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The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

Agricultural civilization, over time, evolved sociobiological antidotes to the new ills it had spawned – first and foremost, disease. Wine and hot tea appeared as substitutes for (filthy) water. Spices, which have antimicrobial properties, became a universal staple of southern cuisines. Fermented foods and beverages negated some of the poisons inherent to the new diet. Early fertility cults and promiscuous attitudes gave way to patriarchal structures that enforced heterosexual monogamy – a natural adaptation to the appearance of STD’s.

In a stunning insight, and highlight of the book for me, Durant argues that Mosaic Law can be interpreted as one of the most comprehensive – if unintentional – disease prevention guides in history. Cleanliness was associated with godliness; taboos appeared against cannibalism, and eating (potentially spoiled) meat after the third day; leprosy sufferers were to be shunned. Only virgin women could be captured, while all the others had to be killed (the past is a foreign country). The entire “kashrut” system of “clean” and “unclean” animals rested on a valid scientific basis. Vermin, shellfish, and most insects were disease vectors; pigs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, bird of prey and carrion, and cats – which were worshipped in Egypt! – gobbled the former up. In contrast, no plants are forbidden – even though many of them are poisonous – and nor do primarily plant-eating insects such as locusts, whose consumption would provide a double benefit in terms of both protein and fewer crops destroyed. All these strictures were backed up by severe punishment for transgressors, on both the early and godly plane; disease control was a matter of “life and death for the entire community,” and could only be effectively carried out with the cooperation of the entire community.

Industrialization brought a whole new set of nutrition problems. Sailors died like fleas from scurvy on long voyages; obesity started appearing in Britain in the 19th century as sugar became a staple; rickets increased in frequency as people stayed indoors for longer on what was an infamously sunless island in the first place. Instead of religious commandments, this time it was science and technology that constituted the solution. Limes and lemons were packed on ships in addition to the traditional salt pork and gin; in 1863, a formerly obese Englishman called William Banting published the world’s first diet book, based on restricting sweet and starchy foods (see a pattern?); in 1933, the US government started fortifying milk with Vitamin D to combat rickets, and a few decades later celebrities and sunbeds made sun-tans cool again. “Again, we learned how not do die.”

We are now entering the age of biohackers: The Pareto Principle followers, the fox thinkers, Qualified Selfers, the n=1 experimenters who are seeking novel and individualistic ways of improving their health without waiting for formal science – which advanced “one funeral at a time,” as Max Planck so eloquently put it – to catch up. They try to take a big view of the progress and pitfalls across the ages, and adjust their diets and lifestyle to get the best of all worlds: The paleo diet intrinsic to humans for 99% of their existence as a species; the cultural traditions against disease and recent-adaptations like lactose tolerance of the Agricultural Age; the soaring successes and arrogant foibles of the Industrial Age; and the wealth of individually-tailored data and analytical tools now available on the information highways. For the first time ever, optimal health is within our grasp.

The second and third sections deal with the details of the paleo lifestyle, and as such is much closer to the content of most books on the subject. It’s all pretty much standard: Avoid grains and legumes, eat meat (from tail to tail), vegetables, fruit, nuts, and insects (both the familiar oceanic and unfamiliar land versions). Don’t fear saturated fat; the French Paradox is no paradox. Mimic a hunter-gatherer or herder diet. Follow ancient culinary traditions (experiment with broths, fermented and raw foods, organ meats, etc.) and practices (e.g. fasting). Move naturally – humans are evolved to stand, walk, squat, lie down, and occasionally sprint; they are not evolved to sit or do moderate jogging (check out CrossFit and MovNat). Running was traditionally done barefoot, which enables a more natural and less stressful action; consider that or getting a Vibrams. Do cold plunges and saunas. Don’t fear the Sun – the risks of getting skin cancer from it are negligible compared to the warding effects it gives from depression, other cancers, and a multitude of other ailments.

Nonetheless, we still find some clever insights – as well as controversies. For instance, I liked how he destroys the Whole Foods-shoppers’ worship of organic and whole foods over processed. He points out that “organic sugar is still sugar,” and that the absurdity has even spread to “organic tobacco,” while processed foods can be both very healthy (e.g. cooking, fermentation) or very unhealthy (e.g. Coca-Cola, Mars bars).

He does a good job of defending the ecological role played by responsible hunters – though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say lion burgers are a good or valid way of advancing an animal preservation cause – and of rebutting vegetarian arguments. These range from the rational-seeming but factually wrong (e.g. the assertion that hunter-gatherers got most of their calories from plants, or references to T. Colin Campbell’s deeply flawed interpretation of the China Study), to politicized absurdities such as Carol Adam’s assertion in THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT that meat-eating is a mechanism to enforce “patriarchy” (in reality, hunter-gatherer tribes were far less hierarchic and male-dominant than complex, grain-based civilizations). Still, while it might be true that vegetarians are crazier than average, there was no need – no need whatsoever – to go off on that bizarre tangent about Hitler’s vegetarianism. What the hell, dude? If you’re trying to present yourself as a voice of reason against the filthy grain-eating peasants, calling on the curse of Godwin probably isn’t the smartest way to go about it.

But a few quibbles cannot detract from what is, all things said, a monumental contribution to the nutritional canon. THE PALEO MANIFESTO is eminently readable, greased along by Durant’s endearingly morbid sense of humor (he advises against cannibalism on account of modern people having a “much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids due to their grain-based diets”). There is a consistently fluid command of the relevant medical, nutritional, and anthropological literature, as might be expected of the organizer of the world’s largest paleo Meetup group. Above all, he succeeds at contextualizing the paleo lifestyle within the big story of humanity’s biosocial evolution, and his conclusions – earlier jeremiads against the Standard American Diet and vegetarianism regardless – end up acknowledging the critical importance of integrating lessons from all four of the major nutritional epochs.

