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51PboR9SpFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I do not spend much time thinking about politics at this point in my life. Therefore I have little to say that is very important or interesting, though I take a passing casual interest. The map above is very curious. Donald Trump did not simply ride on a wave of expected gains. He changed the map. Yes, he was solid in core Republican regions (except Mormon America), but he really gained in more “purple” areas of the Midwest and Middle Atlantic. Trump crushed it in West Virginia and lost Virginia. That would be very peculiar in the 1990s. More relevantly, the Driftless went for Trump, despite being the most prominent area of rural white America outside New England to support Obama in 2008 and 2012 (the area also favored Democrats in 2000 and 2004). In the near future, when I have more time, I will be looking at the county-level data.

Second, the exit polls are interesting. One has to be careful here with these sorts of results, but it does not look as if Trump lost with minorities and gained with whites nearly as much as the press would have you believe. Granted, disaggregation is important here. Trump lost among wealthier and more educated whites, but made up for it with the downscale. Anyone trying to sell a simple story is probably taking you for a ride.

There are many stories here. Though you can probably go elsewhere for most of them. I plan on focusing on science and history, which I find more fascinating than politics.

• Category: History • Tags: Politics, Trump 

relig One of the first things I wrote on the internet related to Indonesian Islam, and what we could expect in the future. This was before Gene Expression, and I don’t have archives of that blog. There are many issues where my views have changed over the past fifteen years, but that is a piece of writing whose contents I think hold up rather well, if I recall it correctly! (when I go back and reread things I wrote 15 years ago I often wince at my naivete)

Yesterday I noticed that The Wall Street Journal had a piece up, Hard-Liners’ Show of Force Poses Thorny Challenge for Indonesia’s President, and an accompanying sidebar: Examples of Indonesia’s Turn to Conservative Islam. The details are not super important. Basically, the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta has gotten himself into some blasphemy trouble. Some of this critics are probably sincere, while some of his critics are probably being opportunistic. The political elite of the country must make a pretense toward neutrality, and genuflect toward religious sensibilities, since Indonesia is famously a 90% Muslim nation. Most people on some level know it’s bullshit, but at minimum you have to go through the motions. Religion aside this is a great chance to make sure that an assertive ethnic Chinese and Christian politician doesn’t get too uppity.

More interesting than what is happening is why this is occurring now. Not only is “Indonesia” famously the world’s most populous Muslim “nation,” it is also “tolerant” and “syncretic”, though recently “conservative” religious movements have become prominent, changing the nature of “Indonesian” Islam. Normally the usage of quotation marks in this manner is asinine, but I was conscious in what I was trying to “problematize.”

Indonesia is not truly a nation. Or at most it is a nation like India, a nation which encompasses a civilization with several related nationalities. Second, the tolerance of illiterate peasant cultivators for religious heterodoxy is different from the tolerance which 51T9NDF7GPL emerged (for example) in England on matters of religious belief and practice in the 18th century. And the syncretism of Indonesians is not like the syncretism you see in the development of the Sikh religion, which is a genuinely novel positive religious vision from a Dharmic base engaging questions and presuppositions derived from Islam. And Indonesian Islam which is called conservative is not conservative if conservatism harks to the customary, traditional, and organically evolved religious folkways of the populace. Rather, the “hard-line” Islam comes up from the aspirant middle classes and is connected with a broader movement of world-wide Islamic reformism and revivalism across the Ummah, and is consciously marginalizing the traditional Islamic religious establishment of rural regions.

What I’m getting at here is a general phenomenon, not limited to Islam. Eric Kaufmann alludes to it in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. Dianne Purkiss in The English Civil War points to it too. What is that phenomenon? The terminal state of postmaterialist modernity is not attained in a linear and unidirectional fashion. In fact, it may not be a terminal and stationary state at all!

When engaging many progressive friends and acquaintances who have little interest in international relations it is often asserted that material deprivation is the root of Islamic terrorism and Islamism writ large. This is demonstrably false empirically. Marc Sageman in Understanding Terror Networks did an extensive ethnography of the Salafist terror international of the 2000s, and there was an extreme overrepresentation of the highly educated, affluent, and technical professionals. Scott Atran has also done ethnographic research, and converged on the same result: it is not economic deprivation that fuels these violent explosions, because the participants and principles are not economically deprived.

51r6r4q8HiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Even a superficial analysis of Islamist movements, the necessary parent movement for violent terrorism, show that they are often driven by the middle class and prosperous, just as most radical movements are. This reminds me of a particular religious movement: Reform Protestantism. In the Anglo-American case this is most starkly illustrated by the Puritans, who were attempting to complete the Reformation within the English Church (purging all “Popish” rituals and institutions, as well as removing theological diversity, such as Arminianism). The Puritans were often from the industrious and prosperous classes of London and eastern England. The New England colonies were arguably the world’s first universal literacy societies.

I have stated before that whenever I read about the Reformation and English Civil War I undergo some cognitive dissonance. My consciousness as an American was formed in a region of upstate New York which was heavily Dutch, but later became demographically dominated by the great migration out of New England. Either way, a particular Anglo-Protestant, even Puritan, vision of history was what was taught to me. And yet the Protestants in the Reformation were often the heralds of intolerance, violence, and iconoclasm. Just as they were the heralds of toleration and liberality (in addition to the Netherlands, see Reform Transylvania and to some extent Poland). Protestantism unleashed many different tendencies sublimated within the Western Christian Church up until the 16th century (the exceptions of the Hussites and John Wycliff aside). And some of those forces and tendencies were not ones which postmaterialist liberals in the broad sense would have much sympathy with. It gave rise to both the pluralism of the Pennsylvania project and the tolerance of Rhode Island, as well as the demands toward public conformity and private uniformity which were the Puritan Congregationalist colonies.

In Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State Andrew Gelman points out that ideological polarization is maximized at the upper income brackets. Values are to some extent luxuries, consumption goods for those beyond the subsistence level. What Kaufmann analyzes this on a sociocultural level, Gelman does so on an individual scale. And it explains why so little international Islamic terrorism comes out of the poorest Muslim countries in relation to their populations. The battle between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan is between an Islamist movement and elements which are more diverse, but ultimately it recapitulates divides between country and city, and Pashtun and non-Pashtun, which give it local valence. The international aspect of Islamic terror is Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, comes from forces and threads which are international. Osama bin Laden was of Yemeni ancestry, but raised wealthy in Saudi Arabia. The influence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in poor Muslim countries has clear connections with migration from wealthier nations and Diasporas. Poverty may be fertile ground, but it is almost never the seed.

Going back to Indonesia, let’s bring together these strands and try and understand what’s going on. First, Indonesia is a collection of various nationalities with long histories of contact but distinction. The tolerant folk Islam that is often assumed to be the sine qua non of Indonesian Islam is really the culture of central and Borobudur_Templeeastern Java, that of the Javanese. At 40% of the Indonesian population the Javanese loom large, but they are not the totality of Indonesian culture and society. The people of Aceh came under Islamic influence centuries before Java, and they have traditionally had closer connection to the Middle East, and practice a more Middle East normative form of Islam. Second, many of the outlying islands have Muslim populations without the civilizational overhang of pre-Islamic greatness which characterizes Java. To this day a small minority of Javanese remain Hindus, while conversion to Hinduism from nominal Islam is not unheard of. This history though is truly the history of Java, and to a lesser extent the region around the Malacca strait. Hindu-Buddhist civilization’s impact on most of the Indonesian archipelago was much more diffuse and marginal (Sanksrit loan words as far as the Philippines and Madagascar are signs of this civilization’s contact with groups outside of Java and Sumatra). Outside of the areas of most intense Hindu-Buddhist domination history begins with Islam and the Dutch. They do not have much of a Hindu-Buddhist identity to synthesize with Islam in the first place.

Additionally, identity is not much of an issue in a village folk context. This is why syncretistic and tolerant Islam is common in many parts of the world characterized by subsistence farming. Individual lives are delimited by the custom and tradition of the village, which self-regulates. Rather than looking toward textual scripture, or religious professionals, long established folkways guide lives in a seamless fashion. Though these people may be tolerant when it comes to poorly understood or practiced religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, they are also often very superstitious, and liable to murder the local “witch.” There are more tolerances than those of religious orthodoxy alone!

The major “problem” though occurs when you urbanize peasants. In an urban context village spirits are irrelevant, and the folk cultural currency which smoothes relationships no longer apply. If you are very wealthy this may not be relevant, as social networks of the elite have long had purchase in urban centers, and old connections can be leveraged at the commanding heights of industry and government. For the lower classes within slums the day to day may be a matter of survival and subsistence. A new identity is secondary to making to the next day. Where the need for identity likely comes to the fore is in the urban middle class. These the classes not connected to the levers of power in the social heights, but still have resources and leisure to ponder their place in the world, and how their nation should be ordered. In a village context these may have been prosperous farmers and gentry, already more closely connected to religious professionals than the more marginal peasant. Translated to the urban milieu their rural accumulated social capital accounts for little, with the inchoate Javanese mysticism and syncretism dissipating in the new environment for which it was never adapted in the first place.

This is where reformist and international Islam comes into play. This is a religion that is portable, and culturally neutral (ostensibly). Different local sub-elites transplanted into an urban milieu can meet and communicate with the lexicon of a religion which was defined from its beginning by urbanity. Not only does Islam allow for connections between people between different regions, but it also integrates oneself into an international network, previously only accessible to those with financial resources to travel extensively. Common belief in a transnational religion allows for immediate rapport with those from other nations, without the need for prior extensive personal interactions. Subscription to various forms of Islam allow for immediate inclusion into an international brotherhood.

The United States is perhaps the best example of what mobility and lack of solidity do to religious institutions. American religion is exceedingly confessional and decentralized. The Roman Catholic Churches attempt to create a corporate pillar on the model of the European society in the 19th century failed. Rather, operationally American Catholicism has become confessional at the level of the believers, if not the exterior institutions. Similarly, American Judaism took a very different trajectory from that of European Judaism. While European Reform Judaism was marginalized between the two poles of Orthodoxy and secularism, in the United States Reform Judaism was arguably the dominant form of Judaism for most of the nation’s history.

American religions are characterized by a wide range of levels of tension with the surrounding society, and are generally confessional, rather than communities of birth (though Judaism is arguably a hybrid, as Reform Judaism has again embraced the ethnic dimension of the religion). Some groups, which are often termed “conservative”, are at high tension with society. The reality is that they are not necessarily conservative, as much as they exhibit strong ingroup dynamics, and marginalize outgroups, and are marginalized by outgroups. Consider Mormonism, a religion which is conservative in its mores, but whose theology is highly exotic, and arguably radical. The key toward understanding Mormonism is its high internal cohesion. But this results in a side effect of tension with the surrounding society.

41cpg1ESArL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Indonesia is a nation of 250 million. The rise of “conservative” Islam is natural. As Indonesia urbanizes, its folk Islamic subculture s are dissolving. They evolved organically over thousands of years, and they are adapted to local conditions, utilizing local lexicon. Their strength was their deep local roots. They are not transplantable. It is natural that many urban dwellers would find that a culturally stripped down form of Islam based on textual sources, though extending from them, would be amenable to their needs. This form of Islam allows for strong ingroup ties that are not contingent on local histories or ethnic identities. But, it also throws up walls toward those who it considers outsiders and competitors. That is, non-Muslims. Other Indonesian urbanites are not becoming “conservative” Muslims. Rather, they are probably subscribing to what one might term “liberal international,” the transnational globalist class which is united by their affluence and postmaterialism, and a form of individualism well characterized by Jonathan Haidt.

Indonesian Muslims are arguably more “liberal” and more “conservative.” But this increased variation and solidity of large bloc social units is salient in a form which is more threatening. To readers of The Wall Street journal the transnational Muslims identifying with the Islamic Reformist international bloc are threatening, and a danger, due to their hostility toward outgroups. In contrast, the liberal globalists take a more relaxed attitude toward group identity, though they too have their own redlines and normative preferences.

The details may be local, but the dynamics are global.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Indonesia, Religion 

MacCulloch_Reformation_sm Since we’re on the topic of religion, I thought I would make a book recommendation. If there is one book I would read on the Reformation if there was one book, it is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. I read this magisterial work in 2004 over a week and it has stuck with me in a way no other work on this topic before or since, has (similarly, if you are going to read one book on Byzantine history, it would be A History of the Byzantine State and Society).

