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Histories of the Greater West
Imagining trees of culture to understand civilizations better
With a single exception, all 26 letters of the English version of the Latin alphabet plausibly descend from Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Latin letter A/a comes from the Etruscan 𐌀, itself adapted from an archaic form of the Greek letter alpha (modern: Α/α), which was a version of the Phoenician aleph (𐤀), which not coincidentally looks like an ox head on its side and likely comes from the Egyptian hieroglyph 𓃾, by way of the Proto-Sinaitic script from the Sinai peninsula.
Similarly, N may ultimately come from the snake glyph 𓆓, M from the water symbol 𓈖, E from a man praising the gods 𓀠, and O, unsurprisingly, from the eye 𓁹. The one exception is X, which was directly invented by the Greeks as the letter chi (Χ/χ).
But the Ancient Egyptian script is the progenitor of far more than the Latin and Greek alphabets. The Cyrillic alphabet, used in the Slavic cultural area, is a direct adaptation of Greek. The Arabic and Hebrew writing systems descend from Aramaic, which evolved from the Proto-Sinaitic alongside with Phoenician. So did the Geʽez script, used in Ethiopia. Eastward, in South and Southeast Asia, things get a bit muddled, but it seems likely that the Brahmi script, from which are descended the scripts used to write Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Thai, Khmer, and many other languages of that region, also ultimately come from Aramaic and Proto-Sinaitic. Even the exotic Mongolian alphabet, written vertically, is part of the family through the Iranian-related Sogdians of Central Asia.
What does not come from Egyptian usually comes from Chinese. In addition to China itself, Chinese characters have been used and adapted in some of the neighboring cultures: Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, although the latter two eventually replaced them with other systems (Latin for Vietnamese, and the artificially constructed Hangul for Korean).
Besides Egypt and China, only two other places are widely considered to have invented writing independently from foreign cultures.
The first was Sumer, in Mesopotamia, and its cuneiform script. Cuneiform was adapted to write other languages of the area, most notably Akkadian, spoken in Babylon and Assyria. It may have inspired the idea of writing to Egypt, if not its symbols. Now cuneiform is completely gone from Mesopotamia, replaced by the Egyptian-based Arabic and Syriac scripts.
The other was on another continent: Mesoamerica, where civilizations like the Olmecs and the Maya developed their own writing systems. Their symbols gave way to Latin letters in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest.
Thus human history contains four independent origins of writing. This suggests that we can, if we want, divide the literate cultures of the world into that many civilizational blocs on the sole basis of their writing systems:
The Sinosphere: China, Japan, Korea (and formerly Vietnam)
Mesopotamia (now extinct)
Mesoamerica (now extinct)
Everything else, which I’ll call the Greater West.
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On defining civilizations
Writing systems are only one way to divide the world into civilizations, and certainly not the most useful. It’s more common to go with broader cultural traits, such as religions.
A common model is the one from the book Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington, which identifies nine great civilizations. Four are defined by religion directly: the Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Orthodox spheres. The Sinosphere, a complex blend of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk beliefs, is another — although it is distinct from Shinto/Buddhist Japan, which is its own civilization. The remaining three blocs are a mix of Catholicism and Protestantism: Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Western World.
“The West” in this model is a very different affair from the Greater West I defined above. It also much more closely matches common usage of the term.
When people talk of the West, they usually mean, first of all, Western Europe, the region at the extreme western end of the Eurasian continent. Where Western Europe starts isn’t perfectly defined, but everyone at least agrees on its core large members — the UK, France, Germany, Italy. The West is also the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and New Zealand. These are rich countries, mostly Christian, mostly English-speaking. Their populations mostly descend from Western European settlers, with very limited input from indigenous populations, which distinguishes them from large parts of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
It felt silly, didn’t it, to lump the cultures of the United States and France together with those of Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Russia and Thailand, just because they use somewhat related writing symbols. When you take into account the whole spectrum of culture, Huntington’s model of “the West” seems to make far more intuitive sense.