Though paleo is the most “natural” way to eat, it eminently cannot feed a global population of seven billion. The agricultural system – that is, local and organic – plays a vital role in maintaining plant genetic diversity, but it probably cannot feed the world either, short of most of us returning to a hardscrabble existence in the fields. The industrial system is the caloric workhorse that feeds the world, but it suffers from “serious health, ethical, and environmental drawbacks.” According to Durant, the most realistic, sustainable, and humane way forward is to keep the industrial system, but mitigate its worst effects by drawing on the best of what the paleolithic and agricultural systems have to offer. Meanwhile, the information system that industrialism enables can continue to push forwards our understanding of optimal health and nutrition through the vision and self-experimentation of the 21st century’s biohackers.

And really, who can argue with that?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.

Bloom, HowardThe Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995)
Category: human society, psychology, history; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Amazon reviews, James Schultz

More S/O material on related topics:

Superorganism, or: The Whole is Greater than its Parts

Bloom starts off by providing reams of evidence on why it is completely logical for nature to be “red in tooth and claw”. Selfish genes need to replicate and it is no great loss if they doom billions of individuals to untimely deaths in the struggle for evolutionary survival. Hence, creatures battle for the “privilege of procreation”. High-ranking gorilla females kill their harem rivals’ offspring. Existence in primitive societies is so brutish and short that it is as if they were fighting World War Two every year and life eternal (the myth of the “noble savage” really is just that). The wellspring of Western civilization, the Romans, have the rape of the Sabines as one of their proudest foundational myths. In short, violence is reality.


[The Rape of the Sabine Women, Pietro da Cortona.]

One interesting theory he mentions is that of the triune brain, according to which the human mind is actually composed of three brains – the reptilian (stimuli, mating, territoriality), mammalian (loyalty to family and clan) and primate (reasoning faculty). The reptilian component makes creatures nasty and violent, while the mammalian reinforces the power of social groups. It is only the latter that allows man to dream about peace, even as they hack each other to pieces in the waking world.

In the next section, Blooms asks why people commit suicide. He cites a lot of research showing that isolation is the ultimate poison – without social approval, people not only tend to become depressed, but their physiology goes on self-destruct mode, encouraging illnesses, insanity and suicidal tendencies. This is a negative feedback loop because once you are depressed, other people no longer want to be around you or make friends with it (but that, too, works in the interests of the group). He ties this in to the larger idea that just as cells, sponges and ants can only survive as constituent particularly of a greater whole or not at all, so humans are part of a greater “superorganism” that is society.

Paradoxically, the logic of “group selection” encourages loyalty to the superorganism that cares little if at all for the individuals that owe it their fealty. For instance, upon seeing a pride of lions beginning to stalk a herd of gazelles on the African savanna, the beasts that notice the predators begin prancing about in warning. This actually diminishes their individual chances of survival, since lions are likeliest to go for animals that are acting unlike the rest of the herd. The best outcome for the individual gazelle upon noticing the lions would be simply to retreat slowly to the safe center of the herd. However, over the evolutionary eons, groups with many individuals exhibiting these self-preserving tendencies presumably got weeded out, for self-interest is the bane of group interests. Hence in real life we do get a lot of genuinely altruistic loyalty to the group – amongst ants, gazelles, humans.

Humans who are no longer needed by the group really are no longer needed and might as well wane and die (“the Moor has done his duty, he can now go home”). Durkheim suggested suicide was essentially individuals altruistically relieving society of their own burden to it, and I would suggest that this is especially evident in societies like Japan without the traditional Western Christian guilt. I would also suggest that this is the reason why ostracism and exile were so much more fearful punishments in the pre-industrial world than they would seem in today’s global rootless cosmopolitanism. In an age when bonds were strong and essential, but geographically tied to small regions, being shorn of human contact would have been psychologically crippling.

All this of course has a more than passing resemblance to Turchin’s and Ibn Khaldun’s work on social cohesion and Asabiyah. There’s a reason why through the ages soldiers have willingly charged cold steel pikes and machine gun fire for the glory of their nation. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and far more important too – and the superorganism knows this.


[The Battle of Gettysburg. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!]

Though shalt not kill… but only as long as they’re members of your tribe. Otherwise it’s cool. Note that primitive societies believe “humans” to be only their own tribe or clan (in fact if you look at the etymology, many ethnicities call themselves “the people” in their own tongues). Civilization has expanded the definition of those considered to be human to their own nations: in the case of the Jews, to the Israelites; in the case of later “universal” religions, potentially to all humanity (except inveterate heathen, of course). Even many modern liberals are intolerant of those who don’t share their liberal ideals. Why these divisions? Having enemies is really good for social consolidation (see “castle identity”, “residential fortress”, “siege mentality”); human societies are defined not by what they are, but by what they oppose and hate. Or as Orwell would say, war is peace.

There is always a deep wellspring of frustration in any society. Bloom quotes interesting research showing that fro cells to ants to humans, each unit performs a preordained role. In any ant colony, there are industrious workers and lazy workers, soldiers and queens. Separate the industrious and lazy workers into separate group and new social roles are created as some former busybodies become idlers and former idlers become industrious. In observations of summer campers, it was noted that after a few hours, bunk-mates assumed four specific social roles: dominant “alpha male”, unpopular “bully”, “joker” sidekick and the over-eager “nerd” who is kicked around by everyone.

All human minds possess thousands of unrealized personalities which could have been but aren’t. This results in an undercurrent of frustration, which can be channeled into the hatred of the interloper that binds it together. Early cellular lifeforms discovered that they could dispose of calcium, poisonous in high quantities, by using it to build shells. In similar fashion, common hatreds glue societies together, such “that every tribe regards outsiders as fair game; that every society gives permission to hate; that each culture addresses the demon of its hatred in the garb of righteousness; and that the man who channels this hatred can rouse the superorganism and lead it around by the nose”.

