization (e.g., reading, writing, arithmetic, public architecture, basically what we might term civilization). If the author wants to strip the term "civilization" of any normative biases brought to bear due to the prejudice of moderns, the argument is won, amassing a large collection of ornate weapons with which one might be buried is just as Cultured as writing letters to your friends laced with literary references. A good cup of mead is at the same level as a Falernian.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

'Here be dragons' in the mind   posted by Razib @ 10/12/2008 12:19:00 AM

A few days ago I ran across Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance at a used book store. As suggested by the title the author focuses a great deal on mercantile happenings during this period. I read this book 10 years ago on a train ride. As I picked it up again I remembered that much of the narrative centered on the Fuggers, a prominent banking family which prefigured the role that the Rothchilds would play more recently in international affairs. Flipping through the chapters I refamiliarized myself with the contents, much of it was vaguely familiar to me. On the one hand if you had asked me to repeat anything from Worldly Goods I would have offered a general point about the importance of the Fugger financial network in the geopolitics of Central Europe during the 16th century. And yet I think there are many other facts and structures of facts which I retain implicitly in my mind. A great deal of cognition emerges out of these thickets of implicit data; networks which are essential in giving one a mental map of the world. Though I might not be able to explicitly recall in detail facts and arguments from a specific book when asked to do such a thing, in the course of a conversation or thought which might relate to the topicality of a given work I often experience data bubbling up from what might be termed the "subconscious."

I recount this because a few years ago a friend expressed an interest in the Middle Ages. I told him that Christopher Tyerman's God's War: A New History of the Crusdades might be worth his time. Later I asked if my friend had looked into Tyerman's book, and he told me had, but it was just too long (~1000 pages) and there was extraneous material he didn't find interesting. All fair enough, but then he proceeded to explain that felt he had little recall of anything he read and that he didn't know if there was any point. At that time something struck me as very strange about this claim. Now I feel I can elucidate more fully what I think my friend was missing: very few people have explicit on the spot recall of very much of a given work. So the contention that one does not retain much is plausible when viewed purely reflectively. But, the sum totality of data ingested does leave a mark on the implicit mind, sketching out structures and analytic sieves which can constrain and guide how one processes information and generates inferences.* You may not remember what happened to you on Janary 20th of 1999, but you have a sense of the general arc of that year in your life.

* More pointedly, many people assert rather dumb things because they are too ignorant to know any better. In fact, all people do. Some ignorant people are smart enough to assert very little, and some are not so smart.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Why some material is unmentionable   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2008 07:18:00 PM

Slate has some very interesting excerpts from The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters posted today. The reality that a great deal of the illness in today's world is caused by fecal contamination is well known. The proximate cause of many minor illnesses is mild food poisoning, but food poisoning itself is ultimately generally caused by poor hygiene.  It seems straightforward to imagine that poor sanitation can be a significant drain on economic productivity. But on this weblog we've also addressed the possibility of pathogens playing a role in changing personalities and temperaments. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark made the case that the greater mortality due to poor hygiene shifted the death schedule and so relieved Malthusian pressure. In contrast, East Asia was notable for having a rather efficient system of human waste disposal and reuse, and the concomitant lower death rate resulted in more Malthusian pressures and lower per capita wealth. One of the positive developments in the historical disciplines has been the a shift away from narrative annals describing political and social happenings on the elite level, to a more thorough quantitative analysis of the state of mass culture and material condition. Both perspectives are important; in War and Peace and War Peter Turchin reports military historical research which suggests that the presence of Napoleon at a battle was the equivalent of the French having 30% more troops! This suggests that to some extent Great Men do matter, but one must remember that the emergence of parvenu such as Napoleon was conditioned upon the Malthusian economic and social stresses of late 18th century France.

But the Slate piece also puts the spotlight on the particular nature of human psychology and its relation to feces:

Reuse works better when it involves camouflage. This technique is used, appropriately for a militarized country, in Israel. During a presentation at a London wastewater conference, a beautiful woman from Israel's Mekorot wastewater treatment utility, who stood out in a room full of gray suits, explained that they fed the effluent into an aquifer, withdrew it, then used it as potable water. "It is psychologically very important," she told the rapt audience, "for people to know that the water is coming from the aquifer." This is a clever way of getting around fecal aversion. Not having wastewater-and not wasting water-would be better still.

I'm sure this is not surprising to most readers, especially if you have read something like Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby. One can posit pretty straightforward adaptive reasons for why humans tend to have an aversion to feces and rot; but whatever the ultimate root of these instincts they're pretty universal. Of course, like eating spicy peppers humans seem able to get around these hardwired instincts, or leverage them in some way so as to invert their effect. For example, the application of feces upon wounds had a long history in pre-modern medicine, all the way back to the Egyptians. The detailed inferences can sometimes be surprising, but the point is that though most humans reflectively accept the atomic and molecular understanding of the world, reflexively they are Aristotelians. Intuitions can be overcome or unlearned to a great extent, but if one wishes to reform the human outlook one needs to take into account its a priori biases. The human mind is not amorphous clay which one can mold into any shape in an infinite manner of ways, rather, it is a collection of blocks and units which likely have innumerable combinatorial possibilities, but certainly a finite number subject to various constraints and conditions.

The cultural variation in attitudes which is overlain on human universals illustrates the reality that despite innate tendencies human minds are elastic. Consider:
Sanitation professionals sometimes divide the world into fecal-phobic and fecal-philiac cultures. India is the former (though only when the dung is not from cows); China is definitely and blithely the latter. Nor is the place of excrement confined to the fields. It has featured prominently in Chinese public life and literature for at least a thousand years.

The recycling of "night soil" mentioned in the Slate piece was also highly developed in Tokugawa Japan. Not only did the practice increase crop yields so that a large population was feasible with pre-modern agricultural techniques, but it had a byproduct effect of fostering public hygiene and reducing the disease burden (noted above). As far as the Chinese go, the attitude toward utilization of human waste, as well as other cultural traits such as minimal food taboos, illustrate the deep strain of pragmatic rationalism which many early or proto-Enlightenment philosophers so admired. As for the South Asia tendency to extend and elaborate on human intuitions and tendencies as opposed to channeling toward material ends, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all....

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Mongol Art of War   posted by Razib @ 10/01/2008 01:23:00 AM

If Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World grated on you because of the transparent lack of scholarly objectivity, I recommend Timothy May's The Mongol Art of War. May usually attempts to present "both sides" in any given scholarly debate, but he also tells you which side is the majority and which the minority. And there's good quantitative data, like the fact that Mongol light cavalry had a range of up to 300 meters in terms of their bows. The Mongol Art of War makes it pretty obvious that courage is sometimes overrated as an ingredient of conquest, the Mongols rarely engaged in pitched battles because they weren't exceptional hand-to-hand fighters. Rather, when battling an enemy on open field they simply barraged their opponents with missile fire until attrition wore them down. Their reputedly high accuracy from long distances meant that they could stay out of danger while simultaneously inflicting casualties on the opposition. Not to be trite but it sounds like a precursor to "shock & awe" via air power medieval style.

It seems understandable that chivalry might emerge in societies where martial elites have incentives to formalize & codify and so minimize the risks inherent in the art of war, which is after all their primary profession. In contrast, the Mongol war machine which emerged in the early 13th century was notable for its relatively exceptional social egalitarianism. The Mongol army did not consist of an elite professional war-band, but rather was drawn from vast swaths of the adult male tribal population of Mongolia (on the order of perhaps 1/2 of the adult males served in the mobile armies during the initial years). Like the Roman legions before 100 BCE this was a nation of soldiers on the march, not the soldiers of a nation. Genghis Khan's light cavalry simply leveraged the typical skills of a nomad on a horse with bow in hand. The rapid expansion from the Yellow to the Black seas was due less to the calculated glory seeking of status seeking aristocrats than the random-walk rapaciousness of nomads whose lives had been characterized by existence on the margins of subsistence supplemented by raiding of surplus producing sedentary farmers. To some extent the emergence of the Mongol Empire was a series of raids writ-large.

Addendum: One thing I found interesting was the suggestion that one of the major reasons that Mongol expansion into the Middle East ran out of steam was lack of pasture for their horses. Each Mongol warrior might have had 5-15 horses. In South China the Mongols under Kublai Khan had to reinvent themselves because light cavalry did not offer any comparative advantage in the local ecology. And later Mongol attempts to expand into Southeast and Maritime Asia generally failed more often than not. In many parts of Eurasia the Mongols were defeated, but like the Romans before them they kept coming and eventually overcame resistance. This makes me wonder about true historical significance of the Mamluk defeat of the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut, as in many accounts this is a great historical turning point. The implication is that if the Mongols had not been defeated in this battle they would have gone on to conquer all of North Africa. But as I alluded to above in Russia there were defeats but the Mongols bounced back. In contrast they were defeated several times by the Mamluks after Ain Jalut. This to me points to ecological constraints on the comparative advantage of the Mongol-way-of-war. Of course it is also quite plausible that empires have natural limits to their size contingent upon the scalability of communication lines as well as the diminishing returns on additional increments of territory.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why diversity can be a problem   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2008 10:19:00 AM

Many readers of this weblog are familiar with Robert Putnam's research showing that communitarianism may be inversely correlated with diversity. In the American context we're likely to view this through the prism of race and ethnicity. But Peter Turchin in his work tends to focus on religion and other ideologies as the group identities around which humans coalesce. Humans obviously have a need for conformity and solidarity; I recall as a child a Steelers fan getting into a fight with a Browns fan. So it should not be hard to observe the problems which ideological diversity produce even in an ethnically and racially homogeneous nation such as South Korea.

Last week there were mass demonstrations of Buddhists in South Korea against the religious parochialism of the current president, a Presbyterian elder. The president is already unpopular for other reasons, so I don't personally believe that this unrest is a necessary outcome of religious tension. Rather, as documented in books such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a social context where individuals feel under stress and insecure will often produce intergroup conflict. In an age of plenty there is elbow room between factions because of the growing pie, but when we smell the Malthusian trap in the air group level affinities come to the fore as you don't want to become isolated as an individual without communal capital which you can leverage.

South Korea is I suspect a case where these dynamics might become more important in the coming years because of its religious diversity. Additionally, religious tension is not a new feature of the culture. It isn't too hard to find instances of fundamentalist Christians attacking Buddhism. This is similar to cases in Brazil where evangelicals have destroyed statues of the Virgin Mary. There several recent incidents associated with the current head of state which precipitated the present crisis, but note this:
But tension has been building up since December, when newly elected president Lee began filling his first cabinet with Christians. At least a half of his new ministers were people professing to be Christians, with the prime minister, Han Seung Soo, said to be a Roman Catholic. Not a single cabinet minister professed to be Buddhist.


Of the 15 members of Lee's Cabinet, 12 are Christian and one is Buddhist while the affiliation of two others was not immediately available.

So obviously there's some disagreement, but one can assume here that though Christians are 1/3 of the population they are the substantial majority of the cabinet. Is this prejudice? Discrimination? Do Buddhists have grounds to be angry? As I have noted before in South Korea Christianity has a strong correlation with higher socioeconomic status. If one assumes that cabinet level positions sample from the social and educational elites, then they will naturally tend to preponderantly be Christians! Of course since the president is a zealous Christian one can always be suspicious of his motive and method, so as a precautionary principle one could argue that there should have been an affirmative action to reach out to Buddhists so that the cabinet "looked like the nation."

In the United States we're so hung up on racial and ethnic factions that we often don't notice that the disparate representations of different religious groups in government. Check the religious affiliations of Congress and Governors. Thank God we live well below the Malthusian limit!

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

The wealth of communities   posted by Razib @ 8/31/2008 09:49:00 PM

Variation is interesting. Why are there species, for example? Why do identical twins vary in life outcomes at all? How, and why, do the two antipodal maritime temperate regions of Eurasia, China and Europe, differ? The answers one comes up with vary by discipline and scope. In Farewell to Alms the economic historian Gregory Clark explains the genetic outcome of differences in lactase persistence (LP) as a function of variation in wealth; Europeans were wealthier so they could invest in the expensive production of milk and meat. I suspect most natural scientists would look to environmental constraints as the largest effect variables; LP arises in environments where cattle culture is more productive on a per area unit basis than grain culture. And then there is of course the fact that human lifestyles do not exist in a social and historical vacuum. There is evidence that wide swaths of the north China plain were abandoned by farmers during periods of political disorder due to their vulnerability to the depredations of nomadic groups (Genghis Khan's plan to depopulate the Yellow River plain and turn it into pasture was not as bizarre as one might think). When political stability returned there would be a shift in the boundary between nomad and farmer. If Peter Turchin is right then the variables effecting these changes are endogenous to a model of historical dynamics which are characterized by cycles (Turchin's case study of the expansion of Slavs and farming along the Ukrainian Cossack frontier is a classical case where politics rather than ecology served as the limiting reagent).

But for a moment I want to zoom the scale. In The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, there is a chapter, The Riddle of Longevity: Why Zunhua?:

People lived longer in the late-imperial department Zunhua in the mountains along the old Ming northern frontier...The expectation of life at birth for a woman was in the high forties, twice as long as in Jiaxing....

...The latest gazetteer from imperial times...has no record of epidemics of infectious disease....This was in marked contrast with the coastal province in which Jiaxing was located, namely Zhejiang. In Zheijang people were gripped by a fear of epidemics....

Jiaxing is highlighted because another chapter focuses on the taming of this region and its transition from being a marginal territory on the periphery of Chinese civilization to a rationally managed agricultural heartland. A case in point supporting the thesis of hydraulic despotism. The author notes a few points to contrast Zunhua and Jiaxing:

1) Climate. Zunhua was much colder in winter, with temperatures generally falling below zero. This surely dampened the local pathogen load.

2) Ecological differences. Zunhua is relatively mountainous, while Jiaxing is a coastal wetland region tamed into an expanse of intensive rice production. Irrigation is common in Jiaxing, but there were ecological constraints on its utilization in Zunhua (the soil is very sandy and so there are major issues with drainage which reduced the efficiency of canals).

3) Differences in diet. Zunhua's populace had a relatively diverse diet, where dry land agriculture was balanced with animal husbandry and hunting and gathering. In contrast, Jiaxing was a classic climax rice monoculture where almost all calories were from grain.

4) There were differences in ethnicity. The local historical identity of non-Han peoples was far stronger in Zunhua than in Jiaxing. The process of Sinicization had proceeded to completion in Jiaxing, which now lay along the axis of the economic heartland of China. In contrast, Zunhua was for nearly 3,000 years on the northeast boundary of Han habitation. It was known to the ancient Chinese, and Han populations were generally extant within its territory, but it was often dominated culturally by non-Han groups who would play a large role without Chinese history, culminating in the Manchus.

The author also notes that there was a large difference in the extent of female labor in Jiaxing and Zunhua. It was a prominent feature of the life of peasants in Jiaxing, but not so of Zunhua. Additionally, one bureaucrat observed that unlike many other parts of China it was not typical for very poor women in Zunhua to supplement their income with de facto prostitution (random "walks" in the fields). The inhabitants of Zunhua were consumers of a fair amount of meat, but interesting they were also milk drinkers, atypical for China.

The Census data from 1820 to 1910 suggests that Zunhua was relatively underpopulated (the author's focus here is on observations hinged around the late Imperial Manchu dynasty). This probably explains the relative wealth of a the typical peasant in Zunhua vis-a-vis one in Jiaxing (as well as lack of epidemics). But why was Zunhua so underpopulated in the first place? Are the data from the late Imperial period just a transient which captures a snapshot before the region is caught in a Malthusian Trap? To some extent I suspect so, but, I wanted to note specifically that Zunhua was on the radar of Chinese annalists nearly 3,000 years ago. Unlike vast regions of far southern inland China it was not new to Sinicization, rather, Sinicization simply never completed itself over the ensuing centuries. In fact, the region was for long periods under barbarian rule and outside of China proper.

First, I want to repeat one of the major obvious insights of The Retreat of the Elephants, the process of Sinicization was inevitable, a matter of time, across much of what is today China. The millet and rice based agricultural systems associated with Han Chinese swept away competing lifestyles before them like a deterministic physical system. A proactive program of cutting down forests and clearing land, as well as channeling and controlling the flow of running water across the landscape, was part and parcel of the expansion of the Chinese state and Han identity. Some of the increase in the numbers of the latter is surely a matter of demographics, as Chinese settlers push into cleared land. On the other hand, there is extensive documentary evidence that those non-Chinese tribes which adhered to lifestyles which were at variance with that of the Han on many occasions adopted the intensive farming lifestyle when their territories were impinged upon. Eventually they saw themselves as Han. In the Christian and Islamic world it was common to assert that war against those outside of the bounds of their religious civilization was by nature just because they were infidels, and that enslavement of unbelievers was acceptable. Some of the material in this book highlights a similar ideology on the part of the the Han Chinese through their perception that those who were not Han were fundamentally not human or subhuman. But, just as with Christianity or Islam, tribes and peoples could become Han. This process was one less of ideology, though certainly elites adopted Confucian ethics and the Chinese classics, as opposed to one characterized by a way of life in terms of the optimal mode of resource extraction and utilization. To be Han the commoners farmed like the Han, and the rulers ruled like the Han.

The Han way of life was eminently successful in terms of extracting more productivity per unit are of land, as evidenced by the fact that China is now well over 90% Han, and, its historically high population density. It was not a rigid orthodoxy, the original millet based farming system which arose around the Yellow River plain gave way to the dominance of rice agriculture, likely originally a feature of the culture of non-Han populations of central and south China. The Han way of life was one of maximal resource extraction and mass mobilization of populations under the aegis of a central governing unit. The transition from Han to non-Han seems to have been partly due to demic and cultural diffusion as a bottom-up process, but, as documented in The Retreat of the Elephants, it was also a function of the greater robusticity of the war machines of Han states. Not only could they mobilize more men, but they could they could organize and coordinate their actions because of the central nature of their polities. Local peoples had an advantage in terms of their knowledge of regional conditions and could wage a persistent rearguard action over the centuries by disrupting the social and agriculture systems (e.g., canals, bridges, bureaucrats, etc.) which Han society depended upon, but over the long haul Sinicization marched on. The machine could be broken, but never utterly destroyed.

So why did Zunhua resist Sinicization so long? I suspect that the prevalence of animal husbandry indicates that the Han agricultural complex was simply not as well suited to this region. In areas too dry for agriculture irrigation is an option, but as noted above it was not an ideal one in Zunhua because of the characteristics of the terrain and soils. During the Former Han dynasty the emperor Wu engaged in a series of wars with the nomadic Xiongnu, but a serious problem with defeating these peoples was that a Chinese victory did not result in cultural assimilation. There were instances where the nomads could not win, but they could never truly lose. In areas too dry, cold and rugged for Han agricultural techniques nomadic life simply was more economically more efficient, or, more accurately the only option aside from hunting and gathering. The final Chinese "victory" over the Xiongnu occurred via co-option from their within by dividing their elite and brandishing the allure of civilized luxury goods. To some extent there was little difference in the material conditions of the Xiongnu elite, instead of engaging in raids to obtain wealth they were bribed or paid by the Chinese polity. In terms of efficiency this reduced the uncertainty on the part of the Chinese and so was economically a good decision as it allowed for a shift toward lower time preference.

Reading the chapter in question here, I got the feeling that the economic and social conditions in Zunhua mimicked the contrasts which one might draw between pre-modern Europe and China. Europeans had a more mixed diet than the Asian peasant, and their agricultural complex relied to a far greater extent on animal husbandry and cattle (or, differently stated, more inputs of capital than labor to increase marginal returns). The average European peasants was arguably wealthier than the average Chinese peasant. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark points to better hygiene in East Asia leading to a different death schedule, so that the Chinese would be pushing against the Malthusian limit to a greater extent (fewer mouths dividing up a finite pie in Europe vs. China at any given time). On the other hand, economic historians such as Raymond Crotty have emphasized the peculiar ecology of Northern Europe, and the incentives that existed toward raising of cattle stock as opposed to cereal agriculture. From what I have read it seems clear that in places such as Scandinavia traditional cereal agriculture gave a relatively low in yield. After all, wheat is a crop of the Mediterranean. Oats were a better bet, but are relatively unpalatable to humans, so they were more effectively grown as fodder for cattle.

A quick look at a world map will show that Europe is far to the north of China. Because of the disparate impact of Westerlies the different sides of continents at the same latitude may experience climatic regimes which vary a great deal. Northern California and New Jersey are an example. Distance from oceans also matter, southern Nebraska has a more "continental" climate than either New Jersey or northern California despite similar latitudes. It seems to me that on reason China and Europe took such radically different paths in terms of agriculture styles, in particular northern Europe and China, were differences in their ecological parameters. Europe is a very high latitude temperate zone characterized by moderation in its climate and relative regularity in its precipitation. China is a relatively low latitude temperate zone because of its exposure to the winter air of central Asia, as well as being subject to the reversal monsoonal flow during the summer, which is the season of greatest precipitation. The region of Europe at the similar latitude as north China, the Mediterranean zone, is characterized by much milder temperatures in winter as well as an inverted precipitation regime from Asia, with a maximum during the cold season of least sunlight.

But in the case of Zunhua ecology is probably not the only constraint. Its local population in the ancient phase included many "friendly" Xiongnu, suggesting its proximity to the steppe heartland. The period which The Retreat of the Elephants surveys is one of relative peace when Zunhua was not on a political frontier, the Manchu dynasty had subjugated Mongolia, and pushed the north boundaries of the Chinese Empire past the Amur river. For much of Chinese history in contrast Zunhua was a borderland, often not under Chinese hegemony. It seems plausible that therefore Zunhua was often a "No Man's Land," and so not subject to economic exploitation because of the risks inherent. I suspect an analogy to arable regions of Ukraine which were long occupied by nomads may be made. Up until the expansion of the Czarist state during the 17th century farmers that lived in central and eastern Ukraine would be subject to brutal exploitation by nomadic peoples, a dynamic one can glean as far back as the Scythians. Only with the rise of the Gunpowder Empires were the nomads on the marchlands finally defeated and extinguished as a threatening wild card which dissuaded farmers from settling vast swaths of Inner Eurasia. To some extent this might be interpreted simply as a variant of Greg Clark's point about shifting the death schedule; during periods when Zunhua was on the borders only those who were willing to risk life and limb would settle there, and periodic wars would "clean out" the region demographically.

Ultimately though I am curious as to why agriculture developed the way it did in China, being so focused on human labor. In The Great Divergence it is pointed out that China was more densely populated than India, and that land was more plentiful in South Asia. In Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches it is argued that cattle reverence in India is a function of the fact that bulls are an essential draft animal (the author notes that a disproportionate number of feral cattle are cows). In When Histories Collide Raymond Crotty argues that cattle reverence in India is due to the fact that killing calves would be counterproductive in terms of milk production. I have already provided some general rationales for why animal husbandry was relatively rational in Europe. In China, the primary animal was the pig. In terms of domesticates it seems that the pig is nearly feral, generally subsisting on offal. The pig can not produce milk, nor can it serve as a work animal. Various regions of Eurasia developed "critical mass" as complex literate societies during the pre-modern era, but gross features of their modes of production still differed. Why? Some ideas.

Going off William H. McNeill's arguments in Plagues and Peoples, I suggest that South Asia had a higher pathogen load than East Asia, and so there was always downward pressure on the population so that it did not "push" against the Malthusian Trap to the same extent. This also freed up more land so that successful farmers might get a relatively larger marginal return from the utilization of cattle as draft animals.

In Europe the variables were not disease related, but structural differences in climatic regimes. Northern Europe was well watered, but extremely cool and moist. It was not suited to the arid adapted grains from the temperate zone because of the latter parameter, but also not appropriate for rice agricultural because of the former (the Po river valley has rice now due to advanced irrigation techniques). Mediterranean Europe is subject to the peculiarities of its winter maxima precipitation regime. This allows for the cultivation of olives and other specialty crops, but, it also results in a situation where most of the rain falls during the season of least sunlight.

The ecological differences between Europe and China had an agricultural/economic implication: the Chinese could maximize caloric output per unit area of land through pure cereal cultivation. In contrast, the Europeans could not maximize calorie output through cereal cultivation but had to engage in "mixed" agriculture. The caloric total extractable out of the land per unit area was lower when summing the complements which were produced in European agriculture, but, the balance of nutritional intakes (protein, vitamins, etc.) was superior. This resulted in naturally greater physiological fitness for Europeans than Chinese as well as a lower final population density, and also natural evolutionary changes such as LP to deal with specific nutritional intakes.

Finally, I want to touch upon the general manner in which farming spread. It is quite clear that over the long term in China the Han way of life resulted in reduced lifetime physiological fitness. Nevertheless, it was above the threshold of fitness necessary for viability so that an individual could reproduce. Additionally during the transient when it was expanding into regions where land was in surplus it might actually have been a lifestyle that lead to relative affluence. The main problem is that this affluence was temporary as the population reached the local Malthusian limit. At this point the exhaustion of the local ecological base which might have supplemented the grain monoculture was beyond a point of no return and the society was "boxed in" to a lifestyle predicated on surviving through the next harvest. Additionally, judging by the fact that Han elites had surplus which they could use to bribe barbarian warlords the quantitative rise in the subjects from which to extract rents was sufficient to more than cancel out the qualitative decline in the character of the tax extracted. The Han way of life might have been misery for the peasantry, but there was a reasonable case that the Confucian bureaucratic fixation on a free peasant base as the ideal subject population was self-interested. Underfed farmers made quiescent subordinates. In contrast, nomads were notoriously factious, and their periodic organized eruptions were contingent upon coalescence around a particularly charismatic figure, or, more often the collapse of the Chinese political order and the opportunity for unparalleled plunder. Nevertheless, the fact that nomads were presences along the northern edge of Chinese civilization implies that there were ecological constraints on the spread of the Han lifestyle. Beyond the reach of dryland farming and irrigation there was no possibility of settlement. While nomads could always turn arable land into pasturage, the Han could not always turn pasturage into arable land.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Earthquakes → progress?   posted by Razib @ 8/27/2008 12:18:00 PM

Tectonic environments of ancient civilizations in the eastern hemisphere:
The map distribution of ancient civilizations shows a remarkable correspondence with tectonic boundaries related to the southern margin of the Eurasian plate. Quantification of this observation shows that the association is indeed significant, and both historical records and archaeoseismological work show that these civilizations commonly suffered earthquake damage. Close association of ancient civilizations with tectonic activity seems to be a pattern of some kind. In the hope that dividing the civilizations into subsets might clarify the meaning of this relation, primary and derivative civilizations were compared. Derivative civilizations prove to be far more closely related to the tectonic boundaries. Similarly, the civilizations that endured the longest (and that have been described as most static) are systematically the farthest from plate boundaries. It is still unclear how the relation actually worked in ancient cultures, i.e., what aspects of tectonism promoted complexity. Linkages to water and other resources, trade (broadly construed), and societal response seem likely. Volcanism appears not to be involved.

ScienceNow, Did Rumbling Give Rise to Rome? has a nice map. Exogenous shocks playing a critical role in cultural creativity? Remember that earthquakes were often interpreted as negative divine omens and elicited a drive toward soul searching....

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Debin Ma v. Kenneth Pomeranz: East Asia v. Europe   posted by Herrick @ 8/19/2008 04:29:00 PM

Debin Ma of the London School of Economics has spent time in the archives and has come to conclusions quite different from Pomeranz's.

Ma's recent papers (especially this one and this one) make archive-driven comparisons of European and East Asian living standards around the start of the industrial revolution. Both papers have coauthors, but I focus on Ma because he speaks and reads both Japanese and Chinese, something lamentably rare among economic historians at English-speaking universities.

One quote from the abstract of the first-linked paper:

Matching caloric and protein contents in our Japanese consumption baskets with those in European baskets, we compare Japanese and European urban real wages. Real wage rates in Kyoto and later Tokyo are about a third London wages but comparable to wages in major Southern and Central European cities for the 1700-1900 [period].

From the abstract of the second-linked paper:

In the eighteenth century, the real income of building workers in Asia was similar to that of workers in the backward parts of Europe and far behind that of workers in the leading economies in northwestern Europe. Industrialization led to rising real wages in Europe and Japan. Real wages declined in China in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries....

A lot of Ma's work is Japan v. China, not Asia v. Europe, so both lines of his agenda are likely of interest to GNXP readers. Given the overfishing in the pool of English-language economic history documents, Ma should be able to just throw his net overboard and pull in the big hauls for at least another decade.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The triumph of Catholicism   posted by Razib @ 8/13/2008 03:24:00 PM

Most of you have heard about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (which, more accurately should probably be termed the Catholic Reformation). But after posting earlier on the parameters which affect the shape and constraints of religious change, I thought it was important to mention something: in the second half the 16th century Catholicism was very close to becoming purely a Mediterranean sect of Christianity. In other words, Catholicism seemed on the verge of disappearing from Germany to the same extent that it did from England by and large. In East Central Europe, the precursors to the modern states of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland and Hungary, it was also being marginalized by Lutheranism, the Reformed Churches as well as even more extreme groups such as Unitarians. France had a large Huguenot minority which was represented disproportionately among the gentry and nobility. If you want to read about the extent of the rollback in the face of Protestantism check out The Thirty Years' War, The Reformation and Divided by Faith. All of them explore the massive penetration and domination of Protestantism among the Polish and Austrian nobility and the near collapse of Catholic parishes in regions which we today view as staunchly Roman Catholic.

But a Catholic world dominated by the peninsular Mediterranean never became. Today we have a German Pope, and the previous Pontif was Polish. Vast swaths of southern and western Germany remain Catholic, while the Protestant minority in France was expelled in the later 17th century (aside from mountainous redoubts such as Cevannes). What happened? The short answer is that the Hapsburgs happened. The Church operated in concert with the Holy Roman Emperor and other monarchs to reinvigorate the institutional framework of Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were famously instrumental in this process of reform. But this was not a pure program of persuasion; Protestants who were not noble were often given the choice of emigration or conversion to the Catholic faith. Whole districts in Austria where Catholic parishes were no longer a feature of the landscape were re-Catholicized in a few years simply through imperial fiat. The mostly Protestant nobility could not be forced to convert, but they were blocked from patronage and access to the offices which brought glory upon their houses and maintained their fortunes. Additionally, though their private worship was given some latitude on their estates initially a step-by-step process of removal of these privileges also occurred over several generations. The result was that noble lineages who remained in the re-Catholicized regions of the Hapsburg Empire converted to the established religion, while those who would not give up their Protestant faith emigrated to regions where they could practice freely.

