Monday, November 11, 2019

Cousin Marriage and Western Individualism

Westerners are different from other people around the world: more individualistic, more analytic, with less automatic deference to tradition. How they got this way has been a subject of debate for centuries. And now some social scientists have a new theory, that it happened because the Catholic church's ban on cousin marriage led to the breakdown of family networks:
Henrich, Schulz and colleagues began to investigate a major driver of change in the kinship structure of Western nations: The medieval Catholic Church. The Western Catholic Church, starting in about A.D. 500, gradually began issuing edicts having to do with marriage and family. Cousin marriages were banned, along with polygamy, concubinage and many forms of interfamilial marriage that had traditionally strengthened ties within tribes and clans. In these arrangements, families were tied together by overlapping bonds of marriage and blood relationships. This led to what psychologists and anthropologists call “intensive kinship.” In intensive kinship societies, people tend to be highly loyal to their in-group and to distrust outsiders. They’re also more likely to value conformity, because survival in these societies means throwing one’s lot in with family and kin. In contrast, societies with less-intensive kinship require people to trust and cooperate with strangers for survival, and encourages individualism and noncomformity to the larger group. In these less-intensive societies, people marry outside of their blood relations and set up independent family lineages.

“What we know about kinship structure before the church entered the scene [in Europe], you see that it's not so much different from the rest of the world," Schulz told Live Science. People lived in tight clans, held together by close intermarriage. By about 1500, though, Europeans were largely living in monogamous nuclear households that were only weakly bound to other nuclear families.
This is interesting but I can think of reasons to be skeptical. First, family structure was quite different between northern and southern Europe both before and after Christianization. Old English didn't even have a word for "cousin," which is why we use the French. Europeans depended on family networks for a long time after they became Christian; this is a major part of the reason why early medieval states were so weak. Also, the notion that this depends on the church goes against certain other observations, for example that people in cities are more individualistic than peasants.

Not to mention that the data we use to show that Europeans are psychologically different from others only go back about 50 years.

But I wonder if this might be a part of the equation.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

White Oak Canyon November 2019

If you were wondering, I've been in Charlottesville, Virginia, visiting old friends. Pictures from Friday's hike in White Oak Canyon, Shenandoah National Park.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Links 8 November 2019

Screen by Kishi Chikudo, nineteenth century

More from Aberdeen: bones found behind 19th-century house were operated on after death, likely by a medical student practicing on stolen cadavers.

Lives of the formerly cancelled.

How eastern European oligarchs have enriched themselves with EU farming subsidies. Long and complex and probably one-sided, but interesting.

According to this study, "Republican district attorneys lead to a 18-21% increase in new prison admissions in the two years following their election, while nonwhite district attorneys lead to a 10% decline. In both cases, there are no significant effects on local crime or arrest rates."

Black cat on the field jinxes NFL game.

Medical software still has a lot of bugs.

From 1980 to 2016, "incomes rose only for those with advanced degrees and with weekly hours in excess of 40."

The Myth of the Nazi War Machine.

Even Slate has doubts about Elizabeth Warren's "Medicare for All" plan. Larry Summers is downright hostile.

Looming class conflict in China.

"Norma" at the Royal Opera, 2016

Production by the Catalan collective La Fura del Baus, set design by Alfons Flores, with Sonya Yoncheva as Norma. In Bellini's original Norma is a Gaulish Druid who becomes the lover of a Roman general, but in this version she seems to be part of a Christian cult. You can see the trailer for the film of this production here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Yvon Lossel

French artist, born 1985, who uses a lot of gold leaf in his fantastic images. Lots more at his web site. Above, Thanatos.

Forgotten Gods

Erebus Canto Pt. I

The Great Old Ones, and detail

Two illustrations to Beowulf.

The Hunter's Point Community Library by Stpehen Holt Architects

The newest public library in New York has been hailed by critics:
Compact, at 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high, the library is among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century. 
Who have at the same time asked, why did it cost so much and take so long, and why are striking public buildings so rare?
It also cost something north of $40 million and took forever to complete. So it raises the question: Why can’t New York build more things like this, faster and cheaper?
The answer to that question is provided by an article in today's Times about the uproar that has arisen over the new building among certain patrons. There is, first of all the problem of all those stairs. There is only one public elevator, which gets jammed when the building is crowded, and anyway doesn't reach all of those terraces you see in the image above. So parts of the stacks are inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair, or anyone pushing a stroller.

I honestly find it shocking that any building could make it through New York's famously complex procurement process without someone raising that question. Surely NYC has a full-time advocate for the disabled, or some such post? I mean, people in wheelchairs read a lot of books. I suppose everyone was just excited at the chance to build a really striking building, and the vertically arrayed stacks facing big windows with a view of Manhattan's skyline must make it a great place to be. Nobody wanted to be the spoilsport who said, you have to change this design to incorporate another elevator and get rid of those inaccessible stacks.

