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RKUL: Time Well Spent 11/11/2022
Fall back 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?
People often ask me which books on Indian history are worth reading. My honest answer is that for whatever reason I don’t feel there are that many good English-language books published or distributed in the US on the history of India. It’s different in India, of course, but those books do not always make it abroad.
So what I sometimes default to is: just read all the Cambridge histories of India. But that’s tough going, and some of them are a bit of a drag. So here are seven books that I think are accessible and useful for the general reader.
First, John Keay’s India: A History will cover all the bases for anyone just getting started. This is most definitely not for anyone with an advanced interest, and Keay’s level of depth will annoy those more “in the know.” But if you’re starting from scratch this is your best bet; Keay’s writing style is engaging, and he lacks any major ideological ax to grind. He delivers pure description, from 3000 BC to 1947 AD.
I bring up ideology because Indian historiography is riven by faction and accusations of bias. The regnant post-World War II fashion favored a strain of Marxism that took its cues from the cultural and political Left. And the ideological conflicts extend back to interpretations of antiquity, as right-wing polemicists rage against Marxist interpretations of the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization and the arrival of the Aryans. For the subcontinent’s early history, I recommend Romila Thapar’s Early History of India: From the Origins to 1300 AD. My caution here is that while Thapar is not a Marxist, she tends to take an excessively skeptical view of the conservatives' claims in the current Indian “culture wars.” But on the descriptive facts, I find many of her interpretations spot on. I consider Early History of India essential reading because the centrality of the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy in contemporary South Asia tends to overshadow the deep roots of Indian civilization, which go back thousands of years. This volume provides a good corrective.
Speaking of the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy, you can’t hope to grasp that until you understand the Mughals, the Turco-Islamic dynasty that dominated the subcontinent for over two centuries, and who remained de jure rulers of India until 1857. The Taj Mahal is the apotheosis of Mughal cultural creativity, while modern-day Pakistan is arguably self-consciously the Mughals’ political heir. Abraham Eraly’s The Mughal Throne is a narrative history that covers the centuries when India was dominated by this dynasty and lays out satisfyingly why modern subcontinental geopolitical fissures cannot be made intelligible without the Mughal prelude.
Though the Mughal Empire was already a puppet of other powers by the second half of the 1700’s, the British East India Company ultimately rendered it totally impotent, a symbolic imperial captive. Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India covers nearly two centuries of European domination in the subcontinent, from the East India period down to the eve of Independence. Overall, I think Indians overestimate the contingent and distinctive impact of the British on the subcontinent, for good or ill (read my full review in UnHerd).
Unlike ancient India before the arrival of Muslims, I can think of probably dozens of good books on 1947’s partition that birthed the two new nation-states of Pakistan and India, as well as on the momentous decades just after. Midnight's Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition, by Keay again, is a good survey of the decades after the bloody division of the subcontinent. It chronicles the rise of Indian economic power and the lead-up to the war that was barely averted in 1999 at Kargil.
If Keay offers a gentle introduction to contemporary subcontinental history, Ramachandra Guha’s massive India After Gandhi is the definitive deep-dive, exploring social, cultural and political dynamics of the Indian nation-state decade by decade. But with Guha, again I have to point out the ideological bias: he is clearly partial to the Nehruvian project of non-sectarian socialism that was dominant up until this century.
The emergence of a self-consciously Hindu nationalist party as dominant in modern India is why I recommend Vinayak Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Modern Hindutva has numerous threads and origins, but Savarkar’s original ideas are an informative starting point. He makes it clear that he conceives of Hindu identity as an ethno-civilizational one, rather than an expression of religious piety.
Some Surprising Good News: Bookstores Are Booming and Becoming More Diverse. The piece emphasizes identity politics a bit much for my taste, but still usefully illustrates the importance of bookshops as “third places” that are necessary. People do still need to get out of the house sometimes. I can’t resist noting the strange bit of personal trivia that more than two decades ago I briefly did customer service for the independent bookstore association mentioned in the piece.
What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture - You can make a thing so perfect that it’s ruined. In some aspects of culture, average is most definitely not over. Everyone keeps doing the same thing over and over. This quote aligns with my intuition: “One analysis of the history of pop-music styles found that rap and hip-hop have dominated American pop music longer than any other musical genre.”
Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? No, they weren’t. Another beloved myth debunked, after having been spread forever, including, I’m afraid by yours truly…
Home prices are finally starting to fall—especially in California. The idea that housing is an investment is a problem in my opinion. Houses are to live in, they’re functional.
The Next Century of Computing: 80 Brief Predictions for the Future. While prediction lists are mostly clickbait to drive traffic, I found this list good fodder for follow-up; it surfaces lots of powerful computer-science concepts that could become ubiquitous in short order, many of which I hadn’t even encountered prior.
Hating the Saxon: The Academic Battle Against The English Origin Story Anglo-Saxonism, the post-war struggle against Germanic Studies and the new genetic revelations. I think genetics has at least limited the parameter space of possibilities in terms of what happened in the past, but academic turf wars will never end.
Dangerous research needs regulation. Nick Patterson speaks. I haven’t talked much about the “lab leak” controversy because I haven’t had time/energy to keep up, but let me pass on what Patterson thinks: “...readers will know that I believe that it is overwhelmingly likely that COVID-19 was a virus engineered in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), that escaped by accident.” Additionally, many people I know with evolutionary or molecular genetics backgrounds privately share this opinion, but virologists generally strongly disagree.
GWAS Stories. A new human genetics Substack.
A genomic snapshot of demographic and cultural dynamism in Upper Mesopotamia during the Neolithic Transition. Understanding the interaction of groups in the Near East 10,000 years ago is incredibly important because this is where many of the “great human diasporas” (to use L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s term) originated. Though genetics cannot answer questions like “where did the Semitic languages come from?”, it can help.
Accurate identification of de novo genes in plant genomes using machine learning algorithms. I think we’ll see more and more papers using “deep learning” in the next few years. A bottom-up form of machine learning works a bit like magic (to my mind) to uncover features in the genome.
Different genetic architectures of complex traits and their relevance to polygenic score performance. The performance of polygenic scores is a big issue coloring whether their conclusions are portable. This preprint finds that “binary” traits (presence/absence) in particular have massive problems, compared to quantitative traits (height). I think this makes sense; when you get down to it, a lot of “binary” traits are coded more for human convenience of categorization than faithfully reflecting ultra-distinct alternatives.
Admixture has obscured signals of historical hard sweeps in humans. “Hard sweeps” refers to the selection of rare variants whose prevalence rises rapidly due to adaptive benefit. The logic here, which I find plausible, is that admixture mixes and matches the DNA segments that would offer vivid evidence of hard sweeps. And we know from ancient DNA that this admixture has become pervasive in the last 10,000 years.
A gene-level test for directional selection on gene expression. This preprint looks at the selection on functionally significant regions because “most variants associated in genome-wide association studies and. scans for selection are non-coding.”
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 posted two in-depth paid pieces. Both companions to my earlier piece, Ararat’s long shadow: Asia Minor’s major impact on humanity.
During the late Bronze Age, the Hittites were the civilized world’s greatest power. They stood astride the edge of the civilized world and were involved in events at its heart, facing off against barbaric and illiterate tribes of the Black Sea shore and in the Balkans, and penetrating into the heart of the ancient Middle East, battling Egypt to a standstill and taming Syria and Mesopotamia. The first great Indo-European-speaking political and cultural power, the Hittites were a behemoth whose actions and incredible influence warped the world around them for a time, only to be washed away by the tides of history, as the barbarian migrations of the 12th-century BC swiftly undid their mighty works. Even the ghost of Hattusas, their capital city, was lost to memory. Nearly two millennia later, the Hittite heartland would be reborn as the foundation and heart of the Byzantine Empire, the fragment of Imperial Rome that persisted into the Dark Ages, after the catastrophic end of Antiquity in the West. Where the Hittites were the greatest power of the age, the Byzantines crucially stood against the might of all Araby. In the end, the might of the Hittites could not halt their slide into oblivion, but the Byzantine perseverance against hopeless odds yielded a renaissance and resurgence before their defeat at Manzikert in 1071 AD. In Classical Byzantium’s final century, Christian Anatolian armies ranged across Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Christian Emperors in Constantinople dreamed of reconquering Jerusalem itself.
Unlike in the early medieval Turkic domains of the Balkans, the Avar and Bulgar Empires, or the later medieval Turkic conquests in the Indian subcontinent, the Turkic rise to ruling caste across much of the Middle East was clearly accompanied by a folk migration. In Anatolian Turks, about 8% of the mtDNA maternal lineages seem East Asian, while over 10% of the paternal Y chromosomes are from the east. In contrast, the genetic imprint of Turks in India, despite 600 years of Islamic rule, is trivial, while the centuries of Turkic rule in the Balkans left names and myths but precious little genetically. And yet, obviously, even in Anatolia the modal modern Turk is but an inflection on the basic Anatolian stock that had persisted since Hittite times. In The Turks in World History Carter Findley estimates that perhaps a million Turks migrated into Anatolia in the decades after Manzikert, while in A Concise History of Byzantium Warren Treadgold estimates that the peninsula’s population during this period was eight to nine million. The proportions of Turkic admixture implied by these numbers align with the genetic data reviewed above. The Oghuz Turkic tribes compensated for their modest numbers with an assimilative culture into which Greeks, Armenians and remnant Isaurians seem to have gradually been absorbed for nearly 1,000 years, down to the early modern period.
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.
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On the blog
There’s lots of talk about polling and focus groups, but both sides could benefit from a little history. Contrary to what the critics of Shorism assert in the piece, racism is not just a tool of the powerful to divide the masses. In some cases, like with the Bourbon Democrat elites of the South, it was used crudely, but strong ethnoracial identitarianism was always more salient among the masses. Elites tend toward global affinities and cosmopolitanism, and their adherence to strong local identities is often part of a quid pro quo. The critics of Shorism who believe that racial division is false consciousness that can be overcome with messaging are ignorant.
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, what I really should be writing for you lay it on us.