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RKUL: Time Well Spent 12/12/2021
Recommendations for everything, Solstice 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?
Recently someone asked me if it was worth reading David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World in the interest of understanding the early Indo-Europeans. That would be an emphatic yes from me. The book is nearly fifteen years old now and has since been proven wrong on some details, but qualitatively it’s an incredible resource. I re-read it last spring and gained much from the repeat endeavor. The errors are often simply matters of magnitude. Whereas Anthony hypothesized steppe Indo-Europeans were a small minority of modern European ancestry, ancient DNA indicates they’re closer to 50%. But he completely nails the general dynamic of the cultural and linguistic hurricane that exploded out of the steppe.
If you want something more recent and are not intimidated by an academically dense compilation of essays, Tracing the Indo-Europeans: New evidence from archaeology and historical linguistics is the book for you. It has chapters on topics as diverse as yogic ideas in early Sweden and dog sacrifice in ancient Kazakhstan. Thomas Olander’s introductory chapter is also a must-read on the state of Indo-European historical linguistics in 2021.
J. P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans is a classic work that still delivers deep insights, and anticipated many of the findings of ancient DNA. While Mallory is trained as an archaeologist, similar to Anthony, In Search of the Indo-Europeans leans more to the historical-linguistic dimension than The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
The above texts are broad works that cover much of Eurasia. It’s often worth focusing on narrower regions to flesh out dynamics in detail. Today the Indian subcontinent is dominated in various ways by Indo-European culture, as over 80% of the inhabitants speak Indo-Aryan languages. The dominant religion, Hinduism, still contains within it ancient and holy texts, the Vedas, that crystallized and recall ancestral steppe culture. It is through Hinduism that many of the cultural practices of steppe Indo-Europeans, like the ritual of horse sacrifice in all its peculiar detail, otherwise only faintly visible in isolated fragments of European folklore, are preserved. And yet today India, unlike Europe, has hundreds of millions of indigenous non-Indo-European speakers, those speaking the south’s numerous Dravidian languages. Peggy Mohan’s Wanderers, Kings, Merchants tackles this reality, exploring thousands of years of the interplay between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages, and in particular Sanskrit and the languages it may have encountered during the Aryan migration into the subcontinent. Mohan focuses a great deal on “retroflex consonants,” which span Indo-Aryan and Dravidian language families and even extend to eastern Iranian languages like Pashto and the dialects of the Andamanese.
If Sanskrit is the ancient Indo-European language of the east, Greek is the western equivalent. Because of the emphasis on fidelity of oral mantras, the Indo-Aryans may have recited the Vedas in a fossilized form of Sanskrit for 1,000 years before they were written down. For Greek, we have Linear-B tablets that go back to 1400 BC. Robert Drews’ Coming of the Greeks is a bit dated and wrong in many details (ancient DNA now implies Greeks arrived 500 years before Drews’ hypothesis), but I believe it gets many of the dynamics of the intrusion of the people who became the Hellenes correct. While the Indo-Aryans were absorbed into a Bronze-Age Indic world that preceded them, the Greeks fused with indigenous Mediterranean people. These represent two independent experiments in synthesis between the steppe and the civilizations of the Eurasian oikumene.
If you read my recent Dark Horse out of the Steppe, you know that the Scythians were introduced to the civilized world in large part through the Greeks. My source for many elements of the post is Barry Cunliffe’s The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe. His is mostly a work of archaeology and biogeography when focused on the Scythians, but there is a great deal of history from the viewpoint of the people liminal to these steppe warriors. This is the book you want to read to bridge the period between what Anthony covers, and the “real history” of the Iron Age 2,000 years ago.
Finally, David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past is somewhat different from the above books, in that while they are histories sometimes (usually the recent ones) informed by ancient DNA and population genetics, Reich’s book is a scientific work informed by history to extend more precise and robust inferences about history itself. Since Who We Are and How We Got Here was published, a few of the details have been altered by findings in Reich’s own lab, but in broad strokes, the book still holds together and makes a massive contribution to our understanding of how human societies came to be the way we are.
