I now pronounce you

743 – 813 CE

Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800, a collaboration between Church and State. A particular division of power between secular and religious authorities would define European society for many centuries. 

On this blog I pay particular attention to kinship systems. They deserve this attention: the study of kinship is the most important contribution of cultural anthropology to the social sciences. And while kinship can seem like a recondite, specialized topic, I would argue that it is important for understanding not just small scale, tribal, “kin based” societies, but the major civilizations of Eurasia as well. Europe ­– specifically Western Christendom – followed a particular path in the development of kinship and family life. The Western Church prohibited cousin marriage, divorce and polygamy, and encouraged the breakup of extended families, and clans. Unusually among major civilization, Christian marriage depended on the consent of both groom and bride, rather than being arranged by parents (at least below the level of royalty and high aristocracy), resulting in a shift in power from older to younger generations, and probably encouraging the accumulation of physical and human capital by young couples.

There is evidence that modern Westerners, the W.E.I.R.D (Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), have a distinctive cognitive style, relatively individualistic and context-independent. The roots of this distinctive psychology may go back to the Middle Ages. This argument is made in several recent articles and a book from Joe Henrich and co-workers. (I haven’t read the book yet.) A few observations: religion isn’t everything; differences in kinship systemsand intellectual style between Europe and China are evident well before the advent of Christianity. Also, it’s not just the influence of the Church that mattered for the establishment of the Western kinship system in the early Middle Ages, but the development of a particular economic regime, the bipartite manor, in which peasants worked some of the week on their own land and some of the week for their lords. The lords of the manors, clerical and secular, pushed for the establishment of independent nuclear families as basic units of production and surplus extraction. Here’s a scholarly treatment, and you can find a lot more from the blogger and tweeterwho calls herself h-bd chick.

Just a generation after Charlemagne, Tang dynasty China presents an instructive contrast. Buddhism had been spreading extensively in China, and Buddhist monasteries had come to acquire considerable wealth. Buddhism presents some clear parallels with Christianity, both in ideals and institutions, but China followed a different path from Europe religiously and socially. Confucian scholars resented the new religion, and complained that it undermined the loyalty of father to son, and subject to emperor. Responding to these complaints, the emperor Wuzong suppressed Buddhist monasteries in 845, and the religion was brought under heavy state control. State patriarchy won, and would dominate China for more than another millennium.

Culture of honor

The major civilizations of Eurasia found different ways to integrate

(a) systems of kinship and descent, with roots stretching back into the deep history of Neolithic demic expansions,

(b) states and state formation, especially along meta-ethnic frontiers, and

(c) major world religions.

In Classical Greece and Rome, devotion to patrilineal descent groups was edged out by wider loyalties to the city state. And in Late Antiquity and later, Christianity in Europe would also encourage the weakening of extended family ties. China took a different path, upholding state patriarchy and the rule of the clan, and eventually suppressing Buddhist monasteries.

In the case of the Islamic world, something about (a) kinship, marriage, and descent is reflected in this map, which shows percentages of consanguineal marriages (first and second cousins) around the world today.
Dravidian southern India has a tradition where men from group A can take wives from group B but not from their own group, and vice versa, which can result after a generation in cousin marriage, specifically cross-cousin marriage where the linking parents are of opposite sex. (Aboriginal Australia has similar marriage rules.) In the south Indian case even some uncle-niece marriages are allowed, specifically marriage of a man to his sister’s daughter, who is categorized as an in-law rather than a blood relation. The Islamic Middle East and Central Asia, a culture area formed in the course of the great Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, have another kind of cousin marriage, where marriages are kept within a patriline: i.e. it is common for a man to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. Such marriages are not directly mandated by Muslim law. However Muslim rules of inheritance may indirectly encourage them. Under traditional Muslim law, each daughter gets one share of inheritance; each son gets two shares. This is a better deal for women than the one where sons get everything (as in traditional China, for example). But it means that a lineage can expect to lose a third of its property with each generation if it lets daughters marry out.

There is probably more going on, though, than just inheritance law: marriage within the patrilineage long predates the rise of Islam among Near Eastern pastoralists. It is probably connected with another characteristic of this culture area: an intense culture of honor, including a high premium on female purity (guaranteeing the integrity of the patrilineage). To allow a daughter or sister to be seduced by an outsider is deeply dishonorable. But even a legitimate marriage to an outsider carries some shame, putting the wife-giving family in an inferior relation to the wife-takers. Not letting daughters and sisters marry outside the patriline is one way for a lineage to advertise its honor.

