Tag Archives: religion

What do women want?

1.27-1.21 million years ago

As we noted in the last post, human females conceal ovulation (no chimp-style monthly sexual swellings) but advertise nubility (with conspicuous fat deposits). Presumably this has to do with sexual selection, via male mate choice. But sexual selection may have operated in the opposite direction, on male anatomy, as well.

Males of most primate species have a baculum, or penis bone. Human beings and spider monkeys are the exceptions. (A mnemonic: the mammals with penis bones are PRICCs – primates, rodents, insectivores, carnivores, chiropterans=bats.) The baculum helps to retract the penis when it’s not in use, so males in our species, lacking a penis bone, have more conspicuous dangling organs than most primate males.

This information comes from a recent book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us, by Robert Prum. Prum also cites a paper arguing that Adam’s “rib” (Hebrew tsela), the thing God used to make Eve (Genesis 2:21-23), was actually his baculum, providing a creationist explanation of “congenital human baculum deficiency.” The book contains lots of interesting tidbits like this, although I don’t know that I buy its central argument, that sexual selection via mate choice is largely a result of non-adaptive aesthetic preferences.

Men’s penises lack something else found in most primate species: most male primates have keratinized spines on their penises. But a gene involved in the development of penis spines got turned off in our evolutionary lineage, some time after our split with chimps, but before our split with Neanderthals. We’re not sure why. Penis spines might be favored in promiscuously mating species if they help one male dredge out sperm left by earlier matings with other males. So (relative) monogamy in our lineage might remove the evolutionary advantage of spines. But a non-spiny penis might also be less sensitive, and make for more prolonged intercourse.

If all this doesn’t answer the question “What do women want?”, it at least narrows down the possibilities a bit: not men with bony, spiny penises, apparently.

Culture wars

August 2015 – October 2016

Since 1981, the World Values Survey Association has been carrying out surveys around the world regarding people’s values, asking respondents, for example, whether most people can be trusted, and whether they are proud of their country. A lot of the variation in values across countries falls along two axes, call them Survival versus Well-Being/Self-Expression, and Traditional Authority versus Secular Rationality, shown as the x and y axes in the chart below.


In societies high on Survival and low on Well-Being/Self-Expression (left on the x axis), people tend be less trusting and less happy, and to value money and material well-being more than emotionally rewarding careers. In societies high on Traditional Authority (low on the y axis), people are more patriotic and more religious.

We can also plot countries around the world by their positions on the two axes, as in the chart below.


A few observations: Confirming everyone’s stereotypes, Sweden is extreme both in post-materialism, and in post-traditionalism. Overseas Europe is more traditional than the Continent: the Anglosphere is more traditional than the Continental Protestant world, and Latin America more traditional than the Continental Catholic world. And it looks like Soviet Communism did a moderately effective job of destroying traditional values, and a really good job of leaving people miserable.

Values change over time. They constitute a mediating link between economic and political change: economic changes tend to result in changing values, while changing values tend to result in changing political institutions. More specifically:

  1. The growth of industrial employment tends to move societies up the y axis, away from traditional values, without shifting them much on the x-axis. The history of rapidly industrializing late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Europe reflects this value shift, with new ideologies and leaders bypassing or assaulting traditional hierarchies of aristocracy and Church while fighting ruthlessly to make sure their followers came out on top in the struggle for existence.
  2. More recent economic changes, toward post-industrial employment, tend to move societies rightward on the x axis. The declining levels of violence documented by Pinker, as well our halting progress toward a more democratic world, are reflections of this. These are encouraging developments, but matters are complicated by the fact that this movement is highly uneven, both across and within countries. We no longer see the stark divisions of the Cold War era. But in many areas around the world, people find themselves in a house divided against itself on cultural matters, and the resulting culture wars can make for more conflict. Political scientists have coined a label for this, Center-Periphery Dissonance, and many of the revolutionary political struggle of the last several years have pitted a modernizing center against a more traditional periphery.

The veil

January 1981 – January 1984


From Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a number of Western scholars wrote books attempting to develop general theories of revolution. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is an early classic in the genre, treating different political trajectories – liberal, reactionary, and communist – as the outcome of different bargains between landowners, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions covers some of the same ground with an added focus on states and war-making.

