A Parsi woman in traditional costume, painted by Raja Ravi Varma (source)
The Parsis are renowned for achievement in many areas of life—trade, education, philanthropy, and popular culture. Yet they number only about 100,000 in the entire world (Wikipedia, 2013). What qualities made them so successful? The most often-cited ones are their thrift, foresight, skillfulness, and sense of initiative. The Wikipedia entry notes:
While the British saw the other Indians, “as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful” (Luhrmann 1994, p. 333), the Parsis were seen to have the traits that the colonial authorities tended to ascribe to themselves. Mandelslo (1638) saw them as “diligent”, “conscientious” and “skillful” in their mercantile pursuits.
But why do they have these qualities? Before the British arrived in the early 17th century, the Parsis were living in farming communities in western India, apparently like many other Indians. Centuries earlier they may have been merchants and traders, but by the time the British came there was little in the cultural environment to support a mercantile lifestyle, at least no more than for other Indians in similar communities.
Did these qualities become embedded through gene-culture evolution? This possibility is evoked, in passing, by anthropologists Greg Cochran, John Hardy, and Henry Harpending while discussing the intellectual performance of Ashkenazi Jews:
Since strong selection for IQ seems to be unusual in humans (few populations have had most members performing high-complexity jobs) and since near-total reproductive isolation is also unusual, the Ashkenazim may be the only extant human population with polymorphic frequencies of IQ-boosting disease mutations, although another place to look for a similar phenomenon is in India. In particular, the Parsi are an endogamous group with high levels of economic achievement, a history of long-distance trading, business and management, and who suffer high prevalences of Parkinson disease, breast cancer and tremor disorders, diseases not present in their neighbours. (Cochran et al., 2006)
Parsi-specific neurologic diseases are listed in a screening study:
We designed a questionnaire to rapidly screen a community of 851 people (Parsis living in a colony in Bombay, India) for possible neurologic diseases. […] One hundred and sixty-three people were identified by this questionnaire as possibly having neurologic disease. Neurologists later examined these 163 people and found that 80 of them actually suffered from at least one of the neurologic diseases of interest (positive predictive value = 48 percent). The most common neurologic disorders were peripheral neuropathy (32 cases), essential tremor (13 cases), stroke (12 cases), Parkinson’s disease (six cases), and epilepsy (four cases). (Bharucha et al., 1987)
Although some of these genetic diseases, especially Parkinson’s, greatly reduce life expectancy, mean longevity is actually higher among the Parsis than in most human populations (Ravindran, 2011).
Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending explain the presence of these diseases as a side effect of strong natural selection over a relatively short time scale. Selection was for “rough-and-ready” solutions that came with a cost. Over a longer time scale, and with continuing selection, these bugs would have eventually been ironed out.
The conventional explanation attributes these diseases to a founder effect, i.e., the Parsis are descended from a small group of individuals and are thus more likely to diverge, genetically, from other humans. In short, the smaller the founder group, the less it will genetically represent the source population, and the higher will be the incidence of certain genetic diseases. By way of illustration, if you pick five Smarties from a box of Smarties, they’re much less likely to be a representative cross-section than if you empty out half the box.
But are the Parsis descended from a small founder group? According to tradition, their ancestors fled from Persia to western India when Muslim Arabs invaded their native land in the 7th century. Once settled in India, they had no further contacts with their fellow Persians for several centuries. Meanwhile, they married only amongst themselves and avoided intermarriage with the local Indians.
This narrative is incorrect, however, on two points. Although the Parsis have been endogamous for some time, there was at first intermarriage with the local population, essentially between Persian men and Gujarati women. Y-chromosome and mtDNA studies indicate that paternal lineages are largely Persian and maternal lineages largely Gujarati (Qamar et al., 2002; Quintana-Murci et al., 2004).
It’s also questionable whether the Parsis are descended from a single wave of refugees. The Persians ruled Sindh in western India for several centuries before the Islamic conquest, and their traders had probably already become established in ports along India’s west coast. This initial community may have later taken in waves of refugees fleeing the Islamic conquest of Persia (Wikipedia, 2013).