MacCulloch’s history of Christianity was relatively disappointing (thin gruel, stretching out a deep topic too far in a survey). But I see he’s come out with a new book on an old topic, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy. I just got a copy and it seems interesting. More thematic than narrative in comparison to the earlier survey.

• Category: History • Tags: Reformation 

12_01_2016_Alice_headshot The new Alice Roberts documentary is going viral. Or at least its spin is.

E.g., Western contact with China began long before Marco Polo, experts say:

However, Chinese historians recorded much earlier visits by people thought by some to have been emissaries from the Roman Empire during the Second and Third Centuries AD.

“We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor’s China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought,” said Senior Archaeologist Li Xiuzhen, from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum.

A separate study shows European-specific mitochondrial DNA has been found at sites in China’s western-most Xinjiang Province, suggesting that Westerners may have settled, lived and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor.

Let’s go with the easy part first: there were no “Western” people when the Afanasevo culture was pushing into the fringes of what is today Xinjiang.

There are two extreme polarities of definition of what Western is. One is cultural.

516C6LMzGTL As outlined in David Gress’ From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, the West did not emerge fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus in the 6th century BCE along the Aegean. Rather, the West evolved organically as a synthesis over time of Classical Greco-Roman elements, Christianity, and later the post-Roman societies, often dominated by barbarian martial elites. By this definition it is clear that a blue-eyed Sogdian merchant who was resident in Xian in the 7th century was not Western. Their only affiliation with the West would be adherence to Christian Church derived from Persia, and even here this stream of Christianity was relatively marginal that of the Western variety (most Sogdians were probably Zoroastrians of course).

A second definition of being Western is racial, whether explicit or implicit. That is, there is an association with being Western and white. This is certainly true, but the problem with this formulation is that though Western people were invariably white, white people were not invariably Western. To give a concrete example, Buddhist Tocharians who had light hair and eyes, and flourished as late as 1000 A.D, were white people by any definition, but they were not Western in anything but the most reductive and biologistic sense. The cultural valence of what it means to be Western is clear on the southeastern fringes of Europe, where Muslim populations are often considered non-Western, even when they are genetically similar to their Christian neighbors.

The mtDNA they found is probably of haplogroup U, or perhaps H. Its presence in Eastern Asians is unsurprising, as skeins of migration seem to have laced themselves across the landscape of Eurasia across the whole Holocene, and earlier.

Finally, I think the media is misleading its depiction of Greek influence. Greco-Bactrians were culturally influential for several centuries in Asia. The Greek influence then did not come from the Mediterranean, but from the furthest outputs of Hellenistic society. Still noteworthy, but not so spectacularly surprising.

• Category: History • Tags: History 


David_Hackett_Fischer_-_Albion's_Seed_Four_British_Folkways_in_America.jpeg There has been lots of comment on Mormons and politics recently. I think the key aspect which is underemphasized in these pieces are the deep differences within Anglo-American cultural streams (as opposed to the short-term reasons for Mormon disaffection from the conservative coalition, such as their internationalism). If you haven’t read Albion’s Seed, you should. If you have read Albion’s Seed, also read The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. The Cousins’ Wars in particular frames Albion’s Seed into a global context.

51FGXEssAhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The major insight from these works of narrative history is that a model which incorporates the genealogical origin of Anglo-American subcultures hundreds, and even thousands, of years into the past can be quite fruitful. In David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed the biggest chasm is arguably between Yankees and the Scots-Irish. Geographically distinctive today, even their origins in the British Isles were disparate (mostly East Anglia toward London, and borders of England and Scotland, respectively).

The cultural elites of the Yankees ultimately gave rise to a large portion of the Northeastern WASP ascendancy (including the Bush family) in a direction fashion, or influenced immigrants who assimilated into that subculture (including the Kennedy family). The ~30,000 settlers who took root in New England in the 1630s ultimately became the ~750,000 colonials in the New England colonies at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. The Scots-Irish in contrast are identified not by their elite families, the ‘backcountry ascendancy,’ but their marginalized position as a subculture in comparison to the other Anglo-American streams. When they arrived in the mid-18th century from Ulster and the English-Scottish border region they were termed “crackers.” Here is the Wikipedia entry explaining the origin of the term:

A 1783 pejorative use of “crackers” specifies men who “are descended from convicts that were transported from Great Britain to Virginia at different times, and inherit so much profligacy from their ancestors, that they are the most abandoned set of men on earth.”[3] Benjamin Franklin, in his memoirs (1790), referred to “a race of runnagates and crackers, equally wild and savage as the Indians” who inhabit the “desert[ed] woods and mountains.”[4]

The differences between the Yankees and Scots-Irish redound down to the present. In 1850 Arkansas and Michigan were two states of roughly similar population settled at the same time, by Scots-Irish and Yankees respectively, in the main. While Arkansas hardly had any public schools, Michigan had hundreds. The differences between Yankees and Scots-Irish emerge over and over in the cultural fissures of “mixed” states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas.

How does this tie in to Mormons? The early cultural history of Mormons is directly rooted in the Yankee Diaspora. The Yankees of New England were a fecund lot in the years around 1800, and they spilled over into upstate New York, and across a vast swath of the Midwest ringing around the Great Lakes. The original Mormons were by and large Yankees, and their migration west took them into the lands of the Scots-Irish, who descended upon them like wolves to the slaughter, as was often the case when Yankees faced Scots-Irish in an unorganized fashion.

Below the fold is a post from 2008 that I wrote which I think is now relevant again. So I am reposting it. The Mormon position within the Religious Right is one driven by sincere and genuine alignments of values, but on a deep level it will always be tactical individually, because this is an alliance of two very different groups in their mores and history. That means that one shouldn’t expect individuals from one group to die on the hopeless hill for the other.

Post from 2008:

A few friends have emailed me some objections to the four culture model of american history. In short, though New England Puritans, Highland South Scotch-Irish and Lowland South Cavaliers are reasonable cultural entities which are easy to put a finger on, the Mid-Atlantic is a hodge-podge which to a great extent is simply thrown in a bin together for simplicity. In 1750 Pennsylvania was the first American colony where people of British descent became a minority. This sort of diversity makes it rather peculiar to speak of a Mid-Atlantic cultural folkway in which Germans, Dutch, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Swedes and Long Island Yankees can be thrown together into one pot. It’s somewhat like assigning the term “environmental” to all the components of variance in quantitative genetics of a phenotype which can not be attributed to genetics. You know what it isn’t, but what is it?

But that’s just an aside. You might infer from the image above that the point of this post is not to explore what the term “Mid-Atlantic” can tell us in any model of social history. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of American coalitional politics which might be of interest in the next four years: Mormon America is a representative of the New England Puritan cultural tradition in “Red America.” The map above is going to be more informative here than words. “English America” in the American West is really Mormon America.

When I say Mormons are “Puritan,” I’m not saying this as a figure of speech; Mormon America is to a great extent both a direct cultural and genetic descendant of New England Puritanism. The proportion of “English” ancestry in Mormon America is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that missions were sent to England and so you had direct migrants from Europe to Utah. But this can’t explain the whole of the phenomenon, American Mormonism began as a religion of Greater New England. First in upstate New York, and later in northern Ohio. Its relocation to the Midwest was problematic for a host of reasons, but the fact that they were often neighbors of people whose origins were in the South and they were quite clearly Yankees probably exacerbated tensions.

Mormonism is a very communitarian religion, not unexpected from a faith with Puritan origins. Mormon settlements in Utah were laid out like New England towns, as opposed to isolated yeoman farmsteads. Brigham Young socialized water usage to optimally allocate resources for irrigation. A tendency toward campaigns for temperance and high fertility were features of New England society. Mormons are famously fertile (relatively) and do not drink. In Wisconsin administrators preferred Yankee settlers because they were more likely to be willing to raise money for pubic goods such as schools than migrants from the South. Mormons may be low-tax Republicans, but those in good standing tithe a very large proportion of their income obligately in their private life (10% from what I recall), while the church runs itself like a corporation which has economies of scale.

Unlike evangelical Christians in the South, Mormons do not accept with resignation that many youth may “raise hell” before settling down. Mormons do not accept the Protestant contention that salvation is through faith alone. Behavior matters. Social pathologies and the personal disorder which has been a feature of Southern cultural life since its inception are not features of Mormon America, which reflects Puritan fixation on public order as a check on private liberty.

Over the past generation Mormons and Southern Protestants have entered into a de facto alliance because of their social traditionalism. The recent controversy over Proposition 8 in California will likely result in even more esteem for the Mormon church from structurally suspicious evangelicals (they do not believe Mormons are Christian, and resent that they claim that they are Christian). In other ways Mormons have come to identify themselves with conservative Protestant America, which to a great extent means Southern America. There are data which show that while 70% of Brigham Young University students rejected Creationism in 1930, 70% now accept it. I believe this is due to cultural influence from evangelical Protestantism, with whom Mormons are now politically allied.

But I believe that the differences between Puritan Mormon America and Southern evangelical America need to be kept in mind. Some of Mitt Romney’s supporters were irritated that some conservative kingmakers (e.g., Richard Land) were leaning to Fred Thompson because of cultural affinities. Culture matters. Mormons may be aligned with the South, but the alliance will always play out in the framework of differences in cultural priors. Mitt Romney is a social conservative, and likely was before he had to lie to become governor of Massachusetts. But he is not a Southern social conservative, and that matters, and when he pretended to be he seemed phony.

Addendum: One can encapsulate what I’m trying to get at by considering an even more extreme case: Jews & black Americans. These two groups are most Left-leaning and Democratic demographics in American society, but, they obviously aren’t equivalent and there are qualitative differences in their liberalism. This doesn’t mean that the position of both these groups on the American Left is in question, but there will always be a tension within the alliance.

• Category: History • Tags: American History 

Screenshot 2016-09-19 02.06.35 The map to the right shows GDP per capita in the European Union in 2014 broken down by regions. I’ve long observed that the wealthiest regions of Europe are disproportionately those which were long under Habsburg rule. This fact transcends ethnicity and religion. Catholic northern Italy, Catholic southern Germany, as well as Protestant Netherlands, are all notably economically productive, and were long under Habsburg rule or hegemony.

The observation is just that, an observation. I have no grand theory to explain what is going on. And some have suggested that the outlines of this productive zone of Europe might even go back as far as Lotharingia. But, these sorts of patterns rooted in geopolitical history might hint at the possibility that cultural norms and institutions can be deeply rooted in region and locale.

This is at variance with our intuition that culture is protean and can change rapidly. This is most easily illustrated by the shift from militarism to pacific evident in both Japan and Germany in the past few generations. A shift that most believe could reverse course in short order.

In a similar vein, Peter Turchin has a post up at his blog, Ghost of Empires Past, which shows how pre-modern political structures continue to live in patterns in the World Values Survey!

• Category: History • Tags: Geopolitics 

silkroad51u0BtDlYJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ Several people have asked me about this article in Foreign Policy, Does Chinese Civilization Come From Ancient Egypt? It’s interesting in terms of cultural commentary, and what it say about open-mindedness among the Chinese public and academy. In many ways the Chinese are much less open-minded than Westerners after decades of Marxism…but in other ways, they are surprisingly liberal in the classical sense. Willing to entertain crazy ideas out of left field.

The hypothesis that the roots of Chinese civilization diffused from ancient Egypt via the vector of a Hyksos migration is definitely a bridge too far. There’s no strong evidence for it from what I’ve seen. But there are different forms of diffusion. As highlighted in the article itself there is good evidence of cultural diffusion of specific elements of Shang technology, such as chariots. The chariot was the weapon of mass destruction of the Bronze Age. Once invented, it spread rapidly from one end of Eurasia to the other (and, into Egypt as well).

But there are still elements of uncertainty as to how it spread. One model is that it was transmitted from one society to another, in a process akin to how guns or influenza might have spread among Native Americans. Then, there is the leapfrog model, whereby long distance migration and travel serve to facilitate diffusion of culture (and genes).

k8882 In the late 2000s I read Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present Reprint Edition, a sprawling and idiosyncratic book which makes the case for the centrality of the Eurasian “Heartland” to world history. The author suggests as an aside that the progenitors of the Shang themselves may have been from the steppe, perhaps Indo-Europeans. At the time I dismissed that as lacking evidence.

