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Civilization

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Last winter I took note of a major conflict between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson over a review by the former of the latter’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson accused Mishra of attempting to assassinate his character, and even suggested that he would take him to court over libel. This piqued my curiosity, so I added Ferguson’s latest work to my stack. I recently managed to get to it and finish it. It’s a very quick and jaunty read. I enjoyed his The Ascent of Money and The World’s Banker, but have avoided Ferguson’s forays into neoconservative intellectual polemic. I’m obviously not a neoconservative myself, but normally disagreement with an individual’s theses doesn’t deter me from grappling with their ideas. Rather, the past decade of American history has been a wasteful experiment in neoconservative nation-building, and I’d had enough of that. No need for more o that crap in flowery and more erudite paragraphs. But when it comes to economic history Niall Ferguson seems to be on more legitimate terrain, though his histories of the Rothschild House are much weightier tomes than something like The Ascent of Money. But to be frank The Ascent of Money is War and Peace next to Civilization.

So what of Mishra’s review? After reading Civilization I read it, and I quite understand where Ferguson’s anger was coming from. Panjak Mishra basically suggests that Ferguson is a racist, throwing sneering asides to Charles Murray so that the reader can be assured of the intent. In particular, an analogy is clearly made between Ferguson and Lothrop Stoddard, author of works such as The rising tide of color against white world-supremacy. Stoddard’s opinion, the rising tide of color, bad, white supremacy, good. A normal Westerner in this day and age would find the comparison offensive, but in Ferguson’s case it’s particularly galling, because he has a mixed-race son with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

 

I suspect that Ferguson’s first instinct was to track Mishra down and beat the living shit out of him. I know that would be my own instinct in his position. They fuck you up, your kids. To me that explains his outrageous attempt to silence Mishra’s obnoxious imputations with the threat of the law. Britain has ridiculously pro-plaintiff courts in regards to libel, but Niall Ferguson makes a great show of being American, and in the United States it is totally acceptable to make tenuous accusations against the motives of public figures. Rather than fight with the law Ferguson should probably just have accused Mishra of being a Communist with sympathies toward genocidal Leftist regimes like that of Pol Pot. I know, juvenille, but the Leftist intellectual usage of the term racism is of the same nature as the old red-baiting of the Cold War. If you don’t have coherent arguments, simply insult and accuse, with sure knowledge that your ideological allies won’t inspect your accusations with any degree of skepticism.

What’s a shame though is that many of Mishra’s substantive critiques of Civilization are spot on. Niall Ferguson’s story of the rise of the West involves six “killer apps.” They are: political and economic competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law, modern medicine, education and the work ethic. Where this argument is persuasive, it’s not original (e.g., the scientific revolution). Where it is novel, it is not worked out in much detail (e.g., medicine). The book is simply far too ambitious in scope in relation to the thesis being presented. Rather than an argument, Civilization consists mostly of bald assertions occasionally sprinkled in with some insight which one wishes would be followed up in more detail. For example, as Mishra notes there is much warmed-over Webberianism in Ferguson’s narrative, but he does present the idea that Protestantism was not useful for the work ethic in a direct manner, but that it increased in human capital and therefore potential productivity through the spread of literacy due to the shift toward personal reading of the Bible. Yes, there are notes, but I wish Ferguson would have pushed more into this area and fleshed out his thoughts, because he reports that this effect holds true in non-Western societies too (i.e., Protestant areas have higher literacy, all things areas, vis-a-vis Roman Catholic areas).

But I assume that it is in the area of colonialism that Niall Ferguson might rankle many. His enthusiasm for empire is well attested, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t give a totally negative account of the colonial adventure, in both intent and outcome. A world of post-colonial theory this is a big no-no, and clearly was the reason for why Pankaj Mishra accused Ferguson of being a racialist of yore. Long-time readers know that I’m not a fan of post-colonial theory, which makes a fetish of the power of the white race, and totally ignores the agency of colored peoples, for good or ill. In particular I found it interesting how Civilization outlined the different natures of Western colonialism. Not only does post-colonial theory tend to reduce the colored experience into one of amorphous subalterns, but there also does not seem to be a deep exploration of the reality that French colonialism was qualitatively different from British colonialism which was qualitatively different from German colonialism. This section of the narrative is worth expanding, but in the interests of covering all his “killer apps” Ferguson simply moves on hastily.

