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RKUL: Time Well Spent 03/03/2022
Spring is around the corner edition (OK, it's here in Texas)
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?
Why are humans altruistic? Is it simply a matter of luck, conscious choice, or is there an evolutionary rationale? Why are any organisms altruistic at all? Isn’t nature “red in tooth and claw”? When W. D. Hamilton proposed to study the question of altruism at Oxford in the 1950’s his mentors discouraged him. They did not consider it a problem at all. Hamilton disagreed, and went on to formulate the concepts that we now know as inclusive fitness.
Robert Trivers’ Natural Selection and Social Theory is a collection of his papers with extensive commentary as well as reminiscences and anecdotes. Trivers is still active, but due to his issues with interpersonal aggression and mental illness, his academic career has been checkered (This is not gratuitous ad hominem on my part! For the gory details, see his autobiography, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist). He’s made numerous contributions to evolutionary biology, but probably the best known and most impactful has been reciprocal altruism, analogous to tit-for-tat in game theory. Papers are papers, and I think Trivers’ scholarly work is important and often elegant, but the commentary between the publications adds a lot of color to the research and is suffused with the author’s impish humor.
David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society is a short but ambitious book. Though Darwin's Cathedral seems at first to be about the evolutionary origins of religion, the author is actually attempting to resurrect Emile Durkheim’s sociological functionalism. Though people often analogize a society to an organism, Wilson makes that correspondence explicit and imagines that the ‘social organism’ can be considered a target of natural selection. Since Darwin's Cathedral was published, others have moved this area forward extensively.
So what Darwin's Cathedral began, Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth completes. The subtitle encapsulates Turchin’s thesis well; he believes war and conflict drove cultural evolution and served as a selective sieve upon social modes of organization. Wilson’s idea of societies as functionally integrated cultural organisms is just assumed in Turchin’s Ultrasociety. Societies that organized and mobilized well won out over the long term, and their memes spread across the world. Unfortunately, though war may have rewarded cultural innovation in the past, the nuclear age means that this once on-balance dynamic input to our system has long since reached a solely maladaptive status.
Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, is another Sloan Wilson book. This is one of his first major book-length projects to outline his arguments for multi-level selection, and it was vociferously attacked by evolutionary biologists at the time, including venerable and respectable thinkers like John Maynard Smith, so many skipped it accordingly. The second half of the book is more about psychology and was less interesting to me. Instead, I’d focus on the first half of Unto Others, because it presents formal models and conceptual frames with which to think about group-level selection dynamics. These models might be outmoded, but they’re where you have to start to improve and refine this way of thinking.
Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1 - Evolution of Social Behaviour is one of those books you can read again and again (I have!). W. D. Hamilton was eccentric, but he made huge advances in evolutionary biology, and this book documents the first part of his career. Hamilton discusses the origins and controversies around his work, and the papers themselves are often (though not always) a joy to read (fair warning, the original inclusive fitness papers have weird and inscrutable notation). I also recommend the follow-ups, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex and Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 3: Last Words. The last work was published after Hamilton had died, and so could not, according to the contract, be edited. It’s often self-indulgent, but also illuminates some of the more eccentric aspects of his thinking that editors would probably have urged he remove, had he still been there to assent.
Finally, I have only just begun The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham, but it’s very interesting so far. Wrangham is one of the most well-known human evolutionary biologists out there, and he tackles the same questions as Turchin in Ultrasociety, but from his own angle as an anthropologist and primatologist.
Europe needs to take primary responsibility for its own defense. America just isn’t going to be able to hold this together by itself anymore.
Feminism has a biology problem There's not much girl power in the animal kingdom. The author is a biology graduate student at Oxford. I hope she knows what she’s getting herself into.
Five reasons the sanctions are working. I asked a Russian acquaintance if he was doing OK, and he said “not really, my financial life is collapsing.”
The regrettable death of the Slatepitch: We've lost a lot as every publication has become the same. It strikes me that Harper’s is perhaps a bit different? It’s good to have a wealthy Luddite patron.
Also please note, Airmail. This is a good pub. You should read it while it’s still around. I suspect it’ll just run out of money at some point.
In Landslide, San Francisco Forces Out 3 Board of Education Members - The recall, which galvanized Asian Americans, was a victory for parents angered by the district’s priorities during the pandemic. People are saying this might mark the high tide of “wokeness,” but I just wonder if it isn’t more narrowly simply that you shouldn't mess with the education options of Asian-American parents.
Was Ukraine 'invented' by Lenin's Bolsheviks? Putin's 'historian, here' talk refers to the Soviet Union's policy of affirmative action. Arguably the Bolsheviks also “invented “Uzbekistan” and the other Central Asian nation-states. But what’s done is done.
The Pict. The age of mysteries is over (no surprise who the Pictish sample is).
Pausing at the Precipice. Tanner Greer’s thoughts on the current geopolitical situation.
The NYT article on MMT is really bad - The fringe ideology's star is falling, and puff pieces will not resuscitate it. About a decade ago I looked into MMT and concluded there was not really any there there, deleting it from my memory accordingly. But unfortunately, some people are making an identitarian defense: Male economists are freaking out over a NYT profile. The issue is that MMT is far less credible than, for example, the “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES). It’s heterodox beyond heterodox.
Apple broke Facebook’s ad machine. Who’s going to fix it? I’m pretty shocked how fragile and vulnerable Facebook was to this sort of thing.
We have a new department. The march goes on.
Ancient DNA and deep population structure in sub-Saharan African foragers. As a friend said in 2013: “the next ten years is going to be discovering the collapse of ancient population structure in Africa.”
Increased birth rank of homosexual males: disentangling the older brother effect and sexual antagonism hypothesis. Spoiler: the paper supports the older-brother effect.
Temporal matches and mismatches between monarch butterfly and milkweed population changes over the past 12,000 years. A friend in plant genetics says he’s been wondering about this for a while. There are many possible things that have happened in the Holocene like this.
Combining genetic constraint with predictions of alternative splicing to prioritize deleterious splicing in rare disease studies. Alternative splicing is always so cool when you find out about it.
The evolution of recombination in self-fertilizing organisms. We need to understand recombination better because it’s such a fundamental genetic and evolutionary parameter.
Characterization of Arabian Peninsula whole exomes: exploring high inbreeding features. The Arabs know they’re sitting on a genetic gold mine here (thanks, many, many generations of cousin marriage?), and some of the Gulf countries are serious about tackling their genetic/medical health issues.
The Genetic and Evolutionary Basis of Gene Expression Variation in East Africans and Whole-genome sequencing of Bantu-speakers from Angola and Mozambique reveals complex dispersal patterns and interactions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Good to do more genetics in the continent where we are most variable.
The genetics of specific cognitive abilities. There’s non-g heritability. No surprise that many cognitive traits are heritable besides conventional IQ.
Ancient DNA at the edge of the world: Continental immigration and the persistence of Neolithic male lineages in Bronze Age Orkney. I think there were pockets of this sort of stuff all over the world, local persistence of elite lineages in the face over overall gene flow and cultural shift.
My Two Cents
There’s still no completely free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack lie beyond the paywall. This three-piece series reflects how genomes, even single ones, have transformed our understanding of the human past through the flowering of human population genomics.
The initial piece is totally free, Life (science) comes at you fast, part 1 - Genetics is dead, long live genomics:
The most powerful reason a lone human’s genome can now confirm such a staggering amount of human population history isn’t really anything unique to humans at all. It is the simple application of a richly elaborated toolkit of methods and inferences tested and honed over the century of statistical genetics’ history. These powerful, empirically derived observations and assumptions might have been gleaned at a time when they could be tested on all of, say, four markers per sample, but they apply with equal fidelity to today’s millions of markers. And they undergird every insight we reap today with our astonishingly god-like new computational power and serendipitous leaps forward in DNA extraction and amplification. They are common to all life. But for a child of the 1980’s like me whose boyhood reading in history and prehistory was littered with seemingly eternal debates and open questions, ours is an absolutely revelatory golden age of illuminating addenda. Every year brings more decisive and usually incontrovertible evidence about ancient people’s once uncertain movements, mating choices, murders and conquests.
The draft human genome was completed in the year 2000 (and yes, technically the complete genome was only finished in 2021), and during the aughts genomics accelerated its deployment of powerful new tools to tackle the field’s long-standing questions. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza published The History and Geography of Human Genes in 1994 as the capstone of a long and storied career. In it he marshaled his (at the time) enormous sample size of 1,800 individuals drawn from dozens of populations across the planet, each of them typed at 110 markers. But many of the open questions posed and explored in that book were actually promptly resolved in the first decade of the 21st century when the power to test the propositions mushroomed overnight. Cavalli-Sforza’s swan song would be the last great work of human population genetics utilizing solely classical methods and markers. The Human Genome Project was ushering in a new era, as computers and massive sequencing machines became as central to the geneticist’s toolkit as the pipette and agarose gel.
In 2014, David Reich and Johannes Krause’s groups led the publication of a new high-quality whole genome of a man who died in Belgium 8,000 years ago. He was buried in the Loschbour cave and so has become the “Loschbour man” to us. Genetically, he was very similar to several Spanish hunter-gatherers already known from lower-quality data published earlier in the year, dating to 1,000 years later. These latter were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, foraging populations that flourished in the millennia after the Ice Age, and before farming became ubiquitous across Northern Europe. These Mesolithic hunter-gatherers persisted in the face of the competing expansion of incoming Neolithic farmers, who began migrating out of Anatolia nearly 10,000 years ago. The hunter-gatherers were not passive in the face of the agriculturalist expansion. Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization documents a massive conflict between foragers and farmers in Northern Europe during the early Neolithic, evident in the remains of individuals who apparently met violent ends. But eventually, the farmers overwhelmed and genetically absorbed the indigenous populations. The early Mesolithic samples indicated that there were massive genetic differences between them and the expanding farmers; the genetic distance between farmers and foragers seems to have been on the scale of that between modern Northern Europeans and Han Chinese. Additionally, while the farmers carried genetic variants associated with lighter skin, dark hair and eyes, the foragers’ genetics indicate very dark skin and hair, with blue eyes. Not only were the two populations ancestrally very different, they would also have been strikingly superficially distinct when they met. In parts of Germany, the two populations seem to have remained totally genetically distinct for as long as 1,000 years, occupying distinct territories amenable to their distinct lifestyles. All these new findings are the result of the intersection of ancient DNA and genomics.
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Here are my guests since the last Time Well Spent:
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On the blog
A small discussion on social media has arisen about the idea that freedom and political and social freedoms are fundamentally Western. Setting aside the libertarianism present in non-Western traditions like Daoism (David Boaz devoted a portion of Libertarianism: A Primer to this connection), more interesting are questions of the form “did the Greeks invent democracy?” My contention, broadly, is that the Greeks did not invent democracy, but all modern democracies are genealogically descended from the Greeks.
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.