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Today’s WSJ has a good article on what is known as “financial engineering” at MIT. This program at MIT illustrates perfectly the fallacy of thinking higher math is a sure path to making money in the stock market — in this case by pricing financial options. A couple of years ago, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) nearly brought the world financial system to its knees when its sophisticated trading program in derivatives went off the rails. This despite the fact that LTMC had on its team two Ignoble Prize winners in economics, plus some of the biggest names in mathematical economics.

Essentially what happened was the guys at LTCM factored out of their equations the possibility of very large but highly unlikely events. Unfortunately, highly unlikely events happen in real life. Thus, when something unlikely did happen — in this case, the East Asian financial panic — all their calculations went up in smoke. It’s like a program designed to beat the odds in Las Vegas: as long as you allow the person placing the bets to double his bet indefinitely, it is easy to demonstrate that he has a near perfect chance of winning against the house eventually, at whatever confidence interval you may care to choose. The flaw in the approach, of course, is that you are not allowed to double your bet indefinitely — on Wall Street as in Las Vegas.

So far I’ve been unable to append a copy of the WSJ article below, since it requires special access and I’ve lost my password. But let me note the main motive for these not-so-hot-shots in electrical engineering wanting to go to Wall Street in the first place: the firms that are foolish enough to hire them, are willing to pay them a higher salary than they can earn as real engineers! Clearly, someone has a vested interest in a certain point of view. (And just as clearly, if these young not-so-hot-shots really knew how to make money this way, they would be trading on their own account.)

Bottom line: human behavior is not mathematically predictable to the degree these people expect. It is a labile thing, which means that trying to use higher math to leverage something valuable out of it, is about as promising as trying to use a wet sponge as a lever.

Posted by lukelea at 07:06 AM

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The only meme theory that interests me is the problem of cultural transmission: how to preserve those values and ideas that make liberal democracy possible? I sometimes wonder whether the old German idea of a “research university” might not have had its day, so far as the humanities and social sciences are concerned? Science and Technology, for sure, must never end the quest for new knowledge. But history? Economics? Literature? I think not.

The problem today is that you have students entering Harvard and Stanford — and, what is more, leaving Harvard and Stanford — who have but the barest notion of where our civilization came from and how we got here. They have no idea of the price that has been paid (a price that, if we blow it, will have to be paid again) so that we can enjoy all the freedom and the good things of life we have inherited, from our parents and grandparents, and they from theirs before them.

I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to ditch the Ivy League undergraduate colleges with their enrollments in the thousands for each class and lectures for the hundreds, and go back to the concept of small teaching colleges, with small classes, and teachers who are not expected to publish or break new ground in research, or do anything original — but rather to pass on “the best that has been thought and said” in the (approximate) words of an old cultural critic whom I admire.

I know that, through pure happenstance, I got such an education back in the early 1960′s, during what turned out to be the golden age of the liberal arts in American undergraduate education. But I don’t see many kids getting it today; or even having a chance of getting it. I hear there’s a special program for 100 chosen freshmen at Yale, but that’s about it.

The question is: how long can our Constitution survive, along with all the liberal and conservative values we hold dear that are enshrined in it, if we don’t take the time and trouble to teach the fundamentals of our history, and of the theory of our economic and political institutions, to our successors?

I know razib refers to this general problem on occassion, and I just wanted to get my two cents in.

Posted by lukelea at 03:07 PM

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An interesting follow up on David B’s recent series of posts on Sensation and qualia, which caused a lot of controversy on this site a few weeks back, is this update on Francis Crick’s work on neural basis of consciousness in the NYT. I tend to agree with everything Crick says, including his prediction that the idea of an immortal soul which survives the death of the body, will soon be perceived by most people as a curious superstition of the past. But what’s really interesting, to me at least, is that none of this negatively impacts my own “religious” approach to the interpretation of reality. Go figure.

Posted by lukelea at 08:25 AM

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An excellent overview of the possibilities of reform in Islam by Max Rodenbeck, a writer for The Economist is in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. NRB’s editor, Robert Silvers, has shown signs of being slow of foot in recent years (decades?) but with this piece it looks like he’s found something that is actually relevant the the new age we seem to be living in. Unfortunately, the article is not online yet — for that you’ll have to wait a month.

Especially interesting was what Rodenbeck (who is based is Egypt) had to say about a group of reformers whom he described as belonging to the centrist trend in Egyptian Islamism:

The appropriation of Islamic symbols by the oppositionist movements makes them very difficult for discredited state leaders to challenge. Moreover, the jacket-and-tie-wearing, “capital-friendly” figureheads of this trend have little animus against the West, so long as specific issues are excluded, namely, Palestine and the Bush administration’s perceived neo-imperialists intent . . . [L]ong before September 11, Muhammad al Ghazali, a widely revered Egyptian sheikh, was ridiculing extremists as “men in long beards . . .who would drive the country backwards by their preoccupation with issues irrelevant to life on earth.” Under the influence of such contempt, a slow tide of radicals has moved toward the Muslim mainstream, including the once-militant Gamas Islamiya group in Egypt (whose members were responsible for a rash of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s), and, more recently, many Salafist intellectuals in Saudi Arabia.

Unless this is just exaggerated wishful thinking, it sounds like some of the best news I’ve heard coming out of that part of the world in quite awhile.

Posted by lukelea at 01:02 PM

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Well, it looks like nothing is going to be wagered on the outcome, but I am now at the last hurdle in my attempt to convince a skeptical jury of my peers of the merits of my wack thesis on Adam and Eve — to wit, that not only is it a true story, allegorically speaking, but that it is also empirically connected to the events to which it refers, in time as well as space, in fact as well as metaphorically.

The first piece of evidence I would like to introduce is the nameEden itself. The garden, let us recall, was planted “eastward in Eden.” I once looked up the derivation of the word Eden in a religious encyclopedia of some scholarly repute [1], and read that the name was thought to be derived from a Sumero-Akkadian word, edinu, signifying “wilderness” or, more specifically, “wild land not under cultivation.” Let me point out that this hypothesized derivation of the name agrees well with the interpretation of the story I am trying to establish. . .

For in the land between the rivers which was Mesopotamia, there were basically two kinds of land; one kind was the land that was cultivated for agriculture, upon which independent horticultural villages (and later subjugated peasant villages) made their living. Everywhere else was land that was not under cultivation, over which hunters-gatherers roamed (and later, herder-pastoralists) subsisting off of the fat of the land. It is a well-documented archeological fact, that in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE, when the first walled cities and political states began to appear in Mesopotamia, there were still examples of hunting-and-gathering societies existing in the uncultivated countryside, in plain sight for everyone to see. [2] It would make sense, therefore, that if an observer with a gift for metaphor were on the scene at the time of the first conquest, and had wanted to convey the essence of what happened in a form that would be understood by the common folk of the time, he might have chosen the phrase “garden of Eden” to designate the world of leisure and equality that was being swept away in the maelstrom of change. In any event, the name Eden is not only consistent with, but highly suggestive of, the possible Mesopotamian origins of this story.

The second piece of evidence I want to adduce is an exceedingly curious sentence that occurs near the middle of the story, right after Eve has been created from Adam?s rib to be his helpmate and companion. It reads, “And therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave (literally “adhere”) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Does anyone notice what is odd about this? It would seem to suggest the custom of matrilocal residence, in which the husband leaves his family to go live with his wife, instead of the other way around. This is a custom that is virtually unknown in complex societies anywhere in the word, and certainly nowhere in the Middle East. It was however quite common — indeed characteristic — in early horticultural societies as they existed all over the world in the days before conquest and servitude.[3] After conquest, by a kind of compensatory development, matrilocalism gave way to its opposite, patrilocalism (along with patrilinialism and, of course, patriarchy itself) among both the lower and the upper classes, in every civilization for which we have records. The reference to matrilocalism, therefore, is to an obvious historical anachronism; it attests to its author’s familiarity with a vanishing but once widespread way of life that existed right up to the moment when history began. As such, it is an additional indication of the early historical origin of the story, in the late Neolithic period, before the patriarchal transformation of society had blotted out all memory of earlier customs.

