Pegging the human expansion of out of Africa

Genetic science is good at many things, but precise dates have not always been its strong suit. There are many reasons for this, and the possibility of variable mutation rates puts a major a barrier in our ability to get absolute precision. From what I can archaeology is a little better here, despite all the problems that this discipline has.

Early human occupation of a maritime desert, Barrow Island, North-West Australia:

. In this first major synthesis we focus on the dating and sedimentology of Boodie Cave to establish the framework for ongoing analysis of cultural materials. We present new data on these cultural assemblages – including charcoal, faunal remains and lithics – integrated with micromorphology, sedimentary history and dating by four independent laboratories. First occupation occurs between 51.1 and 46.2 ka, overlapping with the earliest dates for occupation of Australia. Marine resources are incorporated into dietary assemblages by 42.5 ka and continue to be transported to the cave through all periods of occupation, despite fluctuating sea levels and dramatic extensions of the coastal plain.

The best current work sees to suggest that unlike most world populations Australians have not experienced much turnover. That is, the first settlers are the ancestors by and large of the current native populations. If this is correct we’re getting some really clear lower bound values for the date of Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture into our lineage.

The eternal Axial Age

As I have noted before one of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek history is that in many ways the socio-political identities and outlook of the Hellenic people before and after the Bronze Age were probably as distinct as that between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. That is, the citadel culture of the Mycenaeans was constructed out of recognizable elements. Take one dollop Near Eastern autocracy, add a dash of semi-civilized barbarian warlord, and finish off with the tincture of brutalist post-Minoan aesthetic, and you have the pirate kings of Achaea, who so plagued the kings of the Hittites and later transformed themselves into the “Sea Peoples.”

The story of what happened after the end of the Bronze Age is somewhat well known to us, because the roots of our civilizations are clear in the ideas which emerged in the period between 1000 BCE and 0 CE. The basis of the institutional religions which we see around us date to the Axial Age. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, either arose or ripened in the one thousand years after the birth of Christ, but from a naturalistic perspective the bases of these traditions are present in the early Iron Age. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, Judaism over its history truly takes shape in the centuries leading up to, and subsequent to, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. But the disparate threads of Rabbinical Judaism were already there in the centuries before Christ; they were simply synthesized and extended later on.

Much the same can be said about science. On the one hand, a narrow view of science is that it is the cultural product of a group of individuals who began collectively exploring aspects of the natural world in the 17th century. Eventually this contingent cultural enterprise spread across the whole world. But the roots of the scientific enterprise can also be seen in the Pre-Socratic philosophies. It was already there 2,500 years ago. But the victory of Platonism, and later the rise of Hellenistic ethical systems, and finally the ideological uniformity imposed by Christianity, dampened the efflorescence of heterodox speculations which flourished for the few centuries around 450 BCE. The steam went out of the scientific enterprise, and it never truly became science as we understand it in the modern world. But pieces of it that came together later on were familiar to us of old.

And then there are the political innovations. The Greeks gave us all their different varieties; democracy, oligarchy, the mixed monarchy-oligarchy of Sparta. The Romans had their republic, and even during the imperial period rejected the institution of ‘kinship,’ though all the powers of a king were eventually accrued to the emperors.

But political debate existed outside of Greece and Rome. In China political and ethical philosophy were intertwined, the tension between Legalism and Confucianism would continue down through the ages after the official ascendancy of the latter during the Former Han. In India there was a variety of forms of governance characterized by differing levels of centrality before the conquest of the Mauryas set the horizons and template for much of the rest of South Asian history.

Democracy and republics faded. Republican governments eventually made periodic revivals. During the period of the American Revolution many were skeptical of the idea of such a geographically expansive state such as the United States being able to maintain a republican form of governance. The shift toward a more democratic self-identity in the early 19th century with the rise of Jacksonian populism was even more shocking, because for much of history democracy was seen as a failed Greek experiment which often devolved into illiberal mob rule.

I recall 15 years ago Steven Pinker observing that one reason philosophy has made little progress is that what one could not make progress in was consigned to philosophy, while the natural and social sciences waxed in their ability to model and explain the world around us. This is uncharitable to philosophy in many ways, but it gets at something real: we haven’t pushed much further beyond the Greeks on foundational questions. Similarly, Islam is the last major religion to have emerged, and the theology of Christian churches and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Hinduism are all one to two thousand years old. Instead of progress we’ve seen shifts back and forth in fashion. Reworking of templates, not the creation of new things.

