RKUL: time well spent 07/07/2021

Recommendations for everything, heat-dome 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?

Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization is that rare book you read over and over because it can change the way you view a whole topic. Roman history can seem musty, too focused on ancient and venerable texts, but Ward-Perkins’ modern archaeological and economic historical methods shed welcome light on old questions. From the frequency of coin hoards to the widespread geographical distribution of centrally produced fine pottery, The Fall of Rome highlights in exquisite detail the material collapse of the Roman world.

This is relevant because, over the past fifty years, revisionism has gripped some intellectual circles, denying that Rome ever fell, suggesting it “evolved” into something different, focusing on the cultural evolution of small elites. Peter Brown’s magisterial The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 doesn’t fall into this trap, but I see over-enthusiastic readers lose the forest for the trees. The Fall of Rome’s materialist methods confirms that yes, in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., the Roman Empire underwent a massive economic collapse, especially the Western Empire. Air pollution from industry (inferred from impurities in lake beds) did not match Roman levels in Britain until the 18th century. It’s fine to assert that theological creativity was at its peak while barbarians were pouring through its borders, but while the monks were in their monasteries, the city of Rome shrank from 500,000 citizens to 50,000.

Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire is similar to The Fall of Rome, but it focuses more on environmental causes. Harper, like Ward-Perkins, confirms that the late Roman economy did reach a level of complexity which was providing large quantities of finished consumer goods to citizens, rather than simply household crafts.

Recently I talked to both John S. Wilkins and Ramez Naam for the podcast. Wilkins wrote Species: A History of the Idea, and Naam The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. In Species, Wilkins explores how ancient people understood species, and how some of their conceptions were startlingly modern. In The Infinite Resource, Naam lays out an informed but optimistic vision of the possibilities of the next century, offering a basis to prepare, adapt and hopefully flourish.

I end up talking about books a lot on my Clubhouse club. Usually, on Fridays I give a talk, followed by a  Q & A. Often I talk about genetics and history. Recently I discussed Oriental Christianity as well as the genetics of ancient Egypt. For the former, Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died is excellent. Though you can be spoiled for choice on ancient Egypt, I enjoyed Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It’s a fast if dense read.

Finally, I want to mention that my friend Patrick Wyman’s book, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World, comes out July 20th in America (yes, he’ll be on the podcast).

Thought

Hispanic voters and the American Dream: How Democrats can nip the shift toward the GOP in the bud. I think the first step is that Democrats need to not take them for granted. Take their concerns and legitimate views seriously, rather than assuming that they’ll fall in line because they are “people of color.”

If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals. The liberal intelligentsia has moved far to the left over the last twenty years. Kevin Drum, a liberal himself, argues that this puts the Democratic party’s electoral viability in jeopardy. He suggests a tack back to the middle will be necessary to actually win elections, rather than maximize “likes” on Twitter.

When experts go astray: Big topics are too important to leave to the insiders. Matt Yglesias argues that elite capture is a much bigger problem for Democrats when it comes to professions. Experts have their own self-interest, so the Democratic reliance on experts means that the party often cedes politics to groups that might not prioritize progressive policies over professional advancement. This is why Democratic legal elites indulge Stephen Breyer’s reluctance to retire, despite his tempting the same fate as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did. Yglesias has argued that this also explains excessive progressive deference to risk-averse public health officials and experts.

Welcome polygenically screened babies. Also, see Polygenic Embryo Screening: comments on Carmi et al. and Visscher et al.

Patrick Wyman on “Dragon Man”. Complementary to my own piece here.

Data

Human inbreeding has decreased in time through the Holocene. The Holocene, the last 12,000 years, has in some ways been the “great mixing.” Very different and inbred groups have been mushed together, creating new admixed populations. Us.

Is the FBI’s Criminal Justice Database, CODIS, Approaching Its Expiration Date? I wrote this. It may seem harsh, but we have the technology, we need to get back to the future as soon as possible.

Tracing the evolution of human gene regulation and its association with shifts in environment. “In contrast to diet, skin pigmentation genes show little regulatory change over time, suggesting that adaptation mainly involved large-effect coding variants.” It will be raining ancient DNA for a while. Expect many more papers like this in the future, as scientists begin to catch evolution “in the act,” tracking changes in gene frequencies over thousands of years through ancient DNA.

