Saturday, May 26, 2012

Constructing the Greek state - part 2

The Ioannis Metaxas regime (1936–1941) was the high-water mark of Greek nationalism. It sought to create an emotional bond between Greeks and their nation that they had previously felt only for their families and immediate kin. In this, Metaxas was trying to replicate a process of nation-building that had happened over a much longer time in Western Europe. (source)

Greece is a young nation. This statement may seem absurd, since the Greeks have a long history that goes back thousands of years. For most of that time, however, they existed as an ethnic community within larger multicultural states that were often ruled by non-Greeks. This was especially so during the centuries of Muslim rule under the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire allowed its subject peoples much freedom to manage their affairs, but this self-government seldom rose above the local level. It was at this level that the Greeks were accustomed to running their lives—within the family, at the church, and among fellow villagers.

Above the local level, there was only a weak sense of common identity. And this broader identity was more religious than ethnic. While people were almost always sure of their religion, they were often less sure of their ethnicity. Many Orthodox Christians would alternately identify themselves to census takers as either Greeks or Macedonian Slavs (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, p. 208). Slavs became “Greek” by attaining a certain level of education, which typically was dispensed in that language (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, pp. 14-15).

In addition, a common ethnic identity could not easily develop in a land where Greeks had to live with other people. This was the case over most of present-day Greece. Almost half the population of Crete was Muslim, and the same was true for Western Thrace, and parts of Macedonia. Elsewhere, Christian Slavs or Albanians often predominated. Co-existence with Muslims was possible, but it came at a high cost. As Jelavich and Jelavich (1977, pp. 5-6) note:

In the decaying Ottoman Empire individual Muslims often suffered as much as their Christian counterparts did from bad government, but they still enjoyed important basic privileges, such as a far better chance in court, fewer taxes, and a recognized superior status. […] Christians, however, usually were supposed to observe certain prohibitions that were as galling to their personal pride as to their material interests. For instance, in theory they could not bear firearms, wear conspicuous or rich clothes, or don the color green, sacred to the Muslims. They were supposed to dismount when passing a Muslim on horseback; their houses could not be richer than or overlook those of their Muslim neighbors. Christian churches could not have bells or belltowers; new churches were not to be built, but old ones could be repaired.

Just as ethnic identity often extended no farther than the fields around one’s village, the same little world also circumscribed one's zone of relative peace and security. People disliked venturing too far from home, for fear of bandits. Many of these outlaws were Greeks, but the most powerful ones were Muslims—in general, discharged soldiers for whom banditry was little different from soldiering. Some of them ruled over large stretches of territory and commanded their own private armies. In time, especially during periods of weakness, the Ottoman Empire would regularize their existence by appointing them to official posts. There was thus no fine line between banditry and State power. The State itself ruled by virtue of force, and not by consent of the governed.

Constructing the Greek state

This old order ended with the War of Independence (1821-1829) and the creation of a Greek state. Nation-building would take place over a shorter time than it had in Western Europe. It would also be a more deliberate process. Finally, it would involve a more explicit rejection of the old order—a time when Greeks didn’t have their land all to themselves.

Initially, the new state was Greek only in name, being a protectorate of Great Britain, France, and Russia under a Bavarian king with a foreign-staffed civil service and army. Greeks would not run their own country until the late 1830s, and a democratically elected legislature would not be formed until 1844.

As citizens and as voters, the average Greek would now have to assume responsibility—especially financial responsibility—for a much larger circle of people who were neither family members nor neighbors. The only common denominator was a sense of shared citizenship. The result?

In 1838 Greek finances had been put under a French supervisor, Artemonis de Regny. By 1843 the entire financial situation of the country was disastrous. With the exception of a single year the state had been run on deficit spending. Payments on the loan had been suspended for four years. (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, p. 75)

Greece’s finances remained precarious. A second debt crisis occurred scarcely a half-century later:

The financial problem became increasingly serious. By 1892 the service on the debt took a third of the budget. In the next year Greece was bankrupt. (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, p. 173)

The problem wasn’t that Greeks were financially irresponsible. The problem was that they had previously exercised financial responsibility within the confines of a small community, or simply an extended family. A bad decision would primarily impact close relatives, who could easily retaliate. There was thus a system of checks and balances that just did not work in the new Greece.

