Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Britain is a 'Christian Country', apparently

David Cameron has recently claimed that the UK is a 'Christian country' and has said that he will act as a 'giant Dyno-Rod' for Christian organisations here (implicitly equating secularists with sewage). This has attracted considerable criticism, for obvious reasons.

England is a Christian nation in a legal sense. The other constituent countries of the UK have a different set of rules about religion, but the Church of England is the established church of England with the Queen as its head, so in legal terms Cameron is nearly correct. In other respects, though, the UK isn't a Christian nation; some polls show that the population now has a non-Christian majority (made up of non-religious people and people of other religions), and nearly all of our laws and mores derive from secular reasoning, not Christian tradition.

This is apparently controversial in some quarters, but it shouldn't be: England was majority Christian for a thousand years by the time slavery was abolished, and it took even longer for the death penalty to be gotten rid of. Such moral leaps did not derive primarily from Christian tradition. We simply don't depend on the Bible in any way for our morals and precepts, and I'd say we're doing quite well without it.

Given that even self-proclaimed Christians in the UK rarely go to church and that non-Christians are in a majority, and that the mores of all groups come from reason and ethical discussion more than tradition and theological mumbo-jumbo, it hardly makes sense to refer to the UK as 'a Christian country'.

It is obviously wrong to have an established church (or a monarch, for that matter). How can a government take such a stand on metaphysics or decide for the population at large whether there is or is not a god? It's clearly a stupid idea, and clearly all of earth's nations should have secular governments by default. Saying that the UK is still a 'Christian country' only serves to highlight how impervious to obvious notions the English political establishment is. The sooner we ditch the church and monarchy the better off we'll be, and whether Britain is or is not currently a Christian country is moot; the point is that it shouldn't be.

Naturally, I'll be doing my best to vote Cameron out in the next election, but that effort has already been hampered by the failed referendum on reforming British elections a few years ago - another result of the glacial rate of political reform in the UK and the sheer impossibility of introducing new and better ideas into the country's archaic and calcified system.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why I'm also quite glad I studied social anthropology

I said earlier that I regret studying social anthropology, and this is still true.  It wasn't the best choice.  But it wasn't a waste of time either, and there's a lot to be gained from reading ethnographies and becoming familiar with different groups of people around the world - which was, to be clear, a large part of my motivation for studying it in the first place.

I often think about what I would do if I had free rein to create my very own academic course (for imaginary students of exceptional motivation, intellect, and verve).  I would focus on prehistory and pre-industrial societies - basically, the world before the Industrial Revolution or before the Columbian Exchange.  I would include a considerable amount of formal training in historical linguistics, population genetics, cognitive science, source criticism, and archaeology (both interpretation and excavation, the latter of which I confess I know little about in terms of how-to), but I would put in a lot of ethnography, too.

I realise that it's somewhat heretical to say this in modern anthropology departments, but I'm much less interested in how to do ethnographic fieldwork than in the evidence about human life gleaned from its use.  Students of my hypothetical course would have to read and understand ethnographic information - not in a vague way ('the Etoro force their male children to drink the men's semen!  Ewww!' or 'African tribal people have amazing rituals and whatever, I love their dances!') but in-depth, getting to grips with how the people in that society live(d).  It would be about what people in different societies do, or did, and why they do or did it.  That's the basic purpose of anthropology, and I see accurate ethnographic work as central and vital to this.

In discussing prehistory and society with people who have never studied the discipline, I am often struck by how little they know about how non-industrial and non-literate societies function.  I am also struck by how lacking in curiosity they are about the real lives and livelihoods of people in pre-industrial societies, as if their only function is to be found in mirroring or in some way leading to us, to the world today.  I see all kinds of amateur investigators of prehistory who are only interested in large-scale patterns and peculiar inter-regional exchanges - but not in the real substance of life in any community.  I think both topics are interesting and deserve full treatment.

I'm glad I studied anthropology to the extent that I got to grips with some fascinating ethnographic works and spent hours every week interpreting and better understanding them.  I know that it led to a much better and more complete view of what people are like, and I only regret studying social anthropology to the extent that course content, lectures, and exams failed to capitalise on the fascinating original subject matter of the discipline.

