(Warning:  This is less a book review than a lengthy exegesis of my thoughts about the human organizations known as nations.  Spoiler alert:  the book pretty much sums things up in its title.  But it’s an excellent read, well worth the time.)

Patrick J Geary is a professor of history at UCLA.  He writes well, staying mainly on subject, and rarely peppers his explanations with academic jargon.  This book should have been quite easy for him to write.  Even a casual historian can grasp that most of what passes as national origin history is mythology, based only loosely on fact, if at all.  For example, the “nation” of Germany did not even exist as a unified entity until the latter half of the nineteenth century (1871).  From there, it took less than a century before a nativist German political party led by an Austrian immigrant dreamt up the cockeyed idea of a German nation populated by a “master race” which he claimed as his own (supposedly the Nordic branch of ancient Indo-European Aryans) and for Germany, which gained traction with enough German citizens until it was used to justify the slaughter and subjugation of millions.   How difficult could debunking national myths possibly be?

The basic premise of The Myth of Nations is exactly as the title implies—that the ideas forming the basis for how we think of nations (not just whack-jobs like Nazi Germany) are mainly mythical creations, cut from the whole cloth of our minds.  Considering that we hairless apes are routinely deceived by our own senses regarding the nature of the physical universe around us (see my review of David Eagleman’s excellent synopsis, Incognito, of how our brains shape our perceptions to create a useful reality that might aid in our survival), how much more so might we deceive ourselves when it comes to abstract social entities, like the nations to which we belong and through which our being and identity is often indelibly tied and expressed?  Though Geary’s premise is as unassailable as the science of, for example, plate tectonics or evolution, his book is still, sadly necessary.  A great many people have so convincingly deceived themselves that their mythical national history is true until they are simply incapable of seeing things any other way.  And though Geary’s efforts are necessary, they are surely an exercise in futility.  People who really believe that it was America’s Manifest Destiny, ordained by God, to stretch from coast to coast in North America, and then to Southeast Asia, and then to eastern reaches of Western Europe, are hardly the type of people wishing to learn more about how silly are mankind’s nationalistic impulses.  The truths Geary reveals are like trees falling in the forest while no one’s around.  If a widely-held national myth is felled by the ax of truth, does it make a sound if those believing it refuse to acknowledge its fall?

Before going into much detail, it might be helpful to explain exactly what is meant by “nation”.  My American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines nation as “a relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government” or “the territory occupied by such a group of people”.  It goes on to add that “nation” might also refer to, “The government of a sovereign state;  A people who share common customs, origins, history and frequently, language; a nationality; A federation or tribe, especially one composed of Native Americans;  the territory occupied by such a federation or tribe.”  “Nation” obviously has something of an Alice in Wonderland quality, capable in many instances of meaning whatever its users wish it to mean.  The subjective, amorphous nature of the word squares quite well with the subjective, amorphous nature of the entities it is used to describe. 

In my writing, I generally use “nation” to mean what is more commonly known as an ethnic group, “a people who share common customs, origins, history and frequently, language” (though I don’t limit my usage of the word to only this meaning through this review).   There is an implied genetic component to the entity thus described, nations having generally closer genetic, i.e., familial, affinity within the nation than without.   I use “state” in describing the first definition offered by American Heritage, “a relatively large group of people under a single, usually independent government”, or “the territory occupied by such a group”.  Thus for me, the United States is a state, while the Hebrew people are a nation.  A nation-state is a nation that has attached its ethnic group to, and identifies itself with, a particular piece of land over which it has governance and control, such as the Hebrew nation-state of Israel in Palestine.  A nation-state like Israel needn’t be solely comprised of those within its ethnic Hebrew nation; it can have people of other nations (e.g., Palestinian Arabs), but the organizing principles of the state must be derived from the majority ethnic group’s customs, origins and history.   

Using my definition, the United States, though owing much of its customs, origins and history from Britain (if in fact Britain, or even England, could be considered a nation), derives too much of its origins and history from other nations (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Ireland to name only a few) to be a nation-state, which is truer today than at its founding.  The US remains simply a state, as it is now comprised of at least two, possibly three, culturally and ethnically identifiable nations (blacks, whites and Hispanics), yet it should be pointed out that the identities of each of these groups did not coalesce and form until their arrival in the US.  “White” was not an indicia of a person’s nationhood in Europe; neither did “blacks” comprise a nation in West Africa, nor does the Spanish language mark the boundaries of nations in Latin America. 

