I first became acquainted with the name of Christopher Beckwith when I borrowed this book on the origins of old Japanese from my college library. It's a groundbreaking book on a very interesting topic that nonetheless has received little scientific scrutiny. Most Japanese themselves don't know much, nor seem to care about where their language, and hence their people come from. The book was interesting in part, but also full of wild speculations and non-sequiturs that left on me the impression that Mr. Beckwith is quite the nutter. It's one thing that Japanese has relatives in old Manchurian Kingdoms. It's a different one altogether to posit that Burmese and Japanese share common ancestry because they both have a pronoun which starts in /wa/ and have a lot of monosyllabic words.
To be honest I never cared much about the topic, or the man. Until last week Razib at GNXP declared himself a fan of a recent book of his on Central Asia. I recall the guy was an expert on Tibet, so he must know more about Central Asia than Japan. And Central Asia is also a poorly understood region, so there must be lots of low-hanging fruit for the committed scholar to gather. On the same post, Razib links to a paper by Beckwith on his particular theory on the Indo-Europeans. Now, everybody who has even the slightest interest in history has an interest on the Indo-Europeans. Their descendants dominate most of the Earth, so it's only natural we care about where they came from. I had thought the science was mostly settled on the Indo-Europeans being steppe-dwellers who pretty much domesticated the horse, invented the chariot, and used it to conquer most of the temperate world. Well the science isn't settled if Dr. Beckwith has anything to say about it. And he's quite the polemicist. Check out the paper and tell me you're not intrigued.
I certainly was, especially by this little gem that came out of nowhere:
Duchesne says I “erroneously [assume] that the development of organized warfare in Greece and Rome, and the rise of the polis and the Roman senate, signalled the end of the aristocratic mind set.” I nowhere say anything of the kind, and never even thought it, as far as I can recall. This is an example of Duchesne’s failure to read my book carefully and in full. If anything I support Aristotle’s idea of the superiority—in some respects—of an aristocratic (or anyway, hierarchical or ‘feudal’) system over the deception known as ‘democracy’, and thus agree with Duchesne, in part, on this issue.
Hey, that sounds interesting. So interesting that it led me to buy his Empires of the Silk Road. I haven't quite started with the book, yet he has this pretty little gem in the preface (my bolding):
With respect to the data and history writing in general, some comment on my own approach is perhaps necessary, especially in view of the recent application of the “Postmodernist” approach to history, the arts, and other fields. According to the Modernist imperative, the old must always, unceas- ingly, be replaced by the new, thus producing permanent revolution. The Postmodernist point of view, the logical development of Modernism, rejects what it calls the positivist, essentially non-Modern practice of evaluating and judging problems or objects according to specific agreed criteria. In- stead, Postmodernists consider all judgments to be relative. “In our post- modern age, we can no longer take recourse to [sic] the myth of ‘objectivity,’ ” it is claimed. “Suspicions are legitimately aroused due to the considerable differences in the opinions of the foremost authorities in this area.” History is only opinion. Therefore, no valid judgments can be made. We cannot know what happened or why, but can only guess at the modern motivations for the modern “construction of identity” of a nation, the nationalistic po- lemics of anti-intellectuals and nonscholars, and so on. All manuscripts are equally valuable, so it is a waste of time to edit them—or worse, they are said to be important mainly for the information they reveal about their scribes and their cultural milieux, so producing critical editions of them eliminates this valuable information. Besides, we cannot know what any author really
intended to say anyway, so there is no point in even trying to find out what he or she actually wrote.6 Art is whatever anyone claims to be art. No rank- ing of it is possible. There is no good art or bad art; all is only opinion. Therefore it is impossible, formally, to improve art; one can only change it.
Unfortunately, obligatory constant change, and the elimination of all criteria, necessarily equals or produces stasis: no real change. The same applies to politics, in which the Modern “democratic” system allows only superficial change and thus produces stasis. Because no valid judgments can be made by humans—all human judgments are opinions only—all data must be equal. (As a consequence, Postmodernists’ judgment about the invalidity of judgments must also be invalid, but the idea of criticizing Postmodernist dogma does not seem to be popular among them.) In accordance with the Postmodernist view, there is only a choice between religious belief in what- ever one is told (i.e., suspension of disbelief) or total skepticism (suspension of both belief and disbelief).
In both cases, the result, if followed resolutely to the logical extreme, is cessation of thought, or at least elimination of even the possibility of critical thought. If the vast majority of people, who are capable only of the former choice (total belief), are joined by intellectuals and artists, all agreeing to abandon reason, the result will be an age of credulity, repression, and terror that will put all earlier ones to shame. I do not think this is ‘good’. I think it is ‘bad’. I reject Modernism and its hyper- Modern mutation, Postmodernism. They are anti-intellectual movements that have wreaked great damage in practically all fields of human endeavor. I hope that a future generation of young people might be inspired to attack these movements and reject them so that one day a new age of fine arts (at least) will dawn.
Damn. This guy is good. Very good. But wait, it gets better:
Viewed from the perspective of Eurasian history over the past four millennia, there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio- political structure during this time period—that is, down to the present day—and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too, regardless of whatever cosmetics have been applied to hide it. To put it another way, in my opinion the Modern political system is in fact simply a disguised primate-type hierarchy, and as such it is not essentially different from any other political system human primates have dreamed up. If recognition of a problem is the first step to a cure, it is long past time for this particular problem to be recognized and a cure for it be found, or at least a medicine for it to be developed, to keep it under control before it is too late for humans and the planet Earth.
The day all historians accept that biology is destiny, I guess we will have won.
Also related (darkly enlightened famous people), see this interview the Guardian did with Neil Bloomkamp:
"You'd literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy. But it's happening now on a globalised level. The outsourcing of whatever you need done, at low cost, can happen in a different country; you don't even need to know about it any more." Elysium brings all of this into the multiplex, and the film's substantial thrills and spills don't disguise Blomkamp's glum outlook. "That's good, that's what I wanted people to think," he says. "We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilisation 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that's not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet."
Watching Elysium, it's apparent he thinks the human race is probably buggered, although the solution he's holding out for is reassuringly Blomkampian. "The only way things will change is if we're smart enough to develop technology that can think us out of this, meaning augmenting ourselves genetically to be smart enough to change shit," he says. "Or to have artificial intelligence and programs to help solve the problems."
It seems to me we are not as alone as we think we are. What we need is to write, to write well, and to write a lot.