August 17, 2013

Celto-Germanic accomplishment, with speculations on the Mediterranean and Middle East

The matter of national character is under-appreciated in America, where we think in larger racial terms of whites vs. blacks, whites vs. the Indians, and so on. Likewise, the defenders of a group called "Dead White European Males" contrast their heroes with contempo multi-culti women and queers. These broad-brush conceptions obscure much of the true evolution of our culture, namely the "who" and "where" in the European context.

In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray quantifies the eminence of people he calls "significant figures" in the arts and sciences, for both Europe and Asia. This is measured by their share in subject-specific encyclopedias across a variety of languages. Michelangelo and Shakespeare receive lots of space in any language's encyclopedias on art and literature, so they rank very highly. More marginal figures may not make the final cut.

Taking stock of all the significant figures from Europe after the Middle Ages, where did they come from? I couldn't find a reproduction of his map on page 297, but here is the description:

If we ignore national borders and instead create the most compact polygon (in terms of land area) that encloses 80 percent of the places where the significant figures grew up, it forms the shape in the figure below [not shown here], with borders defined by Naples, Marseilles, the western border of Dorset County in England, a point a few miles above Glasgow, the northern tip of Denmark, and a point a few miles east of the city that used to be Breslau in German Silesia (now Wroclaw in Poland).

[...] All of the Netherlands is still in... Parts of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are still in. Russia is out. Or you can think of it another way: 80 percent of all the European significant figures can be enclosed in an area that does not include Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, Poland, Hungary, East and West Prussia, Ireland, Wales, most of Scotland, the lower quarter of Italy, and about a third of France.

Zooming in even closer, we uncover the following map:

The colored regions in the European core (light and dark blue together) account for the origins...of fully 50 percent of the total European significant figures. Just the five regions colored dark blue -- Ile de France, Southeast England, Tuscany, Belgium, and the Netherlands -- account for 26 percent of the European total. The other 24 percent come from (in order of their contribution) Bavaria, Venetia, Southwest England, Switzerland, Lowland Scotland, Lower Saxony, Saxony, Baden-Wurttemberg, Northeast Austria, the Italian Papal States, and Brandenburg.

What makes this broad area unique is its blend of peoples who come from different but complementary national character backgrounds. They combine Celtic curiosity and playfulness with Germanic diligence and orderliness. Or in the terms of evolution by natural selection, blind variation and selective retention.

Too given to imagination and rambunctious behavior, and you can't commit to the process of whittling, crafting, and putting the finishing touches on your Big Idea. Hence why the more predominantly Celtic areas do not join what Murray calls the "European core" of accomplishment. On the other hand, too obsessed with structure and nose-to-the-grindstone workaholism, and you can't let your mind wander into strange new territory to discover you Big Idea in the first place. Hence why the more purely Germanic areas fall outside of the core.

In the farther eastern parts of Europe, the Balto-Slavic people appear to lack either trait in a high proportion. On the whole, they are incurious as well as listless, not unlike the norm in, say, China. The gloomy, going-nowhere Vodka-drinkers, and the numbed-out opium den dwellers and slot-machine yankers. Adaptation to sedentary agriculture has selected for similar ways of life in both the plains of Northeastern Europe and East Asia. The lack of accomplishment in that area, too, is striking -- especially considering their political integration, social organization, and intelligence levels higher than the average in Western Europe.

Celtic people are more adapted to pastoralism, hence the playfulness and rambunctiousness seen among herder societies all over the world. Germanic people were also pastoralists, though they did begin around the Northern European Plain, and so might have also been selected for a certain degree of orderliness and industriousness if they dipped into agriculture as well as livestock herding, not to mention any such traits that they may have picked up from their Balto-Slavic neighbors (culturally or genetically), who are more exclusively sedentary crop-planters.