There are two domains of the former Hapsburg Empire which retain a large Protestant population; Hungary and Transylvania. And they illustrate the power of imperial fiat in driving religious change, because for much of the early modern period Transylvania was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Hungary was divided by a western Hapsburg domain and an eastern Ottoman portion. Not surprisingly, it is in the east that Protestant populations are most numerous because it is in the east that the re-Catholicization program was operative for the shortest period since these regions were under Turkish rule for most of the 17th century. The moral of the story here is that the diplomatic history of Europe between 1600 and 1800 can very accurately predict the religious configuration that we see today. Mass social movements simply could not succeed without the support of the elite, and the potentate had wide powers with which he or she could reshape that elite.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Historical Dynamics and contingent conditions of religion   posted by Razib @ 8/06/2008 10:54:00 AM

Peter Turchin's Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall showed up a little sooner than I'd thought it would, and it was an even quicker read than War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (see review). There isn't really anything new verbal in the more technical treatment, but the book is about half the length because so much of the text was condensed into simple differential equations and figures which displayed the results of simulations. The figure to the left was one that I found particularly interesting, the differential equations which this is based on are:

dA/dt = c0AS(1 - A/h) - a

dS/dt = r0(1 - A/[2b])S(1 - S)

Where A = area, c = state's resources translated into geopolitical power, r is the growth rate, h is the spatial scale of power project, a is the geopolitical pressure from the hinterland and S is average polity-wide level of collective solidarity. You can find the elucidation of the details of the simulation in the appendix of Historical Dynamics.

Turchin was obviously pleased with how similar the dynamics of area of polity vs. time were in the simulation to what the empirical data showed. Of course, because of the sensitivity to initial parameters there isn't going to be a real prediction of the trajectory of state rise and fall, as opposed to inferences about the likely patterns. For example, in the comments to the previous post Italy was focused in on as a weakness in many of the generalizations, and Turchin actually spends a fair amount of time admitting that he has no real answer for why Italy turned out the way it did and admits that his model can explain a lot, but not all. He's happy with an r-squared of 0.75.

The above was just a taste, I'm not going to go much deeper since you can get the book yourself. Mathematically oriented works are pretty straightforward and you can reject it or accept it (or not understand it). In any case, I want to focus on another issue which is emphasized in Historical Dynamics, the autocatalytic model of religious conversion. The idea here is simple; the rate of conversion is proportional to the number of converts, and the result is a logistic curve over time. Turchin draws strongly upon Rodney Stark & co's work on the importance of transmission through social networks, and uses textual data to suggest that the growth of Christianity during the Roman Empire, and Islam in both Spain and Iran, seem to map well onto a logistic growth function.

In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that the conversion of Constantine, and the progression in the 4th century of Christianity becoming a state-identified cult, actually slowed the spread of the religion! Stark's thesis is obviously derived in large part from the American experience of cult, sect and denominational rise and fall. Historically minded readers might wonder as to the generalizable nature of a supply side rational choice model for the ancient world. In The Barbarian Conversion the difference between the Roman and early medieval periods in terms of the spread of Christianity is rather clear and distinct, what was plausibly a "bottom up" dynamic quickly turned into a "trickle down" and fiat process (also see Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity).

A comparison to the Islamic case is perhaps a good analogy for what happened across much of Europe after the fall of Rome. When the elites in the German frontier, or Lithuania, or Russia, converted to Christianity, their nations were considered Christianized. That is, full members of Christendom. But the persistence of pagan practices among the populace was common, and even the newly Christian nobility often exhibited dual religious identities (e.g., public and international practice of Christianity combined with cryptic or local adherence to pagan seasonal rituals and sacrifices). I suspect that here you have a situation where autocatalytic models for the population might be appropriate to describing the dynamics of initially nominally Christian states. In Iran or Al-Andalus the elites were Muslim, and the population as a whole, who were ethnically different, lagged. From an "orthodox" Muslim perspective any state which is ruled by Muslims is by definition part of the domain of Islam (this is the rational for reconquering Spain and India by jihadists, as these lands remain Muslim in perpetuity). To some extent the Christian hierarchy seems to have taken a similar viewpoint, though there were attempts to stamp out open paganism among the peasantry, to a large extent de facto syncretism was tolerated so long as the monopoly of Christianity as the elite public religion was maintained and forms were adhered to during ritual occasions.

As I observed above, the autocatalytic model as elucidated by Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that spread of religions such as Christianity is inevitable. In One True God Stark makes this explicit. Turchin emphasizes the importance of exclusionary religions which also can assimilate outsiders in allowing for the coalescence of identity on metaethnic frontiers. In Darwin's Cathedral David Sloan Wilson promotes the idea that religious belief can serve functional ends in producing higher than individual left units of interest and action. Many cognitive psychologists have observed that universal religions often result in fictive kinship. Note here that the important point is not the propensity toward supernatural belief; that's modal human cognition. Rather, it is the specific theological and institutional character of a religious organization which allows them to successfully compete with other "firms," and if the autocatalytic dynamics are dominant these will result in the extinction of "weaker" religious organizations in the face of "stronger" ones over time via the choice of individual actors along the filaments of a social network.

A classic case study is the rise of Christianity and the late Roman Empire referred to above. It seems likely that around the year 300 about 10% of the Roman Empire's population was Christian. Rodney Stark would hold that the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent sponsorship of the new religion by the emperors was only illustrative of the general trend at best, and possibly even detrimental. On the face of it this seems likely a ridiculous contention. Could it be that paganism was actually strengthened by state sponsorship of Christianity? That Theodosius' forcible suppression of pagan cults around 395 was only the outcome of the relative weakness of Christianity because of its association with the Roman state? Could the fact that as the 4th century proceeded customary subsidies to pagan cults were shifted to the Christian Church have actually taken some of the thunder out of the triumph of Christianity?

Stark and company point to the anemic nature of state sponsored Christianity in Europe as compared to the free market of American religious firms. Their model is to some extent an economical one, and they hold that state enforced subsidies and monopolies do nothing but sap the vigor of any corporate entity, which the early Christian Church was to a great extent. This particular critique is not new, even if the language borrows a bit from modern economic thinking. Early Protestant radicals viewed the Roman Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation, and some of them even looked explicitly back to the "primitive" Church before Constantine as the model for how true religion should organize. The descendants of this sort of outlook are numerous in American Protestantism, though the most direct heirs are the Amish who reject the contention that the world as a whole can be saved. They are the most extreme of the Protestants who turned their backs on the concept of the Church Universal which sanctifies and saves the whole society.

But hypotheses need to be teased apart and tested. The state sponsorship of Christianity manifested in a "soft" form between 320 and 390, and in more explicit and exclusive form after 390. The subsequent identity of the Roman Empire and Christianity adds a rather large confound into the autocatalytic model. After all, though to a large extent unenforceable, the emperor Theodosius I issued edicts which banned private practice of pagan religion. There were also state approved destruction of pagan temples, as well as tacit elite approval of the vigilante violence on the part of radical priests. A good analogy for those of you who aren't versed in this era of history would be the way Christians are treated in the Middle East, they are not forced to convert through direct violence, but there is certainly a general lack of tolerance for religious pluralism and moderate levels of intimidation directed at Christian practice on a day to day basis. The ultimate result is of course emigration and conversion in the face of strong disincentives at practice of the Christian religion. This does not show that Islam is necessarily a better "firm," rather, state subsidy and dominant support have only expanded its operational religious monopoly. At the end of the day state support might result in such a weakened Islam that a new religion supersedes it, but that process might not come to fruition for centuries. Until then....

There are two cases I can think of which do not suffer from this direct confound of state sponsorship and subsidy. The first is Ireland, where Christianity came to dominance via diffusion across the nobility in a decentralized manner. While Ireland was being Christianized, the Roman frontier right across the Irish Sea was seeing the extinction of Romano-British Christianity aside from in enclaves in Wales. The eventual flourishing of Ireland as a center of Christian civilization in the early medieval period is well known, so I won't belabor the point. Though no doubt prominent Irish Christians favored their own religion on their own lands, it remains that this was a decentralized society so unitary fiat could not enforce Christianity from above. In the Irish case I think it is plausible that the strengths of Christianity as a Roman religion, with the attendant associations with Romanitas, was attractive for barbarian warlords who wished to integrate themselves into the international luxury
goods trade, or encourage the spread of literacy so as to rationalize their economic arrangements. These warlords likely did load the die for the Christian religion so that the consumer element might be relatively muted from a modern American perspective. But nevertheless, here you have a case where neither direct exogenous Christian force (e.g., the Germans threatening to invade Denmark unless the king converted to Christianity), nor a endogenous compulsion from the center, were operative.

The second case is more obscure, and perhaps less tenable because of the fewer facts known, but to me far more interesting. And that is Mesopotamia. Though there were some periods when what is today Iraq was part of the Roman Empire, by and large Mesopotamia was an extension of Persia before the rise of Islam. The summer capital of the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, Ctesiphon, was a successor to Babylon and Seleucia, the predecessor of Baghdad. Nevertheless, Mesopotamia was not culturally Persian, it was Semitic. Prior to the Arabicization of what became Iraq the dominant dialects were affiliated with Aramaic, though there were Arab, Persian and Greek speaking minorities. But more importantly as Peter Brown notes in The Rise of Western Christendom, Mesopotamia was a mostly Christian region (with a large Jewish minority, especially in the south). There were no Zoroastrian Fire Temples in Ctesiphon.

In the Sassanid Empire the Zoroastrian religion was very much the ethnic cult of the Persians. Though some non-Persians might espouse this religion (there are attested cases of Zoroastrian Turks, and other converts), this was not a program sponsored by the ruling caste in a proactive manner. The attempts to force Armenian nobles to convert to Zoroastrianism was the exception that proved the rule; the Armenian elite were culturally very similar to the Persian nobles with whom they fought in the armies of the Sassanids, and the Armenian ruling dynasty was even originally a cadet branch of the Parthian Arascids. Proselytising of Armenians was simply part of the project to homogenize the martial elite of the Persian Empire under the same religious ideology. In contrast, the Aramaic speaking peasantry were left to their own devices.

The relatively laissez faire attitude of the Sassanids toward the religious identity of their subjects in Mesopatamia had the expected result in terms of pluralism. Modern Haran was usually within the orbit of the Roman Empire, but it was the only area to persist with organized paganism down into the Islamic area, and it seems likely that the Sabians of the early Muslim period emerged from this milieu (they were by the way extremely overrepresented among those involved in the preservation and transmission of classical learning). Why did they not convert to Christianity? One reason is that they were given religious tolerance because they were explicitly protected by the Shah of Persia, who could have easily intervened because of the geographic proximity of Haran to his domains. In contrast during the mid-6th century the last vestiges of institutional paganism in places like Egypt and Lebanon were blotted out under the order of the Emperor Justinian. Across the border in Sassanid Mesopotamia the majority of the population became Christians in all likelihood, but the extant presence (at least until recently) of heterodox cults such as Mandaeism and Yezidism in this region today are I believe echoes of the diversity which was the norm during late antiquity.

All that being said, it seems likely that when the Arabs conquered Iraq in the mid-600s most of the populace were Christian. It is important to note that they were Christians which the Roman Empire based in Constantinople would perceive as heretical. They were Monophysite or Nestorian in inclination, not only theologically deviant, but institutionally hostile to the Christian Church organized within the Roman Empire (those Christians in the Fertile Crescent who adhered to Roman Church were termed Melkite, which means Imperial, an allusion to their loyalties). The Nestorian Christians are often identified as the Persian Church because of that group's almost total exclusion from the Roman Empire and prominence among ethnic Persians.

I've put the spotlight on Mesopotamian Christianity as it was around 600 as the dominant religion to ask this question: whatever happened to Babylonian paganism? As I said above, Roman hegemony over Mesopotamia only occurred under the religiously tolerant pagan period. The Persian rulers were interested in the religion of their Mesopotamian subjects only insofar as it had political ramifications; obviously they would encourage the anti-Roman Nestorian faction, discourage pro-Roman Melkites, and deal with the Monophysites who spanned both the Persian and Roman Empire on a case by case basis as circumstances dictated (the Persians tended to suppress socially disruptive Mazdakites and Manichaeans because these groups drew from Zoroastrianism). The case of the Sabians and the Persian protection of this pagan-descended cult against the religious cleansing which was a characteristic of Justinian's reign in the mid-6th century also suggests that there was no hostility to polytheistic paganism as such. In fact, many scholars of Zoroastrianism contend that that religion is more monotheistic in its presentation today for two reasons. First, the period of Muslim rule of course incentivized Zoroastrians to present the most acceptable, i.e., monotheistic, face of their religion to the majority. In India the Parsis generally escaped this, but during the period of British rule again they were faced with a monotheistically oriented group to whom they had to bend a knee, so again, an emphasis on similarities with the Abrahamic religions.

In any case, in Mesopotamia outside forces can not account from the shift from institutional polytheism to monotheistic universalist religion. Polytheistic paganism seems to have naturally withered. A quick survey of the situation in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire seems to also show a pattern where paganism was simply not institutionally robust enough to hold off Christianization. A repeated pattern in is one where rulers who wish to cultivate ties to the civilized Roman Christian Commonwealth convert and encourage conversion among their populace, but so invite a backlash. This occurred in Scandinavia and the Slavic lands, as well among the Magyars in Hungary and the Bulgars in Bulgaria. But, the backlash generally is only a short-term correction which only delays the inevitable. In the west Slav lands bordering Germany and in Lithuania a very robust and persistent form of paganism arose which did seem to keep Christianity at bay for several centuries, as opposed to a few generations at most as was the case above. Looking more closely one can see very specific contingent conditions which gave rise to these dynamics. The Christian assault on the Wends (ancestors of the modern Sorbs) was very much also an ethnic German one. The Christian god was identified as a German god, and the German drive to the east was one of of total ethnic and religious assimilation at best and extermination at worst. It is then no surprise that west Slavic paganism was particularly robust in terms of generating an institutional framework around which to rally against the Christian-German invasion; they were fighting total extermination as a people (if not as individuals). In contrast, the Polish who were further from the front used Christianity to buttress their independence from the expanding Germans, cultivate ties to other Christian powers, while the duke, who became a king, used the One True God and One True Church to justify his centralizing drive as the One True King. This was a rational maneuver because of their greater distance from the wave front of German expansion; Christianity was not necessarily a German religion (the Bohemians to their south of course had contact with Byzantium as well as German Christianity). The case of Lithuania is even more explicable in terms of particular geopolitical and historical conditions: with the decline of European states and the Mongol hordes the Lithuanian polity forged against the German drive to the east under the banner of the Sword Brothers and Teutonic Knights expanded to fill the vacuum. By the mid-14th century Lithuania included most of modern Ukraine, White Russia as well as the Baltic lands and parts of Poland. The majority of the subjects of the pagan Lithuanian warrior elite were Christian. Either Western Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. A conversion to Christianity would of course entail that the Lithuanian elite pick a side, Catholic or Orthodox, while persisting in their paganism allowed them to play off the two groups against each other. A substantial number of Lithuanians did convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but the commanding heights remained pagan due to the geopolitical circumstances. In the late 14th century Lithuanians converted to Catholicism, cementing their alliance with Poland, naturally resulting in Lithuania becoming the marcher state aginst Orthodox Muscovy and the last frontier of the West (after the 16th century the Lithuanian nobility was totally Polonized).

The autocatalytic model does work, but I believe social and political incentives also matter. Aside from Ireland every instance of Christianity spreading and absorbing a culture in Europe after the fall of Rome was initiated from the top and down. Though most of these states had small Christian minorities, sometimes of influence, the majority of the logistic growth curve occurred while Christianity was the official religion. Many Protestants even contend that Christianization of the European peasantry was not completed until after the Reformation. But there were strong incentives to become a pious Christian in Europe after 1000, when Christianity and civilization and elite status went hand in hand, and paganism was tatamount to barbarism.

A quick trip back to late antiquity highlights the importance of the incentives and framing social structures in terms of how it affects the trajectory of religious change. According to the data that Turchin and Stark accept, the Empire was over half Christian by around 360. By the 400s it was overwhelmingly Christian. Nevertheless, in 529 Justinian closed the Academy in Athens which was still the locus of pagan philosophical thought. The Diaspora of Neoplatonic pagans remained active until the Islamic period in Alexandria, and likely influenced the Sabians of Haran. By the time of Justinian these pagans could only draw from a small subset of the Empire's population, those whose families remained loyal to the old religion, or, those of other minority religions such as Judaism or Samaritanism. The similiarities to dhimmis under Islam is again rather clear. But the point I want to make here is that despite the presumed autocatalytic dynamics operative through the Christian Empire, philosophers still remained pagan! There were particular incentives within the philosophical culture which fostered adherence to a pagan religious outlook. The autocatalytic process does not operate across the full sample space to the same extent. While most of the Empire was being immersed in a religion which was a synthesis of Roman institutions, Greek philosophy and Hebrew theism, a subset of the population of philosophical inclination was being drawn into a religious system descended from Hellenistic paganism. This quasi-philosophical world-view was the one that drew the pagan convert Julian to the Apostate. It is notable that Julian, a self-conscious Hellenist in his fashions, was relatively well-educated and manor-born in comparison to the military populists who were dominant between 280 and 400. Though the first illiterate Roman Emperor did not come onto the scene until the early 6th century, there was a wide range of cultural sensibilities, from philosopher-kings and scholars such as Marcus Aurelius and Claudius, to military tryants and autocrats such as Decius and Diocletian.

This "different world" was not operative only among philosophers. The Frankish general Arbogast was the son of a Romanized German, and yet he is known to have been a pagan of classical Roman sensibilities. Arbogast led a pagan senetorial rebellion against Theodosius the Great, and was defeated. Because history has minimal interest in losers we do not truly understand with any clarity how it was that a barbarian by ancestry was acculturated to the world-view of the pagan Roman elite at this late date (Roman society had become far more xenophobic and prejudiced against barbarians than it had been earlier by the 4th century). But books such as The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire draw upon a wide range of textual evidence on the late Roman senatorial elite of the West to imply that they did not make the final turn to Christianity until after 400. Additionally, a deeper analysis of the shape of religious variation smokes out intriguing patterns. Roman senators of the 4th century who were Christian were much more likely to be new men, parvenus dependent upon imperial patronage. They were more likely to have risen through the military or civil service, as opposed to having inherited their status. Additionally, Christian senators were also more likely to come from Gaul and other provinces on the frontier, while the pagans were more likely from the old imperial core, Italy and North Africa, two regions relatively insulated from the disturbances of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

Within the status hierarchies of the old senatorial elite paganism and its attendant familial cults had a strong attraction. Even in the mid-5th century, high status nobles such as the general Marcellinus, were devout pagans. Another locus of pagan power in the army is rather clearly illustrated by a revocation of the expulsion of non-Christians from the officer corps by Theodosius II early in the 5th century; so many officers, including generals, protested and offered to resign that it was judged to be impractical in implementation. There were enough crypto-pagans on the ground that as late as the reign of the Emperor Zeno in 474 there were hopes that paganism would be restored as the official religion. In any case, that wasn't to be, at some point the cause of paganism during late antiquity was as futile as that of Roman Catholicism in England by the 17th century. But, with hindsight I think we need to not forget that inevitable dynamics didn't seem so inevitable back then, and different incentives and social networks intersected across the same time and space. Similarly, an autocatalytic process might have been operative in terms of conversion to Islam in the Levant, but even in 1900 around 10-20% of Palestinian Arabs were Christian, and across the coastal mountain ranges of Syria-Lebanon Christians and heretical Muslims (Druze, Alawites) were more numerous than Sunni Muslims (emigration in this case was so strongly biased toward Christian Arabs that the proportions would have changed a great deal even without the differential birthrates which came to the fore in the 20th century).

Despite the specific twists and conditonalities, I do think that the null model of the autocatalytic expansion of particular religious groups is useful. In Persia I believe we have an excellent case study in Mesopotamia which suggests that ethnic polytheism naturally tends to cede ground over time to universal monotheism. As I have outlined I think the likelihood that there was an exogenous confound is sharply dampened in this one scenario. Obviously there isn't the issue of Christian blackmail (i.e., monotheistic states after the fall of Roman had a cheery habit of threatening to invade unbelievers because of the fact that they were unbelievers), nor sponsorship by Christian elites. Granted, like Ireland the Christianization of Mesopatamia might have been facilitated by the mediating role of local notables wishing to integrate themselves into the transnational luxury trade. It seems that Semitic ethnicity was a bar to conversion to Zoroastrianism, and the Arab federates of the Sassanids, the Lakhimids, were not surprisingly Christians (one could argue that the incentives of the pagan piligrimage trade were one of the reasons that the nobles of Mecca did not align themselves with a world religion). But in a pre-modern society there simply wasn't as much individual choice, and patrons followed their clients, whether those patrons were an individual or a corporate entity like a guild or village council.

But the Sassanid Empire also expanded east, into Central Asia and the Punjab. These were regions where Zoroastrianism was simply not much of an option for those non-assimilated to Persian ethnicity or identity. And not surprisingly, Nestorian Christianity was influential along the trade routes. Arnold Toynbee alluded to a stillborn Nestorian civilization, and it was thanks to the reach of the Zoroastrian Sassinid Empire that Nestorianism spread so far and wide. In the 8th century Nestorians were a prominent power not just in Central Asia, but also in China. It seems that the Christians of Kerala were originally affiliated with the Nestorian Church of Mesopotamia. And, it is well known that Nestorians were still extant among the Turco-Mongol peoples swept up in the expansion of the armies of Genghis Khan; the mother of Kubilai Khan was a Nestorian Christian.

And yet, what happened here? Shouldn't the autocatalytic process have increased the frequency of Nestorianism so that it dominated all these regions? In Persia itself Nestorianism declined with the rise of Islam. There are attested conversions, but it seems pretty clear that preponderant ancestry of modern Iraqi Muslims are from Aramaic speaking Christian peasants. In China there was a major suppression of foreign religions in the mid-9th century. This seems to have nearly extirpated Nestorianism, and driven Manichaeanism (which also came from Persia) to such low numbers that it went extinct in a few centuries, and also set Islam back quite a bit (modern Chinese Islam probably owes more to the influx of Central Asians with the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries than the original expansion of Islam into China in the 7th and 8th). In India Nestorianism flourished in Kerala, but did not spread to any other region. One would assume that 1,500 years was long enough for autocatalytic dynamics to kick in....but it seems that Kerala's Christians (who are by and large no longer identified as Nestorian, though they retain Syrian affinities) turned into another caste. The modern spread of Christianity in India was spurred by British raj and Western missionaries, though Syrian Christians were often critical conduits.

The case of India is important enough to inspect with greater detail. India is the only civilization which has produced a world religion besides the Middle East. Indians will generally assert that Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are Dharmic religions set against the Abrahamic religions of of the Middle East. The gap is a real one obviously. Hinduism and Buddhism are very different, but ultimately they deal in the same semantic currency and there are institutional resemblences. In Myanmar the Indians who have remained are by origin either Muslim or Hindu. The latter have been consistently changing their religious identity to that of Buddhism. Muslims have been to a far lesser extent. Though there are tensions between the Chinese and Thai in Thailand, and a religious gap between Chinese Mahayana sects and the Therevada Buddhism of Thailand, the mixing between the communities is rather fluid when compared to the situation in Malaysia, as the relations between Chinese and the Muslim peoples of the Malay archipelago is fraught with more tension. There are orthopraxic gaps which make this comprehensible; the food taboos of Buddhist priests and monks, whether Mahayana or Therevada, are rather intelligible to each other (generally derivations from Indian vegetarianism). In contrast, the Muslim aversion to pork does not generally allow for easy communal meals with Chinese, for whom pork is nearly the obligate meat. I recall that when there were riots in Java in the 1990s against the Chinese many fled to Hindu Bali. Here the proximate dynamic isn't simply reducible to civilizational gaps, after all, both the Balinese and Chinese are outsiders in the mix of the Muslim majority and so a natural empathy might arise (and a substantial number of Chinese Indonesians are Christians, even if only nominally). But on a coarser scale increasing the N I think Turchin's model of a metaethnic border is probably viable and useful, even if it is not likely the avowed rationale given for conflicts, it may lurk in the background as a necessary framing condition, or at least one which increases likelihood.

The East broadly, the Indian and Chinese cultural orbits, are interesting cases when it comes resistence against the expanding orbit of the One True God. On a whole, it's taken some hits. Around 1/3 of South Asians now subscribe to an Abrahamic religion. Island southeast Asia was lost to Islam relatively recently from the Hindu-Buddhist bloc. The Dutch helped along the process in Java because of their rivalry with the Hindu kingdom of Bali (eastern Java was the center of a Hindu kingdom allied with Bali until the 18th century). China has a non-trivial Muslim minority. Myanmar, Thailand and Indochina all non-trivial large Abrahamic minorities. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have non-trivial and powerful Christian populations. Japan has a small, but influential, Christian minority. On the other end of the balance sheet, in the secularizing West ideas from Dharmic religions are very popular among the elites, and some, such as reinarnation have penetration rates as high as 25%. But the influence is less institutional and organizational than it is a percolation of ideas and assumptions.

Let's look at India first. By India, I'll include the states not currently in the Republic of India, since before 1947 India meant the whole subcontinent, though Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka were often bracketed off because of their Buddhist leanings. About 1/3 of the Indian population, broadly, is Muslim. Islam was present in India from the 8th century. Sindh was conquered by the Ummayads. In the next few centuries military incursions were minimal, but Arab mercenaries and merchants were a prominent force. The large number of Muslims in Kerala is a function of trade much more than the later rise of foreign Islamic dynasties since most of the time Hindu rulers were preeminent in this region (see Vasco da Gama's reports). In the north of India Muslim warlords were dominant after 1000, and exclusive at the top of the totem pole by 1200. This situation persisted for 500 years until 1700, at which point political fragmentation was the dominant dynamic. After 1700 some non-Muslim groups rose to parity, but only after 1800 and British rule was the political supremacy of Muslim elites off the table.

So a 500 hundred year window of near domination, and quite a bit of power (1000-1200 was a long rearguard action on the journey to extinction on the part of Hindu kingdoms in northern India, not one of parity). And yet only 1/3 of the population is Muslim? First, autocatalytic dynamics assume a level of connectedness perhaps inappropriate in South Asia. Though there were no north Indian Hindu kings, many of the great vassals, rajputs, remained Hindu. So there were mediators who continued to foster the production of Hindu religious ritual through their patronage. There were many instances of conversion, but it seems clear from the extant biographical data Hindu warlords did not want to turn their back on their own cultural heritage, as would be an implication by conversion to Islam (they would also remain inferior in status to Muslims from Persia or Central Asia). There is an element of irony in this because it seems likely that some of the rajputs of northern India were themselves immigrants from Central Asia who filled the power vacuum after the collapse of the Gupta dynasty in the 6th century. But like the Tibeto-Burman Ahoms of Assam later, they became defenders of Hindu Indian cultural traditions on the metaethnic frontier. Additionally, Muslim power projected rather raggedly into southern India for much of this period, where the Empire of Vijayanagar flourished. Though Vijayanagar was contested, and eventually conquered, by south Indian Muslim dynasties, it remained a separate locus of patronage for Hindu cultural production during the period of Islamic domination. Finally, it must be remembered that India is a highly segmented society, and many villages were run by Hindu landlords (patels, thakurs, etc.) who served as mediators between the new Muslim overlords and the masses.

With the fall of the Mughul raj and the rise of the British Hindu notables quickly rose up to fill the void and stepped into the shoes of the Muslim ruling classes to administer India. This shows that a reservoir of non-Muslim elite talent always remained extant. Some of these were no doubt patronized by Hindu dynasts such as the Marathas and those of Vijayanagar. Others were patronized by Hindu vassals of the Muslim dynasties, such as the rajputs. And some of them were patronized by the Muslims themselves (e.g., the Kayasthas served the Muslims more than other high caste groups which had a tradition of literacy). The Sunni Muslim elite seems to have taken a role as a rentier caste, opening up niches for enterprising non-Muslims. It is interesting that some of the most economically successful Muslims in the Indian subcontinent are the marginal Ismailis, who were persecuted by the Mughals and forced to convert to Sunni Islam.

Not only are there complex patterns vertically up and down the class ladder, but one must look at the conversion patterns as a function of geography. In modern India it is no surprise that aside from Kerala and centers of Muslim dynasties (e.g., Hyderabad) that Islam is relatively thin on the ground in the south compared to the north. Additionally, in Orrisa there are very few Muslims, and this is an isolated and frankly backward region which was less exposed to outside currents. But, it is important to note that the Muslim heartland around Dehli remained predominantly Hindu across all those centuries. It is no surprise that Muslims are the majority along the western fringe, not only are these regions closer to the demographic sources of Turkic and Persian immigration which buttressed the Islamic dynasties as soldiers and bureaucrats, but the Sindh was under direct Muslim rule far longer than any other region. Yet in Pakistan it is in Sindh which has the largest Hindu minority (likely due to the relative easy of population exchange along the Punjab border as opposed of the Thar boundary to the east of Sindh). Additionally, of course the other locus of Muslim majority in the Indian subcontinent is far to the east, in Bengal. Not only is it in Bengal, but there is a consistent pattern that the further east you go in Bengal the more Muslim the population gets, with the most pious region the southeastern district of Noakhali. When the British census revealed that there were more Muslims than Hindus in Bengal in the late 19th century they were somewhat shocked.

In fact, Bengal has been under Muslim rule only a century or two less than the Punjab, so the difference of duration isn't that great. But, it is notable that prior to the Muslim conquest these two regions were relatively weak in terms of institutional Hinduism, and Bengal was the last region of India to host a flowering of Buddhism. The social and institutional robusticity of Indian religion, the set of beliefs and rituals which became Hinduism, did not characterize the Punjab or Bengal during this period. Polities in these areas were more often aligned with the "losing" cultural faction, and divided within themselves. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 documents the confluence of social and economic conditions which allowed eastern Bengal, what became Bangladesh, to become a mostly Muslim domain while western Bengal, now part of India, remained mostly Hindu. It is important to remember that eastern Bengal was to a large extent not characterized by the Malthusian trap which we see today, rather, for most of the past 1,000 years its the frontier served as a demographic release valve as peasants cleared the forest under the supervision of expanding elites. Those elites were of course mostly Muslim (though the capital input might have been from Hindu moneylenders). A combination of the relative weakness of extant Hindu institutions in eastern Bengal, combined with the emergence of a new non-Hindu elite, and, an expansion into a frontier so that a small number of pioneers might serve as genetic and cultural "founders" makes the fact that Bengal was much more fruitful for Islam than the central Gangetic plain much more comprehensible. Recall that I observed that there is data which suggests that elites on the geographic margins, the frontiers, were more open switching to the Christian religion and abandoning their older customs and traditions during late antiquity. In contrast, the old civilized cores, such as Italy and Greece, were notable for remaining pagan longer than new frontier metropoles such as Constantinople or Antioch. A similar difference might have applied to Iran and Central Asia, where the latter was Islamicized earlier than the former.

