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RKUL: Time Well Spent 05/05/2022
A fine day in May
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?
Scientific biographies are essential for contextualizing the emergence of new ideas. Though Charles Darwin was undeniably a brilliant man, it is hard to deny that he was influenced by Thomas Malthus and the Manchester School of economics. Similarly, the development of early modern science in Europe in particular almost certainly had something to do with the political and cultural pluralism regnant during the Renaissance and Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church could silence Galileo, but political and religious multiplicity allowed for others to grasp the torch.
Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann is a new book that is mostly science, but has enough biographical and cultural detail to contextualize the origin and background of the man who is often asserted to be the “smartest man” of the 20th century. von Neumann made substantive contributions to topology, quantum mechanics, game theory, computing, as well as the Manhattan Project. A product of the hothouse intellectual culture of early 20th-century Budapest where affluent assimilated Hungarian Jews created a bubble of cosmopolitanism, von Neumann left Europe for the US in the early 1930’s, anticipating the geopolitical changes a decade before others. The Man from the Future has an incredible number of “cameos” by eminent thinkers like Edward Teller, Paul Dirac and Albert Einstein.
If The Man from the Future guides you into new waters, James Gleick's Isaac Newton is short, dense, and arguably definitive when it comes to the life and science of a man you surely already know something about. No one can deny Newton’s brilliance, but Gleick also makes it clear he was a very peculiar individual with an eccentric personality. After purchasing Newton’s papers centuries later, the economist John Maynard Keynes declared of that he “was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” Gleick’s biography also brings home how Britain during that period eased social advancement for those with undeniable talent. Newton’s father was a prosperous farmer, but he was illiterate.
R. A. Fisher: The LIfe of a Scientist is not a page-turner, but does have the benefit of having been written by the subject’s daughter, Joan Fisher Box, with the help of her then-husband, the statistician George Box. Fisher was an important scientist who contributed greatly to 20th-century science in both biology and statistics, though his reputation has suffered for political reasons of late (he was an avid eugenicist). His The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection was little understood when it was published in 1930, but it went on to be incredibly influential in the field of evolutionary genetics.
Unlike Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane is a more beloved character today, and his scientific contributions and biographical peculiarities are explored in the recent Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane. One curious aspect of the comparison between Fisher and Haldane is that though they were broadly aligned in terms of their evolutionary genetic work, politically and socially they were quite different. Haldane was a Leftist from a storied family (his uncle was raised to the peerage), while Fisher was a Tory with a thoroughly middle-class background. Fisher and Haldane together held up about two-thirds of the sky when it comes to population genetics in Britain and the US in the 1930’s.
To get to the last third, you would need to read Will Provine’s Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology (much of Provine’s career was spent exploring the evolution of Wright’s thoughts, and this book is close to a magnum opus despite not being his final book). The development of population genetics for several decades after 1930 occurred via the dialogues of the “Wright-Fisher Controversy,” where the two great scientists took opposing stances on the power of selection in evolutionary process, the origins of genetic dominance and polymorphism, and the relevance of population structure. If you read Provine you’ll come away, I think, appreciating that Wright was a somewhat less systematic and forceful thinker than Fisher, allowing his thoughts to grow more organically, and retain more contradictions. That’s not always a bad thing, and the American Wright was as influential in the US as Fisher and Haldane were in Britain.
Stepping back more than 2,000 years in the history of science, Armand Leroi published a very thorough biography of Aristotle several years back, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. If von Neumann was the “man from the future” then Aristotle is clearly the “man from the past.” The strange thing about the ancient Greeks is that they juxtapose sharp analytic minds that are a match for ours, with values that are very alien. Aristotle’s work on biology is fascinating, but his opinions on slavery are a whole other thing…
I mentioned Galileo earlier, but we often forget his contemporary Johannes Kepler, a Protestant of German ethnic background who managed to avoid the total squelching that Galileo was subject to. As detailed in Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother, his life was not without controversy, political and religious, but unlike Galileo, the pluralism of Central Europe during his lifetime was sufficient for him to have some intellectual breathing room. Kepler's Witch leans on the biographical and historical, but I would argue that this astronomer is a scholar whose life is underappreciated in the English-speaking world. Perhaps if, like Galileo, he had been born in a romantic city like Pisa, he would be more top of mind among Americans.
Also, a minor addendum, Walter F. Bodmer (see below) pointed out that there is a biography of Joshua Lederberg out, Genes, Germs And Medicine. I have not read it, but I did purchase it. Lederberg is a figure who should be much more famous than he is!
A review of a review of Kathryn Paige Harden's "The Genetic Lottery”. Behavior geneticist Stuart Ritchie defends behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden from a very negative review of her book by two Stanford professors, a historian of science and a population geneticist. It is unfortunate that the lines are being drawn by discipline, but that’s how we roll now. Many population geneticists simply think behavior genetics is dangerous garbage science. And behavior geneticists are not going to fold up their tents just because the population geneticists give them a “thumbs down” with big Nero energy. To be fair, many population geneticists have much milder feelings toward Harden’s book and the field of behavior genetics generally, and are privately quite positive. But there is an ascertainment bias in who will speak up in public, at least in the US.
Moral Uncertainty and Why We Should Care About Existential Risk: A post on a niche topic that I think is extremely important. Simon Bazelon is a young man aligned with the effective altruism movement. He is also an analyst who thinks and writes about politics (he works for a left-leaning outfit). His piece, Democrats are sleepwalking into a Senate disaster Business as usual will produce a huge GOP majority, was widely read. But his posts on effective altruism should be read just as much, though they won’t be. His Substack, Out of the Ordinary, is high-decoupler territory. Recommended.
How the Vikings became the goodies: Norsemen were losers in the first culture war. They’re doing better this time around. Another keeper by Ed West. I think that the pagan Norse in modern depictions are kind of skinsuits for 21st-century democratic liberalism. They’re a foil for reactionary Christians and civilized monarchies. Yes, it is true that the Norse were more religiously tolerant and democratic than the Christians to their south. Their monarchies were elective, and Iceland famously existed in a state of anarchy early on, while small numbers of Christians lived in Scandinavia for centuries as a tolerated minority. But the Norse were also homophobic, practiced human sacrifice and engaged in Mongol-style warfare when needed. Mixed bag.
The Politics of Pure Affiliation Has Driven Everyone Absolutely Insane. I try not to make banal observations about politics, but I’m really confused as to how hawkish neoconservatives from the 2000’s who were enemy #1 are now often members in good standing of “team blue.” Meanwhile, you have Glenn Greenwald who is the darling of the Right. Of course, I’m not really confused. Politics is as much, us, and them, as what you believe and wish to enact as policy.
Housing reform shouldn't be a super-polarized partisan issue. The problem is sociological, political and cultural. It’s not like nuclear fusion or peace in the Middle East. We know how to do it, but we can’t coordinate the interests.
The donut effect: How the pandemic hollowed out America’s biggest cities. A lot of people prefer remote work, so the pandemic was a shock that the institutions needed to realize this. On the margin, there’s going to be a huge change proceeding forward. If you are young, need to network, and want to enjoy city life, I think major urban areas still hold appeal. At least until the metaverse gets much better. But for those more established, but whose days of ambition are behind them, going remote might not have many downsides.
Ancestry-inclusive dog genomics challenges popular breed stereotypes. Good paper, but here’s a rebuttal to the media sensationalism that breed doesn’t matter for behavior.
Balancing selection on genomic deletion polymorphisms in humans. Deletions are usually bad, but somehow ancient deletions from archaic lineages are being maintained? A very strange result, though I’m not saying I don’t believe it.
A flexible modeling and inference framework for estimating variant effect sizes from GWAS summary statistics. The “effect size” obviously matters for effective individual prediction of traits and disease, so keep an eye on this.
Predicting Dog Phenotypes from Genotypes. Actually, it’s easier than predicting from human genotypes. Then again, when comparing humans to the genetic diversity in dogs, we’re all basically “village dogs,” with no “breeds.”
DecentTree: Scalable Neighbour-Joining for the Genomic Era. This looks useful. NJ trees are ancient and tried and tested. Good to update them for the genomic era.
Dominance vs. epistasis: the biophysical origins and plasticity of genetic interactions within and between alleles. What do you mean by epistasis? (there are different definitions) It seems that epistasis, the interaction between two genes, is going to be a bigger deal in molecular genetics and individual trait prediction than in evolution, where it is always going to underperform.
Genomic analysis reveals geography rather than culture as the predominant factor shaping genetic variation in northern Kenyan human populations. It’s not India, that’s for sure. In some places, it’s culture, and in others, it’s geography.
My Two Cents
There’s still no completely free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack lie beyond the paywall.
My money is not on many European institutions of 2022, like 65-year-old Eurovision or the nearly 30-something European Union outliving me. Genetically though, I’d bet everything I have that thousands of years hence, the only European genetic constant will still be the one I can trace over the last 40,000 years of modern human residence on the continent: ceaseless wave upon ceaseless wave of genetic replacement and mixing.
Free, but still worth a look if you missed it, The wolf at history's door: How shepherd and wolf remade Eurasia in their image (part 1) and Casting out the wolf in our midst (part 2):
That this final chapter in the history of the planet’s mounted nomads played out in the full light of American history allows us to vividly imagine the lives of their prehistoric cultural forebears. Just as the Sioux and the Comanche were ruled by the passions of their fearless braves, who were driven to seek glory and everlasting fame on the battlefield, so bands of youth out of the great grassland between Hungary and Mongolia had long ago wreaked havoc on Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the tundra to the Indian ocean. These feral werewolves of the steppe resculpted the cultural topography of the known world three to five thousand years ago. Their ethos was an eagerly grasping pursuit not of what was theirs by right, but of anything they could grab by might. Where the Sioux and Commanche were crushed by the organized might of a future world power, their reign soon consigned to a historical footnote, the warriors of yore marched from victory to conquest. They remade the world in their brutal image, inadvertently laying the seedbeds for gentler ages to come, when roving bands of youth were recast as the barbarian enemy beyond the gates, when peace and tranquility, not a glorious death in battle, became the highest good.
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On the blog
The moral of this lesson is that a functional characteristic that has a group-level utility, furthering cohesion and forwarding some collective aim, can produce perverse incentives when individuals compete among each other to be the more clever and devout of all and then impose their new norms on the whole population.
I did read The Essential Talmud. But my point isn’t about Orthodox Jews, it’s about American academics. As the high priests of the hall monitor caste like to opine, “this too is problematic.”
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.