Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Horse the Wheel and Language 3

This concludes my review of archaeologist David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World begun in my previous two posts.

Wagon life
The real explosion of steppe culture seems to have come, however, between 3300-3100BC with adoption of wagons:
As the steppes dried and expanded, people tried to keep their animal herds fed by moving them more frequently. They discovered that with a wagon you could keep them moving indefinitely. Wagons and horseback riding made possible a new, more mobile form of pastoralism. With a wagon full of tents and supplies, herders could take their herds out of the river valleys and live for weeks or months out in the open steppes between the great rivers—the great majority of the Eurasian steppes. Land that had been open and wild became pasture that belonged to someone. Soon these more mobile herder clans realized that bigger pastures and a mobile home base permitted them to keep bigger herds. Amid the ensuing disputes over borders, pastures and seasonal movements, new rules were needed to define what counted as an acceptable move—people began to manage local migratory behaviour (p.300).
If you were not part of the new life and its evolving rules and agreements you became even more clearly culturally Other, a contrast that helped define and mark identity. The steppe nomad became a people who lived on wheels:
Their new economy took advantage of two kinds of mobility: wagons for slow transport (water, shelter, and food) and horseback riding for rapid light transport (scouting for pastures, herding, trading and raiding expeditions) (p.302).
A combination that greatly increased the scale of herding:
A diet of meat, milk, yoghurt, cheese, and soups made of wild Chenopodium seeds and wild greens can be deduced, with a little imagination, from the archaeological evidence. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary tells us that honey and honey-based mead were also consumed, probably on special occasions. Larger herds meant greater disparity in herd wealth, which is reflected in the disparities of wealth of [steppe] graves. Mobile wagon camps are almost impossible to find archeologically, so settlements become archaeologically invisible where the new economy took hold (p.303).
The last point likely has wider implications: one wonders if the lack of cities and monuments has led to a subtle, or not-so-subtle, scholarly discounting of steppe cultures.

One technique for managing the new mobility was to incorporate some fluidity in social relations—notably, the guest-host connections and obligations (p.303); also a point with potentially much greater implications. The notion of the oath-bound warrior; not kin but freely undertaking a connection as strong as, or even stronger, than kinship—that, in some ways, overrode kinship—was to reach as far as knightly service in Latin Christendom, the sworn samurai of Japan and the beholden warriors of Islam. All of which likely ultimately had steppe cultural roots.

Anthony points to an intriguing gender division between western and eastern Pontic-Caspian steppes culture(s) that is also reflected in differences between western and eastern Indo-European languages. The eastern steppe life was more mobile, lacked grain imprints on pots, more male-centred in religion and ritual, have far higher percentage (80%) of male graves. The western steppe life was more settled, had grain imprints on pots, was more female-inclusive in religion and ritual. All of which may have contributed to the feminine grammatical category that was a defining innovation of Proto-Indo-European (Pp304-5).

Anthony holds that this horse-herding wagon culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppes fits time, place, material and linguistic features to be the original Indo-European culture. It also generates the right migrations in the right direction and sequence to generate the various offshoot languages (p.306), the evidence for which Anthony discusses (Pp306ff).

The earliest identified evidence for steppe vehicles are around 3000BC, though Anthony believes they likely appeared between 3500-3300BC. As we do not know where the wheel-and-axle was invented, we have no idea from whence they came to the steppes. There is only minimal evidence for warfare as the cause of the spread the wagon cultural horizon:
Rather, it spread because those who shared the agreements and institutions that made high mobility possible became potential allies, and those who did not share these institutions were separated as Others. Larger herds also probably brought increased prestige and economic power, because larger herd-owners had more animals to loan or offer as sacrifices at public feasts (p.317).
As Anthony takes us through the historical evidence, one striking feature is that the grain content of diet appears to shrink as the horizon spreads (p.320). The wagon cultural horizon seems to have spread across the entire Pontic-Caspian steppes around 3400-3200BC; signs of a competitive advantage, aggressively exploited (hence Anthony’s confidence that the cultural horizon was wagon-based).

Anthony disputes the scholarly assumption that pastoralism is dependant on settled cultures for grain and metal. Economically, Bronze Age pastoralism seems to have been substantially self-sufficient: mining its own metal ores, leaving a few people to tend river valley barley or millet fields. It was the creation of royal bodyguards ballooning into armies that made Iron Age and Medieval nomadic states dependant on interaction with settled societies (Pp321-2).

Graves, as ever, provide important indicators. In the eastern steppes, sheep or goat bones predominated (65%), followed by cattle (15%), horses (8%), dogs (5%). In the western steppes, cattle (60%) were more numerous than sheep (29%) (p.324).

The human bones indicate people who were very tall, robust, with few signs of systemic infections and whose teeth typically entirely free of caries (like the teeth of foragers), indicating a diet free of starchy carbohydrates. In the middle period, they do show significantly more signs of childhood anaemia, indicating a diet too rich in dairy foods:
Health often declines in the early stages of a significant dietary change, before the optimal mix of new foods has been established (p.326).
Genetic research on lactose tolerance suggests it emerged in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 4600-2800BC (p.326).

The linguistic evidence is for a patriarchal culture that gave thanks to Sky Father for sons, fat cattle and fast horses, where kinship was patrilineal. The evidence of the kurgan graves is more complex as 20% (in the east) or more (in the west) contained adult females, suggesting some women were assigned to traditionally male leadership roles. Suggestively, a thousand years later, 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian “warrior graves” contained females dressed for battle as if they were men (p.328-9). The archaeology of kurgan graves—by far the most dramatic archaeological evidence from the period—is frustratingly suggestive (Pp329ff).

All this is leading up to the big question: how did Indo-European languages get to be so dominant over such a wide area? Which is a matter of language replacement far more than population replacement. Language replacement is typically a process of prestige (to the new language) and stigmatisation (for the old) for which:
the possibilities are much more varied than just invasion and conquest (p.340).
Continuing to use modern examples to inform analysis of the past, Anthony notes that:
the general situation in Europe after 3300BCE was one of increased mobility, new pastoral economies, explicitly status-ranked political systems, and inter-regional connectivity—exactly the kind of context that might of led to the stigmatization of the tightly closed identities associated with language spoken by localized groups of village farmers (Pp340-1).
Anthony suggests a range of factors that could have given the horse-breeding wagon folk of the steppes status which can be summarised as:
having the largest, strongest and most manageable horses;
far greater mobility (including raiding threat);
belief in the sanctity of oath-bound contracts and in protecting clients in return for services;
the institutions that managed mobility provided ways of incorporating outsiders;
public feasts as statements of prestige and vectors of recruitment.
That is, the Indo-Europeans had wealth, connections and ways of incorporating outsiders going for them (Pp341-3). On the issue of wealth from horses, Anthony notes that, in the C16th, the Bukhara khanate exported 100,000 horses a year to the Mughal rulers of India (p.341). The scale of horse-trading from the steppes to the river-valley civilisations was immense for millennia: it was the basis of the Silk Road, for example.
Anthony’s tentative conclusion is that:
the spread of Proto-Indo-European was more like a franchising operation than an invasion. Although the initial penetration of a new region … often involved an actual migration from the steppes and military confrontations, once it began to reproduce new patron-client agreements … its connection to the original steppe immigrants became genetically remote, whereas the myths, rituals, and institutions that maintained the system were reproduced down the generations (p.343).
Then it is on to more of Anthony’s beloved archaeological evidence for migration and cultural change (read: cultural replacement) (Pp343ff).

In particular, what became the Germanic languages likely evolved out of migrations up the Danube Valley around 3100-2800BC (Pp360-1). What caused the migrations is an open question: Anthony suggests that the pull of raiding and client possibilities was a likely cause, possibly via brotherhoods of young oath-bound warriors dressed in belts and little else (p.364). The agrarian villages, lacking central authority, provided opportunities for warrior chiefs to become the protector-patrons of client-servitors (p.366), leading to the origins of the Germanic, Italic and Celtic languages (p.370).

Chariots
The oldest chariots found anywhere were in a fortified settlement at Sintashta, east of the Ural mountains in the northern steppes (p.371). The radiocarbon dates range from 2800-2700BC to 2100-1800BC, likely due to a later culture using a site used by a previous culture (Pp374-5).

The find was something of an archaeological marvel:
The details of the funeral sacrifices at Sintashta showed startling parallels with the sacrificial funeral rituals of the Rig Veda. The industrial scale of the metallurgical production suggested a new organization of steppe mining and metallurgy and a greatly heightened demand for copper and bronze. The substantial fortifications implied surprisingly large and determined attacking forces. And the appearance of Pontic-Caspian kurgan rituals, vehicle burials, and weapon types in the steppes east of the Ural River indicated that the Ural frontier had finally been erased (p.375).
All of which raised lots of questions, Anthony taking us through the historical evidence (Pp371ff).

