The Mainline Paradox: Memetics and Liberal Christian Collapse

Warning: Just a theory

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”

Liberal Christian denominations (ie, Mainline Protestants) are caught in a paradox: even though they have increasingly defined themselves as open to everyone, their membership roles keep decreasing. It’s as if the more people they let in, the fewer people show up.

[insert Groucho Marx cartoon about not wanting to belong to the set of all clubs that would have him.]

Recent data from Minnesota highlights the precipitous decline:

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories.”

Note the timeframe: we’re not talking about change over the course of a century. The Presbyterian church of Minnesota has lost 42% of its members since 2000.

Meanwhile, membership is basically holding steady at conservative denominations that practically define themselves by whom they don’t let in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not hemorrhaging nearly as badly as their more welcoming brethren.

Among Mainline Protestants, the only denomination that’s basically holding steady is the American Baptist Church, which has gained black souls as it has lost white ones.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has more than doubled in size.

Interestingly, a conservative spin-off of the Presbyterian church is doing fine, and the notorious Southern Baptists are doing fine. [source for denomination data.]

The Amish, who are practically their own ethnic group due to only marrying other Amish, have been nearly doubling their population every 20 years, and that’s even with a significant number of children leaving each generation. Of course, the Amish have plenty of children.

Of course, one of the biggest factors in the decline of liberal denominations is fertility–the Amish have a lot more kids than Mainline Protestants.

But why have the Mainlines, with their open and tolerant ideologies and welcoming attitude toward nearly everyone, not attracted more members as society in general has moved leftward on many issues? If you have read Dumbing of Age for as long as I have, then you are well aware of the main character, Joyce’s, rejection of the particular brand of conservative Christianity she was raised and homeschooled in over the issue of homosexuality, and her subsequent search for a more liberal church (which has so far involved freaking out at an Episcopalian service because it smacked of papistry.)

Why are Presbyterians failing to attract the Joyces of the world?

I propose this is because functionally religious identity is about group identity, and a group identity that hinges on “openness to outsiders” is not a functional group identity.

Now you might be saying, “Wait, I thought religious identity had to do with what you think God, or ethics, or how the world was created. People give some sort of rational thought to their beliefs, and then pick the church that best suits them.”

No. I don’t think anyone ever said, “Hey, the religion where you can’t eat pigs sounds much more rational than the religion where you can’t eat cows.” Nor did anyone logically think that the religions with animal sacrifice sounded more logical than the one where the feces of priests are holy, or where alien ghosts are causing all of your problems. (Basically, every religion that isn’t whatever you happen to practice is full of totally illogical beliefs.)

This is why conversations between atheists and theists are so boring. Atheists try to explain that religion doesn’t make sense, and theists try to explain that religion is about faith, not logic.

The nation of Pakistan is 96.4% Muslim, and it didn’t get that way because everyone in Pakistan spontaneously decided when they were about 16 years old that they all agreed that Islam was the only true religion. Israel is 74.7% Jewish, not because all of the Jews logically examined all of the world’s religion and then spontaneously agreed that Judaism was the best one. No; most of the world’s Muslims are Muslim because their parents were Muslim. Most of the world’s Jews were born to other Jews. Most Christians were born to Christians, and so on.

Multi-religious states exist, but within those states, people tend to marry within their own religion or abandon religion altogether, for religion is ethnicity.

3,000 years ago, this would have been an unexceptional statement. The People of the Crocodile God worshiped crocodiles and were certain those folks over there worshiped the Snake God were up to no good. Note that they didn’t deny the existence of the Snake God; they just didn’t worship it.

Our ancestral memetic environment was very different from our modern one because most people couldn’t travel far and mass media didn’t exist. As a result, people tended to only interact with their own group; outsiders were demonized and war was frequent. To be part of a tribe was to worship the tribe’s totems or ancestral deities. In an uncertain world where wind and rain, life and death were mysteries in the hands of capricious deities, to not worship the tribal gods was akin to saying you did not care whether your brothers lived or died.

Indeed, the big issue Rome had with Christians and Jews was less that they worshiped some strange god with weird food rules and transubstantiation–the empire had a pretty inclusive attitude of adopting new deities as it encountered them–but that Christians and Jews refused to adopt the empires deities into their pantheon. More to the point, they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, which the Romans believed would bring the wrath of the gods on them and showed very poor civic spirit. As Tertullian complained in the second century:

They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lions!

Monotheism of course triumphed over paganism by taking over the empire itself. The conquering of pagans and thus their gods happened on a small scale within Judea, then on a large scale with Rome and Mecca. The big religions now expanded past pure ethnic lines, but still functioned for ordinary people as ethnic identities due to the lack of long-distance travel–Christians, for example, were members of “Christendom,” which stood in contrast with the pagan, barbarian, and non-Christian hordes–places which, of course, the average christian never saw.

But modern technology has drastically changed our memetic environment. Today you can hop in a car or plane and within hours be hundreds or thousands of miles away–distances your ancestors would have taken months to walk. You can pick up your phone and talk to a friend on the other side of the planet, or read headlines detailing the spread of disease in a foreign country. (I have written extensively about this change in the memes category.)

In the ancestral memetic environment, almost everyone you talked to and got information from was either your immediate family or lived in your community. As a result, memes that promote the survival of you, your family, your community, and your genes tend to dominate. Memes that promote the survival of strangers don’t do as well.