Of course, the analogy between paganism and Hinduism is not very strong. The robusticity of Indian socio-religious structures in the face of domination by another socio-religious framework is impressive and makes it very different from Babylonian paganism. Just as elite Roman senators were resistent to attractions of Christianity for a relatively long period, attempts by Christian missionaries to convert Indians have had to focus on the lower castes and maringally Indianized (e.g., the Tibeto-Burman tribal peoples of the northeast). Once the ball starts rolling though that is a sign that there as an institutional vacuum which Christianity can fill; the instances of forced conversions of pagan and Hindu Nagas by Naga fundamentalist Christians illustrates the power of autocatalyic peer "pressure." On the other hand, among higher caste Hindus it seems that the logistic growth curve tends to saturate at a lower level.

A shift to southeast Asia highlights the importance of conditional parameters in these autocatalytic dynamics. Christianity is a minority religion in most of mainland southeast Asia. But, it is an ethnic religion. Specifically, it is a religion which is popular among minorities who have traditionally been at the cultural and economic margins. Lowland southeast Asia has been dominated by powerful kingdoms with a very strong self-conscious identity as vessels for Therevada Buddhism. Buddhist monarchs in southeast Asia even sent aid to those attempting to kickstart the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka during the period of British rule when the elites were converting to Protestantism (a dynamic which was halted, and reversed). Groups such as the Karens, Hmong and tribes of the Montangnard highlands resisted conversion to Therevada Buddhism for a very simple reason: those who converted became Bamar/Burman, Thai or Vietnamese. The tension across ethnicites was strongly diluted when the religious barrier disappeared. On the other hand, as we have seen above, non-institutional paganism tends to lack robusticity over the long term. Tibet and Japan both manifested the same dynamic which I asserted for pagan Europe during the process of the shift toward a universal world religion. In both these cases the correction was temporary, and the setbacks rolled back as Buddhism eventually embedded itself as the dominant institutional religion of the culture.

The arrival of Christianity changed the game. Groups like the Karens observed correspondences between Christian theology and their own indigenous religion, but, seeing at how similar and convergent supernatural concepts tend to be I don't believe that similarities would be hard to observe (Christianity was repeatedly confused as a form of Buddhism in East Asia). Today a large proportion of Karens are Christian, but not all. A significant number are Therevada Buddhists, and not surprisingly these tend to be much less hostile to the central government, and even complain of persecution at the hands of Christians. About 10 years back I recalled reading about the conversion of the only non-Christian resistance leader among the Karens. It is obvious that the Karen resistance has religious overtones, and the Christian identification operates synergistically with their historical self-conception as a separate people. A similar process occurred in Indonesia after the suppression of the Communist Party. Many Chinese and secular Javanese became Christian because that was an open option available to (one had to affiliate with a religion in Indonesia during Suharto's regime) them. At this point their children are no doubt sincere believers, but one can not ignore the contingent parameters which drove what is now an autocatalytic process within these networks (also, a minority of very nominal Javanese Muslims are making the switch to Hinduism, as they view it as a more authentic expression of their outlooks and identity as Javanese).

In China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan Christianity is a religion with some influence. Christianity is a firmly bourgeois sect in Taiwan and Singapore. Though growing in Singapore, recent data suggests that Buddhism is now rapidly rising in proportion faster by siphoning off Chinese religionists, and many of the college educated cohorts are switching to Buddhism instead of Christianity as would have been the norm one generation ago in the process of upward mobility. In Taiwan Christianity has been stagnant for the past generation, likely going through a contractionary phase. Again, the same dynamic of Taoists and Chinese folk religionists switching to Buddhism is noticeable here. What's going on? I think the key here is that Buddhism is a familiar religion, it simultaneously can play the role of Chinese ethnic religion and world religion. In contrast, it seems that Christianity often opens up a fissure with the family because of its more stark rejection of "pagan" practices which older members might continue out of custom and habit (it seems in Singapore that Christianity drew disproportionately from secular educated segments where these familial concerns would likely loom less).

One important point to emphasize with East Asia is the relatively weak role that institutional religion has played within these set of societies. In China, Japan and South Korea though Buddhism was the most common religion before the arrival of Christianity, it was neither dominant or elite. The Tokugawa demand that Japanese families affiliate with a Buddhist temple in the process of extirpating Christianity was not due to Buddhist piety, in fact, the predecessors of the Tokugawa had gone to great lengths to break the back of institutional Buddhism as an alternative power center in the 16th century. Rather, religion was an instrument of social control and tool for sifting the loyalists from those prone to sedition; in this case, Catholics whom the regime assumed to be supportive of rival southern daimyos and foreign powers. In China and Korea Buddhism was the primary institutional religion above the level of local cults and shamans, but, it was also kept at remove from the centers of power because of the skepticism of the Confucian mandarins toward otherworldly religion. The rise of Christianity in Korea was not truly at the expense of a vibrant Buddhism, it was within a very secular context when it comes to rival institutional structures. South Korean Buddhism to some extent has been prodded by Christianity, going so far as create its own religious television channel. Many would argue that Christianity was the best thing that could have happened to South Korean Buddhism, which had become a moribund mountain cult.

South Korea is an interesting case beause it has the largest Christian population proportionately outside of the Philippines in Asia. But they are only 30% of the population, and many Americans are surprised that around 20% of Koreans are avowed Buddhists and 50% have no affiliation. Again, this is due to the expectation that societies transition from religious monopolies (as in the West) toward a more relaxed regime. In Korea religion was marginalized as a source of authority by the center, and its new power in coalescing individuals is a throwback to the period before 1300 when Buddhism was likely an important cog in the process of "Koreagenesis." Again, I suspect the insight that metaethnic frontiers require ideological cement is important to keep in mind. With the period of Japanese colonialism many patriotic Koreans began to look to Christianity as a source of resistence, and Christians went from 5% to 25% of the population within 2 generations. But from the data I've seen over the last 15 years that rate of growth has slowed radically and the proportion has been only inching upward. Part of the issue might be the correlation between higher levels of education and Christianity, and the lower fertility of these groups. Additionally, it seems that many Korean Christians are now switching across churches, implying that the social networks are becoming tapped out of new low hanging consumers.

These data from various East Asian countries, and the example of Japan as a nation where autocatalytic Abrahamic dynamics seem to simply not operate, suggest that the logistic growth curve for Christianity has limits in penetrating all societies. South Korea was a best-case-scenario for a variety of reasons, but even here it seems that the trajectory has slowed down. The standard model in Christian or Muslim nations is for the logistic growth curve to move up toward an overwhelmingly majority, if not nominal uniformity. But East Asia has long been characterized by pluralism, and even when Buddhism was ascendent as during Tang China, Silla Korea or Fujiawara Japan, there tends to be a correction and institutional religion can never "swamp" the culture. The Indian case is separate because there you have a robust institutional religious system which weathered the rather large exogenous Abrahamic shock, and it is important to note that Indian religious systems were exported long ago into East Asia, and yet they have never attained the level of cultural monopoly that they exhibit within India, or, southeast Asia.

During the 16th century Japan was very open to Christianity. Daimyos in the south of the country converted to Christianity and brought their peasants with them. As much as 10% of the Japanese population might have become Christian at some point. The Tokugawa exterminated this population aside from a few crytpo-Christians whose orthopraxy had been Buddhaized to the point where they had evolved into a new religion. When Japan was reopened in the 19th century many Christians assumed that it was going to be easy fact, it didn't turn out like that. Though Christians were influential, including likely many women in the imperial family, they never achieved critical mass. Sociology is deterministic only with particular background conditions. No doubt some scholars assume that Japan would have become totally Catholic if the growth rate persisted and was extrapolated, but why make that assumption? Perhaps the Christians of Japan would have become the Moros of the Phillipines, or the Catholics of Sri Lanka, a substantial minority, but eventually sealed off into their own social networks.

This post obviously got a little out of hand. You can probably tell that I like both general deductive models, and an attention to contingent detail. There can be a general trend (e.g., we all die) with variations along the way of interest (e.g., what we do before we die). It seems that autocatalytic process will result in Africa becoming totally Muslim or Christian. On the other hand, if it takes 1,000 years for India and China to become totally Christian or Muslim...well, I'm not sure if that certain projection is really that useful seeing as how 1,000 years is a long enough time that a lot of the background parameters could change. Additionally, there are various frequency dependent dynamics and mixed morphs which are likely operative in these historical social trajectories that I think are being left out in this treatment.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Cliodynamics, the rise & fall of empires and asabiya   posted by Razib @ 8/01/2008 04:37:00 PM

Yesterday assman recommended Peter Turchin's oeuvre as a nice theoretical overview of world history, in particular Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Unfortunately it was checked out at the library, so I've ordered it, but his more popularly oriented War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires was available and I read it last night. With rather large font, copious endnotes, and a great deal of quotation of ancient and early modern historians and cultural observers it really doesn't measure up to 416 pages. It's a quick read. For those who are interested in world history and have some background knowledge I would recommend it, but its value is more in clarification than in originality (if you don't have much background knowledge, skip it, you won't know if Turchin is full of it or not, so why bother?). As a mathematical biologist by training Turchin's program seems to be how to translate verbal models into formal ones (he has Santa Fe Institute connections in case you're curious, so be warned or heartened, depending on where you stand). The reasoning behind this project is so obvious that I won't repeat or elucidate it. Overall his goal is to flesh out a discipline of cliodynamics which can complement cliometrics. There's a strong undercurrent within War and Peace and War that the reliance of cliometricians upon economic theory as a framework to make sense of empirical macrohistorical data needs to be complemented copiously by methodologies from a host of other disciplines.

If you read this blog regularly you'll know that I'm generally skeptical of the power of theory in history. Not only am I skeptical of theory in history, but I'm skeptical of the empirical data which has been collected in the historical disciplines, at least in terms of its operational utility in generating a model of the past as it was, and aiding us in projecting the future as it is likely to be. The rise of economic and social history within the past few decades points to the fact that traditional textual scholarship left something to be desired; in short, it looked through the glass with elite eyes. If you conceive of historical and social processes as purely a function of elite dynamics then so it goes, but if you reject that then you are missing out on much of the picture. You could attempt to understand Christianity as it was in the 4th century when the Roman Empire began sponsoring it as the imperial cult simply by reading the New Testament and the commentary of the early Church Fathers, but I don't think this would truly make things that comprehensible. Rather, Christianity was also social phenomenon of Jews and gentiles who lived and died from the 1st to the 3rd century, and these people had an important influence upon the practices and norms which were associated with believers in the Christian religion.

The muddiness of the glasses through which we view the past, and the power of distortion of one's own and societal biases, are critical to keep in mind whenever engaging in analyses of humane topics. Historical scholarship requires a recursive level of self-criticism and skepticism which is likely not at issue when it comes to statistical mechanics. The reality that skepticism is warranted has led some to abandon the idea of empirical truth altogether, contending that all past is "fiction." I won't engage with this viewpoint except to say that it's lazy. There are more things between heaven and earth then dreamed of in such a philosophy. Granted, the extreme skeptics may be right, true knowledge as we understand it through common sense may elude us or be a fantasy, but whether this is so is an open empirical question, not established truth. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Peter Turchin ventures a great deal in War and Peace and War. There are grand declarations in the prose about all the insight gained through the theoretical models which he's brought to bear on historical dynamics. To some extent it smells of Lakoffian hubris, but the difference is that Turchin is attempting to synthesize real formal tools, dynamical systems, with real data, economic, diplomatic and social history. In contrast, George Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory isn't widely accepted, and his empirical data seems made up (his characterizations of the psychology of conservatives is based on a Berkeley liberal's preconceptions; not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not ethnography). I bring this up because the style of exposition in War and Peace and War might seem alternatively bombastic and turgid, but there's some substance underneath it all. Keeping scratching.

As I said, the value-add here is clarity and precision. Turchin for example draws heavily on a conceptual framework created by the 14th century Arab intellectual Ibn Khaldun. The text is littered with references to Polybius and Alexis de Tocqueville (both of whom I think said a lot that could be said, especially Polybius). War and Peace and War doesn't present new hypotheses as much it injects them into quantitative analytic frameworks amenable to testing. I recall a conversation I once had with a phylogeneticist who explained that before the cladist revolution taxonomy was mostly a game of credential and age. Differences in opinion were resolved by the weight one would attribute to the "Cuz I said so!" contention of a Great Thinker (from Haeckel to Mayr). Whatever shortcomings there are to the hypothetico-deductive system promoted by the cladists, and despite their occasional veering into fanaticism, the reality remains that operationally their emphasis on a systematic framework as opposed to gestalt intuition revolutionized the field and allowed for a transparency which facilitated communication.

War and Peace and War is focused on the eternally recurrent cyclical social-historical dynamics. It isn't, for example, going to put the spotlight on the great divergence because at this point that is sui generis. Turchin outlines three cyclical dynamics which tie together the narrative of War and Peace and War:

1) Asabiya cycles
2) Secular cycles
3) Fathers-and-sons cycles

The general concepts aren't that obscure; asabiya is a term formulated by Ibn Khaldun to describe the rise and fall of polities in the Maghreb and more generally the Islamic world. Asabiya as defined by Turchin is roughly social cohesion. Finland would be a society with a great deal of asabiya, and Somalia would be one with very little. Northern Italy has it more than southern Italy. Japan has it more than China. Khaldun contended that nomads with asabiya invariably conquered farmers and city-dwellers who lacked it, but within a few generations the new conquerors would lose their asabiya and so fall prey to a new set of conquerors. Turchin expands this to a macrohistorical and imperial scale, while Khaldun's conception spans decades Turchin contends that the can dynamic span centuries (up to 1,000 years in fact in a cycle of decline).

The secular cycle is temporally shorter than the asabiya cycle, and is driven by social and demographic parameters. While asabiya may characterize the rise and fall of civilizations, secular cycles can easily be mapped onto the rise and fall of a particular polity or dynasty. Its time scale is on the order of a few hundred years. The endogenous parameters which drive the secular cycles are in Turchin's model demographic and economic; the surplus progeny of the elite, combined with the inevitability of inequality of material wealth across society. It is on this scale that the title of the book is most appropriate, as the shocks of societal collapse and anomie may allow the cycle to begin anew as the old order is shattered and the leaner and meaner new order picks up the pieces.

Finally, there is the shortest cycle, the fathers-and-sons. This is rather easy to comprehend because it is something we can viscerally comprehend. A generation which was preceded by peace may wish for some war simply because it does not comprehend the downside of aggression. In contrast, a generation which has experienced conflict may be very cautious in the future because of past experiences. This caution of course fosters peace in the present and may result in complacency in the youth who are not cognizant of the costs of disorders.

The asabiya theory is the most interesting from the point of view of the origin of empires and states: Turchin's claim is the genesis of new imperial elites is on the metaethnic frontier. These groups who face off against outgroups develop a great deal of internal cohesion, and they leverage this group level social capital into collective action. This is not a new idea, you will find an allusion to this in Guns, Germs and Steel. But War and Peace and War explores the hypothesis in detail through a systematic analysis of the cross-cultural data. I found it broadly persuasive. Here are some supports for the "frontier" theory of empire mentioned by Turchin, or that I can think of

1) Rome. The city of Rome is the borders of Latium, with the Etruscan territory to the north. Additionally, Turchin emphasizes the chasm which separated Mediterranean civilization from Gallic barbarism which dominated the Po river valley during the middle and late Republic. In the north central portion of the peninsula, the Roman Republican elite fixated on these Gauls as the Other, and their own identity emerged in part as a response to the Gaulish Sack of Rome.

2) Byzantium. Turchin argues that the origins of Byzantium can be found among the Illyrian emperors who flourished around 300. The early Byzantine elite were battle-hardened soldiers who faced the barbarians across the Danube.

3) China. The early Chinese dynasties had a tendency of being drawn from the semi-barbarian northwest fringe. In fact, the rivals to these powers were often semi-barbarian polities which bordered the Yangtze river valley! The states of the Chinese heartland on the other hand were generally conquered by these marginals. A traditional explanation is one of geographic determinism, but asabiya theory seems to suggest by facing the barbarians group cohesion is generated which is then easily used to conquered the civilized heartland.

4) The post-Roman states. I'm going to gloss over this quickly, but Turchin spends a great deal of time focusing on the fact the barbarian successor states which filled the vacuum after the fall of the West Roman Empire. By and large they were from the semi-Roman borderlands. The German tribes such as the Goths were from the frontiers of the Empire and had to develop their own identity and reorganize their polity to withstand the sallies of the Roman legions (the Goths were often federates of the Romans, as were the Franks). German groups who remained far behind the lines remained stateless, later to be conquered by the larger and more cohesive tribal confederations which arose along the Roman frontier.

5) The Islamic Empire. The Arabs arose along the borders of three major states, the Byzantines, the Persians and the Ethiopians. Some revisionist scholars such as Patricia Crone actually make arguments which dovetail even more perfectly with Turchin's thesis as to the origins of asabiya on the metaethnic frontier. For nearly 1,000 years the Arabs existed on the margins of civilized empires. Their identity as distinct from the sedentary Aramaic speakers of the Fertile Crescent no doubt emerged in large part because of their exclusion from participation in civilization.

6) The Persian Empires. The Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids all arose along the metaethnic frontier. The Parthians faced off against barbarian peoples to the north on the margins of northeast Iran. The Achaemenids and Sassanids in contrast came from the Fars, bordering the ancient civilized Semitic speaking lowlands.

7) The Mauryas. The first major Indian Empire was from the Indo-Aryan marchland of the eastern Gangetic plain, not from the heartland of Aryavarta (the Doab). The Mauryas in fact were likely Aryanized, as opposed to Aryan.

8) The Ottomans, who were the furthest northwest of the Turkic politices which rose up after the collapse of the Seljuks. The Ottomans were long known as ghazis who were both the frontline soldiers of Islam against the Christians, while at the same time being less authentically Turkic because of the assimilation of Christian elites into their power structure over time.

9) Russia. Turchen spends a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of the Cossack frontier in generating the Russian Empire. Today Moscow is in the middle of Russian Slavdom, but during the medieval period it was somewhat on the margins to the north and east, abutting up against the lands of the Finns to the north, and within reach of Turkic nomads just to the southeast.

10) The Carloginian Empire. The Franks came to power along the border of Roman and German cultures. One of the issues one confronts with the early Frankish kings was that they were often fluent in both German and Vulgar Latin. This emphasizes that their power base was neither in the Germanic forest to the north or the safely Roman south of Gaul.

Turchen's idea of the metaethnic frontier needs some elaboration. There are copious references to Clash of Civilizations and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Asabiya doesn't emerge from a vacuum, social cohesion is a response to the Other. Let's focus on Byzantium and a few emperors to illustrate the sort of individuals who might be indicative of asabiya in the elite.

Justinian the Great was a man of modest origins from the Thracian hinterlands. He was termed the Last Roman because with him the dream of a unified Roman Empire died. He was the last East Roman/Byzantine Emperor for whom Latin was his native language, though he ruled a state which was dominated by Greek speakers. Heraclius, the early 7th century Emperor who defeated the Persians was from an Anatolian Armenian family and was exarch of Carthage. Leo the III who beat back the Arabs during the Second Siege of Constantinople was of Syrian Christian background. Basil II was from an ethnically Armenian family. And so on.

The Byzantine Empire was Greek speaking and Chalcedonian Christian. But many of its emperors were not from Greek backgrounds ethnically, and the Armenians were generally not originally from Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (the Armenian national church is still not Chalcedonian today). But they identified far more strongly with Greek Christian civilization of Byzantium than they did with Arab Islam or Persian Zoroastrianism! One of Turchin's major points is that those on the metaethnic frontier might not be exemplars of the ethnic identity to which they are affiliated; rather, they are often quite marginal in the distribution of characteristics. But, they stand astride the region of greatest change, the fault-line across civilizations. Because of their position along high tension fault-lines asabiya emerges naturally because of functional necessity.

Turchin spends a chapter elaborating where he thinks asabiya comes from, and much of it is actually a dismissal of standard explanations of human prosocial tendencies. He does not believe that rational choice theory, kin selection or reciprocal altruism, scale appropriately to explain the dynamics operant along the metaethnic frontier. He appeals rather vaguely to multi-level selection driving the emergence of mixed behavioral strategies which utilize human intelligence to generate group cohesion and punish cheaters. I approach multi-level selection with a great deal of skepticism. That being said, I'm more skeptical of the ability of simple rational choice, kin selection or reciprocal altruism to scale well enough to explain the baroque social complexity which is characteristic of mass cultures.

The devil is in the details as they say, but it seems that in War and Peace and War the case is being made that excessively simplistic, universal and reductionistic explanations for human behavioral complexity can't be made to work. Evolutionary psychologists and economists often operate under the assumption of cognitive uniformity (or, at least did until recently). Turchin illustrates the likelihood of the importance of cognitive variation and personality differences via the ultimatum game. He argues that asabiya can emerge when a critical mass of moralists willing to sacrifice to punish free riders foster virtuous circles of altruism. He doesn't push this very far, but leaves it up to the reader to search for the literature. I personally think that there's something to this, though I think the argument at this point has more of a feel that x, y and z can't explain the complexity, so it must be a, b and c.

A background paradigm here is Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson's body of work on cultural evolution. Turchin suggests that the arguments over obscure religious theologies in early Christendom had less to do with details of theology as opposed to the importance of these as markers which divided groups. I agree with this. More trivially, but just as significantly, in
War and Peace and War there is reference to the particular hairstyle which one German confederation promoted to separate them from another group of tribes. There's a more recent example of this sort of thing resulting in ethnogenesis; the Zulu ethnicity arose in large part in the wake of the warlord Shaka's conquest of a collection of Bantu tribes (he was of the small Zulu tribe), and one of the ritual changes that he fostered at this point early in the 19th century was the abandonment of circumcision. To this day the Zulu in South Africa are uncircumcised, while their Xhosa neighbors are circumcised.

The emphasis that the author places upon homogeneity and group identifying markers is obviously uncomfortable for the dominant consensus in American academe. War and Peace and War seems laced with muted apologia for the rather negative implications of the importance of metaethnic frontiers in terms of a multicultural society which has no core central identity. In some ways this is an exact replica of Robert Putnam's discomfort with the finding that diversity tends to lead to reduced social trust. Turchin has a solution for this: a diverse group can coalesce around a common ideology against the Other.

This common ideology is generally religious. The Byzantine Empire crystallized around Orthodox Christianity, the Caliphate around Islam, the Gupta's revitalized Hinduism while the Maurya's patronized Buddhism, the Tang alternatively favored Taosim and Buddhism, etc. One could go on and on. This is, I think, a case where the solution is just as unpalatable as the problem from most academics. An ethnically diverse frontier, such as that of the Byzantine with the Arab Muslim world, can adhere together, but only with a well demarcated religious identity. Or, one might have a relatively religiously unenthusiastic society such as Japan or Scandinavia which nonetheless has a great deal of asabiya, but here one sees that there is another sort of homogeneity. Ultimately, it seems there's No Free Lunch. Secular ideologies such as Communism or Zionism likely can fit the bill, but again, for those who wish to promote value-neutral pluralism these systems of social organization have their downsides.

The other two dynamics are much simpler to understand. For secular cycles Turchin presents some simple phenomenon which occur in many societies

1) Elites overproduce and become top-heavy during times of plenty
2) Inequality in material wealth lead to resentment and social discord

The metastable situation will generally shift at some point and switch to rebellion and civil war. This tends to kill off much of the elite, and naturally redistribute wealth with the collapse of law and order. Obviously there's much more, but that's the gist of it. The empirical examples aren't too hard to dig up (this is where having a background of knowledge helps, if not, take the author's word for it).

As for the generational cycles; let's just say that I suspect my generation of Americans will be a little less enthusiastic about foreign adventurism after what happened in the last decade. I'm sure that 20 or 30 years from now we'll be cautioning the young ones who want to Do Something in the face of uncertainty, an we'll be dismissed idiotarians or some other neologism.

...I'll probably post on
Historical Dynamics in 2 weeks....


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Killing the consensus with one thousand cuts   posted by Razib @ 7/30/2008 12:09:00 PM

Yesterday I finally finished Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. This was no easy read, even at only ~300 pages. Will Ambrosini characterized Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms as a book length response to The Great Divergence, and I can see where he is coming from. Contra Clark and the dominant consensus in economic history Pomeranz marshals the evidence which suggests that China & Japan were basically as wealthy as western Europe during the 18th century, and that many of the presumed necessary preconditions for the economic liftoff which we term the Industrial Revolution after the fact also held for eastern Eurasia. But Pomeranz has his own solution for why the West, and in particular England, rose to prominence when it did: the location of coal near the core economic regions combined with the massive input of land due to the opening up of the New World.

Those of us who are a bit younger no doubt encountered a fair amount of revisionist history. Instead of a "Whiggish" vision where civilization ascended in a linear fashion from Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages and onto the culmination of the Anglo-American culture, we were reminded that during the medieval period the West was much less than the rest, while even during the height of Imperial Rome Han China flourished with relative parity. Instead of these impressionistic generalizations the central figures in economic history, such as Angus Madison, emphasize that the revisionism might have been true in economic terms in 1000, but not by 1500. In the year 1000 western Europe was a rather poor region compared to the Islamic societies or China. By 1500 the conventional wisdom seems to be that much of western Europe was at least at parity, and likely one of the wealthier regions of the world on a per capita basis, if not the wealthiest. Because of the raw size of China and India Asia was still the economic center of the world, but by 1500 Europe, in particular its west, was no longer marginal. Between 1500 and 1800 western Europe might have been the wealthiest and most powerful region of the world on a per unit basis, but non-European powers could still operate on the same playing field, as evidenced by the need for European powers such as Britain and France to curry favor with Asian potentates to obtain trading rights. During the 19th century this changed; what was a difference in wealth on the margins transformed into one characterized by a qualitative chasm (symbolized by the maxim machine gun).

The Great Divergence tries to throw some cold water on the metrics used to make the case that Europe was already wealthier, and more well positioned institutionally, to achieve liftoff at the end of the 18th century. It is obvious that Pomeranz is correct when he seems to imply that there are apples to oranges comparisons; much of eastern Europe remained quite poor, so it was not Europe as a whole which was wealthy (there were even extremely large variations within nations, such as the Rhineland vs. eastern Prussia). Additionally, China was characterized by a great deal of the regionalism so that the most dynamic subunits of that civilization are more usefully compared to with France, Britain and the Low Countries, the most advanced subunits of the greater European economic region. All that being said, only someone who is rather well versed in the literature in economic history could appreciate much of the material that Pomeranz references throughout the narration; to a great extent The Great Divergence was argument by filibuster. Those who are familiar with the full body of the literature may be able to evaluate the power of the argument, but for those of us who are relatively uninformed we are simply confronted with an undifferentiated mass of data.

Some of the data and insight was very useful. For example, cultural historians often attempt to claim that one reason that the Chinese imported so little from European nations was because of their own superior attitude. In other words, the dynamics we observe were driven by variations in taste. This is an entirely plausible argument, and one which I accepted. Entire swaths of scholarship are based for example on the contempt which the Chinese government directed at European trade delegations and their wares. Pomeranz makes the argument that the imbalance in trade was a function of the fact that China was re-monetizing their economy with silver, and Europeans were there to provide silver through the opening of New World mines. The difference in value of silver in China and the rest of the world naturally resulted in an arbitrage opportunity so that the Middle Kingdom was a magnet for this metal; naturally the Chinese had to pay for silver with products, ergo, the export in finished goods such as porcelain. This economic argument does not negate the cultural explanation, one might admit that cultural and economic trends often dovetail or play off each other synergistically, but this sort of datum is gold in trying to understand how history plays out.

With that, I'll open up the comments to those who know the literature and what their opinions might be.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

In Our Time, The Arab Conquests   posted by Razib @ 6/26/2008 11:59:00 AM

On this week's In Our Time they're talking about the Islamic conquests. The author of When Baghdad Ruled and The Great Arab Conquests is one of the guests, so if you meant to read the books but never got around to it for whatever reason, might be worth a listen. As I told a friend the first few centuries of the emergence of what we know as the Islamic World (650-850) are interesting, but after that point you hit a somewhat stationary state (most of the sects and schools of Islamic law emerged during this period, even if their identity only full crystallized between 850 and 1150). Details such as how Iran was transformed into a Shia state by the Safavids in the 16th century are not trivial, but they pale in contrast to the implications for world history of a new ideology & empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

When Histories Collide: The Development and Impact of Individualistic Capitalism   posted by Razib @ 5/25/2008 06:10:00 PM

A few weeks ago Steve mentioned Raymond Crotty's When Histories Collide: The Development and Impact of Individualistic Capitalism. When I clicked through the link the cover looked familiar; turns out that I'd seen it at my local used book store and had passed on it since I already had a backlog of economic history I was working through. But Steve's post piqued my interest, and Greg also had mentioned Crotty's lactose tolerant-centric theory of history. So I purchased it, and read it over the past week. Even including the foreword and preface this is a short work, around 300 pages, but When Histories Collide is relatively data dense and at times almost inscrutable to anyone not stepped in Irish agricultural economics & cliometrics. The text has a disjointed feel, and Crotty's son who had to edit the work after his father's death notes that he placed the Irish chapters near the end of the narrative despite the fact that they would likely have been interspersed through the text seamlessly if his father had his way. Though the author's death before the final revisions to When Histories Collide might have dampened its public reception somewhat, I have to observe that Crotty's swan song is laced with far more quantitative econometric detail than Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms. Combined with the constant algebra of factors of production and implicit references to comparative statics, I believe that When Histories Collide simply lacks the literary elegance to have had any mass market appeal. That being said, who cares about mass market appeal? I don't. When Histories Collide is larded with just the type of data which keeps you turning the page.

Of course, data isn't the only item on the menu here, as an economist Crotty brings some noticeable theoretical baggage. His central thesis is that the rise of individualistic capitalism in West Central Europe1 is sui generis, as distinct from hunter-gatherer, pastoralist and Asiatic modes of production (he uses the term riverine agriculture, but it's pretty clear that most people would recognize this as Asiatic mode of production). Additionally, there are a few other types, such as the slave based individualistic capitalism of the ancient Mediterranean, and the elite capitalism of post-colonial states (e.g., Latin America). Crotty's macrohistorical model as it applies to development economics is rather straightforward: individualistic capitalism emerged in a particular place and time, and the Great Divergence is a byproduct of those conditions. These means the export of this system of economic development and productivity is going to be problematic; the societies of East Asia are a particular exception because they were not colonized and so their indigenous cultural systems were not extinguished. Rather, these societies integrated Western ideas and tools in an eclectic manner in keeping with their cultural biases and strengths. Crotty labels the East Asian Tigers as "collectivist capitalism." From what little I know of East Asian economic production I don't think this is an unfair characterization, though globalization is making these typologies less relevant when transnational companies span civilizational boundaries.

Despite the editing which places the Irish material toward the end of the book it is quite clearly foreshadowed throughout the book. It is Crotty's deep case study which illustrates just how sui generis individualistic capitalism is, and how difficult, nigh, impossible, it is to export it to colonized societies which are habituated toward a different mode of production (Ireland leans towards pastoralism). Ireland, being the British nation's first large scale colony, and the longest experiment in such a relationship (lasting from the Tudor period down to 1921), is therefore ideally placed to illustrate the general dynamics. Additionally, a few particularities of Ireland such as its proximity to the colonizing country and its later assimilation into the European Economic Community bring into sharper focus the causal factors behind its deviations from the standard post-colonial narrative.

