Colonizing the past

In 1793 the Macartney Mission went to China to open up the country for the British. The overall evaluation is that it failed. The Chinese under the Qing dynasty were in the last throes of the Indian summer of a great demographic expansion dating back three hundred years, capped off by an era of peace which had lasted more than 100 years. The Qianlong Emperor was in the 57th year of his reign. And he firmly rejected all British entreaties. China was the Middle Kingdom. It did not have European wares. It did not need European wares. It could easily dismiss European concerns and sensitivities.

Or so Qianlong and his court believed. Within 50 years the British would defeat the Chinese on their home turf, and impose a humiliating peace upon them. Over the next few decades European powers would begin to dissect the rotting carcass of late Qing China, which was also being eaten alive from the inside by convulsions such as the Taiping rebellion.

Though it was difficult for people at the time to perceive, and in particular the Chinese, the signs were already present in 1793 that the British star would ascend, while that of the Chinese would dim in comparison. The Chinese economic system was at its Malthusian carrying capacity, and had squeezed all it could out of the margins of Adam Smith’s classical factors of production, land, labor, and capital. In contrast, the British were in the midst of a revolution in economic production driven by innovation would would explode the underlying parameter of growth, all the while restructuring their social conditions so as to undergo demographic transition.

The British were inventing the modern economy. The Chinese were nursing along the classical agricultural stationary state as best as they could.

Aspects of this were already evident to the British implicitly. McCartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese Emperor, maintaining dignity, whereas previous factors would likely have abased themselves. The period around 1800 in India also saw the shift away from the traditional accommodationism of the East India Company with native cultural forms and practices, toward exporting elite British folkways in toto to overseas administrative posts.

In general people living in an age of transition don’t perceive the transition themselves, and continue to fixate on earlier assumptions and truths. The period between the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the outbreak of World War I saw the high tide of European colonialism and hegemony, but the seeds of its relative decline were already there. The United States of America became the largest economy early in the 20th century. British, French, and German intellectuals may have had their disputes and contributions in those first decades, but the future was already going to be across the Atlantic.

Today I feel that many Americans are living in the past, and not admitting and acknowledging that the present is pointing to the future. The world is becoming genuinely multipolar. There is more than one sun in the sky. Though there are nearly 1 billion people speaking English on the internet (often second language speakers), there are 750 million Chinese speakers. As the year 2020 approaches we’re living in a genuinely multipolar and multicultural world, but a lot of the discussion I see on my part of the internet is about white colonialist males. As if those are the only bright white suns in the sky. Men like McCartney. But the fixation of cultural elites is often a reflection of the last war, and past priorities, just as science fiction futures reflect the present. Change is in the air, even if we don’t realize it….

Sex bias in migration from the steppe (revisited)

Last fall I blogged a preprint which eventually came out as a paper in PNAS, Ancient X chromosomes reveal contrasting sex bias in Neolithic and Bronze Age Eurasian migrations. The upshot is that the authors found that there was far less steppe ancestry on the X chromosomes of Bronze Age Central Europeans than across the whole genome. The natural inference here is that you had migrations of males into territory where they had to find local wives.

But the story does not end there. Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich have put out a short not on biorxiv, Failure to Replicate a Genetic Signal for Sex Bias in the Steppe Migration into Central Europe. It’s short, so I suggest you read the note yourself, but the major issue seems to be that on X chromosomes ADMIXTURE in supervised mode seems to behave really strangely. Lazaridis and Reich find that there seems to be a downward bias of steppe ancestry. Ergo, the finding was an artifact.

Goldberg et al. almost immediately responded, Reply To Lazaridis And Reich: Robust Model-Based Inference Of Male-Biased Admixture During Bronze Age Migration From The Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Their response seems to be that yes, ADMIXTURE does behave strangely, but the overall finding is still robust.

With these uncertainties I do wonder if it’s hard at this point to evaluate the alternative models. But, we do have archaeology and mtDNA. What do those say? On that basis, from what little I know, I am inclined to suspect a strong male bias of migration.

Citation: Reply To Lazaridis And Reich: Robust Model-Based Inference Of Male-Biased Admixture During Bronze Age Migration From The Pontic-Caspian Steppe, Amy Goldberg, Torsten Gunther, Noah A Rosenberg, Mattias Jakobsson
bioRxiv 122218; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/122218

Citation: Failure to Replicate a Genetic Signal for Sex Bias in the Steppe Migration into Central Europe, Iosif Lazaridis, David Reich, bioRxiv 114124; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/114124

When the gods come crashing down

Sometimes the old gods slowly fade into oblivion. Contrary to popular perception this seems likely the case for ancient paganism. The conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion began the process of a hand-off and the commanding heights of classical culture that took over a century to complete. There were punctuating moments, such as the apostasy of Julian in the 360s, or the mostly symbolic ban on public paganism by Theodosius in the 390s (the Serapeum was destroyed by a vigilante mob). But pagans in the form of the Neoplatonic school persisted into the 6th century, while elite pagans such as Marcellinus maintained power and influence deep into the second half of the 5th century.

Call this “normal” cultural evolution. Antiquity evolved from being predominantly pagan to predominantly Christian (though a small cultured pagan minority persisted even until the Islamic conquest in the Near East, such as the Sabians of Haran).

The Reformation period was different. In a single generation one thousand years of a coherent and unified Western Christian ideology collapsed, and was replaced by something very different.

Note here that I said Western Christian ideology. The reality is that Western Christianity was never as unified or coherent as Western Christians themselves envisaged themselves to be (or aspired to be). There were episodes of hostility between particular kingdoms and the Roman papacy. Heresies such as that of the Cathars, and popular revolts with a religious tinge such as that of the Hussites. And finally, there were periods of multiple popes, which undermined the credibility of the institution of the Church in the medieval period.

But all this pales next to the magnitude and scope of the revolt against the establishment of the Western Christian church that occurred in the 1520s. Martin Luther went from being a Christian cleric within the established Church to declaring the pope the anti-Christian! Previously devout peasants in Switzerland turned on the relics and churches which they had only recently venerated, and engaged in mob iconoclasm. Whereas monarchs, such as Henry IV, ultimately compromised with the clerical estate (or, submitted), Henry VIII of England managed to destroy or subordinate the institutions of the church to his own will and pleasure.

There are many theories for why the Reformation occurred when it did. Some of them are rooted in technology, in particular the printing press. Others point to the development of proto-national identities, such as the rise of German nationalism and its leveraging by Luther against his “Roman” persecutors.

These specific issues are not interesting to me. Rather, what they point out to us that there can be cultural revolutions that occur very rapidly. One can point to the pacific post-World War II Japanese, and contrast them with the militaristic Japanese of the first half of the 20th century. Or the shift of Russia from being a conservative autocracy in the 1910s to a revolutionary society in the 1920s. But these are modern events, and moderns are liable to suggest that our own epoch is sui generis in these sorts of turnovers of values. But the Reformation shows that revolutionary changes in whole societies can occur rather rapidly even in a pre-modern context.

In other words, cultural revolution is not a derived characteristic of our species, but perhaps a very old one. The rapid expansion of the Austronesians. Or the radiation of non-African humanity. These come out of a vacuum, a cultural-demographic analog to the inflationary universe. But given enough time perhaps our species is simply subject to these sorts of explosions of creative change and innovation.