From Genes to Memes, Yet Us vs. Them Always

In another chapter full of worthy insights, Bloom notes that the main vector of evolution shifted from genes swimming through “the protoplasmic soup of the early earth” to memes floating through a “sea of human brains”. Both genes and memes mercilessly exploit their hosts in their struggle for survival and bid to overspread the earth. Though rat broods are normally loving to each other, insert a rodent from a different clan that smells different, and they tear the unfortunate apart – even if he carries their genetic stock (rats tell who is who by smell). Humans are more advanced: they have language, culture and religions that bind closer than any uniform. The Hebrew genocide of the Canaanites was just and splendid, for their ethno-genetic stock was chosen by the LORD God.

Over the millennia of ancient history, memes gradually divorced themselves from the genetic level altogether, appearing in “universal” religions like Zoroastrianism and Christianity after St. Paul. Competing universal religions and ideologies now encompass nearly the whole world. The confer several advantages. First, the effective illusion of control, which is good guarantor of health and mental agility (note that most medical procedures even today are based on getting the patient to believe she will recover and hence doing so). Second, memes help consolidate huge communities, and hence ensure their own long-term survival.

A society is, in effect, a vast, problem-solving neural net – humans are to it like brain cells are to a mind. As a swarm of individuals interact in limited and simply ways (bees, humans), an extraordinarily complex structure emerges (a beehive, the modern economy). One feature of human society is male expendability – from cradle to old age, men have weaker immune systems, are more accident-prone and die quicker. This is especially marked in primitive societies where warfare is brutal and incessant.

polygamy-map The reasons are biologically obvious: whereas one man can inseminate dozens of women, one woman can only reproduce about once a year at most. So Mother Nature can afford to play with men as dice, ensuring that only the fittest survive. Interestingly, life is most brutal and profligate in the south, where resources are plentiful. In the tropics, male birds tend to have bright plumes to attract female attention (which also makes them highly visible to predators); but in the north, birds have grayer colors designed to blend into the surroundings, and their sex tends to be indistinguishable to the human eye. That is because the female needs male help to rear her chicks through the hard winter months of dearth. Likewise with humans, polygamy has been most prevalent in southern cultures – even if many guys die in battles for prestige, territory and slaves, the women can continue the race without most of them.

Most men failed, and died early or had little reproductive success (in primitive societies only 50% of men end up having offspring, compared to 80% of women). But those who made it, like Chinggis Khan, became the biological fathers of millions (King Saud was probably the last such very influential warlord). But as history progressed, memes steadily took center place. The generators of successful memes, like St. Paul, Marx or Sayyid Qutb, took the center place in the lives of millions and billions!

The Pecking Order: Hierarchy is Good

Stalin was right: the weak get beaten. That’s what happens to those at the bottom of the pecking order, the phenomenon observed in the 1920′s where chickens formed a fixed hierarchy that determined priority access to food and shelter. While the top hen was well fed, warm and respected, the one at the bottom was ostracized and pecked by everyone else. Likewise, those at the top are most sexually successful in primitive societies. In a series of experiments in which three male rats and three female rats were brought together in a cage, some 92% of offspring accrued to the dominant male!

Success breeds success, failure breeds failure. Low ranking baboons suffer increased levels of glucocorticoids, a stress hormone that acts as a slow poison, and walk around slouched and defeated. The same thing operates in human societies – being at the bottom of the pecking order is bad for you, as you suffer from increased rates of depression, blood pressure, heart attacks, etc – obviously this also makes you unattractive and entrenches your gutter status. In contrast, higher ranking monkeys people walk upright and their testicles hang down further. (So consequently no wonder that that is the reason why men are recommended Alexander posture and walking with one’s legs wide apart… it is to project the image of the physical aspects of the alpha male; on third thought that would explain society’s dislike for the “pick-up artist”, since their craft essentially cheats the naturally emergent hierarchy by getting men to mimic alpha traits instead of actually being one).

There’s a very good reason for the existence of these feedback loops that reinforce social hierarchy – the alternative to hierarchy, with its inherent, diffuse coercion, is anarchy. This entails a state of constant expenditure of previous, limited energy on banditry and defense. In this situation, the weak and friendless get trampled down even more quickly and ruthlessly than if they were (merely) oppressed within a hierarchic system. So it is actually in the interests of everyone, including even its lowliest members. (The exceptions are, of course, those who believe that their position in the hierarchy is unjustified on the basis of their abilities or beliefs, e.g. the Bolshevik insurrectionist, the Islamist cell member, etc, who would like to level the current hierarchic system in a cleansing purge before rebuilding it in their own image). Bloom notes that “superior chickens make friends”, not only within societies, but within the community of tribes and nations. Just as powerful Yanamamo tribes attracted allies and clobbered the weak and friendless tribes, and Rome maintained coalitions awed by its political and military prowess, so the modern US draws on the loyalty of many of its allies in the West and elsewhere through the visibility of its hegemonic power. (It even gets financial credit at low prices due to an effect called American alpha!)

In the last few chapters, Bloom ingeniously – or in an act of unintentional hypocrisy, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt ;) – shows “us vs them”, memes and hierarchy at work in his own book! He states America’s refusal to support France and Britain in their neo-colonial 1956 endevour to seize back the Suez Canal was morally wrong, proclaims the superiority of the West over the cultures of the Third World and labels Islam a “killer culture” harboring the next barbarians. (Of course, the Islamist crazies promptly did their best to prove him right). No, you don’t need to be a PC-head to realize that in the last hundred pages Bloom strays from his fascinating insights into a morass of opinion(ated) projections of his social theories onto modern geopolitics and the “clash of civilizations”. They can be skipped. The only more or less useful additional point he makes is that giving gifts is insulting, like the World Bank does with Africa, because it created humiliating cultural dependency relationships (e.g. demands to Africans to do things the way armchair economists with no practical experience there want them to). China’s straightforward infrastructure or cash for resources approach is better for Africans, both spiritually and probably even economically.