This is very much a warrior culture:
Warfare, a powerful stimulus to social and political change, also shaped the Sintashta culture, for a heightened threat of conflict dissolves the old social order and creates new opportunities for the acquisition of power (p.393).
In the case of the chariot warrior culture, climate change seems to have been a factor, as it was in other times and places:
during the climactic crisis of the late MBA [Middle Bronze Age] in the steppes, competing steppe chiefs searching for new sources of prestige valuables probably discovered the merchants of Sarazam in the Zeravshan valley, the northernmost of outpost of Central Asian civilization [which] … created a new relationship that fundamentally altered warfare, metal production, and ritual competition among the steppe cultures (p.393).
The markers of increased warfare being:
the regular appearance of large fortified towns; increased deposit of weapons in graves; and the development of new weapons and tactics (p.393).
The extra weapons being (on the evidence of the surviving points) javelins and chariots (Pp395-6).

A chariot is:
a two-wheeled vehicle with spoked wheels and a standing driver, pulled by bitted horses, and usually driven at a gallop … Chariots were the first wheeled vehicles designed for speed, an innovation which changed land transport forever. The spoked wheel was the central element that made speed possible (p.397).
Anthony’s thorough definition of a chariot brings out how many different elements had to come together. Accepting a steppe origin for chariots overturns the established view that chariots were invented in Near Eastern societies around 1900-1800BC. Anthony takes us through the debate and evidence, arguing for javelin-throwing warrior-drivers who could throw javelins further than a man on horseback (Pp397ff).

I find a steppe origin for chariots highly plausible, given that the steppes were the source of later innovations in horses (e.g. the stirrup). Anthony assembles considerable evidence and reasonable inference for his view.

Chariots fit right in with a chiefly warrior culture:
Chariots were the supreme advertisements of wealth; difficult to make and requiring great athletic skill and a team of specially trained horses to drive, they were available only to those who could delegate much of their daily labor to hired herders. A chariot was material proof that they drive was able to fund a substantial alliance or was supported by someone who had the means (p.405).
So:
the evidence from fortifications, weapon types, and numbers, and the tactical innovation of chariot warfare, all indicate that conflict increased in both scale and intensity in the northern steppes … after about 2100BC.
With chariots playing an important role. Anthony connecting the archaeological evidence of prestige feats and sacrifices with the linguistic evidence of the Rig Veda and Avesta to identify these chariot people as the original “Aryans”:
Between 2100 and 1800BCE they invented the chariot, organized themselves into stronghold-based chiefdoms, armed themselves with new kinds of weapons, created a new style of funeral rituals that involved spectacular public displays of wealth and generosity, and began to mine and produce metals on a scale previously unimagined in the steppes (p.411).
It is one thing to identify an origin time, place and culture for the Indo-European “explosion”, the trick is to provide a coherent analysis—congruent with the evidence—that ends up with the historical spread of Indo-European languages from Sri Lanka (Sinhala) to the far edges of Europe.

This is the subject of the penultimate chapter, The Opening of the Eurasian Steppes. Anthony starts by looking at the archaeological evidence for the Near East after Sargon of Akkad imposes the first unified rule over the first cities of Mesopotamia from the perspective of looking for steppe connections (Pp412ff). Including, the first evidence for the appearance of horses in the Near East around 2100BC (Pp416-7). With the tin of Sarazm (tin being the most important traded good of the Bronze Age) being likely the connection that brought horses, chariots and steppe cultures to the river valley civilisations of the Near East and the Indus, based on examination of the archaeological evidence (Pp418ff). Anthony concludes that:
The steppe world was not just a conduit, it also became an innovating center, particularly in bronze metallurgy and chariot warfare. The chariot-driving kings of Shang China and Mycenaean princes of Greece, contemporaries at opposite ends of the ancient world at about 1500BCE, share a common technological debt to the LBA [Late Bronze Age] herders of the Eurasian steppes (p.435-7).
The “settling down” in fortified settlements of the Middle and Late Bronze Age in the steppes Anthony ascribes to defending the best winter forage and copper mines in a period of extended climactic crisis (Pp440ff). Steppe metallurgy included lost-wax casting and hollow-mold casting (probably learnt from the BMAC culture) producing products that included socketed spearheads (p.444).

Connecting material evidence and language is inherently difficult, nevertheless Anthony seeks to trace a series of “daughter cultures” across the steppes based on:
an extraordinary burst economic, military, and ritual innovations by a single culture—the Sintashta culture (p.450).
Certainly, the congruence between Rig Veda passages Anthony cites (and Mycenaean culture as revealed by archaeology and preserved in Homer) with the Sintashta archaeology is striking; Anthony reinforcing the point with discussion of the evidence on extensive trade across the steppes and evidence of “proto-Vedic” cultures (Pp450ff).

Anthony is seeking to change our view of the steppes from:
a remote and austere place, poor in resources and far from the centers of the civilised world
To:
during the Late Bronze Age the steppes became a bridge between the civilizations that developed on the edges of the continent in Greece, the Near East, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and China. Chariot technology, horses and horseback riding, bronze metallurgy, and a strategic location gave steppe societies an importance they never before had possessed (p.456).
Turning the steppes into a “corridor of communication” which “permanent altered the dynamics of Eurasian history” (p.457).

This was the start of a dynamic that was not going to end until the Romanov and Qing Empires conquered and devastated Central Eurasia, creating the Central Eurasia-as-poverty-struck-backwater of the last few centuries which has done so much to hide its history from Western understanding: including the understanding of how much of it is the history of our (i.e. Western/Anglosphere) origins.

In his final chapter, Words and Deeds, Anthony asserts that the fall of the Iron Curtain, making steppe archaeology much more accessible, recent archaeological discoveries and advances in linguistics have made questions about the origins of the Indo-Europeans answerable in the way they were not previously (p.458). The wheel and the horse matter because:
Innovations in transport technology are among the most powerful causes of change in human and social political life (p.459).
From private automobiles creating suburban life to turning the Eurasian steppes into connector of cultures across Eurasia. Anthony summarises his central argument and contentions with admirable clarity (Pp460ff). In particular, that the steppes being a corridor of communication was far from “automatic”: on the contrary, transmission of ideas and cultures was blocked by persistent cultural frontiers that lasted for millennia (p.463).

The full story of the spread of Indo-European languages (a continuing one, with the spread of English) is far too long and complex to be pinned down to a single set of causes:
If we can draw any lessons about language expansion … it is perhaps only that an initial expansion can make later expansions easier (the lingua franca effect), and that language generally follows military and economic power (the elite dominance effect …) (p.464).
Network economics and status, in other words. Anthony’s model is based on the spread of steppe chiefs with a set of institutions that could incorporate outsiders:
Long after the genetic imprint of the original immigrant chiefs faded away, the system of alliances, obligations, myths, and rituals that they introduced was still being passed on from generation to generation. Ultimately, the last remnant of this inheritance is the expanding echo of a once-shared language that survives as the Indo-European language family (p.464).
A pattern that works, incorporates, accrues prestige and is mobile is an inherently plausible mechanism for such language spread.

Briefly considering past misuse of the notion of 'Aryan', Anthony sets out his methodological approach—create an explanatory narrative congruent with the facts and not-contradicted by facts outside the narrative—rather nicely (Pp464-5). In doing so, we cannot retrieve the names of individuals from so long ago, but we can retrieve much of how they lived and thought. Anthony provides an apposite quote from the Rig Veda:
That man is no friend who does not give of his own nourishment to his friend, the companion at his side. Let the friend turn away from him; this is not his dwelling-place. Let him find another man who gives freely, even if he be a stranger. Let the stronger man give to the man whose need is greater; let him gaze upon the lengthening path. For riches roll like the wheels of a chariot, turning from one to another (p.466).
It is a very sad historical irony that an ancient work that incorporated this firm statement that people should be judged by the content of their character and lauded open-minded generosity was used to support racist fantasies of genetic supremacy.

Archaeology relies on many ironies of survival (e.g. that wooden structures are preserved by burning). In his closing words, Anthony points to:
another irony rarely appreciated: that in the invisible and fleeting sounds of our speech we preserve for future generations of linguists many details of our present world (p.466).
Provided, of course, scholars and their audiences are willing to listen to what linguists have to say.

The Horse, the Wheel and Language is a splendid journey through the difficulties and possibilities of archaeology, especially an archaeology open to what other disciplines (notably linguistics) have to say. It is also blessedly free of jargon and the burdens of Theory, allowing the evidence to speak in all its possibilities and ambiguities. (Though a list of acronyms would have been helpful.) It provides engaging and vivid insight into the evidence about our distant progenitors, those who created where we came from.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Horse the Wheel and Language 2

This continues my review of archaeologist David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World begun in my previous post and which will conclude in my next post.

