Gene-culture co-evolution 1: the secret of cultural evolution’s success

I’ve just finished reading Joseph Henrich, The Secret of our Success, the first book I’ve read on gene-culture co-evolution, an emerging academic field. (I’ve also seen it described as evolutionary culture anthropology (ECA)). Henrich’s book is a very interesting read, written in a populist way, but with citations of a substantial amount of original research. It’s also the first book I’ve found which has me thinking that possibly evolutionary approaches could be of use to historians.

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Retrospective: twelve years a blogger

I started this blog twelve years ago (30th May 2005). At that point I was academically a Magistra, having just submitted my doctoral thesis, but not yet having been examined on it. As for the Mater, my only daughter was then two-and-a-half. Twelve years on, I have a doctorate in history, and a published monograph, as well as a number of journal articles and book chapters. My daughter is fourteen and has just decided on her GCSE options (which do not include history). But the concept of Magistra et Mater, as a place on the internet where I can discuss my research and also its wider interactions with my personal life and political events, has continued.

In my twelve years, I’ve written nearly 500 blog posts, so what follows is a very brief selection, one from each year, illustrating some of the main themes I’ve written about. (The formatting of some of these suffered in the move over to WordPress, but I hope they’re still readable).

2005: The hidden questions of Hide and Seek

Being a novice parent, I often found my young daughter’s behaviour intriguing. And while the parenting books may tell you about the more obvious milestones, they don’t necessarily discuss some of the more intriguing questions, such as: when does a child work out about how to find a hidden person in Hide and Seek? [However I failed to keep a record of my daughter’s further progress in the matter, so you will have to look elsewhere for the definitive answer].

2006: Ban the Bonnet

Unfortunately, this post, on calls to prevent the wearing of religious clothing (specifically Muslim women wearing the veil/niqab) remains all too topical more than a decade after I first wrote it.

2007: Masculinity and courtliness

I’ve written a lot about medieval masculinity (the subject of my PhD thesis) over the years, and this is one of many in which I informally try to tease out some of the issues, while also getting distracted by the thought of John Wayne in a mitre.

2008: Dead academic walking

In which I talk about my failure to get an academic post. [Ironically, I did finally get a postdoctoral research post a few years after this, but I am now once again in a non-academic job].

2009: History matters 1: patriarchy and intentionality

During March 2009, I took part in an event blogging about Judith Bennett’s book, History Matters, with a series of posts inspired by reading it. This not only ended with an invitation to contribute to the Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, but the posts I wrote were also the seedbed which eventually led to my latest project, on the long-term persistence of patriarchal structures.

2010: What can the vulgus do? Crowd sourcing for medievalists

Most of my time since 2005 has been spent working as a librarian. I haven’t blogged much about librarianship, except in 2010 when I took part in the University of Cambridge libraries “23 Things” Web 2.0 programme, which involved blogging about social media tools. This post was inspired by the programme, and reflects my increasing interest in the digital humanities.

2011: Why gay monks are good to think with

Although I don’t think of myself as primarily a historian of sexuality, it has often been a theme of my blog posts, especially puzzling over what kind of historical categories we might use when discussing sexual acts and identities.

2012: Framing the Early Middle Ages 7: Peasants going Galt

One of the most influential books on early medieval history I have read since starting the blog is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages. Or rather, it’s one of the most influential books I’ve partially read. In order to work my way through its nearly 1000 pages and keep my bearing, I started blogging the book chapter by chapter as I read it. Although it helped my focus, it has also revealed to everyone, including Chris, that more than seven years after starting reading and blogging his book, I still haven’t finished it.

2013: Female pleasure and social approval

Having started my academic career researching masculinity, I’m now working more on women’s history and this is one of a number of posts I’ve written picking away at ideas of female agency, domesticity, emotions and patriarchal structures in the Middle Ages.

2014: Overcoming my trans prejudice

I’ve often tried to show how my academic research overlaps with my personal life: here I wanted to provide a case study of how my views changed on a particular social and moral topic.

