Tag: Culture

Tolerance of extramarital sex by sex

By Razib Khan | July 27, 2011 3:22 pm

Are Empowered Women Driving Reduced Tolerance Of Extramarital Affairs?:

My girlfriend’s theory about this, which makes sense to me, is that as women’s labor market opportunities have improved their dependency on husbands for economic security has declined and, in turn, their willingness to put up with misbehavior has gone down. Looking at a gender breakdown of responses might shed some light on this, but I can’t figure out how to work the General Social Survey website.

He’s talking about a chart which shows decline in tolerance of extramarital sex by education:

I just replicated but broke it down by male and female:

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis

The different dynamics of memes vs. genes

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2011 10:28 pm

In my long post below, Celts to Anglo-Saxons, in light of updated assumptions, I had a “cartoon” demographic model in mind which I attempted to sketch out in words. But sometimes prose isn’t the best in terms of precision, and almost always lacks in economy.

In particular I wanted to emphasize how genes and memes may transmit differently, and, the importance of the steps of going between A to Z in determining the shape of things in the end state. To illustrate more clearly what I have in mind I thought it might be useful to put up a post with my cartoon model in charts and figures.

First, you start out with a large “source” population and a smaller “target” population. Genetically only the migration from the source to the target really has an effect, because the source is so huge that migration from the target is irrelevant. So we’ll be focusing on the impact upon the target of migration both genetically and culturally.

To simplify the model we’ll imagine a character, whether genetic or memetic, where the source and target are absolutely different at t = 0, or generation 1. Also, these are discrete generations, and the population is fixed, so you can presume that it’s at carrying capacity. Migration of the outsiders into the target population from the source means less of the original native population in absolute terms (to be realistic this is bidirectional, so people are leaving the target too, but that’s not our concern here).

There are two time series which illustrate the divergent dynamics on both the genetic and memetic dimensions. In one series you see gradual and continuous migration from the source to the target population over 13 generations. In another there are two generations of massive migration, before and after which there is no migration. For the genetic character, imagine disjoint allele frequencies at generation 1. So at generation 1 the target population is at 100% for allele A, while the source is at 100% for allele B. Therefore migration of from the source to the target results in a decrease in the proportion of allele A, which is what is being measured on the y-axis. For the memetic character, imagine that it’s language. So at generation 1 100% in the target zone speak language A, while everyone in the source zone speak language B. Again, the frequency on the y-axis is of the proportion who speak language A in the target zone.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Demographics, Genetics, History

There was scale and structure before history

By Razib Khan | May 17, 2011 2:56 pm

Until relatively recently the spread of agriculture in Europe, and to some extent the whole world, was pigeon-holed into two maximalist models: cultural or demographic diffusionist. Neither of these models were maximalist in that they denied the impact of culture or demographics in totality, but they tended to be rhetorically brandished in a manner where it was clear which dynamic was the dominant mode of explaining the nature of cultural and genetic variation and their origins. Here are two representative headlines from the BBC:

- Most European males ‘descended from farmers’.

- Genetic roots of Europe, “New DNA evidence suggests that a few hundred Stone Age hunter-gatherers were the ancestors of many modern day northern Europeans.”

For whatever reason archaeologists themselves haven’t been able to resolve these issues. To me it seems that ultimately even if genetics is not determinate or even fundamentally specially insightful, it will at least sharpen the discussions, and move scholars away from arguments of rhetorical excess.

One of the broader issues which I’ve been coming to greater consciousness of is the idea whereby all pre-literate societies were diffuse to the point of being in a state of band-level anarchy. The “demic diffusion” model to some extent seems to play into this, where simple demographic population growth due to the ability of farmers to extract more calories per unit of land allowed them to “swamp” the hunter-gatherers. This is a “low level” fundamental explanation which does not require any sort of collective complexity beyond that of the village. It is the a classic illustration of a “social physics” model of human behavior. Similarly, the cultural diffusion model often seems predicated an imitation-through-proximity, as a serial adoption of farming practices occurs through choice or necessity (as an analogy, consider the adoption of firearms).

In hindsight I think the major problem with these models is that they downplay by understandable omission the higher order social complexity of institutions and identities which characterize humans. I do not believe that only with the emergence of writing did supra-band level identity emerge. This seems clear from the ethnography, and what we know from the fringes of history. The Inca for example did not have full elaborated literacy, and yet had political dominion and cultural hegemony from Ecuador to central Chile. We need to consider pots, people, and, politics, for human prehistory.

