Category: History

The Age of Heroes

By Razib Khan | August 15, 2012 6:42 pm

Sometimes when you read reviews or papers you need to look very closely at what people say in a tentative speculative fashion. That’s because though the prose may be as such when read plainly and without context, you often have more prior information as to the background of the authors. In other words, assertions which literally seem cautious are actually foreshadowing likely probabilities down the pipeline, because the authors are not distant third-party observers, but active participants in the production of new insights. I think that’s what’s going on in a new paper in Trends in Genetics, The genetic history of Europeans:

Future research should also reveal the effects of post-Neolithic demographic processes, including migration events, which preliminary data suggest had a major impact upon the distribution of genetic variation. These include events associated with Bronze Age civilizations, Iron Age cultures, and later migrations, including those triggered by the rise and fall of Empires. Challenges remain in being able to sequence aDNA routinely from serial samples in the range of megabases, and in the development of software that allows spatially-explicit simulation of genome-scale data, but advances in these areas are now a weekly occurrence and the stage is set for a rapid increase in our knowledge on the evolutionary history of AMH in Europe.

I’d have said this was crazy a few years ago. No longer.


And you shall find the light & the truth

By Razib Khan | August 12, 2012 10:57 am

John C. Calhoun – religious liberal

I’ve been expressing my pessimism about the state of contemporary intellectual discourse, but it’s time to spotlight something which should make us optimistic. For years David Barton has been promulgating the falsehood that the Founding Fathers were nearly all evangelical Protestant Christians, and therefore this nation was founded as a Christian nation as understood by modern evangelical Protestants. Barton’s influence through the network of conservative evangelical churches is powerful. I’ve encountered people who repeat Barton-lite “facts” who no longer have any connection to conservative evangelical culture simply because that’s all they’ve ever been made aware of.

But it seems that Barton has finally gone a step too far. Conservative Christian historians have started to counter his fabulism, to the point where his publisher is now withdrawing his ironically titled book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. Such revisionism is just too bald for even the most sympathetic to Barton’s worldview. Jefferson was famously the Founder who produced a bowdlerized Bible, and presumed that the future of Christianity would be in a heretical Unitarian direction in his personal correspondence.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: David Barton

Historical Dynamics & contingent conditions of religion

By Razib Khan | August 10, 2012 12:39 am
Below is a long essay I wrote four years ago which I’m reposting. It may be a useful guide for readers who are not aware of my various non-genetic interests….

Peter Turchin’s Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall showed up a little sooner than I’d thought it would, and it was an even quicker read than War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (see review). There isn’t really anything new verbal in the more technical treatment, but the book is about half the length because so much of the text was condensed into simple differential equations and figures which displayed the results of simulations. The figure to the left was one that I found particularly interesting, the differential equations which this is based on are:

dA/dt = c0AS(1 – A/h) – a

dS/dt = r0(1 – A/[2b])S(1 – S)

Where A = area, c = state’s resources translated into geopolitical power, r is the growth rate, h is the spatial scale of power project, a is the geopolitical pressure from the hinterland and S is average polity-wide level of collective solidarity. You can find the elucidation of the details of the simulation in the appendix of Historical Dynamics.

Turchin was obviously pleased with how similar the dynamics of area of polity vs. time were in the simulation to what the empirical data showed. Of course, because of the sensitivity to initial parameters there isn’t going to be a real prediction of the trajectory of state rise and fall, as opposed to inferences about the likely patterns. For example, in the comments to the previous post Italy was focused in on as a weakness in many of the generalizations, and Turchin actually spends a fair amount of time admitting that he has no real answer for why Italy turned out the way it did and admits that his model can explain a lot, but not all. He’s happy with an r-squared of 0.75.

The above was just a taste, I’m not going to go much deeper since you can get the book yourself. Mathematically oriented works are pretty straightforward and you can reject it or accept it (or not understand it). In any case, I want to focus on another issue which is emphasized in Historical Dynamics, the autocatalytic model of religious conversion. The idea here is simple; the rate of conversion is proportional to the number of converts, and the result is a logistic curve over time. Turchin draws strongly upon Rodney Stark & co’s work on the importance of transmission through social networks, and uses textual data to suggest that the growth of Christianity during the Roman Empire, and Islam in both Spain and Iran, seem to map well onto a logistic growth function.

