The civilization before history

A forgotten civilization?

No, I am not talking about Atlantis or Hyperborea or Lemuria. Nothing made up here. Nor am I talking about the real Neolithic cultures highlighted in War Before Civilization. I alluding to the period between 3500 and 3100 BCE in the Near East when the city of Uruk was the nexus for and a source of a massive cultural and mercantile expansion. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Around 3600 BC, during the Middle Uruk period, Uruk trade networks started to expand to other parts of Mesopotamia, and as far as North Caucasus. According to archaeologist Konstantine Pitskhelauri, this expansion started even earlier, at the end of the 5th millennium BC, and continued in the 4th millennium.

Large masses of Uruk migrants settled in the South, and later in the North Caucasus. The sites in this general area include Habuba Kabira in Syria, and Arslantepe in Turkey. Uruk expansion to the northeast included sites like Godin Tepe in Iran. Tepe Gawra, in northwest Iraq, is another important site with deep stratigraphy that includes the Uruk period in later layers. Hamoukar is a large site in northeastern Syria that has been recently excavated; it includes Uruk and pre-Uruk layers.

Uruk enclaves have also been identified at Tell Brak and Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, and on the Syrian Euphrates at Qrayya, and Jebel Aruda. On the Euphrates in Anatolia, Uruk enclaves were found at Hassek Hoyuk, Samsat, and Tepecik (Elazığ Province, near Keban Dam).

Sargon of Akkad is usually asserted to have been the first empire-builder in history, in that his rulership extended across many ethnicities, from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Four Corners of the World he claimed. But the Sargonid system lasted for but a century, and successor Mesopotamian hegemonies did not extend beyond the land of two rivers until the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire over 1,000 years later.

In contrast, the Uruk culture persisted for hundreds of years, far longer than successor polities in that area in the 3rd millennium. It was also more expansive than even than Sargon’s empire.

There has long been a debate about the nature of the Uruk expansion. What is ideology? Was it trade? Was it migration? Was it conquest?

Empire of power, empire of ideas

Since we do not have writing to tell us a narrative we can never know definitively, at least until ancient DNA clears up the demographic questions. In Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization the author points out that Communism spread across many societies without invasion (though in some cases there was external invasion; ask the Germans). Similarly, many religions have also spread without external invasion. Christianity’s spread to Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, and Ireland, occurred relatively gradually and synthesized without indigenous cultural forms due to broad-based diffusion as well as elite adoption so as to integrate into the Christian world system. But there is something very distinct about the Uruk expansion in contrast to the above examples: some of the cities seem to be replica copies of Uruk in toto.

If it was an ideological movement of emulation by local elites only there should have been at least some synthesis even these narrow regions of Uruk-outside-of-Sumeria. In fact there seem to have been small pieces of Uruk society scattered across the Fertile Crescent (and beyond!) during this period, embedded in wholly culturally alien territory. Additionally, there is some circumstantial evidence for fighting and conquest.

Now that we know there were massive migrations during the Neolithic and Bronze ages across the Near East and Europe, I think we should update our estimations of the alternative hypotheses. In light of radically decreasing genetic distance between the eastern and western portions of the Fertile Crescent since the rise of agriculture it seems implausible to think that the Uruk expansion might not have at least been partly mediated by the movement of people. People moved. So did ideas.

That being said, as observed in Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, the recession of the Uruk hegemony after ~3100 BCE was extreme in its totality and rapidity. Heretofore longstanding zones of Uruk civilization outside of southern Mesopotamia disappear immedlately. Peasant ways of life which had flourished in the local regions during earlier periods reappear as the city-states disappear. Not only does the way of life defined by the Uruk period retreat, but the sole overarching preeminence of Uruk in what became Sumeria disappears, to be replaced by a millennium of jostling between rival city-states, Uruk (Erech in the Bible), Ur, Kish, and Lagash.

Later analogs to the Uruk collapse

Does this remind you of something? The Late Bronze Age was characterized by a collapse of civilization as well, with a regress to old centers such as Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. Smaller polities on the Levantine coast emerged in the wake of the decline of the earlier empires, while Greece and Anatolia went into “Dark Ages,” as the Mycenaean citadel society descended into barbarism and the Hittite domains totally collapsed.

The city-states of Classical Greece were fundamentally different from the Mycenaean citadel-culture that had preceded them centuries earlier. The Greek civilization of the Bronze Age had adopted many of the forms of the Minoan society based in Crete and extending around the Aegean. Aesthetically, and in terms of their writing system. Mycenaean civilization was fundamentally one of rough hewn barbarians grafted onto a beautiful well developed canopy of Minoan motifs. And the Minoans themselves were clearly influenced by the broader constellation of Near Eastern civilizations, from the Hittites to the kingdom of Cyprus and down to Egypt.