Greeks were now interacting within a large social and economic environment while maintaining the mental reflexes of a much smaller one. People thought long and hard before dealing with strangers (and for good reason). They instead preferred to deal with other family members, even when a non-relative might be more competent. The worst part was that these family networks would conspire to plunder collectively owned goods, starting with the public treasury and extending to almost any space of social interaction. Beyond the world of one’s immediate kin, Greece was still a low-trust society, and a low-trust society is necessarily a poorer one.

To overcome this problem, Greek nationalists sought to strengthen national identity—to extend to the entire nation the sort of trust and emotional bonding that was normally felt towards one’s family. In short, they wanted to replicate the cultural evolution that the West had gone through. They wished to create a large nation-state with a correspondingly large society where one could easily interact with, and trust, complete strangers.

To this end, it was felt necessary to assimilate the country’s Christian minorities and expel its Muslim minority. This process had already begun during the War of Independence, with massacres of Muslim civilians being among the first acts of the Greek rebels (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, p. 440). It continued through a process of Turkish reprisals and Greek counter-reprisals, culminating in a mass exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1922-1923.

Meanwhile, a national educational system was designed with a common curriculum. The Greek language was standardized, and steps taken to replace Turkish and Venetian loan-words with terms of Greek origin. Historic sites were made accessible to the public and used to instill national pride. In all this, Greece was following the example of Western nation-states.

Metaxas and the high tide of Greek nationalism

Greek nationalism reached its height under the Ioannis Metaxas regime (1936–1941). This period saw the use of organized youth activities, modern media, and popular art to promote national sentiment. By 1941, over one sixth of all Greeks were wearing the dark blue uniform of the national youth movement (EON). Metaxas himself became the focus of a personality cult that presented him as the “First Peasant,” the “First Worker,” and the “National Father.”

Metaxas blamed the failures of the past 100 years on Greeks pursuing narrowly defined self-interests at the expense of the nation as a whole. This pursuit of personal freedom impoverished Greek society and actually made everyone less free. His political philosophy is summarized by Sarandis (1994, pp. 151-152):

The individual must merge with the whole, and his own will was to be submitted to that of the nation. No one would be absolutely free and no individual could exist outside the state. Everything constituted part of the state, through which alone the will of the Greek people would be expressed. And this collective national will transcended the present and was independent of the living components of the nation, since it represented the volition not only of this era but also of the people of previous generations through thousands of years of history. Furthermore, individuals would subordinate their interests and suppress their own appetites and selfishness before the national collective welfare; only thus could they be powerful and consequently free.

This was clearly a Greek variant of fascism, even though Metaxas would later defend his country against fascist Italy. Today, such thinking might seem absurd, especially the notion of gaining freedom by suppressing freedom. Yet Metaxas was addressing a real problem. He wanted to stop the plundering of collective resources and turn Greece into the kind of high-trust society that older nation-states took for granted.

Metaxas’ legacy would last long after his untimely death in 1941. As growing numbers of tourists flocked to Greece during the postwar era, they were enchanted to find a nation with a strong sense of history and shared identity. They assumed this Greece was age-old, when in fact it had scarcely existed a half-century before. 


Jelavich, C. & B. Jelavich. (1977). The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804-1920, A History of East Central Europe, vol. VIII, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Metaxas Project – Inside Fascist Greece

Sarandis, C. (1994). The ideology and character of the Metaxas regime, in R. Higham & T. Veremis (eds.) The Metaxas Dictatorship: Aspects of Greece, 1936-1940, (pages 156-157), Sunflower University Press.

Wikipedia. Ioannis Metaxas

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Greek debt crisis - part 1

In early 1989, Poland legalized Solidarnosc as a political party and Hungary announced that it would become a multi-party state. These two moves set off a domino effect that spread throughout the entire Eastern bloc. (source)

The debt crisis that is today crippling Greece strangely resembles the one that overwhelmed Eastern Europe back in the late 1980s. The resemblance is not just confined to the existence of a huge debt. A quarter-century ago, there was a growing feeling among East Europeans and their elites that no solution was possible within the limits of the current ideology. As the debt became more and more unmanageable, more and more people came to see it as part of a larger problem. The debt crisis thus sparked a broader civilizational change. It became possible to debate a much wider range of issues that had hitherto been ruled off-limits to debate.