Over the past few centuries we have witnessed something different than this. The birth of the modern. The explosion of democracy and liberalism, and economic well being through massive gains to welfare and well being to the non-elites. Between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled in Western societies shrank. Seen from the first half of the 1960s the future was shiny, infectious disease was going to be unknown, and robots would allow us a life of leisure.

Though we do have iPhones and other shiny devices, and nerds like me can consume lots information on the web, things have not quite worked out in exactly the way predicted. Yes, China and much of the developing world has improved in terms of vital statistics. And it looks like space commerce may finally arrive in the next decade. But we do not have a Mars colony in 2017, let alone a Moon colony.

Economic productivity combined with a demographic transition mean that extreme deprivation is slowly being strangled. But inequality flourishes, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled began to increase after 1970 in the developed world. Whereas at one point the Whiggish perception that history was progressive, and that it would end in some quasi-utopian terminus, was self-evident, today many are not as certain. The unipolar geopolitics of the 1990s has given way to a new farcical world of the “Great Game,” while secular Arab nationalism has faded to irrelevance in the face of a resurgence Islamic identity.

History does not move in cycles where the future reenacts the past. But much of the modular furniture of existence seems to be 2,000 years old. The Salafi movements the world over are fundamentally products of modernity, or the reaction to various elements of European modernity. Their roots pre-date the 20th century, and go back to revivals in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century which parallel a reconstruction of self conscious orthodox Islam in India as the Mughal order was collapsing. But ultimately they are refurbishing the furniture put together by Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who himself might have been comfortable among Judaean Zealots. The Taliban are simply the Maccabees of our age.

From an American perspective the reality, the necessity, of the spread of democracy and the expansion of liberalism seem self-evident. Inevitable. Along with technology and science, it all seemed to hang together. In the 1990s the future was arriving as scheduled.

In 2017 the Russian experiment with Western democratic forms has not turned out how we wanted. Though China is economically liberal, it is not democratic. The global capitalist elite were as surprised as everyone else by 2008, and in the wake of that shock they have persuaded themselves that there is no need for a fundamental rethink of the institutions that they’ve developed over the past 70 years since the Bretton Woods Agreement.

As the Western economic elite continues to persist in denial, the cultural elite has been making a broad push to sweep post-1960s social liberalism throughout the world. This, all the while that Western societies have been demographically stagnant, and Western economic power has been declining in relative terms.

We are in the late stages of the long 20th century. The institutions and mores of the post-World War II are still with us, like Zeitgeist zombies. But the combination of global capitalism, individualism, democratic values always constrained by oligarchic preferences, and the universal acid of Critical Theory infused identity politics, does not hang together in a robust fashion. In most of the world if people have to pick between their ‘sexual identity’ and their ‘religious identity’, I think it will be the latter (assuming they concede that a sexual identity is a thing). In the early 20th century Marxists had to confront the fact that internationalism was not capable of overcoming nationalism. In the 21st century the identity politics of individual self-actualization and self-definition will likely confront 2,000 year old identities.

Ideologues dream of final victories. Of ideologies sweep through the world, from sea to sea. Global Communism. A world-wide capitalist order defined by free trade and free movement of peoples. China and India converting to Christianity and finally ending the civilizational conflict between Christendom and Islam, as Muslim MENA is constricted between Christian Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But pluralism has defined the last few thousand years. The final victory has been elusive. The old ideologies and religions do not die, they evolve, they reinvent, they repurpose. The stories are different in each age, but they live in a shared universe of characters who also repeat similar plot elements.

The second century BC was a strange time for the Roman republic. It was an empire in all but name. The ancient enemy Carthage was no more. But destitution was also coming to some of the Roman people. This resulted in reformers attempting to right the ship of state. The brothers Gracchi attempted to help the plight of the Roman poor with redistribution.  Marcus Livius Drusus expanded the franchise to non-Roman Italians. Political redistribution if you will. Gaius Marius began as a necessary general, but ended as a chaotic autocrat. The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.

Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.