Why We Are Not Pagans. The author of this essay, Justin E. H. Smith, isn’t someone I had heard of, but clearly, he’s a moderately well-known public intellectual judging by the web footprint I found after reading him first. A philosopher and historian, Smith’s discursive style reeled me in, and I am now a subscriber to his Substack. If you are not aware of the political and sociocultural diversity of contemporary Neo-Pagans, and the pagan substratum that persisted in Europe until early modernity, I think this essay is worth a read (incidentally, he mentions Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, which useful if you want to go into exotic territory).
Bros., Lecce: We Eat at The Worst Michelin Starred Restaurant, Ever. I am not given to posting links to food reviews, so if I’m posting such a link, you have your priors. There’s something special about this review. As a public service, I warn you to put your coffee or anything you can spill at a safe distance, and if you have asthma, perhaps have an inhaler handy…?
Progressives need to tell the positive story about immigration. I agree with Noah Smith about this. The “cult of victimization” is something that nonwhite activist elites benefit from short-term, and that progressive whites are supplicants to, but it’s not something natural to the outlook of many immigrants. As someone who arrived here at age five, I can attest to that. It’s pretty offensive to me personally, but it’s not like progressives care what I think. Perhaps liberals like Noah Smith (and Matthew Yglesias) can change their minds, but ultimately rather than reasoned persuasion, I think only losing a few elections will be the tough medicine that straightens the Left out.
Our public health agencies should follow the science. It’s trite to say science is a method, not a particular result, but that doesn’t make it less true. The We Believe in Science and Trust the Experts reflexes reflect a bit of a cargo-cult mentality. Social utility calculations and risk-reward trade-offs are not matters of science, but downstream inferences filtered through our values and priorities. More concretely, Matt Yglesias here points out correctly that America’s particular vaccine dosage spacing is an artifact of the regulatory process, and has nothing to do with the science. Look at the early reporting in The New York Times about delaying dosage and mixing and matching in Europe, that relayed the cautious alarm by the American public-health and biomedical establishment. The implication here was that Europeans were not following the “science.” Today, both longer spacing and mixing and matching are seen as either positive or neutral.
A famous coding bootcamp is rethinking its unusual business mode and Inflation-adjusted college tuition is finally falling. Two posts from Full Stack Economics worth read (I hung out with Tim Lee in DC recently, and want to note he’s a great guy, besides running an excellent newsletter).
The Wheel of Time and the Threading of Needles: Fantasy media have a hard time of it. Chad Orzel argues that television shows spun out of speculative fiction are in a no-win situation due to the nature of their fandom.
The First Privilege Walk. This is a fascinating cultural history, where the author traces social-justice methods common in corporate seminars today back to the intersection of New-Age quackery and Left politics of the 1970’s. It’s long, and I will admit I originally got interested because the author is the son of a Marxist-Leninist writer I read back in the 1990’s, Michael Parenti.
In Texas, a Battle Over What Can Be Taught, and What Books Can Be Read. First, I read pretty much whatever Michael Powell writes. He’s that good. Second, schools have always been battlegrounds on values since Socrates; this is nothing new. Third, these bans by both the Left and Right are more signals than effectual, as kids who are curious will go to the library or the internet and find forbidden works and topics (I for one always did). Fourth, the withering of the Nadine Strossen wing of the Left, the free-speech civil libertarians, means that arguments decrying censorship land with a thud due to their naked insincerity. The modern Left no longer adheres to liberalism, so it is all about power. If the Left says “hate speech is not free speech” the Right will just say “obscene speech is not free speech.” And guess who gets to decide what qualifies as hate or obscenity: those with power.
Ten Thousand Years of Patriarchy. This by Alice Evans is startlingly magisterial for something posted online in 2021 without much fanfare. I played a minor role in pointing her to some literature, and broadly find it convincing. Notably, she welcomes critiques to improve her model.
The sequences of 150,119 genomes in the UK biobank. This isn’t much of a preprint, but more of an announcement of the release of whole-genome sequence data. 150,000+ human genomes from the UK biobank is a massive achievement, and now it’s off to the preprint races.
Disentangling signatures of selection before and after European colonization in Latin Americans. This is not complicated, the mixing of new populations long separated introduces lots of genetic diversity. The arrival of Afro-Eurasian diseases introduces massive new selection pressures. Parts of the genome of mostly indigenous people in the New World are very European or African in origin because they’re adaptive. This happens in other cases and situations. There are some Neanderthal haplotypes found in far higher than the expected 3% frequency in non-Africans because of natural selection (obviously there was 0% Neanderthal in our ancestors, just as in modern Sub-Saharan Africans).
Evolution of Human-specific Alleles Protecting Cognitive Function of Grandmothers. Some of these may differentiate us from Neanderthals and Denisovans (see their results). I’m mildly skeptical, but evolutionarily it is clear to me that grandmothers have been potent drivers of longevity. Their alloparenting is critical for the fitness of their grandchildren.
Emergent multilevel selection in a simple spatial model of the evolution of altruism. At a high level, I think the “problem of altruism” that W. D. Hamilton identified in the 1950’s is being solved, but the devil is in the details. This preprint is an attempt to get at those details.
Archaic introgression and variation in pharmacogenes and implications for local adaptation. Admixture between distant modern populations can drive adaptation through introducing variation, and the same is true for distant human lineages, as I suggested earlier. The phenomenon is scale-independent and differs only in degree. Note though that most of the Neanderthal genome was subject to purifying selection, removing that ancestry. These are the exceptions, not the rule.
Malaria protection due to sickle haemoglobin depends on parasite genotype. Well, yes, I always assumed this (that adaptations have particular specific targets). But I guess there are still specifics to be worked out.
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. The main paid piece I’ve put out since the last “Time Well Spent” is Dark Horse out of the Steppe - Fishing the Sintashta, Scythians and Sarmatians out of obscurity:
The phenomenon of the Scythians’ rise was the culmination of the evolution of Indo-Iranian pastoralism, whose explosive growth began 4,000 years ago, after their domestication of the horse. Today 1.5 billion humans speak Indo-Iranian languages, from northeastern Syria to the borders of Burma, with the vast majority living in modern-day India and Iran. But 2,500 years ago, Indo-Iranian languages dominated terrains across the whole vast span of the Eurasian steppe, from its western extension in Hungary to the eastern edge in Mongolia. Then, Persia and India were simply southerly offshoots of Indo-Iranian culture, civilizations born of a synthesis with local sedentary cultures so thorough that they forgot their steppe origins.
This is a continuation of my “steppe series.” Earlier:
One of my other pieces was a roundup of worthy books for Cyber Monday. Substack can only handle so many dozens of links, so if you liked that, but were up for more, you can find the entire 100+ book list of personal recommendations posted here.
Another recent piece that really traveled: Thanksgiving squabbles are a feature, not a bug - How eternally unsettled debates are the lifeblood of the republic:
Today, genome-wide methods can probe political preferences down to minute molecular detail, associating segments of DNA with whether you are liberal or conservative. Political ideology turns out to be a continuous quantitative trait, like height or intelligence, with many genes controlling the variation. And like height and intelligence, it expresses itself in particular environmental contexts. In societies where individual political expression is sharply restricted, whether it be autocratic monarchies like Saudi Arabia or authoritarian Communist regimes like China, one’s ideological orientation is a moot point and may never be a live issue. Political preference as a characteristic only comes to the fore in societies where individual choices and views actually matter and are seen as a matter of civic patriotism and responsibility. Societies like the US in 2021.
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’m now posting transcripts (automatically generated, though I have someone going through to catch errors).
You can’t make this up
And you don’t have to because my kids go to American public schools. At this point, I think the kids just find it cathartic to show us the horrors they’re asked to slog through. They now come to us routinely to say, “Look at this one! Do you want me to screen-cap it for Substack?” Here in an English lesson, within a very small amount of text, not only do you have “a part” for “apart” the original reason the kid came to us skeptical, you get “the miser” vs. “the Miser” vs. “the Mister” and multiple other crimes against punctuation and grammar.
I’m a regular guest on The Study of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and Nick Barksdale, who runs the show is having serious health issues. I hope other fans who can afford to will join me in giving to his GoFundMe.
On the blog
In the conversation between Coleman Hughes and Charles Murray, there was a point where they mooted the idea that white Democrats are smarter than white Republicans. Since the realignment of the Trump era, this seems to be a major issue, as college-educated white Democrats have become more Democrat and liberal, while non-college whites less so.
These posts always elicit some anger from conservatives, since they think I’m taking a particular side. I’m just noting what the data shows.
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.