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.


Adoption pt 4: Noble/Kin Fosterage and Ancient Rome

The nobility of ancient Rome came up with a creative solution to the difficulties of making sure everyone had a male heir (who made it to adulthood) without ending up with a bunch of excess heirs who would inconveniently divide up the inheritance: adoption–or to be clear, noble fosterage. A family with two males would send its extra to a noble family that had none, (perhaps in exchange for a wife for the other son.) This ensured that every family had an heir and cemented ties between the families.

The Roman emperors also made a habit of adopting their chosen successors–other adults. Julius Caesar, for example, adopted his great-nephew Augustus, who succeeded him as emperor. (Well, after that business with the triumvirate and the civil war and all.) Technically, you could be adopted in ancient Rome by someone younger than yourself, though this did not happen very often.

Wikipedia gives some technical details:

In Roman law, the power to give children in adoption was one of the recognised powers of the paterfamilias. The adopted boy would usually be the oldest, the one with proven health and abilities. Adoption was an expensive agreement for the childless family and quality had to be ensured. Adoption was agreed between families by the mother giving the boy they wanted to adopt (for the most part) equal status, often political allies and/or with blood connections. A plebeian adopted by a patrician would become a patrician, and vice versa; however, at least in Republican times, this required the consent of the Senate (famously in the case of Publius Clodius Pulcher[1]).

A sum of money was exchanged between the parties and the boy assumed the adoptive father’s name and a cognomen that indicated his original family (see Roman naming convention). Adoption was neither secretive nor considered to be shameful; the adopted boy was not even expected to cut ties to his original family. Like a marriage contract, adoption was a way to reinforce interfamily ties and political alliances. The adopted child was often in a privileged situation, enjoying both original and adoptive family connections. Almost every politically famous Roman family used it.

As we discussed yesterday, a different system of fosterage existed in Scotland and Ireland:

In A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), Samuel Johnson writes:

There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away, the custom of fosterage. A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very reasonably thought. …

Children continue with the fosterer perhaps six years, and cannot, where this is the practice, be considered as burdensome. The fosterer, if he gives four cows, receives likewise four, and has, while the child continues with him, grass for eight without rent, with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he pays only four cows when he dismisses his Dalt, for that is the name for a foster child.

Fosterage is, I believe, sometimes performed upon more liberal terms. Our friend, the young Laird of Col, was fostered by Macsweyn of Grissipol. Macsweyn then lived a tenant to Sir James Macdonald in the Isle of Sky; and therefore Col, whether he sent him cattle or not, could grant him no land. The Dalt, however, at his return, brought back a considerable number of Macalive cattle, and of the friendship so formed there have been good effects. When Macdonald raised his rents, Macsweyn was, like other tenants, discontented, and, resigning his farm, removed from Sky to Col, and was established at Grissipol.

The fostered Gael who comes immediately to mind is Cuchulainn. I was going to quote from the Tain Bo Cualnge, (pronounced “cooley;” Irish spelling is weird if you’re not used to it,) but the language in the translation is archaic so I’m gong to summarize.

Once upon a time, when Cuchulainn (who was semi-divine but being raised by his human mother,) was five years old, he decided he wanted to go play with some other boys he’d heard of who were under the care of his uncle. His mother told him he was too little to go, but he decided to go anyway.

When Cuchulainn arrived, he didn’t know that he was supposed to ask for permission (protection) before joining the other boys, so they all ran up and stated beating him up.

Five year old Chuchulainn responded in a way that must have scared the crap out of the bigge kids:

Thereupon contortions took hold of him. Thou wouldst have weened it was a hammering wherewith each hair was hammered into his head, with such an uprising it rose. Thou wouldst have weened it was a spark of fire that was on every single hair there. He closed one of his eyes so that it was no wider than the eye of a needle. He opened the other wide so that it was as big as the mouth of a mead-cup. He stretched his mouth from his jaw-bones to his ears; he opened his mouth wide to his jaw so that his gullet was seen. The champion’s light rose up from his crown.