As for the southern regions of Europe, my completely uninvestigated hunch is that they don't show the healthy mix of pastoralist and agriculturalist personalities after the Mediterranean was eclipsed as the breadbasket, and settled farming shifted more toward the European Plain up north, leaving a more heavily pastoralist area more interested in the culture of honor. The Mediterranean's heyday seems to have been earlier, after farming had established itself, but when herding animals was still being practiced as well, as in the Greco-Roman world.

Speculating even more, I suspect that a similar dynamic accounts for the central role of Persia in the Islamic Golden Age. Naive Westerners assume that Islamic = Arab or at least Semitic, but so many of the towering figures were from Indo-European Persia. When you interact with their descendants today, Persians appear to have a familiar mix of playfulness, rambunctiousness, diligence, and orderliness. The Lebanese feel that way too.

In contrast, the Palestinians are more like the Irish of the Near East. (Purer pastoralist types, even more remote from settled civilizations, would be the tribes of Afghanistan, who are the local versions of the Balkan tribes.) I have no idea who the Middle Eastern counterparts of the rigid, martinet pure-Germanic types are. But the Fertile Crescent must have produced tribes similar to the farmers of the European Plain, especially ones like the Germanic tribes who began locally as pastoralists.

Certain modern peoples would then represent a blend of those two opposite ways of life -- agriculture and pastoralism -- and enjoy an outsized advantage when it comes to cultural production. Egypt for sure, the descendants of the agrarian Nile civilization and the desert nomads from Arabia who over-ran it. The Lebanese and Persians probably come from some fusion of Fertile Crescent farmers and pastoralist / sea-faring nomads (culturally at least, whether genetically or not).

This is another post in an off-and-on series about that urges fans of "human biodiversity" studies to take a closer look at the variety out there in the world, now and historically, and not to simplistically talk about the white or European race, Islamic culture, etc. And more importantly, to broaden their interests beyond intelligence and focus also on personality, subsistence mode, and so on. How else are we supposed to explain, for example, the state of affairs in China vs. Japan, or Russia vs. Germany? Or East Asia vs. Europe? There's way more going on than IQ.


  1. I written about this indispensable book several times, and finally someone else writes about it.

    Without Europe - in fact without a small part of Europe - the rest of the world would be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years in the past.

  2. A lot of the blue areas are in Germany. Germans, however you classify their background, are not playful. Most of Germany was Celtic-speaking until shortly before the start of the Christian era. The Germanic languages spread from Scandinavia. The Celtic languages are thought to have spread from a little north of the Alps quickly, probably through conquest, before 500 BC. Most of the ancestors of today's Germans and French spoke Celtic languages in antiquity, but the Germans and French aren't like the Irish at all. They aren't even like each other. It's likely that in antiquity the Celts, a small tribe from the Alps, conquered a lot of disparate peoples and was then assimilated into the larger conquered populations, giving them their language. The modern descendants of post-conquest Celtic-speakers have little in common with each other.

    To recap: Swiss Germans, the least playful people on Earth, are mostly descended from Celtic speakers. The Celtic=playful equation doesn't work, though the British-Isles-Celtic = playful equation might.

    Murray's maps, while fascinating and useful, do not take population density into account. Scandinavia has always had low population density. I'm sure that it's had more significant figures in the hard sciences PER CAPITA than Europe as a whole. Until late into the 19th century Russia too had low population density. Russia did not produce any scientific greats until Peter the Great's reforms in the early 18th century. From then on its per capita rate must have been respectable, though I don't know whether it's been above or below the Euro average.

    "hence the playfulness and rambunctiousness seen among herder societies all over the world"

    Not in Switzerland.

  3. "Germans, however you classify their background, are not playful."

    I said they were about half-Celtic, hence not as playful and rambunctious as the Scots, Irish, or English. And by combining it with curiosity, imagination, and "blind variation," I clearly mean it in a letting-your-mind-wander and not-sticking-to-the-straight-and-narrow and stop-and-smell-the-roses.

