Somali Law

Somali veterinarian lifting a camel calf in the rural of Xudun district, Somalia. Photo by Cabdixamiid Xasan Cawad, Wikipedia

Welcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems very Different from Ours. Today we are discussing Somali law, specifically that of the pastoralists of northern Somalia (law works differently in southern Somalia, due to the different agricultural system and people there.)

I have often characterized Somalia as more of a place where other countries aren’t than a country proper. There is no real central government control of most of the territory known as “Somalia,” though things have apparently been stabilizing a bit over the past few years–a mere 500 people were killed by bombs in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in 2017.

Somaliland–the northern part of Somalia–has about 4 million people and 68,000 square miles bordering the Gulf of Aden, for a population density of about 65 people per square mile. (For comparison, the US has a density of about 91 people per square mile, but we also have Alaska.)

The per capita GDP is about $347 a year, which is to say, it’s a subsistence economy:

According to the Central Bank of Somalia, about 80% of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists, who keep camelsgoatssheep and cattle. The herders also gather resins and gums to supplement their income.[1]

There’s also some fishing and a few crops, but the area is pretty dry and not suited to growing much.

Most Somalis are ethnically Somali and speak the Somali language, which is at least easy to remember. The Somali language is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, along with Arabic and Hebrew, and the Somali people are similarly ethnically related to other Afro-Asiatic speakers. What percent of their ancestors have been in the area approximately forever and what percent arrived within the past few thousand years from Arabia or beyond, I don’t know, but Somalis look fairly distinctive to me.

The ongoing civil wars and low level of infrastructure development (like irrigation systems) results in a lot of human suffering, though I don’t know how it is distributed through the country–this famine happened in the southern part of the country.

The authors argue that the suffering of the Somali people is not due to the inadequacy of local institutions, but due to colonial authorities trying to impose foreign institutions like “states” and “democracy” on a people who were entirely unsuited to them:

The exiting colonial powers set up a democratic central government, possibly not the best option for a society whose traditional institutions were decentralized and stateless. The democracy lasted for nine years… the central government disintegrated and the Somalis were back with their traditional system.

With two differences. First, the experience of a past central government and the expectation of a future one encouraged some… to engage in a power struggle aimed at putting themselves in the profitable role of rulers… Second, outside powers, acting through the UN in the belief that the country needed a central government, attempted to reestablish one… The result has been an extended period of violence and chaos…

There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs. First, I grant that Somali history is probably complicated and this is probably an over-simplification, but civil war and anarchy are definitely part of the overall picture. Why Somalia should be such a basket case while nearby Ethiopia, which doesn’t seem that different and has also had plenty of suffering over the years, should still have something resembling a functioning government, I don’t know.

Second, some comparative before and after data for places like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania might be useful when it comes to statements about the role of colonialism and violence, since this would allow us to make some comments on its effects (Ethiopia: no colonization, still mass famines; Tanzania, colonized, seems pretty stable.)

We can also ask whether it was the experience of central government that prompted people to try to conquer Somalia, or the availability of machine guns and armored vehicles.

Either way, the thesis that outside powers acting through the UN just managed to muck things up even more than they were before doesn’t sound unreasonable.

But let’s get to the legal system:

While Somaliland has a government… it is a government based on traditional institutions with an upper house of clan elders and one that appears for the most part to defer to customary law privately enforced in the traditional manner…

The Somali legal structure runs through clan-based kinship structures, which is to say it’s based on the needs of a pastoral community. To briefly review, in case you don’t remember the series on pastoral herders I did a couple of years ago, pastoralists (herders) generally own a combination of personal and communal herd animals which move around within a communal system of land/grazing rights. It is rare for herders to simply own their own herd on their own plot of land, because animals need a lot of land–more land than most individuals can own, unless population density is really low. Herd animals naturally migrate and move around depending on the rain, temperature, predators, grass, etc. A small herd may need fewer pounds of feed per day, but it still needs to travel equally long distances to get to summer pasture, winter pasture, etc., or else it depends on someone transporting food to it (our strategy in the US).

So it’s impractical for individual herd owners to each own enough land for their personal herds, (you’d have to be extremely wealthy), but it is practical for groups of herders to collectively control large chunks of land and move their herds around communally on them.

Of course, individual people still put in individual labor to care for their herds–individual ownership is useful–so individuals have claims to particular animals, but not always the ones they are directly caring for. For example, a man might have a herd of his own, but a particular billy goat is actually his cousin’s, borrowed for the sake of making more kids. A portion of the kids and the milk made by the nannies are therefore also his cousin’s, but his cousin may not come to collect them for several years, during which time the kids grow up, are eaten, and replaced. Sooner or later his cousin does come calling (say, because he needs to gather goats to pay for his son’s wedding).

And likewise, the man may have claims on goats in several of his relatives’ herds, or the whole family may pool all of the goats together and send the kids out to watch them, and everyone knows they get a 10% share of the herd.

Different people in different places obviously develop different systems, depending on the nature of the geography, the animals, and the local culture, but the important thing is that herds, even when they are individually owned, are very communal and run through kinship.

