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RKUL: Time Well Spent 06/06/2022
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 idea that there was civilization before Greece and Rome seems self-evident to us today. But it wasn’t that long ago that the societies of the ancient Near East were perceived as such vague legends and flimsy shadows, that a title like “Civilization Before Greece and Rome” came off more defiant, polemical even, than matter of fact. Published in 1989, it is a corrective to an age when too often Greece and Rome were ancient history qua ancient history. Grounding in the classics of Greece and Rome was so widespread and deep in the early modern elites that four-time British Prime Minister William Gladstone himself happened to have authored a scholarly book about his interests, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Though Gladstone and his peers were well aware of Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of which play large roles in the Bible and are acknowledged by the Greeks as predating their own civilization, they were not societies that left us a direct legacy in the present. In the 19th century, Egypt and Mesopotamia came back to life as more than faint shadows because archaeologists, linguists and historians began assembling the material and textual records of the pre-Classical past, from Heinrich Schliemann's uncovering of the site of Bronze Age Troy to Jean-François Champollion’s decryption of the Rosetta Stone.
But despite nearly two hundred years of scholarship, The Epic of Gilgamesh does not play the role in our society that the Iliad does. Even the Old Testament, the Christian version of the Hebrew Bible, was long understood in the Christian world only through its Greek translation.
Civilization Before Greece and Rome is now over thirty years old, but I find it has aged well and is still a relevant reflection of the 150 years of scholarship that accumulated insights by painstakingly parsing hieroglyphs and cuneiform and applying the scientific methods of archaeological excavation. It’s a relatively short and thorough survey of the ancient Near East that covers a wide array of topics and domains. A more recent, but similar, take is Marc Van De Mieroop’s A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323.
The two above books will get you up to speed at the broadest and highest level, but for a deeper (but still broad) dive, Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is one of the best. Though ancient Egypt is known to all, most of its figures, like Tutankhamun, are more enigmatic than flesh and blood individuals. Wilkinson’s narrative ably corrects this, and he brings the civilization into clear focus from its rise to its fall.
Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization takes a somewhat more dry and academic tone than Wilkinson’s narrative, but it’s a good complement to The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Contrary to the subhead, Kriwaczek is squarely focused on Mesopotamia, rather than broader themes of the rise of civilization and why Mesopotamia was central to the emergence of literate and urban societies.
In contrast to the above two books, with their wide purviews, Amanda H. Podany’s Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East is a more narrowly focused book. But it demonstrates compellingly that before the Bronze-Age collapse in the 1200’s BC, an early form of multilateral diplomacy had been coalescing among the great powers of the ancient world, illustrating certain commonalities in human cultural forms and currents over the ages.
Speaking of the Bronze Age collapse, I can’t leave out Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Though this is a more well-known work than the others listed here, it’s still worth reading for its synthesis of diplomatic, social and environmental history. Though not quite a survey, 1177 B.C is far more ambitious than a narrow monograph.
The above books pertain specifically to the Near East because I’m focusing here on the West’s cultural discontinuity from pre-Classical antiquity. But the same applies to China, a civilization whose roots truly go back to the late Zhou period 2,500 years ago. And yet the antecedents of Chinese civilization are far older and explored in Early China: A Social and Cultural History. The strangeness of Shang-dynasty China in particular is important to understand, as highlighted in a recent Tides of History podcast.
Birth Order Effects: Nature vs. Nurture. In this post, Scott Alexander notes that while the scientific consensus remains that there aren’t major birth order effects, he finds them here in his surveys. His explanation is that the effects are really salient at the tails of the distribution. This seems plausible to me and has been noticeable in the rationalist community for a decade, where firstborns are known to be highly overrepresented in organizations associated with the movement. On aggregate social outcomes, the general public tends to overemphasize parental investment, but in some narrow cases, different treatment of siblings may matter a great deal.
Japan's living standards are too low. I’m not surprised by the low productivity, but I’m surprised that Japan's “per capita GDP at purchasing power parity is only 64% of the United States, 87% of France, and 92% of South Korea. Japan has not yet fallen back into the ranks of middle-income countries, but it’s in the lower part of the developed-country range.”
Science is political - and that's a bad thing. At this point, it feels like we’re tilting at windmills. American academia is now proudly ideological and sectarian. The problem with a lot of self-satisfied advocates of this position is they assume their own viewpoint will always be dominant. It won’t be, and it isn’t everywhere. There are other political ideologies elsewhere, and what we’ll see is a fracturing of the relative unity of scientific consensus. The dominance of the US in particular masks real tensions. Stuart Ritchie’s post is a clarion call that I predict will go wholly ignored.
Scientists try to bring Australian ‘tiger’ back from extinction. My two cents: cool.
The evolution of manipulative cheating. Important point: “Further, we found that manipulative cheating can lead to dynamic oscillations (arms races), between selfishness, manipulation, and suppression of manipulation.” This was obvious empirically, but this is a theory paper, and theory is important for any scientific enterprise.
Stable population structure in Europe since the Iron Age, despite high mobility. Basically, we know the Roman period saw a lot of migration, but this did not persist. I suspect this is simply due to cities being population sinks for pretty much all of human history.
Population Genomics of Stone Age Eurasia. Massive paper with so many results it is hard to summarize. It confirms that the steppe migration 5,000 years ago transformed Europe much faster than the Neolithic shift thousands of years earlier, and finds that Scandinavia witnessed an influx after 2000 BC, where lots of natural selection correlated with lifestyle changes.
Bioarchaeological and paleogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Most humans know about Pompeii and Vesuvius, so the application of genomic science to the remains is a fun demonstration to the wider public of what genomics is capable of today.
A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos. Pretty much confirms what we knew, that Denisovans were present in Southeast Asia.
Within-sibship genome-wide association analyses decrease bias in estimates of direct genetic effects. The genome-wide association effects for traits are smaller when you can use comparisons between siblings, as opposed to population-wide studies.
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. Since the last “Time Well Spent” I’ve posted four paid pieces.
But can mate-competition between individuals in the context of the violent scramble for finite resources between foraging bands explain the wars we’ve seen since the rise of civilization 5,000 years ago? To understand that, we need to think more deeply about how cultures themselves evolve, and not just the genes that ultimately undergird culture.
The casus belli for the Trojan War, the Trojan prince Paris’ abduction of Helen, King Menelaus of Sparta’s legendarily beautiful wife, is clearly something that evolutionary psychologists would recognize as explicable in the framework of their theories (king Priam of Troy had 18 sons and 68 daughters by many wives). But this was likely a romantic narrative flourish added by the ancient bards. History teaches that the pretext for war is often an excuse, prettily masking the true motive. Over 2,000 years ago, Caesar attacked the Gauls in an unprovoked manner after failing to goad a desperate mass of migratory men, women and children into violating Roman borders as they fled their homeland. He wanted his war, and he got it.
Today, modern Iberian genetics reflects a complex roster of peoples stretching back languidly into the Paleolithic, with more recent layers rapidly shuffling the contributions of Visigoths, and the Arabs and Berbers of Al-Andalus, and then reflecting the peninsula’s eventual reconquest by the once northern kingdoms of Portugal, Leon, Castile and Aragon. And yet genetically, the largest fractions of modern Iberian ancestry date to migrations during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age (between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago), when the first European farmers swept in from West Asia, skirting the northern Mediterranean’s extreme fringe, followed more than 4,000 years ago by warlike cattle herders from Central Europe whose forefathers hailed from the Eurasian steppe, and who didn’t hesitate to venture to the ends of the earth in search of new, wide-open rangeland.
While the Greeks and Phoenicians could be remembered for integrating Iberia into the Mediterranean trade network (and introducing literacy), and the Romans transferred their culture in toto to most Iberians, the Visigoths lived on as swashbuckling myths and legends, notional ancestors to the Christian nobility of medieval Iberia, valiantly fighting against absorption into mighty Al-Andalus. Though paleogeneticists have found genetically distinctive Northern European individuals in 6th-century Visigothic burials, overall, the people of Spain and Portugal show little genetic impact from the German invasions (in contrast to, say, the British). Notably, the Visigothic noble who defeated the Muslim armies in northern Spain in 719 AD was called Pelagius, a clearly Latin name (in contrast, Pelagius’ father had a notably Germanic Visigothic name). The Muslim conquest occurred just as the Visigothic nobility teetered on the verge of total extinction through assimilation into the Roman population of Iberia. If the Moors had not crushed the Visigothic aristocracy on the plains of battle, their Roman subjects would soon enough have totally consumed them through marriage and memes.
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Three years ago Fryer was defenestrated: Harvard Suspends Roland Fryer, Star Economist, After Sexual Harassment Claims – The move sidelines the researcher without pay for two years, and closes his lab, in a case that has roiled the profession. After he returned Fryer couldn’t be an adviser or supervisor, have graduate students, or teach graduate workshops at Harvard.
You can read about the allegations against him, but even before watching the video, Harvard Canceled its Best Black Professor. Why?, I concluded that there was something going on beyond sexual harassment.
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.