    You see plenty of that in western and southern German culture. Most famously in Oktoberfest. Germans (from that part of Germany, anyway) participated in rock and new wave music. German classical music has a strong light-hearted, delightful, wistful side to it -- the farther away you go from the gloomier northeast, at any rate.

    Even Kant came off as half-Celtic when he was young, like his writings on the Sublime. His mother was from Nuremberg, so he was only half-Eastern genetically, though fully by environment.

    The traditionally Catholic German-speakers are not as buttoned-up as they're assumed to be by folks who haven't really looked into their culture.

    It's more the northeastern / eastern parts of Germany that give us our stereotypes of gloom, pessimism, martinet leadership, obsession with structure and order, etc. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Wagner, the Bauhaus school (three separate locations all in eastern Germany), etc.

    The Swiss Germans are outliers in being mountainous pastoralist types who are overly sober and orderly. Interestingly, Germanic Zurich barely figures in the history of Swiss accomplishment, while Celto-Germanic Geneva dominates (again going by Murray's count).

  4. ...and anyone who thinks the Dutch don't have a strong playful streak has never seen a Paul Verhoeven movie.

  5. "Murray's maps, while fascinating and useful, do not take population density into account. "

    That's true but not relevant. In 1700, the Netherlands had a population of about 1.5 million -- the same as Sweden. Yet look at the long-established dominance of the Dutch over the Swedes culturally. There was no "Swedish Renaissance." Couldn't find quick population estimates for Belgium around the same time, but they must have been comparable, and again they far outclassed the Scandinavians.

    Scotland only had 1 million. I guesstimate Norway to have about that many based on doubling growth during the 1600s, and a 1650 estimate of 0.45 million. Yet Scotland led its own regional Enlightenment, which Continental Europe looked to, while Norway was basically a no-show.

    This applies on a smaller level as well. Murray discusses the size of cities, and it appears not to matter much if at all. Barcelona and Naples were huge cities, but they were no-shows. In the period of 1800-1950, Stuttgart was the most accomplished German-speaking city (far and away), despite being far lower on the pop density totem pole than Berlin, for example.

    Today (I don't know historically, but probably similar), Zurich has about twice as many people as Geneva. And again, Geneva had (IIRC) about 9-10 times as many figures as Zurich in Murray's count, in the 1800-1950 period.

  6. It's also an obscuring mistake to restrict "Germans" to Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

    Central and northern Italy have been Germanic since the fall of Rome / Migration Period, first the Goths for a bit, then the Langobards for a longer while, then finally the Franks.

    Before Roman influence, there was a heavy Celtic presence. The other main source being the non-IE Etruscans.

    Who's going to tell us that Italians from the central and northern part aren't playful and imaginative?

  7. "Without Europe - in fact without a small part of Europe - the rest of the world would be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years in the past."
    Throughout most of history, China was the most advanced civilization. They certainly fell behind during the industrial revolution's "Great Divergence", but not by "thousands" of years.

  8. According to McEvedy and Jones, in 1700 the area within the modern borders of the Netherlands had 2 million people, Sweden had 1.5 million, Norway 0.6 million, Scotland 1 million.

    I'm sure the Dutch beat the Swedes per capita, but they also must have beaten the European average by a very large margin. I suspect that Scandinavians beat the European per capita achievement average, but by a smaller margin than the Dutch.

    Maybe the word playful is a little ambiguous or fuzzy. I guess it makes sense to try to make finer distinctions. As I see it, Germans are responsible, earnest, disciplined, humorless and romantic. The English are responsible, earnest, disciplined, very fond of humor and find romanticism ridiculous. Romanticism is actually one of the things they like to laugh at. The English are serious on the inside, but think that one shouldn't outwardly appear to be serious. I don't think Germans have a problem with outwardly appearing to be serious. Scandinavians are earnest, responsible, disciplined, but do they find romanticism ridiculous? I actually don't know.

    Earnestness, responsibility and the quality of being disciplined peak in Scandinavia, Finland, Germany, the Low Countries and England. As one moves away from that contiguous area in any direction, those three qualities fall off.

