Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

In the quote above, Putin refers to three stages of national development. This comes out of Gumilev, but it originated in the writings of the late nineteenth century thinkers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev. Danilevsky was a biologist and compared civilizations to natural organisms that were born, lived, and died. Leontyev took this up and argued that civilizations have a natural life span of around 1,000 years, divided into three stages – primary simplicity, flowering complexity, and secondary simplicity.

The problem with this thesis is that there is basically no evidence to support it. In a new biography of Leontyev that is to be published this year, Glenn Cronin notes that for all Leontyev’s imaginative genius his ideas consistently lacked any empirical justification. He had a tendency to slap together cherry-picked ideas to suit his rhetorical purposes, without much concern about factual accuracy.

That didn’t stop his theory from having a considerable influence on Eurasianist thinkers in the early 20th century, and in due course, via the Eurasianists, the idea filtered down to Gumilev.

Now, to his credit, Gumilev seems to have realized that the civilizational theory was lacking in scientific evidence. So, he decided to provide it. Well, at least, that’s what he seems to have thought he was doing. The reality was rather different.

In Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, Gumilev came up with the theory that humans naturally live in groups, which are called ‘ethnoi’. Passionarity is the factor that determines why some ethnoi flourish and others rapidly disappear. According to Gumilev, some individuals have a surplus of energy that induces them to make great sacrifices for a greater goal. This is passionarity, and it is the presence of great ‘passionate’ people with this impulse to great achievement that drives an ethnos to conquest, expansion, scientific and cultural progress, and so on.

And where does the passionarity come from? Well, at this point, the theory begins to get very strange. To be frank, reading Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, I didn’t feel that Gumilev made it at all clear, though maybe that’s due to the limitations of my intelligence. Passionarity is sometimes described as the product of a genetic mutation caused by environmental factors, but I got the impression that what Gumilev had in mind was more of an epigenetic thing – i.e. there is a genetic disposition to it, but it needs some outside source to stimulate it. But however it’s defined, it is a natural phenomenon deriving from something outside the person, and that thing, according to Gumilev, is the energy of the biosphere and cosmic rays.

Biosphere? Cosmic rays??? Come again. Are you serious? Gumilev apparently was, and spent some time trying to prove his point, in the process alienating various members of the Soviet scientific community who decided that he was a bit of crackpot. It’s almost four years since I read his book, so I can’t remember all the details and may be getting part of this wrong, but as I recall it the idea was basically that occasionally high periods of cosmic radiation produce an excess of energy which activates the disposition to passionarity, inducing the passionate people to go and do their thing and so push the ethnos into its period of expansion. Over time, though, the passionarity weakens and so the ethnos loses steam and goes into decline. The overall process lasts (as in Leontyev’s scheme) about 1,000 years.

What’s the evidence for this? Therein, lies a problem. As far as I can see, there isn’t any. When Gumilev submitted Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere for a doctoral degree, the examining committee was, to say the least, not too impressed by his logic, and threw the thesis out. I can’t say that I blame them.

In a book on Eurasianism, British journalist Charles Clover cites another Soviet ethnographer Sergei Cheshko, who I think put it very well.

Gumilev’s whole conception was basically poetry. Maybe he inherited this from his father [poet Nikolai Gumilev], but it was very effective. … Gumilev was fun. It was utter, unprovable nonsense, but it was good to read. Like a novel.

“Utter unprovable nonsense’ – I think sums it up neatly. Unsurprisingly, the theory has completely failed to take off outside of Russia and Kazakhstan, and I don’t think that’s just because Westerners are ignorant of Russian philosophy. In Russia, though, as Putin’s comments show, it’s proven remarkably popular. I can’t say that I know why, but I suspect that those who babble on about passionarity don’t swallow the whole ethnogenesis theory lock, stock, and barrel, even if they know it, which they probably don’t.