But the class-centered theories that these authors develop don’t do a very good job of accounting for the Iranian Revolution or broader political currents in the Islamic world. It’s difficult to map Middle Eastern political movements onto a Left-Right spectrum. And both democracy and communism made far less headway in the Middle East than in either Latin America or East Asia. Nor do the class-based theories have much to say about gender relations and patriarchy, major issues in Islamic politics.

One of our themes in the past few months of Logarithmic History has been how the major civilizations of Eurasia have found different ways of combining patrilineal clans, state formation, and major world religions. From this perspective, the Islamic world is distinctive in several respects. The custom of marriage within the patrilineage (stemming from a culture of honor long predating Islam in the Near East, but spread far and wide by Muslim conquests) probably contributes to making the Muslim Middle East exceptionally fragmentary and fissiparous. And Islam has been exceptionally successful in overriding alternative identities based on nationality and class. Today for example, according to surveys, most Pakistani Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second, while most Indian Hindus think of themselves as Indians first and Hindus second. Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics makes the case for Muslim exceptionalism in some detail in comparing the Islamic world with Hindu India and Catholic Latin America.

The last of the magicians


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These familiar quotations from Newton are sometimes presented as expressions of his humility (a quality not otherwise much in evidence). In fact, though, it became clear in the course of the twentieth century that they are really an expression of Newton being not just a great scientist – the greatest ever – but also a great kook. Here’s a less familiar quotation from Newton about the intellectual origins of heliocentrism

It was the opinion of not a few, in the earliest ages of philosophy … that under the fixed stars the planets were carried about the sun; that the earth, as one of the planets, described an annual course about the sun, while by a diurnal motion it was in time revolved about its own axis. … This was the philosophy taught of old by Philolaus, Aristarchus of Samos, Plato, … and of that wise king of the Romans, Numa Pompilius, who, as a symbol of the figure of the world, erected a round temple … and ordained perpetual fire to be kept in the middle of it.

The Egyptians were early observers of the heavens; and from them, probably, this philosophy was spread abroad among other nations … It was their way to deliver their mysteries, that is, their philosophy of things above the common way of thinking, under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols.

The Renaissance was committed to recovering the ancient past. This led not only to the recovery of ancient art, literature and science, but also to the recovery of a whole body of ancient magic and pseudoscience. For example, many Renaissance thinkers, and Newton, were fascinated by the mystical writings of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great Hermes, hence “hermeticism”), an alleged Egyptian sage. By Newton’s time it had already been demonstrated that these writings were “pseudepigraphia,” a nice scholarly term for “fakes”; Hermes Trismegistus never existed. Nevertheless, Newton was convinced that there was an esoteric tradition preserved by the ancient Egyptians, passed on to Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato, and hidden away in the Bible. Read the Bible or stories of Pythagoras closely enough and you could recover the inverse square law of gravitation. Newton spent huge amounts of time throughout his life trying to recover further scientific secrets from the Bible.

John Maynard Keynes, who got hold of some of Newton’s papers wrote

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

After Newton, it became clear that modern science had surpassed anything achieved by the ancient world, and natural science and the humanities went their separate ways. Reverence for the secret wisdom of the ancients would survive in the novels of Dan Brown and in the weird Masonic pyramid on the back of the US one dollar bill.dollar-bill-eye



“It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”

Montaigne, “Of Cripples”

Among the Gebusi, a small tribal society on the edge of the New Guinea highlands, all the deaths that we would call natural were attributed to witchcraft. Most natural deaths led to an inquest to determine who the witch was. Children and young women were pretty safe from accusation; others were fair game. Witchcraft was a capital crime, and one third of alldeaths of adults in the immediate pre-contact period were killings of suspected witches! The Gebusi are an extreme case, not typical of New Guinea, or of tribal societies in general. But witchcraft beliefs, and punishment of accused witches, have been widespread across cultures, including Europe in past centuries.