But when we probe the boundaries of that categorization, things get murky. Why is Latin America distinct? It’s Catholic, and descended from cultures — Spain and Portugal — that are decidedly Western. Sure, Mexico and Peru, once the seats of the Aztec and Inca empires, absorbed a lot of indigenous culture. But Argentina didn’t, for instance. Most people in Latin America are of European descent, biologically and culturally.1
What about Sub-Saharan Africa? There are parts of it, like much of South Africa, that are inhabited by people of Western European descent; and Western European colonialism has Westernized much of the rest, religiously, linguistically, and administratively. For that matter, what about the Western colonial influence in places like India or the Philippines?
What about Israel, which is Western in many ways but isn’t Christian? Or Russia, which today feels very distant from the US and Western Europe for geopolitical reasons, but tried many times in its history to Westernize?
And what about Greece, the country from which Westerners draw their philosophy, early literature, and democratic ideal?
Phylogenetics of culture
These questions point to a problem of taxonomy.
Nobody worries about taxonomy more than biologists, so let’s see what they think. The idea of categorizing living beings as “species” has occupied philosophers and scientists at least since Aristotle. The current consensus is that there is no single definition of species that covers all cases, but that doesn’t prevent biologists from using the imperfect concept of species to make sense of the living world.
Similarly, we will never be able to trace perfect boundaries between human cultures. Still, it’s worthwhile to come up with a taxonomy, because it helps making sense of the social and political world. There are meaningful things to be said about “the West,” but to say them, you need at least a working definition of it, whether it’s my very broad Greater West, Huntington’s smaller Catholic-and-Protestant-but-not-Latin-America-or-Africa West, or something else.
Biologists resolve some of the ambiguities around species by thinking in terms of trees. A phylogenetic tree groups together organisms that share a common ancestor. All currently living humans share an ancestor, so we are a meaningful phylogenetic group. We share an ancestor with chimpanzees, so [humans + chimpanzees] is a meaningful group, formally called the Hominini tribe. [Humans + chimpanzees + gorillas] is another meaningful group, Homininae, but [humans + gorillas, excluding chimpanzees] is not: humans and gorillas don’t share a common ancestor that isn’t also the ancestor of chimpanzees.
Phylogenetic trees are typically inferred from two kinds of information: morphology and genetics. Classically, evolutionary biologists would look at various living and fossil specimens, figure out which traits are shared across organisms (e.g. breastfeeding, warm-bloodedness, having five fingers) and declare, after careful analysis of many traits, that this and that species are part of a coherent phylogenetic group (e.g. the mammals). More recently, the study of genetic markers have allowed the methods to become more precise.
The result is that even though we can’t fully agree on what a species is, we have a pretty good idea of the relationships between groups. Phylogenetic trees add a useful dimension — a historical, temporal one — to the taxonomy.
Many attempts have been made at using phylogenetic trees for human societies. Cultures don’t have morphology or genetics, but they do have various traits that evolve in ways that are analogous enough. One of these traits, of course, is writing systems.
To illustrate the use of trees for cultures, let’s recast the discussion about alphabets and scripts from earlier into the shape of a tree.2 (It's only meant to give you an idea, so feel free to just skim it.)
Egyptian hieroglyphs (𓌏𓌃𓏪) † ← this symbol means “extinct”
Proto-Sinaitic script †
Geʽez script (ግዕዝ or ፊደል)
Phoenician alphabet (𐤀𐤁𐤂𐤃𐤄) †
Tifinagh (ⵜⴼⵉⵏⵗ), used to write Berber languages
Archaic Greek alphabet †
Modern Greek alphabet (Ελληνικό αλφάβητο)
Etruscan alphabet (𐌀𐌁𐌂𐌃𐌄) †
Latin alphabet (ABCDE)
English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Welsh, Polish, etc. (all very similar alphabets with slight variations around diacritics, e.g. ê, ö, å, ú, ç, ł)
Later adoptions: Vietnamese (chữ Quốc ngữ), Turkish (Türk alfabesi), Malay/Indonesian (Tulisan Rumi or Aksara Latin), etc.
