Friday, December 30, 2005


An email from a reader in response to my recent comment on the Brace craniofacial findings:

Thank you for linking to the Brace et al article -- in the normal course of events I would never have seen it. In general, it confirms my own prejudices, so naturally I agree.

There are at present, and have been for some time, two competing models of human evolutionary history: the replacement model and the evolution in place model.

1) The replacement model postulates that hominids arose in Africa and spread throughout the world, in successive waves. Homo habilis _may_ have gotten outside of Africa (but probably didn't.) Homo erectus did and spread as far as China in the east and France and Spain in the north.

Neanderthals in this scenario are a purely European dead end, the result of Erectus being trapped in Europe during the ice ages and having to adapt.
There was then another radiation from Africa, that of anatomically modern Human beings, who replaced the Neandertals in Europe and the Erectines in Asia, gradually evolving into modern human populations. Thus we are all descended from the African Homo erectines who evolved into modern human beings. "Out of Africa." "Eve." etc. Stringer is one of the major proponents.

2) the Evolution in place model argues that early humans (probably Erectines) spread out of Africa into Europe and Asia, adapted to their environments, and proceeded to evolove gradually into modern human types. In this model, Europeans are descended from the Homo erectus forms that settled in Europe 500,000 years ago, evolved into Neandertals, and then into Cro-Magnons, und so weiter. Peking man's descendants live in Peking. The descendants of African Homo erectus live in Africa. Milford Wolpoff is the most prominent proponent of this view (and I thought that Brace was on the other side. Maybe he changed his mind.)

Viewpoint #1 assumes that successor and predecessor populations cannot exchange genes (either because they are too different culturally or because of physical intersterility. This assumes there was no gene flow between europe and the middle east for more than 100,000 years. This is highly unlikely. Also, there are some African remains from the right time period which _look_ Neanderthal, or would if they were in Europe, and stone tools which look like the ones Neanderthal's made.

The European Neandertals were clearly physically adapted to their environment, ice age Europe. The long face provides protection for the brain against the cold coming in throuigh the nasal passages (and the occipital bun ballances the rest of the head while running.) The arms and legs were put under so much stress by their muscles that the bones bent like bows (Ahnold was clearly a girly-man compared to Ug.) The heavy brow ridges provided support for the rest of the face (biological spandrels.)

When Europe's climate changed, so did they. It is probable they were non-sapient and adapted physically to their environment over time (and the 200,000 year long existence of the Mousterian tool 'culture' certainly argues that this is the case)

Now, what would Neandertals in Euope look like. Well, skin without high concentrations of melanin has been shown to survive frostbite better than with high concentrations of melanin (the work was one by the US air force in the 50s when they discovered that black American airmen in Greenland and other northern bases had higher rates of frostbite than their white fellow soldiers, despite the same training and equipment.) while fair hair and blue eyes are another likely adapation, although not a necessary one Remember North Asians have fair skin (which is where vitimin D is produced.). That is, they must have looked like the present day population of the Scandinavian countries. Except they were built bigger than Schwartenegger.

The conflict between the two has grand religious elements. Back in the 50s #2 was proposed by Carleton Coon, the leading physical anthropologist and archaeologist of his day. He had limited paleontological data to go on, but there are strong correspondences between the teeth of Peking Man and modern Chinese (shovel shaped incisors.) Also, the European face _looks_ a lot like the Neandertal face, compared to those of Africans and Asians (our Asians, not yours; yours are of Neandertal ancestry in this view as well.) Alas, his arguments were taken up by the KKK to proclaim that whites evolved to sentience first, and Coon was tarred as a racist (which he was not.) A biography of Coon recounts the arguments and details and hints at international intrigue by the Israelis (Coon was doing major archaeological work in Yemen.) We will skip the religion ad the politics and concentrate on the evidence, which is scanty, and some interesting theoretical models.

a) Farming did very clearly originate in the middle east -- there is no reasonable argument against it -- the closest wild relatives we have to modern grains are found in Iran. In terms of archaeological dating Farming settlements move from east to west in Europe over time, with the settlers taking a two pronged attack on the continent, with one group moving up the rivers inland from the Black Sea, while others move along the coast. Thus John Rhys-Davies and I both share ancestors who moved closer and closer to Britain over time.

