Genes and Culture

This is, in part, a review of Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland (hereafter SV&C), which I am carelessly posting here without even checking to see whether actual smart people, notably the ones over at Albion’s Seedlings (to say nothing of Gene Expression), have already written it up, mainly because they’ll have done a better job than me. Notice: “in part.” The book doesn’t take long to summarize, so after the genetics I’ll wander off into culture, including but not limited to linguistics.

Warning: spoilers. SV&C is, in a sense, a series of cliffhangers, and I’m going to reveal the ending.

The traditional narrative of the peopling of the British Isles goes something like this:

  1. An aboriginal population wandered in at the close of the last Ice Age and hung around for several thousand years, building megaliths and what not.
  2. Around the middle of the first millennium BC, they were displaced, and effectively exterminated, by an invasion of Celts from continental Europe.
  3. The Celts, at least those in what is now England and Wales, were then conquered by the Romans in the 1st century AD. Roman domination was political rather than demographic and in any event ended in the 5th century.
  4. After the Roman withdrawal, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded from northwestern Germany and overran most of Great Britain, confining the Celts to Cornwall, Wales, and the Scottish Highlands.
  5. Viking raids, mostly from Norway, began in the late 8th century but did not result in significant colonization.
  6. A Danish invasion in the 9th century was contained by Alfred the Great and limited to northeastern England (the Danelaw).
  7. The Norman Conquest in 1066 led to the replacement of a large minority of the population by Normans (themselves the descendants of Vikings) and their French allies.
  8. Northern Ireland was colonized by Anglo-Saxons from northern Britain in the 17th century, displacing some of the native Celtic population.
  9. The population of the isles is therefore minority Celt (Ireland, Wales, Scottish Highlands) and majority Anglo-Saxon, with admixtures of Dane, Norman, and French.

The above sequence turns out to be linguistically correct but demographically pretty wildly wrong, with interesting implications for those of us descended from Britain, and (as I will contend) dramatic implications for Anglospheric culture.

To cut to the chase: the vast majority, on the order of 90%, of the British genome is as indigenous as it could possibly be. The people living in the UK and Ireland today are, with surprisingly minor exceptions, directly descended from the aboriginal post-Ice Age population of the Atlantic coast of Europe, and are most closely related to the inhabitants of western France, Spain, and Portugal.

To the modest extent that their ancestry departs from this, by far the largest contribution is Danish, the people supposedly handily suppressed by Alfred. Genetic evidence of the Anglo-Saxon-Jute invasion is far less abundant, and the Norman Conquest is all but invisible. It is not surprising that the Romans left almost no trace; but there is no evidence of any substantial Celtic invasion from mainland Europe. As for the plantations in Northern Ireland, the Protestants turn out to have the same ancestors as the Catholics they displaced.

We are left, then, with a reality in which terms like “Celt” and “Anglo-Saxon” don’t mean what we are accustomed to thinking they mean. The British Isles are inhabited by people who are no more Celtic or Anglo-Saxon than are a majority of Americans today – a point to which I will return. But they speak Celtic and (interestingly enhanced) Germanic languages.

As David Hackett Fischer could tell you, cultures transmit rather easily across ethnic lines in the right circumstances, the more spectacular American examples being southern/western England/Chesapeake Bay -> African-Americans and East Anglia/New England/Puritan -> Irish/Italian-American Catholic. I note that Fischer attempts to trace the four prominent American subcultures arising from the 17th and 18th century waves of colonization both forward, to the late 20th century (Albion’s Seed was published in 1988), and backward, to the first-millennium colonization of Britain from the Continent and the early second-millennium warfare between England and Scotland. SV&C makes this seem much more reasonable – indeed, recognizable cultural antecedents of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers very likely lie, or lay, across the Channel (or the North Sea) just as surely as do the nearest relatives of the language they all spoke.

For a more recent example, see the linguistic Anglicization of Ireland in the 19th century, and the explosion of stereotypically Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurialism in Ireland in the late 20th. And of course, a large majority of the American population is not descended from the British Isles. The transmission of English language and culture to the UK’s former colonies outside of North America has been dealt with so well elsewhere that I will not mention it in any detail here. In light of the genetic findings of SV&C, which clearly demonstrate that a small (sometimes vanishingly small) ethnic minority can effectively impose its language on an indigenous population, the question that leaps to my mind is:

What are the limits of diffusion for the Anglosphere?

To make the question less conceptual: can a relatively small American presence, backed by the gravity well of an $11 trillion economy, the largest language in the world (over 1 million words), and enormous charm industries – and frequently accompanied by aggressively evangelical religious proselytizing – draw much of humanity into its orbit? Are the conquests of the past the only sufficient mechanism, or can the soft power of the present and future do it all?