An interesting historical side light: the earliest known word for “freedom” in any language is the Sumerian word amargi, which meant originally, “return to the mother.” [4] Could this derivation have something to do with the fact that early horticultural societies are precisely the ones that are associated with the so-called “mother goddesses” so beloved in feminist anthropology? There can be little doubt that the status of women was unusually high in just these societies, higher probably than at any other form of society before modern times. This elevated status was a reflection of the importance which the women’s work had in the horticultural economy, relative to the contribution of the males. To understand why, it helps to keep in mind that hunting and gathering, not horticulture, was the preferred means of subsistence in pre-historical times. Almost the whole world was given over to hunting and gathering, with agriculture being practiced only on the fringes of that world, to which the least successful and weakest bands had been pushed by their inability to compete with stronger and more able groups, in competition for the most desirable territories, where fruit and game were plentiful. In other words, the men in these horticultural societies were relative failures in their age-old role of defenders of the tribe and the bringers home of meat, which means their prestige and status would have suffered accordingly; by contrast the womenfolk were the saviors of the day, with the art of the hoe being their exclusive preserve. (Later, after conquest, men enter the fields for the first time, behind the plow, which also makes its appearance.) Matriarchy itself may never have existed in any society, in fact almost certainly did not, but it nevertheless remains true that the late Neolithic period was the time of maximum equality between the sexes, until modern times. This circumstance, of course, is well-reflected in the story, in Adam’s rib, companionate marriage, one flesh, and all the rest of it, and is indicative of its time of origin.

The third piece of evidence I would like us to consider concerns the serpent that appears in the story and tempts Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In my metaphorical riff on Adam and Eve which I presented in the Chattanooga public library, I said that the invention of agriculture was a result of the female discovery that “by dropping a seed in a hole in the ground, a plant would grow” and that this was symbolized in the story by the serpent, ?that lives in a hole in the ground,” and tempts the woman with the tree of knowledge. As fetching as this image might be to the untutored imagination of a child, I am conscious that a more skeptical adult reaction might be to question whether such a fanciful leap in the imagination can be justified. I mean, after all, what do we really know about serpent symbolism in the ancient Near East?

I once asked myself this very question, and went off in search of an answer. Through some sleuthing among junior faculty in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, I learned of a book written on this very topic by a young researcher at a small college in Alabama called Sanford (not to be confused with Stanford in California). When I got back to Chattanooga, I drove down to Sanford and duly got my hands on a copy of the book in the college library. It turned out to be a very straightforward and competent survey of all the archeological evidence then existing, as regards serpent-symbolism in ancient Mesopotamia.[4]

There were three distinct periods in the stratigraphic record, according to Prof. Joines, who was the author of the study. During the most recent period, which covered the 1st and 2nd millenniums BCE, the serpent was a symbol of health. It was this meaning of the figure of the serpent, for example, which lies behind the modern symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, which consists of a serpent coiled around a staff; the caduceus itself dates from 5th century Greece, but is thought to derive from Mesopotamian sources which form part of the cultural background of ancient Greek civilization. (Other examples of Mesopotamian influence in Greek culture, if I am not mistaken, would include such things as the seven day week, the hexadecimal measuring system, and the pyramidal form of the Greek pantheon of gods, but don’t hold me to this.)

The next most recent tradition in serpent symbolism in Mesopotamia, according to Prof. Joines, was predominant during much of the 3rd millennium BCE and treated the serpent as a symbol of life and immortality. This certainly makes sense as a precursor to the symbol of health and medicine: if you want to live forever, it is only a matter of time before you start seeing doctors. It also fits the widely documented interest in questions of life and immortality that were current in Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium. In the story of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero, who’s fame rests on his reputation as a great “builder of cities,” goes off in search of the secret of immortality (in this he seems to have something in common with our own Randall Parker). It also brings to mind, I must confess, references to life and immortality that occur in the story of Adam and Eve itself (eat of the fruit, and “ye shall become as gods, and live forever”) which might cause one to whether the story might betray 3rd as well as 4th millennium influences? I have no ready answer to this.

But, be that as it may, our Alabama scholar reported a yet a third layer of meaning for the serpent in the cultural debris of Mesopotamian archeology. At the very bottom of the pit, as it were, in layers that could be dated to the 4th millennium BCE, the serpent was functioning as something quite different — but also something that archeologists and anthropologists are far more familiar with, from sites all around the world. It was a straightforward fertility symbol.

What kind of fertility symbol? Well, like all fertility symbols in early horticultural societies, it had a dual reference. On the one hand, it was a symbol of you-know-what, as it relates to human fertility and the congress of the male and the female of our species for the purpose of procreation. In that capacity it can also function as a symbol of the man, which helps explain the significance of the serpent’s curses in Genesis: “on thy belly shalt thy go, and it will bruise thy head and his heel, and I will put an enmity between her seed and thy seed” In a general way, these curses are suggestive of the new spirit of alienation and inequality that now permeates society, which pits the high against the low, and which henceforth will divide the sexes, to say nothing of different and very unequal classes of men.

But, like every fertility symbol in a horticultural society, this one also has an unmistakable agricultural reference. It is a symbol of the fertility of the fields — and I would merely note that, given the relatively open and dry character of the Mesopotamian countryside, where vegetation does not thickly cover the ground, snakes do in fact live in holes along the river banks, as I once observed myself near the small town of Hit, on the banks of the Euphrates, in present-day Iraq. (I was there while bumming with a friend across the Middle East — this was 1963, when Americans were virtually untouchable in that part of the world, even when traveling alone and no matter how outrageous their behavior; needless to say, me and my friend wouldn?t last five minutes in today’s environment, particularly when I consider some of the things I did — I was so ignorant and naïve — which, looking back, cause me shame and remorse even now, but that’s another story.) Here is how Joines summarized the connection between serpents and agriculture:

Serpents live in the ground, near water, in the very locals where vegetation thrives; moreover, like much vegetation, serpents hibernate (i.e., disappear) during the winter months and reappear in the spring, often sporting bright new skins as a result of molting.

So, I submit, my interpretation of the serpent in the story as tempting Eve with the practice of agriculture, is not only fetching, but justified, based on a solid body of archeological evidence which serves to further establish both the place and the time of the narrative: namely, in Mesopotamia, in the 4th millennium BCE.

At this point, if I were a more conservative person, I might rest my case. Indeed, I probably should rest my case and quit while I am ahead. But there is one last small detail in the story, that, while slight, I would like bring to everyone?s attention, as a final, possibly corroborating bit of evidence, even as I beg my readers to understand that, in case I am not successful with this final argument, they will be generous enough to grant that I have already made my case pretty much, to at least a reasonable degree of probability. Or to put it another way: while each of the three pieces of internal evidence I have sighted above are, when considered in isolation, not fully determinative, when they are they are considered together, as an ensemble, they give some real plausibility to my claim that the original composition of the story is linked, in both time and place, to the site of the first conquests in history. The only thing missing is a direct reference to conquest itself.

So, at the risk of weakening my argument, I would like to go out on a limb and examine the very last sentence in the tale. It reads: “And so he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” What I want to dwell on is not the derivation of the word Cherumbim (which means literally “those who are grasped,” although “those who grasp, or seize [power? grain?]” would make more sense. Neither am I going to try to do anything with “the tree of life” (grain? bread? the staff of life?), though it is an arresting image. Rather, what fascinates me here is the reference to the “flaming sword” that guards the way to the tree of life.