Dienekes points to a very useful review in Current Anthropology, which attempts to take a more subtle and nuanced view of the data, supplemented by genetics. Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculture from Central Europe to the Atlantic:

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology, Culture

The soft twilight of monarchies

By Razib Khan | April 30, 2011 2:54 am

Years ago I took a course on Tudor and Stuart England. Its primary focus was more on social and cultural aspects of British society at the time, rather than diplomatic history. Later I took an interest in the England of the Civil War era. One thing that struck me was the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy in the minds of the people, from high nobility to low commoner. Like the Romans before the Visigothic sack in the early 5th century these were a people who could not imagine a world any different than the one they had known. That is one of the things which made the execution of Charles I so shocking to many contemporaries. Myself, I was tacitly indoctrinated in American republicanism as a child. Films like the The Patriot grow in the rich soil of the same cultural environment which gave rise to the phenomenon of the antagonists in Roman era films speaking with British accents while the protagonists had robust American drawls. As I spent my formative years on the fringes of of New England there was particular pride taken in that region’s early role in the rebellion whenever we addressed the American Revolutionary War. Clearly I have little reverence and respect for the institution of monarchy as a matter of upbringing and expectation. Not to make too explosive an analogy, but in the past I viewed monarchy as somewhat like slavery, an cultural artifact once universal which would inevitably melt away under the harsh glare of the objective forces of justice for all.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Culture, Monarchy, Politics

Is "Game of Thrones" racist? Not even wrong….

By Razib Khan | April 21, 2011 1:53 pm

One of the aspects of fiction is that it serves as a Rorschach test. Over at Slate Nina Shen Rastogi has a post up, Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?:

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”

I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”

First, the author immediately notes that for every swarthy barbarian there is a depiction of another trope, the Evil Blonde Guy. Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books. She knows that though initially you encounter a story which is framed in black-white Manichean terms that is the norm in the more juvenile sectors of epic fantasy, the development of the characters, and your perception of the world which they inhabit, quickly slouches toward many shades of gray.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Culture, Fantasy, Fiction, Racism

The poorest community in the United States

By Razib Khan | April 21, 2011 12:18 am

Its demographics:

As of the census…of 2000, there were 13,138 people, 2,229 households, and 2,137 families residing in the village. The population density was 11,962.2 people per square mile (4,611.5/km2). There were 2,233 housing units at an average density of 2,033.2 per square mile (783.8/km2). The racial makeup of the village was 99.02% White, 0.21% African American, 0.02% Asian, 0.12% from other races, and 0.63% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.93% of the population.

The 2000 census also reports that only 6.2% of village residents spoke English at home, one of the lowest such percentages in the United States…46% spoke English “not well”….

There were 2,229 households out of which 79.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 93.2% were married couples living together, 1.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 4.1% were non-families. 2.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 2.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 5.74 and the average family size was 5.84. In the village the population was spread out with 57.5% under the age of 18, 17.2% from 18 to 24, 16.5% from 25 to 44, 7.2% from 45 to 64, and 1.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 15 years. For every 100 females there were 116.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 118.0 males.

The median income for a household in the village was $15,138, and the median income for a family was $15,372. Males had a median income of $25,043 versus $16,364 for females. The per capita income for the village was $4,355. About 61.7% of families and 62.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 63.9% of those under age 18 and 50.5% of those age 65 or over.

According 2008 census figures, the village has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and the largest percentage of residents who receive food stamps. More than five-eighths of…residents live below the federal poverty line and more than 40 percent receive food stamps, according to the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census Bureau study of every place in the country with 20,000 residents or more….

And now a New York Times article about the community, A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place:

“It is, in a sense, a statistical anomaly,” Professor Helmreich said. “They are clearly not wealthy, and they do have a lot of children. They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.

This is the human past, and perhaps the human future. Gains in productivity and wealth are translated into raw human numbers. While affluent self-actualizing members of society wring hands over whether to bring children into this “horrible world,” there are communities and cultures which have no such hesitation. They breed and they flourish. No fear, just hope of the promise to come. They will be the inheritors. They are rich in the possibilities of future.


Language and serial founder effects

By Razib Khan | April 19, 2011 10:55 am

Mr. James Winters has finally offered his take on Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. The Return of the Phoneme Inventories:

There are several assumptions made in the paper that I’ve already considered investigating in my own work. Most notable of these assumptions is that the serial founder effect model is the only explanation available. As in population genetics, where numerous papers have supposedly verified the out of Africa model, Atkinson doesn’t really test any other competing hypotheses. It therefore makes it hard for me to accept he’s really shown that geographic distance from Africa is concomitant with a series of population bottlenecks for phoneme inventories. Indeed, with bolstered support for Neanderthal admixture in some human populations, it is becoming increasingly likely that the serial founder effect model is unlikely to hold true in relation to genetic diversity…

… I’m not saying that Atkinson thinks that serial founder effects are solely responsible for the observed patterning (as noted in the quote above)… But I do think the model’s flawed on several theoretical grounds. Specifically, Atkinson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of selection as having shaped these languages according to different socio-cultural niches.