Sulla is efficient. Cruel, but certain in his rightness. Sulla is not a clown. He is not narcissistic, for Sulla does have ideals, even if you hold that those ideals are cruel or callous. Sulla is a piece of furniture, found in many places at many times. The United States of America has not seen Sulla yet. I believe it will.

Tales of the Chinese future past

In the first half of the 1990s I was an avid reader of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series. This is before I knew much about Chinese history, or much about life to be honest. This vast epic future history is set in a world where a resurgent China dominates the world. Wars of genocidal extermination against the black and brown peoples, as well as the Japanese, have left the ethnographic topography rather simpler. Europeans exist as a subaltern race in the techno-Confucian order.

The Chinese hegemony erases the true history of the human past and promulgates a fictional alternative history, which the populace accepts as the truth. In this telling the semi-legendary Chinese general who was turned away by the Parthians 2,000 years ago continues westward, and ultimately China conquers Rome. All institutional organized religion is obliterated from existence and memory; no Christianity, no Buddhism. It is as if the Former Han dynasty had access to 21st century technology.

Earth is ruled by a small oligarchy of virtuous monarchs. Progress is dampened in the interests of social stability. The world is explicitly stratified into classes, though there is some mobility upward and downward within a single generation. They know their world’s history is a foundation of lies, but lies are seen as critical to social harmony and stability. The truth may set people free, but this is not a world where freedom is the primary value. Rather, stability and social harmony are prized.

Though Wingrove’s narrative is not without some sympathy for the dominant social order in terms of what it was attempting to achieve (they were not Legalists, but rather moralists), ultimately the most sympathetic protagonists channel the values of the late 20th century West. Truth, progress, and individualism.

Reading this series in the first half of the 1990s as a teenager it all seemed fantastical. Liberalism, Western liberalism, was inevitable as humanity’s terminal state. We all knew that. As the Chinese grew wealthier the expectation by many was that they would begin to inch toward Western norms and institutions, just as the collapsing Soviet Union was. The very concept of a jarring lateral shift in norms, values, and Weltanschauung, was quite literally the stuff of science fiction!

I now believe that I was very wrong about many things back then, and David Wingrove’s fertile imagination grasped far deeper, and perhaps troubling, possibilities about the arrow of history. In 2011, after a 15 year hiatus, Wingrove returned to this series with a prequal, Son of Heaven. It is perhaps an appropriate time for me at this juncture to revisit this world, and even look at it with more sympathy as an adult than I did as a child.

Of course I’ll also be re-reading my Xunzi. In translation I feel as if I’m missing but, but my hope is that re-reading will allow me to gain insight. Unfortunately I am hopeless at languages, otherwise I would attempt to learn to read Mandarin at this advanced age.

Notes on my social media fast

I turned on StayFocused last Thursday and set it for a week. I locked myself out of Twitter and Facebook.

Because so many people now message via Twitter and Facebook I did check via Chrome on my phone once a day. But I didn’t check the stream of messages at all.

Obviously a lot has happened in the news over the past week. Being off Twitter meant I found out about thinks a bit more slowly. But that’s OK.

I’m back on Twitter. But I am not going to reinstall it on my phone. I try and be accessible to people and respond to them…but over the years it has gotten too much. I get tagged in so many conversations. From now on I’m much more likely to ignore them.

There are still things Twitter is useful for. Things I want to say that are easier to say there. But most of the “conversations” are not worth it. Many of them are circle-jerks. In other cases a sincere person like Nicholas Christakis has to show almost Job-like patience with others who don’t play by rules of fairness and charity.

Facebook is a different case. I don’t use it to chatter with people. Rather, I post about my children or what I’m eating. I like baby pictures and see what’s happening in peoples’ lives who I know in some way. I missed it, but not that much. But I also now think it is far less toxic (in part because I’ve “trained” Facebook not to show me all the political arguments and such). I think this week has given me insight into why Facebook is so much more popular and valuable than Twitter.

On the balance when it comes to intellectual discourse, I think Twitter has made things worse.

To be a scientific intellectual today

George Busby has put up note about changes in his career path, Meditation on the Caltrain. I took offense to this section:

On top of this, there was the burgeoning realisation that no one actually reads the academic papers that I write. This is no moot point: writing papers is the main purview of a research scientist, and the central way we both communicate our results and measure success. However, compared to the proportion of the world’s population who can read, the number of people that had sat down to ingest my latest, dense, and fascinating (to me at least) treaty on the population genetics of Africa, three years in the making, was minuscule. The words of a colleague rang in my head: “99.9% of scientific papers just don’t get read”.