Will the current crisis play out in a similar way? Will one or two countries reach a breaking point and begin a process of change? And will this change then spread to other countries, with the result that an entire world-system will collapse like a house of cards?

Perhaps. But keep in mind a key difference between then and now. In the late 1980s, there was an alternate world-system that could inspire hope in those who wanted change. No such alternative exists today. There are simply countries that are less integrated into the current system and its ideology of globalism and post-nationalism. People will certainly become disillusioned, but without an alternate model their disillusionment will not necessarily lead to change.

Thus, the process may be slower and more erratic than the one a quarter-century ago. Change will likely come in fits and starts. Much more effort will be needed not only to explain why globalism is fundamentally unsound but also to articulate a viable alternative. And such an effort will have to be directed at people in all walks of life, including the elites. No, it won’t be easy.

In the next few posts, I will examine the roots of the Greek debt crisis, which is much more than about debt and much more than about Greeks. What does it portend for them and for the rest of us?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Survival of the cutest?

Please take care of me! (source) Child neglect is common in Papua New Guinea, even in regions where food is relatively abundant. Did juvenile hair color become lighter as a way to elicit maternal care? 

If we exclude people of European descent, blond hair is most common among the natives of Oceania, specifically within a zone stretching from central and western Australia, through Papua New Guinea and into Melanesia and nearby islands. This coloration is due to a genetic variant of TYRP1 that is rare or nonexistent outside Oceania (Kenny et al., 2012).

Among central Australian Aborigines, blond hair varies by age and sex:

Up to 10 years of age the color distribution is approximately the same in both sexes at about 85% “fair” to 15% “dark.” Over the age of 11 years it is difficult to find a “fair” male while female “fairness” falls off more gradually.

[…] In the males the onset of darkening becomes apparent from about the 8th year. In adolescence the hair ranges from medium brown to black (observations in this group are very limited) while beyond 20 years practically all are in the “dark” category. […] In the females darkening becomes definite only after about the 20th year, and even in old age does not often exceed light brown. (Abbie & Adey, 1953)

We see the same age and sex pattern in Solomon Islanders:

An interesting hair phenotype that is sometimes seen in Island Melanesia (as well as among Australian Aborigines) is “blondism,” in which individuals exhibit the characteristic darkly pigmented skin of the region while also having blond hair. This trait was most commonly observed in children whose hair generally darkened around puberty (Robins, 1991). However, in some cases, blondism persists into adulthood, although the hair appears somewhat darker than what is seen in children (Norton et al., 2006).

This is similar to the situation in Europe, where blond hair likewise is more common among children and women (Shekar et al., 2008; Steggerda, 1941). Among Europeans, however, blond hair is much less specific to juveniles, being maintained throughout life in most individuals.

Origins and adaptive value

How did this “Oceanic” blondism come about? The evolutionary path may be analogous to that of European blondism.

European women naturally have hair that is more brightly and diversely colored (Shekar et al., 2008; Steggerda, 1941). This is consistent with a need to attract prospective mates, since bright and/or novel colors are more likely to be noticed and remembered. Most alleles aren’t sex-linked, so this kind of sexual selection would have spilled over on to European men, changing their hair color as well (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008).

All of this implies that ancestral European women faced a competitive mate market. At higher latitudes, too many women had to compete for too few men, especially among hunter-gatherers. On the one hand, hunting distances were longer on average, thus increasing male mortality. On the other, men were less polygynous because of the higher costs of provisioning women and their offspring, especially during winter. This excess of females over males in the mate market was greatest on the continental steppe-tundra that covered most of Europe during the last ice age. Northern Asia also had steppe-tundra, but only in arid regions farther north where human occupation was not continuous, particularly at the height of the last ice age (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008).

In equatorial Oceania, the evolutionary path may have been both similar and different. As in Europe, there is an aesthetic preference for blond hair:

In Samoa, all fair hair is considered 'ena'ena, a word that is usually translated as brown, although when English-speaking Samoans use this term in reference to hair, they typically gloss it as 'blond'. This makes sense since, when one is bleaching Polynesian hair, it goes through a series of reddish- brown shades prior to arriving at blond, and even then retains a reddish hue. When describing hair, Samoans specify the actual shade of 'blond' by using certain modifiers with 'ena'ena, such as 'ena'ena manaia, which literally means 'really nice brown hair', but which refers to a very fair reddish colour.