One of the classic studies of the culture of honor in the Mediterranean is entitled The Fate of Shechem. The reference is to the story of Shechem and Dinah and her brothers in Genesis 34. Shechem, prince of a then-Canaanite city, seduces (or maybe rapes) the Israelite Dinah. His father, the king, proposes to make things right with a classic marriage alliance: “Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You shall dwell with us; and the land shall be open to you; dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.” Dinah’s brothers, who are Jacob’s sons, pretend to agree to the bargain, but use a ruse to kill Shechem and his father and plunder their city. Jacob is outraged that he has acquired a whole new set of enemies, but his sons ask “Shall he make our sister a whore?” The advantages of an exogamous marital alliance are trumped by an unflinching determination to avoid a humiliating sexual connection: blood washes honor clean.

Bring out your dead

577 – 658

We’re now taking history less than one century per day.

Something major happened to Earth’s atmosphere in 535. We have reports from around the world of the sun being darkened or blotted out for more than a year, and evidence from tree rings and ice cores of an extreme cold spell. The culprit might have been dust thrown into the atmosphere by volcano or a comet. This on its own must have been bad news for the world’s population. But even more consequential was what happened starting seven years later. In 542, bubonic plague made an appearance in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, and rapidly spread around the Mediterranean, eventually reaching much of western Europe and Persia. (China seems to have gotten off more lightly.) It’s possible the epidemic had its origin among rodents in the east African Great Lakes region: disturbances to these populations after 535 may have contributed to the spread of plague, either up the Nile valley, or to trading towns on the Indian Ocean. Recent genetic evidence has confirmed that plague bacteria from this period are almost identical to those from the later, better known Black Death in the late Middle Ages. The plague struck repeatedly around west Eurasia for the next 200 years, before disappearing. The death toll must have been many tens of millions.755

Major movements of peoples would follow the plague in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine reconquest of most of the western Roman Empire, under Justinian, came undone as a new wave of Germanic barbarians, the Lombards, occupied Italy. The Anglo-Saxons expanded from the east of England to occupy most of present-day England. Slavs moved south to occupy most of the Balkans. And, most consequentially, Arabs under the banner of Islam occupied most of the Middle East and North Africa.


208 -506 CE

There has been a hiatus in Logarithmic History for a few days while I was traveling. Here are some post filling in the gap, covering good times and bad, selfish germs and selfish memes.

The historical Jesus

8 BCE – 103 CE

The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring Him straight into our time as a Teacher and Savior. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed to meet it. But He does not stay: He passes by our time and returns to His own … by the same historical inevitability by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position.

Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

Taking stories of the past seriously is not the same as taking them literally, as we’ve already seen in the cases of Crater Lake and the Exodus. By the time Albert Schweitzer wrote the words above, scholars of the New Testament, working for more than a century, especially in Germany, had pieced together an account of Jesus and his message very much at variance with millennia-old Christian doctrine.* It’s a testament to Schweitzer’s intellectual integrity that he – a believing Christian – followed the evidence where it took him. His general conclusions (although not all the details) are now very much the scholarly mainstream. Bart Ehrman summarizes in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

Jesus is best understood as a first-century Jewish apocalypticist. This is a shorthand way of saying that Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected that this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. It’s pretty shocking stuff, really. And the evidence that Jesus believed and taught it is fairly impressive.

The study of the past – by biologists, geologists, physicists, and philologists – had a disturbing effect on the intellectual equilibrium of a Christian society. No doubt it will go on disturbing us, Christian or not.

* Some “New Atheists” not only  reject the Christian conception of Jesus as Messiah and Savior, but doubt whether he existed at all. From the “History for Atheists” blog, here’s a good discussion of why most scholars believe that Jesus really existed.

Mirror empires

After centuries of division into warring states, China was united in 221 BCE, under the short-lived Qin and then the long-lived Han dynasties. (Here’s a dynamic map showing the process of unification.) Just a few years later, in 209 BCE, the nomads of the steppe north of China were united under the Xiongnu confederation.

China, like Rome, provides an instance of empire formation along a metaethnic frontier between civilized and barbarian peoples. But it also differs from the Roman case. The Roman frontier kept pushing into barbarian territory for many centuries. The descendants of Asterix and Obelisk would largely forget their identity as Gauls, and become Romans, speaking a dialect of Latin.


But in the Far East, the steppe north of China would not support agriculture, and the people who lived there would continue their nomad way of life and retain a separate ethnic identity. For centuries after 221 BCE, China held off the barbarians by a combination of military measures (notably of course the Great Wall) and bribery (poorly disguised as “gifts” from Emperor to subject). The Xiongnu held together as a centralized state because their ruler managed the flow of trade and tribute from China. In effect, Qin/Han and Xiongnu were “mirror empires,” facing off across the line between Sown and Steppe.