Classical Greece was very different, mostly doing away with the autocratic kingships of the Bronze Age, as well as adopting a different form of writing from the Phoenicians. Linear B was impenetrable to them. All the scribes had died without passing their knowledge.

Though Homer and the broader corpus of Greek mythology clearly preserves elements of the Bronze Age society (translation of Mycenaean Linear B tablets makes it clear that many of the Classical gods had roots in the the pantheon of the Bronze Age), the Classical Greeks had forgotten their Mycenaean past (before Linear B was translated it was assumed by most that it was not Greek, but rather a mainland extension of Minoan civilization). The cyclopean masonry typical of Mycenaean citadels were believed by Greeks of the later period to have been constructed by…cyclops.  This method had been forgotten in the several hundred year Greek Dark Age. The battles depicted in the Iliad are clearly those between petty Dark Age warlords, not the kings of old (though the prominence of Mycenaean cities such as Pylos and Mycenae were recalled).

The point here is that Mycenaean Greek civilization, which was created to a great extent by imitating a non-Greek prototype, collapsed, after which there was total regression to peasant barbarism. The Greek civilization that emerged later was much more distinctive, and less imitative, than the initial incarnation.

The Sumerian Dark Age and its aftermath

Unlike the case with the Mycenaeans, I believe that Uruk expansion to the west, north, and east, was mediated by migration and conquest from the source. Mycenaean civilization was modeled upon, and strongly inflected by, Minoan civilization, which was modeled upon Near Eastern polities. But they were never total replicas of each other. Though there were certainly mercantile connections and colonies of Near Easterners in the Aegean, it seems likely that these later cases of influence were genuine instances of cultural diffusion. We have writing to back-up our presuppositions.

In contrast, the nature of the Uruk expansion indicates transplantation in totality and exact replication of the original society. To me this reminds me of Roman colonies. Unlike cultural diffusion, the colonies of Latin speaking Roman citizens in regions of southern Gaul, Iberia, and North Africa, served as entry-points for Romanitas. But this Romanization could be reversed. This was certainly the case in southern Britain, which had a fully developed Latin Roman urban society, but collapsed back to barbarism with the retreat of the legions. Arguably it was also the case in the hinterlands of the Balkans, with modern Vlachs and Romanians being the descendants of the Latin peasants.

It is not difficult then to assume that if there was some exogenous shock to the Uruk system ~3100 BCE, the isolated colonies would quickly whither. Just as the urban centers of southern Britain were replaced by fortresses of semi-barbaric British elites, so the subjugated hinterland cultures, which had persisted, quickly filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the Uruk polity. Eventually, just as Classical Greece developed its own distinct indigenous civilization in the broader commonwealth of eastern Mediterranean polities, so Ugarit, Ebla, Mari, the city-states of Hatti, and Urartu, came into the light of history in the 3rd millennium organically.

Forgotten Antediluvian Sumeria

In Babylon the author suggests that the flood legend allows them to partition their own literate civilization, which developed after 2900 BCE, from the fallow two century period after the collapse of the Uruk ascendancy. Could the the Sumerians have forgotten the greatness of the 4th millennium in a few centuries? I believe that they might have.
The Uruk ascendancy of the 4th millennium, if it took political form, would have have exhibited none of the totality and dominion of a modern nation-state. Rather, like the Maurya Empire, and many antique polities, it would have been defined by numerous strongpoints extending out from a dense and well networked core. In the outer zones of control the dominion would have consisted primarily of close supervision of the interstices between territories occupied by indigenous tribal chiefdoms, who may have given nominal fealty to the local governor appointed from Uruk. A collapse would have consisted proximately of the destruction or abandonment of the strongpoints, and ultimately the forgetting of the period of alien hegemony by the local populations.

At that time core Sumeria was an oral society, and in the centuries after the Uruk expansion there were major changes to many aspects of its physical superstructure, and therefore one presumes the ideologies underpinning the control of the population by the elite. Without written records the quasi-imperial past might have become muddied very quickly if there was a transition of elites. The peasants would have had no great incentive to remember the Uruk hegemony, while the nouveau elites may have wanted to created their own legends, rather than be haunted by the earlier greatness.

The many civilizations before writing

My forebears?

The Uruk ascendancy should not be a surprising idea when we think about it in the context of world “history.” The civilization of the Indus valley was certainly a civilization, but its script remains undeciphered. Though they were likely symbolic in some manner, it is quite possible that they were not a fully fleshed representation of language in the way cuneiform was. Most of the examples of the script are exceedingly short.