The Lucifer Principle: Superorganism, Memes & Hierarchy

These elements combined form the Lucifer Principle. The superorganism – be it body, village, nation (“imagined community”) or civilization – curtails your individuality, and has no qualms about throwing your life and health away if doing so would serve the greater good. It can throw you against another superorganism so as to weed out the weak, identify the strong, and consolidate itself internally and ideologically (war is peace). It can – and does – trample your mental and physical health under the social stratification it requires to maintain its own complexity (peace is submission). But it also nurtures and protects you with a love harsh but true… for while you can surmount the burdens and realize yourself (slavery is freedom), without society, that would be impossible… survival itself is impossible (freedom is death). I would say that the essence of the Lucifer Principle is that fascism is the natural state.


[The essence of the book in one comic. Translation: "What's the matter, you fat monkey?" "Fuck off, fucking fascist!" "You say 'fascist', as if it's a bad thing. But dude, people love fascists. Have you ever met a woman who fantasizes about being tied up and raped by a *liberal*?"]

Though Rome “had been an oppressor, it was also “the source of nourishment and peace”. It’s end brought not freedom, but death, says Bloom, as roving bandits moved in to pick its carcass. (Though I would make the caveat that by its end the Western Empire armies were themselves no better than bandits). In conclusions: “Superorganism, ideas, and the pecking order – these are the primary forces behind much of human creativity and earthly good. They are the holy trinity of the Lucifer Principle”.

There were several problems with the book. It was tied in loosely with the book and while chock full of fascinating details, many of them did little or nothing to advance or support the argument. The poor organization made writing this review rather tedious. The two chapters at the end, in which Bloom tried to apply disjointed elements of the Lucifer Principle onto modern politics and geopolitics, were largely irrelevant and should have been split off into a separate volume.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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While trawling through my computer archives, I stumbled across this book review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” from five years ago. Overall, it’s a great book, better than his follow-up “Collapse”, which is also interesting – especially in the psychological aspects of “collapse”, like creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia” – but far from the best in the genre (that would be Tainter).

Diamond, JaredGuns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
Category: world systems, history, anthropology; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel (wiki)

Having finished reading this book in November 2004, I came away impressed by its success in compressing 13,000 years of human history into a lucid and compelling explanation of why the rate of socio-economic development varied so significantly on different continents, without resorting to culturalist or racialist arguments. Jared Diamond succeeds spectacularly at proving why Eurasia had become by 1500 AD (the dawn of “Europe’s assault on the world”) the world’s most technologically advanced continent, far ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australasia. In the final chapter, he extends the analysis to question why, within Eurasia, it was Europe that decisively overtook apparently better-endowed competitors (primarily China) within the next four hundred years and proceeded to “remake the world in its own image”.

The underlying thesis in this work is that the environment is the primary shaper of human societies – hence the title of Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History”. Connected with Diamond’s general aim of transforming human history into a scientific discipline, it explains how the Austronesians who populated the Polynesian islands, despite sharing common ancestors in Fujian, China, went on to produce remarkably different societies – agricultural and hunter-gatherer, technologically adept and primitive, oligarchic and egalitarian.

In the next few chapters , he contends that the rise of statehood, and the consequent, self-catalysing technological expansion (producing steel and guns, amongst others) and evolution of germs, was linked to the shift of food-production away from hunter-gathering, which first happened in Eurasia. This is because Eurasia was blessed in possessing an abundant number of nutritious and highly-domesticable crops such as wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent and rice in China, and also because she possessed an area covered by the world’s largest and most varied Mediterranean climate in southern Europe and south-west Asia, and fertile soils and monsoon rains in China, India and Indochina. It is true that the Americas had corn, and the Africans sourghum – but the shift from hunter-gathering to food-production depends not on a single crop, but on a sufficient amount to offer a secure and balanced diet. The latter was lacking – for instance, of the world’s 56 large-seeded grass species, 32 were in the West Eurasian Mediterranean region, and only 11, 4 and 2 in the (geographically splintered) Americas, Africa and Australasia respectively.

Nor were the extra-Eurasian continents especially suitable for pastoral economies. Of the world’s 143 big wild herbivores, only 14 are domesticable and only five – sheep, goats, cows, pigs and horses – can thrive across a broad range of climates. These discrepencies are due to the so-called Anna Karenina principle, which states that a variety of factors can null the chances of an animal being domesticable – their growth rates, problems of captive breeding, nasty dispositions, tendency to panic, and social structure. According to Diamond, of the 5 major and 9 minor domesticable animals, 13 are indigenous to Eurasia and one (the llama) is indigenous to South America. Africa might have animals that could be tamed (e.g. the elephant), but none that has ever been domesticated. The dearth of big animals in general in the Americas and Australasia is due to the fact that humans, with refined hunting skills, arrived there only 11,000 and 40,000 years ago respectively, and hunted all of them down because the animals had not had time to get used to this. The “lethal gift of livestock” also gave Eurasian peoples germs (as most infectitious diseases originated from human interactions with animals – for instance, flu was derived from pigs and ducks, and measles, smallpox and tuberculosis all derive from cattle), and, consequently, stronger immune systems to the diseases. The resultant fact that the exchange of germs was virtually one-way largely explains successful European colonization of the Americas.

