Saga Iceland and “thar”

In the comments on my previous post, someone linked to Steven Dutch’s essay The World’s Most Toxic Value System, in which he discusses the many evils that flow from a complex of values that he labels with the Arabic word “thar” (blood vengeance).

Dutch’s essay is in many ways insightful, and a welcome corrective to the mush-minded notion that all cultures have equally valid ethical claims. But it suffers a bit from the author’s lack of anthropological breadth – while he is commendably clear-eyed about what he has seen, there is much he has not seen that bears on and could be used to improve his thesis.

I think it is particularly instructive to apply Dutch’s criteria to the culture of saga Iceland, which we may take as a literate representative of the pre-Christian Norse and more generally of old tribal Germanic culture. This tradition should be especially interesting to English-speakers, as the Anglo-Saxon version of it was foundational to Anglo-American common law and notions of liberty.

To see what makes the saga Icelanders so interesting in this context, let’s first test them against both Dutch’s criteria for a “thar” culture and the consequences he expects from “thar”:

Extreme importance of personal status and sensitivity to insult. Yes, this is well attested by the sagas.

Acceptance of personal revenge including retaliatory killing. This also. So far, the Icelanders seem to be fitting the “thar” pattern.

Obsessive male dominance. But here we swerve off the track. The sagas are full of strong female characters who are primary actors. Icelandic women were far from subjugated; indeed, they sometimes commanded ships and armed bodies of men, and it is clear that they enjoyed even more equality in custom than they did under formal Icelandic law.

Paranoia over female sexual infidelity. There is barely even a detectable trace of this in the sagas – in fact saga Icelanders seemed less concerned about it than their modern descendants are.

Primacy of family rights over individual rights. No. While honor was a concern of families and blood feuds tended to be among familial lines, rights and obligations definitely attached to individuals in both law and custom. Family authority over individuals was correspondingly weak.

I think it’s also instructive to follow Dutch and apply Ralph Peters’s additional criteria for “loser” cultures, which Dutch correctly notes are strongly correlated with his “thar” complex.

Restrictions on the free flow of information. I believe if you had proposed this to a saga Icelander as a mechanism of cultural control that was even possible, let alone appropriate, he (or she) would have thought you were barmy.

Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure. Absolutely not. One of the most marked traits of saga Icelanders in adverse situations was a sort of stoic responsibility, and a mental toughness about failure that accepted it as a datum and moved on. It is difficult for Americans and Britons to see how exceptional this made the saga Icelanders among preindustrial cultures precisely because we inherited this stance and are ourselves exceptional among modern cultures in exactly the same way.

The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization. This one is interesting. Peters says “Where blood ties rule, you cannot trust the contract, let alone the handshake.” and it is very clear what he is reacting to in the culture of (for example) Arabs and Sicilians. But, while the extended family was the basic unit of social organization in saga Iceland, there was an equally strong ethos of reciprocal individual contract that was basic to law and the chieftainship system. The saga Icelanders were one of the few pre-modern societies in which you could trust a handshake – indeed, blood feuds seem to have ended that way as often as they were resolved by formal legal process.

Domination by a restrictive religion. Early saga Icelanders didn’t have this problem. Later ones did as Christianity became more important. The scale and intensity of intercommunal violence increased accordingly.

A low valuation of education. Again, no. The saga Icelanders clearly respected the sorts of education they had available to them. They had a strong sense of cultural patrimony, and there is direct evidence in the spoken boasts of saga characters that the cultivation of intelligence through media including poetry and board games was considered a desirable trait even in high-status warrior males. Exceptionally for a pre-modern society, even female intelligence was valued: one of the Icelandic praise-names that comes down to us was of an early female settler called “Aud the Deep-Minded”

Low prestige assigned to work. And again, no. Saga Icelanders are famous to us as fighters and explorers, but their economic base was as smallholding farmers. They worked hard and valued hard work.

Now I will note some other respects in which the saga Icelanders (and their Norse and Anglo-Saxon kin) diverged from the “thar” pattern. They didn’t disdain trade or have sharp notions of low-status work to be done only by women, thralls and foreigners. They didn’t suffer from technological stagnation – indeed, the recorded evolution of ships and weapons over the entire Norse cultural complex shows these people to have been flexible, innovative and highly pragmatic in their technological choices.

So. We have seen that saga Icelanders (representing the Norse/Anglo-Saxon/old-Germanic culture complex) had what Dutch considers the central traits of the “thar” complex – notably, (1) touchiness about personal honor and status, (2) institutionalized blood feud, and (3) family-centered social organization. Yet they, like the other Norse and the Anglo-Saxons, evaded the poverty and stagnation that Dutch correctly describes as typical of “thar” cultures; they got better.

In fact, they got so much better that their memetic descendants in the modern Anglosphere evolved the wealthiest and most forward-looking cultures in human history. Here’s a telling fact about that continuity: England and the U.S. kept the Norse/old-Germanic pattern of agricultural land use – individual family farms on their own land – long after continental Germans, Frisians, and Dutch adopted village-centered agriculture with complicated collective-ownership structures. (This is interesting not least because it tells us that genetics and “race” are probably not important causes here.)

So, what is this evidence trying to tell us?

I think one lesson is that Dutch has mistaken essence for accident. There is a very real pathology that he’s pointing at – having lived in Italy I can certify, for example, that his comparison of Northern with Southern Italians is both telling and correct. But I think the high incidence of blood feud and personal violence in these sick cultures is a consequence of the pathology, not its actual cause. Dutch’s “thar” is thus a mislabeling, there is something deeper in play.

If we compare Arabs, Sicilians, or Albanians to saga Norse, a couple of psychological differences stand out. One is impulse control. The Norse highly valued self-command; it was thought supremely manly to be master of one’s passions, and to seek violent revenge with forethought and methodical planning. In Dutch’s “thar” cultures, on the other hand, men expect to be overwhelmed by their emotions. They have, by Norse and modern Western standards, deficient impulse control – in fact, they tend to consider impulse control effete. Thus, they plan poorly and are brittle and panicky under adversity.

Another marked difference is the level of social trust. I have already noted that saga Iceland appears to have been one of the few pre-modern cultures in which you could generally count on a handshake deal to hold. Honesty and keeping one’s sworn oath were considered bedrock virtues, trade transactions with strangers were normal, and loyalties were readily formed across kin-group lines. These are marks of a high-trust society. Indeed, the most perplexing and fascinating thing about the Norse to modern eyes is how they combined high trust with what to moderns seem shockingly high violence levels.

By contrast, Dutch’s “thar” societies are tragically low-trust. They have the violence, touchiness, and feuding families of the Norse, but the ability of the Norse to cultivate reciprocity across kin-group lines is lacking. It is difficult for modern Westerners to understand how crippling this is. One observable consequence in the 21st-century Arab world is that military command structures have to be organized so that superiors are either of the same clan as inferiors or can apply immediate and overwhelming coercion – otherwise orders will be subverted as often as they are followed.

What I think the example of saga Iceland tells us is that these holes in cultural capital – low trust and low valuation of impulse control – are more fundamental to the “thar” pathology than blood feud and personal vengeance. Low trust and poor impulse control imply blood-feud and revenge, but the Norse show us that the reverse does not seem to be true.

