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RKUL: Time Well Spent 10/10/2023
Almost Halloween edition
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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 Middle East is on many people’s minds right now. This is the part of the world where literacy emerged, so obviously books on its history and politics, both ancient and modern, abound.
I haven’t read many books on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1998 was recommended to me by a friend and Arab citizen of Israel whom I have known since we were teens, and who has taken a deep interest in the geopolitics of the region for decades now. In terms of positionality, before 2000, Morris was viewed as a figure of the left, though today his stance is categorized as more hawkish. More importantly, Morris sees himself primarily as a scholar, not an activist. Obviously, Righteous Victims is neither exhaustive nor the final word, but at 768 pages it has the runtime to get you well on the way to understanding the conflict’s modern context.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires is a hard book to describe because it straddles the line between a lyrical style and deep scholarly engagement. Mackintosh-Smith is an Orientalist of the old school; his book emerges out of an outsider’s love for Arab culture and history. As such, he provides a sympathetic portrait reaching back thousands of years. Notably, this is not a work that reduces Arabs simply to Islam, which is sadly rarer than it should be. Arab Christian kingdoms like the Lakhimids of Iraq and Ghassanids of Jordan were critical players in the geopolitics of Late Antiquity, while in the 3rd century AD several Roman Emperors: Elagabalusm, Alexander Severus and Philip, were of Arab ancestry.
Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples lacks Mackintosh-Smith’s lyrical panache, but is an exhaustive survey with a definite skew toward the modern period, laying the scene for the geopolitical conflicts that we see today. Hourani begins with the rise of Islam, documents the collapse of Arab Nationalism in the 1960s and covers the rise of Islamism in its wake.
What Hourani and Mackintosh-Smith do for the Arabs, Norman Cantor does for the Jews in The Sacred Chain. Although the Sacred Chain was written long before the latest leaps forward in DNA, it remains relevant. I re-read The Sacred Chain in the early 2010’s, and feel the cultural history of the Jewish people has not been updated greatly by genetics (no matter how much was in fact illuminated), because the folkways, religion and customs seem to have been faithfully passed down from father to son as they mixed with indigenous women. Cantor begins with the scattering of the Diaspora, traces developments in Spain and Germany in particular, and then loops back to Zionism’s emergence in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Stepping back to deep history, Amanda Podany’s new book, Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East, delivers a whole different view of the cultures and societies of the region. Reaching down to the centuries before Christ, its chronological span overlaps with both Arabs and The Sacred Chain. Weavers, Scribes, and Kings is the sort of book that focuses in turn on ancient fiscal policy or the practical difficulties female merchants in Sumer 4,500 years ago faced. It shows that the Near East was not just defined by past political and military events, a caution we would still do well to heed today.
China’s Factory Floor Is Moving—But Not to India or Mexico: Companies seeking alternatives to China are finding the country’s vast interior still holds big advantages. My main question here has to do with water transport, because coastal China’s advantage is in the ports that can handle large container ships. Yes, labor is cheaper in the interior, but do any of these locations have Shenzhen or Shanghai’s transport capacity?
Same-Sex Behavior Evolved in Many Mammals to Reduce Conflict, Study Suggests - But the researchers cautioned that the work could not shed much light on sexual orientation in humans. The behavior seems to emerge in social mammals, and what species is more social than humans? That being said, I think it’s a good point that one-size-fits-all theories are probably not viable for same-sex activity across all lineages.
How Mick Jagger Has Kept the Rolling Stones in Business for Six Decades. Something that people more into music history (low bar) have pointed out to me is that while The Beatles were working-class kids and initially easily manipulated, Jagger and The Rolling Stones were middle-class and savvier in dealing with their managers and leveraging their brand from the start.
The "Deaths of Despair" narrative is wrong. It’s not magic, compositional changes in the population and policy changes relating to pharmaceuticals explain the patterns.The widening gap between college and non-college populations in life expectancy may simply reflect the non-college population becoming more and more marginal, as more people go to university. The disparate impact of increased mortality rates and reduced life expectancy on white Americans in particular reported widely in the media turns out to be mostly accounted for by this population’s more advanced age and attendant higher odds of being sick. Yglesias makes a compelling case that people just want to ignore these facts because the “deaths of despair” narrative is appealing and people were trying to be polite to the Nobel-holder superstar academics behind the thesis.
The Handbook of Rationality. This text is now free online, and is worth reading just to get a sense of Judea Pearl’s understanding of causality, which has influenced so many people in statistics of late. Don’t tell me the internet never offered you anything beyond porn, doom-scrolling and TikTok videos.
The Slow and Steady Demise of South Africa. As they say, everything happens slowly, until it happens fast.
Deficits Don’t Matter—Until They Do. The piece is from 2021, but now that the era of low interest rates is over and deficits are back as a policy issue, these sorts of analyses regain relevance.
The landscape of ancient human pathogens in Eurasia from the Stone Age to historical times. This is really awesome. Confirms that the pathogen environment of Eurasia went through two major upticks in the Holocene. First, farmers increased in number, allowing for the persistence of density-dependent diseases. Second, steppe pastoralists supercharged zoonotic diseases by spreading their herds all across Eurasia.
Ancestral genetic components are consistently associated with the complex trait landscape in European biobanks. Basically, the weighting of the three primary ancestral components in Europeans: Mesolithic forager, Neolithic farmer and steppe herder, explain a population’s distribution of a quantitative trait. For example, Northern Europeans have more steppe herder ancestry than Southern Europeans, steppe herders were bigger and taller, and so are modern Northern Europeans consequently.
Regional specialization, polyploidy, and seminal fluid transcripts in the Drosophila female reproductive tract. This is one of science’s most exhaustively studied model organisms, but the authors assure us “D. melanogaster female reproductive tract remains poorly understood or completely unknown.” Here’s to unexplored frontiers in human knowledge!
Bronze Age Northern Eurasian Genetics in the Context of Development of Metallurgy and Siberian Ancestry and Postglacial genomes from foragers across Northern Eurasia reveal prehistoric mobility associated with the spread of the Uralic and Yeniseian languages. These papers reveal the origin of the Uralic languages, and the role of the Seima-Turbino phenomenon in revolutionizing Eurasia’s ethnolinguistic landscape 4,000 years ago.
Retracing Human Genetic Histories and Natural Selection Using Precise Local Ancestry Inference. They report detecting selection at a locus in British genomes of an allele introduced from Scandinavians. This is pretty incredible, if true, because the two groups are genetically close.
Admix-kit: An Integrated Toolkit and Pipeline for Genetic Analyses of Admixed Populations. So many tools, so little time, but this is from a really well known group, and more and more populations will be admixed populations in the near future.
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 three in-depth pieces looking at human population history in three corners of the planet, southern Africa, today’s Xinjiang and the Eurasian steppe.
When I began these two pieces on the Bantu expansion across most of Sub-Saharan Africa, I lamented to my editor that given the paucity of internal sources, I was stuck using European colonists’ and Arab traders’ names and records to bring to life what was a wholly African phenomenon. She wasn’t sympathetic. You didn’t care when it was the Yamnaya (the proto-Indo-European steppe warriors with whom I am notoriously obsessed) who were illiterate and only recorded in shadowy strokes by the conquered, she shrugged. And it’s true. I don’t find myself conflicted delving into the juxtaposition of the Yamnaya’s world-altering innovations with their unlettered and often mercilessly barbaric tendencies. They were illiterate savages. And they brought us the languages most of us speak in science, technology and business today, they spread the humble wheel that powers our complex world. These wild men domesticated the horses that enabled any number of great leaps forward in human transport, supercharged warfare and powered civilization over the millennia. Not to mention leaving a huge tranche of enduring genetic material in peoples from the western ocean to the southern seas.
And so perhaps it should be with Shaka Zulu and his Bantus. Regardless of who brings us the snatches of realistic detail about his exploits I relay, Shaka Zulu’s Mfecane had the force of an atom bomb on his corner of his continent, leaving a record as indelible as an asteroid impact on the genetics of the region. Shaka was an unhinged egomaniac, but he willed an almost overnight demographic transition; given peasants and herds, he reshaped them into a brutal infantry. We see that wrenching transition’s analogs genetically and civilizationally the world over throughout the last twelve millennia of human history. Ferocious Bantu farmers like Shaka’s subclade repeopled much of Africa with an unstoppable force, as had warlike farmers in every former forager redoubt over the millennia.
In 2023, fifteen years after the publication of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, much that was hidden has become clear. After more than three decades of debate, the 2015 publication of two papers confirming the demographic revolution in Eurasia triggered by the Yamnaya expansion, Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe and Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia, was a revelation for many scholars. Colin Renfrew, who had proposed that Indo-European linguistic dominance in Europe was a function of farming’s spread from Anatolia beginning 10,000 years ago, conceded that his model could not survive the new results unscathed. We now know that the steppe mattered, that its role in Eurasia’s transformation 5,000 years ago was central and essential. Gimbutas, who died in 1994, did not live to see the utter vindication of her views on Yamnaya importance. But her students, J. P. Mallory and David Anthony, are now at the center of the newly vigorous debate about Indo-European origins, because their longstanding theories and conjectures dovetail so much more naturally with the newest paleogenomic empirical findings than all other contenders.
But those papers are not this tale’s final chapters. The saga continues. That there was a massive migration out of the steppe is now attested fact. But why did that massive migration happen? Were horses the catalyst? Possibly. Did plague kill the Neolithic rivals of the Yamnaya? The latest work suggests that is unlikely. Was the Yamnaya expansion driven by the fission from their home tribes of youthful warbands (koryos)? In some cases, the steppe migration does seem to have been male-mediated, with indigenous ancestry being female. But in other instances, entire tribes moved, men, women and children. Genetics now tells us that the early Indo-European migrations did not occur as a singular continuous unstructured event; the pure Yamnaya seem to have moved into the Balkans, the Baltic, Mongolia and the south Caucasus first, but later migrations were driven by the Corded Ware Culture, itself a genetic offshoot of Yamnaya migrants to Europe south of the Baltic. It was these hybrid Corded Ware who then expanded both west and east after 2900 BC, taking Indo-European languages from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal. We are now closing the books on many open questions, but that certainty only generates more paths to follow, and fresh mysteries to ponder, like the yet unsettled origin of the earliest literate Indo-European culture, the Anatolian Hittites. The next generation may not see the puzzle of the Indo-Europeans fully solved, but many more pieces will settle into place. Ultimately, no matter how much fresh certainty it delivers, science always leaves us with the whole picture incomplete; each revolution in our understanding only unlocking further frontiers of questions we can aspire to settle. The outlines of the vast empire of Indo-European knowledge have been freshly and precisely re-inscribed on the map. And now, a vast uncharted interior territory awaits our curiosity and our ingenuity as the pace of scientific inquiry gallops tirelessly on.
And so the Uyghurs were reborn as a people, professing a new religion and speaking a different language. But this transmutation is informatively contradicted by genetics: the Karluks and Old Uyghurs were related Turkic people who together rose in Mongolia in the 7th century as the eastern steppe’s earlier ruling dynasties collapsed. Genetically, they were both ultimately Siberian, despite having absorbed some Iranian ancestry thousands of years earlier from Scythians, Sarmatians and their Indo-Iranian predecessors. They were heirs to the Xiongnu and subsequent Turkic people. The Old Uyghur arrival in the Tarim Basin after 800 AD is visible in the genetic patterns we see in modern Uyghurs, with a several-century-long rise in northern East Asian ancestry evident in ancient DNA. Combined with the older Iranian, Tocharian, Han, Tibetan and Siberian forager ancestry, all the major threads were in place when the Mongols conquered Xinjiang in the 1200’s.
Since then, the social and political changes have been memetic, not genetic. The arrival of Kara-Khanids, Chagatai, Kalmyks and Manchu were matters of elite transfers of power. The demographic vortex that had been the Tarim Basin since the end of the last Ice Age finally slowed to a steady state that would endure in the second millennium of the Common Era. The modern Uyghurs have roots ancient and recent; from Turks who arrived 1,000 years ago, to Han Chinese who followed imperial armies 2,000 years ago, Iranians who came in their chariots 3,500 years ago and proto-Tocharians who drove their herds into Dzungaria 4,500 years ago, and the ancestors of the Tarim Basin mummies who may have arrived as early as 9,000 years ago. The Uyghurs have always been there, despite their modern name being a creation of 20th-century Communist ethnologists. And perhaps, unlike the Dzungars, whatever their official name, the timeless Uyghur presence will prove permanent, withstanding even the most vicious 21st-century Chinese Communist attempts to suppress the most salient features of their cultural identity or extirpate them completely from their homeland after a tenure millennia in the making.
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.
It’s been a busy month, not just for in-depth posts; I’ve also had multiple weeks with double-episode podcast releases. Here are my guests (and a monologue topic) 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 run a quick check for major errors).
. There 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, etc.
Facebook message me
My total feed of content
My long-time blog, GNXP
My old podcast, The Insight
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 hope I’ll write about, lay it on us.