The idea of nationhood is important because it is a marker along the continuum of gradually-increasing size in economic organizations over the course of human history.  At first, before man had discovered agriculture, it could be imagined that human economic organizations—groups of people agreeing among themselves to cooperate in order to enhance their prospects for survival and propagation—were small, comprised of families banded into clans of not more than a hundred or so, perhaps not much different than a chimpanzee troop seen in the wild today.   Depending on how isolated was the clan, it might develop a very unique set of customs and cultural mores, and certainly language, that helped identify group members to each other and to outsiders.   The customs, or memes, representing particular means of solving the problems of survival within the context of the environment in which the clan operated, also had an evolutionary implication—the clans that devised the best means of solving problems were the best situated to survive and prosper.  But clans never did so in complete isolation. 

It is unassailably true that when human groups met, just as happened when the two great currents—east and west–of human migration finally reached around the globe to meet in the Americas, there ensued a mixing, both of cultural memes and biological genes.  To imagine, in Europe or anywhere else, that much the same didn’t happen whenever groups of roving hunter/gatherers stumbled, intentionally or not, into each other—an idea necessary for believing in the existence and durability of races or tribes or nations from which today’s states arose—is sheer fantasy. 

Evolution theory provides that there was an original coupling pair of Homo sapiens, more or less just as the allegorical tale of Adam and Eve provides, but each succeeding generation necessarily represents a dilution and admixture of their genetic legacy.  At least for the genes in a sexually-reproducing species, there can be no other way than mixing, which is actually presumed to be the whole point of sexual reproduction. 

The memes—the individual cultural tics, customs and practices that each group had developed in response to environmental survival pressures—were likewise a mixture, but of the best practices developed and tested by clans and tribes who then mixed and mingled with others, to arrive at the best possible solution among them all.  Though more malleable than genes, memes are more durable.  If the environmental pressures under which they arose remain the same, then customs and practices can be passed down unchanged to each succeeding generation.  But their capacity for undiluted transmission is also dangerous, as memes, unlike genes, can be forced to stasis and ossification, even when environmental pressures make them costly to engage.  The rules for kosher living practiced yet today among some sectors of the Hebrew nation readily come to mind.  While much of the rest of the world gets a fair portion of its protein from pork, and with no untoward health concerns in so doing, for kosher-living Hebrews (and Muslims, and others), pork is still forbidden, which in a famine could be a costly meme to obey.

Successful hunter/gatherer clans, always limited in size by the particular environment’s food supply, had to constantly cleave new clans as soon as they grew too large to be supported by the exploitable resources, which would then necessarily push forward the migration to new lands.  This dynamic surely explains the relatively short amount of time—about 200,000 years—that anthropologists believe it took for humans to colonize every corner of the globe from their humble origins in the Rift Valley of Africa.   The push into new and variable environments, and the reproductive isolation the extended geography implied, explains both the variation in human cultures that arose (as culture is basically the received wisdom among a people for solving survival problems, heavily particularized to the local environment), and the physical adaptations that commonly (but with only limited biological relevance) delimit the various races.

Along the way, a few of these roving bands of hunter/gatherers, their brains carrying the same capacity for computation as the smartest of 21st century humans today, realized how to make food come to them, and agriculture was born.  This ability, through the application of human labor and ingenuity, to grow food enough for everyone to eat, eventually reversed the dispersion imperative.  Clans arose that could feed more just their own people, thus attracting others, and the extra people could in turn be put to work, further expanding the food supply, so more people could be added to the clan, etc.  So long as one person could produce even the tiniest of surplus above what he and his immediate family might need to eat, the clan was better off with him than without him, which became especially true when it came time to defend the land from competing clans.  Clans grew indigenously and exogenously into tribes.  Compelled by economies of scale in agriculture and administration, but mainly, because of the potential to reach vast efficiency gains in defense and security, tribes coalesced to form nations.  Nations, compelled by the same economics of scale, eventually merged under unitary administrative and defensive structure to become empires.   (Of course, it should be kept in mind, that this process happened at varying times for varying locales, and for some, who still live in hunter/gatherer clans, not at all).