Some dozen or so years ago, while working on a project around the house, I was thinking about this flaming sword, and it occurred to me that the metal copper, when it is raw and new, is extremely shiny and bright red, like fire, especially when glinting in the sunlight. (I happened to have been working with some at the time.) Well, since, according to my theory, the action in the story takes place in the age before bronze (which in Mesopotamia wasn’t introduced until hundreds of years later) it occurred to me that maybe the original conquerors fell upon their victims with copper weapons. I wrote to Prof. Robert McAdams, then at the Smithsonian in D.C., to ask his opinion on the matter. I guess I should explain that I had previously met with Prof. McAdams years before at the U. of Chicago, on the same trip I mentioned above, and in fact had gotten him to critique the first draft of my legal brief on Adam and Eve for errors of fact. At the time he had an office in the Oriental Institute there, and was a recognized authority on early Mesopotamia; I am sure he thought my case bizarre, but he was kind enough to read and criticize my manuscript.*

Anyway, Prof. McAdams wrote back saying there was no evidence that he knew of, for their being swords in Mesopotamia at this period, whether made of copper or anything else. The use of copper was known, and even copper battle axes had been found, but no copper swords. At this point I went back to my Hebrew le
xicon and looked up the word “sword” as it occurs in the story. I discovered that the Hebrew word is cherib, whose literal meaning is not “sword” exactly, but rather the much more general, “destroying weapon.” Battle axe, in fact, would fit the description perfectly. And so, on the basis of this finding, I would like to conclude this series of posts with a prediction. The prediction, which is straight-forward and falsifiable, is this: that when the archeologists finally start digging in Iraq again (and let us hope it is sooner rather than later) and the first Ubaid burials are uncovered at the Halaf-Ubaid cultural boundary, that Childe?s hypothesis will be confirmed. Weapons will be found in the graves: weapons made of copper, battle axes to be precise, which will not only establish Childe?s hypothesis, but also the one I am trying to establish here: that the true subject of the story of Adam and Eve is the first conquest in history.

*Prof. McAdams response to my brief, in so many words (I think I even have his marked up copy around somewhere), was that while I seemed to have most of my facts right, my argument was not convincing from his professional point of view. Why not? Because no references to Adam and Eve had ever turned up in any of the cuneiform manuscripts that had survived from the period. I mentioned, but did not press, my answer to that: Of course no references had been found. This, after all, is a putative folktale — an allegory — which, if true, would have belonged to the illiterate peasantry at the bottom of the social heap, whose interests would have been to keep it a secret from their rulers and masters. Anyway, I was grateful this distinguished man had taken the time to give me a hearing, and I still feel that way 25 years later.

[1] See the article “Eden, garden of” in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Abington Press, 1962)
[2]See Robert McAdam’s essay in Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered, edited by Elizabeth F. Henrickson and Ingolf Thuesen, The Carsten Nieburh Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen, 1989, pp. 441-446.

[3] See, e.g., Kathleen Gough’s article, “Variations in Residence” in Matrilineal Kinship edited by Schneider and Gough (University of California Press, 1962). After noting that “it would be very unlikely, if not impossible, for matrilineal descent groups to develop except out of prior matrilocal residence,” Prof. Gough goes on to generalize: “World distribution [of primitive matrilineal societies] suggests that matrilineal descent is most commonly found in predominantly cultivating societies which lack the plow, important large domesticates, or extensive irrigation works.” In other words, it is found in horticultural societies of the type we are discussing.

[4] Samuel Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago, 1963) p.79.

[5]See Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament by Karen Randolph Joines, Haddonfield House (New Jersey 1974) pp.109ff. Specifically, Joines cites data found on cylinder seals and painted sherds taken from StrataVII and VIII at Tepe Gawra, as reported be E. A. Speiser in Excavations at Tepe Gawra, Volume I, Philadelphia, 1935, to wit: Plate LXXVI:7, 12-13; Plate LXXI: 149; Plate LXXV:208: Plate LVII, 20, 21, 24-27, 30; Plate LVIII:32; Plate LVIII: 33, 38: Plate XLVI:b; Plate XXVIII:a3; Plate CLXX: 179.

Posted by lukelea at 09:45 PM

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In my previous>post on Adam and Eve, I set about trying to establish the historicity of this foundational myth of Western culture and civilization, arguing that it was “a true story, that tells the invention of agriculture, which brought slavery into the world” — and that as such it was suitable for inclusion in the world history curriculum of our nation’s elementary public schools. I didn’t get as many objections from GNXP readers on this score as I was expecting, particularly in light of my suggestion that it was suitable for elementary school children. So let me say what I think the major weakness in my argument is, so far: it is lacking in empirical support. I supplied a metaphorical interpretation of the story, which, however persuasive as a piece of rhetoric (and let’s admit, it was persuasive) does not set it apart from a thousand other fanciful readings of the text, supplied by theologians, psychologists, self-help gurus, lay preachers, and the certifiably insane. For my argument to be taken seriously, I am going to have to establish it on empirical grounds, in the form of a falsifiable proposition, which either is or is not supported by the bulk of the historical evidence that is relevant to the question.

Or to break it down further, if I am going to convince a majority of people of reasonable intelligence — including, eventually, a majority of justices in various courts of law — of the validity of this interpretation, there are three things I have got to accomplish:

First, I will have to show that there is in fact a highly improbable historical coincidence here that stands in need of explanation. This comes down, in my judgment, to supplying the evidence to support my contention that the first conquest in history actually did occur somewhere in Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE, which is where the story in Genesis is set. I’ll come back to this question in a moment.

My second task is to show there is a plausible possibility that the story of Adam and Eve, assuming it did originate in the 4th millennium BCE, could have survived intact in oral tradition for roughly three thousand years, before being reduced to writing (which, scholars believe, occurred sometime around 1000 BCE). This turns out to be the easiest of my three tasks, surprisingly, so let me dispose of it quickly.

Prof. Glyn Daniel — the same University of Cambridge archeologist whom I cited previously for his coinage of the term sinoecism, denoting “the union of two or more independent villages under a single head” — has also documented the survival of a more-than-three-thousand-year-old oral tradition in the Hindu religion, transmitting what later turned out to be accurate descriptions of the people, cities, and arts of northern India at the time of the Aryan invasion in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. The information was contained in the sacred Aryan hymns of the Brahmin caste, which, according to Prof. Daniel, were not written down until the 18th century A.D. during the time of British rule in India. For more than a hundred years after that they remained the only written clue that there had ever been a civilization in India prior to the Aryan arrival; and, indeed, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the remains of the first cities of the so-called Harrapan civilization were uncovered by archeologists, at which point the essential accuracy of the information in the hymns was confirmed.

Well, it is a simple matter to argue that if happened once, then it could happen twice. Nor is it perhaps entirely a matter of coincidence that in both cases we are dealing with sacred literature. The major difference is that whereas the Indian tradition contains miscellaneous data about the physical appearance, wealth, arts, etc., of a forgotten civilization, the Adam and Eve material takes the memorably artful form of what (I think most everyone would agree) is one of the most charming folktales in world literature. If anything, the story of Adam and Eve would seem to be better calculated to survive the ravages of time and the hazards of oral transmission. So unless Prof. Daniel can be shown to have been mistaken as to when the Vedic hymns were first written down, I rest this part of my case.

The third task I have to accomplish is more difficult; indeed, on its face, it would seem close to impossible. Somehow or other, using only evidence that is internal to the document itself, I have got to establish an empirical link between the text as we have it in Genesis, and a specific historical event which may (or may not) have occurred in Mesopotamia sometime in the early 4th millennium BCE. What makes this an especially difficult thing to do, is the fact that the only two obvious connections — the references to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the genealogies in Genesis which link Adam to later historical figures — are neither of them part of the story of Adam and Eve proper. The river references, in particular, occur in a passage which has quite obviously been interpolated into the original body of the text well after it had been reduced to writing. The abrupt change in style is only too apparent — even in translation, and to the untutored eye — to come to any other conclusion. So we might as well dispense with that evidence right off the bat.

A similar view can be taken with regard to the genealogical tables in Genesis that link Adam to Abraham, even though these genealogies are the means by which the Jewish calendar has traditionally been reckoned; to say nothing of the fact that they are also the basis on which Bishop Butler made his famous calculation of the day of Creation as occurring in the year 4004 BCE. Granted, it is not altogether beside the point that the West Semitic tribes who roamed southwest Asia in ancient times, were known for the importance they attached to their genealogies (see, e.g., George Roux). But even so, any relevance that these genealogies may have, bears a lot more on the credence we can place in the integrity and continuity of Semitic oral tradition, than on the dating of the time of composition of the story itself. For that reason I don’t intend to make any further use of them.

Well, then, at this point, if I were a betting man and knew nothing more about it, I would be inclined to say that the odds were pretty slim of my being able to persuade a majority of GNXP regulars — an intelligent and skeptical bunch, if ever there was one — that I have been able to successfully surmount this third and final challenge. On the other hand, knowing what I do (or think I do), if there is anyone out there on the web who would be willing to give me ten-to-one odds, then I just might make an exception in this particular case, and risk a few of my (wife’s) hard earned dollars on a serious wager, if only to make a point. Godless, would you hold the money?