How the subjugation of women and sexual paranoia fit into this – whether as causes or consequences – is less clear to me. It may be as simple as this: if you can’t trust your neighbor to control his impulses to seduce or rape your wife, and you can’t directly coerce him, isolating and controlling your wife may be the only way to keep the peace (and secure her scarce reproductive capacity).

To sum up this level of explanation, blood-feud and honor aren’t the trap. Low trust is the trap; stagnation and endemic blood-feud (“thar”) are the consequence. Exhibit A is the Arab world and the portions of the Mediterranean and Balkans long under Arab dominance (Sicily being a notable example).

Is there a level of explanation below this? I’m not sure, though I’m strongly tempted to believe that population differences in average intelligence are causative. It’s been observed that average IQ in a population varies directly with the latitude of its genetic homeland, and convincingly speculated that this is because colder climates require more cooperative behavior and a more elaborate technological toolkit than warmer ones do. The Norse may have been just bright enough…

It may not even take thousands of miles of latitude to make a noticeable selective difference. Northern Italians think they’re brighter on average than southern Italians, and on the evidence they’re probably not wrong. But guesses about population genetics aren’t really necessary to the main point; Dutch has it slightly wrong, the problem with “thar” is not actually “thar” itself.

77 thoughts on “Saga Iceland and “thar”

  1. Hence the expression that reaches back to the days of the British empire – “Never trust an arab”

  2. @ESR: “How the subjugation of women and sexual paranoia fit into this – whether as causes or consequences – is less clear to me. It may be as simple as this: if you can’t trust your neighbor to control his impulses to seduce or rape your wife, and you can’t directly coerce him, isolating and controlling your wife may be the only way to keep the peace (and secure her scarce reproductive capacity).”

    It makes more sense if you look at it in the context of the society. Societies exist in environments, and societal practices are responses to their environments. Things inexplicable to us are things that at some point aided the survival of the society that practiced them. The key is that the survival of the *society* was important. The *individual* might not *matter*.

  3. Iceland was / is a small place, with little economic interaction (sans plunder) with outsiders. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone you contracted with would still be around, in the same place, later on. If you shirked, the whole island would now. And if your kinsmen did not straighten you out when you shirked, the whole island would know that too.

    Arabia was largely nomadic. Noone ever stuck around. And the Arabs’ contacts were with the entirety of the Middle East and Central Asia. Steppe people and nomads cannot rely on what could in a place like Iceland be developed into multigenerational reputations for fair dealing, as they were constantly faced with ‘new’ people, new powers, new everything.

    Sicily is small like Iceland, but differs from Saga Iceland in that, due to it’s location, locals could prosper more by trading with outsiders than with each other. Hence, each clan could prosper pretty much independently of geographic neighbors, and the only effects a neighboring clan wold have, would be negative (robbing you of potential trading partners)

    In a contemporary setting, the tiny pockets of “stone agers” that were found on Papua New Guinea, seemed to have an absolutely incredible amount of interpersonal trust. They basically gave away all they owned to enhance their reputation; confident that someone else would give away what they owned later. You’ll never see that kind of traditions emerge in a large, anonymous, transient city.

    Honestly, as much as you seem to despise “thar” cultures, the world seems to be evolving in a direction closer to what gave rise to them, than towards anything resembling Saga Iceland. Transient connections, relative ease of bolting for greener pastures should one’s reputation be too damaged; large, expensive and impersonal governments limiting what those you wrong can do to you in return etc.

    And remember, that as much as every “advanced” empire since the dawn of time have looked down on “barbarians” like the Afghan tribesmen, the those guys are the only one’s who still live pretty much the same way they always have. While the empires have come and gone.

  4. (Crap. Didn’t mean to hit Post on that. Continuing from where I left off.)

    In societies based on extended families, the family is the critical social unit. Families aggregate to clans, and clans to tribes. Family networks provide services to their societies that might be the province of local government here. In such societies, descent is patrilinial, and what family you belong to depends upon who your father is. In consequence, knowing who someone’s father is may be the most important thing to know about them.

    The implications of this explain things like the Muslim practice of stoning to death a girl who loses her virginity outside of marriage, and things like female genital mutilation. In societies organized around extended families, marriage is often not a love match between a boy and girl: it’s a political and economic alliance between families, made for the benefit of the families. The feelings of the bride and groom may be irrelevant, and the arrangements may have been made when both were too young to have feelings about the matter.

    In such a setting, an unmarried daughter is valuable currency in family alliances. If she loses her virginity to someone not her husband, she becomes debased currency, and to some extent destabilizes her society. Since the survival of the society is prominent, the society developed draconian measures to prevent such things.

    Female genital mutilation has similar roots. If the most important thing to know is who someone’s father is, bastardy is a major problem. Deliberately reducing the pleasure a woman can take in sex is intended to reduce bastardy by removing one reason a woman might get pregnant by someone not her spouse.

    And what you grow up in is what you see as right and proper, so you can find accounts of support for the practice by women who had it done to them, claiming that women not so altered were “immodest” or the like.

    Insanity can be defined as holding a worldview at significant variance with reality. By that definition, entire cultures can be considered insane. The environment in which they exist has changed, and made various practices either unnecessary or counter-survival, but the society has not changed in consequence.

  5. @Stuki Moi: “In a contemporary setting, the tiny pockets of “stone agers” that were found on Papua New Guinea, seemed to have an absolutely incredible amount of interpersonal trust. They basically gave away all they owned to enhance their reputation; confident that someone else would give away what they owned later.”

    I believe you are referring to what was called the “Big Man” culture. It can be viewed as an alternate way to organize production. In our society, status is in part measured by how much you accumulate, In that society, status was measured by how much you gave away.

    In the society that practiced it, patriarchs of families exhorted relatives and friends to work hard and produce a lot. The proceeds of the hard work would be given away at an annual party. He who gave the most lavish party and distributed the most gifts was the Big Man for the year – the highest status possible in that society. But meanwhile, people in the society worked hard and produced much, and the entire society benefited as a consequence, which is why the practice continued.

  6. Mediterranean and Middle eastern culture were to some extend endogamous (Turks, Arabs, and Berber still are today), marrying often with close kin. Which explains a lot about the sensitivity around female chastity and clan stuff. Each woman is often already betrothed to some kinsman before she reaches a fertile age.

    Add to this the haunting of the raising a child of some other man.

    @ESR: “How the subjugation of women and sexual paranoia fit into this – whether as causes or consequences – is less clear to me.”

    There still is a widely held believe in North Africa that a fetus can sleep for years. So if a woman is not a virgin, you never, even after years, can be sure whether any child of her is fathered by her then husband. This believe can be a rationalization of the paranoia. But it is still practiced in law, eg, when a widow gets a child after years, the child is still legally fathered by the dead husband and his heir.

    Exogamous cultures tend to have different sensibilities, much less focused on virginity.

    Thar seems to have evolved into Arabs trusting only heir kin. On the Northern shores of the Mediterranean these sensitivities could still be seen in, eg, Romeo and Julia. But they have weakened over the centuries.

  7. It would be interesting to extend these comparisons to early Greek society and culture. One of the enduring Greek stories is that of a multi-generational blood feud, most familiar from Aeschylus’ retelling of it in his trilogy of plays “The House of Atreus.” And interestingly it is resolved when the supernatural agents of blood revenge (The Furies) are persuaded to submit to the action of law (rather than personal emotion).

  8. ” America’s prosperity may be self-limiting. No American can say he or she earned all the technological blessings around us. People who put out an honest day’s work can at least say they contribute their part, but the whole is vastly more than the sum of its parts. A few thousand computer scientists have completely transformed American society, and indeed the whole world. We see people who don’t want to pay taxes for education demanding the most advanced health care for themselves. If the reward system for contributing to technology erodes sufficiently and the sense of entitlement becomes arrogant enough, America’s ascent may stall.”
    Almost the same thought as the President’s latest gaffe, but an entirely different conclusion…

  9. @esr
    “(1) touchiness about personal honor and status, (2) institutionalized blood feud, and (3) family-centered social organization.”

    All three are the result of self-help justice for lack of any type of higher order justice:
    1) Mutual Assured Destruction: Touch me and I will take revenge even if it kills me. But also, only my honor will let others rely on me

    2) MAD, one step up

    3) You must trust someone, or else you die. So you fall back to those you really knew from birth: Your family.

  10. @Ian Argent:
    “We see people who don’t want to pay taxes for education demanding the most advanced health care for themselves.”

    That is a memorable quote

  11. I think that Medieval Japan is another example of high trust/high impulse control combined with high personal honor and blood feud. They also did pretty well.

  12. @DMcCunney,

    An (the?) important point to note, is that “Big Man” cultures can only function in closed “worlds”, where simply taking that which one is given and disappearing is not an option.

    Similarly, and from a wider perspective, the wider spectrum of ‘thar’ traditions and peculiarities are unlikely to simply have happened by accident. A generally sound assumption in a world governed by Darwinian evolution, is that all possible societies/cultures have been tried, and the ones left to observe are those who were found to be the fittest. In other words, explain differences in culture as a function of differences in the material world where the cultures arose, as Marx would do.

  13. The classic responses to barbarian raids are punitive expeditions and humiliation. The US Army used both against the plains tribes. It’s time somebody tried the second against the barbarians who call themselves Islamists.

  14. “How the subjugation of women and sexual paranoia fit into this – whether as causes or consequences – is less clear to me.”

    Probably a remnant of evolution. You don’t want your wife to be propagating some other males’ genes.

    That said, Saga Iceland is a direct counter-example. Women in that society had high status, and equal rights with men in many areas. If here husband abused her, she could seek revenge through her male family members, or get a divorce.

    Also, the Icelandic chieftains would maintain alliances of kinship by marrying their daughters to other chiefs. This greatly reduced instances of feuding.

    Also, at some point, someone had the smarts to propose that a system of arbitration and compensation for injuries be set up, and others had the wisdom to accept it. I notice that this exists in other feudal societies, like in today’s Afghanistan. Greatly reduces the mayhem.

  15. If your wife is pregnant (already) or breastfeeding, her reproductive resource is allocated. Keeping them pregnant allocates the resource. Given the state of women’s footwear, I’m not sure keeping them barefoot was comparitively opressive.

    Interestingly, in Saddam’s Iraq, Christians were respected over muslims because they wouldn’t engage in nepotism as such.

  16. Daniel – that’s awesome. I’m pretty sure I knew the person who set that up when we were in college.

  17. @Stuki Moi
    “A generally sound assumption in a world governed by Darwinian evolution, is that all possible societies/cultures have been tried,”
    Why is that a sound assumption?
    Evolution doesn’t make a systematic search. Evolution tries out neighbors of solutions which didn’t yet die out.
    So if there is a hypothetical society/culture which would work really good but all S/Cs from which it could evolve would die out pretty fast, then this S/C would never have been tried.

  18. I suggest that all forms of society work badly when operated by low IQ people, and well when operated by high IQ people: For example Parliamentary democracy is widely practiced in Africa, and usually ends in bloodshed. Each party campaigns on a program that when they are the government, their adherents will massacre the adherents of the other party, kill the men, rape the woman, and take their stuff. Thus, for example, the recent ivory coast election, when the immigrant party won, they proceeded to expel the natives, with much slaughter, much looting, much rape, and a bit of cannibalism. Mexicans are marginally higher IQ than blacks, so when they are the majority, we will probably be spared the cannibalism.

    Uganda successfully makes something like parliamentary democracy work by chaining any political activists who raise dangerous topics into the shape of a suitcase, leaving them in a hot dark dungeon for a while with no food or water, then feeding them to the crocodiles.

    Aristocratic elites in Africa are frequently higher IQ than the commoners. Some African societies do pretty well – and those seem to be societies where the old aristocracy is quietly holding onto power behind a facade of some other system.

    I don’t believe Murray’s theory that the progressive elite is also the intellectual elite, though I will not discuss the evidence on that topic here. Seems to me our elite has been getting steadily dumber, less selected for intelligence, since 1870 or so. Just look around. Who are the smartest people you know? They are doing OK, some of them are doing very well indeed, but they are not in our ruling elite and would not fit in.

  19. I don’t think you can explain the differences between Northern and Southern Italy by pointing at the Arabs. The Arabs weren’t very long in Sicily (only about a century) and they weren’t on the mainland at all. After the Arabs came the Normans, so Sicily was also subjected to Norse memes (and genes).

  20. >I suggest that all forms of society work badly when operated by low IQ people, and well when operated by high IQ people

    I wouldn’t say “well”, just not quite as bad. A large part of the argument for free markets is that NO ONE and no limited group is smart enough to replace them. See the current economic meltdown for evidence. And Eric’s essay on Pessimistic Anarchism for a longer argument.

  21. Looks like somebody in the State Department is taking the idea of memetic warfare against toxic ideologies to heart:

    I Snerked.
    The 4Chan project… our last best hope for peace.

  22. Was the violence of saga Iceland really comparable to the violence of thar-society Arabia? My impression is that the Icelanders responded with violence against a different (and possibly more selective) set of insults. E.g. a saga-period Icelander wouldn’t go in for ‘honor killings’ of his sisters and daughters, but would go after you if you called him a liar.

  23. Damnit. Stop using the idiotic phrase “low trust.” The problem isn’t that people don’t trust others. Thats the consequence. The problem is that people in those cultures are very dishonest!

  24. >E.g. a saga-period Icelander wouldn’t go in for ‘honor killings’ of his sisters and daughters, but would go after you if you called him a liar.

    You are certainly right about this, and probably right about the consequences. Levels of violence in the Icelandic Commonwealth don’t seem to have reached those typical of “thar” societies until incursive Christianity undermined the chieftainship system.

    But, er, so what? What’s your actual point here?

  25. >The problem is that people in those cultures are very dishonest!

    No, I don’t think that’s the whole problem. You have to mix in low average levels of impulse control and high time preference before you explain the entire pathology of “low trust”.

    To return to my earlier example: in a low-trust society, the reason I cannot accept my neighbor’s assurances that he doesn’t intend to seduce or rape my wife is not merely that I think his assurances might be lies, but because even if he’s telling the truth about his present intentions they are not reliable predictions of his impulsive behavior in the future.

    I take your implied point that “low trust” is misleading because it implies that people might fix the problem merely by trusting each other more, rather than by exhibiting honesty and reliability and the ability to defer gratification so that they actually merit trust. But I think we’re struck with “low trust” until someone invents a better label. Care to try?

  26. I’m no dedicated student of the subject but another thing that struck me wrong immediately about Dutch’s essay is his classification of Japanese society, now or way back when, as a guilt culture. My experience and everything I have ever read on the subject is that it’s a shame culture.

  27. How about “low permanence”? Low-permanence societies are ones where game-theoretic cooperation is difficult to achieve because of the improbability that iteration will occur, or that, if it does, that your past conduct will be taken into rational consideration.

  28. >But, er, so what? What’s your actual point here?

    That the differences between the icelandic and arabic conceptions of honor and insult weakens the example of Iceland as evidence for your position that blood feud and high levels of personal violence is more a consequence rather than a cause. That Steven Dutch was being over-broad, rather than mistaken, when he pointed to insult-sensitivity and personal violence as a cause for “thar”-society pathologies – it depends on the details. That the problem with thar may actually be thar after all.

  29. >My experience and everything I have ever read on the subject is that it’s a shame culture.

    I believe you are correct. I somehow missed this flaw in Dutch’s argument – good catch.

  30. >How about “low permanence”?

    I think the intention behind this is good, but this exact phrase is too easily misinterpreted.

  31. Certainly one of the key points is impulse control and future time orientation. I suspect that variations in these two (probably less than two as they’re most like highly correlated) parameters alone account for a wide variation in how societies evolve and are maintained. Saint Neal (i.e. Stephenson) discusses this at length in the Diamond Age both explicitly and implicitly. I believe his observations about societies and where we’re going overall to be pretty profound.

    @DMcCunney – the “Big Man” culture you refer to sounds like what we would just call “patronage.” Get some plebes to do work, then give away the fruits of their labor while making yourself look good.

    As to how “our society” assigns status to accumulation, I don’t think you’re wrong in making that observation – just that’s an incomplete observation. While certainly there are elements of our society (and probably a growing fraction of the population as a whole) that do assign status strictly on the accumulation of stuff, the accumulation of stuff was assumed to be reflection of underlying productivity. The mythic figures of our culture (I’m assuming that you “our” is anglo-american) are those that made stuff and made stuff happen: traders, explorers, inventors, industrialists, and the occasional general or admiral. The vast swath of the middle class was not keen on the “idle rich.” Consider also, of the standard canon of heroic archetypes, our societies admires the trickster for his cleverness (which to us implies competence), not for his ability to cheat and fraud.

  32. >That the problem with thar may actually be thar after all.

    Doesn’t follow. If the problem with thar were just thar, the differing sensitivity to insult wouldn’t matter – we’d see the stagnating consequences of Dutch’s social pattern in saga Iceland simply because, well, thar. Boom. Monocausal explanation, end of story. (This is exactly Dutch’s mistake.)

    The most your objection shows is that differences in sensitivity to insult may be an un-analyzed causal co-factor in the thar pathology. But we don’t even know that – those differences seem more likely to me to be consequential of some deeper level of explanation.

  33. How about “low permanence”? Low-permanence societies are ones where game-theoretic cooperation is difficult to achieve because of the improbability that iteration will occur, or that, if it does, that your past conduct will be taken into rational consideration.

    I’ll bet this is a contributing factor, but it’s still only a contributing factor not an overall explanation or description. Too many exceptions.

  34. ” One of the most marked traits of saga Icelanders in adverse situations was a sort of stoic responsibility, and a mental toughness about failure that accepted it as a datum and moved on.”

    This really intrigued me. Can you give an example?

  35. >This really intrigued me. Can you give an example?

    Fair question, but I’d have to read a whole lot to generate a verbatim quote and I don’t have time to do that right now. Sorry. If it helps, I think you’d be likely to find good examples in the Laxdaela Saga or Njal’s Saga.

  36. @Emanuel Rylke,

    Good point.

    In practice, though; in a world where inhabitants observe their neighbors; good ideas spread quickly. So, for some hypothetical, as of yet undiscovered, culture that would prove superior to That in Tharistan to exist, it would have to be pretty far away from all the avenues and pathways that has been tried over the last few million years. While not logically impossible, I still stand by the assessment that supposedly “dysfunctional” cultures, that has survived (and in the case of “thar”) for millennia in close communication and competition with supposedly less dysfunctional ones, aren’t really so dysfunctional after all. Rather, if some subsegment of Tharistan decided to live like Saga Icelanders, they wouldn’t last long in competition with their more mainstream neighbors.

    And, corollarily, if the material reality of the word we live in moves away from Saga Iceland and towards Tharistan, our culture will move in the direction of Thar as well; despite our “heritage” and supposedly superior sophistication.

    @Daniel Franke
    “Low Permanence” would be my prime candidate for why Thar thrives. While high permanence would favor cooperation and trust building. Unfortunately for those who, for one reason or another, have decided they don’t like thar, it looks like The West is moving in the direction of lower permanence.

    The upside is, of course, that the world has always been low permanence, if looked at as a whole. It only looks high permanence to members of a group who “choose” to limit their travels. So, even within a larger thar world; highly fortified, “gated” communities of high trust may well continue to exist.

  37. > The West is moving in a direction of lower permanence
    Indeed; the internet is exhibit A for this, where a reputation reset is one throwaway email account and a DHCP renewal away. This is why I never, ever use aliases online. It’s prophylaxis against becoming a Greater Internet Fuckwad.
    > the world has always been low permanence
    How do you mean? For most of humanity’s existence people have lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, and that’s an exceedingly high-permanence arrangement.

  38. ” One of the most marked traits of saga Icelanders in adverse situations was a sort of stoic responsibility, and a mental toughness about failure that accepted it as a datum and moved on.”

    @David: This difference in the Norse was religious. They believed in prophecy and (especially) fate. If you were facing death, you could not avoid it. The only thing you could do is meet it as bravely as you could. I remember one example, where a man is with his pregnant wife, and he is set upon by three of his enemies, who kill him. One of the killers wipes the blood off of his sword with a sash that the woman is wearing, and comments that he feels that the growing baby under that sash will later avenge his father’s death by killing him in turn. The killers then depart, leaving the mother and unborn child in peace. Of course, the child is born, grows up and takes blood vengeance later, just as predicted.

  39. Here’s an exercise for those who know more about the demographic than I do:

    How does the ultra-orthodox segment of Israel compare to thar?

    If I remember correctly, (I may be getting details, or even whole concepts about the group wrong, as this is all second- or third-hand), they match up mostly opposite of saga-Iceland.

    Extreme importance of personal status and sensitivity to insult.
    Acceptance of personal revenge including retaliatory killing.
    Many are pacifists, unlike either thar societies or saga-Iceland. I don’t know how they . respond to insults.

    Obsessive male dominance.
    Paranoia over female sexual infidelity.
    IIRC, both of these are true, like classical thar cultures but unlike saga-Iceland.

    Primacy of family rights over individual rights.
    No idea, but I suspect that they fall more toward the individual, especially individual rights . to choose the tax-supported religious lifestyle.

    Restrictions on the free flow of information.
    Given how they oppose the display of anything that can tempt them, I think this applies as . much as in any thar culture.

    Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
    No idea. But I suspect that in this, they fall more in line with thar societies.

    The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
    No idea, but given how fast their population is growing, probably.

    A low valuation of education.
    They value education very highly- religious education. IIRC, they stop learning math . around grade 8.

    Low prestige assigned to work.
    They subsist on welfare so as to stay in yeshivas (religious schools).

    I think the focus on violence is a red herring, as what I’ve learned about the haredi make them seem like they fit thar better than saga-Iceland, in spite of being less violent. That said, all of that comes from the news, so other people may have a better idea and I may very well be wrong.

  40. @Stuki Moi
    “Rather, if some subsegment of Tharistan decided to live like Saga Icelanders, they wouldn’t last long in competition with their more mainstream neighbors.”
    I wouldn’t be so sure about this, because i don’t think something close to Saga Iceland culture was ever tried there.
    I suspect Thar culture is a Nash equilibrium. So it might be advantageous for the group to change their culture, but it is not advantageous for the individual to change their behavior. And the culture of a group only changes when the behavior of its individuals change.
    So it is unlikely for Thar culture to evolve into Saga Iceland culture even if that would be advantageous for a group.

  41. I think that @Stuki Moi et al. is right in saying that Icelandic “high trust” / “high permanence” society requires that society be small enough and stable enough, and with efficient information channels so that everybody knows everybody and system based on individual’s reputation (honor and responsibility) can work. Societies are in parts defined by their geographical constraints; see Jared Diamond books.

    On the other hand I wonder what environment constraints are needed to develop “high science” society. Marek Kordos in “Wyk?ady z historii matematyki” (Streifzüge durch die Mathematikgeschichte, “History of Mathematics”) proposes a theory that developing predictive science (incl. mathematics) requires nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle (to find water look for green stuff), as opposed to static agrarian lifestyle which leads rather to development of good-enough heuristics (to find water go that distance in that direction). But to develop science you need stability; “low permanence” leads to Arabic Insha’Allah fatalism.

    Hmmm…

  42. >I think that @Stuki Moi et al. is right in saying that Icelandic “high trust” / “high permanence” society requires that society be small enough and stable enough, and with efficient information channels so that everybody knows everybody and system based on individual’s reputation (honor and responsibility) can work.

    But we know this isn’t true from modern examples. The U.S. and Western Europe have high-trust societies without “everybody knows everybody”.

  43. ” Societies are in parts defined by their geographical constraints; see Jared Diamond books.”

    Iceland is also at the border what is still possible to farm. Icelandic people had to be very very careful, or they would starve to death. See indeed, Jared Diamond. Without the help of non family members, you would starve at one time or another in Iceland.

    In the Middle East, the others most often were the problem. And with all kind of nomadic tribes passing by, there is little opportunity to develop bonds of trust over time.

  44. @esr:
    >>I think that @Stuki Moi et al. is right in saying that Icelandic “high trust” / “high permanence” society requires that society be small enough and stable enough, and with efficient information channels so that everybody knows everybody and system based on individual’s reputation (honor and responsibility) can work.

    >But we know this isn’t true from modern examples. The U.S. and Western Europe have high-trust societies without “everybody knows everybody”.

    Well, environments evolve and societies evolve. I guess that some high-trust societies survived with that trait intact thanks to moving from reputation-based system to law-based system, but retaining the “personal responsibility” tenant. The question is not if high-trust societies can exist and thrive in large-group environment, but if they can be born outside known-neighbour small group environment.

  45. >I guess that some high-trust societies survived with that trait intact thanks to moving from reputation-based system to law-based system,

    I don’t think you have the causality quite right. Legal systems, themselves, cannot function effectively without a certain minimum level of trust, behavioral replicability, and self-control in the populations that use them. Consider, for example, how deterrent punishment depends on the capability to be deterred.

    You and I take this capability for granted, but in studying thar societies we need to check our assumptions. If there is not much causal connection between what a criminal says and feels when experiencing the deterrent and his future behavior – that is, if we expect criminals to be impulsive and have high time preference rather than being rational planners over longer timescales – then deterrent punishment loses its effectiveness. Punishments need to be extremely harsh and actually crippling. It might be that this is why shari’a law prescribes amputating the hands of thieves.

    Mind you, I agree that we do see a transition from reputation to law as high-trust societies scale up. What I am doubting is that this change is causative rather than consequential. I think we need to look deeper, at how high-trust societies maintain and increase the social capital and personality traits on which the law depends.

    One reason I am thinking this way is because the law plays very little part in regulating my behavior – in fact, I am quite willing to violate the law for ethical reasons. It seems to me that the deeper question is how high-trust societies produce people with a strongly internalized ethos.

  46. @esr
    “Punishments need to be extremely harsh and actually crippling. It might be that this is why shari’a law prescribes amputating the hands of thieves.”

    These prescriptions are not different from the torture that was common in Christian Europe of the time. Thumbscrews etc had the same effect. Without prisons, all punishment (deterrent) will be by causing bodily harm.

  47. @Winter:
    3) You must trust someone, or else you die. So you fall back to those you really knew from birth: Your family.

    Given the cretinous nature of the majority of my relatives, I’d be better off trusting any random collection of strangers.

    Toxic family is much worse than no family at all.

  48. Cousin Marriage:

    With father’s brother daughter marriage, you build inbred patrilineal groups with high familial loyalty, which means my family right or wrong. In any conflict, one guy pulls in his cousins and the other guys pulls in his cousins, and there is no overlap between the two groups of cousins. With, however, outmarriage, or father’s sister’s daughter marriage, you build alliances between patrilineal groups. Thus each conflict pulls in people that have connections to both sides, who proceed to deliver tolerably fair and impartial judgment. Rule of law ensues from the bottom up.

    This of course assumes that durable marriage, or that society is dominated by the (possibly quite small) class of people that have durable marriages. If you have the lek mating system dominant, or society dominated by people who mate on the lek system, then family bonds are too weak, revenge and defense tends to be personal, whereupon the rule of law can only come from the state. And, in practice, the state is the enemy of law, not the source. Collapse of civilization follows.

    Stable marriage produces and is produced by patriarchy. Patriarchy with outmarriage or father’s sister’s daughter’s marriage produces the rule of law. Patriarchy with father’s brother’s daughter’s marriage fails to produce the rule of law. Absence of patriarchy produces the lek mating system, which produces a society dominated by bastards, the society celebrated in gangster rap videos, where law only comes from the bigger gang, which usually fails to produce law.

  49. @Stuki Moi “Unfortunately for those who, for one reason or another, have decided they don’t like thar, it looks like The West is moving in the direction of lower permanence.”

    How does the internet – namely, the bit where anything you ever write down will last forever, and the rise in written communication over spoken – figure into this? It’s easier for your past to follow you than it was without it.

  50. > I’m not sure, though I’m strongly tempted to believe that population differences in average intelligence are causative. It’s been observed that average IQ in a population varies directly with the latitude of its genetic homeland, and convincingly speculated that this is because colder climates require more cooperative behavior and a more elaborate technological toolkit than warmer ones do.

    This sounds plausible; it also immediately suggests a parallel explanation, that cold climates directly select for pro-cooperation and pro-intelligence memes at a group level. (On the other hand, how does Russian culture fare by these standards?)

  51. >(On the other hand, how does Russian culture fare by these standards?)

    Well, chess is the national game, and Russia has produced really able theoretical mathematicians at a level disproportionately high for its population. So there’s at least some evidence for pro-intelligence memes.

  52. @Nick Tarleton
    “It’s been observed that average IQ in a population varies directly with the latitude of its genetic homeland, and convincingly speculated that this is because colder climates require more cooperative behavior and a more elaborate technological toolkit than warmer ones do. ”

    Nutritional status, peri-natal care, child vaccination, safety, and education are enough to explain all population variation in IQ. Iron deficiency alone is responsible for most global extremes.

    Anyhow, the only thing IQ is well correlated with is educational success. The level of education is a better measure of economic productivity and stability.

  53. @Daniel Weber

    How does the ultra-orthodox segment of Israel compare to thar?
    [...]

    Extreme importance of personal status and sensitivity to insult.
    Acceptance of personal revenge including retaliatory killing.
    Many are pacifists, unlike either thar societies or saga-Iceland. I don’t know how they . respond to insults.

    Pacifists?! I don’t know where you got that idea. Pacifism is almost unknown in that society; but violence is pretty rare too. They respond to insults much like people do in standard Western society; violence isn’t one of the socially-accepted options.

    Obsessive male dominance.

    Not really. Somewhat less than was standard in Western society 50 years ago.
    .
    Paranoia over female sexual infidelity.

    Not at all. I don’t know where you could have come up with such an idea.

    Primacy of family rights over individual rights.
    No idea, but I suspect that they fall more toward the individual, especially individual rights . to choose the tax-supported religious lifestyle.

    Definitely individual. The concept of family rights over the individual is almost non-existent. Respect for parents means taking their advice very seriously, but nobody sees themselves as formally bound by it. And there’s nothing in the culture about “tax-supported”. If someone is offering you money, of course you take it; you’d have to be insane to turn it down.

    Restrictions on the free flow of information.
    Given how they oppose the display of anything that can tempt them, I think this applies as . much as in any thar culture.

    There’s no formal recognition of freedom of information as such, and certainly not an unfettered one, but your latter comment is not about information at all. Pornography is not information. Where this comes out is not in regard to pr0n but in regard to heresy. Suppressing heresy is seen as desirable, not as an imposition on personal freedom. No right to be a heretic or an idolater is recognised at all. But this trait is almost universal in pre-enlightenment cultures, so I don’t see how it relates to “thar v Iceland”.

    Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
    No idea. But I suspect that in this, they fall more in line with thar societies.

    I’m not sure how you came up with that. But then I’m not entirely sure what the condition means. It sounds meaningful, but what does it actually mean and how would you recognise it?

    The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
    No idea, but given how fast their population is growing, probably.

    Not at all.

    Low prestige assigned to work.
    They subsist on welfare so as to stay in yeshivas (religious schools).

    You’re completely missing the point of this criterion. This is not a society in which manual labour automatically assigns one to a lower class. But it is one in which intellectual achievement is the most highly regarded trait, and someone who is incapable of that does have lower prestige. A plumber who can carry on a learned conversation is respected; the fact that he chooses to take time from his learning to work with his hands doesn’t affect that. And a full-time student who can’t hold his own in debate is of much lower status than a plumber who can.

    I think the focus on violence is a red herring, as what I’ve learned about the haredi make them seem like they fit thar better than saga-Iceland, in spite of being less violent.

    Violence is sort of the point of the whole “thar” concept, isn’t it?

  54. >It sounds meaningful, but what does it actually mean and how would you recognise [inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure]?

    One diagnostic is the handwaving away of individual and socialfailure by scapegoating and elaborate conspiracy theories. In the type case (Arab tribal societies) and numerous others (such as the Christian Identity movement) such theories usually point at the Jews. Scapegoating Jews is not a likely response from haredim, obviously.

    Another one is propaganda that blatantly ignores objective reality – think of Palestinian maps that white out Israel, or Baghdad Bob inisisting “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!”.

    I agree that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox do not seem to be displaying these pathologies.

  55. One aspect I’m surprised to find overlooked in the discussion is the hypothesis that Thomas Sowell and many others place near, if not at, the center—a historical economic orientation toward (especially nomadic) herding rather than farming. This social pathology is hardly limited to the equator; it appears, quite notably, in American inner cities and “redneck country”, and it was apparently imported there from Scotland. Conversely, while this sort of retaliatory culture has indeed been characteristic of the Arabs’ nomadic ancestors, it’s right in Iraq where the first major cohesive civilizations with effective laws and economies developed—right on the heels of a conversion to agriculture.

    This aligns pretty well with the time preference discussed above, and I’m not sure that anything further really is necessary to explain the differences in observed behavior (interesting, overdetermined, etc.): Being tied to an agricultural endeavor is at minimum a commitment of several months, and adding investments such as irrigation canals or food-processing facilities only lengthens the distance one must look ahead.

  56. @ESR:
    >But we know this isn’t true from modern examples.
    >The U.S. and Western Europe have high-trust
    >societies without “everybody knows everybody”.

    No, in fact we do not.

    100 years ago “everybody knew everybody” in their communities. Strangers were generally not accorded the same levels of trust accorded non-strangers. Our legal traditions and notions come from this sort of time.

    First came the railroad, then the automobile. Society became massively more mobile and trust started degrading.

    Which was is the causal arrow? Or is it a feedback loop/drain circling?

  57. Random832:
    > namely, the bit where anything you ever write down
    > will last forever, and the rise in written communication
    > over spoken – figure into this? It’s easier for your
    > past to follow you than it was without it.

    So first off your nym (and mine) show one way it figures into it, and I’ve made an effort to maintain at least a semblance of consistency (I switched from Billy Oblivion to my frenchified name when there actually became a band called the D.N.A Cowboys and it’s members used the names from the books with permission of the Author).

    OTOH, I’ve gone digging for schtuff I wrote under my real name over a decade ago and most of it’s gone.

  58. >It sounds meaningful, but what does it actually mean and how would you recognise [inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure]?

    One diagnostic is the handwaving away of individual and socialfailure by scapegoating and elaborate conspiracy theories. In the type case (Arab tribal societies) and numerous others (such as the Christian Identity movement) such theories usually point at the Jews. Scapegoating Jews is not a likely response from haredim, obviously.

    OK. There is a tendency to automatically blame things on antisemitism. This has the advantage that antisemitism actually exists, and therefore if you blame everything on it you’ll occasionally be right. In Israel there’s a related tendency to blame things on secular hatred for the religious, perhaps founded on feelings of guilt or inferiority for not being religious themselves. Again, this hatred definitely exists, and there have been secular conspiracies to harm the “dossim”, but that has led to a tendency to blame everything on it, even when there is no specific evidence for it, and even when more likely explanations are available.

  59. @Emanuel Rylke,

    It seems to me (perhaps I’m just dense) your reasoning presupposes that either everyone lives one way, or everyone lives another, leaving no room for cultures in between the national/regional/global one, and the individual. Tharistan (Middle East / Mediteranean if you wish) is neither so homogenous nor atomistic. Rather, it is composed of a multitude of subcultures. If Saga Iceland was notably superior, one would think at least one of them, at some point, would have stumbled upon enough of it’s superior traits, and from then on dominated their neighbors.

    I’m not saying I can prove any of that, nor that you may not be right, but I simply can’t bring myself to reach your conclusion that all these people, for all this time, have been stuck in some obviously suboptimal culture. Isn’t it more plausible that they live that way because it works in their particular environment? And if so, the interesting question becomes what kind of environments give rise to thar, as opposed to what kind of environments give rise to Saga Iceland.

    @esr
    Mr. B’livion beat me to it. I suspect any realistic model of cultures will have to include some concept of inertia.

    @Random832
    I don’t know how the internet (and probably much more so widespread dna “signature” collection and dissemenination) will play out. Currently, it is trivial to hide ones tracks on the internet at the cultural level; that is, from other regular guys. It’s hard to hide it from those who are more equal; an asymmetry between them and us mere equals which, a least to me, makes thar seem rather benign by comparison. But with technology consistently getting cheaper, in the not too distant future; when “everyone” have as many drones, spycams and dna scanners as Obama does, who knows…..?

  60. With regards to Iceland converting to Christianity: my mind still boggles over the fact that the chieftans had a meeting, debated one way or the other, and then decided, en masse, to convert. And everyone accepted it!

    How the heck does a free society do something like that? Why didn’t the individuals decide, one by one, whether to convert or not? Isn’t religious worship a personal decision?

    Yes, I know I’m projecting my Modern Sensibilities onto a people who are both of a different country and a different time period…but, at the same time, I’m also inclined to conclude that had Iceland had a notion of “Separation of Church and State” (in particular, the chieftans shouldn’t also be the religious leaders), and had people peacefully converted, one at a time, Christianity wouldn’t have had the effect it did on the Icelandic government.

    I started reading a book, called “God of the Machine” by Isabella Peterson, that described nations as machines, and the money that goes into them as their fuel. While I didn’t finish the book (I should start over again at some point), this image stuck with me–and, to use the imagery provided by the book–Iceland’s mass conversion to Christianity, and the automatic conversion of Chieftans also becoming the religious leaders (and thus the ones who accepted the tithes), meant that too much money was suddenly injected into the governing system, and it burned out the system…and that this wouldn’t have happened, had they had the notions of “Separation of Church and State” and “Freedom of Conscience” to begin with.

    But then, hindsight is also 20/20.

  61. @Alpheus
    I’d venture to guess that Christianity did not appear randomly one day in the minds of a few Chieftains who then made the decision that everyone should convert. Rather, the exact factors that made the decision to convert attractive to the Chieftains, had had an impact on the rest of society as well. So, the entire island was just looking for a catalyst to convert.

    Similarly, rather than some technicality like the tithe burning down the machine, I’d guess the increased contact with the outside that made Christianity gain foothold, also weakened the bonds that had prevented the machine from burning previously. To build on my previous posts, perhaps the residents of the new, more open and transient, Iceland, felt better served by a religion developed in a region (Middle East) where those traits had been common for much longer.

    But what do I know.

  62. I’d like to echo a point brought up earlier in the thread. I recently ran across an argument that a possible cause of the level of clannishness in a society is due to cousin marriage.

    In western society, the Church banned cousin marriage out to 6th cousins for a long span of time – long enough for cousin marriage to be taboo even now with restrictions largely lifted.

    The argument, as I understand it (see HBD Chick’s website for much more), is that the level of inbreeding in a society affects the depth of kin-relationships among family groups. The more interconnected you are with your kin-group, the more likely you are to be altruistic toward them. Thus societies with a history of cousin marriage tend toward nepotism (altruism toward family), and those with a history of banning cousin marriage tend toward broader trust (altruism toward non-family).

    Which brings me to the question at hand – what level of cousin marriage was common or accepted in Saga Iceland? I haven’t a clue (and couldn’t find anything in a quick perusal of Wikipedia), but hoped someone here would know.

  63. Various comments:

    ESR: “…deficient impulse control – in fact, they tend to consider impulse control effete.”

    Shades of the “hot-blooded Southern gentleman”.
    =====
    Female genital mutilation is not mandated by Islam, nor is it particularly common in Arab/Moslem countries in Asia. It seems to be much more widespread in Africa, including non-Moslem African cultures.
    =====
    David F: When did the European Church prohibit even first-cousin marriage? There seem to have been decrees against it, but enforcement would have been very difficult.In a typical medieval village, the chances of finding a spouse who was not at least a third or fourth cousin was pretty slim; and there were lots of first-cousin marriages among aristocracy and royalty. I can even find cases of double-cousin marriages, where both parents of one spouse were siblings of the other spouse’s parents. The Spanish Hapsburgs went further, inbreeding down to complete incapacity/
    =====
    LS: “the Icelandic chieftains would maintain alliances of kinship by marrying their daughters to other chiefs. This greatly reduced instances of feuding.”

    Arranged marriages between clans has been common in the Middle East as well. Osama’s father Mohammed bin Laden married 22 times, usually in the context of a business deal. These marriages were usually ended by divorce, with the ex-wife getting a substantial money settlement and remarrying.
    =====
    There are different types of honor killings. One is directed at females who defy family authority (usually but not always male), or break cultural restrictions. The killing punishes the female for wrong behavior.

    Another is peculiar to Arabs: a female whose sexual chastity has been violated is contaminated, and her continued existence defiles the family’s hird (“purity”, AIUI). It does not matter if the female was forcibly attacked – the contamination is the same in any case. She must be killed to remove it.
    =====
    One question: if, in Middle Eastern clan-based honor-shame cultures, trust cannot be extended beyond the family and contracts are worthless, how has trade functioned there for centuries? In the Middle Ages the Levant was among the world’s great entrepots. Lots of wealthy merchants; trade networks extending from China to Europe (the Silk Road), to India and the Indies, deep into Africa. It doesn’t seem to fit.

  64. >David F: When did the European Church prohibit even first-cousin marriage? There seem to have been decrees against it, but enforcement would have been very difficult.In a typical medieval village, the chances of finding a spouse who was not at least a third or fourth cousin was pretty slim; and there were lots of first-cousin marriages among aristocracy and royalty.

    The enforcement was probably spotty, but most of the noble/royal cousin marriages at least had a waiver of the restrictions as part of the process.