A common idea about European witchcraft accusations and executions is that they’re “medieval,” both in the literal sense of happening in the Middle Ages, and in the figurative sense of expressing the spirit of a dim and barbarous age. Monty Python gave comic expression to both ideas. But neither idea is true. For much of the Middle Ages, the Church condemned the idea that people could fly through air on broomsticks, and similar beliefs, as pagan superstitions, unbefitting good Christians. It is only toward the end of the Middle Ages that the fear of witches starts to take off. And it is at the beginning of the Modern Age – the Age of Discovery, the time of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the early Scientific Revolution – that the witch craze reaches its height. Most witchcraft trials and executions in the West happen between 1550 and 1700. The total number executed is probably in the high tens of thousands, with additional tens of thousands persecuted but not killed. About 80% of the victims are women.

witch trial chronology

And some of the most educated men in Europe contribute to the witch craze (although some are skeptics, like Montaigne). In the 1570s, Henri Bouget, a respected French jurist, calculates that there are 1,800,00 witches active in Europe. Slightly later, Jean Bodin, a major figure in early modern political theory, argues that witches are so dangerous and devious that normal judicial safeguards should be suspended: there can be no presumption of innocence for accused witches. King James VI of Scotland (=James I of England) writes a whole book on witches, Daemonologie, and organizes witchcraft persecutions in Scotland; the witches in Macbeth are Shakespeare’s nod to James.

A new information technology, the printing press, doesn’t just foster the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. It also helps the witch craze go viral. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), a 400 page witchcraft treatise originally published in 1486, goes on to become a best seller, through multiple editions. It is just one of a number of treatises and tracts on witchcraft pouring out of the printing presses.

witch geography

And the witch craze is also tied up with the religious struggles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Witchcraft persecutions are strongly associated, both in time and space, with confessional battles between Protestants and Catholics. Where Protestants and Catholics are in competition with one another – especially southern and western Germany and neighboring areas – they try to outdo one another in their zeal for persecuting witches. Where one denomination or the other is securely in power – Catholics in Spain and Italy, Lutherans in Scandinavia – witchcraft persecutions are mild. Although the persecutors wouldn’t have admitted it, witches are innocent collateral damage in the great religious struggles of the age.

The Alteration

A subgenre of science fiction is “alternative history.” What would the world be like if history had taken another path? If the Axis powers had won the Second World War (as in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, among many others)? If the South had won the American Civil War? If King Oswy of Northumbria had decided differently about the date of Easter at the fateful Synod of Whitby? Or (going waaay back) if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed Earth, or the Cambrian had turned out differently?

Or suppose the Protestant Reformation had never happened? That’s the premise of several novels, including The Alteration by Kingsley Amis. Amis’s novel is set in an alternative 1976, in which Martin Luther long ago became Pope Germanicus, and the Catholic Church dominates most of the world, apart from the Turkish Empire, and some freethinkers in New England. The world is a dystopian theocracy, with a rigid caste system, where “science” is a dirty word. Amis has fun fitting characters from our own timeline into his alternative history. Himmler and Beria are Monsignors from Almaigne and Muscovy. Sartre is a renowned Jesuit theologian. Mozart lived a long life, and wrote a Second Requiem, in memory of a gifted composer, Beethoven, who died young .

The main figure in the novel is an English boy, Hubert Anvil. Hubert is a fan of banned underground science fiction books, like the alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick, about an alternative world – not quite our own – in which the Protestant Reformation actually did happen. In that alternative world within Hubert’s alternative world,

Invention has been set free a long time before. Sickness is almost conquered: nobody dies of consumption or the plague. … The inventors are actually called scientists, and they use electricity. … They send messages all over the Earth with it. They use it to light whole cities and even to keep folk warm. There are electric flying machines that move at two hundred miles an hour. [And] there’s a famous book which proves that mankind is descended from a thing like an ape, not from Adam and Eve.

But Hubert also has an angelic boy’s soprano voice, which he will lose in a few years at puberty, unless … Hence the sinister double meaning of the title, The Alteration.

Amis is both a very talented writer, and a science fiction fan, and the book is well worth reading. The latest edition has an introduction by science fiction writer William Gibson.

Brave New World


Columbus’s discoveries overthrew the Medieval conception of Earth’s place in the cosmos. No, he did not discover that the Earth was round. Educated Greeks had known that two millennia earlier. But he also did more than just discover new lands.