But enough of such tactics. It is time to get back to task number one: fixing the time and the place of the first conquest in history. Has anyone ever had the temerity to actually propose the site of such a momentous, world-shattering event? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, within certain broad limits, one man has; his name was Gordon Childe, and he is generally regarded (by his colleagues at any rate) to have been the greatest interpretive archeologist in the history of that discipline. (He was the guy, for example, who originally formulated the concepts of the Neolithic and the Urban revolutions.) In middle of the last century, in a general survey of the arc
heological record as it then existed, Childe drew attention to the stratigraphic evidence at some sites in northern Mesopotamia where two cultures met: below were the broken shards and other material debris associated with the Halafian culture, known for the unusual beauty and refinement of its pottery ware. Above were the remains of a much less sophisticated culture known as the Ubaid. Childe pointed to something unusual about this particular stratigraphic boundary: whereas normally one culture gave way to another completely, indicating the total replacement of one people by another, in this case the Halafian culture did not disappear, but continued to exist along side of, and in intermixture with, a much smaller amount of Ubaidian material. Childe interpreted this, along with the introduction of certain Ubaidian features in local architecture and building styles, as evidence that a conquest had taken place, with a relatively small number of Ubaidians controlling a larger population of Halafians. Unfortunately Childe’s hypothesis has never been confirmed nor disconfirmed, owing to a dearth of new archeological digs in Iraq, caused by the unfavorable political situation. In particular, no one has yet discovered any Ubaid burials at those sites, which, if they could be shown to contain weapons or other royal insignia, would be strong evidence in favor of Childe’s claim.

But no matter. Even if we cannot establish Childe’s hypothesis at present, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence which indicate that the first conquests in history occurred somewhere in the general vicinity — ie, in northern Mesopotamia, sometime in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE — though it might have been a little later in the Ubaid period, or even later in the early Uruk. We see it not only in the multiple appearance of walled cities around this time, but also in the abundant imagery of warfare and captivity — including large-scale scenes of corporal punishment being administered to civilians — found on the cylinder seals that start showing up in the archeological record in northern Mesopotamia. (Some good pictures can be found here.)

To avoid confusion, readers need to keep in mind that while Sumer, or southern Mesopotamia, is famous as the locus of the first fully developed civilization in history, there is reason to believe that the first conquests in history actually occurred slightly to the north of Sumer, in which case the development of Sumer itself can be understood as one of those defensive reactions I described in my previous post, occasioned by threats of conquest which were perceived to be coming from Sumer’s neighbors to the north. This would help explain, for example, why in the earliest Sumerian written records there are references to town councils and other relatively egalitarian social institutions; in time, however, the requirements of defense, including the maintenance of full-time professional armies, caused the collective security states in the south to become virtually indistinguishable from the more aggressive military states, to the north, and in the case of the peasantry, completely indistinguishable.

Two minor notes: because Mesopotamian developments were a couple of hundred years ahead of similar developments in Egypt, and given the extensive cultural contacts that are known to have existed between these two regions from the earliest periods on, it is generally assumed that the direction of causation ran from east to west and not the other way; in other words, the Egyptians may have gotten the idea of conquest from the Mesopotamians. It is likewise possible that the civilization which arose slightly later than Sumer and Egypt in the Indus Valley was in response to observations of what happened in Sumer and beyond, which could have been communicated via trade contacts that ran up through the Persian Gulf. This might explain the relative egalitarian features of the so-called Harrapan civilization, for example (if, indeed, those features prove to be genuine). Harrapan civilization, in other words, might be understood as an example of a voluntary defensive formation that did not succumb to internal corruption at the hands of its military elites, because it was not subject to relentless military pressure from overland assault, the way Sumer was. But eventually, of course, this peaceful civilization (if such it was) fell like all the rest, at the hands of Aryan invaders from the north.

I have now reached the point where I cannot put off much longer my third and final task. Readers may choose not to believe me, therefore, when I say I have no wish to keep any of you in suspense. But in fairness, I think I ought to wait at least a few days to see if anybody out there on the web is going to take me up on my wager. Like everybody else who contributes to this blog, I’ve never earned a penny for my thoughts; it would be nice for a change — at least my wife would think so — if I could show a little something for all those countless years she’s had to put up with me reading my books and staring off into space. On the other hand, if I should lose this bet . . . well, let’s just hope she doesn’t ask for a divorce; because, truth to tell, I can’t live without her, and she knows it full well.

(to be continued, with one final installment)

Posted by lukelea at 09:57 PM

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In my previous post on this subject, I asserted the non-applicability of higher mathematics to economic analysis, arguing that true functions (in the mathematical sense) are missing from all economic relationships. Abiola asked for a demonstration or proof.

Very well. What follows is a slight re-working of a comment I posted to Brad Delong’s web site a few weeks back, which ought to satisfy any reasonable person who has doubts on this question:

The root of the problem lies in the belief, held by academic economists, that deep down and in some mysterious way — maybe only statistically — the laws of supply and demand are like the laws of physics — as, for example, the laws governing the attraction and repulsion of electrons and protons. But consider:

In physics, the law which describes the inverse relation between distance and force between charges (or masses) is not just a rough approximation, qualitative description, or statistical generalization. Rather, it is an extremely precise description, to roughly 20 decimal places of significance, in which measurement error plays a very small part.

What’s more, each electron is considered to be not just similar to every other electron (to continue the example) but rather exactly like every other electron, to the point of electrons having no individual identity when two or more are together at the same time and place.

In addition, in the world of physics the charge on an electron (keeping to the same example) is assumed not to vary with time and place, but to remain exactly the same everywhere and always throughout the entire observable universe and for all time, to the very last decimal place that we are able to measure.

Given these assumptions (which have frequently been tested) physicists have a reasonable basis to believe they are

dealing with actual functions (in the mathematical sense) when they write a formula such as F=G(mm’/rr) for gravitation, or F=qq’r/4(pi)errr for electrostatics and therefore feel justified to hazard the use of sophisticated mathematical analysis for purposes of prediction — yet always humbly leaving open the possibility that they could be wrong regarding any and all of their assumptions, including constancy of charge, precision of the inverse law, etc.

And yet, even then, physicists will be the first to admit that even the most powerful mathematical machinery they are able to bring to bear on a problem can deal successfully with only the very simplest situations, beyond which their equations are useless. Thus, for example, their equations can be solved for the two body problem but not the three body problem in Newtonian mechanics; they can solve the Schrödinger equation when there is only one proton and one electron interacting, but not when there are even two protons and two electrons, let alone anything more complicated than that.

Furthermore, on those occassions when physicists do make complex predictions — such as that nuclear fission would occur en mass, before the first atom bomb was tested (to choose an historical example) — they do so with caution, double checking all their calculations, and hoping that they haven’t overlooked something, or might accidentally set the atmosphere on fire. (See Richard Rhodes excellent The Making of the Atomic Bomb for more on this subject). *

Contrast this with the situation in economics. Here the elementary particle, so to speak, is the individual human being, no two of which are alike. What’s more, the forces of attraction and repulsion that each individual feels for the goods of this world cannot be measured with any precision at all, much less to an accuracy of 20 decimal places. Furthermore, these forces of attraction and repulsion do not remain constant, even approximately so, over time and place for the same individual, let alone for different individuals, who vary enormously in their likes and dislikes.

Does any of this deter economists from using the machinery of calculus and systems of linear equations and so forth, to try to model the most complex dynamic systems imaginable, involving multiple individuals and multiplicity of goods? Noooooooooooo. They rush right in; and this, my friends, is precisely what physics envy is all about.

One final note on the idea of utility. Utility is a useful heuristic concept, in my judgment, with a well-understood intuitive content: it refers to how much satisfaction or displeasure one feels as a result of acquiring or losing some good. (For the theoretical usefulness of the concept, see what William Stanley Jevons did with it in his revolutionary breakthrough to marginal analysis in the middle of the 19th century.) Now, admittedly, utility cannot be measured — but even so, it has a hell of a lot more reality in the real world of economics than an indifference curve, which exists only in the minds of mathematical Platonists like Paul Samuelson and company — who, I predict, will be remembered in the annals of economics about as long as the acolytes of Talcot Parsons were remembered in the annals of sociology, after that distinguished gentleman departed from the scene.