His most recent paper, Admixture into and within sub-Saharan Africa, was great. I meant to blog it, but got busy with other things. To be frank the fact that someone like George Busy is having trouble in the academic market is sobering. He has produced good and prominent work, and has been attached to groups which have some prominence. Of course grant approvals and job prospects have a stochastic element. But his experience shows that talent and good work is just a necessary, not sufficient, condition.

It looks like Busby will land in Silicon Valley with one of the two companies that do a lot of work on ancestry. Good for him. I think it does behoove those of us with intellectual pretensions to wonder what we’re doing out in the world. And, it also behooves academics to wonder what they’re doing with their job security. Sometimes it is important to tell the truth and explore topics even if people don’t care, or don’t want to listen. Otherwise, why fund anything that’s not practical with the public fisc?

The misrepresentation of genetic science in the Vox piece on race and IQ

I don’t have time or inclination to do a detailed analysis of this piece in Vox, Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ. Most people really don’t care about the details, so what’s the point?

But in a long piece one section jumped out to me in particular because it is false:

Murray talks about advances in population genetics as if they have validated modern racial groups. In reality, the racial groups used in the US — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — are such a poor proxy for underlying genetic ancestry that no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based only on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA.

Obviously the Census categories are pretty bad and not optimal (e.g., the “Asian American” category pools South with East & Southeast Asians, and that has caused issues in biomedical research in the past). But the claim is false. In the first half of the 2000s the eminent statistical geneticist Neil Risch specifically addressed this issue. From 2002 in Genome Biology Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease:

A debate has arisen regarding the validity of racial/ethnic categories for biomedical and genetic research. Some claim ‘no biological basis for race’ while others advocate a ‘race-neutral’ approach, using genetic clustering rather than self-identified ethnicity for human genetic categorization. We provide an epidemiologic perspective on the issue of human categorization in biomedical and genetic research that strongly supports the continued use of self-identified race and ethnicity.

A major discussion has arisen recently regarding optimal strategies for categorizing humans, especially in the United States, for the purpose of biomedical research, both etiologic and pharmaceutical. Clearly it is important to know whether particular individuals within the population are more susceptible to particular diseases or most likely to benefit from certain therapeutic interventions. The focus of the dialogue has been the relative merit of the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, especially from the genetic perspective. For example, a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] claimed that “race is biologically meaningless” and warned that “instruction in medical genetics should emphasize the fallacy of race as a scientific concept and the dangers inherent in practicing race-based medicine.” In support of this perspective, a recent article in Nature Genetics [2] purported to find that “commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of inferred genetic clusters.” Furthermore, a supporting editorial in the same issue [3] concluded that “population clusters identified by genotype analysis seem to be more informative than those identified by skin color or self-declaration of ‘race’.” These conclusions seem consistent with the claim that “there is no biological basis for ‘race'” [3] and that “the myth of major genetic differences across ‘races’ is nonetheless worth dismissing with genetic evidence” [4]. Of course, the use of the term “major” leaves the door open for possible differences but a priori limits any potential significance of such differences.

In our view, much of this discussion does not derive from an objective scientific perspective. This is understandable, given both historic and current inequities based on perceived racial or ethnic identities, both in the US and around the world, and the resulting sensitivities in such debates. Nonetheless, we demonstrate here that from both an objective and scientific (genetic and epidemiologic) perspective there is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from the research and public policy points of view.

From a 2005 interview:

Gitschier: Let’s talk about the former, the genetic basis of race. As you know, I went to a session for the press at the ASHG [American Society for Human Genetics] meeting in Toronto, and the first words out of the mouth of the first speaker were “Genome variation research does not support the existence of human races.”

Risch: What is your definition of races? If you define it a certain way, maybe that’s a valid statement. There is obviously still disagreement.

Gitschier: But how can there still be disagreement?

Risch: Scientists always disagree! A lot of the problem is terminology. I’m not even sure what race means, people use it in many different ways.