The hair of female spirits is most commonly said to be 'ena'ena manaia, and they are wont to decorate it with a red hibiscus (Mageo, 1994).

But what is the adaptive value for young children? They are, after all, the ones who most often have this hair color. What kind of selection pressure could have favored blond children?

One possibility is child neglect. Papua New Guinea has a relatively high rate of child malnutrition—35% on average, with some regions having rates as high as 78%. Yet malnourished children are found in areas that have an apparent surplus of food. Lepowsky (1987, p. 75) notes that “the reported pattern of child malnutrition did not follow environmental or ecological patterns but cultural ones.” The ultimate cause seems to be “maternal detachment”:

These women take a guarded attitude toward infants, extending the greatest amount of their affection and parental care toward children who are physically strong and who survive the first couple of years of life. (Lepowsky, 1987, p. 78)

For this reason, child naming is delayed for a few weeks after birth, and the ritual thanking of the father’s kin is delayed for about six months. Mothers take for granted that their offspring may not survive this period.

Thus, in equatorial Oceania, child survival depends very much on the degree of maternal attachment, i.e., the mother’s fondness for her child. Has this factor favored “cute” features, like blond hair? Is blondism a child’s way of eliciting more maternal care during infancy?


Abbie, A.A. & W.R. Adey. (1953). Pigmentation in a central Australian tribe with special reference to fair-headedness, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 11, 339-359.

Frost, P. (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4),169-191.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103

Kenny, E.E., N.J. Timpson, M. Sikora, M-C. Yee, A. Moreno-Estrada, C. Eng, S. Huntsman, E.G. Burchard, M. Stoneking, C.D. Bustamante, & S. Myles (2012). Melanesian blond hair is caused by an amino acid change in TYRP1, Science, 336, 554.

Lepowsky, M. (1987). Food taboos and child survival: A case study from the Coral Sea, in N. Scheper-Hughes (ed.) Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children, (pp. 71-92), Springer.

Mageo, J.M. (1994).  Hairdos and Don'ts: Hair Symbolism and Sexual History in Samoa, Man, New Series, 29 (2) 407-432

Norton, H.L., J.S. Friedlaender, D.A. Merriwether, G. Koki, C.S. Mgone, & M.D. Shriver. (2006). Skin and Hair Pigmentation Variation in Island Melanesia, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130, 254–268.

Shekar, S.N., D.L. Duffy, T. Frudakis, G.W. Montgomery, M.R. James, R.A. Sturm, & N.G. Martin. (2008). Spectrophotometric methods for quantifying pigmentation in human hair—Influence of MC1R genotype and environment. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84, 719–726.

Steggerda, M. (1941). Change in hair color with age, Journal of Heredity, 32, 402-403.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Who were the ancestors of modern Europeans?

A mitochondrion (source). Is mitochondrial DNA selectively neutral?

Were Ice Age Europeans a dead end, like the Neanderthals before them? Did Middle Eastern farmers replace indigenous hunter-gatherers, just as Europeans would later replace native Indians in North America?

This debate has been raging back and forth for some time, but it has now entered a new phase with retrieval of mtDNA from ancient European skeletons. We can now genetically compare late hunter-gatherers with early farmers. We can now ask the question: Which of them were the ancestors of modern Europeans?

This kind of comparison has recently been made in Sweden, where farming replaced hunting/gathering/fishing some 5,000 years ago. This is the time depth for mtDNA retrieved from two burial sites: a farming community in Gökhem parish (one individual) and a hunter-gatherer community on the island of Gotland (three individuals). The results?