In our modern memetic environment, most of the people you talk to and get information from are strangers. You get movie recommendations from strangers on Rotten Tomatoes; you learn about new business ideas from the reporters at Forbes or Wired or The Wall Street Journal; you get parenting advice from a nanny on TV and medical advice from WebMD. You no longer raise barns or herd goats with your brothers, cousins, and extended family, but work in a cubicle farm with a hundred people who probably aren’t even 5th cousins.

As a result, the modern memetic environment favors the horizontal (rather than vertical, ie from parent to child,) meme transfer. This environment favors the spread of memes that prioritize the interests of strangers, simply because so many of the people you are talking to and interacting with are strangers.

The liberal churches–in particular, the Mainline Protestants–have worked hard to signal openness to others, because this is how horizontal morality works. (The group identity of people who define themselves as open to others thus has as its group it’s defined against as “people who aren’t open to others.”) But if religion itself is about group identity, then a group identity of “let’s be open to others and not have a strong group identity” is going to leave people unenthusiastic about attending liberal churches.

Group identity used to be more intuitive for people, again, because they mostly interacted with members of their own group. Modern religious identity for most Christians is no longer explicitly ethnic (not if you want a place in polite society,) so the “outgroup” has switched gay people, who are such a small percent of the population (2-3%) that they’re effectively a symbolic issue for most parishioners. Unlike those dastardly followers of the Snake God, homosexuals have never made their own army, invaded a neighboring tribe’s territory, massacred all of the women and carried off the men.

(This is, in my opinion, a very silly rock to build one’s church on. Certainly churches for the first 1,900 years of Christianity didn’t make this a major, defining point of what makes them different from their competitors. Jesus himself didn’t say a whole lot about gay people.)

And getting back to fertility, people with stronger group identities–such as people whose religions tell them they should have a group identity and it is good to have a group identity that excludes those [evil outgroup people] tend to have more children, who are the literal future of the church.

Summary version: Religion is about group identity, but the modern memetic environment, ie liberalism, is anti-group identity. Churches that try to set themselves up in opposition to group identity therefore fail. But since ethnic identity is no longer in fashion, conservative religious groups now define themselves in opposition to homosexuals, a somewhat symbolic opposition considering that homosexuals have never constituted a military threat to anyone’s ethnic group.


Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 2/4

Gutierrez map of 1562 showing Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.

Physical appearance:

“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”

EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.

“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”

EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.

I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.

I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.

But back to the man in the woods in the court:

“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”


“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.

“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.

“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”

EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.

“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers  and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.

“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.

Christian snake handlers

“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”

EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.


“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …

“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.

“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”

Social Organization (or lack thereof):

“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.

“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.

The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”


What IS “Social Studies”?

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.

Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)

But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?

The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.

Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”

But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.

Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.

In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:

“To learn how to be human.”

Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.

All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.

The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.

Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.

Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.

But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.

*Local laws still apply.

In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)

Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.

A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.

To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.

But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)

These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.

Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.

This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.

If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.

*Use sensible supervision

For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:

From the description:

In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.

Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?

Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.

There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.

Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.

“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.

Updated values chart!

The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.

Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.

I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:

The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.

On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …

The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …

The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …

As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …

The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …

Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:

“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”

When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.

And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?

Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.

Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.

Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.

It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”

I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.

It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.

If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:

A Child’s Introduction to The World

The Usborne Book of Living Long Ago: Everyday Life Through the Ages

What Your [X] Grader Needs to Know So far I like these, but I have not read them all the way through.

DK: When on Earth?

More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.


Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”

Anthropology Friday: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, by John Bourke

“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. … 12 Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” 13 The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.”

14 Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.”

1“Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.” –Ezekiel 4:9-15

I was going to do something serious like Carlton Coon or Totem and Taboo but then I found “Scatalogic Rites of All Nations: A Dissertation upon the Employment of Excrementious Remedial Agents in Religion, Therapeutics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc., in all Parts of the Globe: Based on Original Notes and Personal Observation, and upon Compilation of over One Thousand Authorities,” published in 1891 by John Bourke and “not for general perusal.”

So we’re reading this instead. (As usual, quote from the book will be in “” instead of blockquotes.)

“I. The Urine Dance of the Zunis

“In the evening of November 17, 1881, during my stay in the village of Zuni, New Mexico, the Nehue-C’ue, one of the secret orders of the Zunis, sent word to Mr. Frank H. Cushing, whose guest I was, that they would do us the unusual honor of coming to our house to give us one of their characteristic dances, which, Cushing said, was unprecedented. …

“To the accompaniment of an oblong drum … they shuffled into the long room, crammed with spectators of
both sexes and of all sizes and ages. Their song was apparently a ludicrous reference to everything and everybody in sight, Cushing, Mindeleff, and myself receiving special attention, to the uncontrolled merriment of the red-skinned listeners.

“The dancers suddenly wheeled into line, threw themselves on their knees before my table, and with extravagant beatings of breast began an outlandish but faithful mockery of a Mexican Catholic congregation at vespers. One bawled out a parody upon the pater-noster, another mumbled along in the manner of an old man reciting the rosary,
while the fellow with the India-rubber coat jumped up and began a passionate exhortation of sermon, which for mimetic fidelity was incomparable. This kept the audience laughing with sore sides for some moments, until, at a signal from the leader, the dancers suddenly countermarched out of the room in single file as they had entered.

