Gene Expression

i-c43efc10ac31cb7e28fd9a7f7868ada7-vickers.jpgI’m getting into an exchange with Luis below about the rise of European domination. Unfortunately with historical questions I can’t “prove” my case as in mathematics, nor can I cite an empirical result that is extremely generalizable as in much of the natural sciences. I’m trying to describe a distribution of facts over time and space, and I can’t really make my own position clear without plugging into Luis’ mind all my priors (the inverse might apply from Luis’ perspective). That takes time and is basically impossible in blog-format, though I’ve had better success I think in face-to-face conversation because the per unit density of data which can be transmitted quickly. So, two quick points.


First, a “meta” point is that bias is a big problem in these sorts of scholarly fields. Instead of using the standard European example, I would point to an exchange I had with my friend Aziz about the term “the West.” Aziz objected to the term since it emerged in reference to “solely” in reference to its opposition to Islam. From a Muslim perspective I can see how this might be so. But I replied that the West, what was Western Christendom, was contrasted with other cultures which took the role of Other (Orthodoxy, Scandinavian & Baltic paganism), so it is false to claim that the identity emerged solely as a contrast with Islam (from a Muslim perspective the Islamic world is what really matters, so it might seem that way). Additionally, I went on to suggest that the identity was also positive and endogenous, the polities of the West conceived of themselves self-consciously as heirs of the Western Roman Imperial tradition and a set of Catholic monarchies. One can see tendency across many societies; in South Asia Hindus and Muslims tend to view each other as antipodes of the ontology of identities to the point where both groups caricature the others because their primary perceived intersection is with themselves. World history has perspective, as any American who knows about the French and Indian War but looks at you blankly when you mention the Seven Years War could tell you.

Secondly, I concretely recommend three books which offer a perspective on recent global history highly larded with social and economic data….

After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 is a rather balanced treatment of social, economic and narrative elements. The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 is simlar to After Tamerlane, but with a European focus. It is a good complement to global history because it focuses on the early modern European period before the takeoff of the 19th century. Finally, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium is a more straightforward economic history. Its strength isn’t a tight narrative, but the assault of cliometrics which fixes the background of the palette against which the authors tell the tale.

i-29dbe1b586a9a7cd1520970a3ed9ad96-tamerlane.jpgi-76b083d035cb18a0ef8f8d5223ae7a36-pursuitglory.jpgi-22d365794136efa39f08a7c1f14f7d1b-powerplenty.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 Luis
    May 30, 2008

    I think both Aziz and you are overall correct in the asessment of the term “the West”. Neverthelss I don’t think this term was used in the Middle Ages at all. It’s specially a post-Christian term and rather than just in opposition to Islam or Orthodox countries is an opposition to all those “the East” as seen from Europe: Eastern Europe (sometimes only) the Near and/or Middle East, the far East…

    I don’t know for sure but surely the term became more popular since the USA grew as a large power, as replacement for the moder classical “Europe”.

    The west-east dicotomy inside Europe is anyhow something inside the same cultural-geographical entity, much like north/south China or east/west USA. It doesn’t seem to have such a strong meaning as the West as opposed to Asia specially and Eastern Europe is readily included in the “West” category as soon as you look outside Europe for the counter-reference.

    From a historical viewpoint one could also argue that West Asia (and North Africa) is Western and even the core of the Western World. Islam is certainly a Western religion, very tightly related to Judaism and Christianity, both developed in West Asia.

    So it’s a slippery concept.

  2. #2 James
    May 31, 2008

    The establishment of the the Eastern Roman Empire and the reformation notwithstanding, the touchstone of the concept of what constitutes Western Civilisation or “Christendom” has always been the Nicene Creed. Recent Islamic mass emigration and militantism have had the effect of bringing the definition of what is meant by “The West” into sharper focus. A definition that includes most of Eastern Europe and even Israel and excludes Turkey, Kosovo, and Chechnya.

  3. #3 razib
    May 31, 2008

    the touchstone of the concept of what constitutes Western Civilisation or “Christendom” has always been the Nicene Creed.

    that’s really retarded.

  4. #4 James
    June 1, 2008

    Retarded? Hardly. Acceptance of the Nicene Creed was central to the definition of who was or was not a Christian. And until quite recently ie. the last couple of hundred years at best, “Christendom” was the term overwhelmingly used by Europeans to refer to their civilization as a whole as opposed to “European”, “The West”, “Western Civilization”, “Caucasian”, or the “white race”, all terms of more recent common usage.

    It is ironic that the near universal decline in religious belief in Europe is part and parcel with the understanding that fundametalist Islam is alien to the concept of what consititutes “The West.”

  5. #5 Luis
    June 1, 2008

    James said: the touchstone of the concept of what constitutes Western Civilisation or “Christendom” has always been the Nicene Creed.

    Razib said: that’s really retarded

    Certainly (even if would have expressed it with softer words porbably). I am of Western culture by all sides and would need to look in some encyclopedia what the heck is the “Nicene creed” and why is it “Western” if Nicea was in the Byzantine Empire.

    For me the touchstone of Western civilization may be things like Diogenes and Plato spitting each other’s shadow, Descartes and Spinoza analyzing reality it totally opposite directions, the head of corrupt Louis XVI and later that of the incorruptible Robespierre, Leonardo (the Mona Lisa and the cannons of Ludovico Sforza), Marx, Jefferson, Darwin, Human Rights, Feminism, carracks sailing the oceans of the world, colonialism, the Edict of Tolerance, universities, Hollywood, the Internet…

    But no idea about the Nicene creed. Would you ask me in any other context and I would think of emperor Constantine or something like that. Maybe relevant in the Middle Ages but not for modernity. I’m probably wrong though.