There is unfortunately an awkward problem; the Celtic Tiger. Crotty died in 1994, and he was clearly writing until the end as his statistics are up to date as of 1992. But it is also obvious that a great deal of the material draws upon the author's nearly 40 years of scholarship in the field of agricultural economics, so the echo of the Ireland of 1960 looms large. From what I can tell it seems that Crotty assumed that the economic robusticity of the Ireland of the second half of the 20th century was a credit driven mirage which would ultimately founder on the lack of institutional support; and it seemed that he believed he saw it already occurring by the early 1990s. I am well aware that there is a great deal of debate about Ireland's economic growth and how to interpret the various indices. As with much social science there is plenty of revisionism which attempts to dig out more nuance from the "first look" impressions generated by something like per capita income. I'll grant that on the margins there is something to debate, but I think it's pretty clear at least over the past 15 years Crotty was just not right about Ireland and its inability to join the other nations of Europe on their level and terms. The foreword for When Histories Collide was penned by a colleague of the author in 2001; and I felt his assessment of the Irish economy since Crotty's death was telling, as he made only the most perfunctory attempts to defend his friend's doom & gloom prognostication. It seemed implicitly to be suggesting that prediction is less critical in a work of such grand scope as When Histories Collide, at least over normal human time frames, and the insights which one might gather are still worth an examination of the full structure of the argument.2

I agree with this. Because of my general skepticism of the predictions made in When Histories Collide I will avoid detailing the Georgist prescription which Crotty offers as his ultimate plan for how to ameliorate poverty. But, I want to highlight one more systematic flaw: a general tendency toward historical sloppiness. This seems to be a major feature of economic history in general; the preoccupation with macroeconomic forces tends to sweep aside details of history to the point where falsity and misrepresentation regularly creep in. John Nye's War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1900 is a nice exception to this general rule, but I suspect the rather narrow purview of this work explains the tight fidelity to reality as opposed to the standard stylized historical sketches borrowed from high school textbooks.

I will offer two examples which illustrates the weakness in the area of historical details which plague When Histories Collide. First, Crotty offers a model for the emergence of ancient Mediterranean civilization predicated on the synthesis of Indo-European pastoralists with indigenous Phoenician agriculturalists. What's the problem here? Phoenicians were a specific group of Semitic speaking peoples who flourished in what is today's Lebanon. As a colonizing people they do not pre-date ~ 1000 BCE. We know that Greek was spoken in Greece by ~1500 BCE; and likely Indo-European languages were extant on the northern shore of the Mediterranean well before 1500 BCE. Additionally, note that I stated on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, Phoenician colonies as it happened were almost all planted in non-Indo-European areas, and mostly on the south shore. By Phoenician Crotty actually means the diverse pre-Indo-European speaking substrate of the northern Mediterranean which the Greeks, Latins and other assorted peoples replaced and assimilated (some of these pre-Indo-European speakers remained down to the Roman period, e.g., Iberian).

Of course, I will admit that to some extent the error doesn't truly undermine the structure of the author's thesis: that there was a synthesis between these two broad cultural types (whatever you may term them) which resulted in the civilization of the Mediterranean. The second argument is specifically about the economic motor of the ancient Mediterranean, and I believe it to be a more telling error. In short, Crotty argues that the creativity of ancient Mediterranean capitalism was contingent upon the ubiquity of slavery. Slavery was a normal institution before the modern period; all societies had some forms of slaves, but different societies practiced slavery to different quantitative extents. The cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, specifically Greece and Rome, as well as the more recent race-based slave societies of North America and the Caribbean, are exceptional in the centrality of slavery in terms of economic production (in many societies slaves are luxuries or a trivial demographic). Though slaves were only a minority in the Roman world (around 25% of the population) Crotty argues that their economic productivity was the engine which drove the efflorescence of ancient civilization. Slaves could not consume the fruit of their own labors, so their productivity so sequestered freed up ancient elites as surplus for leisure and warfare. The structure of the argument here is plausible, but the problem is when Crotty makes the argument about where the slaves came from: the steppe. Here Crotty his going back to his history where Indo-Europeans and Phoenicians came together to produce Mediterranean civilization; the steppe is a region where the need for labor is minimal because of the pastoral lifestyles, it is land that is limiting, and so the excess population is driven into the cauldron of civilization. Here, they are enslaved and their productivity drives Mediterranean society. The problem is that it seems to me totally implausible that the steppe had a large enough population that it could ever have supplied enough human beings to replenish the constantly dying 1/4 of the Roman Empire's population which consisted of slaves. As a point of fact it seems that Northern Europeans, especially those from beyond the limes, were the primary exogenous source of slaves. But, I also have read that the Romans bred slaves on farms in Sicily, so there was also endogenous production. Crotty's argument is that when the Roman Empire reached its natural limit and was no longer sucking in slaves through wars it naturally collapsed because of the diminishing of its economic engine. I don't believe this, it oversimplifies some real complexities of the period between Augustus (the early Empire) and Late Antiquity, when the classical state collapsed. The consensus scholarship seems to be that the Roman Empire recovered from a near collapse in the 3rd century in the 4th, and though society was reconstituted so that we could see the vaguest of outlines of the medieval system already in the post-Diocletian period, it may be only that repeated exogenous shocks in the 5th century succeeded where those of the late 2nd and 3rd failed. Instead of a historical deterministic process, what we have is historical contingency which would have lead to a fall probabilistically at some point.

I've harped on the negative points of the book to this point because I don't want people to purchase this assuming that they'll get a literary tour de force on the scale of Guns, Germs and Steel; rather, When Histories Collide exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of Farewell to Alms magnified. But what are those strengths? Here's a sample of what I think is worth reading through all the issues above for:
...Very roughly, the same pastoral resources will, in a year produce 400 gallons of milk (the yield from a mediocre cow) or 250 lbs. liveweight gain from a bullock, or ox.

The milk, which weighs roughly 10 lbs. per gallon and has about 12 percent dry matter content, gives 400 X 10 X 0.12 = 480 lbs. of digestible dry matter. The bullock liveweight gain will convert into carcass at around 55 lbs. carcass per 100 lbs. liveweight. The carcass has about 70 percent meat and fat (the balance being inedible bone), of which the dry matter content is about 50 percent. The bullock liveweight gain gives therefore 250 X 0.55 X 0.70 X 0.5 = 48 lbs. (approx.) of digestible dry matter

Thus the acquisition through natural selection under these crop-less circumstances of the ability to consume milk from other species beyond infancy and, indeed, as in the case of the Tutsi in Rwanda, to live on an almost exclusively milk diet, made it possible for more people, therefore more efficient and powerful people, to live on given pastoral resources.

Consider that. The milking of cows can increase the agricultural productivity of a unit of land by an order of magnitude! (assuming that the land is not arable) No wonder lactose tolerance swept across many populations so fast! Crotty identifies three general cow-cultures:

1) The pastoralist model

2) The South Asian model, the "apotheosis of the cow"

3) The European model; in particular, the model associated with the rise of individualistic capitalism

The pastoralist model is pretty straightforward; man have cow, man milk cow, man defend cow from enemy. This way of life puts a premium on land but requires little labor or capital inputs; you put the cattle out to pasture and make sure that they do their thing and protect them from predators and rustlers. Crotty presumes that this was the culture which arose among the Proto-Indo-Europeans on the steppe, and it is what exists among the Nilotic peoples of Africa, and also was the norm among the pre-modern Irish. The apotheosis of the cow doesn't need much description, everyone knows that South Asians (Hindus and affinal groups specifically) do not consume beef and hold the cow to be sacred. The standard economic explanation here is that cows are more efficient bundles of calories integrated over time through milk extraction than as a one time item for slaughter. But there's a twist to this in India which I only know because of Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture: the cows which wander the cities and countryside of India are generally cows, that is, female. Where are all the bulls? They're being used as draught animals! South Asian agriculture is obviously extremely intensive in labor, and cattle serve the role that water buffalo do in the moister regions of Asia (including the margins of South Asia). Crotty doesn't mention this, but I think that's another part of the puzzle. And it fits in which another datum which plays a role in the thesis of how and why individualistic capitalism arose: Indian cows need to have their young reared to give milk. Obviously you couldn't kill the calf which was the reason for the milk production.

The final cattle culture is that of Western Central Europe; the region of northern France, the Low Countries and Western Germany characterized by 3-crop rotation and draft animals with mouldboard plough by the medieval period. I can't do justice to the detail of Crotty's argument here, and to some extent I don't think it all fits together, but there are many intriguing pieces. Lactose tolerance comes into the picture because when the Proto-Indo-Europeans brought the cow and their ability to digest milk into Central Europe they opened up the possibility for a new lifestyle. Because of the low agricultural productivity in this region in regards to cereals, using these crops as fodder for cattle was attractive. Middle Eastern cereals were simply not well adapted during the early phases to the Northern European climatic regime. Additionally, low quality or unpalatable crops like oats were sometimes the only option, and these were more productively fed to cattle to convert into more palatable nutritional items (whether as milk or meat). But there's a problem here: European winters mean that there's no pasturage to keep the cattle alive through the winter. So fodder is of the essence. Because this is relatively limited Europeans would have to kill most calves so as to maximize the feed for the adult cows. After you kill an animal, of course you eat it since to do otherwise would waste valuable protein and fat, so there is no apotheosis of the cow in a society where the cow may nevertheless be a central fixture.

The production and generation of fodder for cattle by smallholders is a critical part of the story of the generation of individualistic capitalism. In short, it habituates the average person toward low time preference as an interlocking set of agricultural operations are set into motion to maintain subsistence in an ecologically marginal environment. For Crotty the "bottom up" nature of this societal shift is critical as the emphasis on capital over land or labor as the factor of production which would increase marginal product is what will lead to the takeoff of the Great Divergence thousands of years into the future. Unlike classical Mediterranean civilization Western European individualistic capitalism can weather famine, pestilience, and other exogenous shocks of God. Capital persists while slaves die. The dispersal of technological initiative through society gives it a redundant robusticity lacking in other top-down civilizations. In our modern world the power of capital in the form of technological innovation in perpetuating a world of plentitude always outrunning the Malthusian Trap is obvious, but only Central West Europe managed to hit upon that formula in the pre-modern world because of the confluence of particular ecological and cultural parameters at a particular moment in time. Crotty argues that the capital intensive post-Malthusian Developed World was not inevitable, but a contingent fact of history.

Ecological constraints play a large role in explaining why Ireland is different in this model; the mildness of Ireland's maritime regime means that winter fodder is unnecessary. Transhumance and semi-pastoralism is feasible in this scenario; and, critically it is important to note that pre-modern Irish cattle were more like their South Asian cousins than continent European lineages. They only gave milk when with calf! The selection process whereby only the best milk producing lineages were kept and most calves killed in the fall did not apply to Ireland. From this ecological difference flows the great differences between the folkways of the Irish and those of peoples to the East. Speaking of which, When Histories Collide takes occasional forays into Eastern Europe, where it is explained that autocratic capitalism developed along the Slavic frontier. Here obviously land was not limited, and labor was at a premium, but capital intensive methods from the West could be introduced periodically to push the frontiner outward. By the time of the gunpowder empires the steppe ascendency in terms of arms was finally banished and a synergistic alliance of peasants (labor) and boyars (capital) swept across the land. But the fundamental distribution of techniques remained distinct from those of Western Europe, where technological innovation bubbled up from below rather than horizontally via elites. In the north, in Scandinavia, the local human capital was well equipped to leverage the horizontally transmitted suite of the Western European economic system, replicating individualistic capitalism once the technological wavefront had pushed far enough to overcome ecological hurdles.

Obviously this is only a small slice of the arguments presented in Raymond Crotty's magnum opus, but it's a representative taste. Clearly I think there are some serious issues with the depth of the scholarship on the margins, but the details of history which I think are rather embarrassing in the ignorance that they bespeak is not entirely out of place in the corpus of economic history. That being said, as I noted above some of the arguments about the slave-based individualistic capitalism of the ancient Mediterrean are premised on unrealistic assumptions which derive directly from the lack of a dense network of historical priors. Crotty's analytic tools were ones of mathematical economics, and his empirical database was one of agricultural economics, in particular Irish agricultural econometrics and history. The limits to his disciplinary horizons often shows. Nevertheless, I don't believe that Crotty falsified the tables or the quantitative data he repeats, and those alone are worth perusing this book. Who knew that for most of history the per unit productivity of agriculture in China was about twice that of South Asia? Crotty did, and I didn't. I don't think that the grand theoretical arguments should be taken without some major salting and curing; as I said recent history seems to have proved him wrong in Ireland, and to a lesser extent the post-colonial world as a whole. His model of the past has great descriptive flaws and would have been better served with a more robust cliometric framework. But by & large When Histories Collide is a good complement to more polished recent works such as Farewell to Alms and The Great Divergence.

Related: 10 Questions for Greg Clark, A World of Difference: Richard Lynn Maps World Intelligence, Group lifespan differences? Maybe it's agriculture and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Do note that Amazon is telling me that those who purchased When Histories Collide also bought The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Not surprising, but shows the general slant of Crotty's macrohistory.

1 - By West Central Europe one can imagine the lands which are just to the West and East of the Rhine; northern France, the Low Countries and western Germany.

2 - Crotty also asserts that post-colonial poverty will increase in the future do the poor fit between individualistic capitalism and most societies. I think on the balance Crotty has again been proven wrong; even removing China from the equation it seems that on the whole the world has not seen economic retrogression with the possible exception of large swaths of Africa. Despite the Asian flu of '98 and rollback from the Washington Consensus, both Southeast Asia and Latin America seem to be better off than they were a generation ago.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World   posted by Razib @ 4/25/2008 10:17:00 PM

A few weeks ago Tyler Cowen mentioned he was reading David W. Anthony's The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. I ordered it on Amazon, and it was hanging around the house so I decided to check it out early this evening...I read all 466 pages in one sitting. If you are a GNXP reader interested in archeology, prehistory and Central Asia you have to read this book! I've read In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, The Coming of the Greeks, and Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, but David W. Anthony really achieved something here which I wasn't prepared for with all due respect to the scholars who authored the aforementioned works. Most readers are aware that I've complained about how happily pig-ignorant of other fields most archaeologists are. Frankly, when I see an academic book I'm curious about, but find out that the author is an archaeologist I get really suspicious. They're good at collecting data, but once the stamps are arranged there seems an extreme reluctance to fire up a real analytic engine.

The author of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is well aware of these prejudices and refers to them obliquely. He obviously doesn't want to dismiss all of his colleagues as psuedo-scientific quacks, but he admits the general ignorance of archaeologists of fields such historical linguistics which you would think they'd check in on, and alludes to their nearly fanatical adherence to the "Pots not Peoples" paradigm (a reaction to their pre-World War II love affair with migrations). Anthony's interdisciplinary scope is very impressive; he references ideas and conclusions from Albion's Seed and Y: The Descent of Man. Cutting edge research on the evolution of lactose tolerance & the phylogenetics of domesticated cattle are intelligently integrated into the narrative. Nevertheless, the bulk of the text is an extremely dense exposition of archaeological discoveries from sites on the Pontic Steppe since the fall of the Soviet Union. The central argument is that Indo-Europeans emerged from this region between the Dnieper and Volga around 3500 BCE and over the next 1500 years spread in all directions. I won't detail the how or the why, I just finished the book about 15 minutes ago and haven't fully assimilated that much of it, but you can read chapter 1 online.

Note: I don't want to make it seem like this is a breezy popular book, about 2/3 of the material consists of detailed reportage of various sites and analysis of data on pots, cemeteries and seed-husks. Anthony is clearly talking to his fellow scholars, but I think the prose is accessible enough for an interested lay reader as he avoids obscuring jargon. Rather, if you are scared by an endless parade of facts this might not be for you. On the other hand, if your data-gullet is endless, what are you waiting for?

Related: The Inner Asian gap: the Afanasievo breakthrough.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Me loves that ceteris paribus!   posted by Razib @ 4/10/2008 01:02:00 AM

I've criticized economists for being a bit cavalier about nutritional basics before. A comment below points me to this working paper, Agricultural Specialization and Health in Ancient and Medieval Europe:
It has been argued that protein-rich milk and beef are major determinants of the biological standard of living for societies of the late 18th and 19th centuries: a high local supply of milk lead to better nutrition and taller stature (which is correlated with health and longevity), even if purchasing power is not necessarily high: The shadow price of milk was extremely low, because this food item could not be shipped, but was used for subsistence (and the butter was sold). In this paper we consider this proximity-to-protein production effect in ancient and medieval Europe. The decisive protein production can be traced quantitatively for the first time using a sample of 2,059,689 animal bones. The share of cattle bones is ceteris paribus an indicator of milk (and beef) supply, especially if controlling for population density. We compare information on cattle bone share with estimates of heights in three European regions (Mediterranean, Northeast, Centralwest) for the 1st to 17th century A.D. In an experiment, we suggest height estimates for today's Turkey, Greece, the Near East and Egypt during antiquity, based on the regression formulas we find.

Between 600 and 300 B.C. an astonishingly extreme decline in cattle share took place in Mediterranean Europe. During the time of the Roman empire cattle share stagnated on a very low level in the Mediterranean regions, whereas a high share of cattle bones was typical for North-Eastern, Central and Western Europe. In contrast, a high pig bone share became typical for the Mediterranean regions when the cities grew enormously during the Empire formation, because near those large cities like Rome or Pompeii cattle grazing became inefficient or impossible. Thus the poor and middle income groups substituted beef and milk with grain and vegetables, whereas the richer strata of society could afford pork. Pigs were easier to feed with the remains of human nutrition and imported fodder.

The central finding of this study is that the share of cattle bones, interacted with land per capita, was an important determinant of human stature. Thus, also for ancient times we can state that proximity to animal protein production was decisive for the level and development of nutritional status.

A paper with a lot of data which I found fascinating. But...I have to be somewhat skeptical of this note:

Lactose intolerance was probably not a decisive limiting factor in Europe. Crotty (2001) emphasized the importance of lactose intolerance in his bold attempt to explain the evolution of capitalism based on cattle farming patterns. Crotty argued that lactose-intolerant people could not make sufficient use of cattle. Lactose intolerance means that many people in the world have digestive problems, if they do drink large quantities of milk after age 5-7, because at that age genetically lactose intolerant people loose their ability to digest fresh milk without diarrhoea and similar problems. Especially East Asians (east of Tibet and Rajasthan), American Indians and some African people have problems with lactose intolerance. For Southern Europe, the results are mixed - one study on Spain categorized the country into the highest group of lactose tolerance (70 % and more lactose intolerance) and a Greek study found a middle position (30 - 70 % lactose intolerance); whereas in Italy and Turkey less than 30 % were classified as lactose tolerant (see Mace et al., 2003). But even lactose intolerant people can digest modified milk as Kefir, Lassi and similar products. Moreover, all people can drink about a cup of milk per day if they train their intestinal bacteria to live in a milk environment. Even many South Koreans today consume some milk, using this method of permanent training. We thank Barry Bogin, Anthropology Department U. Michigan/ Dearborn, and S. Pak, Seoul National U., for hints.

I've posted lactose tolerance rates across regions before, they vary a great deal. It is certainly true that milk is not cyanide for lactose intolerant individuals, but I don't think we should soft pedal the ramifications of the development of adult lactase persistence. Its evolution was due to one of the most powerful and recent selective events in our species' genetic history. Many of the Eurasian alleles seem to be descended from a recent common ancestor. Some of the African alleles are likely to be independent. The West Asian alleles also seem derived from an independent mutational form distinct from that of the more widespread Eurasian variant.

This isn't to deny the reality that milk is a great source of nurtition which might be an important variable which might explain variation in height across time & space. And I don't dismiss the R2 they can produce. But the geography of genes in this case strongly implies a lot of local ecological adaptation has been at work, and should be included in these models as opposed to brushed aside, e.g.:
...We provide two new lines of genetic evidence that this long, common haplotype arose rapidly due to recent selection: (1) by use of the traditional FST measure and a novel test based on pexcess, we demonstrate large frequency differences among populations for the persistence-associated markers and for flanking markers throughout the haplotype, and (2) we show that the haplotype is unusually long, given its high frequency-a hallmark of recent selection. We estimate that strong selection occurred within the past 5,000-10,000 years, consistent with an advantage to lactase persistence in the setting of dairy farming; the signals of selection we observe are among the strongest yet seen for any gene in the genome.

I don't know much economics or economic history, but I do know a little human population genetics, so I'm biased in hoping that everyone else gets hooked into this field. But I also believe that economic historians should be aware of the fact that the evolution of lactase persistence is one of the best case studies for recent gene-culture coevolution. One should be cautious of assuming that the maximal utilization cattle as milk producers is purely a function of economic or social conditions (though the long term impact of those economic and social conditions do count for a great deal). Here's a salient point from A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome:
An important type of selective pressure that has confronted modern humans is the transition to novel food sources with the advent of agriculture and the colonization of new habitats...As noted above, we see a strong signal of selection in the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) cluster in East Asians, including the third longest haplotype around a high frequency allele in East Asians. A variety of genes involved in carbohydrate metabolism have evidence for recent selection, including genes involved in metabolizing mannose (MAN2A1 in Yoruba and East Asians), sucrose (SI in East Asians), and lactose (LCT in Europeans). Processing of dietary fatty acids is another system with signals of strong selection, including uptake (SLC27A4 and PPARD in Europeans), oxidation (SLC25A20 in East Asians) and regulation (NCOA1 in Yoruba and LEPR in East Asians). The latter gene (LEPR) is the leptin receptor and plays an important role in regulating adipose tissue mass.

Since then there's been the CNV & amylase work....


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why civilizations may clash more, not less   posted by Razib @ 4/08/2008 12:48:00 AM

Update: Added a chart.

One of the major themes of the past few decades has been the perception that greater cultural homogenization is occurring because of globalization, which is enabled by the changes in technological and institutional parameters. Shared material culture & values may piggyback along the cresting wave of economic integration and growth. An extremely optimistic model might be that we are seeing the emergence of a vast world market unified by a common set of mediating institutions and core values. There is obviously something to this. A substantial number of Muslims defend their religion's feminist credentials and decry polygyny, while Buddhists reframe their own independent tradition as an elucidation of a universal rational spiritual tradition. These responses show the power of Western culture in setting the terms of debate. But these general trends need to be tempered by an attention to the details, the specifics of which may not entail the results in all cases which our general framework would lead us to expect.

Consider the issue of language. The consistent belly-aching over the mass extinction of obscure languages is just the latest chapter in thousands of years of linguistic winnowing. Today the Iberian peninsula is home to a group of related languages aside from Basque. 2,000 years ago it hosted tongues of disparate families; Basque, Celtic, Latin, Punic and a medley of southern Iberian languages such as Tartessian. With the extinction of most and the emergence of a few large blocks one may perhaps argue that there is more discontinuity, not less, when it comes to speech. The logic here is that a welter of dialects would tend to fade into each other, and even when there would be a "jump" across language families (e.g., Finnic to Slavic) there would be a greater number of mediating dialects sharing lexical features to facilitate cross-fertilization. With the rise of nation-states and the expansion of originally narrow dialects into lingua francas which quickly monopolize the public spaces (e.g., modern Italian and French as descendants of particular Florentine or Parisian dialects) these intermediary variants no longer play their roles. Oligopolies of languages sponsored by nation-states force bridge dialects to fade to the margins. What are bridge dialects? Catalan and Occitan are two that I have in mind. Because of the decentralized nature of the modern Spanish polity the former looks like it may have a future, but the latter is slowly being crushed by the dominance of French.

Though language is emotionally salient for many, that is really not what I had in mind. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel Huntington presented a thesis which used religion as the major organizing principle around which societies cohere. I am willing to accept this more or less (though language is obviously a major fissure as well). I have argued before that communication improvements are a major reason that I believe Islam is becoming more centralized in terms of belief and practice; the ummah is realizing its unity much more concretely than in the past. Recently I was reading a history of Burma, and the author noted that in the past many Muslims who were in areas where they were a minority were difficult to distinguish from non-Muslims. Most of their practices were similar to their neighbors, and they did not dress any differently, men and women prayed in a mixed setting etc. Much the same could be said of 19th century Bengal, where the outlook of Muslim and Hindu peasants didn't differ greatly and veneration of Hindu and Sufi saints bled into each other, resulting in an operationally syncretistic milieu, the perfect matrix for groups like the Baul to operate and receive patronage. Among abangan Muslims in Java the Ramayana remains very popular. In China the Hui Muslim intellectuals of the 18th century justified the high status of their religion on Confucian principles. In Vietnam the Cham Muslims were known to syncretize their Islam with that of the Mahayana Buddhism of their Vietnamese neighbors. The examples are endless, and one can generalize beyond Islam in South and East Asia.

Things have changed a great deal. In many of these regions Islam has gone through periods of "reform" and new found adherence to "orthodoxy." I suspect that santri Muslims in Java would assert that the spread of their form of Islam simply has to do with education; their Islam is the more authentic Islam, that of the abangan is debased weak tea. In China ties with the West enabled by modern transportation (broadly construed) resulted in a rethinking of the Hui relationship with the majority culture; instead of Confucius as the arbiter of correct thought they began to look to Muslim eminences from Southwest Asia as their authentic sages. In Kerala in South India Yemeni ulema who were reforming the Islam of that region instructed peasant women to no longer go topless as had been their custom when working in the fields. What you see here is a tightening of the ship, a purging and paring back of heterodoxy, heresy and laxity allowed and engendered by isolation.

Or do you? There aren't any black & white answers here, I don't think one can totally deny the thesis that the early texts of Islam reflect an Arab society at variance with assimilative dynamics manifest on the margins of the Muslim world. But there maybe less to the texts than meets the eyes. When reading about Burmese Muslims, or Hui Muslims, and so on, I was struck by the lack of rationalization they seemed to need for the fact that they were subordinated to non-Muslim rulers and populations. Their minority status was taken as a given, and they freely integrated themselves into a non-Muslim order (e.g., Burmese Muslims who served as soldiers, or Hui who entered the bureaucracy via the examination system). To some extent this contrasts with the pro forma nods to propriety near the "center" of the Muslim world; the fact that the Emirate of Granada was a vassal to Christian powers for centuries was long cause for some concern in the domain of political theory. Muslims in the Russian Empire engaged in soul searching as to whether it was acceptable to render under to the Orthodox Christian Tsarina (Catherine the Great). The logic was simply that of jihad and domination; the only peace was that which prevailed under Islamic dominion. That was the argument, but it was breached and contradicted by practice rather early on.

But why did this argument not seem to come up in some lands where Muslims were a small minority? Clearly there is the issue of practicality. There was no question that the Muslims of Burma were in no position to make demands or wage war against the non-Muslim majority. But, going back to my emphasis on communication and identification there was less of an exemplar of extensive Muslim states which expunge pluralism through a process of cultural attrition. Certainly India came close, but the reality remained that it was a primarily Hindu realm demographically, and the Muslim masses of Bengal were only notionally Islamicized during most of history. The apologia offered by the Emirate of Granada and the Tatars who remained within the Russian Empire was necessary because of the affinity & identification with polities where the dominionist narrative was taken for granted. Specifically, the Ottomans offered refuge to any Muslims who emigrated south into their lands, and the Sultan more or less saw himself as the natural lord of the Muslims of Russia. Tatars who remained within a Christian Empire and integrated did so despite the option of emigration or passive resistance and continued loyalty to the Sultan. The Emirate of Granada had successful models of the triumph of the eternal jihad across the Straits of Gibraltar in the Muslim polities of the Maghreb.

Today the information umbrella of the ummah spans the whole globe. Chinese Muslims are no longer ignorant of the currents of change and conformity in the rest of the Islamic world; rather, they are part of the discussion. But as they shift their marginal units of attention to the broader debates in the Muslim world they decrease the attention spent engaging their non-Muslim neighbors. These sorts of processes are complex; note that there is evidence that 19th century reformist Islamic movements in many parts of China succeeded when they used indigenous mythical formula. The paradox is that on the practical level Chinese means were the most efficient method to arrive to the ends of identification of Muslims as distinct from their non-Muslim Chinese neighbors! I bring this up to caution that even if there is a distinct tendency for many Muslims around the world to assert that they are concurrently moving toward a reassertion of 7th century Islamic values, that may not truly be the reality. This goes to emphasizing that despite the anti-liberal ethos of most Islamic fundamentalist movements, their origins, methods and to some extent practical outcomes, imply that substantively they are the product of dynamics of the last few centuries no matter their late antique packaging & marketing. The ubiquity of modern technology within Islamist circles may not be so aberrant or mercenary, but rather hint at structural features at sharp variance with their public propoganda and self-images.

But packaging matters. When the Muslim women of Kerala began wearing blouses some of their Hindu landlords objected that they were putting on airs. When some of these landlords forced the women to revert to their old style of dress their menfolk rebelled and killed them (these were not sui generis in this part of India, the same incidents occurred between landlords and low caste groups, but without the religious valence). Amartya Sen has objected to the emphasis on the Islamic identity of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom to the exclusion of their Bengaliness, a dimension which they share with Sen (a culturally Hindu Bengali). I suspect though that Sen's objection may be in vain; perhaps the multi-textured demographic landscape is going to cede ground to the religious oligopolies of the future? The very rugged and chaotic nature of the phenotypic space which cultures had previously explored might have served as a buffer to massive seismic collisions which are now going to be inevitable in the world of crashing cultural plates.

The chart to the left illustrates what I'm talking about. Imagine a bounded region, and variation along a character (e.g., % of red-meat derived protein in diet). The further you go back in time the more local variation you tend to see. As you move closer to the present there is "cultural consolidation."