b) Early farming communities were small and isolated, and usually had to move ever few years because they used swidden (slash and burn) agriculture, so their numbers get overestimated. Also, not all soils are good for early farming technology (parts of Poland could not be farmed until the Middle Ages!) The local hunter gatherers would hardly have viewed them as a threat, more as a source of trade goods. As an Australian you are inclined to think of settlers as displacing the 'natives,' which is also a very American view. And, at the same time, you are thinking of 'hunters' as 'warriors.' Neither is the case. The basic technolgies of both groups would have been comparable: stone implements. The farming villiages I've seen mapped out indicate just what we would call extended families. Only later do we get the massive earthwork defended villages that preceed the Indo-European invasions (I am doing all this from memory so I cannot cite sources. Check out Gimbutas's early farming in Europe book. You are thinking in terms of Maori tribes or Zulus, who had far better developed agriclture. Early neolithic farmers had to do a lot of hunting on the side as well.)

c) Hunter gatherers generally cannot organize themselves into armies. The British Empire faced threats from the Zulus, who were settled agriculturists and pastoralists who had dense populations and an elaborate social organization. Australian aboriginies certainly had elaborate social organizations, but how much of a threat did they ever pose?

The usual way HG groups deal with each other is through marriage. You give your sister or daughter away to someone in another group with a different territory so you can have claims on that group's resources in times of environmental stress. The locals would outnumber the newcommers, and the locals would swamp the newcomer's genes in the future population.

There are two good historical analogies. Bulgarians and Turks. At one time both these groups were Central Asian. The Bulgarians made the unpardonable error of losing their women to an enemy attack, and when they reached Eastern Europe they had to ally themselves with the local Slavs to obtain access to women and a posterity, leaving behind, over time, their language, their physical appearance, everything but their name. The Turks on the other hand had a passion for Circassian women, and sold off their own daughters to obtain them. That, and the fact that they never exterminated the native Anatolian population, gives us the modern day Turkish population. Their name and language survived.

There is also Newfoundland. I probably have Beothuk ancestors, but wave after wave of British, French, German, Portugese, etc. fishermen swamped them over
the years from 1586 to 1820 when the last pure blood Beothuk woman died.

Now, the reason Turks and Bulgarians look the way they do is because they did _not_ wipe out the native inhabitants, who were too numerous anyway.

If you look at a wide enough subset of modern day Europeans you will see most of the features posessed by the Neandertals, but almost never together on the same individual.

Then again, look at the small sample sizes Brace et al had to work with. 1,284 individuals from 52 seprate groups over thousands of years. I would make that my principal criticism of the argument. I would argue that we need far more work done in the field to prodcure more samples. More work for archaeologists!

Monday, December 26, 2005


An email from a reader:

What I'm writing here will involve some speculation, and some well known facts.

At the time of the hurricane I was in a hospital with pneumonia. One of the nurses looked at the TV just below the ceiling (in American Hospitals TVs are placed so they can be watched by people layiing down) and said: "How could such a thing happen to an American city?" My nurse was born in Haiti, and I felt too sick at the time to tell her that NOLA was not an "American" city -- it was Port au Prince North, but with a lot more money. Port au Prince as if the French had never left (or had their thorats cut, actually.)

New Orleans was always an economic backwater. It lived off tourism, much like my neighboring city of Salem, MA, which still lives off the notorious 17th century witchcraft trials. Part of it is economically important for traffic on the Mississippi, but for the most part it is bypassed.

At the same time, since the 1960s, NOLA's black population was shunted into welfare dependency, black families encouraged to break up, and black children (as usual, as they are the property of the democratic party's teacher unions) given piss-poor educations. In terms of public safety, NOLA would have to reduce its murder rate by 80% to match New York's.

In terms of political corruption, well, the public boards that control the funding of the levees have been investing heavilly in casinos and hotels.