Finally, there are aspects of the book which are amateurish and tendentious in the extreme. As Mishra notes Ferguson dismisses Kenneth Pommeranz’s argument in The Great Divergence with barely a word. I understand that Civilization is not a scholarly work, but I also found it frustrating that the reader might not be aware that one of Pommeranz’s observations is that too often the most dynamic areas of Europe (e.g., England) are compared to the whole of China, with the appropriate comparison is apples to apples (e.g., England vs. the zone around Shanghai). If you read Ferguson’s narrative this isn’t clear at all, and in fact he regularly does compare England itself to all of China. The section on religion and Christianity was also very hackneyed. Much of the portion on China and Christianity is taken directly from Jesus in Beijing, a work of a journalist, not a scholar. Many of the statistics and projects are basically pulled out of thin-air, though to be fair that is a problem with religion & China more generally thanks to government obstruction. Ferguson regales the reader with the fact that Chinese social scientists are convinced that Christianity is the reason for Western success, and that Jiang Zemin wanted to make Christianity China’s official religion. The former is unsourced, while Zemin is also rumored to be a private practitioner of Buddhism. In other words, question the veracity of these claims. Not only that, there is a strange juxtaposition between the section on the implicit necessity of Christianity for China’s modernization, and Japan’s wholesale adoption of Western ways. Ferguson neglects to mention that there was one thing which Japan did not adopt wholesale: Christianity. And last I checked Japan was a modern society, which somehow managed to develop (granted, Christians have been a catalytic force in Japanese society over the past century).

Overall Civilization gets 2.5 stars from me. If you know a lot of history it’s a quick read, and you can probably separate the wheat from the chaff easily. I’m not quite sure why you’d want to read it, as it doesn’t get much further than the op-eds which Ferguson has been penning (and the conceit of “killer apps” gets really annoying in my opinion). If you aren’t well versed in history you should probably not read this book, because you’re too ignorant to figure out where Ferguson is bullshitting, and where he’s being a serious scholar (you can check the notes, but he switches between the type of books published by university presses to superficial mass market nonfiction).

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Civilization, Niall Ferguson 
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Hominin increase in cranial capacity, courtesy of Luke Jostins


A few years ago a statistical geneticist at Cambridge’s Sanger Institute, Luke Jostins, posted the chart above using data from fossils on cranial capacity of hominins (the human lineage). As you can see there was a gradual increase in cranial capacity until ~250,000 years before the present, and then a more rapid increase. I should also note that from what I know about the empirical data, mean human cranial capacity peaked around the Last Glacial Maximum. Our brains have been shrinking, even relative to our body sizes (we’re not as large as we were during the Ice Age). But that’s neither here nor there. In the comments Jostins observes:

The data above includes all known Homo skulls, but none of the results change if you exclude the 24 Neandertals. In fact, you see the same results if you exclude Sapiens but keep Neandertals; the trends are pan-Homo, and aren’t confined to a specific lineage….


In other words: the secular increase in cranial capacity for our lineage extends millions of years back into the past, and also shifts laterally to “side-branches” (with our specific terminal node, H. sapiens sapiens, as a reference). This is why I often contend as an aside that humanity was to some extent inevitable. By humanity I do not mean H. sapiens sapiens, the descendants of a subset of African hominins who flourished ~100,000 years before the present, but intelligent and cultural hominins who would inevitably construct a technological civilization. The parallel trends across the different distinct branches of the hominin family tree which Luke Jostins observed indicated to me that our lineage was not special, but simply first. That is, if African hominins were exterminated by aliens ~100,000 years before the present, at some point something akin to H. sapiens sapiens in creativity and rapidity of cultural production would eventually arise (in all likelihood later, but possibly earlier!).