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Asterix the drunk?   posted by Razib @ 4/04/2008 01:07:00 AM

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to read The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration and throw up a post on the topic. I've read it, but I don't have anything intelligent to say on it right now. Unfortunately, when it comes to economic history I'm at the left edge of the knowledge curve, and my inferential engine really isn't post-worthy most of the time. When something intelligent pops into mind I'll post it, but until then I thought this portion of the paper was interesting from a GNXP perspective:
Like specie, addictive substances have played a central role in integrating the world economy. Alcohol consumption in the European interior goes back to the third millennium, and was evidently a central element in early ritual. Until northern Europeans learned how to malt grain to brewing beer, however, alcohol could only be obtained by fermenting fruit and honey, which made it costly and rare. The arrival of a beverage having an alcoholic content upwards of ten percent worked a revolution in trans-Alpine Europe. Writing when the trade was in full swing immediately after the Roman conquest Diodorus observed that
The Gauls are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine and fill themselves with the wine brought into their country by merchants, drinking it unmixed; and since they partake of this drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when they are drunken they fall into a stupor or state of madness. Consequently, many of the Italian traders, induced by the love of money that characterizes them, believe that the love of wine of these Gauls is their own Godsend,'
Caesar reports that the Nerviens and the Suevians refused entry to wine traders for fear the drink would weaken their warriors.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Is your mother a slut?   posted by Razib @ 3/20/2008 04:56:00 PM

If you are a male, and someone says your mother is a slut, how do you respond? I think most non-autistic individuals, even if they are reflexive pussies as many civilized American men raised in urban areas and suburbs tend to be, will feel an urge to react violently. I think we can agree that someone calling your mother a slut does not have obvious material consequences; it isn't inimical to your economic interests, especially if the exchange occurs in a bar and your interlocutor and yourself are drunk. I won't rehash evolutionary psychological arguments for why there's a tendency for most males to react viscerally with rage when someone insults the sexual character of their mother; I simply want to use it to illustrate the power of words and concepts which have no material consequence, and might not even be rooted in fact. A stranger who throws this insult at you usually doesn't even believe in its accuracy, his usage of the phrase is calculated to offend and elicit a reaction. There are certain things which are sacred, certain lines you don't cross. Sometimes these are strongly biased by biological parameters (e.g., I suspect near-family incest taboos is one of these), and sometimes they are not. It is the latter case I was thinking about a few months ago when I read Rome & Jerusalem: A Clash of Ancient Civilizations and God's Rule - Government and Islam.

You see, the ancient Romans and Muslims did not have kings. Kings were tyrants, and the early Roman and Islamic polities rejected such tyranny on principle. So of course, instead of kings, the Roman Empire was headed by an emperor, while the Muslims had caliphs.1 Get it? When Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra the official narrative was that the doughty republican traditions of Rome had bested once more the oriental despotism of the Hellenistic world, with their Greek kings and queens. Similarly, the righteous Abbasids overthrew the despotic Arab Kingdom, the Umayyads. In its place they established a genuine Islamic state which was guided by the traditions of the community as opposed to profane naked autocracy. Right....

As you can see here, the extent of the self-deception and semantic delusion is really humorous. Now, it is true that the early emperors of Rome tended to keep up the illusion that they were simply stewards of the Roman Republic with some verisimilitude.2 Augustus' shtick was that his was a restorationist project; he was no dictator or king, just the First Citizen. Similarly, the early Abbasids were ostensibly bringing the vision of the Islamic community to its true fulfillment (especially the Shia party), whereas the Umayyads had been worldly Arab tribalists more in keeping with the values of the jahiliya. But the reality is that Augustus' Rome was as republican as Constantinople in 1453 was the capital of the Roman Empire. Similarly, the Abbasids resurrected the values of the primitive ummah by way of formulating a more ideologically coherent oriental despotism than the barracks state of the Umayyads. Despite their more effective propaganda the Abbasid caliphs integrated pre-Islamic Sassanid motifs into their court far more than the Umayyads ever had.

But this sort of pro forma packaging mattered a great deal. Muslim soldiers were enraged and shocked when the conqueror of Spain allowed his Visigothic wife to convince him to don a crown and so indicate kingship; they accused him of becoming a Christian. This despite their own fealty to an Umayyad regime which was excoriated later in history by mainstream Muslims as a semi-pagan autocracy! These sorts of issues tie in to events and dynamics we see in the modern world. Muslims, for example, wish to criminalize blasphemous criticism of their prophet, desecration of their holy bookm and disrespect of their religion generally. Obviously they're met with skepticism from non-Muslims, but a number of them analogize their position to that of Europeans who ban Holocaust Denial. Dismissing the details of the analogy and my personal rejection of these Holocaust Denial laws, it is important to state that I think it trivializes the extermination of millions of human men, women and children on an industrial scale to compare this to an insult to an idea, or the desecration of a configuration of ink, paper and binding which results in a Koran. My own perspective is pretty obviously conditioned by the fact that I accept that human beings were tortured and killed en masse 60-70 years ago, while I don't think that the Muslim religion is anything more than a belief system rooted in made up stuff. The only damage is done to feelings, not a One True God. That being said, a billion people have invested a lot of psychological import into these beliefs and they just go insane when you insult those beliefs. Billions of others can empathize on some level because they have other beliefs which are cognate in the broad outlines.

In the West, what I like to think of as the civilized world, there has emerged a consensus that constrains, and almost devalues, sacred lines and the right to take offense. Feelings rooted in immaterial beliefs still matter; if one makes a religious objection to a public norm one is accorded more credibility than if one makes an areligious objection (e.g., prisoners who need a special diet due to religious restrictions vs. those who really hate the taste of the cuisine). But to a large extent the power of religion to defend itself from blasphemy through the arm of state power has been abolished, even if there are blasphemy laws on the books in many jurisdictions. The transgressive assertions of men such as Denis Diderot in the 18th century broke down those barriers, and the reality of religious pluralism in the United States meant that reciprocal blasphemies between Protestants and Catholics occurred which did not elicit the intervention of the state as in the past lest it enflame the conflict furthermore.

In any case, the attempt by Muslims to resurrect in the West the enforcement of pietas by governmental fiat has changed my own opinion as an atheist about the value of religious pluralism. Because I believe that religious sentiment and feeling is normal, and will be dominant in our species barring a reprogramming of the software, I think that one religious tradition is probably easier to manage in terms of negotiating the terms of relating state, religion and the role of the ontologically blasphemous irreligious minority within a society (by ontologically I mean that by the very nature of my atheism & apostasy I offend against Islam, for example). Since the militant secular party is by definition a negative one, objecting to the prescribed social pieties, it is much simpler when one has to face-off with a unified front and one dimensionality of supernaturalism. With the rise of a polycentric supernatural marketplace the act of negation multiplies in complexity as the permutations of absurdity increase ever upward. Diversity has costs, the common norms are essential so that even transgression of those norms can be regularized and tolerated reasonably.

I want to add that I was in rural Bangladesh during the Rushdie Affair. I was called on to translate some photocopies of English pamphlets which in hindsight totally misrepresented the The Satanic Verses (long story short, they made it sound like Muhammad's wives were starring in a novelization of EuroGangBang #69, and it was kind of awkward for me since I didn't know the appropriate words in Bengali for a lot of the stuff). But it was notable that many of the young Muslim men were enraged about something that they barely even comprehended in its accurate details. Feelings....

1 - Minor note before David Ross points this out, but the term imperator did not come to be regularly used by the emperors until the Flavians. Before that they had been only the princips.

2 - The transition from First Citizens of the Julio-Claudian period to the autocrats (of the Byzantine Empire was a gradual one. The Flavians in the late 1st century reiterated the hereditary principle and banished any delusion that a senatorial resurrection was in the offing. Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century crystallized the idea that the law was an expression of imperial will as opposed to senatorial consensus. Diocletian in the early 4th century introduced the proto-medieval regalia which typified Byzantine autocrats, an oriental court and diademed crown.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Meat & trade & per capita income of the Roman Empire   posted by Razib @ 3/15/2008 07:05:00 PM

During the height of the Roman Empire there was a NW-SE (of course mostly west to east) gradient in per capita income. This is well known. One of the reasons given for the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5h century in contrast to the persistence of the Eastern Empire is that the provinces of the latter were wealthier and so could afford initiatives such as bribing barbarian tribes to move on toward the west. In Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD Angus Maddison confirms this (table below the fold). Additionally, in Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire the argument is also made that expansion beyond the Rhine did not occur mostly because of the poverty of the lands; the lack of tax base meaning that the conquest wouldn't have been self-supporting. So as you go north there is an inversion of the east-west wealth gradient. The main exception to this clinal geographic distribution of wealth is Italy, for obvious reasons. But there are a few other data which Maddison alludes to which interest me in relation to per capita income. He confirms that Germans were larger and more physically robust because they had more meat and milk in their diet (better sources of protein). Maddison also notes that Roman culinary science which reflected the needs and interests of the elites had a strong focus on condiments and sauces because even imported foods tended to go bad. I know that the Dutch became wealthy in the early modern period in part by exporting salted herring, but these data seem to imply that the Roman trade in food was mostly in grain. Unless curred or salted it seems that vegetables and meats wouldn't make it. If there had been magic preservatives perhaps those in the wealthier provinces would have purchased milk & meat to shore up their nutritional intake? But decomposition constrained the possibilities for trade across long distances in such perishable food stuffs.

I bring this up because in Farewell to Alms Greg Clark used the distribution of lactose tolerance to imply that northern Europe had always been very wealthy, since after all milk was produced from cows which indicated a relatively high standard of living where land could be given over to husbandry. Now, Clark is obviously a smart guy, smart enough that Brad DeLong seems to have creamed himself with praise over his book, but that sort of assertion seemed really dumb and reinforces the perception that economists don't know jack. After all, we have a good idea of the distribution of lactose tolerance and the nature of its evolution, and it seems that ecological constraints and possibly path dependence is very critical in conditioning whether this trait will emerge. In fact, as I note above scholars of the Roman period assume that the lands of Germany were relatively sparsely populated and poor if material data are any evidence (Hitler was irritated with Himmler for funding archaeological digs in Germany and Scandinavia because he felt it just made the ancestors look primitive). Gaul was wealthier and more densely populated. That serves to explain why it remained occupied after being gutted for the glory of Julius Caesar, while the campaigns of Germanicus served mainly to buttress the popularity of his insane son the emperor Gaius (Caligula).

Reading economic history I notice all sorts of glosses and oversimplifications when it comes to cultural details. I don't mind that too much; I don't read Maddison's work for his analysis or even his often tenuous causal claims, but rather for his copious data sets. Nevertheless, when it comes to something like inferring economic conditions from biological data one can work out objections from the armchair without reading historical works. The extrapolation does though require taking non-economic dynamics and conditions seriously, which Clark presumably does.

Note: The estimates below are for 14 AD.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Measuring the rate of cultural and social change   posted by Razib @ 3/13/2008 08:21:00 PM

Below I discussed the issue of whether the Roman Empire's decline & fall was consequential. These sorts of discussions are loaded with presuppositions and impressions. Any one metric is not necessarily representative of other variables, and one must ask whether metrics are relevant in the first case. I think one important question to ask far upstream is this: does the rate of cultural change vary? In other words, does the first derivative of a cultural variable as a function of time deviate from zero? I think it does. For example, it seems that the period between 1950-1965 witnessed less change on average and in totality in the Zeitgeist than that between 1965-1970. In other words, someone in 1965 would recognize the general outlines of the society as less alien 15 years before than 5 years into the future.

With that assumption under the belt, the question we might ask about the Roman Empire is this: was there a discontinuity in the change so that one could say that the barbarian invasions were very significant? Or did the classical world of late antiquity slowly melt into the early medieval period. Most everyone can agree that production, material and intellectual, tended to decrease. But was the 6th century, for example, a period of particularly sharp decline in Italy? Traditional narrative history has a story to tell about the disruptive impact of the wars between the Goths and the East Roman Empire; that in the process of reconquering Italy Justinian destroyed it.

But enough. I have a copy of Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD, which has a handy chapter on the economy of the Roman Empire. Below the fold I've reformatted some of the population data to put it out on the web.

Population in 000s

200 BC1 AD200 AD400 AD600 AD



Roman Gaul44005750750057504500


Danubian lands25503050355034502600

Roman Europe1895022800255502070015400

Asia Minor50006000700060005000

Greater Syria26003025275022001900


Roman Asia78009250995084007100




Roman Africa65008200950079006800


200 BC - 1 AD 1 AD - 200 AD 200 AD - 400 AD 400 AD - 600 AD



Roman Gaul13501750-1750-1250


Danubian lands500500-100-850

Roman Europe38502750-4850-5300

Asia Minor10001000-1000-1000

Greater Syria425-275-550-300


Roman Asia1450700-1550-1300




Roman Africa17001300-1600-1100


200 BC - 1 AD1 AD - 200 AD200 AD - 400 AD400 AD - 600 AD



Roman Gaul30.68%30.43%-23.33%-21.74%


Danubian lands19.61%16.39%-2.82%-24.64%

Roman Europe20.32%12.06%-18.98%-25.60%

Asia Minor20.00%16.67%-14.29%-16.67%

Greater Syria16.35%-9.09%-20.00%-13.64%


Roman Asia18.59%7.57%-15.58%-15.48%




Roman Africa26.15%15.85%-16.84%-13.92%


A few thoughts? First, look at Greece. The Roman Empire wasn't so hot for it, but remember that prior to the conquest of this region it was a major center of Hellenistic civilization under the Macedonians. Italy's economic boom was in large part based on plunder, and Greece's no longer (in fact, Greece was one of the major sources of high value slaves for Italy). Also, the data points hide a lot in between. During the mid-200s the Roman Empire nearly collapsed, and by 300 it had been resurrected by a series of reforms under the emperor Diocletian. So the difference between the year 200 and 400 likely masks that there might have been a minimum point sometime late in the 200s. Finally, you can see some regional dynamics. The recovery of the late 3rd century was under the aegis of emperors derived from the Danubian provinces, so the relative robustness between 200-400 can be attributed to the likelihood that the military and cultural outlays enabled by increased taxation benefited these regions via redistribution.


Monday, March 10, 2008

The material consequence of the Pax Romana   posted by Razib @ 3/10/2008 05:29:00 PM

A few days ago I posted on the effect of a unitary (at least notionally) Islamic state in the early 8th century which stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus. Though prior to the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate the whole region had been ruled by civilized states (defined by the accoutrements of high society such as cities, literacy and institutional religions) the relative fragmentation resulted in difficulties for the transfer of ideas and trade. For example, in 550 a merchant attempting to make the journey from the borders of the Chinese Empire to Alexandria would have had to traverse the lands of the Turks, a host of Iranian flavored states in Transoxiana, the Sassanid Empire, before finally reaching East Roman lands. By 700 once once they reached Transoxiana they would have been close to the borders of the Islamic state which ruled the city of Alexandria. This state was still very heterogeneous, ruled by a bureaucratic class who by and large perpetuated the traditions of the East Roman Empire or a local gentry which remained attached to the values of the Persian past, but there still existed an Arab Muslim elite which served as the nexus of power across disparate regions. Of course, this is not a sui generis case. After the fall of the Islamic Caliphate there was the Pax Mongolica, which fostered trade and exchange of ideas on a massive scale across Eurasia, and before it there was the Roman Empire.

Speaking of which, over the past generation or two there has been a great deal of debate over the nature of the Pax Romana, and whether its passing meant anything. It seems entirely plausible, for example, to assert that for the free peasantry the fall of Rome meant little, as they continued to eke out their existence on the margins of subsistence. The transition in the West Roman Empire was simply the shift of elites; from a Latin speaking one which prized literary cultivation and civilian values to a Germanic one which emphasized martial valor and a warrior ethos. There was no catastrophic break, rather antiquity faded into the medieval period seamlessly and qualitatively life went on.

Some of Peter Brown's work reflects this sensibility, and shows that there was a shift of values, and measuring late antiquity by the standard of say the Second Sophistic is simply wrong-headed. In Europe After Rome Julia Smith makes the same case for cultural continuity drawing upon both documentation and archeology. I think to many readers these works will seem a touch Post-Modern and anti-Whiggish. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians you get a revisionism of the revisionism, an attempt to defend the older perception against an overreaction. The first book is unabashedly materialist, while the second reflects the position that the culture that produced Boethius was qualitatively different from that which looked to him as the interpreter of all the knowledge of the ancients. The barbarians were called such for a reason.

How do we reconcile this? Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization comes out and admits forthrightly that to some extent the differences are ones of values. For a medieval Christian the period of the "High Roman Empire" coincided with the persecution of the True Religion, so of course they did not perceive their own age as a dark one. Rather, though medieval folk did admit the glory of Rome (or what they knew of it) they would have also felt it important that many of those glories preceded the acceptance of Christ as Lord. Over the past 500 years the perception of the past has been strongly shaped by changes in norms. During the Renaissance the emphasis on the achievements of the classical world seem to have been in part a reaction against the intellectual monopoly of scholasticism which was a product of the High Middle Ages. Later on, during the Enlightenment and after the arguments were driven by an inversion of the values of the medieval period when Christianity was the measure of cultural attainment; 17th century China and 2nd century Rome were both examples of the genius of non-Christian & pre-Christian civilization, a rebuke to the claim that without Christ all was darkness.

Some of these cultural trends are elucidated in Plato to NATO, a book length polemic by the classicist David Gress where he argues that the modern perception of the foundations of Western civilization are strongly conditioned by contemporary biases. Gress' states that the Germanic and Christian aspects of the Western tradition have been deemphasized so as to root all the genius of modern liberal democracy in its Athenian antecedent. This is the extreme end-product of the leapfrogging tendency which turns the Middle Ages into a detour from the natural course of events. In the interests of naming names Gress gives a lot of space to the influence of Will Durant. This is an exploration of a boundary condition, an extreme case during the mid to late 20th century in the United States, but it is illustrative of the general trend since the revival of classical learning in the West.

Of course today we know that the Middle Ages was not a period of total stagnation. Even in material terms there were major advances. The horse collar, three-field crop rotation and windmills resulted in such inreased agricultural productivity in Northwestern Europe that by the period before the Black Death this region was far more densely populated than it had been during antiquity (see A Concise Economic History of the World). The demographic correction after the withdrawal of Roman Empire had not only been erased, it had been surpassed.

But at the end of the day, with the values that I bring to the table, figures like the one to the left make a deep impression on me. The Y axis represents the lead deposition in ice cores from Greeland. The X axis represents the last 30,000 years, scaled by powers of 10. I've added the label for the Roman Empire and 1800. A natural inference is that the anthropogenic production of lead because of smelting is what is producing the changes over time. Yes, the typical peasant always lived a miserable existence on the margins of the Malthusian trap until about 1800, but the scale of economic production and extent of specialization achieved during the Roman Empire took many centuries to recreate once it collapsed.

The data are what they are, now your interpret them is shaped by your norms. I'm obviously inclined to look to material considerations are the most important ones. The pollution in modern China is horrible, but it is an indicator as to its economic vitality. Conversely, many traditionalists may observe enviously the robustness of a religious ethos in the Middle East, but in terms economic growth there is far less activity (obviously the presence of petroleum contradicts this, but I think it's the exception that proves the rule). All the facts are to be admitted into evidence, but the verdicts are highly contingent upon the normative framework.

Note: The Pax Romana coincided with the first flowering of Imperial China.


Starving because of plague   posted by Razib @ 3/10/2008 12:27:00 AM

Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 is a short and dense little book which summarizes the latest research on the litany of plagues which reduced the population of the New World by 1-2 orders of magnitude within the century after Columbus. 1491 is writerly enough so that the depressing aspect of the topic is at least presented in a manner which blunts the effect of scale of the death. Born to Die, as the title may indicate, makes little attempt at that sort of elegant exposition; just tables after tables of fatality numbers, quotations from eye witnesses to the death, and so on. With that all that said, there was one qualitatively new piece of information that I am now aware of: many people died of starvation, not the disease which had rendered them immobile. Here's what would happen: a disease which most Europeans were immune to because of childhood exposure, think measles, would strike a tribe all at once. Not only might the symptoms be far more grave because of a less robust immune response (many would die), but the whole village or population would manifest simultaneously. This is a problem, a certain number of hours are needed for activities such as grinding maize into corn meal. If only 1/10th of the population is at full strength there are simply too few hands doing too much for those who need to recuperate; basic activities necessary for survival on the margins of the Malthusian trap now go undone. Without corn meal starvation quickly follows, well before the path of the disease leads to either death or recuperation.


Friday, March 07, 2008

How the Islamic World came to be   posted by Razib @ 3/07/2008 05:12:00 PM

Last summer I read When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise And Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty, and this week I finished The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, from the same author. In a strange twist the first book focuses on the Abbasid Caliphate, which flourished between 750-9501, while the second covers the period up to 750, the early Right Guided Caliphs and the Umayyads. I really don't see the logic in the order of publishing here, but no doubt there is some obscure reason why they came out in the sequence they did. Both books are a mix of social and narrative history, but The Great Arab Conquests tends to focus on the latter a great deal more than the former. The social context and dynamics are packed into the initial and last chapters, with most of the filling in the middle a litany of Arab names, battles, and obscure nations. On occasion the writing gets a little sloppy here and there, as if they were in a rush to get this book to press. If you know a fair amount about the history of the Islamic world the monotonous recitation of material you could find in Wikipedia might be a bit tiresome, but if you aren't as familiar with such details the book is a worthy introduction (though I do think the density of names, places and events might be veering into diminishing returns). My own interest in this period is driven by the fact that these early years of Islam have had a major impact on the rest of human history. Not only did it give rise to one of the major civilizational blocks of the modern world and finish off the long decline of late antiquity, but the early Arab polities served as the mediators of informational and economic exchange because of their geographical parameters.

Remember, in the few decades before 750 the whole region from what is today Uzbekistan to Spain was notionally under the aegis of one political entity. After 750 the Abbasids shifted their focus to the east and North Africa and Spain immediately went their own way, but even then the geographical range of the Muslim world-state was enormous. In the 14th century Ibn Battuta journeyed from West Africa to China, and his travels were aided by the Islamic international network which was in large part derived from the early formative period. But Battuta had to negotiate the frontiers of dozens of states within the Islamic world, up until 950 the Arab caliphs would have provided a more thoroughly integrated polity across which ideas and trade flowed freely. Not only was the Islamic world expansive, but the geometry of the political domain is of importance: it had contact with all the other major world civilizations very early on, and in many cases it was through Muslims that other societies learned of each other. I think this has resulted in one obvious dynamic: everyone has an opinion about Muslims and is in conflict with them because Muslims intersect with non-Muslims. In Central Asia the Muslims came into conflict with the Chinese. In the Eastern Mediterranean and along the Black Sea they came into conflict with the Orthodox. In Spain, Italy and France Muslims came into conflict with Latin Christians. In India Muslims came into conflict with Hindus. In Africa Muslims came into conflict with Christians in Ethiopia and Nubia, and pagans in the Niger river valley. Islam also later spread to Southeast Asia; Muslims came into conflict with the Spanish in the Philippines, converted the peoples of maritime Southeast Asia, and were major influences at the courts of the potentates who ruled in Thailand and Cambodia.2 In Power and Plenty the authors make the point that Islamic civilization was the only one in contact with all the others major regions at 1000 AD, and it served role as a conduit both across time (i.e., preserving some of the Greek works) and space. Paper was transmitted from China to the West via Islam, and Arabic numerals from India to the West.

So how exactly did this world empire emerge in one generation from the deserts of Arabia? That's the main reason I read The Great Arab Conquests. Unfortunately, there weren't many new insights, though the author does touch upon the historiography and its problems for the 7th century. As many of you know there is a revisionist school of thought which contends that much of the early history of Islam was fabricated, the shape of what we know about early conquests more accurately reflects the self-perceptions of 8th century Muslims, at the height of empire, as opposed to the realities of the conquerors who defeated Byzantium and Persia. The Great Arab Conquests pulls back from this sort of extreme revisionism, and I think this is a good thing to do. Sometimes amazing secret-history narratives are very attractive, but they aren't necessarily right. The fact that Herodotus wasn't lying about the origins of the Etruscans makes me tend to think that the discounting of ancient annals and histories by modern scholars is an overreaction, just as the initial skepticism about the history depicted in the Hebrew Bible was.3 The Great Arab Conquests for example does not repeat the model of some scholars that the early Arabs were actually from the North Arabian lands, and that a Hijazi origin was a later myth.

These historical details aside, the author basically presents a model where the Arabs pulled an "inside straight" when it came to timing. Most of you might know that the Byzantines and Persians were engaged in the "World War" of their age for a generation which ended a few years before the Muslim break-out; but there were some interesting details which I think need highlighting. At the maximum extent the Sassanid Empire in the early 7th century pushed all the way to the shores opposite Constantinople and into Egypt and Yemen. After the victories of Heraclius the Persians evacuated their new conquests. But an important point is that much of Syria had been under Byzantine rule for only a few years after one generation of Persian rule when the Arab conquests began if our chronologies are correct. I think this is a critical insight; obviously a modern nationalist sensibility is totally inappropriate to project back to the 7th century. The Syrian lands which the Arabs conquered were populated by Aramaic and Greek speakers of various Christian sects as loggerheads as well as a large number of Jews and numerous Christian Arabs on the margins. But even if loyalty to the Byzantine state is something that would be plausible, remember that for most residents a greater portion of their lives had likely been spent under Persian rule. Additionally, the large Jewish minority in these regions are attested to have been sympathetic to the Persians (there were Persian Jews associated with the Sassanid armies), and some of the early annals seem to indicate that they also welcomed the Arabs. The local non-Chalcedonian Christians were also generally unsympathetic toward their Byzantine overlords, while even loyalists seemed to see the recent events more as the hand of God temporarily punishing lax and heretical Christians more than a world-changing event that would alter the path of history.

With 1,400 years of hindsight we can see that what happened in Syria in the 630s was of great significance. The Arab conquest resulted in the spread of their language from the Atlantic to the Tigris, and the long and slow decline of non-European Christianity. The individuals alive during the 630s could plausibly enter into a conversation with aged pagan philosophers who had retreated to Alexandria in their youth as well as the founders of early Islamic orthodoxy in their old age.4 But the patchy records from non-Muslims of the period suggests that proximate realities loomed much larger in the factors which affected their course of action, response and impressions. The anti-Imperial Monophysite faction which was driven from Alexandria before the Arab conquest has been depicted by some as welcoming the Muslims. This is probably an exaggeration, but it seems that the record does suggest that many Christians who were perceived as heretical by Constantinople saw recent events as simply the hand of God evening the scales of justice. Across much of Iran local rulers entered into truces with the Muslim invaders as the Sassanid royal family fled to the east. In parts of northern Iran Muslims could not enter without the expressed permission of the local non-Muslim potentate, who secured his rule through payment of tribute to the Caliph. In the 7th century Arab Muslims were a small rentier class of warriors overlain atop preexistent institutions and societies. Greek remained the bureaucratic language of the western half of the empire, while Persian dominated the east. Correspondence of non-Muslims during this period doesn't even address Islamic rule with great detail; each subculture was rather self-sufficient. John of Damascus, the last of the Church Fathers, was a minister of the Umayyad Caliph partly because the non-military aspects of the early Islamic Empire was rather simply an extension of previous dispensation.

Which brings me the point about words like "Muslim" or "Islamic." How appropriate are they? In the 10th century they seem to be pretty appropriate; we know what they mean. With the introduction of paper there was apparently a boom in writing during the 9th century, which along with the emergence of a critical mass of Arab speaking Muslims within the Muslim Empire, means that our picture of 850 is far better than that of 750. I think this explains why The Great Arab Conquests feels more patchy than When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, which was built upon a much more fully fleshed out world because of the closeness and continuity of the documentary sources. The Umayyad interlude is to some extent a forgettable phase in the eyes of Muslims because of its reputed non-Islamic nature. When we say that someone was Christian in 2nd century Rome, I know what that means, but when we say someone was Muslim in 7th century Damascus, I think that the term itself is less clearly defined and implies far less. Like any religion, Islamic grew organically within a particular cultural context. But its particular circumstances were important in shaping the path of that development. To be short about it the early phase was one defined by the dominance of Arab ethnicity as opposed to Muslim religion. Christian Arab tribes were allowed to join the early Islamic armies with full rights, while non-Arab converts to Islam might remain second class citizens. There were also cases of intra-Islamic conflict where non-Arabs were executed and Arabs were imposed a monetary penalty as punishment for their rebellion. Racism and ethnic chauvinism have always been implicit features of the Islamic world (e.g., see descriptions of black Africans by Arab geographers), but during the first few decades it manifested in a very explicit manner. Not only were Arabs superior to non-Arabs, but particular lineages (e.g., the Quraysh) were superior to others (e.g., recruits from Yemen). During the Umayyad period Arabs lived as a military caste in their own cities, and despite the putative mercantile background of many of the early Muslims they were most definitely rentiers who extracted tax from the vast numbers of non-Muslims. Public nudity at the court of the Umayyads or the patronage of pagan-themed mosaics by powerful Muslims seems peculiar or heterodox only when we use our point of reference as that of the Abbasids, who reflect a far different cultural sensibility and likely an Islamic religiosity far closer to contemporary norms than that of the 7th century.5

So how did we get from there to here? In the year 600 Arabic was spoken only in Arabia as well as amongst communities in the Levant and Mesopotamia which were ethnically Arab. The dominant religion in North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Iraq was Christianity, in Iran it was Zoroastrianism, while Central Asia was a melting pot of Zoroastrian, Buddhist and shamanistic influences. In the year 1000 Arabic was the dominant language of high society from Morocco to the Tigris, and Islam was the dominant religion from the Atlantic to the borders of India. What happened? As noted above it seems that the initial conquests were a function of a coincidence of historical events; the Muslim Empire was not even the first Arab one, that of Zenobia's was. But the persistence, well, that's a different thing. If you are a Muslim you could posit the hand of God, but if not, I don't think there's a very good explanation at this point why the Arabs didn't go the way of the Mongols and get absorbed. One model is that Islam as it existed in 630 was a compelling force in keeping the Arabs distinct and giving the conquered folk an identity to assimilate to, but I think though there likely was some religious motive during the initial years it seems implausible that Islam was wholly formed out of the Arabian desert (many normal aspects of Islam today, such as a sharp Shia-Sunni divide or Sharia are attested to have emerged over the centuries). The circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the outlines of the contemporary religion developed in situ within the Islamic Empire over a few decades, not de novo in the deserts of ARabia.

By the 8th century the Christians of the Muslim of Empire were less sanguine about their new rulers. John of Damascus still referred to Muslims as a heretical sect of Christianity at this point, so a total crystallization that Islam was a new rival world religion had not developed (from the orthodox Christian perspective, whatever your orthodoxy happens to be, heresies come, and heresies go, and during the first century or so I think it is understandable why Christian intellectuals assumed that Islam was a passing fad to go the way of Arianism or Manicheanism). After all, the majority of the residents of the Islamic Empire were still Christians and Zoroastrians! It seems that Islam was a sect of the Arabs and their clients, the mawalis. For centuries prior to the rise of the Arab Empire Chalcedonians ruled over non-Chalcedonian populations in the Byzantine Empire, while in Persia Zoroastrianism had remained an ethnic religion and Mesopotamia was predominantly Christian and Jewish (Ctesiphon, the winter capital of the Sassanian Shahs did not have a fire temple, but it did have churches and synagogues). In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown notes that the increase in conversions to Islam started occurring when Arabic replaced Greek & Aramaic as the dominant bureaucratic languages. Tensions between the Arab Muslims and their subjects are apparent in massive rebellions by Berbers and Copts early in the 8th century. During the second siege of Constantinople Coptic sailors crossed the lines and defected to the Byzantines; at this point the early 7th century resentments between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians were distant memories. The Abassid revolt against the Umayyads is often depicted as that of mawalis against the Syrian Arab regime, but it seems likely that it also tapped into chafing of the Zoroastrian Iranian majority against Muslim rule. Iran remained predominantly non-Muslim into the 10th century, and in the last decades of the Umayyad Caliphate the Arab armies finally conquered the vassal non-Muslim states in the northern highlands.