Cyrillic alphabets such as Russian (ру́сский алфави́т), Ukrainian (абе́тка), etc.
Runes (ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚲ), formerly used for Germanic languages †
Coptic alphabet (ⲀⲂⲄⲆⲈ)
Armenian alphabet (Հայոց գրեր)
possibly, Georgian scripts (e.g. Mkhedruli, მხედრული)
Aramaic alphabet (𐡀𐡁𐡂𐡃𐡄) †
Hebrew alphabet (אָלֶף־בֵּית עִבְרִי)
Arabic alphabet (الْحُرُوف الْعَرَبِيَّة) and its variations for Persian, Urdu, Ottoman Turkish (before it was replaced by the Latin-based Turkish alphabet), etc.
Brahmi script (𑀩𑁆𑀭𑀸𑀳𑁆𑀫𑀻) †
Northern Brahmic scripts such as Devanagari (देवनागरी), Bengali (বাংলা বর্ণমালা), Gujarati (ગુજરાતી લિપિ), Tibetan (དབུ་ཅན་), and many others
Southern Brahmic scripts such as Tamil (தமிழ் அரிச்சுவடி), Malayalam (മലയാളലിപി), Thai (อักษร), Khmer ( អក្សរខ្មែរ), Javanese (ꦲꦏ꧀ꦱꦫꦗꦮ), and many others
Syriac alphabet (ܐܠܦ ܒܝܬ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ)
Sogdian alphabet †
Old Uyghur alphabet †
Mongolian script (ᠮᠣᠩᠭᠣᠯ ᠪᠢᠴᠢᠭ)
Manchu alphabet (ᠮᠠᠨᠵᡠ ᡥᡝᡵᡤᡝᠨ)
Another totally independent branch of the tree starts in China:
Oracle bone script †
Chinese characters, traditional (漢字)
Chinese characters, simplified (汉字)
Japanese kanji (漢字), hiragana (ひらがな), and katakana (カタカナ)
Korean hanja (漢字), now superseded by hangul (한글) which was invented from scratch in 1443, though certainly with inspiration from hanja3
Vietnamese chữ Hán (𡨸漢) † and chữ Nôm (𡨸喃) †
And finally, the two other branches:
Sumerian cuneiform (𒅴𒂠) †
Elamite cuneiform †
Old Persian cuneiform †
Mesoamerican scripts: Epi-Olmec, Maya, Mixtec, Aztec, etc. †
Great. We now have a pretty clear representation of the relationships between writing systems and, by extension, the cultures that use them.
We can experiment with defining “the West” in various ways based on this tree. If we take the entire branch that starts from Egyptian hieroglyphs, then we get my broad Greater West concept from earlier. At the other extreme, we could define the West as just the subgroup that uses the Latin alphabet and its variations. Geographically, it would correspond to the teal areas on this map:
This is not actually far from Huntington’s model of the West to which we add Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. But there are differences. For example, Turkey, Vietnam, and Indonesia are included, and yet we know — thanks to other cultural traits, such as language, religion, or the writing systems they historically used — that these countries are unlikely to be considered Western.
Also, this excludes Greece! Suppose we want to include Greece into our concept, because we really care about Socrates, Alexander the Great, and the Iliad being Western. We could start with the Latin branch, and climb to the larger branch that also includes Greek. But then note that we have to also include everything that is descended from Greek, including the Cyrillic alphabets, ancient Germanic runes, the Armenian and (maybe) Georgian alphabets, etc. If we care about the tree structure — and we do, because it’s the closest thing we have to an objective categorization — then either all of these are Western, or none are.