2015: Political smears then and now

Once again, modern and medieval events collide in my mind in bizarre and resonant ways, here bringing together David Cameron’s Piggate scandal and the ninth-century difficulties of Louis the Pious and Lothar II.

2016: Bigamy and bureaucracy

One great advantage of a blog post is that you can easily bring together very different historical periods and bounce them off one another without having to do extensive historiographical footnotes. Here Victorian novels meet late medieval France, with a bit of Martin Guerre thrown in.

2017: The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

As well as different periods bouncing off one another, it’s also interesting to bounce different cultures off one another. One of the things I still enjoy about blogging is that it will let me play around with ideas in this informal way and keep a record of them, in case any come in useful later.

My blogging frequency has varied a lot over the years, depending partly on what other writing and paid or unpaid work I’ve been doing as well. And I’m conscious that it’s becoming easier for me to repeat myself, especially when I’ve revisiting ideas on gender I’ve been considering for a dozen years or more. But I’m still mostly finding blogging interesting, and I plan to keep on doing it, if not for another twelve years, than at least for a few years more.

The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

I found the most interesting part of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina, which I visited recently, to be the section on the Cherokee Nation before European contact. In particular, because the displays divided up this time into various dated periods, it offered a fascinating opportunity to compare Cherokee material culture with that from other cultures elsewhere in the world at the same time. Given my background, that immediately got me juxtaposing the material culture of the Cherokee in the Woodland period (1000 BCE – 900 CE) with that of the Anglo-Saxons. In the late-seventeenth century, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons invaded the territory of the Cherokee (and eventually destroyed or relocated the vast majority of the Cherokee Nation). But could you have predicted that back around 900 CE, at the time of King Alfred?

Museum of the Cherokee Indian exhibit: Stone pipe in the shape of a bird

In some ways, Woodland period Cherokee and Anglo-Saxon material culture seem quite similar. Both societies were of settled agriculturalists, with construction either predominantly or exclusively in wood. Indian culture probably had more effective weapons around 900 CE, reflecting a society where hunting played a more vital role in food provision. The Cherokee had very high-quality bows and arrows, as well as spear-throwers, improving the accuracy and distance of a spear cast. Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Cherokee had skills in pottery and textile-working; unlike them, they also had a particularly developed craft of basket-weaving. Some small stone-carvings of theirs survive. In terms of what we can deduce about their non-material culture from later sources, the Cherokee also show parallels to the Anglo-Saxons in their development of complex religious myths and laws.

So what did the Anglo-Saxons have that the Cherokee didn’t? Some stone buildings, but relatively few. Cherokee pottery incorporated admixtures of additional elements to improve its strength, but it was purely handmade, rather than using a potter’s wheel. And there are some conspicuous absences to an early medievalist’s eye. The Cherokee didn’t have domesticated animals (including horses). There’s no glass and very little metalwork (a few copper objects, I think obtained by trade); there was no mention of coinage. Although they had canoes, they didn’t have ocean-going ships. And, of course, there were no books, inscriptions or any other kind of writing.

Though some of those differences may not have much effect, collectively in the long-run (600-800 years), they allowed Englishmen with guns and horses to appear in North Carolina, rather than the other way round. Even if it was mostly diseases that killed the early modern Cherokee, rather than British weapons, there was still a considerable difference in material culture by that point. Why is that?

As Jared Diamond has pointed out, there weren’t domesticable animals in North America (the only one in South America is the llama/alpaca). And it’s a lot easier to develop ocean-going ships in England, where it’s impossible to be more than 70 miles from the sea, and where it’s actually useful to be able to cross the Channel, than a region where you’re 300 or more miles from the sea and you could just follow the coastline anyway for days to contact other communities. But the other key point is that the Anglo-Saxons were at the tail-end of technological developments that they adopted from other civilizations, in a way that the Cherokee weren’t.

