BrownCast Podcast episode 47: Game of Thrones with Jennifer Raff and Patrick Wyman

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes, Spotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

This week Razib talks the end of Game of Thrones with geneticist and anthropologist Jennifer Raff and historian and podcaster Patrick Wyman.


My letter to the Cambridge Union

By Xerxes the Magian 4 Comments

Dear Sir/Madam,

Hope you are well. I wanted to make a complaint about today’s event.

There was a Pakistan Society Event at the Union “the Asif Khosla talk.” Many of my friends were going to it and I had decided to come along. 

At the door I was stopped by one of the girls and asked for my student id. I explained to them that I wasn’t a student but I was told about the event from my friends at Pakistan Society and asked to come along.

My wife is also a PhD student at the University and accordingly spouses are allowed at University events.

At that point the gentleman (a young white student of around 20) just asked me to leave saying it’s for students only.

I later found out many non-students were there but it was rather humiliating and demeaning to be asked to turn around in front of my friends. I could have argued with them but it just felt so unnecessary and it seemed like he was on a power trip.

It’s upsetting to see that not only did the usual Town-Gown divide raise its ugly head (even though within the University statutes I have the same rights as the spouse of Gown) but it felt there was an additional race divide.

I feel if it had been Pakistanis gatekeeping; there would have been so much more sensitivity shown in the matter. I felt that either I was a terrorist or some hoodlum trying to barge the sacred gates of the Union.

The irony is of course I was speaking at the Union for Majlis in March; if it’s going to be such an unfriendly environment that only the privileged feel welcomed then all cries of accessibility ring hollow.

I’m a respectable Brit-Pak professional at 34; I don’t have the heart to continue being barred and demeaned by a 20year old white Male student on a power trip arbitrarily applying the rules.

I write to you to express my dismay and regret. Initially I wasn’t going to do anything about it but after speaking to a good friend at the University, who happens to be tenured faculty in STEM; at their urging they asked me to write to the Union (and Varsity- however I’ve omitted them) as a first step to redress.

I look forward to hearing back from you.




The British have no contrition for what they did to India-

By Xerxes the Magian 70 Comments

They threw in all the buzz words (caste) while also sort of justifying that the Viceroys were benighted patricians. The Germans don’t write about their history in a similar way.

The “whitewashing” of Empire (expediently helped by WW2 victory) has built up this steady resentment in Britain against the EU.

Brexit is turning out to be the imperial reckoning that Britain has avoided so long.


To understand Islam one must understand religion

By Razib Khan 65 Comments

Over the last few months, the traffic on this website has increased. The proportion of pageviews from India is now approaching parity with the proportion from the USA. To me, this suggests that perhaps it would be useful to outline a few things anyone who has read me in the past would probably know, but new readers will not know. I am in particular aiming this post to moderately above average intelligence readers, such as “Scorpion Eater.” Someone used to being the “smartest person in the room” due to the normal mediocre company of the unread or dull. The sort of person who leaves long comments on other peoples’ posts or articles. There’s a reason they aren’t writing anything original themselves.

In addition to being moderately intelligent, I also want to target the “internet Hindu” segment of the audience. I don’t mean the term pejoratively here, but more as a bracket for a wide range of people of different stances. One of the strangest things about internet Hindus in my experience is that:

1) They, like many Muslims, believe Islam is a religion of preternatural characteristics

2) Despite not being Muslim, and often hostile to Islam, they are convinced they know all about Muslims and Islam, even better than people who might be Muslim or of Muslim origin. They can get themselves inside the minds of Muslims

An analogy might be talking to a white nationalist who is convinced of the unique prowess of black people and seems inordinately confident that they know more about black history than black people themselves.

One thing that both internet Hindus and many atheists have in common is they lack a good intuitive feel for the phenomenology of religion. An internet Hindu or a village atheist will respond to the question of “what is Islam” with “read the Koran!”

I was myself a typical village atheist, or more precisely a philosophical atheist (I had read books like Atheism: a philosophical justification and The Case Against God) in 2003 when I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: An Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran is a cognitive anthropologist, who treats religion as a natural phenomenon. He is part of the “naturalistic paradigm” within anthropology. A small group of scholars, these intellectuals bring a multi-disciplinary framework to analyzing human cultures, with a strong theoretical basis in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. This is in contrast to the more common “thick description” that is the norm in much of modern anthropology,  which offers few broad generalities (or a Marxist viewpoint, which offers the same generality).

In Gods We Trust is a very dense book. Religion Explained is a similar work but written a bit more accessibly for the lay audience. But you get the picture.

What is the biggest takeaway from cognitive anthropology and religion? That religious phenomenon can best be understood as a manifestation of common psychological intuitions. The reduction of religion to complex theologies is to a great extent a propagandistic narrative promoted by religious professionals, who have written the histories of religion for the past 2,500 years. Those who exhibit mastery of texts, and dispense ritual, will naturally reduce religion to texts and rituals. That’s what they control.

But the underlying psychological impulses remain. This explains why “atheistic” Communist societies so often develop personality cults of charismatic leaders. The religious impulse is simply projected upon a different target.  Strip away the books and the incense, and the human mind still has as the basic fundaments of the religious phenotype.

How does this apply to Islam? In the book Theological Incorrectness, the anthropologist D. Jason Slone reports on his fieldwork in Sri Lanka amongst Theravada Buddhists,  Hindus, and  Muslims. Using psychological experiments, which remove participants from easy to comprehend cues and scripts, he showed that all three religious groups had the same conception of god(s). This is interesting, because, in theory, Hinduism and Islam have different conceptions of gods, while Theravada Buddhism deemphasizes gods.

One reaction to these findings, which tend to be cross-cultural (that is, humans tend to have the same conceptual framework for a god despite theological distinctions), is that believers misunderstand their religion.  I think a better interpretation is that religion can be thought of as two tracks, a conscious verbal track, which is quite superficial, and a deep cognitive track, which is harder to elucidate but primal and universal.

To illustrate, most Christians believe in a Trinitarian God, three persons with one substance. But this is really just a verbal script.  Most Christians don’t even know the technical philosophy of substances and essences which serve as the basis for the Trinity.

All of this brings me back to Islam and the internet Hindu. Muslims are wont to promote a story of a miracle in the Arabian desert 1,400 years ago, and the emergence of the armies of Islam from that desert with Koran in hand. Soon they accomplished a conquest of Persia and much of the Roman Empire.  This incredibly violent and organized religion then smashed against India and raped and assaulted the Hindu civilization. Finally, the assault ended, and India recovered,  though Islam is still a specter haunting South Asia.

I have a revisionist take. I think the most probable model is one where Islam developed organically in the 7th and 8th centuries after the conquest of the Arabs. The Arabs were probably something close to what we’d recognize as heretical Christians but developed Islam to separate and elevate themselves from their subjects. More precisely, Sunni Islam cannot be understood until deep into the 9th century, after the Mu’tazilite period, and the rise of law as the dominant tradition with the Islamic sciences.

The Koran cannot explain Islam because most Muslims were and are illiterate in the Arabic of the Koran, and Islam itself did not develop in its full form until well after various elements of the Koran had already come into being. The weakness of scripture in predicting religion can be illustrated by the fact that the Hebrew Bible is more violent than the Koran,  but Jews have been relatively pacific since the 2nd century A.D. (the reality of two failed rebellions left its mark on Jewish memory).

Of course, Muslim fundamentalists will tell you this is nonsense. That their religion is all about the Koran. That it’s a special religion.   And the internet Hindu agrees.  It is special (though in their case not a “good” way).

I am skeptical of that. I agree with Samuel Huntington’s empirical observation that “Islam has bloody borders.” At least today. But I would offer caution on chalking it up to something primal. In 1900 we might be wondering about in Jesus Christ’s message made it so that Christianity was an imperial religion of world domination and hegemony. Today we would laugh at that.

Note: I’m usually pretty lax about moderation on this blog, but if you are stupid, and you probably are, I will like trash your comment.  This post exists mostly to familiarize people with books.


Gene Expression status update

By Razib Khan 4 Comments

Since people keep asking, I will post here (it will post to my total feed). Gene Expression the website kept maxing the shared hosting plan’s CPU a few weeks ago. I took it down because I didn’t want our host to blacklist it. When I have some time to spare that’s continuous I will get it back up, along with archives. The issue has been time (I used Cloudflare for what’s it worth). The host looked at the logs and suggested it might have been targeted by DoS attack.

The downside of me hosting the blog is that I have to do all the tech stuff. On the other hand, I have total control of the platform. In this day and age I am not going to give up the control, so just be patient. Honestly, I obviously don’t have as much spare time as I did when I started the blog as a 20something 17 years ago. But I’m not ditching it either.


Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 2

By Shafiq R 12 Comments

In this part I write about some of the interesting changes I saw in the villages of Bangladesh during my stay there. I wrote this as an op-ed in a local daily.

[I am very interested to know from Brown Pundit readers of other South Asian countries about changes in rural society and economy from direct experiences. Particularly interesting would be to know if there are variations among countries]


Earlier this year, I came back to Bangladesh after an absence of more than five years, and stayed for more than a month.

During the stay, I had the opportunity to visit rural and small-town parts of the country in two forays out of Dhaka. A visit to my ancestral home in the northern parts and another to the southwestern parts. These visits were my first into rural Bangladesh after more than a decade. Therefore, they provided very stark experiences of the rapid but gradual change that has been occurring for several decades.