But we know something about the Indus people in part because we know that they traded with Sumeria, and there were people from this culture who were resident in Sumerian towns. Clearly Sumer viewed these people as peers, albeit aliens.

Another example would be the Inca. Before the Spanish overthrew their empire, it stretched from Columbia to central Chile. Because we have Spanish records, and memories of the Inca nobility who were assimilated into the post-conquest order, we know that this was not simply an ideological expansion. It was a military one. And one of demographic transplantation and imposition. Though there still debates, it seems most likely that the Inca did not have true literacy.

The ultimate point is that ancient people were far more organized and cohesive across large territories than we likely give them credit for. Let me finish with this article from last year in Science, Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle:

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. The isotopes in your teeth reflect those in the food and water you ingest during childhood, which in turn mirror the surrounding geology—a marker of where you grew up…Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland….

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe.

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. “They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl,” Terberger says. “These are professional fighters.”

Curiouser and curiouser….

Why the rate of evolution may only depend on mutation

Sometimes people think evolution is about dinosaurs.

It is true that natural history plays an important role in inspiring and directing our understanding of evolutionary process. Charles Darwin was a natural historian, and evolutionary biologists often have strong affinities with the natural world and its history. Though many people exhibit a fascination with the flora and fauna around us during childhood, often the greatest biologists retain this wonderment well into adulthood (if you read W. D. Hamilton’s collections of papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, which have autobiographical sketches, this is very evidently true of him).

But another aspect of evolutionary biology, which began in the early 20th century, is the emergence of formal mathematical systems of analysis. So you have fields such as phylogenetics, which have gone from intuitive and aesthetic trees of life, to inferences made using the most new-fangled Bayesian techniques. And, as told in The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, in the 1920s and 1930s a few mathematically oriented biologists constructed much of the formal scaffold upon which the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis was constructed.

The product of evolution

At the highest level of analysis evolutionary process can be described beautifully. Evolution is beautiful, in that its end product generates the diversity of life around us. But a formal mathematical framework is often needed to clearly and precisely model evolution, and so allow us to make predictions. R. A. Fisher’s aim when he wrote The Genetical Theory Natural Selection was to create for evolutionary biology something equivalent to the laws of thermodynamics. I don’t really think he succeeded in that, though there are plenty of debates around something like Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection.

But the revolution of thought that Fisher, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane unleashed has had real yields. As geneticists they helped us reconceptualize evolutionary process as more than simply heritable morphological change, but an analysis of the units of heritability themselves, genetic variation. That is, evolution can be imagined as the study of the forces which shape changes in allele frequencies over time. This reduces a big domain down to a much simpler one.

Genetic variation is concrete currency with which one can track evolutionary process. Initially this was done via inferred correlations between marker traits and particular genes in breeding experiments. Ergo, the origins of the “the fly room”.

But with the discovery of DNA as the physical substrate of genetic inheritance in the 1950s the scene was set for the revolution in molecular biology, which also touched evolutionary studies with the explosion of more powerful assays. Lewontin & Hubby’s 1966 paper triggered a order of magnitude increase in our understanding of molecular evolution through both theory and results.

The theoretical side occurred in the form of the development of the neutral theory of molecular evolution, which also gave birth to the nearly neutral theory. Both of these theories hold that most of the variation with and between species on polymorphisms are due to random processes. In particular, genetic drift. As a null hypothesis neutrality was very dominant for the past generation, though in recent years some researchers are suggesting that selection has been undervalued as a parameter for various reasons.

Setting the live scientific debate, which continue to this day, one of the predictions of neutral theory is that the rate of evolution will depend only on the rate of mutation. More precisely, the rate of substitution of new mutations (where the allele goes from a single copy to fixation of ~100%) is proportional to the rate of mutation of new alleles. Population size doesn’t matter.

The algebra behind this is straightforward.

First, remember that the frequency of the a new mutation within a population is \frac{1}{2N}, where N is the population size (the 2 is because we’re assuming diploid organisms with two gene copies). This is also the probability of fixation of a new mutation in a neutral scenario; it’s probability is just proportional to its initial frequency (it’s a random walk process between 0 and 1.0 proportions). The rate of mutations is defined by \mu, the number of expected mutations at a given site per generation (this is a pretty small value, for humans it’s on the order of 10^{-8}). Again, there are 2N gene copies, so you have 2N\mu to count the number of new mutations.

The probability of fixation of a new mutations multiplied by the number of new mutations is:

    \[ \( \frac{1}{2N} \) \times 2N\mu = \mu \]

So there you have it. The rate of fixation of these new mutations is just a function of the rate of mutation.