In our own studies, to avoid coming up with our own definition of race, we tend to use the definition others have employed, for example, the US census definition of race. There is also the concept of the major geographical structuring that exists in human populations—continental divisions—which has led to genetic differentiation. But if you expect absolute precision in any of these definitions, you can undermine any definitional system. Any category you come up with is going to be imperfect, but that doesn’t preclude you from using it or the fact that it has utility.

We talk about the prejudicial aspect of this. If you demand that kind of accuracy, then one could make the same arguments about sex and age!

You’ll like this. In a recent study, when we looked at the correlation between genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] versus self-description, we found 99.9% concordance between the two. We actually had a higher discordance rate between self-reported sex and markers on the X chromosome! So you could argue that sex is also a problematic category. And there are differences between sex and gender; self-identification may not be correlated with biology perfectly. And there is sexism. And you can talk about age the same way. A person’s chronological age does not correspond perfectly with his biological age for a variety of reasons, both inherited and non-inherited. Perhaps just using someone’s actual birth year is not a very good way of measuring age. Does that mean we should throw it out? No. Also, there is ageism—prejudice related to age in our society. A lot of these arguments, which have a political or social aspect to them, can be made about all categories, not just the race/ethnicity one.

Risch is not obscure. In the piece the author observes that Risch ‘was described by one of the field’s founding fathers [of the field] as “the statistical geneticist of our time.’

2005 is a long way from 2017. Risch may have changed his mind. In fact, it is probably best for him and his reputation if he has changed his mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if Risch comes out and engages in a struggle session where he disavows his copious output from 2005 and earlier defending the utilization of race as a concept in statistical genetics.

Also, genotyping is cheap enough and precise enough that one might actually make an argument for leaving off any self-reported ancestry questions. It’s really not necessary. This isn’t 2005.

But that section in the Vox piece is simply false. The existence of Risch refutes it. Vox is a high profile website which serves to “explain” things to people. The academics who co-wrote that piece are very smart, prominent, and known to me. I don’t plan on asking them why they put that section in there. I think I know why.

There will be no update to that piece I’m sure. It will be cited widely. It will become part of what “we” all know. Who I am to disagree with Vox? This is journalism from what have been able to gather and understand. The founders of Vox are rich and famous now. Incentives matter. There are great journalists out there  who don’t misrepresent topics which I know well. But the incentive structure is not to reward this. More often storytellers who tell you the story you like to be told are rewarded.

As for science and the academy? I am frankly too depressed to say more.

Creativity, because it’s 2017 The Mummy is being rebooted

Can anyone explain to me why The Mummy, a B-list franchise from the turn of the century, is getting a reboot? In particular, a reboot with Tom Cruise, who is definitely an A-list actor?

When I first heard that The Mummy was getting rebooted with Tom Cruise I assumed it was some fan-made trailer. Obviously I don’t know the entertainment industry logic here, but I think understanding that logic might give us a window into the economic and social history of this industrial sector in our age.

Islam in China is not one

Over the past few days I have seen articles in the media which refer to “Chinese Muslims,” and then make such a casual and slight distinction between Muslims in China and the Uyghur ethnic group that I think it’s really misleading to the general public (e.g., Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China. We found that the Internet fuels — and fights — this).

To review, Muslims in China are multi-ethnic. The two largest groups, the Hui and Uyghurs, comprise nearly 90% of Chinese Muslims. There are marginally more Hui than Uyghurs.

Who are the Hui? The Chinese government defines Hui as an ethnic group, but really they are differentiated by their adherence to Islam. Hui speak a dialect of Chinese specific to their locality. They do not have a “Hui language.” Physically they resemble the Han. Because of their long period of isolation in China after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty, the Hui have gone through several indigenizing phases.In the 18th century in eastern China the Hui intellectual classes synthesized Chinese cultural frameworks with Islam in a fascinating manner. The whole project is recounted in The Dao of Muhammad.

These periods of Sinicization are often followed a reformist globalist revival triggered by missionaries or those who went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam with Chinese characterizes recedes for a generation or two, only to come back.

In the 19th century to a great extent the project of social accommodation with the Han by the Hui collapsed in the face of social disorder, anti-Muslim policies by the Manchus, and reformist movements inspired by broader currents in the Islamic world. Though the Hui are a very small minority, unlike the Han a military career was not low status for them, so they “punched above” their weight.

