Finnish DNA

800px-Lenguas_finougrias
Distribution of the Finno-Ugric languages

In honor family, Thanksgiving, and the discovery that my husband is about as Finnish as Elisabeth Warren is Cherokee, today’s post is on Finnish DNA. (No, I did not just “finish” the field of genetics.)

Finland is one of the few European countries that doesn’t speak an Indo-European language. (Well, technically a lot of them speak Swedish, but obviously that’s because of their long contact with Sweden.) Both Finnish and the Sami language hail from the appropriately named Finno-Ugric family, itself a branch of the larger Uralic family, which spreads across the northern edge of Asia.

While there is one cave that might have housed pre-ice age people in Finland, solid evidence of human occupation doesn’t start until about 9,000 BC (11,000 YA), when the ice sheets retreated. These early Finns were hunter-gatherers (and fishers–one of the world’s oldest fishing nets, from 8300 BC, was found in Finland). For a thousand years or so Baltic Sea was more of a Baltic Lake (called Ancylus Lake), due to some complex geologic processes involving uplift in Sweden that we don’t need to explore, but it seems the lake had some pretty good fishing.

Pottery shows up around 5300 BC, with the “Comb Ceramic Culture” or “Pit-Comb Ware.” According to Wikipedia:

The distribution of the artifacts found includes Finnmark (Norway) in the north, the Kalix River (Sweden) and the Gulf of Bothnia (Finland) in the west and the Vistula River (Poland) in the south. In the east the Comb Ceramic pottery of northern Eurasia extends beyond the Ural mountains to the Baraba steppe adjacent to the Altai-Sayan mountain range, merging with a continuum of similar ceramic styles.[1]

Comb Ceramic was not limited in Europe, being widely distributed in the BalticFinland, the Volga upstream flow, south SiberiaLake BaikalMongolian Plateau, the Liaodong Peninsula and the Korean Peninsula.[2] The oldest ones have been discovered from the remains of Liao civilization – Xinglongwa culture (6200 BC – 5400 BC).[3]

The Xinglongwa are from northern China/inner Mongolia.

This distribution is a pretty decent match to the distribution of Finno-Ugric and Uralic languages before the march of Indo-European (Hungarian arrived in Hungary well after the IE invasion), so it’s pretty decent evidence that the language and pottery went together. Pottery usually indicates the arrival of agricultural peoples (who need pots to store things in,) but in this case, the Comb Ceramic people were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers/fishers/herders, much like modern people in the far north.

While I usually assume that the arrival of a new toolkit heralds the arrival of a new group of people, the general lifestyle continuity between hunter-gatherers with baskets and hunter-gatherers with pots suggests that they could have been the same people. DNA or more information about their overall cultures would tell the story with more certainty.

Oddly, one variety of pit-comb ware is known as “asbestos ware”, because the locals incorporated asbestos into their pots. The point of asbestos pots, aside from aesthetics (the fibers could make large, thin-walled vessels,) was probably to accommodate the high temperatures needed for metal working.

The Corded Ware people–aka the Yamnaya aka Indo Europeans–showed up around 3,000 BC. They seem to have brought agriculture with them, though Mesopotamian grains didn’t take terribly well to the Finnish weather.

Bronze arrived around 2,000 BC (or perhaps a little later), having spread from the Altai mountains–a route similar to the earlier spread of Comb Ware pottery. (Wikipedia speculates that these bronze artifacts mark the arrival of the Finno-Ugric languages.) Iron arrived around 500 BC.

Since Finland is a difficult place to raise crops, people have gone back and forth between agriculture, hunting, fishing, herding, gathering, etc over the years. For example, around 200 BC, the “hair temperature” pottery disappeared as people transitioned away from agriculture, to a more nomadic, reindeer-herding lifestyle.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the genetics:

A new genetic study carried out at the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku demonstrates that, at the end of the Iron Age, Finland was inhabited by separate and differing populations, all of them influencing the gene pool of modern Finns.

(Gotta love how Science Daily Trumps this as “diverse origins”)

The authors, Oversti et al, actually title their paper “Human mitochondrial DNA lineages in Iron-Age Fennoscandia suggest incipient admixture and eastern introduction of farming-related maternal ancestry” :

Here we report 103 complete ancient mitochondrial genomes from human remains dated to AD 300–1800, and explore mtDNA diversity associated with hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. The results indicate largely unadmixed mtDNA pools of differing ancestries from Iron-Age on, suggesting a rather late genetic shift from hunter-gatherers towards farmers in North-East Europe. …

… aDNA has recently been recovered from c. 1500 year-old bones from Levänluhta in western central Finland18,19. Genomic data from these samples show a Siberian ancestry component still prominently present today, particularly in the indigenous Saami people, and to a lesser extent in modern Finns.

The authors have an interesting observation about a line running through Finland:

Within Finland, an unusually strong genetic border bisects the population along a northwest to southeast axis24,26,27, and is interpreted to reflect an ancient boundary between hunter-gatherer and farmer populations28. The expanse of agriculture north-east of this border was probably limited by environmental factors, especially the length of the growing season.

I thought this part was really neat:

A total of 95 unique complete-mitogenome haplotypes were observed among the 103 complete sequences retrieved: three haplotypes were shared between sampling sites and five within a site. In the latter cases, the placement of the skeletal samples suggests that the shared haplotypes have been carried by different individuals, who may have been maternally related: identical haplotypes (haplogroup U5a2a1e) were obtained from remains of a c. 5-year-old child (grave 18, TU666) and an older woman (grave 7, TU655) from Hollola.

Obviously the death of a child is not neat, but that we can identify relatives in an ancient graveyard is. I have relatives who are all buried near each other, and if some future archaeologist dug them up and realized “Oh, hey, here we have a family,” I think that’d be nice.

The authors discovered something interesting about the direction of the introduction of agriculture.

If you look at a map of Finland, you might guess that agriculture came from the south west, because those are the areas where agriculture is practiced in modern Finland. You’d certainly be correct about the south, but it looks like agriculture was actually introduced from the east–it seems these early farmers didn’t fare well in eastern Finland, and eventually migrated to the west. Alternatively, they may have just failed/given up, and more farmers arrived later from the west and succeeded–but if so, they were related to the first group of farmers.

Overall, the authors found evidence of three different groups in the ancient graveyards: at the oldest site, a Saami-like population (found further south that modern Saami populations); a non-Saami group of hunter gatherers, and Neolithic farmers.

The non-Saami hunter gatherers had high rates of haplogroup U4, which is rare in modern Finns (Saami included). According to the article:

Instead, in contemporary populations, U4 exists in high frequencies in Volga-Ural region (up to 24% in Komi-Zyryans)36 and with lower frequencies around the Baltic Sea, such as in Latvians and Tver Karelians (both around 8%)37. Taking into account that U4 have been prevalent in neighboring areas among Scandinavian10,39,40,41,42,43 and Baltic hunter-gatherers12,13,44, Baltic Comb Ceramics Culture12,13,14 and in Siberia during the Early metal period11, we might be observing ancestries belonging to an earlier layer of ancient inhabitants of the region.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, so if you’re interested in Finland or polar peoples generally, I hope you give it a read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How Tall can Humans Grow

A Twitter friend recently proposed a question:

These skeletons can be divided into two groups: those for whom we have some historical evidence (eg, Goliath, famous literary villain), and those with no evidence except images like this one.

Incidentally, modern man does not average 6 feet tall. The average American man, hailing from a well-fed cohort, is only 5″9′ (you think men are taller than they are because they all lie). The global average is a bit smaller, at about 5’7“.

Historically, people tended to be a bit shorter, probably due to inconsistent food supplies.

I have often seen it claimed that heights fell when people adopted agriculture, but most hunter-gatherers aren’t especially tall. The Bushmen, for example, are short by modern standards; I suspect that the pre-agricultural human norm was more Bushman than Dinka.

If we roll back time to look at our pre-sapiens ancestors, Homo erectus skeletons are estimated to have been between 4″8′ and 6″1′, which puts them about as tall as we are, but with a lot of variation (we also have a lot of variation). Neanderthals are estimated about 5″4′-5″5′; Homo habilis was shorter, at a mere 4″ 3′. Lucy the Australophithecine, while female, was even shorter, similar to modern chimps.

On net, a few food-related hiccups aside, humans seem to have been evolving to be taller over the past few million years (but our male average still isn’t 6 feet.)

But does this mean humans couldn’t be taller?

The trouble with being unusually tall is that, unlike apatosauruses, we humans aren’t built for it. The tallest confirmed human was Robert Wadlow, at 8 feet, 11 inches. According to acromegalic gigantism specialist John Wass, quoted by The Guardian, it would be difficult for any human to surpass 9 feet for long:

First, high blood pressure in the legs, caused by the sheer volume of blood in the arteries, can burst blood vessels and cause varicose ulcers. An infection of just such an ulcer eventually killed Wadlow.

With modern antibiotics, ulcers are less of an issue now, and most people with acromegalic gigantism eventually die because of complications from heart problems. “Keeping the blood going round such an enormous circulation becomes a huge strain for the heart,” says Wass.

Ancient people, of course, did not have the benefit of antibiotics.

What about Bigfoot?

Well, Bigfoot isn’t real, but Gigantopithecus probably was.

Gigantopithecus … is an extinct genus of ape that existed from two million years to as recently as one hundred thousand years ago, at the same period as Homo erectus would have been dispersed,[2] in what is now VietnamChina and Indonesia placing Gigantopithecus in the same time frame and geographical location as several hominin species.[3][4] The primate fossil record suggests that the species Gigantopithecus blacki were the largest known primate species that ever lived, standing up to 3 m (9.8 ft) and weighing as much as 540–600 kg (1,190–1,320 lb),[2][5][6][7] although some argue that it is more likely that they were much smaller, at roughly 1.8–2 m (5.9–6.6 ft) in height and 180–300 kg (400–660 lb) in weight.[8][9][10][11]

They’re related to orangutans; unfortunately it’s difficult to find their remains because the Chinese keep eating them:

Fossilized teeth and bones are often ground into powder and used in some branches of traditional Chinese medicine.[13] Von Koenigswald named the theorized species Gigantopithecus.[8]

Since then, relatively few fossils of Gigantopithecus have been recovered. Aside from the molars recovered in Chinese traditional medicine shops, Liucheng Cave in LiuzhouChina, has produced numerous Gigantopithecus blacki teeth, as well as several jawbones.[14]

Please stop eating fossils. They’re not good for you.

Unfortunately, since we only have teeth and jawbones from this creature, it’s hard to tell exactly how tall it was.

Let’s just estimate, then, a maximum human height around 10 feet. After that, your heart explodes. (Joking. Sort of.)

Let’s start with Goliath.

The Philistines were a real people–one of the “Sea Peoples” who showed up in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age Collapse:

 In 2016, a large Philistine cemetery was discovered near Ashkelon, containing more than 150 dead buried in oval-shaped graves. A 2019 genetic study found that, while all three Ashkelon populations derive most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool, the early Iron Age population was genetically distinct due to a European-related admixture …According to the authors, the admixture was likely due to a “gene flow from a European-related gene pool” during the Bronze to Iron Age transition…[9]  

The inscriptions at Medinet Habu consist of images depicting a coalition of Sea Peoples, among them the Peleset, who are said in the accompanying text to have been defeated by Ramesses III during his Year 8 campaign. In about 1175 BC, Egypt was threatened with a massive land and sea invasion by the “Sea Peoples,” a coalition of foreign enemies which included the Tjeker, the Shekelesh, the Deyen, the Weshesh, the Teresh, the Sherden, and the PRST. … A separate relief on one of the bases of the Osirid pillars with an accompanying hieroglyphic text clearly identifying the person depicted as a captive Peleset chief is of a bearded man without headdress.[49] This has led to the interpretation that Ramesses III defeated the Sea Peoples including Philistines and settled their captives in fortresses in southern Canaan; another related theory suggests that Philistines invaded and settled the coastal plain for themselves.[53] The soldiers were quite tall and clean shaven. They wore breastplates and short kilts, and their superior weapons included chariots drawn by two horses. They carried small shields and fought with straight swords and spears.[54]

The name “Goliath” is a real Philistine name.

(More on the Bronze Age Collapse: 1177 BC: the Year Civilization Collapsed.)

So there is a decent chance that the Goliath recorded in the Bible was, in fact, a real person.

However, Goliath’s great height may just be… an exaggeration. According to Wikipedia: 

Goliath’s height increased over time: the oldest manuscripts, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls text of Samuel from the late 1st century BCE, the 1st-century CE historian Josephus, and the major Septuagint manuscripts, all give it as “four cubits and a span” (6 feet 9 inches or 2.06 metres)…

It looks like Goliath was tall, but only basketball player tall, not Guinness Book of World Records tall.

Maximinus Thrax:

The shortest guy in the picture, “Maximinus Thrax,” was a real person and emperor of Rome from 235 – 238 AD. 8″6′ is at least within the range of heights humans can achieve, and he was, according to the accounts we have, very tall. Unfortunately, we don’t know how tall he was–the ancient accounts are considered unreliable, the Roman “foot” is not the same as the modern “foot,” and crucially, no one has dug up his skeleton and measured it.

So Maximinus was probably a tall guy, though not 8″6′ (that would require the Roman foot to equal our modern foot).

Og the Rephaim:

Og, King of the Bashan, is only known from the Bible, but might have been an actual king. We don’t have any chronicles from other countries that mention him (kings often show up in such chronicles because they make war, get defeated, send tribute, sign treaties, etc., but there is one Agag of the Amelekites who does have a similar name.

Interestingly, there is one Og attested in archaeology, found in a funerary inscription which appears to say that if the deceased is disturbed, “the mighty Og will avenge me.”

The Bible claims that Og’s bed was 13 feet long. Wikipedia offers us an alternative explanation for this mysterious bed: a megalithic tomb:

It is noteworthy that the region north of the river Jabbok, or Bashan, “the land of Rephaim”, contains hundreds of megalithic stone tombs (dolmen) dating from the 5th to 3rd millennia BC. In 1918, Gustav Dalman discovered in the neighborhood of Amman, Jordan (Amman is built on the ancient city of Rabbah of Ammon) a noteworthy dolmen which matched the approximate dimensions of Og’s bed as described in the Bible. Such ancient rock burials are seldom seen west of the Jordan river, and the only other concentration of these megaliths are to be found in the hills of Judah in the vicinity of Hebron, where the giant sons of Anak were said to have lived (Numbers 13:33).[2]

Og might have actually been a very tall person, though it is doubtful he was 13 feet tall. He might have been a fairly normal-sized person who had a very impressive megalithic tomb which came to be known as “Og’s Bed,” inspiring local legends. He also might not have existed at all. Until someone digs up Og’s body and measures it, we can’t say anything for sure.

French Giants

Interestingly, I found two French giants, though neither of them, as far as I know, near Valence.

geant_de_castelnau
Bones of the giant of Castelnau, plus a normal human humerus.

The Giant of Castlenau is known from three pieces of bone uncovered in 1890. If they are human, they are unusually large, but no research has been done on them since 1894 and even a crack team of Wikipedia editors has failed to uncover anything more recent on the subject.

I’d hold off judgment on these until someone within the past century actually seems them and confirms that they didn’t come from a cow.

Teutobochus, king of the Teutons, was a giant found in 1613, France. Unfortunately, he seems to have been a deinotherium–that is, an extinct variety of elephant.

This is the last of the reasonable skeletons. The rest exist only in graphics like the one at the top of the post and articles discussing them–in other words, there’s more evidence for Paul Bunyan.

So far I’ve found no sources on the 15 foot Turkish giant. Yes, lots of people claiming they exist, eg. No, not one photo of them.

Was a 19’6″ human skeleton found in 1577 A.D. under an overturned oak tree in the Canton of Lucerne? There are no records of it.

Any 23 foot tall skeletons near an unidentified river in Valence, France? Can’t find any.

And what about the 36 foot tall Carthaginian skeletons?

apatosaurus-size
Apatosaurus dimensions

Giraffes, currently the tallest animals on earth, only reach 19 feet. T-rex was 12-20 feet tall. Even the famous Apatosaurus was a mere 30 feet tall (though we don’t know how high he could swing his head).

If you’re talking about humans who were bigger than an Apatosaurus, you’re really going to have to pause and take a biology check–and also check to make sure you aren’t holding an Apatosaurus femur.

Humans could be bigger (or smaller) than they currently are, just as dinosaurs came in many different sizes (some, like hummingbirds, are quite small), but different sizes require different anatomy. That’s why people with giganticism have heart trouble and tall people die younger: we aren’t built for it. Humans aren’t designed to handle Apatosaurus-level weights; our hearts aren’t designed to pump blood that far. A 36 foot tall human couldn’t be a single individual with giganticism, nor even a whole family or tribe of unusually tall people–they’d have to have evolved that way over millions of years. They’d be their own species, and we’d have actual evidence that their bones exist.

Incidentally, most of the sources I found discussing these skeletons, including ones using the graphic above, claim that evidence of these giants is being actively hidden or suppressed or destroyed by The Smithsonian, National Geographic, etc., because they would somehow disprove evolution by showing that humans have gotten shorter instead of taller.

This is absurd. Gigantopithecus is taller than any living ape (including humans) but he doesn’t disprove evolution. He doesn’t even disprove orangutans. A giant human skeleton would simply show that there was once a giant human–not that humans didn’t evolve.

Humans can evolve to be shorter–it has happened numerous times. Pygmies are living human people who are much shorter than average–adult male Pygmies average only 5 feet, one inch tall. Pygmoid peoples are just a little taller, and found in many parts of the world.

Even shorter, though, were Homo floresiensis and Homo luzonensis. The remains we have so far uncovered of H. floresiensis stood a mere 3 feet, 7 inches, and luzonensis was similarly petite. Both of these hominins descended from much taller ancestors.

Evolutionists don’t need to hide the existence of giant skeletons because evolution can’t be disproven by the existence of a tall (or short) skeleton. That’s just not how it works. The Smithsonian would love to display giant skeletons–if it had any. National Geographic would love to run articles on them. They’d make money like hotcakes on such sensational relics.

The problem is that no one can actually find any of these skeletons.

 

The Urge

migration-probability-by-age-for-men-and-women

Man in his natural state, upon reaching adulthood, is struck with the urge: the urge to travel, to struggle, to conquer, and ultimately triumph (or die trying).

Migration is a goal of the young.

To be young is to struggle: against nature, against society, against himself, against the elements, against hunger, against failure.

800px-dispersal_diagram
By Snowy plover girl at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

To throw himself against the mountains, against the storms. To track and kill his own food. To survive against bears, monsters, enemies. To forge a path in the wilderness, chop down trees, build his own home.

Lion, wolf, or elephant, the young male is unlikely to stay in the pack of his birth. He must leave his mother’s side and forage in the wilderness until he has the strength to lead the pack or found his own.

Biological dispersal:

Some organisms are motile throughout their lives, but others are adapted to move or be moved at precise, limited phases of their life cycles. This is commonly called the dispersive phase of the life cycle. The strategies of organisms’ entire life cycles often are predicated on the nature and circumstances of their dispersive phases. …

Due to population density, dispersal may relieve pressure for resources in an ecosystem, and competition for these resources may be a selection factor for dispersal mechanisms.[14]

Dispersal of organisms is a critical process for understanding both geographic isolation in evolution through gene flow and the broad patterns of current geographic distributions (biogeography).

A distinction is often made between natal dispersal where an individual (often a juvenile) moves away from the place it was born, and breeding dispersal where an individual (often an adult) moves away from one breeding location to breed elsewhere.[1]

Modern man, in modern cities, is deprived of struggle. The land is already cleared. The houses are already built. The food arrives pre-killed in the grocery store. The map has already been drawn and your GPS tells you where to go.

We have made ourselves a paradise and find it wanting.

Like a rooster told not to crow, modern man flings himself at a structure with nothing but ersatz struggles: video games, online flame wars, antifa larping. We turn to empty screeching to make ourselves feel like we’re doing something good.

But for those who have just arrived, getting to the city alone is a success.

Review: Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

51uvfeh9d2lI read an interview once in which Napoleon Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo thought of him–why did they think he had come to live with them?

“To learn how to be human,” he replied.

I didn’t read Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die because I have any hope of helping the Yolngu people, (I don’t live in Australia, for starters) but in hopes of learning something universal. People like to play the blame game–it’s all whites’ fault, it’s all Aborigines’ fault–but there are broken communities and dying people everywhere, and understanding one community may give us insight into the others.

For example, US life expectancy has been declining:

A baby born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, which is down from 78.7 the year before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The last three years represent the longest consecutive decline in the American lifespan at birth since the period between 1915 and 1918, which included World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, events that killed many millions worldwide.

Declining? In the developed world?

While there’s no single cause for the decline in the U.S., a report by the CDC highlights three factors contributing to the decline:

Drug overdoses…

Liver disease…

Suicide…

Not to mention heart disease, stroke, and all of the usual suspects.

Most causes of death can be divided roughly into the diseases of poverty (infection, malnutrition, parasites, etc,) and the diseases of abundance (heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, etc). In developing countries, people tend to die of the former; in developed countries, the latter. There are a few exceptions–Costa Ricans enjoy good health because they have beaten back the diseases of poverty without becoming rich enough to die of obesity; Japan enjoys high standards of living, but has retained enough of its traditional eating habits to also not develop too many modern diseases (so far). 

The poor of many developed countries, however, often don’t get to enjoy much of the wealth, but still get hammered with the diseases. This is true in Australia and the US, and is the cause of much consternation–the average Aborigine or poor white would probably be healthier if they moved to poor country like Costa Rica and ate like the locals.

When Trudgen first moved to Arnhem Land (the traditional Yolngu area) in the 70s, the situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. People were going to school, graduating, and getting jobs. Communities had elders and hope for the future.

He left for eight years, then returned in the 80s to find a community that had been destroyed, with skyrocketing unemployment, hopelessness, drug use, disease, and death:

So my return to work with the Yolngu after eight years away was marked by the stark reality of what had become “normal” life in Arnhem Land. The people were dying at a horrific rate, more than five times the national average. And they were dying of disease that they had not seen before, disease that were considered to be those of affluent society: heart attack, strokes, diabetes, cancer.

What went wrong?

Trudgen points out that the variety of normal explanations offered for the abysmal state of Aboriginal communities in the 80s don’t make sense in light of their relatively good condition a mere decade before. People didn’t suddenly get dumb, lazy, or violent. Rather:

… I discovered that the communities in Arnhem Land had changed. The people’s freedom to direct their own lives had been almost completely eroded.

How do people end up out of control of their own lives? The author discusses several things affecting the Yolngu in particular.

The biggest of these is language–English is not their first language, and for some not even their 4th or 5th. (According to Wikipedia, even today, most Yolngu do not speak English as their first language.) Trudgen explains that since Yolngu is a small, obscure language, at least as of when he was writing, no English-to-Yolngu dictionaries existed to help speakers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words like “tumor” or “mortgage.” (And this was before the widespread adoption of the internet.)

Imagine trying to conduct your affairs when every interaction with someone more powerful than yourself, from the bureaucrats at the DMV to the doctors at the hospital, was conducted in a language you didn’t speak very well, without the benefit of a dictionary or a translator. Trudgen writes that the Aborigines would actually like to learn how to protect their health, avoid dying from cancer and heart disease, etc, but the information on how to do these things doesn’t exist in their language. (He reminds us that it took a couple hundred years for the knowledge of things like “germs” to travel from scientists to regular people in our culture, and we all speak the same language.)

Both in Arnhem Land and without, people often overestimate how much other people know. For example, in a case Trudgen facilitated as a translator, a doctor thought his patient understood his explanation that due to diabetes, only 2% of his kidneys were functioning, but the patient didn’t actually understand enough English to make sense of the diagnosis–not to mention, as the author points out, that Yolngu culture doesn’t have the concept of “percents.” After translation, the man (who’d been seeing doctors for his kidneys for years without understanding what they were saying) finally understood and started treating his problems.

Those of us outside of Yolngu Land don’t have quite this level of difficulty interacting with medical professionals, but language still influences our lives in many ways. We have high and low class accents and dialects, not to mention an absurd quantity of verbal signaling and flexing, like sharing one’s pronouns in a presidential debate.

People everywhere also suffer from the condition of knowing a lot less than others assume they know. Every survey of common knowledge shocks us, yet again, with how dumb the common man is–and then we forget that we have ever seen such a survey and are equally shocked all over again when the next one comes out. (I think about this a lot while teaching.)

I think most people tend to remember information if they either use it regularly (like the code I use for formatting these posts) or if it’s valued/used in their culture (I know about the Kardashians despite never having tried to learn about them simply because people talk about them all of the time). If people talked about quantum physics the way we talk about superheroes, a lot more people would have posters of Niels Bohr.

For the Yolngu, there’s a problem that a lot of information simply isn’t available in their language. They were literally stone-age hunter-gatherers less than a century ago and are trying to catch up on a couple thousand years of learning. For us, the difficulty is more of access–I have a couple of relatives who are doctors, so if someone in my family gets sick, I call a relative first for advice before heading to the more expensive options. But if you don’t have any doctors among your friends/family, then you don’t have this option.

There are probably a lot of cases where people are stymied because they don’t know how to even begin to solve their problems.

Trudgen wants to solve this problem by having much more extensive language training for everyone in the area, white and Yolngu, and also by extending educational programs to the adults, so that the entire culture can be infused with knowledge.

After language difficulties, the other biggest impediment to living the good life, in Trudgen’s view, is… the welfare state:

Welfare and the dependency it creates is the worst form of violence. It has created a living hell.

Before the arrival of the white people, he notes, Aborigines survived perfectly fine on their own. The locals fished, hunted, gathered, and probably did some yam-based horticulture. They farmed pearls and traded them with Macassans from modern-day Indonesia for rice, and traded with tribes in the interior of Australia for other products. They even had their own legal system, similar to many of the others we have read about. Their lives were simple, yes. Their huts were not very tall, and they certainly didn’t have cellphones or penicillin, but they ran their own lives and those who made it out of infancy survived just fine.

Today, their lives are dominated at every turn by government institutions, welfare included. Children were once educated by their parents and the tribe at large. Now they are educated by white teachers at government run schools. People used to hunt and gather their own food, now they buy food at the supermarket with their welfare cheques. A man once built his own house; now such a house would be demolished because it doesn’t meet the building code requirements. Even Aborigine men trained as skilled housebuilders have been replaced by white builders, because the state decided that it needed to build houses faster.

Every program designed to “help” the Yolngu risks taking away yet one more piece of their sovereignty and ability to run their own lives. Trudgen complains of plans to build preschools in the area–to quote roughly, “they say the schools will be staffed with local Yolngu, but Yolngu don’t have the right credentials to qualify for such jobs. In a few years, Yolngu mothers will have even been pushed out of the role of caring for their own little children. What purpose will they have left in life?”

I just checked, and 88% of indigenous Australian children are now enrolled in preschool.

Or as the author puts it:

In fact, every attempt to solve the [malnutrition] problem with outside ideas has sent the malnutrition rates higher. Welfare-type programs simply send the people into greater depths of dependency, which increases feelings of confusion and hopelessness. Old people as well as children are not being cared for.

During 1999 the children received a free breakfast at the school and some people were talking about giving them free lunches as well. So now the government feeds the people’s children, as well as build their houses and provides all levels of welfare for them. What is there left for them to do but go ff and drink kava or gamble?

And ultimately:

… where the people have lost control, the men are dead or dying.

Incidentally, here is an article on loneliness in American suburbia.

Everything here is compounded by the habit of modern governments to make everything illegal; complicated; or require three permits, two environmental impact studies, and 17 licenses before you can break ground. As Joel Salatin pens, “Everything I want to do is Illegal.”

Aborigines used to build their own houses, and whether they were good or not, they lived in them. (In fact, all groups of people are competent at building their own shelters.)

Then government came and declared that these houses were no good, they weren’t up to code, and the Aborigines had to be trained to build houses the white way. So the Aborigines learned, and began building “modern” houses.

Whether they were good at it or not, they had jobs and people had houses.

Then the government decided that the Aborigine builders weren’t building houses fast enough, so they brought in the army and threw up a bunch of pre-fab houses.

Now the taxpayers pay for whites to go to Yolngu land and build houses for the Aborigines. The aborigines who used to build the houses are out of a job and on welfare, while the money for the houses goes into the pockets of outsiders.

Yes, the houses get built faster, but it’s hard to say that this is “better” than just letting the locals build their own houses.

The same process has happened in other industries. Even trash collection in Yolngu areas is now done by newcomers. At every turn, it seems, the Yolngu are either pushed out of jobs because they weren’t as fast or efficient or had the right certificates and credentials, or because they just didn’t speak enough English.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, Harlem

The story of the fishing industry was also and adventure in bad decision-making.

Originally, simplifying a bit for the sake of time, each fisherman (or perhaps a small group of fishermen) had his own boat, and caught as many fish as he wanted and sold the rest to a fishing organization run by the local mission. This was clear and straightforward: men owned their own catches and could do what they wanted with them. The area was a net exporter of fish and the locals made a decent living.

Then the government decided the mission system was no good, and turned everything over to “communal councils.” This was a great big mess.

Trudgen points out that the councils aren’t consistent with existing Yolngu laws/governing norms. They already had elders and governing bodies which the government didn’t recognize, so the government effectively created an illegitimate government and set it in conflict with the existing one, in the name of democracy, with shades of every failed attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country.

The councils didn’t work because 1. they didn’t have real authority, and 2. communism always fails.

In this case, the council decided to get a loan to “develop” the fishing industry, but before they could get a loan, the bank sent out an efficiency expert who looked at all of the little boats and declared that it would be much more efficient if they just used one big boat.

So the council bought a big boat and burned the little boats in the middle of the night so no one could use them anymore.

Now “ownership” of the boat was all confused. Men were not clearly working to catch their own fish on their own boat, they were part of a big crew on a big boat with a boss. The boss had to be someone with the correct licenses and whatnot to be allowed to run a big boat, and of course he had to pay his employees, which probably gets you into Australian tax law, liability law, insurance law, etc. In short, the boss wasn’t a local Yolngu because the Yolngu didn’t have the right credentials to run the boat, so the fishermen now had to work for an outsider, and it was no longer clear which part of their catch was “theirs” and which part was the boss’s.

The fishing industry quickly fell apart and the area became a net importer of fish.

These councils set up by the government to run local affairs failed repeatedly, much to the distress of the locals–but Trudgen notes that collectivism didn’t work for the USSR, either.

One constant impression I got from the book is that multiculturalism is hard. Even without language issues, people from different cultures have different ideas about what it means to be respectful, polite, honest, or timely. Different ideas about what causes disease, or whether Coca Cola ads are a trustworthy source of nutrition advice. (If they aren’t, then why does the government allow them to be on the air?) 

Which gets me to one of my recurrent themes, which Trudgen touches on: society lies. All the time. Those of us who know society lies and all of the rules and meta-rules surrounding the lying are reasonably well equipped to deal with it, but those of us who don’t know the rules usually get screwed by them.

As Wesley Yang puts it in The Souls of Yellow Folk:

“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

The idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking–where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense–is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice.

It’s not just Asians. Poor people, rural people, nerds, outsiders in general know only the explicitly taught rules, not the rules about breaking rules–and suffer for it.

And I think society lies in part because it serves the powerful. People lie about their age, their looks, their intelligence, how they got ahead and how they think you should apply for a job. Coca Cola lies about the healthiness of its product because it wants to sell more Coke, and the Aborigines believe it because they have very little experience with foods that taste good but aren’t good for you. Out in nature, in the traditional Aboriginal diet, sweet foods like fruits and berries were always good for you.

And these little lies are usually portrayed as “in your best interest,” but I’m far from convinced that they are.

People have been talking about UBI lately, at least the Yang Gang types. And I like Yang, at least as presidential candidates go. But we should be careful about whether more welfare is really the panacea we think it is.

The Yolngu have welfare already, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. At least, it doesn’t seem to make them happy. My conclusion from reading the book obviously isn’t that the Yolngu need more welfare or more programs. It’s that they need control over their own lives and communities. For that, they need something like Amish–a system of internal organization sufficient to feed themselves, deal with the outside world, and get it to back off.

Of course, I don’t know if that would actually work for the Yolngu in particular, but the Amish seem a reasonable model for solving many of modernity’s current problems.

A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

An Historian of Science Discovers the “Light Switch”

Historian and philosopher Emma Houston interrogates the science of electricity and light bulbs

The light switch was at the center of Houston’s first big foray into the history of electricity and lights. The story told in introductory electrical engineering textbooks is relatively simple: flipping the switch up turns the lights “on”; flipping the switch down turns the lights “off.” Whether a switch is in the on or off position has for for decades been seen as an expression of a light bulb’s “true” state or of “light itself.” It is the job of a science historian to discover where these stories come from, and why.

Houston’s doctoral dissertation, published in 2004 as Light Itself: The Search for On and Off in the Electric Circuit does just this, tracing the history of the idea that electromagnetic radiation is turned “on” and “off” by switches found on the wall. Early in the twentieth century, she shows, it was controversial to refer to “light switches” because sometimes electricians accidentally wired around them when installing lights.

But the fact that switches are visible, (unlike electricity) made them useful for enough to two groups of engineers–those building electrical circuits, and those working to untangle the role of electricity in light generation–that the association between switches and light solidified for decades.

Associating “light” with the “light switch,” writes Richardson, has serious consequences, as when engineers tried to develop a “super flashlight” that used two light switches and multiple batteries.

The “super flashlight” was finally abandoned in the development stage when engineers decided it was simpler to use bigger batteries, but in Light Itself, Houston argues that it made the light switch the star of electrical engineering in a way that still reverberates. She points to engineers like Professor Book, whose research focused for decades on using light switches to design home lighting plans. Such a focus was not inevitable, Houston argues: from the 1920s through the 50s, based on evidence in lasers, researchers saw buttons as drivers of light output.

It turns out that “light switches” do not actually cause bulbs to emit electromagnetic radiation. Engineers now understand that light, produced by incandescent bulbs as well as LEDs and compact fluorescents, is the result of numerous interconnected capacitors, resistors, power sources, and wire circuits that all work together. So called “light switches” do not cause light at all–they merely open and close light circuits, allowing electricity to flow (or not) to the bulbs.

But in an interview, Professor Book disagrees with Houston’s account. In Houston’s history, the super flashlight looms large in later researchers’ decision to focus on the switch, but Professor Book responds that research on the super flashlight “did not interest me, it did not impress me, it did not look like the the foundations of a path forward.” Building circuits around the light switch, he says, was not inspired by the popular image of a super bright flashlight with two switches, but “was simply the easiest way to design practical lighting for people’s houses” and that “flipping the switch does actually turn the lights on and off.”

Houston responds that of course we can’t expect actual engineers to know what inspired them or their fields, which is why we need science historians like herself to suss out what was really motivating them.

Author’s note: Professor Houston has degrees in philosophy and literature, but oddly, none in engineering or physics.

This parody is thanks to Harvard Magazine’s The Science of Sex: Historian and Philosopher Sarah Richardson Interrogates the Science of Sex and Gender.

 

 

 

 

Legal Conclusions

I was going to write another post about Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, but it turns out that about half the book is bibliography and endnotes. There are several chapters of conclusion, but not much new worth highlighting.

The authors’ main point, I suppose, is that there are many different but still functional  legal systems; I have a slightly different theory, that legal systems, whatever their form, adjust to the needs and characters of the people using them. Of course, I also suspect that legal systems often “work” because people route around them.

This is an interesting thread on how the US legal system treats people merely accused of crimes, many of whom are, of course, innocent:

RTWT.

Responding to crime requires balancing between punishments harsh enough to deter serious crime, and soft enough to make people willing to report crimes.

There are a variety of disputes that break out between people that need solving but don’t rise to the level of wanting the other guy in prison–take many disputes between relatives.

There are also crimes that people don’t think the police prosecute adequately, and so have taken to prosecuting by other means–take college rape tribunals.

Beyond just “there are many valid legal systems,” I think the authors of LSVDFO would also like to propose that we can have effective legal systems that aren’t run by the state–and that perhaps such systems could be more effective than our current one.

Opinions?

And since LSVDFO is over, what would you like to read next?

The Autism Matrix

Just a thought this morning, but I think the “autism spectrum” would be better characterized as a “matrix” with intelligence running along one axis and impairment on the other.

We can divide this into four useful quadrants, representing high IQ & high impairment, high IQ & low impairment, low IQ & high impairment, and low IQ and low impairment.

Of course these are not entirely unrelated measures–the impairment that causes autism can also cause low IQ, but it makes a functional distinction because different quadrants suffer different challenges and limitations.

The traditional distinction was between “autism” and “asperger’s,” with asperger’s generally reserved for the smarter, higher functioning kids. Asperger’s has been dropped as a diagnosis due to this distinction being not the most useful–there are high-functioning dumb kids with autism and low-functioning smart kids. (And adults.)

Just a little thought.

The Dangers of Being Kind

I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.

The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.

Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:

  1. People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
  2. People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
  3. Criminal psychopaths

Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.

Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.

But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.

Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.

My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.

This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)

This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.

The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.

This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”

Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.

The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.

Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.

I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.

To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.

Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.

If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.

There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.

Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.

I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.

Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?

In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.

If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.

Athenian Law: Not actually so crazy

Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. Sorry for the slight delay; we’ve been recovering from Halloween. Today we’ll be discussing Athenian law.

Athens is famous for being the inspirational democracy, though the extent to which it was actually a democracy is a tad overstated by modern standards–we’re not sure exactly how many people lived in ancient Athens, but the majority of them, probably a supermajority, could not vote. Only male citizens could vote; the population also contained, (aside from women) a large number of “resident aliens” who were free, but not citizens, and plenty of slaves.

Only the child of two current citizens was a citizen, and it was rare for foreigners to be awarded citizenship. Men often had one regular wife, who was a citizen and whose children would therefore enjoy the rights of citizenship, and a concubine or two who were aliens or slaves and whose children, likewise, would be aliens or slaves.

The obvious issue with this system is that the non-citizen population is likely to grow faster than the citizen population, but citizenship carries with it too many benefits to be given away lightly.

The less obvious issue is that people often fell in love with people from other social castes and wanted them for primary spouses, not secondary spouses. This theme shows up a lot in Greek plays, in which star-crossed lovers from across social castes face doom until, at the climax, it’s revealed that there was a mix-up at one of their births and the beloved is actually an Athenian citizen and the marriage can go forward. (Or at least this is a major plot point in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an American play of the 1960s.)

The benefits of being a male Athenian citizen included the right to marry another Athenian citizen, vote in the assembly (Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative one,) serve on a jury, (juries were huge, often 200 to 500 people,) serve as a magistrate, be a paid arbiter, and own property.

Resident aliens (called “metics”) were not slaves, but generally couldn’t participate in the government or own land They could prosecute some legal cases and had to have a citizen “sponsor.” Exceptions existed.

Slaves were, well, slaves. Slavery sucked.

Debt slavery was abolished as part of the reforms of Solon about two hundred years before the start of the period being discussed, so most slaves were either prisoners taken in war or the descendants of such. … A slave’s owner could sue to collect damages for an injury to his slave and could be sued for damages done by his slave. He was not free to kill his slave but was free to beat him.

One wonders who would bother to prosecute the case of a slave who died under mysterious circumstances whose owner claims he didn’t kill him.

Slaves worked the typical gamut of jobs, from servant to farm laborers to silver miners.

It occurs to me that we tend to read about ancient Athens through people who generally held it in high regard; we don’t have many of the original legal documents from the Athenian legal system (we have, however, various speeches that people gave arguing their court cases, which often contained descriptions of relevant laws,) or much in the way of records made by Athenian non-citizens; I can’t recall even having read anything written by a Spartan, who might offer a countering opinion on the quality of Athenian government. Imagine if we were in a similar position with respect to the US–the US fell, most of our texts were destroyed, a Dark Age ensued, and a thousand years later, people began digging up American artifacts and decided the US must have been a pretty happening place; people began learning Ancient English and reading American novels and philosophers in school. Now another thousand years pass, and you’re trying to piece together the American legal system from old Perry Mason episodes and a thousand years of scholarship… and we would have about the situation we now have with ancient Athens.

[This ends our customary disclaimer about the difficulties of understanding a two thousand+ year old legal system with very few surviving primary source documents.]

Jury trials must have taken up a lot of Athenian time:

Each year, 6,000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. … If we accept an estimate of 30,000 for the total number of adult male citizens, at any one time about a fifth of them were on the jury panel.

These cases had between 200-500 jurors each; Athenians must have loved trials (which is probably why they went to the effort of getting professional speech writers to compose their legal orations, some of which were popular enough to be preserved down to the present day).

Interestingly:

Witnesses gave their testimony in writing in advance; during the trial, their only contribution was to confirm that it was indeed theirs.

This implies that a lot of people were literate–or else there were scribes for the purpose. Either way, Athenian society clearly was pretty literate, which always prompts the question: why? We can’t credit the state of things at this point for having created themselves, so what did cause the flourishing of Athenian learning and culture?

The testimony of slaves, however, sounds pretty awful:

The evidence of slaves was admissible only if given under torture and only if the owner permitted it.

The Athenians had public and private cases; any male citizen could prosecute a private case, and for many cases the prosecutor received a large fraction of the resulting fine, providing an incentive for ordinary citizens to take on cases–but to protect against malicious prosecution, if a fifth of jurors failed to vote for him, he could be fined and barred from bringing future suits.

We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple solution. The accuser was allowed to sear the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.

The Athenians believed in a kind of contagious ritual pollution called miasma. The threat of contagion meant that murderers had to be exiled or kept out of the courts and temples:

In one case we know of, a defendant charged with murder claimed that the only reason for the charge was to keep him from showing up in another court to prosecute a different case.

Belief in miasma also resulted in the objects used in murders being ritually exiled.

So I tried to look up “The State of California vs 88 Ford Truck” and failed, but I did find the excitingly titled United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls:

United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, 413 F. Supp. 1281 (D. Wisc. 1976), is a 1976 United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin decision regarding a requested order from the United States government to seize and destroy a shipment of approximately 50,000 sets of clacker balls under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act because children could hit themselves with the balls.[1][2]

The form of the styling of this case — the defendant being an object, rather than a legal person — is because this is a jurisdiction in rem (power over objects) case, rather than the more familiar in personam (over persons) case.

So they destroyed the clacker balls because children could hit themselves with them.

There are then some rules of family life/inheritance which are pretty standard fare. Adoption was legal, but like becoming a citizen, seems a bit onerous. Only males could inherit property, but were required to support the surviving womenfolk of the family.

If a man died with a daughter but no male descendants she would be required to marry the nearest male relative, outside of the narrow limits of the incest rules, who would have her.

Okay, that seems kind of bad for the children, but not too awful…

If already married she was required to divorce her husband.

What? This makes marrying a gal who has no brothers an awfully bad deal!

Finally, the authors examine the production of “public goods”, which were simply assigned every so often to local rich people:

If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obliged to produce a public good. The relevant magistrate would tell you which one.

It seems like a system that, despite its obvious flaws, worked pretty well so long as the population of Athens stayed small enough.

What did you think? Thankfully ancient Greece is a very well-studied place, so hopefully some of you are experts on the era and have some great insights to share.

Take care and enjoy the weekend.