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RKUL: Time Well Spent 02/02/2023
Winter's end is nigh edition
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 standard periodization most Westerners are familiar with includes the “Ancient” or “Classical” periods spanning both Greece and Rome’s cultural and political peaks and the Middle Ages that followed. This is an Occidental frame, the world seen from Eurasia’s western edge, uniquely traumatized by the Western Roman Empire’s 476 AD fall and its ensuing dismemberment by barbarian Germanic tribes. The circumstances were different in other parts of the world; while Western Europe endured its “Dark Ages,” in the early medieval period between 600 and 1000 A.D., China was experiencing a burst of cosmopolitanism and cultural creativity under the Tang Dynasty. Nevertheless, these centuries at the tail end of the Roman dispensation, but before the Mongols’ rise in the 1200’s (who finally integrated Eurasia as a political, economic and cultural whole), share a commonality in that they exist in a gray zone between the millennia when the world was fractured into isolated civilizations to whom other societies were but legend and myth, and a late medieval world slouching toward globalization.
The earliest centuries of this transition between the ancient and medieval are usually termed “Late Antiquity,” and the latest “Early Medieval.” Together they form a world-historical bridge, an understanding which lays plain the deep origins of civilizational fractures that would loom large in the second millennium A.D.
The historian who pioneered the subdiscipline of Late Antiquity, differentiating the world of the Late Roman Empire after the crisis of the 3rd century from the Classical Empire that came before, is Peter Brown. His Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, explores the dynamics of the evolution of the Christian religion from a minority faith of the urban middle class to the ruling ideology of the aristocracy. Unlike The Final Pagan Generation or The Pagans of Rome this book is not tightly focused on religion. Rather, Brown looks at the economic and social forces that slowly changed the urban pagan world of the mid-300’s into the more Christian, and more rural one of the mid-500’s. Through the Eye of a Needle provides a clear accounting for how the medieval world emerged out of Rome’s collapsed grandeur.
If Brown looks at Late Antiquity through the lens of social forces, Peter Heather’s focus is squarely on political, military and diplomatic affairs in Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian. Through the Eye of a Needle is written with the knowledge that the Western Roman Empire fell, and its mantle was taken up politically by primitive barbarian kingdoms and the Christian Church. Rome Resurgent tells the beginning (which is true) of the full alternative history that was never to be: what if the unconquered Eastern Roman Empire, that of the Byzantines, reconquered the West? Heather’s story is well known, Justinian succeeded in great measure in his short-term aims as North Africa, Italy and parts of Iberia and southern Gaul were brought back into the Imperial fold. But the victory was Pyrrhic, as the Gothic Wars destroyed Italy in the 500’s. Heather’s narrative is an indispensable deep dive into a critical juncture in Western history.
Operating firmly in a Marxist tradition that privileges the material conditions of a given period, Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 is a magisterial work that describes the changes in the mechanics of governance in much of the Mediterranean as antiquity faded into the medieval. In particular, Wickham focuses on what we today often call “state capacity,” the ability of the ruling elite and its government to marshal resources and mobilize the population. Framing the Early Middle Ages outlines how the regime of taxation that maintained a large bureaucracy during the Roman Empire collapsed in Western Europe but was perpetuated in the Byzantine and Islamic Empires. By 800 AD, with Western Europe under Charlemagne’s new Empire, the Occident finally began to climb its way back up the ladder of state capacity, in effect setting up later social, political and cultural dynamics that would play out during the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300 AD).
Though the Islamic Empire features prominently in Wickham’s narrative, its existence is taken for granted to set up his argument that the Umayyad Caliphate was the true heir to Imperial Rome (at least in a materialist sense). In contrast, Robert Hoyland’s In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire is a guided tour of the decades between 600 and 700 AD when the southeastern Mediterranean switched from being an adjunct to the metropole, to the locus of the most powerful polity of the post-Roman world. Hoyland relies mostly on non-Muslim sources, taking Islamic historiography as a baseline assumption. The separation between “Arab Conquests” and the “Islamic Empire” hints at the possibility that the early Muslims were not very Muslim and that our modern conceptions are affected by later revisionism.
While much of the Western understanding of Islamic political and cultural power focuses on its engagement with Byzantium and later the Franks, a second frontier existed in the northeast, as the Arab armies pushed into Central Asia. Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History describes the arrival of the Muslims, and the coalescence of the Silk Road as the connection between numerous trade routes in the middle of the first millennium AD. Hansen only touches lightly upon the early period of Islamic exploration of the Silk Road, as opposed to the later wholesale Islamization of its western branches due to the conversion of the Turks. But The Silk Road sketches the broad outline of the networks that the Mongols would later co-opt in their Empire, thus powering and facilitating the first age of globalization.
Finally, at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road was the Chinese city of Xian, the capital during the early medieval period of Tang China. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire describes this exceptional period, when a multiethnic dynasty rose to power, sending Chinese merchants and soldiers westward, as far as the Caspian. Whereas the later perception of China was that it put up walls and attempted to become an autarkic island unto itself, an incredible openness to the wider world characterized the Tang Dynasty’s first century and a half. Though the direct connection to Europe would have to wait for the Mongols, Tang diplomats, and armies regularly ventured into Central Asia, as far south as Afghanistan. The collapse of the Tang began China’s turn inward no matter how much the rest of the world reached out to it for its fine silks and porcelains. Only the Mongol conquest, more than three centuries after the ending of the Tang engagement with the world, dragged the Middle Kingdom back into the chorus of nations.
Tech Industry Reversal Intensifies With New Rounds of Layoffs: Companies that grew rapidly during pandemic are now reducing spending and staffing, sometimes repeatedly. These stories are interesting to the public because everyone knows Google, Microsoft, etc., but this was inevitable. Low-interest rates meant money was cheap, and tech seemed like a good bet when it came to investing. These companies were flooded with money, so they overhired during the pandemic. This is similar to the fracking boom, partly driven by loans banking on returns that never came.
A Modern History of 'Groomer' Politics: The social changes that paved the way for gay and trans acceptance have made pedophile acceptance less likely, not more. I don’t agree with all the analysis, but it gets much of the description correct. Though on issues like homosexuality, the late 1960s and 1970s were more conservative than the present period, for heterosexuals the fifteen years between the summer of love in 1967 and the rise of HIV-AIDS to public awareness in the early 1980s was incredibly sexually liberal. Films like Carnal Knowledge celebrated premarital and casual sex and swapping partners, while in 1973 two major league baseball players swapped wives (one of the couples split up after a few years, while the other is still together 40 years later). But this new liberality was synthesized with certain older norms that we find shocking today, in particular, the pairing of older men with teens. 24-year-old Elvis began courting Priscilla Beaulieu when she was just 14, and they were living together when she was 17. Meanwhile, sexual relationships between teachers and students at elite private schools like Horace Mann were common. Today's gloss on power differentials and consent means that such behavior sounds shocking to us.
Cargo airships could be big: A capital-intensive, high-risk way to revolutionize global commerce. The subtitle led me to think it was a bearish piece, but actually, this is a very long, bullish analysis about the feasibility of airships as long-haul freight vehicles. It is worth reading for its detail, and compelling enough that I predict that after reading it you will be a believer, too.
China is NOT heading for collapse! Evaluating Peter Zeihan’s curious claims. I think Zeihan is a serious person, and his tendency to hyperbole clearly makes him a great guest, but it also means he’s wrong a lot.
Solving the mystery of the Red Deer Cave people. John Hawks talks about modern Chinese human paleoanthropology. A good complement to some of the content here of late.
The genomic diversity of Taiwanese Austronesian groups: implications for the ‘Into and Out of Taiwan’ models. This preprint nudges me a bit into the “out-of-Taiwan” model for the emergence of Austronesians and the spread of the Malayo-Polynesian languages (there have been some recent papers arguing for an older spread, perhaps not out of Taiwan).
Genetic adaptation to pathogens and increased risk of inflammatory disorders in post-Neolithic Europe. “Finally, our analyses suggest that the risk of inflammatory disorders has increased in post-Neolithic Europeans, possibly because of antagonistic pleiotropy following genetic adaptation to pathogens.” This means that Europeans encountered new diseases, and adapted fast to increase their fitness, but as a side effect became more vulnerable to inflammatory diseases. This is because when you change a genetic position you have multiple outcomes, some of them good (adaptation to pathogens) and some of them not so good (inflammatory responses).
Adaptations to water stress and pastoralism in the Turkana of northwest Kenya. The selection coefficient for adaptation to water stress in this population that experiences perpetual drought conditions is 4%, which is strong. Adaptation is all over the place for humans, from circadian rhythms to even the most basic aspects of physiology like the need for water, and, it seems to occur really fast.
A harmonized public resource of deeply sequenced diverse human genomes. “Here, we harmonized a high quality set of 4,096 whole genomes from HGDP and 1kGP with data from gnomAD and identified over 155 million high-quality SNVs, indels, and SVs.” This is a great resource for anyone interested in exploring human population and medical genomic datasets to get the most out of them without having to standardize, rearrange and quality control the files themselves. This is a research group you can trust to have done a thorough job at these tasks.
Ancient DNA reveals admixture history and endogamy in the prehistoric Aegean. It’s incredible how much we know about the social structure of the people of King Minos now thanks to ancient DNA.
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 on Chinese genetics and history.
First, part 1, Genetic history with Chinese characteristics:
But where does the internal genetic variation within China originally come from? Its roots long predate recorded history, even before the Holocene itself, these last 11,700 years since the end of the last Ice Age. We now know that the genetic differences between modern northern and southern Chinese derive from variation accumulated during the Pleistocene from the local indigenous populations, whose ancestors arrived in Northeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago. To understand the population genetic structure of modern China and the origins of the Han, we need to push back the narrative to when our species first made the region home and explore how humans coped with East Asia’s ecological uniqueness. China’s 5,000 years of history can only be understood in light of 50,000 years of East Asian prehistory, and that is where we will take the saga of the Chinese next.
While modern East Asians display genetic continuity with Tianyun’s near kin, the cyclical disruption of the local ecological equilibrium has been the norm in European prehistory, resulting in repeated mass extinctions of both Neanderthal and modern human populations. DNA samples dating from 38,000 years ago in Belgium depict broadly West Eurasian people, unlike their Cro-Magnon precursors. But that population’s hegemony was fleeting, because again and again Europe was overwhelmed by new waves of foragers from West Asia. Even the Ice-Age hunters who flourished 18,000 years ago and memorably turned dimly lit cave walls into vast artistic canvases were to be replaced by another wave of West-Asian foragers at the end of the last Ice Age. And ultimately, even these last European hunter-gatherers were overwhelmed by Anatolian farmers beginning 9,000 years ago, who were in turn then conquered and assimilated by steppe pastoralists 4,000-5,000 years ago.
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.
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). If you want to listen on YouTube, please subscribe.
Here are my guests (and monologue topics) since the last Time Well Spent:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I post transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through them to catch major errors).
Some of you follow me on my newsletter, blog, or Twitter. But my domain also has links and updates: https://www.razib.com. You’ll find links to the few different podcasts I’ve contributed to or run, my total RSS feed, links to more mainstream or print articles when I remember to post them, my Twitter, the occasional guest appearance here and there, etc.
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A group blog, Secular Right, vintage at this point, but worthwhile for Heather Mac Donald’s prescience
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My old podcast, The Insight
This podcast, Unsupervised Learning
On the blog
This month, I’m going to highlight Erik Hoel’s post Remote work is the best thing to happen to families in decades Yet commentators and politicians keep missing it:
Despite being an obvious and primary benefit, there has been little discussion about the positive aspect of remote work for families on either side of the political aisle. This is strange to me, since families are normally used as a political football in America, and yet the importance of remote work for families has been passed over and debates about efficiency, elite surplus, and housing have been substituted in. In comparison, when considering remote work’s effect on families it can be justified by the key pillars and frameworks of both political parties. Republicans concerned about absentee parents and the degree of childrearing by the state? Support remote work. Democrats concerned about the opposing demands placed on women to be both high-income workers and picture-perfect Instagram moms? Support remote work. It seems a rare case of an obvious societal win to me.
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.