But the past half a decade or more has shown us that populations moved a long more in the past 10,000 years than we’d have been led to believe. I am probably more open to an Indo-European influence on early Chinese civilization than I was in the late 2000s. This is where Y chromosomes are helpful. Below are Y chromosomal distributions of some ethnic minorities from northern and western China today:

Screenshot 2016-09-04 19.31.00

And here’s a table of a more diverse set of East Asian groups:

Screenshot 2016-09-04 19.32.30

The question of timescale is important. The Chinese Tatars arrived only in the last few hundred years from the Volga region of Russia. They have a lot of haplogroup I, which seems to be carried over from Pleistocene era West Eurasian populations. In contrast, we know that haplgroup R1a1a, and in particular the Z93 subclade common among South and Central Asians, was present in the Altai region during the Bronze Age because of ancient DNA. And we see R1a1a across many populations in these data. Unfortunately though there isn’t a breakdown between European and Asian subclades, because there has been a long movement back and forth on the steppe in the last 4,000 years (the Uyghurs also carry H, which is typical more of South Asian groups, indicating movement across the Pamirs, as has been historically attested). But the high frequency among the Uyghurs, the low frequency of other West Eurasian Y haplogroups, such as R1b and I (as well as the presence of J), are suggestive (along with autosomal work) of pre-Mongol West Eurasian heritage.

This is obvious to anyone who knows the history of the Silk Road and the European features of the mummies of Xinjiang (not to mention the cave paintings). The ancient DNA and history indicate that very early on a mixed population of western and eastern origins emerged in the heart of Eurasia. The question then is what role did they play in Chinese history? Almost certainly at minimum they were the vector by which the knowledge of the construction of chariots and other aspects of the West Eurasian military-industrial system were transmitted (just as later they were instrumental in the transmission of Buddhism). At maximum, they may have been the seeds around which chariot elites emerged in the Shang period.

The genetic data suggest that if there was a demographic impact, it was very small. The Han Chinese in the data which carry West Eurasian haplogroups are invariably sampled from the far north and west. Regions where assimilation of non-Han minorities to a Han identity has been common. Unlike Europe and South Asia, and like the Middle East, the Y chromosomes in East Asia do not as a whole seem star-shaped. This suggests that the demographic basis of the elites probably dates to the Neolithic, and was indigenous, as opposed to migrants from elsewhere. The role of Indo-Europeans was probably stimulative, rather than directive.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: China 

51gumWkW0TL It is too much to assert to say that the Indian ocean is “our sea,” writ large as a species. But it does certainly seem to be the case that this body of water does punch above its weight. It is likely that anatomically modern humans emerged not too far from its shores, while the first, second, and third civilizations arose arose along its fringes (civilization being defined as having cities and some basic level of literacy). As humanity developed complex societies at the antipodes of Eurasia, in Europe and China, the focus on the Indian ocean basis became somewhat attenuated, but its centrality as a nexus between these two dynamic loci of economic and cultural activity persisted. In addition, both the world of Islam and Southeast Asia were deeply connected to the ocean, while for India it was the ocean.

Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History is a panoramic narrative which surveys the lands around this ocean, and how wrapped up they’ve been in human history. There are two broad themes which undergird The Ocean of Churn. First, Sanyal seems to (mostly) reject the Great Man theory of history, as well as deterministic Marxist models. Rather, he posits that historical processes are a complex adaptive system. This is probably true, but honestly I don’t see that it looms very large in The Ocean of Churn, which is mostly a descriptive narrative on the macroscale. If you deleted this nod to the theoretial framework it could be read perfectly fine. The second major theme, that the flow of ideas and peoples is bidirectional, rather than a sequential branching processes, permeates the book. In fact, it’s hard to ignore, because Sanyal begins by recounting how the Pallava dynasty of South India was refounded by a collateral branch from Cambodia!

Screenshot 2016-09-03 14.45.46The map to the left is a stylized representation of humanity’s expansion out of Africa. To a first approximation it gets a lot right. But because it only depicts unidirectional migration it misses a lot in the detail. The same could be said for culture. For example, the narrative of Islam is that it spread from Arabia, to the west and the east. But works such as Lost Enlightenment and Warriors of the Cloisters both argue that there was a massive reflux from the east after the transition between the Umayyads and the Abbasids. The Abbasid power base, and many of their courtiers, were from Khorasan in the northeast of modern Iran, and Transoxiana. While 7th century Islam crystallized in the matrix of a post-Roman Late Antique world, with the Umayyad center of power being in Syria, the Abbasids emerged from a milieu where Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and even Hindus, mixed freely and exchanged ideas.

k8882 Like Empires of the Silk Road and Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500, the The Ocean of Churn is a historical geography with a broad view and lacking a tight focus. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Additionally, Sanyal’s style is quite conversational and informal…dare I say, almost bloggish? He admits very early that he’s not writing an academic work. Rather, The Ocean of Churn is part travelogue, part historical commentary, and part review of the academic literature. Additionally, there is arguably somewhat of an Indo-centric bias, insofar as in a book which runs less than 300 pages India and its role at the center of events take up disproportionate space. This is somewhat ironic in light of the author’s conscious observation that previous histories of the Indian ocean were quite Eurocentric, but somewhat justified by the fact that India’s long history, relative influence around the basin of the Indian ocean, and demographic heft, probably warrant extra attention.

Sometimes this focus gets the better of Sanyal. The voyages of Zheng He somehow get drafted into the shift within maritime Southeast Asia from affiliation with the Dharmic set of cultures rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism toward that of Islam, where the machinations within the Chinese court were geared toward breaking the Indic affinities of this region to increase Chinese cultural hegemony.

There are two major problems I see with this. First, the swing from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam in maritime Southeast Asia was a centuries long process, and occurred first in the Arabian sea, before shifting to the eastern regions of the Indian ocean. One can make the case that it was the rational thing to do for maritime facing Southeast Asian polities to realign their culture focus from Dharmic religions to Islam.

Second, there were longstanding dynamics at the court of the Ming dynasty which could explain much of the rationales for the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, dynamics which can be traced as far back as the Song dynasty as to the proper role of the state in society and the world. This is a case where Sanyal’s narrative is too geographically and historically delimited to flesh out the more complex and messy dynamics at the heart of which was a civilizational pivot in Southeast Asia and sui generis maritime voyages out of the heart of the Chinese world.

But in general The Ocean of Churn does not suffer from narrowness. Rather, the footnotes and citations are a testament to Sanjeev Sanyal’s catholic tastes; they are wide-ranging, and warrant closer attention and follow-up. I did not, for example, know that the native Malagasy had retained a custom of boat burial even after they had to retreated to the highlands and become farmers with little experience of the sea. The Ocean of Churn is packed with many interesting details of this sort. It’s a gold-mine for those looking for more to read.

And yet in the course of inter-disciplinary work sometimes you’ll miss the trees from the forest. This occurs in Sanyal’s survey of the historical genetics literature. He gets most right, but gets some wrong. The first case is that Sanyal refers a few times to the 2013 paper, Genome-wide data substantiate Holocene gene flow from India to Australia. It came out in PNAS, a reputable journal, and includes an author, Mark Stoneking, which some prominence in the field. Additionally, the timing was such that it aligned well with a contemporaneous cultural change in humans, and the arrival of dingos. Unfortunately, the paper was certainly wrong. First, the data was not open, so I could not replicate, to see how robust the statistics were. I complained about this at the time. Second, several prominent statistical geneticists told me privately that they were very skeptical of the statistics. Third, recent research suggests that Aboriginal paternal lineages are very deeply rooted, Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes. Indian Y chromosomes are very distinctive. There is evidence for them in Southeast Asia in regions without colonial era Indians, in particular Cambodia. Of course, it could be that only the female lineages persisted, but there is the reality that there’s been no evidence for recent Indian mtDNA in Australia to my knowledge (the divergences are very deep), and, no other paper which has access to Australian genome data has replicated this finding. Finally, from what I am hearing a new autosomal paper will come out soon and definitively render judgment against this paper’s result (this is why the Y chromosome paper came out).

r1a But the above is pretty small-ball. The major issue in the citation of historical genetic papers in The Ocean of Churn is that there are references to older works, as in five years old, that are totally out of date, and interpretations based on consensus understandings of the late 2000s that have been overturned.

Let’s start with R1a1a. This a male Y chromosomal lineage which is very common in South Asia, Central Asia, and West-Central Eurasia (Eastern Europe). When it comes to Y chromosomal lineages whole genome analyses have changed our understanding a lot of the phylogenetics of this topic. The earliest work uses highly mutable microsatellites, while later work focused on single nucleotide polymorphisms. Using these patterns of variation researchers created phylogenies, most of which have stood the test of time, and calibrated divergence times, many of which have not. Basically the Y chromosome doesn’t have enough SNP diversity to allow good calibration of divergence, while because of their high mutation rate microsatellites are not good for temporal inference.

Screenshot 2016-09-03 16.04.03 The plot above shows the R1a1a males in the 1000 Genomes data (it’s from Punctuated bursts in human male demography inferred from 1,244 worldwide Y-chromosome sequences). The green are South Asians, the blue are Europeans. Because the 1000 Genomes data is biased toward West Europeans, there are far fewer R1a than R1b in the data from that continent. What they confirm is that South Asian and European R1a are two different clades. The South Asian clade is often termed Z93 because of a particular mutation. Z93 is overwhelming in South Asia, very rare in Europe, and relatively common among the R1a individuals in Central Asia (e.g., the Altai sample from the 1000 Genomes). The pattern of genetic diversity shows that there isn’t much, and, that the diversity is relatively shallow. That is indicative of two things. R1a went through a very recent massive population expansion. It’s a “star-shaped phylogeny.” Contrast that with J2, which has also undergone expansion since the rise of agriculture, but exhibits far more internal structure. J2 probably started expanding earlier, and, it’s expansion was never at any moment as explosive as that of R1a and R1b. Earlier work suggesting R1a diversification ~10,000 years ago does not hold up.

The second issue in relation to R1a is that now have ancient DNA . Both R1a and R1b are very rare before 4,000 years ago. Here’s a section from a paper published in 2015 out of David Reich’s lab:

Further evidence for a connection between the Srubnaya and populations of central/south Asia—which is absent in ancient central Europeans including people of the Corded Ware culture and is nearly absent in present-day Europeans…is provided by the occurrence in four Srubnaya and one Poltavka males of haplogroup R1a-Z93 which is common in present-day central/south Asians and Bronze Age people from the Altai…(Supplementary Data Table 1). This represents a direct link between the European steppe and central/south Asia, an intriguing observation that may be related to the spread of Indo-European languages in that direction.

The Srubna people seem to have flourished between the Dnieper and Volga, and south toward the Caucasus, about ~3,500 years ago. But the Srubna are not simple solution to the problem of Indo-Aryan origins. From the supplements of Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East:

The analysis in this section reconciles the evidence presented in the first paragraph regarding the origin of the ANI by showing that is may be related both to “southern” populations related to Iran and the Caucasus and to “northern” steppe populations. Our results do not resolve the relationship between ANI and the origin of Indo-European speakers in South Asia, in the sense that they reveal that South Asian populations have ancestry both from regions related to the Eurasian steppe and ancient Iran, which is compatible with alternative homeland solutions…

While the Early/Middle Bronze Age ‘Yamnaya’-related group (Steppe_EMBA) is a good genetic match (together with Neolithic Iran) for ANI, the later Middle/Late Bronze Age steppe population (Steppe_MLBA) is not. Steppe_MLBA includes Sintashta and Andronovo populations who have been proposed as identical to or related to ancestral Indo-Iranians…as well as the Srubnaya from eastern Europe which are related to South Asians by their possession of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a1a1b2-Z935. A useful direction of future research is a more comprehensive sampling of ancient DNA from steppe populations, as well as populations of central Asia (east of Iran and south of the steppe), which may reveal more proximate sources of the ANI than the ones considered here, and of South Asia to determine the trajectory of population change in the area directly.

Basically, the Reich lab has used ancient DNA to confirm what genome bloggers started noticing around 2010: the “ANI” component of South Asian ancestry is itself a composition with different streams. In the initial analyses the division between ANI and ASI (“Ancestral South Indian”) dropped out so easily because the two groups were very genetically distinct. In contrast, the West Asian and Bronze Age Steppe streams of the ANI ancestry are rather genetically similar in comparison, making them harder to differentiate. Ancient DNA has been particularly useful because the differences were starker in the past.

All good so far. Much of this aligns with The Ocean of Churn and its thesis of bidirectionality. The problem I have is that Sanyal seems to be implicitly assuming that an “Out of India” theory for the emergence of Indo-Aryans is the correct position when there’s a lot of legitimate debate about this, and good reason to hold that this is not plausible. He refers to the Indo-Aryan Mitanni as “Indian,” when it fact this is likely to be an anachronism. Similarly, if it is found that a Dravidian language was spoken in southern Iran during the Bronze Age, I suspect that terming them “Indian” would also be an anachronism.

