Open Thread, 9/22/2013

By Razib Khan | September 22, 2013 4:46 am

I found this broadside against intellectual ignorance by Christoper Beckwith rather amazing and enjoyable. Long time readers will be aware that I am a fan of his Empires of the Silk Road. In any case, I have noticed that many of my friends and acquaintances use the term ‘ignorance’ to connote a set of views which they find normatively offensive. That is not my preferred usage of the term. Rather, I take it rather at its face value as denoting those who are lacking in the basic facts from which to even attempt audacious inference. The latter I appreciate. The former I detest.

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Comments (18)

  1. toto

    Once again, Charles Murray makes an unflattering appearance.

    Maybe he’s just be the most misunderstood, misrepresented man of the age, but somehow he seems to have taken up the role of the stereotypical evil right-wing intellectual (other example here).

    • razibkhan

      beckwith isn’t a liberal. he’s an anti-modernist i think of some sort. i’m not as skeptical of charles’ methodology as some, but there are those who i know who agree with his political views who were still skeptical of the framework behind human accomplishment (though i think your general point is correct).

      • AG

        In book “Coming apart”, Charles Murray also promoted the idea of “American exceptionalism”
        You have to wonder.

  2. B.B.

    As far as cultural bias in Human Accomplishment is concerned, Charles Murray used the Dictionary of Scientific Biography as a reference point because it went to great lengths to be inclusive in regards to non-European sources and it didn’t give any significantly different results compared to the rest of his inventories.

    I do think there is a lot of merit to the idea of attempting to redo Murray’s analysis based on some foreign language scientific inventories (perhaps some North-East Asian textbooks and encyclopedias would be ideal) and seeing how they compare, if any figures or events are relatively more prominent, etc. It seems like such an obvious line of inquiry, I’m surprised it doesn’t look like any prospective historiometrician seems to have followed up on it (If I’m wrong on this, I’d certainly appreciate someone pointing it out). Though it seems to me Beckwith asking for “the same number of sources written by native peoples from all cultures of the world that were literate by 1950” is setting the standard of proof a little too high. An analysis of one or two developed non-European nations should constitute a decent enough proof of a reproducible pattern.

  3. Douglas Galbi

    In an 13th-century French tale, the trickster Trubert colors his skin yellow to disguise himself as an Oriental physician. Thoughts on that characterization of Asians?

  4. TheBrett

    It sounds like he might buy into the theory that Europeans got science as a whole-cloth tradition from contact with Classical Arab societies, which would be wrong.

  5. Paul Givargidze

    Beckwith states that “the region” was ruled by the Medes and Persians from about the 8th century BCE. Since Assyria’s fall came at the end of the 7th century BCE (609-612)*, and the demise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire came in 539 BCE, a 6th century BCE date is more appropriate, in my opinion.

    “To the east, on the Iranian plateau, the Medes inhabited a vast territory. They comprised numerous chiefdoms, almost every one of which seemed to specialize in horsebreeding. But extreme political fragmentation made them easy prey to Assyrian forays, even those carried out by forces of minor strength. Right up to the very last years of Assyria, absolutely no danger at all was to be expected in this area.”

    Fuchs, Andreas, 2011, “Assyria at war: strategy and conduct”, In: Radner, K. & Robson, E. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, Oxford: OUP, pp. 380-401.

  6. Lookatthat Boat

    It seems lost on most that it shares a root with the term “ignore”. Really, it’s a fascinating phenomenon indicating how the average human brain relates to language. The origin of the term was in reference to someone who ignored obvious and easily accessible evidence, sort of akin to the more recent phrase “intellectual dishonesty”.

    Today, as you pointed out, it’s a reference to opinions with which one normatively disagrees. What I find fascinating is that people who conceptually use it in the modern sense do not realize it shares a root with the term “ignore”, which is rarely used in a normative sense.

    It also highlights how humans learn to use words in a contextual sense, rather than a building block sense.

  7. gpandatshang

    Beckwith has a very particular intellectual style. He and George van Driem remind me of each other. Both are intriguing and entertaining to read. In a more literate society, they would be celebrity public intellectuals. They seem very interested in being vociferous defenders of ideas that their peers find controversial. It’s hard to believe that some tendentious reasoning doesn’t creep in in the process.

