RKUL: Time Well Spent 03/03/2023
The green shoots of almost-Spring
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?
There’s a bias toward focusing on 20th-century history for most contemporary readers; when I was an undergrad, a huge number of my history-major friends were exclusively interested in the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s. I have always found this wrongheaded; reading ancient works can be both edifying and give you insights into the deep roots of the West, China, the world of Islam and India. But sometimes, it is good to find a happy medium. What has Han Dynasty China, 2,000 years ago, to do with late Manchu China on the eve of 1900’s Boxer Rebellion? Well, a fair amount, actually, but reading about 19th-century China is also important to comprehend the local preconditions.
Below are six books that push beyond the comfortable 20th-century envelope without diving thousands of years into the past. These books cover the period often called “early modernity,” the centuries leading up to the age of industrialization in the second half of the 19th century.
The late Albert Hourani wrote the magisterial A History of the Arab Peoples, which stretches from the 7th century to the present. But he also edited The Modern Middle East, which spans the late 18th to the late 20th century. It is true that the Arabs had a history before European colonialism; imperial Islam was arguably one of the most successful forms of colonialism in the history of the world. But the shock of contact with the alien and technologically advanced European societies, beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, shook the Arab world and set the stage for the emergence of modern nation-states with no indigenous precedent, like Jordan, Iraq and Syria.
To understand the Arab world’s agony of the 20th century, it is essential to understand the numerous reactions to European ascendancy that characterized the Islamic world in the 19th century, from Egypt’s attempt to reinvent itself as a European nation to the resurgence of Salafi fundamentalism in Arabia.
Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China spans 1600 to the 1950’s. In other words, the late-stage imperial period up to the birth of the new Communist China that has now surpassed the Soviet Union in longevity. Spence’s narrative shows how the last dynasty, founded by the Manchu tribe, set the stage for modern China by extending and perfecting elements of the imperial system but also served as a later foil to the partisans of a republican China across the ideological spectrum.
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World, is a history of the family at the heart of European politics from the late medieval period, before 1500, down to 1918. Some liberal pundits have a soft spot for the shambolic Austro-Hungarian Empire, the last iteration of the Habsburg-led state that was famed for its cultural diversity. But five centuries earlier, the Habsburgs ruled a world empire from the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire to Mexico and Peru. They returned much of Central Europe to Roman Catholicism through coercion and persecution. In my book, a lack of understanding of the Habsburgs precludes any proper understanding of European history over the last five centuries.
Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy is the story of the evolution of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans into the Democratic party, and the party's dominant role in American politics in the first half of the 19th century. Wilentz shows how the populist ideology of the new party permeated the American culture to the point that ideas like universal suffrage and machine politics became part and parcel of the US’s political system. Eventually, the hegemony collapsed, and the factions within the Democrats eventually led to the conflict of the Civil War.
Though most Americans are aware of the French Revolution of the late 18th century, few know of the revolutions of 1848 that ended the reactionary settlement in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, where conservative monarchies were restored and the reforms and changes instituted by France’s regime were rolled back. 1848: The Year of Revolution tells this story, with the maturation of liberal nationalism, and how it set the stage for the unification of Germany and Italy, and the revival of conservatives in subsequent decades, who coopted the nationalism they had earlier scorned. This was a turning point year that everyone should know, just like 1776 or 1066.
While 1848 zooms in on one revolution, Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815 covers five earlier ones. Blanning is an excellent prose stylist whose narratives expand far beyond matters of politics, diplomacy and war, and he compellingly highlights the cultural dynamism of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. To understand the revolutions of 1848, you really need to get your mind around the earlier ones in The Pursuit of Glory.
The Kournikoving of College Sports and Its Discontents: Why the Cavinder twins terrify the NCAA. An illustration of the law of unintended consequences. College athletes were given the freedom to market themselves and make money, which seems fair considering how much revenue some sports bring in for universities. But it turns out that most consumers of women’s sports content are young men, and gains in that segment go to young attractive blonde women, irrespective of their sometimes marginal athletic contributions.
Exclusionary suburbs are a bad model for public safety: Diverse communities with public spaces need policing. Sometimes I feel like a baby could write Matt Yglesias’ pieces, and yet… someone has to do it. The mantra to “defund the police” is clearly a luxury belief. Progressives who live in safe neighborhoods or suburbs suffer no consequences for their smug sloganeering because their locales have minimal need for police. To paraphrase E. O. Wilson, no police:great idea, wrong socioeconomic bracket.
Also, I have to link another Yglesias piece: Misinformation isn't just on the right. When discussing vaccination with people on the Right, it’s hard to get a word in edge-wise. But the same applies to liberals and progressives on other topics. Try to talk about “Hands up, don't shoot” or what actually happened to Matthew Shepard more than 20 years ago. The facts are not really part of the “public narrative.”
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants with David McKay is a new podcast trying hard to dig deep into science rather than put out more over-produced fluff. McKay interviewed me in one of the first episodes. We talked about genetics, my company, GenRAIT and academia.
Where Digital Payments, Even for a 10-Cent Chai, Are Colossal in Scale: India’s homegrown instant payment system has remade commerce and pulled millions into the formal economy. Here’s a relevant pull quote:
The value of instant digital transactions in India last year was far more than in the United States, Britain, Germany and France. “Combine the four and multiply by four — it is more than that,” as one Indian cabinet minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, told the World Economic Forum in January.
Graduate Admissions Are Downstream of Faculty Hiring: Everything comes back to original sin. We’re running in place. Many more bright students are produced than available jobs in research universities. This overwhelms the pipeline, and many research-oriented post-docs go into teaching institutions and transform them into research universities. This allows more and more undergraduates to get papers co-authored with these professors and boosts the number of promising candidates for graduate school, closing the loop, as they flood the next generation of the pipeline.
Palaeogenomics of Upper Palaeolithic to Neolithic European hunter-gatherers. A much more granular and deep dive into the peoples of Ice-Age Europe. The Ice Age seems to have been characterized by long periods of separation between populations, punctuated by replacements and admixtures.
Domain-adaptive neural networks improve supervised machine learning based on simulated population genetic data. I suspect papers on neural networks in population genetics are going to become big…but does anyone understand how they work?
Multiple sources of uncertainty confound inference of historical human generation times. This preprint is a response to Human generation times across the past 250,000 years. The generation time debate is important for obvious reasons: so many models rely on a value for this parameter. Fine-tuning it matters.
BridgePRS: A powerful trans-ancestry Polygenic Risk Score method. Hopefully this will help us move beyond the time when risk scores are applicable only to Europeans or related populations.
Severe multi-year drought coincident with Hittite collapse around 1198–1196 BC. Everyone knows that climate shocks played a role in the Bronze Age Collapse. The question is when and where. Premodern states are machines for turning agricultural yield into power. No crops, no power.
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.
After the Ice: how foragers and farmers conquered Scandinavia:
Scandinavia's cultural and genetic rupture 4,800 years ago was exceptional even in those brutal times. European Neolithic societies 5,000 years ago were fragile, with collapses like that of vibrant village-based economies like the Cucuteni–Trypillia in Romania due to ecological stress, climatic shock and resource depletion growing common. Across most of Europe, Neolithic farmers were swept aside by Indo-Europeans, the only exceptions being islands like Sardinia or rugged mountainous redoubts like the Pyrenees boundary zone, where the ancestors of the Basque continued to flourish. But only in Scandinavia did the descendants of the indigenous European farmers disappear in totality. Perhaps the battle axes buried with males were ceremonial, but the placement of weapons in the spare graves of the BAC people more likely indicates their values, and the total erasure of the Funnelbeaker people points to a prehistoric genocide. The BAC arrived as an entire people, a folk wandering comprising men, women and children, and they erased the last Neolithic communities, reappropriating their monuments.
Chariots of Ice, Coursers of the Sun:
The Trundholm sun chariot, found in Denmark and dating to 1400 BC, illustrates Scandinavia’s full embrace of the horse. The bones and teeth of equids also appear in some burials during the Nordic Bronze Age, suggesting horse sacrifices. This is not a practice unique to Scandinavia; varieties of horse sacrifice are attested in many Indo-European societies. For the Romans, the “October Horse” was sacrificed to Mars on the 15th of that month. The Mahabharata, India’s national epic, extensively discusses Ashvamedha, a horse sacrifice. It involved letting the animal roam free for a year before an intricate and detailed ritual preceding its suffocation. While this custom in most Indo-European societies disappeared after antiquity, the Scandinavian horse sacrifice continued until 1080 AD. This was when the last pagan king of Sweden, Blot-Sweyn, presided over the ritual slaughter and consumption of a horse and the sprinkling of its blood on a sacred tree.
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:
Charles Fain Lehman: homicide, death in the charts - Reflecting on the 2020's crime boomlet
Virginia Postrel: from synthetic meat to synthetic fabric - The cultural politics of lab-grown meat and the economic history of fabric
Glenn Loury: four decades in economics From econometrics to public policy
Human pigmentation: the genetics and evolution of human shades - Why do some humans blue eyes and others dark skin?
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).
Some of you follow me on my newsletter, blog, or Twitter. But my own domain also has all of the links and updates: https://www.razib.com.
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
Some of my past pieces for UnHerd, National Review, The Manhattan Institute, Quillette, and The New York Times
My old podcast, The Insight
This podcast, Unsupervised Learning
On the blog
America Is Turning Into India: Our Coming “Caste Wars”:
The whole situation frustrates me because many lies buttress this new truth that people are starting to get woke to. It’s really hard when you see the consent of the dull masses manufactured out of whole cloth right before your eyes.
This particular issue won’t affect non-browns very much because no non-brown will ever be asked about caste discrimination. But, it will serve as a template to bring every social justice concern in the whole world to the US. This means more jobs for DEI bureaucrats but a total swamp in terms of America’s genuinely diverse society. We’ll be drowning in identity categories soon. We need to stop dividing Americans.
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 look forward to me writing about in 2023, 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.
"Palaeogenomics of Upper Palaeolithic to Neolithic European hunter-gatherers. A much more granular and deep dive into the peoples of Ice-Age Europe."
I'd love to see a post here or blog post from you with a bit of a breakdown on this.
The following has been well reviewed and may be of interest* to genomics fans:
"I Know Who You Are: How an Amateur DNA Sleuth Unmasked the Golden State Killer and Changed Crime Fighting Forever" by Barbara Rae-Venter
"In 2017 Ms. Rae-Venter was approached by Paul Holes, a cold-case investigator with the sheriff’s office in California’s Contra Costa County. This was the contact that thrust the author front and center into the pursuit of “one of the most earnestly hunted human beings in all of history.”
"She had not previously known about the Golden State Killer, she writes. But “the more I read about his crimes, the more determined I became to identify him.” Her description of the obsessive zeal with which she sought this personification of evil echoes the dedication displayed by such fictional police detectives as California novelist Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch.
"Like a good crime writer, Ms. Rae-Venter has a gift for storytelling. She describes the Golden State investigation and other cases—their complications and vexations, dead ends and breakthroughs—with enviable clarity, suitable detail and a fine sense of pace. Her scientific explanations are concise and her revelations are dramatic. “I Know Who You Are” is a remarkably exciting book."
*I read the review earlier today. I have not yet read the book.