Again, I can’t speak to the linguistics. But overall I believe that cultural evolution has more freedom in terms of the dynamics of transmission, and so is less likely to be captured by an exceedingly general model. In other words I think the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in population genetics is smaller than the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in linguistic diversity, mostly because the transmission of culture is much more plastic, flexible, and rapid in action.

MORE ABOUT: Culture, Linguistics

The rise and fall of great powers is stochastic

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2011 12:47 pm

ResearchBlogging.orgLong time readers know well my fascination with quantitative history. In particular, cliometrics and cliodynamics. These are fields which attempt to measure and model human historical phenomena and processes. Cliometrics is a well established field, insofar as it is a subset of economic history. But cliodynamics is new on the scene. At the heart of cliodynamics is the quantitative ecologist Peter Turchin. I highly recommend his readable series of books, Historical Dynamics, War and Peace and War, and Secular Cycles. Also, see my reviews of the first two books.

With that, I am rather excited by the debut of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. Here’s the description of the brief of the field and the journal:

‘Cliodynamics’ is a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History is an international peer-reviewed web-based/free-access journal that will publish original articles advancing the state of theoretical knowledge in this discipline. ‘Theory’ in the broadest sense includes general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of historical societies and models, usually formulated as mathematical equations or computer algorithms. It also has empirical content that deals with discovering general empirical patterns, determining empirical adequacy of key assumptions made by models, and testing theoretical predictions with the data from actual historical societies. A mature, or ‘developed theory,’ thus, integrates models with data; the main goal of Cliodynamics is to facilitate progress towards such theory in history.

The first issue has an article by Sergey Gavrilets, David G. Anderson, and Peter Turchin. Gavrilets is a familiar face. I know him from his work in evolutionary theory. The paper itself is a readable and plausible model of how “medium scale” societies rise and fall through conflict and consolidation. Basically the stage of human society described in Laurence Keely’s seminal War Before Civilization; after agriculture, but before major literate state systems. Their basic method is to take a mathematical model with a tractable number of plausible parameters and run simulations which give one a sense of how it changes dependent variables of interest. Polities were modeled as being circumscribed hexagons; so they had six neighbors (instead of four which would be the case if they were squares). The area modeled had an “edge,” and polities can exist in a flat hierarchical structure, or eventually aggregate so they exhibit rank order. Additionally, polities varied by economic productivity. Finally, there was a temporal aspect in that there was a potential conflict per generation where the probability of success was conditional upon the strength of the polity. Being more powerful increase the probability of victory, but does not guarantee it. Flukes do happen. The full model can be found in the paper, which is open access. The math isn’t totally opaque, so I’m really not going to distill it down. You can swallow it whole. Rather, let’s look at the list of parameters and statistics:

Read More


The empires of American English

By Razib Khan | January 6, 2011 1:03 am

Over the past few days a website which maps American English dialects has gone around the blogs (I found it via Kevin Zelnio). Michelle has some suggestions for improvements of the map in Ohio. Here’s a cropped and resized dialect map:

One thing that immediately stood out is the latitudinal banded pattern of the dialects. They seem to follow migrations from the east coast inland, and reflect sectional divisions which go back to the 19th century. Below is a county by county map of the results for the 1856 presidential election.

Read More


Are conservatives fatter than liberals?

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2010 1:10 am

    The maps above juxtaposes the counties which shifted Republican in the 2008 presidential election vs. 2004 (reddish) and the age-adjusted estimated rates of obesity by county in 2007 (darker blue). One issue which I haven’t seen explored too much are the two faces of Appalachia; the Atlantic facing counties are generally healthier than the lowland countries to their east, even controlling for race. In contrast, the west facing counties have some of the lowest human development indices in the United States. West Virginia is the fattest state. And it seems purely from inspection that the east facing counties of Appalachia which shifted toward the Republicans in 2008 are also amongst the fattest in the nation.

    Rush Limbaugh, fat again

    Is this simply a coincidence? A reader queried me about the relationship between politics and weight, wondering about correlations. I don’t follow politics too closely, but apparently there has been some conflict recently between conservatives who oppose the top-down campaign against obesity spearheaded by our cultural and political elites. My perception, which may be wrong, is that some are portraying this as another liberal culture war. To some extent this is dumb, as it seems that the biggest salient predictor of weight is class. The majority of American adults are overweight according to BMI thresholds, and a significant minority are obese. And yet none of the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2008, or their spouses, were overweight. Take a look at the candidates during the Democratic and Republican debates in 2008, and you can see that they don’t “look like America.” Despite the efforts of NAAFA this is one way that Americans are not too keen on the candidates reflecting themselves. Rather, it seems that Americans were more accepting of fat heads of state when they were a slimmer folk.