This does not mean that I think humanity was inevitable upon earth. For most of the history of this planet life was unicellular. I do not find it implausible that life on earth may have reached its “sell by” date due to astronomical events before the emergence of complex organisms (in fact, from what I have heard the end of life is going to occur ~1 billion years into the future due to the persistent increase in the energy output of Sol, not ~4 billion years in the future when Sol turns into a red giant). But, once complex organisms arose it does seem that further complexity was inevitable. This was Richard Dawkins’ case in The Ancestor’s Tale based simply on the descriptive record. But did the emergence of complex organisms necessarily entail the evolution of a technological species? I don’t think so. It took 500 million years for that to occur (it does not seem that coal resources formed hundreds of millions of years ago were tapped before humans). Given enough time obviously a technological species would evolve (e.g., extend the time of evaluation to 1 trillion years), but note that the earth has only ~5 billion years. Homo arrived on the scene in the last 20% of that interval.

Here I am positing at a minimum two not excessively likely or inevitable events over a 5 billion year time span which would lead to a hyper-technological and cultural species:

- The emergence of multicellular life

- The emergence of a lineage with the propensities of Homo

One Homo evolved and expanded outside of Africa I suspect that something of the form of a technological civilization became inevitable n this planet. We see parallelism in our own short post-Pleistocene epoch. Multiple human societies shifted from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists over the past 10,000 years. The experience of the New World civilizations in particular illustrates that human universal tendencies are real. Not only were “game changing” cultural forms such as agriculture and literacy invented independently during the Holocene, but they were not invented during earlier interglacials (at least in all likelihood).


Khufu, Necho, Augustus and Napoleon

Why not? Well, consider the cultural torpidity of Paleolithic toolkits, which might persist for hundreds of thousands of years! I suspect some of this due to biology. But even over the Holocene we do perceive that cultural change has proceeded at a more rapid clip as time has progressed (i.e., at a minimum cultural change has been accelerating, and it may be that the rate of acceleration itself is increasing!). Consider that the civilization of ancient Egypt spanned at least 2,000 years. Though there are clear differences, the continuity between Old Kingdom Egypt and the last dynasties before the Assyrian and Persian conquests is very obvious to us, and would be obvious to ancient Egyptians. In contrast, 2,000 years separates us from Augustan Rome. The continuities here are clear as well (e.g., the Roman alphabet), but the cultural change is also clear (if you wish to argue that the early modern and modern period are sui generis, the 1,500 year interval from Augustan Rome to the Neo-Classical Renaissance would still be a stark contrast when compared against an ancient Egyptian reference*, despite the latter’s aping of the forms of the former).

So far I have focused on the vertical dimension of time. But there is also the lateral dimension, of cross-fertilization across the branches of the hominin family tree. The admixture of a Neanderthal element into non-Africans has started to become widely accepted recently, thanks to the confluence of archaeology and genomics in the field of ancient DNA. Even if one rejects the viability of Neanderthal admixture, the solution to the conundrum of these results must still entail stepping away from a simple model of recent exclusive origin of humans from a small African population. There are also hints of admixture with other archaic lineages on the Pacific fringe, and within Africa.

Until recently it was common to posit that modern humans, our own lineage, had some special genius which allowed it to sweep the field and extinguish our cousins. The qualitative result of Luke Jostins’ plot was known; that other hominin lineages also exhibited encephalization. In fact, it was a curious fact that Neanderthals on average had larger cranial capacities than anatomically modern humans. But the reality remained that we replaced them, ergo, we must have a special genius. Until the lack of distinction between Neanderthals and modern humans on loci implicated in the necessary (if not sufficient) competency of language that trait was a prime candidate for what made “us” special. But now I put “us” in quotation marks. The data do point to an overwhelming descent from an African or near-African population for non-Africans over the past 100,000 years. But the “archaic admixture” is not trivial. What was they are us, and we have become what they might have been.

For over two centuries there has been a debate in the West between monogenesis and polygenesis. The former is the position that humankind derives from one single pair or population (the former a straightforward recapitulation of the standard Abrahamic model). The latter is the position that different races of humans derive from different proto-humans, or, for the Christian polygenists that only Europeans descent from Adam and Eve (the other races being “non-Adamic”). Echoes of this conflict persist down to the present era. Many of the earlier partisans of “Out of Africa” have claimed that the proponents of multiregionalism were latter-day polygenists (not without total justification in some cases).