The usual objection is that ancient cultures have too much momentum, or perhaps merely inertia, of their own to be supplanted by a young upstart. But the inhabitants of the British Isles had been there for at least six thousand years before they began speaking Celtic, and another thousand when Anglo-Saxon arrived. Why should we think it unusual if most of humanity, with no European ancestry whatsoever, is speaking English, and going about their daily lives in startlingly American-seeming ways, by the end of this century?

The point cannot be overemphasized: ancestry is not destiny. Cultural diffusion matters; an emphasis on processes, or simple pragmatism, matters; ideas matter. Watch for the spread of English as a first language (the Netherlands), of dollarization (Ecuador, El Salvador), of “Southern Christianity,” of common law legal systems. Most of all, watch for neat definitions of the Anglosphere to become less workable as its boundaries blur. The near future may see the massive, yet bloodless, displacement of the language and folkways of billions of people.

Whatever SV&C‘s implications for the Anglosphere, we can look forward to the duplication of its techniques elsewhere. I would be fascinated to see the results of a good genetic survey of Brazil (which is far more multiethnic than even the US), and of India, where the Aryan/Dravidian dichotomy seems likely to be subject to immense elucidation.

12 thoughts on “Genes and Culture”

  1. Most historical “conquest” have been little more than one militarist caste supplanting another. It is little wonder that very little genetic change occurs in the broader population.

    The common pattern in human society is one or more ethnic groups subjugated by a militarily dominate minority ethnic group. Usually group A invades and subjugates group B (quite often while group B was trying to do the same thing to group C). Group A becomes the upper class and group B the lower classes. Class conflict in most pre-industrial societies is actually the conflict between the occupier and the occupied. The dominate group quite often speaks a different language and has a substantially different culture than the vast majority of the population. Only over many generations do the two cultures amalgamate into something looking like a unified culture.

    In order to hijack and entire society of this kind it is only necessary to replace the most elite of the dominate group. Language and custom percolate down the status hierarchy as lower status individuals mimic those of higher status. It is really only necessary to transport a few thousand elites to a new region to spread a culture and make it appear through the distance of history that some kind of mass migration occurred.

  2. Thank you for the interesting article. My only comment is related to your point about cultural diffusion, if I am understanding you correctly.

    I am frequently bemused by the surprise and indignation many people in the US exhibit when they confront the hostility of other cultures towards Americans and our style of operating. The animus always shocks us, but the underlying cause is very clear and, really, very obvious:

    The western belief in individuality is terribly threatening to most of the basic tenets of traditional cultures.

    Whether expressed as religious tolerance, political debate, party factionalism, racial and gender equality, or the cultural tendency towards social informality, the concept of each person as a discrete entity with a wide range of options in any number of areas of life is shocking, and threatening, to members of a culture for whom difference generally equals death or banishment.

    I have found this aspect of an analysis of how our culture affects others to be very helpful in understanding the various conflicts we have been engaged in over the last few centuries, and glaringly obvious in the current confrontation with radical islamicism. Religious tolerance and gender equality by themselves ensure an almost unsolvable conflict between the world views of the west and islam.

    Indeed, there are repeated and relentless attempts to devalue the individual in our own culture, and impose a “rule of uniformity” from which no deviation is allowed. PC codes, multi-cultural tribalism, race/gender studies, and the current pronouncements of anathema against any who doubt the “approved” version of climate change dogma are obvious examples of the tendency in our culture to revert to the traditional, and retreat to the comforting collective ideal of a culture in which everybody thinks and believes all the same things.

    I suppose, in a very real way, it is the cultural cacaphony of individualism that disturbs people in other, more traditional, cultures. We’re like an orchestra that is always tuning up, every instrument bleating and honking up and down its own scales, indifferent to the others.

    We are all seeking to reach our own, individual “perfect pitches”, without regard to the noise from the rest of the band. I would imagine it does seem rather noisy and chaotic when viewed from the back of the auditorium.

    I can’t imagine how it’s received when, every once in a while, the whole orchestra plays together, and a man walks on the moon. It must seem like witchcraft or something.

  3. It is culture, institutions, law, etc. that make the Anglosphere distinct. The fact that various groups conquered Britain and Ireland and did not replace the gene pool only shows this even more strongly. It was not who was the biological parent of whom that mattered. What mattered was how they went about their business.

    As to whether the Anglospere can somehow “take over”, I don’t know. I do not think this should be any sort of goal. Why ask for trouble? You do your thing, we’ll do ours, just don’t send us any suicide bombers. Other than that, minimal rule sets for trade.

    As to our “charm” industries, our popular culture is a cataract of septic garbage. It is our weakest point, a strategic weakness. People hate us who would not hate us if they actually knew us. They hate the detestable image depicted in entertainment products which originate here. The half-baked attempts by the government to offset this tsunami of garbage by sending Karen Hughes on a speaking tour is too pathetic to even be funny.

