Yay a new cool post is up on West Hunters blog! It is written by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending with whom most LWers are probably already familiar with (particularly this awesome entry). It raises some interesting points on biases in academia.

I was contemplating Conan the Barbarian, and remembered the essay that Robert E. Howard wrote about the  background of those stories – The Hyborian Age.  I think that the flavor of Howard’s pseudo-history is a lot more realistic than the picture of the human past academics preferred over the past few decades.

In Conan’s world, it’s never surprising to find a people that once mixed with some ancient prehuman race.  Happens all the time.  Until very recently, the vast majority of workers in human genetics and paleontology were sure that this never occurred – and only changed their minds when presented with evidence that was both strong (ancient DNA)  and too mathematically sophisticated for them to understand or challenge (D-statistics).

Conan’s history  was shaped by the occasional catastrophe.  Most academics (particularly geologists) don’t like catastrophes, but they have grudgingly come to admit their importance – things like the Thera and Toba eruptions, or the K/T asteroid strike and the Permo-Triassic crisis.

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, evolution seems to have run pretty briskly, but without any pronounced direction.  Men devolved into ape-men when the environment pushed in that direction (Flores ?)  and shifted right back when the environment favored speech and tools.  Culture shaped evolution, and evolution shaped culture.  An endogamous caste of snake-worshiping priests evolved in a strange direction.  Although their IQs were considerably higher than average, they remained surprisingly vulnerable to sword-bearing barbarians.

In this world, evolution could happen on a time scale of thousands of years, and there was no magic rule that ensured that the outcome would be the same in every group.  It may not be PC to say it, but Cimmerians were smarter than Picts.

The basic idea of their book "The 10 000 Year Explosion" (LessWrong review, Amazon).

Above all, people in Conan’s world fought. They migrated: they invaded.  There was war before, during, and after civilization.  Völkerwanderungs were a dime a dozen. Conquerors spread.  Sometimes they mixed with the locals, sometimes they replaced them – as when the once dominant Hyborians, overrun by Picts, vanished from the earth, leaving scarcely a trace of their blood in the veins of their conquerors. They must have been U5b.

To be fair,  real physical anthropologists in Howard’s day thought that there had been significant population movements and replacements in Europe, judging from changes in skeletons and skulls that accompanied archeological shifts, as when people turned taller, heavier boned , and brachycephalic just as the Bell-Beaker artifacts show up. But those physical anthropologists lost out to people like Boas liars.

Perhaps this little old entry is relevant here. ^_^

Given the chance (sufficient lack of information), American anthropologists assumed that the Mayans were peaceful astronomers. Howard would have assumed that they were just another blood-drenched snake cult: who came closer?

Now I’m not saying that Howard got every single tiny little syllable of prehistory right.  Not likely: so far, we haven’t seen any signs of Cthulhu-like visitors, which abound in the Conan stories.  So far. But Howard’s priors were more accurate than those of the pots-not-people archeologists: more accurate than people like Excoffier and  Currat, who assume that there hasn’t been any population replacement in Europe since moderns displaced Neanderthals. More accurate than Chris Stringer,  more accurate than Brian Ferguson.

Most important, Conan, unlike the typical professor, knew what was best in life.


Cochran you are such a nerd.

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Interesting read. I think three things stand out here are:

  • Biology is underemployed to explain human history and behaviour. When it is used, poor understanding, incentives and biases lead to results that basically say: "And this is why biology tells us we can ignore biology in this case."

  • Not only do academics paint dragons in every poorly researched margin of our maps they can, no we actually paint into the margins our yearning for utopia and a golden age. Any hard to reach modern marginal tribe (which can actually even be completely made up in all but name) or poorly understood ancient people will do for the purpose of providing a pedagogical point about how we should be. "Tribe in New Guinea has no words for greed, jealousy or murder! Stone Age Northern European tribes where peaceful matriarchies where everyone was equal! Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism was mere propaganda created by those nasty Papist Spaniards!"

  • A central implicit belief that things naturally tend to go according to how they should according to our current value system, any deviations are anomalies. "Evolution always favours nice traits like intelligence or free love. To say it favours nasty things like rape is to make excuses for nasty people! Peoples more often adapt than go extinct. Wars and bloodshed don't happen as often as in the parts of history that we can actually properly see."

Why where Howards priors better? This may be because of the following:

  • In his time very difficult to change differences be it in values or characteristics between the sexes, individuals and groups where more widely accepted. People living in different circumstances for a long time might actually be different. Sometimes those differences are the cause of the different circumstances under which they live.

  • Ethnocentrism among was less unfashionable than today, so while people in the past still painted utopias or morality plays in ancient lost ears or distant lands, there was an additional automatic break that made such tales less believable . They may have lived like I think we should, but come now I don't actually know much about them, don't forget these people where/are different from me and they where/are probably discomforting or deficient to my eyes in some way.

  • Being a friend of someone like Lovecraft is a good way to properly adjust to a uncaring universe that not only dosen't have a benevolent God watching us but dosen't conform to our ethical standards very much either. Nothing guarantees future development will be "good". Nothing guarantees unforeseen consequences of our actions or events outside our control are survivable or don't change us into monsters.

Interesting post, but I don't think it needs quite so much emphasis.

Hm, looking at it a second time I think you are right. It was just that as I reread the text, I was like "oh oh this is important too!". Gregory Cochran says in one page what some people need an entire chapter to say.

Ok I've edited my emphasis, is it any better?

Much improved.