But the conflict between monogenism and polygenism is not the appropriate frame for what is being unveiled by reality before our eyes. What we see in the creation of modern humanity is a monogenic base inflected with the flavors of polygenism. Modern humans descend, by and large, from an expansion of an African population over the past 200,000 years. But on the margins there are other strands and filaments of ancestry which tie disparate populations back to lineages which branched off far earlier from the main trunk. At a minimum hundreds of thousands, and perhaps an order of 1 million years, before our own age. Today genomics avails of us the statistical power to extract out these discordant signals from the fluid “Out of Africa” narrative, but I would not be surprised if in the near future we stumble upon more and more “long branches” of less noteworthy quantity. Admixture is likely to be an old and persistent story in the hominin lineage, with only the most recent substantial bouts of separation and hybridization being of notice and curiosity at this moment in time.

What does all this mean? And why have I juxtaposed deep time natural history across the tree of life with inferences of relatively recent paleoanthropology? Let’s start with two propositions:

- Technological civilization, an outward manifestation of radically complex sentience, is not inevitable, though it is probable given certain preconditions (I believe that the existence of Homo increased its probability to ~1.0 over a reasonable time period)

- Radically complex sentience is not the monopoly of a particular exclusive lineage which accrues its genius from a particular specific forebear

John Farrell has pointed out the possible issues that the Roman Catholic church may have with the new model of human origins. But the Catholic church is only but a reflection of more general human strain of thought. Descent-groups, whether real or fictive, loom large in the human imagination. The evolutionary rationale for this is not too hard to explain, but we co-opt the importance of kinship in many different domains. Like evolution, human cultural forms simply take what is already present, and retrofit and modify elements to taste.

So why are humans special? And why do humans have inalienable rights? Many of us may not agree with the proposition that we are the descendants of Adam and Eve, and therefore we were granted the divine grace of eternal souls. But a hint of this logic can be found in the assumptions of many thinkers who do not agree with the propositions of the Roman Catholic church. Recently I listened to Sherry Turkle arguing against a reliance on “robot companions” which are able to exhibit the verisimilitude of human emotions for those who may be lacking in companionship (e.g., the aged and infirm). Though Turkles’ arguments were not without foundation, some of her arguments were of the form that “they are not us, they are not real, we are real. And that matters.” This is certainly true now, but will it always be? Who is this “they” and this “we”? And what does “real” mean? Are emotions a mysterious human quality, which will remain outside of the grasp of those who do not descend from Adam, literal or metaphorical?

If there arises a point where non-human sentience is a reality, do they have the same rights as we? Though the difference is radical in terms of quantity to some extent I think we know the answer: they are human by the way they are, not by the way their ancestors were. The “taint” of admixture with diverse lineages across the present human tree of life has not resulted in an updating of our understanding of human rights. That is because the idea that we are all the children of Adam, or the descendants of mitochondrial Eve, is a post facto justification for our understanding of what the rights of humanity are, adn what humanity is. And what it is is a particular ecological niche, a way of being, not being who descend down in a line of biological relationship from a particular person or persons.

* The cultural fundamentals of Old Kingdom Egypt arguably persisted in a living fossil form in the temple at Philae down to the 6th century A.D.! Therefore, a 3,500 year lineage of literature continuity.

Image credits: all public domain images from Wikpedia

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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Tectonic environments of ancient civilizations in the eastern hemisphere:

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

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

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Civilization, History 
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In the post below, Colder climates favor civilization even among Whites alone, I made a few comments about possible differences between Germans in Illinois and Germans in Texas, based on nothing much more than a hunch. I trust my hunches, but there’s no reason you should, so I decided to see if there was anything here in regards to my assumption about interregional differences in intelligence and how they might track across ethnic groups. So of course I went to the GSS website, and checked the mean WORDSUM scores of various white ethnic groups broken down by region. I specifically focused on whites who stated that their ancestors were from England & Wales, Germany and Ireland. My reasoning is that these are three groups with very large N’s within the GSS sample and they are well represented across the regions in absolute numbers. My main motivation was see if the differences across regions were similar for all three groups. Here are the states for each region (the Census made up these categories):