The forgotten revolution

253 – 127 BCE


Here’s where this number comes from: Take a sequence of symbols, (a b c d e f g h i j), say. Construct as many groups as you want by sticking parentheses around any two or more symbols or groups. For example, ((a b) c d (e (f g)) h i j). Or (a (b (c (d e f g) h) i) j). Or (a (b (c d e)) f g (h i j)). There are 103,049 ways of doing this with ten symbols, so 103,049 is the tenth Schröder number, named after the man who published this result in 1870. But it turns out that the same number is given in Plutarch – attributed to Hipparchus (190-120 BCE) – as the number of “affirmative compound propositions” that can be made from ten simple propositions. It is only in 1994 that somebody connected the dots, and realized that Schröder numbers had been discovered 2000 years before Schröder.

This is just one example of the very high level of mathematical, scientific, and technical accomplishment attained within the Hellenistic world — the world of Greek culture after Alexander. Lucio Russo calls Hellenistic science The Forgotten Revolution. A couple more examples from his book:

Everybody knows that Aristotle – and thus “the Greeks” – thought that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Supposedly it took Galileo to prove him wrong. But in fact there is a clear statement in Lucretius (De Rerum Natura II:225-239) that objects of different weight fall at the same speed, unless air resistance kicks in; Russo argues that circumstantial evidence points to Hipparchus as the source.

Russo also argues that Hellenistic thinkers understood that gravity could account for the spherical shapes of the earth and planets, and that the balance between gravity and linear velocity could account for circular orbits. He shows that some strange passages in Vitruvius and Pliny about the sun making planets go around by shooting out triangular rays make sense if you assume the authors were looking at, but not understanding, vector diagrams of successive straight line motions bent into a circle by a centripetal pull.

Russo argues that scientific progress largely came to an end by 150 BCE, and the Roman period saw an actual decline in scientific understanding. Later writers like Ptolemy and Galen, often taken to represent the height of Classical learning, were derivative, and didn’t really understand their predecessors: a stark reminder that a civilization may avoid collapse, and even maintain a decent level of prosperity, but regress intellectually.

Asabiya and metaethnic frontiers

In 390 BCE an army of Gauls, 30 thousand strong, marched out of northern Italy into Latium, an area that included Rome. They defeated a Roman army, sacked and burned Rome, and left only after being paid a large tribute. This marked a turning point for Rome, which resolved never again to allow such a disaster. Over the next century, Romans used a mixture of coercion and consent to bind their Italian allies more closely to them. Attempted secession was punished. But those who accepted their position as allies were not simply crushed and plundered (as in many other empires) but granted some or all of the privileges of Roman citizenship in return for military contributions. Membership in the Roman confederation was attractive enough that many Italian states sought it voluntarily.

The history of Greece during this period is different. Greek city-states never united. In the aftermath of the bloody Peloponnesian war, different city-states went on fighting for supremacy, until they were finally conquered by an outside power, Macedonia.

Peter Turchin is an ecologist-turned-social scientist who thinks that the contrast between Rome and Greece illustrates some general laws of history. According to Turchin, the rise and fall of empires is partly conditioned on the strength of “asabiya,” or social solidarity. (He borrows the term from the medieval Arab historian ibn Khaldun.) The strength of states depends not just on material factors like population size and wealth, but also on morale – on the willingness of citizens to work together for the common good (which includes punishing free-riders). Asabiya was high in early Rome; in Greece, by contrast, while individual city-states might evoke strong group feeling, there was little willingness to cooperate for the good of Greece as a whole.


Asabiya in turn (according to Turchin) develops especially along “metaethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures meet and clash. The illustration (by me, writing about matrilocal asabiya, not Turchin) shows the general idea. When culture changes little, or changes gradually, with distance (a), there is little basis for uniting independent polities (stars) into enduring larger units, and alliances (dotted lines) shift constantly. Along the metaethnic frontier (b), the opposite is true (solid lines show cohesive enduring units). Think Game of Thrones versus Lord of the Rings: it’s easier to get men and elves and dwarves to work together when they are fighting an army of orcs serving the Dark Lord.

Sometimes a metaethnic frontier develops where major religions or ideologies clash. But in the Roman case, the metaethnic frontier ran along the line dividing civilized Italians from barbarian Celts. Greece, by contrast, experienced a surge in fellow-feeling when Athens and Sparta fought together to defeat Persia, but this was too short lived to lead to a unified state.

Also worth reading is Empires of Trust, tracing parallels between the expansion of early Rome and of the United States – two immense states on the western frontiers of civilization. (The book is better than most comparing America and Rome.)

And here’s me, on slime mold asabiya.

The way and the word, continued

Continuing yesterday’s post: What accounts for the differences between classical Greek and early Chinese intellectual traditions? Below are a few things that might be involved; this is hardly a complete list.

Non-degenerate limit random variables

Here’s a nice little puzzle involving probability:

Take a bag with two marbles in it, one red and one green. Draw a marble at random. Put it back in the bag, and add another marble of the same color. Repeat: randomly draw one of the (now three) marbles in the bag, put it back, and again add a marble of the same color. Continue, adding a marble every time. What happens to the frequency of red marbles as the number of marbles in the bag goes to infinity?

