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RKUL: Time Well Spent 05/05/2023
MEX 1, FRA 0 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?
Recently, reading Patricia Crone’s The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism reminded me how illuminating ostensibly narrow and specialized monographs can be when it comes to understanding the broader scope of history. Surveys give you a high-level breadth, but monographs you might dismiss as too obscure or narrow, instead drill down on phenomena and render vivid the mechanistic processes undergirding larger dynamics. How was it that Islam developed from a spare and sectarian cult in 700 AD to an elaborate theological and legalistic universal religion by 1000 AD? A survey can sketch the differences, but The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran gives you on-the-ground-level detail that illustrates how heterodox, novel ideas and practices percolated in from the native religiosity of the converted peoples, in particular, those coming out of a Zoroastrian milieu.
While The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran is a scholarly book, albeit very readable, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East has a journalistic veneer, but the author brings a great deal of academic depth to the topic. Gerard Russell, the author, views modern ethno-religious minorities, Copts, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Druze, Zoroastrians and Kalash, as exemplars of ancient civilizations slowly fading from memory with Islam’s rise. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms undertakes the ethnography of contemporary peoples and gleans deeper insights from those encounters, but this goes beyond straightforward ethnography. Russell, a diplomat, also has clearly read deeply on the groups’ origins. References abound to The Nabataean Agriculture, a 10th-century agronomy text that has fascinating ethnographies of religious and cultural practices in the Near East that bridged the gap between the pagan world and that of Islam. If The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran shows how Islam emerged out of a non-Muslim milieu, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms shows how non-Muslims adapted and evolved in response to the gradual, organic emergence of the Islamic world all around them.
While Russell’s work allows you to get a more synoptic view by sampling different histories, The Yezidi Oral Tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan brings a previously obscure group into sharper focus, albeit complexifying rather than simplifying the picture. Christine Allison’s 2001 work of anthropology is apropos considering the genocide of the Yazidis by ISIS in the mid-2010’s, but her exploration of these people does more to highlight their emergence in regional historical dynamics and their relationships with other Kurds and Muslims than uncover the final truth about the Yazidis. Though many view the Yazidis as practitioners of the original religion of the Kurds, their practices and beliefs emerged as a synthesis with the orthodox Islam that slowly came to dominate around them over the last 1,400 years. Though they are not living fossils from a lost pagan age, Yazidi culture still preserves elements of the old Iranian religion that are useful for our understanding of the past.
The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China, has a playful title, but the very existence of devout Muslims in 18th-century China, under a non-Muslim regime presented theological conundrums. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s deep survey illustrates how nimbly the human mind resolves contradictions in order to synthesize new orthodoxies. Muslim intellectuals in Beijing in the 1700’s had to reconcile their prosperity and security in an ideological system that was not only non-Muslim, but explicitly Confucian. Benite shows how these scholars justified their orthodoxy by creating a system of thought that combined Islam and Confucianism, and even proposed that Islam was the more proper elucidation of Confucius’ own views than that of the main Chinese tradition. Where the history of ethno-religious minorities under Islam tells you how Islam evolved into what it has become today, the history of Muslim ethno-religious minorities gives you a space of possibilities of what it could become.
Jonah Blank in Mullahs on the Mainframe : Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras, does the same in a different cultural context by looking at the experience of Daudi Bohra Ismaili Muslims in India. The first chapter of Mullahs on the Mainframe is complementary with The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran because the Ismaili religious movement does seem to have emerged from post-Zoroastrian thought. But most of the rest of the book examines the Daudi Bohra experience of being a minority within a minority (they are one of the smaller Ismaili sects), within a minority (among Shia Muslims), within a minority (among Muslims). While Chinese Muslim dynamics are driven by their relationship to the majority, Daudi Bohras exist in perpetual tension with other Muslims, not to mention with non-Muslim society. Modern Chinese Muslims have turned away from indigeneity and integrated themselves with worldwide Islam, but Daudi Bohras, as a small sect, show a path forward for groups intent on remaining apart while still flourishing in the modern world.
Finally, The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, is a scholarly work like The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, but focuses on a topic of significant importance: how did Islam emerge, and what does the classical orthodox narrative get wrong? Though The Hidden Origins of Islam can be quite dense, this is an worthy topic that has been understudied. Despite there being no certitudes, it seems likely that revisionism of Islam’s origins will render the religion’s early success less miraculous.
My friend Nick Cassamitis, founder of dry.io, has whipped together a “GPT” trained on my body of work (millions of words), RazibGPT. Instead of asking me a question, this might be a good option. The future is here! (dry.io has been adding features over time to its site for Unsupervised Learning)
A new Substack, Hacking the State, offers a comment on the biggest media story of the year, The Last Newsman Tucker Carlson, the End of an Archetype, and the Bridge to New Media. I think it is broadly correct that we will see Carlson as a bridge or hybrid figure. His firing isn’t driving any change, but his career trajectory and fate will prove illustrative of the dynamics that dominate media and information distribution in our society in the second quarter of the 21st century.
Cities and the way of water: The long shadow of old rivers (and harbors and canals and lakes). This excellent piece from Matt Yglesias is similar to some of Tomas Pueyo’s geography posts, but less glib and more reflective. Additionally, water transport remains very important. The geographic distribution of Chinese manufacturing is strongly dependent on proximity to container-ship docks.
Here...comes...INDIA!!! The world has a new largest country, and it's on the move. Two points. There are many Indias. There are 22 official languages, with the least of these, Dogri, having three million speakers, and the numerically most substantial, Hindi, having more than 500 million speakers. It seems plausible that there are about 150 million English speakers in India, and this is the reason that I agree with Noah Smith that India’s cultural impact will be nontrivial, just like American and British music and literature bleed over into each other.
‘Claudia’ offers nude photos for pay. Experts say she’s an AI fake. So will the world be inundated with AI-generated porn? Here’s a quote from someone who purchased it inadvertently: ‘“Feel a bit cheated,” Reddit user “legalbeagle1966” said after a Washington Post reporter told him Claudia was likely a fraud. A week earlier, he’d commented on her photo that she looked “pretty sexy and perfect.”’ Humans care about authenticity, our preferences are more than just the sum of a set of sensory inputs; the idea and narrative matter. With all the worry about AI, one thing researchers have been pointing out is that there is a lot of evidence that humans prefer products and services from other humans. Starbucks received feedback twenty years ago that excessive automation and efficiency in their stores made customers less satisfied with their experience. The baristas were being viewed as cogs in a coffee-production machine, rather than workers who were “crafting” a drink. Similarly, all things equal, it seems likely that mass-produced synthetic pornography will run up against a deeply held human preference to believe they are interacting with or engaging other actual humans.
‘Truly gobsmacked’: Ancient-human genome count surpasses 10,000. When even David Reich is “gobsmacked” you know it’s a big deal.
A global catalog of whole-genome diversity from 233 primate species. “Lastly, we identified extensive recurrence of missense mutations previously thought to be human-specific.” For the last few decades, researchers have been trying to figure out what makes us special as humans by just comparing our genomes to chimpanzees, our closest relatives. And all to the good; it's going to be critical to understand the broader primate lineage if we really want to get to grips with the expected range of genetic variation, and what makes our own species particularly unique.
False discovery rates of qpAdm-based screens for genetic admixture. The paleogenomics revolution has opened the data floodgates, but until recently a lot of the analytic frameworks seemed a bit ad hoc. This looks like part of a systematization of best practices to produce more robust and reliable results.
The genetic legacy of the expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples in Africa. This paper seems to have nailed the details of the migration in terms of timing and trajectory.
Neutral Drift and Threshold Selection Promote Phenotypic Variation. Drift can maintain a lot of variation within the population, and that variation is the raw material for natural selection in other contexts.
Genome-wide association study of occupational status and prestige identifies 106 genetic variants and defines their role for intergenerational status transmission and the life course. Remember, everything is somewhat heritable: “Genetic inheritance explained up to 40% of the intergenerational transmission of occupational status.”
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 put out pieces two and three on Iran (and am on the point of releasing a fourth).
The shift from the steppe, a land of tents, herds of horses and shamans, to settled life at the heart of the most ancient civilization on earth, transformed the southern Iranians, foremost among them the Persians. Ecologist-turned-theoretical-historian Peter Turchin has pointed out that peak cultural creativity is often found in the “marchlands” of a civilization; no doubt the exigencies of living on the frontier and face-to-face with far more sophisticated societies might disproportionately drive a culture to innovate and adapt. This was the case with the Iranians. At the center of the civilized world, as we would understand it, they happened to be on the edge of the Iranian civilizational sphere. While the Scythians perfected mobile cavalry 3,000 years ago and the Sogdians inaugurated the Silk Road 1,500 years ago, the Persians on the far southwestern frontier of the Iranian world would go on to define what it meant to be Iranian for posterity. The Persians would modify their pastoralist culture into the vehicle for ancient Near Eastern statecraft and global theology. While their Aryan cousins in India would produce a synthetic religious and philosophical culture that eventually gave rise to the first universal world religion, Buddhism, the Persians would nurture their Zoroastrian faith, the first ethical monotheism in history, whose ideas would not only radically alter Judaism, but meaningfully shape both Christianity and Islam.
Zoroastrianism injected many concepts into Judaism. Ideas like the last battle between good and evil, and the evolution of Satan from being an instrument of God as in the Book of Job to a malevolent and powerful adversary analogous to Ahriman in the Christian Gospels. Through its impact on Judaism, the religion of Zoroaster would influence Christianity, and therefore one out of three humans alive today. The third and youngest Abrahamic religion, Islam, has a unique relationship with Zoroastrianism. After the 7th century AD, the Arabs swallowed the whole of the Iranian world, and it is almost certain that the older religious background of many converts influenced the millenarian beliefs of the radical Iranian Islamic movements in the 8th and 9th centuries. This jumps out of the narrative in Islamicist Patricia Crone’s The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran; syncretistic sects like the Khurramites ported messianic ideas from Iranian Zoroastrianism into radical Shi’ism. But the influence of Zoroastrianism on early Islam might actually run deeper than its undeniable imprint on heterodox Shia sects; Muslims and Zoroastrians both happen to pray five times a day, and the Zoroastrian practice predates the Muslim one.
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:
For subscribers, I post transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch major errors).
On the blog
– Lots of suspicion about this before. Basically, a West Eurasian-related population (admixed) was extant in the Sahara for the first half of the Holocene.
– I don’t think they’ve totally figured out Afro-Asiatic, and these results make me more open to the idea that Afro-Asiatic came from the Sahara, not less
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 wish I’d write about, lay it on us.