When I told Sanyal I was going to bring this up on Twitter he told me that I needed to cite peer-reviewed literature. This is reasonable, in light of the fact that when you’re navigating different disciplines you can’t familiarize yourself totally with the landscape…but, it highlights a problem with his citation pattern: he’s not a human population geneticist, and so hasn’t kept up with the field, nor does he know what papers are of high quality in retrospect and what papers are not. I suggested to him that I could actually run many of the analyses myself since the data is open, but he responded that this would be “he said/she said.” This is fair because most people do not have much familiarity with population genomics. But, it is unfair because I actually have familiarity with the field and can actually do the work myself, so perhaps my opinion should be weighted a bit higher?

Ultimately all this is going to be forgotten commentary when sites like Rakhigarhi start yielding ancient DNA. I have already made a bunch of predictions relating to that research. There have already been leaks in the Indian press, such as ‘Descendants of Harappans still living in Rakhigarhi’. I’m pretty sure that what they’ll find is that the people who inhabited the Northwest quadrant of South Asia at that point were already admixed. They simply lacked the Bronze Age Steppe component of ancestry, which probably arrived with the Indo-Aryans.

Of more interest to me is Sanyal’s assertion of Southeast Asian influences India. The 1000 Genomes data makes clear that there is substantial admixture from Southeast Asian populations in Bengal. But there is no historical record of this, but its impact has been significant. The Ocean of Churn makes much of matrlineal customs, and their diffusion from Southeast Asia to India through the vector of migration. I’m not so sure that migration (cultural diffusion) is the only explanation of this phenomenon, but it is certainly plausible. One quibble I would make here is the same as above in regards to India: a lot of the population dynamics of Southeast Asia date to the later Holocene. Not the Holocene-Pleistocene boundary, when Sundaland would have been inundated.

41yT8hhOZJL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_ There is clearly recent gene flow from South Asia to Southeast Asia. The genetic data from Cambodia suggest it is even, which means it was a demographic movement which affected the whole people. The cultural connections between Indic Southeast Asia and India have long been known, but it has long been assumed that this was mostly a matter of ideas, not people. But clearly enough people went so that ~5% of Cambodian ancestry seems to be Indian! The question then proceeds about reverse migrations. The movement into Bengal was relatively recent, and my own analyses have shown that it can’t be explained as purely an Austro-Asiatic event. Rather, the Tai migrations which reshaped the cultural and to some extent demographic landscapes of mainland Southeast Asia seem to have had a spillover effect into Bengal, which was at that time rising to prominence under the Pala dynasty.

Ultimately The Ocean of Churn lives up to its name. The authors explores connections between Madagascar and the East African coast, the Indus Valley Civilization and Mesopotamia, and Southeast Asia and India. It is fertile ground, and despite my quibbles and concerns with portions of the book, it is an excellent place to start. If you want to continue in a more narrow and academic vein, I’d recommend The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, a book which traces connections between the two civilizations, and also looks further as to deeper influences from Mesopotamia on both of them.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: India, Ocean of Churn 

n20307 Taking a break in my work of the day I stumbled upon the fact that Bernard Cornwell’s series based on King Alfred’s period, which began with The Last Kingdom, is a Netflix series. To be honest I much preferred the three volume Warlord Chronicles, set more than three centuries earlier, in post-Roman and pre-Saxon Britain. A retelling of the Arthurian romance with not too much romance, George R. R. Martin admitted to me in correspondence in the late 1990s that he quite enjoyed it as well. The protagonist of The Last Kingdom is peculiarly similar to the one in Warlord Chronicles.

As a fan of alternate history I’ve occasionally stumbled upon the “what-if” scenario whereby Alfred’s Wessex is conquered, and England becomes Daneland. Would we today be speaking another Scandinavian language? Would Christianity disappear, and the pagan rites of the Norse come to rule the day? It seems broadly likely that that would not be cause at all.

First, the victory of Christianity in Europe was overdetermined by the 9th century. Even in this period there was a Christian presence in Scandinavia. A Scandinavian ruled England would almost certainly be a Christian one. And in fact in the century before the Norman conquest the Scandinavians created a hybrid society with the native English. Harold Godwinson had a Danish mother, and connections to the Danish monarchy.

The second issue is one of language. The English language of Alfred’s time was much more Germanic, so the gap between it and the tongue of the Danes was not that large in any case. And, from what I have seen, it seems that the number of Scandinavians in relation to the native population was much smaller than that of the Saxons in relation to the British, though even in the latter case it must be acknowledged that the Germans who arrived in the 5th to 6th centuries were numerically outnumbered by the native Romano-British (see PoBI results).

Perhaps if the kingdom of Wessex fell England’s identity would be more indubitably aligned with Scandinavia, as it was arguably in the decades before Norman conquest in any case. But cultural identities can be curiously resilient. The Finns endured nearly 600 years of Scandinavian domination, but maintained their language, while the long Irish interaction with the Vikings still left the Irish identity intact.

• Category: History • Tags: History 

41ezBQHrx7L Spencer Wells, along with many others, such as Jared Diamond, argued that agriculture was a disaster in terms of what it wrought for the quality of life for the average human in his book Pandora’s Seed. This is broadly plausible to me. On the other hand, I also think it is highly likely that agriculture and civilization were basically inevitable.

The “great leap forward” in cultural complexity and explosion of symbolic expression ~50,000 years ago, give or take, seems likely to have been only the culmination of a process of encephalization and increased sophistication which had proceeded over millions of years. The precursors to the agricultural life were likely already there before the Holocene.

To a great extent the hypothesis of inevitability has been tested: in the Americas much of the dynamics which characterize the Old World were recapitulated. Agriculture, civilizations with writing and class stratification, and monumental architecture, all with analogs in the Old World, are there. In fact, this National Geographic piece, In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya, is fascinating to read, because it seems to me that it likely parallels developments in the Old World two thousand years before. The Snake Kings were warlords in a manner which would have been familiar to the “Great Kings” of the ancient Near East.

There are two great schools of history from the pre-modern era. Those which are cyclical, and those which exhibit some intuition that there is an endpoint or progress. The “independent” experiments of human history suggest that both are true, with an arc of history on the macroscale scaffolded by innumerable cycles of rise and fall.

• Category: History • Tags: History 

In my free moments I have been reading R. Scott Bakker’s The Great Ordeal, as I needed to take a break from Congo: The Epic History of a People (I stopped before the Great War). As you might guess the latter is not a ‘feel-good’ work. And to be frank, The Great Ordeal is probably not the best choice to lighten the mood as a change of pace. It is one of the darkest and philosophically textured examples of the fantasy genre I’ve ever encountered, but that’s not surprising given Bakker’s previous works, and his background as an academic philosopher. Though the series does not indulge in as much graphic and visually rich descriptions of death and gore as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s more deeply haunting and horrible. If Martin deals in shades of gray, from the honorable lightness of Jon Snow to the black depravity of Ramsay Bolton, Bakker’s characters seem to be swallowed by a blankness of color. Amorality rather than immorality.

Martin is a master of creating vivid characters with deep color who operate in a world of frenetic and engaging activity (at least up until the third book, when the plot was relatively fast). In contrast, Bakker’s plotting and characterization are both inferior, but that is in part because he gives more space over to a broader philosophical and moral framework, which hangs heavily over the whole narrative. Golgotterath and the Inchoroi are more memorable to me, alive in my imagination, than assorted protagonists swept up along the tides of history over the course of Bakker’s five books so far.

Where R. Scott Bakker excels, and where he rivals Tolkien in my opinion, is world building on a cosmic scale, complete with a well thought out mythos for humanity in his Secondary World. Bakker’s vision exhibits a great deal of verisimilitude, traversing humanity’s Bronze Age to the medieval period in ~4,000 years. The main actors within the narrative action are people from three of the races of men, of whom there are five total, and whose history goes back to an event termed the Breaking of the Gates, as humanity streamed into the western portion of the continent on which they reside, and engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Nonmen and their human servile caste, the Emwama.

Why am I regaling you with the narrative of a fantasy book series? Because the recent results out of ancient DNA and historical genetic inference of human prehistory suggest that the ‘make-believe’ narratives of epic fantasy may actually be an appropriate model of the formation of human populations in the wake of the Holocene. A friend of mine half-seriously quipped that the last 200,000 years of human history are a matter of collapsing ancient population structure. In fantasy novels often main characters themselves are exemplars of such broken population structure; the ‘half-blood’ trope as it were.

As a primal and backward looking genre fantasy dispenses with the need for a liberal individualist ethical framework, as historical relativism allows us to “put ourselves in the place” of protagonists whose motives and concerns are profoundly alien to moderns, albeit often with a sympathetic and contemporary twist. Jon Snow’s life to a great extent is motivated by his need to prove himself despite his bastardy. The specific motivation here would be hard to understand today, as legitimacy is not legally or normatively privileged as it has been historically, but the general need to find a place for yourself is one we can empathize with. Snow’s situation within a world of great noble houses and warring polities divided by region and language is one which most moderns are not comfortable with, but he is no revolutionary who yearns to overthrow the old regime. On the contrary, he is likely to play a large role in its maintenance and perpetuation.

Sargon_of_Akkad The meteoric rise of individuals from a humble station in the context of a static and hierarchical world are not aberrations on a world-historical scale. Sargon of Akkad, the first recorded emperor, whose dominion spanned multiple polities, was from a humble background. Gilgamesh, the scion of a noble family may be semi-mythical, but Sargon was a real person. On the edge of history, but a real person. In a world of corporate entities, defined by group identity, affinity, and affiliation, his success occurred though co-option of a system of city-states with roots over 1,000 years old at that point.

Sargon’s world is one whose outlines we are only vaguely aware of. There are many lacunae, not least of which the origins of the Sumerian people, who served to Sargon’s Akkadians the role of cultural progenitors. A linguistic isolate, the origin of the Sumerians is an unresolved mystery to this day. The end of the Sumerian cultural hegemony occurred in part due to the depredations of the Gutians, people from the hills of what is today Kurdistan, and rivalry with the people of Elam, from modern day Khuzistan.
Elam-mapThe linguistic affinities of the Gutians are unknown, while the Elamites, like the Sumerians, seem to be part of a linguistic isolate.

Much of this ignorance has to do with the importance of literacy in history. What we know about Elam is often through a Mesopotamian lens. The people of Sumer and Akkad, and later Babylonia and Assyria, saw Elam as the great enemy, the Persia to their Rome. The Gutians were a coalition of tribes from the mountainous areas to the east of Mesopotamia, and so had no real indigenous literate tradition. They do not even seem to have a distinctive enough archaeological tradition to trace their migrations.

F4.large Without text and material where does that leave us? Obviously we have a new method: ancient DNA. With this method one can infer demographic change by looking at patterns of genetic variation. The genetic relationship of various peoples who are “mysterious” to us today with modern populations will give us great insight. I predict that when the first results come back from Elamite Iran there will be a strong affinity to peoples in southern Pakistan, especially the Baloch and Brahui, as well as connections to India more broadly, above and beyond the expected local continuity.

Last week Science published a new paper on ancient Iranian genomes, from a period thousands of years before what I discussed above, Early Neolithic genomes from the eastern Fertile Crescent. It’s open access, so you can read it yourself, and I encourage you to do.

What makes this paper different from what has come before? Two things. The first is minor: better sampling. In particular, they have better regional sampling. For example, Iranian Zoroastrians (the link has plink format files). Second, and more important, they have at least one sample at 10x or more coverage. This means they can use haplotype based methods and make better calls on genotypes. It’s much more extensive in the supplements, but the authors discuss the functional characteristics of these populations more than in the earlier papers because of access to higher quality whole genome data. You need to be more confident at a specific locus when inferring function from that locus, than you need to be across the whole genome.

The phylogenetic portion reinforces what the earlier work argues: there were two great tribes of founding farmers who brought agriculture to North Africa, and Western & Southern Eurasia. Though the “cradles of civilization” were often in riverine landscapes, the agricultural revolution began in the Near East in the uplands, which would later become backwaters. Only here could primitive dryland agriculture take root in the desiccated landscape. This was the “Breaking of the Gates”.