My Two Cents

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

In June I took a break from the steppe and started a series on the genetics and history of Finland. The first piece, Duke Tales was actually technically about my memorable Austin neighbor and was free, but the second and third (of five, the final two are coming, I promise-- Everything comes to a halt when you get a news drop like Dragon Man!) are for my paying subscribers:

Here Be Humans has become one of my most-read pieces. I think it added something to the discourse around “Dragon Man” and what we know about human origins. Also, see my discussion with Vagheesh Narasimhan. And I rounded things out now with a look at where Out of Africa is today as the model hits middle age. 

Discussion

The Unsupervised Learning podcast was more diverse in June, too. We marched beyond the steppe! 

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 were my June guests:

As I mentioned above, I talk most Fridays on Clubhouse about some genetic or historical topic. Join my club for notifications. These conversations are more unscripted and free-form than podcasts. I can report that I have been hailed for my assertive use of the mute option. It’s best for everyone, I swear. I also heckle my friends. And I take questions!

You can’t make this up 

And you don’t have to because my children attend public schools. 

Comfort yourself that my family has uniquely terrible luck with schools all you want. But below are excerpts from short bullet summaries of the 25 best books of 2020 that School Library Journal recommends librarians add to permanent library collections for Middle Grades. This is not satire, but it does read like Trey Parker and Matt Stone trying to top one another. I highly recommend clicking through to the summaries. I made myself read every last one because I kept thinking I must be getting an unrepresentatively absurd sample by chance. This could be the bias of what the reviewers prefer to emphasize, but it is very hard to find more than a handful of books here that deviate from a rigid formula that seems to require:

  • minority race or immigrant culture

  • disability (visible or invisible, as they like to say)

  • extreme trauma/abuse/suffering and or magic

What must it be like to be constantly presented a version of your society where the only humans worth considering can quantify their innate worth according to a strict schedule of skin color, struggle points and suffering bonuses? Tell me the story again where intersectionality and CRT are safely walled off from the real world in irrelevant academic backwaters. I liked that one.

We asked the eldest, a bookworm, to listen to the summaries. She listened patiently and thought a couple sounded interesting. There are indeed a few that sound compelling, especially the historical ones. But halfway through, she sighed and said, It seems like a lot of these are about racism. One of them she said sounded ok, except for the mindfulness. I really don’t like mindfulness. We didn’t know what she meant. “Mindfulness”, she explained, at her schools now encompassed expectations about basic politeness: always say please and thank you, but also never hurt anyone’s feelings and always praise everyone’s output whether you like it or not. 

One of the strangest things I noticed was how consistently the plot summaries focused on ethnic minorities and immigrants and yet... most of the ones that followed the magic struggle formula, seem to take place in America. Is that coincidence? Or must the plucky young protagonist always be stuck in a racist society? Is the only legitimate way to live your “diverse” truth amid white people? What about a brown kid in the middle of a couple billion brown people? I’m not very “diverse” in large parts of the world. Do they recommend those stories to American kids too? I think there’s a couple of kid lit writers in India… Or is the 96% of human life beyond America’s borders not real diversity?

Maybe I should write a bracing dystopian book for middle grades based on real life. I’d write about the time my parents took us back to Bangladesh for a month when I was 11 and my uncle helpfully enrolled us in a madrassa for two weeks to make up for missing American middle school. Longest days of my life, sitting among those hundreds of poor condemned souls rocking back and forth on their knees, chanting Arabic gibberish they couldn’t understand hour after hour, punctuated only by short, desperate study breaks. They spent those precious minutes boosting themselves up on the high concrete wall to leer ghoulishly down at women on the street. It was hard to tell whether their consuming lust was more for flesh or just freedom from that bleak captivity.

On second thought, maybe I’m overreacting. There are societies that give their young far less compelling reading material.

ICYMI

Last week an enthusiastic first-time listener reached out to me after a Clubhouse. You know, he told me, that was great. I was thinking… (dramatic pause)... you should start a podcast. Ask and ye shall receive, son.

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. 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.

Check out my latest for UnHerd. Also, if you’d prefer “Here Be Humans” in a less bloggy, more magazine format, Nautilus syndicated it and gave it a facelift.

I don’t want to forget to mention that I recorded a podcast for Quillette with Nick Wade on the “lab leak” theory. I’m also a regular guest on The Study of Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Personally 

My thoughts over the holiday weekend on what America looks like when you’re afraid to lose it, plus what to do with the gift of free speech while you have it, here in Get lucky. Reaction has been humbling. Thank you to everyone who reached out privately and to all who shared it so widely. In a similar vein, looking back last year, I half-realized/half-discovered what extraordinary women chose to teach us in my childhood public schools.

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.