Come Katrina, and the vast majority of those people found themselves displaced to Houston, Dallas, and other economically booming areas. Their kids have been placed in far better schools, some have found work (and others are living off of welfare) and, for the most part, they do not have homes to return to in NOLA. The homes, if owned, now need to be demolished. If rented, they still need to be demolished (NOLA is below sea level mostly, and the flood made much of the housing stock unliviable. In fact, entire areas of the city should just be closed down and bulldozed -- the areas stretching along the lake to the east and some to the south, which are flooded if it mists.) It really does not make any sense for someone who wants a future for their children to move back there.

The NOLA police force was supposed to have numbered some 1700 members (for a city of half a million!) before the hurricane. In fact, some 700 of those men were phantoms created to get Federal Aid. They were always paid ridiculously low rates because it was assumed they would make up for it with extortion and bribes. We'll just casually mention the 50 NOLA cops who have been arrested (and some put on death row) over the last twenty years, etc.

My ***speculation*** is that a large number of those 'missing' people may, like the 700 non-existent cops, be phantoms as well, created for political and economic purposes by the city government.

If those people cannot be induced 'somehow' to return to NOLA, the 2006 and 2008 elections are going to produce drastically different results from the last ones. The surrounding areas are republican. The people in NOLA's flooded areas were voted by Nagin and other democrats. The State of Louisianna has very peculiar election laws, which are designed to produce a 3 way governor's race between a democrat and two republicans. The democrat will certainly get less than 50% of the vote, but there is no run-off. Plurality wins. That is how the current idiot became Governor. The same for House and Senate.

Gradually, the real reasons for the flooding have come out in the papers -- the levees did not burst, there was no over-topping along lake Ponchatrain, rather the flood walls that line the canals that come into the city were poorly supported ***in sand***, were built that way only because of political machinations by the local politiciains, and the Army Corps of Engineers were ***told*** they would not survive by an engineering firm decades ago.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


In response to my recent posts about the U.S. birthrate a reader has emailed me as follows:

Not having any kids I'm hardly an 'in' source, but in general I'd have to agree with you, although not on the 'poor' angle. If you read the data again you can see that the biggest set of breeders were Hispanics of all races, that is Hispanic surnamed people who are white, indian, mexican, cuban, and black (although not necesssarily directly from Spain -- there are Hernandezes in Louisiana and Arkansas who have been there since Colonial times who are intermarried with Yankees and French etc -- since 'Spaniards' are 'european' rather than 'hispanic' or 'chicano' or....)

In general the people who breed least are college educated women. This goes back to the first women's colleges where someone noted that it took three to four graduating classes from Bryn Mawr to produce another graduating class. The people I hang out with most are university educated, mostly SF fans, and they do not have all that many children. Some have one. Fewer have two. This tends to be normal for academics as well. Kathryn Cramer, a publishing professional, was complaining recently on her blog ( about the problems of going to a con with small children in tow, and the even greater expense of leaving them at home (leaving your dog at a kennel would be cheaper, I'd say.) Most conventions have day long baby sitting facilities now, I believe it began when the people at the New England Science Fiction Society that runs Boskones and Noreascon worldcons in Boston found themselves facing their 'breed now or not at all!' time periods.

The people I work with are another story. They are not academics (I now work in retail) and they have children, and very often use extended family relationships to allow both parents to work. Grandmother lives in the house and looks after the kids. My cousin (an executive secretary) and her husband (a fork-lift operator) have two sons; my aunt babysat for both. One co-worker's daughter has twins, and my co-worker is delighted to baby-sit at the odd times her daughter and son-in-law go out to a movie.

