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RKUL: Time Well Spent 04/04/2023
April Showers 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?
There are two ways to write history, go big, or drill down. The latter is far more common in academic history, though a work like 1066: Battle of Hastings brings the same scope to a popular audience. Then there are the popular big histories. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is the most famous recent offering in this genre, though Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is in the same vein. In the first half of the 20th century, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee attempted massive theoretical works, almost meta-histories, with The Decline of the West and A Study of History, respectively. Most scholars regard these efforts as failed, as reflected in the fact that there are very few modern-day Spenglers and Toynbees.
But that is not to say no scholars today write big histories at a broad sweeping scale, it’s just that the likes of Harari tend to suck up all the oxygen. Such works are essential, like sinews that tying together the deep and detailed understandings that might otherwise be siloed.
Great fanfare greeted Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World when it was published in 2007. Clark weaves together basic economic theory with a wealth of empirical data, making a case for how the West, and England in particular, broke out of the Malthusian trap that defines most of human existence. Whereas many historians focus on details of society or the rise and fall of powers, economic historians explore quantifiable, concrete material inputs and outputs like coal production and tea consumption. Clark powerfully sketches for common readers of the post-materialist world the reality that the premodern world was Malthusian; progress rarely happened and gains in productivity were eaten up by the additional mouths to feed. A Farewell to Alms reminds us we live in exceptional times.
If Clark presents economic theory as a framework for empirical research, Angus Maddison’s 2007 Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History is a massive data dump, the sum of a lifetime of research attempting to quantify wealth and inequality in all places and at all times. Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD is an essential reference, but perusing the tables will also give you a better intuition of the past. In 2023, when we say a country is wealthy and another is poor, the GDP per capita difference might be 10-fold. In contrast, in the premodern world the difference between very wealthy and very poor nations might be 50%. In the ancient world almost everyone was almost equally poor.
Like Maddison, William H. McNeill devoted much of his career to wide-ranging surveys of human phenomena that were not restricted by a time period or geographic constraints. The author of Plagues and Peoples, one of McNeill’s last works was The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History. Written at the turn of this young century, The Human Web articulates the thesis that our species has been evolving a progressively more integrated and redundant information network, allowing for greater robustness of civilization in the face of environmental and social shocks.
Stewart Gordon’s When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the “Riches of the East" narrows the scale to a single continent and a particular span of time, from the 8th to the 16th century. This was an age when Asian empires dominated the world economy, driving geopolitical change. Gordon’s book is interesting at least to consider at a time when the world economy is rebalancing toward the Asian continent due to simple weight of numbers.
Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires increases the focus even more. In this work Walter Scheidel compares the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty China. This is a worthy endeavor in large part because while the Roman state was never truly reconstituted, Han Dynasty China served as a precedent for a half a dozen successor states that rose and fell in turn. The most interesting aspect of this work is Scheidel’s focus on the differences. While Rome was a loose empire united by a sea, Han China was a more compact state tied together by road networks.
Finally, in T'ang China: The Rise of the East in World History, Samuel Adshead documents the integration of the easternmost civilization of Eurasia into the broader “world system,” which by then had come to include the Mediterranean, Persia and India, as well as the steppe. Adshead’s narrative is peppered with memorable facts. For example, he observes that before the T’ang Dynasty, 1,000 years ago, Chinese food was more similar to Japanese, lightly cooked and lightly spiced. It was the cosmopolitan western influences from Central Asia and India that changed this.
Taylor Capito talks on the GenRAIT vision (video). As our startup, GenRAIT, comes out of stealth, we’re starting to produce content to articulate the vision behind what we’re trying to execute. We’ll have more on the channel in the future as we bring out our full product offerings.
A surprising food may have been a staple of the real Paleo diet: rotten meat Historical accounts of Indigenous peoples’ diets have archaeologists rethinking ancient menus. This is one of those counterintuitive pieces that is so weird you want to believe it. I think the skeptics are correct that the main proponent of the ubiquity of rotten-meat-is-good-actually probably overreaches, but surely there is some truth to this from what we know historically. One implication of this theory is that perhaps fire was not for cooking meat, it was for making gathered plants more palatable.
What color were Neandertals? Even with whole genomes, scientists can't say very precisely what pattern of skin, hair, and eye pigmentation was in ancient populations like the Neandertals. This piece from John Hawks ends with some uncertainty…but it’s informed uncertainty because we now have so many genomes from Neanderthals to test various claims.
We May be Surprised Again: Why I take LLMs seriously. Basically, theory said/says that large language models (LLMs), neural networks that slurp in massive amounts of text data, shouldn’t work as well as they do. That means our theories are wrong, and perhaps we should admit we just don’t know what’s going on here with AI in 2023.
Forget designer babies. Here’s how CRISPR is really changing lives. CRISPR is going to make a massive difference in healthcare in the 2020’s. Good-bye sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and ALS.
Human genetic history on the Tibetan Plateau in the past 5100 years. Tibetans are a mix of northeast Asians similar to the rice farmers of the Yellow River that migrated into the plateau over the last 5,000 years and overwhelmed an indigenous population that separated very early during the out of Africa migration from other East Asians.
Local Ancestry Inference for Complex Population Histories. You can take someone’s genome and estimate average ancestry as an overall summary, or, you can look at the genome as a fine number of segments and assign ancestry to each segment. Both methods are useful, but done well the latter is more information rich. But it requires dense data sets, powerful computing and sophisticated algorithms.
Testing for differences in polygenic scores in the presence of confounding. We need better prediction taking into account differences in ancestry. This paper is an attempt to account for “confounding.” Since in the near future most of us will get polygenic disease risk scores this feels important.
Whole-genome sequencing reveals a complex African population demographic history and signatures of local adaptation. Much of the next decade for human population geneticists is going to be focused on exploring African evolutionary genetics with more data and improved methods. This paper analyzes both the ancestral structure and patterns of adaptation. Read along with this preprint: A weakly structured stem for human origins in Africa.
Analysis of genetic dominance in the UK Biobank. This is an exploration of patterns of genetic dominance across many traits in a dataset of 361,194 British individuals. One early takeaway is that for complex traits, those controlled by many genes, dominance does not seem very important. It’s additivity all the way down.
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 finished one set of themed in-depth paid pieces and begun another.
To many, the most salient Scandinavian characteristic is their stereotypical fairness of complexion, blue eyes and blond hair. These features seem deep-rooted in the region. Very little modern Scandinavian ancestry comes down from Mesolithic forager populations, but these hunter-gatherers were more lightly complected than their relatives to the south and east. One individual sample from the island of Gotland to the southeast of mainland Sweden, dated 6500 B.C., is the first European in the ancient DNA record to likely exhibit both blond hair and blue eyes, a common combination in the region’s populations today.
The Vikings retain a legendary status today, and were objects of fear more than 1,000 years ago, because they were the last of the pagans of a northern world that had repeatedly terrorized Rome and given birth to the barbarian kingdoms of antiquity. By 800 AD Scandinavia was an anachronism, a throwback to the ominous murky forests beyond the frontiers of Roman civilization, the abode of tattooed tribes practicing blood sacrifice under the gaze of wooden idols of Odin. The Vikings were aliens in the new Europe, obstinate holdouts in an age now dominated by fealty to a God who promised the meek salvation and peace, rather than a raucous mead hall to warriors felled in glory. The flip side of Viking brutality and audacity was their aversion to hierarchy and their full-throated embrace of their freedoms. They rejected Christianity’s rarefied themes that had been refining European society to their south.
The prestige and power of the Persians, perched on a plateau at the southwestern edge of the Iranian world, has overshadowed other historical Iranian peoples, from Scythians in the heart of Eurasia, whose outriders galloped both eastward into Mongolia and west to the plains of Hungary, to the enterprising Sogdians of Central Asia, who once served as the crucial commercial link between China and the rest of the world. Though Airyānąm originally included Central Asia, long dominated by Iranian-speaking tribes, by the time of the Achaemenids the lands between the Oxus and the Jaxartes were being written out of Iran’s borders. In Ferdowsi’s works, Central Asia was defined as the realm of wild and nomadic tribes. The Shahnameh recounts the conflict between the civilized and citified people of Iran and the nomadic steppe barbarians of Turan to its north; the Persians are depicted as refined, their northern Turanian cousins as uncouth. But it’s worth recalling that the ancient Turanians were themselves Iranian-speaking, and the origins of the Persians of southwestern Iran can be found in Turan, on the southern edge of which the Avesta itself was composed.
If you want to browse my more geographically focused pieces, Dry.io has created an interactive map. 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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One of the major weak points of The Horse the Wheel and Language is that there isn’t good evidence for horsemanship during the period of Yamnaya expansion. More recently, the genetic evidence seems pretty clear that modern horses descend from Sintashta populations after 2000 BC. Nevertheless, it’s pretty weird how fast the pastoralist Yamnaya moved. I suspect that a more primitive form of horse utilization was the norm for the Yamnaya. They didn’t have cavalry, but they may have ridden ponies to get to a location or escape the scene of a raid.
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.
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