I should also say that, in discussing the same topics (prehistory and so forth) with social anthropology students, I have often been struck by their lack of awareness of prehistory and the methods that bring it to life, which is why my imaginary course would include a lot of content on those methods.  Nothing about that, though, tells me that we need to give up on ethnography as a key component, and I would recommend reading good ethnographic research any day.  It functions as a perfect antidote to vague, prejudiced, and simplistic thinking about non-industrial and non-literate human societies, and it doesn't deserve to rot in departments that have turned their attention to other things.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Albuquerque and Drake in Indo-Malaysia - Bows and Arrows

It probably isn't surprising that historical references to bows and arrows in Indo-Malaysia from the age of exploration are relatively few.  The bow wasn't a particularly important weapon by the time Europeans arrived in the Indies, and in many cases European travellers and pirates were dealing with wealthy and established Rajadoms and Sultanates with the money to purchase European and Chinese firearms.  Sulawesi and Borneo were dominated by blowguns and muskets, and the bow in Java and Sumatera seems to have been influenced far more by Indian archery tradition than anything native to the islands (for instance, Javanese arrows tended to have flights, unlike eastern Indonesian, Taiwanese, and Philippine examples).  The reliefs on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist monuments probably don't represent much in the way of native Indonesian tradition.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

'Gene driven change is much more the norm'

A tweet was directed my way by ziel (@yourlyingeyes).  I had tweeted in response to some new HBD silliness that
in most cases a genetic explanation is worth less than a socio-cultural one, as cultures change w/o genes.
  ziel then replied, saying
It happens but very rare. Gene driven change is much more the norm
'It' referring, of course, to cultural change in the absence of genetic change, where technological and cultural developments drive humans to do different things.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Where do we get our technologies from? (Answer: everybody else)

How much of your success comes from your ability to read?  Would you be able to feed and clothe yourself without the help of others?  Would you have Gore-Tex or Teflon or even woven cotton cloth without millions of other people inventing and continuing to produce such things?

If you were not literate, you would almost certainly not have a job, and much of your knowledge would be absent from your head - even basic things, like general information about foreign countries, or cooking instructions, or warnings on electrical sockets.  If you didn't have all the foodstuffs and technologies you depend on, you would be incapable of doing what you want to do with your life.  You wouldn't be able to use Google, even; not because of stupidity, but because nobody taught you how to do the things necessary to make sense of it.  You probably wouldn't survive for very long, really.  And the really important thing about the techologies you use and take for granted, including writing, is that they all came from different groups of people living at different times and interacting with one another in different ways.  We are all mutually reliant, even if we think we aren't.

If you restrict yourself to the important plants of the world today, then you will find that most of them were domesticated in disparate parts of the globe: apples and marijuana in Kazakhstan; peanuts and manioc in southwest Amazonia; wheat and barley in southern Anatolia/Syria; rice and millet between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers; cloves and nutmeg in eastern Indonesia; sugarcane and bananas in New Guinea; maize, squash, and tomatoes in Mexico and Guatemala; potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and some chile peppers in the foothills of the Andes; cotton, sorghum, African yam, and African rice between Niger and Ethiopia; carrots in Iran/Afghanistan; wine grapes in the Caucasus.

If you look at military and navigational technologies, you'll see the same thing: gunpowder, guns, and the compass in China; the sail in the Red Sea; outriggers in the South China Sea; the principles of navigation by the stars in the Arabian Peninsula; clinker construction in northern Europe; carvel construction in Iberia; the crossbow either in Sinitic-speaking or Austroasiatic-speaking societies in southern China; the bow probably in sub-Saharan Africa; the composite bow in the steppe east of the Caspian Sea (probably in the Andronovo culture); the wheel and wagon in the Caucasus; the chariot in southern Russia; iron in Anatolia (and possibly north-central Africa, too); horse-riding on the Pontic steppe; dromedary camel-riding in Somalia; chainmail in western Europe; the armoured knight in Sasanid Persia.

If you look at diseases, they show the same pattern: smallpox in north Africa and India; Yersinia pestis (the 'Black Death') somewhere in central Asia; syphillis in the Americas; ebola in the Congo; influenza from somewhere in Eurasia (it is not known where); measles again from somewhere in Eurasia; malaria throughout Afro-Eurasia.

The same pattern holds true, of course, in writing systems (the script this is written in ultimately comes from Egypt by way of countless intermediaries, and the same is true of the Mongol, Brahmi, and Arabic scripts, among so many others); literature (Persian Vis and Ramin inspired European Tristan and Yseult); mathematics (South Asian numerals being introduced to Europe by Arab merchants) and consequently economics; cuisine (Persia also turns out to be the source of ice cream); philosophy (Christopher Beckwith has provided persuasive evidence for the claim that standard forms of argument in medieval Europe, from which Renaissance philosophy and scientific inquiry developed, had their origins in central Asia); and in fact every sphere of human activity.

Human history depends on all of these developments.  Imagine a Spanish conquest of the Americas that involved nothing from outside Iberia; not only would there be no domesticated horses or cotton clothes, there wouldn't have been any wheat, any writing, any carvel-hulled ships (without the clinker as inspiration), any sails, any guns, any crossbows.  They also wouldn't have had any smallpox, and while they may have been grateful for that, being only somewhat more immune to it than the indigenous Americans, they wouldn't have been able to complete their conquest of the Aztecs - which would, of course, have floundered in the absence of their technological advantages.