Eurasia, because of it’s main east-west axis, fostered much easier transferals of agricultural and epidemiological breakthroughs. Crops and livestock generally move much more easily along lines of latitude than lines of longitude – thus, Fertile Crescent agriculture spread relatively quickly to southern Europe, north Africa, Iran, north India at a rate of 0.7 miles per year, whereas Mexican corns and beans crawled north to the Mississipi chiefdoms at 0.3 miles per year. The same applied to livestock – “The cool highlands of Mexico would have provided ideal conditions for raising llamas, guinea pigs and potatoes, all domesticated in the cool highlands of the Andes. Yet the northward spread of these Andean specialities was stopped completely by the hot intervening lowlands of Central America.” Whereas crops and livestock can travel relatively easily from Ireland to Korea (despite obstacles such as the Tibetan Plateau, Gobi desert and the jungles of southern India and Indochina), to travel the much smaller distance from Peru to the southern USA, one has to go north and transverse the Darien rainforests of the Isthmus of Panama (only 40 miles wide at its narrowest) and the northern Mexican desert.

What applies to crops and livestock, must also apply to other forms of technology. Writing evolved independently in Sumer by 3000 BC and in Mesoamerica in 600 BC – however, whereas the former spread rapidly throughout Eurasia, the latter never reached the Incas or the Mississippi, where sedendaty food-producing civilizations might have made good use of it. Other examples in Eurasia included the wheel, door locks, pulleys, rotary querns, windmills and the alphabet, whereas the Mesoamerican wheel failed to reach the Incas in Peru.

In conclusion, Eurasian societies were intially much better endowed than their American, African and Australasian counterparts not only in terms of crops and livestock, but also geographically and climatically. Eurasia’s primary east-west axis fostered linked the entire continent economically and epidemiologically, especially after the establishment of the Silk Road in Roman times. More productive agricultural bases, supporting much greater and denser populations, ensured a continuously generated food surplus, to sustain an evolving state appratus and the investment, development of technology and military machine that went with it. Eurasia’s quiltwork of states ensured a competitive environment that put an imperative on change that could not be replicated in the isolated societies of the Americas and Australasia. As a result, by 1500 AD no Native Americans had managed to progress to the Bronze Age and had not developed any deadly germs for the Spanish conquistadores to carry back home. Australia (mostly desert and marginal scrubland) and New Guinea (flat or hilly rainforest) were still in the Stone Age in the second millenium. Tasmania, with its 4000 hunter-gatherers, totally isolated for 10,000 years, had on the eve of its discovery by Europeans in 1642 AD the “simplest material culture of any people in the modern world”. As a result, these differences in development meant that, throughout history, but particularly within the last five hundred years, more advanced Eurasians were able to expand and appropriate the territories of native primitive peoples – examples include Chinese expansion into southeast Asia and the Pacific, the Bantu expansion into sub-Saharan Africa and the European colonization of the Americas, Australasia and Siberia.

Diamond’s epilogue is concerned about why Europe, apparently one of the more backward super-regions on the Eurasian landmass as late as the High Middle Ages, nonetheless was the first to industrialize and dominate the world more fully in its heyday – from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century – eclipsing ostensibly more powerful medieval empires, primarily China. The author again made use of geographic arguments, leaving aside institutional and cultural factors and relying heavily on E.L. Jones’ “The European Miracle” thesis. Now Europe is, in essence, a highly fragmented continent, separated by numerous mountain ranges (Alps, Carpathians, Pyrenees, etc) and small rivers (Rhine, Po, Oder, Visla, Danube), which support small, scattered population centres in their valleys. Numerous peninsulas and islands (primarily Iberia, Scandinavia, Britain, Italy) have traditionally counter-balanced potential continental hegemons (usually Germany or France). Europe has many different climates – Mediterranean to the south, maritime to the north-west and continental to the east, which produce different products (stimulating trade) and create natural ethnic boundaries (a phenomenom noted as early as the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus). China is almost the exact opposite – a huge, round piece of flatland, with its population concentrated in the great river valleys of the Yangtze and Hwang Ho (providing a huge and easily controlled source of manpower) and relatively uniform climatic conditions in its historic heartland (the tropical Cantonese south, dry continental Manchuria and Sinkiang and mountanous Tibet are comparatively recent acquisitions and even today are of peripheral economic importance).

As such, China’s “connectedness”, to use Diamond’s term, encouraged political unity and autocracy; Western Europe’s fragmentation fostered a competitive states system, encouraging innovation and technological progress, and precluded the possibility of any single European state conquering the entire continent and stiffling it under a blanket of reaction. Hence, Columbus was able to find a financial backer in 1492 despite several previous rejections; however, court intrigues in Beijing brought to a permanent end Cheng Ho’s oceanic voyaging in 1433 and soon after closed dockyards across the whole Celestial Empire. As for the Fertile Crescent, intensive agriculture since 8500BC brought an ecological degradation that intensified due to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and subsequent destruction of complex irrigation infrastructure.

Two main arguments have been leveled against this book. The first is that China is not necessarily geographically more suited to unification than Western Europe, that the values of fragmentation are not necessaily greater than of unity, and most importantly that Europe owes its “miracle” more to its institutions – “the devolution of power implicit in feudalism and the scope for free thought created by the independence of the medieval Christian church from political control” (from David Frum’s review, “How the West Won: History That Feels Good Usually Isn’t“) – than to any geo-climatic conditions, which invoke the derogatory label of “historical determinism”. I’ll address these contentions one after the other. In his review of the book, J.R. McNeill in “The World According to Jared Diamond” wrote, “Europe may or may not have a geography that encourages greater fragmentation than does China’s (and I think this is open to question if one leaves out the Grand Canal, a man-made link). ” Apart from the evidence above, and the fact that the Grand Canal was constructed during the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) and as such affected China for the majority of its history after the first unification in 221 BC under Shih-Huang-ti, we also know that the multitude of plains could support a might horseman army, which could exert political control over the huge, densely-clustered population centres of the Middle Kingdom. In fact this is the primary reasons why the Mongols (whose main strategic strength was in their speed and functionality without logistics) were able to conquer late Sung China, but wisely decided to stay away from Europe, where the land west of the Hungarian plains, containing only forests, mountains and areas of intensive agriculture, could not have supported a single tyumen. Hence, Europeans relied on decisively less mobile and more logistically demanding traditions of infantry and castle sieges, which made rapid conquests of vast areas practically unrealizable.

