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.
Hominin increase in cranial capacity, courtesy of Luke Jostins
A few years ago a statistical geneticist at Cambridge’s Sanger Institute, Luke Jostins, posted the chart above using data from fossils on cranial capacity of hominins (the human lineage). As you can see there was a gradual increase in cranial capacity until ~250,000 years before the present, and then a more rapid increase. I should also note that from what I know about the empirical data, mean human cranial capacity peaked around the Last Glacial Maximum. Our brains have been shrinking, even relative to our body sizes (we’re not as large as we were during the Ice Age). But that’s neither here nor there. In the comments Jostins observes:
The data above includes all known Homo skulls, but none of the results change if you exclude the 24 Neandertals. In fact, you see the same results if you exclude Sapiens but keep Neandertals; the trends are pan-Homo, and aren’t confined to a specific lineage….