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RKUL: Time Well Spent 06/06/2023
June Heat 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?
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK has become a seemingly stagnant society, with The Economist comparing the British economy to that of Italy. English friends tell me that outside western London's shiny and affluent bubbles,, the nation has a ragged, downscale feel compared even to the US. Anyone who has worked in the professions knows that outside of finance, American salaries are often two-fold greater. The UK arguably has no dynamic economic sectors beyond finance, and possibly, biotechnology.
In the late 19th century, Britain was the world's richest nation, and in the centuries prior it had already taken a lead in measures of economic growth and worker productivity, pioneering the modern nation-state. Despite its current condition, having fallen from greatness, the British Isles have a rich, deep history that extends far further back than its shiny imperial period. The oldest pubs in England predate North America's settlement. To truly understand the history and origin of the most powerful nation in world history will entail probing beyond what you might glean from biographies of Henry VIII or “Mad King George.”
Welsh historian Norman Davies The Isles: A History is an excellent introduction to British history because it does not treat England, or even, Britain separately from the “Celtic Fringe” of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Davies argues, correctly in my estimation, that the history of England, the most powerful and populous of the nations of the British Isles, cannot be understood without the history of the Celtic Fringe. The Isles persuasively highlights the insular geography of these peoples as having powerfully shaped them, no matter the deep linguistic and historical differences. England and later Britain may have had a centuries-long connection with France during the medieval period (when the kings spoke French) and German Hanover in early modernity (when they spoke German), but Ireland and Scotland were neighbors in a much more substantive and long-standing way.
If The Isles: A History is a grand narrative, Michael Woods’ In Search of the Dark Ages is well-crafted in its focus on a shorter and murkier time period, that between the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain in the early 5th century and the 1066 Norman invasion. A documentarian and historian, Woods anchors his narration in individual personalities, from the mythical and famous Arthur to the historical and widely forgotten Æthelstan. Relying on archaeology when historical sources are thin, In Search of the Dark Ages is somewhat dated, but the book is a companion to a multi-part series that serves as a useful supplement to the text.
While In Search of the Dark Ages was published 40 years ago, Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England and Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England: 400 – 1066 came out in 2012 and 2021, though ideally they'd be read in reverse publication order. The last chapters of Anglo-Saxons, setting the diplomatic, cultural and social context of William the Conqueror’s conquest of England, overlap the first few chapters of The Norman Conquest. Morris’ work is a useful corrective to the most common narrative of Saxon virtue and Norman perfidy familiar from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe stories or Mel Gibson’s 1995 Braveheart. Morris’ narrative clarifies that Anglo-Saxon isolation from European cultural changes in the 11th century meant that the people the Normans conquered were quite alien to modern sensibilities whereas the Normans were not. In 1066, between 10-30% of humans in England were chattel slaves, treated like animals and often sold abroad to the Muslim world, Ireland and Scandinavia. Various simultaneous economic and cultural changes in continental Western Europe had conspired to make the erstwhile slave-trading Normans now find the practice immoral, and over the century after 1066, the institution slowly faded away. While Anglo-Saxon bishops held slaves, the Normans who replaced them freed those slaves. It is indeed correct that the Norman elite entirely replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility, but this does not necessarily seem to be a bad thing.
I clearly don’t usually recommend novels, but I'll make an exception for Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge. Cornwell is better known for his semihistorical Arthurian The Warlord Chronicles and historical Sharpe’s Rifles series and The Saxon Stories (the latter two have been adapted for television), but Stonehenge is just as well researched. Though it was written in the late 1990’s, Cornwell presciently anticipates what we've since learned about the nature of the contact between British Neolithic societies and the Bell Beaker people. Those who keenly consume archaeogenetic narratives should find Stonehenge satisfying. Though the Britain of 4,000 years ago is minimally relevant to the present, the site of Stonehenge remains essential to national identity.
John Nye’s War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689–1900 brings us back to the modern period and the rise of the United Kingdom as the world’s paramount superpower. Nye, an economic historian, outlines how the fiscal policy of the British monarchy in the 1700's allowed them to match the far more populous France in a series of wars, and eventually surpass it. Traditional histories may emphasize the victories against the Dutch, and later the French, Nye explores the structural strengths of the British system in comparison to that of their continental neighbors. Finally, War, Wine, and Taxes also illuminates how regulatory frameworks can explain cultural quirks, like why the English drink so much Port.
A Week With the Wild Children of the A.I. Boom This piece in The New York Times Magazine seems to get at the current Zeitgeist in tech; crypto crashed and A.I. has emerged to take its place. Not sure this boom and bust cycle is healthy, but it’s neen thisway for decades.
Introducing the GenRAIT Podcast. It’s a more explicitly technology-oriented podcast sponsored by my company. Five episodes are already up, Nikolai Yakovenko: AI and Biology, David Mittelman: how Othram solves cold cases with science and technology, Amanda Vondras: assembling genomes to predicting grapes, Zack Raborn: the future of CRISPR and Darrin Scherago: assembling PAG.
China's shrinking imports, slower exports growth darken economic outlook. Due to structural changes, with an older population and the end of the line for the real estate bubble, China is no longer going to be as much of a driver of world economic growth. After 2008, China served as a de facto stimulus to the world economy due to its strong demand for foreign commodities. If there is a new downturn, it won’t be playing the same role (also related, China’s Fading Recovery Reveals Deeper Economic Struggles).
A Tale of Paradise, Parking Lots and My Mother’s Berkeley Backyard. I know this area of Berkeley well. It’s solidly middle class, rather than upper middle class like the hills to the east. Berkeley really needs a lot of density to make it affordable. Unless it gets it, it will end up tge strange province exclusively of tech workers and ancient hippies. These issues are spreading across the country. We need to build. It’s not rocket science. We have the technology. I 100% agree with Freddie deBoer’s piece A Housing Abundance Movement Can Help Save America's Wild Spaces. Build high in the city so that sprawl is less necessary elsewhere.
Sherman Alexie in Persuasion, The ‘I’ in BIPOC - Not all Native Americans are leftist political activists. The American Indians that most affluent liberal white Americans encounter are very atypical; many are not even Native American. Many non-whites, of all ideologies, know the stuff that Alexie talks about intuitively, but since many liberal whites don’t encounter that many “people of color,” their understanding of us is more “anthropological,” a term coined in this content by a friend in academia when he noted that his colleague’s concern for social justice involved systems because they knew so few non-whites personally. White liberal understanding of non-white psychology is important so that they will be less flummoxed when, for example, the Chinese go to Africa and widely behave in a racist manner.
Mensa: The Above Average IQ Society - What happens when people who obsess over tests form a club based on test results? Turns out Mensa members are very weird and not very smart.
Reproductive inequality in humans and other mammals. Mammals, unlike birds, tend to be polygynous and males tend not to invest too much in their offspring. Humans seem to be an exception, being on the more monogamous side (though there are obvious exceptions).
The role of genetic selection and climatic factors in the dispersal of anatomically modern humans out of Africa. All of the ‘out-of-Africa’ populations seem to have been subject to many similar bouts of natural selection that make them distinctive from ancestral African populations. This points to the possibility of a long isolated period after the migration during which the ancestors of non-Africans went through a bottleneck and were subject to natural selection. Of course, some of the interpretations here depend on which models you consider plausible and test.
The macroevolutionary dynamics of mammalian sexual size dimorphism. It turns out that sexual dimorphism is lost faster than it is gained within lineages. Probably not surprising if you model this as a loss vs. a gain of function.
Computationally efficient demographic history inference from allele frequencies with supervised machine learning. Instead of using a maximum likelihood optimization, which I can understand, the authors produced a demographic simulation program with machine learning, which I do not understand as well. But if such models really are faster and just as good, of course, people will move over to them.
Limits to selection on standing variation in an asexual population. Most selection is on standing variation (present in the population of long-standing, rather than from new mutations), though often in sexual populations. It’s good to try and get a grasp of the long-term dynamics through these mathematical frameworks.
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 released two longer pieces.
The various aspects of Persian identity, religion, language, and folkways, have waxed and waned in their salience over the last few centuries with the roiling of modern revolutions and fashions, both cultural and political. But no one can deny that the roots of Iranian identity reach far into the deep past, back to Cyrus the Great, the first world emperor, his successors Daurius and Xerxes, who ruled from Gujarat to Thrace, and earlier still, Zoroaster, likely the earliest prophet of a revealed religion. And this sets Persia apart from its neighbors to the west and east. Modern nationalism emerged in Europe in the 1800’s, and its spread to West Asia precipitated new identities like pan-Turkism and pan-Arabism, championed in new nations like Turkey and Iraq. But both pan-Turkism and pan-Arabism are novel 20th-century constructs. Arabs and the Turkic peoples have always had strong tribal identities and a deep affinity with Islamic civilization (the Arabs as its founders and the Turks as enthusiastic adopters and persuasive promoters), but both ethnolinguistic classes lacked strong supra-tribal configurations (with the possible exception of Egyptians). Persians, like Jews, Armenians and Greeks, on the other hand, have an organic national cultural memory stretching back more than two millennia, centuries before Christ, to the very edge of the Bronze Age. But this identity has evolved and changed despite the continuous lineage of historical memory.
Also, a free piece, Current status: it’s complicated:
Rather than looking for the specific place in Africa where our species arose, a weakly structured framework shifts the focus to when the dynamics that precipitated our recent worldwide expansion occurred. The most supported model in the paper implies the emergence of the proto-Khoisan, and their subsequent isolation from other human populations, approximately 120,000 years ago. This falls in the Eemian interglacial, dated from 130,000 to 115,000 years ago. These results suggest that the coalescence of modern humans began during the last warm period on Earth before our own, when hippos and hyenas roamed Britain.
This will be a more complex and messy narrative than the simple “African Eden” model for which the Out-of-Africa event preconditioned us. Perhaps for cultural and psychological reasons, many humans remain wedded to the idea that our origin was singular, exceptional and explosive. But it may be that it was multi-regional, prosaic and characterized by a long, slow-burning fuse and gradual flux. The origin of Homo sapiens in a gradual manner through recurrent mixing of geographically distinct populations should also make us consider the framing that we are humans qua humans, and the rest of Homo, from Neanderthals to Denisovans, occupy a humanoid gray zone. If our origins were weakly structured, and the whole of Africa was the playground for our lineage for millions of years, there was never a first human population. Homo was human from the beginning, and our Neanderthal and Denisovan cousins were human as well. There was simply becoming Homo sapiens, a long and gradual process, the evolution, not of the first humans, but the last.
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:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I post transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch major errors).
Some of you follow me on my newsletter, blog, or Twitter. But my own domain also has all of the links and updates: https://www.razib.com. Here you’ll find links to the few different podcasts I’ve contributed to or run, my total RSS feed, links to more mainstream or print articles when I remember to post them, my Twitter, the occasional guest appearance here and there, etc.
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.