But at this point a critical threshold had been passed. Enough mawalis now existed which identified with the Arab Islamic regime that overthrowing the new order was now more difficult to do simply by pitting the demographic advantage of the dhimmis against their Muslim overlords. That advantage was fast disappearing, and in key sectors like the professional military the Muslim stranglehold was overwhelming. The quietism of Christians during the first centuries of conquest was due to the fact that little changed in their day to day lives (there is some evidence that their tax burden initially decreased), but by the 8th century they were now fast becoming a marginalized sector who could not reverse the direction of the reaction which was inducing cultural change.

Finally, I want to include a deterministic observation. So far I've focused on the contingent events which framed the Arab conquest, and the inexplicable (from a non-Muslim perspective) robustness and evolution of the Arab sacred ideology into a world religion. But why did Iran remain non-Arab while Egypt did not? I think the explanation for the Arabicization of Fertile Crescent is pretty easy: this region was already Semitic speaking, and Aramaic and Arabic are relatively close. The switch from Aramaic to Arabic was like the switch from Akkadian and other assorted ancient Semitic dialects. But Egypt was dominated by Coptic, which is very different from Arabic. I think geography explains it, mediated through the circumstances of conquest. Remember, Egypt is pretty accessible along the axis of the Nile, and the Arab conquest was very rapid. In summary, the Arab armies defeated the Byzantines, and became the new head of the snake. In contrast, Iran was conquered piece-by-piece, and large expanses remained under non-Muslim rule for nearly a century after the initial nominal conquest. Some regions, such as Tabaristan, remained under the domination of Zoroastrian potentates until the 9th century, two centuries after conquest. There was no Coptic equivalent, unless you count the functionaries of the Christian church. Iranian high culture persisted I believe because the fragmented topography of the land made absolute and immediate rapid conquest impossible; in contrast, the Arabs managed to take Egypt as a whole without any mediators to the peasantry (the Coptic hierarchy would be horizontal alternatives in this model). By the time the Iranian elite was predominantly Muslim, Arab rule was collapsing, and with it any necessity for Arabicization. Ferdowsi is an exemplar of this non-Arab Iranian Islamic counter-culture which persisted because of the support given over the centuries of Arab domination by non-Muslim Iranian princes in the localities.6 I think this model explains to some extent the persistence of Berber dialects in the highlands of North Africa; the contrast with the Iranian example being that the Berber dialects were never independent vessels of high culture and so have been losing ground to Arabic until the present.

Balancing inevitable fixed dynamics and path dependent contingent factors is difficult. Unfortunately an understanding of humanity requires knowledge of what comes before, and there's a whole lot of messy data to comprehend, and the subtleties of historiography to keep in mind. The the early centuries of Islam are fascinating, and critical to understanding human history as a whole because of Islamic civilization's relationship with the societies which came before, as well as the many with which it interacted. And of course, the Islamic Question is one which we are having to grapple with today.

1 - The caliphate lasted quite a bit longer than 950, but beyond that point they were puppets for the most part.

2 - Most people do not know, for example, that for a short time the Khmer monarchy was under Muslim influence. But the Therevada Buddhist character of Khmer society was robust and deep-rooted enough that this only resulted in the overthrow of the Muslim faction because of popular discontent.

3 - This is not to say that the Hebrew Bible, or Herodotus, are accurate histories. But, it is one think to look at a work skeptically, but another to dismiss it entirely as totally unreliable.

4 - After the closing of the Academy of Athens the pagan non-Christian intellectual tradition did not immediately go extinct. Some relocated to redoubts of paganism such as Haran in Syria, while others relocated to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Alexandria. There are reports of pagan teachers as late as 600, so it seems entirely likely that some survived to see the fall of the East Roman provinces to the Muslim armies, spanning the culture of the ancient classical West with Islam.

5 - The standard model is that the Abassids, centered on Baghdad, were more influenced by Iranian motifs and models while the Umayyads, centered on Damascus, were shaped by the Hellenic currents dominant in their locus of power.

6 - The lowlands of southwest Iran are Arabic speaking. I think geographic accessibility likely explains this, though this region seems to have been predominantly Christian, and so quite likely to have been Semitic, at conquest in any case.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Quantities of Trade   posted by Razib @ 3/06/2008 01:54:00 AM

I'm almost done with Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium. So I found this press release of interest:
Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries - during the time of the Crusades --ceramic vessels reached Acre from: Mediterranean regions, the Levant, Europe, North Africa, and even China -- reveals new research, which examined trade of ceramic vessels, conducted at the University of Haifa.

...Other vessel forms that arrived in smaller numbers include containers, jars, bowls and cooking wares. 44.5% of imports arrived from the Mediterranean regions of Cyprus, Greece and Asia Minor. There were also strong commercial links with the neighbors in Syria and Lebanon where 29.3% of the imports arrived from. Western Mediterranean regions-- such as France, Catalonia and Tunisia, were the source of some 3.3% of ceramic vessels and even Chinese pottery arrived in Acre - 0.2% of the imported pottery arrived from China.

Not much. But China is far away. There is an unfortunate problem in economic history and archaeology of assuming that the lit area of a dark street has all the answers. Some aspects of human history are easier to quantitize than others, but ease of precise comprehension and communication does not imply totality of understanding. Which is why narrative history in a more classical sense is still important. But, an interest in one is not necessarily exclusive with an interest in the other, though in practical terms it often is (unfortunately). But in any case, I would though offer that 0.2% of a physical commodity imported from China in the Levant is orders of magnitude greater than the amount of trade between these regions 2,000 years before this period. I suspect that the world of 1,000 AD was far more of a small-world network than the world of 10,000 BC, and that is important to keep in mind for dynamics of all types.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Origins of the British   posted by DavidB @ 3/04/2008 06:44:00 AM

Despite my long-standing interest in Celts and Anglo-Saxons, it took me a long time to get round to reading Stephen Oppenheimer's The origins of the British: a genetic detective story (2006). It is an alarmingly big book, and I had other stuff to do. When I finally read it, I found that appearances were deceptive. The book has a lot of diagrams and appendices, and the print (in the UK edition) is widely spaced, so the main text is not in reality all that long. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject. This does not mean I agree with Oppenheimer's conclusions. I was going to give a summary of his claims, but I find that a webpage here by Geoffrey Sampson already contains an excellent summary, which I gratefully borrow:

Overall, Oppenheimer is making the following claims about British prehistory:
1. If we forget about the very recent (post-Second-World-War) waves of immigration, then wherever we look in the British Isles, most of the ancestral bloodlines of present-day inhabitants go back to people who were already here in the Neolithic period - say, six thousand years ago. The well-known Iron Age and later 'invasions', such as the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, were more like the Norman Conquest - smallish elite groups arrived who sometimes had large cultural impacts, but never amounted to more than a tiny percentage of the subsequent bloodlines in any region.
2. The genetic division between what we think of as the 'Celtic' west and north of the British Isles and the 'English' south-east itself dates back to the Neolithic - it is not the result of late-comers expelling or killing off inhabitants in one part of the territory.
3. The Celts originated not in Central Europe as standardly believed, but in the Spain-Southern France region.
4. When the Celts came to the British Isles, they occupied only the traditionally Celtic western and northern areas; England was never inhabited by Celtic-speakers.
5. The inhabitants of England spoke a Germanic language long before the Romans arrived, and it was this language which evolved in due course into English - the invasions from the Continent at the end of the Roman period did not have much impact on the local language, except for introducing some Scandinavian influence.

Sampson also has some critical comments on Oppenheimer's claims. I will make a few comments of my own below the fold, but it is probably more useful to describe other recent work (mainly archaeological) on the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England ....

So far as Oppenheimer's genetic claims are concerned, the most interesting is point 2 in Sampson's summary. Unlike some authors, Oppenheimer does find a marked genetic difference between England and the 'Celtic fringe'. Whereas this would conventionally be attributed to the impact of Anglo-Saxon and Danish migration in the early middle ages, Oppenheimer believes that it goes back much further, to the Neolithic or even the Mesolithic period. Broadly, he argues that the western parts of the British Isles were originally settled mainly by people from the Iberian peninsula, using the Atlantic sea routes, while the eastern parts (i.e. most of England) were largely settled from across the North Sea, roughly from what is now Belgium. The genetic differences resulting from these different origins have persisted, and have only been marginally affected by subsequent migrations.

Now, I don't greatly care if my ancestors turn out to have been Belgian, so long as I don't have to put mayonnaise on my chips, but I am not yet convinced. In view of the importance and novelty of Oppenheimer's genetic claims, the evidence is presented surprisingly briefly. It does not appear to be based on any detailed peer-reviewed studies, but only on Oppenheimer's own unpublished analysis of haplotype data. Based on this, he considers that the 'English' haplotypes are more closely related to those of the Low Countries than to the 'Iberian' haplotypes which prevail in the 'Celtic fringe', but that the divergences from the Continental types must go back much further in time than the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

For all I know, Oppenheimer may well be right, but I would be cautious about accepting his claims until they are corroborated by other experts. Oppenheimer is not himself a geneticist by training. Neither am I, but then I am not making highly technical genetic claims based on my own research.

The boldest of Oppenheimer's claims is point 5 in Sampson's summary: that the inhabitants of eastern Britain already spoke a Germanic language long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. This does have the advantage of avoiding the problem of explaining how a (supposedly) tiny number of Anglo-Saxons got the Britons to speak Old English. Otherwise, it has nothing to recommend it. There is no direct evidence that a Germanic language was spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons (except for Germanic mercenaries in the Roman army), and there is a reasonable, if not overwhelming, amount of evidence from place names, etc, that a Celtic language was spoken. Most linguists also believe that Old English is far too closely related to the other Germanic languages to have diverged from them as long ago as Oppenheimer claims.

Reading Oppenheimer's book has also encouraged me to catch up on recent historical and archaeological work on the Anglo-Saxon migration period. A selection of studies is in the references below. Since there are very few documents from the period, most of the evidence is archaeological. Unfortunately, archaeologists suffer from an occupational vice of over-interpreting their evidence. It used to be the fashion to attribute every shift of style in pots (and other material remains) to the migration of peoples. Since the 1950s the fashion has swung wildly to the other extreme, and there is a strong prejudice against recognising migration at all. The conclusions that archaeologists draw from the evidence therefore need to be taken with a handful or two of salt.

So far as the archaeological facts are concerned, there seems to be a consensus that the Romano-British economy and society collapsed very completely and quickly soon after the withdrawal of the Roman army and administration early in the 5th century. Towns and villas fell into disuse, coins were no longer minted, and even pottery (that mainstay of archaeology) is very scarce. It is remarkably difficult to find any traces of the indigenous population. As Myres puts it (p.21) 'the sub-Roman Britons of the fifth and sixth centuries appear to have enjoyed - if that is the right word - a culture almost as completely devoid of durable material possessions as any culture can be.' Myres goes on to conclude that there must have been a drastic fall in population. This conclusion has not been so widely accepted. There is one strong piece of evidence against depopulation of rural areas: pollen analysis shows no widespread regeneration of woodland at the time. Across most of England the landscape would revert to woodland in a few decades if not regularly grazed or cultivated, so complete depopulation of large areas seems to be ruled out. (But I wonder how long regeneration of woodland could be prevented by grazing sheep and deer, without much human supervision?)

There has been disagreement about the date of the first significant Germanic migration to Britain. The documentary sources (Gildas, etc.) indicate the mid-5th century for this, but some historians, up to and including Myres, have believed in significant Germanic settlements in the late Roman period. This belief rests largely on the existence of metalwork and pottery from this period which appears to have been manufactured in late Roman Britain but in Germanic styles (described by Myres as 'Romano-Saxon'). This has been interpreted as made by Romano-British craftsmen for Germanic settlers. But recent archaeologists have tended to reject this interpretation, arguing that the supposedly 'Germanic' style was just a widespread late-Roman fashion. If this reinterpretation is correct, then there is little evidence for significant Germanic settlement before the mid-5th century. But the tide of archaeological opinion may turn again.

In reading the archaeological studies I was particularly looking for estimates of population numbers. Various estimates have been made for Roman Britain, but there is very little for the immediate post-Roman period. This is understandable in view of the shortage of evidence. It did however occur to me that it should be possible to form estimates of the relative numbers of Anglo-Saxon and indigenous people, based on the proportions of different types of burials. If all graves can be identified as 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'indigenous', then we can get such an estimate, admittedly subject to distortion by bias in preservation or discovery. Even if not all graves can be definitely identified, we might still get some reasonable outer limits for the estimate based on those that can be definitely identified.

Little work of this kind seems to have been done, but I was pleased to find that a bold attempt has been made in a series of papers by the British-based German archaeologist Heinrich Harke. (The 'a' should have an umlaut, but this will not show properly in all browsers.) Unfortunately two of the key papers are in German, which is not my favourite language, but I hope I have deciphered the gist of them.

5th and 6th century graves are of two kinds: burials and cremation urns. Cremation urns are found mainly in eastern England, and have long been recognised as distinctively Anglo-Saxon. But the majority of graves are burials. The important feature of Harke's work is that he believes he can distinguish reliably, at least in many cases, between Anglo-Saxon and indigenous graves. The main basis for this is the presence or absence of weapons (swords, seaxes, spears and shields) in the graves. Throughout eastern and central England, even as far west as Shropshire, bodies were often buried with weapons. Harke argues that this is usually a good indicator of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, his main points being:

a) weapons are not found in late Roman or Celtic burials of the period, though they are common in Germanic areas on the Continent;

b) the weapon burials are too common to be confined to people of very high status, so they are not just markers of a social elite;

c) weapons are often found in what appear to be 'family graves', which suggest an inherited ethnic status;

d) the skeletons in weapon graves are on average a few centimetres taller than those in weaponless graves, which is consistent with an ethnic difference between Germanic and British people. The difference cannot be explained by social status, because the taller skeletons are otherwise similar in nutritional history, as shown by growth interruptions, etc.

Harke does not make what seems to me the important point that an invading military aristocracy, facing a risk of rebellion from an oppressed indigenous majority, does not usually let the subject people wander around with weapons! The impression we get from early documents such as the Laws of Ine is that the indigenous people were reduced to a servile status (wealh = Briton = slave), so the Britons in areas ruled by Anglo-Saxons would probably not have weapons. Or if they did have weapons, they would hardly waste them by burying them with the dead.

Based on the assumption that weapon burial indicates Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, Harke attempts some quantitative estimates. He notes that some communities seem to be entirely Anglo-Saxon, including the women, while others were probably only Anglo-Saxon on the male side, others were ethnically mixed (as shown by mixed cemeteries), and others were enclaves of Britons. In southern and eastern England he estimates that the proportion of Anglo-Saxons ranged from a sixth to a quarter, while in northern England it was smaller, at 10 percent or less. Except perhaps in East Anglia (the stronghold of cremation urns) they were nowhere in a majority, but Harke argues that the Anglo-Saxon minority would be large enough, combined with its social and military supremacy, to give it a linguistic and cultural dominance. After the collapse of Roman civilisation, and in the absence of a Celtic alternative in most of England, the indigenous majority would be eager to throw in their lot with the new cultural elite and blend in as completely as possible.

I find this a plausible and appealing scenario, which is consistent with the genetic evidence as interpreted by Weale et al., and which helps explain the otherwise perplexing absence of Celtic vocabulary in the English language. If the Britons were anxious to assimilate to the culturally dominant ethnic group, and 'pass' for Anglo-Saxon, they would avoid giving away their servile origins by using Celtic words. Harke's thesis will however no doubt be controversial. I have not seen much response as yet from the anti-migrationists, but they will doubtless deny that burial rites are reliable ethnic markers. Fashions in burial do change, so it is not impossible that weapon burial would spread as a new imported fashion. But Harke has at least made a constructive and ingenious start by grappling with difficulties which other archaeologists have tended to brush aside.

References (umlauts in German titles are omitted):

C. J. Arnold: Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, 1984
C. J. Arnold: An archaeology of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, 1988
A. S. Esmond Cleary: The ending of Roman Britain, 1989
Neil Faulkner: The decline and fall of Roman Britain, 2000
Heinrich Harke: 'Briten und Angelsachsen in nachromischen England: zum Nachweis der einheimische Bevolkerung in den angelsachsischen Landnahmgebieten', Studien zur Sachsenforschung, 11, 1998, 87-119
Heinrich Harke: 'Sachsische Ethnizitat und archaologische Deutung in fruhmittelalterlichen England', Studien zur Sachsenforschung, 12, 1999, 109-122
Heinrich Harke: ' "Warrior graves?" The background of the Anglo-Saxon burial rite', Past and Present, 126, 1990, 22-43
Heinrich Harke: 'Kings and warriors: population and landscape from post-Roman to Norman Britain', in The peopling of Britain: the shaping of a human landscape, ed. Paul Slack and Ryk Ward, 2002.
Richard Hodges: The Anglo-Saxon achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society, 1989
Michael E. Jones: The end of Roman Britain, 1996
Sam Lucy: The Anglo-Saxon way of death: burial rites in early England, 2000
J. N. L. Myres: The English settlements, 1986

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Spanish coincidence?   posted by Razib @ 2/28/2008 11:39:00 PM

Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 is an excellent narrative history which focuses on the period of time when Spanish history was a substantial subset of world history. The author, Henry Kamen, is a British historian who happens to be a resident of Barcelona, and he's gotten into trouble with Spanish nationalists for not framing the facts in a manner befitting Castilian triumphalism. All for the good I would think. In any case, Kamen does a good job balancing the standard kings & battles narration with thick social history. I checked out the book for two reasons. First, I was interested in the treatment given to the impact of disease in its relation to the New World, and secondarily, a better understanding of the role of the Hapsburg dynasty in early modern European history (I'm working through another book focusing on the Austrian Hapsburgs). Though the author was more interested in the social and economic parameters which drove the Spanish conquest of the New World, he really couldn't dodge the critical necessary precondition of disease, so I found out what I needed to know. Imagine that the sepoys who fought for the East India Company and the maharajas who aligned with the British were extinct a generation or two after the aid that they rendered the new sahibs. That's a pretty good analogy. On the second issue, there was a lot of detail which was illuminating; who knew that Phillip the II was a connoisseur of Dutch culture? I didn't (though I did know that Charles V was a Netherlander, I suspect that my Anglo-Saxon cultural background has inculcated me thoroughly with the Black Legend). But there some other more surprising points which I hadn't thought of.

First, I did know of one dynamic which plays a large role in explaining various events in Spanish history: during this whole period the Spanish Empire, and even the core kingdom of Spain, was actually a dynastic union which was relatively unintegrated politically. In fact, the Carlist Wars of the 19th centuries were fought over in part by the regions to preserve their customary laws and traditions against the centralizing tendency of the crown (or one lineage of it), which was attempting to create a modern nation-state. In an ironic but unsurprising twist, the same regions, such as the Basque provinces and Catalonia, which had served as centers of traditionalist-reactionary factions switched to supporting Leftish movements when those political configurations supported their autonomy from the centralizing pressures of Madrid. So in the 19th century the regions of Spain supported reaction and tradition because that reaction and tradition overlapped with their independence. In the 20th century conservatives had become reconciled with the nation-state and so it was to the Left that these regions looked to to support their aspirations for freedom from Castilian imperialism. But I had not been aware of the extent to which regions such as Aragon, which was a separate kingdom from Castile under the same monarchy, were definitively independent. Not only would the assemblies of Aragon refuse to be taxed to support wars on behalf of the Spanish Empire (e.g., the attempt to suppress rebellion in the Netherlands), but they also might refuse to send troops! This was not an isolated incident, it seems that the New World was Castile's responsibility, while Aragon looked towards its own possessions in Italy. Speaking of which, Kamen points to the fact that these Italian possessions, in particular Genoa, provided much of the capital and financial talent which kept the Empire afloat. Christopher Columbus was not the only Genoese in the service of the Spanish crown, the trade with the New World based out of Seville was backed in large part by non-Castilian capital, whether it be Italian, Portuguese or German.

I only emphasize the international aspect to the Spanish Empire (which was Kamen's sin in the eyes of Spanish historians who wanted to highlight Castile's overwhelming agency in all events) because the text is also littered with references to a particular parochialism of Castilian culture and society which is all too familiar. Kamen notes that, for example, in the 16th century Castilian literature was relatively popular in translation in other parts of Europe. But the Castilians rarely translated works in other languages into the their own! Additionally, even Castilian works were usually printed abroad because of the relative shoddiness of local artisans and technology; often in the possessions which later became Belgium or in Italy. Finally, Kamen observes that the Spanish foreign service had difficulties because of the lack of polyglots in Castile; generally diplomats would make recourse to translators, or, they would recruit from Italy, Flanders or Wallonia, because many in those regions would know Castilian as well as their own native tongue and possibly other languages. There are numerous other examples given the text. Assuming this is correct, it reminds me a great deal of aspects of the Ottoman or Chinese interaction with the West when these societies were in relative decline, down to the lack of interest in foreign arts & literature as well as the need for middlemen to translate because of linguistic ignorance. Of course, a one-dimensional picture of these societies is going to be incorrect, there were attempts to modernize from within and influences from without. But a strong overall sense pervades that these cultures were inwards looking by conscious preference and their elites were very satisfied with their station in the world and saw no need to measure themselves against outsiders.

One could chalk this up to Muslim influence in Spain. But resemblances to the last century of the Chinese Empire suggest to me that this is a repeated pattern in many societies which have reached an equilibrium which can be broken only by powerful exogenous shocks. One could imagine for example something very similar to what happened to the Ottomans and Ching (Manchus) if a Slavophile faction had succeeded in keeping the Russian aristocracy insulated from Western European influences (as one was, one could make the case that something like this did happen because of the inability to shift from the outmoded absolutism which the Tsars perpetuated). I don't have a real answer to what was going on in Spain, but I had to comment on the correspondences with the trajectory of the Ottoman Empire at the other end of the Mediterranean. After a vigorous expansion under a warrior caste both these polities seemed to have just decided to take a few centuries long nap, spelled by occasional attempts to modernize and catch-up, but only in terms of specific ends as opposed to general techniques.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The economic basis of cultural creativity?   posted by Razib @ 2/26/2008 05:32:00 PM

Reading Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium by by Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O'Rourke. So far somewhat like A Farewell to Alms, except painted on a much broader palette. I've read The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and though I wasn't convinced by all the specific examples the general thrust of that work makes sense. Nevertheless, I was still surprised when Findlay and O'Rourke connected the introduction of Champa rice strains and the cultural efflorescence of the Sung period. Say what? OK, this the logic, the new rice strains resulted in far greater productivity, and so China's population doubled in about 200 years, from 50 to 100 million. This 200 year period can be thought of as a transient between stationary states around the Malthusian limit. Findlay & O'Rourke don't focus much on the specific expressions of creativity during this period, but if you read much Chinese history you note that there was a lot of stuff going on during this period which set the tone for the next 1,000 years, from Neo-Confucianism to styles of landscape painting.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

The lamentations of their women - the movie?   posted by Razib @ 2/14/2008 02:40:00 AM

Roger L. Simon reviews a new Russian film, Mongol, which is a biopic of Genghis Khan. See the trailer. If you want a fictionalized, but relatively accurate, narrative of Genghis Khan's tale I suggest Pamela Sargent's Ruler Of The Sky (Sargent extrapolates into the blank spaces of his life to fill out the story, as opposed to making things up to add "spice" in contradiction to the spirit of what we know). Why post about this on a weblog generally science-focused? The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols:
We have identified a Y-chromosomal lineage with several unusual features. It was found in 16 populations throughout a large region of Asia, stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea, and was present at high frequency: ∼8% of the men in this region carry it, and it thus makes up ∼0.5% of the world total. The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia ∼1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.

Certainly a way to make population genetics interesting to a particular subset. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World the author argues that the world conqueror's success was in large part owed to the fact that he marginalized his extended family and promoted an inner circle of loyalists on the merit of their talents (e.g., Subutai). But subsequently to this first generation direct line descent from Genghis Khan became the "gold standard" across much of Eurasia for who could ascend to power; ergo, the inference by some population geneticists that the Mongolian modal haplotype derives from Genghis Khan.


Monday, February 11, 2008

The many dimensions of history   posted by Razib @ 2/11/2008 06:02:00 PM

T'ang China - The Rise of the East in World History:
Interconnections, one may agree, are both old and wide. Initially there was the genetic connection. Although the new alliance between genetics and history is in its infancy, it has already established that, at least since sapiens replaced Neanderthal, habilis and erectus, there have been no true human races. The human genome is unitary and the genetic differences within it are not that large. Cavalli-Sforza states: 'According to that first estimate, the woman from whom all modern human mitochondria descend lived about 190,000 years ago', adding 'this first attempt was not so bad'. Subsequently, Bryan Sykes of the Oxford Institute of Molecular Medicine has concluded that 'almost all native Europeans belong to one of seven distinct clans each with a founding mother ... But there is virtually no consistent pattern to the way the clans are distributed in modern Europe: in the thousands of years of European history they have become thorough mixed. Since Europe was originally populated from Asia, and to a lesser degree from Africa, similar continuities are likely to be traceable there. As Teilhard de Chardin saw, the absence of human branching is striking. The continued convergence rather than divergence is not easily explained by the first three principles of evolution - mutation, natural selection and drift - but only by the fourth, flow, especially the mobility of women, which in turn implies contact between groups....

I've read a great deal of Samuel Adshead's work; though perhaps overly ambitious, like William McNeill he approaches big questions in a with a wide and diverse toolkit. It's thinly populated territory, but one which needs to be explored. Unlike some humanists Adshead has no problem with including the natural sciences as part of his toolkit; the reference to population genetic parameters such as selection, drift, mutation and gene flow imply a level of familiarity far beyond the ken of expectation. That being said, I would obviously object to many of Adshead's characterizations. Biology is it not physics, and like history sentences such as "The human genome is unitary and the genetic differences within it are not that large" need to be placed in their proper context. And within an area such as human genetics one needs to be cautious about citing works and opinion from even the 1990s; one needs to read the journals as opposed to paying attention what L. L. Cavall-Sforza or Bryan Sykes reported as to the state of consensus a decade ago.

A truly synthetic take on the history of our species needs to consider all population genetic parameters. The necessary subtly and depth of understanding is, I believe, properly modeled in the sort of dynamic system which is illustrated in William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, though even more so in terms of its complexity. The lactase persistence story over the past two years illustrates the power of gene-culture coevolution; but too often it is framed in terms of the power culture has in shaping genetics, but what about the impact that genetic revolutions may have upon history? The Out-of-Africa movement itself may be a more viable template than we could have imagined, after all, a common hypothesis is that evolutionary/genetic changes gave our African predecessors a fitness advantage over other archaic hominid species. The LCT region is the largest portion of the European genome cleaned of genetic variation because of powerful selection; and it all occurred within the last 7,000 years! History as traditionally understood by cothe rise of Sumer is 5,000 years ago, so on the scale of populations the domain of evolutionary genetics does impinge upon that of other humane studies.

Much of Ashdead and McNeill's work hinges upon networks and flow of information. I would hold that one of the great stories soon to be told about human history over the last 10,000 years are the changes in the nature and extent of gene flow due to the rapid increase in population (triggered by the agricultural revolution). A change in density may have had a natural affect on the weighting of various alternative population genetic parameters. Here you have a case where a cultural innovation, agriculture, results in necessary shifts in evolutionary dynamics, which themselves may set in motion historical processes!

But to understand and infer historical processes, I do believe that the insights and knowledge of scholars of promiscuous inclinations such as Samuel Adshead will be essential in putting the pieces in place.

This is a map of the distribution of two alleles of SLC24A5. In case you don't know, this locus has an ancestral and derived variant on one SNP. A few years ago one group noted that Africans & Asians were nearly fixed for the ancestral variation, while Europeans were fixed for the derived on. Through an admixture study on an African American population they determined that the variation on SLC24A5 was responsible for 1/4 to 2/5 of the trait value different between Africans & Europeans. A recent study with South Asians shows that this locus is responsible for about the same proportion of the within population variance among this group. The frequency of the derived variant is still high in South Asia as you can see on this map...but since it is sampled from the northwest one can't get a fix on the cline within South Asia. Another paper tells us more, among a sample of Tamils in Sri Lanka the derived variant is extant at frequencies around 25%, while the Sinhalese the frequency was 50%. I've seen other samples which suggest that among central Indian populations the frequency could be as high as 80%. The point is that though the frequency of the derived variant drops as you go south it remains rather high. Population number 30 on the map are the Uighers. Historical and other genetic studies suggest that the Uighers are a recent hybrid population; a pre-Turkic, likely Indo-European speaking, substrate seems to have been absorbed over the last 1,000 years. I point this out because Uighers have about equal measures of the ancestral and derived variants of SLC24A5; one might posit that this is natural noting the location of Xinjiang, but the Uighers as they are today are a new population which did not exist during the distant past. In fact, the earliest "European" mummies which have been found in Xinjiang date to 4,000 years ago. The circumstantial evidence is that for several thousand years a population of West Eurasian provenance was numerically dominant along the oases around the edge of the Tarim Basin. A late date for the initiation of the sweep which resulted in the high frequencies of SLC24A5 across Western Eurasia is 6,000 years in the past; that doesn't leave much time. To make a long story short it seems like at some point within the last 10,000 years the derived variant of SLC24A5 was strongly selected from Norway to Kerala to Morocco, but it stopped at the Himalayas and Altai.

Why was SLC24A5 selected? I've asked many, many, people. Geneticists who are studying this locus. No one seems to really know! Yes, it causes a change in skin color...but the people of South India are very dark-skinned for a reason. I have a few ideas, as some of you may have gathered, but, to generate these ideas I'm having to do a lot of reading. Men like William McNeill and Samuel Adshead have done a lifetime's worth of reading and become collectors of odd facts and obscure trends. If a great deal of the evolution over the past 10,000 years was due to adaptation to cultural change, then human scientists whose bread & butter are these topics need to join the conversation. History and Geography of Human Genes needs to become more than just a footnote, it needs to turn into a window onto another domain of knowledge which they must become fluent in so that they can help generate a better picture of the past.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Plagues & molecules?   posted by Razib @ 1/29/2008 08:14:00 PM

Two interesting articles out in the PNAS early release feed.

Molecular insights into human daily behavior:
Human beings exhibit wide variation in their timing of daily behavior. We and others have suggested previously that such differences might arise because of alterations in the period length of the endogenous human circadian oscillator. Using dermal fibroblast cells from skin biopsies of 28 subjects of early and late chronotype (11 "larks" and 17 "owls"), we have studied the circadian period lengths of these two groups, as well as their ability to phase-shift and entrain to environmental and chemical signals. We find not only period length differences between the two classes, but also significant changes in the amplitude and phase-shifting properties of the circadian oscillator among individuals with identical "normal" period lengths. Mathematical modeling shows that these alterations could also account for the extreme behavioral phenotypes of these subjects. We conclude that human chronotype may be influenced not only by the period length of the circadian oscillator, but also by cellular components that affect its amplitude and phase. In many instances, these changes can be studied at the molecular level in primary dermal cells.

