A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: August 2017

Skin Color in Roman Britain

There has been quite a stink over the past few weeks about what color skin the Romans in Britain had.  The BBC put a dark-skinned Roman official in a children’s cartoon history program, and the denizens of social media were off to the races. [1] Mary Beard  and Neville Morley picked up the standard for the classicists. Among the alt-right antagonists was the pop market-analyst N.N. Taleb, who got famous for coining the term “Black Swan”, but seems not to have the chops to back up his reputation. The noise from the racists got so loud that the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge felt obliged to weigh in. This is kind of amazing to me. I was sure everyone knew that the Roman Empire stretched well into Africa and Asia.  They even had an emperor called “Philip the Arab“, for crying out loud!  When the Roman generals chose troops to occupy a far-flung province, prudence dictated that their preferred troops not have any language in common with the subject population except Latin.  So claiming that the Romans in Britain were all light-skinned seems unsupportable.

But let’s see what they’re saying.  As nearly as the the alt-right are willing to be understood, they’re basing their objections on a map of genetic markers in the current British population.  A 2015 study of the fine-scale genetic structure of the UK doesn’t show much sign of African genes.  They think this “hard science” is much more important evidence than squishy, historically-based evidence, even when the historians have eyewitness accounts.  The Guardian article I linked at the top lists some good reasons why genetic surveys might not be the best evidence for claims about ethnicity 2,000 years ago.

I’d like to add another reason:  There resemblance between the genetic survey’s clusters and the patterns of family names in the UK is not strong. Leslie et al. tracked autosomal DNA, not mitochondrial, so there should be strong parallels.  Surnames and genes are inherited from the same ancestors, after all. A map by from the Nature article looks like this:

Leslie et al. map of clusters

Clusters of genetic similarity.

In the course of tracking down hobbits, I found the work of James Cheshire and his collaborators,  which shows a strong relationship  between clusters of family names in the UK and the cultural/administrative regions of the country.  Here’s a map published by Cheshire, Longley, and Singleton in 2010.

Clusters of family names

There are some general resemblances. The big homogeneous blob in the East and South East is there, though family names don’t let it extend all the way to Northumberland.  I can see hints in the light-blue smear in the North West and the purple smear in the southern West Midlands. Below the coarsest level, though, the two distributions do not resemble each other very well.  In particular, the genetics suggests that the people of Pembrokeshire (the southern peninsula of Wales) are affiliated with the Scotch-Irish borderlanders.  Family names suggest they’re more like the West Midlanders.  And if there’s a family resemblance between Yorkshiremen and Cornishmen, it doesn’t show up in their names.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the genetics is pointing us in a common direction with external markers of family ties. There really is something there, and a salute to the geneticists who have managed to tease it out. However, the signals are accompanied by a lot of noise.  We can’t yet use genetic evidence with any precision.  When we have a person standing next to an Ethiopian legionary on Hadrian’s Wall and writing about it, it would be foolish to try to contradict him with our rudimentary genetic surveys.

Post-scriptum: I really enjoyed the line, “History is written by the winners; genetics is written by the masses.”

[1] Sorry.

All that is gold does not glitter

Over on Facebook, Arthur Harrow raises a point of logic:

“all that is gold does not glitter” means “nothing that is gold glitters” like the difference between “all refrigerators are not Frigidaires” and “not all refrigerators are Frigidaires.” It seems to me that JRRT would know the proper grammar; do you think there is significance to this?

The common proverb, of course, is “all that glitters is not gold”, which is a useful thing to remember.  Tolkien twists it around for his narrative purposes.  But I have learned that he thought about the roots of words as much as he thought about their current meanings, so I think this is JRRT having some fun with etymology. According to my go-to source on the Web,

c. 1300, glideren (late 14c. as gliteren), from an unrecorded Old English word or from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse glitra “to glitter,” from Proto-Germanic *glit- “shining, bright” (source also of Old English glitenian “to glitter, shine; be distinguished,” Old High German glizzan, German glitzern, Gothic glitmunjan), from PIE *ghleid- (source also of Greek khlidon, khlidos “ornament”), from root *ghel- (2) “to shine,” with derivatives referring to bright materials and gold. … Other Middle English words for “to glitter” include glasteren and glateren.

Etymologically, everything that is gold glitters, by definition.

gold ring on black background

Does not glitter

But if we look at a modern dictionary, “glitter” means “sparkle”. The stuff that people throw around to celebrate is called glitter because of light sparkling off its cut edges, not because of the metallic sheen of the plastic it’s made from. The old meaning of shining like gold has passed over to “gleam”.

So, apart from its purpose in the story, “all that is gold does not glitter” is using the precise logical meaning that Arthur identified to make a wry comment on a change in the English language.

Anne Dufourmantelle

Discovering an interesting philosopher by reading her obituary is a definitive case of mixed feelings.  That’s where I am now with Anne Dufourmantelle, psychologist, theologian, and philosopher.Anne Dufourmantelle portrait  Lately it seems that many projects in which I am interested are hobbled by an imbalanced perception of risk.  All activities involve a tradeoff between the risks involved and the good that can be achieved, but lately safety and security have been elevated to pre-eminence over all other possible goods.  This seems like a recipe for stagnation.  I was pleased to learn that people are doing the intellectual heavy lifting to support or refute that apparent situation.  Alas, the reason I heard about her in English-language media is that she lived up to her philosophical understanding of risk, and suffered a heart attack while rescuing two children caught in a rip tide.

Here’s what she said in an article in Libération, about her book In Praise of Risk.  Interview by Anastasia Vécrin, 14 September 2015


In the face of the terrorist threat and the migrant crisis, how can we continue to live without giving way to a security panic? Some want to close the borders, others advocate an increased armed presence on public transportation. But do these proposals reassure us? Or rather, do they remind us of imminent danger? The philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle, author of Eloge du risque (Payot 2011), explains that living necessarily involves taking risks. And today it is the migrants, victims of the wars in the Middle East, who need protection more than we do.

Q: In the context of permanent terrorist threat, must we over-protect ourselves?

AD: First, terrorist threats are always a political weapon for the control of individual freedom. Any security response is already political. The question is always phrased as “how, in addition to protecting people and preventing an attack, can we reinforce the means of control and make them more efficient?” Remember: all totalitarians end up using the terrorist threat to liquidate alternatives.

Moreover, in a more banal sense, “security” generates fear more than it assuages it. Under the media-pushed threat of random violence, the population becomes paranoid, even to the point of denouncing others to the authorities. Every terrorist act emphasizes a little more the idea of continuous danger. An opportunity for abuse of power exercised this way rests on the potentiality of a dangerous, even mortal, intrusion that can only be thwarted by maintaining a perpetual state of alert.

When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and becoming part of something larger than oneself. That doesn’t happen in the current case. In my opinion, if the threat of the attacks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre had lasted months, another relationship to the threat would have grown in the population, beyond any directives from the state. We’d have seen a form of active solidarity.

Faced with an external reality of anarchy and horror, people reorganize their lives, invents small rituals, tiny actions, magic words to protect a space of humanity. In a way, anxiety loses ground because people have recourse to an alternative. On the contrary, to imagine an enemy ready to attack from time to time induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of impotence which calls for a maternal body, supposedly all protective. “Big Brother” turns into “Big Mother” as the psychoanalyst Michel Schneider put it. Today, we desire this overprotection and are encouraged to remain in a condition of voluntary servitude.

Q: Nevertheless, the desire for security can’t be completely satisfied, because there’s always some risk…

AD: The idea of absolute security – “zero risk” – is a fantasy. It appeals to an archaic sense of impotence and the desire for remedies attached to it. You have to be wary of someone who offers you total security, because the shelter often works in a perverse way. The price of protection quickly becomes very high, as we see in mafia protection rackets. When we start from infantilization, we put ourselves under guardianship. Except that when you see police patrolling, it is more worrying than reassuring. Paradoxically, the signs of protection reactivate the feeling of insecurity. Security laws provoke transgressions that will themselves justify new security rules. It is a vicious circle. True protection includes confidence in the capacity that someone does or doesn’t have to experience their freedom. To live is to take risks by definition. A person with autonomy is less easy to influence than one who is governed by fear.

Faced with an unpredictable danger, the fear that overwhelms us is all the stronger because it traps us in the impossibility of anticipating and anticipating. We are paralyzed in the face of senseless cataclysm. To be a victim of a terrorist attack is to be a “generic” victim, that is to say, they have been targeted not individually but because they belong to a sex, a culture, a religion, or a function in society. Or they could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This fatal absurdity is unbearable in our modern age, where “destiny” has given way to everyday life, and where we’ve tried to make “chance” an endangered species.

Q: To refuse risk is to refuse to live?

AD: The usual expression is to say, “I risk my life”, but perhaps one should say, “I risk life”. To be entirely alive is a risk, and few people are. There are many zombies, undead, lives attenuated by the “disease of death” as Kierkegaard called it. This risk is what another philosopher who disappeared under torture, Jan Patocka, called “life in amplitude”.

Q: Why such a search for protection?

AD: One of the things that characterizes the human being is this first breath of a newborn baby. It is a suffering, and it can also be an ecstasy. In either case, it is a radical passage. Life is metamorphosis; it begins with this first risk. Man is neotenous, an unfinished being who needs to be protected for survival, unlike other animal species. If, initially, he is not surrounded by care and protection, he is in danger of death. These early stages of our being are marked by this association “ life = survival”, which are anchored in our memory, then repressed. When one invokes threat and fear, I believe that part of us regresses to this first period of life, to its fundamental vulnerability.

Q: How can we get free of this feeling of fear?

AD: I do not have a universal answer. From an analytical point of view, it may be possible to tame fear by welcoming it. When one admits his fear, his finitude, a confidence can be reborn from this vulnerability. If we make fear into something negative, we lock it in place. Like the mechanisms of anxiety or neurosis, fear is formed by one’s past, so we understand the future by means of that experience. Neurosis has a horror of the new. We can disarm fear if we identify this mechanism of referral to the past, of systematic repetition. Sometimes it is necessary to refuse a security initiative. Let there be a call to vigilance, fine, but let us still keep up our confidence. People who are not going to give up going about their business, even though there are bombs exploding on way, are people who are placing a heavy stone on the pan of the balance against terror.

Q: How to explain this paradox: that people want more security while wanting to preserve their freedoms?

This is not so much paradoxical as it is infantile. It brings us back to that age of life that wants both a protective cocoon and the thrill of transgressive experiences. The taste for freedom is widespread but the strength to bear the risk, much less so.

There is also an indirect answer to your question: those who really need protection are the victims of these unjust wars that have set fire to the Middle East, for which we are collectively responsible. We usually call them “migrants” (a term that leaves them perpetually wandering). The terrorist threat they live under is not fabricated by governments for control. They survive under terror, and try to escape from it. It is our duty to open our borders, for the law of unconditional hospitality is the first humanizing rule of a civilization. Let us not forget that one day it will be our turn to be the migrants, and we will be begging for hospitality and protection. What security procedures will be arrayed against us then?

Tales from the Attic

There was an Old-Testament-grade thunderstorm this week. My shingles are apparently not among the righteous; the roof sprang a leak. We caught it before it could do any serious damage but I’ve been up in the attic this weekend, carrying boxes out to sit in the sunshine and replacing damp insulation.

One of the boxes contained a first edition of Unfinished Tales, purchased at the remainder price of $2.98. The glue on the fold-out map has come loose, but it’s otherwise in good condition. I’ve never seen it before. It must be part of my first wife’s estate, purchased before I met her. (That price is compatible with our net worth in those days.)

I was debating whether to purchase a copy of the book. Now I have my answer.

Tales from the Attic

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