Every Somali memorizes as a child his genealogy through the paternal line up many generations, an important piece of information since it defines his relationship to every other Somali. … The closer the linkage between two Somalis–the smaller the number of generations to a common ancestor–the more likely they are to be allies. …

If, to simplify considerably, there is a conflict between two individuals whose common great-great-grandfather in the paternal line had two sons, the group that becomes engaged on the side of each will be the descendants of the sons from whom he is descended.

I suspect that this maps very closely to how herds are managed and shared, because you do not want to anger the people who have your goats.

If a conflict arises involving a member of one of those groups against someone whose genealogy links with theirs higher up the genealogical tree, the two groups that were enemies in the first round may ally.

Somalis don’t just rely on kinship groups, though. They have insurance clubs, like Triple A but for in case someone stabs your camel instead of flat tires.

The dia [blood money]-paying group is responsible for paying for offenses by its members, collecting for offenses against its members, and in the the latter case, using force or the threat of force to obtain payment. … The dia-paying group’s membership and internal rules are defined by explicit contract.

After all, if you have no prisons, what kind of long-term punishments do you have? Fines. And without banks or much in the way of hard currency, wealth is stored in herd animals, and the value of a man’s life, like that of a corporation, is not immediately available. It’s earned over time. The collective amount he has available to draw on is the collective herd owned by his kinsmen (or dia-paying group) just as they can draw on his herds, in turn, to pay their debts.

Dia-paying groups are usually between 300 and 3000 men. Too small, and the cost to each individual is too high; too big, and internal conflicts split the group.

There doesn’t appear to be (traditionally) an real legislature that passes laws, perhaps because no one had the power to do so. Instead, individual dia-paying groups establish their own laws by explicit contract, and questions of application are up to local judges.

I wonder how the contract-making actually works, though. Are they written contracts? (Only about 50% of Somali men are literate.) Is there some official way to register them? How do you keep track of who has paid up and who hasn’t?

Anyway, judges make their decisions, and if people like their decisions, they keep using that judge. If they think that judge makes stupid decisions, they can switch to a different judge. If people like a judge’s decisions and he makes a lot of decisions on new topics, a kind of informal case law builds up that future judges may rely on. (Judges, at least, are probably literate.)

… matters of marriage and inheritance are usually brought before a judge who applies Koranic law, almost all Somalis being Muslims.

This would normally require literacy, of course.

The schedule of payments of blood-money for death or injury is based on that in Islamic law, modified by custom and contract, with the amount sometimes larger or smaller depending on the relationship between offender and victim.

Note that this system is run by men; women who are victims of violence (there’s a lot of rape in Somalia,) have less support.  Refworld notes:

If the rapist is from another clan, the clans will often settle the conflict through the system of a diya payment. It is the males of the clan who negotiate the price, sometimes against the wishes of the victim, and the settlement money often stays with the male relatives (Africa Watch 4 Oct. 1993, 18).

Predictably, a woman’s life is worth half as much as a man’s.

Somali political institutions at the clan level exist but are limited. …

Was it always this way?

When a dispute arises between members of different dia-paying groups the elders from each side form a court with themselves ad judges, ask the parties to state their cases, hear witnesses and state a verdict. … If force is needed to make the losing party obey the verdict in an intra-clan dispute, the judges can recruit all able-bodied male villagers for the purpose…

Thus the Somali system is ultimately a feud system, one in which law is enforced by the private application of force or the threat of force, but a feud system with institutions for avoiding violence via widely respected mechanisms to arbitrate disputes.

I’m not sure what he means by “private” here. Obviously it’s not state-based, since there is no state. But since this is the (apparent) government structure, it’s still the government. It’s just a smaller-scale system.

I’d like to see some actual data on how good it is at curbing violence, though, before he declares it successful. There’s not a whole lot about Somalia that I’d describe as “successful.”

Interesting note on oaths sworn during trials:

One such oath consists of the oath-giver swearing by his marriage; if it later turns out that his oath was false, the marriage is dissolved.

Since marriages are also legal contracts involving the transfer of money/property/herd animals from one household to another, this is also a monetary pledge.

The punishment for murder is a life for a life; if the murderer flees, the aggrieved can just hunt down and kill some other random poor sap from the murderer’s family, because why the fuck not, they apparently can’t tell each other apart which really incentivizes your family to turn you over to the victims rather than help you flee.

Usually people accept blood money, though, hence everyone’s membership in blood money societies, because “oops I killed someone” insurance is apparently a thing people need in Somalia.

Somali legal rules for bodily injury have one other interesting feature. If a man seriously wounds another, his family must take the victim into their household and nurse him back to health–the same requirement as in ancient Irish law.

The Irish abandoned this law for obvious reasons (you don’t want to be “nursed back to health” by a guy who wants you dead) and I bet the Somalis have, too.

There are a variety of regulations on grazing land, though it is mostly first come, first serve. Some agricultural land is semi-privately owned, with rules about not selling it to people outside the clan, because rampant ultra-racism is the norm.

One odd feature of Somali customary law is that a wealthy man is required, with detailed legal rules, to share his wealth with neighbors and relatives.

That doesn’t sound too odd. There are probably good reasons for the rule, like the lack of refrigerators for storing large amounts of meat obtained by butchering and a limit to the available grazing land before one flock just eats all of the food and leaves nothing for the others.

I thought the case of dealing with the state of Ethiopia as a clan was interesting, though it’s a bit long to quote. Basically, some Ethiopian soldiers (I think) killed a Somali merchant. An hour later, the victims family killed two random soldiers in retaliation. The military decided that the retaliatory killing was just and did not retaliate by wiping out the village.

Anyway, that’s the end of the chapter. It’s an interesting chapter, but since Somalia is such a messed up country, it’s hard to take seriously without some evidence that the system is actually working for its people.

I do find it interesting, though, that even in a place as broken as Somalia, people still organize into groups, make contracts, take out insurance, etc. Organization of some sort seems to be a near-automatic, inherent feature of human groups. It’s also interesting that a system can survive without lawmakers (or any kind of organized executive) and just rely instead on common understandings of what the group does and does not allow, but not without judges.

(This of course reminds me of the progression in the Old Testament, from wandering pastoral nomads in Exodus, following the “oral law,” to the rule of judges in Judges and finally kings in Kings, but only after the people asked for one: 1 Samuel 8:

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders.[a] 2 …But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Have a good day; we’ll be looking the supposedly similar Irish feud law next Monday.

A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

While researching last week’s post on “stupid things people do,” I came across a post on weird flute customs found in both Melanesia and a few little tribes in the Amazon rainforest: Gender Ideology Reflected in Flute Symbology of Various New Guinea and South American Cultures:

Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.

Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.

There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.

IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.

Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?

At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.

But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.

(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)

Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.

If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.

There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.

One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.

Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.

Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.

But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.

Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.

Russia is cold.

But potatoes grow really well in central and eastern Europe.

map of potato production

Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.

The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.

Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.

Icelandic Law



Today we’re discussing the legal system of saga-period Iceland in Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.

First, a little background:

Iceland … is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 360,390[4] and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.[b][8]  …Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fieldsmountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. … Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

According to the ancient manuscript Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island.[9] In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin.

The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world’s oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century.

Iceland today is a small country; Iceland in the saga era was even smaller. Official records weren’t kept until the 1700s, but at that time, the population was a bit under 50,000 and stayed there for over a hundred years, so I think it’s safe to put 50,000 as our max population for the saga period.

Ethnically, the male population was about 66% Viking and 34% Scottish/Irish slaves; the female population was about 60% Scottish/Irish slaves and 40% Viking.

Note that Iceland’s population went from about 50,000 to 350,000 in two hundred years–seven times bigger–yet Wikipedia claims, “Due to a shortage of labor,[21] immigration to Iceland will most likely increase in the future.[22]” How the fuck do you septuple your population and still have a “shortage of labor”?

Utter nonsense.

Anyway, back to the Viking age, when people solved their problems by stabbing each other, setting their houses on fire, and kidnapping the women:

In saga-period Iceland a thousand years ago, if you killed someone his relatives sued you.

Despite being a bunch of Vikings and their slaves, Icelanders still set up a legal system that was sufficiently complex that modern scholars aren’t sure exactly how it worked. (I’m sure if some future legal scholars tried to piece together the American legal system from old episodes of Perry Mason plus some law review articles, they’d also be confused.) Our understanding of the Icelandic system similarly comes from a combination of entertaining stories (sagas) and a collection of legal texts written down later, the Gragas. It’s tempting to claim that Gragas must be correct, since it is actually a collection of legal texts, but I challenge you to read a bunch of US case law and use it to piece together how US law actually works in practice. (You won’t.)

As for what we know:

The political system they developed [in Iceland] was based on Norwegian traditions with one important innovation–there was no king.

At the base of the system stood the godi [note: the d should be crossed]… The original godar seem to have been local leaders who built pagan temples and served as their priests. A godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services. The godord was his congregation. The relationship between the godi and his thingmen was contractual not territorial. The godi had no claim to the thingman’s land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.

It’s hard to have a king or exert much power over people when population density is low and they can just move on if you annoy them too much. I don’t think this is really a political innovation so much as a reality of low-density frontiers-like areas.

Personally, I don’t like using non-English terms when perfectly good translations exist. the godi (plural, godar) is a priest. The godord is his congregation.

Under the system of laws established in AD 930, these local leaders were combined into a national system. In 960, Iceland was divided into four quarters, each containing nine godord clustered in groups of three called things. …

The one permanent official of this system was the … lawspeaker; he was elected… His job was to memorize the laws, recite them once during his term in office, provide advice on difficult legal points and preside over the … legislature.

I once tried to figure out how many laws the US has and came up with an official answer of “no one knows, not event he government.” It’s not exactly clear what is and isn’t a law–for example, if the state mandates that parents whose kids have more than 10 unexcused absences from school in a year be charged with truancy, then does the schools’ procedure for reporting medical absences count as a law? Our system is complicated, and no mortal could ever memorize it, much less recite it all in a timely manner.

The existence of the lawspeaker was probably just necessity in a system where not everyone was literate, but it also provides a check on the number of laws (and thus the structure that the law takes,) since it must be humanly possible for someone to memorize them all.

The godord [congregation] itself was two different things. It was … the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi [priest], to be members of that [congregation]. … The godord was also a bundle of rights, including the right to sit in the [lawcourt] and appoint judges for certain courts. … it was the right to be the person through whom ordinary farmers plugged into the legal system.

So everyone has to be associated with some congregation of other, but you get to chose the one you want to be part of. Once you’re part of a congregation, you have to pay your priest an annual tax, which pays for the expenses of the men who attend the annual lawcourt and decide cases. Membership in the congregation and thus the right to sit in the legal assembly and hear court cases could be bought, sold, given away, inherited, etc.

For serious offenses, conviction meant full outlawry. … It was legal to kill an outlaw, illegal to feed him, shelter him, or help him to leave Iceland. … A lesser outlaw had the right to leave Iceland and could return in three years.

If you’re declared an outlaw, then the court takes your stuff and gives it to the victims or their surviving relatives (saving some for any of your innocent children).

Prosecution was up to the victim or his kin… Most cases in the sagas were settled out of court, usually for money damages. … Many were settled by arbitration. .. Calculations by two different scholars suggest tat only about a tenth of cases went to a final judgment by the court.

Lest you think this is a lot, 97% of criminal cases in the US end with plea bargains rather than actual court trials.

Icelandic law distinguished between killing and murder–secret killing. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately. … Murder cost the killer the ability to raise legal defenses, such as the fact that his victim was an outlaw or had forfeited his immunity by attacking [first, I presume.]

Since this is a system of privately enforced law in which people essentially join a legal society and then pay taxes to it, there’s always the possibility that the poor will be too poor to afford justice, or the rich so rich they can buy their way out.

The former was not a problem, the authors argue, because the money for a successful conviction was always potentially available, so even people too poor to prosecute a case could sell their case to someone else who would be happy to pursue it for profit.

The latter case, the rich buying their way out of trouble, became a problem as the poor peasants (and slaves) who made up Iceland’s initial population gradually built up their estates and some families became significantly more wealthy than others:

By the Sturlung period there were many areas where all or most of the godord were held by one family, reducing or eliminating the ability of the individual thingman to choose his godi and creating a de facto, if imperfect, form of territorial sovereignty…

Another possible source of concentration of wealth and power was the introduction of Christianity…

A second and related cause of the breakdown was the introduction into Iceland of a foreign ideology–monarchy. … Several of the leading figures, when out of Iceland, usually as a result of a settlement that included temporary outlawry, became retainers of the king…

Population growth=all of the good land gets snatched up. Over time, some families get richer and accumulate more power. Eventually, they use that power to get more power, setting themselves up as local lords; with all of the good land taken, people have nowhere else to go if they get fed up.

Exit provides a workable system if there are other places to go; not if everything is closed off already. Eventually, bigger societies become more hierarchical, except in Iceland’s case, this led to a total breakdown of the system.

Of course, even during the breakdown, Iceland was still safer than the US at the peak of the crime wave:

According to a calculation by a scholar who went through the Sturlung sagas counting bodies, during more than fifty years of the violent breakdown of the traditional system the number of people killed or executed each year, on a per capita basis, was roughly equal to the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States in 1975.


Today, of course, Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries:

Murder rate per 100k people in 2012: light blue = 0-1; darkest blue > 20

That’s all for today; next week we’ll look at Somali law. Should be fun. Take care.

Why do people claim that whites “have no culture”?

A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”

Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:

The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.

In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.

Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.

The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.

In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.

People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.

Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”

Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.

In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).

People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.

Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.

Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.

People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.

All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.

Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.

Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.

In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.

Yes, the fun parts.

I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.

So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:

  1. A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
  2. Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
  3. That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
  4. Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.

Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=[1].

We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.


Prison Law

51ta-us7crlKey tenants of the Prisoners’ Code:

  • Never rat on another convict
  • Don’t be nosy
  • Don’t gossip
  • Don’t lie
  • Don’t steal
  • Pay your debts
  • Don’t be weak
  • Don’t whine

Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, by Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek. Today we are discussing chapter 8: Prisoners’ Law–a subject of continuing interest to me, as you know.

While I have questioned why people would bother having multiple legal systems–why have parallel or multiple systems, instead of just one–what if we begin from the opposite assumption: why not have multiple legal systems? After all, modern societies are vast, with many different interest groups. There is the state, which wants mostly to promote trade, economic activities, and tax revenues–and will attempt to cut down on violent, predatory human (and animal) behavior to the extent that it interferes with the former. Then there are individuals, whose interests–like avoiding taxation and making sure their kids marry good spouses–are very different from the state’s.

If you have a state that is really trustworthy and definitely wouldn’t use knowledge of your assets gained during a divorce dispute to increase your taxes, then you might be happy to run your interests through the state-run legal system, but if you have any doubts about the state’s potential trustworthiness, you might want a different system to handle your more intimate problems.

Prisoners, of course, don’t have much hope of the state caring terribly much about resolving their disputes. I can’t imagine that prison guards really care that much if Prisoner A cheats Prisoner B out of cigarettes, so long as A and B both keep quiet and don’t make trouble. Even the murder of Prisoner A by Prisoner B may not trouble the guards, especially if it relieves them of some of their duties.

So prisoners–despite generally being lawbreakers themselves–have a strong incentive to create their own legal systems, and they do:

Nevertheless, across every period of prison life that we know about, we consistently find that officials provide only some… of the safety that prisoners crave. In fact, prisoners have developed a legal system of their own to order the society of captives.

… the nature of California prisons is that there are many resources that are held in common. The pull-up bars, tables and benches, handball courts, and basketball courts are freely open to all prisoners, at least officially. In reality, however, there is far more demand to use these resources than there is available supply.

The guards simply do not care enough to ration access to the facilities; prisoners work that out among themselves:

One prisoner associated with a Northern Hispanic gang explains, “If a new yard opens up, you’re going to fight for that handball court, you’re going to fight for some tables… If you ain’t a Northerner and you come into that areas, you’re going to get stabbed.”

Not getting harassed by antifa.

Gangs, like pirates and yellowjackets, wear their affiliations openly so you know not to mess with them. This, in turn, greatly reduces the chances of you getting stabbed.

Prisoners also have to set up their own systems of rules and enforcement because prisoners have a habit of doing illegal things, like selling drugs, and the government tends to look down on such activities and attempt to stop them (or at least take a cut of the profits). Prisoners can’t depend on prison guards to make sure they get paid for illegal drug deals, smuggled cigarettes, or hired violence.

For all these three reasons, in nearly any prison that scholars have studied, we find that prisoners create parallel, informal legal institutions.

The Prisoners’ Code–quoted at the beginning of the post–served California prisons prior to the 1960s. Adherence to the code meant that one was a “convict” in good standing with his fellows; those who violated the code were mere “inmates” in bad standing with their neighbors. Nobody likes a rat, and “inmates”, since they were regarded as having already violated the general trust, were fair game for victimization. Convicts, by contrast, had the general support of their fellows and so were protected.

The Code was fairly informal–not a written document, not formally agreed upon, not enforced by any particular body. It was just what everyone knew and agreed to, and who was and wasn’t a convict in good standing was just common knowledge.

Interesting, during this period, prisoners did not strictly segregate themselves by race and ethnicity. …

Edward Bunker, who served time in San Quentin prison in the 1950s and later, explained that, “although each race tended to congregate with their own, there was little overt racial tension or hostility. That would change in the decade ahead. what I did for a black friend in the mid-fifties is something I would never have even considered a decade later.”

Well damn. That sounds shitty.

Point Lookout Cemetery, Angola Prison–final resting place of those who will never leave.

The Code broke down because the prison population exploded and became much more ethnically diverse during the great crime wave of the late 20th century. California prisons went from housing about 5,000 people total around 1950 to over 170,000 people in the 2000s. A system based on simply knowing whether or not the guy you were talking to was generally regarded as a convict in good standing breaks down when the system has 170,000 people in it.

This was compounded by the fact that the prison population was becoming much more ethically and racially diverse. Whereas in 1951 there used to be two white prisoners for every one black or Hispanic prisoner, that ratio had reversed by 1980. Heterogeneity undermines decentralized legal systems because it confounds consensus.

Or in other words, diversity leads to centralized authoritarianism.

Here’s a graph, for the visually inclined:


Coinciding with these changes, there was a significant increase in prisoner on prisoner violence. … In response to this increasingly chaotic environment, prisoners turned to groups that today we often assume are the sources of disorder–prison gangs.

This makes sense–with too many inmates from too many backgrounds to enforce common norms via common knowledge, a new layer of organization–gangs–formed to fill the gap.

A formalist would say that we should make gangs official.

Gangs operate in a community responsibility system. Each prisoner must have an affiliation with a group, and each group is responsible for each members’ actions.

Sounds like Chinese law.

Of course, not everyone is a full member of a prison gang, just like not everyone is a paid member of the US government. Most prisoners, though, are affiliated to some group to some extent, following the rules set by their group.

Prison gangs often have written constitutions to order their internal workings. … There are clearly established leadership structures, and some of these positions are filled through democratic elections by a gangs’s members.

Sounds like pirates.

Prison gangs work to prevent conflicts between their members and resolve conflicts between their members and outsiders.

For example, if a member of one gang is delinquent in a drug debt to another group, that prisoner’s entire gang is responsible for it. He ma be forced to contact family on the outside to pay it off. The gang may pool their resources to pay it off. the gang may force the prisoner to work the debt off for the other gang… the gang itself might assault their own member to the extent that it satisfies the shot caller of the other group…

Gang-based governance outperforms the Prisoner Code because it requires less information about other people’s reputations. It is easier to know the reputation of a group than to know the reputation of every member of that group.

Seems like a lot of information processing works this way; I care less about the particular details of a random tree than “this is a tree.”

The authors argue that, even though gangs are usually blamed for crime, at least in the case of prisons, the rise of gangs coincided with a drop in crime:

… there was a nearly 90% decline in prisoner homicides from 1973 to 2012 (no data available from 1974-1979). During much of the 2000s, the homicide rate in prison was actually lower than outside of prisons. [!!!]

The homicide rate per hundred thousand prisoners was just over 60 (looks like 63 on the graph) in 1973, and bottomed out around 3 or 4 in 2001. There has been a slight increase in the most recent data, with about 8 murders per 100k in 2012.

Of course, prisons have probably taken measures to prevent inmates from killing each other, but I suspect that is difficult to convince people who are already in prison to be afraid of more prison, but it is easy to make them afraid of getting beaten.

But there are some ironies:

… despite a dramatic decline in the free world in racial prejudice since the 1940s, prison life is actually significantly more segregated today. Showers, telephones, handball courts, and even areas in the yard to sit are claimed by different racial groups and other races are not allowed to use them. Members of different races are not allowed to share cigarettes or meals together, or even live in the same prison cell.

Do the gangs prevent murder (if they do at all) by effectively threatening to make punishment painful for any would-be murderers, or by forcing people to segregate?

The authors note that organizing along racial lines solve information problems quickly–you can tell at a glance which group someone belongs to. But gangs have a variety of drawbacks as government systems–they tend to increase recidivism among their members, for example, and predatory behavior by senior gang members against lower-ranking members often goes unchecked because, being prisoners, they have nowhere else to go.

It is interesting that prison gangs are allowed to operate. Their primary purpose isn’t keeping peace and preventing murder (or so they claim), but doing business–selling drugs and the like. Peace is good for business; murder is bad for business because it gets the guards involved. One might think that prison guards would be uncomfortable with prisons being run by racial gangs that were formed to do illegal things, but either the guards don’t really care, it’s too hard to eliminate the gangs without a great deal more money and effort, or they’ve decided that life is just better with the gangs running things.

511Z26YT83L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_That’s all for today, but please see some of my previous posts related to prisons: God of the Rodeo, about Angola Prison, Louisiana; and my review of Oriental Prisons: pt 1: Thugee; pt 2: Andaman Islands pt 3: Burma, China, and Japan; and pt 4: Egypt.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Saga-Era Iceland.

People who cannot find a place for themselves in society have nothing to lose if society burns

Detroit Abandoned Buildings

I have I’m trying to write, but words aren’t flowing. Still, it’s a general fact: you preserve what’s yours; you love what’s yours.

When you don’t feel part of society, it stops mattering to you whether society burns. You know the principle: not my circus = not my monkeys.

Which means that you can’t half-ass community. Long term, you can’t have an underclass. You can’t have outcasts. You have to have community, and you can’t force it through some idiotic top-down “team building” exercise, because dammit, that will just make people hate each other even more. Community has to be a real thing that real people actually enjoy being part of, or they will, at best, let it fall apart; at worst they burn it down with you in it.

The Detroit riot of 1967 left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed; Detroit has yet to recover.

Xenophobia” is apparently the fancy new word people are using for old-fashioned racism in South Africa:

Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.[1] Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia.[2] In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens.[3] A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups.[4] Between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people.[4]

Why the hell did anyone think that majority rule by black people in South Africa would result in less racism? Is there something magical about voting that stops people from being racist? No, you idiots. (Not you, my gentle reader. I know you never thought such nonsense; you know that the media has reported on plenty of racist Americans voting in elections.)

According to a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP):

“The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion … embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders … Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.[7]  “

What, being aggressively pro-your-own-group leads to being aggressively anti-other-groups? Who could have figured that one out?

Reminder that Johannesburg used to be a first world city.

Meanwhile, Nigerian TV has some interesting segments. “Shrine” seems to be a euphemism for “human sacrifice cult”:

Maybe some of those South Africans are on to something?

— Oh jeebus, I just read about lobotomies. Changing course, guys:

 Freeman’s name gained popularity despite the widespread criticism of his methods following a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, which left her with severe mental and physical disability.[2] … Walter Freeman charged just $25 for each procedure that he performed.[8] After four decades Freeman had personally performed as many as 4,000[11][12][13] lobotomy surgeries in 23 states, of which 2,500 used his ice-pick procedure,[14] despite the fact that he had no formal surgical training.[2] … Up to 40% of Freeman’s patients were gay individuals subjected to a lobotomy in an attempt to change their homosexual orientation, leaving most of these perfectly healthy individuals severely disabled for the rest of their life.[15]… His patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use the bathroom. Relapses were common, some never recovered, and about 15%[16] died from the procedure. In 1951, one patient at Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute died when Freeman suddenly stopped for a photo during the procedure, and the surgical instrument accidentally penetrated too far into the patient’s brain.[17] Freeman wore neither gloves nor a mask during these procedures.[17] He lobotomized 19 minors including a 4-year-old child.[18]

“We went through the top of the head, I think Rosemary was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside”, he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary some questions. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backward. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” When Rosemary began to become incoherent, they stopped.[23]It quickly became apparent that the procedure had not been successful. Kennedy’s mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old child. She could not walk or speak intelligibly and was incontinent.[24]”

This guy won a nobel prize in medicine.

I don’t trust doctors very much.

A few other random thoughts:

I have no opinion on the Hong Kong protests because I am not from HK or China and don’t speak Chinese and so don’t know enough to have an opinion. I do think, however, that there is a frequent–and understandable–impulse crave excitement that modern life cannot otherwise supply. We want to be heroes; we want to be like the people in games and movies.

Even in Minecraft, a game that starts with you digging dirt blocks with your bare hands, ends with you fighting a dragon. People want that dragon; they want to be heroes, and who cares if it involves burning down someone else’s house? Characters in movies never stop to consider whether their rampages are flipping innocent people’s cars or preventing normal people from getting to their jobs; these mundane considerations pale to nothing when there is an ENEMY to be conquered… but often enough that enemy is just an invention of our own boredom.

Antifa, too, want to play-act being important by killing the enemy. It’s the same impulse that leads normal people to play video games; normal people are just good at distinguishing between games and real life.

Legally Pirate: Systems Very Different from Ours

Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’re discussing chapter 7, Pirate Law.

Buccaneer of the Caribbean, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates

We’ve already discussed Pirate Law a couple of times, based on articles by the same author, from the same source material, so some of this chapter is redundant if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, but it’s interesting enough to be worth a review.

The authors begin with an amusing comment on pirates’ odd popularity:

Only the Mafia approaches Caribbean pirates’ criminal celebrity, but large numbers of children do not dress up as mobsters to collect candy on Halloween.

On to business:

Successful piracy required the cooperation of a sizeable pirate crew. The average Caribbean pirate ship was crewed by 80 men, and the largest crews consisted of several hundred. This raises the question of how pirates, who, as criminals, could not rely on government to provide their crews law and order and had no compunction about murdering and stealing for private gain, manged to cooperate with one another to engage in piracy.

The fact that “even criminals” develop legal systems of some sort to regulate their relations with each other is one of the things I find fascinating about humans. Social organization springs up even in the most unlikely-seeming places, like prisons and criminal gangs, suggesting that order is a spontaneous and natural fact of human life (though the form that order takes varies).

Whatever order criminals form among themselves is also interesting because it is, by necessity, separate from the dominant legal systems; most criminals do not have the option of turning to the police should a fellow criminal stiff them on their share of the booty. (I suppose this has some parallels with the Chinese case, as the authors described it.)

Ships through the ages: Pirate dhow; Spanish or Venetian galley; Spanish galleon The Dhow is a typical 16th century dhow, a grab-built, lateen-rigged vessel of Arabia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. It has the usual long overhang forward, high poop deck and open waist. The dhow was notorious in the slave trade on the east coast of Africa, and even after a thousand years is still one of the swiftest of sailing crafts.

Pirates dealt with their problems by devising what is known as the “Pirate Code,” a set of laws that provided for the basically democratic conduct of the ship and division of the booty, with the captain in charge during battle. Since we already discussed these in previous posts, I will skip over the details, but you can read the book (or my previous posts on the subject), but suffice to say that pirates developed constitutions with voting, checks and balances, etc, that parallel democracy as developed in places like the US:

The institutional features of pirate law should sound familiar. They are more-or-less those of the American system of government: constitutional democracy, separated powers, and checks and balances. …

The most notable difference between pirate law and the American system of government is not their substance but when they were created and by whom. Pirate law was created by mostly illiterate, violent criminals in the early eighteenth century. The American system of government was created by the most educated and respected Europeans of their era more than half a century later.

The authors argue that pirate law must have been successful since piracy not only existed, but flourished, despite quite a bit of forceful opposition from European governments.

On pirate flags:

Most bandits do not announce their presence to their victims and potentially the authorities by publicly displaying a distinctive bandit logo

Proper placement of 1% motorcycle patch.

You sure about that, bud? Most criminal gangs I am familiar with, from the Mafia to street gangs to outlaw motorcycle clubs, advertise their status as criminals in rather obvious ways, like clothing patches, facial tattoos, or dapper Italian suits.

And it’s not just humans: wasps and bees, coral snakes and rattlesnakes, poison dart frogs and monarch butterflies, amanita muscaria and blue ringed octopuses  all signal “Stay away! I’m trouble!”

The natural principle is called “aposemetism,” which:

 refers to the appearance of an animal that warns predators it is toxic, distasteful, or dangerous. This warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. The unprofitability may consist of any defences which make the prey difficult to eat, such as toxicity, foul taste or smell, sharp spines, or aggressive nature. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal which may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours[2] or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.

Are bulborbs poisonous? Or do you just hallucinate if you eat one?

Of course, Pirates fly the Jolly Roger for the same reason: 

Pirates had a well-deserved reputation for mercilessness toward attackers [sic], which they earned by adhering t a simple policy: surrender or die. Pirates adopted this policy to minimize the cost of taking prizes. Violent confrontations with prey were expensive. … More peaceful piracy was therefore more profitable piracy secured, ironically enough, by pirates’ promise to slaughter resistors. …

To profit from this fact, pirates needed to ensure that their victims knew when they were being accosted by pirates… With few exceptions, only pirates flew the Jolly Roger, which is precisely why they did so.

And non-pirates who might like to dabble in the occasional ship-theft are unlikely to dilute the power of the Jolly Roger via mimicry due to the governments’ promise to execute anyone flying the Jolly Roger. This is kind of like if humans couldn’t tell the difference between coral and milk snakes, and so killed all of the milk snakes they could get their hands on: there would soon be pressure for milk snakes to not be orange.

Human criminal gangs make efforts to protect their symbols, to prevent dilution and ensure clear signalling power. The Hells Angels, for example have trademarked/copyrighted their symbols:

In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission.[39] The suit was eventually voluntarily dismissed,[40] after the Angels received assurances from Disney that the references would not appear in the film.[41] …

In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol”[44] in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A handbag and scarf was also named in lawsuit.[45] The lawyer representing Hells Angels claimed: “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.”[46] … The company settled the case with the Hells Angels after agreeing to remove all of the merchandise featuring the logo from sale on their website, stores and concessions and recalling any of the goods that have already been sold and destroying them.[48][49][50]   

In fall 2012 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, Hells Angels sued Toys “R” Us for trademark infringementunfair competition, and dilution in relation to the sale of yo-yos manufactured by Yomega Corporation, a co-defendant, which allegedly bear the “Death Head” logo.

Clear signals work better than unclear signals, example # 6,700,789.

That’s all for now; see you next week.


Apidima Sapiens?

Two fossil skulls from Apidima, Greece, tell an intriguing story. The first, more than 210,000 years old, appears to be an early Homo sapiens. The second, a younger 170,000 years old, looks like a Neanderthal.

If so, then Homo sapiens moved to Greece, were replaced by Neanderthals, then thousands of years later moved back and replaced the Neanderthals (“replaced” is generally a polite word for “killed.”)

This is consistent with a fair amount of other evidence that Homo sapiens had (at least) two out-of-Africa events, of which the one that killed the Neanderthals was only the most recent. It could also represent the population wave that interbred with Neanderthals, contributing Sapiens DNA to the Neanderthal genome, well before the more famous interbreeding event when Neanderthal DNA entered our modern Homo sapiens genome.

On the other hand, there’s not a whole lot to these fossils. One is just the back of a skull. The back of a skull is more informative than it sounds on first glance because neanderthals have a bump (referred to as a “bun”) on the backs of their skulls that we don’t, but still, we’re not talking about complete skulls. So it could turn out that this was just a funny looking Neanderthal, or a piece that got pressed weirdly by a rock (the first Neanderthal skeleton people found had arthritis, which threw all of the illustrations off for decades, so these things can happen).

But throwing caution to the wind, let’s assume the skulls are correct, and so is the rough timeline I sketched out: Neanderthals inhabit Europe, Sapiens leave Africa, Sapiens push into the Middle East and Greece, Sapiens fail, Neanderthals retake the region, years pass, Sapiens try again and this time succeed, wiping out the Neanderthals.

What changed? What made the first attempt a failure and the second successful?

Aside from Sapiens generally getting smarter, I suggest a humble invention: the sewing needle.

We know from studies of lice (ew, I know) that humans began wearing clothes around 80-170,000 years ago. How do we know? Because the lice that live on our heads and the lice that infect our clothes are different species, and genetics claims that’s when they split.

The earliest known “looks like a needle” comes from Sibudu Cave, South Africa, and dates from about 61,000 years ago, but needles are small and easily broken, so I suspect that plenty were used that we haven’t found.

Neanderthals did not wear clothes–quoting Wikipedia, quoting archaeologist John F. Hoffecker:[102]

Neanderthal sites show no evidence of tools for making tailored clothing. There are only hide scrapers, which might have been used to make blankets or ponchos. This is in contrast to Upper Paleolithic (modern human) sites, which have an abundance of eyed bone needles and bone awls. Moreover, microwear analysis of Neanderthal hide scrapers shows that they were used only for the initial phases of hide preparation, and not for the more advanced phases of clothing production.

— John F. Hoffecker, The Spread of Modern Humans in Europe

Bodyhair_map_according_to_American_Journal_of_Physical_Anthropology_and_other_sourcesIf the Neanderthals did not have clothes, then they had to adapt to the European climate in other ways–probably fur.

(Incidentally, according to the only data I have on the matter, Mediterranean and Nordic peoples are oddly hairy, while Siberian people are weirdly not-hairy. If anyone has any idea why this is I’d love to hear it.)

If the first wave of Sapiens to leave Africa also did not have clothes (or had only very rudimentary clothes) and they lacked the Neanderthals’ fur, then they would have had a very difficult time surviving in the harsh European winters.

Like the Roanoke colony, the survivors may have happily gone over to the Neanderthal side.

By the time the second wave of Sapiens showed up, however, they had invented clothes–and had other elements of a more advanced cultural/technological toolkit that let them conquer the elements–and the ‘Thals.