The standard, educated medieval view of the cosmos was a synthesis of Aristotle and Christian theology. The universe consisted of larger and larger spheres of more and more rarefied elements: a sphere of earth, a sphere of water, a sphere of air, a sphere of fire (the sublunary sphere, home of meteors), and successive quintessential spheres for the planets, the fixed stars, and heaven beyond. The first two spheres were not concentric, obviously – otherwise the earthly sphere would have been entirely underwater. Instead, Providence had set the earthly sphere sufficiently off-center that some of it – including the whole inhabited world – stuck above the water (Genesis 1:9-10).


Here’s a representation of the old view, still surviving just after Columbus (from David Wooton’s fine recent book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution). At the very center of the chart, inside the wavy lines representing the sphere of water, is a funny shape: a T-and-O map of the inhabited world. The East, and Asia, are the white area above the horizontal crossbar of the T. The vertical bar of the T is the Mediterranean, with two further horizontal black lines separating Iberian, Italian and Balkan peninsulas to the North (left). Africa is South (right) of the Mediterranean. Not shown on this map, at the very crux of the T, is the holy city of Jerusalem, site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. T-and-O maps aren’t much use for navigation, but they were popular for a long time because they showed a Higher Truth about the divine order of the Cosmos.

It’s hard to square this conception of the universe with the discovery of a whole New World sticking up on the opposite side of the watery sphere. Columbus tried out various theories. At first he imagined that he had reached the (East) Indies. Later, he started thinking that the earthly “sphere” might have a pear-shaped extension sticking up out of its far side (like a woman’s breast, he put it), rather than being strictly spherical, so you could reach the site of earthly Paradise (the nipple) by sailing up the Orinoco.

The generation following Columbus, beginning with Amerigo Vespucci, abandoned the nested spheres idea, at least as far as earth and water were concerned. When Medieval writers wrote about “the Earth” they almost always meant just the earthly sphere, minus the sphere of Ocean. After Columbus, “the Earth” would come to refer to the whole terraqueous globe.


The Waldseeemüller map (1507) is one of the first to show the Old World and the New. Copernicus almost certainly saw a copy of the map. It spurred him to imagine that the Earthly globe – land and water – could revolve around its own axis, and – even more radically – might revolve around the sun.



The Spanish Conquistadors, inured though they were to hardship and bloodshed, were nonetheless taken aback by the scale and ferocity of Aztec sacrifice. They wrote horrified accounts of sacrificial rituals, and of tzompantli, the racks where thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims were displayed in front of the twin pyramids of the Templo Mayor.


The Spanish invaders tore down the Templo Mayor and paved over the tzompantli. But archeologists in 2015, excavating under old buildings in Mexico City, uncovered the tzompantli (originally built from 1486-1502) again. Here’s a recent account.

The Aztecs are not the only folk to practice human sacrifice. It’s common, especially in the early stages of setting up chiefdoms and states, where it helps to keep commoners and conquered folk properly terrorized. But the scale of sacrifice on the part of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies is extreme. It’s natural to wonder what in the world was going on, whether there is some deeper reason for the cult of killing, underneath the religious rationale.

Some anthropologists have suggested a materialist explanation. The peoples of the New World had few domesticated animals, a legacy in part of mass extinctions millennia earlier that eliminated a lot of potentially domesticable species. In Mesoamerica, turkeys and dogs were about it. In less densely populated areas, Indians could supplement a diet of domesticated plants with game. But in densely settled Mesoamerica, the main source of animal proteins and fat for the elite was other humans. At least so the story goes. Marvin Harris – kind of a “protein explains all human history!” guy – set out this theory in his popular book Cannibals and Kings.