Part Two The Opening of the Eurasian Steppe begins with explaining Anthony’s approach to archaeology in the chapter “How to Reconstruct a Dead Culture”. The division of prehistoric time into Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages began with a C19th Dane (Christian Thomsen) hired at aged 27, with no degree but noted for practicality and industry, to arrange Danish Museum items for display (p.123). The Bronze Age began when bronze made of an alloy of copper with a bit of arsenic began to be used; later tin replaced arsenic. It starts in Europe in the Caucasus around 3700-3500BC, appears in the Pontic-Caspian steppesand the lower Danube around 3300-3200BC but not in Western Europe until around 2400-2200BC. Before the Bronze Age in the steppes was the Eneolithic period—the Copper Age—a stage Western Europe did not go through, moving straight from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) to the Bronze Age (p.125).

In Western archaeology, Neolithic is defined by the means of production—the arrival of farming or herding—while the Mesolithic is defined by the arrival of pottery. In Soviet and post-Soviet archaeology, Neolithic is defined by the arrival of pottery: the usage Anthony follows (Pp125-6).

Then comes the vexed notion of culture: due to internal variety hard to define except in contrast to some neighbouring culture. Culture involves shared patterns of life and a sense of a common past (however invented). Archaeologists have to define culture by material leavings, so it is networks and clumpings of similar material leavings they use to identify distinct cultures. This includes the notion of horizon, a small clumping of traits that spreads quickly and widely without presaging basic cultural changes (Pp130-2).

Domestication
Cattle and sheep were probably introduced into the Pontic-Caspian steppes from the Danube valley and Balkans, where a network of farming settlements were “the most technologically advanced and aesthetically sophisticated culture” in Europe from about 4000-2000BC, creating a frontier between native foragers and immigrant farmers that lasted for about 2,000 years (p.132). The introduction of cattle to the steppes was crucial, as cattle promote social differentiation that created the chiefly culture central to Indo-European history (p.133).

There is no evidence of domesticated animals in the steppes before 5200-5000BC. The great limiting factor for human habitation is the bitter cold of winter, which can get down to -37oC. The dominant steppe mammals were various forms of equids (wild horses and onagers), which were hunted (typically by driving them into ravines) (Pp135-6).

Domesticated cattle and sheep began a transformation of how humans used and lived in the steppes. They were identified and used as currency and gifts and covered in poetry, songs, tales and art. (Anthony starts the chapter with two archetypal Indo-European myths that connect cattle to life, warrior culture and the gods [p.134].) Herd animals are “grass processors”: they turn grass into wool, felt, clothing, tents, milk, yoghurt, cheese, meat, marrow and bone. Herds can grow rapidly but are threatened by disease, bad weather or theft, creating a boom-and-bust economy encouraging flexible social organisation. That herd animals are easy to steal encouraged brothers to stay together; hence the patrilocal and patrilineal family systems of herding cultures (p.137).

The replacement of foraging by farming culture (and peoples) is a long historical pattern, which continues to this day:
Forager languages were more apt to decline in the face of agricultural immigration. Farmers had a higher birth rate; their settlements were larger, and were occupied permanently. They produced food surpluses that were easier to store over winter. Owning and feeding “cultured” animals has always been seen as an utterly different ethos from hunting wild ones (p.146).
It is likely the Danubian-Balkan settlement culture spoke an Afro-Asiatic language (p.147). Anthony describes in loving detail the archaeological evidence from the farming and adjacent forager cultures (Pp147ff).

Chiefs first appear in the archaeological record of the Pontic-Caspian steppes with the domestication of animals in 5200-5000BC; marked by sacrificial feasts, ornaments and stone maces (p.160). Pottery is required for metallurgy but the strangeness (and value) of what metalsmiths produce encourages magical status for what they do (p.163). Anthony covers, in more loving detail, the archaeological evidence for the Danubian-Balkan farming culture interaction with the steppes of cows, chiefs and copper; the latter a pattern of life still largely confined to river valleys (Pp164ff).

There is evidence of trade networks of impressive geographical reach. Trade, gift exchange and new cults of sacrifice and feasting provided means of social power. Herding, being a volatile pattern of production, requires and creates networks of herd animals lending; encouraging networks of hospitality and clientage while creating increasingly divergent societies depending on whether they adopted herding or not (Pp190-1).

The classic animal of pastoralist power is the horse: but when and where the horse was first domesticated is still not well understood (p.192). So Anthony takes us through the evidence, including teeth evidence concerning the use of bits (Pp193ff).
In particular, the genetic evidence is compatible with horse domestication being based on a single domesticated wild stallion (p.196). Wild stallions are headstrong, violent and instinctively declined to challenge by biting and kicking. Docile mares could be found at edges of herds: a docile stallion was rare and unlikely to reproduce in the wild:
Horse domestication might have depended on a lucky coincidence: the appearance of a relatively manageable and docile male in a place where humans could use him as the breeder of a domesticated bloodline. From the horse’s perspective, humans were the only way he could get a girl. From the human perspective, he was the only sire they wanted (p.197).
The true horse, Equus caballus ranged across the Pontic-Caspian steppes. Domestication probably started by controlling lead mares, using horses as good source of winter meat, around 4800BC; long after sheep, goats, pigs and cattle had been domesticated in various parts of the globe (Pp200-1). A range of evidence suggests both domestication and horse-riding (Pp219ff).

Horse riding makes herding far more efficient—a man on foot can herd about 200 sheep with a good herding dog: put the man on horseback with the same dog and they can herd about 500. Horse-riding greatly increased the efficiency, so greatly intensified the patterns of, herding economy and culture: larger herds meant more social differentiation while easier stealing and expanded hunger for pastures increased warrior status (p.222).

The invention of the short, recurved compound bow (more power with less length) around 1000BC meant bows were powerful yet compact enough to shoot over the horse’s rear. Socketed bronze arrowheads replaced the previous split-shaft arrowheads, and could deliver far more power. The possibilities of horse-based power were greatly increased. Technology was not sufficient on its own, however:
The technical advances in bows, arrows, and casting were meaningless without a matching change in mentality, in the identity of the fighter from a heroic single warrior to a nameless soldier (p.224).
The ideology of personal glory was no longer enough. Once someone on the edge of the civilised world organised the new horse archers into disciplined units (apparently around 1000-900BC), cavalry swept chariots from the battlefield (Pp222-4).

Around 4300-4200BC, the settled farming culture of the Danubian valley and Balkans was at its peak, with thousands of permanent settlements. Then, around 4200-4100BC, the climate got colder and floods became more frequent. From about 3960-3820BC, there was a bitterly cold period. Between 4200-3900 over 600 settlements were burnt and abandoned. The milder weather then returned, but the Danubian-Balkan culture did not: female figurines stopped being used regularly while metallurgy, mining and ceramic technology declined sharply. At least part of the story of what happened includes warfare (Pp227-8).

In the Balkans, in what had been a well-cultivated, densely settled landscape, no permanent settlements can be dated between 3800-3300BC. The culture declined elsewhere, with the exception of a late-blooming expansion towards the Dneiper, in contact with the steppe cultures. Anthony takes us through the archaeological evidence (Pp229ff).

This is a frontier interaction, and frontiers:
can be envisioned as peaceful trade zones where valuables are exchanged for the mutual benefit of both sides, with economic need preventing overt hostilities, or as places where distrust is magnified by cultural misunderstandings, negative stereotypes, and the absence of bridging institutions (p.236).
The rampaging nomad on horseback being the archetypal “dangerous frontier warrior”, yet prior to the technology and mentality of horse archers developing, any raiding on horse-back was at most a matter of small tribal bands. Evidence strongly suggests that some steppe people rode horses by about 3700-3500BC: horse-riding may have begun before 4500BC (p.237).

This frames discussion of the archaeological evidence on the end of the Danubian-Balkan culture (Pp238ff). Then it is the beginnings of contact with the urban civilisations of the Middle East and the final period of the steppe Copper Age (Pp263ff).

This review concludes in my next post.

The Horse, the Wheel and Language

Archaeologist David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World is a book about how archaeology and linguistics, working together, can reveal much about our past as well as a major contribution to the long-running scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) debate about the Indo-Europeans.

That Anthony—who clearly loves his discipline; his book conveys in loving (but accessible and engaging) detail how archaeology seeks to unveil and understand the past—holds that linguistics can tell us useful details about the past apparently puts him in something of a minority among archaeologists.

A name used to describe the original Indo-Europeans is Aryan, a term taken from the Rig Veda and used in the conflation of language group with racial group:
In the 1780s J. G. Herder proposed a theory later developed by von Humboldt and elaborated in the twentieth century by Wittgenstein, that language creates the categories and distinctions which humans give meaning to the world. Each particular language, therefore, generates and is enmeshed in a closed social community, or “folk” that, at its core, is meaningless to the outsider. Language was seen by Herder and von Humboldt as a vessel that molded community and national identities (p.8).
This leads naturally to a notion of cultural “authenticity”. Apply Darwinian notions of selection to the notion that language was central to national identity and a dangerous, indeed clearly potential lethal, reified conflation of language with race was set off, which included a search for the original homeland of the “Aryans” (Pp8ff).