I work in a garden shop selling trees, flowers, fertilizer, etc., during the summer, and christmas trees during the winter (and we had a great year this year! Much better than last year) and I get whole families coming through at christmas looking for trees, and the families tend to be large. Couples in their twenties with three kids in tow. A pregnant woman coming for her tree with a small boy in the car (the father is in Iraq.) A college educated woman with one son, aged about nine, who says "Dad has a van with a rack. You should have married him and we'd have that car." The vast majority of these people are white and working class, some are Asians (both your type of 'Asians' and ours), some are black, probably more are mixed couples (black and white, white and chinese or japanese) etc than just black (it's because of the local demographics, and the fact that we are on a highway where there is no bus service. Really poor people in the US do not have cars. That is how you tell if someone is poor.) Some are millionaires (one of my customers was a baseball player with the Boston Red Socks, something I only found out when I checked his credit card) but you don't have to go to college to become a baseball player, many go into farm teams out of high school -- he had three kids with him.

Now, the reasons for this are obvious and have less to do with income than with the extended childhood of the academic class. If you marry your high-school sweetheart she can start having children in her twenties. If the two of you meet in college both going for your doctorates... Consider the problems of a female doctoral archaeology student going down a ten foot pit to dig for her disseration project while pregnant. Academics with large families tend to have started where the wife worked while putting the husband through school and popped babies that her parents cared for ("Why did you marry this deadbeat? Couldn't you have found someone to support you?") and sometimes they get tossed out when their full professor husband finds a nuble grad student who thinks he's God (one such creep gave his own son 'an unsolicited disrecomendation' to a university that accepted him after the son sided with his mother during the divorce.)

The really poor and welfare dependent also have children. Lots of them. However, they are not so large a group, and the problem both for and with throw away kids is that they get thrown away. Years ago there was a nature program on female kangaroos in Australia on TV here and one of the females was simply unable to rear her young to the point of independent survival. She got careless. She couldn't find them in the tall grass. None survived. Generally, it's the throw-away-males who get 'discarded,' or sent off to the Crips and Bloods to go make their fortunes killing and selling dope, and if they survive, fine. If not, there are always more, and the daughters tend to stay at home.

The well-educated upper middle class families also have ways of reducing their children's long term survival prospects. Some parents cannot let go. They make the child dependent so they cannot leave, or give them so much money they never learn how to live in the real world. One of my best friends was kept in this position by his grandmother (the countess) and his mother until he was well over 40, with the kicker that when his mother died his annuity from the countess ended (and the one time I met his mother she constantly put him down to me in his presence!). My friend was of much tougher stuff than the females foresaw, however; he retrenched, married (into the Brazilian former nobility!) and gave both harpies an unwarranted and undeserved posterity.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tookie Williams Is Executed

Convicted killer Stanley Tookie Williams, the Crips gang co-founder whose case stirred a national debate about capital punishment versus the possibility of redemption, was executed Tuesday morning.

Williams, 51, died at 12:35 a.m.

Officials at San Quentin State Prison seemed to have trouble injecting the lethal mixture into his muscular arm, apparently struggling to find a vein.

"It took them, it may have been 10 minutes to deal with that. Williams at one point grimaced, it looked almost at frustration at the difficulty there," media witness John Simerman of the Contra Costa Times told CBS Radio News.

"You doing that right?" it sounded as if he asked one of the men with a needle.

Five of his supporters witnessed his death.

"One witness pumped his fist in the air, a symbol of black power," said Crystal Carreon of the Sacramento Bee.

And three of Williams supporters shouted as they left the room after his death.

Barbara Becknell and the supporters said, "the State Of California just killed an innocent man," said Rita Cosby of MSNBC, another media witness.

Outside the prison, there was "utter silence for maybe 30, 45 seconds, no one moving. You could hear a pin drop. People letting it sink in that it had finally happened," reports Ron Kilgore of CBS radio station KNX-AM. Then Williams' supporters broke out again in song.

In the final hours before his execution, Williams refused to have the last meal traditionally offered to the condemned, and he told prison officials he didn't want to be visited by a spiritual advisor or the prison chaplain, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. As he waited in a holding cell near the execution chamber he was given a bundle of letters sent to him from people across the country.

The case became the state's highest-profile execution in decades. Hollywood stars and capital punishment foes argued that Williams' sentence should be commuted to life in prison because he had made amends by writing children's books about the dangers of gangs and violence.

In the days leading up to the execution, state and federal courts refused to reopen his case. Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams' request for clemency, suggesting that his supposed change of heart was not genuine because he had not shown any real remorse for the killings committed by the Crips.

"Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?" Schwarzenegger wrote. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption."

Williams was condemned in 1981 for gunning down convenience store clerk Albert Owens, 26, at a 7-Eleven in Whittier and killing Yen-I Yang, 76, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 63, and the couple's daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 43, at the Los Angeles motel they owned. Williams claimed he was innocent.

Witnesses at the trial said he boasted about the killings, stating "You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him." Williams then made a growling noise and laughed for five to six minutes, according to the transcript that the governor referenced in his denial of clemency.

About 1,000 death penalty opponents and a few death penalty supporters gathered outside the prison to await the execution. Singer Joan Baez, M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the celebrities who protested the execution.

"A wise man once said the death penalty is about three things: politics, politics and politics and what we have seen today is that Governor Schwarzenegger is another cowardly politician," said Farrell.

"Tonight is planned, efficient, calculated, antiseptic, cold-blooded murder and I think everyone who is here is here to try to enlist the morality and soul of this country," said Baez, who sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on a small plywood stage set up just outside the gates.

A contingent of 40 people who had walked the approximately 25 miles from San Francisco held signs calling for an end to "state-sponsored murder." But others, including Debbie Lynch, 52, of Milpitas, said they wanted to honor the victims.

"If he admitted to it, the governor might have had a reason to spare his life," Lynch said.

Former Crips member Donald Archie, 51, was among those attending a candlelight vigil outside a federal building in Los Angeles. He said he would work to spread Williams' anti-gang message.

"The work ain't going to stop," said Archie, who said he was known as "Sweetback" as a young Crips member. "Tookie's body might lay down, but his spirit ain't going nowhere. I want everyone to know that, the spirit lives."

Among the celebrities who took up Williams' cause were Jamie Foxx, who played the gang leader in a cable movie about Williams; rapper Snoop Dogg, himself a former Crip; Sister Helen Prejean, the nun depicted in "Dead Man Walking"; and Bianca Jagger. During Williams' 24 years on death row, a Swiss legislator, college professors and others nominated him for the Nobel Prizes in peace and literature.

"There is no part of me that existed then that exists now," Williams said recently during an interview with The Associated Press.

"I haven't had a lot of joy in my life. But in here," he said, pointing to his heart, "I'm happy. I am peaceful in here. I am joyful in here."

Williams' statements did not sway some relatives of his victims, including Lora Owens, Albert Owens' stepmother. In the days before his death, she was among the outspoken advocates who argued the execution should go forward.

"(Williams) chose to shoot Albert in the back twice. He didn't do anything to deserve it. He begged for his life," she said during a recent interview. "He shot him not once, but twice in the back. ... I believe Williams needs to get the punishment he was given when he was tried and sentenced."


Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Bonaparte legacy: The victory France forgot

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Austerlitz sealed his reputation as a military genius. Today, his country seems undecided as to whether he was a hero or a villain. John Lichfield reports from Paris

In period uniforms, and thermal underwear, military enthusiasts from all over the world will gather on Saturday to re-enact one of the greatest victories in French history. They will come from the United States, from Australia, from Canada, from Russia, from Britain, and even some from France. They will converge on an obscure village in the Czech Republic which was once called Austerlitz.

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, a valley and a plateau near the village were the scene of a bloody six-hour battle which, above all others, sealed the reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius and brought the Emperor Napoleon to the apogee of his power. The part of the emperor in Saturday's re-enactment will be played by an American Napoleonophile, Mark Schneider from Virginia.

In Paris, tomorrow night, on the actual bicentenary of the battle, a discreet ceremony and son et lumiére will be organised by the French army in the Place de Vendôme. President Jacques Chirac will not be present. Neither will the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, (even though he has written poetically about Napoleon and, according to some of his colleagues, believes himself to be the direct, spiritual descendant of the Great Man).

As of yesterday, the French army could not say who would represent the French state at its Austerlitz party tomorrow. "We have been promised a minister but we don't yet know which one," a spokesman said, bravely.