There were, it seems, two major phases. The first phase was expansionary. The western farmers pushed outward to Europe and North Africa. The eastern farmers pushed toward South Asia and Central Asia. But look at the position of Iranians in the PCA, and the affinities within Iran. Modern Iranians are much more west shifted than you might expect from perfect continuity. Additionally, the haplotype affinities of populations to western vs. eastern farmers shows that Iranians today have much more affinity to western farmers than Iranian speaking people from Pakistan, especially the Baloch and Makrani in the southwest of the country. This is because there was a second phase: the great scrambling, when reflux from the west into Iran, and vice versa, erased the great division.

In the initial expansionary phased a stylized model was probably as good as any model. The world was dominated by hunter-gatherers, whose social-political ability to scale and organize was minimal. The farming populations probably began to organize chiefdoms rather early, and the spread of their lifestyle was to some extent at the tip of the spear. The hunter-gatherers fled, or were rapidly assimilated as subordinates, losing their cultural distinctiveness. But the next stage after the chiefdoms were more complex arrangements, which might transcend tribal loyalties, especially when one’s tribe spanned a continent.

A close look at the map shows that the Baloch and Sardinians have more affinity with these two ancient peoples than many of the groups which today occupy the Middle East. Why? Mostly because they are distinctive in being less subject to the reflux migrations in the wake of the Neolithic. And, if you look at Europe and South Asia, you can see that Indo-Europeans also left a stamp on these areas, by mediating gene flow from these tribes into areas where the other tradition had been dominant. Northern Europe is less biased toward western farmers than Southern Europe. Within South Asia, the most skewed bias toward eastern farmers are the Baloch, who happen to co-inhabit territory with a non-Indo-European speaking population, the Brahui. These Dravidian speakers are basically indistinguishable from the Baloch. Among the other groups, the Vishwabrahmin are biased toward eastern farmers. In contrast, the Tiwari, North Indian Brahmins, are more balanced. I believe this is because the Indo-Aryans brought western farmer ancestry with them from the steppe.

Rather than talking about the phylogenetic aspects anymore, I want to move to the functional considerations. It seems that the ancient eastern farmers did not have many of the adaptations that we associate with farmers. This is entirely logical. Much of our genetic character is the product of cultural changes, rather than cultural changes being the product of our genetic character. The null hypothesis should be that hunter-gatherers who had just taken to farming are basically like hunter-gatherers who adapted a new lifestyle.

But there are some intriguing elements of the pigmentation genetics, a topic I know a fair amount about. The results from this paper show that the derived variant of SLC24A5, the largest effect pigmentation allele we know of, was segregating in these farmers. This is not surprising. It was segregating in western farmers at high frequency as well. Among Caucasian hunter-gatherers, and even among hunter-gatherers from Mesolithic Sweden. It was, though, not so much found among Western European hunter-gatherers. It is totally fixed in Europe today in the derived variant. Curiously, the authors mention that SLC45A2, another skin-lightening derived allele, which is much more concentrated in Europe, has been found segregating in Neolithic Aegeans. So it may be that the two major skin-lightening alleles were introduced by western and eastern farmers. Finally, the allele known to produce blue eyes in Europeans, found in high frequencies in Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers, was also found segregating in WC1. WC1 is the highest quality genome in their ancient data, so this seems a likely inference.

What this tells us I think is that skin-lightening alleles have been segregating at appreciable frequencies for long time. They have a deep history. Periodically, a particular haplotype gets targeted for selection, and a sweep occurs. Personally, I am more and more leaning to the hypothesis that a diversity of functions and characteristics are the targets of this selection, with the phenotype often being a side effect. What is even more intriguing to me is that the peoples as distinct as Sardinians and Baloch don’t actually look that different physically. The great reflux even affected them, and with it perhaps came alleles which were selected upon and produced a relatively uniform phenotype from the Atlantic to the Indus?

Much of the prior understanding of history and prehistory has been driven by a banal and workaday conception of progress and change. Proponents of demic diffusion imagined stateless villagers pushing outward. Diffusionists assumed that techniques and material would flow along trade routes. There were no great disruptions, rather, there were evolutions and continuities.

That is not what ancient DNA tells us. In another context I’ve mentioned that ISIS is appealing to some because of its “heroic” narrative. Similarly, the origins of modern humanity may be much more heroic than we’d have thought. We the descendants of humans who crossed in Australia. The descendants of humans who finally made it to the New World. Would it be any surprise that nearer prehistory was as ground-breaking and tumultuous?

• Category: History • Tags: Prehistory 

bw04060031396378081 It is a common assertion to state Christianity helped maintain the continuity of Classical civilization down to the Medieval era, through the “Dark Age” of Europe after the Fall of Rome. A more extreme position is that Christianity was a necessary condition for the maintenance of this civilizational tradition. I recall once reading an alternative history short story where illiterate tribesman visit the ruins of Rome, and muse about the consequences of Maxentius’ victory over Constantine at Milvian Bridge (this is the “point of departure”).

Obviously no one denies that the Christian Church was essential in maintaining ancient learning and ideas, whether through concrete steps such as copying in scriptoriums, or, more abstractly by integrating with into intellectual armamentarium tools developed by the Greeks (e.g., Greek philosophy). But, there is a line of thinking that asserts that there was something profound about the Christian religion which allowed for the maintenance of civilization against the barbarian hordes. Whether it is true or not is not an argument that is winnable in this space. But, the power of ideas to shape the course of human history is more tractable.

What I would suggest is that complex human phenomena, such as Christianity, are not reducible down to abstract sets of ideas in terms of how they manifest themselves in our world. That is, Christianity is only marginally about the Athanasian Creed, or even the sacrifice made by the Son of God, from a naturalistic perspective. Rather, the religion includes a broader set of institutions and folkways which derive from the culture at large (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church is the “ghost of the Roman Empire”). Additionally, it also expresses common human intuitions about the world and social relations.

But, as a complex cultural phenomenon, Christianity is conditional on complex culture. That is, Christianity may have aided the preservation of learning in the Dark Ages, but it couldn’t be the necessary cause of this preservation because too is an effect. The persistence of Christianity in the post-Roman world was a hallmark of those regions which maintained Romanitas to a greater extent. Christianity seems to have disappeared broadly (even if it persisted residually) from areas of the Roman Empire where there was total social collapse and transformation; the regions of Britain conquered by the Anglo-Saxons, much of the interior of Pannonia, Dacia, and Thrace. These are zones of cultural turnover. But, we know from genetics that a substantial local population persisted. In the Balkans and England a large minority of the ancestry derives from migrations which occurred after the year 500, but only a minority. But, the Roman majority clearly lost the cultural commanding heights, and with that the elite support for Christianity. These were zones that had to be re-Christianized in later centuries, even though a substantial proportion of the population probably had had Christian ancestors before.

congo_main_1894003f It isn’t that there was a proactive campaign of paganization, analogous to what occurred in 17th century Japan against the Christian population, who were forced to register with Buddhist temples. Rather, the total defenestration of the old Roman elites in these areas made it so that the new elites seem to have had little incentive to convert and patronize the old religion. This is in contrast to the situation in post-Roman Gaul (Francia), Spain and Italy, where Roman era elites maintained enough continuity to influence the German warrior elites (though in many cases these elites were already Christian, they were Arian sectarians, whose religious difference marked them off from the old nobility and the peasantry).

This all came to mind when I began to read portions of Congo: The Epic History of a People. I am reading this book for two reasons. After Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, I have come to think that the Congo basin is one of the great laboratories of the forces which drive cultural geography. As such, I have an eye out for books on the Congo. Second, it was a summer reading deal for the Kindle, and so cheaper than a Starbucks coffee.

The second relevant to this post: after the decline of the Kingdom of Kongo a residual memory of Christianity persisted across broad areas. But, Christianity became integrated into African shamanism and folk religion, and lost all its substantive distinctiveness from African traditional religion. The few Europeans who ventured into the interior in the 19th century reported villages where there were survivals of Christian ideas, but they had transformed beyond simple recognition. In the 20th century the southwest portion Congo basin, which been under Kongo rule, therefore became the focal point for missionary activity again.

What is true for Christianity is probably true for many complex human ideas and institutions that we think are here for good. The reality is that complexity of thought and contingency of logic are dependent on the surpluses generated by a a highly developed economy and centralized state.

Addendum: The tendency to culturally evolve seems normal. It happened to Islam in China when it was isolated from the broader world Islamic community.

• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Kongo, Religion 

18925629._UY200_ The show runners of Game of Thrones (the HBO television which will actually complete its run under its original creators) admitted that they patterned part of the battle in yesterday’s episode on the Battle of Cannae. This was obvious to me, as I was actually thinking that the Boltons were exhibiting something similar to the Carthaginian double envelopment. Pretty cool synthesis of a callback to The Two Towers, as well as integrating real history.*

If you want to read a great description of Cannae, I’d recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

* Somewhat anachronistically, as the phalanx formation was used by the Romans, and perhaps not the Carthaginians.

• Category: History • Tags: Game of Thrones 

Several years ago there was a famous exchange between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher & Sam Harris on the nature of Islam. In response I published a post titled “ISIS’ Willing Executioners”. The overall point was that Affleck’s comments were not informed by the nature of Islam or Muslims, but broader political currents. As for his interlocutors, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, I think they were making a better faith effort to engage with the facts, though they too came up short. The primary reason that I give them more credit than Affleck is that I think to some extent their anti-Islamic talking points were counter-narrative toward their preferred ideology, which was on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum. Though a general contempt or disdain for religion is not necessarily a problem among American Left-liberals, for various reasons Muslims have become a “protected class” subject to prejudice from the ideological opponents of Maher and Harris’ normal fellow travelers.

41XeU3O2hiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ As an intellectual Bill Maher is not a serious thinker, so there isn’t much point in engaging more deeply with his ideas. His anti-Islamic stance seems to derive from relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments, which are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite).

Sam Harris is a more earnest individual, who clearly isn’t just parlaying a schtick into profitable provocation. I respect Harris for expressing the courage of his genuine convictions so often, instead of sanitizing his conclusions because of broader ideological commitments. That is, many Left-liberals today consider themselves “allies” of Muslims, and so tend to avoid making comments which might seem “Islamophobic”. In Left-liberal parlance ally has specific connotations: it indicates a person who has privileges, but still supports social justice for others who may be marginalized. Terms like “social justice” and “marginalized” also have rather precise meanings in terms of the theory of what they are, and the instances concretely of who may be marginalized. Rather than recapitulating the lexical subtleties of the progressive avant-garde I simply will state that a quick bit of research will clear up any possible confusion. Muslims, as marginalized people, are now considered part of a broader coalition on the progressive Left. This can be made clear for example when illustrations of “women of color” will often include one woman in a hijab (e.g., this website devoted to queer and trans issues displays a picture with three women in a tough pose, and one of them is a hijabi).

Harris, taking logical inference a bit too seriously, would probably ask about the propriety of the message it sends to display a woman in a hijab as if they are doing something meritorious, as that might strike him as anti-feminist in a traditional Left-liberal framework. And I have met progressives who agree with Harris privately in relation to a skepticism of valorization of the folkways of Muslims, but because of the broader coalition in which they are participants, they hold their critique (more concretely, they don’t want to be accused of being racist and Islamophobic). But, I suspect most people are like Ben Affleck, and genuinely believe that there is not a problem with the perpetuation of a stable multicultural society which includes large numbers of mainstream Muslims (e.g., many hijabis), as well as “sex positive” radical feminists, and queer theorists.

Sam Harris would probably respond that these people don’t take Islam seriously on its own merits, and that Islam is fundamentally and constitutively at odds with tolerance of gay people and a liberal attitude toward the rights of women. Though I disagree in the firmness and definitiveness of Harris’ conclusions, I do agree that people like Ben Affleck, and frankly most Left-liberals who might fall back on the term Islamophobia, don’t actually take Islam, or religion generally, seriously. This explains the rapid and strident recourse toward a racial analogy for Islamic identity, as that is a framework that modern Left-liberals and progressives have internalized and mastered. The problem with this is that Islam is not a racial or ethnic identity, it is a set of beliefs and practices. Being a Muslim is not about being who you are in a passive sense, but it is a proactive expression of a set of ideas about the world and your behavior within the world. This category error renders much of Left-liberal and progressive analysis of Islam superficial, and likely wrong.

51qwSfB3NBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ But just because Sam Harris has the “right enemies” does not mean that he is right. Though I don’t believe Harris is engaging in sophistry or posturing toward some ideological ends, which is the case with many progressives as well as those on the social and political Right, I do think he is wrong in many details of his model of religion and Islam in particular. Unlike Ben Affleck and many progressives Sam Harris actually engages in ratiocination scaffolded by facts, rather than emotions derived from political commitments. But there are weaknesses to Harris’ methods, and his grasp of facts for his rationality engine to operate upon can sometimes be lacking (this is unfortunately a general problem with being a dilettante, which I would know, but it also doesn’t excuse people from taking Harris too seriously on topics where his command of the subject is outrun by his ambitions).

To get a genuine understanding of a topic as broad and boundless as Islam one needs to both set aside emotional considerations, as Ben Affleck clearly cannot, and dig deeply into the richer and more complex empirical texture, which Sam Harris has not. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid is a genuine attempt to tackle a big issue with cold analysis and making recourse to a broader range of academic sources than Harris is wont. Hamid is a relatively well known figure, so his personal cards are on the table. A self-identified Muslim, and from what I can tell a Western liberal, he nevertheless arrives at a conclusion that Islam may be fundamentally and constitutively incompatible with the conventional Western liberal understanding of the relationship between the polity and faith.

18730593 One of the most obnoxious memes in my opinion during the Obama era has been the popularization of the maxim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is smug and self-assured in its presentation. Though in some sense over the long term I am broadly persuaded by it, too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and shallow prognostication. Though there are broad trend lines in history, there are also cycles which oscillate around those lines. In those oscillations are consequences for human lives that can not be dismissed by asserting that the trend nevertheless remains. The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer has a saying which basically states that a theory gives you information for free. Modern Western liberals have a particular idea of what a religion is, and so naturally know that Islam is in many ways just like United Methodism, except with a hijab and iconoclasm. But a Western liberalism that does not take cultural and religious difference seriously is not serious, and yet all too often it is what we have on offer. This transcends the political divide, as before the Obama era we were given to thinking that the invasion of Iraq would result in Jeffersonian democracy, because George W. Bush had a particular model of the nature of man and what he craves (“freedom” and “liberty”), and from that he drew conclusions.

On both the American Left and Right there is a tendency to not even attempt to understand Islam. Rather, stylized models are preferred which lead to conclusions which are already arrived at. Islamic Exceptionalism is worth paying attention to because he frankly admits the problems of this line of thinking. Or, more honestly, he admits that this is a problem in the first place! In a piece at The Atlantic (which is based on a passage from Islamic Exceptionalism) he states:

To say that Islam—as creed, theology, and practice—says something that other religions don’t quite say is admittedly a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and Europe. As a Muslim-American, it’s personal for me: Donald Trump’s dangerous comments on Islam and Muslims make me fear for my country. Yet “Islamic exceptionalism” is neither good nor bad. It just is.


This is a commendable viewpoint in our world, where too often “problematic” conclusions get swept under the rug or explained away. From what I can tell reading Islamic Exceptionalism many of the conclusions that he comes to are not his preferred conclusions as an American Muslim. But, they are is best guess as political scientist. This is how a scholar should behave, though too often this is not how scholars do behave.

In some ways the model of Islam and religion that Shadi Hamid believes is most informative for our world is rather like that of Sam Harris, despite wide differences in details and a general shift in emphasis. Out of all the religions in the world Harris believes that Islam is fundamentally exceptional. And Hamid agrees with him. I will state here that at the end of the day I disagree with both Harris and Hamid. But, we all begin with the same proximate empirical universe, where we an agree on some general facts. This is where we differ from someone like Ben Affleck, who probably finds reality rather “gross.” To get a sense of Affleck’s engagement with facts, consider his attempt to suppress the fact of his own slave-owning ancestors:

After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.

I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.


Not your typical Muslim

It’s fine to be embarrassed by reality. But you still need to face up to reality. Where Hamid, Harris, and I all start is the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not hold views on social issues that are aligned with the Muslim friends of Hollywood actors. This is trivially obvious to anyone who digs (so obvious that even Bill Maher cites these data, they’re so easy to find). Before the Green Revolution I told people to expect there to be a Islamic revival, as 86 percent of Egyptians polled agree with the killing of apostates. This is not a comfortable fact for me, as I am technically an apostate.* But it is a fact. Progressives who exhibit a hopefulness about human nature, and confuse majoritarian democracy with liberalism and individual rights, often don’t want to confront these facts. Their polar opposites are convinced anti-Muslims who don’t need any survey data, because they know that Muslims have particular views a priori by virtue of them being Muslims. These people would miss out on the fact that 5 percent of Turks agreed with Egyptians on apostates.

There is a glass half-full/half-empty aspect to the Turkish data. 95 percent of Turks do not believe apostates should be killed. This is not surprising, I know many Turkish atheists personally. But, 5 percent is not a reassuring fraction as someone who is personally an apostate. The ideal, and frankly only acceptable, proportion is basically 0 percent. In the aughts the Turkish example was given as a case study in moderate Islamism. The regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was genuinely more liberal than other Islamists. During the Green Revolution he went to Tunisia and stated:

“Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state of law. As for secularism, a secular state has an equal distance to all religious groups, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist people,” Erdoğan said during a visit to Tunis, the place where the wave of pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa began late last year.

Obviously things have changed in the last few years, as Erdogan has taken a more authoritarian tack, and Islamism in more muscular form is ascendant. Nevertheless, the very idea of accepting atheists is taboo in most Arab countries, including Tunisia, which shows how far beyond them Turkey is in a classical Western reckoning (though there are conflicting reports, Ataturk himself, the founder of the modern Turkish state, may personally have been an atheist).

Harris would give a simple explanation for why Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostates. To be reductive and hyperbolic, his perspective seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian cult, and its views are quite explicit in the Quran and the Hadith. Harris is correct here, and the views of the majority of Muslims in Egypt (and many other Muslim nations) has support in Islamic law. The consensus historical tradition is that apostates are subject to the death penalty.

But Hamid adds some nuance to this picture. He seems to argue that attitude toward apostasy falls out of a broader program of Islamic civilization which goes back to the foundations of the religion. Engaging with scholarly works, such as Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, Islamic Exceptionalism argues that the Muslim Weltanschauung has an integrated role for religion in the political order baked into its cake. To refer back to an old saying, Muhammad was his own Constantine. Islam arose and exploded with the rise of its empire. In contrast, Christianity developed slowly as a marginal sect, and later a religion among religions, in the Roman polity. Its eventually victory in the 4th century came to some extent at the sufferance of Roman elites who had their own traditions and customs which the Church had to make peace with. Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s.

614cyv0xnJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ There are several problems with this thesis. As a believing Muslim Hamid talks about how alive the Salafs of early Islam are to modern Muslims. These are the first few generations of Muslims who remembered Muhammad personally or well well acquainted with those who did. They were the people who lived in the world before Islam became embedded within a profane state, that of the Umayyads, who transformed the polity into a hereditary monarchy. Reviled by the Shia for their role in the murder of the family of Ali, and ignored at best by the Sunni who look more to the traditions crystallized under their Abbasid successors, the Umayyad are a sort of historical cordon sanitaire between the centuries when the streams of modern Islam matured and elaborated, and the age of the Salafs.

There is a small problem with this narrative: it may be wrong. The story of Christianity is rather well known, and well disputed, in the public arena. There is a large body of scholarship which contends that orthodox Christianity, rooted in the Athanasian creed, developed organically over the centuries after the life of Jesus. Though many Christians would disagree, many scholars argue that aspects of Christianity which Christians hold to be fundamental and constitutive of their religion would have seemed exotic and alien even to St. Paul. Similarly, there is a much smaller body of work which makes the same case for Islam.

51nf9+uTZwL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_ A précis of this line of thinking is that non-Muslim sources do not make it clear that there was in fact a coherent new religion which burst forth out of south-central Arabia in the 7th century. Rather, many aspects of Islam’s 7th century were myths which developed over time, initially during the Umayyad period, but which eventually crystallized and matured into orthodoxy under the Abbasids, over a century after the death of Muhammad. This model holds that the Arab conquests were actually Arab conquests, not Muslim ones, and that a predominantly nominally Syrian Christian group of Arab tribes eventually developed a new religion to justify their status within the empire which they built, and to maintain their roles within it. The mawali (convert) revolution under the Abbasids in the latter half of the 8th century transformed a fundamentally Arab ethnic sect, into a universal religion. Robert Hoylands’ In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire presents this viewpoint. In contrast, Hugh Kennedy’s Great Arab Conquests presents a traditionalist view, which accepts the conventional Islamic framework in its broadest outlines (I recommend both, though Kennedy is the better prose stylist).

I was struck that in Islamic Exceptionalism Hamid observes that because so little is known about Jesus’ life there is a live debate about the historical Jesus. I agree there is little known about the historical Jesus (with even Josephus being asserted to be later interpolation by some), but this is not what believing Christians would contend. I only bring this up because here the shoe is put on the other foot. The fact that Hamid can entertain these views, along with revisionist** works such as Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is a function of the history of Christianity and its relationship to the West, not something natural to Christianity itself. The debate about the historical Jesus only emerged when the public space was secularized enough so that such discussions would not elicit violent hostility from the populace or sanction form the authorities. T he fact is that the debate about the historical Muhammad is positively dangerous and thankless. That is not necessarily because there is that much more known about Muhammad than Jesus, it is because post-Christian society allows for an interrogation of Christian beliefs which Islamic society does not allow for in relation to Islam’s founding narratives.

The early portion of Islamic Exceptionalism that goes back to the first centuries of Christianity and Islam is to use an overused word highly “problematic.” It isn’t that Hamid makes incorrect inferences, it is simply that the chain of inference are so rapid fire, and proffered as fait accompli, that it is difficult to keep up with them and evaluate their likelihood. Assertions that seems plausible from one angle are highly disputable from another. For example, he suggests that because Jesus is divine he does present himself as a model in the same way as Muhammad, who was a man. The problem with this assertion is that the standard Christian thesis is that Jesus is both divine and human, and that it is his incarnation into the human flesh that allows him to be relatable. As an atheist I honestly don’t even know if any of this has any content, though I understand that religious people find these sorts of assertions substantive. My point is that most of the arguments in this portion of the book can be easily flipped on their heads by deeper or alternative analysis.

Hamid’s description of Christian soteriology is very superficial, in a way that I think misleads if you take this sort of analysis of religion seriously. I happen to believe that this sort of analysis doesn’t add much value, so I don’t hold it against Hamid. But a presupposition of Islamic Exceptionalism seems to be that there is a deep and fundamental essence to religions in their ideas and foundations, so one must critique his arguments on their own terms. Consider this passage:

If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behavior beyond providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faith to Christ. The punishment of sins is no longer a priority, since Jesus died for them. In start contrast, whereas theologians like Martin Luther fashioned a dialectic between faith and good works, these two things are inextricably tied together in Islam….

This is just an unfortunate caricature of the majority of Christians’ views on salvation and works. Not to belabor the point, as an atheist who is skeptical of a lot of religious “analysis,” many of these distinctions that you see in probing these topics strikes me as similar to philosophizing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. But, if you believe these constructs have material consequences in this world, then you need to relay them correctly. A simple reading of this passage would suggest that all Christians are slouching toward antinomianism

Similarly, one could argue that Islam also slouches toward antinomianism
because predestination is the dominant view within the religion. Obviously this isn’t true. Neither Muslims nor Christians are antinomian in their behavior.

in-gods-we-trust-the-evolutionary-landscape-of-religion-evolution-and-cognition-scott-atran-complete-book-1-638 As I observed above, Hamid cites Michael Cook’s Ancient Religion, Modern Politics, to contend that ancient beliefs, forms, and models, echo down the generations and constrain the shape of the present. Having read Cook’s book I can say it’s interesting, but its argument for why textual constraint and ancient precedent matter are not particularly convincing. In fact, he comes close to asserting it as common sense.

I take a different view. When it comes to understanding religion you need to start with psychology. In particular, cognitive psychology. This feeds into the field of evolutionary anthropology in relation to the study of religion. Probably the best introduction to this field is Scott Atran’s dense In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Another representative work is Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. This area of scholarship purports to explain why religion is ubiquitous, and, why as a phenomenon it tends to exhibit a particular distribution of characteristics.