Parts of Anglo-Saxon England were aceramic for a while; in the fifth century; at that stage they were having to recycle metal from Roman remains, because they’d lost the ability to smelt iron. The early Anglo-Saxons also had no writing. Much of the material culture they did have by 900 CE had been adopted from other nearby cultures (or specifically brought to England by outsiders, as with the Roman/Celtic missionaries and writing). Vast amounts of the material culture the English had by 1700 CE had also originated from elsewhere; some innovations, such as paper and gunpowder, had come from as far away as China. In fact, it’s difficult to think of many important technological innovations first developed in England before 1600 CE, although by the seventeenth century, English science and technology were more inventive (we’re getting to the era of Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke).

In other words, the real advantage that the Anglo-Saxons and the English had over the Cherokee was their proximity to other societies with more complex material culture. And their great luck was that they never faced invading forces that were technologically more advanced and wanted to remove them from their land. The Vikings had something of a technological edge in terms of military equipment, but even when they conquered parts of Anglo-Saxon England, there’s not much evidence of complete population replacement. In contrast, despite the fact that the Cherokee were regarded as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by English settlers and later the US government, that didn’t prevent most of them from being expelled from North Carolina, on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argues that the Spanish defeated the Incas because of geography: Eurasia had more domesticable animals and crops and such innovations could spread more easily east-west than north-south (because of climate change at different latitudes). Europe (and Western Europe in particular) later benefited from a coastline nearer to the Americas than other parts of Eurasia. But there’s always been a counter-claim that Europeans were simply more innovative in some way than Native Americans.

If you compare the Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons, that claim’s not really convincing. In terms of inventiveness, for example, there’s no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the development of the Cherokee syllabary, within a couple of centuries of contact, even though the Anglo-Saxons and their Continental ancestors must have been aware of Roman writing for centuries. The English technical innovations of the seventeenth century came on the back of a millennium or so of borrowed technology. If English people had had only the Mississippian Culture to borrow from (as the Cherokee did until Europeans came), rather than China, India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, I find it hard to believe they’d have come up with the Golden Hind or the balance spring. The real luck of the Anglo-Saxons, which the Cherokee didn’t share, surely came in the form of their Eurasian neighbours.







Evolution, Demography and Inheritance

I have been reading some popular works on anthropology and evolutionary psychology and am getting increasingly fed-up with their frequent assumption that men instinctively want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many children as possible. Even excluding the modern Western world, in which many men do not want to have children (or at least not be held responsible for them), there doesn’t seem to me much historical evidence that men wanted to father as many children as possible.

Firstly, and most brutally, in many contemporary and historic societies, girls have been undervalued and sometimes even killed or abandoned by their fathers. For the survival of a man’s genes, a female child is valuable; in many patrilineal societies, she’s not valuable because she doesn’t preserve his “name”. But I don’t think the historic evidence is particularly strong even for the weakened hypothesis that men want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many sons as possible. In societies where elite men have large harems, for example, women are selected for these harems, based on their beauty (Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, pp. 70-71 cites letters about this from King Zimri-Lim of Mari in Syria from the eighteenth century BC). This implies that such successful men are less interested in sleeping with as many fertile women as possible and more concerned with sleeping with women they find sexually attractive.

Clay tablet recording activity of Zimri-Lim (from Wikimedia)

Most men, however, aren’t as prosperous as Zimri-Lim. One of the most basic constraints on how many children you choose to father is how many you can afford to support. This is so even in historical periods without effective contraception or abortion. Abandonment of the mother and/or child, adoption and even infanticide have always been possible options. But in most past societies, a child whose father didn’t support them was either not going to survive into adulthood, or was going to have its chances of marriage and reproduction severely limited. So in evolutionary terms, this is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But there’s also another issue in societies with private property: the question of what the children (especially the sons) inherit when their father dies. Whether it’s land or livestock, at some point there’s likely to be a sharing-out of resources, even if it’s postponed for a generation. And at that point, having too many sons can again be a problem, because it means splitting resources into smaller shares or excluding some sons from any inheritance. There’s been interesting work by Ruth Mace at UCL trying to model how African pastoralists decide whether or not to have more children and how many sons to give wealth to.

This concern to get the “right” number of heirs may also explain various family options which develop.  For example, the institution of concubinage, already visible in the Code of Hammurabi from around 1750 BC, may have developed precisely because concubine’s sons could be conditional heirs, who were normally excluded from inheritance, but could be made heirs if one was needed.

Ruth Mace states in another article (p.447):

It has long been recognized that maximizing reproductive success is not necessarily about maximizing fertility alone, going right back to the pioneering work of ornithologist David Lack [in 1954].

So why, sixty years on, are some authors still writing statements such as:

A man can have a nearly unlimited number of children – in theory he can beget several children every day – while a woman’s capacity is limited to one child per year under optimal conditions, and moreover in many societies many children die before they grow up. From the perspective of human reproduction, one may state that sperm is cheap while eggs are expensive.

(Quote from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd ed, 2001, p. 108)

Sperm may be “cheap”, but raising a child to adulthood is almost always expensive for fathers as well as mothers, if they’re going to ensure their line’s continuation. I’m currently trying to work out what kinds of evolutionary effects it’s worth considering when thinking about patriarchy in western Europe in the common era. The badly flawed evolutionary  accounts of male humans that still turn up frequently, and which ignore so much historical evidence, don’t seem to me a reliable basis for making further hypotheses about male behaviour.














Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

(This is the first of a series of short pieces I hope to write for my new project on long-term continuity and change in patriarchal structures. These are intended as initial ways for me to think about the problem rather than as definitive answers and comments or counterexamples are gratefully received).


Some early modern political thought was patriarchal in the most literal sense: the father’s control over his family and household is the model for all political authority. (This is the view of Robert Filmer, for example). The idea seems at once vaguely familiar and subtly distinctive to a Carolingianist and I’m still trying to work out why.

At the moment I can see two differences. One is that although there’s sometimes an analogy made in political writing between the royal household and the kingdom, it tends to be expressed in terms of a ruler’s duties, rather than a father’s. The ruler must rule himself, so that he can then rule his household, and finally the kingdom. This is all put together with the supposed etymology of “rex” as deriving from “regnans”, which is already in Augustine, and probably even earlier. Being a “pater/genitor” doesn’t have the same resonances.

And where the king as father does appear, the direction of the analogy is the opposite way round from the early modern patriarchal one. The king’s household is supposed to be the exemplar for other households, and the king as father for other fathers. Ordinary fathers are “royalised” by the Carolingians, rather than kings being an outgrowth of original family power. After all, the Carolingians knew how kings arose – God had allowed them to do so.

I also wonder whether the vagueness of the Carolingian idea of the king as a magnified pater familias is because the magnates would have found that unacceptable. After all, the kingdom as a family implicitly places them as the king’s children, called to obedience, and subject to his righteous chastisement. In contrast, the metaphor of the body politic, which id developed by John of Salisbury and later medieval authors, makes the other parts of the body subordinate to the head, but without such a steep gradient. A neck or the shoulders and arms are only a little “below” the head and are essential to the body’s proper functioning. Not should the head want to hurt the other parts of the body, but guard them.

In contrast, the fatherly metaphor for rulers separates king and subject more decisively, and subordinates more firmly. Perhaps it’s only in more autocratic times (Roman and early modern) that this particular complex of patriarchal ideas can find acceptance.

Living in the material world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the material world in the last few months, in an odd combination of places. On a brief visit to Amsterdam, then at the current Merovingian exhibition at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and finally at Snozone Milton Keynes. (I should add that these thoughts came while watching others ski, not attempting to ski myself). And the theme I keep coming back to is my own troubled relationship to materiality and also that of the cultures I live in and study.


[Skiers at the Snozone]

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