Of course, we don’t have to build our tree out of writing systems. We could do it with languages, which are related to scripts but evolve distinctly. Notably, not all cultures developed writing, but all have language. Phylogenetic trees are often made for large language families such as Indo-European (which includes most languages spoken in Europe, Iran, and South Asia). For example:
Using this tree, we could easily define the West as the groups that speak Germanic (red), Romance (orange), and Celtic (light green) languages, i.e. the large subtree at the bottom. If we want to include Greek speakers, though, then we’ll have to cast a much wider net that also catches speakers of Persian, Hindi, Russian, and Armenian. (And note that speakers of non-Indo-European languages, like the Basques, the Hungarians, or the Finns, are totally left out.)
We could build a tree out of religions. Simplifying a whole lot of religion history, we could say that the Baháʼí faith branched from Shia Islam, which branched from early Islam (most of which became Sunni Islam), which branched from Christianity, which branched from Judaism, which evolved out of the mythologies of the Canaanite people. The real story is of course much more complicated, but there is a pattern of common ancestry here too.
Writing, language, and religion are ideal for phylogenetics because they tend to change slowly and conservatively. They have limited “horizontal transmission,” which could mean an alphabet that borrows symbols from another, or religions that merge into a syncretic faith. Horizontal transmission also refers to people acquiring traits from a culture unrelated to their own. For language and religion, spread remains rare, relatively speaking.
Other cultural traits are more easily borrowed. This includes almost anything you can think of: domesticated plants and animals, laws, art genres, clothing, architectural styles, myths and stories, tool designs, cooking recipes, technologies, and myriads of others, all of which we sometimes collectively call “memes.” When a type of meme is readily loaned between cultures, the resulting phylogenetic tree looks less like a tree and more like an interweaved net.
Yet we can imagine the ultimate phylogenetic tree (or net) of culture, one that would incorporate writing, language, religion, as well as all of the other society-wide memes. We will never see this ideal, all-encompassing tree, of course. We can only approximate it.
If we did somehow manage to create it, we would almost certainly see a branch that looks quite close to what Huntington meant by “the West.” And there would be a variety of Greater Wests, depending on which common ancestor we were singling out — Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Greek alphabet, the proto-Indo-European language, Catholicism, or the use of wheat as a staple.
Why think about the Greater West?
In zoology, there are groups we think about a lot, such as mammals and birds. There are others that we think about far less, such as tetrapods or amniotes, as well as even more obscure groupings such as reptiliomorpha and synapsids. A phylogenetic tree can have virtually infinite branching, and therefore infinitely many groups. This is overwhelming, so we usually ignore it all except for the few that we know well.
But sometimes, the group of interest for a particular question really is the wider, more obscure one. Tetrapods are the group of vertebrates whose defining characteristic is having four limbs. It includes all mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians, as well as some extinct groups. If you were making an argument about limbs, and you used only mammalian examples, you might make mistakes or miss interesting insights.
Likewise, it is sometimes worth talking of the West in a broader sense than just Western Europe plus North America and Oceania. Some of the wider groups are well-defined, like Christendom. But most aren’t, and that’s why I’m coining this phrase, “Greater West,” to refer to them in general terms. It’s not meant to replace the usual concept of the West. Rather, the point is simply to draw attention to the various possible groupings, and in so doing, help us understand certain aspects of the world.
Which aspects? I see at least four: the proximity between cultures; the value of particularly unique societies; Chinese civilization; and the history of the West itself.
I. Cultural proximity
A classic psychology study, the Robbers Cave experiment, divided 22 similar boys into two equal groups and tried to see what could spark conflict. It turned out that not much needed to be done beyond just the dividing. The mere existence of categories seems to suffice to create conflicts among humans, even when there is virtually no difference between the categories.
The obvious extension of this is to nation-states, but I wonder if it also applies to large civilizational blocs. By defining the West as not Eastern Europe or Latin America, do we increase the chance of conflict and misunderstanding between them? I don’t know, but it seems plausible. A title like Clash of Civilization might be self-fulfilling: define a bunch of civilizations, and they will clash.
