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RKUL: time well spent 09/12/2021
Recommendations for everything, almost-fall 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?
Steven Pinker’s newest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, is out at the end of the month. It’s Pinker, so it’s buzzy, to put it mildly. All I’ll say at this point is that Pinker of course makes topics like Bayesian reasoning accessible and engaging.
Perhaps a counterpoint to Pinker’s new book is Thinking, Fast and Slow. This book by Danny Kahneman came out about ten years ago, at the peak of the “we’re actually irrational” boom triggered by the irrational exuberance that led up to the financial crisis in 2008. I think we’re looking back at that period with some regrets now due to the replication crisis. There was perhaps excess, shall we say irrational, exuberance, about irrationality itself. Books like Pinker’s are a corrective, but it is useful to look back to where we began.
That being said, sometimes we do think fast, due to instincts and intuitions. Carole Hooven’s T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us is still an excellent read if you want to know about that. The last decade has seen a few books which turn out to be propaganda that testosterone doesn’t matter for cognition and behavior. It does. And it’s not always proximately rational (“hold my beer”).
When it comes to reasoning and rationality, Hugo Mercier’s The Enigma of Reason is well worth reading if you want to know the likely evolutionary origins of our faculties. The answer to the enigma is more Cicero than Sextus Empiricus, persuasion rather than illumination.
Twenty years ago Gerd Gigerenzer was making the argument that we’re actually not that irrational in Adaptive Thinking: Rationality in the Real World. Kahneman and Amos Tversky got famous, but Gigerenzer might have been closer to being right.
If you didn’t read Richard J. Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence when it came out, I’d recommend you see to that. It mixes cognitive neuroscience and psychometrics to unusually satisfying effect.
Finally, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter is an excellent argument that individual intelligence isn’t enough to explain our social complexity. Our “social brain” is the critical part of the puzzle people often miss when they talk about “rationality.” We’re more than the sum of our parts.
Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters? This is a breathless 9,000-word profile of Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden. I’d recommend just reading The Genetic Lottery, but the reaction to the piece underscores that it’s going to be a hard slog to convince progressives that genetics matters.
Freddie deBoer, everyone’s favorite heredity-aware communist has been on fire, Why Resist Blank Slate Thinking? For One, Look to No Child Left Behind and Genes Believe in You. NCLB probably started a chain reaction of toxic policies that echo down to the present. It was one of the worst things that George W. Bush enacted, though we let others loom larger.
Also, a YouTube for Zoomers with Harden and DeBoer, Genes, education and society round table.
COVID-1889. Persuasive that yes, it was a coronavirus pandemic that hit us in the late 19th century. We know that there has been natural selection around coronavirus epidemics in East Asians 20,000 years ago.
Why have there been so few COVID deaths in Japan? One thing about COVID-19 is that it’s a natural experiment run in a lot of places. There’ll be a lot of retrospective analysis in the next decade based on the gusher of data being generated.
Towards the abolition of animal farming. I think it won’t be abolished, but it will become a niche, and much more humane.
The Other Afghan Women and In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb. Basically, the US abetted and aided human rights horrors, and inflicted them upon the Afghans as well, for the whole period of US intervention. It’s weird in some ways that the media is reporting it now, but I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances in the military for twenty years that we don’t know half a percent of the horrors that our military inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan (both nations have had more than 200,000 civilian deaths confirmed due to civil war since 2001).
Effective population size for culturally evolving traits. Cultural evolution is a field that’s exploded in the last decade. Keep an eye on it.
Human generation times across the past 250,000 years and Different historical generation intervals in human populations inferred from Neanderthal fragment lengths and mutation signatures. Generation times have fluctuated historically. Males have longer generation times than females and East Asians seem to have longer generation times than Europeans.
Evolution of cytokine production capacity in ancient and modern European populations. The evolution of immune systems is a big deal. Disease has always been with us, and we’ve always been adapting to it.
Population differentiation of polygenic score predictions under stabilizing selection. This looks like a major result, and relates to the traits in The Genetic Lottery.
Comparing Heritability Estimators under Alternative Structures of Linkage Disequilibrium. Related to the topics in the previous paper. Heritability matters because we care about our risk for schizophrenia or type 2 diabetes. These are heritable traits.
Multiple hominin dispersals into Southwest Asia over the past 400,000 years. Paleoanthropological results are essential to understanding the inferences derived from ancient DNA and human evolutionary genomics, and this group is starting to publish its monumental results.
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall.
I’ve continued my series (part 1, 2, 3 and 4) on the Eurasian grasslands, Steppe 2.0: would you swipe right on a steppe brother? - The biological and social consequences of Yamnaya nomadism:
The Yamnaya-powered transformation of Europe and Asia more than 5,000 years ago was a social and economic revolution, with the explosion of nomadic pastoralism across the Eurasian steppe. Its downstream linguistic and cultural consequences are with us to this very day: billions of us speak Indo-European languages, and we preserve those ancestral religious beliefs both in the shared mythology of the West and in the living religious traditions of India. To premodern minds untouched by science, the rise of obscure tribes to world conquest would have been evidence of divine providence and fate. Theirs was a world of miracles, and the gods always chose favorites. By the 20th century, supernatural explanations had foundered on the shoals of scientific materialism. But unless you were a Marxist, history was a matter of narrow description of particular places and times, rather than general theoretical narratives that explained the arc and ebb of societies and cultures. It was one damn thing after another, with broader patterns attributed to the vague laws of probability.
Also, my extended review of Harden’s book, Should we get "woke" on genetics and behavior? - The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, a progressive behavior geneticist weighs in. There was a lot of stuff relating to human population genetics that didn’t make the final cut in the UnHerd review, and I put it all in the Substack post:
Three years ago David Reich, a human population geneticist at Harvard, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times where he asserted that “since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations... the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.” Harden disagrees with this position, saying that she is “skeptical more generally of anyone who claims clairvoyance about what the science of human genetics will tell us.” But Reich’s argument comes out of his mastery of a century of evolutionary genetics, not some magical crystal ball.
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On the blog
We’re getting a really good understanding of the spread of Indo-European languages in Europe during the Bronze Age. This is on my gnxp.com blog.
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, please weigh in.