TCS Daily

Genghis Con?

By Tim Worstall - July 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Claiming in public that the combination of a character in a comic sci-fi novel with a marketing gimmick for a kebab shop can help to reveal one of the mysteries of the ages is likely to result in some funny looks. So I'll do it here over the net where the raised brows and rolling eyes will not be so disconcerting to my already fragile ego.

The mystery to be solved is: "Why war?" No, not this current one or the few before, but why war at all? As a species we are capable of immense co-operation and yet we can look back and see any number of outbreaks of murderous rage and seemingly random killing over what appear to be trivial matters.

If you squint hard enough you can view European history as a sideshow to what happened in the Steppes, that rolling grassy plain that stretches from Hungary to China. Every so often a new tribe would come up with a military innovation, perhaps the bridle, the stirrup or the compound bow, saddle up the ponies and horde westwards. The Greeks complained about the Scythians, the Romans about Huns and Goths (Ostra-, Visi- and plain vanilla flavors), Byzantines about Bulgars and Turks, Russians about Tatars and everyone complained about the Mongols who also wended their way east and south into China and India. Some of these movements succeeded in the sense that new lands were conquered, new populations arose, and others did not: who really remembers the Alans, Alars and Circassians? It cannot just have been the boredom of a society in which fermented mare's milk was the only intoxicant which led to these movements; there must be some more fundamental reason.

Step forward Mr. Prosser from the "Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy":

"...he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, [...] the only vestiges left in Mr. L Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the tum and a predilection for little fur hats. "

You may also have seen the news that Shih, a restaurant in London, was offering a free kebab to anyone who could prove descent from Genghis Khan himself. The firm that actually does the DNA tests estimates that there are 16-17 million such people who can be identified by their test for a specific form of the Y chromosome. That there are in fact some 16-17 million Mr Prossers out there (Ha! That explains my physique.). Given that the test only works on direct male line descendants, all children by the Great Khan's daughters, by the daughters of his sons and so on down the 50 or so generations since his time are excluded. It would not seem unreasonable to think that there are therefore a couple of hundred million or so of our fellow earthlings who carry the man's DNA. It doesn't really matter at this point whether you are more enamored of the Biblical injunction to go forth and multiply or the Darwinian view that success in this life is measured by the success with which you replicate your own genes: using either standard being the progenitor of 3-4 % of the entire species is pretty good going.

As the Golden Horde moved westwards two basic tactics emerged. If a city resisted then, when conquered, all the men were killed and the women shared out, with the Leader getting the pick of the crop. If the city surrendered then all were spared. Except the politicians, these were always put to death immediately, a practice enthusiastically followed by another Asian tyrant, Josef Djugashvili. (There are of course those dark days when we all agree with that idea.)

The above practices may not be moral, may not be how we would wish to conduct our own breeding, but one has to admit that they were extremely successful. Rounding up a few hundred thousand horsemen and pillaging the length and breadth of Eurasia was a valid and workable method of ensuring the only form of immortality we can have in this world, that of descendants. It also helps that he won. So the answer to the question "Why war?" is that for some people, some of the time, it works.

Having used HHGttG to explain at least a particular form of war perhaps I should turn to the main truth offered by that book, that the answer to "Life, the Universe and Everything" is 42, the Earth being a computer designed to provide the question to which that is the answer. I had been toying with the idea that it was something to do with US Presidents but then realized that no. 42 was Slick Willy and I'm not sure that I can cope with a universe where that is a valid answer to any question one can in good taste state in public.

Tim Worstall is a frequent TCS contributor. Find more of his writing at


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