As with many noxious ideas, the problem was that there is something to this. The evidence is that language does create “cognitive maps” which encourage enduring cultural traits (Pp19ff). The trouble comes when one conflates language with race or ethnicity (as linguist Max Muller put it in 1872, languages do not have skin colour or skull types) and ignoring, downplaying or denying the powerful commonalities of human existence: particularly if one starts assigning superiority to one race, ethnicity, culture or language over another. As Anthony writes:
The mistakes that led an obscure linguistic mystery to erupt into racial genocide were distressingly simple and therefore can be avoided by anyone who cares to avoid them. They were the equation of race with language, and the assignment of superiority to some language-and-race groups (p.10).
Muller was not the only prominent linguist who protested against this noxious nonsense:
While Martin Heidegger argued that some languages—German and Greek—were unique vessels for a superior kind of thought, the linguistic anthropologist Franz Boas protested that no language could be superior to any other on the basis of objective criteria (p.10).
The Rig Veda itself treated being Aryan as a linguistic-religious category, not a ethnic descent one. Anthony rejects any notion of an analytically useful connection between language and race (p.11).

So, if the focus is language, what can linguistics—the study of language—tell us about the past?

Anthony sets out with admirable clarity the ways linguists classify and group languages, including how languages change over time. Which permits “looking back” at the history of language according to standard patterns of how languages change over time (Pp11ff). The trick is connecting that to archaeological (i.e. material culture) evidence. However:
Where we see a very clear material-culture frontier … that persists for centuries or millennia, it tends to be also a linguistic frontier … such ethno-linguistic frontiers seem to occur rarely. But where a robust material-culture frontier does persist for hundreds, even thousands of years, language tends to be correlated with it (p.17).
So, some linguistic patterns can be connected to the archaeological evidence.

Anthony further identifies migration as something weakly understood in contemporary archaeology; an over-reaction to previous simple equating of (for example) changes in pot manufacture with changes in people. As migration is hugely important in understanding the path of human cultures, Anthony applies modern migration theory to the evidence. He also attempts to incorporate Soviet and post-Soviet archaeological literature in his analysis. (Pp17-8).

Then there is the difficult issue of horses. Where were they first domesticated? Chariots were the favoured weapons of rulers from Greece to China from about 1700BC to 700BC, before being replaced by “disciplined troops of mounted archers, the first cavalry” from around 800BC. Anthony argues that he and his research partner and wife Dorcas Brown have established where horses were first domesticated, and that horse-riding preceded chariots even though chariots preceded cavalry (Pp18-9).

The chapter How to reconstruct a dead language looks at “working backwards” from current languages to their predecessors (Pp21ff). Which raises the question of how long do languages last. Including notions of core vocabulary, how long resistant they are to change? The evidence of linguistic construction suggests that the original Indo-European language probably existed around 3000BC and lasted no longer than 2,000 years (Pp39ff). From the evidence of daughter languages, Indo-European probably stopped being a living language no later than 2500BC. Part of the evidence for this being the Avesta and the Gathas of Zoroaster who, on the evidence of where he named, seems to have lived in eastern Iran around 1200-1000BC, developing his moral and religious perspectives partly in reaction against the warrior-and-blood-sacrifice vision of the Rig Veda (p.51).

Working through the logic of the daughter languages and evidence on when various languages “split off” from their Indo-European “mother tongue” (Pp52ff), Anthony develops a helpful diagrammatic “language tree” that suggests that proto-Indo-European probably existed around 4500BC while Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic were the last “split offs” (p.57).

The language of wool and wheel dates proto-Indo-European to being spoken after 4000-3500BC, that is after sheep were domesticated, and wool textiles first used, and after wheeled vehicles developed (Pp59ff). The evidence on sheep and wool is limited, that on wheeled vehicles much clearer:
We can say with great confidence that wheeled vehicles were not developed until after 4000BC; the surviving evidence suggests a date closer to 3500BC. Before 4000BC there were no wheels or wagons to talk about (p.63).
By about 3400BC, there is widespread evidence for wheeled vehicles, the oldest well-dated image of a wheeled vehicle being from Bronocice in southern Poland (Pp66-7).

The wheel changed basic dynamics of human existence. Previously, barges, rafts or hauling things along with large groups were required to haul heavy or bulky items such as:
harvested grain crops, hay crops, manure for fertilizer, firewood, building lumber, clay for pottery making, hides and leather and people (p.72).
Living in large group villages was sensible just for being able to move things. Wheeled vehicles changed possibilities:
Although the earliest wagons were slow and clumsy, and probably required teams of specially trained oxen, they permitted single families to carry manure out to the fields and to bring firewood, supplies, crops, and people back home. This reduced the need for cooperative manual labor and made single-family farms viable. Perhaps wagons contributed to the disappearance of large nucleated villages and the dispersal of many farming populations across the European landscape after about 3500 BC (p.72).
The effect on the steppes was possibly even more profound:
Here wagons made portable things that had never been portable in bulk—shelter, water and food (p.73).
Herders could now move out into the great plains, permitting dispersal of communities:
across interior steppers that earlier had been almost useless economically. Significant wealth and power could be extracted from larger herds spread over larger pastures (p.73)
Bundling together the wheel, plough, wool sheep, dairying and the beginning of horse transport becomes the “secondary product revolution” which swept across European societies around 3500-300OBC:
“Secondary products” are items like wool, milk and muscular power than can be harvested continuously from an animal without killing it, in contract to “primary products” such as meat, blood, bone and hides (p.73).
We have no idea where wheel-and-axle technology originally developed, only that it spread rapidly. Mesolithic and Neolithic sleds were a possible prototype—and remained the better form of transport in snow and ice of Winter in Eastern Europe up to the C20th (p.74). Wagons and wheeled axes do, however, help date later Proto-Indo-European as probably being spoken after 3500BC (p.75).
Since pioneer farmers have been established as a major vector for language spread, the “first-farming then language dispersal” theory suggested an Anatolian origin for Indo-European, since that is from whence farming spread across Europe (p.75). There are, however, numerous problems with such an origin for Indo-European. Having, however, fixed a reasonable time-frame for when Indo-European was spoken, that provides a basis for working out where (Pp76ff).

But the notion of an Indo-European “homeland” has various problems, which Anthony outlines and considers, arguing for a Indo-European homeland in the Caspian steppes from the Dnieper to Urals and down to the Caucasus in 3500-3000BC, taking the reader carefully through the evidence and reasoning involved (Pp83ff). Including questions of frontiers:
Language is strongly associated with persistent material-culture frontiers that are defined by bundles of opposed customs, what I will call robust frontiers (p.105).
Anthony illustrates the concept with British examples—such as the Welsh frontier, which has persisted since the C6th. (That is, 1500 years and counting.) So:
Persistent, robust premodern ethnolinguistic frontiers seem to have survived for long periods under one or both of two conditions: at large-scale ecotones (forest/steppe, desert/savannah, mountain/river bottom, mountain/coast) and at places where long-distance migrants stopped migrating and formed a cultural frontier (England/Wales, Britanny/France, German Swiss/German French) (p.108).
Part of what is going on here is that geography constrains and enables possibilities at a given level of technology. The patterns of life for living in forests or desert are not the same as for steppes or savannah. This is an obvious basis for persistent cultural (and thus linguistic) difference.

While historians accept migration as a cause of persistent cultural frontiers, based on ample evidence, contemporary archaeology is much less keen, reacting against previous glib association of people movement with shifts in technology and aesthetics. Anthony examines ethno-linguistic frontiers within the US as evidence for the existence and persistence of such things. This leads into a discussion of the patterns and implications of migrations (Pp108ff).

Anthony points out that “ecotones coincide with ethno-linguistic frontiers at many places” (p.114). He cites the work of linguists Daniel Nettle (Oxford) and Jane Hill (Arizona) that the geography of language reflects an underlying ecology of social relationships:
Social ties require a lot of effort to establish and maintain … People who are self-sufficient and fairly sure of their economic future tend to maintain strong social ties with a small number of people, usually very much like themselves. …
But people who are moderately uncertain of their economic future, who live in less productive territories and have to rely on multiple sources of income … maintain numerous weak ties with a wider variety of people. They often learn two or more languages or dialects, because they need a wider network to feel secure. They pick up new linguistic habits rapidly; they are innovators (Pp115-6).
The former is a localist strategy, and fits with the patterns of many university educated people in the modern West. (There are some fascinating resonances with work on the differences between liberals and conservatives in the US.)