    It is ironic that the near universal decline in religious belief in Europe is part and parcel with the understanding that fundametalist Islam is alien to the concept of what consititutes “The West.”

    In fact fundamentalist Christianity is alien too. It may be a historical fact but it’s more like the dark side we prefer to completely erase. I would not think the Inquistion or the Salem trial or the burning of Servet are fundamentals of what we call the West now. Certainly they are part of our history but not a part we can be proud of, nor that we desire to repeat. Certainly not any touchstone nor pillar but rather the rubble that hides at the building foundations.

    Christianity is a historical part but not pillar nor touchstone. A historical accident and of little use apprently.

  6. #6 James
    June 1, 2008

    “Certainly” not. “For me the touchstone of Western civilization may be…”

    That is due to your totally contemporary perspective. One that I think incorrectly understimates the power that Christian belief and culture has had on the development of Western Civilzation. I’m sure it is part of an over-reaction by the academic class by what they see as a continuing threat to their authority from religion but I daresay that will pass with time. Economic statistics are all well and good but the state of mind of the players in the historical drama remains important.

    “Maybe relevant in the Middle Ages but not for modernity.”

    It was central for the thousand years through to the end of the Crusades and was a keen point of controversy during the Reformation.

    “In fact fundamentalist Christianity is alien too.”

    Indeed. That’s what makes it ironic.

  7. #7 razib
    June 1, 2008

    james,

    let me elaborate. there is no ONE touchstone of western civilization, or the west, or christendom. it is a compound of characteristics which emerged organically over a period of centuries. i do not believe that the outline of the west appeared magically in 325. fact, i do not believe that its outline really appeared until late the 6th century when was clear that the eastern roman empire was not going to reconquer or hold the west.

    for most of history the west was defined by the necessary precondition of chalcedodian christianity, but that was not sufficient. today chalcedonian christianity is not necessary, nor do i believe it is sufficient (african and asian converts to christianity are more western than their uncoverted compatriots, but not western).

  8. #8 Luis
    June 1, 2008

    @James:

    It was central for the thousand years through to the end of the Crusades and was a keen point of controversy during the Reformation.

    But then the name was not “Western civilization” that is a much more modern concept, surely not older than a few cenuries (19th century maybe?). Then it was “Christendom” and it included Emperor Charlemagne and King Ezana of Axum, but not Benjamin of Tudela nor Beowulf, nor then historical people as Caesar or Aristotle. The definition was primarily (and almost exclusively) religious. Now it’s not: things have changed and older (Greco-Roman) and newer (Renaissance, Illustration and derivates) have been adopted instead. There has been indeed a major cultural revolution and the very secular concept of the West lays on it.

    One that I think incorrectly understimates the power that Christian belief and culture has had on the development of Western Civilzation

    I would not go as far as denying that Christianity, for good or bad, is a historical component of “the West”. It is, like Buddhism is to “the East” (understood here as East Asia). But it is not something with local roots in either case (both are imported religions) nor define the modern society in most aspects. Of course both had their influence and even now still have a remnant of it. But neither the East is defined primarily by Buddhism, nor the West by Christianity. This unlike the Near East and India, whose dominant religions are local developements and I would dare to say more totalist (in the sense of permeating society much more intimately and deeply).

    @Razib:

    fact, i do not believe that its outline really appeared until late the 6th century when was clear that the eastern roman empire was not going to reconquer or hold the west.

    But you still basically seem to equate “the West” with Western Christianity (Catholicism and splinter sects), when actually all European cultures are seen as equally (or almost equally) western in contrast with the rest.

    Normally West means “Europe and the like” (specially colonies of European culture in America and Oceania, but also in Siberia). Certainly the western half of what we could call post-Roman cultural area showed to be more dynamic and innovative than the East, at least most of the time, but the community of values really overshadows any differences. These values are Liberal or post-Liberal (such as Socialism), they are burgueoise and illustrated, or attempts to trascend that burgueoise liberal paradigm (or to limit it, in the case of conservatives) but in the same overall socio-cultural frame.

    It’s not west-east like Western and Eastern Empires or Churches, nor the (somewhat parallel) temporal circumstance of the Cold War blocs. It’s west-east as Roman (or Greco-Roman) vs. non-Roman, European vs. non-European (in a cultural sense), so the eastern parts of “Roman heir cultures” or European cultures are also the West.

    Islam could be Western and in some aspects is but its totalism simply seems to deny any other roots than those that are specifically Islamic. They are generally not very interested in pre-islamic history, not even that of Arabia, for instance. It’s like a “wrong world” that should better never have existed for them. Christianity also had much of that totalism (and the psalms written on classical works are a good example of how the pre-Christian reality mattered little in that obscurantist cultural frame). But the West managed to get rid of that limiting shell, at least largely, and became secular, illustrated and liberal… that’s how it was born, not with the Great Schism nor with the intrusion of Islam… but with the reduction of the role of religion, Christianity primarily but any other religion as well.

    But Turkish secularism is Western (or Western-like, and likehood is what counts here), as it is secular pan-Arabism like that of Hussein (Hitler was also western, so nothing to be surprised about) and other similar secularist trends. Certainly the divide generated in the Middle Ages is there for a while but the roots of countries like Syria or Tunisia are largely shared with Europe, if one can see beyond the sectarian divide of the Dark Ages. This sectarian divide is precisely what makes the possibly less historically Western of all areas, Eastern Asia, look as much more western-like than any of the other major Eurasian regions. Because it’s in that “opposite” corner where secularism and rationalism are also particularly strong – and not in the regions in between, largely trapped in religious totalism.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.