And that’s just as well, because if they did, they’d soon experience some cognitive dissonance. Putin says that Russia is a young country, but in the past he’s cited the conversion of St Vladimir in 988 AD as one of the key moments in Russian history. That makes Russia over 1,000 years old, which coincidentally, according to the Leontyev-Gumilev schematic, is pretty much the end of the civilizational life cycle. So, if you’re really going to say you believe in this stuff, you’d have to conclude not that Russia is young, but rather that it’s pretty much at death’s door. Russians should consider themselves lucky that it’s all hocus pocus.

38 thoughts on “Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity”

  1. Well, you have pre-revolution Russia – with their 1000 years coming to an end in 1917. Then you have USSR (which damaged Russia more than any other part of it). And then you have new – post-socialist Russia. Pretty young in terms of national histories.

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  2. The Russian historian Igor Danilevsky has described Gumilev’s work as a ‘beautiful, original idea’ but based on entirely ‘disastrous factual material’. Sergei Ivanov is significantly less charitable, placing Gumilev’s theory on the same level as Fomenko’s alternative chronology. Regrettably, Putin’s decision to quote ethnocentric and pseudoscientific anthropological theories is symptomatic of a broader degradation of political culture. The growing appeal of such theories forms an unhealthy basis for national consciousness.

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    1. I do not know what are Putin’s beliefs but he is certainly aware of ability of some events to change the way a nation will develop in the future. He knows how much is that important to build national self-confidence. Take Syrian intervention – it certainly lifted national confidence in Russia. It could completely ruin it if it went the other way. Not to mention Crimea.

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  3. Gumilyov’s theory is defined by one striking example. The Jewish ethnic group has existed for several thousand years and it is impossible to distinguish its childhood, maturity, old age and dying. He was just as passionate as he was. It has not disappeared from history and will not disappear. Lev Gumilev did not take this example into account. Gumilyov’s theory is beautiful, but it is a scheme, like the schemes of Danilevsky, Spengler, Walter Schubart and similar authors.

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  4. Societies ruled by dominant classes that acquire abundant material resources by despoiling their working peoples and those of outlying cultures do in fact tend to ruin themselves. We can see that all around us at the moment.

    The U.S. or UK are prime examples. There, layers of ‘privileged’ people have spend their lives consuming garbage food, taking toxic medicine while living in a polluted environment. To a degree not seen heretofore. The cumulative conseqence of this is an unprecedented deterioration in physical health, a rise in disease chronicity and the dominace of a completely corrupt medical system. Thousands of diseases but a cure for nothing. And a society of fools too gullible and stupid to see what has befall them.

    When Janpan, Inc. began its rise of power and wealth its population were in the habit of saving money and living frugally. Which meant, eating simple and traditional foods. Japan plunged down towards ruin when the ‘second’ generation switched due to wealth to conumption of processed food and were seduced by crapola doctors. Now, they are ageing, fat, slow and stupid. And, bankrupt.

    Success tends to corruption. Corruption entails indulgent habits and bad medicine and drugs. Those within such a society or otherwise under its thumb that are without such corrupting means have the opportunity to assert their welfare. If they have the concomitant means and leadership.

    By the way, your conception of epigenetics is flawed. You appear to have bought in to the genetics racket. Genetics hardly rules all. Conditions – acquired or inflicted – determine expression. But money drives the system into more corruption. With U.S. 20% GDP and now, with this virus racket rising ever higher, that country is burdened beyond sustainability. Have you noted the many news reports that the U.S. miltary cannot recruit young people that meat their fitness requirements? Or that 100,000 Army soldiers are ‘undeployable’ because they are unfit. Over 40% of the population is formally obese? While Big Pharma, the crap food business and monopoly medicine make out like the bandits they are.

    Both China and Russia are not as deeply corrupted in these respects and so retain some resiliance. Give them time and they may too head down the black hole routs of Japan or Italy.

    But not just right now.