New England – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut
Middle Atlantic – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania
East North Central – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
West North Central – Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas
South Atlantic – Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
East South Central – Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi
West South Central – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas
Mountain – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada
Pacific – Washington, Imbler, California, Alaska, Hawaii

Obviously the breakdown isn’t ideal. I think Delaware and Maryland arguably should be Mid-Atlantic. I also believe that Wisconsin is more plausibly in the West North Central than Missouri or Kansas is. But those are the regional breakdowns and I can’t do anything about them.

So, WORDSUM is a vocabulary test on a 0-10 scale. For the whole GSS sample the mean was 6.00, with 1 standard deviation being 2.16. Below is a chart which shows the relationship between WORDSUM scores (Y axis) for various regions (X axis) for each of the three ethnic groups:


The tables below are pretty self-explanatory. At the top you see the mean WORDSUM scores for each ethnic group for each region. I put the N’s in there as well so you can see that the sample sizes were pretty big. Note that there is more interregional variation within an ethnic group than there is interethnic variation within a region (the standard deviation across the columns is 50% bigger than across the rows). Just to be clear, I also included some tables which show the differences in WORDSUM mean scores between the regions like so: (row – column) = value.

New England

Middle Atlantic

East North Central

West North Central

South Atlantic

East South Central

West South Central

Mountain

Pacific

N

England & Wales

7.4

7.09

6.71

6.65

6.66

6.2

6.87

6.84

7.1

2,462

Germany

7.7

6.31

6.01

6.33

6.16

5.83

6.2

6.37

6.36

3,316

Ireland

6.98

7.07

6.15

6.46

6.06

5.66

6.03

6.51

6.88

2,207

tyle="text-align: left; width: 1.3673in;">

England & Wales

New England

Middle Atlantic

East North Central

West North Central

South Atlantic

East South Central

West South Central

Mountain

Pacific

New England

-

0.31

0.69

0.75

0.74

1.2

0.53

0.56

0.3

Middle Atlantic

-

-

0.38

0.44

0.43

0.89

0.22

0.25

-0.01

East North Central

-

-

-

0.06

0.05

0.51

-0.16

-0.13

-0.39

West North Central

-

-

-

-

-0.01

0.45

-0.22

-0.19

-0.45

South Atlantic

-

-

-

-

-

0.46

-0.21

-0.18

-0.44

East South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.67

-0.64

-0.9

West South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

0.03

-0.23

Mountain

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.26

Pacific

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

Germany

New England

Middle Atlantic

East North Central

West North Central

South Atlantic

East South Central

West South Central

Mountain

Pacific

New England

-

1.39

1.69

1.37

1.54

1.87

1.5

1.33

1.34

Middle Atlantic

-

-

0.3

-0.02

0.15

0.48

0.11

-0.06

-0.05

East North Central

-

-

-

-0.32

-0.15

0.18

-0.19

-0.36

-0.35

West North Central

-

-

-

- <
/p>

0.17

0.5

0.13

-0.04

-0.03

South Atlantic

-

-

-

-

-

0.33

-0.04

-0.21

-0.2

East South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.37

-0.54

-0.53

West South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.17

-0.16

Mountain

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

0.01

Pacific

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

Ireland

New England

Middle Atlantic

East North Central

West North Central

South Atlantic

East South Central

West South Central

Mountain

Pacific

New England

-

-0.09

0.83

0.52

0.92

1.32

0.95

0.47

0.1

Middle Atlantic

-

-

0.92

0.61

1.01

1.41

1.04

0.56

0.19

East North Central

-

-

-

-0.31

0.09

0.49

0.12

-0.36

-0.73

West North Central

-

-

-

-

0.4

0.8

0.43

-0.05

-0.42

South Atlantic

-

-

-

-

-

0.4

0.03

-0.45

-0.82

East South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.37

-0.85

-1.22

West South Central

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.48

-0.85

Mountain

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-0.37

Pacific

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Update: Added a chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Civilization, Culture, History, Religion 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"