The first thing that caught my eye was how drastically the utilization of resources has increased over the last decade. A decade or so ago, in Northern parts, you would mostly see cultivated fields expanding miles to the distant horizon. Now, people have planted so many trees everywhere that it almost gave me a claustrophobic feel.

Every pond is utilized for fish production and every square metre of the land is cultivated for year-round value addition. Bangladesh is, reputedly, among the leading developing countries with the fastest agricultural productivity growth in the last two decades. The dramatic physical transformation of the village landscape is clearly strong evidence of that growth.

I saw yet another striking change in the transportation scene. A decade ago, manually driven rickshaws and rickshaw-vans were ubiquitous. Now I could mostly see electric and mechanized transports. It seemed to me that people in the village were now looking down upon manual transports as archaic. Also, I rarely saw buffaloes and oxen traditionally used for plowing the fields — tractors and power-tillers had taken over that role.

What are the reasons for such remarkable growth in rural productivity and economy? Undoubtedly government policies and infrastructure development played important roles, but I believe that one of the biggest drivers of this change is unappreciated but right before our eyes. In the villages, I saw everybody with mobile phones and phone-related service shops everywhere.

Economists in the last decade have begun to appreciate the transformative role mobile phones and the internet have been playing in the developing world. Unlike previous models, where heavy government investment in communications infrastructure was critical in economic development, mobile infrastructures grew almost entirely because of the private sector, and brought far greater connectivity with far fewer costs.

Developing countries went from less than 1-2 landlines per hundred people to 70-80 mobile connections per hundred in just 20 years. The poorest people in villages are now able to talk with anybody in the country, but also send and receive payments and access the internet and government services through mobile phones.

People in villages are using phones to be constantly updated about prices of agricultural inputs and outputs and get the best deals possible in the market. The increased competition and undercutting of middlemen have increased efficiency greatly. Coordinating all kinds of complex tasks, like contracting day labourers for planting or harvesting, have become much easier.

But there is a flip side to agricultural productivity growth that has taken place all over the world. Prices of easily tradable products like grains, consumer oil, milk products have been low for more than a decade and that low price has hit small farmers the hardest.

Like everywhere in the world, small farmers of bulk products like rice in Bangladesh can only be economically sustainable by massive government support. However, unlike India and other developing democracies, farmers in Bangladesh have little political power, as there are no competitive elections. I do not think the government in Bangladesh is as sensitive about rural unrest as it is about urban discontent.

Paradoxically, in spite of the economic and productive growth, I found the villages to be much less populated than they were 10 years ago. Like everywhere in the world, I think Bangladesh also is experiencing rural depopulation, and this will only accelerate in the future. I think the main reason is that people are reluctant to live in actual villages. Like everywhere, people aspire to live in more complex societies with more modern services.

Those who are able, move to upazilla towns where there are schools, banks, hospitals, police stations. More better-offs move to zilla cities, and the most propertied go to Dhaka and Chittagong. Village girls probably also think that working in a mind-numbing factory job for subsistence wage in a big city is preferable to the daily monotony of a village household.

Finally, one of the most inspiring sights I saw in villages was young girls riding huge motorbikes as part of their daily commute to work or study, a sight you rarely see even in America. I think that the prospect of Islamization of Bangladesh society is exaggerated. People of Bangladesh are very religious, and religious identity is very important for them. However, they are also very aware that religious and secular activities belong to different spheres, and they are not letting religion dictate their economic life.

The pragmatic and opportunistic nature of Bangladeshi people has been the saving grace of a country facing immense structural hurdles right from its birth. Nowhere is this more evident than its rapidly changing villages.


Browncast Ep 46: the Professor Devji Podcast

By Xerxes the Magian 40 Comments

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, AppleSpotify, and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…this podcast was posted a while ago).

Dr. MJ & I speak to Professor Devji.

I loved the podcast and even MJ felt it was the best one we had done so far. Professor Devji touches upon:

(1.) how the BJP mobilises votes (the modernist party)

(2.) the Muslim question and the coded language concerning it (“appeasement politics” / vote banks)

(3.) the fact that a lot of Hindutva’s aims are to remove governmental control of Hinduism (in a way it can’t control minority religions) as opposed to “Hinduism controlling the government.”

(4.) Caste politics and how Hindutva frames the discourse

(5.) whether the “Overton Window” in India has shifted.

I’m hoping to get him to speak at Cambridge Majlis next term since he’s such a knowledgeable speaker.

As always please leave reviews, feedbacks and comments!


Since 1989

By Razib Khan 70 Comments

China is an authoritarian, in some ways totalitarian, nation-state. But we need to keep the larger perspective in mind as well.

Judge a society by how the odds are for the least of them.