Bottom line: the field of economics is in a high state of academic decadence for now, the likes of which only a Jonathan Swift could love.

*The combination of caution and open-mindedness in the physics community is illustrated by a funny anecdote I heard during the cold-fusion fiasco a few years back, when scientists were first trying to reproduce the results. As a rule, chemists tended to be more credulous, and physicists more skeptical, of the claims of Fleischman and Pons. (btw, I have a newspaper photo of those two posing with Marylin Lloyd, our local congresswoman, who was sitting on the House Energy Committee at the time; Marilyn had long ringlets of hair falling all over her forehead, and I told her (she was a gardening client of ours) that for all the world the three of them together looked like the Marx brothers; she didn?t think it was funny.) Anyway, the joke at the time was that you could always tell the chemists from the physicists: the chemists were the guys sitting around tables with glass beakers on top, and confidence written all over their faces; while the physicists were the one’s with more dubious expressions, crouching behind lead shields.

Posted by lukelea at 08:53 AM

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Maybe I’m wrong in my previous post as to who were the best economists. But I’m pretty sure I know who is the worst economist of the 20th century, in terms of what he did to the profession.

That would have to be Paul Samuelson himself, winner of the first Ignoble Prize in economics. Samuelson’s story is a sad one, though it would be funny if so much weren’t at stake. He was a child prodigy who entered U. of Chicago when he was 16 (like Robert Silvers and George Steiner), convinced (maybe by his mother?) that he was the smartest kid in the world. (This particular hang-up seems to be a Jewish phenomenon, don’t ask me why; Murray Gell Mann is the only other person I ever heard of who had this problem.)

Anyway, when Samuelson gets to Chicago he wants to major in math and physics, but soon discovers that there are some other kids there who are a lot smarter than he is. If you have a tender ego, this can be a truly traumatic

experience, as maybe a few visitors to this site can attest. So Samuelson does the chicken-shit thing and changes his major to economics. Why economics? Because any fool can see that it has the mathematical form of physics (what with declining marginal utilities of income, productivitiy, etc) if not the actual substance.

Well, Samuelson may not have been the smartest kid in the world, but he was definitely the smartest mathematician in the department of economics, first at Chicago, later at Harvard. He was brash, aggressive, and determined to make fools out of everybody he met, which he pretty much succeeded in doing. Then, when Harvard refused to hire him to teach (even though Schumpeter himself said he was smarter than anybody else in the department) Samuelson goes to MIT, where he proceeds to establish mathematical economics as the reigning paradigm of late 20th century academic economics.

The problem with this, is that the kind of guys who are attracted to the field from this point are mostly drop-outs from math and physics, just like Samuelson himself, except they’re not quite as good as Samuelson. Most of them don’t even have a real interest in economics, but like to play around with mathematical equations, while the few who really do care about the subject spend so much of their time trying to master the mathematical manipulations that are required, that they have no time (or authority) to question whether what they are doing is at all appropriate to the material they are trying to analyze — which, of course, it is not.

Thus we have a guy who, on account of his personal insecurities, managed to ruin an entire academic discipline, which just happens to affect the welfare of millions. You tell me, is this a tragedy or a comedy?

Posted by lukelea at 06:44 AM

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Most people would say that physics is a lot harder subject than economics, just as chess is a more difficult game than checkers. Higher I.Q. types tend to prefer the former.

Yet I read somewhere (I have no idea if it’s true) that there are only two or three world-class checkers players in the world, versus a much larger number of world-class chess players.

The same thing seems to be true of economics. In the last century there were

maybe only a couple of economists whose reputations are likely to survive very far into the 21st century (Keynes’s and Friedman’s) while the number of world-class physicists is closer to twenty: Einstein, Plank, Bohr, Heisenberg, Shroedinger, Dirac, Pauli, etc?

Many educated people are comfortable having an opinion about economics (or making the first move in checkers) but comparatively few feel the same way about physics (or chess).

Isn’t this a paradox, especially when you consider that the happiness of millions, even billions, of human beings depends on our getting it right as concerns certain fundamental economic questions — on which there is often little agreement (or when there is agreement, it can turn out to be wrong)? I mean, it’s not like there isn’t plenty of incentive to master the game.

Are we to conclude, therefore, that economics is in reality a lot harder than physics? And if so, is economics really a science in the same sense as physics? A moral science, perhaps (using moral to refer to questions of how to maximize material human welfare)? Or a moral art?

From Adam Smith’s day on, the conclusions of economics have always rested on the careful use of logic and reason, so maybe it’s a kind of moral mathematics? If so, it doesn’t appear to be one the human mind is as well adapted to handling as the mathematics of physics.

I don’t claim to have answers to these questions, but I think they are fascinating.

Posted by lukelea at 04:38 PM

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As some of you may have noticed, I really stepped in it in the comments section over at The Panda’s Thumb during their first week in operation. It was an innocent mistake on my part, I assure you, though everything worked out ok for me in the end, because it forced them to take a hard look at a couple of posts I made to their site.

Anyway, to recapitulate a little: I was explaining how, when I first became interested in molecular biology a few years back, that one of the questions that got me started was calculating the odds that chance and time alone could explain the complexity of the human genome. Based on reports coming in, there were a couple of billions of base pairs in the human genome. Given there were four letters in the genetic alphabet, I reasoned there were 4 raised to the power of 2 billion possibilities to choose among ? which is a truly mind-boggling, trans-astronomical number.

I then re-traced for them the thought process by which I got that number down:

First, there is all of the junk, of course: and then second, the “step-wise” process of selection, by which first one mutation takes place and is fixed, before the next one begins.

This is stuff you find in every biology text that deals with the question, and went a long way, though not all the way, towards answering my question.

Next I found an amateur site on the web somewhere, in which a guy actually calculates the number of mutations that could have been fixed in evolutionary time, based on some reasonable assumptions about average population size and average number of generations, which he got from Fisher I think. The number he arrives at is 135, which, he points out, is roughly the number of mutations fixed on a typical protein.

That got the problem much closer to solution, but still not all the way. It was only when I realized — operating completely on my own at this point, because I couldn?t find anything in the literature — that in a large, interbreeding population every protein in a species is undergoing simultaneous and, as it were, parallel evolution, that the problem was solved to my own satisfaction. The number 135 was indeed the magic number.

Anyway, since then I?ve been thinking about something related: sex is necessary for the process to work,. Or, more specifically, sex plus sexual cross-over between homologous regions in each chromosome pair, is required before there can be massively parallel evolution in the genome. Surely this is not an original insight with me, and yet I still see articles published in Nature and elsewhere from time to time speculating on the evolutionary function of sex.

Does anybody know anything about this in the literature, or am I (much more probably) guilty of some fundamental misunderstanding here?

Posted by lukelea at 07:21 AM

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Limbicnutrition recently had an interesting post on the derivation of the English word “Allegory”:

Allegory. From Greek allos meaning “other” and agora meaning gathering place (especially the marketplace). In times past, it was common to do one’s chatting at the marketplace. Some of the topics discussed were clandestine in nature and when people spoke about them, for fear of being punished, they would speak indirectly. That is to say, they would speak about one thing in such a way as to intimate the actual information to the listener. Thus, the persons discussing clandestine matters were said to be speaking of “other things” in the marketplace. Eventually the words joined and became associated with the act of speaking about one thing while meaning another.

Based on this definition, I would like to propose an allegorical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, using as background my series of posts (here, here, and here) on the emergence of dominance hierarchies at the dawn of civilization.

As a point of reference, recall the pithy results of our first thought experiment in Part II: Conquest, I submit, though seldom mentioned, was a cultural innovation every bit as important as the domestication of plants and animals; it was the original sin that dare not speak its name.

What follows is an admittedly outlandish attempt on my part to get a hearing for a proposition that will strike many of you as a little, well, strange. So let me soften you up with a couple of observations:

1. Wouldn’t it be curious if the setting of the Adam and Eve story, somewhere in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the early 4th millennium BCE, could be shown to coincide in both time and place (based on a lot of circumstantial and archeological evidence) with the first conquest in history?

