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 total 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.

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It probably isn't surprising that historical references to bows and arrows in Indo-Malaysia from the age of exploration are relatively few.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.
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


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.