A great many of what are considered nations today—Germany, France, Hungary, China, Britain, Spain, etc.—originated as empires, i.e., as coalitions of disparate nations, only later to lose the distinctions within them of the varying nations (Goths, Visigoths, Franks, Gaul, Huns, Mandarins, Angles, Saxons, Celts, etc.) of their founding.   The average German at the time of Hitler (and before and beyond) was no more purely German, or Indo-European Aryan, or Goth, or anything else, than was the average Frenchman or Englishman a purebred Frank or Saxon or Gaul.  The idea of a purely bred race or tribe or nation exists as only a fantasy of the human mind.  Each of Europe’s extant nationalities is the product of several centuries of nomadic wandering and constant intermingling among the ancient tribes from which they arose, a few of whom survived to become nations, which were themselves as amorphous and ill-defined genetically and culturally as the tribes from which they sprang.  These nations then coalesced into empire, which effectively dissolved the internal differences among nations forming the empire into one “national” identity.   

But it is not language or culture or genes or geography that defines a nation.  As Geary notes, perhaps not as forcefully as he should, it is self-identification with a language, culture, genes and/or geography that denotes whether an individual is a member or not of a nation.  An ancient Barbarian became Roman when he decided to accept Roman mythology (of the secular variety mainly, concerning Rome’s origins and purposes, etc.,), adopted its cultural customs and practices, and perhaps migrated to a province or region under Roman control.  If the Barbarian’s genetic background presented difficulties for his own self-identification as Roman, he just made up a genealogical past to suit his present circumstances and desires.  This process of Barbarians becoming Romans occurred repeatedly, particularly in the latter stages of empire, among those important enough to be noticed by historians.  It can only be imagined how many of the lower caste Barbarians, their fates lost to history, also self-identified as Romans, no matter that they might have once been Goths or Vandals or Lombard, etc. 

To take a more modern example of the self-identification process yielding the idea of membership in a nation, consider Adolf Hitler, perhaps the most virulent nationalist the modern world has ever seen.  Hitler was born in Austria, thus his national self-identification as German could not easily have been resolved through geography.  He was possibly the grandson of an Austrian Jew on his father’s side (though historians are skeptical).  If so, the purity of his Nordic, Indo-Aryan blood had to have caused some consternation and doubt for him, even as he claimed the ancestral line for him and for Germans as an explanation and evidence of their superiority to all other races.  He may have considered himself of German nationality, but his greatest disappointment in life was failing to gain admittance to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, as culturally Austrian an institution as could be imagined.  Though he claimed to loath Austria for its admixture of races, he chose to live there for several years during his young adulthood, destitute and homeless, only leaving for good when World War One broke out and he enlisted as an Austrian citizen in the German army.  His identification of the Jewish nation—and it is important historically to remember that the Jewish Diaspora has carried all the indicia of nationhood except, until recently, geography– as the source of all the world’s woes, in other words as the “other” in his idealistic fantasy of pure-bred German nationalism, probably did not fully coagulate until after the war and the humiliation of German defeat, and the reparations imposed with it.

You might object that Hitler was an evil outlier whose actions aren’t instructive for understanding the self-identification process that determines nationhood.   Then consider the mythology created to serve in the formation of the Hebrew nation.  There is the legend that the whole of the people descended from one family, the house of Jacob, or going back further, from Noah; even further still, from Adam and Eve.  They were enslaved and escaped slavery under the tutelage of Moses, a character who had every attribute of a Greek or Babylonian demigod except that he only interacted with one god instead of many.  The twelve tribes of Jacob coalesced to form the nation of Israel, heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham and passed on through Moses, who would safely lead them to the promised land of Canaan if only they obeyed the rules he set before them to follow.  Furthermore, as the myth goes, God had singled out, of all the peoples in the world, Israel for special favor, instructing the Israelites to wipe from the face of the earth all of the inhabitants of Canaan they found living there upon the final delivery of his promise and the Israelite accession to the Promised Land. 