    “…watch for neat definitions of the Anglosphere to become less workable as its boundaries blur.”

    Bennett has been talking about this all along. The Anglosphere is much bigger and more diffuse at the edges than any simple aggregation of English-settled countries.

    “The near future may see the massive, yet bloodless, displacement of the language and folkways of billions of people.” Maybe, but this does not follow from the example of England. The displacements, even of elites, was a bloody process.

  4. “Class conflict in most pre-industrial societies is actually the conflict between the occupier and the occupied.”

    This is why it was a revolutionary statement when the French adopted the famous textbook starting “Our ancestors, the Gauls.” Gauls, not Franks, you see.

  5. Another thought occurs to me. One of Macfarlane’s points, which he derived from Maitland and others, is that England led the way into the modern world because it had enjoyed — relatively speaking — an extraordinary level of civil peace. Thus for centuries, social and physical capital had been able to slowly accumulate, creating the preconditions for the takeoff of the Industrial Revolution. We know that most of the villages recorded in the Domesday Book were present seven centuries later in the 19th century, and we know from archeology that many of these same sites and even particular walled fields, have been marked off since prehistoric times. The fact that the population has never been uprooted is further evidence that this — probably unique — level of continuity has characterized England since prehistoric times. The Mongols, we know, would tear whole societies up by the roots. The volkerwanderung of the Germanic peoples had shuffled the ethnic deck in Europe during the collapse of the Roman Empire, though perhaps less than we think. But England had absorbed wave after wave of rulers, while maintaining a basic continuity.

  6. “We’re like an orchestra that is always tuning up, every instrument bleating and honking up and down its own scales, indifferent to the others.”


    We are jazz.

    If I have to explain that, you ain’t gonna understand.

  7. Hokey-dokey lexington green, then how do you explain Japan? It had about 4000 years of “— relatively speaking — an extraordinary level of civil peace.” Why isn’t there a Japanese Sphere? (I know they tried it in WWII, but look how that turned out.) I would argue that the Japanese “level of continuity” surely is as great as the UK’s. I’m not particularly disputing your point, but I think it is not ‘necessary and sufficient’ to explain the phenomenon.

    And, Pouncer, it is jazz, but it is also baseball. Jacques Barzun observed that you’ll never understand American culture unless you understand baseball. It is a bounded, individualistic game, balanced upon a meta-rule that “thou shalt not take unfair advantage.” Consider the balk rule or the infield fly rule. Both are designed, deliberately, to prevent a player or team from being ‘unfairly’ punished for deeds not done. Classic American attitude.

  8. JXM — Read Alan Macfarlane’s Savage Wars of Peace if you want to know about Japan. Far from contradicting anything I said, you have put your finger on precisely the other example in the world which bears analogy to England’s level of civil peace due to freedom from invasion. I referred to the book here.

  9. JXM – America is (1) jazz, and (2) baseball. OK. It is also (3) football. There is a lot individualism within the framework of very fiercely competing teams. “American life is football by other means.” Some modern Tocquevill said that, and there is a big element of truth to it.

  10. Perhaps our cultural products are garbage, but I don’t see that as the reason various people object to American culture; they object because their own people love it. They vote with their feet for Hollywood, MacDonalds, blue jeans, and Bay Watch. I’m reminded of the gathering of Francophone nations a few years ago where over half the delegates had to wear translation headphones to understand Chirac.

    Is it possible American cultural products aim at the masses while other nations’ products aim at the elite? That might explain the worldwide attraction.

  11. Isn’t your takeaway message — ancestry is not destiny — the logical opposite of the first half of your post, which shows that the inhabitants of the British Isles are more homogenous in ancestry than was previously believed?

  12. “The point cannot be overemphasized: ancestry is not destiny. Cultural diffusion matters; an emphasis on processes, or simple pragmatism, matters; ideas matter. Watch for the spread of English as a first language (the Netherlands), of dollarization (Ecuador, El Salvador), of “Southern Christianity,” of common law legal systems. Most of all, watch for neat definitions of the Anglosphere to become less workable as its boundaries blur. The near future may see the massive, yet bloodless, displacement of the language and folkways of billions of people”

    I think that what may be the last stanza in Blake’s “Jerusalem” consiously reflects the wish to be a successful, influential culture. It is something of an anthem among Britain’s elites, I suspect. As an American with a diverse genetic background which doesn’t include English ancestry it’s interesting that I identify overwhelmingly with them and their experience. I know “Jerusalem” is a hymn sung with great emotion at the death of some statesmen there; maybe one of our English cousins would care to elaborate about the consious impulse as it did/does exsist:

    “I shall not cease from mental fight,
    nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
    ’til we have builded Jeruselem, here,
    in Englands green and gentle land.”

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