Eventually the adults step in and stop Cuchulainn from beating up all the other kids, and inform him that he has to get their “protection” before entering the play field to prevent them from beating him up. Cuchulainn asks for protection and gets it, and the kids start playing with each other–at which point he starts beating them up again, because they don’t have protection from him. The adults intervene again and all of the kids ask for protection from this five year old.

The grown ups, of course, are impressed:

“A youngster did that deed,” Fergus continued, “at the dose of five years after his birth, when he overthrew the sons of champions and warriors at the very door of their liss and dûn. No need is there of wonder or surprise, if he should do great deeds, if he should come to the confines of the land, if he should cut off the four-pronged fork, if he should slay one man or two men or three men or four men, when there are seventeen full years of him now on the Cattle-lifting of Cualnge.”

“In sooth, then, we know that youth,” spoke out Conall Cernach (‘the Victorious’), “and it is all the better we should know him, for he is a fosterling of our own.”

150px-Harry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_StoneThe English have their own version of this fostering tradition, called boarding school. Quidditch may be less violent than hurley, but I don’t know about rugby.

As I have noted before, leaving children with their kin, temporarily or for extended periods, is quite normal in many societies. There’s a definite logic to this–older grandparents can look after little ones while young, strong parents work in the fields or travel to distant villages in search of better jobs. When the parents become grandparents, then it becomes their turn to look after the children.

Mainstream US culture, by contrast, emphasizes the primacy of the nuclear family, with the relationship between two parents and their children given prime importance. The “ideal” is typically given as two parents, one of whom (usually the mom) stays home full-time with the child/ren. If both parents must work, then in place of relatives, we have daycare workers and babysitters, with whom the child is not supposed to form a long-term bond. (I suspect this contradicts the child’s natural instinct to bond with caretakers.)

Without a nuclear family, we tend to assume that children will grow up, in some manner, defective.

Our particular form of adoption is born out of this belief in the importance of the nuclear family + our belief in blank slate-ist theories of identity and personality, which thus allow for the incorporation of total strangers into our family structures.

We also tend to assume that any mother who gives up her children will be deeply saddened by the broken bond–but cross-cultural and historical analysis suggests this is not necessarily true. Infanticide and child abandonment were far more common, historically, than we like to admit. But giving one’s children to a sibling or cousin to raise, in a situation where you could visit them often and no one assumed that full parental rights were being terminated, probably did not entail the kind of emotions as giving a child to a total stranger.

Tomorrow: The Curious Case of the Trans-racial Indians

Adoption pt. 3 Cross-cultural and historic context

Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: … And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive. …

And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.

And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.

Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?

And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the women took the child, and nursed it.

And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water. (Exodus 1-2)

Here I feel compelled to stop and note that what we call “adoption” in the US is a specific legal construct in which the biological parents lose all legal rights to the child (they may or may not be dead) and the adoptive parents gain 100% of legal rights. The adoptive parents are thereafter considered to be the child’s “true” parents, and even birth certificates are re-written with the adoptive parents’ names on them instead of the biological parents’.

This construct is only about 100 years old, and not common to all societies. According to Wikipedia:

… the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909,[33] where it was declared that the nuclear family represented “the highest and finest product of civilization” and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned.[34][35] … As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. …

England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. The Netherlands passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977.[49]

Prior to 1900, and in many cultures today, even kids who were “adopted” were (as far as I can tell,) still considered the children of their biological parents.

Adoption has taken many forms throughout history (and today), shaped by local family norms and traditions. Just off the top of my head, we have:

Kin adoption

Stranger adoption

Fosterage (half adoption)

Noble fosterage/kin fosterage

Elder care adoption

Forced adoption

Kin adoption is an obvious one: that’s taking in the children of your deceased relatives. Kin adoption has probably been with us for as long as there’ve been people–maybe longer–and is probably a human universal. It is obviously a genetically sound strategy. Your nephews and nieces and even cousins share more of your DNA than distant strangers, so ensuring that they survive helps put more of your DNA into the world.

Stranger adoption is the adoption of some totally unknown infant whose parents you’ve probably never met. That’s what Genghis Khan was up to, though technically, he might have met those kids’ parents for a few seconds before killing them. Stranger adoption is still uncommon in many societies, like China, Korea (hence the large numbers of Chinese and Korean babies available for foreigners to adopt,) and the Arab states.

The Justinian Code, issued between 529 and 534, distinguishes between kin and stranger adoption, clearly regarding kin adoption as superior:

…when a filius familias is given in adoption by his natural father to a stranger, the power of the natural father is not dissolved; no right passes to the adoptive father, nor is the adopted son in his power, although we allow such son the right of succession to his adoptive father dying intestate. But if a natural father should give his son in adoption, not to a stranger, but to the son’s maternal grandfather; or, supposing the natural father has been emancipated, if he gives the son in adoption to the son’s paternal grandfather, or to the son’s maternal great-grandfather, in this case, as the rights of nature and adoption concur in the same person, the power of the adoptive father, knit by natural ties and strengthened by the legal bond of adoption, is preserved undiminished, so that the adopted son is not only in the family, but in the power of his adoptive father. [bold mine.]

Fosterage, as I’m using it here, is any kind of semi-adoption where either the child’s ties to their birth family are not entirely severed, or the adoptive parents are not considered the child’s full parents. For example according to Wikipedia, adopted children in pre-modern Japan could inherit their parents’ aristocratic rank (if they had one,) but adopted children in pre-modern Britain could not. The Japanese therefore practiced full adoption while the British practiced fosterage. (See also Wuthering Heights, aka “an essay on the dangers of adopting Gypsy orphans.”) Historically, most “adoptions” were probably closer to fosterage.

Noble fosterage/kin fosterage are systems of shuffling children around between different parts of a family or allied families. For example, children might go live with an aunt for a year while their mother works in a distant village, or the child of a noble family might be raised by a different noble family to help cement an alliance between them. In these cases, the birth parents aren’t seen as “giving up” their children at all. Noble/Kin fosterage seems to have been common in ancient Rome, Ireland, and many African societies (and probably many others.) It is probably also related to the practice of having a child “adopted” by a tradesman to teach the trade, as detailed in the Code of Hammurabi, though we would today call this “apprenticeship.” (See Hammurabi discussed below.)

Fosterage in Ireland, from the Wikipedia:

In Gaelic Ireland a kind of fosterage was common, whereby (for a certain length of time) children would be left in the care of other fine members, namely their mother’s family, preferably her brother.[30] This may have been used to strengthen family ties or political bonds.[29] Foster parents were beholden to teach their foster children or to have them taught. Foster parents who had properly done their duties were entitled to be supported by their foster children in old age (if they were in need and had no children of their own).[30] As with divorce, Gaelic law again differed from most of Europe and from Church law in giving legal standing to both “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.[30]

Elder care adoption appears to be a system that older folks in some societies have used to ensue that there is someone younger around to care for them in their old age, if none of their biological children can be called upon (or they have none.) These systems don’t appear to involve the parents caring for the child, or necessarily any children at all–a 20 year old is a much better choice for someone to care for you as you age than a 5 yr old, after all. I don’t know much about this system, so I’ll have to add more details when I find them.

Forced adoption is just any adoption that happens to be forced by the state, eg, the removal of Native American children by the US gov’t, the removal of Polish children who looked too German by the Nazis, the removal of Aborigine children by the Australian gov’t, and many individual cases involving parents deemed incompetent to care for their children.

The Code of Hammurabi goes into some detail on various situations that might arise related to adoption:

185. If a man adopt a child and to his name as son, and rear him, this grown son can not be demanded back again.

186. If a man adopt a son, and if after he has taken him he injure his foster father and mother, then this adopted son shall return to his father’s house.

187. The son of a paramour in the palace service, or of a prostitute, can not be demanded back.

188. If an artizan has undertaken to rear a child and teaches him his craft, he can not be demanded back.

189. If he has not taught him his craft, this adopted son may return to his father’s house.

190. If a man does not maintain a child that he has adopted as a son and reared with his other children, then his adopted son may return to his father’s house.

191. If a man, who had adopted a son and reared him, founded a household, and had children, wish to put this adopted son out, then this son shall not simply go his way. His adoptive father shall give him of his wealth one-third of a child’s portion, and then he may go. He shall not give him of the field, garden, and house.

192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

193. If the son of a paramour or a prostitute desire his father’s house, and desert his adoptive father and adoptive mother, and goes to his father’s house, then shall his eye be put out.

Jeez! Hammurabi sure had something against adopted kids wanting to know who their biological parents were! (And people think closed adoptions are a pain.)

#191 reminds us that, in Hammurabi’s time, adoptive children were not seen as full children with the same rights as other children, but were seen as only 1/3 children–and unable to inherit certain classes of property.


The Decline of Religion part 4

Upon further reflection, I’ve decided that all of that other stuff (parts 1, 2, and 3) is probably small potatoes and the biggest, most important thing driving the surge in atheism is information technology/mass media bringing people into contact with millions of other people.

Since religious belief is probably driven by some kind of neural feedback loop that basically results in people doing whatever the majority of people around them are doing, if you live in a world where everyone you talk to is Catholic, you’ll probably be Catholic, but if you suddenly switch to a world where you are watching TV and movies and talking to people on FB and Twitter and whatnot and some of them are Catholic and some are Protestant and you can even follow the Dalai Lama’s FB feed, suddenly you aren’t surrounded by Catholics anymore. Now your feedback loops cannot pick out any dominant religion for you to follow, and without the belief-experience feedback loops going on, you start to feel nothing at all.

In other words, all of those crazy Christians who homeschool their kids and refuse to let them watch TV because they don’t want them exposed to the sinful, fallen world are actually correct. Being around godless atheists all day will turn their kids into godless atheists. Except their kids grow up and join the world anyway, so it’s not really a great strategy.

Anyway, back on track: Once upon a time (about 70 years ago,) most people (at home and abroad!) got the vast majority of their functional information about the world from their parents and other members of their immediate community. We call this vertical transmission. With most of the people in a community adhering to a single religion, people were religious.

Since then, the rise of mass media communication has massively increased the amount of information people get horizontally (or laterally.) This brings people into massive numbers of people not from their own communities–thus all meme-plexes that were passed vertically through communities are under intense, novel competition from horizontally passed meme-plexes.

So Ireland, once an overwhelmingly Catholic country that rejected divorce back in 1987, just legalized gay marriage. Why? Because atheism has suddenly completely triumphed in the past 30 years–probably because the Irish started interacting with a bunch of people who weren’t Catholic via the internet.

(Hilariously, though, “Closer to Dublin, British-ruled Northern Ireland has refused to join the rest of the United Kingdom in recognizing same-sex marriage. …the majority right-wing Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, to which he still belongs, voted down same-sex marriage in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the fourth time in three years.

Much of the opposition there is rooted in religious convictions, based in evangelical Protestantism. The Catholic nationalist Sinn Fein party supports gay marriage in Northern Ireland, but has not been able to overcome the opposition.”–from the NY Times.)

Note that this does not mean that the modern meme-plexes (ie, Progressivism,) that are succeeding at horizontal transmission are “better”, more moral, or in humanity’s or your personal self-interest. It means that this particular environment (mass media/information) favors meme-plexes that are optimized for horizontal transmission over meme-plexes that are optimized for vertical transmission, and religion happens to be (in most cases) optimized for vertical transmission.