Sunday, June 24, 2018


As usual, I have been scrounging around for something to read. I started Calypso, by David Sedaris, but don't think I'll finish it. Several years ago I read his Me Talk Pretty One Day and liked it, but I later started another of his books and didn't finish that either. Sedaris did not come up through the regular channels to literary fame, hence showed some promise initially. He is a fairly good writer, but his books have developed into a genre that depends on anecdotes from his life and family, which aren't that interesting, or at least there is insufficient material to be mined for a full career. Perhaps to gain new material, he tried moving to France, and then England, but that hasn't helped. Furthermore, he does little soul searching or deep analysis and obviously is attuned to what will sell. I can understand why he doesn't want to delve too far into private matters concerning himself and his intimates, as that would put him in an awkward position, but in this situation, if he had any integrity, he would simply stop writing for publication during his lifetime. His target audience seems to be middle-aged people who are beginning to think about their deaths. Much of his subject matter now pertains to new houses that he's purchased recently. When I veer off into bestselling books, I usually find that the enthusiasm of the masses is misguided, and this book is no exception. I've ordered Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, and Radicals Moved to Vermont, by Yvonne Daley, which is more up my alley, as it covers local history and also caters to my utopian fantasies. I have liked Vermont since I first visited it in 1974, and I think that if I had been more prescient I would have dropped out of society and moved here sooner. Of course, this is no utopia, but I can't say that the thirty-nine years I spent between graduating from college in 1972 and moving to Vermont in 2011 were particularly worthwhile, as they involved activities such as finding out that I didn't like graduate school and working in jobs and places that I'd just as soon forget. I was a good candidate for dropping out of society by my late teens, and when I was twenty-two I considered moving to New Zealand. If this book fails, I've also ordered a three-volume scholarly biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Cranston. Rousseau was one of the few intellectuals who led an interesting life, and although I think many of his ideas were stupid, he was profoundly influential in political theory, and his obsolete thoughts on freedom are still quite popular.

I have been avoiding discussing Donald Trump, both because he is a depressing topic and because anyone who bothers to read this blog is likely to agree with me already. From time to time there are rumblings about what might lead to his departure, but so far Republicans have been loyal to him out of political self-interest. While it is readily apparent that Trump is dishonest and uninformed and operates at an intellectual level that precludes the possibility of understanding the issues at hand, I have to keep reminding myself that George W. Bush, who wasn't that much better, was reelected. In Trump's case, however, there seems to be a good chance that either the Mueller investigation or the midterm elections in November will result in his removal or weakening. There are other things to worry about, but Trump himself seems like a dark cloud enveloping the whole planet. If it were possible to make legal contributions toward a Trump assassination, I would be an enthusiastic donor. Unfortunately, the best assassins are probably Trump supporters. In any case, even if Trump manages to leave office intact, I don't see him coming out of this with a reputation that anyone in his right mind would want.

Finally, though you've probably seen it and I don't find the lyrics intelligible, I think that this video is well-executed and effective.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past II

Later chapters discuss the state of affairs of ancient genomic studies in regions other than Europe. The Indus Valley received migrations of farmers from Iran 9000 years ago, and they spread south into the heart of India by about 5000 years ago. 3000 to 4000 years ago, India split into two main population groups with one in the north and one in the south. The northern group was strongly affected by descendants of the same Yamnaya group that had entered Europe, and these genes show up conspicuously in the caste system, with the Brahmins exhibiting the most European genes. The genes correspond with the spread of Indo-European languages in the region. There are parallels between the Rig Veda, composed over 3000 years ago, and the slightly more recent Iliad and Odyssey. Across India, the caste system has created many different genetic bottlenecks related to inbreeding, which have caused an increased frequency in several diseases. These bottlenecks have effects not unlike those seen in Finns and Ashkenazi Jews. In the Americas, Native Americans are hampering progress in research because they believe that it violates their cultural traditions, even when ancient remains are not those of their ancestors. Research is now underway in China, where the Han constitute a majority. In China and elsewhere, "ghost populations," i.e. large ancient groups that have no archaeological identification, have been found. Tibetans appear to be related to Asian hunter-gatherers and Han Chinese.  Africa is one of the least studied regions in DNA research. This is partly the result of the deterioration of human DNA in tropical environments. Europe is currently the location of the most intensive DNA research, because that is where most of the technology has developed.