    Looking in the GSS there’s one variable which might shed light on the question of politics and weight, INTRWGHT. This is basically an interviewer assessment of the weight of the respondent. It was collected in 2004. I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites to eliminate population stratification.

    Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis
MORE ABOUT: Culture, Data

What is this "Western culture" you speak of?

By Razib Khan | December 11, 2010 7:25 pm

This is my comment of the month:

Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

Read More


Demographics as political destiny

By Razib Khan | November 7, 2010 4:30 pm

From The New York Times, White Democrats Lose More Ground in South:

There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long.

And then there is the curious case of North Carolina. While Republicans racked up historic victories in state races on Tuesday, seven of the state’s eight Democratic congressmen survived challenges, including Heath Shuler, a young Blue Dog elected in 2006.

That, oddly enough, leaves North Carolina with one of the most Democratic Congressional delegations outside of the Northeast.

boraThis an illustration of the maxim that differences among white people are not worth comment, even if they have more impact than differences between racial minorities and whites. At some point Latinos in states in the South aside from Texas and Florida will be numerous enough to be significant, but right now they’re not there yet. But what about Northern transplants? Or those from more exotic locales? If they’re white Northerners who resettle in the Research Triangle of North Carolina aren’t worth mentioning explicitly I guess, but that’s certainly a relatively parsimonious explanation for why North Carolina in particular seems to have weathered the “Republican wave” rather well. Just as Latinos may have given Democrats a demographic booster-shot out West, in North Carolina the addition of Northern transplants who operate somewhat outside of the traditional black-white cultural divide in the South may have bolstered the Democrats.

To make this more concrete, I’ve taken the pop, soda and coke data for Southern states and created ratios of each to the total sum of the three. Below is a bar graph which shows the values for all three by state:

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Culture, Politics

Soda vs. Pop & the boundaries of the Midwest

By Razib Khan | November 5, 2010 1:07 pm

William Easterly asserts that David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest:

A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own.

Brooks’ Midwest is:

that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same region as Arkansas.

total-county2I grant the point about Arkansas. But I think Brooks may be on more solid ground about central New York and Pennsylvania. On a biographical note I’ve lived in upstate New York, but near the border with New England (this is why I am a Celtics fan). I’ve also lived in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh (I’m a Steeler’s fan, and suspicious of the Browns). As a matter of geography Pittsburgh and Buffalo are Northeastern cities, but as a matter of cultural sensibility they’re classic Rustbelt metropolises. They are technically outside the Midwest, but they are most definitely part of the Great Lakes Region. Syracuse may be a liminal in terms of identity, but I don’t think Brooks is totally off base assuming that its sensibility is more with the Midwest than the East.

Read More


The past in color

By Razib Khan | August 26, 2010 1:11 am

I don’t know about you, but I have a weird mental problem whereby my visual model of the past is strongly shaped by the constraints on the various representational modes which preserve images from a particular era. For example, the paintings of the 18th century shape how I imagine the 18th century, while the black and white photos of the early 20th century tend to drain color out of that period from my mind’s eye. So it’s always of interest to me when extremely old color photographs are discovered. A reminder to my subconscious that the past looked just like the present in many ways. But this set from The Boston Globe are so good that it’s mind blowing. All the images are from between 1909 and 1912, and within the boundaries of the Russian Empire.

Here’s a sample:

Read More


Inbreeding in the Persian Gulf

By Razib Khan | August 25, 2010 5:01 pm

On the heels of my post on cousin marriage, I thought readers might find this article on genetic screening in the United Arab Emirates of interest. One way to tackle the problem of genetic diseases which emerge out of consanguineous unions apparently isn’t to discourage the unions themselves, but dodge the outcomes. So pre-implantation screening of eggs as well as selective abortion of fetuses both seem to be options being evaluated. Aside from the costs, especially in the former case (though abortions are not without risk, and the initial stages of pregnancy are an investment of time as well), I still think there are long term problems with this. But first, Alan Bittles (who produced the map in the previous post) points to a major shortfall of a simple do-not-marry-cousins heuristic in this case:

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Culture, Inbreeding

The flows and pulses of humanity

By Razib Khan | August 20, 2010 11:15 am

Dr. John Hawks points me to a review in BMC Biology, A question of scale: Human migrations writ large and small. It’s short, and of interest for the citations themselves. This a field in flux. One point which I think needs to be emphasized in relation to migration parameters is that there are going to be two primary modes which this might play out, short range deme-to-deme contact, and long range cultural/genetic revolution (there is going to be a range between the two, but let us suppose that these are two modes in the distribution).