Slightly later, McNeill writes that, “political fragmentation is not necessarily an advantage, indeed in some circumstances, such as the presence of a powerful and aggressive neighbor, it is a weakness”. The argument is made that although Europe was always a political quiltwork, it only started to become formidable after the first milennium. There are several weaknesses to this position – Europe, especially the “barbarian kingdoms” north of the Alps, was before the first millenium extremely backwards in comparison with any other major Eurasian civilization – China, Byzantium, the Arabs and India, but by the 14th century at the latest the qualitative gap had closed even with China. This suggests average rates of development were much higher in feudal Europe than in Asia. Besides, Europe never truly had a life-threatening neighbor – the Arabs were halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel, the pagan Vikings were Christianized around the 10th century and it was Rus’ and Byzantium that took the brunt of nomadic assaults by groups like the Pechenegs and the Polovtsians (Cumans). McNeill draws an example with politically fragmented India, which however “did not generate highly efficient states and technologically precocious societies bent on expansion and conquest”. Admittedly, my knowledge in this area is shallow – and doubt the validity of that statement, given that India was the home of higher mathematics and that its port cities grew very wealthy off the trade of the Indian Ocean. Also, other factors may be more prescient at explaining this, such as India’s isolation from the main routes of the Silk Road, its stratified caste system (which discouraged innovation) and perhaps “Dark Ages” stemming from the plethora of outside barbarian invasions.

Finally, David Frum contributed the third and most important point to this institutional counter-argument. I will quote from his review in extenso.

At least in this century, the traditional account of the rise of the West has given credit to its propitious political and social institutions. That is not true only of recent times, when the institutions in question are liberal ones, but of more ancient history as well, when the West benefited from the devolution of power implicit in feudalism and the scope for free thought created by the independence of the medieval Christian church from political control. And that traditional account agreed, with varying degrees of certainty, that those traditions were more or less available to anyone else and would have more or less similar results wherever they were tried.

Again, however, numerous holes can be picked in the text. The Church might have been independent of political control, but it was dogmatic in its views and consistently anti-capitalistic (e.g. the ban on usury). This is the reason so much commerce was in the hands of Jews in medieval Europe. Independent thought as such would have been confined to universities which began to be founded in 13th century, and these tended to support the monarch over the Pope. As for feudalism, it was based on the self-sufficient agricultural economy of the manor, economically isolated following the collapse of Roman order. Although I think a period of feudalism, which develops the idea of the contract (in addition to the Roman idea of private property) is a very useful precedent to capitalism, we must ask ourselves, why did it develop in Europe, and not in China? After all, China does have a long history of “warring states’ periods, including the post-Han economic downturn and fragmentation from 220 to 581 AD, which coincided with the fall of Rome. However, conditions in European were far more suited for the emergence of a feudalistic societies – firstly, “barbarian kingdoms lacked the bureaucratic and literate resources to rule directly over great areas”, unlike the Confucian bureaucracy which held China together until the twentieth century. Secondly, it had precedents in the fusion of Roman concepts of property with the Germanic “blood-brotherhood of the warrior-companians of the barbarian chief”, which was respectively partially and completely lacking in China. Last but not least, that same geographical fragmentation and relative lack of plains frustrated assertative European monarchs attempting to bring to heel some remote rebelling vassal, let alone maintain effective political unity.

The second important argument was made by McNeill and contends that ultimately “the spread of useful species was usually a conscious act…determined by trade links, migration routes, and happenstance”. He argues as an example that a single line of latitude on Eurasia could vary greatly, from “the Gulf Stream-induced equability of western Europe, to the continental climate extremes of Kazakhstan, to the monsoon rhythms of Korea”, and consequently make the dispersion of animal and plant species very hard. He also attributes a lot of this dispersion as due to trade within Eurasia. Again, these criticisms have their flaws. For instance, jungles present much more of a barrier than continental plains or even desert, because of the greater number of diseases they harbor and because they are much more physically hard to pass. I think another crucial factor is that significant climate shifts, that have played a very large role triggering nomadic migrations and expansions within and out of the Eurasian Great Steppe, are lacking in rainforests, encouraging a more permanent existence. As for the second argument, it is downright irrelevant in the context of the book, because Eurasia as a continent only started to become contiguous with the genesis of the Silk Road during Roman times. By then, all the key crops and livestocks were already in place, that had generated the rise of the civilizations which were only then beginning to communicate with each other, albeit in rudimentary form, over thousands of kilometers.

Having attempted to disprove two existing criticisms of the book, I would nonetheless wish to make a few of my own. One is how he rather hypocritically claims New Guineans are more intelligent than Eurasians, after just having had condemned white racist theories whose argumentative style in their specialization are similar to his in this instance. And I think he could have covered the scope of the last chapter of his book beyond an analysis of why Europe “won” and China “lost” – Middle Eastern societies were mentioned little (and the argument of environmental degradation was admittedly somewhat lost on me, considering that Egypt has managed to sustain a massive agricultural base from pharaonic times to the present day), and India and Russia not at all. (At least in the latter case there is a plethora of geoclimatic factors that negatively affected its development and covered in such books as Andrej Parshev’s “Why Russia isn’t America”).