By contrast, a Greater West concept, however defined, explicitly groups cultures together. It would certainly be naïve to hope for world peace just because we realized that almost everyone writes in altered Egyptian hieroglyphs, but it’s at least an example of non-obvious shared cultural heritage. For someone in North America like me, the Middle East seems distant, exotic, maybe even scary, but it can help to consider that much of my culture ultimately comes from there. People in Christian societies are sometimes surprised to learn that Jesus is a prophet in Islam. It’s one of many signs that the religions aren’t that different from each other.
When comparing countries, it is often useful to estimate those cultural distances. For instance, the government of, say, Denmark might consider adopting a policy used in, say, Uruguay, but differences between Danish and Uruguayan culture might make this difficult. If you can quantify those differences, then you can make a more enlightened choice.
Some researchers do just that. The World Values Survey, for example, periodically asks people from across the world about their values, from which we can calculate distances and look at them in a big table or even as a cool visualization:
We can think of cultural distances as the length of the branches on a phylogenetic tree. If we could look at the idealized tree of all culture, the branches linking Denmark and Uruguay would probably be much shorter than the branches linking, say, Denmark and Myanmar.
In practice, we can’t measure those lengths, nor can we calculate cultural distances in any way that isn’t a gross oversimplification, as are those “traditional vs. secular” and “survival vs. self-expression” axes. But having a concept of the Greater West, or better yet, multiple such concepts, is a good way to maintain an intuitive understanding of the proximity between cultures. Denmark and Uruguay have to be somewhat close if you see the West and Latin America as a single civilization.
This way of thinking creates opportunities for more fruitful comparisons and predictions, and removes opportunities for misunderstanding. It can remind us that despite the distance created by the islamist revolution, Iranian people are not that different from Europeans; or that the economic instability in a place like Argentina, which used to be rich, is a plausible scenario in the “northern” Western countries; or that Palestinians and Israelis share far more cultural baggage than their ongoing conflict would suggest.
II. Unique cultures
In some cases, the cultural distances are vast. There are places that lie entirely outside the great civilizations, doing things their own way with little influence from the dominant cultures. A concept like the Greater West can, by providing contrast, help us recognize them and their value.
Let’s go back to writing systems for a moment. It’s controversial, but a few cultures may have developed writing independently from the four cradles of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. An example is Easter Island and its Rongorongo script, a forgotten set of glyphs that may or may not be true writing representing the Rapa Nui language. It is undeciphered.
Easter Island is an extremely remote place that was settled by Polynesians after thousands of years of spreading throughout the Pacific Ocean. It is about as far from Egypt or Western Europe as it gets, both geographically and culturally. If it turns out to be one of the five or so places that independently invented writing, this is a useful data point to understand human history.
In a sense, the Rongorongo script — assuming it is a true writing system — contributes more to the global diversity of scripts than any single script in the Greater West, precisely because it is independent of them.
Besides species, another thing biologists argue about is how to define biodiversity. The basic method is just to count species in an area (and pretend we know what a species is). But species are not independent of one another! A forest with 4 kinds of maple has more species than a forest with 2 maples and 1 pine, but because all the maples are closely related, there’s a sense in which the second forest is more diverse.
Again, the solution is to use trees (phylogenetic ones, to be clear). The concept of phylogenetic diversity says that a species contributes more to biodiversity when it is distantly related to the others — in other words, when it is more unique. For example, the ginkgo is a living fossil, only very distantly related to any other extant plants. If it disappeared, the plant kingdom would be poorer than if one of the many maple species did.
