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RKUL: Time Well Spent 02/02/2022
Recommendations for everything, the depths of winter edition
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 February 2022 and everyone is talking about Eastern Europe. I have no strong opinions on foreign policy that might add value, so I don’t say much (I personally usually tend toward non-interventionism), but I do think it might be a good time to read some histories of Europe’s east and north.
First, Strange Parallels: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830 is a massive interdisciplinary work that places Eastern Europe in the context of the emerging world-system of the Mongols. This book extends the tradition of Halford Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History, which argues that the interaction between the Eurasian core and periphery has been the critical dynamic in world history (it is the sequel to Strange Parallels: Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830, but I didn’t find the first necessary to enjoy the second).
One of Mackinder’s assertions was that the power that controls Eastern Europe, the gateway to the Eurasian core, would control the world. At the time of writing, Mackinder was clearly thinking of the Russian Empire, which was involved in geopolitical conflicts with the British in Central Asia. If Strange Parallels offers a synoptic and grand framework for understanding Eurasian history, any deeper insight must include the details of the rise of Russia in its various forms. Russia: A Concise History spans the entire 1000-year period from Kievan Rus and Novgorod the Great to the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite its title, this survey comes in at nearly 600 pages. For as much time as people spend reading about Russia in the news or watching talking heads yammer on about it, I wish I could convince a few more to actually read about Russia's history, too.
Because most Americans, when they think of Russian history, still sound like they’re thinking of the Soviet Union, not the Empire of the Tsars. Though The Rise and Fall of Communism isn’t about the Soviet Union per se, it is hard not to think of 20th-century Russian history as the history of Communism. The Rise and Fall of Communism chronicles the movement’s early years of ideological radicalism, to its eventual acceptance of the state system, and finally the evolution of international Communism into a form of Russian nationalism. Though the modern Russian state has repudiated the radical aims of Communism, it can hardly be understood as anything but the heir to the Russian state that espoused that ideology.
But the history of Eastern Europe isn’t simply the history of Russia. The Baltic is a nearly 2,000-year romp across the history of the various nations bordering this sea, from Finnic shamans in the 10th century to The Great Northern War nearly 800 years later. At the fringe of Western-European history, we now often forget how the region has spanned the chasm between the west and east, north and south, and served as a conduit for cultural and economic exchange. The early Swedes, called the Rus, traversed the Baltic and migrated down into the forested zone north of the Black Sea, eventually creating the principalities that gave rise to the Russian Empire, in particular Kievan Rus. Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League that facilitated trade from the Baltic to Western Europe during the late medieval era was a clear prototype of the commercial republics like the Netherlands that would dominate the modern age’s story of globalization. In the 17th century, Sweden spilled out of the north, wreaking havoc on Germany, saving the Protestant principalities and winning itself a vast empire.
Zooming back in on the specific, Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295–1345 is one of my favorite books for how it illuminates an understudied but important crux in world history: the 14th-century ascendance of a non-Christian imperial ruling class in the borderlands of what are today Poland and Russia, and their rise to domination of vast territories. Lithuania did not officially convert to Christianity until 1387, and Lithuania Ascending argues that the paganism of the ruling caste of the Baltic peoples persisted so long because they prevaricated in choosing between Western and Eastern Christianity, operating at a neutral equipoise above the factious sectarianism of their subjects. The decision to choose Western Christianity ultimately alienated the Lithuanians from their eastern subjects, and initialized the Polonization of Lithuania’s ruling nobility over the next few centuries.
A fuller treatment of what the Lithuanians faced is outlined in The Northern Crusades. Though most people know something about the Crusades in the Middle East (see God’s War), that was not the full story. A massive military movement of Western Christians, mostly but not exclusively Germans, battered the eastern Baltic between 1200 and 1400 AD. The raison d’etre was to convert Europe’s last pagans to Christianity (or more precisely Western Christianity, as Byzantine Christianity was already making inroads in the region), but very often cultural imperialism mixed easily with conquest, exploitation and colonialism. Some Baltic pagan groups like the Prussians were exterminated and assimilated, their memory now simply an ethnonym for eastern Germans. Further, the indigenous populations persisted, but because non-Christians were not protected by the Church, these pagan Baltic peasants could be exploited more brutally and efficiently. The last officially unbaptized Baltic pagans lived in the territories of Germans to the north of Lithuania, where local landlords in the early 1400s resisted attempts by the Church to bring their serfs into the Christian fold.
Setting the record straight: open letter on E.O. Wilson's legacy. A response to The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson. I’ve heard lots of critiques about how I should not have been the one to write this. All I will say for now is that there was ample time for someone else to spearhead it, but no one did. Many agreed this needed to be said. I don’t understand what I should have done except what I did do, which is stop waiting for someone else to do it and spend a week writing and organizing the rebuttal. They say the perfect is the enemy of the good. It seems to me that moral purity is becoming the enemy of human flourishing. Also, read Jerry Coyne. It will not surprise you that I’m not prefacing the link by announcing whether or not I agree with everything else he says.
What we talk about when we talk about a return to normal. Agree with Matt Yglesias on the whole. Also, David Leonhardt is a king.
Jerry Falwell Jr. seems like a libertine, and there is audio evidence to contradict the narrative they are presenting here of a couple that made mistakes and were taken advantage of by a young grifter, as opposed to willing and conscious participants in sexual acts at variance with their avowed beliefs.
The forgotten medieval habit of 'two sleeps'. The ‘two sleeps’ model was actually perhaps a human universal before the modern era.
What Japan Got Right About Covid-19. They knew it was aerosolized early. We ignored them. We “trusted the [American] science.” In other news, airlines bragging about their surface sterilization procedures this many years into this really annoys me.
President Biden’s Acute Image Problem with Independents and Chuck Schumer should call the Baileys - Has primaryphobia led the majority leader astray? The Democrats are probably going to get destroyed in the 2022 midterms for structural reasons, but they don’t seem to be helping matters any with their decisions. Often when parties lose big, their first response is to blame the voters, so we’ll see.
Biden's Supreme Court shortlist. There was talk of Sri Srinivasan being on the “shortlist” in 2013, but not this time around. The aggregate category “Asian American” includes about 5% of the US population, so representatively there shouldn’t be an “Asian seat” (though Yale and Harvard Law School are now both graduating more than 10% Asian Americans) and Sri is out of luck.
Richard Lewontin obituary. Andrew Brown wrote a good review of Lewontin’s life last spring. I don’t begrudge people their politics, but it strikes me that Lewontin got the balance wrong in the second half of his life. He would have made more of a difference in science, on the margin, than in activism.
West Elm Caleb and the rise of the TikTok tabloid. This is a stupid story, but it illustrates how powerful the social media platforms are in driving narrative from the bottom up without any human intent or direction.
Pre-K is day care But free day care does sound like a good idea! Too many policies are predicated on empirical results which just aren’t robust. Do it anyway. Just don’t try to justify it with bad science.
A genomic snapshot of demographic and cultural dynamism in Upper Mesopotamia during the Neolithic Transition. This is before the “great mixing” between eastern and western Near Eastern farmers really occurred. These people seem more like the peoples of the Levant than the Zagros, but there is some admixture. These people are at the very dawn of the Neolithic, we need samples from the Uruk period, when a great prehistoric civilization flourished and collapsed in Mesopotamia.
Indigenous peoples in eastern Brazil: insights from 19th-century genomes and metagenomes. In indigenous peoples, older genomes, even centuries-old, are good because so many have later been assimilated genetically into cosmopolitan settler peoples. Also, many of these samples are from the collection that was destroyed in 2018.
Background selection theory overestimates effective population size for high mutation rates. Also, see 2014’s Enard et al.
Reconstructing the spatiotemporal patterns of admixture during the European Holocene using a novel genomic dating method. “Our analyses highlight the power of genomic dating methods to elucidate the legacy of human migrations, providing insights complementary to archeological and linguistic evidence.”
SNP-level FST outperforms window statistics for detecting soft sweeps in local adaptation. This method has “had superior power to detect complete or mostly complete soft sweeps, but lesser power than window-wide statistics to detect partial hard sweeps.”
The 4.2 ka Event and the End of the Maltese “Temple Period.” The 2200 BC climate shock appears in the archeological record from China to the western Mediterranean.
A Saturated Map of Common Genetic Variants Associated with Human Height from 5.4 Million Individuals of Diverse Ancestries. The sample size is boosted by the massive author list.
My Two Cents
There’s still no completely free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. The following two pieces cover the genetic and historical consequences of the Anglo-Saxon migrations into Britain about 1,500 years ago.
Just in the past twenty years, advances in applied genetics have illuminated the whole prehistory of Britain. Dual leaps forward in both computing power and cutting-edge genomics technology (sequencing, SNP-array genotyping, ancient-DNA extraction, etc.) stand to benefit research programs of any advanced society.
But Britain is in a class of its own here, doing things no other nation can yet dream of. Why? Whereas North America might enjoy unrivaled biology know-how, it has a paucity of early samples. Whereas Germany has accumulated a rich patrimony of archeological samples over the centuries, it lags in cutting-edge biology know-how (and since World War II, retains an understandable aversion to examining its people’s genetics).
Britain alone arrived at this moment equipped to optimize the outputs of these great technological leaps forward. A couple of centuries of enthusiastic amateur archeology laid in a wealth of samples drawn from across the British Isles. And robust institutions nourishing advances in evolutionary biology are at this point centuries old. (Notably, British geneticists have told me privately that while many of their institutes are actually spoiled for choice of ancient human remains from every corner of the globe, the hassle of trying to satisfy professional hand-wringers who stand ready to block any genetic study of non-Europeans on inscrutable bioethical grounds… has the effect of making the Isles’ own prehistoric settlers… the populations of least resistance. It's hard to avoid the implication that such paternalism has the effect of keeping "marginalized populations"... marginal in the race to truly know ourselves and our deep origins.)
St. Gildas was a polemicist. Today he’d be a fire and brimstone preacher. But his long-term influence was immense. The nineteenth-century Victorian English, fumbling toward nascent theories of race and nationhood out of the new fields of archeology, linguistics and evolution, took the conflict between Anglo-Saxon and Celt as reflecting a Dark-Age racial war. Naturally, through this lens, they perceived their ancestors the Anglo-Saxons as superior because they had proved their Darwinian fitness through victory. 20th-century historians turned against these facile dichotomies, arguing that ethnic identities were more fluid. In his magisterial The Isles: A History, published in 2000, historian Norman Davies writes that the Germanization of Britain and its transformation into England was a matter of cultural evolution, not mass migration. Davies observes that even as late as the 9th century, Northumbrian blood-price stipulated that the killing of an Anglo-Saxon peasant warranted 200 gold coins in payment to his family, but a Celtic-speaking peasant was worth only 80 gold coins. Even a rich Celtic-speaking farmer was worth only 120 gold coins, less than a Saxon commoner. The implication of a blood-price for Celtic-speakers as late as the 800’s is that large numbers of indigenous Celtic Britons remained in England centuries after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and they must have slowly switched to Old English in the centuries before the arrival of the Normans in 1066 AD.
All my podcasts go ungated two weeks after their Substack release. So I encourage subscribers on the free plan who’d like to automatically get them to subscribe to that podcast stream (Apple, Stitcher, and Spotify).
Here are my guests since the last Time Well Spent in mid-December:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I now post transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch errors).
Again, I talk most Thursday evenings (EST) on Clubhouse about some genetic or historical topic. Join my club for notifications. These conversations are more unscripted and free-form than podcasts. I can report that I have been hailed for my assertive use of the mute option. It’s best for everyone, I swear. I also heckle my friends. Not a fan of the “this is more of a comment than a question...” contributions, but I do always take legit questions!
On the blog
A White French Aristocrat From The 18th Century Inspiring A Bengali Muslim Woman In The Late 20th. A short personal post about my cousin and her youthful romantic fascination with Antoine Lavoisier. His scientific work, his ideas, his human story were all the more “representation” she sought for inspiration in her studies. As Terrence said, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
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.