Simple formalisms like this have a lot more gnarly math that extend them and from which they derive. But they’re often pretty useful to gain a general intuition of evolutionary processes. If you are genuinely curious, I would recommend Elements of Evolutionary Genetics. It’s not quite a core dump, but it is a way you can borrow the brains of two of the best evolutionary geneticists of their generation.

Also, you will be able to answer the questions on my survey better the next time!

America’s great Saudi foreign policy sin

The future past

Periodically on my Twitter feed there is mention of the new series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The New York Times has a typical positive review. The author attempts to assert its contemporary relevance, ending with ‘the new “Handmaid’s Tale” enters the culture as its own kind of Offred-like resistance, pushing back against a reality that somehow got ahead of the show’s own imagination.’

This is not the 1980s. Or the early 2000s. The President of the United States is a nominal Christian at best. Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for The New York States had this to say about his relationship to Mike Pence:

…When Trump and Pence were first getting to know each other, the one thing that Trump had relayed to people, according to several advisers I spoke to at the time, was that he was a little uncomfortable with how frequently Pence prayed. And Pence is fairly devout about his praying. Trump is not a serious churchgoer and in an anomaly for a presidential candidate, very rarely went to church services when he was running….

We live in an age of massive secularization, even on the conservative Right. Ergo, the rise of a post-religious Right predicated on ethnic identity, whether implicitly or explicitly. Though Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are going to rollback a few of the victories of the cultural Left, there is no likelihood of turning back the clock on the biggest win of the last generation for that camp, gay marriage.

Also, don’t watch the series, read the book. Books are usually better. While I’m recommending reading, while Atwood’s work gets a lot of attention (it’s already been made into a film back in 1990), I want to suggest Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women for those curious about a different take on broadly similar themes. Flipping the framework of The Handmaid’s Tale on its head Sargent depicts a far future gynocracy, as opposed to a near future patriarchy. Additionally, The Shore of Women  has echoes of the bizarre 1970s film Zardoz.

I’ve always felt the Sargent is an underrated writer (also see Ruler of the Sky, a novelization of the life of Genghis Khan). Her output is not high volume, but it is high quality.

But this post is not about The Handmaid’s Tale, and the specter of an anti-feminist dystopia. Rather, it will be on the reality of an anti-feminist dystopia which exists in our world, which also happens to be religiously totalitarian and oligarchic. I am talking about the great ally of the United States of America in the Middle East, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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Aryan marauders from the steppe came to India, yes they did!

Its seems every post on Indian genetics elicits dissents from loquacious commenters who are woolly on the details of the science, but convinced in their opinions (yes, they operate through uncertainty and obfuscation in their rhetoric, but you know where the axe is lodged). This post is an attempt to answer some questions so I don’t have to address this in the near future, as ancient DNA papers will finally start to come out soon, I hope (at least earlier than Winds of Winter).

In 2001’s The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity Wells et al. wrote:

The current distribution of the M17 haplotype is likely to represent traces of an ancient population migration originating in southern Russia/Ukraine, where M17 is found at high frequency (>50%). It is possible that the domestication of the horse in this region around 3,000 B.C. may have driven the migration (27). The distribution and age of M17 in Europe (17) and Central/Southern Asia is consistent with the inferred movements of these people, who left a clear pattern of archaeological remains known as the Kurgan culture, and are thought to have spoken an early Indo-European language (27, 28, 29). The decrease in frequency eastward across Siberia to the Altai-Sayan mountains (represented by the Tuvinian population) and Mongolia, and southward into India, overlaps exactly with the inferred migrations of the Indo-Iranians during the period 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. (27). It is worth noting that the Indo-European-speaking Sourashtrans, a population from Tamil Nadu in southern India, have a much higher frequency of M17 than their Dravidian-speaking neighbors, the Yadhavas and Kallars (39% vs. 13% and 4%, respectively), adding to the evidence that M17 is a diagnostic Indo-Iranian marker. The exceptionally high frequencies of this marker in the Kyrgyz, Tajik/Khojant, and Ishkashim populations are likely to be due to drift, as these populations are less diverse, and are characterized by relatively small numbers of individuals living in isolated mountain valleys.

In a 2002 interview with the India site Rediff, the first author was more explicit:

Some people say Aryans are the original inhabitants of India. What is your view on this theory?

The Aryans came from outside India. We actually have genetic evidence for that. Very clear genetic evidence from a marker that arose on the southern steppes of Russia and the Ukraine around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. And it subsequently spread to the east and south through Central Asia reaching India. It is on the higher frequency in the Indo-European speakers, the people who claim they are descendants of the Aryans, the Hindi speakers, the Bengalis, the other groups. Then it is at a lower frequency in the Dravidians. But there is clear evidence that there was a heavy migration from the steppes down towards India.

But some people claim that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. What do you have to say about this?

I don’t agree with them. The Aryans came later, after the Dravidians.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know the above first author Spencer Wells as a personal friend, and I think he would be OK with me relaying that to some extent he was under strong pressure to downplay these conclusions. Not only were, and are, these views not popular in India, but the idea of mass migration was in bad odor in much of the academy during this period. Additionally, there was later work which was less clear, and perhaps supported an Indian origin for R1a1a. Spencer himself told me that it was not impossible for R1a to have originated in India, but a branch eventually back-migrated to southern Asia.

But even researchers from the group at Stanford where he had done his postdoc did not support this model by the middle 2000s, Polarity and Temporality of High-Resolution Y-Chromosome Distributions in India Identify Both Indigenous and Exogenous Expansions and Reveal Minor Genetic Influence of Central Asian Pastoralists. In 2009 a paper out of an Indian group was even stronger in its conclusion for a South Asian origin of R1a1a, The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system.

By 2009 one might have admitted that perhaps Spencer was wrong. I was certainly open to that possibility. There was very persuasive evidence that the mtDNA lineages of South Asia had little to do with Europe or the Middle East.

Yet a closer look at the above papers reveals two major systematic problems.

First, ancient DNA has made it clear that there has been major population turnover during the Holocene, but this was not the null hypothesis in the 2000s. Looking at extant distributions of lineages can give one a distorted view of the past. Frankly, the 2009 Indian paper was egregious in this way because they included Turkic groups in their Central Asian data set. Even in 2009 there was a whole lot of evidence that Central Asian Turkic groups were likely very different from Indo-European Turanian populations which would have been the putative ancestors of Indo-Aryans. Honestly the authors either consciously loaded the die to reduce the evidence for gene flow from Central Asia, or they were ignorant (the nature of the samples is much clearer in the supplements than the  primary text for what it’s worth).

Second, Y chromosomal marker sets in the 2000s were constrained to fast mutating microsatellite regions or less than 100 variant SNPs on the Y. Because it is so repetitive the Y chromosome is hard to sequence, and it really took the technologies of the last ten years to get it done. Both the above papers estimate the coalescence of extant R1a1a lineages to be 10-15,000 years before the present. In particular, they suggest that European and South Asian lineages date back to this period, pushing back any possible connection between the groups, and making it possible that European R1a1a descended from a South Asian founder group which was expanding after the retreat of the ice sheets. The conclusions were not unreasonable based on the methods they had.  But now we have better methods.*

Whole genome sequencing of the Y, as well as ancient DNA, seems to falsify the above dates. Though microsatellites are good for very coarse grain phyolgenetic inferences, one has to be very careful about them when looking at more fine grain population relationships (they are still useful in forensics to cheaply differentiate between individuals, since they accumulate variation very quickly). They mutate fast, and their clock may be erratic.

Additionally, diversity estimates were based on a subset of SNP that were clearly not robust. R1a1a is not diverse anywhere, though basal lineages seem to be present in ancient DNA on the Pontic steppe in some cases.

To show how lacking in diversity R1a1a is, here are the results of a 2016 paper which performed whole genome sequencing on the Y. Instead of relying on the order of 10 to 100 SNPs, this paper discover over 65,000 Y variants worldwide. Notice how little difference there is between different South Asian groups below, indicative of a massive population expansion relatively recently in time which didn’t even have time to exhibit regional population variation. They note that “The most striking are expansions within R1a-Z93 [the South Asian clade], ~4.0–4.5 kya. This time predates by a few centuries the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, associated by some with the historical migration of Indo-European speakers from the western steppes into the Indian sub-continent.

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10 Things About Ancient History You Should Really Know

For this “10 things” I am going to constraint the historical period to the period before 1000 BCE. Basically all that came before Greece and Rome (from a Western perspective).

1) The Bronze Age Near East had its own equivalent of a Westphalian system. See The Brotherhood of Kings.

2) Even in the 3rd Millennium BCE the world was quite international. There are references in Sumerian tablets to expatriate communities of merchants from Meluhha. Meluhha almost certainly referring to what we call the Indus Valley civilization.

3) The relationship between Sumerians and Akkadians prefigures the relationship between the Greeks and Romans. Mesopotamia had long had Semitic speaking groups like Akkadians, as evidenced by their prominence in lists of rulers to an early date, but in the most antique period Sumerians were dominant. Over time though Sumerians disappeared as a distinct ethnicity, and the language was preserved as one of liturgy for thousands of years after their extinction.

4) The longstanding antagonists of Sumer, the nation of Elam in southwest Iran, persisted for 1,500 years after the Sumerians left the scene. They were finally absorbed by the Medes and Persians in the 6th century BCE.

5) Because cuneiform tablets can be baked and preserved our documentary evidence from some earlier periods in Near Eastern history is much better than more epochs, simply due to preservational differences.

6) The Hittite polity, which lasted for nearly 1,000 years as the dominant rival of many other Near Eastern powers, was analogous in some ways to the Hungarian kingdom, with a very distinct ruling class. The Hittites called themselves the Nesa, and ruled over various non-Indo-European popualtions, in particular the Hatti.

7) Sumeria likely had a larger population than the same area after the Mongol sack of Baghdad (there may also be an issue with salinization of lower Mesopotamia over time).

8) The Biblical Philistines may in part have been Bronze Age Greeks (bonus: the political units of Bronze Age Greece may have been larger than during the Classical period because bronze forging requires more mobilization of resources than iron).

9) Pleistocene “megafauna” survived into the Bronze Age.

10) Indo-Europeans of an Indo-Aryan variant called the Mittani were the ruling class in much of the territory ruled by ISIS for the past few years. They even worshipped Indo-Aryan gods.

Addendum: I invite readers to give me better suggestions. I’m not an ancient historian, just an enthusiast!

Evolutionary game theory and international relations

The North Korea Paradox: Why There Are No Good Options:

Denny Roy, a political scientist who studies Asian security issues, told me last fall that North Korea “intentionally employs a posture of seemingly hyper-risk acceptance and willingness to go to war as a means of trying to intimidate its adversaries.”

This puts the world in a quandary: How could any outside threat possibly exceed the risk that North Korea already takes on itself? How could any concession remove the North Korean weakness that drives its behavior?

Basically North Korea is a weak state. Its only leverage is to hold the world hostage and act crazy. Unfortunate, but true.

But this piece reminded me a lot of stuff that John Maynard Smith described in Animal Signals. Sometimes it is the weaker and more vulnerable animals which have to engage in high risk agonistic competition, so that they can show more fit individuals that there is going to be a significant cost in initiating hostilities.

It also reminds me of high school. If you are smaller than average, it is best to make it clear to larger bullies that you won’t be passive. You may lose the fight, but by escalating rapidly you can dissuade a bully from targeting you, as opposed to someone who is more likely to be an easier victim.

Of course, bullies need to be “rational” actors here….

What if you call for a revolution and no one revolts?

When I was in 8th grade my earth science teacher explained he did not believe in Darwinism. He seemed a reasonable fellow so my first reaction was shock. My best friend at the time, who sat next to me, laughed, “Yeah, some people believe we’re descended from monkeys! Crazy, huh?” I didn’t really know what to say. But what followed was even more confusing to me: my teacher explained that he accepted punctuated equilibrium, not Darwinism. He did not elaborate much beyond this, though I tried to get at what he believed after class in the few minutes I had.

Later on I realized that he had drunk deeply at the well of Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and polymath. I will quote Richard Lewontin, Gould’s longtime collaborator and friend:

Now I should warn you about my prejudices. Steve and I taught evolution together for years and in a sense we struggled in class constantly because Steve, in my view, was preoccupied with the desire to be considered a very original and great evolutionary theorist. So he would exaggerate and even caricature certain features, which are true but not the way you want to present them. For example, punctuated equilibrium, one of his favorites. He would go to the blackboard and show a trait rising gradually and then becoming completely flat for a while with no change at all, and then rising quickly and then completely flat, etc. which is a kind of caricature of the fact that there is variability in the evolution of traits, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, but which he made into punctuated equilibrium literally. Then I would have to get up in class and say “Don’t take this caricature too seriously. It really looks like this…” and I would make some more gradual variable rates. Steve and I had that kind of struggle constantly. He would fasten on a particular interesting aspect of the evolutionary process and then make it into a kind of rigid, almost vacuous rule, because—now I have to say that this is my view—I have no demonstration of it—that Steve was really preoccupied by becoming a famous evolutionist.

Gould succeeded, after a fashion. His reputation within evolutionary biology is mixed, at best. Just look at what someone who thinks he made genuine original contributions to science admits above. But in the mind of the public Stephen Jay Gould was an oracle of sorts.

A revolution is sexy. A revolution sells. Having read both of them, I would say that Richard Dawkins is the better stylist when compared to Gould. Additionally, though some might disagree with this Dawkins is closer to the mainline of the modern evolutionary biological tradition than Gould. But in the United States Gould far overshadowed Dawkins…until the latter began to make a name for himself as an anti-religion polemicist in the 2000s. Revolution. Controversy. They’re salient. The press eats it up, and the public trusts the press.