But governments have those cumbersome review boards and what all because they have to answer to voters, who get pissed off when their interests aren't considered. This is not a principality where all that matters is whether the buildings reflect the glory of the prince, but a democracy. Sadly for lovers of cool architecture, responding to the needs of library patrons has to come before style.

Ideology and Partisanship

In the US, both parties are becoming more politically unified, with a higher percentage of party members agreeing with each other over a core list of issues. Partisanship also seems to be getting more intense. One of the things American political scientists are arguing about is whether ideological shifts are driving partisanship, or intensified partisanship is driving people's beliefs.

Some say that people adopt ideological positions because they match the identity they have chosen, others that real shifts in what people believe are driving them toward identity with their parties. Thomas Edsall has an interesting round-up of these views in the Times. On the one hand:
There is a growing body of work showing that policy preferences are driven more by partisans’ eagerness to support their party rather than considered analysis of the pros and cons of opposing positions on any given issue.
What if, to some significant extent, the increase in partisanship is not really about anything?
I can certainly think of examples where people in both parties have adopted strong positions in indifference to the evidence, or in the complete absence of evidence. So I think this happens. But on the other hand I think some issues, such as increasing concern about inequality, have a resonance that goes beyond simple partisanship.

So there is also this view:
Policy and ideological differences are the primary drivers of polarization. Democratic and Republican voters today hold far more distinctive views across a wide range of issues than they did in the past. And it is among those Democrats and Republicans who hold views typical for their party, that is liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, that dislike of the opposing party is strongest.
But of course that correlation could be driven from either side.

I found the recent election in Kentucky to be an interesting look at American partisanship. Republicans won the legislature and most of the statewide offices, but it looks like the Democrat has won a narrow victory in the governor's race. Voters being quoted in the media said they just didn't like the Republican governor's angry attitude. So while partisanship is strong it can still be overcome by other factors.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Ongoing Puzzle of George R.R. Martin

I just finished reading A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George Martin's 2015 young adult tale of Westeros.  It is not especially interesting in itself and hardly anyone would read it who had not been hooked on Martin's universe by A Song of Ice and Fire. But it interested me because it seems to reveal much about Martin's approach to fantasy and his strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is set a century before A Game of Thrones, fifteen years after a great event called the Blackfyre Rebellion. Blackfyre is the name of the Valyrian steel sword that the Targaryen kings used to wield, but a certain foolish king named Aegon gave it, not to his legitimate heir Daeron, but to one of his bastards, Daemon. Daemon eventually rebelled against his brother, taking as his symbol not the red-on-black dragon of House Targaryen, but a black dragon on red; the two sides came to be known as the red dragon and the black dragon, and people say, "I fought for the black dragon." The rebellion was decided in a battle called the Redgrass Field, where the forces of the legitimate king, led by a sinister, sorcerous minister known as Bloodraven, were victorious. Here is one of Martin's great strengths: the roll of names and nicknames, impossibly noble and impressive, along with little sketches of the characters of each lord or knight. Here one character explains why he fought for the black dragon:
"Daeron . . ." Ser Eustace almost slurred the word, and Dunk realized he was half drunk. "Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked. Daemon stood straight and proud, and his stomach was flat and hard as an oaken shield. And he could fight. With axe or lance or flail he was as good as any knight I ever saw, but with the sword he was the Warrior himself. When Prince Daemon had Blackfyre in his hand, there was not a man to equal him . . . not Ulrick Dayne with Dawn, no, nor even the Dragonknight with Dark Sister.

"You can know a man by his friends. Daeron surrounded himself with maesters, septons, and singers. Always there were women whispering in his ear, and his court was full of Dornishmen. How not, when he had taken a Dornishwoman into his bed and sold his own sweet sister to the Prince of Dorne, though it was Daemon that she loved? Daeron bore the same name as the Young Dragon, but when his Dornish wife gave him a son he named the child Baelor, after the feeblest king who ever sat the Iron Throne.

"Daemon, though . . . Daemon was no more pious than a king need be, and all the greatest knights of the realm gathered to him. It would suit Lord Bloodraven if their names were all forgotten, so he has forbidden us to sing of them, but I remember. Robb Reyne, Gareth the Grey, Sir Aubrey Ambrose, Lord Gormon Peake, Black Byren Flowers, Redtusk, Fireball . . .  Bittersteel! I ask you, has there ever been such a noble company, such a roll of heroes?"
I love this sort of thing, and I think it makes a perfect background for a story. The thing is, it does not, in itself, make a story. The three stories that comprise A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are all nothing special and far too long. There are tournaments in two of them, and Martin cannot resist going on for pages about all the knights who participate, their names, their coats of arms, their armor, their horses, a sentence or two of background. ("In the rebellion, Lord Butterwell's second son fought for the pretender and his eldest for the king. That way he was certain to be on the winning side.") The rather paltry events of the narrative drown in all this chivalric detail. Plus, the characters mostly remain at the level of those first, two-sentence introductions, never acquiring any more depth or interest.