So it goes with cultures. The linguistic tapestry of Europe is richer thanks to the non-Indo-European Basque and Finnish speakers. The religious tapestry of Asia is richer thanks to Zoroastrianism, once the state religion of the mighty Persian Empire, but now practiced by only a very small number of people of Iranian descent. The culinary tapestry of the world is richer thanks to the crops that were domesticated outside the Greater West and Sinosphere by the Mesoamericans — maize, vanilla, cacao, tomatoes, and chili peppers.
This is especially important when we consider that cultural diversity is declining under the force of globalized communication. The Rapa Nui people, just like the Mesopotamians and the indigenous Mexicans, have forgotten the script of their ancestors. In its broadest formulation, and across many cultural traits, the Greater West has conquered almost everything else. To the extent that we value cultural diversity — perhaps due to its capacity to show us alternative cultural paths — it’s more worthwhile than ever to notice what still survives outside.
And among the cultures that have resisted the influence of the Greater West, none has done it more than the other great civilization of the world: China.
It hasn’t fully resisted. In many ways, China is now Westernized. If we built a phylogenetic tree of fashions in clothing, we would probably conclude that China is a full-fledged member of the Greater West: even its most powerful figure, during a major political event, dresses in completely Western fashion.
For comparison, the most powerful in China towards the end of the imperial era dressed like this:
In other ways, however, China is still very distinct from even the broadest concepts of the Greater West. The writing system is a particularly visible trait, but there are more subtle ones. China has its own philosophical and religious traditions, for instance, which are very distinct from the Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern systems of thought. Its social structure is founded on a complex kinship system. Less than 1% of Chinese people are reportedly left-handed, compared to 10% in the rest of the world, perhaps indicating a higher level of conformity.
The concept of the Greater West is therefore helpful to recognize the extent to which China is not the West. Of all cradles of civilization, China is the one that has remained the most distinct from the Egyptian and Mesopotamian ones. It’s not a country like any other. My understanding is that the Chinese are keenly aware of this — and in a world where China’s power and influence are growing, it’s probably important for Westerners to realize it, too.
IV. The history of the West
Lastly, thinking about the Greater West is a good way to understand how Western civilization itself evolved.
As I mentioned, phylogenetic trees add a temporal dimension to taxonomies. That allows us to think better about the categories that currently exist, which is what we did in the last three sections. But we can also use the temporal dimension directly, to dive deeper into the past.
I initially conceived of this essay when wondering what “the West” could even mean before Rome, Greece, and Christianity were a thing. The answer soon became clear: for most of our memes, the West 3,000-5,000 years ago was the two westernmost cradles of civilization: the valleys of the Nile and of the Tigris and Euphrates. Egypt gave us our writing; the Fertile Crescent gave us most of our crops; some mix of them, in a Bronze Age world that also included the Hittites, the Canaanites, and the Minoans, gave us our myths, religions, political systems, early art, and almost every other feature of complex civilization. All of these memes would later be adopted by the Indo-European-speaking people who inhabited what is now Europe.
Between then and now, there have been countless branching moments in the tree of culture, such as when Orthodox and Catholic Christianity split in 1054, or when Latin gave birth to dozens of child languages.
There have been extinction events, such the disappearance of the cuneiform script, or of Cathar Christians, or of most Celtic tongues.
There have been mergers of culture due to horizontal transfer, like the adoption of liberal ideology in many countries after the fall of the USSR, or the syncretism of Greek and Buddhist art and religion after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
When you trim the tips of the great tree of culture, you are necessarily left with one of the many concepts of the Greater West — which are nothing more than snapshots of what “the West” was a some earlier point in time.
I know of no better way to make sense of that complex, enormous, and multidimensional monster that we call history.
To be fair to Huntington, he does say that Latin America and the Orthodox sphere are either part of the West or closely related to it.
Where possible I put a sample of the original script, either the name of the script or its first few letters. Note that many writing systems, past and present, are omitted for the sake of simplicity.
There’s a hypothesis that Hangul derives partially from an old Tibetan alphabet called ʼPhags-pa, in which case it could be considered part of the Egyptian family as well.