This is intensely controversial. It’s not clear that eating people on this scale makes much sense from an optimal foraging point of view. But at least we can say that the predatory ethos of Aztec rulers makes a contrast with the more pastoral ethos of many Old World rulers

shepherd king

However there are some comparisons between New World and Old World civilizations where the New World comes off looking better. Gini coefficients* – a measure of inequality – are never going to grab the headlines the way Aztec heart sacrifice does. But the figure below shows something interesting.

new world gini

Figure 3a shows how Gini coefficients change over time in a sample of societies in Eurasia (blue) and North America / Mesoamerica (red), using house size as a measure of wealth. In both cases, the origin of agriculture and the rise of states is associated with increasing inequality. Figure 3b shows the same data, but recalibrated, so that the 0 point on the time scale is set at the origin of agriculture (which happened at different times in different places). The second figure shows a contrast between continents: a further increase in wealth inequality in Eurasia about 5000 years after the origin of agriculture (around 3000 BCE) and on into the Bronze Age, but a steady level of inequality in North America / Mesoamerica. The authors of this study suggest that the greater availability of domesticated animals in Eurasia increased the potential for wealth inequality via “agricultural extensification”, as well as via mounted warrior elites capable of creating (or stimulating the creation of) very large empires.

Result: There is no Templo Major in Eurasia. And there is no Attila or Genghis Khan in North America / Mesoamerica.

calvin and hobbes

* Technical note: Where wealth is distributed perfectly evenly, the Gini coefficient is 0. Where one person owns everything and the other n-1 own nothing, the Gini coefficient is 1 – 1/n.

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, and the lessons 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 1500 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; artists depict 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.

Donald Brown also wrote Human Universals, a book that argues, against a strong tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology, that there is a wide assortment of cultural universals.

And Donald Brown is also co-author of The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, a short book about the penis inserts of Southeast Asia.

Muslim majority

933-993 A. D., 311-371 A. H.

Muslims were initially a small minority in the lands they conquered. But over the course of centuries they came to be a large majority of the population in the Middle East and North Africa. Strikingly, it may be possible to quantify, at least roughly, the progress of conversion.

A major production of Islamic society, from the earliest days until recently, is the biographical dictionary. As befits a patrilineal society, many of these dictionaries provide a nasab, or genealogy, for their subjects, a list of ancestors similar to the begats in the Bible, as well as a nisba, an affiliation, most often a geographic affiliation. An individual might be listed as Muhammed son of Ahmad son of Rustam, affiliated with Nishapur (a city in Iran). Note that the first two names (Mohammed, Ahmad) are clearly Muslim, while the name of the grandfather (Rustam) is Persian. This is probably telling us that Rustam was the first member of his family to convert to Islam, and that he initiated a sequence of Muslim names among his descendants. It’s possible to use this information, along with some reasonable demographic assumptions, to construct a graph showing the course of conversion to Islam among a large group of biographic subjects. Here’s what we get for Iran:islam convert iran

The points fall nicely along a logistic curve. A logistic curve is what we often see with the spread of an infection, where the y-axis shows the number of people infected. Logistic curves also commonly show up when we look at memes rather than germs, where the y-axis might show how many farmers have adopted a new strain of corn. In either case, the rate of growth of the “infection” is proportional to the product of the number already infected and the number not yet infected. So conversion to Islam in the medieval period may fit a simple model of cultural transmission. (Note however that this method does not tell us about people who never converted to Islam during this period, like the ancestors of present day Christian Copts in Egypt.)

This exercise is presented by Richard Bulliet (he also wrote about wheels). He makes some further observations.

  • Conversion seems to proceed more quickly in Iran than in other areas of the Arab empire (Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia). It looks as if the Christians who were the majority of the population in the latter areas are more resistant to Islam than the Zoroastrians in Iran.islam convert iraq
  • Converts, especially in the early stages, often leave behind their native communities and settle with other Muslims. This helps drive urbanization, with new cities growing up around Muslim military cantonments; Baghdad and Cairo get their start this way. The wave of urbanization following the Arab conquests contrasts sharply with the ruralization which follows the end of the Roman Empire in western Europe.
  • The early period when converts make up less than half the population coincides with a period of anti-Islamic revolts. As the Islamic fraction grows, these revolts move from more central to more peripheral regions. They eventually cease altogether as Muslims attain a secure majority.
  • In the early period, local Muslim rulers are too insecure to risk rebelling against the central authority of the Caliph. It is in the later period, with local Muslims securely in the majority, that regions assert their independence, and the ummah (community of the faithful) fragments.
  • Rather than assimilate to the locally dominant version of Islam, later generations of converts often carve out cultural space for themselves by adopting variant versions. Much of the sectarian segmentation of the Islamic Middle East today, between different legal schools and sects, traces back to differential timing of conversion during the medieval period.