In conclusion, this is overall an excellent book which is a must-read for people in professions as varied as biology, geography, history, archaelogy, anthropology, sociology and economics, as well as the intelligent layman. Apart from the invaluable information and insights, it is written in concise, engaging and understandable language and one would be challenged to put it down after having read just a few pages.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Realism has been falling out of favor since the end of the Cold War, condemned by the Kumbaya crowd, avoided by the liberal, PC-gone-wild intelligentsia, and denigrated by “end of history” ideologues (many of whom all too cynically remain realists while cloaking it under the mantle of “liberal interventionism”). What they all have in common is a denial of reality – denial of basic human psychology, and the inevitability of its transmutation onto the level of inter-state relations. Let’s look at this through the prism of human violence throughout history.

Imagine living in a society in a near-constant state of war, both within and without. A society where you lose 0.5% of your population to violence every year, a rate which would translate to 2bn war deaths during the 21st century. As a man, you are constantly mobilized for fighting and your chances of meeting a violent end are roughly equivalent to that of a French man during World War One or a Russian during the Great Patriotic War – throughout your entire life. Overall there is a 15-60% chance you will die by the club, spear or arrow. Doesn’t sound like a great deal, right? But such was human reality for the vast majority of its history, “noble savage” myths to the contrary. Quoting Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying “by the sword” than a citizen of an average modern state.

Below is a chart illustrating the vast gulf between the natural violence of man in the “natural state” (two meanings) and the artificial / coercive violence embodied in the “civilized” state.

This was total war on a scale even technological totalitarianisms had difficulties recreating. The constant prevalence of warfare in human prehistory also made a huge impact on society in terms of language (“…That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident…Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.”) and even psychological traits like altruism.

As if this wasn’t enough, tribal societies are also very violent internally, with homicide rates a full two orders of magnitude above those seen in modern industrialized nations like the US today (5.8 / 100,000). Typical homicide rates ranged from 165.9 / 100,000 for the Yanomamo of Brazil (1970-74) to the 778 / 100,000 of the Hewa of New Guinea (1959-68). As described by one of the first visitors to the New Guinea Highlands, Kenneth Read:

Both men and women are volatile, prone to quarreling and quick to take offense at a suspected slight or injury. They are jealous of their reputations, and an undercurrent of tension, even latent animosity, accompanies many interpersonal relationships. Dominance and submission, rivalry and coercion are constantly reccuring themes, and although the people are not lacking in the gentler virtues, there is an unmistakable aggressive tone to life.

Homicide rates fell somewhat by the time of the Middle Ages, though at 20-100 / 100,000 per year medieval societies were still far more violent than most countries today. (Again, images of bucolic Christian idyll to the contrary).

[Historical homicide rates in Germany and Switzerland (log scale) on vertical axis. Note the uptick in the 14th century, which corresponds to the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages].

Folks of all social classes carried knives with them (for eating) and were quick to perceive insults, at which point they summoned the help of their kin, servants and friends to deal with the offender (most murders were collective). Though medieval and early modern punishments, when they happened, tended to be brutal, public and excruciating by modern standards, they mostly focused on transgressions against the community and the sovereign – from larceny & theft to high treason.

As Norbert Elias wrote in his history of manners, which attempted to explain the gradual pacification of European societies over the centuries, “fear reigned everywhere; one had to be on one’s guard all the time… The majority of the secular ruling class of the Middle Ages led the life of leaders of armed bands”. So if that was how the elites behaved, not much hope for constraining the traditional (violent) ways of life of the peasants. Homicide was not treated as a particularly fell crime and conviction rates were much lower for it than for property crimes. Society only hanged those convicted of murder who were perceived to be outcasts. In most cases they were pardoned or suffered a lesser punishment, because the circumstances were held to warrant their homicide (e.g. defense of honor).

The culture of violence only really came to be suppressed by the power of the emerging, centralizing monarchies from the 15th century, which more-and-more effectively claimed a monopoly on violence as one of their core prerogatives (as well as a monopoly on issuing money and tax collection). The power of coercion, to punish and discipline, passed from the community to the state as part of the overarching transition to modernity begun in the late Middle Ages.

* Trying to explain differences between homicide rates today in different countries is interesting, but is not directly related to the main thrust of this post, and is relegated to the end.

But states themselves are run by humans (e.g. with the same basic psychological attributes of primitive warriors), who have found it useful to repress small-scale violence by coercion and territorial integration, but nonetheless feel it necessary to maintain a more traditional perspective in an arena where older arrangements, that is, anarchy (the state of nature), still prevails – international relations. Almost all modernization efforts from the early modern period to today were driven by the fiscal-military imperative of building taxable (or controllable) means of manning, equipping and supporting the military forces that are the last and truest guarantors of state security from the predations of other states.

Whether you think the world state system today resembles more an inter-tribal state of nature (constant risk of bloody warfare) or a medieval-like community based on clan ties and largely separate from the state (need to conform for safety and always risk offending another member by a perceived slight into violence against you – and if he does, then the community is not certain to be on your side, or may even take the side of your attacker), it is certainly not an “end of history” utopia** where you can afford to sing Kumbaya as your lullaby and slip away into the progressive pieties of the warm glow of common humanity. Welcome to the real world, in which said humanity – most of which still identifies itself by tribe, nation and faith – will make sure you never wake up.