What cognitive psychology suggests is that there is a strong disjunction between the verbal scripts that people give in terms of what they say they believe, and the internal Gestalt mental models which seem to actually be operative in terms of informing how they truly conceptualize the world. In Theological Incorrectness the author draws upon his field work in Sri Lanka and narrative interviews with religious people which don’t elicit reflexive scripts to get a sense of the internal beliefs which might shape their behavior. Though Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, all agreed that they had very divergent views, what the author founds is that their mental model of gods(s) were very similar. The Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka may notionally reject the idea that Lord Buddha is a god, but he for all practical purposes fills in the role of a god. Similarly, Muslims may aver that their god is omniscient and omnipresent, but their narrative stories in response to life circumstances seem to imply that their believe god may not see or know all things at all moments.

The deep problem here is understood bt religious professionals: they’ve made their religion too complex for common people to understand without their intermediation. In fact, I would argue that theologians themselves don’t really understand what they’re talking about. To some extent this is a feature, not a bug. If the God of Abraham is transformed into an almost incomprehensible being, then religious professionals will have perpetual work as interpreters. Some religious groups, such as Mormons, even point out that their own idea of the godhead is more concrete and less philosophical, so actually makes more coherent sense.

Which brings me to the issue of the Quran and the Bible. There is extensive discussion in Islamic Exceptionalism about the fact that the Quran is the literal Word of God (the recitation by Muhammad), while the Bible is inspired by God, but by and large is not in the voice of God. The standard thesis being proffered is that this means there is less flexibility in Islam, because all Muslims are by nature in some ways fundamentalists.

First, for the vast majority of history most Muslims and Christians have been illiterate. They could not read their scriptures. Second, even today most Muslims can not read the Quran. Most Muslims do not speak Arabic. Second, from what I have been told the Classical Arabic in the Quran is impenetrable to most Arabs. The point isn’t to understand, the point is that they are the Word of God, in the abstract. When I memorized surah Fatiha I was told the meaning of what I was reciting almost as an afterthought (though some of the terms are rather transparent from other concepts). The power of the Quran is that the Word of God is presumably potent. Comprehension is secondary to the command.

Second, Hamid admits the importance of the reality that Islam, like Judaism, and unlike Christianity, is an extensively orthopraxic religion. Though there is much talk about theology in Islamic Exceptionalism, it is more as a general catchall term than technical theology, because this is a domain where Christians have devoted a lot more resources than Jews and Muslims, whose ideas of God are relatively shorn of Greek philosophical sophistication (the Ismaili sect has a sophisticated Neoplatonic cosmology, but they are the exception not the rule). In contrast, Christians have neglected elaboration of religiously informed laws, while Jews and Muslims have developed an enormous corpus.

Aside from some radical Protestant sects religious professionals in the Christian tradition engage in extensive sacramental and liturgical activities. In the pre-modern era the Christian church had a role in collective social salvation through these activities, which it performed for the whole community. In contrast, Judaism and Islam have a quasi-clerical professional class whose roles are often focused upon legal matters, public and personal. In Judaism these are the rabbis, while in Islam they are the ulama. Historically, and even in my own generation, my family has had individuals who are members of the ulama. From what I have seen and heard there is little discussion about the details of the nature of God. Rather, the workaday consists of instruction in memorization of the Quran and elaboration of proper behavior and ritual.

Hamid to some extent discounts the analogy with Judaism for Islam in terms of political insight because after the decline of the Herodians Jewish states were few and far between. Jews had to respect the law of the land in which they lived, to the point where this became a maxim. But I think this example is illustrative, because of the family similarities between Judaism and Islam when it comes to a focus on orthopraxy. Judaism has a deep and rich history of political action and engagement, from the prophets, judges, down to the kings. After the fall of the House of David Jewish monarchies rose several times, and the Herodians themselves were the products of a forced conversion by the Hasmoneans.

And yet after two failed rebellions in antiquity Judaism became relatively quiescent. Hamid asserts that the modern Jewish state of Israel is fundamentally secular in a way that Islamic states are not. I am not entirely convinced by this. First, the secular Ashkenazi elite are now a minority of the population, though at founding they were the overwhelming majority. The Haredi population is growing, and there is a large body of Sephardic Jews for whom Jewish religious identity is stronger than for the Ashkenazi. Finally, the “national religious” block of non-Haredi religious Jews have contributed many of the individuals engaged in religious-ethnic motivated political violence. Some radical Jews even term the Palestinians Amalekites.

This was pregnant within Judaism. It simply needed the proper social context.

In terms of the historical and religious narrative Islamic Exceptionalism naturally argues that Muslims are the exceptions. I take exception to this. Rather, I think the Western liberal model based on a creedal Protestant church is the exception. In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, the author, a lawyer, argues that America’s regnant ideology of church-state separation only retains coherence if one posits religion qua religion is fundamentally similar to creedal Protestantism. The authors shows that recent emergence of liturgical and orthopraxic traditions has been causing more issues with accommodatio, as authorities have to pick and choose what they will, or won’t, accommodate. The history of American Roman Catholicism and American Judaism are to a great extent the Protestantization of these religious traditions enforced by a dominant and xenophobic Protestant ascendancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now with the emergence of multiculturalism and the decline of normative Protestantism religious traditions which take a different view of the essence of what religion is are now beginning to flourish and multiply.

k10063 Historically all political units have exhibited a sacral dimension. Some cognitive anthropologists now argue that in fact powerful supernatural agents, active gods, were essential to the emergence of larger social and political units. King James may have asserted “no bishop, no king”, but perhaps it is more general and primal. “No god, no tribe” (or the inverse, “no tribe, no god”). The relationship in the detail between religion and polity differed in various civilizations. In ancient China by and large the elite tolerated pluralism so long as cults were not socially disruptive and political active. But the state was not secular. The emperor was the Son of Heaven, the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. In India kings became the cakravartin, the universal ruler through whom the wheel of the dharma moves. The Christian East Roman emperors were the vice-reagents of God upon earth, while the last emperor to be deified was Anastasius, a century and a half into the period of Christian emperors! The rulers of Egypt were gods, while those of Mesopotamia began as priest-kings.

In Jay Winik’s Great Upheaval there is extensive discussion of the controversy after the independence of the colonies from Britain that the federal government did not have a state religion. The original settlers were by this point not a particularly churched people, and free thinking was common, from top to bottom. But never had there been a state in the history of the world which disavowed the need for favor from the gods. In The Godless Constitution the authors argue that the lack of a national religion was quite conscious, and a radical move on the part of a coterie of founders.

If we were to rewind history what would it look like? Is the arc of the moral universe always going in the same direction? I don’t know. Perhaps secular Western liberalism wouldn’t have developed the way it did. My overall argument in this section is that the prior for historical contingency is still very strong.

The reality is that most of Islamic Exceptionalism has nothing to do with all the details above. There are chapters devoted to Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and ISIS, as case studies. The authors personal experience and history, as well as his academic background as a political scientist come to the foreground. There is extensive interlacing of journalistic narrative and reportage with citations of the scholarly literature on Islamism and democratization.

The theoretical scaffold here is not too surprising or novel, as the author himself admits, though it may be to Americans. In short, liberalism and individualism do not always go hand in hand with democracy. The examples from American history are legion. The rise of the Democratic party and universal white male suffrage resulted in a curtailment of the political rights of black Americans. In England when the elite wished to grant Roman Catholics more rights, the populace of London rioted. In 19th century Prussia the extension of suffrage out of the high bourgeoise to the rural population increased the base of conservatives, because the rural population looked more favorably toward their traditional aristocratic leaders and were more socially conservative. As the American political system has become more populist, expressions of religious piety and adherence among those in high office have increased.

In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid presents Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in a relatively sympathetic light. He observes that in some ways the secular population is more intolerant, because they fear the rise of illiberalism due to democratic will. Americans do not have the language today to process this, but what Hamid is alluding to is simply what in an earlier era would be the “mob.” Economic, social, and political, development expands suffrage and distributes power. This moves it outside of central elite control, and human nature is such that inter-group competition often emerges as old elites and arriviste proto-elites clash.

Hamid’s contention seems to be that if democracy is going to come to the Arab Middle East in the near future then it must make peace with the pious majority. He has no grand solutions, but definitely offers a diagnosis. Though liberalism has percolated through Western society, I would point out that the expansion of suffrage was almost always met with the diminishment of the liberal faction to becoming a “third force,” as a more populist party took its spot in opposition to the conservatives.

The final issue that I want to touch on is addressed somewhat in the book, but gingerly, and without great attention. The work is titled Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. But the focus is on the core Middle East of Arab countries, and Turkey. About 25% of the world’s Muslims are Middle Eastern. About half the world’s population of Muslims live in South Asia and Indonesia (~700 million). There is some discussion of the nature of Islamic identity and piety in these nations, but no great depth of analysis. For example, there are some data which suggest that Indonesians want more mixing of religion with politics than people in the Middle East. Hamid suggests that this shows some underlying essence of the Islamic polity. But Indonesia is a very strange case, it is a nation where conversion from Islam to Hinduism or Christianity is not entirely uncommon. A large number of Muslims in East Java maintain a religious identity which is highly synthetic, and tacitly supported by their local ulema. In Bangladesh, you have a society where Islamic and non-Islamic identities are at rough parity. This is in strong contrast with nations like Egypt and Turkey, for whom the past 1,000 years are hard to discuss without addressing Islam directly and copiously.

This book posits explanations for the nature of Islamic polities, but the reality is that this only even applies to the core Islamic nations which were part of the Abbasid caliphate. Islam’s role in maritime Southeast Asia or South Asia was far different than in the core Islamic lands, as it was contested and its period of ascendancy curtailed.

To a great extent let me gloss over the majority of the book that is focused on political and social facts in the Islamic world today. The reason is that I don’t disagree with the facts. That is the best thing about Islamic Exceptionalism, it will put more facts in front of people who are fact-starved, and theory rich. That’s good.

But how those facts came about, and why, that is a different matter. The Islamic world is here. And it will be difficult to move it elsewhere. By making it seems as if being here is inevitable, Hamid seems to be arguing that moving it to a different equilibrium will be exceedingly difficult. But if you posit that modern conditions are historically contingent and labile, then the future is less predictable. I am come not to bring answers, but the cloud of confusion.

* I have never been a big believer in Islam, but since my father is a believing Muslim, by most sharia definitions I’m an apostate.

** Aslan’s views are not new, but derive from an older scholarly tradition of Jesus as a political radical, which today is generally out of favor.

• Category: History • Tags: Islam 

57348Like you, I am waiting on the Rakhigarhi DNA results. Whatever they come back with is going to definitely impact the textbooks. But until then, I thought this paper in Scientific Reports was interesting (sort of), Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization.

I say sort of because 1) a lot of archaeology is impenetrable to me 2) everything is about climate change. What is interesting to me is that these researchers seem to favor an old date for origins of the Harappan civilization within India. Here’s the relevant section:

At Bhirrana the earliest level has provided mean 14C age of 8.35 ± 0.14 ka BP (8597 to 8171 years BP8). The successive cultural levels at Bhirrana, as deciphered from archeological artefacts along with these 14C ages, are Pre-Harappan Hakra phase (~9.5–8 ka BP), Early Harappan (~8–6.5 ka BP), Early mature Harappan (~6.5–5 ka BP) and mature Harappan (~5–2.8 ka BP8,17,18,20,34).

Setting the Hakra culture to the side, Early Harappan at 6,000 BC suggests to me that the demographic parameters which led to the creation of the ANI-ASI genetic complex may already have been present then. If, the ASI are intrusive to the subcontinent it may even be that the Early Harappan were more West Asian than the final late stage Harappans.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: India 

51U-OkDelKL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_ The origins of Islam are fascinating, because the religion is critically important in the modern world, but its genesis within history is surprisingly vague for its first decades. Muslims have their own historiagraphy, and some Western historians, such as Hugh Kennedy transmit this narrative with high fidelity, albeit shorn of sectarian presuppositions and strongly leavened with Western positivist methodologies. His books The Great Arab Conquests and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty are rather good in my opinion.

An alternative view is presented by revisionist scholars, who in the process of revising Islamic history tear apart its basic foundations, at least from a Muslim perspective. Their views can be found in works such as The Hidden Origins of Islam. This school of scholars contends that much of Islam’s early history, basically before 700 A.D., is myth-making that dates from the Abbasid period (>750 AD). An analogy here might be made to Republican Rome. The city emerges prominently in history only in the 3rd century B.C., so much of centuries of Roman history which are referred to by later writers are difficult to corroborate. Presumably many of the figures of these earlier periods, such as Cincinnatus, may have been historical, but more often than not it is likely that details of their life served as moral exemplars for republican political leaders.