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    1. What is “success”? Who decides what is “success” and what is not? I do not think it is static value at all. Let’s take a look at the difference in approach to space exploration between USA and USSR. Soviets have never set firm goal in that exploration. Americans set the goal (to get first on the Moon). Once they landed on the Moon they declared “victory”. They won and Soviets lost?! End of story. They achieved firmly set goal – success – and… no more motivation. Soviets have achieved first almost everything else in the space exploration but never declared “victory” – motivation is still there to continue. I think that Putin is more about mind game that will keep the nation motivated. Humans probably use only 50% of their potential. Those who manage to get humans to use 55T% of their potential are on the winner. Potential is there and the secret is in unlocking it. And even bigger secret is – keeping it alive (the answer might be in never determining what is “success” so we can never “win”. There is the difference between “zero sum” and “win-win” my dear western folks. You just keep “winning” by making someone lose and those weird people from the east will go for “win-win” – where there is no winner (and obviously, no losers). Cannot you see that “zero sum” is leading ultimately to self destruction – what happens after your last “victory”?

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  5. If you leave out the “cosmic rays”, a very similar way of thinking arose independantly in the West.

    Anyone remember Oswald “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” Spengler?

    “Spengler’s model of history postulates that any culture is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan”. 1922. Made a lot of noise at the time.

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    1. You noticed Mao Cheng Ji’s short comment above? I was close to respond with a helpful distinction by a German philosopher: Romanticism and Political Romanticism. Rüdiger Safranski, Romanticism. A German affair. English translation 1915 I think.

      Safranski distinguishes between Romanticism per se and political Romanticsm. Mind you Romantik in German stands for both Romanticism and the equivalent of the English noun ‘romantic’, German adjective romantisch. Something it feels Safranski plays with. Does Spengler dream a special type of romantic conservative revolutionary dream? Something which completely escapes a German prof in English studies which wrote a rather misguided review for the English translation. E.g. while the book indeed opens with Herder, nowhere does Safranski explicitly label him as Romanticist. But his journey with initially unknown destination represents the romantic spirit.

      Personally I found Safranski very, very helpful, since I had often struggled with a simple line drawn by Americans. from the German Romantics, or for that matter the Surrealists, to the Nazis: Irrationality vs rationality? Romanticism vs Enlightenment. It ain’t that easy. Herder, while no Romanticst, occasionally popped up in that context to.

      Which gets us to Spengler who surfaces twice in the book. First in the 17th chapter which ends on ‘Heidereggers Political Romanticism’ and the 18th or the last chapter:. I’ll do a very, very quick translation of passages, adding a liittle context for the second.

      Rüdiger Safranski: “A romanticism of the special kind surfaced in Wilhelmine Germany, even without the ‘intrusion of a mysticism’ and without lyrical sublimation. ‘if … people of the new generation, Oswald Spengler explained, ‘turn to technology instead of poetry, the navy instead of painting, politics instead of epistemology [Erkenntniskritk, Kant], they do what I want, and you can’t ask for anything better.’ Indeed, the rising industrial power of Germany turned increasingly to technology, the navy and politics, and the highest representative, the Kaiser, embodied this new will to power in an ingenious way. Especially since after the Eulenberg Affair, which made him look like a romantic wimp, he wanted to present himself particularly armisonous (=waffenklirrend, literally rattling/rustling in arms, triggers the image of a knight in armor, but this is still frequently used metaphorically) ”

      the ‘even’ gets picked in the context of the second passages, where he refers to prophets and saviors popping up everywhere, Spencer apparently is the most prominent among them.

      ***************
      Excursus: Eulenberg Affair

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harden%E2%80%93Eulenburg_affair

      I thought among other things of Karl Kraus and Maximilian Harden when I asked you for explanation not too long ago. They initially were friends, both published their own periodical, but politically they were very, very different. Kraus. Kraus was very, very critical of WWI, even before he wrote comments on the indeed curious style of war reporting which would better have fitted into the art section. You can find this curiously romantic scenery in the visual arts too. Otto Dix, the Flanders Fields (1934-36, Flandern), don’t misunderstand,the Nazis considered Dix degenerate. But in 1914 he had volunteered to join the army

      ***************

      As Karl Kraus, Max Weber who I am more familiar with as the father of German sociology, never heard about Ludwig Gumplowicz before, is mentioned frequently in the book, the second reference to Spengler follows a passage that mentions two lectures for which Weber was heavily attacked:

      Click to access Max-Weber-Science-as-a-Vocation.pdf

      While Spengler surfaces among loads of fake prophets and false Messiahs as apparently received rather well.

      Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West sold six hundred thousand times in those years, was a bigger than life theoretical draft that burst into a thousand small splinters, interpretations of the world in the spirit of the End Times and a radical new beginning.

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      1. this is misguiding, Julius Skoolafish’s comment was vaguely on my mind:
        Correction:
        As the Karl Kraus (Vienna) I loved, Max Weber surfaces as a warning voice in the context of the second reference to Spengler. I am more familiar with Weber as one of the father of German sociology, never heard about Ludwig Gumplowicz (Vienna) before. Weber is mentioned frequently in Safranski’s book, the second reference to Spengler follows a passage that mentions two 1919 lectures for which Weber was heavily attacked., he died a year later.

        Can you, Lola, or maybe Julius Skoolafish tell me, where I would find Dugin’s references to the German tradition in his writings, Lola? I can of course look if something surfaces on the German web.

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      2. Ok, ok:
        Ludwig Gumplowicz (Vienna), Graz, not Vienna, but still he was a resident of the Habsburg Empire and not a resident of the by Prussian fire and sword united Germany (1871).

        I stop babbling for a while, where is Lytt?

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  6. I found this topic most interesting and stimulating, thank you.

    I tend to agree with your criticism of Gumilyov’s ‘scientific explanation’ of Passionarity, but the philosophical concept has merit nevertheless and I am sure President Putin intended the reference in the context of Aleksandr Dugin’s definition “Passionarity is instinct for the survival of one’s identity/ethnic group” [paraphrasing – see link below]. I would rather focus on what Gumilyov is trying to explain rather that how he is trying to explain it.

    Most comments I read here and elsewhere in fact demonstrate the essence of ’passionarity’.

    Here is a link to Gumilyov’s “Ethnogenesis and the Earth’s Biosphere”

    https://b-ok.global/book/6162256/be6dd2

    Or you can read along for the first couple of chapters at least using this audio book

    I found Gumilyov’s grasp on historical detail impressive and the information he shares should not be dismissed by criticism of his attempt to explain it.

    In the preface to the Introduction [audio reading], Didymus Sumydid mentions that he was introduced to Gumilyov by Matthew Raphael Johnson – that immediately got me interested [“The Third Rome”].

    But first Aleksandr Dugin

    • Ethnosociology / Russian School / Lev Gumilev / – Lecture by Aleksandr Dugin

    Dugin discusses the ‘weak’ points of Gumilyov’s theory.
    Here is Matt Johnson on the topic. He waffles about a bit and is not really focussed on Gumilyov’s work per se but the latter half of Part II of his talk is most riveting.

    • The Orthodox Nationalist: Lev Gumilev and the Theory of Ethnogenesis I – Matt Johnson

    https://www.radioalbion.com/2018/05/the-orthodox-nationalist-lev-gumilev.html

    • The Orthodox Nationalist: Lev Gumilev and the Theory of Ethnogenesis II – Matt Johnson

    https://www.radioalbion.com/2018/06/the-orthodox-nationalist-lev-gumilev.html

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  7. The only worthwile part of Gumilev’s idea was expressed better by Abd-ar-Rahman Ibn Khaldûn 650 years ago – that some groups achieve a high degree of group feeling and ability to make impression. In Ibn Khaldûn’s version the ability dried out after one or two generations.

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  8. Gumilev’s theory implies that if you beam someone with cosmic rays, the energy will make them more productive, rather then give them cancer.

    I guess the Russians have their own delusions. In the U.S. we have “Russiagate” and in Russia they have “passionarity”.

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    1. Gumilev explained passionary impulses by the activity of some cosmic radiation because he could not explained them by any other natural phenomema that happened on the Earth.