2. If you can accept the argument I made in (Part III ) that the first conquest in history was also the single most important event in history: an event which almost certainly occurred in the full light of day, and which devastated the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people who were around at the time, and the lives of their children, and of their children’s children after them — well, if you can accept this much, then is it out of the question that these people might have tried to tell the story of what had happened to them, and to keep it alive (despite their masters’ interest in blotting it from memory), if only to explain to their descendants why they were living like dogs?

In any case, this is exactly what I am going to argue the Adam and Eve story is all about, and what its historical provenance is too, for that matter. Now, I know, that’s a tall order, and I’m not sure the best way to proceed. But I am sure the most entertaining way is to tell a funny story that will show just how crazy I used to be (my wife says still am) when I was around razib’s age, thirty years ago.

At the time I was an “itinerant carpenter” in the words of a local newspaper reporter (“short-haired hippy” would have been a more accurate description) who had returned to my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee after an absence of twenty years. I was coming back to help build a retirement home for my parents, who were also coming back, in their case from Washington, D.C., where my Yankee father had wound up in his long and semi-lustrous career in the American labor movement. I was also secretly hoping to patch up my relationship with my father, which had been strained to the breaking point during the period of my adolescence (and it was a long one) by the clashing egos of two strong-willed personalities. I mean, if you were an FDR-style social democrat, how would you like it if your son came home spouting Nietzsche?

Anyway, no sooner was the house done and my parents moved in, than I started to think that maybe the old hometown wasn’t such a bad place to live after all. No doubt this was related to the fact that I’d moved something like 25 times between 15 different cities since I graduated from college, and was frankly getting near the end of my rope. It also may have had something to do with those “social networks” razib likes to talk about, which make it easier to succeed in a big impersonal country like the United States. Case in point: my father, who was on the board, informed me that the local ACLU wanted to bring a case to get the teaching of the Bible out of the public schools. It concerned a Bible studies program I’d gone through myself in my grammar school days, sponsored by the local churches, and taught by what were, for all intents and purposes, pious Sunday school teachers — in other words, a blatantly unconstitutional teaching of religion, but also deeply entrenched, owing to the fact that we lived in the Bible belt. (Btw, I must admit I liked a lot of the Bible stories we read back then — stuff like Samson slaying his enemies with the jawbone of an ass — and I doubt I ever would have been exposed to them otherwise, given that both my parents were militantly secular in their outlooks).

Now the fact is I was never an ACLU type of guy — they were way too liberal-mushy for my taste — despite my being aware, in the back of my mind, that I might someday be in need of their services, if only to protect me and my right to utter some of the more outrageous ideas that were floating in my brain. One of these ideas, it so happened, was my whacked-out theory of Adam and Eve, which I’d just recently worked out to my own satisfaction.

Well, I saw the possibilities in the situation almost immediately. So I said to my father, “That’s interesting; why don’t you introduce me to the other members of the board and the lawyer you’ve found to prosecute the case? He was agreeable, and I duly met Daddy’s new group of friends down at the local Unitarian church — the only church, he liked to say, where you didn’t have to park your brains in the parking lot before you came inside (later, when new-age paganism started coming into fashion amongst Unitarian-Universalists, his conscience couldn’t accommodate the change and he resigned from the congregation; I always admired his integrity).

Anyway, I am introduced to the lawyer, and it quickly becomes apparent to me that the guy can barely string two sentences together in a logical way (pretty typical for these parts, btw, so to that extent those send-ups on Saturday Night Live — or coming out of the mouth of my New York wife, for that matter, who’s especially good with the accents — are not far off the mark). This guy needs help, I think, if I am going to get my chance to come riding to the rescue of the Bible in the schools, by making the only argument that both honors the truth-value of scripture and can pass constitutional muster: namely, the argument for teaching the Bible as history. So I volunteer my services (which he quickly accepts) to research and write the first draft of the brief for the plaintiffs; neglecting to mention that I am also writing a brief amicus curae on behalf of the defendants (unbeknownst to them), which include not only the board of education, but the local evangelical organization that is financing the Bible studies program, on whose conniving and dissembling board sit current and former mayors and city councilmen, along with the head of the largest family-owned insurance company in town.

Well, all was going smoothly with my writing of the briefs for both the plaintiffs and the defendants, until I realized that unless I wanted my case for the defendants to be laughed out of court (it argued for inclusion of the story of Adam and Eve in the world history curriculum of every elementary school in the cit
y) I’d better do something to show that my novel interpretation of Genesis — on its face bizarre, maybe even absurd — was in fact not absurd at all, but enjoyed wide popular support throughout the community. Actually, I had no idea whether it enjoyed wide popular support, or any support at all. But I decided to find out.

So I drew up a petition, and worked up a little spiel in words that were so simple they could be understood by even the simplest and least educated adults in town. Next, I set up a card-table outside the entrance to our local public library, over which was draped an enormous and beautiful serpent’s skin (a python’s, I think, originally from India) which I’d purchased in NY, and start soliciting signatures. I am there not thirty minutes before the head librarian comes out and informs me I will have to move my table, because what I am doing isn’t allowed on public property. I say, “Really, Mrs. Arnold? In that case I’ll come inside with my table, where it?s more comfortable,” which I proceeded to do. Naturally, it’s not ten minutes more until the cops arrive, along with some reporters and cameramen from the local news media (this is a sleepy town where nothing exciting ever happens, unless you count homicide) and the next day I have a great spread in the morning paper by a writer who actually manages to get the story right: who accurately summarizes my spiel, and what I am trying to accomplish. What’s more, upon reflection, the city attorney admits I probably do have a legal right to petition in the library (at least until proper legislation can be drawn up and rushed through the town council, which of course they have no idea how to draft) and so I remain in the library for the next six weeks, gathering hundreds of signatures from all manner of persons — black and white, educated and uneducated, believers and unbelievers.

What follows is the wording of my petition, along with the short spiel I insisted on giving in full to every person before I would let them sign it. For what it’s worth, most people did give me their signatures, very few were offended by what I had to say (only two or three men in business suits), and no one threatened me with physical assault, as I was afraid might happen. Even more surprising to me, on more than one occasion I was informed by my respondent — make of it what you will — that they already knew this interpretation, and thought it was right; and they claimed they hadn’t read it in the paper.

Anyway, the petition read:

We the undersigned [citizens of Chattanooga] hereby petition [the board of education and the Federal District Court], to allow the teaching of the story of Adam and Eve in our public elementary schools; on the grounds that it is a true story; that it tells the invention of agriculture, which brought slavery into the world; and that our children should learn it so they can understand the past, where we came from, and how we got here.

And my spiel went something like this:

Before agriculture people lived in hunting-and gathering societies, in which the men hunted animals, and the women gathered fruits, nuts, seeds and berries. Man was the hunter, and that’s why Adam names all the animals in the story. Together with Eve, he lived in a garden that, we are told, already had in it everything that was pleasant to the eye and good for food; the only thing they had to do was to dress it and keep it. Now, it’s a well-known fact that women invented agriculture, which they did when they discovered that by dropping a seed in a hole in the ground, a plant would grow. This is symbolized in the story by the serpent, which lives in a hole in the ground, and tempts Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Agriculture was good, of course, because it was good for food (Eve ate, and found that it was good for food); but it was also evil, because it tied people down to a place, and made it possible for one group to capture another and make them work for them. (Before agriculture, there was no way one man could capture another and make him work for him, because you could always run away and live off the land; but after agriculture, you had to stick around and tend to your crops or else you would starve.) At the end of the story Adam and Eve receive three curses as punishment for what they have done. First, Eve is condemned to suffer pain in childbirth. Well, everybody knows what causes pain in childbirth: it’s our big human heads. So the meaning here is plain enough: If you hadn’t been so smart, then you wouldn’t have invented agriculture and fallen into servitude. Eve’s second curse is that from now on she must obey her husband’s command. This refers to the new relationship of domination and submission that has entered into all human relationships, not only between men and women, but between masters and slaves. Before agriculture — or rather, before conquest — the sexes were more or less equal in society, symbolized by the fact that Eve is created from a rib taken from Adam?s side (as opposed, say, to a bone taken from his heel or his foot). Whereas before she was his helpmate and companion, now she has become is his servant. Before, they were naked and “were not ashamed,” but now there is work to be done, and no time for sex — a change symbolized by the fact that they must put on their clothes. And finally, there is Adam?s curse itself: henceforth he must “earn bread in the sweat of his brow” — a clear reference to the hard life of servitude in the fields, and to the growing of grain, which has become the new lot of the human race. At the very end of the story, Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden — signifying the way our ancestors were forced to exchange a life of ease and plenty, which was their original inheritance, for a living death of endless toil.