Weird. ScienceNow notes some implications:
...raises the possibility of an inexpensive and objective test of a person's "owlness" or "larkness." Such a test would be no small matter, given the prevalence of sleep disorders and the fact that many drugs, including cholesterol medications and chemotherapy, work more effectively if administered at certain points in a person's sleep/wake cycle. Pinpointing individual clock cycles could pave the way for personalized sleep and drug therapies, says Achim Kramer, a Free University chronobiologist who helped design the study.

Selectivity of Black Death mortality with respect to preexisting health:
Was the mortality associated with the deadliest known epidemic in human history, the Black Death of 1347-1351, selective with respect to preexisting health conditions ("frailty")? Many researchers have assumed that the Black Death was so virulent, and the European population so immunologically naive, that the epidemic killed indiscriminately, irrespective of age, sex, or frailty. If this were true, Black Death cemeteries would provide unbiased cross-sections of demographic and epidemiological conditions in 14th-century Europe. Using skeletal remains from medieval England and Denmark, new methods of paleodemographic age estimation, and a recent multistate model of selective mortality, we test the assumption that the mid-14th-century Black Death killed indiscriminately. Skeletons from the East Smithfield Black Death cemetery in London are compared with normal, nonepidemic cemetery samples from two medieval Danish towns (Viborg and Odense). The results suggest that the Black Death did not kill indiscriminately-that it was, in fact, selective with respect to frailty, although probably not as strongly selective as normal mortality.

We've all read Farewell to Alms, so we know the argument that quick die offs can be good for standards of living by relieving some of the Malthusian pressure. Though if you ever took a normal medieval history course you'd probably be told about the premium on labor which emerged after the Black Death due to shortages and its affect on the collapse of the old manorial system (I was). But this data is interesting because it confirms that the most economically productive proportion a society where muscle power might was of essence have increased as a proportion of the population after these sorts of epidemics swept through. Perhaps these are the sorts of shocks that social systems need to shift toward another equilibrium? (I know, morbid)

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Neolithic transitions   posted by Razib @ 1/24/2008 10:40:00 PM

I've been posting a fair amount on the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer in northern Europe lately. Though I'm obviously interested in historical scholarship in and of itself, my focus on this period has been triggered by the spate of recent papers on selection within the last 10,000 years or so. It seems that the overwhelming shift of humans from hunter-gathering toward agricultural lifestyles within the period between 10,000 and 2,000 years ago had to have had a major impact on evolutionary pressures; just as fire might have hundreds of thousands (or millions) of years in the past. The amylase and lactase persistence stories are pretty straightforward derivations of the change in lifestyle; different food inputs will result in different optimal digestive propensities. Then there are pretty obvious second order concerns; farming societies are usually characterized by more individuals per unit area because less land is needed to support one person.1 The implications of this for disease are clear from the dependence of endemic diseases on particular density thresholds. Additionally, the domestication of herbivores also likely cranked up the rate of production of new diseases as pathogens crossed the species barrier. Finally, there are more nebulous possibilities such as various in alleles which are known to have behavioral correlates, such as DRD4, and their possible relationship to a local human ecology.

That being said, attention to details is important. The farming lifestyle in Denmark is very different from the farming lifestyle on the North China plain. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark made a few general claims derived from assumptions which I think are pretty easy to refute. For example:
...Chinese adults, despite their very long history of settled agriculture and the variety of climate zones within China, generally lack the ability to absorb lactase, suggesting that milk was never a large part of the Chinese diet, and that by implication Chinese living standards were generally low in the preindustrial era.

Clark assumes that cattle culture is a sign of local wealth, and that the gene-culture co-evolutionary process was driven by economic parameters. The reality is of course that there are ecological considerations; the distribution of cattle culture in Africa is the clearest example, but it seems likely that it was an issue elsewhere. I'm reading A Concise Economic History of the World, and the author notes before the Romans cattle raising and slash & burn farming were the norm in Gaul. With the spread of the Roman empire two-course rotation was introduced, but the thick clay rich soil of northern Europe did not yield easily to the Mediterranean plow. A more powerful heavy wheeled eventually did open up northwest Europe to intense three-course rotation, and resulted in very high population densities and the flourishing of the manorial system by the peak of the Medieval Climate Optimum. That being said, the manorial system did not spread to the Celtic Fringe or most of Scandinavia because the cereal based system was less optimal in extremely moist or cool climates; there a cattle based form of agriculture remained dominant not because of the wealth of the Irish or Norwegians, rather the local ecology placed constraints on the options they could follow.

The point of all this is that the spread of agriculture to northern Europe 8,000 years ago did not mean that the hunter-gatherer with his bow immediately became the medieval peasant on his plow, so some of my presentation comes rather close to implying this. No doubt the shift was across a continuous range, and the local configuration was subject to historical contingency and ecological constraint. I do hold that it is likely that endemic disease became much more significant with the rise of agricultural communities, but we should be cautious about projecting from the extremely productive period before the modern era, when better technology (plow, horse collar, etc.) and diversified crops combined to drive the Malthusian limit very high indeed.

With that in mind, I'd like to point to a dissertation that Paul found where there are some interest results being reported:

Paper V: Different allele frequencies in the lactase gene in Scandinavian Neolithic populations and the development of dairy product consumption

Even though genetics and culture may interact...finding direct evidence of this is difficult. The genetics behind lactase persistence...the ability to consume unrefined milk during adulthood, may be an exception. The frequency of a mutation...linked to this trait is strongly associated with present-day dairy cultures and the geographical areas where they have developed. For example, cattle genes related to milk shows a geographical affinity for these areas...and fat residues in archaeological pottery indicating actual usage of milk have been found here...It has been suggested that present day geographical distribution of lactase persistence and the -13910 substitution is a result of culturally induced selection over a short period of time, especially in Europe...and that this selection was due to the introduction of farming....

Here we investigate if the ability to consume unrefined milk was present in populations with different nutritional specialisation in Scandinavia during the middle Neolithic (5,300 to 4,500 years ago).

Materials and methods

The material consisted of duplicate extractions from 36 middle Neolithic humans that had previously yielded high-quality mitochondrial DNA data...The samples derived from four hunter-gatherer sites (n=14) and one farming site (n=4) in Sweden were extracted together with negative controls...The -13910 C/T substitution in the nuclear lactase gene was amplified and alleles were identified using pyrosequencing. The ancient lactase data was statistically compared to earlier published data from modern Swedes. The previously yielded HVSI data...was compared to modern Swedish, Norwegian and Saami populations using pair wise Fst.

Results and discussion

Even after thorough sample quality pre-selection only 50% (18 out of 36) of our samples yielded reproducible results and among these, as also noted in other ancient DNA studies...allelic dropout was high. A lower number of positive results were detected in negative controls (in 4/43 seal amplicons, 4/41 extraction blanks and 6/39 PCR blanks). The allele associated with lactase persistence was found in 50% of the farmer samples and in 10% of the hunter-gatherer samples. The farming samples did not differ from modern Swedes whereas the hunter-gatherers did. Further, the Neolithic samples were significantly different from modern Norwegian and Saami samples when mitochondrial HVSI was compared. These results may, however, be influenced by five of the hunter-gatherer samples sharing a haplotype not found among any published modern populations. We base the authenticity of our results on the fact that the samples had been pre-screened for contamination in a previous study...that the success rate for retrieving alleles differ between the human samples and the negative controls, and that the allele frequencies differ between these two sample types.

Our data suggests that the frequency of the allele linked to lactase persistence in the investigated farmer population was, already 5,500 years ago, closer to modern Swedish frequencies than to those seen in the contemporary hunter-gatherers. This may be caused by cultural induced selection in the farmers. An alternative explanation that would not rely on an extreme cultural induced selection pressure, but with limited archaeological support...would be that only those with the genetic base for consuming unrefined milk became farmers while remaining people stayed hunter-gatherers.

I'll you digest this, but, do keep in mind that histories of populations and particular genes do not always align. A major problem in modeling the past seems to be a disregard for this distinction. Demic diffusion may not be necessarily the substantial replacement of ancestral genome content. Rather, long distance colonies from southern Europe might have brought both a new lifestyle and new genes. Most of their cultural and genetic distinctiveness might have been swamped out, but a few extremely salient elements may have remained and become dominant.

1 - There are exceptions, such as the coastal Pacific Northwest where a dense and affluent society grew up around the abundance of salmon.


North vs. south genetic differentiation in China   posted by Razib @ 1/24/2008 12:20:00 PM

Via Dienekes, a new paper, A spatial analysis of genetic structure of human populations in China reveals distinct difference between maternal and paternal lineages:
Analyses of archeological, anatomical, linguistic, and genetic data suggested consistently the presence of a significant boundary between the populations of north and south in China. However, the exact location and the strength of this boundary have remained controversial. In this study, we systematically explored the spatial genetic structure and the boundary of north-south division of human populations using mtDNA data in 91 populations and Y-chromosome data in 143 populations. Our results highlight a distinct difference between spatial genetic structures of maternal and paternal lineages. A substantial genetic differentiation between northern and southern populations is the characteristic of maternal structure, with a significant uninterrupted genetic boundary extending approximately along the Huai River and Qin Mountains north to Yangtze River. On the paternal side, however, no obvious genetic differentiation between northern and southern populations is revealed.

The simplest model here is that north Chinese Han males spread over the country and intermarried with southern females. That explains the distinction between northern and southern lineages. But, I think it is important to be specific about the anthropological details which manifested on the local level. The Han are traditionally a patrlineal and patrilocal people. My understanding is that patrilineality and the "clan system" is more extreme in the south than the north. Additionally, going back to the Warring States period before the rise of the Imperial Chinese system scholar-officials would move from state to state in search of employment, power and prestige. On a larger scale there is the historical reality that several times in Chinese history Han ethnic dominance has retreated from the north China plain to a southern redoubt. The subsequent expulsion of barbarians from north China was then accompanied by the migration of long established southern lineages to northern power centers. So one might assume that these southern lineages were originally derived from the north, but after a while it might get difficult to sort out who was who (north & south). Of course the historical record might simply reflect the shifts in elites who remained in power on top of a relatively static ethnic situation in the north, while the south went through a general long term trend of sinicization which accelerated during periods of barbarian rule in the north when the gentry supplemented the local Han base. Finally, do note that south China is geographically far more fragmented than north China, and we know in other contexts this has a long term effect on mating patterns and dynamics. I am also interested why the Mandarin dialects managed to take over southwest China (see map) but not southeast China.

Genetically this sex-based distinction seems to confirmed by repeated studies. But, that being said, remember that in the early 1990s Cavalli-Sfroza reported in The History and Geography of Human Genes that north Chinese were genetically closer to Japanese and Koreans and south Chinese with southeast Asians when looking at traditional autosomal loci. It is historically attested that groups like the Thai and Vietnamese have origins within what is now south China (the Thai still have ethnic relations within China proper). Ethographic analysis also suggests the Cantonese, for example, preserve customs which are clearly descended from local traditions which pre-date a Han identity for the people in the region. It would be nice to have a STRUCTURE based analysis address these questions.....

Note: Most of the Overseas Chinese are from the south. Especially Fujian. The older Chinese communities in the United States tend to be Cantonese.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

More notes on the Neolithic & Europe   posted by Razib @ 1/22/2008 06:30:00 PM

Reading some stuff on the Neolithic transition. From Neolithic
...Neolithic populations from Europe to Sri Lanka lost an average of two inches in height, and in Japan, there was a two-to-five-year drop in the average age at death for men and a three-year drop for women....

...The skeletons of early agriculturalists also exhibit the marks of common nutritional deficiencies like scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)...and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) which stops growing bone from hardening. But the most common problem seems to have been anemia...When people are severely anemic the skull vault and eye sockets because rough, thick and spongy, a condition seen in 60 percent of the eye sockets and 50 percent of the skull vaults a Alepotrypa Cave in Greece and in 42 percent of the skulls in Zawi Chemi Shanidar in Iran....

From The Widening Harvest: The Neolithic Transition in Europe:

...This region [southern Scandinavia] is likely one of the very few places in Europe that supported a substantial indigenous population prior to the transition to agriculture...With only a few exceptions, most of the continent contains little or no indication of occupation during the period just prior to the transition to agriculture...


...Mesolithic foragers were present in northern Europe from approximately 8500 B.C.-shortly after the close of the Pleistocene-about the same time plants and animals were being domesticated in Southwest Asia. By 5000 B.C., and probably earlier, these groups in southern Scandinavia were intensively occupying the coastal areas, living in permanent villages characterized by deep middens of shell and refuse and substantial cemeteries...Special hunting camps were scattered along the coasts and inland around these residential sites. These groups exploited the resources of both the land and the sea, successfully capturing the large quantities of fish, shellfish, marine animals, large and small game, and birds....


Agriculture, in the form of domesticated plants and animals, arrived in southern Scandinavian shortly after 4000 B.C. These crops and herd animals are associated with the arrival of the early Neolithic Funnel Neck Beaker (TRB) culture, which likely originated in Poland ca. 4400 B.C. and spread to northern Germany 4200 B.C....

The stuff about the dietary deficiencies are well known. My own interest in vitamin D deficiencies are not focused on rickets; rather, I am curious about the possible relationship between the deficiency, weaker immune systems and the rise of endemic & epidemic diseases. The second book consists of a series of essays which explore the various models for the expansion of the agricultural lifestyle into Europe. Genetic data implies that around 1/4 of the total ancestry of Europeans as a whole is derived from a population signal which originated in Anatolia. That being said, this proportion varies, with far higher proportions along the southeast edge of Europe and far less in the north. The fact that much of Europe was very lightly populated prior to the rise of the farming culture probably is one reason that the genetic signal of the Anatolian cultures is so strong (elsewhere the author of the second quoted passage notes that only two Mediterranean islands were inhabited before the Neolithic).

The second researcher above implies that the spread of agriculture in Scandinavia was almost certainly due to primarily cultural diffusion, taking into account various continuities (artifacts & physical anthropology) as well as the seemingly large native hunter-gatherer population as inferred from settlement sites. It is important to note that human populations were not resident in northern Europe before 8500 B.C. because of the climatic circumstance. Additionally, I wanted to highlight the emphasis on the utilization of sea life for sources of protein, because marine organisms are relatively enriched in vitamin D. The later does note that shellfish were less prominent in Baltic pre-Neolithic sites, so I don't want to overplay that hand, but, do note that a reliance on fish for protein and a later switch to red meat is also attested for Britain.


The spread of agriculture, part n   posted by Razib @ 1/22/2008 01:32:00 AM

If agriculture, and the social and cultural revolutions triggered by this new form of extracting economic productivity from land, was a major variable in triggering recent human evolution it is important to know when it swept over a particular region. With the big ranges given for when selection pressures began to reshape a genomic region the narrower values from archaeology might be very useful. So here's another map of the spread of agriculture in Europe....

Dienekes has an old post with similar numbers. The recent results which imply that SLC24A5 (responsible for 1/3 of the European vs. African skin color difference) might have only started rising in frequency 6-12 thousand years ago would be constrained if we are to assume that changes triggered by agriculture were necessary; as farming only spread to northern Europe around 7,000 years ago.


Below the fold I cut & pasted some of the rows from the Agricultural Transition Data Set.

Israel 10500
Jordan 10500
Lebanon 10500
Syrian Arab Republic 10500
Iraq 10000
Turkey 10000
Iran, Islamic Rep. 9500
Kuwait 9500
Afghanistan 9000
China 9000
Pakistan 9000
Cyprus 8500
Greece 8500
India 8500
Armenia 8000
Azerbaijan 8000
Germany 8000
Italy 8000
Turkmenistan 8000
Malta 7600
Saudi Arabia 7600
Yemen 7600
Albania 7500
Bahrain 7500
Bulgaria 7500
France 7500
Macedonia 7500
Oman 7500
Qatar 7500
Romania 7500
Serbia and Montenegro 7500
United Arab Emirates 7500
Hungary 7400
Egypt, Arab Rep. 7200
Spain 7200
Bosnia and Herzegovina 7000
Croatia 7000
Moldova 7000
Slovenia 7000
Tajikistan 7000
Austria 6500
Czech Republic 6500
Kazakhstan 6500
Kyrgyzstan 6500
Portugal 6500
Slovakia 6500
Ukraine 6500
Uzbekistan 6500
Georgia 6000
Laos 6000
Nepal 6000
Netherlands 6000
Poland 6000
Vietnam 6000
Bangladesh 5500
Belgium 5500
Bhutan 5500
Denmark 5500
Libya 5500
Liechtenstein 5500
Luxembourg 5500
Sweden 5500
Switzerland 5500
Taiwan, China 5500
Thailand 5500
United Kingdom 5500
Hong Kong, China 5000
Ireland 5000
Mongolia 5000
Myanmar 5000
Norway 5000
Philippines 5000
Russia 5000
Sri Lanka 5000
Sudan 5000
Belarus 4500
Cambodia 4500
Japan 4500
Korea, Rep. 4500
Malaysia 4500
Singapore 4500
Tunisia 4500
Peru 4300
Mexico 4100
Algeria 4000
Bolivia 4000
Brunei 4000
Chile 4000
Ecuador 4000
Ethiopia 4000
Indonesia 4000
Niger 4000
Papua New Guinea 4000
Paraguay 4000
Argentina 3800
Guyana 3800
Venezuela 3800
Estonia 3700
Latvia 3700
Lithuania 3700
French Guiana 3600
Suriname 3600
Uruguay 3600
Brazil 3500
Burundi 3500
Cote d'Ivoire 3500
Finland 3500
Ghana 3500
Guatemala 3500
Kenya 3500
Mariana Islands 3500
Mauritania 3500
Morocco 3500
Somalia 3500
Uganda 3500
United States 3500
Colombia 3400
Belize 3300
Guinea 3250
Liberia 3250
Sierra Leone 3250
Benin 3100
Togo 3100
Cameroon 3000
Central African Republic 3000
Congo, Rep. 3000
Demcratic Rep. of Congo 3000
El Salvador 3000
Gabon 3000
Gambia, The 3000
Guinea-Bissau 3000
Honduras 3000
Mali 3000
Nicaragua 3000
Senegal 3000
Burkina Faso 2900
Chad 2700
Nigeria 2700
Costa Rica 2500
Rwanda 2500
Tanzania 2500
Panama 2400
Grenada 2000
Madagascar 2000
Trinidad and Tobago 2000
Malawi 1800
Zambia 1800
Barbados 1700
South Africa 1700
Canada 1500
Dominican Republic 1500
Lesotho 1500
Swaziland 1500
Mozambique 1400
Zimbabwe 1400
Angola 1250
Namibia 1250
Botswana 1000
Haiti 1000
Jamaica 1000


Monday, January 14, 2008

A real "Da Vinci Code"?   posted by Razib @ 1/14/2008 01:58:00 PM

Ross Douthat points to a WSJ piece which profiles scholars who are attempting to reconstruct the evolution of the Koran based on new (old) archives. I assume that Islam will collapse once certain central tenets exhibit a high degree of falsification, just has Mormonism has due to new findings in archaeology and history since the early 19th century....


The History and Geography of Genes...not the book   posted by Razib @ 1/14/2008 12:06:00 PM

I know that there are many readers of this weblog who are interested in both history and genetics. I assume that those who share these interests with me were very excited by the publication of The History and Geography of Human Genes 15 years ago. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza's magnum opus ushered in a new era in the synthesis between the historical sciences & genetic methodologies. Much of it is sloppy; some of it is very insightful and sheds new light upon old questions. At my other blog I've been posting on this topic, and another ScienceBlogger, an archaeologist by training, has responded with a critique. My original posts, From where came the Slavs? & Overturning assumptions: why genes matter in history, Martin's response, Genes and Peoples, and my rebuttal, Categories are instruments; Slavs are tools (no offense about the title Steve C.!). If you comment on Martin's post, be nice, we disagree but he's a cool guy.


Friday, December 14, 2007

The Sassanians   posted by Razib @ 12/14/2007 12:58:00 AM

The Sassanian Empire this week on In Our Time. Kind of obscure, so worth it. Speaking of obscurity, some reading on the dynamics of Islamicization in Iran (Conversion to Islam) revealed the fact that there was a strong tendency for new Persian converts and their offspring to use very Arabic names during the first centuries, specifically ones associated with early Muslims. While Arab Muslims themselves might on occasion have had names which might also have been used by Jews or Christians (e.g., Arabic forms of David), Persian converts were underrepresented in these "ambiguous" variants, rather their names signified that they had to be Muslim. But as the proportion of Iran's population which was Muslim increased (going from minority to majority sometime in the 10th century), there was a modest bounce back of pre-Islamic Persian names among the elites. The argument goes that only with the indigenization of Islam within Persian culture were Iranian forms and elements allowed to make an explicit come back, since they no longer posed any threat as an alternative (there were principalities where the rulers still championed Zoroastrianism in regions such as the southern shore of the Caspian Sea as late as the 9th century). This of course neglects the elephant in the room that the early Caliphs seem to have transplanted Sassanian court motifs in toto to generate the aura around their monarchy. Additionally, I'm skeptical of the generality of this claim, the first Byzantine Emperor with a Hebraic name was Michael I, four centuries after public paganism had been definitively marginalized.


Monday, December 10, 2007

The anti-economist   posted by Razib @ 12/10/2007 03:06:00 AM

Reading The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, and I was struck by passages extracted from The Book of Lord Shang, a work which supposedly encapsulates the thought of the Legalist philosopher & statesmen Shang Yang. In short, Shang Yang extols the virtues of the Malthusian Trap in perpetuating a stable & well ordered state! He believes that surplus only encourages mischief and social disorder, and any excess production should be burned away by wars of attrition so that the population is driven back to the margins of subsistence. Any surprise that Legalism was anathema for most of Chinese history despite the reality that the Qin state and its ruling philosophy had a significant practical impact upon how the Imperial system was structured?


Friday, November 16, 2007

Athens: the dawn of democracy   posted by Razib @ 11/16/2007 11:31:00 AM

Bettany Hughes, our favorite pop classicist, is back with a new documentary, Athens: the dawn of democracy. It should be showing this Monday evening on your local PBS station if you live in the United States. I've recently expressed my skepticism at the democralatry which suffuses American discussion.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

A noisy optimum   posted by Razib @ 10/28/2007 12:47:00 AM

Reading The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815, and something reminded me of my post The Persistence of Bad Habits:
...To put the statistic another way, the net calorific value of the potato is 3.6 times that of grain....
The potato was also less vulnerable to adverse weather than most other staple foodstuffs...A community that could fall back on potatoes when this happened was a community that had freed itself from the thread of famine...governments were keen to promote its cultivation. For reasons that are still not clear, their efforts bore least fruit in France...In Tolouse, for example, Robert Forster found that peasants would not even feed potatoes to their pigs, for fear that their meat would be contaminated...The French were not, of course, alone in their prejudices. In 1770 famine-afflicted Neapolitans refused to touch a boatload of potatoes sent as a gift; burghers of Kolberg in Prussia told Frederick the Great, 'the things have neither smell nor tatse, not even dogs will eat them, so what are they to us?'; and Russian peasants distrused the potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible....

The author notes that potatoes were brought back from the New World in the 16th century, but there was still strong resistance across most of Europe with the exception of the British Isles (especially Ireland) to their cultivation as late as the 18th century! In part this seems due to the structural biases in the way the peasants of Europe made their agriculture decisions and controlled their land. Communal consensus was critical and traditionalists could in practice veto innovation. In places like Russia the peasants were invariably on the margins already and so were especially suspicious of change, and they distrusted their overlords for whom they tilled the land only grudgingly. If there was such resistance to change in early modern Europe, one can not be surprised that agriculture took 4,000 years to spread across the continent!

Nevertheless in the long view peasant resistance to change was probably not totally irrational. As I noted above there was a particularly strong fixation upon custom and tradition in the marginal lands of Russia where communities were extremely risk averse. And Ireland is to some extent an illustration of the "Malthusian Trap" that Greg Clark pointed to in A Farewell to Alms, their acceptance of a productive new crop resulted a population increase which subsequently was subject to a famine of more massive scope in the 19th century when the potato crop did fail. Clark's point that innovation for most of human history did not result in anything more than transitory gains in quality of life; more production was invariably consumed by natural increase in population after several generations. This explains how farming became the dominant lifestyle of human beings when the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is, for the typical human, inferior in quality of life measures (leisure, nutritional balance, etc.) to that of the hunter-gatherer. For farming communities on the expanding frontier life was invariably one of health & wealth, perhaps exemplified in our recent past by the fecundity and robustness of the typical American. The United States is such a young country that just as our frontier closed and the Malthusian Trap should have sprung an economic revolution in human history had already swept that inevitability aside; productivity kept increasing and fertility started dropping.

But the psychology of the 18th century is in some ways still operative today. We are a species subject to fad and fashion, but when it comes to food old habits are often the last to die. And so they should be, what we put in our bodies is one of the most important set of decisions we make over our lifetimes. The aversion to GMOed foodstuffs and a preference to "authentic" and "organic" crops have many causes, but one of them is simply a romantic attachment to the ways of our ancestors (or at least what we perceive those ways to be!). Of course the consumer society is different from a peasant society, and so some elasticity in preference exists which might not have been found in the past simply because the craving for the exotic and novel loom much larger in the minds of humans who don't live on the margins of famine.

A bigger question is to what extent societies are functionally adapted to their local ecologies as opposed to a flux of partly arbitrary norms which serve as the primary environment for individual fitness. Consider the idea that consumption of beef, and meat in general, in South Asia was an adaptation to local ecological conditions. Cattle were critical as producers of milk and draft animals. Meat is subject to spoilage in tropical conditions. So the ban on beef and vegetarianism are local adaptations. The problem with this idea is that it seems that both these practices were concentrated in the elite reaches of Indian culture until relatively recently, with adoption of non-consumption of beef being a hallmark of tribal assimilation into Hindu society and vegetarianism as indicative of Sanskritization on the part of lower castes attempting to move up the ladder of status & purity. In other words, if particular customs were adaptations to local ecological constraints, it is surprising that the groups which were least subject to these constraints propagated the practices. Wealthy families after all could afford wastefulness and conspicuous consumption to signal their attainment of material security. Rather, some have suggested that in fact the socially marginal consumed beef because their options were so few, while only the wealthy should afford a relatively well rounded vegetarian diet which substituted for the density of meat and did not result in nutritional deficiency.1

This is not to say that all functional arguments are irrelevant. Spiciness of cuisine correlates strongly with local climatic conditions after all. But many more local idiosyncrasies may simply be particular norms & values which serve as totems for elites, and which spread downward via emulation. The fact that baby names tend to drift like neutral genes illustrates that important and socially significant culture products can be relatively unconstrained by anything except for fashion. Of course one must add a layer of historical context to these models; the correlation between Old Testament names and Puritan religious beliefs in 17th century England and America is no coincidence. But in this case it illustrates that different social groups may have different norms, and to optimize individual fitness and increase social acceptability within the group one selects or is born into one must adhere to the norms of the group. Ecology is secondary to sociology.

In evolutionary biology processes such as runaway sexual selection are subject to constraint due to the decrement in fitness that they imply at the boundaries. The most extreme case is a population which simply goes extinct due to the extremity of their preferences. Consider a sequence of generations subject to runaway sexual selection concurrent with years of ecological productivity. Subject to weak fitness constraints one can imagine a population shifting in phenotypic value so as to be extremely maladapted when the environment regime becomes less favorable. Nature corrects. And so does human culture; sects which are celibate, such as the Shakers, often have short histories. During times of religious ferment they may draw upon a large base of recruits, but when society wide fervor declines they may find that their cultural strategy is just unsustainable. But the sample space of strategies which humans can engage in is enormous even if you remove the ones which are relatively sensitive fluctuations in the environment. One can still leave room for functional constraint upon cultural forms and still adhere to the hypothesis that most cultural variation serves the role of horizontal group demarcation

Addendum: The Pursuit of Glory is a very good book by the way. It is a good balance of social and narrative history, with a bias toward the former.

1 - Note that being a non-vegetarian does not imply meat consumption every day in the pre-modern peasant societies of Asia. Rather, it means that on occasion one may consume meat, but it is a rare luxury.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The persistence of bad habits   posted by Razib @ 10/23/2007 06:55:00 PM

There are few issues in Farewell to Alms that I'm still chewing on. One of them is Greg Clark's dismissal of institutional and cultural barriers to development. In particular, Clark shows how practices such as usury, initially banned by the Church, were mainstreamed through work-arounds. I find this line of thought pretty persuasive, for example, look at what Israelis do during their fallow year. Proximately cultural practices are fixed parameters, but over time they generally evolve and shift. But there was something in Clark's argument which bothered me, he argues that the consistently worse hygiene of the English can explain their higher mortality rates vis-a-vis the Japanese, and therefore their elevated standard of living (more to go around for the fewer people left alive). Clark contrasts the efficient recycling of "night soil" and its distribution from urban areas out to farms where it could be used as fertilizer with the English practice of simply storing it within one's house until it could be thrown away like garbage.

But why do people persist in bad hygiene for centuries when it results in greater mortality? Shouldn't individuals who, for whatever reason, practice better hygiene slowly increase in numbers in relation to those who do not practice good hygiene? Are these habits simply not heritable? And I'm not simply wondering about hygiene here, what about practices like the Muslim ban on alcohol? From what I recall alcoholic beverages are not only good dense calorie sources, they also are less likely to carry high densities of pathogens then plain water. Muslims prided themselves on their customs of bathing and cleaning in relation to Europeans (in some areas of course bathing became dangerous because people might assume you had Muslim sympathies!), but it seems that their aversion to alcohol should have resulted in higher mortality from water born illness as well as poorer nutrition (exacerbated by Ramadan).

I'm sure some of this is explained by dynamics such as the Handicap Principle. Humans show off and do all sorts of irrational things to illustrate that "they're the man." Circumcision as a rite of passage for teenagers anyone? That being said, I am also curious as to the cognitive biases and social pressures which make usury inevitable (obviously a financial system spurs wealth creation) but hygiene seem less critical. Is it because usury is a concern of a small minority who are highly motivated and a simple fiat change of the law can result in a switch? In contrast, hygiene is embedded in a whole suite of mores, practices and traditions, and requires self-control and conscious forethought. Even today it is relatively difficult to get many to wash their hands after they use a restroom!