Had the mythological origins of the Hebrew nation not been assimilated as part of the Christian catechism, in other words, were Yahweh and the myths of the Hebrew nation’s origins not a matter of belief for roughly two billion souls, they would long ago have been as readily dismissed as Germany’s mythological origins were upon the fall of the Third Reich.  The myths of both nations trafficked heavily in tying the nation to territorial claims, in a shared genetic ancestry, in a shared culture, in a shared language, in the necessity for professing belief in the nation’s mythological origins, in the necessity for obedience and fealty in the present to the nation’s traditional rules and culture, and in an identification of their superiority (the “Chosen People” and the “Master Race”) over other peoples.  As nations, Germany and Israel always had more in common than different, which perhaps, as much as anything, explains how Hitler and his henchmen were able to conjure and sell the Final Solution of the “Jewish problem” to the German people. 

The impulse to nationalism, which arose from tribalism, which had its origins in the extended family, is perhaps the most durable and widespread of human social attributes.  It’s easy to see why.  Humans existing in small family groups and clans were better able to survive and propagate than those living alone.  While there presumably have always been and always will be some rare few human polar bears, their numbers are necessarily limited by their isolated lifestyle.  With the advent of agriculture, the clannish impulse that enhanced the survival prospects of hunter/gatherers was expanded to accommodate more and more cooperators in the struggle to survive.   Multiple groups arose that were sometimes delineated by geography, sometimes language, sometimes by particular cultural practices, sometimes by differences in outward appearance, sometimes by little more than obscure religious beliefs.  The task for the individual, who was always primarily concerned with his own survival and propagation needs, was to identify which group posed the greatest enhancement in the premises for him, and to self-identify with it.  Most times, the best opportunities for an individual would be found in his natal group.  But sometimes it wasn’t.  In those circumstances where it was physically possible, the impulse to enhance survival and propagation prospects, of which nationalism, tribalism, etc, is but one expression, would lead the individual to switch loyalties.  Barbarian warriors would become Roman centurions, if by doing so they enhanced the likelihood their survival and propagation imperatives would be realized.  Even whole tribes (“nations”) of Barbarians would become Roman if enough of their members faced prospects improved enough to keep them from actively objecting.  Nations weren’t, and never have been, durable.  Only the imperatives of biology are durable—everything else—all the traditions and languages and memes and geography, etc. of nations, empires or tribes—are tools employed to succeed in satisfying our biological imperatives of survival and propagation.    The myths of nations are lies we internalize that aid us in meeting our survival imperatives, not unlike the lies our brain conjures in creating a useful, exploitable consciousness.

This is not just an esoteric exercise.  In the upcoming US presidential election, the two men vying for the position have somewhat unique national (in the ethnographic/religious sense) backgrounds.  Mitt Romney is Mormon, a sect of Christianity shunned and disparaged by a great many mainline denominations.  Mormonism has its own mythological origins, its founder, Joseph Smith purportedly receiving directly from God the Book of Mormon, the text upon which the church’s distinctive beliefs are founded.  Joseph Smith is the rough analog in Mormonism to Moses in Judeo-Christianity, but without the intervening twenty-five hundred or so years to obscure and mythologize reality in the mists of time.   Romney makes no apologies for his Mormon background, and is still an active member of the Mormon “nation”, which might make people who would otherwise support him a bit queasy and uncertain of his suitability for the presidency. 

Based on his genetic legacy, Barack Obama could have joined either of the black or white nation as each existed and exists in the United States today.  He obviously decided, like an ancient Barbarian might have chosen to be Roman, to embrace and self-identify as a member of the black nation.  It could have been either way, but Obama apparently believed his prospects would be enhanced by choosing to be black.

This usage of the term “nation” to describe Mormonism and blacks is admittedly a bit expansive and amorphous, but so too are the nations, like all others, being described.  In the sense that Geary uses the term, nations are simply aggregations of people who agree to cooperate with each other, and against others, in the struggle to survive.  Thus against all similarly situated others (whites, Hispanics, Jews), self-identified members of the black nation have more affinity with each other than with anyone else.  In a dispute over who controls the political levers of the state, the type of dispute that is potentially fraught with survival implications, blacks (or Mormons or whites or whatever coalition of interests might arise such that a “nation” is formed) favor other blacks over members of other nations.