“… The Kehue-Cue re-entered ; this time two of their number were stark naked. Their singing was very peculiar, and sounded like a chorus of chimney-sweeps, and their dance became a stiff-legged jump, with heels kept twelve inches apart. After they had ambled around the room two or three times, Cushing announced in the Zufii language that a
” feast ” was ready for them … They then squatted upon the ground and consumed with zest large ” ollas ” full of tea, and dishes of hard tack and sugar. As they were about finishing this a squaw entered, carrying an ” olla ” of
urine, of which the filthy brutes drank heartily.

“I refused to believe the evidence of my senses, and asked Cushing if that were really human urine. ” Why, certainly,” replied he, ” and here comes more of it.” This time it was a large tin pailful, not less than two gallons. …

“The dancers swallowed great draughts, smacked their lips, and, amid the roaring merriment of the spectators, remarked that it was very, very good. The clowns were now upon their mettle, each trying to surpass his neighbors in feats of nastiess. One swallowed a fragment of corn-husk, saying he thought it very good and better than bread…

“The Zunis, in explanation, stated that the Nehue-Cue were a Medicine Order, which held these dances from time to time to inure the stomachs of members to any kind of food, no matter how revolting. This statement may seem plausible enough when we understand that religion and medicine, among primitive races, are almost always one and the same thing, or at least so closely intertwined, that it is a matter of difficulty to decide where one begins and the other ends.”

EvX: Lest you think the author is targeting the Zunis, he follows this up with a similar celebration in Europe:

“Loosely corresponding to this urine dance of the Zunis was the Feast of Fools in Continental Europe, the description of which here given is quoted from Dulaure :

[the following is in French, but the author gives a summary]

“In the above description may be seen that the principal actors (taking possession of the church during high mass) had their faces daubed and painted, or masked in a harlequin manner; that they were dressed as clowns or as women; that they ate upon the altar itself sausages and blood-puddings. Now the word ” blood-pudding ” in French is boudin; but boudin also meant “excrement.” Add to this the feature that these clowns, after leaving the church, took their stand in dung-carts (tombereaux) , and threw ordure upon the by-standers; and finally that some of these actors appeared perfectly naked… and it must be admitted that there is certainly a wonderful concatenation of resemblances
between these filthy and inexplicable rites on different sides of a great ocean. …

“Applying the above remark to the Zuni dance, it may be interpreted as a dramatic pictograph of some half-forgotten episode in tribal history. To strengthen this view by example, let us recall the fact that the army of Crusaders under Peter the Hermit was so closely beleaguered by the Moslems in Nicomedia in Bithynia that they were compelled to drink their own urine. We read the narrative set out in cold type. The Zunis would have transmitted a record of the event by a dramatic representation which time would incrust with all the veneration that religion could impart.

“…The urine of horses was drunk by the people of Crotta while besieged by Metellus. — (See, in Montaigne’s Essays, ” On Horses,” cap. xlviii. ; see also, in Harington, “Ajax” — “Ulysses upon Ajax,” p. 42.)

“Shipwrecked English seamen drank human urine for want of water. (See in Purchas, vol. iv. p. 1188.) In the year 1877 Captain Nicholas Nolan, Tenth Cavalry, while scouting with his troop after hostile Indians on the Staked Plains of Texas, was lost ; and as supplies became exhausted, the command was reduced to living for several days on the blood of their horses and their own urine, water not being discovered in that vicinity. — (See Hammersley’s Record of Living Officers of the United States Army.)”

EvX: Though urine’s salt content makes it iffy for rehydration, it’s basically sterile, so drinking small quantities probably won’t hurt you the way eating feces or arsenic can. (We’ve already seen in previous posts that reindeer are quite fond of the salts found in human urine and that actually consuming feces is still used as a medical treatment for certain intestinal disorders, though typically this is done in some way that allows the suffer not to taste it.)

Speaking of feces:

“The following appeared in an article headed “The Last Cholera Epidemic in Paris,” in the ” General Homoeopathic Journal,” vol. cxiii., page 15, 1886: “The neighbors of an establishment famous for its excellent bread, pastry, and similar products of luxury, complained again and again of the disgusting smells which prevailed therein and which penetrated into their dwellings. The appearance of cholera finally lent force to these complaints, and the sanitary inspectors who were sent to investigate the matter found that there was a connection between the water-closets of these dwellings and the reservoir containing the water used in the preparation of the bread. This connection was cut off at once, but the immediate result thereof was a perceptible deterioration of the quality of the bread. Chemists have evidently no difficulty in demonstrating that water impregnated with ‘extract of water-closet,’ has the peculiar property of causing dough to rise particularly fine, thereby imparting to bread the nice appearance and pleasant flavor which is the principal quality of luxurious bread.”

EvX: W. T. F.

“The very earliest accounts of the Indians of Florida and Texas refer to the use of such aliment. Cabeza de Vaca, one of the survivors of the ill-fated expedition of Paufilo de Narvaez, was a prisoner among various tribes for many years, and finally, accompanied by three comrades as wretched as himself, succeeded in traversing the continent, coming out at Culiacan, on the Pacific Coast, in 1536. His narrative says that the ” Floridians,” “for food, dug roots, and that they ate spiders, ants’ eggs, worms, lizards, salamanders, snakes, earth, wood, the dung of deer, and many other things.”