The upshot is that:
Where an ecological frontier separated a predictable and productive environment from one that was unpredictable and unproductive, societies could not be organised the same way on both sides. Localized language and small language territories were found among settled farmers in ecologically productive territories. More variable languages, fuzzy dialect boundaries, and larger language territories appeared among mobile hunter-gatherers and pastoralists occupying territory where farming was difficult or impossible. In the Eurasian steppes the ecological frontier between the steppe (unproductive, unpredictable, occupied principally by hunters or herders) and the neighbouring agricultural lands (extremely productive and reliable, occupied by rich farmers) was a linguistic frontier through recorded history. Its persistence was one of the guiding factors in the history of China at one end of the steppes and of eastern Europe at the other (p.116).
To see the power of Anthony’s point, consider how both China and Eastern Europe have strong patterns of centralised, autocratic rule in contrast to the more dispersed political structures of Western Europe and Japan.

As for the spread of language, that need not follow folk migrations, it can be a matter of small-scale, elite migrations. So
Out-migrating Indo-European chiefs probably carried with them an ideology of political clientage … becoming patrons of their new clients among the local population; and they introduced a new ritual system in which they, in imitation of the gods, provided the animals for public sacrifices and feasts, and were in turn rewards with the recitation of praise culture—all solidly reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, and all effective public recruiting strategies. Later Proto-Indo-European migrations also introduced a new, mobile kind of pastoral economy made possible by the combination of ox-drawn wagons and horseback riding. Expansion beyond a few islands of authority might have waited until the new chiefdoms successfully responded to external stresses, climatic or political. Then the original chiefly core became the foundation for the development of a new regional ethnic identity (p.118).
This is a pattern which seems to have occurred in Mitanni, for example, a case Anthony had discussed earlier (Pp49-50).

There is a further factor:
Chronic tribal warfare might generally favour pastoral over sedentary economies as herds can be identified by moving them, whereas agricultural fields are an immobile target (p.119).
Which, of course, encourages centralised rule to defend and expand farming lands, using numbers assembled by concentrated organisational power to counterbalance mobility, as dicussed by Christopher I. Beckwith in his Empires of the Silk Road.

But before any such pattern can emerge, a herding economy has to be established, probably around 5200-5000BC across the river valleys from the Dnieper River and then across the Pontic-Caspian steppes:
a revolutionary event that transformed not just the economy but also the rituals and politics of steppe societies (p.119).
Having set the analytical scene in Part One Language and Archaeology, it is one to Part Two The Opening of the Eurasian Steppe.

Geography also constrains and enables technological possibilities. An isolated group has to invent or make everything itself. A group in contact with others can trade resources and acquire ideas and techniques. A larger group has more potential discoverers and internal trade possibilities than a small group. A socially complex group has more problems to solve, and possibilities to explore, the more socially differentiated it is. Literacy makes it easier for knowledge to be retained and diffused across time and space. Political stability encourages trade (internal and external), social differentiation and literacy. Given all this, the dominance of the Fertile Crescent in invention prior to c.500BC, and the dominance of China in invention from then until about 1500AD, is not surprising. Except, of course, for anything to do with horses, all of which seems to have between invented in Central Eurasia. Working out the basic history of humans and horses is a major focus of Part Two (reviewed in my next two posts).

Friday, July 15, 2011

Christianisation and women

There is a persistent myth that Christianisation—the process whereby Christianity became the dominant religion in a society—had overwhelmingly good effects. For example, Michael Giffin’s review in the Quadrant of May 2011 of Robert Royal’s The God That Did Not Fail repeats the common claim that Christianisation improved the situation of women.

It is true that Christianisation improved markedly the status of children, tended to improve the status of slaves and greatly expanded the operation of compassion, particularly charity. Since Christianity took everyone to be Children of God, moral significance became a universal characteristic.

So, for example, slaves became persons with souls not, as they had been in Roman law, entirely property with the equivalent status that pets have in modern law. Hence, when David Ellerman points to the contradictions in (pdf) Antebellum American slave law, he is not pointing to inherent contradictions in the notion of slavery but contradictions between Christian ideas of universal moral significance and slavery. (See brief discussion here.)

But the claim that Christianisation improved the status of women is, in matters legal, arrant nonsense.

In both Roman law and proto-common law, Christianisation undermined the legal status and rights of free women, the process proceeding in much the same way in both legal realms. First, free women lost control over their fertility by the banning of abortion and contraception. Rape—always a crime against the person in classical Roman law—came to depend on whether a woman was a virgin, or married (Christianisation legalised rape within marriage), and how she was dressed. In short, what to the Romans was a crime, and always the man’s fault since his state of mind mattered not only whether the woman had consented, in Christian law became a tort, permitting the apportionment of liability. Blackstone, the great English legal commentator—when contrasting the pagan Roman law of rape compared with that of his own, common law system—noted this characteristic:
[Women] whom the Roman laws suppose never to go astray, without the seduction and arts of the other sex: and therefore, by restraining and making so highly penal the solicitations of the men, they meant to secure effectually the honour of the women […] But our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honour of either sex, as to lay the blame of a mutual fault upon one of the transgressors only.
Treating the victim as a putative “transgressor” was not an improvement in the status of women.
Second, women lost the right to judge and exit a marriage by the severe limitation, and then (by Justinian) the abolition of divorce. Having lost any legal control over very basic aspects of their lives, the next (logical) step was that women, so spectacularly distrusted as decision-makers, lost property rights within marriage. By contrast, married Roman women under classical Roman law retained full property rights and legal capacity; they could also initiate divorce unilaterally on equal terms with men.

The Christian view that married persons were “one flesh” turned out to mean that the husband’s flesh embodied all the legal rights and authority: any legal appeal by women being to civil or church courts entirely made up of men under a religion which conceived God in masculine terms and where religious authority was male. This process culminated in the institution of coverture marriage, where married women lost their capacity to bring suit, own property and earn an income, a situation not remedied in England until 1882, with passage of the Married Women’s Property Act.

So authority was masculine, the feminine was what lacked authority. The veneration to Mary as mother of God was a limited refuge, given conception without sex was such an impossible standard of female perfection and the doctrine of Original Sin was used with particular intensity against women. St Thomas Aquinas morally parsing the severity of rape according to how much the rights and authority of any responsible male had been intruded on (Summa Theologica 2:2 Q.154) is sadly indicative of wider patterns.

This is why the process of the secularisation—that is, the de-Christianisation—of law over the last couple of centuries has seen dramatic improvements in the legal status and rights of women. Many conservative Christians are clearly frustrated that issues they thought settled in the fourth, fifth, eleventh or whatever century have been re-opened in Western civilisation and their perspectives have been losing. The biggest single reason for this has been the way capitalism and technology has been empowering women. (The empowering of women also appears to be what most outrages those purist monotheists, the jihadis, about the modern West.)

There was also nothing remarkable in women having pastoral and administrative religious duties in early Christianity. Women had important pastoral and administrative responsibilities within many pagan religions, particularly Rome’s and Egypt’s; helped by the fact that polytheist divinity could most emphatically be female: early Christianity was responding to a wider pattern in also giving women pastoral and administrative duties, a pattern it successively abandoned as it became more entrenched and has only (very partially) re-embraced as women have become more powerful.

For any form of monotheism to improve the status of women, a society has to be remarkably misogynist: which Roman society of the late Republic and early Empire was not. The more common pattern has been for monotheism to increase the level of institutionalised misogyny. For example, medieval Islam and classical Athens share many common patterns regarding the restriction of women and elevation of masculinity: Islam has however been even worse precisely because it is monotheist, so the de-legitimisation of the female is even more intense.

The notion that Christianisation only has good effects is a fairy tale that some find comforting, but it is simply not true and it is particularly not true for the status of women.

(I thank Skepticlawyer for her help with legal history in the above, an earlier version of which was published as a letter in Quadrant.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Science of Evil

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty is a fascinating, clear, short excursion into the current science of empathy, autism and their implications. (And if the name seems vaguely familiar, yes, he is Borat’s cousin.)

The book starts with a discussion of human evil and cruelty, using some salient examples, suggesting that while ‘evil’ as a concept has little explanatory value, and is not amenable to scientific study, empathy has both. That human evil and cruelty are the result of a lack, or erosion of, empathy. Empathy being defined as:
our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion (p.16).
Using the word ‘appropriate’ in a definition is troublesome unless you “cash it out” later, but we get the point. If someone lacks empathy entirely, then they are “trapped in their single focus” on themselves (p.18): such people being the subject of the book.

Before we get there, Baron-Cohen covers how empathy can be measured, and how people (permanently or temporarily) vary in empathy according to, as is so common in human traits, a Bell-curve distribution (Pp19ff). Even though empathy is a continuous dimension, as a useful heuristic, he divides people into various levels of empathy from level 0 (none) to level 6 (very high levels) according to their EQ (Emotional Quotient), a scale he and his fellow researchers devised based on questionnaires (Pp23ff).

Baron-Cohen notes the problems of self-reporting but argues these “occasional inaccuracies” are cancelled out in sufficiently large samples (p.22). His discussion covers current findings in neuroscience about relevant areas of the brain to empathy (Pp27ff). One of the things that impresses me about the book is that Baron-Cohen is careful not to over-claim, either in his discussion of the neuroscience or his later discussion of genetic connections. He does not fall foul of this critique of connecting neuroscience to psychology: his point is the more basic one of establishing that there is a biological basis for the psychology he is outlining.