In the 20th and 21st centuries the Hui have been relatively quiescent. Why? There are numerous reasons, but it is important to emphasize that there are many strong contrasts with how the Hui are treated and perceived, and how they perceive China, in relation to  what is meted out to the Uyghurs. The Hui are no less Muslim than Uyghurs, but they are not the political and social problem in China that Uyghurs are.

Though the Chinese state defines Hui as one of the minority “nationalities,” that is really a semantic obfuscation. The Hui are most easily conceptualized as Han Muslims, even though some of their customs separate them very strongly from the Han (e.g., no consumption of pork), and traditionally Han identity has been seen as exclusive from an Islamic identity. That is, a Han who converts to Islam becomes a Hui by definition.

Though in a Chinese context one could never call the Hui “Han Muslims,” from a non-Chinese perspective it is very informative of the relationship and difference of the Hui from the Han, as opposed to the Uyghur from the Han.

Two Uyghur men

Obviously the Uyghur are not Han, they are Turkic. Uyghur nationalists have pan-Turkic associations, and many Uyghurs live in Turkey. As a Turkic people Uyghurs, unlike Hui, do not speak Chinese as their first language. The attempt to educate Uyghur children in Mandarin Chinese to enable them to assimilate and succeed economically has faced resistance because Uyghurs see in this the first steps to assimilation and eventually alienation.

Though Hui are very distinctive in China proper, and live in their own segregated areas in much of the north (in southern China this is less common, and Hui assimilation into Han identity has also been widespread), they are still part of the Chinese landscape. Muslims have lived in China proper since the Tang dynasty, 1,300 years ago. Large numbers of Muslims arrived with the Mongols 800 years ago, and many stayed on. As a minority in a non-Muslim society these people had to navigate how to be both Chinese and Muslim, when much of Chinese identity deviated from world normative Islam in deep ways.

The Uyghurs did not go through any of this because they were not part of China until the 20th century. Though Chinese garrisons and hegemony did exist in Xinjiang during portions of the Han and Tang dynasty, up until the Manchu conquest of these territories in the mid-18th century the Uyghurs had not been part of the same political unit with Han Chinese for over 1,000 years, with the exception of the short Mongol interlude. In fact, the ethnogenesis of modern Uyghurs, as a blending of Turkic migrants from the north and native Indo-Eurpean speaking groups in the Tarim basin, was concurrent with the collapse of Chinese influence in what became the eastern edge of the Turkic world.

Notice I was very specific in saying that they became part of the same political unit with Han Chinese in the middle of the 18th century. This because outside of China proper the Manchu emperors did not necessarily rule as Chinese potentates. Rather, they took on different forms for their different subject peoples, and the conquest of the heart of Eurasia was not a conquest by the state of China, but of the Manchu ruling caste. Any attempts to Sinicize Xinjiang came later, and were halting at best. While Chinese speaking Muslims in Beijing were theorizing how Muhammad actually completed the Confucian vision better than most Chinese, the Uyghurs simply swapped the rule of nearby Tibetan Buddhist Oirat Mongols for a distant Manchu ruler, who was also sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhist religion and claimed a kinship with the Mongols through descent from Genghis Khan’s younger brother.

The problem that the modern Chinese state has is that it rejects the feudal multicultural compromises of the imperial past. Though Communist regimes pay lip service to national self-determination, the reality in Communist regimes has always been that the party has enforced a normative ethnic identity as one that is aspirational for minorities. The Chinese state suppression of the religion of the Uyghurs, the promotion of Mandarin, the encouragement of migration to Xinjiang by Han, and even inducements in some cases for Uyghurs to intermarry with Han, are all part of a general pattern of activity which will result in the assimilation of the Uyghur nation.

It is apparently a fact that while Islamic belief and practice by Uyghurs is sharply frowned upon by Han authorities in Xinjiang, in most of China proper Hui religiosity is relatively tolerated. Hui are even seen as appropriate ambassadors to Muslim nations for purposes of diplomacy and business, because they show how China can accommodate Islam. Unlike the Uyghurs the Hui do not have a geographical region where they are dominant (Muslims are 35% of the population of the small province set aside for Hui). Their national home is China. Additionally, obviously they would not resist Mandarin Chinese instruction, because they are already Chinese speakers. Unlike the Uyghur, who have substantial West Eurasian ancestry, the Hui are also physically no different from Han.

