Tag Archives: religion

Homo hierarchicus

1104-1154

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.

Culture of honor

575-654

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.
inbreedmideast
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.

And here’s a website, by “hbdchick,” with extensive posts and references on kinship and major civilizations.

The selfish meme

306-400

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 Robert Paul. A lot of work on the coevolution of genes and culture has been done by mathematical modelers; Paul is something else, a long-time cultural anthropologist who brings wide knowledge and thick description of culture and symbolism to the topic.

The historical Jesus

11 BCE- 100 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.

The world at 1000 BCE

Here’s a quick look at the world around 1000 BCE

The world population is about 50 million.

The Bantu expansion is just beginning, from a homeland on the present Nigeria/Cameroon border. It will eventually cover most of Africa south of the equator. The expansion is sometimes told as a story of first farmers replacing hunter-gatherers. But, as with the Indo-European expansion, this now looks to be too simple. Other farmers and herders reached east Africa before the Bantu; traces of their languages survive as eastern Bantu substrates. So the Bantu had something extra – social organization? malaria resistance? – going for them.

Seafarers with roots in the Lapita culture have already reached Western Polynesian – Samoa and Tonga, previously uninhabited.

The Olmec are flourishing in Meso-America. A controversial find (the Cascajal block) suggests they are just taking up writing.

In China, the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou.

In the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Late Bronze Age collapse has opened up space for smaller states. Tyre and other Phoenician city-states are sailing the Mediterranean. Phoenicians are using an alphabet that Greeks will eventually adapt. There might be other borrowings: Odysseus might originally have been Phoenician. At least that was the argument of the early twentieth century French diplomat and classicist Victor Bérard. He thought that Homer had folded an earlier Phoenician picaresque tale into his epic. James Joyce was very taken with this theory; Joyce’s Levantine Leopold Bloom owes something to Bérard’s Phoenician Odysseus.

Further south, Philistines and Israelites have been duking it out, with Israelites gaining the upper hand under David* (king from 1010 to 970 BCE). The Iron Age conventionally begins now, with the widespread use of iron – more abundant and cheaper than bronze.

On the steppe, horses have long been domesticated, but people are now learning to make effective use of cavalry – fighting in formation and firing volleys from horseback. This is the beginning of 2500 years in which the division between Steppe and Sown will be central to Eurasian history.

* Everybody knows that David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17). However, according to 2 Samuel 21:19, Goliath was killed by Elhanan of Bethlehem. (Depending on which version of the Bible you use, the victim might be given as the brother of Goliath, but the italicised bit is a later interpolation. It’s plain Goliath originally.) Probably the Elhanan story is the original one, and the whole David-and-Goliath story amounts to later resume-padding on the part of David at the expense of a subordinate. See The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero for this and other demonstrations of how we can recover likely truths from historical texts.

Exodus

1628 BCE, and later.

There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time (and in the right time sequence). A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. (Lower Egypt at the time was ruled by charioteer Hyksos invaders.) According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.