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  9. Gumilev’s “theory” (just like all related “theories”, from Danilevsky to Spengler) is not really a theory, but a metaphoric scheme. People resort to those when they sense structures behind reality which science of their times is not ready to tackle. It may (or may not) turn out to be a bit like Democritus’s theory of atoms : a bizarre mixture of fantastic and visionary.

    There is, however, some very modern (and very interesting) hard science vaguely related to those theories.

    It has to do with so-called “orchid gene alleles” – variations in genes responsible for neuromediator processing, e.g serotonin and dopamine. Some of these variations convey interesting traits on their carriers: they become more responsive to the cues in their environment. In the “right” environment, the carriers of such “orchid” alleles “blossom” – that is, perform better than carriers of the regular (“dandelion”) alleles. In contrast, in the “wrong” environment, “orchid” people develop differently, often displaying all kinds of negative traits – from hightened levels of anxiety and depression to extreme agression.

    This science is new and complex, and totally fascinating. For instance, it provides tantalizing insights into group dynamics of social primates (including monkey “revolutions”!)

    Of all popular-science articles
    on this topic, I like the one by David Dobbs in The Atlantic magazine https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/

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    1. Thanks for the link. I stopped reading that article after this sentence – “The behavioral diversity provided by these two different types of temperament also supplies precisely what a smart, strong species needs if it is to spread across and dominate a changing world.” Why? The word “dominate” is why. The word it typical with anything “Atlantic”. Domination, superiority… excuses for genocides and other “victories”. Stop before it is too late.

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      1. I share your revulsion for the obsession with such concepts (“leadership” is my anti-fovorite).

        But: you can still read this article for the information and ignore (mis)interpretations! As a source for non-biologists, it’s pretty good.

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  10. Hi Paul,
    After reading this post and the linked earlier one I was left with the feeling that this time you may have failed to grasp the elusive nature of the subject, i.e. Gumilev’s theory. However, this might be not so important because politicians ans political theorists who like to refer to it almost always treat it very superficially or just use as a bunch of catchwords.

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  11. Like almost every large-scale philosphical theory this one is a mix of sometimes shrewd observations and generalizations that may be worth contemplating upon and various unsubstantiated assertions that can be quite wild. It’s just that in my opinion you mostly skipped over the more valuable points of this particular theory while paying undue attention to the more bizarre but marginal ones.
    I think it’s worth mentioning that the reasons for decisive rejection of Gumilev’s ideas by the Soviet academic establishment were almost entirely political (this is not to say that purely scientific objections would not suffice). This caused quite a stir that helped a lot to the theory’s later popularity. I’d also like to point out in case this is not clear that the doctoral degree for which Gumilev submitted his thesis was not PhD but a higher one that currently doesn’t seem to have direct analogues outside of Russia and a couple of ex-Soviet republics. Gumilev earned his PhD degree by making an important archeological discovery even though I’m not sure that his interpretation of his findings still holds.

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      1. i would like to add, I have stumbled across a for me curious exceptions to the rule, but only once. In that case a series of publications was somewhat cumulatively accepted as habilitation.

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  12. Putin: “We will NOT abandon Donbass. And yet we WILL, because we plan to do nothing to help those people.”
    All part of the theory of “passionarnost”, not to be confused with “La Passionaria”, Stalinist witch of the Spanish Civil War.

    Has Putin really gone off the rails here?
    What a load of pure baloney!
    Well, I reckon that’s what happens as you approach old age and death, at some point, and start to realize that, in the end, you were just another False Dmitry in these short 1000 years of Russian History!

    Grrr, please forgive me, everybody, I am feeling quite cross today!

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    1. Hey, “nothing” is a little too black-and-white, don’t you think? If it were “nothing”, Donetsk and Lugansk would be busy learning movaspeak while waiting for Pfizer/Moderna.