And some things never change. Every few years there is an impending “revolution” in evolutionary biology or genetics. But the revolution is mostly in the minds of a few journalists, and a public that reads a little too much into a puff piece here and there. The sort of well educated public woolly on what the “central dogma” is, but clear that it has been overthrown.

Sometimes this gets out of control. Suzan Mazur’s The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry is probably the weirdest instance of this genre of “the sky is falling in evolutionary theory!” But of late some scholars have been coming out with more sober critiques, arguing that the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis needs to be extended or modified significantly. Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind is the latest instance of this, but this was preceded by Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. You can also read David Dobbs’ sympathetic treatment from a few years back around this issue.

I can communicate to you what seems to be the majority view among the evolutionary biologist I know: there isn’t a need for a revolution in conceptual thought, just a working out of details and reallocation of resources. Many who are sympathetic to Kevin Laland’s argument still believe that it’s about emphases and semantics. There’s no reason to put out a clarion call that evolution needs to be rethought in its conceptual foundations.

Honestly I don’t know if there’s been much that is revolutionary conceptually since the original period of the synthesis. Perhaps the rise of molecular evolution and neutrality as a null hypothesis? But even I’m not sure about that.

Erik I. Svensson has put up a preprint which speaks for many people, On reciprocal causation in the evolutionary process. Read the whole thing, it’s thorough, and accessible to a lay audience. The main aspect a bit surprising to me is the good word put in for The Dialectical Biologist, which I have heard is an interesting book:

Recent calls for a revision the standard evolutionary theory (ST) are based on arguments about the reciprocal causation of evolutionary phenomena. Reciprocal causation means that cause-effect relationships are obscured, as a cause could later become an effect and vice versa. Such dynamic cause-effect relationships raises questions about the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, as originally formulated by Ernst Mayr. They have also motivated some biologists and philosophers to argue for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). Such an EES will supposedly replace the Modern Synthesis (MS), with its claimed focus on unidirectional causation. I critically examine this conjecture by the proponents of the EES, and conclude, on the contrary, that reciprocal causation has long been recognized as important in ST and in the MS tradition. Numerous empirical examples of reciprocal causation in the form of positive and negative feedbacks now exists from both natural and laboratory systems. Reciprocal causation has been explicitly incorporated in mathematical models of coevolutionary arms races, frequency-dependent selection and sexual selection. Such feedbacks were already recognized by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, long before the call for an EES and the associated concept of niche construction. Reciprocal causation and feedbacks is therefore one of the few contributions of dialectical thinking and Marxist philosophy in evolutionary theory, and should be recognized as such. While reciprocal causation have helped us to understand many evolutionary processes, I caution against its extension to heredity and directed development if such an extension involves futile attempts to restore Lamarckian or soft inheritance.

The revenge of the cavemen

In 2012 I wrote Post-Neolithic revenge of the foragers. There were two proximate rationales for my thoughts at the time. First, I thought Peter Bellwood’s thesis of agricultural based demographic expansions in First Farmers was being vindicated in the broadest sketch, but there were many countervailing details. Second, there were already suggestions that genetic data was not indicative of a final victory of farmers by pastoralists.

There were several immediate issues that came to mind in the non-genetic domain. Bellwood argued that agriculture shape the distribution of modern language families, but the spread of Turkic and Finnic peoples seem likely to have been post-agricultural, and not based on farming. Both these groups were arguably nomadic, one pastoralist, and the other engaging in mixed use lifestyles which were reminiscent of classic hunting and gathering. And, there has been anthropological evidence that though pure hunter-gatherers, such as indigenous Australians, do not take to cultivation easily, they quickly transition to pastoralism. In other words, the skills and mores which are common among hunter-gatherers can translate rapidly once domesticate based nomadism spreads.

The Turks, or the Saami with their reindeer, are evidence of this transition, and its success. It seems plausible that the same was the case with Indo-Europeans, and that is what I thought at the time.

Now we have more data from ancient DNA. It does seem there was a “resurgence” of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestry as time passed, with Neolithic farmers exhibiting a more indigenous genetic profile in Europe. Additionally, the arrival of Indo-European steppe ancestry brought another dollop of “hunter-gatherer” ancestry from beyond the fringes of Europe proper.

So what story can we tell of the transition between the Late Neolithic (LN) and the Early Bronze Age (ENA) in Europe? First, the proto-Indo-Europeans were people from the fringes and boundaries. Their genetics indicate some sort of influence from the Near East, likely via the Maykop people. But their roots were also deep in eastern Europe, from the local hunter-gatherers who had affinities with Siberians to their east and European hunter-gatherers to their west. From from this synthesis emerged something special, a warlike group of mobile pastoralists who quickly swept the field.