I found one chapter, "The Genomics of Inequality," somewhat disappointing. Reich discusses the inherent biological advantage that men have in spreading their genes, in that women can have only a few children whereas men can have many. For example, Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire who died in 1227, is thought to have millions of living descendants who are identified by a unique feature of his Y chromosome. Reich, oddly I think, describes the historical events associated with high levels of male reproduction as inequality. For example, a study has shown that, among African Americans, the men have 38 percent European ancestry while the women have 10 percent: These numbers imply that the contribution of European American men to the genetic makeup of the present-day African American population is about four times that of European American women. In other words, many male slave owners, like Thomas Jefferson, were having children with their slaves, and their wives were not. A similar pattern is evident in ancient DNA studies of the Yamnaya. It is true that an inherent social inequality is present when men are free to have as much sex as they like with women from lower social strata, but Reich seems to go out of his way to frame the phenomenon in politically correct terms when, from a scientific standpoint, it could just as well be described as natural selection at work. Whether you like it or not, natural selection is a numbers game, and nature doesn't care whether a larger population comes into being as a result of equality or inequality. For that matter, all species eventually become extinct – what's fair about that? I'm cutting Reich a little slack, because he walks a thin line in which his lab at Harvard could be bombed if he inadvertently offended someone.

This book is a short summary of research in what is rapidly growing into an enormous field. Some aspects of the research are simply interesting in themselves as new tools for exploring human history. There are also more practical aspects, such as the understanding of the genetics behind certain diseases. The field will eventually provide a much clearer picture of the role of mutations in our evolution. Above all, since this is a scientific enterprise, I am hopeful that it will someday put to rest much of the mythological nonsense that underlies the thinking in all societies and makes the world a far more dangerous place than it needs to be. When you frame human history in millenia rather than in decades or centuries, ethnicity and race become ephemera, as does the claim to ownership of land.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past I

This book, by David Reich, summarizes research in the new field of the genomics of ancient human DNA. I'm about halfway through, and at first I thought it would be boring. However, it is turning out that this is science at its best, and Reich and his colleagues are making serious headway in areas that have been of interest to me for some time. By analyzing the DNA of archaeological human remains representing different populations at different locations at different times, a far more detailed picture of human migrations and interbreeding is emerging than was available a few years ago. Improvements have been made in DNA extraction, its processing and the use of statistical models. The first major result has been the demonstration that humans and Neanderthals interbred directly and that Neanderthal genes now comprise about two percent of the genome of most modern humans. Modern humans are one of five known human populations that have lived on the planet during the last seventy thousand years. The others were the Neanderthals, the Siberian Denisovans, the Australo-Denisovans and the "hobbits" of Flores island. There is evidence of interbreeding directly and indirectly between these groups. With carbon dating of the remains and genome sequencing, it is possible to map the distribution and prevalence of certain genes by location and time and associate them with specific populations, earlier and later.

The main picture that has emerged so far has been that human populations have been on the move constantly and have interbred, producing non-sterile hybrids along the way. The people whom we associate with certain geographic locations commonly have lived thousands of miles away within the last few thousand years and have interbred with other populations repeatedly. It is even possible that, contradicting the prevailing theory that most of the evolution of modern humans occurred in Africa, some of the evolution may have occurred outside Africa, with non-African populations returning to Africa over 300,000 years ago.

The appearance and disappearance of populations in Europe has been common until recently. Early groups of hunter-gatherers and farmers in Europe were replaced by descendants of the Yamnaya people from the steppe of eastern Europe about 5000 years ago. The Yamnaya were early adopters of wheels, carts and horses. The Yamnaya's descendants were the Corded Ware people, and until recently these two groups had been thought unrelated due to differences in their artifacts. However, genomic studies indicate their relatedness, which also applies to most modern Europeans. This genome is associated with Indo-European languages, the exact origin of which is unclear. Reich speculates that they may have originated in Armenia or Iran.

I skipped ahead to the chapter, "The Genomics of Race and Identity." Here, Reich attempts to sort out the controversies that arise from racist-sounding language in a politically correct environment, and he finds errors in both camps. He chides not only Henry Harpending, one of the authors of the study of Ashkenazim intelligence cited earlier, for making an unsubstantiated racist statement about Africans, but none other than James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix, for assuming that Ashkenazi Jews are smart. On the opposite side, he criticizes Richard Lewontin for popularizing the idea that all living humans are essentially the same, an idea that is not supported by current evidence yet is defended with such great fervor that unbiased scientists such as Reich have to edit their language carefully for fear of being attacked. Reich, himself an Ashkenazi Jew, does not believe that the Ashkenazims' susceptibility to certain diseases is related to intelligence, but he leaves the door open to the possibility that a genetic origin for high intelligence may be found. There is currently little evidence connecting specific genes with intelligence, and the genetics of cognition has not been studied thoroughly, though this is not to say that connections won't be identified in the future. In Reich's view, there are significant genetic differences between populations; the problem is that, in a reaction to the ideological oppression of political correctness, some writers have overstated their cases without sufficient evidence, hence betraying racist biases. To show that differences aren't necessarily bad, Reich uses the example of men and women as people who are very different genetically yet are able to get along. At first this seemed useful to me, but on reflection it seems like a poor example. I find that the interests of men and women are usually at significant variance, and were it not for certain biological imperatives, such as the need for sex and the desire to procreate, men and women might have little reason to interact. There are millions of men who would prefer women to live obediently in harems, and there are millions of women who think of men as ATM's. In my experience, men and women spend most of their lives complaining about each other. Gender differences aren't really the best model for a harmonious society even if men and women do manage to cooperate.

Reich does not specifically mention The 10,000 Year Explosion, which I discussed earlier, though Harpending was one of its authors. It appears that the general thrust of that book may be correct, but that many of the details may be wrong. The Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures were not farmers, yet they seem to have displaced farmers. It is possible that they were immune to the bubonic plague or other diseases, while the earlier farmers in Europe were not. It is possible that evolutionary changes may have given the Yamnaya an advantage, but this may not have played out exactly as described in that book.

There are other chapters of interest left, and I'll have more to say when I've read them.

Friday, June 8, 2018


I seem to have been preoccupied with mundane activities, not leaving me with much of interest to say. The carpenter ants are out and require attention, and the lawn needs mowing again. Troubleshooting plumbing problems (literally plumbing the depths) isn't much fun. The spring has been relatively cool, not ideal for growing tomatoes, and mine are still quite small. My new car has sophisticated warnings that alert you to minor system failures, requiring me to drive forty-five minutes each way to the dealer in Burlington to have it checked, and I've recently made three round trips and waited a total of four hours. Nevertheless, with the snow gone I am enjoying occasional drives over the mountains on winding roads. I've started to read a new book and will begin commenting on it soon, but so far am finding it less thrilling than expected.

The problem of locating compelling reading material seems intractable. Over the last few years I think I've found biographies to be the most satisfying. In a way, they are a substitute for a satisfactory social life, one that doesn't require the recitation of a series of platitudes or boring chitchat. In a biography or memoir, one has an opportunity to engage with a person, no matter how distant in time or place, who is not leading a superficial, materialistic life. Memoirs, however, are more susceptible than biographies to the interweaving of fiction. The main problem with biographies, I find, is that not many people merit one, so there aren't many good ones. Still, they can be better than fiction, which I am increasingly equating with lying. At the heart of my objection to fiction is the feeling I get while reading it that the author, for one reason or another, is bamboozling me. What, really, is the point of making things up when life is already insurmountably confusing? Adding fiction to confusion is not a promising recipe. Moreover, in my reading, linguistic skill is not the most important aspect of fiction, and writers such as Joyce and Proust receive far more credit than I think they deserve. Nonfiction in general is more reliable, though one must be careful with historical works, because the human brain has a way of interweaving fiction with history. Then, though I often appreciate the information provided in scientific nonfiction, that is usually narrow in scope and offers no emotional satisfaction. I still have some interest in poetry, but the interest is centered on the unexpected surprise one may find in it, which, in my experience, is extremely rare.

After ten years, I've finally given up on Netflix. Since it became popular and began to produce its own programs, the quality has deteriorated significantly. Much of the problem has to do with the fact that it would be nearly impossible to provide a stream of programming that I would find satisfactory. In their early years, they had several decades of films to draw from, and now there is practically nothing left besides new material. For the time being, we are watching Kanopy, which is a free library-sponsored streaming website that attempts to obtain high quality videos.

The stargazing opportunities have been extremely limited since last fall. Jupiter has been prominent in the sky, but the viewing conditions have been far from ideal. You can still spot double stars, and Albirio is back for the season.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time VI

I've finally finished this biography and will sum up the remainder. Morris became extremely political from the 1880's to about 1890. He joined two early socialist organizations, the Democratic Federation, in 1883, and the Socialist League, in 1884, and he financed the socialist publication The Commonweal. His business continued to flourish, but he became less involved in its day-to-day operations. Socialism was a new idea then, well before the Bolshevik Revolution, and Morris became acquainted with Engels and Kropotkin and other socialists and anarchists. He spoke widely both to ordinary workers and to educated audiences but did not achieve much as a political leader. It is difficult to piece together his activities, which were related to civil strife among miners and other groups under economic conditions which remain unfamiliar to me. Most educated Englishmen at the time were either conservative or liberal, and Morris's views were not popular among them. This included Burne-Jones, who had become financially successful as an artist and had adopted conservative political views. Ultimately, raucous internal dissent within the radical groups rendered Morris ineffectual and frustrated, and he withdrew from politics almost entirely.

As in his earlier years, Morris managed to pursue a mind-boggling range of activities from the late 1880's up until his death at age sixty-two in 1896. He began to write novels while continuing to write poems. He translated Homer's Odyssey and Beowulf. Finally, he set up Kelmscott Press, designed his own typeface and printed a special edition of Chaucer's works. During this period, though he was not actively involved in it himself, many of his ideas related to craftsmen and how they should be distinguished from ordinary workers by forming artistic communities took root in what became the Arts and Crafts movement. Indirectly, Morris provided some of the ideas behind what later became artists' colonies and, unfortunately, writers' workshops.

Rossetti, obese and in poor health, died at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 1882. This left Jane Morris, at the age of forty-two, available for a new lover, and a matchmaker, Rosalind Howard, set her up with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a second-rate poet who was a year younger than Jane and had a reputation as a lady's man and adventurer. Blunt fancied himself a Byronic figure and it is said that he married Byron's granddaughter to solidify the connection. He was also an admirer of Rossetti, and the idea of seducing Rossetti's lover probably appealed to him. Apparently, his life consisted of orchestrating various intrigues with his mistresses and befriending their husbands, particularly if they were famous. By the summer of 1893, when Jane was fifty-three, Blunt no longer found her sexually attractive, but they remained friends. May, Morris's younger daughter, became Morris's assistant in his later years. She was infatuated with George Bernard Shaw, but he wouldn't marry her or anyone, and she married someone else. She had a scandalous affair with Shaw and later divorced her husband.

There are various questions that arise in my mind about Morris. Though MacCarthy attempts to capture his psychodynamics without being heavy-handed, I feel that something is missing. The primary peculiarity is that although Morris had a short temper on occasion, he was completely tolerant of Jane's adultery and bore no open grudge against Rossetti or Blunt. Even allowing for the fact that divorces were difficult to arrange in those days, Morris seems remarkably passive throughout all of this while in other aspects of his life he remained passionate and active. For all we know, Morris was celibate from the conception of May in 1861, when he was twenty-seven, to his death in 1896. It is possible, though unlikely, that Morris was gay or asexual, but MacCarthy doesn't weigh in on this. It seems to me that at some level Morris must have been lacking in self-confidence, and perhaps he buried his insecurities with an excessive workload. Looking at this from the present, I don't think that Jane was worth all the trouble. She was modestly attractive and good at posing with a melancholy, pensive expression on her face, but she was conversationally dull and, within the environment in which she lived, a social climber. To me, the situation with Jane would have seemed like a festering wound, and I would have done something more decisive to address it.

I haven't assessed all of Morris's work, and I don't intend to. Overall, he seems to have followed a craftsmanlike process in everything that he did. His strength seems to have been in design. His poems are probably adequate for the period, but I am not interested in them or his novels. His translations apparently aren't that great. MacCarthy seems to want to make him out as a visionary, but I don't think he quite deserves that label. He was an instinctive, honest person who had the courage of his convictions in aspects of his life other than his personal relationships, and rather than expressing himself as a seminal thinker or artist, he demonstrated basic human values that are still relevant today. Those include an emphasis on equality, protection of the environment and the encouragement of people to meet their artistic potential. The class structure in England weighed heavily on him, and, unlike his peers, he tried to do something about it. Thus, though I think he would have been an interesting person to know, he was trapped by the Victorian culture which he inhabited, and his life was constrained accordingly, as is everyone's by their environment. Other than in his inhibitions regarding Jane and his friends, he stands out as forthright and honest compared to most intellectuals, then and now.