When it is all about them
We then move to discussing Zero-Negative empathy; that is, people with zero empathy who behave in ways dangerous to others. Throughout the book, he uses revealing examples: in this section, of people with Borderline, Psychopathic and Narcissistic personality disorders (Type B, Type P and Type N). A weakness in this use of examples is that Baron-Cohen naturally uses particularly intense examples: one needs to pay careful attention to the discussion of general characteristics and not take his examples as templates.

It is nasty to be around a borderline, but it is not good to be one either: they are about 2% of the population but about 15% of those who turn up for counselling or psychiatric help, about 33% of those who commit suicide, and may be as many of half of those seeking clinical help for eating disorders, alcoholism and/or eating disorders; with a high propensity to commit, attempt or threaten suicide (p.55). Borderlines:
rage at those they love. … Despite all this rage, they describe themselves as “empty” inside (p.56).
An emptiness they attempt to fill with impulsive behaviour and which leaves them with a lack of core identity. Marilyn Monroe was a borderline personality (Pp57ff).

So, what causes it? There is a great deal of evidence that childhood deprivation affects brain development and helps generate personality disorders. The causal connection is complicated: 80% of those who suffer childhood sexual abuse do not grow up to be borderline personalities, but 40-70% of borderline personalities report childhood sexual abuse, 60-80% report a history of physical abuse, early separation through divorce, emotional neglect, indifference, deprivation and rejection (p.62). So childhood abuse and neglect creates a strong propensity to being borderline, but is not of itself determinative. Borderline brains show distinctive patterns that include abnormalities in the brain’s “empathy circuit” (Pp62-4).

Next are the psychopaths, or Type P. These are the classic “evil individuals”. They also lack empathy, but are willing to do whatever will satisfy their desires (p.64). About 3 percent of males and 1 percent of females have antisocial personality disorder (which includes psychopaths), but about half of all male prison inmates and a quarter of female prison inmates have antisocial personality disorder (p.67). The classic identified symptoms of psychopaths are:
superficial charm
lack of anxiety or guilt
undependability and dishonesty
egocentricity
inability to form lasting intimate relationships
failure to learn from punishment
poverty of emotions
lack of insight into the impact of their behaviour
Economics predicts that criminals will tend to be people with short time horizons, which fits. Baron-Cohen is more specifically interested in the lack of empathy involved in so many of the above symptoms. Part of the danger of the psychopaths is that they may not be physically aggressive, but can be more subtly so. Baron-Cohen accepts that the cliché “snakes in suits” is an apt description of how they can be camouflaged.

Psychopaths respond to parental rejection with rage. Blocked from being expressed towards their parents, the rage builds up, to be vented later in life, unchecked by any empathy (Pp69ff).

Baron-Cohen briefly sets out child psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which generates predictions that are supported by considerable evidence. The theory holds that an infant uses the primary care-giver as a “secure base” from which to explore the world:
By giving praise, reassurance, and a feeling of safety, the caregiver’s affections helps the child manage his or her anxiety, develop self-confidence, and trust in the security of their relationship (p.71).
Baron-Cohen paraphrases this as successful parenting gives a child an “internal pot of gold” that fills the child up with positive emotions. Psychopaths typically have a higher rate of what Bowlby (who developed his theory from work with juvenile delinquents) called “insecure attachment” (Pp 71ff).

Psychologist Jeffrey Gray developed the theory that psychopaths have an under-active “Behavioural Inhibition System” (BIS), the structure that allows learning about the emotional consequences of actions, while anxious people have an over-active BIS. Hence psychopaths do not learn to fear punishment: with clear consequences. Psychopaths also show brain abnormalities in their “empathy circuit” (Pp79ff).

Then it is on to narcissists (Type N), the least studied of the three main types of personality disorders. They lack empathy or humility, think themself much better than other people, typically tending to monologues rather than conversations; though narcissists can vary greatly in their mode of social interaction from outgoing to shy and withdraw. A massive sense of entitlement is a common feature, however. It is speculated that excessive parental admiration, praise or indulgence is a factor in the creation of narcissists. They are about 1 percent of the population but about 16% of those attending clinics for mental health issues while a half to three-quarters are male (Pp88ff).

Baron-Cohen discusses how empathy can be temporarily or permanently depressed (Pp 93-4). This is of particular interest to me, because I have come to the conclusion that bigotry works by exempting people from being objects of empathy. Putting them outside the ambit of empathy.

Clearly, emptiness, rage and entitlement can occur in response to seriously unbalanced parenting and yet not create borderlines, psychopaths or narcissists. The essence of Baron-Cohen’s theory is that it is those things plus zero-empathy which makes Type B, P or N personality disorders.

Then it is on to an even more enlightening discussion of how zero empathy can be positive, in the case of people in the autism spectrum (particularly Aspergers). For empathy is not the sole route to developing a moral code (p.95). These people can be Zero-Positive for two reasons:
First, in their case their empathy difficulties are associated with having a brain that processes information in a way that can lead to talent. Second, their the way their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral (p.96).
People in the autism spectrum show underactivity in the empathy circuit (Pp100ff).

What distinguishes these people from the Zero-Negatives is that they systemise to a remarkable degree. The social world lacks rules they can grasp, but the physical world is full of them:
People with Asperger Syndrome have brains that are exquisitely tuned to notice patterns (p.104).
Patterns are basic to acting, to predicting, to making things work, to find new ways to make things work. By identifying patterns we can see what is the case and what can be made to be the case. In a sense, seeing patterns allows us to step outside time because we can identify enduring realities. We can systemise by observing patterns, or by observing and operating on them: we can then create new ways of doing things (Pp105ff).

Calling those parts of the brain that can perceive patterns in changing information the “Systemising Mechanism”, Baron-Cohen points out that these are also distributed in a Bell curve, from people with very low systemising ability to those with very high systemising ability. The problem for the hyper-systemisers, is that all they see are patterns, so any unexpected change is toxic. They seek complete control so everything is completely ordered, with any disruption threatening collapse. The upside is that they see patterns no one else has discovered. Such people live in a black-and-white world of things being true or false, never shades of grey. For them truth is precision. And the emotional world does not “fit”. Their systemising mechanism is set so high, there is no place for empathy. But there can be great intellectual and other creativity, as they spot and use patterns no one has previously noticed (Pp112ff).

Classic autism, in Baron-Cohen’s analysis, is this to the max. Autistics have no sense of empathy at all, no sense of other people except as objects. But everything needs to be systematic, patterned or else it becomes toxic change they cannot deal with, that they have no place to “put” it. But without the obsessive systemisers, Baron-Cohen argues, humans would have achieved far less (Pp118ff).

What makes the hyper-systemisers' zero-empathy profoundly different from the Zero-Negative borderlines, antisocials (including psychopaths) and narcissists is that the hyper-systemisers come to morality, not through empathy, but through a very strong sense that behaviour should be governed by rules. They can, indeed, be super-moral because they are so strongly tuned to fairness as a basic principle. So, they are Zero-Positive both in the sense of being often highly creative and in being moral, even hyper-moral, without empathy (Pp 121ff).

Wrestling with cause
All of which is fascinating and enlightening, but still leads to the question of causes. Yes, parental abuse and neglect or otherwise seriously unbalanced upbringing can lead to destruction of empathy coupled with emptiness, rage or entitlement but most people with abusive or otherwise seriously unbalanced upbringings do not develop into borderlines, psychopaths or narcissists. Conversely, some people develop in to Zero-Negatives without suffering such neglect or abuse. If environment is not sufficient explanation, then interaction with genetics (and Baron-Cohen stresses interaction and that genes are just mechanisms for coding proteins) has to be considered (Pp125ff).

But any genetic tendencies to low empathy that manifests in the Zero-Negatives are going to be different genes from the Zero-Positives, given that the latter go down the empathy distribution as they go up the systemising distribution (p.127).

Which brings us, inevitably, to twin studies and which traits are common in identical twins and different in non-identical twins. Baron-Cohen discusses (in a very accessible way) the evidence on genes for aggression, emotional recognition and genes associated with EQ and autistic traits. Baron-Cohen then reminds us that causes are very mixed: genes are not determinative (Pp128ff).

If empathy is in part genetic, there should be evidence for empathy in animals. Which there is, some of it unexpected (in rats, for example)(Pp143ff). Nevertheless:
whatever glimmerings of empathy we can discern (or imagine we discern) in other species, the level of empathy that humans show is qualitatively different from that seen in any other species (p.145).
As are our systemising abilities.

The final chapter is Reflections on Human Cruelty, where Baron-Cohen returns to making what people call evil amenable to scientific analysis. (He carefully makes it clear he is not buying into any Dawksian anti-religion agenda.) He summarises the ten new ideas he hopes to introduce into the debate:
we all lie somewhere on the empathy spectrum;
at one end is zero empathy;
the empathy circuit in the brain will be abnormal in such cases;
treatment of zero empathy should target the empathy circuit;
John Bowlby’s notion of early secure attachment can be usefully characterised as an internal pot of gold able to be drawn upon;
there are genes for empathy;
while most forms of zero empathy are negative, one is positive;
Zero-Positive comes from a mind striving to “step out of time” to see the repeating patterns in nature;
the Zero-Positive mind finds change toxic;
empathy is the most valuable resource (Pp147ff).
I was particularly struck by the comment that:
Calling the brain types personality disorders leads to debates about whether personality can be changed, especially if personality is defined as a fixed set of traits. Calling them Zero-Negative opens up new avenues for intervention (p.150).
Some of his tentative suggestions for treatment echo what Albert J. Bernstein in Emotional Vampires suggests for narcissists.

Baron-Cohen identifies various outstanding puzzles and suggests psychiatry needs to give much more attention to empathy. He considers the alleged “banality of evil”, what an underactive empathy circuit means and the potential for change. Finally, he considers the possibility of super-empathy and empathy as an under-utilised resource (Pp153ff). The book includes an Appendix incorporating questionnaires for measuring EQ in adults and in children (Pp187ff) and a second Appendix listing characteristics of Type B, P and N Zero-Negatives (Pp197ff), a very useful summary.

I found The Science of Evil a very enlightening book. I would particularly recommend it for anyone who is on the autism spectrum or has to deal with someone on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Son of Hamas (2)

This is the second part of my review of Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef. It concludes the review which began in my previous post.

Things were peaceful, Mosab’s relationship with Shin Bet became very relaxed. Then things changed:
Yasser Arafat had grown extraordinarily wealthy as the international symbol of victimhood. He wasn’t about to surrender that status and take on the responsibility of actually building a functioning society. So he insisted that all the refugees be permitted to the land they had owned prior to 1967—a condition that he was confident Israel would not accept (p.126).
That has been the continuing tragedy of Palestinian politics, leaders who have been much more interested in maintaining their own power and position than serving their people’s interests. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Mufti of Jerusalem had acted to protect the interests of a landlord class that had nothing to offer the processes of modernisation the Jewish immigrants were letting loose—in their different ways, Arafat and Hamas continued in this sad and destructive tradition. At President Clinton’s Camp David talks, Israeli PM Ehud Barak had made the most generous Israeli offer ever, Arafat had rejected it and came back home a hero to Palestinian nationalism.

One cost was that the American political class essentially gave up on Arafat. But that was much less important than:
For Arafat, there always seemed to be more to gain if Palestinians were bleeding. Another intifada would surely get the blood flowing and the Western news cameras rolling once again (p.127).
An excuse was needed.
Sharon is scheduled to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque tomorrow and the PA [Palestinian Authority] believes that this is a good opportunity to launch an uprising” (p.128).
In previous weeks, the Muslim controlling authority on the Temple Mount had been systematically bulldozing away evidence of its (particularly Jewish) past. Sharon’s visit was a message to Israeli voters that he would stop this destruction. He turned up, looked around, and left, never entering the mosque. But a Second Intifada was duly manufactured, something that Arafat and the PA leaders had been planning for months, even before the Camp David (Pp129ff).

A process helped by much of the Western media’s implicit acceptance that Palestinians are entitled to act like violent, narcissistic children.

Mosab’s father was caught in the middle, as Hamas was unable to outflanked in aggressive “resistance” by Arafat even though Arafat was clearly using (and intending to use up) Hamas. But the Intifada took on a life of its own, and was far more suited to Hamas than the corrupt PA: Hamas grew stronger. One can see the affinity with fascism and Nazism in Islamist and Arab nationalist politics: atavistic celebration of the past, elevation of collective harmony, glorification of violence—a sadly familiar mix. The escalating cycle of violence energised Mosab to work far more actively with Shin Bet (Pp132ff).

Mosab became “the Green Prince”, his Shin Bet codename; a 22 year old in constant contact with the religious and military wings of both the PA and Hamas, as his father was someone everyone would deal with and Mosab became his driver, assistant and bodyguard. Indeed, protecting his father became a motive for helping Shin Bet (Pp135ff). What Mosab saw just alienated him even more from the Palestinian leadership:
Amazingly in the midst of their sorrow and anger, the people seemed extremely grateful for the Palestinian leaders like my father who had come to share it with them. Yet these were the very Palestinian leaders who had led them and their children like goats to the slaughter and then ducked out of range to watch the carnage from a comfortable distance. This sickened me more than the gore (p.144).
Mosab witnessed Palestinian leaders bickering over who would control what funeral arrangements:
The competing factions had been reduced to ridiculous bickering over the dead (p.144).
Saddam Hussein paid $10,000 dollars to the family of anyone killed fighting the Israelis,$25,000 for each suicide bomber, \$35m in two-and-a-half years:
You could say a lot about this mindless battle over real estate. But you could not say that life was cheap (p.145).
Mosab’s story becomes a real-life spy drama as he manoeuvres between his roles and worked to help the Israelis foil, break up or kill terrorists (particularly the organisers), his growing Christian faith being a great comfort (Pp147ff).

That Hamas was not a conventional organisation showed up in that:
… the Hamas military wing consisted of only about ten people who operated independently, had their own budgets, and never met together unless it was urgent (p.211).
The death of Arafat left a political vacuum: he had centralised everything in his own hands. Hamas debated over whether to participate in the PA elections—electoral politics meant compromise, the loss of ideological purity. Mosab’s father felt that a Hamas electoral victory would be a disaster, given its rigid contrarian nature and the ignorance and irresponsibility of its leaders. Frustrated by so much around him, Mosab was inspired to start up a small business providing home computers, which rapidly became very successful.

A friend introduced him to the Coptic priest Zakaria Botros whose televised forensic dissection of the Qur’an helped complete Mosab’s conversion to Christianity. (This article on Father Botros tells more.) An American Christian girl from San Diego gave Mosab a secret baptism in the sea off Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, things were getting worse. A Hamas munitions dump blew up during a Hamas rally, killing many people. Hamas blamed Israel and launched missiles. The Israelis retaliated, and the cycle of violence re-awakened. Mosab and his father went back to prison (Pp212ff).

When he came out, Mosab felt his life was going nowhere and nothing could be done to break the cycle of violence. As he told his Shin Bet contact:
Our enemies are ideas, and ideas don’t care about incursions and curfews. We can’t blow up an idea with a Merkava. You are not our problem and we are not yours. We’re all like rats trapped in a maze (p.236).
Mosab decided he wanted to leave the Middle East and migrate to the US, even though Shin Bet offered to set him up as head of a new major communications company in the Palestinian territories. He moved to the US in 2008. In January, 2008 he gave an interview with Haaretz about becoming a Christian. His father was appalled and shocked but continued to stay in contact. In March 2010, the day before the first edition of Son of Hamas came out, his father disowned him (Pp237ff).

Mosab believes the only way forth for the Middle East is truth and forgiveness (Pp247ff). The final irony is that, before the first edition of the book came out, US Homeland Security wanted to deport him as a terrorist threat. His Shin Bet contact (no longer with Shin Bet) came and testified on his behalf (not something that made him popular with Shin Bet), having become a valued friend. Mosab lodged a draft of Son of Hamas as evidence, which Homeland Security attempted to use, by selective citation, as evidence against him. Various members of Congress, of the Knesset and a former Director of the CIA wrote on his behalf. Homeland Security dropped their application for his deportation, and he won his case, gaining political asylum in the US (Pp253). His book ends on a very Christian note, expressing his Christian faith and the hope of forgiveness as the way forward (Pp262ff).

Son of Hamas is autobiography, social and political analysis, true-life spy thriller, conversion text and religious meditation woven together in a very revealing and engaging book. It can be read for all these reasons. I am struck by the perceptive and informative way Mosab analyses emotionally fraught events that he was at the heart of. He makes his extraordinary personal story a window into the heart of events that allows one greater understanding of conflicts that are so often distorted through various preconceptions and misleading conventional wisdom. It is an enthralling and revealing read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Son of Hamas (1)

Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef is a true story that is much more outlandish than any Hollywood scriptwriter would be allowed to get away with. The eldest son of one of the founders of Hamas (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah: Islamic Resistance Movement) works for Israeli security (Shin Bet) and converts to Christianity.

His story starts with the young Yousef being stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, arrested, taken to an Israeli prison and beaten: Israelis being horrid to Palestinians, a familiar motif.

We then move to the story of his grandfather, Sheikh Yousef Dawood, iman of the village of Al-Jainya (population about 400) in Jordanian-ruled, Israeli-occupied West Bank and Mosab’s father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the favourite son who followed his own father, Sheik Hassan, into being an Islamic cleric. As Mosab explains, being a religious leader in Islam is a very broad and authoritative social role:
Because values and traditions have always meant more to the Aranb people than government constitutions and courts, men like my grandfather often became the highest level of authority. Especially in areas where secular leaders were weak or corrupt, the word of a religious leader was considered law (p.7).
Mosab’s father was assigned to a mosque in the city of Ramallah, where religious observance was very lax. He worked hard, with limited success, to build up the mosque. Sheik Hassan then sent his son to Jordan, for more advanced Islamic study (Pp5-8).