The Neolithic hunter-gatherers shared most alleles with northern Europeans, and the lowest allele sharing was with populations from southeastern Europe. In contrast, the Neolithic farmer shared the greatest fraction of alleles with southeastern European populations (Cypriots and Greeks) and showed a pattern of decreasing genetic similarity to populations from the northwest and northeast extremes of Europe (Skoglund etal., 2012)

The authors then went on to estimate the degree of admixture from Middle Eastern farmers in present-day Europeans:

We estimated that people of southern, central and northern Swedish descent are, on average, of 41 ± 8%, 36 ± 7%, and 31 ± 6% Neolithic farmer–related ancestry, respectively (±1 SE). Across Europe, this fraction decreases from 95 ± 13% in Sardinians to 52 ± 8% in the CEU population (individuals of northwestern European descent) and 11 ± 4% in Russians (Skoglund et al., 2012)

So, according to this study, northern Europeans are mainly descended from the hunter-gatherers of Ice Age Europe. But there is also substantial admixture from those Middle Eastern farmers—roughly a third of the present-day Swedish gene pool.

Is this the last word? No, the debate will surely continue. For one thing, the sample sizes are still small. For another, the replacement of hunter-gatherers by farmers may have played out differently in different places.

But there is a more fundamental objection. All of this assumes that we have a reliable yardstick for measuring admixture. For this to be so, mtDNA must not be influenced by natural selection. In particular, it must not be influenced by the change in selection pressures that occurs when hunting and gathering give way to farming. Is this assumption valid?

When we compare late hunter-gatherers with present-day Europeans, the main change to mtDNA is the loss of haplogroup U. Indeed, if this haplogroup had not declined to its current low levels, the above admixture estimates would be minimal.

Today, haplogroup U reaches high levels only among the Saami of Finland and the Mansi of northwestern Siberia, both of whom were hunter-gatherers until recently (Derbeneva et al, 2002). Did something about that lifestyle favor this haplogroup?

Balloux et al. (2009) have argued that some haplogroups create different trade-offs between thermogenesis and ATP synthesis. In particular, haplogroup U is associated with reduced sperm motility—an indication that the energy balance is shifted from producing ATP to producing heat:

The ATP that drives the sperm flagella is derived from the mitochondria located in the midpiece. Therefore, mutations in the mtDNA which increase or decrease ATP production will be reflected in increased or decreased sperm motility.

[…] Therefore, shifting the energy balance from primarily ATP production to increased heat production could explain the lower sperm motility and the predilection of these sublineages U to reside in colder climates and their northern distribution. (Montiel-Sosa et al., 2006)

Being nomadic, hunter-gatherers spent more time in the cold, especially when sleeping in temporary shelters. Farming brought more sedentary living and a generally warmer sleeping environment. There would thus have been weaker natural selection for genetic variants, like haplogroup U, that maintain a higher body temperature at the expense of lower ATP production.

This hypothesis is testable. If haplogroup U disappeared because Middle Eastern farmers partially replaced native hunter-gatherers, this genetic change should largely coincide with the time boundary between late hunter-gatherers and early farmers. If this haplogroup disappeared through natural selection, the change should have occurred gradually over a longer period.

The second scenario seems closer to the truth. In a study of 92 Danish human remains that ranged in time from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages, Melchior et al. (2010) found that high incidences of haplogroup U persisted long after the advent of farming and apparently as late as the Early Iron Age.


Balloux F., L.J. Handley, T. Jombart, H. Liu, and A. Manica (2009). Climate shaped the worldwide distribution of human mitochondrial DNA sequence variation. Proceedings. Biological Sciences, 276, (1672), 3447–55.

Derbeneva, O.A., E.B. Starikovskaya, D.C. Wallace, & R.I. Sukernik. (2002). Traces of early Eurasians in the Mansi of Northwest Siberia revealed by mitochondrial DNA analysis, Am. J. Hum. Genet. 70:1009–1014.

Melchior, L., N. Lynnerup, H.R. Siegismund, T. Kivisild, J. Dissing. (2010). Genetic diversity among ancient Nordic populations, PLoS ONE, 5(7): e11898

Montiel-Sosa, F., E. Ruiz-Pesini, J.A. Enríquez, A. Marcuello, C. Díez-Sánchez, J. Montoya, D.C. Wallace, & M.J. López-Pérez. (2006). Differences of sperm motility in mitochondrial DNA haplogroup U sublineages, Gene, 368, 21–27.

Skoglund, P., H. Malmström, M. Raghavan, J. Storå, P. Hall,  E. Willerslev, M.T. Gilbert, A. Götherström, & M. Jakobsson. (2012). Origins and genetic legacy of Neolithic farmers and hunter-gatherers in Europe, Science, 336, 466-469.