Meritocracy matters, history flips   posted by Razib @ 10/23/2007 12:33:00 AM

I just read The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, and the main thought I came away with was that the more intelligence and status are decoupled in a society, the greater the likelihood of revolution. I assume here that the wealthy bourgeois who were marginalized in the ancien regime attained their gains via sly cunning; surely a simplifying assumption. In any case, demagogues such as Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilian Robespierre acted and organized on behalf of the working man, but unsurprisingly they were personally marginalized intellectuals. The populace may be roused into vicious action against the elites of the age, but the snake always needs a wily head, invariably from aspirant elites.

Secondarily, I am struck by the quicksilver changes in the Spirit of the Age. In 1783 the American republic was a peculiar experiment, an aberration in the age of monarchy (there were small republics). Yet by 1800 the French Revolution had swept such expectations away, at least for a time. These 17 years arguably witnessed changes in the order of societies on a scale far greater than the 1960s across the West, or throughout the Easter Bloc during the 1990s.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Demic diffusion in Sumba?   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2007 12:43:00 PM

Coevolution of languages and genes on the island of Sumba, eastern Indonesia:
...We examine linguistic and genetic variation in a contact zone on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, where Neolithic Austronesian farming communities settled and began interacting with aboriginal foraging societies ~3,500 years ago. Phylogenetic reconstruction based on a 200-word Swadesh list sampled from 29 localities supports the hypothesis that Sumbanese languages derive from a single ancestral Austronesian language. However, the proportion of cognates (words with a common origin) traceable to Proto-Austronesian (PAn) varies among language subgroups distributed across the island. Interestingly, a positive correlation was found between the percentage of Y chromosome lineages that derive from Austronesian (as opposed to aboriginal) ancestors and the retention of PAn cognates. We also find a striking correlation between the percentage of PAn cognates and geographic distance from the site where many Sumbanese believe their ancestors arrived on the island. These language-gene-geography correlations, unprecedented at such a fine scale, imply that historical patterns of social interaction between expanding farmers and resident hunter-gatherers largely explain community-level language evolution on Sumba....


Monday, October 01, 2007

Agriculture & Europe   posted by Razib @ 10/01/2007 10:13:00 PM

Here's a map which makes clear the spread of agriculture north and west from its point of origin around the Fertile Crescent. We're talking about (at least) a ~3,000 year latency from the emergence of agriculture in the Near East until its penetration to the northern and western fringes of Europe. How did it spread? The general models are those of cultural diffusion, the migration of farmers along a wave of advance (basically a high fertility frontier expanding outward), or, a combination of both. Current estimates place the "Neolithic" contribution to European ancestry between 20% and 50%, leaning toward the lower estimate and dropping as one shifts north and west. Albert J. Ammerman and L.L. Cavalli-Sforza have long promoted a model of "demic diffusion" which posits that these expanding farming populations swept out of Anatolia because of population growth and brought the agricultural tradition to Europe via their physical migration. The finding that only 20% of Europeans were descended from Neolithic farmers was taken by some (e.g, Bryan Sykes) as a refutation of Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza's model, but the latter pointed that the original genetic signal in a wave of advance would of course be diluted over time. In other words, it was never one of total genetic replacement; rather, a synthesize between migrants and locals driven by the cultural innovation which the migrants possessed (agriculture). Ammerman's recent paper, Tracing the Origin and Spread of Agriculture in Europe outlines these views rather well and elucidates the nature of the advance. But the dispute about how agriculture was spread is less important to me than the fact that it spread slowly over thousands of years. That means that north and west Europe experienced higher population densities considerably later, and gives a approximate time frame for when we might expect agriculture related adaptations to emerge....


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Justinian's Fleas   posted by Razib @ 9/25/2007 07:43:00 PM

A note for readers, there's a new book aimed at the popular audience, Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. You can find reviews here and here. I'm going to pass on it probably because it is a general interest book which doesn't introduce any original material, but it looks like some readers of this weblog get something out of it (though do read Plagues and Peoples if this genre is new to you).


Monday, September 24, 2007

Heavenly metaphors....   posted by Razib @ 9/24/2007 01:09:00 AM

I am now reading the translations of the basic writings of the Confucian Sage Xun Zi in my spare time. Like much of body of Chinese work on moral and political philosophy from this era the prose is allusive and often meanders from obscure analogy to opaque metaphor. But the passages from the chapter titled 'A Discussion of Heaven' are clear as day. An illustrative example:
You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway. The sun and moon undergo an eclipse and you try to save them; a drought occurs and you pray for rain; you consult the arts of divination before a decision on some important matter. But it is not as though you could hope to accomplish anything by such ceremonies. They are done merely for ornaments. Hence the gentleman regards them as ornaments, but the common people regard them as supernatural. He who considers them ornaments is fortunate; he who considers them supernatural is unfortunate.

Those familiar with Xun Zi would not be surprised by these sorts of comments. Of the early Confucians he was arguably the most rationally oriented as well as being thoroughly grounded in the empirical reality of the world. That should not be surprising since his life overlapped with the tumultuous period before the unification of China by the First Emperor. The nostalgia for the past and preoccupation with ancient exemplars which is a hallmark of Confucius' thought is understandable insofar as the halcyon Golden Age of the Zhou had only just passed. In contrast by Xun Zi's day such memories were very distant indeed, emulation of the past had to give some ground to compromise with the needs of the present so that one could live in the future where one could strive toward proper conduct.

That being said, I do think that Xun Zi's comments should help us put into perspective the conceit that we moderns have that all ideas which gush from our minds are new to the world. In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins' famously asserted that only with the emergence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionary change via natural selection could one be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In an act of historical psychoanalysis Dawkins offers that he believes that David Hume, who rejected God not because there was another explanation but simply because he did not find it be be any explanation at all, would have agreed with his assessment at the end of the day. Xun Zi expresses very Humean attitudes 2,000 years before Hume, and like the great Scottish philosopher he is content to observe that Heaven simply is. Instead of plumbing the ontological depths of the universe Xun Zi was rather more interested in the maintenance of a robust and stable social order which he noted was on the edge of collapse all around him. Faced with stress and uncertainty Xun Zi did not turn to the gods for salvation (and quite clearly he was skeptical of their very existence as personal entities), nor did he collapse in godless nihilism and give himself up to a life of Epicurean pleasure.

In The Geography of Thought the author argues that one major chasm which separates the Eastern and Western cognitive styles is that the former is less systematic, more open toward contradiction in the service of a pragmatic short term solution to a problem. In contrast, Westerners, exemplified by the Greeks, reveled in their exploration of the nooks and crannies of cognitive paradoxes as the sine qua non of the highest levels of reflective philosophy. Xun Zi's shallow naturalism, his punting of the mysteries of the origin of life and its ravishing diversity, may not be intellectual satisfying if the essence of thought is to assemble nature together at all its joints in a vast seamless arc, but it is a very conventional and common attitude among a wide range of people. In India the Carvaka movement promoted a materialistic philosophy which resembled Epicureanism. In the Greek world Epicureanism, Skepticism and Cynicism were all schools which exhibited naturalistic streaks. Their attempts, if made, to provide a grounding for the existence and dynamism of the world around us are rather laughable, though perhaps less so in an intellectual climate where some might have taken Hesiod's cosmogony seriously (see clarification). The purported systematic and idealistic bent of the Greeks when it came to the rationalization of atheism seems to be so much window dressing. At the end of the day it seems that they simply didn't believe, the gods were ludicrous, and if that was good enough for Hume and Xun Zi, it was good enough for them.

It may be that there are two sets of atheists in the world. One set of atheists is historically contingent and one set is not. The former may find Darwinian evolution, which draws in part from Paley's Argument for Design, a satisfying narrative for their thirst for why. Prior to Darwin these atheists might have had to quench their thirst for the why with some form of theism, not for them the dispassionate ignorance of Hume, they require some gnosis. The second set of atheists are ahistorical, not only do they not thirst overwhelmingly for the ultimate why, but their intuition as to the naturalistic nature of the universe mitigates any unease that their agnosticism might foster.1 This is where Xun Zi exhibits a lack of systematic thinking, he plainly asserts that there must be a cause for every effect, a point which to a typical teleological human would imply a world filled with bubbling godlings. But no, for Xun Zi there is only impersonal and unfathomable Heaven to which notables may make fictional sacrifices to maintain public order and satisfy the need for rites.
In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins comes close to giving his fellow countryman Charles Darwin credit for inventing the idea which slew God, as if atheism hinged upon the British imagination. These perceptions are confirmed in works such as God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, which narrates the shift toward agnosticism on the part of British intellectuals in the 19th century concomitant with the rise of Darwinian theory, prefigured by the ideas of Hume and Edward Gibbon. But Xun Zi shows the Humean strain in Chinese thinking which existed long before the birth of Christ, an intellectual tradition which persisted across the centuries down to the early modern era and sparked Sinophilia on the part of free thinkers such as Voltaire. In A Farewell to Alms the economic historian Gregory Clark describes the massive gains in income to the masses over the last 200 years and the radical equalization of the social order. The middle class American consumer has nothing in common in their daily life with the marginally alive Chinese peasant of Xun Zi's day. On the other hand, the ruminations of the typical literary intellectual, the pundit caste given space on our op-ed pages, might be no better than the reflections of the ancient Chinese political philosophers, who played being both humanists and social scientists. While the great lift off in natural sciences has occurred only in the past few hundred years, perhaps the vast majority of the genuine original value from the humanities and philosophy was generated within the first few hundred years of the Iron Age?

1 - To be clear, these two sets of humans are atypical and narrow slices to begin with. Most people, I believe, do not need genuine explicit gnosis, rather they simply believe in an unreflective manner. In many ways the second set of atheists, who naturally have little intuitive belief in a supernatural order or a need for an ontological buoy in the universe, may have more in common with the typical human in their unreflectiveness. Where they differ is that their basal intuition is atypical; most humans intuitively grasp the likelihood of a supernatural order while some atheists do not.In contrast, a small minority of humans have deep and passionate fixations on the why questions. I would argue these are the most attracted toward philosophies which purport to explain it all via theology, scientism or mysticism. Their souls demand and account for why they exist to demand an account in the first place.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Then and now   posted by Razib @ 9/08/2007 09:23:00 PM

The New York Times has a story up about the boys who have to be expelled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of Warren Jeffs. This group practices obligate polygyny (you have to have at least three wives to make it to heaven) so teenage boys are thrown out of the community with the merest pretense to maintain a suitable sex ratio. Because they have led regimented lives and lack much formal education the transition to "normalcy" is often difficult. A story at CNN emphasizes the large role that alcohol and drugs end up playing in their lives after expulsion; what was forbidden now becomes the ends of existence.

Obviously a fundamentalist Mormon sect is atypical in many ways. Nevertheless, I do think that it is simply an exaggeration of cultural forms which were and are quite normal across much of the world. The values of fundamentalist Mormons are not so opaque to someone from a 'traditional' cultural perspective. Here you have a society where a group of older men have fiat power over the most basic and critical aspects of the lives of their flock. There are fierce social and psychological controls at work which serve as tools for Warren Jeffs and his acolytes. The boys profiled note that they were terrified that they were going to hell if they disobeyed the leaders of their church. In terms of individual worth the only figures who have a modicum of autonomy are the powerful old men who control the levers of the culture. Most individuals are boxed in by birth and circumstance, they have minimal choice in terms of alternatives options, their social networks are within the same group so the norms of authority and control are reinforced and replicated.

These oppressive cultural systems are certainly at variance with the liberty and autonomy which are held in such esteem in the modern West. But they "work," as can be attested by their pervasiveness. I believe that the past 10,000 years has been the story of the rise of patrilineages, cabals of powerful men who monopolize and control the surplus of any given society. Though rarely as totalitarian as Warren Jeffs and his cronies, they regulated the lives of their close relations and other figures of note to maximize the status of their lineage. Even if the peasantry were not impacted by the taboos and incentives which pervaded the lives of the elite because of practical constraints, they certainly knew what the "right" way to live life was. Modernization and increasing affluence often lead to emulation of traditional elites so that the median "best practices" in a given society become more regressive from a Western angle as it becomes more "advanced."

This trend of increased inequality and the monopolization of economic surplus by an oligarchy has only been reversed over the past few centuries in the West. Concomitantly we have seen the decreased role for the religious institutions which offered an imprimatur of sacredness to the political and social systems of control. Though individuals may still be religious, they pick and choose an institutional affiliation and no longer fear the synergistic coercive power of church and state. Liberty is an idea we hold dear, but it is also an economic reality insofar as the average man or woman in the West now lives far above basic subsistence and can choose from a wide array of luxury goods to satisfy their wants and needs. Social systems which arose during the agricultural interlude, when the typical human lived on the margins of subsistence through perpetual back-breaking labor and a small leisured elite warred and philosophized, still remain with us as ghosts from a bygone age. The rate of economic and social growth, and the disjointed nature of the process, means that the past and the present and the future all face each other every day. In the modern West one of the major manifestations of this trend is the experience of 1st generation immigrants and their offspring. The parents grew up in a subsistence society, often buttressed by familial obligations and expectations. The children socialize in a consumer world where choice is a given. A father kills his daughter because she has entered into a sexual relationship with an outsider before marriage and without his permission. These are the things that happen when the past faces the present.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

In the days of yore the wealthy were healthy and prolific   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2007 09:05:00 AM

Virpi Lummaa has a paper up at PLOS One, Natural Selection on Female Life-History Traits in Relation to Socio-Economic Class in Pre-Industrial Human Populations:
...We found the highest opportunity for total selection and the strongest selection on earlier age at first reproduction in women of the poorest wealth class, whereas selection favoured older age at reproductive cessation in mothers of the wealthier classes. We also found clear differences in female life-history traits across wealth classes: the poorest women had the lowest age-specific survival throughout their lives, they started reproduction later, delivered fewer offspring during their lifetime, ceased reproduction younger, had poorer offspring survival to adulthood and, hence, had lower fitness compared to the wealthier women. Our results show that the amount of wealth affected the selection pressure on female life-history in a pre-industrial human population.

Lummaa's data is from the 18th and 19th century in Finland, but in many ways it is generalizable. In post-demographic transition societies we are faced with the fact that the lower social classes tend to be more fecund, but for most of human history this was not an operative dynamic. I believe some of the resistance to Greg Clark's contention that the wealthy gentry were the predominant ancestors of the modern British population is simply due to its relative counter-intuitiveness to the modern middle class, who simply can't believe that anyone responsible would breed to their maximal reproductive capacity.

Before Chris Surridge starts riding me, please be aware you can leave comments over at PLOS One!

Pettay JE, Helle S, Jokela J, Lummaa V (2007) Natural Selection on Female Life-History Traits in Relation to Socio-Economic Class in Pre-Industrial Human Populations. PLoS ONE 2(7): e606. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000606

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The end of farming?   posted by Razib @ 9/06/2007 12:02:00 PM

John Hawks observes that fewer people work in the agricultural sector than in services today. Around 1900 about half of Americans lived on family farms. Today around 2 percent do. If you look back two or three centuries the overwhelming majority of our ancestors would have been farmers of some sort. The fact that cities were population sinks until the 19th century also implies that the sons of the soil were the ones who inherited genetically. In A Farewell to Alms Greg Clark analyzes data which suggests that the wealthy farmer, in other words, the rural gentry, were the predominant demographic engine behind British population growth. I suspect that this is the case in many parts of the world.

What we are seeing all across the world over the last two centuries (starting in England, and now penetrating many Third World countries) is a cultural revolution. Customs, traditions and folkways which served our agricultural ancestors well now have less relevance. Many anthropologists have long claimed based on ethnographic and physical (e.g., fossil remains) grounds that the typical farmer lived more on the margins than their hunter-gatherer forebears (far less leisure time, far less protein, etc.) . In some ways today's consumer world is a second dawn after the long night of the agricultural world. Only today are the average heights in much of the world bouncing back to the norms of 10,000 years ago. In many ways I believe moderns are more like hunter-gatherers in their outlooks than agriculturalists. Institutions which arose during the period of the mass agricultural society, from our organized religions to our marriage customs (e.g., arranged marriage), have to adapt to changed times. Greg Clark reports that most of the gains in income due to increased economic efficiency have gone to unskilled laborers over the past few centuries; we live in a relatively egalitarian age in many ways. The difference in height between the poor and the rich is minimal because of a basic level of nutritional intake. Many facets of our lives, from smaller families and more transient mating patterns, also resemble the typical existence of the hunter-gatherer. During the Neolithic our species developed a number of social strategies to siphon our basic urges into forms which could result in a perpetuation of particular cultural patterns. Today the stresses and tensions (e.g., the inevitable imbalances between haves and have-nots) which gave rise to "traditional" Old World societies are less salient; but we still have a strong sentimental attachment toward these older forms (e.g., caste amongst Indian professionals) generating a new tension between the reality of free choice and the history of constraint and control.


Friday, August 31, 2007

10 Questions for Greg Clark   posted by Herrick @ 8/31/2007 02:04:00 PM

In his new book A Farewell to Alms, Greg Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, contends that "[t]he New World after the Neolithic Revolution offered economic success to a different kind of agent than had been typical in hunter-gatherer society: Those with patience, who could wait to enjoy greater consumption in the future. Those who liked to work long hours. And those who could perform formal calculations in a world of many types of inputs and outputs...."

Clark also provides archival evidence that in medieval Britain (and to a lesser extent in China and Japan) the wealthy-who presumably had those "middle class" skills in abundance-raised more children than the average person. If you put these pieces together-a system that rewards a new set of abilities, plus greater reproductive success for those who have those abilities-then all you need to get some form of selection is one more link: A transmission mechanism. On the nature of the mechanism, Clark leaves the door wide open. Could be parent-to-child cultural transmission, could be genes, could be both.

While much of the discussion of Clark's book has focused on his "survival of the richest" hypothesis, Clark himself appears to be equally devoted to demolishing the widely-held view that economic institutions are the key to modern economic growth. He notes that the British people had solid property rights, limited government, and sound currency for centuries before they had their Industrial Revolution. Drawing on early work by Nobel Prize-winner Douglass North, he argues that economic institutions are largely endogenous and relatively efficient, at least when we're talking about time horizons lasting a century or more. If institutional change wasn't the driving force behind modern economic growth, then what was? In Clark's view, the driving force was change within human beings themselves.

1. In some early work, you wondered why workers in British cotton mills were so much more productive than workers in Indian cotton mills. You discuss this in the last chapter of A Farewell to Alms. You looked at a lot of the usual explanations-incentives, management, quality of the machines-and none of them really seemed to explain the big gap in productivity. Finally, you seemed to turn to the idea that it's differences between the British and Indian workers themselves-maybe their culture, maybe their genes-that explained the difference. How did you come to that conclusion?

Clark: I came to economics as an undergraduate expecting, as is the central view of economics, that the explanation for wealth and poverty would ultimately be located in social institutions and that people everywhere have basically the same aspirations and abilities.

But unlike most of my colleagues in economics I have always been interested in the mechanisms, and the fine details, of how things actually function. Much of modern economics is entirely theoretical, and even most empirical work in economics involves just looking at very high level correlations between variables such as income per person and education, or democracy, or the openness of trade.

When I set out in my PhD thesis to try and explain differences in income internationally in 1910 I found that asking simple questions like "Why could Indian textile mills not make much profit even though they were in a free trade association with England which had wages five times as high?" led to completely unexpected conclusions. You could show that the standard institutional explanation made no sense when you assembled detailed evidence from trade journals, factory reports, and the accounts of observers. Instead it was the puzzling behavior of the workers inside the factories that was the key.

2. Your book is clearly a call for a new research agenda in the fields of economic growth and economic history, one focusing less on institutions and more on what we might broadly call "labor quality." But your key hypotheses seem to turn on the question of how and why entire workforces change across the centuries, and involve questions of culture, child-rearing methods, and perhaps human genetics-fields quite outside the expertise of most economists. If you could command an army of, say, biologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists to test your hypotheses about long-term changes in labor quality, what would you have them work on?

Clark: That is a great question. If, as is possible, the pre-industrial era changed people genetically to be better adapted to market economies, then a systematic comparison of the DNA of societies should find correlations between gene frequencies and the histories of these societies. If genetic change was also occurring in historical time, as opposed to the pre-historic era, then we would expect these changes to be incomplete even in societies with a long history of settled agriculture. In that case we would actually predict class differences genetically! The rich in these societies would differ genetically from the poor in certain systematic ways! All this should be testable at some point.

If the change was purely cultural, then we still might be able to discover systematic behavioral differences between poor and rich in modern capitalist society, such as over time preference rates, that correlate with differences between rich and poor societies.

3. What do you think are the weakest links in the now-conventional "Institutions Matter" chain of reasoning?

Clark: The book challenges the modern orthodoxy of economics - that people are essentially the same everywhere, and with the right set of institutions, growth is inevitable - in three ways. First by showing that there were societies like medieval England where the institutional structure provided every incentive for growth, yet there was no growth. Second by pointing out that by objective measures the institutions of many highly successful modern economies, such as in Scandinavia, provide much poorer incentives to individuals than those of very poor economies. And lastly by showing that in the long run economic institutions that would prevent growth tend to get replaced endogenously by ones that are pro-growth.

4. You provide a variety of evidence that interest rates have fallen over the centuries; this is a fascinating set of data that we've discussed before at Gene Expression. Should economic historians still be searching for transaction cost stories to explain this fall in interest rates-e.g., lenders needed a high return in ancient Rome to compensate them for the high cost of searching for safe borrowers-or is that search likely to hit a dead end?

Clark: Interest rates on safe assets like houses and land fell from 25% or more in Ancient Babylon, to 10% in Ancient Greece, Roman Egypt and medieval Western Europe, to 4% in the eighteenth century in the Netherlands and England. Most economic historians assume this just represents transaction costs. But I can show in cases such as medieval England that transaction costs have nothing to do with this - the real return on investments as safe as modern Treasury Bonds was 10% or more. So I am confident that something much more fundamental was changing over these years.

5. You use data on British wills to argue that the British people of today are by and large the descendants not of peasants and not of the violent medieval aristocracy-both groups failed to reproduce themselves. Instead, the British people of today are largely the descendants of the bourgeoisie of the middle ages. Nowadays, that seems to be a testable hypothesis; have you run into genetic evidence bearing on what you call the "survival of the richest?"

Clark: I agree that, in principle, this is a completely testable hypothesis. If there was genetic change in the Malthusian era then we will find systematic differences in genes that influence behavior such as patience and propensity to violence between groups such as the British and those such as Australian Aboriginals that had no experience with settled agriculture.

However, as far as I am aware, the identification of genes that influence such behaviors is at a very early and tentative stage. The only such studies I have seen reported are those of differences across ethnic groups in variants of genes encoding monoamine oxidase enzymes.

6. How are economists reacting to the book? In particular, are there any misunderstandings that you'd like to address?

Clark: I expected a hostile and perhaps even dismissive reaction, given the controversy that the "survival of the richest" argument was bound to create, and given the attack on the modern orthodoxy amongst economists about institutions being the key to wealth and poverty. But economists who have read the book, even when they remain skeptical of the conclusions, have generally found it interesting and challenging. They have been surprised to learn in particular that the history of economies is not anything like the implicit assumptions they have, based on modern economic doctrine.

7. One implication of your model is that human populations that haven't been through the full Neolithic Revolution are going to fail miserably when they try to build a modern market-oriented society. If people turn out to as hard to change as they appear to be-if neither culture nor genes prove to be all that malleable in the medium-run-then how would you recommend improving the lives of these people? Do you think economists can design institutions that can help make these populations productive?

Clark: Anyone who reads history cannot fail to be impressed by the difficulties that hunter-gatherers, or societies with only limited experience of settled agriculture, have in successfully incorporating into the modern capitalist economy. I spent a week in Australia this summer, and the plight of Australian Aboriginals is very sad. The surviving Aboriginal communities have seen tremendous rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug use, violence and sexual assaults.

But an important point in the book is that while some of this cultural variation may be due to the long histories of societies, there is a lot of cultural variation within these constraints that produces dramatic differences in wealth in modern societies. So there is no ground for fatalism on the possibilities for any society. The problem is that measures to reform the cultures of societies seem difficult to devise. Look at the lack of success the Chinese Communist Party had in remaking Chinese Culture. China has emerged from a period of extreme ideological indoctrination seemingly with its pre-communist love of individual wealth and status completely intact.

8. You emphasize that "[t]he argument is not that agrarian life was making people smarter." But you also emphasize that agrarian life placed greater value on verbal and mathematical skills than hunter-gatherer life. Let's set aside for the moment the question of whether these skill changes were cultural, environmental, or genetic. Are you claiming that the rise in math and verbal skills was counterbalanced by an equal loss of some similarly valuable hunter-gatherer mental skills? In other words, were the mental effects of the Malthusian process zero-sum? If so, what process within your model would make that occur?

Clark: I wanted to emphasize in the book that I was not advocating any kind of Social Darwinism. The long Malthusian economy that preceded the Industrial Revolution changed people, but there is no evidence it made them "better" or "smarter." Indeed there is evidence that we did not become any happier as result of economic growth.

Anthropological accounts of forager societies suggest that people in these communities have strikingly developed powers of observation and memory (as well as an amazing ability to endure pain) - they are just not abilities that the modern market economy places much value upon.

9. Bowles, Camerer, and an interdisciplinary research team led a series of ultimatum-game studies in pre-modern societies; the found incredibly diverse outcomes. By contrast, across modern societies, ultimatum game play is much more similar, so it looks like the modern world really is a world of conformity, at least on this topic. How do you think their experimental evidence bears on your question of whether the "long Malthusian night," as you call it, selected for a certain set of behaviors and attitudes?

Clark: I have seen these results reported, but had not thought of relating them to the arguments of the book. I would have expected that pre-modern societies would have had a common response, but potentially a different response than in modern societies. So I do not think I could call this any kind of vindication of the hypothesis in the book.

10. What's the next project?

Clark: I always have several going at the same time. One is a follow up to the "survival of the richest" study for England reported in the book which will look more closely at the intergenerational transmission of economic success with a much larger set of data, and seek to show through examination of the effects of family size that the mechanism is indeed almost entirely the transmission of culture or genes. This study will also look over the whole period 1600-1914 and examine when and why richer men ceased to have more children than average and began to have less. I would love to use this data to try to tease out whether we have just cultural evolution as opposed to genetic - I just cannot think of any way to do that!

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Etruscans - don't know nothing about DNA   posted by Razib @ 6/18/2007 12:00:00 PM

The Etruscan origin story is now in the news again after the lead researcher presented his findings that these ancient people show strong evidence of a genetic affinity with Anatolians at a conference. I put a quick round up over at ScienceBlogs, but this piece in the LA Times is a bit disconcerting. Here are some archaeologists:
"I guess I would have to say that I am unconvinced at this stage," said archeologist Anthony Tuck of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is excavating an Etruscan site in Italy. "It is premature to declare the issue resolved on our current understanding of this genetic evidence."

Archeologist Jean Macintosh Turfa of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology was more dismissive. "There is really no sound archeological evidence that shows the influx of a big migration, or any kind of influx, from Asia Minor," she said. "There is never a sharp break in cultures, no destroyed villages, etcetera."

Turfa and Tuck hold to the view that the Etruscans evolved from the Villanovan culture, which emerged in central Italy. But the genetic findings will force a harder look at the evidence about their origins.

I really hope that the reporter didn't go quote mining until he found someone with a "dissenting" view, that's just bad journalism. Let's review the lines of evidence:

1) Y chromosomal lineages suggest a link with Anatolians.

2) mtDNA, both ancient and modern, suggest a link with Anatolians. The ancient mtDNA results (from 2004) was argued by some to have been possible contamination, etc., but I think that the findings from modern mtDNA (combined with other data) should force us to reorient our priors in evaluating that previous finding.

3) mtDNA from cattle suggests a parallel phylogenetic relationship between Anatolian and Tuscan populations.

These genetic arrows are now converging upon one conclusion: that there was some link between ancient Anatolians and Etruscans beyond what we would expect. One could dismiss one or two findings, but the alignment here should be worth noting. But that's not all. The island of Lemnos yields evidence that a language closely related to Etruscan before the Athenian conquest of the 6th century BCE was in use. Lemnos is the north Aegean. One plausible explanation is that an Etruscan trading colony was long resident here. Another explanation is that the inhabitants of Lemnos are part of the same "Lydian" Diaspora as the Etruscans. The Etruscans-are-native-to-Italy hypothesis would imply that the former explanation is what we should accept, but in light of the new data the Lemnos records should, I think, be taken as evidence of the latter scenario. The ancient scholars who addressed the origin of the Etruscans offered three alternative scenarios, that they were indigenous to Italy, that they were from Anatolia, or that they were from northern Europe. What is the likelihood that out of the sample space of possibilities Anatolia (as opposed to Greece, Libya, Egypt, etc.) would be selected as a possible point of origin? Prior to the emergence of these strong genetic data I do think one could imagine it was a flight of fantasy, but now it seems likely that its selection was not arbitrary.

The genetic data seems strong to me. That being said, the archaeologists have long noted continuities between the Villanovan Culture and the Etruscans. What gives? I think the solution is simple: the Etruscans had a non-trivial (genetically detectable to the present) exogenous element, but it also drew upon the local substrate. Taking a step outside of this particular issue that should be pretty clear & obvious. The Greeks show this hybrid tendency, a large proportion of words in their language show no Indo-European cognates. There are legends of Pelasgians, a confused term which might have referred to unassimilated elements amongst the non-Greek speaking inhabitants of the peninsula. The same dynamic can be seen in north India, where a hybrid culture arose which exhibited both pre-Aryan and Aryan elements. The archaeological continuity might very well be a reality in Tuscany simply because that the Etruscans did not exterminate the local peasantry, but rather, entered into a relationship of overlordship and subsequent cultural absorption. The continuity of material culture might be due to the fact that the folkways of Anatolia (housing structure and material, field arrangments, crops, etc.) were not applicable to the ecological needs of north-central Italy, or that the original settler Etruscans were a particular occupational slice of their peoples, perhaps a mercantile elite who were oriented toward the sea (they were well known traders) as opposed to agriculture. Just as Christian peasants and landlords in Anatolia were absorbed into the culture and identity of their Turkic rulers after 1100 over a period of time, so it seems that a possible model is one where Etruscan elite culture had this pull upon locals whom they ruled. Subjects of the Roman Empire absorbed some elements of Romanitas from their culture elites (language and religion), but they did not all become the villagers of Latium in replica form simply due to the local ecological constraints (dwelling architecture and farming techniques suitable for the Mediterranean don't transplant that well to northern Gaul). New data forces us to construct amenable hypotheses, not simply dismiss it.

Note: I put Lydian in quotes because it is likely an anachronism. The Etruscans were as Lydian as the tribes who resided on the north shore of lake Superior in 1500 were "Canadian."

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bound to repeat   posted by Razib @ 6/10/2007 10:30:00 PM

Xun Zi, the least idealistic of the great Confucian sages stated, "Mozi was blinded by utility and did not understand culture." Blinded by the utility, it seems a problem which intellectuals are still plagued by, until they realize they are bounded by the culture....