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Culture, Evolution, Genetics

Pakistan ~10 years on

By Razib Khan | August 18, 2010 3:21 am

Long time readers of this weblog will recognize Zachary Latif. Zachary and I have been having exchanges on various topics on and off since 2002 on the blogs. His early opinionated musings on cultural and historical topics were a definite prod for me to venture out more vigorously into this domain. As a Pakistani Baha’i educated and resident in the West he offered me a window into a very different perspective from what I’d ever encountered before. In particular he challenged me in 2002 when I blithely repeated conventional wisdom about the economic rise of India and the stagnation of Pakistan. He had numbers at his finger tips. I did not.

Since that time it is arguable that Pakistan has become more, not less, important to Americans. How is Pakistan doing? To look into this I decided to use Google Data Explorer, focusing on trend lines comparing the various South Asian nations.

Read More


Empires of the Word & anti-Babel

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2010 4:29 am

Languages_of_EuropeTo the left you see a map of the distribution of languages and language families in Europe. Language is arguably the most salient cultural feature of our species, as well as one of the most obviously biologically embedded. The trait of language is a human universal, to the point where even those without hearing can create their own gestural languages de novo. But the specific nature of language as it is instantiated from region to region varies greatly. Language in the generality is a straightforward utility with which you communicate with your fellow man. But language also separates you from your fellow man.

European nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was in large part rooted in the idea that language defined the boundaries of a nation. During the Reformation era some German-speaking Roman Catholic priests declaimed the value of the bond of language against that of religion, praising those non-Germans who adhered to the Catholic cause against German speaking heretics (in the specific case the priest was defending Spanish tercios brought in by the Holy Roman Emperor to put down the rebellion of Protestant German princes). In the long centuries between the Reformation and the Enlightenment the idea of a Western Christian Commonwealth slowly melted in the face of the rise of vernacular, but even after the shattering of Western Christianity with the explosion of Reformations the accumulated capital of a unified Christian European elite persisted. Hungarian Protestant students at Oxford could make do with Latin even if they were totally innocent of English (see The Reformation). Newer lingua francas, French and later English, lack the deep unifying power of Latin in part because they are also living vernaculars. They may resemble Latin in some particulars of function, but eliding the differences removes far too much from the equation to be of any use. Linguistic diversity is a fact of our universe, but how it plays out matters a great deal, and has mattered a great deal, over the arc of history.

806-8This is the subject of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler, the author, tackles an enormous subject here. He acknowledges the Herculean nature of his task in the introduction. And yet he does avoid some of the more intractable controversies within historical linguistics by constraining his subject matter to the period of history. That is, where we have some written records. This means that Ostler does not address the origins of the Indo-European language family, or the more recent expansion of the Bantus. Despite being separated by thousands of years these are both in the domain of pre-history, because we have no written records of proto-Bantu or proto-Indo-European. This does not mean that the book is not ambitious all the same. On the contrary, Empires of the Word takes on the “thicker” and messier tangle which is the association between language and fine-grained historical processes, social, cultural, economic and political. How history has shaped the nature and distribution of languages which we see extant in our world today is a labyrinth with many doors. Ostler doesn’t come close to opening the majority of those doors, but those he selects in Empires of the Word yield a rich number of surprises and insights, though he does not in the end seem to be able to generate a Grand Unified Theory of linguistic diversity and change from the welter of details.

Read More


The rise (and fall?) of second-tier lingua francas

By Razib Khan | July 26, 2010 3:51 pm

The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!

From Wikipedia:

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.

Read More


Dave Appell: remember the messenger

By Razib Khan | July 22, 2010 9:58 am

David Dobbs has a long measured response up to David Appell’s strange argument that Pepsi’s “free speech” rights were violated during the recent ScienceBlogs kerfuffle, by way of which he casts some aspersions on the character and agenda of specific bloggers. Here’s the thing about Appell, he has a long history of confused and surly criticisms and interrogations of others and himself. I know that history because I first became familiar with Dave Appell in May of 2002. In between pointers and commentary on physical science, his primary beat as a science journalist, he would offer some personal reflections, frustrations, and worries. I’m not big into bloggers who “overshare,” especially science bloggers, so I tried to ignore that as I focused on the substance of Appell’s posts.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Blog, Culture

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

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »