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27 August, 2018

Tradition is Smarter Than You Are

The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to [a fence] and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
G.K. Chesterton, The Thing (1929).
One of the themes pursued in the research of evolutionary anthropologist-cum-cross cultural psychologist Joseph Henrich is of interest to many far outside the academic worlds of anthropology and psychology. In this sense, Henrich reminds me somewhat of anthropologist-cum-political scientist James C. Scott. Their methods differHenrich is an innovator in field experiments, and is far fonder of his modeling and maths than Scott isbut their conclusions are oddly complementary.

Let's talk about Henrich first. One the clearest presentations of his ideas is in his 2016 book The Secret of Our Success. The book is less a heavy scholarly tome than a poppified version of Henrich's research, but Henrich's decision to trade theoretical detail for accessibility is understandable (it is also why I don't feel bad quoting large blocks of text from the book in this post). Henrich advances the argument that brain-power alone is not enough to explain why humans are such a successful species. Humans, he argues, are not nearly as intelligent as we think they are. Remove them from the culture and environment they have learned to operate in and they fail quickly. His favorite example of this are European explorers who die in the middle of deserts, jungles, or arctic wastes even though thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers were able to survive and thrive in these same environments. If human success was due to our ability to problem solve, analyze, and rationally develop novel solutions to novel challenges, the explorers should have been fine. Their ghastly fates suggest that rationality may not be the key to human survival.

If rational thought is not the key to our success, what is?

To answer that, Henrich says, we should look at the cassava plant. Cassava, or manioc, is one of the most popular staple foods in the world. But there is a catch: if not prepared correctly, cassava will slowly poison you. Yet some populations eat it without a problem. How does this work? Henrich explains:
In the Americas, where manioc was first domesticated, societies who have relied on bitter varieties for thousands of years show no evidence of chronic cyanide poisoning. In the Colombian Amazon, for example, indigenous Tukanoans use a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten. Figure 7.1 shows the percentage of cyanogenic content in the liquid, fiber, and starch remaining through each major step in this processing. 
Such processing techniques are crucial for living in many parts of Amazonia, where other crops are difficult to cultivate and often unproductive. However, despite their utility, one person would have a difficult time figuring out the detoxification technique. Consider the situation from the point of view of the children and adolescents who are learning the techniques. They would have rarely, if ever, seen anyone get cyanide poisoning, because the techniques work. And even if the processing was ineffective, such that cases of goiter (swollen necks) or neurological problems were common, it would still be hard to recognize the link between these chronic health issues and eating manioc. Most people would have eaten manioc for years with no apparent effects. Low cyanogenic varieties are typically boiled, but boiling alone is insufficient to prevent the chronic conditions for bitter varieties. Boiling does, however, remove or reduce the bitter taste and prevent the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting). 
So, if one did the common-sense thing and just boiled the high-cyanogenic manioc, everything would seem fine. Since the multistep task of processing manioc is long, arduous, and boring, sticking with it is certainly non-intuitive. Tukanoan women spend about a quarter of their day detoxifying manioc, so this is a costly technique in the short term. Now consider what might result if a self-reliant Tukanoan mother decided to drop any seemingly unnecessary steps from the processing of her bitter manioc. She might critically examine the procedure handed down to her from earlier generations and conclude that the goal of the procedure is to remove the bitter taste. She might then experiment with alternative procedures by dropping some of the more labor-intensive or time-consuming steps. She’d find that with a shorter and much less labor-intensive process, she could remove the bitter taste. Adopting this easier protocol, she would have more time for other activities, like caring for her children. Of course, years or decades later her family would begin to develop the symptoms of chronic cyanide poisoning. 
Thus, the unwillingness of this mother to take on faith the practices handed down to her from earlier generations would result in sickness and early death for members of her family. Individual learning does not pay here, and intuitions are misleading. The problem is that the steps in this procedure are causally opaque—an individual cannot readily infer their functions, interrelationships, or importance. The causal opacity of many cultural adaptations had a big impact on our psychology. 
Wait. Maybe I’m wrong about manioc processing. Perhaps it’s actually rather easy to individually figure out the detoxification steps for manioc? Fortunately, history has provided a test case. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese transported manioc from South America to West Africa for the first time. They did not, however, transport the age-old indigenous processing protocols or the underlying commitment to using those techniques. Because it is easy to plant and provides high yields in infertile or drought-prone areas, manioc spread rapidly across Africa and became a staple food for many populations. The processing techniques, however, were not readily or consistently regenerated. Even after hundreds of years, chronic cyanide poisoning remains a serious health problem in Africa. Detailed studies of local preparation techniques show that high levels of cyanide often remain and that many individuals carry low levels of cyanide in their blood or urine, which haven’t yet manifested in symptoms. In some places, there’s no processing at all, or sometimes the processing actually increases the cyanogenic content. On the positive side, some African groups have in fact culturally evolved effective processing techniques, but these techniques are spreading only slowly. 
Figure taken from Henrich, The Secret of our Success, p. 98
The point here is that cultural evolution is often much smarter than we are. Operating over generations as individuals unconsciously attend to and learn from more successful, prestigious, and healthier members of their communities, this evolutionary process generates cultural adaptations. Though these complex repertoires appear well designed to meet local challenges, they are not primarily the products of individuals applying causal models, rational thinking, or cost-benefit analyses. Often, most or all of the people skilled in deploying such adaptive practices do not understand how or why they work, or even that they “do” anything at all. Such complex adaptations can emerge precisely because natural selection has favored individuals who often place their faith in cultural inheritance—in the accumulated wisdom implicit in the practices and beliefs derived from their forbearers—over their own intuitions and personal experiences. [1]
Henrich records another example of clever cultural traditions in northern Canada:
When hunting caribou, Naskapi foragers in Labrador, Canada, had to decide where to go. Common sense might lead one to go where one had success before or to where friends or neighbors recently spotted caribou. However, this situation is like Matching Pennies in chapter 2. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers. That is, hunters want to match the locations of caribou while caribou want to mismatch the hunters, to avoid being shot and eaten. If a hunter shows any bias to return to previous spots, where he or others have seen caribou, then the caribou can benefit (survive better) by avoiding those locations (where they have previously seen humans). Thus, the best hunting strategy requires randomizing. Can cultural evolution compensate for our cognitive inadequacies? Traditionally, Naskapi hunters decided where to go to hunt using divination and believed that the shoulder bones of caribou could point the way to success. To start the ritual, the shoulder blade was heated over hot coals in a way that caused patterns of cracks and burnt spots to form. This patterning was then read as a kind of map, which was held in a pre-specified orientation. The cracking patterns were (probably) essentially random from the point of view of hunting locations, since the outcomes depended on myriad details about the bone, fire, ambient temperature, and heating process. Thus, these divination rituals may have provided a crude randomizing device that helped hunters avoid their own decision-making biases. The undergraduates in the Matching Pennies game could have used a randomizing device like divination, though the chimps seem fine without it. [2]
My China-focused readers will spot the similarities between this practice and that of the ancient Shang oracle bones. The Shang would burn the bones of oxen or turtle shells to divine all matter of things, including whether to embark on punitive military expeditions. Perhaps Shang military attacks also followed the logic of Matching Pennies?

Henrich also discusses a similar practice in Indonesia:
In Indonesia, the Kantus of Kalimantan use bird augury to select locations for their agricultural plots. The anthropologist Michael Dove argues that two factors will cause farmers to make plot placements that are too risky. First, Kantu ecological models contain the Gambler’s Fallacy and lead them to expect that floods will be less likely to occur in a specific location after a big flood in that location (which is not true). 
Second, as with the MBAs’ investment allocations in chapter 4, Kantus pay attention to others’ success and copy the choices of successful households, meaning that if one of their neighbors has a good yield in an area one year, many other people will want to plant there in the next year. Reducing the risks posed by these cognitive and decision-making biases, the Kantu rely on a system of bird augury that effectively randomizes their choices for locating garden plots, which helps them avoid catastrophic crop failures. The results of divination depend not only on seeing a particular bird species in a particular location, but also on what type of call the bird makes (one type of call may be favorable, and another unfavorable). 
The patterning of bird augury supports the view that this is a cultural adaptation. The system seems to have evolved and spread throughout this region since the seventeenth century when rice cultivation was introduced. This makes sense, since it is rice cultivation that is most positively influenced by randomizing garden locations. It’s possible that, with the introduction of rice, a few farmers began to use bird sightings as an indication of favorable garden sites. On average, over a lifetime, these farmers would do better—be more successful—than farmers who relied on the Gambler’s Fallacy or on copying others’ immediate behavior. 
Whatever the process, within 400 years, the bird augury system had spread throughout the agricultural populations of this Borneo region. Yet it remains conspicuously missing or underdeveloped among local foraging groups and recent adopters of rice agriculture, as well as among populations in northern Borneo who rely on irrigation. So, bird augury has been systematically spreading in those regions where it is most adaptive. This example makes a key point: not only do people often not understand what their cultural practices are doing, but sometimes it may even be important that they don’t understand what their practices are doing or how they work. If people came to understand that bird augury or bone divination didn’t actually predict the future, the practice would probably be dropped or people would increasingly ignore ritual findings in favor of their own intuitions. [3]
Henrich has dozens of these examples. The common thread pulling them together is that the people whose survival is guaranteed by strict observance of these traditions have no real explanation for why they are following them. Henrich goes into this with more depth in discussion of his ethnographic work in Fijii, where women do not eat certain fish while pregnant:
We looked for a shared underlying mental model of why one would not eat these marine species during pregnancy or breastfeeding—a causal model or set of reasoned principles. Unlike the highly consistent answers on what not to eat and when, women’s responses to our why questions were all over the map. Many women simply said they did not know and clearly thought it was an odd question. Others said it was “custom.” Some did suggest that the consumption of at least some of the species might result in harmful effects to the fetus, but what precisely would happen to the fetus varied greatly, though a nontrivial segment of the women explained that babies would be born with rough skin if sharks were eaten and smelly joints if morays were eaten. Unlike most of our interview questions on this topic, the answers here had the flavor of post-hoc rationalization: “Since I’m being asked for a reason, there must be a reason, so I’ll think one up now.” This is extremely common in ethnographic fieldwork, and I’ve personally experienced it in the Peruvian Amazon with the Matsigenka and with the Mapuche in southern Chile. 
Of course, it’s not particularly difficult to get similar responses from educated Westerners, but there remains a striking difference: educated Westerners are trained their entire lives to think that behaviors must be underpinned by explicable and declarable reasons, so we are more likely to have them at the ready and feel more obligated to supply “good” reasons upon request. Saying “it’s our custom” is not considered a good reason. The pressure for an acceptable, clear, and explicit reason for doing things is merely a social norm common in Western populations, which creates the illusion (among Westerners) that humans generally do things based on explicit causal models and clear reasons. They often do not. [4]
Henrich makes two arguments here, both relevant to contemporary debates in politics and philosophy. The first is that customs, traditions, and the like are subject to Darwinian selection. Henrich is not always clear on exactly what is being selected foris it individuals who follow a tradition, groups whose members all follow the tradition, or the tradition itself?but the general gist is that traditions stick around longest when they are adaptive. This process is "blind." Those who follow the traditions do not know how they work, and in some cases (like religious rituals that build social solidarity) knowing the details of how they work might actually reduce the efficacy of the tradition. That is the second argument of note: we do not (and often cannot) understand just how the traditions we inherit help our survival, and because of that, it is difficult to artificially create replacements.

I do not think Henrich is willing to extend these points to all elements of human culture. If we are to take analogies with genetic evolution seriously, then we should not be surprised if a large amount of our cultural baggage are just random accretions passed on from one generation to the nextin essence, the cultural version of genetic drift. But that is the trouble: we have no way to tell which traditions are adaptive and which are merely drift.

All of this meshes splendidly with the work of James C Scott.[5] (If you have never read anything by him before, I recommend starting with this essay). Scott has spent a large amount of his career studying the way states shape the societies they rule over, and the way societies try to resist the advance of the state. The central problem of ruler-ship, as Scott sees it, is what he calls legibility. To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways—in other words, the products of cultural evolution that Henrich fills his book with—are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result, as Scott chronicles with example after example, are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.

None of Scott's works are in Henrich's bibliography, but it is hard to imagine Henrich being surprised by this outcome. The social engineer is attempting to replace hundreds of traditions, norms, and nuggets of local knowledge through rational calculation. He is the functional equivalent of the European explorer starving in lands of plenty. The only difference between the rationalist explorer and the rationalist social engineer is that the engineer has the power to force the land to starve with him.

Can any of this be put into action? I suspect many conservatives will think the answer to this question is obvious. Henrich and Scott have provided empirical support for maintaining "Chesterton's fence." Chesterton asks us not destroy customs, tradition, and social structures that we cannot explain. Henrich and Scott question our ability to rationally explain them. Implicit in this is a strong defense of the local, the traditional, and the unchanging.

The trouble with our world is that it is changing. Henrich focuses on small scale societies. These societies are not static. The changes they undergo are often drastic. But the distance between the life-style of a forager today and that of her ancestors five hundred years ago pales next to the gap that yawns between the average city-slicker and her ancestors five centuries past. Consider the implications of what demographers call the "demographic transition model:"


image source
 Each stage in the model presents a different sort of society than that which came before it. Very basic social and economic questionsincluding subsistence strategy, family type, mechanisms for mate selection, and so forthchange substantially as societies move through one stage to the next. Customs and norms that are adaptive for individuals in stage two societies may not be adaptive for individuals in living in stage four societies.

If the transition between these stages was slow this would not matter much. But it is not. Once stage two begins, each stage is only two or three generations long. Europeans, Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans born today look forward to spending their teenage years in stage five societies.  What traditions could their grandparents give them that might prepare them for this new world? By the time any new tradition might arise, the conditions that made it adaptive have already changed. 

This may be why the rationalist impulse wrests so strong a hold on the modern mind. The traditions are gone; custom is dying. In the search for happiness, rationalism is the only tool we have left.


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[1] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Ibid., 105-107.

[4] Ibid., 101-102.

[5] This theme runs through all of Scott's work, but it is expressed most forcibly in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

18 August, 2018

Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet, or Not at All

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"The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun."


—J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control

Some excellent comments were written in response to last week's post "Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present." Two of these comments were particularly excellent, and I am saddened to see them languish in a little read comment thread. As we can't let that happen, I will post them here for the benefit of the wider readership.

The first is by commentator writing under the name "J":
I am Taiwanese, by birth and by blood. My father's side is 外省人 [TG:  someone who retreated to Taiwan with the KMT], my mother's side is 本省人 [someone whose ancestors have lived in Taiwan for generations, and whose mother tongue would likely be Taiwanese Hokkien]. This is not an academic distinction, my maternal grandfather went to college in Japan and served in the Japanese Imperial Army as an NCO. He was later involved in the Taiwanese independence movement. Many of his friends disappeared during the White Terror. His personal journal was written completely in Japanese. His last overseas trip was a college reunion. His last gift to me was a book by a Japanese right-wing author. My paternal grandfather was a mid-level officer in the Nationalist forces. After the retreat to Taiwan, he served in the KMT civilian administration. Every new year, we called his brothers in China. His ashes are interred in Taiwan, but his wishes are to be buried, alongside his parents, at the ancestral plot in Shandong. Let's just say my parents didn't have the easiest time getting married. 
The Taiwanese affinity for Japan is real, but in recent decades, has also been politicized and weaponized. Taiwanese nationalists recognize its usefulness as a cultural wedge, and there has been a romanticization of the Japanese colonial era, and, of course, corresponding counter-narrative. In the battleground for the minds of the young, Japan is winning by a landslide. As a Taiwanese (who also speaks Japanese), it's a bit embarrassing, honestly. The Japanese national conversation hardly recognizes Taiwan, and only the ultra-rightwing WWII-apologists in Japan bother to acknowledge Taiwanese goodwill, mostly as a weapon in their domestic political disputes. The revival of Taiwanese-dialect culture maps to the same political dynamics. 
However, Taiwan is also deeply demoralized. Successive governments have all but given up on the idea of national defense, the conscription term has been cut to almost nothing. What was originally a national rite-of-passage - universal male conscription - is now basically a joke. The military is a pension farm, and thoroughly compromised by Chinese intelligence. Taiwanese industry is very dependent on Chinese markets and labor, and the business elite of Taiwan have all named their price. Similarly, Mandarin Taiwanese pop culture is integrated with China, and must toe the line. At the university level, administrations are dependent on Mainland Chinese students, who, by and large, are more disciplined, more focused, and more ambitious than the native Taiwanese student. 
Unsurprisingly, intermarriage between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese is also ticking up, both at the college-educated level, and at the mail-order bride level. Taiwanese tourism heavily relies on Chinese visitors. As with all of the former Asian Tigers, birth rates are far below replacement nationally, and they are catastrophically low in Taipei. 
Even as Taiwanese culture grows (partially by DPP policy) more defiantly differentiated from China, the actual capability to resist Chinese coercion, either economically or militarily, continues to wane. The CCP doesn't need to do anything, except keep their mouths shut and allow current trends to continue. The Taiwanese attitude towards China appears to be an exercise in denial and wishful thinking. And that takes a toll on the national psyche. The younger generations may have Netflix and sub-titled Japanese TV shows, eating at gourmet restaurants and taking trips to Sapporo, Singapore, and Sydney. They may laugh at the gawking Chinese that are too poor to visit Europe, and visit Sun Moon Lake instead, but these bumpkin Chinese have what they don't have - a comprehensive vision of the future, and a deep belief that they are standing on the solid rock of history, and that they aren't going anywhere. Whereas for Taiwan and the Taiwanese, everything is contingent.

So take another trip to the wine countries of France, forget about having kids, and try to enjoy the moment.
 
In an alternate universe, Taiwan would be like Israel or South Korea - ferociously devoted to defense, fiercely determined to resist coercion. Or, for a more realistic example, to be at least as devoted as our ethnic cousins in Singapore. But perhaps that is only possible with the iron-fisted rule of a LKW for four decades. It would take herculean effort to shake Taiwan out of it's current complacent stupor. [1]
J's observations largely track my own experience in Taiwan (long termers will remember I was in Taipei for most of 2015-2016; my experiences there produced one or two blogposts of note). The "Japaneseness" of Taiwan is real and is readily apparent to anyone who has had experience with people from all three countries. In a way that is difficult to quantify or even articulate, Taiwan simply feels like the child of both of these cultures. This is true even in the north, where KMT resettlement was strongest. J is also correct to note that these differences have been overly politicized. Consequently, they are often exaggerated. But they are real, and folks like J are living evidence of their reality.

From a mainland perspective these differences mean nothing. Taiwanese tend to forget the astounding cultural diversity within China proper. The culture and lifeways of Han Chinese living in Ningxia and in Guangxi are more different from each other than anything that separates Taipei from Shanghai. As different as Taiwan may be, it has more cultural affinity with inner China than Tibet or Xinjiang does, and rare is the Han Chinese willing to entertain the independence of either of those regions.

However, one of the most significant cultural differences I observed when I moved from Taipei to Beijing had nothing to do with cultural heritage. J is right: the people of Taiwan are demoralized. There are benefits to this: Taipei is a less pretentious city than Beijing is. People are less concerned with putting on airs; the wealthy are less gaudy and hedonistic; nobody schemes of dirty, treacherous, or lecherous ways to get ahead. But that is exactly the trouble with the young of Taipei: none of them seem to believe that they can get ahead. Track down a student at Bei-Da and one at Tai-Da and you will find a world of difference. The Beida kid will not be any smarter than the Taida kid, but he will be infinitely more ambitious. Beijing is a city of dreamers and schemers. Chinese travel thousands of miles to live in that smog-choked, traffic-clogged wasteland of a city. Why? Because they earnestly believe that it is the place where they will rise above their origins. That kid from Beida starts high and aims higher. He earnestly believes that he personally is going to change the world. The kid from Taida? He doesn't even believe he can change Taiwan.

The exception to this is politics. In the realm of politics, it is the young Beijingers who drift as their apathy guides them. The opposite was true in Taiwan—politics was the one place young Taiwanese thought they might make an impact. But that was in 2015. Disillusionment with Tsai Yingwen seems to have dampened that spirit a bit.

I am more optimistic about the military situation. In terms of military culture, J is absolutely correct. Taiwan does not have one. I blame this situation largely on the ROC military itself. One could write a series of essays on the public relations and human resources mistakes the ROC military has made over the last two decades. Their mismanagement of the conscription system—which under normal circumstances would be the ideal vehicle for instilling such a culture—is criminal. The whining rhetoric that emanates from the Ministry of National Defense is also unhelpful. Taiwanese military figures do not shy from emphasizing the weakness of Taiwan's position, presumably in an attempt to get Washington to care more about their plight. However, by highlighting Taiwanese weakness all they (and their American supporters who make similar arguments) are doing is reinforcing the narrative spun by the PLA: Taiwan is doomed, too weak to be worth fighting for.

The shame in all this is that it is hardly true. This topic deserves its own post, so I won't delve deeply into it here. I'll simply share this thought: the same technological trends which make it so difficult for the United States Navy and Air Force to operate near Chinese waters make it equally difficult for the PLA to operate on the wrong side of the strait. The same cost ratios are at play as well. A long range SSM costs far less than any ship it might hit in a U.S. Carrier Strike Group. But the same is true for missiles launched from Taiwan (or, for that matter, Vietnam or the Philippines). We are quickly moving into a weapons regime that strongly favors the defender. Add this to the incredible difficulties inherit in organizing the largest amphibious invasion of human history, the unique hurdles posed by the geography and weather of Taiwan, and the general lack of training and experience on the part of the PLA forces that will be doing the invading. The potential for failure is high in the best of circumstances. With minimal military investment the Taiwanese can ensure it would be the worst of circumstances. [2]

This brings me to the other stellar comment in the thread, this one posted by long-time reader L.C. Rees:
The ROC exists because: 
1. the US doesn't want the PRC to have it 
2. the PRC doesn't have the strength to take it in the face of American resistance 
Until that 1-2 dynamic changes, or some alternative correlation of power (thermonuclear ROC, PLA soldiers who can walk on water, Neo-Imperial Japan with giant robots with friggin' laser beams,  etc.) arises, all the fine parsing of ancient sources will not amount to Jack Diddley except if it manages to sway gullible Americans. Americans can be gullible: TPM Barnett infamously thought that, if you bought low on Chinese power c. 2010, you could lock in American preferences of how the world should be into a hypothetical 2050 where the PRC dominated the world and the price would be too high. 
I doubt Barnett's option contract would have any more persuasive power in and of itself in a world where the PRC held sway any more than the VOC's claim on Formosa c. 1650 has power in and of itself to sway Washington or Peking today. If the VOC still dominated the Strait of Taiwan, then such a piece of paper might have kinetic force. The Dutch Navy sailing up the Yangtze and burning the PLA Navy at anchor would be as amusing as it is unlikely. However, the VOC is long gone and His Majesty's government in the Netherlands shows no sign of reviving it. Dutch naval power in the Pacific has been nil since 1942. 
On the subject of the inception of the Korean War, I've encountered a thesis I was unfamiliar with: Stalin pushed the war by letting his sock puppet Kim off the leash in order to drive a wedge between the PRC and the West, leaving the PRC reliant on the USSR for modernization. The Korean War was intentionally started to divert Mao's military resources away from Taiwan (Mao was pestering Stalin for help with Formosa) into an alternative theater Stalin had more control over. If this alternative scenario is accurate, it largely succeeded: Stalin's option contract here, festooned with the legal authority of T-34s and MiGs, is a better example for how to buy into PRC power while the price is low or property titles are being accepted. [3]
Rees is correct. The debate over whether the legal status of Taiwan was decided by the Cairo Declaration or the Treaty of San Fransisco irks because it is irrelevant. At the end of the day, the freedom of Taiwan depends on two things only:

  1. Are there men and women willing to die to keep Taiwan free?
  2. Do the Chinese understand how committed they are? 

That is it. All of that other stuff about blood brotherhood and historical claims is irrelevant. What matters is who can get their man to stand on the scene with a gun.

But here is where I part ways with Rees, who—if I understand him correctly—seems to think that only American men and American guns matter. U.S. military support is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for Taiwanese autonomy. Much depends on the Taiwanese themselves. The United States will not stop Taiwan from seeking reunification, if that is what Taiwanese voters ask for. But more importantly, the American military is tethered to the American public, and if that public has lost faith in Taiwan, they will not be willing to see American soldiers die for it. The whole structure rests on the Taiwanese people. If they are willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to maintain a credible deterrent, then their autonomy will be preserved. If they are not, no number of American fleets can save them.


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[1] Comment by "J" on Tanner Greer, "Taiwan's Past Matters Less than Taiwan's Present," Scholar's Stage, 13 August 2018.

[2] Those interested in exploring this topic further ought to read two books (well, one study and one book): Andrew Krepenvich's Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision Strike Regime and Ian Easton's The China Invasion Threat: The Defense of Taiwan and American Strategy in East Asia


[3] Comment by "LCRees" on Tanner Greer, "Taiwan's Past Matters Less than Taiwan's Present," Scholar's Stage, 14 August 2018. 

10 August, 2018

Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present

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The time was, sir, when we loved the King and the people of Great Britain with an affection truly filial. We felt ourselves interested in their glory. We shared in their joys and sorrows. We cheerfully poured the fruits of all our labour into the lap of our mother country, and without reluctance expended our blood and treasure in their cause... We felt ourselves happy in our connection with her, nor wished it to be dissolved; but our sentiments are altered. 
Malden, Massachusetts "Statement of Independence" (1776)

But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it amount to? Nothing!
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

United States Naval War College professor Lyle Goldstein has an uncharacteristically snide piece out in the National Interest this week. His piece is a response to an earlier essay by Gordon Chang that the National Interest published the week previous. At issue is the posture the American people should take towards the inhabitants of Taiwan. Let's quote the section that drew my attention:
Chang and I do somehow agree on a few things, however. We are evidently in agreement that “… war can start over Taiwan.” We both apparently assess that “… the People’s Republic [of China is not] … the Third Reich …” Our geographical reckoning is likewise similar enough that he does admit that Taiwan is indeed “on the other side of the planet.” He even concedes that “At one time, the leaderships of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China were linked by the same race, culture, and language.”

The last point is actually a rather powerful statement, considering that identities are not “constructed” overnight (even allowing for their considerable malleability). Indeed, that fact of history flies in the face of Chang’s bizarre claim that the Taiwan issue is not a “family quarrel” as I put it in the penultimate line of my original piece. Indeed, he reveals what many Taiwan nationalists would like to cover up and what few Americans seem to know: that to the present day, “… Taipei formally maintains it is the legitimate government of China.” Chang’s claim that this is not a “family quarrel” is nonsensical based on his own candid admissions. One may sympathize with the aspirations of the people of Taiwan to control their own destiny, of course, but the polls Chang cites cannot change the above facts of modern history.


And yet since the vast majority of Americans are completely unfamiliar with Taiwan history—quite understandably given it’s on the other side of the planet—let’s review a few basic points that are always omitted from standard pro-Taiwan independence polemics, such as Chang’s. After Ming remnants fled to Taiwan in the mid-seventeenth century, the ascendant Qing dynasty invaded the island and solidified Chinese rule in 1683. In other words, Beijing formally ruled Taiwan for almost a century before the American Revolution. That makes for a rather strong historical claim. Speaking of historical claims to territory, Americans probably do not want to delve too deeply into the details surrounding certain American annexations like Hawaii. It’s best to probably leave those bones where they are buried.


In 1895, not many years after the Chinese government designated Taiwan as its own province (separate from Fujian Province), Japan conquered the island. As a colony of Tokyo, many Taiwanese tragically fought and died for the losing Japanese side in the Pacific War. The bottom line, as our great President Harry Truman realized and stated unequivocally in early 1950 (see introduction), is that the Cairo Declaration is very clear: all territories conquered by Japan should be returned to China—including explicitly the island of Taiwan (then called Formosa). Of course, many in Japan (and more than a few in Taiwan) have nostalgia for the “good old days,” and a hint of this is indeed revealed in Chang’s critique when he states: “There are Japanese islands south of Taipei, and on a clear day one can see Taiwan’s mountains from Japanese soil.” While Japanese nationalists may sigh with emotion at such florid descriptions, Americans are rightly skeptical. What about all the Americans who suffered grave atrocities at Japanese hands and have never seen any kind of justice? Japanese nationalism and related threat inflation tendencies are unlikely to stir Americans to take massive risks for Taiwan. Then again, there is the other inconvenient fact of geography that the main islands of Japan (e.g. Kyushu) are some 700 miles northeast of Taiwan, and the soil Chang mentions with such reverence (Ishigaki island) amounts to barely a speck.


Perhaps Henry Kissinger also understood the stark fact of the Cairo Declaration when he went about the arduous but nonetheless vital process of dismantling the U.S. relationship with Taiwan during the 1970s in an effort to open formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. To conclude this historical discussion, Americans need to realize that, given Truman’s clear decision not to intervene, it was only the actions of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in June 1950, of course, that made Taiwan into a semi-permanent protectorate of the United States. If not for that decision by Pyongyang, Taiwan’s fate would have been similar to Hainan —another sizable Chinese island. [1]
There are folks who will dispute Goldstein's historical claims point by point. I will let them strain at such gnats, if they wish to do so. Here I want to narrow in on Goldstein's larger problem.

On the eve of American Revolution, somewhere between 15% and 20% of Americans were Tories. This percentage varied by region. In places like South Carolina it is likely that one in four colonists identified more with the British government than the American revolutionaries. Their commitment to Britain should not surprise: most American colonies had been British possessions for more than a century. The free inhabitants were overwhelmingly of British stock (though the Mid-Atlantic colonies were already taking on the character of large immigrant melting pots), they spoke the English language, worshiped at the Church of England (congregationalism, another English invention, was almost as common), and praised the glories of English race and their British heritage. [2] 

Contrast this with the Taiwanese situation. As Chang reports, the percentage of Taiwanese that identify as Chinese (中国人) is comparable to the number of loyalist Americans in 1775. The percentage of Taiwanese under 35 who identify with the mainland is even smaller. It has been more than a century since the Taiwanese were ruled by the same regime as the people across the strait. Among other things, this is important because—as the generation of reformers and intellectuals that came to power in the early 1900s recognized—national identity and cohesion was extremely weak under the Qing. A strong sense of shared Chinese identity had to be built from the ground-up. Built it was, but the Taiwanese were never part of that building (Chiang Kai-shek's attempts to instill the same sense of national identity in Taiwan that he had successfully fostered in many parts of the mainland were fatally undermined by the massacres and terrors that accompanied them; even the imposition of the Mandarin language upon the populace, the symbol of modern Chinese national identity par excellence, is slowly being rolled back). The nature of the institutions that divides the two places is stark. The gap between the political values and practices of modern Taiwan and modern China is far and away more different than those which divided the Americans from the British in 1775.

Goldstein privileges historical precedent and cultural kinship above all else. As an American, he should know better. If historical precedent and cultural kinship truly did decide the fate of nations, America would not exist. By these standards very few modern countries would exist. The national identities, borders, and ideologies of the majority of states on this earth are 20th century creations. Historical accident has played a grand role in the creation of these peoples and nations. Goldstein would strip the people of Taiwan of self government because their regime would not exist today except by dint of Kim il-Sung's decision to march south in the early days of the Cold War. But curious path dependency is a mainstay of international affairs. The division of the Arab world into a dozen different states, the fracturing of Gran Columbia, the existence of India as a centralized state—in all these cases and more, the borders of today were the result of arbitrary political maneuvers of decades past. The accidental nature of these borders does not make the nationalist yearnings of those whose lives are ordered by them any less real. Goldstein's cant is not too different from the declarations of that blinkered sort who call Palestinian nationalism a terrible conspiracy, for the Arabs of Palestine lacked a strong and distinct identity until recently in their history. In either case, even if the claim is true it hardly matters. We do not live in the 1940s. The world has changed in the eight decades that have passed since the victors of Second World War divvied up the world between them. Our policy towards Taiwan should reflect the realities of Taiwanese society today, not its character decades or centuries ago.

Goldstein's general attitude towards history is a bit mysterious to me. In both his editorials and his book he is fast to accuse Americans of not knowing or caring about Asia's history, but he is extremely selective in the history he chooses to call his readers attention to. [4] In this piece, his digression on Japanese war atrocities is odd and largely irrelevant to his thesis. Why is it there? One of the great accomplishments of the post-war order was the United States and Japan's ability to build a truly cooperative relationship despite the evils each inflicted upon each other years before. We are now decades past that rapprochement. Most who lived in the age of anger, fear, and racist rage that defined U.S.-Japanese relations in an earlier era are now dead.  In 2018, how could the Bataan Death March conceivably be a useful lens through which to view Asian politics?

I will not speculate about Goldstein's motives for focusing on the atrocities of Japan's imperial past, especially in an article that is ostensibly about Taiwan. I will, however, point out its consequences: Goldstein's framing obscures imperial Japan's actual relationship with modern Taiwanese identity. For fifty years, Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire. Japanese imperialism was not destructive in Taiwan the way it was in most of the mainland. It was accompanied with little violence but a great deal of mutual trade, investment, and economic exchange. That does not make it right. But it does give substance to the notion that the Japanese occupation is just as much a part of Taiwan’s heritage as Qing suzerainty was. Even today, decades later, Taiwan has a cultural affinity with Japan that China proper does not. You see this in everything from the apps they use (e.g., the Taiwanese forgo WeChat and use the Japanese app Line instead) to the Taiwanese skill at queuing in quiet, well ordered lines. My personal impression is that the Taiwanese feel a stronger sense of kinship with the Japanese than they do with their "brothers" in mainland China. There are lots of ways to measure this (I'm partial to the LA Times writer who pointed out that one in three children books published in Taiwan are by Japanese authors), but lets stick with a financial one. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Taiwanese sent $95 million dollars across the strait. In response to the Tohoku tsunami, Taiwanese donated more than $250 million dollars of relief, more than half of it from individual donations. [5] I would wager (though I admit I have not seen any polls that confirm it) that if the Taiwanese were forced to choose between a political union with Japan and political union with the mainland, they would opt for the former by a large margin.

None of this really matters to Goldstein. For him nothing a Taiwanese feels or thinks ever matters. My frustration with Goldstein is that in his strivings to understand minds in Beijing he forgets that Beijing is not the only place that gets a say in the affair. As I wrote in my review of Goldstein's book:
Goldstein is curiously dismissive of [America's Pacific] allies’ concerns. One can sympathize with the time constraints that shaped his treatment of them—a titanic amount of research was required simply to survey the existing debates inside Washington D.C. and Beijing, and it would be too much to expect Goldstein to provide a thorough survey of the debates being had in Seoul, Manila, Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, and New Delhi as well; but this unwillingness to consider events as seen by anyone outside of Beijing or Washington leads Goldstein to bizarre places. He outright dismisses Taiwan’s 23 million citizens with the curt (and unsubstantiated) claim that those who seek to put Taiwanese opinion first in discussions of their future “lack an objective view of history, culture, and identity.” Goldstein dismisses other allies’ fears that Beijing’s growing strength might harm their interests by comparing them to children’s “talk of monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet.” Patronizing comments of this sort undermine the spirit of mutual understanding Goldstein claims is central to successful strategy for peace. Meeting China Halfway begins with an earnest appeal to not treat the Chinese with arrogance, paternalism, or undue hypocrisy. This appeal would be far stronger if he avoided these same vices when discussing the lesser powers in the region. [6]
Years later we find Goldstein making the same errors. He still does not ask and does not know how people in Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, Hanoi, or Taipei think about the fate he has decided for them. He writes as if their actions will not matter. He sees the world as a place to be divided between Washington and Beijing, and cannot conceive of local powers working to subvert that end. His "cooperation spiral" approach to ending Sino-American conflict assumes that these countries will do whatever the U.S. and Beijing agree on. This is lunacy. That is the real lesson of 20th century international history. American foreign policy ventures have rarely failed because Americans did not understand their enemies. They failed time and again because Americans did not understand the true interests and intentions of their allies. Goldstein would have us make the same mistake again and again.

Given all of this, the insult Goldstein decided to end his piece with is poorly chosen:
Chang wrote a book in 2001 titled The Coming Collapse of China. This asinine title causes most genuine China specialists to chuckle—though many journalists and ideologues have admittedly been quite enraptured by the notion. No doubt, the book has sold well. But American diplomats and defense officials know better than to rest strategies on proven failures of judgment. [7]
Look folks: Gordon Chang gets a lot of flack for his book. And you know what? His book was clearly wrong. But in being wrong Chang really is not that different from any other analyst. I have written about political psychologist Philip Tetlock's pioneering work in this field before. [8] The short version: the average analyst, regardless of whether he is a famous pundit, think tank bottom feeder, academic egg-head, CIA stiff, or military desk jockey, is no better at predicting the course of world affairs than a dart throwing chimp. The difference between Chang and the rest is that Chang had the gumption to make his prediction so public and so unambiguous that he cannot avoid being judged for it.

Gumption alone does not make a good analyst. Accuracy matters. But given the rate of human failure in this domain, it makes little sense to judge an analyst solely for the accuracy of his or her predictions. A better metric: a good analyst is the one learns from past mistakes. Ideally, an analyst's internal models of the world should change as the international situation does. If new inputs are not changing outputs, then they have a problem. The analyst too committed to a favorite proposition, policy, or ideology to see the world transform before him is not an analyst that deserves to be taken seriously.  

I will be honest: I have not followed Chang close enough to know if the wares he has for sale are simply old brews in new bottles. I don't know if the Party's success in overcoming one challenge to their rule after another has changed the way he understands Chinese affairs. If the events of the last two decades have not caused him to update his priors, then he deserves all the derision folks like to pile on him.

On the other hand, I have followed Goldstein quite closely over the last few years. I am disappointed to find that nothing that has happened since he published his book has caused him to reassess his policy formula. Consider what has happened in just the last year and a half: we have seen the Hong Kong's independent institutions strangled. We have witnessed the slow erosion of Hong Konger's liberties. We have seen the Party construct a surveillance state unlike anything that has ever existed in human history. Most ominously for the Taiwanese, we have learned exactly how the Party deals with provinces full of separatist ideologues. These events have raised the stakes. One searches in vain for any recognition of this in Goldstein's writings. If you want to argue that Taiwan is impossible to defend, or that this defense would create an unacceptable risk of nuclear war—well, fine, go ahead and do so. But at this point the game, any analyst who argues that the United States should retreat from the defense of Taiwan needs to be brutally honest about the fate they are consigning the 23 million people of Taiwan to.


EDIT (18 Aug 2018): See my follow up post to this: "Taiwan will be defended by the bullet or not at all"


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------


[1] Lyle Goldstein, "The United States Must Be Realistic on Taiwan," National Interest, 7 August 2018.

[2]  For the classic investigation of these numbers, see Paul Smith, "The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength," The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1968), pp. 259-277

[4] On this point, see the following passage from my review of his book here:
This hypocrisy is most glaring in Goldstein’s discussions of history. Goldstein states that his “book is built on the premise that history cannot be overlooked or papered over,"(14) and to drive the point home, he devotes an entire chapter to the history of U.S.-Chinese relations, driving in on the history of U.S. imperialism in China and the psychological after effects America’s imperial presence has in the China of today. This contrasts greatly with his treatment of China’s own foreign adventurism. Goldstein’s gloss of the Sino-Indian war of 1963, for example, devotes several paragraphs to the CIA attempt to arm and train Tibetan rebels, something the Chinese still remember. What he does not emphasize in this account are the events at the center of India’s historical memory—Nehru’s generous and unilateral concessions in favor of China in the 1950s, made in hope of a new partnership between the two countries, spurned by Mao on the grounds of domestic struggle. In India this rejection of Nehru’s offers is known as the “great betrayal,” and the culmination of this “betrayal” in the surprise attack on Indian forces in 1963 still defines Indian images of China today. This history as surely as important—I would argue far more important—to the future of Sino-Indian security than the CIA’s attempts to infiltrate Tibet. It is not mentioned. Readers also learn nothing about the violent legacy of China’s cold war policies in other countries discussed, despite the that every regional single power of note either fought a war directly with China or fought an insurgency funded and trained by Beijing. Goldstein describes attempts to stoke the flame of Maoist insurgency across southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s are as “certain errors in diplomacy,”(266) but anyone remotely familiar with the countries in question know they have left much larger historical scars than this. These wars lie within living memory; their influence on contemporary Asian politics is far clearer than the early 20th century imperialism Goldstein devotes so much time to. Goldstein either does not know about this history or he does not care about it.
[5] Ralph Jennings, "Taiwan finds a lot to like about its former colonizer, Japan," Los Angeles Times 6 November, 2017; The wikipedia page has a lot of information about Taiwanese donations to Japan; my numbers for the aid to China comes from the Chinese Red Cross, who report substantially larger numbers than international media did.
[6] Tanner Greer, "#Reviewing Fire on the Water & Meeting China Halfway," Strategy Bridge, 7 November 2018.

[7] Goldstein, "The United States Must Be Realistic on Taiwan,"

[8] Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgement: How Good is it? How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); See also Tanner Greer, "The Limits of Expertise," The Scholar's Stage, 18 January 2018; Louis Menard. "Everybody's an Expert: Putting Political Expertise to the Test.The New Yorker, 5 December 2013. 

05 August, 2018

Notes From All Over 04/08/2018 (WEIRD Catholics, Chinese Intimidation Tactics, and Human Genetics)

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

TOP BILLING


"The Origins of WEIRD Psychology"
Jonathan Schulz, Duman Barahmi-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. PsyArXiv. 2 July 2018.
Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
I have a hard time containing my praise for this paper. It is long--almost 100 when the bibliography is added on--but it is one of though most thorough and compelling pieces of historical social science I have read. The statistical tools Schulz et. al. use are as simple as they come, but these fellows found so many independent ways to measure the things they are interested in (differences in both psychology and family structure of global populations) that it is very, very difficult to pick apart their argument. This is a model of clever social science research design.

 It is also one answer to a set of questions that have been dodging political economists, historians, and comparative sociologists for the last two decades. I do not think this study closes the book on the question of "Why the West over the Rest?," but any new research in the field will be required to deal with Schultz et. al.'s results.

"When Rio Tinto Met China's Iron Hand"
Kit Chellel. Franz Wild. David Stringer. Bloomberg. 12 July 2018.

How should a company respond when Chinese policemen have thrown your executives in jail and Chinese hackers have stolen $1 billion from your coffers? Like this, I suppose:
Albanese and another Rio executive met in London with Chinese ambassador Fu Ying. “You embarrassed China and China’s people in front of the world,” Fu told them, according to two people familiar with the conversation. But she offered them a way forward, however vague: Show the people of China Rio Tinto’s human side, and build a more cooperative relationship.

"Can We Please Have Science Without the Science Journals?"
Pascal Boyer. Cognition and Culture. 27 June 2018.

Related: David Cyranoski, "Top Chinese University to Consider Social Media Posts in Researcher Evaluations," Nature (18 October 2017).