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c9/Jal-ixco.jpg
The entrance into Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.  Consider the horseman: without developments on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe in the Eneolithic, he wouldn't have a horse; without the invention of the stirrup in India and central Asia, he would not have such control over the animal; without the spread of the pre-Islamic Persian court culture of the armoured knight, he would have none of his armour or training.  Consider the wider context: without writing or agriculture, neither of which developed indigenously in Europe, he would have few organisational advantages over the Mexica; without carvel-hulled ships, he would not have been able to even get to Mexico in the first place; without sails, he would have had to row across the Atlantic (assuming he even knew how to row); without Arabian and Chinese navigational techologies, he'd have no idea where to go.

Without the conquests in the Americas, not only would Mexico not speak Spanish today nor the Connecticut English, but the Spanish economy probably would not have crashed in the sixteenth century, Europe would have continued to wallow in its status as a relative backwater, English would never have ended up as a world language, and the last five hundred years of global history would never have happened.



Human history is primarily the story of thousands upon thousands of years of interactions of all sorts between all sorts of populations, and depends far more on accidents of geography and cultural history than anything else.  It is not primarily explained by biological evolution, even though that does play a role - albeit a role which can be circumvented by technology, as we may see in the development of vaccination.  It is also not explained by the idea of a single gifted population, like the Indo-Europeans or Ashkenazi Jew or western Europeans or Chinese, who singlehandedly invent everything through their genius.

Trite axioms like 'evolution explains history', propagated by seemingly wilfully ignorant acolytes of HBD dogma, cannot account for the processes that have actually create(d) our world, and they only serve to demonstrate the carelessness and dogmatism of such Tory approaches.

It's not 'evolution explains history'.  It's: we all stand on the shoulders of giants all of the time, even when tying our shoelaces.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

'HBD'

There is a small but rather vocal group of people variously associated with the human sciences who declare that almost everything humans do is related to and primarily determined by their genes.  These people call themselves 'HBD-ers', where 'HBD' stands for 'human biological diversity', and I suppose the source text for much of what they claim is Cochran and Harpending's The 10,000 Year Explosion, a popular book that outlines the genetic differences between human populations and the historical events and circumstances that have resulted from such differences.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Cows are Worth More than Rituals

According to Cristina Odone in the Torygraph, Britain 'is set to become a country that prizes a cow more than a Jew, an ox more than a Muslim'.  This is because, apparently, ritual slaughter will probably be banned in the UK in the near future, meaning that neither Kosher nor Halal meat will continue to be produced here.  Jews and Muslims will have to get their meat from elsewhere, and this is evidence, according to Odone, that cows are more important than Jews in modern Britain.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pre-Columbian Marajo, an Island at the Mouth of the Amazon

I've been dipping in and out of John Hemming's Tree of Rivers, a book about the history and culture of the Amazon.  Hemming is an explorer, and his book is truly excellent when it comes to the privations, threats, and charms of Amazonian travel, things he knows well.  He writes in a strong, punchy style, and much of the book is genuinely exhilarating - I've found it hard to put down at times.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

PhD Offer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)



 I applied for a PhD in the History of Art and Archaeology Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at Christmas time.  The School is part of the University of London, and is known for its excellent inter-disciplinary research on Africa and Asia, including the Malay and Indonesian world.  The research proposal I sent in is below, and the topic is archery in eastern Indonesia, a neglected but actually rather fascinating subject.  As I said recently, I have an offer, and I thought I'd tell you a bit about the project.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Macrofamilies

Christopher Ehret, a linguist and specialist in African prehistory, believes that the Afroasiatic language family - the earliest attested family in the world, besides Sumerian - dates back to pre-agricultural times in northeastern Africa.  He claims that the expansion of the family began between 16,000 and 11,000 BCE, making Afroasiatic not only the earliest attested family on the planet, but also the oldest reconstructable one.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Tupian and Tupi-Guarani

The Tupían language family is one of the widest spread in South America.  Its largest sub-group, the Tupí-Guaraní family, was one of the first indigenous American language families to be encountered by Europeans, and some Tupinamba - Tupí speakers from the Brazilian coast - were likely some of the first indigenous Americans to visit Europe, arriving in Rouen to dance in the streets for the gawking townsfolk in 1550.  Tupían-speaking people were also probably encountered on Francisco de Orellana's tragic, extraordinarily violent accidental exploration of the Amazon in 1541/2.  Gaspar de Carvajal's chronicle of the trip seems to have preserved a couple of Tupian words, likely of Omagua origin, spoken in a large kingdom that Carvajal named 'Aparia'.  Guaraní, a reasonably close relative of Tupí, is one of the national languages of Paraguay, and may be the only indigenous American language to be spoken by a large number of non-indigenous people.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

European Exceptionalism

I saw this comment directed to me on West Hunter, a blog written by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (famous for their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion).  The comment was left by Ricardo Duchesne, author of a book on the supposed uniquenes of Europe.  The idea is that Indo-European heritage is the main secret of European achievement and the main reason for 'European uniqueness', a dubious nineteenth century concept.  Have a look: