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RKUL: Time Well Spent 01/01/2022
Recommendations for everything, New Year's edition
One quick housekeeping note for anyone considering a monthly subscription. I will be upping the monthly rate from $8 to $9 on January 3rd (the annual rate will remain the same for the time being). It’s worth noting that Substack’s subscription model seems to lock in whatever annual or monthly rate you come in at for you perpetually. Thank you to all who have already subscribed!
Your time is finite. Your phone and the internet stand ready to help you squander it. Here are my monthly picks for spending it well instead. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Books, what else?
It’s 2022. What’s in my stack? Some books I have to read for reviews, others I get to read for podcasts. Others because I read compulsively. Below is a mix of assignment and aspiration.
Everyone keeps asking me about the David Graeber book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. I plan on reading it, because I’ve tentatively agreed to review it. Most of the economic historians I respect seem to view Graeber’s work dimly, but others have a more mixed response.
I also want to read two books on human evolution by researchers I admire, and from whom you may hear more: The World Before Us: The New Science Behind Our Human Origins (by Tom Highnam) and A Story of Us: A New Look at Human Evolution (Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson). Tom has been really generous to me over the last few years with his contacts. A non-trivial number of the paleoanthropologists I’ve talked to on my podcasts I reached through Tom. He’s on many papers with many researchers, so I’m excited to get his “big picture” view. I know Lesley and Pete from my UC-Davis days, and they have really well-fleshed out views on how culture and human evolution intersect.
Periodically I read a book on neuroscience. It’s about that time again, so I added Joe Ledoux’s The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains. I’ve read Ledoux before, and he’s a first-rate researcher who is also an enjoyable writer. This book looks like it has a nice evolutionary perspective too.
Beth Shapiro is one of the most accomplished paleogeneticists in the world. She also wrote the new Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined—and Redefined—Nature. I was going to read this book no matter what, but this seems an excellent complement to A Story of Us.
Ella Al-Shamahi is a paleoanthropologist I know from Twitter, and she’s written a new book, The Handshake: A Gripping History. Ella’s one of the most open and charitable people I know on that platform, and when she’s not tweeting she’s flying to and working at remote locations for National Geographic.
I really don’t know much about the history of Mexico. When I say something like this, people often say “well, compared to the average person…” That’s fair, but I’ve literally only read one or two books on the topic in my whole life. I’m going to fix that, but first I need to read about the Aztecs, so I’ve gotten Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.
E. O. Wilson died. A remembrance from evolutionary biologist, and Dick Lewontin student, Jerry Coyne (also, the Carl Zimmer obit, E.O. Wilson, a Pioneer of Evolutionary Biology, Dies at 92).
A Conversation with E.O. Wilson (1929–2021). Alice Dreger interview from 2009. Wilson of course didn’t realize that by 2022 the spirit of Lewontin would loom far larger than his own.
I don’t normally put books here, but what the hell: I recommend Ullica Segerstrale’s Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond and Wilson’s biography, Naturalist. Segerstrale’s book is the best ethnography of the personal and scientific conflicts at the heart of the “sociobiology wars” of the 1970’s, and the emergence of a field of biosocial evolutionary biology pioneered by Robert Trivers and W. D. Hamilton.
Matt Yglesias: Human history in the very long run. It’s not a super novel piece to a reader of this Substack or Cold Takes, but Yglesias has a far bigger reach than either myself or my friend Holden Karnofsky (author of Cold Takes), so it’s valuable when he writes something like this.
Pretending Problems Don't Exist Won't Make Them Disappear: On the Asian turn to the Republican Party and Hispanic Voters in This Pennsylvania City Are Shifting Toward the GOP. Both Parties Want to Know Why.
Bet with Zvi about Omicron. I’m with Zvi.
Academic Ideologues Are Corrupting STEM. The Silent Liberal Majority Must Fight Back. I think this is probably a lost cause, if I’m honest. “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” Case in point: The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future. The person who wrote this clearly does not even know what a “normal distribution” is, for example, but this uninformed righteous dreck is politely met with relative silence from science social media, because she is a credentialed part of the in-group (yes, yes, there was all the brave mockery in private message groups). Instead of higher standards, people like her are being held to lower standards than if someone in the public had made such “not-even-wrong” claims. The smug-tsunami on science social media would be overwhelming for days.
Influence of sequencing depth on the fidelity and sensitivity of 1%-5% low-frequency mutation detection and recommendation for standardization of sequencing depth. This sort of preprint may seem abstruse, but when sequencing becomes widespread in medical health it will prove important.
Sex-specific phenotypic effects and evolutionary history of an ancient polymorphic deletion of the human growth hormone receptor. “We documented that GHRd3 is associated with protection from severe malnutrition.”
Mixture Density Regression reveals frequent recent adaptation in the human genome. “These results support that strong positive selection was relatively common in recent human evolution…”
Papua New Guinean Genomes Reveal the Complex Settlement of North Sahul. This was a complicated paper. Worth reading, but not sure I buy a lot of the conclusions.
Insights into bear evolution from a Pleistocene polar bear genome. “polar bears, a specialist Arctic lineage, may not only have undergone severe genetic bottlenecks, but also been the recipient of generalist, boreal genetic variants from brown bear during critical phases of Northern Hemisphere glacial oscillations.”
My Two Cents
There’s still no entire free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. The following two pieces are sequels to the first installment, a piece that for some reason drove the most traffic to a single piece on this Substack thus far.
It had all been much simpler in the recent past. In the last decades of the 20th century, several disciplines had been able to agree on a simple, spare and appealing model of modern human expansion from a single ancestral tribe. We were the people of mitochondrial Eve, and 200,000 years ago, she and her clan had lived somewhere in East Africa, probably Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Not unlike in the Western religious traditions, this telling had modern humans descending from a single unique seed population that expanded into the whole world after a meteoric rise. They were in some ways the paleoanthropological version of the “chosen people,” predestined by fate and nature to change the world. Omo was that population’s delegate in the fossil record, with the delicate and gracile lineaments of anatomically modern humans. Jebel Irhoud’s arrival shredded this narrative. But no matter how invested the public might get in its findings, at the end of the day, human evolutionary biology is a science, and scientific progress is mercilessly built atop the carcasses of discarded theories. Out-of-Africa’s expiration is a testament to the health of paleoanthropology, not an indictment.
But eventually, the human drama faded, and the tale of the ancient Hobbits unfolded as a fascinating scientific story that confounded the expectations of many paleoanthropologists about what it meant to be a tool-wielding human. As implied by their name, the Hobbits were startlingly petite, with the first individual unearthed being 110 cm, or 3 feet 6 inches tall. Their brains were incredibly small, almost ape-like. And yet they seemed to have made tools and hunted collaboratively to bring down pygmy elephants. Though the first hard evidence for the Hobbits dates to 200,000 years ago, they flourished on the island as late as 50,000 years ago, just about the same time as the ancestors of modern Southeast Asian humans are supposed to have arrived in the region. Nearly two decades on, despite multiple attempts, no DNA has been extracted from the Hobbits, as the genetic material became too degraded in extremely humid and hot conditions. But enough in terms of fossils and tools has been recovered that most researchers now seem to allow that very peculiar humans did live on Flores, just as Morwood and his colleagues claimed in 2004.
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Here are my guests since the last Time Well Spent in mid-December:
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On the blog
Wilson wrote many books after his brush with infamy in the 1970s, and he rehabilitated himself as a big environment guy, so he was somewhat in the good graces of the liberal intelligentsia after the sociobiology wars faded. But ultimately he never really changed his deep views on the importance of biology in human nature. I know from people who asked him at Harvard and knew him personally and felt comfortable probing deeper. If you want the real deal, Wilson and Charles Lumsden co-authored Genes, Mind, and Culture - The Coevolutionary Process. It's a radical book, more ambitious than even what L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman, and later what Pete Richerson and Robert Boyd, attempted. It was probably too ambitious (have you ever heard of a "culturegen"?), but Wilson was an audacious guy willing to push the envelope and offend people.
The plain truth is that Wilson was a deeply problematic figure from the perspective of the far Left. He believed biology mattered, that there were hereditary factors in the nature of human social outcomes. He believed in deep behavioral differences between males and females. The fact that he was a beautiful writer, accomplished scientist, and that he focused for two decades on environmental concerns, insulates him. But at the end of the day, he was still the scientist who was pushing boundaries in the 1970’s that caused Leftists to physically attack him. He believed that there were major differences between the sexes, and even mooted the idea of group differences in behavior due to gene-culture coevolution in Genes, Mind, and Culture. In an interview with Alice Dreger Wilson stated:
I’ve often said that the only place certain subjects are completely taboo is the university. In other words, you simply don’t bring up race anymore. You don’t bring up gender differences anymore except very gingerly in a roundabout way. And so, here at Harvard, we got rid of President [Larry] Summers, based on his slip about gender differences in physical abilities. I don’t want to overstate it, but it is true that far-leftist ideology has been pretty well embedded.
Over to you
Comments are open to all for this post, so if you have more reading/listening suggestions or tips on who I should be talking to or what I really should be writing for you, lay it on me.