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RKUL: Time Well Spent 01/01/2023
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Your time is finite. Your phone and the internet stand ready to help you squander it. Here are my latest picks for spending it well instead. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Books, what else?
The start of a new year is a good time to revisit or finally tackle those works that have stood the test of time and shaped the lives of so many before us. The Lindy effect can be overstated, but I think when it comes to intellectual production, it remains a good index. Ideas do not persist and remain influential by mere happenstance, certainly not on the scale of thousands of years. Like him or hate him, we know Plato’s name 2,400 years after his death, and it is likely humans 2,400 years in the future will, too.
Plato is arguably where the modern Western intellectual tradition begins (apologies to the pre-Socratics), so The Republic is as good a place to begin as any. Plato exposited his theses in dialog form, with familiar names like Socrates making appearances. The ultimate terminus of the dialogue is the utopian city-state ruled by the philosopher-king, but along the way, they discuss a host of topics like the meaning of justice, love and the utility of poetry. If I had to describe The Republic to a college student who had never read it, I would say it often read like the most erudite and intellectually agile protagonists squaring off in a sprawling late-night dorm-room bull session. I will be candid that Socrates often rubs me the wrong way, but there is a didactic method to his madness. The Republic has shaped the views of very diverse people; Martin Luther King Jr. said it was the book he would take to a deserted island, while Ayatollah Khomeini was influenced by it in his creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and rule-by-jurist.
Eight centuries after Plato, St. Augustine wrote The Confessions, an autobiography chronicling his conversion to Christianity. The Confessions is important because it gives us a window into the mind of someone who lived on the precipice of two ages, pagan and Christian. When St. Augustine was born in 354 AD, the Roman Empire had known only 40 years with Christianity as the favored religion; the elite and masses remained overwhelmingly pagan, and even the Christian Emperor Constantius II still retained the pagan priestly title of pontifex maximus. In 430 AD, when St. Augustine died, elite paganism had mostly disappeared, and the Empire could imagine no future without Christianity. It is also worth noting that the author of The Confessions is arguably the most influential Church Father in Western Christianity. And it is no coincidence that Martin Luther was an Augustinian. St. Augustine’s autobiography reflects the inner life of a man who would shape whole civilizations.
Before Christianity’s dominance in the West, The Iliad stood as the Greco-Roman world’s dominant work of literature. Even translated into English, it is studded throughout with lines that remain stirring more than 3,000 years after their composition:
He called at once to his friend-in-arms Patroclus,
shouting down from the decks. Hearing Achilles,
forth he came from his shelter,
striding up like the deathless god of war
but from that moment on his doom was sealed.
Like The Confessions, The Iliad is a window into a world wholly unlike ours. A world where honor and glory have primacy over justice or mercy, and Achilles sulks in his tent because his commander steals his sex slave away from him.
Unlike the Greeks, the Persians did not have a national epic in antiquity. Instead, the poet Ferdowsi contributed the Shahnameh around 1000 AD. Its focus is on the Sassanian dynasty, the last period before Persia was conquered by Muslim Arabs, and is a critical window on a people more often immortalized by their enemies. Though the Shahnameh is not a history, it distills the sensibility of a great civilization that for hundreds of years served as Rome and Greece’s Other, and continues down into the present, transformed by Islam but still essentially shaped by its identity prior.
In contrast to our often thin knowledge of the various Iranian rulers, thanks to Roman historians like Suetonius, the lives of their rivals, the Roman Emperors, often come down to us vividly and richly detailed. Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is a work of incredible importance because through his biographies you perceive the early Empire in its full glory, through good Emperors and bad. The contrast with the thin, often legendary, biographies of later emperors is unmistakable reading The Twelve Caesars; there are no equivalent later sources.
Finally, jumping forward in time, and being completely candid, The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant’s monumental work, can be about as immediately rewarding to immerse yourself in as an ice bath in winter. Kant’s prose is turgid, but the big ideas are so rewarding to wrestle with and it serves as the jumping-off point for so much of modern Western philosophy that some philosophers would reread a few pages of The Critique of Pure Reason every day. I’m not saying you’ll enjoy reading it, but I do maintain you’ll never regret having mustered the self-discipline to do so.
Speaking of habits and self-discipline, I also shared three themed reading lists for the new year. Each runs to about 7300 pages, which works out to a 20-page-a-day habit.
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Quillette Social, January 7th, 2023 in New Orleans. I’ll be there, but so will Claire Lehmann, Jon Kay, Jamie Palmer, Bo Winegard, Cory Clark, Stuart Reges, Pamela Paresky, Joel Kotkin, Lee Jussim and Wilfred Reilly.
An Uncontroversial Guide to Being Controversial My Model for Talking Past Backlash. I don’t follow all of the advice that Ethan Strauss provides in this post, but I do follow some.
Are "Movies For Grownups" On Their Way Out: On the verge of making my own, my confidence that they aren't begins to waver. Noah Millman is a filmmaker, so he has some skin in the game. Ultimately nothing is forever, and we may see the end of cinema as we know it. The big screen is probably going to be monopolized by blockbuster films aimed at twelve-year-old boys for at least a generation.
To reduce mass incarceration, reduce violence: The recent increase in violent crime threatens to halt a decades-long decline in incarceration. It’s good that liberal pundits like Matt are acknowledging the crime spike, and you might not agree with some of his left-leaning prescriptions, but at least they are engaging with reality, not trying to convince you that there’s nothing to see.
My old friend Sheril Kirshenbaum has a new Substack, Unelected Representative, aimed at how policy and legislation get done. This relates to the “Secret Congress” concept that Matt Yglesias has popularized.
Brown University Discriminates Against South Asians: Its prohibition of ‘caste oppression’ creates a new offense of which only one ethnic group can be guilty. The idea that caste discrimination is a major thing in the US is a lie. I’ve written about this before, but if you trust me otherwise, trust me on this. This lie was invented by a nonprofit and is being laundered by journalists for their own personal reasons. Caste is a massive issue in India. Not in the US. Only 1% of Indian Americans are Dalits, and most people in positions of power over Indian Americans are not Indian.
John Hawks on The top 10 discoveries about ancient people from DNA in 2022.
Lack of evidence supporting transgenerational effects of non-transmitted paternal alleles on the murine transcriptome. More evidence that transgenerational epigenetic transmission is not a thing in mammals.
Past human expansions shaped the spatial pattern of Neanderthal ancestry. The higher Neanderthal ancestry in East Asians in this model is wholly accounted for by admixture into European populations from Anatolian farmers with comparatively less Neanderthal ancestry. Seems to align with Iosif Lazaridis’ ideas, as opposed to different selection pressures.
Cultural transmission, competition for prey, and the evolution of cooperative hunting. Cooperative hunting evolves when prey is abundant, and no surprise there is the natural selection for “horizontal learning” when species are evolving this phenotype.
How sexual dimorphism in phenotypic plasticity may evolve. The model shows that evolution in related groups allows dimorphism to resist the excesses of sexual selection. This is important because it allows populations to mitigate the impact of the two-fold cost of sex.
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack remain beyond the paywall. Since the last “Time Well Spent” I’ve posted two in-depth paid pieces.
One of the defining characteristics of modern Ashkenazim is their genetic homogeneity, which has made their people a fount of insights at the genomic level, but exacted a brutal price in human terms, with high rates of recessive diseases like Tay-Sachs. This homogeneity is made tangible to those of Ashkenazi ancestry reviewing results from a personal genomic service when they “relative match” with thousands of people they don’t know. What’s occurring is that the algorithm simply looks for stretches of DNA that seem to be segments inherited from common ancestors. The longer and more numerous segment matches between two individuals, the more related they are, because the common ancestors are much more recent.
This phenomenon is easy enough to illustrate. Below is a chart from 23andMe where I compare matches in my own genome to my brother, to my first cousin once removed and to a third cousin I don’t know. You expect to share about 50% of your genome with your sibling, about 6.25% with a first cousin once removed, and 0.78% with a third cousin. The results below approach that. My first cousin once removed shares 7.4 times the length of matching DNA segments as my third cousin (on average, you expect eight times). You also can visually recognize that the length of the segments diminishes with decreased relatedness. Each generation separating two individuals from the common ancestors entails another instance of 20-40 recombination events chopping up long stretches of the genome.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the late science fiction author, stated that she preferred to experiment more with the “soft sciences” like psychology and sociology than the “hard sciences” like physics and astronomy in her works. In The Left Hand of Darkness the protagonist is a human sent to the planet of Gethen, where the population has no fixed sex (they are “ambisexual”). This very exotic departure point from our reality sets the novel up for an exploration of a character in tension with a very alien society, and exposes our own culture’s presuppositions. But imagine another world where society is meaningfully divided into thousands of groups consigned to only seek mates within their own narrow membership and the social stratification established 3,000 years ago persists down to the present. It sounds crazy to all of us who aren’t Indian, but that’s what the subcontinent is like. The American population geneticist David Reich stated that “... India is not a large population. It’s an extremely large number of small populations, whereas China is really best thought of as a single, very large population.”
I also have a free piece on epigenetics out, You can’t take it with you: straight talk about epigenetics and intergenerational trauma:
The purview of epigenetics is different than that of Mendelian and evolutionary genetics. The methyl and acetyl groups being chaperoned by enzymes around the DNA and its assorted ancillary structures are part of the nanoworld that operates beneath our notice. About one percent of our body’s cells are replaced every day, and this is where epigenetics reigns supreme, dictating the specialized qualities of each cell and nimbly adapting to external inputs over an organism’s life cycle. In contrast, Mendelian and evolutionary genetics operates over generations and millennia respectively. Rumors of a revolution here where one field dethrones another are wildly exaggerated. Instead, each discipline focuses on the scope and scale of its domain, careful study of them allowing us to understand how simple biological systems can develop, grow, and over the scale of lifetimes, generations and eons, evolve and thrive.
If you want to browse my more geographically focused pieces, Dry.io has created an interactive map of them. We’ll keep adding to that page over time. Also, Dry.io set up a nice skin for my pinboard bookmarks and a page for reader-submitted links.
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The author contends that the Persians, as a multicultural empire, offer a better example than the Romans, who assimilated and acculturated local people. This is something of a caricature of Roman practice; the spread of Latin in the east was minimal, and local languages persisted after the fall of the Empire. But the flip side of Persian multiculturalism is that rulers had to be ethnic Persians, at least paternally. The Achaemenid Empire was more ethnically exclusivist and closed than the Roman Empire at the elite levels because it was multicultural, preventing non-Persians from scaling the heights of power. In contrast, after the 2nd century, the Roman Empire routinely promoted Latinized outsiders, and the imperial resurrection of the second half of the 3rd century was almost entirely due to the emergence of Latinized Balkan military elite.
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 you look forward to me writing about in 2023,, lay it on us.