Well, let me tell you, this spiel worked like a charm. As I said, most of the people who heard it — I’d estimate above 90% — signed the petition. However, I don’t expect the majority of readers on this blog site will be so easily satisfied. Tell me, GNXPers, have I made my case or not? Is the Adam and Eve story plausibly the oldest verbal artifact in existence? Or is this a less than convincing way for me to proceed, my taking a poetic, metaphorical approach to its interpretation, treating it like the riddle of the Sphinx? What additional sorts of evidence would I need to adduce in order to establish my claim for the historicity of the text, on empirical grounds alone, to at least a reasonable degree of probability? Don’t spare my feelings (I know you won’t Abiola) but let me hear your toughest criticisms, and see if I can answer them. At the very least, give me a chance to prove that I’m not completely insane on this topic, lest the guys in white coats show up and try to drag me away.

(to be continued)

Posted by lukelea at 02:25 AM

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This one’s for you, Razib.

To recap so far: I am trying to bring up to date the question Rousseau once referred to as the origins of inequality — or, in modern terminology, the establishment of dominance hierarchies at the dawn of history.

In parts I and II, we saw that whereas in hunting-and-gathering societies “reverse dominance hierarchies” were possible to sustain, the situation alters dramatically with the introduction of agriculture, which ties men down to a place, and makes it possible for one group to capture another and make them work for them.

But a single act of conquest, I suggested, would not be enough to destabilize the entire neolithic social order. As evidence I pointed to the existence of geographically isolated walled cities like Catal Huruk (I could also have mentioned Jericho) which predate the rise of civilization by thousands of years.

But then I invited everyone to imagine what would happen if a conquest occurred on an otherwise featureless plain, which was dotted with horticultural villages in reasonably close proximity to one another. (This, btw, is roughly the situation that existed in northern Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE.) So let’s look at the dynamics of that situation.

The first thing to note is that when a conquest occurs within calling distance of other, similarly-situated agricultural villages, the event does not pass unnoticed.

The second thing is that the village which happens to have been conquered first will soon find itself (after a few harvest cycles) in a position to maintain a larger military force in the field than its neighbors. . .

This follows from the fact that the farmers in the first village have been subjugated, and are now being compelled to work much harder and longer than they would voluntarily choose to do (quite possibly to the limits of their endurance) in order to feed not only themselves, but also the new class of conquerors who stand over them. It follows that the latter group will be able to devote all their time and energy to the arts of domination (keeping their new peasant charges physically exhausted and submissive, above all) and warfare — including further acts of conquest.

From this point, the process spirals ineluctably out of any man’s control. It will be only a matter of time before a second neighboring village is subjugated and added to the first, and then a third (under a process that the Cambridge archeologist Glyn Daniel termed synoceism, from a Greek word signifying the union of several villages under a single head). Meanwhile, news spreads; villagers further afield begin looking suspiciously at their neighbors. Because they are possessed with imagination, the evil thought inevitably insinuates itself into their brains: “If we don’t do it to them, and do it quickly!” or, at the very least, band together with our neighbors in a defensive alliance — then it is only a question of time before they, or someone like them, will do it to us.?
Next thing you know, what was once a featureless plain dotted with Neolithic villages, gives way to a featureless plain dotted with walled city-states, each master of a collection of villages in the surrounding countryside, whose members are compelled to pay taxes and tribute to the central authorities, or else be roundly beaten with clubs if they dare show even the slightest signs of disobedience or insubordination. Thus, through a combination of offensive actions and defensive re-actions, the institutions of domination and submission are gradually propagated outward in ever widening circles, whose compass is limited only by the slowly advancing technologies of command and control (writing, record-keeping, road networks, etc.) City-states give way to local empires, which give way to larger regional empires, which give way in turn to even larger empires that eventually cover considerable portions of the surface of the earth (Sargon, Gilgamesh, Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar. . ..) The progress of civilization is well under way.

Posted by lukelea at 12:16 PM

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Over at Global Guerrillas, John Robb notes: “Many people assume, wrongly, that [Islamicist] terrorists are poor and uneducated.” After a brief discussion, he then concludes by agreeing with another blogger, “that the driving force in recruitment is religious intensity.”

Which caused me to make the following proposal:

“If religious intensity is the driving factor, maybe that’s where we should concentrate our attack. For the fact is, Mohammadism is extremely vulnerable to frontal critical assault. The guy modeled himself on Moses the warlord — and then went on to ok lying and deception, make looting a way of life, and condone the murder of those who dared to make fun of him. Plus he bent the rules whenever it suited his convenience (as when he allowed himself to marry a nine year old girl). Islam has never brooked open criticism — the very thing that the West, using the IT revolution, is able to deliver in spades. So let’s put away all our scruples about “criticizing another man’s religion,” and give em hell Harry Truman style.

In open and unfettered debate, let’s see who can win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. For our text, choose any standard biography of the prophet. Fire up the loudspeakers!

Naturally, this post elicited the expected response from a reader:

“It is hard for me to believe that anything you or I say criticizing the prophet would be taken seriously by committed Muslims. It would just be more evidence of how profound our sinful disbelief is.”

To which I replied:

“Hard to say until you try it. They’ve never heard criticism of the prophet. More to the point, they’ve never disassociated the idea of God (which obviously is dear to millions of believers) and the name of Mohammad. Maybe the new slogan should be: there is no God but God, and Mohammad WAS his messenger — until he left Mecca and went to Medina. There he became a violent and intolerant human being. Contrast his career with Abraham’s, the guy who really invented (or if you prefer, discovered) God. If you have a heart, you gotta prefer the latter.”

To which I appended a final note:

“Before he left Mecca, Mohammad proclaimed two important principles (later abrogated): first, there can be no compulsion in matters of religion; and second, there is no error where all are agreed. Since Abraham is the only prophet about whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims are in agreement, his story is a possible basis for mutual understanding. But for that to occur, it will be necessary to abrogate the abrogaters.”

Now I gotta say I surprised even myself when these aggressive words came pouring out of my mouth (or off of my keyboard). Maybe I’ve been jousting with Abiola too much? Anyway, what do GNXPers think about my outrageous suggestion? Can we possibly make the Moslem world any madder at us than it already is? If there’s no downside left, why shouldn’t we risk the upside?

Posted by lukelea at 07:10 AM

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In the comments section of my previous post on the (re)appearance of dominance heirarchies in civilized societies, I posed the following thought experiment:

If two hunting-and-gathering societies impinge upon one another’s territories and begin to fight over resources, what is the worst that one group can do to the other?

Compare that situation to one in which at least one of the two groups in conflict is a settled agriculturalist (the other being either agriculturalist, hunter/gatherer, or pastoralist). What are the possibilities now? What new outcome has become possible?

Since I obviously got a head start on this one, let me map out what I think the answers are. In the first case, the worst that one group of hunter/gatherers could do to another is to kill them or drive them away. . . .

What Happened? (cont.)

As a rule, one would suppose that the group that evidenced superiority on the field of battle (or in whatever form the contest in arms took place) would take possession of the territory under dispute, forcing the surviving members of the weaker group to go over the hill in search of greener pastures, where, quite possibly, it would find itself in conflict with yet another group already in possession of said pastures, and the whole cycle would start all over again. If we postulate constant demographic pressure — ie, a tendency for human groups to multiply in numbers beyond what any limited territory can support — such a mechanism would be sufficient to drive human migration over the surface of the earth.

But there comes a time when there are no more good hunting and gathering territories to be occupied. Then it becomes necessary to develop more intensive methods of wringing a living out of marginal areas in the countryside, if the weakest groups are going to survive at all. (I mean intensive in the sense of being able to support more people per unit area.) Agriculture and the domestication animals are the two ways that emerged.

