Discover more from Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning
RKUL: Time Well Spent 12/12/2022
It's almost Christmas 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?
Christmas season is in full swing, inevitably reminding many of us of Christianity’s influence and its stamp on our customs, traditions and cultures generally. One topic I’ve been reading about since the late 1990’s up until recently is the Reformation. The reason the Reformation is important is that the fracturing of Western Christendom was one of the most impactful cultural revolutions that occurred in the last 600 years (perhaps rivaled only by the printing press).
Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Many regard the Reformation’s importance as the fracturing of Western Christianity into two, but the reality is that Protestantism unleashed a fissiparous tendency generally that continues to yield new sects and movements down to the present day. Protestantism was also part of the same wave of forces that eventually gave rise to liberalism and science. The Calvinist movement within Protestantism has been accused of fueling the “disenchantment of the world,” stripping away the mysticism from Christianity.
If there is one book I would read on the Reformation, it’s Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. The word magisterial is not hyperbolic here; MacCulloch’s book deftly ties together a narrative cultural history with diplomatic and military affairs. To a great extent, The Reformation is a history of the 1500’s with a religious flavor. As a modern historian, MacCulloch resists taking sides, and one strong aspect of his narrative is that he does not engage with Roman Catholicism purely as a reactive and passive force against Protestant dynamism. In fact, he points out that the Reformation’s poor results in the Iberian peninsula may actually be due to the Iberian Church’s early internal reformation, which suppressed corruption and modernized the institution prior to most of the rest of Europe.
Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe takes the divisions of Christianity as a fait accompli, and drills down on how Europeans learned to live with difference. But this is not just a book about toleration, an overdone genre. Instead, much of it focuses on how the Austrian Catholic monarchy brought many of their domains that had been won over to Protestantism back into the Roman Catholic fold. This is the untold story of many Reformation histories: Protestantism arguably peaked in the early 1600’s, when a large minority in France were Calvinist, and various Protestant sects were dominant across vast swathes of Central Europe that are today Catholic.
Brandon S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World uses the great Reformer’s personal origins and life trajectory to chart the cultural trends that shaped the early Reformation world, and eventually the terms of the modern world. Gregory’s work is not a hagiography, but it is clear that he sees Luther as something of a harbinger of the modern man.
Calvin is an intellectual biography of the second great reformer, John Calvin. Though Luther owns pride of place as the first protester against the old order, Calvin’s movement of Reformed Christianity has arguably been more influential in Protestantism’s worldwide movements beyond those German and Scandinavian lands where Lutheranism is entrenched. Though Luther was a brilliant and humanistically trained man, Calvin comes off as a fundamentally more cerebral individual, and his rationalist take on the Christian religion is important because over the centuries staking out a position on the various points of Calvinist doctrine have been major debates in many Protestant churches. The religious conflicts that roiled the English Protestant Church for centuries revolved around the divisions between the Calvinist and anti-Calvinist factions. Luther began the process, but Calvin shaped its progress.
But we shouldn’t leave Luther just yet. Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind highlights the divisions between the humanistic Renaissance spirit and how the Reformation emerged as a revolt against its pieties. Remember, revenue from the indulgences Luther inveighed against were paying for the Sistine Chapel. Moderns will have a hard time not sympathizing with Erasmus, who was the voice of moderate liberality and meliorism, but in their day, it was arguably the young Luther and his religious fanaticism who vanquished the aging Erasmus and his religious liberalism.
If the above books approach their topics with some pretense toward scholarly detachment, Aton Wessels’ Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian? makes no such attempt at objectivity. Wessels is a Reformed Christian scholar, and his argument is that Europe before the emergence of Reformed Christianity was to a great extent pagan. I do not agree with Wessels’ argument, but it is interesting and engaging, and Europe: Was It Ever Really Christian? surfaces a vast corpus of literature on folk paganism. Wessels would certainly be among those who hold that Christmas is a fundamentally pagan festival, even if there have been attempts to Christianize it.
The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgewood is a classic and fittingly closes out the Reformation era. Religion mattered after, but this bloody conflagration at the heart of Europe that slashed population in the German-speaking lands on the scale of the Black Death ended the continent's zeal for sectarian conflict. If Luther’s 95 theses capped the medieval period, this first European global war opened the door to the modern age.
Quillette Social, January 7th, 2023 in New Orleans. I’ll be there, but so will Claire Lehmann, Jon Kay, Jamie Palmer, Bo Winegard, Cory Clark, Stuart Reges, Pamela Paresky, Joel Kotkin, Lee Jussim, and Wilfred Reilly.
The Flock: The religious roots of the modern left. I’ve never been on the Left, but Leighton Woodhouse comes out of the Labor Left, so I appreciate his attempts to understand the rise of the New Class and successor ideology.
Apple Makes Plans to Move Production Out of China - The iPhone maker is looking to further diversify the supply chain that has powered its growth. The conscious uncoupling continues as Chimerica”s split proceeds apace
FTX: Effective altruism can't run from its Frankenstein's monster and Some thoughts on the FTX collapse. These pieces are respectively from Erik Hoel, who has long been skeptical of “effective altruism,” and Matt Yglesias, who has been positively inclined. They’re interesting takes in part because they approach SBF and the FTX debacle from opposing ends.
She was kidnapped as a baby in 1971. Her family just found her alive. The DNA match was through the kidnapped woman’s children. This shows that DNA databases aren’t just for catching serial killers.
Applying to College, and Trying to Appear ‘Less Asian.’ I think what Harvard is doing is not defensible. They are clearly discriminating. But, I also think that Asian American culture that tends to value prestige and signaling above learning and intellectual curiosity is also a problem.
Are the Next 50 Million Developers Already Here? Most are Indian. This is going to change the world in various ways, obviously. Probably good for the remote work trend, but not so much for normal sleep hours.
Is assisted suicide a free choice? Katherine Brodsky is a Canadian, and she’s worried about what’s happening in her home country. I’m from Oregon, and we’ve had assisted suicide for over two decades. But its purview is relatively narrow compared to Canada’s, which underscores the utility of a limiting principle even to things you think are “good.”
Blood & Iron: A History of The German Empire: A Dialogue with Katja Hoyer is a discussion between Xavier Bonilla and Hoyer about her book on the history of the Second Reich. Xavier has so many great interviews with authors of serious books it’s worth subscribing to his Substack just to get a reading list.
A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA. A new “record” for ancient DNA extract. This may be at the limits of the possible.
A global analysis of matches and mismatches between human genetic and linguistic histories. “Hungarians are possibly one of the most studied cases of mismatch. They are genetically similar to their Indo-European speaking neighbors.” If you read my piece on Hungary, no surprises here.
A Framework for Designing Efficient Deep Learning-Based Genomic Basecallers. All that matters: does it work? The authors claim that they can make calling bases in DNA sequences more than an order of magnitude more efficient. There is so much data we’re taxing current computational resources to really get the most value out of what’s being generated.
The genomic footprint of social stratification in admixing American populations. The results here are not surprising; some ancestral components have had higher status than others, but this paper formalizes it.
Versatile detection of diverse selective sweeps with Flex-sweep. To understand human adaptation we need to have a better understanding of natural selection in the genome, and to understand natural selection in the genome we need to understand selective sweeps.
Sexual conflict mitigation via sex-specific trait architecture. Basically, if you have huge sex differences in a trait, how does selection in that trait occur when the two sexes are so distinct? This paper presents one theory.
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 related to each other.
To more precisely geographically pinpoint the Southeast Asian origins of Malagasy ancestry, researchers selectively extracted segments of the typical Malagasy genome that were clearly Asian and then compared them to those in contemporary Asian populations. The darkest red tones in the map above zero in on the highest frequency of SNP matches in the Asian DNA segments between Malagasy and Southeast Asian populations. The most intense correlation is in southern Borneo, notably also home to Malagasy’s closest linguistic relatives, the Ma'anyan-speaking Dayak. Applying that same segment-matching approach against a select panel of African samples, of all candidate populations, researchers found the Malagasy to be closest to South Africans. This is almost certainly due to the dataset’s lack of samples from Mozambique, the nation just to South Africa’s northeast and obviously geographically closest to Madagascar.
The target of selection on chromosome 1 in this case is the Duffy locus; and specifically, the null allele that fails to produce the Duffy antigen is under selection. This gene is well known in population genetics because of a marked contrast in variants between African and non-African populations; most Africans are Duffy-negative while most non-Africans are Duffy-positive. Duffy-negative individuals lack the receptor used by the Plasmodium vivax malarial parasite to invade red blood cells, a deficit that confers malaria resistance on its bearer. In Malagasy populations today, the region of Chromosome 1 around Duffy spikes to over 90% African in local ancestry whereas across the rest of the genome, the African ancestry proportion hovers around only 60%. Researchers calculate that this change was driven by a selection coefficient on the order of 0.20. We can translate this into plain English as an individual carrying the Duffy-negative allele has 20% more surviving offspring than one who does not. This is a staggeringly powerful selection coefficient; very few genes have been subject to such drive in humans; indeed a coefficient of 0.01 or above is by convention usually considered strong selection. The authors conclude that adaptation to malaria reduced Asian ancestry by as much as 10% in the Malagasy in a space of less than 600 years.
I also posted a free piece on genetic testing, So you want to test your DNA:
In this post, I will take you through the trade-offs as you decide what product is right for you or your loved one, as well as a bit of the history and the science behind these products. There has never been a better time to first get your WGS or genotype and I frankly envy anyone who is just weighing their first little investment. It’s amazing how differently I would advise you now than just four or five years ago! I have been buying genotyping services and then WGS kits for myself, my extended family and friends since 2009. I have also worked for nearly a decade behind the scenes, customizing the genotyping chips that power the kits and drafting the ancestry explanations consumers receive for many of these products. When Henry Louis Gates’ team prepares an episode of Finding Your Roots, they run the raw results by me to be sure we concur on the conclusions about the guest’s ancestry. I live and breathe consumer genetics and here I share my recommendations with you based both on my first-hand experience buying them and my work as a genomicist seeing how these products come to be.
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.
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.
Here are my guests (and monologue topics) 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 going through to catch 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 here and there, etc.
Facebook message me
My total feed of content
My long-time blog, GNXP
A group blog, Secular Right, vintage at this point, but worthwhile for Heather Mac Donald’s prescience
My Indian/South Asian-focused blog, Brown Pundits
My old podcast, The Insight
My podcast today, Unsupervised Learning
On the blog
But, to me, and others, there seems another reason that the Lithuanian tribes balked at Christianization: the fact that it was the religion of their sometimes genocidal enemies, the German-speaking Christian military orders that dominated the Baltic coast. The Baltic Crusades, which enabled knights from the German-speaking lands to sally forth into the pagan eastern Baltic region starting around 1200 AD, created a level of ethnoreligious animus that was extremely strong for Europe during this period. Rowell notes that though the Lithuanians began converting to Christianity in large numbers in 1386 (though those nobles and warriors settled to the west and east often assimilated to local Christian cultures), there were pagan Letts on the lands of German military elites in Livonia on into the early 1400’s. The reason that this delay occurred is that pagan peasants were economically far more exploitable than Christian peasants, who could appeal to the Church. These nobles, who were themselves the descendants of Christian Crusaders, excluded the Church’s missionaries from their lands for decades while Lithuania to the south was being baptized. This phenomenon prefigures some dynamics we know from chattel slavery in the American South, where some planters discouraged evangelization among their slaves for the purposes of more efficient economic control.
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.
Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.