So here are the lessons and suggestions for further discussion:

  1. Though I call prehistoric peoples with a low material & technological level “primitive” and “violent” (which they are – by our standards), I do not consider them evil or even inferior to modern “civilization” – that would be quite illogical, consider that our understandings of “good and evil” are quite foreign to them, whereas “inferiority” implies measurement by one’s own yardstick. Instead, I go by Trubetzkoy’s moral relativism as to “the equal worth and qualitative incommensurability of the cultures and peoples on this earth”.
  2. The concept that violence is our reality – and perhaps the most basic human commonality of all – is one of the major wellsprings of my geopolitical analysis, and I make no apologies for this.
  3. International relations are amoral (not immoral) and profoundly opportunistic. State security should always be (and usually is by wise leaders) prioritized in an optimal way – focus on power maximization, but not so overtly or arrogantly as to alienate the conformist “international community”. Applied to today’s world, act realistic while paying lip service to the tired tropes of liberalism and idealism.
  4. At times, this will have to include the sacrifice of internal liberties (economic, political and social) to guarantee the retention of greater liberties – foremost, sovereignty – from other Powers. The optimal balance between cooperation and coercion, both internal and external, varies between countries. It is logical for nations under intense geopolitical pressure like Israel, Russia or Iran to institute a greater degree of coercion within and aggressiveness without; geopolitically secure nations like the US can afford a greater degree of leeway.
  5. Assuming a medieval-era society is an acceptable model for the international system, note the spike in homicides during the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages recorded in almost every European region. This was a time of resource shortages (deforestation), famine and the Black Plague, i.e. a Malthusian crisis. Similarly, internal warfare – inter-tribal raids in primitive spaces and civil war in collapsing empires – spikes during Malthusian crises. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that if the energy-and-environmental crises are not checked and reversed soon – and there is absolutely no indication of that happening – one can expect a similar spike in global violence in the decades ahead. This is expected to manifest itself in resource wars externally and rising crime rates and authoritarianism internally.

Further Notes

* Today, most advanced industrial nations have very low homicide rates, ranging from 0.4 in Japan and 1-2 in most Western European nations to 5.8 in the US (which has pockets of medieval-level violence in many inner-city hoods). Only a few countries have homicide rates much above 20 / 100,000, encompassing mostly Latin American and failed / semi-failed states. Though there is a great deal of concern over violent murders even in extremely quiescent societies like Britain (by historical standards), their prevalence is mostly illusion. On the other hand, in a place like Venezuela, with its homicide rate of 48 / 100,000, the everyday danger from violence is very real (accounting for Venezuelans’ life expectancy, this roughly translate into a 1/30 lifetime risk of dying by the bullet, and would be translate into prestate-era rates in some barrios).

To a great extent, many of the differences in homicide rates between different nations today are the result of deeply-ingrained cultural legacies. For instance, why is the US so much more violent (typical homicide rates 5-10 / 100,000) than Western Europe (1-2 / 100,000)? Eric Monkonnen suggests America’s exceptionalism may have something to do with the historical weakness of the US state relative to its European peers:

There is no direct comparison, but arrest, prosecution, and punishment would appear to have been much more likely and much harsher in England than in the United States, at least until the mid-nineteenth century. Vic Gatrell’s study of English executions, The Hanging Tree, is chilling. In the waning years of capital punishment, 1805–1832, more than 2,000 people were publicly hanged; only 20 percent of those were for murder. Those numbers—about 75 a year—were down from an estimated 140 per year for 1770–1805, and even more dramatically down from 75,000 executions in the century between 1630 and 1730. In the United States, Watt Espy’s research suggests about 800 executions for 1770–1805, and 840 for 1805–1832. The execution rates per capita would be about 20 percent higher for England, and this crude estimate ignores the much lower crime and homicide rates there. In addition, we often forget that transportation loomed as a terrifying alternative for English felons. However, an English criminal would have found life easy in the American colonies and the young United States.

We can directly examine the figures on homicides and executions in New York City from 1800 to 1950, and the record shows that there is no statistical relationship between the two rates. In the nineteenth century, in slightly more than half of the years there were no executions in New York City, but there were plenty of murders. Very few New Yorkers were executed in that century—maybe 82 of some 3,400 murderers, less than 3 percent. Such a low rate of executions may seem surprising, but even today, the rate of executions for murder in the execution-prone state of Texas ranges from .1 to 1.3 percent. Even the dimmest murderer may not worry too much about capital punishment.

Combined with Americans’ different mentality from Europeans – they put a much greater stress on older values of individualistic, rugged, manly asperity and honor; as well as pockets of distinctly pre-modern social attitudes seen amongst “ghetto” communities (based on “respect”, turf wars, etc) – and it’s not surprising its homicide rates are much higher than in Europe. And although the US managed to substantially reduce it’s homicide rates from the highs of the 1980′s, this was most likely due to its record-breaking achievements in raising incarceration rates than any kind of cultural shift.

(Though some would argue that guns are responsible for the higher American murder rates, this is a vacuous argument I will not bother debunking here).

Russia’s homicide rate is a lot higher even than America’s (around 16.5 / 100,000), nor is it a recent phenomenon born of “transition shock”. Soviet propaganda to the contrary, socialist Russia had a higher homicide rate than the US for the vast majority of the post-Stalin period, despite the relative severity of Soviet laws. Partly this was due to Russia’s traditional proclivities towards excessive alcohol consumption, but also partly due to the fact that by the time industrialization came to Russia in the late 19th C it was still, in a sense, a medieval society – very violent, community- and kin-based, and very touchy on matters of respect / social status (see Figes’ unflattering description of pre-revolutionary Russian village life in A People’s Tragedy). A century of state coercion did not break its embedded medieval cultural traditions, and through its arbitrary nature perhaps even reinforced them.

** Granted, there are some improvements. Modern leaders tend to be more rational than the prestige-obsessed “big men” presiding over primitive societies, and most do not react to slights with the same zeal or violence. Another factor is that in relative terms, war has become less demographically damaging in modern times. In primitive societies, because political units were very small and dispersed, the “bloody borders” between states were much longer in aggregate, whereas the borders between today’s big states may sometimes get very bloody very fast, but there are much fewer of them. [A metaphor for primitive war would be a thousand gashes continually inflicted over humanity's body all the time, whereas modern warfare (WW1-style) would be infrequent maulings with an ax]. On the other hand, the advent of missile / nuclear weapons and post-2nd generation warfare has married the technological destructiveness of modern war with the totality of primitive war.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.