EvX: If we were to arrange the groups mentioned in the book along a “scale of cleanliness,” I think Muslims would come out as the cleanest (I don’t recall mention of Jewish customs), certain pagan groups as the dirtiest*, and Christians in between. I haven’t studied Islam, yet, but my understanding is that it adopted various aspects of Jewish law which has a strong emphasis on cleanliness, eg, the similar laws of kosher and halal dictate which foods are clean to eat and how they should be prepared. Christianity adopted some of the spiritual elements of Judaism, but abandoned the legalistic parts–including all of the rules on things like “how to make sure your oven is clean.” Christians don’t really believe that you can become morally unclean from touching something physically unclean, like menstrual blood.

*Some pagan groups are very clean.

“The German Jesuit, Father Jacob Baegert, speaking of the Lower Californians (among whom he resided continuously from 1748 to 17C5), says: — ” They eat the seeds of the pitahaya (giant cactus) which have passed off undigested from their own stomachs ; they gather their own excrement, separate the seeds from it, roast, grind, and eat them, making merry over the loathsome meal.” And again : ” In the mission of Saint Ignatius, . . . there are persons who will attach a piece of meat to a string and swallow it and pull it out again a dozen times in succession, for the sake of protracting the enjoyment of its taste.”

EvX: For goodness’ sakes, just give the poor men some more meat!

“The Abbe Domenech asserts the same of the bands near Lake Superior : ” In boiling their wild rice to eat, they mix it with the excrement of rabbits, — a delicacy appreciated by the epicures amongthem” …

“Of the negroes of Guinea an old authority relates that they ” ate filthy, stinking elephant’s and buffalo’s flesh, wherein there is a thousand maggots, and many times stinks like carrion. …

“And another says that the Mosagueys make themselves a ” pottage with milk and fresh dung of kine, which, mixed together and heat at the fire, they drinke, saying it makes them strong” …

“(Tunguses of Siberia.) “They eat up every part of the animal which they kill, not throwing away even the impurities of the bowels, with which they make a sort of black pudding by a mixture of blood and fat.” — (Gavrila Sarytschew, in Phillips’s ” Voyages,” London, 1807, vol. v.)

“Natives of Eastern Siberia ” ate with avidity the entrails of the seal without cleaning in the least the partly digested food from the intestines, the ordure of the seal being as offensive to civilized man as the fasces of men or dogs.” — (Personal letter from Chief Engineer Melville, U. S. Navy, to Captain Bourke.) …

” In Queensland, near Darlington, there is a tract of country covered with a peculiar species of pine, yielding an edible nut of which the natives are extremely fond. . . . The men would form large clay pans in the soil, into which they would urinate ; they would then collect an abundance of these seeds and steep them in the urine. A fermentation took place, and all the seeds were devoured greedily, the effect being to cause a temporary madness among the men, — in fact a perfect delirium tremens. On these occasions it was dangerous for any one to approach them. The liquid was not used in any way.” — (Personal letter from John F. Mann, Esq., Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales.)”

Casu Marzu cheese

EvX: Lest we grow over-proud, let’s remember that anything “fermented” is essentially rotten. Coffee, chocolate, cheese, and bread are all produced via fermentation. Cheese is exceptionally disgusting, because in addition to being inculcated with bacteria and left to rot for a few months, it is first treated with rennet, an enzyme that comes from a calf’s stomach. Rennet makes the cheese coagulate, just as it does while being digested. In other words, cheese is literally rotten vomit.

If that weren’t bad enough, in Sardinia there is a variety of cheese, casu marzu, that is literally full of maggots. When disturbed (such as by someone biting into a piece of the cheese,) the larvae can leap 6 inches into the air.

According to Wikipedia:

Similar milk cheeses notable for containing living insect larvae are produced in several Italian regions and in Corsica, France.[16][17][18]

Several other regional varieties of cheese with fly larvae are produced in Europe. For example, goat-milk cheese is left to the open air until P. casei eggs are naturally laid in the cheese.[4] Then it is aged in white wine, with grapes and honey, preventing the larvae from emerging, giving the cheese a strong flavour. In addition, other regions in Europe have traditional cheeses that rely on live arthropods for ageing and flavouring, such as the German Milbenkäse and French Mimolette, both of which rely on cheese mites.

Civet in a civet-poop-coffee farm

(Lest you get the wrong impression, I love cheese and sometimes make my own.)

Coffee, while also rotten, is normally less disgusting than cheese. Civet Coffee (aka kopi luwak,) is one of the world’s most expensive varieties, clocking in at $100-$500 a pound. It’s made from coffee beans that were eaten and then pooped out by civets. People used to collect the beans from wild civet droppings just found lying randomly on the ground, but since the coffee caught on as a thing for rich people, the civets have been moved into cages where their poops can be more easily collected.

Unfortunately for connoisseurs, civet coffee apparently doesn’t live up to the hype:

Farmed civet poops full of coffee beans

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) states that there is a “general consensus within the industry … it just tastes bad”. A coffee professional cited in the SCAA article was able to compare the same beans with and without the kopi luwak process using a rigorous coffee cupping evaluation. He concluded: “it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality…Using the SCAA cupping scale, the Luwak scored two points below the lowest of the other three coffees. It would appear that the Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee.”

Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post reviewed kopi luwak available to US consumers and concluded “It tasted just like…Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn’t finish it.”[17]

As someone who enjoys Target Coffee, I know I’m not much of a connoisseur, but at least I don’t pay $500 a pound for poop coffee.