This reminds me of something from Peter Turchin’s book, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. Populations on the borders or frontiers of ethno-cultural (and possibly political) zones may exhibit more group cohesion than those from “core” areas. The Indo-Europeans were a border folk. They may also take to cultural innovations more quickly, in The Making of a Christian Aristocracy it is clear that switching to the new religion occurred faster among elites in outlying regions than in the core.

A second issue, which is not proven, but may be possible, is that once the Indo-Europeans moved into the North European plain, they allied with residual hunter-gatherer populations. A classic enemy-is-my-enemy proposition. This would likely result in a higher proportions of Pleistocene ancestry in later generations due to assimilation.

The moral of the story is that often there is no final victory in the war. Human history is full of reversals.

The coming reign of the Baby Boomer gerontocracy

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is one of my favorite books. It’s one of those works whose breadth and depth is such that I would recommend it to anyone. Jacques Barzun began writing this work when he was 84, and it was published in his 93rd year. Born in 1907 Barzun saw the full efflorescence of 20th century Western culture across much of its span firsthand. When people say that when you age you gain wisdom, surely in the domain of scholarship Barzun’s production in the last few decades of his life would qualify.

But not everyone is Jacques Barzun. If you read Intelligence: All That Matters or peruse some of Eliott Tucker-Drob’s work you will know that cognitive function declines with age beyond your twenties. Different subcomponents may decline at different rates. And, they decline differently in different people (e.g., some people may develop dementia, so their faculties will decline far faster at an earlier age). But, by and large any gains in experience or wisdom are going to be balanced against declines in raw analytic ability, as well as the slow entropic loss of information.

This is not an inconsequential matter. Our governing class is quite old. The average age in Congress may be 55 to 60, but it is almost certainly true that more senior members with more power and authority are older. The president of the United States is 70 years old. If you look at the plots in these figures by 70 there has been a notable drop in intelligence by this age, though again, it may vary from person to person.

But most important in light of these figures is that the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and many of its members are quite old, an anticipate serving until they are quite old if they are younger. In the mid-1970s justice William O. Douglas had a stroke and was basically not mentally competent to serve. Because of this fact, and Douglas’ reluctance to retire his fellow justices basically did not take his vote into account. Three of the justices today are over the age of 70, with Clarence Thomas nearing that age, and two are over the age of 80.

When it comes to Congress, or even the President, there seems to be some sort of institutional support as well as the larger collective vote in the case of Congress, which might buffer the cognitive impact of a gerontocracy. But aside from law clerks Supreme Court justices have to rely on their own individual mental capacities.

The Mormon Church has a gerontocracy among its we openleadership. Even my most devout friends in the church sometimes found it amusing how old their leadership was, and how quickly they died in succession due to the seniority principle. But The Supreme Court is not the leadership of a relatively small church. It impacts our whole nation. This sort of gerontocracy is no laughing matter.

Will we openly speak of the age issue? I doubt it. Today the Baby Boomers are between the ages of 53 an 71. They are coming into their own as a cohort into the highest reaches of the gerontocracy. If there is any generation with the grace and humility to step aside for the greater good, it will not be this generation.

Coffee is not measured by its price

An interesting piece on a $1 coffee joint, Has Coffee Gotten Too Fancy?:

Mr. Konecny’s ambitions for Yes Plz go beyond selling a high-quality cup of coffee at that magic price point, though he knows that it sends a powerful message. What he wants to do is shift the very nature of coffee culture. He has no patience for what he calls the “culinary burlesque” of pour-over bars, with their solemn baristas and potted succulents. “It’s dress-up,” he said.
Those settings and presentations, he said, send the wrong message: that good coffee must also be expensive and fetishized.

I drink a lot of coffee. At work I’m known to drink 40 or 60 ounces in a day. I also like specialty coffees, dating back to when I lived in Portland and patronized the Stumptown on Belmont.

As someone who drinks black coffee I like the idea of a no frills establishment. But I also feel the piece’s opposition between cheap good coffee and expensive faux-good coffee is a bit much. In How Pleasure Works Paul Bloom elaborates on something that we know intuitively: it is not always the sensory aspect of how something makes you feel, but also the intellectual aspect of what something is in a more contextual and broad sense. I would pay a lot for legitimate Falernian wine without even knowing what it tastes like. To drink like Cicero would be enough.

Yes, sometimes you want the $1 coffee. But sometimes you want the burlesque experience.