In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that the conversion of Constantine, and the progression in the 4th century of Christianity becoming a state-identified cult, actually slowed the spread of the religion! Stark’s thesis is obviously derived in large part from the American experience of cult, sect and denominational rise and fall. Historically minded readers might wonder as to the generalizable nature of a supply side rational choice model for the ancient world. In The Barbarian Conversion the difference between the Roman and early medieval periods in terms of the spread of Christianity is rather clear and distinct, what was plausibly a “bottom up” dynamic quickly turned into a “trickle down” and fiat process (also see Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity).

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History

We are all Anglo-Saxons now

By Razib Khan | July 27, 2012 11:21 pm

I’m kind of wary of getting into political debates at this point because it’s not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I’m taking specific sides, even if they actually guess my preferences incorrectly!). But the whole Mitt Romney-Anglo-Saxon heritage kerfuffle has now gotten under my skin. What prompted my agitation is a post over at The Atlantic by Max Fisher, Sorry, Romney: Neither America Nor the U.K. Are ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Countries. There are two dimensions to this, the positive and the normative.

Most of you are probably aware of David Barton, the conservative Christian scholar whose bread and butter is a revisionist history of the United States which rewrites the past into a fiction to serve his own political ends, in a manner which would make Michel Foucault proud. But believe it or not conservative Christians are not the only group wont to rewrite the past to serve  their own contemporary political preferences. In the case of Max Fisher what you have is a conclusion in search of support, and so our enterprising young man went out looking for it in classic hack style. Reading through the comments very few spotted the errors and confusions, aside from a few British commenters.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Anglo-Saxon

British class differences persisting down centuries?

By Razib Khan | July 22, 2012 11:01 am

People with Norman names wealthier than other Britons:

Research shows that the descendants of people who in 1858 had “rich” surnames such as Percy and Glanville, indicating they were descended from the French nobility, are still substantially wealthier in 2011 than those with traditionally “poor” or artisanal surnames. Artisans are defined as skilled manual workers.

As Steve Sailer observes strict adherence to surnames on a mass scale post-dates the Norman invasion by centuries. So the headline is pretty sensational. But I went and read the original working paper, and there is no mention of Norman or French names! The author of the piece in The Telegraph is probably right (i.e., a casual reading of history will show that Norman names are enriched in the English elite), but this is clearly another case of one having to be careful of the details when it comes to British media.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, History

The many Americas

By Razib Khan | July 20, 2012 1:25 am

One of my main hobbyhorses is that in the United States today the identities of race and religion get so much emphasis that it is easy forget the divisions among white Anglo-Protestants which persist, and to some extent serve as the scaffold for the rest of American culture. This is why I recommend Albion’s Seed and The Cousins’ Wars to anyone interested in American history. Often these realities of American “dark ethnicity,” the divisions between Yankees and Low Country Southerners, Scots-Irish and the people of the port cities of the Northeast, get conflated with issues of class. Class is a major dimension, but it is not the only one. For example, the people of Appalachia are poor, but they are not Appalachians because they are poor.

These issues of dark ethnicity rooted in “dark history” can crop up in the strangest places. For example, in The New York Times Magazine, Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?:

Read More


Iranian religious distinctiveness is not primal

By Razib Khan | July 19, 2012 2:03 pm

Dienekes has a discussion up of a new paper on Iranian Y-chromosome variation. My post isn’t prompted by the genetics here, but rather a minor historical note within the text which I want to correct, again, because it isn’t totally minor in light of contemporary models of the uniqueness of Iranian (specifically Persian) identity in the Middle East:

Persian identity refers to the Indo-European Aryans who arrived in Iran about 4 thousand years ago (kya). Originally they were nomadic, pastoral people inhabiting the western Iranian plateau. From the province of Fars they spread their language and culture to the other parts of the Iranian plateau absorbing local Iranian and non-Iranian groups. This process of assimilation continued also during the Greek, Mongol, Turkish and Arab invasions. Ancient Persian people were firstly characterized by the Zoroastrianism. After the Islamization, Shi’a became the main doctrine of all Iranian people.