Martin has more in common with his hero Tolkien than the middle initials he borrowed: for both of them what came naturally was spinning out the history of a great, fantastic world. What they both struggled with was the telling of human-scale stories. I imagine that for Martin the writing of his first Westeros volumes must have taken an immense effort of will, constantly forcing himself to stick to the story and focus on the dozen or so main characters. Just so with Tolkien, writing The Hobbit, which was so different from his usual manner of writing that the book embarrassed him. It also strikes me that Martin's greatest creation is a dwarf, Tyrion, who like Tolkien's hobbits is excluded by his small size from participating in the high doings of Great Lords and Valiant Knights.

Tolkien managed to sustain his focus until the end of his story, but Martin has not been able to. He has been unable to resist expanding the tale with endless heraldic detail and ever more new characters, each introduced with a few lines of cool description but mostly never taken beyond that. (Is anything Varys does halfway as interesting as the simple idea of Varys the Spider, Master of Whispers?) There has been a lot of complaining lately about the failures of the producers who brought the Game of Thrones to television, but in some ways they have been much better than Martin: they have pared away much irrelevant detail, and they have explored some of the characters more fully than Martin did. I think Cersei and Jaime Lanister in particular are much more full and interesting in the show than in the books, and there are others.

Besides the endless roll of noble knights, the thing that struck me most about A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was Martin's attraction to tragedy. He portrays the Targaryens as a bloody, corrupt lot of tyrants, but he does give us one crown prince who seems like a perfect candidate for the throne; so of course he is killed in a jousting accident, leaving one of his bloody, corrupt brothers to take the throne in his place. It is always like this with Martin, who seems to take delight in teasing us with hope before tearing it all down before our eyes. Those poor fools who expected Game of Thrones to have a happy ending had paid no attention to whose story they were following.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Steampunk Cardboard by Greg Olijnyk

The pastime of a digital designer: creating sculptures from regular packing cardboard.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Shuri Castle Burns

Okinawa's Shuri Castle was destroyed by fire this week. This was the residence of the king of Okinawa until the kingdom was absorbed by Japan in 1879. Some news accounts are saying this  building dated to the 15th century, but really it was almost entirely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt thereafter, a process not completed until the 1990s. Since then it has been part of a university campus.

The Appeal of Indo-European Culture

One interesting thing about David Anthony's book on the spread of Indo-European languages (reviewed here) is that he delves into the question of how languages have spread in historic times. One way goes by the name of Elite Dominance, which is the way (for example) Egyptians ended up speaking Arabic or Turks Turkish. A relatively small number of conquerors can sometimes convert a large nation to their way of talking. But elite dominance doesn't work automatically; there are plenty of cases in which an invading elite ended up speaking the language of the peasants they conquered.

The cases Anthony cites suggest that elites spread their language when they create a social group that outsiders want to and can join, within which their language is spoken. For the Turks in Turkey, religion was a big factor, and the people who ended up speaking Turkish were the ones who converted to Islam. The ones who remained Christian still spoke Greek. In Algeria and Tunisia, the French offered people disaffected with the traditional Arab-speaking world a cosmopolitan alternative, and the result is that many intellectuals and nonconformists speak French. The point is that people made a conscious choice to join the invaders' world, and that included taking up their language.

The Indo-European languages achieved an astonishing dominance across Europe. Paleogenetics shows us that the Indo-European invaders replaced quite a few of the native inhabitants, but far from all of them. Plus, the same genetic studies show that the invaders were mostly male; with perhaps one women among them for every three to ten men. Babies learn language from their mothers, so it is quite common for the language of mostly male invaders to fade out rather quickly. This happened to the Northmen who conquered Normandy; the grandchildren of the invaders spoke French.

So how did those mostly male warriors impose their Indo-European languages on so many people?

The simplest answer, it seems to me, is that they recruited people to join their social order, and that across Europe people wanted to join it. They brought with them, not just languages, but a way of living that was hugely appealing to many people.