O.k, now suppose we have a small horticultural village whose territory is invaded by a neighboring tribe, of whatever type, acting under demographic necessity. If the invading tribe is the stronger, then the two possibilities I described above are still there: the agriculturalists can be killed or driven away. But if there happens to be a genius among the invaders, a third possibility suggests itself: the agriculturalists can be captured and put to work double-time, as it were, feeding not only themselves but the invaders as well.

Two things about agriculture make this possible. One is that, if it is grain that is being cultivated, the annual food supply comes in a lump sum at the end of the harvest. This food supply is something that can be seized and doled out by an organized force. (Note, btw, the derivation of the English word “lord” from the medieval English word “hlafward” meaning “loaf keeper”)

The other thing about agriculture, including tree agriculture (dates, orchards, etc) is that it ties the agriculturalists down to a place, so they cannot run away. If they are going to survive they have to stick around to tend to their crops. If they light out for the territory, they are going to come into conflict with hunter/gatherers already in possession of the countryside, who are (by assumption) stronger than they are. What’s more, if they have been practicing horticulture for several generations or more, it?s unlikely that they even remember how to live off the fat of the land.

So, in a word, the new possibility that has appeared is conquest. Conquest, I submit, though seldom mentioned, is every bit as much of an innovation in human culture as was the domestication of plants and animals; it was the original sin that dare not speak its name.

But even so, we still haven?t explained what happened right before the rise of civilization. An isolated example of conquest — and there are some, at Catal Huyuk (sp?), for example — need have no consequences beyond its own immediate neighborhood.

So the real question becomes: what are the dynamics when a conquest occurs on an otherwise featureless plain that is dotted with horticultural villages? That’s the second thought experiment I would like us to engage.

Posted by lukelea at 07:52 AM

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Dominance hierarchies — based on the relationship of domination and submission — are characteristic of all non-human hominid societies (an extreme example being the tiny-testicled, alpha-male gorilla lording it over his band of mates) and are found in many other species of animal — as in the proverbial pecking order among chickens, dogs, horses, etc.

Likewise, dominance hierarchies are a defining characteristic — in fact, an overwhelming feature — of every known civilization before modern times.

It is a curious fact, therefore, that dominance hierarchies are rare in the ethnographic literature describing hunting-and-gathering societies — and thus, presumably, also rare in hunting-and-gathering societies as they existed during much of our common evolutionary past.

To account for this fact, an anthropologist at UCLA named Christopher Boehm proposed a couple of years ago the idea of a reverse dominance heirarchy.

The gist of his idea is that a love of dominance was so bred into the human species (males above all) during their long, shared hominid past, that they developed an innate distaste of being dominated by others. Thus armed with a motive, and using the cooperative skills which language and their big brains conferred upon them, all the lesser males in a group who were in danger of being dominated by an alpha male, would band together (form a reverse dominance hierarchy) to put the would-be tyrant in his place. In this way, dominance behavior, while not eliminated entirely, could be moderated and dispersed. (To learn more, Google reverse dominance hierarchy or read Boehm’s book Heirarchy in the Forest

Boehm’s idea is interesting as a concept in evolutionary psychology, quite obviously, to say nothing of the contribution it might make, if it holds up, to the theory of democracy. But the question that I want to ask is different:

Given the presumed rarity of dominance hierarchies during the Paleolithic, and their well-documented universality in all civilized societies that emerged from the Neolithic (when agriculture was developed) what was the actual mechanism that led to the demise of “reverse dominance hierarchies” at the dawn of history: not only in Sumeria and Egypt, but in India, China, Mexico and Peru? (These should probably be treated as independent phenomena, I think, certainly in the case of Mexico and Peru.) Can anyone come up with a reasonably precise and coherent explanation that makes intuitive sense, something we can really understand?

Or do we settle for the grey mush in all the textbooks: that agriculture made it possible to grow a surplus of food, populations built up, societies became more complex, and people gradually lost control?

Posted by lukelea at 05:15 PM

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I don’t know who this guy is, but he mounts an interesting challenge to the libertarian point of view, with some pertinant historical observations. If American living standards continue to erode, it’s the sort of thinking that’s bound to gain traction in the period ahead.

Only, thanks to the IT revolution, there are better tools than high tariffs & the progressive income tax to deal with the situation.

Posted by lukelea at 06:22 PM

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This should probably be a comment, but since I can’t figure out how to make comments, I’ll make it an entry.

As a native born wasp living in the South, I have a few observations about the acceptance of south Asians, of which we have a few . . .

First off, though I move and work among working-class whites, I’ve witnessed absolutely no signs of negative feelings towards South Asians, unless you count parodies of the sing-song English some of them use, which is done in good fun. Racist and anti-Semitic remarks, btw, are almost unheard of nowadays, which was certainly not the case 50 years ago.

As for myself personally, I’ve really only become aware of the South Indian presence in America during the last 10 to 15 years.

One thing that did it for me was the medical team I had for head-and-neck surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering seven years ago. I joked to my friends that there were three guys around the operating table — a Jew, a Muslim, and a Hindu — though it was definitely the Hindu who was in charge, a guy named Jatin Shah, whom I was fortunate to find, and grateful for finding. So that has definitely colored my views.

Then, in the last few years — I think I mentioned this to razib — I’ve become increasingly aware of the verbal contributions the South Indians are beginning to make to our English speaking culture. (This is in marked contrast to East Asians, btw, if someone would like to explain.) For example, Fareed Zachariah’s book on liberalism and democracy was easily the best piece of political writing to come along in years — so good, in fact, that it seems to have made Robert Kagan (of Paradise and Power) green with envy, to judge by the ridiculously ill-tempered review he penned for The New Republic.

Another eye opener was the film “Monsoon Wedding” by the woman who’s name I should know because she is obviously one of the three of four best auteurs in the world right now, and maybe the best woman ever. The thing that impressed me most about that film was how amazingly “like us” the upper-middle class family in Bombay (or was it Delhi?) was. Of course the cultural differences are easy to see, but emotionally, economically, sexually, and technically we’re living in the same civilization.

By contrast, when I bummed through that part of the world in 1963, it was the most exotic place I had ever seen — I thought I was on another planet. (Of course, now we’ve got nose rings, piercings, and body tatoos too, so the influences move both ways.)

I close with a cautionary note. As some of you may or may not know, I’m worried about what free-trade with China and India is going to do — is already doing — to American wages and living standards. Both theory and commonsense predict that it’s going to lower them considerably, maybe even drastically. It is potentially an explosive political issue. (We can argue this separately if you don’t believe me)

Now back during the Nafta and Gatt debates, I researched a magazine article on the subject, in the course of which I talked to most of the leading trade theorists in this country. One of them was Jagdish Bahgwati. In private conversation, he admitted to me that there was a real problem here, pointing out that it’s not enough to say that it is theoretically possible to compensate the losers under free trade (in this case American wage and salary workers) by taxing the winners (American capital holders) if steps are not taken to actually do the compensation.

But in public he remained silent on this controversial issue, as did the other two leading spokesmen for free trade, Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson. (Samuelson actually made a speech in the East Wing of the White House on the eve of the Nafta vote , in which he made the disengenuous observation that protectionism had never caused real wages to rise. (Disengenuous because he wrote a famous paper showing that protectionism could keep real wages from falling.)

My point is that here we have the three leading trade theorists of their generation — one South Asian and two Ashkenazie Jews — who are taking an essentially cosmopolitan view on the issue of free trade, which involves sacrificing the welfare of the overwhelming majority (80%+ minimum )of the American people.

This bothers me a lot. I think it is potentially dangerous for the future of ethnic relations in this country. Or to put it another way: I think it is important that the talented minorities who come to this country, when they decide to become citizens, take seriously the “We” part in the phrase “We the people” that begins the Preamble to the Constitution.

BTW, I don’t think it is too late. If guys like Bhagwadi would step forward and take the lead in turning the situation around — not by coming out in opposition to free trade, but by using their authority to emphasize the importance of the principle of compensation in the theory of free trade — then I predict that would do wonders towards cementing their acceptance by the white majority. They’d really appreciate it, I’m sure.

Posted by lukelea at 10:01 PM

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