      As a mind excersize for a gloomy morning, I invite everyone to consider the following scenario: Putin is in a medically induced coma for COVID complications and Zhirinovsky takes over as a, ahem, sub pres. Within 2 weeks, he claims Russia is “at war” and declares emergency; annexes Donbass, Transnistria, Abkhasia and North Ossetia; prepares to march on Kiev and the Baltics unless Russian language gets equal status; demands the end of all sanctions threatening nuclear attack; etc. Then Putin wakes up, but the nationalists, with the support of a large part of the Army, refuse to go back to status quo. There are anti-Putin riots in Moscow and an attempted coup.

      Vnimaniye vopros: What are the NYT and WaPo headlines of the day?

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      1. That’s a trick question, Lola! The NYT and WaPo simply would not know what to say or what kind of spin to give any of that, they would be struck as mute as Rusalka was, after drinking Ježibaba’s magic potion.

        So, my answer on the quiz would be: They would ignore this story altogether.
        UNLESS! They write a human-interest angle, like about the Transnistrian Transvestite from Transylvania who wanted to be a country-Western singer but got caught up in a nearby tank battle, I dunno….

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve seen opponents of interracial dating utter something like that as an argument. I’ve always wondered if they’re aware that:
        * Buzzards and sparrows are not the same species, while different races/ethnicities of Homo sapiens are.
        * Said animals do not have the same cognitive abilities as humans.

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      2. I know! Another hilarious statement from Ali: “Red birds go with red birds, blue birds go with blue birds.” Clearly, Mr. Ali, albeit a great boxer, was not a professional ornithologist.

        Anyhow, common wisdom holds that different species can’t inter-mate because their chromosomes are incompatible. Even there, I think there are some exceptions, likes horses-donkeys, etc.

        As for us humble human beings, I believe that at one time, in the not so distant past, there actually were different species, but close enough they could still mate (like Neanderthals or Denisovans with sapiens, etc.) But eventually these other homo species died out or went away, leaving just the one species that we all belong to now. So, we all have the same number and type of chromosomes, which means we can just go at it to our heart’s content.

        Instead of using fake science to justify his preferences, Ali should have just presented it (as he does later in the interview) as a personal sexual preference, with the emotional component that women of a similar culture and background understand him better which leads to more intimacy and domestic satisfaction.

        So, without dictating to others, he should just have left it at, that he just personally finds black women to be sexy, beautiful and appealing. And he certainly isn’t wrong about that!
        🙂

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    1. Orson should not be so cavalier about clocks. Coming out of WWII he should have known that many soldiers would kill another soldier (even a civilian) for a finely made watch, that sort of technology is not to be dismissed!

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  13. Passionairity per se is mostly hokum, if a fun concept as you point out. However, it does have a lot of resemblance to the concept of asabiyya developed by the Arab medieval social scientist Ibn Khaldun, which describes the high level of social cohesion that typically enables nomads on the borders to conquer richer but more decadent civilizations – and then to become more decadent in turn, repeating the cycle. (Of course, what worked in the pre-industrial age is probably not as relevant during the industrial age, during which propaganda can in principle keep asabiyya indefinitely pumped up).

    Anyhow, if you’re looking for a modern (cliometric) take on asabiyya, you might want to explore cliodynamics – Peter Turchin is a good intro to it (start with “War and Peace and War” and then the more technical “Secular Cycles”), there has also been a lot of Russian language only work on it by Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, Daria Khaltourina.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Nehru had his own ideas about the ingredients necessary for a successful society which he laid out in some letters to his daughter. As I recall, he compared China and Japan. He thought the unity of the Japanese was important.

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  15. Peter Turchin, in his Historical dynamics: Why states rise and fall (Princeton 2003), calls Gumilev’s theory “deeply flawed” and “not developed very precisely; instead Gumiolev relies on voluminous examples and evocative prose”, but still shows “several insights”. However, Turchin favoured (as I do) Ibn Khaldûn’s concept asabiya, (which he doesn’t think Gumilev adds anything to), even if he thinks Ibn Khaldûn’s use of it as a subset of his own.

    By the way, Turchin has a website with very interesting comments on contemporary developments: https://peterturchin.com/

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