Geary wisely does not, as I have, use the example of Nazi Germany and the nation of Israel (or blacks and Mormons, for that matter) to illustrate commonalities in mythical origins, self-identification, etc., among the various nations.  (He surely would have faced howls of derision at the moral equivalency such a comparison implies.  As I’m not trying to retain a lucrative professorship, I am perhaps intellectually freer to connect the comparative dots between Germany and Israel, and leave the moral implications to theologians and others.)  He instead uses the Zulu nation of South Africa as an example to show how nations arise to meet some particular survival challenge, and then compel obedience and loyalty by creating a myth of their origins, and developing a moral code that must be followed as a condition of membership.  His comparison of the Zulu’s origins, shrouded in myths very similar to those claimed by European nationalists in the modern era, stands as a powerful indictment of the probity and reliability of accepted history:

Recently, African historians have begun to sketch a “re-conceptualized history” of the Phongo-Mzimkhulu region [the area of Zulu origins] by reinterpreting the oral traditions collected by Bryant [a Christian missionary who wrote one of the first histories of the Zulu], according to two fundamentally different criteria.  First, they recognize that oral traditions are not simply factual accounts but, rather, “political” statements that impose on the past patterns of meaning that are intended to provide legitimization for programs of the present and future.  Nor do these traditions reflect only a single ruler’s values.  Often they are products of struggles among different factions and incorporate disjunctive and internally contradictory pattern in an attempt to neutralize the antagonism between competing factions…

…Second, they recognize that units of analysis, “tribes”, “clans”, and other political and social units are not stable, objective and enduring realities.  Rather, the politics of the past and present change constantly in composition, internal organization, culture, traditions, ethnic affiliations, and boundaries.  Neither the Nguni nor the Zulu can be taken as objectively existing, stable actors in history, rather they are constructs, whose nature and very existence must be questioned constantly.  

Insert “Hebrew” or “German” or “English” or any other supposed nation for Zulu and the story is the same.   In particular, the oral traditions of the ancient Hebrews that yielded the fantastic story of the Exodus are considered in a different light when it is understood that oral traditions are not factual accounts but rather, are “…’political’ statements that impose on the past patterns of meaning that are intended to provide legitimization for programs of the present and future.”  Indeed, Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth century Jewish heretic philosopher observed exactly that about the Hebrew Bible—that the origin myths, and cultural admonitions and prohibitions, contained in the Hebrew Bible were political in nature, intended to foster loyalty and obedience and political unity among the Hebrew people.  He felt they were no longer valid after the Babylonian Exile, directed as they were towards a nation that no longer existed.  This view of the Hebrew Bible is probably what caused Spinoza’s excommunication, which is unfortunate, because he was wrong.  So long as a people existed who self-identified as Hebrews and internalized the tenets of their Bible, the Hebrew nation would continue to exist, no matter whether it had any soil upon which it could attach its identity.  Spinoza understood the political tenor of the Hebrew tenets and origin myths, but didn’t quite understand what it took to make a nation. 

The impulse to express survival and propagation imperatives through nationhood, or tribalism, is a powerful one, presumably because it is effective.  As I noted in a previous post, even my son’s college has tapped into the impulse, creating a mythical Auburn nation (though they call it a “family”) to which the students can belong and believe.  But the tribes and nations created from the expression of base biological imperatives are not durable, nor readily and discretely definable, thus any history of their origins is apt to be shrouded in mythology and legend, as Geary aptly points out in The Myth of Nations.   The book is well worth reading and internalizing.  Then perhaps you’ll understand, for example, as the various nations of the world compete for glory and honor in the upcoming London Olympics, how fragile are the ties internally binding the peoples of each nation, and how silly is an athletic contest devoted to competition among the living myths known as nations.  Maybe you’ll conclude as I did long ago, that there is an identity more powerful than self-identifying as a member of any nation.  It’s called simply being human.