    During the Renaissance most northern Italian states hired Swiss and other German mercenaries to fight for them. Apparently the locals lacked the discipline or altruism or both to defend their own states. And yet at the same time they were so enormously productive in the arts, sciences and technology.

    There are at least three difficult to explain peculiarities: English humor, French sensuality and the Italian concern with visual beauty.

    I really don't know much about German regional differences. I know that Mozart's music was playful, while Bach's and Beethoven's was serious. Mozart was a southerner, Beethoven's family came from the Low Counties and Bach was from in-between, so that supports your point.

  9. how can you determine what ethnic group you belong to? just by your last name?


  10. This is really interesting. I hope you continue with this line of thinking - the importance of European ethnic groups, and the personalities of each.

    that being said, I don't think you can have someone who is both playful and structured. you have one trait or the other. What's more true, is that accomplishment will happen when playful and structured people team up together.

    Why did some socities have only playful, or only structured, thinkers? Whereas others had members of both personality types?


  11. could you type down all the personality types you've come up with?

    For instance:


    as a side note, check out

    some of the work you are doing is similar to their own.


  12. better yet, how you would you correlate the Big Five, or the MBTI, with pastoralism etc.?

    What did the invention of pastoralism correlate with on the Big Five? Openness to Experience, or Lack of Conscienstousness, etc.?


  13. for instance, what would extroversion-introversion be related to?


  14. China vs. Japan

    Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore tend to compare pretty well to Tokyo and Japan these days. You could argue for an immigrant selection bias here, but I find that not so plausible.

    On the whole, they are incurious as well as listless, not unlike the norm in, say, China.

    In the farther eastern parts of Europe, the Balto-Slavic people appear to lack either trait in a high proportion. Peter Turchin seems to have a different opinion of Russian accomplishment or at least intellectual inclinations ("The Russian is very broad"). His take when asked on GNXP about Russian was that Russians are inclined to cosmic, overly broad and impractical theories. That may meet up with some proto-Lysenkoist conformity tendencies in that population.

    I'm kind of surprised on your take on the Balto-Slavs as agriculturalists uber-alles, since I thought this paper shows high "cattle share" in North East Europe across his compared to West Central Europe -
    The wrinkle in that paper though, is that they may be looking at cattle and not sheep and goats, the pastoralist's favorite animals (rugged terrain, milk but also wool).


    It might be interesting to think about how this links up to ultra high Jewish achievement. We tend to think of IQ as explaining that, but if IQ becomes a less powerful variable than national personality, we'd have to explain how the Jewish personality leads to their ultra high achievement. How would being managerial-financial types lead to a high accomplishment personality that is comparable to the pastoralist-farmer personality.

  15. The blue banana is the stretch of Europe from north Italy to Home Counties England. It's the rich stretch of Europe. Genes matter, but money talks.

    Then again, smart people are good at both making money and making art.

  16. Speaking of your thoughts on how evolution involving people's lifestyles and personality, Ryan Faulk did a couple videos about evolution and the differences between people who have hunter/gatherer-influenced genetic backgrounds and agriculturalist backgrounds.

    He argues that hunter-gatherers are more impulsive, violent while agriculturalists are more disciplined and less prone to violence. Besides this, he also argues that the main reason civilization in northern areas like east asia or northern europe is more robust is because there's a higher threshold for adapting to agriculture. You might find this to be interesting when comparing parts of say europe that developed agricultural later with places like Italy.

  17. The 'openness + conscientiousness' formula for success was central to Chuck Jones' old animated parable The Dot and the Line.

  18. "Throughout most of history, China was the most advanced civilization. They certainly fell behind during the industrial revolution's "Great Divergence", but not by "thousands" of years."

    If Africa had not been colonized, where would it be? I estimate about 20,000 BC. Asia, about 1100 AD, and Arabia, about 700 AD.


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