    I enjoyed Empires of the Silk Road quite a bit. I know a bit about some of the topics he addresses, but certainly not enough to criticise his scholarship in a serious way. One thing that did stand out was that his reconstructions of Old Chinese pronunciations seemed idiosyncratic, were generally asserted with little by way of detailed explanation, and relied heavily on Beckwith citing papers by himself for support. Much more generally, I found his key concept of a “Central Eurasian Cultural Complex” to be, far from false, but underspecified to the point where it would be difficult to falsify. If he gave an explanation of how to determine rigorously whether (or to what extent) a given culture is part of the CECC, I missed it.

    • yamanshaman

      Beckwith definitely makes for a exciting read, that’s for sure

      [re: “Yuezhi”] “Christopher Beckwith claims that the character 月, usually read as Old Chinese *ŋʷjat > Mod. yuè,[14] could have been pronounced in an archaic northwestern dialect as *tokwar or *togwar, a form that resembles the Bactrian name Toχοαρ (Toχwar ~ Tuχwar) and the medieval form Toχar ~ Toχâr.[15]”

      I certainly can’t meet Beckwith on equal terms either as a historical linguist or a scholar of Old Chinese, but I remember this claim in Empires of the Silk Road giving me pause … a little *too* neat

  8. andrew oh-willeke

    Is anyone aware of scholarship measuring the relative contribution of genetic mutations in germlines v. transfer of genes via germline viruses to the human genome or other kinds of genomes?

    Mutation rate estimates of lineage age seem to implicitly assume that this is zero, which is certainly not the case, but the actual rate might be “close enough for government work.”

  9. Razib, whose theory of IE dispersion do you find more convincing: Beckwith’s, or David Anthony’s?

    • razibkhan

      semi-agnostic. probably more anthony’s, though beckwith seems somewhat inchoate on this issue, so i’m not sure.

  10. I thought Jack Goldtone’s reply to Duschsne (same journal) to be the most interesting article in that issue of Cliodynamics. Money quote:

    We can put this story in terms of the dynamics of complex systems. The great civilizations spawned in the early part of the 1st millennium—Latin and Greek Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Hindu India, and Confucian China—proved remarkably resilient over the following centuries. Despite wars and conquests, epidemics and famines,
    dynastic struggles and heterodox religious movements, they remained
    basically true to their founding visions. Even in Europe, the ideal of
    the Holy Roman Empire did not die until 1806, some fifteen hundred years after Constantine created a Christian Imperial Rome.

    These civilizations thus had the property of stable equilibria—even when greatly disturbed, they had self-restoring features, such as an elite committed to a core culture, key sacred defining texts that maintained their role at the center of that culture, and principles of rule including hereditary leadership, elite privileges and religious support for both.

    In order for a truly modern science to emerge, it would be necessary to
    break out of that equilibrium, overturning the authority of the sacred
    texts and the power of the monarchies and aristocracies to ban or punish skeptical and heretical ideas. This proved very difficult to do. Even when presented with evidence of new realities, new instruments, and new ideas, the traditional systems of Catholic authority in southern Europe, Caliphal and kadi authority in Islam, brahmin authority in India, and mandarin authority in China remained entrenched and prevailed.

    It took a number of discrete and cumulative disturbances, or divergences, occurring over several centuries, to break free of this equilibrium so that radical changes could occur in northwestern Europe and particularlyin Britain….

  11. Anthony_A

    The normative definition of ignorance is based on the idea that the only reason someone could honestly believe something other than the reigning pretties of the day was ignorance of the supposed facts and arguments for them. The idea that someone might hold different values, and this not be swayed by the knowledge imparted by the believe is almost literally inconceivable to them, due to their gross ignorance of human history and human nature.

  12. John_Emerson

    I’ve read three of Beckwith’s books and admire them greatly, but he does have a tendency to overstate his case, often in a polemical way. He’s definitely an anti-modernist and (as he says here) and anti-democrat, and I would say that he is right of center, in his own way.

    This article, however, is almost entirely right and really shouldn’t have had to be written (e.g., Duchesne got nomadism all wrong).

    National and ethnic questions (and vast civilizational questions) seem to bring out the worst in people. Duchesne isn’t the worst of all, though. The worst I’ve seen was a long diatribe against Jews which confused the Khazaks and the Khazars. Second worst was a thing I just recently saw which claimed that the Caucasian Albanians were the ancestors of the contemporary Albanians — when “Albania” (like “Galicia” and “Iberia”) is just a Roman label casually slapped onto two different peoples.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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