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.

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.