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RKUL: time well spent 10/10/2021
Recommendations for everything, 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?
In the last few weeks, new results about the genetic history of the New World have broken. Tim Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples is a good primer for natural history, while early next year will see Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas. I can definitely recommend the first, and the second is written by someone whose competence I’m confident of.
Over the past month, I’ve written two pieces on the genetics of the Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Genetics is not where you start on this sort of topic, but we are now at a point where it can swoop in and flesh out details, clarify confusion and settle disputes.
The title of Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 says it all. To understand the integration and assimilation of Jews into European culture over this period, you need to know what happened in Germany. Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism: A History, shows how the world’s largest Jewish diaspora came to be, and how it evolved from the small cohesive Sephardim through the German-dominated population of the mid-19th century and finally to the Eastern European mass migrations of the Ellis-Island period.
Adin Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud gives you a sense of why this set of texts and commentaries remained at the heart of Judaism for 1,300 years. The Judaism of the Reform tradition pioneered in Germany is very different because they see themselves as counterpoints to the religion of the Orthodox rabbis. America’s movement for Conservative Judaism emerged out of the Eastern European demographic base and was more culturally sympathetic to their ancestral traditions, but nevertheless was a sharp deviation from Orthodoxy. These forms of Judaism are fundamentally assimilationist ruptures with the continuous religion of antiquity. Steinsaltz’s sympathetic treatment is important because it will give many Christians and people from Christian backgrounds a better sense of what the religious views of Jews in the modern world truly are, and what they have been for 1,000 years, as opposed to what they read in the Old Testament.
Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India is a book you read less to learn about the past than to learn about the present mentality and Weltanschauung of academics. My own writings should make it clear I think the author gets a lot wrong, but he nails what his audience and colleagues want to hear.
Cicero is a new intellectual curation service. Like Substack, the aim of this site is to fight the algorithm. The founder, Farzad Khosravi says that his goal is to “share factual, good-faith content from world-leading thinkers...fixing our broken information landscape.”
Progressives' mobilization delusion: Anatomy of a political dead end. It’s a little weird to me to read that a whole political movement was based on some data analysis errors. Weren’t these people supposed to be the geniuses behind the 2012 Obama data-driven win?
The Facebook Whistleblower Is Heroic... And Terribly Wrong: Frances Haugen got a lot right. But a digital regulator that legitimizes Facebook's power would be the worst possible outcome. Matt Stoller writes what you’d expect him to write, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
In Abortion and eugenics Noah Carl comments on the reaction to Diana Fleischman’s The Moral Panic about Eugenics Poses a Threat to Abortion Rights. “Eugenics” seems an overused word, and its definition is pretty flexible. I am sick of so many liberal academics’ aversion to talking about the ubiquity of noninvasive prenatal screening in the US. It’s only eugenics when other people do it.
OZY Rules: The House Negro Gets It in the End The now-defunct OZY's business chicanery conceals a much more corrosive narrative. I hate the word “weaponized” but that’s what OZY did with identity politics. POC and women founders are a huge thing in the start-up world, but POC and women founders can be just as abusive as white males, so expect many more stories like this over the years as people leverage their identity to treat their employees like crap (this is the subtext of many takedowns of the “girlboss” type).
Why Do Species Get a Thin Slice of π? Revisiting Lewontin’s Paradox of Variation. I support scientists writing blog posts on their science so the public can understand what they’re doing.
The Culture War Is Coming For Your Genes. A negative review of Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery tackling its political priors. Since I didn’t have many scientific disagreements with the author of The Genetic Lottery, if I were to present a negative critique it would be about our political disagreements, but I find political writing tedious. If you want a deconstruction of Harden’s political arguments, this is for you.
Under fire from Hindu nationalist groups, U.S.-based scholars of South Asia worry about academic freedom. You said your scholarship wasn’t about excavating truth, but about exploring and undermining the structures of power. You don’t defend freedom of expression because it can give cover to oppression and intolerance. Now your enemies aim to seize power and bludgeon you with your own rhetoric. You constructed the arena where challengers could confront you in the brutal ring of power. Now fight.
Why streaming content keeps vanishing—and how to stop it. Oh for the days pre-2010, when streaming was big on Netflix, but the copyright holders weren’t yet yanking stuff.
My old friend David Shor is making headlines again. For what else, daring to observe and quantify what’s true. Our podcast conversation is here. And if you’re not maxed out on cancel-culture anecdotes yet, David’s name comes up in one here in my thus far most-liked Substack post, from back in July: Get Lucky.
Quantifying the relationship between genetic diversity and population size suggests natural selection cannot explain Lewontin’s Paradox. Lewontin’s Paradox is one of the biggest things in population and evolutionary genetics over the last two generations.
Investigating the genetic architecture of eye colour in a Canadian cohort. Basically, eye-color prediction is getting better.
A general framework for identifying rare variant combinations in complex disorders. This is going to be a big deal proceeding forward in the next decade.
Balancing quality and quantity of social relationships in volatile social environments. Population-genetic concepts and social and cultural phenomena. Yes, I’ll click, I’ll read. As should you, for you see the future right here.
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 had a huge response to the two recent pieces on the genetics and history of the Jews, first the Ashkenazim and now the Sephardim. From Ashkenazi Jewish genetics: a match made in the Mediterranean: How and when did the Ashkenazim come to be?
But in many ways, the history of the Ashkenazim is another story of the power of culture over genes. Until 1800, the vast majority of Jews notable in Western history after antiquity were Sephardim, the Jews of Spain. Spinoza, the brilliant Dutch philosopher of the 17th century, and Benjamin Disraeli, first Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 19th century, are cases of this even in Northern Europe. But after 1800, the balance began to shift, and radically so. The arrival of Ashkenazi Jews to Western Europe, quickly led to wholesale marginalization of the Sephardim. With the acculturation of Jews from Eastern Europe into German, British and French society, the Ashkenazim immediately shone brightly in the arts and sciences. After nearly 800 years of segregation, they rapidly assimilated and ascended up the ranks, becoming integral figures in Western culture.
Then, those early golden children, The eternal wanderers: Sephardic Jewish genetics and culture:
The horrors of the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel have again rebalanced power and influence somewhat. Today, those who follow Sephardic religious traditions are nearly 25% of the world’s Jews, and 50% of the Jewish population of Israel. Israel’s central role in modern Jewish identity means that the Sephardim are influential anew. Modern Hebrew tends to follow the pronunciation of the Sephardic tradition, not that of the Ashkenazi. Though the Ashkenazim still dominate the higher socioeconomic strata, working-class Sephardim power the electoral success of the right-wing parties that have dominated Israel for the past generation. If the rise of the Ashkenazim can be attributed to demographics, so their decline may be attributed to the same phenomenon. The forces of assimilation, conversion and low fertility mean America’s Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish population will decline in the next 30 years, and Israel will be home to the majority of the world’s Jews by 2050.
I also have a piece out about India, The character of caste: Sorry, white people, you didn’t invent this one. An extract is below, but it’s best taken as a chaser once you’re already read two earlier pieces, Stark Truth About Aryans: a story of India and Stark Truth About Humans: a story of India.
But out of the original mixing there emerged a great stratification, an ancient reification of abstractions of varna and ritual purity and pollution. The early Indian epics describe dark-skinned forest dwellers on the margins of civilization, beyond the pale of the Aryan social system. Eventually, these people were integrated into Hinduism and made their own contribution to the diversity and social complexity of the subcontinent. But, thousands of years later, their descendants are to a great extent still on the margin, the low castes, the outcastes, the tribal people.
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).
Here are my guests since the last Time Well Spent:
And here are the currently ungated podcasts all in one place.
For subscribers, I’ve now been posting transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch errors).
Again, I talk most Fridays on Clubhouse about some genetic or historical topic. Join my club for notifications. These conversations are more unscripted and free-form than podcasts. I can report that I have been hailed for my assertive use of the mute option. It’s best for everyone, I swear. I also heckle my friends. Not a fan of the “this is more of a comment than a question...” contributions, but I do always take legit questions!
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.
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On the blog
Not all causes are treated equally. Real talk:
To be entirely frank I think Harden was on solid ground as a behavior geneticist with psychological training who relied on what population geneticists say publicly all the time about heritability and group differences. The issue is that I do not believe population geneticists were entirely candid about the deep texture of their assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. They wanted to be left alone to do their research, and so relied on a mantra to make people leave them alone, and now that mantra taken so literally is coming back to haunt them. One reason Prezworski’s thread got a lot of attention is privately this is the sort of intuition and sense that’s widely understood, but the issues are subtle, so to outsiders people just leave it off with the quick quips about portability. A friend told me “Molly doing this is like a goddess descending to Earth to speak to mere mortals so it will get a lot of attention.”
Basically, geneticists who study evolution and population history don’t want to be inconvenienced with crazy racists asking crazy questions or social-justice types who want to paint them as eugenicists (the field does have origins and intersections with eugenics). So they’ve been saying obfuscatory about human population genetics for decades, hoping no one has noticed, and no one has. Nothing literally false by the letter of the law, but certainly violations of the spirit.
But the emergence of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, which has popularized and democratized our intuitions about human population structure, and advances in behavior genetics using genomics, which has brought to the fore inconvenient phenotypes with possible biological bases, have brought the white lies into the open. Human population structure exists. It’s not trivial. And the truth, whatever it is, will be uncovered in the next generation.
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.