Similarly, a basic thrust of the revisionists in relation to Islam is that the idea of Muhammad is far more important than the details of who he really might have been. Even the milieu of Muhammad, a desert merchant, may have been manufactured to give him a particular aura. To reduce one line of scholarship to its essence Islam emerged as a national religion of Christian Arabs who had long been on the margins of the Roman and Persian worlds decades after the time of Muhammad. The construction of the Muhammad myth, and relocating sacred sites to a area far outside Roman control and influence (Mecca & Medina), may have been motivated by considerations of distancing from the Greco-Roman and Persian cultural traditions which they were attempting to absorb and supersede.

One aspect of the mythos of Muhammad is that he grew up as a primal monotheist in a pagan land. The revisionists reject this, and suggest that Muhammad was a Christian, in an Arabia where Christianity and Judaism were the dominant elite religions. No doubt there were other religious sects, and the influence of Zoroastrianism was also likely, but organized paganism as depicted in Mecca may have been a propaganda device. There are precedents for this line of thought, some scholars have argued the same for the late survival of paganism in Sweden (in comparison to Denmark and Norway), suggesting that in fact it was a scurrilous attempt by Western Christians to besmirch Eastern Orthodox believers, who were much more numerous in this region of Scandinavia.

I don’t personally take a strong position here. It seems likely that the revisionists go too far, but I do think that a quasi-state paganism in Arabia in the year 600 A.D. is implausible in light of what we know about other regions of the world on the Roman frontier. The dominant forms of religion in Muhammad’s world probably was Christianity, with roles for Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and various gnostic cults. Pagans still remained, but they were likely a marginal residual, not a threatening elite force as depicted in Islamic tradition.

Screenshot 2016-05-15 00.01.48 So, with all this historical context in place, it has come to my attention that there are some peculiarities in the male paternal lineage of descendants of the clade L859+, the dominant haplotype among the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe. This lineage, L859+ is a clade within haplogroup J1, which includes the famous Cohen modal haplogroup. On the L859+ tree above you see that the Qurayshi’s are a brother clade to ZS22012. This is traditionally a Jewish lineage. None of this “proves” anything, but it’s interesting and suggestive. If the revisionist are right, and Muhammad grew up in a world dominated by Jews and Christians, it would not be implausible if he himself was of Jewish background in some fashion. Or, that Arab Jews and Arab Christians had a fluid and permeable cultural relationship, and both interacted with the large Jewish community of the Middle East of the period, where some Arab Christians descended from Jews.

• Category: History • Tags: Islam 


warbefore Over then years ago The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols was published. This paper illustrated the surprising genetic effects that historical demographic events might have; the authors found that one particular Y chromosomal lineage was extremely common in Central Eurasia, and, that lineage exhibited an explosive growth over the past 1,000 years. Combined with the high frequency in the Khalkha Mongols in particular the natural inference made was that this lineage was reflective of the reproductive success of the group of warrior elites descended from Genghis Khan.

Some have been skeptical of this relationship. Part of this is due to ignorance or skepticism of what one can learn from genetics broadly among some scholars. In a discussion with John Horgan the cultural anthroplogist R. Brian Ferguson dismissed the possibility of something like the Genghis Khan modal haplotype. This makes sense. Here is a quote from George Orwell’s 1984:

Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ‘If I wished,’ O’Brien had said, ‘I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’ Winston worked it out. ‘If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’ Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: ‘It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.’ He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ‘real’ world where ‘real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.

Even cultural anthropologists who reject the “Post-Modern” tendencies common in the United states in this field often live at some remove from an enterprise where data dictates the set of plausible models about the world. If science fiction is a vision of the future conditioned on the priorities of the present, cultural anthropology is an ethnography of the present and history of the past conditioned on the ideological values of the present.

In 1984 the dictates of the present determine the past. One of the reasons it is useful to read Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage is that it serves as a record of the stated positions of many cultural anthropologists, and how they have evolved over the years in light of new evidence, without any acknowledgement that their past positions were obviously false. In a progressive conception of science error is essential for the field to slowly converge upon reality as it is over time. But one must admit that one has made errors, and is changing one’s views to match the facts. Often cultural anthropologists strike a pose that “we always knew/believed that.” Many cultural anthropologists have given upon on any pretense that learning about the world out there is possible, and at the extreme even meritorious.

The conclusions of The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols are more plausible in light of a paper which was published last year, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture. In the paper the authors show that a massive bottleneck and subsequent explosion of very common Y chromosomal lineages such as R1b and R1a seems to have occurred on the order of 5,000 years ago. The star-shaped phylogeny is not just the legacy of Genghis Khan.

How did this situation come to be? Read Andrew Currey’s Slaughter at the Bridge in Science. It’s riveting. Here are some interesting passages:

Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”

DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia

The precis: 3,200 years ago thousands of men clashed around a bridge in a narrow valley in northeast Germany near the Baltic sea. Hundreds of these men died. Their skeletons yield the facts that they were in their 20s, were often killed in the brutal manner that occurs in pitched battle, and isotope analysis suggests that most of them came from hundreds of kilometers away. Both DNA and analysis of their bones to infer their diet suggest that some were similar to modern Southern Europeans, and may have been Southern Europeans in terms of their provenance, though I do not discount that there were pockets of people who were similar to the descendants of the European European Farmers (EEF) who persisted down to that period.

What does this tell us? In The Shape of Ancient Thought, most of which was written decades ago, there are presumptions about the nature of transmission of ideas from civilized (e.g., Mesopotamian) to non-civilized (e.g., archaic Greeks and Vedic Aryans) peoples. But what these results, and books such as War Before Civilization, remind us that writing and literacy is only one of the aspects of complex human organization. Complex societies seem necessary for literacy, but literacy is not necessary for social complexity (E.g., the Inca domains). Keeley documents suggestive evidence of large-scale conflict between the first farmers to arrive in Central Europe and marine foragers along the coastal littoral thousands of years before the slaughter at the bridge. Rather than being the start of something new, I suspect what occurred at Tollense was the later stages of a tradition of preliterate conflict and competition which persisted down the period of Christianity.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Europe, Genetics 

The_10,000_Year_Explosion_(Cover) In light of David Reich’s interview I have been thinking about how genetics will shed light on many questions in the near future, and what my particular expectations are. The interview prompts me to collect some of my thoughts into one place, and outline a tentative thesis that I’ve been pointing to for the past few years. My friend Greg Cochran wrote The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution in the late aughts, and some of his predictions have come to pass (e.g., Neanderthal admixture, and likely adaptive introgression according to many analysts of the data).

Others have not, and one of those that needs to be heavily modified was the idea that a mutation for lactase persistence allowed for the Indo-European expansion. That is, the original Indo-Europeans were simply biologically superior at extracting calories from the land, and so succeeded due to that advantage (at least in large part). The ancient DNA tells a different story; the Indo-Europeans may have originated the mutation, but it came to be at higher frequency after their demographic replacement and absorption of the European first farmer populations. That is, genetics post-dated the cultural shift, rather than initiating it.

Though understanding the biological basis of human behavior remains important to me, over the past decade or so I have become more and more convinced that the missing piece of the puzzle of the last 10,000 years is about how cultural evolution produced civilization and altered patterns of human genetics, rather than the other way around. This is somewhat a change in tack for me. One of the reasons I refer to Richard Klein’s Dawn of Human Culture so much is that ten years ago the book’s thesis that a biological change in our cognitive architecture allowed for the “Out of Africa” expansion was moderately persuasive (also see Steven Mithen’s Prehistory of the Mind). My acceptance was probably inadvertently tempered by the fact that Klein seemed to have only a rudimentary idea as to the details of formal evolutionary theory, appealing as he did to punctuated equilibrium.

It may be that anatomically modern humans changed in some fundamental way 50,000 years ago. But the bigger picture seems just too complicated to reduce in this fashion right now. Rather than focus how human culture was shaped by the genes, I am now more curious about how genes were shaped by human culture.

k8488 Last year a paper was published, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture, which reported that it seems that a major recent change had occurred in the composition of Y chromosomes of humans. These are basically records of paternal transmissions across the generations. Ancient DNA shows that many of the very common lineages only appear to have risen in frequency ~4,000 years ago. This was of course thousands of years after agriculture. One can’t reduce this simply to a shift in mode of production, and the demographic excess of farming societies.

UltrasSoc_cover_epub I’m sure most of you can anticipate where I’m going here. The rise of pastoralism, and the emergence of a mobile arms-bearing males changed civilization. It wrecked civilization, but it also created civilization as we know it. If you read The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, you would already suspect that (or, books going back to the early 20th century). But even the author of that book was shocked by the demographic impact of the Indo-Europeans as evident in ancient DNA. And, anyone who looks at star-shaped phylogenies such as that for R1a1a would have a hard time explaining what might have caused such an explosion in anything but the vaguest detail.

My answer comes from Peter Turchin in Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. In War in Human Civilization Azar Gat reports that more numerous armies are more likely to win any pairwise conflicts. But in Ultrasociety Peter notes that Lanchester’s laws indicate that superiority with long range weapons on flat territory gives a much greater likelihood of victory to those groups who are more numerous than with simple near engagement on foot. The combination of this with horses to aid in mobility, and I believe you had a revolution on the Eurasian steppe where the outcomes of inter-group competition between coalitions of males became “winner-take-all” affairs.

Because of the inevitability of the drafting of the horse as a beast of burden and transport it was inevitable that the early adopters would undergo a cultural revolution, and trigger a high stakes series of inter-group competition. The winners of that elimination tournament are the Y chromosomes we see around us.* But between 2000 BC and 0 AD the winners decided to cash out, as a new stable equilibrium emerged. “Higher religion,” a shift toward monogamy, and reduced inter-group warfare due to the emergence of state monopoly on violence, was an exit strategy from the melee of the transition between the Neolithic and Iron Age (again, Peter Turchin has discussed this at length). The patriarchy forged on the steppe at the tip of the spear and on the chariot now decided to mature and accrue more cultural adaptations to prevent itself from eating its own young.

* Something similar happened between 1650 and 1850 in Europe. Who have guessed that by the 20th century English would have been the international language? First the British vanquished their Dutch commercial competitors, and slowly ground down preeminence of French political, military, and cultural power on the continent. A dynamic Europe was engaged in competition on a massive scale, and the victorious British obtained the empire upon which the sun never set.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: History 

David Reich has a interview (with video) up at Edge. If you see someone featured on Edge, it’s usually because you’ll hear from them in the future.

There’s not too much that close readers of this weblog will find surprising. But it was interesting to see David explicitly assert that West Eurasian ancestral input into modern Indians was male mediated. This is clear if you compare the frequency of West Eurasian Y lineages (e.g., R1a1a) and the India specific M haplogroup. But I suspect that they’ve looked closely at X chromosomes, which spend 2/3 of their time in females, and these are probably enriched for Ancestral South Indian (ASI).

David emphasizes the admixture event that occurred on the order of ~3,000 years ago between Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI) in the ethnogenesis of the genetic landscape of South Asia. But as I’ve stated here before I believe that the West Eurasian admixture pre-dates this. In particular, I believe that the Dravidian languages probably have a West Asian provenance. So here’s a revised model of what happened in South Asia. First, the West Asian intrusion resulted in a mixed population during the period of the Indus Valley civilization. But this was limited to the northwest corner of the subcontinent. It was with the arrival of the Indo-Aryan cultural toolkit that the rest of India, inhabited by predominantly ASI populations, was opened up to demographic expansion from the Northwest. Note that this does not mean that most of the ancestry was derived from the steppe.* Just that the intrusion for the steppe may have triggered a cultural shift which reshaped the landscape, rather like how the arrival of Huns on the Roman frontier triggered folk wanderings by German and Iranic (Sarmatian) peoples.

* I don’t know if David misspoke, but he stated that Ancient North Eurasians contributed a lot of ancestry to Indians.

• Category: History • Tags: David Reich 

51ryboe8q7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ A young friend of mine was asking for recommendations on an introduction to Chinese philosophy. Xunzi: The Complete Text would be hard going for him I suspect, as he has minimal background. My inclination is to suggest A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. My personal experience (yes, I’m still slogging through the medieval section of A New History of Western Philosophy) is that a narrative historical framework makes the abstruse nature of philosophical reflection go down a bit easier.

If you want to get primary sources (translated obviously), Sources of Chinese Tradition would be a good bet, but it’s probably too much without having any reference points. Any thoughts from readers? T. Greer can probably help here….

• Category: History • Tags: Chinese History 
Razib Khan
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