    Note that the reason for restriction was specifically to increase the number of bonds of loving affection, as Augustine points out in (IIRC) <a="http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120115.htm"The City of God XV,16.

  65. In western society, the Church banned cousin marriage out to 6th cousins for a long span of time – long enough for cousin marriage to be taboo even now with restrictions largely lifted.

    My personal impression is that this is only true in America. I was quite surprised when I first encountered the common American revulsion at the idea of cousin marriage.

    The argument, as I understand it (see HBD Chick’s website for much more), is that the level of inbreeding in a society affects the depth of kin-relationships among family groups. The more interconnected you are with your kin-group, the more likely you are to be altruistic toward them. Thus societies with a history of cousin marriage tend toward nepotism (altruism toward family), and those with a history of banning cousin marriage tend toward broader trust (altruism toward non-family).

    Jews commonly practised cousin marriages right into the early 20th century, and it’s still far from unknown today. I know at least three couples who are first cousins. And yet I don’t think it had this result.

  66. ESR,

    you seem to be supporting my case – that in the moral cocktail of a society some amount of honor-based morals is not something to be afraid of – but I think with the wrong argument.

    Your argument is that the Norse culture is essentially succesful. However the fact is that

    1) Norway was pretty poor before the oil rigs

    2) Norse conquests generally resulted in mere raiding, and lacked that kind empire-building, organization, pacification of conquered theories that generally marked succesful civilizations. Even the corrupt Ottomans out-succeeded them in this regard – in Serbia 130 years after the end of the Ottoman rule, young people dance to essentially Turkish music in the discotheques (turbofolk). That is civilizational success. Raiding half of the known world is merely tactical / navigational success.

    3) The Anglosphere is beyond doubt succesful, but in order to call it the memetic descendant of Norse culture, you would need to demonstrate that

    3/A) in that huge melting pot which is historically British, especially British-American culture, the culture brough by the Normann conquest was of decisive importance (and not, say, the very fact of being a melting pot and all the open-mindedness that that brings)

    3/B) those Normanns were still culturally significantly Norse and not Romano-Gallic-French. Hint: those heavy cavalry charges that won Hastings were much more a French thing than a Norse thing.

    Anyway: on low-trust vs. high-trust: am I wrong when I think it is fairly obvious that it has a lot to do with the northern-decentralized vs. southern-centralized political models, which in turn comes from population density?

    Northern-decentralized:

    – Have lots of pasture land for fairly few people
    – Pretty much every family owns their means of production, employment is unknown (slavery is known)
    – Milita army, buy your own weapons
    – Taxes only for conquered people
    – Little state to speak of

    So every family had a huge amount of political, military and economic independence. This builds trust because you are essentially dealing amongst equals who have a right to deal with their resources and can easily react to fraud with violence.

    Southern-centralized:

    – City-state based empires, overpopulated in narrow fertile regions
    – Tax-financed professional army, the king buys the weapons
    – Tax-collecting state apparatus
    – Regulations, usually for the ease of tax collection
    – Property is ultimately owned by the state/king, citizens merely use it in various ways, often not inheritable (Ottoman land) or property rights easily overridden by the ruler
    – Everybody can more or less consider himself an employee (or slave), of the ruler

    This builds the lack of trust because almost every deal is a form of corruption, of abuse of power.

    Isn’t this fairly well-known or am I getting something wrong?

  67. >in that huge melting pot which is historically British, especially British-American culture, the culture brough by the Normann conquest was of decisive importance

    You’re over-focusing on the Norse. I was careful to note that they’re interesting as literate representatives of a broader, closely related family of cultures including the Anglo-Saxons with similar mores, including customs that embraced blood vengeance without exhibiting the pathology Dutch ascribes to thar cultures.

    So, when you’re reckoning how much the cultural ancestry of the Anglosphere derives from not-quite-thar, you need to include not only the Normans but the Anglo-Saxons and the earlier vikings of the Danelaw in your reckoning. As a group these cultures were wildly successful. So much so that you, a native Hungarian, wear recognizable descendants of their clothes, speak a descendant of their language and (quite rightly) view their history and political institutions as important enough for you to study carefully.

    That said, your point about vikings replacing elites rather than populations (as in, for example, both Sicily and the Kievan Rus) is a valid one. But one that affects memetic descent much less than genetic.

    Your contrast between “northern-decentralized” and “southern-centralized” has some merit, I think. But you should think through what the existence of high-trust cultures in depotisms like Imperial China means.

  68. Regarding China, I know in Confucius at least there’s a whole lot of emphasis on “virtue” in all individuals being paramount, the rulers most of all. Very much the case that there is an objective standard by which one can judge that $DESPOT is being unvirtuous, and that there is a desirable quality among the citizens which is orthogonal to what the government says is desirable among the citizens. Don’t know enough about specifics to judge rigorously, but it certainly seems as if that could be a factor.

  69. ESR,

    OK excellent points. One thing, about IQ: I am highly skeptical when high-IQ people exaggerate the social usefulness of IQ, it is a bit self-serving… however there is one interesting aspect of it I never examined before: that what really matters in these regards is not how many 140 IQ genii a culture has but how few 80 IQ people or even how the typical person is more like 105 than 95. This because I have plenty of experience how genius can lack common sense or simply how a culture just plain simply cannot use the genius because it is not organized that way, or maybe even actively dislikes too much critical thinking. But perhaps, I could concede that, that the average person being 105 or 95 does count. I have basically zero experience with people under say 100, I think most of the usual “ha ha so dumb” stories we geeks like to tell each other are well explainable with 100 + lack of curiosity. What is the essential difference between 90 and 100 when it goes to whole populations, esp. in a low-tech environment?

  70. >What is the essential difference between 90 and 100 when it goes to whole populations, esp. in a low-tech environment?

    Well, consider these figures on average IQ by nation. It’s pretty obvious just by looking that as average IQ drops, the politics of a nation gets bloodier and more tribal.

  71. Frist, he’s confusing mitaliry sf and space opera. Second, he uses Kevin J Anderson as an example. Third well, why bother? He used Kevin J Anderson as an example The nature of the story often demands the sort of government Hamilton is railing against. You need a milieu in which the speed of communication is the speed of transportation (no ansibles, in other words). That’s what gives you plenty of room for your story to unfold. So when it takes weeks to reach the outer edges of the empire, central control is not going to work. You need local governors with wide-ranging powers. And you want them to stay loyal to the throne. Hence feudalism. Democracy just isn’t going to work over those distances.

  72. > Well, consider these figures on average IQ by nation. It’s pretty obvious just by looking that as average IQ drops, the politics of a nation gets bloodier and more tribal.

    One would expect the less easily measurable elite IQ to matter more. Elite IQ will reflect average IQ, but also other factors. Israel, ruled by Ashkenazi, populated by Sephardim, has a pretty high IQ elite relative to the population. Aristocratic regimes, for example Thailand, frequently have a high IQ elite relative to the population. Ethiopia did OK under aristocratic rule.

  73. @James A. McDonald

    I don’t think rule by high IQ elites is stable. Take Liberia as an example.

    The masses need to be smart enough to know which side of their bread is buttered.

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