Theirs was a violent, warrior society, and they spawned in Europe a violent, warrior aristocracy that dominated the continent for four thousand years. That, I suppose, is the first reason for their success. In a very violent world where successful warriors left many children and unsuccessful warriors were dead, winning battles might end up being everything. The Indo-Europeans were the age's great masters of horses, with more experience breeding, training and riding them than anyone else, and this may have been both a key to their military success and part of their appeal. Love of horses was after all an element of European aristocratic culture that still endures. But I actually suspect that the military success of these tribesmen had more to do with culture than tactics or organization. So far as we can tell, the basic element of Indo-European warfare was the chief surrounded by his war band. This system is known around the world and probably existed in Europe before the Indo-Europeans got there. What they had was a warrior ethic that inspired their young men to an extremely high standard of bravery. Their whole culture was oriented around heroism in war, from their songs to their funerals. Their most famous warriors became semi-divine heroes with their own shrines and cults.

One important point about Indo-European warbands is that they could serve as a means of recruitment. We know that some Anglo-Saxon kings had Welsh noblemen among their retinues. Indo-European invaders may have done the same thing, welcoming the sons of Europe's older elites into their households. After all, their sisters were already there ahead of them. A noble's household was conceived of as a sort of school where highborn young people learned the ways of their ancestors, and they often included foster children sent to that school by the noble's leading followers. This household could therefore become a mechanism for spreading culture and language.

Perhaps their religion was also appealing. We still love stories of the Greek, Norse, and Sanskrit gods, and the basic rituals they practiced remained powerful for thousands of years. The invaders' religion certainly mixed with that of the lands they conquered, picking up new gods and transplanting cosmic events into local caves. But the myths of Indo-European speakers across Eurasia have enough in common that we know they date to before the great migrations, which is remarkable fact in itself.

We know that the Indo-Europeans had a great tradition of poetry that left its mark in epics from Ireland to India. All across this world the learning and creativity of the intellectuals --the bards, the druids, the brahmans -- was remarkable, and perhaps the power of their words was another reason to join their culture and live in their halls.

That world -- the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, of the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the other Irish sagas, of the ancient Indian Vedas -- still fascinates us today. Perhaps it also fascinated the people of Europe and northern India 4,000 years ago. That fascination, plus ambition, may have led some of them to join their conquerors. The genetic data seems to tell us that the Indo-European elite was at first composed mostly of immigrants, but that the percentage of Steppes DNA declined over time as they slowly merged with Europe's older inhabitants. We know they kept key parts of their own culture, especially their languages, so that means other people were joining them.

Own a Piece of Old Amsterdam

Amsterdam was bombed by both sides during World War II, and as a result many of its old buildings were reduced to rubble. After the war they cleaned up the building sites and put all the decorated pieces in storage, thinking they would one day find a good use for them.

They have now given up and decided to sell the pieces. As you can see, they are big chunks of stone, not paper weights, and you have to specify how you plan to use them in your offer. Catalog here. The catalog shows you both the piece and an old photo of the building it came from. So let's see those plans, folks.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A Gallic Aristocrat of the 2nd Century BC

French archaeologists recently discovered a Gallic farm in Brittany dating to between 400 and 100 BC. Toward the end of this period the household grew very wealthy. They erected a huge timber hall and drank quantities of Italian and Spanish wine.

Imagine the thrill of digging into this little pit, imaging that it was just another post hole or whatever, and finding something so marvelous in the bottom.

It proved to be this bust.

Based on other examples from around Gaul, the archaeologists suspect this was an honored ancestor of the family. (Four views of the same piece.) In which case, why was it buried face-down in that little pit?

Other, cruder images were found in other parts of the site. Wonderful things.

Links 1 November 2019

Map by Opicinus de Canistris (1296-1353)

The Acorn Rangers, determined to safeguard the squirrels of Seoul.

The bollards of east London, a photo essay.

Mass protests in Chile against – well, everything.

Speaking of which, the frequency of mass protests around the world continues to increase, but their success rate is plummeting, from 70% in the 1970s to 30% since 2000.

A poet who believes in ghosts pens an essay about creativity and the spirit world, vaguely shamanistic, possibly insane, which leaves me meditating on the connections between art, madness, and religion.

Genetic study of elite Jamaican sprinters finds that they are no more similar genetically than random Jamaicans. The genes for athletic performance remains as elusive as those for intelligence.

Magic-angle twisted bilayer graphene

The five best books about Napoleon.

Review of Jill Lepore's one-volume history of the US, These Truths, leftist but interesting.

A history of the internet through the history of online atheism.

The Puy de Fou, France's Catholic Disneyland, with a daily pageant depicting Christian revolt against perfidious, cosmopolitan Romans.

The complicated problem of pro-anorexia web sites.

At the MAGA church: Trump in Biblical prophecy

Point / Counterpoint

John Kelly, former chief of staff: It’s dangerous for Trump to be surrounded by people who suck up to him all the time.

Stephanie Grisham, current press secretary: “Kelly . . . was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President.”

- Ramesh Ponuru