Homo hierarchicus


The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 2000 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture, showing types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I forget genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.

Empires and barbarians


The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later.

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, along meta-ethnic frontiers and elsewhere, 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.
Southern India has a tradition where men from group A take wives from group B and vice versa, which can result after a generation in cousin marriage. (Aboriginal Australia has similar marriage rules.) 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 encouraged 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 the city, seduces (or maybe rapes) Dinah. His father, the king, proposes to make things right: “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 upset that he has acquired a whole new set of enemies, but his sons ask “Shall he make our sister a whore?” A remorseless sense of honor, a determination to avoid a humiliating sexual dependency, trumps the need for a marital alliance.



Bring out your dead


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.

Major movements of peoples followed 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.

The selfish meme


In the first decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, the number of those who worshiped him as a resurrected savior was at most a few thousand, and probably many fewer. In 313, when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan mandating tolerance for Christianity, Christians numbered many millions. Thus, in two and a half centuries, Christian numbers had doubled at least ten times. On average, someone who lived to the age of seventy-five during this period could expect to live through an eight-fold increase in the numbers of Christians between her birth and her death.

Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection — a spiritual survival of the fittest … The Darwinian image is appropriate: the central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves. Every religious movement was unstable and fissiparous; and these cults were not only splitting up and multiplying but reassembling in new forms.

Paul Johnson A History of Christianity

If we’re going to apply Darwinian analogies to culture, we might want to distinguish between the selection of memes within people’s heads, and between them (intra- and inter-cephalic selection, if you will). Inside people’s heads, different ideas survive or fail depending on the benefits and costs they produce for their carriers, how well they fit with other ideas, and so on. Outside people’s heads, some ideas may spread because people work extra hard to propagate them. Christianity spread as rapidly as it did partly because it radically exalted the Spirit over the Flesh. As Clement (a relative moderate among early Christians) wrote “Our ideal is not to experience desire at all.” A consequence is that the new religion effectively sterilized a fraction of its hosts, who gave up on the normal business of marrying and raising children, and turned into cultural super-propagators.

Two ways of life were given by the Lord to his church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, childbearing, property nor the possession of wealth. . . . Like some celestial beings, these gaze down upon human life, performing the duty of a priesthood to Almighty God for the whole race. . . . And the more humble, more human way prompts men to join in pure nuptials, and to produce children, to undertake government, to give orders to soldiers fighting for right; it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and for the other more secular interests as well as for religion.

Eusebius, quoted in Peter Brown The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

Women were another important vector for the spread of Christianity. Both pagans and Christians agreed they were over-represented among converts. Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, took a dim view of this, sounding like a modern critic of advertising for children: “Christians must admit that they can only persuade people destitute of sense, position, or intelligence, only slaves, women, and children, to accept their faith.” Tatian, a Christian apologist, was cheerier: “They say of us, that we gabble nonsense among females, half grown people, girls, and old women. Not so. Our maidens philosophize, and at their distaffs speak of things divine.”

Of course some of the same observations (e.g. regarding the overcoming of desire and religious celibacy) could be made about the spread of Buddhism during the same period, suggesting that there are general principles at work in the spread of religions, as in the spread of microorganisms.

For a sophisticated scholarly treatment along these lines of the interaction of selfish genes and selfish memes check out Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Societies, by cultural anthropologist Robert Paul.

Plagues and peoples


Every day on Logarithmic History we cover an interval 5.46% shorter than the preceding day. From covering the first 754 million years after the Big Bang on January 1, we’re down to just under one century worth of history today.

And it’s a bad century for both Rome and China. Rome goes through an economic crisis, with a huge currency devaluation. Political life goes to hell too. From 235-284 there are 20 Emperors; 18 of them die violently. The Roman Empire experiences multiple, destructive invasions by barbarians. It recovers toward the end of the century, but in a heavily militarized and authoritarian form. And in China the Han dynasty disappears entirely after 220, to be replaced by three kingdoms of barbarian origin.

This coincidence of catastrophes may be more than just bad luck. Put it this way: If we look at the Big Picture, going way back on our calendar, and turning for a moment from human history to the evolution of life, we can summarize biological evolution since the Cambrian as:

but …

  • Now and then, a physical catastrophe punctuates the history of life, causing mass extinctions, from which living things slowly recover.

Returning to human history, we can summarize social evolution since the adoption of agriculture as:

  • A process of escalation, in which conflicts between rival groups (kin groups, empires, and – we will see – major religions) are drivers of increasing social complexity …


  • Now and then, a biological catastrophe – in the form of an epidemic of some new disease – punctuates human history, causing major population losses, and often political and social collapse as well (i.e. the “germs” in Guns, Germs and Steel).

One such catastrophe contributed to the collapse of New World societies in the face of Old World diseases after 1492. But the Old World too must have had its own earlier catastrophes as the great killer diseases – the diseases of civilization that need a minimum population to keep going – established themselves.

Epidemic disease may have made a major contribution to the fall of Rome and of Han China. Rome suffered two massive epidemics, one from 165-180, another from 251-266. It’s plausible (and someday geneticsts will tell us whether it’s true or not) that these epidemics represent the arrival of smallpox and measles in the West. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (October 13). There may be a similar story to tell about China, also stricken by epidemics at this time. The opening of the Silk Road and of trade across the Indian Ocean allowed precious goods and new ideas to travel between civilizations. It also opened the way for lethal microorganisms. (In addition to “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a classic book here is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples.)