As Dienekes observes I’ve objected to this confusion before:

Read More

MORE ABOUT: History, Iran, Shia

Identity by descent & the Völkerwanderung

By Razib Khan | July 17, 2012 9:07 pm

Early this year I received an email from Dr. Peter Ralph, inquiring if I might discuss some interesting statistical genetic results from analyses of the POPRES data set which might have historical relevance. I’ve been excitingly waiting for the preprint to be made public so it could trigger some wider discussion. I believe that the methods outlined in the paper perhaps show us a path into the near future, where we might gain a much sharper perspective upon the recent past. So it’s finally out, and you can read it in full. Ralph and Dr. Graham Coop have posted put it up at arXiv, The geography of recent genetic ancestry across Europe. The paper uses ~500,000 SNPs from the POPRES data set individuals, and looks at patterns of identity by descent as a function of geography. By identity by descent, we’re talking about segments of the genome which are derived from a common ancestor. Because of recombination the length of the segments can give us a sense of the date of the last common ancestor; long segments indicate more recent ancestry because fewer recombination events have chopped up sequence.

Here’s the big takeaway of the paper: …There is substantial regional variation in the number of shared genetic ancestors: especially high numbers of common ancestors between many eastern populations likely date to the Slavic and/or Hunnic expansions, while much lower levels of common ancestry in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas may indicate weaker demographic effects of Germanic expansions into these areas and/or more stably structured populations. Recent shared ancestry in modern Europeans is ubiquitous, and clearly shows the impact of both small-scale migration and large historical events….

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Demographics, History

Continuing the search for Indo-Europeans

By Razib Khan | July 15, 2012 2:53 pm

Dienekes P. is often rather laconic in commentary on the papers he links to, but of late he has “come out of his shell.” He has two posts which are important “weekend reading”:

Population strata in the West Siberian plain (Baraba forest steppe)

Hints of East/Central Asian admixture in Northern Europe

I freely admit that much of the conjecture here is above my pay-grade in terms of evaluation. But I do think it’s important think through. My “gut” tends to lean toward a “revenge of the Mesolithic” scenario promoted by some of Dienekes’ critics, but I don’t have a strong position.

MORE ABOUT: Indo-Europeans

Still not understanding the nature of affairs

By Razib Khan | July 7, 2012 12:59 pm

I’m primarily science blogger, with an amateur interest in history. But I’m still disturbed that over 10 years after 9/11 elite media still can’t be bothered to be precise and accurate about the affairs of the Muslim world. As a neo-Isolationist when it comes to military adventures I wish that ignorance were tolerable, but the reality is that a substantial minority of the populace and the majority of the elite seems intent on flexing American muscle abroad, come hell or national bankruptcy. Instead of imparting to the populace a genuine structure of facts and concepts which adds value in terms of comprehending things as they are, the media seems to just repackage its preconceptions in more sophisticated garb.

For example, The Washington Post:

Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.

Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, History

Has Dienekes Pontikos found the signature of the Indo-Europeans?

By Razib Khan | July 3, 2012 1:35 pm

I don’t know the answer to the question posted in title above, and I’m moderately skeptical that he has. But I wanted to give him full credit in the public record if researchers confirm his findings in the next few years. You can read the full post at his weblog, but basically he found that a West Asian modal element in a north British (Orkney) and Lithuanian individual seems to be negatively correlated with a Northwest European modal element and positively correlated with Near Eastern and South Asian components on a genomic level across different models in ADMIXTURE (e.g., does “South Asian” at K = 5 tend to match “West Asian” at K = 8).

Two major concerns:

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History, Linguistics
MORE ABOUT: Indo-Europeans

Remembering failed engineering

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 9:46 pm

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s “hippies” were figures of amusement and the 1960s was all The Wonder Years. As a child you’re not told of the “dark side,” the true history, which may seem disturbing. When I was in college I met someone who did clue me in to some of the more “adult” aspects of the 1960s they had experienced through their recollections. For example, this man had been to the original Woodstock. While there he had taken a fancy to a young girl (underage), something her brother did not approve of. So he chased my friend down, smacked him upside the head, dragged him into the bushes, and raped him (also, I don’t recall seeing the interracial group sex protesting anti-miscegenation laws he told me about in Eyes on the Prize).

My own interest in history is of the more esoteric and antique kind. More Byzantium than the Beats. But as I grow older I am more and more aware of the lacunae in my knowledge, and the childlike vision of the 1960s which I unconsciously continue to hold. This is why more fully fleshed out pictures of the “Summer of Love,” such as can be found in this July’s Vanity Fair is of particular interest. In this way the past can become real, without the antiseptic tint of our media or the nostalgia of the baby boomers.