Let’s continue this discussion next week, with practical (and impractical) uses for urine.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett pt. 4

Yes, but which 25% of us is grape?

Welcome to our final post on Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, by Caleb Everett. Today I just want to highlight a few interesting passages.


For example, there is about 25% overlap between the human genome and that of grapes. (And we have fewer genes than grapes!) So some caution should be exercised before reading too much into percentages of genomic correspondence across species. I doubt, after all that you consider yourself one-quarter grape. … canine and bovine species generally exhibit about an 85% rate of genomic correspondence with humans. … small changes in genetic makeup can, among other influences, lead to large changes in brain size.

On the development of numbers:

Babylonian math homework

After all, for the vast majority of our species’ existence, we lived as hunters and gatherers in Africa … A reasonable interpretation of the contemporary distribution of cultural and number-system types, then, is that humans did not rely on complex number system for the bulk of their history. We can also reasonably conclude that transitions to larger, more sedentary, and more trade-based cultures helped pressure various groups to develop more involved numerical technologies. … Written numerals, and writing more generally, were developed first in the Fertile Crescent after the agricultural revolution began there. … These pressures ultimately resulted in numerals and other written symbols, such as the clay-token based numerals … The numerals then enabled new forms of agriculture and trade that required the exact discrimination and representation of quantities. The ancient Mesopotamian case is suggestive, then, of the motivation for the present-day correlation between subsistence and number types: larger agricultural and trade-based economies require numerical elaboration to function. …

Intriguingly, though, the same maybe true of Chinese writing, the earliest samples of which date to the Shang Dynasty and are 3,000 years old. The most ancient of these samples are oracle bones. These bones were inscribed with nuemerals quantifying such items as enemy prisoners, birds and animals hunted, and sacrificed animals. … Ancient writing around the world is numerically focused.

Changes in the Jungle as population growth makes competition for resources more intense and forces people out of their traditional livelihoods:

Consider the case of one of my good friends, a member of an indigenous group known as the Karitiana. … Paulo spent the majority of his childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s in the largest village of his people’s reservation. … While some Karitiana sought to make a living in nearby Porto Velho, many strived to maintain their traditional way of life on their reservation. At the time this was feasible, and their traditional subsistence strategies of hunting, gathering, and horticulture could be realistically practiced. Recently, however, maintaining their conventional way of life has become a less tenable proposition. … many Karitiana feel they have little choice but to seek employment in the local Brazilian economy… This is certainly true of Paulo. He has been enrolled in Brazilian schools for some time, has received some higher education, and is currently employed by a governmental organization. To do these things, of course, Paulo had to learn Portuguese grammar and writing. And he had to learn numbers and math, also. In short, the socioeconomic pressures he has felt to acquire the numbers of another culture are intense.

Everett cites a statistic that >90% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered.

They are endangered primarily because people like Paulo are being conscripted into larger nation-states, gaining fluency in more economically viable languages. … From New Guinea to Australia to Amazonia and elsewhere, the mathematizing of people is happening.

On the advantages of different number systems:

Recent research also suggests that the complexity of some non-linguistic number systems have been under appreciated. Many counting boards and abaci that have been used, and are still in use across the world’s culture, present clear advantages to those using them … the abacus presents some cognitive advantages. That is because, research now suggests, children who are raised using the abacus develop a “mental abacus” with time. … According to recent cross-cultural findings, practitioners of abacus-based mathematical strategies outperform those unfamiliar with such strategies,a t least in some mathematical tasks. The use of the Soroban abacus has, not coincidentally, now been adopted in many schools throughout Asia.

The zero is a dot in the middle of the photo–earliest known zero, Cambodia

I suspect these higher math scores are more due to the mental abilities of the people using the abacus than the abacus itself. I have also just ordered an abacus.

… in 2015 the world’s oldest known unambiguous inscription of a circular zero was rediscovered in Cambodia. The zero in question, really a large dot, serves as a placeholder in the ancient Khmer numeral for 605. It is inscribed on a stone tablet, dating to 683 CE, that was found only kilometers from the faces of Bayon and other ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. … the Maya also developed a written form for zero, and the Inca encoded the concept in their Quipu.

In 1202, Fibonacci wrote the Book of Calculation, which promoted the use of the superior Arabic (yes Hindu) numerals (zero included) over the old Roman ones. Just as the introduction of writing jump-started the Cherokee publishing industry, so the introduction of superior numerals probably helped jump-start the Renaissance.

Cities and the rise of organized religion:

…although creation myths, animistic practices, and other forms of spiritualism are universal or nearly universal, large-scale hierarchical religions are restricted to relatively few cultural lineages. Furthermore, these religions… developed only after people began living in larger groups and settlements because of their agricultural lifestyles. … A phalanx of scholars has recently suggested that the development of major hierarchical religions, like the development of hierarchical governments, resulted from the agglomeration of people in such places. …

Organized religious beliefs, with moral-enforcing deities and priest case, were a by-product of the need for large groups of people to cooperate via shared morals and altruism. As the populations of cultures grew after the advent of agricultural centers… individuals were forced to rely on shared trust with many more individuals, including non-kin, than was or is the case in smaller groups like bands or tribes. … Since natural selection is predicated on the protection of one’s genes, in-group altruism and sacrifice are easier to make sense of in bands and tribes. But why would humans in much larger populations–humans who have no discernible genetic relationship… cooperate with these other individuals in their own culture? … some social mechanism had to evolve so that larger cultures would not disintegrate due to competition among individuals and so that many people would not freeload off the work of others. One social mechanism that foster prosocial and cooperative behavior is an organized religion based on shared morals and omniscient deities capable of keeping track of the violation of such morals. …

When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with his stone tablets, they were inscribed with ten divine moral imperatives. … Why ten? … Here is an eleventh commandment that could likely be uncontroversially adopted by many people: “thou shalt not torture.” … But then the list would appear to lose some of its rhetorical heft. “eleven commandments’ almost hints of a satirical deity.

Technically there are 613 commandments, but that’s not nearly as catchy as the Ten Commandments–inadvertently proving Everett’s point.

Overall, I found this book frustrating and repetitive, but there were some good parts. I’ve left out most of the discussion of the Piraha and similar cultures, and the rather fascinating case of Nicaraguan homesigners (“homesigners” are deaf people who were never taught a formal sign language but made up their own.) If you’d like to learn more about them, you might want to look up the book at your local library.

The Facsimile of Meaning

Most of the activities our ancestors spent the majority of their time on have been automated or largely replaced by technology. Chances are good that the majority of your great-great grandparents were farmers, but few of us today hunt, gather, plant, harvest, or otherwise spend our days physically producing food; few of us will ever build our own houses or even sew our own clothes.

Evolution has (probably) equipped us with neurofeedback loops that reward us for doing the sorts of things we need to do to survive, like hunt down prey or build shelters (even chimps build nests to sleep in,) but these are precisely the activities that we have largely automated and replaced. The closest analogues to these activities are now shopping, cooking, exercising, working on cars, and arts and crafts. (Even warfare has been largely replaced with professional sports fandom.)

Society has invented vicarious thrills: Books, movies, video games, even roller coasters. Our ability to administer vicarious emotions appears to be getting better and better.

And yet, it’s all kind of fake.

Exercising, for example, is in many ways a pointless activity–people literally buy machines so they can run in place. But if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for most of the day and don’t fancy jogging around your neighborhood after dark, running in place inside your own home may be the best option you have for getting the post-running-down prey endorphin hit that evolution designed you to crave.

A sedentary lifestyle with supermarkets and restaurants deprives us of that successful-hunting endorphin hit and offers us no logical reason to go out and get it. But without that exercise, not only our physical health, but our mental health appears to suffer. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise effectively decreases depression and anxiety–in other words, depression and anxiety may be caused in part by lack of exercise.

So what do we do? We have to make up some excuse and substitute faux exercise for the active farming/gardening/hunting/gathering lifestyles our ancestors lived.

By the way, about 20% of Americans are on psychiatric medications of some sort, [warning PDF] of which anti-depressants are one of the most commonly prescribed:

Overall, the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has substantially increased since 2001; more than one‐in‐five adults was on at least one
of these medications in 2010, up 22 percent from ten years earlier. Women are far more likely to take a drug to treat a mental health condition than men, with more than a quarter of the adult
female population on these drugs in 2010 as compared to 15 percent of men.

Women ages 45 and older showed the highest use of these drugs overall. …

The trends among children are opposite those of adults: boys are the higher utilizers of these medications overall but girls’ use has been increasing at a faster rate.

This is mind-boggling. 1 in 5 of us is mentally ill, (supposedly,) and the percent for young women in the “prime of their life” years is even higher. (The rates for Native Americans are astronomical.)

Lack of exercise isn’t the only problem, but I wager a decent chunk of it is that our lives have changed so radically over the past 100 years that we are critically lacking various activities that used to make us happy and provide meaning.

Take the rise of atheism. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, many functions–community events, socializing, charity, morality lessons, etc–have historically been done by religious groups. Atheists are working on replacements, but developing a full system that works without the compulsion of religious belief may take a long while.

Sports and video games replace war and personal competition. TV sitcoms replace friendship. Twitter replaces real life conversation. Politics replace friendship, conversation, and religion.

There’s something silly about most of these activities, and yet they seem to make us happy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying knitting, even if you’re making toy octopuses instead of sweaters. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with enjoying a movie or a game. The problem comes when people get addicted to these activities, which may be increasingly likely as our ability to make fake activities–like hyper-realistic special effects in movies–increases.

Given modernity, should we indulge? Or can we develop something better?

Zoroastrian (Parsi) DNA

Farvahar. Persepolis, Iran.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions and possibly its first monotheistic one. It emerged in now-Iran about 3,000 years ago, but following the Arab (Islamic) conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians migrated to India, where they became known as the Parsi (from the word for “Persian.”) To be clear, where this post refers to “Parsis” it means the specific Zoroastrian community in India, and where it refers to “Iranian Zoroastrians” it means the Zoroastrians currently living in Iran.

Although Zoroastrianism was once the official state religion of Persia, today only about 190,000 believers remain (according to Wikipedia,) and their numbers are declining.

If you’re thinking that a diasporic community of monotheists sounds familiar, you’re in good company. According to Wikipedia:

Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta observed in 1563 that “there are merchants … in the kingdom of Cambaia … known as Esparcis. We Portuguese call them Jews, but they are not so. They are Gentios.”

Another parallel: Ashkenazi Jews and Parsis are both reported to be very smart. Famous Parsis include Queen Guitarist Freddy Mercury, nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha, and our Harvard-employed friend, Homi K. Bhabha.

Lopez et al have recently carried out a very interesting study of Zoroastrian DNA, The Genetic Legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into Population Structure, Gene Flow, and Selection:

Historical records indicate that migrants from Persia brought Zoroastrianism to India, but there is debate over the timing of these migrations. Here we present genome-wide autosomal, Y chromosome, and mitochondrial DNA data from Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians and neighboring modern-day Indian and Iranian populations and conduct a comprehensive genome-wide genetic analysis in these groups. … we find that Zoroastrians in Iran and India have increased genetic homogeneity relative to other sampled groups in their respective countries, consistent with their current practices of endogamy. Despite this, we infer that Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis) intermixed with local groups sometime after their arrival in India, dating this mixture to 690–1390 CE and providing strong evidence that Iranian Zoroastrian ancestry was maintained primarily through the male line.

Note that all diasporic–that is, migrant–groups appear to be heavily male. Women tend to stay put while men move and take new wives in their new homelands.

By making use of the rich information in DNA from ancient human remains, we also highlight admixture in the ancestors of Iranian Zoroastrians dated to 570 BCE–746 CE, older than admixture seen in any other sampled Iranian group, consistent with a long-standing isolation of Zoroastrians from outside groups. …

Admixture with whom? (Let’s just read the paper and see if it answers the question):

Furthermore, a recent study using genome-wide autosomal DNA found that haplotype patterns in Iranian Zoroastrians matched more than other modern Iranian groups to a high-coverage early Neolithic farmer genome from Iran

A study of four restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) suggested a closer genetic affinity of Parsis to Southern Europeans than to non-Parsis from Bombay. Furthermore, NRY haplotype analysis and patterns of variation at the HLA locus in the Parsis of Pakistan support a predominately Iranian origin. …

In (1) and (2), we detected admixture in the Parsis dated to 27 (range: 17–38) and 32 (19–44) generations ago, respectively, in each case between one predominantly Indian-like source and one predominantly Iranian-like source. This large contribution from an Iranian-like source (∼64%–76%) is not seen in any of our other 7 Indian clusters, though we detect admixture in each of these 7 groups from wide-ranging sources related to modern day individuals from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Europe, Pakistan, or of Jewish heritage (Figures 2 and S7, Tables S5–S7). For Iranian Zoroastrians, we detect admixture only under analysis (2), occurring 66 (42–89) generations ago between a source best genetically explained as a mixture of modern-day Croatian and Cypriot samples, and a second source matching to the Neolithic Iranian farmer WC1. … The two Iranian Zoroastrians that had been excluded as outliers exhibited admixture patterns more similar to the Lebanese, Turkish Jews, or Iranian Bandari individuals than to Zoroastrians (Table S8).

Parsi Wedding, 1905

If I assume a generation is about 25 years long, 27 generations was about 675 years ago; 32 was about 800 years ago. (Though given the wide range on these dates, perhaps we should estimate between 425 and 1,100 years ago.) This sounds consistent with Parsis taking local wives after they arrived in India between the 8th and 10th century CE (after the Arab conquest of Perisa.) Also consistently, this admixture isn’t found in Iranian Zoroastrians.

The Iranians’ admixture occurred about 1,050 and 2,225 years ago, which is an awfully broad time range. Could Croatian or Cypriot migrants have arrived due to the Greek/Roma/ Byzantine Empires? Were they incorporated into the Persian Empire as a result of its territorial conquests or the Arab conquest? Or were they just long-distance merchants who happened to wander into the area?

The Fire Temple of Baku

The authors found that Parsi priests had “the lowest gene diversity values of all population samples studied for both Y and mtDNA,” though they didn’t have enough Iranian Zoroastrian priest samples to compare them to Parsi priests. (I bet this is similar to what you’d find if you sampled Orthodox rabbis.)

Finally, in the genetic selection and diseases section, the authors write:

In the case of the Iranian Zoroastrians, … some of the most significant SNPs… are located upstream of gene SLC39A10 … with an important role in humoral immunity61 or in CALB2 … which plays a major role in the cerebellar physiology.62

With regard to the positive selection tests on Parsis versus India Hindu/Gujarati groups, the most significant SNPs were embedded in WWOX … associated with neurological disorders like early epilepsy … and in a region in chromosome 20 … (see Table S11 for a complete list). …

Genetic isolation and endogamous practices can be associated with higher frequencies of disease prevalence. For example, there are reports claiming a high recurrence of diseases such as diabetes among the Iranian Zoroastrians, and Parkinson, colon cancer, or the deficiency of G6PD, an enzyme that triggers the sudden reduction of red blood cells, among the Parsis.

However, the authors warn that these results are weak (these are rare conditions in an already small population) and cannot not be depended upon.

Sam Worcester, Cherokee Missionary: Relative or Physiognomy?

Samuel Worcester, 1798-1859

While researching the Trail of Tears and removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma, I was brought up short by this photo of Samuel Worcester, of Worcester v. Georgia fame. Sam, born in 1798, was a 7th generation minister and missionary to the Cherokee Indians. When they moved to Oklahoma, he went with them.

And he looks just like my little brother.

My brother who wanted to move to Oklahoma and train to be a missionary. (There’s a relevant school in OK, but it’s expensive.)

If this weren’t a grainy photo from the 1800s, this Sam Worcester could be my long-lost sibling.

I have kin in Oklahoma, though I’m not sure how closely related they are.

But 1798 was a LONG time ago. Depending on exactly when you were born and how quickly your ancestors had their children, you had somewhere around 256 to 512 very-great-grandparents in the late 1700s. A mere 1/256th resemblance is not going to show up like this without constant inter-marriage with other people who also look like your relatives. Of course, Sam and his descendents were in the time and place to do that.

I occasionally see old-stock Americans in the news who are (based on last names) likely 5th or 6th cousins of some branch of the family (including the ones I am related to by law rather than blood) and the resemblances can be uncanny.

(Speaking of family, my brother isn’t the only minister or wanna-be minister in my immediate biological [not adopted] family.)

In Sam Worcester’s case, could the coincidence be physiognomy? Is this just what missionaries look like? Is it time to start believing in reincarnation? Or have I stumbled upon a long-lost relative?

What about you? Have you ever encountered a grainy old photograph that looks just like a loved one?

A little more about Sam:

Worcester was born in Peacham, Vermont on January 19, 1798, to the Rev. Leonard Worcester, a minister. He was the seventh generation of pastors in his family, dating back to ancestors who lived in England. … The young Worcester attended common schools and studied printing with his father.[2] In 1819, he graduated with honors from the University of Vermont.[1]

Samuel Worcester became a Congregational minister and decided to become a missionary. After graduating from Andover Theological Seminary in 1823, he expected to be sent to India, Palestine or the Sandwich Islands. Instead, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sent him to the American Southeast to minister to American Indians.[3]

Worcester married Ann Orr of Bedford, New Hampshire, whom he had met at Andover.[1][2] They moved to Brainerd Mission, where he was assigned as a missionary to the Cherokees in August 1825. The goals ABCFM set for them were, “…make the whole tribe English in their language, civilized in their habits and Christian in their religion.” … Worcester worked with Elias Boudinot to establish the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, the first among Native American nations.[3]

Ultimately Samuel and Ann had seven children: Ann Eliza, Sarah, Jerusha, Hannah, Leonard, John Orr and Mary Eleanor.[2] Ann Eliza grew up to become a missionary and with her husband, William Schenck Robertson, founded Nuyaka Mission in the Indian Territory.[4]

The westward push of European-American settlers from coastal areas continued to encroach on the Cherokee … With the help of Worcester and his sponsor, the American Board, they made a plan to fight the encroachment by using the courts. They wanted to take a case to the US Supreme Court to define the relationship between the federal and state governments, and establish the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation. No other civil authority would support Cherokee sovereignty to their land and self-government in their territory. Hiring William Wirt, a former U.S. Attorney General, the Cherokee tried to argue their position before the US Supreme Court in Georgia v. Tassel (the court granted a writ of error for a Cherokee convicted in a Georgia court for a murder occurring in Cherokee territory, though the state refused to accept the writ) and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) (the court dismissed this on technical grounds for lack of jurisdiction).[7] In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Marshall described the Cherokee Nation as a “domestic dependent nation” with no rights binding on a state.[1]

Worcester and eleven other missionaries had met at New Echota and published a resolution in protest of an 1830 Georgia law prohibiting all white men from living on Native American land without a state license.[1] While the state law was an effort to restrict white settlement on Cherokee territory, Worcester reasoned that obeying the law would, in effect, be surrendering the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation to manage their own territory. Once the law had taken effect, Governor George Rockingham Gilmer ordered the militia to arrest Worcester and the others who signed the document and refused to get a license.[7]

After two series of trials, all eleven men were convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor… Worcester and Elizur Butler declined their pardons, so the Cherokee could take the case to the Supreme Court. … In its late 1832 decision, the Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was independent and only the federal government had the authority to deal with Indian nations. It vacated the convictions of Worcester and Butler. …

[However] He realized that the larger battle had been lost, because the state and settlers refused to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court. Within three years, the US used its military to force the Cherokee Nation out of the Southeast and on the “Trail of Tears” to lands west of the Mississippi River. …

After being released, Worcester and his wife determined to move their family to Indian Territory to prepare for the coming of the Cherokee under removal. …

His work included setting up the first printing press in that part of the country, translating the Bible and several hymns into Cherokee, and running the mission. In 1839, his wife Ann died; she had been serving as assistant missionary. He remained in Park Hill, where he remarried Erminia Nash in 1842.[1][2]

Worcester worked tirelessly to help resolve the differences between the Georgia Cherokee and the “Old Settlers”, some of whom had relocated there in the late 1820s. On April 20, 1859, he died in Park Hill, Indian Territory.

Aside from being imprisoned, Worcester lost his house when the state of Georgia just up and gave it to someone else in the 1832 Land Lottery and most of his property when a steamer sank on the way to Oklahoma.

I’ve long wondered how (if) the Calvinism of the North ended up in the South. Perhaps Vermont missionaries were part of the process.

Book Review: Aphrodite and the Rabbis

When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.

Visotzky’s Aphrodite and The Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it explores the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on the subject, it’s a good place to start. (It doesn’t go into the differences between major modern-day Jewish groups, though. If you’re looking for that, Judaism for Dummies or something along those lines will probably do.)

I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.

Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.)  The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)

Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.

It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.

Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.

Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:

The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …

To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.

Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …

All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …

Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.

Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:

Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.

The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.

On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?