In Central Asia the Hui have a different name. They are called Dungans. And traditionally they have been overrepresented among soldiers and merchants from China. Within China the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their religion. But in Central Asia the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their Chineseness. Hui were important in keeping Xinjiang in the Manchu fold after the conquest. Many Uyghurs know this history of cooperation between Han and Hui. In the 2009 Urumqi riots the Uyghurs reportedly chanted “Kill the Han, kill the Hui”.

None of this is to deny that Islam presents challenges as a minority religion within a non-Muslim nation. The Hui rebellions of the 19th century, and periodic flare ups between Hui and Han in the Chinese heartland, attest to this. But differences between Uyghurs and Hui illustrate that excessive focus on Islam misses that Uyghur violence in response to Chinese coercion likely has multiple causes. Islam over the last generation has been the most powerful binding ideology for national resistance among Uyghurs. But it would be far less relevant if the Uyghurs were not a nation in the first place, which they are.

Another way to say it is that Tibet and Xinjiang have many of the same underlying parameters as to why they are hotbeds of ethnic tension and separatism. Religion is part of the story.

Related: Islam in China Revisited.

The servitude I saw

Many people are talking about the late Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Much of the piece was as disturbing for me as it was for most Americans. But some of it was shockingly familiar. I’ll get to that.

First, Tizon died unexpectedly before the article was published. We won’t be able to ask him about how we can judge the veracity of his own role and culpability. Though the narrative is laced with guilt and admissions of fault on his part, ultimately he does come off as somewhat the soft-hearted hero in comparison to his parents.

Since he is the source of all of this it is hard to not assume that he cast himself in a more flattering light than reality might warrant. The obituary he helped inform in 2011 was entirely deceptive, and apparently the slavery did not feature in his memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

On the one hand writing such an article exposed himself to critique. On the other hand this piece would surely have been an incredible capstone to his career; his has wife admitted as much. Ultimately truth would really only have been served if “Lola,” the slave in question, had been allowed to speak for herself. I’m sure she would have had very different perceptions from Tizon.

But overall I suspect his guilt was genuine.

This is not how it always works out. About ten years ago there was an infamous Long Island case where a wealthy Indian American family had had two Indonesian slaves. There were incidents recounted in the media and testimony which made it clear that their American born children were entirely complicit and cooperative with their parents in the enslavement of these women.

As many of you know it is not uncommon in many societies across the world to have household help. It was even the case in the United States up until relatively recently for young women to go through a stint of menial labor in a more affluent family’s home. My own wife’s grandmother did this when she was a young woman in the 1920s.

I was born in Bangladesh. I moved to the United States right before my schooling began. So though my formative years are operationally all in the United States, I retain memories of Bangladesh. Additionally, I have visited twice since I left (due to the recent spate of killings of secularists I do not plan on visiting again until the nation joins the civilized world). When I was a young child I had a beloved nanny. Additionally, before we left for the United States there were two families who were resident with us in our large apartment. They helped my mother keep the house.

These were not simply capitalist transactions. My nanny was from the same village as my paternal grandfather. Many of the people who served in my family’s household in Dhaka were from the same district we had come from, and had had prior associations with my family in the 19th century (for reasons I’m not aware of, they were all from my mother’s side of the family). Obviously my nanny couldn’t come to the United States. She was relatively elderly*, so she retired to my maternal grandfather’s home village, and the last time I saw her in 1989  she was living in one of the houses he owned, which had an indoor flush toilet (a luxury at the time).

The first time we visited Bangladesh my mother made sure to visit the families who had once lived with us and worked for us before we left for the United States. In some ways it was like reacquainting with distant relatives. But obviously there was the distance of class. These were people whose families had been subsistence peasants only a generation earlier. My own family on both sides were not subsistence peasants. They either collected rents from the peasants in question, or operated businesses which generated revenue (e.g., jute farms or milk production operations), or were professionals (e.g., my maternal grandfather was a doctor, my paternal grandfather was an ulem, though he supplemented his income with rents).