Comparison is inevitable with the elaborate and joyful British commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which began last summer and are still going on. So far the French press has been slow to make this comparison but a cannonade of media protests is expected today and tomorrow.

Of the two battles - fought within six weeks of one another - Napoleon was in no doubt which was the more important. The emperor dismissed Trafalgar as an "irrelevance".

Britain had been master of the seas; it remained master of the seas. So what? Austerlitz, Napoleon said, would change the map, and destiny, of the European continent for ever.

In truth, Austerlitz - now called Slavkov - changed the map of Europe for, at best, nine years. Its impact on the destiny of Europe was immense - but not in the way Napoleon had hoped.

British historians have always insisted that Trafalgar was the real turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It is surprising to find the French state, seeming to agree with them, even 200 years later.

Paris has, after all, a railway station named after Austerlitz, as London has its Waterloo. The French capital is dotted with avenues named after Napoleonic victories and generals. Why the shyness about commemorating the bicentenary of the emperor's greatest victory?

Napoleonophiles believe that a decision was taken to downplay the bicentenary so as not to upset the "losers" of Austerlitz - Russia and Austria. They believe that the French government decided that an elaborate Austerlitz celebration would give the wrong impression of a France still obsessed with its past glories. (Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, it seems, has no similar hang-ups).

Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoleon, an academic think-tank devoted to the serious study of the period, said: "It is a little of many things. It is partly the fact that France has never made up its mind, officially, whether Napoleon was a great hero or a great villain.

"But it is, above all, a great failure of imagination, and a great admission of ignorance, on the part of our politicians. There is enormous, popular interest in history at present. Perhaps our politicians don't read but the French public does. Their greatest appetite is for books on history.

"A commemoration of Austerlitz did not have to be a jingoistic celebration. It could have been something intelligent which explored the history of the times and the many connections with the politics of Europe today. The wonderful exhibition on Nelson and Napoleon showing at present at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich is a model of how it should have been done."

A mammoth Austerlitz exhibition, drawing on historical scholarship from all over the world, had, in fact, been planned at the national army museum in the Invalides in Paris. Several years of work was put into the planning and research. Organisers cancelled the exhibition 18 months ago citing " lack of funds".

The core problem is that, in France, history is politics. Both the left and right sides of the French political classes remain divided on the key question of whether the emperor was "a Good Thing".

Was Napoleone di Buonaparte - a Corsican of Italian extraction who became emperor of the French and briefly the master of Europe - a wicked despot or a tragic hero? Was he an impostor who led hundreds of thousands to their deaths by charging down a historical cul-de-sac? Or was he the father of the modern French state? A genius? An insignificant nonentity? A monster and a butcher? Or a man of peace and a pan-European idealist?

Two centuries on, the French buy part of the myth but remain doubtful about the man. Paris may be littered with avenues and streets which commemorate Napoleon's generals, armies, victories and treaties but there is no grand avenue or square named after the emperor (only a street on the Left Bank, called the Rue Bonaparte).

Even this week a book has been published in France accusing Napoleon of being a genocidal racist and forerunner of Hitler. In Le Crime de Napoleon the historian Claude Ribbe recalls that the emperor brought back slavery in the French empire in 1802, a decade after it had been abolished by the Revolution. The decision led to brutal fighting in France's Caribbean colonies in which thousands died. Less well known, according to the book, is his imposition of racial laws in metropolitan France, which led to the internment of blacks and the forced break-up of inter-racial marriages.

Even Napoleon's military genius is doubted by some historians. Was Austerlitz won through a great stroke of tactical ingenuity? Or because fog blanketed the battlefield at an awkward moment, leaving the Austrian and Russian armies blundering around in the mist? Napoleon was certainly lucky on the battlefield of Austerlitz but the campaign leading there demonstrated all the brutal, decisive qualities which made him - for 15 years - the supreme figure in Europe.

Napoleon transformed late 18th-century warfare by abandoning the dilettant, aristocratic, almost sporting approach to battles which had gone before. He marched troops rapidly from one place to another over huge distances; he attacked enemies from the rear; he fought battles to destroy the strength of the enemy, not just to win the day.

Thus the Austerlitz campaign, which ended 60 miles east of Vienna in early December, began in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the Channel in early August.

Napoleon was vaguely planning to invade Britain but could not do so while Nelson ruled the waves. As soon as Britain signed a three-way alliance with Austria and Russia against France, Napoleon ordered the 200,000 troops of the Grand Army to march east to make a pre-emptive attack on the Austrians. A little later, he ordered the French navy out of port in the Mediterranean, more as a diversion than anything else.

By turning his army east, he, in effect, abandoned his plans to invade Britain - hence his judgement that Trafalgar on 21 October, 1805 was an "irrelevance". (In truth, had Nelson lost the battle as well as his life, Britain would have been vulnerable to a post-Austerlitz invasion and 19th-century history would have been rather different).

After a number of skirmishes and smaller battles, Napoleon, with 70,000 men, took on 90,000 Russians and Austrians on the morning of 2 December, 1805.

Within six hours, although they held the best ground, the Russians and Austrians were not only defeated but crushed. More than 20,000 Russian and Austrian soldiers died; another 20,000 were captured. The French lost 9,000 men, killed and wounded.

Napoleon was one of the first masters of PR and propaganda. He wrote the history of the battle himself soon afterwards, insisting he had pre-planned every move.

In truth, the victory at Austerlitz was won partly through the fog of war - in this case, literal fog. Napoleon feinted to retreat, encouraging the Austrians to leave their high ground and try to cut off the French route to Vienna. Heavy mist descended. The Austrians poured down from the plateau they held and French troops poured on to it. By the time the mist lifted, the French dominated the battlefield and chopped up the enemy at will.

Napoleon fought a brilliant battle, adapting to events more rapidly than his enemies. But would his tactics have worked without the fog? His account fails to mention the weather.

The victory placed Napoleon in an utterly dominant position on the European continent. It also went to his head and hastened his end.

The positive, but intelligent, French view of Napoleon is that he turned into a brutal dictator but that the French Revolution, and its Napoleonic aftermath, were, at least, the Beginning of Modern Times.

British historians argue that the Revolution and Napoleon - far from speeding the "modernisation" of France - delayed for many decades the political, economic and industrial developments which were already starting under the ancien régime. The real "beginning of Modern Times" occurred, not at the Bastille or Austerlitz, but in the factories of Lancashire and the West Midlands.

The French see this as a smugly British view of history. By introducing basic property and legal rights - and by the very fact of being a meritocratic upstart, rather than an aristocrat - they say Napoleon hastened the end of feudalism all over Europe and laid the foundations for modern economics and politics.

There is also a suggestion - first made by Napoleon himself over a glass of wine, and possibly arsenic, in exile in Saint Helena - that the emperor was the first "European"; that his intention, all along, was to create a Europe without borders and without "civil wars". To do that he had to defeat Albion by imposing a single European market - "the continental system" - from which the incorrigible and un-European British would be excluded. This theory may be attractive to French romantics, and British Eurosceptics, but it makes little sense.

After Austerlitz, Napoleon was advised by his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to treat the Austrians magnanimously, encouraging a kind of exhausted peace in Europe in which France would be the dominant but not the overwhelming, imperial power. The British, without a serious army, would be powerless to intervene. Instead, Napoleon imposed humiliating conditions on Austria, consolidated his control of Italy and broke up what remained of the Holy Roman Empire.

In doing so he awakened national hatreds which brought about his downfall, nine - and then 10 - years later. He also, accidentally, helped to create the antagonistic, European nation states which dominated the next 150 years and generated two world wars. So much for Napoleon as the "father of the European dream".

None of these conflicting, and confusing, interpretations justify the failure of the French government to mark the battle of Austerlitz properly. As Thierry Lentz of the Fondation Napoleon points out: Austerlitz is not just French history, it is European history. It was not just a military event but a political one.

Commemorated sensibly, and intelligently, as on the whole Trafalgar has been, it could have been an occasion, not for flag-waving, but for contemplating the tangled roots of our common European past. And present.