The historical record is clearer when the British arrived in the early 17th century. At that time, the Parsis were living in farming communities across Gujarat, and it was only then that many moved to Bombay to seek opportunities for trade and work with the British East India Company. Their economic ascension was rapid. While in 1700, “fewer than a handful of individuals appear as merchants in any records; by mid-century, Parsis engaged in commerce constituted one of the important commercial groups in Bombay” (White 1991, p. 312).
It’s possible that the Parsis had been merchants several centuries earlier. They may have then been stripped of their mercantile livelihood as punishment for supporting local Hindu rulers when the Muslims overran western India in the 11th to 13th centuries:
For years and years, the Parsis lived in perfect peace and harmony; they increased in number and dispersed in small knots over the whole of Guzarat [Gujarat]. The Mohammedan conquest at first did them harm. They had sided with the Rana against the Sultan of Ahmedabad; after the storming of Sanjan , they had much to suffer from their new rulers, and the Sacred Fire was moved from place to place. (Menant, 1901, p.134)
At present, we simply don’t know enough about Parsi history to understand what social and psychological characteristics may have been favored during the long centuries between the arrival of this community in India and its encounter with the British from the 17th century onward. We might be able to reconstruct this history from genetic data. Indeed, a “Parsi Genome Project” was launched with much fanfare a few years ago, but it now seems to be stalled for lack of funds (Phadnis, 2012).
Whatever eventually happens, such research may become a race against time. You see, the Parsis are dying out. They have long had high rates of late marriage and non-marriage, and both trends have worsened in recent decades. By 1980-82, their total fertility rate was already down to 1.12, i.e., half the replacement rate. By 2000, it was 0.94. The latest data, from 2001-2006, indicate a total fertility rate of 0.88 (Patel, 2011).
That’s even lower than Japan’s fertility rate. And, unlike Japan, the Parsi community cannot afford to lose a few million people. A recent Parsi novel, Family Matters, highlights the growing sense of foreboding:
“Demographics show we’ll be extinct in fifty years. Maybe it’s the best thing. What’s the use of having spineless weaklings walking around, Parsi in name only.”
[…] Extinct, like dinosaurs. They’ll have to study our bones, that’s all.
[..] “If, if, if,” said Dr. Fitter. “If we are meant to die out, nothing will save us.”“Yes,” said Inspector Masalavala. “But it will be a loss to the whole world. When a culture vanishes, humanity is the loser.” (Mistry, 2002, pp. 46, 385, 388)
And when a people vanishes, the loss is even greater. A culture can at least be preserved in books, videos, and the like.
Bharucha, N.E., E.P. Bharucha, H.D. Dastur, and B.S. Schoenberg. (1987). Pilot survey of the prevalence of neurologic disorders in the Parsi community of Bombay, Am. J. Prev. Med., 3, 293-299.
Cochran, G., J. Hardy, and H. Harpending. (2006). Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science, 38, 659-693
Menant, D. (1901). Zoroastrianism and the Parsis, The North American Review, 172, 132-147.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25105117
Mistry, R. (2002). Family Matters. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Patel, D. (2011). Understanding Parsi population decline in India: A historical perspective, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre, Mumbai.http://zoroastriansnet.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/2011-05-understanding-parsi-population-decline-in-india-nehru-centre.pdf
Phadnis, S. (2012). Avesthagen in a freeze as funds dry up, May 29, The Times of India, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-05-29/india-business/31886941_1_villoo-morawala-patell-salary-avesta-good-earth/2
Qamar, R., Ayub, Q., Mohyuddin, A., Helgason, A., Mazhar, K., Mansoor, A., Zerjal, T., Tyler-Smith, C. et al. (2002). Y-chromosomal DNA variation in Pakistan, American Journal of Human Genetics, 70, 1107–1124.
Quintana-Murci, L., Chaix, R., Wells, R., Spencer, B., Doron M., Sayar, H., Scozzari, R., Rengo, C., Al-Zahery, N. et al. (2004). Where West Meets East: The Complex mtDNA Landscape of the Southwest and Central Asian Corridor, American Journal of Human Genetics, 74, 827–845.
Ravindran, N. (2011). The art of longevity, April 5, India Todayhttp://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/reasons-why-parsis-live-longer-than-indians/1/134703.html
White, D. (1991). From Crisis to Community Definition:The Dynamics of Eighteenth-Century Parsi Philanthropy, Modern Asian Studies, 25, 303–320
Wikipedia. (2013). Parsi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsi