Parsis, Travellers, and Human Niches

Irish Travellers, 1954


Why are there many kinds of plants and animals? Why doesn’t the best out-compete, eat, and destroy the others, rising to be the sole dominant species on Earth?

In ecology, a niche is an organism’s specific place within the environment. Some animals eat plants; some eat dung. Some live in the sea; others in trees. Different plants flower and grow in different seasons; some are pollinated by bees and some by flies. Every species has its specific niche.

The Competitive Exclusion Principle (aka Gause’s Law) states that ‘no two species can occupy the same niche’ (or positively, ‘two species coexisting must have different niches.’) For example, if squirrels and chipmunks both want to nest in the treetops and eat nuts, (and there are limited treetops and nuts,) then over time, whichever species is better at finding nuts and controlling the treetops will dominate the niche and the other, less successful species will have to find a new niche.

If squirrels are dominating the treetops and nuts, this leaves plenty of room for rabbits to eat grass and owls to eat squirrels.

II. So I was reading recently about the Parsis and the Travellers. The Parsis, as we discussed on Monday, are Zoroastrians, originally from Persia (modern-day Iran,) who settled in India about a thousand yeas ago. They’re often referred to as the “Jews of India” because they played a similar role in Indian society to that historically played by Jews in Europe.*

*Yes I know there are actual Jews in India.

The Travellers are an Irish group that’s functionally similar to Gypsies, but in fact genetically Irish:

In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are as distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians.[36]

It appears that Ireland did not have enough Gypsies of Indian extraction and so had to invent its own.

And though I originally thought that only in jest, why not? Gypsies occupy a particular niche, and if there are Gypsies around, I doubt anyone else is going to out-compete them for that niche. But if there aren’t any, then surely someone else could.

According to Wikipedia, the Travellers traditionally were tinkers, mended tinware (like pots) and acquiring dead/old horses for slaughter.

The Gypsies appear to have been originally itinerant musicians/entertainers, but have also worked as tinkers, smiths, peddlers, miners, and horse traders (today, car salesmen.)

These are not glorious jobs, but they are jobs, and peripatetic people have done them.

Jews (and Parsis, presumably) also filled a social niche, using their network of family/religious ties to other Jews throughout the diaspora as the basis of a high-trust business/trading network at a time when trade was difficult and routes were dangerous.

On the subject of “Madeburg rights” or law in Eastern Europe, Wikipedia notes:

In medieval Poland, Jews were invited along with German merchants to settle in cities as part of the royal city development policy.

Jews and Germans were sometimes competitors in those cities. Jews lived under privileges that they carefully negotiated with the king or emperor. They were not subject to city jurisdiction. These privileges guaranteed that they could maintain communal autonomy, live according to their laws, and be subjected directly to the royal jurisdiction in matters concerning Jews and Christians. One of the provisions granted to Jews was that a Jew could not be made Gewährsmann, that is, he could not be compelled to tell from whom he acquired any object which had been sold or pledged to him and which was found in his possession. Other provisions frequently mentioned were a permission to sell meat to Christians, or employ Christian servants.

External merchants coming into the city were not allowed to trade on their own, but instead forced to sell the goods they had brought into the city to local traders, if any wished to buy them.

Note that this situation is immensely better if you already know the guy you’re selling to inside the city and he’s not inclined to cheat you because you both come from the same small, tight-knit group.


Under Bolesław III (1102–1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant regime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border in Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev.[32] Bolesław III recognized the utility of Jews in the development of the commercial interests of his country. … Mieszko III employed Jews in his mint as engravers and technical supervisors, and the coins minted during that period even bear Hebraic markings.[30] … Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided; they formed the middle class in a country where the general population consisted of landlords (developing into szlachta, the unique Polish nobility) and peasants, and they were instrumental in promoting the commercial interests of the land.

If you need merchants and goldsmiths, someone will become merchants and goldsmiths. If it’s useful for those merchants and goldsmiths to all be part of one small, close-knit group, then a small, close-knit group is likely to step into that niche and out-compete anyone else trying to occupy it.

The similarity of the Parsis to the Jews probably has less to do with them both being monotheists (after all, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs are also monotheists,) and more to do with them both being small but widely-flung diasporic communities united by a common religion that allows them to use their group as a source of trustworthy business partners.

Over hundreds or thousands of years, humans might not just move into social niches, but actually become adapted to them–Jew and Parsis are both reported to be very smart, for example.

III. I can think of several other cases of ethnic groups moving into a particular niche. In the US, the gambling and bootleg alcohol trade were long dominated by ethnic Sicilians, while the crack and heroin trades have been dominated by black and Hispanic gangs.

Note that, while these activities are (often) illegal, they are still things that people want to do and the mafia/gangs are basically providing a goods/services to their customers. As they see it, they’re just businessmen. They’re out to make money, not commit random violence.

That said, these guys do commit lots of violence, including murder, blackmail and extortion. Even violent crime can be its own niche, if it pays well enough.

(Ironically, police crackdown on ethnic Sicilian control in NYC coincided with a massive increase in crime–did the mafia, by controlling a particular territory, keep out competing bands of criminals?)

On a more pleasant note, society is now rich enough that many people can make a living as professional sports stars, marry other professional sports stars, and have children who go on to also be professional sports stars. It’s not quite at the level of “a caste of professional athletes genetically optimized for particular sports,” but if this kept up for a few hundred years, it could be.

Similarly, over in Nepal, “Sherpa” isn’t just a job, it’s an ethnic group. Sherpas, due to their high elevation adaptation, have an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to scaling Mt. Everest, and I hear the global mountain-climbing industry pays them well for their services. A Sherpa who can successfully scale Mt. Everest many times, make lots of money, and raise lots of children in an otherwise impoverished nation is thus a successful Sherpa–and contributing to the group’s further genetic and cultural specialization in the “climbing Mt. Everest” niche.

India, of course, is the ultimate case of ethnic groups specializing into specific jobs–it’d be interesting to see what adaptations different groups have acquired over the years.

I also wonder if the caste system is an effective way to minimize competition between groups in a multi-ethnic society, or if it leads to more resentment and instability in the long run.


Cathedral Round-Up #14: The Business of being Harvard

Harvard has an endowment of $37.6 billion.

Yale’s is $25.6 billion.

Princeton’s is $22.7 billion.

Stanford’s is $22.2 billion.

For comparison, the GDP of the entire country of Serbia is about $37 billion per year, and the Apollo Space program spent only $2.18 billion (inflation adjusted) on the flight that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

How did these colleges get so rich? Mostly through investment. According to Wikipedia:

Harvard University‘s endowment (valued at $37.6 billion as of 2015)[1] is the largest academic endowment in the world.[2] Along with Harvard’s pension assets, working capital, and non-cash gifts, it is managed by Harvard Management Company, Inc. (HMC), a Harvard-owned investment management company.[3] …

HMC employs financial professionals to manage the approximately 12,000 funds that constitute the endowment. The company directly manages about one third of the total endowment portfolio while working closely with the external companies that manage the rest.[4]

Jack Meyer managed HMC from 1990 to September 30, 2005, beginning with an endowment worth $4.8 billion and ending with a value of $25.9 billion (including new contributions). During the last decade of his tenure, the endowment earned an annualized return of 15.9%.[5]

The university hired Mohamed El-Erian to succeed Meyer as HMC’s next president and CEO. … He announced his leaving September 12, 2007 to return to PIMCO after guiding the endowment to a one-year return of 23%.[7]

From the Atlantic
From the Atlantic, “Is Harvard so rich that it should be literally illegal?

But these colleges aren’t just rich. Harvard is a brand–a famous brand.

The big-name colleges are famous for their alumni, the wealthy people whose donations to their alma maters go back into their voluminous coffers, to be invested in the stock market and pay HMC’s multi-million dollar salaries:

  • Jane L. Mendillo, president and CEO: $9.6 million ($4.8 million)
  • Stephen Blyth, head of public markets: $11.5 million ($5.3 million)
  • Alvaro Aguirre-Simunovic, natural-resources portfolio manager: $9.6 million ($6.6 million)
  • Andrew G. Wiltshire, head of alternative assets: $8.5 million ($7.9 million)
  • Daniel Cummings, real-estate portfolio manager: $5.4 million ($4.2 million)
  • Marco Barrozo, fixed-income portfolio manager: $4.8 million

Numbers for fiscal year 2013; numbers in ( ) for 2012.

All this, and colleges are still taxed as non-profits.

Getting the right students, then, is critical. What interest has Harvard (or Stanford, Yale, or Princeton, for that matter) in accepting ordinary, hard-working Americans–even exceptionally intelligent ones–who will not become rich or famous? Harvard wants future Kennedies, Bushes, Obamas and Paulsons (John A. Paulson, founder of Paulson and Co., recently gave Harvard $400 million.) Best case scenario, their students absorb Harvard’s particular brand of secular Puritanism, furthering its spread. Worst case scenario, they get a Scalia, who doesn’t share their values but still increases the value of their brand.

(Okay, the actual worst-case scenario is a Nixon, who studied at podunk Whittier College, CA, and thus didn’t help their brand at all. I’m sure you’re all familiar with how the Cathedral treated Nixon.)

People discuss Affirmative Action as though universities had some sort of obligation to–or interest in–providing education for the good of the general populace. The point of the university, though, is to make money and promote the university’s brand. Low-class universities do this via sports, pumping billions into their football programs. High-class universities do this by attaching themselves to future leaders, like Harvard graduates Sebastian Pinera, President of Chile (2010,) Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, three Mexican presidents, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, Tanzanian PM Frederick Sumaye, etc. According to Foreign Policy Journal:

From 1945 through early 2010, 71 heads of state and government from 41 countries have attended, or earned degrees, or held a variety of special scholarships and fellowships at Harvard or Oxford. …

In the second half of the 20th century, Harvard educated more than 11 percent of the top national American political elite, compared to Yale’s less than seven percent.  One Harvard program alone, the Law School, produced 37 national leaders, in contrast with the 38 who graduated from all of Yale’s colleges combined (author and M. A. Simon The Social Science Journal, 2007).

and according to the Washington Times:

The University of Chicago trained the now-famous “Chicago Boys,” a group a Chilean economists who went on to greatly influence that country’s monetary policy. …

The State Department and private groups keep running lists of foreign dignitaries who studied at American schools of higher education, a list that includes a king in Jordan, a crown prince in Norway and a crown princess in Japan. In some countries, the links can be extensive. When Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who got a master’s degree at Missouri’s Webster University, convenes his Cabinet, the group includes alumni of the University of California, Berkeley (defense minister), American University (justice minister), the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (finance minister), UC-Davis (trade minister) and the University of Colorado School of Mines (energy minister). …

In the 2010-11 school year, the number of foreign students in U.S. schools shot up to 723,277, an increase of 5 percent from the previous year, Institute of International Education reported. It has increased each of the past five years, and has risen 32 percent over the past decade. …

Chinese students accounted for much of the recent growth, with the total number from the burgeoning Asian power increasing by 23 percent overall and by 43 percent at the undergraduate level.

In the 2010-11 school year, 157,558 Chinese were studying at American schools, far more than from the No. 2 country, India, which had 103,895. Other nations with rocky relationships with the U.S. — Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others — also have sent their young people to the U.S.

Even if the most powerful guy in Jordan or the Philippines is an idiot (and I’m not saying he is–I’m drawing countries out of a hat,) it’s still more in Harvard’s interest to say he went to Harvard than some random American of equal IQ. The same is true at home: it’s more important for the most powerful black guy in the country to have gone to Harvard than for the second-most powerful white guy. The big universities of course want smart people, but they want powerful people even more.

In 2015, seven students–Fernando Rojas, Munira Khalif, Stefan Stoykov, Victor Agbafe, Pooja Chandrashekar, Harold Ekeh, and Alexander Roman–got into all eight Ivy League colleges. These students have one thing in common: they’re all immigrants.

(Since the Daily Mail is written by idiots, the writer didn’t realize that MIT is actually more prestigious than most of the Ivies.)

Kwasi Enin, another immigrant, was accepted into all eight Ivies in 2014 with a 2250 on his SAT (you can also read his essay here,) which is equivalent to a 1490 on the old, 1600-max score SAT. For comparison’s sake, if I had scored a 1490 on my SAT, my parents would have demanded to know what went wrong during the test.

Kwasi has teemed up at Yale with Shaan Patel, another immigrant and member of one of India’s upper castes, to help highschool students do SAT prep/apply for college. (Step one: Don’t be an American.)

To be fair, the immigrants likely have one thing in their favor independent of Harvard’s preferences: many of them grew up in poorer neighborhoods, unable to buy their way into the “good” school districts, where it was easier to out-shine their less-intelligent peers. While Americans labor under the illusion that schools make a significant difference in how smart students are, immigrants tend to believe that your parents making you study makes you smart.

But keep in mind that every year, Harvard rejects students with perfect SAT. The chances of getting into all 8 Ivy League schools is astronomically low; the chances that all 8 students who did so happen to also be immigrants/the children of immigrants is even lower, unless the Ivies are specifically selecting for them–and many of these immigrants are then used to fill the universities’ Affirmative Action quotas, because it is easier to find high-scoring Nigerians, Kenyans and upper-caste Indians than high-scoring African Americans.

In short: Universities want Affirmative Action because it benefits their bottom lines.