Some of the things that I heard my family say about the families who had once had a servile relationship with them were the very definition of patronizing. That being said, both sides of my family are relatively religious, and took some pride in the humane character of their relationship with the people who they employed. Additionally, these were not impersonal relationships. My mother never behaved as the “boss.” Rather, I recall she maintained at least the artifice of a genuine friendship with the women close to her age who worked in our household. The ties between our families went back generations. I would not be surprised if in some sense they were relatives in some fashion.

All this is to frame a searing incident (or series of incidents) that I recall from 1989. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had married into a family which hailed from the city of Chittagong. This brother was arguably my mother’s favorite, so we went to visit him inChittagong. Most of the time though he was away on a merchant marine vessel on which he was an engineer, so we were left to spend time with my uncle’s in-laws. Overall they were lovely people.

But there was an exception to their behavior. They had a household domestic. She must have been about fifteen or so. She was very quiet, and I was never formally introduced to her, though a few times I tried to talk to her, to the irritation of others. Like an automaton she operated silently in the background, cleaning and cooking. One day I was in the kitchen talking about something with my cousin-in-law, and my uncle’s mother-in-law began yelling at the young woman. My cousin-in-law broke off our conversation, turned to the domestic, and began yelling at her too. Next thing I knew all the women in the house had come into the kitchen and were screaming at the domestic.

I was very disturbed and left the scene of the incident. Something similar happened at least two other times the week we were there. When I asked one of my cousin-in-law’s about this young woman and why they yelled at her she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and said she was stupid, useless, and didn’t know her place. I asked my mother about this treatment, and she didn’t seem to want to speak of it, though she did say something to the effect that not all families treat their domestics the way she was raised to treat them. My mother did not approve, but her disapproval did not rise to the level of causing her to begin a controversy with her brother’s in-laws.

This behavior seems very similar to what Tizon recounts about his parents using their slave as a emotional and verbal punching bag. And it was not a total aberration, the second time I went to Bangladesh we stayed with one of my mother’s brothers who had become rather wealthy. He married a woman who was 20 years younger than him. She was in fact one year younger than me (this is my mother’s youngest brother). This woman was nice enough, but she seemed a bit dull and I was to understand she wasn’t particularly educated (i.e., she hadn’t gone to university of any sort).

My uncle’s household had a domestic. She was a young woman, probably in her early teens. One day I saw my aunt-in-law scream at her in exactly the same way that I had seen years earlier with my other uncle’s in-laws. When my aunt was irritable about something, she would invariably begin to verbally abuse the domestic, who was probably about 13.

Many things have changed in Bangladesh in the period my parents have lived in the United States. This includes the language; both of my parents speech exhibits archaisms which contemporary Bangladeshis find amusing. But something substantive has been economic development. My parents in the 1970s were at best upper middle class. But they had numerous servants. My uncle in contrast was, and is, genuinely wealthy, even by American standards. He is literally part of the capitalist class.

Yet it was difficult for him to find a competent domestic. He had to drive 50 miles into the country into obscure villages to find a family who had a young woman who was willing to work in his household. The families who had traditionally worked for my own family were now in a different economic situation. Some number had lived long enough in the city that their children had gained enough education that there were now opportunities besides menial labor or domestic work for them. Others were now sending their young daughters to textile factories, and not the homes of the middle or upper classes.

Why? I can’t speak from inside knowledge, above I made it clear that in our own telling my family is that they were benevolent patrons. But even if we were benevolent patrons, I assume that the families which customarily had to treat us with deference would have preferred to live in a world where our legal equality in the modern world matched social equality.

Going to work in a dark and hot factory for low ages is horrible I assume (I wouldn’t know except for a short stint at a Christmas break job when I was 20). But it may be better than the alternative of being subjected to abuse by one’s “betters” for a pittance.

To end on a positive note, sometimes my parents complain about how much Bangladesh has changed. Much of the rural area has been swallowed by the conurbation that is Dhaka. But many things have gotten better. Both my parents come from large families. But though my maternal grandmother was married to a doctor of some means, several of her children died as infants. This was not a tragedy, but just a part of life. The mortality of children under five has decreased 7-fold in what is now Bangladesh since my parents were young!

* People who live a difficult life tend to age quickly. I want to say that my nanny was in her late 50s when I last saw her, but I would not be surprised if she was younger. She was illiterate, and when I was a child in elementary school I recall my parents discussing the best way to send her some money when they found out that she was subsisting on plain rice and salt.