Mosab then takes us through the history of the Muslim Brotherhood; its founding by Hassan al-Banna, its struggles with the Egyptian monarchy, its involvement in Nasser’s coup and its suppression by Nasser. We get a sense of the power and effectiveness of the organisation based on the side of Islam that cares for widows, orphans and the poor, that engages in welfare and facilitates education as well as that side which leads to jihad (Pp9-11). Mosab’s father was trained in Jordan by the Muslim Brotherhood, energised and engaged by the positive side of Islam. Mosab doubts that his father has ever allowed himself to see the other side of Islam:
Islamic life is like a ladder, with prayer and praising Allah as the bottom rung. The higher rungs represent helping the poor and needy, establishing schools, and supporting charities. The highest rung is jihad (Pp11-12).
Muslims vary where they are on the ladder:
Traditional Muslims stand at the food of the ladder, living in guilt for not really practising Islam. At the top are fundamentalists, the ones you see in the news killing women and children for the glory of the god of the Qur’an. Moderates are somewhere in between.
A moderate Muslim is actually more dangerous than a fundamentalist, however, because he appears to be harmless, and you can never tell when he has taken that next step towards the top. Most suicide bombers began as moderates (p.12).
Mosab never felt able to talk to his father about where what he had sought had led, such not being done in his culture.

Then it is on to 1977-1987, when Mosab’s father was at the forefront of trying to breathe life into the stagnated Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. Mosab’s father married the sister of one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, who had come to Palestine with Mosab’s father. Mosab was born, the first of several children. We are introduced to the tragedy of permanent refugee camps: places not built to function properly because they are only “temporary”—physical inadequacy creating social dysfunction breeding pathological, grievance politics. Consider Al-Amari covering about 22 acres, one of 19 West Bank camps:
By 1957, its weathered tents have been replaced by wall-to-wall, back-to-back concrete houses. Streets were the width of a car, their gutters flowing with raw sewage like rivers of sludge. The camp was overcrowded; the water undrinkable. One lone tree stood at the center of the camp. The refugees depended on the United Nations for everything—housing, food, clothing, medical care, and education (Pp13-14).
Reading Son of Hamas, it becomes clear that one of the fundamental failures of Israeli policy has been failing to provide avenues for Palestinians to develop aspirations beyond the politics of grievance. (That UN, Arab and EU policy have all conspired to do the same is true, but beside the point—Israel bears the consequences far more than any of them.)

Mosab’s father, living simply on a limited income, was successful in reinvigorating the local mosque. In 1987, he took a second job teaching Muslim students in a private West Bank Christian school. His wife raised their six children (four sons, two daughters). Mosab briefly tells the story of his upbringing, raised in love, admiring his father greatly, the enormous local cemetery looming over his neighbourhood (Pp13-18).

Then it is back to the Muslim Brotherhood. It having expanded to include many educated and professional folk, a dispute erupted between the Gazan and the West Bank leaders, the former wanting to take a stand against Israeli occupation the latter not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria where attempted coups had led to great repression. In 1986, a secret meeting in Hebron of seven people, including Mosab’s father, founded HAMAS, deciding to take the next step of civil disobedience. Mosab describes this as his father taking a few more steps up the ladder of Islam (Pp18-20).

Hamas was looking for a pretext to start an uprising. It came in typical Middle Eastern style, via a tragic misunderstanding. An Israeli was stabbed to death, four Palestinians died in a traffic accident, the rumour spread that they were killed in retaliation and the First Intifada was sparked off (p.21).

Mosab’s father is arrested by the Israelis and Mosab flirts with becoming a stone-throwing adolescent. The detention of Hamas leaders fails to suppress the Intifada, which becomes more violent: Palestine, and particularly Gaza, being a land with many grievances but a dearth of alternative aspirations. (And some of the resistance tactics seem to be designed to increase grievances and frustrate alternative aspirations, such as school strikes.)

Mosab contrasts the PLO, (“even as a young boy, I saw the PLO as corrupt and self-serving” [.p33]) and Hamas, which was rising in power and influence. The arrest of Mosab’s father meant his family lost the extra income he earned teaching Muslim students at a Christian school; the family struggled on little income with little or no support. His father was released, and they used Mosab mother’s dowry gold to buy a house: his father was to be continually re-arrested and released, putting the family under great strain. The Intifada became increasingly violent, as younger, more radical activists demanded blood for those (largely teenagers) killed by Israeli soldiers: Israel now faced attacks from within its own borders (Pp34ff).

The kidnapping and murder of an Israeli border policeman led to a massive Israeli crackdown on Hamas, which saw Mosab’s father deported to Lebanon. Mosab’s family were not cut off from Mosab’s father, except for occasional glimpses on news bulletins. The deportation led to Hamas and Hezbollah forging links (p.51). Then came the profound shock and surprise of the Oslo Accords, which polls found were strongly supported by Palestinians, but not Mosab’s father, who trusted neither the PLO nor the Israelis (p.52).

Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 worshippers in a Hebron mosque while wearing his IDF uniform set off further cries for vengeance and was followed by the first official suicide bombing (Pp53-4). Arafat and the PLO made a pragmatic argument for the Oslo Accords as the best deal available in adverse circumstances: Hamas remained opposed (Pp55-6).

Mosab explains that Hamas was not an organisation in the conventional sense, “it was a ghost, an idea”. Gaoling, or even killing, its leaders did nothing to stop its growth. While the PLO was ultimately a nationalist body, seeking a national solution:
Hamas, on the other hand, Islamized the Palestinian problem, making it a religious problem. And this problem could be resolved only with a religious solution, which meant that it could never be resolved because we believed that the land belonged to Allah. End of discussion. Thus for Hamas, the ultimate problem was not Israel’s policies. It was the nation-state Israel’s very existence (p.58).
Mosab asked his father about a suicide bombing that had killed many civilians, including women and children. His father replied with a story about being unable to kill an insect. Suicide bombing was not something he would do himself, but he could rationalise somebody else doing it. “At that moment, my view of my father grew much more complicated” (p.59).

The assassination of Rabin, Arafat’s negotiation partner, led to the PLO repressing Hamas, imprisoning many of its leader and activists—including Mosab’s father in Arafat’s compound. Hating Israel and secular Palestinians, Mosab moved to trying to get guns. The classmate involved with him was stupid enough to talk about the guns (which turned out not to work) on the phone. He and Mosab were both arrested (Pp61ff).

In prison Mosab was tortured (fairly lightly, by the grim standards of the Middle East). Then he is interrogated, politely and respectfully, over a decent meal, by Loai, the Shin Bet captain for his area, before being moved into solitary confinement for days. Loai offers him the opportunity to work for Shin Bet, which Mosab accepts as making the best of a bad situation. Mosab continues to be imprisoned, ending up in Megiddo prison, dominated by Hamas (the various Palestinian organisations police their own inmates). Mosab’s story becomes a prison story, detailing the fetid prison atmosphere of fear and suspicion. He comes the clerk for the internal Hamas files on inmates, attempting to identify collaborators. Files that were highly pornographic, detailing bizarre sexual confessions (Pp98-9). He sees Islam at its most unattractive:
… the Muslims I saw in Megiddo bore no resemblance to my father. They judged people as if they thought they were greater than Allah himself. They were mean and petty, blocking a television screen to prevent us seeing a bareheaded actress. They were bigots and hypocrites, torturing those who got too many red points—though only the weakest, most vulnerable people seem to accumulate those points. Prisoners who were well connected walked with immunity (p.106).
Mosab’s father was released from Palestinian Authority detention, to be imprisoned by the Israelis in Megiddo prison. Mosab is sentenced and released at the end of his term.

Two months later, he is contacted by Loai. In various highly secure safe houses, he is simply engaged in conversation about life in general. He is steadily trained, experiencing it as a process of Shin Bet “building him up”, paid some money and then given his first assignment: go to university and get his bachelor’s degree. The Shin Bet staff are polite and respectful, including of his religion: he finds the person Loai most resembles is his father. Mosab’s worldview is profoundly shaken (Pp113ff).

Then, literally at Suleiman the Magnificent’s Damascus Gate in Jerusalem (where Saul of Tarsus had his famous visionary encounter), Mosab encounters an Arabic-speaking Brit who gets him interested in a Bible study group. The New Testament in Arabic becomes his reading companion, along with attendance at the study group and church services. The contrast between the morality of the Gospels, and the religious engagement of his new Christian friends, with his experience of Islam is a revelation that steadily eats away at him over the next few years (Pp119ff).

This review is concluded in my next post.