Read More


The sea as it was

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 12:48 am

I haven’t mentioned that a few months ago I read an incredible book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. It weighs in at ~650 pages of dense narrative text, and you’ll want to jump to the footnotes as well! There isn’t much I can say in this space that would do justice to the book, the author has produced a tour de force of macrohistory. As someone with more scholarly tastes in history and culture I have noticed a definite bias toward monographs on my part. Too often generalist tomes are superficial surveys; no author can command all of the literature, and Wikipedia has truly replaced many of the entry-level works. The Great Sea has some of the typical problems with broad sweeping histories, but they’re usually evident only in closer inspection of footnotes (there seems a particular weakness in prehistory and far antiquity).

But ultimately this is definitely a book that’s worth it because it shows you exactly how one can generate an intellectual scaffold. Too often people know densely but narrowly, and more often thinly but superficially. Both of these modes lack heft and the ability to cut thickly through reality. It takes a genuinely dense and interlaced work such as The Great Sea to give you a good model for the true shape of reality.

MORE ABOUT: The Great Sea

Civilization is not Ferguson's best

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2012 9:44 pm

Last winter I took note of a major conflict between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson over a review by the former of the latter’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson accused Mishra of attempting to assassinate his character, and even suggested that he would take him to court over libel. This piqued my curiosity, so I added Ferguson’s latest work to my stack. I recently managed to get to it and finish it. It’s a very quick and jaunty read. I enjoyed his The Ascent of Money and The World’s Banker, but have avoided Ferguson’s forays into neoconservative intellectual polemic. I’m obviously not a neoconservative myself, but normally disagreement with an individual’s theses doesn’t deter me from grappling with their ideas. Rather, the past decade of American history has been a wasteful experiment in neoconservative nation-building, and I’d had enough of that. No need for more o that crap in flowery and more erudite paragraphs. But when it comes to economic history Niall Ferguson seems to be on more legitimate terrain, though his histories of the Rothschild House are much weightier tomes than something like The Ascent of Money. But to be frank The Ascent of Money is War and Peace next to Civilization.

So what of Mishra’s review? After reading Civilization I read it, and I quite understand where Ferguson’s anger was coming from. Panjak Mishra basically suggests that Ferguson is a racist, throwing sneering asides to Charles Murray so that the reader can be assured of the intent. In particular, an analogy is clearly made between Ferguson and Lothrop Stoddard, author of works such as The rising tide of color against white world-supremacy. Stoddard’s opinion, the rising tide of color, bad, white supremacy, good. A normal Westerner in this day and age would find the comparison offensive, but in Ferguson’s case it’s particularly galling, because he has a mixed-race son with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


Read More


Hispanos and Sephardic ancestry

By Razib Khan | May 24, 2012 12:06 pm

A correspondent emailed me to tell me that Linda Chavez, whose father was a New Mexican Hispano, was found to have Sephardic Jewish ancestry in Henry Louise Gates Jr’s Finding your Roots series. This brings me to point to a recent paper, The impact of Converso Jews on the genomes of modern Latin Americans:

Modern day Latin America resulted from the encounter of Europeans with the indigenous peoples of the Americas in 1492, followed by waves of migration from Europe and Africa. As a result, the genomic structure of present day Latin Americans was determined both by the genetic structure of the founding populations and the numbers of migrants from these different populations. Here, we analyzed DNA collected from two well-established communities in Colorado (33 unrelated individuals) and Ecuador (20 unrelated individuals) with a measurable prevalence of the BRCA1 c.185delAG and the GHR c.E180 mutations, respectively, using Affymetrix Genome-wide Human SNP 6.0 arrays to identify their ancestry. These mutations are thought to have been brought to these communities by Sephardic Jewish progenitors. Principal component analysis and clustering methods were employed to determine the genome-wide patterns of continental ancestry within both populations using single nucleotide polymorphisms, complemented by determination of Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. When examining the presumed European component of these two communities, we demonstrate enrichment for Sephardic Jewish ancestry not only for these mutations, but also for other segments as well. Although comparison of both groups to a reference Hispanic/Latino population of Mexicans demonstrated proximity and similarity to other modern day communities derived from a European and Native American two-way admixture, identity-by-descent and Y-chromosome mapping demonstrated signatures of Sephardim in both communities. These findings are consistent with historical accounts of Jewish migration from the realms that comprise modern Spain and Portugal during the Age of Discovery. More importantly, they provide a rationale for the occurrence of mutations typically associated with the Jewish Diaspora in Latin American communities.