THE REPUBLIC

"Trump Diary: Cortisol Politics."

David Auerbach. Waggish. 8 July 2018.
Opposition to Trump personally has become the unifying thread. Standard Republican policies are far more terrifying under the auspices of Trump than they otherwise would be. 
Even more remarkable than Trump’s grip on his supporters is his hold on his opponents. I lived through the terror and paranoia following September 11, 2001, and I swore to myself never to fall into such a mental trap again. In this country, such mass hysteria hasn’t happened again among the left until now, and social media has amplified it tenfold. Compared to the ravages of the Iraq War, the human consequences of the Trump administration have been comparatively small so far. 
There is much ink and breath spilled on why Trump has already exceeded Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld’s worst excesses. He hasn’t. The Global War on Terror, and the Iraq War in particular, have had far-reaching and deeper consequences than anything Trump has yet achieved. This could change in a day: nuking North Korea or rounding up immigrants en masse could immediately propel Trump into the front ranks of tyrants. But the opposition’s inability to gauge threats, reacting to everything from the North Korea “summit” (a joke, mostly) to ICE abuses (terrible) to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement (lousy, but far from the worst of our problems) with identical (or indistinguishable) levels of fear and doomsaying. 
...Trump’s charisma exacerbates what I call Cortisol Politics, the basing of politics on the lowest instinctive fight-or-flight reactions of the brain. Trump has caused everything to seem like an emergency. Much of the right already felt this way thanks to the efforts of Rush, Hannity, and Fox over the last 20 years. Now the left feels that way too.
"Why Identity Politics Benefits the Right More than the Left"
Sheri Burman. The Guardian. 14 July 2018.
...Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems. 
Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button. 
What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats.

THE MIDDLE KINGDOM

"Spy For Us — Or Never Speak To Your Family Again"

Megha Rajagopalan.  BuzzFeed News. 9 July 2018.

Related: Charles Rollet, "In China's Far West, Companies Cash in on Surveilance Program that Targets Muslims," Foreign Policy (13 June 2018).

"How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China"

Fan Jiayang. New Yorker. 23 July 2018.

"Payment due: Pacific islands in the red as debts to China mount"
Charlotte Greenfield and Jonathan Barrett. Reuters. 30 July 2018.

"民主到底是个啥?"
Communist Youth League. Bilibili Video, 17 March 2017.

In case you were wondering what Communist Youth League propaganda looks like in the 21st century... now you know.

HISTORY & THE HUMAN SCIENCES

The Insight
Razib Khan and Spencer Wells have created an excellent podcast on human genetics they've named The Insight. Their topics range from behavioral genetics to the future of genetic technology, but I include the podcast in this category because many of their most interesting episodes have to do with historical and population genetics. Historical genetics is sweeping away many traditional takes on ancient history. These two are a superb guide to this genomic revolution. I recommend the following episodes in particular:

Barbarian Genetics
The Evolutionary Importance of Mothers and Grandmothers
Genetic States of America
The Genetics of China, Han, and Beyond
Paradise Lost

Review of Zhao Dingxin. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History.
Yuri Pines. Early China, vol 39. (2016) pp 311–320.

This is an accurate, but vicious review of Zhao's book. Writing a social science based account of Chinese history that Pines cannot tear to smithereens would be a very good life-goal.

"Material security, life history, and moralistic religions: A cross-cultural examination" 
Benjamin Purzycki, et. al. PLoS ONE vol 13, iss 3. March 2018.

This paper looks like it is the final nail in the "life history" theories of religious behavior (if you don't know what "life history approaches" mean, read the lit review section of the paper carefully; it is a cogent introduction).

"Behavioural variation in 172 small-scale societies indicates that social learning is the main mode of human adaptation"
Sarah Mathew and Charles Perreault.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol 282, iss 1820. 7 July 2015.
Cultural history has a larger effect than ecology in a majority of the traits in the categories of technology and material culture, marriage and family organization, economic organization, ceremonies and rituals, supernatural beliefs, kinship system, political organization, warfare, settlement patterns and sodalities (figure 2a). Conversely, the effect of ecology is larger than that of cultural history in a majority of the traits related to subsistence. Cultural phylogeny is a stronger predictor than ecology for a majority of the traits in all categories of traits, except for technology and material culture, and subsistence (figure 2b). It is also a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2c). Finally, ecology is a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2d)…. The results indicate that behaviours can persist over millennia within a cultural lineage. We detected a positive effect of cultural history at every phylogenetic level, including the deepest level, phylum. This is striking, since phylum divides the tribes into two groups, Na-Dene and Amerind, a split that may be as old as 15 000 years.

The results also suggest that groups diverge linguistically more rapidly than they do behaviourally… The importance of Levels 6 and 7 imply that the behavioural repertoire of a tribe is strongly influenced by that of its ancestors that lived hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. Levels 6 and 7 may represent shared ancestry more than 1000 years ago. For instance, the speakers of Salishan languages share a common ancestor at Level 6 and may have begun to diverge about 3000 years ago…The fact that cultural phylogeny has a stronger effect than spatial distance on the presence of behavioural traits indicates that learning from group members is a more important process than learning from members of other groups.
"The Social Dynamics of Sorcery"
William Buckner. Traditions of Conflict. 6 July 2018.

See also: William Buckner, "A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi," 9 June 2018.

NATURAL SCIENCES

"After Last Year's Hurricane, Carribean Lizards are Better at Holding on For Dear Life."
Ed Yong. The Atlantic. 25 July 2018.

This is a dramatic example of evolution in action. Original paper here.

MILITARY AFFAIRS


"Meet the Navy’s new ‘mothership’ that fights with unmanned drones and vessels"
Aqil Haziq Mahmud. Channel News Asia. 6 June 2018.


"The Spy Who Drove Me"
Julia Ioffe. GQ. 24 July 2018.

"Behavioral Consequences of Probabilistic Precision: Experimental Evidence from National Security Professionals” 
Jeffrey Friedman, Jennifer Lerner, & Richard Zeckhauser. International Organization. 2017. pp. 1-24

BOOKS, LITERATURE, & THE ARTS

"Pos Shawarma: On Avengers Infinity Wars"
Aaron Brody. LA Review of Books. 2 May 2018.

"What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium""
"Sarah K." Notes That Do Not Fit. 25 May 2018.