Answer: When you carry out this procedure, the frequency approaches a limit. As the number of marbles grows larger, you sooner or later get, and stay, arbitrarily close to the limit. Now carry out the same infinite procedure a second time. This time you also approach a limit. But the limit this time is different! The first time, the limiting frequency might be .23748… . The second time it might be .93334… . If you keep on doing the infinite experiment a bunch of times, you’ll approach a different limit every time, with the various limits uniformly distributed over the interval [0,1]. These are non-degenerate limits. This is different from what you get when you flip a fair coin infinitely many times. The frequency of heads will always approach the same “degenerate” limit, .50000… .

A chance element like this is probably involved in the intellectual traditions of major civilizations. The first few great thinkers to come along have a massive influence on the direction of intellectual life, just as picking a red or green ball on the first round makes a big difference to the final limit. So Pythagoras’ and Plato’s obsessions with numbers and geometry as the keys to the universe have a disproportionate influence on later Western thought. Subsequent thinkers have progressively less and less influence, just as picking a green or red ball when there are already a hundred balls in the bag doesn’t make much difference in the ultimate limiting frequency.


But there may be more systematic things going on. Daniel Freedman was a psychologist, white, married to a Chinese-American woman. While awaiting the birth of their first child, the couple found that relatives on the two sides of the family had very different ideas about how newborns behave. Freedman was sufficiently intrigued that he carried out an investigation of assorted newborns in a San Francisco hospital, including babies of Chinese and European origin.

It was almost immediately apparent that Chinese and Caucasian babies were indeed like two different breeds. Caucasian babies started to cry more easily, and once started they were more difficult to console. Chinese babies adapted to almost any position in which they were placed.. … In a similar maneuver … we briefly pressed the baby’s nose with a cloth, forcing him to breathe with his mouth. Most Caucasian and black babies fight this … by immediately turning away or swiping at the cloth. However … the average Chinese baby in our study … simply lay on his back, breathing from his mouth. … Chinese babies were … more amenable and adaptable to the machinations of the examiners. p. 146

This might seem like a minor curiosity, but it fits neatly with later work demonstrating East-West differences in adult cognitive styles. This raises the possibility that differences in temperament evident at a very early age might influence the evolution of intellectual traditions.


Coined money apparently initially appeared in Lydia, in Asia Minor, around 600 BCE. It was quickly taken up by the Lydians’ Ionian Greek neighbors. And it is in Ionia too that we find the earliest philosophers. In Money and the Early Greek Mind, Richard Seaford argues that these developments are connected. The monetization of the Greek economy accustomed Greeks to the idea that a common impersonal material measure of value, relatively independent of individual control, underlay the multifarious goods and services produced by the polis economy. This led in turn to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were obsessed with finding the one impersonal natural element – water, air, number – of which the whole heterogeneous variety of the natural world was made.

In Athens, the expansion of a monetary economy led to a curious insult – opsophagos, or fish-eater. What made this an insult is that fish were sold in the marketplace. They were a mere commodity, free of the ritual and taboos that surrounded the sacrifice and distribution of animal flesh. The fish-eater was a rich man indulging the pleasures of consumption free from the constraints of tradition and decorum. And his conspicuous consumption offended not only tradition but the spirit of democracy. Better that he spend his wealth on the public good.

In traditional China, by contrast, coins, and later paper money, would challenge but never break the hold of state patriarchy. And Spartans too recognized the subversive potential of money. Sparta used iron bars for money, precisely because they were inconvenient.

The way and the word

525 – 386 BCE

Over the course of the mid to late first millennium BCE, Greeks and Chinese developed impressive intellectual traditions that would profoundly influence later civilization. These traditions differed a lot. In content:

The fundamental concepts at play in Greece and China were strikingly dissimilar. The Greeks focused on nature and on elements, concepts that seem familiar and obvious to those educated in modern science.  They invented the concept of nature to serve distinct polemical purposes – to define their sphere of competence as new-style investigators and to underline the superiority of naturalistic views to … traditional beliefs. … Chinese investigators had a very different set of fundamental concerns, not nature and the elements, but the taoch’iyinyang, and the five phases. Where Greek inquirers strove to make a reputation for themselves as new-style Masters of Truth, most Chinese Possessors of the Way, had a very different program, namely to advise and guide rulers. … To that end they … redefined existing concepts … to produce a synthesis in which heaven, earth, society, and the human body all interacted to form a single resonant universe.

Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, p. 241

And in style of engagement:

Ancient Greek culture encouraged disagreement in natural philosophy and science as in every other field; the Chinese emphasized consensus. Success in debate was how you made your name in Greece, in a way that has no analogue in China.

Ibid. p.  247

What accounts for these differences? A few thoughts tomorrow.