The evidence for the Lojano community is stronger in the paper than the Hispano samples. Nevertheless, it is interesting to view this in light of the 2000 piece in The Atlantic, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s Hidden Jews”. Long story short, cultural anthropologists posited in the late 1990s that the Jewish cultural features of Hispanos were distortions of the beliefs of Protestant missionaries. Thank god for genetics.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Hispanos

It doesn't always get "better"

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2012 10:28 pm

The History News Network has a post up, Now It’s Obama Who’s Our First Gay President!, which hammers home points which I’ve been making implicitly and explicitly about historical processes, especially in the United States:

Today, I know no historian who has studied the matter and thinks Buchanan was heterosexual. Fifteen years ago, historian John Howard, author of Men Like That, a pioneering study of queer culture in Mississippi, shared with me the key documents, including Buchanan’s May 13, 1844, letter to a Mrs. Roosevelt. Describing his deteriorating social life after his great love, William Rufus King, senator from Alabama, had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote

This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

Read More


Unz Historical Research Competition

By Razib Khan | May 2, 2012 8:52 pm

For your consideration:

As a means of publicizing the vast quantity of high-quality content material uniquely available on its recently released website, is announcing a historical research competition.

First Prize of $10,000 and several other cash prizes will be awarded for the most significant and interesting historical discovery based on source material.  All entries must be received by August 31, 2012, and awards will be made by September 30, 2012.

Interested participants should examine the rules, read the description of the available content source material, and then register for the competition.

Good luck!


Not that it matters, but I am on the judging panel. I’m hoping that there are some cliometric oriented submissions using the text data, though I’m a fan of good history, period.


Post-Neolithic revenge of the foragers

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 11:18 am

If I have something to share, why not share it? Over the past few weeks I’ve been ruminating on some of the possible intersections between historical population genetics and anthropology, especially in light of the discussion that I’ve had in the past with Robin Hanson about ‘farmers vs. foragers’. Entering into the record that such a dichotomy is too stark, and only marginally useful (i.e., I think it is important to separate farmers and foragers in to their own sub-classes, as some farmer types may share more with some forager types, and so forth), it may be that after the first wave of the Neolithic expansion the descendants of the foragers “bounced back” in many regions of the world. It does seem that ancient European hunter-gatherers have left modern descendants. They were not totally swamped out. Using autosomal patterns some genome bloggers have inferred the same pattern, and perhaps even a counter-reaction by “Mesolithic” populations which adopted some aspects of the “Neolithic” cultural toolkit.

Read More


The collapse of logic & human culture

By Razib Khan | March 19, 2012 9:31 am

Slavery’s last stronghold:

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Consider this. A father in a biological sense leaves his daughter out to die of exposure so as to increase the economic production of the mother of his daughter! Not only that, he obviously considers his daughter an animal. The full article is about slavery in Mauretania, a nation which maintains the practice in de facto form. Because this slavery clearly has a racial character, with a light-skinned population of North African origin enslaving a dark-skinned population of Sub-Saharan origin, there is an obvious “hook” for a Western, and particularly American, audience. But to be fair, if I can use that term, de facto slavery exists in organized form in other parts of the Sahel and Sahara (e.g., among the Tuareg), though the practice is far less pervasive in magnitude.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: History, Slavery

Are genes the key to the Yankee Empire?

By Razib Khan | December 31, 2011 1:49 pm

That’s the question a commenter poses, albeit with skepticism. First, the background here. New England was a peculiar society for various demographic reasons. In the early 17th century there was a mass migration of Puritan Protestants from England to the colonies which later became New England because of their religious dissent from the manner in which the Stuart kings were changing the nature of the British Protestant church.* Famously, these colonies were themselves not aiming to allow for the flourishing of religious pluralism, with the exception of Rhode Island. New England maintained established state churches longer than other regions of the nation, down into the early decades of the 19th century.

Between 1630 and 1640 about ~20,000 English arrived on the northeastern fringe of British settlement in North America. With the rise of co-religionists to power in the mid-17th century a minority of these emigres engaged in reverse-migration. After the mid-17th century migration by and large ceased. Unlike the Southern colonies these settlements did not have the same opportunities for frontiersmen across a broad and ecological diverse hinterland, and its cultural mores were decidedly more constrained than the cosmopolitan Middle Atlantic. The growth in population in New England from the low tends of thousands to close to 1 million in the late 18th century was one of endogenous natural increase from the founding stock.

Read More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar