RKUL: time well spent 06/06/2021

Recommendations for everything, almost-summer 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 Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Events Shaped The History of Life is one of those books that makes you rethink how fascinating a subject might be. In this case, it’s biogeography. You know geography. You know nature. So what could be new here? 

Have you ever heard it said that the fauna of New Zealand is unique because of the splendid isolation of the island? Or that Atlantic island ecosystems like the Azores are biological fossils from a previous age? It turns out both stories are mostly wrong. In The Monkey’s Voyage, evolutionary biologist Alan de Queiroz engagingly narrates the scientific revolution in biogeography that has transformed how we understand natural history, as well as the role of extremely ancient geological events like continental drift in shaping the variation of life on earth.

Nicholas Christakis is one of our day’s most prominent public intellectuals. Not only is his work in social genomics ground-breaking, but he’s a liberal of the old school in a world of craven group-think. His most recent book is Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. I’m looking forward to reading it this summer as America tries to put COVID-19 behind us.

Alex Mesoudi, with who I recently recorded a podcast, wrote an excellent academic introduction to a new field several years ago: Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences. Richard Boyd and Peter Richerson are the doyens of the field and their 2004 Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution remains highly relevant (and accessible for the lay reader). Finally, Joe Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is truly not to be missed, as it makes a case for why Western Europe was the part of the world that gave rise to modernity.

Clubhouse now supports Android, which has driven in upsurge of sign-ups. If you want to hear my talks (usually on Friday evenings), join my club. Or, follow me. Two books have come up over and over in my chats for a variety of reasons: Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia and The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. The ancient world was far more interconnected than we might realize. For example, are you among those who already knew Islamic madrassas are modifications of Buddhist viharas?

Thought

Matt Yglesias: Criticizing China isn't racist and criticizing Israel isn't antisemitic either. These are countries; they do things and get criticized. Also, The media's lab leak fiasco: A huge fuckup, with perhaps not-so-huge policy stakes. I disagree with the subhead on the second post; I think there are huge policy stakes. If it is from a laboratory, we need to rethink virology research standards worldwide. One of the good things about Yglesias on Substack is he seems to keep saying what most people think but cannot say. Independence from both risk-averse editors and peer pressure is important. Reliance on corporate media is not sufficient.

Bangladesh is the new Asian Tiger: It's succeeding using the classic formula, and defying the skeptics. This is a piece to take more seriously than literally. The past decade has seen a huge change in expectations. I know this personally from talking to my relatives in Bangladesh. Economic growth at a clip of 7% a year changes your view of future possibilities.

On the last Time Well Spent, I recommended David Mittelman’s Substack. Now subscribers can check out my podcast with him. I foresee forensic genomics becoming so ubiquitous as to be beneath notice within a few years.

I’ve mentioned Colin Wright’s Reality’s Last Stand a time or two. I have a podcast with Colin coming out shortly, but that’s nothing compared to the exposure he’s about to get. 

Richard Hanania is at it again: Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law, Why Conservatives Won't (and Can't) Fight for Influence, and What to Do About It. The word provocative is overused, but it genuinely applies to Richard’s output.

Andrew Sullivan talks to Charles Murray for two hours! The first half is more about their personal history. The second half gets into the topics of Charles’ recent work.

Further Notes on the New Right. Tanner Greer is always worth reading. Though is the old 20th-century New Right now the Old Right? And is the old Old Right the Oldest Right?

Patrick Wyman has a Substack which I humbly submit is a great complement to the topics I write and talk about (also, his book The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World is out in July).

Data

Base editing of haematopoietic stem cells rescues sickle cell disease in mice. Can we cure recessive diseases? I feel confident that soon I’ll be able to answer with an unqualified “yes.” This is a good thing. Cystic fibrosis and ALS, here we come. The 2020’s will see baby steps in genetic engineering, but from near zero to something is a big deal.

Make statistical genomics painless again: f-statistics estimation and admixture graph construction with Pool-Seq or allele count data using the R package poolfstat. OK, perhaps for the first time. Normally a lot of the analysis dealing with genomic data requires going through complex and finicky pipelines. It’s great when they get wrapped into an R package because that time and energy can now be spent trying to understand what’s going on in nature, rather than your code.

The complete sequence of a human genome. Many are surprised by this, but the human genome has languished almost complete for 20 years. The 90-95% that was sequenced well was sufficient for most genomic analysis, but at three billion bases, the genome is a big place, so that missing 5-10% that’s recently been completed isn’t nothing. 

My Two Cents

There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack are beyond the paywall. May has been busy.

First, I got out the first set of pieces on the steppe, beginning with the Indo-Europeans:

I’m just getting started. So much more steppe to come…

Second, I had a look at Romani genetics, history and anthropology:

My most popular post is still the one on psychometrics, Applying IQ to IQ Selecting for smarts is important. Six months after I wrote this post it continues to get substantial traffic. If you want a book-length introduction to the topic, Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All That Matters is a must.

Discussion

The Unsupervised Learning podcast went “full steppe” in May. 

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 May guests:

With all that steppe out of my system, for now, June will be decidedly more eclectic. I’m especially excited to share my conversation with Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. Talking to Ramez always leaves me cautiously optimistic.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been giving a talk every Friday on Clubhouse on some genetic or historical topic. Join my club for notifications. These conversations are naturally more unscripted and free-form than podcasts. Also, I take questions!

You can’t make this up

And you don’t have to, because my kids go to public schools. Below are some assessment results from the before times that we were presented at a parent-teacher conference. Given this child, that 79th percentile concerned us, but the teacher said we shouldn’t worry about it, because actually, it reflected a perfect score of 12 out of 12. This is a subset of statistics my computational background did not prepare me for. I mean, when you can have a raw score AND a percentile that informative, why would you want to report the total possible number of points? 

As the originators of the tests and this informative interface say, “System reports provide information that supports evidence-based decision making.” Well, phew! With evidence like this, the kids are clearly in good hands.

ICYMI

Some of you follow me on my newsletter, blog, or Twitter. But remember that my own domain has all of the links and updates: https://www.razib.com. 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.

19 years of writing makes for a lot of ancient content that might just as well have been set to self-destruct. Some subset though is worth revisiting.  Many years ago I wrote for The Guardian. Some of these pieces aged well. For example, Monogamy: bucking the trend?

More recently, a little over a year ago I wrote Waking Up to Reality Covid-19 exposes the American system’s systemic decay—and our need to update our understanding of the world for City Journal. Sadly, I think much of my implicit pessimism in that piece was warranted and has been vindicated by the past year.

Finally, 18 years ago I wrote Old Europe’s Obit in The American Conservative. Back then I was worried about the rise of Islam. Today, it seems that Europe’s fate will be sealed by low birth rates. Europe will not be killed, it will see itself out.

If you see something

My post Verwoerd’s Revenge got a lot of traction, but most importantly Michigan State has quietly removed references to racial “affinity groups” from its website. I doubt it was my post, as much as the social-media outrage it helped trigger.

I’m not much of an activist, but I’m happy to help where I can. If you have tips, my DMs are open.

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, please weigh in.